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Science news digest - 27th August 2013

In the science news this week: the Ugly Animal Preservation society launches its mascot search, psychedelic drugs don’t cause mental problems, wolves howl to show they care, new drug imitates exercise, and finally, a newly discovered shark species walks on its fins.

Ugly Animal Preservation Society launches the search for a mascot – vote now!

The Ugly Animal Preservation Society celebrated all of nature’s less attractive creatures, as they launched a search for a new ugly mascot, reports the Independent.

Working in partnership with the National Science + Engineering Competition, the Society are running a public vote, which will see celebs such as Stephen Fry and Simon Pegg weighing in to support their favourite unsightly animals, according to the Huffington Post.

The project hopes to encourage young people to get involved in conservation projects, as well as helping promote some of the animals with faces only a mother could love, and challenging our love-affair with the poster-boys of conservation like the panda and the red squirrel.

The Daily Mail reports that Simon Watt, biologist and President for Life of the Society, will announce the winner at the British Science Festival in Newcastle on 11 September. He said, “For too long the cute and fluffy animals have taken the limelight and now hundreds of species now tragically extinct because they were painfully ugly. You can help these mingers by choosing one animal to stand-up for all the other uglies in the animal kingdom.”

Click here to watch the campaign videos and vote for your favourite.


Psychedelic drugs don’t cause mental health problems, but could help some

LSD and Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, show no sign of causing psychological problems in users, according to a study published in PLoSONE.

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology used the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a questionnaire completed by 130,000 adults in the US, including 22,000 that had taken psychedelics in their lifetime.

According to Science Daily, Teri Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johansen used data from the survey from 2001-2004 to examine the relationship between the use of psychedelics and the development of mental illness.

"After adjusting for other risk factors, lifetime use of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline or peyote, or past year use of LSD was not associated with a higher rate of mental health problems or receiving mental health treatment," says Johansen.

In several cases, the scientists found that any use of LSD, Psilocybin or Mescaline, another psychedelic, was associated with lower rates of serious psychological distress. Lifetime use of LSD was also significantly associated with a lower rate of outpatient mental health treatment and psychiatric medicine prescription.

This type of study cannot rule out the possibility of harm caused by psychedelics, according to CBS News. LSD has previously been used to treat alcoholism, helping to relieve withdrawal symptoms after one dose, reports the Huffington Post.

“We cannot exclude the possibility that use of psychedelics might have a negative effect on mental health for some individuals or groups, perhaps counterbalanced at a population level by a positive effect on mental health in others," they wrote.

Nevertheless, "recent clinical trials have also failed to find any evidence of any lasting harmful effects of psychedelics," the researchers said, which supports the robustness of the PLOS One findings.

In fact, says Krebs, "Many people report deeply meaningful experiences and lasting beneficial effects from using psychedelics."

"Other studies have found no evidence of health or social problems among people who had used psychedelics hundreds of times in legally-protected religious ceremonies," adds Johansen.

The findings do not support the idea of ‘flashbacks’ and Hallucinogen Persisting Perceptual Disorder, since all of the reported symptoms are also present in those who have never taken psychedelics.


Wolves howl to show they care

Research published in Current Biology this week indicates that wolves howl more when a high-ranking group member leaves.

Wolves are well known pack animals, keeping tight groups, but until now it was thought that a wolf howl indicated stress about the absence of a pack member. These findings show that the amount and type of howling depends on the rank of the missing wolf, or the personal relationship between wolves, rather than an expression of stress.

Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna recorded the howls of a group of captive wolves, removing one member at a time and measuring the number and type of howls. They found that wolves howl more when a high-ranking pack member leaves, and also when wolves with a close relationship are removed.

Dr Frederike Range, co-author of the study, told the BBC: "We didn't know there was some flexibility on how much they howl depending on their relationship. The amount of howling is really defined by the quality of the relationship."

Dr Simon Townsend, another co-author, said: "Wolves seem to howl more when higher ranking individuals leave because these individuals play quite important roles in the social lives of wolves.

"When they leave it makes sense that the remaining wolves would want to try and re-initiate or regain contact. The same applies for friendship."

The researchers also determined that wolves do not howl more as a result of higher stress levels. They measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the wolves’ saliva, and found no higher levels during periods of frequent howling, according to Phys.org.

"What we expected was higher cortisol levels if the wolves were more stressed when 'friends' leave, but what we found is that cortisol doesn't seem to explain the variation in the howling behaviour we see," Dr Townsend told BBC News.

"Instead it's explained more by social factors - the absence of a high ranking individual or the absence of a closer affiliate."


New drug tested on mice causes the positive effects of exercise

All of the benefits of exercise without leaving the sofa? A new drug that has been tested on mice could provide the holy grail for those unable or unwilling to exercise, by mimicking the positive effects of going for a run or lifting some weights.

The drug, named SR9009, increases the level of metabolic activity in the skeletal muscles of mice. It increases their stamina, allowing them to run much faster and further. It also makes them lose fat and gain muscle, according to the Huffington Post.

The drug was developed by Professor Thomas Burris at The Scripps Research Institute in Florida, and holds potential for use in humans. If found to be effective, it could be used by those for whom exercise is impractical, such as the obese, people suffering with coronary obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes sufferers.

“The animals actually get muscles like an athlete who has been training,” said Burris. “The pattern of gene expression after treatment with SR9009 is that of an oxidative-type muscle— again, just like an athlete.”

"Our expectation would be something similar," Burris told the Huffington Post. "There’s no reason to believe that Rev-erbα doesn’t do the same thing in humans."

"Because people say, 'Oh, it's to replace exercise for people who don’t want to do it,'" Burris said. "But it’s really to treat people who can’t exercise. There are a lot of situations in which people can’t exercise the way that they want. So I think we’ve got something that would mimic a component of exercise that is very important, especially when it comes to diseases like diabetes and obesity."

The drug interacts with the body’s internal clock, which is in charge of synchronising the rhythm of the body’s activity with the cycle of day and night. It binds to a naturally-occurring molecule in the body called Rev-erbα, which influences the processing of fats and sugars.

The study showed that activating Rev-erbα with SR9009 caused increased metabolic activity in the skeletal muscle of mice. The authors suggest that the drug promotes the creation of new mitochondria within the muscles, and encourages the clearing of old mitochondria that are defective.


And finally…

New species of shark found to walk on its fins

A new species of tiger shark has been discovered, which use a novel method of traction. It pulls itself forward on four foot-like fins, appearing to walk along the seafloor. The creature feeds on animals at the bottom of the sea, so moving quickly along it is more important than swimming. Check out the study published in Aqua, the International Journal of Ichthyology and a video of the strange walk on SciNews.


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