TIME Environment

Your Ant Farm Is Smarter Than Google

Ants carry leaves to their nest
As a collective, ants are efficient and surprisingly intelligent Moment Select via Getty Images

Ant colonies are surprisingly efficient at forming intelligent networks that can rapidly spread information, according to a new study

Ants may have the largest brains of any insect, but that doesn’t mean a single ant on its own is all that smart. As individual ants leave their nest in search of food, they walk in what appear to be random paths, hoping to come across something to eat. The behavior of hundreds of scout ants circling their nests on a hunt for sustenance can be chaotic as it looks, like drunks stumbling about the house in search of their keys. The ants will search for food until they’re exhausted, then return to the nest to briefly eat and rest before heading back out again.

But as a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes clear, something amazing happens when an individual ant finds a food source. The ant will take a bit of the food back to the nest, leaving a trail of pheromones behind them to mark the path. A wave of ants will then attempt to follow the path back to the food source, but because pheromones evaporate quickly, their behavior will still look chaotic as they attempt to home in on the food.

Over time, though, the ants will organize their search, optimizing the best and shortest path between the food and the nest. As more ants follow the optimal path back and forth, they leave more and more pheromones, which in turn attracts more and more ants, creating a self-reinforcing efficiency effect. The chaotic, seemingly random foraging of individual ants is replaced with organized precision. Working as one, the ants create the sort of distribution networks a traffic engineer could only dream of.

“While the single ant is certainly not smart, the collective acts in a way that I’m tempted to call intelligent,” said study co-author Jurgen Kurths of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Reseaerch, in a statement. “The ants collectively form a highly efficient complex network.”

That’s not all the study found. The researchers also discovered that individual ants differ in their ability to find food. Over time older ants gather more experience about the environment surrounding their nests, which makes it easier for them to forage effectively, even though their age means they tire faster than young ants. The young ants are more like interns—their lack of experience means they can’t contribute much to foraging, but they are effectively learning on the job. (No word on whether they get course credit.)

Even though individual ants can get smarter over time as they learn more about their surrounding environment, the real ant intelligence is in the collective. Just how advanced are their search capabilities? Good enough to rival our best technology, at least. Google’s search engine forages for information on the Web in much the same way an ant colony looks for food. Google’s webcrawlers scour the Internet, bringing data about individual pages back to Google’s servers, where that information is indexed, sharpening the company’s picture of the ever-evolving Internet as it is—just as ants learn more and more about their environment over time. Google’s search algorithms use hundreds of signals to find the most efficient and accurate answer to any search query—just as the ant colony quickly organizes itself to find the most efficient path to a food source once it has been discovered by scouts.

But Kurths believes that ants are actually much more efficient at organizing data than a collective of human beings using the Internet could ever be, as he told the Independent:

I’d go so far as to say that the learning strategy involved in that, is more accurate and complex than a Google search. These insects are, without doubt, more efficient than Google in processing information about their surroundings.

Which doesn’t mean you should ask the closest ant colony, rather than Google, when you want to find out what time the Super Bowl is on. But in a digitally connected world where the network is quickly becoming smarter and more efficient than any individual, ants are apparently ahead of the game.

TIME Environment

‘Time Is Running Out’ To Stop Rising CO2 Levels, Says UN

April was the first time the monthly average of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million, a threshold that the U.N. says has "symbolic and scientific significance"

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record high last month, according to the UN’s weather agency, highlighting the need to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said Monday that the monthly average CO2 concentration in the northern hemisphere surpassed 400 parts per million in April. CO2 levels have topped 400 before, but this is the first time the monthly average passed the threshold, which the UN says has “symbolic and scientific significance.”

“This should serve as yet another wakeup call about the constantly rising levels of greenhouse gases which are driving climate change,” WMO chief Michel Jarraud said in a statement. “Time is running out.”

CO2 is most responsible for the warming effect on the climate and its concentration in the atmosphere has been increasing steadily over the past decade.

TIME Environment

The World’s Most Endangered Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises

Slow and steady may win the race, but on World Turtle Day, these animals are struggling to survive

Is there anything more harmless than a turtle? (Unless, I suppose, you’re a nice, leafy vegetable.) Turtles and tortoises—the main difference is that turtles dwell at least partially in water, while tortoises live exclusively on land—are slow-moving, peaceful animals whose main form of protection from the outside world is a hard shell. Not for nothing do we have the fable of the slow and steady tortoise winning the race. Turtles have existed in some form for more than 220 million years, outlasting their early contemporaries the dinosaurs. Long-lived turtles and tortoises are symbols of perseverance in the natural world.

Unfortunately, the rules of the race are changing. Turtles and tortoises are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with about half their more than 300 species threatened with extinction. Only primates—human beings expected—are at greater risk of being wiped off the planet. The threats are many. The animals are collected by traders, eaten in the wild and in fine restaurants, used as pets or for traditional medicine, and sometimes simply killed. The very adaptations that once made them so successful—their long adult life span and delayed sexual maturity—has made them vulnerable as the world around them changed, mostly thanks to human beings. Climate change threatens them as well—a recent study found that as the water warms, more and more sea turtle hatchlings are being born male, which could eventually make it impossible for the species to reproduce successfully.

A 2011 report from the Turtle Conservation Coalition makes it clear: we need to act now if we’re to save the turtles and the tortoises:

We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Humans are the problem, and must therefore also be the solution. Without concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of evolution.

As we mark World Turtle Day on May 23, spare a thought for these armored but endangered creatures.

TIME Environment

Top 10 New Species for 2014

The best of the best when it comes to new life

It may seem a bit early to declare the top 10 new species of 2014—after all, the year is less than half over. But keep in mind that scientists discover an average of 40 new species a day, so there have already been plenty of freshly uncovered life to choose from. This year the list is being released by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s International Institute for Species Exploration—and the timing isn’t coincidental. Tomorrow is the 307th anniversary of the birth of the Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus, who laid down the groundwork for classifying life.

And as the list shows, life is diverse. The collection includes a dragon tree, a skeleton shrimp, a gecko and a microbe that likes to hang out in the clean rooms where spacecraft are assembled. But there is still far more life to be discovered—scientists estimate that there are 10 million species remaining to be named and classified, five times the number we already know about. We’d better hurry though—while we discover about 15,000 new species a year, we may be losing up to 100,000 annually to extinction.

TIME Environment

China’s Food Safety Problems Go Deeper Than Pet Treats

Pet food retailers in the U.S. are pulling Chinese-made dog and cat treats from their shelves out of contamination fears

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PETCO became the first national pet food store to halt the sale of Chinese-made treats this week, due to concerns over contamination—but it won’t be the last.

Already the rival retailer PetSmart has announced that it will follow suit in taking Chinese pet treats off its store shelves. Over 1,000 dog deaths have been linked to problems with the imported jerky treats, but this problem goes back years. The Food and Drug Administration has been investigating thousands of reports of pet illnesses linked to jerky treats going back to 2007, most of which involve Chinese products, though there’s been a spike since last October.

It’s still not clear exactly how the treats may be contaminated, or exactly how the products may be hurting the dogs and other pets that eat them. But this is hardly the first time that tainted Chinese-made food products have made the news. There was a massive pet food recall in 2007 that implicated Chinese producers, and there were worried that those ingredients could have made it into the human food supply. There have also been concerns about lead paint on Chinese-made toys exported to the U.S.

But any worries about contamination in Chinese exports pales compared to the danger that homegrown Chinese food poses to the country’s own citizens. Food safety scandals are rampant, and by some estimates as much as one fifth of the country’s soil is contaminated. Chinese who can afford it buy imported food whenever possible—and those who can’t just hope they’re lucky. Tainted pet food may get the headlines in the U.S., but food safety is far worse—for animals and people—in China itself.

TIME Environment

California Approves Expansion of Toxic Dump

Residents of nearby Kettleman Hills say the hazardous waste has led to birth defects

Updated 7:47 p.m. ET

California officials said Wednesday the Kettleman Hills hazardous waste dump will be allowed to grow by 50%, much to the irritation of a nearby community where residents say the dump has caused birth defects.

Officials approved expansion of the site by 5 million cubic yards, or about 50%. The dump is situated off Interstate 5 between Sacramento and Los Angeles near the small community of Kettleman City. Critics of the site say at least 11 birth defects in children from the community are the result of toxic waste from the dump but officials from the state and the company that operates the facility say there’s no evidence to support that link.

Kettleman Hills is one of just two dumps in California to accept hazardous waste and the largest in the West.

In a statement to TIME, Russ Edmonson, spokesperson for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, disputed the claim that the dump expansion would lead to health problems.

“Our permit conditions are the most stringent possible,” he said. “They include enhanced air monitoring to verify compliance with the law, improved on-site controls to manage any spill that might occur, rigorous reporting requirements that focus the facility on preventing any releases of hazardous waste, public outreach requirements that mandate the facility meet yearly with the community to discuss compliance and other issues of community concern, and compliance with the California’s stringent 2017 truck emission standards which will require that any truck bringing in hazardous waste meet that standard three years before it becomes effective for the rest of the state.”

Edmonson added that unannounced inspections of the site will be increased from once per year to quarterly.

TIME Environment

San Diego County Looks Like Mars After Fire

The aftermath of the wildfire at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base in San Diego County, Calif., on on May 15, 2014.
The aftermath of the wildfire at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base in San Diego County, Calif., on on May 15, 2014. DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

Wildfires have transformed San Diego countryside into an otherworldly landscape

Fires ravaged San Diego County last week, charring more than 26,000 acres of drought-parched brush and dozens of homes and buildings in the process. A combination of unseasonable triple-digit temperatures, extremely low humidity and hot winds blowing in from the desert stoked the blazes, kicking off what promises to be a historically destructive wildfire season.

Botany Bay, relatively level ground on the surface of Mars between Cape York and Solander Point, taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance orbiter on July 7, 2013.
Botany Bay, relatively level ground on the surface of Mars between Cape York and Solander Point, taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter on July 7, 2013. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

“We get extreme fire behavior every 10 years and the drought doesn’t help. This is very odd for the month of May to have these types of fires,” Cal Fire Capt. Richard Cordova told TIME on Saturday.

The fires left the countryside looking like the barren wastes of a pock-marked planet. Here, satellite imagery taken after the Camp Pendleton fire shows an otherworldly scene more like the surface of Mars than California.

 

 

 

TIME Video Games

Xbox One and PS4 Draw Huge Amounts of Power Even When You’re Not Using Them

Both the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One use up to three times as much electricity annually as the previous generation of gaming consoles, a new report from the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) warns.

According to the report, the Xbox One uses an average of 300kWh annually (an estimated $65 in NYC; $33 in Texas) and the PlayStation 4 uses 181kWh ($39 in NYC; $20 in Texas). The relatively green Nintendo Wii U console, meanwhile, sips just 37kWh per year ($8 in NYC; $4 in Texas). Electricity estimates are based off of February 1, 2014 data pulled from Wolfram Alpha.

One of the biggest culprits here is the devices’ standby modes – times the consoles are drawing power even when you’re not using them. The Xbox One devotes 44% of its total annual energy consumption to waiting for always-on voice commands. The PlayStation 4 uses 32% of its total in standby, providing power to its USB ports even when no peripheral is connected. The report also criticizes the PS4 and Xbox One for using between 30 and 45 times as much electricity to stream a movie than an Apple TV, Google Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV device would.

You don’t have to put up with energy vampires in your home to enjoy video gaming, however. The NRDC recommends going into each console’s system settings to make sure the automatic power-down feature is enabled after an hour of inactivity. You should also connect your video game systems and home entertainment center to a reliable surge protector with its own dedicated off switch. Flipping that master switch will stop your electronics from drawing power in standby mode – a good idea for when you leave home or simply go to bed.

You can read the full NRDC video game console report on the organization’s website (PDF). For other ideas to help keep your electric bills low, check out these gadgets that help you save energy.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Environment

Climate Change Could Sink Statue of Liberty, Report Warns

The Statue of Liberty is enveloped in fog on May 1, 2014.
The Statue of Liberty is enveloped in fog on May 1, 2014. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

Ellis Island, Jamestown and other U.S. landmarks' long-term future are at risk because of the consequences of climate change, a new report says

Treasured American landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island could succumb to the consequences of climate change, according to a new report.

The report published Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists said rising sea levels, wildfires and flooding threaten the longterm survival of many U.S. landmarks, including the Everglades, Cape Canaveral and California’s César Chávez National Monument. It’s just the latest in a string of recent reports raising alarm about the imminent and in some cases immediate impacts of climate change.

“You can almost trace the history of the United States through these sites,” said Adam Markham, director of climate impacts at UCS and a co-author of the report. “The imminent risks to these sites and the artifacts they contain threaten to pull apart the quilt that tells the story of the nation’s heritage and history.”

The report lists 30 sites which are at risk. It urges the U.S. to take steps to protect at-risk monuments, noting that some protective measures have already been put in place at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, among other landmarks. And the report also urges people to work in order to minimize the risks that can still be minimized by reducing carbon emissions that are causing climate change.

The report predicts that Jamestown, the first permanent settlement in the Americas, will probably be submerged by the end of the century, and Markham raised the alarm for other monuments: “Fort Monroe in Virginia, which played a crucial role in the fall of slavery, will become an island unto itself within 70 years,” he said.

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