Sea Lion Whiskers Act Like Human Fingertips, Scientists Find

How are sea lion whiskers like human fingertips?


The answer is that both humans and sea lions use their appendages in a “task specific” way. That is, both species move our fingertips or whiskers differently depending on what we want to feel about a particular object. At least that’s what a team of scientists discovered after working with a sea lion named Lo.

“Not only are whiskers touch sensors, much like our fingertips, but the specific movement strategies that we see Lo make with her whiskers are also the same that humans make with our fingertips, which is super interesting,” study coauthor Robyn Grant, a senior lecturer in comparative physiology & behaviour at Manchester Metropolitan University, told EcoWatch in an email. “So they are probably common and important movement strategies for active touch sensing.”

Fingertips and Whiskers

If humans want to know if something is soft or hard, we give it a squeeze. If we want to know the texture of a fabric, we run our fingertips over its surface. These are both examples of “task specific” movements, as Grant explained in The Conversation.

While we are used to using our fingertips to make sense of the world in this way, these movements are actually pretty unique. For most other mammals, fingertips are not the most sensitive and mobile bodypart. That honor goes to whiskers, which are touch sensitive and help animals find food, get a feel for objects and guide their movements.

Scientists know that mammals can move their whiskers on purpose. For example, mice, rats and some other mammals can move their whiskers back and forth in a motion called whisking. However, they did not know if mammals could move their whiskers in a touch-specific way, until now.

The new research published in the Journal of Experimental Biology this month proves that at least one mammal can and does.

A Sea Lion Named Lo

In order to study whether mammals could use their whiskers in a touch-specific way, the scientists first had to pick a mammal to study. They chose a California sea lion named Lo.

Pinnipeds, which include sea lions, seals and walruses are particularly helpful to study because their whiskers are thick and long and therefore easier to measure. The research team settled on California sea lions specifically for a number of reasons.

“California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) make large, purposeful whisker movements and are capable of performing many whisker-related discrimination tasks,” the study authors wrote. “Therefore, California sea lions are an ideal species to explore the active nature of whisker touch sensing.”

Study coauthor Alyx Milne, who works at Manchester Metropolitan University and Blackpool Zoo in the UK, trained Lo along with fellow Blackpool Zoo trainers Charlie Black and Gary Jones. It is common to work with only one animal in marine mammal studies, Grant explained in The Conversation, but it does mean that researchers need to collect a lot of good data.

Luckily, that wasn’t a problem with the animal they chose.

“Lo was an absolute dream to work with,” Grant told EcoWatch. “She seemed to really enjoy the study, and always worked really hard and professionally.”

The scientists taught Lo how to perform three different kinds of tasks:

  1. A texture task of finding a medium-textured fish-sized object amongst other fish.
  2. A size task of finding a medium-sized fish amongst others.
  3. A visual task of finding a grey fish amongst other colors of fish.

They then recorded video footage of Lo performing the tasks thousands of times and discovered that she did indeed move her whiskers in different ways for different tasks.

“[S]he strokes her whiskers over an object’s surface to feel texture, and feels around the edges of an object to judge size,” Grant told EcoWatch.

These are the same kinds of motions that humans make with our fingertips when we want to feel the texture or size of an object.

While the study focused on Lo, the researchers also caught other California sea lions on camera making similar movements, which means this might be a common behavior for the species.

Why Does This Matter?

While it’s fun to think about what we might have in common with a marine mammal, why is it important that sea lions can use their whiskers in a task specific way?

“Being able to adopt different touch sensing movement strategies shows that mammals can precisely control their whiskers’ movements and draw on their past experiences in order to pay attention to important aspects of an object – the edges of shapes and the surfaces of textures, for example,” Grant explained to EcoWatch. “This means that they have a high level of control over their sensory perception, and is an excellent step in understanding more about mammalian sensing, perception and cognition.”

The next step is indeed to see if other mammals use their whiskers in the same way. Milne has received a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council fellowship to study this behavior in harbour seals and South African fur seals and Grant has secured Royal Society funding to study whisker movements in other pinnipeds as well as otters and foxes.

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Europe conflicted over push to fast-track mining code for the ocean floor

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The post Europe conflicted over push to fast-track mining code for the ocean floor appeared first on Climate Home News.

Powering Your Holiday With Solar

The holidays have arrived, and only a Grinch would let December pass without putting up some lights. But between the lights on the trees, roofs, walkways, yards and home, a sneakily large electricity bill often lies on the other side of the New Year.

So, how much additional electricity do we use during the holidays for decorations? Could you offset that with solar panels? Let’s find out.


Average Energy Consumption During the Holidays

In 2020, the average amount of electricity consumed by U.S. residential utility customers was 10,715 kilowatt hours (kWh), which calculates to about 893 kWh per month. In December, however, you can expect that figure to sit near or above 1,000 kWh, a 10% increase over the average month. As you can see last year, December energy consumption topped that of even peak summer months.

Data courtesy of the Energy Information Administration (EIA)

So, what accounts for this spike, exactly? Besides the cold weather (which can be extreme, as we saw in last year’s winter), holiday light shows and entertainment can add a surprising amount to your energy usage. Before we dive in, let’s clarify how to measure electricity use. It’s fairly simple when you break it down.

Electricity used to power your home is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh), a unit of energy equal to one kilowatt (1,000 watts) of power sustained for one hour. Think about kW as horsepower, and kWh as the speed of the car.

Say you had a 100-watt light bulb. By definition, a light bulb is labeled 100-watt because it requires 100 watt-hours of energy to run for one hour. If you left this light on for 10 hours, you’d see 1 kWh added to your electricity bill.

Outdoor Energy Use

Let’s apply this math to basic outdoor string lights as an example; an average 100-foot string consists of 104 5-watt bulbs. In total, the string is 520 watts, meaning, the string requires 520 watt-hours of electricity to run for just one hour. For context, 500 watts of power would be enough to power a small refrigerator, and maybe a few laptops and cell phones.

Incandescent Light Bulbs Incandescent Light Bulbs Marie LaFauci / Getty Images

It would take about 10 of these light fixtures (or similar lights) strung across a roof to cover it. Think about lights that might be in the yard or around trees as well. One hour of powering 10 of these strings would require 5.2 kilowatt-hours (equal to 5,200 watt-hours) of energy.

For context, the average retail price of electricity in December of 2020 was 10.37 cents per kilowatt hour, meaning that 5.2 kWh of electricity costs the average homeowner just north of 50 cents. This might not sound like much, but this is 50 cents for every hour that you keep holiday lights on outside. Over the course of the month, if you keep your lights on for 6 hours a day (with timed lights), that’ll wind up costing around $100 for powering string lights alone.

If you kept the lights on all day, the bill from your outdoor decorations alone would be near $400 at the end of the month.

Indoor Energy Use

Most indoor string lights are LED these days, so one standard strand of lights wrapped around a Christmas tree or hung across a fireplace will be closer to just five or 10 watts in total. Let’s say you purchase 10 sets of standard 10-watt LED lights to decorate with.

LED string lightsEdwin Tan / Getty Images

Ten sets of 10-watt strands comes out to 100 watt-hours of energy for every hour of use. Let’s do the math so see what that would cost per hour at a rate of 10.37 cents per kilowatt hour. First, convert watt-hours to kilowatt-hours…

  1. 100 Wh x (1 kWh / 1,000 Wh) = .1 kWh
  2. 10.37 cents per hour x .1 kWh = 1.037 cents per hour

Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Let’s figure out how much this would cost if the lights were on throughout the whole month of December.

1.037 cents per hour x 24 hours x 31 days = 771.53 cents, or $7.73.

This really shows the difference that LED bulbs can make compared to incandescent bulbs, but home energy efficiency can get even better.

Types of Solar Decorations

We completely respect the fact that you’re likely still using your holiday string lights from the 2010s or even before then. Reusing is (almost) always a more sustainable option than purchasing something new.

However, if you’re on the market for some new holiday lights this season, consider solar-powered lights. Here are a few of our favorite solar lights, fit for any holiday decorations. Modern solar lights come with built-in rechargeable batteries so you don’t need to deal with extension cords or higher energy bills.

  • Solar Christmas Lights: These 72-foot solar Christmas lights are perfect to wrap around a tree or light your patio or yard. The string of lights comes with a panel attached to 6 feet of cord, so even if your lights are being used indoors, you can still put the panel outside.
  • Solar String Lights: A great replacement for incandescent string lights, solar string lights charge from a small panel a few inches across that can be left on a roof or staked into the ground.
  • Solar Lanterns: Useful in all seasons, solar lanterns make a great holiday decoration. Useful for camping, porches, patios and more, these rechargeable lanterns provide warm light in any situation.

Pros and Cons of Solar Decorations

Of course, solar lights have their own imperfections. Most notably, solar lights are a little more expensive on the front-end. Here’s a complete list of pros and cons to consider before choosing solar decorations.

Pros of Solar-Powered Holiday Decorations

Cons of Solar-Powered Holiday Decorations

Runs on free, clean energy

Slightly more expensive to purchase

No extension cords out outlet access are necessary

Batteries decrease in efficiency over time

Usually made with LEDs, which are more efficient than incandescent bulbs

Must have a good amount of sunlight to charge

How Many Solar Panels Would It Take To Power Your Home in December?

Now for the fun part. With the rough 10% spike in December energy use we accounted for, we can calculate how many solar panels the average homeowner in the U.S. would need to power their holidays. Let’s assume that with your regular energy needs and the power required for your decorations, you used 1,000 kWh of electricity in December.

Keep in mind that you can’t add or subtract panels based on seasonal energy needs, so assuming this is your highest month of energy consumption, you’d want to make sure your solar array can meet these needs. This means you’d need a system that can produce 12,000 kWh per year.

Figuring out how many solar panels you need to power a home can be complex, but to simplify: Dividing the annual kWh by 1,200 to get the kilowatts of solar capacity needed, we can calculate that you’d need roughly a 10kW system. The best solar panels have a wattage of around 350W, so if you invested in high-quality panels, you’d need around 30 panels to power your home through the holidays (and the rest of the year).

If you’re interested in learning more about how solar can meet your home’s holiday energy needs and more, you can reach out to a solar installer near you.

Karsten Neumeister is a writer and renewable energy specialist with a background in writing and the humanities. Before joining EcoWatch, Karsten worked in the energy sector of New Orleans, focusing on renewable energy policy and technology. A lover of music and the outdoors, Karsten might be found rock climbing, canoeing or writing songs when away from the workplace.

Rural Minnesota hit hard by high cost of propane

A propane tank in Pine City, Minnesota.

Around 10% of Minnesotans use propane to heat their homes, and many can’t afford to pre-buy propane to avoid expected large price jumps this winter.

Rural Minnesota hit hard by high cost of propane is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

The Sounds of a Coral Reef Recovery: Scientists Record ‘Whoops, Croaks, Growls’

In central Indonesia’s Spermonde archipelago, a coral reef destroyed by blast fishing — where sticks of dynamite are thrown into the reef to kill fish — has been recovering, but scientists weren’t sure if its ecosystem would return as well. That is, until they heard the endearingly unusual sounds of marine life.


In a new study, University of Exeter and University of Bristol researchers listened to recordings of a variety of fish calls from the restored reef and found they were similar to healthy reefs, indicating the formerly degraded reef is beginning to thrive again.

“Visual surveys miss camouflaged animals and those that come out only at night, so the researchers turned to the noise of the reef. They found the vibrant soundscape was close to those of reefs that had never been damaged,” reported Damian Carrington of The Guardian.

“Restoration projects can be successful at growing coral, but that’s only part of the ecosystem,” said Dr. Tim Lamont of the University of Exeter and the Mars Coral Reef Restoration Project, as reported by Phys.org.

Lamont is the lead author of the paper, “The sound of recovery: Coral reef restoration success is detectable in the soundscape,” published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

“Some of the sounds we recorded are really bizarre, and new to us as scientists,” said University of Bristol professor Steve Simpson, as Phys.org reported.

“Whoops, croaks, growls, raspberries and foghorns are among the sounds that demonstrate the success of a coral reef restoration project,” said University of Exeter in a press release, according to Phys.org.

Listen here:

The particular marine life making many of the mysterious sounds remains unknown.

“We have a lot still to learn about what they all mean and the animals that are making them. But for now, it’s amazing to be able to hear the ecosystem come back to life,” Simpson said, as reported by Phys.org.

In order to rejuvenate the reef following the destruction left behind by the blast fishing, the restoration project attached live coral to metal frames called “Reef Stars.” Placed over a large part of the degraded area, the Reef Stars secure loose debris, helping to revitalize quick coral growth and rejuvenate the ecosystem.

“This study provides exciting evidence that restoration really works for the other reef creatures too — by listening to the reefs, we’ve documented the return of a diverse range of animals,” said Lamont, as Phys.org reported.

“Our study shows that this restoration can really work, but it’s only part of a solution that must also include rapid action on climate change and other threats to reefs worldwide,” Lamont said, as reported by BBC News.

“When the soundscape comes back like this, the reef has a better chance of becoming self-sustaining because those sounds attract more animals that maintain and diversify reef populations,” said chief marine scientist for Mars Incorporated, professor David Smith, as reported by Phys.org.

“We have been restoring and monitoring these reefs here in Indonesia for many years. Now it is amazing to see more and more evidence that our work is helping the reefs come back to life,” said Coral Reef Restoration Project researcher Mochyudho Prasetya, Phys.org reported.

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Campaigners seek to curb UK oil production through the high court

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Inside Clean Energy: Batteries Got Cheaper in 2021. So How Close Are We to EVs That Cost Less than Gasoline Vehicles? – Inside Climate News

The price of the batteries that power electric vehicles has fallen by about 90 percent since 2010, a continuing trend that will soon make EVs less expensive than gasoline vehicles. This week, with battery pricing figures for 2021 now available, I wanted to get a better idea of what the near future will look like. […]
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