March 19, 2010
Air Date: March 19, 2010
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Cell phones may be hazardous to your health. The science is inconclusive but some states want to require warning labels on cell phones. David Carpenter is director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany. He tells host Jeff Young about research that shows a link between cell phone use and cancer. (05:55)
Seeds of Discontent
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The Department of Justice is investigating whether the world’s largest seed producer, Monsanto, has stifled competition in order to keep prices high. Host Jeff Young talks with economist, lawyer, and farmer Neil Harl about whether the biotech giant could be violating anti-trust laws. (06:00)
Rural Rabble Rousing/ Devin Robins
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Much of inland California is rural and poor, a sharp contrast with hip, upscale coastal life. Residents in the rural regions sometimes live with a high degree of pollution. Producer Devin Robins visited three women who became activists over concerns for their communities’ health. (09:00)
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Endocrine disrupting chemicals like bisphenol A have been making news lately, with several states passing regulations limiting or banning their use. The trajectory of BPA is similar to another chemical, commonly known as DES, once prescribed for pregnant and menopausal women. Host Jeff Young talks with Professor Nancy Langston about the history of endocrine disrupting chemicals and how this history can inform future chemical regulation. Her book is called, “Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES.” (09:00)
The Language of Landscape
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Living on Earth continues its series exploring features of the American landscape, based on the book Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. In this installment, writer Donna Seaman explains the term "looking-glass prairie." (02:00)
Birds on the Wing/ Laurie Sanders
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They fly by night, and the males arrive first to set up the breeding grounds. Not only that, but they sport regional dialects. Naturalist Laurie Sanders takes a look at a favorite songster - the red-winged blackbird. (06:10)
Note on Emerging Science/ Bridget MacDonald
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Some animals use sticks, leaves or mud to build durable nests. The Tungara frog uses bubbles. Living on Earth’s Bridget Macdonald reports on how scientists are studying frogs foam in order to make a similar material for medicinal use. (01:21)
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Unlike their close cousins, the Chimpanzee, when it comes to sharing Bonobo apes share and share alike. Chimps will fight over food but Bonobos are peace-loving animals and get their just rewards for sharing. Duke University evolutionary biologist Brian Hare discusses his latest research on Bonobo behavior with host Jeff Young. (06:40)
HOST: Jeff Young
GUESTS: David Carpenter, Neil Harl, Nancy Langston, Brian Hare
REPORTERS: Devin Robins, Laurie Sanders
ESSAY: Donna Seaman
SCIENCE NOTE: Bridget Macdonald
YOUNG: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth.
YOUNG: I’m Jeff Young. A wake up call for the cell phone industry. State lawmakers consider warning labels for phones.
CARPENTER: Cell phones use basically microwaves. It's the same kind of radiation that cooks your potato in the oven and you don't really want to cook your brain while you're talking on your cell phone.
YOUNG: We’ll hear the latest on possible health effects. Also, farm country giant Monsanto under fire for its control of the nation’s seed supply.
VARNEY: With big comes an awful lot of responsibility. When you have a tremendous amount of market share, you have the responsibility to behave in ways that keep the competitive playing field open.
YOUNG: The feds weigh anti-trust action in agri-business. Those stories, and the welcome return of the red-winged blackbird, this week on Living on Earth. Stay with us!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.
YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts – this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. 45years ago, cigarette packages started carrying a label warning that smoking may be hazardous to your health. Cell phones could be next.
Lawmakers in Maine and California are considering some sort of label on cell phones – or the packaging they come in – warning of possible health risks. The science around cell phone use is still emerging and assessment of a health risk is highly controversial. The National Cancer Institute says there is not evidence of a health threat. But some public health advocates like Dr. David Carpenter say there’s enough information to warrant caution and warning labels. Dr. Carpenter directs the Institute for Health and Environmental Safety at the University at Albany. Welcome to Living on Earth.
CARPENTER: Thank you very much.
YOUNG: Now, when I got my new cell phone, the pamphlet that came with it had some interesting fine print. It says, keep the device at least point nine eight inches from your body when the device is turned on and connected to a wireless network. What’s that about?
YOUNG: Why point nine eight inches?
CARPENTER: They’re dealing with specific absorption rate, or SAR, and that’s the regulatory standard and it’s based on the intensity of radio frequency radiation that would cause tissue heating. Cell phones use basically microwaves, it’s the same kind of radiation that cooks your potato in the oven, and you don’t really want to cook your brain while you’re talking on your cell phone.
YOUNG: So, what does the research show us about possible health risks from using a cell phone?
CARPENTER: There’s increasingly strong evidence that adults that have used a cell phone intensively for ten or more years are at significantly greater risk of getting a brain tumor, but only on the side of the head where they use the cell phone. And some evidence for cancer of the salivary gland that’s in the cheek. Again, only on the side of the head where the individuals use the cell phone. Now, what’s really frightening is research that was just published a few months ago from Sweden that shows if you’re under the age of 20 when you begin to use a cell phone, the risks are five times greater than if you start as an adult.
YOUNG: And it’s not necessarily just when it’s pressed against your head? If you’re like me, and you carry this thing around in your pocket, that’s probably not a great idea either, huh?
CARPENTER: Well, I’ve just recently reviewed another study from Scandinavia, and they were quite surprised to find an increase in prostrate cancer in men that use cell phones. I’m almost certain that that’s because these men have their cell phones on their belt or in their pocket, probably using a Bluetooth or something like that, and so, they’re simply irradiating their pelvis and not their brain. So it’s likely that it’s not just brain cancer we need to be concerned about, but we should try to keep the cell phone off of any part of our body when we’re using it.
YOUNG: So, you’re not saying to people give up your cell phones, you’re saying here are ways we could use our cell phones a little more wisely.
CARPENTER: That’s absolutely right. Preferably use a wired earpiece and don’t have the cell phone on your body anyplace. Just keeping the cell phone a few inches away from your ear, rather than resting it right against your head, and most cell phones, the volume is such that you can hear perfectly well and that will significantly reduce the exposure to your brain and your ear and your cheek. I think perhaps the only people I’m saying give up your cell phones are children, but even there, I understand that it makes parents feel very safe to give the child a cell phone so in an emergency they can use it. But children should use cell phones only in an emergency and parents should instruct them that they may be particularly vulnerable for these long-term very, very dangerous diseases.
YOUNG: And would having the warning labels out there you think make those kinds of conversations, that kind of awareness among consumers more likely?
CARPENTER: Well, it certainly will make it more likely. That isn’t to say that everybody’s going to read the warning, but having a warning is going to stimulate conversation, it’s going to stimulate awareness of the issue. How much it changes behavior is always a good question.
YOUNG: Do we have enough information to gauge risk relative to other risks that we encounter? When we say, you know, the risk of or statistic chance of a kind of cancer – how do we assess just how risky this might be?
CARPENTER: Well, I think the answer is clearly “no,” we do not have enough information to determine how risky this is. The big concern is while we’re seeing this elevation in risk, what’s going to happen in the future? Are we going to be facing an epidemic of brain cancer in ten or 20 years? We know from a variety of other studies with various environmental exposures that the latency for developing brain cancer after an environmental insult is often 20 or 30 years. So this is just another reason to be cautious. It isn’t that we have absolute proof at present, we don’t, but we have strong indication and the evidence gets stronger every month as new studies appear.
YOUNG: David Carpenter directs the Institute for Health and Environment at the University at Albany in New York. Thank you very much.
CARPENTER: It's my pleasure, thank you.
[MUSIC: The Meters “Africa” from rejuvenation (Atlantic Records 1974)]
YOUNG: Some problems are cropping up for the country’s biggest seed company, Monsanto. Seeds designed for use with Monsanto’s weed killer, Roundup, dominate the soybean and corn markets. And the U.S. Department of Justice is taking a closer look at possible antitrust violations. Hundreds of farmers packed an auditorium in Iowa this month for a Justice Department workshop on competition in farming. The Department’s antitrust division leader, Christine Varney, told them DOJ is prepared to enforce the law.
VARNEY: With big comes an awful lot of responsibility. When you have a tremendous amount of market share you have the responsibility to behave in ways that keep the competitive playing field open.
YOUNG: One of the expert panelists at that event was Neil Harl, a professor emeritus in economics and agriculture at Iowa State University. Professor Harl says the Justice Department is showing remarkable interest in antitrust enforcement – an area where Justice has long been dormant.
HARL: This is a very unusual happening. Their words are chosen very carefully, they were indicating they wanted to remain friendly to business. On the other hand, there were statements made that they were aware of the concerns about diminished competition, and that tends to have an influence on the boardroom. The boards of directors listen and they are acutely aware of the fact that their company is in the cross hairs.
YOUNG: Well, give me a couple of examples, what is it that Monsanto’s been doing that caught DOJ’s attention?
HARL: Well, it really centers around a product called Roundup Ready. It was first of all a chemical that controls weeds, and then they developed a trait for corn and soybeans, whereby that plant would not die if it was exposed to Roundup Ready. So it was a fairly easy way to control weeds in those crops. And that’s why farmers liked it, and the demand for that product, Roundup Ready, became so great that competitors were willing to enter into licensing agreements with Monsanto.
YOUNG: So give me sense of just how big Monsanto’s presence is in the seed market.
HARL: It varies by corn and soybeans – in both cases it’s around the 35 percent mark. However, when you couple that market share with the influence they have with licensing of products to licensees, then it’s commonly believed that about 90 percent of the germ plasm for the major crops is influenced, or is capable of being influenced, by Monsanto.
YOUNG: 90 percent sounds like there’s not a whole lot of competition out there. How does this affect farmers?
HARL: Well, the way it’s been handled in recent years Monsanto adds traits and each trait becomes a cost item to the licensee, who then sells it on to the farmer. And so, as they have added traits, they have caused an increase in the price of seed, and so eventually these phenomena tend to get translated into a higher food cost. And that’s the area that traditionally has received the most attention in the anti-trust arena, is will it affect the price to consumers?
HARL: [Laughs] No! [Laughs] I didn’t! I could tell you, I was three-years old in February of 1937 and my dad announced to me around the first of the month that I had a job for the month of February and that was to butt and tip ears of corn that he had selected from the 1936 drought-stunted crop as his seed for 1937. So I sat there and shelled the irregular kernels off of both ends of these ears, he ran those through the corn sheller – hand corn sheller – and that was his seed supply. And that was the last of what I call the open pollinated era. Now, that’s quite a difference from what happened beginning in 1980 because that was the year that the U.S. Supreme Court decided a key case that allowed the patenting of life forms. And in 2001 that was specifically extended to see – farmed seeds. And so the companies knew they had a monopoly control over that development that they’d put together in the laboratory for the patent period. And one of these was Roundup Ready, and the Roundup chemical used for control of weeds in corn and soybeans.
YOUNG: And what’s your take – should there be anti-trust action here?
HARL: I think there should be. I think that it justifies an anti-trust inquiry. I believe that markets are terribly important; in fact, the three most important features of our economic system are competition, competition, and competition. And that’s where anti-trust comes in because it’s designed to try to encourage competition and to discourage those forces that tend to reduce competitive behavior.
YOUNG: Neil Harl at Iowa State University. Thank you very much, sir.
HARL: Indeed, it was a great pleasure.
YOUNG: Monsanto declined to comment. The Department of Justice workshops on big agribusiness continue through the summer. And there’s much more at our website l-o-e dot org.
[MUSIC: The Crusaders “Lilies Of The Nile” from Southern Comfort (Blue Thumb/Verve Records 1974)]
YOUNG: Just ahead: lessons learned from a powerful chemical – the legacy of D-E-S. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young. California’s Central Valley includes the fourth poorest Congressional district in the country. It’s a region where towns are small, streets are often unpaved, and modest homes sit beside busy agricultural fields. It's also a region beset by environmental problems. That, in turn, has given rise to environmental organizing. Producer Devin Robins spent time with some Central Valley mothers to learn about their work for healthier communities in hardscrabble country.
[SOUNDS OF HIGHWAY TRAFFIC]
ROBINS: Off a dusty portion of Highway 99, a green sign reads “Earlimart: Population 7,000.” The town earned its name almost a century ago because crops like grapes, potatoes and nuts could be harvested early here. 51-year-old Teresa DeAnda grew up across the street from the fields where both her parents worked. She learned about pesticides young.
ROBINS: Hazardous pesticides such as Endosulfan and Dursban, which is banned for use in homes, are commonly used in the fields across the street from Earlimart. Diesel exhaust from trucks and tractors is also prevalent. As a mother, DeAnda saw a blasé acceptance developing in her children.
DEANDA: My daughter Tina when she saw a little girl she said, "Oh, that’s Mirabelle and she has three fingers because of the pesticides," and I said, "She has three fingers?" and she said, "Yeah, and she knows it’s from the pesticides.”
ROBINS: Then in 1999, there was an incident that left an even deeper mark.
DEANDA: They were spraying across the street and the spray was inside my house. It was full of spray in here; it was foggy in my house. I didn’t know if my kids were going to wake up, my husband was out of town. It was just a horrible helpless feeling.
DEANDA: So many of these people when we go there will tell us, “Oh yeah we had a barbeque last weekend and they were spraying right next to us and my kids were feeling sick after that and a bunch of us got headaches.” If you come here in May, June or July they are spraying heavy and you can smell it. You’ll smell the odor of pesticides.
ROBINS: DeAnda formed The Committee for the Well-Being of Earlimart. Now she’s known for taking busloads of people to Sacramento so legislators can see the faces and hear the stories of the victims of pesticide drift up close and personal. The group helped pass pesticide legislation in California and persuade the county to limit aerial spraying.
[SOUNDS OF KIDS PLAYING OUTSIDE, DOGS BARKING, SKATEBOARDING]
ROBINS: About an hour northwest is Kettleman City. Fifteen hundred primarily Latino residents live here.
They have to drive 30 miles to the nearest grocery store. Although it might seem hard to organize in a place where people have to try so hard to get by, Kettleman City is home to a multi-generational environmental justice movement.
ROBINS: For 20 years, Maricela Mares-Alatorre and her family have been a thorn in the side of a hazardous waste landfill about three and a half miles south of town.
More community members joined their fight after several babies were born with cleft palates here. Authorities say there may be as many as nine. Three of the babies died.
MARES-ALATORRE: And a lot of the moms we work with that have had the cleft palette children they tell us, "You know what we used to think you were crazy, but now I am so angry and I want them to hear me and I want them to listen, and they don’t," and I say “Well, welcome to the fight.”
ROBINS: Alatorre says her strength comes from both her parents. Her father worked with Caesar Chavez. In fact this region is the birthplace of the United Farm Workers movement. Her mother, Mary Lou, is a teacher and created the group “People for Clean Air and Water” in the 1980s. Despite this legacy, Alatorre says the work, and its repercussions, do take a toll.
ROBINS: Her 15-year-old son Miguel Alatorre responded by getting involved in the movement himself. He leads a local youth organization called Kids Protecting Our Planet. Here’s Miguel on the steps of the EPA in San Francisco, demanding that officials address Kettleman City’s environmental concerns:
ALATORRE: As you can see we have all our youth right here. We’re not going to stand for any of their trash anymore and we’re going to fight back. Qué queremos?!
[CROWD CHANTS BACK]
ROBINS: Some of the Alatorres' neighbors vigorously disagree with their efforts, pointing to Little League sponsorships and money for local schools the waste facility provides. So Maricela’s activism means continuing discord and her opponents criticism is increasingly pointed.
ALATORRE: You can’t say anything; if you say oh they chose Kettleman City because it’s a Latino community – oh, you’re playing the race card. If we say they chose Kettleman city because it’s an impoverished community because people don’t have the means to fight back. Oh, you’re playing the poverty card.
ROBINS: Last month, the cleft palette birth defects in Kettleman City drew national attention. The media exposure prompted visits from state officials and the top EPA chief in the region. They promised more scientific research.
[SOUNDS OF BOUNCING BALL]
KELLY: Juggle the ball with your feet here. Pull it back with your toe and then juggle it with your feet.
ROBINS: In a third town two hours north, 13-year-old Ellen Kelly shows me her soccer moves. You'd never know Ellen was born with diminished lung capacity. About five years ago, when she was in the 3rd grade her mother Melissa was actually teaching in her school when Ellen left PE and ran to her.
KELLY-ORTEGA: She came into my classroom white as a ghost saying my heart hurts, my heart hurts, and not knowing very much at the time I thought she was having a heart attack and as a mother you just kind of freak out. And I rushed her to the doctor and the doctor said, “It’s not a heart attack. It was an asthma attack.”
ROBINS: Melissa Kelly-Ortega says she never thought much about the air until Ellen’s asthma attack. Then her youngest daughter Satia was born with breathing problems. Ortega soon began to notice on days with poor air quality, kids had more migraines, asthma attacks, and other health problems. She decided to get involved and started organizing.
KELLY-ORTEGA: I think that I would call myself an activist. I think other people would call me a radical and that becomes a very hard place to be because when you’re a radical people don’t listen.
ROBINS: What Ortega would like you to hear is that the Central Valley, including Merced consistently ranks among the top ten most polluted regions in the U.S.
Studies show that's a result of diesel exhaust and dirty air blown in from the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Combine with that agricultural burning. It all adds up to a soup of lung-scarring ozone and particles that cause asthma attacks.
KELLY-ORTEGA: I think one of the, maybe the tragedy of living in the Valley is that we have just become sort of numb. We see this way of living that this is the only way to live. And I think someone had asked, “why don’t you move?” You need resources to move, you need to be able to pick up your family and take them away from their friends, and you need to be able to buy a house somewhere the air is clean, and that’s just not something we have.
ROBINS: Nevertheless Ortega says she feels hopeful about the future. In 2008, the county agreed to use colored flags on city buildings to let residents know if the air quality is safe or not. Also, beginning next year, the state will require truck owners to install diesel exhaust filters on their rigs. Melissa Kelly Ortega has seen changes that people told her would never come to pass. And so she in Merced, Maricela Mares Alatorre in Kettleman City, and Teresa DeAnda in Earlimart raise their children and grandchildren in the Central Valley, and work for a day when it's a healthier place to live. For Living On Earth, I'm Devin Robins in Merced, California.
YOUNG: Concern about the plastic ingredient, bisphenol A, is shaping new laws around the country. Wisconsin banned use of BPA in children’s products and ten other states could do the same, from New Mexico to New Jersey. BPA is in a class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors and studies link it to reproductive problems and cancer. But as states, and even some stores take action the federal Food and Drug Administration has not.
Environmental historian Nancy Langston says this all sounds very familiar. Her new book is “Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES.” DES was once prescribed for menopausal and pregnant women, and then widely used on livestock, all with disastrous effect. And professor Langston finds strong parallels between that history and the current controversy over BPA.
YOUNG: Now, why did you choose to focus on DES?
LANGSTON: Nearly one tenth of American women who were pregnant during the 1950s and 1960s were treated with DES, often without their knowledge or consent. And it’s turned out to be an enormous public health disaster. DES has become one of the most powerful models for scientists to look at the effects of synthetic chemicals on the developing fetus and on the broader environment. Yet, we don’t really understand why the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the drug and why doctors marketed it so widely. And so looking a bit more clearly at the regulatory debates over DES can help us learn how to address very, very similar problems that we still face today.
YOUNG: Your book is also sort of the story of the Food and Drug Administration, FDA kind of grew up along side this chemical and DES was one of the first big challenges for this regulatory agency.
LANGSTON: Absolutely. In 1938, when the Food and Drug Administration was formed there was still an enormous public debate over what right the government had to regulate industry, and DES was the first major test case of the right and the responsibility of the federal government to regulate industry chemicals in order to protect public health.
YOUNG: And early on, sort of the father of the FDA, his whole approach was one that you might call a precautionary principle?
LANGSTON: Precisely, Harvey Washington-Wiley, and then the first commissioner of the FDA, Campbell, they called their principle the conservative principle. They did not believe that it was the consumer’s responsibility to prove that she or he had been harmed by a drug. They firmly believed that to protect the public and to protect the environment, the industry had to show that a new drug was safe.
YOUNG: And it wasn’t long before FDA drifted far away from that principle?
LANGSTON: The FDA had to decide, would this be a safe drug under the new law? The new drug director and many of his staff were enormously skeptical about giving a synthetic estrogen to women. And that was because they knew that estrogens could cause cancer. And the FDA had to negotiate this incredible uncertainty about what caused cancer and what that meant for synthetic chemicals. The chemical company started lobbying and persuaded doctors to give the drug to women for short amounts of time, and then they submitted evidence to the FDA on thousands of women who had been treated for just three weeks. They said, look, it’s safe. And many people in the FDA were very upset about this, but the political pressures on these young agencies were so powerful that the agency decided it could not defend precaution in court.
YOUNG: And then, I guess it wasn’t until early ‘70s that we really learned the full impact of those decisions?
LANGSTON: Right. In 1971, doctors began to realize that there was a formerly extremely rare form of cancer, a vaginal cancer, that was all of a sudden clustering in Boston among a group of women whose mothers had taken DES while they were pregnant. And this was revolutionary because no one really suspected that a drug could have what are called trans-generational effects. By the end of November, 1971 the warning against prescribing the drug finally came out. But it was never actually taken off the market. It was never made illegal for a doctor to prescribe DES to pregnant women.
YOUNG: And not only did we have widespread use of DES as a medicine, but far more widespread use in agriculture? How did that come about?
LANGSTON: The FDA at first, again, said no, we need to be cautious and then very quickly the regulators bent to pressures from industry and allowed it to be put on the market. At first, to turn roosters into feminized chickens that would be usable for food. And so, in 1947, many, many, many chickens began to be implanted with little pellets of DES into their necks. Almost immediately, male workers in the chicken plants began to develop symptoms, such as men began growing breasts, they began showing impotence, they began showing what the FDA called reduce virility. But the FDA at first really denied these reports and said, well, these are just farm workers, these are just workers in chemical plants, we can’t really trust them they’re not scientists. And finally, enough of these studies kept coming up that the FDA finally investigated and realized that the food itself was acting as an estrogen. And so under great pressure, the FDA removed it from chickens, but allowed it to be used in cattle. By 1954, it was approved for use in cattle and within two years some 90 percent of feedlot cattle in America were being treated with a synthetic estrogen.
YOUNG: Well, I think you’ve done a great job of showing us how FDA really fell down on the job on this, but at the same time these endocrine disrupting chemicals are a real challenge.
LANGSTON: Absolutely, because these are chemicals that have hormonal actions, it’s almost impossible to understand those effects directly. For example, we tend to think with natural poisons that a tiny dose is probably safe, whereas a big dose is going to be more toxic.
YOUNG AND LANGSTON: The dose makes the poison.
LANGSTON: Exactly! One of the founding principles in toxicology. But hormones act very differently. Just one or two tiny molecules can trigger a whole host of reactions within your body. So, quantitative risk assessment, assume that we can measure risk, that we can somehow balance the risks against the benefits. But with hormones, it’s always going to be impossible to completely know what the risks are going to be. So while quantitative risk assessment is a start, it cannot overwhelm other approaches to monitoring and measuring the risks that we face.
YOUNG: Well, you have a knack for timing because it just so happens that Congress and EPA and others are taking a new, hard look at these endocrine disruptors and considering a complete overhaul. What do you think are the lessons that we should take from the DES experience?
LANGSTON: Even very low-level residues of chemicals that have the potential to disrupt hormones can do harm to people, to animals, and to broader environments. The second lesson we should learn is that we cannot wait to regulate those chemicals until we have clear proof of experimental harm to humans. Many of the companies say, well, we haven’t proven that BPA or other endocrine disrupting chemicals definitely cause harm to a specific person. And they point out that a woman who gets cancer, she can’t prove that it was because she was exposed to a chemical, but the precautionary principle states that we should act to protect public health not by discouraging innovation, but by doing our best to ask hard questions of new drugs and new chemicals before they’re put on the market. But the lesson of DES is that we still need to protect public health even in the absence of complete certainty.
YOUNG: Nancy Langston at the University of Wisconsin. Her book is “Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES.” Thank you so much.
LANGSTON: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
[MUSIC: Lester Bowie “Biggie’s Ride (Notorious Thugs) from When The Spirit Returns (Dreyfus Records 2003)]
YOUNG: In just a minute, the boys are back in town (and they’re waiting in the cattail marsh for the females to follow). The return of the red-winged blackbird. Just ahead on Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from The Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI – Public Radio International.
Click here to learn more about Nancy Langston.
YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.
[HOME GROUND THEME MUSIC: Daniel Lanois “O Marie” from Acadie (danielanois.com 2002)]
YOUNG: Time to dip into “Home Ground”, a collection of phrases that describe the American landscape. This week, we look to the Great Plains. Donna Seaman reflects on the origin of the phrase “looking glass prairie.”
SEAMAN: Looking-glass prairie. Nineteenth-century settlers were astounded by the grandeur of prairies on the western plains, particularly those christened looking-glass prairies for their elegant curving shapes and their surprising reflectivity.
These gleaming prairie wetlands (circumnavigated by prairie schooners) – great shallow basins of sedges, reflecting sky and landscape and nurturing fish, waterfowl, and other animals – were initiated by glaciers retreating from the Central Lowlands, which stretch west from the Mississippi River across the Great Plains.
The term is generic, although it can be specific, as in the 1829 third volume of Travels in North America, where B. Hall writes of one prairie – and I quote – that was particularly beautiful of its kind, and named Looking Glass Prairie. Unquote.
Such prairies engender optical illusions and mystical revelations, and it’s worth noting that L. Frank Baum set his Oz books in the magical prairies of Kansas. But alas, most settlers considered looking-glass prairies useless impediments, and busily drained and plowed them.
YOUNG: Donna Seaman is a writer and editor based in Illinois. Her definition of “looking-glass prairie’ comes from the book “Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape,” edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.
[MUSIC: Andrew Bird: “Souverain” from Noble Beast (Wegawam 2008)]
The Home Ground Project
[CALL OF RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD]
YOUNG: Many of those prairies will soon come to life with the song of this bird. Red-winged Blackbirds are found in most of North America. They’re gregarious. They’re abundant. And after a long winter, they’re back in the northern U.S. and Canada.
Massachusetts naturalist Laurie Sanders takes a closer look at this familiar songbird.
[CALL OF CHICKADEES]
SANDERS: Chickadees and tufted titmice and house finches started singing their territorial songs back in January. Cardinals more than a month ago. Their songs are a signal we’re over the hump. But this:
SANDERS: Tells us spring is really coming. Red-winged blackbirds are the first migratory bird to return to the Northeast. Every year, whether or not there’s snow on the ground, red-winged blackbirds arrive here around mid- to late-February. Their migration north from Florida and other southern states is triggered by changes not in temperature, but day length. And once they start their migration north, they don’t waste time, dawdling along.
BYERS: They are generally nocturnal migrants.
SANDERS: Bruce Byers is a biologist at UMASS-Amherst.
BYERS: They fly at night and stop during the day, to rest or sometimes for multiple days on route to feed. Although like most songbirds, their northern migration is often fairly rapid. So they make their way here in a relatively short period of time. And the males arrive first. We haven’t seen any females yet, so it’s kind of a sexually divided migration, where the males move north first in a group. But once they reach their breeding area, the males begin to break off from their flock and set up a breeding territory on a cattail marsh or similar wetland for the most part.
SANDERS: For now, the males are still roosting together at night. And at different times of the day, you can see them feeding together, often at your bird feeder where they eat all kinds of grains and seeds. And Byers says they need to eat those seeds because defending a good territory is energy intensive.
BYERS: As you can imagine, it requires a lot of work. A lot of displaying. A lot of…you’ve probably noticed, that they chase and fight as well as sing and display their plumage marks. And so quite an investment in acquiring a territory.
SANDERS: Male red-winged blackbirds have multiple mates, and with a good territory a male can usually attract two, three, four, sometimes as many as 15 females. But Byers says females are choosey. When they arrive they check out territory after territory before deciding where to build their nests and lay eggs. And while the females are looking around, the males are showing off.
BYERS: If you watch redwings carefully, you’ll notice that when the male sings the conkaree song, it’s accompanied by a wings spreading display where the male leans forward, spreads his wings in such a fashion that the bright red shoulder patches – or epaulets – are displayed at the same time as they sing. It’s a coordinated vocal and visual display, and some classic experimental work done a few decades ago has shown that if a male’s epaulets are not showing, in other words, if an experimenter say dyes them black, the male has a very difficult time defending a territory. By the same token, if an experimenter causes a red-winged blackbird to go temporarily mute, during the period when they can’t vocalize, they cannot successfully defend a territory.
SANDERS: But Byers says it’s not exactly clear what a female is looking for in a song. Just like people living in different parts of the country, red-winged blackbirds have regional dialects. For instance, here’s the sound of a male red-winged from California.
[HIGH-PITCHED SONG OF CALIFORNIA MALE RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD]
SANDERS: Versus one sung by a bird in Massachusetts.
[LOWER-PITCHED SONG OF MASSACHUSETTS RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD]
SANDERS: Byers says these regional dialects develop because the conkaree song is learned. It’s passed from one generation to the next.
BYERS: A red-winged blackbird cannot produce a song like this unless it hears adults singing this kind of song while it is young. And in many species of birds, what the young are doing are memorizing and imitating the adult songs. And it’s not strictly imitation that’s going on in this species. That the young birds, in addition to imitating, some aspects of what the adults are doing are also kind of making their own wrinkles on it. They’re doing a little improvising.
SANDERS: By the time a male red-winged matures, he’ll have developed four to eight variations of the conkaree song and use them throughout his lifetime. And we can hear those. Usually a male will sing one rendition several times in a row, and then switch to the next, and so on.
[HIGH-PITCH BIRD NOTE]
SANDERS: But in addition to the learned conkaree song, redwings – both males and females – produce several other calls. Byers admits biologists don’t know all the purposes of these, but they have a pretty good idea about how some of the different calls function. Like this sound –
[SHARP TEER NOTE]
SANDERS: Is used during aggressive displays or when a bird is alarmed.
BYERS: Again both males and females do something similar and they do this so much, both on the breeding territory and in flocks, that the main thinking about what its function might be is that to be some kind of contact call. A way of just staying in touch, advertising one’s presence to the other members of the flock or the other individuals that are on the territory. Just a way of saying, “I’m here. I’m here. I’m here,” repeatedly.
SANDERS: In the next few weeks, female redwings will arrive and add their voices to the sounds of the marsh. By the time they get here, other spring migrants will have already returned. Common grackles. Eastern phoebes. American woodcock. And each of these will add its own distinctive voice to the rising chorus. But for now, male red-winged blackbirds are the stars of the marsh. For Living on Earth, I’m Laurie Sanders.
[MUSIC: Bill Frisell “Wildwood Flower” from Ghost Town (Nonesuch Records 2000)]
YOUNG: Coming up, peace and love, bonobo-style. But first this Note on Emerging Science from Bridget Macdonald.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
MACDONALD: Think “foam” and your mind may wander to the melt-in-your-mouth topping on a cappuccino, but for some frog species, foam is a tough, protective shield for their young. Now researchers are trying to replicate frog foam for medicinal use.
The foam nests made by Túngara frogs in Central America may look delicate, but they’re known for their strength: they withstand high heat, bright sunlight, and bacteria, and stay intact until the tadpoles inside are ready to break free.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow are studying footage of the frogs to figure out how these small amphibians create such durable nests.
They discovered that the male frog collects a special fluid from the female, then kicks his legs up and down in short spurts to turn the liquid into a ball of bubbles. As the foam takes shape, the frog delicately adds the eggs, like a chef folding ingredients into cake batter.
The frog whips up more foam to put the finishing touch on the nest, kicking his legs about 200 times during the entire process.
Scientists are planning to use a similar technique to develop an anti-bacterial foam to treat burn victims. And it’s likely the synthetic version won't require kicking. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Bridget Macdonald.
[END SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
Watch a male frog building a foam nest.
YOUNG: So say there’s one slice of pizza left in the box and two of you eyeing it. Your human brain says, “we can share.” But your animal instincts say, “MINE!”
Well, of course, you share. Voluntarily sharing is one of the ways we define our humanity – part of what separates us from the animals, right? Well, recent research from Duke University’s Hominid Psychology Research Group indicates we are not unique in that regard. The group’s director, Dr. Brian Hare, works with one of our closest relatives, the Bonobo.
HARE: Bonobos are a second species of chimpanzee that usually many people haven’t heard of because they only live in the Congo Basin. And they don’t live together with chimpanzees. Chimpanzees only live north of the Congo River – if you get your map out of Africa you’ll see that north of the Congo River that’s chimpanzee land and south of the Congo River that’s Bonobo land.
YOUNG: Life in Bonobo land is very different from life in chimp land. And Dr. Hare thinks we could learn a lot from those differences. For example, his latest study put Bonobos in the same situation as that pizza box showdown we talked about.
HARE: Basically they had a choice between sharing food with another bonobo, or they could just hog all the food themselves and gobble it down and how we gave them that choice is we let them into a room with some prized fruit. Also in that room there is a door and the door has a one-way key and if they open that one-way key they can let in another bonobo. Now, the other bonobo can’t enter the room unless the bonobo that has all the food decides, okay, I’m going to let this guy in and he can have some food. So that was the choice they had, and drum roll – the answer is they love to open the door and let the other bonobo in and share the food instead of just eating it all themselves. They like to eat together.
YOUNG: What do you think is driving this? What do bonobos derive from sharing food?
HARE: Well, I think that bonobos are very social. You know, their social world is so important to them that evolution has sort of shaped them so that they are very tolerant with one another. They enjoy sharing food; they aren’t as competitive as their close relative the chimpanzee. And that really just enables them to be a little bit more generous than other species.
YOUNG: Now, when you say, social and they like to share, I kind of can imagine using your fingers to make little air quotes because those of us who’ve heard of bonobos know, oh yeah, they like to share…
YOUNG: What else was going on while they were eating?
HARE: Well, okay, so bonobos are famous because they’re very tolerant with one another but they’re tolerant because anytime there’s tension in the group they use sex as a social lubricant. So if there’s a lot of food provided to bonobos or if they find a big fruit tree in the middle of the forest in the Congo Basin where they live, then usually what happens is instead of what a chimpanzee group would do – displaying, and fighting, and saying, okay I’m dominant, get away from all this food – bonobos basically rub themselves all over each other, they chill out, and they go eat together peaceably. Basically, bonobos don’t want to eat, and then play and have sex – they want to eat and play and have sex.
YOUNG: So what is the evolutionary benefit of this? I’m assuming there must be some benefit to them. Is this an example of altruism or are they gaining some advantage here?
HARE: So that’s the 64 million dollar question because really what we were trying to test with this experiment is that we know that animals share, so even chimpanzees, they share food. And many other animals share food, but usually when animals are sharing food there’s some very simple, selfish motivations that could be driving the sharing. So, for instance, when it comes to chimpanzees sharing, well we know that chimps will often share with non-relatives, but when they’re sharing, they’re sharing because they’re trying to get somebody who’s harassing them to go away. So what this experiment really rules out is that it’s not that they’re sharing because of harassment. So then the question becomes exactly what you just said, is this altruism or is there some other underlying selfish motivation. And we’ve got some ideas about what those might be.
YOUNG: Such as?
HARE: It may not be that this is purely generosity in the sense that, oh, I feel so sorry for that bonobo next to me who has no food and it just hurts me that that poor bonobo doesn’t have any food so now I’m going to give that bonobo some food. Instead, it might be, hey, I’m on a blind date here, I’ve never met this guy, I might interact with this other bonobo in the future so why don’t I just give him some food and maybe next time we meet that bonobo will be nice to me.
YOUNG: So, a favor in the favor bank kind of approach –
HARE: You got it!
HARE: So, basically it could be there’s some political strategizing going on here.
YOUNG: Does this kind of behavior seem to pay off for bonobos are they more successful because of this?
HARE: Well, I don’t know if it makes them more successful than chimpanzees because they actually live in very difference places. So is it that there is something south of the Congo River that has shaped the bonobos so that they have a very different social system than chimpanzees. So chimpanzees have male dominance, they have lethal aggression where they raid neighboring territories to kill each other and they do all these things that sort of represent the darker side of human nature. But bonobos are female dominated, there’s no evidence for lethal aggression, and instead when there’s some tense moment in the group they have sex, and they have a good time, and they share food. So, really the question is, what is it that ecologically south of the Congo River has allowed bonobos to sort of have this relaxed, more egalitarian society?
YOUNG: And how can we mimic that in our society is what I want to know! [Laughs]
HARE: Exactly. Boy…
YOUNG: They’ve got it made!
HARE: People sometimes ask me, oh, what’s the most intelligent animal? And what makes humans so much more intelligent than other animals? And I always say, no, no, no, no – we’re not the most intelligent ape. The most intelligent ape is the bonobo, wouldn’t you want to live in a society where there’s peace? And that sounds pretty good to me. I like that.
YOUNG: Not to mention the sharing food is nice, and then the, you know –
HARE: Yeah, that’s not bad, either. And you know, sort of it’s like the ‘60s all over again. So, yeah, I mean it could be a lot better if we could release our inner-bonobo and tame our inner-chimp, we might be happy. So, hopefully if we keep doing lots of research at this orphanage Lola Ya Bonobo in Kinshasa…The sad reality is that bonobos are highly endangered because of the bush meat trade in the place we work is a bonobo sanc – I mean is an orphanage for babies of mothers who have been killed for their meat. And so hopefully if we keep working with these guys we will find ways to learn and unlock a little bit more about the biology of aggression especially if we compare chimps and bonobos to one another. And I mean, what species could be more important to study than the species that’s found a way to live peaceably among each other?
YOUNG: Dr. Brian Hare, leader of Duke University’s Hominid Psychology Research Group. Thanks a lot.
HARE: Thank you, Jeff.
[MUSIC: Papa Noel “Soukous Son” from Café Noir (Tumi Music 2007)]
YOUNG: On the next Living on Earth. The U.S. Postal Service wants to save money by cutting Saturday service. It will also deliver a smaller carbon footprint.
MAN: Reducing that would be equivalent to about 315 to 500 thousand metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year. Equal to about 60 to 95 thousand gasoline powered passenger cars.
YOUNG: This postman always thinks twice about greenhouse gases, next time on Living on Earth.
YOUNG: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, and Mitra Taj, with help from Sarah Calkins, Marilyn Govoni and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Emily Guerin and Bridget Macdonald. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. Steve Curwood is our Executive Producer. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org. I’m Jeff Young. Thanks for listening.
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