Order and harmony in a murmuration


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At first, they trickle in: one bird here, a few birds there. Then, at dusk’s cue, a dark smudge materializes on the horizon. Thousands of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) slowly come into focus, etching flight paths across the winter sky as they stream toward their evening roost in north-central England. Suddenly, the flock dips and twists like a horse tossing its head. It swirls into a funnel, then cartwheels to the side, shapeshifting in seemingly effortless unison. All the while, the birds’ feverish wingbeats and raucous chatter reverberate through the air—and reveal why this intricately coordinated performance earned its name: a murmuration.

Each winter, starlings gather in large flocks of up to 100,000 individuals across the United Kingdom. Most have migrated from northern Europe seeking milder temperatures and more abundant food. Their arrival is celebrated by residents outside the city of Sheffield, England where restored wetlands offer prime roost habitat, and where vast horizons make a perfect theater for evening murmurations. Among the routine spectators is Kathryn Cooper, a physicist-turned-photographer who sees more than just a mesmerizing aerial display. Trained in bioinformatics, Cooper has a keen eye for understanding complex data. “I’m interested in the transient moments when chaos briefly changes to order, and thousands of individual bodies appear to move as one,” she says.

RTFA and enjoy Kathryn Cooper’s photos.

Artist creates geometric designs by walking in the snow. A lot!

While walking amidst white mountaintops and cozy ski lodges, Simon Beck creates enormous works of snow art that look like giant wintry crop circles. Believe it or not, the immense snow patterns are made entirely by foot – Beck creates them while he walks across the terrain in briquette snow shoes. The ephemeral art installations last only until the mountain winds blow them away across the valleys.

I’ve done this kind of art – on a much smaller scale, less disciplined, but just as much fun.

Click the link to see more.

Lice DNA shows when humans started wearing clothes

A new University of Florida study following the evolution of lice shows modern humans started wearing clothes about 170,000 years ago, a technology which enabled them to successfully migrate out of Africa.

Principal investigator David Reed, associate curator of mammals at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, studies lice in modern humans to better understand human evolution and migration patterns. His latest five-year study used DNA sequencing to calculate when clothing lice first began to diverge genetically from human head lice…

“We wanted to find another method for pinpointing when humans might have first started wearing clothing,” Reed said. “Because they are so well adapted to clothing, we know that body lice or clothing lice almost certainly didn’t exist until clothing came about in humans.”

The data shows modern humans started wearing clothes about 70,000 years before migrating into colder climates and higher latitudes, which began about 100,000 years ago. This date would be virtually impossible to determine using archaeological data because early clothing would not survive in archaeological sites.

The study also shows humans started wearing clothes well after they lost body hair, which genetic skin-coloration research pinpoints at about 1 million years ago, meaning humans spent a considerable amount of time without body hair and without clothing, Reed said…

Lice are studied because unlike most other parasites, they are stranded on lineages of hosts over long periods of evolutionary time. The relationship allows scientists to learn about evolutionary changes in the host based on changes in the parasite…

Picture some True Believer accidentally wandering onto campus and bumping into an undergraduate student who knows more about the evolution of humans than some out-of-date book still copyright by the Royal family of England – since 1611.

I’m not certain I could keep a straight face long enough to discuss Apples, serpents and shame.