Spas for frogs, compassionate Neanderthals, & humanoids with skin | Last Week in Science (30 Jun 2024)

Spas to heal frogs

Scientists have created saunas to save endangered species from a fungal infection that has caused the extinction of 90 species and has put 124 at risk.

Credit: Dr Athony Waddle

The green and golden bell frog is one of the species that are infected by a fungal infection. It is during the winter season that they catch this infection, which leads to their death in most cases. These frogs thrive at a temperature of 29 °C, and their bodies can kill this fungus at this temperature. Scientists devised an inexpensive method to help the frogs fight the fungus during the winters. They constructed mini shelters out of bricks placed inside a greenhouse. When under the sun, these shelters had a temperature 4.5 °C higher than the outside. The infected frogs that took shelter in these saunas could get rid of the fungus faster. Scientists found that there was an 80% chance of the infected frogs surviving after visiting this sauna compared to 22% who remained outside. The sauna frogs also developed immunity to fight off any future cases of the fungal infection.

Scientists are now working on expanding this work and creating shelters for frog populations in larger areas.

Reference: Hot spot 'saunas' a new lifeline for endangered frog populations

 Compassion of Neanderthals?

In a recent study, scientists have found evidence of a Neanderthal child who possibly received compassionate care from other members of the society. Neanderthals, our ancient cousins, became extinct 40,000 years ago. Whatever little information we have about them has come from their fossilized remains.

A part of a skull bone, the temporal bone that houses the ear canal, of a Neanderthal was excavated from a cave in Spain. Scientists found that these were the remains of a female child of around 6 years of age whom they fondly named Tina. By imaging this piece of the temporal bone, they created a 3D model of the bone. On further investigation of the images, they found that Tina suffered from a congenital neurological condition that would have affected her hearing ability and sense of balance since birth. This condition was diagnosed to be Down syndrome - and is the first case of a Neanderthal individual with this condition.

Brain development of a child is affected in Down syndrome, making them dependent on other individuals for most of their life. In the modernised world, individuals with Down syndrome eventually lead an independent life, and life expectancy has increased to 60. An individual with Down syndrome was not known to survive beyond 9-12 years of age in the 1930s-40s. So far, five human fossil remains of individuals with Down syndrome have been found, and none of them survived beyond 16 months.

Down syndrome is also known to occur in chimpanzees, and there is a single recorded observation where a chimp mother cared for a baby chimp that had this condition. She was assisted by her elder daughter. The baby chimp could not survive after the elder sister was unable to help her mother due to her own offspring.

Such instances indicate that for Tina to have survived 6 years would have required compassion on the part of other members of their society, as the lifestyle of Neanderthals was challenging, and it would have been impossible for her mother to care for her alone.

Humanoids with human skin

A few months back, we saw a humanoid robot that can predict a human smile and could smile in return, making the smile more genuine. What could be more genuine than a humanoid smiling face made of human skin?

©2024 Takeuchi et al. CC-BY-ND

Previously, hooks or mini anchors have been used for attaching skin to a solid surface. This method restricted the surfaces to which it can be attached and limited the movement of the surface. Scientists have overcome this challenge by creating small holes in the surface and using collagen for sticking the skin to the surface. They took inspiration from how human skin binds to the body, where ligaments and collagen keep the skin intact. They created a face using this technique, which could smile using actuators acting as muscles in the face that make movements in the body possible.

This new technique not only makes humanoids more human-like but can also help in training plastic surgeons and will be useful in the cosmetic industry.

Reference: Robots face the future