Weird Science: Menopause, Cougar Whales, and McDonald's Business Model

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Weird Science: Menopause, Cougar Whales, and McDonald's Business Model

This Week in Weird Science: We give thanks to whales for helping us understand why menopause exists. After that, a group of scientists gave backing to prove that alcohol does make you ridiculously, ridiculously hungry. And finally, science explains why we love the music we love.


Thank Cougar Whales for Menopause

Only three known species in the world undergo menopause: Humans, pilot whales, and killer whales. Forever, scientists hadn’t the faintest clue why, in only these three species, reproduction completely stops, but behavioral biologists in England think they understand the evolution of menopause. Basically, bitches be trippin’.

Before getting into the specifics of the study, there are some things to know about the mating habits of whales—cover your eyes if the term “Granny” will disturb you. For starters, male and female whales live vastly different lives. Men generally live 30 years and can splooge the entire time. Women, on the other hand, can live to be over one-hundred, but they stop reproducing in their 30s and 40s. Because of this family structure, it means that at some point in the mother’s life, she’ll be birthing calves at the same time as her many, many daughters. Think of the entire whale community like cougars fighting for their daughter’s boyfriend, but, rather than fighting over guys named Jeff or Lorenzo, they’re fighting over food, access to food, and the ability to feed their offspring.

Okay, back to the study, the team of researchers analyzed 43 years of data on two families of orcas in the Pacific Northwest. During this time period, 525 calves were born, and, of these, 161 were co-generation births—meaning Granny whale had babies at the same time as Mommy whale. Granny, of course, due to her age and GILF status, lost about 31 percent of her calves, meaning Granny’s offspring had a mortality rate nearly twice as high as that of her daughters’.

In the words of Darren Croft, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Exeter, “That’s a high cost, and it’s led to the evolution of menopause.” The researchers suggest there’s no point in the older mother investing in the time and effort into raising a new calf that will likely die. So then what does Granny become when she’s not chasing fin? Granny whale becomes just like any old human grandma. She helps her daughters raise the calves, babysits, shares food, and sometimes makes racist remarks about humpbacks.

Alcohol Activates the Starvation Switch and Keeps McDonald’s in Business

In unsurprising news, UK researchers have found that alcohol tricks your mind into thinking it’s completely starving, an experiment that probably could’ve been accomplished almost immediately at any university.

In tests on mice, the researchers noticed that mass alcohol consumption activated the same brain signals that tells the body “I’m fucking starving,” and, as no surprise, they think the same results hold true in humans, which, based on certain drunken habits, could explain why one wakes up spooning a burrito.

To find these results, the researchers gave mice generous doses—about a Tuesday night bottle-and-a-half of wine—of alcohol for three days. After watching the mice stumble and stutter and piss themselves, they examined the mice’s brain activity and noticed that the alcohol caused the brain to synapse significantly more AGRP neurons, the neurons fired when the body experiences starvation. At feeding time, the drunk mice at significantly more than normal—like the mice equivalent of two slices of pizza and a sleeve of Fig Newtons.

The experiment, in a way, confirms what many of us don’t want to confront: Alcohol helps turn us into fatasses.

The Music You Like is the Music You Like

Ever wonder why you just can’t get into certain style of music like Gregorian chants or MC Skat Cat There’s actually some scientific backing to this.

A team of neuroscientists at MIT has found that, when it comes to perceiving music, the human brain is biased toward certain types of rhythms than others; more specifically, the brain prefers rhythms of simple integer ratios—e.g. A series of four beats separated by equal time intervals (forming a 1:1:1 ratio). What’s especially interesting is that this bias holds true for musicians and nonmusicians in the U.S., as well as members of a remote Bolivian tribe who’ve never had the pleasure of hearing the tribal beats of, say, Toto’s “Africa.”

For this study, the MIT team devised a plan to reveal the brain’s biases—thought to be based on our past experiences of the world. To reveal these biases—they called “priors”—for musical rhythm, the researchers first asked a group of college students to listen to a randomly generated series of four beats and then to tap back the rhythm heard. Like a game of telephone, with each iteration, the rhythm changed slightly, and, eventually, this led to a rhythmic sequence dominated entirely by the listener’s internal bias, and this rhythmic sequence tended to coincide with simple integer rhythms common in most Western music.

Next, the team performed the experiment with members of the Tsimane tribe, a group of peoples in remote Bolivia who have little Western exposure. The results: The tribe also tended toward simple integer ratios, though one’s slightly different from the preferred Western versions, but rather rhythms consistent in Tsimane music.

The results indicate, perhaps obviously, that certain cultures prefer certain musical rhythms. But what will happen if that rhythm changes?

Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, CC-BY

Tommy Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen San Diego but with more sunscreen and jorts.