Baby Boxes, Singing Fish, And E-DNA

7:32 minutes

Credit: Shutterstock

In 2015, more than 3,500 infants across the country died suddenly and unexpectedly, in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies as SUID (Sudden Unexpected Infant Death). One common cause of these deaths is accidental suffocation.

A company in Texas is distributing cardboard “baby boxes” to attempt to prevent SUID. Lauren Silverman, science and technology reporter at KERA in Dallas, Texas, talks about the research behind these baby boxes. She’ll also discuss how scientists are using fish sounds to take a lake census, and other short subjects in science.

[Reeling in the coral reef soundscape.]

Segment Guests

Lauren Silverman

Lauren Silverman is a Health, Science & Technology Reporter at KERA News in Dallas, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, Cephalopod Week continues. Yes, we’ll look at camouflage, self-healing, and jet propulsion technologies all developed with inspiration from squid.

But first, in 2015 over 3,500 infants died suddenly and without explanation. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, used to be called crib death. And although the exact causes are unknown, one company in Texas is trying to combat infant mortality by distributing cardboard box cribs.

How might these baby boxes help decrease these deaths? Lauren Silverman is here to fill us in on that story. She’s the Health Science and Technology reporter at KERA news in Dallas, Texas. Welcome back.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Hey, good to speak with you.

IRA FLATOW: Is this like, where you’d want like a regular cardboard box you might use to move your cubicle or furniture?

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Pretty much. But without the top, which is important. And in Texas– so the company’s based out of California but they launched in Texas. And in Texas the boxes that they are handing out to new moms actually have the state flower, the bluebonnet, lined on the inside. So they’re a little bit nicer than what you might use to move offices or something like that.

IRA FLATOW: And so, you have a little clip about what it might sound like.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yeah, yes. So the boxes, as you said, are part of this effort to lower infant mortality rate. Because one of the main causes babies die is by accidental suffocation. So accidentally smothered by sleeping too close to their parents, or soft toys or blankets. So the idea behind the boxes is to remove all those objects and to promote safe sleep.

So I met one mom, her name is Taylor Freed, to check out what these boxes look like. And this is a clip of her describing them.

TAYLOR FREED: Here’s your little box. It’s got a nice little mattress, little fitted sheet on it. So it comes with all this stuff inside. And then obviously you take the top off, and then it’s a little bassinet. She’s about four months old and she can still fit inside of it.

IRA FLATOW: Now what is the purpose of the box? To keep the baby from moving around or what?

LAUREN SILVERMAN: It’s really to promote keeping the baby from sharing a bed with the parents. It’s recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that babies sleep on their backs in the same room as adults and parents, but not in the bed. So it’s a small-ish box. It fits babies up to about four months or more. And it is to prevent soft things from getting in the way of them breathing, essentially.

And the effectiveness has been shown in a recent study that these boxes do reduce bed sharing if they’re paired along with face-to-face education, which is really important, that parents are– that they understand why this works and not just putting babies in boxes.

IRA FLATOW: No good to have a box if you don’t know how to use it.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to your next story, and that is a group of scientists have figured out an interesting way to take a fish census.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yeah. It sounds a little bit silly. But if you want to figure out how many fish are in the water, there’s not a really easy way to do roll call. You can’t exactly ask fish to raise their hands. But you can ask them to raise their voices, so to speak, and actually sing. Because some fish actually have courtship sounds that are almost like songs, although they’re not that beautiful. And this could be a way to track how many fish are in a swarm to protect from overfishing. So let’s just listen to this one fish, the corvina. Let’s listen to the chorus real quick.

IRA FLATOW: That’s one fish.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yeah. That might be the one fish. And you can imagine a whole bunch of them, it gets really loud. It’s not the most necessarily beautiful thing, but it’s really helpful because it’s an indication of how many fish there are in a swarm. And so researchers from California and Texas stuck a microphone, essentially, in the water and used that to figure out what the health of the population is. And they’re going to be using this not just with the corvina, but other fish that like to sing too: cod, sea trout, and grouper.

IRA FLATOW: You know, if I’m a fish, why would I want to give my position away to something that might eat me?

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Well I think the researchers say that the corvinas and the other croakers– that’s actually the category that they’re in, the croakers– generate these sounds to communicate that they’re ready to spawn or coordinate information, sort of like a bird call.

IRA FLATOW: Hm, that’s interesting. Let’s move on to researchers mapping out how memory works using math. Tell us about that.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yes. This is a bit complicated, so prepare yourself. But basically a group of Swiss researchers from something called the Blue Brain Project have been using mathematical models to simulate the human brain. And what they uncovered are these complicated multi-dimensional structures that appear in our brains to process information or to recall memories, and then the structures disintegrate sort of like sand castles.

And what they’re seeing and what they’re modeling are billions and billions of neurons. They’re looking at how the neural networks connect. And instead of just being in two dimensions or three dimensions, they found these structures of neural networks that are in shapes up to 7, even 11 dimensions.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s hard to imagine that. But I guess if you’re a mathematician that’s what you work with.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yeah. And I read that there’s a 10-part documentary that’s coming out about the Brain Project, which is great, because I think I will need a 10 part documentary to understand it.

IRA FLATOW: I need a visual on this one. And finally, I know this last one sounds like a political joke. But scientists have found a spineless arthropod in a swamp in DC.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: Yeah, I thought it was a joke too. But then I read more and it’s true. It’s this centimeter-long creature. It’s spineless. It lacks vision. And it may also eat the remains of its own kind. And it lives in Washington DC.

IRA FLATOW: I want to go there so badly but I won’t. But go ahead.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: I know. We’re not going to go into politics. It’s called the Hay’s Spring amphipod. And it’s very rare, so rare that it’s on the US Endangered Species List. And the problem has been that trying to study this little creature without disturbing the habitat it lives in is tricky. It lives in these waterlogged leaves and seepage areas.

So instead of sacrificing the little creatures to take them to the lab, researchers are using something called eDNA, or environmental DNA. And they sample the water where the creatures had previously been sighted, and they look for the cells that are sloughed off by this tiny, tiny creature to check, to see if they’ve been there. It’s just like we leave remnants of ourselves where we sit and move. It’s the same idea, eDNA.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Well we’ll be looking for cells all over DC. Thank you very much, Lauren, for taking the time to do this today.


IRA FLATOW: Lauren Silverman, Health Science and Technology reporter at KERA news in Dallas.

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