09/22/2017

In Frog Versus Dinosaur, This Frog Wins

7:41 minutes

An individual Ceratophrys cranwelli biting a force transducer. Credit: Scientific Reports

Its name is Beelzebufo—literally, devil toad. Weighing in at ten pounds and over a foot in length, this ancient frog from Madagascar was a fearsome predator. In fact, a new analysis suggests the giant frogs could even devour small dinosaurs, with a bite as strong as a wolf’s. Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum tells Ira the details in this news roundup, and brings us stories about earthquake early warning systems, prescription apps for addiction, and how squirrels catalog their nuts.

[Want to detect earthquakes? There’s an app for that.]

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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A little bit later in the hour talking about the wildfires that are burning in the west. How much of this is due to humans? How will the scorched areas rebound? Are you affected? Do you live there? Do you have a question? Give us a call at 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK.

But first, just before a powerful quake struck Mexico this week, our alarm sirens rang out.

[SIREN]

That’s from a video posted to the Alerta Chiapas Twitter account, the seismic alert blared before shaking began, and it warned citizens to take cover. Earthquake on the way. And while it’s hard to say whether any lives were saved in this quake by that advance notice, the alert system did work as intended. Here to tell us more is Amy Nordrum. She’s associate editor at IEEE Spectrum here in New York. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So your first story today about earthquake early warning systems, which sounded in Mexico, didn’t give a whole lot of warning, right? But it did work.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, this is a success story out of Mexico City this week. It was a system that the country of Mexico has installed along the Western border, and it’s got more than 100 seismic sensors there that are in place to detect the first seismic waves that come from an earthquake. They’re actually called primary, or P waves.

And they’re so weak that we can’t actually feel that first set. So if you’re able to pick those up with these seismic sensors as they are down there in Mexico, you can send ahead a radio warning and alert people that the later damaging secondary, or S waves, are on the way. And that’s what we saw play out in Mexico City.

You’re right that it doesn’t typically give too much warning. There are systems like this in place in Japan and elsewhere around the world. But sometimes 30 seconds or 60 seconds can really help you get to a safe place, take cover, pull off the side of the road, and it can make a difference.

IRA FLATOW: How many are there in this country?

AMY NORDRUM: How many sensors?

IRA FLATOW: How many sensors like this? For example, does California, the epicenter of the tech industry and where we have all those quakes happening, does California have them?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, they’re working on it. They don’t have it in place yet. So California is a bit behind Japan and Mexico in this regard. And also Washington state as well, a big seismic area there around the Seattle area. So they are working on a system. USGS is working on one called Shake Alert.

They’re hoping to install about 1,600 seismic centers that would cover Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. But to date, they’ve only installed about 40% of those, so they’re still working on them. They’ve been fighting for funding for this project.

IRA FLATOW: Did you say funding?

AMY NORDRUM: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: All those science organizations for the government, they’re not getting a lot more money, are they?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. This project has needed about $16 million a year to get up and running and to build out the sensor network of their dreams, and they’re only getting about $10 million in fundings right now. And yeah, the President Trump’s proposed budget would have wiped that out, but it’s since been reinstated when some senators have spoken up and fought for it.

IRA FLATOW: Oh yeah, push back does work sometimes. Your next story takes us back 68 million years ago to Madagascar. Tell us about that.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, they’re in Madagascar. Back in those days, there was a giant frog named Beelzebufo that was lumbering around and had a very strong bite. And the bite force of that frog was estimated for the first time this week in a study that measured the bite force of South American horned frogs, which are its closest known relative.

IRA FLATOW: Where do you get the name? Say that name again?

AMY NORDRUM: Beelzebufo. It’s a very unique name. It actually means devil toad. This frog was 10 pounds, about the size of a beach ball. And it comes from the Latin and Greek words for devil and toad.

IRA FLATOW: Mark Twain would have loved that frog I think. [INAUDIBLE] frog jumping here. So it really had a big crunch. It really had jaws of steel.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. It had very strong jaws. And the force of its bite, about 2,200 newtons, that’s about what a wolf or a tiger could assert on its prey. And the researchers who worked on this study say it’s large enough that this giant frog, the Beelzefufo, could have theoretically eaten small dinosaurs that were roaming around that time. And we don’t know for sure if it was actually chomping down on tiny dinosaurs, but it’s possible with the bite force that they’ve estimated.

IRA FLATOW: I’m glad they’re not still out there.

AMY NORDRUM: Me too.

IRA FLATOW: At least my backyard. And now let’s go to the FDA responsible for approving drugs and devices is now reviewing apps.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about this.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, so the FDA recently approved a software program, an app on it from a smartphone, called Reset. It’s the first use of software being prescribed to actually treat disease. This is put up by a company called Pear Therapeutics, and it’s designed to assist in the treatment of substance use disorder for things like alcohol abuse, marijuana, cocaine.

The idea is that this app would be prescribed by a physician to a patient along with a 12 week treatment program, and that patient would go in, unlock the app with their prescription, hopefully get their insurer to pay for it, and then follow along in the app with their treatment program. And in clinical trials this has shown to help improve adherence to the treatment plan by about 20%.

IRA FLATOW: Well you know, this is the future, isn’t it? Using apps and then keeping track yourself.

AMY NORDRUM: I think so. I think there’s a lot of demand among patients for easier ways to manage their own treatments and to have that involvement. It’s tricky to make it a prescription because it also limits the amount of people that might have access to it. Because now you need to go and get a prescription for this app rather than just putting it out in the Apple iTunes Store. But on the other side, it also shows that there’s clinical evidence backing it up.

IRA FLATOW: Pricing? How much?

AMY NORDRUM: We don’t know yet, because that’s going to depend on the insurers. The company has spent about $20 million developing it, so it needs to be seen what they’re going to be charging patients.

IRA FLATOW: Should have gotten a couple of high school kids. They could have done it a lot cheaper. Your last story comes at an appropriate time of the year. We see squirrels running around storing the nuts, and they actually have a special mental trick as they do as you say.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, I always see the squirrels and I’m like, what are they thinking? They always seem so busy. They’re screwing around. They have a lot on their minds. There were some researchers at UC Berkeley that were wondering this as well.

And they found that when squirrels are storing nuts, and they do this 3,000 to 10,000 nuts a year actually, they actually have a very specific strategy or somewhat of a specific strategy that they follow where they’re prioritizing where they’re placing the nuts, depending on what kind of nut they’re carrying, sometimes the weight of the nut, how good of a nut it is can play into this. And the strategy that they’re using is called chunking. So it’s a way to take a lot of information, like the locations of all those individual nuts, and break it down into something more manageable.

IRA FLATOW: I wonder if anybody has studied how they know where to go back to look for the nuts?

AMY NORDRUM: You know, I was asking about this, and there’s a lot of theft among squirrels. So there’s like a 25% theft rate. And then about 5% to 10% of nuts they just totally forget about. So anything they can do to improve the number of nuts that they remember is super useful to them.

IRA FLATOW: That helps the trees grow. If they forget the nuts, the trees are going to–

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly, that’s a bonus for the trees and a bad thing for the squirrels.

IRA FLATOW: Nut theft. Only here on Science Friday we’re here with squirrel nut theft. Thank you, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, associate editor at the IEEE Spectrum in New York.

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