Science Scan: Saving the tapir, ‘nature’s shyest loners’; what makes food delicious

ECOLOGY
Trying to save ‘nature’s shyest loners’
“The Tapir Scientist” by Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop

Imagine a pig. Give it a short, flexible trunk. Now hide it in Brazil’s wild wetlands, where it can feed on leaves and fruit, swim in freshwater pools and live in quiet solitude.

This is the Brazilian tapir, an odd-looking animal related to horses and rhinos, and known as much for being a recluse as a relic of prehistory, having changed little in appearance or behavior in tens of millions of years.

According to “The Tapir Scientist,” a captivating new photo book about an animal many people have never heard of, tapir populations were once plentiful across Europe, Asia and the Americas. But due to hunting and habitat loss, all four tapir types are quickly disappearing. Conservation efforts are complicated by the fact that tapirs — “nature’s shyest loners,” as the book describes them — are notoriously difficult to find.

The book describes the efforts of Brazilian field scientist Pati Medici, who is on a mission to save the tapir. Her work focuses on the lowland tapir, which is found in South America’s grasslands and rain forests.

The tapir’s existence has major implications for Brazil’s Pantanal, one of the world’s largest tropical wetlands, which has been likened to “the Everglades on steroids.” The ecosystem depends on the tapir to eat and defecate, ensuring the survival of the Pantanal’s lush foliage.

Brazilian tapir Tique is treated to a nice cold shower by the zoo keeper at Taronga Zoo in January in Sydney. (Marianna Massey/Getty Images)

Writer Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop followed Medici and her team for two weeks as they dodged pumas, ticks and snakes and implemented telemetry technology and motion-sensor camera traps to capture the tapirs, outfit them with tracking devices and return them to the wild. Among other things, Medici hopes to figure out how much land a tapir needs to survive. “It’s a crucial first step to protecting this fascinating, widespread but little-known species,” the book says.

Food
How we decide what’s delicious
Scientific American, September issue

What makes food delicious? The Food Issue of Scientific American offers a scientific answer.

Taste and flavor are more complex than a confluence of the five tastes — sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami — and the sense of taste isn’t limited to the mouth. Scientists have found taste receptors all over the body, including the small intestine, which can detect sweet flavors, and the nose and throat, which can sense bitterness.

Auditory and visual cues, such as the sound of chomping down on a crunchy potato chip or the color of a dinner plate, and the opinions of our mothers and friends also affect whether we find something delicious. “It’s mental as much as chemical,” one of the articles says.

The special issue also includes pieces about brain research suggesting that obesity is an addiction; the 2-million-year history of processed food; whether different types of calories (carbs vs. fat, say) make the difference in weight gain; and how barbecue (or fire, anyway) was vital to human evolution by allowing us to cook food, which made it easier to digest and thus get the calories we needed for our large brains to grow.

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