Phishing scams, where fraudsters trick users into providing them with sensitive information, are one of the most common online threats. Here, six ways you can avoid becoming a victim.
You’re scanning through your inbox and see an authentic-looking email from your bank — right down to the logo. It says they’re verifying your online banking information, and so they ask you to click on a link and type in your credentials.
Sounds legitimate, no?
Unfortunately, this is a case of a “phishing” scam, a malicious attempt by a person (or program) to “lure” you into giving out personal info, such as banking info, a credit card number, or social security number — with the intent to steal your identity for financial gain.
Here are some suggestions to avoid being taken by these scams.
1. If you get an email, text message, or pop-up message that asks for personal or financial information, don’t reply and don’t click on the link in the email. Your bank, financial institution or credible online payment service (such as PayPal) will never ask for sensitive information via email. When in doubt, call your bank or credit card company.
2. Anti-malware software (which includes virus detection), a computer firewall and web browser with an anti-phishing feature can all help act as an extra line of defense from some of these malicious phishers.
3. Look at the link in your email. You’ll notice the URL it wants you to click on isn’t an official site (e.g. td.com) — instead it’s something else (like tdbank100.cc).
4. To stay ahead of these scams it’s important to know what these phishing emails and text messages look like. They often indicate a sense of urgency so it’s important to look at the language used (“we need you to confirm your information right away to avoid any problems,” etc). You may also spot spelling and grammatical mistakes as these phishing attempts are usually generated in non-English countries (but not always).
5. Stick with reputable retailers when giving out financial information, like your credit card, and always be sure to look for indicators that the site is secure, such as a little lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL for a website that begins with “https:” (the “s” stands for “secure”).
6. Whenever you sign up for something online, try to use a secondary email account — such as a free webmail address from Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook.com — and not your main email address at work or from your ISP (e.g. Rogers). That way you can better manage the “spam” (and resulting phishing scams) you might expect from registering online for gaming, shopping and social networks.
At a shiny new lab in Japan, an international team of scientists is trying to figure out what puts us under.
TSUKUBA, Japan—Outside the International Institute for Integrative Sleep Medicine, the heavy fragrance of sweet Osmanthus trees fills the air, and big golden spiders string their webs among the bushes. Two men in hard hats next to the main doors mutter quietly as they measure a space and apply adhesive to the slate-colored wall. The building is so new that they are still putting up the signs.
The institute is five years old, its building still younger, but already it has attracted some 120 researchers from fields as diverse as pulmonology and chemistry and countries ranging from Switzerland to China. An hour north of Tokyo at the University of Tsukuba, with funding from the Japanese government and other sources, the institute’s director, Masashi Yanagisawa, has created a place to study the basic biology of sleep, rather than, as is more common, the causes and treatment of sleep problems in people. Full of rooms of gleaming equipment, quiet chambers where mice slumber, and a series of airy work spaces united by a spiraling staircase, it’s a place where tremendous resources are focused on the question of why, exactly, living things sleep.
Ask researchers this question, and listen as, like clockwork, a sense of awe and frustration creeps into their voices. In a way, it’s startling how universal sleep is: In the midst of the hurried scramble for survival, across eons of bloodshed and death and flight, uncountable millions of living things have laid themselves down for a nice, long bout of unconsciousness. This hardly seems conducive to living to fight another day. “It’s crazy, but there you are,” says Tarja Porkka-Heiskanen of the University of Helsinki, a leading sleep biologist. That such a risky habit is so common, and so persistent, suggests that whatever is happening is of the utmost importance. Whatever sleep gives to the sleeper is worth tempting death over and over again, for a lifetime.
The precise benefits of sleep are still mysterious, and for many biologists, the unknowns are transfixing. One rainy evening in Tsukuba, a group of institute scientists gathered at an izakaya bar manage to hold off only half an hour before sleep is once again the focus of their conversation. Even simple jellyfish have to rest longer after being forced to stay up, one researcher marvels, referring to a new paper where the little creatures were nudged repeatedly with jets of water to keep them from drifting off. And the work on pigeons—have you read the work on pigeons? another asks. There is something fascinating going on there, the researchers agree. On the table, dishes of vegetable and seafood tempura sit cooling, forgotten in the face of these enigmas.
Biologists call this need “sleep pressure”: Stay up too late, build up sleep pressure. Feeling drowsy in the evenings? Of course you are—by being awake all day, you’ve been generating sleep pressure! But like “dark matter,” this is a name for something whose nature we do not yet understand. The more time you spend thinking about sleep pressure, the more it seems like a riddle game out of Tolkien: What builds up over the course of wakefulness, and disperses during sleep? Is it a timer? A molecule that accrues every day and needs to be flushed away? What is this metaphorical tally of hours, locked in some chamber of the brain, waiting to be wiped clean every night?
In other words, asks Yanagisawa, as he reflects in his spare, sunlit office at the institute, “What is the physical substrate of sleepiness?”
Biological research into sleep pressure began more than a century ago. In some of the most famous experiments, a French scientist kept dogs awake for more than 10 days. Then, he siphoned fluid from the animals’ brains, and injected it into the brains of normal, well-rested canines, which promptly fell asleep. There was something in the fluid, accumulating during sleep deprivation, that made the dogs go under. The hunt was on for this ingredient—Morpheus’s little helper, the finger on the light switch. Surely, the identity of this hypnotoxin, as the French researcher called it, would reveal why animals grow drowsy.
In the first half of the 20th century, other researchers began to tape electrodes to the scalps of human subjects, trying to peer within the skull at the sleeping brain. Using electroencephalographs, or EEGs, they discovered that, far from being turned off, the brain has a clear routine during the night’s sleep. As the eyes close and breathing deepens, the tense, furious scribble of the waking mind on the EEG shifts, morphing into the curiously long, loping waves of early sleep. About 35 to 40 minutes in, the metabolism has slowed, the breathing is even, and the sleeper is no longer easy to wake. Then, after a certain amount of time has passed, the brain seems to flip a switch and the waves grow small and tight again: This is rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, when we dream. (One of the first researchers to study REM found that by watching the movements of the eyes beneath the lids, he could predict when infants would wake—a party trick that fascinated their mothers.) Humans repeat this cycle over and over, finally waking at the end of a bout of REM, minds full of fish with wings and songs whose tunes they can’t remember.
Sleep pressure changes these brain waves. The more sleep-deprived the subject, the bigger the waves during slow-wave sleep, before REM. This phenomenon has been observed in about as many creatures as have been fitted with electrodes and kept awake past their bedtimes, including birds, seals, cats, hamsters, and dolphins.
If you needed more proof that sleep, with its peculiar many-staged structure and tendency to fill your mind with nonsense, isn’t some passive, energy-saving state, consider that golden hamsters have been observed waking up from bouts of hibernation—in order to nap. Whatever they’re getting from sleep, it’s not available to them while they’re hibernating. Even though they have slowed down nearly every process in their body, sleep pressure still builds up. “What I want to know is, what about this brain activity is so important?” says Kasper Vogt, one of the researchers gathered at the new institute at Tsukuba. He gestures at his screen, showing data on the firing of neurons in sleeping mice. “What is so important that you risk being eaten, not eating yourself, procreation … you give all that up, for this?”
The search for the hypnotoxin was not unsuccessful. There are a handful of substances clearly demonstrated to cause sleep—including a molecule called adenosine, which appears to build up in certain parts of the brains of waking rats, then drain away during slumber. Adenosine is particularly interesting because it is adenosine receptors that caffeine seems to work on. When caffeine binds to them, adenosine can’t, which contributes to coffee’s anti-drowsiness powers. But work on hypnotoxins has not fully explained how the body keeps track of sleep pressure.
For instance, if adenosine puts us under at the moment of transition from wakefulness to sleep, where does it come from? “Nobody knows,” remarks Michael Lazarus, a researcher at the institute who studies adenosine. Some people say it’s coming from neurons, some say it’s another class of brain cells. But there isn’t a consensus. At any rate, “this isn’t about storage,” says Yanagisawa. In other words, these substances themselves don’t seem to store information about sleep pressure. They are just a response to it.
Sleep-inducing substances may come from the process of making new connections between neurons. Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi, sleep researchers at the University of Wisconsin, suggest that since making these connections, or synapses, is what our brains do when we are awake, maybe what they do during sleep is scale back the unimportant ones, removing the memories or images that don’t fit with the others, or don’t need to be used to make sense of the world. “Sleep is a way of getting rid of the memories in a way that is good for the brain,” Tononi speculates. Another group has discovered a protein that enters little-used synapses to cause their destruction, and one of the times it can do this is when adenosine levels are high. Maybe sleep is when this cleanup happens.
There are still many unknowns about how this would work, and researchers are working many other angles in the quest to get to the bottom of sleep pressure and sleep. One group at the Tsukuba institute, led by Yu Hayashi, is destroying a select group of brain cells in mice, a procedure that can have surprising effects. Depriving mice specifically of REM sleep by shaking them awake repeatedly just as they’re about to enter it (a bit like what happens to the parents of crying babies) causes serious REM sleep pressure, which mice have to make up for in their next bout of slumber. But without this specific set of cells, mice can miss REM sleep without needing to sleep more later. Whether the mice get away totally unscathed is another question—the team is testing how REM sleep affects their performance on cognitive tests—but this experiment suggests that where dreaming sleep is concerned, these cells, or some circuit they are part of, may keep the records of sleep pressure.
Yanagisawa himself has always had a taste for epic projects, like screening thousands of proteins and cellular receptors to see what they do. In fact, one such project brought him into sleep science about 20 years ago. He and his collaborators, after discovering a neurotransmitter they named orexin, realized that the reason the mice without it kept collapsing all the time was that they were falling asleep. That neurotransmitter turned out to be missing in people with narcolepsy, who are incapable of making it, an insight that helped trigger an explosion of research into the condition’s underpinnings. In fact, a group of chemists at the institute at Tsukuba is collaborating with a drug company in an investigation of the potential of orexin mimics for treatment.
These days, Yanagisawa and collaborators are working on a vast screening project aimed at identifying the genes related to sleep. Each mouse in the project, exposed to a substance that causes mutations and fitted with its own EEG sensors, curls up in a nest of wood chips and gives in to sleep pressure while machines record its brain waves. More than 8,000 mice so far have slumbered under observation.
When a mouse sleeps oddly—when it wakes up a lot, or sleeps too long—the researchers dig into its genome. If there is a mutation that might be the cause, they try to engineer mice that carry it, and then study why it is the mutation disrupts sleep. Many very accomplished researchers have been doing this for years in organisms like fruit flies, making great progress. But the benefit to doing it in mice, which are extremely expensive to maintain compared to flies, is that they can be hooked up to an EEG, just like a person.
A few years ago, the group discovered a mouse that just could not seem to get rid of its sleep pressure. Its EEGs suggested it lived a life of snoozy exhaustion, and mice that had been engineered to carry its mutation showed the same symptoms. “This mutant has more high-amplitude sleep waves than normal. It’s always sleep-deprived,” says Yanagisawa. The mutation was in a gene called SIK3. The longer the mutants stay awake, the more chemical tags the SIK3 protein accumulates. The researchers published their discovery of the SIK3 mutants, as well as another sleep mutant, in Nature in 2016.
While it isn’t exactly clear yet how SIK3 relates to sleepiness, the fact that tags build up on the enzyme, like grains of sand pouring to the bottom of an hourglass, has the researchers excited. “We are convinced, for ourselves, that SIK3 is one of the central players,” says Yanagisawa.
As researchers probe outward into the mysterious darkness of sleepiness, these discoveries shine ahead of them like flashlight beams, lighting the way. How they all connect, how they may come together into a bigger picture, is still unclear.
The researchers hold out hope that clarity will come, maybe not next year or the next, but sometime, sooner than you might think. On an upper story at the International Institute for Integrative Sleep, mice go about their business, waking and dreaming, in row after row of plastic bins. In their brains, as in all of ours, is locked a secret.
Analysing post-mortem samples, an international team of scientists showed that some genes became more active after death.
As well as providing an important dataset for other scientists, they also hope that this can be developed into a forensic tool.
Inside the cells of our bodies, life plays out under the powerful influence of our genes; their outputs controlled by a range of internal and external triggers.
Understanding gene activity provides a perfect insight into what an individual cell, tissue or organ is doing, in health and in disease.
Genes are locked away in the DNA present in our cells and when these are switched on, a tell-tale molecule called an RNA transcript is made.
Some of the RNA directly controls processes that go on in the cell, but most of the RNA becomes the blueprint for proteins.
It’s the RNA transcripts that scientists often measure when they want to know what’s going on in our cells, and we call this analysis transcriptomics.
But obtaining samples for study isn’t an easy thing.
Blood is relatively easy to get, but lopping off an arm or sticking a needle into a living person’s heart or liver is no trivial undertaking.
So, scientists rely on a relatively abundant source of samples – tissues and organs removed after death.
Whilst studies of post-mortem samples can provide important insights into the body’s inner workings, it isn’t clear if these samples truly represent what goes on during life.
The other confounding factor is that samples are rarely taken immediately after death, instead a body is stored until post-mortem examination and sampling can take place and its impact is unclear.
And it’s this reliance on stored post-mortem samples that concerned Prof Roderic Guigó, a computational biologist based at the Barcelona Institute for Science and Technology and his team.
“You would expect that with the death of the individual, there would be a decay in the activity of the genes,” he explained.
And this decay might affect proper interpretation of transcriptomics data.
To see if this was the case the team used next generation mRNA sequencing on post-mortem specimens collected within 24 hours of death and on a subset of blood samples collected from some of the patients before death and, as Prof Guigó explained, what they discovered was surprising:
“There is a reaction by the cells to the death of the individual. We see some pathways, some genes, that are activated and this means that sometime after death there is still some activity at the level of transcription,” he said.
Although the exact reason the genes remained active was unclear, Prof Guigó does have one possible explanation: “I would guess that one of the major changes is due to the cessation of flow of blood, therefore I would say probably the main environmental change is hypoxia, the lack of oxygen, but I don’t have the proof for this.”
What the study did provide was a set of predictions of post-death RNA level changes for a variety of commonly studied tissues against which future transcriptomic analyses could be calibrated.
And the understanding of the changes in RNA levels that occur after death might also be pivotal in future criminal investigations.
“We conclude there is a signature or a fingerprint in the pattern of gene expression after death that could eventually be used in forensic science, but we don’t pretend we have now a method that can be used in the field,” said Prof Guigó.
Whilst the data was consistent across different cadavers, and accurate predictions of time since death could be estimated from the RNA levels, Prof Guigó explained that extra work would be needed before its application in forensics could become a reality:
“It requires further investigation, longer post-mortem intervals, not only 24 hours, the age of the individual, the cause of death – all of these will need to be taken into account if we are to convert this into a useful tool.”
The old adage of Schrödinger’s Cat is often used to frame a basic concept of quantum theory.
We use it to explain the peculiar, but important, concept of superposition; where something can exist in multiple states at once.
For Schrodinger’s feline friend – the simultaneous states were dead and alive.
Superposition is what makes quantum computing so potentially powerful.
Standard computer processors rely on packets or bits of information, each one representing a single yes or no answer.
Quantum processors are different. They don’t work in the realm of yes or no, but in the almost surreal world of yes and no. This twin-state of quantum information is known as a qubit.
To harness their power, you have to link multiple qubits together, a process called entanglement.
With each additional qubit added, the computation power of the processor is effectively doubled.
But generating and linking qubits, then instructing them to perform calculations in their entangled state is no easy task. They are incredibly sensitive to external forces, which can give rise to errors in the calculations and in the worst-case scenario make the entangled qubits fall apart.
As additional qubits are added, the adverse effects of these external forces mount.
One way to cope with this is to include additional qubits whose sole role is to vet and correct outputs for misleading or erroneous data.
This means that more powerful quantum computers – ones that will be useful for complex problem solving, like working out how proteins fold or modelling physical processes inside complex atoms – will need lots of qubits.
Dr Tom Watson, based at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and one of the authors of the paper, told BBC News: “You have to think what it will take to do useful quantum computing. The numbers are not very well defined but it’s probably going to take thousands maybe millions of qubits, so you need to build your qubits in a way that can scale up to these numbers.”
In short, if quantum computers are going to take off, you need to come up with an easy way to manufacture large and stable qubit processors.
And Dr Watson and his colleagues thought there was an obvious solution.
Tried and tested
“As we’ve seen in the computer industry, silicon works quite well in terms of scaling up using the fabrication methods used”, he said.
The team of researchers, which also included scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, turned to silicon to suspend single electron qubits whose spin was fixed by the use of microwave energy.
In the superposition state, the electron was spinning both up and down.
The team were then able to connect two qubits and programme them to perform trial calculations.
They could then cross-check the data generated by the quantum silicon processor with that generated by a standard computer running the same test calculations.
The data matched.
The team had successfully built a programmable two-qubit silicon-based processor.
Commenting on the study, Prof Winfried Hensinger, from the University of Sussex, said: “The team managed to make a two qubit quantum gate with a very respectable error rate. While the error rate is still much higher than in trapped ion or superconducting qubit quantum computers, the achievement is still remarkable, as isolating the qubits from noise is extremely hard.”
He added: “It remains to be seen whether error rates can be realised that are consistent with the concept of fault-tolerant quantum computing operation. However, without doubt this is a truly outstanding achievement.”
And in an accompanying paper, an international team, led by Prof Jason Petta from Princeton University, was able to transfer the state of the spin of an electron suspended in silicon onto a single photon of light.
According to Prof Hensinger, this is a “fantastic achievement” in the development of silicon-based quantum computers.
He explained: “If quantum gates in a solid state quantum computer can ever be realised with sufficiently low error rates, then this method could be used to connect different quantum computing modules which would allow for a fully modular quantum computer.”
You’re a honeybee. Despite being around 700,000 times smaller than the average human, you’ve got more of almost everything. Instead of four articulated limbs, you have six, each with six segments. (Your bee’s knees, sadly, don’t exist.) You’re exceptionally hairy. A shock of bristly setae covers your body and face to help you keep warm, collect pollen, and even detect movement. Your straw-like tongue stretches far beyond the end of your jaw, but has no taste buds on it. Instead, you “taste” with other, specialized hairs, called sensillae, that you use to sense the chemicals that brush against particular parts of your body.
You’ve got five eyes. Two of them, called compound eyes and made up of 6,900 tiny lenses, take up about half your face. Each lens sends you a different “pixel,” which you use to see the world around you. The colors you see are different. Red looks like black to you and your three “primary” colors are blue, green, and ultraviolet. You detect motion insanely well, but outlines are fuzzy and images blocky, like a stained-glass window. (Your three other eyes detect only changes in light to tell you quickly if something dangerous is swooping your way.)
Now that you’re a honeybee you can do all kinds of things you couldn’t before. Your four wings move at 11,400 strokes per minute. You can sense chemicals in the air. You’re fluent in waggle dance, so you’re able to tell the other members of your colony where the nectar supplies are. But how much does any of this tell us about what it actually feels like to be a bee?
We all know what it’s like to be ourselves—to be conscious of the world around us, and be conscious of that consciousness. But what consciousness means more generally, for other people and other creatures, is a hot potato tossed between philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and anyone who’s ever wondered whether it feels the same to be a dog as it does to be an octopus. In general, we think that if you have some kind of unique, subjective experience of the world, you’re conscious to some extent. The problem is that in trying to envisage any consciousness besides our own, we run into the limits of the human imagination. In the case of honeybees, it’s hard to know if interesting behavior is reflective of an interesting experience of the world or masks a more simple stimulus-response existence. The lights are on, but is anyone home? To examine these questions means to take a ride on that hot potato—from philosopher to scientist and back again and again and again.
More and more, scientific research seems to suggest that bees do have a kind of consciousness, even as myths and misconceptions about their capacities persist. In a recent TED Talk, cognitive scientist Andrew B. Barron of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, described how he had had to be lovingly “talked down” from a “pearl-clutching” moment after someone asked him whether bees actually have brains. They do, of course.
Understanding what their consciousness might look or feel like is probably a fool’s errand. It’s really hard to imagine what it’s like to be almost anything or anyone other than what you are, says philosopher Colin Klein, also from Macquarie University, who has worked extensively alongside Barron. With people, it’s much easier. “You can talk to them, you can read fiction, there are a lot of things you can do—but it takes a certain amount of work to get into that space and in particular to realize what you experience, what you don’t experience, what your horizons look like,” he says. But the more different the experience of the organism you’re trying to imagine is, the harder it becomes. “You can start to think at least in what senses the experience of something like a bee might be different from ours”—how they structure the world around them, say, or whether they experience “space” the way we do.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” suggests that being “like” something else is possible only if the target is conscious of the world around it. “The fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism,” he writes. Or, “fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” On top of that mindscrabble, our ability to imagine ourselves as another being is limited by the world that we know—as people. We might be able to imagine having webbed arms and hands, like a bat, or five eyes, like a bee, but the specific senses and abilities these animals possess are frankly inconceivable. “I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task,” he adds. Moreover, “I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it.”
Despite these difficulties, what we want to know, Klein and Barron wrote in an op-edin The Conversation in 2016, is whether bees and other insects “can feel and sense the environment from a first-person perspective.”
It seems likely that there are lots of different kinds of consciousness, of varying levels of complexity. As human beings, not only are we aware of ourselves and the world around us, we’re also aware of that awareness. A step down in complexity might lack that awareness of self-awareness. And a step down from that might be limited to a distinctive experience of the external world only.
Such a simple ladder may not be the best way to organize this kind of complexity, says David Chalmers, a leather jacket-wearing Australian philosopher at New York University best known for his work in philosophy of mind—a branch of philosophy that asks these kinds of questions. “But there are probably different ways of arranging states of mind, or consciousness, in a hierarchy,” he says. What’s harder to distinguish is the precise point where consciousness ends, and what the light switch, “on-off,” moment might be, further down the evolutionary chain. “It’s awfully hard to see what a borderline case of being conscious would be,” he says, even while it’s not that hard to know what a borderline case of being alive might look like, as in a virus. “It would sort of feel like something,” he says, trailing off in thought, “but not.”
So far as bee consciousness goes, however, he thinks there are likely to be some factors in consciousness that we share, like vision, and some that we don’t at all, “whether it’s sensory systems that humans have that bees don’t have, or whether it’s things more like concepts, like language, that give us a kind of consciousness that bees don’t have.”
Klein is more specific. “We think that bees have experiences that feel like something to the bee,” he says. “We don’t think the bees are aware of having experiences that feel like something to them. The bee is not going round saying to itself, ‘Gee, it’s a lovely day, look at that flower.’ It doesn’t have any of these more sophisticated, reflexive kinds of consciousness.”
Still, despite having a brain that is a fraction of the size of even the tiniest mammal’s, bees seem capable of some incredibly complex behaviors and mental gymnastics. Studies over the last few decades have revealed them to do everything from having a concept of zero to experiencing emotion, from tool use to social learning. If you give them cocaine, they dance more vigorously and tend to overestimate how much pollen they’ve foraged. If they watch a plastic bee scoring goals with a soccer ball, they can follow suit for a sugar water reward. Wouldn’t these complex behaviors be enough to assume some kind of consciousness? Not necessarily, says Barron. “Honeybees are unusual among the insects in that they have a whole list of clever things that they are able to do,” he says. “And some people would say that that means that they are more likely to be conscious. I disagree with that.”
Think of all the other things able to perform complicated tasks that we’re pretty sure aren’t conscious. Robots do everything from juggle to play the piano, but, as far as we know, are “dark” inside. Like bees, Roomba vacuum cleaners make decisions, navigate around the world, and adapt—but there’s probably nothing it’s “like” to be one of them. And plants have been shown to have a kind of memory: Over time, for example, they can learn that being repeatedly dropped isn’t anything to freak out about. But few suggest they possess consciousness.
“I think this is one of the problems with the behavioral approach, is that it encourages this looking for very clever things,” says Klein. “Whereas if consciousness is a widespread phenomenon, you should expect that it might be in a lot of different types of things that don’t necessarily do the things that we take to be markers of consciousness.”
If behavior can’t enough tell us about the inner life of a bee, perhaps the structure of their sesame seed–sized brains can. In a human brain, key studies suggest consciousness lies in the midbrain, an evolutionarily much older section. In a study published last year, Barron and Klein investigated the structure of the bee brain, which seems to be made up of similar bits to our own, with a region responsible for similar tasks. “It’s smaller, it’s organized differently, it’s different-shaped, but if you look at the kind of computations it does, it’s doing the same sort of things as the midbrain,” Klein says. “So if you think in humans the midbrain is responsible for being conscious, and you think this is doing the same kind of thing, then you ought to think insects are conscious as well.”
This biological approach opens up consciousness to a variety of other organisms that don’t do the clever things that bees do, like beetles or potato bugs. They might be less obviously interesting, but that doesn’t make them less likely to be conscious. The technology that allows us to examine insect brains on a neuron-by-neuron level is very new, Barron says. “If they really are instinctive, then we’re learning something about what the insect brain is capable of. If they’re not, then we’re learning something more profound.”
The technology also allows us to map the brains of organisms that we think probably aren’t conscious, and assess what they lack. Caenorhabditis elegans is a roundworm commonly used in scientific research. In recent years, scientists have developed a connectome—a sort of complex brain map—for this tiny soil-dweller, which measures barely a millimeter in length. “They have 302 neurons,” says Klein, compared to a bee’s 960,000 and a human’s 86 billion. “Those [worms], we think, are actually very much like robots, like complicated robots.” If exposed to a particular stimulus, they respond in a particular, predictable way. “Unless there’s some kind of danger, and then it does that, unless it’s hungry, and then it does this—so you can really map out what it’s going to do.” In bees, he says, there seems to be a kind of qualitative shift, in which the brain is somehow more than its connections.
All of this neurobiology is beginning to paint a picture—that it feels like nothing to be a C. elegans, or a robot, or a plant, but it probably feels like something to be a bee. If that’s the case, it is still not known where, between the roundworm and the honeybee, that awareness switches on, if it does. While neurobiology is a very important part of the story, says Chalmers, “it may not settle the issue of consciousness. You very frequently find a situation where two people might agree on the neurobiology of a given case, but disagree on what that implies about consciousness.” He gives the example of fish, and the ongoing discourse about whether their neurobiology suggests that they do or do not feel pain. “Knowing the neurobiological facts doesn’t necessarily settle the question.”
We can try to imagine what it’s like to have six hairy legs, or see in pixels, or crave nectar. We can even try to imagine what it’s like to be part of a hive, a superorganism with motivations of its own. But what it’s actually like to be a bee—its subjective experience of the world—is going to remain elusive. But we’re starting to figure out that it’s probably like something. And that’s not nothing.
With their powdery white feathers and haunting yellow eyes, snowy owls are one of the most iconic animals of the Arctic. They’re also one of the only ones that makes regular visits into the non-Arctic, with jaw-dropping owl blizzards making regular appearances in southern Canada and the northern United States during their annual winter migration.
Yet this seeming abundance of snowies masks the unfortunate fact that these charismatic birds are in more danger than ever before. Exactly what threats they’re facing has been tough to suss out, because snowy owls don’t have easy-to-trace regular migrations; they’re “highly nomadic at all points in their life cycle,” says Scott Weidensaul, a Pennsylvania naturalist and owl researcher who runs a program to track these birds on their far-flung travels.
For scientists, where snowy owls go and what they do throughout the year is still largely mysterious—which is becoming a problem as climate threats to the birds mount.
In December 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the snowy owl’s status to “vulnerable” on its updated Red List of endangered species in light of new research. That designation will allow researchers to monitor the species with more scrutiny and better argue for their conservation, says wildlife biologist Denver Holt, founder of the Owl Research Institute. “The snowy owls are an indicator, in my mind, of the health of the Arctic environment,” he says. “They’re also clearly the avian icon of Arctic conservation.”
Until recently, researchers estimated that there were 300,000 owls (including 140,000 in North America) in the wild, a number extrapolated from an early-2000s population sample from one portion of Arctic tundra taken during peak season. In 2013, Bryn Athyn College biologist Eugene Potapov and Arctic expert Richard Sale challenged that estimate, saying it didn’t reflect snow owl cycles and their nomadic lifestyle. In their book The Snowy Owl, they took a different approach, looking at owls during breading seasons across the tundra subzones to find that their population was more like 30,000—though the authors caution that even that is simply “a guesstimate.”
In his annual research trips, Potapov has witnessed a changing Arctic, with transformed snow conditions and melted sea ice. Based on this rapid environmental change, he and others believe the snowy owl population may be even lower. In its 2016 annual report, bird research and conservation organization Partners In Flight noted that the snowy owl population is “believed to be rapidly declining” while acknowledging that “populations are difficult to estimate.”
The snowy owl’s irregular movements are tied to a semi-regular natural process: the lemming population cycle. Lemmings may be best known for the urban myth of jumping off cliffs en masse (which dates back to a 1950s Disney “documentary” that involved manually driving lemmings off of a cliff). In reality, they a key food source for the snowy owl. But there’s a lot of boom and bust in the lemming population, meaning that means every few years—around four years in many areas across the Arctic—an extra-cold year with fluffy insulating snow creates the perfect conditions for these rodents to have lots and lots of delicious babies.
A high lemming year is a feast for carnivores like the Arctic fox, the Arctic wolf, and, of course, the snowy owl. The raptors, who like every other Arctic species live in extreme conditions, rely on the wealth of prey provided by a lemming boom to have a good breeding season. After they breed, snowy owls head south in great numbers for the winter. This year’s owl boom is an echo of the 2013 snowy “mega-irruption,” when an estimated 8,000 birds headed south to the United States, reaching as far as Florida and Bermuda.
Previously, scientists believed snowy owls irrupted because they were starving in the Arctic, having exhausted their lemming supply. However, it turns out that the snowy owls who come south actually tend to be relatively healthy and well-fed. Weidensaul says that irruptions may actually signal a boom year for the birds, when so many have bred that they can’t all stay in the Arctic, on sea ice or in the tundra, throughout the scarce winter.
During an irruption, younger owls strike out on their own in search of food and space. That quest kills many: the low-swooping birds get hit by vehicles, attacked by other raptors such as eagles, or poisonedby eating prey that has been exposed to rodenticides. Yet their fates, as well as their non-Arctic activities, are still poorly understood.
Weidensaul aims to change that. He is also the cofounder of Project SNOWstorm, which tracks the “winter movement ecology” of individual snowy owls. For the past five years, the project has been following around 65 individual owls that have been tagged using tiny solar-powered trackers attached to the birds like backpacks.
The trackers offer researchers an unprecedented amount of data on where the birds are, how they interact when they’re near each other, and what kinds of habitat they prefer. When the birds head out of cell range, the trackers store data and transmit it when they’re back in range, which means that even when they’re back up in the Arctic, chances are researchers will be able to collect their data when they head south again.
The information from these trackers has helped to confirm that many snowy owls who come south are in good health, partly by enabling dead birds to be found and analyzed. It’s also revealed that the snowies have wildly different habits: , while some birds cover thousands of miles over their wintering season, flying from place to place, others don’t move around very much at all. Those include Badger and Arlington, two owls that have stayed close to where they were tagged in Wisconsin during the 2017-2018 winter.
The data Badger, Arlington and their fellows collect helps conservationists make decisions that help snowies survive their changing world. A big part of that is an interruption to their stable relationship with lemmings. “The Arctic has changed,” Potapov says. “So you’ll see more irruptions and less breeding.”
In the meantime, know that the out-of-place owls you enjoy spotting outside the Arctic come with an important backstory. Snowy owls have be referred to as “possibly the world’s sexiest bird”—but for scientists, they are also one of the world’s most mysterious.