Spring 2014 Breakthroughs

Author(s): Purdue News Service
Photographs by: Jessica Yorzinski and Thalappil Pradeep

peacock

Peacocks’ legs, lower feathers and dance attract most courters

Although peacocks are famous for tall tail feathers with colorful eyespots, an expert says peahens look lower when sizing up a male and that dance moves may give a suitor an edge.

Jessica Yorzinski, a researcher at Purdue University, is using eye-tracking technology and tiny cameras mounted on a customized cap to get a bird’s-eye view and discover what attracts the most attention.

“Surprisingly, the peahens are looking at the lowest edge of tail feathers and aren’t paying much attention to the rest of the five-foot tall displays,” says Yorzinski, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biological Sciences. “According to our study, the females’ gaze rarely fell at or above the peacocks’ heads. Of the small portion of time spent looking at the males, females looked longest at the legs and lower portion of the train.”

The peacocks have a tough time keeping a peahen’s attention as she evaluates her surroundings for food and predators, but the peacocks did have one way to turn heads, Yorzinski says.

“What garnered the most attention from the peahens was when the peacocks would turn around and shake their wings and rattle their tails during the courtship dance,” she says. “It seems that mastering certain dance moves is important for peacocks.”

Nanotube coating helps shrink mass spectrometers

nanotube

Nanotechnology is advancing tools likened to "Star Trek’s" “tricorder” that perform onthe- spot chemical analysis for a range of applications including medical testing, explosives detection and food safety.

Researchers found that when paper used to collect a sample was coated with carbon nanotubes, the voltage required was 1,000 times reduced, the signal was sharpened and the equipment was able to capture far more delicate molecules.

A team of researchers from Purdue University and the Indian Institute of Technology Madras performed the study, which is detailed in a designated “very important paper” by the journal Angewandte Chemie.

“This is a big step in our efforts to create miniature, handheld mass spectrometers for the field,” says R. Graham Cooks, Purdue’s Henry B. Hass Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. “The dramatic decrease in power required means a reduction in battery size and cost to perform the experiments. The entire system is becoming lighter and cheaper, which brings it that much closer to being viable for easy, widespread use.”

Cooks and Thalappil Pradeep, a professor of chemistry at the Indian institute of Technology Madras, Chennai, led the research.

“Taking science to the people is what is most important,” Pradeep says. “Mass spectrometry is a fantastic tool, but it is not yet on every physician’s table or in the pocket of agricultural inspectors and security guards. Great techniques have been developed, but we need to hone them into tools that are affordable, can be efficiently manufactured and easily used.”

A few ‘problem’ natural gas wells unexpected source of greenhouse gas

High levels of the greenhouse gas methane were found above shale gas wells at a production point not thought to be an important emissions source, according to a study jointly led by Purdue and Cornell universities. The findings could have implications for the evaluation of the environmental impacts from natural gas production.

The study, which is one of only a few to use a so-called “top down” approach that measures methane gas levels in the air above wells, identified seven individual well pads with high emission levels and established their stage in the shale-gas development process.

The high-emitting wells made up less than 1 percent of the total number of wells in the area and were all found to be in the drilling stage, a preproduction stage not previously associated with significant emissions.

“These findings present a possible weakness in the current methods to inventory methane emissions and the top-down approach clearly represents an important complementary method that could be added to better define the impacts of shale gas development,” says Paul Shepson, a professor of chemistry and earth atmospheric and planetary sciences at Purdue who co-led the study with Jed Sparks, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell. “This small fraction of the total number of wells was contributing a much larger portion of the total emissions in the area, and the emissions for this stage were not represented in the current inventories.”

Landscape ‘transition zones’ may influence tornado strikes

Areas where landscape shifts from urban to rural or forest to farmland may have a higher likelihood of severe weather and tornado touchdowns, a Purdue study says.

An examination of more than 60 years of Indiana tornado climatology data from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center showed that a majority of tornado touchdowns occurred near areas where dramatically different landscapes meet — for example, where a city fades into farmland or a forest meets a plain.

Forecasters and city planners may need to pay closer attention to these “transition zones” to better understand tornado risks, says Olivia Kellner, doctoral student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and first author of the study. “There are still many unanswered questions about tornado climatology, but what we’re finding is that there may be a relationship between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere that contributes to where tornadoes tend to touch down.”