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PCBs Cause Birds To Sing a Different Tune

timothy posted about a year ago | from the suddenly-their-passwords-don't-work dept.

Earth 67

An anonymous reader writes "Songbirds living along the Hudson River in New York state are exposed to levels of PCBs that don't kill them but do disrupt the songs they sing, reports a team of researchers from Cornell University. Their study reveals that birds residing in regions with higher environmental PCB contamination levels have higher total blood PCBs, which affects their singing behaviour: the team found these species' songs varied predictably based on their PCB load, and also based upon the type of PCBs. Thus, the scientists suggest that another of the many toxic effects of sublethal environmental PCB pollution are neurological effects that translate into observable behaviour changes that disrupt song quality used by birds to communicate."

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What is PCB? (3, Insightful)

byrtolet (1353359) | about a year ago | (#44911345)

What the fuck is PCB?

Re: What is PCB? (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911355)

"Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are man-made chemicals that were widely used as chemical coolants and electrical insulators in electrical motors and transformers."

Re: What is PCB? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911685)

...and we wounder why birds get angry....

Re: What is PCB? (2, Informative)

YttriumOxide (837412) | about a year ago | (#44911741)

"Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are man-made chemicals that were widely used as chemical coolants and electrical insulators in electrical motors and transformers."

While I was aware of polychlorinated biphenyls, I'd never actually heard of them called "PCBs" before. To me, that acronym always means "Printed Circuit Board".

But, it does seem to just be my own ignorance. Wikipedia redirect "PCBs" to "Polychlorinated Biphenyl" and shows images of warning signs that also use that acronym. (note that "PCB" on Wikipedia however is a disambiguation page, with "Printed Circuit Board" as the top entry)

Re: What is PCB? (1)

Anne Thwacks (531696) | about a year ago | (#44911979)

Some time in the 1980's there was a huge scare that PCBs were killing people on a massive scale. The actual evidence showed large numbers of Electronic Engineers were dying, and they had been expsed to PCBs.

Some time later, it was discovered that male baby boomers who were not electronic engineers had disproportionally died of gunshot wounds in the Vietnam war, and those that had not, were indeed, probably exposed to Printed Circuit Boards.

It is amazing what you can prove with incredibly bad science!

Polychlorinated biphenyls are only used in the most enormous transformers and motors (megawatt and up). However, they are also used in industrial manufacturing, and leak into the environment.

Re: What is PCB? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44912487)

I don't remember there being a huge connection between low level PCB exposure and death, it was mostly connected to hormone and child development problems at the low end, plus a big impact on the environment, especially birds. Although the stuff is nasty if you get a high level exposure to it, and that was known about for decades before the 1980s, and at least twice before 1980 there were incidents of food becoming contaminated from industrial cooking equipment that caused severe disease symptoms in thousands of people.

And the stuff was used in much smaller equipment in the past. Coworkers and I still from time to time find old capacitors and transformers buried in storage or old equipment that have PCBs in them, quite a few of which are smaller than a breadbox.

Re: What is PCB? (1)

the_bard17 (626642) | about a year ago | (#44912711)

Spend some time around the Capital District of New York. PCB is a household term around here, referring to polychlorinated biphenyls. GE has been dredging the Hudson, cleaning up PCBs: http://www.hudsondredging.com/ [hudsondredging.com] . There's been concerns regarding the level of the chemical in the Mohawk River, as well.

Re: What is PCB? (1)

stargrazer (958042) | about a year ago | (#44912943)

While I was aware of polychlorinated biphenyls, I'd never actually heard of them called "PCBs" before. To me, that acronym always means "Printed Circuit Board".

But, it does seem to just be my own ignorance. Wikipedia redirect "PCBs" to "Polychlorinated Biphenyl" and shows images of warning signs that also use that acronym. (note that "PCB" on Wikipedia however is a disambiguation page, with "Printed Circuit Board" as the top entry)

In the early 90s the term referring to a circuit board was changed to Printed Wire Assembly, or PWA, at least in some segments of the electronics industry I worked in.

I think the association with polychlorinated biphenyls was the reason, as the movement of production of these items offshore was in full swing and to a lesser extent manufacturers didn't want their customers opening up products and seeing they were full of parts labelled "PCB".

Re: What is PCB? (1)

TechyImmigrant (175943) | about a year ago | (#44915387)

>In the early 90s the term referring to a circuit board was changed to Printed Wire Assembly, or PWA

They tried, but it certainly didn't stick.

Re: What is PCB? (1)

TheSeatOfMyPants (2645007) | about a year ago | (#44916359)

I interpreted it the same way until I realized that wild songbirds probably aren't spending a whole lot of time around electronics (unless it was exposure to toxins used in creating them). In my defense, I've been spending a lot of time learning about the different components that go onto circuit boards, and how to identify & replace bad parts without destroying anything. (Rule number one seems to be to never, ever use desoldering braid or solder from Radio Shack...luckily I learned it while practicing on a throwaway board, not the things I'm hoping to repair.)

Re: What is PCB? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911813)

"Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are man-made chemicals that were widely used as chemical coolants and electrical insulators in electrical motors and transformers."

And they're damned tasty too. Love 'em with a good chipotle sauce.

Re: What is PCB? (1)

distilate (1037896) | about a year ago | (#44913181)

"Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are man-made chemicals that were widely used as chemical coolants and electrical insulators in electrical motors and transformers."

And they're damned tasty too. Love 'em with a good chipotle sauce.

Hannibal Lecter doesn't like tainted meat!

Re: What is PCB? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44914085)

Thanks for that, was trying to work out how birds were being contaminated by Printed Circuit Boards.

Re: What is PCB? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44917339)

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) has been used in Europe as insulation and mounting adhesive in buildings from 1950 to at least 1980.

Re:What is PCB? (5, Funny)

JustOK (667959) | about a year ago | (#44911407)

Printed Circuit Boards.

Re:What is PCB? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911509)

They swallowed the pc beepers from the junk yard?

Re:What is PCB? (1)

matthelm007 (1392603) | about a year ago | (#44912871)

Printed Circuit Board. Birds that buy to many electronics, sing differently than ones that live the simple life. ;-) Using TLA's (Three-letter acronym) mess people up, and should NOT not be used in the summary, unless the TLA is implied! SiO (Spell it Out) QED? OK?

Re:What is PCB? (1)

YoungManKlaus (2773165) | about a year ago | (#44913787)

haha, thought the same, only knew pcb as "printed circuit board" and was like "dafuq?"

Re:What is PCB? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44915415)

The official fish of New Bedford.

Re:What is PCB? (1)

RespekMyAthorati (798091) | about a year ago | (#44918747)

Printed Circuit Boards. Crows just love to eat those things.

Re:What is PCB? (1)

badkarmadayaccount (1346167) | about a year ago | (#44968621)

Did anyone else think about printed circuit boards?

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (4, Informative)

MasseKid (1294554) | about a year ago | (#44911349)

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are man-made chemicals that were widely used as chemical coolants and electrical insulators in electrical motors and transformers.

Just in case anyone else didn't know.

Re:Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (2)

Ixtl (1022043) | about a year ago | (#44911369)

I was thinking someone grafted printed circuit boards to sparrows, then made an iPhone app that lets you control what song they're singing. Like, "I'm sick of chirping, let's get some warbling up in here!"

Re:Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (1)

Opportunist (166417) | about a year ago | (#44911967)

I was more thinking along the lines of "duh, if you pump angel dust in my system you'll see me hum a different tune, too"...

And before you start lecturing me, it wouldn't be the first time an article on /. has a few letters different from what they should be.

Did anyone else read that as PCP? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911357)

Felt like saying 'well duh'.

Re:Did anyone else read that as PCP? (1)

Mystakaphoros (2664209) | about a year ago | (#44911545)

Local hunters report needing #000 buck shot to take down hallucinating birds. Live at 11.

Re:Did anyone else read that as PCP? (1)

gl4ss (559668) | about a year ago | (#44911659)

well if pcp made them act predictably different that would be news..

do the birds still manage to breed? do the chemicals affect them when listening to the tunes as well? they have neurological effects obviously but does it matter - and where does the singing for these birds come from? it can't be learnt, since according to the report they can guess how the bird sings based on the pcb levels..

Re:Did anyone else read that as PCP? (2)

sjames (1099) | about a year ago | (#44912105)

The effect on reproductive success is not yet determined, but that would hardly be the only measure of harm. Two humans poisoned until they have an IQ of 50 or less will still manage to reproduce (often) if not prevented, but is that a good thing overall?

On the window sill (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911359)

Singing songs of sex pants now, eh?

Thats Too Bad (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911411)

I was hoping it meant printed circuit board. At least then we could solve this problem by getting the birds higher quality PCBs.

"Don't be sad, songbird, this pcb has an 8+2 phase. And just look at how meaty the heatsinks are!"

This also explains... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911433)

Miley Cyrus.

Re:This also explains... (1)

TheSeatOfMyPants (2645007) | about a year ago | (#44916393)

Nah, nothing explains something that messed-up -- but it might explain why so many kids thought her TV show & singing was/is awesome. (If the PCBs are found in hairspray, it'd also explain why most of my junior high classmates loved Vanilla Ice and/or New Kids On The Block, come to think of it.)

garbage (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911495)

There is no such thing as "AWAY". When we throw something away it must go somewhere - Annie Leonard

Housatonic (2)

Mystakaphoros (2664209) | about a year ago | (#44911507)

General Electric dumped tons of PCBs into the Housatonic near Pittsfield, too. And for years we were told that they probably weren't a big deal.

Re:Housatonic (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44912459)

That's quite correct. Sad, really. I grew up there, and so I'm in touch with friends and family that still live there. In fact, the Housatonic flowed by my neighborhood - I probably lived less than 200 yards from the river. (Now my parents' quaint little neighborhood is being disrupted by the heavy machinery brought-in for the dredging operations.)

It's funny (but not really) -- Several commenters were asking "What are PCBs?", but it's a term that I've known since my childhood. Hearing about PCBs was kinda a fact of life if you grew up in Pittsfield and paid the slightest attention to the news in the '90s. GE brought a lot of employment to the area, but they also created a huge mess by dumping PCBs. (The "huge mess" wasn't just the contamination -- it was also political. GE fought so hard to wash its hands of Pittsfield...)

Best Evidence of Altered Song (4, Funny)

guttentag (313541) | about a year ago | (#44911655)

Mark Zuckerberg was raised in Dobbs Ferry [wikipedia.org] , which lies on the Hudson River. The town itself is named for the ferry service that ran across the Hudson River there during the revolutionary war. Had he been raised in a community with fewer PCBs in the water, he might have sung a different tune and founded Twitter instead. Rapper DMX is also allegedly from Dobbs Ferry... he could have been an opera singer instead of naming himself after a drum machine!

Re:Best Evidence of Altered Song (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44914819)

You might as well make the connection to liberals too. The vast majority of geographical areas exposed to PCBs also largely support democrats for political office.

thier completely safe! (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911895)

its all completely safe, Monsanto said so about the people complaining about pcb's and their cancers. cancers have nothing to do with pcb's. and everyone is very safe with their disposal. i mean, this is america, we dont cut corners like china. we do things like we should.

Re:thier completely safe! (1)

Festering Leper (456849) | about a year ago | (#44911985)

You made my morning! Thank you. :)

Re:thier completely safe! (1)

Opportunist (166417) | about a year ago | (#44911989)

I believe that as soon as the CEOs of companies claiming their dumped waste is harmless moves in next to where it gets dumped. Put your money (and family) where your mouth is.

Actually, I'd make it mandatory to do that...

Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

Vesvvi (1501135) | about a year ago | (#44911947)

I don't want to belittle the scientific work of others, because I know how hard it can be, but they completely dropped the ball on this one.

They measured:
geographic location of the birds
PCB levels of the birds
song patterns of the birds
some other stuff that doesn't matter (in the big picture)
All of these were measured on a per-bird basis.

They concluded by comparing geographic region to song patterns.

WHY?! Why didn't they directly compare the PCB levels to the songs?! Now, we are left wondering if the song patterns are due to geographic influences (local dialects?), or if it really is due to the PCBs. It's either a sloppy, sloppy omission, or they didn't like what those results showed, and I'm leaning towards the latter. This is the kind of public-interest stuff that the "top tier" journals love, so I have a feeling it didn't make it there for a reason.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44911971)

'Belittle"? Knowingly leaving out crucial info is basically fraud, especially if receiving government funding. Now sometimes people just don't think of things, but missing comparing the two outcomes that make up your main hypothesis and only comparing to the auxiliary hypothesis is pretty bad. That said I've seen that type of thing many times. The problem is really with needing to publish a nice logical narrative of "positive" results or else you are worthless or whatever is supposed to be wrong with just describing your data.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about a year ago | (#44912109)

Perhaps you should read it again, a little more slowly this time, and perhaps you'll see where you went astray.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (2)

sjames (1099) | about a year ago | (#44912127)

Careful reading of TFA would solve your problem. They did take blood samples and measure PCBs, then they recorded the songs of those same birds. They compared to the songs of other birds and their measured PCB levels.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

Vesvvi (1501135) | about a year ago | (#44912257)

I read the PLoS article: it wasn't there.

They took very substantial trouble to match the individual bird's song to the blood sample: that's excellent work! But where did they analyze that data? They didn't.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

sjames (1099) | about a year ago | (#44912499)

Then you did NOT read the PLoS article.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

Vesvvi (1501135) | about a year ago | (#44913579)

You're partially right, I did overlook their "analysis". Table 1 gives us their conclusions, but there is no data. There are regression plots and PCA for other comparisons, but they left out everything relevant to to PCB-vs-song.

So they didn't show the song data per bird. They did describe how they reduced song data to a high/low binary value ("trill performance"). They didn't show "trill performance" per bird. They didn't show the models. They didn't show any evaluation of the models. They did show the relative evaluation of the models.

I just don't understand why they left so much out! In the end they used a continous variable (PCB) to predict a binary high/low song value, when they could have just kept and used the original song data. Maybe that's what they did? It would make sense, but that's not what they described in the paper.

Furthermore, there are all kinds of oddities in the Supplemental Table 1. It's presented as averaged per-region, but the data is filtered according to their individual-bird LOD/LOQ: filtering should be at the bird level, not after averaging. The error in their quantitation just so happens to always top out at 100%, which shows they've massaged that as well. They used the LOQ to arbitrarily set values to zero: at minimum these need to be treated as exceptions in the analysis. The values below LOQ have errors set to zero, while these values should have the largest relative error of all.

None of this directly invalidates the analysis, but it's just bizarre and sloppy. Considering that it's the entire cornerstone of their hypothesis, I still think that it implies poor work or deception.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44913657)

Armchair researchers and statisticians are alive and well.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44914909)

Whats the point of that dismissive response?

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

uninformedLuddite (1334899) | about a year ago | (#44921967)

It makes him feel better about his small penis

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

Vesvvi (1501135) | about a year ago | (#44915307)

Actually, I'm a professional. I make mistakes just like anyone: I overlooked Table 1 when I made my original statements.

But I do tend to review about 10 papers like this per month, I'm fairly good at it, and I have valid points.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

sjames (1099) | about a year ago | (#44915903)

Doing the analysis per bird would only introduce noise. Birds do naturally show individual differences in their song because they are individuals. So they used statistical analysis to remove the individual variations and check on the trend in song as compared top PCB level.

Knowing that bird A trills longer and has elevated PCB level tells us nothing at all (perhaps it just especially enjoys trilling) that all of the birds or even the vast majority of the birds with elevated PCBs trill longer is useful information.

Notably, if they were publishing raw data, it would be a bunch of birdsong audio recordings, which doesn't fit well in a paper.

To get valid comparisons down to the individual bird, they'd have to poison a bunch of birds. The ethical considerations would tend to weigh against it.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44917393)

Doing the analysis per bird would only introduce noise. Birds do naturally show individual differences in their song because they are individuals. So they used statistical analysis to remove the individual variations and check on the trend in song as compared top PCB level.

Sorry no, individual differences are important (in biology everything interacts with everything else to some degree). Sometimes there is simply not enough known about the system so we are limited to assessing averages and assuming all other important influences will even out. The goal of this is to tell us whether or not the phenomenon looks like something worth spending more effort studying given the current state of technology and background info. In this case it would be gathering dose-response and timecourse data (I don't think this requires an experimental setting, but there may be some other practical limitations). Seeing if two averages are different is a very poor measure of evidence, as they could be different for any of a million reasons besides the hypothesized one. Averages should never replace publishing the distribution of individual results.

Knowing that bird A trills longer and has elevated PCB level tells us nothing at all (perhaps it just especially enjoys trilling)

  that all of the birds or even the vast majority of the birds with elevated PCBs trill longer is useful information.

No to the first statement, yes to the second. Once again you want to look at the distribution of results because this provides fodder for future hypotheses guessing at the exact mechanism and interactions between factors. The second statement is correct but this information is very limited in its usefulness and cannot be used to assess causality on its own. The authors seem to recognize this as the paper is filled (properly) with "may", "suggests", and other qualifying terms.

Notably, if they were publishing raw data, it would be a bunch of birdsong audio recordings, which doesn't fit well in a paper.

No it would be a table of PCB levels, trill rate, and trill frequency for each bird. Along with distance from the trill performance regression line.

Another issue seems to be that "trill performance" is an attempt to use lines to describe nonlinear relationships from a 1997 paper. I am unclear why this is necessary but unwilling to look deeper.

To get valid comparisons down to the individual bird, they'd have to poison a bunch of birds. The ethical considerations would tend to weigh against it.

Huh? Put PCB levels on the x axis, put "trill performance" on the y axis, and show us a scatter plot.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

sjames (1099) | about a year ago | (#44918271)

OK so imagine I know a guy with a hangnail who likes peanut butter, beer, and NASCAR. Is that information illuminating? Not at all. Only if we discovered some strong statistical correlation over a group of people would there be anything even vaguely interesting there.

A scatter plot can illustrate a statistical correlation sometimes (or make us imagine patterns that aren't there), but it's just one of several ways to present a statistical correlation.

I would be in support of all research making 100% of the data available in some form as an aside to the resulting paper, but that's another topic.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44918707)

Science wasn't always like how you are thinking it is, the focus on statistics ("numbers of the state" btw) is a fad. It has uses but they are limited by the (always false to some extent) assumptions necessary and the throwing away of vast amounts of information. Read some older papers before the obsession with averages took hold. Check out this one and the following discussion:

http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/30/6/1246.full

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44918801)

Checking out Thomas Hunt Morgans work on genetics in drosophila (early 20th century) is also a good idea. To study complex things you find a model organism easy to use and develop a model that predicts things. Over time you add more detail to the model to account for why it got something wrong. This how successful science works. I don't see anything in the last 20-30 years in biology that can be said to be unequivocally correct but perhaps I am missing it.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

sjames (1099) | about a year ago | (#44921883)

And yet all of the data presented were of a statistical nature. The discussion looks for a thoughtful analysis rather than completely discarding all statistical data. I certainly agree, one should not just do the calculations by rote without analysis.

Re:Sorry, this is a botched study. (1)

Vesvvi (1501135) | about a year ago | (#44924541)

I don't understand the point of your comments.

They averaged birds together by location, and compared that to song.

We already know that "location->song" probably has some kind of causation. We think that "PCB->song" may have a causation. So why would you try to stack "PCB->location->song"? There is no question that it introduces biases.

Can we remove those biases? Maybe, if we're careful. Can we remove those biases if we discard variability within location via averaging? NO!

Should the direct "PCB->song" relationship be presented? YES!!

Autistic birds. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44912463)

The article doesn’t say this, but I read it and thought, “autistic birds”.

“Thus, the scientists suggest that another of the many toxic effects of sublethal environmental PCB pollution are neurological effects that translate into observable behaviour changes that disrupt song quality used by birds to communicate.”

Nope. (1)

TheSeatOfMyPants (2645007) | about a year ago | (#44916333)

Autism isn't caused by exposure to toxins, and autistics can communicate just fine with other autistics of a similar type as long as neither has had their native nonverbal communication mangled by attempts to force them to hide it & weakly emulate a different type. Also, while auties can often understand their own kind and (with an effort) can usually make sense of neurotypicals, NTs rarely understand autistics, and NT nonverbal language is specific to the individual's socioeconomic background & culture, while autistic native nonverbal language appears to function across those barriers.

Not to say that autistics don't tend to have communication difficulties -- for example, my central auditory processing is weak and it takes an effort to translate my thoughts into words or speak them. I'm just pointing out that it's inaccurate to assume that the inability to communicate natively with the majority must automatically mean the individual is unable to communicate natively with everyone else as well.

ornithologists (1)

hochl (759409) | about a year ago | (#44913271)

> songs varied predictably based on their PCB load
which opens up a whole new method of measuring PCB contamination -- just listen to birds. This way a whole lot of unemployed ornithologists may get a job.

Re: (1)

nensondubois (3158339) | about a year ago | (#44915417)

Song Sung Bluejay

New York Accent (1)

Robert Saulnier (2957373) | about a year ago | (#44924695)

Does this explain the NY accent too? :)

RoboChickadee (1)

Nam-Ereh-Won (2927897) | about a year ago | (#44926591)

At first I thought this was about cyborgized birds, but was sadly mistaken.

So... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44928611)

I was really wondering what the hell is wrong with New York.
PCBs altering their behavior, sounds legit.

Origins of RAP? (1)

minstrelmike (1602771) | about a year ago | (#44938583)

So maybe PCBs are where Rap "music" comes from
/* officially, music is supposed to be a melody and rhythm. Rap is pretty much just harmony and rhythm ;-) */
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