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Most read article of May 2022: Surprising finding shows children grow faster during the school year than summer vacation

By Colm Gorey, Frontiers Science Communications Manager


Each month, Frontiers shines a spotlight on some of the leading research across a wide range of topics. Here are just some of the highlights that resonated strongly with readers on our news site in the month of May.

  1. Children grow faster during school year than during summer holidays

It has been long recognized that in western countries, children are more likely to become overweight or obese over the summer. Causes of this include changes in kids’ physical activity and diet over the summer period, including the summer holidays.

But in a study in Frontiers in Physiology, scientists from the US show that this ‘obesogenicity’ of summers has another unexpected cause: children grow faster over the school year than over the summer. And because body mass index (BMI) is the ratio of body weight in kilograms and height in meters squared, faster vertical growth during the school leads to increased BMI during summers.

“Here we show seasonality in standardized body mass index (BMIz), with children gaining height at a greater rate during the school year compared to the summer,” said Dr Jennette P Moreno, an assistant professor at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and the study’s first author.

What causes the strong seasonality of vertical growth is not yet clear. “It’s possible that the demands of the school year alter children’s exposure to the daily light-dark cycle, which may cause the seasonal pattern in height. Additional studies on children who receive year-round schooling might help to answer this question,” said final author Dr Craig A Johnston, an associate professor at the Department of Health and Human Performance of the University of Houston.

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2. Method used to track ants underground could revolutionize how we measure snow depth from space

Ants may be the unlikely heroes when it comes to better understanding the health of our planet in the midst of a climate crisis. In a paper published to Frontiers in Remote Sensing, a team of scientists, including those from NASA, have found a way to estimate the depth of snow from orbit using ants deep underground.

One member of the team is Yongxiang Hu from NASA’s Langley Research Center who drew inspiration from physics and biology to create a unique snow depth model. A previously developed model found that the average time an ant walks around inside the colony before coming back is roughly four times the volume of the colony divided by its surface area.

“I studied properties of clouds and learned light bounces among cloud particles randomly, similar to the ants’ movement inside its colony. So, I thought that the ants theory might apply to snow too since snow comes from clouds,” Hu explained.

In the same way that an ant goes inside the colony and moves about randomly before coming back out, a photon of light from a lidar instrument enters the snow and is scattered as it meets the snow particles until it exits and is detected by the telescope on ICESat-2 (Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2).

By applying a special model simulation to verify an equation similar to one used to estimate how far an ant may travel in a colony, the researchers found that it was possible to measure the average distance a photon traveled in the snow. This showed snow depth was approximately half the average distance that the photon traveled inside the snow.

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3. Discovery in the brains of army veterans with chronic pain could pave way for personalized treatments

Chronic pain and trauma often co-occur. However, most previous research investigated them in isolation and using subjective measures such as surveys, leading to an incomplete picture. A recent study in Frontiers in Pain Research has filled in some of the blanks.

It found three unique brain connectivity signatures that appear to indicate veteran susceptibility or resilience to pain and trauma, regardless of their diagnostic or combat history. The study could pave the way for more objective measurements of pain and trauma, leading to targeted and personalized treatments.

So far, the researchers don’t know whether the neural hallmarks they found represent a vulnerability to trauma and pain or a consequence of these conditions. However, the technique is interesting, as it provides an objective and unbiased hallmark of pain and trauma susceptibility or resilience. It does not rely on subjective measures such as the surveys. In fact, subjective measurements of pain in this study would not differentiate between the low and medium groups.

Techniques that use objective measures, such as brain connectivity, appear more sensitive and could provide a clearer overall picture of someone’s resilience or susceptibility to pain and trauma, thereby guiding personalized treatment and paving the way for new treatments.

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4. Climate crisis is driving cousins of The Lion King character to local extinction

The climate crisis is worsening the harsh conditions of extreme climates, such as the high temperatures and the frequency and intensity of drought periods associated with arid regions. 

The animals that inhabit these regions are already suffering the consequences. For example, previous research has shown that the breeding success of multiple bird species is affected by a warming climate. They are breeding earlier and for a shorter amount of time. 

“There is rapidly growing evidence for the negative effects of high temperatures on the behavior, physiology, breeding, and survival of various bird, mammal, and reptile species around the world,” said first author Dr Nicholas Pattinson, of the University of Cape Town.

The study shows the fast pace at which the climate crisis is taking place is having severe negative effects for charismatic species over alarmingly short time periods. Current warming predictions at the study site show that the hornbill’s threshold for successful breeding will be exceeded during the entire breeding season by approximately 2027.

“Much of the public perception of the effects of the climate crisis is related to scenarios calculated for 2050 and beyond,” Pattinson continued. “Yet the effects of the climate crisis are current and can manifest not just within our lifetime, but even over a single decade.”

Pattinson and his colleagues have researched whether rapid climate warming influenced the breeding success of the southern yellow-bill hornbill, an arid-zone bird, over a period of 10 years. The study was published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

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