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From pylons to pandas: 5 Frontiers articles you won’t want to miss

by Angharad Brewer Gillham, Frontiers science writer


At Frontiers, we bring some of the world’s best research to a global audience. But with tens of thousands of articles published each year, many often fly under the radar. Here are just five amazing papers you may have missed.

Building better-looking pylons

Pylons help support essential amenities – but they can be an eyesore. Italian scientists led by Dr Luca Di Angelo at University of L’Aquila investigated the best way to build a pylon with less visual impact on the landscape. As visual impact is subjective, reducing it requires consultation with residents who will see the pylons every day. But designs invented by residents without technical knowledge may not be able to meet safety standards.

Di Angelo and colleagues used the development of new electrical pylons in the coastal regions of Italy to test a novel method of integrating visual impact minimization with the design process. They identified shapes which were related to the geography and culture of the area and streamlined enough for pylon design, and surveyed Italians from different coastal regions to determine which shapes were considered most recognizable and representative. A sail was chosen, and models were developed based on this shape. The models were tested for their ability to withstand adverse weather conditions and for the feasibility of construction with standard components. The final design was then proposed to another survey group of coastal residents, asking them to choose between this design and more traditional pylons. 58% of respondents preferred the new design.

The study, published in Frontiers in Mechanical Engineering, showed that it was possible to use a community consultation-based approach to develop a safe and feasible design for electricity pylons that minimized visual impact on the landscape. However, the authors emphasized that visual impact remains subjective, and it would be necessary to redesign pylons to fit different settings. The new pylon design was also more expensive, so that in future it will be necessary to find ways of lowering costs so that pylons will be better-value as well as better-looking.

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Walkable neighborhoods support healthy brains in elderly people

In recent years, the incidence of poor mental health in older adults has risen sharply. Disorders like depression also increase the risk of cognitive impairment, shortening lives and curtailing independence. However, light exercise is a powerful preventive treatment, and walking is a particularly popular option – free, accessible, and low-impact. A team led by Dr Joel de Almeida Siqueira at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil investigated whether living in a neighborhood that is easier to walk around correlates with a lower incidence of poor mental health and cognitive impairment.

Dr de Almeida Siqueira and his team, writing in Frontiers in Aging, analyzed a cohort of adults aged over 60 living in Florianopolis, all of whom were already part of the EpiFloripa Aging cohort study and provided addresses and self-reported data for exercise engagement. Walkability was measured with an internationally used index that measured the presence of factors that make areas easy, safe, and pleasant to walk around.

Adults living in the areas with a high walkability rating were 38% less likely to have a cognitive impairment, while adults living in areas with the highest walkability rating were 44% less likely to have a cognitive impairment. A positive perception of health, physical activity, and a higher level of education were also protective against cognitive impairment and poor mental health. However, a high walkability index offered no protection against depression.

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Is light pollution a threat to pandas?

Although most giant pandas live in protected reserves, a study published in Frontiers in Environmental Science and led by Dr Lingqiao Kong at the Chinese Academy of Sciences showed that they are nonetheless impacted by human activities. The team analyzed the expansion of light pollution between 2000-2020 around the major reserves and peripheral areas where wild giant pandas are known to live. This is a useful proxy for human disturbance of panda habitats; because pandas live deep in the mountains, it can be difficult to monitor human impact on their lives, but the growth in human activity nearby leads directly to an increase in the intensity of night-time light.

The authors found that the area subject to this night-time light was roughly 22 times larger in 2020 than in 2000, and that the light intensity also increased considerably during this time, although it remained less intense within reserves than outside reserves. Although there was a reduction in night-time light around the major reserves between 2010-2020, night-time light not only continued to approach the more peripheral areas but intensified in the same period. The greater the local presence of night-time light, the more fragmented pandas’ habitats were likely to be.

“If human activities further exacerbate the habitat fragmentation and population isolation of wild giant pandas, the risk of population extinction will further increase”, the authors warned. “It is necessary to strengthen the restoration of giant panda habitat connectivity and improve habitat quality, so as to improve the habitat stability and promote population exchanges.”

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Medieval social boundaries visible in modern-day genomes of the Pyrenees

Scientists studying genetic variation in Spain found population structure in the Pyrenees which reflected the boundaries of ancient bishoprics. Although on a macro scale the population variation reflected the genetic gradient found in the rest of Spain (which itself reflects major migration events), a team led by Dr Joan Fibla from the University of Lleida looked closer and found genetic clusters which correlated with early medieval bishoprics. Some of these bishoprics date back as far as the fourth century CE, and subsequent administrative boundaries have been superimposed on them ever since, partly dictated by the mountains in the region. Previous studies noted interesting population structure locally, but lacked continuous geographical sampling and had too low a sample size to draw conclusions.

This study, published in Frontiers in Genetics, sampled 435 individuals born in the Pyrenees with grandparents who were born in the Pyrenees. The clusters of genetic variation found in the data were best explained not by geographical variation, but by the limits of the mediaeval bishoprics. The authors suggested this was because historically, religious and secular social life was organized within the bishoprics, which meant that relationships were more likely to form within them. Partly because the geography of the Pyrenees reinforced the stability of the bishoprics’ boundaries, to the point where they persisted into the modern day as administrative units with very similar boundaries, this signal is still visible in the population’s genes today.

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Back from the brink: genetic study shows African wild dog dispersal across southern Africa

In the last century, wildlife populations have been ravaged by habitat fragmentation, persecution, and war. But one species offers hope: African wild dogs, which have successfully been reintroduced and even unexpectedly reappeared in areas where they haven’t been recorded for years. In order to make sure conservation efforts are well targeted, a team led by Dr Laura Tensen at the University of Koblenz and Landau assessed genetic samples gathered across southern Africa, to determine how different populations are related to each other and how closely.

They found four population clusters with a moderate level of gene flow between the populations and a level of genetic diversity which is comparable to other large carnivores. They also found evidence of some dogs managing to achieve long-range dispersals and range expansion – a hopeful sign for population recovery. However, range expansion is also associated with founder events which reduce genetic diversity. Translocation of wild dogs to increase population size and reintroduce wild dogs to former habitats has been successful as a conservation measure thus far, and the authors suggested that future efforts should consider genetic diversity when selecting translocation candidates. They also stressed the need to support transfrontier initiatives which allow wild dogs to move freely across man-made borders.

“In conclusion, we found that natural dispersal of wild dogs connects distant subpopulations across multiple countries in southern Africa”, said the authors, writing in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. “Some local genetic structuring and loss of diversity has occurred, which emphasizes the need to restore landscapes and maintain natural processes in human-dominated areas.”

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