Identifying polar bears just got easier: Here are five Frontiers articles you won’t want to miss

By Deborah Pirchner, 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, it’s impossible to cover all of them. Here are just five amazing papers you may have missed.

Polar bear identity and sex can be established from paw prints

The recent loss of sea ice is forcing polar bears – one of the Arctic’s biggest predators – to spend more time on land closer to human settlements. To prevent potential human-animal conflicts and to protect the species, polar bear populations must be monitored and managed. More often than not, this is a costly and difficult endeavor, in part because of the remote regions the bears inhabit.

Now, a team of researchers in the US has developed a method to keep track of polar bears that might make scientist less reliant on having to capture the bears to get data. Writing in Frontiers in Conservation Science, they investigated the use of environmental DNA – cells which the animals shed when walking – collected from paw-prints in the snow to identify individual polar bears and their sex.

They sampled 13 polar bear trails and successfully identified sex and identity for six of the animals. Their method has great potential for identifying enough individuals and their sex to meaningfully contribute to questions regarding polar bear population biology, the researchers wrote.

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Grapevines could owe disease resistance to microbiome structure

Just like people and animals, plants can become sick. In the case of plants that humans harvest from, this can lead to crop reduction or failure. In vines, grapevine trunk diseases (GDT) can be caused by various fungi that invade and multiply within the plants’ tissues and ultimately lead to a general deterioration of the vine’s woody structures.

Writing in Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers in New Zealand found that certain grapevines are better equipped than others to stay healthy. They investigated disease escape plants, which remain healthy under high disease pressure and found that higher disease resistance is likely due to plants’ microbiome function.

They showed that the microbiome make-up of GDT escape vines differed significantly from diseased vines’ microbiota. These findings suggest that the microbial community of grapevines plays a critical role in the expression of the GTD escape phenotype.

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Critically endangered great hammerhead sharks may run on a lunar calendar

Great hammerhead sharks are a highly mobile species, yet little is known about their occurrence and seasonality in the central Pacific Ocean. This region, due to its largely pristine environment, provides a unique opportunity to study shark behavior.

Now, an international team of researchers gained first insights into population characteristics and seasonal occurrence of the sharks in the western Tuamotu archipelago in the southern Pacific Ocean. They published their results in Frontiers in Marine Science.

During the austral summer months of 2020 and 2021, the researchers observed 55 individuals, all but one of them female, flock to the atoll, representing an unprecedented number. The sharks spent around six days a month there for up to five months. This first life-history characteristics study of the great hammerhead shark in the central Pacific Ocean suggests that water temperature, the increased presence of prey, but also the lunar cycle may have an influence on hammerhead shark aggregation in the southern Pacific.

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Hearing loss negatively impacts children’s language outcomes

Detecting hearing loss in newborns within the first few weeks of life is vital to facilitating early interventions such as amplification devices. Early identification can also help improving language outcomes.

In a new study published in Frontiers in Pediatrics, researchers in Australia have described language outcomes of children who had been diagnosed with early identified hearing loss. In their study, language outcomes were reported at three stages of child development: at two years, at five to seven years, and again at nine to 12 years.

The researchers found that across all age groups, average language outcomes were significantly poorer than general population norms. In addition, children with mild hearing loss in both ears had poorer average language outcomes than children with one-sided hearing loss. The latter tended to show receptive vocabulary performance approximating population normative levels as they entered primary school, but receptive and expressive language outcome results tended to be poorer than population normative scores.

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Virtual reality might improve athletes’ mental preparation for competition

Athletes’ preparation for competition usually goes beyond physical training. Mental imagery is a cognitive process used by sportspeople to create mental images of them performing their sport. Their goal is to familiarize themselves with certain procedures, environments, and other aspects related to competition.

Traditionally, imagery training involves looking at photos or videos, but now an international team of researchers has investigated if the use of virtual reality (VR) improves mental imagery skills, if the presence of virtual onlookers arouses stronger emotional reactions, and if onlooker presence results in mental imagery skill improvement. They published their results in Frontiers in Virtual Reality.

Although the different mental imagery training methods did not significantly improve mental imagery skills, the results show that a VR environment with the representation of an audience significantly increased athletes’ heart rate, which indicated an elevation in emotion arousal. Environmental factors in the VR environment, such as onlookers can also affect mental imagery skills and positive affect of athletes.

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