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New Research reveals that Water shortage may have led to demise of Maya civilisation

Within a short period of time, Mayan civilisation in Central America went from flourishing to collapsing probably due to water shortage

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1892 photograph of the Castillo at Chichen Itza, by Teoberto Maler. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
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London, August 24, 2016: New Research has revealed that the irrigation technology that served the Mayans well during periods of drought may have actually made their society more vulnerable to major catastrophes.

Something really drastic must have happened to the ancient Maya at the end of the Classic Period in the ninth century.

Within a short period of time, this advanced civilisation in Central America went from flourishing to collapsing- the population dwindling rapidly and monumental stone structures were no longer being constructed.

The socio-hydrological model developed by the Gunter Bloschl-led team at Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) tell us that droughts and water issues are one possible explanation for their demise and shows us just how vulnerable an engineered society can be.

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“It’s well-known that the Mayans built water reservoirs in preparation for dry spells,” said Linda Kuil, one of professor Gunter Bloschl’s PhD students of the Vienna Doctoral Programme on Water Resource Systems.

“With our model, we can now analyse the effects of the Mayans’ water engineering on their society. It is also possible to simulate scenarios with and without water reservoirs and compare the consequences of such decisions,” Kuil noted.

The water supply determines how much food is available and, in turn, affects the growth of the population.

As it turns out, water reservoirs can actually provide substantial relief during short periods of drought.

In the simulations without reservoirs, the Mayan population declines after a drought, whereas it continues to grow if reservoirs provide extra water.

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However, the reservoirs may also make the population more vulnerable during the prolonged dry spells.

Maya Civilisation. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Maya Civilisation. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The water management behaviour may remain the same, and the water demand per person does not decrease, but the population continues to grow.

“This may then prove fatal if another drought occurs resulting in a decline in population that is more dramatic than without reservoirs,” the authors noted.

“When it comes to scarce resources, the simplest solutions might turn out to be superficial and not always the best ones,” Kuil added.

The lessons learnt may also help us to draw important conclusions for our own future.

“We need to be careful with our natural resources. If technical measures simply deal with the shortage of resources on a superficial level and we do not adjust our own behaviour, society is left vulnerable,” the authors pointed out. (IANS)

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Electric Fields Used By Spiders To Take Flight: Research

Charles Darwin remarked on the behavior when tiny spiders landed on the HMS Beagle, trailing lines of silk.

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A spider sits in her web. Researchers from England think spiders might be sensing and using electrostatic fields to become airborne.
A spider sits in her web. Researchers from England think spiders might be sensing and using electrostatic fields to become airborne. VOA

Since the 1800s, scientists have marveled at how spiders can take flight using their webbing. Charles Darwin remarked on the behavior when tiny spiders landed on the HMS Beagle, trailing lines of silk. He thought the arachnids might be using heat-generated updrafts to take to the sky, but new research shows a totally different cause may be at play.

Erica Morley and Daniel Robert from the University of Bristol in England were interested in exploring a second explanation for the spiders’ ability. They thought spiders might sense and use electrostatic fields in the air.

“There have been several studies looking at how air movement and wind can get spiders airborne, but the electrostatic hypothesis was never tested,” Morley told VOA.

Some observers suggested electrostatic fields might be the reason the multiple draglines some spiders use to float don’t get tangled with each other. Biologist Kimberley Sheldon from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who was not involved in the new research, pointed out that “though these spiders will have five or six draglines, those strands of silk do not get entangled. So we’ve known for a while that electrostatics probably [are] at least interacting with the spider, with the silk lines themselves, to keep them from getting tangled.”

Morley and Robert created a box with a grounded metal plate on the bottom and a plate on the top that they could pass an electrical current through. The scientists placed spiders in the box and turned on the voltage, watching as the creatures reacted to the electric field.

Reaction to current

When the electric field was on, the spiders lifted their abdomens into the air and started tiptoeing by raising up on the very ends of their legs. Morley told VOA that spiders only tiptoe right before they release silk draglines to fly away, in a process called ballooning.

And when the spiders did balloon and rise into the air, turning off the electric current caused them to drop.

Sheldon compared it to taking a balloon and rubbing it against your clothing. “If you hold the balloon [near your head], your hair stands on end. That’s kind of what’s happening with the spider silk.”

Spiders Use Electric Fields to Take Flight: Research
Spiders Use Electric Fields to Take Flight: Research. Pixabay

Clearly the spiders were able to sense the local electrostatic field and respond appropriately by releasing silk, but Morley and Robert wanted to know how.

“As a sensory biologist, I was keen to understand what sensory system they might use to detect electric fields,” said Morley. “We know that they have very sensitive hairs that are displaced by air movements or even sound. So I thought that it’s possible that they might be using these same hairs to detect electric fields.”

This was exactly what she observed. The small hairs along the spiders’ legs react not only to physical experiences like a breeze but also to the electric field. In nature, it makes sense for spiders to sense both the electrostatic field around them as well as wind conditions. Spiders probably use both when taking off and navigating the skies.

Mathematician Longhua Zhao from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland has made computer models of how spiders balloon. She told VOA, “I think that both the electrical field and the fluid mechanics [of air flow] are important. They definitely play very important roles. However, we don’t know at this point which is the dominant factor.”

Also read: Did You Hear about the New Species of Spiders Named After Leonardo DiCaprio, Bernie Sanders and Barrack Obama?

Lead researcher Morley pointed out that spiders aren’t the only invertebrates to balloon. “Caterpillars and spider mites, which are arachnids but not spiders, balloon as well.” Morley hopes to see others follow up her research to see if these other animals respond in a way similar to the spiders. (VOA)