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This week in science: Nipah virus, Australian pink diamonds and how cockatoos mate

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And it is time for this week's science roundup with our friends at NPR's Short Wave podcast - Regina Barber and Maria Godoy - in the studio. Hey there, you two.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Hey.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: Hey.

KELLY: So you have brought us three science stories - three that caught your eye this week. What have you got?

GODOY: Well, we've got an outbreak of the Nipah virus in Kerala, India...

BARBER: What mysterious pink diamonds in Australia today tell us about what happened on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago...

GODOY: And how cockatoos woo their lovers by moonlighting as drummers.

KELLY: (Laughter) OK, so virus, pink diamonds and romantic cockatoos. I got to go for the third one first. Maria, tell me about the wild palm cockatoos. They're drumming out love songs?

GODOY: Yeah. This is as fabulous as it sounds. So these palm cockatoos only live in remote parts of northern Australia and lowland New Guinea, some offshore islands. Female cockatoos only lay one egg every two years.

BARBER: Which means they have to be super picky about choosing a male mate.

GODOY: Right. And as TLC taught us all in the '90s, they don't want no scrubs, which means...

BARBER: (Laughter).

GODOY: ...The male palm cockatoos have to go all-out to convince the females to mate with them. Rob Heinsohn has been studying these birds for decades. He's a conservation biologist at Australian National University, and he says the males put on a pretty incredible show. They start off by whistling and making lots of calls and noises to catch her eye.

ROB HEINSOHN: And at the same time, he's erecting his massive crest. And he's blushing his red cheeks, and he's bobbing and dancing on the branch, twirling, doing everything he can to get her attention.

KELLY: OK. I have red cheeks imagining him erecting his massive crest...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: ...On his head, right?

GODOY: On his head.

KELLY: Oh his head.

GODOY: Yes, on his head.

KELLY: OK.

GODOY: This is a family show.

KELLY: So fast-forward to the drumming - what happens?

BARBER: Well, that's the big finale, right? After he's been whistling and bobbing, the male cockatoo goes out on a limb and makes a big show of cutting off the biggest tree branch. And he does it with his bill to basically show how strong he is.

GODOY: And then he whittles that branch down with his beak and starts drumming. And in a new study published by the Royal Society, researchers report that each bird actually has his own preferred style of drumstick. Some like them short and fat. Others prefer long and skinny. Sometimes they use seed pods, too. But they each have their own signature instrument style.

BARBER: Not only that - each bird has its own signature drumming style, too. Heinsohn says he can recognize which male palm cockatoo is drumming just by listening - sort of like people say you can tell when Keith Moon is drumming on a Who album.

(SOUNDBITE OF PALM COCKATOO DRUMMING)

KELLY: OK, I'm not sure The Who are losing any sleep over that, but, Maria, tell me what the female cockatoos are doing while all this is going on.

GODOY: Yeah. Well, so Heinsohn says this whole elaborate musical mating display is how male palm cockatoos show they have the brains and creativity to be worthy as mates. So the females watch this closely the whole time, and the males do these displays over and over until they finally get the girl.

KELLY: Until they get the girl - so a happy ending. That is delightful.

Speaking of delightful - pink diamonds. This is our next topic - pink diamonds in Australia - Regina.

BARBER: Yeah. So for a long time, the Argyle Diamond Mine in Western Australia enjoyed a bounty of pink diamonds. Until they closed in 2020, they were the leading supplier of them. But the whole time, geologists have been stumped by how the diamonds got there and when.

GODOY: Yeah. See, pink diamonds are beautiful, but they're very rare. Like, if you scooped up 500 random diamonds from Argyle...

KELLY: As you do.

GODOY: Yeah, exactly - only one would be pink. And they're even more rare at other mines, which makes them pretty coveted stones. If you'll remember, Ben Affleck gave J.Lo a pink diamond during their first engagement in the early aughts.

KELLY: So many engagements ago. OK, so pink diamonds - you said they're very rare. Why?

BARBER: It's because they require a different kind of physics to be made. So you have your classic, colorless diamond, and that's made from pure carbon put under extreme pressure. But one of the researchers, geologist Hugo Olierook, says pink diamonds are damaged diamonds.

HUGO OLIEROOK: You can damage a diamond. You can actually take that diamond and twist it and bend it a little. And if you bend it and twist it just the right amount, it turns pink.

BARBER: And the structures inside a diamond get compressed, and the light traveling through the pink diamond makes it that color.

GODOY: So geologists have long known that diamonds are generally formed deep down.

BARBER: More than 90 miles deep down.

GODOY: Inside the Earth's crust. And they tended to form back when there were supercontinents on the surface of the earth.

KELLY: OK, hang on, 'cause I'm trying to keep up here. Supercontinents - this is when they were all smushed together, like a gazillion years ago?

GODOY: Yeah, exactly. So Pangea is the most recent one. There was another supercontinent called Nuna, and scientists think that these pink diamonds were created during the formation of the Nuna supercontinent some 1.8 billion years ago.

BARBER: Yeah. And Hugo and his colleagues wrote about this in the journal Nature Communications this week. And through more precise dating, they were able to figure out that when Nuna broke apart 500 million years later, the diamonds spewed out. The subcontinents banged together and stretched, which caused a volcanic eruption of diamonds.

KELLY: A volcano of diamonds.

BARBER: Yes.

KELLY: Amazing.

GODOY: Sign me up.

KELLY: OK, now our final story that you have brought to us - it's a little bit more of a downer, but it is an interesting detective tale.

BARBER: Yeah.

KELLY: This is an epidemiological mystery. It is in southern India. It's an outbreak of a virus called the Nipah virus. Tell me more.

GODOY: Right. Well, so Kamala Thiagarajan wrote about the outbreak for NPR's Goats and Soda blog. It's the fourth outbreak in the state of Kerala since 2018. There's been two deaths - the first one was at the end of August - and six cases so far.

KELLY: Six cases so far - and what does it do to you?

GODOY: Well, this is a virus that jumps from animals to people. Fruit bats are the primary hosts, and it's on the World Health Organization's list of viruses with pandemic potential. And the usual symptoms can include severe respiratory problems like pneumonia, even encephalitis, which is brain swelling, and that can bring fevers, headaches, sometimes disorientation or even lead to coma.

BARBER: And the virus can be deadly, too. There was a big outbreak in Malaysia in the late '90s that killed over 100 people.

KELLY: Ugh. OK, this sounds awful. Do we know how this current outbreak - the one in India - began?

GODOY: Well, scientists know that Nipah can spread from bats to humans when bats contaminate things people eat or drink. In some past outbreaks in Bangladesh, that's been through the sap of date palm trees. And when people drank the palm sap, they got sick. Researchers are testing bats in Kerala for the virus to see if that might be the case here, but they haven't figured out yet exactly how this outbreak started.

BARBER: But they do know that once this particular strain of Nipah virus jumps from animals to people, it can spread from human to human through bodily fluids or infected food.

GODOY: And several cases in this outbreak are linked to a hospital where the first person who died was getting treated. So it seems that the infected person went to the hospital, and it began to spread from there. Now, containment measures have been put in place, and doctors in Kerala are optimistic.

KELLY: Me too - very much wishing them luck in containing that particular outbreak. Maria Godoy and Regina Barber from NPR's science podcast, Short Wave, which is where you can learn about new discoveries and everyday mysteries and all the science behind the headlines. Regina, Maria, thank you.

GODOY: Oh, thank you.

BARBER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLVR SONG, "BACK N FORTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Regina G. Barber
Regina G. Barber is Short Wave's Scientist in Residence. She contributes original reporting on STEM and guest hosts the show.
Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.