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August 1, 2013

Tick-Killing Robot May Change The World - And Your Backyard

By Diane Tennant

The Virginian-Pilot

Norfolk, VA (AP) Jim Squire’s daughter got a tick one day, and so did his dog.

The engineering professor didn’t like it.

Shortly afterward, a colleague at Virginia Military Institute brought him a souvenir from a robotics competition: a little tank-treaded robot chassis.

``He was turning it over in his hands, and I could see he was also turning it over in his head,’’ said the colleague, David Livingston, also an engineering professor.

Soon, along with a third professor, they had invented a tick-killing robot. Simple as that.

The engineers knew a lot about robots when they started, but not much about ticks. They turned to Old Dominion University, where Livingston had studied, home base of world-renowned tick expert Daniel Sonenshine.

Sonenshine suggested making the ticks chase the robot instead of the other way round. So that’s what they did.

Ticks are attracted to the carbon dioxide given off in an animal’s breath, and they’re attracted to movement. The engineers laid tubing that emits a small amount of carbon dioxide alongside a magnetic wire that the robot follows.

The Tick Rover

About 15 minutes after the tube starts ``breathing,’’ the robot trundles slowly down the line, dragging a piece of denim fabric behind it. The denim is treated with a pesticide. Ticks that have been lured to the carbon dioxide grab the denim, and the pesticide kills them.


Holly Gaff, an associate professor at ODU who specializes in mathematical modeling and simulation of infectious diseases, especially those carried by ticks, was called in to test the robot.

Much of her research over the past five years has been conducted at Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve in Portsmouth.

``We have lots and lots and lots of ticks here,’’ she said. ``Our basic procedure was to go out the day before, collect every tick we could find, paint them with fingernail polish, and put them back.’’

Yes, 12 different colors of fingernail polish, applied with toothpicks.

``It is a skill set I never thought I would have to acquire,’’ Gaff said. The polish enabled researchers to identify when each tick was caught and the re-capture rate, among other experimental factors.

They did a lot of painting. Hampton Roads has many varieties of ticks, including dog ticks (the big ones), deer ticks (the little slow ones, also called black-legged ticks), lone star ticks (the little, fast ones) and Gulf Coast ticks (the golden ones). Deer ticks can carry Lyme disease, Gulf ticks can carry Tidewater spotted fever, and a surprisingly large number of lone star ticks carry the bacteria that cause ehrlichiosis, a disease with flu-like symptoms similar to Lyme disease, according to research conducted at the College of William & Mary.

It’s not your imagination—there really are more ticks than there used to be.

Humans have created a perfect tick habitat, Gaff said, by fragmenting forests and inserting houses. Squirrels, raccoons and other small animals love the habitat where woods meet grass, and ticks love animals. The rise in tick numbers also parallels the rise in the white-tailed deer population, she said, which is itself quite large.

The robot was tested first in an ODU lab, seeded with 50 ticks. The robot captured 45 on its first swipe. ``We were shocked,’’ Livingston said. ``We didn’t expect it to be that efficient.’’ So they took it outdoors, to Hoffler Creek.

``Honestly, I told everybody I did not believe it would work to any extent,’’ Gaff said. ``I was very, very surprised to find that it actually did.’’ The robot killed almost 100 percent of ticks in the study zone, she said, and the area stayed clear of ticks for about 18 hours.

``You could sit and have lunch in the middle of Hoffler Creek, on the ground, and not have a tick crawl on you,’’ Gaff said. ``Having spent five years running from that place, it was neat that we could make a difference for them.’’ Next summer, team members plan to test the robot in residential areas. They want to know how long a yard can remain tick-free and how often treatments must be repeated.

``We’re not eradicating ticks by any means; we’re just very surgically eliminating them from a particular area,’’ Livingston said. ``Once we clean the yard, how long before they come back? If we can keep it clean for a number of days, then it’s going to be a viable product. If they come back overnight, not so much.’’

The pesticide used on the denim must be handled by licensed professionals, so the team envisions the robots being used by pest-control companies. Members are pleased that the pesticide is confined to the cloth rather than spread in the environment at large, and that the amount of carbon dioxide released is similar to what a human breathes out naturally.

In your head, imagine a backyard cookout, a graduation party on the lawn, a hike on a wooded trail. Now imagine them free of ticks. That sounds simply wonderful.

Research On Monogamy In Animals Yields Varied Results


AP Science Writer

Washington (AP) Only a few species of mammals are monogamous, and now dueling scientific teams think they have figured out why they got that way. But their answers are not exactly romantic.

The answers are not even the same.

One team looked just at primates, the animal group that includes apes and monkeys. The researchers said the exclusive pairing of a male and a female evolved as a way to let fathers defend their young against being killed by other males.
The other scientific team got a different answer after examining about 2,000 species of non-human mammals. They concluded that mammals became monogamous because females had spread out geographically, and so males had to stick close by to fend off the competition.

So it is not about romance, said researcher Dieter Lukas of the University of Cambridge, lead author of the mammals study. ``It’s just really the best he can do.’’

The differing conclusions apparently arose because the two teams used different methods and sample sizes, the researchers said.

But both teams discounted a long-standing explanation for monogamy, that it provides two parents rather than one for rearing offspring. That’s just a side benefit, they said.

``Romance obviously came after’’ monogamy, said Christopher ``Kit’’ Opie, an anthropology researcher at the University College London, who was the lead author of the primate study.

A Gibbon family (c) Mark Dumont

The studies are published online Monday in the journals Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The mammal paper in Science excluded humans while the primate analysis in PNAS counted people both as monogamous and not, because that differs around the world.

Researchers said they hesitated to apply their conclusions to humans, and they acknowledged that their results aren’t exactly the stuff of Valentine’s Day.

Less than 9 percent of mammal species pair up socially.

Among primates, about 25 percent of the species are socially monogamous, Opie said. Some, like gibbons, are highly monogamous while others, like chimps, are on the other end of the spectrum, Opie said.

Opie drew on data about how 230 primate species behave, and he mapped out evolutionary family trees for them. Then, using more than 10,000 computer model runs and calculating the same mathematical probability system that famed prognosticator and statistician Nate Silver employs, Opie came up with a timeline for when certain traits developed, he said.
His result: Before any of the social traits associated with monogamy appeared, Opie saw signs of high rates of outside males killing babies. In primates that developed monogamy, such pairing up appeared to develop only later, he said.

Why? Because primates breast-feed their offspring for a long time, even for years, and competing males kill off infants if the dad doesn’t stick around to fight them off.

But Tim Clutton-Brock, a zoology professor who wrote the all-mammal study in Science with Lukas, said their research saw absolutely no evidence of infanticide spiking before monogamy. Instead, Clutton-Brock and Lukas found that in nearly every case, solitary females came before social monogamy.

Those females had spread out to monopolize food like fruit that was of better quality but harder to find. That made it harder for males to keep other males from inseminating the females, Lukas said.

``Males cannot successfully defend more than one female,’’ Lukas said.

So they stick around and monogamy occurs.

Frans de Waal of Emory University, who was not part of either team, said he thought the Opie infanticide paper offered quantifiable support for that theory, but he wasn’t sold completely.

Another independent expert, Sue Carter of the University of Illinois at Chicago, looks at the biochemistry of monogamy in individual species, zeroing on two hormones. And those hormones ``are associated with protection, defensive behavior,’’ so they could fit with either conclusion, she said.

Both teams did agree that they would not quite put humans in the monogamous category.

Clutton-Brock said his study found species that are monogamous have fewer physical differences between the genders. They are about the same size, live about as long. That’s not humans.

Opie agreed, saying: ``Strict monogamy, such as (with) the gibbons, is not what humans do.’’

Back To School Overview Of Cool Stuff For Kids!


Associated Press

Oh, those boring school days of old. Basic backpacks, plain pencil cases, spirals and staplers with so little snap they might as well have been destined for mom or dad’s office.

Today’s school supplies are packed with personality, and kids have an imaginative array of gear to choose from as they prep for the start of a new year.

Backpacks come in a variety of sizes to fit different toting needs and capabilities. And forget the simple brown paper bag: Lunch containers are an expanding category, with everything from insulated sacks to kits with lidded compartments. The range is so stylish and user-savvy that kids just might find mom or dad wanting to share.

In the early years of self-discovery, it’s fun to find different ways to say, ``This is me!’’ Kids will find that easy this year. There are lace and damask designs, camouflage and brick-wall patterns, animal prints, sequins or pastels. Super hero, video game, and music and TV star images hit the pop culture button.


At Pottery Barn Kids, the backpacks range in size from mini to rolling, so you don’t have to worry about your preschooler heading off with a refrigerator-size tote on his back, and the fifth graders with giant science texts can roll their volumes comfortably back and forth.

Patterns range from butterflies, horses, and owls in hip hues like plum and chocolate to dinosaur-skeleton and snakeskin prints in browns, grays and blues. ( )

Kohl’s has backpacks for fall that aim to appeal to kids from elementary through high school.

``Backpacks are a fashionable and functional way for students to express their personality and show off their style,’’ said Sofia Wacksman, Kohl’s vice president for trend. ``Bright colors and bold prints are a big trend this back-to-school season.’’

Girls might like the colored leopard print, boho floral, and fun graphic hearts patterns. Plaids, moustaches, leaf prints and skulls round out the range. ( )

A collection of rolling backpacks in fun animal designs like pandas, frogs and pigs are at The retailer’s also got a line of appropriately sized, colorful preschoolers’ packs from 03 USA that have handy integrated lunch coolers. Designs include soccer balls, motorcycles and space shuttles. The Bookworm backpack, also small, has a reflective panel for low light conditions, and a waterproof layer along the bottom. ( )

How many backpacks have disappeared in your kids’ school career? Never lose another with one of CafÈ Press’s customizable tags. The company partnered with Snapily last fall to create the tags with lenticular printing—that 3-D, animated effect. You can upload your own photos for a personalized tag, or use the company’s geometric, tree or paisley designs. ( )


The traditional Japanese bento-box lunch kit has found its way to our shores in a big way. Parents like that they’re reusable, and kids like that the little compartments neatly hold a variety of snacks. Japanese maker Shinzi Katoh makes some of the best ones—space robot, forest, circus and Paddington Bear designs are featured on tiered, non-toxic boxes. They also make a clever lunchbox that unzips into a tidy placemat: Choose a cow, cat or dog design. ( )

Pottery Barn Kids has some stainless steel versions of the bento box, as well as compartmentalized lunch bags with a spot for a parent to write a note. The retailer also has a cute collection of mix-and-match themed lunchboxes, sacks, water bottles and backpacks.

For a leak-proof, stainless, insulated, 16-ounce container that gives the option of providing hot soup, chili or stew, try .

Land of Nod’s got Skip Hop’s cute-as-a-button Feeding Time lunch bags for the preschool set, in ladybug, owl or dog patterns. They come with a clip that attaches to a child’s backpack. ( )

Target has some cute lunch kits with cheetah or owl faces, and a colorful line of lunch sacks and snack and sandwich sleeves from Built NY that might mean sharesies with brown-bagging parents.

Rubbermaid ice packs in the shape of silly owls, dogs or monsters are whimsical ways to keep lunch cool. (


For the classroom, Target’s houndstooth, plaid and metallic dot binders hit the unisex pattern trends head on. Blinged-out scissors and staplers, and fun pencil cases shaped like flip flops or printed in colorful lace patterns have a girly vibe.

At PB Teen, plaid, chevron, patchwork and tie-dye patterns add zing to the pencil case and homework holder collection. (

Got a sports-loving girl in the house? She can show her competitive spirit with one of CafÈ Press’ ``swim,’’ ``dance,’’ ``field hockey’’ or ``soccer’’ journals. Dog lovers might like a journal photoprinted with unusual breeds like shar peis, basenjis and greyhounds.

Colorful national flags, including those of France, Italy, Cuba and Canada, emblazon a spiral notebook collection at, which also has fun clip chains shaped like basketballs, softballs or volleyballs. They can be personalized to help young athletes keep track of their stuff. ( )



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