Tech and the science of dogs’ olfactory receptors combat avalanche threats

Tech and the science of dogs’ olfactory receptors combat avalanche threats

Avalanche rescue dogs train to find and dig out people buried in snow slides

Sarah McLear

Two-and-a-half year-old Huckleberry, a blue merle Australian shepherd, pulls hard at her leash; her yelps can be heard by skiers and boarders high above on the chairlift that carries them over the ski patrol hut to the top of the mountain. Huckleberry is an avalanche rescue dog — or avy dog, for short. She lives and works with her owner and handler, a ski patroller at Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado. As she watches the trainer play a game of hide-and-seek with six-month-old Lume, a golden retriever and avy dog-in-training, Huckleberry continues to strain on her leash; she loves the game. Hide-and-seek is one of the key training methods for teaching avy dogs the rescue skills they need to find someone caught in an avalanche — skier, snowmobiler, hiker, climber.

Lume’s owner waves a T-shirt in front of the puppy. While another patroller holds him back, Lume’s owner runs away and hides. About a minute later — after a lot of barking — Lume is released and commanded to “search.” He springs free, running around the hut to find his owner who reacts with a great amount of excitement and fanfare. Lume’s scent training will continue for the rest of the ski season (Breckenridge plans operating through May or as long as weather permits) and through the off-season. “We make this game progressively harder by not allowing the dog watch the victim run away,” explains Dave Leffler, Breckenridge's ski patroller and head of the avy dog program, who has owned, trained and raised many of them. Eventually, the trainers “dig an open hole in the snow to duck out of sight and gradually turn the hole into a cave where the dog has to dig to get the victim,” explains Leffler.

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Cari Shane
Cari Shane is a freelance journalist (and Airbnb Superhost). Originally from Manhattan, Shane lives carless in Washington, DC and writes on a variety of subjects for a wide array of media outlets including, Scientific American, National Geographic, Discover, Business Insider, Fast Company, Fortune and Fodor’s.
After spaceflight record, NASA looks to protect astronauts on even longer trips

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio floats by the International Space Station’s “window to the world.” Yesterday, he returned from the longest single spaceflight by a U.S. astronaut on record - over one year. Exploring deep space will require even longer missions.


Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.

Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.

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Gail Dutton
Gail Dutton has covered the biopharmaceutical industry as a journalist for the past three decades. She focuses on the intersection of business and science, and has written extensively for GEN – Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, Life Science Leader, The Scientist and BioSpace. Her articles also have appeared in Popular Science, Forbes, Entrepreneur and other publications.
A newly discovered brain cell may lead to better treatments for cognitive disorders

Swiss researchers have found a type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other main types — and it could lead to new treatments for brain disorders.

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Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.

The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.

Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.

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Kristin Houser
Kristin Houser is a staff writer at Freethink, where she covers science and tech. Her written work has appeared in Business Insider, NBC News, and the World Economic Forum’s Agenda, among other publications, and Stephen Colbert once talked about a piece on The Late Show, to her delight. Formerly, Kristin was a staff writer for Futurism and wrote several animated and live action web series.