What’s an enigmatologist, anyway?

The field of enigmatology is so rare that in the past 40 years there has been precisely one working enigmatologist.

That person is Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle and NPR’s puzzlemaster. Shortz invented and received a degree in enigmatology when he was studying at Indiana State in 1974. In the puzzling community, Shortz is a superstar – he travels the world, officiating international puzzle competitions, seeking new challenges, and enjoying an almost absurd level of celebrity.

It’s natural that others would want to follow in his footsteps.

Enter Stacy Costa, a University of Toronto semiotics undergraduate, and the world’s second enigmatologist. Stacy creates puzzles for media and corporate clients, and will be teaching a course starting in Fall 2014 for the University of Toronto’s Continuing Ed department about puzzles and the brain. She took time out from this busy schedule to design the Virtual Scavenger Hunt.

We were lucky to find someone skilled in the art and science of puzzle making. It’s no simple thing to devise a puzzle that’s challenging enough to be interesting, but also sufficiently accessible that anyone can play.

The game Stacy created for Research Matters is elegant, tricky, and satisfying to solve. First, there are the daily clues, the daily answers and the daily prizes. A pleasant diversion for anyone with a few minutes to spare. But all of these clues lock together – each day a tiny bit more of the grand prize solution is revealed.

Stacy did what any good communicator does – she turned an idea into a story. There’s a narrative that builds over the course of the contest culminating in the big reveal (and of course the awarding of prizes).

Stacy embodies the values of Research Matters – her research combines the big-picture ambition that is unique to university research, yet her subject area is one that infiltrates the breakfasts, commutes and lazy Sundays for millions of people around the world.

On a more personal note: Stacy came to us via Marcel Danesi, a U of T prof who also creates and studies puzzles. Marcel and Stacy often collaborate on puzzles for the Toronto Star and other publications. They are both passionate about their work, and threw themselves full-tilt into the creation of the Virtual Scavenger Hunt. We are grateful to both of them as much for their enthusiasm as for their expertise.

Want to see what enigmatology is all about? Visit the Virtual Scavenger Hunt page and sign up now – you won’t regret it, and you just might win.

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Northern flying squirrel.

When habitats collide

Sharon Oosthoek | August 4, 2015

1995 was a very good year to be a southern flying squirrel in Ontario. It marked the start of a series of unusually warm winters that saw the rodents creep north 240 kilometres into the range of their larger cousin, the northern flying squirrel. The incursion wasn’t widely noticed by humans. The two species are closely-related and look much alike with their large dark eyes and furry membrane between their front and rear legs that they use to glide. But some humans were watching — including wildlife geneticist Paul Wilson and population ecologist Jeff Bowman, both from Trent University ­— and they wondered if the two species were crossbreeding and having hybrid babies. When the researchers trapped flying squirrels and analyzed the DNA in their fur, they discovered that was exactly what was happening. The pair now believes this is the first example of hybridization following the expansion of a species’ range due to modern climate change. Testing by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry suggests roughly four per cent of Ontario's flying squirrels are now genetic hybrids. Hybrid wildlife is not new. However, human-induced changes such as the deliberate introductions of animals, habitat fragmentation and climate change may be bringing species together more frequently and in greater numbers than ever before. The list of cross-breeding Canadian wildlife is already long:  the golden-winged warbler in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec; the eastern wolf in Ontario and Quebec; and a handful of polar bear/grizzly crosses known as grizzlars in the Northwest Territories. Scientists also point to bob cat/lynx hybrids in New Brunswick, known as bob-o-linx, rainbow and cutthroat trout in Alberta, and spotted/barred owls in British Columbia. Now what? As humans wittingly and unwittingly move species around, is the resulting cross-breeding a good or bad thing? How will hybrids affect other animals and plants in the ecosystem? And what of endangered animals —  could hybrids genetically weaken their parent populations? These are all tricky, and as of yet, answered questions.  As Wilson and Bowman point out, some biologists worry that accepting hybrids could give people an excuse not to protect the habitat of endangered species.  These scientists also argue wildlife hybridization threatens unique lineages, with interbreeding potentially leading to the extinction of rare species. Others suspect hybrids may be Mother Nature's answer to the rapid changes humans have wrought. They say hybrids allow for a greater mix of genes within a single population of animals and act as an insurance policy of sorts. In other words, the greater an animal's genetic diversity, the more chance there is for it to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. This genetic adaptability is why Wilson now studies the hybrid squirrel genome for adaptive advantages, such as the northerner's ability to withstand cold and the southerner's ability to fight off diseases from warmer climates. “One could look at these hybrids as a creative reshuffling of the genetic material for a changing landscape,” says Wilson. “I mean climate change isn’t going to go away … maybe these hybrids are emerging as the most adapted animal for the changing landscape and climate.”
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