Oct
03
2006

Pet Cat: This particular cat is not hypoallergenic, but Allerca has made other individuals of the species that are.  Photo Courtesy of A. Bellew.
Pet Cat: This particular cat is not hypoallergenic, but Allerca has made other individuals of the species that are. Photo Courtesy of A. Bellew.

Allergic to cats?

Well, it is now possible to cuddle up with one of the furry critters without battling sneezing fits and itchy eyes. A company called Allerca has developed the first hypoallergenic cat.

How do cat allergies work?

Cat allergy sufferers' antibodies overreact to the Feld1 protein that is secreted by the sebaceous glands on the skin of many cats. This overreaction can cause a wide range of problems including mild symptoms of itchy eyes and runny nose, swelling, breathing problems, hives and even more serious problems such as anaphylactic shock.

The cat allergen has been difficult to deal with because it is extremely small, about 10 times smaller than pollen or dust particles. Also, it is persistent. It can remain in the air for several months.

What did Allerca do?

Allerca began its research by attempting to genetically engineer a low allergy cat. They planned to use a biotechnology technique known as RNA inference. RNA inference makes it possible to silence specific genes. Allerca wanted to figure out how to quiet the Feld1 protein gene.

In the mean time, they ended up unintentionally discovering a naturally occurring hypoallergenic cat. They discovered three cats that produce a slightly different version of the Feld1 protein and this protein had no effect on cat allergy sufferers.

Their research has not yet been published in a scientific journal, but Allerca scientists told Nature that they plan to soon. The company has already begun marketing the cats, so you could purchase your own if you like. Although, it will cost you close to $4000. But if you are a hardcore cat lover who suffers from allergies, it might be worth it to live completely cat allergy free.

Oct
03
2006

Bristlecone pine: photo by Art Oglesby
Bristlecone pine: photo by Art Oglesby

Hurricane evidence found in tree rings

Human records of hurricanes go back less than 100 years. Can we somehow look at nature's record of weather within tree rings?

The moisture carried by hurricanes carries a different ratio of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 than the normal rain that trees absorb. When that moisture falls near a tree, it is absorbed, and that ratio of oxygen is reflected in that year's ring.
Comparing the tree-ring data to the National Weather Service data over a 50-year period, the tree-ring data showed only one year in which their data reported a hurricane that was not in the list of recorded storms. Tennessee Today

Two University of Tennessee professors, Claudia Mora and Henri Grissino-Mayer, noted that this opens the door for research to go back even further than 220 years, as older trees are discovered in hurricane-prone areas, perhaps as old as 500 years.

Dendrochronology

Too bad bristlecone pines don't grow in the hurricane zones. The tree ring record in bristcones go back over 7000 years. Dendrochrology is the dating of past events (climatic changes) through study of tree ring growth. If you want to look tree rings of various trees, come to Collections Gallery at the Science Museum of Minnesota. We have one tree slice with 522 rings.

Abstract of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article

Oct
02
2006

Pine Barrens Tree Frog: In this image the tympanum can be seen as the small round disk to the right of the eye.  Image courtesy Bruce Means and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Pine Barrens Tree Frog: In this image the tympanum can be seen as the small round disk to the right of the eye. Image courtesy Bruce Means and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Do frogs have ears?

Yes, they do, but they are different from the ears we have. Frogs do not have external ears, rather they have something called a tympanum. The tympanum are behind the eyes, and look like round disks. Some tympanum are easier to see than others. They receive sound waves for the frog just like the tympanic membrane (also known as the eardrum) does for us. Frogs not only use the tympanum to hear, but also use their lungs. The lungs help with hearing, and also protect the frog’s eardrums from the very loud noises frogs make by equalizing pressures between the inner and outer surfaces of the tympanum.

What does sublimation mean?

In physics, sublimation is the process by which a solid converts to a gas and bypasses a liquid stage in doing so. Have you ever seen dry ice? At room temperature, dry ice sublimates directly into a gas, skipping the liquid stage.

Where do Komodo Dragons live?

There are about 6,000 Komodo Dragons living in the wild. They live on the Lesser Sunda Islands in Indonesia.

What causes hiccups?

There are a variety of causes for hiccups, including eating too quickly, swallowing too much air, taking a cold drink while eating a hot meal, laughing, coughing, or drinking too much alcohol.

Hiccups are an involuntary spasm of the diaphragm, the large muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. The sudden intake of air into the lungs is stopped by the glottis, which causes the “hic” sound.

Do you know how fast the Earth spins on its axis?

Well, if you figure the Earth does one full rotation on its axis about every 24 hours (23 hours, 56 minutes, and 04.09 seconds), and the Earth’s circumference is around 25,000 miles (24,901.55 miles), then it spins at roughly 1,040 miles per hour.

Illustration of the life-cycle of the Sun: Illustration courtesy Tablizer.
Illustration of the life-cycle of the Sun: Illustration courtesy Tablizer.Courtesy Tablizer
Will the sun explode?

No, but one day it will be large enough to push the Earth into a new orbit while eradicating the Earth’s atmosphere – but not for a long, long time. Our sun does not have enough mass to “go supernova” and explode. But, in about 5-6 billion years it will start becoming a red giant once it has used up its supply of hydrogen in its core and switched to fusing hydrogen in a shell outside of its core. While this is happening other processes will cause the sun to grow. Much, much later, the red dwarf will become a planetary nebula, and then a white dwarf. This is the standard stellar evolution for a star such as our sun.

Oct
01
2006

What is the best way to spend a day as wonderful as we had this Sunday, Oct. 1st?Solar pontoon at Warner Center: photo by Art Oglesby
Solar pontoon at Warner Center: photo by Art Oglesby
About 500 of us decided to attend Warner Nature Center's anual "Fall Color Blast". Thankyou Liza for posting this opportunity on our Buzz Blog.

Solar Pontoon rides

My favorite activity (besides apple pie with ice cream) was to ride around the lake on Warner's solar powered pontoon raft. I think it is about ten years old now. We were the tenth group to go for a ride so the batteries were pretty empty. The super quiet electric motors were depending almost entirly on the solar cells for power.Bird banding at Warner: photo by Art Oglesby
Bird banding at Warner: photo by Art Oglesby

Bird banding

I learned quite a bit about the how and why of bird banding, too. We got to see the birds get caught in special nets. The birds were immediately untrapped and placed in a cloth bag. One by one they were measured, recorded, then released.

Fiddle music and nature walks

Nancy Conger entertained us by playing fiddle and violin. We walked through a bog and saw insects trapped in carniverous pitcher plants. Deep in the woods, I found a pelvic bone and skull (deer I think). There were several varieties of mushrooms, especially puffballs.

I am giving this experience 5 stars

Now that I know about Warner's many great programs, I plan on going back again and again. You should check them out.

Sep
30
2006

Baby girl Lucy: Image from Wikipedia
Baby girl Lucy: Image from Wikipedia

Lucy-like fossil is older and more complete

The fossil including an entire skull, torso, shoulder blade and various limbs was discovered at Dikaka, some 400 kms northeast of the capital Addis Ababa near the Awash river in the Rift Valley.

"The finding is the most complete hominid skeleton ever found in the world," Zeresenay Alemseged, head of the Paleoanthropological Research Team, told a news conference. Reuters

The fossil has been named "Selam", which means peace in Ethiopia's official Amharic language.

Zeresenay said she belonged to the Australopithecus afarensis species, which includes Lucy, and is thought to be an ancestor to modern humans.

"The Dikika girl stands as one of the major discoveries in the history of palaeoanthropology," research team leader Zeresenay Alemseged said, citing the remarkably well-preserved condition of the bones, the geological age and completeness of the specimen.Cosmos Magazine

The following is the abstract of the original article describing the baby, which was authored by Zeresenay Alemseged, Fred Spoor, William H. Kimbel, René Bobe, Denis Geraads, Denné Reed and Jonathan G. Wynn, and appeared in Nature on September 20, 2006.

"Understanding changes in ontogenetic development is central to the study of human evolution. With the exception of Neanderthals, the growth patterns of fossil hominins have not been studied comprehensively because the fossil record currently lacks specimens that document both cranial and postcranial development at young ontogenetic stages. Here we describe a well-preserved 3.3-million-year-old juvenile partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis discovered in the Dikika research area of Ethiopia. The skull of the approximately three-year-old presumed female shows that most features diagnostic of the species are evident even at this early stage of development. The find includes many previously unknown skeletal elements from the Pliocene hominin record, including a hyoid bone that has a typical African ape morphology. The foot and other evidence from the lower limb provide clear evidence for bipedal locomotion, but the gorilla-like scapula and long and curved manual phalanges raise new questions about the importance of arboreal behaviour in the A. afarensis locomotor repertoire."

Additional reading: BBC News

Sep
29
2006

New tallest tree: photo by Art Oglesby
New tallest tree: photo by Art Oglesby

New record tallest tree

Not one, but three giant redwood trees have been found in Redwood National Forest that are taller than former "tallest tree in the world". An expansion of the Redwood National Park's boundary just 30 years ago saved these trees from being harvested.

The tallest of the three new finds, a redwood named Hyperion, measures 378.1 feet.(edit:379.1 feet) Next in line, Helios, stands at 376.3 feet; Icarus, the third, reaches 371.2 feet. San Francisco Chronicle

Stratosphere Giant, found in August 2000 in nearby Humboldt Redwoods State Park, was the previous champion at 370 feet.

The largest tree is a sequoia

Genral Sherman is the largest tree in the world. It, too, is in California in Giants Forest in Sequoia National Park.

In January of 2006 the largest branch on the tree, seen most commonly in older photos as an "L" or "golf club" shape protruding from about 1/4th down the trunk, broke off. No one was present for the incident, but the branch, which had a diameter of over 2 m (6 feet) and a length of over 30 m (100 feet), bigger than most trees, smashed part of the enclosing fence and cratered the walkway pavement surrounding the sequoia.

The oldest tree is a bristlecone pine

Methuselah is the name of the world's oldest living tree. It is located in the Inyo National Forest in California. Methuselah is over 4750 years old. An older living tree known as the martyr tree was tragically cut down by a researcher before laws protecting trees existed.

Sep
29
2006

Example of ochre cave painting in Kakadu National Park, Northern Australia: Photo courtesy Wikipedia (User: PanBK)
Example of ochre cave painting in Kakadu National Park, Northern Australia: Photo courtesy Wikipedia (User: PanBK)
The use of color symbolism by prehistoric man in Africa may have occurred more than 200,000 years ago, according to a British archeologist whose findings were announced at the annual festival for the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Lawrence Barham, a researcher from Liverpool University, has been studying ancient human artifacts at a cave site known as Twin Rivers in southern Zambia.

A range of mineral pigments, or ochres, have been found at the site, leading Barham to hypothesize that they may have been used ritualistically by early man, in much the same way some cultures today use color to mark passages of childhood into adulthood or of a warrior becoming an elder.

If his theory is correct, it would mean abstract thinking by early humans would have developed far earlier than previously thought.

"As an archaeologist I am interested to find out where color symbolism first appears because for color symbolism to work it must be attached to language," Barham said.

"Color symbolism is an abstraction and we cannot work this abstraction without language; so this is a proxy for trying to find in the archaeological record real echoes for the emergence of language."

Evidence found at the Twin Rivers site suggests tools were becoming more complex, blades attached to handles rather than just simple handaxes. At the same time ochres of a wide range of colors were being used.

Ochres are derived from scraping rocks and mixing the resulting powder with another substance, such as animal fat, to create paint or dye. The ochres found at the Twins Rivers’ site include red, yellow, brown, pink, black and even purple. The type of humans using them is not known, although a bone fragment points to Homo heidelbergensis, a large-brained ancestor of modern man.

Still, skeptics say the ochres could be merely functional, used for such things as preserving hides, or as glue to fasten stone blades to shafts or handles. But Barham disagrees.

"If you were to argue that these oxides were purely functional and have no symbolic value, you have to explain away the range of colors that are being selected from different places in the landscape. Because if it was just for the iron element, any of them would do - the red, or the yellow. Some are closer to the site than others, so it seems that people were deliberately selecting the material for the color property. That's my argument anyway", Barham said.

Links:

More on ochres
Pigments through the Ages
More about Lawrence Barham’s findings.

Sep
28
2006

Cave Exploration: Timpanogos Cave photo by Art Oglesby
Cave Exploration: Timpanogos Cave photo by Art Oglesby

Beautiful cave found in California

Four amateur cave explorers from the nonprofit Cave Research Foundation discovered a "jaw dropping...beautiful" cave in the Sequoia National Park, California. The cave, named Ursa Minor, has been called one of the most significant finds in a generation.
Scott McBride, an explorer from San Andreas (Calaveras County) who has discovered 50 caves since 1994, first spotted an opening about the size of a baseball.

The four explorers have joined Joel Despain (the parks' cave manager) and other geologists in mapping the cave, but they haven't found the end. The cave features five rooms -- the biggest is about 200 feet wide and 50 feet tall -- and at least five leads, or passages, leading farther underground. San Francisco Chronicle

I found their account of entering this new cave particularly interesting because I just toured three caves during my recent road trip to California. My wife, Ann, and I toured Wind Cave in South Dakota, Timpanogos Cave in Utah (where my wife was a tour guide 30 years ago), and Lehman Cave in Nevada.

Caves need to be protected

These caves are national treasures and are now protected. I was shocked to learn that early visitors were allowed to break off pieces of the cave as a souvenir. In the early 1900's groups could even rent out the cave for overnight parties and lit campfires for heat and light.
This newest cave named Ursa Minor for its thousands of star like sparkles and a bear skeleton within may never be opened to the public.

The cave is littered with animal skeletons and teems with spiders, centipedes, millipedes and other invertebrates. Experts believe Ursa Minor will feature unique species found nowhere else, adding to the 27 never-before-seen species discovered during a recent study of invertebrates in the park's 239 other caves.

For now, the top priority is thoroughly mapping the cave and installing a gate at its mouth to keep sightseers and vandals at bay. No more than a few dozen people will ever see Ursa Minor, and those who have said they'll never forget it.

NASA scientists spent a month flying a sensor-packed airplane into storms brewing off the western coast of Africa. Data collected from these missions might someday allow better storm prediction and forecasting, and will definitely contribute to our knowledge of how hurricanes form and sustain themselves.

Sep
27
2006

You're invited to attend the annual Fall Color Blast on Sunday, October 1, from 1-5pm, at the Warner Nature Center. The event is free and features a professional storyteller, live fiddle music, bird banding demonstrations, canoeing, rides on a solar-powered pontoon, hikes, kids' crafts, free apple pie and ice cream, cider and coffee, and more. (Want more information about programs at the Center?)