Stories tagged Diversity of Organisms

Jan
15
2008

Am I pregnant?: Researchers looking in the bone structure of an allosaurus think that she was, even before she had reached physical maturity.
Am I pregnant?: Researchers looking in the bone structure of an allosaurus think that she was, even before she had reached physical maturity.Courtesy Wikipedia
Diablo Cody and Steven Spielberg could team up for a movie based on this recent paleontology finding: teen-age dinosaurs were capable of reproducing.

Researchers from the University of California-Berkeley have announced finding three separate fossilized bones from adolescent dinosaurs that show that the dinos were pregnant, or at least ready to lay eggs, at the time of their death.

That gives dinosaurs something more in common with mammals, most species of which are also capable of giving birth before their reach physical maturity.

One of the first lessons I learned in paleontology is that all we can know for sure about dinosaurs is from what we find in the fossil record. So how can we know that teen-age dinosaurs were actually pregnant (apart from the always churning rumor mill of course)?

Here's a link to a story with all the details of this finding.

Am I pregnant, too?: The same researchers found similar bone patterns in a tenontosaurus.
Am I pregnant, too?: The same researchers found similar bone patterns in a tenontosaurus.Courtesy Wikipedia
There is a fossil record that makes the case for the pregnant teen-agers. The Cal-Berkeley researchers found did analysis on the only three known fossilized bones from dinosaurs that have been identified as being females. They’re known to be from females because the morrow section of the bone contains a layer of calcium that is only present in bones before an animal is ready to lay an egg called medullary bone. It’s the source of calcium that helps the mothering dinosaur create a shell for the egg. The bone structures are very similar to what we see in the bones of egg-bearing birds today.

And how do the researchers know that these three particular female dinosaurs were teen-agers? Growth rings inside the bones reveal a dinosaur’s age. In one case, the pregnant dinosaur was eight years old and in another, it was ten.

So why is this so important? Pre-maturity reproduction is a characteristic that’s more commonly found in mammals – including humans – than it is in reptiles. It’s a further piece of the puzzle in the growing evidence that dinosaurs were a unique type classification of animal, not exactly completely reptiles, birds or mammals.

One of the bone sections studied came from a meat-eating allosaurus, age 10, while the other two bone samples came from tenontosaurus, age 8, which is a duckbill-like plant eater.

Taking their findings on step farther, the researchers think that it’s very possible that dinosaurs needed to be able to reproduce at an early age due to high adult mortality rates.

What do you think of all of this? Is it any of our business to know that dinos could become pregnant in their adolescence? Share your thoughts where with other Science Buzz readers. But remember, this is a family science blog. Please, no discussion of the sexual activities of the dinosaurs involved.

Jan
13
2008

Markisa the orangutan and her new baby: Bonding nicely.
Markisa the orangutan and her new baby: Bonding nicely.Courtesy Mark Ryan
A baby orangutan born last month at the Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota is reported to be doing well, and bonding with its mother. Births of captive animals aren't uncommon - the zoo has had fourteen surviving orangutan births in nearly fifty years - but this one is unusual because its delivery was by caesarian section, the first such delivery in the zoo's history.

The yet-unnamed male orangutan was born December 13, and placed in ICU where he was cared for by a medical team from both the Veterinary Medical Center and University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, Fairview. At first, things were a little hairy (tee hee) for the new baby, but zookeepers and the medical staff kept a close watch and helped the little guy pull through.

In the meantime, the baby's mother, a twenty year-old orangutan named Markisa, was brought back to the zoo so she could recover from her surgery.

Mother and child orangutan
Mother and child orangutanCourtesy Mark Ryan
When time came for reuniting mother and child, doctors and zoo officials were uncertain if Markisa would take to her new offspring since she hadn’t birthed him in the conventional manner. But after a careful and methodical reintroduction process, Markisa has taken her motherly duties to heart.

Interestingly, the zoo’s dominant female orangutan, an ape named Joy, kept trying to sabotage the relationship by offering every object she had to Markisa in exchange for the new baby. But Markisa just wasn’t in the trading mood, and kept signaling “No deal!” Home-wrecker Joy, and her own eight-year-old son, Willy, have since been moved to Busch Gardens in Florida so Markisa and her baby can bond in peace.

About 200 orangutans (the name means “person of the forest”) are in exhibitions throughout the United States. The great apes are native to Sumatra and Borneo, but their populations have been dwindling in recent years due to deforestation of their environment by human endeavors and wild fires.

Orangutan motherhood: The world's toughest job.
Orangutan motherhood: The world's toughest job.Courtesy Mark Ryan
When I read an update about mom and the baby, I went over to the Como Zoo to catch a glimpse of the little fellow. It wasn’t an easy task, as the exhibit lighting is kept low, and Markisa seems very protective of her new son, keeping him cradled closely to her breast. I managed to get a couple shots where you can at least tell he’s there.

On the other hand, Markisa’s recovery from the c-section is apparently coming along just fine. She moved around the exhibit rather effortlessly, and without any show of pain – as far as I could tell – holding her little one in her arms.

If you want further information about Markisa and her baby, check out the news page on the Como Zoo’s website. And if you want to do more than just read about the new baby, you can learn about sponsoring him here, or visit the Como Zoo to see him.

Jan
11
2008

Big trouble for a little animal: The federal government is studying if endangered status needs to be expanded for the pygmy rabbit, a little bunny that can be found in eight western U.S. states.
Big trouble for a little animal: The federal government is studying if endangered status needs to be expanded for the pygmy rabbit, a little bunny that can be found in eight western U.S. states.Courtesy Wikipedia
Did you know there was such a thing as the pygmy rabbit? Neither did I until I ran into a news story today that the federal government is considering adding the creatures to the endangered species list.

Pygmy rabbits have already hit endangered status in eastern Washington. Now, their numbers are looking to dip below that standard in other western states of California, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah.

As their name implies, pygmy rabbits are small – just nine to 12 inches long and weighing just under a pound. They live in tall brush and dig down into soily burrows. They’re one of the few rabbit species that live in the ground.

Why are their numbers going down?

Human development is pushing out places for the little bunnies to live. Farming, fires, mining and recreational development have encroached on their habitats. For several years, researchers have spent millions trying to develop a breeding program to re-establish their numbers in eastern Washington. A population of 20 pygmies put into the area earlier this year has been reduced down to one lone rabbit due mainly to the munching habits of predators.

Should these kinds of efforts continue or is this a lost cause? Share your thoughts about protecting threatened and endangered species here with other Science Buzz readers.

Dec
28
2007

Kicked out of St. Paul: The sugar glider -- a small marsupial version of a flying squirrel, has gotten the boot from the St. Paul City Council, which doesn't want the creatures to be kept as pets in the city any longer.
Kicked out of St. Paul: The sugar glider -- a small marsupial version of a flying squirrel, has gotten the boot from the St. Paul City Council, which doesn't want the creatures to be kept as pets in the city any longer.Courtesy Anke Meyring -- Wikipedia Commons
You’d think our civic leaders would have enough on their plates these days: fixing shaky bridges, untangling bad traffic jams, getting the snow plowed in a timely manner.

On Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council took action on another issue. It has banned sugar gliders from being house pets in homes in the city. The sugar glider is a marsupial version of a flying squirrel that comes from the South Pacific. As adults, they measure about 7.5 inches long and weigh up to five ounces.

Animal control officials for the city recommended the ban fearing owners might abandon the animals and they would have no ability to survive in our environs on their own. Also, they’re afraid that the critters make a lot of noise and can get to be quite smelly.

Checking with wildlife officials in Australia, the St. Paul leaders got the same word: that sugar gliders are not good house pets. But yesterday’s Star-Tribune news story on the issue also found people in Minnesota who have a lot of sugar gliders in their home. A St. Paul woman has six of the animals in her home while a married couple in Lino Lakes, who breed the animals for sale, has 34. On the market, a sugar glider goes for about $200.

The vote on the matter was 6-1 in favor of the ban. Dave Thune, the one vote against the measure, wasn’t so much in favor of sugar gliders as he was in wondering how far a city should go in banning different types of exotic animals from ownership by residents.

What do you think? How far should cities go in control the kinds of animals that people keep as pets? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Dec
22
2007

Get used to this view: They're coming.
Get used to this view: They're coming.Courtesy WhatDaveSees
When will we learn that “lost worlds” should stay lost? Ask Challenger – that sort of thing is best left alone.

But no. We can’t leave well enough alone, and now giant rats have been unleashed upon the world.

Last year an international team of scientists discovered an incredibly isolated and pristine jungle in Papua New Guinea. Even the nearby indigenous groups claimed to have never visited the area, and it was dubbed “a lost world” (there has to be a Buzz post on it somewhere around here, but, failing that, here’s an article on the discovery).

The region has since yielded dozens of examples of previously unknown species of plants and animals - lots of flowers and pretty little birds. The most recent expedition, however, found something altogether less pleasant. Two things, actually: a a giant rat, and a tiny possum (which I don’t particularly like either. Who knows what they could be keeping in their tiny little pouches? Derringers? Marsupial pornography?).

The rat is about five times the size of a normal city rat, and apparently has no fear of humans (it wandered into the biologists’ camp several times during the expedition). Also, according to my imagination, it feeds exclusively on human babies, smells like burning tires, and endlessly thinks of ways it could sneak into your bedroom at night.

So far, the beast seems to be confined to Papua (another “Rat Island, if you will), but I am entirely of the opinion that the rest of the world should prepare for imminent invasion. How? Conventional anti-rat weapons won’t work on these behemoths, although Hollywood has shown that they can be killed the same way as most monsters: by fire and swords. So stockpile that.

Honestly, in this picture it looks kind of cute.

Dec
10
2007

Sort of the opposite here: And I think I might throw up.
Sort of the opposite here: And I think I might throw up.Courtesy Ke Wynn
It’s amazing that we ever get anything done in this world, considering how weird it is.

A zoo in Thailand recently began circulating emails containing photos of a female tiger with a littler of piglets. The tigress, according to the email, was heartbroken over the loss of her own cubs, and accepted the piglets, wrapped in tiger skins, as replacements. She has been watching over them ever since, and, apparently, even nursing them.

That alone would have done it for me. “Wrapped in tiger skins”? I wonder where the tiger skins came from? I mean, what, did they just have a whole bunch of dead baby tigers on hand… oh. And piglets nursing from a tiger? There’s something unsettling about that, especially considering that the tiger is probably going to eat those things eventually (that’s what I’d do, at least).

The story doesn’t end there, however. After a worldwide chorus of “aww”s and “OMG!!!!”s, an animal welfare group decided to investigate the source of the pictures. They originally came from The Sriracha Tiger Zoo, home to over 400 tigers (400 tigers!), as well as a handful of other exotic animals, located about an hour outside of Bangkok.

The tiger in the picture turns out to have been raised by pigs herself (something not entirely uncommon in Thailand, at least according to this article) and therefore saw the piglets as part of her family, even without their sharp little striped jackets. The photos (which can be found using the link above) were apparently part of a publicity stunt by the zoo.

Whether or not putting piglets in jackets and tossing them in a tiger cage constitutes animal cruelty is perhaps debatable, but this isn’t the first time the Sriracha Zoo has received scrutiny for dubious behavior. Along with the circus attached to the zoo (a source of debate in itself), Sriracha has been accused of causing 23 tigers to die of bird flu by feeding them infected chicken carcasses (who would have thought it was possible?), as well as breeding tigers, without a license (a tiger-breeding license?), for export to China, where tigers parts are very valuable as ingredients for traditional medicine (a list of various tiger parts and their uses in traditional medicine can be found here. Kind of interesting).

The zoo denies any wrongdoing, although it seems they may have been better off without the tiger/piglet attention. Delightful.

Dec
04
2007

What are you looking at smarty pants?: So you humans think you're smarter than me, huh? Well I dare you to challenge me in a memory test. Common, I dare you.
What are you looking at smarty pants?: So you humans think you're smarter than me, huh? Well I dare you to challenge me in a memory test. Common, I dare you.Courtesy deVos
Next time you’re having a short-term memory crisis, like trying to remember where you last put your car keys, try to think more like a chimp.

At least that’s a conclusion you can draw from the recent study done by Japanese researchers. Young chimps outperformed human adults in a two different tests of short-term memory abilities.

Here’s what happened. Researchers used three 5-year-old chimps that had been taught the numeric order of the numerals 1 to 9. They also had a group of a dozen adult humans.

Participants saw the nine numbers displayed on a computer screen. The moment that they touched “1,” the other numerals turned into white boxes and the participants had to touch those boxes in numeric order.

While there was no difference in the accuracy of the task between chimps and humans, the chimps could do it faster. And chimp Ayumu was by far the best, so researchers pitted him against humans in another task.

In the second test, the numbers 1 to 5 flashed briefly on the screen and then changed to white boxes. Participants again had to touch the boxes in the order of their corresponding numeral.

When the time between number and box was set at seven-tenths of a second, both Ayumu and the chimps were accurate about 80 percent of the time. But when the time between the flash was cut by one-third or one half, Ayumu was still accurate about 80 percent of the time while the humans dropped down to 40 percent.

In even further testing, three humans were given six weeks of training on the number flashing tests, but still could not catch up to the speed or accuracy of the chimps.

Here's a link to a collection of video footage of the chimps and humans doing the memory tasks.

The researchers think there are two main factors accounting for this significant difference between chimps and humans.

1) Through evolution of our brains, humans have developed language abilities that have squeezed out some brain processing for short-term memory like this tests gauge.

2) Young humans might be a fairer test against young chimps. Memory of images and shapes is skill more often found in children, but diminishes with age. In further testing, the researchers found that young chimps were better at the tests than older chimps.

The conclusion I’m drawing from all of this – I don’t want to square off against a young chimp in a game of Concentration, that’s for sure.

What do you think about all of this? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Here's the link to the USA Today story on this research project.

Nov
22
2007

Pelagia noctiluca aka the mauve stinger
Pelagia noctiluca aka the mauve stingerCourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Billions of stinging jellyfish have wiped out more than 100,000 salmon in Northern Ireland, essentially decimating the region’s only salmon farm.

The attack, which took place north of Belfast just off the coast of the Glens of Antrim, involved an amazing 10 square mile by 35 feet deep swarm (or shoal) of the jellyfish species Pelagia noctiluca.

"It was unprecedented, absolutely amazing," said John Russell, managing director of the Northern Salmon Company, Ltd. "The sea was red with these jellyfish, and there was nothing we could do about it, absolutely nothing."

Workers for the company battled for hours to get through the huge mass of mauve stingers - as they are commonly known - but they were clearly outnumbered. By the time they reached the net pens all the salmon were either dead or dying from the attack. Russell fears that without some sort of government aid the company will be forced to go out of business.

Swarms of mauve stingers are not uncommon. However, they’re mostly known for stinging swimmers in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean. It was rare to see them as far north as Great Britain until recently, presumably due to climate change.

Here's some great video posted on YouTube by NewScientist of a mauve stinger swarm shot near the Balearic Islands in Spain and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

STORY LINKS

Reuters Science News
UPI Story
Story in Minneapolis Star Tribune

Nov
14
2007

Get my good side: Bears are showing up much more frequently than expected in a wildlife photo project being conducted along the Appalachian Trail.
Get my good side: Bears are showing up much more frequently than expected in a wildlife photo project being conducted along the Appalachian Trail.Courtesy by grizzbass
Frolicking through the Appalachian Trail wilderness, wildlife for the past six months have been secretly having their photos snapped through a project coordinated through the Smithsonian Institution. And for the most part, the results have been pretty predictable, outside of a few embarrassing images.

Using 50 cameras attached to motion detectors, the project is set up to document wildlife patterns along the trail without the influence of humans being around. Once a month volunteers go to the cameras to collect the digital images and move the cameras to new locations.

Among the findings: deer, very unsurprisingly, have a glazed-over look when getting their picture taken; bear are curious and aggressive; wild horses are still running in the eastern wilderness.

Here's a link to some of the photos that have been captured of animals at night along the trail.

Since starting in the spring, the project has collected about 1,900 images of animals both at daytime and night. And researchers are already learning some things about the changing wildlife conditions in Appalachia. Bear populations are rebounding big time, with bear images being captured at 75 of the 273 camera locations used so far. Also, photos have been taken of species thought to be possibly extinct in the area: the long-tailed weasel, a variety of flying squirrels and bobcats. However, there are also concerns about one species that hasn’t shown up on photos yet: the eastern cougar.

How do these unsuspecting animals cooperate for the camera? It’s all in the nose. Project organizers knew they had to have a way to stop the animals in their tracks to get a photo. They concocted a blend of animal secretions called “the stink” to stop animals in their tracks. That aromatic blend is put on a stick near the camera area to entice the animals to stop for the camera.

To say that the photos are candid might be an understatement. Some mysterious black, fuzzy photos had researchers stumped for a while. Then they realized that bear were using the camera lens as a way to scratch their, um, posteriors.

Nov
10
2007

Orodromeus, a close relative of the burrowing Oryctodromeus, whose image is not yet available for free.: We may be sciencey, but we're also cheap.  Image of Orodromeus by Arthur Weasley, found at Wikipedia.
Orodromeus, a close relative of the burrowing Oryctodromeus, whose image is not yet available for free.: We may be sciencey, but we're also cheap. Image of Orodromeus by Arthur Weasley, found at Wikipedia.

A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. Now, thanks to a discovery in Montana, paleontologists will be expected to know the difference.

Researchers have uncovered indisputable proof that some dinosaurs dug burrows. First, they found a six-foot long tube of sandstone embedded in rock. They theorized that the surrounding rock was once dirt, and the tube was a burrow that had been filled in by other material, probably washed in by a flood.

They then began excavating the tube, and found the remains of an adult dinosaur and two juveniles. The dinosaur, a new species they named Oryctodromeus cubicularis (Greek for "digging runner of the lair”), would have stood about knee-high to an adult human. It had strong arms for digging, broad hips to brace itself in the tunnel, and fused skull bones, all features typical of modern-day burrowing animals.

The bones were all found at the end of the tube, where the tunnel widened out into a den. It seems likely that a family of burrowing dinos got trapped here in a flood.

Dinosaurs walked the Earth for some 165 million years. It’s no great surprise that some of them would have evolved to fill different ecological roles. The bigger surprise is that their bones were preserved all these years, and that scientists were able to piece together the puzzle of the mystery rocks.

More amazing still is the fact that this discovery was only announced in mid-October, and the dinosaur already has its own
Wikipedia entry.