Stories tagged Diversity of Organisms

Oct
19
2010

Mrs. Spink
Mrs. SpinkCourtesy Dana Spink
On September 2, Dana Spink, grade 6 science teacher from Toledo, OR, became a star when she stepped aboard the oceanographic research vessel, the R/V Kilo Moana (Hawaiian for “oceanographer”) for a week of discovery. She was part of the STARS program (Science Teachers Aboard Research Ships) operated by C-MORE (Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education) at the University of Hawai`i's School of Ocean, Earth Science & Technology.

Decreasing Ocean pH (meaning Increasing Acidity) Correlates with Increasing Carbon Dioxide
Decreasing Ocean pH (meaning Increasing Acidity) Correlates with Increasing Carbon DioxideCourtesy C-MORE
Ever since 1988 scientists from UH’s HOT program (Hawai`i Ocean Time-series) have been gathering monthly baseline data from station ALOHA, a deep-water site about 60 miles north of Honolulu. This data lead to the discoveries about rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification. Dana and two other teachers were part of this continued ocean chemistry and physics data collection, as they worked alongside shipboard scientists at station ALOHA.

The marine engineer is getting ready to deploy the plankton net off the stern of the ship.
The marine engineer is getting ready to deploy the plankton net off the stern of the ship.Courtesy Dana Spink
Copepods, Members of the Zooplankton
Copepods, Members of the ZooplanktonCourtesy C-MORE
Dana also came face-to-face with Pacific Ocean micro-critters that were captured in a plankton net. What a variety there were! Some were phytoplankton, the microscopic floating plants of the open ocean, and others were tiny animals belonging to the zooplankton. As a whole, plankton are extremely important to the oceanic ecosystems because they form the base of most food webs. Dana used dichotomous keys from C-MORE's Plankton science kit to identify the open-ocean specimens.

Want to find out more about gadgets and shipboard procedures that the STARS used, like CTDs, fluorometers, flow cytometers and other shipboard procedures? Visit Mrs. Spink's blog!

Aug
03
2010

Keep on puffin: These guys definitely can't help you quit.
Keep on puffin: These guys definitely can't help you quit.Courtesy Andreas Trepte

Climate change. Rising seas. GMOs. Humans have such an incredible impact on Earth's environment that it's clear we're now the dominant force of change on Earth. This situation has even led some scientists to rename this geologic epoch the Anthropocene, or the human epoch. But as we alter, tweak, and pollute more each year, what will it mean for the survival of other species into the future?

According to Dr. Stephen Kress, they can look forward to human stalkers and creepy mechanical scarecrows. Kress began his career in the islands along Maine's coast during the late 60s and early 70s. In response to the loss of bird species diversity on many islands, he decided to start a human-led migration program that would move puffins to some of the islands. Puffins had once been abundant in the area, but their population dwindled due to overhunting and egg harvesting.

Still others accused Kress of trying to play God. “We’d been playing the Devil for about 500 years,” says Tony Diamond, a Canadian seabird researcher who has collaborated with Kress for decades. “It was time to join the other side.”
(same article as above)

Yikes: Something tells me they might have had better luck with this guy.
Yikes: Something tells me they might have had better luck with this guy.Courtesy 関西画像創庫

Amid the skepticism of fellow scientists and the stubbornness of birds, Kress persevered and now boasts growing puffin populations on a few islands. But after several attempts to set natural protections and population controls in place, including a mechanical scarecrow to ward off predators, Kress and assistants continue to monitor and protect the puffins themselves. It's the only way they can maintain the new populations. After all, in a human-dominated environment, we get all the benefits and all the responsibilities--a job some might conclude is for the birds.

We are as gods and have to get good at it.
Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline

May
16
2010

Bonobo: Latin name:  Pan paniscus
Bonobo: Latin name: Pan paniscusCourtesy bradypus courtesy of wikimedia.org
The famous Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology recently released a new study showing bonobos (Pan paniscus), a species of chimpanzee, communicating their disapproval by shaking their heads side-to-side as if to say NO. This may seem rather simple and uneventful, but until now, there has been no observed behavior in chimps or bonobos that indicates a negative context. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos are known to use other head gestures like bowing and shaking up and down to communicate with group members, but the side-to-side NO gesture is actually considered quite sophisticated and ingrained in human culture. This simple gesture is recognizable in most, but not all cultures.

I recently finished up a semester teaching Evolution and many of my students commented on how interesting they found our ape relative the bonobo. Many had never heard of them and were surprised at how similar they were to humans in behaviors and social structures. We frequently here about how closely related we are to the chimpanzee biologically, but culturally, the bonobo's social structure is actually more human-like than that of our chimp cousin. The bonobos have extremely egalitarian and cooperative societies with a rather unusual “loving” way of diffusing social tensions (suffice to say there is a reason why bonobos are not found in most American zoos!) This new study brings us a little closer to our ape cousins and maybe we can learn a few lessons from them in these times of conflict. Unfortunately, these gentle creatures are endangered and need our help. Check out this website for more on Bonobo Conservation.

May
14
2010

Some of you may have said to yourselves over the years, “Yeah, yeah. Climate change. Hug a tree. Save the polar bears and manatees. Whatever. I’m just SO over the sexy megafauna, appeal-to-emotion approach.” Well, have I got a story for you!

In April, the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Jonathan Patz, who holds a medical doctorate and a masters degree in public health, gave a riveting lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment on how climate change affects public health. And pretty much everybody wants to live long and prosper, so I’m guessing you care about your health just as much as I do and want to know more…

Well, basically, there is increasing scientific evidence that climate change is hazardous to your health.

The end.

Just kidding!

The logic is that basic changes in the Earth’s physical environment affect public health. Take one example, as warmer climates trigger species migration, vector-borne diseases like malaria and Lyme disease will leave traditional zones to infest new land areas. That’s good news for some people, but bad news for others.

Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterall
Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterallCourtesy Scott Bauer, USDA

Let’s break that idea down: global climate change suggests that some regions will experience warmer annual temperatures. Mosquitoes (that carry malaria) and ticks (bringers of Lyme disease) are cold-blooded, which means they don’t make their own heat and have to “steal” heat from their surroundings. Regions with warmer annual temperatures are attractive real estate for cold-blooded critters. As climate change increases annual temperatures, tick and mosquito habitat ranges will shift. Like many people, mosquitoes and ticks will move into warmer, better neighborhoods. Unfortunately for their new neighbors, the baggage of these insects causes fever, vomiting, and diarrhea (malaria) or rash, joint pain, and numbness (Lyme disease). Yikes!

Other symptoms of climate change (i.e. extreme weather and rising sea levels) have the potential to increase the severity of diseases like heat stress, respiratory diseases like asthma, cholera, malnutrition, diarrhea, toxic red tides, and mental illness (due to forced migration and overcrowding).

Not to be a downer, Patz pointed out that tackling global climate change might be the greatest public health improvement opportunity of our time in terms of number of lives saved, hospital admissions avoided, and ultimately health care cost decreases (which everyone needs!).

Is there any other good news?? Uh, besides less frostbite? No, seriously: on the bright side, warmer weather should increase the amount of physical activity of the average person (not many of us like to run in the dead of winter, you know), and, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin put it, "…an increase of two or three degrees wouldn't be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.” So, yeah, there is some good news, but the real question is: does it outweigh the bad stuff?

May
12
2010

It begs the question: Does he feel lucky?
It begs the question: Does he feel lucky?Courtesy Sitron
Of course by “sue for libel,” I mean that the squid intends to lure the scientists into the ocean, and then do something just awful to them with all its colossal tentacles. Something just awful.

But why? Why would the colossal squid take a break from its watercolors, topiary, and Little Mermaid-style undersea musical numbers to mutilate hard-working researchers? Because they did the one thing that the colossal squid cannot abide: they sassed.

The colossal squid can handle getting eaten by sperm whales. It can handle getting mixed up with its effete cousin, the giant squid. But it will not tolerate sass.

What do I mean by sass? This headline, based on the scientists’ research: “Colossal Squid Is No Monster, Study Finds.”

What? If a 40+ foot, 1000+ pound, tentacle-covered (or arm-covered, if you’re going to be a jerk about it), deep sea creature with eyes the size of dinner plates doesn’t qualify as a monster, I don’t know what does. The colossal squid works hard at this stuff, and it doesn’t need scientists yapping at its mighty heels (or its muscular hydrostats).

These scientists are saying, in effect, that if one were to “release the kraken,” if that released kraken were a colossal squid, the kraken wouldn’t really do much except float around, and maybe grab at a sleepy-looking fish every few days. They’re saying that the kraken—I mean the colossal squid—is just a big, lazy, slow-moving ocean blob.

Why would you even say that? It’s so mean!

The scientists are basing these claims on research that compares the metabolism of different squids in the colossal squid’s family to their respective body sizes. A squid the size of the colossal squid, they say, would have an exceptionally slow metabolism. That means that the colossal squid would probably move slowly, and require food infrequently. It would also have a relatively low nutritional value, suggesting that it might not be as important a part of the sperm whale diet as other scientists have guessed.

When the colossal squid would hunt, they say it would likely ambush its prey, instead of actively pursuing it. And, you know, I guess, for a hunting strategy like that, it would make sense to have hook-covered arms and tentacles (which the colossal squid has).

Even so, these are fighting words. I mean, the giant squid seems to be a fairly active hunter… but then again the two species belong to entirely different families.

Also, using similar species as direct analogies isn’t necessarily going to be the best way to learn about a creature. There can be quite a bit of variation within a taxonomic family, even, I’d imagine, with a characteristic like metabolism. Look at bears: you’ve got your extinct short-faced bear, which is thought to have been a relatively speedy hunter, and you’ve got your giant panda, which sits around eating bamboo all day.

Obviously I’m stretching here, but I’m just trying to save those poor researchers from violent squid retaliation. (Assuming it has the energy for that. And that is what I’m assuming.)

Apr
27
2010

Cat in a pot: imagine the heartburn and a hair ball!
Cat in a pot: imagine the heartburn and a hair ball!Courtesy Zoe
Yeah, I said it! Does the mere thought make your skin crawl? Or are you more inclined to daydream of a light mushroom sauce with parsnips and leeks? If you are the later, you may wish to hold your tongue. Recently, an Italian food show host got himself into hot water discussing his love of the feline meat as a “delicacy”. Later, he back stepped to say he only remembers these dishes from when he was a boy during the 1930’s and 1940’s. This cultural blunder still caused him to get sacked. Take a look at the video clip.

Indeed, this would not be a singular account of such ravenous behavior during the Second World War. Food shortages were a common issue that can become intensely exaggerated during times of conflict. Stories from England speak of ‘roof-rabbits’ when discussing the consumption of cats. Similar accounts abound from Bulgaria, Romania, Germany and Poland. Nor should this particular conflict be extraordinary. Diaries from U.S. Civil War prisoners speak directly to purchasing a dressed cat to supplement the meager rations of internment. Placed under the circumstances of starvation, a human being can resort to eating almost anything for sustenance. We need not revisit the fate of the Donner party.

So why all the moral outrage over the recollections of an aging Italian chef? The issue seems to come down to one major factor: culture. Thankfully, there is still a wide variety of culture and tradition across the globe that has not been homogenized. Western culture has cultivated the relationship with our cats and dogs to the point of companions. While most Asian cultures refrain from cat or dog consumption, it is not uncommon practice in poor or rural areas. The beliefs of Judaism and Islam prohibit the eating of any carnivore. Hindus would be aghast at American treatment of cattle. Eating of cats occurs in parts of Africa, including Ghana. Australian Aboriginals are known to roast them over an open fire. Incidents dot the globe like a wild season of the Amazing Race. Korea… Switzerland… Peru… Malaysia… Denmark… China… Kuwait… Brazil… Italy. There are many views on “friend or food”.
Cow legs in an African market: could you bring yourself to eat these?
Cow legs in an African market: could you bring yourself to eat these?Courtesy bthomoso

Simply, not all people view cats in the same light. We may not either if we get hungry enough. It is unfair to condemn others in their attempt to feed themselves. Americans, for the most part, are well removed from the processing of their food. No eyelashes or tails wagging under the shrink-wrap. Our diets have become less exotic than those of our ancestors. The stalls of food markets in other countries may shock us. The plates of the world’s indigenous peoples, I’m sure, are never graced by the double cheeseburger with fries and a shake. Yet, we are entertained vicariously by modern media. Shows such as Bizarre Foods walk us through eating habits of fellow humans across the earth. Should we find ourselves lost or stranded, Man vs. Wild subconsciously questions our resolve to eat in the wilderness. Here is to hoping it never comes to that!

I, for one, am content to not stew the cat. I’ll continue to nurture that mutually beneficial relationship we have, with her minding to the errant stray pest wandering indoors. I wish you the fortune of never being so hungry to consider a feline fricassee. Bon Appétit!

Apr
08
2010

Guffaw with a cat? Giggle on a train. Even in the rain. No seriously, I was reading an Associated Press article last week about the topic of laughter and it did include rats that laugh. Science takes laughter very seriously. Just doing a Google search on science+laughing gave me more than 26 million hits! The rat guy intrigued me the most. I found his video available here.

Despite an ethological background of my own, I’m not sure I’m on board yet with Dr. Panksepp and his work. However, not only have researchers tickled rats and listened to them laugh, but other scientists have looked into like behavior in monkeys, dogs, chimpanzees, and possibly even dolphins. Perhaps laughter is a trait more primitive than the lineage of humans. It strikes me that, like humans, all the aforementioned animals would be considered social animals. There clearly is a social aspect to the behavioral benefits of this kind of expression. Some science has even looked at the evoluntionary effects of laughter.

Most everyone has heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine”. It turns out that studies have delved into a multitude of health effects from laughter. Proponents tout its benefits. It can relax the muscles of the body, alleviate stress, trigger the release of certain hormones, lower blood pressure, and even protect your heart. This isn’t the first time Buzz has looked into the health effects of laughter. Despite studying its many effects, science still doesn’t quite understand the full mechanism of the physiological process. You can take a look at some of the best works here…
How Laughter Works.
Laughing with your Brain.
How we laugh
.
There is an interesting take on the scope of laughter from Robert Mankoff.
Unbridled Laughter: we should all be so lucky to feel this each day
Unbridled Laughter: we should all be so lucky to feel this each dayCourtesy Extra Medium's

While not everyone laughs the same, we all learn to laugh early and often. Children ages 4 to 5 laugh more than 400 times a day. As adults, we manage only 15 times a day to enjoy some humor. Since it is reasonably accepted that laughter is contagious, maybe we only need to promise to pass one good joke a day to bring a smile to a fellows face. If that doesn’t work you can always try this audacious little feline.

Laugh a little!

Mar
28
2010

Cell Protein: Illustration of protein chain in the human cell.
Cell Protein: Illustration of protein chain in the human cell.Courtesy Nicolle Rager and National Science Foundation
Science Buzz has had a lot of articles on organ transplants over the years but a new report on liver transplants in children adds a new twist. Currently, severe organ damage or failure requires an organ transplant, preferably one from a donor with a histocompatibility similar to the recipient. In the case of severe liver failure in children, there is often no time to wait for a compatible organ and an incompatible organ is used requiring patients to take anti-rejection drugs (immunosuppression) for the rest of their life. In fact, 70% of all liver transplants require anti-rejection drugs.

Fortunately, the liver is one organ that has the ability to regenerate itself, especially in very young patients. The child patient is given a small section of donated liver, enough to allow the body to function properly, while leaving a small portion of their own liver intact. Hopefully, after a few years, the patient’s original liver will begin to repair and regenerate itself. The doctor can than gradually reduce the quantity of anti-rejection drugs, causing the body to slowly attack and destroy the donated liver segment. Eventually the patient will be removed from anti-rejection drugs completely, have their own liver back, and no signs of the temporary donated liver.

The liver is unique in its regenerative properties; for humans, that is. In other animals, such as amphibians, entire limbs can regenerate. Scientists are researching the role proteins play in cell regeneration in hopes that stimulating certain proteins in other organs of the body will encourage them to regenerate like the liver can.

Mar
25
2010

Painting a new picture of human evolution: A finger bone found in a cave in southern Siberia may add another species to human evolution. (Painting by Charles R. Knight, AMNH).
Painting a new picture of human evolution: A finger bone found in a cave in southern Siberia may add another species to human evolution. (Painting by Charles R. Knight, AMNH).Courtesy Mark Ryan
The bone of a single pinky finger found in a cave in southern Siberia may indicate a new branch in the human family tree. The find could show that besides Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, a third lineage of humans may have shared the ancient landscape of prehistoric Russia.

The piece of finger was found in Denisova cave located in Russia’s Altai mountains by scientists from the Russian Academy of Science. The bone was recovered from sediment layers that have also yielded signs of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and modern humans (Homo sapiens). Radiocarbon dating set the age of the layers between 48,000 and 30,000 years old.

Scientists from Germany’s Max Planck Institute and others sequenced 16,569 base pairs of the finger bone’s mitochondrial DNA genome, and the results indicate the new hominen shared a common ancestor with both neanderthals and ancient modern humans sometime around a million years ago. The research team included Michael Shunkov and Anatoli Derevianko, the two Russian archaeologists who discovered the bone in 2008. The study appears in the journal Nature.

Further sequencing of DNA from cell nucleuses will be done next, and could help pinpoint the hominen’s exact origins. If confirmed, the discovery would mean four different species of humans (the 4th would be the Indonesian Hobbit Homo floresiensis) co-existed on Earth some 40,000 years ago.

SOURCE and LINKS
Science Now story
More about human evolution at Becoming Human
Radiocarbon dating