A new report in the July 1st issue of Nature unveils an extinct species of sperm whale that boasts teeth nearly 40 percent larger than those of Tyrannosaurus rex. The longest tooth of Leviathan melvillei measures an incredible 14 inches from tip to end of its root, compared to the longest tooth of Sue, the Chicago Field Museum's celebrated T. rex which measures in at a paltry 10.6 inches. Scientists at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris estimate L. melvillei was smaller than today's sperm whales, growing to lengths between 44 and 57 feet when it hunted the Earth's oceans 13 million years ago. But its enormous teeth would have certainly compensated for any size issues the creature suffered from. The way the teeth come together suggests Leviathan melvillei's jaws were used for tearing prey apart.
The toothy whale's remains (amounting to 75 percent of its jaw and cranium) were found a couple years ago in a now desert region of Peru.
Courtesy Dawson via Wikimedia CommonsThe common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) has a strange way of extracting oxygen from its surroundings – it breathes through its tongue. It’s certainly not the strangest way of taking a breath (as you’ll discover if you read further), but it is one scientists weren’t expecting to find.
Turtles have been around since the Late Triassic some 225 million years ago when they first appeared in the fossil record. A lot of the breed’s success has to do with its rigid protective shell (carapace), and being able to protect itself under it. Another is its ability to stay underwater for long periods of time without coming up for air and exposing itself to surface predators. But because the shell develops out of a turtle’s ribcage, limitations are imposed on its ability to breathe in what we consider the “normal way”. So turtles have come up with all kinds of interesting adaptations for extracting oxygen from their surroundings. Some, like the Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) can stay submerged for 4 to 6 months while hibernating. It does this by slowing down its metabolism which subsequently reduces the production of lactic acid in its system. Others can breathe through their skin, others through their rear ends (okay, a major “ewwww” factor here – but of course who are we to judge?). The musk turtle’s ability to breathe through its tongue adds just another bizarre method to the family’s repertoire.
The musk turtle (aka stinkpot turtle – a great name by the way) is so named because of the disagreeable odor it can produce to fend off predators. It spends most of its life underwater, and can live for months at a time submerged without coming up for air. The species doesn’t breath through its skin as some other turtles do. Nor does the stinkpot turtle breathe through its butt like Australia’s Rheodytes leukops does. R. leukops possesses specialized bursae, large sacs in its rear orifice (cloaca) that can draw water in and out to get precious oxygen to its blood in that manner. The cloacal bursae are used to get nearly 70 percent of it oxygen. How bizarre is that?
Anyway, back to the stinkpot turtle. So now scientists have discovered S. odoratus’s breathing secrets. It all has to do with the cells called papillae that line its tiny tongue. As water flows past, the papillae are able to absorb oxygen. (We humans also have papillae on our tongues but they don’t extract oxygen from the atmosphere).
Egon Heiss, a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna in Austria, along with his colleagues, discovered the stinkpot’s secret while studying juveniles of the species. While an adult italicizedSternotherus odoratus tends to spend most of its life underwater, its young offspring do occasionally venture onto land in search of food. The researchers noticed the reptile youngsters wouldn’t eat their food on land but instead dragged it back into the water. This led the researchers to the creature’s tongue and its unique function. The team’s research appears in the journal The Anatomical Record.
Courtesy bradypus courtesy of wikimedia.orgThe 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.
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 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.
Courtesy 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?
Courtesy SitronOf 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.)
Courtesy ZoeYeah, 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”.
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!
Courtesy Mark RyanRemember back a couple years when the Vatican said it was okay to believe in extraterrestrials? Well, now noted physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking says if they do exist - and he figures the odds are pretty good they do - it might not be that great an idea to try to contact them. He points to what happened to the Native Americans who greeted Columbus and figures the same kind of thing could happen to the entire human race if the aliens turn out to be a tad too aggressive and covetous of our planet and its resources.
"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet." - Stephen Hawking
And let's not forget that delightful Twilight Zone episode where apparently chummy nine-foot tall aliens arrive promising peace and prosperity and a book titled To Serve Man and start shuttling loads of humans back to their planet (supposedly for free vacations) before it's realized the "altruistic" book is actually a cookbook.
With that in mind, Hawking may have a good point. You can read more of what he thinks here. Or do you think he's just being anti-social?
Courtesy José-Manuel Benitos via Wikimedia CommonsFossil bones of two hominins
found in a cave in South Africa, could be those of a completely new species of human and fill in a gap in human ancestry. The remains, which were found within a yard of each other, are of an adult middle-aged female and juvenile male. Scientists speculate the two could even be a mother and its child, or at least members of the same tribe. Either way, they add valuable information to the very fragmentary record of human evolution.
Professor Lee Berger, lead researcher of the discovery, and a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, says the remains are well preserved and between the two of them include a nearly complete skull, shoulder, arm, lower leg, and hand. The pelvis is well represented, too. The fossils were found in the Malapa cave not far from the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site near Johannesburg.
Named Australopithecus sediba, the new finds which are nearly two million years old, have characteristics common to both Homo (which includes us) and Australopithecus, early ape-like creatures, making it an important transitional fossil between the two genera. Photo link
“That period between 1.8 and just over two million years - is one of the most poorly represented in the entire early hominid fossil record. You're talking about a very small, very fragmentary record," said," lead scientist Lee Berger. "It's at the point where we transition from an ape that walks on two legs to, effectively, us.”
Berger is a professor of paleoanthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. First evidence of the find was actually found by his 9 year-old son, Matthew, who picked up a couple fossils bones, a collarbone and jawbone that had been discarded by miners. Further investigation led to the rest of the remains. Professor Berger had found the cave in 2008 using Google Earth.
Although clearly australopithecine in size and stature, and most closely similar to the species Australopithecus afarensis, the boy’s skull and jaw also contain features seen in the genus Homo, such as the facial structure (e.g. a slight bony chin), and the shape and size of the premolars and molars. The two creatures upper limbs were overly long, again a trait of Australopithecus, and means they were more-than-likely arboreal, and able to easily climb trees to seek refuge and food. But their pelvic structures share features found in the hips of the Homo genus, leaning toward more efficiency in walking or running. This means A. sediba fills in some of the gap between Australopithecus afarensis and Homo erectus. Professor Berger’s study appears in the journal Science.
Berger suspects the two A. sediba had been swept into the cave by a flash flood or some such disaster and buried fairly quickly. The dig site produced the remains of 25 other animals such as a horse, saber-toothed cat, wild dogs, and antelope. None of the remains appear to have been scavenged Fossils from two other hominid individuals were also found but have not yet studied.
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.
Courtesy 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!