Stories tagged Diversity of Organisms

Nov
04
2010

This goes double for you, kid: Do you know what they have to eat in Slytherin? Shape up, or you'll find out.
This goes double for you, kid: Do you know what they have to eat in Slytherin? Shape up, or you'll find out.Courtesy plainsight
Please, students, have a seat. Dinner will be served momentarily, but first I need your attention for a few words. Thank you.

Well well, my little wizketeers. You have been bad, very bad indeed.

I think you all know what it is I am referring to, but I will say it anyway: owl thievery is through the roof, and I’m inclined to think that many of you are nothing but stinking little owl thieves.

I know that some of you are from muggle families, and have only recently been introduced to the traditions of wizardry, but even you should know that owl stealing is one of the worst crimes of the wizarding world. Worse than sealing a goblin in an empty pumpkin juice cask and burying it in the woods. Do you understand?

Here: extend your right arm. Place your hand on the shoulder of the wizard or witch sitting to your right. Now remove your hand from their shoulder, and thrust your finger into their eye. Either eye will do. And, for those of you sitting at the extreme left of your row, I ask that you poke your own eyeballs as well.

How did you all like that? Well, that was nowhere near as bad as stealing an owl. Do you know who else was an owl thief? Voldemort. Also, Hitler. It was certainly the least of their crimes, but no one would disagree that it was indicative of their characters.

You see, owl populations have been shrinking on the Indian subcontinent. (And, for those of you who haven’t pursued geography outside of our more magic-based curriculum, India is a massive chunk of the Earth, which is the planet we live on.) India is tremendously rich in biodiversity, but its 30 or so species of native owls are disappearing thanks, in part, to the illegal sale of owls as pets.

Oh. Gosh. Where could those owls be going? What a mystery. Wait… By Godrick’s beard… Could they maybe, just maybe, be going to one place in the world you’re most likely to find spoiled children with pet owls, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?!

It’s not as if you even take care of them. Believe me, I’ve pulled enough dead owls out of the toilet traps in this school to know.

And what’s worse is that you’re encouraging others to buy owls as well. I can—and believe me, I will—personally hunt down and punish each owl-owning student in this school, but there’s little I can do about the legions of muggle children you are inspiring to buy owls. The most I can hope for is that they all catch salmonella from careless pellet handling. But that does the owls little good, and all the while Indian ecosystems are becoming weaker and unbalanced, because top predators are being eliminated. Without creatures like owls to keep them in check, rodent populations will boom. They, in turn, can over-consume the plant life of an ecosystem and outcompete other animals.

But then, what would you all understand of ecology. Most of you can barely handle basic sums. Such is the drawback of the narrow focus of our school.

So I will make it simple for you: if I catch any of you with an owl, you will be transferred to Slytherin House. Have you ever seen Syltherin? Those kids are the worst. I’ve been in the Slytherin common room once, and I got some sort of fungus there. And if you already live in Slytherin, owl possession will earn you room and board in the forest. Does that sound fun? It’s not. The forest is like the Jersey Shore for elves. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, at least remember this: always keep an eye on your drink.

Well. I think you all have got the message now. Remember: I’m only stern with you because I care so much for you. You little poachers.

Now let’s eat!

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!

Sep
22
2010

Newly discovered wood-eating catfish: held by Paulo Petry.
Newly discovered wood-eating catfish: held by Paulo Petry.Courtesy Paulo Petry via the Nature Conservancy
If catfish are your thing (and why wouldn't they be?) then you'll be happy to learn about a new species of wood-eating catfish that's been discovered in the confluence of the Purus and Curanja rivers in Peru. Local people (Nahua) have been eating the armored catfish for a while but until now the only specimens scientists have seen were dried carcasses. That changed recently when researchers led by freshwater scientist Paulo Petry finally caught some live ones. I'm happy to report as one would expect, it is one ugly creature. The fish (which ranges from 12 to 25 inches in length) has a mouthful of specialized spoon-shaped teeth perfect for stripping wood from trees that have fallen into its river habitat. Very kissable as you can see here. Even though it ingests the wood, it doesn't digest it. The nutrients contained in the wood are absorbed in the fish's gut and the wood itself is excreted as waste.

This new species has yet to be described and remains unnamed but is included in the genus Panaque, to which all wood-eating catfish belong. More info and an interview with researcher Paulo Petry can be found on the Nature Conservancy 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

Jul
22
2010

The dinosaur formerly known as Torosaurus: The recently installed Torosaurus (now Triceratops) guarding the front of Yale's Peabody Museum in New Haven, CT will probably require some text changes in its plaque.
The dinosaur formerly known as Torosaurus: The recently installed Torosaurus (now Triceratops) guarding the front of Yale's Peabody Museum in New Haven, CT will probably require some text changes in its plaque.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Othniel C. Marsh must be spinning in his grave… again. Two more of the dinosaurs the Yale paleontologist named in the late 19th century have been determined to be the same genus. It’s not that big a surprise. More than a hundred years ago Marsh and his arch-nemesis Edward Drinker Cope were in such a hurry to outdo each other during the infamous “Bone Wars” they were naming new genera and species left and right, and as fast as they could get them out of the ground.

In 1889 Marsh’s best field collector, John Bell Hatcher uncovered the first Triceratops remains in Wyoming. Marsh named it Triceratops (which means “three horned-face” because of the horns projecting from its nose and frill. Two years later, Hatcher unearthed a similar horned dinosaur that Marsh christened Torosaurus (“pierced lizard”). Triceratops figure by O. C. Marsh c. 1890
Triceratops figure by O. C. Marsh c. 1890Courtesy Mark Ryan
Both creatures had three horns but Triceratops’ bony frill was a continuous fan shape, while the Torosaurus’ frill was longer and had two large oval openings (fenestrae). This difference in configuration led Marsh to believe he had discovered two different types of dinosaurs.

But now a new study by paleontologists from Montana State University says the Triceratops and Torosaurus genera are one and the same, and the former is just a younger, immature version of the latter. Under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) rules of nomenclature the name of the earlier discovery takes precedence. The research appears in the latest issue of the Journal for Vertebrate Paleontology, and was led by paleontologists John Scannella, and Jack Horner.

Misnaming dinosaurs isn’t that uncommon (see previous Buzz post ). Fossils originally thought to be from different genera or species are often - after further study - determined to be from the same beast. Probably the most well known example is that of the Jurassic sauropods Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus. It was again Professor Marsh who had named and described both specimens but decades later they were declared to be one and the same dinosaur. Despite being a nearly complete skeleton compared to the Apatosaurus’s sparse sacrum and vertebrae, the poor Brontosaurus name was shelved by the scientific community because it had been named later.

As bad as the latest findings are for O. C. Marsh’s shrinking menagerie, they’re even worse for dinosaurs themselves.

"A major decline in diversity may have put the dinosaurs in a vulnerable state at the time when the large meteor struck the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period," Scannella said. "It may have been the combination of the two factors -- lower diversity and a major global catastrophe -- that resulted in the extinction of all the non-avian dinosaurs."

What I’d like to know is just how large did a young Triceratops get before his frill shape began to mature into an adult form? The literature all seems to list the Torosaurus as smaller in stature than Triceratops. Of course animals no matter what species come in all sorts of sizes, and this includes we humans (e.g. seventh graders can often tower over their middle-aged teachers). The Triceratops skeleton here at the Science Museum of Minnesota is considered the largest mounted specimen in the world. If that’s the case, and it is only an immature specimen, then he was one big boy.

SOURCES and LINKS

Discovery News story
Montana State University press release
Marsh and Cope and the Bone Wars

Jun
30
2010

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.

Story in Nature
Wired story
Info about sperm whales

May
20
2010

The wonderfully smelly stinkpot turtle: no wonder it breathes with its tongue
The wonderfully smelly stinkpot turtle: no wonder it breathes with its tongueCourtesy Dawson via Wikimedia Commons
The 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.

LINKS
BBC story
More turtle facts
Turtles of the World site

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.)