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 planetschwaI only say that because the Count doesn’t seem to have a lot of ambitions beyond counting, which he loves, and because I think vampires and vampire puppets live a really long time, and whoever takes the job I have in mind will need lots of time. Because there’s plenty of counting to be done. Lots and lots.
Everyone is census–crazy these days, marine biologists included. Scientists are working on a Census of Marine Life—an attempt to classify and quantify all the life in the world’s oceans. Counting all the whales and mermaids and fish and things would be hard enough, but most of the life in the sea is much smaller than that, and it has to be counted too. So the Census of Marine Life has four departments focusing on the itty-bitties of the sea; microbes, zooplankton, larvae, and “burrowers in the sea bed” (like little worms and things.)
More than 2,000 scientists have worked on the census over the course of the last ten years. More than 5,000 new forms of marine life have been discovered, and researchers think there may still be several times that number still waiting to be found. The research is also changing the view of the deepest parts of the ocean from a harsh, and nearly lifeless wasteland to the sort of vibrant, living seascape you’d want to send your kids to on an educational field trip (if they didn’t drown and get crushed by the extreme pressure). Thousands of species can live in a very small area, with huge numbers of individuals—one sample found over half a million worms in a square yard of deep-sea mud. 500,000 worms! That’s like the Count’s dream!
Their sheer numbers are what make these organisms so significant to the global ecosystem. Ocean microbes, for instance, often too small to be seen by the naked eye, are estimated to have a population of about one nonillion. A nonillion, as the article puts it, is “1,000 times 1 billion, times 1 billion, times 1 billion.” Or, as I put it, it is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Or, as the Count will put it, “One microbe! Two microbes! Three microbes! Four microbes!” Anyway… That number of microbes weighs about the same as 240 billion African elephants, and each microbe in that mass is decomposing organic material, or creating waste, or photosynthesizing, or getting eaten by other organisms… It’s a highly complex and totally massive system, and life on the planet depends on it, so as strange (or hopeless) as counting it may seem at first, it’s an important job.
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!
Courtesy Nicolle Rager and National Science FoundationScience 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.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe 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.
I wrote about Earth's tallest, biggest, and oldest trees about four years ago. This week Wired Science had a wonderful gallery of photos and information about Earth's oldest trees.
One of them, Pando, is a 105-acre colony is made of genetically identical trees, called stems, connected by a single root system. This organism is believed to be 80,000 years old (and maybe a million) and weighs 6,615 tons, making Pando the heaviest living organism on earth.
You can read a debate about how other organisms might be larger and older here.
Other candidates for oldest or heaviest living organisms include the possibly larger fungal mats in Oregon, the ancient clonal Creosote bushes, and strands of the clonal marine plant Posidonia oceanica in the Mediterranean Sea.
Courtesy wikimediaThe Smithsonian Institute will open a new exhibition hall tomorrow (March 17, 2010), the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins (this opening coincides with the institute’s 100-year anniversary). The 15,000-square-foot hall will focus on what it means to be human, examining how our defining characteristics emerged over time. One cool thing about the new exhibition (in addition to…everything) is the highlight (in the form of bronze statues) of a-typical hominid species. There’s a statue of Homo heidelbergensis, Paranthropus boisei, and even Homo floresiensis (the “hobbit” species). Now, I know what you’re thinking, “What?! Where’s the Australopithecus africanus?!!” Well, it’s not in this exhibition (at least not in the form of a shiny effigy). The reason for this is to emphasize that our ancestry is not a straight line (as A. africanus might imply because it is a possible direct ancestor of Homo sapiens). Instead, our lineage is much less tidy; there’s species overlap, some species die off… the diagrams are messy. The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins is trying to get at the fact that we Homo sapiens are just another iteration in our branch-laden tree, not the pinnacle of evolutionary development. I think that’s a great point to remind people of.
Other features of the exhibition include forensically reconstructed life-sized faces of some of our ancestors, 75 skull reproductions, key events in humanity’s evolution (environmental changes, behavioral innovations, etc.), a human family tree, and virtual tours of important research sites. I haven’t had the chance to visit it yet, but the American Museum of Natural History in New York also has a relatively new human origins exhibition. I think it’s exciting that more and more museums are taking on this topic. In the past museums have shied away from it for fear of stirring up controversy. The Milwaukee Public Museum, for example has an exhibit about evolution- it’s on a tiny wall in a dark corner…but at least they have one. It’s important for museums to present scientific research, and the exciting exploration of human evolution is no exception. So if you’re in the D.C. area, be sure to check out the new Smithsonian Hall of Human Origins.
Now, an exhibit on mammoths and mastodons has opened at the Field Museum of Chicago and visitors have the chance to see the frozen mammoth baby up close and in person (and right now you can look at the photo of it on exhibit right next to this paragraph). The Field Museum hosts the exhibit through Sept. 5 and then an international tour begins, running through 2014.
Here's an interesting story about what researchers have been able to learn about mammoths based on their findings from the mammoth baby, as well.