Stories tagged Diversity of Organisms

Jun
02
2009

All eyes on penguin poop: Hey guys, don't worry where you poop. No one's gonna see where you've done it, especially any prying eyes from out in space.
All eyes on penguin poop: Hey guys, don't worry where you poop. No one's gonna see where you've done it, especially any prying eyes from out in space.Courtesy NASA
It might not be a good day for emperor penguins. That daily activity that we all do – the elimination of our solid waste – is letting the cat out of the bag on the migration patterns of Antarctica's largest birds.

Researchers using NASA satellite photos to look at their bases in Antarctica found something odd with the photos: large red streaks in otherwise colorless sea ice areas. Causing the strange coloration is emperor penguin poop. It's a huge discovery among the penguin researching crowd as they've had a hard time locating the breeding grounds of these penguins.

Here's the full report.

Since the emperors spend several months on the ice during their winter breeding season, the poop accumulates so much that it can be seen from space. And it's no ordinary poop. It's high in salt and high in odor, making it very undesirable to be around for humans. One researcher said he's lost a dozen pair of boots to salt damage caused by the penguin poop.

From the vantage point of space, scientists have been able to pinpoint 38 emperor penguin breeding areas, including the appearance of 10 new breeding site and disappearance of six old sites from the previous land-based mapping effort. All in all, it's good news for the emperor penguin population, which was thought to be in crisis because of diminishing ice surfaces around the edges of Antarctica.

Still skeptical about this? Here's a video report that shows what we're talking about here.

Apr
15
2009

Rare species: Joe the Plumber belongs to a sub-species of humans who don't like to pay taxes.
Rare species: Joe the Plumber belongs to a sub-species of humans who don't like to pay taxes.Courtesy Rona Proudfoot
Today – April 15 and its federal tax deadline –may be a miserable day for Joe the Plumber, that vocal opponent of the redistribution of wealth through public taxation. But he’ll likely not find too many sympathizers among the animal kingdom.

While much of our humankind political debate revolves around if and how much wealth should be redistributed through public taxation, the issue is a given among most other animal species. Follow this link to a complete rundown by the New York Times. In essence, many animals have a culture of helping each other out and making sure the minimum needs of all are met. And sometimes they get real serious about it.

Don't beat me up....I've paid my taxes: Rhesus monkeys have a culture that encourages the sharing of food – a redistribution of wealth – that penalizes those who don't contribute to the good of all monkeys.
Don't beat me up....I've paid my taxes: Rhesus monkeys have a culture that encourages the sharing of food – a redistribution of wealth – that penalizes those who don't contribute to the good of all monkeys.Courtesy J.M.Garg
I found especially interesting the practices of the rhesus monkey. When out hunting, if a single monkey finds a huge load of food, he/she is compelled by the species’ culture to notify others to come and enjoy the bounty. If it’s discovered he/she was hording the treasure and not sharing, a dominant male will unleash and harsh, stern physical penalty (without any preliminary audit like the IRS).

Vampire bats will actually do an “audit” of the stomachs of their comrades. If a particular bat appears to be bloated, they will “vigorously encourage” the glutton to regurgitate the excess food it had consumed to share among other bats in the group.

So if you’re having a hard time coughing up that dough to the IRS today, just be glad you’re not a rhesus monkey, vampire bat or some other tough taxing creature of the animal world. The means of taxation could be a whole lot more painful.

Apr
10
2009

Oh no! Here they come to poke out your eyes!
Oh no! Here they come to poke out your eyes!Courtesy Colin Kloecker
You know what's kind of scary? Riding a bike through the parking lot of a big box store like Target. Until recently I only had to worry about being hit by cars or shopping carts, maybe falling into a gigantic pothole. Lately, however, I've had another threat to deal with every time I go to the strip mall near my house. I'm talking, of course, about the parking lot seagulls.

We've all seen them hanging around. From a distance they even look kind of pretty, swooping and flying and flocking just like other birds. But when you get up close you realize that all these birds do is make creepy noises, eat garbage and poop on everything. If they see you approaching they will swarm and attack, poking out your eyes and then stealing your wallet.*

My point is: be careful! These are not lost birds that are innocently trying to find their way to the sea. These are hungry, blood-thirsty, opportunistic consumers that have found their niche in the American landscape. Did you know that seagulls will eat almost anything, and that they spend most of their time looking for and consuming food? Just like my older brother, who survives solely on cheeseburgers and mountain dew, seagulls like the ones pictured here have no need for lakes and oceans. They can find everything they need at Wal-mart.

Which is why I agree with the wildlife biologist interviewed in this article, we should stop calling them seagulls. They are just plain old gulls, exactly the kind of bird you get when you pave over everything and produce lots of garbage. I actually think that 'Wal-gulls" might be a more appropriate name, and that Wal-gulls should be our new national symbol. I don't hate them, but I do find their behavior very familiar.

*This statement not supported by scientific research, just a bad dream I had one time

Apr
08
2009

Meet up or meat up?: A study of chimps in Africa has found that males who share meat they've hunted with females have twice as great a chance of breeding with that female.
Meet up or meat up?: A study of chimps in Africa has found that males who share meat they've hunted with females have twice as great a chance of breeding with that female.Courtesy LeaMaimone
Does this sound familiar?

Male chimps that are more generous to the females they’re attracted to have a better chance of, um, hooking up later on.

That is the finding in a study recently conducted in the West African nation of Côte d'Ivoire.

In the case of the chimps, it wasn’t the males’ bestowing of flowers, jewelry or gifts to females that won over their hearts. Rather, it was meat.

In short, the study found that male chimps who shared with females meat they had captured had twice as much chance of breeding with that female, than male chimps who didn’t share meat with females. (Quit your snickering all you Beavis and Butt-head fans.)

Among chimps, males are the sole hunters of other animals to gather meat. Females depend on their generosity to get protein in their diet. And they provide a signal to males as to when they’re especially ready to find some male companionship – pink swellings on their bottoms are a visual clue to the males that the females are ovulating and sexually available.

But upon further study, researchers also found that male chimps were also willing to share meat with females who weren’t in heat. The researchers surmise that the males might be doing that to build up good will among that female to improve mating chances down the road.

In a different twist on this, a separate study has found that female orangutans will steal food from males to watch their reaction and assess if the male is suitable to mate with. Overly aggressive reactions by males will actually make females less likely to want to mate with them.

Due to a lack of video stores in the study areas, no research was able to be done on the effects of watching a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy had on ape mating behaviors.

Mar
20
2009

Another giant worm: This is as friendly as they get.
Another giant worm: This is as friendly as they get.Courtesy Santheo
OMG! Friday already? Where did the week go? You know how it is: it’s Sunday, and you’re testing items in your refrigerator for freshness… and the next thing you know, it’s Friday, and you’re lying on the floor in front of the fridge! It makes one wonder if he should seriously reevaluate his life.

What’s worse (worst!) is that I almost missed a Friday Extravaganza. Think about the repercussions—I could be rereading my own posts some time in the future, and I would wonder why I skipped an extravaganza. Did I just get bored with them? Was something wrong at the time? A personal crisis? I wouldn’t know what happened! I don’t want that. So an extravaganza…

It works out pretty well actually, because the first think I thought when I lifted my head off the floor and looked into the open refrigerator was, “worms.” And this week just happened to be a slightly wormy week in the news. A slightly giant-wormy week.

Check it out, y’all: Giant sand worms!

Apparently, back in olden times (the Permian period, before the dinosaurs), there used to be 3-foot-long, six-inch wide worms! The reason we don’t have cool giant worm skeletons in our museums, of course, is that worms don’t have skeletons. And all that soft, wormy tissue doesn’t fossilize very well at all. (That’s why it’s such a big deal when we find ”mummified” dinosaurs too—soft tissue almost always rots before it can fossilize.) Short of the rare cases where soft tissue does fossilize, there are other ways to find evidence of soft, extinct animals. In this case, paleontologists found the worm’s fossilized burrow. How about that?

The articles I found didn’t provide a lot of details about the worm, except that it was big, lived underground (and underground worm?!? What?!) in part of what is now England, and it’s a completely new species. Giant arthropods (like huge millipedes) had been known to live millions of years ago, but nothing like this huge worm.

Three-foot worms… yuckers. Good thing we don’t have anything like that around today, am I right?

Wrong!! Wrong wrong wrong! This is an EXTRAVAGANZA, y’all, and would never stop with just one worm during an extravaganza! So put this in your brain and shake it: There are giant worms alive today, and they’re way, way worse than you think!

Look.

See, I would have gone on living without knowing about the giant worms among us, if I hadn’t seen this little article about how a creature wreaking havoc on a British aquarium. (It’s a Friday Giant British Worm Extravaganza, I guess.) Something was chewing apart the coral in the aquarium, and devouring its fish. The aquarium staffers tried to trap the culprit, and to fish it out with bait. The traps, however, were torn apart overnight, and the baited fishing line was bitten through. In the end, they resorted to dismantling the artificial reef. Underneath all the rocks, they found a four-foot-long reef worm!

Whoa! Four feet? That beats the prehistoric worm even!

But, come on now… we humans are prone to exaggeration. The worm couldn’t be that impressive right?

No. Wrong.

I couldn’t find anything about “giant sea worms,” but searching for “reef worm” brought up the term “bristle worm.” And “bristle worm” makes sense, because the article described the worm as having bizarre-looking jaws, and thousands of bristles, each of which are able to inflict a sting that results in “permanent numbness.”

Then I found this page, which informed me that bristle worms are complex creatures, with “two to four pairs of eyes, sensory organs, a mouth, and a brain.” (I’ll let you know right now—I don’t approve of worms having brains.) And, yes, they have bristles, which can inflict extremely painful stings. The article doesn’t say anything about the bristles being poisonous, but posits that the painful sting could be caused by calcium carbonate or silica from the bristles. This page confirmed that the worms can hitch rides on rocks into aquariums, where they grown quickly, and can become a nuisance (to say the least, I guess).

Wikipedia was the next step, of course. Wikipedia teaches us that the worms will wait buried in sand or gravel until prey swims along. The worm will then attack with such speed that the prey is sometimes sliced in half by its claws/jaws. And while an average size for the worm is about 3 feet, they have been known to grow up to nine-feet-long!

What? What kind of world is this?

Also… this particular type of bristle worm is referred to as a “Bobbit worm.” What’s that all about? I’ll tell you: according to this site, at least, Bobbit worms are so nicknamed for the fact that, after mating, female worms will often “attacks the male’s penis and feeds it to her young.” That’s right, you remember now: Bobbit.

(It occurs to me that the timing in this anecdote is a little off—exactly how would you feed the penis to your young immediately after mating? But whatever.)

Oh, man. Worm extravaganza.

See? See the Bobbit worm?

Sure, it’s fish now. Next time it could be (will be) you. Happy weekend.

Mar
20
2009

Phylogeographer Robert Wallace has Bird Flu on the brain. Like many scientific researchers, when birds and people in Asia started dying from the virus he became concerned about the possibility of a flu pandemic. Biologists know that if the bird flu virus mutates in such a way that it can pass easily between humans, millions of people worldwide could die from the disease. What no one knows for sure is when and where this mutation will take place.

With the help of his colleagues Wallace is studying the factors that contribute to outbreaks of virulent bird flu. They do this by using DNA from different strains of the virus to understand how it has changed and spread over time and distance, an area of research known as Phylogeography. Their hope is that by understanding how and where the virus mutates they can help predict, and maybe even prevent, some of the factors that could contribute to a pandemic strain of this disease. You can read an article about their recent study here.

So far Wallace and his colleagues have been able to piece together the road trip that Bird Flu has taken, and what they've found might make those of us who love chicken nuggets (and sandwiches, and lunch meats) a little uncomfortable. While you can't catch Bird Flu from eating chicken nuggets, it appears that industrial poultry production might be the perfect incubator for virulent strains of this disease. Wallace fears that if large poultry producers don't change their practices, they could eventually produce more than cheap chicken - they could breed a pandemic strain of bird flu.

But how does this work? Well, like lots of things, it's complicated. Generally speaking: because big poultry producers keep large numbers of genetically similar birds in one area, and because the immune systems of these birds are weakened by being crammed into cages and fed a poor diet, and also because new generations of birds are grown-up and shipped out quickly to make room for others, bird flu viruses can easily mutate and spread through the population. In some countries industrial production is happening in close proximity to wild populations of birds or to free-grazing domestic flocks - making it easy for these virulent strains to hitch a ride.

When you add all of this up, it starts to look as though there is a real connection between how we produce the food we eat and the diseases that threaten our health and well being. The question that comes next is how much are we willing to risk for a cheap chicken sandwich?

Mar
19
2009

He's not lying: Image subtly modified from an illustration on wikimedia commons
He's not lying: Image subtly modified from an illustration on wikimedia commonsCourtesy Haplochromis
Add it to the list! Which list?

The list of things that will kill you!

And, please, don’t quibble. The nit-pickers, the brick-counters, and the penny-slicers among you Buzzketeers might point out that, since we can really only die one time, a person can’t be killed by more than one thing, and therefore making a list is silly.

To all y’all, I say, “Shut it!” A person can be technically dead for several minutes and still be brought back into this town we call Life. Or, maybe, several fatal things could happen to you at very nearly the same time, and if the final straw could even be distinguished, we might accurately say that each contributed to your final achievement of death. Example: “Was it the hypothermia, the severe electric shock, or the brain parasites that killed JGordon?” “Hmm. Well if it was the brain parasites, him digging a fork into the toaster while trapped in a meat locker couldn’t have helped.” See?

So let’s recap the list so far:

1) Brain parasites
2) Electrocution
3) Hypothermia
4) Throwing knives (accidental)
5) Throwing knives (intentional)
6) Embarrassment (via brain aneurysm)
7) Misunderstanding enema directions
8) Falling off a high tree
9) Roller coaster decapitation
10) Poisoned dates
11) Fame

And the newest item?

. . . . .

“Predator X,” a carnivorous aquatic monster with a nine-foot-long skull, and foot-long teeth! It could totally kill you dead! The only caveat is that you would have to travel back to the cretaceous period, which is still about 65 million years further than we’re currently able to time travel. But, still, once you got there, you would be bitten like crazy.

Predator X has been lurking around the lower end of this list for a while now. For the last several years, paleontologists have been excavating a huge deposit of marine fossils on the arctic island of Svalbard. (That story was covered here on Buzz, back in October of 2006.) In fact, I wrote about another monster pliosaur uncovered at the site last March (See “Something Awesome.”) But Predator X, which was discovered on the last day of that field season, is an even more monstrous pliosaur. It looks like it was around 50 feet long, and weighed in the neighborhood of 45 tons.

(Pliosaurs, just to review, are extinct aquatic reptiles, and are not to be confused with “plesiosaurs.” Plesiosaurs are those long-necked, Nessie jobbers. Pliosaurs are related to plesiosaurs, but they had short, thick necks, and huge, scary heads.)

Back when the pliosaur we call “Something Awesome” was discovered, a paleontologist made a fun superlative sort-of statement about the new creature: “It was big enough to pick up a small car in its jaws and bite it in half.” Because Predator X is slightly larger, I’m going to save that scientist some time, and go ahead and say, “It was big enough to pick up a medium-sized car in its jaws and bite it in half.”

Very impressive, Predator X. You would so be able to kill me.

Mar
16
2009

His eyes and nipples are killing mosquitoes: But his robo brain is targeted on humans alone.
His eyes and nipples are killing mosquitoes: But his robo brain is targeted on humans alone.Courtesy TheAlieness GiselaGiardino23
If you’re like me, y’all probably woke up this morning thinking, “I wonder if the end of the world will come with a zombie apocalypse, or a laser-armed, ‘screw you dad, you’re not the boss of me’-style robot rebellion?” It’s a valid question, and the answer could be a major factor in how your week plays out. (Happy Monday, by the way. Way to go on another weekend.)

But, you know what? Zombie apocalypse or robot uprising… who says it can’t be both? Check out The Wall Street journal—it seems to me that well-intended malaria research is making each option a likely future (i.e. inevitable).

All sorts of scientists are getting terribly clever ideas about eliminating mosquitoes (and therefore malaria) these days. The Gates Foundation (among other organizations) has mosquitoes on the brain, and there plenty of money out there for anti-malaria research. And, in the tradition of Bill Gates himself, some of the projects are looking pretty smart, and kind of crazy.

Because the WSJ article only mentions it in passing, I’ll get the zombie apocalypse thing out of the way now. One of the many projects being funded by the Gates Foundation is the brainchild of a Japanese scientist who hopes to turn mosquitoes into “flying syringes.” That horrifying mental image aside, the idea is that mosquitoes could be engineered to deliver vaccinations to their hosts with every bite. It’s a nice idea… but come on! Hasn’t he ever played a video game? Let’s get real here. According to well-accepted science fiction, that sort of project always results in a zombie plague. Zombies, of course, can’t get measles, so the project would technically by a success, but I’m not prepared to get behind that one quite yet.

Now the robot/laser thing… that’s where the thrust of the article is. Apparently there are some astrophysicists out there with time in their hands, and they’re dragging the concept of the flyswatter kicking and screaming into this new century. The flyswatter of the future is similar in concept to the flyswatter of the past (also known as “the flyswatter”), in that they both are useful for killing flying insects. They differ in that the flyswatter of the past is a cheap, hand-operated device, capable of both killing a bug a couple feet away from you, as well as occupying the attention of a 7-year-old for an entire summer afternoon. The flyswatter of the future, on the other hand, is a high-power laser-based, computer-operated weapon, capable of both eliminating millions of mosquitoes within a hundred feet of the device, as well as ending civilization as we know it.

The device is a lot like the ill-fated “Star Wars” laser-based missile defense system tossed around in the 80s. And that makes sense, because the whole thing was thought up by one of the brains behind the “Star Wars” system.

The mosquito zapper works by having a computer visually recognize mosquitoes from a distance, and then instantly blasting them with a laser beam. The laser isn’t powerful enough to hurt a human, but it can turn a mosquito into a smoking husk in a fraction of a second. The computer can even tell the difference between male and female mosquitoes based on their wing beats. It’s an important distinction, because it’s only female mosquitoes that drink blood and transfer disease (whereas males just drink plant nectar).

The prototype that Star Wars-guy’s team is working on is made of parts they were able to find on ebay—a 35mm camera zoom lens, a Dell PC, a few flashlights, a little box of mirrors and lasers, and a 10-gallon aquarium full of mosquitoes. The system was able to bullseye the bugs from about 100 feet away.

Aside from the so far overlooked ethical issue of putting a laser in the hands of a robot (figuratively), the project still has a long ways to go in its development. It currently relies on a reflective screen behind the mosquito tank (the flashlights create a silhouette of each mosquito on the screen, and it’s this figure that the computer recognizes), and, to my knowledge, the areas of the planet affected by malaria are somewhat larger than a 10-gallon aquarium. It still doesn’t quite match up to the low-tech reliability of a mosquito net, either.

The scientists envision a final version of the machine being used to create an invisible wall around a village to keep out mosquitoes, or being mounted on a drone aircraft, which could bring death from above for billions of the bugs. And, naturally, it could shoot hot little lasers at the tops of our heads. (Which I would hate.)

Aside from making the device harmless to humans, the researchers are also figuring out how to ensure that the mosquito death ray doesn’t automatically destroy everything that is small and flies. We don’t want to kill butterflies, for instance, because they’re so pretty. And we don’t want to kill bees, because we need them to pollinate crops. And to make honey. And if the robots do go all Skynet on us, bees and butterflies are probably where they’d start.

Pretty neat stuff, anyhow, and not generally what you’d think of when it comes to anti-malaria research.

Mar
11
2009

The entrance to my bedroom: Inside you'll find an Xbox,  dirty dishes, and something like a bed.
The entrance to my bedroom: Inside you'll find an Xbox, dirty dishes, and something like a bed.Courtesy Rita Willaert
Unlike my bedroom, however, the Russians are frantically trying to get to the Lost World. Unless…

Oh, God! Do you think the Russians might be drilling into my bedroom? They probably want my natural resources! The thought of the Reds, bursting through my coal chute, snatching up my… clean socks, or something. Brr. It hardly bears thinking about.

But, yes, I live in a basement. “Tiempos Finales” I call it, and it bears some striking similarities to the “lost world” I read an article about recently.

There are a few key differences. The main difference, I suppose, is that the lost world the article describes is buried beneath about two miles of ice in Antarctica. Tiempos Finales is buried under 2 layers of wood flooring (and some linoleum in the bathroom) in St. Paul. Also, while a healthy person can survive almost indefinitely in the basement (assuming they have the proper protective equipment), you would suffocate, or freeze to death, or both, in Antarctica’s lost world, because it consists of sub-glacial lakes.

And while Tiempos Finales is teeming with mysterious creatures (largely arthropods—there’s rarely more than one chordate present at a time), Antarctica’s lost world only may be teaming with mysterious creatures.

But if there is anything down there, under the ice… it would be a very mysterious creature indeed. And that’s why the Russians are drilling away.

Russians and Brits are both drilling, in fact, but not together. A team of British scientists intends to drop probes into Lake Ellsworth, which they believe to be about 300 feet deep with a bottom covered in thick sediment. The Russians are drilling into the much larger Lake Vostok. Both lakes (and about 150 others) were discovered relatively recently thanks to ice-penetrating radar.

Many scientists think that it’s likely that the Antarctic lakes could hide living organisms (probably microorganisms). If that is the case, those organisms will have been isolated from the rest of the world for somewhere between 400,000 and 2 million years—ever since the ice sheet above the lake was formed. That’s a long time to spend by yourself, evolving in the cold and dark…

Cool. If any organisms are found, they’d likely be pretty different than anything else on the planet (remember my post a few weeks about aliens living among us? I knew you would. This is like that—isolated, extreme environments, etc). Also, the presence of life beneath the Antarctic ice would raise the odds that life could exist elsewhere in our solar system. Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter is the main analogy here. Europa is a frosty little moon (it’s a little bit smaller than our moon). Its surface is entirely covered with ice, but many scientists believe that a liquid water ocean could exist beneath the icy crust. The water could be kept liquid by heat generated by tidal and tectonic activity.

Organisms in the Antarctic lakes would be living under very similar conditions. With no light reaching that far into the ice, they would have to survive by consuming nutrients accumulated in the sediment millennia ago. Life on Europa might be nourished by heat and nutrients from mineral-rich hot water vents on the sea floor.

The British scientists don’t expect to break through the glacier until the Antarctic summer of 2012-2013, and when they finally do they’ll have just 36 hours to drop their probes through the 14-inch hole before it seals up again. They plan to get two probes into Lake Ellsworth. The first probe will capture video, and sample the water for living organisms, or for chemical evidence of them, and it will grab some sediment from the surface of the lakebed. The second probe will be sunk deeper into the lakebed, and will hopefully bring back several feet of sediment.

The Russians don’t plan on putting any probes into Lake Vostok—they just intend to tap into the lake to sample the water. The Russian project is somewhat controversial because their equipment is lubricated with kerosene, and is non-sterile (the British use a sterile, hot water-based drilling technique). There’s a good chance that the Russian equipment could contaminate the otherwise completely pristine lake, which, you know, slightly defeats the purpose. The Russians have had trouble with their equipment, however, and when they will break through the ice is much less certain.

So what do y’all think? Are they going to find anything? If Ellsworth and Vostok are anything like Tiempos Finales, whatever they find will be pretty depressing. Still, this is pretty cool stuff.

That wasn’t a pun.