Stories tagged Diversity of Organisms


He missed the boat: Actually, Friendventure sailed without him on purpose. We told him to go buy some more gatorade for the trip, and split as soon as he was out of site. You can see it in his eyes.
He missed the boat: Actually, Friendventure sailed without him on purpose. We told him to go buy some more gatorade for the trip, and split as soon as he was out of site. You can see it in his eyes.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Ahoy, Buzznauts, the goodship Friendventure has set sail once again. We’ll be traveling through the treacherous waters of the horn (some horn or other—I’m not sure which), where many a young scientist have been sent to their frigid, watery dooms, like so many Leonardo DiCaprios. So set your wills straight, harden your hearts, and focus on the wealth of knowledge at journey’s end!

Let’s see here… what random questions from the science museum are hiding in Lieutenant JGordon’s Random Question Bag? Here we go…

Q) Why aren’t the insides of sweet potatoes white? —Angela

A) Good Q), Angela, but I’m afraid that I might not have a great A) for you. But we’ll see. First of all, sweet potatoes aren’t white like potatoes because they aren’t potatoes. Sweet potatoes are related to “normal” potatoes, but only distantly so—sweet potatoes and potatoes belong to the same order, but different families, genera, and species. That means that sweet potatoes and potatoes are about as closely related as humans are to howler monkeys. And while humans and howler monkeys are probably more or less the same color on the inside, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to plants.

So… sweet potatoes are, in fact, the edible root of a plant very similar to the morning glory flower. They get their color from the compounds in their flesh, compounds that regular potatoes might not have much of. Orange sweet potatoes, for instance, are high in the vitamin beta carotene, the darker they are, the more beta carotene they have. Red, purple, and blue shades of sweet potatoes get their color from anthocycanins, healthy flavonoid molecules that seem to be beneficial in combating cancer, aging, inflammation, diabetes, and bacterial infections. How about that?

Man, that was a great A)! I can’t believe I ever doubted myself.

Q) When did the dinersors die? And why?

A) I appreciate your spelling of “dinosaurs,” friend. Very rich and earthy. Well, sir, when the dinersors died is something we can answer with some certainty—the last of the dinersors died off about 65 million years ago. It was a very sad period for the planet, because dinersors were the most awesome. Let’s put that time (65 million years ago) into perspective: your mom was born about 35 years ago; the cotton gin was invented 215 years ago; the last wooly mammoth croaked about 3700 years ago (don’t argue! We’re talking pygmy mammoths on Wrangel Island); cheese was invented between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago; modern humans evolved about 200,000 years ago; hairy cave people probably figured out how to control fire around 1 million years ago; the Rocky Mountains finished growing about 40 million years ago; and the last dinosaur thought “Wait a second… I haven’t had to wait in line for months!” about 65 million years ago. No dinosaur fossils appear from after that time.

The “why” is trickier, especially if you mean it in a philosophical way. It’s pretty well agreed upon that a six-mile-wide meteorite hit the Earth near where Mexico is today and made life very difficult (impossible) for the dinersors. This doesn’t mean that every dinosaur was literally crushed to death by the meteorite—something that big would certainly have killed a lot of animals immediately, but it would have also thrown so much dust and smoke into the air that temperatures around the planet would drop significantly. It’s like the whole planet was made a little bit shadier for a long time. Even a small change in temperature can have huge effects for some animals—if a lot of plants died from the change in temperature, plant-eating dinosaurs would also die, and then meat-eating dinosaurs would die. Something like that.

There are also some scientists who think that something else entirely, or a combination of things, could have caused the dinersors to all die. One of the main alternative theories is that a series of huge volcanic eruptions in an area of India called the Deccan Traps, finished off the dinosaurs. The eruptions occurred at around the same time as the meteorite impact, and lasted for about 30,000 years. The volcanoes would have had what is scientifically referred to as a “double-whammy” effect on the world of the dinersors: dust from the eruptions would have blocked sunlight, killing off plants, and the massive amounts of volcanic gas released could have contributed to rapid (geologically speaking) global warming on a dramatic scale. Just like with global cooling, an increase in temperature that occurs too quickly can cause extinction for slow-adapting organisms.

Q) Why do turtles have shells?

A) I’m not even going to look this one up. Turtles have shells to protect themselves from the ninja stars of the Foot Clan.

Q) Can any fish breathe air?

A) A nautically themed question! Yes! And, yes, some fish can breathe air.

All fish breath oxygen, but most do it by absorbing gas that is dissolved in water through their gills. The fish that breath air air, if you follow, do it in different ways. Some eels can absorb oxygen right through their skin. Some catfish can gulp air, and absorb it through their digestive tracts. Lungfish and bichirs actually have a pair of lungs, similar to mammals.

Some air-breathing fish will only do so if there is too little oxygen in the water for their gills to work, but some are “obligate air breathers”—they need to breath air occasionally, or they will suffocate. The electric eel is, of course, my favorite obligate air breather. 80% of the oxygen used by electric eels is obtained through breathing air.

And that’s all we have time for right now. Answering random questions is serious business, but then again so is sailing.


It's a darn feast!: When I die, my stomach will be so full of moss, scientists of the future will be ecstatic.
It's a darn feast!: When I die, my stomach will be so full of moss, scientists of the future will be ecstatic.Courtesy Martin LaBar
That little devil Otzi is in the news again.

I readily acknowledge the fact that I haven’t lived my life quite up to Otzi standards—I don’t have any tattoos (that I know of), I’ve never killed anybody (that I know of), I don’t own a cape…the list goes on—but I hope that when hikers find my frozen corpse, thousands of years in the future, they’ll be as thrilled with it as they are with Otzi. Honestly, every millimeter of our leathery friend is getting the once over and the double take.

Scientists figured out what Otzi’s last meal was years ago (they practically dove into his stomach), but they’re still going over the most minute of minutia of the iceman’s guts. And, you know what? I’m into it.

Archaeobotanists and moss-experts are the last to have taken a swing at Otzi. They have found trace remains of six different kinds of moss in Otzi’s intestines, and were able to identify them under a microscope. None of those moss varieties, interestingly, are the kinds of moss that you’d eat (if there are any kinds of moss you’d eat). They do, nonetheless, add to the details of Otzi’s life.

One of the kinds of moss, the scientists guess, was used to wrap one of Otzi’s last meals (sort of a fuzzy saran wrap, I guess), another probably got into his water, and another was most likely used as a dressing for a wound (he probably chewed it up and swallowed a little). At least one of the mosses, however it got into him, isn’t known to grow in the region where Otzi was found, adding another location to Otzi’s travel diary. So cross that off your bucket list, little dude.

None of this information is insulating my attic, or buying me dinner, but I still think it’s pretty cool. The same sort of forensic techniques we might use to solve a murder today are being used to learn about the life of a guy who died 53 centuries ago. I like it.


Man vs. mammoth: Is a face-off like this in our future...again?
Man vs. mammoth: Is a face-off like this in our future...again?Courtesy redskunk
Scientists are another step closer to making Jurassic Park a reality. Well, not quite Jurassic Park, but certainly Pleistocene Park.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have decoded 80 percent of the DNA for the woolly mammoth, an elephant ancestor that went extinct about 10,000 years ago. The results of their study appear in the journal Nature.

The DNA was extracted from actual mammoth hair found preserved in the permafrost of Siberia. Hair encapsulates DNA, providing a purer source of the genetic material than that found in fossil bones that are vulnerable to contamination by bacteria and other creatures involved in decomposition. We covered this in a previous post.

About six million years of evolution separate the wooly mammoth from its modern descendents the Indian and African elephants. And so far they appear genetically to be very similar, although a complete assessment of differences won’t be available until the complete genomes of mammoths and modern elephants are mapped. The data sets for each is comprised of about 4 billion DNA bases.

But even then you don’t have to worry about rogue mammoths running amok on the interstates (have you ever hit a moose? Multiply that experience by about 15). Science is still decades away from cloning an actual specimen – or even a hybrid with a living elephant - from the genetic material. The technology just isn’t there yet. But that’s not the only thing in the way.

"It could be done,” said co-author Stephan Schuster, a biochemistry professor at Penn State. “The question is, just because we might be able to do it one day, should we do it?"

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The same question was posed by one of the characters in Michael Crichton's book Jurassic Park just before things got really hairy.


Penn State's mammoth research page
Live Science story
Previous Buzz story on mammoth cloning


Zoological counterstategists are working around the clock: If they discover what would happen if they wrapped themselves around our faces... The war would be over.
Zoological counterstategists are working around the clock: If they discover what would happen if they wrapped themselves around our faces... The war would be over.Courtesy ccaviness
Breaking news from the field of science: mollusks remain strange, unnerving. Chief among their many unsettling attributes are tentacles, highly developed brains, and an inborn desire to mess up the world of men.

A German octopus, name of Otto, has been conducting small-scale trial runs of what is no doubt a plan to disrupt that county’s entire electric infrastructure.

The staff of the Sea Star Aquarium in Colburg, Germany, had been baffled by the facility’s frequent short circuits and subsequent aquarium-wide power failures, until they began taking turns sleeping on the floor to discover the source of the problem. They found that two-foot seven-inch Otto the octopus, apparently irritated by the bright light over his tank, was climbing to the rim of his aquarium to shoot jets of water at the 2000-watt spotlight above him. The electrical havoc that followed allowed Otto to get his beauty sleep (and shut off the pumps in all the other tanks, slowly suffocating the aquarium’s other animals).

Aquarium officials refuse to acknowledge the threatening situation in front of their faces, instead making excuses for the octopus. When the aquarium closes for the winter, they claim, Otto gets bored and causes mischief for attention and stimulation. In addition to the dangerous act of vandalism above, Otto has been seen juggling the hermit crabs that he lives with, damaging the glass of his tank by throwing stones at it, and obsessively rearranging the items in his tank, to “the distress of his fellow tank inhabitants.”

This is a dangerous situation. What’s to be done here?


Yeah, sort of scary: I mean, look what it's doing to the concept of public art! Oh, wait, this is the Mothman.
Yeah, sort of scary: I mean, look what it's doing to the concept of public art! Oh, wait, this is the Mothman.Courtesy billy liar
Hey, y’all, it’s time for a brand new Science Buzz feature: Is that, like… scary? On Is that, like… scary? we’ll be posing the question “Is that, like… scary?” with regards to one of the many, like, scary things out there. Out there in the world.

Because this is a brand new, first of its kind sort of thing, all y’all Buzzketeers should feel lucky: this could be a valuable experience. Not now, certainly, but I think it’s pretty likely that the cash value of this moment in history will be skyrocketing before too long. Heck, if you play your cards right, time the market, etc, you could pay your way through college just by telling people about this. So get on the boat, and ask yourself, “Is that, like… scary?

I don’t want to throw you guys into the deep end just yet, though—you have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to have the right clothing on before you can crawl, so let’s ease ourselves into this.

So… flesh-eating bacteria—Is that, like… scary? Duh, yes, it’s very like scary.

Feral dog packs—Is that, like… scary? Well, it’s sort of like scary.

Seasonal allergies—Is that, like… scary? No, dude, that’s not like scary.

This thing—Is that, like… scary? Uh, yeah, that’s a lot like scary.

Are you starting to get a feel for things here? Good. We can get to the meat now: vampire moths.

Are vampire moths, like… scary? Maybe, maybe. We’d better take a closer look, courtesy of National Geographic.

What we’ve got is a Siberian moth that, like the common vampire, does indeed suck blood. It uses its “hook-and-barb-lined tongue” to drill through skin and start slurping. And while vampire moths aren’t new, blood-drinking in this Siberian population actually does seem to be a recent adaptation—aside from the vampire thing, only slight differences in wing patterns distinguish the blood sucker from its vegetarian cousins, who use their pokey little tongues for jabbing fruit. But these moths, when offered a hand by the scientists, dug right in. So, at some not-so-long-ago point, the little apple-biters got the idea (in an evolutionary way) to just start drinking blood. Cuz it’s so good.

I think that makes them a little more, like, scary. If a little lamb passed up a handful of nutritious, green lamb food in favor of taking a chunk out of your wrist, it would be kind of creepy, wouldn’t it? That’s sort of how I feel about vampire moths.

It turns out that that only the male moths drink blood. Scientists aren’t totally sure why, but they think the blood allows the males to give female moths a gift of salt during copulation. Apparently lady moths are into salt. This specific salt-gathering strategy could have evolved from behaviors like drinking tears (that’s, like… creepy), feeding on dung (that’s, like… funny), and dipping into pus-filled wounds (that’s, like… getting closer to scary).

The next step for the researchers will be to compare the DNA of the vampires to their vegetarian cousins, to see how different they are, and how long it could have been since the species split apart.

So what do you think? Is that, like… scary?


Malus domestica 'Honeycrisp'
Malus domestica 'Honeycrisp'Courtesy Art Oglesby

Honeycrisp, my favorite apple

Around the end of September I eagerly visit an apple orchard to stock up on Honeycrisp apples. I first experienced Honeycrisp apples back when they were first released in 1991 because I lived next door to Jack Kelly and what is now part of Apple Jack Orchards. I was impressed by the "explosively crisp" snap as you bite into the apple and its sweet, juicy flavor that also has a hint of tartness. Here is a quote about the Honeycrisp apple from the University of Minnesota Extension:

Honeycrisp fruit is characterized by an exceptionally crisp and juicy texture. Its flesh is cream colored and coarse. The flavor is sub-acid and ranges from mild and well-balanced to strongly aromatic, depending on the degree of maturity. It has consistently ranked as one of the highest quality apples in the University of Minnesota sensory evaluations.

The Honeycrisp story is remarkable

I first read the amazing story about how the Honeycrisp was developed in the City Pages. James J. Luby and David S. Bedford, working within the Department of Horticultural Science University of Minnesota, have given a big boost to Minnesota's apple growers and the horticulture department.

Bedford calls it a "lifesaver." According to the university's office of technology commercialization, Honeycrisp has generated $6.3 million for the institution, placing it among the school's top five most lucrative inventions. (The U receives $1.35 a tree and splits royalty income in thirds, with one portion going to the inventors, another to the college and department where the faculty work, and the third into a general research fund.)

How the Honeycrisp apple is produced

Apple breeder David Bedford tastes between 500 and 600 apples every day. Bedford is trying to find the genetic gems from among the nearly 20,000 trees in the horticulture department's orchards. Only 15 or so have the "wow" that allows their genetics to advance to the next round. Hand pollinating select blossoms and using wax bags to prevent any stray pollination, produces the next generation of seeds. The ancestors of the Honeycrisp were in the crop of 1960. A bad freeze almost eliminated the genetic line in 1980. When the parent trees were killed by a 1 in 50 yr. freeze, the offspring were classified as unacceptable. Bedford decided to let them have a chance, and

A few years later, when the clones began bearing fruit, Bedford was shocked by the apples' crispness and juiciness, which reminded him of an Asian pear. "The thing I remember was that the texture was so unusual, I wasn't sure if it was good or bad," he says.

Read more about the Honeycrisp saga

The complete story is fascinating. You can read more by clicking the City Pages link. Probably the best description of the Honeycrisp apple sage is told at An addendum within this webpage added this surprising quote:

Records and public releases from the University of Minnesota from 1991 to the present have identified the parentage of Honeycrisp as the cross 'Macoun' x 'Honeygold'. But recently completed DNA testing has determined that neither Macoun nor Honeygold are parents of Honeycrisp.

The testing determined for certain that Keepsake, another apple from the University of Minnesota's apple breeding program that was released in 1978, is one of the parents. But, despite extensive searching, the other parent has not been identified. There is no DNA match among any of the varieties that are thought to be possible parents.

The University's Research Center routinely crosses and plants thousands of seeds annually, moving them and the resulting seedling trees from place to place over a period of years, so there are multiple points where a mix-up could take place.


It's thinking about what it's going to do to you: It'll probably just hug you.
It's thinking about what it's going to do to you: It'll probably just hug you.Courtesy Datuk Chan Chew Lun
Light your sparklers Buzzketeers! It’s celebration time! And if you don’t have sparklers, go ahead and light any old thing! Because the world officially has a new largest insect!

Bang a gong!

This new bug is actually dead, and has been dead for about thirty years, but the international insect size record committee has had a lot of back work to do, and I guess they only just got around to it.

Anyway, we just have to accept that now everybody can measure insects as quickly as we might hope, and move on to this massive bug—Chan’s Megastick. (Or Phobaeticus chain if you’re going to be a jerk about it.) It looks… like a stick, really. A stick that’s nearly two feet long.

That’s right, y’all, the megastick is over 22 inches long from front legs to back legs, with a 14-inch-long body. It lives by disguising itself among the treetops, until a human walks beneath it, at which point it dives down, and inserts itself into the person’s body. It lives the remainder of its life there, laying eggs in all major organs, and scurrying around just beneath the skin.

That, or they spend their lives moving slowly and eating plants. Which ever you choose to believe.

The record-breaking specimen was collected decades ago in Borneo by a local giant bug enthusiast. Ten years later, the Malaysian naturalist Datuk Chan Chew Lun found the remarkable insect in the collection, and it was only announced to be a new species (among more than 3000 species of stick insects) last week. It edged out the previous record holder by less than an inch.

A huge, huge bug. How do you feel about that?


Which is the real gnome?: I'm not sure, but I'll tell you how to find out: hit each one with an aluminum baseball bat. Or drop them in an above ground pool. Or both.
Which is the real gnome?: I'm not sure, but I'll tell you how to find out: hit each one with an aluminum baseball bat. Or drop them in an above ground pool. Or both.Courtesy B Tal
Do you guys remember the South American crab-walking gnome? Of course you do. I posted about it this spring, after all. But a refresher may be in order—the Argentinean city of General Guemes was in some sort of panic earlier this year, because a shadowy, knee-high creature had been seen sidling around the town late at night. It may or may not have worn a pointy hat. Some local teens even caught the little creeper on video one night (much screaming was heard, but very few fine details could be made out on the crab-walker). While General Gueme’s citizens weren’t certain exactly what was stalking their streets, they knew one thing: they didn’t like it.

And now it’s back (on video, again). See for yourself.

This footage leaves me with two questions, neither of which are directly related to gnomes. Question 1: Is this even appropriate for a science blog? Isn’t this kind of pushing it?

The answer, to both parts of question one, is “yes.” Of course it’s appropriate, because I said so. And it is indeed pushing things. But, if we didn’t push the boundaries of what we think is ridiculous now and again, think of all the stuff we’d miss. Crab walking gnomes would be out of the question altogether.

And question 2: Why are Argentinean, trouble-making, teenage boys spending their nights waltzing with each other in the middle of the streets? Shouldn’t they be stealing things somewhere? Or practicing their vandalism? If they had to do some street waltzing, you wouldn’t think they’d want it on tape. This is the most questionable part of the video, as far as I’m concerned.

So what do y’all think? Hijinks and shenanigans? Scary little gnome-sidler? And, if none of the above, what manner of person or creature is this? Must we turn the conversation to dwarfism? Or does anybody have a more creative suggestion?

Now, in my last gnome-related post, I received some flak for my suggestion to use net-guns on the gnome. With that in mind, I am now revising my gnome-defense suggestions: cover General Guemes in glue traps. Then, when the craw-walker is captured, it will be easy to verify whether we’re dealing with a true gnome, or a run of the mill little person in a pointy hat. In the latter case, the person should be congratulated on their craftiness, and sent on their way. If it does turn out to be a gnome, however, or possibly a large crab in a pointy hat, then I say that citizens should have free reign with their, net guns, tazers, non-lethal deterrent sprays, etc. Whatever you can find around the house, really. The gnome, of course, won’t be going anywhere.


These are what snowy footprints look like: Just  a visual reference for you.
These are what snowy footprints look like: Just a visual reference for you.Courtesy EJP Photo
There’s snow on the cryptocouch, y’all. How did it get there? I thought the cryptocouch was in a basement somewhere. (That’s what you say.) And that’s what I thought too.

We were wrong. The cryptocouch, it seems, is very much a mobile entity. Sure, it lives in a basement, and that’s where we all (w’all) most often sit on it, but the cryptocouch also travels. It’s like that bed from the Nintendo Entertainment System’s Little Nemo: The Dream Master (Nemo! Help your cat, little man!)—the sucker flies. It flies.

It has to fly, because how else could we explain the snow? See, the cryptocouch has just recently returned from the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, where it was following a group of Japanese researchers on a mountaintop nearly five miles high.

This particular peak, Dhaulagiri IV, happens to be where the Japanese team claims to have found traces of the legendary yeti. That’s right, y’all, yeti is in the house again already. He’s just not in your house. The primary goal of this expedition was to catch a yeti on film.

And that didn’t happen. But they did find something almost as good: yeti footprints in the snow. (Oh, that’s where all that snow came from, cryptocouch.)

Photographs of the prints can be found at the link above, or at the team’s own site here. Don’t get all sassy if that link doesn’t work, though—you aren’t the only one who wants to see yeti footprints.

If you can’t see the photos, or refuse to do anything that you’re told to do (I’m with you there, brother), here’s the deal: the footprints (or footprint, I’m not totally certain) were found in crusty snow on the mountain, and measure about 8 inches long. The leader of the team insists that they don’t belong to any of the other local animals, saying that his team has been coming to the region for years, and knows what bear, deer, wolf, and snow leopard prints look like; these prints look different.

On a previous expedition, a team member thinks he caught a glimpse of the silhouette of a possible yeti. It was about 200 meters away, but he estimated its height at about 1.5 meters (slightly less than 5 feet). So this particular yeti doesn’t have all that imposing of a figure.

Short yeti or no, we aren’t here to judge, are we? Well, we sort of are, but we aren’t handing out value judgments. We’re here to evaluate the evidence, and to decide if it’s likely that there’s a diminutive hairy man roaming the slopes of the Himalayas. The footprint isn’t quite doing it for me, but the couch saw fit to make the trip, so we’ll be sticking with the yeti for now.



Check out my horns: This is a slightly different  sub-species of pachyrhinosaurus than the type that's been discovered in Alberta, Canada. Click on the link in the story to see the wild horn arrangement of this latest model.
Check out my horns: This is a slightly different sub-species of pachyrhinosaurus than the type that's been discovered in Alberta, Canada. Click on the link in the story to see the wild horn arrangement of this latest model.Courtesy ArthurWeasley
The wild array of spikes on a triceratops-like dinosaur may look menacing and good for fighting, but researchers think their main purpose may have been to attract mates.

Here’s the full report on the new findings about pachyrhinosaur lakustai, including a pretty wild photo. All totaled, the dinosaur had six spikes arranged around its head. And they weren’t there to pick a fight but rather to attract the other sex of the species.

Paleontologists have hit a gold mine of information on pachyrhinosaurs in a bone bed found in Alberta, Canada. So far they’ve found 15 complete skulls and pieces of 27 different specimens while having only dug in about five percent of the bone bed area.

Younger members of the species have few if any horns on their frills and face while older, larger specimens have much more facial spiking. That’s the clue that leads researchers to think that the spikes were as much a part of mate attraction as defense.

Interested in seeing some other freaky looking dinosaurs? Here’s another link that National Geographic has on some wild-looking specimens.