Stories tagged Life Science

May
09
2012

Man, there has been a ton of obesity-related news this week (no pun intended).

Weight problem: This will be almost half of us by 2030 if we don't shape up.
Weight problem: This will be almost half of us by 2030 if we don't shape up.Courtesy FatM1ke

Mothers of overweight toddlers believe their children are smaller than they actually are.

Bans on school junk food pay off in California.

The US obesity rate could hit 42% by 2030. (How accurate are those predictions, anyway?)

Prepregnancy obesity could lead to lower child test scores.

Kids who sleep in their parents' bed (those that don't suffocate when a parent rolls over on them or die of SIDS, that is -- the studies are conflicting) are less likely to be overweight than kids who always sleep on their own.

(Also, Meow, a literal "fat cat," has died from complications related to his morbid obesity. This kitty weighed in at a whopping 39 pounds! And, yes, I realize that this one is a little off-topic.)

I could go on. There are also a lot of "fixes" out there for the obesity epidemic--everything from national policies to questionable medical devices and weight-loss pills or "cleanses" to "personal responsibility." Ultimately, though, the individual solution to a weight problem means balancing calories in vs. calories out. And it's almost summer here in Minnesota, so get out there and do something. Take a walk over lunch. Ride your bike to and from work. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. It turns out that you only need 20 minutes of moving around to get most of the benefits of exercise and that 100 fewer calories a day can have a major effect: 10 pounds in a year. And dropping 500 calories per day can mean a weight loss of almost a pound a week.

I thought this BMI visualizer was pretty cool. Give it a try. It will probably inspire you to go jogging or something...

May
07
2012

Brontosaurs-a-chomping: The constant eating by herds of sauropods like these no doubt produced a constant flow of methane into the atmosphere.
Brontosaurs-a-chomping: The constant eating by herds of sauropods like these no doubt produced a constant flow of methane into the atmosphere.Courtesy Public domain
Imagine you’ve been transported back in time to the Late Jurassic and you’re sitting on a gently sloping hillside watching a large herd of the gigantic sauropod dinosaurs chowing down on tons of vegetation in the valley below. What’s the one thing you might need to worry about? The herd of sauropods suddenly stampeding the hillside? A truck-sized carnivore eyeing you from the shadows? Tiny burrowing mammals gnawing at your ankles? While all these scenarios would have been possible, the most likely worry would probably be (if you’re downwind anyway) getting inundated by a warm blast of dinosaur farts.

That’s right, dinosaur flatulence - tons of it - wafting over you like a huge, stinky old blanket. Ewww.

Researchers from Liverpool John Moore's University, the University of London, and the University of Glasgow have calculated that herds of sauropods, those tiny-headed ,long-necked, long-tailed herbivorous dinosaurs that populated the Jurassic landscape about 150 million years ago, would have been eating a lot of vegetation during their lifetimes and in the process releasing a tremendous amount of methane gas from their guts and into the Earth’s atmosphere. That's a lot of cheese-cutting.

In fact, writing in the journal Current Biology, Dr. David Wilkinson and his colleagues claimed that the amount of emission of methane just from the herbivorous dinosaur gassers would have been about the same amount being emitted from all sources today - 500-520 million tons each year. Methane is a greenhouse gas that can absorb the sun’s infrared energy, and heat up the atmosphere. The producers of methane today range from ruminant species such as cows, goats, and sheep, and from human activities such as natural gas drilling, but the effects on the environment could be similar – a warming of the atmosphere. Back in the Mesozoic, average temperatures were about 18 °F higher than today. Wilkinson and his colleagues suggest the dinosaur backfires could have been a big factor in the warming of the prehistoric environment, but admit it wouldn't have been the only source of the gas back then.

"There were other sources of methane in the Mesozoic so total methane level would probably have been much higher than now," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson’s research interest lays not so much in the sauropods themselves but in the microscopic bacteria that once lined their guts. It was these microbes that converted the vegetable matter into energy and waste, including methane. Could that vast SBD Mesozoic methane source, as the researchers suggest, have been a big contributor to the warmer temperatures back then? Possibly. Or maybe it's just a lot of hot air.

SOURCE
BBC Nature News

Apr
19
2012

Buckyballs are tiny spherical molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged in what looks like a soccer ball, or a truncated icosahedron for those shape fans out there. Buckyballs are found naturally in soot and have even been found in deep space. They look promising for the medical field, for the development of a new class of battery, and now they may even be the key to living longer!Buckminsterfullerene: Just a spoonful of buckyballs helps......you live longer.
Buckminsterfullerene: Just a spoonful of buckyballs helps......you live longer.Courtesy Bryn C

In a recent study, scientists found that ingesting buckyballs can add years to your life! Well, if you're counting in rat-years. Scientists, in an attempt to better understand the toxicity of ingested buckyballs, gave three groups of rats different things to eat. One group, the control group, was fed a regular rat diet; the second group was fed olive oil; and the third, thought-to-be-ill-fated group, was fed olive oil laced with buckyballs. They found that the control group had a median lifespan of 22 months, the olive oil group had a 26-month lifespan, and the buckyball group had a 42-month lifespan – almost double that of the control group! I’m sure that was quite a surprise for the scientists.

As intriguing as these findings are, don’t go out and eat sooty olive oil…..I don’t think you’ll get the right results. This is just one study, and there’s a lot more research that needs to be done before they start selling Buckyballive oil.

Apr
06
2012

Skull of Yutyrannus huali
Skull of Yutyrannus hualiCourtesy Photo by Zang Hailong (via Nature)
A huge one-and-a-half ton theropod discovered recently in China is further shaking up our old ideas of dinosaurs being oversized scaly lizards. The fossilized remains of Yutyrannus huali, a 130 million year-old tyrannosaur uncovered in the Liaoning fossil beds show evidence of a fuzzy coating of feathers on several areas, e.g. the tail, hip, foot, neck and arm. Yutyrannus huali is a distant relative of Tyrannosaurus rex(there is some contention about this) which didn’t evolve until much later in the Cretaceous period. Evidence of feathers has been found on smaller dinosaurs including the basal tyrannosauroid Dilong but these are the first clues that larger dinosaurs had feathers. Three nearly complete and well-articulated skeletons of Y. huali - an adult and two juveniles were found in the Lower Cretaceous Yixian Formation of Liaoning Province in northeast China. The adult is quite large, being nearly 30 feet in length and estimated to have weighed in life around 3000 pounds! The two juveniles weighed around 1200 pounds. All show evidence of having filamentous feather. Large animals today, such as elephants, rhinos, and hippos are somewhat hairless and tend not to need insulation for retaining heat because of their size and the ratio of surface area of skin to their masses. Whether Yutyrannus huali’s well-known descendent Tyrannosaurus rex had any plumage remains a mystery. T. rex was six times as massive as its ancestor, and arrived on the scene 60 million years later in the Late Cretaceous when the climate was warmer. But all it takes to change that is some new fossil to come to light. Generally, it’s thought that feathers first appeared as a means of insulation, species identification, or for attracting mates long before they evolved for use in flight. Today, birds are considered the descendents of small theropods dinosaurs called dromeosaurids. The discovery of Yutyrannus huali adds new clues and additional mystery to our conception of how dinosaurs appeared in life. The new study by Chinese vertebrate paleontologist Xu Xing and his co-researchers appears in the science journal Nature.

SOURCES
National Geographic story
Nature article
NY Times story
Smithsonian's Tracking Dinosaurs

Mar
20
2012

Still image from a video of a Common Raven stripping fur off of a coyote.
Still image from a video of a Common Raven stripping fur off of a coyote.Courtesy Twin Cities Naturalist
A motion activated camera captured remarkable still images in Northern Washington County, Minnesota this week. The camera was set up on a dead coyote in hopes of discovering what scavengers would come eat. Raccoons and crows were not unexpected but it was exciting when Common Ravens showed up on the photos.

Northern Washington County is right on the edge of the breeding range of Ravens and simply seeing them during breeding season is an exciting sign they may be breeding. The photos went even further than simply showing the ravens were present however. What the series of photos which were complied into a video clearly show is a raven stripping the fur from the coyote and then carrying it away. Ravens are known to line their nests with animal fur so this is a clear indication these birds are nesting.

View the entire video here.

Information like this helps scientists build range maps of where birds breed. Many states are building breeding bird atlases with the help of citizen scientists who study bird behavior. Currently Minnesota, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia have active atlas efforts. Find out more and learn how to take part at http://bird.atlasing.org/

Mar
06
2012

Iridescence is usually a vanity thing in nature; birds and butterflies, for instance, use it to attract mates. This is Golden Mole: The tiny structures that help streamline the mole and make it water-repellant also give it its iridescence.
Golden Mole: The tiny structures that help streamline the mole and make it water-repellant also give it its iridescence.Courtesy Killer18
the type of thing that would be completely lost on a blind mole...or is it? In the case of the golden mole, iridescence is very much a part of its appearance, but according to a new study about the structure of hair, this iridescence takes on a more functional role. The nano-sized structures on the flattened, paddle-shaped hairs not only give the moles a lovely sheen (for animals that can actually see them), but may also help to repel water and streamline the moles as they move through the sand. This is definitely a case of function over form.

Feb
22
2012

This article describes the results of a study conducted by the Australian Government, which says some Australians “may be raising their risk of skin cancer by avoiding sunscreen due to unfounded fears over nanoparticles.” The article went on to say that one third of the people surveyed had heard or read about the possible risks of nanoparticles, and that 13% of these people would be less likely to use sunscreen. At first, this seemed like a very interesting finding – people would rank nanoparticles higher than skin cancer on their personal risk meters! But as I examined the article a little more, I realized I have a few issues with the way it presented the results. A Discrete Request for Regulation: The Hoff is on board.
A Discrete Request for Regulation: The Hoff is on board.Courtesy Friends of the Earth Australia

First, the article makes it sound as if survey-takers were faced with the question, “would you rather risk getting skin cancer or use a sunscreen with nanoparticles in it?” In actuality, they were simply asked if they would be less likely to use a nanoparticle-based sunscreen, given the risks they’d heard about. I realize it is implied that if you don’t use sunscreen your chances of getting skin cancer increase, but when taking a survey, you’re probably just answering the question at hand: Would you be less likely to use a product that you’ve heard could by risky. These answers are also coming from a survey that repeatedly mentions the “possible risks of using sunscreen with nanoparticles” in various questions. It seems to me that hula hooping could start to sound risky by the end of a survey like that. “Have you heard or read about the possible risks of hula hooping? If you have heard or read about the possible risks of hula hooping, do the stories make you any less likely to hula hoop in general? Agree or Disagree: 1.) Hula hooping is risky to my health. 2.) Hula hooping is more risky to my health than not hula hooping 3.) I am scared to hula-hoop.” Ok, I exaggerate a little, but the way a survey is presented has an effect on the answers people provide.

I get that they’re trying to highlight the fact that some people perceive nanoparticle-based sunscreens as dangerous, and that’s an interesting finding- not because they would stop using sunscreen, but because the current weight of evidence suggests that the nanoparticles in sunscreens don’t penetrate the skin - they’re harmless to humans. Which brings me to my point that perhaps a more telling result of the study is the high number of people who said they didn’t know if nanoparticle-based sunscreens are risky, and needed more information before deciding whether to use them. The fact that some people perceive nanoparticle-based sunscreens as dangerous when the current scientific evidence suggests otherwise, supports the idea that people just don’t know enough about nanoparticle-based products.

Now, I’m not suggesting that all nanoparticle-based products are safe, across the board. I’m also not trying to downplay people’s concerns about this relatively new technology. In fact, I think a healthy dose of caution is a good thing when it comes to new technologies. I just think that fear comes from not knowing, and people’s concerns could be alleviated if they had more information. What is concerning is that the information isn’t exactly available. There are no regulations on nano products (though the FDA appears to be working on it), companies are not required to label their products as containing nanoparticles, and there are no standards in defining what a nano product is. What I am suggesting is that maybe we should be demanding that information from the likes of industries, governments, policy makers, etc, instead of focusing on the few that perceive nanoparticles as risky.

The point of the study was to figure out the public’s perception of sunscreens that contain nanoparticles, and I think it did. It showed that the public doesn’t know enough about it to make any real/informed decisions.

What’s your take? How do you feel about nanoparticles being used in products you rely on every day? What do you think about regulating this technology? Creating standards for it? Do you think these regulations and standards would stifle scientific progress, or protect our health? What do you think about hula hooping?

Jan
17
2012

Charles Darwin: The young naturalist as he appeared during the Voyage of the Beagle.
Charles Darwin: The young naturalist as he appeared during the Voyage of the Beagle.Courtesy Public domain
A cache of long-forgotten fossils mounted on glass slides – including some collected by Charles Darwin - has been discovered in a dusty cabinet at the British Geological Survey.

Paleontologist Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang found the 314 slides while searching through the vaults of the Survey headquarters near Keyworth, UK. Each slide contains a polished thin section of a fossil plant, prepared for viewing under a microscope. But the best thing about the discovery is that some of the slides are of specimens collected by the young Charles Darwin during his legendary voyage on the Beagle. Darwin’s theory of evolution and subsequent book On the Origin of Species resulted from much of what he discovered during the five-year voyage. Among the specimens collected by Darwin is a piece of petrified wood from an island off the coast of Chile in 1834.

Falcon-Lang figures the collection has been languishing unregistered in the cabinet for 165 years. Joseph Hooker, a botanist and close friend of Darwin, worked briefly for the Geological Survey in the early 19th century, and given the job of cataloging the collection. But before Hooker could properly register the fossils, he left on an expedition to the Himalayas and the collection was soon forgotten. In the passing years the cabinet got moved several times until it reached its current storage place deep in the recesses of the Geological Survey where it was found in April of last year.

According to Falcon-Lang the lost fossils, some of which can be viewed on line, will add greatly to current science, and he expects some great scientific papers to result from the collection.

SOURCES
BBC story
Telegraph story

Dec
10
2011

The sunflower and the bee: just the kind of photograph Project Noah likes to see.
The sunflower and the bee: just the kind of photograph Project Noah likes to see.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I saw a posting on Facebook yesterday (tip of the hat to the Bell Museum) about a website called Project Noah. It’s a really cool site that allows anyone with a camera and a love of nature to upload pictures or video and help identify the plants and animals that populate our world, both locally and globally. And who doesn’t have a camera of some sort nowadays?

Anyway, according to their website Project Noah is:

"… A tool that nature lovers can use to explore and document wildlife and a technology platform research groups can use to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere. The purpose of the project is to mobilize and inspire a new generation of nature lovers. It began as an experiment to see if we could build an app for people to share their nature sightings and has evolved into a powerful global movement for both amateurs and experts. The name “Noah” is an acronym that stands for networked organisms and habitats. “

That kind of sums it up. The site is easy to navigate and figure out. I uploaded a couple photos I’d taken recently and it wasn’t difficult at all. You can also join a “mission” dealing with a particular zoological or botanical subject you’re interested in. You can contribute to the mission’s knowledge base by adding your own photographs or some information such as the genus and species of an unknown specimen captured in someone else’s photograph. I like shooting photographs up around Lake Superior so I joined the “Great Lakes Monitoring” mission. It just took a click of a button to become a part of it.

You can even start your own mission. It could be a legitimate study you’ve devised like why "megapug" bees seek out sunflowers or something as simple as a call for the best wildlife photos of the year. Here at the Science Museum we could start a mission called Rotting Pigs. I wonder how many contributions that would garner?

As mentioned, there’s even a Project Noah app that you can download for the mobile device of your choice. I downloaded it for my iPod Touch but noticed the reviews for it seem to be mixed. It only got an average rating overall, but what the hey, it’s free so I’m giving it a shot anyway. You can do the same if you'd like. I already know the site works fine on my laptop.

I’m really excited about this. It’s a novel and cool way to intermingle our ever-changing networking technologies with the rest of the natural world, and contribute something to the science community at the same time.

If you have more questions you might find the answers on Project Noah’s FAQ page.

LINKS
Project Noah

Nov
16
2011

In this video renowned paleontologists Bob Bakker and Peter Larson visit the CK Preparations lab in Montana to examine the incredible discovery by Clayton (“Dino Cowboy”) Phipps of the remains of a tyrannosaurid and some sort of ceratopsian dinosaur preserved together (and touching) in a single block of rock from the Hell Creek Formation. Both skeletons are articulated, nearly 100 percent intact, and in a wonderful state of preservation. Teeth matching those remaining in the tyrannosaurid jaws are preserved imbedded in the ceratopsian skeleton. The predator’s skull, which is speculated to be that of a Nanotyrannus, shows signs of being kicked in. Early analysis of the geology of the matrix encasing the find suggests that the two battling dinosaurs may have gotten trapped in mire or overcome by a sudden environmental catastrophe, like a cave-in. Was this a unique moment frozen in time of a battle between a predator and its prey? Do the two "combatants" represent entirely new genera of dinosaurs? These questions require further study and preparation of this very unusual fossil.

Smithsonian’s “Tracking Dinosaurs” site
Paleo-Incident Project