Stories tagged Life Science


A male in New Mexico has been confirmed as being infected with the bubonic plague; and has earned the distinction of being the first person to get it this year. The Black Plague, a flea-borne disease, has never gone completely away and individuals in some remote areas are at some risk for catching it. There are about a dozen cases in the United States from bubonic plague annually.

Plague patient admitted to New Mexico hospital

The first person in the United States this year to have the bubonic plague is a 58 year old man from New Mexico. Who this man is has not been released yet. Time states it is being kept secret for now. There are certain plague symptoms. The male had them all. He was admitted with a fever, abdominal and groin pain along with painfully swollen lymph nodes. In plague patients, lymph glands swell to the point where they're visible, which in the Middle Ages came to be referred to as a "bubo," hence the name "bubonic plague.". Wikipedia explained that "bubo" means lymph nodes. It is ancient Greek.

No need to bring out the dead

On average, there are 13 bubonic plague cases annually while 1 to 40 are typically reported, the CDC states. Without treatment, 50 to 90 percent of cases will end in death. That number drops to 15 percent when treated properly. In 2003, the World Health Organization recorded 2,118 cases in nine nations and 182 deaths. Of those cases, 98.7 percent were in Africa, as were 98.9 percent of the deaths. Most cases in the United States occur in New Mexico, according to the Miami New Times. In 2009, there were 6 New Mexico plague cases. Since 1949, there have been 262 cases total. Until the middle of the 20th century, small plague outbreaks were common. The Los Angele Times states that only then did it start to become uncommon. Outbreaks were noted in San Francisco from 1900 to 1908, and epidemics occurred in Oakland in 1919 and LA from 1924 to 1925. The plague was a real issue in 1924 in LA. There were 37 people killed from it.

Comes from fleas

"The bubonic plague, or the Black Plague or Black Death, is caused by a bacteria carried by fleas called Yersinis Pestris. Plague-infected fleas spread it by feeding on small rodents for instance prairie dogs, rats, chipmunks and ground squirrels. Individuals with pets or rodents near can have the fleas on the animal. Then, the flea can jump to the human. The disease is caused when people are bitten by fleas carrying the bacteria. There is a lot of risk in the Southwest. This is where it is the greatest. New Mexico is home to half of all cases, but other cases have occurred in Arizona, California, Nevada and Oregon. Unless the disease becomes pneumonic plague in the lungs, it is non-infections in individuals. It can help to have antibiotics. This has to be within the first 24 hrs of symptoms though.“

Articles cited

Miami New Times
Centers for Disease Control
World Health Organization
Bubonic plague on Wikipedia
Los Angeles Times


Dinosaur art: One of the many dinosaur statues created during the Science Museum of Minnesota's Diggin' Dinosaurs competition in 2007. This one resided near the Lake Harriet bandshell in Minneapolis, MN.
Dinosaur art: One of the many dinosaur statues created during the Science Museum of Minnesota's Diggin' Dinosaurs competition in 2007. This one resided near the Lake Harriet bandshell in Minneapolis, MN.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Over at the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking blog, dinosaur maniac Brian Switek has a cool article about a little girl named Annabelle who had visited New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recently and was miffed that it didn't contain any dinosaurs ("You call yourself a museum", she spewed on a comment card). Switek covers the usual early and well-known dinosaur artists such as Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Charles Knight, and Rudolph Zallinger and also mentions not only some of today's science illustrators, but also a guy I found really interesting named Allan McCollum who makes some very unusual dinosaur artwork using bone casts and other methods. He creates the dinosaur art for art's sake rather than scientific Occasionally, I've come across other dino art for art's sake, even here in the Twin Cities. Some readers will remember a few years back when the Science Museum of Minnesota held a competition called Diggin' Dinos that involved local artists painting several colorful dinosaur statues in celebration of the museum's 100th anniversary. There was a ton of dinosaur art created then, and some of the statues can still be found around the Twin Cities. Maybe the MoMA would be interested in exhibiting some of those, so next time poor Annabelle visits there she won't be disappointed.

Why the MoMA Should Have Dinosaurs


Meat: Is it your good friend, or old enemy? Tell us.
Meat: Is it your good friend, or old enemy? Tell us.Courtesy Another Pint Please...
Ok, Buzzketeers, buckle up for some meaty issues, juicy discussion, and humorless punnery. But first:

Do you eat meat?

Let me say off the bat that this isn’t a judgment thing. Yeah, I am judging you, but only on your grammar, clothing, height, gait, pets, personal odor, and birthday.

But not on your diet. So there will be no bloodthirsty carnivore or milquetoast vegetarian talk here. Y’all can have that out on your own time.

This is more of what I like to call an entirely unscientific poll about meat, the future, and your deepest secrets. (Depending on what you consider secret.)

When you get to the end, you can see what everyone else voted.

Tell us, do you eat meat? (click here for the poll)

Or jump right to the results.

Or go ahead and discuss this stuff.


For some reason paleontology news this week seems to cover the whole sensory gamut. First off, there’s a new discovery in China of a Mesozoic mammal named Liaoconodon hui that adds more transitional evidence regarding the evolution of the reptilian lower jaw into the middle ear bones found in mammals. The research was done by paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The guys over at Witmer Lab write about being involved in a study of the evolution of olfaction from small theropod dinosaurs to modern birds. The olfactory bulb is the part of the brain that detects odor, and it seems some modern birds inherited a pretty good sense of smell from their dinosaurian ancestors. Here's some video about it from the Witmer Lab site.

In the seeing department Jennifer Viegas over at Discovery News has a slide show presentation (with text) about a new study appearing in Science that suggests some dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles were nocturnal. The study is based on the sceleral ring and larger eye sockets found in the fossil remains of some prehistoric animals. Larry Witmer also mentions the subject on his blog (it’s located below the olfaction post).

Touch and taste – the last two senses - are covered in a new study of lice evolution at the University of Illinois-Urbana, and with the discovery of a new, toothy dinosaur in New Mexico.

Kevin Johnson, an ornithologist at the UI-Urbana, proposes that since lice seem to specialize in the way they annoy their host animals, it’s likely that lice that cause today’s birds to nit-pick, scratch and preen, are descended from lice that pestered feathered dinosaurs. You can read about Johnson’s research here.

Ghost Ranch, New Mexico: The red beds here have produced fossils of a new early carnivorous dinosaur.
Ghost Ranch, New Mexico: The red beds here have produced fossils of a new early carnivorous dinosaur.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Lastly, Daemonosaurus chauliodus ("evil spirit reptile with outstanding teeth") is a new carnivorous dinosaur species found recently at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. The buck-toothed theropod more-than-likely feasted on all the other creatures it shared its environment with 200 million years ago during the Triassic (yes, I know I’m probably stretching the taste sensory categorization here but I needed something). The discovery of Daemonosaurus in a block of Coelophysis remains is important because it alters scientific thought on the early history of carnivorous dinosaurs. The study was led by vertebrate paleontologist Hans-Dieter Sues of the Smithsonian and appears in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. You can also read about it at Dinosaur Tracking.

It's Friday, so it's time for a new Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
"Of the orchid genus catasetum, Charles Darwin wrote: "I never was more interested in any subject in all my life than in this of Orchids." The male flowers in this genus evolved an unusual pollination program. They propel a package of pollen onto the backs of visiting bees. The bees endure the blow (which would be like a 150-pound person getting hit with a few bowling balls) in exchange for orchid aromas that the bees use to attract mates.

Those sassy whales
Those sassy whalesCourtesy Currier & Ives
Word on the street is that sperm whales may have individual names. I hope so, frankly, because I'm sick of calling them ... that.

Sperm whales, it seems, have calls that are unique to the region they live in. So whales in the Caribbean might have a different call than whales living in the South Pacific. But there are parts of sperm whale calls that are, on the surface, the same in whales around the world.

I say, "on the surface" not as some ocean-related pun, but because there's a part of the whale's call—five clicks at the beginning of a call—that seem to be totally unique to individual whales. All whales make the five clicks, but if you analyze the sound in detail, there are actually subtle variations in the sounds that are unique to the whale making them. Because it comes at the beginning of each phrase, or "coda string," and because the variations are perceptible from every direction (some whale calls sound different depending on how the listener is oriented to the caller), some scientists think that the clicks could represent the "names" of individual whales, who are identifying themselves as they call out.

Pretty neat, huh?

PS—"Pretty neat," but not completely neat, because I probably can't distinguish between the whales' clicks. Here, then, is a short list of names for any whales interested in adopting more standard monikers:
-Squid Blood
-Moby II
-Gentle Jeff

There are, like, dozens of other possible names. These are just the first to come to mind.


Archaeopteryx: Thermopolis specimen.
Archaeopteryx: Thermopolis specimen.Courtesy Mark Ryan
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the announced discovery of the first fossils of Archaeopteryx, a remarkable chimera of both bird and reptile traits. The first evidence identified was a single feather discovered at a limestone quarry in Solnhofen, Germany. This was in 1860. The German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer described the fossil in 1861, naming it Archaeopteryx lithographica. That same year, the first skeletal remains came to light, and although headless, the London specimen, as it became known, showed clearly both avian and reptilian characteristics.

The unique and iconic fossil appeared just two years after publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and helped bolster the naturalist’s theory of evolution through natural selection because its appeared to be a transitional fossil between reptile (dinosaur) and bird. Could Darwin have asked for any better evidence?

Since then nine other specimens have been found, including the Berlin specimen around 1877, which is considered one of most complete. For many years some Archaeopteryx specimens languished in collection drawers because they had been initially misidentified as another creature entirely. In 1970, Yale paleontologist John Ostrom was investigating a so-called pteradactyl fossil at a museum in the Netherlands, when he realized it had been misidentified and was actually an Archaeopteryx. The fossil had been found at Solhofen in 1855, five years prior to the feather! The museum curator was so shaken by Ostrom’s announcement, he clumsily wrapped the specimen in a paper bag and presented it to Ostrom so he could take it back to Yale for further study. Ostrom, by the way, re-ignited the “birds are dinosaurs” debate in the 1960s after his discovery of Deinonychus and his comparison of its structural features with those of birds.

The Thermopolis specimen, the latest Archaeopteryx fossil, became known around 2005 and was donated anonymously to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming. I happened to visit the museum in June of 2007 during the first week the fossil went on public display, and was able to see the spectacular specimen firsthand. The small fossil (about 1.5 feet square) was displayed behind a small, glass opening in the wall. There was no crowd to speak of so I was able to take in and photograph the fossil for a long stretch of time by myself. Looking at it, your eye is immediately drawn to the distinct feather impressions evident on both its wings and tail. The head, arms, and legs are spread out across the slab, and even though it died 150 million years ago, it looks as flat and fresh as road kill on a modern highway.

About the size of a large crow, Archaeopteryx was an odd amalgam of both bird and reptile. It had slightly asymmetrical flight feathers, wings, and a furcula (wishbone) - all traits found in birds. But its pelvis, skull and sharp teeth were reptilian (although some skull features are bird-like), and it ha a long tail like a reptile. Its bones weren’t hollow, like the bones of modern birds are, nor is its sternum (breastbone) very pronounced; it’s flatter and without a large keel where, in birds, muscles flight are attached. And it also possesses gastralia (“belly ribs”), a feature found in reptiles and dinosaurs. The inner toe (the hallux) in the Thermopolis specimen doesn’t appear to be reversed so it couldn't grasp or perch and was probably more earth-bound than arboreal. Interestingly, its second toe was extensible – meaning it could be pulled back and elevated for tearing into flesh, just like the middle toes of such dinosaurs as Troodon and Velociraptor. Truth be told, if its feathers hadn’t been preserved, Archaeopteryx would have been classified a carnivorous bipedal dinosaur. In fact, one of the existing Archaeopteryx fossil was first identified as a Compsognathus until preparation revealed its feathers.

Solnhofen and much of Europe in the Late Jurassic: A cluster of islands off the coast of the North American continent.
Solnhofen and much of Europe in the Late Jurassic: A cluster of islands off the coast of the North American continent.Courtesy Ron Blakey, NAU Geology
So what kind of environment did Archaeopteryx live in, and why are its fossils so well preserved? Well, during the Late Jurassic, southern Germany and much of the rest of Europe were pretty much a group of large islands poking out of the Tethys Sea off the coast of North America. What is today the Solnhofen quarry was then part of an island lagoon protected by a barrier reef. Geological evidence in the strata suggests the lagoon dried up several times followed by periods of re-flooding with seawater. Mixed into a brackish soup of coral debris and mud, and in a warm climate conducive to rapid evaporation, the lagoon’s bottom water levels became anoxic, that is depleted of oxygen. Low oxygen meant less bacterial activity and subsequently slow decomposition of any organism that happened to die or get swept into the stagnant lagoon. Burial in the carbonate muck was swift, leaving fresh carcasses no time to be pulled apart by currents or scavengers.

Solnhofen limestone has been used for centuries as a building stone. Because the rock’s matrix is so fine and splits so evenly (sediment deposition likely occurred in very calm waters), the material was later quarried to produce stones for lithography, a printing technique first developed in 1796, and the source of Archaeoperyx’s species designation. Many early scientific illustrations, including some of the first images ofArchaeopteryx were preserved as lithographs created using Solnhofen limestone.

Archaeopteryx commorative coin: Germany will issue the 10 Euro coin in the summer of 2011
Archaeopteryx commorative coin: Germany will issue the 10 Euro coin in the summer of 2011Courtesy Federal Republic of Germany
Solnhofen’s fossil record shows that the lagoon’s biological population was diverse. Fish, turtles, lizards and insects, crocodiles, crustaceans, ammonites, squid and starfish, mollusks, pterosaurs, and even the soft remains of jellyfish are preserved in the fine-grained limestone. But the premiere creature is of course the Archaeopteryx, which remains the earliest bird (or most bird-like dinosaur, if you will) known to date. As research on existing specimens continues and new fossils appear it's exciting to imagine what advances will take place in the dinosaur-bird connection debate. Whatever happens, Archaeopteryx lithographica will remain one of the most significant and iconic fossils ever discovered. It's no wonder that later this year on August 11th, the Federal Republic of Germany will issue a 10 Euro silver coin to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the discovery of its most famous fossil.


Witmer Lab Archaeopteryx blog
UCMP Archaeopteryx page
Solnhofen limestone of the Jurassic


Polyommatus blue butterfly
Polyommatus blue butterflyCourtesy Rongem Boyo
One of my favorite 20th century writers is the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). Many people were (and many probably still are) shocked by the subject of his best-known novel, Lolita, which he wrote in English in the early 1950s. But Nabokov’s use of the language in that book - and others - is at times so exquisite and so finely-crafted, that it’s equally shocking to realize that English wasn’t his native tongue but rather his second language taught to him by his governess while he was growing up in St. Petersburg. He was also well versed in French, so language played an important role in his life, as his many novels, poems, and essays attest. But growing up to become one of the 20th century’s greatest writers was not something he planned, because at age seven he had discovered another passion: collecting butterflies.

Nabokov said in later interviews that had it not been for the 1917 Russian Revolution, he would have probably been a lepidopterist at some obscure museum in St. Petersburg. But fate brought him eventually to the United States where (before publication of Lolita made him independently wealthy) he made his living mainly by teaching literature at Wellesley College and Cornell University. He also volunteered at the American Museum of Natural History - where he learned to dissect butterflies - and at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

During the summer months he liked to mix his passions as he explained in the afterword to later editions of Lolita:

Every summer my wife and I go butterfly hunting. The specimens are deposited at scientific institution, such as the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard or the Cornell University collections. The locality labels pinned under these butterflies will be a boon to some twenty-first-century scholar with a taste for recondite biography. It was at such of our headquarters as Telluride, Colorado; Afton, Wyoming,; Portal, Arizona, and Ashland, Oregon that Lolita was energetically resumed or on cloudy days.

Around 1945 he came up with a new theory of migration for the Polyommatus blue butterflies. Without the use of genetics and by studying anatomical features (mostly genitalia), Nabokov speculated that Polyommatus blues found in South America evolved by migrating in five waves from Asia across the Bering Strait. At the time the prevailing migration theories involved land bridges across the Pacific, so no one gave Nabokov’s hypothesis much weight.

Professional lepidopterists weren’t that impressed with Nabokov. They admitted he was decent enough researcher and at describing specimens (his published descriptions numbered in the hundreds) but they didn’t think he offered much in the way new ideas.

But now it seems Nabokov has been vindicated. A new report in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London has determined - through DNA analysis – that Polyommatus blues have indeed evolved through five separate migrations from Asia over the Bering Strait.

“It’s really quite a marvel,” said co-author Naomi Pierce of Harvard. Pierce was part of a team of lepidopterists from England and the United States that made several expeditions to Chile to study and collect specimens of Polyommatus blues, then returned to the lab for gene sequencing and computer analysis of the data. The results showed that the Polyommatus blues did indeed originate in Asia, and were more closely related to that 10 million year-old ancestor than they were to their South American neighbors. But they also revealed that the first wave arrived when the temperature along the Bering Strait was warmer. But that temperature was in decline, and subsequent migrations brought in hardier species of Polyommatus, better suited to colder temperatures that correlated with the temperature range existing around the Bering Strait at the time of each wave. The conclusions matched Nabokov’s hypothesis to a “t”.

“By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.”

Paleontologist Stephen J. Gould included an essay in one of his many books about Nabokov’s split loyalties between art and science (he termed it “intellectual promiscuity”) proposing if the writer had kept focused on just writing he might have created another Lolita. On the other hand, Gould mused, if Nabokov had only studied butterflies, he could have become a well-known (at least in some obscure circles) lepidopterist. If it sounds like the old adage “you can’t serve two masters”, Nabokov seems to have pulled it off equally well in both arenas. I think had it not been for his writing and the lifestyle it afforded him, he wouldn’t have had the luxury of pursuing lepidoptery as fervently and successfully as he did; and without his butterfly collecting, he never would have written his masterpiece. If you asked the seven year-old Vladimir what he wanted most to be remembered for, his answer wouldn’t have been “writing a great novel”. He had another aspiration in mind, which he fulfilled several years later during one of his summer breaks from teaching. While visiting the Grand Canyon with his wife, Nabokov discovered a new species of butterfly which he named Neonympha dorothea in honor of a family friend who was traveling with them. His satisfaction poured out a couple years later in a poem:

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer – and I want no other fame.

- On Discovering a Butterfly (1943) by Vladimir Nabokov.

NYT story
Bioephemera article


Dragonfly wing: Its structure is aiding wind-power researchers
Dragonfly wing: Its structure is aiding wind-power researchersCourtesy Mark Ryan
Researchers in Japan are studying the wing structure of dragonflies to help improve how micro wind turbines perform during high winds. Micro turbines are small, affordable energy converters that can be used in both urban and rural settings where giant turbines would be too expensive, too large, and too impractical. Micro turbines can be set up relatively easily in configurations of a single unit or as a bank of several units, and the energy generated can be stored in batteries.

They work on the same principle as the large turbines, but can generate power in wind speeds as low as 4 or 5 miles per hour. One fallback, though, is their generators can get overloaded when hit with high storm winds, producing more energy than the system can handle. Large turbines solve this problem by tilting their propellers - either by computer or otherwise - and adjusting their rotation speed. But that kind of technology just isn’t affordable with micro turbines.

That’s where studying dragonfly wings comes in. Aerospace engineer Akira Obata of Nippon Bunri University in Oita, Japan wondered how dragonflies were able to remain stable in flight at low speeds. He placed a plastic model of a dragonfly wing into a large tank of water laced with aluminum powder and videotaped the flow patterns. He noticed that as the water flow slowed down vortices arose on the wing’s surface that allowed the water to pass over the wing at the same speed, thus keeping it stable. But when water flow sped up the wings aerodynamics performance decreased.

So, Obata developed an inexpensive paper micro turbine with similar “dragonfly wing” bumps on its surface and it did just as he hoped. When air speeds flowing over the turbine wing increased between 15 and 90 mph, rather than speeding up its rotation and overwhelming its battery, the micro turbine curved into a conical shape that stunted rotation and kept power generation low.

New Scientist story
CNBC story on homemade micro turbine
Make your own micro turbine


PterodactylsCourtesy Mark Ryan
A recently discovered pterodactyl fossil is providing lots of new information about the flying reptiles. The 160 million year-old fossil slab contains the remains of an adult specimen known as Darwinopterus, and was brought to light by a farmer who discovered it in Jurassic-aged deposits in China. Pterodactyls - also known as pterosaurs – populated the skies of the Mesozoic Era and were contemporaries of their distant relatives, the dinosaurs. Remains of pterodactyls aren’t uncommon and have been found in many parts of the world. What makes this fossil so unusual and valuable is that it also contains an unhatched egg, evidence that strongly suggests the adult is a female. The research team, made up of scientists from Great Britain and China, nicknamed the specimen “Mrs. T”.

Extensive examination of the fossil revealed that the adult specimen has wide hips, but is without a crest on its head. This contrasts with other known specimens of pterodactyls that have both large crests and narrow hips.

"Mrs T shows two features that distinguish her from male individuals of Darwinopterus,” said David Unwin, a paleobiologist from the University of Leicester who was involved with the study. “She has relatively large hips, to accommodate the passage of eggs, but no head crest. Males, on the other hand, have relatively small hips and a well developed head crest. Presumably they used this crest to intimidate rivals, or to attract mates such as Mrs T.”

Bird eggs are relatively large and hard-shelled, but the Darwinopterus egg is small and appears to be soft-shelled, like that of a crocodile. Dinosaurs, crocodiles and pterosaurs split off from a common archosaur ancestor during the Permian age about 250 million years ago.

This all means paleontologists will be now able to separate male pterodactyls from female pterodactyls. Until this recent discovery many had been categorized as separate species. The study appears in the journal Science.

Science Daily story
NY Times story