Courtesy M. R. Smith / Smithsonian InstituteOne of the strangest and more mysterious critters that scurried across the Middle Cambrian seafloor has baffled paleontologist since it was first identified in the 1970s. Was it a worm? Which side was up? Did it have legs or spikes or both? Was its head actually its tail? Did it have any extant descendents or was it an evolutionary dead-end? The worm-like creature was so baffling and so bizarre, it was given the very apropos name of Hallucigenia.
The tubular, spiked-worm possessed seven or eight pairs of legs and ranged in length from 2/5th of an inch to one and 1/4 inches and looks like something out of a bad dream. Early interpretations of their fossils were all over the map. The stiff spikes on it back were first thought to be its legs, and its legs misidentified as tentacles. What was thought to be its tail ended up being its head.
Using modern imaging technology, researchers from the University of Cambridge have been closely studying fossils from the famous Burgess Shale quarry located high in the Canadian Rockies, and are uncovering Hallucigenia's secrets. By studying the claws at the end of its legs they have been able to link it to modern velvet worms (onychophorans). Scientists have long suspected the two were somehow related but until now have failed to find anything significant to prove it. By studying Hallucigenia's claws they've determined that they're constructed of nested cuticle layers, very similar to how the jaws of velvet worms are organized. The similarity is no surprise since jaws are known to have evolved from a modified set of front legs.
But besides giving Hallucigenia a place in the lineage of life on Earth, the Cambridge team during the course of their study also discovered something else: that arthropods - which include crustaceans, spiders, insects and trilobites - aren't in fact as closely related to velvet worms as previously thought.
“Most gene-based studies suggest that arthropods and velvet worms are closely related to each other," said co-author Dr Javier Ortega-Hernandez. "However, our results indicate that arthropods are actually closer to water bears, or tardigrades, a group of hardy microscopic animals best known for being able to survive the vacuum of space and sub-zero temperatures – leaving velvet worms as distant cousins.”
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Courtesy M. McCormickFor more than 20 years, zebra mussels have gone unchecked in midwest waters. Introduced to North America as stow-away passengers on the bottoms of Great Lakes shipping vessels that came from Europe, the invasive species have exploded to fresh waters in 34 states at an alarming rate.
But their days may be numbered. A New York-based researcher has discovered a bacterium that can kill zebra mussels (and also the related invasive species quagga mussels) without disrupting the rest of the food web.
After rounds of lab testing, the Environmental Protection Agency has okayed the commercial production of Pseudomonas fluorescens strain CL145A, which can then be applied to waters and kill the menacing mussels. In lab tests, the bacterium killed over 90 percent of the the invasive mussels in came in contact with.
Along with pushing out other species in the waters, the invasive mussels have also become a nuisance by clogging up intake pipes at water plants and attaching themselves to docks, piers and other submerged water equipment. Plans are still being developed on how to apply this new bacterium to the waters. All wise zebra mussels might want to start packing their bages and heading back to Europe before they find out what this new bacterium has in store for them!
With the announcement of the Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants of Gondwana exhibit comming to the Science Museum of Minnesota, I was thinking back to all the questions I have had regarding dinosaurs.
Courtesy Mark Ryan
Questions like: "Who gets to name Dinosaurs?" "What is this dinosaur named after?" and "What does this name mean?". I thought that I'd take some time here to answer these questions.
Courtesy Mark RyanA new study appearing in Biology Letters shows that trilobites - everyone's favorite prehistoric water bug - developed an effective survival strategy much earlier than previously thought.
Trilobite fossils from Early Cambrian rock formations in the Canadian Rockies and elsewhere lend evidence that some of the earliest trilobites used enrollment (i.e rolling themselves up into a ball like an armadillo) to protect themselves from predators or the environment. Trilobite fossils found here in Minnesota are several million years younger dating back to the Late Cambrian through Late Ordovician Periods (500 - 430 mya) and are often found enrolled. It was an effective survival strategy.
Trilobites were arthropods, which meant they possessed exoskeletons, segmented bodies and jointed appendages. Their closest extant relative is the horseshoe crab. Trilobite bodies - for the most part - were comprised of a head (cephalon) positioned on a body (thorax) that was divided into three lobes: essentially an axial dividing a left and right pleura, and a tail (pygidium). The mouth (hypostome) was located on the underside. It's thought that most early trilobites were predators and/or scavengers who spent their lives roaming the sea floors looking carcasses, detritus or living prey to feed upon. Most trilobites possessed complex eyes (although some were eyeless). Like other arthropods (e.g. today's lobsters), trilobites would outgrow their exoskeletons, discarding them (molting) as they grew in size or changed shape. Their newly exposed soft skin soon hardened into a new, tough, outer casing. Once hardened, their segmented exoskeletons (composed of calcium carbonate) were ventrally flexible, giving them the ability to roll up into a ball should they need sudden protection from whatever threatened them.
Some early trilobite forms from Middle Cambrian-aged fossils had been viewed as incapable of enrolling but the new research based on much older fossils found in mudstones in the Canadian Rockies in Jasper Park pushes back the origins of the strategy to some of the earliest trilobites to appear in the fossil record (Suborder Olenellus). These appeared 10-20 million years earlier at the very beginnings of the Cambrian Period and show evidence of having already developed the ability to enroll.
Trilobites in some form or another existed across a span of more than 270 million years, a very successful run by any measure. The enrollment strategy certainly contributed to their longevity. Although trilobites were already in decline, the last of their kind were wiped out in the great extinction event that marked the end of the Permian Period and the start of the Triassic. They weren't the only casualty of the extinction: nearly 90 percent of Earth's species were terminated along with them.
Even though trilobites are extinct (they died out in the Permian Mass Extinction along with around 90 percent of Earth's species) they were an extremely successful and adaptable life form. No wonder they remain today a favorite among fossil collectors.
Courtesy Mark GurneyThe headlines call it the discovery of a new species, but actually, it's been around for quite a while. We just didn't know what it was by thinking it was something else.
But today the Smithsonian Institute announced it's identified a new mammal species, the first new mammal to be identified in the Americas in the last 35 years. In making the announcement of the newly classified olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe), the Smithsoian described its appearance as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear. Native to Ecuador and Columbia, the olinguito is in the same family of mammals as racoons, is a nocturnal carnivore that has been living under a mistaken identity for over 100 years.
The discovery kind of came by mistake as researchers were studying olingos, another South American mammal. Studies of museum-preserved specimens uncovered differences in skull shape and teeth. A research team then went off to northern Andes mountain regions to confirm these differences with live specimens. The found that olinquitos were a smaller, denser-furred look-alike to olingos and recorded their behaviors on video.
It's not like the olinquitos have been hiding or anything. Back in 1920 a New York zoologist thought a specimen he had collected might be a species different from olingos, but never followed up on the work to make the discovery. Olinguitos have been displayed in zoos as olingos at various times in the 1960s and 1970s.
Courtesy Fancy Horse (underwater background)The genome of the coelacanth, the world's best known living fossil, has been sequenced by an international team of researchers and is revealing something scientists already suspected: that the primitive-looking fish has evolved more slowly than most other organisms. The coelacanth is related to the lungfish and several extinct Devonian fish species that are considered precursors to land dwelling tetrapods. Kerstin Lindblad-Toh is senior author of the study which appeared recently in the science journal Nature.
"We often talk about how species have changed over time, but there are still a few places on Earth where organisms don't have to change, and this is one of them," Lindblad-Toh said. "Coelacanths are likely very specialized to such a specific, non-changing, extreme environment -- it is ideally suited to the deep sea just the way it is."
Lindblad-Toh is scientific director of the Broad Institute's vertebrate genome biology group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which did the genome research. The institute is linked to both MIT and Harvard.
The genetic map, which involved sequencing some 3 billion letters of DNA, also showed (via RNA content) that tetrapods - four-legged land dwelling animals - though related to both coelacanths and lungfish, are more closely related to lungfish and followed that line rather than that of the coelacanth. We humans also branched off that same line. The genome of a lungfish is composed of over 100 billion DNA letters, making it a much more difficult task to sequence, so for the time being, the coelacanth's DNA makes for a reasonable alternative for study.
"This is just the beginning of many analyses on what the coelacanth can teach us about the emergence of land vertebrates, including humans, and, combined with modern empirical approaches, can lend insights into the mechanisms that have contributed to major evolutionary innovations," said professor Chris Amemiya at the University of Washington, and the paper's co-author.
Courtesy photo by Haplochromis via Wikipedia Creative CommonsWhen Louis Agassiz named the first fossil coelacanth back in 1836, the Swiss paleontologist probably never imagined that a nearly identical descendent of the primitively constructed Devonian-aged fish would one day be found still inhabiting the world's oceans. The coelacanth was thought to have gone extinct along with the non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. None have been found in the fossil record after that time, but two extant species are known today. The first specimen Latimeria chalumnae was netted off the coast of South Africa in 1938, near the Chalumnae river and retrieved by East London Museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer who discovered what she called "the most beautiful fish I'd ever seen" in the catch of local fisherman, Henrik Goosen. Since then several more coelacanths have been caught, including the Indonesian species, Latimeria menadoensis, from the Indian Ocean.
The remarkable prehistoric throw-back, sometimes referred to as "old four legs" because of its leg-like fins, hasn't changed much in its 350 million year history. A member of the clade of lobe-finned fishes called Sarcopterygii, coelacanths retain primitive characteristics such a notochord, a hollow fluid-filled tube made of cartilage that underlies the spine over the length of its body. In all other vertebrates, the notochord is an anatomical structure that appears briefly only during the embryonic stage but not in adults. Not so with the coelacanth. It also possesses, primitive shark-like intestines, a linear heart, and tightly-woven armor-like scales (known as cosmoid) that are only found on extinct species of fish. The coelacanth's brain case contains only 1.5 percent gray matter - the other 98.5 percent of space is filled with fat. The other end of the coelacanth body begins to taper before expanding into a strange, three-lobed tail. Its most notable features are its lobed pectoral and pelvic fins that are structured with bones that look like toes, and move in an alternating tetrapod manner. An electroreceptive rostal organ located in its snout is used to detect prey, and the coelacanth is the only living animal that can unhinge a section of the its cranium to increase the gape of its mouth, enabling it to consume larger prey.
The blue or brown, white-speckled coelacanths prefer deep-water environments, and can reach six and a half feet in length and weigh upwards to 175 pounds. For some reason no living coelacanth has managed to survive more than a single day in captivity. With a dwindling population estimated at only 500-1000 individuals, the coelacanth was declared an endangered species in 1989.
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Courtesy The Theater of Public PolicyPreliminary information from a study of river water DNA samples done two years ago cranked up concerns about the presence of Asian carp in Minnesota sections of the Mississippi River and also the St. Croix River. But new and deeper analysis of the data shows that the menacing fish haven't been regular residents of those waters, and that local authorities have plenty of time to plan ways of keeping the invasive species away.
What changed? Last year researchers used more precise methods of identifying the DNA, they found that the earlier DNA samples were most likely not from Asian carp.
It's all good news in the short term. The Asian carp have been slowly migrating up the Mississippi River, upsetting the eco-balance of those waters for many years. The fish are aggressive and actually can "jump" out of the water and into anglers' boats. They also are aggressively eating foods that are the diets of native fish.
This new information isn't slowing down plans to try to halt the spread of the fish upstream, authorities added. Among the plans are to install underwater noise and bubble barriers at the Ford Dam on the Mississippi River in the heart of the Twin Cities.
We've all seen them, those great B-films where a giant, vicious monster from under the sea, or invaders from outer space arrive to cause mayhem across our cities and generally mess up our way of life. In the end, it seems no matter who or what it was that was attacking us, be it Mothra, Godzilla, or some race of belligerent extra-terrestrials, we could always count on the military to save our collective behind.
Unfortunately, with mosquitoes, that might now be the case anymore.
Scientists are reporting that Deet, one of the most widely used active ingredients in insect repellents, loses its effectiveness against mosquitoes shortly after those ubiquitous, blood-seeking winged vermin are first exposed to it.
Deet - the common name for N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide - was developed by the US Army after the Second World War to help combat insects during jungle warfare. It was used extensively in the Korean and Vietnam wars, but mosquitoes seem to be able to adapt quickly to it.
"Mosquitoes are very good at evolving very very quickly", said Dr. James Logan of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and co-author of the study. "There is something about being exposed to the chemical that first time that changes their olfactory system - changes their sense of smell - and their ability to smell Deet, which makes it less effective."
So what I want to know is where does that leave us here in Minnesota where the mosquito constantly competes with the Common Loon for the title of State Bird? Maybe it's time to start digging the bunker in the backyard.
Courtesy John Muir LawsToday is the kick-off of an eight-week effort that encourages us all to get to know our feathered friends a little bit better.
Feeder Watch: Sketch runs until January 20. You're welcome to flutter down into the project any time you'd like and "feed" as much or as little on it as you desire.
It's a simple concept with just one requirement – having access to an active bird feeder. Each day you watch the birds at the feeder, you're encouraged to sketch what you're seeing. The project also ties into Project Feeder Watch, which asks people to count and report the various types of birds they see at their feeders each day.
Why spend your time sketching birds? Sketching allows us to look at the world more closely and learn to observe details quickly and accurately. The project hopes to be a marriage between avid birders who might not have the most highly-developed sketching skills with artists who might not know much about birds.
Participants can share their thoughts at an online discussion site to learn from others. The entire Feeder Watch: Sketch run has been divided into four two-week blocks that will have specific themes for participants to dig into. Sketchers are also encouraged to take photos of their efforts to share online with others and participate in contests.
Not quite sure how to get started? Here are some beginner sketching tips from the John Muir Laws website.
Okay, so get out there and load up the bird feeder, sharpen those pencils and start sketching!!! It's bound to be a happier experience than playing Angry Birds one more time! And check back at Science Buzz as we update progress on the project.
Courtesy National Center for Ecological Analysis and SynthesisOne of the great extinctions in Earth history occurred 252 million years ago when about 95 percent of all marine species went extinct. The cause or causes of the Great Dying have long been a subject of much scientific interest.
Now careful analyses of fossils by scientists at Stanford and the University of California, Santa Crux offer evidence that marine animals throughout the ocean died from a combination of factors – a lack of dissolved oxygen, increased ocean acidity and higher water temperatures. What happened to so dramatically stress marine life everywhere?
Geochemical and fossil evidence points to a dramatic rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which in caused a rapid warming of the planet and resulted in large amounts of carbon dioxide dissolving into the ocean and reacting with water to produce carbonic acid, increasing ocean acidity. The top candidate for all this carbon dioxide? – huge volcanic eruptions over thousands of years in what is now northern Russia.
Why should the Great Dying be of more than just academic interest? Humans currently release far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than volcanoes and we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate that greatly exceeds that believed to have occurred 252 million years ago. The future of Earth’s oceans will be determined by human decision making, either by default or by design. What do we want our future ocean to be?