Stories tagged Diversity of Organisms

Sep
11
2009

Dude, you're outta here: A growing hippo population in the South American country of Columbia is becoming a huge invasive species problem for the nation.
Dude, you're outta here: A growing hippo population in the South American country of Columbia is becoming a huge invasive species problem for the nation.Courtesy Alexdi
Just read an interesting report from about a huge, literally, invasive species problem in Columbia, South America. It seems that there's a growing population of hippos there, the offspring of four captive hippos that were once owned by drug lord Pablo Escobar. He had the hippos on his property as a defense mechanism against enemies. Escobar met his demise 16 years ago in drug violence, but his hippos have lived on, multiplied and moved off of his estate. The current population is estimated at about 28, with about six births occuring a year. That projects to about 100 non-native hippos being in Columbia in the next decade.

Government officials have offered the hippos free to any zoo or wildlife area that would like to claim them, but have had no takers. In the meantime, wildlife and Army officials have been "eliminating" the hippos found the wild determining that they're an invasive species that can alter the balance of nature in that region of the world. Animal enthusiasts in Columbia, however, are irate that such drastic measures are being taken. Some are even calling for the firing of Columbia's environmental minister.

Here's a National Geographic report on the situaion.

So what do you think should be done about this situation? Do you want to be the one to tell the hippos they've got to move back to Africa?

Aug
26
2009

Not, in fact, a dinosaur: But still interesting.
Not, in fact, a dinosaur: But still interesting.Courtesy Ryan Somma
The Telegraph, the only newspaper brave enough to bring us stories about lost monkeys, unusual looking cats, and the daily trials and tribulations of British pensioners, is one of my favorites. I mean, I’m not going to read about giraffe penis mixups in so called “real” newspapers.

That’s why it's so painful for me to read, in an otherwise intellectually impeccable publication, headlines like this:

Dinosaurs hit rivals like athletes hit balls:
Glyptodont dinosaurs had a finely-adapted tail with a "sweet spot" which clubbed rivals in the same way as tennis or cricket players hit balls, scientists say.

Do you see the trouble here? Oh, glob, it feels like a hot sauce-coated cheese greater rubbing against my eyes. No… it’s like a mace-painted micro-plane on my corneas.

Let’s walk through it. “Hits rivals like athletes hit balls,” I like. We won’t get into why, but I like it. And the “sweet spot” part is good too—it gets right to the meat of the story.

But do you see the problem?!

“Glyptodont dinosaurs”? “Glyptodont dinosaurs”?!

It makes me want to hit someone with a novelty hammer so large that it could actually seriously wound him or her.

I mean, I’d understand if they said something like “dimetrodon dinosaurs,” because, you know, they look a little dinosaury, even if they were synapsids, and lived in the Permian. And it might even be reasonable to say something like “pteranodon dinosaurs,” because they were reptiles too, after all, and at least they were around in the Mesozoic.

But glyptodonts? They were mammals! Argh! And they lived up into the Pleistocene… they were around at the same time as humans! Oh, Telegraph…

Anyway.

Glyptodonts were basically armadillos the size of small cars. They had massive, armored tails, and, apparently, scientists have figured that there was a particular spot on the tail where they would most likely try to center force when swinging the appendage to defend themselves. Like bat- and racquet-using athletes who try to hit balls with a certain area of the bat or racquet to balance power and stress on their wrists and arms, some glyptodont species grew a large spike right at this “sweet spot,” suggesting that it was a practical development, and not just generally for show.

What, though, do you suppose glyptodonts were hitting with that tail? They first evolved in South America, where the top predators were a group of massive flightless birds, nicknamed “Terror birds.” But as big and scary as the terror birds were, glyptodonts were substantially more massive, and the armor alone seems like overkill, let along the club tail. Also, there’s some debate as to whether the terror birds were even carnivorous.

But, then again, organisms don’t evolve traits like that for nothing. So hopefully something was getting clubbed. Like dinosaurs.

PS—Check out the SMM’s dinos and fossils gallery for skeletons of both a glyptodont and a terror bird. See how very un-dinosaur they are.

Aug
25
2009

4+ on the Schmidt Scale: Take that!
4+ on the Schmidt Scale: Take that!Courtesy Scott Camazine
Well, I understand that Science Buzz generally focuses on science in the news, as well as seasonal phenomena, and, frankly, this post doesn’t fall into either of those categories.

But yesterday I was starting to work on the next Object of the Month (I don’t want to spoil anything… but it’s “wasps’), and I came across an article on the tarantula hawk. The tarantula hawk is neither a hawk nor a tarantula—it’s a giant freakin’ wasp.

Growing up to 2 inches long, the tarantula hawk is one of the largest wasps in the world. It gets its name from its habit of paralyzing tarantulas, dragging the spiders back to their burrows (the wasps are that big), and then laying an egg on the tarantula’s living body. When the egg hatches, the wasp larva sucks the tarantula’s juices until it grows large enough to burrow into the hosts body. There it will eat the still-living spider’s organs, saving the vitals for last. When the wasp matures into an adult, it gives up its tarantula devouring ways, and lives off of fruit and nectar. How nice.

Anyway, the article also mentions that the tarantula hawk can have a stinger as long as 1/3rd of an inch, and that its sting is reported to be the second most painful sting in the world, according to the Schmidt sting pain index. (The Schmidt index was developed to the effects of insect venoms only, so I’m assuming that potentially fatal spider bites don’t count.) Naturally, the tarantula hawk’s position on the index begs the question, “What is the most painful sting?”

Answer: The bullet ant, so called because, supposedly, a sting from the bullet ant is like getting shot by a crossbow. I mean a gun. With bullets.

Native to central and South America, worker class bullet ants grow to about an inch, and are called “hormigas veinticuatro” by locals, or the “twenty-four [hour] ant” because the pain from a sting is supposed to remain unabated for a full day.

While the bullet ant will also bite, it delivers its sting the same way wasps and bees do, through a modified ovipositor on its abdomen (that’s all stingers are—egg-laying tubes evolved to inject venom).

The injected venom is a neurotoxin unique to the bullet ant: poneratoxin. A neurotoxin is a poison that affects the nervous system; poneratoxin interferes with the chemicals that allow nerve cells to send electrical signals to each other. So, when other insects and arthropods are stung with poneratoxin, they can be paralyzed (because, remember, you need nerves to control your muscles). When humans are stung with poneratoxin, they just experience extreme pain. Repeated stinging can lead to uncontrollable shaking, and temporary paralysis of the limbs.

But bullet ants aren’t generally aggressive, so how do we know about the affects of repeated stinging? Because some folks get themselves stung a lot. On purpose!

The Satere-Mawe people in Brazil use bullet ants as part of an adult-initiation tradition. (Or an initiation into adulthood. Whatever’s better.) Here:

Now, keep in mind, the tone of that video is pretty ridiculous. (That is, the “look at the weird stuff these weird people do” thing. We all do weird stuff, but other people’s weird stuff is just less familiar.) Also, if you go to the youtube page that video is hosted by, the description says that their hands “turn completely BLACK with poison.” That actually doesn’t make any sense, and it’s not true—the color is from charcoal.

Still, though… wild!

Oh, also, folks who have lived around the ants for a long time have used their stings to treat rheumatism (painful joints, etc), and have found that their bites are so strong that the ants’ mandibles can be used to pull the edges of a cut together, like stitches. The ant’s body is then twisted off, and the head (still biting) is left on the wound as a suture.

But we like the sting gloves. It’s news to me, right?

Jul
17
2009

Mysterious creature invades local lake: Local woman seen fleeing for her life. Is anyone safe?
Mysterious creature invades local lake: Local woman seen fleeing for her life. Is anyone safe?Courtesy Mark Ryan
There have been recent reports of sightings of some sort of sea monster on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. I don't live far from the lake so I thought I'd go see if I could spot the so-called "Lake Creature" or at least debunk the sightings. Rumors of mythical creatures are common in the area, like I've heard there's an elf living in a tree trunk on the south end of the same lake. I've seen where he supposedly lives but I've never seen the elf himself. So when I went to investigate, I wasn't expecting to see anything other than a large piece of driftwood or a massive floating blob of something like they saw in Alaska this week. But I got to tell you, this lake creature thing is for real. I saw him with my own eyes on the east side of the lake. The sight of it was so startling, I was afraid to stop my car to take a photo so I just snapped one as I sped by. Let's hope this thing hasn't already destroyed the bandshell.

Jul
16
2009

The burning you feel is your childhood evaporating: Also, your skin.
The burning you feel is your childhood evaporating: Also, your skin.Courtesy jurvetson
Ho-ly spit.

Zo-mg.

We are in deep trouble, friends, enemies and Buzzketeers.

Screw rising sea levels. Nuts to dwindling glacier-based freshwater reserves. Forget desertification. The real danger of global warming we’ve known about since 1958 and we’ve done nothing to prevent it. In our arrogance, we thought we’d be safe forever, but now the chickens have come home to roost. And they’re roosting hard.

Is it possible that you don’t know what I’m talking about yet?

Well, let me explain it to you in a roundabout way.

Remember being a kid in 1958, sitting in your home entertainment room, petting your chinchilla in the dark (not a euphemism), and eating a box of Gushers as you watched your Blu-ray of Steve McQueen’s The Blob? Remember how you felt when that little piece of space goo started to eat that old dude’s hand? Those Gushers burned like the blob’s acid touch, no doubt. And remember when you realized that no amount of hot lead was going to stop the blob, because, duh, why would bullets hurt space goo? You probably squeezed your poor chinchilla to death in your anxiety. Do you recall the little pinprick of hope you felt at the blob’s response to a blast from the CO2 filled fire extinguisher, and the final surge of relief as they crated the awful thing to the arctic, where it could be kept in safety… JUST SO LONG AS THE %@$##$%ING ARCTIC STAYS COLD… QUESTION MARK????!!!!!!!!!

If your chinchilla wasn’t dead already, it didn’t stand a chance at that point, because you were convulsively squeezing everything within reach, and vomiting half-digested Gushers all over your parents’ modern Scandinavian furniture. But no, soothes your nanny, as she strokes your hair and gently clears the Gushers from your airway, that could never happen. It’s the arctic she says, and, standing in the lit doorway behind her, your personal chef nods reassuringly. That’s why they call it “the arctic,” he says in his heavy Japanese accent. Your normal childhood is safe from a life of constant monster threat.

Or so you thought. It’s fifty years later, the arctic is melting, and, in many respects, you’re still a child. And the blob is free.

So far the number of humans-dissolved-alive remains at or near zero, but I expect this figure to skyrocket any day now, as the blob has been seen off the northern coast of Alaska.

The blob has been observed floating in dark, gooey looking mats on the surface of the ocean. The strands of goo are reported to be up to 12 miles long.

What you’re trying to convince yourself, I’m sure, is that this is no blob, but just another harmless oil spill. Wrong-o, says the local coastguard.

“It's certainly biological,” a coastguard petty officer reports. “It's definitely not an oil product of any kind. It has no characteristics of an oil, or a hazardous substance, for that matter.” The smell and composition, he says, suggest that it’s some natural substance, but it’s nothing that any of the locals remember seeing before. But they need only to return to their home theaters, and I’m sure they’ll recognize the substance in no time.

The substance is dark, hangs off the ice when they come in contact, and appears to be “hairy” when examined closely. “It kind of has an odor,” explained one of the locals on the goo expedition, “I can't describe it.” Well, I’ll describe the smell for you: fear.

Jellyfish have been seen tangled up in the blob, and one local turned in the remains of a dead goose, “just bones and feathers,” that had supposedly been found in the goo.

Samples of the blob were brought to Anchorage for analysis. Waste of time, if you ask me. The coastguard pilots that helped retrieve the sample are pretty certain it’s some kind of algae, but that’s what the military would say. It’s the blob.

Hide yourselves. Save your game frequently. Cherish what you remember of “normal life,” because it’s all about to change.

Jul
08
2009

The patch-nosed salamander: Think of how many dimes you could fit in your mouth! And this would be easier, because salamanders are so soft!
The patch-nosed salamander: Think of how many dimes you could fit in your mouth! And this would be easier, because salamanders are so soft!Courtesy University of Georgia
Oh, happy July 8, Buzzketeers! A brand new salamander has been discovered in a Georgia creek! (In several Georgia creeks, actually.) And it represents not only a new species, but also an entirely new genus! This is the first time in fifty years that a new genus of four-legged animal has been found in the United States.

But that’s not the best part; the best part is that this new salamander is small enough to easily fit in your mouth! At just two itty-bitty inches, the salamander is in fact small enough to easily fit into a baby’s mouth. An average adult could probably fit dozens of these things in his or her mouth! (This is assuming that said mouth isn’t wired shut for some reason. The salamanders may be able to fit up a straw whole, but I’m guessing that it would make more sense to blend them up first, in which case one could still get in plenty of salamanders by volume, but determining the number of individuals might be hard.)

The researchers are excited to study the new genus, and hope that, being among the smallest salamanders in the world, the new specimen might tell them something about the evolution of miniaturization in salamanders. And when they’re finished with that, they can just toss the little suckers in their mouths, and maybe eat them.

Jul
06
2009

Mayflies: Developing a sudden interest in trucks, apparently.
Mayflies: Developing a sudden interest in trucks, apparently.Courtesy adolson13
Did things just get a little… sexier in here? By “in here” I mean in my local metro area? So did things just get a little… sexier in the Twin Cities?

Oh ho, I think they just did. I took my shoes off the write this post, and that’s part of it, but that’s not where it starts. No, it starts with thousands upon thousands of young adults—in the blazing prime of their life, really—with one thing on their minds, and not much time on their hands.

Yep, the mayflies have hatched. That is, they hatched about a year ago, and have just now completed their final moults into adulthood. Now they have anywhere between a day and just half an hour to do what needs to be done. In their case, it’s sex that needs to be done. Other than vague efforts at avoiding premature death via fish mouth or windshield, adult mayflies haven’t got a lot of distractions—while immature naiad mayflies spend months paddling around at the bottoms of streams and lakes eating algae, their mouthparts are vestigial (useless) when they reach maturity, and their digestive tracks are full of air. (Exactly when this occurs is based on temperature and humidity, so all the mayflies in a particular area will become mature at the same time.) So, as a young mayfly, asking a prospective mate out for dinner would be pretty much pointless even if you had the time.

It might seem kind of crazy evolving into a creature that only lives for a few hours and can’t do anything but fly around and try to have sex. But if that’s all you have to do, you can invest all your resources into ensuring that you reproduce, and if your whole generation is doing it at more or less the same time, your chances are pretty good. Plus, time is relative, and there are probably those who’d say that a life of just flying around and having sex would be okay. Assuming you didn’t get eaten by a walleye.

I’m going to put up a boring ol’ picture of a mayfly here, just so you know what to look for when you’re trying to avoid thousands-strong airborne orgies over the next couple of days. Hopefully, though, I’ll have some pictures of actual swarming mayflies soon. (I know where to find some, but if y’all are already on top of things, don’t hesitate to post your own!)

Jun
22
2009

Self-portrait by Matthias Buchinger: The forward-most curls on Buchinger's left shoulder near his collar are magnified on the right to show the inscribed hidden biblical text.
Self-portrait by Matthias Buchinger: The forward-most curls on Buchinger's left shoulder near his collar are magnified on the right to show the inscribed hidden biblical text.Courtesy Public domain via Wikipedia
I recently (and literally) stumbled upon a web page about this remarkable man from the 17th century. His name was Matthias Buchinger, and despite being born without hands, legs or thighs, this guy managed to live a full and amazing life with no less than 4 wives (!?), and fathering something like 11-14 children depending on the source. But even more incredible was how - despite his severe physical deformations - Buchinger was able to rise above Nature’s challenges and become an accomplished musician, inventor, artist, model-in-a-bottle builder, and magician.

Born in Anspach, Germany in 1674, he was the youngest of nine children, and became widely known as “The Little Man from Nuremburg” performing his feats of wonder across much of Great Britain and Europe. Buchinger was only 29 inches tall, and for hands had "two excrescences which grew from his shoulder-blades, like fingers without nails" but his skills in magic, marksmanship, and music were legendary. He played several musical instruments, some of which he invented himself, was accomplished at skittles (bowling), and could dance a hornpipe as well as anyone. He was also a talented calligrapher. His engraving skills are evident by the self-portrait to the right. Hidden within his curls are seven psalms and the Lord’s Prayer written in tiny letters. Buchinger lived much of his adult life in England and Ireland, and performed before King George and many of Europe’s royalty. He died in Cork, Ireland in 1732.

I don’t know about you but I find Buchinger quite inspiring. You can read more about this human marvel in the links below.

Matthias Buchinger
More about Matthias Buchinger
And yet another site

Jun
18
2009

A medical miracle in the making?
A medical miracle in the making?Courtesy nbonzey
If you're one of those people who is easily grossed out, you might want to stop reading this post. Because what I'm about to tell you might make your stomach turn.

In an effort to help heal human wounds, medical researchers have been studying creepy, crawly, flesh-eating maggots. THE SAME wiggly critters that appear in your garbage can, on road kill, and any place where they can find dead meat or rotten food. In case you don't know the maggot life story, eventually these larvae grow-up to become flies, at which point they continue to hang out with garbage. It's not a pretty life, but they don't complain much.

So...what do maggots have to do with medicine?

Well, people have known for a long time that deep or difficult wounds (ulcers, burns, deep lacerations) heal much faster if you enlist maggots for a little help. In fact, hospitals even breed fly larvae (maggots!) so they can apply "maggot therapy" to wounds that would otherwise heal poorly. As gross as it sounds, this technique actually works well. The maggots eat the decaying tissue, preventing bacterial growth and helping to keep the wound "clean" so it can heal better.

Until recently, researchers were not exactly sure how these maggots did their miracle work on wounds, or how they could make maggot therapy more accessible. What they've discovered is that an enzyme produced by the maggots can itself help to remove decaying tissue. You can read more about it here.

This means that new bandages infused with maggot juice, or maggot ointment, might not be far from drugstore shelves. The enzyme appears to help heal wounds large and small, and with very few side effects. I wonder if upset stomach is one of them?

What do you think - would you buy a maggot-based product to help heal cuts and scrapes?

Jun
10
2009

It will be a brutal fight: No one should expect to emerge unchaffed.
It will be a brutal fight: No one should expect to emerge unchaffed.Courtesy Joe Shlabotnik
For years now, members of the robust camp of biologists—paleontologists in particular—arguing that birds evolved directly from dinosaurs have kneeled on the thighs and arms of paleontologists who believe that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs, slapped their scrawny bellies pink, and rubbed dirt and grass in their bifocaled faces. And it was only right—the birds from dino people are bigger, and their veiny biceps ripple with the science of a substantial fossil record, while the clammy palms and toast-rack ribcages of the alternate theory paleontologists positively reek of onions and contrary opinions for the sake of argument. It’s only natural.

I mean, we have fossil impressions of feathers on dinosaurs, analogous bones and body-structures in birds and theropod dinosaurs (theropods, again, are two-legged meat-eaters, like T-Rex, velociraptor, etc.), similar bird-dinosaur proteins (take a look at that last link—Liza listed a bunch of other stories in that post)… the list goes on. Some paleontologists pretty much consider birds to be dinosaurs themselves (little dinos that never went extinct). The book is closed. It’s not even fun beating up on those other paleontologists anymore, because… what’s the point? You wouldn’t beat up on a worm, would you?

Ah, but these worms may have gotten their hands on something soft in this fight, and they’re about to give it a twist…

Check it out—like a hammer from nowhere, or sudden and blatant disregard for the no-scratching rule, the birds-didn’t-evolve-from-dinosaurs people have a new weapon, and they’re back on their feet.

Before we go on, I’m just going to emphasize something real quick here: nobody is saying that birds didn’t evolve, or that they didn’t evolve from something very different from birds as we know them. The question is, from what did birds first evolve, and when?

See, the winning theory is that some theropod dinosaurs began getting smaller and more birdlike in the Jurassic period (with a couple interesting exceptions eventually getting bigger and more birdlike later on, but that’s a different story.) These dinosaurs got little, and feathery, and probably started living in trees, and adapted to leaping, gliding, and eventually flying. By the late Jurassic, we have the archaeopteryx, a feathered, toothed, clawed, and bony-tailed flying machine. By the Cretaceous, there are plenty of pretty normal-looking birds around. Easy-peasy, and there are all those fossils I mentioned before.

“Oh yeah?” say the other paleontologists, “Well what about… this?!” And with that, they flick the back of their hand into the crotch of the unsuspecting bird-dino scientists.

“What are you… aaaaaaahh….” They ask.

Birds, say the alternate theory dudes, don’t have the right legs to be descended from dinosaurs. It’s so obvious, even jerks like you should have seen it.

See, birds need to breath lots of air to be able to fly (it’s hard, I’ve tried). To breath more efficiently, birds have air-sacs in addition lungs. Running all over their bodies (even in their bones) the air-sacs help pump lots of air through the birds' respiratory systems. Fossilized bones appear to show the presence of air sacs in some dinosaur species, too, and this has been seen as further evidence for the bird dinosaur link.

The new argument doesn’t dispute that everybody loves air-sacs. It points out that birds can only move their legs in a very limited way, to keep from collapsing some of their air-sacs when they breath. Birds’ femurs (their thigh bones) are largely fixed—when they walk or run, most of the movement comes from their lower legs. All other walking and running animals—including dinosaurs—have moveable thighs.

This difference, some scientists believe, is great enough that fixed-legged birds couldn’t have evolved from moving-legged dinosaurs. They might have evolved alongside dinosaurs, sharing a common ancestor, possibly one of the thecodonts. Thecodonts were dinosaur-like (but definitely not dinosaurs) and they lived during the Triassic period. Some thecodonts evolved into dinosaurs, and the group died off by the end of the Triassic.

“That’s… all?” says mainstream paleontology, straightening up and cracking its knuckles. “Someone is about to get slapped.”

“…Hiss!” say the other guys, squaring their Gollum-like shoulders.

Until I know a little more about the research, I think I have to side with the traditional birds evolved from dinosaurs argument. The alternative theory folks point out that birds are found much earlier in the fossil record than the dinosaurs they are supposed to have evolved from, but it seems to me that that’s more of a problem of overlap than of a gap—couldn’t later bird-like dinosaurs just be the descendants of the dinosaur-to-bird transitional species? It’s not as if anyone thinks that we look at individuals in the fossil record and say, “ok, you evolved from this one, which evolved from this one” etc. If birds didn’t evolved from dinosaurs like the ones we find from the Cretaceous, then we’re left with a huge gap between thecodonts and archaeopteryx and his pals. And it would have to be some pre-dinosaur thecodont, because I feel like the independent evolution of air-sacs, feathers, and everything else in both lines would be a little too much convergent evolution otherwise.

Plus… I’m not clear on why dinosaurs couldn’t have just evolved to have a fixed leg later on, when they needed more efficient respiratory systems for flying. Their mode of locomotion would have necessarily been changing anyway…

“Hiss!!”

Interesting, though, right?

What do y’all think? Is this ridiculous? Or are we too attached to the mainstream model of bird evolution that we’re unable to keep an open mind to new ideas?