Stories tagged Diversity of Organisms

Feb
09
2011

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.

SOURCES
NYT story
Bioephemera article

Jan
21
2011

Here's a story from the New York Times about a dog named Chaser that knows the names for more than a thousand items and even, according to her trainer, can perform more sophisticated linguistic feats such as understanding verbs and knowing that words might name a type of thing rather than an individual object.

Now, a dog that really, truly understood what you said to it would be a lot of fun to have around. (Of course, I'd probably have to curb my tendency to give dogs affectionate nicknames like Meathead and Stinky.) But even if critters like Chaser are "simply reading cues unconsciously given" by their trainers, isn't that a pretty amazing feat by itself? It seems to me that the ability to read little signals from humans, even ones that the humans aren't aware they're giving, isn't "simple" at all.

I once read a book by an animal scientist How many words does your dog know?
How many words does your dog know?Courtesy ~~Yuna~~
that said that all animals are geniuses at the skills they use to survive. Maybe Chaser really is doing something similar to what human babies do as they learn to speak and understand language. But if she's not, I'd be willing to bet that whatever skill she's using is no less fascinating.

Jan
21
2011

Pterodactyls
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.

SOURCES
Science Daily story
NY Times story

Dec
15
2010

If it had hands: it would be holding your life in them. Just saying.
If it had hands: it would be holding your life in them. Just saying.Courtesy splorp
Gather ‘round, Buzzketeers, so that I might tell you all a story.

“What story,” you ask?

Is it the one about the little blond girl who is killed by bears for breaking and entering? No, not that story.

Is it the one about the boy who killed an acromegalic man by cutting down the tree that held his fort? No, it’s not that story either.

Could it be the story about the little Blood member who couldn’t tell the difference between a wolf and her own grandmother, and was subsequently devoured by that very wolf? Oh, I wish it were, but it’s not that story.

No, the story I have for you all is even more enduring and horrifying than all of those. It is the story of biodiversity, and how it will freaking destroy you if you mess with it.

Sure, snort dismissively if you must, but you’ll soon be singing a different tune. A sad tune about how everything you ever knew and loved has been taken away from you.

“But how can a concept—and a boring concept like “biodiversity”—hurt me?” Ah, see, but what you don’t know can hurt you. You’re like the little blond girl, screwing around in a house that belongs to bears. She might not have known that it was a bear house (although it’s hard to imagine that she could have missed all the signs), and yet she was destroyed. So listen up.

You see, all biodiversity is is the degree of variation of living things in an ecosystem. Lots of biodiversity in an ecosystem, lots of different things living there. Little biodiversity in an ecosystem, few species living there. And biodiversity includes all forms of life, from your vampire bats and hagfish, to your streptococcus and your slime molds.

At the moment, biodiversity on the planet is on its way down. Lots of the things we do these days make life harder for other species, until there are very few or none of them left. And, sure, no one wants to see a panda get hit by a train, or watch an eagle being run over by road grading equipment, but who cares about the smaller, grosser stuff, like algae or germy things? We could probably do with a few less of those, right? Right?

Wrong, Goldilocks! An attitude like that is bound to get you turned into bear meat.

And here’s where my story begins (again)…

Once upon a time, long, long ago, everything died.

Well, not everything-everything, but pretty well near everything. It was called “the Permian extinction” (we’ve talked about it on Buzz before: here), and more than 90% of all marine (water) species and 70% of all terrestrial (land) species on the planet went extinct. It was way worse than the extinction that would eventually kill off the dinosaurs, and it took the planet a lot longer to recover from the Permian extinction.

What caused the Permian extinction? Oh, you know, a lot of stuff. Probably a lot of stuff. See, while we can more or less say that the dinosaurs were killed off by a giant space rock, it’s harder to say what did in the creatures of the Permian period. After all, the Permian ended almost two hundred million years before the extinction of the dinosaurs. But people have plenty of good guesses: maybe a few smaller space rocks hit the planet, maybe massive volcanic eruptions in what would become Asia kicked dust and poisonous gas into the atmosphere, maybe the oceans suddenly released massive amounts of methane… probably it was a combination of these things and more, and the extinction probably happened in waves before the planet became a good place to live again.

But here’s another straw for that dead camel’s back: the algae died. Not all of it, but lots and lots of the algae died. But why, and why did it matter? After all, it’s just algae.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly what cause so much alga—microscopic plant-like ocean life that turns sunlight into food—to die, but it looks like a sudden rise in the levels of sulfur in the oceans might have had something to do with it. It could be that there was an explosion in the population of sulfur using, hydrogen-sulfide releasing bacteria in the oceans, which would poison the algae.

In any case, there was a large die off of the sort of species we don’t give a lot of thought to. And what happened? The bear meat hit the fan!

Because they turn so much sunlight into so much food, algae act as the basis for most marine food chains. When the algae were gone, photosynthetic bacteria took its place to some extent, but the bacteria were a poor substitute, and the oceans were left with much, much less food. Also, algae produce a significant amount of the planet’s oxygen, and their absence would have created atmospheric changes as well.

This alone might have been enough to cause extinctions, and combined with the other natural calamities of the end of the Permian, it’s no wonder there was such a massive extinction event.

What a good story, eh? Now, if someone asks you what’s so great about biodiversity among the slimier and more boring species, you can just repeat this post, word for word. Or you can repeat this, the short version, word for word: “Because, Mom, if the algae die, we’ll be left choking and crying among the ruins of humanity for the rest of our short lives. And happy birthday.”

Dec
09
2010

Surveying Microbes at Sea
Surveying Microbes at SeaCourtesy C-MORE
There are microbes…and then there are micro-microbes. Oceanographers on C-MORE’s BiG RAPA oceanographic expedition are finding bacteria the size of one-one-millionth of a meter in the oligotrophic (low nutrient), open-ocean of the Southeast Pacific, far from the productive waters off the coast of Chile. But that’s not all; some scientists are looking for the even smaller marine viruses in gallons of filtered seawater. Meet some of these micro-microbes in these video reports:
Prochlorococcus
ProchlorococcusCourtesy Dr. Anne Thompson, MIT

  • Microbe Diversity, Part 1: Prochlorococcus, the most common bacterium in the world’s oceans; nitrogen-fixing bacteria that provide a usable form of nitrogen “fertilizer” for other photosynthesizers
  • Microbe Diversity, Part 2: picophytoeukaryotes with different colored pigments; viruses, which are parasites on other living things

Yes indeed, microbial oceanographers are taking home quite a collection from the South Pacific Ocean. In less than a week the good ship RV Melville will arrive at Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and scientists will step onto land for the first time in almost a month. They and their oceanographic samples will return to C-MORE laboratories around the U.S. The oceanographers are also returning with new hypotheses buzzing around in their heads. Now it’s time for them to take the next step in the Scientific Method: data analysis!

Dec
02
2010

The shores of the alien world: Mono Lake, California, Earth.
The shores of the alien world: Mono Lake, California, Earth.Courtesy Eeek
Big news from NASA today, y'all.

NASA scientists are holding a conference at 2:00 EST today, and I hate to spoil the surprise, but word on the street is that they've discovered life on the planet Earth. Ah... but it's not what you think—word is that they've discovered life that's really different from everything else here.

Last year, I posted about the theory that this sort of thing might exist, but it wasn't until now that it has actually been discovered. Here's the gist: bacteria living in the mud of weirdo Mono Lake have been found to use arsenic as a building block of their bodies. That may not sound like much, but, if it's true, it would mean that these bacteria are different than every other living thing on this planet. Everything else that lives on this planet is made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. These creatures use arsenic instead of phosphorous.

Aside from being super cool and different, the discovery suggests that if life can exist in ways we didn't think was possible, it can exist in places we didn't think life was possible. Like other planets and moons in our own solar system.

More details after the conference, hopefully.

Dec
01
2010

The University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment has made some great movies examining what they call "big questions."

Big question: Feast or famine?
IonE's first Big Question asks: How do we feed a growing world without destroying the planet?

Big question: Is Earth past the tipping point?
Have we pushed our planet past the tipping point? That's a critical issue the IonE explores in our second Big Question video.

Big question: What is nature worth?
Plants, animals, even entire ecosystems are disappearing. So what? "What is Nature Worth" offers a three-minute look at what we’re REALLY losing – and what we can do about it.

Interesting problems, right? If you're intrigued, and want to know more about the folks posing the questions and trying to find the solutions, jump over to Future Earth.

Nov
29
2010

The Hawaiian monk seal, Monachus schauinslandi, is known to the Native Hawaiians as 'ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua', or "dog that runs in rough water".

Hawaiian Monk Seal
Hawaiian Monk SealCourtesy Karen Holman and James Watt

This endangered seal, along with the Hawaiian Hoary Bat, are the only mammals endemic to the Hawaiian Archipelago: they are found nowhere else in the world.

Seals can be injured or killed by becoming entangled in marine debris.

There are fewer than 1200 Hawaiian monk seals left in the wild. If you are lucky enough to see one on a beach or swimming, please keep your distance and do not disturb them: they are protected by both state and federal laws. 

Nov
17
2010

All Abooooooard!  Microbes Set Sail
All Abooooooard! Microbes Set SailCourtesy C-MORE
Well, yeah, that’s right. Microbes don’t smile, and they sure don’t command an oceanographic ship. However, there are lots of microbes in the sea; in fact, they account for most of the total marine biomass. With that in mind, there’s no question about microbes being fundamental to the functioning and health of the oceans.

UNOLS ship, the RV Melville
UNOLS ship, the RV MelvilleCourtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Scientists from C-MORE (Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education) and the Universidad de Concepción, Chile have organized an expedition to one of the most sparsely sampled oceanic regions on the planet…the southeast Pacific Ocean. The expedition’s official name is BiG RAPA (Biogeochemical Gradients: Role in Arranging Planktonic Assemblages). It departed from Chile on November 17 on the research ship Melville and will travel almost due west, ending at Rapa Nui (Easter Island) on December 14.

BiG RAPA expedition’s multi-media, interactive Sea It Live website
BiG RAPA expedition’s multi-media, interactive Sea It Live websiteCourtesy C-MORE
Oceanographers will conduct studies on a microbial community that exists in a very curious environment. The Melville will travel from the nutrient-rich coastal waters off Chile into the low-nutrient area known as the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The SPSG is the most oligotrophic, or nutrient-poor, of all sub-tropical gyres. What kind of microbes can live in such an impoverished area? How do they do it? Join the BiG RAPA’s Sea It Live Tracker and find out!

Nov
12
2010

Giant bison skull: behind it stands Dr. Steve Holen, curator of archaeology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Giant bison skull: behind it stands Dr. Steve Holen, curator of archaeology at the Denver Museum of Nature & ScienceCourtesy Photo by Heather Rousseau ©Denver Museum of Nature and Science
I remember as a kid riding across North Dakota and marveling at the giant bison we passed on a hilltop near Jamestown. I don’t remember if we stopped to see it up close, but it is billed as the World’s Largest Buffalo, and according to records is 46 feet long and stands 26 feet tall at the shoulders. I do remember having a real sense of its massive size even from the highway. It was big.

Now, paleontologists from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science have announced the discovery of a prehistoric bison that could give the Jamestown sculpture a run for its money. When a horn core of the bison was first uncovered, paleontologist Ian Miller thought it was the tusk of a mammoth or mastodon. A second horn core, and the rest of the skull were soon located, and when all the pieces were put together, it made for a very large bison, one with horns that spanned more than 6 feet across! That makes the Ice Age giant twice as large as the American buffalo (Bison bison) seen today in places like Yellowstone National Park.

The gigantic skull was discovered near Snowmass Village in Colorado, in an excavation that has produced numerous fossils of prehistoric beasts that once roamed the area, including mammoths and a giant ground sloth. The age of the former lakebed deposits are thought to be between 12,000 and 15,000 years old.

SOURCES

American Archaeologist website story
Additional Snowmass excavation photos on Flickr
Days of Giants and Ice
Prehistoric human and bison relationships on the plains of North America