Courtesy Fritz Geller-GrimmAnd if you were bad? What do you become then? A hagfish. And if you were really bad? You become a tufted titmouse, nature’s pervert. Do you know what a titmouse thinks about all day? It thinks about ways to incorporate animal abuse* into really dirty jokes.
Ah, but if you were good, if you were really good, then when you die you become a colossal squid, nature’s video arcade, nature’s He-man, nature’s candy. Normally I detest mollusks—how can you trust something so different? I wouldn’t make friends with an annelid, why should I treat mollusks any differently?—but the colossal squid, and its gracile cousin, the giant squid… they’re something special. Huge, big-brained, terrifying sperm whale food, just hiding out in the deep. When angels see giant squid, they get jealous—check it out, it’s in the bible.
You may recall that in February of last year the first ever intact colossal squid was captured by a fishing boat, and then flash frozen for future study. If you don’t recall, let technology do it for you. Well, the time has come for the frosty squid to get its once- and twice-overs.
Initial examination determined that the squid was an adult, and, at about a thousand pounds, the largest cephalopod ever documented. Shorter but much heavier than the giant squid, the specimen was only 4.2 meters (about 15 feet) long, although it’s believed that the creature’s two longest tentacles probably “shortened and shrank” after it died (the squid was eating a toothfish when the fishermen snagged it, and was still slightly alive when they finally got it on board). Before the tentacles shrank, the squid could have been several meters longer.
Marine biologists have determined from the recent study of the body, however, that the beast was far from being fully grown; judging by the development of its beak (squids have beaks! Check this out!) the scientists figured that the squid could have grown five or six hundred pounds beyond its already impressive weight.
The scientists also observed that the squid’s eyes, when alive, probably measured about a foot across. The eyes of colossal squid are the largest of any known living creature (I think some extinct ichthyosaurs came close, though). Often living a mile or more beneath the surface of the ocean, squid need huge eyes to see in the low light.
To help grip their prey, the suckers on giant squid’s tentacles are lined with tiny teeth. The colossal squid has something similar, and slightly more awesome: the biologists found hundreds of sharp, swiveling hooks on the suckers at the ends of the colossal squid’s tentacles. Sperm whales, which feed on giant and colossal squid, are often covered with slashes and circular scars from the tentacles of struggling squid.
Interestingly enough, the team of biologists admitted to eating part of another colossal squid that was under examination. This I understand—who wouldn’t want to take some of the strength of a colossal squid for their own. The meal was described as being “very much like sashimi” and “nice.” One scientist also said that “it left a real taste in your mouth and stayed there for quite a while,” which doesn’t necessarily sound “nice.”
I’m always looking for reasons to talk about colossal and giant squid, so if you’re into that keep your eyes peeled at Science Buzz. Until then, though, be good. Otherwise you might end up as a sneaky hagfish, filthy little titmouse.
*Thanks to Thor for the link.
Courtesy Glenn WilliamsIs there a more overlooked creature of the animal kingdom than the narwhal? Granted, it lives in the frosty waters of the Arctic Ocean and has a twisted, mean-looking tusk, but why don’t we give the narwhal more love?
Global climate change researchers are taking note of the odd sea beast. They’ve categorized the narwhal as being the sea creature most at risk from global warming changes. The pronouncement was made following in-depth analysis of how potential environmental problems that could affect the 11 marine animals that live year-round in the Artic region.
Polar bears, which have been generally considered the most “at-risk” animals from global warming, came in second place in the rankings.
Right now there are actually a lot more narwhals in the Arctic region (50,000 to 80,000) than polar bears (20,000). But researchers feel the overall impacts of global warming could have a quicker, more devastating impact on narwhals.
What’s the difference? Adaptability. Polar bears are able to gather food either by swimming or roaming land. As ice sheets diminish, they can forage for food on land.
Narwhals, on the other hand, are highly specialized creatures. A main feeding practice is diving to depths of 6,000 feet to feed on halibut. They live in areas with 99-percent ice cover. If that ice area diminishes, predators like orcas and polar bears will have easier access to getting to narwhals. And warming waters could send the narwhal’s favorite food of halibut to non-icy areas as well.
Following narwhals and polar bears as the most at-risk Arctic animals were the hooded seal, bowhead whale and walrus. Least at-risk are ringed seals and bearded seals according to the study.
Courtesy narwhal.infoBTW: Here’s a little more general information about narwhals:
• They don’t use their tusks for hunting. Males do have “duels” with each other using the tusks to establish dominance. Male tusks can grow up to be 10 feet long. Females grow a much smaller tusk. The tusks are also twisted in a corkscrew fashion.
• An adult narwhal can measure to around 25 feet in length. Males can weigh up to 3,500 pounds while females are about 2,200 pounds.
• The animals also exclusively hunt under thick ice sheets.
• Inuit legends has it that the narwhal was created when a woman holding onto a harpoon had been pulled into the ocean and twisted around the harpoon. The submerged woman was wrapped around a beluga whale on the other end of the harpoon, and that is how the narwhal was created.
Courtesy Lori Oberhofer, National Parks ServiceSee, I always thought I wanted to die from being suffocated by cotton candy, or maybe from a Super Mario Brothers-triggered seizure. Well, Fate, cross that nonsense off the list, because something more than a little bit better came up: I want to die from having a little songbird rip its way out of my chest.
The decision isn’t final, by any means—there are still some details to work out before I really make a commitment. Do I, for instance, want to eat the little bird first (swallow it whole and alive, of course), or would it be better to have a mother bird lay its eggs in my chest, and have the young burst out later (think Alien)? Whatever the specifics, though, I think it’s a pretty good way to go.
Where do you get these genius ideas, JGordon? Well, I can’t take total credit for the death—the basic concept was really Nature’s, and I just built on it. That’s right, somehow, of all the things happening in the world, I found out about a sharp-shinned hawk in California that was found dead last month with the claws of a songbird emerging from its chest. What are the chances? I don’t mean the chances of a hawk eating a songbird, and then of the eaten bird’s clawed foot ripping through the hawk’s body, but the chances that of all the dead birds in the world, this one would find its way onto the Internet, and then to me. It’s fate.
There’s not much of a story to tell, really. An animal rescue worker was driving home and noticed the hawk lying by the road. Hoping to rescue the bird, she pulled over and carefully picked it up. Unfortunately, it had the remains of its last meal, probably a sparrow, spilling out of its chest. Yuckers! And there’s no cure for that! Sharp-shinned hawks usually don’t eat the heads or feet of their avian prey, probably for just this reason, but this sparrow was apparently just too delicious.
Courtesy lavendarladyThere’s big trouble in Little America (that’s what all the cool kids are calling England these days, that or “Olde America”).
“Why is this a big deal?” you ask. I’ll tell you why. First of all, you have to keep in mind that most large, dangerous animals were hunted to extinction in England hundreds of years ago. So, while we North Americans are used to bears, wolves, mountain lions and cheetahs wandering our streets, it has been centuries since most Brits have had to deal with anything more dangerous that, say, a bunny. Squirrels, while often smaller than bunnies, can be slightly more dangerous—if necessary, a bunny can usually be avoided by going up stairs, or standing on a chair, but this won’t work for squirrels. The squirrel is, after all, nature’s monkey.
But it’s not the presence of squirrels alone that’s dangerous here. Cambridge had squirrels before, but these new squirrels are mutants. Mutant, melanistic, black-furred gray squirrels, and they are slowly but surely running the old-fashioned gray squirrels out of town.
Melanism, simply, is a genetic variation that causes skin, fur, or feathers to be consistently dark. It’s sort of the opposite of albinism. Black panthers, for instance, are just melanistic leopards or jaguars. Melanism is usually fairly uncommon in animals—if a species has evolved its fur or feathers to be camouflage within its natural environment, a melanistic individual might end up sticking out like a sore thumb and getting eaten before it can pass on its genes. This sort of selective pressure is probably less significant for your average city squirrel, and having black fur may not necessarily be detrimental, and other traits could determine a species’ success.
Red squirrels used to be common in Olde America, for instance, until the introduction of larger, more aggressive gray squirrel. Now red squirrels are largely extinct in Britain, except for certain small pockets in Scotland, forced out by the brutal gray squirrel armies. Oh, wait, something perfect just happened.
Right, so now the same thing is happening to the gray squirrels. There’s some evidence that in large cats melanism offers a certain amount of protection from viral infection, so it could be that the new melanistic squirrel population receives similar genetic benefits. It has also been suggested, though not yet proven, that the melanistic squirrels are more aggressive than their gray cousins due to higher testosterone levels.
Also, I just dug this link up the other day, but it seems appropriate here too. In Russia a couple years ago, there was a report of a pack of black squirrels killing and eating a big stray dog. A choice quote:
"They literally gutted the dog," local journalist Anastasia Trubitsina told Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. "When they saw the men, they scattered in different directions, taking pieces of their kill away with them."
First off, this isn’t science news so much as science-fiction news, but I am convinced that you will find it relevant, what with the Star wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit on its way to the SMM.
Jedi Master Jonba Hehol—known to some as Barney Jones, hairdresser—of Holyhead, England, was in his backyard giving an interview for a documentary when the Sith lord himself, Darth Vader, vaulted over Jonba’s garden fence, and proceeded to battle Master Hehol, the founder of the first British Jedi Church.
Now, when I say “battle,” what I mean is “assault with a metal crutch.” Hehol’s Jedi powers, one assumes, are suited more for hairdressing, and, Master though he is, he was soon laid low by the crutch-wielding Vader. The dark Jedi—who was reportedly under the influence of alcohol—then proceeded to attack the camera crew.
“This wasn’t a joke,” claims the cowed Helol. “This was serious.”
Serious indeed. And just imagine how serious things would have been if Vader had thrown down with his lightsaber instead of a crutch. All sorts of stuff would have hit the fan then. Limbs and things.
Courtesy Vicki & Chuck Rogers- Best FriendsCareful observation has once again made fools of us. I always knew this would happen, but had previously assumed that it would have something to do with someone finally noticing the things I do when I think no one is watching. (And why shouldn’t I take sandwiches from the trash?)
No, in this particular case, science has shown that common knowledge isn’t always right, and that early birds do not necessarily get the worm.
“The worm” here is a metaphor for life.
Everyone knows, of course, that the early bird gets the worm. That is to say, whoever gets up first earns the right to finish off the donuts, and which ever animal is born before its siblings will be stronger and better able to compete for food (and what have you) that its good for nothing slowpoke brothers and sisters. These “late birds” lose the head start at life, and have a more difficult time catching up, if they ever do.
Recently, however, biologists at the University of North Carolina have found this little bit of wisdom to be less than entirely wise. This is not to say that early-hatching birds have lost any sort of advantage--they continue to steal worms from their younger siblings. No, early hatchers remain true to the saying, but eggs that are laid first have been found to have a significantly decreased chance of hatching at all. It seems that after laying her first egg, bird mothers aren’t all that concerned yet with settling down and incubating the little sucker. Therefore, its chances of survival take quite a dip.
What’s more, it may be that the reasons for this have to do with the fact that early (hatching) birds do tend to get the worms: if mother birds were to incubate their first egg before the rest were laid, that early hatching bird would out compete its siblings, and probably decrease the total bird output.
It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? I compared it to my own experiences as a lifelong late bird--I was born last, am rarely early in general, and I kind of hate worms (they taste like slimy dirt. Seriously)--and it made me a little wistful for similar behavior in humans. If only my mother would have spent more time foraging and flying around in my older brother’s incubating days, things probably would have gone much better for me. There would have been more presents for me at holidays, I could have grown into a more robust physique (like the brother did), and I would have gotten the top bunk. I would have gotten the worm, if you will. If only...
Courtesy USDA Last month the cost of wheat surged to a record $19.80 a bushel (Feb. 16) on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. Wheat historically trades at $3 to $7 a bushel. If you like eating breads, rolls, croissants, bagels and pizza crusts, better be prepared for higher prices. While we may be inconvenienced, a wheat shortage in many parts of the world will result in death by starvation.
Wheat plants feed more people than any other single food source on the planet. Wheat is now under attack by a virulent strain of black stem rust fungus (Puccinia graminis) known as Ug99.
Black stem rust itself is nothing new. It has been a major blight on wheat production since the rise of agriculture, and the Romans even prayed to a stem rust god, Robigus. NewScientist
When it hit the North American breadbasket, in 1954, it wiped out 40 per cent of the crop. Norman Borlaug solved that wheat rust problem and earned a Nobel Prize by developing wheat that resisted stem rust. Borlaug, known as the father of the Green Revolution, (now 93 and fighting cancer) is leading the charge against his old enemy.
"This thing has immense potential for social and human destruction." When Ug99 turned up in Kenya in 2002, he sounded the alarm. "Too many years had gone by and no one was taking Ug99 seriously," he says. He blames complacency, and the dismantling of training and wheat testing programmes, after 40 years without outbreaks.
Ug99, that sprang up in Africa in 1999 has now spread into Iran and threatens to spread into other wheat producing regions of Asia, namely Pakistan and India, which accounts for 20 percent of the annual world wheat production. CIMMYT estimates that from two-thirds to three-quarters of the wheat now planted in India and Pakistan are highly susceptible to this new strain of stem rust.
“In addition, 75 to 80 percent of our breeding material is also susceptible to this disease. We are running out of resistant genes to deploy in the face of this highly virulent disease.” Dr. Jim Peterson, wheat breeder at Oregon State University and chair of the National Wheat Improvement Committee (NWIC)
"The spores of wheat rust are mostly carried by wind over long distances and across continents. Scientists met this week in Syria to decide on emergency measures to track Ug99's progress. They hope to slow its spread by spraying fungicide or even stopping farmers from planting wheat in the spores' path. The only real remedy will be new wheat varieties that resist Ug99, and they may not be ready for five years." NewScientist.
Courtesy TsjalWell, this is not good to hear.
An investigation by the Associated Press has revealed that the drinking water of more than two dozen US cities is polluted with pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter drugs.
The medications, which include antibiotics, sex hormones, and mood stabilizers, along with commonly used medications such as ibuprofen, were detected in trace amounts – quantities of parts per billions or even trillions - but let’s face it, this is really disturbing news.
How the drugs got there is obvious; our country’s population is a highly medicated one. We pop a lot pill for all sorts of conditions, headaches, depression, high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure, birth control, sexual dysfunction, to name just a few. Our bodies metabolize a large portion of these drugs but any part not absorbed, ends up going down the toilet and back into the water system.
“People think that if they take a medication, their body absorbs it and it disappears, but of course that’s not the case,” said Christian Daughton, an EPA scientist who was one of the first to bring attention to the issue.
Waste treatment plants filter the water before it gets discharged back into reservoirs or into the water table, and the water is treated again for drinking but unfortunately the treatment plants just aren’t set up to filter out the drug traces. The AP’s five-month investigation also turned up disturbing data that shows some natural watersheds are also contaminated, meaning this stuff is getting into everything.
The trace amounts don’t seem to be a concern, at least not in the short term. But what about in the long term? The effect of ingesting low-levels of all these different types of medications over a lifetime –or even during the critical nine months of gestation – just isn’t clearly understood. Some recent studies have shown disturbing alterations in human cells and wildlife exposed to water laced with pharmaceuticals and industrial pollutants, but these studies aren’t well known to the general population.
And human waste isn’t the only source of contamination. Steroids given to cattle have been shown to find their way from feedlots back into the water system. And here’s an unsettling statistic I learned recently: 75 percent of the antibiotics sold by the US drug companies is used on livestock -such as chickens- to keep them healthy while they grow fat for the slaughterhouse. Some of their manure is then used to fertilize crop fields and the antibiotics get into the aquifers.
So what to do? At the moment, the federal government has no requirement for testing water for drugs and many major cities don’t do it. Less than 50 percent of the 62 cities the AP investigated didn’t test for that kind of contamination. These included major metropolitan centers such as Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Chicago, New York City and Phoenix. Some water providers told the AP investigators that they had found no traces of pharmaceuticals in their water, only to have an independent test show that wasn’t true.
You might think, as I did, that maybe bottled water is the answer. Unfortunately much of that is just repackaged (and untested) tap water. And most home purification systems don’t filter out drug contaminates. There is a process called reverse osmosis that can rid the water of all traces of medical contaminants but at the moment, it is very expensive and results in a lot of contaminated waste water just to get a single gallon of potable water.
And the US is not alone in this problem. Traces of pharmaceuticals have been detected in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers around the world. Considering that only 3 percent of Earth’s water is fresh water, something needs to be done.
SOURCE and LINKS
Courtesy Wikimedia commons“Doctor, no! I need those!” “Kibbles and bits, kibbles and bits,” “It tasted great both times I ate it,” and “Rook out, Raggy!” All exclamations humanity has every right to expect from a dog. The canine linguistics community, however, has been left sorely disappointed by the recent bark translations of a team of Hungarian researchers.
The Hungarians, no doubt doing their best with the resources at hand, recorded and digitized over 6,000 barks of Hungarian sheepdogs, and fed them into a specially designed computer program. The computer was then able to correctly identify, 43 percent of the time, whether the dog was barking in a “fight,” “stranger,” “play,” “walk,” “alone,” or “ball” scenario, with “fight” and “stranger” most often yielding accurate results. The program was also able to correctly determine the individual dog barking 52 percent of the time.
Both of these statistics are much better than the average human translation of dog barking, although they pale in comparison to some of history’s more notable dog translators (Shaggy, The Son of Sam and Jack London, to name just a few). It is, certainly, an admirable start, and it has got me looking forward to the day when I can ask my brother’s dog just what’s so great about putting his nose right there, exactly.
Courtesy Mark RyanA baby orangutan born last month at the Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota is reported to be doing well, and bonding with its mother. Births of captive animals aren't uncommon - the zoo has had fourteen surviving orangutan births in nearly fifty years - but this one is unusual because its delivery was by caesarian section, the first such delivery in the zoo's history.
The yet-unnamed male orangutan was born December 13, and placed in ICU where he was cared for by a medical team from both the Veterinary Medical Center and University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, Fairview. At first, things were a little hairy (tee hee) for the new baby, but zookeepers and the medical staff kept a close watch and helped the little guy pull through.
In the meantime, the baby's mother, a twenty year-old orangutan named Markisa, was brought back to the zoo so she could recover from her surgery.
Courtesy Mark RyanWhen time came for reuniting mother and child, doctors and zoo officials were uncertain if Markisa would take to her new offspring since she hadn’t birthed him in the conventional manner. But after a careful and methodical reintroduction process, Markisa has taken her motherly duties to heart.
Interestingly, the zoo’s dominant female orangutan, an ape named Joy, kept trying to sabotage the relationship by offering every object she had to Markisa in exchange for the new baby. But Markisa just wasn’t in the trading mood, and kept signaling “No deal!” Home-wrecker Joy, and her own eight-year-old son, Willy, have since been moved to Busch Gardens in Florida so Markisa and her baby can bond in peace.
About 200 orangutans (the name means “person of the forest”) are in exhibitions throughout the United States. The great apes are native to Sumatra and Borneo, but their populations have been dwindling in recent years due to deforestation of their environment by human endeavors and wild fires.
Courtesy Mark RyanWhen I read an update about mom and the baby, I went over to the Como Zoo to catch a glimpse of the little fellow. It wasn’t an easy task, as the exhibit lighting is kept low, and Markisa seems very protective of her new son, keeping him cradled closely to her breast. I managed to get a couple shots where you can at least tell he’s there.
On the other hand, Markisa’s recovery from the c-section is apparently coming along just fine. She moved around the exhibit rather effortlessly, and without any show of pain – as far as I could tell – holding her little one in her arms.
If you want further information about Markisa and her baby, check out the news page on the Como Zoo’s website. And if you want to do more than just read about the new baby, you can learn about sponsoring him here, or visit the Como Zoo to see him.