Recently, I was sitting at my desk asking myself, “With the Mississippi River flood of 2010 past-peak, now what?” I mean, if I can’t obsessively check the latest crest predictions or watch the Science Museum's flood cam, what am I supposed to do with all my free time??
The whole purpose of River Life is to help people like me and you collaborate on issues of river sustainability. You say: “Hold up. What's ‘river sustainability’?” Good question! I asked Pat and Joanne myself and they said river sustainability is the study of how to continue urban living without harming the natural processes of rivers. Put another way, river sustainability is the study of maintaining harmony between human, aquatic, and terrestrial ecology. But don’t take my word for it, Pat speaks for himself about River Life in the Institute on the Environment’s, River Reflections:
Courtesy National Park Service
Did you know the Mississippi River is considered among the world’s largest watersheds? Me neither! A watershed is a geographic area within which all water flows into the same stream. The Mississippi River watershed covers about 40% of the continental United States. As part of River Life, this and other fascinating river facts will compose a River Atlas. This River Atlas is a work in progress set to debut fall 2010 and will eventually contain scientific data, videos, photos, art, and people’s stories about rivers.
The River Atlas section about people's river stories is called – no surprise here! – River Stories. Pat says river stories are important because they inspire people into action. While that’s certainly true, river stories are also simply fascinating in themselves. For example, did you know the upper landing area upstream from the Science Museum was known as “Little Italy” until the flood of 1952? After that, the city used the area for a scrap yard and then a parking lot. Today, it has been developed into high-rise apartments.
River Life’s dream for the Mississippi River is that people will learn how to engage the river in a mutually meaningful way. What does that really mean? It’s all about the river sustainability principle we talked about earlier: living with the river instead of against it. Pat’s example of a mutually meaningful river engagement is Harriet Island who’s flood-resistant social space is a great city amenity that also respects the natural process of flooding.
Courtesy St. Paul, Minnesota
Courtesy Alaina B. (Flickr)
Cheeseburgers. Watermelon. Grilled corn-on-the-cob. As the promise of warmer weather inches increasingly closer, I’m already dreaming of my favorite summer foods. (I mean, really, aren’t you?? Bet you are now…)
The world’s population is reaching 9 BILLION people, and we all have to eat! (I know, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”) In the United States, almost everyone eats incredibly well by world standards. Globally, many families are lucky to share a bowl of rice for dinner. Meanwhile, crop yields aren’t keep up with increasing demand, so world food prices are rising everyday. The developing world already experiences a food shortage, but even in the developed West, we are not completely insulated against the effects of an escalating population on global food supply. Science confirms what our guts and pocket books are already telling us – we can’t keep biggering our population without seriously thinking about how we grow and eat our food.
So what are we going to do?? Don’t despair. Thankfully, great minds are thinking about the global food crisis and considering how to ensure food security throughout the world. Many of these ideas are published in Science magazine’s recent food security issue. Scientists play an important role in boosting crop yields by researching crops and farming methods that: 1) use little water, 2) don’t deplete the soil of nutrients, and 3) increase how much food is grown per seed. Engineers and technicians are also aiding the process: plant breeders are now using robots to streamline breeding programs, which allows researchers to introduce cool new traits that allow crops to fight fungi, weeds, and viruses that threaten to wipe out entire crops (in honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2010, remember the Irish Potato Famine?).
Caution! Myth-busting ahead: Fertilizer is the often-suggested solution to the global food crisis, but scientists say we only need to look as far as China to see why that’s not a solution, but rather part of the problem. China consumes 36% of the world’s manmade fertilizer, making it the world’s largest user. Nitrogen is a major component of fertilizer. Nitrogen is what scientists call a “limiting nutrient” meaning “the nutrient is rare, but plants need a minimum amount to live.” Research in China has shown that sometimes there is too much of a good thing; too much fertilizer actually causes healthy soil to get sick from a nitrogen overdose.
Ensuring the world’s food security poses cultural, economic, and psychological challenges as well as scientific ones. Solutions discussed in Science’s special issue include promoting traditional mixed crop-livestock systems, local development of relevant technologies, and eating less meat. One alternative suggested that’s going to (literally) be hard to swallow: substituting African caterpillars instead of steak and other meaty favorites. (I think that’s going to be a tough sell…)
You don’t have to go too far to find people tackling the problem of food security. Right here in Minnesota, at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscape Initiative (GLI) program has a focus on agriculture and food systems. By studying how people use land for farming and other practices, GLI is seeking to understand how we might make better use of land to create a brighter future for humankind and the environment. Recently they made a sweet YouTube video to pose the BIG Question: Feast or Famine? I highly recommend you check it out:
Courtesy wikimediaThe Smithsonian Institute will open a new exhibition hall tomorrow (March 17, 2010), the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins (this opening coincides with the institute’s 100-year anniversary). The 15,000-square-foot hall will focus on what it means to be human, examining how our defining characteristics emerged over time. One cool thing about the new exhibition (in addition to…everything) is the highlight (in the form of bronze statues) of a-typical hominid species. There’s a statue of Homo heidelbergensis, Paranthropus boisei, and even Homo floresiensis (the “hobbit” species). Now, I know what you’re thinking, “What?! Where’s the Australopithecus africanus?!!” Well, it’s not in this exhibition (at least not in the form of a shiny effigy). The reason for this is to emphasize that our ancestry is not a straight line (as A. africanus might imply because it is a possible direct ancestor of Homo sapiens). Instead, our lineage is much less tidy; there’s species overlap, some species die off… the diagrams are messy. The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins is trying to get at the fact that we Homo sapiens are just another iteration in our branch-laden tree, not the pinnacle of evolutionary development. I think that’s a great point to remind people of.
Other features of the exhibition include forensically reconstructed life-sized faces of some of our ancestors, 75 skull reproductions, key events in humanity’s evolution (environmental changes, behavioral innovations, etc.), a human family tree, and virtual tours of important research sites. I haven’t had the chance to visit it yet, but the American Museum of Natural History in New York also has a relatively new human origins exhibition. I think it’s exciting that more and more museums are taking on this topic. In the past museums have shied away from it for fear of stirring up controversy. The Milwaukee Public Museum, for example has an exhibit about evolution- it’s on a tiny wall in a dark corner…but at least they have one. It’s important for museums to present scientific research, and the exciting exploration of human evolution is no exception. So if you’re in the D.C. area, be sure to check out the new Smithsonian Hall of Human Origins.
Courtesy PLoS Biology
Courtesy PLoS BiologyCheck out this amazing fossil showing the remains of a snake coiled around a nest of dinosaur eggs, including a nearby titanosaur hatchling. The fossil was found 26 years ago in northwestern India, and was originally thought to contain remains of eggs and baby dinosaur bones. But recent re-evalutions revealed some of the bones were actually those of a new species of snake named Sanajeh indicus. The incredible 67 million-year-old fossil is the first of its kind, and suggests that snakes preyed on dinosaurs, just as they prey on birds today. A newly hatched titanosaur would have been easy pickings for the 11.5 foot S. indicus, but an adult titanosaur - which grew to more than 100 feet in length - would have been another story. Scientists think the unique Cretaceous fossil resulted from an ancient landslide that buried the snake just when it was about to go after its next meal. Here's a photo of the incredible fossil and along with a diagram of what it contains. You can read the whole story at PLoS Biology where the research has been published.
Courtesy ReytanRoll up your sleeves and prepare a glass of filtered water, Buzzketeers, because it’s time to learn about the Guinea worm. It’s time to learn about the Guinea worm… hard!
In case the title of this post didn’t spoil it for you already, or if your mother printed out the page but cut off the title, or in case your eyes just don’t read letters that big, the Guinea worm grows to be up to three feet long. Inside you. And even though everything that enters my body must first pass through flame, it still freaks me out.
The parasitic guinea worm, or dracunculiasis (which means “afflicted with little dragons”—you’ll see why in a second), was once found in 20 countries across Asia and Africa, but improved sanitary conditions have reduced its range to just 4 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Which is cool, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad, but not good enough, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad.
The worm works like this: little worm larvae swim around in puddles and ponds until they get eaten by teeny, tiny crustaceans called copepods (sort of like little shrimp). They live and grow inside the copepods until the copepods get swallowed by people drinking unfiltered water. (Just to be clear, this isn’t just any unfiltered water. If you’ve got electricity to power a computer to read this, there’s pretty much zero chance that there are any worm-carrying copepods in your water. If it came from a tap and not a puddle, you’re probably cool. And even if it came from a puddle, you’re probably still cool.) The copepods get dissolved in the drinkers’ stomach acid, but not the baby worms, which then move from the stomach to the abdominal cavity. There, the worms mate. The male worms die and get absorbed, but the female worms wriggle their way deeper into the body, and grow. And grow and grow. Until they’re about three feet long. They live inside their human host for a year, and then they form a blister somewhere on the surface of the person’s body. When the blister bursts, the female worm emerges just a little bit. The worm releases chemicals that cause the blister to have a very painful burning sensation, and when the host puts the affected area in water to cool it, the worm releases hundreds of thousands of worm larvae into the water, where the cycle can begin again.
As if that whole experience weren’t uncomfortable enough, the treatment isn’t a whole lot better. Because there’s no medicine for Guinea worm infection, the adult worm itself must be removed. The way to do that is to grab the exposed bit of the worm and wrap it around a twig or a piece of cloth, and then twisting the twig. But it has to be done slooooowly so as to not break the worm while it’s still inside your muscles—the process, which is said to be extremely painful, can take up to a month before the worm is fully removed. It’s thought that the ancient symbol for medicine, a snake wrapped around a rod may have been inspired by this procedure.
So, you know… ouch, blech, ouch.
Becoming infected once confers no protection from getting infected again, so people can get Guinea worms over and over again, and in addition to being painful, the blister the worm creates can make the sufferer vulnerable to more dangerous infections.
The good news is that preventing infection is relatively simple; infected people shouldn’t wash in water that will be used for drinking, and simple filters can keep people from ingesting the copepods that carry the worm larvae.
President Jimmy “Billy who?” Carter’s non-profit organization, The Carter Center, has been working for the last 20 years to eradicate the parasite. Despite some pretty significant barriers, it is expected that dracunculialisis will be the second disease, after smallpox, to be completely eradicated through human efforts. (Here’s a recent article on that.)
From what I’ve read (and what the Carter Center says), it looks like humans are the Guinea worm’s only host. So it seems to me that eradicating the infection would cause the extinction of the species. Think about that for a second. Usually sciencey types are pretty much completely against driving other organisms to extinction. But it seems like this one… considering how it pretty much only makes life worse for people who are already dealing with some serious challenges… should maybe… maybe… go extinct? I mean, obviously, right? But try that one on for size; I bet you haven’t often said to yourself that you’re cool with something going extinct. It’s a strange experience.
(If you just can’t deal with it, Here’s a website devoted to saving the Guinea worm. It’s satire, but subtle enough that you could probably play along. But, um, remember that sometimes the Guinea worm emerges from the eyes or genitals of its host. Just saying.)
Courtesy USFWSAccording to a scientist at Northern Arizona University, prairie dogs may have the most complex non-human language. That means that this prairie dog (specifically, the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog) may linguistically exceed even dolphins, whales, non-human primates, and box turtles.
But I’ve watched prairie dogs before, and it doesn’t seem like they’ve got a lot going on. What do they even have to talk about?
My assumption would be that they mostly focus on how other prairie dogs would look dressed up in tiny clothes, and what sort of clothes they might wear, and if male prairie dogs would have to wear suits and female prairie dogs would have to wear dresses, or if any prairie dog would be allowed to wear a suit or a dress.
The scientist, who has been studying prairie dogs for thirty years, says that the rodents have developed their sophisticated “bark” to warn the other members of their colonies about the specific details of approaching predators. The tiny sonic variations of each bark can contain information about what sort of animal is approaching, what color it is, and from which direction it’s coming.
Prairie dogs react to different predator species in different ways. For something like a coyote, they will retreat to the mouth of their burrows and stand up to watch the approaching animal. For a badger, on the other hand, they will “lie low to avoid detection.”
To test his hypothesis about the complexity of prairie dog barks, the scientist recorded barks associated with different predators in a variety of situations, and then observed the behavior of all the members of the colony after the bark was heard. He then replayed those recordings to other prairie dogs when there were no actual predators nearby, and found that they reacted in precisely the same way as the threatened animals.
It’s like if an axe murderer burst into a crowded gymnasium. Someone might shout, “Run! There’s an axe murderer at the door!” and everyone would run away from the door and try to get behind something axe-proof. If, then, you were to shout, “Run! There’s an axe murderer at the door!” into a crowded (but murderer-less) gymnasium, people might still run away from the door to get behind something axe-proof because of the specific information in the warning. It would be a different reaction than if you were to just scream, or if you shouted that acid was raining from the ceiling, or that the world’s biggest clown had was digging up through the floor.
It’s sort of the same with prairie dogs, really.
Courtesy PterantulaNot much to say here other than… Holy Smokes! Check his out: a huge shark bitten in half by an even huger shark!
Shark fishermen in Queensland Australia pulled a ten-foot great white from a baited drum line to discover that the shark had been nearly bitten in half by an even bigger shark. Again, take a look. And the 10-footer was still alive when they pulled it into the boat. (Yowza.)
The think that the larger shark was also a great white, and that it might be as large as 20 feet long. A shark that size weighs about 4,400 pounds. There’s been some debate regarding the maximum size of a great white, but 20 feet is probably about as large as they can get. (In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there were reports of sharks caught that measured over 30 feet, but reexamination indicated that they were probably significantly shorter.) At any rate, the shark in Jaws (I think its name was Eustace) was supposed to be 25 feet long, so 20 feet is nothing to sneeze at. Unless huge sharks make you sneeze.
Happy shark attack Tuesday!
Courtesy HolgerESince the dawn of humanity, we Homo sapiens sapiens have lived in fear of non-human animals, hiding in shadows, flinching at every sudden movement, lest it be the leaping of a huge, saber-toothed cat, a swipe of the massive paw of a bear, or, like, some sort of big snake.
Defenseless, we have eked out our existence in the puddles and dusty corners of the world, powerless against the animal threat.
We’ve finally figured out how to destroy animals: with fire!
Check it out: on the 12th there was a news story about a Jordanian shepherd inadvertently witnessed the spontaneous combustion of a flock of sheep, and by today I found a story about a Swedish facility burning spare rabbits to heat the nearby town. (Those Scandinavians are so green!
We’re taking back the planet!
For anyone interested (not sure why you would be), here’s the rest of the story: The burning sheep thing had to do with a local waste treatment facility leaking methane and “organic material” into the ground. The soil became saturated, and when sparks from a grassfire hit the fumes… boom! Roast mutton. Also, this was probably a horrible, horrible thing to see.
The rabbit burning, amazingly, is slightly controversial. Stockholm’s parks are over populated with rabbits, so thousands of them are culled (killed) each year. Last year alone, over six thousand of the rabbits were frozen and trucked to a heat producing facility in Karlskoga, in central Sweden, where they were burned to produce heat for the province of Varmland. How… practical. Some folks have claimed that pet bunnies (or at leat the descendants of released pet bunnies) have been rounded up as well, for chewing on the flowers and shrubs in the parks of Stockholm. They aren’t happy about thee bunny burning, and suggest that a system of shelters be arranged for captured (living) rabbits. Tell that to the shivering people a Varmland. Tell them you’re taking their cheap rabbit-heat.
Courtesy SiamEyeI don’t even know where to begin today! All I can think is “OMG!!!!” And each exclamation point I think is like a blood vessel bursting in my brain!
OMG pop pop pop
So why is this a day of excitement, instead of quiet family tragedy? Because the biggest explosions today aren’t happening in little tubes in my head, they’re happening in the world of science! (I don’t consider the physiology of my head to be science. More like magic. Or trial and error.) I just don’t know what to do with all this science.
See, unlike your average Friday Extravaganza, a Thursday Explosion has no focus; it’s just kind of all over the place. A mess! There are all these stories, but we really have to stretch to fit them into a single post… so the loose theme of this explosion will, fittingly, be “flying things.” Am I not helping? Just wait, you’ll see.
Normal mouse becomes flying mouse, doesn’t care!
Check it out: a baby mouse was put into a little chamber and subjected to an intense magnetic field. What happened? All the water in the mouse’s body was levitated. And because those squishy little mice are so full of water, the mouse itself levitated along with the water.
Unfortunately, the first mouse wasn’t quite ready for life as an aviator, and upon levitation, he began to, as scientists say, “flip his Schmidt.” Lil’ mousey started kicking, and spinning, and with minimal resistance in the chamber, he started spinning faster and faster. He was removed from the machine, and put wherever little mice go to relax. Subsequent floating mice were given a mild sedative before flying (pretty much the same thing my mom does), and they seemed cool with it. Now and again the floating mice would drift out of the region of the magnetic field, but upon falling back into it they’d float right back up. After remaining in a levitating state for several hours, the mice got used to it, and even ate and drank normally. Afterwards, the mice had no apparent ill-effects from the experiment (rats had previously been made to live in non-levitating magnetic fields for 10 weeks, and they seemed fine too.)
Aside from the excitement normally associated with floating mice, the experiment is promising in that it may be a useful way to study the effects of long term exposure to microgravity without bringing a subject to space.
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It’s true! Forget everything you thought you knew about great tits and get schooled once again, my friends, for great tits are killers!
I’m not talking about the senseless murder of bugs, either—everybody already knew that great tits are primarily insectivores. A population of great tits in Hungary have been observed hunting bats!
As fun as it is to keep writing “great tits” with no explanation, I suppose we should be clear that great tits are a type of song bird common in Europe and Asia. Little, bat-hunting songbirds.
Meat eating great tits had been reported in other parts of Europe, but it was thought that those individuals had only consumed already-dead animals. The tits of Hungary were actually observed flying into bat caves, where they would capture tiny, hibernating pipistrelle bats and drag them out of the cave to devour them alive. It even appeared that the birds had learned to listen for the bats’ disturbed squeaking (or, as I like to think of it, their horrified shrieking)—when the same noise (which is too high for humans to hear) was played back for captured tits, 80% of the birds became interested (read: bloodthirsty) at the sound.
If it really is just the Hungarian population that engages in this behavior, the situation also brings up the possibility of culture in the birds. That is, if this isn’t some sort of innate behavior, but something learned and taught, and passed through generations that way, it could be considered culture. Amazing! Great tits are cultured!
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Well, not so much flying as falling. But falling with purpose. (What was it Buzz Lightyear said? Oh yeah, “I’m so lonely all the time.”)
We all know about how awesome raptors are. I think it’s part of kindergarten curriculum now, just between how not to accidentally poison yourself, and why you shouldn’t swear and hit. Well, I remember reading a news item a couple years ago about how some paleontologists were thinking that raptors’ famous giant toe claws may not have been for disemboweling their prey. Instead, the scientists proposed, raptors would lodge the massive claw into the skin of their prey with a kick, and then use it to hang on to the unlucky animal while the raptor went bite-crazy. The researchers had made a simulation of a raptor claw, and found that it could easily puncture thick skin and flesh, it didn’t seem to be sharp enough to actually cut the skin. (Cutting is necessary for a good disemboweling.) One might argue over the strength and sharpness of raptor claws, considering that the fossilized bone claws we see in museums would have been covered with a tough, horny substance, which did not fossilize, but whatever—the new scenario was still pretty cool.
Now, the same group of paleontologists is proposing that raptor claws were also well suited to tree climbing. Raptors could have waited on overhanging limbs, and then pounced on their prey from above. Pretty neat! The researchers point out that the microraptor a tiny relative of the velociraptor, had feathered limbs to help it glide down from high places, so it’s not a stretch to think that its cousins were comfortable in trees too. “The leg and tail musculature,” one scientist says, “show that these animals are adapted for climbing rather than running.”
I’ll take his word for it, I guess, but I do have some questions on that point. There’s a dromaeosaur (it looks a lot like a velociraptor) skeleton here at the museum, and I seem to remember that its tale was supposed to be very stiff—it has these cartilage rods running the length of the tail to keep it rigid. I feel like a long, stiff tail would be a pain in the butt up in a tree. It’s not the sort of thing arboreal animals invest in these days. Also, I wonder what sort of vegetation was around in the areas raptors lived. Plenty of big trees with good, raptor-supporting limbs? (I’m not implying that there weren’t, I’m just curious.)
The researchers do acknowledge that tree climbing wouldn’t have been every raptor’s cup of tea, however. Species like the utahraptor, weighing many hundreds of pounds, and measuring about 20 feet in length would have been “hard put to find a tree they could climb.”
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Pretty neat stuff, huh? Explosions usually are. But you see now why I couldn’t wait for three posts to get it all out there.
Courtesy SuitovRemember in 8th grade, when you were taking geometry or pre-calc or whatever, and some cleverboots in the back row asked the teacher when anyone was every likely to use math in real life? Your teacher probably said something like, “Do I have to shake the answer into you, numbskull? You’ll use it every day! What if you want to figure out the rate of wear on your tires based on circumference? What about when you want to figure out the height of your favorite tree, using only the length of its shadow?” And because everyone involved could see the hollowness of this answer, you went home feeling a little darker.
But, see, what your lousy teacher should have said is that when the zombie apocalypse comes, math is what’s going to drag us out of that corpse-filled scenario and into a brighter, infection-free future. Because, when it comes to zombies, math is the real weapon.
JK, of course. Claw hammers and chainsaws will still be the real weapons. No getting past that—even the trickiest math problems will hardly destroy the brain, much less sever a spinal cord. But mathematical models will provide a strategy for survivors.
Mathematical models for vampire scenarios are old hat. They’re old, boring hat, in fact, on account of how people can’t agree about the methodology, and because vampires aren’t that great in the first place. But a practical zombie model is making the rounds in the popular press, because this is the sort of thing we need to know.
Taking into account infection rates, and the relative numbers of “suseptable,” “zombie,” and “removed” individuals, the model confirms what we have long suspected: that a zombie outbreak would suck. The model is, of course, much more complicated than this, and it has lots of fun little symbols and graphs, but that’s the long and short of it.
However, the model does leave room for hope. Putting victims into quarantine could eradicate the infection, but only under ideal circumstances (i.e., not in the real world), and a while a zombie cure could ensure the continuing existence of humanity, survivors would need to coexist with zombies. The remaining solution, and the only practical one, it turns out, is the old fashioned one: head smashing. As the paper puts it, “only sufficiently frequent attacks, with increasing force, will result in eradication.”
We’ve got to hit the zombies where they live. Or where they undead-live. Or whatever. The point is that when the time comes (any day now), we have to take the fight to the zombies, and we have to do it fast. So prepare your bite-guards and blunt instruments, and put them next to your fire extinguisher and emergency blanket. Be a survivor.
A quick note: To all of you who are thinking, “Puh-leaze, JGordon. Zombies are played out like Super Bowl XLIII,” I respond with a puh-leaze of my own. I say y’all are the ones played out, played out like Mario 3, and I think y’all should check yourselves and just go watch Transformers 2, or whatever it is you people are into.