Courtesy M. R. Smith / Smithsonian InstituteOne of the strangest and more mysterious critters that scurried across the Middle Cambrian seafloor has baffled paleontologist since it was first identified in the 1970s. Was it a worm? Which side was up? Did it have legs or spikes or both? Was its head actually its tail? Did it have any extant descendents or was it an evolutionary dead-end? The worm-like creature was so baffling and so bizarre, it was given the very apropos name of Hallucigenia.
The tubular, spiked-worm possessed seven or eight pairs of legs and ranged in length from 2/5th of an inch to one and 1/4 inches and looks like something out of a bad dream. Early interpretations of their fossils were all over the map. The stiff spikes on it back were first thought to be its legs, and its legs misidentified as tentacles. What was thought to be its tail ended up being its head.
Using modern imaging technology, researchers from the University of Cambridge have been closely studying fossils from the famous Burgess Shale quarry located high in the Canadian Rockies, and are uncovering Hallucigenia's secrets. By studying the claws at the end of its legs they have been able to link it to modern velvet worms (onychophorans). Scientists have long suspected the two were somehow related but until now have failed to find anything significant to prove it. By studying Hallucigenia's claws they've determined that they're constructed of nested cuticle layers, very similar to how the jaws of velvet worms are organized. The similarity is no surprise since jaws are known to have evolved from a modified set of front legs.
But besides giving Hallucigenia a place in the lineage of life on Earth, the Cambridge team during the course of their study also discovered something else: that arthropods - which include crustaceans, spiders, insects and trilobites - aren't in fact as closely related to velvet worms as previously thought.
“Most gene-based studies suggest that arthropods and velvet worms are closely related to each other," said co-author Dr Javier Ortega-Hernandez. "However, our results indicate that arthropods are actually closer to water bears, or tardigrades, a group of hardy microscopic animals best known for being able to survive the vacuum of space and sub-zero temperatures – leaving velvet worms as distant cousins.”
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Courtesy National Portrait GalleryLast month, on November 22nd, while many people in the country were observing the 50th anniversary of president John F. Kennedy's assassination by shots fired from the Texas School Book Depository, there was another significant event happening that day involving Texas schoolbooks. That same Friday, despite objections and obstructionist tactics by creationists, the Texas Board of Education approved several public school science textbooks that included full coverage of evolution and climate change. The vote came late in the day and although the creationist faction did manage to make the adoption of two biology books contingent on a committee ruling regarding some alleged "flaws" in the text, the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a watchdog group instrumental in countering the irrational creationist attacks, expects the passage to stand.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of today’s vote, which is a huge win for science education and public school students in Texas,” said Kathy Miller, TFN's president. “Four years ago this board passed controversial curriculum standards some members hoped would force textbooks to water down instruction on evolution and climate change. But that strategy has failed because publishers refused to lie to students and parents demanded that their children get a 21st-century education based on established, mainstream science.”
Courtesy apc33According to a new study presented at the recent Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamicsin Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, many species of mushrooms create their own breezes to help disperse their spores. Most times, mushrooms rely on wind to spread their offspring around the environment. But using indirect measurements, along with high-speed video and scaling analysis of fluid mechanics, researchers from Trinity College and UCLA have shown that before releasing their spores, some fungi create their own air movement through the release of water vapor that produces a convective dynamic to cool the air and get it moving. As slight as the breeze may seem, it's enough to move the spores to an adequate distance away from the mushroom parent.
Scientific American story
Courtesy Fancy Horse (underwater background)The genome of the coelacanth, the world's best known living fossil, has been sequenced by an international team of researchers and is revealing something scientists already suspected: that the primitive-looking fish has evolved more slowly than most other organisms. The coelacanth is related to the lungfish and several extinct Devonian fish species that are considered precursors to land dwelling tetrapods. Kerstin Lindblad-Toh is senior author of the study which appeared recently in the science journal Nature.
"We often talk about how species have changed over time, but there are still a few places on Earth where organisms don't have to change, and this is one of them," Lindblad-Toh said. "Coelacanths are likely very specialized to such a specific, non-changing, extreme environment -- it is ideally suited to the deep sea just the way it is."
Lindblad-Toh is scientific director of the Broad Institute's vertebrate genome biology group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which did the genome research. The institute is linked to both MIT and Harvard.
The genetic map, which involved sequencing some 3 billion letters of DNA, also showed (via RNA content) that tetrapods - four-legged land dwelling animals - though related to both coelacanths and lungfish, are more closely related to lungfish and followed that line rather than that of the coelacanth. We humans also branched off that same line. The genome of a lungfish is composed of over 100 billion DNA letters, making it a much more difficult task to sequence, so for the time being, the coelacanth's DNA makes for a reasonable alternative for study.
"This is just the beginning of many analyses on what the coelacanth can teach us about the emergence of land vertebrates, including humans, and, combined with modern empirical approaches, can lend insights into the mechanisms that have contributed to major evolutionary innovations," said professor Chris Amemiya at the University of Washington, and the paper's co-author.
Courtesy photo by Haplochromis via Wikipedia Creative CommonsWhen Louis Agassiz named the first fossil coelacanth back in 1836, the Swiss paleontologist probably never imagined that a nearly identical descendent of the primitively constructed Devonian-aged fish would one day be found still inhabiting the world's oceans. The coelacanth was thought to have gone extinct along with the non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. None have been found in the fossil record after that time, but two extant species are known today. The first specimen Latimeria chalumnae was netted off the coast of South Africa in 1938, near the Chalumnae river and retrieved by East London Museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer who discovered what she called "the most beautiful fish I'd ever seen" in the catch of local fisherman, Henrik Goosen. Since then several more coelacanths have been caught, including the Indonesian species, Latimeria menadoensis, from the Indian Ocean.
The remarkable prehistoric throw-back, sometimes referred to as "old four legs" because of its leg-like fins, hasn't changed much in its 350 million year history. A member of the clade of lobe-finned fishes called Sarcopterygii, coelacanths retain primitive characteristics such a notochord, a hollow fluid-filled tube made of cartilage that underlies the spine over the length of its body. In all other vertebrates, the notochord is an anatomical structure that appears briefly only during the embryonic stage but not in adults. Not so with the coelacanth. It also possesses, primitive shark-like intestines, a linear heart, and tightly-woven armor-like scales (known as cosmoid) that are only found on extinct species of fish. The coelacanth's brain case contains only 1.5 percent gray matter - the other 98.5 percent of space is filled with fat. The other end of the coelacanth body begins to taper before expanding into a strange, three-lobed tail. Its most notable features are its lobed pectoral and pelvic fins that are structured with bones that look like toes, and move in an alternating tetrapod manner. An electroreceptive rostal organ located in its snout is used to detect prey, and the coelacanth is the only living animal that can unhinge a section of the its cranium to increase the gape of its mouth, enabling it to consume larger prey.
The blue or brown, white-speckled coelacanths prefer deep-water environments, and can reach six and a half feet in length and weigh upwards to 175 pounds. For some reason no living coelacanth has managed to survive more than a single day in captivity. With a dwindling population estimated at only 500-1000 individuals, the coelacanth was declared an endangered species in 1989.
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Courtesy Mark RyanA cat in Florida got loose on one side of the state and managed to find its way back home to the other side, baffling both the delighted owners and scientists. Holly, the directionally-savvy 4-year-old tortoiseshell cat traveled from Daytona Beach to within a mile of her owners’ home in West Palm Beach. It took her about 50 days to traverse the 200 mile distance. When found, the poor kitty was weak and emaciated, had a croaky meow, and displayed signs of hoofing it over long distances.
“Her pads on her feet were bleeding,” said Bonnie Richter, who along with her husband, Jacob, are the happy owners (read: service staff) of the migratory feline. “Her claws are worn weird. The front ones are really sharp, the back ones worn down to nothing.
Skeptics might conjecture that the found cat is merely a stray that just looks like the long-lost Holly, and that the distraught owners only think it’s their cat because they miss her so and want to believe it’s her. Well, they couldn’t be more wrong. The scruffy cat in question had an implanted microchip that proves it is indeed Holly.
The Richters’ tale is but one of many incredible stories about lost or separated pets finding their way back home across vast distances. And surprisingly, science doesn’t seem to have any answers as how the animals do it.
“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” said Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado. “Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.”
New York Times story
Courtesy Striving to a goalSomewhere, deep in the recesses of animal evolution, a mass of molecules known as opsin mutated from a run-of-the-mill protein into a detector protein with great vision. Not vision in the figurative way, but vision in the literal way. Opsin is the protein in the photopigments of your eye that interacts with light, and allows you to see all the wonderful things visible in the universe. If you’re reading this post, you have the opsins in your eyes to thank.
Here’s how it works. When a particle or wave of light (a photon) enters your eye, the light sensitive opsin traps it using a small chromophore molecule in it architecture called retinal. Normally, retinal’s tail is all twisted and bent, tensed up, and waiting for something to happen. That’s just the way retinal is when it’s chilling out. But when a photon hits it, the light particle interrupts retinal’s naptime, and the molecule reacts by straightening out its tail. The tail’s movement starts a chain reaction of sorts activating the opsin, which in turn, activates a nearby nerve that shoots out a signal that your brain perceives as light.
Three types of opsin can exist in the eye: R-opsins (rhabdomeric), C-opsins (ciliary, and Go/RGR-opsins (Go-coupled/retinal G protein-coupled receptor). The R and C opsins, depending what type of animal you are (e.g. vertebrate or jellyfish), are used for detecting light. Go/RGR-opsins don’t detect light but are used instead to help regenerate retinal cells and regulate an animal’s inner clock or biological rhythms. Scientists have known about opsins since the 19th century, but haven’t known much on how they evolved, or how they became designated light detectors.
In a recent study published in the journal PNAS, Roberto Feuda of the Department of Biology, National University of Ireland Maynooth, and colleagues reported on their detailed examination of the genetic trail of opsins in all kinds of animal life, from sponges and jellyfish to reptiles, birds and mammals. And while their results warrant further study, they did add new knowledge to our understanding how the eye evolved.
The study negated a long-held idea among scientists that only certain light-designated opsins were present in certain animal types. Generally, C-opsins were thought to be present only in vertebrates, and R-opsins only in invertebrates. But the study showed otherwise. It postulated that all three forms of opsins probably existed in the earliest common ancestor right from the beginning. Later, somewhere along their respective evolutionary lines each group designated the C or R opsins for light detection. The leftover opsins (whether C or R) were used for other non-visual purposes such as setting biological rhythms.
It also pushed the origins of light-sensitive organs back a couple hundred million years from about half a billion years ago to three-quarters of a billion years ago, a time not long after sponges had diverged from other animals and before they split into Bilateria and Cnidaria. Within that evolutionary timeline opsins were found in the gene sequence of the tiny and transparent shape-shifting microorganisms called placozoa. However, because the genome lacks a critical retinal-binding amino acid - lysine 296– it’s unlikely these opsins were able to detect light. (It should be noted that placozoan phylogeny is still under debate). But somewhere along the evolutionary line, these non-visual opsins mutated into a light sensing protein. After just two more gene duplications the three opsins, R, C, and Go/RGR we find in our eye’s photopigments today, were already present in the genome.
Why or when opsins developed into part of the eye’s photopigment is anyone’s guess. This research doesn’t solve all the mysteries surrounding them, particularly their non-visual functions but it does fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of key components of vision evolution.
Courtesy Public domain via Wikipedia This cool evolution timeline is really fascinating and fun to mess around with. I'm guessing Charles Darwin would agree it's a vast improvement over the one that appeared in Punch Almanac in1882 when he was still alive (see image at right). This new one was created by John Kyrk, a biology-trained artist in San Francisco in collaboration with Dr. Uzay Sezen, a plant biologist from the University of Georgia. The timeline is available in several languages and would be very useful in a classroom setting when studying evolution and paleontology.
The site is interactive and follows the evolution of our universe from the Big Bang to the present. You start it by clicking and sliding the red pyramid on the right. As you scroll across the timeline, various events in the history of the Universe, Solar System and ultimately, the Earth show up on the screen. All along, links also appear that either explain concepts or show examples of them. In the upper left hand corner is a menu linking you to several corollary Flash animations by Kyrk explaining cell biology and how RNA, DNA, cells, water, and other basic elements of life (including viruses) operate. Kyrk thinks animated illustrations are very useful in teaching and remembering ideas and concepts.
All the phases of Earth’s formation and development are covered in the evolution timeline, including the Late Heavy Bombardment, Snowball Earth, Cambrian Explosion, stromatolites, photosynthesis and iron formation. Once life begins to rise up, your computer screen will run amok with Earth’s diverse species populations from the one-celled animals, trilobites and fish to amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs and mammals – the whole shooting match. All the major extinction events are shown, too.
The site also contains a link to this YouTube video version of someone else working the timeline so you can just sit back and watch how it happens, But I recommend working the interactive page yourself. A lot more happens and is available than the video allows you to see. Note that you’ll need Flash for it to run on your computer.
I wonder how Darwin would have reacted if he were able to see his theory illustrated in this way?
Courtesy C-MOREHow would you like to be aboard a ship, circumnavigating the globe, collecting samples from the world’s ocean?
That’s exactly what Spanish oceanographers are doing on their Malaspina Expedition aboard the Research Vessel, R/V Hespérides. Scientists and crew left southern Spain in December, reached New Zealand in mid-April, and recently arrived in Hawai`i. The expedition's primary goals are to:
Courtesy C-MOREIn connection with the latter two goals, the Malaspina scientists met with their colleagues at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE). The two groups of scientists are working together. "We can exchange data on the local effects, what's happening around the Hawaiian Islands, and they can tell us what's happening in the middle of the Pacific," said Dr. Dave Karl, University of Hawai`i oceanography professor and Director of C-MORE.
The Malaspina-C-MORE partnership is the kind of cooperation that can help solve environmental problems which stretch beyond an individual nation’s borders. The R/V Hespérides has now left Honolulu on its way to Panama and Colombia. From there, the scientists expect to complete their ocean sampling through the Atlantic Ocean and return to Spain by July. Buen viaje!
Courtesy Mark RyanThis year marks the 150th anniversary of the announced discovery of the first fossils of Archaeopteryx, a remarkable chimera of both bird and reptile traits. The first evidence identified was a single feather discovered at a limestone quarry in Solnhofen, Germany. This was in 1860. The German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer described the fossil in 1861, naming it Archaeopteryx lithographica. That same year, the first skeletal remains came to light, and although headless, the London specimen, as it became known, showed clearly both avian and reptilian characteristics.
The unique and iconic fossil appeared just two years after publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and helped bolster the naturalist’s theory of evolution through natural selection because its appeared to be a transitional fossil between reptile (dinosaur) and bird. Could Darwin have asked for any better evidence?
Since then nine other specimens have been found, including the Berlin specimen around 1877, which is considered one of most complete. For many years some Archaeopteryx specimens languished in collection drawers because they had been initially misidentified as another creature entirely. In 1970, Yale paleontologist John Ostrom was investigating a so-called pteradactyl fossil at a museum in the Netherlands, when he realized it had been misidentified and was actually an Archaeopteryx. The fossil had been found at Solhofen in 1855, five years prior to the feather! The museum curator was so shaken by Ostrom’s announcement, he clumsily wrapped the specimen in a paper bag and presented it to Ostrom so he could take it back to Yale for further study. Ostrom, by the way, re-ignited the “birds are dinosaurs” debate in the 1960s after his discovery of Deinonychus and his comparison of its structural features with those of birds.
The Thermopolis specimen, the latest Archaeopteryx fossil, became known around 2005 and was donated anonymously to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming. I happened to visit the museum in June of 2007 during the first week the fossil went on public display, and was able to see the spectacular specimen firsthand. The small fossil (about 1.5 feet square) was displayed behind a small, glass opening in the wall. There was no crowd to speak of so I was able to take in and photograph the fossil for a long stretch of time by myself. Looking at it, your eye is immediately drawn to the distinct feather impressions evident on both its wings and tail. The head, arms, and legs are spread out across the slab, and even though it died 150 million years ago, it looks as flat and fresh as road kill on a modern highway.
About the size of a large crow, Archaeopteryx was an odd amalgam of both bird and reptile. It had slightly asymmetrical flight feathers, wings, and a furcula (wishbone) - all traits found in birds. But its pelvis, skull and sharp teeth were reptilian (although some skull features are bird-like), and it ha a long tail like a reptile. Its bones weren’t hollow, like the bones of modern birds are, nor is its sternum (breastbone) very pronounced; it’s flatter and without a large keel where, in birds, muscles flight are attached. And it also possesses gastralia (“belly ribs”), a feature found in reptiles and dinosaurs. The inner toe (the hallux) in the Thermopolis specimen doesn’t appear to be reversed so it couldn't grasp or perch and was probably more earth-bound than arboreal. Interestingly, its second toe was extensible – meaning it could be pulled back and elevated for tearing into flesh, just like the middle toes of such dinosaurs as Troodon and Velociraptor. Truth be told, if its feathers hadn’t been preserved, Archaeopteryx would have been classified a carnivorous bipedal dinosaur. In fact, one of the existing Archaeopteryx fossil was first identified as a Compsognathus until preparation revealed its feathers.
Courtesy Ron Blakey, NAU GeologySo what kind of environment did Archaeopteryx live in, and why are its fossils so well preserved? Well, during the Late Jurassic, southern Germany and much of the rest of Europe were pretty much a group of large islands poking out of the Tethys Sea off the coast of North America. What is today the Solnhofen quarry was then part of an island lagoon protected by a barrier reef. Geological evidence in the strata suggests the lagoon dried up several times followed by periods of re-flooding with seawater. Mixed into a brackish soup of coral debris and mud, and in a warm climate conducive to rapid evaporation, the lagoon’s bottom water levels became anoxic, that is depleted of oxygen. Low oxygen meant less bacterial activity and subsequently slow decomposition of any organism that happened to die or get swept into the stagnant lagoon. Burial in the carbonate muck was swift, leaving fresh carcasses no time to be pulled apart by currents or scavengers.
Solnhofen limestone has been used for centuries as a building stone. Because the rock’s matrix is so fine and splits so evenly (sediment deposition likely occurred in very calm waters), the material was later quarried to produce stones for lithography, a printing technique first developed in 1796, and the source of Archaeoperyx’s species designation. Many early scientific illustrations, including some of the first images ofArchaeopteryx were preserved as lithographs created using Solnhofen limestone.
Courtesy Federal Republic of GermanySolnhofen’s fossil record shows that the lagoon’s biological population was diverse. Fish, turtles, lizards and insects, crocodiles, crustaceans, ammonites, squid and starfish, mollusks, pterosaurs, and even the soft remains of jellyfish are preserved in the fine-grained limestone. But the premiere creature is of course the Archaeopteryx, which remains the earliest bird (or most bird-like dinosaur, if you will) known to date. As research on existing specimens continues and new fossils appear it's exciting to imagine what advances will take place in the dinosaur-bird connection debate. Whatever happens, Archaeopteryx lithographica will remain one of the most significant and iconic fossils ever discovered. It's no wonder that later this year on August 11th, the Federal Republic of Germany will issue a 10 Euro silver coin to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the discovery of its most famous fossil.
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Courtesy DjenanWhat is it with goosebumps? Why do the little hairs on our skin stand up when we're frightened or cold? What's the point? How come many of us suffer from backaches? They aren't really conducive to productivity, so why have do we have them. What about hiccups? Are they really necessary? I know they can draw attention to ourselves, but do they really help us attract mates or find food? And speaking of food, why do we insist on stuffing ourselves with more and more of it even after we're obviously full and headed toward obesity? Do these quirks in the human organism serve any purpose whatsoever? The answer is: not really; they serve no purpose at all - at least not now. But somewhere way back in our distant past they did. So if they’re useless now, why do we still have them? Well, you can thank evolution for that. Some evolved characteristics - regardless if they serve a purpose anymore - are just passed on down the genetic line. Evolution doesn't really care, it just keeps on keepin’ on. So if want to know where these and other ancient (and now useless) traits originated, check out the Smithsonian.com's The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved. It makes you wonder: how will we humans evolve in the future, and what present day traits passed on to our descendants will they'll find useless and annoying? Let us know if you have any ideas.