Stories tagged evolution


A confined chimp working things out in his head: Should we be worried?
A confined chimp working things out in his head: Should we be worried?Courtesy tim ellis
A dozen years ago guards at a Swedish prison north of Stockholm discovered a secret cache of weapons hoarded by an inmate named Santino. Certain that some kind of trouble was brewing, prison officials put the otherwise model prisoner under close observation. And it was fortunate they did. Santino was observed several times using his rock arsenal as missiles that he hurled at visitors to the prison. No one was seriously injured in the assault and Santino was disciplined for his actions. But since then subsequent lockdowns have resulted in the discovery and confiscation of hundreds of similar ammunition stockpiles in Santino’s cell. And officials fear the prisoner is planning other attacks.

Normally this wouldn’t be that unusual a scenario. Prison life can be difficult and sometimes the frustrations of incarceration cause detainees to act out against their captors and society in general.

But in this case the prison is actually a zoo and the trouble-making prisoner is a chimpanzee.

When the male chimp’s weapons cache was first discovered, zoo officials called in Mathias Osvath, a cognitive scientist from Sweden’s Lund University and Santino’s behavior was monitored closely. Not only was the 31 year-old ape observed throwing stones at zoo visitors, but was he also observed searching out weaknesses in the walls of his enclosure, digging out loosened chunks of concrete, and hiding them for future barrages.

"These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way," Osvath said. "It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events."

And if that’s not disturbing enough:

“It could be that he is a genius, only more research will tell. On the other hand our research showed the same in orangutans and bonobos so he is not alone," said Joseph Call, a co-author of the study, which appeared in the journal Current Biology.

Oh, Santino’s a genius all right – an evil genius – and one with a nasty grudge against humanity.

“It is extremely frustrating for him that there are people out of his reach who are pointing at him and laughing," Osvath said. "It cannot be good to be so furious all the time."

If that's the case, I think Sweden should consider buying Gitmo for a more secure confinement of the unruly primate. In the meantime, let’s hope Santino doesn’t start enriching uranium.

BBC story story


Evolution: We're all tall enough to ride
Evolution: We're all tall enough to rideCourtesy kevindooley
When and where in Africa did modern humans evolve?

Jim Fairman, the director of the Science Museum of Minnesota's Science Division invites you to find out at a lecture this Wednesday night.

The Science Division is pleased to co-sponsor a lecture by Dr. Curtis Marean on March 11, 2009 in the auditorium of the Science Museum at 7 p.m. Dr. Marean, is a paleoanthropologist and expert on human origins. In this lecture he will broach the questions "where in Africa did modern humans evolve?" and "when did they become behaviorally modern and why then and at that place?" This lecture is free and open to the public, but seating may be limited (currently we have about 150 reservations, maximum seating 275). Please call the ticket office at 651-221-9444 and mention this lecture on March 11th. This free, public lecture is part of Marean’s residency through the Rydell Professorship at Gustavus funded by the Drs. Robert E. and Susan T. Rydell.

Marean is currently a professor at the Institute of Human Origins as part of the School of Human Evolution & Social Change at Arizona State University in Tempe. He teaches courses on the Stone Age of Africa, prehistoric and historic hunger-gatherers, zooarchaeology, and paleoecology. During the last decade he has put more effort into on-site archaeological excavations. In 2007, Marean and colleagues announced that they had found the oldest known evidence for the use of coastal resources, dating back to about 164,000 years ago, in Cave 13B at Pinnacle Point, on the South African coastline near Mossel Bay within the Cape Floral Kingdom.

The Rydell Professorship at Gustavus is a scholar-in-residence program designed to bring Nobel laureates, Nobel Conference lecturers, and similarly distinguished scholars to the campus as catalysts for enhancing learning and teaching. It was established in 1995 by Drs. Robert E. and Susan T. Rydell of Minnetonka, Minn., to give students the opportunity to learn from and interact with leading scholars.


This bear is full of love, questions: Although I'd like to trade a capitalization for an apostrophe.
This bear is full of love, questions: Although I'd like to trade a capitalization for an apostrophe.Courtesy aussiegall
To quote the wise and indomitable Tyra Banks: “Hey y’all!”

It’s Friday (I think) and relationships still exist (that’s what I hear) so it’s time again for everybody’s favorite Friday Science Buzz feature: The Friday Relationship Extravaganza!

This week’s relationship feature promises to be especially… extravagasmic, because today we’re pairing it up with some good old fashioned random questions.

See, on Thursday night, all the Buzz blog features went out for drinks after work. Random Questions promised itself that it would just have two drinks, but you know how that sort of thing goes… Pretty soon the ginger ale was flowing, and next thing you know Random Questions is waking up in Extravaganza’s bed.

OMG, right?

But don’t even worry about it. Nothing happened. Extravaganza slept on the couch. Still, these are work friends, not friend friends, and they had to talk about something when they got to the office. And so…

Friday Relationship Extravaganza: Random Questions Edition

So paddle around with me in the HMS Puddleduck, won’t you?

Question: Why do praying mantis females eat their mates?

Answer: Hmm… This is a hard one. If relationships weren’t tricky enough, relationships that involve cannibalism are particularly troublesome. I mean, look at Jeffrey Dahmer.

It’s also difficult to answer because it seems like scientists are sure exactly why mantises behave this way. Originally it was thought that female mantises bit off their mates’ heads because removing the head caused the male to start, er, mating like crazy (and why not, I guess.) Plus, the lady mantis gets a snack.

Then, some scientists pointed out that this behavior could be influenced by the fact that the mantises were being watched—whether in the field or in a laboratory, the bright lights and steamy glasses of sweaty-palmed scientists might be a little distracting and stressful for mantis lovers, and could cause them to behave a little irrationally.

Other scientists then observed that if a female were fed before mating, she would be less likely to snap at her mate (as it were). With the threat of having his head bitten off lessened, a male mantis will sometimes even engage in elaborate courtship behavior (and why not, I guess.)

Recently, researchers have determined that male mantises, in fact, don’t like getting eaten, and will approach a female with tremendous caution and attempt to couple from a greater distance to avoid it.

So, what are we left with? Removing a mating male’s head can increase that male’s chance of successfully reproducing (because of the mating like crazy thing). But not getting killed on a lucky date can also increase a male’s chance of reproducing (because he can maybe go on to have more dates with other females). And being watched my scientists while having sex can be stressful. And being hungry while having sex can lead lady mantises to do things they might later regret.

Is that close enough to a real answer?

Question: (This question card is actually two questions. “Why can’t boys have babies?” was written first, and then scratched out. A more logical rephrasing of the question follows: “How long would it take to grow a boyfriend?” Because I’m the acting commander of the HMS Puddleduck, choosing which question to answer is my prerogative. So I will answer both. This is an extravaganza, after all.)

Why can’t boys have babies?

Answer: Well… I can see why you decided to re-write this question. Because, of course, boys can have babies. If I were to see a baby sitting on the street, and if I were to take that baby, guess what? I’d technically have a baby. (And don’t get all sassy about how I shouldn’t go around just taking babies willy-nilly. Would you rather I left that baby sitting in the street?)

Also, according to the research presented in Junior, men can make their own babies, no problem. But until that technology is released to fertility clinics, boys can’t have babies because… well, just because. That’s how things worked out.

We have evolved to use internal fertilization—that is, we don’t just release eggs and sperm into the ocean in the hopes that they’ll mix around on their own. And thank God, because where would the Relationship Extravaganza be if we all acted like fish and amphibians? No place good.

And so, I don’t know… one of the two sexes got stuck with carrying fertilized eggs/babies around, and it’s usually the female (Seahorses are an interesting counterexample, however). And, at this point, human males couldn’t really do it, because we haven’t got the equipment. I mean, the underwhelming birth canal is really the least of the issues here (and that’s saying something.)

Sorry if I’m being vague on this answer, but I think it might be a good question for our current Scientist on the Spot, PZ Myers. I think this question comes down to evolution, and why it makes sense for just one sex to carry developing offspring. PZ is the expert on evolution, so click on these pink words and see if he has any thoughts on the subject.

How long would it take to grow a boyfriend?

Answer: I guess it depends on how you like your boyfriends. If you like your men young, I’d say you could have a boyfriend ready in about nine months. If you want some kind of loving, responsible and mature boyfriend, you might have to wait… what, about 35 years? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Then again, “accelerated aging” seems to be a staple of all cloning-related sci-fi, so maybe we should look into that…

When a mad scientist makes my perfect double to replace me after I get kidnapped, accelerated aging techniques will be essential to ensuring that the clone and I are indistinguishable. After all, a regular (non-mad) scientist might be able to clone me now, but the clone would be a baby, and it wouldn’t be a very convincing replacement. (I pee my pants so rarely these days, it’s hardly worth brining up.)

However, it seems like accelerated aging might be an unintended consequence of some cloning techniques already, and doesn’t even require special tanks and serums. When Dolly the sheep was cloned, scientists found that she suffered from arthritis and lung disease at a relatively young age, leading them to believe that she was prematurely aging. One thought is that Dolly’s telomeres were too short. Telomeres are pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes, and their deterioration is responsible for aging. Telomeres prevent chromosomes from accidentally combining with each other. If the chromosomes were to combine with each other, it could result in the cell becoming cancerous, so when a telomere runs out or wears down, the cell is usually destroyed. The shortening of telomeres puts a limit on the number of times a cell can divide, and when cells don’t divide anymore, you start to age. They aren’t sure exactly what caused Dolly’s telomeres to be short (if that was indeed the cause of her rapid aging).

But that’s sort of the downhill part of aging—if you were to clone or genetically engineer your perfect boyfriend, and somehow shorten his telomeres (if it didn’t happen automatically from the cloning) you’d probably end up with some sort of odd Benjamin Button situation, and that might not be what you want.

To even things out, you might have to affect the pituitary gland in some way. The pituitary controls hormones that cause growth, and disorders with the pituitary gland can sometimes cause kids to grow very large very quickly. Many of the world’s tallest people have had pituitary disorders.

I’m thinking that you’d still need eight or nine years to balance out the pituitary and telomere stuff in your grown boyfriend. And he might not thank you for it.

And there we are! Another heartwarming Relationship Extravaganza, spiced with random questions. But the Puddleduck must be off—I still have a stack of questions here that require answers from the far off reaches of knowledge. And several of them have swearwords in them that I have to rephrase, which isn’t easy, if you want to keep the spirit of the original question. (And I do.)


Evolutionary trees like the one Charles Darwin scribbled to illustrate his epiphany are still used today to help biologists understand and communicate the diversity of life. Like Darwin and his contemporaries, today’s evolutionary biologists are part of an ongoing effort to figure out how Earth's many species are related. As new tools help biologists to analyze evolutionary relationships, the tree of life changes and grows ever more complex.

How will biologists today and in the future to organize all of this information? No one knows for sure - but a number of computer scientists and software designers are taking a crack at it! In collaboration with biologists designers are creating programs that will allow researchers to share and search through enormous amounts of taxonomical information. Some programs, like UC Davis's paloverde, take cues from familiar web tools like WIkipedia and Google Earth, allowing users to search the tree of life from various perspectives and distances.

Beyond making research more accessible to scientists and the public, software tools like this will help scientists around the world work together in new ways - developing new medicines to treat constantly evolving diseases, new products and processes that take into account changing ecosystems, and to understand biodiversity on a local and global scale.

The potential of these tools is as big as the imagination of the designers and engineers behind them - what kind of tool would you create to help organize the tree of life?

If you're free, consider this:

LIFE: A Journey Through Time
North American Premiere /Darwin Day Opening Event

Thursday, February 12, 2009, 7 to 9 p.m.
Bell Museum Auditorium
$10/ free to museum members and University students

Celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday with a special preview of LIFE: A Journey Through Time. The event will feature top University biologists using Lanting's photographs as a springboard to deliver a rapid-fire presentations relating their research on evolution to the images. From the big bang to the human genome, hear the newest theories on how life evolved and enjoy the North American premiere of one the world's most celebrated photography exhibits. Think speed-dating - Darwin-style!

The Exhibit:
LIFE: A Journey Through Time
February 14 - April 12, 2009

The University of Minnesota Bell Museum of Natural History is proud to host the North American premiere of this internationally acclaimed exhibit. LIFE: A Journey Through Time, interprets the evolution of life on Earth through photographer Frans Lanting. Lanting's lyrical photos trace Earth's history from the beginnings of primordial life to the ascent of mammals through otherworldly landscapes and breathtakingly intimate portraits of animals and plants engaged in million-year-old rituals. Many of the exhibit's 62 photographs are matched with real animal, fossil, and plant specimens from the Bell Museum's collection. Born in the Netherlands, Lanting serves on the National Council of the World Wildlife Fund and is a columnist for Outdoor Photographer and has received the BBC Wildlife Magazine's Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award and the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography.


He's not eating it: He just thinks there's a millipede inside.
He's not eating it: He just thinks there's a millipede inside.Courtesy abmiller99
There’s an expression that I like… it describes a certain kind of broad, smug, and possibly insincere smile, but one of the words in it is altogether naughty. I am, if nothing else, sensitive to the delicate sensibilities of Buzz’s readers, and I hold the image of the Science Museum of Minnesota in the highest regard. And even though I do not write as a representative of the museum*, it would be a true blow to my childlike heart to see profanity on one of its webpages. (Especially if I were the one to put that profanity there in the first place.)

And so we will tiptoe around this expression, carefully, carefully… like careful cats.

The expression rhymes with “Spit-sleating gin.” Or “kit-beating kin.” Or maybe “wit meeting sin.”

Oh, what’s a good, inoffensive way to put it? Hmm. It has to do with the sort of expression of happiness you might wear if you had just finished eating a pile of poop, especially if you think someone else wanted some of that poop but didn’t get any before you polished it off, or maybe if you didn’t want anyone to know you had eaten the poop in the first place, and so were perhaps overcompensating in trying to look like your normal, smiley self.

Was that good? I think that was perfect.

Anyway, this expression was originally invented to describe the way dung beetles look pretty much constantly. Dung beetles eat poop all the time—some of them eat only poop—and for some reason they have the idea stuck in their heads that it’s a tremendously valuable commodity (little do they know, eh?), so they always have this big ol’ “look what I got, son” smile on their faces. You have to use a magnifying glass to see it, but the smile is there.

While this expression has since fallen into broader use, it seems that its original application is … decaying, if you will. It seems that not all dung beetles eat dung! Ah! Dogs and cats, living together!

That’s right—in the depths of the Amazon jungle, there’s a recently discovered species of dung beetle that has traded its hilarious culinary habits for something a little more awesome: hunting, maiming, decapitating, and eating big, toxic millipedes.

Researchers baited traps in the jungle with a whole variety of dung beetle foods—dung beetles love dung, so that was there, obviously, but some species will also snack on other items, like rotting fruit, fungus, dead animals, and, occasionally, millipedes. The scientists caught 132 species of dung beetles in the traps, but only one exclusively ate the millipedes. No poop for these beetles, or even dead millipedes—they were hunters.

The researchers closely examined the peculiar beetles, and noticed a couple tiny, yet important differences from similar looking species: the hunting beetles had elongated hind legs (trading their dung-rolling function for something a little more suited to grappling with prey), and modified jaws and teeth, for chewing open millipede exoskeletons.

The scientists think that the no-dung dung beetles have undergone speciation. That is, they have evolved into a new species in adapting to the pressures of their environment. See, it seems that dung really is a little scarce on the floor of the Amazon jungle, and some dung beetles moved on to different food sources (millipedes), to the point where they only ate that new food, and became distinct (albeit in small ways) from their old kin. So, while there is one less creature that can truly wear a zit-heating pin, I guess that the Amazonian dung beetles that still eat dung have a little more to grin about these days. It kind of balances out, doesn’t it?

*No, really, I don’t write as a museum representative. Watch: I kind of enjoyed Waterworld. Does the museum think that? Nope. Nobody thinks that, and my writing it doesn’t change the fact.


Conolophus rosada: Research scientist Gabriele Gentile holding the elusive pink iguana.
Conolophus rosada: Research scientist Gabriele Gentile holding the elusive pink iguana.Courtesy Photograph settings by Gabriele Gentile, photo shot by an assistant
A pink lizard that eluded Charles Darwin when he visited the Galapagos Islands nearly 175 years ago has been recognized as a new species of land iguana. Conolophus rosada is found only in the region of Volcan Wolf volcano on the island of Isabela.

"That Darwin might have missed this form is not surprising, because he stayed in the Galápagos only five weeks, and he did not visit Volcan Wolf [volcano], which to our knowledge is the only place on the archipelago where the pink form occurs," said lead researcher Gabriele Gentile of the University Tor Vergata in Rome, Italy. "What is surprising is that several other scientists visited in the last century Volcan Wolf and missed this form."

Two genera of iguana populate the Galapagos – land iguanas (Conolophus) and marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus). The two branches split off from a common ancestor about 8-10 million years ago while still on the mainland. The pink iguana, which branched off the Colonophus line, can reach a length of more than 3 feet, and weigh up to 15 pounds. Park rangers first stumbled upon it in 1986 but not until now has it been recognized as a new, separate species.

Darwin spent only five weeks exploring the Galapagos when the HMS Beagle stopped at the archipelago to gather food for the voyage back to England. He investigated the island of Isabela but not around the Volcan Wolf volcano, the only area where rosada has been found. Overall, the naturalist wasn’t too impressed by the land iguanas he encountered on the Galapagos, He described them as “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red color above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance."

Good looks aside, the pink iguana presents other problems for modern scientists. Recent genetic analysis shows the rosada species diverged from other lines of land iguana about 5.7 million years ago. The trouble with that is the island of Isabela is only about one million years old and the oldest extant island in the chain, Espanola, is only 3-4 million years old. That means the split must have taken place somewhere else. But rosada hasn’t been found anywhere else in the Galapagos. How can this be?

One possibility is the split took place on the mainland before iguanas arrived on the islands, possibly floating there on rafts of vegetation. That would have been a long, miserable trip over 600 miles of open water. More likely rosada developed on an earlier island in the chain that no longer exists above sea level. Plate tectonics provide an explanation for this. Ocean crusts spread out from mid-ocean ridges located along the edges of plates moving away from each other. The Galapagos are part of the Nazca plate which is moving east-southeast (at about 7 cm/year) toward the continent of South America. The island chain was created (and is still being created) as the plate moved over a hotspot where a mantle plume is pushing up into the lithosphere and crust. Magma from the plume forms undersea volcanoes that build and sometimes break the ocean’s surface as islands. The Hawaiian Islands were created the same way but on a plate moving in a north-northwest direction.

As it moves toward the South American coastline, the heavier Nazca plate sinks beneath the lighter continental plate in a process called subduction. This means the earliest formed islands in the chain also sink and there is evidence of underwater seamounts between the archipelago and South America. Some of these have been dated to as much as 11 million years old, which means the pink iguanas could have split off from the land iguana line when older, earlier islands were still above sea level.

"This event is one of the oldest events of diversification among species in the Galápagos overall," Gentile said. "The Darwin finches are thought to have differentiated later than the split between the pink and yellow iguana lineages."

Despite rosada's evolutionary ranking, fewer than 100 pink iguanas are known to exist today and the species could be in danger of extinction.

It is, however, fitting that news of the pink iguana comes now. 2009 has been proclaimed the Year of Darwin marking the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Story on LiveScience
Year of Darwin info story
Geology of the Galapagos Islands


Yeah, sort of scary: I mean, look what it's doing to the concept of public art! Oh, wait, this is the Mothman.
Yeah, sort of scary: I mean, look what it's doing to the concept of public art! Oh, wait, this is the Mothman.Courtesy billy liar
Hey, y’all, it’s time for a brand new Science Buzz feature: Is that, like… scary? On Is that, like… scary? we’ll be posing the question “Is that, like… scary?” with regards to one of the many, like, scary things out there. Out there in the world.

Because this is a brand new, first of its kind sort of thing, all y’all Buzzketeers should feel lucky: this could be a valuable experience. Not now, certainly, but I think it’s pretty likely that the cash value of this moment in history will be skyrocketing before too long. Heck, if you play your cards right, time the market, etc, you could pay your way through college just by telling people about this. So get on the boat, and ask yourself, “Is that, like… scary?

I don’t want to throw you guys into the deep end just yet, though—you have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to have the right clothing on before you can crawl, so let’s ease ourselves into this.

So… flesh-eating bacteria—Is that, like… scary? Duh, yes, it’s very like scary.

Feral dog packs—Is that, like… scary? Well, it’s sort of like scary.

Seasonal allergies—Is that, like… scary? No, dude, that’s not like scary.

This thing—Is that, like… scary? Uh, yeah, that’s a lot like scary.

Are you starting to get a feel for things here? Good. We can get to the meat now: vampire moths.

Are vampire moths, like… scary? Maybe, maybe. We’d better take a closer look, courtesy of National Geographic.

What we’ve got is a Siberian moth that, like the common vampire, does indeed suck blood. It uses its “hook-and-barb-lined tongue” to drill through skin and start slurping. And while vampire moths aren’t new, blood-drinking in this Siberian population actually does seem to be a recent adaptation—aside from the vampire thing, only slight differences in wing patterns distinguish the blood sucker from its vegetarian cousins, who use their pokey little tongues for jabbing fruit. But these moths, when offered a hand by the scientists, dug right in. So, at some not-so-long-ago point, the little apple-biters got the idea (in an evolutionary way) to just start drinking blood. Cuz it’s so good.

I think that makes them a little more, like, scary. If a little lamb passed up a handful of nutritious, green lamb food in favor of taking a chunk out of your wrist, it would be kind of creepy, wouldn’t it? That’s sort of how I feel about vampire moths.

It turns out that that only the male moths drink blood. Scientists aren’t totally sure why, but they think the blood allows the males to give female moths a gift of salt during copulation. Apparently lady moths are into salt. This specific salt-gathering strategy could have evolved from behaviors like drinking tears (that’s, like… creepy), feeding on dung (that’s, like… funny), and dipping into pus-filled wounds (that’s, like… getting closer to scary).

The next step for the researchers will be to compare the DNA of the vampires to their vegetarian cousins, to see how different they are, and how long it could have been since the species split apart.

So what do you think? Is that, like… scary?


Charles Darwin, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868
Charles Darwin, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868Courtesy Julia Margaret Cameron
I believe I have mentioned this film before - but have you ever seen the documentary "Flock of Dodo's"? It is a well made (imho) film that creatively and sometimes humorously, discusses the evolution vs. intelligent design debate. The thing that I find most interesting about this film is that it shows something that I think is important. While I may think people who support intelligent design or creationism are wrong, many scientists who argue with them act like uppity jerks. Its not likely a debate one side is going to "win" but we can all at least accept that and be civil.

Now, if you want to be ready to argue for evolution, Scientific American has put together a nice little web feature that covers the topics of creationism in the classroom, a state by state breakdown of the creationism in schools controversy, 15 answers to creationist nonsense (again, could be a bit less harsh in the language here) and a discussion about how scientists ought to approach religion and its followers.