Stories tagged Life Science


The Chimpanzee: A nightmare creature.
The Chimpanzee: A nightmare creature.Courtesy Wikimedia commons
This isn't really news, but I think it's important that people know about it.

So, I was looking at Thor's recent post on chimpanzee memory, and its associated poll "Do you think you could beat a chimp in a test of memory?", and I started thinking (which is unusual for me, so I decided to run with it).

I decided that the answer to whether or not I could out-remember a chimp is a solid "no." I could maybe out-remember a goldfish, if only because you probably couldn't keep feeding me until I died, but that's about it. I got to wondering, then, if I could beat a chimp at anything. Like, what if the memory game went sour, and me and Bubbles had to square off? Could I best a chimp in a battle of strength, if not wits?

So here are the contenders:

JGordon, in the blue shorts, six feet of cotton/poly blend, weighing in at a slender one hundred, forty-four pounds. Fighting skills: next to zero, but he's seen a lot of movies, and has a thick skull.

And in the red shorts, Pogo, chimp.
-An aside: I am a firm believer that picking on anyone my own size should be avoided, so, even though adult male chimps can grow (in captivity) to over 170 pounds, my hypothetical opponent will be an average-to-large female chimp, some where in the neighborhood of 120 pounds.-

Anyway, in red shorts, the lady chimp, Poga! Three and a half feet tall, and one hundred twenty pounds! Fighting skills: zero, but her appearance is distractingly hilarious.

So, when the bell rings, what happens?

By all accounts, it does not go well for me.

Chimps, according to every source I could find, are frighteningly strong - something like seven times stronger than an adult human. Possibly stronger than that, even. Being chimps, it's difficult to get them to just show us how much they can bench, but according to this source at least one study has been done to test chimps' pulling strength. In the test, a 165 pound male chimp pulled, with one arm, 847 pounds. And this isn't even necessarily the limit of its strength - it's just when the chimp got bored of pulling. Also - get a load of this - in the same study, a 135 pound female chimp pulled 1,260 pounds! With one arm! I won't get into how much I can lift... but not that much.

So I would lose the fight. But how badly? Well, I couldn't find much on the physical limits of the human body (like "how strong does a chimp have to be to pull my arms off?") but there are some similar cases, which we might use for analogy:

In this horrifying article, we learn that chimps in Uganda have been known to get drunk after raiding illegal beer brewing operations (hidden in national parks), and then attack children visiting the park. According to a biologist studying this unusual behavior, the attacks are carried out thusly: "In most cases they bite off the limbs first before disemboweling them, just as they would the red colombus monkey, which is among their favorite prey."
That doesn't really bear thinking about, plus I'm slightly more robust than your average child, so lets move on...

To this useful article, in which we learn of former NASCAR driver St. James Davis, and his run in with some rowdy chimps. Mr. Davis, it seems, owned a pet chimpanzee for decades before being forced to give it up to an exotic animal sanctuary in California. The pet chimp, Moe, had bitten part of a woman's finger off, but, as Davis said in Moe's defense, "Animals bite, people bite, Mike Tyson bites. So what?" In 2005, St. James Davis and his wife went to visit Moe at the shelter on his birthday. As they were delivering the birthday cake to Moe, however, two chimps from an adjoining cage, Buddy and Ollie, somehow got into Moe's enclosure and attacked Davis. Now, this is a two on one fight, and Buddy and Ollie did get the jump on Davis, but it's a little closer to my imagined cage match. By the time the attacking chimps were subdued (i.e., shot) they had bitten off Davis' nose, and torn off his left foot, most of his fingers, and his, ah, testicles.

So, in short, while there must be activities in which I could defeat a chimpanzee (math maybe, or possibly a foot race), I could not beat one in a fight. And I will never try, because I value my... fingers... so much.


Buckle up, Willy: A nice illustration of a mammoth, ruined by a bullseye,
Buckle up, Willy: A nice illustration of a mammoth, ruined by a bullseye,Courtesy rpongsaj
Man, life 35,000 years ago was so much cooler. Sure, they didn’t have the robots and flying cars we enjoy today, in the future, but think about all the great stuff that was around then… There were mile-high ice cubes roaming the northern hemisphere, hilarious cave men, and practically every animal was huge and had “wooly” attached to its name.

Now we can add to that list “earth-sighted extra-terrestrial mega-shotguns.” This is a scientific term, which I have just invented.

An earth-sighted extra-terrestrial mega-shotgun is, in layman’s terms, a meteorite that explodes in Earth’s atmosphere and blasts the surface with tiny fragments of rock. Scientists have just recently revealed details of a study that suggests that ice-age animals were exposed to an earth-sighted extra-terrestrial mega-shotgun at least once, between 35,000 and 13,000 years ago.

The discovery came as scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory were pursuing the theory that there was an atmospheric impact around 13,000 years ago. The researchers had found layers of sediment across North America, dating to 13,000 BP, which contain trace amounts of meteorite material, as well as a black layer that may be charcoal from wildfires caused by such an impact. The team assumed, then, that animals living at this time might also display evidence of the event. By sorting through the collection of a fossil trading company, the scientists quickly found a large handful of fossils that did indeed appear to be blasted by meteorite fragments.

The majority of the fossils were Alaskan mammoth tusks, each peppered with 2 – 3 mm wide holes with all the characteristics of high-velocity projectile impacts. The material inside the holes was magnetic, with a high iron-nickel content, and depleted in titanium (suggesting an extra-terrestrial origin). The group also found a Siberian bison skull that had been blasted by meteorite shards, which showed healing over the impact holes (implying that the animal survived the event). The meteorite shards appear to have exploded inside the tusk and bone. That’s pretty cool too.

The odd thing, however, is that these ESETMS (Earth-Sighted Extra-Terres… whatever) fossils all appear to be much older than 13,000 years, each dating to around 35,000 BP. This could imply multiple ESETMS impacts, although the authors of the report are attempting to tie the fossils and the sediment evidence into a single event. It is possible, they argue, that the mammoth tusks could have been blasted long after then animals’ deaths, while emerging from permafrost or exposed on a riverbank. This doesn’t account for the healing of the bison skull (unless it dates from a different period than the tusks), nor does it resolve the wide geographical separation of fossils (Alaska and Siberia are close, but not that close). The article doesn’t bring it up, but I wonder if animal migration might explain the distance between the fossils, especially if the mammoths were killed by the meteorites either (their tusks wouldn’t have healed either way, after all).

Aside from what spectacular fun the mega space shotgun would have been, the theory is interesting in that, depending on the date or dates of the events, it may have played a role in the extinction of ice age mega fauna. The cause of the Pleistocene extinctions (which wiped out mammoths, mastodons, giant sloth, etc) has long been under debate – some argue that climate change was the culprit, some believe that increasingly skilled human hunters were responsible, and others think that a combination of the two is most likely. While these meteorite impacts probably wouldn’t have caused the extinction on their own, as one scientist put it, “You can't imagine it helped the animals having a large meteorite hit the Earth's atmosphere and pellet them with shot.”

Help them survive, no. Help them be even more awesome? Yes.


The Science Museum is hosting a distinguished visitor this week, one whom most of us may not meet in a lifetime in Minnesota. On Monday, December 10th, a bird called a Townsend's Solitaire appeared, feeding on the blue cones (not berries) of the red cedar (or Juniper) trees outside the P1 level of the parking ramp. It has since favored the Big Back Yard, where it suns itself on some of the structures and bordering fence and shrubbery.

Townsend's Solitaire: If you're walking past the Science Museum this week (on the Big Back Yard side), keep your eyes open for this guy.
Townsend's Solitaire: If you're walking past the Science Museum this week (on the Big Back Yard side), keep your eyes open for this guy.Courtesy Adele Binning

A resident of the western mountains from Alaska to New Mexico, and east to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Solitaire is a very rare migrant and winter visitor in Minnesota. Although recorded at widespread locations across the state, it appears only as an occasional individual in unpredictable fashion.

True to its name, the Solitaire is a lover of solitude and its bold, clear, ringing song wonderfully symbolizes its wilderness surroundings. This member of the thrush family somewhat resembles a miniature mockingbird in color and many markings, but is closer to the size of a slender bluebird--about eight inches in length.

How long this guest will stay with us remains to be seen...

Identification tips for the Townsend's Solitaire
Wikipedia entry


Speaking of ice and snow, were dinosaurs warm-blooded or cold-blooded? A new study of polar dinosaurs suggests the question may be based on a false dichotomy. Studying growth rings in fossil bones, David Fastovsky of the University of Rhode Island found that different dinosaurs coped with seasonal temperature fluctations in different ways -- ways which don’t exactly match the strategies used by modern animals.

This should come as no surprise. Modern vertebrates have something like 12 different ways of regulating body temperature, a spectrum which does not divide cleanly into two simple camps of “warm-blooded” and “cold-blooded.” No doubt dinosaurs also evolved their own range of coping mechanisms, some of which may be very different from those used today.

Earlier discussion of this topic on Science Buzz can be found here.


My daughter will tell you that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. (She hears that a lot, but she doesn't practice the method.)

Tastes good, soothes a cough: Scientists validated the home remedy, giving solace to parents of kids with coughs everywhere.
Tastes good, soothes a cough: Scientists validated the home remedy, giving solace to parents of kids with coughs everywhere.Courtesy biskuit

Turns out you can also soothe a cough with honey. That's good news to parents of kids under 6, since the FDA recently pulled most over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for kids in that age group off the shelves.

My family's always used honey to help soothe a cold, but I always figured it was a comfort measure more than anything else. (You know: colds are caused by viruses, and there's not much you can do to treat a virus. You just have to let it run its course, and try to make yourself feel better in the meantime. At our house, that means honey in warm milk for the small people, and honey in tea for the big people.)

A small clinical trial, though, proves the home remedy. Researchers compared the effect of a dose of buckwheat honey against a dose of dextromethorphan (a common OTC cough medicine) or no treatment at all. Pennsylvania State University researcher Dr. Ian M. Paul, one of the study's authors, told Reuters Health,

"The results were so strong that we were able to say clearly that honey was better than no treatment and dextromethorphan was not."

Kids who took the honey had the greatest reduction in cough frequency and the most improved sleep. (As did their parents--good news for me!)

Why does honey work? Scientists aren't sure, but it's soothing to the throat, rich in antioxidants, and has antimicrobial properties.

So how much honey should you give a child? The researchers used a dose identical to that recommended for cough syrups: half a teaspoon for two- to five-year-olds, a teaspoon for six- to eleven-year-olds, and two teaspoons for children twelve and older.

It isn't all good news, though. Some parents are still out of luck because honey is an absolute no-no for children under 1 year old. (It could cause a kind of food poisoning called botulism.)


Welcome to Buzz blog

Hundreds of new visitors came to our Buzz blog last week because their google search for "dinosaur mummy" pointed to my post titled Fossilized dinosaur mummy gets x-rayed. The internet buzz this week is about another dinosaur mummy. A hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur, was discovered in 1999 by then-teenage paleontologist Tyler Lyson on his family's North Dakota property. It is not really a mummy (dried tissue), but a fossilized mummy (composed of rock).

"This specimen exceeds the jackpot," said excavation leader Phillip Manning, a paleontologist at Britain's University of Manchester."

Why fossil dinosaur mummies are rare

"First the dinosaur body had to escape predators, scavengers, and degradation by weather and water. Then a chemical process must have mineralized the tissue before bacteria ate it. And finally, the remains had to survive millions of years undamaged." National Geographic

Dinosaur mummy prompts new modeling

CT scans of the hadrosaur's fossilized muscle mass and computer modeling leads scientists to speculate that Dakota (the name given to this dinosaur mummy) could run 28 mph. This makes sense because hadrosaurs were being chased by the Tyrannosaurus rex which topped out at about 20 mph. Scientists warn that errors in computer modeling can be 50 per cent, though.

Could there be DNA preserved in Dakota?

Most scientists refused to comment until their finds are published and undergo the scrutiny of peer review. Peggy Ostrom, who studies how organisms are related to each other, commented only in general terms.

"It's rare to find an articulated skeleton and even more so to find one with fossilized soft tissue,"
"If such finds show extraordinary preservation, they tempt us to wonder about the possibility of finding [unfossilized] biomolecules that might be remnants of the ancient organism."

Kristi Curry Rogers from our Science Museum of Minnesota has commented on "the preservation of identifiable fossil proteins" in this Buzz post.

Want to learn more about mummy dinosaurs?

Video: Dinosaur Mummy Found
National Geographic News article: dinosaur mummy, Dakota
National Geographic: dinosaur main page


Dinosaurs are lurking everywhere: This photo of a Chinese dinosaur was taken over two years ago at The Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the last roll of 35mm film I ever shot.  I only had it developed this week.
Dinosaurs are lurking everywhere: This photo of a Chinese dinosaur was taken over two years ago at The Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the last roll of 35mm film I ever shot. I only had it developed this week.Courtesy Gene

Three unrelated stories, or a frightening pattern?

A geology student in England discovered a new dinosaur species --
in a museum storeroom.
The fossil had been collected in 1894 but never fully studied.

A scientists in Germany, looking through a museum’s fossil collections, stumbled across a rock slab that captured a shark eating an amphibian, while the amphibian was in the act of eating a fish. Again, the fossil had been lying in a museum cabinet for years before a researcher stumbled across it and recognized its meaning.

Meanwhile, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto rediscovered an 80-foot dinosaur skeleton they forgot they had. A nearly-complete skeleton of a Borosaurus arrived in 1962. But because the museum didn’t have enough space to display it, the bones went into storage, spread over many cabinets until workers lost track of what was where. An employee, looking for skeletons to borrow from other museums, ran across an old newspaper clipping describing the fossil.

So, when your Mom tells you to keep your room clean, there’s a reason – she doesn’t want you to lose any dinosaurs!


Preble's meadow jumping mouse: Preble's meadow jumping mouse.  Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Preble's meadow jumping mouse: Preble's meadow jumping mouse. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In what I personally consider to be a sweet move, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed rulings that denied seven endangered species increased protection, after an investigation found the actions were influenced by political pressure.

Once such species that is now given increased protection is one of my personal favorite rodents (I like so few rodents) – the Preble's meadow jumping mouse.

The person responsible for limiting the protection for these animals, Former Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald (who was at the time responsible for overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service) was pressuring Fish and Wildlife scientists to alter their findings regarding the endangered animals. What other actions have been done – what other damage has been done – that we don’t know about? MacDonald was influential in delisting the Sacramento splittail, a fish found only in California's Central Valley where she owns a farm on which the fish live - come on!

The Center for Biological Diversity reports that the current administration has listed only 52 species under the endangered species act, the fewest of any administration since the law was passed in 1973. I hope this decrease is because of politics and not because we’re running out of species.

I know this sort of thing happens on both sides of the aisle, but I guess I would way rather that there be too many species listed as endangered, and that we were being overly cautious, rather than being to strict about what species deserves protection and then finding out later that we acted too late to preserve them. I would rather err on the side of caution, rather than crossing my fingers and hoping the problem fixes itself.

And there are very real trade offs here too. Set aside a habitat for a spotted owl you’re removing a source of income for families that have limited options. It’s not an easy choice.

What do you think?


The fuel of the future?: Termite guts break down cellulose into a form that could be used for fuel.
The fuel of the future?: Termite guts break down cellulose into a form that could be used for fuel.Courtesy Velo Steve

Scientists for the US Department of Energy are studying termites in hopes of developing new sources of fuel.

Termites eat wood. Wood is made of a tough material called cellulose. There’s an awful lot of cellulose in the world, and its easy to grow, making it an ideal raw material for making ethanol. Except – it’s really, really hard to turn cellulose into ethane (natural gas). It’s much easier to make ethanol out of food crops like corn – but that creates problems of its own.

Termites, however, have microbes in their stomachs which break down cellulose quickly and efficiently, as anyone who’s ever had a termite infestation in their house knows. Scientists hope to figure out how the microbes do their job, and then duplicate the process to help fill the nation’s energy needs.

The incomparable Cecil Adams weighs in with his thoughts on cellulose-based ethanol.


One weird little fishy.: The mangrove killifish, Rivulus marmoratus. Photo USGS.
One weird little fishy.: The mangrove killifish, Rivulus marmoratus. Photo USGS.

Researchers have found that the mangrove killifish, a two-inch-long fish common to Caribbean coasts, spends several months out of water, living in the hollows of trees. Most of the year, the fish live in muddy pools and are fiercely territorial. But during the dry season, they crawl into burrows carved into the trees by insects, pack themselves together tightly, and alters their metabolism to breathe air.

Oh, yeah, and the mangrove killlifish also has both male and female organs, so it can reproduce without a mate. This is one strange fish.