Stories tagged Life Science


Bonobo: Latin name:  Pan paniscus
Bonobo: Latin name: Pan paniscusCourtesy bradypus courtesy of
The famous Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology recently released a new study showing bonobos (Pan paniscus), a species of chimpanzee, communicating their disapproval by shaking their heads side-to-side as if to say NO. This may seem rather simple and uneventful, but until now, there has been no observed behavior in chimps or bonobos that indicates a negative context. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos are known to use other head gestures like bowing and shaking up and down to communicate with group members, but the side-to-side NO gesture is actually considered quite sophisticated and ingrained in human culture. This simple gesture is recognizable in most, but not all cultures.

I recently finished up a semester teaching Evolution and many of my students commented on how interesting they found our ape relative the bonobo. Many had never heard of them and were surprised at how similar they were to humans in behaviors and social structures. We frequently here about how closely related we are to the chimpanzee biologically, but culturally, the bonobo's social structure is actually more human-like than that of our chimp cousin. The bonobos have extremely egalitarian and cooperative societies with a rather unusual “loving” way of diffusing social tensions (suffice to say there is a reason why bonobos are not found in most American zoos!) This new study brings us a little closer to our ape cousins and maybe we can learn a few lessons from them in these times of conflict. Unfortunately, these gentle creatures are endangered and need our help. Check out this website for more on Bonobo Conservation.


It begs the question: Does he feel lucky?
It begs the question: Does he feel lucky?Courtesy Sitron
Of course by “sue for libel,” I mean that the squid intends to lure the scientists into the ocean, and then do something just awful to them with all its colossal tentacles. Something just awful.

But why? Why would the colossal squid take a break from its watercolors, topiary, and Little Mermaid-style undersea musical numbers to mutilate hard-working researchers? Because they did the one thing that the colossal squid cannot abide: they sassed.

The colossal squid can handle getting eaten by sperm whales. It can handle getting mixed up with its effete cousin, the giant squid. But it will not tolerate sass.

What do I mean by sass? This headline, based on the scientists’ research: “Colossal Squid Is No Monster, Study Finds.”

What? If a 40+ foot, 1000+ pound, tentacle-covered (or arm-covered, if you’re going to be a jerk about it), deep sea creature with eyes the size of dinner plates doesn’t qualify as a monster, I don’t know what does. The colossal squid works hard at this stuff, and it doesn’t need scientists yapping at its mighty heels (or its muscular hydrostats).

These scientists are saying, in effect, that if one were to “release the kraken,” if that released kraken were a colossal squid, the kraken wouldn’t really do much except float around, and maybe grab at a sleepy-looking fish every few days. They’re saying that the kraken—I mean the colossal squid—is just a big, lazy, slow-moving ocean blob.

Why would you even say that? It’s so mean!

The scientists are basing these claims on research that compares the metabolism of different squids in the colossal squid’s family to their respective body sizes. A squid the size of the colossal squid, they say, would have an exceptionally slow metabolism. That means that the colossal squid would probably move slowly, and require food infrequently. It would also have a relatively low nutritional value, suggesting that it might not be as important a part of the sperm whale diet as other scientists have guessed.

When the colossal squid would hunt, they say it would likely ambush its prey, instead of actively pursuing it. And, you know, I guess, for a hunting strategy like that, it would make sense to have hook-covered arms and tentacles (which the colossal squid has).

Even so, these are fighting words. I mean, the giant squid seems to be a fairly active hunter… but then again the two species belong to entirely different families.

Also, using similar species as direct analogies isn’t necessarily going to be the best way to learn about a creature. There can be quite a bit of variation within a taxonomic family, even, I’d imagine, with a characteristic like metabolism. Look at bears: you’ve got your extinct short-faced bear, which is thought to have been a relatively speedy hunter, and you’ve got your giant panda, which sits around eating bamboo all day.

Obviously I’m stretching here, but I’m just trying to save those poor researchers from violent squid retaliation. (Assuming it has the energy for that. And that is what I’m assuming.)


Welcome a future with many mushroom!: Welcome this future with lightning!
Welcome a future with many mushroom!: Welcome this future with lightning!Courtesy ziggy fresh

You like mushroom! Everyone likes mushroom! But you say, “Why so small in number, mushroom? I am sad for you.”

Don’t be sad for mushroom! Powerful route to new mushroom is within the grasp of your arms! Look through your tears and see lightning!

You say, “Many routes before have wished me great mushroom harvests… all are bringers of sadness. 'Lightning brings mushroom' are the words for children and grandmothers, and they will not bring mushroom!”

Open your home to lightning, it will not bring you unfulfillment! “Lightning brings mushroom” are truly the words of children and grandmothers, but the works of science men and science women make words reality!

Will we will not discard the words of children and grandmothers like lies, say the men and women of science. Let us attempt a lightning spell on the mushroom!

And, with lightning, more mushroom comes! With nearby lightning, an age of mushroom begins!

Why? Don’t ask why!

Why? If you must ask why, I will tell you! The truth of lightning is not known! The guess of science: the mushroom feels great danger in lightning! Defend through growth, is the policy of mushroom!

100,000 volts may increase the number of mushroom twofold!

You have left sadness on the beach, and you eat mushroom on the mountaintop! Lightning has provided!


Here's what we know...: But what happened before?
Here's what we know...: But what happened before?Courtesy JGordon
Check this story out, Buzz-gumshoes: An Australian man has been sent to the hospital after a vicious wombat attack.

Interesting. Very interesting, eh, Buzzketeers? It sounds like our kind of story.

Here are the facts… as they have been reported so far:
-Bruce Kringle, 60, of Flowerdale, Australia, was stepping out of his home when he “felt something attack his leg.”
-The attacking party was a wombat, a badger-like marsupial.
-The wombat managed to knock Mr. Kringle off of his feet, and then climbed onto his chest and proceeded to savage the man for 20 or so minutes.
-An axe was within arm’s reach, and Mr. Kringle used it to kill the wombat.
-Mr. Kringle was then admitted to hospital with puncture wounds in his arms and legs.
-Wombats are generally docile creatures. This individual’s aggression might be explained by a irritating case of the mange.

I don’t know about y’all, but when I add all that up, I only produce one answer: WTF! (That stands for “Wombat Tale: False!”)

Here are some additional questions and considerations we must account for, before this case can be closed:
-Who is “Bruce Kringle”? Could he be the same person as Branson Kringle, the Special Forces soldier who came out of retirement to rescue a group of kidnapped missionaries in Myanmar, only to disappear once again when the mission was complete?
-Wombats can be several feet long, and weigh nearly 80 pounds, and they can achieve speeds of nearly 25 miles per hour. Without knowing the creature’s rate of acceleration, I can’t determine how much force it could have struck Mr. Kringle with (force=mass x acceleration), but it seems reasonable that the marsupial could have mustered enough force to knock the man over… except
-If Mr. Kringle “felt an attack” at his leg as soon as he stepped outside. This seems to imply that he was not immediately rammed by the attacking wombat. So… what? He was bitten, and then allowed the creature to back up and charge? While he was still so near to his front door? Hmm. How did Kringle end up on his back?
-Do something for me, Buzzketeers: tap your pointer fingers against each other. Continue to tap them for one whole minute. It feels like an awfully long time, doesn’t it? Now imagine that, instead of tapping your fingers for that minute, you were being attacked by something that looks like a wolf-sized hamster. And then multiply that length of time by twenty. That’s a long time to be attacked by a wolf-sized hamster (or by a wombat.)
-At what point did the axe appear within arm’s reach?
-Wombats, it seems, are actually not known to be particularly docile, especially when defending their territory from intruders.
-Mr. Kringle was, in fact, stepping out of his “caravan,” which is Australian for “RV.” He was living in the vehicle while his home was being rebuilt (it was destroyed in last year’s Black Saturday bush fires.)

Despite being an otherwise impeccably reliable newspaper, I feel like the Telegraph is withholding information from us.

It seems that Bruce may have been forced to temporarily move his caravan into wombat territory… but what was it about that day that made the wombat finally snap? How did Bruce get knocked over? And who gave Bruce the axe… only after allowing him to be attacked for twenty finger-tapping minutes?

I think someone wanted that wombat dead, and they manipulated trained-killer Bruce (aka, Branson) Kringle into pulling the trigger for them! The only remaining question is “who?”

BAM! How’s that for journalism?


Cell Protein: Illustration of protein chain in the human cell.
Cell Protein: Illustration of protein chain in the human cell.Courtesy Nicolle Rager and National Science Foundation
Science Buzz has had a lot of articles on organ transplants over the years but a new report on liver transplants in children adds a new twist. Currently, severe organ damage or failure requires an organ transplant, preferably one from a donor with a histocompatibility similar to the recipient. In the case of severe liver failure in children, there is often no time to wait for a compatible organ and an incompatible organ is used requiring patients to take anti-rejection drugs (immunosuppression) for the rest of their life. In fact, 70% of all liver transplants require anti-rejection drugs.

Fortunately, the liver is one organ that has the ability to regenerate itself, especially in very young patients. The child patient is given a small section of donated liver, enough to allow the body to function properly, while leaving a small portion of their own liver intact. Hopefully, after a few years, the patient’s original liver will begin to repair and regenerate itself. The doctor can than gradually reduce the quantity of anti-rejection drugs, causing the body to slowly attack and destroy the donated liver segment. Eventually the patient will be removed from anti-rejection drugs completely, have their own liver back, and no signs of the temporary donated liver.

The liver is unique in its regenerative properties; for humans, that is. In other animals, such as amphibians, entire limbs can regenerate. Scientists are researching the role proteins play in cell regeneration in hopes that stimulating certain proteins in other organs of the body will encourage them to regenerate like the liver can.


Painting a new picture of human evolution: A finger bone found in a cave in southern Siberia may add another species to human evolution. (Painting by Charles R. Knight, AMNH).
Painting a new picture of human evolution: A finger bone found in a cave in southern Siberia may add another species to human evolution. (Painting by Charles R. Knight, AMNH).Courtesy Mark Ryan
The bone of a single pinky finger found in a cave in southern Siberia may indicate a new branch in the human family tree. The find could show that besides Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, a third lineage of humans may have shared the ancient landscape of prehistoric Russia.

The piece of finger was found in Denisova cave located in Russia’s Altai mountains by scientists from the Russian Academy of Science. The bone was recovered from sediment layers that have also yielded signs of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and modern humans (Homo sapiens). Radiocarbon dating set the age of the layers between 48,000 and 30,000 years old.

Scientists from Germany’s Max Planck Institute and others sequenced 16,569 base pairs of the finger bone’s mitochondrial DNA genome, and the results indicate the new hominen shared a common ancestor with both neanderthals and ancient modern humans sometime around a million years ago. The research team included Michael Shunkov and Anatoli Derevianko, the two Russian archaeologists who discovered the bone in 2008. The study appears in the journal Nature.

Further sequencing of DNA from cell nucleuses will be done next, and could help pinpoint the hominen’s exact origins. If confirmed, the discovery would mean four different species of humans (the 4th would be the Indonesian Hobbit Homo floresiensis) co-existed on Earth some 40,000 years ago.

Science Now story
More about human evolution at Becoming Human
Radiocarbon dating


Clonal grove of trees considered oldest and heaviest living organism

Aspen grove might be clones
Aspen grove might be clonesCourtesy Al_HikesAZ

I wrote about Earth's tallest, biggest, and oldest trees about four years ago. This week Wired Science had a wonderful gallery of photos and information about Earth's oldest trees.

One of them, Pando, is a 105-acre colony is made of genetically identical trees, called stems, connected by a single root system. This organism is believed to be 80,000 years old (and maybe a million) and weighs 6,615 tons, making Pando the heaviest living organism on earth.

Oldest and largest organism debate

You can read a debate about how other organisms might be larger and older here.

Other candidates for oldest or heaviest living organisms include the possibly larger fungal mats in Oregon, the ancient clonal Creosote bushes, and strands of the clonal marine plant Posidonia oceanica in the Mediterranean Sea.


Nike's new prototype- the retro model: The running foot is soooo 2 million years ago, but you wait long enough and everything comes back.
Nike's new prototype- the retro model: The running foot is soooo 2 million years ago, but you wait long enough and everything comes back.Courtesy perpetualplum
Have you ever run barefoot? It’s great! I’ve never really thought about why I like it, but some really cool biomechanics research coming out of Harvard suggests that there may be some evolutionary reasons for my enjoyment. Homo sapiens and our early ancestors have engaged in endurance running for more than a million years, and have done so with no shoes, or with minimal footwear (sandals, moccasins, etc.). The researchers wanted to know how these early humans (and some humans today, let’s not forget) were able to run comfortably and safely sans shoes. Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, and his crew found that barefoot runners land either on the balls of their feet or mid-foot (the balls of their foot and heel at the same time), while shod runners land on their heels, or heel-strike, to use the lingo. This makes sense when you look at the structure of our feet; our strong, high arch acts like a spring when we run, and this spring can only be loaded when we first land on our forefoot. It wasn’t until the 1970’s when running shoes came equipped with highly cushioned heels that it began to seem normal to run heel-to-toe. (Some research even suggests that not just running shoes, but all shoes are detrimental to our foot health)
With some super advanced equipment (Harvard undergrads are so lucky), Lieberman saw how much of an impact heel-striking causes. When you heel-strike, your foot comes to a dead stop, causing your foot and leg to have to absorb all of that kinetic energy (a force which is 2-3 times your body weight). When you land on your forefoot, however, some of that kinetic energy is converted into rotational energy as your foot goes from toe to heel. This is obviously much less jolting. The researchers hypothesize that heel-striking is the cause of a lot of running-related repetitive stress injuries, and by avoiding heel-striking, more runners could see less of these types of injuries.
If you want to try running barefoot (and I recommend), Lieberman cautions that you shouldn’t just jump into it (especially if it is February in Minnesota), but rather start slowly. Running barefoot uses different muscles and it takes a little while for your feet to get used to it if you’ve been a shod runner your whole life. Who knows, your feet may be your new favorite shoes.