Monday, May 28, 2007

Leavin' on a jet plane

Tomorrow I fly out west for my summer research internship, I'm going to drop my dog off today, stay with family near Atlanta overnight and fly out of there in the morning (yay for 8 AM departures...). Not sure what my daily schedule will be like once I get out there, but I'm going to try to keep up with posting interesting stories. Anyway, just felt the need to make a note of this, I'm pretty excited about the summer research and am anxious to get out there and get started.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pawprint evidence

Really interesting news today, an announcement on a study of what is apparently the only carnivore known for a fact to have distinct "fingerprints" that can be used to identify individuals. (Although it is suspected that many other species do also, it hasn't been studied very well yet).

This honor goes to the fisher, a mustelid (close relative to weasels) that typically inhabits coniferous forests and ranges from the Sierra Nevada of California to the Appalachians of West Virginia and Virginia.

What is especially fascinating about this story is that the identifying patterns on the fisher's toe prints are made of dots, not the swirly lines that form human fingerprints.

This seems like it should really be studied in more carnivores, because they are notoriously hard to track/observe in the wild. This would be a great way to keep track of activity patterns of individuals without having to stress both animals and humans with contact, and I would think it would allow more accurate population estimates from tracking, so that a given individual won't be counted repeated times. Cool stuff!


Minty fresh bee hives

There has been a lot of coverage in the news about the dramatic crashes in bee populations (termed colony collapse disorder, or CCD) that are sweeping the country, and also appear to be happening in Europe as well. The exact causes are puzzling bee experts, and the whole problem is pretty enigmatic so far. There are many different possible reasons for the die-offs, just a few are climate change, pathogens, pesticides, mites, and (yes, this has been suggested) the wave emissions from cell phones.

But one interesting study was reported last week: researchers have had success in protecting hives from CCD by treating hives with oils derived from spearmint and lemon grass. These substances are being marketed as Honey B Healthy, but the practice of using lemon and spearmint in bee-keeping can be traced back 60,000 years.

The procedures (detailed in the ScienceDaily article) help to protect the hives from bacteria and other pathogens, in addition to killing up to 93 percent of the mites in a hive after just one day of treatment.

Hopefully this will be applied on a larger scale and will help to prevent further declines. The amount of time the popular media has given to this issue has been pretty extensive, a good example of how conservation efforts tend to be boosted immensely when human economic activities are at stake ($6 billion in California alone). While all of our popular produce items (for example, apples, nuts, avocados, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash, cucumbers, peaches, kiwi, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, cantaloupe and other melons) are threatened, the beef industry is also in a perilous position because cows are, obviously, herbivores, and bees are key in pollinating the alfalfa used to sustain cattle.

I'm very glad that so much attention is being given to this issue, but it does highlight just how selective we tend to be about conservation. Who is out there campaigning for the Zayante Band-winged Grasshopper, another endangered insect from California? Its populations have declined due to urban development and sand mining, aka human economic activities...so the issues that eliminate one species may save another. Such is our world, hopefully the bee issue will make people more aware of conservation concerns in general and will lead to increased attention to things like this in the future.

Fire haze

I live in Alabama, and here in the southeast fires are an important part of the ecology of this region. The longleaf pine savannahs depend on periodic fires to maintain balanced climax communities. Longleaf pines are adapted to be fire resistant, and the heat from fires aids their germination. Without these fires, the understory grows up and hardwoods can begin to move in and crowd out the longleafs. Fire suppression has been a major threat to these ecosystems, although now that the ecology is better understood prescribed burns are being conducted to simulate the natural processes.

So, fires can be good. Sometimes, though, natural and/or anthropogenic fires are big and uncontrolled enough to be a major concern, like the recent wildfires in southerneastern Georgia and northern Florida, which is what spurred me to make this post. The fires were started by lightening strikes last month, and this turned into disaster due to the drought conditions encompassing much of the region. The fires have destroyed 700 acres of swamp and timber land so far.

I got up this morning and it smelled like a fireplace in my house, because I'd left my kitchen window cracked and the huge hazy cloud that had covered my town was creeping in. When I was out walking my dog around 9:00 this morning, there was a big smoglike cloud over the city, it was very strange looking for a small, compact town to have an L.A.-like smog cloud hanging over it, especially considering we are hundreds of miles west of the fires. I read that the clouds are even stretching to Mississippi. due to a high pressure system from the east combined with strong southeastern winds. It had mostly cleared up by this afternoon/evening. I'm not a meteorologist, but it would be interesting to learn why the smog effect is most pronounced in the morning.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Dinosaur bonanza

There have been a ton of fascinating dinosaur stories in the news lately, I've got some catching up to do. While I am now studying to be a zoologist (I like to think that I already am a zoologist, this past semester I got my first collecting permit for research in a national forest), paleontology was what first drew me into science, I hit the usual dinosaur phase when I was a kid, but never really grew out of it. That led to an interest in evolutionary biology, which led to a fascination with the diversity resulting from evolution, then an intense interest in the ecology that links organisms and their environments, and I guess it all snowballs, and thanks to a preschool infatuation with The Land Before Time, here I am.

Anyway, news!
First, researchers at the University of Alberta have analyzed CT scans ofvarious theropod skulls, comparing tyrannosaurids with non-tyrannosaurids (such as carnosaurs) to see if they could find any taxonomic trends. Some of the features analyzed were tooth-bending strength and the strength of the cranium and nasal bones.

The results: T. rex is once again shown to be an ultra-predator, with fused nasal bones that created superior strength and bite force. In addition to strengthening the skull, having fused nasals provided larger attachment area for muscles, allowing for immense forces to be applied by the jaws.

So just how strong was the T. rex? From the ScienceDaily press release:
A medium-sized T. rex had even more skull strength than a larger carnivorous creature, such as the Carcharadontosaurus saharicus, with a head nearly one and a half times as long. T. rex's neck power was similarly staggering. For instance, in a split second, a T. rex could toss its head at a 45 degree angle and throw a 50kg person five metres in the air. And that's with conservative estimates of the creature's muscle force, says Snively. "We kept the muscle numbers down because we thought they couldn't possibly be that powerful, but Tyrrell museum colleagues showed that a T. rex's lower jaw could apply 200,000 newtons of force--that's like lifting a semi-trailer," he said. "All of the T. rex's features came together to give it the strongest bite of any land animal. The T. rex just blows everyone out of the water when it comes to strength.

What could be scarier than an animal that can carry a truck like a chew toy? One that can chase you on both land AND water! Earlier this week the Geological Society of America announced the discovery of a new dinosaur trackway in Spain. There are many known dinosaur trackways, but what makes this one noteworthy is that it gives us the strongest evidence to date that some dinosaurs could swim.

The 15 meter long trackway at the La Virgen del Campo track site in Spain’s Cameros Basin includes 6 asymmetrical pairs of scratch marks that were identifiable as belonging to a large theropod. Theropod tracks had previous been found in nearby areas known to be on the shoreline of the prehistoric lake. The prints were slightly S-shaped, and one of the authors of the paper, Loic Costeur of the Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique de Nantes, Université de Nantes, France, said that this is consistent with the marks left by a large animal clawing its way along sediment. The rippled patterns of the surrounding ground confirm that the prints were made at the bottom of a body of water.

You don't have to be big and fierce to leave your footprints on history, however: this week another interesting trackway discovery was announced, this one featuring a tiny print from a stegosaur hatchling. The prints were about the size of fifty-cent pieces, absolutely amazing when you consider that adult stegosaurs grew to 26-30 feet long and weighed up to 2 tons!

This makes me wonder about the growth rate of those creatures, how long did it take an animal the size of a human baby to reach the size of a bus? A lot of it has to do with metabolism, which is definitely an area of contention among paleobiologists. I'm not sure how much of an ontogenetic series of fossils there is for stegosaurs, I know they have pretty complete ones for some hadrosaurs, but you can't always generalize across species.

Anyway, that's today's dose of paleo-news!

Friday, May 25, 2007

On becoming a cow

Most people are familiar with the story of how vaccination was invented, but I'll give it a brief review before getting to the point of interest: in 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner conducted an experiment (which would have been highly illegal in modern times), by collecting pus from a cowpox pustule of a milkmaid, Sarah Nelms, and injecting it into a little boy, James Phipps. (No, the names don't matter, but I like character-driven plots).


At this time smallpox was a major public health problem, up to one in three children died from the disease. Cowpox, however, was common but nowhere near as deadly. After little Phipps was injected with the the Nelms pus, he developed a characteristic cowpox pustule, but was relatively no worse for the wear.

Six weeks later, Jenner exposed Phipps to smallpox in the same manner. Not only that, he was insistently exposed over a period of years (where were this kid's parents, and what were they thinking?), and yet he never contracted the highly virulent disease. Thus, it was proven that exposure to a virus can stimulate the immune systemto fight off similar viruses in the future, and vaccination was born.

This story is familiar to most people who have had an introductory biology class. What most people don't know, however, is the origin of not the concept of vaccination but the word itself.

Since the mechanism of immunity was not yet know, many people, including the French, ridiculed Jenner's idea. In stereotypically snooty fashion, they coined a mocking term for the procedure: "vaccination" is derived from vache, the French word for cow. If you translate it literally, the term roughly means "to be made into a cow."

I'm just as much of a book lover as a science lover and am fascinated by the evolution of both words and species, just thought that was an interesting item to add to Jenner's well-known story.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Radiation-eating fungus

There's a really amazing story on ScienceDaily today, about a species of fungus that produces energy from radiation.

What I found most fascinating is that this appears to occur only in fungi that contain melanin. Considering what a vital role melanin plays in our own bodies, to me it seems like this seems like another piece of evidence that fungi are actually more closely related to animals than plants, but that wasn't addressed in the press release.

One thing they did mention, however, was using this as a food source during space travel. That got my imagination going...if it produces energy from radiation, imagine incorporating it into a food you could fortify by zapping in the microwave for a minute or two! ;)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Water, water, everywhere

I drink a lot of water, sometimes it feels like abnormally much but I really just get very thirsty. This week I decided to quantify exactly how much water I consume every day, I like experiments. So for the past few days I've monitored my water intake, making sure it's absolutely consistent with my normal routines, I poured water from the measuring container into the glass I always drink out of, to make sure my habits would be completely as usual, no effect from drinking from different apparatus. Just for the record I do NOT waterload or drink just to kill hunger, I genuinely only drink as much as I am thirsty for.

So, the result? My water consumption averaged 219 ounces per day, 3.4 gallons, confirming the hypothesis that yes, I do indeed drink a lot of water. I also have one non-water drink with every meal (for example, yesterday: 16 oz of coffee, 16 oz of Crystal Light lemonade, 12 oz of Diet Ocean Spray cranberry juice), including those brings my average liquid consumption up to 4.2 gallons. I mentioned this to my mom and she freaked out, telling me that I am drowning myself and need to talk to a doctor about it.


But I don't think it's that unreasonable if you consider that it summer in Alabama, and that I spend several hours exercising every day. Example: yesterday I got up, ran 3 miles on the treadmill, walked Charlie for two miles, walked to campus and back (3 mile round trip), road the stationary bike for 12.8 miles, walked Charlie for another 4 miles, did 50 minutes of sit ups, 15 minutes of leg lifts, and 10 minutes of reps with light weights. This is a typical day, and with typical Alabama weather, so yes, I get pretty damn thirsty. I also use a LOT of salt on my food, which could be another factor. One other point of analysis, a couple of years ago when I had bloodwork done for something they told me that one of the hormones affecting kidney function was slightly out of whack (I can't for the life of me remember which one, possibly ADH?), which has a major effect on osmoregulation, but they didn't suggest really doing anything about it.

I have only had one time when I felt like I'd consumed too much, back in my senior year of high school. At that time I was having major bouts of insatiable thirst, it was weird and I SHOULD have seen a doctor about it but didn't. It was in one of my physical low periods. Anyway, one afternoon I came home from school, ran on the treadmill as usual, and chugged down at least 40 ounces of water in about fifteen minutes. Then my vision got really swimmy, I had tons of pressure in my head, and could feel myself teetering on the edge of a blackout. I freaked out, and in my unfocused panic tried to think of how to fix it, and grasped at the idea that the opposite of water should be salt, so I ate a spoonful of salt and laid down for a while, after a while it was ok again, but it was overall very scary. But anyway, that was an isolated event and even at that time, I had genuinely felt thirsty for every ounce of what I drank, I wasn't waterloading. I've never had anything like that happen since, but thought it was a story worth noting, I think it was probably a brush with hyponatremia, but I am not a doctor.

So, although I don't usual make personal posts on this blog, I just felt like sharing the results/analysis of my mini science experiment, I think I may invest in a water filter, since I don't really trust Auburn city water (I've seen the nasty results of those occasions when they push high pressure through the pipes to clean them out, gag).

Saturday, May 19, 2007

How many endangered species are there?

While Endangered Species Day was officially yesterday, in today's world every day is an endangered species day, so I have another ESA themed post.

Last night a friend of mine asked a deceptively simply question: "I don't know if this is a stupid question or not...how many endangered species are there?"

Not a stupid question at all, actually an extremely important question with a complicated answer.

Right now there are 369 animals and 593 plants listed as endangered under the ESA, and 217 more (plants and animals combined) are classified as threatened. BUT keep in mind tht these are just the ones that made it through all the political gauntlets to get listed (it is terrible to get a species approved, because it automatically restricts use of its habitat, which costs important people money, and that pisses them off). Also, that number is restricted to animals that live in the US.

There are 567 species classified as endangered in other countries, but since most of the areas with the most biodiversity also have the least stable governments and the least scientific funding, this is nowhere near the number that would be recognized/protected in an ideal world.

Also, note that a single species (under the US system) carries two ratings, one for global and one for state. For example, the red wolf is extinct in Alabama but endangered globally. A species can be locally common but very rare worldwide, like some fish that inhabit just a single pond in a single state.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up the listed species in Minnesota (my friend's home state) for her, there are 16 (endangered unless noted otherwise):

Animals:
American burying beetle
Bald eagle (Threatened)
Gray wolf
Karner blue butterfly
Eskimo curlew
Higgins eye pearly mussel
Canada lynx (Threatened)
Scaleshell mussel
Piping plover (listed as only threatened everywhere except the Great Lakes watershed, where it's endangered)
Topeka Shiner
Winged mapleleaf

Plants:
Prairie bush-clover (threatened)
Minnesota dwarf trout lily
Western prairie fringed orchid (threatened)
Leedy's roseroot (threatened)

Not too bad, 16 is very low, my homestate of TN has 90 and AL has 117. This correlates to biodiversity, too, though, I'm not sure what percentage of species in each state is endangered. AL is number 5 in the nation for biodiversity (number 1 for aquatic animals!), so naturally there are more species that can potentially be listed. That doesn't save us from trouble, though, we're 2nd in the nation for extinction RATE, behind only Hawaii, which is a very bad thing.

One other note, botanists complain (justifiably) that plants are extremely neglected by the ESA. Considering there are tons and tons more plants than animals in the world, there are also many more endangered ones, but they usually fail to get the attention/support of animals. Face it, people care more about eagles than louseworts. Just thought I'd mention that, though, because it is an example of how numbers are easily skewed by politics and don't actually represent the status of things in nature.

So, a very good question but unfortunately no good answer.

The endangered Furbish lousewort

Friday, May 18, 2007

Endangered Species Day 2007

In case you aren't aware, today is Endangered Species Day. May 18 is the anniversary of the day that congress first approved the Endangered Species Act. There has been a lot of controversy and corruption over the details and handling of the ESA, but it has achieved many goals as well, and today is earmarked for raising public awareness and support. So, happy Endangered Species Day, everyone, and make sure to spread the word!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

MacDonald resigns from the USFWS

Big story in the news today: Julie MacDonald, an Interior Department official in charge of overseeing the Endangered Species, resigned in light of news about various corrupt actions over the past years. It has been shown that she leaked important documents to industry officials, and altered scientific reports so that they gave less support for protection of endangered species. Absolutely despicable, I really hope this is the end of her political career as a whole.
Among the species affected by her corrupt actions are the Gunnison's prairie dog (which I've got an NSF grant to study this summer!), the White-tailed prairie dog, the Gunnison Sage Grouse, the Roundtail Chub, the Marbled Murrelet, the Delta Smelt, the wolverine, the Florida panther, the Trumpeter swan, the bull trout, the grizzly bear...