Thursday, June 28, 2007

Van Roosmalen sentenced to 14 years in jail

Earlier this month I did a post on Marc van Roosmalen, a zoologist that has discovered an unbelievable number of new vertebrates during his career. I came across this news story today and was shocked, apparently he's been sentenced to 14 years in jail for "theft and biopiracy", as a result of failing to apply for permission to create a monkey refuge at his home. The linked article speculates that this happened because his efforts toward promoting conservation have made him a nuisance to Brazilian authorities.

According to the blog, if an application like this is not rejected within 45 days it is generally assumed to have been accepted, which is what van Roosmalen apparently did without realizing it had been rejected...although he has been accused of never filing it in the first place. I think it sounds like a very suspicious situation, pretty convenient for the officials to lose the document and then have a reason to arrest the scientist. He is appealing the decision, hopefully it will be overturned, he is 60 years old and a 14 year sentence would end his career and all of the conservation efforts he is making.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Giant penguins in Peru!

Fascinating press release today, this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has a paper describing two new species of fossil penguins, found in the Atacama Desert (Peru).

One species (Icadyptes salasi) dates from 36 mya, and stood 4.5 feet tall. the second species (Perudyptes devriesi ) is older, from 46 mya, and stood about 3 feet tall, roughly the same as modern King Penguins. There are still penguins in South America today Spheniscus humbolti), but the extant species is only about 2 feet tall.

This find is interesting because it pushes the appearance of penguins in this region back by about 30 million years. It is also fascinating because such large birds were present in a relatively warm climate, apparently early penguins were not the cold-specialized birds that we see around us today.

This find looks like it could rewrite the known history of the Spheniscids, the new specimens definitely hold promise to reveal much more about penguin evolution than what was previously known.

Friday, June 22, 2007

"Vaccine" to ease drug withdrawal symptoms

Interesting story today about a new vaccine designed to help ease withdrawal systems for people recovering from cocaine and methamphetamine addictions.

The treatment works by stimulating the body to produce antibodies that attack the drug while it is in the bloodstream, resulting in less of the substance being processed, gradually weaning the brain from the chemicals. It is emphasized that this is NOT a wonder drug to cure addictions or prevent relapse, but is a "therapeutic" which can help to ease the extremely painful process of withdrawal.

This sounds great, but one thing I wonder is the risk for stimulating autoimmune disorders. Drugs affect us because many chemicals imitate natural substances, fitting into brain receptors that already existed for something else. If you produce antibodies against cocaine, for example, will they also attack dopamine (which cocaine "imitates), which is crucial for healthy brain function, and is also very similar to adrenaline? I'm sure this will be addressed in tests, it will be interesting to monitor news on this.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Did some dinosaurs survive the K-T event?

Interesting discussion in the world of paleontology today, apparently a study has been published in New Mexico Geology suggesting that dinosaur remains have been found in Paleocene (post-K-T event) layers of rock. Here is the abstract:

Extensive geochronologic studies of the rocks adjacent to the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) interface in the San Juan Basin have now provided compelling data attesting to the Paleocene age of the dinosaur-bearing Ojo Alamo Sandstone in New Mexico and the Animas Formation in Colorado. These data consist of radiometric age determinations for Cretaceous strata underlying the K-T interface and palynologic, paleomagnetic, and geochemical evidence attesting to the Paleocene age of the strata above the K-T interface. The identification of the paleomagnetic normal interval - C29n - in the dinosaur-bearing lower part of the Ojo Alamo Sandstone in the southern San Juan Basin at multiple localities allows for the precise dating of the last occurrence of Paleocene dinosaurs at the top of chron C29n at 64.432 Ma.

The conventional wisdom (entrenched dogma) among most geologists, and especially among vertebrate paleontologists has been, for more than 100 years, that all dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous. Thus, dinosaur bone found in place in a formation provided indisputable evidence that the formation was Cretaceous in age. Now, with the discovery of Paleocene dinosaurs, the paradigm of Cretaceous-only dinosaurs must shift. Let us hope that this paradigm-shift will be a smooth and placid lateral-slip along planar fault blocks rather than a grumbling, rumbling, herky-jerky sliding of jagged-edged, opposing sides past each other. Science must always be conservative and accept such paradigm shifts only on the basis of the most solid evidence, however, when the data do finally speak, the shift must be accepted by all of us who follow the data in the noble pursuit of finding out how the world was made.

This thread on the Dinosaur Mailing List (link is to the archives, updated daily) has discussion from the experts. Apparently the author of the new paper has argued for Paleocene dinosaurs before, without much success. It is also pointed out that if there were incontrovertible evidence for this, it would definitely be Science or Nature worthy, and wouldn't be relegated a fairly obscure journal. Every field needs its left-field theorists to keep things interesting, I suppose, and it is at least interesting to hear theories and it's beneficial when they can be proven wrong because it makes us review, analyze, and apply what we do know in order to refute inaccurate claims. That, my friends, is the beauty of science.

That being said, I'm sure the creationists will be flocking to this like ducks to holy water. Weird claims don't annoy me that much as long as they're taken seriously, but the downside is that someone, somewhere, always takes it seriously, it makes me sad for them.

Thanks to John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts for digging up the story.

Ancient species of panda discovered

News from National Geographic this week: a fossil "pygmy" panda was discovered, a species that lived 2-3 million years ago. The species, named Ailuropoda microta, was only about half the size of modern pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Shown below is the skull of A. microta compared to A. melanoleuca

Interestingly, this early species already displayed adaptations for a diet consisting primarily of bamboo, including certain cranial/dental features and the infamous "false thumb" that aids pandas in stripping the leaves from bamboo. Pandas appear to have depended upon bamboo for millions of years now, I don't know if they have shown any evidence of co-evolution but it would be an interesting thing to look into.

I've always thought pandas were interesting, because they're an example of an animal that has a slightly oxymoronic taxonomic classification, being found in the order Carnivora despite their herbivorous lifestyle. Also, few people are aware that there are actually two extant subspecies of giant panda, the classic Ailuropoda melanoleuca melanoleuca that we all know and love, plus the less famous A. melanoleuca qinlingensis. This subspecies, known from the Qinling mountains, has brown fur and a slightly smaller skull.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Gigantoraptor erlianensis

I love dinosaur news days: I just got this from the National Geographic news site: Massive Birdlike Dinosaur Unearthed in China. Gigantoraptor erlianensis!

This is great because while the fossil didn't preserve feathers, closely related species have been shown to have them so it seems reasonable to infer that this species did too. Having a "very birdlike appearance", it was over 16 feet tall. This makes the evolution from dinosaur to modern birds more intriguing, since it is the biggest "birdlike dinosaur" yet uncovered and raises questions about the role that size reduction played in that evolutionary pathway.

Another thought I had was that it also gives more evidence that feathers were a preadaptation for flight and that flying was not their first function, this dinosaur obviously wasn't going anywhere. Of course it is possible that it is secondarily flightless, the flight issue wasn't addressed in the announcement, but once I get the paper I'll report back if it has any insights on that topic.

What a pain in the neck...

Really fascinating story: a bowhead whale was found with a 19th century weapon embedded in its neck.

The whale was caught off the coast of Alaska, and apparently had escaped an earlier attempt at capture over a century ago. Judging from the age of the weapon (a fragment of a bomb lance, manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts), the whale's age is estimated to be about 115-130 years.

As the news article mentions, whales are thought to have extremely long lifespans, in some cases 200 years or more, but it is hard to determine exactly. The journalist makes a passing reference to the use of amino acids in the eye lenses. This was actually covered in a fascinating paper in a recent issue of the Journal of Mammalogy:

Garde, Eva, Heide-Jorgensen, Mads Peter, Hansen, Steen H., Nachman, Gosta, and Forchhammer, Mads C. 2007. Age-specific growth and remarkable longevity in narwhals (Monoceros monoceros) in Greenland as estimated by aspartic acid racemization. Journal of Mammalogy. 88(1): 49-58.

The abstract:
Eyes from 75 narwhals (Monodon monoceros) were collected in West Greenland in 1993 and 2004 for the purpose of age estimation. Age estimates were based on the racemization of l-aspartic acid to d-aspartic acid in the nucleus of the eye lens. The ratio of d- and l-enantiomers was measured using high-performance liquid chromatography. The aspartic acid racemization rate (kAsp) was estimated to be 0.001045/year ± 0.000069 SE by regression of d/l ratios on age estimated by length from 15 young narwhals (≤298 cm) and by earplug laminations from 13 fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus). The d/l ratio at age 0 ((d/l)0) was estimated to be 0.0288 by regression of d/l ratios against the estimated age of the 15 young narwhals. The intercept of the regression slope, providing twice the (d/l)0 value, was 0.05759 ± 0.00147 SE. The maximum estimated age was a 115-year-old (±10 SE) female. Asymptotic body length was estimated to be 396 cm for females and 457 cm for males, and asymptotic body mass was estimated to be 904 kg for females and 1,645 kg for males. Using the von Bertalanffy growth model, age at sexual maturity was estimated to be 6–7 years for females and 9 years for males.

At the time I thought this was an extremely fascinating article (the use of racemization might be the first time I was actually glad I'd taken organic chemistry!). The new bowhead find confirms that whales can live well over a century, sometimes even despite the efforts of armed humans.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

In which I am reminded of why I love being a zoologist

On Friday we took a trip down to a couple of national monuments, Montezuma Castle (amazing cliff ruins, occupied 1250-1400 AD) and Montezuma Well, the result of the collapse of a limestone cave that created a huge well filled with warm, fresh water, it's like an oasis, it was amazing.

I'm an anthropology minor so all the Pueblo ruins were fascinating, but the wildlife was what really made the day great, I added a two new mammals to my life list, and a few birds and lizards as well. Here are some of my favorite shots from the day:

Botta's pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae):

Rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus):

Common Merganser (Mergus merganser), female with brood:

Cave swallows (my pictures if of the nests, couldn't get a good shot of the birds so the bird pictures is from the Cornell site), Petrochilidon fulva:

We also saw Canyon Wrens (Catherpes mexicanus) and Gambel's Quail (Callipepla gambellii) at Montezuma Well, but I couldn't get my own pictures, credit to the Cornell site for these:

Overall it was an awesome day, I love Western habitats, I wish more people realized how rich the "desert" is in biodiversity!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

24 new species discovered

Science Daily has a really interesting news article today about 24 new species discovered in the Suriname rainforest. What's interesting about this is that the biologists are working for a mining company, which is taking measures to get biodiversity surveys done before planning a new site. Awesome example of one of the discoveries:

Monday, June 4, 2007

Arizona wildlife sightings

I have been in Arizona for almost a week now, and have added some great animals to my "life list":

Mammals (photos taken by me):
Golden-mantled ground squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis):

Gunnison's prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni):

Those are babies, the first day they emerged from the burrow!

Birds (photos not by me, I'm not fast enough for bird photography, apparently):

Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana):

Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria):

Broad-tailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus):

My own poor attempt of a photo at dusk:

An identfiable picture:

I also really want to see an Acorn woodpecker and a Lazuli bunting before I leave.

First real day of field work in the prairie dog colony tomorrow, I'm excited!

Underwater tiger

Awesome picture for the weekend:

Taken from National Geographic's news photo gallery.

Energy fiend

I have been griping for a long time about how nutrition labels should include the number of mg of caffeine per serving in a drink (or food). I'm not sure if that will happen in the future or not, but in the meantime there is this really interesting website, with a database of the caffeine content of most of the common sodas/energy drinks/coffees on the market.

Just as a baseline, coffee has about 107 (brewed) to 145 (drip) mg per cup. I was surprised to see that many energy drinks actually have less caffeine than a cup of coffee, although some have disturbingly high counts: the 'winners' are Boo-Koo Energy, and Zero Carb Rockstar, each with 360 mg.

I also thought it was interesting that the Zero Carb version of Rockstar has more than twice the caffeine of the regular version, which has just 150 mg. Hmmm.

Anyway, another cool feature on the site is a little gadget that tells you how much of an item you would have to consume to get a lethal dose of caffeine. Just for the record, it would take 19 cans of Zero Carb Rockstar to kill me, but I could drink 47 cups of brewed coffee before kicking the proverbial bucket. Rock on.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Sinosauropteryx controversy: bald or feathered?

National Geographic has a really surprising news story today, apparently reanalysis of the infamous Sinosauropteryx fossil (showing exquisite preservation of feather structures) is calling the previous conclusions into question.

This should be taken with a grain/shaker of salt, however, since there have been dissenters from the very beginning claiming that the structures are actually collagen fibers, not feathers. The reason the news story is surprising, to me, is that NG chose to cover it, when the squabbling has been raging for years now, not that someone is actually claiming the fibers aren't feathers.

The whole topic is controversial because some scientists cling to the view that birds actually predate dinosaurs, and are not their descendants, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. There is a great summary of the debate here, and in the mean time it will be interesting to see if there is any rebuttal to this latest flare-up of criticism in the media.