Steve Irwin dies

I had one of those "wait a minute, that has to be a mistake" moments when I heard this report on the news this morning. Steve Irwin, a conservation biologist, administrator of Sydney's Australia Zoo (it's an amazing place, I tried to link to its page but it is mysteriously down today, maybe more than just a coincidence), and the (in)famous star of Animal Planet's The Crocodile Hunter, died today while filming a documentary in the Great Barrier Reef.

He was stung by a ray, and the barb penetrated his ribs and struck his heart. He was 44 years old.

He has stirred up controversy at times with his overflowing enthusiasm, but he is also extremely respected as an educator and proponent of conservation policies. This is a major shock.

He deserves respect, but I hope the media doesn't turn it into too much of a circus...I for one got sick and tired of sentimental "special reports" and redundant, sensationalistic shows about Katrina (not that this is on par with that tragedy), Diana, Clinton, etc etc. His family deserves time to grieve and gather themselves.

Too good to be true?

There has been a lot of buzz this week about a new, nonlethal method of harvesting embryonic stem cells. The basic idea is to use the same procedure used in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis , a genetic test done on oocytes before they implant in order to determine if they carry any major diseases or mutations. This is done by removing a single blastomere (cell) from the embryo at its 8-10 cell stage. This is a routine procedure and does not impede development (although there are always rare cases of complications, but that goes for all medical procedures, from toenail trimming to heart transplants).

Sounds great, right? You get embryonic stem cells AND a baby, it solves all of our ethical problems.

There has been criticism and controversy, however, that this may not be the miracle solution that some would like us to think. There are several issues to be considered. Apparently stem cells derived like this act differently from "normal" ones, sometimes they randomly stop growing or display other random patterns that would make them unreliable in research. Also, they require feeder cells and growth medium, which come from mouse cells. This creates the potential for contamination. Finally, it has not been proven that cells from the morula stage of a mammalian embryo (8-16 cells) are truly pluripotent (meaning they have the potential to become any and all of the cells in the body.

It would be wonderful if the new method is really the holy grail of stem cell research like many headlines have claimed, but there are still many kinks to be worked out, it is too early to get cocky and celebrate just yet. I am 100% for stem cell research, but caution has to be taken to make sure we aren't jumping ahead of ourselves and rejoicing too early, only further research will show how useful this new technique will actually become.

On a related note, click here to see what happens to all of those embryos in fertility clincs that are "saved" from being used to harvest stem cells. If that isn't 'a tragic waste of potential, I don't know what is.

Awesome bear bubbles

How is that for a headshot?
It came from an excellent collection of zoo animal photos on Flickr.

Comparison of global views on evolution

Very disheartening, although I have to say it's at least some relief to see that the misconceptions here in the US aren't a global trend. Here is a good New Scientist article analyzing the causes for America's trouble with grasping the issue The main culprits seem to be a type of Christian fundamentalism that is largely unique to the US, in addition to misinformation about the basic processes/concepts of evolution.
It would be very eye-opening for many people if they would make a basic effort to inform themselves about what they claim to disagree with.

'The Simpsons' features evolution/creationism debate

Last night's episode of The Simpsons was about the debate over teaching evolution and creationism in schools, the basic plot was that Lisa was protesting creationism and they ended up staging a trial (although it was much more analogous to the Scopes trial than the recent Dover trials).

The jokes were hilarious, although I did disagree with how much Lisa seemed to emphasize that you MUST choose between religion and evolution because they're mutually exclusive. The take-home message she delivered in the end was definitely important, though: Regardless of what you believe or disbelieve, you shouldn't be allowed to insist on keeping others ignorant about the facts.
Definitely worth watching, and if you missed the episode on TV last night you can watch it tonight.

Something to make you thankful for YOUR mother...

Today is Mother's Day, a holiday set aside for everyone to show their appreciation for their mothers. I happen to have a great relationship with my mom, but in case there are readers out there that struggle to get along with their own mothers, I thought it would be fun, in honor of the holiday, to highlight some of the animal world's WORST mothers. No matter what kind of mom you have, these cases show that it could be worse!

First up: rabbits. The look cute, cuddly, and loving right? Unfortunately, not so.
A pregnant rabbit will build a nest within the burrow, even using fur from her own body as bedding. When the litter is born, however, the mother leaves them, covers the hole, and visits for nursing sessions less than five minutes a day. This lasts for 25 days, after which she stops even returning to feed them, and the youngsters have to crawl out of the burrows and 'seek their fortunes' in the wide world.
That's the story Beatrix Potter didn't tell you. ;)

Next: while pandas are notoriously fickle breeders and the birth of a captive cub is widely celebrated, in the wild each infant bear is not quite as celebrated. Pandas frequently give birth to twins, but rarely raise both cubs, effectively abandoning the weaker of the two in order to focus their resources on the one more likely to survive. It makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint, but the fact that it's logical doesn't make things any less unpleasant for the discarded runt...

Third, egret mothers stand by casually as their chicks gang up on their weaker siblings and peck them to death in the nest. Sibling rivalry is apparently NOT limited to kids bickering in mini-vans...

Finally, the winners of the Bad Mothers contest: ants belonging to the genus Adetomyrma. According to Dr. Scott Forbes of the University of Winnipeg, "queens chew holes in their larvae and then consume the oozing fluid." Amazingly, these larva survive and can develop into adults, although they always bear scars from their mother's "snacking".

So there you go, feeling more appreciative of your own mother yet? ;)

If you're in the mood to see some extremely good pictures of animal mothers and babies, National Geographic has a great Mother's Day themed photo gallery posted.

(Disclaimer: this entry is meant to be light-hearted, I am fully aware that most maternal behaviors are adapted to specific life styles and the concept of "bad" animal mothers is misguided from a scientific standpoint. Just a little attempt at humor after a very long weekend.)

Alternate mechanism for diversity of cnidarians?

This week it was announced in the journal Current Biology that researchers in Hanover have discovered that Cnidarians, an animal phylum including jellyfish and sea anemones, lack the homeobox (aka Hox) gene system that guides development of body form in other animals.
It is known that Cnidarians (part of the Radiata) diverged from the lineage leading to bilateral animals extremely early in the history of life, and this new finding shows that the split may have predated the development of Hox genes.
What makes this news significant is that Hox gene duplications are often credited with the diversification of animal body types/forms, so the astonishing diversity of Cnidarians has occured with a separate, previously unstudied mechanism. It will definitely be interesting to track the follow up studies on this!

"ID Code"

Today PZ Meyers has a funny, evolutionary biology spoof on The DaVinci Code, it's a little cheesy but pretty creative also. He doesn't say where he got it from, I'd be interested to know who wrote it, someone with a sense of humor and just a tad too much free time on their hands. :)

New crustacean discovered

This discovery was announced a few weeks ago, and now that I am procrastinating studying for my final exams I am finally getting around to posting about it. It's pretty fascinating, its name is Kiwa hirsuta and they've giving it not only its own genus but its own family as well, showing how different it is from any previously known animal.
It was discovered in the South Pacific, about 900 miles south of Easter Island, and apparently thrives near hydrothermal vents.
It looks like a blonde, furry lobster, and its hairs have specialized bacteria living in them. Makes you wonder what else is out there waiting to be discovered!