Monday, May 27, 2013

Swallowed by a blue whale?!

 We had a nice visit to the SB Museum of Natural History, didn't we?!  Here's our group photo inside the rib cage of the blue whale skeleton out front.

Some more information about the Museum, from a previous post....

Paul Collins, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, had a paper in PNAS in 2010. This is a great example of how museums can be used for research and how the original collectors could have had no idea about the uses their collections would be put to.

The paper concerns a story relevant to our ecology section - the changes in the food web on the California Channel Islands: Pleistocene to historic shifts in bald eagle diets on the Channel Islands, California

There have also been a couple of articles in the local Independent newspaper about the museum:

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Pygmy mammoths

How did mammoths reach the channel islands?

From the National Park Service Channel Islands website:

With their snorkel-like trunk and buoyant mass, elephants, living relatives of mammoths, are considered excellent distance swimmers, among the best of all land mammals, and skilled at crossing watergaps. Documented accounts demonstrate that Asian elephant swim to islands they cannot even see – some up to 23 miles away—guided by the odor of ripening fruit and vegetation. There is no reason that Pleistocene mammoths were not just as seaworthy, and just as good at swimming.

We don't know if prehistoric man rode pygmy mammoths.

But they probably did!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wallace's frog

A nice little article about Wallace's frog in the current edition of the Scientist.

Wallace painted this watercolor of Rhacophorus nigropalmatus in 1855. A newly discovered species, the frog was found in a part of Borneo’s rainforest that echoed with the sounds of workers felling trees and transporting coal. The disturbance brought a diverse range of creatures out of hiding and, in the case of the frog, into the scientific record books. 
He later discussed the species, named Rhacophorus nigropalmatus or “Wallace’s frog,” as an example of evolution’s stepwise process in his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago, in which he included a woodcut based on his original frog painting: “[I]t is very interesting to Darwinians as showing that the variability of the toes which have been already modified for purposes of swimming and adhesive climbing, have been taken advantage of to enable an allied species to pass through the air like the flying lizard.”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cheap Gene Cloning...

In case anyone has $50 and 5 hours with an interest in cloning genes from home:

Popular science has posted a how-to article on making a PCR machine from common household objects. The tubular device uses the heat of a light bulb and the cooling of a computer fan to progress through the stages of the polymerase chain reaction. Unfortunately you have to provide your own test tubes, primers, and genetic material (not included with the set up).

Click the link for a cool video and a brief description of PCR:

Happy Cloning!

"Gene Machine" article on Popular Science

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Human stem cells cloned for the first time

Video of the cell manipulation process filmed using a microscope equipped with a video camera from OHSU Video on Vimeo.

For the first documented time (ever), scientists were able to create new human stem cells by cloning order.  This could, possibly, lead to cells to be grown to fit specific functions within an individual without the necessity of immunosuppresent drugs and the drawbacks of getting a trasplant from a donor.

Cool eyh? Maybe we won't need to freeze our placentas in future generations if we can prefect this cloning strategy.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Alligator Stem Cells Offer Hope for Tooth Regeneration in Humans

As the son of two dentists, teeth have always been a strange fascination.  Now imagine my excitement when I read that ALLIGATORS may be the answer to losing our adult teeth. Researchers have looked into alligator stem cells as hope for tooth regeneration in humans as alligators also have implanted teeth.  Not only that, they can be replaced up to 50 times over their lifetime!

Though this work has just started, researchers said "In the future, we hope to isolate those cells from the dental lamina to see whether we can use them to regenerate teeth in the lab."

How awesome would that be? Part human, part alligator. Manalligator if you will.

Stay classy.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Honey and Hexagon

My precious...
I saw this article on my Twitter after I sneezed due to allergies. I took that as a sign to write about this blog post by Robert Krulwich. The title of the post is "What is it About Bees and Hexagons?" So, why do bees make their honey combs into perfect hexagons? What is the advantage behind this? Krulwich starts by presenting a conjecture developed by Marcus Terentius Varro, which says that the hexagon provides the maximum volume to hold honey while at the same time requiring the least amount of wax to make the honeycomb. It wasn't until 1999, a mathematician at the University of Michigan by the name of Thomas Hales published a proof to show that Varro was exactly correct in his logic. Warning: If you choose to read the proof, it is 22 pages of math, although it is quite interesting.

Another observation that was made on the YouTube video that is in the article was that the size of the honeycombs are about the size of the bee. Apparently, the size of the honeycomb is proportional to the size of the bee. I thought that this was an interesting observation.

On a last note, for those of you who actually read this article, may I bring your attention to the credits on the hand-drawn pictures. I found it amusing and a little amazed that the pictures are by Krulwich. Nice pics, Krulwich! ;-)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Whale Songs


Just in case anyone is interested in what whales sound like, here is a site that has examples of Humpback songs:

"Humpback whales give a voice to all the whales - and to the ocean itself."

The Lonely Leviathan


He is a lone voice crying out for love in the wilderness. For years he has roamed singing unrequited songs of yearning, searching for a soul to share his solitary world. His plaintive love songs have been heard by many yet he has never been seen. He is the loneliest whale in the world. 

He has been tracked by scientists since 1989 as he migrates up and down the Pacific north-west coast of North America.  Throughout his journey, he cries out in long, low moans.  Sadly, his musical mating calls ring through the vastness of the ocean without reply.  Although he swims in waters populated by thousands  of other whales, no female will respond because his voice is unusually high for a whale.  His voice rings at about 52 Hertz, which is what researchers have named him.

Though 52 Hertz has never been seen many have heard his watery love songs, recorded by scientists and US navy sonar detectors.  Although his voice would sound deep to us, it is extremely high-pitched when compared to other large whales.  A regular blue or fin whale sings at about 15 to 20 Hertz.

Scientists are not even sure as to what species he is.  His calls are shorter, but more frequent than other whales.  Scientist believe he might be a hybrid of a blue whale and a fin whale or even a blue whale with a physical deformity that causes him to sing at 52 Hertz.

This whale's distinctive voice has never been heard accompanied by another whale, which has allowed scientists to track him closely.  William Watkins of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who invented the first underwater recording system, first heard 52 Hertz's unique song in 1989 while studying the mating calls of male whales.

The US navy's hydrophone system, designed to track Soviet nuclear submarines during the Cold War, recorded his migratory patterns in great detail each year as the whale travelled from central California to the Aleutian Islands.  Unfortunately, the navy only releases data days after 52 Hertz has moved on, making it too late for scientists to observe him in person.

As sad as his story may seem, he has acquired numerous admirers who seem to relate.  The interest of his admirers has helped promote greater study of the ocean's giants.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mummies and atherosclerosis

Researchers have found hardened arteries after scanning mummified bodies, some of which were more than 3,000 years old. A more modern diet and lifestyle were once thought to be the causes of heart disease, but a new study recently published in the journal The Lancet may prove otherwise. 
The mummy Hatiay is scanned in Cairo, Egypt, where it was found to have evidence of extensive vascular disease by CT scanning. (Dr. Michael Miyamoto/AP Photo)

NPR’s Audie Cornish talks to cardiologist Randall Thompson, one of the study's authors, about the findings (here)
Original paper citation is below, as well as a related article.

Thompson, R.C., Allam, A. H., Lombardi, G. P., Wann, L. S., Sutherland, M. L., Sutherland,J. D., ... & Thomas, G. S. (2013). Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations. The Lancet. Volume 381, Issue 9873, Pages 1211 - 1222

Heagerty, A.M. (2013). Scanning ancient history for evidence of modern diseases. The Lancet. Volume 381, Issue 9873, Pages 1165 - 1166

Some recent interviews of interest to biologists

There have been two good interviews on NPR "On Point" in the last week.  The first (here) is with E.O. Wilson (who visited CCS 2 years ago) as he talks about his new book, "Letters to a Young Scientist"

The second (here) about some of the most incredible creatures on the planet.  The interview is with Caspar Henderson, writer and environmental journalist. His new book is “The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary.” 

Monday, May 13, 2013

"What The Vampire Said To The Horseshoe Crab: 'Your Blood Is Blue?'"

When we talked about the oxygen-carrying molecule, hemoglobin, that is present in most animals, we also mentioned that some, instead have hemocyanin, which causes the blood to be blue when oxygenated.  Check out this NPR story about the amazing things being learned about the properties of this blood in horseshoe crabs:

and this PBS video, "Blue Blood at $15,000 a quart"!

Repost: Swim bladders and the "Barry White of the Sea"

Here is the link to the NY Times story I mentioned in class on vocalizations made by fish using their swim bladders.  The article highlights several cases in which obnoxious noises were assumed to be anything BUT made by fish and those who suggested fish as the culprits were called crazy!  As I mentioned the swim bladder is thought to be evolutionarily homologous to the early lung and both develop as outpockets of the gut (in the early stages of development). A paper by Zheng et al., published in 2011 in PLoSONE looks at some of the evidence for the "homolog" idea, and their results "provide molecular evidence of the relatedness of the fish swimbladder and mammalian lung."

Black drum

Here also is the link to some of the cool sounds fish make, including the "Barry White of the sea", the black drum.

And one more link: this one describing research by SFSU professor Roger Bland on the vocalizations of the toadfish in SF Bay.


And one more thing about swim bladders....   Some people eat them.  From Wikipedia: "In some Asian cultures, the swim bladders of certain large fishes are considered a food delicacy. In China they are known as fish maw, 花膠/鱼鳔, and are served in soups or stews. Swim bladders are also used in the food industry as a source of collagen. They can be made into a strong, water-resistant glue, or used to make isinglass for the clarification of beer.

Swim bladder display in a Melaka shopping mall"

Repost: Why Giant Bugs Once Roamed the Earth

We've talked a bit about gigantic dragonflies found in the fossil record from the Carboniferous period.  I mentioned that a recent study on oxygen limitation in insects suggests that the leading theory about these giant arthropods  - that they got big because the high levels of O2 made it possible - may not be correct.  Interestingly they propose that young insects HAD to grow large to avoid oxygen poisoning.

Read more here (the National Geo article, which is also the source of the photo above).  The original research article by Verberk and Bilton in PLoS ONE is here.

Verberk WCEP, Bilton DT (2011) Can Oxygen Set Thermal Limits in an Insect and Drive Gigantism? PLoS ONE 6(7):

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Repost of some apnea

Static apnea is floating face down in a swimming pool whilst holding your breath is quite possibly the most boring sport in the world to watch (it makes cricket look exciting) but physiologically quite interesting. For example divers now use glossopharyngeal insuffation - this is a method of pumping additional air into the lungs widely used by reptiles and amphibians (picture a frogs bulging neck) but not by humans. Until a few decades ago when free divers discovered that by using the tongue as a piston an additional liter or so of air can be forced into the lungs. Don't try this at home though, rupturing the lung is a real possibility unless you work up to it.

How long can you hold your breath? A minute? A minute and a half?

What do you think the world record is. Four minutes? Five minutes? Ten minutes? Think again. The static apnea record is ELEVEN AND A HALF MINUTES!

Curiously the techniques involved don't involve keeping the brain alive without oxygen, that's simply not possible, but getting oxygen to the brain even though you aren't breathing.

If you breath oxygen beforehand though the record is much longer - two people have now exceeded TWENTY MINUTES.

(Here's a challenge - using knowledge of physiology and physics could you predict that the record would be almost twice as long using pure oxygen compared to the ~20% oxygen in air?)

Free diving is much more challenging because you must perform physical exercise without breathing (and face the changing pressure at depth.) There are all sorts of categories including 'no limits' where divers use a weighted sled to pull them down and then air bags to ascend. You still have to hold your breath of course... The world record for this is an amazing 214m (over 700 feet). But the purest form of the sport is where the diver swims down and back under his own power without even the benefit of fins. Watch this amazing dive by William Trubridge, who has set further records since this video - currently his record is an amazing 101m. I love how calm and collected he is. Every movement seems perfectly choreographed and he is clearly maximizing efficiency and not speed.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It was 60 years ago (next year)

59 years ago yesterday Roger Bannister, a medical student at Oxford University in England, became the first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes.

Which makes a reasonable segue to our physiology section. What many people don't know is that Bannister went on to a distinguished career as both a scientist and a doctor.

On the 50th anniversary of running the sub-4-minute mile, Bannister was interviewed by the BBC's sports correspondent Rob Bonnet. At the conclusion of the interview, Bannister was asked whether he looked back on the sub-4-minute mile as the most important achievement of his life. Bannister replied to the effect that no, he rather saw his subsequent forty years of practising as a neurologist and some of the new procedures he introduced as being more significant.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

My Pet Camel Spider

His name is Wilhelm.
In my EEMB 116 class on the higher invertebrates, we're supposed to make an insect collection for our final project. This entails a lot of wandering around in the bushes at night, and on Friday I found a camel spider. You may have heard of them from Iraq veterans, or seen this famous photo (which is actually two camel spiders stuck together):

Although camel spiders (also known as wind scorpions or sun scorpions) can grow to up to 6 inches in length, they are rarely dangerous to humans and the myths you may have heard about them aren't true: they don't eat the stomachs of camels, scream while they run at you, or bite off chunks of peoples' flesh while they sleep. During the Iraq war, soldiers would often pit camel spiders against scorpions or other creepy-crawlies for amusement, and place bets on the outcome. They actually aren't scorpions at all; they belong to the order Solifugae, a sister order of both scorpions and spiders.

Camel spiders can run at up to 10 mph, about one third as fast as the fastest human sprinter; they are aggressive and will attack and subdue prey three times their own size. Their large chelicerae can cut through the bone of small animals, and they often use them to make a rattling noise. Although they aren't venomous, their bite is very painful. My solpugid's legs are quite long in proportion to his body size, so I think he is a male, although I haven't been able to get a close enough look at his chelicerae to see if they have the distinctive flagella at the ends. Their first pair of legs are actually pedipalps (similar to a tarantula's), and are used in feeding, fighting, and as sensory organs. They also feature eversible suction cups that allow the camel spider to climb vertical surfaces (I found this out to alarming effect). Camel spiders are visual hunters, with sophisticated central eyes that bridge the gap between simple ocelli and the compound eyes of true insects, like bees or dragonflies.

Most people who come into contact with them are terrified, but I found this testament from a soldier named Nicole, who was stationed in Afghanistan and kept one as a pet:

"I really hate to be the only one not perpetuating all the hype about Camel Spiders, but as you can see from my pictures they are really not that bad. They are like any other creature and can be very tame.  I had this one for about six months while I was in Afghanistan. She was quite beautiful and sweet.  They are not poisonous, but their bite does hurt very badly and tends to get infected due to lack of hygiene in the areas they are usually encountered. I was never bitten, but it did take a while to calm her down enough to be able to hold her. I never saw her jump or run in six months. She would let me pet her and hold her for hours. I loved my camel spider even though most thought I was crazy…I miss her and wish I could have brought her home with me."

By all accounts, camel spiders are difficult to keep in captivity; we got two a couple of weeks ago for my invertebrate lab and so far only one has held on. This is in part because camel spiders will only eat live prey. Wilhelm eats pinhead crickets, which are about 1/3 his size, every other day; he holds perfectly still until a cricket approaches, and then attacks and consumes his prey in under 30 seconds.

Although most people believe camel spiders live only in the deserts of the Middle East, several species are native to the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico, where they are called "matevenados" (deer killers). We have one species here in Santa Barbara, and it's usually found in arid regions up in the mountains, although I found mine roaming the bank of Atascadero Creek, pretty close to campus. Come talk to me if you have any questions or want to see him; I'm trying to keep him alive until the end of the quarter!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Irresponsible Bird Flu Research in China

In China, the recent outbreak of bird flu, H7N9, has been a growing threat, infecting 127 people so far. Research from a Chinese lab has received much criticism for conducting "appallingly irresponsible" experiments which combined human and bird flu strains. This article from NYDailyNews describes what has been going on in China.

Controversial bird flu research by Chinese scientists called ‘appallingly irresponsible’

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Wildfire In Ventura

As most of you have probably already heard, there has been a raging wildfire in Ventura County for the past two days. Approximately 2,800 acres have been burned, and 4,000 homes threatened. The Santa Ana winds have encouraged the spread of fire, but forcasted precipitation and cool ocean winds could help get fire under control. Officials are calling it Springs Fire, because it is starting before the normal fire season which normally begins in late summer. Reports say that this one is one of more than 680 wildfires in California so far this year, which is about 200 more than average. CNN meteorologist Chad Myers states that mountain chaparral and shrubs are dry because Los Angeles has received only half of its normal rainfall the past two years. Before people were settled in this area, these wildfires would have raged uncontrollably; however, now that humans live in these regions, fires are being suppressed, perhaps causing the ones that start to be more drastic.