Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Zoologist, lepidopterist and naturalist, Eugenius JC Esper (1742-1810), inherited his father's love of natural history which he pursued as a sideline to his lectureship duties in science at the University of Erlangen in Germany.

He would rise to head the Department of Natural History in Erlangen while expanding their zoological collections substantially (his butterfly collection still exists). He also published a number of copiously illustrated monograph collections relating to seaweeds, butterflies, coral, birds, insects as well as mineralology and general natural history.

The present work is entitled 'Die Pflanzenthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Farben erleuchtet nebst Beschreibungen' (something like: Natural animal-plants in colour with enlightened commentary) that was first published in ~1791. I get the feeling there were a number of editions or it appeared in excerpts and was subsequently republished as a collection with a variable number of illustrations.

The majority of the images above were sourced from the new natural history collection at the University of Heidelberg.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Most Terrifying Bird on Earth

Queensland, Australia. Philip Mclean, a 16 year-old boy, and his brother, three years his junior, encounter a cassowary. Despite the size of the brightly coloured flightless bird before them, the Mclean brothers attempt to bludgeon it to death with clubs. It is a fatal mistake. Armed with its long- and sharp-clawed foot, the bird kicks the younger boy, who flees. His elder brother lands a blow on the beast but is knocked to the ground. Lying prone, Philip is kicked in the neck by the cassowary, opening a deadly wound. The boy manages to get up and run but dies shortly afterward as a result of a haemorrhaging blood vessel in his neck.

Jekyll and Hyde? The cassowary has a fearsome reputation

Philip Mclean’s death took place in 1926, but attacks on humans by the cassowary – viewed by many as the most dangerous bird alive – are not uncommon. Such incidents happen every year in northern Queensland, most often involving a bird that has been fed by people, and usually with it chasing or charging the victim. Humans aren’t the only targets either. In 1995, a cassowary struck a dog in the belly, and while it did not pierce the skin, there was severe bruising and the dog later died from internal injuries. If disturbed or made to feel threatened, this otherwise shy bird can be extremely aggressive.
The southern cassowary is one of the largest birds on the planet – only its relatives the emu and the ostrich are bigger – the female reaching almost 2 metres tall and weighing 130 pounds. It is the only bird in the world with any sort of protective armour, a helmet-like crest that protects its head as it darts through the dense rainforest scrub – which definitely makes it look descended from dinosaur stock. Yet it is the cassowary’s feet that really solidify its reputation as the most lethal of our avian cousins. The dagger-like middle claw of its stout, three-toed foot is 12 cm long, and some experts have claimed it can disembowel a man.
Cassowary comin’ atcha: It is a fast runner, able to reach 50 km/h
Reports of the cassowary having the ability to eviscerate or dismember humans and dogs with a single kick may sound like myth, but you certainly wouldn’t want to find out by being on the receiving end of a lunge when it lashes out. Another point to bear in mind: while this brawler of a bird is unable to fly, it is a good swimmer and on land it sure can shift, attaining speeds of up to 50 km/h and jumping to heights 5 feet. Quickly climbing a tree could be your only option if confronted by a cassowary – just make sure the tree isn’t dropping fruit, as this fiercely territorial bird will defend such food stores for days.
But let’s not demonise the creature with all this talk of its vicious nature; it’s not as if it’s some kind of diabolical fish. The cassowary is a caring parent – or at least the male is: after the female has laid her 3-8 eggs, this new man of the natural world incubates them for 2 months, then protects the chicks for a further 9. The reclusive cassowary can live for over 60 years, yet this wise old bird is in fact endangered. The main reason for its population decline is the clearance of its rainforest habitat, but it is also at risk from motor vehicles, dog attacks, hunters and rival omnivores, feral pigs. So consider the plight of the cassowary, which isn’t as tough as it seems.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Pond Scum Gets Its Moment in the Limelight

An Algae Collection in Texas Is a Big Hit With the Biofuel Crowd


AUSTIN, Texas -- University of Texas plant physiologist Jerry Brand has spent the past decade lovingly tending the world's largest collection of pond scum.

Now the quest for renewable energy has made Mr. Brand and his algae hot commodities.

As director of the university's Culture Collection of Algae, Mr. Brand is charged with overseeing samples of 3,000 organisms.

"We have more genetic diversity than in all the zoos and botanic gardens of the world put together," says the 67-year-old Mr. Brand.

The Culture Collection of Algae at the University of Texas has seen a spike in interest in its specimens, as inventors try to engineer oil-producing algae. Russell Gold reports from Texas.

Conducting a recent tour of the collection in the university's three-story biology building, Mr. Brand strolled past six-foot-tall shelves filled with flasks containing algae. He paused to point out jugs bubbling with green-hued liquid as a mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide was injected into living samples to aerate them.

The collection's unrivaled diversity has drawn the attention of entrepreneurs who believe that buried within Mr. Brand's assortment of single-cell organisms could be one answer to the world's energy problems.

The basic idea is simple: Algae are little machines that convert solar energy into oily material that can be processed into biofuel. Technically, it's possible to harvest a batch of algae, process the oils into fuel and run a combustion engine like the ones in cars and trucks. To get more oil, just grow more algae.

Mr. Brand is at the center of the quest for the perfect algae for the job.

Mr. Brand's work, during most of his career, was mainly of interest to a narrow band of algae connoisseurs known as phycologists. Now a typical day finds him busy taking calls from venture capitalists and visiting Japanese businessmen to whom he freely offers advice on growing algae. Most commercial applications for algae so far have involved dietary supplements -- algae derived omega-3 fatty acids, for instance.

Samples from the algae collection can be had for $75 apiece; the algae are packed in a screw-top glass vial and sent via overnight mail. Time was when almost all orders came from scientists exploring algae as a food supplement or from high-school kids working on science projects. More than half of orders coming in now are from people working on biofuels. Nobody knows how many different algaes there are.

One afternoon recently at the culture center, Mr. Brand stooped down to examine a batch of algae samples awaiting the mailman. One was headed to the Indian Institute of Petroleum in the foothills of the Himalayas. Another was destined for China; a third to South Dakota.

"There's an enormous universe of algae out there and they have painstakingly collected and cataloged a pretty good chunk of that universe," says Harrison Dillon, co-founder of Solazyme Inc. a California company developing an algae-based diesel and jet fuel. His company has ordered many strains over the years.

Mr. Brand is thrilled that algae are finally getting the attention they deserve.
Dismissing Algae

"Algae have been on the back burner of most people's minds. It's pond scum. It's seaweed," he says. "Those of us who have studied algae for decades realize there is a tremendous genetic potential."

But even Mr. Brand didn't recognize that potential right away. He came to algae as a Ph.D. student studying photosynthesis in the 1970s. Algae proved to be convenient test subjects.

Meanwhile, the university acquired the algae collection in 1976. The samples' roots are traced to 1939, when scientist Ernst G. Pringsheim fled Prague ahead of the Nazis, leaving behind most of his belongings but taking his algae collection. The samples went first to Cambridge, then left England for Indiana University and ended up here in Austin.

Thanks to his longstanding work with algae, Mr. Brand was tapped as director of the collection in 1998.

The collection continues to expand; scholars bring Mr. Brand individual samples from around the world, and occasionally a scientist retires and looks for a new home for his own collection. In 2003, E. Imre Friedmann, a microbiologist interested in how life adapts to extreme environments, turned over much of the algae he acquired on trips to Antarctica and to the Gobi desert in Mongolia.

But biofuels entrepreneurs are picky. They're searching for algae that produce oil -- not all of them do -- and ones that grow quickly. The ideal is algae that do both.

Mr. Brand, whose love of algae's genetic diversity contrasts with his daily uniform of choice -- gray sweater vests -- believes that such focus is naive. "It is like saying I want a wheat [plant] with a high yield that grows fast," he said on a recent afternoon, sitting in his small office where a half-eaten plum lay next to coffee mugs with algae illustrations on them. "But you also have to pay attention to the wheat's disease resistance and whether it falls over when the wind blows."
Oil Producer

One of the more popular algae strains among biofuel scientists is Neochloris oleoabundans, physically undistinguished green dots remarkable for their ability to produce large quantities of oil when deprived of nutrients. The collection's samples of these algae, stored in flasks on shelves and frozen in thermoses filled with liquid nitrogen, are the descendants of samples found in the 1950s in a sand dune in Rub al Khali, Saudi Arabia's legendary sea of sand known as the Empty Quarter.

The discovery is credited to Srisumon Chantanachat, a Bangkok-born botanist whose University of Texas Ph.D. dissertation on algae from arid soils can now be found on the shelves at King Saud University library in Riyadh.

But Mr. Brand has his own favorites. Most notably, there's dasycladales. Opening an industrial refrigerator, the plant scientist pulled out a glass dish filled with distilled water spiked with nutrients.
Sample From Germany

Mr. Brand secured the sample from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, where 50 years ago groundbreaking work was done on these algae's forefathers, deciphering how genetic information is spread within a cell. Mr. Brand traveled to Germany himself to collect the sample, cradling it in his lap on the long return flight to Austin.

Mr. Brand picked up the Pyrex dish to show off his pets to a visitor. Floating in the water was a nickel-size, fern-like green asterisk. "You can see how beautiful these little guys are," he said.

Despite his newfound popularity with the business world, Mr. Brand remains a scientist impatient that there still are not enough "basic biology experiments" being done on algae to understand them better. Doing his part to add to the world's store of algae arcana, he's considering assigning an undergraduate to study the algae that grows in the turtle pond behind his building.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

David Gallo: The deep oceans: a ribbon of life

With vibrant video clips captured by submarines, David Gallo takes us to some of Earth's darkest, most violent, toxic and beautiful habitats, the valleys and volcanic ridges of the oceans' depths, where life is bizarre, resilient and shockingly abundant.