Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cross-breeding restores sight to blind cavefish

In the caves of Mexico lives a fish which proves that a million years of evolution can be undone with a bit of clever breeding.

The blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) is a sightless version of a popular aquarium species, the Mexican tetra. They live in 29 deep caves scattered throughout Mexico, which their sighted ancestors colonised in the middle of the Pleistocene era. In this environment of perpetual darkness, the eyes of these forerunners were of little use and as generations passed, they disappeared entirely. They now navigate through the pitch-blackness by using their lateral lines to sense changes in water pressure.

But there is a deceptively simple way of restoring both the eyes and sight that evolution has taken, and Richard Borowsky from New York University’s Cave Biology Research Group has found it. You merely cross-bred fish from different caves.

Unlike their completely eyeless parents, the hybrids develop eyes, albeit ones that are smaller than those of their relatives on the surface. More amazingly still, many of them could actually see, as shown by their ability to reflexively follow a series of moving stripes.

In the most successful inter-cave cross, over a third of the offspring had working eyes. And if the blind fish were bred with surface ones, every single one of their offspring could see. Not bad for a lineage that hasn’t seen light for over a million years!

The hybrids’ restored eyes are a reflection of the genetic changes of their parents. Eyes are very complicated structures and their development is governed by a whole suite of genes. In a previous study, Borowsky found eye genes in twelve different places around the genome of one cavefish population. Mutating any of these could interfere with the production of a working eye, which means that there are many ways of evolving blindness.

Fish populations from different caves have each taken their own individual route, involving changes to different combinations of genes. Based on his new data, Borowsky thinks that this happened on at least three independent occasions, with each group losing their eyes through changes in three or four of the twelve key sites. But in the hybrids, every faulty gene from one parent was compensated for by the working version from the other.

Borowsky also found that two fish had a greater chance of producing a hybrids if they hailed from closer caves. That suggests that fish from neighbouring caves are more closely related than those from distant ones and have more similar genes underlying their blindness.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Woodpeckers are surely one of the most distinctive families of birds, hitching their way up trees, chiseling out their food with specially designed bills and reinforced skulls. Woodpeckers tend to be attractively clad in bold patterns of black, white, and red.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

05/26/2010 Massive Colorado Hail Storm.

BNVN Weather Paparazzi Tony Laubach was out with the Twistex.org research team today for the storms in Colorado. A massive hail storm hit east of Denver, CO today in Hudson and Wiggins Counties. Hail fell for over a half an hour in some area and piled up to almost a foot deep. ...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Rescued Baby Hummingbird Fed in Hand by Mother

This is actually a pretty amazing story about a baby hummingbird that a man found on a sidewalk. It couldn't fly, so he took it under his wing.

At night, it would come home to his house for safety. During the day, it was in the backyard of the house near where he found him.
About 4 days after he found it, he was holding it in his cupped hands when its mama came by to feed it. She had seen the man around, I guess, because she just flew over, perched on his hand and then fed the fledgling. This happened a number of times, so he called a friend who is good with a video camera, and he came over to film some of the amazing goings on that he told him about.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Incredible Video: Hail Destroys Oklahoma City Day After Tornado Read more: http://newsfeed.time.com/2010/05/18/incredible-video-hail-destroys-oklahom

At one time, photographs told the story of freak storms and deadly weather. Now, it’s insant YouTube footage of what some Oklahoma City residents are calling “the most insane hail storm, or storm in general, I have ever seen!”

Sunday afternoon, as violent storms rolled across middle America – only a day after a tornado left a path of devastation in the same region – Oklahomans turned on the video cameras and filmed what is sure to be known as the great hailstorm of 2010.

Just check out this footage. The first video is posted by a family that can be heard screaming about the softball-sized hail, and the dents in the jeep that can be seen almost immediately (right around 4:00):

Read more: http://newsfeed.time.com/2010/05/18/incredible-video-hail-destroys-oklahoma-city-day-after-tornado/#ixzz0oWkEKWWl

I think this second video, though, better captures the extreme force and lethal velocity of the hail in question. Framing a family’s swimming pool, the speed and size of the ice is immediately apparent. But fast-forward to the sixty-second mark, as the storm reaches its apex, and the water is all but turned into a wave pool. It almost looks like a Jacuzzi, with the jets on full blast.

In the background, an utterly baffled homeowner sums it all up best: “That’s insane, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Scientists stunned as grey whale sighted off Israel

JERUSALEM (AFP) - – The appearance of a grey whale off the coast of Israel has stunned scientists, in what was thought to be the first time the giant mammal has been seen outside the Pacific in several hundred years.

The whale, which was first sighted off Herzliya in central Israel on Saturday, is believed to have travelled thousands of miles from the north Pacific after losing its way in search of food.

"It's an unbelievable event which has been described as one of the most important whale sightings ever," said Dr Aviad Scheinin, chairman of the Israel Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Center which identified the creature.

A population of grey whales once inhabited the north Atlantic but became extinct in the 17th or 18th centuries and has not been seen there since.

The remaining colonies live in the western and eastern sectors of the north Pacific.

"What has amazed the entire marine mammal research community is there haven't been any grey whales in the Atlantic since the 18th century," he said. Scheinin said the creature, a mature whale measuring some 12 metres (39 feet) and weighing around 20 tonnes, probably reached the Atlantic through the Northwest Passage, an Arctic sea route that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and is normally covered with ice.

"Here you have an animal that is supposed to live in the Pacific and because the ice in the Arctic is melting, it managed to get through this corridor near the Bering Strait," Scheinin told AFP.

The population which lives in the northeastern Pacific normally migrates southwards in around October, heading for warmer waters around the Gulf of California in a huge round trip of at least 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometres).

So when autumn came, this particular grey whale began travelling south, keeping the land mass on the left and heading for the Californian Gulf with the aim of "turning left" into the bay.

But instead, it reached Gibraltar and turned left into the Mediterranean and ended up off the shores of Israel, Scheinin said.

"The question now is: are we going to see the re-colonisation of the Atlantic?" he said. "This is very important ecologically because of the change of habitat. It emphasises the climate change that we are going through."

So far, the whale seems to be happy enough in the waters off the shores of Israel, he said.

"It is pretty thin, which indicates the trip was quite harsh, but we think it can survive here," he said. "Grey whales are very generalist in what they feed on."

Now experts are mulling the possibility of tracking the whale by satellite -- a costly operation that would need outside funding and expertise, Scheinin said.

"It's quite a big operation to do this. If it stays around here for the next month, it's worth having someone come in and do this professionally," he said.

"It will be interesting to see where it goes and to follow it."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

How spitting cobras shoot for the eyes

Bruce Young from the University of Massachusetts is antagonising a spitting cobra. He approaches, keeping outside of the snake’s strike radius, while moving his head from side to side. The cobra doesn’t like it and erects its hood in warning. Young persists, and the snake retaliates by launching twin streams of venom at him from forward-facing holes in its fangs. The aim is spot-on: right at Young’s eyes. Fortunately, he is wearing a Perspex visor that catches the spray; without it, the venom would start destroying his corneas, giving him minutes to seek medical aid before permanent blindness set in.

It may seem a bit daft to provoke a snake that can poison you from afar, but Young’s antics were all part of an attempt to show just how spitting cobras make their shots. Their venom is a potent defensive weapon, but it’s also completely useless if it lands on the skin or even in the mouth. To work, the cobra must aim for the eyes. Just think about how hard that is. The cobra must hit a moving target that’s up to 1.5 metres away, using a squirt gun attached to their mouth. The fang is fixed with no movable nozzle for fine-tuned aiming. And the venom spray lasts just 50 milliseconds – not long enough to correct the stream after watching its arc.

By taunting cobras from behind his visor, Young discovered their secret. The snake waits for a particularly jerky movement to trigger its attack and synchronise the movements of its heads in the same way. It shakes its head rapidly from side to side to achieve a wide spray of venom. And it even predicts the position of its target 200 milliseconds later and shoots its venom at where its eyes are going to be.

There are several species of Asian and African spitting cobras, and Young had individuals of three – the red, black-necked, and black-and-white spitting cobras. Getting the snakes was straightforward enough; getting them to spit is another matter. It’s very difficult to provoke a cobra to spit at a stationary object – you need a moving target for the best results. That sounds like the sort of job that graduate students normally do, but Young stepped up to it himself. As he wryly writes, “To maximize consistency, the last author served as a target for all trials.”

His visor was fitted with accelerometers that recorded his own head movements, while his colleagues Guido Westhoff and Melissa Boetig filmed the snakes with a high-speed camera. Both films were synchronised with a laser pulse and together, the team recorded data from over 100 spits.

They found that a particular type of head wiggle provoked the snakes into spitting – not necessarily large or long-lasting, but always involving a jerky change of direction. This makes sense for the snake. At the moment when the target’s head changes direction, its movements are probably going to keep in the same direction for a short while. Also, to change direction, the head must briefly slow down before speeding up again, giving the snake more time to predict its future position.

On average, the cobra starts spitting 200 milliseconds after such movements, which is roughly the same as a human’s reaction time between sight and movement. But if it takes that long for the snake to contract its venom-shooting muscles, it’s at a 200 ms disadvantage. How can it possibly gun down a moving target and avoid spitting into empty space?

The answer is simple – even before the first droplets of venom emerge, the cobra is already taking aim. Around 65 ms before, it starts to waggle its head up and down, and from side to side, perfectly tracking the zig-zagging of its target’s face. When it actually starts to spit, it stops this synchronous bobbing and rapidly accelerates its head in the same direction as its target’s. The snake is compensating for its moving bull’s-eye, predicting where it’s going to be 200 ms in the future and ‘catching up’ to it well ahead of time.

Young thinks that the cobra’s calculations would be accurate enough to hit the eyes if it focused its venom jets on a specific point. As it is, the snake increases the odds of hitting its target even further by wiggling its head from side to side while releasing its poisonous payload. The result: a massive chance of a direct hit, and a reeling animal that will think twice about approaching a spitting cobra again.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Animal Odd Couple

Short lives, short size – why are pygmies small?

For decades, anthropologists have debated over why pygmies have evolved to be short. Amid theories about their jungle homes and lack of food, new research suggests that we have been looking at the problem from the wrong angle. The diminutive stature of pygmies is not a direct adaptation to their environment, but the side-effect of an evolutionary push to start having children earlier.

Andrea Migliano at the University of Cambridge suggests that pygmies have opted for a ‘live fast, die short’ strategy. Their short lives gives them very limited time as potential parents, and they have adapted by becoming sexually mature at a young age. That puts a brake on their pubescent growth spurts, leaving them with shorter adult heights.

Pygmies are technically defined as groups of people whose men are, on average, shorter than 155cm (or 5 feet and an inch for the Imperial-minded). Strictly speaking, the word is restricted to several ethnic groups of African hunter-gatherers, like the Aka, Efe and Mbuti. But the world is surprisingly replete with shorter-than-average groups who also bear the colloquial moniker of pygmies, including some from Brazil, Bolivia, South-East Asia and Papua New Guinea.

The earlier explanations for a short stature worked for some of these groups, but they could never account for all of them. Some scientists suggested that smaller people move more easily through dense jungles, but some pygmies live outside forests. Other theorised that they could maintain their body temperature more easily, but many live in cool and dry climes.

One of the more popular theories put forward by Jared Diamond suggested that small people are more resilient to starvation and malnourishment when food becomes scarce. But this can’t be the whole story for Africa groups like the Turkana and Massai manage to be some of the tallest people on Earth despite facing similarly unstable food supplies!

Migliano found more evidence against this theory by comparing the growth patterns of three groups of genuine pygmies – the Filipino Aeta and Agta, and the central African Biaka – with the shortest Americans, whose malnourished childhoods landed them in the bottom 0.01% of the population in terms of adult height.

Together with Lucio Vinicius and Marta Lahr, she found that the true pygmies grew slightly more slowly than the undernourished Americans, their growth spurts ended much earlier, at age 12 rather than 15. Typically, groups who lack free-flowing calories grow slowly over a long time – the pygmies’ pattern matched the first part but not the second. The pygmies’ growth curves disproved the malnutrition idea, but their lifespan pointed Migliano towards a better explanation.

Pygmies around the world are short in life expectancy as well as height, with the average adult dying at 16-24 years of age. Only 30-50% of children survive to the age of 15 and less than a third of women live to see menopause at 37. Taller African groups like the Ache or Turkana have lower adult mortality and twice the average lifespan, and compared to them, the pygmies’ pattern is closer to that of chimps.

Migliano argues that their early deaths are the driving force behind both their small size and their shorter growth spurts. It pays pygmies to divert resources away from growth and towards having children as early as possible, to compensate for their limited years. Indeed, Migliano found that they reach a peak of fertility earlier than taller groups.

In general, people who grow taller and larger tend to be more fertile and have larger and more capable offspring. That’s obviously advantageous but not if adult mortality is so low that you may not get a chance to have children at all. In this perilous situation, natural selection favours those who mature and reproduce early, to the cost of their growth.

Migliano’s theory has one important missing piece that needs to be filled in – why do many pygmies die early? It is here that the other earlier explanations for their short size may come in, including tropical diseases, thick jungle environments, hot climates and poor nutrition. None of these factors alone can account for pygmy evolution around the world, but Migliano speculates that one or more of them could lower the life expectancies of different populations.

If she’s right, it means that small body size could be an example of convergent evolution, where different groups of people in disparate parts of the globe independently evolved similar solutions to the shared problem of short and hazardous lives.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Evolution of Monogamy in Poison Frogs

Genetic tests have revealed the secret sex life of a tiny poison dart frog species that lives in the Peruvian rain forests: remarkably, it turns out that these frogs are monogamous. But the reason this species is monogamous is surprising: it's all about the size of the pools that their tadpoles mature in. This is the best evidence yet that just a single cause can affect evolution of a major life history trait, such as a species' mating system.

The forces that underlie the evolution of biparental care have been the subject of lively debate within the scientific community, and in turn, how different forms of parental care affect the evolution of each species' mating system is also not well understood.

According to one long-standing hypothesis proposed by mammologist Devra Kleiman, monogamy may arise as a life history strategy when biparental care becomes critical to offspring survival. In this situation, both parents may experience higher reproductive success by investing in their mutual offspring instead of seeking extrapair reproductive opportunities [DOI: 10.1086/409721]. Life history studies of a variety of avian and mammalian taxa support this hypothesis.

But which ecological factors drive the evolution of biparental care and monogamy? Is just one ecological factor enough, or is more than one necessary? One way of answering these questions is to compare the life histories and ecologies of closely related species where one species is monogamous and provides biparental care while the other is promiscuous and does not provide biparental care. But which species fulfill these criteria?

Jason L. Brown, now a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University, spent six years studying Peruvian poison frogs while a graduate student at East Carolina University. In those studies, he evaluated key ecological and behavioral differences between Peruvian poison frogs and framed those key differences in the context of differing parental care strategies. Building upon his dissertation work, Dr Brown and his colleagues, Victor Morales, at the Ricardo Palma University's Natural History Museum in Lima, Peru, and his dissertation advisor, Kyle Summers, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at East Carolina University, took a closer look at two closely-related poison frog species: the mimic poison frog, R. imitator, which exhibits biparental care (where both parents care for their tadpoles for a period of months) and the variable poison frog, R. variabilis, which exhibits male parental care (where only the males transport tadpoles to a pool of water and leaves them to fend for themselves).

Like all amphibians, poison frogs are intimately bound to water because that is where they lay their eggs and where their tadpoles mature. But bodies of water are filled with numerous hungry mouths, so the pressures of predation pushed the tiny poison frogs out of the larger ponds and into the considerably smaller (but safer) pools contained in the cup-shaped leaf axils of a variety of plant species that grow in trees. These tree-top plants are not often visited by hungry predators, but their small pools of rainwater, known as phytotelms, lack sufficient nutrients to successfully grow a tadpole (unlike larger ponds of water).

To ensure that their tiny offspring grew up into mature frogs, the mimic poison frogs adopted a new tactic. Merely transporting their tadpoles to individual phytotelms and abandoning them to grow up on their own was no longer enough: the males needed help. Female mimic poison frogs evolved a behavioral strategy known as trophic egg feeding, where they lay unfertilized nutrient-rich eggs into each tadpole's phytotelm for it to eat.

But this strategy requires teamwork: while the female spends her days eating voraciously so her body can manufacture these special trophic eggs, the male visits each tadpole every day or two, for only he knows where they are hidden. Whenever a tadpole nibbles on its father, the male calls to his mate. The female responds to the male's calls by following him to their offspring's phytotelm, jumps into the tiny pool and produces a trophic egg, which the tadpole consumes. The female produces at least one trophic egg for each tadpole every week for a period of months

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Crayfish females lure males with urine

Releasing a steady stream of urine to attract a mate and then fighting off anyone who still dares to approach you doesn’t seem like a great idea for getting sex. But this bizarre strategy is all part of the mating ritual of the signal crayfish. A female’s urine, strange as it sounds, is a powerful aphrodisiac to a male.

Fiona Berry and Thomas Breithaupt studied these courtship chemicals by organising blind speed-dates between male and female crayfish, whose eyes had been covered with tape. They also injected a fluorescent dye into the animals’ bodies, which accumulated in their bladders. Every time they urinated, a plume of green dispersed through the water.

If the duo blocked the female’s nephropores (her urine-producing glands), the males never showed her any interest. If they met, they did so aggressively. But when the duo injected female urine into the water, things took a more lustful turn, and the males quickly seized the females in an amorous grip. Female urine is clearly a turn-on for males.

But the female doesn’t want just any male – she’s after the best, and she makes her suitors prove their mettle by besting her in a test of strength. As he draws near, she responds aggressively, even though it was her who attracted him in the first place. No quarter is given in these fights. The female only stops resisting if the male can flip her over so that he can deposit his sperm on her underside.

Female crayfish shoulder all the burden of raising the next generation, spending six long months rearing their offspring alone. Males, however, only contribute their sperm. Because the females make such a big investment in the next generation, it’s in their interest to choose the best partners.

Being nocturnal, they can’t see how strong a male is and chemical cues aren’t always reliable indicators of quality. The simplest way of discerning the strongest males is to test their strength for herself. By playing hard to get, she makes sure that she gets fertilised by the best mates, who will at least help to produce the fittest possible young even if they never help to raise them.

Urine typically has an aggressive meaning for crayfish. Males release it when they battle each other, and so do females. During courtship, the difference is that males are drawn to female urine and they stop releasing their own. Doing so might be their way of appeasing the violent female, his way of raising a chemical white flag in the hopes of getting a chance to mate.

In some ways, this is a surprising set-up. In species like crayfish, where females do all the work in raising the next generation, males usually have to be the persuasive ones during courtship while females are the choosy sex. But female crayfish have taken on both roles – seductress and selector. By sending out mixed messages with her urine, she can draw a pool of eager mates that she can then test.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

What Lies Beneath

What Lies Beneath


In Search of the Giants of the Sea

By Philip Hoare

Illustrated. 453 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99

“Moby-Dick” is often viewed as a singularly American creation. Part of the beguiling genius of “The Whale,” a rhapsodic meditation on all things cetacean, is that Philip Hoare so suggestively explores the English origins of Herman Melville’s masterpiece while providing his own quirky, often revelatory take on the more familiar aspects of the novel. But “The Whale” is about much more than the literary sources of “Moby-Dick.” Always in the foreground of Hoare’s narrative is the whale itself, a creature that haunts and fascinates him as he travels to old whaling ports in both Britain and America, where he speaks with cetologists, naturalists, museum curators and former whalers on a quest to understand the whale, the cosmos and himself.

At least to the human eye, a sperm whale is a profoundly weird-looking animal, and Hoare makes the weirdness seem somehow familiar. The pale interior of the whale’s mouth “glows like a half-open fridge.” When the whale closes its mouth, the teeth of its lower jaw “fit,” Hoare informs us, “into its toothless upper mandible like pins in an electrical socket.” Hoare is always on the lookout for the revealing detail. When he visits the whaling mu­seum in New Bedford, Mass., he notices that the recently installed skeleton of a whale “incontinently . . . drips oil, like sap from a newly cut conifer.” He also has a finely tuned sense of perspective and pacing. As we read about how the six-man crew of a 19th-century whaleboat pursued its prey, we suddenly find ourselves under­water. “A mile below, the whale might be scooping up squid in the silent depths,” Hoare writes, “unaware of the danger that lurked above, the shapes that sculled over the ceiling of its world.”

Hoare is particularly insightful about Melville’s relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author whose influence turned what might have been, in Hoare’s words, “an exercise in propaganda for the American whaling industry” into “a warning to all mankind of its own evil.” It is a fascinating process to contemplate, how a 31-year-old former teacher and whaleman came to write a book “that saw into the future even as it looked into the past.” For a few brief months, Melville was in that unsustainable zone of miraculous creation, channeling a text that is as close to scripture as an American novelist is likely to write. “Each time I read it,” Hoare insists, “it is as if I am reading it for the first time.”

In one of the more entertaining episodes of “The Whale,” Hoare ventures to Cape Cod to trace Henry David Thoreau’s engagement with that region’s wave-battered coast. In Provincetown, he finds himself in a boat with the redoubtable and magnificently named Stormy Mayo, a Cape Codder who has devoted his life to studying and protecting the 350 to 400 remaining Atlantic right whales. Hoare describes how Mayo — wearing a hockey mask and a helmet equipped with a video camera — tries to untangle right whales from fishing nets. When Hoare finally sees a right whale for the first time, he is overwhelmed not by wonder but by the smell, which he describes as “somewhere between a cow’s fart and a fishy wharf.”

It is near the British whaling port of Hull in East Yorkshire, on the banks of the Humber River, that Hoare’s pilgrimage leads him to the “English Anchor” of “Moby-Dick.” In the great hall of the expansive manor house Burton Constable, Hoare comes face to face with “the only physical relics of Melville’s book”: pieces of the skeleton described by Thomas Beale in “The Natural History of the Sperm Whale.” Melville quoted relentlessly from Beale’s treatise, providing his own book with the factual ballast that kept it from being overwhelmed by its many literary influences, which in addition to Hawthorne included Shakespeare, Thomas Browne and a host of others.

Hoare provides a graphic account of whaling’s “historical crescendo” during the second half of the 20th century, when more than 72,000 whales were killed in a single year. Elsewhere he evokes a possible future in which the rising sea levels associated with global warming will allow the whale to become the planet’s dominant species “with only distant memories of the time when they were persecuted by beings whose greed proved to be their downfall.” As it turns out, whales have already ventured beyond this paltry ­planet. Unlike any other known substance, sperm whale oil works as a lubricant in the extra­ordinarily cold temperatures of outer space. “The Hubble space telescope is wheeling around the earth on spermaceti,” Hoare writes, “seeing six billion years into the past.” But that’s not all. The scientists who fitted out the Voyager probe decided that the song of the humpback was the best way to greet any possible aliens. This means that long after all of us are gone, the call of the whale will be traveling out into the distant reaches of the universe.

Hoare is to “The Whale” what Ishmael is to “Moby-Dick”: the genial, deceptively complex narrator who reveals only those personal details that are essential to his narrative. Since this is a book about deep divers, Hoare starts with an account of his near birth within a submarine. His parents had just begun a tour of a naval sub tied up to the docks in Portsmouth, England, when his very pregnant mother felt her first contraction. “For a moment,” Hoare writes, “it seemed as though I was about to appear below the waterline.” As it turned out, Hoare was born not beneath the waves but at his parents’ home in nearby Southampton, the famous port to which he returns near the conclusion of the book to discover that his mother is approaching the end. After a night on a cot beside her hospital bed, he awakens in the early morning just as she ceases to breathe, “leaving me,” he writes in an evocation of Ishmael’s fate in the epilogue of “Moby-Dick,” “another orphan.”

In the end Hoare plunges into the amniotic waters surrounding the Azores, where he sees his first living sperm whale. As he snorkels beside the huge creature he can feel its sonarlike clicks resonating through his body. “My rib cage had become a sound box,” he writes. “The whale was creating its own picture of me in its head; . . . an outline of an alien in its world.” Coupled with the recognition of his own inherent strangeness is the realization that this is a female sperm whale and that there is “an invisible umbilical between us.” And so “The Whale” finishes where it began, in the midst of a birth at the surface of a deep and mysterious sea.

Koalas catch Chlamydia

by Captain Skellett

Sitting up in their gumtrees, watching the world with little eyes set above the kind of nose you’d expect to find in a craft store. The koala’s fuzzy gray head is adorned with furry white ears, and the end result is a huge bundle of cute that makes you want to squeal.

Of course, being an Australian I know our cute koala isn’t as cuddly as it looks. Okay, it is when you actually get to cuddle one at the zoo. Otherwise they’re just plain vicious. Behind those fuzzy paws are some serious claws. They’re surprisingly fast on the ground, and they grunt in the night like a bush pig in a trap. Freaking terrifying to a twelve year old in a tent, let me tell you.

All the same I like koalas. They be fearsome.

Over a mug o’ rum this week, a friend told me an alarming tale about koalas. She said they catch Chlamydia because they are so promiscuous. It gives them a runny bottom, and makes them infertile.

I haven’t found much evidence that koalas sleep around. But they do have weird special sexual organs. Instead of having one head, a koala penis has two. The female has two internal vagina (vaginas?). The sciencey term for the double dippers is “bifurcated” and lots of marsupials are that way endowed. In fact the echidna penis has four heads!

As for Chlamydia, yes, koalas catch it. There are two strains which infect koalas. C. pneumoniae which humans can also catch, and is one of the leading causes of pneumonia in the world, and C. pecorum which some other animals get and causes urinary tract and respiratory infections. Although 40-70% of koalas test positive for Chlamydia, less than a quarter of them have symptoms at any one time. (Just to be complicated, the C in those names stands for Chlamydophila, a separate but very similar genus to Chlamydia. Same thing, different word says I.)

Chlamydia is a bacteria which acts like a virus. It has the usual cell wall, DNA, RNA, protein concoction that bacteria are so fond of, but unlike most bacteria it can’t grow by itself. To reproduce it has to hijack the machinery of another cell (like a human or koala cell). That’s how viruses roll.

It’s bad news for the koalas, as the cure for Chlamydia is a course of antibiotics taken daily – hard to do in the wild.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

One Strange Fish Tale

By Peter Schmidt

Behold the regal rainbow trout, dappled denizen of deep lake and rushing river, fierce hunter of fish and fly—and prize of pork-barrel politics, invigorator of men, eradicator of native species, payload of numerous bombing missions.

An angler can catch a lot of rainbow trout and yet have no clue what a remarkable force of nature—and mankind—the creatures truly are. Anders Halverson, a research associate at the University of Colorado's Center of the American West, hoists them up for close inspection in a book just released by Yale University Press: An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World.

Few one-that-got-away stories sound nearly as improbable as his account of how our species, Homo sapiens, spread the fish species, Oncorhynchus mykiss, beyond its native range.

Consider that as of the 1870s, the rainbow trout and its sea-run variant, the steelhead, lived only along the Pacific Rim, from California to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. Since then, Halverson says, the fish "have been introduced to every state in the United States and to at least 80 different countries on every continent except Antarctica," an expansion of range that took humans, corn, sheep, and dogs thousands of years to achieve.

Halverson offers statistics that illustrate how much humans are still involved in the spread of rainbow trout: For each of the roughly four million people born in the United States each year, he says, state and federal hatcheries stock about 20 of the fish in public waters. Most of them being mature, they weigh a total of about 25 million pounds.
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Why make such an investment in spreading this one species of fish? It grows rapidly in hatcheries and withstands warmer waters and more-difficult conditions than other trout. Perhaps more important, Halverson says, the stocking of rainbow trout—which fight hard and leap acrobatically when hooked—has "satisfied a powerful human need": the primal urge to seek out and battle prey.

Halverson's book is a microhistory, an examination of America's involvement with a favored fish that sheds light on broader truths regarding our recent relationship with the natural world.

He says he fished for stocked rainbow trout while growing up in Colorado but eventually got bored with the pursuit and thought little of the fish until he became a graduate student in aquatic ecology at Yale University, where he earned his doctorate in 2005. At Yale "I came to realize there is a real paradox to the way so many fisheries are managed these days," he says. "Like most fishermen, I see fishing as a way to escape civilization and industrialization, and a way to sort of make peace with the natural world." Yet most rainbow trout, being either the products of hatcheries or the descendants of hatchery fish, "are in many ways a product of that industrialization."

He decided to write a book examining the artificial spread of the rainbow trout and obtained a National Science Foundation grant to help finance the undertaking. He initially expected the project to be mainly an exercise in muckraking (he had worked as a newspaper reporter before going to graduate school). But "the more people I met and the more people I interviewed," he says, "the more I realized what a complex topic this is." Although he came across case after case in which efforts to spread the trout led to environmental disasters, his book generally does not paint those involved as fools or villains.

When it comes to government policy regarding trout, he says, "there are a lot of issues for which there are no clear answers." He points to the dilemma posed by rainbow trout's ability to mate with the increasingly rare—and unhealthily inbred—cutthroat trout of the American West. Such interbreeding is causing cutthroats to become even rarer as a distinct species, but the purebred cutthroat population is having so much trouble surviving on its own that hybridization might represent the single best hope of passing the fish's genes along to future generations. It is unclear whether the long-term survival of cutthroats requires keeping rainbows at a distance or bringing the two species together.

The oddest specimens in An Entirely Synthetic Fish are the people. They include Livingston Stone, a New Hampshire pastor who abandoned the pulpit to raise brook trout on a fish farm, then ventured to California in the 1870s, initially to set up a federal salmon hatchery in the Sacramento River Valley. He encountered the rainbow trout and ended up propagating that species in a hatchery on the McCloud River, where he lived under threat of attack by outlaws and members of the Wintu tribe. In one report on his activities, he remarked, "With tarantulas, scorpions, rattlesnakes, Indians, panthers and threats of murder our course here is not wholly over a path of roses."

Among others described in Halverson's book is Al Reese, a crop duster and barnstormer who in the late 1940s helped persuade California's Department of Fish and Game to drop rainbow trout into mountain lakes from the air. (He tested the fishes' ability to survive the trip partly by holding live specimens out a car window at 70 miles per hour.) The state agency recruited World War II pilots and purchased surplus military airplanes to dump the fish, generally from about 200 feet. Many of the trout died on impact with the water or ended up stuck in trees, but enough survived to inspire the agency to similarly drop turkeys, partridges, and even beaver (in burlap sacks attached to parachutes). About 50 years later, the agency learned that it had gone overboard with its fish-bombing runs, inadvertently ridding lakes of rare frogs, which the fish had devoured, and filling some lakes with so many trout that their growth was stunted from too much competition for food.

California fish-and-game officials are hardly the only ones who eventually altered trout-stocking policies in response to evidence of money wasted or doing more harm than good.

The book devotes a chapter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision in 1962 to deliberately poison the Green River in Utah and Wyoming to wipe out the native fish and make room for rainbows. At the time, few in the agency questioned the idea of pouring huge amounts of the piscicide rotenone into a body of water. Since 1952 federal and state fisheries managers had used the chemical, which kills anything with gills, to clear the way for rainbow trout and other game fish in a long list of rivers and lakes around the nation, even within national parks.

A few scholars at Colorado State University and the University of Utah spoke out against the Green River plan and subsequently complained of efforts by state and federal agencies to shut them up by threatening to cut off grants to their institutions. Many of those involved in the river poisoning lived to regret it, for it ended up being a disaster for both the environment and public relations.

The project's planners assumed they would be able to keep the keep the river from carrying the rotenone into Dinosaur National Monument park by having workers neutralize the poison upstream from the park with potassium permanganate, but they were wrong. When dead fish turned up in the park, the Fish and Wildlife Service found itself in the cross hairs of the National Park Service. Perhaps even more important, about three weeks after the incident, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, helping spawn an environmental movement that barraged officials in Washington with angry letters about the Green River kill.

The secretary of interior at the time, Stewart Udall, responded by curbing the use of rotenone by federal agencies and calling for the welfare of unique species to be a "dominant consideration" in such projects from then on. All four of the chief so-called trash fish that the Green River poisoning sought to kill—the humpback chub, the bonytail, the razorback sucker, and the Colorado pikeminnow—now have a place on the federal endangered-species list. The federal government has spent more than $100-million trying to save them.

An Entirely Synthetic Fish recounts many other governmental attempts at improving nature that went awry. In the 1960s, for example, researchers discovered that stocking a river with hatchery trout can decimate the wild trout population and actually leave it with fewer trout over all; the hatchery fish aggressively compete with the locals for food, and many end up being eaten themselves because they seem to associate the shadows of predators with those of hatchery workers tossing kibble. Beginning in the late 1980s, the Colorado Division of Wildlife inadvertently unleashed trout epidemics by stocking rivers with rainbows infected with parasite-born whirling disease, which leaves its victims disfigured and prone to swimming in tight circles.

The book also compellingly traces how the nation's attitudes toward fishing have varied over time. In the 17th century, the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony regarded fishing with a hook and line as an exercise in idleness deserving punishment. During and just after the American Revolution, fishing suffered a similar image problem, thanks to its association with the English aristocracy. Beginning in the mid-1800s, however, interest in sport fishing boomed as it gained status as a diversion for the wealthy and came to be viewed as a pursuit that helped keep men virile and in touch with nature. Politicians eager to take credit for bringing hatchery jobs and better fishing to their states happily supported federal efforts to stock waters with game species.

Throughout much of America, one can still encounter the absurd sight of fishermen gathered on riverbanks next to hatchery trucks, hoping to catch naïve rainbow trout minutes after they are stocked. While not exactly shooting fish in a barrel, perhaps no other experience comes as close.

For his part, Halverson is attempting to restore the populations of rarer species of trout by, counterintuitively, encouraging people to fish for them. Taking a cue from the culture of birdwatchers, many of whom will travel long distances to add to their "life list" of species they have seen, he has set up a Web site that encourages anglers to catch and release as many species as they can. His logic is that if enough people roll into small towns and say they are out to hook rare fish species X or Y, the local chambers of commerce will get word, and new constituencies will be created to lobby for the fish's restoration.

Writing An Entirely Synthetic Fish has renewed his own interest in angling, both for rainbows and for other trout, Halverson says. "I actually love fishing again. You pick one of these rainbows up, and it is just a book that says so much about us."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Elephants, guests find sanctuary in Ozarks

By Dena Potter
Sunday, Jan. 10 2010
GREENBRIER, Ark. — As you walk through the field beside the elephants, it's
difficult to tell if that rumble is the sound of their mighty footsteps or your
heart thumping in your chest.

Then just before you sink into the forest, one of the elephants throws her
trunk into the air and trumpets, and you're certain what you're witnessing is
nothing short of magical.

You're not on an African safari. You're in Arkansas, in the foothills of the
Ozark Mountains, at a sanctuary for unwanted elephants. And this may be the
closest you'll ever get to these mammoth creatures.

Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary will celebrate its 20th anniversary
this year. For years, owners Scott and Heidi Riddle have opened its gates for
the Elephant Experience Weekend, where visitors get close to the sanctuary's
eight African and Asian elephants over three days.

The weekends, held about six times a year, help the small nonprofit cover the
cost of caring for and feeding the elephants. But the Riddles say it's more
about the education and conservation of the animals they've spent their whole
lives working with.

"There might be somebody sitting in that room who might have some fantastic,
positive impact on the future of all elephants in the world," said Scott, who
has trained and managed elephants for 44 years.

But on this weekend, it's the elephants that have the impact.

On the first evening, as guests sit around assorted lawn chairs under a big
white tent swapping stories about who they are and where they're from, a loud
gasp brings a sudden halt to the conversation. It's Miss Bets, the sanctuary's
rambunctious 2-year-old African elephant, and her mother, Amy, and they're
headed to their barn for the night. The handlers stop briefly to allow each of
the 11 guests to feed the baby a marshmallow, her favorite treat.

That night, as guests dine in the chow hall, Asian elephants Peggy and Betty
Boop — affectionately known as Booper — munch on hay and twigs under the stars
a couple dozen feet away.

Over the next two days, guests get plenty of hands-on experience with the
elephants, learning along the way what it takes to care for the massive beasts.
Peggy and Booper lie on their sides and let the group bathe them, using brushes
to remove the mud that gets trapped in their bristly hairs.

One of the most important parts of caring for captive elephants is foot care,
so guests pitch in one afternoon to give Peggy a pedicure. One by one, the
Midwestern doctor, the eBay powerseller from Chicago and even the journalist
from Richmond, Va., take turns using a metal rasp to file each toenail to a
perfectly rounded edge.

"For us to stand there and this 8,000-pound animal standing on top of you, just
to be in that presence was just overwhelming," said Chris Martucci of Chicago,
who was there in May with his wife, Deanna.

The sanctuary sits on 330 acres about an hour north of Little Rock, down the
sort of winding country road where it's safe for a turtle to cross during rush
hour. Red metal barns and buildings, including the dormitory and chow hall, dot
the rolling landscape. Horses graze in the distance, and a rooster serves as an
alarm clock.

"It was like a camp, a farm and a sanctuary all in one," said Deanna Martucci.

Most of the buildings were built with grants or donated funds, often with
donated metal or wood. They're not pretty, the Riddles say, but they're

Scott and Heidi Riddle met while working at the Los Angeles Zoo. They married
in 1986 and opened the sanctuary four years later. Elephants were easy to get
then, and zoos didn't always look at them as a long-term responsibility.

The Riddles wanted to open a sanctuary for all elephants, no matter the sex or
species, and especially for those problem elephants that zoos, circuses or
individuals were looking to unload. But they also understood that to ensure the
survival of the endangered species, they must study the animals and educate
others about them.

The sanctuary has long taken monthly blood samples from each of its elephants.
The data are used in research, including a study on herpes, which is the No. 1
killer of African and Asian elephants. The Riddles also have been active in a
study trying to develop a repellent that will keep elephants away from crops in
India and other areas of the world where the human-elephant conflict is killing
off the elephants.

"We've always felt it was important to, when you have these elephants that are
captive, to not only learn as much as you can about them, but then to educate
about them," Heidi said.

The Riddles started with three elephants, and at one point had more than a
dozen elephants. Miss Bets is the third African elephant born at the sanctuary,
all to first-time mothers. Asian elephant Hank is the nation's No. 1 semen

Scott still tears up when he talks about the death of Mary, a pachyderm with a
penchant for painting.

Mary died while giving birth. She is one of three elephants buried on a
picturesque portion of the sanctuary. During the weekend, guests take a hay
ride around the sprawling property, stopping by a stream to gather rocks to
place on the memorials.

Gabrielle Durrell of San Diego said her weekend at the sanctuary was "the
actualization of a dream."

"People really should educate themselves on the plight of the elephant and come
out here and spend a few days doing something that they never would have
thought about doing," she said.
Besides the weekends, the sanctuary opens to the public for a few hours the
first Saturday of every month. There's enough interest that it could be open
all the time, but Heidi said they are more concerned with caring for the

"It's an opportunity for people to kind of understand better what it takes to
manage elephants," Heidi said. "It's not as black and white as it's often
portrayed to be. Elephants are many shades of gray."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Old McDonald Had a Parrot

Resurrecting The Extinct

Could extinct species make a comeback and endangered ones be saved through DNA research? Lesley Stahl reports, this Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Shagged by a rare parrot

Thanks to Kristin Samet