Friday, December 23, 2011

Holy frijole.. H5N1

We all remember the H1N1 virus from a few years ago right?  Well there's a new virus in town, H5N1, that top virologists have been studying.  H5N1 is a strain of influenza that's deadly in birds.

H5N1 has been coaxed by researcher Ron Fouchier from Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and his team to leap between species, from birds to ferrets.  This research was completed in state of the art facilitates with rigorous bio safety controls --people in anti-contaminate space suits etc.  That's good to know.. but while the risk of being infected in this controlled setting is less than 1%, it is not zero.. 

This research having been completed is controversial, scientists mutated strains of a deadly influenza that are transmissible between mammals-- we're mammals.  The research specifically demonstrated that with the induced mutations H5N1 was not only transmissible between mammals in close contact, but was also an airborne infectious agent.  That's f*cking scary. If one ferret sneezes while the hatch is open, and one researcher becomes infected..
These scientists did this research to test if the H5N1 virus had the potential to acquire random genetic changes that could possibly make it transmissible to humans.  Now we are armed with the knowledge that this deadly flu very well has the potential to jump species and potentially infect humans.  

What has been ignored, or at least under-reported, is that there are 600 documented cases of H5N1 infection in humans with a 60% mortality rate.  

When construction began on a skate park near my house a few years ago a mass grave of nearly 100 individuals was discovered.  They all died during the bird flu epidemic of 1918, which had a 2.5% mortality rate... 

I think this is scary.  Check out the article below for more info and do some more googling of your own if you're interested. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pigeons Are Brilliant in Math - Discovery News

Pigeons may be ubiquitous, but they're also brainy, according to a new study that found these birds are on par with primates when it comes to numerical competence.

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, discovered that pigeons can discriminate against different amounts of number-like objects, order pairs, and learn abstract mathematical rules. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have exhibited equivalent skills.

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Could pigeons then be the Einsteins of the bird world?

"It would be fair to say that, even among birds, pigeons are not thought to be the sharpest crayon in the box," lead author Damian Scarf told Discovery News. "I think that this ability may be widespread among birds. There is already clear evidence that it is widespread among primates."

Scarf, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago, and colleagues Harlene Hayne and Michael Colombo began the study by first teaching pigeons how to order the numbers 1, 2 and 3.

To do this, they presented the pigeons with three images containing one, two, or three objects. All three images appeared at once on a touch screen and the pigeons pecked the screen to make a response. If they correctly accomplished the task -- pecking the images in ascending order -- they received a wheat snack.

"We took steps to ensure things like volume could not control responding in training and testing," he said. "For example, during training and testing, the higher numerosity did not always have the largest surface area/volume and thus the pigeons could not respond based on this stimulus dimension."

The images also came in different colors and shapes, so the pigeons weren't somehow linking those qualities to quantity.

Next, the researchers upped the ante, to see whether or not pigeons had just learned to order 1, 2, and 3, or if they'd learned a more abstract rule. Scarf and his team presented the pigeons with pairs of images containing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 objects. The pigeons again had to pair the items in ascending order. For example, if a pigeon saw 8 and 5, it had to peck the objects representing 5 first.

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"Remarkably, the pigeons were able to respond to these novel pairs correctly," Scarf said. "In addition, their performance was indistinguishable from that of two rhesus monkeys that had been previously trained on this task."

For a while, scientists have suspected that birds were math whizzes. Prior studies, however, usually focused on very socialized individuals like Alex, an African grey parrot that belonged to Irene Pepperberg, an adjunct professor of psychology at Brandeis University and a lecturer at Harvard.

Alex, who died suddenly in 2007, could count and talk and had the intelligence of a 5-year-old human and the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old, according to Pepperberg.

Parrots are often just given credit for mimicking humans when they talk, but Pepperberg told Discovery News that Alex created new word labels for objects by combining words he already knew.

For example, he called a juicy red apple that appears to have brought to mind bananas and cherries a "banerry."

In terms of math, one of Alex's greatest feats was that he understood a numerical concept akin to zero, which is an abstract notion that people don't typically understand until age three or four.

Now scientists are facing a parrot/pigeon/primate puzzle. Why is it that birds and primates seem to share math skills?

One explanation could be that the last common ancestor of these two groups possessed amazing numerical competence, but that would mean many other animals have it too, and studies haven't found clear evidence for such abilities yet.

Another possibility is that math skills somehow evolved independently in birds and primates.

"At this point in time, I have no inkling as to which hypothesis is correct," Scarf said. "To answer this question, many distantly related animals would have to be tested."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Camera Trap Images Tell Anti-Poaching Success Story - Discovery News

1. IMAG0028 (small)

Photo: A tigress drinks with her cubs from a watering hole inside Thailand's Western Forest Complex; Credit for all images: DNP-Government of Thailand/WCS Thailand Program

Camera trap photo stills and video footage suggest that anti-poaching efforts in the forests of Thailand are paying off, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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The cameras, set up at several locations across Thailand's Western Forest Complex over the last year, have captured tigers, Asian elephants, gaurs, sun bears, and many other species in off guard moments. Video footage shows a tigress and her cubs feeding on an animal carcass, leopards marking their territory with scent, wild pigs nursing their young, and even Asian elephants mating.

"The video represents a huge payoff for the government of Thailand, which has invested considerable resources in protecting wildlife and preventing illegal hunters from plundering the country's natural heritage," Joe Walston, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Asia Program, was quoted as saying in a WCS press release.  "We thank the government of Thailand for collaborating with WCS and others to put in place best practices in law enforcement and monitoring tigers and prey in Western Forest Complex."

DISCOVERY NEWS: Camera Traps Catch Animals in the Act

The evidence indicates tiger and prey populations have stabilized in this Thai forest region, which is larger than the state of Connecticut and consists of 17 contiguous protected areas. Recent estimates have found that the area is home to as many as 175 tigers. It also contains one of the largest and most important elephant populations in Southeast Asia, according to the WCS.

Thailand is really emerging as a conservation leader. Enforcement staff from China, Nepal, India, Myanmar, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Indonesia all go to Thailand for training, so hopefully the successes at the Western Forest Complex can inspire ecosystem victories in other Asian countries.

Here are more stills from the camera trap video footage:

2. Wildlfe CameraTrap02 (small)
Photo: A Malayan tapir pauses as it trips the infra-red beam of a camera trap in Thailand

3. Wildlfe CameraTrap01(small)
Photo: An Asian elephant calf peeks out from the middle of a herd of adults.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

SEX and proliferation

Sex is a very intriguing subject. Sex has become an advantageous means of procreation; combining two genomes so that the offspring has the best possible combination of alleles that will be beneficial for their survival and reproduction. Darwin introduced descent with modification, and modern science has revealed DNA to be the physical means of heredity. Armed with this knowledge, one might suspect sex to be the shiznit of strategies, and I believe it is one of the best certainly. But species have existed and remain in existence today who do not participate in this activity.. how is that possible?  

A-sexual species produce genetically identical copies of themselves, clones, and if they have all the alleles in their DNA that they need to perform physical processes they're set. Archaea bacteria are a great example, the little guys survive in 150 degree + hot springs and chug along doing what there doing like they have for millions of years.  

Hermaphrodites have the ability to produce both types of gametes needed for fertilization, sperm and eggs, fish are often hermaphroditic. They are born as males and develop testes, store the sperm, and if the environment is right for reproduction they will devote their energy to forming ovaries and eggs, which they then self fertilize.  

So these strategies, each fascinating and unique, have been developed to propagate ones genes in the big scheme of evolution. I love evolution, sex is pretty interesting, and this article below is awesome. It discusses each of the means of procreation in the context of Darwin's theories combined with advances in modern science, check it out!

Clones, hermaphrodites and pregnancies: nature's oddities offer evolutionary lessons on reproduction

J.C. Avise. Article first published online: 11 OCT 2011. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00869.x. 2011 The Author. Journal of Zoology. 2011 The Zoological Society of London

I love the term ‘natural history’ because it encapsulates the sentiment that nature's operations have evolutionary etiologies. Charles Darwin was a natural historian par excellence and his elucidation of natural selection, artificial selection, and sexual selection fundamentally changed how scientists interpret the origins of biological features previously ascribed to sentient craftsmanship by supernatural agents. Darwin's insights on evolutionary forces grew from his exceptional knowledge of natural history, yet two key topics steeped in natural history – sex and reproductive genetics – remained poorly understood (and probably even shunned) in Darwin's Victorian era. That situation changed dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century with societal awakenings about sexuality that also happened to coincide with the introduction of molecular parentage analyses that unveiled a plethora of formerly hidden ‘sexcapades’ throughout the biological world. Here I summarize some of the evolutionary revelations that have emerged from selection theory as applied to genetic and phylogenetic information on clonality, hermaphroditism, and pregnancy, three procreative phenomena that are relatively rare in vertebrate animals and thus offer alternative evolutionary perspectives on standard reproductive modes. Collectively, these three peculiarities of nature illustrate how the abnormal in biology can enlighten evolutionary thought about the norm.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Florida Reef Restoration Successful - Discovery News

Reef restore
Nine years after a boat mangled a coral reef near Key West, Florida, the reef is back and thriving thanks to efforts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA).

The 35-foot long boat Lagniappe II plowed into a reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in August 2002. The boat's owner paid $56,671.27 in a negotiated settlement to partially cover the costs he had incurred for the American public. The money partly covered the restoration of the 376 square-feet of living coral he damaged.

Coral monitorNOAA went to work reattaching 473 corals, then monitored the reef's progress as it regained its health. NOAA researchers used photos and a specialized computer program to study the numbers and types of coral in the damaged area.

By 2009, the reattached coral looked just like a nearby area used as a reference. Another year later, and the damaged reef had more coral that the reference area.

"The monitoring allowed us to document changes to the restored coral and measure the success of this restoration," said Hatsue Bailey, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary restoration biologist in a press release.

"With continued use of these methods, as well as additional monitoring, we learn more about habitat changes at this location and improve upon existing restoration strategies," said Bailey.

Improving restoration techniques may help NOAA deal with the hundreds of vessel groundings that occur every year in the Florida Keys.

The results of the restoration "Lagniappe II Coral Reef Restoration Monitoring Report, Monitoring Events 2002 to 2010, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Monroe County, Florida," are publicly available.


Following a 2002 boat grounding near Key West, restoration biologists assessed the damage and reattached broken corals. (NOAA)

Coral monitoring in 2010 showed that restored corals were thriving eight years after restoration. (NOAA)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Russian Icebreaker On Race to Rescue Whales - Discovery News

Save the beluga!!!!

The Arctic can be an unforgiving realm, and even its most adept inhabitants at times struggle with the potentially fatal obstacles it places in front of them.

The beluga is a case in point. Like other toothed whales, it uses echolocation, or sonar, to help find its way around; the echolocation of a beluga, however, seems to be particularly finely tuned and adept at finding even the narrowest of cracks and leads in the ice that forms on the sea surface.
Sometimes, however, even that ability is outmatched by the challenges of an Arctic winter. On occasion, ice cover may be so extensive that all the belugas in the area are forced to use the nearest available patch of open water, known as a polynya; as a result, that patch of water can seem positively inundated with bobbing white heads and the exhalation of whale breath. In such cases, the best scenario for the belugas is that other leads open up and they can find their way to food and safety; the worst scenario is that even this oasis either freezes over or becomes a magnet for polar bears, which have been known to take advantage of such circumstances to engage in a kind of feeding frenzy, reaching in and hauling trapped belugas on to the ice.

It is uncertain how often this may happen, but given the extent and hostility of the Arctic, it can be assumed to be not infrequent; however, humans are rarely around to see it happen. There are some records: In Disko Bay, Greenland, at least 1,000 belugas were trapped in 1915, and up to 3,000 in 1955. In 1984, some 3,000 belugas were trapped in Senyavina Strait, off the Bering Sea in late December. A Russian icebreaker, the Moskva, was able to clear a channel through 12-foot thick ice to free the whales in late February. Roughly 2,000 whales escaped, and slightly more than 500 were taken by Native hunters.

In 2006, approximately 250 belugas were similarly threatened by encircling ice near Tuktoyaktuk in Canada's Northwest Territories; many found a way to freedom, but when it became clear that the remaining 50 or so almost certainly would not, local Inuvialuit killed them for food.
Right now, another 100 or so belugas are trapped in far eastern Russia, in the Sinyavinsky Strait off the Bering Sea near the village of Yanrakynnot. According to CNN: "Fishermen reported that the whales were concentrated in two relatively small ice holes, where, for now, they can breathe freely. But the belugas' chance of swimming back to water is slim due to the vast fields of ice over the strait. The whales have little food, and the ice flow is increasing ... They are at risk of rapid exhaustion and, ultimately, death by starvation or suffocation."

The government of the Chukotka Autonomous Region has asked Moscow to send an icebreaker to the region, to cut a path through which the belugas can swim to liberty. But the nearest icebreaker, the Rubin, is two days' steaming away, having just rescued the crew of a Korean cargo ship that ran aground off Chukotka.

Will Russian authorities be able to save the whales? Or will the Arctic have the final say? For the belugas, time is running out.

Photograph of belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in open water in Hudson Bay, Canada, by Ansgar Walk, via Wikimedia Commons.
Beluga whale adults in a breathing hole amidst the pack ice during Spring migration, Chukchi Sea, off shore from the Arctic coastal village of Barrow, Alaska, in 2009. (Steven Kazlowski, Corbis)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Buy a Real Tree For a Green Christmas - Discovery News

Real trees are the Earth and economy-friendly buy, compared to re-used artificials, say forestry officials. The benefits start on the farm.

"First of all, any conifer makes great cover in the winter, which is what ground birds like quail are looking for," Jill Sidebottom, Forestry Specialist at North Carolina State University, told Discovery News.

"Secondly, it's the ground covers that provide the seed, flowers, and habitat for insects that bring in the wildlife."

"The young trees are great because it provides an early successional forest -- habitat along the edges of woods. Talk to any wildlife person and they will tell you that this is what they try to maintain for wildlife, and that's exactly what a Christmas tree farm is," said Sidebottom.

Tree farms use relatively small amounts of agricultural chemicals compared to other crops. Many farmers use herbicides at low concentrations to suppress grass, but allow cover-crops like nitrogen-fixing clover to survive. One study Sidebottom performed found that stream quality near Christmas tree farms was largely unaffected.

Even Christmas tree stumps continue to be giving trees.

"I've seen many flickers and woodpeckers feeding on insects in old decaying cut stumps," said Sidebottom.

The roots left in the ground lock away carbon the tree inhaled and used to build its tissues. The carbon sequestered by the roots helps to ease the carbon footprint of transporting trees.

Sidebottom recommends against buying live trees to subsequently plant.

"I don't like live trees because you are digging up dirt and carting it around. Talk about fossil fuel use! You are carting away the soil from the field. And so few of these trees actually live," she said.

Cut trees can be used after drying out. The needles make for mulch. A tree sunk in a pond creates fish habitat. The non-profit Earth911 can help you find a tree recycler.

Fake trees are usually made out of PVC, other plastics and metals. Those materials don't break down readily in a landfill, and release harmful chemicals during manufacture, Rick Dungey, public relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), told Discovery News.

Fake trees have a larger lifetime carbon footprint.

"You'd have to look at energy used by the factory and the carbon released in extraction of oil. The metal in the branches also has to be processed. Then they are shipped across the Pacific and used for a short period of time compared to Earth years," said Dungey.

Dungey acknowledges fake trees can be used for years, but notes that eventually every tree ends up in a dump.

"The Earth's gonna be here a lot longer than the 20 years you have that tree," he said.

Christmas trees also pump green into the American farm economy.

"A real tree is grown by an American farm family," said Dungey.

Eighty percent of fake trees are produced in China, according to the NCTA.

"You can have a beautiful fully biodegradable plant grown on a farm versus one produced in a factory overseas," said Dungey.

America's nearly 15,000 Christmas tree farms employ over 100,000 workers, according to the NCTA.

Feeling rather small..

..and like I got sh*t out the other end of a college course. I did not get the grade I desired in a class and I understand that it was my fault. But man, the terrible sinking feeling.

I feel like this guy, Tornatellides boeningi. They are consumed by white eye birds in Japan, but they survive digestion. Then they get pooped out all over Japan and continue to enjoy their snail days peacefully. Passage through the gut may actually be beneficial to the snail, so I'm going to roll with this idea right now.. I have been passed through an unfamiliar, acidic tract but it was an intriguing journey.

I know I have taken away and incredible amount of knowledge from said course and the poor grade is just that, something to be taken in stride. Thanks Tornatellides boeningi, I'm glad we both came out the other end for the better

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Beluga Christmas Boogy

Beluga whales are interesting and mysterious to me, but when I found a video of one dancing while being serenaded by a mariachi band.. I had to do some googling.

I've seen belugas in documentaries, but I've never really thought about them before. They inhabit Arctic and sub-Arctic seas near the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia, and primarily eat fish, squid, octopus and crustaceans. Yeah, cool, so whats so interesting?

Beluga whales are an incredibly friendly and social bunch! Also known as a "sea canary" they squeak, chirp, whistle and click to communicate with each other. They congregate in groups of two to twenty five, but pods of belugas aggregate in estuaries and can reach up to 10,000. Mother and calf form very close life long bonds, and often will remain in the same pod and migrate to estuaries together. Humans have interacted with belugas since ye old whaling days, taking advantage of their sweet mild manner to capture them and of coarse, hunt them.

This strangely adorable whale is a very unique species with only one other living relative in the same family, the narwhal. I want this train of thought let loose because.. well frankly theres a lot of polar pears in santa hats this season and I'm a little sick of it. Save the polar bears, yes. Now expand your mind and think about saving the beluga while watching the beluga boogy below.

During the winter months pods of belugas stay along the edge of the ice pack, or live under the Arctic ice by finding breathing holes called polynyas. They must surface to breathe, so they will rotate and share a single small opening in the ice until they continue their migration. They are well equipped with echo-location capabilities that may be how they mysteriously navigate from polynyna to air pocket, and survive under the Arctic ice.

Around the edge of the ice pack and in polynyas belugas are incredibly vulnerable to predation by killer whales, polar bears, and humans. Polar bears will sit and wait at a polynya and maul each beluga who surfaces to breathe until they make a catch, awesome for the polar bear not the beluga. Well, as the sea ice melts more and more each year polar bears can't use this hunting strategy (wooo go beluga). But what that leaves the beluga population subject to is killer whales...

I'd rather take my chances hiding stealthily under the ice and hoping to not get eaten by a few polar bears than be a big white whale in a pod of twenty, in the big blue ocean, with transient orca whales invading my neck of the woods.

Then, they spend their summer months in river estuaries absorbing human contaminates, and giving birth to their young.

This is a beautiful unique creature that is largely overlooked when thinking about the ecological effects of the receding ice pack and human pollution. This sociable, fun, gentle, intelligent, warm blooded animal captured my heart dancing with the mariachi band, I hope you can fall in love with a beluga too.

Beluga whales are "near threatened" by the IUCN redlist, and polar bears are one step up being "vulnerable".

Save the polar bear! Save the beluga!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Case of the Panda Ant

A panda ant? I just had to find out more about this insect.

Surprisingly this charismatic "ant" was difficult to find, and involved translating a lot of spanish text. Alas I discovered this "ant" is actually a wingless wasp from Chile. The specimens collected and cataloged in the Virtual Biodiversity Insectarium were hermaphrodites about 8mm in length from a near coastal region in central Chile.

Pretty cute for a wasp.. but its interesting how similar it looks to this Thistledown Velvet Ant, Dasymutilla gloriosa found in Mexico, California, Texas, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona.