Saturday, November 17, 2012
A teensy skeleton with a squashed alien-like head may have earthly origins, but the remains, found in the Atacama Desert a decade ago, do make for quite a medical mystery.
Apparently when the mummified specimen was discovered, some had suggested the possibility it was an alien that had somehow landed on Earth, though the researchers involved never suggested this otherworldly origin.
Now, DNA and other tests suggest the individual was a human and was 6 to 8 years of age when he or she died. Even so, the remains were just 6 inches (15 centimeters) long. "While the jury is out regarding the mutations that cause the deformity, and there is a real discrepancy in how we account for the apparent age of the bones … every nucleotide I've been able to look at is human," researcher Garry Nolan, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford School of Medicine, told LiveScience. "I've only scratched the surface in the analysis. But there is nothing that jumps out so far as to scream 'nonhuman.'"
Nolan and his colleagues analyzed the specimen in the fall of 2012 with high-resolution photography, X-rays and computed tomography scans, as well as DNA sequencing. The researchers wanted to find out whether some rare disorder could explain the anomalous skeleton — for instance it had just 10 ribs as opposed to 12 in a healthy human — the age the organism died, as its size suggested a pre-term fetus, stillborn or a deformed child, and whether it was human or perhaps a South American nonhuman primate.
The remains also showed skull deformities and mild underdevelopment of the mid-face and jaw, the researchers found. The skull also showed signs of turricephaly, or high-head syndrome, a birth defect in which the top of the skull is cone-shaped.
The genome sequencing suggested the creature was human, though 9 percent of the genes didn't match up with the reference human genome; the mismatches may be due to various factors, including degradation, artifacts from lab preparation of the specimen or insufficient data.
The team also looked at mitochondrial DNA, or the DNA inside the cells' energy-making structures that gets passed down from mothers to offspring. The so-called allele frequency of the mitochondrial DNA suggested the individual came from the Atacama, particularly from the B2 haplotype group. A haplotype is a long segment of ancestral DNA that stays the same over several generations and can pinpoint a group who share a common ancestor way back in time. In this case the B2 haplotype is found on the west coast of South America.
The data from the mitochondrial DNA alleles point toward "the mother being an indigenous woman from the Chilean area of South America," Nolan wrote in an email.
The jury is still out on the mutations that caused the deformities, and the researchers aren't certain how old the bones are, though they estimate the individual died at least a few decades ago. In addition, they didn't find any of the mutations commonly associated with primordial dwarfism or other forms of dwarfism. If there is a genetic basis for the deformities, it is "not apparent at this level of resolution and at this stage of the analysis," Nolan wrote in a summary of his work.
In addition, even if they found those mutations, they may not explain the anomalies seen in the skeleton. "There is no known form of dwarfism that accounts for all of the anomalies seen in this specimen," Dr. Ralph Lachman, professor emeritus, UCLA School of Medicine, and clinical professor at Stanford University, wrote in a report to Nolan.
This wouldn't be the first time alien-looking remains have been brought to the attention of science. The alien-like skulls of children were discovered in a 1,000-year-old cemetery in Mexico. Researchers who examined the skulls said they had been deliberately warped and illustrated a practice of skull deformation that was common at the time in Central America.
"It's an interesting medical mystery of an unfortunate human with a series of birth defects that currently the genetics of which are not obvious," Nolan wrote of the Atacama skeleton.
The research was featured in film "Sirius," a crowd-funded documentary.
Friday, November 16, 2012
Photo courtesy: Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
Nearly 40 years ago, I worked with a very sensible, down-to-earth man who always maintained there was money in garbage. He said it didn`t matter what part of the garbage industry you were in, there was money there if you just cared to look. I have found many, many times over the next four decades that my co-worker was right. Garbage is a vastly under-rated commodity. So...here`s to Oslo and garbage.
Oslo, the capital of Norway, has a strange garbage problem. Too much? No, not enough. At first it might seem like any garbage is too much garbage, but Oslo (like many other cities in Scandinavia and Northern Europe) has built cogeneration plants that produce heat and electricity from garbage -- enough to heat about half of the city. But the locals don't produce enough garbage, partly because of their high recycling rate, so they have to import millions of tonnes of it from places like England and Sweden. They're even considering importing American garbage.
Photo courtesy: Flickr/CC BY 2.0
The regional garbage shortage seems like it's about to get worse too:
Yet the fastidious population of Northern Europe produces only about 150 million tons of waste a year, he said, far too little to supply incinerating plants that can handle more than 700 million tons. “And the Swedes continue to build” more plants, he said, a look of exasperation on his face, “as do Austria and Germany.”The question is, will this create incentives to produce more garbage, or at least not reduce the amount produced as fast as it would be otherwise? What are the environmental issues with these incinerators? If done well with state-of-the-art equipment, incineration can be better than landfilling because it breaks down many toxins, but there can also be downsides. Norway does a good job of separating what can be recycled and what can be composted from the rest, but if they import garbage from other countries that don't do as good a job, are they burning resources that could be more useful in other ways? Can these cogeneration plants easily switch to more sustainable sources of fuel (waste biomass? but where to find enough?)?
Stockholm, to the east, has become such a competitor that it has even managed to persuade some Norwegian municipalities to deliver their waste there. By ship and by truck, countless tons of garbage make their way from regions that have an excess to others that have the capacity to burn it and produce energy.
“There’s a European waste market — it’s a commodity,” said Hege Rooth Olbergsveen, the senior adviser to Oslo’s waste recovery program. “It’s a growing market.” (Source: The New York Times)
Thursday, November 15, 2012
African rhino. Photo courtesy: flowcomm/CC BY 2.0
No one can say for certain when African rhinos first began to inhabit the forests and plains of Mozambique -- but we do know when their reign there ended. Conservationists say that the nation's remaining 15 rhinos were found dead last month, butchered by poachers and robbed of their horns.
The endangered animals were discovered on the grounds of Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a wildlife reserve along Mozambique's southern border where rhinos numbered in the hundreds just a decade ago. Authorities believe that park rangers, charged with protecting the rare rhinos, aided poachers in their demise.
According to The Telegraph, 30 rangers have been arrested and are due in court later this month.
To make matters worse, rhinos in neighboring South Africa appear headed towards an equally grim fate. So far this year, 180 of the endangered species have been killed by poachers -- leaving just 249 rhinos remaining.
For most of history, humans were wise to respect the powerful animals, but in recent decades poachers have cast aside reverence for greed, driven by the illicit trade in rhino horns. The demand for horns largely emanates from the Asian Black Market, where they're valued higher than gold for their supposed aphrodisiac properties.
Although a number of international conservation organization are working to slow the rhino slaughter, this sad milestone will likely not be the last.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Pig manure foaming up through vent on outside of barn. Photo courtesy: Iowa Pork Producers Association.
I'm no expert on hog farming; but, I am an expert about the things I feel are safe; and, things I feel are not safe. This blog deals with an issue I think everyone who eats meat should be aware of. It is one of those things that for some reason - paranoia probably - convinces me (yet, again) that the food industry goes out of its way to hide the issues from the public.
Ever heard of exploding pig poop? Not many people have; but, it is an issue in approx. 25% of factory-farmed piggeries. It appears to me that if something that is just supposed to lay around and smell bad is suddenly starting to percolate, foam and become explosive there may be a bit of a problem here. At the very least, I think that all pork eaters should rethink their eating habits.
Tom Philpott at Mother Jones reports on this disgusting phenomenon:
As manure breaks down, it emits toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide and flammable ones like methane, and trapping these noxious fumes under a layer of foam can lead to sudden, disastrous releases and even explosions. According to a 2012 report from the University of Minnesota, by September 2011, the foam had "caused about a half-dozen explosions in the upper Midwest…one explosion destroyed a barn on a farm in northern Iowa, killing 1,500 pigs and severely burning the worker involved."Last year, following the the explosion that killed 1,500 hogs, Sami Grover wrote "When pigs start exploding, it is time to rethink our food system... 2,000 pigs in one building - is it any wonder that something was going to give?"
And the foam grows to a thickness of up to four feet — check out these images, from a University of Minnesota document published by the Iowa Pork Producers, showing a vile-looking substance seeping up from between the slats that form the floor of a hog barn. Those slats are designed to allow hog waste to drop down into the below-ground pits; it is alarming to see it bubbling back up in the form of a substance the consistency of beaten egg whites.
And here's the catch: Scientists can't explain the phenomenon.
One of the present theories that seems viable as the cause of this phenomena is the practice of feeding hogs distillers grains, the mush leftover from the corn ethanol process. Distillers grains entered hog rations in a major way around the same time that the foam started emerging; and, manure from hogs fed distillers grains contains heightened levels of undigested fiber and volatile fatty acids — both of which are emerging as preconditions of foam formation. However, it seems unlikely that distillers grains is the sole cause. Research has shown that on some operations the foam will emerge in some buildings; but, not others even though all the hogs receive the same feed mix.
But if the causes of manure foam remain a mystery, one solution seems to be emerging. A solution that scares me to death, personally. The solution is apparently to dump a bit of monensin (an antibiotic widely used to make cows grow faster)directly into the foam-ridden pit. Remember the problems with growth hormones being used in food animals - early menopause for girls, early puberty for boys, unusual growth, unusually early breast development in young girls, etc.? At rather low levels (25 pounds of the stuff per 500,000 gallon pit) the stuff effectively breaks up the foam, likely by altering the mix of microbes present. No other treatment has been shown to work consistently.
Thankfully, monensin isn't used in human medicine. Still, it's striking to consider that the meat industry's ravenous appetite for antibiotics has now extended to having to treat hog shit with them.
Read the rest of Philpott's post at Mother Jones for some theories on what is causing the foam and a possible solution.
BTW - am I just a simple-minded fool or does no one else think distillers grains -> fermentation process -> pigs eat daily -> some of them good bacterias that causes fermentation is expelled in the piggy poop ->fermentation process starts anew in the comforting warmth of an overcroweded pig barn?
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Photo courtesy: CC BY 2.0 Tambako the Jaguar
As if ripped from the pages of some poorly written anteater-themed soap opera, the mystery surrounding a recent birth at a conservation facility in Connecticut is leading some to summon the phrase 'immaculate conception'.
(Dun, dun, duuun.)
However, my die-hard reader will remember that back in 2008, I did a blog about Tidbit the shark who passed on with a fully-developed pup in her womb. The staff at the aquarium who did the autopsy were amazed because Tidbit had not been exposed to a male shark - this was a virgin birth.
Officials at the LEO Zoological Conservation Center in Greenwich say that a giant anteater under their care, with the totally made-up sounding name Armani, was somehow able to bear an offspring despite living without a male companion for nearly a year. Shades of Tidbit.
According to her keepers, Armani had been living with a male up until August of last year, when he was moved out to protect their first-born. Yet somehow, eight months later she had yet another -- and gestation for these animals lasts six months! Gasp!
Armani has some explaining to do. But she is, of course, an anteater, and they're notoriously tight-lipped.
With an absence of any solid explaination, the speculation has begun. Officials considered that Armani may have delayed the development of a previously-fertilized egg, but that has been ruled as unlikely for the species. There are species who reproduce through delayed egg implantation. The female has the ability to retain fertilized eggs until conditions are ideal for reproduction.
Zoologist Stacey Belhumeur has another theory: covert coupling. By all accounts, Armani had no access to her former companion after they were separated, but forbidden lovers tend to find a way regardless -- particularly among the young and the restless.
"My guess is they thought they had him separated," Belhumeur tells the Science Times. "We've seen incredible feats of breeding success. We've had animals breed through fences."
And sure enough, the conservation center admits that Armani and her former (or present) mate do indeed share a fence. Not the most ideal bedding ground, to be sure, but it'll do in a pinch.
Still, it's reassuring to know that both baby and mama are both healthy and well, despite the dubious circumstances that led to the birth.
It's riveting drama, refreshingly free of the cheesy music and awkward product placement that tend to spoil the suspended disbelief on daytime television. Unless, perhaps, you're an ant, in which case this all must be quite terrifying.
Monday, November 12, 2012
Photo courtesy: Public domain/Public Domain
Summer ice is melting at a faster rate in the Antarctic peninsula than at any time in the last 1,000 years, new research has shown.
The evidence comes from a 364-metre ice core containing a record of freezing and melting over the previous millennium.
Layers of ice in the core, drilled from James Ross Island near the northern tip of the peninsula, indicate periods when summer snow on the ice cap thawed and then refroze.
By measuring the thickness of these layers, scientists were able to match the history of melting with changes in temperature.
Lead researcher Dr Nerilie Abram, from the Australian National University and British Antarctic Survey (BAS), said: "We found that the coolest conditions on the Antarctic peninsula and the lowest amount of summer melt occurred around 600 years ago.
"At that time temperatures were around 1.6C lower than those recorded in the late 20th century and the amount of annual snowfall that melted and refroze was about 0.5%.
"Today, we see almost 10 times as much (5%) of the annual snowfall melting each year.
"Summer melting at the ice core site today is now at a level that is higher than at any other time over the last 1,000 years. And while temperatures at this site increased gradually in phases over many hundreds of years, most of the intensification of melting has happened since the mid-20th century."
Levels of ice melt on the Antarctic peninsula were especially sensitive to rising temperature during the last century, he said.
"What that means is that the Antarctic peninsula has warmed to a level where even small increases in temperature can now lead to a big increase in summer melt," Abram added.
Dr Robert Mulvaney, from the British Antarctic Survey, who led the ice core drilling expedition in 2008 and co-authored a paper on the findings published on Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.
He said: "Having a record of previous melt intensity for the Peninsula is particularly important because of the glacier retreat and ice shelf loss we are now seeing in the area.
"Summer ice melt is a key process that is thought to have weakened ice shelves along the Antarctic peninsula leading to a succession of dramatic collapses, as well as speeding up glacier ice loss across the region over the last 50 years."
The ice core record suggested a link between accelerated melting and man-made global warming. But a different and more complex picture has emerged from another region of Antarctica.
A separate US study, published in the same journal, shows that thinning ice from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide cannot confidently be blamed on greenhouse gas emissions.
An ice core record from this site indicates a strong influence from unusual conditions in the tropical Pacific during the 1990s.
In that decade, an El Niño event – a cyclical system of winds and ocean currents that can affect the world's weather – caused rapid thinning of glaciers in the west Antarctic.
Summer ice is melting at a faster rate in the Antarctic peninsula than at any time in the last 1,000 years, a new study has shown. Photo courtesy: Nasa/AFP/Getty Images
The spike in temperature was little different from others that occurred in the 1830s and 1940s, which also saw prominent El Niño events.
"If we could look back at this region of Antarctica in the 1940s and 1830s we would find that the regional climate would look a lot like it does today, and I think we also would find the glaciers retreating much as they are today," said lead author Prof Eric Steig, from the University of Washington.
He said the same was not true for the Antarctic peninsula, the part of the continent closer to South America. Here, more dramatic changes were "almost certainly" a result of human-induced global warming.
Here's a video of a city-sized glacier collapsing.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Giant snail. Photo courtesy: Florida Department of Agriculture/Public Domain
About a month ago, we covered a close call in Australia; a species of large invasive snails that can eat pretty much anything and reproduce quickly was found in a port. Thankfully, the snail was discovered and destroyed before it left the port, but who knows if more than one individual found its way to Australia... Having no predators there, they could wreck havoc.
These snails, which are originally from Africa, are real globe-trotters, because they are also invading Florida.
The snails, thought to have been brought in from the Dominican Republic or Jamaica, are known to eat through just about anything including most plant life and even stucco, which means that a large number of houses in the U.S. State are in danger.[...]In many Caribbean countries and territories, the snails have become so invasive that they’re known to regularly blow out tires on cars.
The problem is that these giant snails have very few or no natural predators in Florida, meaning they have free rein to propagate across the state.
And propagate they do: the snails are known to lay 1,200 eggs a year, meaning the snail population can explode very quickly.
The snails aren’t just a problem in Florida it seems. Areas around the Great Lakes are also warning against the massive snails.
The last time Florida faced a snail invasion like this was in the 1960s, when three of the snails were brought into the state after a young boy vacationed in Hawaii. The state spent millions of dollars and ten years fighting to eradicate the giant pests.
Now is probably a good time to remind readers to be careful when traveling.
“If you got a ham sandwich in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic, or an orange, and you didn’t eat it all and you bring it back into the States and then you discard it, at some point, things can emerge from those products,” Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services told Reuters. (National Post source)The regulations about not bringing food and plants are there for a reason. You can't always see invasive species; sometimes just bringing some eggs is enough. Please keep that in mind, especially if you're going far away from home.
Saturday, November 10, 2012
Photo courtesy: Wikipedia
It was already bad enough that a Chinese boat crashed into the Tubbataha reef, a protected coral reef off the coast of the Philippines, but what the coast guard found inside increased massively the size of the environmental disaster: 400 boxes containing around 10,000 kg of frozen Pangolin meat, an endangered scaly anteater. All trade in the four Asian species of pangolin has been illegal since 2002 but the appetite of Chinese consumers for its meat, prized as a delicacy, and its scales, believed to benefit breast-feeding mothers, has virtually wiped out the creatures in China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Pangolin traders, who use dogs or traps to capture the wild animals, have since moved into its last habitats in Java, Sumatra and the Malaysian peninsula, driving populations down but prices up. Poachers are now threatening it pretty much everywhere it still can be found... Too bad we can't seem to catch them unless they're so incompetent that they crash their ships.
Chris Shepherd, an expert at wildlife trade group Traffic and based in Malaysia, told the Guardian: "There is no way a slow-breeding species like the pangolin can withstand this huge pressure for long." He said the enforcement of laws had not kept pace with demand for the pangolin meat and scales, which can fetch hundreds of dollars per kilogramme in China: "We have seen a really obscene amount of seizures but very few people are arrested and even fewer convicted." (from: The Guardian)The 12 Chinese crewmen from the wrecked vessel are being held on charges of poaching and attempted bribery, said Adelina Villena, the marine park's lawyer, and face further charges, including damaging coral reef and possessing pangolin meat. Tubbataha reef is a marine sanctuary and popular diving destination 640km south-west of Manila and had already been damaged by a US navy ship that got stuck in January and had to be dismantled.
The Philippine military quoted the fishermen as saying they accidentally wandered into Philippine waters from Malaysia. The fishermen face up to 12 years' imprisonment and fines of up to $300,000 (£196,000) for the poaching charge alone. For possessing pangolin meat, they can be imprisoned up to six years and fined, Villena said.
As for the Tubbataha coral reef, it is an extremely precious biodiversity hotspot: "Research of scientists visiting the reefs since the 1980s revealed that the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park contains no less than 600 fish species, 360 coral species, 11 shark species, 13 dolphin and whale species, and 100 bird species. The reefs also serve as a nesting ground for Hawksbill and Green sea turtles."
Friday, November 9, 2012
Three Emiratis have been forcibly removed from an annual culture festival in Saudi Arabia and sent back to the UAE (United Arab Emirates) after it was suggested that women might find them irresistible. (I am unable to find a picture of the actual three Emiratis removed. Photo courtesy: FAYEZ NURELDINE, AFP/Getty Images
Three Emiratis have been forcibly removed from an annual culture festival in Saudi Arabia and sent back to the UAE after it was suggested that women might find them irresistible.
The delegates from the UAE were at the Jenadrivah Heritage and Culture Festival in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, when religious police officers stormed the stand and evicted the men because “they are too handsome”, according to the Arabic language newspaper Elaph.
“A festival official said the three Emiratis were taken out on the grounds they are too handsome and that the Commission [for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices] members feared female visitors could fall for them,” Elaph reported.
The UAE released an official statement indicating that the religious police were anxious about the unexpected presence of an unnamed female artist in the pavilion.
“Her visit to the UAE stand was a coincidence as it was not included in the programme which we had already provided to the festival’s management,” Saeed Al Kaabi, head of the UAE delegation to the festival, said in a statement.
It was not clear if the woman’s presence was related to the decision to evict the “handsome” Emirati men.
Elaph said the festival’s management took swift action to deport the trio back to Abu Dhabi, capital of the Emirates.
Saudi Arabia is a deeply religious and ultraconservative society that forbids women from interacting with unrelated males and refuses to accord them the same rights as men.
It is the only country in the world where women are banned from driving.
This is one subject I should never get started on - women's rights. However, the damage's been done, I've started; so, I shall continue.
While it was the three Emerati men that were ejected from the festival and returned to their homeland; the insult is truly against women. Anyone who can't see that shouldn't be trying to read this blog because they are visually impaired on more than one level.
The men were victims in this, too - don't get me wrong. They may or may not have been humiliated by the incident; but, they were denied access to the festivities of this annual celebration attended by their friends and neighbours. Not fair! Those men had planned for this, looked forward to it and spent money attending. Absolutely not fair; however, the insult to the women is even less fair.
What is being said by the men of the commission - out loud and unashamedly - is that women are unable to control themselves to any degree when faced with a good-looking man. They are insinuating that women have no real control over their actions when it comes to dealing with sexual temptations. They are also insinuating that men are able to control their emotions no matter what the temptations. I notice that no beautiful women were asked to leave the festival in case some men might find them irrestible.
One day their eyes may open; but, I'm afraid it won't be in my lifetime.
Thursday, November 8, 2012
Teeth from one of the whale fossils. Photo courtesy: Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center via livescience.com
Fossils uncovered during construction of a roadway in Southern California have revealed four new species of ancient whales, according to research presented here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
One of the species, dubbed "Willy," is much larger than the others and may have eaten sharks, said Meredith Rivin, a paleontologist at the Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center in Fullerton, Calif., and part of the team that studied the fossils.
The fossils were excavated a decade ago, but are only now giving up their secrets, in part because it takes so long to separate the fossils from the rocks, Rivin said. "For the last 10 years… I've been trying to 'free Willy,'" Rivin said.
These animals were toothed, baleen whales, and swam the oceans from about 17 million to 19 million years ago, Rivin said. That's quite a surprise, since this group was thought to have gone extinct about 5 million years earlier, she said.
Most of the world's largest whales belong to a suborder called Mysticeti, which all use a structure called baleen to filter food from the oceans. Their earliest ancestors, however, had teeth. Although these four species of whale don't appear to be direct relatives of modern baleen whales, they may represent transitional forms between the earlier toothed whales and toothless baleen whales, Rivin said. Modern baleen whales like fin whales have teeth only as embryos; the teeth are reabsorbed long before birth, she added.
All modern whales evolved from a single type of land mammal about 55 million years ago, Rivin said. These animals were quite small, about the size of a modern golden retriever, she noted.
It isn't well understood exactly how whales became so gigantic, although it's at least partially related to the development of baleen and a behavior called "lunge feeding," wherein whales swallow enormous amounts of water and filter out tiny animals like krill, said Nicholas Pyenson, a researcher at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in Rivin's research.
Pyenson described Rivin's find as "exciting" and said that he's eager to see the published details of the fossils, which are due in the near future, Rivin said.
Pyenson also happened upon whale fossils unearthed during construction of a roadway, in his case, in Chile. His group only had one week to remove the material and used a laser scanner to create a 3D visualization or map of the fossils, he said. The researchers then used a 3D printer to create a physical model of the fossils, Pyenson said at the AAAS meeting.
The teeth of "Willy" are severely worn down, suggesting that this whale may have eaten large animals like sharks. Modern-day, offshore killer whales show a similar pattern of tooth wear, which results from feeding on thick-skinned sleeper sharks, Rivin said.