Monday, November 19, 2012


In Arkansas (USA), young people who wear baggy pants that partially expose their underwear are breaking the law. The state signed a bill banning students from wearing revealing clothing. Donna Morey, president of the Arkansas Education Association, said the bill would help to improve the learning environment in schools. The lawmakers also felt the bill will help youth become better prepared for entering the work world where more appropriate attire is expected. School districts in the state are reviewing their dress codes to make sure they adhered to the new law.

A primary school in Merseyside, U.K., has banned footballs from the playground for "health and safety" reasons. The school says only sponge balls can be used for games and that leather and plastic footballs are out. Tam Fry, who heads up the Child Growth Foundation which fights childhood obesity calls the move "stupid" and says kids should be exposed to risks so they can learn how to protect themselves. He points out that kids could still fall and hurt themselves using sponge balls; and, that the school could ultimately turn out students who are nothing but "cocooned cotton buds".

Melanie Gravdal and her husband are having trouble selling their three-bedroom townhouse in Glenview just north of Chicago. To attract buyers, she came up with a unique incentive: buy their house and the purchaser will receive $1,000 in food and drink at a bar across the street. For Gravdal, the idea is a way to cross-promote the neighbourhood of restaurants, bars and homes; and, give her townhouse an edge over similar properties in the area. Before the offer, the Gravdal's had two showings in seven weeks; but, once the offer was in place things really picked up. The Gravdal's hope that, with a slow housing market, this creativity in selling incentives will make their home more attractive to prospective buyers.

Scientists at the Out-of-Body Experience Research Center in Los Angeles, CA have conducted an experiment that shows humans' close encounters with UFOs and extraterrestrials are likely just products of a vibrant, lifelike state of dreaming. Lead researcher Michael Raduga worked with 20 volunteers. He coached them to think about having an alien encounter and to imagine having an out-of-body experience. By the end of the experiment, 35% of participants said they made visual contact with aliens. Raduga says his research shows that people are really in REM sleep and not having an out-of-body experience.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Quotable Quotes

Many Japanese use the word Zen, but very few understand what it really is. Zen sees the whole universe as one's own true self. It says that heaven, earth, and man grew from the same root and everything in this world is interrelated.

- Nyogen Senzaki

The stillness in stillness is not the real stillness; only when there is stillness in movement can the spiritual rhythm appear which pervades all heaven and earth.

- Saikontan

Every existing thing sentient or non-sentient, is holy in essence. From this realization arises the certainty that everything and everyone, no matter how lowly or how depraved, intrinsically is Buddha, is destined for salvation, will ultimately realize Buddhahood.

- Ruth Fuller Sasaki

Enlightenment is not imagining figures of light but making the darkness conscious.

- Carl Gustav Jung

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Mummified Skeleton Found in Atacama Desert

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

Oslo Runs Out of Garbage

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.`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.”

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)
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?)?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Poachers Kill Last Rhino in Mozambique

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

Foaming Pig Manure A New Threat in The Pig Industry

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.

David Schmidt: Foaming Manure Pits from Iowa State University Extension on Vimeo.

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."

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.
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?"

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

Virgin Anteater Birth?

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

Antarctic Ice Melting at Fastest Rate in 1,000 Years

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 African Snail Invades Florida

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.[...]

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.
In many Caribbean countries and territories, the snails have become so invasive that they’re known to regularly blow out tires on cars.

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

Illegal Pangolin Meat Found on Chinese Boat That Crashed in The Tubbataha Reef

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 Emirati Men Ejected From Festival For Being Too Handsome

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

Ancient Whale Fossils Unearthed

Teeth from one of the whale fossils. Photo courtesy: Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center via

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.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Quotable Quotes

"Opportunity dances with those who are already on the dance floor."
- Jackson Brown

"No one can whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra to play it."
- E.E. Luccock

"Celebrate your success and find humour in your failures. Don't take yourself so seriously. Loosen up and everyone around you will loosen up. Have fun and always show enthusiasm. When all else fails, put on a costume and sing a silly song."
-Sam Walton


When the spaceship Juno headed off to Jupiter during the summer of 2011, three 1.5" tall LEGO figures went along for the ride. The trio should arrive at their destination sometime in 2016. The specially-constructed aluminum mini-figures are the Roman god Jupiter, his wife Juno and the "father of science", Galileo Galilei. "The LEGO crew's mission is part of the LEGO Bricks in Space project, the joint outreach and educational program developed as part of the partnership between NASA and the LEGO Group to inspire children to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics", says Stephan Turnipseed, president of LEGO Education North America.

When you're 92-years-old, you're probably not used to being asked for proof of age. However, Diane Taylor, a 92-year-old English woman was asked for her ID; and, when she couldn't produce it, she wasn't allowed to purchase the bottle of whisky she had hoped to buy. Taylor says she doesn't have a passport or driver's licence, so she wasn't able to fulfill the request. Consequently, she wasn't served. A spokesman at the One Stop Shop where the woman attempted to buy the alcohol explained that they are very strict about enforcing the policy, "No ID, No Sale."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Ancient Temple Discovered in Peru

Excavators stand near a newly-discovered temple at the archeological site El Paraíso in Peru. Photo courtesy: Peru Ministry of Culture via

Archaeologists in Peru have uncovered what they believe is a temple, estimated to be up to 5,000 years old, at the site of El Paraíso, north of Lima.

Inside the ruins of the ancient room, which measures about 23 feet by 26 feet (7 meters by 8 meters), there's evidence of a ceremonial hearth, where offerings may have been burned, archaeologists say. The temple also had a narrow entrance and stone walls covered with yellow clay, on which traces of red paint were found, according to a statement from Peru's Ministry of Culture.

El Paraíso, located on the central coast of Peru, just north of Lima, is a site made up of 10 buildings stretching over 123 acres (50 hectares). It's one of the earliest known examples of monumental stone architecture in the Americas, dating back to the Late Preceramic period (3500-1800 B.C.). The newly-found building is thought to date back to 3000 B.C., which should be confirmed with a radiocarbon analysis.

The ruins of El Paraíso in Peru. Photo courtesy: Peru Ministry of Culture via

Rafael Varón, Peru's deputy minister for culture, said in a statement that the discovery of the temple "has particular importance because it is the first structure of this type found on the central coast." It suggests that the Lima region had more religious, economic and political importance during this early period than previously thought, Varón added.

Previously, man-made mounds shaped like orcas, condors and even a duck were discovered in Peru's coastal valleys, including at El Paraíso, by anthropologist Robert Benfer, professor emeritus of the University of Missouri, who spotted the mounds in satellite photos. One curious mound found in El Paraíso in the Chillón Valley was of a condor head whose burned-charcoal eye was likely the place where offerings were once burned. The condor was also positioned to line up with the most extreme orientation of the Milky Way as seen from the Chillón Valley.

A second mound, right next to the condor, looked like a combination of a puma and alligatorlike cayman, Benfer said. That one was oriented toward the spot where the sun rises on the day of the June solstice, the start of summer.

Dating to more than 4,000 years ago, the structures may be the oldest evidence of animal mounds outside of North America, Benfer said last year. The previous oldest animal structures date to about 2,000 years ago, part of the Nazca Lines. These lines are simple stone outlines of animals decorating the Nazca Desert in Peru.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Drug Pollution in Rivers Make Fish AntiSocial

Researchers found that perch (shown here) exposed to low levels of an antianxiety medicine were bolder, more antisocial and faster eaters. Photo courtesy: Bent Christensen via

Drugs taken by humans can have unintended side effects — on fish, in the natural environment. Turns out, fish fed extremely low concentrations of an antianxiety drug eat more quickly, and act bolder and more antisocial than their un-medicated peers, a new study finds.

"We can see profound effects at the low levels that we find in surface water. Exposed fish are more bold," Jerker Fick, a co-author and researcher at Umea University in Sweden, said at a news conference here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The study looked at the effect of oxazepam (also known as Serax), used to treat anxiety and panic in humans, on the widespread European perch fish. Researchers gave the fish a concentration of drugs similar to that found in rivers and streams in Sweden and elsewhere, according to a study published in the journal Science.

Here's how the drugs make their way into fishy habitats in real life: They get excreted by humans, pass through wastewater treatment facilities, which are not designed to break down such compounds, and then flow into rivers, Fick told LiveScience.

In the lab, perch were exposed to oxazepam in aquaria meant to mimic the animals' natural conditions. Once exposed, the fish became more antisocial, distancing themselves from fellow fish and likely putting themselves at greater risk of predation, said co-author Tomas Brodin, also of Umea University.

Exposed fish also ate more quickly, a trait that could have profound effects on the environment. This quick gobbling of zooplankton (tiny floating animals) could perhaps lead to blooms of algae, which zooplankton eat. If perch devour more zooplankton, more algae could survive, and their populations could explode, Brodin said.

Drug-exposed fish also left the dark enclosures in their lab homes more quickly, venturing out into open areas of the aquaria to feed, Brodin said. Fish not given drugs lingered longer in their refuges, acting more cautiously. "But the exposed fish didn't care," Brodin said.

The authors said the drug in question works by relieving stress (in both humans and animals), but a certain amount of stress is needed to prevent animals from taking unwarranted risks. Concentrations of drugs in the muscles of the laboratory fish were similar to those found in Swedish rivers, suggesting the effects seen in the study are likely happening in the environment, Fick said.

Oxazepam is a type of benzodiazepine, a very widely prescribed class of antianxiety drugs. It is the most commonly prescribed such medicine in Sweden, and is also formed when humans metabolize other benzodiazepines such as diazepam, also known as Valium, Brodin said.

These drugs are found in waterways throughout the world, and they likely affect all fish since they act on a cellular receptor found in almost all vertebrates, or animals with backbones, Brodin said.

"It's a global issue," he said. "It's probable these behavioral effects are happening around the world as we speak."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

All-Glass Buildings Not as Green as You Would Expect

More victims of "waytoomuchglassia". Photo courtesy: Loozrboy/CC BY 2.0

Cities like Toronto, New York or Chicago get cold in the winter and hot in the summer, yet almost every new condo and office building is designed with floor to ceiling glass. Something many people don't realize that the more glass a building has, the less strength there is in the outer walls. All-glass buildings develop envelope problems much sooner than traditional designs.

Andrew Michler calls it "the very contagious disease waytoomuchglassia." At Building Science, John Straube does the math and shows how really bad they are. He explains:
Glazing systems, including almost all modern high-performance ones, have very little ability to control heat flow and solar radiation. Older windows also did little to control heat loss and solar gain. Hence, most older buildings had restrained window-to-wall area ratios. Most of the tremendous performance gains in glazing technology over the past 25 years have been squandered on increased window area, not improved performance.
Photo courtesy: 56 Leonard/Promo image

He goes on to explain that there is a balance that has to be found, between maximizing daylight but minimizing unwanted heat gain or loss. Straube also points out that there are some expensive, high quality assemblies that can get up to R-12. But most of these window walls thrown up on condos have the R-value equivalent of 1/2" of fiberglass. (R-2). Who would build a house with that? Straube concludes:
Many designers have shown that beautiful and high-performance buildings can result from a proper balance of glazing quantity and quality. All too often, however, designers appear to choose all-glass curtain walls or floor-to-ceiling strip windows because they make it easy to create a sleek impression while leaving all the tricky details in the hands of the manufacturers. How much longer can we afford to pay the energy bills that result from that choice? It’s high time to revive the craft of designing beautiful facades that don’t cost the earth.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

62-Year-Old Albatross Hatches Chick #35

Mother and chick. Photo courtesy: © Jaymi Heimbuch

A couple years ago was excited to learn about a 60-year-old Laysan albatross named Wisdom hatched her 35th chick. Then last year, they were excited to visit Midway Atoll where she nests, and where she was rearing yet another chick. Now this year, miraculously, Wisdom has returned to the atoll -- now as the oldest living wild bird as she outlived a Northern Royal albatross named Grandma -- and has nested yet again, with her newest chick hatching on February 3rd. Wisdom is now 62.

Wisdom's age puts her at living more than twice as long as the average Laysan albatross. It means that Wisdom has overcome an incredible number of obstacles to survival, not the least of which is the thousands of deadly hooks tied to the lines of industrial fishing vessels. Albatross are often killed as bycatch, becoming snagged on the hooks as they try to grab bait fish when the miles-long lines are dropped in the water. Not only that, but there is also the problem of plastic pollution. Albatross commonly mistake pieces of plastic as food -- cigarette lighters look an awful lot like tiny squid to an albatross. Surviving ingestion of plastic, which sits in the stomach and can kill a bird by starvation, alone is a mighty feat. Also, the fact that she is still rearing young may change science's understanding of these birds.

From The Guardian
"It blows us away that this is a 62-year-old bird and she keeps laying eggs and raising chicks," said Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the bird banding laboratory at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Centre in Laurel. "We know that birds will eventually stop reproducing when they're too old," he said. "The assumption about albatrosses is it will happen to them, too. But we don't know where that line is. That, in and of itself, is pretty amazing."

Wisdom the Laysan albatross, aged 62, and her partner, believed to be younger, at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific ocean. Photo courtesy: Pete Leary/The Washington Post

Friday, November 2, 2012

Points to Ponder

Forbidden fruit creates many jams.

"We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves".
- Budda

Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are".
- Arthur Golden

Did You Know...

English naturalist Charles Darwin was born in 1809. By the 1830's, when he was still a young man, he had established himself in the scientific community. Darwin is most famous for his theory of evolution.

A black-eyed pea is an edible legume that is thought to have made its way to North America from Africa or Asia during the slave trade in the 1600s. The kidney-shaped bean has a black dot at its centre.

American singer-songwriter and musician Josh Groban, a top-selling pop and classical artist, shares his February 27th birthday with his brother, Chris, who is four years younger.

Although a violin and a fiddle have the same bodies, there are differences between the two instruments. For example, fiddles usually employ steel strings while gut strings are used on violins.

It is thought that bighorn sheep came to North America about 750,000 years ago when they crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia. Their numbers have dwindled since then from millions to mere thousands.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Salt-Loving Microbes Turn Lake Pink

An aerial shot shows the causeway that divides the northern and southern parts of the Great Salt Lake. The rosy color of the northern waters is the result of the pigmented, salt-loving microbes. Photo courtesy: Courtesy of Great Salt Lake Institute via

So much salt is dissolved in the northern part of Utah's Great Salt Lake that its edges can become encrusted with crystals that sparkle against a treeless landscape and vast sky.

The salt concentration of the water hovers near saturation, reaching nearly 10 times the salinity, or salt content, of the oceans. These conditions are inhospitable to most life, except some salt-loving organisms.

At least a few of these make their presence known through the rosy hue they impart to the water and sometimes the salt. Pigments in these salt-lovers' cells, including carotenoids like those found in carrots, give the lake and its salt crust a distinctive pink hue.

The pink microbial tint of the northern Great Salt Lake is common for bodies of water with high salt concentrations in them. Above, the Lac Rose (or Pink Lake) in Senegal. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

This tinge commonly occurs in highly salty bodies of water around the world, said Bonnie Baxter, who directs the Great Salt Institute at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

The pigment may offer protection from another extreme condition in this shade-less, high-elevation environment: ultra-violet radiation exposure, she said.

An inland sea, Lake Bonneville once covered much of what is now the state of Utah. When Lake Bonneville receded, it left behind what became known as the Great Salt Lake.

"I always see it as the puddle in the bottom of the bathtub that didn't drain," Baxter told OurAmazingPlanet.

Unlike most lakes, the Great Salt Lake has no outlet to the ocean; so the concentrated salt and minerals left by Lake Bonneville, as well as those carried in by its contributing rivers, have nowhere to go.

The salinity in the Great Salt Lake declines to the south, where perhaps the water's most prominent resident is the brine shrimp. Sometimes raised in aquariums as sea monkeys, they grow to 0.4 inches (10 millimeters) long.

But to the north, the super-saline water's most abundant residents are more primitive. Baxter and others have found a few fungi, some algae and bacteria, but mostly a type of extreme-environment–loving microbes called archaea.

A high-salt environment can be tough on living things because the salinity makes water leave cells. To avoid this fate, the lake microbes have salt pumps in their membranes. They also accumulate lipids, or fats, to counteract the pressure forcing water out of their cells. That ability makes them interesting as a potential source of biofuel, Baxter said.

Above, a salty pink lake in Australia. Fungi found living in Utah’s Great Salt Lake are closely related to those found in salt lakes and ponds around the world. Migrating birds may have spread the common ancestors for these salt-loving fungi, Baxter said. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

The salt-loving archaea are nothing if not resilient. Some can hibernate for years within salt crystals.

Baxter and her students discovered the organisms' hibernating abilities after reviving microbes from crystals collected 10 years earlier. Baxter had been keeping these salt crystals in a tube on her desk to show to students, "not exactly the most protected environment," she said.

"That is where we are finding the most unusual ones," Baxter said of the microbes. "The ones that can dry up in salt crystals and hang out for years."

In the northern part of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the salt concentration of the water can reach ten times that of the oceans and hovers near saturation. As a result life is sparse here. Pigments in the cells of salt-loving microbes give the water a rosy hue. Above, the inner circles of Robert Smithson’s environmental sculpture Spiral Jetty located in the lake. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

An aerial view of Spiral Jetty. The microbes’ pigments include carotenoids, like those found in carrots, and these may help protect them from the other extreme condition in this shadeless, high-elevation environment: ultra-violet radiation exposure, according to Bonnie Baxter who directs the Great Salt Institute at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

The salt-loving microbes can hibernate for years in the salt crystals that precipitate out from the lake. Baxter and her students were able to revive some collected 10 years earlier. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Because I Have a Friend in Wales

Snow at Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire. The cold spell is giving way to heavy rain. Photo courtesy: Matt Cardy/Getty Images via

More than 200 flood alerts are in place across the UK as heavy rain has mixed with melting snow.

There have been more reports of flooding in south Wales overnight as the downpours replace almost two weeks of snow. Norfolk police have reported flooding caused by melting snow and ice, which has closed a number of roads in the area.

Wales, central England, and the south-west will be the worst-hit areas, with at least 2.5 cm (1 in) of rain expected by mid-morning, while the rest of the UK can expect around 1.3 cm.

Rising temperatures of up to 12C have sparked a rapid thaw of the snow and ice which has built up in the recent cold snap, exacerbating potential flooding problems. The Environment Agency has issued 30 flood warnings urging people to take immediate action against predicted flooding, in the Midlands, the west of England, central England and Wales. A further 218 flood warnings are in place across England, Scotland and Wales affecting all but the east of England and north of Scotland.

Chris Burton, a forecaster for MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said the heavy rain would return on Monday along with the risk of flooding, as the surface water and river levels build up before an unsettled week.

Around 18 buildings flooded in various locations across Wales on Friday night, including two houses in Solva, Pembrokeshire, and two in Dolgellau, north Wales.

The latest heavy snow storms left hundreds of people stranded for hours on motorways in the north of England. The M6 was blocked in both directions between junctions 25 and 27 in Lancashire when a sudden burst of more than a foot of snow brought drivers to a standstill from around 8.30 pm, the Highways Agency said. Many became stuck along the stretch of motorway between Wigan and Standish after struggling to make it up inclines in the treacherous conditions, while a number of accidents including jack-knifed lorries also blocked lanes.

Mountain rescue workers were drafted in to help with rescue operations and check on the condition of drivers stranded by the snow. A diabetic man was taken to Royal Blackburn hospital after falling ill, while an ambulance taking a female patient to Royal Preston hospital had to be dug out of the snow by Bowland Pennine mountain rescue team.

Phil O'Brien, team leader of Bowland Pennine mountain rescue, said: "It was potentially a very serious situation. The Highways Agency managed to get people moving at about 4.30 to 5 am]. There were hundreds of cars stuck but most people seemed in good spirits."

Some of the stranded drivers passed the time by having snowball fights and building snowmen, while others abandoned their cars completely.

David Cameron took to Twitter on Saturday to express his sympathy for those caught up in the snow.

He tweeted: "Huge sympathy for those affected by heavy #uksnow. Govt working closely with transport operators to minimise impact on everyone."

A family had to be evacuated when the gable end of their house collapsed, apparently under the weight of fresh snow in Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

The death toll during the recent cold snap, which is in double figures, is thought to have risen further as it was feared a man in his 30s or 40s might have frozen to death after going missing in woodland.

His body was found on Thursday night after four friends went to Newmarket police station in Suffolk reporting that he had not been seen for four days. The men had been searching for him and found him dead in a wooded area. The death is being treated as unexplained, but one theory is that he succumbed to the freezing temperatures.

A father died when his car skidded into a river just before his wife's vehicle also plunged into the icy water. David Cox, 42, was taking his 11-year-old daughter Tess to school when their Toyota Aygo left the path and crashed into the river Wye in Derbyshire.

The children and their mother managed to get out of the cars and safely to shore but Cox was unable to escape.

Other casualties of the cold spell include the postman John Bircham, 57, who collapsed soon after he was towed out of a snowdrift in Dulverton, Somerset, and Bernadette Lee, 25, who was found collapsed in the snow in Deal, Kent, following a night out.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Brazil to Conduct a Tree Census

A deforested area of rainforest along the border of the Xingu river in northern Brazil. Photo courtesy: Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images via

The Brazilian government is to launch a four-year tree census of the Amazon to improve understanding of the impacts of deforestation, climate change and conservation efforts.

The study will also help to assess the potential value of the biodiversity under the canopy and the growth of human settlements in the Amazon region, which is home to a number of fast-expanding cities, as well as uncontacted indigenous tribes.

The cataloguing operation will be the most detailed study for 40 years – a period in which the world's greatest forest has come under unprecedented pressure from farmers, loggers and drought.

The environment ministry said the inventory "will allow us to have a broad panorama of the quality and the conditions in the forest cover".

Improvements in satellite monitoring technology have already provided a wealth of data about the degradation of the Amazon.

Last week, Nasa released figures showing that an area twice the size of California continues to suffer from a mega-drought, which began eight years ago. Nasa said this may be the first sign that the Amazon is suffering major consequences from climate change.

The Brazilian government also uses a sophisticated satellite system to co-ordinate its actions against illegal forest clearance. The environment ministry says this has slowed deforestation and pushed Brazil halfway towards its Copenhagen commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 36% by 2020.

However, there are limits to what can be analysed from above, particularly when it comes to the quality of the forest and the biodiversity below the canopy.

"We are going to come to know the rainforest from within," said forestry minister, Antonio Carlos Hummel.

With the results expected to be released year by year, the environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, said the government would have more information on which to base its future strategies of conservation and extraction of economic value.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Who Says Kids Can't Help Change The World

Photo courtesy: © My ReCycler

At an age when most youngsters are just beginning to get acquainted with the world they've inherited, 10-year-old Vanis Buckholz was already thinking of ways he could help make it a better one for others -- and grown-ups have taken notice.

After learning about the importance of recycling on Earth Day at his elementary school a few years back, Vanis began to to notice how much reusable stuff people were throwing away every day, and decided to try to make a difference. So, at the ripe young age of 7, he became one of the nation's youngest eco-entrepreneurs, launching his very own recycling business to serve his hometown of Corona del Mar, California -- thus, "My ReCycler" was born.

"The idea for my business name came from 'cycling' and riding my scooter around town picking up trash on our beach, streets and parks then hauling it home to recycle," says Vanis. "My mom and dad taught me to never pollute so picking up trash was something we always did but now it's a part of the business."

After three years in business, My ReCycler has expanded with the help of his family, friends, and folks from throughout the region -- and a trailer attached to his bike to collect his customer's recyclables. In fact, nowadays his trips to the recycling center are by the truckload.

© My ReCycler

But if all that wasn't remarkable enough for such an ambitious youngster, Vanis then decided to donate a portion of the recycling profits Project Hope Alliance, an organization that provides outreach to homeless and underprivileged kids.

"It’s so easy to do nothing. But it’s really good to do something! I always tell my new customers that “every little bit matters”. Even ONE bottle helps. I love my job. I’m a very lucky kid but there’s a lot of kids who don’t have much luck."

"Project Hope Alliance is both amazed and humbled by the contributions and support given by Vanis to our organization," says Executive Director Jennifer Friend. "With his support we are educating and empowering homeless children in Orange County to end the cycle of poverty. Thank you Vanis for being a shining example of hope in action"

Vanis recently spoke before city council meeting, where he was lauded by Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry: "Newport Beach is the home of some great entrepreneurs. The one tonight is particularly young, but I think is a very outstanding entrepreneur."

Sunday, October 28, 2012

80,000-Year-Old Quaking Aspen Grove

Photo courtesy: scottks1

The oldest living organism in the world is 80,000 years old and clones itself. Known as Pando, and nicknamed The Trembling Giant, this organism is a single grove of Quaking Aspen trees in Utah. Aspens trees are so glorious particularly on windy nights. Before the aspen grove across the street was sacrificed for even more condos, I would sit on my balcony on windy nights enjoying the sight and sound of the aspens. My neighbours don't make the same viewing as my aspens did.

Photo courtesy: Will Scullin

The grove is aptly-named Pando, which is Latin for "I spread" -- and spread it does. The grove is actually a single clonal colony of a male Quaking Aspen. Simply put, it is essentially one massive root system that began life an estimated 80,000 years ago. The root system currently has somewhere around 47,000 stems that create the grove of trees that keep the root system going.

Photo courtesy: scottks1

Pando is not only considered the oldest living organism but also possibly the heaviest. The colony has spread over about 106 acres and experts think in all it weighs about 6,600 short tons. However, some experts think that chunks of the root system have died off leaving parts of the colony separated, making it effectively more than one organism. And other less-studied clonal colonies of aspen may be contenders for the title of heaviest.

Photo courtesy: ZionNPS

Pando exists in part because frequent fires have kept conifers out of the area, and because a shift to a semi-arid climate has kept other aspen seedlings from taking root. This has left plenty of space for the ancient root system of Pando to spread and thrive. The fact that Pando is one giant organism wasn't discovered until the 1970s, by Burton V. Barnes of the University of Michigan. Currently, experts are worried that a range of factors are threatening the life of this ancient organism.

Photo courtesy: Will Scullin

While Pando's estimated age of 80,000 years may be staggering, even more amazing is the possibility that experts have underestimated its age. Because the age of the organism cannot be determined through tree rings (the average age of the stems being around 130 years), many factors such as the history and climate of the local environment over millennia. Taking different factors into account, some experts think that Pando could be closer to 1 million years old! There is a lot of debate and speculation around Pando, but one thing is certain: this organism is mind-blowing.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Beijing's Smog Crisis

Li Feifan discusses his 40-minute documentary Future Armageddon, screened on Chinese TV via

In the news lately has been the extraordinarily bad conditions of Beijing's air, or as some are calling it, "airpocalypse". The city recently went way, way, way off the charts for air pollution and officials are now looking at how to reign in the causes of such incredible pollution.

The Guardian reports, "One week after that chart-busting Saturday, Beijing proposed new measures to combat pollution, including increased fines for excessive vehicle emissions and factory shutdowns on particularly bad days. But experts say the sheer scale and diversity of the pollution's underlying causes means that Beijing residents may not be able to breathe freely for decades."

One resident, Li Feifan, hopes to bring the issues directly to the public view with a new 40-minute documentary showing the flat-out frightening conditions of air within the city. He is hoping a visual presentation of the damage being done will spur residents to change their ways.

A baby is given nebuliser therapy at Beijing Children's Hospital as the capital is hit by record-breaking air pollution. Photograph: Li Wen/Xinhua Press/Corbis via

Record-breaking pollution in Beijing and other environmental problems in China are the result of unchecked government power, one of the country's former top environment officials has said.

On 12 January, Beijing's pollution hit a nauseating 755 on a US Environmental Protection Agency-designed 0-500 scale. Below 25 is considered the safe daily level by the World Health Organisation. Stores sold out of anti-pollution face masks, flights were delayed and hospital respiratory wards were overrun with coughing patients. Internet users called it the "airpocalypse".

"I have to admit that governments have done far from enough to rein in the wild pursuit of economic growth, and failed to avoid some of the worst pollution scenarios we, as policymakers, had predicted," Qu Geping, a top environmental protection administrator from 1987 to 1993, told the South China Morning Post.

Qu said that Chinese authorities could have pre-empted the crisis by adhering to a 1983 policy "stipulating that economic and urban construction should synchronise with environmental protection". Yet they haven't, and the country's air, water and soil continue to deteriorate. "Why was the strategy never properly implemented?" he said. "I think it is because there was no supervision of governments. It is because the power is still above the law."

One week after that chart-busting Saturday, Beijing proposed new measures to combat pollution, including increased fines for excessive vehicle emissions and factory shutdowns on particularly bad days. But experts say the sheer scale and diversity of the pollution's underlying causes means that Beijing residents may not be able to breathe freely for decades.

Deborah Seligsohn, an expert on China's environment at the University of California, San Diego, said that there is no silver bullet for the country's air pollution. The underlying causes are dynamic and diverse: power plants, small factories, automobile emissions, rampant construction, farmers burning coal for heat. "One of the things about the air quality in Beijing is that it varies a lot more than it used to," she said.

Beijing's air quality fluctuates with the weather – a strong wind from the north can blow the smog to sea, she said, while south-eastern winds trap the air against a nearby mountain range, drowning the city in a pea-soup haze.

The Guardian writes, "Li Feifan discusses his 40-minute documentary Future Armageddon, screened on Chinese TV this week. It features multiple images of the same city skyline submerged in different levels of smog. Li spent two months filming in the city, including earlier this month when pollution levels were 30 to 45 times above the recommended safety levels."

Air pollution isn't only bad in Beijing. A NASA chart revealing poor air quality across the middle east and Asia.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Microsoft Trying to Reduce Natural Ecosystems to a Software Program

Photo courtesy: anoldent/CC BY-SA 2.0

Researchers and programmers have come up with modeling software for all kinds of complex systems, including modeling how the earth's systems may alter with climate change. But what has yet to be modeled is a deeply complex natural ecosystem from soil microbes and fungi all the way up to apex predators and giant trees. Just wrapping one's head around the scope of such a task is exhausting, and yet the knowledge that could be gained by creating such modeling software would be invaluable, and would help make smart policy changes regarding conservation. Which is why Microsoft is giving it a go. In fact, climate change models have been so successful, it's no wonder researchers are interested in using the same sort of system for biodiversity.

Drew Purves, head of Microsoft’s Computational Ecology and Environmental Science Group (CEES) and his colleagues at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, United Kingdom, are working with the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC) to create software that will accurately model a natural ecosystem -- or as they put it, a general ecosystem model (GEM).

Microsoft's Green Blog states, "Building a GEM is challenging — but not impossible. Microsoft Research and the UNEP-WCMC have spent the past two years developing a prototype GEM for terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The prototype is dubbed the Madingley Model, and is built on top of another hugely ambitious project that the group just finished, modeling the global carbon cycle. With this as starting point, they set out to model all animal life too: herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores, of all sizes, on land in the sea."

The major challenge facing the project is, obviously, the need for as much data as possible. To make a GEM work, large-scale global collection of ecological data is needed. After all, how are we to model an ecosystem if we don't know much about how the ecosystem functions or even what organisms exist within it. The challenge needs to be met with the collaboration of all the governments around the world. If enough data can be collected and software devised to use the data for accurate modeling, then scientists would have an incredibly powerful new tool for illustrating how policy choices would affect ecosystems.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Quail Mothers Capable of Camouflaging Eggs

When it comes to camouflage, ground-nesting Japanese quail are experts. Mother quail know the patterning of their own eggs and choose laying spots to hide them best. Photo courtesy: Lovell et al., Current Biology via

Quail eggs are like fingerprints, a new study suggests.

The creamy blue-and-brown speckled eggs, splashed like a toddler's art project, vary among birds but are consistently patterned for individuals.

What's more, in a laboratory experiment, quail camouflaged their eggs according to their personal pattern, picking lighter sand for less-speckled eggs and darker sand for eggs with more brown splotches. What surprised researchers was the discovery that quail changed their approach to camouflage as their eggs got darker.

"It's as if they knew the characteristics of their own eggs and chose the best substrate with which to lay them," said George Lovell, lead study author and an expert on animal camouflage at Abertay University and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Sitting at the bottom of the food chain, with a spot on just about every predator's dinner menu, quail and their eggs need good hiding places.

In the experiment, quail could lay clutches in sand with white, yellow, red or black hues. Researchers photographed each spot where the quail laid eggs and each location they ignored. The images revealed whether quail moms picked the sand color that offered the most camouflage. "They did really, really well," Lovell told OurAmazingPlanet.

Japanese quail choose between two camouflage strategies to hide their eggs. Photo courtesy: Lovell et al., Current Biology via

More than 50 percent of the time, quail chose the sand color offering the best or second-best protection for their own egg pattern, the study found. The findings appear in the journal Current Biology.

"The amazing thing is this change in strategy for the different eggs," Lovell said.

Quail with the creamiest egg colors picked white or yellow sand. This strategy, called background matching, aims to hide the eggs by blending into a similarly-colored background.

Quail with darker, more splotchy eggs conceal their eggs not by matching a background color, but by trying to break up the egg's outline through its color pattern, an approach called disruptive coloration. The same strategy the military uses in its camouflage patterning, the egg splotches disrupt its own outline with the colors and patterns on its shell, Lovell explained.

"What the spots seem to be doing it making a predator think an egg is different from an egg shape," he said.

Quail egg camouflaged with dark splotches. Photo courtesy: Lovell et al., Current Biology via

Cream-colored camouflaged quail egg. Photo courtesy: Lovell et al., Current Biology via

The quail were raised in captivity at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and had seen their eggs before the experiment started.

"It's possible that they learn the patterning through seeing eggs that they've laid," Lovell said. "In the wild, there is some evidence that birds are often less successful with their first clutch of eggs. It may be that at that point in time, they're not able to select the best place to lay their eggs."

Scientists think birds use patterning on eggs for camouflage, but the darker colors may also help strengthen weak spots or regulate temperature, Lovell said.

The shell color comes from two pigments: blue-green biliverdin and red-brown protoporphyrin, which are both breakdown products of hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying protein found in the red blood cells of all vertebrates).