Friday, August 31, 2012

Can Loving Penquins Save The World?

Photo courtesy: Derek Keats/CC BY-SA 2.0

I know that penquins are just possibly the cutest things that have ever waddled upon the face of the earth; but, saving the planet by loving them...seems like a stretch to me. But, not to Francois Blanchette.

Applied mathematician Francois Blanchette of the University of California at Merced was inspired by the fluid movement of penguins huddling from the cold in the hit documentary "The March of the Penguins." Now he hopes his work will inspire others, leveraging the power of penguin-love:
Nearly everybody seems to love penguins and not enough people love math," he says. "If we use math to study penguins we could potentially teach more people to love math too!
Seeing a perfect opportunity to apply his skills, Blanchette and his partners -- Arnold Kim and Aaron Waters -- developed mathematical models of penguin huddling which demonstrate that a selfish strategy to minimize individual loss of warmth optimizes heat sharing in the penguin mass.

Initial models with simple assumptions such as constant wind and identical penguins evidenced the fluid movement of the huddle, slowly migrating to leeward as cold penguins on the outer edge seek a warmer spot away from the wind. But these simple assumptions evolved a longer, narrower huddle than is typically seen in nature.

Adjusting the variables a bit to account for wind eddies and penguin variations resulted in that rewarding "Eureka" sensation, the moment when a mathematician knows their work is correct because it "fits" -- in this case fitting the shapes and flows Blanchette has seen on film.

As is common with a Eureka moment, Blanchette found the awe and amazement that scientists seek when studying nature. Blanchette describes the new insight his models triggered: "Even if penguins are only selfish, only trying to find the best spot for themselves and not thinking about their community, there is still equality in the amount of time that each penguin spends exposed to the wind." Blanchette further notes that the animals-alone-against-nature aspect may be critical: "A penguin huddle is a self-sufficient system in which the animals rely on each other for shelter, and I think that is what makes it fair. If you have some kind of obstacle, like a wall, then I think it would stop being fair."

Blanchette's hope to inspire future mathematicians must not be in vain. These types of mathematical models, accounting for a large range of variables while predicting behavior observed in nature, will be critical in measuring, predicting, and reacting to global climate change as well as for managing a wide array of complex interactions between mankind and our planet's ecosystems.

Blanchette's research has been published in PlosOne: "Modeling Huddling Penguins".

Thursday, August 30, 2012

World's Only BeeKeeping Donkey

Photo courtesy: capture

It might seem strange to some, but honey farmer and homespun inventor Manuel Juraci is unashamed to call a jackass both a colleague and a friend.

Like many living in Brazil's sprawling semi-arid shrubland known as the Caatinga, Manuel turned to beekeeping as a means of subsistence in the largely arid and uncultivable region. But in a stroke of countryside genius, he's forged an unlikely animal partnership with what just might be the world's only beekeeping donkey [link is in Portugese] (that has the necessary garb to boot) -- and it's making all the difference.

In recent years, harvesting honey has grown signifcantly in Manuel's little rural town of Itatira, in the Brazilian state of Ceará -- in fact, the bees there are the biggest producers around. But of 120 or so beekeepers in Itatira, Manuel and his donkey Boneco are among the most successful, thanks in part to Manuel's invention: the donkey-sized beekeeper's suit that keeps his partner safe from stings.

Photo courtesy: capture

Together the pair are capable of bringing more honey to market than most farmers can harvest alone. Not surprisingly, Manuel and Boneco have caught the attention of the Association of Honey Producers which hopes that he'll make custom suits for their animals as well.

While Manuel considers the offer, which would likely come as a pleasant boon, he's quick to note that it's not the custom beekeeping suit alone that has lead to his success in the honey business [link is in Portugese]:

"Not to discount the others," says Manuel, "but Boneco is a faithful friend."

Here's a news report on the beekeeping donkey (in Portuguese):

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Beeswax Filling Found in Neolithic Tooth

Microphotograph of the tooth crown in occlusal view with indication of the surface covered by beeswax within the dotted line. (Bernardini F, Tuniz C, Coppa A, Mancini L, Dreossi D, et al. (2012) Beeswax as Dental Filling on a Neolithic Human Tooth. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44904. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044904)

Evidence that stone-age dentists were at work nearly seven millennia ago has been discovered in Eastern Europe.

A team of mostly Italian researchers have been studying a human jawbone, found in Slovenia near the Italian border, that contains a cracked canine with a beeswax filling.

“This finding is perhaps the most ancient evidence of pre-historic dentistry in Europe and the earliest known direct example of therapeutic-palliative dental filling so far,” said research leader Federico Bernardini at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in a press release.

Other evidence of Neolithic dentistry is extremely scant, for example several molar crowns have been found in Pakistan, and an artificial tooth was found in the Egyptian cemetery of Gebel Ramlah.

The researchers believe that the beeswax was applied shortly before or after the man’s death as the edges of the tooth fracture are not worn. If he was still alive, the filling was probably used to reduce tooth sensitivity while chewing.

However, the severe wear of the tooth may not be due to eating, but to other activities like weaving, whereby the teeth were used to hold and cut thread.

In their paper, the researchers speculate that honey may have been used to increase the wax’s binding properties. They also point out that propolis, a similar resinous product made by bees, had other medical uses in prehistory.

“The discovery of propolis pellets preserved among the grave goods in some late Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic burials of northeastern Italy testifies that hunter-gatherers were already using resinous aromatic bee products, suitable also for therapeutic-palliative purposes,” they concluded.

“Bee products were largely used by prehistoric communities for technological, artistic and medical purposes, but here we report, for the first time, its possible use for therapeutic-palliative dental filling.”

The findings were published in PLoS ONE and can be accessed here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Earthing: A New Way to Connect With The Earth

Many people have found that they sleep better, have more energy, and experience pain relief by connecting with the Earth. It’s called earthing and occurs naturally when we walk barefoot on the earth. Photo courtesy: Mario Tama/Getty Images

What could help Tour de France riders sleep soundly, heal road rash and tendinitis, and feel vitality and high morale during the grueling days of the race? The secret is the special sleeping bag — an “earthing” bag. The discovery of how to use the Earth’s energy for healing can benefit everyone just as the energy has benefited those who go barefoot outdoors.

The ancient Chinese knew about the healing capacity of the Earth and called the energy Earth qi. Matteo Tavera, a French agronomist, saw all living beings as antennas electrically related to the Earth and sky. He deplored our modern lifestyle and said in 1969 in his book La Mission Sacrée, “The electrical contacts are [now] slowed down or totally missing.”

Clinton Ober arrived at his understanding of earthing by connecting intuition, traditional medicine, and observation with modern science. He describes how he came to this understanding in the book Earthing: The most important health discovery ever? by Clinton Ober, Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., and Martin Zucker.

Born in 1944 and raised on a farm in Montana, Ober became responsible for the farm and his five siblings as a teenager, when his father died. An elder relative counseled him that a higher education wasn’t needed, that knowledge could be found by reading and consulting experts.

After farming, Ober went into the business of installing cable TVs and became very successful in the cable and telecommunications industries.

In 1993, after a life-threatening illness, Ober realized he was a slave to his possessions, gave away or sold all, and embarked on a journey around the United States to find his mission.

His first hint came in Florida: “Then one night while sitting and staring across the bay while parked in Key Largo and asking what should I be doing, I automatically wrote on a piece of paper ‘become an opposite charge,’” he says in the book.

“Upon rising the next morning, an odd notion went through my mind that the earth itself was trying to tell me something. … A compelling force would lead me to understand that we humans have a bioelectrical connection with the earth — one that with simple ground contact, neutralizes charge in the body and naturally protects the nervous system and the endogenous fields of the body from extraneous electrical interference.”

Ober continued his journey and came to rest in Sedona, Ariz., still wondering what his mission was. In 1998, the answer came out of a question: “Could wearing rubber—or plastic-soled shoes … insulating us from the ground, affect health?” His homemade experiments led him to his first published study, recounted below.

About a dozen years ago, chronic diseases were found to originate from inflammation, a condition caused by free radicals. Free radicals are molecules or atoms with unpaired electrons in their outer shells. They circulate in the body, stealing electrons from healthy tissues.

The results are chronic diseases, from gum disease to cancer. The circulation of too many free radicals is called oxidative stress, which is believed to play a major role in causing aging and age-related diseases.

Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) — low-grade electronic pollution from electronic equipment and the wiring systems in our buildings — increases inflammation and weakens our immune systems. EMFs also decrease melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone.

For Ober’s first study, Grounding the Human Body to Neutralize Bio-Electrical Stress From Static Electricity and EMFs, published in 2000 in ESD, he chose 60 subjects who had muscle and joint pains and problems with sleeping. It was shown that all the subjects had an electrical current on their bodies that averaged more than 2 volts.

They were randomly divided into a grounded group and an ungrounded control group. Both group’s electric fields were comparable, the controls being slightly weaker. All were given carbon-fiber mattress pads for their beds with a wire going to the ground outside the bedroom. For 30 subjects, the wire was connected to the ground, which reduced their field to an average of 10 millivolts or less while sleeping.

The results were strongly in favor of grounding. One hundred percent of the grounded subjects felt refreshed upon waking. About three-quarters felt relief from chronic pains, and 80 percent had relief from muscle stiffness.

None of the controls experienced pain relief from muscles or joints, but three controls felt improvement in every other category. The grounded group also reported relief from respiratory ailments, PMS, sleep apnea, and hypertension.

Earthing: The most important health discovery ever? is a fascinating account of bare-bones research done without millions in grant money or a doctorate degree. The book is suitable for any age.

What do city dwellers do who don’t want to get their feet black while walking the city streets barefoot? (Yes, one can be grounded through concrete but not over the subway.) How do you ground yourself while in a high-rise? Ober has designed sheets, mats, even flip-flops for grounding.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Population of Mountain Gorillas Up by 12 Percent

Photo courtesy: Sharon Gray/CC BY-ND 2.0

There still aren't many mountain gorillas left in their forest homes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, but WWF reports that a new tally from the Uganda Wildlife Authority shows that there are now 880 mountain gorillas, up from 786 in two years ago when the the last census was taken.

400 of mountain gorillas now live in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, with 480 in the Virunga Massif.

WWF cites successful conservation efforts as being behind the population increases. Mountain gorillas are the only great ape species increasing in population currently.

As for the continued threats to mountain gorillas, WWF says:
The greatest current threats to mountain gorillas are entanglement in hunting snares, disease transfer from humans, and habitat loss. The prospect of oil exploration in Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park by petroleum companies is also cause for concern.

While oil drilling would not occur directly in gorilla habitat, industrial activity would compromise the integrity of Virunga National Park, Africa’s first national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An influx of workers and heavy equipment could greatly threaten the park’s prized biodiversity, which also includes elephants, hippos and the rare okapi antelope.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Are Humans Losing Intelligence?

I have long had a theory that humans are actually going backwards when it comes to intelligence. There is such a wealth of achievements made by ancient man that we are unable to explain or duplicate today. If we, with all our knowledge, state-of-the-art equipment, and new technologies cannot replicate these accomplishments - there must be a good reason. And how to explain geniuses like Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla or Alexander Graham Bell?

I have always thought they were "throwbacks" (if you will) to a time when man was far more intelligent than he is today. Now it seems, there is a study that will validate my theory. I feel almost brilliant.

The study, published today in the journal Trends in Genetics, argues that humans lost the evolutionary pressure to be smart once we started living in dense agricultural settlements several thousand years ago.

"The development of our intellectual abilities and the optimization of thousands of intelligence genes probably occurred in relatively non-verbal, dispersed groups of peoples [living] before our ancestors emerged from Africa," said study author Gerald Crabtree, a researcher at Stanford University, in a statement.

Since then it's all been downhill, Crabtree contends.

The theory isn't without critics, with one scientist contacted by LiveScience suggesting that rather than losing our smarts, humans have just diversified them with various types of intelligence today.

Early humans lived or died by their spatial abilities, such as quickly making a shelter or spearing a saber-toothed tiger. Nowadays, though almost everyone has the spatial ability to do ostensibly simple tasks like washing dishes or mowing the lawn, such tasks actually require a lot of brainpower, the researchers note.

And we can thank our ancestors and the highly-tuned mechanism of natural selection for such abilities. Meanwhile, the ability to play chess or compose poetry likely evolved as collateral effects.

But after the spread of agriculture, when our ancestors began to live in dense farming communities, the intense need to keep those genes in peak condition gradually waned.

And its unlikely that the evolutionary advantage of intelligence is greater than it was during our hunter-gatherer past, the paper argues.

"A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his/her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate. Clearly, extreme selection is a thing of the past," the researchers write in the journal article.

Anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 genes determine human intelligence, and these genes are particularly susceptible to harmful changes, or mutations, the researchers write. Based on knowledge of the rate of mutations, the team concludes that the average person harbors two intelligence-stunting genetic changes that evolved over the last 3,000 years.

The hypothesis is counterintuitive at first. After all, across the world the average IQ has increased dramatically over the last 100 years, a phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect. But most of that jump probably resulted from better prenatal care, better nutrition and reduced exposure to brain-stunting chemicals such as lead, Crabtree argues.

But just because humans have more mutations in their intelligence genes doesn't mean we are becoming less brainy as a species, said psychologist Thomas Hills of the University of Warwick, who was not involved in the study. Instead, removing the pressure for everyone to be a superb hunter or gatherer may have allowed us to evolve a more diverse population with different types of smarts, he said.

"You don't get Stephen Hawking 200,000 years ago. He just doesn't exist," Hills told LiveScience. "But now we have people of his intellectual capacity doing things and making insights that we would never have achieved in our environment of evolutionary adaptation."

Saturday, August 25, 2012

New Species of Carnivorous Sponge Found

This photograph of the recently discovered carnivorous harp sponge, Chondrocladia lyra, was taken in Monterey Canyon, off the coast of California, at a depth of about 11,500 feet (3,500 meters). Photo courtesy: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

A new carnivore shaped like a candelabra has been spotted in deep ocean waters off California's Monterey Bay.

The meat-eating species was dubbed the "harp sponge," so-called because its structure resembles a harp or lyre turned on its side.

A team from the Monterey Bay Research Aquarium Institute in Moss Landing, Calif., discovered the sponge in 2000 while exploring with a remotely-operated vehicle. The sponges live nearly 2 miles (3.5 kilometers) beneath the ocean's surface.

"We were just amazed. No one had ever seen this animal with their own eyes before," said Lonny Lundsten, an invertebrate biologist at the research institute and one of the first to see the harp sponge.

Researchers later collected two sponges and made video observations of 10 more. Comparison with other carnivorous sponges confirmed that Chondrocladia lyra, the sponge's scientific name, was a new species and revealed some interesting insights into the sponge's life cycle. The results of the analysis were published Oct. 18 in the journal Invertebrate Biology.

Velcro-like barbed hooks cover the sponge's branching limbs, snaring crustaceans as they are swept into its branches by deep-sea currents. Once the harp sponge has its meal, it envelops the animal in a thin membrane, and then slowly begins to digest its prey.

The sponges cling to soft, muddy sediment on the ocean floor with root-like "rhizoids," living among other mysterious creatures. The first harp sponges scientists found had only two branches, called vanes. Additional remote-vehicle dives revealed creatures with up to six vanes, Lundsten told OurAmazingPlanet. The biggest were 14 inches (36 centimeters) tall. The team believes the harp sponge evolved this elaborate, candelabra-like structure to increase the surface area it exposes to currents so it can capture more prey.

The harp sponge is one of four new species Lundsten has helped identify. "We've seen only 1 percent of Monterey Bay and it's still one of the most well-studied regions of Earth in deep water," he said. "I can look out over the waters from MBARI and imagine thousands of species out there yet to be discovered."

Scientists first discovered sponges can be carnivores less than 20 years ago. Most live in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to fully understand their lifestyle.

The harp sponges collected by MBARI scientists mark the first time researchers observed the complete cycle of a carnivorous sponge's unique approach to sexual reproduction.

Most sponges release actively swimming sperm into the surrounding seawater, but it appears that all carnivorous sponges transfer sperm in condensed packages (spermatophores), the researchers report.

The swollen balls at the tip of the harp sponge's upright branches hold the sperm packets. The balls release the spermatophores into passing currents, and other nearby sponges capture the packets on fine filaments along their branches. The sperm then works its way from the packets into the host sponge to fertilize its eggs, according to the research scientists.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Climate Change Destroying Bamboo and Threatening Pandas' Existence

Tai Shan was born at 3:41 a.m. July 9, 2005, weighing only a few ounces at birth. The first cub for mother Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) and father Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN), he was conceived through artificial insemination March 11, 2005, in a procedure performed by National Zoo scientists and veterinarians.
Photo courtesy: Jessie Cohen/Smithsonian's National Zoo

Though they are one of the most beloved animal species on Earth, pandas aren't safe from the devastating effects of climate change.

According to a new study, projected temperature increases in China over the next century will likely seriously hinder bamboo, almost the sole source of food for endangered pandas. Only if bamboo can move to new habitats at higher elevations will pandas stand a chance, the researchers said.

However, if conservation programs wait too long, human inhabitants and activities could claim all of the new habitats capable of supporting bamboo in a warming world.

"It is tough, but I think there's still hope, if we take action now," said research team member Jianguo Liu, a sustainability scientist at Michigan State University. "If we wait, then we could be too late."

The researchers used various climate-change models to project the future for three bamboo species relied on by pandas in the Qinling Mountain region of China, which represents about a quarter of the total remaining panda habitat. These models varied in their specific predictions, but each forecasted some level of temperature rise within the coming century.

The results suggest that if the bamboo is restricted to its current distribution area, between 80 and 100 percent of it will disappear by the end of the 21st century, because it won't be able to grow under the increased temperatures.

If, however, bamboo can move into new, cooler areas (which will reach the same temperatures as current bamboo habitats due to warming), then there is hope. However, that all still depends on the extent to which humans can curtail climate change by limiting greenhouse-gas emissions in the future.

"All the models are quite consistent — the general trend is the same," Liu told LiveScience. "The difference is the degree of the changes. Even with very hopeful scenarios, where we allow bamboo to go anywhere it wants, there are still very severe consequences. Of course, if the bamboo has nowhere to go, then the panda habitat will be lost more quickly."

Many pandas in the wild currently live in nature reserves protected from human encroachment. However, almost all of the land encompassed by those reserves will be unsuitable for the bamboo if the temperatures rise as predicted.

But if conservationists plan ahead now to move those reserves in line with changing bamboo habitats, then it may be possible to preserve the land the pandas will need.

And climate change is not the only challenge facing giant pandas, one of the most endangered species in the world, researchers say. Human activities have already severely limited the animals' habitats, and their dependence on a single source of food, one that's not that nutrient- or energy-rich, doesn't help.

In addition to their native habitats in China, pandas live around the world in zoos and breeding centers. But Liu doesn't predict a bright future for the bears if they lose their wild habitats.

"To really protect pandas, you cannot just stick [them] into a breeding center or a zoo," he said, noting that the animals' genetic diversity would suffer, among other issues. "That's not a long-term solution."

The results of the study are published in the Nov. 11 issue of the journal Nature Climate Change.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Pothole Gardener Writes a Book

All photos courtesy: the potholegardener

The Pothole Gardener is a success story: they are calling him the "Banksy of Guerrilla Gardening". He started out doing tiny-and ephemeral-installations in potholes on his street because he didn't have his own garden. Creating a miniature scene, photographing it and seeing what happened.

His renown grew: word of his creations was picked up by the press, his blog had 25,000 hits a month.

And then the movie starring Brad Pitt, no, first the book: The Little Book Of Little Gardens.

It's a sweet book that documents his works to date: a journey through London's streets and neighbourhoods via the pothole creations. And TreeHugger has a sneak preview.

The book is a series of delightful and cleverly staged pictures on different themes: golf, bicycles, snow, fashion, knitting; you name it, he has thought of a way to portray it.

The reasons for his success are obvious. The little gardens make people smile. They are witty, whimsical and a gift to harried passers-by. As explained in the foreword to the book:
He’s giving us something innocent and unsullied. And it’s because he wants nothing back from us in return. His simple creations are a reminder of the good in people and they make us present and appreciative of our world. And there in lies his genius.

As he explains: "I just want to create little moments of happiness and remind people to stop and smell the roses."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Belly Buttons: Unexplored Territory Until Now

No! This is not my belly button. Photo courtesy: hweiling / cc

After decades of exploring the wealth of biodiversity found in some of the planet's remotest ecosystems, from high atop the forest canopy, to down deep within the ocean's murky depths, scientists have now turned their attention to one of the darkest, most foreboding places of all -- your belly button!

Sure, that little built-in lint trap might not seem so terribly interesting, aside from being a battle scar from the early days of our infantile independence. But for a team of researchers, lead by Dr. Robert Dunn, delving into the human belly button is actually like visiting a unknown world. And they should know; they've bravely participated in dozens of harrowing navel expeditions in search of new life.

That is to say, they've swabbed and cultured bacteria samples from 60 participants across the U.S. -- discovering in the process more than 2,000 distinct species, some of which are quite uncommon.

"As we looked at belly buttons we saw a terrible, yawning, richness of life," writes Dr. Dunn. "The average belly button hosted 50 or so species and across belly buttons we found thousands of species (and as we sample more belly buttons, we continue to find more species). The vast majority of these species are rare. Right away something struck an ecological chord. The belly buttons reminded me of rain forests."

Interestingly enough, despite the broadness of their sampling, Dunn and his team found that the commonest species found were present in around 70 percent of belly buttons tested -- though no one bacteria was present in all of them.

"Although it remains difficult to predict which species of bacteria might be found on a particular human, predicting which species are most frequent (or rare) seems more straightforward, at least for those species living in belly buttons," researchers write in their study, appearing in the journal PLOS ONE.

What Dunn and his team failed to uncover, however, was why each person's navel seems to be so distinct -- conceding: "what we cannot seem to account for is which species are present in any particular belly button."

But that should come as no surprise; scientists have really only begun to poke around the belly button just recently and there's certainly far more to learn.

"The belly button is one of the habitats closest to us, and yet it remains relatively unexplored."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Urine-Powered Generator Invented by Four Teenage Girls in Africa

Photo courtesy: © Maker Faire Africa

Everywhere you go, people gotta pee. That's just a fact of our human existence. But instead of just getting flushed down the toilet, human urine could also be a feedstock for a truly unique renewable energy source.

Imagine being able generate six hours of electricity from a single liter of urine. Thanks to the innovative minds of four teenage girls in Africa, it's no longer necessary to just imagine it - they've done it.

A urine-powered generator was presented at Maker Faire Africa in Lagos by Duro-Aina Adebola (age 14), Akindele Abiola (14), Faleke Oluwatoyin (14) and Bello Eniola (15), and according to the Maker Faire Africa blog, the system works like this:

•Urine is put into an electrolytic cell, which separates out the hydrogen.

•The hydrogen goes into a water filter for purification, which then gets pushed into the gas cylinder.

•The gas cylinder pushes hydrogen into a cylinder of liquid borax, which is used to remove the moisture from the hydrogen gas.

•This purified hydrogen gas is pushed into the generator.

Photo courtesy: © Maker Faire Africa

Here's hoping this catches on and becomes the start of something big.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Leaks Detected in Earth's Protective Shield

When Earth’s magnetic field and the interplanetary magnetic field are aligned, for example in a northward orientation as indicated by the white arrow in this graphic, Kelvin–Helmholtz waves are generated at low (equatorial) latitudes. Photo courtesy: AOES Medialab

Our planet's protective magnetic bubble may not be as protective as scientists had thought. Small breaks in Earth's magnetic field almost continuously let in the solar wind — the stream of magnetic, energized plasma launched by the sun toward the planets — new research has found.

"The solar wind can enter the magnetosphere at different locations and under different magnetic field conditions that we hadn't known about before," Melvyn Goldstein, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

Charged particles in the solar wind can interrupt GPS signals and power systems, as well as create dazzling auroras.

The magnetosphere is the planet's first line of defense against the solar wind. Scientists knew that this plasma stream occasionally breached the magnetosphere near the equator, where the Earth's magnetic field is roughly parallel to the magnetic field in the solar wind. The new study, published Aug. 29 in the Journal of Geophysical Research, found that these breaks can happen under a wider range of conditions.

"That suggests there is a 'sieve-like' property of the magnetopause [the outer edge of the magnetosphere] in allowing the solar wind to continuously flow into the magnetosphere," Goldstein said.

The European Space Agency's Cluster mission, a set of four satellites that fly in close formation through the Earth's magnetic field, gathered the data that show how the solar wind can get through. Equipped with state-of-the-art instruments for measuring electric and magnetic fields, the Cluster satellites fly in and out of the magnetosphere and document the microscopic magnetic interactions between the Earth and the sun.

From 2006 Cluster observations, scientists found that huge swirls of plasma along the magnetopause could help the solar wind penetrate the magnetosphere when the terrestrial and solar wind magnetic fields were aligned. Those swirls of plasma are known as Kelvin-Helmholtz waves, and they can be 24,850 miles (40,000 kilometers) in diameter.

As Kelvin-Helmholtz waves slide past the magnetopause, they can create giant vortices, similar to how wind blowing across the ocean causes waves. The huge waves can spontaneously break and reconnect magnetic field lines, creating openings that let the solar wind slip through.

When the interplanetary magnetic field, indicated by the white arrow, is oriented westward (dawnward) or in the opposite, eastward (duskward) direction, magnetopause boundary layers at higher latitude become most subject to Kelvin–Helmholtz instabilities. Photo courtesy: AOES Medialab

'Not a perfect magnetic bubble'

The new findings suggest that these magnetic field line breaks can also occur where the terrestrial and solar wind magnetic fields are perpendicular, at high latitudes near the poles.

The alignments of the solar wind magnetic field and Earth's magnetic field are key factors. A perpendicular alignment makes the boundary between the two fields less stable and likely generates more Kelvin-Helmholtz waves — and more magnetic field breaches.

"We found that when the [solar wind] magnetic field is westward or eastward, magnetopause boundary layers at higher latitude become most subject to Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities, regions quite distant from previous observations of these waves," Kyoung-Joo Hwang, a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who led the study, said in a statement.

"In fact, it's very hard to imagine a situation where solar wind plasma could not leak into the magnetosphere, since it is not a perfect magnetic bubble," Hwang said.

Anyone who has read my blog knows that this is way beyond me. I borrowed this engrossing material from Originally written by Crystal Gammon, an OurAmazingPlanet Contributor.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Autumn - A Time for Cooling Off and Reflection

Warm sunshine plays on the turning leaves of a young tree in this rural scene. Photo courtesy: gillmar | shutterstock

Sandwiched between blazing summer and chilly winter, autumn is the "cooling off" season. Nighttime arrives earlier, temperatures begin to drop and most vegetative growth decreases. Animals begin to prepare for the dearth of food that generally comes during the winter, gathering supplies or traveling to warmer climates. This is my favourite season followed closely by Spring.

The cycle of seasons is caused by Earth's tilt on its axis and the planet's orbit around the sun. When the axis points toward the sun, that hemisphere experiences summer. The hemisphere tilted away from the sun experiences winter.

After Earth travels a quarter of the way around the sun, the axis is pointed along the planet's path, parallel to the star. At the equator, the sun is directly overhead at noon. These moments in time are called equinoxes, when the length of daylight and nighttime are approximately the same.

"Astronomical autumn" begins with the autumnal equinox and ends with the winter solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere, that is from around September 22 to about December 22, though it varies from year to year. In the Southern Hemisphere, the season runs from about March 20 to June 21. Some cultures, however, consider the equinox to be the midpoint of the season.

Weather forecasters and some countries define the season as "meteorological autumn" by the three months in which the weather changes. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is September, October, and November. In the Southern Hemisphere, meteorological autumn occurs in March, April, and May.

Falling temperatures

Autumn brings a nip in the air. How much of a change is felt depends on the location of the area on Earth. Regions near the equator experience fairly constant temperatures throughout the year, while those farther north or south experience greater variations.

For the continental United States, autumn temperatures average 53.9 degrees F (12.2 C) — an 18-degree (10 degrees C) drop from average summer temperatures. Average autumn temperatures range from a high of 72.7 F (22.6 C) in Florida to a low of 26.7 F (minus 2.9 C) in Alaska.

Why do leaves change color?

Autumn is also known as "fall," particularly in the United States, because during autumn, leaves change color and fall from the trees.

Fall leaves. Photo courtesy: stock.xchng

In response to chilly temperatures and fewer daylight hours, leaves stop producing green-tinted chlorophyll, which allows them to capture sunlight and make energy. Because chlorophyll is sensitive to the cold, certain weather conditions like early frosts will turn off production more quickly.

Meanwhile, orange and yellow pigments called carotenoids — also found in orange carrots — shine through the leaves' washed out green. The red color in some leaves comes from anthocyanins, which unlike carotenoids, are only produced in the fall. They also give color to strawberries, red apples, and plums.

But red leaves are also signal of distress. If you see leaves of a tree turning red early, in late August, the tree is most likely suffering from a fungus or perhaps a ding from a reckless driver.

A time of celebration

Autumn is generally regarded as the end of the growing season. Also known as the harvest season, autumn ushers in a time of celebration for many farming cultures when they gathered in their crops.

Thanksgiving is one such holiday, celebrated in the United States and Canada. Native American tribes engaged in a variety of festivals.

In China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, the Mid-Autumn, or Moon, Festival celebrates the end of the fall harvest, and occurs near the fall equinox.

The people of Britain celebrate a harvest festival around the first full moon near the fall equinox.

Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrated by those of the Jewish faith, lasts seven days and takes its roots from agriculture.

The foliage of Hocking Hills is so breathtaking the fall time that it's known as Southeastern Ohio's Scenic Wonderland. Photo courtesy: George Bailey | Dreamstime

Autumn quotes

The season is often regarded as a melancholy time and has inspired many writers and poets. Here are some quotes about autumn:

"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower." — Albert Camus

"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking successive autumns." — George Eliot

"Autumn … the year's last, loveliest smile." — William Cullen Bryant

"Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree." — Emily Bronte

"Now Autumn's fire burns slowly along the woods and day by day the dead leaves fall and melt." — William Allingham

"Autumn in New York, why does it seem so inviting?" — Vernon Duke

"Summer ends, and autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night." — Hal Borland

"I saw old Autumn in the misty morn stand shadowless like silence, listening to silence." — Thomas Hood

"Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits." — Samuel Butler

"Autumn is as joyful and sweet as an untimely end." — Remy de Gourmont

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Cocaine and Marijuana Taint Air of Some Italian Cities

The air in Rome carries traces of marijuana and cocaine. Photo courtesy: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic (Stefan Bauer)

Rome is known as a heady and stimulating city, but is that because it's a vibrant cultural center where modern life buzzes against a backdrop of thousands of years of history, or because small quantities of cocaine waft through the streets?

Researchers at Italy's Institute of Atmospheric Pollution Research have published the results of a year-long study that monitored psychotropic substances in the air of eight Italian cities: Bologna, Florence, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome, Turin and Verona.

The scientists found trace quantities of marijuana and cocaine in the air of all eight cities, with the highest total drug concentrations in Turin and the lowest in Palermo. Other substances monitored included nicotine and caffeine, which were also detected in all of the cities.

But the miniscule concentrations detected — about .26 nanograms of cocaine per meter cubed in Turin, where levels of that drug were highest — are not nearly enough to alter the mind states of Italy's city dwellers. A typical grain of salt weighs about 80,000 nanograms.

The authors of the study say their research gives insight into geographical drug-use trends (while Turin seems to have the most active cocaine trade, the college towns of Florence and Bologna have the most free-floating marijuana particles) and hope the results will be used to inform policy.

Cocaine use in Italy has also left an imprint on other parts of the environment. In 2005, scientists at Milan's Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research checked the Po River in northern Italy for benzoylecgonine, a unique byproduct of cocaine that's expelled in a user's urine. Their study found levels that corresponded to the daily consumption of about 8.8 pounds (4 kilograms) of cocaine in the region.

In America, no analogous survey of psychotropic drugs in urban air has been published. But trace quantities of a range of pharmaceuticals, from epilepsy medication to sex hormones, have been found in American drinking-water sources.

And a 2009 study led by a scientist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth found that between 85 and 90 percent of paper money in America is dusted with small quantities of cocaine. Bills can become contaminated during drug deals; while being used directly to imbibe cocaine, as when they're rolled up to snort the drug; or in banks' currency-counting machines, where the bills mingle with already-contaminated money.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Great Walnut Heist

Photo courtesy: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported | J.Dncsn

Two truckloads of walnuts, worth around $300,000 in total, have gone missing out of Northern California, and local deputies are after a man with a Russian accent who they say is the prime suspect.

Sheriff's deputies in Tehama County, an area noted for its walnut orchards, got a call from a freight brokerage firm on Oct. 26, reporting that a shipment of 42,000 pounds (19,050 kilograms) of unprocessed walnuts was still unaccounted for two days after it was scheduled to arrive in Miami, according to the Record Searchlight of Redding, Calif.

While deputies searched for the missing cargo, they found out that another shipment of 40,000 pounds (18,144 kg) of processed walnuts, also originating from Tehama County and supposedly headed for San Antonio, had gone missing after being picked up on Oct. 23.

In both cases, the man who showed up with a semi truck and a legitimate-looking purchase order was described as a 6-foot-2, 198-pound (90 kg) white male with a "very distinct Russian accent," said Lt. Dave Greer of the Tehama County Sheriff's Office.

The 40,000-pound load of processed walnuts is valued at $225,000 and the 42,000-pound load of unprocessed walnuts is worth about $73,000, Greer told Life's Little Mysteries.

The trucking company contracted to ship the walnuts to San Antonio confirmed that the man with the Russian accent was not the man who was hired to do the job, despite the fact that he reportedly had convincing purchase orders.

The man is believed to have used a white semi truck with a decal on the passenger door that reads "InTech Transportation" in both alleged walnut thefts, Greer said.

Though the recent heists may seem bizarre, cargo theft is a common and costly problem in the United States.

According to the website of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the crime costs the United States around $30 billion annually. And a recent report from CargoNet, a cargo theft-monitoring network connected with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, found that the crime happens in California nearly twice as often as in any other part of the country. The most frequently stolen item, says the report, is food.

Why the alleged thief targeted walnuts is yet unknown, but the tree nuts seem to be a versatile food. They have nearly twice as many antioxidants as other commonly consumed nuts, according to researchers at the University of Scranton, and a recent study, partially funded by the California Walnut Commission, found they may improve sperm quality.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Conservation Knows No Boundaries

A Basra reed warbler and its young. Photo courtesy: Mudhafar Salim/Nature Iraq

The Mesopotamian Marshes, a vast expanse of reeds and open water twice the size of Norfolk, are the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East and support a number of species of global conservation concern. The marshes hold the only breeding population of the globally-endangered Basra reed warbler and the world's highest wintering numbers of the threatened marbled duck.

Now the marshes are under threat again, this time from the building of huge dams in Turkey on the Tigris and Euphrates, the rivers that feed and nourish a wetland complex so important for biodiversity as well as being the homelands of the Marsh Arabs, made famous by the writings of Wilfred Thesiger. The charity Nature Iraq is actively campaigning to influence the building and use of these giant structures that can have such a devastating effect for the lives of people and wildlife.

Construction of a 'mudhief' (reed house). Photo courtesy: Mudhafar Salim/Nature Iraq

Another NI major activity has been surveying more than 220 sites throughout Iraq to identify the country's key areas for biodiversity. Often in difficult and very dangerous circumstance these surveys by young NI biologists have spanned seven years, summer and winter, and are the first step towards establishing a network of protected areas. This is wonderful conservation work from a country where the daily news is rarely uplifting. They have already produced their own bird field guide – in Arabic – the first Middle East country to do so.

But it's not just conservation in Iraq that is NI's motivation. It may surprise many that this NGO has just made a donation of $1,000 to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's £1m appeal to purchase 143 acres of land next to Cley Marshes on England's North Norfolk coast. Nature Iraq has received much help from colleagues in the UK, especially through BirdLife International, and makes this donation as an act of global support for the protection of marshes everywhere.

Dr Azzam Alwash, the president of NI, who was instrumental in the programme of re-flooding the Mesopotamian Marshes after years of drainage under the Saddam regime and has stayed in Cley village during visits to England, explains the reasoning behind the donation: "Nature Iraq has received great support from international organisations for the conservation of our famous Mesopotamian Marshes. This small token to support the extension of Cley Marshes is to honour that support and show our brotherly care for the environment everywhere."

Iraq's first bird book. Photo courtesy: Richard Porter/Nature Iraq

He later tells me: "Wetlands are under attack worldwide and we need to draw parallels between the reedbeds of Cley and the marshes of Iraq. Those who are fighting the good fight need to help each other and learn from each other. Nature Iraq made the donation not only as a gesture of goodwill to wetland enthusiasts in the UK, but also in the hope of raising the profile of the marshes of Iraq within the community that loves wetlands, as we all need to work together to help pressure the Iraqi government, as well as the Turkish government and the Iranian government, to do the right thing and make sure that the marshes of Iraq survive the era of dam building and climate change."

Boat traffic in the Iraq marshes. Photo courtesy: Omar Fadhil/Nature Iraq

On the newly acquired land, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust will create more reed beds, grazing marsh and freshwater for marsh harriers, bitterns, bearded tits, otters, water voles and avocets which live at Cley Marshes; for the countless thousands of migratory birds which use it; and for the 100,000 people who visit each year – and for whom a new centre is to be built – the Simon Aspinall Education Centre, after the Middle East naturalist who lived in Cley.

Encouraged by the NWT education endeavours and those of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), Nature Iraq is embarking on an exciting new programme to encourage Iraqi visitors to the Mesopotamian Marshes to witness the wonders of this national and global treasure. "If we can replicate some of the actions done by conservation bodies in Britain to make people appreciate wildlife, I will be a very happy man," Azzam said.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fukushima Fish May Be Inedible For a Decade

Tests have found that radioactivity levels in fish near the Fukushima nuclear site have been slow to fall. Photo courtesy: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Fish from the waters around the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan could be too radioactive to eat for a decade to come, as samples show that radioactivity levels remain elevated and show little sign of coming down, a marine scientist has warned.

According to a paper published in the journal Science on Thursday, large and bottom-dwelling species carry most risk, which means cod, flounder, halibut, pollock, skate and sole from the waters in question could be off limits for years.

Sample fish caught in waters near the stricken reactors suggest there is still a source of caesium either on the seafloor or still being discharged into the sea, perhaps from what is left of the cooling waters. As the levels of radioactive isotopes in the fish are not declining as fast as they should have, the outlook for fishing in the area is likely to be poor for the next 10 years, the paper's author told the Guardian.

"These fish could have to be banned for a long time. The most surprising thing for me was that the levels [of radioactivity] in the fish were not going down. There should have been much lower numbers," said Ken Buesseler, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US, who wrote the paper titled Fishing For Answers Off Fukushima.

He said his findings – taken in part from Japanese research and sampling of fish in the area – showed how difficult it was to predict the outcome of a nuclear incident such as that at Fukushima. In 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March and killed nearly 20,000 people, the nuclear reactors suffered a series of serious radiation leaks as their cooling systems failed, and workers fought frantically to try to shut them down. It was the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, in Ukraine in 1986.

In the wake of the incident, the Japanese government sought to calm public fears by lowering the levels of radioactivity that would mean a fish was deemed unsafe for human consumption. As of April 2012, fish can only be sold in Japan if it contains less than 100 becquerels of caesium 134 and 137 in seafood per kilogram of wet weight, down from a previous limit of 500 becquerels.

Buesseler said this was not because scientific advice had changed, but because the government wanted to reassure people. "This is not lethal – I'm not trying to be alarmist," he said. "But the levels [of radioactivity in the fish] are measurable and consistent. It's a small increase in risk."

However, eating large quantities of such fish over a long period could be harmful, he said. Fish is a more important part of the Japanese diet than in countries such as the US and the UK.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Zoo Elephant in Korea Imitates Human Speech

Chief trainer Kim Jong-gab touches the mouth of Koshik, a 22-year-old Asian elephant, at the Everland amusement park in Yongin, South Korea, Friday, Nov. 2, 2012. Koshik uses his trunk to pick up not only food but also human vocabulary. He can reproduce five Korean words by tucking his trunk inside his mouth to modulate sound. Photo courtesy: Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

An elephant in a South Korean zoo is using his trunk to pick up not only food, but also human vocabulary.

An international team of scientists confirmed Friday what the Everland Zoo has been saying for years: Their 5.5-ton tusker Koshik has an unusual and possibly unprecedented talent.

The 22-year-old Asian elephant can reproduce five Korean words by tucking his trunk inside his mouth to modulate sound, the scientists said in a joint paper published online in Current Biology. They said he may have started imitating human speech because he was lonely.

Dr. Angela Stoeger, from the University of Vienna in Austria, came across YouTube videos of the pachyderm speaking at the Everland Zoo in South Korea and made contact with the zoo to record him for a study.

Stoeger played recordings of Koshik's voice for native Korean speakers and asked them to write down what they believed was being said.

"We found a high agreement of the overall meaning," said Stoeger to BBC. "Human speech has two important aspects, one is pitch (how high or low a sound is) and one is timbre (the musical quality of a voice), and Koshik is matching both of these aspects."

Stoeger and her colleagues found Koshik was saying annyeong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuwo (lie down) and choah (good).

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

"If you consider the huge size of the elephant and the long vocal tract and other anatomic difference - for example he has a trunk instead of lips...and a huge larynx - and he is really matching the voice pitch of trainers, this is really remarkable," said Stoeger to BBC.

Researchers said the clearest scientific evidence that Koshik is deliberately imitating human speech is that the sound frequency of his words matches that of his trainers.

Vocal imitation of other species has been found in mockingbirds, parrots and mynahs. But the paper says Koshik’s case represents “a wholly novel method of vocal production” because he uses his trunk to reproduce human speech.

Researches don't believe he understands the words though. Between the ages of five and 12, he was the only elephant at the zoo and his only social contact was with humans.

"Where there's a will, there's a way. Koshik's drive to share vocalizations with his human companions was so strong that he invented a whole new way of making sounds to achieve it," said Stoeger to LiveScience. "We suggest that Koshik started to adapt his vocalizations to his human companions to strengthen social affiliation, something that is also seen in other vocal-learning species — and in very special cases, also across species."

Asian and African elephants have also been known to mimic sounds like parrots, mynah birds, sea lions and a beluga whale. African elephants have been known to imitate the sound of a truck engine and a male Asian elephant in Kazakhstan was said to utter sounds resembling Russian and Kazakh.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Beautiful Fences That Serve an Environmental Function

All photos courtesy: © Benjamin Spöth
We know that bees, birds and butterflies -- nature's pollinators -- play a huge role in health, self-sustaining ecosystems and genetic propagation in agriculture. There's no doubt that the decline in pollinator populations (like bees) have many worried about the future of food availability.

One way to increase pollinator populations is to incorporate suitable habitats into our urban gardens, be it planting butterfly-friendly species like milkweed or, as German, Eindhoven-based designer Benjamin Spöth has done, installing some kind of habitable framework like his Pollinators' Paradise.

Made out wood and metal, this structure is intended as a modular fencing unit that can be adapted in various ways to attract and provide habitats for birds, bees, moths and other pollinating insects, says Spöth:
Beetles, wasps, bees or moths: all are welcome in Pollinators' Paradise, a modular garden fencing system to provide food and shelter to nature's creepy crawlies. About one third of the food we eat is dependent on insects for pollination. Population levels of many important pollinators are seeing a steady decline due to monoculture and loss of habitat, primarily.
The unit can be customized to one's local pollinator species:
Individual elements can be integrated into the structure to cater to specific species. There are hollow rods and twigs for nesting, hardy refuges for the winter and pots for flowering plants, guaranteeing a steady supply of nectar during the rest of the year.
Like many other designs that hope to give an edge to urban biodiversity by turning residual spaces into animal habitats, I would like to see this modular system tested in action to see whether it is effective or not. It probably is, but in any case, the concept itself of finding a way to boost pollinator species is sound; and it's one that we can incorporate in our gardens, even if it's just letting that milkweed grow. More over at Benjamin Spöth's website.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Slime Mold Found to Have Spatial Memory

The yellow slime mold leaves a thick mat of translucent slime (left on the agar plate) behind it as it moves, ooze that it later avoids. Now researchers have found the goo uses the gel trail as a kind of memory to navigate. Photo courtesy: Audrey Dussutour

Even without a brain, a slime mold can essentially remember where it's been, helping it navigate past complex obstacles, much like modern robots, researchers say.

These findings reveal how ancient organisms could solve certain problems well before complex brains evolved, scientists added.

Slime molds were once thought to be a kind of fungus, but later work revealed that these puddles of goo are part of a motley group of microbes known as protists. The yellow slime mold the investigators studied, Physarum polycephalum, is actually a giant single cell up to more than 1 square foot (900 square centimeters) in size with up to several million identical cell nuclei inside.

"For a single-celled organism, it has continually surprised researchers with its abilities, such as solving mazes, anticipating periodic events, and even making irrational decisions like we do," said researcher Chris Reid, a complex systems biologist at the University of Sydney in Australia. "It is truly a remarkable creature that is redefining our notions of intelligence."

This slime mold leaves a thick mat of translucent slime behind it as it moves, ooze that Physarum later avoids. As such, the researchers thought the slime mold might use this gel trail as a kind of memory.

"The key misunderstanding might be that slime mold has a memory like we do," Reid told LiveScience. "I can't stress enough that the slime mold is incapable of creating, storing or recalling memories like ours, because it does not have a brain, or even neurons."

"Rather, our definition of memory is very broad — the storage and retrieval of information relating to past events," Reid said. The study authors reasoned this slime mold uses its trail as a reminder of where it has been, leading Reid to liken its ooze "to Hansel and Gretel's bread trail, or Ariadne's thread used by Theseus to escape the Minotaur's labyrinth in Greek mythology."

To explore their idea, the scientists challenged the slime mold with a test in which the organism had to reach a sugary meal it could sense that was located behind a U-shaped barrier. Similar problems are common tests of robots to see if they can autonomously navigate their way past complex obstacles to reach desired goals.

In some experiments, the slime mold could detect its own gel trail. In others, the researchers covered the area with extra gel that masked the slime mold's own trail.

When Physarum was able to detect its own trail, it reached the food about three times more often and about 30 percent faster, on average. Slime molds blinded to their own trails spent almost 10 times longer pointlessly re-exploring areas they had already visited, Reid said.

"This is the first time anyone has demonstrated a spatial memory system in a creature without a brain, and the first piece of evidence that supports the previously untested theory that an externalized memory could have been used by primitive organisms in the distant past to solve problems tackled by complex brains like ours today," Reid added.

Reid and his colleagues plan to continue investigating these trails of slime.

"There could be a whole wealth of information that the slime mold is leaving behind in the slime to communicate with its future self, or even other slime molds that happen to be around," Reid said.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Chinese Soft-Shelled Turtles Expel Urea Through Mouths

The Chinese soft-shelled turtle (Pelodiscus sinensis) excretes urea, the waste product of urine, from its mouth, scientists report Oct. 11, 2012, in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Photo courtesy: Serene Lee

Soft-shelled turtles from China can essentially expel pee from their mouths, researchers say.

This odd ability may have helped them invade salty environments, researchers explained.

Scientists investigated the Chinese soft-shelled turtle (Pelodiscus sinensis). These turtles are often found in brackish swamps and marshes. Intriguingly, these reptiles submerge their heads in puddles on dry land, even though they are air-breathers that mainly depend on their lungs for oxygen, making them unlikely to breathe underwater.

Some fish excrete urea, the main waste product found in urine, out their gills. The researchers speculated these turtles might excrete urea out their mouths when they dunk their heads into water, seeing as the reptiles possess strange gill-like projections there.

The investigators bought soft-shelled turtles from the local Chinatown in Singapore and measured how much urea the reptiles excreted in their urine by sticking plastic tubes onto their hindquarters. Surprisingly, the researchers discovered the water the turtles were kept in held more than 15 times the urea that was in their urine.

The scientists then kept the turtles in dry boxes and gave them a puddle they could dip their heads into. They found the reptiles could immerse their heads underwater for up to 100 minutes and could excrete up to about 50 times more urea through their mouths than from their rear ends. In addition, when the researchers injected the turtles with urea, they found saliva levels of urea were 250 times greater than in the blood.

"It is generally accepted that the kidney is responsible for the excretion of urea in vertebrates, except fish," said researcher Yuen Kwong Ip, a molecular physiologist at the National University of Singapore. "Contrary to this common notion, our results suggest that the mouth can be a major route of urea excretion in soft-shelled turtles."

The scientists conjecture that Chinese soft-shelled turtles excrete urea through their mouths instead of with their kidneys because of their salty environment.

"Soft-shelled turtles are often found in brackish water or even the sea," Ip told LiveScience.

Peeing requires drinking freshwater to wash out urea, but saltwater is not safe to drink. Instead, all these turtles need to do is rinse their mouths out with local water, avoiding the problems that come with drinking saltwater.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Madagascar's Palm Trees on Endangered List

Madagascar's Manambe Palm (Dypsis decipiens) is threatened with extinction. Photo courtesy: M. Rakotoarinivo/RBG Kew

Madagascar's forests are shrinking, and that's bad news for palm trees on the majestic island. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced this week that extinction threatens 83 percent of the island's native palm trees.

Palms are an important part of Madagascar's forests, which are home to a wide variety of life. All 192 species of palm tree assessed in this study are unique to the island. Palm trees are also important for Madagascar's communities, providing edible palm hearts and materials for house construction. The main threats to palm trees come from loss of habitat due to logging and agriculture, and the harvesting of the trees for palm hearts and seeds.

"The figures on Madagascar's palms are truly terrifying, especially as the loss of palms impacts both the unique biodiversity of the island and its people," said the IUCN's Jane Smart, in a statement from the conservation group. "This situation cannot be ignored."

The palm trees were added in the latest installment of the IUCN Red List, which catalogues plants and animals that are in danger of going extinct.

"The majority of Madagascar's palms grow in the island's eastern rain forests, which have already been reduced to less than one-quarter of their original size, and which continue to disappear," said William Baker, from the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, in a statement. This decline "threatens all of the remarkable wildlife that occurs there," he said.

One recently discovered tree, the Tahina palm (also known as the suicide palm), has been classified as critically endangered. This tree is large enough to be seen on Google Earth, growing up to 59 feet (18 meters) tall. A couple months after flowering and producing seeds, it dies. There are only 30 mature Tahina palms left in the wild, according to the release.

All of the species studied are listed as at least "threatened," a step below "endangered." But many do qualify as "endangered," or even "critically endangered," meaning there's an imminent risk of extinction unless immediate action is taken.

To protect the palms, habitat must be protected through partnerships with local people, the IUCN said. That's a challenge given the political instability of the country, the release noted. The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens has started several conservation projects to protect certain palm species.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sweden in Danger of Losing Last Coral Reef

A close-up image of Lophelia pertusa coral taken by a remotely operated vehicle 1,450 ft depth in 2009. What a beautiful coral. It would be tragic to lose the last coral reef in Sweden. Although this image was taken in the Gulf of Mexico, the species also lives in Swedish water. Photo courtesy: Lophelia II 2009 Deepwater Coral Expedition.

Despite the frosty scenes its name evokes, Sweden has a coral reef. In fact, it formerly had three, and the last one remaining is in danger of dying out. The expression - 3 strikes and you're out - is most apt here. If Sweden loses their last cold-water coral reef, the world will be a poorer place for it.

To prevent the collapse of this unique ecosystem, Mikael Dahl, a marine biologist from the University of Gothenburg, has begun introducing corals from Norwegian waters that could replenish the Swedish reef, according to a statement from the university.

Sweden's sole coral reef, the Säcken reef, is dominated by a cold-loving species called Lophelia pertusa. But it's in decline due to disruption by fishermen who drag trawls, or nets, across the ocean bottom to catch fish, nets that can also break apart and kill coral. Pollution by nutrient runoff also causes sediments to fall onto the surface of corals, which hampers their growth and can eventually kill them. Now the reef's corals are spread throughout an area of about 53,820 square feet (5,000 square meters), which is slightly smaller than an American football field. And it continues to shrink.

Corals reefs depend on larvae from other reefs to naturally recover after being damaged, and researchers hoped that larvae from nearby Norwegian waters could serve this role. But a study Dahl published recently in the journal Coral Reefs found that Sweden's Säcken reef is isolated, and only receives a tiny amount of larvae from Norway. So Dahl has begun to introduce these cold-loving corals, placing them on the Swedish reef.

"It is highly unlikely that the Säcken reef will recover naturally," Dahl said in a statement. "Instead, interventions are needed in order to ensure the survival of the reef."

Dahl said he hopes the Norwegian larvae will survive being transferred to the new reef and be able to grow and multiply.

Dahl's study also found that some of these corals are likely more than 6,000 years old. "These individual corals have been living there in the deep darkness since long before the Pharaohs built the pyramids," Dahl said.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Artist Turns Trash Into Bird Houses

Installing a new avian condo. Photo courtesy: © Happy City Birds

Have you ever wonder why Angry Birds are so angry? Maybe it’s because not enough of us are building them charming birdhouses like street artist Thomas “Dambo” Winther. Dambo’s Happy City Birds project is upcycling trash into birdhouses for natures little recyclers.

This birdie condo is not only delightfully creative; it makes this wall an interesting focal point of the building. Photo courtesy: © Happy City Birds

My Modern Met quotes the artist as saying, “Birds are actually great at recycling and we need to appreciate this. They eat old food, fruits, berries, and nuts lying about. In that way, they help to clean and distribute seeds around our cities, so new plants can grow.”

A broken skateboard makes an excellent roof for this home. Photo courtesy: © Happy City Birds

Indeed, birds will repurpose twigs, fibers and various pieces of trash and turn them into nests to lay their eggs in.

After making some bird houses by hand, they are hung separately instead of in a group. Photo courtesy: © Thomas "Dambo" Winther

The project started off, like many, on MySpace where Dambo documented his manufacturing and installation of 250 Birdhouses in Denmark from discarded and donated materials--save for the money he spent on nails-- in 2008.

Birds inhabit every environment possible. Here a condo brightens up a dingy alley way. Photo courtesy: © Happy City Birds

Since then he’s built and installed hundreds of birdhouses in various cities. Including, 150 colorful birdhouses in Beirut, and as the Happy City Birds project he now hosts workshops and events to teach others how to make birdhouses.

In the mini-documentary above about the Happy City Birds project, Dambo tells a story of two boys at a birdhouse building workshop who still wanted to build birdhouses even after they had ran out of materials. The two boys went home and salvaged speakers from an alley and brought them back to be upcycled into birdhouses.

Photo courtesy: © Happy City Birds

The artist-turned-birder wants us to reexamine our views on trash and to question whether we are leaving space in urban cities for birds. He hopes that one day one of the young kids who attend his workshops grows up to build an entire house from trash.

Just like your friends, Dambo’s Happy City Birds project is now on Facebook. You can look over the photo gallery to get ideas if you too would like to build birdhouses. Birdhouse plans are available in Danish, German and English so you can make your own birdhouse.