Stories tagged biology

Fewer moose on the loose: Climate change is taking a toll on Minnesota's moose population, putting them in line to be added to the state's species with special concerns list.
Fewer moose on the loose: Climate change is taking a toll on Minnesota's moose population, putting them in line to be added to the state's species with special concerns list.Courtesy USDA Forest Service
While it's been a pretty good 16 years for Minnesota wolves and bald eagles, that's not been the case for moose. The behemoths will likely be moving on to the state's list of species with special concerns, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. In total, 67 animals and 114 plants are being proposed to be added to the lists while 15 plants and 14 animals – including wolves and bald eagles – have rebounded in numbers to be removed from the designations. Climate change is being credited as the big threat to Minnesota's moose population.

Sep
26
2012

Dead zombie bee: Up to 80 percent of bee hives along the West Coast may be impacted by the "zombie bee" phenomenon. Parasite flies plants inside the bees, like this one, that ultimately kill them.
Dead zombie bee: Up to 80 percent of bee hives along the West Coast may be impacted by the "zombie bee" phenomenon. Parasite flies plants inside the bees, like this one, that ultimately kill them.Courtesy wintersixfour
Zombies are all the rage these days, and not just on cable TV shows or at pub crawls.

There's a growing trend in "zombie bees" working its way around the West Coast. Just this week beekeepers in Washington state report finding evidence of "zombification" of their bees.

The impacted bees get their name for their changing behaviors once they host the parasitic flies that cause the trouble. While most bees spend their nights nestled snuggling in a comb, these "zombie bees" actually go out flying in very erratic patterns. Like many other night bugs, the zombie bees fly to light and usually die quite soon.

What's really at play is that the tiny parasitic flies plant eggs into the host bee. Those eggs grow into maggots that eat the inside of the host bee that ultimately cause its demise.

Evidence of zombie bees was first found in 2008 near Sacramento, Calif., and beekeepers around the west coast have seeing the spread of the problem in the years since.

Researchers are trying to figure out if this parasite problem is a factor in the bee population declines that have been going on nationwide. One researcher has set up a website – ZombeeWatch.org – to allow amateur beekeepers to share information about zombie bees they are finding around their hives. It is also looking for people who want to step forward to be "zombee hunters."

There has been one isolated report of zombie bees in South Dakota. So far, two investigations in Minnesota have turned up no evidence of zombie bees.

Twin Cities Naturalist
Twin Cities NaturalistCourtesy Twin Cities Naturalist
Lilacs are blooming, ospreys are returning to nests, spring continues to delight. Check out this week's Monday Phenology: Nature's Week in Review where professional naturalist Kirk Mona of Twin Cities Naturalist discusses what new nature observations were seen around the Twin Cities area in the past week.

Phenology is the science of the seasons. It looks at how and when nature changes according to seasonal climatic conditions.

View a summary of phenology sightings in the Twin Cities this past week.

Jan
07
2011

It's a big drawer: But I'm a grown man. This could be close...
It's a big drawer: But I'm a grown man. This could be close...Courtesy JGordon
The human body is more or less the density of water: 1000 kg per cubic meter. (I tend to sink, so I'm probably a little denser, but I think we're close enough here.)

I weigh about 150 pounds, or 68 kg (2.2 pounds per kilogram).
1000kg / 1m^3 = 68kg / ?m^3
? = .068
So the volume of my body is about 0.068 cubic meters.

Each cubic meter equals about 35.3146667 cubic feet.
.068 x 35.315 = 2.401
So the volume of my body is about 2.401 cubic feet

My file drawer is 1 foot wide by 9 inches high (or .75 feet) by 2 feet and 2 inches deep (or 2.167 feet)
1 x .75 x 2.167 = 1.62525
So the volume of my desk drawer is 1.62525 cubic feet

1.62525 < 2.401
So the answer is NO. If you were to blend me up in a giant food processor, and then pour me into my file drawer, I would literally be overflowing.

That's sort of a relief.

Then again, it depends on how much denser I am than water. Maybe I would fit.

You know what's cool? Animation. And folks with the same skills used to bring you Red Dead Redemption and Toy Story 3 are also hard at work creating scientific visualizations that show the machinery of life.

For an interesting presentation of science, checkout the Symphony of Science.

The Symphony of Science is a musical project headed by John Boswell designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form.

Feb
04
2010

Pssst!: I think you would look just wonderful in a tiny hat! Also, watch out for ferrrets.
Pssst!: I think you would look just wonderful in a tiny hat! Also, watch out for ferrrets.Courtesy USFWS
According to a scientist at Northern Arizona University, prairie dogs may have the most complex non-human language. That means that this prairie dog (specifically, the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog) may linguistically exceed even dolphins, whales, non-human primates, and box turtles.

But I’ve watched prairie dogs before, and it doesn’t seem like they’ve got a lot going on. What do they even have to talk about?

My assumption would be that they mostly focus on how other prairie dogs would look dressed up in tiny clothes, and what sort of clothes they might wear, and if male prairie dogs would have to wear suits and female prairie dogs would have to wear dresses, or if any prairie dog would be allowed to wear a suit or a dress.

Apparently not.

The scientist, who has been studying prairie dogs for thirty years, says that the rodents have developed their sophisticated “bark” to warn the other members of their colonies about the specific details of approaching predators. The tiny sonic variations of each bark can contain information about what sort of animal is approaching, what color it is, and from which direction it’s coming.

Prairie dogs react to different predator species in different ways. For something like a coyote, they will retreat to the mouth of their burrows and stand up to watch the approaching animal. For a badger, on the other hand, they will “lie low to avoid detection.”

To test his hypothesis about the complexity of prairie dog barks, the scientist recorded barks associated with different predators in a variety of situations, and then observed the behavior of all the members of the colony after the bark was heard. He then replayed those recordings to other prairie dogs when there were no actual predators nearby, and found that they reacted in precisely the same way as the threatened animals.

It’s like if an axe murderer burst into a crowded gymnasium. Someone might shout, “Run! There’s an axe murderer at the door!” and everyone would run away from the door and try to get behind something axe-proof. If, then, you were to shout, “Run! There’s an axe murderer at the door!” into a crowded (but murderer-less) gymnasium, people might still run away from the door to get behind something axe-proof because of the specific information in the warning. It would be a different reaction than if you were to just scream, or if you shouted that acid was raining from the ceiling, or that the world’s biggest clown had was digging up through the floor.

It’s sort of the same with prairie dogs, really.

Dec
22
2009

Yes, it is perched on a trash can: But only because I think that the trash might provide it with the high calorie diet it would need to operate those large flight muscles.
Yes, it is perched on a trash can: But only because I think that the trash might provide it with the high calorie diet it would need to operate those large flight muscles.Courtesy JGordon
Angels and fairies, if they’re the sorts of things that actually exist, says a biologist from University College London, could never actually fly. That is, if we’re to believe that the way they’re portrayed in art is accurate.

Well, duh. Whether or not angels and fairies can actually fly seems to be something of a non-issue, but… of course. We figured this out a long time ago when we looked at pictures of angels and fairies and thought, well, that doesn’t make a ton of sense. But, no, scientist guy has to go rubbing our faces in it right at the holidays, when angels are feeling really pretty and good about themselves. How do you suppose they feel now, Scrooge? And picking on fairies like that is unconscionable; every time you say a fairy can’t fly, a fairy somewhere gets explosive diarrhea. And fairies live in sock drawers, so you’ve probably ruined some kid’s day too.

But professor Roger Wotton doesn’t care. All the sad angels with body-image issues and violently ill fairies in the world couldn’t stop him from pointing out the fundamental flaws in angel and fairy body design.

First of all, the wings are generally too small for fairies’ and angels’ body sizes. Birds and bats weigh very, very little relative to the area of their wings, otherwise they couldn’t take off. Wotton proposes that the mythical creatures might be able to glide a little, but the wings would need to be totally rigid then, and they’re often depicted in art being folded.

For true flight, Wotton says, angels and fairies would need to have the large, complex muscles of birds and flying insects. But they don’t. (Another fairy is losing bowel control right now.)

So, in the spirit of the holidays, I have drawn a more anatomically correct angel/fairy for you all. Note the delicate limbs, deep, muscular chest, and aerodynamic body. Now you can imagine this realistically perching on top of your Christmas tree, or pulling teeth from beneath your pillow.

You’re welcome! Ho ho ho!

May
19
2009

It's dreaming about biting things: And then clawing them.
It's dreaming about biting things: And then clawing them.Courtesy Ltshears
I know that the title of this post subjects the deadliness of the Komodo dragon to the entire spectrum of relative notions of danger, but be assured that all of them are accurate.

Did you think that the Komodo dragon was not deadly at all? Wrong. It is at least somewhat deadly.

Were you under the impression that the Komodo is about as dangerous as a baby? No, sir. The Komodo is about as dangerous as a dog with a gun in its mouth.

Have you been operating under the notion that a Komodo dragon is no more potentially dangerous than a monkey with a box of grenades? The joke is on you. Komodo dragons are as dangerous as Rambo with a box of grenades.

And so forth.

Mostly, though, if you thought that the Komodo dragon was dangerous only for its filthy mouth, you’ll be surprised to discover that its venom is also quite dangerous.

You may remember some of Science Buzz’s extensive Komodo dragon coverage, in which we make mention of the Komodo dragon’s famously dirty mouth. Komodo dragons routinely say words so filthy and embarrassing that they could (and do) make sailors blush and feel ashamed of their sexuality. The disgusting language that passes through it makes the average Komodo an ideal home for all manner of dangerous bacteria. When the Komodo bites its prey, some of that bacteria is passed into the wound, quickly resulting in a severe infection. This has been a pretty standard explanation of how the Komodo dragon is able to take down animals as large as wild boar and deer (also, being a 150 pound lizard helps, of course).

The field of Komodo dragon research is booming, however, and that group is never satisfied with old answers. With the help of a zoo’s terminally ill Komodo dragon, researchers have now determined that the toxic bacteria in the Komodos’ mouths is only the beginning of the story. Or at least an interesting chapter that isn’t totally vital to the plot of the story. Nope, it’s the venom, they argue, that’s the real killer.

Komodo dragons have a much weaker bite than crocodiles of similar size, the study revealed. But crocodiles are adapted to hold onto their prey. (To drown it, or break it, or whatever. I’m not a crocodile.) Komodos bite and then release. Their teeth create a nice gash, and specially modified salivary glands introduce the lizards’ venom into the wound. The venom has both anti-clotting and hypertensive agents in it. That means that the bite would both increase an attacked animal’s blood pressure, and prevent the wound from closing up. So the animal would bleed to death. Or it wouldn’t necessarily bleed to death, exactly; it would actually probably just bleed until it went into shock and fell over. Then it would get 150-pound lizarded to death. If it managed to survive all the biting, poisoning, and clawing, then it might have the chance to get a fatal infection from the mouth bacteria.

The last time I saw the Komodo dragon in the news, it was for an attack on a Indonesian fisherman, who died of blood loss before his friends could get him to a hospital. That sort of makes sense with this new study, I guess.

After analyzing living Komodo dragons, the scientists looked for similar anatomical structures (for venomous salivary glands) on the fossils of its extinct relatives. They found them on Veranus megalania. The megalania was pretty much just like the Komodo dragon, except that it was probably about 25 feet long, and might have weighed as much as a couple thousand pounds. This means that it would have been one of the largest venomous animals to ever live. It’s interesting to think that an animal that large would even need venom (It seems to be combining a couple different killing strategies, you know?), but I guess it doesn’t matter much, because the megalania went extinct about 40,000 years ago. This is about the same time that humans first arrived in Australia (where the megalania lived), so if the world works anything like an action movie, humans and megalania might have had at least a few epic battles. (One is happening in my head right now. Trust me, it’s awesome. Oh, no! Arthur just got bitten!)

It feels pretty good, doesn’t it, finally being on the leading edge of Komodo dragon research again.

Feb
25
2009

Hey Buzzketeers, brace yourself for some natural beauty.

Hey! Hey! I know what you’re thinking!

Y’all are thinking, “Hey, JGordon, everything in nature is just doing its best, the best way it knows how. Nature is beautiful, smartypants!”

Smartypants yourselves—I wasn’t being sarcastic. I’m just trying to help you experience natural beauty in the safest way possible. So brace yourselves. Buckle up. Stand over a tarp.

Because Mother Nature is about to hurl all over you. In a beautiful way.

So… you know aphids? Little, plant-eating bugs? We don’t often like them in our gardens because they can be pretty destructive to the plants, but, as you pointed out, they’re just little animals, doing their beautiful best. (Your words.)

It turns out that some aphids are able to interact with plant tissue, forcing it to form a gall, or an area of swollen tissue. Aphids can then live inside the gall. Kind of neat, huh?

But what if the gall is damaged? If a hole is punched in the gall, what happens then? Something beautiful.

Some gall-forming aphids species have “soldiers,” individuals that crowd around the rupture in the gall and—get this—puke out sticky goo to cover the hole. As much as two thirds of a soldier’s bodyweight can be comprised of the goo. The soldiers mix the goo with their legs, until it hardens into a crusty little “scab.” The goo is so sticky and quick-drying, in fact, that soldiers often become trapped in it, their own bodies building the gall scab.

Although… now that I think of it, I’m not sure if the soldiers puke the goo, or if they squeeze it out of some other orifice. Take a look for yourself: Puking or squeezing?

Scientists only discovered this awesome puking/repairing technique in the last few years. Even more recently, however, it has been observed that the galls will fully heal only with the aphids’ help. Once the hole is sealed, soldier aphids (the ones that aren’t stuck in the goo forever) tend the healing plant, manipulating its re-growth until the breach is fully healed. Pretty cool.

This is why I like to think of aphids as “Nature’s doctors.” Because, just like “peoples’ doctors,” they puke on wounds, and sometimes get stuck in the puke as it dries.

To make sure that I’m conveying this concept clearly, I have prepared a series of diagrams demonstrating how aphids repair their homes. Instead of aphids, however, I have drawn multiple JGordons. And I have substituted my own home for a plant gall. But the principle is the same.
Aphids consider their damaged home: Their sweater vests clearly mark them as soldiers.
Aphids consider their damaged home: Their sweater vests clearly mark them as soldiers.Courtesy JGordon

The aphids react on instinct: This is the beautiful part.
The aphids react on instinct: This is the beautiful part.Courtesy JGordon

The job done, nature's doctors admire their work
The job done, nature's doctors admire their workCourtesy JGordon