New World Record for Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide.
Some world records provide a reason to celebrate. Not this one. It is estimated that in the late eighteenth century, carbon dioxide levels in the air would have been about 280 ppm (parts per million). Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory has been measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels since 1958. The carbon dioxide reading from Mauna Loa that year was around 315 ppm. Last week, for the first time in millions of years, the carbon dioxide measurement at the observatory exceeded 400 ppm.
In both domestic settings and in the wild, instances in which animals take care of other species of animals have been noted with surprising frequency. What motivates animal-animal “adoptions?” Author Jenny Holland’s 2011 book, Unlikely Friendships, and a forthcoming sequel, Unlikely Loves, consider some of the possible explanations. Instinct might play a role, since the instinct to care for one’s own offspring is hardwired in mammals and necessary to perpetuate the parent’s genes. The parental instinct might be projected onto animals perceived to be juvenile, such as the captive apes that treated a house cat as if it were an infant ape. But other motivators could include social companionship, which many mammals require, or mutual benefit. More controversial is the notion that empathy, an emotion that humans often think of as strictly human, might be experienced by other animals as well.
Our Serpentine Friends.
In the New York TImes Science section Dana Jennings reviews a new book about snakes. “Serpentine,” by Mark Laita, takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of snakes on every continent except Antarctica. Combining stunning color photography with fascinating facts, this book might just pry open some closed minds about snakes.
Ancient Inner Ears.
Finding fossilized bones from millions of years ago is difficult enough, but a recent analysis of the body’s tiniest bones, ossicles from the middle ear, is remarkable. In this case, the ossicles are from Paranthropus robustus, which lived about 2 million years ago and Australopithecus africanus which lived 23 million years ago. Even though both hominids were separated by many years of evolution, the malleus, another small middle ear bone, in both was “humanlike.” Palaeoanthropologist Rolf Quam of Binghamton University believes that these small ear bones suggest an evolutionary link to modern humans and may even implicate the foundation of human hearing that would eventually be attuned for speech. Other anthropologists disagree, and maintain that few if any fair inferences can be drawn from the shape of these tiny bones.
No, it’s not another zombie cult movie. Osedax worms are just another example of how nature fills every niche. When whales die, their bones retain nutrients locked inside of hard calcium formations. Exploiting that resource is the Osedax worm. This bizarre mouthless creature uses secreted acid to dissolve the calcium and burrow inside the whale bones. Once inside, the female dines on the nutrients inside the bones and also lays eggs, which are fertilized by the dwarf male Osedax which is just a fraction of the female’s size.
A Fish Tree of Life.
Our studies of vertebrates may have shortchanged the largest vertebrate group: fish. Richard Broughton, associate professor of biology at the University of Oklahoma, is helping to close that gap. He has published two studies that offer a new look at the evolution of fish species, and has created a new fish tree of life. The fish tree is a collaboration of Broughton and other scientists as well as the National Science Foundation.
West Nile Virus Benefits from Climate Change.
An Israeli study sponsored by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in
Stockholm has examined the incidence of West Nile virus infections in Europe and has concluded that warmer average temperatures have caused mosquito populations to spread West Nile virus to areas of Europe that were never before infected. The virus begins in infected birds which are bitten by mosquitos that in turn bite humans, thereby transmitting the disease. Once infected, West Nile victims, especially those with compromised immune systems, can suffer irreversible brain damage. According to the study, increased temperatures, even more than increased humidity, benefits the West Nile virus.
Wind Turbine Massacre.
Wind turbine electricity generation has been rightfully hailed by environmentalists as a limitless source of clean energy. Unfortunately, the early designers of wind turbines never took into proper account the many birds that would be killed by the turbines’ powerful blades. It is estimated that half a million birds and bats are killed by wind turbines every year—in one particularly deadly Oregon wind farm alone, 10,000 birds are killed each year. Steps are being taken to address the problem. For example, new designs eliminate the early latticework of some turbines that actually attract birds. Moreover, future wind farms ought to avoid locations that are known to be migratory bird routes. So far, a 50% reduction in bird deaths has been achieved in one location by implementing measures like these.
Fighting Back Against Drug-Resistant Bacteria.
It has been well documented that the persistent and widespread use of antibiotics over the past decades has led to the proliferation of dangerous drug-resistant bacteria. As medical science begins to run out of options, a new strategy is starting to take shape. The fact is, even the nastiest drug-resistant bacteria have enemies. Predatory bacteria, bacteria that attack other bacteria but not human cells, are being spotlighted as a possible new avenue to fight fire with fire. So far, predatory bacteria have successfully killed off large number of harmful bacteria in laboratory studies. Animal trials will begin soon.
Spider Dinner Date.
It is well known that female black widow spiders, among other arachnids and some insects, will often devour their male companion after mating. From an evolutionary perspective, this is logical since the female gets a free meal and the male will pass on its genes, albeit posthumously. But recent research shows that in a few species of spiders, the male sometimes will devour the female. This, of course, makes less sense. Scientists are looking for the motivation behind this strange behavior in at least one spider, Micaria sociabilis. So far, they propose that since the behavior only seems to take place some 20% of the time, it could simply reflect the male’s brutal change of mind about the pairing, a sort of divorce spider-style.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.