Basketball Player’s Long Reach Saved Dolphin’s Life.
Clifford Ray, a former basketball player for the Golden State Warriors, once used his exceptionally long reach to save a dolphin. It was in 1978 that a Marine World bottlenose dolphin known as “Doctor Spock,” had swallowed a large metal bolt. To avoid surgery, marine animal experts sought out someone with exceptionally long arms, and that is when Ray got the call. Using his 45” reach, Ray thrust his arm into Dr. Spock’s stomach, actually dolphins have two stomachs, until he felt and removed the metal bolt. Even more amazingly, the unanesthetized Mr. Spock calmly endured the ordeal and did not bite Ray. Years later, when Ray visited Marine World, Mr. Spock always seemed to acknowledge him almost by way of a thank you.
World’s Heaviest Flying Animal.
In Mongolia, the great bustard is probably the world’s heaviest flying animal. The male birds can weigh in at over 30 pounds. They also take a different approach to migrating. Rather than flying thousands of miles with few stops, these beefy birds take four months to travel thousands of miles while migrating from Mongolia to the southern Chinese provinces when the weather gets colder. They conserve energy by spending as little as 2% of that time actually in the air. Making frequent stops for food and rest, the great bustard take the slow and steady approach to migration.
Gigantic New Tarantula Species Found in Sri Lanka.
It is the stuff of bad dreams. A newly discovered tarantula-like species, Poecilotheria rajaei is related to the “tiger spiders” of the region. It has a total leg span of over 8 inches the size of a human face and, unlike most tarantulas, is highly venomous. The creatures are native to the forests of Sri Lanka and are brightly colored with stripes, hence the moniker, tiger spider. Because of deforestation in the northern Sri Lanka forests where these arachnids live, they are disappearing and are starting to inhabit old buildings as a substitute for the missing trees. While the taxonomy suggests that this new discovery is a separate species, confirmatory DNA testing will be done shortly.
Move over honey bees, a honeyproducing wasp is being studied in south Texas. Scientists from the London Zoo are zeroing in on this unusual species, known as the Mexican honey wasp, in an effort to understand the behavior and honey producing capabilities of this much overlooked insect. Although the quarter-inch individuals are small for wasps, their nests are enormous at 4 feet wide. They can contain some 20,000 wasps and 3,000 queens. In South America, the wasp’s honey is farmed but in Texas, little is known about the particular kinds of flowers the wasps visit and pollinate. An important offshoot of the research concerns the development of new pesticides that are friendly to social insects such as wasps and honey bees. Today’s pesticides are strongly suspected in the spread of colony collapse disorder in honey bee populations in the United States.
Purple Sea Urchins Already Primed for Climate Change?
Off the coast of Oregon and California, Stanford University scientists studying purple sea urchins, have been surprised at the animal’s viability under acidic ocean conditions. Sea urchins are ancient, and may have survived in one form or another mass extinctions that wiped out more complex and less adaptable species. DNA analysis shows that the sea urchin’s genetic toolkit contains a grabbag of genes: some that can favor acidic environments as well as those that favor the opposite. By hedging its genetic bets, so to speak, the sea urchin might be one species of animal that will perhaps once again survive where other species perish.
Another New Theory on Life’s Origins.
Michael Blaber, a professor in Florida State’s College of Medicine, is pioneering a new theory about the earliest emergence of life on earth billions of years ago. Most current theories posit that the most likely component of life first to have formed from available prebiotic molecules was RNA. But according to Professor Blaber’s research, the ten amino acids that were likely present on earth before life began would have needed a high-salt environment in order to fold into the proteins that began life’s processes on a microscopic level. So far, using as few as 12 amino acids out the 20 which are used by all life forms today, Blaber has been able to successfully create folded proteins. If his team can achieve foldable proteins with only the ten naturally occurring amino acids, he will have the proof he needs.
Among Giant Moa, the Female Was Really a Giant.
700 years ago, New Zealand’s giant moas vanished, the consequence of extensive hunting by the native population. Scientists studying moa fossils today are puzzling over what appears to be an extreme example of sexual dimorphism the size difference between male and female of the same species. In humans, sexual dimorphism is relatively minimal, but in the giant moa, it was extreme. Based upon the fossil evidence, the female moas were three times the size of the males.
Transparent Mouse Brains May Bring More Clarity to Brain Science.
As President Obama opens an initiative on brain science research, a new technique developed at Stanford University in California may be a game changer. By injecting a series of chemicals into dead mouse brains, the researchers have been able to create a nearly transparent brain that has all of the brains proteins, RNA and DNA still intact. The gel-like brain that results leaves the neurons in place, as well as interconnecting structures called axons. The technique will have to be improved in order to work more effectively on the human brain which is of course much larger and requires the dissolution of many more fatty lipids to achieve transparency.
Blind Cave-Dwelling Fish Also Hard of Hearing.
It has been long understood that fish living in dark cave waters will eventually evolve into sightless, eyeless fish. But researchers were surprised to learn after experimentation that the same fish also seemed to have major hearing deficits when compared to surface fish. At high frequencies, the cavefish heard virtually no sounds and it appears that they are missing one third of the hair cells needed for hearing that are present in surface fish. One theory explaining the loss of hearing centers on the fact that cave background noise also tends to be in the higher frequencies. Whether this hearing deficit is an adaptation to filter out noise or whether some other phenomenon is at work will most likely be determined when other blind cave dwelling species also have their hearing tested.
New Species of Porcupine.
Only 2% of the original Brazil’s Northeastern Atlantic Forest remains today. Logging, clear-cutting and fires have destroyed the rest. In all likelihood, one of the forest’s denizens, a porcupine new to science, would have vanished before it was ever recognized as a new species. However, scientists have found the new porcupine in an isolated and preserved patch of the forest. They have named it Coendou speratus, a combination of its local name and the Latin word for “hope.” The porcupine is a tree-lover and climbs up and down the forest trees in search of seeds. The lead researcher aptly summed up the situation: “Given the rate of destruction in this area, where 98 percent of the original Northeastern Atlantic Forest has already been destroyed, imagine how many species could have gone extinct before we even knew about them.”
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
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