Virus Ties Snakes into Knots.
Snakes afflicted with a relatively new disorder have demonstrated unusual symptoms. They tend to tie themselves into knots, stare off into space, stop eating and eventually waste away. DNA analysis has revealed that a virus is at work, but there is still confusion as to the virus’s origins. It is possible that because the virus contains elements of at least two different viruses, it evolved in snakes millions of years ago. Another possibility is that the virus is the result of the recent genetic merger of the ebola virus and another virus. Unfortunately, there is at this point no effective cure.
More from National Geographic.
Animals Experience Awareness.
A distinguished cadre of scientists, including Stephen Hawking, have signed a document called the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. The document relies upon a body of research that has established that many animals, even octopuses, experience awareness. One of the key supporting elements of the Declaration is the discovery that the human neocortex is not a prerequisite for consciousness. Other brain structures can duplicate many of the indicia of consciousness and are found in animals as varied as dolphins, birds and octopus. Moreover, animals share with us similar sleep patterns and new brains research has revealed “emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries” in animals that are analogous to those in humans.
More at Discovery.
Not All Chimps Are Created Equal.
Human genius is rare, but it is a fact that some people score well above average on intelligence tests. The same appears to be true for chimps. Natasha, a chimp who hails from Uganda, scored “off the charts” on chimp intelligence tests. She also demonstrates her smarts in her everyday activities, including her ingenious escapes and by using clever ruses to tease humans. Of course, chimps have surprised us before, one example being their elaborate manufacture of termite fishing tools. No one factor explains Natasha’s intelligence, but rather it appears to be a suite of enhanced cognitive abilities that makes her stand out.
More at Discovery.
Raccoons in Europe.
One of the imports to Europe from the New World was a furry creature that was as wily as a fox. Now, the North American raccoon has extended its range throughout Europe and is spreading diseases, such as rabies, in its wake. Not as severe, but far more common is the spread by raccoons of a nematode worm — a parasite which quickly spreads to and infect other mammals. In the United States, as many as 80% of animals are infected with the parasite. For reasons that are not clear, European countries have not, as of yet, instituted measures to control the raccoon.
More at Science Daily.
Watch the PBS Nature film Raccoon Nation:
Genetic Trick Makes Snakes Infrared Detectors.
Some snakes can detect infrared frequencies, which are produced as heat from warm mammal bodies that are a potential meal. The gene responsible for this feat is called TRPA1. But the gene is not unique to snakes. Humans and other animals also have the gene, but put it to different uses. For people, TRPA1 is useful in detecting chemical irritants, such as tear gas and pungent spices. Blood feeding bats also use a genetic trick to sense infrared. In their case, the gene that has evolved is called TRPV1. Again, in humans, that gene is used to detect capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers. Both of the genes are millions of years old, but their application has evolved as different creatures adapted to their specific environments.
More at the New York Times.
The Big Thaw.
An ominous record was set in the Arctic this week. A record low in the coverage of the Arctic sea ice was recorded by satellite imaging. A large storm that brought abnormally high temperatures to the area in August was partially to blame, but the transition of sea ice into a giant ‘slushie’ has been going on for many years. Climate scientists expect that the diminishment of the Arctic sea ice will affect weather patterns around the world.
More at Live Science.
Triassic Amber Snares Oldest Arthropods.
A tiny piece of amber found in Italy contains the remains of what may be the oldest arthropod remnants ever discovered. Arthropods are animals without vertebrae that include insects, spiders and crustaceans. The amber contained two new species of mites and a fly. They are estimated to be 230 million years old.
More at Latinos Post.
Below the Seas, Light is Everywhere.
Scientists are discovering that bioluminescence is far more common in deep sea creatures than previously appreciated. A recent study shows that about 20% of the deep sea species surveyed were using bioluminescence is some way. The study also showed that specific wavelengths are involved, mostly in the blue to green spectrum, and that some creatures can detect ultraviolet light even though the sun’s ultraviolet emissions to not penetrate very deeply below the sea surface.
More at Red Orbit.
Elephants at Extreme Risk Due to Poaching.
African elephants are being killed in far greater numbers than in previous decades because of an increased demand for ivory. Chinese and other far eastern countries have been ineffective in banning the sale of ivory and African game officials are unable to contend with the hoards of poachers who have embraced the thriving black market trade in ivory. Added to the elephants’ troubles is the fact that continuing warfare in many of the affected countries has made ivory poaching a cash crop to fund weapons.
More at CNN.
Dogs Dig Archaeology.
Taking advantage of the exceptional smelling ability of dogs, archaeologists are enlisting several of them in the hunt for ancient human graves. One of the new enlistees, Migaloo, is a labrador mix. She recently set what is believed to be a new record when she found a 600-yearold human bone buried below six feet of earth. Notably, the dogs don’t get to keep the bones they find — instead, they are rewarded with a game of tennis ball catch.
More at Discovery.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.