Whale Skeletons Recovered from World’s Driest Desert.
Researchers from several countries have discovered the fossilized remains of some 80 whales. What makes the discovery so interesting is that they were found in the world’s most extreme dessert – the Atacama Desert in Chile. Several species of whales, as well as other ocean mammals, have been identified so far. The researchers must next determine the age of the fossils (present estimate is that they are around 8 million years old) and answer the question why so many whale fossils were collected in one place.
Read more at nature.com.
Baby Steps – Humans, Rats, Cats, Monkeys and Birds Start Off on the Same Foot.
A researcher named Francesco Lacquaniti of the University of Rome has conducted an experiment to determine how humans and other mammals learn to walk. Although humans might think that they are unique in this area, it turns out that is not quite the truth. Using an electromyograph (EMG) to measure the use of muscles, Lacquaniti found that human newborns, as well as well as their four-legged newborn cousins, employed very similar muscle engagement and demonstrated essentially the same two phases of newborn walking development. They also had a similar four-phase progression of walking development into adulthood. Walking, it would seem, has a common evolutionary origin in the distant past.
Read more in New Scientist.
Discovery of Eleven New Bee Species Has Apiarists A-Buzz.
Last week, the American Museum of Natural History announced the discovery of several new species of bees. There are a total of 11 new species in the group, which includes four new species identified in New York City and its surrounds. One of the new species, Lasioglossum gotham, (yes, that’s gotham) apparently makes its living pollinating the diverse flowers found in the botanical gardens in New York City and its suburbs. What is most encouraging about the proliferation of bee species is that it may offset the well-publicized and still mysterious declines in bee populations elsewhere in the world.
Read more at Global Animal.
Counting Snow Leopards Is Neither Easy Nor Encouraging.
Counting snow leopards is not easy. These beautiful but reclusive cats prefer the most difficult and mountainous snow-covered terrain. So, in order to count them, researchers rely of inferred sightings, which include tracks, scat and even local residents’ accounts. Recent estimates of the snow leopard population in Central Asia were from 350 to 500, spread across several countries of the central Himalayas. However, after analyzing the genetic content of scat, the researchers found fewer than the expected number of snow leopards — the remaining genetic material was from different carnivores. Although this is disappointing news for the survival of the species, at least the genetic testing of scat in the future will probably yield much more useful information about genetic diversity of the remaining snow leopards.
The Bigger They Are, the Faster They Run – from Bees.
It may be an old joke that elephants are afraid of mice, but when it comes to bees, it’s no joke at all. Elephants avoid bees at all costs, and this natural fear has been put to good use by farmers in Kenya. In a clever exploitation of that fear, farmers are keeping elephants out of their crops, where they can eat prodigious amounts of food, by the use of bee hives. The hives are strategically situated and then connected by wires so that if the wires are disturbed by elephants, the hives vibrate and bees are quick to respond. Once the sound of buzzing bees is in the air, the elephants are in full retreat and even warn their comrades of the danger. And, since elephants’ memory is quite good, they don’t need to be reminded too many times. In fact, in the wild, elephants who are stung by bees from a particular tree will thereafter avoid that tree.
Dinosaurs Used ‘Bag of Bones’ Approach to Nutrition.
Thinking of dinosaurs, one imagines that a huge bone structure was vital to carrying the tremendous body bulk of these animals. It was, of course, but certain bones also served another purpose according to a recent study. Osteoderms are bones that are contained entirely within the skin. Two sauropod (plant eaters) specimens from Madagascar that contained half-football shaped osteoderms have led to a theory that the bones’ purpose was not structural but nutritional. The osteoderms contained high concentrations of phosphorus and calcium, necessary to the animals’ growth, egg laying, and the development of its structural bones. By storing these minerals in osteoderms, and re-absorbing them when feeding conditions were bad, the sauropods evolved something of a nutritional storehouse for ‘rainy days.’ Today, alligators and armadillos are among the modern animals that use osteoderms.
Read more at RedOrbit.
Evolution, Like Politics, May Be Local.
Why does a single species of frog come in such a varied assortment of colors and patterns? University of Montreal biologist Mathieu Chouteau has a theory based upon a recent experiment. Chouteau brought 3,600 plasticene painted models of frogs to the Amazon rainforest. The models varied in color and pattern. Some of them mimicked the two colonies of local imitator poison dart frogs. Each of the two colonies of frog has a distinct color and pattern. Local predators know that the poison dart frogs in their area are in fact poisonous and so they avoid attacking them. Using the two different sites, which were separated by only 10 kilometers, Chouteau deployed the model frogs to determine which ones would more likely be attacked by predators. The result at each site was that the model frogs that most resembled the local frogs were attacked the least, while the models that deviated the most from the locals color and pattern experienced the most attacks. Chouteau believes that the experiment shows that the same species of frog will evolve extremely local coloration and pattern changes in tandem with the local predators’ learning patterns.
Read more at Science Daily.
The much studied worm, C. elegans, was one of the first species to have its genome completely mapped. Now it has a new role—space traveler. As humans contemplate long-term trips to Mars and beyond, an unanswered question is how our DNA will hold up over prolonged periods to the many insults from outer space radiation. To find out, in 2006 scientists launched colonies of C. elegans into earth orbit as part of an automated experiment to measure how they would respond to long-term space exposure. So far the news is encouraging. After several years and multiple generations in space, C. elegans has prospered in earth orbit, which bodes well for the humans who might follow.
Read more at Space.com
Forget the Terminator – These New Robots Are Softies.
Thus far, most robotic inventions have been modeled after creatures with internal skeletons. A team from Cambridge, Massachusetts has come up with a different idea. Rather than employing the weight and complexity of articulated joins and complex motors, they have modeled their robots on creatures without internal skeletons, such as squid and worms. The new “soft” robot uses plastic materials and pressurized gas to create a pneumatic approach to robotics. Although the inventors acknowledge that their robots cannot be used in every environment in which hard robots are used, the new breed might have the edge when flexibility is paramount.
Some Invasive Species Not in it for the Long Run.
Invasive species transported around the world by international flights and cargo ships have received much attention over the years. In an interesting turnabout, studies show that some invasive species are disappearing from their new environment, even though they at first appeared to be successful. Take the Argentine ant, which found its way to New Zealand and seemed to be flourishing. The ant seemed to thrive on the climate and soil type, and its predilection for human habitats made it a most unwelcome pest. So after some 20 years of success, why is the Argentine ant beginning to disappear from New Zealand? Scientists believe that low genetic diversity is part of the problem, which makes sense if only a few individuals were in the pioneering group.
Read more at Live Science.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.