“Elvis” Sighted in the Jungle.
The Mekong River area of Southeast Asia is threatened by deforestation and other human incursions into its ecosystem. In what amounts to another ‘just in time discovery,’ 208 new species of animals have been studied and documented in the area. In nearby Myanmar, one of the species is new to modern science but well-known to local residents. It is a monkey that sports an Elvis-like hairdo. How many of these “new” species will survive into the next decade is an open question.
Read more, and see a slideshow at Huffington Post.
A Rat in Need is a Friend Indeed.
An experiment conducted with lab rats was designed to measure the level of empathy rats feel for each other. In the experiment, free rats were able to see their buddies entrapped in a cage area that had a door. The trapped rats vocalized a distress call which the free rats seemed to act upon. In an obvious effort to free a comrade, rats consistently made repeated efforts to open the door. Even when treats of chocolate were used to distract the good Samaritans, the free rats spent most of their time opening the door and even left some of the chocolate for the escapees to enjoy. Scientists interpret these results as evidence that rats get significant satisfaction from engaging in empathetic behavior.
Read more at Global Animal.
Long Distance Swimming, Seal-Style.
Swimming the English Channel is an impressive feat. But how about swimming from New York to Sydney, Australia and back? Using a tracking device, the Wildlife Conservation Society has monitored the progress of Jackson, a male elephant seal, over the course of about 11 months. During that time period, the prodigious swimmer covered some 18,000 miles. The tracking program helps marine biologists understand the migratory patterns of elephants seals, which in turn informs their selection of marine regions are in need of ecological protection.
Read more at Red Orbit.
Walking Fish, Not Tetrapods, Left Fossil ‘Finprints.’
Footprints that have become fossilized over millions of years are studied by paleontologists because they reveal how ancient animals traversed the earth. Recent evidence, however, sparked by a study of African lungfish suggests that some of these footprints were most likely made by the fins of fish that walked on the sea floor. Lungfish are members of the Sarcopterygian fishes, which are believed to be the ancestors of four-legged animals that walked first on sea beds and then on land. A scientific team from the University of Chicago has produced a video that demonstrates the lungfish behavior, and makes the mix-up between ‘finprints’ and footprints easier to understand.
Read more at Science News.
Mammal-Like Creature Resembled Monitor Lizard.
About 260 million years ago, evolution’s early experiments with mammal-like creatures produced a fearsome specimen. Called a varanopid pelycosaur, this sleek dinosaur-era animal had a huge jaw and physically resembled modern monitor lizards. Paleontologists believe that the creature was mammal-like, and although it was not a direct ancestor of today’s mammals, it represents one step along that road. The razor-sharp teeth of the creature suggest that it was a hypercarnivore – an animal that consumes at least 70% of its calories from meat. It became extinct some 35 million years ago, and it took another 35 million years for nature to produce the real ancestors of mammals.
Read more at Discovery.
Tiny Spiders With Giant Brains – It’s Not Science-Fiction.
In the forests of Panama and Costa Rica lives a truly brainy spider. The creature, Anapisona simoni, weighs only 5 micrograms but spins complex webs – an endeavor that requires significant brain power. In order to pack that much brain power into such a tiny body, evolution has come up with an interesting solution. The spider’s ‘brains’ have migrated to other parts of its body in addition to its head. Indeed, some 80% of the spider’s head and thorax are made of neural cells, and these cells have even migrated to the spider’s legs.
Read more at New Scientist.
What’s That on My Arm? Why We Still Have Body Hair.
Humans differ from their ape cousins in many ways, not the least of which is the marked absence of a thick coat of body hair. However, we have not really lost the follicles. In fact, the follicle density of our bodies is roughly the same as other primates, but instead of thick hair we sprout mostly thin peach-fuzz. In a study published in Biology Letters, the authors believe that we retained our diminished fur coat because it remains useful. In an experiment, volunteers who shaved their arms were much less able to detect creepy-crawlies than those who had not shaved. Thus, our body hair may have gotten an evolutionary nod because it provides an excellent early warning system for bedbugs and other parasites.
Read more at Scientific American.
Insects Point the Way to Plastics of the Future.
An insect’s exoskeleton, or cuticle, is a truly remarkable construct. Made of layers of chitin and protein, in a laminate that resembles plywood, the material is extremely light and yet extraordinarily strong, flexible and durable. Now, using the blueprint for insect cuticles, researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed a material called “shrilik” that may someday replace plastics in many applications. The scientists are especially hopeful that the material will be useful in medical procedures where light-weight and resilient materials are needed for sutures and scaffolds for tissue regeneration. Even better, shrilik comes with a bonus – it’s biodegradable and inexpensive to manufacture.
Read more at Red Orbit.
Buttercups Play With Light to Attract Bees.
The light that reflects off the petals of a buttercup flower appears eerily bright and intensely yellow. Analyzing the structural properties of a buttercup’s petals, scientists have uncovered its trick. It turns out that the flower petals have not one but two different surfaces that are separated from each other, causing light to be reflected mirror-like in different directions. A pigment in the petal absorbs the blue light waves, and since the remaining light is reflected through this pigment two times, from one surface to another before being reflected outward, the yellow color that results from the absence of blue is intensified. Of course, buttercups aren’t designed for our pleasure. The light that they reflect includes ultra-violet light, which is readily detected by bees.
Read more at Live Science.
Crying Wolf – ‘Photoshopping’ for Political Points.
An article in Wildlife News claims that ranching industry supporters, who favor reducing wolf populations in the west by hunting, are using fraudulent photographs to gain political favor. According to the article, photographs of large packs of wolves have been deliberately misidentified to suggest that they live near populated areas in the west, when in fact they are photos of wolves taken in isolated terrain in Canada. In another alleged trick, photographs of wolves that have been shot are manipulated so that the animals appear to be much larger than they are. This, supposedly, not only enlarges the egos of the hunters, but adds a little extra fright for people who are already afraid of wolves.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.