What can dental tartar on the 50,000-year-old teeth of a Neanderthal fossil found in Spain tell us about Neanderthal culture? Actually, quite a lot. Microscopic analysis of the particles in the tartar reveals that Neanderthals liked their veggies cooked. The starch and other carbohydrates in the tartar also suggests that they ate a variety of vegetables but surprisingly little meat. Most surprisingly, however, was that the Neanderthal teeth showed that they ate herbs and plants that are known to be non-nutritious and bad tasting but which are also known to have medicinal properties. A paleontologist associated with the study pointed out that if the Neanderthals were not eating these particular plants for their taste or caloric value, they may very well have been aware of their medicinal effects.
More at National Geographic.
Online Dating Goes Zoological.
What’s a lonely river otter to do? Zoo animals have limited chances to breed and yet there is a need to ensure that certain endangered zoo inhabitants do have offspring. In Chicago, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Population Management Center may have an answer. By collecting data on hundreds of animals in zoos across the country the organization acts as a kind of “match.com” by using a computer system to match animals from different zoos where captive breeding is desired. There have been some comical failures, such as the accidental pairing of two male birds. But there have also been successes, such as a Massachusetts-California match of two otters in 2009 that has produced so far five otter offspring.
More at Global Animal.
The Complicated History of the Bear Family.
Polar bears and brown bears are distantly related. DNA evidence suggests that the two split into separate species about 4-5 million years ago and the reason for the split probably had to do with climate change. Today, there is evidence of a new mixing of the species due to the fact that polar bears are spending far more time on land in the absence of abundant sea ice. Already, some brown-polar hybrid bears have been documented in Canada, thus repeating a cycle that has a long association with climate change.
More at Discovery.
Think of a sheep and you think of an animal that is, well, sheepishly tied to its herd. However, the sociality of sheep is more complicated than one might think. A behavioral explanation called “selfish-herd theory” has been tested in herds of sheep. According to the theory, each sheep will use the herd to maximize its own individual chance of survival. Using GPS equipment to track each sheep second by second, experimenters from the University of London and the University of Cambridge took a close look at how each sheep responds when a predator threatens the herd. Sure enough, each sheep heads to the dead center of the herd in an apparent efforts to use its fellows as a sort of mutton-shield. If nothing else, the study offers a more nuanced understanding of herd behavior.
More at Scientific America.
How Mosquitos Herd Caribou.
In Northwest Alaska, a herd of some 300,000 caribou get together for a common purpose: avoiding mosquitoes and other insect pests, including warble flies and nasal bots. This mega-herd moves up into higher elevation to try to avoid the insects, and by coming into close contact they limit their individual exposure to the pests. The arrangement, however, is short-lived. As soon as the mosquito threat diminishes, the herd breaks down into much smaller groups.
More at Discovery.
Juvenile Gorillas Learn to Dismantle Snares.
Snares set up by poachers in the forests of Rwanda are intended to catch antelope but they sometimes catch gorillas, especially juvenile gorillas. Although observers have seen adult gorillas dismantle these snares in the past, for the first time juvenile gorillas have been spotted doing the same thing. To the surprise of one tracker from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, two juveniles helped by a third dismantled one snare and then moved on to dismantle a second in a purposeful display of learned behavior.
More at Red Orbit.
Southwest American Indians’ High Fiber Diet.
Native Americans are more prone to diabetes than other ethnic groups. To discover why, scientists have looked back in time — about 1,000 years. By studying coprolites (fossilized excrement) from the Northwest Arizona caves where the ancient tribes lived, a reconstruction of their diet was performed. By comparison to the modern American diet, these native Americans ate 20 to 30 times more fiber than is available in today’s average meal. In addition, the types of foods that were staples, such as yucca plants, prickly pears and sunflower seed, were far more slowly digested than today’s high-glycemic fare. The researchers conclude that the relatively rapid transition of Native Americans from such a healthy high-fiber low glycemic diet to today’s low fiber “pablum” foods left the population especially vulnerable to diseases such as diabetes.
More at Live Science.
Parasitic Plants Deterred By Genetic Modification of Hosts.
Animals are not the only life forms that are bothered by parasites. Parasitic plants, such as the dodder vines, attack other plants by latching onto them and then sucking out moisture, nutrition and even RNA. Using a relatively new genetic modification technique, a research team was able to adjust the host’s genome so that it interfered with the dodder vine’s ability to attack its host. Neelima Sinha, professor of plant biology at UC Davis, who participated in the research says that the technique will next be applied in Africa, where similar parasitic plants have reduced the production of important crops such as sorghum and maize.
More at UC Davis Website.
Sharks Maintain Their Pearly Whites the Old Fashioned Way.
Sharks never get cavities and their teeth remain strong and clean. Absent brushing and flossing, how do they do it? The secret lives within the tooth. Shark teeth contain an outer layer of a fluoride compound that eliminates the risk for bacterial decay. Sound familiar? It should because today most toothpastes also contain fluorides, which have a similar effect on reducing dental decay. Nature has repeated this strategy with other sea creatures — the crayfish mandible also uses the same fluoride compound even though sharks and crayfish are completely unrelated.
More at Discovery
Pot Farmers as the Newest Environmental Danger.
Fishers are small carnivores which inhabit the Pacific Northwest forests. Lately, dead fishers have been turning up in areas adjacent to national parks. Necropsies have shown that they are dying of poisoning. It turns out that illicit marijuana farmers, not particularly known for environmental awareness, are using heavy duty pesticides to protect their cash crops. The insecticides are working their way into the ecosystem and are now affecting the fishers. The problem is echoed in other areas such as Central America where illegal cocaine farms have had a similar detrimental impact on local wildlife.
More at Scientific American.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.
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