Robots Make Oceans Safer for Whales.
The seas can be a dangerous place for whales to share with large ocean-going ships. To avoid whale injury and death from collision with ships, robots are being deployed to locate and transmit information about whales. Recently, the six-foot submersible, submarine-like robots were specially programmed to identify the special songs that the endangered right whale sings in the ocean. The robots surface every few hours and broadcast to scientists the location of any right whale colonies that they have detected. The information is then shared with ships in the area so that they can steer clear of the whales and avoid disastrous collisions.
First Land Animals Wobbled Onshore.
It probably wasn’t an elegant start, but scientists think that the first animals to make the transition from sea to land “walked” something like a seal. For the first time, computer rendered three dimensional models reveal how the backbones of early land creatures would have permitted them to move. To complete the computer simulations, Ichthyostega fossils from around 370 million years ago were x-rayed using a special high energy x-ray procedure. The new x-ray images demonstrated to scientists that their original ideas about the bone ordering of the animals was incomplete and the corrections made possible by the new technique shed new light on their actual structure.
More at Discovery.
How a Tadpole Re-grows Its Tail.
Scientists are researching an old mystery: how some animals not only can heal wounds but actually re-grow limbs. In the case of the tadpole, its ability to regenerate a severed tail is legendary, but the biochemical mystery of how it performs the feat is still unsolved. New genetic studies suggest that genes responsible for producing oxygen-carrying molecules are involved in the process. In fact, when antioxidants were introduced to the wound site, tissue regrowth failed. This finding comes as a surprise since oxidizing molecules typically have a negative association with cellular health. If these findings hold up, the presence of antioxidants may actually be harmful to late-stage cancer patients — a surmise that is contrary to present beliefs.
Researchers Make Surprise Visit to Emperor Penguin Colony.
For the first time, humans visited a site in east Antarctica that is home to over 9,000 emperor penguins. The existence of the large colony was first deduced from satellite images. The researchers arrived in the dead of night, overcoming the cold and difficult terrain, and documented their visit with some impressive photographs.
Chimps, Too, Have Opinions on Fairness.
A psychological experiment called the “ultimate game” gives a prize to an individual who can keep it only if she can convince her partner to accept some portion of her award. Most people end up getting the partner to accept a minimum 20-40% of the original prize, which is, by human standards, apparently acceptable as minimally “fair.” The experiment was recently repeated with chimps and the results were surprisingly human-like. While, unlike humans, the chimp partners did not outright reject unfairly small portions of the prize, they did express their disapproval of stingy offers by shouting, yelling and even spitting water on the other partner. The experimental results with chimps mirrors that of human children who likewise ultimately accept stingy offers but verbally express their disapproval.
Did All Complex Life Really Evolve in the Seas?
In a conclusion that sounds like scientific heresy, Gregory Retallack of the University of Oregon has been studying the earliest forms of complex life embedded in the rocks of Australia’s Ediacara Hills. To Retallack’s eye, these fossilized specimens from around 550 million years ago, are not necessarily the marine creatures that scientists had supposed, but instead show evidence of having evolved on land and having become fossilized in rock. The distinction hinges on whether the rocks in which the fossils are embedded were formed by the sea or, as Retallack now believes, are the product of ancient soils that were uninvolved with the sea. So far, the reaction of the scientific community has been skeptical.
Milwaukee Zoo Gets Fresh Jaguar Blood.
For the first time since 1975, the Milwaukee Zoo has seen the birth of two new jaguar cubs. What is even more exciting for the zoo is that the father of the cubs was born in the wild. This means that the potential gene pool of the captive jaguar population will have fresh new input. The cubs will be introduced to zoo patrons some time in February. Once the cubs are mature, they will be split up and sent to other zoos where their genes can add needed genetic diversity to other captive jaguar populations.
Black Widow Spider Stowaways.
The black widow spider is actually the common name of a genus of spiders that include 32 species found throughout the world. The spider gets its nickname from the habit of the female of devouring its partner after mating. The spider’s venom is many times more potent than that of a rattlesnake, but its small size means that its bite is extremely painful but rarely lethal. Lately, however, shipments of tires from the United States have become vehicles for the spiders to make their way to England, where the spiders are not native. Shipping employees are now on alert for the spiders, which can hatch enroute inside of tire rims, ready to colonize a country that is not ready for them.
Scientists Directly Match Mouse Behavior to DNA.
Ever since DNA was identified as the instructional blueprint for all living things, scientists have been attempting to associate specific DNA regions with advanced instinctive behaviors. Now, as described in a New York Times article, Hopi E. Hoekstra of Harvard University has succeeded in associating specific DNA regions with the kinds of burrows built by burrowing field mice. The length of the tunnel dug out by a particular mouse, and even whether or not it builds an escape tunnel, can be traced back to specific identifiable regions of the mouse’s inherited DNA. Dr. Hoekstra cautioned that at this early stage, the research has only identified DNA regions — what specific genes are involved will await further research.
Migrating Birds — Prepare to Be Amazed.
Treehugger has a short documentary this week about the migration patterns of six bird species. Each one is more amazing than the next. For example, the Sooty Shearwater travels some 40,000 miles by circling the globe. But the record holder in that category is the Arctic Tern which manages to log around 44,000 miles per year travelling from the north to south poles.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.