Thoreau’s Diaries and Climate Change.
The 19th-century author Henry David Thoreau was a fastidious record keeper. When he turned his attention to the first flowers of Spring in his native Massachusetts, he collected years worth of careful notes about the first flower buds of each plant he encountered. Today, scientists are using these unusual records to determine the degree to which early flowering is being triggered by climate change. In recent years, extremely warm springs have advanced the flowering times of plants by as much as three weeks. Scientists believe that this increasingly rapid departure from normal will disrupt reproductive cycles and ultimately interfere with some plants’ ability to survive. Thanks to Thoreau, we have a benchmark against which to measure these changes.
Japanese Quail Moms Engage in Selective Camouflage.
It is essential for a quail to lay its eggs so that they are not easily visible to the the many predators that feed upon them. A recent study led by George Lovell, of the University of St. Andrews in the U.K, has determined that female Japanese quails choose their nesting site based upon the particular coloration that their eggs present. For example, a female Japanese quail whose eggs have dark spots will choose a nesting area that is darkly mottled and closely resembles the appearance of her eggs. This is not just natural camouflage at work, but a behavioral process on the part of the birds. Indeed, Lovell concludes that a quail mother “knows” the kind of eggs she lays and chooses an appropriate breeding spot based upon that knowledge.
Wood Bison to be Reintroduced into Alaska.
Before the colonization of North America, millions of plains bison roamed throughout what is now the western United States. Even larger than the plains bison is the woods bison. Male wood bison can weigh in excess of 2,000 pounds. Unfortunately, habitat destruction has all but wiped out the North American wood bison population. An effort is underway to reintroduce the wood bison to Alaska. A starter population drawn from among the 130 wood bison cared for at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center south of Anchorage will be flown into an area near the lower Yukon and Innoko Rivers. The wood bison is the largest surviving land animal in North America.
Saving the Tasmanian Devil.
We don’t normally think of cancer as a contagious disease. In fact, there are only a handful of examples of contagious cancers in mammals. However, the Tasmanian Devil, a marsupial native to the large island of Tasmania near Australia’s mainland, has been battling an epidemic of a contagious facial cancer since the 1990s. The cancer is not only contagious but it is a quick killer, disposing of its victims in just months. The extent of the epidemic is so large that with 84% of the population already wiped out, it is not impossible that the disease could force the animal into extinction. Help, however, is on the way. In addition to research on a anticancer vaccine, a program for relocating a population of cancer-free devils to Maria Island is underway. If the program succeeds, the devil population on Maria Island will act as an insurance policy protecting a small population of wild devils who can remain isolated and cancer-free.
Faces from the Past.
Forensic facial reconstruction combines the power of computer graphics with the sciences of anatomy, anthropology, forensics along with a touch of artistry. Scientists at the Senckenberg Research Society in Frankfurt, Germany have recreated models from the skulls and bone fragments of our pre-human ancestors. The results are astonishing.
A Surprising Explanation for Why Wolves Can’t Be Domesticated.
The genetic differences between dogs and wolves are small and it is widely agreed that dogs have evolved from wolves. But what differences in their genetic makeup make it so difficult, if not impossible, to domesticate wolves today? Kathryn Lord of the University of Massachusetts has uncovered a possible clue. It is now known that wolf pups, unlike dog puppies, remain deaf and blind two weeks after birth even as they begin walking and sizing up their environs. Dog puppies, on the other hand, quickly utilize all their senses. As each sense kicks in for a wolf pup, it undergoes a sort of stimulus shock. The result is that wolf puppies are naturally skittish and circumspect — so much so that introducing anything new to them requires much more time for them to become unafraid. As to the genetic differences that underlie this different behavior, it may be due to epigenetic switches that activate or deactivate certain genes differently in dogs and wolves.
NIH Close to Dismantling Chimp Research Programs.
In a controversial move, the National Institute of Health “council or councils” has recommended that the vast majority of the 450 chimpanzees already in research facilities be permanently retired and taken to chimp sanctuaries. Although Congress has so far failed to pass a ban on using great apes for research, the administrative move by the NIH, if enacted, will be a step in that direction. The current recommendation was spurred by a report from the Institute of Medicine which concluded that most chimp research was unnecessary and that their use for medical research ought to be reserved for emergency public health situations where no other research substitute is possible.
DNA as a Storage Medium.
It is unlikely that your computer will have a DNA hard drive anytime soon, but scientists at Cambridge University are using DNA to encode all sorts of information. Using the familiar G,A,T,C primary chemical “letters” of DNA, they have encoded some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a scientific paper, a photograph and have the potential to store anything else they desire within the DNA molecule. When kept under ideal storage conditions, DNA will last for thousands of years. And its storage capacity is virtually limitless. The only remaining obstacle to making DNA into a routine storage medium is the extreme cost of the process, and that is something that likely will not be overcome in the near future.
The Trembling Giant of Utah.
In Utah, a single biomass of Quaking Aspen trees might well be the oldest living organism on earth. Unlike normal trees, the Quaking Aspen shares its root system with its neighbors, which means that it is considered a single organism. This particular stand is believed to have started its existence around 80,000 years ago. It weighs around 6,000 tons, making it the heaviest single living organism as well. It was not until the 1970s that scientists recognized the unique nature of the Quaking Aspen.
The question how many arthropods live in the Panamanian jungle probably doesn’t keep too many people awake at night. But scientists wanted to know, so 102 researchers from 21 countries set out to count them. After collecting some 129,000 specimens, they concluded that around 25,000 different species live in the central american jungle. Besides satisfying their natural curiosity, the count will serve as a baseline for future research concerning the effects of climate change on these tropical environments.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.