Category: Living World

What Makes A Tree A Tree?

By Rachel Ehrenberg, Knowable Magazine | April 16, 2018 3:06 pm
(Credit: Cristina Gottardi/Unsplash)

(Credit: Cristina Gottardi/Unsplash)

Several years ago, after Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house in Vermont, lightning struck a backyard maple tree. There was a ferocious crack and the darkness outside the kitchen windows briefly turned day-bright. It wasn’t until spring that we knew for certain the tree was dead.

This maple was a youngster, its trunk the diameter of a salad plate. Were its life not cut short by catastrophe, the tree might have lived 300 years. But death by disaster is surprisingly common in trees. Sometimes it results from a tragic human blunder, as with the 3,500-year-old Florida bald cypress that was killed in 2012 by an intentionally lit fire. More often, calamity strikes via extreme weather — drought, wind, fire or ice. Of course, trees also are susceptible to pests and disease; adversaries like wood-decaying fungi can significantly shorten a tree’s life. But the ones that manage to evade such foes can live for an incredibly long time. Read More

MORE ABOUT: plants

Let’s Journey Through the Mind of a Dog

By Erica Tennenhouse | March 22, 2018 12:55 pm
an adorable dog looking at the camera

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Inside a dog’s furry head are millions of neurons firing away, passing chemicals to one another and generating thoughts. We may guess at what our canine pals are thinking about: food, a walk, their loving owners.

But for all the time humans spend interacting with dogs, their thoughts largely elude us, and it’s easy to see why: dogs can’t speak their minds (at least in any language we know). But we still are curious about our best bud’s mindset, and scientists have devised creative methods to get into their heads. While our grasp of canine cognition may never approach what we know of the human psyche, the latest research has yielded tantalizing nuggets about the inner lives of dogs. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain, Top Posts

Beneath an Outhouse, a 19th Century Brothel’s Secrets Are Revealed

By Anna Goldfield | March 7, 2018 3:48 pm

Life in an 19th century Boston brothel. (Credit: Boston University/YouTube)

For Jade Luiz, a graduate student in archaeology at Boston University, historical archaeology is all about detective work. Through piecing together historical documents and archaeological finds from the outdoor toilet, or privy, of a former brothel near Boston’s North End, she’s been reconstructing the lives of women who participated in sex work in the mid-1800s.

Louisa Cowen, for example, who in 1856 took over as the madam of 27–29 Endicott Street—the brothel behind which stood the privy—typically presented herself as a respectable widow, according to historical mentions of the brothel and census records. Given her status, she likely wore black clothing and adorned herself in somber black jewelry. Her tombstone names her as the wife of Henry Cowen, a Boston house painter who predeceased her. Whether or not the two had been officially married remains unknown. What Luiz does know is that Louisa Cowen became very successful. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

What a Fossil Revolution Reveals About the History of ‘Big Data’

By David Sepkoski | February 16, 2018 8:57 am


In 1981, when I was nine years old, my father took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although I had to squint my eyes during some of the scary scenes, I loved it – in particular because I was fairly sure that Harrison Ford’s character was based on my dad. My father was a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, and I’d gone on several field trips with him to the Rocky Mountains, where he seemed to transform into a rock-hammer-wielding superhero.

That illusion was shattered some years later when I figured out what he actually did: far from spending his time climbing dangerous cliffs and digging up dinosaurs, Jack Sepkoski spent most of his career in front of a computer, building what would become the first comprehensive database on the fossil record of life. The analysis that he and his colleagues performed revealed new understandings of phenomena such as diversification and extinction, and changed the way that paleontologists work. But he was about as different from Indiana Jones as you can get. The intertwining tales of my father and his discipline contain lessons for the current era of algorithmic analysis and artificial intelligence (AI), and points to the value-laden way in which we ‘see’ data. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Astonishing Ways Animals Ensure Their Sperm Win

By Louise Gentle, Nottingham Trent University | February 14, 2018 9:43 am
Echidnas sport for penises (only two ejaculate). (Credit: Shutterstock)

Echidnas sport four penises (only two ejaculate). (Credit: Shutterstock)

We all know that individuals fight over potential love interests. Just think of Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) and Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) scuffling, rather impotently, over Bridget Jones in a fountain. But you might be surprised to hear that the fierce rivalry continues behind the scenes — in the form of sperm competition. This is when the sperm of two or more males compete inside the reproductive tract of a female, to fertilize the eggs, something that is widespread in the animal kingdom.

It is generally assumed that the sperm in a female’s reproductive tract around the time of fertilization will belong to one male. But DNA fingerprinting has revealed that even “monogamous” bird species that form exclusive pair bonds are not as exclusive as was once thought. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: sex & reproduction

Peek Inside a Meerkat’s Mazelike Manor

By Adam Booth, University of Leeds | February 6, 2018 11:47 am
File 20180131 131730 1h78wpf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

(Credit: anetapics / Shutterstock)

I’m a scientist and my job is to look below the surface of the earth. One of the questions often asked of people working with what we call geophysical imaging is, “How deep can you see?” It’s a difficult question to answer of course, since one person’s “deep” is another person’s “shallow”, and what is deep to the archaeologist will barely scratch the surface for the planetary seismologist.

For my own part, I’m a “near-surface geophysicist”, interested in the physical properties of material within the upper 100 meters of the ground – the rock, soil and (occasionally) ice located directly in the zone of human interaction – and I’ll often apply ground-penetrating radar to these targets. But there is still a lot that can happen in 100 meters: indeed, go to the right place, and even the top meter of the ground is a bustling metropolis of mammals. And that’s how I ended up investigating an underground meerkat maze for the new BBC series Animals with Cameras. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals

Cringeworthy Dental Procedures of Ancient Times

By Lauren Sigfusson | January 16, 2018 5:12 pm
After thousands of years of crude dental practices, the art of tooth extraction had reached this level of sophistication by the early 1800s.

After thousands of years of crude dental practices, the art of tooth extraction had reached this level of sophistication by the early 1800s. (Credit: News Dog Media)

Most people don’t enjoy going to the dentist. There’s just something off-putting about having your mouth wide open while someone’s scratching and scraping your precious chompers. But at least dentists can give you Novocain to make your mouth go numb for the more intense procedures.

You were born in the best of times, because for the majority of the human timeline, our ancestors didn’t have it so easy.

Cavities really started wreaking havoc when humans started farming about 12,000 years ago—possibly even as far as 23,000 years in what is modern-day Israel. Carbohydrates, from our more grain-heavy diet, break down into sugar and feed cavity-causing bacteria that eat away at healthy teeth. Scientists have even unearthed remains that show dental work that predates the agricultural revolution, proving that people have been trying to deal with dental pain for too damn long. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

Horses and Humans, Bonded Through Botulism

By Claire Panosian Dunavan, UCLA School of Medicine | January 11, 2018 1:18 pm


Last month, a 1,400-pound horse named John competed with speed and style at the World Series of Team Roping in Las Vegas.

Fourteen months earlier, John couldn’t even stand without the help of six handlers and a sling.

After qualifying for a 2016 competition, John was found down at his owner’s ranch near Sacramento, felled by botulism. Despite receiving an antidote, he battled paralysis for 26 days. For most of his stay in an intensive care unit, he lay on the floor of his stall. He eventually lost 250 pounds, but he never stopped breathing.

“He definitely has attitude,” says John’s owner and lifelong horseman, Doug Parker. “When I first bought him in 2014, I remember calling my wife and saying, ‘This horse has all the tools, but he’s still a little green.’ As it turned out he was a handful! Much more of a project than I realized.”

That attitude probably helped John to survive.

A long-feared disease of humans, food-borne botulism also sickens birds, chickens and four-footed mammals, but this deadly toxin has also forged a unique bond between horses and humans. Not only do horses model the disease’s worst paralytic features, healthy, hyper-immunized steeds provide a life-saving antitoxin that’s used to treat humans. And in recent years, the development of better diagnostic lab tests for horses has paralleled the adoption of better diagnostics for humans and potentially poisoned foods.

Since 1910, when a German researcher named Leuchs made the first equine-sourced antiserum, horses repeatedly immunized with C. botulinum toxin have helped save human lives. In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first equine antitoxin targeting all botulism subtypes. This new heptavalent treatment for humans, which is currently stockpiled by the U.S. government, was hailed as a valuable addition to the nation’s “emergency medicine cabinet” not just for unlucky eaters but possible victims of a future bioterrorist attack. It’s all thanks to our equine companions.

A Potent Killer

Seven botulinum toxins, designated A through G, are currently known to block the release of acetylcholine, an essential neural junction transmitter. The toxins are produced when Clostridium botulinum spores, widely dispersed in nature, encounter perfect conditions for germination: the absence of oxygen, a non-acidic pH, just the right amount of moisture and a warmish temperature (the optimum varies by subtype). Most horses suffer type A or B botulism, which typically occurs after they ingest spoiled or moldy feed. But enormous bales of hay can also spell disaster.

Consider a large outbreak of botulism in Oregon, summarized in a 2010 article in the Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation. The herd ate from bales of damp, matted bluegrass strewn along a creek bank during an unusually hot February. “After the first horse showed signs of botulism, 20 horses (including the sentinel case) died within three days, and four more horses died over the next six days,” the authors grimly recounted.

Given the warming trends throughout much of the world, I put two and two together.

“Could climate change increase the risk of botulism in horses?” I asked first-author Dr. Amy Johnson, a large-animal internist, neurologist and botulism specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also works in a botulism lab testing animal samples from all over the country.

“I can’t say, ‘No,’” she replied, “but other factors include the economy and the availability of farmland.”


Parker and John competing in October. (Credit: Courtesy UC Davis)

Because huge, round bales of hay are cheap to produce they became increasingly popular following the 2009 economic crash, Johnson went on to explain. Shrinking acreage has compounded the problem by decreasing local production of hay baled as traditional squares.

In John’s case, however, warm, matted hay was not the culprit fueling the crisis, according to his owner. Parker is far more suspicious of a grain-plus-molasses “treat” fed to his 11-year old American quarter horse gelding. That same mix scooped from the bottom of a lidded can repeatedly re-filled with 50-pound bags of grain was also fed to two other horses from Parker’s herd who suffered botulism a few weeks before John went down.

The first victim—a “tough little horse,” in Parker’s words—survived for less than 24 hours before succumbing to her disease; the second horse was hospitalized for only three days, then returned home. In each case, the afflicted animals were given roughly a liter of antitoxin-containing plasma (which can arrest but does not reverse botulism) as soon as they reached the University of California, Davis veterinary hospital.

“Before last year, I never heard of botulism in horses,” Parker said. “Now I’m thinking a lot more horses have it than are ever reported or even seen by vets.” Parker also knows that, unlike UC Davis, many veterinarians do not keep antitoxin on hand, further delaying treatment and worsening outcomes.

In addition to the speedy administration of neutralizing antibodies, what determines an individual horse’s survival remains a topic of ongoing interest and concern among vets and owners alike. In Johnson’s mind, there’s no doubt that psychological factors contribute.

“It’s very scary for a horse not to be able to get up. Some wear themselves out just trying,” she says.

“John was obviously as amazing athlete with real spirit and grit,” echoed Dr. Gary Magdesian, a UC Davis equine specialist who has personally cared for 15 to 20 horses with botulism over the last two decades.

Spirit aside, no adult horse with full-blown respiratory failure has yet been reported to beat botulism. Unlike in humans, in full-size equines, mechanical ventilation is simply too laborious, costly, and fraught with complications. On the other hand, what can make all the difference is a quick diagnosis along with the prompt infusion of antitoxin (the best commercial preparation currently available for horses covers types A through C) plus experienced supportive care.

Back to Roping

Once John was back on his feet, Parker gave him a couple of months to recover, then took him to Arizona for a roping tryout. “It felt like he was ready, but he wasn’t.” At that point, the rancher removed John’s shoes and put him out to pasture to gain more weight. “I’m not going to bring him back until he has two big old rump-cheeks,” he told himself.

The decision clearly paid off. Although Parker didn’t win prize money in Las Vegas, it wasn’t because of John. “I missed three steers I should have roped and broke a barrier,” he shrugged. “John was in as good a shape as ever.”

The final question—whether rates of equine botulism are currently climbing—is impossible to answer. Unlike their riders, there is still no mandatory reporting of horses with botulism.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Crying Elephants, Giggling Rats and Other Surprisingly Sentient Animals

By Emily Birch, Nottingham Trent University | January 11, 2018 10:08 am

Motherly love. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Years ago, we believed that we weren’t animals and that animals were here solely for our use. Indeed, a cow was just a walking burger, a Sunday roast, keeping itself fresh and tasty ready for when we were hungry.

Luckily, for their sake, things have progressed significantly from then and now we recognize that animals (including our “superior” human selves in that category) can experience emotions from more simple ones such as happiness and sadness to more complex ones such as empathy, jealousy and grief. Animal sentience is defined as the ability to feel, perceive and experience subjectively. In other words, it’s about emotions and feelings and in some respects, having an awareness that “you are you”. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Why Do We Even Wear Pants?

By Sarah Scoles | January 9, 2018 12:40 pm

(Credit: Seinfeld/YouTube screengrab)

From far above, the area around Yanghai cemetery looks like a collection of ground-dwelling wasp dens, drilled into a gravelly desert. It gets hot in this region of remote western China — up to nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and dry. That’s a hard-knock climate, but it’s perfect for preserving ancient artifacts. And if you zoom in on the region, and dig in, as archaeologists have, you’ll find tombs with well-kept secrets. Inside two of them, scientists found not just human remains but the remains of what covered those humans.

I’m talking about clothes, and not just any clothes: pants. These are the oldest pants (discovered) on Earth — more distressed than any jeans Gap can offer — dating back some 3,000 years. They’re tailored wool, and constructed from sewn-together pieces of uncut fabric. If Project Runway had magically predated television by about 2,930 years, the designer of these leg covers would have had a shot at the win. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

The Crux

A collection of bright and big ideas about timely and important science from a community of experts.

See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar