By Brad Balukjian
I was 12 years old, sitting in a movie theater in Warwick, Rhode Island, when Steven Spielberg changed movies forever. His Jurassic Park made Jaws look like a silly hand puppet and ushered in the modern era of computer-generated special effects, for better or worse.
But for that iconic scene when the paleontologists laid eyes on living dinosaurs for the first time, Spielberg had a crucial decision to make—what type of dinosaur would appear first, bending imaginations and searing its place in cinematic history? Would he go with the ultra-kinetic, flesh-rending T. rex? Or maybe a more subdued Stegosaurus?
Much to my delight, he chose a sauropod, the clade of lumbering vegetarians that dominated for 120 million years as, unequivocally, the largest land animals ever. Specifically, a Brachiosaurus, one of the few sauropods that probably used its long neck to browse treetops rather than holding it parallel to the ground. (Kudos to Spielberg et al. for getting this scientific detail right!)
I’m not sure what dictated Spielberg’s decision, but sauropods’ sheer size—up to 90 tons and 130 feet long—probably had something to do with it. (Contrary to popular belief, most dinosaurs were not gigantic.) And that gargantuan size is what inspired the new PLOS ONE sauropod collection (“Sauropod Gigantism”), organized by evolutionary biologist Martin Sander of the University of Bonn. Sander and 13 other researchers united to answer one question: how did these thunder lizards get so freaking big—and its shuddering corollary—why didn’t they get any bigger?
By Erik Vance
In Douglas Adams’s hilarious classic, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there are several animals said to be cleverer than humans. One – for the sake of irony – was the common lab mouse. The other was a creature that knew about the intergalactic bulldozers that eventually vaporized the planet and tried to warn us of the impending doom:
The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.
It’s a fun punchline but it also reflects a long-held sentiment: that dolphins possess an unusual level of intelligence that sets them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In the popular consciousness it’s taken as a given that dolphins are highly intelligent, have complex behavior, and possess some kind of proto-language ability. However in recent months and years, a sort of backlash – or at least a re-alignment – has been fomenting on the periphery of animal behavior research.
By Jill Neimark
“Planned genocide has begun,” read the Facebook entry on one of the groups I browse daily. The link: a picture of five monoliths looming like an American Stonehenge over a lush and lonely hill in remote Elberton, Georgia. I was only an hour away at the time, and decided to visit them in person.
The nearly twenty-foot granite slabs, known as the Georgia Guidestones, have sparked controversy around the world – praised by Yoko Ono, defaced by conspiracy theorists, featured on the History Channel, and the subject of the conspiracy web series Guidestones. The monument – five upright stones topped by a capstone – weighs nearly 240,000 pounds and is inscribed in eight languages with ten instructions for humans post-apocalypse. Three decades after being erected, the monument’s true purpose is still being argued, and its quasi-commandments can seem either sincere or satanic.
By Katie Engelhart
The verdict is in. The world’s first hamburger made entirely of lab-grown, “cultured beef” tastes… OK.
It’s a little bland, tasters reported of the patty, which cost over $330,000 to produce. And it lacks juiciness. (The burger contains no fat.) But otherwise, it has a good “mouth feel” and a solid texture. Most importantly: it tastes like it once lived and breathed and mooed.
Scientists predict that you will be eating patties just like it in 10 or 20 years.
Today, hoards of journalists gathered at a production studio in west London for a historic event: the unveiling of the world’s first-ever cultured beef* burger—engineered by Maastricht University professor Mark Post. In the frenzied minutes before the launch began, reporters and film crews gathered around platters of free sandwiches. Ham, cheese, tuna and the perennial British favorite “prawn mayo” were all on offer, though roast beef was noticeably absent.
Inside the auditorium, flashing screens welcomed the crowd. A promotional film opened with Google founder Sergey Brin, who was revealed as the anonymous donor behind the burger product. Brin, captured in an orange t-shirt and Google Glass, spoke of cultured meat’s transformative potential. The film then switched to a historical reenactment of hunter-gatherers roasting animal bones over an open flame.
By Madeline Bodin
With thousands of newly-hatched 17-year cicadas blanketing the Eastern U.S., residents would be forgiven for not noticing a less conspicuous absence: birds.
Bird surveys have repeatedly shown a mysterious trend of a population downtick in areas of cicada emergence. It’s the exact opposite of what might be expected—crows, blue jays and cardinals are among the species affected, and they feed on insects. And it’s fascinated ornithologist Walter Koenig for years.
“The birds are just not coming in there to eat them,” says Koenig, a senior scientist at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. “Why aren’t the birds taking advantage of the cicadas? The fact that there may not be birds around seems like a good explanation.” Now, this spring is the first time he’s been able to measure his theories against a real-life emergence.
By Kenneth Miller
The border guards, wary of advancing rebels, fired their guns in the air as three motorized skiffs approached along the Sangha River in the late March night. But the boats’ occupants were unarmed foreigners, fleeing a bloody insurrection that had gripped the Central African Republic (CAR). Among the refugees was elephant researcher Andrea Turkalo, carrying $25,000 in cash and six hard drives—packed with more than 20 years of data—which she’d grabbed before fleeing her jungle compound.
Turkalo, 60, is a field biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and one of the world’s foremost experts on African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). Since 1990, she’s been observing the elusive pachyderms—thought to be a different species from their larger, curvier-tusked, savannah-dwelling cousins (Loxodonta africana)—at a clearing known as Dzanga Bai, in the CAR’s southwestern rainforest. But her life’s work now hangs in the balance, as does the fate of the elephants themselves.
By Virginia Gewin
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is no stranger to potentially controversial species restoration plans: His agency will soon poison non-native fish in an effort to re-establish the Paiute cutthroat trout to its historic range.
Still, the practicalities of efforts to revive extinct species raised mixed emotions among Bonham and participants at the “De-Extinction: Ethics, Law and Politics” conference held at the Stanford Law Auditorium last Friday.
Addressing the scientists in the audience, Bonham (who made clear he wasn’t speaking for the agency) said he and colleagues were “scared, worried, thrilled, excited, and angry at you guys for exploring this idea.” Yet, with the planet facing massive biodiversity loss, he said, de-extinction may be one of the few options for protecting species in perpetuity.
By Jon Tennant
Fossils, as we typically think of them, tell us about the death of an animal. The teeth, bones, shells, fragmented pseudopods and other weird and wonderful bits of carcass all only ever reflect one thing: a permanent geological limbo. These types of fossil are known as body fossils.
The other major group of fossils, that are generally less common, less researched, less known about, but arguably more important for guiding our understanding of the history of life on Earth, are trace fossils. The study of trace fossils is called ichnology, and the fossils don’t represent death; they represent life, behavior, activity. Often trace fossils are actually found in or on body fossils—anything from boring holes from bivalves on other bivalves, to bite marks on bones detailing a poor creature’s last painful seconds as a living animal. Or, in this case, an ancient injury preserved on a dinosaur’s skin.
Dinosaur skin is one of the rarest treasures the paleontological record can reveal to us. We now have a pretty good idea about the texture and nature of dinosaur skin, thanks to a couple of exceptional “dinosaur mummies” and the occasional fragments of skin preserved not as a mold of skin impressed on the surrounding sediment but of the actual fleshy flesh.
By Eric Wagner
The first sign that we’re close is a sickly sweet odor among the otherwise clean scents of fir and spruce. Scott Fitkin, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, pushes through a thatch of branches. “Here it is,” he says, coming to a large brush pile.
We are near Castle Mountain in Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness, about ten miles south of the US-Canada border. The pile sits within a perimeter of barbed wire called a snare corral. The brush is meant to mimic a grizzly bear food cache and so pique the bears’ interest. To entice them still more, Fitkin has poured a slurry of fermented salmon guts and cows’ blood over it. Now, in late September, the pile is a shambles—a good sign. If the bears have taken the bait, then they’ve left behind something even more valuable.
Fitkin begins a careful circuit, examining each barb. On four he finds fur, varying from a few strands to a generous tuft. He tweezes each barb’s worth into an envelope. DNA analysis will tell him later what species the hair belongs to, but he isn’t getting his hopes up: all of them are black, and probably from black bears.
Fitkin wants grizzlies. He has searched for them in these mountains for more than 20 years and has yet to see one. But in this, the final year of a three-year survey, he and his colleagues have gone all out. They’ve set up dozens of snare corrals throughout remote parts of the Cascade Mountains, miles from anywhere. If there are grizzlies to be found, then they will find them. Or so they hope.
Eric Michael Johnson has a master’s degree in evolutionary anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics. He blogs at The Primate Diaries at Scientific American, where this post originally appeared.
“Rand” by Nathaniel Gold
“Every political philosophy has to begin with a theory of human nature,” wrote Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in his book Biology as Ideology. Thomas Hobbes, for example, believed that humans in a “state of nature,” or what today we would call hunter-gatherer societies, lived a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” in which there existed a “warre of all against all.” This led him to conclude, as many apologists for dictatorship have since, that a stable society required a single leader in order to control the rapacious violence that was inherent to human nature. Building off of this, advocates of state communism, such as Vladimir Lenin or Josef Stalin, believed that each of us was born tabula rasa, with a blank slate, and that human nature could be molded in the interests of those in power.