Category: Living World

Can Doggie DNA Tests Decode Your Mutt’s Makeup?

By Gemma Tarlach | November 25, 2014 9:00 am
DogDNA03

Photo by Ernie Mastroianni/Discover

Mixed breed. Mongrel. Roadside setter. A something-something. Dogs of uncertain provenance get called a lot of things. When the animal arrives at a shelter, staff usually can make only an educated guess about the dog’s parentage.

Most of the dogs at my local animal control are assessed as “pit mixes” upon arrival — including the three I’ve adopted over the past 2 years. But a pit bull isn’t a breed: it’s just a type of dog characterized by a short coat, muscular frame and broad, oversized head.

All three of my dogs clearly — at least to my eyes — showed signs of specific breeds somewhere in their heritage: Tall and snow white Pullo looks like the breed standard for an American Bulldog. Tyche’s body is svelte like a boxer’s and inky black like some Labs. And lanky, long-limbed Waldo sometimes bays like a hound, especially when treeing squirrels.

Guessing my dogs’ breeds was a fun parlor game, but I wanted more definitive answers. So I turned to science. And, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing I didn’t place any bets on what was in my dogs’ family trees.

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

From the Brink of Extinction, Some Frogs Defy the Odds

By Robin Moore | November 4, 2014 9:00 am
The Variable Harlequin Frog is just one of the so-called Lazarus frogs rediscovered in recent years.

The Variable Harlequin Frog is just one of the so-called Lazarus frogs rediscovered in recent years.

In 2003, two young biology students called Justin Yeager and Mark Pepper were in Costa Rica studying poison dart frogs when their guide presented them with a pair of beautiful orange-yellow and black frogs. They were left speechless, because in front of them was a species that was no longer meant to exist.

The Variable Harlequin Frog, Atelopus varius, had disappeared from cool streams across Costa Rica and Panama in the early 1990s, leaving not even a corpse to mark its existence. Its vanishing, alongside myriad other frogs including the famed golden toad, was later attributed to the wave-like spread of a pandemic pathogen – a fungus responsible for the greatest disease-driven loss of biodiversity in our times – against a backdrop of a changing climate and dwindling and damaged habitats.

In the wake of such carnage, was the variable harlequin frog a lone survivor? Could it increase our understanding of the current mass extinction and help us stem the hemorrhaging of life from our planet?

The harlequin frog, it would turn out, was not alone. Five years after its rediscovery herpetologist Robert Puschendorf was crashing through the dry forests of north Australia when he found a small population of Armored Mist Frog, Litoria lorica, living with the very same chytrid fungus that was believed to have wiped it out 17 years previously. The following year in New South Wales the Yellow-spotted Bell Frog, Litoria castanea, hopped back to life after 30 years without trace. Back in the Americas, Lazarus frogs were reappearing in Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia and Costa Rica, years and even decades after they were thought to have been wiped out.

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

Why Most of Your Body Is Younger Than You Are

By Curt Stager | October 23, 2014 4:51 pm

shatteredWhen you take a sip of water it doesn’t just slake your thirst. It literally becomes you. The water that runs down your gullet will, within minutes and without processing of any kind, become some of the dominant fluid in your veins and your flesh. Most of your blood is simply tap water with cells, salts, and organic molecules floating in it. Some of the rubbery squishiness of your earlobe poured out of a bottle or a can just a short time ago. And much of the moisture in your eyes only recently fell from rainclouds.

Your mouth is the portal through which water normally enters your body, but you are quite a leaky vessel. A hydrogen isotope study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that the sedentary men under examination consumed and lost about seven pints of body water per day, with four pints leaving through urine and two or three pints through sweat and breath moisture. Vigorous exercise can boost non-urine water losses to one or two pints per hour.

Now let’s see what logic can do with those facts. Nearly two-thirds of your weight comes from water, and your body is an eddy in a stream of that common fluid. Surely the liquid that you slurp from a fountain is not alive, and you don’t consider it murder to stomp on a puddle of water. Therefore most of you is not alive at all, nor is it even permanent or unique enough to merit a personal name.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health

Instead of Poppies, Engineering Microbes to Make Morphine

morphine

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The past few decades have seen enormous progress being made in synthetic biology – the idea that simple biological parts can be tweaked to do our bidding. One of the main targets has been hacking the biological machinery that nature uses to produce chemicals. The hope is – once we understand enough – we might be able to design processes that convert cheap feedstock, such as sugar and amino acids, into drugs or fuels. These production lines can then be installed into microbes, effectively turning living cells into factories.

Taking a leap in that direction, researchers from Stanford University have created a version of baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) that contains genetic material of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), bringing the morphine microbial factory one step closer to reality. These results published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology represent a significant scientific success, but eliminating the need to grow poppies may still be years away.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

3 Things You Didn’t Know About the Mites That Live On Your Face

By Michelle Trautwein | August 27, 2014 1:00 pm
Demodex brevis. Image by Alan R Walker

Demodex brevis. Image by Alan R. Walker

This post originally appeared at The Abstract.

You are not alone. Your body is a collection of microbes, fungi, viruses… and even other animals. In fact, you aren’t even the only animal using your face. Right now, in the general vicinity of your nose, there are at least two species of microscopic mites living in your pores. You would expect scientists to know quite a lot about these animals (given that we share our faces with them), but we don’t.

Here is what we do know: Demodex mites are microscopic arachnids (relatives of spiders and ticks) that live in and on the skin of mammals – including humans. They have been found on every mammal species where we’ve looked for them, except the platypus and their odd egg-laying relatives.

Often mammals appear to host more than one species, with some poor field mouse housing four mite species on its face alone. Generally, these mites live out a benign coexistence with their hosts. But if that fine balance is disrupted, they are known to cause mange amongst our furry friends, and skin ailments like rosacea and blepharitis in humans. Most of us are simply content – if unaware – carriers of these spindly, eight-legged pore-dwellers.

Scientists from NC State, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and the California Academy of Sciences have just published a study that uncovers some previously unknown truths regarding these little-known mites – all the while providing a glimpse into even bigger mysteries that have yet to be solved.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: unusual organisms

How Faith – and Fear – Created the World’s First Time Capsule

By Jill Neimark | August 8, 2014 11:11 am

Atlanta, Georgia, prides itself on being a world class city, but in 6,000 years it may be remembered for one thing only: a massive time capsule buried in its midst. The waterproof, airtight, hermetically sealed time capsule, called the Crypt of Civilization, was locked and bolted shut on May 25, 1940 – making it the first ever time capsule in history. Its lofty ideal was to preserve a snapshot of all of civilization up until 1940, with strict orders not to be opened until the year 8113.

The crypt was the brainchild of Oglethorpe University president Thornwell Jacobs. who like many others of his time, was deeply moved when the tombs of the Egyptian pyramids were opened in the 1920s. But those tombs told us little about Egyptian daily life, and Jacobs decided that future civilizations might want a record of ours. And so he invented the time capsule, which has since been imitated around the world, in capsules ranging from the intimate to the immense. The International Time Capsule Society (ITCS) estimates there are now 10,000-15,000 capsules worldwide. However, most of them are forever lost to humanity, their whereabouts forgotten and their records misplaced over the years.

That makes it all the more remarkable that the Crypt persists, unopened but watched over by the university whose grounds it inhabits. Crafted out of a basement room that once held a swimming pool, the Crypt is twenty feet long and ten feet wide with ten-foot ceilings. It’s set in Appalachian granite bedrock under a stone roof seven feet thick, lined with enamel plates embedded in pitch. The only visible marker of its existence above ground is a tiny x carved in a flagstone outside the university’s Phoebe Hearst Memorial.

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

Jeans Designed by Lions and Tigers Are a Win-Win for Zoos

By Robert Young, University of Salford | July 10, 2014 10:50 am
zoo jeans

Fashionably mauled denim. Courtesy Zoo Jeans

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

A Japanese jeans maker has found a new way of capitalizing on zoo animals. Zoo Jeans is producing jeans “designed by dangerous animals.” Denim is wrapped around tires, which are then thrown to the lions who enjoy ripping and biting at the material. This produces that all-important designer, distressed look.

Rather than simply being a marketing gimmick, there is actually value in this from an animal welfare perspective. Involving lions and the zoo’s other large carnivores in the activity is part of what’s called environmental enrichment. This is the provision of stimuli to help improve well-being. It’s a win-win activity for many zoos, who can make alternative profits from their animals, which tend to be used to provide extra facilities for them.

The end result - this pair "designed" by lions.

The end result – this pair “designed” by lions.

Wrapping denim around a tire to make enrichment devices for toothy carnivores is just one way that zoos have profited from their animals’ hobbies over the years. Since their inception, zoos have looked for different ways to fund their activities. London Zoo when it first opened would let in penniless visitors for a cat or dog to be fed to the carnivores. Visitors with money were offered other things to keep themselves amused as they looked at the animals.

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

The Secret to Dolphins’ Swimming Speeds

By Brad Balukjian | January 23, 2014 4:01 pm

dolphins

The “Acknowledgements” section of a scientific paper is usually a good cure for insomnia—just a list of names of collaborating scientists and funding agencies. So what is the U.S. National Swim Team doing in the acknowledgements of a new paper on dolphins?

Turns out our swim team held the answer to one of marine biology’s oldest conundrums—how dolphins swim so fast with limited muscle power.

The problem dates back to 1936, when Sir James Gray studied a dolphin clocked swimming at 22.4 mph around a boat (note: that’s fast for water). Using a simple hydrodynamic model and what he knew about the dolphin’s size and power, Gray concluded that there was no way the dolphin could move that fast without some fluid mechanics wizardry, such as some special technique to modify the flow of the water and reduce the amount of drag. Herein lay what became known as “Gray’s paradox”—short of having the same trainer as Alex Rodriguez, how could dolphins move at that speed?

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

How Brachiosaurus (and Brethren) Became So Gigantic

By Guest Blogger | October 30, 2013 11:31 am

By Brad Balukjian

Mamenchisaurus_youngi_steveoc_86.jpg

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?

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

Are Dolphins Not as Smart as We Thought?

By Guest Blogger | October 4, 2013 12:02 pm

By Erik Vance

dolphins painting skills

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
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