Tag: unusual organisms

Kiddie Pool-Sized Shell of Extinct Turtle Found in Colombian Mine

By Sarah Zhang | May 22, 2012 4:05 pm

giant turtle
Don’t mess with this.

Folks, those turtle-shaped sandboxes are not just a consumerist fantasy: Carbonemys cofrinii is an extinct turtle with a 10-inch skull and, more impressively, a shell that rounds out to five feet, seven inches in length. That really is big enough to dig around in. That’s also the same height as the grad student who found the 60-million-year-old fossil in a Colombian mine.

The turtle was so big that it probably drove off other turtle competitors and dominated the lake by itself, scientists say. They think that C. cofrinni preyed on mollusks and small reptiles, like the one depicted in this artist’s interpretation. If we’re going to be spending time in the belly of a turtle, though, we’d personally prefer it to be full of sand and toys rather than chewed up food.

[via Wired]

Image via North Carolina State University, credit: Liz Bradford

Scent-Gland Bacteria Help Hyenas Identify Friends, Strangers, and Pregnant Females

By Joseph Castro | July 8, 2011 12:53 pm

spacing is important

Spotted hyenas are sometimes portrayed as cowardly scavengers, always laughing, always up to some kind of mischief. If you’ve ever seen Disney’s The Lion King, then you may already have that image in your head. Here in the non-Disney universe, spotted hyenas are actually fascinating creatures. For example, they hang out in matriarchal “clans,” and the females, with their aggressive behavior and pseudo-penises (large clitorises), are very difficult to tell apart from the males. But it turns out that spotted hyenas may be even stranger than we initially thought: they may use bacteria to help communicate with one another, suggests Michigan State University zoologist Kay E. Holekamp in a recent, amusing New York Times blog post.

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Henry the Seal Can Discern Shapes Using Just His Whiskers

By Patrick Morgan | May 12, 2011 5:22 pm

Blindfolded and fitted with noise-canceling headphones, this seal might better fit a marine-creature hostage crisis than a scientific study. In reality, it’s making history by showing for the first time that the whiskers of harbor seals are so sensitive that they can discern the shapes of objects by the ripples they make. Marine biologists have known for a while that seals use their whiskers to find fish in dark, murky waters, but as lead researcher Wolf Hanke told LiveScience, whiskers had “never been shown to analyze things” beyond that. Being able to discern shape and size means that seals may use their whiskers to pick out the fattest fish.

Henry, a 12-year-old harbor seal, was plopped into an open-air pool in a Cologne zoo to put his whiskers to the test. Researchers blindfolded and placed headphones on him so that he could only use his whiskers to sense underwater objects. In the pool, the researchers placed a plastic box containing an assortment of variably-shaped paddles. Because they trained Henry to touch his nose to a small plastic sphere whenever he thought a paddle’s ripples were different from a control paddle’s ripples, the scientists were able to test whether the seal could discriminate between different shapes and sizes.

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The Genetic Gamesmanship of a Seven-Sexed Creature

By Patrick Morgan | March 4, 2011 9:40 am

What could be better than two types of sexes? For one organism, the answer isn’t three, but seven! And to top it off, these seven sexes aren’t evenly distributed in a population, although researchers have now developed a mathematical model that can accurately estimate the probabilities in this crap-shoot game of sexual determination.

Meet Tetrahymena thermophila, which in addition to its seven different sexes—conveniently named I, II, III, IV, V, VI, and VII—has such a complex sex life that it requires an extra nucleus. This fuzzy, single-celled critter has a larger macronucleus that takes care of most cellular functions and a smaller micronucleus dedicated to genetic conjugation.

The other odd thing about this one-celled wonder is that the population of the seven sexes are skewed, leading Unversity of Houston researcher Rebecca Zufall and her colleagues to ask: What gives?

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When Male Stickleback Fish Refuse to Ask for Directions

By Joseph Calamia | September 8, 2010 5:48 pm

ninespine-sticklebackThe ninespine stickleback can communicate with fish friends to figure out the best places to eat, but one thing seems to make otherwise social males disregard the group: sex.

Two researchers have found that, as these male fish prepare to breed, they ignore the group and go off alone to explore their environment in the hunt for food. At the same time, egg-bearing female fish do the opposite, sticking more closely to the pack and copying others’ behaviors to find food.

The researchers from the University of St. Andrews published these findings today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B. They suspect that staying with the group helps save the females from predators and conserve their energy, while venturing out alone might help males find other food sources more efficiently. Coauthor Kevin Laland explains:

“While copying others is less risky, it can also be less accurate, compared to collecting firsthand information. The hormonal changes that cause a male to enter his reproductive phase may also be responsible for this transition to more antisocial behaviour.”

Mike Webster of the University of St. Andrews, who coauthored the study with Laland, invoked the clichéd male driver refusing to ask for directions–but with a twist.

“We are all familiar with the stereotype of males refusing to ask for directions–this might apply to fish too, but only when they are preparing to breed.”

Related content:
Discoblog: Prozac Ocean: Fish Absorb Our Drugs, and Suffer For It
Discoblog: Bizarro Animal Sex Story of the Day
Discoblog: Charge by the Hour? Scottish Volunteers Build Mating Motel for Frogs
DISCOVER: Ladies’ Night in Animal Kingdom

Image: Press Office, University of St Andrews

Scottish Travelers, Beware: Fugitive Vulture Could Take Down an Airplane

By Joseph Calamia | August 18, 2010 5:11 pm

RupellsGriffonVultureImageWorld of Wings in Cumbernauld claims Scotland’s “largest collection of birds of prey,” including eagles, owls, hawks, and falcons. The center also served home to a Rüppell’s Griffin Vulture named Gandalf–until Gandalf flew away.

David Ritchie, director of the bird center, told the BBC that the bird flew away during one of the center’s daily shows:

“She got caught in the wind and just went higher and higher until she disappeared…. We would warn people not to approach her but to call the police. She has no fear of humans and she could give someone a very severe bite. Her beak is designed to tear flesh apart.”

There are only about 30,000 remaining Rüppell’s Griffins, native to central Africa, and Gandalf has been at the center since 2006 as part of a zoo breeding program. The birds are scavengers, mostly eating dead animals, and can soar to heights of some 30,000 feet.

So it’s majestic–but its power to reach such heights and its 10-foot wingspan make the escaped vulture a “genuine threat” to airplanes and helicopters, according to Ritchie. The National Air Traffic Services has warned pilots of the threat, the BBC reports. Here’s hoping (for Gandalf’s, the Scottish National Air Traffic Services’, and flesh’s sake) that the vulture returns home soon.

For a prehistoric bird with a bigger bite but no flight, check out Ed Yong’s recent “terror birds” post on Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Related content:
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: Are birds smarter than mathematicians? Pigeons perform optimally on a version of the Monty Hall Dilemma.
Discoblog: Male Birds Can Make Their Sperm Travel Faster for Attractive Females
Discoblog: Duck Study: Competition for Mates Causes Males to Grow Longer Penises
80Beats: Mockingbird to Annoying Human: “Hey, I Know You”

Image: wikimedia

Look at the Size of That Chinchilla Poop–to Know How Much It Rained

By Joseph Calamia | August 10, 2010 4:22 pm

chinchillaThe bigger the fossilized feces the more ancient rain. A team of paleontologists has uncovered this apparent correlation during a study of chinchilla scat at nine sites in South America’s Atacama Desert.

Claudio Latorre Hidalgo of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago presented his findings on this rainfall metric at a talk held yesterday during the ongoing American Geophysical Union’s Meeting of the Americas. Science News, where we found the story, reports that Latorre Hidaglo looked at fossilized feces from middens–shared rodent poop piles that contain “fecal pellets cemented together by crystallized urine.”

Latorre Hidaglo’s team carbon dated organic bits from the largest twenty percent of the chinchilla pellets (so as to exclude pellets from rodent youth). Given information on rainfall from other sources, they correlated the larger feces with periods of greater rainfall. According to Science News, Latorre Hidaglo suggests that the more rain, the better the environment to support bigger chinchillas; the bigger the chinchillas, the bigger the chinchilla poop. The poop test, the researchers say, may provide a way to estimate past rainfall when other tests aren’t available.

The American Geophysical Union talk announcement advises researchers to keep digging into the middens for more information:

A correlation between the size of rodent droppings and rainfall quantities is enabling researchers to establish a new paleoclimate record. Plus, a study of the contents of middens accumulated long ago by rodents offers further insights into the Atacama’s past.

Related content:
Discoblog: Is Muskrat Poop the Next Penicillin?
Discoblog: Archeologists Find the Darnedest Things Digging Around in Hyena Poop
Discoblog: To Maintain Clean Nests, Social Insects Hold in Poop for a Very Long Time
Discoblog: Whale Shark Poops on Camera; Scientists Rejoice

Image: wikimedia / Rumpelstiltzkin

Drakozoon in 3D! Scientists Take a Look at an Ancient Sea Blob

By Joseph Calamia | August 4, 2010 12:51 pm

DrakozoonThe Silurian Period, 425 million years ago: As volcanic ash rained down on proto-England, a sea blob named Drakozoon gave its last. Now, using a computer model, scientists have finally witnessed what the soft-bodied ancient looked like in 3D.

Researchers first found a Drakozoon fossil six years ago in Herefordshire Lagerstätte, home to England’s mother-load of soft-bodied fossils. Such fossils are rare since most of these creatures decompose before a fossil can form.To capitalize on the find, a team chopped the Drakozoon fossil into 200 pieces, photographed those slices, and used a computer to construct a rotatable image of the old softy.

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Duck Study: Competition for Mates Causes Males to Grow Longer Penises

By Joseph Calamia | August 2, 2010 5:13 pm

Unfamiliar with duck loving? Here are the basics: Corkscrewed vaginas and long, temporary, lymph-filled penises that uncoil in fractions of a second. Now researchers have found that some males’ members grow longer when they’re fiercely competing for a mate.

The photo we have to illustrate this magnificent mating equipment is so graphic–in a duck kind of way–that we’re putting it below the jump. As Carl Zimmer memorably put it when writing on the kinkiness of duck sex, it may not be “appropriate for ducklings.”

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What's in a (Species) Name? Maybe the Power to Fend Off Extinction

By Joseph Calamia | July 19, 2010 5:49 pm

seapigletshrimpThe blue pepper-pot beetle, St. John’s jellyfish, and the queen’s executioner beetle–these distinctly British-sounding organisms share a few things in common. For one, they all have brand new names, thanks to the ingenuity of the British public.

The trio received these new names from public entries in a competition organized by The Guardian, Natural England, and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Other similarities include (perhaps unsurprisingly) that they all live in the UK, and that they’re all threatened with extinction.

One usually pictures an organism’s discoverer naming her find, or the organism’s common name coming from obvious characteristics (like lighting bugs or fireflies, for example), but sometimes critters just slip through the cracks; these ten were previously known only by their official scientific classifications. That made it hard, the competition’s organizers suspected, for the public to care whether or not these rare creatures disappeared. The naming competition, thought up by Guardian columnist George Monbiot, was meant to make the threatened organisms more identifiable and relatable to the public.

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