Archive for February, 2012

Will we ever…? My new column for the BBC

By Ed Yong | February 22, 2012 7:18 am

As of this week, I’m starting a new column over at the BBC, as part of their new science and technology super-site. The goal, based on feedback from the BBC’s readership, was to create a space for deeper, richer sources of science writing to complement their typical news pieces. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a goal that I have a lot of time for. There will be lots of features, and some regular columns. I’m providing one of the latter.

So the column is called “Will we ever…?” The goal is to take far-flung and possibly optimistic applications of basic scientific research and look at the steps and obstacles between now and then. You know that sentence in the fourth or fifth paragraph of most science news pieces? The fluffy one that says, “This discovery could eventually lead to [insert optimistic distant application here]”? This column will expand that sentence into a thousand words.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism, Personal

Huge set of fossil tracks preserves march of the ancient elephants

By Ed Yong | February 21, 2012 7:01 pm

In the desert of the United Arab Emirates, there is an unusual series of flat discs imprinted in the sand.  Each one is about 40 centimetres wide, and they snake off into the distance in several parallel lines, for hundreds of metres.

They are tracks. They were made by a herd of at least 14 early elephants, marching across the land between 6 and 8 million years ago. The track-makers are long dead, but in the intervening time, nothing has buried their tracks or eroded them away. Today, their social lives are still recorded in their fossilised footsteps.

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Flowers regenerated from 30,000-year-old frozen fruits, buried by ancient squirrels

By Ed Yong | February 20, 2012 3:00 pm

Fruits in my fruit bowl tend to rot into a mulchy mess after a couple of weeks. Fruits that are chilled in permanent Siberian ice fare rather better. After more than 30,000 years, and some care from Russian scientists, some ancient fruits have produced this delicate white flower.

These regenerated plants, rising like wintry Phoenixes from the Russian ice, are still viable. They produce their own seeds and, after a 30,000-year hiatus, can continue their family line.

The plant owes its miraculous resurrection to a team of scientists led by David Gilichinsky, and an enterprising ground squirrel. Back in the Upper Pleistocene, the squirrel buried the plant’s fruit in the banks of the Kolyma River. They froze.

Over millennia, the squirrel’s burrow fossilised and was buried under increasing layers of ice. The plants within were kept at a nippy -7 degrees Celsius, surrounded by permanently frozen soil and the petrifying bones of mammoths and woolly rhinos. They never thawed. They weren’t disturbed. By the time they were found and defrosted by scientists, they had been buried to a depth of 38 metres, and frozen for around 31,800 years.

People have grown plants from ancient seeds before. In 2008, Israeli scientists resurrected an aptly named Phoenix palm from seeds that had been buried in the 1st century. But those seeds were a mere 2,000 years old. Those of the new Russian flower – Silene stenophylla – are older by an order of magnitude. They trump all past record-holders.

Svetlana Yashina from the Russian Academy of Sciences grew the plants from immature fruits recovered from the burrow. She extracted their placentas – the structure that the seeds attach to – and bathed them in a brew of sugars, vitamins and growth factors. From these tissues, roots and shoots emerged.

Yashina potted the plants and two years later, they developed flowers. She fertilised the ancient flowers with each other’s pollen, and in a few months, they had produced their own seeds and fruits, all viable. The frozen plants, blooming again after millennia in the freezer, seeded a new generation.

S.stenophylla is still around, but Yashina found that the ancient plants are subtly different to their modern counterparts, even those taken from the same region. They’re slower to grow roots, they produce more buds, and their flower petals were wider.

This is the first time that anyone has grown plants from seeds tissue deeply buried within permanently frozen burrows. But it’s not the first time that someone has tried. In 1967, Canadian scientists claimed that they had regenerated Arctic lupin from 10,000 year old seeds that had been buried by lemmings. But in 2009, another team dated those same seeds and found that they were actually modern ones, which had contaminated the ancient sample.

Mindful of this mistake, Yashina carefully checked that her plants were indeed ancient ones. She dated the seeds directly, and her results matched age estimates from other samples from the same burrow. The burrows have been buried well below the level that animals dig into, and the structure of the surrounding ice suggests that they have never thawed. Their sediments are firmly compacted and totally filled with ice. No water infiltrates these chambers, much less plant roots or modern rodents. There are a few pores, but they are many times narrower than the width of any of Yashina’s seeds.

This closed world provided shelter, a continuous chill, and an effectively dry environment, that allowed the fruits to persist. At subzero temperatures, their chemical reactions slowed to a crawl. Extreme age was no longer a problem.  A fruit’s placenta is also chemically active, and is loaded with several chemicals that might have protected these specific tissues against the cold.

But the burrows weren’t completely benign environments. The underground rocks contain naturally radioactive elements, which would have bombarded the seeds with low but accumulating doses of radiation. The ones that Yashina regenerated would have amassed 70 Grays of radiation – that’s more than any other plant has absorbed while still producing viable seeds.

S.stenophylla’s resurrection shows how many treasures lie buried within the world’s permafrost. This soil, defined as that which stays below freezing for two years or more, covers a fifth of the planet’s land. It is home to bacteria, algae, fungi, plants and more. In the fossil burrows that Yashina has studied, scientists have found up to 600,000 to 800,000 seeds in individual chambers.

In Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault, scientists have frozen thousands of seeds in an underground cavern, as a back-up in case of agricultural crises. But nature has already produced similar frozen seed banks. Siberia, Alaska and the Yukon could act as one massive freezer, where ancient life has been stored, waiting to greet the world again.

Update: The lead author, David Gilichinsky passed away on 18 February, just two days before his final paper was published.

Reference: Yashina, Gubin, Maksimovich, Yashina, Gakhova & Gilichinsky. 2011. Regeneration of whole fertile plants from 30,000-y-old fruit tissue buried in Siberian permafrost. PNAS

More on ancient plants:

2,000 year old “Phoenix” seed rises from the ashes

The 13,000-year old tree that survives by cloning itself


Flies drink alcohol to medicate themselves against wasp infections

By Ed Yong | February 20, 2012 9:00 am

Some people drink alcohol to drown their sorrows. So does the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, but its sorrows aren’t teary rejections or lost jobs. It drinks to kill wasps that have hatched inside its body, and would otherwise eat it alive. It uses alcohol as a cure for body-snatchers.

D.melanogaster lives in a boozy world. It eats yeasts that grow on rotting fruit, which can contain up to 6 per cent alcohol. Being constantly drunk isn’t a good idea for a wild animal, and the flies have evolved a certain degree of resistance to alcohol. But Neil Milan from Emory University has found that alcohol isn’t just something that the insect tolerates. It’s also fly medicine.

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The blue whale – how I met the largest animal that has ever existed

By Ed Yong | February 19, 2012 1:34 pm

“I can see its tail,” says David Attenborough, perched on a small boat. “It’s coming up… it’s coming up! There! The blue whale!” Ever since I first saw The Life of Mammals, I’ve always remembered Attenborough’s joy at seeing the “largest animal that exists or has ever existed”.

I now know how he felt.

On Monday, off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, my wife and I had the privilege of seeing five blue whales.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Dolphins and whales, Personal

I've got your missing links right here (18 February 2012)

By Ed Yong | February 18, 2012 12:00 pm

Top picks

The second science-of-mysteries tryptich by Deborah Blum, Jennifer Ouellette, and Ann Finkbeiner

Top 10 reasons Erik Klemetti loves volcanoes, and you should too

Oxytocin is not a “love hormone”. It’s much more complicated than that. My new feature for New Scientist – you’ll need to register, but it’s free.

Woman gets a jaw transplant. Her jaw was printed with a 3-D printer

A long feature from Atlantic Magazine about Toxoplasma gondii’s sway over us. I’m not entirely convinced by the personality changes stuff but this is a good read.

Two rival features on the same story – the Zanesville zoo break – in GQ and Esquire. Compare and contrast.

Carl Zimmer profiles the aptly named Joy Reidenberg, arch-dissector from Inside Nature’s Giants

Here’s a song that hasn’t been heard for 165 million years – the reconstructed call of a Jurassic cricket

Marvellous parody paper about neuropsychoanalysis and fMRI, via NeuroSkeptic

Wonderful. 10-yr-old girl discovers new molecule by pissing around with modelling kit, gets published

When it comes to viruses can we really calculate ratios of costs to benefits?” – Carl Zimmer on the bird flu controversy

A superb mini-profile of the animator behind those bizarre Taiwanese CG news videos by Eliza Strickland

Maryn McKenna has a new feature on Robert Daum, a man who’s trying to make an MRSA vaccine.

What the mysterious death of a 3,500-year-old tree can teach us about impermanence & deep time

If not for a virus, none of us would ever have been born, by Carl Zimmer

Good read about “battle-hardened climate ninja” Michael Mann and the siege atmosphere of climate science

If a pill could erase your most traumatic memory, would you take it? Great feature by Jonah Lehrer

Storming piece from Emily Wilingham on the idea of Asperger’s as a non-disorder. Brings mother’s anger and scientist’s eye

“The exhaustive rendering of our… patterns into data sets” – Charles Duhigg on how companies learn your secrets

We’ve never seen this microbe before, but we have its entire genome. Amazing.

Robert Krulwich on two deaths: a poet’s and a beetle’s. Beautiful

Alex Wild tweets an insect photo that he took, discovers that he may have the only photo of a live member of the species and genus.

Every elephant that has ever lived started off as a single cell” – Brian Switek on what happens afterwards

Kevin Zelnio’s heartfelt post about raising children without insurance in America’s ridiculous healthcare system.

Good piece by Maia Szalavitz on daft plans to medicalise normal grief



What ocean question do you want to see discussed in 2012? Here’s what some ocean scientists at Scio12 thought.

The peppered moth and the final experiment of Michael Majerus

America to collide with Asia… in 50 million years

The tragic fate of the Brighton octopus

Stretchiest spider silk ever

Extreme laboratories: what it’s like to work *inside* a glacier

“The brain is not made of soup. It’s not made of spaghetti either” – Neuroskeptic on the connectome

Tarsiers have secret ultrasonic communications

SciCurious on Nutt’s psilocybin paper: “nothing to address a mechanism… only a picture of your brain on drugs.”

Mini-chameleons, with the world’s saddest scientific name

How can you tell if you’ve hit an Antarctic lake?

Coeclacanths are not living fossils. Like the rest of us, they evolve

Blood of cockroach -> fuel cell

Kate Clancy talks about common myths about menstruation

Alice Bell on debates, climate and otherwise: people with polarised opinions are often least interesting

Is a blood test for depression possible? Or useful?

“What’s clear is that menstrual blood is not exactly a preferential food for black bears.”

Hack your mouth microbiome to get rid of cavities?

From the Yeahbutwha? Files: polar explorers lured penguins with music to kill them for their vitamin C

Sure, let’s introduce elephants to Australia, a country where introducing wildlife has never gone badly

Spider webs are actually stronger as a whole when some of their threads are broken

Alzheimer’s protein seems to spread like a virus from neuron to neuron

Sociologists (and journals) behaving badly: pressure to cite superfluous papers

Jonah Lehrer on a fascinating molecule and the enduring mystery of persistent memories

Vote or nominate psychology findings you’d most like to see replicated

Is the Open Science Revolution For Real? By David Dobbs

Pigeons – feathered rats, or showcases of incredible diversity?

Fallout From Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Retraction Is Far and Wide

Here’s Petra Boynton with everything you wanted to know about penis size. And +1 for “cock quackery klaxon”

How artists remind us of the ocean’s fragility

Trial of drug delivery by wireless microchip shows promise.

We’re going to shove this earthworm-based robot into your anus. Okay?

To Boldly Go – a new blog on astrobiology at the Wired network.

Delusional pregnancy – as common among men as women

If you have a really big pile of manure, you really don’t want it to explode everywhere

Are zebras stripey to repel horseflies?

Good news: the tracks weren’t made by a giant frog! *cough*actuallyagiantseascorpionohlookisthatthetime*cough*

A gallery of creatures that say no to sex

Why We Can’t Just Get Rid of the Genes That Let Us Get Infected

“There was no way the blind mice could see, yet they could.” – Carl Zimmer on the sightless light detector in our eyes



Dinosaurs are Jesus ponies” Google Autocomplete FTW

“Consider the perceptual challenges inherent in the robotic manipulation of unseen socks

“The psychologist or psychiatrist shall wear a cone-shaped hat… imprinted with stars”

NASA releases alternative hi-res “Blue Marble” image for people who don’t want their planet centred on America 😉

Onion: “Huffington Post” Employee Sucked Into Aggregation Turbine

Want free-to-use silhouettes of organisms? PhyloPic is here

The false teeth disappeared inside the experimental nuclear power plant’s landmark sphere”

Heh. Loving Ben Goldacre’s approach to data visualisation

Want to nuke your house? There’s an app for that.

Rice Krispyhenge!

Shark eats shark

Art by animals (non-human ones), collated in a gallery by one specific animal – Brandon Keim

Corals aren’t just lumps of rock. They’re living animals. Here are some emerging after being buried in sand



The Atlantic gets more devastating internal docs from Susan Komen. Shorter version: lying

A brief history of blurbs (those short, sound-bite endorsements on creative works)

Embargoes and exclusives don’t mix: NYT story about Neuron study reveals a problem

‘Mobile nature reserves‘ could save marine species from extinction

Why is the African Savanna so full of thorns?

Science, history and London’s blue circles, by Alice Bell. Cool mini-photoessay

Why bullied teens don’t recognise “bullying” rhetoric

The nuclear power plant that never was… and is now a tourist attraction

It’s not easy getting science into women’s mags, as Hillary Rosner knows


My Sri Lankan adventure – a species list

By Ed Yong | February 18, 2012 10:00 am

Hey hey! I’m back from a wonderful 2.5-week holiday in Sri Lanka. It was tremendous, and the first proper no-writing, no-work break I’ve taken for well over a year. Your normal blogging and tweeting service will now resume, and photos (oh, so many photos) will emerge at some point. But for now, here’s some geekery for you.

This is the full list of what we saw on the holiday. I’ve never been to a country where the wildlife watching opportunities were so thick and easy. The first thing that I saw when I pulled back the curtains on my first morning was a criticially endangered monkey on my balcony. I walked out of a room one afternoon to get some tea and ended up photographing troops of Toque macaques and gray langurs, a mongoose, some water monitors and a giant squirrel. We did a boat trip where a pod of 150 or so spinner dolphins was only the third most exciting thing we saw in an hour (two green turtles mating, and five blue whales).

So, the list. The rules are that they have to be seen in the wild, not in a zoo or nursery, and we had to identify them to the species level (which explains why there are no invertebrates and why the flying fish we saw didn’t make the cut – 65 friggin’ species, are you kidding me?). The asterisks indicate the ones we have photos of.


  • Blue whale *
  • Spinner dolphin *
  • Spotted deer *
  • Water buffalo *
  • Wild boar *
  • Indian flying fox *
  • Asian elephant *
  • Purple-faced leaf monkey (Western and Southern races) *
  • Toque macaque *
  • Grey langur *
  • Black-naped hare
  • Giant squirrel *
  • Palm squirrel *
  • Ruddy mongoose *

Reptiles and amphibians

  • Green turtle *
  • Star tortoise *
  • Water monitor *
  • Land (Bengal) monitor *
  • House gecko
  • Fourclaw gecko
  • Kandyan gecko *
  • Sri Lankan ratsnake
  • Mugger crocodile *
  • Sri Lanka bullfrog *


  • Little shag
  • Great cormorant
  • Indian darter *
  • Spot-billed pelican
  • Indian pond heron *
  • Cattle egret *
  • Little egret
  • Intermediate egret *
  • Grey heron
  • Purple heron *
  • Painted stork *
  • Asian openbill stork *
  • Woolly-necked stork
  • Black-headed ibis *
  • Eurasian spoonbill
  • Garganey
  • White-bellied sea eagle *
  • Brahminy kite *
  • Grey-headed fish eagle *
  • Crested serpent eagle
  • Crested hawk eagle *
  • Grey francolin
  • Ceylon junglefowl
  • Indian peafowl *
  • White-breasted waterhen *
  • Purple swamphen *
  • Pheasant-tailed jacana *
  • Black-winged stilt *
  • Greater thick-knee
  • Yellow-wattled lapwing
  • Red-wattled lapwing *
  • Common sandpiper
  • Brown-headed gull
  • Common tern *
  • Spotted dove
  • Emerald dove *
  • Orange-breasted green pigeon *
  • Imperial green pigeon
  • Ceylon hanging parrot *
  • Rose-ringed parakeet *
  • Asian koel
  • Greater coucal *
  • Indian nightjar *
  • Little swift
  • Stork-billed kingfisher *
  • White-throated kingfisher *
  • Common kingfisher *
  • Little green bee-eater *
  • Blue-tailed bee-eater *
  • Chestnut-headed bee-eater *
  • Indian roller *
  • Ceylon grey hornbill
  • Malabar pied hornbill *
  • Brown-headed barbet *
  • Ceylon small barbet
  • Black-rumped flameback *
  • Crimson-backed flameback
  • Barn swallow
  • Ceylon swallow
  • Orange minivet *
  • Pied flycatcher shrike
  • Red-vented bulbul
  • Gold-fronted leafbird
  • Oriental magpie-robin
  • Pied bush chit
  • Indian robin
  • Asian brown flycatcher *
  • Paradise flycatcher (Asian + Indian races) *
  • Ceylon scimitar-babbler
  • Yellow-billed babbler *
  • Great tit
  • Purple-rumped sunbird
  • Loten’s sunbird *
  • Black-hooded oriole *
  • Brown shrike
  • Philippine shrike
  • White-bellied drongo
  • Indian jungle crow
  • Brahminy starling *
  • Common myna *
  • White-rumped munia

Is crime a virus or a beast? How metaphors shape our thoughts and decisions [Repost]

By Ed Yong | February 17, 2012 10:00 am

This post was originally published last year. I’m travelling for a few weeks, so I’m reloading some of my favourite stories from 2011. Normal service will resume when I get back.

In 1990, in a depressed area of Buffalo, New York, eleven schoolgirls were raped. According to George Kelling, a criminal justice scholar, eight of these incidents could have been prevented. After the third case, police knew that a serial rapist was on the loose but, even though they had a description and modus operandi, they issued no warning to local parents. They saw their job as catching the criminal rather than preventing more girls from being raped.

Kelling argued that the cops hadn’t wilfully neglected their duties. Their actions were swayed by their views of police-work, which were in turn affected by metaphors. They saw themselves as crime-fighters who trod the “thin blue line” protecting innocent civilians from criminal marauders. With this role entrenched in their minds, they saw their job as catching the rapist, even at the expense of preventing further crimes. As Kelling said, the eight Buffalo schoolgirls “were victims, though no one realized it at the time, not only of a rapist, but of a metaphor.”

As with all complex issues, crime is suffused with metaphors. One common frame portrays crime as a disease, one that plagues cities, infects communities, and spreads in epidemics or waves. Another depicts crime as a predator – criminals prey upon their victims, and they need to be hunted or caught. These aren’t just rhetorical flourishes; they’re mind-changing tools with very real consequences.

In a series of five experiments, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University have shown how influential metaphors can be. They can change the way we try to solve big problems like crime. They can shift the sources that we turn to for information. They can polarise our opinions to a far greater extent than, say, our political leanings. And most of all, they do it under our noses. Writers know how powerful metaphors can be, but it seems that most of us fail to realise their influence in our everyday lives.

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Man with schizophrenia has out-of-body experience in lab, gains knowledge, controls his psychosis [Repost]

By Ed Yong | February 16, 2012 10:00 am

This post was originally published last year. I’m travelling for a few weeks, so I’m reloading some of my favourite stories from 2011. Normal service will resume when I get back.
RM had his first out-of-body experience at the age of 16. Now, at the age of 55, he has had more than he can count. They usually happen just before he falls asleep; for ten minutes, he feels like he is floating above his body, looking down on himself. If the same thing happens when he’s awake, it’s a far less tranquil story. The sense of displacement is stronger – his real body feels like a marionette, while he feels like a puppeteer. His feelings of elevation soon change into religious delusions, in which he imagines himself talking to angels and demons. Psychotic episodes follow. After four or five days, RM is hospitalised.

This has happened between 15 to 20 times, ever since RM was first diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 23. He hears voices, and he suffers from hallucinations and delusions. Despite these problems, he managed to hold down a job as a reporter until 2002 and more recently, he has been working in restaurants and volunteering as an archivist. Then, about a year ago, he took part in a study that seems to have changed his life.

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Beetle larva lures and kills frogs, while the adult hunts and paralyses them [Repost]

By Ed Yong | February 15, 2012 10:00 am

This post was originally published last year. I’m travelling for a few weeks, so I’m reloading some of my favourite stories from 2011. Normal service will resume when I get back.


During its lifetime, a frog will snap up thousands of insects with its sticky, extendable tongue. But if it tries to eat an Epomis beetle, it’s more likely to become a meal than to get one. These Middle Eastern beetles include two species – Epomis circumscriptus and Epomis dejeani – that specialise at killing frogs, salamanders, and other amphibians.

Their larvae eat nothing else, and they have an almost 100 percent success rate. They lure their prey, encouraging them to approach and strike. When the sticky tongue lashes out, the larva dodges and latches onto its attacker with wicked double-hooked jaws. Hanging on, it eats its prey alive. The adult beetle has a more varied diet but it’s no less adept at hunting amphibians. It hops onto its victim’s back and delivers a surgical bite that paralyses the amphibian, giving the beetle time to eat at its leisure.

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