I have been living in Hawaii for six years now, and I have once, and only once, caught a glimpse of the snakes that call these islands home.
Yes, you read that right: there are snakes in Hawaii. Technically, there are two species that can be found here, but the yellow-bellied sea snake is so rare it almost doesn’t count. The other — the brahminy blindsnake — is actually quite common, though it’s easy to understand why it’s often overlooked: these small, black creatures only grow to be about six inches long and dwell in the dirt. They are often mistaken for worms because of their diminutive size and underground lifestyle. The same species can be found worldwide: natively throughout Asia and Africa and non-natively in several places, including Hawaii. They’re also the only species of snake that is entirely parthenogenic — no male has ever been collected. They simply don’t look or act like we think a snake should. And now, scientists have documented yet another trait that makes them stand out from their serpentine brethren: before swallowing, they will sometimes decapitate their meal. Read More
Cone snails are among the most venomous animals on the planet, with some species able to kill an adult human in a matter of minutes. Some species hunt worms, some hunt other snails, and some even hunt fast-moving fish, the last of which are the most dangerous to us. Evolutionary studies suggest that ancestral cone snails were worm-eaters, and that fish-eating is a relatively new phenomenon. Which begs the question: how does a snail go from a slow-moving worm-hunter to a quick-striking fish-hunter? A team of scientists thinks they may have found the answer: the snails turned defensive toxins into attack weaponry.
The flatworm Macrostomum hystrix isn’t exciting to look at. Its diet of microalgae doesn’t raise any eyebrows, and you probably wouldn’t even notice one if you came across it in its native habitat. But in the bedroom, these flatworms take kink to a whole new level: when they can’t find a partner, they will stab themselves in the head with their needle-like penises and inject sperm to self-fertilize. Read More
Given the enormous backlash to Western Australia’s ill-conceived shark cull last year, you would think that government officials would have come to realize that killing sharks is a terrible way to respond to shark bites (more than 100 shark scientists and 2/3 of Western Australians opposed that cull). But it appears that authorities in North Carolina have not learned from others’ mistakes: Oak Island Town Manager Tim Holloman announced this week that following two life-threatening bites, officials would “take appropriate action” and “eliminate” any shark they deem a potential threat. According to the L.A. Times:
If officials see aggressive behavior from any sharks near shore, such as darting in and out of the surf line or coming within about 100 feet of the beach, Holloman said, the officials are prepared to euthanize the animal.
“If they look like they’re posing a danger, we will authorize that action,” Holloman told the Los Angeles Times.
Let me be extremely clear: what happened to the two teenagers in Oak Island, N.C. this week is awful. My heart goes out to them and their friends and relatives. They have survived something terrible and life-altering, and I hope that they are being well supported and cared for. But killing any shark that comes within 100 feet of shore or displays “aggressive behavior” will not return their limbs — nor will it prevent anyone else from losing theirs. Read More
As far as natural selection is concerned, sex is just about everything. All activities a creature engages in are in service of reproduction. Not surprisingly, the nitty gritty cellular details of reproductive biology are thus of extreme interest to many scientists.
Biologically speaking, males are the members of a species that generate sperm while females produce eggs. But now, scientists from Japan have shown that a female fish can produce fully-functioning sperm—and would all the time, if it weren’t for the expression of a single gene. Read More
Today is World Oceans Day, a United Nations-recognized day of ocean celebration and action. This year’s theme is simple—Healthy oceans, healthy planet—with a focus on the problem of marine plastic, a topic I recently wrote about for Popular Science.
Around the internets, World Oceans Day has been making a lot of waves, with lots of great articles about the importance of marine environments and what all of us can do to make them healthier. It’s heartening to see the attention that this day is receiving, including the flood of posts using the hashtag on Twitter*.
Here are some of my favorites ocean posts from today: Read More
When you get right down to it, box jellyfish are little more than goo. The majority of their volume is mesoglea, a non-living, jello-like substance, which is sandwiched between two thin tissue layers. They have no teeth to bite with, no claws to scratch with — none of the weaponry we generally think of when we imagine a ruthless predator. Yet these boneless, brainless boxies are among the deadliest animals on Earth. The box jellyfish Chironex fleckeri can kill a full grown man in less than five minutes, and the venom it wields in its tentacles contains of some of the most rapid, potent toxins in the world.
Exactly what those toxins are, though, has remained somewhat of a mystery. Scientists have been trying to determine the composition of box jelly venom for decades, but have only uncovered some of its potent constituents. And while there’s still more to learn, last week, a research team from Queensland, Australia published the most extensive analysis of Chironex venom proteins to date, revealing some of the diverse arsenal that these gelatinous killers are equipped with. Read More
On Wednesday, journalist John Bohannon revealed to the world how he “fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss.” In a boastful piece for i09, he details how he and German television reporter Peter Onneken performed a faulty clinical trial and used flawed statistics to make it seem like chocolate was a weight loss wonder. The team then wrote a bad paper and managed to publish it in a (non-peer-reviewed) journal. They intentionally concocted an enticing press release to tell the world about their not-so-reliable results, and managed to get a few large sites to bite the hook they carefully baited. “For far too long, the people who cover this beat have treated it like gossip, echoing whatever they find in press releases,” Bohannon wrote to explain why he agreed to the elaborate sting. He hopes that the shame of being called out for bad journalism will be enough to get reporters and the public to be a bit more skeptical of science news.
Of course, some were quick to point out that Bohannon mostly fooled the most well-known churnalistic sites, and that overall, science journalists didn’t fall for the ruse. I’m inclined to agree with their criticisms both of ethics of how the sting was conducted and the bold conclusions about the lazy nature of science journalists drawn from it. But it’s hard to stand on my soapbox, fist in the air, when it seems like every week there’s another example of just how shoddy science journalism often is, even when the studies reported on are actually quite wonderful.
You see, I’m in a particularly sour mood because I didn’t want to bring up John Bohannon or the failings of science journalists today. Instead, I had planned to write this awesome post about a fascinating new paper published in BMC Genomics. I wanted to talk about how this research (which details the venom transcriptome and proteome of the largest of the deadliest class of invertebrates in the world, the box jellyfish Chironex fleckeri) is an incredible, fresh look at an evolutionarily old venom. I wanted to expound extravagantly on the novel toxin types Diane Brinkman and her colleagues from Queensland found in the terrifying tentacles of a species that has killed more than 60 people and caused serious injury in multitudes more. Most importantly, I would have loved to dive deeply into the study’s methods and results, discuss what this new information tells us about some of my favorite venomous animals, and how it builds the foundation for future studies.
But instead, I was so nauseated by the coverage of this study that I feel obligated to take the time to correct the lazy reporting of others. Bohannon’s chocolate fake-out may not have been right, but it’s hard to say he’s wrong about science news coverage.
Perhaps the most common way that we tell different species apart is by looks. Different colors often mean deep-rooted differences, but in some species, color is a fluid concept. Take the chameleons: though it’s a myth that they can match any color they see around them, they are able to modify the patterns on their bodies to blend in, and some are known for dizzying color changes that are used as social signals — a colorful way of communicating with the chameleons around them.
The panther chameleon, Furcifer pardalis, is particularly well known for its vibrant beauty. These lizards are popular in the pet trade, where color ‘morphs’ or ‘locales’ are seen — the rarest highly coveted. These distinct looks are often named after Malagasy villages or islands where such colors are found. The Nosy Be morph is stunningly blue, like the chameleons found in that area, while the Sambava morphs are more mottled with green and yellow. On top of such stark geographic color differences, these little lizards also vary with season, age and mood (related: scientists make chameleon-mimicking material)
Some 150 miles off the eastern coast of northern Africa — about 240 miles south of the Arabian peninsula — lies a set of islands that some have called “the most alien-looking place on Earth.” Socotra, which is both the name of the archipelago and the largest island, is a truly bizarre place. More than a third of the plants that erupt from the soil are found nowhere else. Their odd shapes and forms give the islands a Dr. Seussian quality, an almost cartoonish, comical landscape that stands in sharp contrast to the strict religious practices of the people who live there.
Socotra is a part of Yemen, a country currently engaged in a brutal civil war. But, it is also an island apart; the hundreds of miles of water that separate Socotra from the mainland have not only allowed biodiversity to take otherworldly forms, they have also allowed the people of Socotra to become distinct. The 50,000 or so people that live on the islands have their own language, myths and legends, and are their own governorate. Socotra has an archeological history that dates back to some of the earliest civilizations, complete with inexplicable cave art and 2,000 year old tools. The rich culture of the indigenous Soqotri has been insulated, like the flora and fauna they live alongside, for thousands of years — until the past decade, or so, when the Yemeni government has begun to open the islands to tourism.
In 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the islands a world heritage site, citing the incredible uniqueness and diversity of the land’s plants and animals — the “Galápagos of the Indian Ocean.” In addition to the hundreds of endemic plants, more than 90 percent of the reptiles and land snails that live on the islands are exclusive to them. Culturally and ecologically, Socotra is a place where uniqueness flourishes.
But the uniqueness of Socotra doesn’t end at the waters’ edge. Scientists have found that its coral reefs are pretty special, too — they’re home to a heap of hybrids. Read More