30 September 2011

Life entangled

A useful overview article of developments in quantum biology here summarizes recent research into possible roles in smell, photosynthesis and vision.

Humans have 400 differently shaped smell receptors but can recognize 100,000 smells. Whether a quantum effect (electron tunneling) plays a role remains a matter of speculation.

26 September 2011

Metamorphosis: bifurcated being

The larva of Luidia sarsi is a semi-transparent diaphanous sprite that feeds on algae and grows to a remarkable 4 centimetres. Then something extraordinary happens. Instead of changing shape to become an adult, a cluster of cells lining the larva's internal cavity grows, like an alien invader, and out of these a starfish is born. Floating free from its other self, the adult form settles on the ocean floor, where it survives and grows by hunting down other starfish in the dark of night. Meanwhile, the larva continues its vegetarian existence, grazing the surface waters above.
-- from Evolution's freak factory, in which Frank Ryan suggests hybridisation played a role in Cambrian explosion.

See also: Hybrids, chimeras, trees and webs

P.S. In a highly critical review of Ryan's book Metamorphosis, Josh Trapani says that Ryan champions the views of Donald Williamson who postlated that interbreeding occurs between not just different species but different phuyla; for example, between ascidians (sea squirts) and echinoderms (sea urchins):
He postulates that this has happened repeatedly between different groups of widely divergent organisms. Moreover, he postulates that the hybrids look like one parental species as larvae and like the other as adults, rather than simply exhibiting a mix of characteristics, as most hybrids do. Not only is this hypothesis not supported by evidence, but plenty of evidence, including powerful molecular evidence, directly contradicts it.

23 September 2011

A monster's heartblood

There was once a monster which lived in the valley of the Clearwater River near Kamiah. This beast devoured all the animals that lived in the country for miles around and became such a menace that Coyote...decided it must be killed. Arming himself with a flint knife, he jumped down the animal's throat and stabbed it in the heart. Then he cut the body up into pieces and from them fashioned tribes of Indians which he sent to occupy the mountains and plains round about. Finally, he discovered that he did not have a tribe for the beautiful valley in which the monster had lived, so he squeezed a few drops of blood from the heart and from this made the Nez Perce. Thus from the lifeblood of this strange animal came a tribe having many of the most admirable qualities possessed by human beings.
-- Nez Perce origin story via The Flight of the Nez Perce by Mark Brown (1971) via Wikipedia.

21 September 2011

'New dances with wolves'

In a talk advocating the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland, Jim Crumley quotes Doug Smith, the head of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction project since it began in 1995:
Clearly this is an animal less likely to offer scientists irrefutable facts than to lure us on a long and crooked journey of learning.

16 September 2011

Uunartoq Qeqertaq

One here for the Nuvvuagittuq Eidouranion (a phrase to be explained another time):

According to the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, Greenland lost around 15% of its ice cover between the 10th edition (1999) (left) and 13th edition (2011) (right).

Uunartoq Qeqertaq – translated from Inuit as Warming Island – joins Southern Sudan and nearly 7,000 other countries and places added or changed since the last edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.

The Greenland ice sheet is said to have shrunk by about 15% in 20 years. Update 19 Sep: the 15% figure is said to be an exaggeration. [1] (See This is what global warming looks like.) Where, exactly things go from here, and when, is hard to predict. The ice sheet may not disappear as quickly as some previous models have suggested. (The precise impacts of fresh and seawater ice melting are also unpredictable.)

But in the absence of dramatic changes in the nature and pattern of human activity, the likely trend is towards complete disappearance of the ice sheet. In a review of Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth by Curt Stager, Scott L. Wing writes:
Relying on simulations of the effects of high partial pressure of carbon dioxide by Richard Alley, Jeff Ridley, and others, Stager lays out the development of Greenland's landscape and economy as its ice cap melts. He even playfully proposes a name, Ny Fjord (New Fjord), for the giant tongue of ocean that could come to occupy central Greenland by 5000 CE. He envisions a thriving Arctic-fishing industry lining the shores of the 400-m-deep fjord, then explains how the fjord would (to the shock of most nongeologists) empty over the succeeding 50,000 years as isostatic rebound following deglaciation raises the crust of central Greenland. 


[1] (added 21 Sep): see Greenland Meltdown at Realclimate.

15 September 2011

Man and animal

What birds and animals offer us is not confirmation of our sense of having an exalted place in some sort of cosmic hierarchy. It's admission into a larger scheme of things, where our minds are no longer turned in on themselves.
-- John Gray.  Irony apart, a better appreciation of birds and animals might help in the era of 'post-whateverism.'

14 September 2011

Invasion of the fungal body stranglers

Imagine if a tree could lasso your body as you run past. That’s pretty much what some nematophagous fungi (and Vampyrellid protists) do in soils—capturing (very) motile nematodes, suspending their motion, and digesting them whole. Some fungi entwine nematodes with their rope-like hyphae and choke the poor worms to death. Other fungi inject their roots into a living worm, sucking out nutrients and killing the nematode as the fungal mass grows. (As another strategy, Vampyrellid amobae engulf nemtodes whole in a blob of goo.) To top it all off, nematophagous fungi unleash siren-like powers (perhaps by emitting sensual chemicals scents?) that attract unknowing, healthy nematodes towards their webs.
-- belatedly, from Marine Fungi are Totally Badass at Deep Sea News

12 September 2011

Adventures in rhino stimulation

Following a table of typology, definitions and potential agency of extinction terms as outlined by Richard Ladle and Paul Jepson, the white rhino is, presumably, on the point of crossing from the status of 'Ecological extinction' to 'Phoenix extinction.'

Two recent developments may help it from slipping into total extinction: the conversion of its skin cells into pluripotent stem cells, and electroejaculation with a uniquely designed probe.

9 September 2011

'First there was an island -- then there was a boat'

What draws me to these places is hard to define. The journey is part of the magic. The sea is endlessly, and wonderfully alive; unlike concrete, unlike tarmacadam. No two sea journeys are ever the same. On the trip to North Rona, we met families of dolphin, Risso’s, basking sharks and minke whales. The sea was calm, the swell long and leaden. The night-time journey back was before a north-easterly gale, sailing only on the jib. Driving southwards at eight to ten knots, we listened to the clicking of a school of pilot whales some three miles away.
-- John Cumming, Cape Farewell

8 September 2011

The short man

Richard Freeman outlines some evidence for Orang Pendek, an elusive Sumatran great ape that, if it exists, is probably more closely related to the Orangutan than to hominins.

7 September 2011

An eight-branched spiral

Eoandromeda octobrachiata may or may not set the tree of life wobbling but it has certainly been given a beautiful name, inspired by the fact that its body plan resembles the spiral galaxy Andromeda.

5 September 2011

A map, and the territory

This poster envisions Marine Protected Areas that would be necessary if we were to start to be serious about protecting whales, dolphins and porpoises:

World Map of all Proposed and Existing Marine Mammal Protected Areas, © Lesley Frampton, Calvin Frampton and Erich Hoyt. Click pdf for full size

Key points in accompanying press release:
· The need for greater protection: “Marine protected areas are steadily getting bigger which is good news for large marine predators with big habitats,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director, IUCN Global Marine and Polar Programme. “However, most of them are still too small, too few and far between, with too little enforcement to adequately protect whale and other highly mobile marine animal habitats.” 
· Growing threats: “At least 300,000 whales and dolphins a year end up dead in fishing nets alone, as so-called by-catch,” says Erich Hoyt, author, member of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission’s Cetacean Specialist Group and the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas. “Whales in some areas have been found to be emaciated. And scarcely a year since the BP Gulf Oil disaster, it’s business as usual in large parts of the Gulf and elsewhere.” 
· Protecting the high seas: “To safeguard critical ocean ecosystems and highly mobile species, we need to set aside more untouched ocean wilderness areas in the high seas,” says Patricio Bernal, Coordinator, Western Gray Whale Conservation Project. “Outside of national jurisdiction, the high seas contain only a handful of protected areas. Without effective protection this huge area, which is equivalent to 64% of the ocean’s surface, will continue to be heavily exploited in the next few years.”