27 October 2011

An octopus enrichment handbook

Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss—at once a probe and a caress. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fathom.
-- Sy Montgomery

25 October 2011

Rhino gone

Poaching has driven the Javan rhinoceros to extinction in Vietnam, leaving the critically endangered species' only remaining population numbering less than 50 on the Indonesian island that gave it its name, the WWF and International Rhino Foundation said on Tuesday. "The last Javan rhino in Vietnam has gone," said Tran Thi Minh Hien, WWF-Vietnam country director. "It is painful that despite significant investment in the Vietnamese rhino population, conservation efforts failed to save this unique animal. Vietnam has lost part of its natural heritage."
-- report

23 October 2011


Cancer stem cells have acquired the behavior of normal stem cells by activating the same genes and pathways that make normal stem cells immortal -- except, unlike normal stem cells, they can not be lulled back into physiological sleep. Cancer, then, is quite literally, trying to emulate a regenerating organ -- or, perhaps, more disturbingly, the regenerating organism. Its quest for immortality mirrors our own quest, a quest buried in our embryos and in the renewal of our organs. Someday, if a cancer succeeds, it will produce a far more perfect being than its host -- imbued with immortality and the drive to proliferate.
--- from The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

22 October 2011

C.S.I.: Dog Dump

‘Globally endangered Egyptian vulture!’ shouted Çağan, slamming on the brakes. Glancing skyward, I caught a glimpse of something brown flapping away. The body of the Egyptian vulture is brown and off-white, but its face is bright yellow. ‘They get that colour from eating shit, which is full of yellow carotenoid pigments,’ Çağan explained. In males, the bright-yellow face is an indicator of fitness and virility, signaling a capacity to eat enormous quantities of shit without getting sick.

On behalf of the Egyptian vulture, as well as the region’s other vulture species Çağan had recently opened a ‘vulture restaurant’...which in its pilot phase had served mostly dead dog. Emrah, Çağan’s science coordinator, was charged with retrieving dog carcasses from the city dumps and depositing them in random locations around Aras, to see how the vultures reacted. The vultures reacted well. You bring the dead dog, and the vultures take care of the rest. The one problem was that a lot of dogs in the dumps had been poisoned as part of a stray-dog reduction program.

...Thus began a phase of Emrah’s life that might have been called “C.S.I.: Dog Dump”: did this dog die of natural causes, or was it poisoned? He started out bribing the staff at the dumps, a pack of cigarettes for every clean carcass. It was a good system, although Emrah inevitably began asking himself certain questions. Was it for this that he had completed his master’s in biology? Further, the workers at the dump clearly thought he was some kind of pervert. One of them once remarked that Emrah might not find that day’s dog suitable: “The thing is, this one is male.”
-- from Natural Histories: A journey in the shadow of Ararat by Elif Batuman

17 October 2011

The waltzing kludge of eukaryotic life

At its heart, [the idea] is deceptively simple: we have two genomes that need to work together, and you can tell how well they’re doing this by the strength of the free radical leak. From that simple concept, you can logically derive how fitness, fertility and lifespan are linked in different species. You can also predict the process of ageing and the onset of age-related diseases within individuals. 
“A lot of this has to be true on logical grounds,” says Nick Lane. “We know that there is co-adaptation between these two genomes and many predictions emerge seamlessly from some simple reflections on that process. The big question is whether it’s important in the greater scheme of things.”
-- from The two-genome waltz: how the threat of mismatched partners shapes complex life by Ed Yong

11 October 2011


Its genome is 1.259 million base pairs long, which is 6.5 percent longer than the previous record holder among giant viruses. In that abundance of DNA are 1120 genes. That’s hundreds more genes than found in a lot of bacteria.
-- Carl Zimmer on a the world's most ginormous virus.

Some have even argued that they represent a new domain of life, although others aren’t so sure, Zimmer notes.

Jean-Michel Claverie, who discovered it, says the fact that it shares cell-like genes with the mimivirus is 'definitive proof' of a cellular ancestor.

10 October 2011

Future fish

The construct also contains a stretch of DNA from the promoter region of an ocean pout, an eel-like creature that lives in extremely cold environments (the promoter is a switch that controls the expression of a downstream gene). Normally, the eel uses this promoter to keep an antifreeze gene turned on constantly so it does not freeze. The promoter is therefore “constitutive,” meaning it is always active, and coupling it with a growth factor gene in an Atlantic salmon results in the salmon experiencing a continual growth spurt—since the growth factor is continually produced. Studies have shown that the genetically-altered Atlantic salmon’s appetite would make it constantly ravenous, meaning that it would eat everything around in sight.
-- FDA Decision Will Lead To First Ever Genetically-Modified Animal For Consumption

Giant killer squid of the Triassic?

We hypothesize that the shonisaurs were killed and carried to the site by an enormous Triassic cephalopod, a 'kraken,' with estimated length of approximately 30 m, twice that of the modern Colossal Squid
-- from here.

P Z Myers is sceptical :
This 'Triassic kraken' has not been found; no fossils, no remains at all, no evidence of its existence. It is postulated to have been large enough to hunt and kill ichthyosaurs, which is remarkable—comparison to modern giant squid is invalid, since they are prey, not predator.
P.S. 11 Oct: Microecos has some fun, but Nature does not dismiss the idea out of hand.

Weed world

What I’m really proposing is a shift in our value system. What we value and don’t value can change. "Weedy" is an interesting cultural concept -- in reality, weeds are successful plants. We should celebrate them, because they’re the plants we don’t have to worry about it. They’re gong to be fine. They’re the resilient part of nature.
-- Emma Marris.

In Solar, Ian McEwan's anti-hero Michael Beard tell his girlfriend that the humblest weed in a pavement crack contains a precious secret (the true nature of photosynthesis) that the world's top laboratories are only beginning to understand.

9 October 2011

Cultural transmission in chimpanzees

Trasmisión cultural entre primates from Proyecto Gran Simio on Vimeo.

In Tai National Part, Ivory Coast, a young chimp observes and learns from its mother how to use tools to break open nuts. The film was taken by Serge Soiret of the Great Ape Project.

8 October 2011

Jelly world

a future 'gelatinous' ocean reminiscent of the early Ediacaran if fishing and other anthropogenic stressors remain unchanged
-- from Faking Giants... Some jellyfish are increasing the amount of water in their bodies in order to increase their size and so collide with more prey.