PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Spiny-Tailed Iguana
The photograph is magnificent technically, and this reptile is so colorful. This was uploaded by user carolgassmann in Flickr, shared through The Nature Conservancy’s Flickr group. You HAVE to visit our ongoing discussion Beautiful Photographs of Animals & Nature. There are simply too many breathtakingly beautiful pictures to describe.
PHYSICS: Physicists narrow the search for the Higgs boson. Scientists presented the most exquisitely precise measurement of the W boson, this week at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. The W boson’s new precise mass is 80.387 GeV +/- 0.019 GeV (giga electron volts). The most precise previous measurement had an uncertainty of about 0.060 GeV. At the subatomic scale, this is a huge difference in precision. The measurement was taken with the now defunct Tevatron, which is being replaced by the Large Hadron Collider. This precise measurement will help in the search for the Higgs boson. The W boson was found in 1983 and it helped support the Standard Model (that explains the interactions between all subatomic particles and forces). The W boson and the Z boson carry the weak force, that together with the strong force, electromagnetic force, and gravity, are the four fundamental forces of nature. The W boson is intimately linked not only to the Z boson (its counterpart) but also to the top quark, and the Higgs boson. Basically, if you the mass of two of these precisely, you can determine the mass of any third. With this W boson measurement, physicists now know that the mass of the Higgs boson should not be higher than 145 GeV.
PALEOBOTANY: Wild flower blooms again after 30,000 years on ice. Talk about a late bloomer; these beautiful flowers bloomed from a 30,000 year old seed, that laid buried in the permafrost in what was a mammoth steppe in northeastern Siberia, surrounded by the bones of Ice Age creatures. The seeds were presumed t have been buried by an ancient squirrel hiding its stash. Scientists have attempted to grow plants from seeds found in these ancient burrows, several times, but even though some seeds started to germinate, they eventually faltered and died. Then David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems in Soil Science in Pushchino tried a different approach. They used took samples of placental tissue from Silene stenophylla, and used this tissue to produce shoots in vitro. The plant placenta gives rise to the seeds. In a green bell pepper for example, it is the white tissue you see inside. From these shoots, they propagated several plants. They are now the oldest living multicellular organism on Earth. The previous record holder was a date palm grown from seeds roughly 2,000 years old. Sadly, Dr. Gilichinsky died last week, at age 64, just 2 days before the paper describing his work, was published.
ANIMAL BEHAVIOR: Alex the parrot's last mathematical prowess. Many of you probably have heard of Alex the African grey parrot. He was trained by Harvard professor Irene Pepperberg to learn labels for color, size, quantity, etc., which he could, being a parrot actually vocalize in words. Pepperberg's book "Alex and Me" is a very entertaining and touching read. Alex was found dead at age 31, probably from a heart attack, in 2007; his loss devastated Dr. Pepperberg who had of course, developed a strong bond with Alex. Now her team has published the results of Alex's last experiment, posthumously. They show that Alex could add up to a sum of 8, from 3 different sets of objects, and voice the correct response when asked "how many total?" Although the experiments ended abruptly with Alex's death, Pepperberg believes that his numerical abilities were real genuine and not simply a function of practice, because these tasks were new to him. Alex and Sheba the chimpanzee are the only animals able to indicate the total numerical value of a sum, which was once thought to be completely dependent on language. Here is a video of Alex adding up treats hidden under two cups (crank up the volume so you can hear Alex, the sound is pretty bad).
MARINE BIOLOGY: Flying squid save energy. I had no idea that squid could fly out of the water like little rockets, by squirting water in a similar fashion as they propel themselves through the water. Even more interestingly, scientists previously believed that the behavior was in response to being chased by predators, but it turns out that squid fly through the air because they save energy this way. When covering long distances, this would be a more efficient way to travel. Scientists measured speed and acceleration indirectly, using a series of timed photographs of flying Sthenoteuthis pteropus, a 6 cm (2.4 inches) long squid that lives off the coast of Brazil. A comparison with similar measurements made in water revealed that the small cephalopods moved 5 times faster through air than through water. Therefore, the energy consumption is lower. Other oceanographers are not convinced, since they say that if this was the case, squid would be seen flying through air is sequences, but that since they appear to do this rarely, it makes more sense to postulate that they shoot themselves out of water to escape predators.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST: Faster-than-light neutrinos no more. You may recall that last September, physicists detected neutrinos travelling between the CERN laboratory in Geneva to the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy (near L’Aquila) that appeared to be moving 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. Since this result would be at odds with the special theory of relativity, physicists suspected an error and they set out to find it. It seems that a bad connection between a fiberoptic cable connecting a GPS unit and a computer was the cause of the discrepancy. After tightening the connection and measuring the time it takes for data to travel the length of the fiberoptic cable, the team concluded that this is the likely cause of the discrepancy. More data is being collected to make sure that this is indeed the correct explanation.
Science bits and news from other sites:
Buckyball Solids Found in Space. Buckyballs are microscopic spherical structures, with a specific shape, in which 60 carbon atoms are arranged in a soccer-ball-like pattern of alternating hexagons and pentagons. Buckyballs are very string structures, and they are useful for superconducting materials, armor, water purification, and other practical uses. They were named for their resemblance to the geodesic domes that the American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller designed. In 2010, gaseous buckyballs were detected in space, in a planetary nebula called Tc 1. And now, NASA’s Spitzer space telescope detected solid particles made of stacked buckyballs, circling a pair of stars located ~6,500 light-years from Earth. The particles are smaller that the width of one human hair, but they contain millions of stacked buckyballs. The solid buckyballs were detected because they emit light in a unique way that differs from the gaseous form of buckyballs. The particles may be minuscule, but the Spitzer data indicate that put together, these solid buckyball forms would fill the equivalent in volume to 10,000 Mount Everests. The discovery is exciting because it shows that this carbon form is much more prevalent in space than previously thought, and that they could be one a previously unknown important form of carbon throughout the cosmos. And let’s not forget that carbon is the building block of organic chemistry, and from organic chemistry came life.
The human Y chromosome is not disappearing. The popular, sensationalistic portion of science journalists have really being going to town with the “rotting human Y chromosome” story for about 10 years. I have been discussing how this did not make much sense online more than once, but it is difficult to explain to lay people. It is especially difficult to try to debunk sensationalistic claims that people could not resist: human males will become extinct, there will be no more need for maleness, etc., etc. Relax, my dear XY bearers, your Y chromosomes are in no danger of disappearing. The Y chromosome has survived basically intact for 25 million years, and it is very stable. Scientists from the Whitehead Institute have studied the evolution of the Y and they came to the conclusion that it is not evolving away. The “rotting Y chromosome” hypothesis came to be when scientists first realized that about 300 million years ago, the X chromosome and the Y chromosome stopped “crossing over”, in other words swapping genes as all other pairs of chromosomes do. Crossing over maintains genetic diversity by shuffling genes but also guards against the accumulation of harmful mutations, so when this exchange between X and Y stopped, the Y chromosome rapidly lost hundreds of genes. Proponents of the “rotting Y” theory postulated that these losses continued to occur and inevitably the Y chromosome would end up losing all of its genetic content. But this is simply incorrect. To being with, a comparison between chimp and human Y chromosome revealed that the Y has been stable for at least 6 million years. Further, the Whitehead scientists have sequenced the Y chromosome from rhesus monkeys and compared it with that of humans and chimps. They found that the human Y chromosome has lost only a single ancestral gene since the split between the ancestors of rhesus monkeys and ours, approximately 25 million years ago. This indicates that the dramatic early loss of genes leveled off, and the Y became stable. This data pretty much debunk the disappearing Y chromosome hypothesis.
Ash-covered 298-Million-Year-Old Forest Discovered Under Coal Mine. A giant ancient swamp forest, preserved by volcanic ash, has just been discovered in Inner Mongolia by a Chinese and American team of scientists. The extraordinary finding is reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.The scientists are calling it “the Permian Pompeii” because it suffered the same fate as the famous ancient Roman city, buried by ash from Mount Vesubius, in AD 79. The preservation of this Permian forest is so perfect that scientists could map every single tree and plant. Paleobotanists are elated. It’s like a giant time capsule with a view to an almost 300 million year old ecosystem! And it’s not small either: the ancient forest covers 10,763-square-foot (1000-square-meter): it was found while excavating for a coal mine. So far, several tree groups and types have been described (Sigillaria, Cordaites, and Noeggerathiales, among others, all extinct now). Some of the trees are 80 feet tall! And just to refresh your memory about the Permian (299 to 251 million years ago), back then there were no flowering plants, and not even conifers! Plants reproduces exclusively through spores, like modern ferns. Gingko and cycads appeared in the Permian. The first mammals appeared during the Permian; other representative fauna were the synapsid reptiles (pelycosaurs) and amphibians. The continents were still joined in one big mass called Pangea. The Permian, the last period of the Paleozoic era, ended with the largest mass extinction ever, in which 70% of all terrestrial life forms disappeared, along with a staggering 90 % of marine species.
Fruit flies get drunk to combat parasitic wasps. We all have our reasons to drink alcohol. But not a good enough reason if we compared them to Drosophila melanogaster’s reasons. Fruit fly larvae get purposely drunk to avoid becoming zombies after being “infected” with the larvae of parasitic wasps. Fruit flies eat fermenting fruit, which can contain up to 6 per cent alcohol. So the flies have developed a tolerance for alcohol. But it turns out that the flies are not just tolerant to those alcohol levels, but rather that they self-medicate to discourage being parasitized by wasps. And no wonder they do that! If a wasp lays eggs inside the flies, the larvae end up eating them slowly from the inside out until they eventually burst out of the dead fruit fly, a ghastly way to die. Scientists did an experiment to prove that alcohol consumption is a good strategy for the fruit flies. They raised fly larvae on food containing 6 per cent alcohol, and on food containing no alcohol, and then introduced the parasitic wasp Leptopilina heterotoma. Not only did the wasps lay 3 times more eggs on no-alcohol flies than on the flies fed 6% alcohol, in addition, wasp larvae did not do very well in the body of drunken flies. The mortality of wasp larvae was twice as high in the boozy flies, and even those that survived had deformed internal organs were deformed, and were lethargic. What is even more remarkable, flies instinctively know that alcohol will help their survival, since fruit flies infected by the parasitic wasps went for the alcoholic meal if given the choice between booze and non-alcoholic food. Naturally, an evolutionary arms race ensued: another species of parasitic wasps, Leptopilina boulardi has evolved resistance to the alcohol content in its victims, and can take twice the alcoholic content than its cousin species L. heterotoma. Even more interestingly, fruit flies were more likely to prefer alcoholic food if they were infected by L.boulardi (the tolerant wasp species) than L.heterotoma (the sensitive wasp species). This is first example of animals using alcohol to control a parasite.
Limbless amphibian family discovered in India. This creature may look at first pass as an earthworm, but it is actually an amphibian, a cousin to frogs and toads, and those ugly little balls are the eggs with the babies inside. Limbless amphibians belong to the order Gymnophiona, and they are called Caecilians. A whole family of Caecilians has been discovered, with 7 totally new species, which were hiding in the soil in Northern India. They can reach up to 3 feet (1 meter) in length! They live and build nests underground, where they take care of their brood. Unfortunately like so many other earthlings, these newly discovered curious creatures are already under threat due to the rapid deforestation and increased human population in the area.