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Posts Tagged ‘biology

“We have nothing to fear and a great deal to learn from trees”*…

 

bristlecone

 

About forty-five hundred years ago, not long after the completion of the Great Pyramid at Giza, a seed of Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin bristlecone pine, landed on a steep slope in what are now known as the White Mountains, in eastern California. The seed may have travelled there on a gust of wind, its flight aided by a winglike attachment to the nut. Or it could have been planted by a bird known as the Clark’s nutcracker, which likes to hide pine seeds in caches; nutcrackers have phenomenal spatial memory and can recall thousands of such caches. This seed, however, lay undisturbed. On a moist day in fall, or in the wake of melting snows in spring, a seedling appeared above ground—a stubby one-inch stem with a tuft of bright-green shoots.

Most seedlings die within a year; the mortality rate is more than ninety-nine per cent. The survivors are sometimes seen growing in the shadow of a fallen tree. The landscape of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, as this area of the White Mountains is called, is littered with fragments of dead trees—trunks, limbs, roots, and smaller chunks. Pinus longaeva grows exclusively in subalpine regions of the Great Basin, which stretches from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Range, in Utah. Conditions are generally too arid for the dead wood to rot; instead, it erodes, sanded down like rock. The remnants may harbor nutrients and fungi that help new trees grow. Bristlecones rise from the bones of their ancestors—a city within a cemetery.

Coast redwoods and giant sequoias, California’s gargantuan world-record-holding trees, can grow fifty feet or more in their first twenty years. Bristlecones rise agonizingly slowly. After four or five years, the seedling on the steep slope would have been just a few inches higher, sprouting needles in place of the embryonic shoots. The needles are a deep green, tough, resinous, and closely bunched, in groups of five. On a mature tree, they live for fifty years or more. Decades may have passed before the tree was human height, and decades more before it resembled a conventional pine. Bristlecone saplings grow straight up, with relatively sparse foliage, looking like undernourished Christmas trees. After a few hundred years—by which time the Old Kingdom of Egypt had fallen—it was probably forty or fifty feet in height.

Many tree species live for hundreds of years. A smaller but not inconsiderable number, including the sequoias and certain yews, oaks, cypresses, and junipers, survive for thousands. Once a bristlecone has established itself in the unforgiving conditions of the White Mountains, it can last almost indefinitely. The trees tend to grow some distance from one another, so fires almost never destroy an entire stand. Because only a few other plant species can handle the dry, cold climate, the bristlecones face little competition. Unlike most plants, they tolerate dolomite soil, which is composed of a chalky type of limestone that is heavily alkaline and low in nutrients. As for insect threats, bristlecone wood is so dense that mountain-pine beetles and other pests can rarely burrow their way into it.

Empires rose and fell; wars raged; people were enslaved and freed; and the tree from 2500 B.C. continued its implacable slow-motion existence, adding about two-hundredths of an inch to the diameter of its trunk each year. Minute changes in the tree-ring record make bristlecones an exceptionally useful source of data about changing conditions on earth. When rains are heavier than normal, the rings widen. When volcanic eruptions cause global cooling, frost rings make the anomaly visible. The precision of these records means that bristlecones have periodically butted into other disciplines: geology, archeology, climatology. In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the trees contributed to the upending of the canonical theory that Bronze Age civilization had spread westward from Egypt and the Near East. Bristlecones have also affected modern political discourse: the famous “hockey stick graph,” which two decades ago raised awareness of human-driven global warming, relied on bristlecone data…

Bristlecone pines have survived various catastrophes over the millennia, and they may survive humanity: “The Past and Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees.”

[A grateful TotH to PN]

For a rather different look at bristlecones (as a setting): “‘Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography’ at the Nevada Museum of Art.” [TotH to EWW]

* Marcel Proust

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As we take the long view, we might spare a thought for Saint Valentine; he was martyred (beheaded) by Claudius II (for performing unauthorized marriage ceremonies) on this date in 269– an annual occasion observed as been observed as the Feast of Saint Valentine (Saint Valentine’s Day) since 496 AD.  From the High Middle Ages, his Saints’ Day is associated with a tradition of courtly love (and more recently, of course, with sickly-sweet candy hearts).

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Oil painting by Leonhard Beck, circa 1510

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Written by LW

February 14, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all”*…

 

caffeine-coffee

 

You’re reading this with a cup of coffee in your hand, aren’t you? Coffee is the most popular drink in many parts of the world. Americans drink more coffee than soda, juice and tea — combined.

How popular is coffee? When news first broke that Prince Harry and Meghan were considering Canada as their new home, Canadian coffee giant Tim Hortons offered free coffee for life as an extra enticement.

Given coffee’s popularity, it’s surprising how much confusion surrounds how this hot, dark, nectar of the gods affects our biology…

From drip coffee to pourovers to stovetop espresso, the variations in– and the effects of– coffee-based drinks are plenty: The Biology of Coffee.

[Image above, source]

* David Lynch

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As we take a sip, we might recall that it was on this date in 1976 that Sesame Street aired episode #847, featuring Margaret Hamilton reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.  It scared children so badly that the episode has never been re-aired. (This, after she had appeared as herself in three episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, between 1975 and 1976– because Fred Rogers wanted his young viewers to recognize the Wicked Witch was just a character and not something to fear.)

220px-Sesame_Street_Margaret_Hamilton_Oscar_The_Grouch_1976 source

 

Written by LW

February 10, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined”*…

 

Crown shyness

 

In certain forests, when you look up you will see a network of cracks formed by gaps between the outermost edges of the tree branches. It looks like a precisely engineered jigsaw puzzle, each branch growing just perfectly so it almost—but not quite—touches the neighboring tree. This beautiful phenomenon is called crown shyness.

Crown shyness doesn’t happen all the time, and scientists aren’t completely certain why it happens at all…

The forest keeps its secrets… Despite decades of study– and a profusion of postulation– no one yet fully understands “The Mysteries of Crown Shyness.”

* Alexander Pope

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As we keep to ourselves, we might spare a thought for Gregor Johann Mendel; he died on this date in 1884. After a profoundly-unpromising start, Mendel became a scientist, Augustinian friar, and abbot of St. Thomas’ Abbey in Brno, Moravia (today’s Czech Republic).  A botanist and plant experimenter, he was the first to lay the mathematical foundation of the science of genetics (of which he is now consider the “Father”).  Over the period 1856-63, Mendel grew and analyzed over 28,000 pea plants.  He carefully studied the height, pod shape, pod color, flower position, seed color, seed shape and flower color of each– and from those observations derived two very important generalizations, known today as the Laws of Heredity.

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Written by LW

January 6, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Jump!”*…

 

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A young gall midge, no bigger than a rice grain, can go airborne

 

No legs? Not a problem. Some pudgy insect larvae can still jump up to 36 times their body length. Now high-speed video reveals how.

First, a legless, bright orange Asphondylia gall midge larva fastens its body into a fat, lopsided O by meshing together front and rear patches of microscopic fuzz. The rear part of the larva swells, and starts to straighten like a long, overinflating balloon. The fuzzy surfaces then pop apart. Then like a suddenly released spring, the larva flips up and away in an arc of somersaults, researchers report August 8 in the Journal of Experimental Biology

 

 

High-speed film reveals the details of a young gall midge’s loop-and-latch maneuver: “How these tiny insect larvae leap without legs.”

* Van Halen

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As we admire the altitude, we might recall that it was on this date in 1938 that a young chemist at Sandoz, Albert Hofmann, while researching the medicinal plant squill and the fungus ergot in a search for compounds useful in pharmaceuticals, first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).  As it wasn’t immediately promising, he put it aside.  But he revisited his formulation several years later, on April 16, 1943; handling it, he accidentally absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943 (a day now known as “Bicycle Day”) Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD, then rode home on a bike– a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  (This is not to be confused with the UN’s World Bicycle Day.)

Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

 source

 

Written by LW

November 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness”*…

 

Forest

 

Consider a forest: One notices the trunks, of course, and the canopy. If a few roots project artfully above the soil and fallen leaves, one notices those too, but with little thought for a matrix that may spread as deep and wide as the branches above. Fungi don’t register at all except for a sprinkling of mushrooms; those are regarded in isolation, rather than as the fruiting tips of a vast underground lattice intertwined with those roots. The world beneath the earth is as rich as the one above.

For the past two decades, Suzanne Simard, a professor in the Department of Forest & Conservation at the University of British Columbia, has studied that unappreciated underworld. Her specialty is mycorrhizae: the symbiotic unions of fungi and root long known to help plants absorb nutrients from soil. Beginning with landmark experiments describing how carbon flowed between paper birch and Douglas fir trees, Simard found that mycorrhizae didn’t just connect trees to the earth, but to each other as well.

Simard went on to show how mycorrhizae-linked trees form networks, with individuals she dubbed Mother Trees at the center of communities that are in turn linked to one another, exchanging nutrients and water in a literally pulsing web that includes not only trees but all of a forest’s life. These insights had profound implications for our understanding of forest ecology—but that was just the start.

It’s not just nutrient flows that Simard describes. It’s communication. She—and other scientists studying roots, and also chemical signals and even the sounds plant make—have pushed the study of plants into the realm of intelligence. Rather than biological automata, they might be understood as creatures with capacities that in animals are readily regarded as learning, memory, decision-making, and even agency.

Plants communicate, nurture their seedlings– and feel stress.  An interview with Suzanne Simard: “Never Underestimate the Intelligence of Trees.”

Pair with: “Should this tree have the same rights as you?

* John Muir

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As we contemplate cultivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1602 that The Bodleian Library at Oxford formally opened.  (Sir Thomas Bodley had donated over 2000 books in his personal library to replace the earlier Duke of Glouchester’s (Duke Humphrey’s) Library, which had been dispersed.  Bodley’s bequest was made in 1598; but the full collection wasn’t catalogued and made available until this date in 1602, when the Library reopened with its new name, in honor of its benefactor.  Eight years later, Bodley made a deal with the Stationer’s Company– which licensed [provided copyright] for all publications in England– that a copy of everything licensed should be sent to the Bodleian…  making it a Copyright Depository, the first and now one of six in the UK.)

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The Bodleian’s entrance, with the coats-of-arms of several Oxford colleges

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Written by LW

November 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule”*…

 

nationalism

 

Over the course of a decade, the male chimps in one group systematically killed every neighboring male, kidnapped the surviving females, and expanded their territory. Similar attacks occur in chimp populations elsewhere; a 2014 study found that chimps are about 30 times as likely to kill a chimp from a neighboring group as to kill one of their own. On average, eight males gang up on the victim.

If such is the violent reality of life as an ape, is it at all surprising that humans, who share more than 98 percent of their DNA with chimps, also divide the world into “us” and “them” and go to war over these categories? Reductive comparisons are, of course, dangerous; humans share just as much of their DNA with bonobos, among whom such brutal behavior is unheard of. And although humans kill not just over access to a valley but also over abstractions such as ideology, religion, and economic power, they are unrivaled in their ability to change their behavior. (The Swedes spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe; today they are, well, the Swedes.) Still, humankind’s best and worst moments arise from a system that incorporates everything from the previous second’s neuronal activity to the last million years of evolution (along with a complex set of social factors). To understand the dynamics of human group identity, including the resurgence of nationalism—that potentially most destructive form of in-group bias—requires grasping the biological and cognitive underpinnings that shape them…

Robert Sapolsky on the biology of “us and them”: “This is your brain on nationalism.”

* Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

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As we muse on membership, we might send elegantly-composed birthday greetings to Ludovico Ariosto; he was born on this date in 1474.  An Italian poet, he is best remembered for his epic Orlando Furioso; a continuation of Matteo Maria Boiardo‘s Orlando Innamorato, it describes the adventures of Charlemagne, Orlando (the Christian knight subsequently known as Roland), and the Franks as they battle against the Saracens.

Ariosto’s epic was hugely influential on later European literature (including English poets Spencer, Shakespeare, and Byron).  And while the work had a “patriotic” (and, at least overtly, Christian) cast, Ariosto coined the term “humanism” (in Italian, umanesimo), helping pave the way for Renaissance Humanism.

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Ariosto, detail of votive painting Madonna with saints Joseph, John, Catherine, Louis of Toulouse and Lodovico Ariosto by Vincenzo Catena,

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Written by LW

September 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“In the end everything is connected”*…

 

Ectomycorrhizal mushroom Dermocybe-1280x720

A fungus known as a Dermocybe forms part of the underground wood wide web that stitches together California’s forests [source]

Research has shown that beneath every forest and wood there is a complex underground web of roots, fungi and bacteria helping to connect trees and plants to one another.

This subterranean social network, nearly 500 million years old, has become known as the “wood wide web.”

Now, an international study has produced the first global map of the “mycorrhizal fungi networks” dominating this secretive world…

Mycorrhizal ecologist Dr Merlin Sheldrake, said, “Plants’ relationships with mycorrhizal fungi underpin much of life on land. This study … provides key information about who lives where, and why. This dataset will help researchers scale up from the very small to the very large.”…

fungus map

The underground network of microbes that connects trees—charted for first time: “Wood Wide Web: trees’ social networks are mapped.”

Read the Nature release that reports the research here.

* José Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons

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As we contemplate connection, we might spare a thought for Anders (Andreas) Dahl; he died on this date in 1789.  A botanist and student of Carl Linnaeus, he is the inspiration for, the namesake of, the dahlia flower.

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Dahlia, the flower named after Anders Dahl [source]

 

Written by LW

May 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

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