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Posts Tagged ‘zoology

“Extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases”*…

 

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The Toad Mountain harlequin frog is endangered and at risk from the Bd fungus

 

A century ago, a strain of pandemic flu killed up to 100 million people—5 percent of the world’s population. In 2013, a new mystery illness swept the western coast of North America, causing starfish to disintegrate. In 2015, a big-nosed Asian antelope known as the saiga lost two-thirds of its population—some 200,000 individuals—to what now looks to be a bacterial infection. But none of these devastating infections comes close to the destructive power of Bd—a singularly apocalyptic fungus that’s unrivaled in its ability not only to kill animals, but to delete entire species from existence.

Bd—Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis in full—kills frogs and other amphibians by eating away at their skin and triggering fatal heart attacks. It’s often said that the fungus has caused the decline or extinction of 200 amphibian species, but that figure is almost two decades out-of-date. New figures, compiled by a team led by Ben Scheele from the Australian National University, are much worse.

Scheele’s team estimates that the fungus has caused the decline of 501 amphibian species—about 6.5 percent of the known total. Of these, 90 have been wiped out entirely. Another 124 have fallen by more than 90 percent, and their odds of recovery are slim. Never in recorded history has a single disease burned down so much of the tree of life. “It rewrote our understanding of what disease could do to wildlife,” Scheele says…

The story of an unprecedented pathogen: “The Worst Disease Ever Recorded.” (Lest one rest too easily because this threat seems to target not humans but animals at some distance on the tree of life, see here.)

* Hippocrates

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As we do our best to stave off extinctions, we might recall that on this date in 1981, Nature set the world’s record for “Longest Scientific Name” when it published the systematic name for the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of the human mitochondria; it contains 16,569 nucleotide residues and is thus about 207,000 letters long.

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The 16,569 bp long human mitochondrial genome with the protein-coding, ribosomal RNA, and transfer RNA genes

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Written by LW

April 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“ALLIGATOR, n. The crocodile of America, superior in every detail to the crocodile of the effete monarchies of the Old World”*…

 

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Lunch at the California Alligator Farm, Los Angeles

 

Judging by the popularity of the Jurassic Park franchise—five feature films, with a sixth blockbuster scheduled for 2021, three “Lego” Jurassic Park shorts, various theme-park attractions, some forty-six theme-related video games, even a Jurassic Park Crunch Yogurt—dinosaurs (once the province of paleontologists and children) have had a stranglehold on our collective imagination for more than a quarter century. Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel sold more than nine million copies; three years later, the first mega-film, directed by Steven Spielberg, became the second highest-grossing film of all time, earning over $1 billion worldwide.

Though less enormous, less voracious, and lacking dramatic soundtracks to pave their entrances and exits, formidable flesh-and-blood, non-animatronic prehistorics do actually walk among us.

Alligators have been around for some 200 million years, which is 135 million years longer than their dino contemporaries. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that that extraordinary longevity was threatened. Pretty impressive, given all the environmental changes that have ensued in the interim, and the fact that their brains are about the size of a walnut…

Biologically, Crocodilia (alligators, crocodiles, caimans, gharials) are closer to birds, dinosaurs to snakes and lizards, but they share a common ancestry. Fossils reveal that back in the day, some alligators grew to nearly forty feet in length, weighing in at 8.5 tons. Simply put, Crocodilia are the closest living examples of the Jurassic’s ancient denizens.

“Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together,” notes Jeff Goldblum’s character, Alan Grant, in the 1993 film. “How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”

In the case of their alligator cousins, it wasn’t just suddenly. Throughout the American south, they’ve always been pretty much unavoidable.

On the big screen, our relationship to Crichton’s creatures is set and predictable. We enjoy the terror they inspire from the dark safety of our upholstered seats. Alligators, in cinema, have always been as dependable in their villainy as Nazis. What better way to dispose of pesky early Christians or enemy Russian spies?

In the real world, the relationship of humans to ancient apex predators is far more complex

Hermes handbags, roadside attractions, carwash poachers, mail-order pets, “The Florida Smile”– B. Alexandra Szerlip on the contradictory dance between gators and men: “21st Century Prehistoric.”

* Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

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As we ruminate on the reptilian, we might spare a thought for Warder Clyde Allee; he died on this date in 1955.  A zoologist and ecologist who researched the social behavior, aggregations, and distribution of both land and sea animals, he discovered that cooperation is both beneficial and essential in nature. The “Allee effect,” as it came to be known, describes the positive correlation between population density and individual fitness of a population or species.  While his findings are in tension with those of another  another ecologist, George C. Williams who stressed the importance of individual selection, Allee’s emphasis on groups and cooperation remains influential.

90px-Warder_Clyde_Allee source

 

Written by LW

March 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“All you can do is hope for a pattern to emerge”*…

 

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If you construct a Lego model of the University of London’s Senate House – the building that inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – the Lego blocks themselves remain unchanged. Take apart the structure, reassemble the blocks in the shape of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Eiffel Tower, and the shape, weight and colour of the blocks stay the same.

This approach, applied to the world at large, is known as atomism. It holds that everything in nature is made up of tiny, immutable parts. What we perceive as change and flux are just cogs turning in the machine of the Universe – a huge but ultimately comprehensible mechanism that is governed by universal laws and composed of smaller units. Trying to identify these units has been the focus of science and technology for centuries. Lab experiments pick out the constituents of systems and processes; factories assemble goods from parts composed of even smaller parts; and the Standard Model tells us about the fundamental entities of modern physics.

But when phenomena don’t conform to this compositional model, we find them hard to understand. Take something as simple as a smiling baby: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain a baby’s beaming smile by looking at the behaviour of the constituent atoms of the child in question, let alone in terms of its subatomic particles such as gluons, neutrinos and electrons. It would be better to resort to developmental psychology, or even a narrative account (‘The father smiled at the baby, and the baby smiled back’). Perhaps a kind of fundamental transformation has occurred, producing some new feature or object that can’t be reduced to its parts.

The notion of emergence can help us to see what’s going on here. While atomism is all about burrowing down to basic building blocks, emergence looks upward and outward, to ask whether strange new phenomena might pop out when things get sufficiently large or complex…

Does everything in the world boil down to basic units – or can emergence explain how distinctive new things arise?  Paul Humphreys helps us understand at “Out of nowhere.”

[Image above: source]

* Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby

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As we forage for the fundamental, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Ernest Everett Just; he was born on this date in 1883.  A pioneering biologist, academic, and science writer, he contributed mightily to the understanding of cell division, the fertilization of egg cells, experimental parthenogenesis, hydration, cell division, dehydration in living cells, and the effect of ultra violet rays on egg cells.

An African-American, he had limited academic prospects on his graduation from Dartmouth, but was able to land a teaching spot at Howard University.  Just met  Frank R. Lillie, the head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Mass.  In 1909 Lillie invited Just to spend first one, then several summers at Woods Hole, where Just pioneered the study of whole cells under normal conditions (rather than simply breaking them apart in a laboratory setting).  In 1915, Just was awarded the first Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given by the NAACP.

But outside MBL, Just experienced discrimination.  Seeking more opportunity, he spent most of the 1930s in various European universities– until the outbreak of WW II hostilities caused him to return to the U.S. in late 1940.  He died of pancreatic cancer the next year.

Ernest_Everett_Just source

 

Written by LW

August 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Nature. Cheaper than therapy.”*…

 

From Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

A list of summer camp names found in movies, television shows and books: “Fictional Camps.”

* Popular slogan on Pinterest and Etsy

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As we pack an extra towel, we might send birthday greetings soaked in repellant to Drell Marston Bates; he was born on this date in 1906.  One of the world’s leading experts on mosquitoes, his work for the Rockefeller Foundation led to the understanding of the epidemiology of yellow fever.

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Written by LW

July 23, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Let us give ourselves indiscriminately to everything our passions suggest, and we will always be happy”*…

 

Walter Rothschild with a member of his menagerie

Some men shoot tigers. Some men love bears. Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, Major in the Yeomanry, Conservative MP for Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, heir to one of the greatest banking fortunes in history, and collector of the largest zoological collection ever amassed in private hands, had a specific and incurable addiction to cassowaries. He bred them. He stuffed them. He gathered living representatives of every known species and sub-species at his parents’ manor house in Hertfordshire. Bewitched by their beautiful and highly variable neck wattles, he identified new species where there were none. He wrote a book, A Monograph of the Genus Casuarius, about them and made excuses for them, and he could never get enough…

From A Monograph of the Genus Casuarius. London: 1900.

More on the curious connection between cassowaries and their champion at “A Natural History Of Walter Rothschild.”

* Marquis de Sade

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As we ponder passion, we might recall that this date in 1970 was the first Earth Day.  First suggested by John McConnell for March 21 (the Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, a day of natural equipoise), Secretary General U Thant signed a UN Proclamation to that effect.  But Earth Day as we know it was founded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (who was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award for his work) as an environmental teach-in to be held on on this date.  The first Earth Day had participants and celebrants in two thousand colleges and universities, roughly ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and hundreds of communities across the United States.  Later that year, President Nixon signed the Environmental Protection Agency into being.  Earth Day is now observed in 192 countries, coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network, chaired by the first Earth Day 1970 organizer Denis Hayes– according to whom Earth Day is now “the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year.”

Earth Day Flag created by John McConnell

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Written by LW

April 22, 2016 at 1:01 am

“It isn’t running away they’re afraid of”*…

 

 

On the sad occasion of the passing of Don Featherstone

When animals escape zoos, as when humans escape prisons, they’re usually caught pretty quickly. Whether there’s a mass break out, connected to some more devastating event—as in Tbilisi, Georgia, where a heavy flood recently let loose lions, wolves and a hippopotamus onto city streets—or a lone run-away, like the Smithsonian Zoo’s red panda or the Bronx Zoo Cobra, the animals rarely taste freedom for long.

Unless, that is, they’re flamingos…

Why flamingos succeed at escaping the zoo while all other animals fail.”

* Margaret Atwood, The Handmaiden’s Tale

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As we hop the fence, we might recall that it was on this date in 1994 that the first live specimen of the Saola– AKA Vu Quang ox or Asian biocorn, also, infrequently, Vu Quang bovid (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis)– was captured.  An extremely rare species, its existence was first discovered in 1992 via remains in hunters’ villages, the first discovery of new large mammal species since the Okapi (Okapia johnstoni) in 1910.

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Written by LW

June 25, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Does wisdom perhaps appear on the earth as a raven which is inspired by the smell of carrion?…”*

 

Animals have evolved a variety of defensive techniques– camouflage, tough skins, fierce looks.  But as National Geographic explains, olfactory defenses are among the most effective.  Consider the hoatzin…

Hoatzins on the Rio Napo in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Photograph by Jared Hobbs, All Canada Photos/Getty Images

Hold your nose and meet the hoatzin, a bird with a number of distinctions, not the least of which is that it smells like fresh cow manure. The animal mostly eats leaves, which it digests in its crop, a pouch some birds have high up in their alimentary canal. It’s the only bird known to digest by fermentation, like a cow. This process is what causes its odor and has earned it the nickname the “stink bird.”

Don’t knock it, though. That stink means that even people don’t want to eat the hoatzin…

More on feral fragrance at “5 Animals With Stinky Defenses.”

* Friedrich Nietzsche

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As we hold our noses, we might spare a thought for Hannah Wilkinson Slater; she died on this date in 1812. The daughter and the wife of mill owners, Ms. Slater was the first woman to be issued a patent in the United States (1793)– for a process using spinning wheels to twist fine Surinam cotton yarn, that created a No. 20 two-ply thread that was an improvement on the linen thread previously in use for sewing cloth.

A waxen Hannah, at the Slaters’ Mill Museum in Pawtucket, RI

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