Posted by Richard Conniff on January 29, 2009
That’s a word combination likely to drive Creationists nuttier than they already are. But a biologist at Michigan Technological University has brought creatures from past decades back to life and demonstrated that, because of natural selection, they are visibly different from their present-day descendants. W. Charles Kerfoot calls what he does “resurrection ecology.”
At Portage Lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Kerfoot collected eggs of a small shrimp-like creature, Daphnia retrocurva, in bottom sediments dating from the 1920s. It didn’t take much to bring them back to life. “We just sieve them out of the sediment and wake them up in an incubator,” he says. “Then we grow them up. We have entire populations from nearly 100 years ago.”
And in that timespan, Portage Lake has undergone significant changes. As the population of their predators changed, the Daphnia changed, too. Their helmets and spines, which make them prickly to grab hold of and eat, became less formidable as the threat of predators decreased.
Kerfoot says such microevolutionary adjustments had been observed in Daphnia populations before. But resurrection ecology now allows scientists to bring the historical record to life. ”It’s like having Rip Van Winkle wake up in your lab,” he says.
No word in the press release where Kerfoot published his results (I have a call in to him for follow up). But even if it’s not quite Jurassic Park the idea of resurrection ecology sounds tantalizing.
FOLLOW UP 2/26/09:
Kerfoot got back to me with further information: Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Evolution, Kill or Be Killed | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 27, 2009
Here’s an animal music video that makes OK GO look kinda lame. (Well, they’re using smoke-and-mirrors, or mirrors anyway, so maybe the comparison isn’t quite fair.) Anyway, I heard about it from my friends at VSL. Take a break from all the dismal news and, while you’re at it, say a little prayer for those mice:
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Posted by Richard Conniff on January 26, 2009
Great speciator: The Splendid White-eye (Zosterops splendidus).
The birds called white eyes appear to be the fastest species-maker on feathered wings, and scientists are just beginning to figure out why. Here’s the press release for a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
New molecular research shows that birds within the family Zosteropidae—named white eyes for the feathers that frame their eyes—form new species at a faster rate than any other known bird. Remarkably, unlike other rapid diversifications, which are generally confined in their geography, white eyes have managed to diversify across multiple continents and far-flung islands spanning much of the eastern hemisphere. The research was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
White eyes have long been dubbed “Great Speciators” for their apparent ability to rapidly form new species across geographies where other birds show little or no diversification. The idea has been gestating for nearly 80 years, since Ernst Mayr and Jared Diamond coined the term after encountering white eyes in the Solomon Islands. Each island they visited had distinct white eye species, whereas most other birds varied little from island to island. Thirty years ago, Mayr and Diamond could only guess at an answer, but both thought that some intrinsic trait was driving the extreme patterns observed among the white eyes. Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Evolution, Species Classification | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 26, 2009
China is apparently eating turtle species around the world into extinction (and for the usual dumb reason: their alleged aphrodisiacal powers). The New York Times yesterday proposed that the solution is for U.S. states to ban export of wild-caught turtles. Here’s the gist of the editorial:
As global wealth rises, so does global consumption of meat, which includes wild meat. Turtle meat used to be a rare delicacy in the Asian diet, but no longer. China, along with Hong Kong and Taiwan, has vacuumed the wild turtles out of most of Southeast Asia. Now, according to a recent report in The Los Angeles Times, they are consuming common soft-shell turtles from the American Southeast, especially Florida, at an alarming rate.
Some scientists estimate that two-thirds of the tortoise and freshwater turtle species on the planet are seriously threatened. Some of that is secondhand damage — loss of habitat, water pollution, climate change. But far too many turtles are being lost to the fork and the spoon.
And here’s a link to the Los Angeles Times reporting on the problem.
Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink, Sex & Reproduction | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 25, 2009
When my dad was a kid in the 1920s, his extended Irish-Italian family manufactured bathtub gin for their parties, and possibly for sale. The alcohol came from a local pharmacist, and the family made it palatable with the addition of chokecherries, which had a slightly bitter tang. (The paterfamilias, an enterprising immigrant from Genoa, grew them and an astonishing variety of other produce in their backyard on Webster Avenue in The Bronx.) So one day, the bootlegging 30-somethings extracted the chokecherries and left them in a bowl on the kitchen table. Then they went off with the gin to party in the front room. My father found the bowl of chokecherries, which he still recalls as “an unusually delicious sort of compote for a five-year-old,” and feasted. A little later, he went out to the party in the front room, did a little dance, and passed out on the floor.
Anyway, an entertaining article in today’s New York Times suggests that he was just doing what comes naturally. Here’s an excerpt. If you’re nursing a hangover this Sunday morning, read it and weep with the monkeys:
A large variety of creatures consume alcohol in the wild, ranging from bumble-bees to elephants. Hooch finds its way into their diets via the fermenting fruit, sap and nectar of various plants, and many exhibit signs of inebriation after they’ve enjoyed a good feed. Their weakness for the substance au naturel is understandable: ethanol is a rich food, with 75 percent more calories than refined sugar, and its distinctive aroma makes it easy to locate. This natural thirst has been exploited by man since the dawn of history. Aristotle noted that wild monkeys were caught by setting out jars of palm wine — the creatures would drink, then pass out, leaving them easy prey. The same method of trapping was still in use in the 19th century and commented on by Darwin in the opening chapter of “The Descent of Man,” when drawing similarities between humanity and the rest of creation. Monkeys could get drunk like men. They also got hangovers: “On the following morning they were very cross and dismal; they held their aching heads with both hands, and wore a most pitiable expression: when beer or wine was offered them, they turned away with disgust, but relished the juice of lemons.”
Posted in Evolution, Food & Drink | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 25, 2009
For my book Everything Creeping Thing, I was lucky to see what sex is like when the happy couple has eight legs and two fangs apiece. For this story on tarantulas, which started out as a National Geographic assignment, I traveled up the Amazon from Iquitos, Peru. But if I recall correctly, this scene occurred at a tarantula hobbyist’s home in Los Angeles. The hobbyist was an acting teacher, who used tarantulas to teach young actors god-knows-what. So maybe a scene like this influenced some of Kate Winslet’s recent movies:
One day I watched two huge tarantulas mating, and it had all the ferocity and passion of a tango. Gingerly, their front legs touched, then she sidestepped away, and he followed. With his pedipalps, the leg-like appendages at his front end, he beat a tattoo on the ground, a declaration of interest. He began to court and caress her, drumming his pedipalps on her carapace. Gradually, face-to-face, they twined their front limbs together like the fingers of two hands in velvet gloves.
They pushed one another up in the reared-back position of both love and war. The male hooked his front legs over her fangs, and with his second set of legs held her down and bent her backward. Then he reached under to transfer the sperm from his pedipa lps to the epigynal fold at her midsection. Afterwards, the male released one of the female’s fangs and positioned his legs for an indelicate exit. In moments of post-coital tristesse, a female will often kill the male, a handy source of protein for her newly-fertilized eggs. This time, the dance ended with the male scrambling safely out of reach.
Posted in Sex & Reproduction | Tagged: sex, tango, tarantulas | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 13, 2009
The Washington Post has an intriguing story this morning about a new study implicating testosterone in the economic collapse. Here are the key paragraphs:
A new study has found that men who were programmed in the womb to be the most responsive to testosterone tend to be the most successful financial traders, providing powerful support for the influence of the hormone over their decision-making.
“Testosterone is the hormone of irrational exuberance,” said Aldo Rustichini, a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota who helped conduct the study, being published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The bubble preceding the current crash may have been due to euphoria related to high levels of testosterone, or high sensitivity to it.”
The effects of testosterone are notoriously elusive and hard to measure. And while it’s great to see economists looking at behavioral factors, research studies by their nature tend to isolate a single factor, because that’s the only way you can get clear results. But it also tends to exaggerate the influence of individual factors and underestimate the degree to which we get pushed and pulled by a hodgepodge of biological and social forces.
So count me as interested but at least for now also skeptical.
Posted in Business Behaviors, The Primate File | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 11, 2009
Some squid are terrible pigs.
When it comes to strange behaviors, it’s hard to beat sex and reproduction. You know the usual suspects: Preying mantises eat their mates’ heads. Sand tiger shark embryos eat their unborn siblings. Male angler fish live as parasites on females. But this week, special mention (in the category underwater kinkiness) goes to squid. It turns out that many species practice the equivalent of Irish foreplay (“Brace yourself, Bridget”).
Apparently it’s a big ocean out there, so when you meet a potential mate you don’t want to waste time on small talk. A team led by Dutch researcher Henk-Jan Hoving looked at 10 squid species and found that some of them get right to the point, employing sharp beaks, claws, penis-like appendages, and flesh-eating chemicals to commit traumatic insemination. Hoving put it this way:
‘Reproduction is no fun if you’re a squid. With one species, the Taningia danae, I discovered that the males give the females cuts of at least 5 centimetres deep in their necks Read the rest of this entry »
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