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Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

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Archive for the ‘Cool Tools’ Category

Getting Inside a Tyrannosaur’s Head

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 16, 2017

(Photo: DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory)

 

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratry have used their unique neutron-imaging and high-energy X-ray capabilities to expose the inner structures of a 74-million-year-old fossil skull. The skull belonged to  tyrannosauroid dinosaur known as the Bisti Beast, or more formally as Bistahieversor sealeyi.  The image is the highest-resolution scan of tyrannosaur skull ever done.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

 The results add a new piece to the puzzle of how these bone-crushing top predators evolved over millions of years.

“Normally, we look at a variety of thick, dense objects at Los Alamos for defense programs, but the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science was interested in imaging a very large fossil to learn about what’s inside,” said Ron Nelson, of the Laboratory’s Physics Division. Nelson was part of a team that included staff from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the museum, the University of New Mexico and the University of Edinburgh. “It turns out that high energy neutrons are an interesting and unique way to image something of this size.”

The results helped the team determine the skull’s sinus and cranial structure. Initial viewing of the computed tomography (CT) slices showed preservation of un-erupted Read the rest of this entry »

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Using Cadaver-Feeding Insects to Ask, “Are You Out There?”

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 1, 2017

by Richard Conniff

A while back, I reported on use of DNA in the blood meals of mosquitoes to identify species in a habitat. That technique is called iDNA (for invertebrate DNA).  Now the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has done the same thing using carrion flies.

Two possible drawbacks to this approach: Because these are carrion flies, a significant portion of the animals in the resulting census may already be dead.  (Carrion flies lay their eggs not just on corpses, but in open wounds, so at least some of the DNA may come from live animals.)  And animals that get taken and eaten whole by predators are Read the rest of this entry »

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Can Synthetic Biology Save Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 20, 2017

(Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

The worldwide effort to return islands to their original wildlife, by eradicating rats, pigs, and other invasive species, has been one of the great environmental success stories of our time.  Rewilding has succeeded on hundreds of islands, with beleaguered species surging back from imminent extinction, and dwindling bird colonies suddenly blossoming across old nesting grounds.

But these restoration campaigns are often massively expensive and emotionally fraught, with conservationists fearful of accidentally poisoning native wildlife, and animal rights activists having at times fiercely opposed the whole idea. So what if it were possible to rid islands of invasive species without killing a single animal? And at a fraction of the cost of current methods?

That’s the tantalizing – but also worrisome – promise of synthetic biology, a Brave New World sort of technology that applies engineering principles to species and to biological systems. It’s genetic engineering, but made easier and more precise by the new gene editing technology called CRISPR, which ecologists could use Read the rest of this entry »

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Eye in the Sky on Nature: Satellites are Transforming Conservation

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 22, 2017

Satellite image of the Sundarbans coastal forest in Bangladesh, home to the endangered Bengal tiger. NASA

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

As recently as the 1980s, gray seals were effectively extinct on Cape Cod. So when researchers announced last week that the population there has recovered not to 15,000 gray seals, the previous official estimate, but to as many as 50,000, it was dramatic evidence of how quickly conservation can sometimes work.

But the researchers, writing in the journal BioScience, weren’t just interested in the seals. They also sought to demonstrate the rapidly evolving potential of satellites to count and monitor wildlife populations and to answer big questions about the natural world.  That’s still news to many wildlife ecologists, according to senior author David W. Johnston, of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.  Ecologists have been slow to incorporate satellite data in their work so far, in part because their training and culture are about going into the field to get to know their study subjects at first hand. The perspective from outer space has not necessarily seemed all that relevant.

But the rapidly growing abundance and sophistication of satellite imagery and remote sensing data is about to change that:  “High-resolution earth imagery sources Read the rest of this entry »

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Fantastic Bloody Pigeon! (Or Hitchcock Nightmare)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 5, 2017

Bloody pigeon (Photo: Wellcome Images/Scott Echols)

Bloody pigeon (Photo: Wellcome Images/Scott Echols)

The Wellcome Trust presents an annual award for scientific imagery, and two of this year’s winners (above and below) caught my eye for the new ways in which they reveal the natural world.  Think of the one above as new insight into the cardiovascular system of living (and extinct) dinosaurs.  Or just a bloody pigeon.

Here’s how The Guardian‘s Nicola Davis describes it:

Open-beaked against a jet-black background, the image of a bird leaps forth, a frenzy of red-and-white squirming lines hinting at its form. It looks like a still from a Hitchcockian nightmare. “It looks so cross, sort of squawking at you,” says Catherine Draycott, head of Wellcome Images.

In fact, the eerie shot is the product of

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Maggots for Bambi: Endangered Florida Deer Face a Gory Attack

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 7, 2016

Key deer--& sparing you the sight of maggots for Bambi. (Photo: Steve Waters/'Sun Sentinel'/MCT via Getty Images)

Key deer–& sparing you the sight of maggots for Bambi. (Photo: Steve Waters/’Sun Sentinel’/MCT via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Let’s face it: Key deer, a slightly smaller, stockier subspecies of the common white-tailed deer, had plenty of problems to start with. Only about 800 of them survive, confined to a few small islands in the Florida Keys. You could whip through their entire habitat in about 10 minutes on Route 1, and plenty of motorists do, incidentally killing about 150 of the deer every year. They’re on the endangered species list.

Sound bad? Early this week, it got much worse.

Staff at the National Key Deer Refuge found deer infested with maggots of the New World screwworm fly, an invasive species that hasn’t been seen in this country in half a century. The flies have a nasty habit of laying their eggs on open wounds, and when they hatch, the maggots feed by digging corkscrew holes into the flesh of the host animal.

“They’re in as gory Read the rest of this entry »

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Natural History Museums Go Digital & Science Benefits

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 29, 2016

(Photo: Richard Conniff)

(Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Until the 1990s, at many prominent natural history museums, the staff would ritually log new specimens into their collections much as they did it 200 years ago, using a pen dipped in India ink to inscribe the details into a leather-bound volume.

It was Dickensian, and reliance on that sort of record keeping at museums everywhere was a major impediment to knowing where different specimens were located. That made it difficult, at best, for scientists to put those specimens to work making sense of our world. But this old roadblock is rapidly disappearing, because of the digitization of specimens at museums around the world. At the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, recently, entomologist Eulàlia Gassó Miracle showed me how it works.

Before digitization. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Before digitization. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

First, we took a look at what it’s like for scientists to begin to make sense of a collection that hasn’t been properly sorted—specifically tens of thousands of swallowtail butterflies collected by a Dutch physician, JMA van Groenendael, working in Java in the 1930s. A drawer-size sorting box held a dusty jumble of 20 or so of these specimens at a time, each contained in a wax paper envelope or a page of a colonial newspaper neatly folded into a triangle. The job was to open each specimen, photograph it, identify the species, record the information on a database, and place it in a properly labeled archival envelope for permanent storage. Now and then a rare specimen would be set aside to be pinned, or mounted, as if alive, in a collection drawer.

Van Groenendael and his wife had survived in a Japanese internment camp

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What a Lovely World of Liars and Frauds

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 18, 2016

Butterfies disguised as dead leaves inspired Alfred Russel Wallace’s work on evolutionary theory. (Photo: James Laing/Flickr)

Butterfies disguised as dead leaves held inspire Alfred Russel Wallace’s work on natural selection. (Photo: James Laing/Flickr)

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

The notion that anything natural must be wholesome and good is, to be honest, idiotic. Polygamy is a natural behavior for some species. Infanticide is natural. Turning your mate into a post-coital snack is not only natural, it’s a strategy for reproductive success.

cheats-300x434We are not those species, fortunately, and “Cheats and Deceits” is not a how-to book for humans. The subtitle is “How Animals and Plants Exploit and Mislead.” Martin Stevens is an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Exeter and also a sensory ecologist. He studies disguise and deception as they appear not just to us but to other species, which may rely on chemical signals we can’t perceive or visual signals we can’t see. For instance: Soon after hatching, the caterpillar of the alcon blue butterfly drops to the ground, where one might expect it to be attacked and eaten by foraging ants. But this caterpillar instead gets carried back to the ants’ nest and fed as an honored guest.

This very hungry caterpillar is a fraud: Read the rest of this entry »

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I’m Really Hoping That’s Not a Bullet Ant on Justin’s Nose

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 6, 2016

Justin Schmidt being foolish.

Justin Schmidt being foolish.

I wrote about Justin Schmidt and the “Justin Schmidt Sting Pain Index” in my “intensely pleasurable” book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals.  Here’s the opening to that chapter:

     One morning not long ago, an American entomologist named Justin Schmidt was making his way up the winding road to the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica when he spotted Parachartergus fraternus, social wasps known both for the sculpted architecture of their hive and for the ferocity with which they defend it. This hive was ten feet up a tree, and the tree angled out from an eroded bank over a gorge. Schmidt, who specializes in the study of stinging insects, got out a plastic garbage bag and promptly shinnied up to bag the hive.

He had taken the precaution of putting on his beekeeper’s veil. Undeterred, the angry wasps charged at his face, scootched their hind ends under in midair, and,

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Letting Fishermen Stake Out A Turf Saves Jobs–and Fish, Too

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 28, 2016

Gaffing a halibut. (Photo: Scott Dickerson/Getty Images)

Gaffing a halibut. (Photo: Scott Dickerson/Getty Images)

My latest for Takepart.com:

The way the world is currently consuming (and wasting) seafood, we will soon be living on our familiar blue planet, but with oceans that abound in plastic debris rather than marine life.

What if we could make a few relatively simple reforms and start seeing improved fisheries worldwide in just ten years?

What if those reforms could ensure that 98 percent of the world’s fisheries would be biologically healthy and feeding the world on a sustainable basis by 2050?

What if, finally, it doesn’t require the old, and deeply unpopular, method of shutting down fisheries and leaving fishing boats idle at the dock?

That all may sound too good to be true, and there are critics willing to say so.  But it’s achievable, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers looked at the current status and trends in 4,700 fisheries around the world, representing 78 percent of the world’s reported catch.  Then, they projected the future prospects of those fisheries under three different management regimes: business as usual, management to maximize long-term catch, or something called rights-based management.

Their conclusion is that rights-based-management simultaneously feeds more people, boosts profits, and protects the marine resource.

If rights-based management is so good, why aren’t we already doing it?

Read the rest of this entry »

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