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rainbow narwhale unicornby chelsea schuyler

Are There Rainbow Animals?

macaw

showoff

Rainbow animals! Not just for your child’s fridge drawings anymore! It happens, and way more often than you might think.

When I say “rainbow animal” what do you think of? A random sampling of my friends mostly said macaw and the ever vague, “I don’t know, fish?”kid fish tissue

Would you believe: lizard, coral, beetle, tree? …I have such awesome photos for you…

Define Rainbow Colored

But wait, what counts as rainbow-colored? At first, I was adamant that any rainbow-colored animal must include the color purple. And so I rejected the macaw based on its totally unwarranted boycott on purple. HaroldNot that they aren’t amazing, but a line must be drawn, and I’m choosing Harold to draw it.

However, it turns out I should forget about purple, because, as I discovered, purple is not a color of the rainbow. What? What is this purple poppycosh? This vocal violet vandalism??

Why Purple Dissed the Rainbow

Here’s the reasoning: When Isaac Newton split light into its colors with a prism, he labelled them: isaac newton and the prismRed, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet (ROYGBIV). Apparently he only included “indigo” so that the number of color names would match the western musical scale (do rey me fa so la ti).

We think that’s sort of dumb and irrelevant now, and so we ignore indigo because physicists have nothing to prove to musicians. Also, “indigo” sounds so pretentious and doesn’t deserve a whole category of blueness equivalent to a giant, simple category like Red. Notice we don’t include “currant” or “garnet.”

So okay, throw out indigo. Rainbows are still red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Yeah, violet, as in purple, right? Wrong. Back in Isaac’s day “blue” meant light blue, like cyan or sky blue, and “violet” actually meant dark blue, like in the navy.

Therefore, there is no purple in the rainbow. (In other news, there is no Santa Claus!)

Willy Wonka accuracy: Violet was indeed turning violet.

Willy Wonka actually got it right: Violet was indeed turning violet.

crayon

Roses are red, violets are blue, this song proves nothing, I blame you…Crayon.

This whole violet thing is misrepresented ALL THE TIME in diagrams and everyday items in catalogs. It’s very understandable that I, I mean, you, might have been confused.

But I’ve Seen Purple in a Rainbow!

And yet- the next time you see a rainbow, you might notice that that last ring is definitely purple, not this weak sauce, dark blue that is no substitute. Why? You might say. WHY?! You’re not crazy, you are in fact seeing purple. Let’s break it down…

Rainbow Basics: wavelength colorsRainbows result when the light travels through a raindrop, bends, and then reflects back out at an angle off the back of the drop. Each wavelength bends slightly differently than the other because of their different lengths, and that’s why we can see each color now separated into a rainbow. one color one droplet

Interesting Fact: we can only see one color per droplet, because each color is beaming out at different angles, and our eyes are only in one place. (mind = poof)

Rainbows’ Dark (purple) Secret: Because of constructive interference, raindrops are actually creating multiple rainbows: one bright outer one that we see, then very light inner ones, called supernumerary bows. When the raindrops in the air are just the right size and uniformity, we can actually just barely see the second rainbow overlapping onto the first, red onto blue. And what do red and blue make? Purple.

Thank you MinutePhysics

Thank you MinutePhysics video!

Supernumerary bow, with the purple and pink and light green

Supernumerary bow, with the purple and pink and light green

Whatever, I say rainbow animals still have to include purple. The macaw counts ONLY IF a second macaw flies underneath the first, overlapping its feathers and appearing purple to the human passerby.

Glad we got the rules cleared up. But wait, did you know that the blue of an animal is not actually blue? So, should that count? To be continued…

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Global Worming

genius in subtlety

genius in subtlety

by chelsea schuyler

National Geographic's HD full color detail helps us understand worms in comparison to what it really comes down to. Teacups.

Thank you National Geographic. We all understand now.

Why Do Earthworms Come Out in the Rain?

Behold the earthworm. I would like today to focus on this serpentine slime beast and point out some oddly unknown, awesome facts.

sandworm-size-chartYou mean, besides having FIVE hearts and yet never featuring on Valentine’s Day cards? besides being the only ones who know exactly what it’s like in a wormhole yet are never asked? besides grossing people out instead of getting respect for their role in the general health of basically All Land Everywhere? Yes.

A friend asked me “When it rains and the sidewalk is besieged by worms, are they trying to escape drowning in mud or are they happy for the opportunity to go swimming across the sidewalk?” As usual, I had never considered this. So I dun looked it up.

wormwhat?

a wormwhat? a whathole?

Hypothesis 1: Avoiding Drowning

Indeed, the common thought was that earthworms came up because they are trying to avoid drowning. Turns out this is a common mammalian, lung-centric assumption. Earthworms breathe through their skin, getting oxygen through diffusion, a process requiring moisture, so it’s actually being too dry that will make them suffocate. They can live submerged in water for days, even weeks. (Which I’m sure was discovered in a totally PETA approved experiment.)

Yet, didn’t we know this already? Fisherfolks, back me up here, if we can throw a worm into a river for hours and expect them to squirm for fish, whilst being speared with a metal hook no less, wouldn’t they be okay with a little moisture in their tubes?

Anyway, whatever, the point is we don’t think it’s a drowning thing anymore. Nor do we think they’re using the chance to mate cuz only a few species mate above ground (you wanna do it, up there? in front of god and everyone? Have some decency woman!).

mouth, hearts, and multiple genitalia, all up front

mouth, hearts, and multiple genitalia, all up front

(Remember that joke about the indecent feminine worm? Good times. But I should point out that earthworms are hermaphroditic, having both the girl parts and the guy parts, so leave your slut shaming comments to a min. kthanxbai)

Hypothesis 2: Exploration

My friend’s latter hypothesis (that worms just want to swim on sidewalks) turns out to be a pretty astute speculation. Our guess now is that rain time is a worm’s best chance to get around without a bunch of pesky dirt to chew through or sunshine to incinerate in.

Where no worm has swept the floor

Where no worm has lawned before

This is the superhighway of wormland, their continuing mission, to explore uncramped worlds and nontunneled civilizations–space being, indeed, the final frontier. Unfortunately, a lot of that space has been paved by cement-happy humans, which I think is the only sidewalk connection.

you went up to the surface again didn't you?

you went up to the surface again didn’t you?

But then again, I don’t get that we have the real motivation here, cuz it’s not like they never come out otherwise. They feed on plant litter at night, hence the early bird getting the worm, it’s still dark enough that the worms are out. And hence the alternate name, “nightcrawler.” So why all the craze when it rains? Wouldn’t they rather sleep in? A couple ideas:

Hypothesis 3, 4, 5, 6:

  • Sure they can survive for days in water, but maybe it’s totally uncomfortable being in suspended animation for that long.
  • Though worms are without eyes, there is still a sensor in their heads that can sense light so they won’t go vaporize themselves during the day. Maybe when it rains, the cloud cover makes it dark enough that they know a party on the surface is gonna rock.
  • Over-oxygenation. Ironically, scientists think that perhaps the worms are sensitive to the rush of oxygenated water. An ironic opposite of drowning.
  • Maybe they just got places to be. A guy’s gotta go to the grocery once in awhile you know?
Mole McWhack: not it

Mole McWhack: not it

Non-Hypothesis: Moles

One theory we can rule out, scientists assure us, is moles.

And thank god for that.

Did You Know: that if you shove a stick into the ground, then rake a flat piece of metal over the protruding end, over and over, the earthworms will sprint out of their holes like rats to a pied piper? It’s called worm-grunting, and there are festivals and competitions for it in Florida that got so out of hand they had to regulate it with permits to make sure they didn’t kill off all the worms in the state.

Sopchoppy, where the fun don't stop choppy

Sopchoppy, where the fun don’t stop choppy

Ah, Florida.

Anyway, it works because the vibration mimics the sound of a worm’s top enemy, the mole. How fisherman accidentally discovered this trick without knowledge of the mole factor is a mystery, but at least we can clear the proposed practice round to Whack-a-Mole, “Whisper-a-Worm,” for fact-checked accuracy.

Rain Experiment: Fail

Once scientists verified that worms erupt like fireworks in the presence of a mole, they wondered, ‘What if raindrops also sound like mole vibrations, and confuse the worms into emerging?’

But when they created rain onto worm-bins with 300 worms, only 6 emerged. After 24 hours of the soil being completely saturated with standing water on the surface, they examined the worms and all appeared to be healthy. Not afraid of drowning, and not thinking that rain was a mole. To which worms responded, “yeah, shocking. Screw you guys.” To which humans responded, “dude, you thought a stick was a mole.” To which worms responded, “suck it, it’s uncanny!”

deep thoughts

deep thoughts

But Wait, Worms are Awesome Experiment: Success

Speaking of mysterious motivations, the really interesting thing that scientists discovered is that worms make group decisions. Belgian PhD student Lara Zirbes, et al aimed to study how worms interact with microorganisms, but noticed meanwhile, that the worms often moved together after touching.

So naturally they put a bunch of worms into a central chamber that had two arms extending out in different directions. After squirming all over each other, the worms almost always went together to one side of the chamber over the other. It’s the first documented, collective orientation of any animal influenced by touch.

They're moving in herds. They do move in herds...

They’re moving in herds. They do move in herds…

“We can consider the earthworm behavior as the equivalent of a herd or swarm.”

Whoa, let’s go with herd. ‘Swarm’ may not have the best, non-panic inducing connotations, and earthworms have enough PR problems as it is.

Herd Swarm

Herd                                                                                               Swarm

The next question they want to pursue is the why. Individuals of these Belgian worms secrete fluids that contain antibacterial properties and a yellow goo that puts off the predatory flatworm. Safety in mucousy numbers? Or maybe it’s just lonely being blind, deaf, and stuck in a dark hole all the time. I don’t know, too lung-centric?

Worm MythBuster

Dead-EndOne final buzzkill before I go – if you cut a worm in half it doesn’t turn into two worms. The part with the head might live through it and grow back, but the butt end, that’s just gone. That myth was kind of a dead end. It won’t ever grow to its full potential. But its got a good head on its shoulders.

Mad, Mad Mirth

first picby chelsea schuyler

On Rudolpha!

On Rudolpha!

Reason’s greetings everyone! In trying to think of what to post for Christmas this year, I was looking over past posts, and found that I have been slowly spiraling into celebratory celibacy.

I started out okay, in 2010 we learned that Santa’s reindeer are all female, but after that, topics began to have no holiday relation at all like fighting fossils and Spanish moss. Then last year there was nothing! Until in early January when we learned about Myths, which may have had a Freudian quality to it, but bore no mention of the precious and sacred reason for the season. (Axial tilt). Where’s my atheistic war on Christmas spirit?

dbWell, I’m shaping up this year. I’m getting excited about the most nature-based aspect of the holiday, the christmas tree. I’m puttin’ the HR back in christmas to research the most commonly culturally absorbed tradition of winter’s history.

If there’s anything we in the northern hemisphere can agree on, past and present, religious and non, it is this: winter is depressing. The light of day is short, it’s frickin freezing, and everything is dead. Everything except the evergreen tree. Long before Christianity, the ancients would take branches of this hardy evolutionary marvel and decorate their houses to bring a little life and color into an otherwise snowed in and barren world.

We all noticed the shortest day of the year, the solstice on December 21st or 22nd , and fashioned our beliefs around it to explain things.

Sun God Ra has to sit this one out

Sun God Ra has to sit this one out

The Egyptians believed their sun god Ra had become ill, and brought palm rushes into their homes for solstice to celebrate the triumph of life over death as Ra began to recover from illness. The Celts decked their temple halls with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life, and the Romans had days, sometimes weeks long festivities called Saturnalia, honoring the god of agriculture, and bringing much merriment. Slaves swapped clothes with masters and sat at the head of the table, families gave gifts, and greenery and wreaths were hung. There was singing, dancing, and drinking. Lots of drinking.

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn

so cheerful right now

so cheerful right now

So yeah, pagans all over the globe liked christmas before it was cool. Religious takeover of pagan festivities is nothing new, it helps ease the transition of new thoughts and regimes. But Christmas was actually quite the fight, not with the pagans, but the Christians. They didn’t want it. BBC reports, festivities “yo-yoed in and out of favor with Churches because of its association with the more debauched side of pagan festivals like Saturnalia.”

Yes, down with debauchery! Because nothing brings cheer to a comatose landscape like stern solemnity.

Meanwhile, the evergreens were ever green regardless of which god we were or were not celebrating.

Wilt Stop. Keep your xmas tree alive the way the ancients did, with this bottle of water. Now in a spray!

Wilt Stop. Keep your tree alive the way the ancients did, with this bottle of water. Now in a spray!

Many evergreens can use chemicals in their leaves to act as antifreeze, and photosynthesis can still take place a few degrees past freezing. Their biggest concern is not so much freezing to death, but dying of thirst. Their leathery leaves help retain moisture, and snow can actually help reduce ground evaporation and provide shelter from drying winds.

What is this, a science blog? Back to the history. As Christianity took over Europe and the amount of fun was hotly debated, Christian Germans bumped it up a gnarled notch and went from bringing branches in the house to whole trees. The first documentation of an actual Christmas tree was in 1605, when an anonymous writer recorded festive indoor trees decorated with nuts, sugar wafers, colored paper, apples, and gold-foil.

Oh yew...

Oh yew…

When a German girl name Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was married to King George of England in the 1700s, she brought her Yew bough decorating traditions with her to the royal court, and so the Brits were introduced.

joseph letterMeanwhile, in most of Europe and America too, haters gonna hate. You think we atheists have a war on Christmas cuz we don’t appreciate naïveté scenes, I mean, nativity scenes, on public land? Check out this hell rant from theologian Tertullian against christmas laurel boughs:

“Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. …If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple. I have said too little. If you have renounced stews, clothe not your own house with the appearance of a new brothel.” Hah!

Or Oliver Cromwell, who, when not busy slaughtering the Irish, said that “heathen traditions” of christmas desecrated “that sacred event.”

Et tu Beeblay?

Et tu Beeblay?

Even the Bible has a confusing passage, that some Christians quoth in protest to the tree: “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen…. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” – Jeremiah 10:2-4

And the puritans, ever the Captain Bring-Downs of our American foundations, did their part. Cotton Mather of New England in 1712:

“The feast of Christ’s nativity is spent in reveling, dicing, carding, masking, and in all licentious liberty…by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling!” Oh the antagonistic alliterations of animosity! Take that Santa! Where your Ho’s at now? In my stewed-up brothel house that’s where!puritan

Rude reveler can't breathe

Rude reveler can’t breathe

It got so bad that Massachusetts actually criminalized celebrating and attached hefty fines for anyone caught decorating.

America would remain in its puritanical boredom until Fashion, that ever powerful force, that swayer of minds and hips, came along to save them.

 

 

Illustrated London Times pic from 1848, Windsor Castle tree

Illustrated London Times pic from 1848, Windsor Castle tree

Everyone-wants-to-be-her Queen Victoria had taken Queen Charlotte’s influence, and encouraged her German husband Prince Albert to bring Christmas trees to the royal house. A sketch of her family standing around their decked out tree made it into the Illustrated London Times, which was devoured by fashion-hungry East Coasters, and suddenly the tree was all the rage. Eventually, America ran out the puritanical view with its other worthless inhabitants (looking at you native americans).

So where did christmas lights come from? Well, candles on the tree had been done for centuries, rumored to have been started by Martin Luther, who was supposedly inspired by seeing stars through the winter trees as he walked home. Actual christmas lights wouldn’t come into play until the 1900s.

First christmas lights, cool!

First christmas lights, cool!

Whoever invented Christmas should be nailed to a cross

Whoever invented Christmas should be nailed to a cross

Thomas Edison invented the first strand of electric lights in 1880, but due to a general mistrust of electricity, they would not be popular until a few decades later. Because when it comes to illuminating drying pine leaves, always fall back to actual flames just to be safe.

So, as another atheist taking back the christmas tree from the Christians who took it from pagans who took it straight from Nature, let’s not fight. To celebrate is to be human, and we all celebrate different things for different reasons. I’ll make fun of your traditions, you’ll make fun of mine, but let’s all drink to the tree, and promise to be there to help when the other’s house is burning down from those sketchy Edison inventions.

Happy Solstice/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa and a very Merry Christmas to you all! Ho³!

Trick or Death

old timeyby chelsea schuyler

It’s very important to instill in your children an appreciation for the exception to a rule. If you feel you have failed horribly at indoctrinating this moral imperative, Halloween is a great opportunity to reverse your parental ineptitude.

Say to your children, “Children, never, ever, ever take candy from strangers. Except on this one day where you should actively seek out as many strangers as possible, the sketchier looking their personal appearance and living quarters, the better.

suspect nothing

suspect nothing

And why shouldn’t they? Poisoned candy and razor blades are myths. …or are they?

In the words of the cowering child of Aliens, “mostly.”

mostly annoying

mostly annoying

In all fairness to the paranoid, razor blades or pins have made an appearance once in awhile in the last half century. However, (chicken and the egg here) the majority of those were hoaxes inspired by the myth, either pranks by kids to their parents (GENIUS) or parents to their kids (dear god, what is wrong with you people?!).

look at all the good that's come

look at all the good that’s come

And no one was severely harmed. Cuz biting down on metal is something you sort of notice before it reaches the soft innards of your gastrointestinal delicates.

As for poisoned candy, the evidence (provided by Dr. Joel Best) denies it ever happening. …At least by strangers to strangers.

Addictive powder through a straw. Start em young.

Addictive powder through a straw. Start em young.

There was a guy in Detroit in 1974 named Ronald Clark O’Bryan who poisoned Pixie Sticks and gave them to his son. His son died, and he blamed it on the neighbors’ tainted candy. His Fail was being behind the times. Hello, no one gives out Pixie Sticks anymore, as the police found when investigating the neighbors, just before they noticed that he had just taken a huge life insurance policy out on his son. A classic.

In 1970 a poor kid ate heroin-laced Halloween candy and died of an overdose…so the media said.

Aw, remember the media?

Aw, remember the media?

But it turned out that the kid had actually discovered his uncle’s heroin stash, and his parents sprinkled it onto his Halloween candy to shirk the blame. (I don’t wanna be handing out Darwin awards in the wake of tragedy (no I do), but how appetizing is heroin powder you could ingest enough to die from it? Something else going on there methinks.)

who wouldn't want balls of steel?

who wouldn’t want balls of steel?

Those are the sad stories. The better stories come from legendary greats like Helen Pfeil in 1964, who gave out dog biscuits, steel wool, and (clearly marked) ant poison to teenagers she felt were too old to be trick or treating. Which makes me want to start ringing doorbells, because, dude, free steel wool.

hero.

hero.

Unfortunately, the public didn’t appreciate Helen’s message to these freeloading slackers, EVEN THOUGH she told the kids what they were getting and no one tried eating any of it. She pleaded guilty immediately and her sentence was suspended. Dr. Best thinks this may be the origin of the myths.

Another gem occurred in 2000, when parents found their kids’ Snickers bars to be hollowed out wrappers crammed with weed. The cops traced it back to a certain homeowner who was extremely confused. Turns out he worked in the dead letter department of the post office, and found a bag of Snickers in the lost packages. shipment_of_fail-300x225Someone’s epic fail at smuggling pot was brought to this guy, who, having lived in a dark hole for the majority of his life, didn’t notice what must have been a significant weight difference in the candies. Deciding to save a few bucks this year, he brought them home and gave them out to the innocent children. Who, doubtless, are now addicts and sadists, having their had their first taste of the notorious gateway drug.

um, yes?

um, yes?

So there you have it. The real victim here? The candy itself. Used and abused time and again for hoaxes, last minute cover ups, or naïve postmen. Eat your candy folks, it won’t harm you. I can’t speak for your greedy, drug addicted, psychopathic family members, but the goods are all good.

Mighty Mouse Mitochondria

Mighty Mouse Mitochondria and it's inevitably underrated sidekick Chlora the Explorer Chloroplast

Mighty Mouse Mitochondrion and Chlora the Explorer Chloroplast

by chelsea schuyler

the old us

the old us

I have this vague memory from high school Natural History of mitochondria being crazy amazing, so I looked into it and will now drag you with me.

Refresher course: Mitochondria are those little bean things inside all animal, plant, and fungi cells, providing truckloads of energy from oxygen. Chloroplasts are the little green blobs inside all plant cells that make energy from the sun.

Before we had mitochondria, we were just piddly little simple cells called prokaryotes. Then we got them and became complicated, multi-cellular stuffs called eukaryotes.  So how did we get us one of those?

symbol of america's low expectation of high standards

jesus never did THIS

Nautilis magazine says “The transition from the classic prokaryotic model to the deluxe eukaryotic one is arguably the most important event in the history of life on Earth.” Wow, the most important event in the history of life, and it isn’t LIFE? This better be good. Like sliced bread, but times at least 5.

So, IN THE BEGINNING, life happened!

always start your Earth out right

always start your Earth out right

Followed by a billion years of single-celled blah. What was there to eat at such a time?  Well, a few million of these pajama’d prokaryotes stumbled into the kitchen, held the primordial fridge door open, and stared at the emptiness. Recall that this was a desolate time, no oxygen in the air, no coffee in the pot.

zuul was a slightly different problem

slightly different fridge problem

Eventually they just stirred up a roux of carbon dioxide and hydrogen. And since everybody poops (even then), they pooped out methane. And because everything is funnier when named after poop, they were called methanogens.

slightly different potential energy

slightly different potential energy

An hour later, a million prokaryotic roommates rolled out of bed and were like, “Dude, way to eat all the half decent gases, methanogen, what am I supposed to do?” But then they went to the window and said, “Hey look, sun.”

And so they began photosynthesizing, eating the sun’s light and pooping out oxygen. (Scientists say “exhaling” and they have a right to their wrong opinion). They were called cyanobacteria.

Wait, you say, I thought there was no oxygen in the early atmosphere, but if cyanobacteria is spewing it out everywhere, what gives?

The thing is, it can be difficult to get free oxygen in any atmosphere because oxygen is the slut of the Periodic Table. It will get together with almost any element. It sees a little Carbon, bam, CO2. Sees a little Hydrogen, bam, H2O. So though Cyanobacteria was releasing oxygen, it ran off with that motorcycle-riding hooligan, methane (1 carbon, 4 hydrogen) and changed into carbon dioxide and water.

So all seems in balance as methane, like their dinosaur proteges, ruled the world. But then, (spoiler alert) the Earth shot up from .01% oxygen in the atmosphere to 21%, turned into a giant snowball and everybody died! Almost. It’s called the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) or if you’re feeling more dramatic, the Oxygen Catastrophe!/Oxygen Crisis!/Oxygen Revolution!

GOE caused the Huronian Glaciation, a "snowball Earth event." Because if you've only got a snowball's chance, you might as well go whole hog.

Bummer. The GOE caused the Huronian Glaciation, a “snowball Earth event.” Because if you’ve only got a snowball’s chance in hell, you might as well become the snowball..

There are a few theories to explain the GOE, because it wouldn’t be science if we didn’t argue furiously.

My favorite theory for no justifiable reason is the Nickel Famine Theory. One little detail I forgot to mention is that methanogens need nickel to help their metabolic process. This probably involves “organic chemistry,” which no one can do, so we won’t go into it here. Anyway the Earth was cooling, and there was a lull in volcanic activity, lessening the amount of available nickel. Hence the Nickel Famine (which particularly affected the methanogens off the Irish coast).

early irish nickel famine.  yeah, I went there.

Irish nickel famine. Too early?

Man, if methaogens had a nickel for every time that happened…

As the amount of methane reduced, Oxygen increased,  but Oxygen is so slutty that it even binds with itself, to make O3, ozone. I may have also neglected to mention that in order for oxygen to react with methane, it needs UV rays from the sun. An ozone layer would have blocked UV rays from getting through. No rays, no methane reactions.

arrogantThere’s a lot of other ideas too, but i’m trying to talk about mitochondria here. Remember the most important event in the history of life? Tryin’ to get to that.

So, yadda yadda, the Great Oxygenation Event happens, spurring the atmosphere into toxicity and causing both the first major extinction and the first known ice age for 300 million years, whatever. To explain the epic moment when eukaryotes appeared, we need to introduce the three main characters.

  1. bird pacmanBasic prokaryote – eats other prokaryotes. We’ll call it Pac-Man

  2. tall ghostsNew! – Aerobic Prokaryote – figures out how to take in oxygen and make energy. We’ll call it Inky.

  3. Classic model – Cyanobacteria – still making oxygen from the sun. We’ll call it Blinky.

Trust me, this will end well.

So the basic prokaryote, Pac-Man, is chillin’, eating fruity, pellety prokaryotes, thinking nothing of being the ancestor to every eukaryote known to future Earth, when it comes across oxygen-eating Inky. It eats Inky, but Inky is badass and doesn’t die, it just sits inside the Pac-Man’s body. Eventually, Pac-Man realizes that it can use the extra energy that Inky makes to become awesome, like eating the mushroom and becoming big Mario. Oh god, double video game analogy.  I’ll stop.

prokaryote mario  eukaryote mario

prokaryotic mario          eukaryotic mario

In Science-Nerd terms, a prokaryote literally engulfed the aerobic prokaryote, and they eventually evolved to benefit each other. Soon the aerobic prokaryote became dependent on its host and gave up its free-moving lifestyle altogether to become, mitochondria. The result? Eukaryotes, i.e., animals. Not like, giraffes or anything yet but future animals.

Player One Ready!

Player One Ready!

Not long later, mutated Pac-Man ate Blinky too, and the little sun-eating cyanobacteria also became dependent on its host, gave up its free-moving lifestyle and became chloroplasts. i.e. plants. (again, future plants.)

Margulis_2011

Science. Because women.

This origin story is known as Pac-Man-itude, or more commonly, the Endosymbiotic Theory.

How do we know this? Scientist Lynn Margulis (and the first wife of Carl Sagan) worked tirelessly to prove this theory in the 1960s. We used to think that mitochondria just evolved from other parts of the cell, but she was all Free Love man, and wrote a radical paper arguing for cells engulfing each other and living in harmony.

phylo treeHer idea was rejected, as it had been when others considered it decades earlier, but she persevered with evidence. Mitochondria and chloroplasts not only look like prokaryotes, but they reproduce independently of the cells they live in, dividing by fission instead of mitosis (just like prokaryotes). What really sealed the deal though was when they were discovered to have their own DNA, not the double helix kind like ours, but a wonky, circular kind, just like the ones prokaryotes have.  Colonel Mustard in the Library!

hans and franz approve

hans and franz approve

So why do eukaryotes get to be cool, multi-cellular animals n stuff and prokaryotes have to stay as tiny, simplified things? Well, to be big and complex you need instructions to tell you how to do it, in other words, genes. Prokaryotes have some DNA, but barely (up to 10,000 times fewer than euks). That’s because copying DNA and then making the corresponding proteins is friggin exhausting, and without mitochondria to pump, them up, they gotta stay as girlie men.

Back to early Earth. The thing is, though the atmosphere now had oxygen, and eukaryotes were kickin it, the ocean (where life lived) was still pretty oxygen-less. For a long, unexciting billion years, literally called “the boring billion” by scientists, evolution was pretty much at a standstill.

ironic2

Iron banding Rocks--why anyone at all knows anything at all

Iron banding
Rocks–why anyone at all knows anything at all

The ocean was full of iron, so any oxygen around saw it, and bam, Fe2O3 (iron oxide) leaving iron bands on the rock.  But eventually the iron ran out, other elements and minerals shifted around, and the ocean became oxygenated.

With oxygen to fuel the success of the mitochondrial mutates, the boring finally ended as a massive diversification of plants and animals took over the ocean and partied like it was going to be 1999.

    550 mya -The Cambrian Explosion! Where stuff had cool names like trilobite and pakaia!

550 mya -The Cambrian Explosion! Where stuff had cool names like trilobite and pakaia!

selloutsThe coolest thing? This magical engulfing happened only one time. Lots of things in evolution happened multiple times, called convergent evolution. In other words, different species evolve basically the same trait without having to be descended from the first one to do it. Eyes, wings, even purring evolved multiple times in different cat species.

But not the prokaryotic merger. That came down to a single cell able to protect itself from the total freakiness of engulfing another cell and neither of them being completely annihilated. Happy ultimate father’s day.

Dad!

Dad!

 

Myths!

of which this is obviously not one

of which this is obviously not one

by chelsea schuyler

I think it’s high time I discussed some nature-related myths. I feel like while I often suspect a myth, I have no idea what the actual truth is. Here are 5 debunked myths, in order of relevancy.

Myth #1: LEMMINGS COMMIT MASS SUICIDE

leapin' lemmings (screen shot from "White Wilderness)

leapin’ lemmings (screen shot from “White Wilderness”)

That lemmings follow each other over cliffs to their deaths has been a myth since the 1500s. Shockingly, they don’t. What does happen is about every four years certain lemming populations explode. Predators flock in for the buffet until numbers go back down again. This isn’t like a slight increase either, this is a boom of cicada-like proportions. Snowy owl parents have been known to bring back 50 lemmings a DAY to feed their young during these times. Anyway, numbers plummet, the now fat predators leave, and the few surviving lemmings start the whole cycle again.

During the boom, populations do expand, and lemmings have been known to attempt river crossings where many may drown. But it would be like saying that the wildebeest in the Great Migration commit mass suicide crossing the river cuz some get eaten by crocodiles. Stuff just dies when trying to do stuff.

White_WildernessWhat’s REALLY interesting about this is that the lemming myth was strengthened in the 1950s when Disney made a “documentary” called “White Wilderness,” in which lemmings are shown leaping off of cliffs into the ocean (clip here). The narrator doesn’t call it suicide, but implies that they are taken by a sort of “frenzy” that nature uses to control their numbers.

shocked Eskimo child never intended for this to happen to Lui and Lois Lemming

shocked Eskimo child never intended for this to happen

But in the 1980s a Canadian show called “Cruel Camera” reported that clever angles were used to obscure lemmings being actually herded off a cliff into the water (actually a river, not the ocean) using a lazy susan-like device. The species used weren’t even native to the area, and were asserted to have been purchased from local Eskimo children.

"Lemmings." Game of lies.

Game of lies.

In 2003, the Disney spokeswoman did not deny these claims, ”We have done extensive research into what happened more than 40 years ago,” she said, ”but have been unable to determine exactly what techniques were used in producing ‘White Wilderness.’ The standards and techniques were certainly different then than they are now.”

Well that’s true. But Disney is not alone. Video game “Lemmings” used pixelated images to further perpetuate the myth. Can nothing be trusted?

jack
Myth #2: DOG YEARS

A common myth (whose origin is so elusive it appears to be genetically instinctive since the 1960s) is that a year in a dog’s life is equivalent to 7 human years. To be fair, this is sort of barely true ish. It’s an extreme average (though 6 years might be a more accurate inaccuracy). But really the first two years of the dog and size of the dog changes this number substantially.

Small dogs live longer than large dogs, but reach sexual maturity faster. So, weirdly, a smaller dog is “older” in its first two years and “younger” at five. This is a unique phenomenon, and may be because no other animal has as much size diversity within its own species (i.e no other animal has been so jovially messed with by humans).

nnnnoooo.

nnnooooo.

Scientists speculate that if we made a 20lb cow (Hey China, do us a favor?) we would see the same aging discrepancy compared to the 2000lb ones.

Yeah whatever, so how old is my dog? You can enter your dog’s breed and age in the BBC dog calculator, or refer to this chart:


For first two years

  • 12.5 years per human year for small dogs
  • 10.5 years per human year for medium-sized dogs
  • 9 years per human year for large dogs

For years 3+:

  • Small:
    Dachshund (Miniature) 4.32,
    Border Terrier 4.47,
    Lhasa Apso 4.49,
    Shih Tzu 4.78,
    Whippet Medium 5.30,
    Chihuahua 4.87,
    West Highland White Terrier 4.96,
    Beagle 5.20,
    Miniature Schnauzer 5.46,
    Spaniel (Cocker) 5.55,
    Cavalier King Charles 5.77,
    Pug 5.95,
    French Bulldog 7.65
  • chow chow panda

    chow chow pandas change nothing

    Medium:
    Spaniel 5.46,
    Retriever (Labrador) 5.74,
    Golden Retriever 5.74,
    Staffordshire Bull Terrier 5.33,
    Bulldog 13.42

  • Large:
    German Shepherd 7.84,
    Boxer 8.90

NOTE: dying your dog to look like a Panda will not increase its life expectancy.

Erwin Schrodinger. Not helpful.

Erwin Schrodinger. Not helpful.

By the way, somehow the dog years formula has transferred over to cats. I really wanted to give a chart for that too, but unfortunately I could find no reputable sources, and I tried medium hard! Everyone is using a chart that says the first year equals 15 human years, and then you basically add 4 years for each year after that. But again, couldn’t find a scientific source for this. Because scientists hate cats.

brains! the organ that let you believe in lemming suicide

Brains!  The  organ  that  let  you  believe  in lemming  suicide

Myth #3: WE ONLY USE 10% OF OUR BRAINS

I kinda think most people have figured out that this is a dumb. Turns out there are times like when we’re resting that we may only be using 10% of our brain, but “Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain,” says John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic. So if you trust the folks who specialize in egg-based condiments, and I know I do, it’s definitely a myth.

Neurologists-- Real experts.  Real Mayo.

Neurologists–    Real experts.    Real Mayo.

If you’re just fond of 10 percents of things, only 10% of the brain is made up of neurons, the cells that fire and do stuff and make us layfolk nod because we’ve definitely heard that word before. The other 90% are glial cells, which are the mechanics/handymen/storage units that maintain the neurons, but we’re a little peach fuzzy on them. So really, we only understand 10% of our brains, and even that is probably an overestimation.

Myth #4: NASA’S SPACE PEN

How could I have doubted you??

How could I have doubted you??

This is one of my favorite myths, that NASA spent millions of dollars engineering a pen that would work in space when Russia solved the same problem by using a pencil. I bought into this one for awhile, until one day I used 3% of my brain to think: NASA got rovers to Mars, should I really believe they sank to such duh-itude over writing tools?

Of course no. Both NASA and Russian cosmonauts used pencils originally.  NASA was guilty of buying mechanical pencils at 130 dollars a pop in 1965, provoking outrage in Congress and the public at the time, forcing NASA to go back to common-man, back-to-school-sales pencils.

But then in 1967, the Apollo 1 test run went horribly wrong. A wire sparked and caused a fire, aided by a pure Oxygen atmosphere and multiple flammable materials within the shuttle.  Three astronauts were tragically killed.

This may or may not be why I doubted you...

This may have been why I doubted you…

NASA then changed their shuttles to be a tad less of a fire waiting to happen. They reduced the Oxygen in the atmosphere to 34% instead of 100%, and they removed velcro and other flammable materials from the interior. But pencils were a problem because of the flammable wood and the graphite bits that could be inhaled by astronauts or infiltrate equipment.

fisher price shuttle of death

Not to be confused with Fisher Price’s shuttle of death

Meanwhile, Paul Fisher of Fisher Pen Co. decided to invest his own money (about 1 million) to design a pen that was pressure-based instead of gravity-based, and would work from -50F to 400F (though the blue ink will turn green when too hot, which is cool. Moral = blue pens are superior to black because NASA). Both Russia and NASA buy these pens for a few dollars each (bulk price). There, everyone wins.  So get off their backs, you don’t know.space pen case

Mini-Myth #5:
HUMANS ARE (insert number here)%  WATER

Another victim of over-averaging and people’s inability to remember statistics (guilty). I had to add this one because it was bothering me hearing anything from 40 – 95% water (95, really? come on people).

USGS. Taking a break from predicting devastating earthquakes to settle your inane curiousity

USGS. Taking a break from predicting devastating earthquakes to settle your inane curiosity

According to the US Geological Survey, babies are 78% water, male adults 60%, and female adults 55% (because fat cells have less water in them and women have more fat cells than men). Also subject to the physical fitness of the person, age, and other factors, and no one really cares cuz even cavemen knew water’s important and don’t remind us of how we’re never drinking enough of it.

Well, that’s all the myths there are. Everything else is true.  Drink water!

Molasses Disastess

Happy Halloween everyone!!

refined death

message in a death

This year I would like to dedicate my blog to one of the oddest forms of death: drowning.

In Molasses.

actually 21 dead and 150 injured all told

actually 21 dead and 150 injured all told

The most famous account of which is of course the Great Molasses Flood (aka Boston Molasses Disaster) of January, 1919. An enormous vat of molasses five stories high split open, spilling 2.3 million gallons of molasses and dangerous debris into the streets.

no sir, i don't like it

no sir, i don’t like it

A wave 22 feet high surged through town at 35 miles an hour, killing 21 people and injuring 150. Twenty horses also perished.

The thing about molasses is that it flows nothing like water. It is a non-Newtonian fluid (see “Quick, Sand” blog) and according to Scientific American, can be significantly more devastating than a tsunami. Molasses is 5000-10,000 times more viscous than water (depending on its production), making it impossible to survive an encounter of such freakish proportions especially if you might be feeling at all panicked.

Why did the tank explode?  Maybe because it was filled to the brink 6 months earlier, leaving little room for the carbon dioxide gas released by likely fermentation. The courts also blamed the owners of the tank for turning a blind eye to structural instability. Rumors say they even painted the entire thing brown to hide the leak stains.  It was also an unusually warm day that January, causing a dramatic shift in temperature inside the tank.  But no pressure, tank.

the horror of whatever this was!

the horror of whatever this was!

The memory of the deceased will never be forgotten. There are dozens of photos of confusing wreckage where you can’t really see any molasses or know what the scale is but it’s no doubt tragecal.  Those who lost their lives are also commemorated on the following tiny, tiny plaque for all carrying a magnifying glass to see.

tiny plaque

Freak as the whole incident seems, it’s apparently not that uncommon. We humans just can’t get a handle on molasses, and tend to drop a few hundred thousand gallons here and there.

hawaiiLike just last month when a faulty pipe transferring molasses to a California-bound ship leaked 1400 tons (230,000 gallons) of molasses into the waters near Waikiki, killing 26,000 fish and wreaking as yet unknown extents of havoc on coral reefs.

Don’t worry hundreds of species of little fish. There’s plenty of fish in the s—…well.

oh, is that how it works? woops!

oh, is that how it works? woops!

And then in 2004, when Purina Mills (of dog food fame) hired a company to dispose of their 50,000 gallons of spoiled molasses. But instead of taking it to a treatment plant, the guy dumped it all into a sinkhole, which he did not realize would filter down into the pristine Ozark water supply and flow out of two springs which lead into the nearby, and ironically named, Clear Creek. Many fish were killed and citizens were outraged.

mMolasses struck again in July of this year when a small village in Jalisco, Mexico was the victim of molasses dumping from an industrial cattle farm 12 kilometers away. Villagers and restaurant owners depend on fish and tourism for their livelihoods, so 500 tons worth of dead, molasses soaked fish aren’t so much helpful.

So, molasses, what a hoot!  But there’s more!  If you’re like me, and I know I am, when you think horrifically odd tragedy you think, Children’s book!

further reading

further reading

Follow Patrick as his craving for molasses leads him to take the family molasses pail (was that a thing?) to the market, when boom! A wacky explosion covers him head to toe with molasses. When he gets home, his mother, who apparently lives in a hole in the ground at the edge of town, doesn’t believe him and sends him to bed with a scolding until father comes home looking the same way.

What a caper! In the sequels, Patrick can look forward to years of therapy dealing with the trauma of the town’s death toll and the self-confidence shattering of his own mother’s Molasses-Holocaust denial.denial

hummingbird-flyingby chelsea schuyler

hum helmet

not a busy man

I have never met a person who doesn’t admire the hummingbird. I have met several people however that despise statistics.  Probably because numbers often feel irrelevant, and are easy to manipulate. I freely admit that the following statistics about hummingbirds have been engineered for the sole purpose of blowing your mind (vote hummingbird):

A hummingbird’s brain is 4.2 % of its body weight, more than any other bird (human brain = 2 %).

A hummingbird’s feet are so weak they cannot walk on them, only perch.

A hummingbird has virtually no sense of smell.

dive! dive! dive!

dive! dive! dive!

A male hummingbird dives in mid-air to impress a female, moving 400 body lengths a second. Relative to size, that’s faster than the re-entry of a space shuttle into Earth’s atmosphere.

hummingbird's like "what? oh I'm sorry, did you think that was fast?"

hummingbird’s like “oh I’m sorry, did you think that was fast?”

The rufous hummingbird weighs a mere 3 grams.
3g = 0.1 oz
1 pinch = 0.013 oz (Yes, a “pinch,” say, of salt, is an actual measurement)
1 hummingbird = 8 pinches. or 3/4 teaspoon ish.

Add 1/8th hummingbird

Add 1/8th hummingbird

What’s great about these facts is you will not remember them. You will tell a friend “Man, I just learned that hummingbirds weigh like…some crazy, tiny amount of salt.” Your friend will then raise their eyebrow while simultaneously reevaluating your sanity and also the degree to which they would like to be seen with you in public. And then you will have to send them to my blog to prove you’re not exaggerating and their mind can be blown in precisely the same way.

However, if I were to tell a hummingbird these statistics, it would probably remember them, because it turns out, they have a crazy high amount of memory. How much amount? you ask?

Well, because hummingbirds are so spastic fast, but still warm-blooded, they need to eat (a lot) to maintain their metabolism. But spending a ton of time foraging for food wastes precious energy. The heart of a hummingbird beats 250 times a minute at rest, but during flight it escalates to over 1200 times a minute. So, how to maximize the efficiency of searching for food?

Answer: be a Ninja.

Answer: become a Ninja.

Hummingbirds are nectarivores (actual word), they depend on the sugar-high from flowers for their diet. Those flowers, once sucked dry, replenish their nectar after a certain time. The problem is, the amount of time it takes to replenish is different with every flower.

Houston the hummingbird has a problem

Houston the hummingbird has a problem

Imagine the advantage it would be to a hummingbird to just know which flowers have replenished their nectar already instead of wasting energy trying at random. Are you there yet? Are you there yet? How about now? And…I’m exhausted. And…I’m dead. And…I’m extinct.

Turns out, they do know, all from memory (ninja). To demonstrate how awesome this is, scientist chicks and dudes in Alberta, Canada (Henderson, et al) decided to mess with a bunch of wild rufous hummingbirds. They set up sets of 8 fake flowers in multiple male hummingbird territories.

to make flower you will need, cardboard, one cork, a syringe, and an adult

to make flower you will need, cardboard, one cork, a syringe, and an adult

Four of the flowers were refilled 10 minutes after being emptied.
The other four, in 20 minutes.
Each flower was a different color and pattern and the 10 minute and 20 minute flowers were mixed together. The hummingbirds therefore, had to figure out how long it took for which flower in which location to refill.

Spoiler alert, they did, but it’s not just that they figured out the times. Remember these are wild hummingbirds, and they got business to take care of. Example:

hum sticks

hum sticks

It’s dawn (insert William Tell Overture here), and Humphrey the hummingbird is hanging in his space. He sees the 8 hideous flowers nature did not smile upon, knowing which one takes how long (he learned yesterday). So he visits a few, and empties them. Let’s say he visited two 10 minute flowers, and two 20 minute flowers. He goes on to real flowers too, and then resumes his perch. Somewhere in his mind, 4 timers have started counting down, two to 10 minutes, two to 20.

8:05, he visits the remaining 4 fake flowers. Four new timers start.

8:10, The first two 10 minutes flowers are ready, but just then a rival male shows up, and Humphrey has to chase him off. It’s now 8:13, so he visits the two 10 minute flowers, and resets those two timers to 10 minutes, remembering that the two original 20 minute flowers will be ready in 7 minutes, but the second set of 10 minute flowers in 3 minutes, and the remaining…oh look, a female, must impress with my crazy fast dive! Okay, so now the second set of 2 is past ready, and I have 2 minutes for…have you gone cross eyed yet?

yeah, color not so helpful. location location, location

yeah, color not so helpful. location location, location

Each hummingbird not only remembered the refill rates of each flower, but also where each was and when he emptied them last. (Other experiments show that hummingbirds actually depend on location before they depend on color, relying on color only when mad scientists kept moving the friggin flowers around all the time.)

It’s not quite as to the minute as I have made it sound in the example, but it’s pretty dang close. This kind of when and where timing has never been shown to occur in the animal kingdom before to this degree, and was thought to be a human trait.

Human trait? I can’t even cook one pot of rice without the oven timer. This would be like having eight different pots of rice, with different cook times, with different start times, and then having to go buy stamps at the post office in between, arriving back late, and resetting whichever ones, but not others,.. I would starve basically.

OH GOD

OH GOD

The even more mind-blowing thing? These hummingbirds were proven to keep track of eight flowers. But the average hummingbird territory can contain two thousand. …4.2% brain…

BBC won, BBC two

Reliability doesn't mean not hilarious

Reliability doesn’t mean not hilarious

by chelsea schuyler

As I scan the BBC World News for ideas for blogs, sometimes I can barely get past the title for laughing. Some days are complete gems. For example, one single day and one single click to the Science and Environment page, gave me these results:

First headline: “Earth’s Core far hotter than thought.”

flippin hot.  eggs over sidewalk?

flippin hot, basically. eggs over sidewalk?

I love these kind of statements. Hey everyone, something we really can’t imagine is even more unimaginable than we’d ever imagined! Before, everyone disagreed about how hot the earth’s core was, though it was thought to be about 5000 degrees Celsius. How hot is that? Well, I’m all about the metric system, but let’s face it, in terms of boggling an American’s mind, you had us at Celsius. So what can we relate it to?

core of the matter

core of the matter

The all-time highest temperature on Earth’s surface is 56.7C (134F) in Death Valley, California in 1913. We almost broke the record this summer as you may recall hearing, the same time Las Vegas apparently thought, “what better time for an outdoor concert in the afternoon?’  34 people were hospitalized for heat exhaustion, 200 more treated on the spot with shade and water. Shade? There wasn’t even shade?? Vegas, little comin to Jesus here. Be ye not experts on scorching, body-filleting temperatures? I guess you just really haven’t experienced the Vans unless your inner fluids are at a boiling point.

ANYWAY, now we estimate the Earth’s core at 6000C (11,oooF, ish), which is about the temperature on the surface of the sun. This is enormously helpful if you’re a scientist working with magnetic fields and earthquakes and things. For the lay person, it’s still just more friggin hot than whatever we thought friggin hot was. Who’s up for a Doors show??

Next headline: “UK shale gas bonanza ‘not assured’ ”

freak gasoline accident

freak gasoline accident

I love picturing the author of this article, environmental analyst Roger Harrabin, deciding on the word “bonanza” for this piece. I mean, I suppose it’s effective, the last thing anyone wants is their bonanza not being assured. …So many birthday parties. And can you really have a gas bonanza that doesn’t imply some impeding horrible accident a la Zoolander gas fight explosion?

Next headline: “ ‘Urgent need’ to remove space debris”

brain peeAgain with the word choice, I mean don’t you just feel like “urgent need” is limited to either really needing to pee, or fixing world wide problems like Darfur scale genocide? No spectrum, just those two. But this is actually pretty interesting in the nerdverse, and I think justifies the new association with the phrase.

An international nerd meeting has concluded that there is way too much useless man made stuff in earth’s orbit. Really? We’ve been up there like 10 times, how bad could it be? But oh yeah, all those tv, radio broadcasting, weather, communications, and global positioning satellites, space stations, rocket experiments, and human waste (including NASA’s armoire-sized ammonia container that comfortingly wasn’t safe enough to dispose of on Earth, and the epic thermal glove lost by space-walker Ed White in 1965).

I think I know who got the glove in the end...

I think I know what happened to that glove…

There are 30,000 pieces over 10cm and tens of thousands more smaller ones like screws and bolts and flecks of paint. The more space debris, the more they collide, break apart, and create even more pieces to potentially collide, a scenario called the Kessler effect. Concern is increasing, as they’re all traveling at hypervelocity (17,000mph) in different directions around low-Earth orbit, and won’t be pulled down by gravity for generations.

doubtfire The worry is, if we wait too long to do something about it, our Earth with be so surrounded that we won’t be able to take our evening walks into space anymore for fear of being run-by-debried.

I don’t know why we can’t just make like Saturn and organize some top notch rings, but the high nerds at the meeting suggested various other solutions, including the use of “harpoons, tentacles, ion thrusters and lasers” to fix the problem.  Okay, okay, all we need is  Captain Ahab, the squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Enterprise, and Dr. Evil to save the world from flying death pellets of our own creation.

from...plus...equals Right??

this…                                               plus this…                       equals this!
Right??

Last and definitely least, the headline:
“ ‘Big cat’ was on loose in UK in 1903”

Nothing says breaking news like centuries old, long dead, escaped wild animals. And can we define big?  Because I think LION, I think TIGER, but no.  Cougar? Cheetah at least? No. The menacing, gargantuan 24 pound  Canadian lynx.  This isn’t your default Eurasian lynx, which is a good 70 pounds, this Canadian version is  “two to three times the size of a domestic cat.”  Two to three times people, hide your children. This cat of Ulster was terrorizing the green fields of equal-sized foxes in the English countryside until it was finally shot and stashed in a museum, to be uncovered this year. (Not really a) mystery solved!

Fantastic day BBC, capital indeed.

Canadian lynx not shown due to diminutive negligibility

Canadian lynx not shown due to diminutive negligibility

Dung Ho

dung starby chelsea schuyler

dung beetle of my south african travels does kung fu

dung beetle of my south african travels does kung fu

Dung beetles.  The little critters that roll the excrement of others into a ball and push it around.  Somehow, this is awesome, and they are properly admired.  I saw some about an inch and a half long in South Africa, and I was pleased.  Until I discovered that they can be as small as a millimeter, and as I picture mini-beetles making adorable, bedazzle beads of bowels, I can’t help but feel a bit cheated. Oh well, new goals.

Poop is a very competitive market.  Not only is it their food and water, but their young’s food as well.  Adults lay eggs inside a buried dungball so when they hatch and pupate they’ll have a stockpile waiting.

diagram There are six thousand species of dung beetle, on all continents but Antarctica.  How to keep track of which species is which?  Luckily, they’re packed into three convenient, ziplock bag categories: tunnellers, rollers, and dwellers. Tunnellers find the mudpie, dig a tunnel directly underneath it, and drag some of that fine pooppourri with them.  Rollers find the mudpie, roll it into a ball, and then make a bee(tle)line away from the pile, pushing the ball with their back feet, to bury it elsewhere. Dwellers are like F that, and just set up shop right in the pile.

In this article we’ll only be talking about rollers, cuz that’s just the way I…

atlasSpherical enthusiasm is not a rollers only interesting feature.  It’s how they get their sense of direction that is the really impressive part.  See, after a male finds a steaming pile of rhino roca and sculpts it into a ball, he has to get it away as fast as possible before lazy, freeloader dung beetles move in and steal his hard earned Atlas impression, forcing him to start all over and lose the girl.  A straight line away from the dung pile is the fastest way to escape, but how it is that they know what straight is and don’t accidentally curve right back around to the pile?

Well, first scientists discovered that they have special photoreceptors in their eyes that make them able to see a symmetrical pattern of polarized light around the sun (we, less cool, can’t see it), and go off of that.  This is common in insects.  But what about at night?  Well, the moon.  Right?

also not needed.

also not needed.

To find out more, Marie Dacke and Eric Warrent took a team of scientists and went to South Africa to study them, but to their astonishment, when there was no moon in the sky, the beetles were unaffected.  They didn’t need no stinkin moon. What does that leave?  Stars?! Sure, humans and seals and birds use the stars, but insects? Never before have insects been known to use stars for navigation.

Baffled, the scientists built a giant table with dung in the middle, and a dry moat all around it to catch the dung beetles as they Myth of Sisyphused their way off the table. Also, there were walls to rule out the use of terrestrial landmarks. The dung beetles performed normally.  Then, according to National Geographic, “the team put little cardboard hats on the study beetles’ heads, blocking their view of the sky.”

Mandatory moment of meditation.  Push away all thoughts, all worries; focus on nothing but little cardboard hats on dung beetle heads…Nirvana achieved. …

Indeed, with the sky the-inside-of-a-cereal-box black, the dung beetles flailed in their direction, going every which way.

who knows what lies within the darkness...

who knows what lies within the darkness…

Now keep in mind, this is science, so you can’t just go around putting hats on beetles without a control group. It becomes necessary to also put clear hats on a few, to show that it was not simply the act of wearing a hat that totally freaked them out and Death Starred all their dung maneuvering hopes.

But, though doubtless humiliated, the now clear-visored Dig Dougs were still straight shooters, unaffected by the headgear.

Experimental beetle: Darth Vader #8, Control beetle, Starfighter reject #?

Experimental beetle: Darth Vader #8                                    Control beetle: Starfighter reject #?

Hmm, looks like stars must be it.  But stars aren’t really that bright, in fact the brightest thing in the night sky is the Milky Way Galaxy.  Only one thing to do. The scientists gathered up some dung beetles, and brought them to the Johannesburg planetarium.

The Milky Way as viewed from the surface of Mars

The Milky Way as viewed from the surface of Mars

How to test dung beetle navigation in the most awesome way possible:

1) Take said dung beetles to the local planetarium.
2) The end.

The scientists set up their little diorama of dung in the now worst smelling planetarium ever, and programmed the ceiling to take away all the stars except those in the Milky Way galaxy.  Straight lines all around.  Then, they took away the Milky Way galaxy, and left only the stars. National Geographic reports, “Those beetles just rolled around and around aimlessly.”

humans. discuss.

humans. discuss.

Man, if aliens descended right now and chose these particular humans to study…  “Well Herboxon, they appear to have to built a giant dome where they can obsess over an insect that rolls s#@! into balls!” “Yes, Miffzin, and if the creatures run in nonlinear fashion it is cause for international news! Bizarre these humans….”

So, the first creature we know in the world to use the Milky Way Galaxy as a reference point (thanks to Michelle for this awesome blog idea!) Scientists think this could be more common, that moths too may possess the same skill.

Just wait, in 20 years all the thrift shops are going to be filled with tiny, vintage, insect hats. Available in pizza box brown or broken window clear!50_banner

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