Archive for the 'Biology' Category



Science Wednesday: You’re Never too Young to be a Scientist

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

What do you think the qualifications to be a scientist are? A PhD? A labcoat? Awesome Einstein-like hair? What about age?

Most scientists are adults, it’s true. But there’s no reason that anyone, kids included, can’t use the scientific method to ask questions, make observations, design experiments and gather results. Two recent stories in the news show us just how fantastic kids are at being scientists.

Kathryn Gray Discovers a Supernova

On Sunday, January 2, 2011 (three days ago!), 10-year-old Kathryn Grey discovered Supernova 2010lt.

Kathryn was examining photographs of the galaxy UGC 3378
taken on December 31, 2010.  Comparing photographs of the galaxy taken at different times, Kathryn noticed a bright spot that was present in the newer picture that was absent from the older picture (go here to see the images). That bright spot? A supernova.

A supernova is a star that’s blowing up. When a star dies in supernova, an incredible amount of energy is released. So much light and radiation can emit from a supernova that the star becomes brighter than the rest of the galaxy it’s in. With something that bright happening in the sky, you might think finding a supernova is pretty easy. It’s not. First, supernovae are rare. In a galaxy the size of our Milky Way, a supernova happens about once every 50 years. Second, the universe is the biggest thing there is. That’s a lot of sky to take pictures of and a lot of pictures to look through. Less than 2,000 supernovae have ever been officially discovered, and Kathryn’s hard work and sharp eyes make her the youngest person to ever find one.

Primary School Students Publish a Scientific Paper on Bees

Did you know that buff-tailed bumblebees are able to solve color and pattern puzzles? No? Well, neither did anyone else…until a group of 8-10 year old students figured it out.

Students from Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England, are now the youngest scientists to have their work published in the peer-reviewed journal Biology Letters with their new paper, “Blackawton Bees.”

The paper, which looks at the ability of bees to find food using visual cues and concludes,

…bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from…

is based on a question the students developed themselves, is written in their voices (included the Methods section titled: “The Puzzle…duh duh duuuhhh”), and includes diagrams the children drew (read the full paper here).

The scientists who reviewed the students’ paper say that their finding is unique, and the data they presented is compelling. And while one referee was quoted as saying they thought “the kids couldn’t do it,” the students’ results have proved them wrong.

So if you’re a kid, how can you become a scientist?

  • Find questions about the world that interest you
  • Figure out how to make solving those questions fun. Can it be a game? a puzzle?
  • Don’t feel frustrated about things you don’t know – be excited at the change to learn something new
  • Find adults to help you if you need it. Kathryn Grey and the students at Blackawton didn’t work alone – they had adults there to help them learn how to use equipment, design experiments, and just be an extra brain or two if they got stuck.

And if you want to experience another example of fantastic kid-lead scientific discovery? Stop by the museum and try out our Parasaurolophus cranial crest interactive.

For years paleontologists debated the role of Parasaurolophus’s cranial crest. They thought it had worked like a snorkel, a weapon, a way to tell males and females apart, and a tool for temperature regulation.  Then, 14-year-old Della Drury came along. Della hypothesized that the space inside the crest worked as a resonating chamber, amplifying the sounds the dinosaurs made to make communication easier. Della tested the idea for her 9th grade science fair project, and her results support the hypothesis. Today, paleontologists think that the Parasaurolophus’ crests may have served multiple functions, but a resonating chamber may very well have been one of them.  So stop by the museum and blow into the cranial crest – can you call out like a dinosaur?

 

The International Year of Biodiversity Wrap-Up

The International Year of Biodiversity is almost at its end. The United Nations declared 2010 to be the year for celebrating, researching, exploring, understanding and protecting the world’s biodiversity.

Here at More to Explore, we celebrated the year with a series of posts:

The goal of the International Year of Biodiversity was not only to celebrate the life on Earth, but to protect it. And there are still far too many organisms that are threatened and endangered, and at least 100 species go extinct each day. For a beautiful and moving look at 80 of America’s endangered species, read Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species.

Even though the International Year of Biodiversity is coming to an end, don’t stop learning about the amazing breadth of life on Earth. And just so you’re ready, 2011 is the International Year of Forests. Why not begin the celebration by reading Bark: An Intimate Look at the World’s Trees?

Bark from the Octillo tree

Friday Quick Links

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Hoekman's blunt-snouted dolphin (Platalearostrum hoekmani)

Researchers have proposed pulleys, sleds and wooden rollers as possible tools to move the huge slabs of rock needed to create Stonehenge. Now there’s a new mechanism added to the mix: balls. A combined system of ox-power, grooved rails and wooden ball bearings may have been just the trick to move 45 ton stones.

Planetary scientists in Boulder, Colorado, hypothesize that the origin of Saturn’s rings may be ice stripped off  a long-gone moon that crashed into Saturn 4 billion years ago (note: the link includes a podcast).

A new prehistoric dolphin species (and a balloon-headed dolphin at that!) was just described based on a bone found by a Dutch fisherman. You never know who’s going to be a part of the next scientific discovery…

Still looking for that perfect holiday present for that special someone? Why not name a mathematical theorem after them? After all, nothing says love like a whole bunch of cosines.

Meet the Clusterwink snail: a snail that looks, and acts, a lot like a Christmas tree light. When threatened, the fingernail-sized snail generates pulses of bioluminescent light from a single spot on it body and the snail’s opaque shell diffuses the blue-green spectrum of that light, making the whole shell glow.

2,400 year old pot of soup found by archaeologists in China.

Massive volcanic activity may have played a big role in the Permian Extinction and the death of the dinosaurs.

 

On the Discovery Docket: A Darwinian Theory of Beauty

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

With the season of gift giving upon us, I find myself surrounded by advertisements for “beautiful” things. A diamond necklace, a new car, a flat screen television: all these objects ultimately end up being called “beautiful.” This somewhat cavalier use of the term “beauty” over such a broad spectrum of objects leads me to wonder about the real meaning of the word. What is beautiful, and how do we know?

Dennis Dutton, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Cantebury in New Zealand and the editor of Arts & Letters Daily, has an idea for an answer. What is beauty? Dutton argues that it’s a core part of our human nature – one with deep evolutionary origins that began before we even had the ability to speak.

In his fascinating and wonderfully illustrated Ted Talk, “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty,” Dutton explores the idea of a universal understanding of beauty. According to Dutton, it is possible to discover an evolutionary history of our artistic and aesthetic tastes, and to see how what we presently call beautiful is the result of millennia of influence from the environments our ancestors lived in and the situations they encountered.

My favorite part of Dutton’s talk is his discussion of Acheulian hand axes. Teardrop-shaped stone tools made 1.4 million years ago and found throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, Dutton argues that these are tools that became the first known works of art, functioning as sexually selective fitness signals of skill and intelligence the way a male peacock displays his feathers.

The next time you come to the museum, be sure to stop by our exhibit on the Lindenmeier Archaeolgical Site and look at the display of artifacts. It’s easy to look at the artifacts as stone tools: a projectile point, a knife, a scraper. It’s much more awe inspiring, however, to also look at the artifacts as works of art and things of beauty. You’ll be surprised just how much your perspective changes.

So, is anyone planning on giving a hand axe to someone special this year?

Read a transcript of Dutton’s talk here.

Arsenic and Old Lakes, or, NASA Announces a New Life Form

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Mono Lake

At a conference today, NASA announced that the first known life form to use arsenic to make its DNA and proteins: the bacteria GFAJ-1.

This new life form is a surprise. Out of all the elements on Earth (watch Daniel Radcliffe if you need to remember what they all are), life is mainly composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus. Other elements just don’t go and insert themselves into that group. Or, at least, they didn’t. GFAJ-1 is able to substitute arsenic for phosphorus, the only known living organism to be able to do this.

Many people are also talking about possible implications from the discovery for astrobiology. If life can grow on Earth outside of the parameters we expect, what extraterrestrial environments could be home to life?

For a summary and analysis of the discovery, read on here.

Friday Quick Links

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Fossilized Massospondylus embryo

Researchers at CERN have captured antihydrogen atoms in a magnetic trap

Bill Warren went to a garage sale and may have purchased a pelt of the extinct Tasmanian tiger

Pocohontas’ wedding chapel found at Jamestown

Astronomers discover  the youngest nearby black hole

Paleontologists find the oldest known dinosaur embryos.

Gamma rays found coming from the center of the Milky Way

Science Wednesday: Banded Garden Spider

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

With the colder weather continuing, we won’t be seeing to many  spiders in the upcoming months (not outdoors, anyway. In your house is another matter entirely). For now, though, take a look at this lovely lady photographed outside museum associate Dave Dahm’s house:

This is a banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata), and it’s the largest of the orb-weaving spiders in Colorado. You’re most likely to see banded garden spiders sitting in their beautiful, symmetrical orb webs in late summer and early fall, and if you do see one chances are very good it’s a female. Females are  silvery with dark and yellow striping, while males are much smaller and rarely seen.

Banded garden spiders catch flying insects in the webs, biting their prey to paralyze it and then wrapping it in silk.

Yum!

As it continues to get even colder, the species will overwinter either as eggs in a large sack (up to 1000 eggs per sack!) or as tiny spiderlings hidden in foliage. The young spiders move around by “ballooning,” deploying threads of silk to be caught by the breeze. If this sounds familiar, you might remember the baby spiders doing something similar in Charlotte’s Web.

And in case you thought spiderlings were the only insects flying high above you, check out this story on The Billion-Bug Highway.

Are there any insects you’re still seeing out and about?

All images c/o Dave Dahms


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