Archive for the 'Biology' Category



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

Pronghorn Migration

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Hopefully you’ve all been watching National Geographic’s Great Migrations and are fascinated by the idea that organisms can move, en masse, across huge distances and survive problems of predation, starvation, and weather.

However, as you find yourself engrossed in the migration stories from plankton to African elephants, don’t forget that there’s an amazing migration story happening practically in your backyard (if you live in northern Colorado or Wyoming, that is): Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana).

Pronghorn Migration

Animals belonging to the pronghorn family have been in North America for over 20 million years. Today only the species A. americana remains, and more of those pronghorn live in northern Colorado and Wyoming combined than any other place in North America.

Every fall, hundreds of pronghorn complete the second-longest migration in the Western Hemisphere: over 100 miles from Grand Teton National Park to their winter range Upper Green River Valley in Wyoming. Their summer range in the Grand Tetons is too cold during the winter, and without enough food, but Wyoming has everything they need.

Pronghorn have been making this migration for over 6,000 years. The migration corridor, 125 miles long and only 1 mile wide, is threatened by the presence of people, but pronghorn still make the trek every year, crawling under fences, crossing busy roads, and avoiding human development whenever possible.

In 2008, biologist and photographer Joe Riis was the first to document the entire pronghorn migration on foot. Watch the beautiful footage here.

One of the best places to see pronghorn in Fort Collins is at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, just north of the city. The winter pronghorn population there ranges from 300-450 individuals. However, if you want to see pronghorn at Soapstone Prairie, you’d better hurry. The natural area closes December 1st and won’t open again until March 1st. Don’t worry, though. The pronghorn will still be there.


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