Archive for the 'Biology' Category

I’ve Been Frittering My Life Away…

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

I just discovered the blog Life Before the Dinosaurs, all about the wild and wacky world that existed pre-Triassic. That’s more than enough for nerd in me to get excited, but then I learned that the blog is written by a seven year-old. Seven!

When I was seven, I spent most of my time playing with My Little Pony and taking naps. And, if we’re being honest, not much has changed.

From Life Before the Dinosaurs:

Wiwaxia

Wiwaxia was one of the weirdest of all the oddball animals of the Burgess Shale. It had a foot like a snail, a shell like a limpet, and scales like a fish on its shell. And the weirdest of all is that it had twelve glowing spines sticking out the top.

Kimberella

Kimberella was a strange creature that could have been a mollusc and lived in the Vendian Period. It had a strange lasagna-shaped foot and a flattened shell on top. It was 1/2″ to 4″.

Kimberella crawled along the sea floor looking for edible scraps because organisms didn’t start predation until the Cambrian Period.

Kimberella was a very weird creature because it had a shell and why would something have a shell if there was no predator? It did have a pretty hard shell.

This is definitely a blog to bookmark – author ABC knows his stuff and appreciates the absolute coolness of the giant bugs from the Carboniferous Period.

I’m off to invent a time machine so I can travel back to 1990 and tell my seven year-old self to get on it. But I’ll probably take a nap first.

Science Wednesday – Elk Spotting

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

Last weekend, while taking a walk along one of Loveland’s bike trails, I came across eleven large, fuzzy butts. A rare surprise, indeed, but what was even a nicer surprise was who the butts belonged to.

Elk!

I kept my distance from the animals,* but was able to capture some beautiful shots.

I’ll admit to being initially surprised to see the elk (Cervus canadensis) where I did. Because of their presence and popularity in mountain communities like Estes Park, I associate elk with the Rocky Mountains, not the 7-11 across the street.

But, historically, these elk are right where they’re supposed to be. Like bison, deer and pronghorn, elk are traditional herbivores of the prairies. It wasn’t until the 1800s, as Europeans settled the American west and turned prairie into communities and farmland, that elk and other large grazers were pushed out of their historic range and up into the foothills and mountains.

Today, movement corridors like the Laramie Foothills-Mountains to Plains Project patchwork together public and private land to create pathways for elk and other animals to move between the mountains and the high plains. Communities like Loveland, nestled at the base of the foothills, are located within those corridors.

I was also surprised to see this many males together. Because I’m used to seeing elk during the fall mating season, when one male will guard a harem of females, all these males together seemed odd. But it’s not.

For most of the year, elk segregate themselves into single-sex groups. These young males (you can tell they’re male because they have antlers, and you can tell they’re young because the antlers are a little puny by elk-standards) will stick together until it’s mating time in the fall, and then they’ll compete with one another (and with males MUCH bigger than they are) for the available females.

A successful male will end up with a harem of often over 20 females, and unsuccessful males will hang around the edges of the harems, trying to sneak some elk-lovin’ when the dominant male isn’t looking. And they’ll urinate all over themselves, because apparently that’s a smell that keeps the ladies coming back.

But, seriously, with tushes like those, what lady wouldn’t want to join one of their harems?

*And why was I so careful to keep my distance?

The best rule to remember is this: leave wild animals alone. Especially the eau d’ urine scented ones.

Have any of you spotted elk out and about in town? What about other wildlife in your area that you didn’t expect to see?

 

From the Archive AND Science Wednesday: “Like a Monster from a Lost World”

by Jane Hansen, Research Assistant, Local History Archive, Lesley Drayton, Curator, Local History Archive, and Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

Recently, Local History Archive Research Assistant extraordinaire Jayne Hansen came across this fantastic (and highly editorialized) article from a September 1935 edition of a Fort Collins newspaper:

The big question: What kind of spider did Duane Wetzler find?

There are a few options. In such a sensational case as this, some sort of extraterrestrial creepy crawly is always a possibility, but we can probably rule out an alien-arachnid in this case. Why? Most spiders from space have at least five “evil pair of jaws.” Let’s look at the spider species a little closer to home.

When trying to identify Fort Collins spiders, CSU’s Extension resource “Spiders in the Home” is a great first stop. However, since it was written in 2008, I can understand why it wasn’t used as an original reference. Looking through “Spiders in the Home,” an obvious candidate for Weltzer’s spider of terror emerges: The “Catface” Spider.

Araneus gemmoides

All the clues are there.

  • Diamond-shaped body? Check!
  • Long, furry legs? Check!
  • “Cat’s face” markings on the back (abdomen)? Check!
  • Evil pair of jaws? Well, we won’t call them evil, but…Check!
  • Broad as the diameter of a five cent piece? Since female Catface spiders can be over 1/4″ in diameter, Check!

While perhaps not the prettiest of spiders (Katie’s vote for that category goes to the Mabel Orchard Spider), the catface spider (Araneus gemmoides) is harmless and not nearly the “monster from a lost world” the newspaper post made it out to be.

But you have to wonder, what do you think the paper would have written about the tarantulas that live in the southern part of the state?

Let’s stick with the catface spiders, shall we?

Science Wednesday: The “Kissing Bugs”

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

Since it’s close to Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about one of my favorite groups of insects: the “kissing bugs.”

What are the “kissing bugs?” Large, predatory insects.

You wouldn’t think they were predators to look at them – with their long, bent mouthparts and lumbering gait, these bugs seem more like miniature elephants than killers, but killers (or at least blood suckers) they are.

Kissing bugs belong to the insect family Reduviidae, and Reduviids are famous for using their long, elephant-esque mouthparts to inject lethal saliva into their prey.  The saliva liquifies their meal from the inside out, and the insects then use their mouthparts to suck up the liquid goo. If you’ve ever come to the museum’s “Meet the Animals” program, you may have seen some Reduviid insects: our Assassin Bugs.

Two-spotted Assassin bugs

So what does this have to do with kissing?

One group of the Reduviid insects are the kissing bugs.

Kissing bugs don’t liquefy their prey; they feed on their blood, instead. Kissing bugs bite people at night, creeping out from cracks in the walls and floor to crawl over people as they sleep. Because kissing bugs are attracted to the carbon dioxide we exhale, they often bite around the mouth, nose and cheeks – where a nicer animal would only give us a kiss.

If all the kissing bugs did was bite the occasional sleeper, it would be itchy and annoying, but not that big a deal. But kissing bugs do more than just kiss…erm…bite: in Mexico, Central and South America they can transmit Chagas Disease.

Every time kissing bugs come out at night to feed, they also poop. In order to fill their bodies with blood, they have to empty out all their waste. Often, along with defecating regular frass (what you call “poop” when you’re an insect), kissing bugs also expel the tiny Trypanosoma cruzi, which is the cause of Chagas Disease. If T. cruzi enters the bitee’s bloodstream, the parasites multiply in the blood and then infect organs throughout the body. Left untreated, the disease can damage the nervous system, digestive system and heart, and can be fatal.

Trypanosoma cruzi

 

Trypanosoma cruzi in the blood

Along with having a romantic name (if not a romantic reality), there’s another reason talking about kissing bugs in February is appropriate. While it’s never been proven, many people suspect that Charles Darwin, whose birthday is this Saturday, died of complications from Chagas Disease. In Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, he writes

At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body. Before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards they become round and bloated with blood, and in this state are easily crushed. One which I caught at Iquique, (for they are found in Chile and Peru,) was very empty. When placed on a table, and though surrounded by people, if a finger was presented, the bold insect would immediately protrude its sucker, make a charge, and if allowed, draw blood. No pain was caused by the wound. It was curious to watch its body during the act of sucking, as in less than ten minutes it changed from being as flat as a wafer to a globular form. This one feast, for which the benchuca was indebted to one of the officers, kept it fat during four whole months; but, after the first fortnight, it was quite ready to have another suck.”

So this Valentine’s Day, feel free to spread the kisses around, but try to avoid any insects that want to “kiss” you back!

Groundhog’s Day Revisted

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Well, it’s Groundhog’s Day once again and, according to the news, Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow today, predicting an early spring in this 125th annual celebration of where a rodent stands in relation to the sun.

To celebrate the day, check out our Groundhog’s Day post from last year where we explored the history and science behind the holiday.

Keep warm, everyone – spring’s not here quite yet!

On the Discovery Docket: Proteus

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

On the Discovery Docket is the blog’s on-going series of book, film, television and experience recommendations.

Haeckel Illustration of a Radiolaria

Many of us grew up with the idea of space as “the final frontier.” But 200 years ago, while there were plenty of people imaging the possibilities of the heavens, there was a much closer, and just as mysterious, frontier here on Earth: the oceans.

The oceans were places where the imagination still reigned and mermaids and kraken were still possible. And as the technology of the microscope improved in the 19th century, the mysteries of the water compounded again. Not only were there marine creatures that were unknown because they hadn’t been seen before, there were creatures that were unknown because they couldn’t be seen before.

Proteus, the 2004 documentary by David Lebrun, tells the history of how 19th century naturalists discovered and began to explore that unseen ocean world.

Much of the story focuses on Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist, naturalist, doctor, philosopher and artist. Haeckel is famous for his extensive, meticulous and amazingly beautiful drawings of microscopic marine life, and the darlings of his work radiolaria. Radiolaria are single-celled marine organisms with incredibly complex mineral exoskeletons and, in his lifetime, Haeckel discovered, named and classified almost 4,000 species.

In Proteus, Haeckel’s amazingly intricate and mesmerizing illustrations are combined with the images of other nineteenth century painters, photographers and scientific researchers to create a film that is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, both in the stunning animation and the remarkable story of life it tells.

They are like an alphabet of possibilities, as if the ancient sea were dreaming in its depths all the future permutations of organic and invented form. From backbones to bridges, and from the earth to the stars – Proteus

Friday Quick Links

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Starch granules found on Neanderthal teeth

Should We Clone Neanderthals? The scientific, legal and ethical obstacles.

Evidence of a new type of prehistoric humans known as Denisovans, who last shared a common ancestor with modern humans over 1 million years ago,  has been found in a Siberian cave. with Homo sapiens over 1 million years ago..

A 400,000 year-old tooth found in a Israeli cave doubles the age of the oldest known Homo sapiens remains.

How did the Neanderthals die? One theory was that a poor diet that relied too heavily on meat eventually killed them. However, starch granules found on Neanderthal teeth indicate that the species ate a variety of plants and cooked grains.

The rare Cambodian elephant has finally been caught on video.

The fossils of a new species of prehistoric crocodile were discovered in Italian limestone slated to become kitchen counters.

The Shark Conservation Act has been signed into law.

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.

 


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