Rafinesque’s “absurd” botanical legacy, Gray wrote, amounted to little more than a “curious mass of nonsense.” Gray’s note wouldn’t be the last unkind obituary in the annals of taxonomy, nor would it be the worst. That’s because the rules dictating how taxonomists name and classify living things bind these scientists in a web of influence stretching far back into the 18th century. When an agent of chaos like Rafinesque enters the scene, that web can get sticky fast. In a field haunted by ghosts, someone has to reckon with the dead.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology BirdCast: Bird Migration Forecasts in Real-Time. When, where, and how far will birds migrate? Our migration forecasts will answer these questions for the first time.
Science is desperate. It needs to believe itself honorable. It's threatened by the fact that it's not safe for so many of us. Period. It's just not safe.- A. Hope Jahren, in an interview about women in science and advancement in plant biology.
The classification of Illinois's state fossil, the Tully monster, has been a mystery since its discovery in 1958. But now a team at Yale has determined that it is a vertebrate ancestor of the lamprey, after studying over a thousand fossils and noticing the presence of a notochord, among other distinctively vertebratey features. The (paywalled) Nature paper is here.
Transplantable human bone and cartilage made with 3D printer that creates a matrix in the desired shape and injects cells that can integrate with the patient's blood vessels on implant
Sexual harassment in science generally starts like this: A woman (she is a student, a technician, a professor) gets an email and notices that the subject line is a bit off: “I need to tell you,” or “my feelings.” The opening lines refer to the altered physical and mental state of the author: “It’s late and I can’t sleep” is a favorite, though “Maybe it’s the three glasses of cognac” is popular as well.
In the wake of the sequencing of the human genome in the early 2000s, genome pioneers and social scientists alike called for an end to the use of race as a variable in genetic research. Unfortunately, by some measures, the use of race as a biological category has increased in the postgenomic age. Although inconsistent definition and use has been a chief problem with the race concept, it has historically been used as a taxonomic categorization based on common hereditary traits (such as skin color) to elucidate the relationship between our ancestry and our genes. We believe the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research—so disputed and so mired in confusion—is problematic at best and harmful at worst. It is time for biologists to find a better way. - An editorial in Science exploring the conundrum facing genomic researchers where race is both fundamentally flawed as a scientific model and violently dangerous but still the only consistent lens through which study participants understand the information they have about their own connection to human diversity [more inside]
Kept in the dark for 60 years, fruit flies begin to reveal their genetic adaptations. In 1954, seven years after their cousins returned from space, a colony of fruit flies was plunged into a darkness which would continue through 1500 generations right up till the present day. The results of this study shed considerable light on the role of genetic variation in physical adaptation. Spoiler: [more inside]
Vice Motherboard on the immortal jellyfish and Shin Kabota, the man who sings their praise. Shin Kubota music video.
Sleepy gorillas make their nests in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. You can visit these gorillas by going on a virtual gorilla trek in Democratic Republic of Congo!
One of the most beautiful, amazing, and depressing things I’ve ever done is participate in a whale necropsy. This work helps us understand the patterns of whale mortality, and determine whether whale deaths are natural, or possibly man-made. This is important stuff. In fact, their work has helped guide changes in policy, especially when it comes to designing the shipping lanes that go into and out of San Francisco Bay. Their research helped establish new, longer, and narrower shipping lanes that reduced the chances of ships hitting, and often killing, whales. This work saved whales’ lives. [more inside]
Creatures avoiding planks - "After around a thousand generations of training, the agents became half decent at avoiding planks. Please see the final result in this demo." [more inside]
Sure, we may be a little weird compared to our close relatives for not having a baculum (penis bone), and maybe that's the sort of thing you want to explain for whatever reason, but does human penis size and shape need a uniquely human story? Assuming it's correlated to the vagina like it probably is in many other species, then no it doesn't... unless the size and shape of the human vagina has an exceptional story. Does it? We wouldn't know. [more inside]
Humans 2.0 - "With CRISPR, scientists can change, delete, and replace genes in any animal, including us. Working mostly with mice, researchers have already deployed the tool to correct the genetic errors responsible for sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and the fundamental defect associated with cystic fibrosis. One group has replaced a mutation that causes cataracts; another has destroyed receptors that H.I.V. uses to infiltrate our immune system." [more inside]
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari - "The book delivers on its madly ambitious subtitle by in fact managing to cover key moments in the developmental history of humankind from the emergence of Homo Sapiens to today's developments in genetic engineering." Also btw, check out Harari on the myths we need to survive, re: fact/value distinctions and their interrelationships.
“Cut Microbe” is a sculpture entirely hand cut out of paper. Measuring 44 inches/112cms in length, it is half a million times bigger than the ecoli bacteria upon which it is based. I wanted to create a sculpture that reflected in the process of being made the incredible scale and complexity of this microbiological world. I am amazed at the strange beauty of the natural world and wanted to open people’s eyes to aspects of it that they rarely see. -Rogan Brown
The world's coral is suddenly and rapidly starting to die - "This is only the third time we've seen what we would refer to as a global bleaching event. [The prior events] were in 1998 and 2010, and those were pretty much one year events. We're looking at a similar spatial scale of bleaching across the globe, but spanning across at least 2 years. So that means a lot of these corals are being put under really prolonged stress, or are being hit 2 years in a row." Can 'manually breeding supercorals capable of living in increasingly inhospitable waters' help in time? (via/via)
A study published in the journal Animal Behavior found that crows can recognize their fellow dead crows and learn to avoid the dangerous circumstances associated with death. The BBC described the study, which involved a "masked individual playing bad cop, arriving on the scene holding up a dead crow." [more inside]
It's well understood that many species of parasitic wasp, when they lay their eggs on host caterpillars, also inject viruses that prevent the host's immune system from attacking the eggs. But it was recently discovered that some of those virus genes, as well as genes from parasitic wasps themselves, have become a part of the genome of some lepidopteran species (even protecting these species from a different type of virus), thus demonstrating horizontal gene transfer between insect species (link to paper).
Last night, Virginia Tech grad student Ann Hilborn, her labmate Chris Rowe, and their research supervisor Marcella Kelly were posting pictures of animal genitals on their lab’s Twitter account (@Whapavt). When Hilborn added some more from her collection, one of their readers called it a “junk-off”. And thus a hashtag was born. [NSFW?]
Since the pandas’ arrival, the team at Edinburgh zoo had already tried three times to breed the bears – with considerable fanfare and public attention – and each attempt had ended in disappointment. After a thoroughgoing review of these attempts in late 2014, this year’s season carried with it a sense of added pressure. But the keepers had also come up with one or two new tricks. A few weeks earlier, Maclean had daubed urine from Long Hui, an impressive male panda kept at Schönbrunn zoo, in Vienna, all over Yang Guang and Tian Tian’s enclosures, in order to spice the air with competition and possibility. “She spent a lot of time sniffing and seeing what was going on,” said Maclean. “He came out and was just like, ‘Whoa!’ He was all over the place.”
Spreading awareness of Artificially Selected Organisms. They have a Facebook page full of images sure to go viral, and even a White House petition. [This is satire.]
“In 1999, two Canadian astrophysicists, Stéphane Dumas and Yvan Dutil, composed and sent a message into space. The message was composed of twenty-three pages of bitmapped data, and was sent from the RT-70 radio telescope in Yevpatoria, Ukraine, as part of a set of messages called Cosmic Call.” [more inside]
Not all science is about going to Pluto, curing cancer, or ripping apart the fabric of the universe. Chris Buddle gives an object lesson in curiosity, passion and science for its own sake. [more inside]
"Accidentally glued myself to a crocodile while attaching a radio transmitter." The #fieldworkfail hashtag reveals the hilarious perils experienced by the Science side of Twitter.
"Humans as Superorganisms: How Microbes, Viruses, Imprinted Genes and Other Selfish Entities Shape Our Behavior" by Peter Kramer and Paola Bressan discusses the idea that an individual homo sapiens is only one component of the human superorganism we call a person, focusing on the psychological and psychiatric ramifications thereof. (Paola Bressan previously.)
Rosin Cerate is an "intensely researched blog" bringing you all kinds of interesting and odd knowledge about biology and creatures and how certain esoteric metals give you garlic breath. [via mefi projects] [more inside]
"Science, Chance, and Emotion with Real Cosima": A Longreads profile of Cosima Herter, the show's science consultant and the inspiration for Orphan Black's character Cosima. Mostly not directly about the show, but probably contains some spoilers if you're not fully caught up through season three.
"In a stunning discovery that overturns decades of textbook teaching, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist." While the article at Sciencedaily.com may be a bit breathlessly excited about it, even the more somber source article in Nature agrees that this "may call for a reassessment of basic assumptions in neuroimmunology"
Can evolution explain acts of kindness, and morality? [The Guardian]
We arranged a debate between a sceptical Tom Stoppard and the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. Stuart Jeffries acted as referee. We arranged for the two to meet recently in the grand boardroom of Wilson’s London publishers to discuss their differences, and reflect on two hard problems – what is the proper scope of science, and what is it to be human.
"The first 21 days of a bee's life in 60 seconds" is a time-lapse video by photographer Anand Varma, who discusses his collaboration with the bee lab at UC Davis in breeding a naturally mite-resistant line of honeybees. (Via.)
Scientists say they have reversed a bit of bird evolution in the lab and re-created a dinosaurlike snout in developing chickens.
Biologist/blogger PZ Myers provides a nice introduction to evolutionary theory, and explains how classical Darwinism is distorted by proponents of scientific racism and other pseudoscientific movements.
This is my vision of life. A conversation with evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins. (Video and transcript)
"What could you possibly have in common with a mushroom, or a dinosaur, or even a bacterium? More than you might think. In this Lab, you’ll puzzle out the evolutionary relationships linking together a spectacular array of species. Explore the tree of life and get a front row seat to what some have called the greatest show on Earth. That show is evolution." Evolution Lab is a educational game created by the Life on Earth Project and NOVA Labs
The CRISPR Revolution [ungated: 1,2,3] - "Biologists continue to hone their tools for deleting, replacing or otherwise editing DNA and a strategy called CRISPR has quickly become one of the most popular ways to do genome engineering. Utilizing a modified bacterial protein and a RNA that guides it to a specific DNA sequence, the CRISPR system provides unprecedented control over genes in many species, including perhaps humans. This control has allowed many new types of experiments, but also raised questions about what CRISPR can enable." [more inside]
Chris Crowe has a girlfriend. She stands a leggy 5 feet tall, weighs a trim 11 pounds, and sports a set of wings like you’ve never seen. Walnut the white-naped crane is the most genetically distinct endangered crane on the block — which means she needs to have been making babies, like, yesterday. Walnut was raised by humans at a zoo, and as a result, she recognizes and trusts humans — and is deeply hostile to other cranes. How hostile? She killed the two male cranes that her former keepers attempted to pair with her. "I like to jokingly tell people that Walnut ‘allegedly’ killed two male cranes," Crowe says. "It’s not like she was tried and convicted. We don’t know her side of the story."
I’m occasionally told my life would be easier if I backed off from my relentless efforts to advance evolution education. Maybe so. But to shy away from emphasizing evolutionary biology is to fail as a biology teacher. I continue to teach biology as I do, because biology makes sense only in the light of evolution.
Fish oil: it's been touted as a solution to heart health, dementia, glaucoma, and a host of other ailments. Unfortunately, it turns out that most of the evidence for its benefits is equivocal at best. And it turns out that fish oil isn't particularly useful for our pets, either. Worse, it turns out that the foundational study that kicked off interest in fish oil as a supplement is not quite as promising for fish oils as it is usually construed and cited. Given that fish oil can induce strokes in high quantities (and may interfere with treatments like chemotherapy), is poorly regulated, and is expensive, should we be promoting fish oil supplements as strongly as we do?
In biology, model organisms are the workhorse species in which most biological science gets done: fruit flies (D. melanogaster), house mice (M. musculus), shale cress (A. thaliana), zebra fish (D. rerio), nematodes (C. elegans), yeast (S. cerevisiae), and bacteria (E. coli.) They are science's heavy hitters... in the lab. But most scientists know almost nothing about how these species behave in the wild, outside of the context of humans. ELife's new series on the natural history of model species aims to change that. So far, they have published on the natural history of zebra fish, E. coli, and nematodes, with more to follow.
In 1928, a farmer digging in his garden found a flower blooming underground. Three years ago, scientists discovered that it's so well adapted to living underground that it has lost almost all of its chloroplast genes. While this species is unusual for an orchid in the extent of its parasitism, it turns out that all orchids are actually parasites--stealing nitrogen from tiny fungi in the soil without trading any carbon back as plants usually do. See photos of the underground orchid here.
If other horses are the equivalent of feral dogs, then the Przewalski’s horse is a wolf. In its native Mongolia, where it goes by the name takhi, it is known as the father of horses. Mongolians regard the takhi as spiritual, holy animals, and for millennia they largely left them alone... The trouble all began in the late 19th century, when the Western world finally took note of the takhi. Nikolai Przewalski, a Polish-born explorer serving as a colonel in the Russian army, “discovered” the horses during an 1878 expedition to the Mongolian-Chinese frontier. Naturally, Przewalski named the horse after himself, and when he returned to the West, word quickly spread among zoos, adventurers, and curio collectors about the mysterious wild horses.
A few years ago, it occurred to a few scientists that neither mice or rats are capable of vomiting. What about other rodents? It turns out that being unable to vomit is a trait common to all rodents, not just mice and rats. Interests piqued, the researchers set out to find out why.
That's right - it's time for Mammal March Madness! "Battle outcome is a function of the two species' attributes within the battle environment. Attributes considered in calculating battle outcome include temperament, weaponry, armor, body mass, fight style, and other fun facts that are relevant to the outcome. These are one on one- head to head combat situations- um except for the mythical mammals that have multiple heads. Some random error has been introduced into calculating battle outcome & the amount of that error is scaled to the disparity in rankings between combatants. Early rounds, the battle occurs in the better-ranked species' habitat (home court advantage). BUT once we get to the ELITE EIGHT, battle location will be random: forest, semi-arid desert, intertidal zone, or snowy tundra." Action kicks off on March 9 with the wildcard match up between the pygmy jerboa and the bumblebee bat (Kitti's Hognosed Bat). You can follow the action on twitter using the hashtag #2015MMM or on the blog Mammals Suck. In the meantime, start filling out your brackets - common names or binomial nomenclature.
Troubles in Paradise is a review of the history and arguments of the creationism/intelligent design movement, written by James Downard.
African Animals Getting Drunk From Ripe Marula Fruit | Why animals eat psychoactive plants | How catnip gets cats high | Stoned wallabies make crop circles | Dolphins 'chew puffer fish to get high | Fly Agaric: The Psychedelic Secret of Christmas | Jaguar trips on DMT and Reindeer eat Amanita mushrooms | Animals getting high: 10 common drunks | 7 Species That Get High More Than We Do | Tree-shrew is heavyweight boozer | Animals Like to Get Drunk | Lemur gets high | Alcoholic Vervet Monkeys. [more inside]