Monday, September 1, 2014

Nightjar nuances

Here's a fun and easy way to participate in citizen science. The Sensory Ecology Group of the University of Exeter and the Behavioural Ecology Group at the University of Cambridge have teamed up to create an experimental video game that provides more and more data about what makes certain camouflage patterns more successful than others. In the games offered on the Project Nightjar site, the player sees the world through the eyes of the dichromatic mongoose or gernet or the trichromatic vernet monkey. The goal is to find, as quickly as possible, the computer-generated camouflaged eggs of either the Mozambique nightjar, the pennant-winged nightjar, or the fiery-necked nightjar. The more successful egg color schemes are mutated and tried again, evolving to blend better with the environment. The project is proving a success. Notes ecologist Martin Stevens of the University of Exeter, "In total across all populations we’ve tested something like 400,000 individual eggs so far."

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Creepy contraband

On an unspecified date recently, agents with with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency noticed an anomaly when they sent an incoming package from Germany through the x-ray machine at the U.S. Postal Service International Service Center at the San Francisco airport. The Styrofoam box was labeled “toy car model," but in fact contained – in addition to chunks of soil and paper – 20 enormous millipedes. The foot-long insects, which can live up to 10 years, were contained in a mesh bag and may have been destined to be pets. And although it wouldn't have been illegal to import them, they had been misrepresented and weren't accompanied by the required permits. Director of Field Operations Brian Humphrey assures, “The agriculture specialists on duty were quick to notice the deception and took the necessary action.”

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Petrie dish

British Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie had an ego, but also a conscience. Proof of that turned up earlier this year when Guy Funnell and Amanda Hawkins found an ancient Egyptian vase while clearing a Cornish garage of his father's possessions. Petrie was known to have given artifacts discovered on his digs not only to universities and museums, but to individuals. Curator Alice Stevenson of the Petrie Museum in London was able to confirm family legend regarding the origins of the pot (ABOVE, ANOTHER IMAGE HERE) because of a never-before-seen label that had been attached. The label was commercially printed – which indicates Petrie regularly included them with his gifts – and states that the Libyan pottery from 3,000 B.C. had been discovered between 1894 and 1895. Because of the faintly pencilled number 1754, Stevenson was able to find it in the original excavation records which the museum retains. She also believes she has identified the original recipient of the gift. And she notes that Petrie had misidentified it: French scholar Jacques de Morgan established that the items from the excavation were Egyptian rather than Libyan and 600 years older than his rival first believed. Stevenson states, "It was one of the few occasions when Petrie was not only wrong, but admitted it publicly, a very unusual occurrence."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bureaucratic bear claws

From this article in National Geographic, I learned of an American artifact that was lost and later rediscovered. The object in question consists of a Native American necklace with 38 bear claws, each approximately 3" long and originally covered with a red pigment which has now worn away. An Indian chief had presented it to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their epic 1804-06 expedition across what is now the western U.S. The rare necklace was first cataloged in 1889 at the Peale Museum in Philadelphia, which was at that time an unofficial national repository. When the Peale Museum closed in 1848, the Lewis and Clark objects were acquired by Moses Kimball's Boston Museum, which suffered severe damage in a fire 50 years later and was closed. The Kimball family donated 1,400 surviving objects to the Peabody Museum at Harvard, but apparently changed their minds about the necklace. The bear claw necklace was donated by a Kimball descendant in 1941, but was misplaced in the Peabody Museum and lay among artifacts from the South Pacific Islands for decades. Two collections assistants rediscovered the object in December 2003, just weeks before a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial exhibition was about to open. David Borlaug, president of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation in North Dakota, said, "This would certainly be the most astounding discovery in some time - I can't think of anything that would compare. It's wonderful to have proof that the Lewis and Clark bicentennial really is a 'voyage of rediscovery' because there are still things to be discovered 200 years later."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Modern mead

I learned yesterday, while completing a crossword puzzle with my Dad, that the ancient honey-based beverage of mead has made a comeback. An estimated 165 meaderies in which the brew is distilled and bottled operate in the U.S. alone (REVIEWS AND SLIDESHOW HERE). Danish entrepreneurs Karin Sloth and partner Thomas Bredholt began brewing mead as a hobby on their farm at Tågerup in Roskilde and now offer it commercially under their Snoremark brand. Formerly the chief press officer for the Social Democrats when they were the biggest party in Denmark, Sloth says, apparently with no hint of irony, "It’s so different, having worked as a journalist and an adviser, to actually produce something.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Restorative raised

A well-preserved and sealed stoneware seltzer bottle with a capacity of 1 liter (34 oz.) was recovered in June from a 200-year-old shipwreck in Gdańsk Bay, off the Polish coast in the Baltic Sea. The bottle (IMAGE ABOVE) is embossed with the word "Selters," the name of a supplier of high-quality carbonated water from the Taunus Mountains area in Germany and was manufactured in Ranschbach, a town located about 25 miles (40 km) away from the springs. The contents of the bottle are being tested to determine whether they were original or if the vessel had been refilled. Preliminary laboratory tests show that it contains a 14% alcohol distillate, possibly vodka or a type of gin called jenever, likely diluted, and its chemical composition corresponds to the original brand of water engraved on the bottle. While the legendary invigorating mineral water has been enjoyed for drinking and bathing for nearly 1,000 years, the bottle dates to the period of 1806-1830, which makes it comparatively young. Underwater archaeologist Tomasz Bednarz of Poland's National Maritime Museum, says, "This means it would not cause poisoning. Apparently, however, it does not smell particularly good."


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Rosamond, recorded

"I don't need subjects that are conventionally beautiful. With, say, a parrot, there's not much for me to figure out. Something that is obviously beautiful gets all the credit, and then I don't have to do much work. For example, skulls are fabulous. And bones have such a variety of shapes to suit specialized purposes. What I really like about a femur, for example, is the way it twists." ~ American photographer Rosamond Purcell, quoted in National Geographic. One of my favorite artists, she has spent her career photographing specimens behind the closed doors at museums. For instance, that is a trunkfish above from the Tradescant Collection, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, U.K. (SLIDESHOW HERE, VIDEO HERE).

Monday, August 25, 2014

Thymus time

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have grown from scratch, for the first time, a whole functional organ inside an animal. The organ was a thymus (IMAGE ABOVE), a critical part of the immune system found near the heart; the animal was a laboratory mouse; and "scratch" was genetically reprogrammed cells mixed with other support-role cells. Inside the animal, the bunch of cells developed into a functional thymus that produced the T-cells necessary for a healthy immune system. Obstacles to be overcome before this could be used as a human therapy include tissue-matching and ensuring that transplant cells do not pose a cancer risk by growing uncontrollably. Human blood vessels, windpipes and bladders have been grown, but in the lab on a scaffold seeded with a patient's own cells and then implanted. About this latest achievement, team member Clare Blackburn declares, "This is a very exciting advance and it's also very tantalizing in terms of the wider field of regenerative medicine."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tabbies in the trenches

While they didn't have as prominent a place in World War I as dogs and horses, cats served admirably in the ranks. Some half a million did their duty in the trenches and onboard ships. Proverbially difficult to herd, the cats were given the run of their area and kept it free of the mice and rats that would eat provisions, chew through ropes, and spread disease. In addition to their "official" duties – which in some cases included being gas detectors – the cats were embraced as mascots. The soldiers and sailors of America, Canada, Britain, Belgium, France, and Australia gave them nicknames like Togo, Spark Plug, Ching, Pincher, and the famous Pitouchi (IMAGES HERE).

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Piercing picture

The question of whether humans hunted the woolly mammoth to extinction is still in contention. Now Russian paleontologists Alexander Pavlov and Eugeny Mashchenko have released some unique photographs (ABOVE AND HERE) which further fuel the fire. While excavating at the Lugovskoe "mammoth graveyard" in western Siberia in 2002, they uncovered the thoracic vertebra of a mammoth wounded by a human hunter some 13,470 years ago. The evidence is a cone-shaped hole 7-10 mm wide that pierced the bone to a depth of 23.5 mm. The hole was made by a spear or javelin that was thrown with great force and lodged fragments of quartzite flakes inside. At the time of the hunt, the area – first unearthed in the 1990s – was a swampy one where mammoths and other mammals came for the salt in the blue clay. From the remaining thousands of animal bones, it is clear that many of them got mired in the muck. Paleontologist Anton Rezvy of the Khanty-Mansiysk Museum of Nature and Man, where the bone is now housed, reasons, "Some scientists use our find to prove the theory that man was the main reason for the mammoth's extinction. But it is hard to make such an assumption is this particular case, because we have to take into consideration that the mammoth remains were found in a muddy area where many of them were getting stuck. So even if the humans were hunting them here, it was more killing animals that were already stuck in the mud and had no way to escape."

Friday, August 22, 2014

Poop scoop

Yep, here I go again, bring another stinky story to light! Several years after the introduction of Kopi Luwak, coffee that has passed through the bowels of a civet, Canadian entrepreneur Blake Dinkin has – as NPR puts it – "supersized" the idea. The beans of his Black Ivory Coffee are mixed into a mash with fruit and fed to the elephants of Thailand's Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. In 3 days, they have been processed and can be retrieved (IMAGE ABOVE). The beans are then meticulously cleansed, dried, and roasted. Because of the unique process, and because it takes 33 pounds (15 kg) of beans to make one pound of coffee, Black Ivory is not easy to come by. The expensive cups may be ordered in 5-star hotels and resorts in Asia and the Middle East and the grind may be purchased in a single tiny store in Comfort, Texas, U.S., with the profits going to elephant conservation. Dinkin insists that the experience is worth it, because elephants are herbivores and utilize an internal process of fermentation to break down all the cellulose. This brings out the sugar in the bean, instills the flavor of the pulp, and removes the bitterness. He explains, "I want people to taste the bean, not just the roast The aroma is floral and chocolate; the taste is chocolate malt with a bit of cherry; there's no bitterness; and it's very soft, like tea. So it's kind of like a cross between coffee and tea."

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Homunculus hands

"I do not go to school because the teacher says other kids are scared of my hands. Many of them used to bully me for my deformity," says 8-year-old Kaleem, whose hands weigh 17.6 pounds (8 kg) each and measure 13" (33 cm) from the base of his palm to the end of his middle finger. His local doctor in India is unable to diagnose the condition that began at birth without genetic testing. Pediatrician Krishan Chugh of the state-of-the-art Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurgaon, near Delhi, has reviewed both photographs and video.and thinks the boy may be suffering from either lymphangioma or hamartoma. Both conditions are treatable, if the family can raise the funds (SLIDESHOW AND VIDEO HERE).

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Meerkat scat

The keepers at New Zealand's Hamilton Zoo became concerned when the droppings of the meerkats looked particularly vibrant (IMAGE ABOVE). Turns out that a young schoolchild inadvertently dropped some rubber loom bands over the railing of their enclosure. Because meerkats are omnivorous – eating plants, insects, and small animals – they gobbled them up. Zoo curator Sam Kudeweh explains, "Meerkats are relentlessly inquisitive and anything novel has to be investigated. If one of the bands was broken, it would have looked all wiggly and meerkats will consume anything. Typically the adults will find food and the babies will nick it off them."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

His Majesty's meals

Discovery of the remains of Britain’s last Plantagenet king, Richard III, in 2012 has allowed the commission of a facial reconstruction (ABOVE) from his skull. It has also provided the British Geological Society with evidence to reconstruct the medieval monarch's diet over time. The chemicals in the teeth allow insight into his early childhood and confirmed his move from Fotheringay Castle in eastern England by the age of 7. The rate at which the femur renews itself represents an average of the 15 years before death and shows that Richard moved back to eastern England as an adolescent or young adult, and had a diet that matched the highest aristocracy. From the ribs, which renew themselves in 2 to 5 years, they determined that once he ascended the throne in 1483 the king began to drink more wine and enjoyed lavish foods including swan, crane, and heron. Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services remarks,This cutting edge research has provided a unique opportunity to shed new light on the diet and environment of a major historical figure – Richard III. It is very rare indeed in archaeology to be able to identify a named individual with precise dates and a documented life."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Audio from video

In another mind-blowing achievement, scientists have done the seemingly impossible. Researchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have succeeded in extracting sound from silent films. By using an algorithm to reconstruct audio signals by analyzing the minute vibrations of objects depicted in video, they were able to recover intelligible speech! This is almost beyond my comprehension, so I am just relaying the news. WATCH THE VIDEO HERE AND THEN READ ON. Electrical engineer and computer scientist Alexei Efros of the University of California at Berkeley comments, "This is new and refreshing. It’s the kind of stuff that no other group would do right now. We’re scientists, and sometimes we watch these movies, like James Bond, and we think, ‘This is Hollywood theatrics. It’s not possible to do that. This is ridiculous.’ And suddenly, there you have it. This is totally out of some Hollywood thriller. You know that the killer has admitted his guilt because there’s surveillance footage of his potato chip bag vibrating.”

HALLOWEEN-Click for captions