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.”

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dexterous tortoise

Biologist Anna Wilkinson of England's University of Lincoln has successfully conducted experiments in which tortoises use touchscreens. Her research is intended to shed light on the evolution and cognition of the reptilian brain. While mammals use the hippocampus for spatial navigation, it is assumed that reptiles use the analogous medial cortex. Red-footed tortoises native to Central and South America were rewarded with treats such as strawberries when they looked at, approached, and then pecked blue circles on the screen. Two of the tortoises, Esme and Quinn, successfully applied their knowledge to a real-life situation by heading toward blue food bowls on the same side as the circles they had learned to peck on-screen. Wilkinson suggests that the technology can be applied to other species: "The big problem is how to ask all animals a question that they are equally capable of answering. The touchscreen is a brilliant solution as all animals can interact with it, whether it is with a paw, nose or beak. This allows us to compare the different cognitive capabilities."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tiny Giants

It may be a good thing that by tradition the Chinese do not name giant pandas until 100 days after their birth. Panda mothers have been known to accidentally crush their tiny babies or to sacrifice one of a pair of twins so that they can focus on raising the other. Newborns are also subject to pneumonia, lack of oxygen, and infection. So far, the triplets born in July at Guangzhou’s Chimelong Safari Park (IMAGE ABOVE, SLIDESHOW HERE) have survived longer than many other cubs of rare multiple births. So far, then, we can enjoy their questionably adorable appearance and hope for the best. As journalist Gail Sullivan writes in the Washington Post, "The little cubs are cute — in a naked mole rat sort of way."

Friday, August 15, 2014

Egyptian embalmers

Researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie, and Oxford have just overturned the accepted timeline of ancient Egyptian embalming. More than 10 years ago, Macquarie Egyptologist Jana Jones (IMAGE ABOVE) noticed embalming resins in the cloths found with bodies buried as early as 4100 B.C.E. in small cemeteries in a region of central Egypt known as Mostagedda. The team collected and analyzed about 150 samples of this linen and confirmed that they contained a base of fat or oil mixed with resin from pine trees, aromatic plant extracts, plant gum or sugar, and a natural petroleum – ingredients known to have both adhesive and antibacterial properties. Their research indicates that the early Egyptians understood the science that would later become the basis of true mummification 1,500 years before it is generally believed to have begun in the Old Kingdom. Jones exclaims, "The most surprising and probably most sensational finding was that there was no fundamental change in the recipe of the embalming mixtures used when pharaonic mummification was at its peak, some 2,500 to 3,000 years later!"


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lord of Patients

In the church of San Bartolo Cuautlalpan in Zumpango, Mexico, stands a somewhat frightening, life-size, 300-year-old sculpture known as the "Lord of Patience." Until now, the lifelike statue of Christ has only left the church once a year to tour the town on Easter, but has now been removed to the National Institute of Anthropology and History to be restored. During that process, researchers have discovered that it has real human teeth (X-RAY HERE, VIDEO HERE). Because they had not been set apart in a separate shrine, it is highly unlikely that they are the relics of a saint. Instead it is assumed that the teeth were offered by a member of the church, since Mexican parishioners were known to have volunteered their hair and clothing for the creation of realistic statuary. Fanny Unikel, director of the School of Restoration, Conservation and Museology, points out, "It is common that the sculptures have teeth, but they are usually made ​​of wood or bone carved individually or as a plate, but this case has eight teeth of an adult, you can even see to the root. The teeth were probably donated as a token of gratitude. It's the first time human teeth have been found in a sculpture."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Double dolphin

The body of a conjoined twin dolphin (IMAGE ABOVE) washed ashore in Izmir on the west coast of Turkey on Monday. Now in the hands of marine biologist Mehmet Gokoglu of Ak Deniz University, the rare anomalous creature measured 3.2' (1 m) in length and was believed to be about 12 months old. The eyes and blowhole in one of the heads had not opened. Gym teacher Tugrul Metin had come across the dolphin while walking on the shore and describes, "I noticed the dolphin in the sea and watched as it washed on to the beach. I couldn't take it in at first - I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me - I've never even heard about a dolphin like this let alone seen one with my own eyes - I was completely shocked."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Rotating ribs

Back in the 1950s, stilyagi (hipsters) in the Soviet Union went to great lengths to bootleg jazz and rock 'n' roll music. It was before the advent of the tape recorder and vinyl was scarce, so they salvaged radiographs from hospital waste bins to press records. They would use manicure scissors to cut the x-ray into crude circles of 23-25 cm in diameter and use a cigarette to burn a hole in the middle of each. Russian musicologist Artemy Troitsky explains that a special machine – for instance a modified phonograph – was needed to cut grooves in the disks. The quality of the so-called bone music was awful, but the black-market price was low. Says author Anya von Bremzen, “You’d have Elvis on the lungs, Duke Ellington on Aunt Masha’s brain scan — forbidden Western music captured on the interiors of Soviet citizens.”

Monday, August 11, 2014


When I sent my Mom the link to THIS VIDEO, which you may have already seen on TV, she responded that there is nothing better than the laughter of a child.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ben's bones

The title of this post does not refer to the bones of American statesman Benjamin Franklin (he died and was buried in Philadelphia), but to the bones discovered buried in the basement of the London house he lived in from 1757 to 1775. As ambassador for the American colonies, he occupied an elegant 4-story Georgian house at No. 36 Craven Street. Friends of Benjamin Franklin House raised money to convert the building into a museum in 1998, by which time it had become dilapidated. A construction worker was the first to discover skeletal remains in a pit in a windowless basement room. Excavation revealed some 1,200 pieces of bone, representing the remains of 10 bodies, 6 of them children – and they would have been deposited while Franklin was in residence. Because the bones bore the marks of a saw, a scalpel, and a drill, it was deduced that these were not murder victims but subjects of anatomical study by Ben's friend William Hewson. "Researchers think that 36 Craven was an irresistible spot for Hewson to establish his own anatomy lab. The tenant was a trusted friend, the landlady was his mother-in-law, and he was flanked by convenient sources for corpses. Bodies could be smuggled from graveyards and delivered to the wharf at one end of the street, or snatched from the gallows at the other end."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Prismatic presumption

In the latest example of tourists behaving badly, a visitor to Yellowstone National Park crashed a camera-equipped drone into the world's third largest hot spring. This despite the fact that there is no lack of aerial photos of Grand Prismatic Spring and the fact that drones have been banned from U.S. national parks since June of this year. The hot spring (IMAGE ABOVE), which is 370' (113 m) in diameter and more than 121' (37 m) deep, Is brilliantly colored due to bacteria and minerals in the water. The park employee can be faulted for failure to detain the tourist and immediately report Saturday's incident to authorities when the man had the nerve to approach him and inquire about getting his drone back. Park spokesperson Al Nash referred to the pilot as "inept" and said of the drone, "We are trying to determine if we can locate it, and if we locate it, if we’ll be able to remove it. Our concern is about any potential impacts to the iconic Yellowstone thermal feature.”

Friday, August 8, 2014

Unsanctioned souvenirs

While Pompeii has many larger issues of conservation, it doesn't help that international tourists feel free to walk away with a pocket- or purseful of the ancient ruins. It was happening in 1958 when an American mother swiped a brick (IMAGE ABOVE) which her son tried to sell on eBay earlier this year. And it is still happening today, with a French sightseer nabbed trying to take pieces of red plaster and fragments from an amphora handle, and a Georgian national attempting to steal tiles from a mosaic. Italian tour guide Giuseppe Galano explains how difficult it is to guard the open-air museum, especially during the peak summer season, and notes, “I question whether they would do the same thing at home. They know Pompeii is famous and they want a piece of it. Especially on the first Sunday of each month when the entrance is free. About 14,000 people passed through the gates last Sunday; how can you control that?”

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Cherry carry

With the help of his brother Richard, Cherry Kearton (who, coincidentally enough, died on the steps of the BBC in 1940) became one of the world's first professional wildlife photographers. They began in the 1890s taking pictures of birds in their natural habitats in their home village of Thwaite, Yorkshire, U.K., with a box camera, but they took the risk of startling their quarry using the cumbersome apparatus. So they began to devise ways to disguise themselves in the field, as boulders, limestone walls, and trees. But they began with the ox blind Cherry is carrying in the image above. They obtained the hide from their butcher, had it prepared by a London taxidermist, outfitted its head with a camera, and hid inside for hours at great physical expense. Recalled Richard, "Once out of sheer agony I dropped from the bottom. Upon seeing me [the bird] sprang almost vertically in the air and, dropping among the grass, stared with outstretched neck in blank amazement."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lost museum

Felled by the arsenic used in his taxidermy, Brown University faculty member John Whipple Potter Jenks died in 1894 on the steps of the natural history museum he had founded on campus 23 years earlier. Because he did not believe in evolution, Jenks had become an anachronism to his younger colleagues and his museum soon fell into disarray. It was shuttered in 1915, and in 1945 most of the stored objects – 92 truckloads – were hauled unceremonially to the Seekonk River dump. Recently, a group of graduate students decided to resurrect and display some of the vanished objects. They received guidance from a faculty advisor and sought the help of Mark Dion, who became artist in residence during creation of the installation in the building that had housed the original museum. Because the accession logs had been destroyed in a fire, the rest of their research relied on photographs, descriptions, and the labels that had been used to describe the long-gone specimens. The resulting exhibit includes a recreation of Jenks’s office, as many of the original objects as they could find in other departments at Brown, and 88 sculptures by some 60 artists to stand in for the vanished museum objects, all of them painted white to unify them and symbolize their ghostly nature (IMAGE ABOVE). Student Lily Benedict says of the project, You have a museum that is so organized and classified, and then it decays and random pieces of it get saved by chance, There’s a surreal quality to what’s left.”

HALLOWEEN-Click for captions