Category Archives: Science

Animal’s Daily Freeze-Dried Mammoth News

Thanks as always to our blogger pal Doug Hagin over at The Daley Gator for the linkback!  If you aren’t reading his blog daily, you should be.

Now:  Clever those Japanese, now they are one step closer to cloning a mammoth! I’ve written on this subject before, but this is a new step forward, and a neat one.  Good news, I want to go mammoth hunting one day.  Excerpt:

New findings indicate that the resurrection of mammoths is not a fantasy, a research team including members from Kindai University is saying, after cell nuclei extracted from the 28,000-year-old remains of a woolly mammoth were discovered to retain some function.

When placed in the ova of mice, the nuclei developed to a state just before cellular division, according to a paper published Monday in the British journal Scientific Reports.

The team includes researchers from Japanese and Russian universities. It has been working for about 20 years on a project to use cloning to resurrect mammoths, an animal that has long been extinct.

The cell nuclei used in the team’s recent findings were extracted from musculature and other tissue from Yuka, an about 3.5-meter-long female woolly mammoth excavated nearly intact in 2010 from permafrost in Siberia. When inserted into mouse ova, five out of 43 nuclei were observed to develop to a point just before the nuclei would split in two as a result of cell division.

Now, this is still the longest of long shots, to be sure.  But I’m excited at the prospect.  And no, I don’t think this falls into the “just because we could, doesn’t mean we should” category.  This isn’t a T-rex or a genetically engineered monster; it’s a mammoth, something that went extinct within the last few thousand years, something that co-existed with our species, something our ancestors occasionally laid their jaws on.

And jokes about mammoth hunting aside, it’s not like these critters will be turned out to fend for themselves in Alaska or Siberia.  The recreated mammoths would be the most valuable,  pampered, coddled, protected and cared for animals in the history of livestock.

But mammoths.  Imagine that.

Animal’s Daily Brain Chip News

Thanks as always to The Other McCain for the Rule Five links! Also, go over to Glibertarians to read the first in my History of Lever Guns series.

Moving right along:  One of these days you might be able to get a brain chip to make you super-intelligent.  I’d settle for just making most folks a little less stupid.  Excerpt:

In as little as five years, super smart people could be walking down the street; men and women who’ve paid to increase their intelligence.

Northwestern University neuroscientist and business professor Dr. Moran Cerf made that prediction, because he’s working on a smart chip for the brain.

“Make it so that it has an internet connection, and goes to Wikipedia, and when I think this particular thought, it gives me the answer,” he said.

Cerf is collaborating with Silicon Valley big wigs he’d rather not name.

Facebook also has been working on building a brain-computer interface, and SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is backing a brain-computer interface called Neuralink.

“Everyone is spending a lot of time right now trying to find ways to get things into the brain without drilling a hole in your skull,” Cerf said. “Can you eat something that will actually get to your brain? Can you eat things in parts that will assemble inside your head?”

It sounds mind-blowing. Relationships might be on the line.

“This is no longer a science problem. This is a social problem,” Cerf said.

The article goes on to bemoan the possibility of an intelligence gap, compounding the problems we apparently already have with “racial, gender and financial inequalities.”

You know, just once, it would be nice to see an article about a technological advance without a lot of Social Justice Warrior fainting-couch horseshit thrown in.

Anyway…  I can see how this would be a good thing, but I can see how it could go sideways, too.  Pearl-clutching by Dr. Cerf aside, I’m not so sure sticking a chip in your brain is that hot an idea.  From what I understand our understanding of how the brain produces consciousness is roughly at the same stage as when astronomers thought the moon was a light shining through a hole in the roof.

It would be interesting to have an IQ of six thousand.  But I’m not so sure the risks are worth it.  I think this falls into the “if it ain’t broke” category.

Of course, we could always bechip Congress.  There’s too many folks there who, if they were half as smart as they think they are, would be twice as smart as they really are.

Rule Five Fake Doctors Friday

There are, unfortunately, many more kinds of pseudo-scientific health care woo floating around out there than just Gwyneth Paltrow’s specific form of bullshit.  Charlatans come in all shapes and sizes; here are some good tips on how to spot these assholes.  Excerpt:

The latest in a sadly recurrent theme of people posing as doctors when they have no such background or training is that of a Florida man who donned a white coat in advertisements that proclaimed he could cure diseases. He declared he could “treat hernias, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, arthrosis, renal failure, vision problems, and a host of other health issues.” After the reality was uncovered by investigators that he never held a medical license in the state and he was subsequently arrested, he maintained “he did not believe he needed a license to practice medicine. He said he was a lab technician in Cuba and got his certificate for Iridology, herbology, and nutrition when he moved to Florida.

Here’s what this asshole did:

In this particular scenario, the accused did the following:

“arranged to meet a patient at a home…and, when the patient arrived, he was asked to fill out papers and pay $160…then checked the patient’s blood pressure and then put a band around his head and asked him to hold a metal rod connected to a machine on a table that began making beeping noises once it was turned on. Deputies say he told the patient he was testing his heart, brain, intestinal system, bones, nerves, and “everything else.” After the “test” was complete… told the patient he had diabetes, osteoporosis, and that he was not getting enough oxygen to his brain, among other ailments. He said that for only $2,000, he could cure the patient’s diabetes by using a treatment that would include injecting the patient with “his own blood.”…told them [deputies] he draws the patient’s blood, then injects the same blood he just withdrew because he says it “combats” the blood cells and boosts the immune system…Deputies say he also told the patient he cured the homeowner of his diabetes and called him on the phone to get his testimony.”

Now, as I’ve said many times in these virtual pages, there comes a point where fools and their money deserve to be parted; but I don’t think this is necessarily it.  I will say that the way to combat this sort of horseshit is not regulation but education; promoting articles like the one linked here far and wide, to reduce the number of the ill-informed for people like this Cuban lab tech to prey on.

Which is, of course, one of the reasons I linked it here.

It’s a little baffling that anyone would go to a health care provider and not at least glance at the diplomas on the wall.  Granted, I suppose it’s possible to fake those certificates.  But falling for a line of woo from some asshole whose claim to competency is flat-out stating that he was a “laboratory tech in Cuba”?  That’s a whole ‘nother level of stupid.

I’m fortunate in having had the same primary physician for almost thirty years now.  He knows me, I know him, he knows how much he can pester me about my cigar smoking or my weight, I know when it’s time for me to shut up and listen to him.  We’ve known each other a long time and understand each other.

I understand that few people nowadays have that kind of long-term relationship with a physician, and that’s too bad.  But it’s also too bad that anybody falls for snake-oil salesmen – whether they be lab techs from Cuba of air-headed actresses from Hollywood.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Reindeer cyclones are a real thing.  Who knew?  Excerpt:

Vikings hunting reindeer in Norway were once confounded by “reindeer cyclones”; a threatened herd would literally run circles around the fierce hunters, making it nearly impossible to target a single animal.

Filmmakers recently captured incredible aerial footage of one of these reindeer cyclones, which aired Feb. 13 on PBS in the documentary “Wild Way of the Vikings,” a program about Vikings and the wilderness they inhabited around A.D. 1000. [Photos: Ancient Arrows from Reindeer Hunters Found in Norway]

One of the documentary’s most striking scenes shows a re-enactment of a Viking hunt interspersed with real footage of reindeer herds. Reindeer were important to the Vikings for their meat, hides, antlers and bones, according to the film.

In the cyclone scene, a lone hunter (an actor playing a Viking) approaches the herd; he notches and releases an arrow. The footage that follows shows an actual herd of reindeer running in circles. As the swirling mass of bodies thunders along a circular path, an overhead camera reveals that the herd’s momentum follows a spiral shape, drawing tightly toward the cyclone’s “eye” at the center.

Faced with this spinning reindeer stampede, any predator — wolf, bear or human — would have a very tough time targeting and overpowering a single reindeer, making this a formidable defense strategy, according to a statement from PBS.

Here’s the image of just such a reindeer cyclone:

That’s actually a pretty great defense against wolves, bears or men armed with primitive weapons.  It’s not bad against a modern, ethical hunter either, as it makes singling out an animal for a clear kill impossible.

Against a hunter or two armed with firearms, hunters who (unethicall) don’t give a shit about how many animals they injure in the process and who are willing to fire indiscriminately into the mass, not so much.

But what I find fascinating about this whole thing is the resemblance to a school of fish, using a very similar, albeit 3-D, schooling tactic to prevent a predator from picking out a single fish.

Nature doesn’t always repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.  This is a really neat example.

Rule Five Hot Stuff Friday

Most folks who live in the West know about Yellowstone, and how the entire park sits in what is essentially a titanic volcanic caldera.  Most folks who live in the West and pay any attention at all know that if the Yellowstone megavolcano blows, it’s bye-bye North America.  So here’s an interesting piece on how geologists are monitoring this big volcano and the lake of red-hot magma that fuels it.  Excerpt:

The Yellowstone volcano has erupted three times in history – 2.1 million years ago, 1.2 million years ago and 640,000 years ago. Scientists have previously revealed that, should an earthquake occur, it could take less than two weeks before a catastrophic reaction event with the potential to wipe out three-quarters of the US is triggered. Now, it is the job of geologists to “intensely monitor” a large area of molten rock directly below the surface of the supervolcano, it was revealed in a documentary.

Volcanoes typically erupt when molten rock, known as magma, rises to the surface following the Earth’s mantle melting due to tectonic plates shifting. 

This act creates a series of small earthquakes, fracturing the rock above it days or even weeks before the main eruption. 

Robert Smith, from the University of Utah, is in charge of the seismometers around Yellowstone National Park.

This technology is designed to detect any change in activity, and give anyone in the immediate area some valuable time to evacuate.

Here’s the likely result of a major eruption:

Should the same (eruption) happen again, the ground around Yellowstone National Park would rise upwards forming a swarm of earthquakes.

Then, following the eruption, enormous pyroclastic flows would blast their way across the park. 

This mixture of ash, lava and superheated gas exceed temperatures of 1,000C and can move at speeds of up to 300mph. 

They are predicted to spread more than 100 miles out from Yellowstone, burying states like Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Colorado in three feet of life-extinguishing volcanic ash.

They mention evacuation, but it’s hard to say where folks around Yellowstone – or pretty much anywhere in the Mountain West – should evacuate to, as a major eruption would pretty much wipe out much of North America.  Further, the results of billions of tons of sulfuric acid and volcanic ash in the atmosphere would screw up the weather for quite a few years, likely making crop growing difficult if not impossible.

So, yeah, I’m in favor of keeping an eye on it, even though there wouldn’t be much we could do about it if it happened.  Personally I’d like to have a little notice.

I’ve had folks ask me if the idea worries me.  It doesn’t.  I reserve my worries for things I can change.  But if my world is about to end, I wouldn’t mind a little warning.

Animal’s Daily Snake Eyes News

Timber Rattlesnake.

Way back when, snakes may well have helped primates develop our visual acuity.  Excerpt:

In 2006, I published a new idea that could answer that question and more: the ‘snake detection theory’. I hypothesised that when large-gaped constricting snakes appeared about 100 million years ago and began eating mammals, their predatory behaviour favoured the evolution of changes in the vision of one kind of prey, the lineage that was to become primates. In other words, the ability to see immobile predatory snakes before getting too close became a highly beneficial trait for them to have and pass on to their descendants. Then, about 60 million years ago, venomous snakes appeared in Africa or Asia, adding more pressure on primates to detect and avoid them. This has also had repercussions on their visual systems.

There is a consistency between the degree of complexity in primate visual systems and the length of evolutionary time that primates have spent with venomous snakes. At one extreme, the lineage that comprises Old World monkeys, apes and humans has the best vision of all primates, including excellent visual acuity and fully trichromatic colour vision. Having evolved roughly at the same time and in the same place as venomous snakes, these primates have had continuous coexistence with them. They are also uniformly wary of snakes.

And:

What is it about snakes that makes them so attention-grabbing to us? Naturally, we use all the cues available (such as body shape and leglessness) but it’s their scales that should be the most reliable, because a little patch of snake might be all we have to go on. Indeed, wild vervet monkeys in Africa, for instance, are able with their superb visual acuity to detect just an inch of snake skin within a minute of coming near it. In people, electrophysiological responses in the primary visual area reveal greater early visual attention to snake scales compared with lizard skins and bird feathers. Again, the primary visual area is highly sensitive to edges and lines of different orientations, and snake skins with their spades offer these visual cues in spades.

The product of snakes.

Speaking as a guy who grew up in rattlesnake country, yeah, we do tend to notice snakes, especially the ones with sharp bits that inject poison – and a big timber rattler can kill you if it strikes too close to your chest or head.

Primates do have an unusual visual acuity as mammals go.  They can see more color, our daytime vision is much better than most mammals who sacrifice some color vision for improved nighttime vision.  But then, lots of mammals are nocturnal or crepuscular.

Primate color vision, by the way, is also really useful for determining which fruits are ripe and therefore good to eat.

Now, if only they could find a way to reverse-engineer my farsightedness.

Rule Five Living Dead Friday

Thanks to all for the kind words and messages after yesterday’s post about my mother.  Your thoughts and kindnesses mean more than I can say.

But life goes on, and as my parents were both history buffs, they would have found this interesting.  Alexander of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, having conquered much of the known world, was renowned as one of the greatest generals of the classical world – until he died at age 32.  Legend has it that his body lay uncorrupted by decomposition for six days, which was cited as proof of his status as a divine figure.

Now one researcher has a more plausible theory; Alexander may not have decomposed for six days because he wasn’t dead.

Ouch.  Excerpt:

The death of Alexander the Great – general, king, conqueror – has been a mystery for over 2,000 years. Was he poisoned? Too much booze? Or actually malaria or typhoid, both rampant in ancient Babylon at the time?  

Now, a new theory has been put forward that is somehow even worse than all of those. Legend has it Alexander’s body didn’t show any signs of decomposing for six days after his death, a sign the ancient Greeks took that their warrior hero was a god. A new explanation is that he suffered from a rare autoimmune disorder that rendered him paralyzed and unable to communicate, although still compos mentis, right up until his death six days later than thought.

Dr Katherine Hall of the Dunedin School of Medicine at the University of Otago, New Zealand, argues in The Ancient History Bulletin that Alexander may have suffered from Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a rapid weakening of the muscles caused by the immune system damaging the nervous system, and that may explain the conflicting evidence of how and when he died.

“His death may be the most famous case of pseudothanatos, or false diagnosis of death, ever recorded,” she said.

Here’s the onion:

“I have worked for five years in critical care medicine and have seen probably about 10 cases [of GBS]. The combination of ascending paralysis with normal mental ability is very rare and I have only seen it with GBS,” Hall told Fox News.

“His sight would have been blurred and if his blood pressure was too low he would have been in a coma. But there is a chance he was aware of his surroundings and could at least hear. So he would have heard his generals arguing over the succession, hear the arrival of the Egyptian embalmers, hear that they were about to start their work.”

Now, just for a moment, put yourself in Alexander’s sandals here.

You’re paralyzed, likely unable to see, unable to speak, but you can hear, and you will certain still feel pain – including the pain of those wacky Egyptian embalmers when they start cutting you open to remove your organs.

One suspects this sort of thing happened more often than we might imagine, given our modern medical sciences.  The legend of vampires, after all, may well have begun by burying a comatose patient, who recovered underground, in the coffin; some time later, for whatever reason, the coffin was disinterred and opened, only to reveal the desperate scratch marks on the lid made by the “undead” person trying to get out.

Honestly – one wonders if having history venerate you as a demigod would really be worth all that.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Once in a while, a celebrity (in this case the impossibly gorgeous Anne Hathaway) nails it.  Excerpt:

During an interview with Ellen Degeneres that aired last week, the 36-year-old Oscar winner dished on her love for “The Wonder Years” star Fred Savage as well as the interests of her three-year-old son before asking Ellen and the members of the audience to join her in peeling some clementines. As everyone proceeded to tear the orange flesh from their respective citrus fruit, Hathaway shared a cutesy story:

“So over the holidays, we took a family road trip up the coast of California. And we found this amazing former hippie enclave from the ’60s. And there was a little secondhand bookstore in there… and I found a book in there by this guy who used to be really big – Dr. Q. And he wrote a book called Citrus Healing. And it was all the ways that you can incorporate citrus into your life to kind of like raise your health. And one of the things was how to incorporate citrus into your meditation practice. And it was called Clementime. It was cute.”

The collective eye rolls, face palms, and sighs of a skeptical audience might have halted Hathaway from continuing at this point, but this was not a skeptical audience, and so she pressed on unabated.

Hathaway then asked Ellen and the crowd members to hold their clementines to their mouths and inhale in and exhale out through the hole with comically accentuated breaths.

“Do you guys feel a little bit better? Do you feel good?” she asked, to many smiles, some confused looks, and a few nods of agreement.

“That’s impossible, I made the whole thing up!”

“The takeaway of this is do not put something in your mouth just because a celebrity tells you to,” she concluded.

Gwyneth, are you listening?

From what I’ve read of Ms. Hathaway’s political opinions, I suspect I wouldn’t find much common ground with her.  In fact, from what I read, her stunning looks notwithstanding, I doubt I’d be interested in hanging out with her.

But this time she’s spot-on.  People shouldn’t put things in their mouths because some vapid, airheaded celebrity says they should.  And women really, really should not carry a jade egg around in their cooze because some really, really vapid, airheaded celebrity says it’s a good idea.

Gwyneth, are you listening?

It’s far too uncommon to hear celebrities espousing anything resembling common sense these days.  There seems to be no end to the woo that comes out of Hollywood, from anti-vaccine nutbars to vegan nitwittery.  It’s nice to see that at least one actress, in this one instance, appears to have her head screwed on straight.

(Gwyneth, are you listening?)

Rule Five DinoBirds Friday

Once in a while I hear someone make a comment about something being as “extinct as dinosaurs,” which enables me to reply “dinosaurs aren’t extinct at all.  In fact there are more species of dinosaur alive today than there are mammals.  We call them birds.”

Birds have been known for some time to be a branch of the theropod dinosaurs, but the exact mechanisms that brought about the modern form of the bird has been and continues to be widely discussed, but here is an interesting theory that posits that neoteny may have played a part.  Excerpt:

For decades, paleontologists’ only fossil link between birds and dinosaurs was archaeopteryx, a hybrid creature with feathered wings but with the teeth and long bony tail of a dinosaur. These animals appeared to have acquired their birdlike features — feathers, wings and flight — in just 10 million years, a mere flash in evolutionary time. “Archaeopteryx seemed to emerge fully fledged with the characteristics of modern birds,” said Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in England.

To explain this miraculous metamorphosis, scientists evoked a theory often referred to as “hopeful monsters.” According to this idea, major evolutionary leaps require large-scale genetic changes that are qualitatively different from the routine modifications within a species. Only such substantial alterations on a short timescale, the story went, could account for the sudden transformation from a 300-pound theropod to the sparrow-size prehistoric bird Iberomesornis.

But it has become increasingly clear that the story of how dinosaurs begat birds is much more subtle. Discoveries have shown that bird-specific features like feathers began to emerge long before the evolution of birds, indicating that birds simply adapted a number of pre-existing features to a new use. And recent research suggests that a few simple change—among them the adoption of a more babylike skull shape into adulthood—likely played essential roles in the final push to bird-hood. Not only are birds much smaller than their dinosaur ancestors, they closely resemble dinosaur embryos.

Here’s the key bit:

“The first birds were almost identical to the late embryo from velociraptors,” Abzhanov said. “Modern birds became even more babylike and change even less from their embryonic form.” In short, birds resemble tiny, infantile dinosaurs that can reproduce.

This process, known as paedomorphosis, is an efficient evolutionary route. “Rather than coming up with something new, it takes something you already have and extends it,” said Nipam Patel, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We’re seeing more and more that evolution operates much more elegantly than we previously appreciated,” said Bhullar, who will start his own lab at Yale University in the fall. “The umpteen changes that go into the bird skull may all owe to paedomorphosis, to one set of molecular changes in the early embryo.”

Why is this interesting?  Because it mirrors something that happened to humans.  Look at the face and cranial structure of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, and you’ll see an extended muzzle, a flattened skull, and ears set back on the head.  But look at an infant chimp and you’ll see something much more humanlike:  A flattened face, a more rounded skull.

What Dr. Abzhanov calls “Paedomorphosis” is also known as neoteny, or the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood.  Our species, Homo sapiens, exhibit a tendency to neoteny compared to our recent cousins and ancestors.  And when you examine juvenile dinosaur fossils as well as the developing skulls of young crocodilians, which are the closest living relatives of birds, you see the same sort of retention of juvenile traits.

It’s interesting how biology keeps demonstrating the same tricks over and over again.

Rule Five Hoofed Rats Friday

RealClearScience scribe Ross Pomeroy informs us that whitetailed deer are a menace and we should kill more of them.  I know plenty of wildlife biologists, farmers and rural residents agree.  Excerpt:

In 2017, the total deer population in the United States was an estimated 33.5 million, down from 38.1 million in 2000. Hunters should rejoice over their excellent shooting, and then get outside and kill millions more.

This macabre call to arms might unsettle anyone whose heart ached at viewing the plight of poor Bambi, but it’s a prescription that’s sorely needed, for at their current population, deer are ravaging ecosystems across the country.

This wasn’t the case at the turn of the nineteenth century. Then, after decades of wanton hunting, there may have been as few as 300,000 deer left roaming the wilds of America. Hunting moratoriums, favorable human-caused ecosystem changes (i.e. more farm land), declining wolf and cougar populations (the major natural predators of deer), two world wars (leaving fewer hunters at home), and yes, the influential film Bambi, all combined to send deer populations skyrocketing during much of the 20th century. The recovery was wonderful for deer, but terrible for other organisms.

Deer devoured countless wildflowers close to extinction and devastated saplings of cedar, hemlock, and oak. All of this eating, amounting to more than 2,000 pounds of plant matter per deer per year, might account for widespread declines of North American songbird populations, which rely on many of the plants upon which deer gorged themselves.

Observing the detrimental changes wrought by grazing deer, legendary ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote, “I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn.”

“I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.”

It’s important to note that Aldo Leopold, an old-fashioned naturalist as opposed to how the term ‘ecologist’ is tossed around willy-nilly today, was himself a hunter and advocated the use of scientifically managed hunting as a vital tool in wildlife management.  In fact, Leopold is generally regarded as the father of modern wildlife management.

I remember when I was a little kid in Iowa in the late Sixties and early Seventies, seeing a deer was kind of a big deal.  It was exciting – “hey, I saw a deer the other day!”  By the time I left for good in the mid Eighties, they were a damned nuisance.

The various states need to open up deer hunting.  Some Eastern states are starting to; in some places you can shoot one doe a day.  And does are what we need to kill.  They’re the ones that breed.  And they’re great eating.

A population that outgrows the land’s carrying capacity is headed for a bad end, by starvation or pandemic.  We’re already seeing the spread of chronic wasting disease in cervids all over North America.  Bringing to population down some would help prevent what might be a catastrophic end to our deer herds.

The bad thing is, numbers of hunters are dropping in the US.  Take a kid hunting!  It’s good for the kid and good for the environment.

Deep thoughts, news of the day, totty and the Manly Arts.