Category Archives: Nerdy News

And we’re back!

Thank goodness I have students to pull me out of my blogging rut. Here are a couple exciting news stories that caught the eye of some of my Bio 94 students recently! Off to Big Sur this weekend and will return with lots of pictures!

Bulking up for the Winter – Courtesy of Climate Change

by Bio 94 Student Christina Cooley

Bigger birds in California (Photo credit:© Celso Diniz / Fotolia)

            As winter begins, the temperatures begin to drop, the frosty air becomes clearly visible when you speak, and snowflakes start to appear. With the coldest season in session, many people begin to dress in multiple layers with two jackets, jeans, mittens, scarves, hats, and even earmuffs! Each individual packs on as many layers of clothing as they can manage to keep themselves warm, therefore, making them appear larger and bigger with all of the extra clothing. Not only are humans appearing larger during this time, but so are birds!

Rae Goodman and Professor of Biology, Gretchen LeBuhn, discovered that birds’ wings have grown longer and birds, themselves, have increased in mass over the last 27 to 40 years in central California. Their discovery can be explained through an ecological rule, known as Bergmann’s Rule, which states that animals tends to be larger at higher latitudes because larger animals conserve body heat better than smaller animals, which allows them to thrive in a colder climate of higher latitudes. In addition, climate change can affect body size in various ways, such as, birds may get bigger as they store more fat to survive through the severe weather events, which are common under global climate change. Also, climate change can alter a plant’s growth, which leads to changes in a bird’s diet, thus, affecting its size.

Goodman and LeBuhn’s data came from two long-term “banding stations” in central California, where a variety of birds were captured, banded with an identification tag, weighed, and measured before being released. Their data consisted of 14,735 birds collected from 1971 to 2010 near the Point Reyes National Seashore and 18,052 birds collected between 1983 and 2009 near the San Francisco Bay area.

Goodman, who graduated from San Francisco State in 2010, stated, “At the time I started my research, a few studies had looked at body size changes in a few species in Europe and the Middle East, but no one had examined bird body size changes in North America.” Furthermore, her discovery allowed her and her colleague to “find an unexpected result-a gem in research science.” Both of them were completely stunned and surprised at their findings. Moreover, they concluded that birds “may be responding to climate-related changes in plant growth or increased climate variability in central California.”

Overall, this discovery has given other researchers a new perspective on the effects of climate change across a wide range of species, particularly in important traits like body size, where it is not expected to see many changes. Read more at Science Daily.

A Very New Very Old Discovery – Stromatolite Colony Found

By IVC Bio 94 Student Naveen Hothi

Stomatolites have recently been found in Ireland. These structures are formed by the buildup of tiny algae or bacteria. They are the oldest known fossils, dating back more than 3 billion years. The colony of stromatolites found in Northern Ireland was found by accident and a surprise to all. Usually they have only been found in environments vastly different from the one located off of Ireland. These environments include ones such that predators are kept to a minimum. Environmental characteristics such as hyper saline waters that hinder the presence of these predators are most common living grounds for stromatolites. Now here is where this new discovery becomes interesting because The Giant’s Causeway environment does not have these characteristics……

Giant’s Causewy (Photo: BBC News)

The Giant’s Causeway is located on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. It is a protected area created by volcanic eruptions from ancient times. This area of Ireland, probably its most visited and popular tourist attraction, has environmental characteristics that differ greatly from those normally inhabited by stromatolites. This is seen with its lack of warm and non-hyper saline waters. This environmental difference invites predators who are now not threatened by harsh living conditions to reside there. These two points, unusual living environment and greater exposure to predators, are the reason why the discovery of stromatolites in The Giant’s Causeway is surprising.

Professor Andrew Cooper, a scientist from the University of Ulster’s School of Environmental Sciences, made this discovery. Luckily, Cooper had seen the structures before when he did work in South Africa and was able to identify the importance of finding them off of Ireland’s cold waters. The found colony was recently formed as detailed by the fact that it’s just one layer thick. One proposed reason for why not many stromatolites have been found is because perhaps scientists do not actually know what they are looking for. Most research on stromatolites have been done on the ancient stromatolites that helped in creating our current atmosphere. It is very possible that current living stromatolites are different from those that lived billions of years in the past. This new site can help to overcome this possible problem by being able to study stromatolites in this unusual for them environment. Read more at BBC News.

The Dog Days of Summer…

…are over! I’m back! If I am lazy with posts in the future and you’re interested in staying in the science news loop, consider checking me out on Twitter @DrDevMo.

I am working on compiling plant and animal pictures from my summer adventures – local SoCal hikes, a trip to the Sierras, a day-trip to Santa Cruz Island, etc. In the meantime, I will leave you with this gem of a story.

Virus makes zombie caterpillars ascend to their doom

A molten European Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispardripping virus onto the foliage below

I should’ve saved this one for Halloween. Close your eyes and picture yourself and the break of dawn in a European forest. Most gypsy moths are are laying low hiding out in bark crevices or underground, hoping to avoid the early birds searching for a meal. You notice this one gypsy moth behaving quite strangely – it is marching up to the top of the tree in plain sight hungry predators. As it reaches the topmost leaf, it liquefies. What is it doing??

This wayward moth is infected with a baculovirus – a large, rod-shaped virus with very species-specific forms among over 600 invertebrate hosts. This virus is in fact what compelled this moth to climb and liquify.

How? Why?

The virus contains a single gene (called egt) that inactivates a caterpillar hormone that controls molting. Normally, this hormone would help guide the caterpillar to a high position and then trigger molting. The virus apparently deactivates just enough of the hormone so that the caterpillar does in fact climb – but not enough hormone that the caterpillar molts. Instead of shedding its skin, it dies.

The virus benefits from this death at heights – the high position helps the virus to spread by gusts of wind in search of new hosts to replicate within. Additionally, healthy caterpillars pupate at the tops of trees and the female moths don’t fly. Instead, they emerge and walk all over the molten victims that are left behind further aiding the spread of the virus.

Richard Dawkins deemed this phenomenon the “extended phenotype” – the capacity for genes to influence events beyond the body they live in. This study is the first to describe a case where a single virus gene can control the behavior of another animal.

Read more at Nature News. The original article was published in Science.

Not your everyday Before and After picture

Gotham City’s Newest Bat-Signal

By IVC Bio 94 Student Natalia Lisek

Macragravia evenia leaves — a satellite dish for bat sonar

Plants have a repertoire of ways to attract pollinators: colorful flashy flowers, lovely or repugnant odors, and now…sound! A team of scientists has found the world’s loudest plant. Marcgravia evenia is a Cuban rainforest vine that depends on bat pollination that has specially adapted leaves that have evolved to act like satellite dishes for bats.

The structure of the plant is disc-shaped leaves that are “suspended above a ring of flowers, below which hang cup-shaped nectarines.”  Ecologists at the University of Ulm in Germany  used loud-speaker microphones  to play sounds towards the plant which resulted in echoes. It was noted that regular plants produce moderately strong echoes when the microphone is facing the leaves, but the echo decreased as soon as the microphone was angled to the leaf’s edge. However, the disc-shaped leave’s echoes remained the same whether the microphone was placed facing it or at “an 80-degree arc in front of the leaf.”

Dr. Simon Ralph believes that the disc shaped leaves help bats locate the flowers because of the echo bats use in the rainforest. The only downfall to the disc shaped leaves is that photosynthesis does not work as well, but attracting bats compensates for the inefficiency for photosynthesis because the bats help with the Marcgravia flower’s reproduction.

Dr. Simon and researchers conducted experiments on trained nectar-feeding bats. The idea was that the bats had to search for a feeder that was about 2.5 centimeters wide and hidden. When researchers placed a replica of the disc shaped leaf near the feeder, the bats found the feeder about half the time it required a bat to find the hidden feeder without the accompaniment of the disc shaped leaf. The benefit of using bats as vector pollinators is that Marcgravia evenia can attract bats from a distance, so they are able to exploit bats in order to successfully survive. This plant is really fascinating because if the hypothesis is true, it is a clear example of coevolution still occurring between flowering plants and animal pollinators.

Because this plant appeals to bats through echolocation by using acoustic tricks it should make it a lot easier for the bats to find nectar. Since rainforests are occupied by dense vegetation and the patterns of sound are continuously changing, this plant would reflect a loud constant echo in varying directions allowing the bat to locate it more easily. According to Brock Fenton, ” An ultrasonic beacon is an astonishingly effective thing – its the same principle that airports use to guide aircraft in to land……The plants are obviously exploiting the bat. There are all these little jewels waiting our there for someone to pursue.”

See the original study at Science Magazine and recaps at New Scientist or National Geographic.

Noteworthy Nerdy News

It’s been a sloooow and lazy summer. Luckily, we have my IVC Bio 94 students to keep us informed of the latest and greatest science news!

And stay tuned….I just returned from an AMAZING trip to the Eastern Sierras and am sorting through some beautiful photos of glacial lakes and stunning wildflower displays.

Researchers Found What? Where? by Bio 94 Student Tara Okuma

Anyone with general biology knowledge would probably expect to hear about unicellular bacteria or archaea thriving in extreme conditions deep underground. None of them would even think of looking for multicellular organisms down there, much less expect to find them. Until recently.

According to Alexandra Witze’s article in Science News, the existence of nematodes, multicellular organisms also known as roundworms, were found deep within three South African gold mines. Witze reports that Gaetan Borgonie, a worm specialist from the University of Ghent in Belgium, and his colleagues’ drilled six boreholes to collect water and soil samples from three gold mines. They discovered a female nematode at 1.3 kilometers (less than a mile) below ground in the Beatrix gold mine. Generally environments this deep would not have the required nutrients and necessary environmental conditions for multicellular organisms to survive; however, Borgonie says that nematodes do not need vast amounts of oxygen and these mines might carry just enough water, oxygen, and nutrients for nematode survival. According to his hypothesis, Borgonie and his colleagues were right. Borgonie brought the female nematode back to the laboratory for observations and waited to see if the female would lay an egg. It laid eight of them with each of the tiny nematodes being approximately 0.5 millimeters in length. The differences between these nematodes and other nematode species were great enough to be considered a new species, so they named it Halicephalobus mephisto after Mephistopheles, a German folklore demon.

Witze also writes that Borgonie speculates that the ancestors to H. mephisto were probably surface-living nematodes, which ate bacteria as they made its way down through the rocks over generations. In other words, speciation had occurred over time and the differences (e.g. morphological, biological, molecular, ecological) between H. mephisto and its ancestors were great enough to warrant their own species. But a new nematode species is not all Borgonie and his colleagues discovered. In addition, they found two known surface species in a second South African gold mine at 900 meters deep (about 0.5 miles) in the Driefontein mine. A third mine reviled trace amounts of nematode DNA in waters leeching from rocks in the Tautona gold mine at 3.6 kilometers (about 2.2 miles) below ground. These results imply that other known or unknown species of nematodes may be found at these depths or much deeper.

But despite their findings, Borgonie and his team decided to run a bunch of tests to rule out the possibilities of these newfound roundworms hitchhiking down the mine via gold miners. The results showed that H. mephisto are in fact living in waters that is at least thousands of years old and survives in temperatures of up to 41°C, suggesting that the worms are thriving and reproducing deep within the gold mines. Borgonie plans to go back to South Africa in a few months for further research and the possibilities of finding new nematodes. However, a deep biosphere expert at Cardiff University in Wales questions if the boreholes changed the nematode’s environmental conditions, which leaves Borgonie’s future research and findings up for more questioning. But regardless of the skeptics, Borgonie’s discovery unleashes the possibilities of finding other multicellular organisms surviving in extreme and deep environments, and perhaps the existence of life deep within the surface of other planets, such as Mars.

Teeny Tiny Snails Survive Digestion by Bio 94 Student Galt Dunn

Tornatellides boeningi, a teeny snail that is able to survive bird digestion

If you’re normal, you probably aren’t particularly fond of snails, unless you’re like my dad as a kid and eat them. They’re slimy and go “crunch,” especially when you least expect it. Most land snails are members of the molluscan class Gastropoda. Snails respire by either a lung or gills, and both types are found on land and sea. Some snails such as the Giant African Snail can grow to be 38cm and weigh 1kg. On the other hand, some snails are extremely small. These “micro snails” can fit multiple end to end inside of one centimeter.

One particular species of micro snail is only 2.5 millimeters on average! This is the Tornatellides boeningi, a native to the Japanese island of Hahajima, part of the Bonin Islands archipelago 1000km south of Tokyo. One of the T. boeningi‘s common predators is the Japanese white-eyes bird (Zosterops japonicus). However, the white-eyes bird isn’t normal as far as predators go. It eats the snails, but it doesn’t always kill them! According to a study, 15% of all snails eaten survived digestions and were found alive in the bird’s feces after passing through the bird’s gut. There is already a lot of evidence of plant seeds being dispersed by birds that eat fruit, and there has been research showing that pond snails can survive being eaten by fish, but this is the first documented case of invertebrates being spread in this way.

What does this mean for science? This evidence suggests that bird predation could be a key factor in how these snail populations are spread; a bird eats a snail, flies away, poops it out, and just like that, the snail is in a new population (I wonder if it flies first class?). Researchers also studied the genetic variation of different T. boeningi populations across the island chain and found a surprising amount of variation, considering their geographic isolation. In this perfect example of gene flow, snails of different populations are mingled by virtue of being consumed.

Are there special adaptations that allow these snails to survive digestion by bird? “The main factor allowing the snails to survive being eaten is their small size.” In previous studies, larger snail’s shells were severely damaged by the bird’s digestion. However, researchers say that further study is required to find out whether T. boeningihas and special adaptations that allow them to survive.

The Bonin Islands were recently added to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List for their rich ecosystems that “reflect a wide range of evolutionary processes.” Call me abnormal, but I am fond of this snail. Click here to ready more at BBC Earth News.

A few other catchy headlines….

Top 10 New Species of 2010

For those of you that have been reading this blog for awhile (hi mom!) may know — there is a special day that I look forward to all year. Granted, most of the newsworthy “Top 10 Lists” are usually enjoyed around New Year’s eve….but this one is well worth the wait! Each year the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University releases its Top 10 New Species of the Year. Don’t be fooled – the competition to get on this list is tough! In 2010 a variety of plants, animals, microbes, algae and fungi that were previously unknown to science were discovered and described — specifically, a whopping 18,225 living species and 2,140 new fossil species were given a name!

How do you decide the Top 10 of these thousands of new species? Well, i’ll tell you this – if it were my Top 10 list there sure would be a few more plants! The list is determined by “a vote of an international committee of experts appointed by the IISE”. These experts consider “records (largest, smallest, etc.), superlatives (most, first, last, etc.) humorous or interesting names, surprising characters, properties or distributions, etc.”.

Here are a few of my favorites on the Top 10 list….for the full list, click here.

Oh, and if you’d like to nominate a new species of 2011 – click here and tell ASU why!

The glow-in-the-dark mushroom, Mycena luxaeterna 

Of the ~ 1.5 million species of fungi on Earth, about 71 of them are bioluminescent. This new species of glowing mushroom is a Basidiomycete that was discovered in a Brazilian forest habitat. Mycena luxaeterna means “eternal light” and its name was inspired by Mozart’s “Requiem” (listen to the inspiration). These tiny mushrooms emit a bright, yellowish-green light 24 hours a day – but are difficult to visualize in daylight. The jelly-like stipes and teensy caps (0.3″) are most commonly found growing on sticks. I imagine this guy here made it to the list because of its cool name — but in fact it’s namer, SF State Biology Professory Dennis Desjardins discovered a total of seven new glowing mushrooms in Belize, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia and Puerto Rico. For example, Mycena luxuperpetua (perpetual light), also glows 24 hours a day. His discoveries shed light on our understanding of the evolution of bioluminescence – with Mycena, luminescence is found in 16 different lineages, suggesting that the ability to glow evolved at some point in history and some later species lost this ability. Why glow? Desjardin suggests that the light entices nocturnal animals that aid in the dispersal of the mushroom’s spores.

The underwater mushroom, Psathyrella aquatica 

My disappointment in the lack of plants on the list is somewhat relieved by the presence of this underwater mushroom. This gilled mushroom was found submerged in the clear, cold, flowing waters of the Rogue River in Oregon — this mushroom was observed over an 11-week period, ruling out the possibility that the mushrooms were fruiting on wood that had washed into the river. A diversity of fungi act as decomposers in stream habitats, but the underwater environment is a new habitat for gilled mushrooms! Check out the original report in Mycologia.


The Pollinating Cricket, Glomeremus orchidophilus and the orchid it pollinates (Photo: Sylvain Hugel)

Okay-my disappointment is officially assuaged. Crickets usually eat flowers, not pollinate them and this cricket, Glomeremus orchidophilus, earns its spot on the Top 10 list by being the first to be spotted pollinating an flower. Scientists spotted this cricket while attempting to figure out how a species of orchid, Angraecum cadetii, was being pollinated. This orchid is closely related to the comet orchid whom Darwin predicted was pollinated by an insect with a very large tongue because of the notably long nectar spur of the orchid. Indeed, the comet orchid on Madagascar is pollinated by a nocturnal hawk moth with a 14″ proboscis! However, the Angraecum cadetii orchid is found on Reunion Island where hawk moths are rare – and the nectar spur is smaller anyway. So to solve the mystery of who was doing pollination researchers set-up a night vision camera and were shocked to find a cricket getting the job done!

Their film revealed a wingless cricket, about 2-3 cm long, with extremely long antennae, that crawls into the flower and pokes its head into the nectar spur — drinking up the sweet liquid before leaving with lumps of pollen attached to its head that it delivers to the next orchid it drinks nectar from! The cricket was the only pollinator observed on the orchid and seemed to be quite effective at its job — the size of its head matched the size of the nectar opening perfectly!

Darwin’s Bark Spider (Caerostris darwini)

This new orb-weaving spider builds the largest orb-style webs that have ever been seen and have been found spanning rivers, streams and lakes, and in one instance, a web stretched 82 feet across a Madagascar river with at least 30 insects trapped in it. But length of the web isn’t the only distinction of this species. The silk spun by these spiders is more than two times stronger than any other known spider silk and reportedly 10 times stronger than a similarly sized piece of Kevlar — making it the toughest biological material ever studied. Also discovered in association with Darwin’s bark spider was an undescribed symbiotic fly species.

A leech noted for its single armed jaw and large teeth, Tyrannobdella rex.

A leech named after Tyrannosaurus rex discovered in a little girl’s nose. Enough said.

The Titanic Bacterium, Halomonas titanicae. (Photo: Society for General Microbiology)

The bow of the Titanic rests at the bottom of the North Atlantic and the ship’s hull is under attack by a newly discovered species of rust-eating bacteriaHalomonas titanicae sticks to steel surfaces and creates knob-like mounds of corrosion products that have accelerated the deterioration process of the Titanic’s metal — which will eventually lead to the Titanic’s disappearance. According to the bacterium’s discoverers, “We believe H. titanicae plays a part in the recycling of iron structures at certain depths. This could be useful in the disposal of old naval and merchant ships and oil rigs that have been cleaned of toxins and oil-based products and then sunk in the deep ocean…….We don’t know yet whether this species arrived aboard the RMS Titanic before or after it sank. We also don’t know if these bacteria cause similar damage to offshore oil and gas pipelines. Finding answers to these questions will not only better our understanding of our oceans, but may also equip us to devise coatings that can prevent similar deterioration to other metal structures.”

Golden Spotted Monitor Lizard, Varanus bitatawa

It is usually the small things that go unnoticed, so the discovery of this 6 ft., 22 lb. forest monitor lizard must have come as quite a surprise.This is a large tree-dwelling, frugivorous lizard of the genus Varanus that is endemic to the Northern Sierra Madre Forest, Luzon Island, Philippines. Its arboreal habit probably explains its ability to elude biologists all this time but it has quickly become a flagship species for conservation in the Philippines. It is easily recognized by its brightly colored stripes with gold flecks.  Its scaly body and legs are a blue-black mottled with pale yellow-green dots and its tail is marked in alternating segments of black and green.


Noteworthy Nerdy News

New and Exciting News – reported by IVC Bio 94 Students

Mind-Controlling Fungi Create ‘Zombie Ants‘ by Bio 94 Student Garrick Yu

In the rain forests of Southeastern Brazil live some of the most exotic fungi in the world – including a recently found species of fungi in the genus Ophiocordyceps that are capable of parasitizing a variety of Carpenter ants. Unlike many parasitic fungus that are known to live within their hosts without killing them, the Ophiocordyceps fungi is able to infect the ant host, take over their bodily functions, and later kill them.  When an ant is infected with the fungus an entire colony is capable of being at risk due to the fact the spores on the ant from the fungi can infect other ants killing them as well.

Zombie ant infected with the parasitic fungi bites the neck of one of its dead counterparts, mistaking it for a leaf vein. The fungus can destroy entire colonies — with nothing remaining but ant corpses with their mandibles locked around leaf veins in a perfect position to release spores that will infect others. Photo: PLoS One

 The life cycle of the fungi starts when a spore from the fungus infects a single ant from a colony (this can happen through air dispersal and attaching to the ant or by attaching to them when stepped on while they walk on the ground). After the spore attaches to the body of the ant the enzymes are released from the spore which penetrates the body allowing the fungus to grow within the ant.  In about a week the chemicals from the fungus starts to control the ant’s body functions making the ant confused and later making them bite on leaf veins or other plants before they die.  When the ant dies the fungus will continue to grow and in time a sprout will grow out of the ant’s head which produces more spores to disperse in order to infect other ants. As amazing as this species of fungus may sound, in the past such “Zombie-ant Fungus” have been witnessed and documented by Alfred Russel Wallace (a naturalist and contemporary of Darwin) in 1859. However, Wallace found his specimens of fungi from Sulanesi, Indonesia and from the Amazon rather than from Brazil. However, Wallace was not able to bring a live specimen home due to the fact his ship, Helen, sunk during his expedition back to London.

Read more at the Guardian or check out the original article at PLoS One.

CSI for Trees by Bio 94 Student Brian Lee

Imagine an episode of CSI. BUT, instead of watching detectives and investors try to solve a murder mystery with cool gadgets, you’re watching biologists and natural scientists investigating environmental situations or hazards using trees. In the recent article, “Researcher use trees to detect contaminants and health threats“, Dr. Joel Burken and his colleagues at Missouri S&T have been doing just that – using a process called “phytoforensics” to study the chemicals in the ground below.

The previous method of detecting trace chemicals using trees was done by core-sampling, which is nothing new. However, Burken and his team have specially developed and designed a less invasive and intrusive method using a “thin filament called a solid-phase microextraction fiber, or SPME, to detect traces of chemicals at minute levels, down to part per trillion or parts per quadrillion.” He claims, “we’re taking a new approach that will improve the process on multiple levels. Sampling is easy, fast and inexpensive for quickly identifying polluted areas or contamination patterns.”Also, in terms of examining groundwater contamination, the conventional process requires heavy equipment, and is a lot of ground work, time-consuming, and expensive.

Using SPME sampling, only a pencil-size bore hole is made into tree trunks and the SPME device is inserted into the hole; testing can be done on-site using mobile equipment. One example that the article cites is that a well testing for chemical solvents near an abandoned railroad in Missouri once took 12 years with 40 samples taken compared to the 114 tree samples that Burken and his students took in one day at the location. Since then, they have trialed their methods at over 30 sites in 8 states and 5 countries.

In addition to this new sampling technique, the Missouri S&T team has been working with the local city of Rolla and a consulting firm to plant more trees to remove contaminants from the groundwater in a process called “phytoremediation”. Essentially, the tree would extract some of the contaminants from the ground and degrade them. Then, the chemicals vaporize into the atmosphere when they come in contact with sunlight and oxygen. Already, research is being done on how the SPME process can alternatively be used to detect other chemicals, such as pesticides, herbicides, and explosives. Hopefully, scientists can continue this process of harvesting the immense power of nature to fix the problems humans have made.

CSI for trees. Photo: Missouri S&T

Noteworthy Nerdy News….

….straight from the minds of IVC Bio 94 Students.

A 4th Domain of Life? by Maral Iftekhary

….lurking about in this water sample?

According to the New Scientist magazine, there are hints at a fourth domain of life, in addition to the three currently known ones: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. Several biologists are on the verge of discovering the fourth domain of life, thinking that the current domains are yet too simple. This statement came about from a water sample that these Biologists collected from the world’s seas. The article states that Jonathan Eisen at the Univeristy of California, Davis, Genome Center has identified gene sequences hidden within these samples that are so unusual they seem to have come from organisms that are only distantly related to cellular life as we know it.

This organism could in fact be the new fourth domain because it is so distantly related. However, this new organism seems to be quite difficult and almost impossible to culture. Eisen refers to them as “the dark matter of the biological universe.” Since this new organism has proved to be difficult to culture, Eisen and Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville , Maryland , in collaboration with their colleagues have created a new technique called metagenomics. This technique can sequence literally anything out of any DNA samples. The team, according to the article, found some sequences belonging to two superfamilies of genes, namely recA and rpoB, which shared no similarities to anything ever seen before. The team yet wasn’t able to detect what organism the genes belong to and therefore conclude that the new organism could be an “unusal virus,” and even a “new branch in the tree of life.” This idea has produced a large controversy and the team is being urged to be cautious with such “premature” conclusions. Eugene Koonin from the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda , Maryland as well as Radhey Gupta from McMaster University in Hamilton , Ontario , Canada , argue that the sequences could be from “cellular organisms living in unique habitats that caused their genes to undergo rapid evolution.”

Furthermore, the argument is that the current domains of life are yet under investigation and that a fourth domain would just “add to the confusion.”  According to a supporter of this matter, Eric Bapteste at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, France, we are constantly exposed to new things which are unknown to us and which makes a fourth domain a possible new encounter. He believes that “a further analysis of the samples could determine whether the two gene families studied have evolved unusually rapidly or are from a cellular organism with a universally bizarre genome.” Another possibility would be to look at the actual samples to find out exactly which organism the strange genetic frequencies belong to, according to Eisen. Until further research, there is simply no way to know for certain what exactly this possibly new organism might contribute to the current domains of life.

The Mind-Tricking Caterpillar by Kiana Abolhosseini

Selenia dentaria, the twig caterpillar

Most butterflies spend their childhood growing up as caterpillars; this stage that they go through in order to become a full grown butterfly is called the “Larval Stage. “ Constantly munching on food, caterpillars outgrow their skin and shed their skin multiple times. After the last round of shedding, the caterpillar attaches to a branch and begins a different stage known as the “Pupa” or “Chrysalis” stage. Once in this stage, the caterpillar uses a silk thread from their silk glands to spin a protective cocoon. Inside this protective cocoon the caterpillar then goes through a process called Metamorphosis.

The six front legs of the caterpillar transform into an adult insect’s leg. As for the other “prologs,” they just disappear.  The wings then start to grow and the insect finally emerges as a beautiful butterfly. Majority of caterpillars are herbivores; eating mostly leaves. Like all other animals they have predators which consist of wasps, parasites, humans, and birds. Caterpillars can be found around sandy beaches, meadows, mountains, forests, and even in some arctic areas.

Many people think of caterpillars as “Bird-Brained,” but they are actually clever in some cases such as protecting themselves from predators. Many animals and humans camouflage themselves to outwit predators; caterpillars for example capture the art of camouflage very well. Caterpillars fool their predators into thinking that they are twigs by hiding on certain twigs. They position themselves during the day in locations where twigs are in abundance. When night time rolls around, the caterpillar moves to another location where there are rich feeding grounds and at that time, predators cannot hunt them by sight. The pressure of having to move from place to place due to the fear of predators makes it costly to live as a caterpillar. They are not free to roam around as they wish, select where they want to sleep and eat, instead they have to select their locations very carefully. They are constantly abandoning their homes to find a safer place to stay for the time being. Read more about their clever behavior at ScienceDaily.

Naked Penguins? A Mystery Disease by Jackie Nguyen

In recent studies, it has been observed that more and more penguin babies have been born feather-less, or “naked” if you will.  It is a mysterious disease that has been arising in penguin populations in areas such as Argentina and South Africa.  This disease which causes baby penguins to lose their feathers has had its first documented case in Cape Town, South Africa during 2006. According to “New Scientist” magazine, chicks born with this bald disorder have needed a longer time in rehabilitation than a normal penguin chick would typically need. In addition, these diseased penguin chicks tended to grow smaller than the average penguin in both weight as well as their size. Experts believe the cause of this disease may have risen from “pathogens, thyroid disorders, nutrient imbalances, or genetics” but there has been no evidence to support any of the theories yet. Either way, the disorder has caused both black-footed and Magellanic penguin species to die more often due to their lack of coating and a more important requirement to thermo-regulate their bodies. It has been noticed that the penguins without feathers linger in the sun for a longer period of time while the healthy penguins would rather seek shade due to their feathers already keeping them warm. The penguin chicks with the disorder are more prone to environmental hazards. However, it has been observed that although the chicks are born without feathers at first, they eventually grow new ones, even though it occurs at a later rate than with penguins without the disease. As far as scientists know, the disease does not yet pose a major hazard to penguin populations as oppose to oil pollution in the sea and such. But who knows how minor the disease may remain. Samples and swabs of the feather-less penguin’s DNA have been sent to animal physiologists in New York and Washington as well as conservation centers in order to have more thorough research done in order to piece together what the cause of the mystery disease is. All is being done in order to save the black and white flightless birds we have all come to know. Read more at New Scientist.

Noteworthy Nerdy News

A few headlines that caught my eye this past week:

  • Plenty o’ fish in the sea…well, the small ones anyway. New models suggest that the past century has seen major declines inlarge predatory fish, like tuna and cod, but smaller prey fish, like sardines and anchovies, have more than doubled in number.
  • Loggerhead turtles have a head for navigation. Newly hatched sea turtles can sense their longitudinal position using the Earth’s magnetic field — a feat that took sailors hundreds of years and many lost ships to figure out.
  • Ahhh, take a deep breath of that fresh, country air — chock full of germs! Farm-raised kids are less prone to asthma, but not for the reasons you might think. Unpasterized milk, exposure to farm animals and hay — some of the many things that could help build a kids constitution growing up on a farm, but its the germs that get all the credit! A new study shows that showed children on farms, where the bacteria population is far more diverse, were 30% to 50% less likely to have asthma than children who didn’t live on farms. The wider the range of microbes in the houses, the less likely it was that the children would suffer from asthma.
  • Sexy Monkeys Wash With Own Urine“….hmmm, what an odd habit? But indeed, male Capuchin monkeys increase the frequency of their urine washing behavior in the presence of a female. This form of communication can convey social or sexual status and may play an important role in mate selection.
  • Seagulls take sleepover parties to the next level. Seagulls learn from each other when it is safe to nod off, resulting in “waves of sleep” that wash over a seagull colony.

A lesson in carnivory (aka Feed Me, Seymour!)

What perfect timing for a carnivorous plant to be in the news! We were just talking about specialized leaves in my Botany class — and what better example than leaves that are modified to capture prey? Whether you are a fly peering out through the jail bars of a Venus Flytrap leaf that have ensnared you after you’ve been lured in by the scent of sweet nectar or a tiny crustacean that has been sucked into the devious chamber of a Bladderwort at lightning speed — this is not a way to meet your end.

Carnivorous plants are crazy. They are meat-eating plants that flourish in stressful or rough environments, from swamps to bogs to the inside of bromeliads. These are not parasitic plants — they are photoautotrophs and are just fine making their own food. Rather, they “supplement” their diet with meat.

So for an example of why carnivorous plants are crazy, let’s talk a closer look at this Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) leaf. The trap is formed by the terminal portion of the plant’s leaves and is triggered by the tiny hairs on the inner surface. From the perspective of a bug, the leaf is a temptation that is hard to resist. The leaf oozes a sweet nectar that beckons its victim.

An insect that is lured in might just get a tasty snack and manage to slip away — IF it fails to brush up against a trigger. If one of the tiny hairs is disturbed, a timer is set off. 1-2-3-4-5 sec….still time to feed….6-7-8-9-10 sec….still time to escape….11-12-13-14-15 sec….ooops, another hair is disturbed…. SNAP! Dunzo! The insect is doomed. An electrical impulse is triggered by this second disturbance, water flows into the leaves, and the trap snaps shut — in a fraction of a second. A week or so later, digestion is complete, and the trap reopens to await its’ next victim.

But the stars of today’s story are the carnivorous Bladderworts. Urticularia is a genus of aquatic plants that includes about 200 species found in fresh water and saturated soils. A new study reveals the mechanics behind their predation — they are able to trap their prey in less than a millisecond 100X faster than a Venus flytrap can manage. These rootless plants have leaves are equipped with a trap door that leads to a chamber. The trap is valve-based; it is set by glands in the plant that continually pump out water, creating a depression inside the tiny bladder.When a passing creature stimulates microscopic, super-sensitive hairs, this trapdoor buckles inward and and the door bursts open…..allowing the bladderwort to suck in water and crustaceans alike.

This action is too fast to be witnessed by the naked eye. Instead, researchers utilized cameras that record up to 10,000 frames per second. As the author of the study explains: “Because the suction is so fast, with accelerations of up to 600 G, it is very difficult for any living animal to escape such a trap,” Marmottant said. (For comparison, an astronaut feels about3.5 Gs during a space-shuttle liftoff; and a mere 8 Gs will cause most people to black out.)

See for yourself:

This is a pretty impressive piece of mechanics. Next, its’ digestive enzymes get to work on whatever has been sucked through the trap door – dissolving its flesh and absorbing its valuable nutrients. A mere few hours later, the water re-inflates the trap and closes the door — ready to be triggered again. The same trap can fire hundreds of times.

A chamber where many small crustaceans meet their maker.

Feed me, Seymour!

Check out the study published at the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Researchers have high hopes for the implications of these findings; the plant could provide a template to design miniature medical devices, such as a “lab-on-a-chip”, which samples tiny amounts of blood that could be used in diagnostic tests, or to to design the perfect micropipette.

Related headlines:

Chemical analysis of the carnivorous plant, Nepenthes rafflesiana, found that some 33.8 percent of their nutrients came from the bat poop and urine….the second documented case of a mutualism between a carnivorous plant and a mammal.

The Gorilla Twins Are Both Boys

Guest Post by IVC Bio 94 Student Amin Sarraf

On 3 February 2011, a mama mountain gorilla gave birth to twins gorillas in the wilderness of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The last time that gorilla twins were born was in 2004. In the history of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, these twins are the fifth set of twins that were ever born. Ian Redmond, the Chairman of the Ape Alliance, an international coalition of organizations says “Gorilla mothers usually have only one baby every four years or so – which is one reason why they are so vulnerable – so twins give a rare double gain in one birth.”

Thankfully mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), one of the two subspecies of the Eastern Lowland Gorilla (G. b. graueri), are not on the edge of extinction. As a matter of fact, the population of threaten mountain gorillas has increased greatly in the last 30 years. It is important to know that subspecies are species that are capable of interbreeding and producing an offspring but they usually don’t because of the geographic barriers. The mountain gorillas are found in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa, but the other subspecies of the eastern gorillas can be found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The mountain gorilla’s population over 30 years has increased to more than 780 worldwide.

Read more at BBC Earth News.