This Week in Science: June 22-28

It’s Okay To Be Smart has a pretty thorough science reading list.

How did the T. rex in Jurassic Park get its roar?

Scientists sequenced the DNA of a 700,000 year old horse.

The tapir penis is a terrifying thing (NSFW).

The bite of the Komodo dragon is lethal, but not for the reason you might expect.

This week, the western United States might have world record high temperatures.

How a giant sequoia kickstarted the conservation movement.

Have you ever tried to artificially inseminate a parrot?

Corsets had a terrifying impact on women’s anatomy.

The Brain Scoop just put up an amazing video about elephants and flying squirrels.

I love the story of Dinosaur National Monument.

If you’re interested in human osteology, check out the Bone Broke blog.


Word Wednesday: Mammoth v. Mastodon

Pleistocene mammalian megafauna is one of my favorite paleontological topics. Of the wide-range of Ice Age mammals, mammoths are probably the most popular example. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that mammoths and mastodons are different animals, or even that there are species of mammoth other than the woolly.


Mammoth comes from the Russian word ‘мамонт’, which comes from a local word for earth. Mammoths were found buried in the ground, so it was once thought that they burrowed like moles. It wasn’t until 1802 that the word took on its current colloquial meaning of huge or gigantic.


Mastodon breaks down into masto and -odonMasto comes from the Greek word mastos‘ which means breast and odon comes from the Greek word ‘odonys‘ which means tooth. The mastodon was named for the large cusps on its teeth.

Comparison of mammoth and mastodon teeth

Comparison of mammoth and mastodon teeth at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

Mammoths were grazers, meaning that they ate primarily grass, and their large, flat teeth were used to wear down the delicate grasses. They lived in the Great Plains and other ‘mammoth steppes’. Mastodons, on the other hand, were browsers, meaning that they ate leaves, shoots and fruits. The large cusps on their teeth were used to wear down the tough vegetation. They tended to live in forests.

Elephant Phylogenetic Tree

American mastodon

Many people think that woolly mammoths are the only type of mammoths. On the contrary, there are as many as 10 different recognized species. In North America, the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenus) lived primarily in the northern regions, while the Columbian mammoth (M. columbi) spread south and eventually split off on to the Channel Islands of California (M. exilis). Sometimes woolly and Columbian mammoths coexisted and might have interbreed and hybridized.

The Columbian mammoth was not named for the country of Columbia, but for Christopher Columbus because it was found in the New World. The woolly mammoth was about the same size as a modern Asian elephant and was covered in thick hair to protect it from the freezing temperatures of the last Ice Age. Columbian mammoths were even larger than African elephants and had relatively little body hair. There are between 2 and 4 species of mastodon and the most common was the American mastodon.

Columbian mammoth

The woolly mammoth is the state fossil of Alaska, the Columbian mammoth is the state fossil of Washington, Nebraska doesn’t distinguish between different species of mammoth for its state fossil, and the mastodon is the state fossil of Michigan. If you want to learn more about mammoths and mastodons, the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota, and the Trailside Museum in Crawford, Nebraska have impressive collections of mammoths, and the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History has a mastodon display that explains the differences between mammoths and mastodons. One last fun fact: the myth of the cyclops was developed by the Greeks to explain the origin of mammoth skulls!

Science on YouTube

Up until a few months ago, I thought that YouTube was basically an internet version of ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’, plus cats and music videos. I was wrong. I discovered the science community on YouTube and was blown away. There are people who are just as passionate about science education as I am! Here are some of my favorite science YouTube channels.

Alex Dainis from Bite Sci-zed is very passionate about genetics and microbiology and it shows in her videos. This video about genetic privacy is one of my favorites.

John and Hank Green’s channel Crash Course covers a wide range of topics, from chemistry to world history to ecology to literature. In this video, Hank explains the rules behind naming chemicals.

Hank Green has another channel, Sci Show, that explains relevant research and discoveries. In this video, Hank talks about what causes hangovers and possible cures.

The Brain Scoop with Emily Graslie is one of my favorite channels on YouTube. Emily is so excited about museums and animals, and her enthusiasm is infectious. In July she will be relocating to the Field Museum in Chicago, which will open doors for even more fascinating videos.

It’s Okay To Be Smart is a channel from PBS Digital Studios. Joe Hanson presents science in a simple, relatable way. This video about attention show how technology affects our focus and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

This Week in Science: June 15-21

The Nautilus blog has a lot of fascinating posts, including the importance of autopsies and plants’ circadian rhythms.

Animal CSI: a great NPR piece about the importance of identifying bird remains.

Here’s another NPR piece about why you’re lightest in the morning.

This snow leopard live feed from a Swedish zoo is very distracting.

I loved this piece: How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?

Taxonomic vandalism: when is enough, enough?

These strange frogs discovered by Darwin might be extinct in the wild.

Naked mole rats might seem weird, but they don’t get cancer.

Conservation and putting your science where your mouth is.

Word Wednesday: Tyrannosaurus rex

The Tyrannosaurus rex is one of the most well known dinosaurs and is one of very few that people know both the genus and species name. Like the word ‘dinosaur’, you probably already have a good idea of what it means.

Tyrannosaurus rex

Let’s take this one word at a time. Tyrannosaurus breaks down into tyranno and –saurus. Tyranno comes from the Greek word ‘tyrannos‘ which means lord or master  and saurus comes from the Greek word ‘sauros‘ which means lizard. The species identifier, rex, is a Latin word which means king. Putting it all together, Tyrannosaurus rex means master lizard king. Evidently H.F. Osborn, who named Tyrannosaurus rex in 1905, thought very highly of the dinosaur. It lived during the late Cretaceous in what is now western North America. It is known in pop culture as a fearsome predator, but there is still debate within the scientific community as to whether it was a predator or a scavenger.

Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton (the specimen AMNH 5027) at American Museum of Natural History. (by J.M. Luijt)

In the past, reconstructions of T. rex depicted it standing upright with its tail dragging on the ground. Modern reconstructions have the back nearly parallel to the ground with the tail as a counterbalance to its heavy head. This would allow the dinosaur to run faster and have more maneuverability. Plus, think about it this way: when a beaver drags its tail (which only weighs a few pounds) along the ground it leaves an indentation. A T. rex tail (which weighs thousands of pounds) would leave a massive indentation if it were dragged around. However, no T. rex trackways have associated tail indents. 

Many people have probably done T. rex impressions, mocking their short arms. Despite having short arms, the bones have evidence of massive muscle attachments. Why have short, strong arms? Scientists aren’t sure, but suggest ideas ranging from aiding during copulation to helping the dinosaur stand up if it fell or laid down to acting as meat hooks when it ate. Until someone invents a time machine, we may never know the answer.

Most importantly, whenever you are doing a T. rex impression, remember that they only had 2 fingers (Allosaurus had 3). To learn more about the Tyrannosaurus rex, check out the links below!

Could you outrun a Tyrannosaurus rex?

T. rex Poo Headed to the Smithsonian Museum

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water: Scientists reveal ‘dino paddle’ T-Rex used to wade across rivers

Nabokov’s Butterflies

You have probably heard of Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian-American author, but you might not have known that he was an avid lepidopterist. In the 1940’s he worked in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology organizing the butterfly collection. In fact, he both named species and had species named after him (including the genus Nabokovia). The Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology still has Nabokov’s ‘genitalia cabinet’ that contains the butterfly genitalia that he used to identify different species.

Butterfly Collection of Vladimir Nabokov (from Alex Bakharev)

On Discovering a Butterfly
By Vladimir Nabokov

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer—and I want no other fame.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.

To learn more about Nabokov and his butterflies, check out the links below!

Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution is Vindicated

A Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths

This Week in Science: June 8-14

It’s that time of the week again! What did I find interesting this week?

The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University picked the top 10 new species for 2013, and SciShow did a video about it.

Kyle Hill and Brian Switek both wrote about how the love of science doesn’t negate the wonder of nature.

Joe Hanson wrote about supercell storms, which look surprisingly like UFOs.

The Supreme Court ruled that you can’t patent genes. What does that mean for the future?

What can gems tell us about the history of the Earth?

According to xkcd, the last Ice Age wasn’t messing around!

Space Oddity, in space. Here are some more videos from space.

Any picture of the Milky Way with a ‘you are here’ arrow is wrong.

Bill Nye and the Origin of Everything.

I recommend following Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter.

Word Wednesday: Geologic Time Part 3

In the past two weeks I’ve discussed eons, eras and periods of the geologic time scale. Now it’s time for the smallest commonly used division: the epoch. I’m only going to focus on the epochs of the Cenozoic era.


We have already come across both parts of Paleocenepaleo and -cene. Paleo comes from the Greek word ‘palaio‘ which means ancient and cene comes from the Greek word ‘kainos‘ which means recent. In other words, Paleocene is a bit of an oxymoron and literally means the ancient recent. It was the oldest epoch of the Paleogene period and lasted from 66 million years ago until 56 million years ago.


Eocene breaks down into eo and –ceneEo comes from the Greek word ‘eos‘ which means dawn and we already know that cene means recent. It was the second epoch in the Paleogene period and lasted from 56 million years ago until 33.9 million years ago.


Oligocene breaks down into oligo and –ceneOligo comes from the Greek word ‘oligos which means scanty or few and cene means recent. It was named for the few fossils found in Oligocene sediments. Badlands National Park is known for its Oligocene fossils. It lasted from 33.9 million years ago until 23 million years ago and was the most recent epoch in the Paleogene period.


Miocene breaks down into mio and –ceneMio comes from the Greek word ‘meion‘  which means less and cene means recent. It was the first epoch of the Neogene period and lasted from 23 million years ago until 5.3 million years ago.


Pliocene breaks down into plio and -cenePlio comes from the Greek word ‘pleio‘ which means more and cene means recent. It was the most recent epoch of the Neogene period and lasted from 5.3 million years ago until 2.5 million years ago. The Pliocene is often used by climate scientists to predict future climate change because it was a few degrees warmer than today.


Pleistocene breaks down into pleisto and –cenePleisto comes from the Greek word ‘pleistos‘ which means most and cene means recent.  It was the oldest epoch in the Quaternary period and lasted from 2.5 million years ago until 11,700 years ago. The Pleistocene was the last global Ice Age and was known for its large mammals. A Pleistocene Park was built in Russia to mimic the mammoth steppe habitat.

Rancho la Brea Tar Pool. (Restoration by Charles. R. Knight )


Holocene breaks down into holo and -ceneHolo is a Greek word meaning whole and cene means recent. It lasted from 11,700 years ago until the present day and is the shortest epoch. Bon Iver has a song by the same name.

Personally, I find it amusing that epochs of the Neogene and Quaternary periods translate to less recent, more recent, most recent and wholly recent. It might seem childish at first, but straightforward descriptions like that can make scientific understanding more universal.

Alfred Russel Wallace: The Man that History Forgot

Most people today–biologists or otherwise–probably have a working knowledge of Charles Darwin’s book ‘On The Origin Of Species’ and how it came to be. However, through time the story has warped and changed and now history has all but forgotten the role of Alfred Russel Wallace.

The most common version of the story of Darwin’s life goes something like this: as a young man he traveled to the Galapagos on a ship called the Beagle and saw tortoises and finches. He returned to England and waited many years before actually publishing ‘On The Origin Of Species’. If you do give Wallace any credit, you likely reduce his contribution to a letter that spurred Darwin to publish his book. In fact, that’s how I thought it happened. My freshman year of college, my roommate was completely enamored with Wallace and that made me wonder if I knew his whole story.

Alfred Russel Wallace

After Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, he had thousands of specimens to describe and to help him develop his idea. He didn’t want to publish his book until he was absolutely sure. He corresponded briefly with Wallace, a British naturalist, who sent him a copy of his article on natural selection. Darwin and Wallace published a paper together in 1858 and in 1859 Darwin published his book ‘On The Origin Of Species’. In fact, Darwin even mentioned Wallace in his book!

In the 19th century, both Darwin and Wallace were equally acknowledged for their theory of evolution. The Linnean Society of London even awards the Darwin-Wallace Medal “to persons who have made major advances in evolutionary biology”. However, as time went by natural selection became an unpopular idea, replaced by hypotheses such as Lamarckism, and both Darwin and Wallace fell out of the public memory. In the 1930’s and 1940’s there was a resurgence of appreciation for Darwin and Wallace’s idea, but Wallace’s contributions seem to have gone virtually unnoticed. Today, there are Darwin dolls and his birthday (February 12) is celebrated as Darwin Day, but the same cannot be said for Wallace.

I am not attempting to belittle Darwin’s contributions to biology. On the contrary, I greatly appreciate his discovery. On the other hand, it is necessary to recognize contributors that history seems to have forgotten. Thank you, Alfred Russel Wallace, for you contributions to the theory of evolution.

To learn more about Alfred Russel Wallace, check out the links below!

The Alfred Russel Wallace Website

The History of Evolutionary Thought

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth

This Week in Science: June 1-7

This week, I kept tabs on some of the science that grabbed my attention. It ranges from the Big Bang to dead ducks to the periodic table. Enjoy!

I found this song about the Cambrian Explosion from the band Brighter Lights, Thicker Glasses.

This video shows the evolution of the turtle shell.

It’s Okay To Be Smart’s video about the sound of the Big Bang is super fascinating!

ASAP Science’s song about the Periodic Table is very catchy.

Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, and Christie Wilcox all published blog posts about the loss of penises in birds.

Yesterday was Dead Duck Day, which will make more sense after you watch this video.

Follow paleontologist Brian Switek on Twitter for updates on his dinosaur dig in Utah!

Marine biologists went nuts for this rare video of an oarfish.

If you’re looking for science on Vine, check out Kyle Hill (Sci_Phile) for 6 second bits of science.

Kate Wong talked to Dr. Dan Fisher (one of my former professors) about the possibility of liquid mammoth blood.