This Week in Science: July 20-26

How to sex a chicken.

Pigs and pandemics.

Hercules doesn’t follow the laws of physics.

Saturn wouldn’t actually float in water.

Why ostriches have better legs than we do.

Richard Feynman was a brilliant, fascinating individual.

Real prisoners don’t act like the ones in the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’.

The Victorians’ interpretation of dinosaurs is the reason why I love Iguanodon.

People got to Madagascar earlier than we thought.

‘The Lagoon So Beautiful It Had to Be Dyed Black’

Could you beat a T. rex at arm wrestling?

It’s difficult to become a fossil.

The Hero Shrew and its terrific feats of strength.

Why North American mammals are so tough.

Cheetahs don’t overheat when they run.

The Brain Scoop and Octopus Sex. What’s not to love?

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Word Wednesday: Paleontology

I’ve talked a little about paleontology before, but I think it deserves a post of its own.

paleontology

Paleontology breaks down into two parts: paleo and –ontologyPaleo comes from the Greek word palaio‘ which means ancient and ontology comes from the Latin word ‘ontologia‘ which means “metaphysical science or study of being”. Simply put, paleontology is the study of ancient life.

Paleontology is a broad and diverse field. There are vertebrate paleontologists who study ancient vertebrates, which can mean anything from the earliest fish to dinosaurs to mammoths. Then there are invertebrate paleontologists who study ancient invertebrates and paleobotanists who study ancient plants. After that, the fields get more complicated and interconnected: paleoecologists study the interactions of ancient communities, paleoclimatologists reconstruct the ancient climate, and paleoceanographers study the ancient oceans. Paleontology draws heavily from geology, biology and other physical sciences.

People frequently ask me “What’s the point of paleontology”. They don’t understand why we should study plants, animals and environments that might no longer exist today. And that’s just it: it’s important to understand the past. For a concrete example, consider global climate change. Global temperature and carbon dioxide levels have sky-rocketed in recent history. In human history, we have nothing to compare this to. That’s where paleontology comes in. During the Pliocene global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels were a little higher than today. Scientists can study those ancient plant and animal communities and use that information to predict a possible future trajectory for climate change. Simply put, the past is the key to the future.

Paleontologists and astronomers are surprisingly similar: we will probably never actually see what we study (until we go to Mars or clone a mammoth). In a sense, we’re time travelers. To be honest, sometimes learning about an ancient fossil site can feel like stepping back in time. By visiting places like The Mammoth Site and The Gray Fossil Site the average person can get an idea of what life was like millions of years ago. Just think, without paleontology we would have virtually no understanding of dinosaurs, the last Ice Age or where fossil fuels come from! There’s a reason why so many children want to be paleontologists: it appeals to a sense of curiosity and imagination.

Just for fun, here’s a song about paleontology by They Might Be Giants.

This Week in Science: July 13-19

Fossil Elephant Tusk Found on Seafloor.”

Einstein failed math and other science urban legends.

“You don’t get to headbutt your way through life without picking up a few scars along the way.”

A swarm of caterpillars can move faster than any one caterpillar.

Where chemistry and the Kraken meet.

How linguistics helped prove the JK Rowling wrote ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling‘.

Some volcanos scream before they erupt.

Ever wonder why people get lost in books?

Rogue planets aren’t actually rogue.

Yep, Indiana had coral reefs.

Science and poetry aren’t mutually exclusive: 38 stanza poem about astrophysics.

The inside of golf balls looks like candy.

Some London tube lines are moldier than others and the underground has its own unique species of mosquito.

Pandoravirus, the largest virus every found.

Word Wednesday: Brontosaurus

When I was a tour guide at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, I would ask the kids what their favorite dinosaur was and many of them would say Brontosaurus. It amazes me that even though scientists have known for 110 years that Brontosaurus was a mistake and never existed, it is still a strong part of American pop culture. Regardless, I think that Brontosaurus is one of the most epic dinosaur genus names.

Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus breaks down into two parts: bronto and saurusBronto comes from the Greek word ‘bronte‘ which means thunder and we already know that saurus comes from the Greek word ‘sauros‘ which means lizard. In other words, Brontosaurus literally means thunder lizard.

Here’s an abridged version of the Brontosaurus story. In 1877, Othniel C. Marsh discovered and described a new sauropod he called Apatosaurus. In 1879, he found another, more complete skeleton and named it Brontosaurus. Brontosaurus became well known and replicas went up in museums across the country. In 1903, Elmer Riggs examined the specimens and concluded that there were not enough differences to justify two different genera and since Apatosaurus came first, there was no need for the name Brontosaurus. Marsh’s specimens weren’t associated with skulls, so he chose one that he found nearby. It wasn’t until 1979 that scientists realized that he had picked the wrong one. Regardless, most people are still infatuated with Brontosaurus despite knowing that it never existed.

The moral of the story is that science is ever changing and we are constantly adjusting our view of the world to reflect the most up-to-date research. Whatever your attachment to Brontosaurus, just remember: dinosaurs aren’t really gone. They persist today as birds, and doesn’t that make the world seem more weird and wonderful?

If you can’t get enough of Brontosaurus and want to learn more about the confusion, check out the links below!

NPR’s explanation of the Brontosaurus confusion.

Check out this interview with Brian Switek, author of My Beloved Brontosaurus, about dinosaur misconceptions.

Here’s a nice summary of the importance of My Beloved Brontosaurus.

Hank Green hosted a Mental Floss video about 50 Science Misconceptions.

xkcd has an amusing take on Brontosaurus’ history.

Pomes and Berries and Drupes, Oh My!

Fruit can be confusing. Everyone knows that tomatoes are fruits, but did you know that squash and cucumbers are too? Or that strawberries aren’t berries, but melons, lemons and cucumbers are? At first it might just seem like scientists are being picky, but there is some method to the madness.

There are two different classes of fruits: simple and fleshy. Simple fruits tend to be dry and include things like wheat, walnuts, coconuts and maple samaras. Most people are more familiar with fleshy fruits, so that’s what we’re going to focus on. Fleshy fruits are made from the ovary of a flower and are, like the name suggests, soft and squishy. There are many different types and the best known, and most misunderstood, is probably the berry.

“Berry” is a bit of a misnomer.  Many fruits with berry in the name are not technically berries, such as the strawberry or the raspberry. Botanically speaking, a berry is a simple fleshy fruit produced by a single ovary. Some examples are avocados, bananas, blueberries and grapes. There are two different kinds of modified berries, the hesperidium and the pepo. Hesperidia are citrus fruits with thick, bitter rinds and very juicy interiors such as lemons, limes, and kumquats. Pepos are melons, squashes, and cucumbers and have thick, leathery skin.

Raspberries (by Yongxinge via Wikimedia Commons)

So what are strawberries and raspberries if they’re not actually berries? Strawberries are accessory fruits. This means that they come from a part of the flower besides the ovary. In the case of strawberries, some of the fleshy part comes from the receptacle, just like figs and mulberries. Apples and pears are a specific type of accessory fruit called a pome and some of the flesh comes from the hypanthium. Raspberries are aggregate fruits. This means that they come from single flowers that have multiple carpels. These carpels form individual fruits which together make the aggregate. If you look closely at a raspberry, you can see that it’s made up of many parts.  

Another common type of fruit is the drupe. Drupes, also known as stone fruits, are composed of outer skin, flesh and a hard seed in the center. Like all simple fruits, they come from the ovary of a single flower and include mangos, olives, cherries and peaches. And finally, multiple fruits come from multiple flowers that produce many fruits that mature into a single, larger fruit, such pineapples, figs and mulberries.

It is important to note that many botanical terms are not mutually exclusive, which is why an apple is both a pome and an accessory fruit, and figs and mulberries are both accessory fruits and multiple fruits. I hope this encourages you to look at your fruits (and some of your “vegetables”) more closely! To learn more about the different parts of the flower that I mentioned about, click here.

This Week in Science: July 6-12

Pathological rodent teeth are fascinating and terrifying.

Why do most male mammals have external testicles?

Choirs match their voices and their heartbeats.

Can you have babies in space?

The marks left by insects on the fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits can help scientists determine when and how these animals died.

Scientists found a 23 million year old lizard encased in amber.

Paleoecology is still alive and well.

Why you should sniff trees.

Science communication and fossil preparation.

Sperm are the cheetahs of the microscopic world”.

Some bodies are never identified.

You are actually living in the past.

What if everyone was psychic?

Emotions and facial expressions might not actually be universally linked.

Glass sponges are taking over the Antarctic.

Word Wednesday: Ratite

After weeks of learning about fossils and geologic time, let’s talk about something that’s still alive: ratites.

ratite

Ratite comes from the Latin word ‘ratis‘ which means raft. Ratites are large, flightless birds. The name ‘ratite‘ refers to the the large, flat sternum of these birds that lacks a keel. Today, there are five orders of ratites and more than 10 different species.

Male ostrich in Ngorongoro (from Wikimedia Commons)

Ostriches (Struthio camelus) are the world’s largest and fastest birds. They can grow to over 2.5 meters tall and weigh over 100 kilgrams. They live across much of Africa and prefer open savannas and deserts. Ostriches are the only ratites with a native range north of of the Equator.

Greater Rhea (from Wikimedia Commons)

There are two species of ratite native to South America: the Greater Rhea (Rhea americana) and Darwin’s Rhea (Rhea pennata). The Greater Rhea lives in the open grasslands of southeastern South America, while Darwin’s Rhea lives in Patagonia and the Altiplano of southern and western South America. In 2000, three pairs of rheas escaped from a farm in Germany and have managed to maintain a population. In 2008 this group was estimated at around 100 birds.

Northern Cassowary (from Wikimedia Commons)

The island of New Guinea is native to three species of ratite: the Northern Cassowary (Casuarius unappendiculatus), the Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) and the Dwarf Cassowary (Casuarius bennetti). Cassowaries live in forests and the range of the Southern Cassowary extends all the way to the northeastern tip of Australia. These species have evolved dagger-like claws on their inner toes and all three are suffering from habitat loss.

Emu (from Wikimedia Commons)

Australia is native to the Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae). They are the world’s second tallest bird, after the ostrich. The emu is the only bird to have gastrocnemius muscles in their legs (the equivalent of the calf muscles in humans). They live throughout Australia and, like the cassowary, have sharp claws on their toes. The emu, with the red kangaroo, is part of the coat of arms of Australia.

North Island Brown Kiwi (from Wikimedia Commons)

The islands of New Zealand are native to five species of ratite: the Great Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx haastii), the Little Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx owenii), the Okarito Kiwi (Apteryx rowi), the Southern Brown Kiwi (Apteryx australis) and the North Island Brown Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli). Kiwis are about the size of a chicken, making them the smallest of the ratites and they lay the largest egg in relation to their body size of any bird. All of these species are suffering the ill effects of habitat destruction (the Okarito Kiwi is critically endangered and the North Island Brown Kiwi is endangered). Kiwis are a national symbol of New Zealand: it is the nickname for New Zealanders and appears on the coat of arms for the country as well as stamps and badges. 

Geno 2.0

In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick used Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray diffraction images of DNA to prove that it had a double-helix structure. In 2003, the Human Genome Project successfully mapped the human genome. Today, genetic testing has become more and more commonplace, from Angelina Jolie’s breast cancer screening to at-home tests that let the average person see how much Neanderthal DNA they carry.

There are a few different personal genetic testing kits available: 23andme, ancestryDNA, and The Genographic Project are a few. While ancestryDNA focuses on genealogy, 23andme and The Genographic Project also test Neanderthal DNA and The Genographic Project even tests for Denisovan DNA (Kate Wong compared 23andme and The Genographic Project on her Scientific American blog).

Last week, my dad got his Geno 2.0 (from The Genographic Project) results back and immediately called me to talk about it. By and large, most of the results were what we expected but there were a few surprises. Geno 2.0 follows both the maternal and paternal lineage through time. My dad’s maternal lineage originated in East Africa about 70,000 years ago and continued north through the Arabian peninsula to the Caucasus Mountains and finally ended up in eastern Europe around 28,000 years ago.

The paternal lineage held a few surprises. It originated in East Africa about 75,000 years ago and continued north through the Arabian peninsula. That’s when things started to get interesting. The path turned east toward Southwest Asia before turning back west and ending up in eastern Europe.

The “Who Am I” tab took all of the information from my dad’s lineages’ trip around the globe to determine his likely ethnic background, as well as his percentage of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA. His results showed that his DNA most closely match a German reference population and that 2.6 % of his DNA came from Neanderthals (higher than average) while 2.4% of his DNA came from Denisovans. The Denisova data is still being interpreted, so it’s not clear what is average.

All in all, I’m very jealous that my dad was able to use Geno 2.0 to learn about his ancestry and I hope that soon I can, too. I’m also interested in what the map would look like for an individual without a primarily European background. How did Native Americans or Native Australians end up that far from Africa? I look forward to learning more as this technology advances.

This Week in Science: June 29- July 5

In the United States, abortions are safer than childbirth.

Speaking of childbirth, the American way is the costliest in the world.

Ladybusiness Anthropologist Throws Up Hands, Concedes Men Are the Reason for Everything Interesting in Human Evolution.”

The Brain Scoop talks about elephants and squirrels of unusual size.

Human ancestors might have scrambled before they walked.

130 years of climate change, on the cello.

Just as predicted, the southwestern U.S. experienced world record heat.

When talking about climate change, it’s all about scale.

New US Forest Service regulations could have a negative impact on paleontology.

“Bigfoot” DNA is really just a mix of opossum and other species.

What do you really know about dopamine?

Vibrating Genitals may Ward off Predators.”

Seven ways to study whales without killing them.

I recommend following @realscientists on Twitter, if you’re not already.

Word Wednesday: Back to Basics I

We’ve covered a lot of words in the last few months and that can be a lot handle. To keep all of them straight, let’s review some of the most common!

bio

Bio comes from the Greek word bios which means life.

cen

Cen can either be used as a prefix or a suffix. It comes from the Greek word kainos which means new or recent.

di-

Di is a Greek word meaning two.

meso

Meso comes from the Greek word mesos which means middle.

-ology

One of the most common endings in science (and academia in general), ology comes from the Greek word logia and refers to a branch of knowledge.

ornitho-

Ornitho comes from the Greek word ornis which means bird.

paleo-

Paleo comes from the Greek word palaio which means ancient.

ptera

Ptera can be used as a prefix or a suffix and comes from the Greek word pteron, which means wing.

-saurus

Saurus comes from the Greek word sauros which means lizard.

zoo

Zoo comes from the Greek word zoion which means animal or life.

Online Etymology Dictionary