This Week in Science: December 21-27 2013

The Tetrapod Zoology blog wishes you a squamotastic Christmas!

Humans’ genetic history is a tangled web.

Feminine hygiene products can be dangerous to your health.

Some reindeer do have red noses, but it wouldn’t help them pull Santa’s sleigh.

If red nosed reindeer could lead Santa’s sleigh, how would the genetics work?

Geologizing with Dickens.

From the great Ed Yong: ‘Top Science Longreads of 2013‘.

A Natural History of Mistletoe‘.

You’ve probably never thought about it before, but it’s nearly impossible to castrate a hippo.

Any picture of the Milky Way that says ‘You are here’ is lying.

2013 was a good year for newly discovered animals.

NASA is preparing for an astronaut twin study.

How a black hole kills you and why it matters.


Battle of the Christmas trees: spruce v. fir

Most people call any kind of conifer a ‘pine tree’. Contrary to popular belief, not all conifers look the same. I’m going to teach you some simple tricks to tell the difference between two genera of conifers*: spruces and firs.

Norway Spruce (by Susan Sweeney via Wikimedia Commons)

Spruces and firs can be easily confused for one another. Spruces can be identified by using the 3 S’s: square, sharp, smelly. If you roll a spruce needle between your fingers, it won’t roll very well because the needles have a square cross section. These needles are short and very sharp, and are arranged spirally around the branch. If you sniff a spruce, it will have strong, sometimes unpleasant odor. One of the most well-known ‘firs’, the Douglas fir, is not actually a fir at all!

Balsam fir (by Joseph O’Brien via Wikimedia Commons)

Firs can be identified by using the 3 F’s: flat, friendly, fragrant. Fir needles are flat and soft (friendly), unlike the sharp, square needles of spruces, and the needles are attached to the branch with little suction cups. If you sniff a fir, it will have pleasant fragrance. If you have to choose between a spruce and a fir, I recommend the fir.

*A disclaimer: I learned these tricks in Michigan, so they might not hold true everywhere, but they are a good start!

Once you’ve figured out if your Christmas tree is a fir or a spruce, check out these Christmas themed science videos from Alex Dainis (Bite Sci-zed) and Julia Wilde (That’s So Science).

This Week in Science: December 14-20 2013

How to make a life-size origami elephant.

Hobbit villains hobbled by “vitamin D deficiency”‘.

Anti-bacterial soap isn’t any better than regular soap, but it carries extra risks. Also, warm water doesn’t get your hands any cleaner than cold.

The Smithsonian recently got the skeleton of an endangered 1,400 lb North Atlantic right whale.

Pro-tip: don’t build your house on a sand dune, or at the bottom of a cliff.

A new species of tapir has been discovered in the Amazon!

In defense of feathery dinosaurs.

Inflatable Moth Butt Featherdusters‘.

Meet the world’s newest island: Niijima.

Surprise! Narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease.

A dwarf Asian elephant has been found in the wild.

After months of wondering, the mystery behind the silk structures in the Amazon has been solved!

Why does time seem to go faster as we get older?

Sheep like to turn left.

Word Wednesday: Australopithecus

Paleontology and paleoanthropology are full of unwieldy scientific names and these names crop up from time to time in news stories. I will be discussing the meaning of the names of three alliterative hominid species: Australopithecus afarensisAustralopithecus africanus, and Australopithecus anamensis.


Australopithecus breaks down into two parts: australo and –pithecusAustralo comes from the Latin word ‘australis‘ which means southern and pithecus comes from the Greek word ‘pithekos‘ which means ape. Australopithecus is a genus of gracile hominids that originated in eastern Africa around 4 million years ago and went extinct around 2 million years ago.


Anamensis breaks down into two parts: anam and –ensisAnam comes from the Turkana word for lake, and ensis is a Latin word which means belong to or originating in. Therefore, Australopithecus anamensis means southern ape originating in a lake. The first fossils were found  near Lake Turkana in Kenya and were named for the region. Fossils have also been found in the Middle Awash of Ethiopia. Australopithecus anamensis lived in East Africa between 4.2 to 3.9 million years ago.


Afarensis breaks down into two parts: afar and –ensisAfar is a region in Ethiopia and we already know that ensis means originating inAustralopithecus afarensis therefore means southern ape originating in the Afar. Many fossils have been found in East Africa and fossil sites include those in Hadar (part of the Afar region of Ethiopia) and Laetoli in Tanzania, as well as other sites in Ethiopia and Kenya. Australopithecus afarensis is best known for including Lucy and the makers of the Laetoli footprints. Australopithecus afarensis lived in East Africa between 3.85 and 2.95 million years ago. 

The Taung Child (By Guerin Nicolas via Wikimedia Commons)


Africanus is the Latin word for Africa, so Australopithecus africanus means southern ape from Africa. Unlike Australopithecus anamensis and Australopithecus afarensis, this species has been found at 4 sites in South Africa: Taung, Sterkfontein, Makapansgat, and Gladysvale. The first Australopithecus africanus fossil was the Taung Child found by Raymond Dart in 1924. The Taung Child was the first specimen to be included in the genus Australopithecus. They lived in South Africa between 3.3 and 2.1 million years ago.

This list only includes some of the gracile australopithecines. There are other species within Australopithecus, as well as the robust australopithecines that have been placed in either Australopithecus or Paranthropus. However, that is a discussion for another day.

To learn more about the species I mentioned above, I recommend the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins website. If you want to learn more about human evolution, I highly recommend John Hawks’ blog.

Check out this song about australopithecines!

Science Reads

Science doesn’t have to be scary. There are many books that can offer a good introduction on a variety of typically complex subjects. These four books range in topic from genetics to evolutionary biology to botany.

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

This is one of my absolute favorite science books. For hundreds of years, western civilization has been obsessed with trying to find and name all life on Earth. This is no mean feat and is still a goal of many biologists today. This book explains the ‘mad pursuit of life on Earth’ and how the techniques used to find and procure specimens have changed throughout time. At the back of the book is a list of scientists who have lost their lives searching for new species. I recommend this book to anyone excited by the discovery of new species such as the olinguito, the tigrina or the pygmy tapir, or interested in the history of science.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

You’ve probably heard of Michael Pollan’s other book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. ‘The Botany of Desire’ is broken down into 4 chapters. Each chapter focuses on one plant and the human desire that it satisfies: the apple and sweetness, the tulip and beauty, marijuana and intoxication, the potato and control. Each chapter discusses both the natural history and the social science of the relationship between the plant and humans. Sometimes the relationship is mutually beneficial, sometimes it’s a little more one-sided. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in science history or an interest in humans’ relationship with plants.

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex by Olivia Judson

Don’t be alarmed by the title of this book. It written like a sex advice column, but for the animal kingdom. It covers everything from monogamy in large birds to mites that mate with their siblings and die before they’re born to role reversal  in hyenas. It’s written in a very accessible, informal tone and it’s a relatively quick read. When I read this book for the first time, I laughed out loud in sections and kept reading passages aloud to my friends. This is one of my most highly loaned books. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys random trivia or evolutionary biology.

Genome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley

This might sound cliche, but this book changed my life. I read it for the first time when I was a senior in high school. I enjoyed this book so much, I seriously considered getting my degree in genetics (that didn’t happen, but I still really enjoy it). It covers each chromosome in its own chapter, all 23 of them. The book covers complicated topics in genetics in an understandable way, from genetic disorders to sex linked genes to regional variation. I hope to reread this book sometime soon. Given the prevalence of personal genetics in the news lately, I recommend this book to just about everyone who would like to understand what people are talking about.

Lots ‘o’ Links: Finals Edition November 23 – December 13 2013

The semester has come to an end, and I suddenly have a lot more time on my hands. So here is a selection of links from the last three weeks that you can enjoy during your Winter Break!

The Rising Star Expedition ended a few weeks ago, so be sure to catch up on the excitement.

Museum collections can hold evidence of climate change.

More geologizing with Doctor Who!

I Never Met A Fella Who Didn’t Like a Good Patella‘.

Fossil birds with false teeth were terrifying.

Get vaccinated: Guide to Forgotten Diseases.

A remarkably preserved baby dinosaur was uncovered in Canada.

The FDA is cracking down on 23andMe and here’s why.

There are deep sea invertebrates that eat only land plants.

More birds are killed by nuclear plants and fossil-fueled power stations than by wind farms.

A sneaky new cat species was found in the Amazon.

Everything you ever wanted to know about pecans.

Here’s a neat zoomable vertebrate Tree of Life, and a beautiful visualization of the geologic time scale.

I prefer Black Fly Day to Black Friday (but I still can’t get behind Spider Monday).

I get a big kick out of this list of insect adjectives.

The sticky ethics of displaying human remains in museums.

The koala’s mating call is nothing like you would expect.

Humans are becoming more carnivorous‘.

Beautiful scientific sketches.

How the platypus and a quarter of fishes lost their stomachs‘.

A billion years ago, North America tried to split down the middle, but it failed. Here’s how we know.

Cats Recognize Their Owner’s Voice But Choose to Ignore It‘. Here are some other obvious things confirmed by science.

Not all fighting fossils were fighting.

You should check out the Ohio Historical Society Natural History Blog. I especially like the Freak of the Week!

The Answers in Genesis ark is a really bad idea.

A scientist mapped the climate of Middle Earth.

Crucifixion is a terrible way to die.

Predatory birds might be one of the biggest obstacles for Amazon’s delivery drones.

In Search of the First Human Home‘. Here’s a piece about the author Ian Tattersall.

The rise and fall of the great sabercats.

Emily Graslie on online science videos.

Monitor lizards have unidirectional lungs like birds and crocs.

The “ghosts” of extinct birds in modern ecosystems‘.

In the books, James Bond averaged about 92 drinks per week!

Don’t Be Duped By “Duon” DNA Hype‘.

What is the sound of one ant walking?

Check out this TED-Ed video about mosquitos.