Archive: July, 2011
The Penn State team returned from Haiti with 307 live animals, raising a few eyebrows in customs. In all the excitement of the expedition, I incorrectly stated the number of likely new species. Team leader Blair Hedges said there were 33 unique species among these animals, six or seven of which are likely to be previously unidentified.
Over the next several weeks he will be doing DNA analysis that will allow him and his student Tiffany Cloud to get more definitive information on what they've found.
I may be the only journalist ever to have been charged with the overnight care of a Darlingtoni – a zebra-striped Haitian lizard that hasn’t been seen since 1984. The creature is so rare and coveted that a Harvard team made a trek through the remote mountains of southern Haiti several years ago, hoping to find it. They returned without their quarry.
This Darlingtoni was captured this week by a team led by Penn State University biologist Blair Hedges. Over four days he’s used a helicopter to reach various remote locations along the southern peninsula of the country – places that Hedges believes have never been explored by a biologist before.
I’ve been lucky enough to join his team, which includes a grad student, a photographer/naturalist, a videographer, and a botanist who happens to speak Creole. That skill has come in handy when locals carrying machetes emerged from nearby hills. The team searches into the nights, sleeping only a few hours. They subsist on trail mix.
Biologist E.O. Wilson once pondered whether many of our fellow living things were doomed once evolution gave rise to an intelligent, technological creature that also happened to be a rapacious carnivore, fiercely territorial, and prone to short-term thinking.
We humans can be so destructive that some scientists believe we've now triggered a mass extinction - one that in several hundred years will rival the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs.
In some places, a mass extinction is already under way. Haiti, a "hotspot" for plant and animal diversity, may be closest to ecological collapse.
If you’re a house mouse and all the good house mice are taken, why not choose an Algerian mouse? Sure, they’re not the same species, but according to a new study, explained here in Science Now, such a dalliance might benefit your offspring. Scientists found that during sex between the two species, the Algerian mice were passing the house mice a gene that conferred resistance to a common rodent-poison. Whether “bastard” mouse is a scientific term isn’t clear.
Unlike mice, or bears, humans don’t have any other species of human to mate with. We used to, but somehow we ended up alone in our genus. As homo sapiens, we're the only homo still around.
And the National Center for Science education sent me this post on the textbook wars in Texas. Science triumphed over creationism.
Call up Google today and you see peas. Peas? It must be the birthday of Gregor Mendel, the monk who founded genetics by crossing pea plants. He was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, but for varous reasons, Darwin didn't recognize the importance of Mendel's theory to his own work. That was a problem for Darwin, and for the theory, but it all got straightened out in the 20th century. Here's a section about Darwin's oversight of Mendel, taken from my "Evolution 101" essay.
Darwin's theory did hit a couple of snags in the early years. The first one came, ironically, from genetics, according to Penn [philospher of science Michael] Weisberg. Unbeknownst to Darwin, while he was working on evolution, a monk named Gregor Mendel was working out the laws of inheritance using pea plants. But unlike Darwin, who was a prominent scientist, Mendel was an obscure figure in his own time and wasn't discovered by the scientific community until the early 20th century.
Darwin had no idea how living things managed to inherit traits from their ancestors, but he did insist that changes were very small and gradual. Mendel figured out a set of laws through which traits could be inherited - genetics - but it wasn't always as gradual as Darwin thought. In Mendel's famous pea plants, for example, seeds could go from smooth to wrinkly in a generation.
In a prophetic 1993 article titled “Is Humanity Suicidal?”, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson described two kinds of people. There are “exceptionalists” who believe humanity transcends the laws of biology and ecology, thanks to our unique intelligence. If we accidentally change the atmosphere, we can fix it with technology. If Earth becomes in some way unlivable, we’ll find another planet.
Then there are “environmentalists” who believe we humans are woven into the natural world and can’t survive independent of our ecosystem. Environmentalists worry that we don’t understand the natural world well enough to fix it once it’s broken.
That division hasn’t changed much since 1993. What has changed is that Wilson’s more dire predictions are today’s reality.
Julius Caesar is said to have thought it was much better to be the alpha male of a small village in Gaul than the beta male of Rome. Until recently, scientists thought alpha males were indeed in the most desirable position all around - less stress, more sex, better food. What's not to like?
After following 125 male baboons for nine years in the wilds of Kenya, a team led by Princeton University researchers found that the alpha males excreted more stress hormones on average than males below them on the totem pole. "It makes sense that the highest-ranking male would be more stressed," said Craig Packer, a biologist from the University of Minnesota, who has studied social rankings in baboons and lions.
"You've got to look over your shoulder, while the subordinates can just go off into the bushes and chill," he said.
This incredible story appeared in Earth magazine. A few people with advanced degrees in science really believe the Earth is only 6000 years old. It shows, among other things, that there isn’t complete overlap between scientific thinkers and professional scientists. It’s a topic I plan to delve into in an upcoming column.
How should scientists react to creationists trying to gain credibility by infiltrating legitimate meetings? The author of the story in Earth, Steve Newton, works for the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit devoted to defending the teaching of evolution. According to his bio he has a master’s degree in geology. He thinks we should let the young-earth-creationist “geologists” have their say.