On April 13th, 2015 we learned about

Early benefits of feeding bacteria breastmilk

When a baby is first born, its digestive tract is nearly virgin territory. They haven’t interacted with the outside world having been fed through an umbilical cord and protected by amniotic fluid. But that changes quickly, as trillions of bacteria move in to set up shop, coming primarily from contact with the mother’s skin, birth canal and gut. And unsurprisingly, it’s now been confirmed that the baby’s first food, breast milk, can play a big role in how that colonization plays out.

Establishing healthy cultures in your gut

We depend on bacteria in our digestive systems to help eat our food as well as keep us healthy by either consuming or blocking less-helpful pathogens from taking root in our guts and making us sick. Bifidobacteria is one such species that protects us from nastier microbes, lowering the pH level in our gut to make it less habitable for unwanted bacteria. It’s also commonly one of the first microbes to take up residence in infant digestive tracts, largely thanks to breast milk.

Feeding the baby and the bacteria

Breast milk is a complex formula, with a recipe that is different for every mother making it. A variety of genes play a role in shaping it, and one, FUT2, has now been isolated as making a particular sugar that encourages Bifidobacteria growth. It appears to be critical to this process, as mothers with mutations to FUT2 that lead to less sugar production had babies with less Bifidobacteria in their guts.

The babies often did acquire more Bifidobacteria later on, so it’s not clear if this is necessarily a key to being a healthy infant. But it does help decipher some of the ingredients in human milk and what role they play in infant health.

Source: Bundle Of Joyful Microbes: Mom's DNA Alters Baby's Gut Bacteria by Michaeleen Doucleff, Shots

On April 12th, 2015 we learned about

Terror bird’s senses modeled thanks to well-preserved skeleton and skull

Llallawavis scagliai was not the most monstrous example of a terror bird. Estimated to have stood around 4’2″, it would have been a medium-sized phorusrhacid, but still one of the top predators in its Late Pliocene, South American ecosystem. But while it wasn’t breaking any records for size, this recently discovered specimen stands out for the amount of detail available in its unusually well preserved skeleton.

More data from the delicate details

The skeleton was found on the beach in eastern Argentina, and it was nearly 90% complete. While the bone count was impressive, the amount of delicate structures preserved may be the most critical aspect of this discovery. Softer or more fragile structures like the trachea, palate, ear canals and eye sockets were all preserved well enough to shape new predictions about how L. scagliai would have lived and functioned.

Terror birds were terrific listeners

One of the first hypotheses to stem from the bird’s skull concerns their hearing. They seem to have been especially well attuned to low-pitched sounds, which may have implications for both their hunting behavior and communication.

As anyone who has had nosy down or upstairs neighbors knows, higher-pitched sounds don’t carry very far, especially with obstructions. However, lower-pitched sounds can be transmitted greater distances and through various solid materials. So just as you could hear the footfalls of your neighbors when you couldn’t hear their voices, this terror bird could likely have used his hearing to listen for the footsteps of possible prey.

Beyond hunting, low-pitched hearing likely played a role in communication. Other animals, even peacocks, may make use of low-pitched sounds to communicate with each other. The preserved palate and trachea of L. scagliai were analyzed, and found to have been able to produce low-pitched sounds as well, suitable for intra-species communication.

This new specimen is likely to continue yielding new data as paleontologists continue to study it. The skull and beak have already been found to be particularly rigid, helping to flesh out our model for the bird’s quick-strike hunting methods. Beyond that, there is probably still more to be learned from the eye sockets, brain box and more to better understand just how this animal saw, heard and interacted with the world.

Source: Towering 'Terror Bird' Stalked Prey by Listening for Footsteps by Laura Geggel, Live Science

On April 12th, 2015 we learned about

A shrub that sparkles, just not in the sun

The shrub Ephedra foeminea has existed since the Mesozoic era, and yet until recently we weren’t even sure how it reproduced. In fact, we’re still figuring out the details, but we now know that it has a very particular pollination period, slightly reminiscent of a werewolf.

Not much of a looker by day

The ungainly shrub is found around the Mediterranean, and produces no alluring scent or dazzling flowers. Instead it makes slightly dull, red cones, but these weren’t seen to be attracting much interest from local pollinators. It was somehow getting the job done, but scientists like Catarina Rydin and Kristina Bolinder from the University of Stockholm, could never actually catch it in the act despite many visits to the Greek coast.

Dazzling droplets by moonlight

The answer, it was the particular combination the full moon in July. Under the full moon, the cones produce pollination drops— single drops of pollen rich dew that sparkle in the light of the moon at night. These midnight-disco lights can then draw the attention of crepuscular or nocturnal pollinators, like moths, some bees and possibly even bats. And this dependence on good lighting conditions may also explain why E. foeminea grew mostly away from towns, where the light pollution may have disrupted the spotlight the plant wanted on nights with a clear, full moon.

But why only full-moons, and not half-moons? Why is the plant so picky? Perhaps it only wants to go to the trouble when there will be the longest amount of moonlight in one night, in order to save resources. It’s only clear that the timing is important, as the plant will both withhold droplets in mature cones until a full moon, as well as force immature cones to produce droplets early. That degree of precision indicates that the plant may have some internal light-sensitivity, although that remains to be seen.

Source: Shrub Attracts Pollinators By Glittering Under the Full Moon by Ed Yong, Not Exactly Rocket Science

On April 10th, 2015 we learned about

The signal came from… inside the observatory!

A peryton is a brief but intense burst of radio waves that have been baffling astronomers for some time. Since the 1990s, astronomers at radio telescopes have been detecting them and wondering if they came from deep space, and what they could mean. Recently the found out: lunch is ready!

Perytons produced on our planet

Researchers from the Parkes Observatory in Australia unraveled the mystery earlier this month. One of the big issues with perytons being from deep space is that they were generally detected in multiple viewing fields, rather than coming from a single point far away. The odds that more than one matching signal would be arriving at a radio telescope simultaneously from multiple points of origin would just be… astronomical! (sorry!) But guessing that the perytons were originating closer to Earth still didn’t explain what they were.

Finally, with additional surveillance by a real-time radio interference monitor, three signals were detected. The frequencies of those signals were recognized as matching a microwave oven, which then explained a pattern nobody had picked up on yet; perytons were most often detected at lunch time.

Signal source hiding in plain sight

So how did we get go this long without putting two and two together? This is partly due to the fact that just operating a microwave isn’t enough to release the radio signal, as they are shielded devices. Some observatories also ban microwave ovens (and phones, wifi-routers, etc.) outright or have them in Faraday cages. So there wasn’t a consistent, obvious, 1:1 pattern to pick up on.

The perytons were only detected when the door of the running microwave was opened before the timer finished. Only in that small instant between the door unlatching and the magnetron shutting off the oven were sufficient radio waves released. And since that’s not necessarily the most common event with the microwave oven, the link was harder to make.

Once the link was made, however, the researchers were able to consistently reproduce the event on command, basically solving the mystery. But perytons weren’t the only mysterious signals detected at these observatories. A different signal, called fast radio bursts, still has an unexplained origin— one most people are sure are coming from deep space. Hopefully. It’s hard to say until they confirm that the refrigerator has been cleaned out.

Source: Rogue Microwave Ovens Are the Culprits Behind Mysterious Radio Signals by Nadia Drake, No Place Like Home

On April 10th, 2015 we learned about

Stopping the pain with wasabi (receptors)

So I’ve never found wasabi to be a painful experience. Intense maybe, but never something I associated with pain. However, the delicious green horse-radish, famously put on sushi (and peas?), triggers a specific pain receptor tightly enough to be its namesake— the wasabi TRPA1 receptor. And now, thanks to single particle electron cryomicroscopy, we know what that receptor looks like down to the placement of each molecule.

More than just sushi-garnish

The motivation for this is not, sadly, to build better wasabi for our sushi. The receptor plays a role in a number of less pleasant pain experiences, such as exposure to tear gas or pollution from cars. Of even more immediate concern, the receptor is also the trigger for pain for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis, as well as chronic itching. Drug companies would like to be able to treat the discomfort and pain from those conditions better, which is where this new map of the wasabi TRPA1 receptor will be of use.

Imagine a door you’d like to open, but you can’t really make out the keyhole. You can probably force it open, but with significant collateral damage to the frame and door itself. This is what happens when medicines can’t be targeted enough— you end up with more side effects even if you manage to accomplish your primary goal of squelching pain or stopping a bacterium. But if you can see the keyhole clearly enough, as they can now do with wasabi TRPA1, you can design a key that opens the door and affects nothing else.

But if anyone designs something that blocks only wasabi, I think we’ll have a problem.

Source: Sushi Science: A 3-D View Of The Body's Wasabi Receptor by Jon Hamilton, Shots

On April 9th, 2015 we learned about

Ankylosaurs’ bone-crunching tail-cudgels

Despite how famous wielders like Stegosaurus and and Ankylosaurus are, weaponized tails are actually uncommon among dinosaurs. Yet even with so few examples to allow for variety, there’s an amazing amount of contrast between the thagomizers on stegosaurs and the clubs of anklyosaurs. While the former was based around flexibility and puncture damage, the latter shows an interesting set of traits to ensure ankylosaurs made the most of blunt force trauma opportunities.

The best offense grew from a good defense

Ankylosaurs were covered in boney armored plates, called osteoderms. The armor provided protection for the animal just about everywhere, including the eyelids on some species like Euoplocephalus. However the osteoderms on the tail served a slightly different purpose, as they were large and fused together to create a strong, stiff structure for most of the appendage.

The rigid tail plating was then backed up by other softer tissues to turn the tail into a weapon. Low, wide hips provided ample space for muscles to attach, and were probably coupled with stiff tendons to not only control the tail but keep it aloft and in place. The range of motion was actually fairly limited, laterally, which may have made helped save energy holding and maneuvering such a heavy appendage around.

How much punch could the tail pack?

So what could this rigid club do? It’s been estimated that the larger tails could hit with 10,000 Newtons of force, which may have been enough to break the ankle bones of a large theropod like Tyrannosaurus Rex. For reference, a pro baseball player hitting a fastball operates around 3400 Newtons, so it’s easy to appreciate how this tail would be fairly intimidating and dangerous for opponents.

However, which foes were subject to these pummelings hasn’t been completely figured out. While a tail club (or should we describe it more like a hammer?) could definitely be a threat to a would-be predator, there’s also a chance that these tails were used in intra-species battles, such as for mating rights or status in a herd. Unlike telltale slices from teeth, shattered bones are tougher to directly link to a single source of damage.

My kindergartner asked: Would the flexible portion of the tail, closer to the hips, but a weak point for attackers to target? If restorations are accurate, it looks like armor on the upper part of the body covered the top of the most flexible portions of tail. And even if there were a point of vulnerability there, getting at it that close to the business-end of the tail would be a difficult task.

Source: Ankylosaurs, the armored dinosaurs that could pack a punch by Victoria Arbour, The Charlotte Observer

On April 9th, 2015 we learned about

We may have Jupiter and Saturn to thank for our cozy little planet

The more we learn about neighboring solar systems in our galaxy, the more we realize our own solar system is a bit…odd. And it may all be Jupiter’s fault (but thank goodness for Saturn for saving us all!)

A model for the standard solar system setup

Most solar systems have more planets packed in closer to their sun, and those planets are often larger as well. In nearly 500 systems, we’ve observed a pattern where either gas giants or rocky planets (like Earth or Mercury) are several times larger than Earth, and sitting right next to their local star. It’s now thought that our own solar system also followed this pattern before our current inner planets existed. But that all changed when a young Jupiter went on a bit of a joy-ride and broke everything.

Jupiter’s jaunt smashed planets to junk

Even a young Jupiter was large enough to cause havoc when its orbit became disrupted eon ago, in an event dubbed the “Grand Tack.” It migrated closer to the sun, setting off a gravitational chain reaction for the other, super-Earth-sized planets that were then closer to the sun. These planets are theorized to have then destroyed each other, and the remaining debris was either absorbed by the Sun or came together to form our current inner planets. Jupiter probably grabbed some of these raw materials as well, which may explain why Mars is smaller than Earth, despite having been formed in what would have been a resource-rich location.

Jupiter’s destructive romp was then stopped by Saturn. The second gas giant’s gravity probably pulled Jupiter back away from the sun, switching places with the asteroid belt and stabilizing in its current orbit. Without this influence, Earth and its neighbors wouldn’t have had the space to safely form where they did.

Source: Observe: Jupiter, Wrecking Ball of Early Solar System by Andrew Fazekas, National Geographic

On April 8th, 2015 we learned about

Rhino relocation requires air-support

Relocating animals isn’t easy, especially if they’re as large and potentially dangerous as an adult white rhino. Despite the risk and $45,000 per rhino cost, a group called Rhinos Without Borders has been airlifting rhinos to new homes in Africa, hopefully away from the poachers that are on track to drive the threatened species, like the black rhino, to extinction.

How to ready a rhino for the big trip

Rhinos aren’t the first animal to be airlifted to new homes, but they’re certainly one of the more difficult species to move this way. Before they’re moved, they’re monitored to see if their herd’s growth is being limited by the amount of space and resources currently available, or if they’re in particular danger from poachers. Animals are then selected, sedated, blindfolded then woken up so that they can be walked into a cage. They’re then cared for and kept in quarantine for for six weeks so that disease isn’t accidentally spread to their new home. They’re also implanted with microchips in their body and horns, so that conservationists can be alerted to poaching activity as quickly as possible.

Once the rhinos are prepared and judged fit to move, they’re again sedated then  loaded into commercial cargo planes, ensuring shorter and less vulnerable travel than ground transport. They’re flown to their new home where they will hopefully start staking out their new territory by pooping on it. Conservationists take care to relocate rhinos to areas without other rhino herds to avoid creating conflict with the new neighbors.

Worth more than the weight of their horns

Rhinos Without Borders is ramping up for its biggest airlift yet, aiming to move 100 rhinos as soon as possible. The goal is to get the rhinos away from poachers, who hunt the animals in order to sell their horns in China and Vietnam. Despite bans, no proven medical value, and some preserves with “shoot to kill” orders, poachers are still willing to kill an estimated 1000 rhinos a year for the money horns sell for on the black market.

In addition to a more secure environment for the rhinos, there is hope that their new homes, like preserves in Botswana, will benefit from eco-tourism as well. That way the safety of the rhinos will be woven into the local economy, providing further incentive to keep the rhinos’ horns on their own heads. To help get the rhinos to their new home, you can contribute to Rhinos Without Borders here.


My kindergartner said: When asked what she thought the purpose of a quarantine period might be, she guessed that the rhinos needed time to forget their old herd before moving near a new one. Basically, she looked at it as a time for a social/emotional quarantine, although the pathogen explanation made sense to her too.

Source: Largest Rhino Airlift Ever to Move 100 At-Risk Animals by Brian Clark Howard, National Geographic

On April 8th, 2015 we learned about

When elite European cooking adopted austere seasonings

It’s been said that the key ingredients in European, and especially French, cuisine is butter. And then maybe some salt and pepper. But subtle seasonings paired with fat has been used to make everything from potatoes to snails tasty, which makes sense when your climate makes producing dairy products easier than growing saffron. However, practicality isn’t the only thing that has shaped European cooking, as these trends developed after continental chefs had greater access to the world’s spice rack.

From hard-won to hardly any

Spices and seasonings were once scarce in Europe. Even having a shaker of table salt was a point of envy to be prominently displayed on elite tables in France (see Salt for more on this.) But by the 1600s, after hundreds of years of exploration, trade, enslavement and torture, a stable market for imported seasonings was finally available to middle class Europeans. As with many cultures around the world, all of Europe could enjoy multi-flavored recipes designed around “distinct, disparate flavors and building up layer upon layer of spice and seasoning.” But for the elite classes of Europe, that meant that prominently showing off your spice rack didn’t make you stand out so much anymore, sparking a change.

To strike some contrast with the increasingly available bouquet of flavors, wealthy foodies became advocates of recipes with more complimentary flavors. The idea was that you should taste the flavor of what you were eating, and any seasonings should just be there to enhance that flavor. For example, your meat should taste and be appreciated as meat, so you should then make gravy with a meat-base to further amplify that flavor.

Medical ideas influenced ingredients

At the same time, concepts of physiology were shifting in Europe away from balancing humors to managing “fermentation” in your digestion. So more fresh vegetables were being eaten, in contrast to trying to offset a malady by eating more of a contrasting spice.

Today we seem to have a mix of lots of these ideas. People like mixing flavors with fusion cuisine, but they also extol the virtues of locally farmed produce and meat. But really, as long as you’re adding green chile to your food, you’ll feel like you’re standing with kings.

Source: How Snobbery Helped Take The Spice Out Of European Cooking by Maanvi Singh, The Salt

On April 8th, 2015 we learned about

Brontosaurus excelsus: The biggest dinosaur comeback of the last 100 years

The first Brontosaurus, Brontosaurus excelsus, was found in 1879 by Othniel Marsh. It didn’t last long. By 1903, the Brontosaurus specimens were judged to be too similar to the previously discovered Apatosaurus ajax, and were thus absorbed into that genus. Now, over 100 years later, the taxonomy of all diplodocids have been reviewed, and the Brontosaurus name has been brought back into service.

Regretted revisions

The initial naming confusion came during a period of time known as the ‘Bone Wars,’ where Marsh was competing with fellow paleontologist Edward Cope to unearth as many fossils as possible. A fair amount of confusion was present at this time of rushed discovery, leading to other mix-ups like an Apatosaurus being displayed with a Camarasaurus head mounted on it. As corrections were made, the Brontosaurs fossils were reassigned to the Apatosaurus genus, meaning, as far as anyone understood, Brontosaurus never really existed as a genus (even though this didn’t stop the next 100+ years of pop culture using that name.)

What’s in a name?

This is not to say that paleontologists thought these specimens were all the same species. They were always known to come from different animals as much as homo erectus different from homo sapien. But, as my kindergartner will attest, these layers of specificity are confusing to parse, especially when we’re used to names like Tyrannosaurus Rex being the “whole” name for that animal. So while only the genus was ever contested, few people had ever concerned themselves with excelsus as a name for the species, at all times, continued to exist.

So where is brontosaurus excelsus now?

The aforementioned review of diplodocids by Emanuel Tschopp has of course reshuffled the whole family. Brontosaurs were found to have significantly lighter-weight necks than apatosaurs, splitting them into their own genus once again to the delight of general audiences older than Dinosaur Train. Diplodocus hayi was split into a new genus as well, called Galeamopus. And, similar to the original brontosaurus/apatosaurus conflict, there was some consolidation as well; Dinheirosaurus was reevaluated as part of the geographically distant Supersaurus genus, which will hopefully bear further investigation.

The reshuffling also nicely demonstrates a tenant of good science- when the evidence doesn’t support your model, you need to readjust. In this case, there’s also a demonstration about how emotions don’t follow that idea, and you have people getting upset over a name change. But both times Brontosaurus’ name has been changed has followed the best available evidence and analysis at the time. Mistakes happen, but good science also has ways to correct them.

My kindergartner asked: So… what’s the big deal? Which isn’t surprising, as she has no nostalgia attached to the name ‘Brontosaurus.’ She was aware of the original renaming incident, and despite familiarity with Apatosaurus via Dinosaur Train (and my best attempts to be a diligent nerd correcting older, ‘incorrect’ books), she barely saw the point of this as an event. She’s always been more of a brachiosaurus fan anyway.

Source: Beloved Brontosaurus makes a comeback by Ewen Callaway, Nature