On February 7th, 2015 we learned about

Bug-Gripping Tools Made from Lego

Entomologists often need to handle existing but aging collections of preserved insects for their work. These samples are fragile in the best circumstances, so they need to be handled very carefully to avoid damaging them, which means that contact with human fingers needs to be minimized. There are tools intended for this purpose, but they’re generally expensive and difficult to work with.

Enter researcher Steen Dupont and a sophisticated brick-building system. Dupont started building bug-handling-rigs out of Lego pieces, which proved to have a number of advantages over commercially available tools. Once mounted in the framework, usually with a gripped pin or cork, Dupont was able to manipulate the exact orientation of the insect very easily. Each rig was also very portable being lightweight and easily dissembled for transport. And of course, if a modification was needed, a few extra bricks could easily be added.

The next series of designs will incorporate a smart phone so that photos can be quickly taken and shared with other researchers. And of course, the designs themselves are being shared so that they can be created by researchers everywhere after a quick trip to the toy aisle.

Source: How scientists are using Lego to handle insects by Henry Nicholls, Animal Magic

On February 6th, 2015 we learned about

We Need Everyone To Pee in the Pool

Reef health has been found to be tied to the amount of fish pee present. However, it’s not just about the quantity of pee, but the quantity of contributors. The more diverse the reef population, the better chance there will be a proper balance of nitrogen and phosphorus.

It shows, specifically, that species richness – the diversity of fish – and the size of fish are the most important factors for maintaining healthy biogeochemical conditions in coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove ecosystems in the Caribbean. Loss of fish diversity – and the nutrients supplied by their excretion – would create less healthy coral reef environments.

This really shouldn’t be surprising. Looking at coral reefs as an ecosystem, it makes sense that they’ve had plenty of time to evolve a state of interdependence with the animals around them, in this case making good use of what their neighbors are… sharing with them.

Source: Fish Pee Helps Keep Coastal Ecosystems Healthy, Thriving by Mick Kulikowski, NC State News

On February 5th, 2015 we learned about

Why Young Lizards Wish For More Predators

No animal takes the idea of “respecting one’s elders” as seriously as the Skyros wall lizards on the island of Diavates. Thanks to a skewed ecology on the small island, the most fearsome predator of the young lizards may very well be their parents.

On the larger island of Skyros, these lizards are more concerned with avoiding an array of predators like snakes, birds, etc. They also have a larger food supply to feed on. This combination of fewer adult lizards and more available food mean the lizards on Skyros only occasionally come into conflict, with the losses usually no worse than a toe or tail tip.

But Diavetes has shifted these ecological pressures around. While there’s plenty of food, the island offers little space and no predators to speak of, meaning the lizards are more directly competing with each other for territory and mating opportunities. The oversized adults will often devour younger lizards, gaining nutrition and eliminating competition at the same time.

This behavior is more common among the larger males, possibly out of practicality, as the females are smaller and thus less dominating of younger lizards. It also raises the question of how discriminating the males are about their prey. Do they take care to avoid eating their own offspring, or are they willing to attack their own lineage if it means a tasty snack?

Source: The Island Paradise Overrun by Giant Cannibals by Jan Piotrowski, New Scientist

On February 4th, 2015 we learned about

The Biggest Rodent You’ll Never Meet

Imagine you crossed a capybara with a… I dunno, a hippo? You might get a good approximation for the largest rodent we have on record, the awkwardly named Josephoartigasia monesi.

This enormous creature lived around 3 million years ago, and is known only from a single fossilized skull. Well, a section of skull, as the lower jaw was missing. But that massive, nearly-two-foot-long skull has still yielded a lot of information about this gigantic rodent, who possibly weighed in close to 1 ton.

Some estimations were made about the missing lower jaw, at which point simulations of the creature’s bite could be made. And what a bite it turned out to be! While the muscles powering the jaw likely didn’t provide this much power, the bones’ bite capacity was 300 pounds at the front of the mouth, and 936 pounds at the back (close to crocodiles!)

With no coprolites to expose the animal’s diet, the next best place to look was the molars and impressive incisors (which, of course, would have been perpetually growing, as per all rodents.) Small nicks and chips can often reveal clues, and sometimes chemical traces, of an animals diet. But in this case, the potential strength of the teeth again overshadowed the other information gathered.

Josephoartigasia’s incisors were found to be strong enough to withstand forces greater than the jaw was even capable for making. But if his teeth were stronger than his bite (what?), were they needed for some purpose other than eating?

One possible explanation is that their size and strength was actually there to allow Josephoartigasia to dig and scrape through roots. They weren’t just teeth— they may have been shovels, picks and shears too.

Source: Giant Fossil Rodent Had an Awesome Bite by Brian Switek, Laelaps

On February 3rd, 2015 we learned about

Zombie Species

Don’t worry, they’re not really zombies. Lazarus Taxon are just species that have been good at staying in our blind spots and out of the fossil record, leaving us to assume they died out. This has happened a number of times— with fish like the coelacanth, ants, and most recently, with Metasequoia, a species of tree still growing in China.

The story of Metasequoia exposes what role communication between scientists plays in discovering Lazarus Taxon. A forestry official documented a rare tree, but wasn’t able to fully identify it. It seemed similar to other known species, but not an exact match. When a botanist saw the tree samples and became excited over the possibility of a new species, it kicked off debate and discussion among a number of researchers, who finally settled on the fact that the species wasn’t new, having been found in rock 49 million years old. But without the cross-examination of people from multiple fields, this connection might not have been made.

So what accounts for the gaps in records like this? Why would we think a species is extinct when it’s still alive? Part of the answer is that becoming a fossil is hard. Odds are that most living things won’t end up as fossils, so we can’t assume the fossil record is a holistic timeline of all living things. Apparently after mass extinctions, there are usually “blank spots” in the fossil record, where we don’t see much of anything. Between tough odds, mass extinctions and millions of years for possible disturbances, it’s not hard to see how you might miss that a creature was still living and dying somewhere out there on earth.

So all a fish like the coelacanth has to do is have it’s population low enough, or isolated enough, etc., and we probably won’t find their ancestors’ corpses in stone. We’ll just be excited when we realize that we’re finding their current corpses in a fish market in South Africa.


Source: Sciencespeak: Lazarus taxon by Brian Switek, Laelaps

On February 2nd, 2015 we learned about

Mourning behaviors in social animals


Dolphins are joining the list of animals that display mourning behaviors, having been observed carrying the body of a recently deceased calf. Two other corpses were found to show signs that this ritual may have lasted up to 30 minutes on each occasion, with an adult using it’s head and back to transport the body.

While we can’t responsibly attribute motivation to the dolphins, since we can’t assume they even have a proxy for grief, it seems pretty clear that this is deliberate and specific behavior. Dolphins don’t normally “carry” each other like this, and it’s hard to imagine that the effort involved was in any way offering the adult any form of protection, nutrition, etc. The purpose appears to be entirely tied to marking the loss of a family member.

It’s not surprising that dolphins are turning up on the list of animal mourners. Other members include elephants and sea lions, both of which have strong family bonds that last a lifetime, at least for females (do walruses or elephant seals do this to?) These animals generally live in matrilineal, multi-generational families, so the loss of a family member could easily be a significant event to the survivors, even if just on the practical level of losing their assistance in protecting the group, raising young, etc.

Source: These Dolphins Mourn Their Dead by Erin Blakemore, Smithsonian.com

On February 1st, 2015 we learned about

The Osprey: Don’t Call Me SeaChicken


As I write this, the SeaHawks have just lost the Superbowl, and Patriots fans are rejoicing in beating the so called “SeaChickens.” Of course, that name’s as logical as “SeaHawk,” since the actual animal, the osprey, isn’t actually a hawk (or a chicken), and doesn’t always live by the sea.

These raptors live near many types of shoreline, from lakes to the ocean, so they can hunt fish. To catch their slippery meals, they employ their impressively-sharp talons, plus specially scaled feet that provide extra grip to carry fish. They need to carry their fish because these birds aren’t divers and swimmers like a pelican— they target fish swimming towards the surface of the water that can quickly be extracted in a quick strike. Their nostrils even have an extra membrane to keep out salt water in the resulting splash.

To help make that return trip easier, they grip their fish with the head in one claw, pointed forwards, body in the other, trailing behind. This minimizes drag from the fishes body, helping the bird save energy and make the most of their meal.

Osprey populations were in decline for some time, thanks to humans viewing them as competition and to the build up of toxins in their diet weakening their eggs. But with new protections in place, their numbers seem to be on the rebound, which is more than you can say about the football team at this point.

Source: What the hell is a “Sea Hawk” anyway? by Douglas Long, Deep Sea News

On January 29th, 2015 we learned about

Choosing to Die (Horribly) Another Day

Many lizards can detach their tails as a way to escape predators, hoping to leave their appendage behind and make their escape. But what about if you couldn’t grow that appendage back? Would the escape still be worth it?

Some South American scorpions in the Ananteris genus seem to willing to take that risk, even though it will eventually cost them their lives. When threatened, these scorpions will voluntarily amputate their tails around the 2nd or 3rd segment. If they then escape as intended, they’ll be alive but be left with a short stump to hunt and defend themselves with. They’ll try, attempting to strike with what used to be their stinger, but in the end they’ll only be able to eat what they can handle with their claws.

The reduced diet is only part of the problem though. The other concern, the one that starts the final countdown on their lives, is at the other end of the digestive spectrum.

It turns out that the scorpions’ anus is located in the detached tail segments. After the tail is separated, the stump heals shut, leaving no way for waste to leave the body. Over time, feces builds up in the scorpion’s body, until it proves to be fatally toxic or the carapace bursts open. In some cases you can even see the build-up under the scorpions exoskeleton.

So why risk such a…revolting and unavoidable death? Is there a critical bucket list to get to in the months between amputation and dying in your own filth? If you’re a male scorpion, a few more months may mean many more chances to reproduce. As such, males are much more likely to attempt this maneuver than females. Similarly, younger scorpions, who have more of their possible mating life ahead of them, are also less likely to throw in their stinger when in danger.

Source: How the Scorpion Lost Its Tail (And Its Anus) by Ed Yong, Not Exactly Rocket Science

On October 21st, 2014 we learned about

The virtues of a good thagomizer

As if thagomizers weren’t already cool, we now have indirect evidence that they were versatile and highly effective.

A huge, cone-shaped stab wound was found in an allosaur, most likely from a tail-strike of a stegosaur. The wound looks to have become infected and most likely proved fatal to the allosaur, which is impressive on it’s own.

The location of that wound is important too: the allosaur’s pubis bone, indicating that stegosaur tails were very flexible and dexterous.

“They have no locking joints, even in the tail,” Bakker explained. “Most dinosaur tails get stiffer towards the end.” But stegosaurs had massive muscles at the base of the tails, flexibility and fine muscle control all the way to the tail tip. “The joints of a stegosaur tail look like a monkey’s tail. They were built for 3-dimensional combat.”

The strike in this example would have required some sophisticated maneuvering, coming from under the allosaur while twisting. “That would have been well within the ability of a stegosaur, Bakker said.”

Source: Kung Fu Stegosaur, The Geological Society of America

On October 19th, 2014 we learned about

The final countdown on Northern White Rhinos

Suni, a 34-year-old Northern White Rhino was found dead on Friday in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. He was one of 7 northern white rhinos alive in the world, and one of only 2 breeding males.

While Suni was not poached, demand for illegal rhino horn has been the greatest driver of the rhinos’ looming extinction. Most of the poached ivory is sent to Asia, where it sells for higher prices than gold or platinum.

Suni was born in captivity, but had been moved to Kenya in hopes of facilitating breeding.

Source: Death of endangered northern white rhino leaves just six of the animals left in the world by Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith, The Independent