- Published on Saturday, 15 November 2014 22:21
Animals die, minerals replace organics over hundreds of years and, in the end, an entirely stone fossil is all that remains. This is doctrine in the world of palaeontology and it is doctine that is fast unraveling. In 2005 a team demonstrated that if you remove the minerals from a T-rex bone you have organic sludge left. They suggested it might be organics from the T-rex but the world shouted them down saying it had to be from modern bacteria. They then, in 2009, dug up a fresh dinosaur using techniques to reduce contamination and, using antibody and mass spectrometry techniques, revealed ancient proteins in the dinosaur bones that are only found in birds today. There was no way they could have been from bacteria, but this left a huge question... there were no humans around to preserve tissues in fermaldahyde - how could dinosaur proteins possibly get preserved???
Now new work is demonstrating that the answer is iron. A team found that the organic tissues that remain in fossils are laced with iron nanoparticles everywhere. This made them wonder if the iron in blood can play a preservational role. Keen to test this out, they soaked freshly slaughtered ostriches in either iron rich haemoglobin or water and watched how they reacted over the long term. The results are incredible. Read on in my article in The Economist.
- Published on Wednesday, 05 November 2014 22:16
In Origin of Species, Darwin proposed the idea that waterfowl could be important dispersers of aquatic organisms but nobody has rigorously tested this idea until now. On Appledore Island in Maine, there are nesting colonies of gulls and lots of small rock pools that are quite isolated from one another. The gulls bathe, swim, drink, play, fight, run, etc. in/through/between these pools and a team studying the pools came to wonder if the birds were dispersing rock pool organisms as they did so. The team looked at this by bathing birds and scanning them for hitch-hiking invertebrates as well as by monitoring how frequently the birds entered pools and how the diversity of the aquatic community related to the gull activities. They found that 38% of the gulls were carrying at least one living baby invertebrate on their legs that were just waiting to be dropped off somewhere new and exciting. One bird actually had 18 attached babies on its legs! Read on in my article in The Economist.
Photo courtesy of Vlad Lazarenko.
Deep sea spawning
- Published on Saturday, 25 October 2014 21:57
The deep ocean has long been viewed by biologists as a land of banishment. Species that are out-competed in the intense shallow water environments go there when they can get by nowhere else. Then, when those species go extinct, their place is filled by another loser from the shallows. At least, that has been the theory but a new finding is suggesting that things actually work the other way around and that the shallows have largely been populated by species that came to be in the mysterious fathoms below! Far from a land of banishment, the depths look to be the nurseries of the sea. Read on in my article in The Economist.
- Published on Wednesday, 15 October 2014 18:55
Oil spills kill a lot of animals off immediately as the oil clogs up their gills, soaks into feathers and poisons ecosystems. However, what their longer term effects are has been more of a mystery. It is hard to set up an experiment with two healthy populations and then have one hit by a million gallons of oil since spills are, by their nature, random catastrophes. Yet a team interested in exploring the long term ecology of spills has found an intriguing way around this problem by tapping into data from an experiment studying bird populations for other reasons just as an oil spill took place in the region. Roughly half the birds were hit by oil why the other half were not. Quite interesting stuff. Read on in my article on this in Nature.
Image courtesy of The Marine Photobank.
Something glowing on...
- Published on Thursday, 25 September 2014 16:19
After twenty-five years of hell, birds living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone show the scars of their suffering. Hideous cataracts, tumors, and dramatically shortened lifespans are all too common. Many species that once lived in the area have experienced dramatic declines or vanished entirely. Yet, some populations have endured and a few have even managed to thrive. Surprised by this, a team of biologists has braved the zone to study these survivors and discovered something remarkable: they have evolved radiation resistance. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Know when to fold'em
- Published on Sunday, 05 October 2014 19:06
In the world of gambling a lot of winners believe that their "hot hand" or winning streak will continue once it starts. Similarly, those suffering a losing streak expect such streaks to reverse. Curious about why people would believe such nonsense, a team of psychologists analysed gambler behaviour and found something astonishing. The phenomenon of the "hot hand" appears to actually be real. Winners truly do appear to enter winning streaks. Losers also tend to hit the same sort of thing, running into large patches of bad luck. Both it seems are effects created by the gamblers themselves. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Reprogramming the enemy
- Published on Monday, 15 September 2014 16:12
The bacterium E. coli makes a lot of people violently ill but, like something out of a science-fiction film, a team of scientists have just reprogrammed a batch of this nasty bacterium to do their bidding. More specifically they reprogrammed E. coli to sense another harmful species of bacterium that readily forms impenetrable biofilms and causes infections in hospital patients that are almost impossible to treat. They tested their reprogrammed bacteria out in the lab and made a number of fascinating discoveries. Read on in my article in The Economist.