83 posts tagged nature
Broody octopus keeps record-breaking four-year vigil
For four years and five months, she clung to the rock and guarded her eggs. In a feat that surely made good use of all eight arms, an octopus revealed a new secret of deep sea life when ecologists observed her record-breaking behaviour from a robotic submarine. This doubles the longest brooding time ever seen in the animal kingdom, giving embryos time to develop in the cold. The discovery, published in the journal PLOS One, was made in a canyon 1.4km beneath the Pacific, off California. Dr Bruce Robison led the research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). He told BBC News his team had stumbled upon the plucky mother in the days before she settled down and glued her eggs to the rock face. She was heading, slowly, for a known brooding site. By looking at characteristic scars in one of her eight armpits, the team identified the same octopus on the next dive, one month later. (via BBC News - Broody octopus keeps record-breaking four-year vigil)
Odds are, there’s a virus living inside your gut that has gone undetected by scientists for decades. A new study led by researchers at San Diego State University has found that more than half the world’s population is host to a newly described virus, named crAssphage, which infects one of the most common types of gut bacteria, Bacteroidetes. This phylum of bacteria is thought to be connected with obesity, diabetes and other gut-related diseases. The research appears today in Nature Communications. Robert A. Edwards, a bioinformatics professor at SDSU, and his colleagues stumbled upon the discovery quite by accident. Working with visiting researcher and corresponding author on the study Bas E. Dutilh, now at Radboud University Medical Center in The Netherlands, the researchers were using results from previous studies on gut-inhabiting viruses to screen for new viruses. In the DNA fecal samples from 12 different individuals, they noticed a particular cluster of viral DNA, about 97,000 base pairs long, that the samples all had in common. When Edwards and his colleagues checked this discovery against a comprehensive listing of known viruses, they came up empty. The researchers then screened for the virus across the database of the National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project (HMP), and Argonne National Laboratory’s MG-RAST database, and again found it in abundance in samples derived from human feces. To prove that the viral DNA they discovered in their computer data actually exists in nature, fellow SDSU virologist John Mokili used a technique known as DNA amplification to locate the virus in the original samples used to build NIH’s database. “So we have a biological proof that the virus they found with the computer actually exists in the samples,” Mokili said. This was a new virus that about half the sampled people had in their bodies that nobody knew about. “It’s not unusual to go looking for a novel virus and find one,” Edwards said. “But it’s very unusual to find one that so many people have in common. The fact that it’s flown under the radar for so long is very strange.”
Chimpanzee language: Communication gestures translated
Researchers say they have translated the meaning of gestures that wild chimpanzees use to communicate. They say wild chimps communicate 19 specific messages to one another with a “lexicon” of 66 gestures. The scientists discovered this by following and filming communities of chimps in Uganda, and examining more than 5,000 incidents of these meaningful exchanges. The research is published in the journal Current Biology. (via BBC News - Chimpanzee language: Communication gestures translated)
Quantum state may be a real thing
Physicists summon up their courage and go after the nature of reality.
At the very heart of quantum mechanics lies a monster waiting to consume unwary minds. This monster goes by the name The Nature of Reality™. The greatest of physicists have taken one look into its mouth, saw the size of its teeth, and were consumed. Niels Bohr denied the existence of the monster after he nonchalantly (and very quietly) exited the monster’s lair muttering “shut up and calculate.” Einstein caught a glimpse of the teeth and fainted. He was reportedly rescued by Erwin Schrödinger at great personal risk, but neither really recovered from their encounter with the beast. The upshot is that we had a group of physicists and philosophers who didn’t believe that quantum mechanics represents reality but that it was all we could see of some deeper, more fundamental theory. A subclass of these scientists believed that the randomness of quantum mechanics would eventually be explained by some non-random, deterministic property that we simply couldn’t directly observe (otherwise known as a hidden variable). Another group ended up believing that quantum mechanics did represent reality, and that, yes, reality was non-local, and possibly not very real either. To one extent or another, these two groups are still around and still generate a fair amount of heat when they are in proximity to each other. Over the years, you would have to say that the scales have been slowly tipping in favor of the latter group. Experiments and theory have largely eliminated hidden variables. Bohm’s pilot wave, a type of hidden variable, has to be pretty extraordinary to be real.
This has left us with more refined arguments to settle. One of these is about whether the wave function represents reality or just an observer’s view of reality. (via Quantum state may be a real thing | Ars Technica)
Darwin’s Abominable Mystery
Where did flowers come from?
Why flowers, anyhow? Plants began to conquer the land more than 400 million years ago and ruled over it for more than 250 million years without producing a single blossom. Why should they have? Flowers are expensive. Sepals, petals, pigments for color, organic compounds for scent: Creating those fancy clothes and complex perfumes takes a lot of stored energy. Instead of manufacturing flowers, a plant could have used those carbohydrates to make more seeds or grow taller, both proven strategies in the competition for survival. Besides, there seems to be nothing in gymnosperms (nonflowering plants) that corresponds to flowers. Angiosperms (flowering plants) seem to have arisen out of nothing, sui generis. Nonetheless, blossoms—from the oak’s minuscule brown nubs to the green spikelets of rice to the multipetaled splendor of the rose—appear on at least 75 percent of all the world’s plant species. The why and how of angiosperms, Darwin wrote in 1879, are “an abominable mystery.” The mystery still has not been fully solved. Part of the difficulty is that flowers have always been fragile and when they die, they fall apart into easily scattered and perishable pieces. The fossil record of early flowers is therefore exceedingly scant. In recent years, however, evolutionary botanists have come to think the living Amborella trichopoda will help solve the puzzle. (via Why flowers exist: The unlikely genetic mutation of the amborella flower.)
Life Magnified: The Alien Familiarity of the Cellular World
A new collection from the National Institutes of Health offers a zoomed-in perspective of the world.
Our universe is a vast and repeating tapestry of convergences. This how we experience it anyway, and in part because our brains are hardwired to recognize patterns. We can’t help but see the fractal echo of tributaries in a blown-up image of our own capillaries. And it makes sense that a network of Earth’s waterways might resemble a system of human blood vessels; it’s just not the sort of observation that most vantage points allow. Looking at something familiar from an unfamiliar perspective—often from very far away or from very close up—can be revealing this way. Such perspectives abound in science, where microscopes and telescopes allow us to access new worlds over extreme distances and through painstaking repetition. You can catch a glimpse of this world in a new exhibit curated by the National Institutes of Health called Life: Magnified, which includes remarkable scientific images—many come from NIH-backed projects—including a striking forest of gecko toe hair, the sunflower burst of a human liver cell, the fine spiderwebbing that creeps up blood vessel walls, and stunning solar systems of cells. The American Society for Cell Biology’s director calls it a “dazzling trip through the cellular world, which is both foreign and as close as [your] own skin.” (via Life Magnified: The Alien Familiarity of the Cellular World - Adrienne LaFrance - The Atlantic)
Why Do I Study Physics? Physics is a complex discipline, one that simultaneously illuminates and beguiles. Though it promises to make sense of a chaotic world, and find order in disorder, it can be as confounding as it is enlightening. In her short animated documentary Why Do I Study Physics?, Xiangjun Shi finds beauty in both the orderly world of physics and the chaos of real life. Touching on concepts as diverse as gravity, time, and parallel universes, she offers a personal response to the fundamental questions that physicists are trying to answer. But her film is also a celebration of the mystery of unanswered questions: for Xiangjun Shi, there is as much joy and beauty to be found in the pursuit of knowledge as there is in its acquisition. Director Biography: Xiangjun Shi is an independent animator and filmmaker based in New York City, who also goes by the name of Shixie. An immigrant since a tender age, she has lived in China, the UK, Singapore, Russia, and now the US. This has made her determined to use her work to break down the communication barriers between people, both across cultures and between academic fields. Her works have been featured in local and international film festivals, and she is versatile with a variety of animation techniques, ranging from classical hand-drawn to 3D. Her clients have included Google, Daptone Records, Adult Swim, PBS, CNBC, and Sundance. Director: Xiangjun Shi Producer: Xiangjun Shi Running Time: 3 minutes Language: English
Can Whales and Dolphins Make Mental Maps?
The brains of cetaceans—dolphins and whales—differ from those of other mammals in a number of ways, but one of the most striking differences is the size of the hippocampus. As a general rule, the larger the size of a mammal’s brain, the smaller the fraction of it that the hippocampus occupies, so dolphins and whales would be expected to have a small hippocampus in any case. But the cetacean hippocampus isn’t just small; it is so tiny that it barely exists. The relative size of the cetacean hippocampus was recently quantified by a group of researchers led by Paul Manger (Patzke et al, 2013). They examined data on the size of the hippocampus in several hundred species of mammals, including several species of whales and dolphins. They found that a plot of hippocampus volume versus total brain volume yields points that are almost all clustered tightly around a smooth curve—but the points for cetaceans are outliers. Their hippocampal volumes are only 8 percent to 20 percent of what would be expected on the basis of total brain size. No other type of mammal comes close to matching that. Even the hippopotamus—the nearest living relative of cetaceans—has a hippocampus size close to what the main trend line predicts Manger’s group also found another striking difference between the hippocampus of cetaceans and other mammals. The hippocampus is one of only two brain areas that are known to show neurogenesis (creation of new neurons) in adult mammals (the other is the olfactory bulb). Manger and his colleagues examined the hippocampus of 71 species of mammals and found evidence for adult neurogenesis in all of them except the ones from cetaceans. Manger has long been known as a skeptic about the intelligence of dolphins and whales, and he interprets the data as additional evidence that their brains are not as sophisticated as the brains of other mammals. It is interesting, though, to think about the findings in light of current theories of hippocampal function. At a general level, the small size of the cetacean hippocampus and the absence of adult neurogenesis both suggest the same conclusion: whatever function the hippocampus performs, dolphins and whales don’t have as much need for it as other mammals. (via Can Whales and Dolphins Make Mental Maps? | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network)
Sexual Healing: Bonobos Use Sex to De-Stress
Bonobos have earned a reputation as a “sexy” ape. Sexual activity — in many creative forms — plays a large role in bonobo society. Sexual contacts occur often, in virtually all partner combinations and in a slew of different positions. Bonobo society is also known to be more egalitarian and peaceful, especially compared with their close relatives, chimpanzees. However, conflicts still arise in bonobo groups. Zanna Clay and Frans de Waal of Emory University are studying how bonobos use sex after conflicts. I recently asked Zanna about watching bonobos and interpreting the role of sex in making up. (via Sexual Healing: Bonobos Use Sex to De-Stress | Science Blogs | WIRED)