Friday, 30 March 2007

Beauty contest

So my last two blogs have been a bit technical, but perhaps some of you have learnt something from outside your normal areas of interest. So I thought for a little break, and to let your brains recover we could have a beauty contest. My collegues have referred to this as gratuitous volcano-porn, but what the hell its friday afternoon! So which of these four beauties gets your vote as the most beautiful volcano?

First up: Mount Fuji, Japan. One of the m
ost famous volcanoes in the world, and looking at this picture it's clear to see why.

Secondly: Mount Stromboli, Italy. Stromboli is famous for its "fire-fountains" and shown in tihs picture is a perfect example.

Thirdly: Kilauea, Hawaii. This low viscosity basaltic magma pouring from the volcano produces these spectacular lava flows.

...and last but not least: Parinacota, Chile. Its difficult to pick the "most beautiful" volcano from the Andes as there are so many equally fine candidates. However, for me Parinacota has just a little something extra.

So, the contestants are lined up and waiting for you to decide which of them is most worthy of the title "most beautiful volcano". Cast your votes!

Thursday, 29 March 2007

New discovery in Greenland changes our view of early plate tectonics

An exciting discovery was reported in Science this week as evidence of plate tectonics occurring 3.8 billion years ago turned up in Greenland. Plate tectonics is the large-scale movement of the Earth's crust. New ocean floor is made by the spreading apart of these plates at ocean ridges. It was previosly thought that during Earth's early years it was too hot for this process to have occurred in the same way as it does today, and some other methods of heat loss have been suggested instead. However, the recent discovery of ophiolite sequences (ocean crust that is exposed on land) in Greenland has confirmed that the same ocean spreading senario thought to happen today also occured 2 billion years earlier than previously thought.

For further info check out:

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Recent volcanic activity: New Zealand

So there's been quite a lot of volcanic activity in New Zealand in the past few weeks...

Firstly there was a small eruption on White Island, a volcano in the Bay of Plenty off the coast of New Zealand's North Island. White Island is one of New Zealands touri
st hotspots (literally), with multiple boat trips there every day for entrepid explorers to see bubbling acid lakes and mud pools whilst they wander around inside the crater. Not for the faint hearted. The photo of me to the right is from when I visited White Island in 2005. Its true what they say, sulphur hydroxide smells BAD. The recent eruption here was only small, with mild associated seismic activity but I wonder whether this day trips will continue nonetheless? Hmmm... I dont think I'd be happy walking around in a VERY recently active volcano. Would you?

Secondly, when the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu was breached last week a moderate sized lahar was formed. Luckily the emergency response worked "like clockwork" and no one was harmed. For those of you who are unfamiliar with lahars, these are cold volcanic mudflows usually triggered by a sudden release of water mixing with volcanic material causing a flow. Lahars are a comparatively unknown volcanic hazard, but they are one of the deadliest. When Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia, erupted in 1985 pumice and other rock debris combined with melted snow and ice to produce lahars which combined to form a 50 m thick flow travelling at over 60 km/hr. More than 23,000 people died, testament to the highly destructive and hazardous nature of lahars.

Revealed: "Guess the volcano"

Well there's been a fine frenzy of activity! We had some interesting suggestions, and now its time to reveal this volcano's identity. Yes its Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Thanks everybody for having a guess and well done John Hopkin for guessing correctly. You win a gold star...

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Hello and "Guess the volcano"

Hello! So this is Janine taking over Sarda's blog for a few days. Things may prove to be a little different to what you're used to... But to ease you in I thought we could play a game... You're all experienced I know with Sarda's "mystery fossil" feature, but see how you do with guessing which volcano this is:

Given Sarda's usual blog themes I can imagine a lot of you are either palaeontologists or biologists, and consequently may be unfamiliar with looking at volcanoes. So here is a hint: this is the second tallest active volcano in the world (bit controversial, some would say it is the tallest), and it's my favourite by the way...

Monday, 26 March 2007

Meet Janine...

As I mentioned last week, I will be travelling to India for two weeks, during which time my colleague, Janine Kavanagh, has graciously agreed to fill-in. Janine is a PhD student at the University of Bristol working in the field of volcanology. Her interests include studying the dynamics of kimberlite eruptions, these are ancient volcanoes that can erupt diamonds. Unfortunately there have been no kimberlite eruptions in recorded history, which makes this magma relatively rare, but economically important, a bit tricky to understand.

Some things she will be blogging on include recent volcanic activity in New Zealand, some bizarre festivals that you might like to attend this year, an "ode to purple", and there will even be a "mystery volcano" of which you can try and guess the name and location. Who could resist?

Hello Carlos!

My colleague, Carlos Grau has started write a humorous column for the PalArch newsletter. Check out his first column and grinning face on page one

Bears Hunt Belugas

This is my third polar bear post in a month, after posting about polar bear/grizzly hybrids and the orphaned polar bear cub, Knut I hope you’re not getting tired of them, they are fascinating creatures.

Polar bears live a feast and famine lifestyle. They are large animals (an adult males weighs 300-600kg) that live in the freezing tundra so they have huge metabolic needs. They normally prey on ringed seals but will eat almost anything they can catch, including walruses, birds, eggs and occasionally they supplement their diet with a big, juicy, beluga whale!

Beluga whales are distinctive for their pale skin and large melon shaped head. These animals can grow up to 5m (16ft) in length and live in large pods, mainly in the Arctic and Canadian Subarctic. Belugas live close to coastlines and in winter they occasionally become trapped in savsatts, small openings in ice packs. Belugas can find themselves the victims of shrinking savsatts, which they use to breath. Each animal will take a turn coming up for air and in the worst of winter, their movement is all that keeps the savsatt open.

Hence an opportunity that a wandering polar bear may chance by and certainly one he can’t resist. The bear will jump in the water, clubbing the trapped whale with his paw and gorging it with his claws. It may take several attempts but the bear usually succeeds in his catch and drags the whale’s carcass on to the ice for a feast. Other polar bears will share in the prize and any leftover kill will be happily devoured by scavenging arctic foxes and gulls.

If you find this post interesting I encourage you to also check out Darren Naish’s very cool post on Wolf-Hunting Eagles!

More information can be found at Polar Bears International.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Friday’s Mystery Fossil Revealed

Well here it is! Friday’s mystery fossil is an acanthodian, an ancient group of fish which include the earliest known jawed vertebrates. The mysterious bivalve-like structure is actually the pectoral fin of Brochoadmones milesi from the Devonian of Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Congrats to The Brummell who came closest with the suggestion that the spines were of an ancient shark, similar to the modern spiny dogfish (
Squalus acanthius). Indeed, acanthodians share many characteristics with sharks.

That was extra tough, don’t worry the next one will be easier!

Hanke, G.F. and Wilson, M.V.H. 2006. Anatomy of the Early Devonian acanthodian
Brochoadmones milesi based on nearly complete body fossils, with comments on the evolution and development of paired fins. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26:526-537.

A prehistoric tale of a Italian whale

Fossils turn up in the most unusual places. Simone Casati, an amateur paleontologist, was exploring the famed vineyards of Italian winemaker, Castello Banfi, when he came across a small piece of bone poking out of the soil. He started digging and realized that he had unearthed more then he had e anticipated: a 10m (33ft) long skeleton of an ancient whale.

The rich soil of the vineyards was laid down five millions years ago in the Pliocene, a time when Tuscany was covered by a warm, shallow sea rich in fauna.

The skeleton, which resembles a modern rorqual whale, is almost complete and well preserved. It belongs to the group of large baleen whales that includes the blue, humpback, and fin whales.

The excavation team, led by palaeontologist Menotti Mazzini of the University of Florence, are working on a month long excavation, after which the skeleton will be removed to be cleaned and restored. The winery has requested permission from Italy's Department of Cultural Heritage to host the fossil and display it to the public in Banfi's museum.

Cristina, M. March 23, 2007. Ancient Whale Fossil Uncovered in Tuscan Vineyard. National Geographic News.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

UFO (Website) Traffic and Crash

UFO’s caught my attention last week when I was looking at my traffic stats. Most of my traffic comes from the usual suspects: blogger, technorati, other science blogs, and return visitors that login directly but a small slice of the pie chart caught my eye. Last week about 7% of my visitors came from an unusual source, UFO Review Magazine, an eclectic mix of astrobiology, cryptozoology, space, archaeology, palaeontology, evolution, science, and even a healthy dose of conspiracy.

Coincidentally another UFO website has made the news. France's national space agency (Centre National d'Etudes spatiales - CNES) has declassified its UFO files and made them available to the public through a new website. The website documents all reported UFO sightings over fifty years. The website has drawn so much attention, that visitors have crashed the site, which remains virtually impossible to access.

The fervor stems from the fact that France is the first country to fully open its UFO files to the public. Other governments, including the UK and the US, collect data on UFOs but files can only be requested on a case-by-case basis.

There have been 1,600 reported UFO cases in France since 1954, evidenced by some 10,000 documents, including police reports, photographs, and videos that are now available to the public. Enjoy!

Gateway to India

Next week I will be travelling to India. The primary purpose of my 10 day trip is to see family, but I will also find time to do a few other things: see the spectacular Taj Mahal (again:), ride an elephant, explore ruined forts, visit bazaars and hopefully spot a tiger or two.

However, despite my absence, you can look forward to regular postings on this blog since my colleague, Janine Kavanagh, has graciously agreed to fill-in while I am away.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Monday Preview

Polar bears: These amazing animals are a continual source of fascination. Though their diet mainly consists of seals, they will prey on just about anything they can sink their claws into, including a species three times larger then themselves! Check back Monday to read all about it.

Hinterland Who's Who

If you grew up in Canada, you will remember television programming punctuated by the Hockey Night in Canada theme, stamp commercials ("A moment of our heritage") and of course the distinctive flute music and monotone narration of John Livingston, on Hinterland Who's Who.

Well I just found out HWW has been modernized and still around on tv and the internet. Check out the website at It is has a simple clean style, easy navigation and lots of great info about Canadian wildlife. And of course, if you leave your speakers on you can hear the distinctive musical refrain when you enter the site.

Finally, a hilarious HWW parody:

Creature Feature: Attack of the Nuclear Colossal Squid!

You may recall last week I wrote a post about a 10m (33ft) long Colossal Squid weighing almost 500 kg (1,100lb) that was found in Antarctic waters. The squid was kept frozen by fisherman until the ship came home to New Zealand.

And now scientists are pondering how to thaw out the squid evenly. Zoologist, Steve O'Shea of the of Auckland University of Technology, said it could take days for the creature to defrost at room temperature - meaning that the outer flesh could rot by the time the centre thaws. So one option is an industrial-sized microwave oven that could be used to defrost the animal evenly before it is embalmed. Scientists and curators at New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa would like to preserve the amazing specimen for detailed study and display.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you Steve, you know what happens when you radiate animals: they grow gigantic and attack the city!

Friday's Mystery Fossil

HINT: The feature running across the top of the picture will tell you what kind of (vertebrate) animal it is and the feature in the bottom right hand corner will narrow down the group.

Tough one! Any guesses?

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Hundreds of Americans queue to taste sheep testicles

Continuing our forage into something a little different today:

At the 16th Annual Mountain Oyster Fry in Virginia City, Nevada, hundreds of people joined a queue an hour long to taste something different. 130 pounds of ‘prairie oysters’ were given out at the event last Saturday.

The meat is apparently versatile, tender and recipes can be served in a variety of ways including sauteed, barbecued, or stuffed. Check out recipes.

Japanese moms turn lunchboxes into art

Something a little different today. No palaeontology, just some oddball phenomenon from around the world.

The typical Japanese family's kitchen is changing. Stay-at-home moms are investing in sketchbooks, drawing boards, tweezers, nail scissors and scalpels to create culinary wonders. The traditional Bento box (lunchbox) is getting a makeover. Most school children pack a bento box every day and they are frequently purchased by office workers in train stations, convenience stores and cafeterias. But take a closer at what the kids are bringing to school these days.

Fewer kids and increased household income means that housewives are finding more time on there hands to cater to their children’s needs and desires. Combining classic Japanese precision and aesthetics with a desire to create delicious, nutritious and exciting meals for their children has led many women to create amazing edible wonders.

Trendy artistic themes include seasonal motifs, cartoon characters, animals and food. The 'watermelon' above is made of seaweed, avacodo, salmon, and black seseame seeds for the pips. The details are prized by kids who take great pride in their mother’s efforts.

Housewives have featured their lunchbox exhibitions in cookbooks, online journals, and tv programs such as Yayoi Brown's creations. One woman has even started a blog, Rico & Coco, dedicated to her art.

Call me old fashioned, but I think it is mad to spend hours meticulously creating a work of art that will be gobbled down by a six year old in five minutes flat.

Food imitates art imitating food

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

In the News...

Big news in palaeontology this week, Graeme Lloyd posts on yet another gliding reptile in This Life is a Fiction, Matt Celeskey discusses Oryctodromeus, a burrowing dinosaur in his blog, The Hairy Museum of Natural History and Michael Ryan declares that T. rex Wins By A Nose in Palaeoblog.

What was the biggest dinosaur?

If you’re a palaeontologist you’ve heard this question a thousand times. And if you’re not a palaeontologist you might wonder why you never get the same answer twice. Well you see the annoying part of palaeontology is that the most spectacular animals are sometimes only known from a single bone or sometimes a fragment of a bone and so ‘reconstructing’ that animal can be incredibly difficult (and controversial).

The famous French naturalist, Georges Cuvier once said
"Today comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged, above all if that bone belonged to the head or the limbs. ... This is because the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal's body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that - up to a point - one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa."

This principal is key to the reconstruction of many giant sauropods, which are often found as disarticulated, isolated specimens and historically, estimates of their size have varied dramatically. The other day, my nephew, Ben and I were debating whether sauropods were the largest animals that ever lived on Earth. Ben felt very strongly for the ‘for’ side while I was in the conservative camp of ‘against’ because I thought that while sauropods came close, they did not exceed the size of Blue Whales (about 30-33m long and 150-170 tonnes). Well according to Ken Carpenter's most recent estimate, pictured below by Matt Celeskey, Amphicoelias fragillimus may have been an amazing 58m (190ft) long! If you want to read more about how this estimate was made, visit Matt's wonderfully entertaining blog, the Hairy Museum of Natural History.

Left back:
Amphicoelias fragillimus - estimated to be 58 m (190 ft) long
Left front:
Seismosaurus hallorum - 33m (110ft) long
Middle: Human,
Homo sapiens - 1.8m (6ft) tall and African Elephant, Loxodonta africana - 4m (13ft) tall
Medial right:
Argentinosaurus huinculensis - estimated 30m (98ft) long
Furthest right:
Puertasaurus reuili - estimated at least 35m (115ft) long

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Survival of the fittest: GM malaria-resistant mosquitoes out compete diseased relatives

A team of researchers announced today that they have genetically modified a species of mosquito resistant to the malaria Plasmodium parasite. And that these GM mosquitoes out compete their relatives because the infected mosquitoes suffer from effects of the disease. Experiments showed that from a population of equal proportions, nine generations after the insects fed off of malaria-infected mice, 70% of the bugs were the malaria-resistant type. This picture shows a GM mosquito, whose eyes glow green because of a second modified gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP).

I have strong beliefs about the genetic modification of foodstuffs because 1) we are casually tinkering with genomes nature spent millions of years fine-tuning - what makes us think we know what we are doing? Some times science has unexpected consequences. And 2) The desirability of ‘superior’ crops and livestock produced through selective breeding and genetic modification have created monocultural populations which are hypersensitive to environmental change and disease.

However, in the case of agriculture, most ‘tinkering’ is uneeded effort; in the case of malaria, a solution could prevent one million deaths each year. Will this disease be controlled by introducing GM insects into wild populations? Not in the near future, but may be someday.

Mauro T. Marrelli, Chaoyang Li, Jason L. Rasgon, and Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena. March 19, 2007. Transgenic malaria-resistant mosquitoes have a fitness advantage when feeding on Plasmodium-infected blood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Would this bear be better off dead?

Thanks to Janine for forwarding a BBC news story about a polar bear cub, estranged from its mother, being raised in a German zoo. While zoo curators say the bear is well kept, activists have stated that raising a polar bear in a domestic environment is inhumane and call for the three month old cub to be killed.

Click here to Watch the video.

Story of a Grizzly - Polar Bear Hybrid

The current issue of Nature celebrates Linnaeus’ 300th birthday with a series of editorials, essays and features on the continuing work of taxonomists. One of the more provocative articles discusses the definition of species, including the status of the beloved polar bear,Ursus maritimus.

Polar bears are more closely related to some brown bears (Ursus arctos) then some brown bears are to each other. While the interrelationships of these species (and subspecies) is a surprise, it has long been known that the animals are closely related and has been evidenced (rarely) by the hybridization of the polar bear and the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis).

This hybrid, though extremely rare, has occurred in captivity and has long been storied in arctic legends. In 1864 biologist, Clinton Hart Merriam, described an animal killed at Rendezvous Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada as "buffy whitish with a golden brown muzzle". A century later, Clara Helgason remembers a bear shot by hunters on Kodiak Island during her childhood in 1943 as "a large, off-white bear with hair all over his paws".

The most recent sighting of the rare hybrid was made, unfortunately, after its death. On April 16, 2006, Jim Martell, a sport hunter from the United States, shot a grizzly–polar bear hybrid near on Banks Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. Martell had paid $50,000, for an official license and a guide to hunt polar bears in Canada’s arctic.

Martell shot what appeared, at a distance, to be a polar bear but officials noticed that beyond the thick, creamy white fur, typical of polar bears, the animal also had long claws; a humped shoulder, scoop-shaped snout and brown patches around its eyes. The hybrid was confirmed by a DNA test.

The government returned the carcass to Martell. Though the hybrid species has no conservational value (like white tigers), it is an amazing phenomenon and I am sad the hunter kept his prize. I think he should have been compensated and asked to donate the pelt to a museum where others could learn about the phenomenon.

Lastly, I will note that the US government is considering giving polar bears a ‘threatened’ status. The Canadian government has a different perspective as anecdotal evidence from aboriginals and official wildlife surveys indicate the polar bear population in Canada actually appears to be growing. This of course is a notion that doesn’t appeal fit well with proponents of climate change, but that is a debate for another posting.

Regardless of controversy surrounding these amazing animals I hate that the government advocates rich people throwing out $50,000 for the opportunity to shoot one of these creatures. It is one more example of how Canada continues to sell its natural resources and decimate its environment for a few greenbacks.

Marris, E. 2007. Linnaeus at 300: The species and the specious. Nature 446, 250-253.

Roach, J. May 16, 2006. Grizzly-polar bear hybrid found -- but what does it mean? National Geographic News.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Sometimes bad news….

This morning’s posting was a hopeful look at biodiversity so I am a little annoyed at having to post on an opposite story. In 2004 fleeting video footage caught a glimpse of ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) in an Arkansas swamp, for the first time since 1944. Birdwatchers and conservationists were elated by the news that the long-thought extinct bird is alive in North America, however recently, the woodpecker's existence has been questioned again.

Extensive searches have failed to find any more evidence of the animal’s existence and Dr. Martin Collinson of Aberdeen University has re-analysed the poor quality video. He has suggested that the mysterious bird may actually be a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) in flight. He cites the wing markings and the rate at which the creature flapped its wings as being more comparable to a pileated woodpecker than an ivory-billed woodpecker.

The Aberdeen researcher also argues that the missing bird's large size and colourful plumage (it is a dramatically coloured black and white bird with a red head) would surely have been spotted by now in the many follow-up surveys.

The 2004 video ignited hope that other extinct birds might be clinging to survival in isolated places and some still believe there is the lost bird will reappear. I hope they are right.

Sometimes good news….

This year did not start out well from a conservation perspective. On a macrocosmo scale, we faced the reality that the Baiji dolphin is likely gone forever after a 40-day search of the Yangtze River failed to locate a single member of the species. In 2006 the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) declared four species of French Polynesian birds as extinct and this year the United States Government realizes the need to classify the polar bear as a threatened species. We have a very rich variety of fauna in the world today, much of which is threatened by human expansion. Sometimes all we hear is bad news.

But today, some good (microcosmo) news: 60 years after the last sighting, a beetle thought to be extinct in the UK has re-emerged in South Devon. The short-necked oil beetle (Meloe brevicollis) was last seen in Chailey Common, Sussex in 1948 and was rediscovered by amateur entomologist, Bob Beckford, during a wildlife survey on National Trust land between Bolt Head and Bolt Tail.

The beetle gets its name from the highly toxic oil secretions it produces when threatened. Adult beetles lay about 1,000 eggs in burrowed soil, which hatch the next spring. The hatchlings crawl up vegetation and where they hitch a ride on the back of a mining bee. They are taken back to the hive, where they devour the bees’ eggs and the protein-rich pollen stores the bee intended as nourishment for its own larvae.

The National Trust says that natural habitat of the beetle and the bee has been decimated by intensive farming practices. The coastal strip of land where the oil beetle was discovered has been managed as ‘low intensity’ farmland, creating a habitat where the beetle could survive undisturbed.

This site will now be studied, monitored and managed to help ensure these creatures flourish.

"The discovery of a beetle that was thought to be extinct for nearly 60 years is an amazing story of survival, particularly for a species with such an interdependent lifecycle. It's great that this oil beetle, with its fascinating lifestyle, has survived against all the odds and is back in business on the south Devon coast."
-David Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation, National Trust

Image and original story from the BBC

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Friday's Mystery Fossil Revealed

Congratulations to Mambo Bob for his response. Friday's Mystery Fossil was indeed a theropod and specifically a Tyrannosaurus but not Sue of the Chicago Field Museum. Rather, the picture is of a specimen at Palais de la découverte in Paris. Also, points Malacoda for his imaginative guess (an obvious asset in palaeontology:)

The image may be familiar to some as it was featured in my January posting, CSI: Garfield County.

Image copyright ©2005 David Monniaux.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

This is one of my favourite videos of all time, particularly because of the cute mudskippers featured at the end. As is obvious by the title of my blog, I find the idea of fish with feet fascinating. So before you get to the video, a little indulgence:

Mudskippers are a group of marine fishes that are unique in that they have adapted a suite of characteristics to suit an amphibious lifestyle:

* Weight bearing limb structure
* Cutaneous air breathing (breathing through skin, mouth and throat)
* Ability to dig burrows for protection (from predators and for their nurseries)

All of these characteristics as well as their widespread sub tropical to tropical distribution means mudskippers have a lot in common with the first tetrapods. However unlike the first tetrapods, mudskippers are small: about 15cm long (the first tetrapods were large, some as big as 150cm) long and mudskippers eat crabs and insects (not fish).

Friday, 16 March 2007

Found: $20 million of marijuana

I can’t get over the stupidity of this situation: A truck of marijuana with an estimated street value of $20m (£10.3m) was left abandoned on a road in the city of Ontario, California.

The shipment was found when a patrolman stopped to help anyone that may have been in the marooned rental van. He then smelled the strong, distinctive odour and investigating further, he realized the vehicle was unlocked, the engine was warm, and the expensive cargo was all neatly plastic wrapped, ready for delivery.

Perhaps the engine overheated, and the owner was forced to abandon the vehicle or perhaps he just forgot where he parked, either way I figure someone’s going to lose their job over this one.

Original story spotted on the BBC.

Friday's Mystery Fossil:

HINT: Because this photo isn't at a high enough resolution, you cannot see the fine serrations on edges of the individual elements.

Come on, this one isn't too hard. Any guesses?

White Tigers: Species Mortality and Conservational Value

White tigerIn response to inquiries after my previous blog entry, Macrocosmos and Microcosmos, I wanted to write about white tiger breeding and their conversational value.

First a quick history: white tigers are very rarely found in the wild. In about 100 years only 12 wild white tigers have been seen in India but they have long been a source of myth. They instill a sense of beauty and awe but folklore also calls them an omen of death, so while they are idolized by some, they are savagely hunted by others. This was the fate of one tiger, named Mohan, who was captured as a cub in 1951 by a Maharajah and his hunting party. Mohan was caged and was destined to father a significant portion of the world’s captive white tiger population.

Since the dramatic characteristics of white tigers are the result of a rare and recessive gene, all white tigers in zoos now are the descendents of Mohan or a other captive orange tigers whose recessive genes showed up through breeding programs. White tigers now represent a grossly disproportionate part of the captive tiger population compared to the natural world. The natural rarity of these animals and pressure from zoos and collectors to produce more white tigers means that current captive breeding pools go back to only a few closely interbred individuals.

"The white tiger controversy among zoos is a small part ethics and a large part economics. Owners of white tigers say they are popular exhibit animals and increase zoo attendance and revenues as well.”
- Dr. Ron Tilson, Conservation, Director of the Minnesota Zoo and Manager of the Tiger Species Survival Plan

Most genetic defects are recessive and so are masked by normal genes but with persistent inbreeding, genetic problems are amplified and accumulated resulting in disabilities and high mortality rates. Dr. Daniel C. Laughlin (Consultant for Big Cat Rescue) estimates that 80% of white tiger cubs die from birth defects associated with the inbreeding necessary to cause a white coat.

Of those surviving, most have such profound birth defects, such as strabismus (cross eyes), retinal degeneration, cleft palates, scoliosis of the spine, clubbed feet, as immune deficiency, and kidney abnormalities. This means that only a small percentage are suitable for display and are poor performers and so after the great expense and effort spent on breeding them, they cannot all be used for their intended purpose. In addition to the phyical problems associated with these animals there are also mental impairments such as depression and unpredictable behaviour.

Siegfried & Roy and their white tigersThe world’s most famous white tigers performed in Siegfried & Roy flamboyant Las Vegas show at The Mirage. The long-running closed its doors when one of the tigers attacked Roy Horn in 2003. The tigers are still housed at The Mirage who continue to use them as a tourist attraction.

“Siegfried & Roy have dedicated their lives to preserving these rare animals [white tigers], and their efforts have helped save them from total extinction.
- The Mirage, Las Vegas website

The Mirage gives the impression that white tigers are a race that needs to be conserved. The public is generally unaware of the strains on the captive tiger population and to use white tigers as a poster child of conservation is an abuse of the public’s faith. Conservation is occurring of a ‘non species’ white tigers survive in the wild but only in extremely small percentage, as long as we preserve a diverse range of the more ordinary orange tiger we will preserve the white tiger.

"The Tiger Species Survival Plan has condemned breeding white tigers … they serve no conservation purpose."
- Dr. Ron Tilson, Conservation, Director of the Minnesota Zoo and Manager of the Tiger Species Survival Plan

Colossal Squid Found!

Sorry, my blog has been a bit squid-heavy as of late but they are interesting creatures and this one definitely deserves a mention:

Vital Statistics:

Weight: 495kg (1,090lb)
Length: 10m (33ft)
Commonly: Colossal Squid
Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni
New Home: Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand's national museum

This amazing animal was caught last month by fishermen in Antarctica's Ross Sea. It is now on ice, awaiting examination and preparation for its permanent display in New Zealand's national museum. Once un-frozen, the creature will be embalmed and then preserved in a natural position.

The Colossal Squid was first recorded in 1925 after two tentacles were recovered from a sperm whale's stomach. Since then, only a handful of colossal squid have ever been sighted because they live very deep in the ocean. Two others were found in the Ross Sea, and one turned up near South Georgia in 2005.

Image from BBC website.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Borneo and Sumatra clouded leopards are seperate species

Graeme Lloyd and Darren Naish post on molecular differentiation of two Clouded Leopard species on their blogs, This Life is a Fiction and Tetrapod Zoology.

Return to the Robotic Salamander

Earlier this week I mentioned the Robotic Salamander featured in Science. Basically, researchers have determined that swimming and walking in a salamander is controlled by the same pathway, the difference in the actions being the level of neural stimulation. Engineers have built Salamandra robitica to emulate this action with surprisingly good results.

I think the simplicity of the mechanism is brilliant and when Jenny Clack came to the University of Bristol today I asked her opinion on whether the creators of the robot can really claim to shed light on "the evolutionary transition from swimming to walking". Disapointingly she did not have an opinion on the piece however I passed the article on to Emily Rayfield who is a biomechanics expert in our department, I will let you know if she has any insights.

Ijspeert, A. J., Crespi, A., Ryczko, D., Cabelguen, J-M. 2007. From swimming to walking with a salamander robot driven by a spinal cord model. Science, 315:1416-1420.

Would the Real Indiana Jones Please Stand Up?

After my birthday blog on Roy Chapman Andrews, Darren Naish commented that it is a myth that Andrews inspired Indiana Jones. I admit that this is a commonly told anecdote and that George Lucas never specifically cited a person as his inspiration for the character. He apparently told Steven Spielberg when they first discussed the movie trilogy in 1977 that he had been inspired by movie serials from the 1940s and the 1950s. Though these serials may have taken their inspiration from the real-life adventures of Andrews, he had retired by 1942. Other possible candidates for Indian Jones include:

*Professor Hiram Bingham III, an American academic, explorer and politician who rediscovered and excavated the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu in 1911.

*Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett a British archaeologist who disappeared in 1925 while searching for a lost city the Mato Grosso region of the Amazon jungle.

But perhaps the most interesting of ‘inspirations’ is religious archaeologist, Vendyl "Texas" Jones, who claims the fictional character was modeled after himself. He pointed out that by trimming his first name he could be ‘Endy Jones’ and claims his name made it into the movie by way of Randolph Fillmore, a science writer who attended one of his digs before writing the first draft of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While Lucas and Spielberg remain generally tight lipped about their inspiration, Spielberg has adamantly denied that Vendyl Jones had any influence over the Indiana Jones character. Lucas says that Indiana is the name of his Alaskan Malamute and that originally he had planned on using the name Indiana Smith (after the fictional western movie character, Nevada Smith) but that Steven Spielberg changed it to Indiana Jones. Also, Randolph Fillmore was not involved in writing the first draft of movie And fortunately, Vendyl Jones has now stopped making his claim.

Prairie Road Trips, Vampire Squids and Mr. Spock

bugs on a windshieldI grew up in the prairies and one of my favourite ways to relieve the boredom of long summer road trips was to examine the different bugs splattered on the windshield. I would try to figure out which bug each splatter was and I was fascinated by the ways some left green smears or bright, thick, yellow splats. It made me wonder why animals have different colours of blood and how many different colours there are.

Red blood cellsHumans blood is made of an amber coloured liquid called plasma and numerous red blood cells (about 25,000,000,000,000), which lend their colour to our blood. Each red blood cell uses haemoglobin (or hemoglobin) to transport oxygen, which gives our oxygenated/deoxygenated blood a bright/dark red colour respectively. With the exception of a few fish, all vertebrates use haemoglobin to carry oxygen.

I was surprised to learn how many other compounds are used by animals to carry oxygen. You may recall last week that I wrote about the vampire squid, which lives in the oxygen minimum zone (OMZ) of the deep ocean. In this hostile environment the vampire squid and many other animals use haemocyanin (hemocyanin) instead of haemoglobin to transport oxygen as it is much more efficient. Since haemocyanin is copper based, it gives the blood a bluish appearance.

Blue TunicatesPolychaetes, wormy sea creature, use chlorocruorin to move oxygen which makes their blood green when dilute, and vivid red at higher concentrations. Some bottom-dwelling worms and brachiopods use haemerythrin (or hemerythrin) an iron-based compound which is bright pink or violet when oxygenated. And vanadium chromagen, a pigment found in sea squirts, ascidians, and tunicates turns their blood green , blue or orange.

Back to the prairies: insects are quite different because they do not use pigmented oxygen carrying compounds which means bug blood is colorless, or sometimes yellow or green because of pigments in their food.

Mr. SpockSo maybe Mr. Spock could have green blood. Many movie monsters and aliens are inspired by the weird and wonderful side of Nature. You know the old proverb: Fact is stranger then fiction.