Science Scoops

Shouting Spiders!

The next time you shout at your brother or sister to “Go away!,” remember this: You’re behaving no differently than a bird-eating tarantula. Just ask tarantula researcher Sam Marshall of Hiram College, near Cleveland, OH. As reported in Discover magazine, Marshall’s worldwide studies of these hairy “eight-legged freaks” (arachnids, to be more precise) show that they display intriguing, mammal-like behaviors.

Take, for instance, the Goliath Birdeater Tarantula. Marshall discovered that it uses its abundant hair to scream! In fact, Marshall points out that the Goliath Birdeater makes the loudest sound of any spider — a hiss so creepy that it will raise the hair on the back of your head — even when the sound is heard from 10 feet away. The hiss, Marshall believes, is designed to scare off predators. (Little does Goliath know that it doesn’t need to hiss to keep humans away; we’ll just run on sight!)

How does the spider make its hairy hiss? Marshall says that the spider takes the two arms at the front of its head (the same ones it uses to handle food) and rubs them against the first two pairs of its walking legs. (Try doing that in your spare time!)

The rubbing motion is more like scrubbing, which creates a sound like two strips of Velcro being ripped apart. In fact, when these leg hairs were viewed under an electron microscope, it was found that they do indeed act like synthetic Velcro — the microscopic hooks of one set of leg hairs are entangled in the filaments of another and then pulled away from each other.

Just to be certain, Marshall did what any tarantula researcher would do — he put one of his spiders to sleep and then shaved one of its hairy legs (arghhh). When the Goliath awoke, Marshall taunted it and listened for a hiss. (Sure must be fun working with Marshall!) When the researcher heard the hiss, he put the spider back to sleep, shaved some more hair, and repeated the experiment — again and again, until the hissing stopped and Marshall discovered the hairs that caused the sound.

Whew! Well, if you happen to be in the Cleveland area and would like to see one of these “beasts,” try setting up an appointment with Marshall. Maybe he’d be kind enough to show you one of the 500 live spiders that he keeps in his lab — which is only the size of a large kitchen. Just be sure not to fall asleep, especially if Marshall is doing some shaving. . .

Snup Dog Cloned!

No, not the rapper (that’s Snoop Dogg). But meet Snuppy, which stands for Seoul National University puppy — the first dog ever to be cloned.

It took 1,000 embryos transplanted into 123 recipients, but South Korean scientists have finally managed to create a duplicate of an existing dog. Snuppy was made from the genetic material taken from an ear cell of a 3-year-old male Afghan hound, which was then placed into an empty egg cell in a female yellow Labrador retriever.

Snuppy entered the world on April 24, 2005. DNA tests revealed that his tricolor fur is genetically identical to his father’s. Thus, Snuppy joins a whole ark of animals — including sheep, mice, cows, goats, pigs, rabbits, cats, a mule, a horse, rats, and a rare wild ox — that have been cloned since Scottish scientists first cloned Dolly the sheep in July 1996.

Woo Suk Hwang of the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine led the South Korean team that created Snuppy. He and his fellow scientists maintain that this isn’t about perfecting a method of allowing pet owners to re-create their beloved friends all over again, but rather for scientific purposes.

Besides, some cloned animals to date have become ill and others have experienced shortened life spans. Dolly the sheep was put down in February 2003, halfway through the normal life span for her species. Would you have your pet cloned, even if it would live for only, say, half of its expected life span? Send your opinion to Give My Dog a Clone, c/o ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Dolphin Spongers!

Okay, everyone knows dolphins are intelligent and can do amazing things on command from a human. Now dolphins in Australia have been observed using tools!

Michael Krützen (University of Zurich, Switzerland) says that bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia, intentionally break marine sponges off the sea floor and wear them over their sensitive snouts like gloves when probing the sea floor for food. While most sea sponges are flat, the dolphins select conical ones that fit comfortably over their snouts.

A further look into these sponge users revealed that the majority are females. What’s more, through a DNA analysis, Krützen and colleagues found that most sponge users shared the same mitochondrial DNA, which is transmitted only through the female line — but not through the genes! Rather than passing these skills along genetically, the researchers believe that the skills are being taught by the mother to her offspring, though no one has ever seen this happening.

Dolphin daughters, more than dolphin sons, seem to take up sponging because, Krützen says, males “have a different social life than females, and this might restrict them from investing too much time in sponging, which is quite a solitary activity.” The males, in other words, would rather hang out with other males than go sponging on their own.

Butterfly Blinks to Survive!

If a butterfly flaps its wings in the forest, will a bird not eat it?

That depends on whether the bird sees the “whites of its eyes.”

Confused? Don’t be. All butterflies have curious spots on their wings, known as eyespots. The function of these spots has been a bit of a mystery. It’s long been theorized that butterfly eyespots are used in some way to ward off predators. But there has been little data to support the claim — that is, until Adrian Vallin, a zoologist at Stockholm University, Sweden, and his colleagues found an answer.

The researchers did what any true-blooded scientist would do. They took 20 peacock butterflies (Inachis io), inked out their eyespots, and then watched what happened when a bird predator was introduced to the scene. Hmmm.

Anyway, you can guess what happened. Vallin and her team found that 13 out of 20 butterflies with inked-out eyespots were eaten by the birds, compared to only one out of 34 butterflies with intact eyespots.

Apparently, when a butterfly is, say, resting with its wings upright and a bird comes along, all the butterfly has to do is open its wings to expose its eyespots — which might look like owl eyes to a skittish bird — and scare the bird away. The butterfly essentially escapes death with a bluff. Calling the butterfly’s bluff is a risky proposition for the bird, though.

Catching Flies: It’s a Snap!

Charles Darwin described it as “one of the most wonderful in the world.” He was referring to a plant that can snatch a fly within its clamshell-shape leaves in just 100 milliseconds. . .faster than the eye can blink! It’s called the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula), and scientists have long wondered how it can perform this spectacular feat.

What we do know is that the flytrap lures an insect into the jaws of death with a smell exuded from the inner surface of the leaf. When the fly walks on the leaf surface, a hair trigger is activated, causing the clamshell leaf to close. But how can a plant shut its trap when it doesn’t have the nerves and muscles of fast-moving animals?

Alas, American and French scientists now believe that they know the answer. And the answer is. . .(drum roll please). . .

Tensile strength! So says Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, a professor of applied mathematics and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. “Closure,” Mahadevan says, “is characterized by the slow storage of elastic energy followed by its release.” To prove it, Mahadevan and a team of investigators put microscopic dots of ultraviolet fluorescent paint on the external surface of the plant’s leaves. They then videotaped the leaves closing under ultraviolet light at 400 frames per second.

Here’s what the high-speed tape reveals: First, the plant bends back its rubbery leaves so that they are bowl-shape, rather like half a tennis ball that has been flipped inside-out. When it’s time to close the trap, the plant simply releases the tensed-up energy. The leaves instantly flip again — as if the half tennis ball has suddenly popped back to its normal shape. Their edges snap together, and the insect is trapped within.

Still to be explained: Just how does the signal to close the trap get transmitted from the hair trigger to the closure mechanism in the blink of an eye?

Fossil Croc Rocks!

If you think that crocodiles are one of the meanest, ugliest, most terrifying creatures to roam the waters today, then imagine floating in a canoe down a quiet Brazilian river only to encounter the fearsome Uberabasuchus terrificus (the terrible crocodile of Uberaba) — a 10-foot-long, 650-pound monster — following you on a river bank.

Wait a minute. . . .Some crocodiles today are larger than that! And why isn’t Uberabasuchus in the water?

Well, Brazilian dino-digger Ismar de Souza Carvalho, who recently found an almost completely intact fossil of the critter, says that this croc prowled the land! It carried its body high off the ground on sturdy legs and was a strong and voracious hunter!

There’s a good reason for the croc being a landlubber, too. This ancient species of crocodile lived 70 million years ago on the ancient continent of Gondwana — the huge land mass that ultimately split apart and formed today’s continents. Indeed, fossils similar to Uberabasuchus have been found in Africa and in Antarctica, continents that possibly were linked to South America, where Uberabasuchus was found.

Now, what’s really interesting, Carvalho says, is that despite some similarities with modern-day crocodiles, Uberabasuchus became extinct when the other great dinosaurs died out some 60 million years ago. So, it has no relation to today’s crocodiles! A croc that’s not a croc! Given this paradox, ODYSSEY thinks that you can come up with a better name for this confused critter. If you have one, send it to: “What a Croc!,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Shark Sense

Sharks, like stingrays, have the uncanny ability to detect electrical fields generated by other creatures in the ocean. Now, Jerry Mullison, a research specialist at the San Diego technology company RD Instruments, is working with two other firms and the U. S. Navy to find a way to use technology to mimic that sharp shark sense.

Why? you see, sharks use that special sense to hone in on other animals they consider prey. They can also use it to navigate the waters. Now imagine that shark is a military submarine owned and operated by the U. S. Navy. If it had “shark sense” it could roam the world’s waters and hunt down and capture enemy prey. It could also help ships navigate the waters around enemy mines.

The thought is a stroke of genius. But can it be done? “The experiment right now is still very much animal research,” Mullison told the Associated Press. “We are assuming that the sharks are going to be better at it than we ever could be.”

Let’s say, it can be done. How long will it take to implement? Mullison says perhaps two years to develop a prototype. So keep your senses locked in to the news.

Here’s the Poop!

Imagine. All this time we’ve been so worried about the contamination of Earth’s waters by industrial waste and other sources human-induced water pollution. But dig this latest scoop. Canadian pollution researcher Jules Blais (University of Ottawa) and his cohorts found a new major source of chemical contamination in the Arctic — bird droppings!

Yes these pigeons of the frozen air are fouling up the pristine Arctic by adding their waste to the environment. After studying several ponds below the cliffs at Cape Vera on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, the scientists reported that a colony of northern fulmars that nest on the cliffs, have dropped a bomb on pollution studies.

Blais calls it the boomerang effect. “Our study,” he says, “shows that sea birds, which feed in the ocean but then come back to land, are returning not only with food for their young but with contaminants as well. The contaminants accumulate in their bodies and are released on land.” (Well, that’s a nice way to put it.)

What’s the affect of bird droppings in the arctic? The research team found that it is 60 times that of any human-induced pollutants, such as mercury and DDT.

But here’s the interesting catch. You might say, “Quick! Get rid of the birds!” (Ah! Don’t you just love it when the solution to one problem is to literally “kill” another.) The fact is, if the seabirds were to disappear the whole ecosystem would disappear.

What to do? What to do?

The New Dinosaurs

There’s something new about dinosaurs you should know — namely, that much of what we know is wrong.

That’s the message from a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. For instance, did you know that the roughly 60-foot-long Apatosaurus — that famous long-necked herbivore that used to be called Brontosaurus — could hardly hold their heads up high? Computer studies have shown that these “towering” beasts held their necks like outstretched arms, parallel to the ground, not vertical to it! to graze, they swept their heads from side to side in limited horizontal neck movements. And what about “swift-footed” T. rex? In the movie Jurassic Park, we see that fast-moving terror out race a car. But it turns out that this sluggish beast was far too massive to be a speedy terror. In fact, it could gallop only at a clip of 7 to 10 miles (11 to 16 kilometers) an hour.

There’s lots more to learn. But seeing is believing. If you’re in New York this summer. Be sure to visit the exhibit, which is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, in collaboration with the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Chicago’s Field Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. It will remain on view in New York until January 2006, after which it will travel to the partner institutions. Tickets, which include general admission, are $19 for adults, $14 for students and seniors and $11 for children.

A Dol”fin” Rescue

It’s a fresh fish tale. . .er, tail. Fuji, a popular dolphin at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium — Japan’s largest — was stricken by a mysterious disease in 2002. To save her life, veterinarians had to remove 75 percent of her tail fin. Fuji survived, but she could no longer swim fast, nor could she jump.

Thanks to a remarkable surgery, the 34-year-old female fish is jumping and swimming swiftly once again with the help of a rubber fin. The artificial fin, weighing 4.4 pounds and measuring 20 inches across, is the creation of Bridgestone, Japan’s largest tire maker. “The most difficult part,” Shinichi Kobori, a spokesperson at Bridgestone, reveals, “was creating the smooth texture of the rubber so as not to scratch another dolphin’s skin.”

Bridgestone began working on the fin in 2003, but it wasn’t until August 2004 that the company was able to create one that was perfect for Fuji. It took five months, however, for the finicky fish to get used to it. The artificial fin cost Bridgestone about 10 million yen (95,000 dollars), but the company gave it to the aquarium for free.

Fuji’s fin doesn’t stay on all day, because it may fall off and be eaten or destroyed by other dolphins. Masaya Kowami, a breeder at the aquarium, says that putting on the artificial fin was anything but easy. But he also reports, “Visitors have told us that she looks happy.”

Stressed-Out Cats

Think your cat suffers from stress? It might! At least that’s what Scottish veterinarian Danielle Gunn-Moore and other cat experts at Edinburgh University believe.

Their study was prompted when doctors and cat owners became frustrated with the sudden onset of feline lower urinary tract disease. Most of the cases had no apparent cause. “This group of diseases of the bladder is most commonly seen in pedigreed, middle-age, overweight, male cats that don’t go out much, and eat a dry food diet,” Gunn-Moore said. But she also believes that stress could be a trigger. She set out “to identify differences in the cats’ environments and temperaments that might cause this condition.”

In the study, researchers compared 31 cats with bladder disease to 24 healthy cats in the same households. They also used a control group of 125 other healthy cats. What they found was that sick cats generally got more stressed by other cats. Moving to a new home also could be a stress trigger. Sick cats also seemed anxious over the addition of a new cat to the owner’s family.

What to do?

Well, the researchers suggest that cats with bladder illnesses should be fed wet food and encouraged to drink more fluid. They even suggest adding tuna-flavored ice cubes to water!

The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has welcomed the research. Spokeswoman Doreen Graham says: “We’ve always known that cats are extremely sensitive. This study highlights a problem more widespread than previously thought.”

Spider Man Survey

While popular, tarantulas — those thick, hairy, and harmless spiders — haven’t been the subject of much research. Until now, that is. Thanks to the efforts of Michael Warriner, an invertebrate zoologist for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, we may soon know more about tarantulas. . .at least in Arkansas. Helping in the statewide survey are third- through sixth-grade students at Newark Elementary School.

“This is rather a new thing for us,” Warriner says. “I’ve imagined that this is going to be a regular sort of thing. A citizen science study, devoted to groups that are kind of understudied, but that the general public can identify.”

Tarantulas can live a long time. Males can live about 10 years and females about 20 years; they don’t start breeding until they’re 8 years old.

Warriner’s survey was aimed at finding out which regions of the state have the spider and whether there is more than one species. It is generally believed that the only species in Arkansas is the “Texas brown.” From May through September last year, he recorded more than 700 sightings from program participants. “Most occurrences,” he says, “come from people’s yards, and they generally come from people who aren’t necessarily in the city.”

As of this writing, Warriner is beginning to get an idea of where tarantulas flourish in the state. Based on reports from 36 of Arkansas’ 75 counties, he says that he thinks that Arkansas has only the Texas brown tarantula and that it lives in dry areas such as glades and dry forest regions.

Depending on his findings, Warriner might try to change policy to protect the species. The state could buy private property and keep it as a reserve. It would be quite a tourist attraction, don’t you think?

You can find out more about Warriner’s survey at http://www.naturalheritage.com/tarantula.

An Old Sucker

What had a neck longer than a giraffe’s, lived in murky waters, and sucked on its prey like a vacuum cleaner?

Give up?

AAAS/Science; Illustration by Carin L. Cain

Well, unless you’ve already heard the news, you probably would have failed to guess this one. It’s Dinocephalosaurus orientalis (which means “terrible-headed lizard from the Orient”) — a new species of dinosaur, whose 230-million-year-old fossils were discovered in southern China by Chun Li (Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing). The creature, a protorosaur, appears to have been a carnivorous aquatic reptile that sported a neck almost twice as long as its 3-foot-long body.

While a giraffe’s neck has seven vertebrae, Dinocephalosaurus’s had 25! This sea serpent’s neck differed from that of the well-known plesiosaur, which evolved 30 million years later. The plesiosaur’s neck was more flexible than Dinocephalosaurus’s, which was very rigid. So Dinocephalosaurus could not have darted out of the water to seize its prey, as plesiosaurs are often imagined as doing.

Instead, Dinocephalosaurus may have been a stealth hunter, using its long neck to get close to its prey without disturbing the water and sending its prey scattering. According to the latest theory, fish saw only its small head through murky waters; when they came too close, the animal quickly expanded its formidable throat to suck in its dinner.

Weird Whale Worms!

Just when we thought we knew so much about worms, along come rubiplumus and frankpressi, two strange new species. Now, don’t go digging up your lawn to find these babies, because they live 9,400 feet below the surface of California’s Monterey Bay. They also belong to a new genus, Osedax, which is Latin for “bone eating.”

The worms were found on a whale carcass at the bottom of the bay. Robert Vrijenhoek (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, CA) says that they formed a “beautiful red carpet” on the whale’s jaws. The worms are tiny, measuring only one to two-and-a-half inches in length. Seen under the microscope, the little wigglers don’t have any eyes or stomachs. Nor do they have any mouths. But they do have feathery red plumes that serve as gills, and green “roots” that work their way into the bones of dead whales.

Vrijenhoek says that the worms digest the fats and oils in the bones of the whale. The fat turns into worm eggs, which the males fertilize. Interestingly, only the female worms eat the bones of the whale. (Hold on for the next surprise!) The tiny male worms (bursting with spermatozoa) live inside the females!

Once the eggs are fertilized, the larvae are carried away from the carcass to produce new worms or to be eaten and dispersed by other animals. “These worms appear to be the ecological equivalent of dandelions,” Vrijenhoek says. “They’re a weedy species that grows rapidly, makes lots of eggs, and disperses far and wide.” Why are they called rubiplumus and frankpressi? For their ruby plumes and for Frank Press, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences. But we think that you can do better. Send your suggestions to “Gross Little Things,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Birds Hit the Highways!

You’ve heard of homing pigeons? But how about highway birds? We all know that some species of pigeons — no matter how far away we take them — can find their way home on the first try. But researchers are now finding that other species of birds can also find their ways home — by using man-made highways as guideposts!

Peter Lipp (University of Zurich, Switzerland) and his colleagues decided to put this theory to the test. They glued tiny Global Positioning System (GPS) transmitters to a number of birds and released them over Rome, Italy. After three years, and more than 200 test flights (each about 31 miles long) later, the researchers studied the data.

What did they find? As reported in a recent issue of Current Biology, the GPS birds were more likely to follow roadways in the early and middle sections of their journeys, even if this sometimes made their trips longer. Apparently, birds that traveled the same routes multiple times were more likely to use highways as guides compared with pigeons making the trip for the first time.

Mutant Collies!

They’re all dogs! Believe it or not, intelligent collies, graceful whippets, and Old English sheepdogs may be related!

That’s right. After Mark W. Neff (University of California, Davis) and his colleagues studied a single mutated gene (called MDR1) in collies, they discovered the same one in several other “pure” breeds — including longhaired whippets, miniature Australian shepherds, silken windhounds, and perhaps standard Australian shepherds, Old English sheepdogs, McNabs, and Shetland sheepdogs. The researchers traced the gene back to a single animal that lived in England prior to the 1870s!

How can this be? Today, we take pure-breed dogs seriously. But before the days of dog shows and controlled breeding — aimed to keep breeds apart — dogs roamed freely. In fact, in the late 1800s, sheep owners used to use a variety of dogs to herd their flocks. Breed registries were later established to preserve the “purity” of the various dogs, with the collie, Old English sheepdog and Shetland sheepdog among the first so protected.

It’s understandable that various herding dogs could get together before breeding regulations. But what about the longhaired whippet, which isn’t a herder but a hunter? First, the longhaired whippet is an ancient breed. It was restored, the researchers say, in the 1950s by a single breeder — who also raised Shetland sheepdogs!

Then again, the researchers haven’t ruled out another possibility. You see, England’s Queen Victoria had collies, but she was also given a hound by Czar Nicholas II of Russia — so the gene could have been shared by them.

It’s a dog-meet-dog world after all!

A Whale of a Story!

Did you know that scientists have found a 35-foot-long whale in a rock quarry in eastern Virginia? It’s true! In fact, it’s no ordinary whale — it’s a whale of a new species!

This whale’s no landlubber. It’s actually the fossil of a whale that lived 14 million years ago when eastern Virginia was covered by a sea. The whale was found more than a decade ago by dino-bone hunters (paleontologists) from the Virginia Museum of Natural History, but they didn’t identify it as a new species until recently.

Museum bone digger Alton Dooley says the whale is older by at least 3 million years than those related to today’s giant blue and fin whales. It was also several feet longer than any other whale in its time. Larry Barnes (Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History), an expert in fossilized marine mammals, agrees. This "almost modern-looking whale" lived considerably further back in time than scientists realized.

Frigid Chipmunks

Now we go from the big to the small. We’re talking about chipmunks. Yes, a new study has found that, though chipmunks may be small, some were pretty hardy. In fact, new research has revealed that a group of them — living several thousand years ago in Illinois and Wisconsin — toughed it out through the last Ice Age rather than migrating south.

That’s the conclusion of Kevin C. Rowe, (University of Illinois) after performing some extensive DNA research on 244 chipmunks. The mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother, indicated that the animals came from 95 groups — and that 78 of those groups descended from ancestors who lived in the north and west. during the last Ice Age. Scientific theory has held that most animals would have fled south to escape the encroaching glaciers.

How did these tough little critters survive? Rowe says they lived in pockets of tundra and forest that the ice bypassed, leaving potential homes for animals. They would have had to survive there for perhaps 5,000 years, Rowe said. Now that’s a cold spell! Obviously they were good at gathering nuts.

Four-winged birds?

A new study of Archaeopteryx — the most famous bird fossil first discovered 140 years ago — reveals that the first birds were probably four-winged gliders. These creatures only later evolved into the sophisticated flapping fliers with light skeletons and two wings that we see today.

That’s the latest thinking, anyway. As reported in New Scientist magazine, zoologist Per Christiansen of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and dinosaur digger Niels Bonde of Copenhagen’s Geological Institute, say that Archaeopteryx had surprisingly modern-looking feathers clustered along its back, around the legs and possibly on the base of its neck. In fact, these feathers are similar to plumage seen on birds today.

But here’s the twist. Christiansen says the leg feathers measure just 3.5 centimeters long, which makes them too small to have been used in flight. These feathers could be the remnants of a hind wing that the Archaeopteryx’s ancestors used. In other words, the earliest birds could have had four-wings, that they used for gliding, not flying. These feathers, the researchers believe, most likely launched the evolution of flight.

Cicadas: They’re Coming Out!

This month you might want to buy some ear plugs. From late May through June, we will be invaded by an army of cicadas. After spending 17-years in the ground, billions of cicadas will dig their way out and molt into adults. Once out, they will sing a raucous, gnawing, and LOUD love song. What we will hear is a sound akin to a billion two-cycle chainsaw engines trying to get started.

But nature is fickle. After seeing the light for the first time in 17 years, they will immediately become a brief feast for birds, and, according to Scientific American magazine, "an incomparable opportunity for researchers." Fascinated naturalists have been writing about periodical cicadas for four centuries. William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, first described periodical cicadas in 1633, although Native Americans probably knew of the creatures before then. The 17-year life cycle was firmly established less than a century later.

This month’s cicada invasion will be perhaps the largest and best studied.

What do we know about them? Well, they first emerge somewhere east of the Great Plains almost every spring. And while some 3,000 species of cicada are known worldwide, the life cycle for only a dozen of them are known. Scientists this month will be focusing their attention on what triggers their synchronized appearances.

Crime Scene Insects

"CSI: Crime Scene Insects," a new exhibit making a world tour (booked through 2007), explores the rapidly growing field of forensic entomology — in other words, how maggots and insects found at a crime scene can provide investigators with clues and help bring murderers to justice (see the January 2004 "Crime Scene Science" issue of ODYSSEY).

"It’s really kind of exciting," says Lee Goff, the exhibits curator and chairman of the forensic sciences program at Chaminade University in Honolulu, HI. "It’s a chance to bring something to people that 20 years ago I don’t think anyone would have been interested in."

Here’s the buzz. The types of insects on a body and their stages of development can help determine the time elapsed since the death occurred. They can also provide clues to the cause of death, where the victim was killed, and whether drugs or other toxins might have been involved. For example, in Hawaii, blowflies will start laying eggs on a corpse within 10 minutes of death. The eggs, in turn, hatch into maggots, which morph into pupae, which emerge from their shells as adult flies. Other insects show up later, Goff says — some to nibble on the corpse, some to prey on the other bugs, some to do both.

Insects’ development is so predictable and their behaviors so reliable that courts allow them as evidence. "They’re predictable and they really don’t care," Goff says. "And as long as you do a nice objective analysis of what’s going on, and you kind of follow their trail of evidence, they’re going to bring you to the truth about what happened."

The interactive exhibit gives visitors of all ages and interest levels the chance to sort through insect evidence at simulated crime scenes, and then try to solve the cases "It’s a little graphic, but they see worse stuff on prime-time TV," Goff says.

The exhibition made its world debut at the Science Museum of Minnesota on October 25, 2003. By May 2004, the Science Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke, VA, will be its host. After that, the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, will host the exhibit in Spring 2005.

Walk This Way!

One of the lingering mysteries of the insect world — how insects (such as water striders) seemingly skate across the surface of ponds, rivers, and oceans — has come to an end. The secret is out. John Bush, a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, and his colleagues know the answer.

Water striders come in hundreds of different species. All can walk on, or skim across, water. They range in size from half an inch (one centimeter) long to 20 times bigger than that. For years, researchers believed that these watery lightweights move about by creating tiny waves. The thinking was that the insect could push backward against the face of a wave and move forward.

Water strider on the surface of a pond
Water strider on the surface of a pond
(Courtesy John Bush (MIT))

Lots of animals push. Humans push their feet against the ground. Birds push against the air. But the truth about the water strider isn’t that simple.

Bush and his research team used sophisticated tracking and a high-speed video camera to uncover the truth. The real secret to the bug’s motion, Bush says, is in its three sets of hairy legs. The water strider propels itself by using the hairs of its central pair of legs like oars. This action, like the oars of a rowboat, creates rearward swirling vortices that propel the insect forward at speeds of up to 60 inches (about 1.5 meters) per second. The vortices, by the way, are not spirals, but instead are an unusual "U" shape. Although tiny waves are created in the spirals, they are not the main driving force, Bush says.

To further prove their results, the Bush team created a mechanical water strider, called "Robostrider," based on the real thing. The robot — a soda can with stainless steel wire legs — has an elastic band and pulley at its middle (driving) legs. The results were the same.

The Beast From 20,000 Leagues. . .for Real?

In 1870, French novelist Jules Verne published his now famous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The book follows the fictitious adventures of Captain Nemo aboard his submarine, the Nautilus, which is attacked by a giant octopus some 40 feet (12 meters) to 60 feet (18 meters) in length. Of course, everyone knows that such creatures are just the stuff of legends, right? Well, now it’s possible that one such "beast" has washed up on shore, for real!

On June 29, 2003, a 13-ton, 40-foot-long, bloblike carcass was discovered on a beach in Los Muermos, some 680 miles (1,100 km) south of Santiago, Chile, along the country’s southern coast. "Based on the preliminary data," says Elsa Cabrera, director of the Center for Cetacean Conservation in Santiago, "we think that it could be a gigantic octopus."

If it is, the fabled Octopus giganteus, a massive species of octopus — like the one in Verne’s story — lives! (That is, if there are more out there.) Cabrera contacted some other scientists around the world, and they all agree, she says, that the initial findings point to an octopus. Just to be sure, though, a sample of the "blob" is being sent to specialists in France for further study.

Upon hearing the news, not all scientists are convinced. "It’s whale blubber," says Roland Anderson, an octopus expert at the Seattle Aquarium in Washington state, "or maybe a basking shark." These Octopus giganteus alerts, Anderson says, happen every so often, and go back hundreds of years. The "blobs," however, have always turned out to be either whale blubber or the decayed portion of some other large sea creature. Besides, Anderson says, a 13-ton octopus would have to be a lot bigger than 40 feet long. "Octopuses just don’t get that big," he said.

We’ll see. . .soon enough.

Black Cats have Good Luck!

The next time a black cat crosses your path, don’t panic. Instead, think about the recent research by Stephen O’Brien and Eduardo Eizirik, evolutionary geneticists at the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Maryland. If the researchers are right, dark fur has a survival benefit.

Here’s the scoop. The research began with a simple question: What makes a cat black? The scientists weren’t passing time. They had a gut feeling that the genes involved in making a cat’s coat turn black may also protect the animal against disease.

Well, O’Brien’s team did find the gene (called MC1R) that, when mutated, makes a cat’s coat turn black. In fact, O’Brien and his team said that they found that the black domestic cat, the jaguar, and the small South American jaguarundi each derive their black coloring from a different type of gene mutation.

MC1R is in a family of genes called 7-transmembrane receptors. A receptor acts as a doorway into cells and is often used by bacteria and viruses to infect cells. The HIV virus, for instance, enters cells through a 7-transmembrane receptor. So, the genes that give a cat its black coat are in the same gene family as those involved in acquiring human diseases like AIDS. Black cats with the mutated gene may be more resistant to disease than cats of other colors. Learning more about this gene might help in human disease research.

The discovery casts a new light on animals that at one point were even tortured by people who saw them as agents of the devil. "We have had black cats and they have been mythical all along," O’Brien says, "but now they have been demystified."

Lobsters Know the Way

Only a few species of animals are known to have "true navigation" –- meaning that they can find their way home even if transported to a totally different and unfamiliar environment. Most vertebrates are thought to be true navigators, but vertebrates make up only about one percent of all known living species. To date, only one species of "spineless" wonders (invertebrates) have been shown to be capable of true navigation, the Caribbean spiny lobster, Panulirus argus.

For most of the year, spiny lobsters spend daylight hours inside coral reef crevices, emerging at night to feed over considerable areas before returning in nearly total darkness to the same den. Spiny lobsters also show a remarkable ability to keep a constant course while migrating under water and to find their way even in darkness. Now researchers have discovered that they can also return to their feeding grounds after being displaced by some 12 to 37 kilometers.

Panulirus argus, the spiny lobster
Panulirus argus, the spiny lobster
(Courtesy Ken Lohmann)

How do the lobsters navigate so well?

To test a theory that spiny lobsters have a well-developed magnetic map sense, Larry Boles and Kenneth Lohmann (Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) captured lobsters, which they then relocated — some to the north of the capture site and some to the south. The result?

The lobsters relocated north of the capture site immediately oriented themselves southward, whereas those relocated south of the capture site oriented themselves northward. When instead of transporting the lobsters, the investigators simulated the values of the magnetic field that would be encountered at northern and southern sites, the lobsters showed the same responses. So true navigation in spiny lobsters, and perhaps in other animals, is based on a remarkable "magnetic map sense" similar to that found in newts and thought to play a role in the long-distance movements of other vertebrates such as sea turtles and migratory birds.

Migrating Penguins. . . in a Swimming Pool!

It’s true. Just ask San Francisco Zoo’s penguin keeper, Jane Tollini. She witnessed firsthand one of the most bizarre migrations on record — dozens of Magellanic penguins attempting a 3,200-kilometer migration in the zoo’s swimming pool.

Magellanic penguins in the wild normally migrate each year along the coast of South America from Argentina to Patagonia. The trip takes about six months. The pool saga began in November 2002, when six of the penguins, formerly of Sea World in Aurora, Ohio, were brought to the San Francisco Zoo and penned with that zoo’s 46 penguins. Suddenly, all 52 penned penguins at the zoo began doing something they hadn’t done before — daily circular laps in unison. Tollini says that the penguins would start swimming in circles early in the day and would rarely stop until they staggered out of the pool at dusk. "I can’t figure out how the Aurora penguins communicated and changed the minds of the other 46," Tollini says. But they did, and the penguins kept lap-swimming until they had completed the "migration" — 26,400 pool laps. (Penguins can swim up to 24 kph.)

But Christina Slager, associate curator at California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, has studied Magellanic penguins in the wild in Patagonia and Chile, and she is not surprised. Penguins, it turns out, are not only extraordinarily social animals but "very, very inquisitive," Slager says. Of course, you need to be more than inquisitive to join in such a feat. Indeed, aquatic biologist Pam Schaller (Steinhart Aquarium, San Francisco) says that penguins are not only social but also genetically designed to swim. "I’d be more amazed," Schaller says, "if the six had learned to do something not in penguin nature and showed the other 46 how to do it — like if the birds were trained to jump through a hoop."

Tracking Salmon Ears

When you hear the word "salmon," what comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you’ll say "a pink fish jumping up a stream." Or maybe "a fresh fillet." But ask Brian Kennedy that question, and he’ll probably reply, "Ear stones."

Kennedy’s not strange. While studying Atlantic salmon ears, the researcher in geological sciences at the University of Michigan found a naturally occurring chemical signature (from a type of strontium — a soft metallic element) in bony tissues, known as ear stones, in the salmon. What’s exciting about this discovery is that this chemical signature could help biologists track the seasonal movements of the endangered fish.

Salmon spend most of their life at sea, but return to their native river to lay eggs. Migrating fish move into their home streams in early summer and then swim upstream when conditions are right to spawn in late autumn. To follow the migrations now, scientists can monitor the strontium levels in the stream. If they see a significant change, they’ll know that the salmon have arrived.

Basking Sharks on the Move!

New findings about endangered basking sharks, the United Kingdom’s largest fish, have scientists harpooning a 50-year-old myth, stopping it dead. Basking sharks span 10 meters in length and weigh several tons. The solitary animals feed on plankton and are harmless to humans. They have been hunted to near extinction for their liver oil and fins. For the last half-century, biologists had assumed that the docile sharks populate the same waters year-round, diving deep only when it comes time to hibernate.

But it looks as if scientists definitely were wrong. As British biologist David Sims (Marine Biological Association) told a reporter for New Scientist magazine, basking sharks do not descend to deep waters and sit on the sea bed to hibernate as previously thought. "They are very active creatures," Sims said.

The discovery came after Sims had spearheaded a study that tagged 20 of the huge sharks — so that their movements could be monitored by satellite. The study revealed that the sharks explored vast tracts of ocean in search of plankton, traveling thousands of kilometers in a month or two.

Although the sharks are an endangered species in the United Kingdom, Sims found that they spend 99 percent of their time outside the area of British protection — 19 kilometers off the coast. Sims recommends that the United Kingdom extend its protected areas, pointing out that in the United States, basking sharks are protected out to 480 kilometers from the East Coast.

That "Dung" Moon!

Ever wonder how an African dung beetle navigates?


Well that’s okay. After all, dung beetles have some pretty disgusting habits, like rolling excrement into little balls and consuming them. So who would have thought that this little creature would possess a hidden talent?

Marie Dacke (University of Lund in Sweden) and her colleagues, that’s who. These "dung-hard" scientists discovered that their little beetle navigates by moonlight. It turns out that competition among dung beetles for food is fierce and there are many aggressors. So it behooves the beetle to roll and run. And the fastest way to flee is in a straight line. Curiously, the dung beetles only flee in a straight line when the Moon is out. On cloudy evenings, or when the Moon is absent from the sky, the beetle moves erratically. An amazing feat, since moonlight is one millionth as bright as sunlight.

To prove the theory, the researchers placed a polarizing filter over ball-rolling beetles. Polarized light is perpendicular to the direction of a light ray. So it should alter the Beetle’s course by 90 degrees. And that is just what happened. Under the filter, the creatures made right-angled turns, suggesting they orient themselves according to the polarization of the Moon’s light. "This ability," Dacke says "may turn out to be widespread in the animal kingdom."

How Do Insects Breathe?

That’s one question that’s not on many minds, but, of course, scientists are curious folks, so they endeavor to learn such things. Here’s what’s so intriguing: bugs don’t have lungs. So how do they breathe?

Well, it took one of the world’s strongest X-rays — one many hundreds of times more detailed than those you get at the hospital — for scientists at The Field Museum in Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory to learn. Using these intense X-rays, the researchers videotaped how beetles, cricket, and ants breathe.

How do they breathe? By forcing air in and out of tiny oxygen pipes. "They are really pumping some gas," said museum zoologist and lead researcher Mark Westneaty. While resting, the insects exchanged up to half the air inside their main oxygen tubes every second. That’s about how hard a person breathes while doing moderate exercise.

The X-rays created a window into these tiny little animals that nobody’s ever seen inside before. The tiny oxygen tubes (called tracheae) connect to tiny air holes in the insect’s outer coating. For decades, scientists thought air just happened into those holes. But the X-rays also revealed some tiny air sacs near insects’ wings, legs, and abdomens, which might be used to help pump air inside. So these pumps could behave like our lungs, sucking air in and out of the insects’ bodies.

"It’s an important discovery," said insect researcher Robert Dudley of the University of California, Berkeley — and equally important is the technology that allowed it.

Aliens Kill Shrimp!

Well, enough about killer math. How about killer aliens! They’re big, they’re bad, they’re killing shrimp. Alien jellyfish have arrived in the Gulf of Mexico, and they’re threatening to hurt the local shrimp industry. They’re aliens, not because they come from Mars, but because they come from Australia (you get the picture!). So far, the giant jellies have been spotted only in the northern part of the Gulf. But that doesn’t mean they can’t invade elsewhere.

What’s really fantastic is that these transparent blobs – of the spotted variety Phyllorhiza punctata – usually measure only 15 to 19 centimeters in length. But after feeding in the algae-rich waters of the Mississippi Sound, they’ve achieved diameters of 40 centimeters!

How are they threatening the local shrimp industry? Well, no one knows for sure, but scientists like Monty Graham of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, a group made up of eight local universities and research facilities, suspects that if the monsters survive the winter, they’ll turn their attention from algae to shrimp eggs and larvae. If they do, their effect on the Gulf’s environment and commercial fisheries could be one of the area’s biggest problems next year.

Be Thankful Your "Shrew"ed Ancestors Knew How To Listen!

Humans and other modern mammals may be big and brainy, but we have to thank our tiny ancestors for our current success.

That’s right. Way back in the Age of Dinosaurs, (some 195 million years ago) our mammalian ancestors were scurrying shrew-like critters. But not all these shrews were alike. You see, the tiniest of these shrews — the mini-shrew Hadrocodium — had jaw and skull features more closely related to the modern mammals than any of its larger contemporaries.

The skull of one of these tiny critters was recently found in China. The 0.5-inch (13 millimeter)-long skull was one-half to one-third as long as the skulls of any other relatives of mammals living at the same time. It is the smallest mammal discovered from the age of the dinosaurs! Hadrocodium weighed just two grams and ate small insects and worms. Palaeontologist (dinosaur digger) Alfred Crompton of Harvard University said this tiny jaw and skull structure led to it having exceptional hearing. And their keen ears allowed many of them to survive those dark nights teeming with big predators.

Today, the smallest living mammals are the bumblebee bat and the least shrew.

Bird Brains

Here’s looking at you, kid. Did you know that birds can sleep with one eye open? Weird, huh? Birds have the uncanny ability to make one hemisphere of their brain stay awake while letting the other hemisphere fall asleep. The eye connected to the alert half of the brain stays open, while the one connected to the snoozing half closes.

Some recent duck research at Indiana State University has now determined that this bird-brain behavior helps birds survive in the wild. No one has to tell you how "quacky" a night can be for a bird sleeping on a lake. While "sleeping" in water, a duck (or swan, or any other water bird) will keep half of its brain awake to keep one flipper paddling (so it won’t drown), and keep one eye open for predators (so it won’t be killed). The question is, do other animals do it? If not, why not?

The answer seems to be that many animals probably lost the ability to control their drowsy brains a long time ago, because they spent much of their day sleeping safely in burrows or caves, protected from the creepy crawly things that go "Yum!" in the night. Yet, some modern lizards will occasionally sleep with one eye open, especially if they have recently seen a predator. The Indiana researchers believe that this "eye-opening" behavior may have been handed down genetically by some ancestral lizard that lived more dangerously in the open. On the more subtle side, studies of human brain-wave patterns reveal our ability to be "bird-brained," especially after a person has experienced a severe trauma. A very old part of their brain is probably telling traumatized people to keep an "eye open" for danger.

Deformed Frogs: An Update

Concern about frog deformities dates to the early 1990s, when schoolchildren and amateur naturalists first began finding frogs with deformed legs in U.S. wetlands. Ever since, scientists have been trying to determine the cause (see ODYSSEY, May 2002).

Until now, there have been two leading theories: One focuses on chemicals, such as pesticides, that contaminate the frogs’ environment, and the other points a finger at a disease-ridden parasite, the trematode worm. Scientists had found evidence to support each hypothesis.

Enter biologist Joseph Kiesecker (Pennsylvania State University) and his colleagues, who have now conducted the first experimental study of frog deformities in a natural habitat. Kiesecker and his team collected tadpoles from ponds in Centre County, PA. They used some of them in a series of laboratory experiments, and the rest in a series of field experiments conducted in six ponds within the same region.

What Kiesecker discovered was that deformities in Pennsylvania wood frogs are indeed the result of parasites causing infectious cysts. In fact, it appears that tadpoles have to be exposed to trematode infection for limb deformities to develop. But the experiments also showed that these deformities occurred with more frequency in the groups of tadpoles that also were exposed to pesticides.

In other words, pesticides can weaken a tadpole’s immune system, making it more susceptible to trematode infection and cysts that are likely to cause limb deformities. "It is not uncommon now for 20 to 30 percent of the frogs at many locations to have limb deformities," Kiesecker says.

Dolphins Reflect Intelligence

Not that we didn’t already know it, but bottlenose dolphins are intelligent . . . very intelligent. Now researchers at the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn can prove it. Hold up your cat or dog to a mirror and they won’t tilt their heads in wonder at themselves. But two dolphins (13-year-old Presley and 17-year-old Tab) swimming in a pool with mirrored walls did recognize their own reflections – a quality once shared by only humans and great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans).

How do we know that’s what they were doing? Well, after Diana Reiss (Osborn Laboratories of Marine Science, located at the aquarium) and Lori Marino (Emory University in Atlanta, GA) marked the dolphins’ bodies with nontoxic black ink, Presley and Tab swam to the mirrored walls to check out what had just been written on their bodies. Whenever one dolphin saw the other with a marking, it couldn’t care less. But whenever a dolphin received a mark itself . . . whoosh! It quickly swam over to a mirror to assess its body.

In fact, the researchers said that the dolphins spent more time in front of the mirror after being marked than when they were not marked, and the first behavior when arriving at the mirror was locating the black mark to check it out.

"What we see," Reiss said, "is that [dolphins] have excellent skills for memory. They are able to learn and comprehend artificial codes." Unfortunately, dolphins are being slaughtered in some parts of the world. Reiss’s study should heighten our awareness of the need to protect these animals.

Frankenfish Fright!

There’s a freakish fish out there, lurking in our freshwater streams and ponds, that’s causing our government quite a fright. Frankenfish, an Asian snakehead fish, is truly a monster. It has heavy scales and a wide, ugly mouth — with teeth sharp enough, and jaws powerful enough, to bite other fish as big as itself in half.

Frankenfish can measure up to a meter (3.3 feet) in length, walk across land, and stay out of water for up to three days. It’s a voracious feeder, and will consume fish, frogs, aquatic birds, and small mammals. It’s even been known to attack humans. The fish has such a ghastly reputation that the people of northern Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma) believe that sinners are reincarnated into snakehead fish.

A snakehead fish.
A snakehead fish.
(Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Frankenfish were discovered in the United States last summer after someone dumped them into a Maryland pond. Since then, the fish have been found in six other states — Hawaii, Florida, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The government is planning to place a ban on importing 28 species of snakehead fish, unless a special permit is granted. The trouble is, if these Frankenfish get into larger water systems, they could alter the food chain and displace other species. Tests are now being performed to find the best way to eliminate the existing snakehead fish in our waters.

Why were these ugly fish brought into our country? To eat! Believe it or not, in Asia, the fish are considered a delicacy (a recipe for watercress soup with snakehead fish can be found at this Chinese food recipe Web site: www.foodno1.com). It seems, however, that whoever dumped the fish into our waters couldn’t stomach the thought of eating them! Could you?

Here’s Looking at You, "Liz"!

Say you’re a lizard. (And don’t say, "You’re a lizard"!) If I’m your owner, how do I know you recognize me? Hmmm. If I couldn’t talk, and I recognized a familiar face that just walked into the room, I would probably nod my head. In fact, you probably do it yourself, like during class when someone you know walks in late and your eyes meet. Well, pat yourself on the back, because you now share a behavioral trait with an iguana named "Fido."

That’s right. Scott McRobert and his colleagues at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia believe that their lab pet Fido can recognize McRobert (the lizard’s handler) from strangers. Amazingly, this discovery began as a joke. McRobert’s colleagues first noticed that Fido would bob his head whenever McRobert approached. But the "cold-hearted" lizard seemed to ignore everyone else. The researchers teased McRobert about his lizard’s behavior, until it dawned on them that Fido might really be acknowledging McRobert’s presence.

It was time to test the 12-year-old lizard. McRobert, together with a lab student who had cared for Fido for four years, and some 40 strangers took turns reading to Fido. They read out loud or silently, in front of Fido’s cage or behind a screen. Another researcher counted the iguana’s head bobs.

When Fido could see the readers but not hear them, he bobbed his head roughly equally to both the student and McRobert, but almost totally ignored the strangers. When they read aloud, however, Fido bobbed his head about three times as often to McRobert than to the student. So it appears that Fido can not only recognize McRobert’s face, but also his voice. Despite the seemingly amiable head bobbing, McRobert suspects Fido doesn’t love him. Instead, he believes Fido singles him out because iguanas are not used to being handled, so Fido probably sees McRobert as a threat, not as a friend.

How Do You Move an Elephant?

By buying it a diamond ear ring? No. Kidding aside, this was a problem facing wildlife officers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park when they began the world’s largest elephant relocation program last October. The goal was to move 40 of the large animals from Kruger to an area just over the border in Mozambique.

Moving an elephant requires darting it first with an anesthetic. Once groggy, the elephants are moved into custom-made crates, revived with an antidote to the anesthetic, and then loaded onto trucks for the journey. The move is part of a larger plan to create a 21,600-square-kilometer wildlife park by April. The new park will encompass Kruger, a similar area in Mozambique, and Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou Park.

One reason the elephants needed to be moved from Kruger is that the ever increasing population of 9,000 animals was becoming too large for the park to sustain. Rather than shooting 1,000 animals over the next five years (to diminish the population), the wildlife officers decided to repopulate an area in Mozambique that had lost most of its herds during the latest civil war.

Using relocation to manage elephant populations, rather than culling, is becoming increasingly popular, says Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation (based in the United Kingdom). Overall, elephant relocation programs have met with success. Ultimately, the plan is to relocate 1,000 elephants over three years. Still, Travers thinks that a better solution to habitat pressure in the long term is fertility control, not relocation. Elephant contraceptives are currently being tested in South Africa, Kenya, India, and Thailand.

How Many Candles, Dolly?

Like a good puzzle? Try this one. When Dolly, the famous cloned sheep, has a birthday, how many candles should be on the cake? The obvious answer is as many candles as the sheep is old, right? Dolly is now three (as of November, 1999), so the cake should have three candles. But a new study suggests that Dolly’s genetic material is aging at the rate of the 6-year-old sheep from which she was cloned. So, though Dolly has been on Earth only three years, her genetic makeup says the sheep is twice that old.

Don’t worry, Dolly’s still eating daisies, not pushing them up. Sheep normally live about 13 years. So we’ll see in a few years how Dolly is doing. Right now, she looks healthy and is acting normally, but geneticists say there’s a greater risk now that she’ll contract cancer, which occurs when cells fail to self-destruct and begin uncontrolled growth, usually as we grow older.

Right now, there is no clear indication that cloning is unsafe, but warning signs are beginning to flash in scientists’ minds. Of course, if Dolly does prematurely age, the development will raise new ethical and medical concerns about cloning. For instance, is it safe to use cloned cells to help fight diseases, since the cloned cells may be susceptible to premature aging and disease?

Killer Cats!

The next time you look at your cat, perhaps when it’s sleeping or rubbing against your leg, purring, think of this: That kitty’s dim and distant ancestors were probably stalking and killing humans 2.5 million years ago.

That’s right. According to the magazine National Geographic, South African archaeologist Julia Lee-Thorp (University of Cape Town) and her colleagues discovered the fossils of several "kitty" predators that once preyed upon humans in South Africa. These beasts included Megantereon, an extinct saber-toothed cat with oversize fangs, as well as leopards and giant hyenas. The team’s findings are based on a study of the chemical composition of the tooth enamel of these prehistoric carnivores. Tooth enamel is composed mostly of calcium and phosphate, but also includes small amounts of carbon, the concentrations of which can tell researchers a lot about the cats’ diets. In this case, the diet was high in human flesh.

Believe it or not, researchers long have suspected that leopards and spotted hyenas have chomped on humans. Even today, the modern descendants of these flesh-eating mammals have been known to attack and devour humans. And though Lee-Thorp says that there is not enough evidence yet to absolutely convict any of these predators, she is looking forward to collecting more evidence at other dig sites.

Killer Math!

You’ve all seen it on TV – a cheetah running and running and chasing and chasing some helpless vegetarian across grasslands. Well, according to Japanese ecologist Shigeo Yachi (Kyoto University in Otsu), all predators hunt using math – from jumping spiders to darting fish-scale eaters.

You see, a creature has to know what, when, and how to attack. And Yachi believes it all comes down to one simple equation – the animal simply must weigh the merits of getting closer to the prey against losing the element of surprise. His mathematical model shows that when the risk of being noticed by prey outweighs the advantage of proximity, the predator pounces. Take the following example: Yachi says that jumping spiders will attack an adult house fly from afar, presumably to maintain the element of surprise. But they get a lot closer before attacking a house fly maggot, which is less likely to flee. Using camouflage, the spiders can get closer to their prey before attacking.

One element of the hunt that doesn’t factor into the equation, says Yachi, is the time it takes to stalk a prey. What’s critical, he says, is the decision to attack or hold off. That’s where the "calculating" comes in. Here’s another gross example: scale eaters. According to Yachi, his mathematical model fits perfectly with predatory fish that dart in to snatch the scales of other live fish. The scale eaters are smaller than their prey, and if noticed they escape rather than attack, a behavior that the model again predicts.

Now, despite what was said earlier about Yachi’s model applying to all predators, there are a few exceptions to the rule. "The model cannot be applied to coursing predators – meaning they move swiftly over a course – such as wild dogs, wolves, and hyenas," Yachi says, "because their hunt does not rely on the merit of surprise."

I suppose what every math teacher is now wondering is . . . can a cheetah cheat?

Lit Lice

Seen any lice lately? Well you can if you use a new "illuminating" shampoo developed in the United States. The new shampoo causes lice eggs to glow under ultraviolet light, making them much easier to spot and remove by hand. By the way, did you know lice are also called "nits" – thus the phrase "nit picking."

Anyway, about 14 million children get head lice each year in the United States. Shampoos currently in use are becoming less effective at lice removal, because the lice have become resistant to the pesticides in these shampoos (Yuk). The pesticides were bad for children anyway. But thanks to Sydney Spiesel, a pediatrics professor at Yale University School of Medicine, we now have a special shampoo that uses an organic dye. The dye is "delightfully cheap and delightfully non-toxic," he says.

What’s more is that the eggs glow brightly when a "black" (UV) light is shined on them, which made it easy for parents to nit-pick their kids’ hair. So where is this shampoo? Not so fast. Spiesel has a patent on his lice-detecting shampoo, but he hasn’t licensed it. He says he’s looking for a business partner to help him bring it to market. Meanwhile, parents should routinely check their children for signs of head lice and use a nit comb to remove the tiny – less than a millimeter across – eggs.

Lion "Ghost" Had a Toothache

Many of us have seen the movie, "Ghost in the Darkness," about a vicious pair of lions that fed on more than 130 railroad workers in Kenya in 1898. The really big cats (3 meters long) were hunted and killed, and their skins and skulls were later sold to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Now Bruce Patterson, a Field Museum zoologist, finally got a moment to check out these infamous skulls. What can you do with a century-old skull? Well, you can take it to the "dentist" and X-ray its teeth. And when Patterson did this he found that one of the lions had a broken canine tooth with "a wicked abscess at the base." Canines are those long sharp pointed teeth that lions use to grab the throat of its prey. But "this cat would have been unable to put any pressure at all on this tooth," Patterson said, so "It went looking for something slower, softer and less capable of defending itself," – meaning humans. Although the other lion had a clean dental record Patterson thinks it could have been following the other more dominant male, you know "Lion see, Lion do."

Monkey See, Monkey Two

Wow! Can you believe it? The first nonhuman primate – a monkey – has been cloned. It happened in January 2000, when researchers at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center in Beaverton announced that they had created "Tetra," a female rhesus macaque.

They did it by splitting a very young embryo into four pieces. That’s a different method than what scientists used to create Dolly, the cloned sheep. Dolly was created by taking a nucleus out of an adult cell and placing it in an unfertilized egg. The new procedure proves that a divided embryo, if very young, can grow into a completely separate, identical adult organism.

Tetra is a "100 percent" clone. Dolly is not, because Dolly has genetic material from both an adult cell and from the egg that was used to make the clone. The new method used by the Oregon researchers, however, is not very efficient. The researchers made 368 embryos by splitting 107 embryos into two or four pieces. They got four pregnancies in 13 tries. Only Tetra survived.

The same method was used in 1993 to create clones of human embryos, though those embryos were destroyed. The researchers hope to create more genetically identical lab animals for use in testing. They have four other pregnant monkeys, which could start delivering this month.

New Day Dawning for Dolly

Inquiring minds have been wondering: "Will Dolly, the cloned sheep, live a long and healthy life, or will she just live out the remaining days of the six-year-old ewe from which she was cloned?" A normal life for Dolly would be about 10 years, while a less-than-normal life would mean a life expectancy of about four years.

The problem with Dolly seems to be that the age-related structures at the tips of her chromosomes, called telomeres, appeared shorter than they should be for a young sheep. Well, there’s good news from the cloned cattle front – yup, they’re cloning cattle, too. It appears that Dolly’s shortened telomeres were a freak (pun intended) occurrence. You see, a herd of scientists, rounded by up Robert P. Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts, have shown that cloned cattle have longer than normal telomeres. Well, I guess that’s the long and short of it for now. I think time will be the true judge.

"Old MacDonald Had a Farm . . . "

And on that farm he had some clones. Only, the "farm" is at Texas A&M University, about 130 kilometers northwest of Houston, TX, and "Old MacDonald" is really a group of scientists that has been cloning around with a menagerie of animals — namely, a couple of bulls, a goat, and a litter of five pigs. (The scientists are also struggling to produce a cloned dog.)

"In effect, this is the world’s first cloned animal fair," said Jorge Piedrahita of Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

But not all is well on the "farm." Although Piedrahita and his fellow "farmhands" (researchers) produced multiple animals from the same genes, each clone came out a little different. And though the animals on display looked healthy – they mooed, bleated, and oinked – the researchers admitted that the animals showed a high number of abnormalities.

"We still have a lot to learn about the process," Piedrahita said. "We don’t know what we’re doing to these animals."

One thing the researchers said they had learned was that it was far too early for anyone to think about cloning human beings, as some groups have proposed. So far, dogs have also proved impossible to clone. Their dog cloning project, called the "Missyplicity Project," began in 1998, when a wealthy California couple gave the school $2.2 million to clone their late, beloved collie, Missy. The school is also trying to clone cats, and the researchers expect that they’ll see one sometime this year.

Pig Sense and Bird Brains

"There are hidden depths to chickens." That’s the latest word from behavioral scientist Christine Nichol (University of Bristol in southern England). She and a clutch of other researchers recently reached that conclusion after years of studying chicken behavior.

But that’s not all. Nichol and her colleagues say that pigs, too, demonstrate "cunning behavior."

The lowdown, she says, is that pigs and chickens are more intelligent than most people believe. How smart is smart? Well, the research suggests that chickens can learn from each other and are encouraged by example — like children! Chickens have been taught what food to eat or avoid; the birds also can adapt their behavior and can learn to navigate.

Pigs are no "birdbrains," either. They can sense or "read" how knowledgeable a fellow pig is, and then use that information to take advantage of a situation — say, to obtain food. How’s that for being cunning? They can also assess the strengths and weaknesses of their rivals and then figure out which subtle behavioral signal will best demonstrate their strength over a rival’s. Fact is, the researchers say, pigs and birds can "develop quite sophisticated social competitive behavior, similar to that seen in some primate species."

A better understanding of such animal intelligence could help farmers sort out their own problems — such as how to minimize aggression in pigs, which causes deaths and injuries each year. So who’s learning from whom?

Revenge of the Headless Rattlesnake!

The scene is straight out of a horror movie: A creature has just been killed. The person who killed it leans over the body to make sure it is dead. Suddenly, the corpse leaps up and . . . well, you know the rest of the story.

Now scientists have discovered that reality can be scarier (and deadlier) than fiction. Frank LoVecchio and Jeffrey Suchard, doctors at the Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, warn that dead rattlesnakes can bite after death. What’s more, such supernatural strikes are surprisingly common. In fact, nearly 15 percent of the people LoVecchio and Suchard have treated for rattlesnake bites were attacked by freshly killed or mutilated animals.

Of the 34 rattler victims they treated, five claimed the snake had been "thoroughly dead" when it attacked. What does "thoroughly dead" mean? Well, one patient said he shot a rattler, chopped off its head, waited five minutes, then picked up the head. But the dead head lunged, stabbing its fangs into the man’s finger. When the man grasped his stricken finger, the head bit him on his other hand.

Don’t believe that one? Okay, another victim, who says he knew the dangers of posthumous rattlers, said he grasped a decapitated rattler’s head tightly with the fangs pointed away from him. But somehow the jaw shifted, scratching him. So much venom was injected into him that he had to have a finger amputated.

Really, it’s true! In fact, other studies have shown that an isolated rattlesnake head will try to attack objects waved in front of it for up to an hour after death. Joe Slowinski, a herpetologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, says these day-of-the-living-dead episodes appear to be a reflex action, triggered by infrared sensors in the snake’s "pit organ," a structure between the nostril and eye that detects body heat. A decapitated snake’s body can also attack, Suchard says, since it has touch sensors that can cause the headless corpse to jump and whack an unsuspecting observer with its bloody stump. "A dead snake still has many of the reflexes it had when it was alive," he says.

So what do we do if we see a dead rattlesnake? Suchard advises us to leave it alone. "If you really have to touch it," he says, "I suggest you use a very long stick." He also says that many of the problems could be avoided if people didn’t try to kill them in the first place.

By the way, believe it or not, I was attacked by a dead pygmy rattler in the Florida Everglades. Fortunately, I touched the animal with a long stick.

The Science of Road Kill

Why didn’t the vole – that little short-tailed rodent of the genus Microtus – cross the road? That seems to be one of the big questions echoing through the halls of the University of Konstanz in Germany. You see, researchers there had a major revelation: Motor vehicles do more than just flatten skiddish animals. (You’re right, we really should spell it correctly as "skittish," but a pretty good pun, no?) Large highways, they say, act as effective genetic barriers for these critters, just like rivers and mountains. Huh?

Okay, here’s the scoop. It turns out that after an "exhaust"-ive study of vole populations near major highways, the researchers discovered that the voles living on one side of a four-lane highway were genetically different than those living on the other side. That means voles are having a hard time crossing the wide road, preventing them from mating. That also means that certain species of voles are heading toward extinction – thanks to the highway.

Is there a parallel problem here in the United States? Yes! According to researchers with the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory of the University of Georgia, roads also play a role in the worldwide decline in reptiles. Although the road-related drop in amphibians is well documented, reptiles may be suffering even more: According to World Conservation Union figures, 3.82 percent of the approximately 7,150 reptile species are extinct, endangered, or vulnerable, compared with 2.75 percent of 4,680 amphibian species. Human activities such as habitat destruction and commercial trading are the main problems.

Scientists Sinking Teeth into Tadpoles

It’s amazing. Who ever thought the day would come when scientists would start calling tadpoles – those wriggling, squiggling, pond-pips soon to become frogs – not just interesting, but "remarkably sensitive organisms" and "amazingly complex animals." But that’s the emerging message in the cover article of a recent issue of Science News.

In fact, scientists say jokingly that if the field of tadpole research continues at its current growth rate for another 15 years, every new scientific paper in the world would be about this once uninspiring animal.

So what’s the skinny? Well, some of this exciting new research is about . . . tadpole teeth! Yes, researcher Ronald Altig (Mississippi State University) is extremely passionate about tadpole incisors, arguing that we have not fully understood how tadpoles use them! (Hmmm.) Tadpole teeth sprout above and below the mouth in curved rows. "It’s as if you had hundreds of teeth on your upper lip and chin," Altig explains. The teeth are not calcified like those of adult frogs, but instead are made of keratin, the same material that makes up our hair and nails. The teeth are outside so that the animal can scrape and slurp up bacteria, fungi, algae, and other delectables from pond surfaces.

The mouth is also unique. It has an extra hinge on the lower jaw, which allows the mouth to open super wide. But wait. There’s more! The lower cavity of the mouth – which has a bunch of gummy cords – moves up and down in a pumping action. "Yummy" particles get trapped by the gummy cords and are swallowed before the water carrying them rushes over the gills and outside the body. It’s a most efficient system, Altig says, because the gummy trap can capture, in one pass, more than three quarters of the particles that enter the tad’s mouth. The fact is, tadpoles have many different mouth parts to capture particles in water. Altig believes that discovering the links between these mouth parts and the tadpole’s environment and feeding styles is one of the challenges facing future tadpole researchers — whose work, he hopes, will benefit us more than . . . er . . . just a tad.


If you thought that last scoop was exciting, wait until you read this one! Science News also reports that the most exciting finding to come out of recent tadpole research is the way tadpoles respond to danger. Yes, tadpoles have a reason for being so squeamish . . . You see, they are the preferred animal to eat – if the predator is the size of a dragonfly larva or larger. Talk about stress!

Indeed, ecologist Rick Relyea (Univ. of Missouri in Columbia) raised six species of tadpoles in a tub. A mesh cage in the same tub held a predator such as a dragonfly larva or water bug (how terrifying!). Earlier experiments had shown that tadpoles became immobilized or changed their body shapes when a predator was present – especially a predator that had been eating some of the tadpole’s friends. Relyea and his colleagues confirmed these findings, but added that the tadpoles could adjust either their behavior or body shape, depending on their assessment of the danger. Scientists once thought that tadpoles’ defense mechanisms became stronger as predators became more dangerous.

But it’s not that simple, Relyea discovered. Tadpoles have several options. For instance, it may behoove the tadpole to remain immobile most of the time to avoid attention, or it could instead grow a deeper tail fin to make quick escapes, or it could benefit from both defense mechanisms!

And predators aren’t the only problem. A pond overcrowded with tadpoles increases stress for the individual trying to find food. Usually, Relyea found that when a predator is present, tadpoles grow high-speed tailfins and remain relatively immobile. But when they are in a crowd of other tadpoles, the youngsters become lively and grow big heads; of course, having a big head equals having a big mouth, which allows the tadpoles to get more food per gulp.

In his research, Relyea happened upon a dramatic side effect of predator risk. He and his colleagues raised gray tree frog tadpoles in water containing a pesticide. Adding a predator to the water rendered the pesticide two to four times as lethal as it was alone. In this era of declining amphibian populations, Relyea and Mills point out that outside the laboratory, predators abound and could be causing pesticides to have an even more deadly effect than expected.

Some Smashing News

Anyone who has read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is well aware of the power of the Sperm whale. That denizen of the deep appears to have a nasty habit of ramming its head into whaling ships. Well, a recent scientific study of the whale’s head shows that – surprise, surprise – it is perfectly evolved for ramming ships – or other whales.

You see, a Sperm whale’s forehead contains two sacs filled with oil. But until recently, no one knew just quite what the sacs were use for. Some biologists believe the sacs play a role in sound production; others argue that the sacs help to control the whale’s buoyancy. But another theory says that the purpose of the Sperm whale’s massive oil-filled sacs are to cushion the animal’s head, which can be used as a battering ram in a fight (it’s like two long-horned sheep smashing their curved racks together during a mating battle).

Reporting in New Scientist magazine, biologist Stephen Deban (University of Utah) and his team have modeled how the fluid-filled sacs would behave in such a head-on (or broadside) collision. They found the organ acts like a damper, cushioning the impact. It is a bit like a syringe, said Deban, you do not need much force to push the water out slowly, but you need to squeeze much harder to push it out faster. That means an attacking whale could smash into an opponent’s side – or a ship that might venture into the whale’s territory during mating – and come out of the encounter unscathed.

Sound Off?

How does a male humpback whale attract a mate? It sings a looooooong and complex song, which obviously must be akin to telling the female humpback how much he loves her, how much money he has, and what he intends to do to support her. Anyway, this scoop isn’t about the interpretation of the song. It’s about the tune of the song.

Enter the U.S. Navy (and a lot of environmental groups). Navy submarines use a low-frequency, active (LFA) sonar to find their way under water. The problem is that whales can hear this sonar, which is broadcast at a similar frequency to the whale songs. And when they do, they either cut their singing short or continue singing (as if to overcome the noise). In a recent study by the Woods Hole (MA) Oceanographic Institution, researchers found that one quarter of the observed whales cut their songs short in response to hearing the submarine sonar, while others continued singing for a time that was 30 percent longer than normal. At full force, the LFA sonar – recently developed for extended-range submarine detection and opposed by many environmental groups – could cause whales hundreds of kilometers away to "whistle a different tune," and thus affect their chances of mating.

Snorkeling Elephants

Imagine an elephant’s trunk held up in the air. Now imagine the snorkel on your diving mask. See any similarities? Well some Australian scientists do. In fact, they believe they can prove that elephants were once aquatic animals (they lived in the water) but eventually became land lubbers. If that’s true, then the elephant’s trunk may have evolved as a snorkel.

In fact, the elephant’s trunk might have had multiple uses — nose, hose and tentacle. Studies have shown elephants and those adorable sea cows (like the Florida Manatee) shared a common ancestor. The fossils of Tethytheria, which include the ancestors of elephants and manatees, point to an aquatic lifestyle as well. Zoologist Ann Gaeth and colleagues from of the University of Melbourne in Australia examined a series of African elephant specimens in various stages of development.

Here’s what they found: The male fetuses had testicles growing inside the abdominal wall, rather than in a scrotum — a development suggesting they evolved in the water and then moved onto land. The elephants had funnel-shaped kidney ducts used to flush waste through the abdominal lining — features common to freshwater animals, such as fish and frogs; the presence of these ducts imply that elephants may have developed in a freshwater environment. Finally, there’s the trunk, which could have been used as a snorkel for swimming in deep water. The team reported their findings to the National Academy of Sciences. Further research will reveal if there’s anything fishy going on here.

Spotting Meat Eaters

No. This scoop isn’t about looking around the lunchroom and spotting who’s eating beef and who’s nibbling sprouts. But it is about how carnivores of the wild kingdom are marked with spotted or lined facial patterns. Alessia Ortolani of the University of California believes that breaking the code of these facial patterns will give her more insight into how animals have communicated over history. That’s right, communicated — just as warriors put on facial paint.

In her analysis of 200 terrestrial carnivores, for instance, Ortolani has discovered that white markings around the eyes (like the crescents under a tiger’s eye) often appear in the family tree of nocturnal predators (those that hunt at night). The white marks may have helped carnivores over the years distinguish friends from foes. So the white crescents are a kind of "neon" message, flashing out in the dark, saying something like "Eat at Joe’s . . . not on me." But, this is just the beginning of Ortolani’s research. She still has a lot of data to chew on before she can offer any more findings.

Sticky Fingers

The gecko is a little lizard that can scale a flat wall, dash across the ceiling, or run across a glass wall, stop suddenly, then hang from one digit, if it pleases. The gecko: a living Post-It. How does it do it, all that scampering around on slippery surfaces? It’s a mystery that’s been, well, driving researchers up the wall.

But after a decade of sticking together in research, Kellar Autumn (Lewis and Clark College), Robert J. Full (University of California at Berkeley) and their colleagues began hugging each other over a monumental breakthrough in lizard science. You see, the researchers have finally figured out the gecko’s secret adhesive doohickey. No suction here, just an attractive force that occurs at the molecular level – when the distance between the tiny hairs on the gecko’s foot and the smooth surface it’s on becomes no more than the diameter of one atom. Wow!

It turns out that a gecko’s foot has about half a million microscopic hairs, or setae, each of which splits into hundreds of teeny pads, which in turn hug the surface so closely that they interact with its molecular structure. If all its setae operated at once and at full force, the gecko could carry a weight of 40 kilograms. The pads break the attractive force when they are tipped at an angle of 30 degrees. To "peel off," the gecko performs a delicate but swift operation of toe uncurling. Geckos can attach and detach their feet an amazing 15 times a second when running. It’s possible that some kind of watery interaction also plays a role in the way a gecko can cling to any surface.

If these researchers can fully understand how the gecko’s setae system works, we might soon expect to find in stores some kind of gecko glue — a dry adhesive modeled after gecko feet.

You’re as Cold as Ice

Here’s a question for you to ponder. How did life survive the Great Ice Age 600 to 800 million years ago? If you don’t know the answer, don’t feel bad. Scientists didn’t know either, until recently that is. Now scientists from Canada and America believe they have the answer. They used calculations and climate models to show there may have been areas of open water that allowed early creatures to live while the rest of the planet was in a deep freeze. "This could help clarify how multi-celled animals managed not only to stay alive but to thrive given the Earth’s harsh conditions," says Richard Peltier, a physics professor at the University of Toronto.

Using computer simulations of what are thought to have been the climate characteristics at the time, and taking into account less sunlight and the varied concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, Peltier and his colleagues found that the harsh climate could have given the creatures an evolutionary push. "The extreme climates may even have exerted pressure on the multi-celled animals to evolve and adapt, possibly leading to the rapid development of new forms of animals and their movement into new, unpopulated habitats when the Earth exited the snowball state," Peltier said.