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A very brief post before I dive back into marking!

My friend Cathy pointed me at this short, fascinating video that shows some quirky chemistry & physics demonstrations (afficionados of Facebook will find it here). I had a couple of 'wow!' moments while watching it; science teachers will probably get the same response when sharing it with their classes.

Thanks, cathy :)

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The 'paleo' diet story on Campbell Live tonight spurred me to finish my review of one of the most entertaining popular books on genetics that I have read for some time. Entertaining, and informative, in equal measure. I wonder what author Marlene Zuk would have made of the TV story.

book cover

Marlene Zuk (2013) Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex,diet, and how we live.  Norton (New York)

ISBN 978-0-393-34792-0 (paperback)

For in that story we heard gems like this: "It's a commitment to eating food that is unadulterated, eating food in its most natural state." Paleo proponents (says the TV story) believe our most natural diet is that of our Palaeolithic cavemen ancestors. Somehow I doubt our 'cavemen' ancestors were eating avocados, beetroot, bacon or kale. (There's also an air of chemophobia, with one proponent of paleo eating stating that their diet contains "[n]othing nasty and nothing you can't pronounce" - which reminded me of the series of posters by Australian teacher James Kennedy, showing the list of chemical compounds found in natural food items: blueberries, anyone?).

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Over the last 20 years quite a bit of evidence has accumulated indicating that at least some dinosaurs were feathered, much of it in the form of beautiful fossils from China. Up until now all the feathery dinos have been members of the carnivorous theropods, but this new paper by Godefroit et al (2014) extends that fluffiness in its description of a herbivorous dinosaur, Kulindadromeus zabakialicus. (The full paper is behind a paywall but the BBC offers a good general summary.)

It's now generally accepted that birds evolved from a theropod lineage (Michael Benton discusses the evolutionary changes that this entailed, here), although there is still debate around the origins of things like wings, feathers, and when birds/dinos first took to the air. Most people are probably familiar with at least the name of Archeopteryx, but since 1994 those Chinese fossils have shown us that many more theropods were feathered, and that feathers evolved well before the first bird-like creatures took to the air. Godefroit & his colleagues comment that

fully birdlike feathers orginated within Theropoda at least 50 million years before Archaeopteryx.

and there's even discussion around whether the fearsome T.rex may have been feathery/fuzzy.

But Kulindadromeus wasn't a theropod - it was a 'neornithischian' - an early member of the 'bird-hipped' dinosaurs, a group that includes Stegosaurus and Triceratops. (This nomenclature can get a bit confusing, especially when you consider that birds evolved from 'saurischian', or 'lizard-hipped' dinos.) And while it didn't have the sort of feathers that we're familiar with today, it did have a range of other structures in addition to the usual scales:

monofilaments around the head and the thorax, and more complex featherlike structures around the humerus [upper forelimb], the femur [thigh], and the tibia [lower leg].

It's early days yet. But if other ornithischians are found with  feathers, then then this would raise the possibility that the common ancestor of both dino groups also had some sort of feathery structures on its body, and would support the authors' suggestion that

feathers may thus have been present in the earliest dinosaurs.

In other words, feathers may well be much, much older than we've thought.

 

P.Godefroit, S.M.Sinitsa, D.Dhouailly, Y.L.Bolotsky, A.V.Sizov, M.E.McNamaram M.J.Benton & P.Spagna (2014) A Jurassic ornithischian dinosaur from Siberia with both feathers and scales. Science 345: 451-455 . doi: 1126/science.1253351

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Over on Sciblogs, Siouxsie Wiles has been writing about the spread of an Ebola virus outbreak in west Africa (here  here, for example). It's alarming stuff: a virus with a high mortality rate, in combination with the potential for infected people to travel more widely than in the past before succumbing.

Sadly, it didn't take long for the pedlars of pseudoscientific nonsense to get on the bandwagon. First it was homeopathy (apparently homeopathic concentrations of rattlesnake venom and other 'remedies' will do the trick - I wonder how they found that out?) In his blog post on this, Orac has commented

You know what they call an Ebola victim foolish enough to use these five homeopathic remedies in the hope of curing their disease? Almost certainly dead, that's what!

Indeed. 

And then there's this. I should really give that page to my first-year bio students & see what they make of it: they'd certainly pick up on the author's statement that our cells have walls! What's more:

It's impossible for a virus to live in the presence of pure, unadulterated cinnamon oil, so getting that oil into our bloodstreams to create an environment hostile to the virus is important.

Viruses are only active within living cells, and I'm fairly confident in saying that our own cells can't live in "pure, unadulterated cinnamon oil" either. (I do want to know, though, why the author feels that one must anoint one's feet with the stuff!)

However, the page does have references, and we're urged to read them, so let's look at those sources to see if they back up the claims being made for cinnamon oil. There are "13 studies on cinnamon oil and viruses" from PubMed, for example, as well as a couple of in vitro studies. 

Well yes, yes, there are - but I doubt the page's author actually read them, despite asking their readers to check the links. For several references of that PubMed list are for various studies that used LEC (Long-Evans Cinnamon) rats, while others are discussing avian flu in a range of waterfowl that includes cinnamon teal - nothing to do with using an essential oil against viruses! Of the remainder, one is a study of herbal medicines that include cinnamon bark (not oil); one looks at the efficacy of a range of traditional medicines (again, including cinnamon bark) on baculovirus in silkworms; two others look at using flavonoids (hint: not oils) from cinnamon as a potential drug in fighting HIV. 

I will confess to being underwhelmed. And concerned that anyone might take this stuff seriously.

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The GMOLOL group on Facebook regularly posts on the subject of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and more recently - like many other pages - about the outrageous claims by the self-styled "Health Ranger" about Monsanto, likening the company & pretty much anyone with anything positive to say about GMOs to the Nazi regime of WWII. (NB he's actually gone back & added a 'preface' to the original post at that link, due at least in part to the internet fuss that followed his original posting.) Fairly soon after another webpage posted names & details of scientists working on or speaking in favour of GMOs, which was unsurprisingly viewed as quite threatening by at least some of those named. There's an interesting bit of forensic work on the 2 pages & the sequence in which they appeared here. And Orac has a thoughtful commentary here.

It was also not a surprise to see the Ranger using myth to make his case: claiming here, for example, that GMOs have led to widespread farmer suicides in India. No sense in letting the truth get in the way of a good story, I suppose. Especially when it turns out to be rather more complex

Of course, he is ignoring the fact that we have been selecting for genetically modified organisms for at least as long as we've had agriculture and domesticated animals. Sweetcorn or watermelons, anyone? Let alone that horizontal gene transfer is an excellent mover of genes that can link widely separated taxonomic groups; this example of fungi using bacterial genes to form nodules on plant roots is a case in point.

I'm guessing he wouldn't like the idea of GM insulin or using GM mosquitoes to control the spread of dengue fever, either.

The internet can be a fun place to play & to find information, but alas! it's also made it so much easier to spread mythinformation to a much wider audience than ever before.

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In their first-year microbiology lectures. our students hear about Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium associated with the development of gastric ulcers (a discovery that eventually saw Barry Marshall and Robin Warren receive the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physology or Medicine). The trouble is, I suspect that this is all that they hear about a story that is considerably more complex.

The story of H.pylori is just one part of Jessica Snyder Sach's highly readable and thoroughly-referenced book, Good Germs, Bad Germs, which introduces the reader to the complexities of the human microbiome: the intricate microbial ecosystems found on and within the human body.

Good Germs, Bad Germs: health and survival in a bacterial world. Jessica Snyder Sachs (2008) pub. Hill & Wang. ISBN (e-book): 0809016427

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If you don't like spiders then you probably wouldn't like this either: from China come reports of what's claimed to be the largest known aquatic insect. (I can't find any actual published scientific descriptions of the creature; it will be nice to see the claim confirmed - or denied! - as it's a pretty impressive specimen. 

ALnpg9C

My first thought on seeing this image was, a dobsonfly! I've not ever seen an adult specimen, but the aquatic larvae I encountered when running a macroinvertebrate lab class (way back in my Massey days) have equally impressive mandibles - hence the nickname of 'toe biters'. Given that the adult Megalopteran pictured here has a 21cm wingspan (!), I wouldn't care to encounter its larvae when paddling in a stream.

Becky Crew has a great take on this creature on her Running Ponies blog, including some fascinating info on other giants of the insect world.

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It's not biology but this video is too good not to share :) I've always had a soft spot for acapella singing, & acapella science is just wonderful as an example of combining music & science communication. (Those who want the lyrics will find them here at Scientific American.)

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This video is a compilation of the best clips from the 'Six-second science fair' run by GE recently. (Apparently it attracted more than 600 entries!)

Could be really interesting to set something like this as a classroom project - rapidly changing technology (including the apps) has really opened up the options :)

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If asked, "what do spiders eat?", my answer would probably include insects, spiders, other arthropods, and maybe birds. I'd never have thought of fish!

And yet it seems that fish-eating by spiders is, if not common, then not exactly rare, although other food items still account for most of the spiders' diets. In a paper just published in PLoS ONE, Nyffeler & Pusey (2014) present evidence - from an extensive literature review - for eight-legged piscivores on every continent other than Antarctica, although they're more often found in tropical & sub-tropical regions. And it seems they're not alone: the authors list a number of other arthropods with similar tastes, including water scorpions, backswimmers, caddis flies and water boatmen.

The spiders involved were mostly from the genera Dolomedes & Nilus ie they are large (as spiders go: a big female Dolomedes can have a leg-span of 6–9 cm and weigh ~0.5–2 g) and semi-aquatic, spending a lot of time at the water's edge. Here's an image of a female Dolomedes from the UK, settling in to consume a stickleback:

thumbnail

Image: Nyffeler & Pusey (2014) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099459.g007

Incidentally, while we have spiders of this genus in New Zealand, it seems our small freshwater fish have little to worry about. Nyffeler & Pusey report that

only the largest of New Zealand's three species of Dolomedes (Dolomedes dondalei) was capable of catching fish in laboratory experiments whereas the two smaller species (Dolomedes aquaticus and Dolomedes minor) were not.

When hunting fish - & for most spiders the researchers note that fish are a relatively rare component of the diet - the arachnids seem to use touch (mechanoreception) rather than vision. They sit at the water's edge with their front pairs of legs spread out & resting on the water surface, and the others anchoring them to a rock or a plant. In some cases, especially when the water is calm, it seems that the spiders may detect their prey from ripples in the water, but in others their attack is triggered by the fish's dorsal fin actually contacting one of their legs. And while spiders usually eat other animals smaller than themselves, in the case of fishing spiders their prey may be more than twice as large as the predator, which means that there's quite a lot of effort involved in subduing dinner (usually done by biting the fish behind the head). and then dragging it out of the water to feed.

Nyffeler & Pusey cite experimental evidence showing that spider venom is quite capable of killing small fish, although it may take 20 minutes or more to do so. In the wild, that would be a long time to hang onto a wriggling fish. And why then drag it out of the water? Perhaps because the digestive enzymes injected into the prey would otherwise be diluted - remember that spiders are 'liquid feeders' who must wait until the prey's innards have been liquified by those enzymes before slurping up the resultant soup.

While the fish these spiders eat are a large prey item, & capturing them must incur some risk, the researchers argue that such hunting may well be advantageous at times when other prey items are rare. However, they conclude that

Complete piscivory is probably rare and restricted to those occasions when semi-aquatic spiders gain easy access to small fish kept at high density in artificial rearing ponds or aquaria or in small shallow waterbodies.

Owners of home aquaria and fish ponds may never view Dolomedes in quite the same way again...

Nyffeler M, Pusey BJ (2014) Fish Predation by Semi-Aquatic Spiders: A Global Pattern. PLoS ONE 9(6): e99459. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.009945

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