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November 2012 Archives

 If this had been published in that august journal, The Onion, it would have fitted right in. It would certainly make more sense if today was April 1. I mean, really (& hat-tip, as usual, to PZ)...

A team of scientists can verify that their 5-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called "Bigfoot" or "Sasquatch", living in North America. Researchers' extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago as a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species.

What should we make of this? Surely it screams 'lab contamination', particularly given that the purported Sasquatch has 100% human mtDNA but a real mishmash of supposed nuclear DNA..But also, methinks that someone has been reading altogether too much of the works of Danny Vendramini

But also: apparently the nuclear DNA includes 'non-ape' sequences. The DNA sample supposedly came from - wait for it - a blueberry bagel from someone's backyard

Actually, I find it hard to believe that anyone working in science could seriously suggest a blueberry bagel as a reliable source of Bigfoot DNA.  The word 'hoax' springs to mind (&, I'm glad to see, it's not only my mind that the idea is bouncing around in.)


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Another in the occasional series of rather lovely biological images: an x-ray of a stingray (Heliotrygon sp.)


(from NatGeo, via Pharyngula)

The genus name means 'sun stingray', a name that was given for the way that the cartilage fibres that support its body (like sharks, stingrays have a skeleton that's based on cartilage, unlike the hard, ossified skeleton of (adult) humans). 

Another cool thing about this image is that you can clearly see that this stingray is, in fact, stingless!

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 On Facebook yesterday, Science Alert posted a picture of a cute little piggy. Why, they asked, 

do humans feel such love for baby animals? Assuredly, this is a psychology experiment waiting to happen!

Not so. For one of my favourite science writers beat them to it, by about 30 years. And in a rather entertaining manner. In an essay originally published in Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould approached this question via a discussion of ... Mickey Mouse!

For Mickey, you see, started life as a much less lovable character than he is today. Gould describes him as a "rambunctious, even slightly sadistic fellow" when he first appeared in the film Steamboat Willie. And Mickey had a face to match the personality, with a longer nose, smaller eyes, and much lower forehead that he does today. But over time, "the blander and inoffensive Mickey became progressively more juvenile in appearance" - in other words, he was neotenised :) And in his essay A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse, Gould asked, why? Why would the Disney artists have made these progressive changes to the famous rodent's appearance?

As Gould points out, the German ethologist Konrad Lorenz first suggested that the morphological differences between adults and babies provide significant behavioural cues, with child-like features triggering affectionate responses from most adults. Lorenz characterised these features as innate releasing mechanisms, which included a head that was relatively large compared to the body, large eyes, a bulging cranium, & chubby cheeks. Of course, the fact that baby animals (for example, Science Alert's little pig) also have these features has absolutely nothing to do with causing humans to view them affectionately (although we often do).

So, Gould suggests, the Disney artists - consciously or unconsciously - drew Mickey as more 'child-like' in order to evoke an affectionate response - however biologically inappropriate - in those viewing their movies or reading their comics. (After all, an unlovable protagonist was hardly likely to inspire people to keep on buying tickets or books!) 

Gould concluded his essay by pointing out that humans, like Mickey, retain some childlike features into adulthood (& that has served us well):

A marked slowdown of developmental rates has triggered our neoteny. Primates are slow developers among mammals. We have very long periods of gestation, markedly extended childhoods, and the longest life span of any mammal. The morphological features of eternal youth have served us well. Our enlarged brain is, at least in part, a result of extending rapid prenatal growth rates to later ages. (In all mammals, the brain grows rapidly in utero but often very little after birth. We have extended this foetal phase into postnatal life.)


I'm reminded on the quote that was on the whiteboard down at the Blood Service rooms, last time I donated platelets:

Growing old is mandatory. Growing up is optional.

S.J.Gould (1980) A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse in "The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History". W.W.Norton & Co. 

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When the news first came out that Prof Mike Morwood & Thomas Sutikna were going to be giving a public lecture about Homo floresiensis, I was first excited & then seriously annoyed: yay! great topic, but rats! can't get down to it.

So I was absolutely delighted to see the following in this week's Royal Society news alerts. I get to hear it after all :) (And many thanks to David Bibby!)


8. Virtual event: ‘A newly discovered species of Little People’, 1 December

Note: Thanks to Professor David Bibby, Dean of Science, Victoria University of Wellington, this event will now be live streamed:

Coinciding with the celebrations centred around the much anticipated World Premiere of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit film, you are invited to attend a free public lecture on Homo floresiensis – a new human species discovered in 2003 on the Indonesian Island of Flores.  This new species is commonly referred to as the “Hobbit” – since it stood just over 1 m tall, had large feet and was capable of undertaking quite complex activities.

Two of the principal archaeologists involved in this remarkable discovery — Professor Mike Morwood (University of Wollongong, Australia) and Thomas Sutikna (Pusat Arkeologi Nasional, Indonesia) — will talk about the Hobbit’s discovery as well as ongoing excavations that seek to better understand this new and unique species of human. 

This event is generously sponsored and supported by Victoria University of Wellington, Te Papa, Wellington City Council, the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, and the NZ-Indonesian Friendship Council.

Details: 3 pm Saturday, 1 December, free public presentation & exhibition, Soundings Theatre, Te Papa.

Bookings are essential.  RSVP by emailing with ‘Little People’ in the subject line or call 04 472 1000.

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