Friday, December 28, 2012

UCLA football players as biodiversity tourists plus biodiversity news

Last night, my undergraduate alma mater played in the Holiday Bowl.  Before the game, the football players visited the major attractions of San Diego, which just happen to include the San Diego Zoo and Sea World, both places for a certain kind of biodiversity tourism.  Here are the videos UCLA posted on its YouTube channel about the visits.

First, UCLA Football Visit the San Diego Zoo.

The Bruins visit the World Famous San Diego Zoo as part of activities leading up to the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl.
It looks like the players got some entertainment value out of the zoo, but I'm not sure they learned much, or if they did, they didn't communicate it.  How about the next stop on their itinerary, Sea World, which is more about entertainment than education?

UCLA Celebrates Christmas at Sea World

Bruins continue the leadup to the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl.
I think this was a better video, but that's because the focus was on Christmas, not the animals, although the players really enjoyed their experiences with the beluga whales.

So, how did the team do at the game itself?  The Los Angeles Times has the answer.

Bruins' flat showing in Holiday Bowl takes fizz out of UCLA's season
The Bruins' weak performance in a 49-26 loss to Baylor casts Coach Jim Mora's debut season in a much less flattering light.
SAN DIEGO — There have been rumors down here that the Chargers might be interested in UCLA's Jim Mora as a replacement for Coach Norv Turner.

If the Holiday Bowl was an audition, Mora could not have done more to prove himself the ideal choice to be the next Chargers' head coach.

Like the Chargers do so often, the Bruins played flat and let their fans down, losing 49-26.
It's just as well I didn't watch the game.  Here's to hoping that Michigan does better against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl next week.  MGoBlue has already posted a video of their trip to Tampa.  They've already visited a children's hospital, something UCLA also did in San Diego.  If they visit Busch Gardens, I'll let you know.

What, you were expecting something more serious from me?  First, I can't be all doom all the time.  Second, follow over the jump for the biodiversity news from the past three weeks of Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday on Daily Kos.  That should be serious enough for anyone.

I'll begin with the stories from Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Doha climate talks conclude edition) that I haven't already recycled.

Science News: Among bass, easiest to catch are best dads
Recreational fishing may be inadvertent evolutionary force
By Susan Milius
Web edition: December 4, 2012
The same qualities that make a largemouth bass an easy mark for anglers make him a successful dad. So recreational fishers, a new study suggests, may be accidental forces of evolution, selecting against the best in male fish parenting.

“Does that mean that bass populations are imminently in danger of becoming too hard to catch and at the same time totally inefficient at reproducing? Not really,” says study coauthor David Philipp of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Does it mean that we are impacting populations of bass in ways that we never envisioned and don’t understand well at all? Most certainly.”

Among the prized sports fish Micropterus salmoides, it’s the dads that do the child care. They go for weeks without food to guard their nests from predators or to swim protectively nearby as tiny fry start exploring the big wet world.
Yes, the above is an evolution story, but it has important implications for maintaining biodiversity of game fish.

I started off in science as a paleontologist.  That means that I never forget that biodiversity extends into the past.

Science News: Contender for world’s oldest dinosaur identified
African specimen suggests lineage may have arisen 15 million years earlier than thought
By Tanya Lewis
Web edition: December 5, 2012
What may be the most ancient dinosaur ever found — or at least a very close relative to the oldest currently known examples — could push the appearance of the awesome beasts back to 243 million years ago.

Paleontologist Rex Parrington of the University of Cambridge in England discovered the fossil in the early 1930s, preserved in a rock formation known as the Manda Beds in Tanzania’s Ruhuhu Valley. Now, a team of scientists has taken a fresh look at Nyasasaurus parringtoni. It lived during the Anisian age of the Middle Triassic period, about 10 million to 15 million years earlier than the oldest confirmed dinosaurs. The finding suggests dinosaurs evolved and diversified over a longer time frame than scientists thought, the team reports online December 4 in Biology Letters.

So far only fragments of the creature’s backbone and upper arm bone have been found, but these bear telltale features of dinosaurs, such as rapid bone growth. More fragments are needed to determine whether the fossil is in fact the oldest dinosaur or a member of the nearest sister group.
One of the important ideas on any historical science is Uniformitarianism, the concept that to understand the past, one must understand the present.  Here is an example of that principle in action.

University of Michigan: Monkey business: What howler monkeys can tell us about the role of interbreeding in human evolution
December 7, 2012
ANN ARBOR—Did different species of early humans interbreed and produce offspring of mixed ancestry?

Recent genetic studies suggest that Neanderthals may have bred with anatomically modern humans tens of thousands of years ago in the Middle East, contributing to the modern human gene pool. But the findings are not universally accepted, and the fossil record has not helped to clarify the role of interbreeding, which is also known as hybridization.

Now a University of Michigan-led study of interbreeding between two species of modern-day howler monkeys in Mexico is shedding light on why it's so difficult to confirm instances of hybridization among primates—including early humans—by relying on fossil remains.
Finally, one of the frontiers of biodiversity lies inside the human body, which means that it has important implications for human health.

Science News: Gut bacteria may affect cardiovascular risk
Antioxidant-producing microbes may keep atherosclerotic plaques in place
By Tina Hesman Saey
Web edition: December 4, 2012
Though atherosclerosis is an artery problem, microscopic denizens of the intestines may play a surprising role in how the disease plays out.

A new study suggests that different mixes of intestinal microbes may determine whether people will have heart attacks or strokes brought on by break-away plaque from the arteries. Compared with healthy people, heart disease patients who have had strokes or other complications of atherosclerosis carry fewer microbes that make anti-inflammatory compounds. These patients also have more bacteria that produce inflammation-triggering molecules, researchers report online December 4 in Nature Communications. Inflammation is thought to promote cardiovascular disease.

The findings may help explain why people with higher levels in their body fat of antioxidant molecules like beta-carotene and lycopene have a lower risk of developing heart disease, but simply feeding people dietary supplements containing the compounds doesn’t help. It may be that a lifelong, intimate association with antioxidant-producing microbes helps some people stave off some of the worst consequences of hardened arteries.
Next, the biodiversity stories from Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Two Higgs Bosons? edition).  I'll start with some weird biodiversity.

Scientific American: Seeing Bacteria
By Christina Agapakis
December 14, 2012
I got a really fun early Christmas gift yesterday, Moyasimon 1: Tales of Agriculture, a manga series about a boy who can see microbes. His skills lead to some exciting fermentation-related adventures at his agriculture college. I learned a lot about miso, sake, and meats that ferment underground!
Yes, folks, I'm an otaku, something I've mentioned here only once before.  Hey, I can do it once a year.

Speaking of organisms that ferment, here's a fun weird story.

Smithsonian Magazine: The Fungus in Your Cheese Is Having Weird Sex
December 10, 2012 9:11 am
Cheese is a pretty weird thing when you think about it. Someone had to come up with the idea of taking a bunch of milk, adding bacteria, letting it basically go bad, and waiting to eat it until mold had grown on it.

And, if that grosses you out, just wait. It turns out that the fungi in cheeses like blue cheese aren’t just sitting there, waiting for you to eat them. They’re getting it on.
More at The Secret Sex of Cheese on Nitty Gritty Science.

CNN: Sudan: Israeli 'spy vulture' nabbed during reconnaissance mission
By Nick Thompson and Nima Elbagir, CNN
updated 9:41 AM EST, Wed December 12, 2012
(CNN) -- A vulture captured by Sudanese authorities is actually an Israeli spy on a secret reconnaissance mission, a pro-government newspaper in the east African nation has claimed.

Government sources say the vulture, found in western Sudan, was tagged with a GPS-equipped camera to take and send pictures back to Israel, according to a December 8 story in the Alintibaha newspaper.

The bird also wore an ankle label reading "Hebrew University Jerusalem," "Israel Nature Service" and the contact details of an Israeli avian ecologist.

The ecologist, Ohad Hatzofe of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, has rejected the Sudanese government claims -- saying the vulture, which can fly up to 600 kilometers in a single day, was tagged with GPS equipment to study its migration pattern.
Geez, Sudan.  Paranoid much?  Also, way to expose how ignorant you are of how science works.

I'll clear my palate with some biodiversity news from the ancient world.

Science News: Early life forms may have been terrestrial
Controversial theory suggests early life forms were land-dwellers
By Susan Milius
Web edition: December 13, 2012
Some of the fossils celebrated as sea life’s big breakout beyond mere soups and slimes might actually have dwelled on land, argues a controversial new study.

Named the Ediacaran fauna after Australia’s Ediacara Hills, these creatures dating from roughly 575 million to 542 million years ago mark life finally growing beyond the microscopic. Found in some 30 locations around the world, Ediacarans grew in discs, fronds and other fairly simple shapes with a quilted look, and paleontologists usually consider them some sort of marine creatures.

A new detailed analysis of the rocks where Australian Ediacarans are found suggests the rocks are fossilized soils, or paleosols, instead of a sea bottom, says Gregory Retallack of the University of Oregon in Eugene. The placement of fossils and tiny tubes in the rocks suggests to him that at least some of the Ediacarans actually lived in those soils instead of just washing up on them.
Discovery News: Animal's Body Preserved for 425 Million Years
Analysis by Jennifer Viegas
Thu Dec 13, 2012 11:16 AM ET
The remains of a tiny animal, preserved for 425 million years in rocks located in what is now the U.K., have just been discovered by an international team of researchers.

The creature -- related to crabs, lobsters and shrimp -- is an ostracod, or a type of crustacean sometimes known as seed shrimp. It represents a new species, Pauline avibella, in memory of the late wife of David Siveter, who led the research project.

The 0.4-inch-long animal was found, not only with its shell, but also with its soft parts -- body, limbs, eyes, gills and digestive system. Such well-preserved remains from that ultra prehistoric period are near unheard of in the fossil record.
Scientific American: Reconstructed Face of Extinct “Hobbit” Species Is Startlingly Humanlike
By Kate Wong
December 11, 2012
Once upon a time a tiny human species with large feet shared the planet with our own kind. It hunted giant rats and miniature cousins of the elephant, defended its kills from monstrous storks and dodged fearsome dragons. This is not the plot of a lost Tolkien book. This really happened. I’m referring, of course, to our extinct relative Homo floresiensis, which lived on the island of Flores in Indonesia as recently as 17,000 years ago and has for obvious reasons been dubbed the hobbit. It turns out that despite the species’ small size, it may have looked rather familiar, according to a scientific reconstruction.
Now, some biodiversity news from the modern world.

Science News: News in brief: Counting project reveals forest’s bug diversity
Some 25,000 species of arthropods live in Panamanian forest
By Susan Milius
Web edition: December 13, 2012
An international effort has put together the first tally of all the species of butterflies, beetles, ants, bees, roaches and their fellow arthropods that live in a tropical forest. And the count: 25,000.
Analyzing the count suggested possible short-cuts for estimating diversity, Yves Basset of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and his colleagues report in the Dec. 14 Science. The best predictor of total arthropod species was the total plant species in the forest. Of course, then scientists have to count the plants.
That reminds me, I have a story about rainforest biodiversity to write.  Yes, this is just a warmup entry.

Nature via Scientific American: King Crabs Poised to Wipe Out Rare Antarctic Ecosystem of Invertebrates
The crabs' arrival due to warming seas could deal a crushing blow to archaic species of starfish, sea spiders and ribbon worms at the Antarctic continental shelf
December 12, 2012
On a dim February evening, seven people crowded around a row of television monitors in a shack on the rear deck of the RV Nathaniel B. Palmer. The research icebreaker was idling 30 kilometers off the coast of Antarctica with a cable as thick as an adult's wrist dangling over the stern. At the end of that cable, on the continental shelf 1,400 meters down, a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) skimmed across the sea floor, surveying a barren, grey mudscape. The eerie picture of desolation, piped back to the television monitors, was the precursor to an unwelcome discovery.

The ROV had visited 11 different sea-floor locations during this 57-day research cruise along the Antarctic Peninsula in 2010. Each time, it had found plenty of life, mostly invertebrates: sea lilies waving in the currents; brittlestars with their skinny, sawtoothed arms; and sea pigs, a type of sea cucumber that lumbers along the sea floor on water-inflated legs. But at this spot, they were all absent. After 15 minutes, the reason became clear: a red-shelled crab, spidery and with a leg-span as wide as a chessboard, scuttled into view of the ROV's cameras. It probed the mud methodically — right claw, left claw, right claw — looking for worms or shellfish. Another crab soon appeared, followed by another and another. The crowded shack erupted into chatter. “They're natural invaders,” murmured Craig Smith, a marine ecologist from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “They're coming in with the warmer water.”

Cold temperatures have kept crabs out of Antarctic seas for 30 million years. But warm water from the ocean depths is now intruding onto the continental shelf, and seems to be changing the delicate ecological balance. An analysis by Smith and his colleagues suggests that 1.5 million crabs already inhabit Palmer Deep, the sea-floor valley that the ROV was exploring that night (see 'A warming welcome'). And native organisms have few ways of defending themselves. “There are no hard-shell-crushing predators in Antarctica,” says Smith. “When these come in they're going to wipe out a whole bunch of endemic species.”
By Douglas Fox and Nature magazine
Scientific American: Mole Rats Promote Biodiversity
Mole rats may not be pretty, but their mounds of dirt are crucial for biodiversity
By Anne-Marie Hodge
Mole rats—known for their small eyes, grublike bodies and sometimes naked skin—mostly live underground. Yet they seem to dramatically affect aboveground ecological processes. A recent report in the Journal of Zoology showed that the burrowing activity of mole rats strongly influences the composition of plant communities in one of Africa's biodiversity hotspots, the Cape fynbos region in South Africa.

In the process of excavating their burrows, mole rats churn soil together with vegetation, uneaten food, and their own urine and feces. They then eject this blend of organic and inorganic matter from their burrow, forming characteristic mounds.
Scientific American: New Toxic Nocturnal Primate Species Discovered
By Katherine Harmon
December 14, 2012
The slow loris shouldn’t be a difficult object of study. For one thing, it’s slow—very slow (think sloth slow). And these small primates, which are unique in possessing a toxic bite to ward off predators, are charismatic due in large part to their compelling, wide-eyed faces. But they are also nocturnal, and they tend to live in hard-to-reach places, such as the rainforests of Borneo. Which might be why until recently, scientists had lumped all the slow lorises (Nycticebus) into just two species.

Currently, three more species—including the Bornean loris (N. menagensis)—and many more subspecies of this omnivore are recognized. Now a new research effort has discovered three distinct species within the formerly singular Bornean loris species. The project also uncovered one entirely new species, which has even “longer, fluffier body hair,” the team of researchers noted in the study describing the find, which was published online December 13 in the American Journal of Primatology.
Also read Three New Slow Loris Species Discovered in Borneo; Rare Venomous Primates Threatened by Illegal Pet Trade.

Science News: Feces study gets the poop on gorillas’ diet
Chemical traces in animals’ droppings reflect recent shifts in food consumption
By Tanya Lewis
Web edition: December 10, 2012
Chemical signatures in a gorilla’s feces reveal a lot about short-term changes in its diet, a new study finds.

What an animal eats tells scientists how it survives in its habitat and adapts to environmental changes. But observing animals dining in the wild isn’t always practical. Now, researchers have tracked monthly shifts in the diets of wild mountain gorillas by measuring different forms of carbon in the animals’ feces.

Researchers monitored eastern gorillas (Gorilla beringei) in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda over a 10-month period from 2002 to 2003, collecting the apes’ scat and samples of the animals’ favorite foods — leaves, fruit, fruit peels and wood.
Never ignore any source of information!

I close with the biodiversity stories from Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Apocalypse Not edition).

Science News: Victorian zoological map redrawn
Patterns that inspired Darwin and Wallace get an update
By Susan Milius
Web edition: December 20, 2012
With a new planet-wide analysis of vertebrate life, an international team has used 21st century science to update an iconic 1876 map of Earth’s zoological regions.

By incorporating data on 21,037 species of mammals, birds and amphibians, Jean-Philippe Lessard, now at McGill University in Montreal, and his colleagues have revised a zoological map created by Alfred Russel Wallace, an oft-overlooked cofounder of the theory of evolution. Wallace’s map divided Earth’s landmasses into six major regions, each with its own distinctive blend of vertebrates.

Over the years scientists have redistricted Wallace’s wildlife precincts several times, mostly to fit the growing trove of information on what species live where. Lessard and his colleagues, however, use not just species distributions but family tree relationships. Incorporating degrees of kinship revives the evolutionary spirit of Wallace’s original map, Lessard and colleagues say online December 20 in Science.
Wallace's biogeographic scheme has held up fairly well over the nearly century and a half.  The biggest changes involve extending the Eurasian Palearctic realm into the American Arctic, and the addition of separate realms for Madagascar and the transition realms between the Old World tropical realms (African and Oriental) and Palearctic and Australian.  See the graphic that accompanies the article for how this worked out.

Now, an example of why maintaining and studying biodiversity is important.  Even the most maligned organism might provide something useful.

Science News: Repellent slime has material virtues
Threads from hagfishes' defensive goo demonstrate superior strength and flexibility
By Rachel Ehrenberg
Web edition: December 19, 2012
Step aside spiders. Threads made by another creepy-crawly — the eel-like hagfish — may lead to superior new fibers for parachutes, packaging and perhaps even clothing. A new study that examines the mechanical properties of threads made from hagfishes’ slimy mucus finds the fibers are both strong and stretchy, and may serve as a model for creating superior new materials.

“The tensile properties approach those of spider silk, and that’s very exciting,” says biomaterials specialist Douglas Fudge of the University of Guelph in Canada. Synthetic fabrics such as nylon are derived from petroleum, notes Fudge, so studying hagfish threads may lead to renewable “green” materials for making all sorts of things.

To study the threads, Atsuko Negishi, a researcher in Fudge’s lab, collected buckets of slime from Atlantic hagfish (Myxine glutinosa). The long, slender jawless creatures have lines of slime pores that run down the sides of their body; some species have more than 100 such pores. When hagfish are provoked or stressed, the pores eject copious amounts of slime, which gets caught in the gills of predators — including sharks — making them gag and back off.
The final story works just as well as a climate story.  Who knows, I might recycle it.

Science News: Pandas' home range may move as climate changes
Warming might force animals’ food source, bamboo, to higher elevations
By Alexandra Witze
Print edition: December 29, 2012; Vol.182 #13 (p. 8)
China’s famous Qinling pandas may run out of their favorite food by the end of this century. Scientists have simulated how three bamboo species native to central China’s Qinling Mountains might move around as climate changes. And the news is bad for hungry pandas: All three plant species shrink in range.
Maps of different scenarios for bamboo survival revealed that if the bamboo species manage to spread well and temperature increases stay small, then “a considerable amount of panda habitat is projected to persist over the entire century,” the scientists write online November 11 in Nature Climate Change.

But more likely is a fragmenting of panda habitat and overall bamboo shortages.
And that's it for this update.


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