Monday, April 30, 2007

Animal of the Week -- April 30, 2007

AOTW Ovis aries (domestic sheep)

The Japanese Poodle Fleece a poem by Peter Hayward age 28 and 3/4

In Japan, we were told, by the tabloid fold
that sheep are poorly known
And that a poodle would vend for a great many yen
If properly clipped and mown

Spotting a scam, an unscrupulous man,
reported the Sun and Express,
trimmed a woolly white sheep to have pom pom feet
for a Japanese star actress

For twelve-hundred pound she bought her hound
so she thought, so rare and so fine
But of the Pedigree Chum her dog would eat none
Since its tastes were distinctly ovine

The rogue we are told, went on and sold
Pets to geishas and makers of noodles
For each one in turn a tidy profit he'd earn
As he was passing off sheep as pet poodles

The fabled actress found her "dog" in distress
As long toenails impinged on its moves
When she went to the vet, a surprise he did get
"These are not claws, they are hooves!"

The papers report that the rogue was then caught
And put in a cell with a lock
Those who were duped, got back their loot
And the sheep were returned to the flock

But the next day it is stated the tale was fabricated
Not a word of the story was true
Never there was a sheep dressed as a dog
Not a ram, not a lamb, not a ewe

Even though it was fake, the story was great
Spreading grins from ear to ear
And if you're a dog or a sheep, expensive or cheap
They'll eat you both up in Korea

*I would like to say sorry for any racial stereotyping/myth propagation -- I hope no-one takes offence and sincerely apologise if you do*

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Robins not nightingales -- non AOTW

Picture this, London 1998, in my second year as a Zoology student at UCL I lived in the delightful NW area of Kilburn, it's delightful now with many nice bars and eateries and the marvellous music venue The Luminaire, it wasn't so nice then, and even worse to the north, appropriately up Shoot Up Hill, was the borough of Cricklewood -- or gangster and skag central as it was then.
One night, on may way back from, erm, some late night study, I fell asleep on the night bus only to wake up in the aforementioned Cricklewood. Now, it was late, buses were infrequent, and I was, erm, confused. My failsafe way to navigate home was by the sound of birdsong because there was a robin that sang all night outside my window.
The clear light of day made me realise that this was a foolish thing to have done as there must have been thirty or more robins along my walk home, nonetheless, the clear light of day found me curled up in my bed. For I had successfully navigated home by the sound of the robin's song.
Thank god for noise pollution during the day, for this is the latest explanation for why robins sing throughout the night. Many people think it is nightingales, but you only get them in Berkley Sq, they are too posh for elsewhere in London.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sumatran Rhino on Borneo -- not AOTW

Well, you know what, I am going to start doing this more often. Seems silly that that crazy rhino story is announced and I can't comment until Monday. So, it may still be AOTW next week, it may not be, but here is a link to that video of the Borneo subspecies of Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni -- eastern Sumatran rhino).
As editors at The Lancet will know, Sumatran rhinos are the hairiest of all the rhinos. Even these erudite and learned folks may not know that these rhinos are the closest living relatives of the woolly rhinoceroses that inhabited Eurasia during last ice age.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Animal of the Week -- April 23, 2007

Happy Saint George's Day Ani-freaks!

What did you have for breakfast this morning? Perhaps you had some muesli with dried raspberries and strawberries in it, perhaps you had some wholewheat cereal with soy milk, perhaps you had some toast and honey, you might also have popped some bee pollen to take on it's putative benefits, or have you moisturised with a royal jelly face cream, or maybe you even did a little polishing with beeswax (don't you ever say that I don't know my audience). Well, if so, you should spare a thought for this week's animal of the week and cherish the experience, because, it is a tough time to bee Apis mellifera (western honey bee).

Having been ravaged by the vampire mite Varroa for the past 20 years or so, the primary pollinators of apples, soft fruit, beans, and many wild flowers are now facing new threats. Across the USA and Europe, beekeepers have anticipated the waking of their hives, but up to 60% have remained silent, and under investigation have turned out to be ghost hives, food in the cells, young bees abandoned, but no sign of the adults. No one knows the cause of this Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), although pesticides, GM crops, global warming, and even electromagnetic radiation have been proposed as possible causes. To test the last of these theories a US scientist placed base units for cordless phones in beehives and found that the radiation from them stopped bees navigating home. He also found answering the phone a painful experience and that there was a terrible buzz on the line. Although he never forgot where he left the handset.

And as CCD sweeps the USA and Europe, Europe's bees face another new threat, Vespa velutina, the Asian hornet. At 4 and a half centimetres long and with a wingspan of 6 centimetres, this hornet has swept across France since being introduced a couple of years ago. A group of 30 hornets can kill 30 000 bees in a few hours, biting them in half and stinging them with their powerful toxins. They leave a pile of bisected bees at the hive entrance and plunder the honey bee larvae to take back to their own for dinner.

Our western bees could learn a thing or two from their Asian cousins, Apis cerana. Threatened by a hornet, a group of bees cluster around the giant hornets creating a ball and start to vibrate. The vibrations which they normally use to regulate temperature in the brood chambers can raise the temperature of the bee ball to 46 degrees centigrade and cook the hornet at the centre. Neat, eh?

So, it's not good news for western honey bees right now. Stockpile honey and don't expect bumper crops of many of your favourite summer fruits.

See this video for the outcomes of hornet attacks on European bees and Asian bees (Bees 1, Hornets 1):

It bee mighty entertaining.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Animal of the Week -- April 16, 2007

The observant among you will have noticed the absence of Animal of the Week last week. For this I am terribly sorry, I was busy with Easter and then the internet went off-line all over the world.

To recompense for these events beyond my control, this week's animal is a monster, or rather a DINOSAUR! YAY! And not just any old dinosaur, oh no, for this week's animal is the king of the dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus rex.

I received a concerned message a couple of weeks back about the discovery of soft tissue in a T rex bone. Did that mean they had DNA? Were we going to start cloning T rex? Now, I had heard nothing of this, but a little investigation turned up that during a 2005 excavation a T rex bone had been broken and inside there appeared to be some soft tissue. Researchers originally assumed that the soft tissue was some weird mineral structure, because actual biological molecules could not possibly survive more than a million years let alone the 68 million years since the T rex had died. Or could they?

This week, the journal Science revealed a partial sequence of a protein from T rex bones found at the Hell Creek formation in Wyoming and Montana. Showing that biological molecules can survive for enormous lengths of time. When compared with other sequences of the same protein for living animals, the T rex was most similar to chickens.

T rex was alive as the reign of the dinosaurs came to an end, 67 million years ago. At 13 metres long and 5 metres tall it was one of the largest land predators to have ever lived. But not the largest. That record currently belongs to Giganotosaurus, which was likely almost 2 m longer and perhaps a tonne heavier than T rex, which lived some 30 million years before T rex in South America. The size of these huge carnivores means that they may not have been the swiftest of creatures, which makes people think they may have been scavengers rather than hunters. However, their prey were likely huge and even slower, so a lack of speed, agility, and grace would not have been necessary; however, they certainly weren't born to boogie.

But anyway, what with all this protein, might we be cloning T rex into chicken eggs any time soon. Unlikely, the protein is probably more stable than the DNA that would be needed for cloning, and even that was in tiny fragments. So sadly, there won't be theme parks populated by dinosaurs and offering T rex rides any time soon, but given their similarity to birds shown by this study, you might like to ride a white swan instead.

NB, the attached image is of course completely inaccurate, I am sure you don't need me to tell you that T rex would not have been able to stand upright as its hips and neck would have dislocated. They would have stood with their backs parallel to the ground.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Animal of the Week April 2, 2007 -- Troglobites

For a change, this week's animals are unnamed. Not because I am being lazy, I am not in charge of that sort of thing, rather because I can't find the names of any of them, and they are five species! They are the five species of troglobite that have caused the Western Australia Environmental Protection Agency to halt the construction of a multibillion dollar mine at Pannawonica, in the north-western region of Pilbara.

You would be forgiven for thinking that troglobite is just another of my gross spelling errors that litter these mailouts like rare insect species over a planned development site, but no, I mean neither troglodyte nor trilobite, but troglobite: any animal adapted to live solely and exclusively within caves that can never leave. Troglobites typically have advanced senses of touch and smell but a massively reduced sense of sight, with most being totally blind. A common adaptation among troglobite spiders, such as those in those in question here, is the loss of eyes and the adaptation of the front pair of legs to become long feelers (as seen in the picture).

The troglobites halting the Robe River, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, planned mine are spider like creatures, none bigger than half a centimetre in length, but unique to the site and not found in a neighbouring reserve protected from mine exploration. Troglobites feast on traces of organic material that drift into cave systems from the world above or algae and other microorganisms that survive within their cave systems, or in the case of spiders, other troglobites. Unable to survive exposure to direct light as they have no protection against UV rays, these troglobites would have no hope of colonising a new cave system. Every time a cave tropical system is investigated, a new set of these creatures is discovered, fish, salamanders, crickets, centipedes, insects, and shrimps have all several times moved into subterranean homes.

With iron ore set to run out in their existing mines in Australia in the next five years, Robe River will appeal hard for the mines to be built. So these spiders may not be long for this world, so I salute you little nameless, eyeless buddies. Enjoy what time you have left licking algae from the rocks and eating blind beetles in your tiny sunless world.

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