Saturday, May 31, 2008

Bees Can SMILE?

Uh, well no, actually :
"They have a rigid exoskeleton around the mouth.

"They can open their mandibles (jaws) but that's about it.

"A fortuitous light has reflected off the compound eyes, which makes them look that they have pupils.

"The light is also shining on the clypeus (a shield-like plate on the face) making it look like a nose and reflecting on the mandibles, which makes them look like a pinkish mouth."

Great photo though.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Save The Planet : Eat Squirrels And Bugs

In the UK, Brits are supposedly "going mad" for a squirrel dinner. Not because squirrel is particularly nutritious, but for ethical and green reasons :
It's low in fat, low in food miles and completely free range. In fact, some claim that Sciurus carolinensis - the grey squirrel - is about as ethical a dish as it is possible to serve on a dinner plate.

The grey squirrel, the American cousin of Britain's endangered red variety, is flying off the shelves faster than hunters can shoot them, with game butchers struggling to keep up with demand.

...its new-found popularity is partly due to its green credentials.

'People like the fact it is wild meat, low in fat and local - so no food miles,' says Simpson.

Ridley reckons that patriotism also plays a part: 'Eat a grey and save a red. That's the message.'
Don't worry if you're repulsed by the idea of nibbling on all those tiny squirrel bones. Perhaps insect flesh is more to your fancy :
David Gracer lifts a giant water bug, places his thumbs in a pre-sliced slit in its underside, and flips off its head. “Smell the meat,” he says, sniffing the decapitated creature, and the people gathered around the table willingly oblige. Members of the New York Gastronauts, a club for adventurous eaters, they murmur appreciatively as they scoop out and swallow the grayish, slightly greasy insect flesh.

“Perfumey, tastes like salty apples,” one says. “Like a scented candle blended with an artichoke,” another adds.

The giant water bug, or Lethocerus indicus, a three-inch-long South Asian insect that looks uncannily like a local cockroach, is just one of the items on the menu of this bug-eating bacchanal.

Gracer, a self-described “geeky poet/nature boy” who teaches composition at a community college in Providence, Rhode Island, has made it his duty to persuade ordinary Americans to eat insects.

Gracer wants people to move away from getting their protein from traditional livestock such as cows, pigs, and chickens because raising livestock has a huge negative impact on the environment...,

“Americans have no idea how wasteful these large mammals are,” Gracer says. “If you want to feed a lot of people, insects are the best choice in terms of getting the biggest bang for your buck.”

It takes 869 gallons of water to produce a third of a pound of beef, about enough for a large hamburger. By contrast, to supply water to a quarter pound of crickets, Gracer simply places­ a moist paper towel at the bottom of their tank and refreshes it weekly.

Insects, he says, also need less food and space than vertebrate sources of protein and therefore could replace or supplement food resources that may become scarce in the future, such as fish stocks, which a recent study indicates may collapse by 2048.

Double-fist sized hamburgers dripping with cheese and lashed with bacon versus ground beetle dip. Dave Gracer has one hell of a sales mission on his hands.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Series Of Bizarre Natural Events Preceded Massive Earthquakes In China

This story from the Times Online pings the word 'conspiracy' to these stories of weirdness before the 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit China a few days ago, but such stories are not rare. In fact, animals acting strangely before earthquakes hit is fairly common.

From the London Times :

One blogger from Shandong province, in eastern China, wrote that more than a month ago, he went to his local earthquake resesarch centre several times to report that his animals had been disturbed and restless.

But, he wrote: "They not only ridiculed me, they accused me of making up stories."

The Chutian Metropolis Daily reported that on April 26, 80,000 tonnes of water suddenly drained from a large pond in Enshi, Hubei province. The province shares a border with Chongqing Municipality, which was devastated by the earthquake on Monday.

On May 10, a Sichuan-based newspaper, the West China Metropolis Daily, reported that hundreds of migrating toads descended upon the streets of Mianyang, the second largest city in the province which neighbours Wenchuan County, the epicentre of the earthquake.

In the city of Mianzhu, 60 miles from the epicentre, bloggers pointed to reports just weeks before the earthquake of a mass migration of more than one million butterflies.

The quakes are expected to have killed more than 15,000 people, more than 20,000 remain trapped under collapsed buildings, schools and apartment blocks as this is written, and more than 40,000 people are missing.
One Big Cow

The name is Chilli, and that isn't an optical illusion. He's the world's tallest, or almost tallest, bovine, peaking at 6ft 6inches.

More photos of Chilli here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Too Much Clean Air Bad For 'The World's Lungs'

Climate science, particularly the science backing the theory of man-made climate change, is fairly new and extremely complicated. As this story makes clear, what you think would be good for a region like the Amazon, may actually turn out to be bad news :
...the Amazon could be wiped out within half a century as a result of too much clean air...

The vast rainforest, so crucial to the Earth's climate, is coming under threat from attempts to curb the pollution that causes acid rain, warn UK and Brazilian climate scientists.

The drying of the Amazon is caused by a combination of increasing greenhouse gases and efforts to remove sulphate aerosol particles arising from the burning of coal in power stations.

Emissions of the particles in the 1970s and 1980s partially reduced global warming by reflecting sunlight and making clouds brighter. This pall of pollution has dominated in the northern hemisphere and has acted to limit warming in the tropical north Atlantic, keeping the Amazon wetter than it would otherwise be.

they found that the trend to cut sulphur emissions in North America and Europe to curb acid rain, which has harmful effects on plants, aquatic life and buildings, will see tropical rain-bands move northwards as the north Atlantic warms, resulting in a sharp increase in the risk of Amazonian drought, like that experienced in 2005.

"These findings are another reminder of the complex nature of environmental change," says Prof Cox.

Is this story actually claiming that significant pollution in the 1970s and 1980s reduced the effects of global warming by reflecting back sunlight that would have otherwise reached this planet's surface? And that the effect of this increased rainfall in the Amazon, making it healthier and lusher than it otherwise would have been?

Hail Spud

There's ordinary potatoes, and then there's the really extra special potatoes :
The home of a Berlin woman has become a destination for pilgrims after the likeness of a cross was found in one of the potatoes she was cutting to make french fries, Germany’s The Local reported.

Birgul Balta, 49, said she invited family and neighbors to see the spud and soon a steady stream of the curious had lined up at her door, the paper reported.

"Everyone was deeply stirred," said Balta, a Muslim. "Some of them even began to weep and to pray."
Over a potato...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Fire, Lava, Lightning

io9 has the explanation for this spectacular, but thoroughly, destructive display of nature :
Several days ago, a volcano that had been dormant for 9,000 years near the coast of Chile erupted spectacularly, hurling liquified metals and lightning many miles into the sky. The results, which you see here, are called a "dirty thunderstorm," and are quite rare. Nobody is certain what causes them, but according to National Geographic it's believed to be "the result of rock fragments, ash, and ice particles in the plume collid[ing] to produce static charges—just as ice particles collide to create charge in regular thunderstorms."
Big Bugs

Divine Caroline takes a fascinating look at some of the biggest insects on the planet.

Here's some background on the Atlas Moth (above) :
Found only in Southeast Asia, the Atlas Moth is the largest of the moth species with the largest wing surface area—close to sixty-five square inches—and a wingspan of up to a foot long. Named after wing patterns that resemble maps, the moth’s wing tips resemble a snake’s head in order to ward off predators. With no mouth, it feeds off fat reserves built up during their caterpillar stage. Females secrete a pheromone through a gland at the end of the abdomen that males can detect several miles downwind. Adults mate quickly, since a total lifespan of a female is only one to two weeks. Females lay their eggs, use up their fat reserves to feed themselves, and then quickly die.

Go Here For More
Mobile Phones Killing Off Bees?

Without bees, we lose much of our food production. More than a million bee colonies are believed to have died out in the United States in the past year alone. While the bizarre phenomenon of dying bees is mostly contained to the US and Europe, not knowing what is responsible means it will be to stop it from spreading.

The UK Independent asks if mobile phones are somehow responsible :

It seems like the plot of a particularly far-fetched horror film. But some scientists suggest that our love of the mobile phone could cause massive food shortages, as the world's harvests fail.

They are putting forward the theory that radiation given off by mobile phones and other hi-tech gadgets is a possible answer to one of the more bizarre mysteries ever to happen in the natural world - the abrupt disappearance of the bees that pollinate crops. Late last week, some bee-keepers claimed that the phenomenon - which started in the US, then spread to continental Europe - was beginning to hit Britain as well.

The theory is that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bees' navigation systems, preventing the famously homeloving species from finding their way back to their hives. Improbable as it may seem, there is now evidence to back this up.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) occurs when a hive's inhabitants suddenly disappear, leaving only queens, eggs and a few immature workers...,The vanished bees are never found, but thought to die singly far from home. The parasites, wildlife and other bees that normally raid the honey and pollen left behind when a colony dies, refuse to go anywhere near the abandoned hives.

The alarm was first sounded last autumn, but has now hit half of all American states. The West Coast is thought to have lost 60 per cent of its commercial bee population, with 70 per cent missing on the East Coast.

CCD has since spread to Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. And last week John Chapple, one of London's biggest bee-keepers, announced that 23 of his 40 hives have been abruptly abandoned.

The implications of the spread are alarming. Most of the world's crops depend on pollination by bees. Albert Einstein once said that if the bees disappeared, "man would have only four years of life left".

German research has long shown that bees' behaviour changes near power lines.

Now a limited study at Landau University has found that bees refuse to return to their hives when mobile phones are placed nearby. Dr Jochen Kuhn, who carried it out, said this could provide a "hint" to a possible cause.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Desert Vs Highway

Some remarkable images from Fogonazos of a desert highway in China and the battle to keep the sands from swallowing up the road :
The Tarim Desert Highway crosses the Taklamakan desert from north to south. The total length of the highway is 552km; approximately 446km of the highway cross uninhabited areas covered by shifting sand dunes, making it the longest such highway in the world. To prevent the road from being buried by sand, China authorities have built a 60-meter-wide tree belt along the route provided with a massive irrigation system which pump water for the vegetation.

The highway was built in 1995 to move oil from the Tarim Basin, China's largest inland basin. Though the highway was built using sand-control meshing, the most effective method a decade ago, many sections of the highway were buried by floating sand, which moves at an annual rate of five meters.
Go Here For More

Friday, May 02, 2008

Birds Can See A World Invisible To Us

It's not a new theory by any stretch, but scientists now believe they have proof that birds can find their way across vast distances of our planet's skies because they can see Earth's magnetic field :

Klaus Schulten of the University of Illinois, proposed forty years ago that some animals – including migratory birds – must have molecules in their eyes or brains which respond to magnetism.

The problem has been that no one has been able to find a chemical sensitive enough to be influenced by Earth's weak geomagnetic field. Now Peter Hore and colleagues at the University of Oxford have found one.

Cryptochromes are a class of light-sensitive proteins found in plants and animals, and are thought to play a role in the circadian clock, in regulating plant growth, and timing coral sex.

A few years ago, Henrik Mouritsen of the University of Oldenburg in Germany showed that they were present in the retinal neurons of migratory garden warblers, and that these cells were active at dusk, when the warblers were performing magnetic orientation.

Birds appear to orientate at dusk, and cryptochromes form their pair of free radicals when "activated" by the blue light typical of dusk.

Hore suggests that dusk might activate the birds' magnetic sense, producing the radical pair. The concentrations of each free radical would be controlled by the Earth's magnetic field, which is known to vary with latitude. As a result, he speculates, the radicals would bind in varying degrees with other signalling molecules, depending on how far north or south the animal is.

How birds decode their "magnetic sense" is another topic of debate. Mouritsen believes they have an additional layer to their vision, which when switched on allows them to visually "see" the Earth's magnetic field. The situation would be similar to "head-up displays" in fighter jets and some cars, where transparent screens displaying information are built into windscreens.

"Having that on all the time would be distracting, so you can see why it would be desirable for the system to switch on and off," says Hore.