Death By DNA

Scientists have been studying the extinction of the woolly mammoth — those colossal, fur-covered, elephantine creatures that thrived during the last Ice Age.  And, specifically, the studies have been looking at the role genetics played in the demise of the shaggy giants with the huge, curved tusks.

example-museum-replica-species-canadian-de-extinctionThe last woolly mammoths died surprisingly recently — about 4,000 years ago, during the Old Kingdom period in Egypt.  By that time, the mammoths had vanished from the European and Asian continents due to habitat change due to global warming and the efforts of human hunters.  The last of the species lived, and died, on Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia.

According to scientists, declining numbers put the mammoths on a death spiral caused by inbreeding and genetic mutations that the population was too small to overcome.  With a shrinking pool of mates, and a lack of genetic diversity, the harmful mutations multiplied, affecting male fertility, the mammoths’ sense of smell, and other important functions.  Scientists confirmed this by taking mammoth genes from the Wrangel Island population and placing them in the cells of the mammoths’ nearest living relative, the Asian elephant, to see how they performed.  The tests showed that the mammoth genes were pitiful and failing.  The scientists also compared the genes of the last mammoths with genes from mammoths that existed thousands of years earlier, when vast herds of mammoths thrived during the height of the Ice Age.  The comparison showed that the last mammoths had an “accumulation of detrimental mutations … consistent with genomic meltdown.”

We can’t do anything for the last mammoths that perished on the frozen wastes of Wrangel Island, but their fate shows what happens when the population of a species simply becomes too small to overcome genetic mutations.  It’s a cautionary tale to keep in mind as we look to identify, and protect, the endangered species currently inhabiting planet Earth.

Fact-Checking Porcupine Sex

The days of speeches by the likes of Daniel Webster are long gone, and for some time now the United States Senate — which once seriously was described as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” —  seemingly has been filled with unremarkable politicos who don’t exactly set new standards for eloquence.  So when Kansas Senator Pat Roberts made a curious argument during the ongoing Senate debate about health care reform, the Associated Press decided to take a closer look.

In trying to describe the difficulties in resolving health care issues, Roberts said:  “Once in Glacier National Park I saw two porcupines making love. I’m assuming they produced smaller porcupines. They produced something. It has to be done carefully. That’s what we’re doing now.”

8068693778_38e62ec1de_bSo the current atmosphere in the U.S. Congress is like two porcupines having sex?  That’s not only not reassuring — which presumably is what Roberts was trying to communicate — it’s a distinctly disturbing image, isn’t it?

But the AP decided to have a deeper look at the whole porcupine sex issue.  It didn’t look at whether Roberts has ever been to Glacier or actually saw two porcupines in an intimate situation, but it did ask exactly how porcupines engage in the act.  The AP fact check cites a Duke University biologist who says that porcupine spines may be intimidating to predators, but when mating occurs porcupines can let down their guard.  The AP adds:  “Courtship rituals can be aggressive but when the animals have negotiated the art of the deal, the females relax and reposition their quills.”

So we’ve got Senators talking about porcupine sex and Associated Press reporters fact-checking them?  Apparently this is what passes for useful interaction of the political class and the fourth estate in these days of President Twitter and “fake news” and obvious political agendas on all sides.  It makes me think that those of us out in the country should be careful not to relax and reposition our quills.

Using Crutches As Tools

At one time, scientists theorized that humans are distinguished from other animals by their ability to use objects as tools. Then they discovered that chimpanzees use sticks to get tasty ants out of anthills, and that theory went by the wayside.

Still, there’s something about using tools that is innately appealing to humans. We are instinctively drawn to labor-saving devices. If an invention makes our lives easier — and, particularly, if it allows us to remain prone and otherwise immobile while we are using it — we are going to go for it every time.

I’ve been exercising this inherent human characteristic by experimenting with new uses for my crutches. Sure, they’re perfectly useful for their intended purpose of allowing people with leg injuries to hobble unsteadily to and fro, but it turns out they’re plenty useful for other things, too — particularly for those people who have dogs around the house. For example, I’ve used my crutch tools for a number of other actions:

* Crutches are light enough and long enough to allow you to push a door shut when dogs inexplicably start barking during the middle of a conference call

* The rubber tip on the end of a crutch is well-suited to lifting and tossing dog blankets and shoving aside other obstacles that might entangle the crutch-user, to gently prodding and awakening snoring dogs, to retrieving towels from a faraway towel rack, and to pulling within reach of the invalid footstools, satchels, and other needed items

* Crutches allow you to successfully scratch the small of your back

I’m still working on other ways to use the handy crutch, but right now I’m wondering — is there anything crutches can’t do?

Your Mom and Grandmother Were Right About There Being More Fish In The Sea

When you first had your heart broken, chances are your mother and your grandmother told you to forget about the person who jilted you and added: “There are many fish in the sea.” It turns out that they were more right than they knew — about fish, at least.

A recent Australian study determined that the oceans are filled with many more fish than scientists suspected. In fact, the study concludes that the global biomass of fish is 30 times higher than was previously thought.

Why the incredible undercount of fish? Because most of the world’s biomass of fish falls in the category of mesopelagic fish, which live in the dark depths of the ocean at levels 200 to 1000 meters below the surface. The populations of those fish have been underestimated because the fish have remarkable sensorial capabilities and are incredibly adept at avoiding detection and capture by fishing nets. Their true number was revealed only when acoustic detection devices were used.

Mesopelagic fish are otherworldly looking, with their jutting jaws and special sensory devices, but they play an important role in the oceanic ecosystems. They rise at night to feed, then sink back to the depths to take their craps — a process which transfers carbon from the ocean’s surface to its deepest depths. The decarbonization of the surface helps to keep the oceans healthy.

Curious, isn’t it — after millennia of fishing and sailing the oceans, and hundreds of years of careful scientific study, humans still know so little about the oceans and their inhabitants that we underestimated the fish population by a factor of 30. What else don’t we know about the waters that cover most of the Earth’s surface?

Polar Penguin Prudes

In 1910, on an ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, a British biologist observed the activities of adelie penguins.  He was shocked by what he viewed as depraved acts by the penguins — so much so that he recorded his observations in Greek. His later paper on the topic was so disturbing to the pre-World War II sensibilities of the British scientific community that it was never published.

The paper has been discovered in the files of the British Natural History Museum and published in the journal Polar Record.  The biologist, Dr. George Murray Levick, recorded incidents of sexual coercion, physical and sexual abuse of penguin chicks, non-procreative sex, and apparent homosexual liaisons among the penguins — but what he found most “depraved” was attempts by male penguins to mate with dead females.  (According to modern biologists, the latter conduct is explained by the fact that female adelie penguins indicate their readiness for sex by assuming a certain position, and if a dead female’s body happens to assume that same position, the male penguins have a sexual reaction and just can’t help themselves.)

It’s hard to imagine that a biologist would be morally troubled by the conduct of birds or animals, but the extreme sexual inhibitions of Victorian and Edwardian England were pervasive.  Anyone who has lived with dogs knows that you can’t assign human sensibilities to animals that think nothing of sniffing the rear ends of fellow pooches, eating rabbit droppings for a snack, or dry-humping a visitor’s leg.  You would think that penguins would be given a special break in view of the fact that they live on barren rocks in frozen climates without much else to occupy their thoughts.  After all, you can only do so much swimming or eat so many fish.