Archive for August, 2008

Mother Jones marching with striking laborers.


Mother Jones marching with striking laborers.

“Pray for the dead; fight like hell for the living!”  –Mother Jones

Happy Labor Day to All Working People!

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Methane, a notorious greenhouse gas, is leaking from the permafrost under the Siberian seabed.

The apparent rapid decay of permafrost as a result of global warming.

The apparent rapid decay of permafrost as a result of global warming.

The permafrost has small holes in it leading to the surface.  Researchers found elevated levels of methane being emitted from the holes and even more in the water below the ground.  The seabed is the source of the gas.   

Methane is more than 20 times more efficient than carbon dioxide in trapping solar heat, so this is a huge problem.  It is also emitted from many bogs and swamps across the world as organic matter decays and decomposes.

Scientists fear that global warming may cause Siberia’s permafrost to thaw and thereby release even more amounts of methane into the atmosphere. The effects of global warming are already readily apparent in the Arctic region from the melting of the polar ice caps etc.

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Scientists have used gene therapy on embryos to grow hair cells with the potential to reduce hearing loss in adults.  This test was done on lab mice, not humans, mind you.

How your ear can hear.

How your ear can hear.

Sensory hair cells inside the cochlea, the auditory portion of the inner ear, convert sound waves into electrical pulses which are then delivered to the brain.

The loss of these cells and the neurons they contain is the most common cause of hearing impairment and  deafness.

At birth, humans have about 30,000 hair cells, which can be damaged by infections, ageing, genetic diseases, loud noise, or medical treatments.

Ususally, the damaged hair cells do not regrow in humans. But recent research has kindled hope that nerve deafness may one day be curable.

Experiments have shown that implanting a gene known as Atoh1 into the inner ear of a mouse embryo caused non-sensory cells to become the sensory hair cells.

Earlier research had hinted that this would happen, but this was the first time that working hairs werre created by gene therapy.

The production of the working hair cells in a mouse embryo are a crucial step toward using similar therapies in human patients.

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A baby’s first words are often “mama” and “dada,” which sometimes causes some fierce competion to get the baby to say their name first.  But why these words?
Babys first words are often mama and papa, or tata.  But why?

Babys' first words are often mama and papa, or tata. But why?

Beyond the obvious – Mommy and Daddy are around a lot and babies are drawn naturally to their parental units and often hear the words (“Who’s your dada?”) – languages in many cultures have apparently made the task easy by creating words for mothers and fathers that feature patterns of repeating sounds according to some scientists.

Brain scans were made of 22 newborns while they listened to recordings of made-up words.  They heard words that end in repeating syllables, such as “balala” and “pakeke,” as well as words without them, such as “fluban” and “sherkol,” for example.

 Brain activity increased in the babies’ temporal and left frontal areas whenever the repetitious words were played.  This suggests “mama” and “dada are well-chosen first words to try to teach a baby.  This study also shows that the ability to more easily recognize these sorts of repetitive sounds is hard-wired in the human brain.

 “It’s probably no coincidence that many languages around the world have repetitious syllables in their ‘child words,'” project leader Judit Gervain said.  For example Polish uses Tata and Mama, while Italian has Papa and Mama.

So, the brain areas that are responsible for language in adults do not ‘learn’ how to process language during development.  They are specialized to process (not necessarily learn or comprehend language from the earliest beginnings of life.

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Wildlife Wednesday: Aardwolf

The Aardwolf, or Proteles cristatus, is a relative of the African hyena.  It can grow to a meter in length and weight 10 kilograms.  It is known for its strange eating habits, short stature, and vertical striping pattern.

The Aardwolf, brother to the Hyena.

The Aardwolf, brother to the Hyena.

Aardwolves inhabit the savannas of eastern and southern Africa where they dine on the abundant termite mounds.  Unlike their brethren carnivores, the hyenas, Aardwolves are insectivores, that is, they only eat insects (as the name suggests).  Furthermore, unlike most termite eating animals, they will not actually dig into the mound, but instead simply lick the outsides, where they can eat up to 200,000 termites in a single day!  Their evolution as insectivores instead of carnivores may have resulted from their lack of strong jaws for which hyenas are known.

The monogamous Aardwolves are generally nocturnal, seeking shelter in burrows during the heat of the day.  Despite only mating with one female, males, like some human males may sometimes “play around.”  A pack or family of Aardwolves will inhabit between one and four square kilometers of terrain.  They are in quite good standing and not at all endangered.

I wonder what the connection is between AARDvarks and AARDwolves?  The prefix must mean something.  If somebody knows then please inform me.

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Three more giant pandas have been born in China, bringing the total number of new arrivals of the endangered species this year to at least 19 . The three were born at the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center in the Situan province.

A Giant Panda mother and cub.

The essence of the fragility of nature: A Giant Panda mother and cub.

Eight-year-old Chengji, whose name means “achievement” in Chinese, gave birth to twins this past Saturday. They were named Yingying and Nini.

Another 18-year-old panda gave birth to her 12th baby on Sunday as well.

Giant pandas, one of the most endangered species in the world, are notoriously difficult breeders as their young are very susceptible to disease and the panda’s bamboo-based milk is very poor in nutrients.

Chinese experts say there are nearly 1,600 pandas living in the wild in China, mostly in Sichuan and neighbouring Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.  Another 180 pandas are being raised in captivity in China.

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A study of Google Earth satellite images has revealed that herds of cattle tend to face in the north-south direction of Earth’s magnetic lines.
Bovines may know more about the earths magnetic fields than you do!

Bovines may know more about the earth's magnetic fields than you do!


It seems that bovines have a compass-esque 6th sense.  The teams who did this research also noticed the same of red and roe deer.

The data on 2,974 deer came from direct ground observations and photos in the Czech Republic. Researchers also examined fresh beds left by resting deer in the snow, where the animals had sought shelter deep in the forest away from the wind, so that was not a variable.

Wind and time of day did not offer better explanations for why 8,510 cattle in 308 locations around the world would mostly face north-south.  Both cattle and deer faced a more magnetic north-south direction rather than geographic north-south, (Earth’s magnetic poles do not line up perfectly with the North and South Poles).

Previous research has shown that animals including birds, turtles, certain bat species, and salmon migrate using this sense of magnetic direction.

However, the researchers suggest that the finding of large animals’ sense of north-south direction could raise other agricultural questions, such as how keeping cows in barns facing east-west might affect milk production.

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