Science News in Brief
Nasa’s Kepler Space Telescope found its five new exoplanets (planets beyond our Solar System). The Kepler Telescope was launched a year ago, and as this report indicates, is working well.
Is it Bigger than a Breadbox: All of the planets are bigger than Neptune and 4 are larger than Jupiter.
Scientists discovered that “lifeless” (in that it does not reproduce asexually or sexually) prion proteins can evolve just like higher forms of life. This is particularly surprising as they do not have any of their own genetic material. The prions can adapt to their environment and develop resistance to drugs. Prions currently account for around 20 neuromuscular diseases.
How They Do It: The protein replicates by causing polypeptides (building blocks of proteins) in the cell to take their misshapen form.
Swedish hunters have been allowed to hunt wolves for the first time in 45 years. Their numbers were deemed “too high.” The hunt was to be controlled, but already, half of the yearly quota were killed in a single day!
Apocalypse Scenario: Perhaps human numbers are “too high.”
Researchers identified the source of fatal tumors which have reduced the Tasmanian Devil population by 60% in 10 years. The disease is a transmissible cancer spread by physical contact.
How They Do It: The disease targets neural cells on the devils’ face.
Feature Story: Amazon Catfish
What now? No Cool Creature? Well, I have decided to integrate the Cool Creature section into my feature story. I received the Blue Planet Series on DVD. This has given me approximately a gazillion ideas for Cool Creature, but one particular post idea jumped into my mind: a post about the catfish of the Amazon. Many are magnificent, and two, as I shall outline below, are downright scary.
Magnificent Brachyplatystoma (try saying that 5 times fast), locally known as Pirabia, is a Goliath of a catfish. Prized by anglers, the Pirabia (that name is easier to type than Brachyplatystoma) grows up to nearly 4 meters in length (slightly under 12 feet) and just north of 200 kilos (over 400 lbs). This fish can be found in the rivers of the Brazilian, Venezuelan, and Colombian Amazon Rainforest. The fish generally eats smaller fish, which is basically anything that swims in this river short of the Boto (freshwater dolphin). However, it has been seen to eat monkeys, and on rare occasions, dead humans (who were dumped in the river). They are an important food fish for local peoples, but overfishing are threatening its numbers.
Our next Amazon catfish is much smaller. It only grows to 6 inches in length. The Candiru Asu is a scavenger with a voracious hunger and a strange method of eating to boot. This fish has a circular mouth with sharp small teeth inside. To begin they will grab onto the carcass with their mouths and writhe to try to create a circular opening into the body. They will then flood into the body cavity and devour the carcass from the inside out. Horrifying stories have been told of human bodies being found washed up on the banks of the Amazon without any internal organs: the handiwork of the Candiru Asu. Fortunately, they do not attack living animals.
Now comes time for the fish that makes all men will quiver with fear. No, it’s not a shark, or a ray. It’s the 15 centimeter long Candiru, or toothpick fish. The body is almost entirely translucent making it nearly impossible to see in the dark waters of the Amazon. They have the sensory barbels which identify catfish the world around, but also have short, backward pointing spines on the gill covers. The candiru generally is a parasite which feeds off of fish by attaching to their gills with its sharp backwards pointing spines. There it feeds off the blood and nutrients of the host. However, there have been instances (only one actually documented to be fair), of candiru swimming up a man’s urine stream into his urethra. Surgery is required to remove the spiny creature.
It has been one of my dreams to go to the Amazon. This wild, wonderful river is one of the last places where nature rules untethered by the machinations of man. People may be afraid of the scary creatures in the river’s murky waters. Quite frankly, the candiru haunts my dreams. But, we must remember, that attacks on humans are incredibly rare. Not to mention, these fascinating, unique creatures have been harmed by human intrusions like fishing and pollution of the river far more than we have been harmed by their presence. In fact, I argue that their presence is a help to humans. They add to the biodiversity of this wonderful place, making it a much more stable ecosystem and more alluring place to visit. Whenever people talk about the dangerous wilds of the world, I get a little annoyed. Nearly every occasion when humans are harmed by animals occurs when the animal has been harmed, pestered, or put in danger. Think about it, is it at all surprising that a mother bear wants to protect its cubs? Don’t mothers get that crazy mom strength when their children are in danger. At any rate, I feel far more worried walking around any city than I am in the wildernesses of the world.