Hive heat management
- Published on Monday, 15 December 2014 16:23
Honey bees have to work really hard to maintain the temperature of their hives between 32 and 36 °C. The reason is simple, unlike termite larvae which can be moved when temperatures rise, honey bee larvae are entombed in comb and get baked alive if it gets too hot. Faced with this problem, honey bees use a heat shielding technique where workers press the ventral side of their bodies against heated surfaces and absorb heat. While the absorption process has been studied before, how the bees dissipate absorbed heat has not. Now a team is revealing that they move heat around much as the bodies of mammals do. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Image courtesy of Bksimonb.
- Published on Friday, 05 December 2014 18:23
It is a topic that nobody wants to talk about, but it is in need of attention just the same. Sewage systems around the world are getting old and increasingly failing. The reason is simple. Sewage pipes are almost always made of concrete and, over time, concrete disintegrates when exposed to the right mix of chemicals. The problem, of course, is that the pipes are underground and nobody is really certain of which ones need replacing until they break. Now a team is proposing a clever way forward using chemical analysis of the sewage itself. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Where have all the craters gone?
- Published on Tuesday, 25 November 2014 15:43
During the past 3.5 billion years, more than 80 celestial bodies are thought to have hit Earth that were larger than the huge asteroid responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs. Yet, only three of these craters have ever been found. Are we missing something? Are those craters out there hiding in plain sight? Or have they simply vanished of the face of the planet? Curious about this, a team made the first quantitative estimates of the maximum total number of large terrestrial impact craters that could possibly still be present on the surface of Earth for us to find and they came up with a magic number that says a lot about how discerning geologists are. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Photo courtesy of M.A. Garlick.
- Published on Saturday, 15 November 2014 22:21
Animals die, minerals replace organics over hundreds of years and, in the end, an entirely stone fossil is all that remains. This is doctrine in the world of palaeontology and it is doctine that is fast unraveling. In 2005 a team demonstrated that if you remove the minerals from a T-rex bone you have organic sludge left. They suggested it might be organics from the T-rex but the world shouted them down saying it had to be from modern bacteria. They then, in 2009, dug up a fresh dinosaur using techniques to reduce contamination and, using antibody and mass spectrometry techniques, revealed ancient proteins in the dinosaur bones that are only found in birds today. There was no way they could have been from bacteria, but this left a huge question... there were no humans around to preserve tissues in fermaldahyde - how could dinosaur proteins possibly get preserved???
Now new work is demonstrating that the answer is iron. A team found that the organic tissues that remain in fossils are laced with iron nanoparticles everywhere. This made them wonder if the iron in blood can play a preservational role. Keen to test this out, they soaked freshly slaughtered ostriches in either iron rich haemoglobin or water and watched how they reacted over the long term. The results are incredible. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Deep sea spawning
- Published on Saturday, 25 October 2014 21:57
The deep ocean has long been viewed by biologists as a land of banishment. Species that are out-competed in the intense shallow water environments go there when they can get by nowhere else. Then, when those species go extinct, their place is filled by another loser from the shallows. At least, that has been the theory but a new finding is suggesting that things actually work the other way around and that the shallows have largely been populated by species that came to be in the mysterious fathoms below! Far from a land of banishment, the depths look to be the nurseries of the sea. Read on in my article in The Economist.
- Published on Wednesday, 05 November 2014 22:16
In Origin of Species, Darwin proposed the idea that waterfowl could be important dispersers of aquatic organisms but nobody has rigorously tested this idea until now. On Appledore Island in Maine, there are nesting colonies of gulls and lots of small rock pools that are quite isolated from one another. The gulls bathe, swim, drink, play, fight, run, etc. in/through/between these pools and a team studying the pools came to wonder if the birds were dispersing rock pool organisms as they did so. The team looked at this by bathing birds and scanning them for hitch-hiking invertebrates as well as by monitoring how frequently the birds entered pools and how the diversity of the aquatic community related to the gull activities. They found that 38% of the gulls were carrying at least one living baby invertebrate on their legs that were just waiting to be dropped off somewhere new and exciting. One bird actually had 18 attached babies on its legs! Read on in my article in The Economist.
Photo courtesy of Vlad Lazarenko.
- Published on Wednesday, 15 October 2014 18:55
Oil spills kill a lot of animals off immediately as the oil clogs up their gills, soaks into feathers and poisons ecosystems. However, what their longer term effects are has been more of a mystery. It is hard to set up an experiment with two healthy populations and then have one hit by a million gallons of oil since spills are, by their nature, random catastrophes. Yet a team interested in exploring the long term ecology of spills has found an intriguing way around this problem by tapping into data from an experiment studying bird populations for other reasons just as an oil spill took place in the region. Roughly half the birds were hit by oil why the other half were not. Quite interesting stuff. Read on in my article on this in Nature.
Image courtesy of The Marine Photobank.