1 Tahrcountry Musings: August 2009

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Little Known Fact about Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus is known as the father of modern taxonomy. There are no arguments about it. Recently I was surprised to get to know about another fascinating facet of Carl Linnaeus that is not known to many.

Carl Linnaeus is the inventor of the index card. The pioneering scientist had to deal with vast amount of data. It was at times very perplexing. To overcome the problems presented by this gargantuan data he came up with the revolutionary invention: the index card.

Index cards solved many of the problems faced by researchers. They could be shuffled around and retrieved for updating and comparing information. An unheralded invention that was way ahead of his time.

Tahrcountry is glad to share this fascinating information about this pioneer of information retrieval with the readers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bugs and the Art of Fooling The Ants

Mutualism exhibited by Acacia plants and ants is a well known phenomenon. The plants provide the ants with shelter and food in the form of nectar and protein. As a quid pro quo the ants defend the tree against anything that comes near the trees in the form of insects, birds and small mammals.

One species of bug, in the family Coreidae, is an exception. These bugs exploit the plants without giving anything in return. They cleverly outwit the defending ants. Scientists have been long puzzled by this phenomenon.

Susan Whitehead of the University of Colorado decided to have a closer look at this phenomenon of how the bugs fool the ants.

Ants use pheromones to communicate with one another. Whitehead presumed the bugs were mimicking the scent of the ants. When the bugs were immobilized the ants still did not attack them. But when the researchers washed the bugs in a chemical solvent and returned them to the plants, the ants immediately attacked the bugs.

The key to this puzzle was the removal of chemicals on the bugs' exoskeleton. Resorting to chromatography and spectrometry, the researchers compared the bugs' exoskeletal chemicals with that of the ants. The scientists were bang on target. The chemicals in the bugs' cuticle matched that of the ants. The bugs were mimicking the hydrocarbons that the ants produce and the ants don't recognize them as something foreign.

Details of this interesting piece of research work is published in the current issue of journal PloS One

Monday, August 17, 2009

Why flamingos stand on one leg

Have you ever wondered why flamingos stand on one leg? I have pondered over this many a time. Several hypotheses have been offered in the past, but none of them were very convincing.

Here comes a convincing explanation. Scientists Matthew Anderson and Sarah Williams from Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia think they have the answer. Their studies indicate that Flamingos stand on one leg to regulate their body temperature
The research began by seeing whether the birds show any preference over which side of their bodies they use for various tasks. They found that flamingos prefer to rest with their heads on one side more than the other. Which side a flamingo rests its head is determined by how aggressive it is toward others in the flock. This led the researchers to investigate whether flamingos also prefer to stand on one leg more than the other, and why they stand on one leg. They spent several months observing the habits of captive Caribbean flamingoes (Phoenicopterus ruber) at Philadelphia Zoo, Pennsylvania.

The researchers found that flamingos prefer to stand on one leg far more often when they are standing in water than when standing on land. As water invariably draws away more body heat, this result supports the thermoregulation hypothesis. In other words birds stand on one leg to conserve body heat. The birds also switch their legs to avoid one leg becoming too cold.

The scientists do not rule out the possibility that there may be added benefits as well as conserving body heat.

Details appear in the latest issue of journal Zoo Biology

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Giant Panda Update - China Celebrates 140th Anniversary of the Discovery of Giant Panda

It was Pere Jean Pierre Armand David, a French Catholic missionary, who introduced Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca )to the western world 140 years back. He took the first photograph of the animal in 1869 in Sichuan.

To commemorate the event twenty hikers from various provinces of China have started climbing the mountain trails covering 350-km followed by Pere David. They are expected to reach the Ya’an Bifengxia Giant Panda Protection and Research Centre on Aug 25th.

China plans to make the event an awareness creation venture and hopes to attract more people to join the protection programme of the endangered giant pandas.
It is estimated that about 1,590 pandas live in the wild in China in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. The first giant panda protection zone was established in the 1950s.China currently has 27 giant panda protection zones. Pandas once used to roam the mountains in central and south China, and in Myanmar and Vietnam. Now they live precariously in limited pockets in China. China has artificially-bred giant pandas in an effort to give a boost to its protection.

May 12th earthquake last year had devastated the panda protection centre in Wolong Nature Reserve. This was subsequently moved to Bifengxia, about 130 km northwest of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. A new breeding center is coming up at Wolong to replace the quake-damaged centre.

Pandas are solitary animals. They come together only during the mating season. Pandas are usually vegetarian, with bamboo forming 99% of their diet. Occasionally they consume meat. They reach sexual maturity between ages 4 1/2 to 6 1/2 years and mate during March, April, and May. A single cub is born five months after the mating. The new baby is born in a nest constructed of bamboo. The cubs are weaned after nine months, but often stay with their mothers for about two years. Wild pandas are estimated to have longevity of 15 to 25 years. Captive pandas have been known to live over 30 years.

Chinese scientists were recently successful in sequencing of the giant panda genome. Giant panda genome sequence will enable more detailed studies of giant panda populations in the wild

Environmentalists round the world are happy about the enthusiasm shown by China for the protection the iconic Giant Panda. Tahrcountry joins them in wishing the Chinese Godspeed on this 140th Anniversary.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Birds that have a Penchant for Aromatherapy

The mysteries of nature are always a source of wonder. Think of cleansing your home. You thought only humans do it? Wrong. Scientists have discovered that birds also do it.

The information came from observations of Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) nests. Blue tits use medicinal plants to disinfect their nests. The birds line their nests with aromatic plants to kill bacteria. Plants such as mint (Mentha suaveolens) and lavender (Lavandula stoechas), are used. Scientists observed significant change in the composition of bacterial communities living on blue tit nestlings after the aromatic plants were introduced by the birds in the nests.

According to scientists different birds prefer different aromatics, regardless of their local availability.

There is mystery surrounding the selection of aromatic plants. For example, in a territory with big bushes of lavender, for some unknown reason blue tits collect mint that can only be found far away from their nests. Scientists are keen to find out the reasons behind these personal preferences.

Adele Mennerat and colleagues from France's National Centre of Scientific Research, based in Montpellier, and the University of Toulouse were behind this fascinating investigation.

The details of the research appear in the journal Oecologia.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Excellent Use for Throwaway Mango Seeds Discovered

Mango seeds are thrown away without a second thought after relishing the pulp. Here is a surprise discovery. Christina Engels from the University of Alberta has found a way to turn the throwaway mango kernels in mangoes into a natural food preservative that could help prevent food poisoning caused by various bacteria. Listeriosis outbreaks originating from contaminated preserved meat had killed 21 Canadians last year.

Ms Engels extracted pure tannins from the mango kernels and found that they have proven inhibitory effects against various strains of bacteria. She did the work to earn her master's degree from the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta

Mango is ranked fifth in world production among the major fruit crops. So the scope for commercial utilization of the discovery of Ms Engels is enormous. The discovery also underlines the need to preserve out biodiversity. Multifarious benefits are yet to be fully tapped. We have only scratched the surface of this cornucopia. A gold mine is waiting to be tapped. But man is destroying the biodiversity for short term benefits.

Details of the research are published in the latest issue of Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New standards for Graphically Representing Biological Information

Till now, biology lacked a standardized notation for describing biological interactions. This was a big drawback in pursuing biological research. The vacuum was clearly felt by many scientists. This has just been overcome by dedicated research and development.

Scientists from California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and their colleagues from 30 labs round the world worldwide have devised a new set of standards for graphically representing biological information. The innovators have described it as biology equivalent of the circuit diagram in electronics.

The project which was initiated by Hiroaki Kitano of the Systems Biology Institute in Tokyo, Japan, is coordinated by Nicolas Le Novère of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory's European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, England, and senior research fellow Michael Hucka, co-director of the Biological Network Modeling Center at Caltech's Beckman Institute.

The new standard is called the Systems Biology Graphical Notation (SBGN). SBGN will make it easier for biologists to understand each other's models. This will also help them share network diagrams effectively. SBGN is bound to act as a facilitator for the emergence of new industries devoted to the creation of software tools for working with SBGN, and its teaching and publication. SBGN combines an intuitive notation with the rigorous style of engineering and math

To ensure that the newly developed system does not become too vast and complicated, the researchers decided to define three separate types of diagram, which defines molecular process, relationships between entities, and links among biochemical activities. These different types of diagrams complement each other by representing different "views" of the same information, presented in different ways for different purposes. This approach reduces the complexity of any one type of diagram while broadening the range of what can be expressed about a given biological system.

The new standard was published in the August 8 issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dogs are Smarter than We Thought

Leading canine researcher Dr Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia has come up with some new surprising information about dogs. The researcher says dogs have the ability to solve complex problems and are more like humans and other higher primates than previously thought. They understand more than 150 words and have the ability to intentionally deceive other dogs and people to get treats. According to Dr Coren, dogs' mental abilities are close to a human child age 2 to 2.5 years.

Dr Coren says. "There are three types of dog intelligence: instinctive (what the dog is bred to do), adaptive (how well the dog learns from its environment to solve problems) and working and obedience (the equivalent of 'school learning')." The average dog can easily learn 165 words, including signals. Dogs can also count up to four or five. Impressively dogs can learn the location of valued items (treats), better routes in the environment (the fastest way to a favorite chair), and how to operate mechanisms (such as latches and simple machines). Dr coran says dogs are as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs.

Dr Coran gave the new insights when he spoke at the American Psychological Association's 117th Annual Convention

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Environmentally Responsible Traps for Pest Hornets are Round the Corner

Hornets are a nuisance. They raid beehives and ravages fruit crops. This makes them a serious pest to man. Thanks to new research, a way out is round the corner. The cue comes from nature itself. Read on.

Orchids usually have nothing of value to offer their pollinators. To overcome this drawback nature has devised ingenious ways. Orchids lure the pollinators with the scents of more rewarding flowers or potential mates.

Scientists have now discovered that a species of orchid, which lives on the Chinese island of Hainan, Dendrobium sinense, fools its hornet pollinator (Vespa bicolor) by issuing a chemical that honeybees use to send an alarm. Hornets capture honeybees to serve as food for their larvae. The deception by the dendrobium by secreting this particular chemical makes the hornets pounce on orchid flowers as though they were attacking prey. Result is pollination by proxy.

Scientists have identified the chemical responsible for this aggressive behavior by the hornets. It is Z-11-eicosen-1-ol. The chemical is a major compound of honeybees' alarm pheromone. Here comes the clue for making an environmentally responsible trap for Pest Hornets. Details of the study have been published online on August 6th in Current Biology.

Here is yet another reason for conserving our biodiversity. For many of our headaches there are remedies in nature. We do not have to run after toxic chemicals. Humans are concerned about short term gains only and plunder the nature without blinking an eyelid. We tend to forget the big picture in nature. It is high time we realized our follies and start paying more attention to holistic conservation.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Rhinos- WWF Rings Alarm Bells

According to WWF sources Rhinos are in a desperate situation. Poaching driven by demands from some Asian countries is casting a shadow on the very existence of rhinos. Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai nationals are mainly behind this racket of poaching.

Between 2000 and 2005 an estimated two to three Rhinos were killed a week. The total population worldwide is around 18,000 only. At least 12 rhinoceroses are being poached each month in South Africa and Zimbabwe alone. About 10 rhinos have been poached in India and at least seven in Nepal since January 2009. The combined population of India and Nepal is only 2,400.

According to WWF lack of adequate law enforcement and a low level of prosecutions for poachers are the main reasons for the plight of rhinos. Many Governments are lackadaisical in their ways of administering wildlife reserves.

WWF has exhorted the Governments concerned to crack the whip and come down on organized criminal elements responsible for this trade. Only tough actions can ensure future survival of rhinos

Back on the Net

Hi Guys,
I am back on the net. Sorry about this inordinate delay in posting. I was hamstrung by a lack of access to the internet during my sojourn