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So my grandmother just had bowel surgery, and is recovering in the hospital, and I’ve been visiting her two hours a day. I never realized until now how incredibly physically and mentally draining it is to spend time with a sick person in the hospital – just two hours with her (plus the total three hours of travel time there and back) has left me totally drained, hence no blog entries in a week. I guess it’s having to be positive and cheerful and not show any sadness (even when your gran is sitting there with tubes coming out of her arms every which way, plus one coming out her nose… poor girl), in order to be supportive, that is so draining.

Anyways, I’d love to be able to write something right now about the importance of getting regular colon checks, or the state of public health care in the UK, or about the physiological changes that occur in someone who is sick when a loved one is nearby – but I’m just too tired. And I need a chuckle.

So instead, I’m going to post a smattering of some fun facts I read about recently and a few fun videos. I don’t have the energy to offer some witty, insightful commentary on each one – but all these things are neat/funny so I guess that should be entertaining enough.

Here are some short and sweet offerings from Zoetic:

1. Here’s a video of an African battle: Lions Vs. Water buffalo Vs. Crocodiles.

(You may want to put it on mute to block out the annoying commentary of the American tourists, repeatedly pointing out the obvious, as American tourists tend to do.)

2. A hammerhead shark in Nebraska has become the first shark to have a “virgin” birth, a phenomenon known as parthenogenesis. This has been seen before in reptiles, amphibians, and bony fishes (plus it’s fairly routine in all sorts of invertebrates), but this is the first confirmed case of a shark fertilizing her own eggs.

By the by, if you haven’t heard of whiptail lizards, you want to: some species of these plain-looking lizards live in all-female colonies (no doubt, reptilian utopias), with no males whatsoever – each female produces offspring that are clones of herself. What’s more, females will copulate with each other (they switch the role of bottom and top position the next time they mate), which it seems triggers the production of fertilized eggs.

3. Here’s a Discovery Channel segment on drunk monkeys, who were brought to the Caribbean from Africa and developed a taste for fermented sugar cane. Now they steal booze from tourists:

And here’s another great drunken animal video, featuring African beasties feasting on the fruit of the famous amarula tree (clearly narrated by the guy who narrates The Gods Must Be Crazy):

4.  There is a fish called the black arse cod.

I wish there were more fish with the word ‘arse’ in the name.

You’d think a cod with the word arse in the name would hail from the waters near Newfoundland, but alas, this one comes from Australia.

5.  German police are collecting smell samples from lefty activists, in the lead-up to the big smash-up that the G8 summit promises to be.

(I can’t find a photo of a smell sample… but we all know what we think of when we hear the word “G8″ – masked riot police beating the shit out of students.)

Apparently the East German Stasi collected thousands of smell samples (each one of us has a unique smell, don’tcha know) from suspect citizens, so that the sample could at some point be used with a keen-nosed sniffer dog to find the suspect individual in a crowd.

6. Like me, you probably had a very sweet, sentimental story emailed to you about a mother tiger whose cubs died being given piglets (clad in tiger skin spandex) to raise instead.

Hopefully you found a bit more information about the supposed angelic tiger mum, or had a correction emailed to you. The union of tigers and pigs is apparently just one of many weird zoological stunts they perform for crowds at a Thai zoo, including basketball-playing elephants and “lady crocodile wrestling.” The tiger was actually suckled herself by a pig as a cub, like these kitties here.

The whole zoo is run on interspecies experiments to draw in alcohol-fueled, short attention-spanned, and no-doubt ketamine-riddled tourists. Good little summary of the zoo – and with the text from the saccharine email – here.

… I hate to admit it, this still is pretty f’in cute:

Researchers have discovered more than 700 new species in the deep, cold waters of the Antarctic, described in the cover story on the current issue of Nature.

New species are discovered all the time. What is really amazing about this current crop of new discoveries is that they come from a part of the world that you would think would be very species poor – the deep, very cold waters near Antarctica. But as one of the expedition leaders says, “We thought we might find some novel species, but previous research had suggested deep-sea diversity this far south would be poor, so we were very surprised to find such enormous diversity.”

Check out a BBC news piece about the voyage here.

And (WARNING: shameless self-promotion incoming) my own piece about new species discoveries from The Globe and Mail this weekend here.

When it comes to being unappreciated, I think octopuses have it pretty bad (and FYI, it’s octopuses, not “octopi,” despite the assertions of various wiki-based dictionaries). They are so much cooler than you might think.

Lately squid have been getting a lot of attention – what with the first photos of a giant squid being captured last in 2005, and then the first video a few months later. It is understandable, giant squid are pretty damn cool – I actually said a little prayer as a little girl that I would live to see the first video of one.

But people forget how cool octopuses are.

For example, check out this news story from New Zealand, where keepers at an aquarium report that their octopus can unscrew bottles. This isn’t news – all you have to do is google the word “octopus” and “unscrew” and you get more than 11,000 hits. You can watch unscrewing in action in this video of Violet the octopus unscrewing a bottle to get a crab inside (or you can read the blog entry by her keepers). People keep re-discovering this feat, however, because people are always surprised that something with no backbone could be so clever.

Octopuses are really, really smart – undoubtedly the most intelligent invertebrates out there, and it seems more intelligent than a lot of vertebrates (and certainly more intelligent than a lot of people).

Experiments indicate that they have both long and short term memory, can navigate mazes, solve puzzles, and appear to play with their keepers and with toys sometimes. They can escape from their holding tanks, and there have been a number of reports of giant pacific octopuses climbing onto fishing boats and raiding catches. I’ve even heard zoologists claim that they are as intelligent as dogs (although you can’t really compare apples and oranges like that – but that’s another story…).

They are also masters of camouflage. Cuttlefish hold the top spot for changing colour, but octopuses can do some pretty amazing visual feats too. Check out this little dude, camouflaged with what looks like some seaweed:

If you thought that was cool, consider the mimic octopus: this species was only discovered in 1998, and wasn’t formally described until 2001, because divers simply never saw it before. It was just that good at imitating lionfish, sea snakes, brittle stars and more than a dozen other creatures. I can’t seem to find any really good footage of these awesome creatures, but this one imitating a flounder isn’t bad:

Octopuses, even big ones, can also squeeze through tiny, tiny holes – this video has some pretty cool footage of captive octopuses squeezing themselves through tubes the diameter of a quarter:

Perhaps most surprising of all is how strong octopuses are – apparently a one-pound octopus can lift at least 40 pounds of weight. I’m not sure if this is true, but they are seriously strong animals. If you don’t believe me, just consider what happened at the Seattle Aquarium many years ago. Sharks kept vanishing from their tank for weeks, and the keepers were stumped. They decided to put up a camera overnight to see what was going on – and discovered that the sharks were being devoured by a giant pacific octopus:

If that isn’t scary-looking enough, check out this poor diver being assaulted by an octopus, which manages to rip off his mask:

And last, but certainly not least, my favourite octopus video of the day:

Ouch! Nothing like a good ol’ random Japanese game show, eh?

PS: Kudos to the author of Dirtygames, who brought the shark vs. octopus video to my attention. Dirtygames is devoted to foul play in politics, media and sports. This video made it onto that blog because it pretty accurately symbolizes the match-up between the San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings (whose fans, for some reason, throw octopuses onto the ice at games). Sports is not exactly one of my areas of interest – but I always find time for Dirtygames. Good writing is good writing, no matter the topic. And who doesn’t love a good rant about the misadventures of Courtney Love? No one, I tell you.

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to do something that celebrated the natural world – make documentaries, or become the first person to learn to speak dolphinese, something like that. But my father had other designs. Our conversations would go something like this:

“Zo Zo, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A marine biologist!” (or whatever I was into that week)

“Wouldn’t you rather be an architect? Make buildings for people to live in?”

“NO! No no no no! I want to swim with dolphins!”

“But architects get to make beautiful buildings, they make useful things for people to enjoy!”

“NO!”

My dad trying to cajole me into becoming an architect was one of the great annoyances of my childhood. So naturally one of my family’s favourite pasttimes became asking me about architecture, as their teasing never failed to generate an explosive – and, I can only surmise, adorable – reaction.

To be fair, my dad did try and meet me halfway. He bought me a National Geographic/Equinox book, which sadly appears to be out of print now, called The Architecture of Animals – all about spider webs and bird nests and beaver dams and all the amazing things that animals build (which are far more complex and ingenious than you’d ever think). Reading it together, we both learned to appreciate the other’s passion.

And as I got older I became more open to my father’s love of architecture and engineering. We’d watch documentaries on Frank Lloyd Wright, he’d explain to me why suspension bridges are so cool, we’d pilgrimage to see the villas of Palladio, and we’d build huge, epic birdhouses in his workshop.

Although he never managed to convert me into an architect, my father did instill in me a tremendous respect, appreciation, and admiration for the profession.

There is one architect in particular however, who I only discovered recently (due to my poor education in art history), who doesn’t just impress me – he inspires me.

While in Barcelona last year I had the incredible privilege of visiting Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia (aka the Gaudi Cathedral).

Gaudi was not the first architect to work on the Sagrada Familia when he took over the project in 1883, and he certainly wasn’t the last. The cathedral is in fact still not finished – and won’t be for at least another forty years (if ever).

Despite the fact that it is still incomplete, it is impressive nonetheless. Not just due to its massive size, and its massive spires (which will number 18 when it’s finished), but also because the entire thing, from top to bottom, is as ornate and decorative as a building could possibly be. No austere puritan simplicity for Gaudi:

Gaudi is famed for his naturalism. The entire thing is covered in leaves and bunches of grapes and birds and all sorts of earthly delights. Moreover, Gaudi was mad for incorporating the geometry of nature into his designs, such as parabolic arches and hyperboloid structures. The staircases pretty closely follow a Fibonacci sequence, which is found all over nature – in the shells of snails, the crests of waves, the centres of flowers.

The columns are modeled on the shapes of branching trees, and the ceiling really does evoke the patterning of leaves in a canopy:

This web page offers the best explanation of his use of nature’s geometry than anything else I have seen on the net.

The whole cathedral is more than just an homage to God – it’s an homage to God’s works. I’m not religious, and I never have been. But walking through this cathedral was inspiring beyond words – it literally made my heart burn, as I can only imagine in the same way religious people feel when they ponder the divine.

For this very reason, thousands of people want to see Gaudi beatified. According to this piece from The Independent:

They rest their case on the argument that Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia was not simply the work of a visionary architect. The Association for the Beatification of Gaudí, which has been gathering up to 80,000 supporters from around the world for the past 25 years, believes it also inspires unbelievers. Archbishop Carles has said: “Can anyone acquainted with [Gaudí’s] work believe that all which one contemplates could possibly have been produced only by cold thought?”

Sadly, the cathedral – a Unesco World Heritage Site – is in danger of crumbling away before it is even finished. Plans for a new high speed train line between Barcelona and Madrid have put the rails just a few feet from the cathedral, which architects and geologists say will irreparably damage the cathedral. This quote from the same Independent piece sums it up perfectly:

Architect Jordi Bonet, whose father Luis Bonet worked with Gaudí when the building work started, said: “This will amount to cultural vandalism. The Sagrada Familia is something which is supposed to last centuries for people around the world to enjoy and this train is only designed for about 40 years.”

City planners say all other possible routes for the train are “unviable.” Even if that is the case, it’s not as though people can’t get to Madrid and back now. Really, making a train line a bigger priority than this cathedral is nothing short of appalling.

It reminds me of when the Romans tore down their own monuments to use the marble in other buildings, leaving future generations to shake their heads and mourn the loss of their ancestors’ achievements.

In this case however, the Catalans do not have the excuse of poverty – only stupidity.

Speaking of crustaceans, I learned something very cool the other day. This isn’t exactly news – it was reported in Nature in 2001 – but it’s news to me so I’m going to assume it’s probably news to most of you too.

One of the loudest sounds in the sea – quite possibly the loudest – is made not by any of the biggest creatures, such as whales, which is what you’d expect. No, that honour goes to a small species of pistol shrimp – Alpheus heterochaelis – no bigger than your finger.

The shrimp has one oversized claw, which creates an incredibly loud noise when it snaps it shut – about 200 decibels in volume. To put this in perspective, a jet engine at full blast is about 120 decibels. The shrimp use the sound to imobilize (and presumably deafen) their prey. A whole colony of the shrimp snapping together is loud enough to interfere with sonar equipment.

Scientists used to think that the noise was simply created by the snapping of the claw – but in 2000 they discovered that in fact the noise is created in a far more outlandish and fantastic way.

When the shrimp snaps its claw shut, it expels a jet of water from a hole in the claw, which can shoot out at up to 100 km an hour. A low pressure bubble is generated in the wake of this jet of water. When the bubble collapses under the pressure of the water around it, it produces intense sound waves (I believe this is known as inertial cavitation – but my understanding of fluid mechanics is pretty poor so don’t quote me on this).

But here’s the really cool thing: in 2001 researchers discovered that the bubbles collapse with such force that they produce tiny flashes of light.

Bubbles emitting light is nothing new – the phenomenon is known as sonoluminescence and it was first discovered in the 1930s, when physicists discovered by accident that subjecting small bubbles to ultrasound can create bursts of light.

But actual living creatures creating light in this way was new – biologists had never seen anything like it before (which is understandable considering that the light produced by the shrimp is not actually visible to the naked eye, and the whole process only lasts about 300 microseconds). Moreover, the laws of physics would dictate that the temperature inside the bubble is at least 5,000 degrees Celsius – as hot as the surface of the sun.

The researchers dubbed the phenomenon “shrimpoluminescence” – a cute play on the word sonoluminescence, and you can get more detailed descriptions of their experiments, plus photos and videos on their website.

The researchers told National Geographic that they don’t think the light bursts are of any biological significance, and are probably just an unintended side effect. That is most likely the case, and I don’t have any reason to believe that the light serves any real purpose (or that the shrimp themselves can even see it).

But still, I’m going to keep an open mind: nature is constantly surprising us, and I wouldn’t put anything past the inventive genius of evolution.

A Russian census released this month indicates that there are 480 to 520 Amur tigers living in the Russian edge of Siberia, bringing the total population up to 600. Woo!

Now, 600 is still a pathetically small number – but it sure beats the hell out of 40, which is where the population stood eighty years ago thanks to our old friends, poaching and habitat destruction.

Unfortunately, the population isn’t going to get any bigger than this. Biologists say the region can’t support any more of the big cats (you need a lot of deer and boars to feed a big predator like this).  That’s not very many tigers – the survival of this subspecies is still not guaranteed. And considering that a tiger skeleton fetches $5,000 in China, where the bones are ground up for “medicine,” we would be wise not to break out the champagne just yet.

… Especially considering that the other big Siberian cat, the amur leopard – the world’s rarest cat – is still teetering on the edge of existence: there are only 40 of them left.

Using photographs from scanning electron microscopes as templates, animators have created a stunning video illustrating cell processes – like protein translation and white blood cell movements – at the molecular level. “The Inner Life of a Cell” was made as a teaching tool for undergraduate biology students, who have to memorize the names and functions of hundreds of different molecules without ever really seeing what they look like or how they move. Apparently using this video helps students retain up to three times more information than they do just with lectures and text.

If you’ve ever studied cell biology, you’ll appreciate how mega cool this is – I for one sure wish they’d had this when I had to memorize all the proteins and molecules involved in DNA transcription (… it’s not as exciting as it sounds). We had simple 2D animations of the processes with little coloured blobs – but this is something else.

If you haven’t studied cell biology, most of the terms they use will sound completely alien and meaningless – but that’s ok. I think all of us can appreciate this video – it’s a spectacular illustration of the inner workings of our own bodies.

I probably shouldn’t post about this, as we have no hard evidence (yet) that life ever existed on Mars – we’re pretty certain that it could have, and probably did at some point… but we don’t know for sure. Remember those “bacteria” they found in Martian rocks about ten years back? They couldn’t prove conclusively that the marks were nothing more than round glitches, so we’re back to square one: no signs of life on Mars yet.

I probably also shouldn’t post about this because I’m not a big fan of space travel. I think exploring the universe with robots and rovers is fantastic, and teaches us so many valuable lessons. But sending people into space at this point would be nothing more than irresponsible.

When Bush announced that he wanted to send the first human to Mars, at the tune of at least a trillion dollars (but let’s be honest – there’s no way they would be able to stay within budget), I was appalled. Send a human to Mars? When we have no evidence yet that anything is alive there – and if it was, would be microscopic? When the Earth – where every single living thing we’ve ever known lives – is in the middle of a catastrophic diversity crisis? With money we could use to save the Amazon, rescue Madagascar and Papua New Guinea from becoming barren, tackle global warming, and do countless other things to keep our own planet from becoming a hot, desertified, lonely wasteland, populated only by humans, rats, and cockroaches?

So I probably shouldn’t write about this – I don’t want to encourage people to think that Mars is such a cool place that we should try and visit anytime soon.

But I can’t resist. This video from NASA of the Mariner Trench is just too cool.

I have to post about this. Not just because the prof researches at my alma mater (although it is certainly nice to know that U of T isn’t just funding the hugely profitable sciences – for now…).

No. As difficult as this is proving to describe, I must post. Because it is truly cool.

treelight1.jpg

We know that all life on earth depends on the sun for all its energy (except for bad-ass deep sea animals that live off the energy in hot vents of hydrogen sulphide and crazy undersea methane lakes). But now chemists have shown that you can actually control the way a protein works by changing the timing of beams of light you shoot at it.

Or, as they put it: “Optical control of the primary step of photoisomerization of the retinal molecule in bacteriorhodopsin from the all-trans to the 13-cis state was demonstrated under weak field conditions (where only 1 of 300 retinal molecules absorbs a photon during the excitation cycle) that are relevant to understanding biological processes”

Right – what they said.

Bear with me now. Here it is as simply as I can put it: they used lasers to shoot photons of light at molecules of bacteriorhodopsin, a protein found in some bacteria that reacts with light (it’s very similar to the stuff we have at the back of our eyes which take in sunlight and allow us to see). By changing the speed of the bursts of light, they could change how the molecules bent and moved – faster pulses would make it bend differently. This might not sound impressive – but the study got the front cover of Science, one of the top two science journals in the world. No one has ever shown this before… or even really thought that it was possible.

This all has to do with quantum mechanics and other concepts in particle physics that literally make my brain hurt, including the idea that light can act like a particle and a wave at the same time (all of which I am pretty much incapable of really understanding or explaining – here, I’ll let Wikipedia do my job).

Basically the coolness factor boils down to this: the influence that light has on life could be far, far more complex than we can even imagine.

Or, as the study’s lead author, Professor Valentyn Prokhorenko endearingly told Seed magazine, “We are all children of the sun.”

…I love it when scientists get all poetic on us.

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