Thursday, December 16, 2010

Can we still make a difference?

Global warming, climate change, rising sea-level…oh my. Some believe it is real, some believe it is a myth. Regardless of what you believe, it seems we hear about it constantly these days. You cannot escape it.

I personally think that some level of global climate change is real. We just cannot possibly be emitting that much pollution and smoke and carbon products into the atmosphere and not have some impact. How big is the impact? I don’t really know. But I am willing to try to do my bit to make the impact a little less. Whether you believe the earth is a gift from a Creator, or that it was created by the Big Bang, either way it is now ours to care for and we should indeed do our best to do so.

The problem is that this global climate change stuff is so hyped up by the media that we have become numb. The ‘doom and gloom perspective’ is that things are so bad, you just cannot think about the repercussions of all this global change without basically wondering why we should even bother. It is the only alternative. If you believe the doom and gloom, and lets face it, the media is driven by such extremes, then it almost paralyzes you with fear. If you think about it too hard, it could send you into a full on panic. What will our kids’ lives be like? Our kids’ kids?

And, so, we are largely numb to the problem. So numb that it has become almost hip to not care. It is like a defensive mechanism we collectively have evoked.

So, it is wonderfully reassuring to read a story where we find we can still make a difference. Recent research into the fate of the polar bears and the retreating sea ice gives us that hope. Polar bears, as a species, were given a fatal diagnosis a couple of years ago. With the loss of sea ice, they were losing their habitat, and were predicted to be extinct by 2050.

The most recent models still support that result, as reported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. However, they also have begun to experiment with the effects of reductions in green house gasses. The good news is that rather moderate reductions, like those being planned by some countries, would actually slow the ice loss to a point that major areas of polar bear habitat would be protected.

Are we going to be able to do that – to reduce emissions? Only time will tell. But it is sure reassuring to know that we can still stop the effects of what is so often pitched as ‘the end of the world’

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wikipedia – Why you should care…

Today’s column is not so much a scientific rant, like I normally provide, but a plea:

Support Wikipedia.

What is Wikipedia? It is an on-line encyclopedia of sorts. It is the 5th most visited site on all of the internet. More than 400 million people use Wikipedia and its sister sites every month, so they claim. It has information on just about everything. I use it often when I teach, admittedly checking the facts against my own understanding of a subject before referring students to the site, but it is nearly always correct. It has a level of accuracy, I think, that shames the entire rest of the internet, all sites combined.

Why is Wikipedia amazing? It provides information, for free, to anyone and everyone that wants access. And, after all, that is my motto, Science Is For Everyone. Although wikipedia is not just science, it is a collection of facts that has the same appeal as science, at least for me.

John Goma, an editor for Wikipedia, recalls “I found a Wikipedia article on a topic that I had studied when I was a math student. I noticed that a few important points were missing. I hit the edit button, made some changes, and I've been writing and editing ever since. “ He states “Wikipedia is the sum of all those moments of discovery by millions of editors like me. People across the world add their time and energy to the vast, ever-growing store of knowledge that Wikipedia has become. But what's really remarkable about Wikipedia is that it's the product of volunteers working one entry at a time. And because Wikipedia is free of advertising, those of us who create and use Wikipedia have to protect and sustain it.”

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That's Wikimedia’s commitment. The Wikimedia Foundation is the foundation raising the funds to keep Wikipedia alive.

Want to know where your money would go? A donation to Wikipedia/Wikimedia supports technology and people. The Wikimedia Foundation develops and improves the technology behind Wikipedia and nine other projects, and sustains the infrastructure that keeps them up and running. The Foundation has a staff of about fifty, which provides technical, administrative, legal and outreach support for the global community of volunteers who write and edit Wikipedia.
Many people love Wikipedia, use it every day, but a surprising number don't know it's run by a non-profit.

Just type Wikipedia in your browser search bar and you’ll be there. Support the quest for knowledge and free access to it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

For the love of Chocolate

Continuing with the Halloween theme, today I write about candy. And, not just any candy - chocolate. Almost everyone likes chocolate, and some of us love it. I know I am certainly guilty of raiding my kids’ trick or treat bags in search of the good stuff; which in my book is the solid chocolate without anything else getting in the way. No peanuts, no nuts, no crispies, no crunchies, no wafers, and not even caramel. Just chocolate.

What is it about chocolate that makes so many of us crave it. Turns out there is some solid science behind this apparent madness.

First of all, there is the chemistry. Scientists have discovered several properties of chocolate that literally lead us to crave it. One, it has opioids. Opioids are also found in opium. So, not surprisingly, chocolate, like opium, serves to dull pain and give a general feeling of calm and happiness. Of course, it is present in pretty small doses, so chocolate is a lot safer way to get these feelings! Two, chocolate has caffeine, which is an upper, which tends to make your heart beat just a little faster.

Second – the psychology. Because we tend to give gifts of chocolate to people we love, some theorize that eating chocolate can induce feelings of comfort and/or love for purely psychological reasons. Given the chemistry above, and the biological responses, it is no wonder people have associated chocolate with love. But our resulting cultural association of chocolate with love has trained our emotional responses as well. Even without the underlying chemistry, giving, receiving, or just eating chocolate tends to induce happiness.

Third – the biology. Chocolate really is good for you, at least in moderation. Chocolate contains antioxidants, and flavenoids, both of which are thought to increase your life span through their cardiovascular benefits. In simpler terms, chocolate is good for your heart, biologically-speaking. And, we know that our bodies tend to crave the things that are good for us. It is our bodies’ way of telling us we are short on particular nutrients.

Of course, we also routinely crave what is not so good for us, and too much chocolate definitely falls into that category as well. Chocolate has lots of fats, and sugars. The fact that it contains all those fats, which make it smooth, may also explain some of why we like it so much - the sensation of eating it.

So whatever the reason, enjoy!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Spooky Spiders…

October seems the appropriate month to continue on the theme of spiders and other creepy crawlies who happily decorate our homes right now in larger-than-life form. Last time I wrote about spider silk, and its amazing strength. Spiders are biological wonders from several other perspectives as well. Notably, their long and leggy legs.

First, have you ever noticed that when you find a dead spider, that its legs are all curled up (so long as it is not smashed, that is)? Their legs roll inward towards their bodies and form a sort of ball. This is because spider legs are hydraulic, like pistons. They are held rigid by the fluid inside them, and that fluid must be maintained at pressure in order for them to hold the spider up and allow it to move around. Once the spider dies, the pressure cannot be maintained, and the legs collapse.

To move, the spider has muscles within the legs that allow the seven (yes seven) sections of each leg to bend inward a coordinated manner. But, to straighten the leg, there are no opposing muscles in most spiders, because there is nothing to attach them too. Remember spiders have no bone, just their tough exoskeleton that makes up what we think of as their crunchy skin or shell. The fluid pressure in the leg is changed via changes in the spider’s blood pressure. Increases in pressure straighten the leg, decreases allow it to bend.

Jumping spiders are by far the best at this feat. They can quickly change the blood pressure in the legs which allows them to spring upwards, travelling as far as 25 times their body length. That’d be 25 to 30 feet for the average human. None of us can pull that off.

Running spiders are special again in their own way. They have given up web building entirely for the purposes of capturing food, and obtain their meals hunting them down and then overtaking them with sheer speed. Our common wolf spiders often hunt this way. Luckily, even the largest of wolf spiders is only about an inch long, because spiders running you down is enough to unnerve just about anyone. They play an important role in the control of other insects, however, so be thankful that they are there.

Fishing spiders, however, win the award for amazing legs. Fishing spiders can literally walk on water. They do this by abusing the laws of physics, and taking advantage of simple surface tension. Surface tension is the tendency of particles of water to stick together. This is why you see a drop of water form a round, bead-like drop, and not just scatter into its infinitesimally small molecules. Fishing spiders have tiny leg tips, and light bodies, and when they press these leg tips to the surface of the water, they are able to stay atop the surface, and not break the surface tension. This is due largely to a waxy coating on the legs. You see a small dimple form on the water from the pressure of the leg, but the tension does not break, unless the spider wants it to. These spiders can dash out onto the water to grab prey such as insects, or reach below the surface to grab even small fish. And, when they really need to move, they can rise up on two legs and gallop across the water, reaching speeds of about 30 feet per second, or 2 miles per hour. The average running speed for a person is 6 miles per hour. The world record 100 m dash clocked in at 28 miles per hour. But, when they are just hanging around, or casually need to move from place to place, fishing spiders can also place their legs on the water and sail with the wind.

Not a bad way to get around.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stronger than steel...

The strength of nature can be an impressive thing. Biologists, physicists, engineers and chemists alike often spend a lot of time just trying to figure out what makes things as strong as they are. What makes the shell of a clam rigid and tough? What makes the silk of a spider pliable yet strong?

This is an area of research called biomaterials. The study of biological substances and their physical properties in terms of measurements like strength and stiffness.

Recent research by scientists at the University of Puerto Rico has revealed that the toughest material on the planet is spider silk. In particular, the trophy goes to the web-spinning silk of the Darwin's bark spider, which lives on the island of Madagascar. This spider spins enormous webs that extend across rivers. Therefore, they must stretch and contract as the trees (to which they're anchored) move in the wind.

Spider silk, in general, is amazing stuff. It is a protein. It is both strong, meaning it resists breaking, and it is elastic, meaning it can deform and then recover its shape. Many materials have to trade off these properties. A substance can be very strong, like steel. But, steel is not elastic. If you bend steel, it will not return to its original shape. Spider silk, on average, has the same tensile strength as steel. But at the same time, it is very ductile, and can stretch about one and a half times its own length before breaking.

The bark spider of Madagascar spins fibers that are stronger than the strongest known man-made substance, which is Kevlar. Kevlar can resist about twice the force of steel. This is why they make bullet-proof vests from the stuff.

Spiders also can change the properties of their silk, by changing the water content of the silk. Most spiders can also weave more than one kind of silk, generally speaking there is strong silk that creates the support for the web, and sticky silk that catches the prey in the web. When you put these two abilities together, you end up with about a dozen distinctly recognizable kinds silk that can be produced by just one spider depending on the job at hand. The silk used to wrap up prey is even stronger than the silk used to support the web, and the silk used to form egg sacs is stronger still. Therefore, both of these silks are stronger, on average, than steel. At the other end of the spectrum, many spiders, particularly those that have just hatched, can extrude long, very thin strands of gossamer silk used for ballooning to new locations to settle and build their own webs.

The impressive properties of spider silk make it popular for study by engineers hoping to mimic Mother Nature. Unfortunately, it is not possible to create spider ranches so that the spiders can do the work for us. Spiders are not like docile cattle, making them extremely poor candidates for domestication. Spiders are aggressive and will eat one another, making it inadvisable to keep many spiders together in the same space. Reproducing the properties of the silk with man-made mimics is the only viable option, though scientists have created transgenic goats that will produce spider silk (I’ll save the ethical debate about that sort of process for a later article!).

For right now, the score is still Mother Nature 1, Humans 0 in terms of who can make the stronger substance.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Getting a Kick out of Physics

I’ve written before about the physics of baseball, and in particular how curve balls curve. But, this year’s World Cup Futbol (that’s Eurospeak for soccer you know) got me thinking about the physics of soccer and scoring goals. And, since it is that season for some of you parents, youth soccer season, that is, here you go…

The famous goal that recently got headlines again, in terms of the underlying science, was actually scored 13 years ago. In the June 3, 1997, match between France and Brazil. In the last seconds of the game, Brazilian Roberto Carlos scored what was later named the impossible goal. He kicked a ball towards one end of the goal, apparently way off target, that banked at the last second and dropped into the net. It tied the game and changed the team’s fate that year. It has the stuff of the mysterious dropping fastball in baseball.

The secret was finally revealed this year by a team of French (of course) scientists.

Soccer balls tend to curve or arc when kicked for much the same reason that curve balls curve in baseball. When they are kicked (or thrown) they tend to rotate. So, one side of the ball is rotating in the same direction as the ball itself, while the other side of the ball is rotating against the direction of motion. The side of the ball that is rotating against direction of motion gets slowed down, just a little, by the resulting friction, and the path of the ball starts to curve to that side. This is called the Magnus effect, which explains the gently curving motion we typically see in tennis balls, golf balls, etc. What about the radical change in direction, like with old-fashioned spit-balls and this famous soccer goal?

Spit-balls change drastically because the shape of the ball is altered. This causes the spin to be asymmetrical, and things start to wobble. Just think of your washing machine on the spin cycle with the load out of balance. It just takes one wobble to throw things really out of whack. If your washing machine drum were not attached to the machine, it would take one strong turn, and crash through your laundry room wall.

Something quite different apparently happened with this soccer ball. No alteration of the ball was required. It was simply that the ball was kicked from so far away that the Magnus effect went into overdrive, so to speak. The forces on the right and left side of the ball got so out of balance that it started to wobble on its own, and the result was just like a dropping curve-ball.

The key was that the kick was from really far away, 35 meters to be exact, and only a player like Roberto Carlos could deliver that kick with enough speed for it to actually make it to the goal, estimated at 130 kilometers per hour. Hence, you almost never see this happen. You never see it in baseball or tennis, the ball does simply not get to travel far enough. And, it is obviously incredibly rare even in soccer, kickers rarely deliver 100+ km/hr kicks.

In fact, scientists did not know this was the outcome of the Magnus effect until seeing that goal, and spending many years since then studying it. It has now been replicated in the lab. We have yet to see if improvements in player training technology will yield more Carlos-style performances.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The cost of going organic

A recent study publicized at Arizona State University really hit home the pros and cons of the organic food movement.

This research revealed that most stores, grocery stores at least, now carry some form of organic foods for their customers. The number of organic offerings has been steadily increasing, and prices are slowly, ever so slowly, coming down.

Why are the prices so high? I had always assumed that it was because of a reduction in the amount of product on the market. I am drawing here on my old Econ 101 course, which is rusty, at best. But, supply and demand theory dictates that if there is less supply, demand will go up, and prices will increase. I like that Economics works just about like Ecology, just with money instead of animals. Competition is competition. When resources are scarce, they become more valuable, competition becomes more intense. In fact, the mathematical concepts we teach students about population growth were developed by a banker interested in the nature of compounding interest on investments. But, I digress…

Demand. Without fertilizers, the crops might yield less. Without pesticides, the crops might yield less. Less product, more demand. Demand is there in the first place because of public perception. People perceive that eating organic is better for them, and better for the environment. However, in this case, demand is out-pacing supply, and driving prices way up (think of gasoline as another example; people will typically pay whatever the price is at the pump, and frequently that price has nothing to do with the current price of a barrel of crude, and everything to do with the location of the gas station and if it is summer and people are going on driving vacations).

Now, it IS more expensive to produce organic products, produce in particular was the focus of this research. Taking a traditional farm and re-fitting it, and its day-to-day practices, to organic standards is not easy, or cheap. So, naturally, the wholesale price of produce is higher. But, these researchers found that the profit margin did not come from the markup from wholesale to retail. Grocers typically make around a 75% profit on conventionally grown produce. They make only a 7% profit on organic produce. Yet, the grocers still sell the products because of the demand.

This realization that the profit may lie in the hands of the producers is enticing more people to grow organic, despite the costs. This is actually a good thing, that the growers/suppliers should actually possess the market power. And, as this happens, and more product hits the market, good ol’ Econ 101 predicts that prices should fall. This means such produce will be more readily accessible.

The real cost to you and I may come in the form of the foreign markets. Already, there have been suits brought against bargain grocery chains that claim to sell organic, when the product was not. The foreign growers are anxious to get in on a market where the power favors the growers. Indeed, cruising through most local stores these days reveals that much of the organic foods are not local, or American, in origin. There is a great debate among food purists about getting local, versus getting organic. The benefit of choosing local sources is that it keep your money local. The risk of foreign sources is that the foods may not be grown to the same standards.

The old adage, you get what you pay for, still applies here, and if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What in the World?

Or not.

We, the inhabitants of this world we call Earth, have tended to think of our little planet as being rather special. It is the only one, or at least the only one that we know of, that harbors life.

This is particularly special for me as a Biologist. Biology is the study of life. As such, I would be unemployable on any other planet. And, well, also likely dead. But, I digress…

At a recent conference, a scientist who is part of NASA’s Kepler scientific team announced they had discovered many earth-like bodies in outer space. In fact, of the planets now discovered, planets that are earth-like dominate in terms of number. There are more earth-like planets than any other planets.

What might it mean? Well, so far, no one knows. The earth-like planets are simply those that are nearly the same size as earth. That is the point of the Kepler satellite mission. To map the galaxies, using size as first cut for determining which planets might be like our own little rocky planet, and might be habitable, or even inhabited. The Kepler satellite is looking specifically for earth-sized planets orbiting a star, just as we orbit our sun.

But, finding earth-sized planets, in and of itself, is a pretty amazing finding. These apparently litter the Milky Way. And, until now, most of the new planets that have been discovered are more like the gas giants, like Jupiter and Neptune.

The fact that we are a little rocky planet, by comparison, is actually pretty important, and pretty fundamental in the maintenance of life. Our planet has a surface that we can live on. We are the only planet with liquid water. And, we have an atmosphere that facilitates temperature and moisture regimes that we can tolerate. These things are not possible on large, gassy planets. So, it helps that these potential planets are earth-like in size.

However, we do not yet know if they are rocky. Nor do we know if they are orbiting too close to, or too far from, their suns to maintain suitable temperatures. We do not know if they have water, or any sort of atmosphere.

But, at least there is exciting new potential. Kepler scientists recently revealed that there might be more than 700 earth-like planets out there orbiting another star.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Dracula Minnow

Recently I wrote about the vampire squid, and I argued that I really didn’t have to look any further for a more flashy, eye-grabbing title. I stand corrected. A group of scientists recently discovered a new minnow, and it has got a pair of choppers projecting from its jaws that earned it the name ‘dracula’. International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University recently named it one of the top 10 new species of 2010.

Measuring just 17 millimeters long when fully grown, this little minnow, while tiny, is a close relative of the common goldfish, the carp, and the other minnows you might have known from childhood. Many of your pet store variety fishes are in this group of carps and carp-like fishes. And, if you have looked closely at Goldy residing in your child’s fish bowl, you might have noticed Goldy has no teeth. This group of fishes has been around for a long time, and, in fact, lost anything even resembling true teeth nearly 50 million years ago. But, the dracula minnow has developed bony spurs on its jaws that project through the skin and look just like nasty fangs.

Just the male has these fangs. Why? It is completely unknown. This little fish is completely transparent. And, it is so small because its development was apparently truncated somehow. So, the adults look like they are still larval fishes. They possess at least forty fewer bones than other closely related adult fishes.

Other species on this list include an amazing carnivorous (yep, meat-eating) sponge, and bug-eating slug, an electric fish, a psychedelic frogfish, a tiny new mushroom with the scientific name Phallus (I’ll let you Google it to see why it earned this name, though you probably don’t have to think too hard to figure it out), a new species of yam from Madagascar, a giant orb-weaving spider in which the female is four times larger than the male (they managed to figure out the male and female were of the same species), a deep-sea worm that shoots glowing green blobs of goo at its predators, and a giant carnivorous pitcher-plant the size of a football.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Got allergies? Get worms?

I heard about something this week that literally grossed me out. That is pretty difficult to do. I routinely gross other people out – occupational hazard. I talk about unsavory biological subjects at the dinner table (and just recently caused an innocent 9-year-old to lose her appetite). So, if I hear something that is too much even for me, you know it has got to be truly gross. It also means the gross thing is probably about parasites, because that is just about the only thing that sends me right over the top.

NPR recently featured a story about a gentleman who had bad allergies and asthma, and intentionally infected himself with hookworms as a way to “cure” them. I have allergies and asthma, and I am absolutely unwilling to infest myself with hookworm, or any other parasitic worm. But, I was intrigued.

The basis for this man’s actions was the observation that allergies and asthma are pretty rare in undeveloped countries; countries where parasite infestations are rampant. And, this is quite true. But, are parasites the reason for the low incidence of allergies? There are lots of other factors that could be at work here. For example, the first thing that springs to my mind is that we are simply too clean here in the US. Many studies have pointed out that we have sterilized our environment for our children to the point that they don’t build up immunity to the world around them as well as they used to. We are too clean. And, when they encounter the routine “stuff” floating around out there in the world, it affects them more strongly than it might otherwise. Simply put, our kids need to be allowed to get dirty.

But, it turns out there is some merit to this allergy-parasite trade-off. Parasites infect their hosts, but don’t want to kill them. If the parasite kills its host, then it too will die. A good parasite just knocks down the host’s immune system to the point that the host doesn’t attack it. And, so the theory goes, with your immune system slightly impaired, you are also less likely to develop allergic responses.

Only a handful of clinical trials have been conducted because it is difficult to work with human subjects and to intentionally infect them with parasites. The FDA won’t allow it in fact. But, a few researchers in Europe have managed to try a few studies with something close to rigorous experimental conditions. The results, so far, are mixed. Work at the University of Nottingham suggests a reduced sensitivity to skin-prick tests in individuals infested. However, studies at the same institution found only slight, and not scientifically significant, improvements in airway response.

So, if you are an allergy sufferer right now, I would suggest that infesting yourself with hookworms is, perhaps, extreme, and gross. But, there are strong leanings towards the notion that perhaps we can learn what hookworms do to their hosts, and mimic that, as an effective treatment for allergy sufferers.

Friday, April 2, 2010

How to mend a broken heart

Nope, this isn’t advice for the forlorn. I am referring to an actual physically broken heart. And, this represents cool science at its finest.

Researchers have long been interested in animals that can repair themselves. Lizards and salamanders can drop their tails if they are caught by a predator, and then re-grow them. Fish can repair damaged fins. But, we humans cannot re-grow a limb if lost. Can we figure out how these other animals do this and put it to work?

Recent work at the Salk Institute in San Diego purposely maimed the hearts of zebrafish (cute little aquarium fish you can find at your local pet store), and found they could regenerate up to 20% of that organ. That is a lot of heart to re-grow.

The heart is probably the most important organ in your body. I say probably because your brain is right up there in terms of keeping things going from minute to minute. If your heart is damaged, and you are losing blood, you’ve got only a few minutes left. But, zebrafish can stop the bleed, and then slowly, over days, repair the damage eventually producing a heart that was as good as the former.

How are they doing this? Science has long speculated that this is the work of stem cells. Stem cells are those cells that are not ‘determined’, meaning the kind of cell they are to become has not been decided yet by the body. They do not know yet what their job in life will be, be it bone cell or skin cell. Therefore, theoretically, we can use stem cells to initiate repairs.

Stem cell research has gotten a lot of attention lately, much of it controversial. The problem is, philosophically, where stem cells come from. We have some stem cells as adults, such as in our bone barrow; they don’t divide as well, cannot turn into as many things, and do not initiate repair as well as embryonic stem cells. Back in the 70’s scientists were able to make embryonic stem cells divide, meaning they can make more of them. Embryonic stem cells are completely undetermined, as opposed to adult stem cells, and most of our understanding of organ development and tissue repair has come from this line of work. Though, we have made breakthroughs in the last couple of years with adult stem cells. There is terrific coverage of this research and the controversy at the NIH website.

But, the amazing thing about this heart research is that it is not stem cells initiating the repair. Adult heart cells are doing the work. The adult heart cells initiate a repair response, much like a stem cell, and then divide rapidly to do the work. Other researchers tried this study in mice, to see if mammals could do what the fish could. They found out that the mammalian adult heart cells went back into a sort of stem cell like state and began to initiate repairs, but the cells did not proliferate, they did not divide. So, there were not enough of them to do the job. The trick now is getting them to proliferate. And, that is probably going to take some more research on stem cells to figure out how and why they proliferate, when the adult cells cannot.

In the meantime, try to keep your heart intact for a little while longer. We don’t have the fix quite yet.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vampire Squid

With a name like vampire squid, I really don’t have to look any further for a flashy, eye-grabbing title. Yep, there is a squid out there actually called the vampire squid. Have you seen it? If you have not, you really should. How can you resist with a name like that?

Luckily, you can see this fab deep-sea denizen thanks to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and their incredible remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology that allows them, and now you, to watch these animals in their natural habitat. Some of this incredible footage was just placed on YouTube for everyone to see.

The vampire squid, or Vampyroteuthis, is actually not considered a true squid, but is a close relative of both squids and octopods, all of which form the group known as cephalopods. There are many true squids in the squid family, and many octopods in the octopus family, but only one Vampyroteuthis. A single species that, in and of itself, makes up the last remaining member of its family. It is considered a phylogenetic relic; a remnant of a group of organisms that has long since gone extinct.

You probably wont see this creature on display at the Monterey Bay Aquarium any time soon. It routinely lives between 2000 and 3000 feet, in a region called the Oxygen Minimum Zone, or OMZ. This is a hard habitat to replicate, not to mention how difficult it is to capture and transport one of these fragile animals successfully.

And they are, in fact, fairly fragile. They reach only a foot in length when fully grown. They’re sort of squishy and gelatinous. They swim slowly, and spend much of the time drifting passively. Swimming fast probably isn’t something they can pull off too often. Because they live in cold, oxygen-poor regions of the deep-sea, Vampyroteuthis has a very low metabolism, the lowest of any cephalopod.

The vampire squid also does not suck blood, or turn into a bat at night. However, it does have wing-like fins on the sides of its head, which propel Vampyroteuthis through the water. And, it has webbing between its legs that almost give it the appearance of being wrapped in a cape or cloak. It is dark reddish black in color, and lives in the deep ocean where there is virtually no light from the sun.

Light from the sun, however, is not needed for Vampyroteuthis. Instead, it makes its own light, as it is covered with light producing organs called photophores. It has highly sensitive eyes. Cephalopod eyes, in general, have many of the same features as the vertebrate eye (that’s your and my eye). Therefore, they have very good vision, and a relatively well-developed nervous system for processing that information.

Vampyroteuthis also lacks two abilities common in other cephalopods. It cannot change color. And, it does not ‘ink.’ However, these two features are hardly needed in the deep-ocean habitat.

Be sure to check out the links!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Anniversaries and New Connections

It is the one year anniversary of publishing my column in the Marina Gazette. When I started writing the column I re-dedicated this blog to the same effort. In honor of both of their first birthdays, I have started a new Facebook page to share the information more easily. I hope you enjoy the expanded venue!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What is the Meaning of This?

Today we will chat about words; their history, their common usage, and their evolution within language. This is the science of etymology. My inspiration from this comes from my eldest, dearest darling of a child (insert whatever brand of personal sarcasm you prefer here), the young Mr. Think Science, Jr.

Each Monday TS Jr. comes home with a list of spelling/vocabulary words that he is meant to write several times, and then look up in the dictionary and define. Now this dictionary that we use at home is rather sentimental, as dictionaries go. It was my mother’s in college, and she gave it to me in high school. It is huge, and heavy, and literally fifty years old. The fact that it is huge and heavy causes some complaining when it must be dragged to the kitchen table, and I am secretly convinced that it gains at least twenty pounds in weight whenever touched by my dear child, or so you would think based upon how he carries on about having to drag this hulking beast from his room. Personally, I think this is ‘character building’, and I think he should have to carry this dictionary in his backpack to school, walking uphill both ways, like I did as a child…in the snow…in Arizona…but I digress. I may have to change my stance on this.

I recently learned the limitations of a 50-year old dictionary. For one, it does not have words in it that were invented in the modern age, such as ‘unfriend.’ You might recall from previous posts that this was The Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2009. The second limitation is really the same limitation, and that is that this dictionary was written in a different era.

At little background is needed about now - I have been harping on TS Jr. to choose the first definition given for each word, since that is usually the most common definition. He, of course, chooses whichever definition is the shortest. Therefore, many words on his list, prior to my scrutiny, have simple, but not inaccurate, definitions such as ‘noun.’

The word of the moment, whose true and detailed meaning we were anxiously waiting to reveal, was ‘chartreuse.’ And, in my 50-year-old dictionary, the definition for chartreuse is ‘a green or yellow aromatic liqueur’ (insert dramatic pause here to simulate new conundrum for mostly politically correct parental unit, aka me). I did not even know there was a liqueur called Chartreuse.

Darling TS Jr. subsequently won the battle that ensued about changing the definition to a more ‘school-appropriate’ definition, since, as he aptly pointed out, that WAS the first definition. So, that is the definition on his homework. I believe this is what they call ‘eating your words’ and TS Jr. skipped all the way to class, backpack sans giant dictionary, with the revelation that never again would he be held to the first definition of a word and might yet be able to get away with such concise and profoundly accurate definitions as ‘noun.’

Chartreuse is a French liqueur that contains 132 herbal extracts. Produced by monks, the alcohol gets its name from their home, the Grande Chartreuse monastery located in the Chartreuse Mountains. Chartreuse was originally thought to be an elixir of long life, stemming from a recipe obtained by the monks in 1605, and was 71% alcohol. The more modern Green and Yellow varieties, which tend more towards green and yellow coloration respectively, range from 55 to 40%. Sadly, the monks were expelled from France in 1903 when the French government attempted to take over both the monastery and the highly profitable Chartreuse production business. The monks simply moved to Spain and kept on making Chartreuse under a slightly different label. Attempts to reproduce the monk’s secret recipe failed miserably, the company went bankrupt, and the monks were allowed to return in 1927. The monastery was destroyed by a mudslide in 1935 and production was moved to nearby Voiron where it continues today. Thank you, Wikipedia. None of that information was in any of the dictionaries that I consulted.

The color that we refer to as ‘chartreuse’ comes from the color of the original alcohol, a very bright color between green and yellow. Today we might refer to this color as fluorescent green. The greenish color comes from the chlorophyll in those 132 herbs. And chlorophyll, does, in fact, fluoresce. Recall from your basic biology that chlorophyll is the green pigment that plants use to absorb light for photosynthesis, which is the process by which they produce new tissue and grow - you just knew I’d slip the science there somehow.

My note to the teacher along with the homework - Please don't suspend my child. I will buy a new dictionary this weekend.