The crazy world of chemically armed mercenary ant armies
That “conditional mutualism,” which makes both species more fit over the long haul, has an analog in human military history, such as when Medieval cities used large amounts of their resources to host contingents of alien soldiers, as a hedge against marauding armies. The evolutionary logic also parallels that of hereditary chronic diseases such as sickle cell, which gives the carrier protection from malaria but shortens the carrier’s life expectancy.
Aquatic adventures at the Aquarium of the Pacific
Our own Allen J. Schaben recently took to the enclosed seas at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. Equipped with sea-ready photographic gear, he got a firsthand look at the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat over a series of dives in June.
And from the sound of it, the whole aquarium scuba diving experience seems pretty great:
"Listening to the pneumatic hiss-whoosh of my own breathing, the various species of this marine world begin to appear. Sharks prowl sandy shoals. Bat rays with 4-foot wing spans soar overhead. Schools of fish whirl like glittering tornadoes. A Queensland grouper large enough to swallow me whole cruises past."
Look through Schaben’s entire experience, and find out how you can go on a dive of your own over at Framework.
Photos: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times
A rare look into the world of the “Butterfly Whisperer”
Mark Williams is a well-known figure in the lepidopterist community, both as the founder of the Lepidopterists’ Society, and for his active role in the pursuit of rare and exotic butterflies.
Our own Robyn Dixon headed down to South Africa to document his work, including one particularly heated pursuit of the Lotana blue, a butterfly previously assumed to be extinct.
As for the issue of the butterfly faithful ultimately catching and killing individual endangered specimens? Williams says there’s no conflict inherent in the death needed for research.
"No knowledgeable lepidopterist would find it ironic. In fact, they would mostly likely be flabbergasted if voucher specimens were not collected," Williams said. "Five pairs of rhinoceroses, breeding remorselessly, would not reach a total population of a hundred in 10 years. Five pairs of African monarchs would reach about 36 million in six months. Laypersons don’t understand this, unfortunately."
His latest mission is the hunt to find the “holy grail” of South African butterflies, the Bashee River buff. Said Williams of his new mission:
"It’s 1 1/2 centuries it’s been missing. We don’t even know what the male looks like."
"The cost of the trip is around 20,000 rand [$2,000] to go and look for a butterfly that I might not even find," he said.
Read more in our latest Column One feature
Photos: Hannelie Coetzee / Los Angeles Times
Settling the debate over the nature of the T. rex
One question has hounded the T. rex, perhaps the most famous dinosaur of them all, for years. Were they terrifying, active predators? Overgrown vultures? Or perhaps a mix of the two?
Now for the first time, there’s direct evidence that T. rexes were hunters, with palentologists discovering a vertebrae of a hadrosaur that had healed around a T. rex tooth, suggesting the prey had been alive when it was bitten.
The tooth crown and vertebrae found in South Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation is “the piece that settles the controversy,” said University of Kansas paleontologist David Burnham, a member of the study team.
Read more over at Science Now.
Photos: Fallon E. Cohen, Robert DePalma, Rudolph Frank Pascucci
Expanding protections for chimpanzees
If a new proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service goes through, chimpanzees could be reclassified as endangered, enhancing legal protections against their use for medical research.
Studies have found the chimpanzees used for medical research often leave with symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, and there’s a whole host of ethical concerns given their genetic proximity to humans.
But it’s that same proximity that has until recently made them crucial to researchers.
Although there are still a few areas of biomedical research for which chimps remain essential, experiments involving them have fallen out of favor as scientists switched to using mice, rats and other animals that have been genetically altered so that their immune systems mimic those of humans.
Read more over at Science Now.
Photos: Gerald Herbert, Ted S. Warren / Associated Press, Outhendrik Schmidt / AFP/Getty Images
A wrinkly, grey-haired look into aging
While the indications of aging are all around us, in that extra bit of effort it takes to get out of bed in the morning or the thinning hair atop your head, scientists still are trying to understand just how aging occurs.
The body reacts to these triggers in ways that exacerbate problems — no longer signaling cells to divide, for instance. We also run out of tissue stem cells. Communication among cells becomes riddled with errors, a factor associated with cancer.
Rounding out the list are deregulated nutrient sensing, mitochondrial dysfunction and cellular senescence.
The cause for all of this study of our decaying state, as it turns out, is a positive one, in the words of the stud’s coauthor Carlos Lopez-Otin:
"We don’t aspire to immortality, just to the possibility of making life a little better for us all."
Read more over at Science Now.
Photo: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times
How did turtles end up with shells?
It’s a question that’s hounded scientists for years, who have long offered competing theories about how the reptile’s iconic shells came to be in the first place.
But with the release of a new study in the journal Current Biology, there’s new evidence that shells emerged as the ribs of certain reptiles began growing broader and straighter. A video demonstrating this theory can be seen below:
So much for our theory about ooze being involved.
And as per usual, read more over at Science Now.
Photos: David McFadden / Associated Press, Scott Halleran, Uriel Sinai / Getty Images
Top 10 new species of 2012
A human-faced monkey, a glow-in-the-dark cockroach an tiny frog and more. They’re a strange, varied bunch, these newly-honored creatures, but what they all have in common is a shared place on International Institute for Species Exploration’s top 10 new species list.
The list, released annually by Arizona State University and culled from a list of 140 nominees discovered last year, is part of a larger effort to identify more of the estimated 8.7 million species on Earth - with just 1.2-2 million officially identified.
Said Quentin Wheeler, an entomologist at ASU:
“Knowing that millions of species may not survive the 21st century, it is time to pick up the pace.”
Photos: Maurice Emetshu, Peter Vrsansky & Dusan Chorvat, Christopher C. Austin, Sevastian Lotzkat / ASU
Invasion of the 17-year cicada brood
What’s red-eyed, over-sized, loud, horrifying and 17 years in the making? The soon-to-be-emerging cicada brood, described by one expert as a “huge tsunami.”
The bugs, which have been hibernating for nearly two decades before emerging, molting, mating and passing away in droves, are a swarming terror to some, and for others, they’re an under-appreciated delicacy.
But rest assured, West Coast readers, the imminent cicada invasion is entirely an East Coast problem.
And for anyone skeptical as to how creepy cicadas can be, click here at your own peril.
Photo: Chris Simon / University of Connecticut, Associated Press
Let’s discuss talking monkeys
University of Michigan researcher Thore Bergman thinks he may have stumbled upon the linguistic missing link between monkeys and humans while researching wild Gelada baboons (pictured above).
"I would find myself frequently looking over my shoulder to see who was talking to me, but it was just the geladas," said Bergman. "It was unnerving to have primate vocalizations sound so much like human voices."
Bergman thinks that communicative lip-smacking by the baboons, in alignment with rhythmic facial expressions, could represent the bridge between animal sounds and human speech.
Read more on Bergman’s study via Science Now, or check out his report in Current Biology. Or just listen to Ricky Gervais’ perfect lead-in for any and all primate news.
Photos: Associated Press
The crisis facing California sea lions
State officials have declared an “unusual mortality event” for California sea lions, after an unusually high number of pups barely clinging to life have recently washed ashore.
For a sense of the sheer number of pups who have reportedly been found washed up:
In Los Angeles County, nearly 400 pups have been stranded since the beginning of the year. Last year, 36 were reported during that stretch.
As of March 24, officials said, 214 sea lions were reported stranded in San Diego County, 189 in Orange County, 108 in Santa Barbara County and 42 in Ventura County.
Read more from reporter Rick Rojas here.
Photos: Allen J. Schaben, Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times
Life on Mars…Maybe
A sample pulled from Mars just last month has been thoroughly examined by the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, and earlier today scientists declared that they have finally found solid evidence that Mars could have once sustained life.
From mission lead scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech:
“We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and is so supportive of life that probably if this water was around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it.”
Read more via Science Now.
Polar bears remain a threatened species
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided to keep polar bears protected by broad federal measures Friday,
The court rejected the argument that the 25,000 remaining polar bears, most of which live in relatively stable populations, were perfectly fine without “threatened species” status. But many scientists worry that the effects of climate change on the Arctic climate could prove dangerous for the remaining bears.
And it looks like polar bears may remain on that list for the foreseeable future, according to Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity.
"So for practical purposes, the listing of the polar bear is final, and really no longer under any serious threat from these challenges."
Read more about the court’s decision here, via Nation Now.
Photos: Jeon Heon-Kyun, Koen Van Weel / EPA, Sven Hoppe / Associated Press
"Honeybees aren’t all they’re cracked up to be."
Wild bees may be just the solution that farmers are looking for as they struggle to come with the continued die-offs among domestic reserves.
In fact, farmers may have been completely wrong about bees for years. Said Rachael Winfree, a pollination ecologist at Rutgers University:
"At 90% of farms studied in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, native wild bees are fully pollinating the watermelon crop. But farmers don’t realize this. "They’re thinking they need them but they don’t."
Read more about the possible bee fix, and why honeybees may be totally overrated, here.
Photo: Rufus Isaacs