Monday, September 29, 2014

Scrimshaw crimpers

"Seeing his appendage, I held out my ivory arm, and he his ivory leg, and it was as good a handshake between comrades as flesh itself ever pressed," recounts the one-armed Captain Boomer upon meeting the one-legget Captain Ahab in the historical novel I am reading, which is based on the classic Moby Dick. I wondered whether maimed whalers ever did carve prosthetic limbs from the bones of their prey. But a web search and an image search indicated that this idea is fictional. Instead, I found that 19th c. American whalemen spent their idle hours carving a myriad of pie crimpers to present to their mothers, wives, and sweethearts after their long sea voyages. As the examples above from the New Bedford Whaling Museum show, they are as fancy as the designs and edgings on the pies they were used to create. Scrimshaw crimpers. Say that 5 times real fast!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Groundhog goof

In one of the most ridiculous holidays on the American calendar, a groundhog is used to prognosticate the likelihood of 6 more weeks of winter, based on whether the animal emerges to see his shadow or not. The Groundhog Day ceremonies across the country often feature local celebrities. On February 2, 2012, that honor fell on Mayor Bill di Blasio of New York City. A groundhog named "Chuck" was provided by the Staten Island Zoo, but managed to break free of the mayor's grasp and hit the ground. Now there are tongue-in-cheek accusations of a cover-up, since it has only just now been revealed that the groundhog had died of internal injuries a week after the event. Not only that, "Chuck" was actually "Charlotte." The New Yorker magazine has published an open letter to Mayor di Blasio from the groundhogs, who are claiming solidarity in their struggle to have "their" day abolished for their own safety. They write, "When we do decide to go outside, it is because we hope, in our infinite marmot naïveté, that the mayor has, for once, decided to put an end to the practice of thrusting us into the air and precariously dangling us, like some sort of politicized Michael Jackson baby."

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Algae eaters

What you see above, thanks to an electron microscope, is a pair of pond-dwelling organisms having sex. But the coupling of the Oxytricha trifallax does not result in offspring. Molecular biologist Laura Landweber of Princeton University has led a study on the algae-eater's genetics and reveals that during their union each partner swaps half of its genome with the other. They don't reproduce, they simply reinvent themselves. The transferred chromosomes are broken down and reassembled in a process so convoluted that the adaptive reasons for it are still being theorized. Evolutionary geneticist John Logsdon of the University of Iowa likens the resulting process to a bureaucracy: "Things happen, and then there are changes that get put into place to correct those things, and those corrections have a cost, so further corrections have to be made. You end up with this weirdly complex system that doesn’t make any sense on the surface.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

Algae elders

By slicing them in ultra-thin sheets and illuminating them like stained glass (ABOVE AND HERE), researchers were able to microscopically examine 600 million-year-old fossilized algal life forms from southern China, the makeup of which are too complex and differentiated to be single-celled organisms. The strange fossils – called Megasphaera, and measuring a mere .03" (.7 mm) acrossmay in fact be embryos, although no adult specimens have ever been found. Geobiologist Shuhai Xiao of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S., points out, "The real value of these fossils is that we now have some direct evidence about how this transition from single-celled organisms to things like animals and plants occurred in the evolutionary past."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Lonesome" lingers

The world's most famous and notoriously unproductive Galapagos tortoise, "Lonesome George," died in Ecuador in June 2012. The American Museum Of Natural History (AMNH) commissioned taxidermist George Dante of Wildlife Preservations to prepare his body for display. Following his instructions, the tortoise's keepers wrapped his soft parts in tissue and placed his body inside thick freezer plastic, not easy to find in the remote tropics. He arrived in New York still frozen and ready for the custom preparation. His body was measured (IMAGE ABOVE) and his skin was removed, de-greased, and pared down of muscle and fat. George's skin and shell were soaked in a tanning chemical and then the skin was rubbed with tanning oil. An armature was sculpted from oil-based clay, cast in urethane foam, and reinforced with steel supports. What was left of George was draped over it, the tortoise's wrinkles and idiosyncrasies – using the many reference photos on hand – were sculpted into his skin, and the result coated with a protective seal. The preparators decided on a posture of George standing and stretching his long neck upward as it grabbing some leaves to munch on. But they found that he looked a little too perfect, so around his mouth they added the green stains of his last meal! George now has a place of prominence at the museum. Dante comments, "Somewhere else, there might have been a decision made to just put him in alcohol--to make a wet specimen that would be in a museum collection, never to be seen again. Now we have this monument for conservation that visitors can look at and make a connection with.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Maisy matures

In a milestone no one thought she would achieve, 4-year-old Maisy Vignes has started school. Doctors were baffled at her birth because she had only a bit of plasma in her circulatory system and no blood at all. The first of her transfusions during her 2-week stay in intensive care had to be given through her umbilical cord. Maisy's mother describes, "It was an unbelievable situation - none of the consultants had ever heard of something like it happening before. There were previous cases of children being born with tiny amounts of blood, but Maisy had a haemoglobin level of a flat zero. There were cases recorded of people surviving with a haemoglobin level of four, but for any human to survive after having no blood at all was unheard of." Fears of brain damage due to oxygen deprivation in the womb were laid to rest when she met all subsequent developmental goals. This bodes well for "ghost babies" Olivia Norton (born in 2012 in Witham, Essex, U.K.) and Hope Juarez (born in 2014 in Irvine, California, U.S.).

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sogndalsdalen smithy

Leif Arne Norberg of Sogndalsdalen, Norway, was doing some landscaping work in his back garden when he overturned some stone slabs and found something remarkable. After Norberg uncovered a pair of tongs and a bent sword, archaeologists from Bergen University and the county’s Cultural Department took over the excavation of what is likely the 8th or 9th c. grave of a Viking blacksmith. The experts unearthed an axe and various pieces of metalwork which will be conserved before being put on display at the University Museum of Bergen.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Flute flutterby

Witness the poise of Japanese-born, Chicago-based flutist Yukie Ota during the first round of a competition in Denmark as a butterfly lands on her forehead! She was unflapped when a butterfly – identified as a peacock butterfly (Aglais io) – landed in her hair, then settled on her left eyebrow as she performed Pierrre Sancan's Sonatine (VIDEO HERE). Lepidoptera curator Bob Robbins of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., notes that it was strange for the insect to come indoors, but it was likely looking for salty water to drink. He points out, "If you look closely at the video, you can see the butterfly's proboscis — its 'tongue' — out as it crawls across her forehead. It's looking for her perspiration. And she's under lights at a highfalutin competition. I'd be sweating a bit under that pressure." You will be happy to know that Ota has moved on to the next level of competition.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Egyptian extensions

In the ancient city once established as the capital of Egypt by the pharaoh Akhenaten during his reign ca. 1353-1335 B.C.E., archaeologists are excavating the cemetery as part of the Amarna Project. Of the 100 skulls recently unearthed, 28 still had their hair. Jolanda Bos (ABOVE) is leading the hairstyle analysis and has found that the residents were fond of braids, rings or curls around the ears, and possibły henna dye. Researchers don't know the name, age or occupation of one unmummified woman, but Bos has betrayed one of her secrets, stating that she wore "a very complex coiffure with approximately 70 extensions fastened in different layers and heights on the head."

Friday, September 19, 2014

Tomb of whom?

Flanked by caryatids (IMAGE ABOVE) and guarded by sphinxes, a massive ancient tomb is coming to light in Greece. The marble walls, frescoes, and mosaics indicate that it was the resting place of a very important figure. With the inner burial chamber not yet unsealed, some are speculating that it contains the remains of Alexander the Great, who died in Babylon in 323 B.C.E. But classical scholar Ian Worthington of the University of Missouri in Columbia explains that the ruler's body was kidnapped by one of his generals and buried somewhere in Egypt. He challenges, "So I will bet you ten dollars that Alexander the Great is not in the tomb of Amphipolis."

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ovine inertia

Semi-professional skier Pete Oswald was on a photo shoot in the Hector Mountains, Otago, in his home country of New Zealand, when he looked over his shoulder to see a sheep snowballing ass over teakettle down the slope. The poor creature, still curled up and with a bloody nose, came to a stop 100 m from him. Oswald skied over and tried to set it upright, but the sheep was exhausted and he feared it would die without further help. So the skiier lifted the fully grown ewe and brought it down the mountain, leaving it in a grassy area to feed. The odd event was caught on camera by photographer Dan Power. The unshorn wool indicates that the animal may have been stuck on the mountaintop since the beginning of winter. Oswald muses, "It's a bit of a yarn. It is definitely the oddest thing I have found skiing."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Squid vid

In December 2013, Captain John Bennett and his crew aboard the San Aspiring hauled up a giant squid from a mile deep in Antarctica's Ross Sea. The enormous creature weighed 770 pounds (350 kg) and its 8 arms had a tip-to-tentacle measurement of greater than 4 meters. Even after spending 9 months in the freezer of a Wellington, New Zealand, museum, it was said to be one of the best preserved colossal squids ever found after it was moved by forklift into a tank and examined yesterday (PHOTOS HERE VIDEO HERE). Kat Bolstad of the Auckland University of Technology led the necropsy of the female squid and found that not only was she was full of eggs, "This one had two perfect eyes. They have very large and very delicate eyes because they live in the deep sea. It’s very rare to see an eye in good condition at all.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Osseous oracles

The historical importance of oracle bones (a.k.a. "dragon bones") to understanding Bronze Age China was not recognized until the 19th c. While others were grinding up the artifacts to use in traditional medicines, a collector and scholar was recording the inscriptions, which were published after his suicide. The British Library owns more than 400 of these divination tools, consisting mostly of ox scapulae or pieces of turtle shell and dating to between 1600 and 1050 B.C.E. Sara Chiesura, a specialist in Asian and African studies at the Library, explains, "Questions about crops, the weather or the royal family were engraved with a sharp object and the bone was then heated with metal sticks. Because of the heat, the bones would crack and the answers would be given by the diviners who interpreted the different shapes and the patterns of the fractures. The response was inscribed on the bone too. Most of the cracks produced by the heat on the reverse side of the bones appeared on the front side with a distinctive shape (├ ) from which comes the Chinese character for the verb 'to divine.'"

Monday, September 15, 2014

Megalithic mortuary

After mapping the area of the ancient monument to a depth of about 10' (3 m), the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project has made some startling revelations. The high-resolution, 3-D underground map of nearly 3,000 acres of the surrounding landscape was created using ground-penetrating radar, high-resolution magnetometers, and other state-of-the-art remote-sensing equipment. Within an area 14 times larger than the iconic stone circle, the archaeologists have discovered dozens of features, including more than 50 pillars and 17 ritual monuments. They found hundreds of burial mounds, evidence of a possible processional route around Stonehenge itself, and a massive long barrow believed to have been used as a mortuary for the bones of the dead (RENDERING ABOVE). The new discoveries raise even more questions about how the Stonehenge complex was built and modified over a period of 11,000 years. Lead scientist Vince Gaffney exclaims, "Technology is opening doors for archaeology we could only dream about 15 years ago....All of this information has been placed within a single digital map, which will guide how Stonehenge and its landscape are studied in the future."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Forming feathers

American biologist and author Thor Hanson (IMAGE ABOVE) points out in his new book the marvel that is the evolution of feathers. Feathers can be soft or barbed, can store water or repel it, can conceal or attract. They are diverse in both form and function, they are a near-perfect airfoil, and they are the lightest, most efficient insulation ever discovered. As the fossil record shows, this "accident of physics” took 50 million years to unfold as dinosaurs became birds. Hanson explains how it happened in this lovely short animated film.

HALLOWEEN-Click for captions

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