Posts Tagged ‘biology’

Not only are honeybees disappearing, but bumblebees are going the way of the dinosaurs too. Bumblebees pollinate roughly 15% of crops, which are worth about $3 billion dollars. While there isn’t a definitive cause yet, the National Academy of Sciences has reported that a combination of habitat loss due to housing developments, intensive agriculture, pesticides, pollution and disease are contributing to a worldwide decrease in pollinators. I wonder how long before global warming is added to that list?

A couple of quotes caught my attention from the article in Discovery News:

“We have been naive,” said Neal Williams, assistant professor of biology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. “We haven’t been diligent the way we need to be.”

“We are smart enough to deal with this,” said Laurie Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership. “There is hope.”

Well, I hope Laurie Adams is right, but I don’t have much faith in the intelligence of mankind. Pollinating insects are one of those things that most people don’t even realize we depend on. Probably given the choice, many people would rather do without bees altogether, except for the honey they make. I know I’ve said something to the effect of “I wish all bees would die” after getting stung. I hate it when trite sayings like “be careful what you wish for” come true. Why didn’t my wishes for no mosquitoes come true instead? I suspect they will only continue to flourish.

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Hickory Horned Devil

Posted: 6 October 2007 in Uncategorized
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Donna and I were lucky a couple weeks ago while at the park with the dogs.  We were walking back to the car from the water area where Willow was swimming when we came upon two people hunched over something in the trail.  When we got closer, we saw a giant green caterpillar with bizarre head spikes.  Everyone was afraid to touch it, because the spikes looked pretty nasty (an effective defense, indeed!).  The dogs were only semi-curious, but we kept them away just in case.  It was crossing the trail, one frequented by dogs and bikers, so the two people hunched over it were trying to protect it as it made its way to safety.  I took a couple shots, which didn’t come out perfectly, but should still give you an idea.

Hickory Horned Devil Caterpillar or Larvae

Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar

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Chimps like raisins

Posted: 5 October 2007 in Uncategorized
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In a study done by the Max Planck Institute, chimps were tested with the ultimatum game. In the human case, a player called the proposer is given a sum of money N. He must then offer some amount between 0 and N to another player, the responder. If the responder accepts the offer, they both keep the amount of money in the trade. If the responder declines the offer, both walk away with nothing. Predictably, humans usually make offers around 50%.

In the case of chimps, raisins were used. They were presented with trays that the proposer can only pull out so far. The responder can then pull the tray out the rest of the way if he accepts. The results? Big surprise here folks — wait for it — the chimp always accepted unless the offer was zero. Why? The chimp wanted some raisins. So the conclusion the researchers drew was that chimps don’t have a concept of fair play. The conclusion I think we should draw from this is that chimps aren’t vindictive bastards like humans. Oh, also that chimps want raisins and don’t have a damn clue what this game was about. Of course the chimp always pulled out the tray when there was something in it. He wanted the raisins and had no concept of what was going on. No raisins to pull out? No reason to try to pull it out. I think this says more about the cause and effect inference capability of chimps relating to actions that benefit other individuals than it does about notions of fair play.

Now maybe if the chimp looked down at the zero offer, rejected, and then shot the other chimp the finger, that would be another matter. I’m hoping there is a better explanation for why we should infer the fair play conclusion, and if so, please post a comment. Otherwise, this represents who knows how much wasted money.  (And yes, I know the “wasted money” argument doesn’t hold water.  If the result had been different, this would have been on the front page of the NY Times.)

[original source, via source]

I came across a story on NPR today about why women read more than men. They quote from Louann Brizendine who wrote the book The Female Brain. The issue of gender differences and the brain always starts fights. Men have larger brains and more gray matter, which handles information processing. Women have more white matter and thus more interconnectivity between parts of the brain. The prefrontal lobe in women is more densely packed with neurons, and that is the area responsible for judgment, planning and language. Here is a quote from the article:

“Girls have an easier time with reading or written work, and it’s not a stretch to extrapolate [that] to adult life,” Brizendine says. Indeed, adult women talk more in social settings and use more words than men, she says.

Woah nelly! Brizendine hasn’t been doing her reading, because tons of contrary evidence to this crap has been out for a while. And trying to find that link, I discovered that Language Log has already done a pretty extensive commentary on this article. When it comes to matters of language, it’s hard to scoop them. The long and the short of the Language Log commentary is that the so-called gap in fiction sales could be accounted for entirely by sales of romance books.

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If you’re like me, perhaps you’ve wondered where are all the bees this year?  Normally, they are buzzing around fields here in Pennsylvania, threatening to sting me any time I venture outdoors.  This phenomenon has been witnessed in many states earlier this year and I can only assume it has spread since.  I could count on one hand the number of honeybees I’ve seen this year:  one.  I tried to kill it today, actually.  I’m glad I didn’t because even though I have these violent impulses, I always regret taking something’s life — even something as far down the ladder as a bee.  So far this feeling has yet to manifest itself in the form of vegetarianism, but I’m getting close.  If I had to actually kill the meat myself to eat it, I’d be there.

Anyhow, back to honeybees.  The Discovery Channel is reporting a new possibility for the mass die-off:  Israeli acute paralysis virus, which kills off worker bees and causes the collapse of the colony, aptly named Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Other possibilities include parasitic mites, pesticides, poor nutrition and the stress of travel as beekeepers cart colonies around in search of the best pollen collection areas.  At least it doesn’t appear global warming is to blame, but I wonder what will be the repercussions for flowering plants next year.

Finding Nemo

Posted: 22 August 2007 in Uncategorized
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A see-through squid with yellow polka dots and fake plastic eyes. I could scarcely believe this little guy was real. But apparently, he’s a glass squid found around an undersea mountain range in the Atlantic. Deep sea fish are so bizarre.

Sometimes I just get this depressing feeling that some research team somewhere is going to finally do us all in. A while back, it was theorized that the Large Hadron Collider could possibly be capable of creating mini black holes. Seriously, one day they are going to do something crazy at the LHC and Bill Murray is going to keep waking up in a little town in Pennsylvania on the same day until Andy MacDowell finally falls in love with him. I’m exaggerating (only) slightly.

So anyhow, another harbinger of doom is the recent progress in wet artificial life. I tend to think of artificial life as being computational in origin, since I’m constantly exposed to AI at school. WAL, as the name suggests, is not computational, but biological. It seems to me that once people are able to create life from scratch and begin to actually get a grasp on how it works, we’re in for trouble. Here is a nice little encouraging quote from Mark Bedau, COO of ProtoLife in Venice.

“It’s going to be a big deal and everybody’s going to know about it. We’re talking about a technology that could change our world in pretty fundamental ways — in fact, in ways that are impossible to predict.”

Indeed.

Discovery News: Artificial Life in 3-5 Years?