22 Oct 2016

Iceman CSI: Tales from a 5300-year-old man

Forensic reconstruction imagines this is
what the 5300-year-old Ötzi looked like.
(Thilo Parg, CC BY-SA 3.0)
by Adrienne Montgomerie

An arrow sang through the air and plunged deep into a man’s shoulder 5300 years ago in Italy. That man fell as he gasped his last breath, his left arm flung awkwardly across his chest, pinned beneath him.

A mummy is not what you expect to find when you’re strolling through the Alp mountains with your husband. But that’s what happened to the group of mountaineers who found this mummified man in 1991.

What happened to this man? Why did he lay there, undiscovered, for so long? What can his body tell us about humans and life so long ago?

Because he died in a place that is always cold, his body did not disappear into the earth or get eaten by animals. All his parts are there, exactly where they were. He is not covered in rags like a mummy in a movie, but we say his body was mummified because it did not rot. This ancient man they named Ötzi, contains a lot of clues.

Learning without destroying

Early scientists would cut apart specimens to learn about them, but that destroyed the body. Today, scientists know that the more they can preserve, the more will be available for other scientists to learn from, and for new technologies that get developed in the future.

The body is too fragile let everyone examine it closely, so 3D printing was used to create a copy so people can get a closer look at him.
The 3D print formed the base that the sculpture is made from. (Materialise)
Preserving the iceman Ötzi, so that others can study him, means keeping his body in a room that is –6 °C and nearly 100% humidity — just like on a glacier. The room is dim too, to protect the artifacts from damaging light. An alarm goes off it the room changes.
Ötzi is kept at –6 °C and nearly 100% humidity. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)
Dinosaur bones are replicated for display, too. That’s right, the bones you see in the museum are not the actual bones that were dug up. The originals are stored in conditions that keep them from falling apart, so that scientists (like archeologists) can study them.

What can scientists find out from the iceman?

Well, first, they can find out how long humans might have lived, so long ago. Because we have a lot of data about how bones age, scientists can estimate that Ötzi was 45 years old when he was killed.
Because of what we know about how vocal chords work, scientists can guess what Ötzi’s voice sounded like.

Because of the contents of his stomach, they can find out what kind of diet people had that long ago. His last meal was ibex, deer, and grain. His stomach also gives clues about where he travelled, because of the h. pylori bacteria they found in his gut came from Asia, very far away from Italy.

By analysing his DNA, they can find out that he was lactose intolerant, was likely to get heart disease, and had Lyme disease.
His shoes look a bit like Uggs.
(Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Because of the bits of clothes that were still on him, researchers can make guesses about the style of clothes he wore and the animals that they were able to kill (to use to make clothes).

Because of X-ray and CAT scans, we know there is an arrow-head lodged in his shoulder. But forensics showed he had many more injuries — the kinds that people get from a fight — and blood from four other people on his clothes and tools. Now experts think he actually died from a hit to his head.

Mysteries still

There’s still a lot you can’t know by examining a body. Wouldn’t you like to know where Ötzi lived and why he was in the mountains? Who he was fighting and why? How big was his family, and did his brothers and sisters play pranks on each other?

Learn more

There are a couple documentaries about Ötzi (Iceman Reborn, and others by NOVA), and several websites explaining different aspects scientists have discovered about him (follow the links in this article). You can even find out how a body becomes a mummy naturally

You can see the Ötzi copies in person at the DNA Learning Centres in New York city and Cold Spring Harbor, USA. To see him in person, you have to look through a small window into a climate-controlled room at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

14 Oct 2016

Just in Time for Halloween - Monster Science!

Post by Helaine Becker

Science isn't scary. Or is it?

I'm pleased to announce that my latest book, Monster Science (Kids Can Press) is out, and the reviews are in!

Here are two:

"From Frankenstein’s creation to Nessie, Becker uses the creatures of our scariest stories as a springboard for an introduction to the scientific understandings that might make such creatures possible—or impossible. In addition to man-made monsters and legendary sea creatures, she covers vampires, zombies, werewolves, and wild, humanlike creatures like Bigfoot. Chapter by chapter, she provides references from literature, film, and popular culture, including a bit of science, a bit of history, and a plentiful helping of humor. She includes numerous monster facts, suggests weapons of defense, and concludes each section with a test-yourself quiz. Science topics covered range widely: electricity, genetic engineering, “demonic diseases,” the nature of our blood and the circulatory system, the possibility of immortality, animal classification, evolution, cannibalism, optical illusions, heredity, hoaxes, and the very real profession of cryptozoology, or the search for hitherto unidentified creatures. Explanations are clear though sometimes oversimplified; they’ll provide readers with an acquaintance with the topic and its vocabulary but probably not real understanding. Lively design and zany cartoon illustrations add to the appeal. There is an index but, sadly, no sources or suggestions for further explorations by readers who will be wanting to know more.Book bait of the best sort, this is a winning combination of fancy and fact." - Kirkus

"A highlight of this work is its exploration of the often symbiotic relationship between culture and science; figures such as Shelley, John Polidori (The Vampyre), and filmmaker George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) merged cultural fascination with scientific development to create truly inspiring works and further public interest in science...VERDICT: The connection between pop culture and science is intriguing; this title will appeal to science educators as a supplemental resource for classroom activities. - School Library Journal

Want a sneak peek? Find out your Vampire IQ with this science-sharp quiz from Chapter 2!

6 Oct 2016

Bird Banding

My friends Robyn and Mark are bird-watchers. Oh, they do a lot of other things, too, that you can read about on their blog at this link. But it's their bird hobby that I'm envying today. On the first Saturday of October, Robyn and Mark were helping researchers by banding birds. It was a wonderful day for citizen scientists helping experts with hands-on gathering of data!

This bird is a hermit thrush, observing Robyn as carefully as she observes it!

As Robyn says:
This morning Mark and I volunteered with the Rocky Point Bird Observatory banding migrating song birds. We helped with retrieving the birds from the nets (37 today) and entering their info into a database. Very interesting work and it confirmed how much I DON'T know about birds

The nets used to catch birds are almost invisible, and suspended between.posts like a fence. Here's a Chestnut-backed chickadee caught safely in a net. A moment later, a researcher carefully untangled the bird and held it while Robyn and Mark helped to band the bird and write notes about it. The bird banding is also being done at night, when the researchers catch owls.

Here's the whiteboard with notes about the numbers of birds caught, and their types.The total count of birds banded by Rocky Point Bird Observatory after day 74.of their study? 2,486!

You can read more about Rocky Point Bird Observatory at this link to their Facebook page, or go to their own website at this link
The Sci/Why Blog has had another post written about volunteering for a bird banding event, and you can read it at this link.
If you want to volunteer with bird studies in your own area, start by looking up provincial resources and try the nearest university biology program to find out who needs you. Don't worry about handling the birds -- even if all you do is write down the information as fast as the expert can say it, you're doing useful work that lets the expert handle the birds. Maybe there's a birdwatching club at the local recreation centre, or a birding store at a mall. The public library will have books on birds and birdwatching as well!

30 Sep 2016

Wild Helpers in the Brussels Sprouts Patch

by Jan Thornhill
Brussels sprouts look ridiculous! (Wikipedia)
The first time I saw Brussels sprouts clinging to their stems on the back of a truck in Holland in 1977, I was shocked. Up until then, I’d always thought they were baby cabbages. I still can't believe no one told me how they grew.

Cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower
and kohlrabi are all the same species.
We’ve had a large organic vegetable garden for over 25 years. For most of those years we’ve tried to grow various brassicas—broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, cauliflower, and, yes, Brussels sprouts.

A pretty pest—the cabbage white butterfly (Wikipedia)
Every year, though, we’ve been inundated with cabbage butterflies and their progeny—cabbage-loving green caterpillars. The common Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae) is native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. There were none here until it was accidentally introduced to Quebec in 1860. Because there are plenty of wild Brassica species in North America, it spread like crazy. Now it's everywhere.

A hungry cabbage caterpillar (Wikipedia)
 Its caterpillars are fast-growing voracious feeders and can easily turn a gorgeous, giant cabbage into multiple, disgusting layers of green lace glued together with caterpillar droppings. Yuck! Damage can be controlled organically by applying products containing the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), but I’ve always been too cheap to buy it so we’ve always hand-picked eggs and caterpillars. 

This year we decided in the spring to be lazy and only grow Brussels sprouts and nothing else from the cabbage family. Surely two of us could keep on top of the caterpillars on only four plants! And we did—though we also had help.

Helper #1: Chipping Sparrow

Audubon's Chipping Sparrow from his elephant portfolio
One morning I saw a Chipping Sparrow emerge from between the big leaves of one of the plants. It had a juicy green caterpillar in its beak! The sparrow and its mate returned over and over again for several days, each time flying off with a caterpillar. We could sit back and relax! We didn’t notice when they stopped coming, which probably coincided with their young becoming independent. Suddenly we were inundated with caterpillars again.    

Helper #2: Nursery Web Spider

Pisaurina mira, the Nursery Web Spider, can
have a broad stripe down its back. (Jan Thornhill)
While picking off yet another crop of caterpillars, I came face to face with a giant spider—giant enough that I jumped backwards when I saw it. It was a Nursery Web Spider (Pisaurina mira) and it had a large caterpillar in its jaws. It was sucking the life from it. 

Nursery Web Spider sucking the juices from a cabbage caterpillar. (Jan Thornhill)

Helper #3: Paper Wasp

Polistes fuscatus, our common native paper wasp removing fecal matter
from a caterpillar that was too heavy to carry. (Jan Thornhill)
This one was the best one. While hand-picking caterpillars, I suddenly spied a large paper wasp, the native Polistes fuscatus. I normally don't like these guys because their sting can feel like a combination of being electrocuted and burned with a soldering iron. This one, however, had no interest in me. It was trying to take off with a large caterpillar held between its mandibles. But it was too heavy and the wasp only made it as far as one of the outer leaves. It landed with the caterpillar and then started fussing over it. 

At first I thought it was simply eating the caterpillar on the spot, but after a few minutes I figured out what it was doing: it was cleverly removing the heavy fecal matter from the caterpillar. When it was done, it easily flew away with the lighter carcass, leaving behind a line of green poo. 

I'm happy with any help I can get controlling the Cabbage White Butterfly, but do I want it to disappear? No, I don't. And in Great Britain, where they once had flocks of millions, they're looking at its disappearance as a real possibility. Between 1976 and 2008, its numbers have declined by a third—which is pretty astonishing. The crash in its population is likely due to the drop in the number of home vegetable gardens combined with commercial crops being sprayed with pesticides. If the Cabbage White Butterfly disappeared from here, sparrows, wasps and spiders would all lose part of their diets. 

The garden nasturtium is both tasty and a good
decoy plant for the Cabbage White Butterfly 
One more little snippet—apparently cabbage caterpillars will eat garden nasturtiums, which are a lovely salad addition (both flowers and leaves), so they can be used as a decoy crop. The caterpillars, however, much prefer cabbage leaves—if a caterpillar gets even a tiny taste of a cabbage leaf first, it will starve itself to death rather than eat nasturtiums!


Article about U.K. Cabbage White Butterflies: Cabbage Whites Under Threat


23 Sep 2016

Sci/Why: What's the Source?

Sci/Why: What's the Source?

What's the Source?

by Helen Mason
What is a lemato? Is this one?
 Does use of the same or similar wording in more than one article about the same topic set your alarm bells ringing?

In 2013, I was working on Agricultural Inventions: At the Top of the Field, a science book for kids in grades 5 to 8. In my search for genetically modified foods I kept coming across references to the lemato. According to the sources, this is a cross between a lemon and a tomato.

One site talked about mixing a tomato and a lemon seed. Another discussed how the cross was made solely to test whether researchers could find a way to make a tomato smell like a lemon. An article for students talked about the health benefits of crossing an antioxidant such as a tomato with a fragrant citrus fruit such as the lemon.

Or this?
Almost all appeared with a picture similar to the one at the right from a Portuguese student web site. Some had one similar to the photo at the top. Another showed a fruit that was tomato at the bottom and lemon at the top, including the skin. The author claimed not to have used photo-shop. Really?

Several sites criticized the use of GM. Few referred to the original researchers. It was them I wanted to find—and fortunately I did.

Since the lemato was developed at Israel's Newe Ya'ar Research Centre and I don't read Hebrew, I researched SciTech news sites. The lemato is a tomato that includes a gene from a variety of lemon basil. Basil, that's the annual herb that's a member of the mint family and not a citrus fruit.

Would a pic like this draw you into an article about lematos?
So what's the message for online researchers? First, don't believe everything you hear or see on the Internet. Second, remember that many sites are like movie tabloids. Correct information might be present—but you have to get beyond the hype.

And no, I still haven't seen a lemato. But I suspect that it looks like a regular tomato. Researchers suggest that it has a different smell, however.

 Helen Mason's most recent books include What is Digital Entrepreneurship, Be an Active Citizen in Your Community, and Be an Active Citizen at Your School, all Crabtree, 2016.

16 Sep 2016

Cupping Bruises May Confuse Forensic Scientists

Via Amy Selleck on Wikimedia Commons
If you had any exposure to the Rio Olympics at all, you probably noticed the giant hickeys several athletes - most notably Michael Phelps - were flaunting all over their events. Attacks by enormous octopodi? Nope. Cupping bruises.
If you've had any exposure to the internet since the Olympics, you've probably learned that cupping is a procedure from traditional Chinese medicine that involves creating a vacuum inside a glass or plastic cup, then applying the cup to the skin. Skin and tissue get sucked up into the cup. This increases circulation to the site, which could speed healing. So, in theory, could the suction itself. As my massage therapist explained it, massage involves "unsticking" tissues by pressing down, whereas cupping unsticks them by pulling up.
Western science has yet to find evidence that cupping actually works, which is not entirely surprising, given the nature of the treatment. As my massage guy also pointed out, it's pretty hard to do a double blind study on a treatment that creates a distinct physical sensation and a giant hickey. But that's OK, because this post is not about whether cupping works.
It's about the giant hickeys, which are formed when blood rushes into the skin below the cup, causing the tiny blood vessels to burst.
Here's a fact about cupping marks those Olympic stories didn't mention - they look an awful lot like bruises left by particular types of blunt force trauma. Specifically, the kind found in cases of child, domestic, and elder abuse. Depending on circumstances, cupping marks can also look like lividity - the pooling of the blood after death.
This, as you can imagine, is a problem, not for athletes, but forensic scientists. If pathologists don't know about cupping and the kinds of marks it leaves, they could interpret those marks as signs of foul play, confusing a criminal investigation.
Something like that happened in Turkey in 2015. A 40-year-old man died during surgery to repair shotgun injuries. Most people would assume the shotgun was to blame for his death, but the attending doctor saw round bruises and ordered an autopsy for further investigation. It wasn't until police interviewed family members that the bruises were identified as cupping marks from the victim's regular treatments, rather than signs of violence that contributed to his death.
Which just goes to show that being a forensic scientist is a really, really hard job, because you have to know pretty much everything about everything.
Did you watch the Olympics? Have fun playing "connect the dots" with the athlete's cupping marks? Did their endorsement make you want to try it?
Want to know more about being a forensic scientist? Check out my latest book for young readers, Discover Forensic Science!