31 Dec 2013

An End... And a Beginning

From all of us at Sci/Why, may 2014 be full of fascinating science, and many other good things.

And here's a little end-of-2013 present - some of our favourite recent science stories on the web: 

New Zealand's Antarctic Heritage Trust found some very old negatives in an expedition hut from Capt. Robert Falcon Scott's failed 1912 quest to become the first man to reach the South Pole. The photos were taken during Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 Ross Sea Party, another failed exploration whose members were forced to live in Scott's hut after their ship blew out to sea. The CNN story has more information.

There are tiny organisms living deep below Earth's surface. A lot of them! They may make up 6 percent of all life on Earth, but scientists still don't know how they survive down there.

Four animals previously unknown to science have been discovered in deep water off Scotland. New species of large sea snail, clam and marine worm were found during surveys by Marine Scotland.

And finally, from the BBC, here's a gallery of award-winning microscope pictures - a reminder of the unseen wonder all around us.


28 Dec 2013

Origami Citizen Science

How can someone help in the medical search for a treatment for AIDS, without being a research scientist in a lab or a doctor in a hospital? There's a new way now to be part of medical research, and it includes people who have no medical training at all. This kind of citizen science requires access to a computer, and an interest in playing games.

This picture from Foldit is a model of a streptococcus molecule.

The game used to help in the search for an AIDS treatment is called Foldit -- click here to go to their website and learn how this game shows different ways that proteins can be folded. To put it simply, proteins are long molecules that aren't just straight like beads in a necklace. Proteins are folded into crooked shapes. Some proteins are useful when folded in a certain way, but not useful when folded a different way.

This picture from Foldit shows the same model, unfolded.
Medical researchers study the shapes of proteins, sometimes using nuclear magnetic resonance to see these tiny shapes. Sometimes a computer program is used to make models of all the possible ways to fold a protein. It's a bit like the Japanese art of origami - if a piece of paper is folded one way, a cup is made. Fold the same piece of paper another way to make a toy bird. (Here's a link to a website about origami.)

There's an article by Ed Yong describing how the game Foldit was used to solve the shape of a particular protein. It turns out that no matter how good a computer program is at folding shapes, people are still better than computer programs at picking the right places to try small changes. People playing Foldit took three weeks to solve a question about one particular protein that AIDS researchers have been studying for years.

Citizen science is getting to be pretty popular these days. There are many ways for ordinary citizens to assist trained scientists in the gathering of data, such as the volunteers who assist in bird-banding programs. An international website allows people to report finding a bird with a band around its leg. There are other programs such as Neptune, where people can log in to observe a few minutes of video (or hours, if you prefer) recorded at the bottom of the ocean near Vancouver Island, and alert the researchers about anything interesting that happens at particular points of the video. At Sci/Why, we wrote about a teenager who made a discovery on Neptune video.

For origami fans, there are other scientific discoveries about this art of folding. One recent invention is a sheet of plastic that can fold itself into two different forms -- check out this article from Scientific American magazine! Another article in Scientific American notes that other kinds of plastic origami might be useful for shaping cells into tiny containers for future medical uses.

20 Dec 2013

Holiday Baubles, Peruvian Style

Posted by Helaine Becker

Ok, I admit it. Despite the fact that I've written a popular Christmas book (A Porcupine in a Pine Tree), December is not my favourite time of year. I hate cold weather - my fingers turn blue and my toes---let's not even mention my toes.

So I tend to head to warmer climes in December and get my Ho Ho Hos at Hot Springs and the like.

Earlier this month, I visited northern Peru. I was delighted to find the Amazonian basin decorated to the hilt for the holidays! Of course, it's always decorated to the hilt - with incredible butterflies, hummingbirds, orchids and more.

The remote Chachapoyas area is one of the most interesting and diverse ecosystems on Earth. Tropical cloud forests drape the Andes mountains, which break up the region into zillions of distinct microclimates. Hundreds of separate habitats  are home to unique species that have arisen in isolation.

Among the living ornaments we spotted on our holiday journey, these were my faves:

The rare clearwing butterfly has absolutely transparent wings. In these species, the scales that gives butterflies their colours are confined  mostly to their wing veins. The glassy wing makes the insect a spectacular sight when perched on a leaf or flower; it's virtually invisible in flight. 

And by the way, don't eat these fluttery gems. They're highly toxic. Unlike other poisonous butterflies that tank up on toxins as caterpillars, clearwings obtain their poison as adults. They drink nectar from flowers containing toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids for a powerful defense against hungry birds. 

The Spatuletail Hummingbird is one of the rarest hummingbirds in the world. It lives only in Peru, and only on the east bank of the Rio Utcubamba. According to Bird-life International, there are fewer than 1000 of these remarkable creatures left in the wild; they are on the "Red List" of endangered birds.

The Spatuletail is only one of the incredible hummingbirds and other birds we saw in Peru. If you're a birder, rush to Northern Peru ASAP to have your mind blown. If you're an orchid enthusiast too, you'll really go nuts. The eastern slopes of the Andes are home to countless species of stunning orchids including this one:

Unlike most orchids, this stunning species is terrestrial, and grows only on rock. You can't remove it from its substrate either; if you wanted to transplant it, you'd have to take the rock too! 

The final ornament in this post brings us to yet another microclimate and mini-habitat: the lowland "jungle" around the Huallaga River. Here's where you find the iconic Three-Lined Poison Dart Frog. Beautiful  but deadly so do not touch!!!!

My idea of a happy holiday is basking in the warmth and beauty of the Amazon. I've enjoyed sharing these rainforest gifts with you, and hope you all enjoy a happy holiday too, wherever you find yourself. 

Best wishes for a wonderful 2014,

13 Dec 2013

...And Eight Tiny Reindeer

By Claire Eamer

Zeus Box Studio image
Reindeer feature prominently in the media at this time of year -- especially that very rare subspecies of reindeer that flies through the air and pulls a sled carrying a fellow in a red suit.
But more about that them later.

Most reindeer roam the forest and tundra of Scandinavia and Russia and other parts of northern Europe and Asia, as far east as eastern Siberia and northern China. There’s even a small herd of reindeer on a mountain in Scotland.

In the same kind of habitat in northern North America, you find caribou. They look like reindeer and behave pretty much like reindeer. So what’s the difference?

Essentially none, says Don Russell, a Yukon caribou biologist and founding coordinator of the CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment Network (CARMA), an international organization concerned with the state of the Arctic's wild caribou and reindeer.

"The reindeer is just an Old World caribou. They are the same species, Rangifer tarandus," he says. And they're the dominant large herbivore, or plant-eater, in the circumpolar ecosystem. In fact, in most parts of the North, they're the only large herbivore.

That’s not to say that all reindeer and caribou are identical. There are quite a few variations in body shape and appearance, but those variations depend more on the kind of habitat the caribou and reindeer live in than what continent they come from.

There are three general groupings of reindeer and three matching groupings of caribou. Marine reindeer and the very similar Peary caribou of northern Canada live on Arctic islands or near the Arctic coast. Tundra reindeer and barrenground caribou tend to gather in large herds and migrate across vast swaths of territory, mainly north of the boreal forest. Forest reindeer and woodland caribou live in the northern regions of the boreal forest itself, usually in smaller herds than the tundra animals.

Looks can be deceiving. These reindeer, grazing peacefully in the middle of
town on the Norwegian islands of Svalbard, are actually wild animals.
Claire Eamer photo
We tend to think of reindeer as domestic animals, but that's not always the case. True, people in Scandinavia and Russia have been keeping domesticated reindeer for thousands of years. However, one of the world’s largest herds of wild Rangifer tarandus is the Taimyr reindeer herd, which lives on the Taimyr Peninsula in central Siberia and numbers many hundreds of thousands of animals.

The caribou of North America have never been domesticated, but not because they are genetically different from reindeer. The aboriginal peoples of North America simply never felt the need to domesticate caribou. Instead, they adapted their lifestyle to fit the seasonal wanderings of the wild herds.

Perhaps the oddest member of the Rangifer tarandus tribe is the Svalbard reindeer. Russell calls it the Shetland pony of the reindeer world. Svalbard is Norwegian territory, a small group of rocky islands about halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. Isolated by hundreds of kilometres of ocean from any other land, Svalbard is home to a distinct population of reindeer, small, with short legs, snubbed muzzles, and chubby, barrel-shaped bodies.

Caribou biologist Don Russell calls Svalbard reindeer the Shetland ponies
of the Rangifer world. Their short legs and chubby bodies serve them well
on the islands of the remote Svalbard archipelago.
Claire Eamer photo

Svalbard reindeer aren't designed for speed, but they don't need to be. The only large predators on Svalbard are polar bears, and they're rarely interested in reindeer. On the other hand, those chubby bodies are important. Svalbard is a tough place to be a reindeer.

In winter, Svalbard reindeer have to eat whatever they can find. Most other Rangifer eat lichens, which are available in winter under the snow. On Svalbard, however, there are few lichens. Svalbard reindeer eat the first green shoots of sedges emerging in the spring. Through the summer, they work their way through lush tundra plants, packing on as much fat as possible. The fat has to last them through the lean times of winter when they go on a crash diet, often losing almost half their autumn weight by spring.

Meanwhile, about those flying reindeer. They seem chubby enough, but science has remarkably little to say about them. Perhaps it's the shortage of confirmed sightings. Nevertheless, given their unusual reported characteristics (flying, occasional appearance of a glowing red nose), they clearly deserve more research.

If you want to know more about wild caribou and reindeer, explore the CARMA website.

To hear from the people who depend on caribou and reindeer -- in their own words -- watch some of the videos at Voices of the Caribou People. It's a great resource for teachers and students studying life in the Arctic.

About those seasonal reindeer.... Here's a site devoted to the history of Santa Claus and his flying Rangifer team.

And the one with the unusual nose? That'd be Rudolph, eh?

Finally, remember those reindeer on a mountain in Scotland? Here they are, the Cairngorm reindeer.

6 Dec 2013

Hair Ice and Singing Lakes and Icebergs: Fabulous Ice Phenomena

Jan Thornhill
Hair ice can grow 5 cm long
Hair ice growing from twig.

Antarctic sea ice from above
Antarctic sea ice (NASA)
My friend Ulli called one chilly morning a couple of weeks ago and said she’d found a stick in the woods for me. “A stick?” I said.

“You want it,” she said cryptically.

She was right. Though what she brought over ten minutes later looked like an ordinary piece of a dead alder branch, part of it was not ordinary in the least. One end had sprouted a glorious tuft of long silky white hair. Ulli had found hair ice!

Hair ice melting
Hair ice starting to melt. (Jan Thornhill)
Though you might think at first glance that hair ice is some kind of peculiar frost – it’s not. Frost forms when moisture in the air freezes on objects. Hair ice, on the other hand, starts from the inside and moves outwards. Moisture in a stick or twig is exuded through minute pores on the surface, and when this moisture hits humid sub-zero air the result is very fine filaments of ice that can grow up to five centimeters in length – filaments that look just like hair. It’s an uncommon phenomenon, and not just because weather conditions must be absolutely perfect. Here's the real glitch: the appearance of hair ice seems to be dependent on, of all things, fungi.

Hair Ice and Fungi

So what do fungi have to do with it? The idea that “a fungus participates in a decisive way” in the formation of hair ice, was first suggested in 1918 by the brilliant interdisciplinary scientist Alfred Wegener (who developed the theory of continental drift), but was unproven. Recently though, Gerhart Wagner and Christian Mätzler from the University of Bern have been studying "haareis" and its relationship to fungi. In one experiment they collected a number of twigs that had previously grown hair ice and treated them variously with three agents known to suppress the growth of fungi – heat, alcohol, and fungicide – while keeping a portion of each twig aside as a control. Afterwards, they froze all the samples under identical conditions, then compared the results. Sure enough, only the untreated pieces re-grew luxuriant manes of ice. 

The two scientists theorize that the living mycelium of various fungi within the wood (i.e. Exidia glandulosa or Tremella mesenterica) continues to metabolize at near freezing temperatures, producing heat and gases that force moisture outwards. When this moisture escapes through pores and comes into contact with humid below-freezing air, hair ice grows.

2cm long hair ice
Hair ice that grew overnight. (Jan Thornhill)
After reading about Wagner and Måtzler's success at coaxing hair ice to grow in the laboratory, I decided to try to try a simple experiment of my own. I soaked the stick Ulli had brought me in water (its original hair ice having quickly melted). I then laid it on a wet paper towel on a plate and put it out in our unheated boot room, then waited for the temperature to drop. By the 10:00 pm the whole stick was sprouting hair ice. By morning I had a new pet!

hair ice and ice globules
The end of the twig  formed solid globules of ice, possibly
because moisture was released too quickly to form hair ice. (Jan Thornhill) 

Singing Lakes

A few days later, another friend was talking about how much he loves the quality of the human voice outside on cold winter days. The topic of walking on frozen lakes came up. I asked if he’d ever heard a frozen lake “sing.”

person walking on frozen lake
Frozen lakes sing! (Nentori)
I’ve heard it several times – haunting, otherworldly sounds caused by ice expanding and contracting, which is most common when there are major fluctuations in temperature. The best sounds, and the ones that carry the furthest, occur when there is no snow cover – rare conditions on the lakes near where I live, but not unheard of. Listen to Andreas Bick’s extraordinary recording of this phenomenon on a lake in Germany here. Turn up the volume and brace yourself!

Antarctic Ice & Animal Sounds

Weddell seals underwater
Weddell seals whistle and chirp.
And then I discovered something even more wonderful: The Alfred Wegener Institute (yes! that's the same Alfred Wegener as mentioned above!) that co-ordinates German polar research in both the Arctic and Antarctic has an acoustic laboratory in Antarctica. They are always recording – and on their website they offer this MP3 audio livestream of Antarctic ice and animal sounds from near the Neumayer Station on the ice shelf of Atka Bay. You can listen to the under-ice sounds of the Antarctic in real time! I can't turn it off!

All of this icy stuff is so cool it warms my heart. 

More Links:

This page from the Alfred Wegener Institute has sound files of various seal and whale noises to listen for on the live audio feed, as well as rubbing ice, singing icebergs, and some “mystery” sounds that are truly astonishing.

Download Gerhart Wagner and Christian Mätzler"s paper,  "Haareis auf morschem Laubholz als biophysickalisches Phanomen"  or  "Hair Ice of Rotten Wood of Broadleaf Trees – A Biophysical Phenomenon" – lots of pictures, though only some parts are in English.

Weddell seals source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diving_weddell_seals.jpg

5 Dec 2013

Dolphins, Not Monkeys!

I just returned from three months of exploring the Australian continent. Landing in Sydney on the east coast, we drove 16,000 km in a rented camper, then took the train across the Nullabor Desert for 2 days and 2 nights, flew to Tasmania and drove all around that island. We saw and learned a lot!
The first recorded arrival of white men on Australian soil, was on a Dutch trading ship, under the command of Captain Dirk Hartog, arriving on October 25, 1616 - more than 150 years before Captain Cook. Hartog left a pewter plate, nailed to a post. The original plate is now back in the Rijksmuseum, but there’s a replica of the plate in a town called Geraldton on the west coast.

On the west coast, we visited a resort called Monkey Mia. There are no monkeys here. It is believed that the name originates with a boat called The Monkey that used to frequent the area. Mia means home in an Asian language. Before going, I talked to many people who had visited this resort where wild dolphins come to interact with people. Everyone said it used to be fun, but that now it is very touristy and regulated. But still. When wild dolphins come to shore, I wanted to experience that. I did not have high expectations. I also suspected it to be commercialized.
BUT it was fun! It’s done in a lovely manner. You do have to pay a small entrance fee, but that is often the case at wildlife or nature reserves. The rangers gave a informative talk and the bottlenose dolphins arrived around 8 AM. No one makes them show up, they truly do live free in the ocean. Of course they have been conditioned, know that there is a treat waiting by the shore. But I do believe the regulations are in the dolphins best interest. If they did not strictly enforce rules, people would feed them all sorts of stuff including bread, or worse. They would touch them and affect them with sunscreen or bacteria.
Now, we all had a long, good look at the six wild dolphins that came to shore. They almost beached themselves and showed off. One mother brought a small calf. It was lovely. A few people were allowed to feed a fish to them and then it was over. The dolphins come back as they please but are only fed in the morning, and only up to five females, bringing off spring, males and other friends along.

Bottlenose dolphin coming in to socialize.

Monkey Mia is part of a much larger preserve, a UNESCO World Heritage area including Shark Bay, Shell Beach, Hamelin Pool and a few other special areas that deserve preservation for future generations.

3 Dec 2013

The Wonders of Sticky Tape

On Christmas Eve, one hundred years ago, right where you are now, a child just like you might have been wrapping a present. To do so, they would need some brown paper, scissors, and a burning candle. First, the paper was cut and folded around the present. Then, hot wax from the candle was dripped between the paper’s edges. The paper was held together with a finger until the wax cooled and became smooth and hard. The wax had turned from liquid to solid. The solid wax stuck to the paper, and kept the edges together. A bit of ribbon was added to make the package pretty.  
People do not usually use wrap gifts with candle wax anymore. It is dangerous, and messy. In 1930, an American inventor named Richard Drew made wrapping gifts simpler and safer when he invented “sticky tape.”  Part of his job for the company 3M was to play with sticky stuff and see what he could invent with it. Sticky tape was the result. Now, all over the world, whenever people want two pieces of paper to stay together, they use a piece of tape. No candle required.
Tape is a long strip of plastic with a layer of glue on one side. Only one side of tape – the side with the glue – is sticky. The other side has to be smooth so the glue does not stick to it, and we can unroll it. The smooth side is the side that we touch with our fingers. When Richard Drew was thinking about how to make tape, a clear, thin plastic called cellophane had just been invented. Cellophane, also known as plastic wrap, was first used to cover leftovers in the kitchen. It is cellophane that Richard Drew used to make his see-through, sticky tape.
Tape might be simple to use, but it is not simple to make. Richard Drew had to be very patient and he tried many recipes in his search for the perfect glue. More than thirty different ingredients are in sticky tape glue. Some of these ingredients are oils and some are plastics. All these ingredients were mixed together and tested until the glue was just right.
Glue that is too sticky would not come off the roll. Glue that is not sticky enough would not hold things together.  Sticky tape glue works so well because it gets stickier when it is pushed down with your fingers. It is “pressure sensitive.” It comes easily off the roll, and then when you press it onto the paper, it stays there.
When fingers apply pressure to tape, it affects the molecules in the glue – it squishes them against the surface, causing them to spread out, just like squishing a jelly sandwich makes the jelly spread out. The glue – and the jelly – is flowing slowly, like a liquid. The harder the molecules are pressed against the surface, the more they flow, and the more they stick.
Tape sticks best to paper, glass, and metal. It does not stick as well to plastic like yogurt cups. Try it yourself; is it easier to get a piece of tape off glass, or a yogurt container? The next time you wrap a present, remember you are squishing molecules with your finger. You and your fingers are an important part of the tape’s stickiness.
The science of sticky tape is complicated. It has taken scientists a long time to understand how pressure sensitive glue works, and they still don’t have all the answers. There have been whole books written about the subject! This is one invention that works well, even though we do not fully understand how. It reminds us that even simple things can be full of surprises. Just like that Christmas present waiting for you under the tree.