20 Apr 2018

A Mathematician Barbie???? Who'da Thunk It?

Post by Helaine Becker

When I was growing up, Barbie was the ultimate aspirational toy. She had a fantastic slinky black dress. An over the top wedding dress. And clothes for being a stewardess, a picnicker, and attending a sock hop.

But there was no Barbie mathematician attire. Are you kidding? This was the era of "men don't make passes at girls who where glasses." And "men don't like women who are smarter than they are. So play dumb!"

Image for BRB INSPR WMN DL 3 from Mattel

Times have moved on. Not enough, of course, but some.

And this is where I get to tell you about the newest dolls in Barbie's inspiring women collection, being released next month. One of them is Katherine Johnson, the subject of my upcoming picture book, Counting on Katherine. 

I only wish this doll had been available when I was growing up. I might not have skipped out on grade 12 calculus.

13 Apr 2018

The Littlest Mummy

Brooklyn Museum, 30 B.C.E. – 50 C.E.

Even people who really love Egyptology and know a lot about ancient mummies might be curious about this little bundle of linen. It's only about nine inches (21 centimeters) long, and less than two inches (3.5 centimeters) at its thickest point. What in the world could be mummified in such a small package?

The answer to this question can be found using modern technology! Modern scientists prefer to use non-destructive methods to learn more about mummies from the past. Instead of cutting or damaging their wrappings, they instead put them into a medical scanner.

Here's another mummy bundle with a very similar size, shape and date. When we look inside...what do we see?

Penn Museum, E12435: mummy from the side, paired with radiograph
It's a tiny animal! Even though the radiograph might seem a little hazy, this is obviously a small mammal skeleton. You can clearly make out the teeth and the long tail.

Most of us are not experts when it comes to mummies OR small mammals, but zooarchaeologist Kate Moore had the answer. It was the teeth that were the real give-away--this was a mummy of one of the world's smallest mammals, the Egyptian sacred shrew.

Dr. Moore and a shrew skull
Of course, this answer leads to more questions. What did a live Egyptian shrew look like, for example? And why would you make one into a sacred mummy?

The Egyptian pygmy shrew (Image Bibliotheca Alexandrina)
The answer to the first question is simple--an Egyptian sacred shrew was pretty adorable! It was a very tiny creature, which could easily fit into the palm of your hand. It was very similar in size and appearance to one of its close living relatives today, the Etruscan shrew.

Wikipedia image of Etruscan shrew.
The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. The important thing to understand is that many animal mummies in ancient Egypt were made as votive offerings--they were gifts to be offered to the gods. The links between animals and the gods were symbolic.

Shrews, although they are very tiny, are incredibly fierce animals! And because they are such mighty mites, they are capable of killing snakes and destroying their eggs. In ancient Egypt, the shrews were representatives of the god Horus, the protector of the Sun. By day, Horus has the form of a Falcon, but by night, Horus takes the form of a shrew or an Egyptian mongoose, to keep up His eternal battle against the cobras and crocodiles that threaten the Sun on its cosmic journey.


Animal mummies are a fascinating topic, and there are lots of great resources where you can learn more about them.

SOULFUL CREATURES: ANIMAL MUMMIES OF ANCIENT EGYPT is available on Amazon. But if you can't afford your own copy, you might find it in your library. If your library doesn't have a copy--you could always ask them to buy one for the collection!

National Geographic Magazine also has a gallery of ancient Egyptian animal mummies, which has beautiful images. It is connected to an article which was published in the magazine in November 2009. Does your library have back issues of National Geographic?

The Penn Museum Artifact Lab has a blog where scientist Molly Gleeson publishes posts about the lab's study of animal mummies using modern scanning technology.

The New York Times ran an interesting article about the Soulful Creatures Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which includes facts and interviews with scientists who study Egyptian animal mummies.


Arinn Dembo is a professional science fiction writer and software developer working in Vancouver, BC. She has degrees in Anthropology and Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, and volunteers as a science educator at Vancouver's The Learnary, where she teaches an ongoing series of workshops called Gothic Science.

6 Apr 2018

Moby, we hardly knew ya!

By Claire Eamer

I recently wrote an article for Hakai Magazine, an online magazine about coastal life and science, on the accuracy (or lack of it) in the way whales are portrayed in children's books. Researching that article led me to a great irony: whole species and populations of cetaceans -- both whales and dolphins -- are at risk of extinction because of humans, while, at the same time, we humans are just realizing how amazing and possibly how like us cetaceans are. We could lose whales -- or, at least, a great many of them -- before we really get to know them.

A blue whale surfaces in the open ocean. Pixabay photo

The Bad News First

 Instead of teeth, blue whales and
right whales have baleen, plates
made of keratin, 
that sieve food
out of the water.
Claire Eamer photo
The bad-news side of that equation is how much damage we have already done to the world's whales. Take, for example, the blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived on Earth. Before the days of commercial whaling, the world population was probably about 250,000. Today, 50 years after an international ban on hunting blue whales went into effect, the world population has recovered to somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 individuals, scattered across all the world's oceans except the Arctic Ocean. That's a tenth or less of what the world once supported.

Other whale species are further from recovery -- some maybe too far. North Atlantic right whales had a terrible year in 2017. At least 17 died in the waters off Atlantic Canada and the Atlantic coast of the United States, most as a result of ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear. The most recent estimates put the population of North Atlantic right whales at about 430. About 100 are reproductive females, but after the most recent breeding season no new calves have been spotted. Some scientists have warned that the whales are just a couple of decades from extinction if nothing changes.

The waters around southern Vancouver Island, where I live, are home to a population of killer whales that is in just as much trouble as the North Atlantic right whales. Maybe even more trouble. The southern resident killer whales are fish-eaters -- and a whale can eat a lot of fish. They rely heavily on chinook salmon, which used to return to their spawning grounds along the coast of the Pacific Northwest in huge numbers. But commercial fishing, habitat destruction, and contaminants have reduced the numbers of chinook and, along with them, the numbers of fish-eating killer whales. The southern resident killer whale population is down to just 76 individuals at last count, and even those few have having trouble finding enough salmon to stay alive and healthy.

Killer whales, whether they eat fish or mammals, have impressive sets
of sharp teeth to catch and hold their prey. Claire Eamer photo

And Now the Good News

The good news is that we're learning a lot about whales, both through science and through a growing recognition of the traditional knowledge of whale-hunting cultures, such as the Inuit and other peoples of the Arctic. Perhaps if we know enough about them, we will care enough to save and protect them. As a start, here are some cool facts about whales.

Whales have cultures. They pass knowledge and forms of communication down from generation to generation. The southern resident killer whales know how and where to hunt for salmon, and they pass that information on to their calves. The Bigg's killer whales (also known as transients) know how to hunt sea mammals, such as seals and sea lions, and they pass that information along, generation after generation, possibly for millennia. A 2010 genetic study showed that Bigg's killer whales, which often hunt in the same waters as the southern resident killer whales, have been separate from other killer whale populations for 700,000 years.

Whales have language. And they sing songs. The long and complex songs of humpback whales have fascinated scientists and non-scientists alike for decades, but they're not the only singing whales. Most recently, scientists working near Svalbard in the Arctic catalogued 184 different song types sung by bowhead whales in the icy dark of an arctic winter.

Whales are like us in another important way -- they're mammals and they breathe air. However, over millions of years, their bodies have adapted to life in the water. Their nostrils moved to the tops of their heads and became blowholes that can suck in a lungful of air at the water's surface. The passage leading from their mouths to their lungs -- that's what lets us breathe through our mouths -- closed off so that they could gulp up food under water without drowning.

A Bigg's killer whale, its blowhole clearly visible, swims past
 the shore of Vancouver Island. Alan Daley photo
And they learned to sleep without breathing in water instead of air. A whale or dolphin rests only half its brain at a time. The other half stays slightly awake in order to make sure the animal opens its blowhole to take a breath of air and closes it to keep out water. After the sleeping half of the brain has had a thorough rest, it takes over breathing and swimming duties while the other half sleeps. Scientists call this method cat-napping but whale-napping seems a much better name!

That's just a taste of the amazing things we've learned about whales. If we can avoid harming them further with noise, pollution, fishing gear entanglement, ship strikes, habitat destruction, and all the other dangers we have created for them, we could learn so much more.

5 Apr 2018

Science Humour both profound and practical

There was a new Bloom County comic put out this week on Twitter and Facebook by cartoonist Berkeley Breathe. One of his characters, young Oliver Wendell Jones, is a science fan. The kid makes a nice contrast to the central character of Opus the penguin. This comic managed to have a blend of science humour that was both profound and practical. Inventions are wonderful things! You can check out the image here at this link.

30 Mar 2018

Big Pharma is Not Suppressing the Cure for Cancer

by L. E. Carmichael

Courtesy of Doug Wheller via Flickr Commons
Lately my Facebook feed has filled up with memes and videos about miracle cures for cancer that THEY don't want you to know about. I've avoided commenting on them, because I don't want to offend my friends, but every time I see one of these things, I spontaneously combust.

Look, I get it. I lost my mother to cancer in 2009, two days before her 56th birthday. I have lived the rollercoaster of pain and grief and desperation that cancer causes, and I would have given anything for a miraculous Australian plant to implode her tumours in one tasty and side-effect free treatment. So would she, believe me.

I'm not an oncologist or a cancer researcher, but I am a geneticist. And since cancer is a genetic disease, it got covered at length during my schooling. Which means you can trust me when I say that Big Pharma is not suppressing the cure for cancer. Even leaving aside the logistics of maintaining a conspiracy on that scale, it's just not possible, because there is no single cure for cancer, and there never will be.

Because cancer is complicated.

We call it cancer as though it's a single condition, like Type I diabetes or ALS, but "cancer" is actually an umbrella term for dozens of further categories of disease. They all have one thing in common - the mechanisms that control normal cell division in our bodies (the kind that seals that nasty paper cut) break down. Without those controls in place, the cells just keep on dividing, forming tumours and rampaging through the body. But here's the thing. Although the end result - out of control cell division - is the hallmark of cancer, the pathway by which cells lose control is always different. Always.

That's because the systems that control cell division are encoded in our genes. And the mutations that destroy those systems are accidents. They are random. Mutations can happen in any gene at any time. Acquisition of a collection of mutations that cause the failsafes to break down is completely coincidental.

Which means that every single cancer patient's cancer is unique. And that's why it's so difficult to treat. Cancer doctors and researchers have no choice but to play the odds - to attack the things that different cancers often have in common. But they can't account for the endless variation, no matter how hard they try. And they can't prevent cancer cells from continuing to mutate, becoming resistant to treatment - just like bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.

And that's why there will never be a magic bullet cure for cancer. It's not because cancer researchers aren't motivated - many of them choose to study cancer because they've lost loved ones of their own. And it's certainly not because there's too much money is keeping people sick (which is patently ridiculous - every economist will tell you that sick people cost money). "THE CURE" will never be found because cancer is a moving target, and worse, it's a target that's embedded so deeply within us, it can never be fully eradicated.

So stop with the memes, please. Just stop. And if you want to know more about what cancer medicine is really up against, do yourself a favour - read Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies. It will make you grateful that cancer medicine has come as far as it has.

13 Mar 2018


By Simon Shapiro

Nanotechnology deals with particles ranging in size from 1 to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one millionth of a meter. That's very small: a newspaper page is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Atoms are about .1 to .5 nanometers in diameter, so nanotechnology works at a molecular level.

Materials start behaving differently at nano scale and scientists are learning about this behaviour and finding uses for nano materials. One of the success stories has been graphene and carbon nanotubes.

Image by AlexanderAlUS

 Graphene consists of a lattice of carbon atoms in a hexagonal pattern. It's a sheet of carbon one atom thick. And it's the strongest material ever discovered 200 times stronger than steel, but also very light and flexible.

Carbon Nanotube
By Arnero - Own work, Public Domain
Graphene can be formed into a cylindrical shape, which is call a nanotube. It's light, strong and stiff.

 So what does nanotechnology have to do with tennis? Would you believe tiny tennis players hitting electrons across a 1 nanometer high net? No, me neither.

In the early 1970s an aeronautical engineer by the name of Howard Head, revolutionized tennis by inventing a racket with a much bigger face. It was a huge improvement over existing rackets especially for average players. Head did this by making the frame out of aluminum, instead of wood, which wasn't strong enough for larger rackets. (This was Head's second sports revolution: 25 years earlier he had developed plywood/aluminum/steel/plastic skis which blew away the existing solid hickory ones. You can read about this story in my book Faster, Higher, Smarter.)

Head's idea of a larger racket face is still the dominant design, but technologists have been working away to improve the materials used. And the most advanced rackets today all use graphene sheets or nanotubes to make portions of the racket lighter, stronger and more rigid.

Silica (silicon dioxide) is another nanotechnology material used in tennis rackets. Silica nanoparticles are used to fill the gaps in other materials, for example between nanotubes. The silica adds stability and strength, without adding much weight.

Clay Nanoparticles
Silicon atom at the centre and four
oxygen atoms at the vertices

Still with tennis, balls use clay nanoparticles on the inside membrane. These silicon oxide particles are tetrahedral shaped molecules which form a barrier to gas. No gas leaking out gives the ball a longer life.

Fullerenes (or Buckminsterfullerenes, or just "Buckyballs") are carbon molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms linked into pentagons and hexagons, forming a structure that looks exactly like a soccer ball. It also looks like a geodesic dome. (The American architect, Buckminster Fuller, popularized the geodesic dome, earning him the nano-homage).  While we're on the subject of appropriate names, one of the three Nobel laureates for discovering Fullerenes was Richard Smalley!

Soccer ball 
By Pumbaa80 (Self-published work
by Pumbaa80) via Wikimedia Commons

By Mstroeck at English Wikipedia

Buckyballs are also used in tennis rackets, to make them lighter and more resistant to twisting.

Nanotechnology is used in lots of other sports equipment.
  • Golf clubs: carbon nanotubes are used for strength and lightness. Buckyballs are used for flexibility.
  • Fishing rods: use silica nanoparticles to fill spaces between carbon fibres, strengthening the rod without increasing the weight. 
  • Kayaking: carbon nanotubes are used to enhance resistance to abrasion and cracks; nanoclay is used to reduce weight and resistance, making it easier to paddle.
  • Archery: carbon nanotubes reduce vibration in arrows.
  • Bowling: buckyballs reduce chipping and cracking on bowling balls.
  • Cycling: graphene and carbon nanotubes are used to build very strong and light bicycle frames. 
Nanotechnology is really important in other industries, of course: electronics, pharmaceuticals, textiles, food ... More to come in future blogs.

2 Mar 2018

The Science of Walking and The Art of Problem-Solving

By Larry Verstraete

My wife, Jo, and I are ardent hikers. She more than me, actually. Jo outpaces me on every trail, faithfully charts her steps with her Garmin, and competes with others online. I’m a bit slower, usually a quarter, perhaps a half kilometre behind. I track my steps, too, as well as heart rate and total distance, but I’m more interested in how far I’ve gone.

Recent studies tout the benefits of walking. Moderate walking reduces the odds of heart disease, stroke, insulin dependence and diabetes. It improves mood and sleep, reduces stress and anxiety, boosts energy and increases focus. Walking also changes the brain in remarkable ways.

A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that regular brisk walking increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain region that monitors verbal memory and learning. Stanford researchers, meanwhile, discovered that creativity jumped 60% when subjects walked. Other studies showed that walking for 40 minutes three times a week Increased performance on cognitive tests and reduced declines in brain function as we age. It didn’t matter what kind of walking – whether on a mountain trail or on a treadmill – the benefits were the same.

Many problem solvers incorporate walking into their regimen. Aside from the physical benefits, walking is a way to wipe the slate clean, kick-start creativity, and channel fresh ideas. William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Henry Thoreau were among the many creative types who embraced walking.

“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” Thoreau wrote, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

When I walk, my mind drifts which might explain why I sometimes lose sight of Jo and have taken a wrong turn more than once. While that’s not a good thing, the drifting part can be – at least to a writer like me. While plodding a respectful distance behind Jo, I’ve solved problems and come up with some of my best ideas.

Turns out, I am growing my brain too.  Who knew?

Photos by Larry Verstraete. Brain image from Pixabay.

23 Feb 2018

Colourful Wood: Spalting Fungi

by Jan Thornhill

Chlorociboria produces blue-green fruit bodies.
Chlorociboria produces gorgeous blue-green fruit bodies.
It’s easy to forget while collecting fungi that the ones we find growing on wood and elsewhere are only their fruiting bodies—the actual organism is usually hidden, its mycelium buried deep in wood or soil. But the microscopic mycelium of some wood-loving fungi make it very clear just how large an area they’ve taken over by staining the wood they’ve colonized. This staining, which can sometimes be dark lines, other times extensive areas of colour, is called spalting.

Blue-green wood spalted by the cup fungus Chlorociboria.
Wood stained blue-green by the fungus Chlorociboria.
The fairly common Chlorociboria aeruginascens and its sister C. aeruginosa, which can only be differentiated microscopically, stain the wood they’ve colonized a stunning blue-green with the pigment xylindein. This beautiful blue wood has been used by woodworkers since at least the 15th century, primarily in inlays (see examples here). It’s such a striking colour that studies are underway to find a way to inoculate various forest trees with Chlorociboria to enhance the value of the lumber. I used to be impressed that anyone had ever found a piece of this blue wood in good enough shape to use for anything other than as a conversation piece. Until last year, whenever I found itthe wood was already so decomposed I could easily pull it apart with my fingers.

And then I came across this oak tree that had fallen across a park path:

Ruby & Fritz inspecting spalted log
Though the colour of this Chlorociboria spalted log is a much
darker than usual, the wood is still usable.
And then I discovered a much more uncommon disc fungus that also stains wood.

Patinellaria sanguinea produces tiny black discs and stains wood coral red
Patinellaria sanguinea stains wood coral red. 
I had found a mystery purple crust growing on a branch in the fall. I couldn't get any spores from it to aid identification, so I wet it and put it in a plastic container, hoping that by giving it a little warmth and moisture it might revive and offer me some spores. The only thing that happened was that it started decaying. I was about to relegate the branch to the kindling pile when I noticed that in a couple of places its surface was oddly coloured with reddish-pink spiderwebby fuzz. I assumed this was just an unusual mold, but when I got out my loupe to inspect it I was surprised to see a multitude of minute blackish discs embedded in it. Hmm.

Patinellaria sanguinea under microscope
Amazing colour of "black" Patinellaria sanguinea fruit bodies under the microscope.
When I put a sample under the microscope I immediately saw that the pink fuzz was not a mold, but a hyphal mat, or subiculum, that clearly belonged to the blackish discs. Not only that, but, when sectioned, the “black” discs were actually quite strikingly coloured. There were even some asci and spores.

Wood stained, or spalted, by Patinellaria sanguinea 
None of my books gave me a name, so I got out my knife out and carved a few chunks off the branch to dry for later study. It was only then that I realized my little ascomycete had stained the wood a gorgeous coral red. 

Days passed. I was doing an unrelated image search for another minute black disc, Patellaria atrata, when halfway down the page a picture jumped out at me. It clearly showed exactly what I had accidentally grown—mini blackish discs with a pinkish red subiculum. And they had a name. Panitellaria sanguinea

I have not been able to find out much about this little curiosity, which has also been known as Durella sanguinea and Peziza sanguinea, other than that it’s rare, grows in North America and Europe, and apparently prefers hardwoods. 

A number of common wood-decaying fungi spalt wood with black
lines – barriers that keep other fungi out of their "territory."
Spalted wood created by several different
species, including Chlorociboria.

(N.B. This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog, Weird & Wonderful Wild Mushrooms)

More Info:

Tom Volk’s Chlorociboria page
Panitellaria sanguinea on Mycoquebec
Panitellaria sanguinea on Mycokey
Robinson, S.C., Tudor, D., Snider, H., Cooper, P.A. 2012. Stimulating growth and xylindein production of Chlorociboria aeruginascens in agar-based systems. AMB Express 2(15).
More about spalting: Northern Spalting
George Grant Hedgcock. "Studies Upon Some Chromogenic Fungi which Discolor Wood." St. Louis, 1906

16 Feb 2018

Following in Darwin's wake

Post by Helaine Becker

For those of us who get all fluttery when we hear the words "Voyage of the Beagle," have I got a post for you!

I recently had the splendid opportunity to travel to the "End of the World" Punte Arenas, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina.  Both feature significantly in the history of Charles Darwin's famed journey of discovery.

Ushuaia bills itself as the sourthernmost city in the world. It is also the departure point for boat trips in the Beagle Channel, which was indeed named for that Beagle.

Here's what Darwin himself had to say about the Beagle Channel:

"As we proceeded along the Beagle Channel, the scenery assumed a peculiar and very magnificent character[…] The mountains were here about three thousand feet high, and terminated in sharp and jagged points. They rose in one unbroken sweep from the water’s edge, and were covered to the height of fourteen or fifteen hundred feet by the dusky-coloured forest."

The channel is just as stunning today, as well as alive with sea lions, cormorants, albatross and penguins (the subject of a future post).

But the real thrill for Darwin fans was at Punte Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile. It lies on the Magellan Strait, through which Magellan travelled on his 'revolutionary' voyage around the world, and which, yes, the Beagle travelled. 

Here's what Darwin had to say in The Voyage of the Beagle:

"June 1st.—We anchored in the fine bay of Port Famine. It was now the beginning of winter, and I never saw a more cheerless prospect; the dusky woods, piebald with snow, could be only seen indistinctly through a drizzling hazy atmosphere. We were, however, lucky in getting two fine days. On one of these, Mount Sarmiento, a distant mountain 6800 feet high, presented a very noble spectacle. I was frequently surprised, in the scenery of Tierra del Fuego, at the little apparent elevation of mountains really lofty. I suspect it is owing to a cause which would not at first be imagined, namely, that the whole mass, from the summit to the water's edge, is generally in full view. "

Where the Beagle anchored in the Magellan Strait.

Darwin then went on to describe  what he saw in the extremes of Patagonia:

"When the Beagle was here in the month of February, I started one morning at four o'clock to ascend Mount Tarn, which is 2600 feet high, and is the most elevated point in this immediate district. We went in a boat to the foot of the mountain (but unluckily not to the best part), and then began our ascent. The forest commences at the line of high-water mark, and during the first two hours I gave over all hopes of reaching the summit. So thick was the wood, that it was necessary to have constant recourse to the compass; for every landmark, though in a mountainous country, was completely shut out. In the deep ravines, the death-like scene of desolation exceeded all description; outside it was blowing a gale, but in these hollows, not even a breath of wind stirred the leaves of the tallest trees. So gloomy, cold, and wet was every part, that not even the fungi, mosses, or ferns could flourish. In the valleys it was scarcely possible to crawl along, they were so completely barricaded by great mouldering trunks, which had fallen down in every direction. When passing over these natural bridges, one's course was often arrested by sinking knee deep into the rotten wood; at other times, when attempting to lean against a firm tree, one was startled by finding a mass of decayed matter ready to fall at the slightest touch. 

We at last found ourselves among the stunted trees, and then soon reached the bare ridge, which conducted us to the summit. Here was a view characteristic of Tierra del Fuego; irregular chains of hills, mottled with patches of snow, deep yellowish-green valleys, and arms of the sea intersecting the land in many directions. The strong wind was piercingly cold, and the atmosphere rather hazy, so that we did not stay long on the top of the mountain. Our descent was not quite so laborious as our ascent; for the weight of the body forced a passage, and all the slips and falls were in the right direction.

I have already mentioned the sombre and dull character of the evergreen forests, in which two or three species of trees grow, to the exclusion of all others. Above the forest land, there are many dwarf alpine plants, which all spring from the mass of peat, and help to compose it: these plants are very remarkable from their close alliance with the species growing on the mountains of Europe, though so many thousand miles distant. The central part of Tierra del Fuego, where the clay-slate formation occurs, is most favourable to the growth of trees; on the outer coast the poorer granitic soil, and a situation more exposed to the violent winds, do not allow of their attaining any great size. Near Port Famine I have seen more large trees than anywhere else: I measured a Winter's Bark which was four feet six inches in girth, and several of the beech were as much as thirteen feet. Captain King also mentions a beech which was seven feet in diameter seventeen feet above the roots."

The Fort at which everyone died, giving the name to "Port Famine" visible in the background.
The terrain Darwin described is exactly the same today, including the "globular bright-yellow fungus, which grows in vast numbers on the beech-trees. When young it is elastic and turgid, with a smooth surface; but when mature, it shrinks, becomes tougher, and has its entire surface deeply pitted or honey-combed.In Tierra del Fuego the fungus in its tough and mature state is collected in large quantities by the women and children, and is eaten uncooked. It has a mucilaginous, slightly sweet taste, with a faint smell like that of a mushroom. With the exception of a few berries, chiefly of a dwarf arbutus, the natives eat no vegetable food besides this fungus."

The fungus was very much in evidence during our trip, and just as it was in Darwin's day, is eaten by the locals. I was told that it is called "Indian bread" and when sliced thin, is a grand addition to a salad. The berries, known as Califate, were also ubiquitous. Today they are eaten like blueberries or saskatoon berries, and are used to make an exceptional delicious version of a Pisco Sour. A town in Argentina is even named after them.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the adventure was visiting the reconstructed Beagle that is one of the main features of another Punte Arenas museum.

Detailed life size reconstruction of the HMS Beagle
You can easily imagine yourself doing exactly what Charles Darwin did for those long, long months, including visiting the toilet!

I really loved the discovery that the HMS Beagle had a figurehead that was an actual carved Beagle. The photos below shows the figurehead, one from the reconstruction, the other from a smaller model.

9 Feb 2018

Nature's Black Boxes

By Claire Eamer

Whenever an airplane crashes, you hear about investigators retrieving the plane's black box. It's a device that records essential information about the plane's operation, and it can help investigators reconstruct what happened to bring the plane down.

Tree rings show a tree's history. Claire Eamer photo
Well, there are black boxes in nature too -- lots of them. And they are important tools for scientists who are trying to figure out how Earth's climate changes and what impact those changes have had on the organisms that live on the planet. They're called climate proxies -- essentially indirect clues that let us deduce what past climates were like.

One of the best known black boxes is tree rings. Each year, a tree puts on a ring of new growth. In a good year, the growth ring will be wider, in a bad year, narrower. The science of studying what tree rings can tell us is called dendrochronology, and it has provided a huge amount of information about both natural and human history.

Trees aren't the only organisms that save information in rings. So do fish -- but their growth rings are in their ears. Tiny, disc-shaped bones in fishes' ears -- called otoliths or ear stones[PDF] -- add a ring of growth for every year of a fish's life. As with tree rings, the otolith rings vary, depending on the conditions the fish encountered that year. Even the chemistry of the annual rings changes, so they can hold information about the water the fish traveled through.

The annuli are visible as ridges on this ram's horns.
Pixabay photo
Mountain sheep have a slightly different kind of black box. The rams' horns grow longer and thicker each year, and the ridges that mark each year's growth are called annuli. Like tree rings and otolith rings, the annuli are larger or smaller depending on the conditions the animal experienced that year. In the Yukon, a long-term study of the horns of thinhorn sheep [PDF] revealed a climate fluctuation that repeats every 10 or 11 years and affects the larger ecosystem in which they live.

The biggest natural black box of all is Earth's ice. The great icefields in places like Greenland and Antarctica have been frozen for hundreds of thousands of years -- or even longer. But that ice didn't arrive all at once. It built up year by year with layers of snow that fell and then were compressed into ice by the layers that followed. Digging straight down into a massive icefield is like digging into the past.

Greenland glaciers like this one contain ice more than 100,000 years old.
Pixabay photo.

And that's what icefield scientists do. They drill into glaciers and icefields and extract long cores of ice. Then they analyze the thin layers, examining the chemistry of the water and bubbles of trapped air, the dust and pollen that settled on the glacier's surface, and anything else that might be frozen in the ice. The oldest ice found so far came from Antarctica and is an amazing 2.7 million years old. Ice cores are among the most powerful climate proxies we have, and much of our knowledge of very ancient climates comes from them.

For more information about dendrochronology, explore the EnvironmentalScience.org website.

For some of the things we can learn from fish otoliths, watch the short video on this page.

For a detailed explanation of ice core science, browse through Ice Core Basics.

And for more on climate proxies, try this NOAA site or this page on Palaeoclimatology.

2 Feb 2018

Exploring Haida Gwaii

Sci/Why's peripatetic correspondent Margriet Ruurs sends us another report from a fascinating part of the world - this time from Haida Gwaii, on the western edge of Canada. -CE

By Margriet Ruurs

Haida Gwaii – the very name conjures up images of windblown spruce clinging to rocks surrounded by foamy waves, not unlike an Emily Carr painting. The archipelago stretches along the northern BC coast almost to Alaska. You can reach it by ferry from Prince Rupert or fly in from Vancouver.

We flew into Sandspit, a tiny town on the northeast shore of huge Moresby Island. We wanted to visit the very southern tip, which is in a National Park called Gwaii Haanas. Basically, the only way to reach this remote region is by a Zodiac (inflatable boat) tour offered by a local wilderness company called Moresby Explorers. We studied our options, counted our coins and decided to splurge on a four-day trip with a photography theme.

Bryan, our guide and skipper, picked us up and also five other guests with whom we would spend the next four days on a Zodiac. We drove from Sandspit across a ridge of Moresby Island, on dirt logging roads, to Moresby Landing where we were outfitted with bibbed rain pants, large rain jackets and gumboots. We’d live in these for the next few days. We wore undershirts, a sweater, a fleece jacket topped by our own rain jackets and then the provided rain gear over top. This meant we could only wobble like astronauts in space suits.

Of course we had prepared ourselves for four days of driving rain, grey skies and grey waves. Fortunately, we were lucky and only ended up with a half day of rain and three-and-a-half days of blue sky and sun and/or cloudy but dry weather. Considering that Gwaii Haanas averages rain for about 230 days a year, we were lucky.

We had not even left the Landing when I spotted the first black bear browsing on the intertidal beach. The island’s bears have evolved to have much longer snouts than the mountain bears we are used to seeing on the mainland. Like the Galapagos, even the same species of animals have made adaptations to different local environments resulting in, among others, a different subspecies of stickleback fish in every lake. At least 39 distinct subspecies of plants and animals evolved in the archipelago, including seven mammals, three birds and fifteen species of the stickleback fish that are found nowhere else in the world.

We cruised across inlets and around Louise Island to spend the first night at Moresby Float Camp, a guest house anchored in a secluded fjord. The blue skies reflected in mirror-calm green waters. We docked and were welcomed by two young women who cooked for us, offering us tasty appetizers, tea, coffee and hot chocolate. They even had a fireplace, giving us much needed warmth to warm our chilled hands and feet. After a great dinner of bbq salmon, salad, veggies and rice we fell asleep in no time.

The next morning we bundled up again. This became a ritual: two or three layers of warm clothes, thick socks and gloves. Then our own outer gear, the provided rain pants tucked into the gumboots and the rainjacket over top of everything else. By the time you can’t bend down anymore, you still have to manoeuvre into a lifejacket and into the waiting Zodiac. We’d pull a warm hat and scarf over nose, mouth and face and then we were ready to zoom across Hecate Strait to our next destination.

On our way by Zodiac to the most southern tip of Gwaii Haanas, we visited ancient village sites and remnants of totem poles in several locations: Skedans, Tanu, S’qang Gwaii, Rose Harbour and more. Each site has its own intrigue and charm. Skedans is a village site with house remnants and totem poles, but not as many as in the most southern tip S’qang Gwaii. Here, a mystical and misty atmosphere enhances the site where old spirits dwell and history is tangible. The bleached and weathered totems lean against moss covered house beams. The beach still tells stories of canoe runs between rocks, where the “Vikings of the Pacific” showed their power by rowing their long boats far east, north and south, taking slaves as they encountered other nations.

I was intrigued to learn that a Haida Chief could marry a slave woman, thus making the former slave the most powerful matriarch of the clan. In this matriarchal society, men do as the leading woman dictates and children are part of their mother’s lineage.

I also learned about different totem poles: the shortest one were usually house poles, depicting the family’s clan and history. Tall plain poles with rings are potlatch poles, showing how many potlatches, or celebrations, have been held. Some poles are a memorial for a particular person, sharing his life story, while yet others have a hollowed-out square opening at the top housing a bentwood box of bones: a burial pole. Their silent stories are impressive and pay tribute to a society that lived here long before “contact” – as the period after the arrival of European explorers’ ships is called.

Houses were large, sometimes dug down to allow more space. Immense ceiling beams were held up by corner posts and closed by cedar walls. Now, all that remains is rounded beams covered in soft green moss, often with a new cedar tree growing on each corner as the trees reseeded. Slowly and silently, history is swallowed up by the rainforest. The Haida people have chosen to let their history return to the earth, as it always has, rather than have Parks Canada follow their usual mandate of preserving history.

We were most impressed by the Watchmen. This ancient term refers to Haida who spend the summer in each historic location. They are provided with a small house with a wood stove and basic comforts. Here they work for the summer, hosting visitors. They are extremely well spoken, gracious hosts with a wealth of knowledge about their people. Each host told us amazing stories. Haida Gwaii is made up of stories and the oral history seems alive and well. We heard stories of how people first came to populate the earth when Raven found a clamshell full of little people on Rose Spit. He pried open the shell and the people spilled out. Raven also brought light to the world.

Bear married a woman who gave birth to bear cubs, and in return he gave hunting powers to humans. There are many tales of supernatural beings in this land. Mostly, these are people wearing animal cloaks. Eagle, Raven, Whale, Bear – they all have specific powers and fascinating stories. Haida also strongly believe in reincarnation.

One of the men who told stories, told us of the impressive oral history. “When I was about 10 years old,” he said, “my uncle called me into his house and told me a two-hour story. The next night I had to come back and tell the story back to him without embellishing, best as I could.”

This repeated night after night until he had memorized much of his own history. The tradition continues today as he tells his daughter the ancient tales and makes her tell them back to him.

We learned to chew spruce tips and licorice root. Even ate herring roe on kelp. We saw many, many eagles. A few glimpses of whales as well as two bears.

One overnight was spent in Rose Harbour, an old whaling station. Much debris, buildings and rusty tools remind one of an era when people caught and processed whales for oil. I found it a sad place to be. The lone woman who lives here offers a guest house and meals to Moresby Explorers. We ate greens from her immense garden and freshly caught ling cod. In the morning she ground grains on her converted exercise bike to make us pancakes with rhubarb sauce from the garden. An outhouse and wood-heated shower made it into a rustic adventure.

All photos by Margriet and Kees Ruurs.