Low height off the ground and innate agility

Thursday, October 6th, 2022

I was pretty sure that corgis weren’t bred simply to look ridiculous, but I didn’t know exactly what they were bred for:

Welsh Corgis were cattle herding dogs; the type of herding dog referred to as “heelers”, meaning that they would nip at the heels of the larger animals to keep them on the move. The combination of their low height off the ground and the innate agility of Welsh Corgis would allow them to avoid the hooves of cattle.

I love the notion of being too short to kick.

I remember being amused years ago when I learned that the similarly short-legged dachshund was a fierce badger-hound:

The standard-sized dachshund was developed to scent, chase, and flush out badgers and other burrow-dwelling animals. The miniature dachshund was bred to hunt small animals such as rabbits.

World’s first cloned arctic wolf is now 100 days old

Friday, September 30th, 2022

Chinese researchers have created the world’s first cloned arctic wolf, and it is now 100 days old:

Scottish scientists proved back in 1996 that it was possible to clone a mammal using a cell from an adult animal. Possible — but not easy. Dolly the sheep was the only successful clone in their 277 attempts.

Maya is the world’s first cloned arctic wolf

Cloning is still a challenging process — fewer than 25 animal species have been cloned to date, so the first successful cloning of a species is still newsworthy 25+ years after Dolly’s birth.

The journey to creating the first cloned Arctic wolf began in 2020, when researchers at Sinogene Biotechnology, a Beijing-based biotech, teamed up with the polar theme park Harbin Polarland.

Using skin cells donated by Maya, an arctic wolf housed at Harbin Polarland, Sinogene created 137 embryos using female dogs’ eggs. They then transferred 85 of the embryos into 7 beagle surrogates.

In July 2022, one of those beagles gave birth to a healthy cloned Arctic wolf, also named Maya.

Orcas attack boats off coast of Spain and Portugal

Sunday, August 28th, 2022

There is no record of an orca killing a human in the wild, but orcas are now attacking boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal:

Still, two boats were reportedly sunk by orcas off the coast of Portugal last month, in the worst such encounter since authorities have tracked them.

The incident involving the Storksons is an outlier, says Renaud de Stephanis, president and coordinator at CIRCE Conservación Information and Research, a cetacean research group based in Spain. It was farther north — nowhere near the Strait of Gibraltar, nor the coast of Portugal or Spain, where other such reports have originated.

That is a conundrum. Up to now, scientists have assumed that only a few animals are involved in these encounters and that they are all from the same pod, de Stephanis says.

[…]

Scientists hypothesize that orcas like the water pressure produced by a boat’s propeller. “What we think is that they’re asking to have the propeller in the face,” de Stephanis says. So, when they encounter a sailboat that isn’t running its engine, “they get kind of frustrated and that’s why they break the rudder.”

[…]

The population of orcas along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts is quite small. Scientists believe that the damage to boats is being done by just a few juvenile males, says Jared Towers, the director of Bay Cetology, a research organization in British Columbia.

[…]

Towers points out that such “games” tend to go in and out of fashion in orca society. For example, right now in a population he studies in the Pacific, “we have juvenile males who … often interact with prawn and crab traps,” he says. “That’s just been a fad for a few years.”

Back in the 1990s, for some orcas in the Pacific, something else was in vogue. “They’d kill fish and just swim around with this fish on their head,” Towers says. “We just don’t see that anymore.”

Zombie fly fungus lures healthy male flies to mate with female corpses

Thursday, August 25th, 2022

Entomophthora muscae is a widespread, pathogenic fungus that survives by infecting common houseflies with its deadly spores — and that’s when things really start to swing:

After having infected a female fly with its spores, the fungus spreads until its host has slowly been consumed alive from within. After roughly six days, the fungus takes over the behavior of the female fly and forces it to the highest point, whether upon vegetation or a wall, where the fly then dies. When the fungus has killed the zombie female, it begins to release chemical signals known as sesquiterpenes.

“The chemical signals act as pheromones that bewitch male flies and cause an incredible urge for them to mate with lifeless female carcasses,” explains Henrik H. De Fine Licht, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Environment and Plant Sciences and one of the study’s authors.

As male flies copulate with dead females, the fungal spores are showered onto the males, who then suffer the same gruesome fate.

It is descended from bipedal dinosaurs

Sunday, August 21st, 2022

Ostriches, unlike humans, can run very fast on two legs:

Their legs are all bone and tendon. They don’t have any muscles in their legs or feet. All the muscles are up in the body. It allows their legs to go faster — ostriches can run 45 miles an hour.

A human foot has 26 individual bones in it. And you have two feet, so you have 52 foot bones. That means a quarter of your skeleton is made of foot bones. Tons and tons of foot bones.

[...]

We are primates, and primates live in trees. And in trees, you need a mobile foot. Think about an orangutan’s foot, a chimpanzee’s foot. They can use their foot in the same way that I use my hand to grab onto things.

The bones that we have in our foot are the exact same 26 bones that a chimpanzee has. They’re just tweaked a little bit, and that converts our foot from a grasping organ, like a chimpanzee’s, into one that can push off the ground. But we still have those 26 individual bones. And what are the results? Well, you get plantar fasciitis, you get an ankle sprain.

[...]

Think about the ostrich lineage. It doesn’t come from an ape or a primate. It is descended from bipedal dinosaurs. The bones of their ancestors’ feet have fused together into a single, rigid column. They only have eight bones in their feet, so there’s less capacity for motion. Instead, their foot looks a lot like the Paralympic prosthetic blade that athletes use with that single rigid structure that can hit the ground, store elastic energy and then push off the ground and propel them into their next step.

California condors can reproduce without mating

Friday, June 24th, 2022

California condors, a critically endangered species, can reproduce without mating, according to a study by conservation scientists at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance:

During a routine analysis of biological samples from the California condors in the zoo’s breeding programme, the scientists found that two condor chicks had hatched from unfertilized eggs.

[…]

Scientists confirmed that each condor chick was genetically related to its mother but neither bird was genetically related to a male.

The two birds represent the first two instances of asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis, to be confirmed in the California condor species, the zoo said.

“This is a very rare discovery because it’s not well-known in birds in general. So it’s known in other species, in reptiles and in fish, but in birds it’s very rare, in particular in wild species,” Dr Steiner said.

Dr Steiner said the discovery was particularly surprising, because both female birds were continuously housed with fertile male partners and had already produced chicks while paired with a male.

Asexual reproduction has never before been confirmed in any avian species where the female bird had access to a mate.

[…]

Both chicks were underweight when they hatched, Dr Steiner said.

One was released into the wild and died at the age of two in 2003, while the other survived for eight years in captivity and died in 2017.

When fed plasmalogens, aged mice perform more like young mice

Wednesday, May 25th, 2022

Researchers from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Stanford University, Shanghai Jiao tong University, and the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences report that plasmologens (found in sea squirts) reverse some signs of aging — in mice:

The effects of the plasmalogen supplement on learning and memory were tested by training mice to use a Morris water maze — a pool of water that contains a platform that serves as a resting area. Generally, mice do not like to swim, so over five days of training, they remember where the platform is and swim directly to it as soon as they are in the pool. However, older mice take longer to find the platform after the same amount of training.

Astonishingly, when fed with plasmalogens, aged mice perform more like young mice, finding the platform much quicker than the control group of aged mice that have not been given the supplement.

To find the reason for the improvement shown by plasmalogen-fed mice, the researchers took a closer look at changes happening within the brain. They found that mice that were fed the plasmalogen supplement had a higher number and quality of synapses—the connections between neurons—than the aged mice not given the supplements.

Why horses explode if you look at them funny

Wednesday, December 29th, 2021

“Why are cows so damn indestructible,” someone asks, “while horses keel over and die if mercury is in retrograde or a dog barked in Kazakhstan?” Gallus Rostromegalus explains — with a fair bit of strong language — Why Horses Explode If You Look At Them Funny, As Explained To Me By My Aunt That Raises Horses After Her Third Glass Of Wine:

When a horse runs at full gallop, it sort of… stops actively breathing, letting the slosh of it’s guts move its lungs, which is tremendously calorically efficient and means their breathing doesn’t fall out of sync. But it also means that the abdominal lining of a horse is weirdly flexible in ways that lead to way more hernias and intestinal tangling than other ungulates. It also has a relatively weak diaphragm for something it’s size, so ANY kind of respiratory infection is a Major Fucking Problem because the horse has weak lungs.

When a Horse runs Real Fucking Fast, it also develops a bit of a fluid dynamics problem- most mammals have the blood going out of their heart real fast and coming back from the far reaches of the toes much slower and it’s structure reflects that. But since there is Only The One Toe, horse blood comes flying back up the veins toward the heart way the fuck faster than veins are meant to handle, which means horses had to evolve special veins that constrict to slow the Blood Down, which you will recognize as a Major Cardiovascular Disease in most mammals. This Poorly-regulated blood speed problems means horses are prone to heart problems, burst veins, embolisms, and hemophilia. Also they have apparently a billion blood types and I’m not sure how that’s related but I am sure that’s another Hot Mess they have to deal with.

ALSO, the Blood-Going-Too-Fast issue and being Just Huge Motherfuckers means horses have trouble distributing oxygen properly, and have compensated by creating fucked up bones that replicate the way birds store air in thier bones but much, much shittier. So if a horse breaks it’s leg, not only is it suffering a Major Structural Issue (also also- breaking a toe is much more serious when that toe is YOUR WHOLE DAMN FOOT AND HALF YOUR LEG), it’s also having a hemorrhage and might be sort of suffocating a little.

ALSO ALSO, the fast that horses had to deal with Extremely Fast Predators for most of their evolution means that they are now afflicted with evolutionarily-adaptive Anxiety, which is not great for their already barely-functioning hearts, and makes them, frankly, fucking mental. Part of the reason horses are so aggro is that if denied the opportunity to ZOOM, it’s options left are “Kill everyone and Then Yourself” or “The same but skip step one and Just Fucking Die”.

When Hans G. Schantz shared this, I immediately thought of Ferdinand Porsche’s point about cars, rather than horses: “The perfect racing car crosses the finish line first and subsequently falls into its component parts.”

The travelling whale that reached the Pacific

Monday, July 26th, 2021

An ancient four-legged whale with hooves has been discovered:

The giant 42.6m-year-old fossil, discovered in marine sediments along the coast of Peru, appears to have been adapted for a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Its hoofed feet and the shape of its legs suggest it would have been capable of bearing the weight of its bulky four metre long body and walking on land. Other anatomical features, including a powerful tail and webbed feet similar to an otter suggest it was also a strong swimmer.

[…]

Previously, far older whale ancestors dating to about 53m years ago have been discovered in India and Pakistan. Until now scientists have disputed when and how whales first dispersed to the Americas and beyond.

The Peruvian fossil suggests the first whales would have crossed the South Atlantic, helped by westward surface currents and the fact that, at the time, the distance between the two continents was half what it is today.

The last few tail vertebrae are missing and so it is not clear if the creature’s tail would have featured the large paddle, known as a fluke, that allows some modern whales to power themselves along at speeds of more than 30mph (48 km/h). But it must have been an accomplished swimmer to have survived for days or even weeks at sea.

The fossil was excavated in 2011 by an international team, including members from Peru, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium. It has since been named Peregocetus pacificus, meaning “the travelling whale that reached the Pacific”.

The world’s first successfully cloned Black-footed ferret has been born

Friday, February 19th, 2021

The world’s first successfully cloned Black-footed ferret has been born, marking the first time a U.S. endangered species has been cloned:

“Elizabeth Ann” was born on December 10, 2020, and is the clone of “Willa,” a wild-caught Black-footed ferret whose cell line was cryopreserved in 1988. A genomic study led, funded, and developed by Revive & Restore in 2014 helped determine that Willa’s genome possessed nearly three times more genetic diversity than the current Black-footed ferret population. This means that her clone Elizabeth Ann is now the most genetically valuable Black-footed ferret alive. This birth is the result of a long-standing genetic rescue effort for the Black-footed ferret species, the goal of which is to increase the genetic diversity and fitness of one of America’s most endangered species to help ensure its full recovery in the wild.

Mighty Mice in Space

Friday, September 18th, 2020

A research team led by Dr. Se-Jin Lee of the Jackson Laboratory in Connecticut sent 40 young female black mice to the International Space Station in December, to study muscle loss:

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lee said the 24 regular untreated mice lost considerable muscle and bone mass in weightlessness as expected — up to 18%. But the eight genetically engineered “mighty mice” launched with double the muscle maintained their bulk. Their muscles appeared to be comparable to similar “mighty mice” that stayed behind at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The PNAS abstract explains:

Among the physiological consequences of extended spaceflight are loss of skeletal muscle and bone mass. One signaling pathway that plays an important role in maintaining muscle and bone homeostasis is that regulated by the secreted signaling proteins, myostatin (MSTN) and activin A.

Here, we used both genetic and pharmacological approaches to investigate the effect of targeting MSTN/activin A signaling in mice that were sent to the International Space Station.

Wild type mice lost significant muscle and bone mass during the 33 d spent in microgravity. Muscle weights of Mstn -/- mice, which are about twice those of wild type mice, were largely maintained during spaceflight.

Systemic inhibition of MSTN/activin A signaling using a soluble form of the activin type IIB receptor (ACVR2B), which can bind each of these ligands, led to dramatic increases in both muscle and bone mass, with effects being comparable in ground and flight mice.

It’s not just mice who have muscle-building myostatin-related mutations, but Belgian Blue cattle, Flex Wheeler, a German toddler, a Michigan toddler, and “bully” whippets.

Wild bison to return to UK for first time in 6,000 years

Monday, August 3rd, 2020

Wild bison to return to UK for first time in 6,000 years , with the release of a small herd in Kent planned for spring 2022:

The £1m project to reintroduce the animals will help secure the future of an endangered species. But they will also naturally regenerate a former pine wood plantation by killing off trees. This creates a healthy mix of woodland, scrub and glades, boosting insect, bird and plant life.

During the initial release, one male and three females will be set free. Natural breeding will increase the size of the herd, with one calf per year the norm for each female. The bison will come from the Netherlands or Poland, where releases have been successful and safe.

[...]

Bison kill selected trees by eating their bark or rubbing against them to remove their thick winter fur. This creates a feast of dead wood for insects, which provide food for birds. Tree felling also creates sunny clearings where native plants can thrive. The trust expects nightingales and turtle doves to be among the beneficiaries of the bison’s “ecosystem engineering”.

The steppe bison is thought to have roamed the UK until about 6,000 years ago, when hunting and changes in habitat led to its global extinction. The European bison that will be released in Kent is a descendant of this species and its closest living relative.

The European bison is the continent’s largest land mammal and bulls can weigh as much as a tonne.

Rodents rely on restaurants for food

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning that rodents are becoming increasingly aggressive as they scavenge for food:

In an advisory posted to its website, the health agency noted that rodents rely on food and waste generated at commercial establishments such as restaurants. Closures and limits on service have caused rodents to search for new sources of food and to exhibit more erratic behavior.

They have been forced to watch in frustration as the insects devoured their farms and gardens

Friday, May 1st, 2020

This has been quite a year. Now Africa is expecting a record wave of locusts:

First came the floods. The waters swamped bean and corn fields and created a breeding ground for a swarm of desert locusts the size of Manhattan that fanned out and destroyed a swath of farmland across eight East African nations as large as Oklahoma earlier this year.

Now their offspring are threatening a historic infestation—a second wave of locusts, 20 times as large as the first, that the U.N. warns could chew their way through 2 million square miles of pastureland, farms and gardens, around half the size of Western Europe.

The swarms, which would be by far the largest on record, are expected to descend as the new coronavirus accelerates across East Africa, raising the prospect of a double-shock to some of the world’s poorest and most heavily-indebted economies.

[...]

Compounding the problem, Gen. Kavuma’s unit also spends much of its time on the lookout for people violating stay-at-home orders as Ugandan authorities attempt to halt the spread of the transmission of the coronavirus. Uganda’s lockdown is one of the world’s strictest. During the previous infestation, farmers banged drums, whistled and threw stones to protect their crops. But in recent days they have been forced to watch in frustration as the insects devoured their farms and gardens, trapped inside by fear of the virus and the security forces enforcing the lockdown.

Farmers are trapped inside?

Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover charts the ecology and spread of “zoonoses,” diseases transmitted between animals and humans, and makes these four points:

Prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best.

Zoonotic spillovers will keep coming, as long as we drag wild animals to us and split them open.

A tropical forest, with its vast diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.

Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone.