Friday Coffee Break

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.


From Noah:

A clever green heron uses bread as a tool to catch fish (video)

Such lovely birds.  But the most amazing thing is that they use tools.  Some of them fish with bait, putting a piece of food or an object in the water and then snatching the fish that are attracted to it.”

From Sarah:

Keeping an eye on the storm

And a beautiful distraction to think about other watery things

From CJ:

Awesome pictures of moths that are taking the interwebs by storm!:

The photo of the Venezuelan Poodle Moth–someone likened it to a Pokemon character–had been in mothballs since 2009 until someone plucked it out of Anker’s Flickr account and posted the funny-looking insect online within the past week or so. Not surprisingly, it subsequently took off in cyberspace.

The beef I have with The Paleo Diet

I’ve heard a lot about “The Paleo Diet” lately and every time a popular news source (say NPR or ABC or Fox News or New York Times) does a piece, I cringe a little bit. For those of you who have never heard of the Paleo Diet (from Wikipedia):

The paleolithic diet…is a modern nutritional plan based on the presumed ancient diet of wild plants and animals that various hominid species habitually consumed during the Paleolithic era—a period of about 2.5 million years duration that ended around 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture.

So that’s the basic idea – people restricting their diet to things that we ate before modern agriculture. I don’t really have a problem with the diet, per se – removing highly processed foods and increasing your activity level is a good idea for almost anyone. But the rationale that always accompanies the diet – that’s where the cringe comes in.
The rationale goes like this (again from Wikipedia):

Paleolithic nutrition is based on the premise that modern humans are genetically adapted to the diet of their Paleolithic ancestors and that human genetics have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture, and therefore that an ideal diet for human health and well-being is one that resembles this ancestral diet.

I can break this rationale down into three assumptions/statements:
1. Evolution acts to optimize health.
2. Evolution adapted us to eat a specific diet.
3. Therefore, today, we should eat that diet to optimize our health.

As an evolutionary biologist, I think there are logical and scientific flaws to each of these statements.

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A post about lizards on islands. But not the ones you’re probably thinking of.

Yemen Socotra Felletti 48_00

Socotran Adenium obesum

Evolutionary biologists are fascinated by islands. There are a number of reasons for this. Islands systems can act as natural evolutionary experiments. They are small, less biodiverse, and isolated, so their biota can often be treated as simplified models of more complex mainland ecosystems (e.g. Darwin’s finches on the island Daphne Major). Ecologically similar islands can also act as replicates, with related taxa playing out the same evolutionary scenarios over and over again in isolation (e.g. Caribbean Anolis). Or they can act as life preservers, providing isolated strongholds for ancient evolutionary lineages that have long been extinct in the rest of the world (e.g. the Tuatara of New Zealand).

The Socotra archipelago is a particularly interesting, but poorly studied island system. Socotra consists of four islands in the Indian Ocean. It is extremely isolated (150 miles from the horn of Africa, 240 miles from the Arabian Peninsula) yet it has a continental origin. That means it was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana and suggests that some species may have lived there since it first became an island (~17.6 million years ago). Socotra has a very high level of endemism, with 37% of its plant species and 90% of its reptiles occurring nowhere else. As the islands are very remote and in a politically unstable part of the world, most of this unique biodiversity has not been studied using modern techniques. The islands are rugged and mountainous, reaching 1500m elevation, and primarily classified as tropical desert, making for a fairly fantastical landscape. A recent paper by Goméz-Diaz et al. (2012) takes a broad-brush approach to characterizing a chunk of Socotra’s obscure diversity: the Hemidactylus geckos.

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Friday Coffee Break

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From Noah:

Scary new unclassified spider discovered:

it’s a large spider that is so unique scientists were forced to create a new taxonomic family for it. This is the first new spider family to be discovered in North America in over 130 years.

From Sarah:

Aphids that can photosynthesize:

Although unprecedented in animals, this capability is common in other kingdoms. Plants and algae, as well as certain fungi and bacteria, also synthesize carotenoids, and in all of these organisms the pigments form part of the photosynthetic machinery.

From CJ:

A phylogeny of Dragons:

The Dragon Phylogeny is an effort to map hypothetical evolutionary relationships among dragons. It’s true that these are mythical creatures, but the detail of their portrayal in historical art and literature makes them amenable to scientific analyses based on morphological variation.

From Devin:

A scientific look at beer making:

While brewers like to think of themselves and the craft beer-makers, the original brewmasters have been practicing the art for over 200 million years!

From Jeremy:

A rat incapable of gnawing or chewing:

on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, Jacob Esselstyn has discovered a new species of rodent that radically departs from this universal body plan: a “shrew-rat” that he calls Paucidentomys vermidax.Its name –a mash-up of Latin and Greek—gives a clue to its lifestyle. It means “worm-devouring, few-toothed mouse

Friday Coffee Break

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From Noah:

A new species of Florid flies that like to munch on frog eggs:

Further investigation showed that maggots of a small fly were eating the eggs. He reared some adults, sent them to me, and they turned out to be a new species that we named Megaselia randi.”

From Sarah:

Scientist are number 1!: at coffee consumption

And a the largest python found yet in Florida!

She was a bit more than twice the height of many bedroom ceilings.”

From Jeremy:

A new seo company that will replicate your research at 10% the original cost:

Here’s how it is supposed to work. Let’s say you have found a drug that shrinks tumors. You write up your results, which are sexy enough to get into Nature or some other big-name journal. You also send the Reproducibility Initiative the details of your experiment and request that someone reproduce it. A board of advisers matches you up with a company with the experience and technology to do the job. You pay them to do the job—Iorns estimates the bill for replication will be about 10 percent of the original research costs—and they report back whether they got the same results.

From CJ:

Oil company Enbridge removes island from public map to fool the public into thinking there’s little danger in building their latest pipeline:

The slick route animation and map in the route safety video both show the Douglas Channel without the maze of islands that oil tankers as long as the Eiffel Tower will have to weave through.”

Friday Coffe Break

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From Jeremy: Fundamentalist Christians take issue with set theory? A response

““Unlike the “modern math” theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute…. A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory.” — ABeka.com

Wait? What?”

From Sarah: A new species of humans!

The research adds to a growing body of evidence that runs counter to the popular perception that there was a linear evolution from early primates to modern humans.”

From Noah: The life and times of the Couch’s spadefoot toad in Arizona:

For a couple of hours the sound of rushing water swallowed everything else. But as soon as that calmed down, a faint bleating like from a herd of sheep lost in the dark could be heard. The mating concert of Couch’s Spadefoots.

Is corn the new milk? Evolutionarily speaking, that is.

Cross-posted from Denim and Tweed.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt is a widespread misconception that, as we developed the technology to reshape our environment to our preferences, human beings neutralized the power of natural selection. Quite the opposite is true: some of the best-known examples of recent evolutionary change in humans are attributable to technology. People who colonized high-altitude environments were selected for tolerance of low-oxygen conditions in the high Himalayas and Andes; populations that have historically raised cattle for milk evolved the ability to digest milk sugars as adults.

A recent study of population genetics in Native American groups suggests that another example is ripening in the experimental fields just a few blocks away from my office at the University of Minnesota: Corn, or maize, may have exerted natural selection on the human populations that first cultivated it.

The target of this new study is an allele called 230Cys, a variant of a gene involved in transporting cholesterol. 230Cys is known only in Native American populations, and it’s associated with abnormally low production of HDL cholesterol (that’s the “good” kind of cholesterol) and thereby increased risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In Native American populations, the genetic code near 230Cys shows the reduced diversity associated with a selective sweep, which suggests that, although it’s not particuarly helpful now, this variant may have been favored by selection in the past.

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Friday Coffee Break

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From Sarah: In celebration of the Olympics, a picture gallery of olympian flowers!

From CJ: Speaking of Olympians, this cool graph from BBC will have you wasting your time wondering how you measure up to Olympic athletes.

And how athletic mutants are born, not made:

Athletes who perform at the elite level aren’t like the rest of us. Their feats of strength, accuracy, and endurance often appear superhuman — which probably explains why we enjoy watching them so much. And the suggestion that many of these athletes are somehow performing outside of “normal” human bounds is not an exaggeration. Professional sports, it would seem, are being increasingly dominated by the mutants among us.

From Noah: We’re in the middle of extinction crises for both biological diversity and human cultural diversity; but the relationships between the two goes deeper.

A recent study noted that most of the 6,900 languages spoken on Earth occur in regions of high biodiversity. These findings point to a strong correlation between biological and linguistic diversity, with languages closely connected to the habitats where they are found.

And from Jeremy: A new antibacterial coating, inspired by the interior surface of pitcher plants’ pitfalls, works by being really, really slippery.

Drops of water, blood and crude oil sit on the SLIPS [synthetic, super-slippery surface] as spheres. If the SLIPS are gently angled, the drops roll off, leaving nothing behind. Ice won’t form on the slips either – the second the crystals come together, they slide off. Nor can insects get a grip – an ant, climbing after a dollop of jam, slips off just as it would on the rim of a pitcher plant (with the jam quickly following).