Sexual selection and dinosaur fossils


Sexual dimorphism in the pterosaur Darwinopterus. (Credit: Image by Mark Witton)

From the University of Southampton in England:

Survival of the prettiest: Sexual selection can be inferred from the fossil record

Detecting sexual selection in the fossil record is not impossible, according to scientists writing in Trends in Ecology and Evolution this month, co-authored by Dr Darren Naish of the University of Southampton.

The term “sexual selection” refers to the evolutionary pressures that relate to a species’ ability to repel rivals, meet mates and pass on genes. We can observe these processes happening in living animals but how do palaeontologists know that sexual selection operated in fossil ones?

Historically, palaeontologists have thought it challenging, even impossible, to recognise sexual selection in extinct animals. Many fossil animals have elaborate crests, horns, frills and other structures that look like they were used in sexual display but it can be difficult to distinguish these structures from those that might play a role in feeding behaviour, escaping predators, controlling body temperature and so on.

However in their review, the scientists argue that clues in the fossil record can indeed be used to infer sexual selection.

“We see much evidence from the fossil record suggesting that sexual selection played a major role in the evolution of many extinct groups,” says Dr Naish, of the University’s Vertebrate Palaeontology Research Group.

“Using observations of modern animal behaviour we can draw analogies with extinct animals and infer how certain features improve success during courtship and breeding.”

Modern examples of sexual selection, where species have evolved certain behaviours or ornamentation that repel rivals and attract members of the opposite sex, include the male peacock‘s display of feathers, and the male moose’s antlers for use in clashes during mating season.

Dr Naish and co-authors state that the fossil record holds many clues that point to the existence of sexual selection in extinct species, for example weaponry for fighting, bone fractures from duels, and ornamentation for display, such as fan-shaped crests on dinosaurs. Distinct differences between males and females of a species, called ‘sexual dimorphism’, can also suggest the presence of sexual selection, and features observed in sexually mature adults, where absent from the young, indicate that their purpose might be linked to reproduction.

We can also make inferences from features that are ‘costly’ in terms of how much energy they take to maintain, if we assume that the reproductive advantages outweighed the costs.

Whilst these features might have had multiple uses, the authors conclude that sexual selection should not be ruled out.

“Some scientists argue that many of the elaborate features on dinosaurs were not sexually selected at all,” adds Dr Naish, who is based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

“But as observations show that sexual selection is the most common process shaping evolutionary traits in modern animals, there is every reason to assume that things were exactly the same in the distant geological past.”

November 2013: Dinosaur fossils can be recreated by CT and 3-D printers, according to new research published online in the journal Radiology: here.

Antarctic blue whale new research


This video says about itself:

Mar 23, 2010

Me (Caitlyn/Genora100) and My BFF (Rachel/ilovesilverherocks, http://www.youtube.com/user/ilovesilverherocks) have to do a project on an Antarctic animal! we chose the blue whale!

From Wildlife Extra:

Researchers leave port to search for and tag Blue whales in Antarctica

Voyage in search of the world’s largest creature

January 2013. A team of international whale researchers have sailed from Hobart in search of the biggest creature on Earth, the Antarctic blue whale. The scientists from Australia, United States, United Kingdom, Chile and New Zealand, will use newly-developed passive acoustic sonobuoy methods to track and locate the elusive animals across hundreds of kilometres in the Southern Ocean.

Antarctic Blue Whale Project

Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke said this is the inaugural voyage of the Antarctic Blue Whale Project which aims to estimate the abundance, distribution and behaviour of the species.

Mr Burke said “The Antarctic blue whale can grow to over 30 metres in length and weigh up to 180 tonnes, its tongue alone is heavier than an elephant and its heart is as big as a small car. Even the largest dinosaur was smaller than the blue whale. Despite their colossal size we know very little about the animals, including where they breed and feed, and how many remain in our oceans today after industrial whaling slaughtered more than 340,000 of them in the early 1900s.”

The researchers will target areas thought to be frequented by the blue whales along the ice edge west of the Ross Sea. If survey methods are successful in locating the whales, photographs of the animals’ flanks and biopsy samples will be taken to build individual sighting histories that will assist in estimating population size.

Satellite tags

The 18-strong team will also work from small boats in freezing Antarctic conditions to deploy satellite tags on the animals.

Not necessary to kill whales for research – Unlike Japan

Burke added “We then aim to be able to track their movements within their Antarctic feeding grounds and potentially further north to their breeding areas. This research shows, in contrast to Japan’s so called “scientific whaling” program, that you don’t have to kill these majestic creatures to get valuable information about them.”

The project is a flagship program of the international Southern Ocean Research Partnership (SORP) involving ten countries – Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa and the United States. SORP was initiated by Australia through the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to promote non-lethal research in the Southern Ocean.

“Today the Antarctic blue whale is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is of global interest as one of the most at risk baleen whale species in the Southern Ocean,” Mr Burke said.

“The information gathered in this research will be supplied to the IWC to assist in the conservation and recovery of this iconic species.”

Florida wood stork, other birds decline


This video from the USA is called Endangered Florida Wood Storks.

From Wildlife Extra:

USA wading bird nesting in key area plummets 39 percent below 10-year average

Endangered Wood stork breeding failure

January 2013. One of the USA’s largest and most important wading bird breeding areas – south Florida, which includes the Everglades National Park – has seen wading bird nesting plummet to levels 39 percent below ten-year averages, according to a new report by the South Florida Water Management District. This weather-induced decline bucks a trend dating to 1985 of growing bird populations in South Florida as a result of restoration of water flows in the Everglades, and reaffirms the need for speeding completion of the project.

3rd consecutive year of poor nesting

The report says that an estimated 26,395 wading bird nests were initiated throughout south Florida during the 2012 nesting season which constitutes a 39% decline relative to the decadal average, and a 66% decline relative to the 77,505 nests for 2009, which was the best nesting year on record in south Florida since the 1940s. While the 2012 number is comparable to that of 2011 (26,452) and 2010 (21,885), it is the third consecutive year of relatively poor nesting effort in south Florida.

“These numbers are alarming because we are talking about extremely important bird breeding grounds on a national level and we’re looking at three years of poor breeding success,” said Kacy Ray, Beach Nesting Bird Conservation Officer for American Bird Conservancy, one of the nation’s leading bird conservation organizations. “Restoring water flows in the Everglades will re-establish prey production and availability across the landscape that, in turn, will support the return of large successful wading bird colonies to the traditional rookeries downstream.”

Wood stork, white ibis and snowy egrets worst affected

All species of wading birds suffered reduced nest numbers relative to the past ten years, but the extent of the decrease varied among species. Of particular concern are nesting failures of the endangered Wood Stork which declined 44%; White Ibises (39%) and Snowy Egrets (56%) also suffered significant declines. There was also limited nesting by Little Blue Herons and Tricolored Herons (only 89 and 412 nests, respectively), which continues a steep and steady decline in nesting activity for these two species during the past eight years.

Wood stork – 100% nest failure

The federally Endangered Wood Stork fared particularly poorly and it is thought that all 820 nests failed or were abandoned. By contrast, anecdotal observations suggested that Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and White ibises in ENP were relatively successful. Another region that experienced poor nesting success was Lake Okeechobee where most colonies experienced complete or extensive nest failure.

This contrasts with long-term trends showing population increases for Wood Storks, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, White Ibis, Small White Heron, Great Blue Heron, and Roseate Spoonbill. Wading bird breeding patterns in south Florida are driven largely by hydrology through its influence on the production of prey and their vulnerability to predation. The 2012 breeding season was preceded by several drought years followed by a relatively wet season. Such conditions generally limit the production of small fishes that the birds feed upon.

“To restore and manage for wading bird populations in the Everglades, the right amount of water at the right time and the right place is needed to optimize the availability of aquatic prey species (small fishes and crayfish). The long-term monitoring programs in this report (both avian and prey related) are critical to this end,” said Mark Cook of the South Florida Water Management District. “We need to know what’s happening, why it’s happening and what’s working if restoration efforts are to be targeted effectively. These programs have made considerable advancements in our knowledge of wading bird ecology in recent years, although much still remains to be learnt about getting the water right for the birds.”

Robins, flowers and quantum mechanics


From the BBC:

28 January 2013 Last updated at 00:05 GMT

Quantum biology: Do weird physics effects abound in nature?

By Jason Palmer and Alex Mansfield BBC News and BBC Radio Science Unit
Perfume chemist

The multi-billion-dollar fragrance industry might just benefit from the ideas in quantum biology

Disappearing in one place and reappearing in another. Being in two places at once. Communicating information seemingly faster than the speed of light.

This kind of weird behaviour is commonplace in dark, still laboratories studying the branch of physics called quantum mechanics, but what might it have to do with fresh flowers, migrating birds, and the smell of rotten eggs?

Welcome to the frontier of what is called quantum biology.

It is still a tentative, even speculative discipline, but what scientists are learning from it might just spark revolutions in the development of new drugs, computers and perfumes – or even help in the fight against cancer.

Find out more

Until recently, the delicate states of matter predicted by quantum mechanics have only been accessed with the most careful experiments: isolated particles at blisteringly low temperatures or pressures approaching that of deep space.

The idea that biology – impossibly warm, wet and messy to your average physicist – should play host to these states was almost heretical.

But a few strands of evidence were bringing the idea into the mainstream, said Luca Turin of the Fleming Institute in Greece.

“There are definitely three areas that have turned out to be manifestly quantum,” Dr Turin told the BBC. “These three things… have dispelled the idea that quantum mechanics had nothing to say about biology.”
SEM of chloroplast

Deep within plants’ energy-harvesting machinery lie distinctly quantum tricks

The most established of the three is photosynthesis – the staggeringly efficient process by which plants and some bacteria build the molecules they need, using energy from sunlight. It seems to use what is called “superposition” – being seemingly in more than one place at one time.

Watch the process closely enough and it appears there are little packets of energy simultaneously “trying” all of the possible paths to get where they need to go, and then settling on the most efficient.

“Biology seems to have been able to use these subtle effects in a warm, wet environment and still maintain the [superposition]. How it does that we don’t understand,” Richard Cogdell of the University of Glasgow told the BBC.

But the surprise may not stop at plants – there are good hints that the trickery is present in animals, too: the navigational feats of birds that cross countries, continents or even fly pole to pole present a compelling behavioural case.

Experiments show that European robins only oriented themselves for migration under certain colours of light, and that very weak radio waves could completely mix up their sense of direction. Neither should affect the standard compass that biologists once believed birds had within their cells.

What makes more sense is the quantum effect of entanglement. Under quantum rules, no matter how far apart an “entangled” pair of particles gets, each seems to “know” what the other is up to – they can even seem to pass information to one another faster than the speed of light.

The weird world of quantum mechanics

Albert Einstein

Quantum mechanics starts with the simple idea that energy does not come in just any amount; it comes in discrete chunks, called quanta. But deeper into the theory, some truly surprising – and useful – effects crop up

  • Superposition: A particle exists in a number of possible states or locations simultaneously – strictly, an electron might be in the tip of your finger and in the furthest corner of the Universe at the same time. It is only when we observe the particle that it ‘chooses’ one particular state
  • Entanglement: Two particles can become entangled so that their properties depend on each other – no matter how far apart they get. A measurement of one seems to affect the measurement of the other instantaneously – an idea even Einstein called “spooky”
  • Tunnelling: A particle can break through an energy barrier, seeming to disappear on one side of it and reappear on the other. Lots of modern electronics and imaging depends on this effect

Experiments suggest this is going on within single molecules in birds’ eyes, and John Morton of University College London explained that the way birds sense it could be stranger still.

“You could think about that as… a kind of ‘heads-up display’ like what pilots have: an image of the magnetic field… imprinted on top of the image that they see around them,” he said.

The idea continues to be somewhat controversial – as is the one that your nose might be doing a bit of quantum biology.

Most smell researchers think the way that we smell has to do only with the shapes of odour molecules matching those of receptors in our noses.

But Dr Turin believes that the way smell molecules wiggle and vibrate is responsible – thanks to the quantum effect called tunnelling.

The idea holds that electrons in the receptors in our noses disappear on one side of a smell molecule and reappear on the other, leaving a little bit of energy behind in the process.

A paper published in Plos One this week shows that people can tell the difference between two molecules of identical shape but with different vibrations, suggesting that shape is not the only thing at work.

What intrigues all these researchers is how much more quantum trickery may be out there in nature.

“Are these three fields the tip of the iceberg, or is there actually no iceberg underneath?” asked Dr Turin. “We just don’t know. And we won’t know until we go and look.”

‘Hugely important’

That question has ignited a global push. In 2012, the European Science Foundation launched its Farquest programme, aiming to map out a pan-European quantum research structure in which quantum biology plays a big role.

And the US defence research agency, Darpa, has been running a nationwide quantum biology network since 2010. Departments dedicated to the topic are springing up in countries ranging from Germany to India.

European robin

Do European robins use the molecular equivalent of a pilot’s heads-up display?

A better understanding of smell could make the hit-and-miss business of making new fragrances more directed, and learning from nature’s tricks could help with developing next-generation quantum computers.

But what the next wave of quantum biologists finds could be truly profound.

Simon Gane, a researcher at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital and lead author of the Plos One paper, said that the tiny receptors in our noses are what are called G-protein coupled receptors.

“They’re a sub-family of the receptors we have on all cells in our body – they’re the targets of most drug development,” he explained.

“What if – and this is a very big if – there’s a major form of receptor-drug interaction that we’re just not noticing because we’re not looking for a quantum effect? That would have profound implications for drug development, design and discovery.”

Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey is investigating whether tunnelling occurs during mutations to our DNA – a question that may be relevant to the evolution of life itself, or cancer research.

He told the BBC: “If quantum tunnelling is an important mechanism in mutations, is quantum mechanics going to somehow answer some of the questions about how a cell becomes cancerous?

“And suddenly you think, ‘Wow!’ Quantum mechanics is not just a crazy side issue or a fringe field where some people are looking at some cranky ideas. If it really might help answer some of the very big questions in science, then it’s hugely important.”

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Beautiful Blogger Award, thanks Russell!


Beautiful Blogger Award

Russell of the blog YESCuba: Jamaicans in Solidarity with Cuba was so kind to nominate Dear Kitty. Some blog for the Beautiful Blogger Award.

Thanks so much, Russell! All the best for you, your blog, Jamaica and Cuba!

Here are the rules of the Beautiful Blogger Award:

If I nominate you, and if you choose to participate (no pressure!), then here’s what you do:

Write a post about the award and include the award picture.

Thank the person who nominated you and link back to their blog.

Nominate seven other blogs and include links as well as a quick statement about that blog.

Write a comment on each of the blogs to tell them you nominated them.

Have fun!

My seven nominees are:

1. stevehi. From the USA. Many poems!

2. Vicky Nanjappa. Much news, especially about India.

3. Antropología de la Realidad Virtual. Social science about the Internet from Chile.

4. heatherandkyle. “Cooking, watching ducks, or whatever else comes to mind!”

5. The Sentient Mouse. “I write fiction, nonfiction and short poems dealing with the natural world as well as human triumphs and shortcomings.”

6. Words. “A picture is worth a thousand words“.

7. Photography, Philosophy, Psychology. The title says it.