New Year’s Resolution

January 6, 2011

After a long hiatus involving driving through blizzards, eating lots of good food, skiing on rolling terrain, driving some more and spending 12 hours straight in the bathroom violently ejecting all of the aforementioned food from my body, I am finally writing another blog post. In honor of the new year, the topic is resolution – namely my personal life goal #27.

To see a wild musk ox.

Musk oxen were the subject of a recent New York Times article (in which the author fails to deduce that caribou and reindeer are the same species). They are often overshadowed by cute white furry things, but despite their lack of whiteness unless covered in snow, they are very well adapted to living one of the coldest, most imperiled and most captivating regions on earth – the arctic. They have outrageously thick fur, they efficiently extract calories from their food and they can dampen their metabolisms so they use less energy. Musk oxen live in tight social groups and defend their calves from marauding wolves.

They are also funny-looking enough to be super cute. They have horns, long fur and beards! I laugh every time I see a picture. I bet they are even funnier in real life.



December 15, 2010

They have freaking awesome skiers, fun knitting, happy people and delicious meatballs and they don’t even need fossil fuels.

Kristianstad, a town of 80,000 in southern Sweden, no longer uses fossil fuels for heating. Spurred on by rising fuel costs, taxes on carbon and a rival neighbor getting rich quick off oil, town planners initiated a project to wean the town off fossil fuel consumption. They implemented efficient district heating which uses a large central boiler to heat multiple homes rather than individual boilers for each home. New York City does this too, but they use the stinky sticky stuff. The Swedes use wood pellets.

They also use manure, pig intestines and food scraps, which are also stinky, to create gas for electricity and some transportation. Kristianstad is located in southern Sweden, which is highly agricultural, so this waste is locally sourced. In a large electrical plant, the bacteria ferments the scraps and shit and turns them to methane and then methane is burned to create electricity.

The basic chemical equation is:

C6H12O6 → 3CO2 + 3CH4

Or, the bacteria break down the complex organic molecules of pig poop into simple sugars then into carbon dioxide and methane. The methane is then burned in a electrical facility. When burned, methane produces heat, along with more carbon dioxide and water. Methane is a a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – reducing one ton of methane is equivalent to reducing 25 tons of carbon dioxide. Therefore burning the methane is actually reducing its effect on the climate and producing electricity.

Obviously, through this whole process greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere so it is not a carbon-free solution. However, the cool things are as follows:

1. The process uses local material that would otherwise be wasted and emit greenhouse gases.

2. The process also reduces overall emissions compare to using fossil fuels by more than a handful.

3. The town decided to find options other than fossil fuels and ACTUALLY FOLLOWED THROUGH.

4. They don’t need any oil from stinking Norway

Hurra Sverige!


Today is a lame. 1. it is raining on my day off 2. my external hard drive is corrupted and I am waiting to see if any data is salvageable and 3. it is raining on my day off. However, even today I am supremely happy that I am not a clownfish in a coral reef.

Here is why.

Humans have been exploiting the oceans since Mr. and Mrs. Caveman first discovered that the icky slimy things on the beach actually could be tasty and filling. The best part is that we can’t see the damage we’ve done so we can go along in our happy-go-lucky piscivorous ways. The last blue-fin tuna? That’ll go well in a sushi roll with avocado. Case in point: the Grand Banks of the Maritime provinces. Rewind a thousand years and Basque fishermen traveled all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to bring back ‘bacalao’ for their families. At present there are apparently barely enough Atlantic cod to fill a couple fishing boats.

Now we have another pressure to add to overfishing, maelstroms of garbage and dead zones. According to a new report by the UN, the acidity of oceans has increased by 30% in the last 150 years. Acid eats away at things like coral, which is the structural support of many of the most diverse areas in the world, and the shells of many sea creatures, like mussels and conchs. Increased acidity also can inhibit bone growth in juvenile fish, including otoliths. Otoliths are the small bone fragments in our and fish’s inner ears that allow us to know up from down and left from right. The variable growth in the otoliths apparently can cause confused movements and changes in behavior that threaten the survivability of Nemo’s brethren.

Life under the ocean is hard to see, hard to get to and hard to study. We understand relatively little about the complexities and connections within the ocean ecosystem, but we still rely on the ocean for food, transport and stable weather patterns. The abundance and diversity of life in the ocean has been declining for thousands of years. We don’t know when the ocean if is going to call ‘uncle’ and give up or somehow fight back with a vengeance. Both sound scary to me.

Sockeye salmon from when I fished a summer in Alaska - A midwesterner's introduction to the freaking coolness of the ocean

Knock Knock!

December 9, 2010

What do you call a sheep with no legs?

A cloud.

Okay, now you are ready for some creative problem-solving. According to researchers at Drexel and Northwestern, the thoughts that occur before a problem is solved can shape how our brain creates the insight. For example, if you watch a humorous video, you are more likely to quickly problem-solve, using what  scientists call ‘sudden insight or as Oprah calls an ‘aha moment,’ afterward than if you watch a depressing video. Scientists think that this is because a positive state of mind leads to the rest of your brain being more open to ideas that would otherwise seem far fetched.

So if we want to solve global warming, the financial crisis and human bigotry we should start by telling more jokes. This is obviously simplifying the complexities of these global problems, but why not try it a little more? There is nothing to lose but your dignity when you accidentally let out a snort instead of a laugh. Can’t you see it now?

Obama: What does the fish say when it hits a wall?

Ahmadinejad: I dunno

Obama: DAM!


Abbas: What is invisible and smells like carrots?

Netanyahu: Oh I know this one – rabbit farts!

And last one because I just can’t help it:

Why do gorillas have big nostrils?

Because they have big fingers!

I am still laughing at this picture almost 5 years after the fact.

A Whole New World

December 6, 2010

A new fantastic point of view, brought to us by poison.

study by NASA scientists recently revealed that the bacteria GFAJ-1 in arsenic-laden Mono Lake, California exhibit such high levels of arsenic that they may actually be incorporating the arsenic into their DNA in the place of phosphorus. Thats a pretty big deal. Our and everyone else’s cells use phosphorus in the structural support of RNA and DNA and in our cell membranes. Arsenic is  is very structurally similar to phosphorus, which mean it acts like a KGB operative that can sneak undercover into the areas of the cell that use phosphorus and mess everything up, kill the cell and the owner of the cell, and emerge victorious in the cold war. In other words, it is highly and famously poisonous (I will never forgot this Roald Dahl story I read freshman year of high school. Eeby Jeebies!).

But these bacteria in Mono Lake have a much higher concentration of arsenic that would generally be possible in a living organism, so scientists have extrapolated that the bacteria have turned the arsenic into a double-agent. They think the bacteria may actually successfully using the arsenic in their RNA and DNA. Notice the word, extrapolated. They actually haven’t proved this yet, which is why a bunch of people have poopooed the study.

I still think it is cool. Even if the bacteria are not using the arsenic in their DNA, they still have super high concentrations. Maybe they can help us understand how we might treat arsenic poisoning, which often occurs around mines. Or maybe the study will just lead to a whole slew of new science fiction, which isn’t so bad either.

Either way it’ll be a thrilling chase in a whole new (hypothetical) place for scientists.

More Magic

December 3, 2010

Saccaromyces cerevisia.

It even sounds like an incantation.

Thousands of years ago some people in Egypt probably mixed up crushed grains and let it sit. Magic happened and the flour and water started to expand. What was a handful of dough yesterday is two handfuls today! Eureka! I am sure people quickly figured out the best combinations of flour and water and some other tasty ingredients like figs and nuts and the world had leavened bread. For people then it was probably just the way of the world. Maybe it was the flour, maybe it was the water, but whatever it was, it worked and was scrumptious.

Then Louis Pasteur came along and figured out that there were actually living organisms in the bread (and beer and wine) that made the dough rise. A while before him a Dutch guy named Anton van Leeuwenhoek saw the yeast under a microscope, but didn’t realize they were alive. Microscopic yeast, which is pretty much everywhere, process simple sugars such as fructose and sucrose in order to gain energy. As they do so, they emit two biproducts, alcohol and carbon dioxide, hence the intoxicating effects of wine and the bubbliciousness of beer. In bread, the alcohol evaporates and leaves the chewy, airy and delicious bite of a good thick slice behind.

Other types of yeast may be less than magical, but I for one am quite happy to be good friends with Saccaromyces cerevisia.

Tasty pile o' treats I made with my friend S. cerevisae today

Today I read a study (Kloppers et al 2005) entitled

Predator-resembling aversive conditioning for managing habituated elk.

It seems that the authors had difficulties choosing words less than 8 letters long in their title, beside their subject species of course. Ignoring the XL words, the study was interesting because I pretty much thought it would be a freaking sweet study to work on as a field tech. The idea was to induce the flight reflex in elk that were hanging around the Banff townsite eating ornamental shrubs and playing a round or two on the golf course in winter. In doing so, the researchers hoped to lessen the impacts that hundreds of almost tame, but fairly worthless elk (I don’t think you get oxytocin by attempting to pet an elk) have on a small town.

The researchers collared 24 elk and put them into three categories. Eight elk were in the control group and the researchers just stood about 50 m away from them periodically throughout the winter. The next eight were in the human treatment, and this is where is gets fun, and field techs periodically chased them with firecrackers in hand for about a kilometer (remember this is Canada and they believe in the metric system). The third group was treated with dogs. Border collies (apparently other dogs barked too much and elk reacted by fighting rather than flighting) herded the elk away from the town on command from their handler.

In the latter part of the winter, the scientists measured the distance at which the elk would run away from approaching humans, the amount of time the elk were vigilant or actively assessing the surrounding area and the proximity of the elk to the town site and compared the data to measurements from the period prior to treatment. They found that the treatments did seem to work in that the treated elk ran from approaching humans sooner and spent more time away from the town than the control group. They also found that the elk didn’t run as fast or as far when wolves were more abundant in the area, which makes sense since wolves actually kill elk while field techs and border collies get their jollies from just chasing them.

Therefore, the researchers recommended that managers sporadically run after elk as though their pants are on fire and that efforts should be stepped up in areas where wolves are present.

This is good news for me. Wolves generally live in cool places and someday, some wildlife agency in one of those cool places is going to need elk chasers. I think that is a job at which I could excel.

This guy doesn't need firecrackers. He has canines. Maybe he is using them to chomp some habituated elk near Mammoth Hot Springs.


November 28, 2010

On Friday afternoon I trudged through  3 feet of snow searching for animal signs with a 10 year old girl named Rabbit. No, she was not unfortunately named by her parents. I was teaching outdoor science to a bunch of 8-12 years olds at the Ski Fest in West Yellowstone and that morning we had all chosen animal names to use for the day. The theme of the day was animals in winter. Seriously, I love animals, I love winter and I love skiing so I was pretty jazzed.

As Rabbit and I (I picked the name Cougar for the day, completely forgetting the connotations that now go along with a woman named Cougar) made our way through the snow, we started talking about science and she told me:

“We haven’t done an experiment in science this year in school.”

Now my coworker told me to take this with a grain of salt because kids have selective memories of school and don’t always realize that experiments occur in the science classroom. First of all, I think that her statement both blatantly shows the universal habit of teachers to blindly defend one of their own, and is beyond the point, because if Rabbit, who was a very intelligent girl, couldn’t remember the experiment that occurred in the last 3 months then it probably wasn’t interesting and should not have been taught.

Rabbit’s statement struck me because it correlates so well with my experience in science in elementary and middle school. I had a great science teacher in 5th grade, but after that, I cannot remember much EXCEPT one time when we had to perform and present experiments in 7th grade science (positive) and many many times when we had to take of quizzes directly from the book (negative). Oh, I also remember reading in the science book that pulling is easier than pushing and the corresponding picture showed a girl pushing with all her might on a door clearly marked ‘pull’, which takes the believability of the textbook and throws it into a cesspool of muskrat droppings.

I realize teachers are pressured to teach curriculum based on testing standards. I also think it is clear that elementary science in the classroom could be made a hell of a lot more interesting by basing it on observing, hypothesizing and testing. In other words, teaching children science instead of only reading comprehension (which is also obviously, but not singly, important) during science class. All the scientific knowledge we as a species now have has been derived from a series of experiments. Doesn’t it make sense that personal knowledge could also form from a series of experiments?

I know there is a lot of pressure on teachers to teach their kids to perform well on tests, that things such as behavioral issues can get in the way of experimental science (which is part of why my middle school science education was less than thrilling) and that teachers teach their strongest subjects best.

I also know that there are good science teachers out there. I hope that Rabbit gets one some day soon so that the only experiment she does this year is not Fur, Fat and Feathers during lunch on the Friday of Thanksgiving vacation.

Peptide of the week: Oxytocin

November 22, 2010

Ever want to feel a sprinkling of the magic life-is-good fairy dust without going outside and sweating your ass off for endorphins? Here’s how you do it. Pet your dog. Or have a baby, but petting your dog is much easier and less time-consuming.

I recently watched the Nova episode, Dogs Decoded. Along with puppies, puppies and some more puppies, the documentary went through a bunch of cool research on how we bond with our dogs including with one of the many super cool peptide brain chemicals.

Oxytocin, the empathy hormone, is released by our friendly neighborhood drug dealer, the pituitary gland. It encourages contentment, reduces anxiety and increases feelings of security and trust. Mothers experience a huge release of oxytocin after giving birth so that they love the child who so recently caused them excruciating pain. The pituitary also shoots out some oxytocin during romantic endeavors; apparently to discourage cheating. Finally, we experience oxytocin highs when we pet our dogs, and our dogs do too.

So next time you or your dog gets that anxious, stress-o look in your eye (it also turns out that dogs are the only species on earth besides humans that can read human eye movement), plop down with your pooch for a nice long belly rub.



November 20, 2010

In the last 48 hours, the temperature has dropped almost 50 degrees! I am sitting curled up on the couch with my trusty pooch warming my toes trying to regain my core body heat after skiing up Sourdough this afternoon and I am reminded of my very favorite scientific study which happened in another very cold place, Siberia.

Rewind to about 50 years ago to frigid Novosibirsk, USSR. In 1959, a guy named Dmitry Belyaev, spurned by the scientific elites of the Soviet regime, started an experiment on silver foxes. Belyaev had 100 foxes and he chose to mate only foxes that did not react aggressively toward humans. He classed them into three categories, I – foxes that are friendly toward the experimenters, II – foxes that allowed themselves to be petted but did not act friendly and III – foxes that were aggressive toward humans. By the sixth generation, they had to add a fourth category, the domesticated elite (remember this is Soviet Russia), which were eager to establish a relationship with humans. In the tenth generation 18% of foxes were elite and 40 years into the experiment 70-80% of the foxes were elite!

This rate of domestication is much faster than scientists had previously thought possible, but the experiment gets significantly cooler. The domesticated foxes, who were only selected for lack of aggression, started showing morphological traits that we associate with dogs – large floppy ears, curled tails, piebald fur, longer or shorter fur, bark vocalizations and a shortened muzzle. Scientists believe that these traits are associated with a decreased release of adrenaline in domesticated animals compared to wild animals, especially since many of the traits are ubiquitous to the spectrum of domesticated animals. Think of, for example, the blaze of white found on many border collie foreheads, then the same blaze on some breeds of horses, cows and pigs.

Most importantly, all of these traits are considered juvenile. Unlike wild foxes which turn more and more aggressive after about 3 months, the domesticated foxes stayed in puppy phase (only psychologically, since the foxes could breed).

Back in the day, approximately 100,000 years ago, people domesticated wolves, or as some believe, wolves domesticated people. If it would lead to less aggression and more cuteness, I would say that dogs need to work on domesticating their people a little more.

There are some floppy ears for you