The dumbest science question ever?

From NASA/Wikimedia commons: The Hubble image shows the paired galaxies very close together with streams of stars being pulled out of the galaxies. The colliding "parent" galaxies lose their shape and smoother galaxies are formed. The whole merging process can take less than a billion years.

I don’t know if this qualifies as the dumbest science-related question ever, but it’s one that’s been bothering me for, oh, years. If you google it, the hits that turn up are, ironically, all religion related, and no help at all.

The question: Why was life such a hit? Rephrased: Why did life, once it got going, persist?

Maybe you know what I mean. Everywhere we look on Earth (almost), we find life. In places where you’d think nothing could evolve, much less survive. There are the bacteria living two miles deep in the Earth, the life flourishing in lava tubes, the organisms that surprised us in such inhospitable places as geothermal vents, Antarctic lakes, and yes, Mono Lake in California.

Why was life such a big hit once Nature got things going? In a more evolutionary context, what benefit do natural processes derive from life? Even after cataclysmic losses in mass extinctions, life bounces back.

Yes, of course, after those extinctions, niches were more readily available than a cheap foreclosure in Las Vegas. And of course, when life first arose, the world was one big niche just waiting to be partitioned. But why are there no boundaries on the blue planet? Hardly anywhere to go where life isn’t?

Like I said, this could be the dumbest science-based question ever asked. I’m assuming some kind of evolutionary context for life itself in the larger backdrop of the physical world, a world that evolves ever so inexorably to a universal heat death that our little minds (or maybe it’s my little mind) can scarcely encompass. Do life and its many processes get us there faster, urge entropy’s expansion? That, of course, assumes some ultimate, seemingly predetermined goal of transformation into heat and an ultimately messy demise.

That assumption may be and probably is a huge misstep. After all, the universe has got some pretty big transformation engines without turning to a teensy little mechanism like life. In other news, it would actually link the second law of thermodynamics and evolution directly, instead of leaving them as fodder for arguing creationist worldviews.

But it feels like a big question. The related question is, Is it a big, stupid question?

Did humans and their fire kill off Australia’s megafauna?

Genyornis. Courtesy of Michael Ströck & Wikimedia Commons.

Timeline, 2005: For those of us who do not live in Australia (and live instead in, say, boring old Texas), the animals that live on that continent can seem like some of the most exotic species in the world. The kangaroo, wombat, and Tasmanian devil, and most of all, the platypus, are high on the list of the unusual and bizarre in the animal kingdom.

But modern-day Australia has nothing on the Australia of 50,000 years ago when humans first arrived from Java. They encountered huge kangaroos, marsupial lions, 25-foot lizards, and tortoises the size of a subcompact car. Yet, within 5000 years, many of these animals had disappeared permanently. And since the dawn of the study of paleontology, researchers have wondered why.

Of course, it’s our fault

Of course, humans feature as the culprits in most scenarios. Just as the first people in the Americas are usually blamed at least in part for the disappearance of the American megafauna, like mammoths or giant sloths, the first people in Australia have also been suspected of hunting these animals to extinction or exposing them to diseases that decimated the populations.

As it turns out, humans may be to blame, but not through direct destruction or disease transmission. Instead, it may be the mastery of fire, the turning point in our cultural history, that ended in the extinction of many species larger than 100 pounds on the Australian continent.

Fire!

Australia’s first people probably set huge fires to signal to one another, flush animals for hunting, clear paths through what was once a mosaic of trees, shrubs, and grasses, or to encourage the growth of specific plants. The byproduct of all of this burning was catastrophic to the larger species on the continent.

The fires, according to one study, wiped out the drought-adapted plants that covered the continent’s interior, leaving behind a desert of scrub brush. The change in plant cover may have resulted in a decrease in water vapor exchange between the earth and the atmosphere with the ultimate effect of ending the yearly monsoon rains that would quench the region. Without the rains, only the hardiest, desert-ready plants survived.

You are what you eat…or ate

How could researchers possibly have elucidated these events of 45,000 years ago? By looking at fossilized bird eggs and wombat teeth. Using isotopic techniques, they assessed the types of carbon present in the bird eggs and teeth that dated back from 150,000 to 45,000 years ago. These animals genuinely were what they ate in some ways, with some isotopic markers of their diet accumulating in these tissues. Because plants metabolize different forms of carbon in different ways, the researchers could link the type of carbon isotopes they found in the egg and teeth fossils to the diet of these animals.

They found that the diet of a now-extinct species of bird, the Genyornis, consisted of the nutritious grasses of the pre-human Australian landscape. Emu eggs from before 50,000 years ago pointed to a similar diet, but eggs from 45,000 years ago indicated a shift in emu diet from nutritious grasses to the desert trees and shrubs of the current Australian interior. The vegetarian wombats also appear to have made a similar change in their diets around the same time.

Or, maybe not

And the species that are still here today, like the emu and the wombat, are the species that were general enough in their dietary needs to make the shift. The Genyornis went the way of the mammoth, possibly because its needs were too specialized for it to shift easily to a different diet. Its teeth showed no change in diet over the time period.

The researchers analyzed 1500 fossilized eggshell specimens from Genyornis and emu to solve this mystery and to pinpoint human burning practices as the culprits in the disappearance of these megafauna in a few thousand brief years. Today’s aboriginal Australians still use burning in following traditional practices, but by this time, the ecosystems have had thousands of years to adapt to burns. Thus, we don’t expect to see further dramatic disappearances of Australian fauna as a result of these practices. Indeed, some later researchers have taken issue with the idea that fire drove these changes in the first place, with some blaming hunting again, and as with many things paleontological, the precise facts of the situation remain…lost in the smoky haze of deep history.

It’s a blob. It’s an animal. It’s Trichoplax

The irresistibly attractive Trichoplax. Oliver Voigt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Timeline, 2008: One of the greatest quests in animal biology is the search for the “ur-animal,” the proto-creature that lies at the base of the animal family tree. For many years, the sponge held the low spot as most primitive animal, a relatively simple cousin of ours consisting of a few tissues and a tube that filters water for nutrients.

An animal, simple and alone

Research now suggests, however, that there’s an even older cousin at the base of the tree, an animal-like organism with three cell layers and four cell types that moves by undulating and exists alone in its own taxon. This organism, with the species name Trichoplax adhaerens, is the sole living representative of the Placozoa, or “flat animals.” It has been a bit of a mystery creature ever since the amoeba-like things were first noted a century ago in a German aquarium. Today, new techniques in systematics, the study of how living things are related, have helped pinpoint its place on the tree of life. These techniques have, however, left us with a few complex questions about this “simple” animal.

The animal kingdom family tree gets complex fast, with an early division in the trunk. Whatever lies at its base—and we’re still not sure what the organism was—that ancestor yielded two basic animal lineages. One led to sponges (Porifera) and branched to Cnidarians—corals, hydras, and organisms like jellies that have primitive nervous systems. The other lineage is the Bilateria, which includes everything from flatworms to bugs to beluga whales to us. Obviously, this lineage also has developed a nervous system, in many cases one that is quite complex.

Why a sponge will never be nervous

Earlier thinking was that the sponges, in lacking a nervous system, represented some earliest ancestor from which the two lineages sprang. But recent molecular analysis of the sponge and placozoan genomes has left a few systematists scratching their heads. The big headline was that the sea sponge was no longer the most primitive or oldest taxon. That honor may now belong to the placozoan, although some analyses place it as having evolved after Porifera.

An ur-animal? Or just another ur-cousin?

It may go a ways back, but it’s not so far that scientists can say that T. adharens is the “ur-animal,” or “mother of all animals.” In fact, it appears to share a few things in common with Bilateria, such as special protein junctions for holding tissues together, but computer analysis places it squarely in the Cnidaria branch of the animal family tree. Thus, this “weird, wee beastie,” while possibly older than the sponge, is still not the proto-ancestral animal condition. Rather than being the “ur-animal” from which all other animals sprang, it’s more like an “ur-cousin” of Bilateria.

Nervous system genes but no nervous system?

T. adhaerens also represents another conundrum for evolutionary biologists and systematists. It and the sponge both carry coding in their genomes for neural proteins, yet neither have nervous systems. The Cnidarian nervous system itself may have evolved parallel to that of the Bilateria, an evolutionary phenomenon known as “convergent evolution.” When evolutionary processes occur in parallel, unrelated species may share adaptations—such as a nervous system—because of similar selection pressures. The results are what we call “analogous structures,” which have similar functions and may even seem quite similar. But they are shared because of similar evolutionary pressures, not because of a common ancestry.

Lost traits make evolutionary biologists tear out their hair

The primitive placozoan does not have a nervous system, although organisms that arose later in the Cnidarian lineage, such as jellies, do. Yet those neural genes in its genome leave an open question and a continuing debate: Is the placozoan an example of another common evolutionary phenomenon in which a trait arises, but then is lost? Some scientists have suggested that there may have been an even older version of a nervous system, predating the Cnidarian/Bilateria split. This trait then vanished, leaving behind only these traces in the primitive placozoan and sponge genomes. With this scenario, the two nervous systems would have a shared ancestry: instead of being analogous traits resulting from convergent evolution, they would represent homologous traits, shared because of a common neural ancestry.

Pitcher plant port-a-potty for the tree shrew

A pitcher plant (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Timeline, 2009: As humans, we are a bit limited in our imaginations. For example, we’d probably never consider climbing onto the edge of a toilet seat and licking the sides while…um…employing the toilet for standard uses. Perhaps one reason—among many obvious choices—is that we’re not tree shrews living in the wilds of Borneo in Southeast Asia.

If you’re now envisioning tree-dwelling rodents enjoying the civilized development of having their own toilet, you’re not too far off. Borneo is home to a number of unusual relationships between species, but none may be stranger than the one that has developed between the tree shrew and the pitcher plant. The pitcher plant is carnivorous, and as its name implies, has a pitcher-shaped structure that it uses to trap its food.

The many uses of the pitcher plant

Normally, a pitcher plant growing on the ground is the perfect trap for hapless animals drawn to its minimal nectar output. For some species, they’re not a death trap but a place to brood offspring—one frog uses the pitcher plant to lay its eggs, where trapped, digested insects may provide some nourishment. The insects fall in because the funnel-shaped pitcher part of the plant has a slippery lip that acts as a deadly superslide for any insect that alights on it. Unable to gain a foothold, the animal slides helplessly into the plant’s interior, landing in a pool of digestive enzymes or bacteria that slowly break it down.

What does a pitcher plant do with digested insect? It does what any organism, plant or otherwise, does with its food—it extracts nutrients from it. One primary nutrient that plants (and everything else) require is nitrogen. This element is part of life’s important building blocks for DNA and RNA and the amino acids that make up proteins. Thus, to grow and reproduce, organisms must acquire nitrogen from somewhere. Some plants form a partnership with bacteria to get their nitrogen. Pitcher plants digest insects for it.

Unless no insects are available. While ground-growing pitcher plants in Borneo can subsist on available ants and other crawly critters, some pitcher plants grow on vines and trees, where ants are largely unavailable. In addition, mountainous environments are not known for harboring lots of ants, so the pitcher plant needed a new plan for getting its nutrients.

Nectar for nitrogen

The plan, it seems, was selection for making more nectar, reducing the slippery factor, and behaving like both a toilet and a food source for an abundant animal in the Borneo mountains, the mountain tree shrew. Using video cameras, researchers based at a Borneo field station captured one of the most unusual mutually beneficial relationships in nature: the tree shrew, while enjoying the abundant nectar uniquely produced by these aerial pitcher plants, also poops into the pitcher plant mid-meal. The plant, perfectly shaped for the tree shrew to park its rear just so while it eats, takes up the feces and extracts nitrogen from it. In fact, these pitcher plants may derive up to 100 percent of their nitrogen from the tree shrew poop.

Researchers think that this friendly relationship must have been in the making for a very long time. The pitcher plant opening is perfectly shaped and oriented so that the nectar collects just at the lip and the shrew must orient while eating so that the funnel-like pitcher collects any poop that emerges. The plant also has developed sturdier and thicker structures that can support the weight of a dining/excreting tree shrew, which isn’t much at less than half a pound, but quite a bit for a plant to support.

As odd as this adaptation may seem, it’s not unique. Ground-dwelling pitcher plants have formed similar mutually beneficial relationships with insect larvae that help themselves to some of the insect pickings that fall in. These larvae excrete any leftovers, and the plant harvests nutrients from these excretions. Interestingly, the tree shrew itself dines on insects, so the pitcher plant is still indirectly deriving its nitrogen from insects even when it uses tree shrew poop. It’s just getting it from the tail end of a rodent intermediary instead.

Sexual selection: Do females follow fads?

Is this male attired in the fashionable look of the season? Based on the reaction of the female in the background, perhaps not. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Timeline, 2008: Sexual selection is a mechanism of evolution that sometimes butts heads with natural selection. Under the tenets of natural selection, nature chooses based on characteristics that confer a competitive edge in a given environment. Under this construct, environment is “the decider.” But in sexual selection, either competition between the same sex or a choice made by the opposite sex determines the traits that persist. Sometimes, such traits aren’t so useful when it comes to the everyday ho-hum activities like foraging for food or avoiding predators, but they can be quite successful at catching the eye of an interested female.

Those female opinions have long been considered unchanging. In the widowbird, for example, having long, flowing black tailfeathers is a great way to attract the lady widow birds. But perhaps they don’t call them widowbirds for nothing: if those male tailfeathers get too long, the bird can’t escape easily from predators and ends up a meal instead of a mate. In these cases, natural selection pushes the tailfeather trait in one direction—shorter—while sexual selection urges it the other way—longer. The upshot is a middling area for tailfeathers length.

This kind of intersexual selection occurs throughout the animal kingdom. Probably the most well-recognized pair that engages in it is the peacock and peahen. Everyone has seen the multicolored baggage any peacock worth his plumage drags around behind him. A peacock will fan out those feathers in an impressive demonstration, strutting back and forth and waving its tail in the wind, showing off for all he’s worth. It’s a successful tactic as long as nothing is around that wants to eat him.

Frogs hoping for a mate find themselves elbow deep in the “paradox of the lek.” The lek is the breeding roundup for frogs, where they all assemble in a sort of amphibian prom. For the males, it’s a tough call, literally. They must call loudly enough to show the females how beautifully androgenized they are—androgens determine the power of their larynx—while at the same time not standing out enough to attract one of the many predators inevitably drawn to a gathering of hundreds of croaking frogs. Trapped in this paradox, the frog does his best, but natural selection and sexual selection again end up stabilizing the trait within expected grooves.

This status quo has become the expectation for many biologists who study sexual selection: natural selection may alter its choices with a shifting environment, but what’s hot to the females stays hot, environmental changes notwithstanding. But the biologists had never taken a close look at the lark bunting.

A male lark bunting has a few traits that may attract females: when it shakes off its drab winter plumage and takes on the glossy black of mating season, the male bird also sports white patches on its wings that flash through the sky and sings a song intended to draw in the ladies. But the ladies appear to be slaves to fashion, not consistently choosing large patches over small, or large bodies over lighter ones. Instead, female lark buntings change their choices with the seasons, selecting a large male one year, a dark-colored male with little in the way of patches the next, and a small-bodied male the next. Lark buntings select a new mate each year, and the choice appears to be linked to how well the male will aid in parenting duties, which both parents share. It may be that a big body is useful in a year of many predators, but a small body might work out better when food supplies are low.

The researchers who uncovered this secret of lark bunting female fickleness watched the birds for five years and based their findings on statistical correlations only. For this reason, they don’t know exactly what drives the females’ annually varying choices, but they speculate that environmental factors play a role. Thus, sexual selection steps away from the realm of the static and becomes more like—possibly almost indistinguishable from—natural selection.

Note: This blog post has been submitted for the ScienceOnline 2011 Travel Award Contest sponsored by NESCent, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Here’s hoping that the judges find sexual selection to be this year’s travel award fad.

No legal limit for bats?

  • A bat in the hand

    Timeline, 2010: People with a blood alcohol level of 0.3 percent are undeniably kneewalking, dangerously drunk. In fact, in all 50 states in the US, the cutoff for official intoxication while driving is 0.08, almost a quarter of that amount. But what has people staggering and driving deadly appears to have no effect whatsoever on some bat species.

Why, you may be wondering, would anyone ask this question about bats in the first place? Bats are not notorious alcoholics. But the bat species that dine on fruit or nectar frequently encounter food of the fermented sort, meaning that with every meal, they may also imbibe a martini or two worth of ethanol.

Batty sobriety testing

Recognizing this exposure, researchers hypothesized that the bats would suffer impairments similar to those that humans experience when they overindulge. To test this, they selected 106 bats representing six bat species in northern Belize. Some of the bats got a simple sugar-water treat, but the other bats drank up enough ethanol to produce a blood alcohol level of more than 0.3 percent. Then, the bats got the batty version of a field sobriety test.

Bats navigate by echolocation, bouncing sound waves off of nearby objects to identify their location. To determine if the alcohol affected the bats’ navigation skills and jammed the sonar, the researchers festooned a ceiling with dangling plastic chains. The test was to see if the animals could maneuver around the chains while under the influence of a great deal of alcohol. To their surprise, the scientists found that the drunk bats did just as well as the sober ones.

Some bats hold their drink better than others

Interestingly, the bats did show a human-like variation in their alcohol tolerance, with some bats showing higher levels of intoxication than others. But one question that arises from these results is, Why would bats have such an enormous alcohol tolerance?

As it turns out, not all of them do. These New World bats could, it seems, drink their Old World cousins under the table. Previous research with Old World bats from Egypt found that those animals weren’t so great at holding their drink. Thus, it seems that different bat species have different capacities for handling—and functioning under the influence of—alcohol.

One potential explanation the investigators offer for this difference is the availability of the food itself. In some areas, fruit is widely available at all times, meaning that the bats that live there are continually exposed to ethanol in their diet. Since they can’t exactly stop eating, there may have been some selection for those bats who could get drunk but still manage to fly their way home or to more food. In other bat-inhabited areas, however, the food sources vary, and these animals may not experience a daily exposure to intoxication-inducing foods.

Alcohol driving speciation?

This study may be one of the first to identify a potential role for alcohol in the speciation of a taxon. Bats as a group underwent a broad adaptive radiation, meaning that there was a burst of speciation as different bat species evolved in different niches. Factors driving this burst are thought to have included different types of fruit; for example, tough fruits require different bat dentition features compared to soft fruits. Now, it seems that alcohol availability may also have played a role in geographical variation of alcohol tolerance in bats. Bats with greater tolerance would have been able to exploit a readily available supply of alcohol-laden foods.

What’s next in drunk-animal research? The investigators who made this unexpected bat discovery have a new animal target—flying foxes, which aren’t really foxes at all but yet another species of bat that lives in West Africa. We’ll have to wait and see how these Old World bats compare to the New World varieties when it comes to holding their liquor.

An author reading today

Doing my author reading at the library today with my friend Charles Darwin on the screen

Today, I did my first reading/teaching presentation from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology. Below are a couple of excerpts from what I read today.

From Chapter 16: Darwin, Natural Selection, and Evolution

Evolution, a change in a population over time, can be a controversial concept, and things were no different when Darwin first proposed his theory of how evolution happens. Since that time, we’ve identified several other ways by which evolution can occur. Scientists have synthesized natural selection and genetics and worked out a way to identify if evolution is happening in a population.

The Historical Context of Darwin’s Ideas

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, into a society with fixed ideas about the role of divinity–specifically the Christian God–in nature. Darwin’s destiny, as it turned out, was to address nature’s role in nature, rather than God’s. He was not completely comfortable in some respects with that destiny, but this man was born with his ear to the ground, listening to Nature’s heartbeat. He was born to bring to us a greater understanding of how nature fashions living things.

Yet, he did not emerge into a howling wilderness of antiscientific resistance. Scientists and philosophers who had come before him had posited bits and pieces of what would become Darwin’s own theory of how evolution happens. But it required Charles Darwin to synthesize those bits and pieces–some of them his own, gathered on the significant voyage of his lifetime–to bring us a complete idea of how nature shapes new species from existing life.

Alfred Russel Wallace: The Unknown Darwin

Alfred Russel Wallace developed the theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Darwin. His road to enlightenment came via his observations on another island chain, the Malay Archipelago. Like Darwin, Wallace was a naturalist savant, and on this archipelago alone, he managed to collect and describe tens of thousands of beetle specimens. He, too, had read Malthus and under that influence had begun to formulate ideas very similar to Darwin’s. The British scientific community of the nineteenth century was a relatively small world, and Wallace and Darwin knew one another. In fact, they knew each other well enough to co-present their ideas about natural selection and evolution in 1858.

Nevertheless, Wallace did not achieve Darwin’s profile in the field of evolution and thus today does not have his name inscribed inside a fish-shaped car decal. The primary reason is likely that Darwin literally wrote the book on the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Wallace, on the other hand, published a best seller on the Malay Archipelago.

From Chapter 13: DNA

DNA, as the central molecule of heredity, is key to many aspects of our lives (besides, obviously, encoding our genes). Medicines and therapies are based on it. TV shows and movies practically feature it as a main character. We profile it from before we’re born until after we die, using it to figure out what’s wrong, what’s right, what’s what when it comes to who we are, and what makes us different and the same.

But it wasn’t so long ago that we weren’t even sure that DNA was the molecule of heredity, and it was even more recently that we finally started unlocking the secrets of how its genetic material is copied for passing along to offspring.

The History and Romance of DNA

The modern-day DNA story is dynamic and fascinating. But it can’t compare to the tale of the trials, tribulations, and downright open hostilities that accompanied our recognition of its significance.

Griffith and His Mice

Our understanding started with mice. In the 1920s, a British medical officer named Frederick Griffith performed a series of important experiments. His goal was to figure out the active factor in a strain of bacteria that could give mice pneumonia and kill them.

His bacteria of choice were Streptococcus pneumoniae, available in two strains. One strain infects and kills mice and thus is pathogenic, or disease causing. These bacteria also have a protein capsule enclosing each cell, leading to their designation as the Smooth, or S, strain. The other strain is the R, or rough, strain because it lacks a capsule. The R strain also is not deadly.

Wondering whether or not the S strain’s killer abilities would survive the death of the bacteria themselves, he first heat-killed the S strain bacteria. (Temperature changes can cause molecules to unravel and become nonfunctional, “killing” them.) He then injected his mice with the dead germs. The mice stayed perky and alive. Griffith mixed the dead, heat-killed S strain bacteria with the living, R-strain bacteria and injected the mice again. Those ill-fated animals died. Griffith found living S strain cells in these rodents that had never been injected with live S strain bacteria.

With dead mice all around him, Griffith had discovered that something in the pathogenic S strain had survived the heat death. The living R strain bacteria had picked up that something, leading to their transformation into the deadly, pathogenic S strain in the mice. It was 1928, and the question that emerged from his findings was, What is the transforming molecule? What, in other words, is the molecule of heredity?

Hershey and Chase: Hot Viruses

A fiery debate tore through the ranks of molecular biologists and geneticists in the early twentieth century, arguing about whether proteins or DNA were the molecules of heredity. The protein folk had a point. With 20 possible amino acids, proteins offer far more different possible combinations and resulting molecules than do the four letters (nucleotide building blocks) of the DNA alphabet. Protein advocates argued that the molecule with the most building blocks was likely responsible for life’s diversity.

In a way, they were right. Proteins underlie our variation. But they were also fundamentally wrong. Proteins differ because of differences in the molecule that holds the code for building them. And that molecule is DNA.

Like what you’ve read? Read the rest in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology.

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