Speciation in Reverse


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I don’t usually advertise my Accumulating Glitches posts on here, but I decided to make an exception for today’s post. It’s about a relatively straightforward study that raises a host of interesting questions which I thought some of you might find interesting. Here’s an excerpt to give you an idea:

Darwin’s finches have become a textbook example in evolutionary biology, speciating as they adapted to different environments in their spread through the Galapagos islands. In the past two decades, the opposite has been happening on Floreana island in the south of the archipelago, according to a paper published in the journal American Naturalist. The opposite of speciation, however, isn’t necessarily extinction — at least, not in the familiar sense of a species dying out. Another way for speciation to roll backwards is through hybridization, a process that raises many more (and more interesting) questions than ‘straightforward’ extinction.

Click to continue reading on Accumulating Giltches

Kleindorfer S, O’Connor JA, Dudaniec RY, Myers SA, Robertson J, & Sulloway FJ (2014). Species collapse via hybridization in Darwin’s tree finches. The American naturalist, 183 (3), 325-41 PMID: 24561597

Live 3-D X-ray video of a fly’s muscles in mid-flight


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Flies are incredibly agile on the wing, pulling off twists and turns that outstrip anything we’ve accomplished. Their flight is powered by two pairs of large muscles in their thorax which contract rhythmically to make their wings beat anywhere between 100 and 1000 times per second. Power is transferfed from these muscles to the wings by a hinge made of an intricate collection of steering muscles. Although the steering muscles make up less than 3% of the flight muscle mass, they very effectively direct the force produced by the larger muscles, thus guiding the fly’s aerial acrobatics. In a paper appearing in PLoS Biology, a team of scientists from the UK and Switzerland used a particle accelerator to record high-speed X-ray images of blowflies (Calliphora vicina) in flight, producing a 3-D video of the inside of the fly showing the muscles moving as it manuevered. Continue reading

Found while foraging (March 18, 2013)


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It’s been a few months since my last linkfest, so it seems like high time for a fresh collection. The transition to a new continent and  new career has taken up a lot of my time and energy over the last few months, and unfortunately that’s meant I’ve given Inspiring Science less attention than I’d like to. Hopefully I’ll settle into a new rhythm soon and start posting more frequently again. In the meantime you can also find my writing at Accumulating Glitches or my Beacon project if you’re hankering for more.  As always, feel free to add more links in the comments!
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Drug resistance evolves in inbred parasites


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Mosquito (photo courtesy Wikipedia)It all starts with a mosquito bite. When a hungry mosquito pierces someone’s skin to gorge herself, she also pumps in her saliva to stop the blood from clotting. Far too often, microscopic stowaways hiding in the insect’s salivary glands also make the trip, crossing over into the victim’s bloodstream to look for a new home. These serpentine parasites swim along the blood vessels, making their way to the liver and infecting liver cells within just a few minutes. They hide inside these cells for anywhere from a week to a month (or even several months, in some cases), copying their DNA and growing larger and larger as they prepare for the next stage of their life. Eventually, the growing mass breaks up. A swarm of single-celled parasites bursts out of the liver cells and into the blood; once there, they invade red blood cells, feeding on their haemoglobin and energy stores to fuel another reproductive burst which will infect more red blood cells. As the parasite spreads through the blood, the unfortunate host will start showing the symptoms of malaria — everything from headaches and joint pain to fever, vomiting, and even convulsions. When a mosquito bites an infected person, she sucks up the parasite as part of her bloody meal. The malaria parasite mates within the mosquito, going through several stages before producing the serpentine cells that migrate to the salivary glands, ready to start the entire cycle anew.
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Beacon: mantis shrimp and more…


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Here’s a taste of what I’ve been writing on Beacon so far. It’s been enormously fun so far, and the focus is a bit different from what I post on here. I’ve got lots of other great story ideas coming up for Beacon; I’m looking forward to researching them and sharing what I find with my subscribers. For now, here are a few excerpts from my first few stories to entice those of you who might be on the fence:

Fit for a Queen
In this short creative nonfiction piece, a young queen sets off into the dangerous world alone. Burdened with her people’s future, she has to persevere in the hope that help will arrive in time. 

The young queen had to find shelter soon. Everything depended on that. Stumbling, she scrambled over the rough ground as she looked for a place to hide — a crevice or even just a protective overhang. She spotted a fissure in the rocks ahead and made for it, a crack just wide enough for her to squeeze through. Safe at last, she slowed down, conserving her energy for the task ahead. Continue reading…

Through Alien Eyes
Mantis shrimp, famous for their lightning-quick punch, also have the most advanced eyes we know about and a fundamentally different approach to vision. Get a glimpse of how they see the world.

If we were designed in God’s image, it’s hard to imagine what model inspired the mantis shrimp, but it must have been pretty impressive. Heavily armoured and formidably armed, these marine crustaceans kill their prey — molluscs, crustaceans, and small fish — with a strike that accelerates as fast as a .22 calibre bullet. They look out at the world with a pair of eyes mounted on stalks which they can move independently, tracking an object with one eye while scanning their surroundings with the other. One researcher described the effect as “most uncrustacean-like, suggesting an almost ‘primate-like’ awareness of their surroundings.” Continue reading…

A Grander View
In a world that’s brimming over with life, we often think of ourselves as somehow special. Join me on a journey of exploration through the lives and evolution of the other creatures on Earth. Along the way, we’ll discover that the living world is infused with a richness of marvels, of which we are just a small part.

It all started with agriculture. Or maybe fire. Or was it the first time we used language? The truth is that I don’t know when it started and I won’t pretend to, but at some point we invented the conceit of human exceptionalism and that myth has grown ever since. It’s infiltrated our language and permeates our thoughts, shaping how we see the world. Seduced by our ingenuity, we imagine ourselves as apart from the rest of the world, elevated above it or at least dominant within it. Continue reading…

Dying for sex


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Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy to attend to Inspiring Science this week. Rather than putting out a rushed post, I decided to republish this piece which I originally wrote for Accumulating Glitches last year. I hope you like it!

(Photo credit: Michael Barritt & Karen May, via Wikimedia Commons)Some spiders get eaten by their mates, and male salmon famously fight to the death for access to females, but we generally don’t think of reproduction being quite as risky for mammals. We may prance and pose or jockey for attention, and mating might even be quite painful, but it’s usually not lethal. Among mammals, “live to mate another day” seems to be the guiding principle. Exceptions to this rule are found in the dasyurids and didelphids, groups of small carnivorous marsupial species living in Australia and South America, respectively. “These species experience extreme sexual behaviour,” said Dr. Diana Fisher of the University of Queensland. Males and females mate with multiple partners and matings can go on for many hours. Afterwards, the males all die. Continue reading