Ants have been farming for far longer than humans have existed. They discovered fungus farming around fifty or sixty million years ago in the wet rainforests of South America, and have continued tending their underground fungus gardens through countless years as the planet changed and changed, and changed again. Much more recently — just a few years ago — I wrote about the fungus-farming ants (called “attine ants”), trying to imagine how they might view human agriculture. Our imaginary attine author closed with the hope that studying humans might help the attines understand their own history, “such as how the transition from primitive to advanced agriculture occured in our own ancestors”, and now a study by a group of humans has shed light on that very question. Continue reading
I enjoyed Born Anxious more than I expected to but less than I hoped. Written by Daniel Keating, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, it synthesizes over a decade of research on how stress affects the course of our lives. Keating presents an interesting and convincing case that experiences early in life — or even in previous generations — can set biological switches that have wide-ranging consequences, affecting health, social well-being, and professional success. Continue reading
As long ago as forever and as far away as home, life was withering away wherever you looked. At the end of the Permian, around 250 million years ago, the creatures of Earth were devastated by an extinction that outstripped any seen before or since. Marine species suffered the most — 96% of them died out — but even among their terrestrial cousins, seven out of every ten species were lost. For countless generations, life struggled towards recovery, but it took 10 million years to rebuild the lost diversity. The cause of the catastrophe has long puzzled scientists; global warming, massive volcanos, ocean acidification, and widespread oceanic oxygen depletion have all been implicated. In a paper appearing in Science, researchers from the UK, Germany and Austria showed that increased carbon released into the atmosphere eventually acidified the oceans just as the Permian extinction reached its peak; comparing their findings with how quickly our societies release carbon, they reveal an alarming difference together with a sobering insight.
Clarkson MO, Kasemann SA, Wood RA, Lenton TM, Daines SJ, Richoz S, Ohnemueller F, Meixner A, Poulton SW, & Tipper ET (2015). Ocean acidification and the Permo-Triassic mass extinction. Science (New York, N.Y.), 348 (6231), 229-32 PMID: 25859043
It’s probably not a surprise that humans aren’t the only animals with a sense of numbers. While they’re probably not actually counting, a variety of species seem to be able to tell the number of objects in a group; they can distinguish between groups with greater or fewer objects and react with surprise when the number changes unexpectedly. However, a recent study suggests that this numerical understanding may go deeper than we’ve previously thought. Continue reading
I’ve always loved museums, especially natural history museums, but I’ve never managed to spend as much time wandering through them as I’d like. Fortunately, I recently discovered Shelf Life, a wonderful series of videos from the American Museum of Natural History. The web page bills it as “opening doors, pulling out drawers, and taking the lids off some of the incredible, rarely-seen items in the American Museum of Natural History” — from what I’ve seen, it’s sort of a backstage look at the museum. It’s a good reminder that museums don’t just serve to educate the public; they are also important research centers and the collections they curate are are an invaluable resource. The episodes are bite-sized; each lasts just a few minutes — long enough to tell you some interesting things, but not so long that you have to make time for it. Unfortunately, there’s only one episode per month. I’ve embedded the first three episodes, but be sure to check out the Shelf Life webpage if you’re interested in more. Continue reading
On March 29, 2011, a TEXUS-49 rocket took off from northern Sweden for a short trip into space and back through Earth’s sheltering blanket of atmosphere. This amazing feat of engineering has become surprisingly routine — we humans have gotten to the point where launching a vehicle into space to carry out an experiment or deliver a satellite into orbit no longer inspires awe and wonder. Sounding rockets are commonly used as sub-orbital research platforms. In this case, one of the experiments on the mission was a test of how well DNA molecules can survive the temperatures involved in plummeting back through Earth’s atmosphere. The results, published earlier this year in PLOS ONE, show that DNA is tough enough to make it through atmospheric re-entry after a quick jaunt in space. Continue reading