Red-crowned cranes in China

Over the last fifty years, half of the wetlands along the eastern coast of China have been destroyed for human purposes. It’s a major habitat and migration route for the endangered red-crowned cranes. They can still be seen in Xianghai National Nature Reserve.

Moose noses

There are still a lot of good Ph.D. projects out there in under-explored facts of daily life, such as, “Why does a moose have such a big nose?” Moose are the largest living member of the deer family. Unlike other deer, they have a big, Roman nose. Inside that nose is a complex system of bony plates, cartilage, and special muscles for closing the nostrils. And now we have the science to prove it! Larry Whitmer writes:

Moose show greatly enlarged nasal cartilages, and the entire osseocartilaginous apparatus is relatively much larger than in outgroups. The nasal vestibule of moose is very large and houses a system of three recesses: one rostral and one caudal to the nostrils, and one associated with the enlarged fibrofatty alar fold. As a result of the expanded nasal vestibule, osseous support for the nasal conchae (i.e. turbinates) has retracted caudally along with the bony nasal aperture. The nasoturbinate and its mucosal counterparts (dorsal nasal concha and rectal fold) are reduced. The upturned maxilloturbinate, however, is associated with an enlarged ventral nasal concha and alar fold. Moose are the only species of cervid with these particular characteristics, indicating that this anatomical configuration is indeed novel. Although functional hypotheses await testing, our anatomical findings and published behavioural observations suggest that the novel narial apparatus of moose probably has less to do with respiratory physiology than with functions pertaining specifically to the nostrils. The widely separated and laterally facing nostrils may enhance stereolfaction (i.e. extracting directional cues from gradients of odorant molecules in the environment), but other attributes of narial architecture (enlarged cartilages, specialized musculature, recesses, fibrofatty pads) suggest that this function may not have been the evolutionary driving force. Rather, these attributes suggest a mechanical function, namely, an elaborated nostril-closing system.

Moose photo by Peter Mirejovsky

A whale of a hippo!

This is old news to some, but I just watched a National Geographic television show about hippos and was stuck again by how wierd and wonderful is evolution. Hippos have long been grouped with pigs because of certain ridges on their molar teeth. But, on an evolutionary scale, teeth change rapidly in response to environmental pressure. Fifty years ago, immunological tests suggested a relationship between whales and the cloven-hoofed mamals (even-toed ungulates), the Artiodactyla. Twenty years ago, DNA analysis of certain proteins suggested that whales are closely related to them. But there was no other evidence so the hypothesis was put on hold. There was no explanation—no theory.

Then, in 2001, fossils of ancient whales called Basilosaurus were discovered. They still had tiny back legs. Basilosaurus skeletons had been discovered before, but the smaller bones were missing. Finally, one was discovered with the small bones intact. And in its legs were Artiodactyl ankle-joints.

Another fossil, Dorodon atrax, was discovered in 1998, in Egypt, by Philip Gingerich. That fossil is on display at the University of Michigan. And in its tiny legs Professor Gingerich found the double-pulley ankle bones of a sheep or an antelope.

The show went on with more oddities of the hippo, some of which can now evoke the “Why didn’t I think of that?” reaction. Hippopotamus can roar or grunt above water, but click, whine, and whistle below, sounding remarkably like whales. They can call and listen both above and below water at the same time, making them unique. Just as in whales, their noses have flaps that close automatically when the nostrils sink below water, even if the animals are asleep. Fascinating creatures!

The long and the short of it is that hippos are more closely related to whales than to any land mammal.

Bovine pleurisy kills wild bison

All right, I made that up. The real name is bovine contagious pleuropneumonia (CBPP).

In Kansas, hundreds of bison are sold despite disease concerns.

The villain in the case is a bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides.

Dolphin with vestigial hind limbs?

Extra fins, anyway… I think that the fins at the end are the vestiges of hind limbs.

The article says

Whale and dolphin fetuses also show signs of hind protrusions but these generally disappear before birth.

Though odd-shaped protrusions have been found near the tails of dolphins and whales captured in the past, researchers say this was the first time one had been found with well-developed, symmetrical fins, Hayashi said.

Hat tip to P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula.

The Ancestor’s Tale

I’m finally reading this Richard Dawkins opus. The language is a bit too convoluted, a bit too flowery, but the facts are interesting. He has taken the conceit of The Canterbury Tales and applied it to evolution. He traces, backwards in time, the various groups that join the line leading to us as we return to the original micro-organisms. Amazingly, there are only about 40 of these intersections.

Before the story really gets rolling, he looks at the immediate ancestors of humans.

Many people know that camels originated in the Americas but went extinct there and were preserved only because they had also reached Asia. It doesn’t send a shiver down our spines at the camels’ close brush with extinction.

Dawkins points out that, apparently, the hominin primates colonized Asia, went extinct in Africa, and then re-colonized Africa from Asia. That’s how far we are from being inevitable.

  • The Farmer’s Tale
  • The Cro-Magnon’s Tale
  • The Tasmanian’s Tale
  • Eve’s Tale
  • The Neanderthal’s Tale
  • The Ergast’s Tale
  • The Handyman’s Tale
  • The Little Foot’s Tale
  • The Bonobo’s Tale
  • The Gorilla’s Tale
  • The Orang Utan’s Tale
  • The Gibbon’s Tale
  • The Howler Monkey’s Tale
  • The Aye-Aye’s Tale
  • The Colugo’s Tale
  • The Mouse’s Tale
  • The Beaver’s Tale
  • The Hippo’s Tale
  • The Seal’s Tale
  • The Armadillo’s Tale
  • The Marsupial Mole’s Tale
  • The Duckbill’s Tale
  • The Galapago Finch’s Tale
  • The Peacock’s Tale
  • The Dodo’s Tale
  • The Elephant Bird’s Tale
  • The Salamander’s Tale
  • The Narrowmouth’s Tale
  • The Axolotl’s Tale
  • The Lungfish’s Tale
  • The Leafy Sea Dragon’s Tale
  • The Pike’s Tale
  • The Mudskipper’s Tale
  • The Chichlid’s Tale
  • The Blind Cave Fish’s Tale
  • The Flounder’s Tale
  • The Lamprey’s Tale
  • The Lancelet’s Tale
  • The Ragworm’s Tale
  • The Brine Shrimp’s Tale
  • The Leaf Cutter’s Tale
  • The Grasshopper’s Tale
  • The Fruit Fly’s Tale
  • The Rotifer’s Tale
  • The Barnacle’s Tale
  • The Velvet Worm’s Tale
  • The Jellyfish’s Tale
  • The Polypifer’s Tale
  • The Sponge’s Tale
  • The Choanoflagellate’s Tale
  • The Cauliflower’s Tale
  • The Redwood’s Tale
  • The Mixotrich’s Tale
  • The Rhizobium’s Tale
  • Taq’s Tale

See it on my virtual bookshelf at BookCrossing: The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins.

Spotted knapweed: search and destroy

Spotted knapweed has a rather pretty, fragile looking flower: but that’s the only good thing about it. It’s a noxious, invasive weed that poisons the ground around it so other plants can’t grow. The bare soil around the plant lets the soil erode more quickly. Most grazing animals won’t eat it: apparently goats will.

I found it growing in Grey County near the base of the Bruce Peninsula: apparently it’s common there. It’s easy to find because the plants are still flowering and young ones are coming up in flat rosettes. The leaves are deeply lobed like marigold leaves but are light blue-green instead of dark green.

From the side, the flowers look like slender, miniature scotch thistles. They are called spotted because of the modified leaves, or bracts, on the outside of the flower have black tips.

It’s an invasive, poisonous plant that is hard to kill. One plant can set more than a thousand seeds. If you find it on your property, pull it up by hand. It’s wise to let the plants bake in a dark plastic bag in the sun until the seeds have died.

Its official name has been changed twice so it is now called Centaurea stoebe ssp. micranthos, formerly Centaurea biebersteinii, formerly Centaurea maculosa.

The North Dakota State University Extension Service has some good pictures and information about the weed.

Feel free also to pull up brown knapweed, another invasive species. It looks much the same except that the bracts are merely brown, without black tips.

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