Penny Thoughts

Tag: nature

Bee Big Brother: A Unique Insight into the Secret Lives of Bees

Explore.org have created Bee Cam, a live stream from inside a honeybee hive, to provide us with a unique insight into the inner workings of a living bee colony.

No matter how large our curiosity may be, in reality we cannot go about sticking our heads in beehives (for obvious reasons). So instead the folks at explore.org have provided the virtual alternative to this potentially deadly idea.

Live streaming video by Ustream

From the creators of Bear Cam and Bird Cams, explore.org have carefully positioned cameras within and at the entrance to a beehive in Waal, Germany. The stream is in HD, completely live and runs 24hrs a day to fulfill all of your bee watching needs. You can even take snapshots of the live footage if a particularly photogenic bee comes along.

Bee Cam is providing a rare glimpse into the lives of one of the world’s most rapidly declining group of insects. Bees are facing a multitude of threats including colony collapse disorderclimate change, disease, and the heavily covered threat of pesticides. The mystery killer, Colony Collapse Disorder alone is thought to have contributed to the collapse of over 10 million colonies in the last 6 years.

The colony of bees being observed by Bee Cam are in the process of recovering from a colony collapse. This Big Brother of the bee world is allowing a crucial insight into how these colonies respond to colony collapse and what behaviours they undergo to recover from such an event.


Live streaming video by Ustream

You can watch the honey bees carry out many behaviours including cell cleaning and capping, comb building and honey making. You can also observe how the individual bees interact; undergoing behaviours like grooming which help to maintain the cooperative life strategy that these bees abide by.

If you have some spare time, head over to explore.org to watch these busy bees go about their dayly business. If like me you are an avid bee fan then you will love this amazing glimpse into their lives.

Luke Jerram- Glass Microbiology

Luke Jerram increases the microbiological world by 1 million times to show the beauty of the cells and pathogens that can both take away and create life.

Being a biology lover I get rather excited when biology reaches the art world. When I found these sculptures by Luke Jerram I couldn’t wait to share them on here.

Scultpures were made of numerous different pathogenic and non- pathogenic creatures including viruses, bacteria, and apicomplexa, including E. coli, adenovirus, malaria and salmonella. All sculptures are scientifically accurate and have even been used as a teaching tool in the fields of microbiology. The sculptures allow people to see these pathogens as large, 3D entities rather than the coloured, 2D forms most people are used to. This means people can really get a grasp of them as whole orgnisms rather than simply pictures in books.

The reason why these sculptures are so important is that they provide a accurate representation of the (lack of) colour of these pathogens. Unlike what many people may believe, these pathogens are in fact colourless, but due to the tecniques used in microscopy, the pathogens have to be dyed to be observed.

This means that the pictures of these critters that we are accustomed to seeing are false-coloured. Without staining, these pathogens could not be seen and therefore it has to be done. But Luke Jerram’s work has provided the opportunity to see the pathogens as their more transparent selves.

Members of the collection are currently residents at The Museum of Art and Desing (NYC), The National Glass Centre (UK), Pittsburg Glass Museum and Caixa Museum Madrid. If you are lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to one of these exhibitions.. do it!

If you want to find out more about these not-so-micro entities then visit the Luke Jerram Glass Microbiology website here. It is full of lots of information about the exhibitions and beautiful photos of some of Jerram’s work. I’ll share a few more photos here becuase I can’t narrow it down to a couple as they are all too stunning.

Interactive Cell Signalling Experience

Picture1

http://www.cellsignal.com/reference/landscapes/mitochondria.html

The above url will send you to a website full of nice clear diagrams outlining the steps and molecules involved in lots of cell signalling pathways. Some representations are a little more interactive than others, including the one I have linked to. Aspects of processes outlined in this link are apoptosis (cell death), the degradation of cellular proteins via a pathway involving regulatory proteins called ubiquitin and respiration in the mitochondria. The picture itself provides an interactive opportunity to see the 3D structure of these molecules involved and where these processes take place. The way they have presented this cellular landscape is beautifully done and still maintains accuracy in terms of the processes and molecules involved. They are putting these really quite complex processes into a context that enables you to see more clearly what is going on and where it is happening in relation to other such processes. I really enjoyed having a good explore through these diagrams and pictures and it is nice to see these pathways being represented in a new and exciting way.

Fabrics of the Future: Hagfish Slime?

Clothes are important to anyone; whether you’re an avid fashionista or more of the practical sort, we all need clothes. However, the materials and fabrics of choice may be straying from the ordinary to the extraordinary in the not so distant future. The source of the  fabric for your new dress or coat could be swimming at the deep, dark depths of our ocean floor.

Research led by Atsuko Negishi at the University of Guelph in Canada has suggested that hagfish slime could be used to create a super stretchy, lycra-like fabric. The team managed to collect this slime from the hagfish and realised that it could be treated and then spun into threads much like silk.

This does seem a bit odd and gruesome, but it really is very logical to put these materials that nature provides to good use.

The majority of the fabrics we rely on today, are oil-based polymers which basically means that the materials are petroleum based. With our ever decreasing supplies of petroleum the demand for alternatives to these products is high.

Hagfish are ancient, bottom-dwelling animals that have been around for over 300 million years. If you’ve done some evolutionary biology in your time, you should definitely remember these weird creatures. When these strange, eel-like creatures are approached or attacked they release this sticky slime as a deterrent. The slime contains mucous and huge amounts of certain protein fibers that belong to a family of protein fibers called intermediate filaments. These filaments are great for making fabrics as they can be deformed and stretched to shapes and sizes very different to their original form.

The researchers aren’t quite ready to produce full on items of clothing, but they intend to pursue this concept further to hopefully create the basis for more environmentally friendly fabrics of the future.

If you want to read the original paper it can be found here.

 

Beauty in the Detail: Pollen

I shared some amazing photos of pollen a few days ago by Martin Oeggerli which you can find here. I got a great response from these and I loved the photos so I thought I’d look about for anything else similar.

I stumbled across a huge variety of images. Unlike the National Geographic photos these are non-colour pictures but I feel they still capture the beauty of the microscopic natural world that surrounds us.

The beauty that can be seen in nature, I feel is overlooked by us all. There are some stunning things that we can miss in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives. I have recently started to realise just how much of the world I filter out when going about my daily routine. We need to start stopping more, expand our current tunnel vision and take in the wonder that surrounds us.

03 PollenMix08OLily-3

I just love how alien these pollen grains look, yet these microscopic grains float around us all the time and can cause those runny noses and watery eyes we all hate in the Spring time.

01 Pollen Ricin-Sunf-1

These amazing photos were taken by Louisa Howard using an electron microscope and her whole collection can be found here if you want to further explore these bizarre microscopic grains.

Delving into the microscopic world provides a whole new level of wonder that is far beyond our own visual abilities. Beauty can be found in all areas of life, even within the very small. Work like this gives us the opportunity to peak into this incredible world we know so little about.

 

National Geographic Pollen Photography

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine

Found these amazing shots of pollen and pollination on National Geographic. Just a reminder of how intricately beautiful life can be. There is a whole microscopic world unavailable to our normal vision but these kinds of pictures allow us to peak into the world of the small.

The above photo is by Martin Oeggerli and shows the pollen grains of a venus fly trap. The photo below, also by Oeggerli, shows small pollen grains (yellow) attached to the stigma of a geranium. This meeting will eventually lead to fertilisation of the plant.

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine

Another one of my favourites from this collection of photos is below and shows a single pollen grain of the Indian Mallow plant. It is covered in spikes which aid in attachment to bird feathers etc to enable dispersal of this pollen grain to other Indian Mallow plants.

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine

We may have stunning pieces of human made art but  it seems that we should start looking more into the world around us, and the visual beauty that surrounds us everyday.

Follow the link to see all of the amazing photos as I’ve only included a few favourites.

Pollen — Photo Gallery — National Geographic Magazine.

Two-Headed Animals: Dicephalia From Sharks to People

In 2011, fishermen caught an adult bull shark in the Gulf of Mexico. The adult was pregnant, and they soon realised that one of the foetuses was a lot more interesting than first thought.

The foetus had developed normally in all aspects, except that it had two heads. This bizarre phenomenon is known as dicephalia, and is when a single fertilised egg develops into a foetus with two heads. Dicephalia is something that occurs across nature and we humans generally refer to it as conjoined twins.

So the idea of a two headed animal is not hugely novel, however, the occurrence of this phenomenon in chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish) like sharks, rays and skates is very rare.

C. Wagner and his team from Michigan State University managed to get hold of this truly unique shark and tried to understand the mechanisms of development that caused this two-headed marine animal. They released a paper this week that discusses the finding of this unusual shark and delves deeper into the interesting science behind the development of dicephalia.

The two-headed foetus was not the alone in the womb, with other normal foetuses having been found. The foetuses had developed enough that they were severed from their umbilical cords and released back into the wild. The two-headed foetus died soon after it was severed from the mother and was preserved in 70% ethanol to enable the research on this unique creature.

Other Examples of Dicephalia

This finding got me delving into other dicephalic creatures that have been found, so I thought I’d share some of the cases with you. I find it all really interesting except some of the science behind it is pretty complex, so if you do end up looking into it I wouldn’t get too bogged down in all the detail.

This is Abigail and Brittany Hensel, these are the most well known human dicephalic twins. Each twin has its own set of main organs (heart, liver, lungs etc.) but can only control one half of their body. So each twin has control over one leg and one arm. This meant that learning movements that required coordination between both halves was very difficult as it requires cooperation. This meant that walking, running clapping etc were highly difficult things to master.

This two-headed albino Honduran milk snake is an example of dicephalia in reptiles. Other two-headed snakes have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity. However, in the wild it is likely that survival is reduced due to the difficulty that comes with two heads controlling one body.

Another two-headed reptile; but this time a baby tortoise. Apparently this individual shows little difficulty in carrying out normal functioning and just goes about its daily business like any other tortoise.

 

An example of dicephalia in felines. This pair are from Massachusetts and are called Frank and Louie. They hold the world record for the longest living two-headed cat. Seems a pretty niche category.. but I swear most world records these days are a bit ridiculous.

 

Hope you enjoyed looking at some of the world’s weird and wonderful creatures, even if they do have more heads than normal.

Fracking 101: Are Flaming Taps the Future for the UK?

I’ve been seeing a lot of media coverage about fracking recently. It isn’t something that I’ve ever really delved into but with all the media attention recently I thought I would look a little into it. I knew very little about fracking and after doing a little research into the topic I found out some really interesting things. Also with the use of fracking being considered in the UK I thought I would do a fracking 101 post for those readers like me who are new to this idea. So let’s start with what fracking actually is. “Fracking” is actually the name for the process of hydraulic fracturing which involves pumping liquid into drilled holes in the earth. The liquid is injected at very high pressures leading to shale rock  deep into the earth’s crust fracturing and releasing natural gas. So fracking is a method of extracting natural gas locked up in the shale rock of the earth’s crust, but what is actually involved in the process? So obviously water is required; this is the core component of the liquid injected into the ground. However, I had no idea just how much water would be required, with 1-8 million gallons of water needed for just one fracking job. 1-8 million is one of those figures so large that you can’t really come to terms with it so I thought I’d help to visualise it. Let’s split the figure at 4 million gallons of water. That is the equivalent to filling 80 000 bath tubs, or a swimming pool the length of 4 football pitches, 200 ft. wide and 40 ft. deep. Basically, it is a hell of a lot of water. But it is not just water that is required in enormous amounts; “fracking fluid” is made up of water mixed with sand and a cocktail of 600 chemicals. 40 000 gallons of this chemical concoction are mixed with the 1-8 million gallons of water per fracturing job. This mixture of 600 chemicals is made up of some nasty products, many of which are carcinogens and human, animal and plant toxins. These include the (unfortunately) commonly known polluting culprits like lead, mercury and uranium but also many other hazardous chemicals including ethylene glycol, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde. These chemicals have numerous detrimental effects when existing in unnaturally high concentrations in the environment. Right, so once the fracking fluid has been mixed what is the process involved in extracting the natural gas?

The fracking can take place over land or ocean as long as the appropriate rock and gas stores are located there. The fracking fluid is pressure injected down a pipeline drilled into the ground at these sites. When it reaches the end of the pipeline the shale rock cracks due to the high pressure of the fracking fluid. This released gas enters the well and is extracted to fulfil our growing energy demands.

Like all other forms of non-renewable energy extraction and some renewable energy forms, there are many associated detrimental effects. These effects have been touched upon already but I’ll go into more detail as to the problems and risks involved. So firstly there is the massive water requirement. Water demand is ever growing for many reasons driven at their core by the world’s growing population. However, the ability to fulfil this demand is falling and it is predicted that water demand will be 40% higher than supply by 2030. This means that industries requiring huge amounts of water are becoming increasingly unsustainable. Therefore, practises like fracking need to consider new methods to reduce their water use or their future is hugely limited if not completely empty. The impending water crisis is predicted to lead to huge water deficiencies worldwide. Do we want our limited water to be driving frankly, unsustainable practices or nourishing the drought ridden landscapes and populations that are predicted to become increasingly common? The second issue I’d like to delve into a little further is the problem of contamination. It is known that methane and other chemicals from the fracking fluid can leak into nearby groundwater. This water can be extracted and used as the drinking water supply for nearby towns and cities. It is has been noted that methane concentrations in water supplies near to fracturing sites are 17 times higher than normal wells. In the documentary GasLand by Josh Fox there are numerous clips of people putting matches to their running taps and the water setting alight due to the presence of the flammable methane. If that is not enough of a visual representation of the effects of fracking, I don’t know what is. This documentary is incredible and I really recommend you watch it. Over 1000 cases of water contamination have been recorded near to fracturing wells. The consumption of the contaminated water has been known to cause numerous sensory, respiratory and neurological health problems in people in the affected areas. These contamination problems are further worsened by the fact that 50-70% of this toxic fracking fluid is left in the ground to continue leaching into surrounding rock and water. This fluid is not biodegradable so can remain for years polluting the earth 1000s of meters below our feet. Just because we cannot see the effects of this industry in plain sight doesn’t mean that this polluting activity does not affect us. The fluid that is removed is left in pits to evaporate. This releases VOCs (volatile organic compounds) including methane and formaldehyde which evaporate into the atmosphere and contribute to our already worsening problems of air contamination, acid rain and ozone pollution. So why is this important now? Practises like this cannot be maintained forever. With our ever increasing demand for energy and water not being matched by our earth’s dwindling supply, practises like this need to change.

Fracking is relatively common practise in the US and the government ruled in 2006 that methods like fracking were exempt from following the guidelines of numerous environmental safety acts. This alone shows how governments are putting money and unsustainable practises ahead of human and environmental wellbeing.

There is plan to potentially carry out fracking in the UK. Yes, energy demand is growing and needs to be fulfilled but is this short sighted approach to fulfilling that demand really going to help us in the long term? I found a really good website briefly outlining the facts and dangers involved in fracking which I would really recommend as a more visual and interactive representation of fracking.

Hubert Duprat: Combining Nature and Art

Caddis fly larvae live in the world’s waterways and build themselves protective casings from what they can source in their surrounding environment. Normally this includes small rocks, dirt and vegetation, however, Hubert Duprat left these caddis flies no choice but to choose from some of the finest materials around. The resulting cases, as can be seen, are a one of a kind piece of work sculpted by these larvae.

Hubert provided these flies with the building blocks and the larvae acted as the architects, putting together these parts and creating some stunning results.

Caddis fly larvae aren’t exactly the most beautiful of creatures, and although impressive, their usual casings are rather unexciting. But stick them in a container of gold, pearls and gemstones and you come to appreciate more the skill and work that is put in by these larvae in their incessant need to cover themselves in stuff.

It may seem as if Hubert simply pimped out these fly larvae but even myself, not being a massive bug fan, have to admit to quite fancying a couture caddis..

Losing the Polar Bear Battle

Polar bears can be legally hunted in Canada for their fur, fangs and other body parts. This is the only country where this hunting is legal but the US put forward the proposal at this year’s CITES conference to ban this hunting altogether.

Polar bears currently fall into CITES appendix 1 which means legal hunting of these animals is allowed with strict monitoring and regulation. The proposal aimed to bump the polar bears up to appendix 2 which would make hunting of polar bears completely illegal.

This is not the first time that this proposal has been considered, but no success has been seen. There were hopes that the ban would get passed at the CITES conference, but this was not to be. 2/3 of the parties were needed to vote in favour of this proposal for it to be passed. Unfortunately, this was not even nearly reached. 38 voted in favour, but 42 voted against (48 abstained from the vote).

This result served for much disappointment for many nations including the US, Russia and the UK. However, with many important nations like China and Vietnam importing these products from Canada the number of opponents added up.

Canada was also strongly opposed to the proposal as the polar bear market provides the native Inuit people with a stable income. With roughly 600 polar bears being hunted and sold each year at a price of $5000 at auction, it is clear that they are a crucial income source for many Inuit people.

Depressing Future For Polar Bears

Polar bears have become a bit of a poster child for species affected by climate change. This is in part due to their popularity in modern culture and the visibly huge effects climate change is having on their habitat. So it does seem rather counter intuitive that there is legal hunting of this already vulnerable species.

The arctic habitat that these polar bears inhabit has decreased by nearly 20% since 1980 and this decrease is set to accelerate in the future. It is predicted that if we do not get a hold of our CO2 emissions by 2060, the ice caps will be committed to melting. That means no habitat for the polar bears at all.

Regulated Hunting

Terry Audla, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, argued that their hunting methods are sustainable and that they “hunt for subsistence”. He explains that the polar bears are needed to make money and put food on the table. Cows, chickens and pigs etc are not available to them; they are working with what they have.

This point is fair, however, there is no doubt that the hunting is having detrimental effects on the polar bear populations. Although this hunting has not been a huge problem in the past, it is likely that the combined effect of climate change and hunting in the future will only drive the polar bear populations down further.

My concern is that as the populations inevitably fall and therefore prices of polar bear products increase in price, we will have a situation very similar to that currently seen in the rhino horn trade. I have already written a post relating to these issues so I won’t delve into the details but you can find it here.

I feel that this may be another case of the powers of the world continuing to act in a reactive manner rather than a proactive manner. Yes, right now, the effects of polar bear hunting aren’t having a hugely dramatic effect, but we will not be able to say the same in the near future. Will it then be too late?

If you have any opinions on this or the rhino post, please share.. I’d love to hear what other people’s thoughts are..