Sperm whales are among the biggest living things on the planet and, surprisingly for these gentle giants, once must have been among the most fearsome. Palaeontologists working in Peru have uncovered the remains of an extinct long lost relative of today’s sperm whale that had 30-40 cm long teeth in both jaws (the modern form has much smaller teeth in the lower jaw only). With jaws more closely resembling those of a killer whale than its thrust/suction feeding relative, scientists believe the newly named Leviathan melvillei was a 15 m long hunter of large prey, probably other whales. Its size, jaws and undoubted intelligence would have made this marine monster more than a match for the giant shark Megalodon with which it shared its home (Science [article], Nature [paper]).
Sperm whales are still the largest animal ever to have teeth, but today their diet consists mostly of squid – including the infamous giant squid – and therein lies a problem. Whereas most land dwelling creatures live on plant material, or some juicy meaty derivative thereof, and hence are essentially “carbon-neutral”, marine animals from penguins to whales feast upon carbon that was probably sequestered in the oceans hundreds if not thousands of years ago, or has weathered out of rocks that are millions of years old. One upshot of this is that carbon dating is notoriously inaccurate on marine organisms, what scientists call the “reservoir effect”, another is that unlike water breathers such as fish, who return this carbon to the oceans, air breathing animals like whales will release this carbon to the atmosphere as CO2 and so contribute to global warming. However in new research published by the Royal Society of London, researchers have calculated that whales have actually offset their carbon emissions with emissions of another kind. Whale poop is iron rich and comparatively liquid, hence returns the excess iron in the whale’s diet back to the oceans in a form that is readily usable by phytoplankton. The team, led by Trish Lavery of Flinders University in Australia, estimate that sperm whales are responsible for removing 200,000 more tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere annually than they actually emit (Royal Society).
But it’s not all good news for the tree-huggers for while whales might be a boon in the fight against climate change, their free-range, organic farming practices of preference are almost certainly not. In a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences, Jennifer Burney of Stanford University and her colleagues have found that intensive farming is by far the most land and carbon efficient method of agriculture. Because agricultural land use is a major contributor to global warming, increasing the yields from farmland, and thereby reducing the amount of land farmed, strongly outweighed the extra carbon emissions of the intensive farming needed to achieve this. Doing the sums on farm outputs since 1961, the team found that increased yields have produced the same as cultivating an additional area the size of Russia at 1961 levels, which would have led to the release of 590 billion more tonnes of CO2, equal to about a third of all man-made emissions since the industrial revolution (PNAS).
And modern farming may be coming to our rescue in another way, as a source of cheap batteries. Almost since Ben Franklin gave up kite-flying, kids in schools the world over have been making batteries out of apples or a potatoes. Now a trio of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, led by Alex Goldberg, have found a way to turn these vegetable power sources from classroom curiosities into a viable product. What’s more amazing is the method they discovered to generate a tenfold increase the output of their potato power-pack, they boil the potato first. How did no-one think of this before (AIP)?
Another new idea, albeit a less welcome one, is that one should prosecute scientists for not knowing everything. At least that seems to be the approach taken by the public prosecutors of the Italian city of L’Aquilla, which last year was hit unexpectedly by an earthquake that killed over 300 people and injured 1600 more. The defendants include the head of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and the director of the National Earthquake Center along with four other equally prominent scientists and Bernardo De Bernardinis then deputy head of the Civil Protection Agency, who together are looking at being tried for manslaughter for not alerting the population to the imminent disaster at a meeting held one week before the quake struck. It was Bernardinis, a government official, who claimed in a press conference held immediately after the meeting that the scientists had said there was “no danger”, despite the minutes of the meeting clearly showing that at no time was the chance of a major shock ever ruled out (Nature).
My brother Bob found these salt and pepper shakers in a junk store and could not resist buying them. Two women with Marge-Simpson hairdos in the form of carrot and corn prepare to engage in fisticuffs.
Can anyone explain the iconography here? Note that they do originate in Japan, source of much strangeness.
Bob Connors, a farmer in Danvers, Massachusetts, took it upon himself to mow Brian and Stewie into his corn maze, with Fox's permission of course. Now he's looking to get the creator of "Famliy Guy" to come to his farm and do the voices of the characters, which shouldn't be too hard since Seth MacFarlane has family in the area. The Boston Globe/Connors Farm
First up, let's take a moment to savour pest control, Texas Style. Farmer Skip Smith, from Dublin, TX, is so fed up with feral hogs busting in to his watermelon patch and eating his crops that he’s fighting back with the aid of night-vision goggles and a silenced, fully automatic machine-gun. “The same thing that our forces use in Iraq, we're just using them on animals," Smith said, “we shoot about 45 to 50 a week on 1000 acres." Which is a hell of a lot of free bacon (ABC).
But if there is one food that might possibly challenge bacon as the mightily meaty master of my heart, it would be southern fried chicken. So what could be better than a sandwich that includes both? Well, how about one that leaves out that pointless bread stuff and puts the slices of gorgeous bacon between two hot, fresh fried chicken fillets? That is the idea behind what some reports are claiming is the latest creation from KFC, the “double-down” sandwich. Bacon, cheese and the “Colonel’s special sauce” are sandwiched between the chain’s house-style fried chicken in a heart-stopping 1200 calorie mouthful. And the day this launches near me officially marks the end of my banana diet (AJC).
As if "swine flu" wasn't bad enough, Scientific American is reporting that the Ebola virus has been detected in domestic pigs in the Philippines. The particular strain of the virus, Reston ebolavirus, is not known to cause fatal haemorrhagic fever in humans, but is still rated a class 4 pathogen by the US Center for Disease Control (it's highest rating) because of the extreme fatality rate and absence of effective treatment of the disease caused by other Ebola viruses. One farmhand who worked with the pigs has also tested positive for R.ebolavirus, but is asymptomatic.
In this case it seems like most likely that the pigs caught the disease from the human rather than the other way round. However that pigs can catch and potentially pass on the organism to humans is an unexpected, and worrying, development. Michael McIntosh of the Department of Agriculture expressed concern not only that the Reston strain might mutate into something more deadly in its new host, but that the other disease-causing strains might also be using pigs as a reservoir. "What is the level of risk?" said McIntosh, "We really don't know" (Scientific American Article) (Paper in Science).
It's a law of nature that when you've got to go, you've got to go. So if you happen to be a penguin out on the antarctic ice, well, that's where you've got to go. Which turns out to be an extremely useful fact for scientists, who have used piles of penguin poo identified on satellite images to locate where penguin colonies form. Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey hope to use the new technique to follow the penguins over many seasons and determine how much impact global warming is having on the species (Telegraph).
Meanwhile British beekeepers must be cursing that not all animals can be tracked by satellite so easily after an outbreak of bee-rustling has swept the coutryside. The spate of thefts has been provoked by rises in the price of honey combined with a shortage of bees brought about by disease. In the largest bee-heist so far, 18 hives containing over a million bees were stolen from a strawberry field they had been pollinating. According to John Howat of the Bee Farmers Association, pulling off such an audacious crime would require "inside knowledge" (BBC News).
And it's not just beekeepers who are missing their wildlife. A UK radio station that has broadcast nothing but a repeating loop of birdsong for 18 months as "filler" has finally shut down to make way for a new commercial station, and raised howls of protest from many of its half a million regular listeners. The twenty year-old recording, made in a wiltshire garden and used by the radio station free-of-charge, became a massive hit with people from all over Britain, including author Terry Pratchett, who found it a relaxing alternative to the usual radio fare. The replacement broadcast, Amazing Radio, plays music by unsigned bands uploaded to amazingtunes.com (Pocket Lint).
Finally, here's one story that almost missed the boat (ark?), swimming with stingrays may be harmful... for the stingrays. Scientists monitoring the sealife around the Camen islands have found that tourist excursions to pet the wildlife around the islands is leading to weaker immune systems and poorer health in the animals. Christina Semeniuk, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, cited collisions with boats, overcrowding and hand-fed squid forming an greater part of their diet as the main suspects. She pointed to other studies on bears, penguins, dolphins, and apes which also showed increased stress and illness due to wildlife tourism (Guardian).
What do you do when your normally green and lush grazing pastures become over-run with mysterious worms? For the fifty herdsmen in northwest China, there is no answer but to move. The worms are one inch long, green, with thorns and black stripes, and are packed up to 3,000 per square meter. Samples of the worms have been sent to Xinjiang Agricultural University for identification, but so far the usual methods of dealing with such an invasion (chickens, ducks and other birds) has not been successful. The Story.
As Mr. Skip Peterson tells us: "This is an annual fund raiser held in Buffalo, Wyoming, for a local gymnastics team. Contestants have one minute to get the greased hog, butt first into the barrel. The coed team must also dip their hands into a bucket of Crisco before the game begins. The winning time this year was 7.45 seconds. Every team had a freash pig and each pig was only allowed to participate one time. Enjoy!"