Tag: biology

One more thing…

I’ve seen a bunch of different dinosaur pictures over the years, all of them highly speculative when it comes to colour; the colouration and look of dinosaurs has generally been in the hands of artists, not scientists, because you can’t figure those things out from bones or even skin and feather impressions. But not any more, or at least not for Sinosauropteryx.

Clever, clever  scientists at Bristol University, led by Mike Benton and working with Chinese palaeontologists, have used electron microscopes to find imprints of the melanosomes that carry pigment in hair and feather cells, and by doing so have deduced that Sinosauropteryx – a small theropod in the Compsognathis family, and the earliest dinosaur known to have feathers –  had a “russet” mohawk. (I’m reminded of our old friend Amargasaurus at Melbourne Museum, though its “mohawk” was made of bony spines, not feathers.) Just as importantly, the presence of melanosomes also puts to bed the debate over whether the structures are really feathers: they are.

I wonder now if modern punks will dye their hair in authentic shades from the Cretaceous, or if cosmetics manufacturers will see fit to release “theropod vermillion” rouge or lip gloss? The possibilities are without number…

Mixalot, Mercury, McKenzie…

What do these names have in common? Well, they all like big bottoms, and today, according to the ABC, so do scientists.

The rather sensational headline “Scientists back big bottoms” isn’t quite the reality; rather they have discovered the reason why it is healthier to carry extra wait on the thighs, hips and buttocks than around the abdomen. That this is the case is old news – it’s why those diabetes ads talk about the measurement of your waistline, not your weight – but now Oxford scientists have determined that not all fat is equal.

There are big differences in the fat cells in different part of the body; for one thing, lower body fat is less metabolically active: it doesn’t quickly absorb fats from your diet or release them when needed for exercise. That’s the purpose of abdominal fat. But lower body fat instead produces the hormones leptin and adiponectin, which assist in the processing of fats and sugars – thus helping guard against diseases like diabetes. In sharper contrast, abdominal fat produces evil hormones that fight the leptin and adiponectin, causing an opposite effect, so having fat everywhere has a net negative effect (well, we already knew that, but now we know it chemically as well). If ever there was a time to misuse the phrase “the battle of the bulge”, this is it.

It’s an interesting reminder that so many of the terms we use are generalisations: fat isn’t just a homogeneous type of tissue which is bad in excess and good in the right amount, it has different types each with different roles to play. And the basic upshot of this news is that if you exercise you’ll be healthier than if you don’t, even if you’re still carrying some weight on your hips. And of course you should carry some weight there, because as the Man in the Lab Coat always says: they’re called pleasures of the flesh because flesh is required.

Now: I’m off to listen to Jonathan Coulton’s cover of Baby Got Back.

A million million slimy things…

I promised a follow up on the Lebbeus shrimp, but so far I’ve had no luck in locating the name of the beast. Next stop: contacting the discoverer, who I think may be a friend of a friend. (Scientific circles are about as small in Melbourne as artistic ones, it seems.)

While I’ve no name yet, I do have some other stuff to update you on, thanks to another dear friend, who sent me an email full of helpful insights. I was talking about the diversity of creatures in Australia and how we are lacking in enough taxonomists to name them all; turns out there’s been a recent report, “Numbers of Living Species in Australia and the World“, which shows it’s a bigger issue than I thought. Most of our mammals and reptiles aren’t found anywhere else, which means no-one else is going to find them; and we still have around 75% of our species to discover. That’s after three years in which we’ve already been finding new ones at around 18,000 new species a year!

How to share the data about all these new species is another problem entirely, but one that the Atlas of Living Australia has been set up to solve. A government project under the banner of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, the Atlas boasts an impressive line-up of supporters, including most of Australia’s prominent universities and museums. Eventually it will form an authoritative, freely accessible central database of Australian species, allowing anyone who’s interested to find out, well, pretty much anything about any kind of Australian flora or fauna. (Or protists, fungi and prokaryotes, come to that.) It’s also intended to be distributed and federated, meaning it won’t be reliant on a central database or technology, and on this score it’s already making use of open source and/or free software (its news site runs on WordPress – as does benmckenzie.com.au – and the page discussing other possible software tools is hosted by free wiki host pbwiki). Mind you, it’s described as a five-year project on its front page, and it still seems to be in an early stage; if we’re going to get those tens of thousands of species in there, we’d better get a move on before they’re all gone!

We might find out that they’re on the way out through users of ClimateWatch, a new initiative of the thirty year old EarthWatch Institute. Anyone – yes, that means you or I or even first user Julia Gillard, when she isn’t busy defending Australian racism while in the US – can create an account and start posting their observations of the wildlife in their area. Noticed the magpies arriving in your neighbourhood, heard frogs calling, or been observing an increase in cicada noises? Now you can put those bits of data somewhere they’ll do some good. It’s a very simple sign-up process, and even if you only contribute one bit of data, it’s bound to be of use to someone somewhere. (If you’re a birdwatcher, get yourself on there now!)

So, plenty of colour and movement in Australian taxonomy – and plenty of room for you to get involved!

What’s in a name?

Australian readers will probably have heard about the travesty that is iSnack 2.0, the name chosen by voters as the name for the new variety of Vegemite (it’s the traditional yeast extract mixed with cream cheese). But names fascinate me all the more when applied to living creatures, and it seems we’re in need of some.

Australia has a dearth of taxonomists – scientists whose job is to classify, catalogue and – in conjunction with the biologists and botanists who discover them – name new species. The problem of not having enough taxonomists for the job is never more present than when we see evidence of the back-log of un-named Australian species, and in the news at the moment are hundreds of underground species from central Australia, about half going unnamed.

News.com.au invited readers to come up with names, and predictably “iBug 2.0” was an early comment. Work colleague Robert came up with the better “iBlindFish”, though it sounds rather violent.

It’s unlikely the public will really be asked to name these creatures, and in any case, those are only common names – important, but less so than the binomial names required by science. But just such a name was offered up to the public by the Australian Marine Conservation Society, when they put the rights to choose the scientific name of a newly discovered species Lebbeus shrimp on eBay back in March. (All proceeds to the conservationists, of course, though how we’re supposed to know what we’re conserving without decent funding for taxonomy I’ve no idea.)

Discovered just off the southern coast of Western Australia by Anna McCallum, a graduate student at my old stomping grounds the University of Melbourne, the shrimp – of the genus Lebbeus – looks pretty impressive with it’s yellow and green carapace dotted with red spots. In addition to the naming rights, the winner of the auction got to take home a framed portrait of the little bugger by “freelance botanical, scientific and natural history artist” Mali Moir. The story was picked up by a stack of marine blogs – everything from conservationists to aquarium enthusiasts – and the comments on Stony Reef’s article indicate the bidding got up to $3,550 before the end.

I say before the end, because even though this happened back in March, I can’t find any indication of who won, or what the shrimp was eventually named. I’ve found quite a few Lebbeus species online, including L. grandimanus, L. groenlandicus, L. balssi, L. elegans and L. polyacanthus (these last two seem to have been discovered in late 2008 in the Sea of Japan), but none of them are our red-spotted yellow and green eBay item. There’s a Lebbeus entry on Wikispecies, but almost none of the species have any details, so it’s not much help.

So what happened? I hope it’s not significant that the auction ended on April 1st… Surely someone out there knows something, but it’s a sad sign of our taxonomic paucity that no central database of Australian species exists. But fear not, lab coat readers! I shall endeavour to follow this up. Emails are even now winging their way toward people who might be in the know, and I’ll post a follow up in the coming weeks.


Friday August 14 was a pretty busy day. I was at Freeplay all day, moderating a couple of panels and checking out some others; the highlight was without doubt the international keynote address by Crayon Physics Deluxe designer, Petri Purho, whose unconventional speech included a copious amount of gameplaying (mostly Spelunky, to which he is clearly addicted, but also Enviro-Bear 2000 and ROM Check Fail, all indie games) but more importantly some of the best artistic and creative advice I’ve received in years. The man’s a genius; watch out for his next game.

As soon as that was over, though, I rushed straight down to the BMW Edge theatre at Federation Square for HYPOTHESIS, a one-night-early launch event for Science Week in Victoria. It was a big line-up; as I arrived, Teacup Tumble were midway through their circus performance as labcoated scientists, recruiting children from the audience to help do some messy experiment or other. Polarized 3D glasses were being handed out so punters could see bits of our solar system in 3D, or perhaps join a simulated party to see the effect of various choices in drug and alcohol habits. The Australian Skeptics were on hand, and in a similar but more anarchic spirit, local arts collective Tape Projects were on hand with 100 Proofs the Earth is not a Globe. (I was later challenged to name three proofs that the Earth is a globe, and was happy to find I could do this, even if a couple weren’t entirely reliable and none from personal experience. My favourite is that when there’s a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow on the moon is always round, no matter where on Earth you need to be to see the eclipse – something that could only happen if the Earth is a sphere.)

I was distracted from these at the beginning of the evening, though, as I was busy catching up with some old friends who were on the scene. By the time they left for dinner, the next main event was beginning – Speed Meet a Geek. This proved to be a bit of a highlight. It’s a speed-dating take on Science Week’s successful “Invite a Scientist to Dinner” scheme, and it involved several punters sitting at a table with a scientist, talking about whatever took our fancy. After a few minutes, there’d be an announcement and music, and the scientists would get up and move to another table. The time was, of course, all too brief, but the conversation was fascinating nonetheless; I could tell that my table mates Sue (a librarian from Albury) and Gina (who produces science shows for schools) agreed.

First up we met Steve, a young man with a similar taste to me in T-shirts, and who had studied both physics and philosophy. Fittingly he is now working in the history and philosophy of science programme at Melbourne University, where he recently has been thinking about a proposed plan to fly giant kites, equipped with turbines, 10 kilometres up in the sky, where the much faster and more constant winds would both keep them aloft and generate massive amounts of pollution free electricity. This plan was of course far too expensive to test with a prototype, so Steve built a computer simulation based on Bureau of Meterology data; the simulation sadly showed that the winds just weren’t consistently high enough to keep the kites in the air, so apart from the other practical considerations, the plan doesn’t seem feasible. It’s a shame; it’s such a beautiful idea. It makes me slightly prouder of our country that, even if we’re not really all that progressive in our ideas of power generation, we’re at least considering such things. I was left in the dark, however, about why such a plan was being tested by HPS academics, and not, say, engineers.

As if to prove that good things come in pairs, our next guests was also an HPS academic, and a very pleasant surprise for me: Neil Thomason, the man who introduced me to the history and philosophy of science through his courses at Melbourne University. I was sad to hear that Neil has retired, but not too much; after all, he now does much the same thing he used to do, just for no pay! As he himself put it, he used to ask why we should believe scientists; he now asks why we should believe statisticians. I think I made rather a hash of my attempt to answer the former, but of course the general answer is that we should believe scientists because they try to only make claims which they can back up with evidence, and use techniques to try and make sure their evidence is reliable. They’re still only human, after all…

Our next visitor was Justin, who works at the 3 Giga-electron-Volt Synchrotron located out in Clayton. More specifically, he works on one of the beamlines  – streams of highly accelerated electrons fired out of the synchrotron at 14 different points – doing analysis on crystalline structures hit by the beams. His work has implications mainly for materials science – finding new types of material for construction, technology and other uses. He was the only scientist to bring gifts – big posters of the synchrotron! I keep meaning to visit the place, and now it’s further up the list. Sue made the excellent suggestion that it would get more media attention if the whole thing lit up, so you could see something happening; while this would be completely artificial, I’m not at all against the idea. People are used to seeing stuff happen thanks to sci-fi movies!

Jo Sumner came to visit us next. I’ve met met Jo before, in her capacity as Manager of Genetic Resources at Melbourne Museum; she was one of the scientists on last year’s Not the Nobel Prize, if I remember rightly. In any case, she is lovely company, and she regaled us with a story of her trip to Indonesia when her husband, also a biologist, was studying Komodo dragons. When she revealed they’d brought their very young daughter along, I was instantly reminded of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See…, in which he recounts stories of dragons eating small children. Jo said that when she took her daughter to see her husband catch and release a dragon, she grew bored and started making a lot of noise; when the dragon was released, instead of scuttling off, it hid in the long grass and to watch Jo’s daughter. Creepy stuff…

Our next few guests were all astrophysicists and, oddly enough, all Americans currently at Swinburne University. Lee, the first cab off the rank, is studying globular star clusters, formed in the early history of the universe, and thus able to teach us about the conditions in the first billion or two years. Charmingly he carries a photo of such a cluster in his wallet, which he brings out to show us. He uses data from one of the many optical telescopes in Hawaii, where the distance above sea level reduces the distortion caused by turbulent air currents – something that makes Australia unsuitable for optical astronomy. Asked by Sue if his research can be related to mankind, he replies “only in the sense that it gives us inspiration, and is humbling”; it’s a terribly satisfying answer.

Emily, originally from Conneticut, is working on WiggleZ, a project to map 200,000 galaxies using spectral analysis data gathered by the Anglo-Australian telescope in Coonabarabran. Emily was a stargazer as a child and clearly, deeply loves her job. Since astronomers don’t really look through telescopes any more, when Emily goes to Coonabaraban to man the ‘scope, she likes to go out on the gantry at night and look up at the Milky Way, clearly visible without the light pollution of a big city. She hasn’t been yet, but as Sue suggests, she’d love to head out to the red centre and see the stars from there, too.

Our astronomical trio is completed by Andy Green, a Colorado native, who talks less about his own work but is no less fascinating for it. We mention the light pollution survey going on as part of Science Week – 2009 being the International Year of Astronomy – and he mentions that New Zealand is currently trying to have the night sky in Tekapo Valley registered as a World Heritage Site, because there is so little light pollution there that it gives a near perfect view of the Milky Way.

Our next and final guest was Tom Rich, white haired Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Musuem Victoria. He’s wearing a tie patterned with pterosaurs; when I compliment him on it, he replies that he’s only wearing a tie as he’d been to a wedding before coming to the event. I instantly liked him, and asked what kind of palaeontology he was interested in, since I know that, as awesome as they are, dinosaurs are not the obsession of every bone digger. He revealed that he was mainly interested in the mammals of the Mesozoic era, but that since he found so many dinosaurs while looking for the mammals, he’d ended up becoming “the world’s most minor authority on dinosaurs”. His background was both in physics and palaeontology, but he decided he could either be a third rate physicist or  a second rate palaeontologist, and chose the latter. (Asked by Sue if he was humble or cynical, he replied: “Both.”) Another American, Tom is married to another palaeontologist, the “Queen of Slime” (she studies the Ediacaran fauna of the late pre-Cambrian), and accompanied her to Melbourne when she undertook some research here. He decided to learn about the country by reading an issue of The Australian from front to back, and promptly found the job he has now held for many years, commuting back and forth across the Atlantic until his wife took a job at Monash University.

Our time with the scientists over, the rest of the evening was given over to conversation with old friends, new friends, and entertainment, mainly in the form of another friend, Simon Pampena. He performed a truncated teaser version of his show Super Mega Maths Battle for Planet Earth, now touring for Science Week. I took a break after that for some food, returning for Science: fact or fiction?!, a sort of revamped version of Not the Nobel Prize. I wasn’t on the panel this year, but it was stacked with people I knew: local comedians Rob Lloyd, Tegan Higginbotham, Jason Geary and Xavier Michaelides, plus Melbourne Museum’s Rolf Schmidt, who I’d worked with on Not the Nobel Prize. I must confess I missed most of the panel as I was talking with some of the Science Week volunteers and the girls from Tape Projects, but I did enjoy Rolf’s introduction to the nigh-indestructable life forms known as tardigrades, or “water bears”, and Tegan’s subsequent impression of one.

Hypothesis was a big night, and a stirling kick off to the Victoria Science Week calendar. Let’s hope we see something similar next year!