Life Sciences

Life has been growing on Earth for about 4 billion years, and during that time there have been a handful of mass extinctions that have wiped out a large percentage of complex lifeforms.  Asteroid impact, volcanic eruption, climate change, anoxia, and poison have dispatched untold numbers of once-successful species to total oblivion or a few lucky fossils.  Species also die off regularly for much less spectacular reasons, and altogether about 98% of documented species no longer exist. Cry me a river, you say, without all that death there would have been no gap for vertebrates, for mammals, for…
When the big tsunami hit Japan in 2011, many objects were washed out to sea. This flotsam provided for a giant "rafting event." A rafting event is when animals, plants, etc. float across an otherwise uncrossable body of water and end up alive on the other side. With this particular event, I don't think very many terrestrial life forms crossed the Pacific, but a lot of littoral -- shore dwelling and near shore -- animals and plants did. Even though the Pacific ocean is one big puddle and you would think that any organism anywhere in it could just go to any other part of the ocean, like in the…
By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Got bugs? Get a bat. As many species of bats are insectivores, they help keep insect populations in check. Hurricane Harvey has been devastating to people, animals and property. So it probably comes as no surprise that there are many volunteers dedicating their time to saving animals displaced by Hurricane Harvey as well. From squirrels, cats and dogs to...you guessed it...bats. It turns out that bats are not very…
“It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” ―Galadriel, LOTR, J.R.R. Tolkien Well, we've been anticipating it for months (or years), but this is our very first time meeting up since the total solar eclipse here at Starts With A Bang! Did you get to see it? Was it as spectacular for you as it was for me? I'm already looking forward to 2024, but you can look forward to a podcast coming this next week from me on just how spectacular it was! (With a judicious dose of physics and astrophysics, of course.) Patreon…
People talk about resurrecting the Mammoth, the Dodo, the Quagga, or the Tasmanian devil, or any number of extinct (or mostly extinct) creatures. I'm all for that. I suggest removing cattle farming in Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and adjoining areas of Canada, and repopulating the region with extinct megafauna. That would just be cool. There are difficulties with this, including figuring out exactly how to piece together the genome for the extinct animal, how to get a good level of genetic diversity in the neo-founding population, and how to raise the critter up from a zygote. For all these…
My father in law is an excellent amateur mixologist. I don't drink alcohol very often, but we're all up at the cabins, so last night I had a paper plane. And I believe this is what led to a night of strange and extensive dreams, and in my dreams was my recently deceased PhD adviser, Irv DeVore. (Irv was not dead in the dream.) DeVore is famous for having initiated, with Richard Lee, the first scientific study of extant living foragers, and they worked with the Ju/'Honasi of Botswana/Namibia/South Africa. So, it was strange to have the lingering dream on my mind as I opened the latest…
“Already in my original paper I stressed the circumstance that I was unable to give a logical reason for the exclusion principle or to deduce it from more general assumptions. I had always the feeling, and I still have it today, that this is a deficiency.” -Wolfgang Pauli There's never a shortage of scientific topics to explore and take interest in here at Starts With A Bang! While we have our usual slew of articles, controversies, opinions and more this week, I'm also so pleased to share a new podcast with you! This month, thanks to our Patreon supporters, we took on a very bold topic, the…
You've heard of Homo naledi, the strange "human ancestor" (really, a cousin) found a while back in South Africa. There were many skeletal remains in a cave, in the kind of shape you'd expect if they had crawled into the cave and died there, not much disturbed. They look enough like other members of our genus, Homo, to be called Homo, but if we assume that increase in brain size is the hallmark of our species, they seem to be an early grade. Over the last ten years, we have come to appreciate the fact that our genus may have differentiated into multiple species that did not have a large brain…
The Lese people practice swidden horticulture in the Ituri Forest, Congo (formerly Zaire). Living in the same area are the Efe people, sometimes known as Pygmies (but that may be an inappropriate term). The Efe and Lese share a culture, in a sense, but are distinct entities within that culture, as distinct as any people living integrated by side by side ever are. The Efe are hunter-gatherers, but the gathering of wild food part of that is largely supplanted by a traditional system of tacit exchange between Efe women and Lese farmers, whereby the Efe provide labor and the farmers provide…
The Neotropical Companion by John Kricher came out years ago, in the late 80s if I recall correctly. I've got a copy of it around somewhere. I loved that book because it did a great job integrating all the things in one place: animals, plants, habitats, evolution, etc. Even though I was working in the paleotropics at the time, I found it informative. Then, more recently, I got a revised version of the same book. I've got it around somewhere. It is from the 1990s, I think. Great book, same idea as the first one, but with more in it, and a somewhat larger format. This dates to after my…
Among quacks, epigenetics is the new quantum theory. I know I've said that before, but it's worth saying again in response to a new quack I've just discovered, courtesy of an article in The Daily Mail Fail by one Dr. Sara Gottfried pimping her books and health empire, From taking a sauna to drinking pinot noir, a fascinating book by a hormone doctor reveals how to... switch off your bad genes and live longer. Epigenetics. She's talking about epigenetics. Of course, she keeps using that word. I do not think it means what she thinks it means. Indeed, if what's in this article is a taste of what…
Darwin's Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind is a new book on cultural evolution in humans from a biological perspective. This is an interesting book and a good book, and I recommend it, but I need to add a strong caveat. The author could have made a more compelling argument had he more carefully studied and used some of the prior work that makes a similar argument. He strangely cites Terry Deacon in two places (once as a psychologist, incorrectly) for work Deacon has done, but seems to ignore Deacon's key thesis, which is pretty much the same as Laland's key thesis. (See:…
“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” -Neil Gaiman Another week, another slew of fantastic stories down here at Starts With A Bang! If you've been wondering about what the Starts With A Bang Podcast is going to be about this month, wonder no longer! It's on the expanding Universe, and what's still so controversial about all…
Of all the forms of unproven and disproven alternative medicine being enthusiastically "integrated" into science-based medicine by proponents of "integrative medicine" (formerly—and sometimes still—known as "complementary and alternative medicine," or CAM), so-called "traditional Chinese medicine" (TCM) is clearly among the most popular and seemingly the most accepted. After all, acupuncture, the most famous modality in the TCM armamentarium, is offered in dozens of academic medical centers and hundreds of medical centers in the US, but it goes beyond that. It doesn't matter that the totality…
A few suggestions for holiday gifts, or library upgrades, in the topic of birds. Thinking About Birds Thinking Some very interesting books came out this year that investigate bird brains. Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence by Nathan Emery is the best current book on animal intelligence, and one of the best bird books you'll be able to lay your hands on right now. My review of the book is here. What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young is an exploration of nature via the senses (mainly visual and auditory) of birds, and of the…
Here is my selection of the top science books from 2016, excluding those mainly for kids. Also, I don't include climate change related books here either. (These will both be covered in separate posts.) The number of books on this list is not large, and I think this was not the most prolific year ever for top science books. But, the ones on the list are great! For brevity, I'm mostly using the publisher's info below. Where I've reviewed the book, there is a link to that review. Click through to the reviews if you want to read my commentary, but in most cases, you can judge these books by…
The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals ,by Donald R. Prothero, is the first extinct animal book that you, dear reader, are going to give to someone for the holidays. This book is an interesting idea. Never mind the field guide part for a moment. This isn't really set up like a field guide, though it is produced by the excellent producers of excellent field guides at Princeton. But think about the core idea here. Take every group of mammal, typically at the level of Order (Mammal is class, there are more than two dozen living orders with about 5,000 species) and ask for each one, "…
Crows are smart. Anyone who watches them for a while can figure this out. But that is true of a lot of things. Your baby is smart (not really). Your dog is smart (not really). Ants are smart (sort of). It takes a certain degree of objective research, as well as some serious philosophy of intelligence (to define what smart is) to really address this question. But when the research is done and the dust settles, crows are smart. We were all amazed (or not, because we already knew that crows are smart) to find that New Caledonian crows made and used tools. Now, we know (see my most recent…
Image of a rat in the New York City subway By m01229 from USA, from Wikimedia commons News out of Flagstaff, Arizona reports that a biotechnology company in the area, SenesTech, has developed a birth control for rats that was recently cleared by the Environmental Protection Agency. The new drug comes in the form of a sweetened liquid bait that has been shown to reduce rodent populations by as much as 40%. It works in female rats by inducing loss of eggs whereas in male rats it disrupts development of sperm. The drug is also being tested in other feral animals such as dogs, cats, and mice.…
Wildlife of Southeast Asia by Susan Myers, is a new pocket identification guide covering "wildlife" in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, West Malaysia, and Singapore. It covers birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs, and invertebrates. Considering that there must be tens of millions of inverts in Southeast Asia, the coverage here is very minimal, just the highlights, just a few pages. This is mainly a bird book, with pretty good coverage of mammals, a bunch of snakes, some of the more important frogs, and some of the more obvious insects, etc. It is standard field guide size, and uses…