Biology

Microbes from Hell in Nature

November 7, 2016
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Microbes from Hell in Nature

From a sterling write-up of Patrick Forterre’s pursuit of the single-celled archaea, via a review of Microbes from Hell in Nature: Forterre was fascinated by the ideas of microbiologist Carl Woese. In the 1970s, Woese realized that ‘archaebacteria’ were distinct from bacteria, for instance in the sequences of their ribosomal RNA. In 1990, Woese and his colleagues proposed to divide life into three domains: bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes. The concept has gradually been accepted, but Forterre — with microbiologists Wolfram Zillig and Otto Kandler, among others — was an early ‘believer.’ As he relates, most of the archaea that had then been isolated were extremophiles. These include hyperthermophilic microbes that thrive above 80 °C and are typically found in habitats such as deep-ocean vents. Up to the 1970s, the consensus had been that most such habitats were hostile to life, but a handful of groundbreaking microbiologists changed that. Thomas Brock, for instance, began to isolate hyperthermophilic archaea, including the genus Sulfolobus, from hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Later, German microbiologist Karl Stetter showed that many surprising habitats, even oil fields, teemed with microbial life. In the 1980s, Forterre began to analyse the hyperthermophilic archaea isolated by Stetter and Zillig, looking . . .

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October 4: Happy World Animal Day!

October 4, 2016
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October 4: Happy World Animal Day!

In honor of World Animal Day and to raise awareness of its significance, University of Chicago Press author Marc Bekoff dedicated his recurring Huffington Post column to the event, which originated in 1925 (and whose fascinating history you can read here). The purpose of World Animal Day? From the mission statement: Raise the status of animals in order to improve welfare standards around the globe. Building the celebration of World Animal Day unites the animal welfare movement, mobilising it into a global force to make the world a better place for all animals.  It’s celebrated in different ways in every country, irrespective of nationality, religion, faith or political ideology.  Through increased awareness and education we can create a world where animals are always recognised as sentient beings and full regard is always paid to their welfare. Bekoff’s post considers the ongoing relevance of a day devoted to invoking awareness around animal needs and welfare, including the hyperlink-filled excerpt below, which connects to just a few of the concerns worth our attention, chief among them the continued role we play in animal abuse, and what we can do about it: There’s no shortage of examples in which billions of nonhuman animals (animals) are abused by humans . . .

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Free e-book for September: Hope on Earth

September 6, 2016
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Free e-book for September: Hope on Earth

Our free e-book for September is Paul R. Ehrlich and Michael Charles Tobias’s Hope on Earth: A Conversation. Download your copy here. *** Hope on Earth is the thought-provoking result of a lively and wide-ranging conversation between two of the world’s leading interdisciplinary environmental scientists: Paul R. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb shook the world in 1968 (and continues to shake it), and Michael Charles Tobias, whose over 40 books and 150 films have been read and/or viewed throughout the world.  Hope on Earthoffers a rare opportunity to listen in as these deeply knowledgeable and highly creative thinkers offer their takes on the most pressing environmental concerns of the moment. Both Ehrlich and Tobias argue that we are on the verge of environmental catastrophe, as the human population continues to grow without restraint and without significant attempts to deal with overconsumption and the vast depletion of resources and climate problems it creates. Though their views are sympathetic, they differ in their approach and in some key moral stances, giving rise to a heated and engaging dialogue that opens up dozens of new avenues of exploration.  They both believe that the impact of a human society on its environment is . . .

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Wattana: An Orangutan in Paris

August 31, 2016
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Wattana: An Orangutan in Paris

Wattana: An Orangutan in Paris tells the story of the titular primate, who (to cite the book’s jacket copy) “drinks tea, sews, draws on papers and is a self-taught master of tying and untying knots.” Again, and true to the title, it was in Paris where author Chris Herzfeld first fell in like with Wattana, who lives in the Jardin des Plantes Zoo, and where she began her expansive chronicle of primates in captivity—from the first arrival of orangutans from Europe in 1776 to the experience of caretakers and their captive subjects in several contemporary zoos. Along the way, Herzfeld’s research confirmed an ominous likelihood: scientists anticipate that orangutans will disappear from the wild by 2030. The book epitomizes recent efforts by the University of Chicago Press to lead the field in scholarship on human-animal relationships, capped off by our new Animal Lives series, and showcased in the bond that develops between Herzfeld and Wattana, which extends beyond the anthropological into the intimacies of daily life. In the meantime, Herzfeld has produced a series of videos documenting Wattana’s activities. Below, you’ll see a nine minute clip in which she ties and unties knots in over twenty different sequences, each more complex than . . .

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August excerpt: What Is a Dog?

August 26, 2016
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August excerpt: What Is a Dog?

“Why Do Village Dogs All Look Alike?”* Of the billion dogs in the world, three-quarters of them look as much alike as do the individuals of any other species. A few years ago we asked a Navajo shepherd what a Navajo sheepdog looked like. He said, “A Navajo sheepdog is not too big and not too small.” To us the Navajo sheepdogs were identical in size and shape and color variations with the sheepdogs of Sonora and the village dogs in the mountains of Venezuela or the ones we worked with in eastern and South Africa or saw in India and China. That is true of the majority of dogs in the world—they are not too big and they are not too small. One of the most fascinating details about that 85 percent of the dogs in the world that control their own reproductive life is: they all look alike. The similarity between the pigeon world and dog world continues. Pigeons, in some sense, all look alike. The pigeons in the Mexico City dump fly and look just like the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, like the pigeons in Istanbul, like the pigeons in Central Park, like the pigeons in Milan. . . .

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Free e-book for July: Bigfoot

July 6, 2016
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Free e-book for July: Bigfoot

Our free e-book for July is Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend by Joshua Blu Buhs— download your copy here! *** In August 2009, two men in rural Georgia announced that they had killed Bigfoot. The claim drew instant, feverish attention, leading to more than 1,000 news stories worldwide—despite the fact that nearly everyone knew it was a hoax. Though Bigfoot may not exist, there’s no denying Bigfoot mania. With Bigfoot, Joshua Blu Buhs traces the wild and wooly story of America’s favorite homegrown monster. He begins with nineteenth-century accounts of wildmen roaming the forests of America, treks to the Himalayas to reckon with the Abominable Snowman, then takes us to northern California in 1958, when reports of a hairy hominid loping through remote woodlands marked Bigfoot’s emergence as a modern marvel. Buhs delves deeply into the trove of lore and misinformation that has sprung up around Bigfoot in the ensuing half century. We meet charlatans, pseudo-scientists, and dedicated hunters of the beast—and with Buhs as our guide, the focus is always less on evaluating their claims than on understanding why Bigfoot has inspired all this drama and devotion in the first place. What does our fascination with this . . .

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Jellyfish (in nature—the other Nature)

May 27, 2016
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Jellyfish (in nature—the other Nature)

Just in time for this weekend’s unofficial “start of summer” gong, Nature (yea, that Nature—though also, ostensibly, “nature,” the wilder of nouns, not that other one qua Lucretius’s De rerum natura) came through with a review of Lisa-ann Gershwin’s Jellyfish: A Natural History. Stuck behind a paywall? Here it is in its glory, for your holiday reads: One resembles an exquisitely ruffled and pleated confection of pale silk chiffon; another, a tangle of bioluminescent necklaces cascading from a bauble. Both marine drifters (Desmonema glaciale and Physalia) feature in jellyfish expert Gershwin’s absorbing coffee-table book on this transparent group with three evolutionary lineages. Succinct science is intercut with surreal portraiture — from the twinkling Santa’s hat jellyfish (Periphylla periphylla) to the delicate blue by-the-wind sailor (Velella velella). To read more about Jellyfish, click here. . . .

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What Is a Dog? in the New York Times

April 22, 2016
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What Is a Dog? in the New York Times

Raymond and Lorna Coppinger have long been acknowledged as two of our foremost experts on canine behavior—a power couple for helping us to understand the nature of dogs, our attachments to them, and how genetic heritage, environmental conditions, and social construction govern our understanding of what a dog is and why it matters so much to us. In a profile of their latest book What Is a Dog?, the New York Times articulates what’s at stake in the Coppingers’ nearly four decades of research: Add them up, all the pet dogs on the planet, and you get about 250 million. But there are about a billion dogs on Earth, according to some estimates. The other 750 million don’t have flea collars. And they certainly don’t have humans who take them for walks and pick up their feces. They are called village dogs, street dogs and free-breeding dogs, among other things, and they haunt the garbage dumps and neighborhoods of most of the world. In their new book, “What Is a Dog?,” Raymond and Lorna Coppinger argue that if you really want to understand the nature of dogs, you need to know these other animals. The vast majority are not strays or lost . . .

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Ted Levin on the reintroduction of timber rattlesnakes

March 30, 2016
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Ted Levin on the reintroduction of timber rattlesnakes

Ted Levin’s recent piece for the Boston Globe Magazine on reintroducing timber rattlesnakes to a Massachusetts island was aptly subheaded, “The plan to release poisonous snakes in the Quabbin freaks people out. But snakes are the ones that should be worried.” Timber rattlers are the subject of Levin’s forthcoming America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, so he’s certainly the go-to authority on the situation. Below follows a brief excerpt, which outlines the perspective Levin suggests we embrace: Releasing snakes on Mount Zion may pose far more danger to the snakes themselves than there ever will be to shoreline fishermen or outdoors enthusiasts. Yes, rattlesnakes occasionally swim, but there is no evidence that they ever lived in the hills (now islands) in Quabbin Reservoir’s man-made wilderness. And it isn’t clear that Mount Zion could support a population of overwintering rattlesnakes. Even if the snakes could find a retreat below the frost line, no one knows if there are enough mice and chipmunks on the 1,400-plus-acre island to support them. The unleashing of rattlesnakes on Mount Zion should be viewed as a scientific experiment, starting with snakes from populations not as threatened as those here (like Pennsylvania). Step one should be: Release a . . .

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The Book of Frogs

February 26, 2016
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The Book of Frogs

Boing Boing recently profiled Tim Halliday’s The Book of Frogs: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World, but the real coup was a live link to sample pages, which showcase some of the majestically weird amphibians curated therein. You can see a handful of those images after the jump, but be sure to check out a glossy PDF of even more, via (full-size) additional samples posted to the book’s UCP site. *** To read more about The Book of Frogs, click here. . . .

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