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Exploring evolution through genes, computers and history

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  • 10/12/11--06:06: Hooks can be deceiving
  • pentastomeEvery animal has its own parasites to worry about, but canivorous reptiles and amphibians have to deal with particularly gruesome ones. They can become infected with small, worm-like creatures called pentastomes that live inside their lungs, where they suck blood from ruptured blood vessels. Reptiles pick up the parasite when they eat infected prey. Pentastomes [...]

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    These plague victims were excavated from the East Smithfield burial grounds between 1986 and 1988.The plague bacteria that swept through medieval Europe had been declared extinct just over a month ago. A quick google search reveals articles with headlines such as ‘Medieval plague bacteria strain probably extinct’ and ‘Black death strain extinct’. Few writers mentioned that the original research on which they reported was a technical paper first and [...]

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    The lancelet is named after 'lancet', a double-bladed surgical knife.Few people will find delight in the dredge that is hauled from the ocean floor. But for the British biologist Ray Lankester, such hauls represented an unseen world of wonder. In his Diversions of a Naturalist he describes how an encounter with a creature from the bottom of the sea that filled him with so [...]

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  • 11/07/11--09:01: MolBio Carnival #16!
  • Welcome to the cell!Welcome to the sixteenth edition of the MolBio Carnival! Some great blog posts on cellular and molecular biology have been submitted, many of them written by first-time contributors, so I urge you to check them all out. Let’s not waste any time and get this carnival started. It’s time to explore the most intricate machine [...]

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    The lancelet has neither heart nor hemoglobin.Summary: Scientists show that vertebrate-specific globins originated in two rounds of genome duplication. We vertebrates work for our O2. Whether we’re a fish or antelope, we all have gills and lungs to filter oxygen out of air or water. We also have beating hearts to transport oxygen-rich blood to the most distant corners of our [...]

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    This Limosa Harlequin Frog has died from chytridiomycosis. Notice the reddening of the skin and the lesions on its belly.These are not the best of times for amphibians. All around the world, populations of frogs, salamanders and newts are declining. At least 489 species (7.8% of all known amphibians) are nearing extinction. More than a hundred of these endangered species have not been seen in recent years, and have likely gone extinct already. Who [...]

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    The new species Yeti crab: Kiwa puravida (missing two walking legs, sadly).Deep beneath the waters of Costa Rica, dozens of crabs are waving their claws in unison, in what seems to be a rhythmic performance. It’s almost as if these crabs are locked in a ritual dance. But these charming crabs are not dancing. They are farming. The hairy claws of these crabs are covered with [...]

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  • 12/14/11--12:05: Evolving between the echoes
  • Isolation can be a blessing. I am most productive when I’m not connected to the web. If I’m writing in a train or plane, severed from the thoughts of others, it is easier to capture my own trails of thought and let them expand. Don’t get me wrong, my inner writer loves the internet. It’s [...]

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  • 12/15/11--11:41: Return of the Yeti Crab
  • yeticrabRemember the dancing Yeti Crabs? They’re back! Check out this amazing illustration of two farming Yeti Crabs by Irene Goede: So white, so hairy.. I want to pet them! Irene is a freelance illustrator who has specialized in nature and history. Every week, she draws an animal that has been in the news for the [...]

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    cretaceous_fishLike most evolutionary tales, this one could have started on the Galapagos Islands. Instead we find ourselves in an ancient sea, near the end of the Devonian, 360 million years ago. A mass extinction has struck life underwater. The armoured placoderms, once an abundant class of fishes, have gone extinct. Other groups of fishes have [...]

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    My blog postHappy belated new year everyone! 2011 was a wonderful year for me. Not only did my blog move to its shiny new abode at Scientific American, I also joined the science desk of NRC Handelsblad, a daily Dutch newspaper. I started out as an intern and was later hired as a staff writer. Since I’m [...]

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  • 01/16/12--05:05: More than Just Pretty Faces
  • uakari_squareSpecks. Stripes. Red fur. Black fur. Eye masks. Bald spots. Beards. Moustaches. New World monkeys are nature’s motley crew. Their faces display an extraordinary range of colours and patterns. Some are simple and straightforward, others intricate and complex. Take the bald uakari. Its hypervascularized, red skin is striking, but uniform. The uakari’s nose is just [...]

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    coelacanth_screenshotIt was supposed to be extinct. Yet here it lay, with fins round and fleshy, scales as hard as bone and a tail unlike any living fish. “Lass, this discovery will be on the lips of every scientist in the world”, James Smith said to Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of the East London Museum. Smith had [...]

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    A nursehound swallowed the Brighton octopus whole.These are good times to have tentacles. Thanks to the internet, even the most ordinary of octopuses can be catapulted to worldwide fame. Exceptional skills or abilities are not required. A simple coconut hiding act or a short crawl over land are more than enough to break the internet headlines. But as this new generation [...]

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    Geothermal field near Mutnovsky, Kamtchatka. Copyright Anna S. Karyagina“But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etcetera present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes [..] ” ~Charles Darwin, in a letter to Joseph Hooker (1871) All [...]

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    Larva of a crocodile icefish. Photo by Uwe Kils.Few fish would survive a swim in Antartica’s ice-covered waters. Temperatures can drop to -1.9 ℃, whereas a typical fish starts to freeze at -0.8 ℃. If the water is colder, microscopic ice crystals will soon infiltrate the fish through gills and skin and start growing from within. Nerves are severed, tissues damaged, and the [...]

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    A wild eel in the Grevelingenmeer. Photo shot by Arne Kuilman, all rights reserved.Few animals travel so far to have sex as the European eel. When autumn comes, these eels leave their lakes and rivers and embark on an arduous journey towards the Sargasso sea. Most fish perish in the first leg. Some are crushed in the turbines of hydroelectricity plants, others are caught in basket traps. For [...]

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    Molybdenum was 'ineluctable' for the origin of life. Photo courtesy Alcehmist-hp.“Have you ever read Ulysses?” The question catches me off guard. I am interviewing Michael Russell, a geochemist working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Russell was originally trained as an ore prospector, but several twists and turns in his scientific career brought him where geology, chemistry and biology intersect: the origin of life. Decades of [...]

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    The aurochs were the ancestors of domestic cattle.Animals were wilder then. Horns were longer, temperaments fiercer. These wild things had forever been free when humans took control of their flocks and herds, 10.000 years ago. Through careful breeding and rearing, the first pastoralists of the Near East moulded the beasts into more docile versions of their former selves. Over time, Bezoar became [...]

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    Tarrasius crushed its prey with its molars, just like modern wolf eels do. Photo Dan Hershman.Evolution has a knack for confronting us with strange and unexpected questions. One of them echoed through the halls of the Collections Centre of the National Museum of Scotland, not too long ago: “Why does a fish need a sacrum!?” Lauren Sallan was peering through her microscope, studying a fossil specimen of Tarrasius, when she [...]

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