Friday, November 28, 2008

Life Photo Meme: Edible

Kingdom: Protista

Phylum: Phaeophyta

Class: Phaeophyceae

Order: Laminariales

Family: Lessoniaceae

Here we have some giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera. While not very tasty by itself (to my mind), brown alga such as the giant kelp contain algin. Algin is often used as a thickening agent in many foods such as puddings, ice cream, icing, candies, as well as some beauty products. If you have a thick and creamy food item, check the ingredients and chances are algin or carrageenan (from red algae) is present. While algin may help add to our waistline by being in such yummy foods, a second compound, fucoxanthin may promote weight loss [1, 2].

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cloning mammoths?!

There's a really interesting article in November's issue of Nature. The author Henry Nicholls answers the question what would it take to clone a mammoth. This is more of an intellectual exercise than an actual doable process at the moment, but only because they don't have the entire genome of the mammoth sequenced yet.

I was very impressed with the detail and clarity of the article, it brought up questions that I never considered. When making a mammoth, figuring out the genome is a relatively easy task. It's fairly easy to read the genes, but which genes go on which chromosomes? How do you then turn that huge library of letters into a set number of chromosomes, when you have no idea what that number is? And what about mitochondria? Those organelles are not built by instructions contained in the nucleus, but are transferred from mother to offspring (in rare cases, the fathers contribute some too). Nicholls does a wonderful job of laying out the problems and suggesting solutions based on research techniques that are currently being used for other (but similar) purposes.

So if you want to know what would be involved in building a mammoth, or you are just interested in learning about some cutting-edge research in cellular biology, check out this article.


I love walking into my workplace and seeing stuff like this. This baby pacific seahorse is just three days old and about a centimeter long. The male gave birth to a batch of babies after a 9 day gestation period. Normally, they can hold 2-3,000 eggs in their pouch, but this particular daddy gave birth to only 75. That could be because the female dropped the eggs when she was transferring them to the male, or because she just did not make that many eggs. I am looking forward to seeing these little cuties grow up.

BTW, those dots you see around the seahorse are rotifers, which are the current food source for our babies (and only ~0.5mm long!).

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Photohunter: Reflection of my inner geekyness

This is a picture of a collection of artifacts I have in my house. The collection is often a surprise to most visitors, but give who we generally hang out with, it ends up being a fascinating conversation piece. Not only does our collection offer a glimpse at our inner geekyness to visitors, but they are often used as educational tools for the various classes and fairs that we teach. Most of these items were gotten from the various institutions that me and my husband have worked at or volunteered for over the years. Often, when departments have to move their collections, things get stuck in a cardboard box in the back halls with a sign saying "free, take me home!".

Some of my favorite pieces are:

  • A 60 million year old sperm whale fossil tooth bought from the Bone Room (a super awesome place), the elongate, black fossil in the front center right.
  • A paper nautilus 'shell', in the open box in front of the true nautilus shell.
  • A copy of an archaeopteryx skull, in the clear black bottomed box in the center.
  • A fossil of an open brachiopod, showing the fossilized internal structures (mainly the brachidium, which supports the lophophore)

It's a good thing my spouse and I both like biology!

Life Photo Meme: Unloved

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Family: Viperidea

This rattlesnake is definitely an unloved animal. Most live in fear of encountering it due to its poisonous nature and rapid strike abilities. It has the ability to strike without pulling its body back first, and can reach 1/3 to 1/2 their body length. The rattle on the tail is added to every time the snake sheds its skin. However, there is one species of rattlesnake which does not have a rattle, the tree-climbing Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake. Since this rattlesnake sneaks up and eats birds, it lost its rattle.

Rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous, retaining eggs within their body and giving birth to live young after 90 days. They are also the newest snake group, with an interesting heat sensitive organ located on the sides of their heads. According to the San Diego zoo, when rattlers hibernate for the winter, they use the same den that they were born in. It has been reported that some dens have been used for 100 years [1].

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Photohunter: Ruined

I was going to post something else, but a quick look outside my window changed my mind. This was taken at 2:30 pm. Right now, Southern CA is being hammered by wildfires. A little to the north of me, there are some major fires going on and many people are being evacuated. Needless to say, our air quality is ruined as well.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Life Photo Meme: Secret

What is the secret behind the demise of this coral? I don't know for sure, but I can make a pretty good guess based on the picture. Can you?

It looks like this coral has been the victim of that famous corallivore, the crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster sp.). You can see part of the culprit in the center bottom of the picture. What looks like a patch of grey, red-tipped spines is actually the starfish. The crown of thorns is infamous for eating corals. They crawl on top and digest the fleshy parts, leaving the stripped white skeleton of the coral behind. Their spines are also a painful irritant to humans.

The crown of thorns is distributed throughout the indo-pacific, and has been thought to consist of single species, Acanthaster planci. However recent molecular evidence suggests that there are actually four species of Acanthaster [1].

This coral-eating starfish can devastate reefs when they appear in high numbers, but there is hope from a coral eating starfish.

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Echinodermata

Class: Asteroidea

Order: Spinulosida

Family: Acanthasteridae

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mussels on the Move

Mussels can be a dominate organism in many rocky intertidal communities. Unlike other permanent residents, like barnacles and algae that are permanently attached to the rocks, mussels can move short distances by creating byssal threads. The byssal threads are primarily used as a means of attachment, but by creating and attaching new byssal threads and cutting lose from old ones, mussels can pull themselves along rocky shores.

People who walk around in the intertidal may notice, like the authors of a cool article featured in Science, that mussels often cluster in interesting patterns on the rocks. The authors found that the size of the clusters and the pattern of the clusters is consistent among mussel beds (with similar mussel densities), set out to determine why.

They found that if you spread mussels out evenly in the laboratory, they will spontaneously form clusters similar to those seen in the field, even in the absence of the rocky substratum and wave action found in the field. They also found that if you place mussels in various-sized clusters at the start, there is a difference in movement based on initial cluster size. Mussels in small clusters (with 2-8 individuals) and mussels in large clusters (with 128 individuals) tended to move around and rearrange themselves a lot more than medium size clusters. So, mussels really want to be in a cluster of a certain size... but why?

Large clusters have may have a food limitation. With all of their neighbors filter feeding, having to many individuals around you may limit the amount of food you can capture. When the authors squirted food in the middle of large clusters, the individual mussels were pretty content to stay in the large cluster. But if clustering reduces food, why cluster? When placed back out in the field, individuals who were not in a cluster were more likely to be knocked off by wave action.

So, individual mussel will gather together in a cluster, but when the neighborhood gets too crowded they move. By arranging themselves in the rather interesting maze-like pattern of clusters and spaces often seen in the intertidal, individuals get protection from wave action, and have a higher growth rate than densely-packed mussel beds.

Van de Koppel, J., J. Gascoigne, G. Theraulaz, M. Rietkerk, M. Mooij, and P. Herman. 2008. Experimental evidence for spatial self-organization and its emergent effects in mussel bed ecosystems. Science. 322:739-742.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Photohunter: Together

(No on prop 8 post-election rally)

I was going to do a post on colonial organisms for this week's together post, but given what has been happening here in my home state, I thought I'd hijack my own blog and talk about something more political this week.

As you all know, three states have passed bans on gay marriage this election cycle. I am most disappointed in California, which recently allowed gay marriages, and where I have been listening to very weak arguments for this ban. First off, why is this an issue? CA does have a very good civil union package which offers most of the rights and responsibilities that married have, but these unions are not recognized in many of the other states or by the federal government. A marriage performed in one state is recognized in other states. "Marriage" as a secular term does not (or did not) include a religious aspect, people can get their marriage officiated by whoever they want, but cannot force someone (or a church) to officiate. So offering marriage to same-sex couples does not change anything for different-sex couples, but does allow same-sex couples to stay married if they move and paves the way for federal benefits/taxes to be given to same-sex couples.

(Parents of gay children show support in a gay pride parade)

Protecting "traditional marriage" is a poor excuse to refuse same-sex marriages. Just because something has "always" been done this way does not make it right to continue to deny a minority's rights. Of course, marriage has NOT "always" been done this way. Marriage was about transfer of property (cows/land for women to establish bloodlines), which meant it could be between one man and several women. Currently, marriage is about two people deciding to pool their financial and physical resources to set up a household together, and formalizing that agreement through governmental records.

(Me and my spouse after our civil wedding)

I am very ashamed for this state, in which the narrow majority has decided to strip a minority of legal rights, and codify that bigotry in the state's constitution. Saying it's the will of the people does not excuse it. An unpopular minority cannot expect that the majority will look after its rights. Until a short while ago (1958), the majority disavowed marrying people of differing races. I hope that soon, I will be able to express the same disbelief that marrying people of the same gender was ever an issue.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Life photo meme: Mystery Sacoglossan

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Mollusca

Class: Gastropoda

Order: Sacoglossa

Family: Hermaeidae

I recently went on a collecting trip up the coast, and there were hundreds of these sea slugs wandering around on the mud flats we were at. They are really small (my hand is the background in the picture), and the trip leader could not identify them. I took a quick picture and they took a egg mass back with them, to try and ID these slugs. I asked a friend who works with sea slugs and she tentatively identified them as an Aplysiopsis species. Interestingly, she had gone on a trip farther north, and seen hundreds of these as well. So they seemed to be blooming all along the central/northern part of the coast.

Alas, we won't truly know what species it is unless we look at its radula and penis, two of the main features used to distinguish different sea slugs. But this little adventure has allowed me to get some fun footage of mystery slug veliger larvae! This larval type is characteristic of gastropods, and if you look at them you will notice that as larvae, they all have shells. The shell is lost in the adult sea slug.

Without further ado...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Drive by posting

Another super cute baby octopus picture! They seem to be pretty healthy looking, and have the strength/ cunning to escape their enclosures. So far, I've returned two to their tanks after they have escaped to the wet table. One of them even caught its first meal the other day. (We fed it a small grass shrimp) Hopefully, they will survive to adulthood.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Photohunter: Blue

"Blue you sit so pretty west of the one"
-- Red Hot Chili Peppers
Road Trippin'

(Hanauma Bay, Hawaii)

For me there is only one blue... the endless blue of the ocean. It is so fascinating words cannot describe it. Even if you only get to visit the edge, it's amazing; and if you get the chance to immerse yourself, it's like stepping into another world.

( Los_Cat at Blue Pearl Bay, Australia)

I can't remember a time when I was not fascinated by the ocean.

Fun ocean facts:

  • 70% of the world's oxygen is produced by organisms in the ocean
  • 70% of the world's surface living space is provided by oceans, and 95% of the world's living space by volume.
  • 20-50% of the world's species are found in the ocean (this number is skewed towards the terrestrial as more species have been identified on land, and the large number of insect species)

And there is still so much to learn!

Life Photo Meme: Scary but cool spider

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Arachnida

Order: Araneae

Family: Tetragnathidae

Spiders are definitely on many people's scary list, especially when they are as large as your hand. This is a golden orb weaver, most likely Nephila clavipes. The Nephila genus is rather interesting. Males tend to be much smaller than females, 1/10 the size of females, and live on the female's web eating their food. Males will mate with the female while she is busy, general while she is eating.

Of course, what the golden orb weavers are most famous for is their webs.

Their webs are a beautiful golden color, very large (1 meter or 3 feet in width) and very strong. Their webs are strong enough to catch a bird (not that they want to catch birds), and last for several years. There has been research on the properties of all spider silk, and some very innovative uses for the golden orb weaver's silk in particular. The silk of golden web spiders has been used to culture nerves cells, and may be useful as a 'nerve graft' as nerve cells adhere to it, it does not cause a major immune response, and is resistant to decay by bacterial or fungal agents [1].