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All articles in Biology

More introversion
Ok, I got interested and did a quick Google search which led me to one of those questionnaires that determines your personality type. I'm an INTJ and frankly some parts of that description are somewhat disturbing.

INTJs are known as the "Systems Builders" of the types, perhaps in part because they possess the unusual trait combination of imagination and reliability. Whatever system an INTJ happens to be working on is for them the equivalent of a moral cause to an INFJ; both perfectionism and disregard for authority may come into play, as INTJs can be unsparing of both themselves and the others on the project. Anyone considered to be "slacking," including superiors, will lose their respect -- and will generally be made aware of this; INTJs have also been known to take it upon themselves to implement critical decisions without consulting their supervisors or co-workers. On the other hand, they do tend to be scrupulous and even-handed about recognizing the individual contributions that have gone into a project, and have a gift for seizing opportunities which others might not even notice.

I finished a big project a few weeks ago and the description above is eerily familiar.

Ok, that's enough of that.

About introversion
You all read Kottke right? You should, you know. He's why I and many other lazy writers don't have to post something every single day.

10 Myths About Introverts is something you should read if you ever plan to interact with me.
For a long time I thought I was actually borderline autistic, I don't connect easily to other people and I become actually almost physically uncomfortable when people I don't know that well engage me in chit-chat.
It's not that I don't have an opinion on the weather (everyone in the Netherlands does, it's our favourite topic!) or don't want to talk about my weekend/interests. I also don't mind if people tell me about their holiday/weekend/whatever. But I probably won't be the first to enthusiastically ask you what it was like. I figure that you'll tell me if something interesting happened.
This probably comes across as my being terribly uninterested, aloof and maybe ever at times arrogant. This isn't true, it's just that myths number 1 though 3 are playing their cards, and they're all face cards.

If I have one issue with the list it's that I don't really agree with the tenor of item 10. Especially the link to higher IQ, while maybe true, sounds like a rather weak self-satisfying argument and to my mind fails to adequately express the fact that we're all different and we all have character traits that range across the spectrum of human behaviour.
Of course no one is just an introvert or just an extrovert. Nothing in Biology is ever purely black and white, there's always a sliding scale. And there are many confounding factors at play in social interactions that make someone more or less introverted depending on the social situation.

In any case, you should read that list.

Via Kottke, who you should read as well.

Galápagos Sea Lion playing
I keep forgetting I have some movies from the trip to the Galapagos. They're rather small as I was unfamiliar with the (now deceased) camera but they still manage to look reasonable.

Here's some clips I put together of a young sea lion playing in tidal pools. First it's in a small pool alone looking to see if it can catch a fish (there's at least 3 in there but they're hidden in cracks). After a while the pup gets bored as all it manages to catch is a stick so it sets of for another pool where a friend joins in for some mad rushing about.


Colourful stuff
When I was young birds were thought to be descended from dinosaurian ancestors and therefore distantly related to true dinosaurs but in recent years a lot has changed. We now know that birds are actually dinosaurs, though in disguise if you will. We know that birds rose from a close relation of the mighty T-Rex we all remember fondly from our youth. If you look at the scaly feet and the beak of a bird like a pigeon up close you won't find this too hard to swallow.

There's a very nice and detailed article on the excellent Smithsonian site about our current understanding on the origins of birds with particular attention that to that item which was long thought to be a bird exclusive: feathers. Turns out many dinosaur lineages had featherlike structures, not just the therapods (T-rex and family).
What's even more amazing is that we now can find out which colours these feathers had, which was deemed impossible in my youth.

Sinosauropteryx was even more stunning. Zhang found that the filaments running down its back and tail must have made the dinosaur look like an orange-and-white-striped barber pole.

Ah science, you continue to delight me.

Read the entire thing if you have a spare 15 minutes.
Dinosaurs' Living Descendants


Are you just pleased to see me?
I am simply posting this because the sentence below is so awesome. First Attempt to Measure Plant Biomagnetism Fails

Trudy is an amorphophallus, a genus which takes its name from the Greek for "misshapen penis". She flowers only once every six years or so in an event that has become as famous as it is rare. When Trudy blooms she produces a putrid stench reminiscent of decaying corpses that attracts insects and tourists alike for miles around.


The Museum of Life
Just a shout-out to those who have the ability to watch the BBC.
The new series The Museum of Life about the Natural History Museum in London is very good.

I love the Natural History Museum. When I was a child we often went to England on our holidays. Whenever we were in London we would visit the Natural History Museum as I was a fiend for dinosaurs. I loved that museum, the bigness of it, the vast hall with equally vast skeletons and even more knowledge. This is as close to a spiritual cathedral as I'll ever get to a building if that makes sense.

My apologies for the very bad image below but it's the only picture I have of the Natural History Museum, plus it holds special meaning to me. My dad took it when he went on a study trip to London for a month and he sent this to me in one of his letters home (this was a long time ago when people actually wrote letters!). I just made a snapshot with my camera, hence the poor quality.

The stupidity, it burns
Haha, the wedge idiots of Uncommon descent don't understand the 2nd law of thermodymamics.
No big surprise there, but the boldness with which they close the argument is beyond belief. You're no longer able to comment on the post "In the Beginning and Other Essays on Intelligent Design" which is a crying shame as I have some thoughts on that.

I'll repost the final comment by Granville Sewell which is simplistic and stupid in the extreme:
“Entropy” is understood by physicists as a measure of disorder; so I define “order” to be the opposite of entropy, period. Thus where entropy is quantifiable, as in thermal entropy (or entropy associated with the distribution of anything else that diffuses), it is simply the negative of entropy. Where entropy is not so quantifiable, I still define it as the opposite, so that when entropy increases, eg, when a building is demolished, “order” decreases. I could have made the whole argument in terms of “entropy”, only used the term “order” because I thought it was less confusing to talk about order increasing than about entropy decreasing, but apparently that didn’t help. Go back and re-read, everywhere you see “order increases” read “entropy decreases” and vice versa, and it should be clearer.

But I don’t understand how you could think the “creation of a spaceship out of a lump of metal” would constitute a decrease in order, everyone else would consider this a decrease in disorder, ie in entropy.


What mr. Sewell appears to not understand (or refuses to understand given his first paragraph which is redundant to say the least) is the simple fact that spaceships do not appear out of nowhere simply by the input of energy (from the sun I assume). They are built by beings that use fossil fuels to extract, refine and smelt metals from the earth. These beings build upon scientific and engineering knowledge gathered throughout millennia to construct craft that are capable of interplanetary flight. Sewell's argument is akin to the blind watchmaker argument, which has been countered ages ago.

As The Panda's thumb states about this: [...]in a closed system entropy does increase, but the biosphere is not a closed system — it is utterly dependent on inflows of energy, mostly from the sun, and the entropy increase from the outflow of energy from the sun far exceeds the decrease of entropy by reproduction and by evolution.

How do you think fossil fuels got here? How do you think a spacecraft engineer fuels his/her metabolism and lifestyle (food, housing, ipods)? How do you think an engineer refines metals? How do you think (s)he evolved? Do you think that burning fossil fuels gives you a net loss or even an equilibrium of entropy? If so you should have failed basic physics in high school (or equivalent if you're not an American like I am).

Any step requiring energy constitutes a loss of energy and therefore an increase in entropy. Photosynthesis is stupendously, remarkably efficient, but there is still a loss of energy and thus an increase of entropy. Fossil fuels are created, ultimately, by photosynthesis so there's your first (and second) loss. Burning fossil fuels to first build and then power your spacecraft gives you another series of losses. Also you need to power the thought (and associated cost) that goes into building and piloting a spacecraft and before you know it less than 1/10.000th (I'm being optimistic here as I disregard the whole cost of life's history, if we accept that whole evolution thing,) of the energy of the sun put into plants is put into the construction of your spaceship. It's all of a level a high school student should understand to be honest.

By the way I am not the harold commenting (4th) on The Panda's Thumb thread, though I do agree with what he says as far as I understand it, he seems like a smart person, worthy of the name harold, though I would have written it with a capital H :).

On Malthus
Starts with a Bang asks "If you took all the people on Earth, and you spread every one of us -- men, women, and children -- out as sparsely as possible over the entire land area of Earth, including land like Antarctica, Greenland, and Siberia, how much land would everyone get? How far away would your neighbors be?"

Think about it for a minute and then look up the answer. I was way way wrong. Scary stuff, which proves that what Malthus wrote more than 200 years ago still applies today even though birthrates are dropping in the western world, the areas where food is actually scarce do not seem to benefit from modern knowledge about contraception.

Comedian Sarah Silverman has a novel approach to food shortages though: sell the vatican, build a nice house for yourself with pools and whatnot, use what's left over to feed the world.



Of course the above clip is comedy, give a man a fish and he will be fed for a day, teach a man how to fish and he will feed himself for life, as the saying goes. Problem is being able to fish means little if there's simply too many people around you going hungry, pretty soon you'll have emptied the lakes and oceans. Which is where we are heading now.
On the other hand maybe birth control will finally be accepted in the poorest countries when the delusional dictator in the Vatican is gone.

Oh my god, grandfather has turned into a pineapple!
Today I had a meeting in Amsterdam about a new federated search engine from Ebsco, one of the largest database providers for my work. We're not in the market for a new federated search engine at the moment as we still have 2 years to go on our current contract but I thought it would be get a look at this new product as next year we'll be critically examining our current one so as to have enough time to consider the next step.

It also happened to be in a small room off the Hortus and as I like nature stuff and admission was free I got a chance to have a look.

Generally I don't really like Hortuses (is that a word?). Seeing a thousand plants bunched up in 100 square meters with little hard-to-read hand-scribbled labels feels a bit sad in some way. Most of the plants also looked a bit tired due to the extreme heat.

But I did get to see a very lovely and almost endearing little pineapple in the butterfly house.

Clicky for the set with 3 other pictures of lovely butterflies.

On the classification of animals
I'm currently reading "Almost Like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated" by Steve Jones and it includes a funny introduction to one of the chapters, I looked it up on the interwebs to find out more about it and it appears to be a fictional categorisation of animals I thought I might share with you. I might do a full review of Almost like a whale if the mood strikes me when I finish the book, or I might not, I have a zillion books left to read and time is short, I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
"These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies."

Wikipedia entry.

Human Vision
As I said in my previous post that the iPhone only has a 2 megapixel camera, which many decry as being rather limited nowadays. So I was wondering what the resolution of the human eye was measured in megapixels. Turns out finding the answer was quite easy, though following the maths isn't.
In any case the following article states that human vision equates to more than 576 megapixels. It also tells us a lot more about obscure things like ISO and focal lengths and stuff I have no clue about but it seems solid and other sources on the interwebs give more or less the same numbers. 580 megapixels is pretty staggering, the amount of information processed by the brain on a continuous basis is, well, staggering. (I know I used the word twice but I'm too staggered to think of another word.) Of course the brain uses tricks and shortcuts, for example while I'm typing this my field of view isn't actually a full 120 degrees, not even close, I do have some peripheral vision but most of that is tuned out. Still and all. Stagger with me and marvel at the miracle of primate vision.

Darwin year
This year is the 150th birthday of the first publication one of the most influential books in history: "On The Origins Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection: Or The Preservation Of Favored Races In The Struggle For Life" by Charles Darwin. As such it's as good a time as any to get to know a bit more about the man and his works. Luckily plenty of opportunity exists on the interwebs to learn more, but if you're the bookish type you can find some more in-depth stuff in the bookstores.

When I studied Biology at the teacher's academy weirdly enough Evolution wasn't a required subject. The course was given once every 2 years and I never had the chance to follow it. I did get a 'free pass' on it though in exchange for some chemistry course, I still have that little piece of paper somewhere. In those days money was extremely tight and I remember visiting a local second hand bookstore and seeing some old leather-bound volumes by Darwin, his work on the emotions in man "The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals" and some volumes on barnacles were there. Unfortunately they were way out of my means so I never got a chance to purchase these books. I visited the second hand bookstore a few weeks ago in the hope to find some nice and rare specimens but alas I was disappointed. Some opportunities don't come along that often and if they do you'd better hope you can take advantage of them. Luckily the visit wasn't a complete loss as I did find a brand-new copy of "Darwin And The Barnacle: The Story Of One Tiny Creature And History's Most Spectectular Scientific Breakthrough" by Rebecca Stott. (Dutch readers can pick up the book for €7.50 at De Slegte where it is in the biology section in the Ramsj, international readers can find the book on Amazon.) This book details Charles Darwin's life up to and during 8 long years where he attempted to write the definitive monograph on the cirripedes. That's barnacles to you and me. Darwin's struggles with this task and his family life are the center of this book. We do not get the promised revelation about how this actually helped his Species work but we do get a fascinating insight into what it meant to be a gentleman scholar of independent means in the 1840s and 1850s. We get to read about Darwin's struggles with his health and his quack doctor with a revolutionary "water cure" which meant Darwin had wear wet towels and take ice-cold plunge baths (we'd call it a shower) outside, no matter if it was snowing or a sunny summer day. We also get to know about his correspondance with other naturalists around the world, facilitated by modern things like a postal system that actually worked and railway carriages (in which Darwin invested) that would ship specimens from around the world to his doorstep.

The 8 years Darwin spent on the barnacle work was a lot longer than he previously thought, but if you read this book you'll find out why, his ill health and difficulties struggling with tiny creatures that had unexpected anatomical oddities made Darwin spend a lot more time on these creatures than he envisioned. He was also troubled in the extreme by problems with taxonomy, the classification of animals in families and species. Often he would wait for months for a rare specimen to reach him only to find out it had been misclassified and turned out to be an already known species, albeit under a different name. It was Darwin's goal to reclassify and understand all the cirripedes.
It has been suggested that Darwin knew how controversial his evolution work was and that he purposely held off publishing about it because he felt the time wasn't right yet. This book demonstrates that Darwin didn't fear the reaction of theologians, many naturalists at that time were obsessed about the boundaries between and mutability of species. Many published about it. In the early 19th century it was recognised that the answers to many of the questions regarding species and taxonomy could be found in the sea. Sea creatures of all kinds were studied and described. Darwin took on the barnacles as a way to contribute to this debate, as a way to establish his credentials in the wider scientific community so his ideas were taken seriously. He also needed the time to hone his scientific knowledge and writing skills so he could present his views and theories with the clearest purpose. Classifying and describing barnacles was often frustrating stuff yet Darwin persevered. In 1849 he wrote "Confound & exterminate the whole tribe [...] I can see no end to my work" (Stott (2003), p. 134). And late in 1852: "I am now at work on the Sessile Cirripedes, and am wonderfully tired of my job[...]".

Darwin's years studying barnacles were not for nothing, the years spent firmly established him as a scientist of note, one who would get sent specimens from throughout the world, one who would be asked for references and advice. Darwin also learned a lot of things that would eventually help him with his species work. Sadly, as said, this book doesn't really go into that as much as the title makes us believe, it ends in 1854 when 'the barnacle years' are over, Origins will not be published for some years. Yet I still highly recommended this book, as it tells us an awful lot about the man who changed the way we view the world.
As I said to my friends a while ago: without Darwin we would still have the theory of natural selection. The scientific world was ready for it in the 1850s, we would still have evolution, but the entire world was made a better place by Darwin being alive and bringing us his meticulous works. Works of painstaking details and research.

For another interesting read about Darwin and the 20 year gap between first outlining his species work and the publication of Origins you can read a paper by John van Wyhe.

Platypussies
Ah, the noble Platypus, such a lovely creature.



In the news this week was the fact that the entire genome of the Platypus has now been sequenced.
Unfortunately most news sources failed to report much of substance except to say: gee whizz, this is one odd creature. Well we already knew that in the 18th century (I assume the Aborigines knew that 42.000 years before but they probably don't really count) and spectacular headlines about the Platypus having venom like a reptile* notwithstanding there is a lot more to report that is of interest.

Here are the best reports I've found (if you can stand some duplication).
www.sciencedaily.com
www.npr.org
www.nature.com

Some of what's reported isn't really new though. An article I found in 'Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology - Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology' called "The monotreme genome: a patchwork of reptile, mammal and unique features?" (Frank Grutzner et al) from 2003 already told us about the oddity of monotreme sex chromosomes, and it's probably a lot weirder than the articles linked to above make out.

As most of my readers won't have access to the fabled 'Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A' (how can you get through the day without it?) I'll post a quick summary.
Almost every eukaryote (animals, plants, funghi) living being has its chromosomes paired. Humans have 46 chromosomes, in 23 pairs (2n =46). Maize has 20 in 10 pairs (2n=20); Chimpanzees have 48, in 24 pairs (2n=48).
Sidenote: sometime before the emergence of Homo sapiens we fused two chromosomes together.
Read PZ on: Basics: How can chromosome numbers change? and Luskin's ludicrous genetics.


The odd thing seems to be that the Monotremata (the Platypus and the two species of Echidna) seem to have some chromosomes that are not paired at all. There's no simple XY system to represent male or XX for females. (Would this be noted as 2n=46+6 or simply 2n=52?) Screenshot from Grutzner et al. Weird shit, especially when you take into account the fact that during cell division and gamete forming somehow every cell must end up with an equal and viable number of chromosomes. There's a lot of zig-zagging involved here and I won't go into it in detail except to say it all seems to be able to be worked out by temporarily fusing some chromosomes together during celldivision and then dividing the resulting zig-zag in an upper and lower half. A few plantspecies seem to do the same thing so it's not entirely unique but still odd.

Incidentally the article also tells some very interesting things I didn't know before about "regular" mammals. The Y-chromosomal gene that regulates the formation of testis is a mutation of the X-chromosomal SRY gene that regulates brain development. (Insert joke here about men thinking with their private parts).
Also food for thought is a section on X-inactivation which seems logical when you think about it. If females have 2 X chromosomes how come they're not inundated with the products of these (duplicate) genes? Simply inactivate most of the copies and you're good to go.
Interesting stuff. The humble duckbilled platypus can teach us a lot it seems and with the unraveling of its genome we can look forward to more and deeper understanding of what makes a mammal.


*) An example of convergent evolution, where remote species develop the same trait separately, that is: the genes for this venom were not inherited from a common ancestor to both mammals and reptiles. (See also the parallel evolution of the eye in molluscs like the octopus and the eyes of chordates like a salmon or a cat.)

Darwin is alive!
Good news everyone!
Charles Darwin has been resurrected and in keeping with the times has started a blog.

http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/charlesdarwin

Life in Cold Blood
For any serious wildlife devotee a new series of programmes by sir David Attenborough is a major event in the year.
The first episode of Attenborough's latest series just aired on the BBC and what a series it will be. If you missed it and are fortunate enough to get BBC where you live the BBC will repeat it on sunday so check your program guide. (American viewers may wish to harass BBC america for details.)

Called Life in Cold Blood it will show us the lives and loves of those coldblooded creatures: amphibians and reptiles. Sorry but Molluscs need not apply.

Episode 1 was mostly an introduction with particular attention to the way reptiles have adapted their lifestyle to keeping warm in the absence of a central heating system. Basking in the sun, warming themselves on rocks, pumping anti-freeze into their system so they can safely freeze during winter, generating heat by digesting prey, it's all lovingly presented by mr. wildlife himself.

Attenborough holds a special place in my heart, his warmth and honest enthusiasm for the things he's witnessing make for extremely good television. He's also not above making himself look a bit foolish, sometimes wearing pith helmets in grand old british colonialism style, asthmatically breathing when trekking through the jungle or to the tops of mountain ranges to witness a species and launching into the telling without giving himself time to catch his breath. It's as if he's waited so long for the opportunity to show us these animals that he has no patience to wait for his body to catch up, he simply has to tell you about this amazing stuff right now.
Not for him the Discovery exposés of dangerous man-eating killer-stuff, instead he is able to show us truly amazing animals and their behaviour without resorting to cheap effects. Well most of the time, but he'll never make things sound more dangerous than they really are and he always takes care to give equal opportunity to the small and the harmless. In fact he gives these things more attention simply because there are so many more of them.

Today's episode contained some truly remarkable stuff already and as it's always fun to learn new stuff and be smart here's some fun things you may not know:
- Large snakes can fast for a long time and when they do eat a big prey they can grow their liver by 200% and their hearts by 40% over a period of two days to help with the digesting process.
- Probably the smallest reptiles are pygmy chameleons, about the size of your little pinky or less. David went out to find some 47 years ago for one of his first television shows and never found one, this time he did and when he found one he was almost moved to tears by the sheer beauty of the tiny little creature, a touching moment.
- Chameleons are active during the day but can most easily be found at night, when their protective colouring is less camouflaging and they migrate to the tips of branches so that they are safe from nocturnal predators like snakes.

Here's the single most amazing thing though:
A species of small Mediterranean lizard basks on the Dead Horse Arum which produces the smell of rotting meat. The chemical process that creates the ghastly smell also makes the flowers slightly warmer than their surroundings, making an ideal place for lizards to hang out: they get warm and the smell attracts flies which is kind of like the lizard equivalent of going out for a meal in a restaurant. Even more amazing is the fact that about 20 years ago these lizards found out that the fruits of these Arum are rather nice to eat. The seeds in the fruit pass undigested through the alimentary canal. Since this time the lizards have spread the seeds all along the island and the Dead Horse Arum are now everywhere.
So let's see: flower smells and attracts flies. Flowers also nice and warm which attracts lizards. Lizards bask and get tasty fly meal. Lizards also spread seeds so plants do well, attracting more flies, feeding more lizards, or if they escape pollinating more flowers. Win!

I can't wait for next week when we'll look in closer detail at the life of amphibians. Including apparently the giant chinese salamander Andrias davidianus.

Early Man or not
Here's an excellent letter by the Smithsonian Institute.

The dentition pattern evident on the "skull" is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the "ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams" you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time. This latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it. Without going into too much detail, let us say that:
A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on.
B. Clams don't have teeth.


Via: Kottke.

Edit: new url as the above one doesn't work anymore: http://www.snopes.com/humor/letters/smithsonian.asp

Glowing fish
A Very Fishy Licence Agreement details the absurd licence agreement that a company that sells a genetically engineered type of fish has put on its fish. Apparently you're not allowed to breed them. So, as the story asks: "How exactly do you keep a two-inch fish from romancing the shiny young lovely from the cave on the other side of the tank when the lights go out?"

A funny, yet somehow scary, read.

Curse these eyes
I was thinking recently that my eyesight was getting worse by the day. When at work I had huge problems reading the text on the monitor of my laptop. It turns out that the brightness of the display was accidentally turned down. Things are back to normal now and I have my usual crappy eyesight back, which allows me to read the text I'm typing perfectly well.

Happiness. Joy.

Mold spiders
I have gotten permission from René to post the entire Mold spider series.

Here's the deal: no commercial usage, therefore the series is covered by the same Creative Commons license as this site. I have included a readme that explains all this. Also included is contact info.

moldspiders.zip (13.8 MB).
(Server may be somewhat slow at times.)

Sure we gotta preview:


It's only a theory
Here's why we in Holland have a separation of state and church.

Textbook disclaimer stickers.


via Jim.

Stung
Curse you Vespula Vulgaris.

Still, you gotta love this:
Local dispersal methods
Self-propelled [...]


Can't argue with that.

A few links
I've been watching a lot of David Attenborough lately so biology has been on my mind a lot lately.

Here's a few things I came across.
First of all the bookofratings website has rated amphibians. Good stuff. The author asks the very interesting question what the difference is between newts and salamanders. Good question. The difference in classification seems to be somewhat subjective. Newts have a rough-textured skin that is not slimy but that seems to be about it. There's no separate family of newts. All are in the order Urodela (or Caudata), family Salamandridae.

Fascinating stuff, though the last two links are not for the faint of heart as there's scientific controversy and technical mumbo-jumbo.

Second is my recollection of a mention somewhere in a newspaper about ten years ago of a fungus that was apparently the most massive known organism. Here's a link I dug up, apparently there are people who REALLY like fungi, as this one was fungus of the month in April 2002. Imagine that! A fungus of the month, what next? A pet rock of the month?

If you're looking for the oldest known individual organism* by the way you're probably best off with an aspen clone. As mentioned in the article on the humongous fungus there are some pretty old aspen clones around. There's rumoured to be one that has been going on for a million years. Read the pdf on this page.
It's hard to see what the evolutionary advantage is of living a million years and cloning yourself continuously, instead of reproducing and creating slightly different offspring, but there you go, not everything makes sense and not everything is easy to grasp or logical.

*) Update, originally I wrote individual, but organism is more apt in this case as all surviving aspen trunks are now clones from the original, all linked via the root-system, thereby forming a giant 'super-organism'. As is the case with the humongous fungus this raises the question of what comprises an individual: is it the fact that the entity is continuously connected or is the fact that the entity has one genotype or is it something else entirely?

By the way, if all these clones make you uncomfortable there's a creosote bush that's 6,000 years old.

On Placebo's
Oh dear, Mimi Smarty Pants is at it again. Dipping her toes into the waters of science, this time mumbling about the fact that animals can't demonstrate a placebo effect. (I really like Mimi's site by the way, I highly recommend a visit.)

Well duh! We're talking about animals here. Animals can't tell you how they feel, we can only make presumptions about their perceived state of well-being by observing their behaviour.

Let me restate the previous statement: "we can only make presumptions about their perceived state of well-being by observing their behaviour" (emphasis added for clarity). And herein lies the rub. Biological entities are extremely complex. The effects of a drug are often subtle and the description of their effects require utmost care in wording, something at which even human beings are often struggling at.

Animals cannot demonstrate a placebo effect anymore than a table can. We can tell that a strike with the hammer has damaged a table but can the table tell us that it is damaged? If we miss the table and the table looks undamaged does the table feel relief? Do we believe the table feels relief?

Yes, I realise this might sound really Zen right now, but it's my site. Start your own blog if you want to ramble on like me (join in, it's fun).

Determining and quantifying the real effectiveness of a household drug like aspirin took thousands of years. Even now new properties are discovered, like it's ability to prevent certain types of cancer.

The fact that it is so hard to prove a drug is really effective means it takes years of clinical trials before a new drug is introduced (and is one of the reasons they cost a lot when first introduced).
This is why statistical analysis is one of the most important subjects a biologist takes when becoming one.
This is why double blind test were invented.
And, remember, we're talking about human beings here, with the ability to tell us how they feel (which is subjective) and how their body is behaving (which is also more subjective than you might think).
Then there's the clinical tests a pointy headed scientist does, poking and hammering and ticking away on various body parts.

A placebo effect, by it's very nature, suggests a willingness of the patient to feel better. Equally important, methinks, is the observers' willingness to see improvement, especially in the case of animal medication. When an animal is ill and given medication it is also often given extra attention. Almost all animals crave attention, just like humans do. How to separate this from the perceived reaction to a drug (placebo or real)?

We cannot separate the observer from the fact. (Which is kind of quantum but just as appropriate in ethology.)

Inner biologist speaks out
Mimi Smartypants asks a very good question: Trees can release all the seeds they want, but it's not like city planners and city residents are just going to let a giant tree grow right in the middle of a privately (or publicly) owned space, even supposing that the seed did manage to land in actual ground and not on concrete or asphalt. Chicago trees come from tree farms and are planted in a prearranged location, so all this tree-style sexy propagation is futile. Do trees adapt under adverse-for-procreation conditions like animals do?

Allow me to whip out my inner biologist and answer that.

If by "adapt" you mean "adapt", then yes, trees adapt to their environment like any other organism does. For instance most will shed their leaves when the fall comes and bud in spring, either because of changes in temperature or because of the change in the amount of sunlight per day.

If by "adapt" you mean "evolve" then no. An organism cannot evolve*. Only a species can, or rather: a population can. To evolve, a population must reproduce, creating offspring with different mixes of genetic code, some of which will be better suited to the current environment. No reproduction, no evolution. Merely spreading seeds around in vast quantities is not enough.

Note: the concepts explained above are a gross simplification of a much larger issue. Check out your local library to learn more.


*) this despite numerous science fiction scenarios where an individual changes it's genetic code and transforms into another species, for instance a fly or a bug eyed monster.

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