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Shouldn't they be poler bears?

July 23, 2010 1 comment

While I’d like to die at the ripe old age of 80 of a massive brain aneurysm in my sleep (you know, painless, quick and the whatnot) I do have another sort of ideal death. You see, I’d like to live with bears, be accepted by them and join on of their families. Kind of like Timothy Treadwell, except instead of those pussy grizzly bears, I’d go for the balls-out king of the fucking bears, the polar bears. I’d make a video journal of my time with them in the hopes that one day the footage would be discovered and Werner Herzog could make a feature length film of my exploits.

Okay, maybe there wouldn’t be enough footage to make it feature length, it would probably be a short film. In fact, I have a pretty good idea of how it would pan out. It would start with me setting up the camera.

Alright, I’m going to try and meet with the polar bears now. Hello Bears! I mean you no harm! I simply want to live with you and become one of you. Possibly eat a seal or two. Please accept me as one of your own!

Oh my gods! He ripped of my arm! Or is that a she? Nope definitely a he! Jesus, now he’s eating my severed arm! There’s so much blood. Oh, gods, now he’s ripped open my stomach and he’s eating my entrails. WHILE I’M STILL ALIVE!!!

Then the credits would start rolling and the one-hit-wonder of the millennium, Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” would play over the sounds of my own screams. It would simply be called Most Awesome Worst Idea Ever! Even so, while I will probably end up dead or dying within five minutes of starting my man/bear endeavour, it will undoubtably the most thrilling five minutes of my life. It would be so much fun to brag things up at the pearly gates. I’d be stuck in the middle of all those schmucks who had massive coronaries while typing away in their cubicles or those poor bastards who were hit by someone who was driving and texting, and they’d be regalling stories of their various deaths, then they’d get to me. “Well, first my arm was torn off by a polar bear and then it started to devour my intestines while I was still alive.” Bam! Instant afterlife fame. Seeing as how I’m not a very good person otherwise, I could use this to my advantage in garnering praise from the more pious uppy ups.

But all of that is neither here nor there, the important thing is that Polar bears are cool. They’re merciless killing machines, but they also appear so cute and cuddly you can’t help but want to hold them. They’ve got an insane sense of smell. According to the all-knowing wikipedia, they can smell seals buried under three feet of snow…from over a mile away. I saw this in action on some sort of random nature documentary. A crew in a helicopter was watching a bear. It had been travelling in one direction, then stopped, sniffed the air for a while and made an abrupt direction change. They helicpoter followed the bear for a mile when it suddenly stopped and started digging at the ice and snow. Lo and behold, there was a seal hiding under the ice at that exact spot. Brown bears just sit in the river and wait for salmon to swim to them. Pussies.

Tauntauns have nothing on polar bears. If you kill a polar bear (which may not actually be possible) and crawl inside of him for warmth, you will die of heat exhaustion.  They’ve got a thick layer of blubber that insulates them from the arctic cold. Not to mention their fur, which isn’t white but actually clear. Combine those together and polar bears are so well insulated that they appear almost invisible on the infrared spectrum. That’s right, polar bears are the only thing that can consistently kill Predators. The insulation and fur works so well that they overheat if it gets above 50 Fahrenheit. They can even over heat during long swims. Let me clarify that. While swimming through frigid, ice covered water polar bears can overheat.

Another thing helping polar bears retain their warmth is their shape. Even though they’re longer than brown bears, they have stockier legs. This is so that the bears are larger, but have less surface area than bears living in warm climates. The less surface area there is, the less heat will escape from the body. This was actually theorized before it was observed and studied. Some guy named Joseph Allen figured that warm-bloodied animals in colder regions would have shorter legs and arms than their warm region counterparts. In 1877 this theory became a rule (I don’t know how something specifically becomes a rule, as if there were some magical animal instruction booklet) and is called (wait for it) Allen’s Rule.

They’re freaking relentless, too. When polar bears hunt seals, they usually camp out around a hole in the ice, and wait for the seals to surface for air. When the seal pops up, the bear swipes the seal out of the water, bites its head and crushes the skull. This uber-morbid version of whack-a-mole is also an instinctive measure to prevent zombie seal attacks, probably. The also will sneak up on seals that are laying on the ice surface. Since polar bears, but their ginormous nature make lousy sneakers, they have to rush at the seals in the last 30 or 40 yards and take the seal by surprise.

Unfortunately, not everything you read or hear about polar bears is true, especially on the internets. Except for this article, which is 100% fact (note: not an actual fact). I’ve seen on numerous lists the “fact” that all polar bears are left handed. I always liked this, because I was left handed and it was something that we had in common. I figured I could use that as my “in” with the bears. Unfortunately, if you talk to bear studying scientist types, they’ll tell you that polar bears don’t seem to have any hand (or paw) preference. Shoot.

Categories: Biology, Nature Tags: , ,

Nature spotting

June 16, 2010 2 comments

The wife, the baby and I went for a bit of a nature walk today. The area that we walk through is beautiful scummy, swampy kind of way.

Observe

Swimming is ill advised

While there were no Will-o’-the-wisps, we did get to see a number of interesting animals.

These are birds

These are birds, they’re big and white and they have yellow beaks. That’s all I really know about them. I’m guessing that they fly and probably eat stuff.  Moving on…

Duck!

Duck!

I’m guessing these are some sort of duck. Nature’s “D” student.

Now we get to the cool animals.

Muskrat eating.

Muskrat, NOT eating

These guys were pretty hard to capture. Once I got within even 20 feet of them they would disappear under the water and not resurface. I can only assume that they were eaten by the watcher in the water, or maybe they sank to their untimely deaths, or they can just hold their breath for a really long time. Still, they didn’t mark their territory in front of me, which I’m thankful for. They’re not called muskrats for nothing HIYO!

Finally we come to the awesomiest of the awesome. As we were heading out, we saw some girls taking a picture of a moss covered rock. As we got closer we saw that it wasn’t a rock, but a turtle. TURTLES!!! They informed us that when they were walking past before, she had been digging a hole. When they turned around and came back, they found this:

TURTLE!

That’s a painted turtle if I ever saw one, and you see those white things near it’s butt? Eggs. Those eggs are filled with mini turtles. They’ll sit in the hole for a couple of weeks and then depending on the temperature of the soil, will hatch as a group of male turtles, or female turtles, or there will be some sort of magical mix of male and female turtles. Here’s another look at the eggs, if you don’t believe me.

TURTLE! Eggs

Despite only being a few feet away, the turtle didn’t seem to mind us being there. Eventually we went on our way only to have to turn around a few minutes later. When we came back we found that the turtle had been quite busy.

TURTLE! eggs buried

Where did the eggs go? She buried them, silly. Coolest nature walk ever. Leia was mightily impressed.

Categories: Nature Tags: ,

Cold, damn cold.

May 1, 2010 Leave a comment

After writing much of these posts and then showing off my work, my wife, more often than not, will ask questions of stuff that I never even considered. In telling her about water bears, she just had to ask how they managed to freeze the water bears to near absolute zero. This eventually led to me looking up how liquid nitrogen is made (it’s actually a really cool process, just you wait) and then I started looking at other stuff related to the cold. Which, unfortunately is going to lead to a meandering totally disorganized post. So strap yourselves in because in the words of Martin Lawrence, “Shit just got real.”

When looking stuff up about water bears, I wanted to learn more specifically about how they are able to survive being frozen. It turns out that when temperatures drop water bears and other cold-blooded animals make chemicals known as cryoprotectants. These cryprotectants lower the freezing temperature of cells to prevent the damage caused when cells freeze and crystallize. It’s crazy that these animals can go so far as changing their body’s chemical make up to survive.

Along with cryoprotectants many cold-blooded animals will bury themselves during winter months. Many will do this in the mud at the bottom of rivers or lakes. Cold water is more oxygenated than warm water and the animals actually get all the oxygen they need through their skin.

Cryoprotectants are actually administered to those who choose to be cryogenically frozen. This is to avoid cell damage when the water in the body freezes and crystallizes. Despite the widespread knowledge of the process of cryogenic freezing, only about 200 Americans have actually gone through the process in the forty years that its been around. Instead of being frozen before death occurs in hopes that future medicine will be able to cure whatever ailment the patient has, a person has to phyisically die in order to be preserved. The hope is that later science will be able to not only cure the ailment but also reverse the death. The theory behind all of this is that the brain may be able to retain long term memories for a short time after the body has died.

Unfortunately, one of the big problems with cryonic freezing, is that the cryoprotectants can protect the body from freezing, at the cost of essentially poisoning it. However, it’s assumed that the poisoning effect will be easier to undo than the cell damage that would otherwise occur.

Oddly enough, the best way to pay for the staggering costs of the initial freezing, not to mention the ongoing cost of storage, is to use life insurance to cover it. Apparently if you set up a plan when you’re young, freezing can actually be quite affordable. I’m setting up an account for my daughter first thing Monday. I can’t wait to see the look on my insurance agent’s face when I ask her about it.

Morbidly, I wanted to find out more about what happens to cells when they get frozen. it turns out that when people get frostbite, it’s actually the result of a defensive measure taken by the body. When the extremities are subjected to very cold conditions, the body will dilate the blood vessels going to those extremities. Hence, the extremities slowly undergo cell death due to a lack of oxygen and also freeze. The body will choose to kill off a portion of itself in order to keep the rest alive. While not exactly the same, this reminds me of the way that the body will sometimes cause a person to faint. If blood vessels dilate for some reason (say a dashing young southern gentleman chooses to call upon me and kisses my wrist), blood pressure will happen to drop. The brain will sense this and choose to cause the body to pass out so that the head (and the brain encased so deliciously within that head) will drop down. Less pressure is then required to drive blood to brain. The brain therefore saves itself by shutting down part of the body.

If the body is subjected to extremem cold for too long, the blood vessels will eventually tire out. This causes a surge of blood flow to the extremeties which makes people believe that they’re warmer than they actually are. This is combined with the hypothalamus shorting out. The hypothalamus usually regulates body temperature, and when it shorts out people think that they’re warmer than they are. A number of people who die of hypothermia are found having shed their clothes because of this.

So in much less depressing SCIENCE!, the way they make liquid nitrogen is awesome. If you like sauce it’s also awesomesauce.  First, they have to liquid air. You can do that by taking air air and cooling it down a bunch. The easiest way to do that is to compress it down a lot. But according to PVT, by lowering the volume, the pressure and temperatures have to go up. To counteract this, the air is cooled in a heat exchanger and then vented into another chamber to begin the process again. It’s repeated again and again until droplets are formed.

Once you have liquid air, all you have to do is distill off the other elements that make up air, and any hillbilly worth his moonshine knows how to distill. What you are left with is about 20% liquid oxygen and 79% liquid nitrogen and 1% other stuff. Once made, liquid nitrogen has to be kept in a special container that lets it vent occasionally. Liquid nitrogen will generally stay a liquid for quite a while if pressurized correctly. However, unless kept at -331 F, ambient temperature will slowly cause some of it to revert to its gaseous form. This can cause a bit of a problem since gaseous exerts a tremendous amount of pressure (nearly 700 times as much as liquid kind). Unless liquid nitrogen is kept in a ventable container, it can rapidly decompress and cause the container it’s in to explode, like a monkey in space.

Bonus! In searching for the answer to how liquid nitrogen is made, I found this neat little website which lets you run an applet that shows PVT in action. Go ahead and start wasting time with it.

I'd like a water bear as a pet

April 28, 2010 2 comments

If you’re like me, you already know what a water bear is, but if you’re kind of like me then you’re confused as to what they are. Are they bears that live in water? Or are they bears that are the color of water? Or are they like koala bears and not really bears at all?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Water bears live in water (as well as a number of other locations) they’re semi-transparent and they aren’t bears. They’re actually in the same group as insects, but they’re not insects. Their formal name is tardigrades but are sometimes also called moss piglets, because of their diets. The water bears eat (wait for it) moss and lichen (the plants, not the werewolves). They’re also super adorable.

Water bears get their name because of the way they move around. With their eight legs, they appear to have a slow lumbering gait, like a bear walking on all fours. But their cuteness and resemblance to bears isn’t why I’m talking about them. They’re amazingly resilient creatures.

Water bears are actually so resilient that they hold the distinction of being the only animals to survive the vacuum of space. In 2007 a number of water bears were taken into low Earth orbit and subjected to the hazards of space, including the vacuum and high level of radiation. Not only did a number of water bears survive, but some even laid eggs.

The reason water bears were subjected to such torture is because they survive on Earth in a number of different climates. They’ve been found in hot springs and under layers of ice. Usually animals are adapted to living in the extremes of one environment. Water bears are fit to live anywhere and every where. They’ve been known to survive a whole decade without water. Their metabolism all but shuts down and they go into a state of hibernation until they get re-hydrated. Beyond that, they can survive at temperatures barely above absolute zero (we’re talking -272 degrees C) and temperatures as hot as 151 degrees C. If you’re good at your maths and remember your literature classes you’ll know that’s only 150 F lower than the temperature at which paper burns.

They can survive equally well at 0 atmospheres as they can at 6,000 atmospheres. That’s an infinite amount of difference right there. To get an idea of how many atmospheres 6,000 is (beyond being 6,000) it’s 6 times more pressure than is felt in the lowest ocean depths.

Really, how cool would it be to have a water bear as a pet. They’re basically self-sufficient. You only need to water them once a decade. Just imagine how bad you would feel if your water bear died though.

Categories: Nature, Science Tags:

…and cuttlefish beats octopus

April 18, 2010 Leave a comment

If you want to make an addendum to octopus, sea lion, shark, you can substitute cuttlefish for sea lion. As this video shows, you can easily see that cuttlefish beats octopus.

I have nothing against sea lions, but I would definitely take cuttlefish over sea lions any day. Cuttlefish are all cool looking and use camouflage. Sea lions are anthropomorphic and can do tricks for public. Cuttlefish are too cool for that. It’s like sea lions are Chuck Norris and cuttlefish are Werner Herzog. There’s just no contest.

I’m also liking octopi more and  more. This is the coolest video I’ve ever seen…since the cuttlefish one.

Categories: Nature, Science Tags: ,

Sadly, Octopi does not mean "eight pies"

April 9, 2010 1 comment

I just saw this awesome, awesome video. They attached a freakin camera to a freakin sea lion. It’s almost as cool as freakin sharks with freakin laser beams, but somewhat less deadly. To humans, that is.

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/player/flash/syndicatedVideoPlayer.swf?vid=crittercam-sealion-vs-octopus-vin

After seeing this, I decided that I wanted my own crittercam. My wife put the kybosh and adding a camera to the baby, so I had to settle on trying to glue one to the dog. She wasn’t having it. You could say that things went poorly. I was bitten 17 times. The vet said it was a record.

When I went back to watch the video to see what I may have done wrong, I noticed a link to another video. This one was simply titled “Octopus vs. Shark”. Now if that doesn’t grab your attention, I think you’re reading the wrong freakin blog. As you might guess, the video is of an octopus in combat with a shark. Seems like the shark would have the advantage here, I mean, the sea lion was able to beat the octopus handily, and sharks eat sea lions all the time. As it turns out sea lions, sharks, and octopi form some sort of awesome nature themed game of cowboy/ninja/bear.

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/player/swf/ngplayer_syndicated.swf

I actually felt bad for the shark here. He was just cruising around, not hurting anybody. This is odd because I felt bad for the octopus in the first video. Then I watched it after the shark video and I started rooting for the sea lion. “You can do it! Kick that shark eating bastard’s ass!”

Categories: Biology, Nature, Science Tags: , , ,

Life (not the TV show) and death (not the person)

April 8, 2010 Leave a comment

In keeping with tradition, my father got me a Swiss Army Knife for my recent birthday. My first thought was, “COOL!” but my second thought was, “Why do the Swiss need army knives? They’re always neutral.” After I laughed at my wittiness for making fun of the history of a country different from my own I found out that the Swiss actually had the knives made in the 1890s. The first knives had a single blade, a can opener, a screwdriver, and a reamer. That’s right a reamer. If, by some odd twist of fate, a crazy doctor had kidnapped you and sewn your anus shut, I would literally be able to ream you a new one. You should take comfort in that fact, I know I do. My new one has all that plus a Phillips head screwdriver, a bottle opener, a toothpick, tweezers, and a second knife. All of this fits into a pretty compact little handle. This is nice since I don’t need a dorky looking belt attachment to carry it around since it doesn’t leave an embarrassing looking bulge in my pocket. While this is probably the most standard of tool sets (sometimes the Phillips head is swapped out for a corkscrew), it’s far from the most expansive. In 2006 the manufacturer Wegner made a knife with 85 devices. The knife is 9 inches thick and cost $1400. As such, it’s the least functional multi-function tool ever devised. Still, the thinner, more functional, models got the Swiss Army Knife a spot in the Museum of Modern Art.

Pretty cool, huh?

To continue on a completely different subject, the passing of my birthday led me to thoughts of my own mortality. This would have made the gift of a knife delightfully ironic, but I was thinking of far, far off in the future. I came to a conclusion about what I would like done with my body after death. Obviously, the ideal funeral would involve me being jettisoned from a starship while a Scotsman plays Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. I doubt that this will be happening, though. I’d imagine that if we become advanced enough to master starships we’d have moved past the need of bagpipes.  My second best option would be a burial at sea. I do have a slight affinity for the oceans of the world and it seems only fitting that my final resting place would be there. However, I don’t want any normal burial. Instead of having ashes scattered or being hucked out in a casket, I’d simply like to be dumped into the ocean, possibly with a weight attached so that I don’t float.

This would be so that instead of simply rotting, my body could be broken down and eaten. A little bizarre and morbid to think of, but I think that it would be exciting to be thrown down to the bottom of the food chain. That way the energy that my body is made up of would be able to change and be used again. In essence, a part of me would go on living. And not just once, but numerous times and in numerous forms as small animals eat me and then those animals are eaten by bigger and bigger animals.

There are a few problems with this. I’m pretty sure it’s against a number of international laws to simply dump a body into the ocean. Some people, authoritative types mostly, might even see this as some sort of attempt to cover something up. While I certainly wouldn’t suffer any from these kinds of setbacks, the people assigned to care for my body and its disposal would probably face some pretty dire consequences. The other problem being that I wouldn’t want to be injected with formaldehyde, since I’d imagine that anything eating me would probably not enjoy getting food poisoning. Again, I wouldn’t be put off by some rotting here or there, but my caretakers wouldn’t appreciate it. This did disturb me a bit though, until I hatched upon the idea that I could be cryogenically frozen. Fish don’t care about freezer burn, do they?

If that shouldn’t work for some reasons (most likely the reasons I’ve stated above) I’d like to be buried. Not in some graveyard in a coffin, but in the open. Again, that way I would decompose and be eaten and worked up with the food chain. This would again pose problems as to the logistics of the whole plan. I couldn’t just be dumped in any old forest. Imagine if some hunter were to find me down the road. He’s looking for a deer, comes through a clearing, and all of a sudden there I am with a fox gnawing at my liver. Then there would be a whole investigation thing, which would be a whole other set of hassles. At the very least the hunter would probably throw up, and that’s just icky.

Here’s to hoping that they get working on those starships sooner rather than later.

Now that I’ve already probably disturbed you we can move onto happier, more awesome topics. I found a couple articles recently which discuss how varied life can be on this planet. We always knew that life was varied here, very varied, but these two examples probably take the cake for most extreme lifeforms.

The first lives in a volcanic lake. That is, a lake within a volcano. The lake is 5 times saltier than sea water and has an arsenic count 20,000 times higher than what is deemed safe for human consumption. Since the lake is four and a half kilometers above sea level, there is less oxygen, and deadly UV light gets in easier. There’s also the danger of noxious sulfuric gas that’s constantly emitted. And, oh yeah, did I mention that the lake is in a freaking volcano? It’s shocking enough that any organism can survive in such an environment, but scientists have actually found flamingos there. The flamingos feed basically the same way that certain whales do. They taken huge amounts of water, filter out the food and then pass the rest right out. To survive, they regularly drink large quantities of water from the lake. The coolest thing is that, with such lethal conditions, scientists believe that by studying these creatures, they can get a glimpse of what the earliest life forms on Earth were like.

This reminds me of a scene from the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Q shows Picard how life formed.

You see this? This is you. I’m serious! Right here, life is about to form on this planet for the very first time. A group of amino acids are about to combine to form the first protein. The building blocks
of what you call “life.” Strange, isn’t it? Everything you know, your entire civilization, it all begins right here in this little pond of goo. Appropriate somehow, isn’t it? Too bad you didn’t bring your microscope; it’s really quite fascinating.

It’s odd that the first living things that ever were came from a world which we would probably compare to Hell. I’d imagine that the volcanic lake would appear the same way.

Well, what could be more impressive than a couple of creatures that can exist in otherwise lethal conditions? How about a creature that can exist

in an environment completely bereft of oxygen?

Viruses and bacteria have been known to live in areas without oxygen but this article talks of an entirely new species that lives in deep sediment. There are other species like it, but those species occasionally dig themselves out and enter an oxygen rich area to breathe. If a species like this can live and thrive, it makes you wonder what other types of things could evolve in places we haven’t explored yet. This includes places here on Earth, but also extends to other planets.