Monday, March 23, 2015

Komodo Dragons: Their Bite is Worse than Their Bark (A Guest Post)

By Shelly Sonsalla


Komodo Dragon.
Image by Arturo de Frias Marques on Wikimedia.
Komodo dragons are the world’s largest living lizard and can be found only on select islands in the Indonesian archipelago. These massive lizards can grow to be 10 feet in length and up to 150 pounds! Their natural prey includes wild boars, deer, and water buffalo—animals which may outweigh them by several hundred pounds. So how does a lizard, even such a large one, manage to take down prey so much larger than them? The answer lies in their bite.

Komodo dragons’ mouths are a complex interplay of force, toxins, and bacteria. A study by Brian Fry and his colleagues at the Howard Florey Institute in Australia determined the amount of force that a komodo dragon could generate with its bite. What did they find the answer to be? Not much. They found that a komodo dragon’s bite was 6.5 times less than that of an Australian saltwater crocodile. That’s comparable to a 3.5 pound fennec fox! Obviously, this means that the komodo dragon couldn’t possibly bring down such large prey by strength alone. Luckily for them, there are two more factors at play.

Size comparison between a komodo dragon and a fennec fox.
Computer Rendered by Michelle Sonsalla.

The first is venom secreted by a number of venom glands found on the lower jaw. The amount of venom that can be held in these glands totals less than half a teaspoon! This venom has a number of properties meant to kill its prey, properties which prevent the prey’s blood from coagulating and cause painful cramping in the intestines, paralysis, and loss of consciousness. These effects alone would be enough to bring down most prey, but in case they aren’t, there is a final piece of the puzzle—bacteria.

All living things have a multitude of bacteria and fungi that are naturally present on their skin and in their digestive system, but the bacteria found in the mouths of komodo dragons are specialized. According to Joel Montgomery, a researcher at the University of Texas at Arlington, there are 54 species of bacteria found in the mouths of komodo dragons which cause illness and 1 species which has been found to be lethal to mice. These bacteria enter the prey’s bloodstream through its bite and work to infect the creature slowly, causing severe infection within days or weeks.

All three factors of a komodo dragon’s bite work together to take down its prey efficiently and effectively. The bite, though weak, is enough to open the skin and allow the venom and bacteria into the prey’s bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the venom works to weaken the animal, which in turn allows the bacteria to gain a foothold to infect, and eventually kill, the victim. These factors allow this large, magnificent lizard, this dragon among beasts, to take down prey much larger than themselves and have helped them survive the extinction of the past’s other great lizards.


References:

Christiansen P, & Wroe S (2007). Bite forces and evolutionary adaptations to feeding ecology in carnivores. Ecology, 88 (2), 347-58 PMID: 17479753

Fry, B., Wroe, S., Teeuwisse, W., van Osch, M., Moreno, K., Ingle, J., McHenry, C., Ferrara, T., Clausen, P., Scheib, H., Winter, K., Greisman, L., Roelants, K., van der Weerd, L., Clemente, C., Giannakis, E., Hodgson, W., Luz, S., Martelli, P., Krishnasamy, K., Kochva, E., Kwok, H., Scanlon, D., Karas, J., Citron, D., Goldstein, E., Mcnaughtan, J., & Norman, J. (2009). A central role for venom in predation by Varanus komodoensis (Komodo Dragon) and the extinct giant Varanus (Megalania) priscus Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (22), 8969-8974 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810883106

Merchant, M., Henry, D., Falconi, R., Muscher, B., & Bryja, J. (2013). Antibacterial activities of serum from the Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis) Microbiology Research, 4 (1) DOI: 10.4081/mr.2013.e4

Montgomery JM, Gillespie D, Sastrawan P, Fredeking TM, & Stewart GL (2002). Aerobic salivary bacteria in wild and captive Komodo dragons. Journal of wildlife diseases, 38 (3), 545-51 PMID: 12238371

Monday, March 9, 2015

Vole Pee: An Epiphany (A Guest Post)

By Nate Kueffer

You’re driving down the road, looking out the window, and you see a large raptor hovering above a field. Have you ever wondered what exactly the raptor could see that you couldn’t? Well, it is thought that raptors may be able to sense ultraviolet light and use it to track voles through urine and feces trails.

A hovering kestrel, possibly tracking a vole. Photo by Mark Likner at Flickr.

Ultraviolet light is a non-detectable form of radiation by the human eye and is similar to X-rays and gamma rays. However, with the help of a black light human eyes can see different materials that we couldn’t see in visible light. The objects that humans can typically see under a black light are fluorescent. This means that the object has the ability to soak up ultraviolet light and then emit the light it took in and produce a light frequency that humans are able to detect.

Jussi Viitala from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, and Erkki Korpimäki, Päivi Palokangas (now Lundvall) and Minna Koivula from the University of Turku in Finland set out to find more conclusive evidence on raptors using ultraviolet light to hunt. The four researchers tested the hypothesis that in order to find prey patches, Eurasian kestrels, a species of raptor, look for vole scent marks visible in ultraviolet light. The voles’ scent marks are their urine and feces droppings, which show up under ultraviolet light. The researchers set up experiments in the field and in a laboratory setting.

Kestrel with a captured vole after a successful hunt. Photo by Eugene Beckes at Flickr.

In the laboratory setting, wild captured kestrels were released into a large area made up of four different arenas. All arenas were different, but did not allow any external visual cues. One arena had vole trails in ultraviolet light, another was clean with ultraviolet light, a third arena had visible light and vole trails, and the final arena was clean with visible light. The kestrels were then measured by their time spent over each arena. The kestrels in the laboratory seemed to prefer the arena with ultraviolet light and vole trails. The clean, ultraviolet-lit arena had the least amount of scans and time spent over that arena compared to the other three arenas. The kestrels had no preference over either arena with visible light.

The field setting had 3 experimental groups for 45 kestrel nest boxes: the first had artificial vole trails with urine and feces, the second had artificial vole trails, but no urine or feces, and the last was the control with no vole trails, urine, or feces. The 45 boxes were observed over 24 mornings when the researchers recorded the number of kestrels near each nest and their behavior (hunting, paired, or resting). For the field experiment, 27 of the 45 nest boxes attracted kestrels near them. The most commonly used nest boxes were near artificial trails with urine and feces. The kestrels avoided the other two nest box areas: the one with trails, but no urine, and one with no trails and no urine. This showed that the trails weren’t used as hunting cues. Paired or hunting kestrels preferred to spend time hunting near trails with urine or feces, and resting kestrels were seen evenly in all three areas. Also, four rough-legged hawks were seen hunting near the trails with urine and feces.

Both experiments showed kestrels using trails with markings from voles suggesting that the vole markings may be used to select hunting and nest sites. The researchers propose that the kestrels, in fact, use vole scent markings as visual cues. Kestrels and other predatory birds may use the ultraviolet light from vole markings to scan over large areas new to them before deciding to hunt or nest in the area. The next raptor you see out of your car window could be tracking its prey’s markings using ultraviolet light.


References
Olson, V. (n.d.). Raptor Vision. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.moremesa.org/wordpress/raptor-vision/

Q & A: Why does a black light make objects glow? (2007, October 22). Retrieved January 21, 2015, from https://van.physics.illinois.edu/qa/listing.php?id=1913

Viitala, J., Korplmäki, E., Palokangas, P., & Koivula, M. (1995). Attraction of kestrels to vole scent marks visible in ultraviolet light Nature, 373 (6513), 425-427 DOI: 10.1038/373425a0

Monday, March 2, 2015

Choosing Mates Wisely Is All The More Important When They Try To Eat You

A praying mantid pair.
Photo by Oliver Koemmerling
at Wikimedia Commons.
Choosing our mates is among the most important decisions of our lives. We agonize over finding "the one", and for good reason. If we are going to spend the rest of our lives with one person and depend on that person to help create and raise our children, the stakes of choosing that person well are high. But at least we don't have to worry that if we choose wrong our partner will bite our head off... not literally, anyway.

Today at Accumulating Glitches, I talk about sexual cannibalism in praying mantids and how it has led to males now choosing less aggressive mates. Check out the article here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Effects of Iron Deficiency in Female Runners (A Guest Post)

By Ana Breit

When people think of nutritional deficiencies, they probably picture women with goiters due to lack of iodine or other newsworthy examples. In reality, the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States is iron deficiency. Iron Deficiency (ID) is especially common in endurance athletes, especially female athletes.

Start of 2013 Roy Griak Invitational Cross Country Meet at
the University of Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Larson.

Iron is the metal in humans that allows oxygen to be carried in our bloodstream to all of our other organs. Without enough iron, less oxygen is taken to the muscles and other organs that need it. People with anemia (iron deficiency) may experience fatigue, weakness, and dizziness. Scientists Irena Auersperger, from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, Branko Skof and Bojan Leskosek, both from the University Medical Centre in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Ales Jerin, from the University Clinic Golnik in Golnik, Slovenia, and finally Mitja Lainscak, from Campus Virchow-Klinikum in Berlin, Germany asked how iron levels affect performance levels in female runners and whether or not intensified training impacts various iron parameters.

Fourteen moderately active women were chosen to participate in the study. In order to be enrolled they had to have regular menstrual cycles, eat animal products on a regular basis, and not be taking forms of medication except birth control. Each woman was put into one of two groups based on her ferritin levels. (Ferritin is a protein that stores iron). Anyone with ferritin levels greater than 20 micrograms per liter was put in the Normal group (for normal iron stores). Anyone with ferritin less than or at 20 micrograms per liter was put into the Depleted group (for depleted iron stores).

The study took place during a training period leading up to the International Ljubljana Marathon. During the eight week training period, runners had routine tests consisting of a 2400 meter (1.5 miles) time trial on a standard 400 meter outdoor track. Blood samples were taken at three different times: once before the eight week training period, once after the training period, and once more ten days after the marathon. These measurement times will be referred to as baseline, training, and recovery, respectively. Height, weight, and body fat percentage were measured during baseline and at recovery. Each woman then ran on a treadmill so researchers could measure her maximum speed, maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max), and heart rate. Blood samples were taken at baseline, training, and recovery points to measure various blood parameters and iron parameters.

Both Normal and Depleted groups had similar body measurements, VO2 max, and heart rates. Both groups had improvements in their endurance measurements, however, only the Normal group had endurance improvements that could be documented as significant while the Iron Deficient group’s endurance improvements were less. By the end of the experiment, most of the runners were anemic. Both groups experienced a decrease in iron levels during the training and recovery periods compared with the baseline levels. Overall, both groups’ iron levels decreased in all areas during the training phase, even though they were both getting stronger and faster. The group that started out with lower iron levels did not show as great of an improvement as the group with the normal iron levels at baseline. Even after the 10 day recovery period, iron level parameters were still considered low. With this data, the researchers agree that Iron Deficiency decreases performance levels of female athletes.

Even though most people consider running to be a very healthy pastime, it can have undesired negative effects as well. All endurance athletes, especially female athletes, should have their iron levels checked regularly, and should make a conscious effort to incorporate iron into their hopefully already healthy diet by eating any enriched grains and a healthy amount of red meat. With consent of a physician, iron supplements can also be a good way to keep iron levels in check.

Bibliography

Auersperger I, Škof B, Leskošek B, Knap B, Jerin A, & Lainscak M (2013). Exercise-induced changes in iron status and hepcidin response in female runners. PloS one, 8 (3) PMID: 23472137

Monday, February 16, 2015

Science Beat: Round 4

It’s exam time again, and some of us need to study and let off some steam. These sciency music videos are just the ticket!

Biochemistry:



Cellular Biology:




Neuroscience:




Vote for your favorite in the comments section below and check out other sciency song battles at Science Beat, Science Beat: Round 2, Science Beat: Round 3, Science Song Playlist, The Science Life, Scientist Swagger and Battle of The Grad Programs! And if you feel so inspired, make a video of your own, upload it on YouTube and send me a link to include in a future battle!

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Beginnings of Jurassic Park: Dinosaur Blood Discovered? (A Guest Post)

By Samantha Vold

The classic tale of Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs once again walked the earth has tickled the fancy of many a reader. Dinosaur DNA preserved in a fossilized mosquito was used to bring these giants back to life. But in real life, it was previously thought that there was no possible way for organic materials to be preserved, that they often degraded within 1 million years if not rapidly attacked by bacteria and other organisms specialized in decomposition. Skin and other soft tissues, such as blood vessels, would never withstand the test of time. Or would they…?

T. rex skeleton at Palais de la découverte. Image by David Monniaux at Wikimedia

In 1992, Mary Schweitzer was staring through a microscope at a thin slice of fossilized bone, but this bone had something unusual. There were small red disks located in this tissue and each had a small dark circle in the middle resembling a cell nucleus, the command center of the cell. And these little disks very much resembled the red blood cells of reptiles, birds, and other modern-day vertebrates (excluding mammals). But it wasn’t possible, was it? These cells came from a 67 million-year old T. rex. And it was commonly accepted that organic material never lasted that long.

Comparison of red blood cells. Image by John Alan Elson at Wikimedia

This opened a huge controversy in the scientific community, but Schweitzer persisted. She consulted with her mentor, Jack Horner, a leading scientist in the paleontology field, and he told her to prove to him that they weren’t red blood cells. Schweitzer took the challenge and began to run some tests.

The first clue to these mysterious scarlet-colored cells potentially being red blood cells was the fact that they were located within blood vessel channels of the dense bone that were not filled with mineral deposits. And these microscopic structures only appeared inside the vessel channels, as would be true of blood cells.

Schweitzer then began to focus on the chemical composition of these puzzling structures. Tests showed that these “little red round things” were rich in iron, and that the iron was specific to them. Iron is important in red blood cells as it helps to transport oxygen throughout the body. And the elemental make-up of these little red round things differed greatly from the surrounding bone and sediment around them.

The next test was looking for heme, a small iron-containing molecule that gives blood its characteristic color and allows hemoglobin proteins to transport oxygen throughout the body. Schweitzer tested for this through spectroscopy tests, which measure the light that a given material emits, absorbs, and scatters. Her results from these tests were consistent with what one would find in heme, suggesting that this molecule existed in the dinosaur bone she was analyzing.

Schweitzer then conducted a few immunology tests to see if she indeed had found hemoglobin in these ancient bones. Antibodies are produced when the body detects a foreign substance that could potentially be harmful. Extracts from the dinosaur bone were injected into mice to see if antibodies were produced to ward against this new organic compound. When these antibodies were then exposed to hemoglobin from turkeys and rats, they bound to the hemoglobin. This suggested that the extracts that caused an antibody response in the mice included hemoglobin. This in turn suggested the T. rex bone contained hemoglobin, or something very similar.

Through years of research, Schweitzer has shown that what was once believed to be impossible is indeed true. Soft tissues, blood cells, and proteins can withstand the test of time. This process is possibly done through iron binding to amino acids (the molecules that make up proteins) and thereby preserve them. Research is advancing in this area, but as of yet, no DNA has been found to bring Jurassic Park to life. But for the avid believer, don’t get up hope yet. Perhaps one day we truly could walk amongst dinosaurs.


References:

Fields, Helen. (May 2006). Dinosaur Shocker. Smithsonian. Smithsonian Magazine.

Pappas, Stephanie. (13 Nov. 2013). Mysteriously Intact T. Rex Tissue Finally Explained : DNews. DNews. Live Science.

Schweitzer, M. (2010). Blood from Stone Scientific American, 303 (6), 62-69 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican1210-62

Monday, February 2, 2015

Melatonin is Not a Magic Pill

European hamsters showed us that there is more to
annual body rhythms than melatonin. Image by
Agnieszka Szeląg at Wikimedia Commons.
Many animals undergo seasonal physiological changes in order to ensure that their babies are born during a time of more abundant food and milder weather and to help their bodies prepare for harsh winter conditions. In order to precisely time these physiological changes with the seasons, most animals have evolved to respond to the most reliable marker for time of year, photoperiod (the number of hours of daylight in a 24-hour period).

In mammals, the hormone melatonin, produced by the pineal gland in the brain, is thought to be essential in this process of annual body rhythms.
New research finds that the real story is much more complicated. To learn more about this, read the full article at Accumulating Glitches.


Monecke, S., Sage-Ciocca, D., Wollnik, F., & Pevet, P. (2013). Photoperiod Can Entrain Circannual Rhythms in Pinealectomized European Hamsters Journal of Biological Rhythms, 28 (4), 278-290 DOI: 10.1177/0748730413498561

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Bed Bug’s Piercing Penis (A Guest Post)

By Rachael Pahl

Sex is a dangerous, but necessary, part of life. Across the animal kingdom, there are a multitude of things that can go wrong. You could be injured in a fight by someone who wants to steal your mate, or maybe your partner eats you because you’re taking too long. Either way, nature must have a pretty good reason for the traumatizing effects of sex.

A male bed bug traumatically inseminates a female. Image by
Rickard Ignell at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
posted at Wikimedia Commons.
Bed bugs have a particularly risky way of having sex. When a male bed bug wants to mate, he will pierce the female’s abdomen with his penis (called a lanceolate) and release sperm directly into her body cavity. Talk about forceful! This mode of reproduction in bed bugs is known as traumatic insemination; aptly named.

With what seems like a horrific way of reproducing, it’s hard to imagine that there are any benefits for the female. I’m sure you can come up with a plethora of things that could go wrong: infection, damage of major organs, bleeding, even death. Researchers Ted Morrow and Göran Arnqvist with Uppsala University in Sweden, argue that the female has a counter-adaptation to this antagonistic strategy. The area of the abdomen that the male pierces has been modified into a pocket lined with specialized tissues to prevent serious damage to the female. This area is termed the spermalege. Edward and Göran hypothesized that sex is not harmful to the female if the spermalege is punctured, but can be dangerous if any other area is pierced. They also hypothesized that more mating occurrences and improper punctures would reduce the lifespan of the female.

To test their hypotheses, Edward and Göran observed the number of times a female was inseminated and where she was pierced (on the spermalege or somewhere else). They had two set-ups to observe mating rate: (1) a female was placed with four males where lots of mating would take place and (2) a female was placed with four males, three of which had their penis glued to their abdomen so that they could not mate. These two set-ups allowed the researchers to observe the differences in female life span between those who had a high mating rate and those who had a low mating rate. Then, the researchers wanted to see where the female was being pierced and how that affected her life span. In addition to traumatic insemination by male bed bugs, the researchers used a pin to pierce the spermalege or an area outside the spermalege and then compared the damage.

The study produced two big results. First, females who mated more had a shorter lifespan than those who mated less. This was because the sperm and other fluids deposited caused an immune response as they were seen as foreign objects; too much of these foreign substances can have negative effects on the organism. Second, females that were pierced through the spermalege lived longer than those who were pierced outside the spermalege, suggesting that the spermalege functions to reduce damage and/or infection during insemination.

So what are the benefits of traumatic insemination and how does the spermalege reduce the costs to the female? Well, there is a lot of paternal ambiguity in the animal kingdom. The direct deposition of sperm into the abdomen may ensure paternity by getting the sperm as close to the ovaries as possible before another male bed bug can mate with her. This method also reduces courtship time and avoids female resistance, meaning that other males may not have the chance to steal the female away. The spermalege protects females from traumatic insemination by localizing damage to one area that can easily repair itself. Since the spermalege is lined with cuticle, it prevents the leakage of blood and sperm from the wound. The spermalege may also function to prevent entry of pathogens into the bloodstream. In the end, this traumatic insemination is no more dangerous than any other kind of sex, however painful and horrible it sounds. It may even be less risky if done correctly.


For more information, check out:

Morrow, E., & Arnqvist, G. (2003). Costly traumatic insemination and a female counter-adaptation in bed bugs Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270 (1531), 2377-2381 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2003.2514

Monday, January 19, 2015

Why You Can’t Hibernate the Winter Away

You open your eyes, slap the alarm, and pull the covers a little tighter around your shoulders. It’s still dark outside and you dread the moment that you step out from under the warm comforter and the cold sucks your breath out. Can’t you just hibernate and sleep the winter away?

A dormouse in his snuggly hibernation state.
Image by Krysztof Dreszer at Wikimedia.
Actually, no. Hibernation and sleep are two completely different physiological processes (shown by studies of brain function). And chances are, you don’t have the physiological bits needed to hibernate safely.

Hibernation has more to do with energy and body temperature than it does with sleep. Hibernation is defined as a process in which an animal allows its body temperature to approximate the environmental temperature for several days or longer. It is a strategy that some animals use during periods of food shortage to conserve the energy that would normally be used to generate body heat. When food is scarce in the winter, the animal will lower its metabolism (the burning of food molecules to create energy and heat), which will result in the animal having less energy (and entering a sleep-like state) and less heat (until the body approaches the environmental temperature). So really, hibernation is the reduction of metabolism when food is scarce. Lack of activity and cold body temperatures are just the by-products.

Almost all species that hibernate are small mammals, including some hamsters, dormice, jumping mice, ground squirrels, marmots, woodchucks, bats, marsupials and monotremes. Bears, common examples of hibernating species, are actually debated by scientists as to whether they should even be considered hibernators due to the fact that their metabolisms and body temperatures do not decline as much as those of other hibernating species. The only bird species known to hibernate is the poorwill.

Each hibernating species has a specific range of body temperatures that their body can endure. Their first line of defense is to find a hibernaculum (a chamber or cavity in which to hibernate that is more insulated than the exposed environment). If the hibernaculum becomes so cold that the animal’s body temperature drops below its minimum endured range, it will either increase its metabolism slightly to raise its body temperature or it will arouse (wake up). Arousal is the process of increasing metabolic heat production to near-normal levels. All hibernating species seem to undergo multiple periods of temporary arousals during hibernation and scientists are still unsure why. Increasing the metabolism and body temperature from lower levels is an energetically costly process (similar to how your car uses more gas to accelerate than to maintain a higher speed). In most hibernating species, the process of increasing the metabolism uses a specialized tissue called brown fat.

Fat cells come in two main types: white fat and brown fat. White fat, the squishy stuff that we constantly try to diet and exercise away, is filled with lipids (fats) that we store to generate energy in the future. Brown fat cells also contains lipids, but they are specialized to break them down faster. Brown fat is found in newborn mammals and adult hibernators and is commonly located on the upper back, neck, chest and belly (like a vest) and around major arteries. Brown fat cells have lots of mitochondria (the metabolic parts of the cell that break down food molecules like lipids to generate energy). Brown fat mitochondria is specialized in that they have a protein called uncoupling protein 1 that causes them to generate heat rather than energy when they break down lipids. When the body becomes stressed, it releases norepinephrine, a stress hormone, which causes brown fat cells to increase the rate at which they break down lipids to generate heat. This heat warms the major arteries and increases blood flow, which then distributes the heat throughout the body.

A PET scan shows brown fat in a human.
Image by Hellerhoff at Wikimedia.
Although humans are born with a fair amount of brown fat, we lose it as we age. More specifically, it converts to white fat. We used to think that we lost it completely, but in recent years we have learned that some lean adults maintain a few pockets of brown fat in their necks and chests that obese people are more likely to lose. Researchers are currently exploring if and how we can convert some of our adult white fat to brown fat in order to increase our metabolisms and potentially combat obesity and diabetes.

So for now, we can’t hibernate the winter away. But continuing research into hibernating animals may hold an important secret to our own health.