Could flooding turn your home into a giant cocoon? Ballooning spider storm takes over Australia

Survival is the most primal of instincts. If danger approaches us, we run. If a hurricane warning threatens, we evacuate. However, it just so happens as humans, we are not the only species to reflexively respond to evacuation as a means of survival. In Australia, thousands upon thousands of wolf spiders have abandoned their homes due to flooding; but instead of taking refuge in a high school gymnasium or a YMCA, they’ve taken over private residences – over 8,000 of them.

It sounds like something out of the Twilight Zone, but it’s true. Over 8,000 individuals have been temporarily forced out of their homes due to a phenomenon known as ballooning.  With the recent flooding of the Murrumbidgee River, hordes of wolf spiders have been spinning sticky webs of dragline silk to survive the inundation. This behavior is especially strange for wolf spiders which are typically solitary ground-dwelling creatures.  According to Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist at the Bohart Museum of Entomology,

“Wolf spiders would rather be hiding somewhere, trying to escape birds and other predators, but when land gets so flooded, the spiders are forced to flee into trees and other high things”

Ballooning allows the wolf spiders to fly into the air and parachute to other locations, sometimes covering long distances if need be. Each spider casts a thread of silk into the air and rides wind currents away from danger, resulting in the blanketing effect that has forced so many Australian civilians out of their homes.

Although ballooning is indeed a sight to behold, and in the case of the Australian residents, a severe inconvenience, it is not terribly uncommon. Post-flood ballooning also occurred in Pakistan just last April, with millions of spiders forming gigantic web clusters in trees to escape rising waters.

Although a sequel to 1977’s “Kingdom of the Spiders” is in development to be filmed this year (I know. I’m serious.) it won’t be as a result of Australia’s flooding situation. The wolf spiders are not expected to get cozy enough to stay in the residential homes permanently. Weather reports in Australia say the flood waters have begun receding, meaning the wolf spiders will soon be returning to their natural habitats and locals will soon be able to return home.




Girl, look at that genome! Working out reprograms your DNA, science discovers

Just over 2 months ago, we rang in 2012. For many of us, that meant resolutions and goal setting. The most common nationwide new year’s resolution is hands down becoming physically fit. Gyms recognize this trend and often offer new member new year specials or trial periods or various other marketing tactics to drive home the point of attaining a new you for the new year.

Working out changes your body. Endurance builds, muscles strengthen, metabolism grows – and your DNA loses chemical modifications. Wait, what?

A paper published in Sweden just this week studied the methylation status of genes in small biopsies taken from the thigh muscles of healthy young adults before and after working out on an exercise bike. The biopsies showed that some genes involved in energy metabolism were demethylated in the promoter regions by the workout – the parts of DNA that facilitate the transcription of particular genes.

The amount of demethylation in the genes varied on a person by person basis depending on the intensity of the workout. In other words, individuals who had cycled the hardest showed the greatest amount of gene demethylation in their biopsies.

Interestingly enough, similar demethylation processes have been observed in cultured muscle cells upon receiving large doses of caffeine.  According to Juleen Zierath, a member of the team providing research for the paper,

“Caffeine releases calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, an organelle found in muscles. It sort of mimics a contracting muscle. Calcium might, therefore, be the cellular trigger that activates the demethylation pathway.”

So what does this all mean? Well, your body works differently after demethylation, as different genes begin to get expressed. Its like changing the settings on your phone: it’s the same phone, but now it operates differently. In this case, the change happens in the muscles.  Just like caffeine makes you physically feel more awake, demethylation sort of “wakes up” your muscles, making them respond more quickly than they would have before exercise.

Despite the fact that demethylation happens in response to caffeine, this doesn’t necessarily mean we should change our resolutions from working out more to drinking more coffee.  To achieve the same effect on muscles that exercise does, one would need to consume approximately 50 cups of coffee per day, a near lethal amount!

Although it is unclear exactly how these methyl groups were removed from the DNA tested, demethylation is quickly becoming a topic of scientific popularity. It is expected to undergo many tests and experiments so we can have a full understanding in the next 3-6 months of why the process happens and what exactly it does.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy both my morning caffeine fix and evening gym workout.

Rochester Science

Researchers at the U of R find a new way to look at a killer cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, about 28,000 people will be diagnosed with liver cancer this year and at the same time, about 20,000 other patients will die of that same cancer. Both of those numbers have been increasing at a steady rate for decades now, and scientists aren’t entirely sure why.

But the researchers at the @UofR Wilmot Cancer Research Center have recently discovered an entirely new way to analyze the formation of liver cancer, which typically happens in an area of the liver known as the bile ducts. Bile is a substance produced by the liver that is essential to the digestion of food, and obviously, the ducts carry that bile out of the liver.

Researchers working in conjunction with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have found a way to genetically engineer mice to produce what is thought to be the most common vector for developing cancer of the liver, known by the charmingly-accessible name Intrahepatic Cholangiocarcinoma (IHCC). This allows the researchers to reproduce the same results over and over again to observe how it functions, and also to apply therapies to it to see what can be prevented.

Wilmot Researchers Create New Way to Study Liver Cancer – News Room – University of Rochester Medical Center.


The science behind the cutest cat video you’ll see all day

Yes, this is in fact the cutest video you’re likely to see all day. This unfortunate feline wants to drink out of the kitchen sink faucet, but clearly, has developed a somewhat unorthodox method of doing so. Basically, dunk your head and lick the water off your chops:

But funny as this video is by itself, we here at DFE would be remiss if we simply posted a link to the video without an explanation. Yes, as you probably already guessed, there is in fact a reason for this cat’s strange behavior. And it has to do with the way that cats drink water normally.

We see a cat licking at a water bowl and most of us think we know what’s happening: the cat is dipping its tongue into the water and grabbing a little drop’s worth into its mouth. But that is in fact not at all what is happening. What is actually happening is a bit of tricky physics.

The cat in fact flicks its tongue in and out of the water to create a column of water that extends from the bowl to its mouth. This is in part because, unlike humans, cats mouths cannot produce suction. Instead, creating this column of water moving towards their mouths pits the inertia of the water heading towards them against gravity, which is pulling the water back down. As long as the cat is able to move their tongue faster than the gravitational pull wants to pull the water down, they’re able to drink. Thus cats achieve the same basic results as we do when using a straw, but without any surrounding vessel to provide lift.

So now, you can start your weekend.

Rochester Science

Rochester’s crows: maybe we live to regret pissing them off?

One of the best aspects of being human is that we are the superior species.  We may not be the fastest or the strongest, but we are without a doubt the smartest, right? Not taking into consideration the many idiots we’ve all undoubtedly met, this is said to be true. So who would be a close second? Apes? Domesticated pets? Think again. Crows are just as smart, and in some ways, even smarter than many humans. Terrifying? You have no idea.

Mankind has a long, and at times, checkered past with crows. In ancient folklore, they have been regarded as symbols of death, and sometimes, even credited as creators of the world. Aesop wrote a story entitled “The Crow and the Pitcher” in which a crow, who wants to drink some water from a pitcher he can’t reach, drops pebbles into the pitcher until the water raises enough for him to drink it. Now Aesop, as talented as he was, was a fable writer and not a scientist; however, he was not that far off in his measurements of crow intelligence.

Aesop’s crow fable was later tested, and the results were amazing. The tested crows did get the water in the end, but not by some rudimentary method of trial and error. Instead, the crows exhibited knowledge of which stones (larger versus smaller) would achieve the desired effect. Most crows figured the trick out on their first try; the few who didn’t, got it on their second attempt.  Cool, right? Yeah, but not exactly what creature of death stories are made of. For that, chew on this:

Crows can remember your face. When was the last time you checked out a group of crows (which, for the record, a “group” of crows is called a murder of crows. That in itself is unsettling.) and could tell them apart? Chances are, they all just looked like a bunch of big, black birds with no real defining or memorable differences. You would think humans would also appear that way to crows, but not so. Recent research published just over 6 months ago explains the study of a masked man “terrorizing” a selected group of crows. Any time the man passed by without his mask, he was left alone, however, each time he wore the mask, he was attacked. The study concluded:

“Crows remember the faces of ‘dangerous humans’ with the memories likely lasting the bird’s lifetime. Crows may scold people who threaten them, bringing in relatives and even strangers to ‘mob’ the person. The crows within mobs then indirectly learn about the person, so they, too, associate the individual’s face with danger and react accordingly.”

Birds holding grudges – Alfred Hitchcock, much? In addition to their impeccable logic and memory, crows are excellent planners, extremely loyal, and most certainly do not take slack from anyone or anything.  Let’s just hope the authorities performing the harassment tactics to rid the Rochester crows don’t keep their faces visible while the procedures are in progress.

Rochester Science

Nevermore? Rochester’s crows aren’t anything new, and they aren’t going away.

The extremely high population of crows may be big news in Rochester now, but it was one of the first things I noticed about the area when I moved here from Pennsylvania in 2005.

“Why are there so many crows here?” I remember asking at a gathering with my new friends at the end of my first week here. I was met with blank, what-are-you-talking-about/are-you-on-something  stares from the native Rochesterians and an uproar of “Right?! What’s up with that?!” from my fellow Rochester foreigners.  7  years have passed,  and now we’re all asking the same question: why are there so many crows here?

Aside from the fact that a large number of crows hails from Southern Canada, which is pretty much our next door neighbor, there really is no straight-forward answer for why they’ve chosen Rochester as their preferred hangout.  One fact is known for certain, though – they haven’t received the warmest of welcomes.

Last week, city officials proactively began the process of discouraging approximately 20,000 – 35,000 crows  from settling in the city (just to put that in perspective – in 2011, there were 17,652 students total enrolled at RIT. That’s a lot of crows!) Working with the help of the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services Division, crows will be scared away with methods including pyrotechnics, lasers, and amplified recordings of crow distress calls.

These harassment methods of evicting the crows have been met with very mixed feedback. While no one particularly enjoys the noises or messes the large numbers of crows produce, many regard the large crow roosts and flights as a beautiful natural phenomenon and worry about the fate of the crows.

According to Mark Carrara, USDA Wildlife Biologist,

“The one thing that you have to keep in mind is that [these methods are] not a cure. There’s no way to keep these birds out of the city. It’s too big of an area. There are too many birds. So what we have to try to do is find a balance that everybody can live with. The crows and the people.”

So what do you do when you have noisy, messy, obnoxious neighbor you can’t stand and moving isn’t an option for either of you? You can dwell, and make life miserable – or, you can make an effort to get to know them, and hey, maybe deep down, they aren’t so bad. Or, maybe they are.

This week, DragonFlyEye will be taking that extra step to learn all about Rochester’s crows, these pesky neighbors of ours so you can get to know them, too.  Love them, hate them, or don’t care at all about them, these creatures are truly fascinating, and this is not a series you’ll want to miss! Check out the Rochester Crows series as it happens!


What do lefties and male crocodiles have in common?

Life. Its all interconnected and we humans – high as we may be on the food chain – are very much a part of the living systems around us. We are governed by the same set of biological imperatives. These are axioms of our modern world, argued over perhaps, but rarely contemplated for their own sake.

Occasionally, research lays bare just how mechanistic that relationship really is. And I suspect many will find it slightly upsetting. For example, we generally assume that the combined genetics of our father’s and mother’s lineage determine what we will be like when we come out. Our hair color, eye color; our preference for reggae music. All of it predetermined by a process that is a vast, nearly-unknowable operation involving all kinds of complex… stuff.

We don’t know how it works. But its got something to do with beans. And some German guy, according to our high school science education.

More and more, though, we are finding that not to be the case. Today is just such an occasion. In the Wall Street Journal today is an article entitled “The Health Risks of Being Left-Handed.” What stuck out in my reading of that article was this passage:

…More important, researchers say, are environmental factors—especially stress—in the womb. Babies born to older mothers or at a lower birth weight are more likely to be lefties, for example. And mothers who were exposed to unusually high levels of stress during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to a left-handed child…

Got that? In other words, while genetics probably do play a role in determining left or right handedness, its the specific conditions just prior to birth that appear to have the most direct effect on your final preference for signing your name.

So, how does all this relate to male crocodiles? Well, crocodile eggs are unusual in that they have no determined sex until just before hatching. The temperature around the nest at the time of hatching will determine the sex of the hatched crocodile-lets (wait. What is the name of a baby crocodile? Meh. I don’t feel like looking it up).

Environmental variations affect at least the sex of crocodiles and the handedness of humans. But the question is: why? And what else is determined in this purely environmental way?

In the case of temperature-dependent sex determination, the jury’s still out as to why. But one theory goes that colder temps mean longer seasons, and a longer season ensures that there will be more females at full maturity to lay the next generation of eggs. Is there some evolutionary reason that humans determine their hand preference so late in development? Is there some benefit?

The above-linked article doesn’t delve much deeper on the subject than the quoted paragraph, unfortunately. However, it does go on to list some of the traits which seem to accompany left-handedness. Are these all connected, or simply a collection of traits all changed by some of the same environmental conditions?

One thing is for sure: events which are consistently reproduced in nature rarely happen accidentally or without purpose. What that purpose is for lefties is, I guess, something for the next set of researchers to work out.


Bioarcheology: scientists study the African Diaspora and slavery’s genetic trail

Nature reports today on the beginnings of a vast new historical project aimed at fitting together the missing pieces of the African slave trade’s effects on the victims. One group will study bones of enslaved Africans for demographic, quality of life and chemical analysis information. Another will study written records of slave trade. But the largest focus of the study is on studying the DNA evidence in living populations of French Guiana to reconstruct the origins of the original slaves.

The study has the potential to bring up a host of uncomfortable subjects. For example, one lead researcher notes that the extent to which African slaves and their white masters may have interbred. And since much of the current historical record is “fragmented,” as another researcher put it, we may find that the routes to the Americas are not as straight as we once thought.

For more information on the study, see the Nature article posted below:

Filling in the gaps in the slave trade : Nature News & Comment.

Science Uncategorized

Tasty T-Day Science: don’t forget your edible lilies!

When he was a kid, my father was famous in our family for his contempt for onions. In fact, my grandmother went to extraordinary lengths to attempt to hide onions in her cooking, because she knew if he saw even the smallest sliver of the offending white bulb, that would be the end of the meal.

But she couldn’t possibly have cooked most traditional foods without the onion. It is nearly ubiquitous in the food world: mirepoix, sofrito, the holy trinity, suppengrün, w?oszczyzna, refogado. These are all names of traditional cooking bases and all contain the pungent sweetness of the onion along with a few other ingredients like peppers, celery or carrots.

An onion's flower. Very pretty, yes?

But did you know that the onion is actually a cousin of the lilies we grow in our gardens? And not onions alone, but onions, garlic, scallions and shallots all descend from the same plant family. In fact, edible flowers enjoyed a certain popularity recently and included some types of straight, garden-variety lilies.

Don’t think you should go out and start munching on the lilies at Wegmans, however: many of the varieties we enjoy as garden flowers are actually slightly poisonous. They won’t kill you, but they’ll ruin your evening.

Lilies like most flowers originate in China and their use in cooking has ancient roots across Eurasia. They are even featured on some Egyptian monuments.

And your Thanksgiving meal will not be complete without these tasty bulbs, either. A cursory Google search reveals dozens of preparations, including cassaroles, caramelized and (yuck) creamed onions for your delectation. Personally, I’ll be happy with a few in the stuffing, but I guess that’s Thanksgiving for you: everybody’s got their own traditions.

Journalism Rochester Science

The breathtaking race in biological science: why is there no media coverage?

There are a few very particular races happening in the world of medical science that are probably at least as important to our current era as the Space Race was to the Nuclear Age, but they receive very little press, indeed.

The first is the race to map and contextualize the genomes of the various species on the planet. The sequencing and understanding of the various blocks of data found within the genome – basically, the framework of DNA upon which every individual of a species is built – is yielding unprecedented discoveries about the way biotic systems go together.

But that isn’t the only one. Another hugely-important race is the race to identify all the various forms of protein that exist in life on the planet. Proteins perform a wide variety of functions in the body; we generally accept that you need to eat protein so your body can build muscle and bone. But these are not the only functions of proteins.

For example, DFE recently reported on Professor Andre Hudson’s research on the protein involved in allowing algae to photosynthesize. In this case, the protein is an enzyme that allows the photosythetic process to happen. Once identified, researchers can find ways to arrest photosynthesis in a single species of algae, thus controlling it while leaving the rest of the ecosystem intact.

RIT just recently published a presser on colleagues of Professor Hudson’s and the project to map out all known forms of proteins. The idea of this project is geared at the second phase of Dr Hudson’s research and others: by creating a single database with all the protein information you need, technologists and companies can use the data to create their own solutions to biological problems.

At the same time, in addition to knowing what the protein is, knowing how it is formed is equally important. Researchers elsewhere in the community are finding that gamers are doing some of the best work figuring out how the “game theory” of protein shapes work best.

The pace of this research is breath-taking. The consequences of mapping the genomes of every species on Earth and knowing every protein out there is pretty staggering. Honestly, its also a little bit scary. Which is why the lack of proper coverage in mainstream circles is more than a little upsetting.

It is ironic that the mainstream media is focused on the trial of a celebrity doctor who proscribed drugs to a willing patient while the whole of our understanding of biology – to say nothing of the relatively narrow field of medicine – passes them by.

Rochester Science

Bausch and Lomb: People would rather be deaf than blind

If you had to chose between blindness and deafness, which would it be? Well, if you’re like 60% of respondents in a recent Bausch and Lomb study on the subject of eye sight, you’d choose your vision.

Hard to argue with that choice: humans generally rely on sight more than other senses to navigate and understand our world. In fact, its the ability to see over long distances that made walking erect the evolutionarily-preferred trait. Otherwise, its just clunky, unstable and frankly weird looking.

The study shows that people also associate getting older with losing vision, but that less people are taking the care of their vision that they aught to for long-term health. Read the rest of the survey results below:

New Survey Shows That People Don’t Want to Live a Moment of Life with Poor Eye Sight : Bausch + Lomb.


Largest-ever virus creates “trojan organelles” in amoeba off Chile’s coast

When amoeba get a cold, its a big one.

French scientists have discovered a new form of virus – the largest ever discovered and one which is twenty times larger than the average virus. And this particular virus does something rather unusual, according to the BBC article linked to in the Popular Science blog post below.

Whereas viruses typically invade a host cell and simply turn the nucleus (the “brain” of a cell) into its slave, thereby getting the cell to make replications of the virus, this one appears to setup whole organelles for the same purpose. Organelles, you’ll recall from biology class, are the “organs” that exist inside the cell, like the mitochondria, ribosomes, and the always-popular endoplastic reticulum. These organelles are referred to as “trojan,” implying that their purpose is to disguise what’s going on from the rest of the cell.

So, whereas computers have trojan viruses, apparently amoeba have viruses that create trojans. What a world.

Ocean Explorers Find Largest Virus Ever Seen, 20 Times Bigger than the Average Bug | Popular Science.