Explore Utah Science - Explore Utah Science - Life http://exploreutahscience.org Tue, 23 Jan 2018 02:29:15 -0700 en-gb Ancient Humans Took A Long Pause When Crossing From Asia to the Americas http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/143-ancient-humans-took-a-long-pause-when-crossing-from-asia-to-the-americas http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/143-ancient-humans-took-a-long-pause-when-crossing-from-asia-to-the-americas Ancient Humans Took A Long Pause When Crossing From Asia to the Americas

The progress of the early human migration from Asia into the Americas was incredibly slow. In fact, the people whose descendants ended up populating the American continents may have spent as many as 10,000 years inhabiting the Bering Land bridge. 

The progress of the early human migration from Asia into the Americas was incredibly slow. In fact, a new column in the journal Science by University of Utah Anthropologist Dennis O'Rourke and two other researchers argues that the people whose descendants ended up populating the American continents may have spent as many as 10,000 years inhabiting the Bering Land bridge. KCPW's Roger McDonough spoke with professor O'Rourke to find out more.


Image: This map shows the outlines of modern Siberia (left) and Alaska (right) with dashed lines. The broader area in darker green (now covered by ocean) represents the Bering land bridge near the end of the last glacial maximum, a period that lasted from 28,000 to 18,000 years ago when sea levels were low and ice sheets extended south into what is now the northern part of the lower 48 states. University of Utah anthropologist Dennis O’Rourke argues in the Feb. 28 issue of the journal Science that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from Asia onto the Bering land bridge or “Beringia” some 25,000 years ago and spent 10,000 years there until they began moving into the Americas 15,000 years ago as the ice sheets melted.

Photo Credit: William Manley, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado.

scarpenter@kcpw.org (Roger McDonough) Life Sun, 02 Mar 2014 19:21:48 -0700
Sounds of the West http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/137-sounds-of-the-west http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/137-sounds-of-the-west Angels Landing, Zion National Park

Thousands of animal and ambient sounds from eleven western states have been recorded and archived in a digital library in Utah. While fascinating in their own right, sounds can also be used to track environmental change.

Thousands of animal and ambient sounds from eleven western states have been recorded and archived in a digital library in Utah. While fascinating in their own right, sounds can also be used to track environmental change.

Some people like to hunt animals, not to kill them, but to record the sounds they make.

Conservationists, scientists, volunteers, and state and federal agency employees have contributed over 2600 animal sounds that are now housed at the biggest library of its kind in the west, called the Western Soundscape Archive. The project was founded by recording engineer Jeff Rice and digital librarian Kenning Arlitsch in order to document the sounds of animals living in the west and to make people aware so they will want to protect the environments where these animals live.

The digital sound archive is kept at the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library. Anna Neatrour was a project manager for a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, awarded to Rice and Arlitsch, to develop the archive.

"The Western Soundscape Archive is a site that collects animal sounds centered on eleven states in the American West," says Neatrour. "And it provides a really good overview of all the species that live in our states as well as ambient sounds for National Parks. Quite a variety of sounds that people can listen to from their computers."

While the project no longer has funds to collect and annotate new sounds, Neatrour says archiving animal sounds is important because when people think about environmental issues and declining landscapes, they usually think about the visual aspects.

"The sounds associated with these natural landscapes change as well. So preserving that now for the future is very useful," she adds.

But recording the sounds is not always easy. Many animals are active early in the morning and can be in hard to reach locations. Different microphones are needed for different jobs. By using a parabolic microphone it's possible to pick up weak sounds from a few meters away, while a small remote microphone can be dropped into burrows in the ground, or holes in trees. Some sound enthusiasts go even further.

"If you search the archive for 'ant interview,' you can hear a story of a scientist describe how he recorded the vibrations that ants make by holding them between his teeth," says Neatrour. "It shows how devoted people are for capturing these sounds.

[Interview with Dr. Hayward Spangler]

The recordings include over 500 bird species, 300 mammals, dozens of snakes, turtles, lizards, and frogs, as well as multiple insects. Many of the recordings are paired with predicted species distribution maps and pictures of the animals, which can be found by common or scientific name.

"We have some sounds from animals that you think would not make sounds, like earth worms for example," explains Neatrour. "And in that case the sound for that sound clip, it's more like the dirt falling as the earthworm moves through the ground."

[Earthworm sounds]

The individual animal sounds are important, but so are collections of sounds from particular landscapes. These collections, or soundscapes, include sounds of animals, geophysical features such as wind and streams, and human-produced sounds collected over the course of a day from different locations in the natural world.

[Ironwood Forest National Monument at dawn]

Soundscapes are frequently represented visually as spectrograms. The images of daily acoustic patterns can be used to better understand the area's biodiversity and health. Donated by the National Park Service, there are over 10,000 spectral images from 24 National Parks in the Western Soundscape Archive.

[Spectrograms from Zion National Park]

"You can actually look at these sound wave graphs and pinpoint things like airplane flights going overhead and disrupting the landscape versus variations in the ambient noise you might get in the different season," says Neatrour. "So that is something that can appeal more if people are doing research in that area."

Scientists are realizing that the auditory environment is as important as the visual landscape in understanding the health of an ecosystem. And the National Park Service is actively searching for ways to better protect the natural environment from the impact of human sounds, since studies suggest the acoustical environment is important for animals to find mates, protect their young, and to communicate about territories.

So the next time you are out in nature, remember to listen as well as look.

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Life Thu, 05 Dec 2013 14:31:01 -0700
Researchers Make Headway on Discovering the Real Paleo Diet—Article Review http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/122-researchers-make-headway-on-discovering-the-real-paleo-diet-article-review http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/122-researchers-make-headway-on-discovering-the-real-paleo-diet-article-review The original complete skull (without upper teeth and mandible) of a 2.1 million year old Australopithecus africanus specimen so-called Mrs. Ples, discovered in South Africa. Collection of the Transvaal Museum, Northern Flagship Institute, Pretoria, South Africa. (catalogue number STS 5, Sterkfontein cave, hominid fossil number 5).

Around 3.5 million years ago, our primate ancestors made a shift in their diet that some scientists believe set them on course for human evolution. The findings were reported in a series of studies published this week in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences.

Around 3.5 million years ago, our primate ancestors made a shift in their diet that some scientists believe set them on course for human evolution. The findings were reported in a series of studies published this week in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences.

It was previously assumed that our human ancestors' diet was largely the same as today's modern chimps, notes Thure Cerling, a geology and biology professor at the University of Utah. He was lead author on two of the three studies, which brought together dozens of researchers from across the world. Cerling describes the work, "We have a look at 4 million years of the dietary evolution of humans and their ancestors."

To determine what our ancestors were eating, the researchers exploited a unique property of carbon atoms found in plants, the main component of our ancestors' diet. Plants use carbon dioxide, water and light to make sugar and oxygen in a process called photosynthesis. However, different plants carry out photosynthesis slightly differently. As a result, sugars from different plants have slightly different carbon compositions. One group, C3 plants, has a distinctly lower ratio of carbon-13, a unique isotope of carbon, compared to common carbon-12. Two other groups, C4 and CAM plants, have a relatively higher ratio of carbon-13.

The researchers found the composition of the primates' diet by examining their teeth. As primates age, their tooth enamel becomes fuller and harder. During this process, tooth enamel absorbs the molecules, including carbon, from the food being eaten. 173 fossilized teeth samples, representing a period of roughly 4 million years of evolution, were analyzed for carbon signatures that revealed the relative amounts of the two plant groups within them.

They discovered that from roughly 4.2 to 1.5 million years ago, our ancestors moved from a diet of almost exclusively C3 plants - leaves, fruits, vegetables, wheat, barley and herbs - to a diet of mostly C4/CAM plants - grasses, sedges, seeds, millet and roots. The expanded diet more closely resembles the modern human diet and correlates with a shift from living in forested areas to living on the savannah.

While these studies go much farther in advancing our knowledge of ancient hominid diets, many details remain unknown. The carbon-13 method cannot be used to determine which specific plants were eaten, nor can it distinguish whether our ancestors ate these plants directly or ate the meat of animals that had eaten these plants.

Evolutionary biologists believe the dietary expansion may have contributed to the evolution of our ancestors, partially by enabling them to move out of the forests where most apes still live today. "Diet has long been implicated as a driving force in human evolution," says Matt Sponheimer, anthropologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and lead author of the third study.

This new information about diet may lead to a shift in thinking by evolutionary biologists about how humans evolved. "If diet has anything to do with the evolution of larger brain size and intelligence, then we are considering a diet that is very different than we were thinking about 15 years ago, when it was widely assumed our human ancestors ate mostly leaves and fruits," Cerling says. By learning more about what our ancestors were eating, we are learning about our own evolutionary history and ultimately what makes us human.

A set of new studies from the University of Utah and elsewhere found that human ancestors and relatives started eating an increasingly grassy diet 3.5 million years ago. The studies included analysis of tooth enamel from fossils of several early African humans, their ancestors and extinct relatives, some of which are shown here. Top left: Paranthropus bosei, 1.7 million years ago. Top right: Homo sapiens, 10,000 years ago. Center left: Paranthropus aethiopicus, 2.3 million years ago. Center right: Homo ergaster, 1.6 million years ago. Bottom left: Kenyanthropus platyops, 3.3 million years ago. Bottom center: lower jaw from Australopithecus anamensis, 4 million years ago. Bottom right: Homo rudolfensis, 1.9 million years ago.

Credit: Copyright National Museums of Kenya. Photos by Mike Hettwer, except Homo sapiens by Yang Deming.


mvelinder@gmail.com (Matt Velinder) Life Tue, 04 Jun 2013 10:05:40 -0600
The Secret Lives of Dinosaurs http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/112-the-secret-lives-of-dinosaurs http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/112-the-secret-lives-of-dinosaurs The Secret Lives of Dinosaurs

Author Brian Switek’s new book discusses new discoveries about how dinosaurs looked, lived, and had sex

Salt Lake City based author Brian Switek wrote the recently released book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, to explain why our perceptions of dinosaurs have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Gone is the imagery of scaly, slothful animals, replaced by dynamic, and sometimes feathered creatures. Modern paleontology is gleaning from fossils more details about dinosaur lives than ever before. Switek spoke with Explore Utah Science contributor Julie Kiefer.

JULIE KIEFER: What were you hoping to accomplish by writing, My Beloved Brontosaurus?

BRIAN SWITEK: There is always a lag between scientific discoveries and how science permeates public perceptions. I wanted to explain the current knowledge about dinosaurs by highlighting the tension between what scientists know and what the public knows.

Jurassic Park, which first came out 20 years ago, gave this idea that dinosaurs are very scaly and relatively drab. Now that the fourth movie is coming out, this is during a time when we know that many dinosaurs, like the Velociraptor, that are closely related to birds, were covered with feathers and fuzz and were relatively striking in color. It’s kind of a disappointment to hear the film director say there’s going to be no feathers in the next movie because fans prefer the old scaly way. I’m trying to make the case that dinosaurs are cooler than they’ve ever been.

JULIE KIEFER: How do scientists know that some dinosaurs had feathers?

BRIAN SWITEK: In China, there are many dinosaurs preserved with feathers intact, and there are also dinosaur feathers preserved in amber. Also on arm bones of the Velociraptor there are little bumps called quill knobs. You see the same thing on the arm bones of the turkey vulture. Those are where the pen-like attachment for some of the long wing feathers go. Even though the Velociraptor couldn’t fly, based on the skeletal evidence, it had pretty advanced plumage.

If you look at the evolutionary tree, there is a particular group of dinosaurs called the coelurosaurs that birds belong to as well. Every lineage within this group had some sort of fluff or feathers or fuzz in it, suggesting this is a common trait for this group. Even though no one has found direct evidence of feathers on Tyrannosaurus rex, it’s a good bet that they probably did have some kind of feathery body covering because it’s a coelurosaur.

JULIE KIEFER: What else is new research telling us about how dinosaurs looked?

BRIAN SWITEK: As a kid I was told we would never know what color dinosaurs are, and now paleontologists are starting to figure that out. I mentioned that some dinosaurs are preserved with feathers. If you take something like a scanning electron micron microscope and zoom in on them, you’ll see little blobs. They’re in certain shapes and arranged in a certain density. A paleontologist figured out that these were melonosomes, pigment carrying bodies that are also in the feathers of birds.

Some colors like browns, reds, blacks and greys are made by a reaction from light bouncing off structures in the feathers. If you have these structures in fossils, and you can look at the feathers in modern birds where you know what the color is, and match up the patterns of melonosome shape and distribution, then you can reverse engineer what color that dinosaur feather would’ve been. The first one to be fully reconstructed was a pigeon-sized dinosaur, called Anchiornis. It kind of looked like a magpie. It was mostly black with some white on the feathers, and a slash of red feathers on top of its head.

The ability to know dinosaur color creates all sorts of opportunities. If you have a big enough sample size and reconstruct the colors of many animals, maybe we can figure out whether some animals died with their breeding plumage on, or if there are color differences between males and females. I’m totally fascinated to see where this goes.

JULIE KIEFER: Are there ways to learn about how dinosaurs lived their daily lives?

BRIAN SWITEK: Yes, but they’re not always the most direct. A dinosaur trackway is recorded behavior. It’s an actual few moments in an animal’s life where you can see what direction it was moving, how quickly it was moving, and interactions between dinosaurs.

There is also evidence from bone pathologies. Paleontologist Andy Farke took models of Triceratops skulls and said, ok if these animals are really locking horns, what positions would actually work? Based upon that he went back to fossil skulls and found lesions and other damage right where the models predicted. That’s pretty decent evidence that these animals were actually locking horns and fighting each other.

JULIE KIEFER: You conjure some interesting mental imagery when you write about dinosaur sex. You write, “I envisioned a pair of amorous Brachiosaurus … each one waiting for the other to make the first move. But try as I might, I couldn't quite figure out the mechanics of what should come next.” Why take on this topic?

BRIAN SWITEK: It may seem like a silly topic, but I wrote about it because it’s important in dinosaur lives. In the book, I present an anecdote that helped show that we put our own values into our study of sex and mating in nature. In the early 20th century, naturalists on an Antarctic expedition observed sexual behavior among Adélie penguins that was considered out of the norm. That section of the report was taken out of the final monograph that was published. It was a century before this document with important, original observations was rediscovered.

Beyond the taboos, for a long time for dinosaurs it seemed like an ancillary topic that almost anyone could speculate on because there was almost nothing substantial to be said. Now that is changing.

It has only been recently that we’ve been able to tell what sex dinosaurs are. We’ve found females that happened to be laying eggs when they died. They have a special kind of bone tissue inside their long bones that we can identify.

In terms of sexual behavior, we can’t observe dinosaurs trying to woo each other, but we can use other methods. We are using evolutionary logic and looking to birds and crocodiles. By seeing what they share in common, we can deduce what might have been present in a dinosaur’s physical anatomy. New fossil evidence has also helped. There are hips of female dinosaurs that still contain eggs in it. The number of eggs and their position tell us something about the reproductive anatomy.

JULIE KIEFER: Besides reading and writing about paleontology, how do you satisfy your dinosaur cravings?

BRIAN SWITEK: I volunteer at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and during the summer months I go out into the field with them as often as I can. It’s fantastic to be looking for scraps of teeth, or tracks, or something that someone has never seen before that will lead to a new understanding of dinosaurs and prehistoric life.

JULIE KIEFER: Where is your favorite place to go fossil hunting?

BRIAN SWITEK: My favorite place in terms of visual beauty is Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah/Colorado border. It contains more exposures of different teleological periods than any other national park. You can stand in some places and see oceans going in and going out, replaced by deserts, replaced by flood plains, and another ocean comes in and recedes. You can see millions and millions of years of history just laid out in front of you.


My Beloved Brontosaurus is available in hardcover on Amazon, and as an audiobook on iTunes and Audible. Hear an excerpt from the book through the audio player near the top of this page.

Brian Switek also authors the National Geographic blog, Lealaps.

Brian Switek





 Brian Switek

julie@exploreutahscience.org (Julie Kiefer) Life Thu, 18 Apr 2013 00:00:00 -0600
Advances in Medicine Have Gone to the Dogs http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/109-advances-in-medicine-have-gone-to-the-dogs http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/109-advances-in-medicine-have-gone-to-the-dogs Advances in Medicine Have Gone to the Dogs

Advances in veterinary care present new hope for ailing pets, and tough choices for pet owners.

Advances in veterinary care present new hope for ailing pets, and tough choices for pet owners.

Scout, an active black Labrador Retriever, had always loved her daily walks with owner Brandi Williams. But, when she was just six years old, things started to change. Her daily walks became shorter and shorter, and eventually she could no longer run. After a trip to the vet, Brandi learned Scout had arthritis, primarily in her right elbow, and was faced with the decision of how to care for her companion.

With advances in veterinary medicine, increasingly animals have the same options for treatment that are offered to humans with similar conditions. There are kidney transplants for animals with disease, and radiation and chemotherapy treatments for pets with cancer. For animals with arthritis, like Scout, joint replacement is now an option.

Specialty treatments, however, can come with a hefty price tag. According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, U.S. households spent an average of $375 on veterinary care in 2011, but such statistics can be deceptive. Advanced medical procedures, such as knee replacement or chemotherapy, can run more than $4,000. For many of the six-out-of-ten pet owners who consider pets as family, hundreds or even thousands of dollars is a small price to pay for the ability to improve quality of life.

Like any devoted pet owner, Williams did everything in her power to help relieve Scout's pain. Because the front legs of a dog support 60% of their weight, Scout's arthritic leg was under intense stress. Her local veterinarian, Rob Bagley, prescribed non-streroid anti-inflammatory drugs, and recommended weight management and daily activity, the most common approach for arthritis in animals.

After about 2 years of intensive treatments, there was no noticeable improvement. Williams researched Scout's condition to learn whether there was something more she could do. "I felt like Scout just had years ahead of her, and if I could do something, then her quality of life would be better or at least maintain where it was."

Although amputation is sometimes recommended in severe cases of trauma, Williams wanted to save the leg and Scout's left foot was also starting to show signs of arthritis. She opted instead for a total elbow replacement. Bagley says that while this orthopedic procedure has been available since the 1980s it "is still not a mainstay." At first, the procedure was highly invasive and required a long recovery time. Many newer procedures and replacements have since been developed that are less invasive and have a shorter recovery time.

The TATE elbow, developed in 2007, is one such advancement. The prosthetic replicates the motion of the elbow joint with two C-shaped components that nest inside each other. Fitting into the elbow joint, the prosthetic cups the humorous bone, with the rounded side facing the radius and ulna. Unlike other prostheses, it is not cemented in place but rather was developed for the bone to grow into it, similar to some prosthetic joint options available for humans. Veterinarian Randy Acker of Sun Valley Animal Center in Idaho invented the TATE elbow, named after his yellow lab who, like Scout, had arthritis. Williams decided this was the best option for Scout, and paid $3500 for the procedure.

At first, it looked like Scout would be able to return to her active lifestyle. "Right off the bat she was able to walk, which Dr. Acker said was normal," says Williams.
However, as with many medical procedures, complications developed. For Scout, "the upper piece attached to the humorous didn't heal or attach – the bone didn't grow into it," says Williams. She says Scout's recovery has reached a plateau.

Williams is now working with Dr. Bagley to improve Scout's condition. She's now taking a different pain medication and due to improved management Scout has a better outlook. "We can make it around the block on some days. It's a pretty small walk. But it's a 10-minute walk instead of a 4 or 5-minute walk. And she's a happy dog."

Even though the prosthetic didn't fix Scout's problem, Williams stands by her decision. "You have to weigh the pros and cons yourself and the quality of life for your dog - it's a tough decision. I believed I was doing what was best for my dog."

With more veterinarians specializing in subtypes of care, and continued advancements in veterinary medicine, pet owners will be presented with increasing treatment options in the future. Dr. Bagley has practical advice for pet owners who may be faced with a decision like Williams. "It's important for a pet owner to become educated about different options and it is the vet's job to understand the risks and benefits of each option. We're on the same team and the best solution depends on the pet and the situation."

alexandraporpora@gmail.com (Alex Porpora) Life Sun, 07 Apr 2013 19:58:23 -0600
Saving the Rain Forest By Using It to Find Drugs http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/56-saving-the-rain-forest-by-using-it-to-find-drugs http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/56-saving-the-rain-forest-by-using-it-to-find-drugs Saving the Rain Forest By Using It to Find Drugs

Scientists at the University of Utah apply knowledge from their basic science research to save rain forests in Panama.

Few people can say that their work has helped to save an island. But Phyllis Coley and Tom Kursar are not ordinary scientists.

The island is Coiba, a chunk of land off the coast of Panama. Since the early 1900s, Coiba had been the site of a Panamanian prison. The relative lack of activity on the island meant that 80 percent of its natural habitat was still intact. This included trees and animals that had disappeared from the mainland, such as the Crested Eagle and Scarlet Macaw, as well as several animal subspecies.

However, in 2004, the remaining prisoners were moved from the island, leaving the Panamanian government to decide what to do with Coiba. One option was to turn it into a tourist destination, complete with golf courses and hotels.

Bioprospecting in Panama

Enter Coley and Kursar, researchers from the University of Utah who study the interaction between plants and the herbivores that feed upon them. As a married couple, they spent their life together doing research in the world's tropical rain forests. However, many of their research sites had fallen prey to logging and commercial development.

"We find our survey of ecology of plant defenses absolutely a fascinating puzzle but rain forests are disappearing. What can we do about it?" Coley remembers thinking at the time. "If we could find something that was valuable in rain forests then there would be an incentive for those countries to save the rain forests."

Coley and Kursar came up with a solution, modeled after a program in Costa Rica: bioprospecting. Instead of searching for gold, bioprospectors 'mine' plants, bacteria, and fungi for novel, often toxic, biological compounds that combat illnesses such as cancer and infectious diseases.

Mature leaves are one of the most common biological samples collected by bioprospectors. However, through their studies the Utah scientists found that it is young leaves that are particularly tasty to herbivores because they are tender, nutritious, and full of nitrogen. "We're really interested in why the world is green, why the insects or herbivores haven't eaten up all the plants," says Coley.

To defend themselves against herbivores, new leaves produce poisons; in fact, 50 percent of their dry weight is made up of toxic compounds, much greater than mature leaves. For this reason the scientists thought it would be more efficient and productive to focus bioprospecting efforts on young leaves.

In 1995, Coley and Kursar started a program to look for potential drugs in the jungles of Panama. Since then, program scientists have isolated a total of 216 biologically active compounds, some from young leaves. One of the most promising is Coibamide A, which was found to inhibit growth of cancer cells. Isolated from cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) off the coast of Coiba, the compound was patented in 2011. Other compounds have the ability to destroy bacteria and kill parasites responsible for leishmaniasis, malaria and Chagas disease.

There is still a long way to go before any of the compounds can be turned into marketable drugs. Only one out of 50 drugs make it to clinical trials, with associated costs estimated at $880 million per drug.

More than Drug Discovery

Central to Coley and Kursar's plan was that as much of the work as possible be done in Panama by Panamanian scientists and students. "We said, right at the very beginning, that [sending samples back to the US] was ridiculous," says Kursar. "They [Panamanians] need to get immediate benefits." According to Coley and Kursar, these efforts have helped Panamanians to become researchers themselves and realize the value of their rainforests, the program's biggest success.

The program was eventually funded by the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), a coalition of U.S. government agencies that use drug discovery programs as incentives for conservation, and has brought in $8.5 million in grant money for research efforts in Panama. Currently, the program is administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and includes U.S. scientists, Panamanian scientists, and private companies.

What started seventeen years ago as a small program in Panama has now garnered the attention of the world. In 2005, Coiba and its surrounding islands were designated a World Heritage Site, an internationally recognized protected status. Earlier this year, the group received one million dollars from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to continue the drug discovery program in Panama and serve as an example for other countries.

"We wanted it [the Panama project] to be an example. [But] we want it to be much, much bigger than Panama," says Kursar. "We're not interested in being politicians. And that's why it was really good to get this GEF attention because...we're hoping it will grow and develop."

Referring to the success of the program, Coley says, "My mother always said, 'Well, what earthly good is that? Who cares about caterpillars eating baby leaves?' If we hadn't spent 25 years doing the basic science with no obvious application, it [the bioprospecting program] never would have occurred to us...This whole project was a labor of love."

Coley and Kursar have since turned over the reins of leadership for the project to Panamanians. Currently they are working in other S. American tropical rain forests, continuing their work researching the interaction between herbivores and plants.


kirstin.roundy@gmail.com (Kirstin Roundy) Life Mon, 19 Nov 2012 05:37:32 -0700
Nature Adventures--KCPW CityViews http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/53-kcpw-cityviews-nature-adventures http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/53-kcpw-cityviews-nature-adventures U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Award winning author Mark Obmascik discusses why he writes about nature on KCPW's CityViews.

KCPW CityViews

Mark Obmascik is a Colorado-based Pulitzer prize winning journalist and lover of nature writing about everything from his midlife goal to bag Colorado's 54 highest peaks to his quest to identify the greatest number of birds in North America within a year. The latter is chronicled in his book, The Big Year, which was made into a major motion picture. He joins Jennifer Napier-Pearce to talk about his work and why he writes about the great outoodrs.

Listen to the full interview with Jennifer Napier-Pearce.

jnpearce@kcpw.org (Jennifer Napier-Pearce) Life Thu, 15 Nov 2012 05:15:03 -0700
Explosion in Urban Beekeeping Raises Concerns for Honeybee Population http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/37-explosion-in-urban-beekeeping-raises-concerns-for-honeybee-population http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/37-explosion-in-urban-beekeeping-raises-concerns-for-honeybee-population Explosion in Urban Beekeeping Raises Concerns for Honeybee Population

Experts fear that negligent hobby beekeeping could spur a disease outbreak that devastates commercial hives.

Millions of buzzing residents have moved into Utah, as the number of new beekeepers registering with the state has increased eightfold since 2006.

That’s good news for local farmers and gardeners who depend on honeybees to pollinate their crops. The bad news is that the new arrivals could be bringing with them a rash of problems.

Several honeybee experts worry that in the hands of novice beekeepers, all those hives could become incubators for viruses and pests ready to hitch a ride to any of the thousands of commercial hives around the state.

Clint Burfitt suggests that this concern has been fueled by a fundamental shift in the scale of risk that face beekeepers today. “In the past, a [commercial] beekeeper could keep 1000 hives and might lose a few [to disease], but now a commercial beekeeper can have losses of 60 percent.” Burfitt is a state entomologist at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

Colony Collapse Disorder, the nationwide phenomenon that first hit the news in 2006, contributes to these losses. By some estimates, the disorder is blamed for killing one quarter of the nation’s bees, resulting in a $12 billion loss to the agricultural economy.

Some beekeepers fear that should pest and viral infection spread to commercial apiaries, the results could be similarly devastating. “If one person isn’t knowledgeable or just doesn’t understand how to recognize or treat for [pests and pathogens], that jeopardizes everybody in that system,” says Burfitt.

The greatest opportunity for contamination comes when honeybees rob nectar from each others’ hives, inadvertently taking fungal spores, mites, and viruses with them. The varroa mite, the most common problem facing beekeepers, introduces viruses and bacteria directly into the bloodstream of bees. A rarer threat, the American foulbrood turns normally glistening, white honeybee larva into brownish goo that smells like dirty socks

“People get all fired up about [starting their new hives]. It goes pretty well at first, but summer gets busy and they let it languish. If it craps out, this time of year, robbers come looking for weak hives. Robber bees come in, pests jump ship and join the new hives,” says Chris Rodesch, Salt Lake County bee inspector. This activity can initiate a cycle that quickly infects an entire neighborhood of hives.

However, Rodesch maintains that commercial bees experience more risk of exposure when they are rented to farmers to pollinate crops, a common and lucrative practice. They are often trucked long distances and forage alongside bees from other parts of the country.

Should an outbreak of a particularly pernicious virus occur, the Department of Agriculture and Food is equipped to notify registered beekeepers and offer advice on symptoms and treatment. The Utah Bee Inspection Act mandates that all beekeepers register their hives with the department within 15 days of setting them up.

Nevertheless, there are shortcomings to the system. The inspection act does not require beekeepers to submit notification of hive losses. Such a requirement could make a big difference in identifying pests and pathogens before they reach the level of outbreak.

Further, many of the state’s beekeepers are either unaware of the registration requirement or unwilling to register their hives. Rodesch says that only half of the hives that he visits are registered with the state.

“Unless you see a lot of hives it’s hard to know if what’s happening in yours is normal or something that needs to be addressed,” says Rodesch. “That’s why the [beekeeping] clubs are really important.”

Cory Stanley, an entomology professor and honeybee specialist with Utah State University gives live demonstrations of various hive management techniques throughout the state, “I think that it is important to let the young beekeepers know the value of asking questions.”


photo credit: Caroljean Rodesch

Chris Rodesh checking on his bees


noelleswan@gmail.com (Noelle Swan) Life Wed, 24 Oct 2012 23:15:15 -0600
How Dogs Came to Be—Part 2 http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/9-how-dogs-came-to-be—part-2 http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/9-how-dogs-came-to-be—part-2 How Dogs Came to Be—Part 2

For thousands of years dogs have wandered the world with humans. Researchers have begun to unravel how that happened.

Dogs come in every conceivable shape and size. They can be six pounds or 200 pounds. They can be six inches tall or three feet tall. Researchers have begun to decipher the genetics behind this variation in dogs. And they've found that only a few genes can cause major differences.

In the 1800s, people were fascinated with dogs. Breeding dogs for extreme physical traits was a hobby for many. Breeds were created with short or long legs, pointy or floppy ears, smooth or coarse hair—in all possible combinations. In fact, 80% of the 300 plus dog breeds we have now, were created during this time. Robert Wayne, professor of ecology and evolution at UCLA, calls this period the third stage of dog evolution.

“We like to think of three stages, the first being this very early one where wolves interacted with hunter gatherers moving around the landscape. Then a second stage during the development of agriculture when human societies were more sedentary people began to live in small towns. Then we like to think of the third stage as the Victorian explosion of dog forms. What we see today is principally a product of that explosion over the last few hundred years.”

No other animal species in the world comes in such different sizes and shapes than dogs. How were breeders able to do this? Dog geneticists like Elaine Ostrander with the National Human Genome Research Institute are now solving this mystery. Ostrander says in twenty short years, dog researchers have now put together most of the tools needed to tell the story of the dog. She adds, genetic maps and sequencing the dog genome has allowed researchers to focus on many questions. “Whether it was behaviors, morphologic traits, why are dogs big, why are dogs small. Or diseases, why does this breed get cancer, why does this breed get epilepsy, why does this breed get diabetes.”

One of the first researchers to connect physical traits of dogs with genes was Gordon Lark, Professor Emeritus at the University of Utah. He started with the Portuguese water dog, which was bred to help Portuguese sailors on their fishing ships. One member of this breed, Bo, is now living with the Obama family in the White House. Lark started the project when his dog Georgie died.

“This dog, which I loved very much, when it died I realized the cure for this was to get another one fast. So I was looking for another Portuguese water dog and finally found a breeder who would let me have one. She said, ‘but I need to know what you do because sometimes people do things that are inappropriate for having this type of dog.’ So I said I was a soybean geneticist and what she seemed to hear was blah blah genetics blah blah.”

Lark says the breeder called him two or three times a week to talk only about genetics. “So when the time came for me to get the dog I said ‘well you know this has been a lot of fun talking and so on, but we haven’t talked money, I need to send you a check.’ And she said, ‘I’m giving you a very expensive dog free so that you will work on dog genetics.’ And that was actually the start of it.”

Lark and his colleagues contacted breeders and owners who gave DNA samples, X-rays, and all types of measurements of their dogs including body size, tail and ear length. “Well the first thing we found out blew us away. There is a trade off in shape, for instance in the legs being long and thin or being short and thick. And at the same time whether the pelvis was fairly robust or was like popeye the sailor man, a very narrow pelvis. And we were working with a colleague Dave Carrier here and he said ‘well that’s the difference between a greyhound and a pit bull. It’s the difference between energy efficient speed and power but slow.’”

Lark says the data helped explain how breeders could easily mix and match physical traits because they found only a few genes are controlling pelvis and leg shape at the same time. Lark, Ostrander and others have since discovered that a small number of genes have a big impact on many other traits. For example, one key gene is critical for whether a dog is big or small. By contrast, in humans it’s thought that height is controlled by at least 50 genes, says Ostrander. “We began to realize that there was a recurring theme in our work and that is for most of the traits that we study. It isn’t as though there are hundreds and hundreds of genes controlling that trait, but there really seem to be a small number of major effective factors.”

Surprisingly, just like what was found for physical traits, scientists are finding that a few genes are also responsible for diseases in dogs. Ostrander says because of inbreeding, purebred dogs are frequently prone to getting certain diseases. It turns out that many of these diseases are ones that humans also get. “Almost any disease I named off the top of my head that was common to humans occurred in dogs. Whether it be cataracts, epilepsy, or cancer, or diabetes.”

UCLA’s Robert Wayne says the simple genetics in dogs makes it easier to identify genes, including disease genes. By finding the genes first in dogs, it might narrow the search for disease genes in humans. “Because of the nature of how dogs were selected, very intensely by humans. It tends to be a simple genetic basis for many of the traits we observe. One or a few genes explain most of the variation we observe. So that makes the task of finding a gene much easier.”  

The gene for the sleeping disorder narcolepsy was found in dogs in 1999. This discovery led researchers to the cause of the disease in humans one year later. Recently a gene for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was found in Doberman Pinchers. Researchers are now looking at that same gene in humans who suffer from OCD. And there many other promising studies, including for cancer that are currently under way.

Gordon Lark says the interesting thing about dog genetics research is that it’s a partnership with dog owners. “The dogs have never been kept in a laboratory, they are all owned by people. It’s just like human genetics. These owners really wanted to help.”

Once again dogs and people are working together, this time to advance our knowledge about how genes controlling physical traits and disease came to be.

This story originally aired 9/27/09

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Life Sun, 21 Oct 2012 00:00:00 -0600
How Dogs Came to Be—Part 1 http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/8-how-dogs-came-to-be—part-1 http://exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/life/item/8-how-dogs-came-to-be—part-1 How Dogs Came to Be—Part 1

For thousands of years dogs have wandered the world with humans. Researchers have begun to unravel how that happened.

Dogs go way back. In fact, it's been more than 15,000 years since dogs diverged from wolves, and it was humans who played a major role in their creation. We domesticated dogs and relied on them to help us survive. This history made dogs unique among animals and allowed them to form strong bonds with people.

Mark Petersen, founder of Utah's Bank of the West Soldier Hollow Classic sheep herding competition says there's a monument in a small town in Montana to a dog belonging to a shepherd that illustrates this human dog bond.

"He died. His family was back east when he died. They shipped his body back east. The dog followed the casket to the train station, watched it drive away and then for the next five years until it died of old age. The dog never left the train station, met every train, would not allow anyone to come and comfort it or be with it. But it just waited every day for the train to be there."

So how did dogs evolve from a wild predator into man's helper and companion? Robert Wayne, professor of ecology and evolution at UCLA, says at first wolves probably started hanging around humans because of our trash.

"Humans provided carcasses and wolves provided early warning systems and eventually may have helped in the hunt. That mutualism grew with time so eventually wolves became dogs."

Wayne says some wolves, the ones that tolerated humans, were more likely to follow them around. These wolves became tamer over time to the point where they were eventually domesticated.

"The barriers of mistrust have been broken down between dogs and humans. And dogs are very able to engage with us in a very personal way."

Because dog domestication happened thousands of years ago this theory is difficult to prove. But an experiment in the 1950s showed that domestication can happen fast. A group of silver foxes in Siberia were selected for tameness by only allowing the tamest animals to mate.

"A man named Belyaev decided to re-evolve domestication using foxes there," says Gordon Lark, professor emeritus in biology at the University of Utah. "And the surprising thing was that within ten years he was very successful. He had foxes that were wagging their tails that would get all excited when a person came around and wanted to be petted."

Surprisingly, Lark says as the foxes became tamer they developed floppy ears, began to bark, and the color of their coats changed. Similar physical changes happened as dogs evolved from wolves. So as a behavior - tameness - evolved, so did the physical appearance, suggesting certain genes are responsible for both.

Researchers are now trying to track down these domestication genes. To find them, UCLA's Robert Wayne and colleagues compared regions between dog and wolf DNA looking for differences between the two.

"In our first kind of scan where we looked at 48,000 markers across the dog and wolf genomes, we found a number of interesting candidates that affect behavior," says Wayne.

Domestication was only the first part of the dog's story. Once they were tamed, humans molded dogs into workers that could do specific jobs well. For example, herding sheep, hunting birds, guarding property or livestock.

"Different dog breeds have been developed because of specific behavior traits," says Elaine Ostrander with the National Human Genome Research Institute. "So herding dogs herd, draft dogs pull, and pointers point. And a lot of this comes from very strong genetics. It would be very hard, if not impossible, to teach a toy poodle to herd a flock of sheep."

Border collies are an example of a dog breed specialized for their behavior. They were bred in the 1800s to herd livestock in the border regions between Scotland and England. Border collie enthusiast Mark Petersen says they were bred for their intelligence and their innate instinct to control and herd moving objects.

"The handlers talk to these dogs, usually through whistles when they're far away and through voice commands when they're up close," says Petersen. "And you ask them, does that dog ever disobey you up there. And the answer is of course they do. ‘They're right there, they know better to do then I might think what needs to be done. I have to trust that if they disobey me that's because I was wrong.’ Now that is a really complex concept."

Tom Wilson and his dog Sly participated in this years' Soldier Hollow competition. He says what the dogs do is 90% innate ability and 10% handler.

"They've got the instinct in them. So we don't make them work, they work and we just trick them into doing what we want them to do in a way. They would rather work than eat sometimes," saya Wilson

And what can dogs teach us about our own behaviors? Dog geneticist Elaine Ostrander says after 20 years of study, the genetic tools have now been created that will allow researchers to finally begin addressing this difficult question.

"You know when we look at dogs we see so much of ourselves," says Ostrander. We see empathy, we see loyalty, we see companionship. We just see so many things that we value as a society. And so we have this urge to understand the vocabulary of behavior in dogs I think in the hopes that it will help us understand the lexicon of human behavior as well."

Throughout their history dogs have been partners with humans and now we are closer than ever to understanding how that came to be.

This story originally aired 9/26/09

kim@exploreutahscience.org (Kim Schuske) Life Sun, 21 Oct 2012 00:00:00 -0600