Tag Archives: science

Hawaiian Biodiversity

Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands are a unique place. Strange birds, tropical fish, migrating whales. However in recent centuries many non-indigenous animals have started to take over the islands. These animals have a big impact on the biodiversity in the area, but recent analysis says that Hawaii’s unique animals and plant life have been declining for long before the introduction of non-native species—in fact the University of California, Berkley says that the native life has been declining for millions of years.

Shrinking land areas of the older islands puts stress on the life there. The only island growing is the big island after all, so the rest are giving less and less space to the various birds, insects, spiders, and plants there (there are no native mammals on the islands). At a certain point this means extinction.

 

Plant Intelligence

plantsWe are well experienced in knowing that many other forms of life have conscious intelligence. ravens use tools, elephants form complex emotional relationships with their counterparts, chimps and other apes have been seen using plant matter as umbrellas in the rain. There is no doubt that animals hold levels of complex intelligence, but have you ever wondered if plants do? If not you should.

Children have long asked their parents if plants can feel being eaten. We often rebuke them and deny that—but the truth is plants are more aware than we realize. IFLScience says “A small, flowering plant called Arabidopsis thaliana can hear the vibrations that caterpillars trigger when they chew on its leaves. According to a new study, the plants can hear danger loud and clear, and they respond by launching a chemical defense.” And this is just one example among many others.

To apply the idea of “intelligence” it is often said that you need a brain to truly qualify, but is that true if plants can sound the alarm of danger? That is an awareness. So where is the line drawn then? Because plants cannot really move in the way animals or humans can it is fair to say that to survive they must be very aware. They understand what is going on around them from the soil conditions to moisture, threats to pollution. That’s sensory processing. Roots grow towards nutrition and know to avoid other roots, but are fine with hitting up against intimate objects. There is evidence that fungi communicate to their tree hosts to help the chances of that trees survival. Could we see this as a form of corporation? A clear form of some level of intelligence?

Plants are more complicated than what we give them credit for, and it is time to consider them a bit more.

Animal Hybrids and Human Replacement Organs  

p04nb0mqAs the waiting lists for organ replacements grows by the day scientists have long been trying to find ways for patients to get the organs they need to save their lives. There simply is no other way for someone who needs a new heart or lung to go without, they will die without the life-saving donation. This has always meant taking organs from living relatives if the needed replacement is not vital to survival (like a kidney or even a lung), or from the recently deceased in the case of something that is needed to live (like a heart). Of course that makes these all the more difficult to procure.

Here we step from reality though into science fiction. Biologists have reported that they can now replace a patient’s failing organs with ones taken from the person’s own cells and grown within an animal. This could possibly improve the chances of not having the organ be rejected by the body after transplant because it is developed from the person’s own stem cells.

The organs would be grown in large animals like pigs that are chimeras, animals composed of two different genomes. This is made by implanting human stem cells into the pig embryo early, meanings the animal would be made of a mixture of human and pig cells.

The question then becomes the ethics of all this. What does it mean when an animal also contains human cells? Is it entitled to human rights? How will these animals be kept? What is their future after they’ve made the organ needed for the transplant? It is unclear what the future of this project will bring, but surely something we should keep an eye on.

The Mysterious Ceres

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The search for habitable planets has always run into one big problem: no water on these space bound spheres. Water is a vital source of life, finding it on another planet is always a big boon in the ideas of trying to get out there to colonize another world.

Well, now NASA can add a new planet—albeit a dwarf one—to the list of planets with a form of water on the surface: Ceres. First discovered in 1772 by Johann Elert Bode, Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt that sits between Mars and Jupiter. It has a rocky core and now is confirmed to have water ice in one of its many shadowy regions that never see the light of day. These regions are about 350 degrees below zero!

Water ice is common on the dwarf planet, much more than previously thought—there could even be ice volcanoes that spout ice mixed with mud and salt. All of this makes it clear that at some point Ceres had liquid water.

What does this mean for us? Not much now, but as time goes on and space travel gets increasingly more common for us as humans we could find ourselves ready to look into a little planet that has the possibility for liquid water.

Fish Have Feelings Too

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Fish have long been thought of as creatures without feeling and a lack of intellect. We make jokes about their lack of memory, and have overall desensitized ourselves to them. Few people will stand up and say their favorite animal is a fish, they simply are not very beloved by humans. However, what if you knew they actually had the capacity for a while breadth of feelings?

Jonathan Balcombe, director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science claims that fish are much more complex than what we give them credit for. Experiments have shown that fish will respond to being stroked, it actually reduces stress hormones in their bodies. Additionally, they are able to recognize faces within large groups, and pick out people they have bonds with.

These animals have cognitive and emotional lives, much more so than we have previously assumed. There are 33,000 species of sea and freshwater fish, I think it is time to give them some of their dues.