Category: New Research

The Farting Dinosaur Debacle

While I know everyone in the science writing community is tuned into this story, I can bet that among my personal friends and family I am the only one who has “farting dinosaurs” as an item on their to-do list. While the science media machine has given us plenty of “say what now?” moments I found this story and how it has been handled and covered in the media face palm worthy enough to warrant a closer look.

Did Dinosaurs Fart Themselves to Death?

What the paper concludes is that the amount of methane released would have impacted climate. From the press release on this story: “Sauropod dinosaurs could in principle have produced enough of the greenhouse gas methane to warm the climate many millions of years ago, at a time when the Earth was warm and wet.” What about that says dinosaurs died from farting? There has been plenty of media attention for this story, and certainly some more even keeled coverage that actually bases the headline on the climate conclusions. Some examples include Never Stand Behind a Dinosaur on Climate Central, Dinosaur Farts May Have Caused Prehistoric Warming on RedOrbit or It’s A Gas: Dinosaur Flatulence May Have Warmed Earth on Yahoo/Reuters.The quick answer is no. Was a paper released regarding dinosaur farts? You bet (In the journal Cell Biology.) Did it conclude that farting led to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs? No. Of course with the headline potential a story like this poses how could some in the media resist, truly?

Apatosaurus louisae at the Carnegie Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Apatosaurus louisae at the Carnegie Museum via Wikimedia Commons

To draw conclusions about extinction and death when the topic of the paper is actually the amount of methane dinosaurs may have contributed to the atmosphere and thus climate change is misleading. In the media there has been the Fox News of it all whose headline “Dinosaurs ‘gassed’ themselves into extinction, British scientists say” goes right for the good stuff regardless of the paper’s conclusions. There has also been the necessary debunking on blogs like PZ Myers’ Pharyngula with “the reports of dinosaurs dying of farts are greatly exaggerated.”

Another interesting aspect of this story is the fact that is was subject to an embargo break. For the non-journalists among us an embargo is when journalists are informed about a story but asked to hold it for one reason or another. This is a common practice and in general journalists tend to abide by it, but not always. Often in science journalism the story is embargoed until the release of the paper in whatever journal it is being published. For more on this embargo break, check out the blog EmbargoWatch which does a consistently good job of keeping track of such story breaks.

Alex the Parrot’s Last Addition Experiments

Last year while taking a class on human and animal relationships I learned about Alex the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). At the time, Alex had already passed away (he died in 2007) but he was still renowned for his performance in cognition experiments conducted by psychologist Irene Pepperburg of Harvard University. I was thinking a lot about animal cognition back then, and I was impressed by what Alex did so I wrote a short post about his skills. We humans like to think of ourselves as elite, but too often we underestimate the abilities of other species.

alex-the-african-grey-parrot1The reason I bring up Alex is because I recently read this Nature News article about a new paper published by Pepperburg in the journal Animal Cognition (behind a pay wall, sorry) describing her last experiments with Alex on addition. The newly published paper describes Alex’s ability to successfully add together arabic numerals (the ones we use) up to eight. He was also able to come up with the total number of objects separated under three different cups. The experiments were still being conducted when Alex died, however Pepperburg says there was enough statistically significant evidence to suggest that Alex was really doing addition.
According to Ewen Callaway’s Nature News article, when asked “how many total?” in response to questions like 3+4 or 4+2 Alex chose the right answer nine out of 12 times. When presented sequentially with three sets of objects underneath three cups, Alex was able to total the objects correctly eight out of 10 times. It used to be believed that the ability to understand the numerical value of a set was dependent on language, and thus a specifically human characteristic.
To date, Alex and a chimpanzee named Sheba are the only non-human primates that have been able to successfully perform addition. While two examples isn’t exactly a lot, the research is exciting because it demonstrates that a higher level of thinking is possible in other species. So are we headed for a planet of the parrots? I’m going to go with no, but it is still very cool to see what Alex was capable of doing.

Something About Squirrels aka Why ALL Questions Matter

Science, bastion of intellectual inquiry, is turned to for answers to many of the questions that plague the finest minds in the world. Defined as the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world, science is essentially the pursuit of answers, and really with no cure for diseases like cancer or AIDS, what more pressing question could be facing society right now than how different are black and grey squirrels?

Black squirrel in Santa Clara, CA. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Black squirrel in Santa Clara, CA. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sarcasm aside, this post is dedicated to the pursuit of information regarding the differences between black squirrels and grey squirrels. Yes, squirrels. Not exactly a charismatic animal, unless you are the kind of person that thinks everything small and furry is cute, and despite this post I’m not. But then why bother to write a post about the little critters? When I saw this story in the BBC about the squirrel research going on, I wanted to do a post because I think it is a good example of one of the best things about science – that all questions are important, because there is inherent value in learning more about the world around us.

I was purposely sarcastic about the squirrels in the beginning of this post to make a point. I feel like a lot of people look at science research being done, and are unimpressed with their return on investment. Granted, the squirrel research is in the UK, and I’m coming at this from a US perspective, but I can see a lot of people that I know reacting with the same level of sarcasm and disdain that I opened with in this post. Why squirrels? What is so interesting or important about squirrels? Do we really need to know if there are other differences between them besides color? Couldn’t the resources and intellect of the researchers be better used elsewhere? Maybe. But, understanding the creatures that share this world with us, even the squirrels, IS important.

The squirrel research that caught my attention, according to the BBC, is an effort by researchers from Angila Ruskin University in the UK to try to figure out the rate of spread through the UK for black squirrels compared to grey squirrels, if the black squirrels also carry the “grey squirrel pox” disease, and also to build genetic profiles of the two mammals which though different in coloration due to a genetic mutation, are the same species and do interbreed. The project is being crowd sourced to the public (which I guess is the reason this was coverage worthy?) to help report sightings of the black squirrels to help track their locations. The public is also being called on to provide access to any black squirrel remains for genetic testing. That is the polite way of saying reporting roadkill so the researchers can take samples.

I’m not trying to say that this is groundbreaking, shocking, or even all that note worthy. I’m not sure why the BBC ran the story, aside from the public interaction angle. It isn’t exactly flashy or eye catching. I’m still glad it is happening though. Questions matter. To me, it isn’t even about the squirrels, really. If someone honestly wants an answer to a question about squirrels, why not inquire about them? Especially in this way, where public interaction will keep costs down? I support chasing the answer to a question, even if it isn’t going to be Earth shattering. Curiosity is the basis of all the important breakthroughs, and who is to say what will be important in the future? We should be attacking all the questions. Ask, why? It can make all the difference. Even if you are just talking about squirrels.

Making Bone With An Ink Jet Printer. Well…Bone-ish.

Reading the headline, “Engineers Pioneer Use of 3D Printer To Create New Bones” from the BBC I can’t help but imagine your standard ink jet spitting out layers of human bone until you come up with a whole femur. In case you aren’t familiar with 3D cell printing, let me be the one to tell you that isn’t the case. I think the BBC‘s headline leaves out a crucial piece of information: what the printer in question creates is a scaffold of bone-like material.

The research in the article was conducted at Washington State University, and I find their PR headline “3D Printer Used To Make Bone-like Material” more specific. I think 3D printing, tinkering with a printer so that it can make different kinds of biomaterials, is interesting in its own right. I’m okay with the fact that the material being made is only bone-ish and not really bone. Although and argument could be made for the BBC’s headline… which I’ll explain later.

Printing the bone scaffold via WSU

Here is the research rundown: led by Susmita Bose, professor of mechanical and materials engineering, WSU researchers used a 3D printer to to create a scaffold of calcium phosphate, silicon and zinc. When paired with actual bone, this scaffold provides a structure for new bone to grow on, to specifically manufacture the desired bone. The scaffold dissolves with no reported adverse effects, according to the researchers’ in vitro tests in rats and rabbits.

Described in the journal Dental Materials, (according to the PR*) the printer works by having the inkjet spray a plastic binder over a layer of the calcium phosphate, silicon and zinc powder in very thin layers (about 20 microns, comparable to the width of a human hair). A computer directs the printer to create the scaffold in the desired shape and size. The researchers found that after a week in a medium containing immature human bone cells, the scaffold was able to support new bone cell growth. According to the researchers, the material is likely most suitable for low load bearing (so, not a femur) and could be available for human use in a few years time.

So back to the BBC’s headline about the 3D printer creating new bone. Ultimately, that is what happens. New bone is grown around the scaffold, so the end product is real human bone. However, the printer is not itself printing bone. In my humble opinion, that doesn’t make this research any less cool. While the BBC‘s headline wasn’t itself inaccurate, I think it leaves a lot of wiggle room for assumptions (or at least imaginations like mine getting carried away with themselves) and accuracy is the end all and be all of science stories, isn’t it? Something like “3D Printer Creates Scaffold For New Bone Growth” isn’t as pretty as either headline used, but I think it would get to the heart of what this story is a little bit better.

For more information about the technology check out this video from WSU’s press page:
*I am typically loathe to post about a paper that I haven’t at least looked at the abstract, but I cannot find this paper online anywhere. If someone has a link, that would be awesome. 

Dinosaur Stopped Dead In Its Tracks, Literally.

We know a tremendous amount about dinosaurs from studying their fossilized remains, but the amount that we don’t know or haven’t seen in the fossil record far surpasses our knowledge. I’m a sure sucker for a good dinosaur fossil story, and pitched several while interning at Geekosystem over the summer. I’m still working through my list of links that didn’t make the cut this summer, and wanted to share this dinosaur discovery (that I read about in this New Scientist article).

Image credit: Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki
To say that something stopped dead in its tracks is a common phrase, but it is really an uncommon occurrence. That is what makes the discovery by Polish paleontologists of a Protoceratops fossilized alongside impressions of its final footprints so impressive. This dinosaur was literally stopped dead in its tracks. The fossils were found in Mongolia, and belong to a dinosaur that lived approximately 80 million years ago. Due to the fact that finding fossilized remains of land animals and their tracks is so rare, the discovery is particularly exciting. 
It is rare to find a fossilized land vertebrate alongside its footprints, because generally the conditions needed to preserve tracks and bone are different. It is easier to observe invertebrate marine creatures fossilized with their tracks because a single layer of sediment is more likely to be able to preserve both. Adding to the difficulty is the challenge of matching tracks with a specific creature. The pads or soft tissue that covers a foot isn’t going to be preserved on the skeleton, which will make it harder to match tracks with a species.
Identifying footprints by the creature that created them is so complex, it has its own scientific field of study. As a subspeciality of geology, ichnologists study footprints and can typically narrow a footprint down to a specific type of animal, and sometimes the species. The Protoceratops fossil was discovered by a joint Polish-Mongolian team from the Gobi Desert in 1965. Yes, 1965. It took 45 years for the fossil slab to be analyzed, but when it finally was, Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki of the University of Warsaw was shocked at what he found. 
Niedzwiedzki and colleagues discovered an impression near the dinosaur’s pelvis. The shape and size correspond with what would be expected from the Protoceratops’ four-toed foot. This is the first time that scientists have observed fossilized Protoceratops tracks from this region and time period, in addition to being the rare tracks of a land animal preserved next to that animal. If you are interested in learning more about this find, the researchers published their study in the journal Cretaceous Research.