Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Python Challenge is Back!

Do you want to win over $1,000?! Do you have what it takes to catch an 12 foot monster snake?!
If so you should head down to Florida because just this week the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or FWC announced that the Python Challenge is coming back in 2016! The last time Florida held this challenge was 2013 where a whopping 68 pythons were caught from the wild. That might not seem like many, but these snakes are very well camouflaged and hard to discern from a pile of leaves. Burmese pythons are one of the five largest snakes in the world, and they are native to a large variation of tropic and sub-tropic areas of Southern and Southeast Asia.

The winner of the competition in 2013, Ruben Ramirez, caught 18 pythons and received a prize of $1,500! But why is the FWC encouraging the locals to go out and catch these snakes? Well, Burmese pythons are invasive to the everglades in Florida and their presence in the Florida ecosystem is causing a lot of damage. Many people believe that hurricane Andrew is responsible for the Burmese python outbreak because it released many pet pythons into the wild. Pythons don't have any natural predators in this region and therefore overpopulate the area completely unchecked. Experts estimate that there could be as many as 150,000 of these pythons living in the everglades. A paper published by the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that bird and coyote populations in Florida are threatened by these snakes, as well as already rare rival predatory species such as the Florida panther. The main purpose of the competition is to help decrease the harmful python population with participation from the community; but another great thing about this python challenge is that it helps educate people about the threat that this invasive species imposes on their local ecosystem. The more aware the public is about threats such as these the better!

Posted by Ashley Condon, Group A

Why is it so difficult to increase the pandas population?

Figure 1: Panda eating bamboo

The giant panda - a shy, illusive and gentle creature - has been known as the Chinese national treasure. This adorable species is considered the most powerful symbol for animal conservation around the world. As we all may know, the giant pandas are greatly endangered due to centuries of human expansion and the destruction of the habitat. Their population once reached the plateau of 600 pandas in the wild. In the past 50 years, Chinese government has invested millions of dollars and great effort to bring back the panda population to 1,864 in the wild (according to WWF). I, personally, love giant pandas. And I’m sure many of you guys also do. Therefore, I’d like to talk about pandas and why is it so difficult and time consuming to increase the panda population.

For a very long time, people thought that pandas belong to the raccoon family. However, fossil evidence suggests that the modern giant pandas are descended from  Pygmy Giant Panda (Ailuropoda microta), which was found in the region of South China. Researchers have found that pandas has evolved for more than 3 millions years as a separate lineage than that of other bears. Pandas in the wild are mostly found in the South and East regions of China, northern Vietnam and northern Myanmar. The giant pandas is classified as an carnivoran, however, their diet is mainly herbivorous: primarily bamboo. Their digestive system is designed to digest meat, however, they only eat bamboo, which are poor of nutrients, and some other few fruits or vegetables such as apples, carrots,...This is the reason why pandas eat so much throughout the day. Estimation of the amount of bamboo consumed by an adult panda is about 50-60 lbs a day (25-30 kg approximately). Therefore, each panda requires a very large living area. The increase of Chinese population and the expansion of the human living space towards mountains and forest are the major contributor to the destruction of panda’s habitat. However, these are not the only reasons why it is so difficult to increase their population

Figure 2: Panda watching video of other pandas mating

When it comes to reproduction, very similar to humans, pandas are very particular when choosing their partners. As mentioned above, panda are very solitary and shy animals. Adult pandas live on their own in the wild. Therefore, it is very hard for them to find partners. On top of that, the female reproductive system is also very particular about the time of ovulation, which only lasts for 36 hours once a year. In addition, researchers have found that not all the males are “in the mood” for mating during mating seasons. Fun fact: In a Chinese panda base, a few of the pandas need visual stimulation to keep them “in the mood” of mating. Panda nannies set up TVs with videos of other pandas mating in their cages to induce the desire of mating in pandas (just like pornography in humans society). Combining all these factors, it is very difficult for a pair of pandas to reproduce. After the natural mating, scientists quickly sedate the females and perform artificial insemination to make sure increase the chance of having panda cubs.

Figure 3: Panda keeper in the special program

They not only have a very challenging reproductive process, the growing process in panda cubs is also very difficult. The moms can only give birth to one panda cub every year or luckily a twin. However, the moms usually favor the stronger one over the other. Weaker ones usually end up dying. Panda cubs are born without fur and very fragile, their body temperature is all dependent on the mom. As we all know, all the pandas are equally precious since their population is so small. Therefore, in the panda bases, the weaker ones are raised with extra care in a nursing room by panda keepers. All conditions given to the panda cubs are similar to as if they were raised by the mom. As they grow stronger, they are brought back to be raised by the mom.

Figure 4: Baby panda playing
From all the factors above, most panda are artificially bred in the panda base or zoo, where they are treated as pets: eat, sleep and play with others. Many people wonder how pandas survive in the wild when they have no experiences and exposure to the wild at all. To answer this, in China, all panda cubs are now raised in a special program where they can grow up in a wild-like environment: exposing to potential predator and cage-free. Consequently, they can be released to the wild and able to live with minimal problems

I hope this post will help you understand a little bit more about the giant pandas. Also, I’m more than happy to learn more about pandas! Please share your opinions and thoughts. 

-Posted by Phi Duong (Group A)

Inbreeding - It's the New Frontier!

When you hear about inbreeding, you probably think about the same things that I do: poor genetic diversity, low survivability, a plethora of deleterious alleles, and August: Osage County. Inbreeding in populations is usually a bad thing, because it decreases the overall heterozygosity of a population, reducing the variance in alleles, and often allows for the expression of bad alleles that have been silently accumulating in a population, but haven’t shown up yet (An example of this in humans would be cystic fibrosis, which is carried by 1 out of every 25 individuals, but expressed in only 1/3000 individuals). If a mother is heterozygous for a deleterious allele, and she passes it on to half of her offspring, and then her offspring breed with each other, the chances of their children expressing this allele are much higher than if random breeding were to occur. 

In the short term, inbreeding can be a very bad thing for a population; however, it can actually be a good thing for a population in the long term. Crazy you say? A little. But the tendency of inbred individuals to more frequently express bad alleles can work in the favor of a population – these alleles can be purged out of the population, and actually reduce the amount of carriers in the long term. This exact phenomenon has been observed in a population of Mountain Gorillas in an article published in Science this week.

Gorilla beringei beringei, the
Mountain Gorilla
Habitat loss is a problem for any species, but the population of gorillas that were studied for this paper faced this to the extreme. In 1981, this population fell to about 253 total individuals. Thanks to recent conservation efforts, their numbers have risen to a paltry 480 individuals. Unfortunately, any time a population experiences a large loss in numbers (called a bottleneck), the population’s genetic diversity plummets, and the inbreeding coefficient (which is a number used to measure the observed heterozygosity) increases.  When this population of gorillas was analyzed, scientists found that they were two to three times less diverse than other populations of gorillas in other parts of the world.

Scientists are worried that this lack of genetic diversity could make the population of gorillas more susceptible to diseases and environmental changes, they have also found that the gorillas in this population have fewer harmful loss of function gene variants.

By looking a little deeper into each genome, researchers also found that this kind of inbreeding wasn’t uncommon – mountain gorillas have survived in small numbers for thousands of years, suggesting that the population has been in the hundreds for much longer than humans could have intervened. This is promising for the gorilla population, but small numbers mean that this population is still at a reasonably high risk for extinction.

While the gorilla population is currently on the rise, conservation efforts are now more important than ever. We don’t want to lose any more species than we have to, and hopefully our newfound, deeper understanding of this one will help it exist for years to come.

~David Almanzar (Group A)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Dont Lose Your Head: Brontosaurus is Once Again Reclassified

Dont Lose Your Head: Brontosaurus is Once Again Reclassified

Inner children rejoice; In a recent taxonomic development, the once obsolete term Brontosaurus, has been reinstated to describe a separate genus of extinct reptiles that were once believed to be a species of Apatosaurus, is in fact it’s own separate genus, a correction that overwrites a consensus that has held since 1903.
It’s likely that you’ve been corrected by someone that the Brontosaurus you were referring to was in fact an Apatosaurus, with great condescension. Such people would often go further to insist that Brontosaurus did not exist as a species. This itself is also a misconception. The term Brontosaurus was never obsolete, but used to describe a different species within the same genus of Apatosaurus. The new development states that Apatosaurus excelsus exists within its own unique Brontosaurus genus.

The confusion surrounding Brontosaurus began at its discovery in the 1870’s. Two partial skeletons of the animal were discovered but both were lacking a skull. A skull was reconstructed based off of another dinosaur, Camarasaurus, and classified the animal Brontosaurus excelsus. The skull reconstruction turned out to be wrong, and a different skeleton was found that appeared to be an intermediate between Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus. The scientists were so inscure over the botched-skull incident that they immediately reclassified Brontosaurus as a species within the Apatosaurus species, since it seemed discouraging that Brontosaurus was speciated enough to be its own genus. This was settled further in the 1970’s when it was discovered that Apatosaurus wasn’t very closely related to Camarasaurus, but instead Diplodocus, with a different, horselike skull unlike the boxy one of Camarasaurus that used to be the base for Brontosaurus. This birthed the myth that Brontosaurus was just an Apatosaurus with the wrong head.

The new research that has been done is both incredibly extensive and uses new technology that wouldn’t have been possible in the past. It covers over 300 pages of evidence which uses statistical analysis of different closely related dinosaurs, and suggested that Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus had at least as many differences between them as could be found between other genera, too much to be considered just a difference between species in the same genus. The difference between “species” and other levels of classification is not well defined, especially among extinct species which can’t be directly observed. As it stands, however, the differences between the two species now more closely fits the differences defined between other similar species.

Posted by Patrick O'Loughlin

Athletes - Hard Work or Genetics?

Athletes - Hard Work or Genetics?

All successful athletes put in a substantial amount effort, and work to get to where they are.  The amount of training and the diet definitely attributes to an athlete's success, but is also reported to depend on genetics.  

Playing sports all my life, and still in college this makes me wonder if some people may have an advantage depending on their familial history.  Neither of my parents were athletes at high levels above grade school so could this attribute to the type of athlete I am?  Research shows that there is a lot of genetic influence on athletic ability!  Genetics affect strength, and a big part in this is the type of muscle fibers someone may have in abundance.  Whether an individual has more slow-twitch or fast-twitch muscle fibers can lead to a certain athletic ability.  Most people have about an equal amount of slow and fast twitch fibers.  But if someone has more slow-twitch fibers, they have an advantage of possibly having more endurance which could help them in sports where they would be doing long distance running.  Someone with more fast-twitch fibers would have a greater ability of short distance sprints or short rapid movements.  They each have their drawbacks though, because when someone has more of one type of fiber, they have less of the other.  The type of muscle fibers someone has can influence their athletic ability greatly and either give them an advantage or disadvantage.  

As well, lung  and cardiac capacity, can play a major role as well.  If someones heart can't deliver enough oxygen to their blood supply, they can tire easily and will most likely have difficulty taking part in athletics.  The effect is similar with lung capacity, because if they can not breathe properly in rigorous activity, they may not be able to perform as great as others who have ease.  Both lung and heart capacity are greatly influenced by genetics, but they don't necessarily have to stop someone from taking part in athletics.  There are medical interventions that could help, like lung capacity for example there are inhalers and drugs that can help maintain normal levels of oxygen during activity.

Even though genetics definitely play a large role in how an individual can excel in certain athletic abilities, it doesn't mean that someone without the same genetic makeup can't do just as good if not better at the same sport.  Being an athlete takes training, dieting, and motivation.  If someone has muscle fibers that can help them run farther, or lift more weight it doesn't mean they necessarily can without training and practice.  Overeating and under use of the muscle fibers will result in weaker muscles and less ability.  There is potential for people with advantageous genetic backgrounds to have more ability, but they need to work just as hard if not harder to reach their maximum ability.  As well they may have to make up for some of the drawbacks they have.  Even though research shows genetics play a large part in athletic ability, it also shows that you must maintain your body to be successful, therefore most people with determination to be successful can be. 

Posted by Victoria Bortolussi (C)

Bad Dream or Nightmare?

Think back to last night, did you have a dream? If you remember your dream, did it make you feel sad, confused guilty or disgusted? Or perhaps was your dream so disturbing and threatening that it forced you to awaken? These characteristics separate a bad dream from a nightmare.

So what are nightmares and why do we dream in the first place? According to the Sleep Foundation, nightmares are dreams with vivid and disturbing content. They are most common in children but can also occur in adults. Nightmares typically result in immediate awakening and dreamers are able to recall the dream. Sleep disorder specialists have yet to come up with an answer as to why we dream in the first place however one hypothesis is that dreams provide a psychological relief from the hectic dynamics of daily life. Another hypothesis is that dreams may indicate disruptions in the nervous system. In any case, most people are capable of dreaming which occurs during a period of sleep characterized by rapid eye movement or REM.

Researchers at the University of Montreal have discovered that nightmares evoke greater emotions than bad dreams do. Fear is for the most part absent in bad dreams but is a factor in about a third of nightmares. Physical aggression is also a commonality in most nightmares. Bad dreams do not involve aggression and instead involve interpersonal conflict. Nightmares also involve feelings of threat which may lead to sudden awakening of the dreamer. 

Nightmares can become a major issue for those who tend to have them often. People who have recurring nightmares may fear falling asleep which could lead to other issues such as insomnia. Many nightmares arise from past trauma such as death of a loved one or fighting a war. Drugs and alcohol can also play a role in vivid dreaming. The good news is that nightmares can be treated using techniques involving visualization. Through this technique, dreamers learn how they can change a negative scenario in their dream to a more positive one (so sayonara Freddy Krueger!). 

A lot of people still cant tell the difference between a bad dream and a nightmare because to most people the two are interchangeable. Research however, says that the two are not synonymous and both involve different emotions. Nightmares are also more likely to effect daily life. Hopefully next time you have either a bad dream or a nightmare you will be able to distinguish between the two. And if frequent nightmares are preventing you from having a good nights sleep, do not stress because there are treatments available to help.  

-Posted by Amanda Okpoebo (Group C)

Benefits of Cold Showers

I have a friend that swears by cold showers — he takes them in the mornings and claims that he feels refreshed and rejuvenated in a way that just doesn’t compare to hot showers. The science is there — taking cold showers causes the blood in your body to flow more rapidly. After exposure to an especially cold stimulus, your body forces blood to allocate to your organs in an attempt to keep them heated. Over time, your circulation improves as a result of this energy transfer, and your brain learns to regulate your body temperature more efficiently.

Cold showers have other benefits, too. Bathing in chilled water helps reduce the expansion of skin pores, which in turn improves your complexion by preventing foreign substances from entering your skin. Regular cold showers have been correlated to improvements in mood, energy, and even symptoms of depression. Cold showers might even help to boost your immune system. I almost always feel tired in the mornings, but the shock-factor of a cold shower helps to wake me up and get me ready to start my day. The health advantages add up, and the benefits don’t stop there.

Cold showers are good for the environment. The hot water we use to shower every day is an energy-hog, contributing to high utility costs and an over-saturation of fossil fuel emissions. If you’re considering trying something new, or just looking to spice up your daily routine, consider giving cold showers a try. It’s going to take some getting used to, but there’s definitely physical, mental, and environmental incentives that are worth considering. Good luck, and if you give cold showers a shot, definitely let me know!
Posted by Michael Salhany (C)

Testing the Effectiveness of Antibiotics for the Treatment of Lyme Disease

     For me there’s nothing quite as frightening as insects, I can’t quite explain why they frighten me but I can say with some certainly that I’m not a fan, and while this fear of mine is rather irrational there is one insect that is found in the New England area that we should at least be mindful of and, that’s Ixodes scapularis otherwise known as the deer tick. The deer tick is the primary carrier of lyme disease. Lyme disease itself is caused by a bacterium known as Borrelia burgdorferi, this bacteria is transmitted to humans by the bite of infected deer ticks. In the New England area alone there were 450 cases (CDC) of lyme disease in 2013. Traditionally antibiotics such as doxycycline or amoxicillin have been considered the most effective for treating lyme disease, and while these treatments are very effective a remaining 10-12% of patients treated with these antibiotics (CDC) still have lingering symptoms of this disease. These lingering symptoms are known as post-treatment lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), and as of now theres is no way to test for PTLDS since bacteria cannot be cultured after antibiotic treatment. But researchers at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are hoping to change that. 

     Researchers say that they have developed a new test for lyme disease that targets these remaining bacteria that may be getting left behind after the normal antibiotic treatment of lyme disease. This test allows researchers to determine the effectiveness of different antibiotic treatments on the killing of bacteria that makes up lyme disease. The test does this by staining the living bacteria that remains after antibiotic treatment green and dead or dying bacteria red. This is significant because it will allow researchers to quickly test many different antibiotics in an effort to find new and more effective treatments options for people with lyme disease. This research is particularly important to me as someone who has witnessed first hand the damaging effects that lyme disease can have on another persons body. My hope is that through this new test we can discover new and better treatments that will eventually lead to an end of worrying about lyme disease altogether.        

David Rains, Group C