Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Trick or Trick? Halloween Creature Contenders

by Sam Matchette

Halloween. Even at the mention of it, I’m sure a good number of you are picturing a vast array of beasts, ghouls and monsters – or any other blood-sucking demon from hell. Entangled in this net of horror are a number of animals; all of which have developed a special, cult relationship with the day. For example, black cats, wolves, bats and spiders all receive the ‘Halloween treatment’ – mostly because they all seemingly do well in a witch broth or two. However, in true cliché breaking fashion, I am convinced that nature can offer a far more blood-curdling spectrum of unlikely beasts (in their own right) than stereo-typically portrayed. Let’s explore the often (and literally) over-looked contenders…

Surprisingly, the first is typically only an inch long, but will undoubtedly send shivers through at least half the people in the room. Native to the amazon basin, the Candiru Fish is a translucent, eel-like fish with catfish barbels at its anterior end. Parasitic by nature, Candirus follow the water flowing out of gill flaps of other larger fish. It then dives in and grasps to the inner layer of the gill cavity. Here, it can open up its sharp, umbrella-like spines to lock itself in position whilst vigorously suckling the host’s blood. Once full, they unhook and sink to the river floor to digest the meal - whilst eying the next passing blood bonanza. The Candiru fish is even also called the Vampire fish for this very reason. But, of course, this process isn’t limited to fish – brace yourselves. A suitable flow of liquid for the Candiru can include the flow of urine from an organism’s urethra. Thus, an unsuspecting tourist caught short on the amazon may well get a very, very nasty shock – allowing the fitting title of ‘willy fish’ to be adopted. Naturally, the pain is said to be indescribable. As far as Halloween costumes go, this may not make the obvious choice; for ‘Fright Factor’ however, the Candiru fish certainly has my vote.

Along a similar line as the Candiru fish, our next contender is exceptionally frightening when considered from the prey’s viewpoint. Winner of one of the coolest names in the animal kingdom, the Antlion (or Sand dragon) is exactly what it says on the tin; a golden-hair covered beetle-like insect that feeds on ants or other unsuspecting morsels. It is in fact the predatory larvae of the ‘antlion lacewing’, but has adopted its own title as ‘antlion’ due to its ability to remain in the larval form for many years. The antlion builds a self-built conical hole in very fine sand and waits patiently at its centre – picture George Lucas’ Great Pit of Carkoon. A careless slip into the hole leaves an insect doomed: fighting a far too literal uphill battle to escape the large grabbing mouth appendages of the antlion. Inevitably, exhaustion takes over and the insect is quickly speared and dragged alive into the sand, to be drained of its bodily fluids. This animal is not only scary in appearance, but also plans the world’s scariest surprise party - a Halloween must-have!

Horned 'Toad'
No Halloween beast can be without a gory element; whether it is being a blood-sucker, blood-covered or down-right bloody scary. This next organism, however, can go one step further. The Horned Toad is a small, squat lizard found in the arid lands of North America. The nickname of toad refers to its rounded body and stumped tail. However, unlike the toads in the traditional witch stories, this ‘toad’ won’t be boiled so easily. As a very last resort of predator-defence, this lizard reveals its dark side; by restricting the blood leaving the head, blood pressure builds to such an extent that the blood vessels surrounding the eyes burst. A remarkably accurate blood stream then erupts from the corner of the eye and can travel up to five feet. Being acrid tasting (and just plain messy), the predator understandably reels giving the lizard time to escape. Re-enacting this gory trauma would definitely be a winner – needing only a squeezy bottle of ketchup and very understanding friends.

Alternatively, some other organisms choose another anti-predator defence: toxins. However, the culprits are not who you would expect. The Pitohui, Little Shrikethrush and the Blue-Capped Ifrita - all originating from New Guinea – are the only known genera of bird that are poisonous. The said toxins are batrachotoxins: obtained from Chloresine beetles that make up part of their insectivorous diet. They make look like innocent songbirds, but these birds pack a punch – just handling them bare-handed can cause numbness and tingling. That’s frightening enough, let alone imagining the state a poor predator would be in after slipping one of these in to its mouth.

Ichnuemon Wasp
The last organism could be the worst of the bunch. Famously despised by Charles Darwin himself, the Ichnuemon Wasp family are renowned for their torturously wicked ways. Targeting primarily larvae or pupa, the adult female will inject (using a very long, sharp ovipositor) her eggs in to a host body – they have even been known to drill through wood known to be sheltering located larvae. As well as the eggs, the adult also delivers a toxin leaving the host larvae paralyzed. Unfortunately for the larvae, from this point on, it is quite spectacularly doomed. The eggs inevitably hatch within the larvae and begin to eat; and eat and eat. Starting with the non-essentials; fat cells, muscle cells and non-vital organs, the wasp larvae aim to keep the host larvae alive for as long as possible. Yes, you read right: the host larvae, kept fresh and alive by the paralyzing toxin, get literally eaten alive from the inside-out. It’s no wonder really where the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien came from. The seemingly agonizing ordeal for the host larvae ends with the wasp larvae consuming the vital organs; and then erupting out of the husk to spread more joy elsewhere. Undoubtedly, the ichneumon wasp would make an excellent fear bringing Halloween hero, but regretfully do not win the ‘best-way-to-bring-up-offspring’ award.

These were just a handful of organisms, from many conceived by nature, with a horror story that I believed was worthy of ‘Halloween treatment’. So if you’re looking for inspiration for this year’s Halloween costume or party, just remember these gruesome mercenaries and the nasty ‘tricks’ that they have up their sleeves. You may just fancy a ‘treat’ instead.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Transplanting Memories?

by Rhema Anderews

George Bernard Shaw once said, “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” In the realm of heart transplantation technology, none has posed greater uproar than the controversial concept of cellular memory.

Cellular memory is the notion that the brain is not the only organ capable of storing memories. In fact, all living cells possess “memory”. Evidence for this has been found predominantly in heart transplant patients. Studies on cellular memory from transplant patients are often conducted by scientists with the aid of the hospital system which forbids the recipient to know or communicate with the donor’s family with most cases without the mention of names.

On May 29, 1988, Claire Sylvia received both the heart and lung of an 18-year-old man killed in a motorcycle accident. After the surgery, Sylvia claimed an intense craving for beer, chicken nuggets and green peppers, all of which she never liked before. She began to assume a masculine walk (peculiar for the dancer), started swearing in conversations, and for no apparent reason took up motorcycle riding at dangerous speeds, which was totally out of character. Sylvia even started having recurring dreams of a mysterious man. In her book entitled “A Change of Heart”, she recounted a dream where she kissed a boy thought to be named Tim L. and inhaled him into her. Upon meeting the “family of her heart” as she put it, Sylvia learned the name of her donor was in fact Tim L., and all of the changes she experienced closely mirrored that of Tim L. who strangely at the point of death had chicken nuggets in his pockets. Sylvia’s story quickly captured media attention and soon after, many other transplant recipients came forward with similar testimonies.

The most striking example is that of an eight-year-old girl who received the heart of a ten year-old-girl. Post-surgery, she was consistently plagued with distressing dreams of an attacker and a girl being murdered. Her nightmares proved so vivid that even her psychiatrist believed them to be genuine memories. As it turns out, the donor was a murder victim and as a result of the recipient’s violent recurring dreams, she was able to describe the horrifying incident and the murderer to such great detail that the police eventually apprehended, arrested and convicted the killer.

Ongoing research has shown that neuropeptides and receptors previously known to exist exclusively in the brain have been discovered in places throughout the body, especially in major organs such as the heart. These neuropeptides are a means for the brain to communicate with other organs and for these organs to send feedback to the brain. However, little is known about whether these neuropeptides can store memory; due to the amount of peptides in the heart, there seems to be a strong correlation between the two. But if this were the case, then why don’t all patients go through this experience?

There is no solid evidence that the reports are nothing more than coincidence and fantasy. Even so, the stories are intriguing and we should expect some serious investigation into the matter in the near future. Until then let’s keep an open heart.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Brinicles - ‘Icicles of Death’

by Danny Stubbs

Stretching down from the surface of the ocean, these Icy spikes give unfortunate bottom dwellers an unpleasant frosty fate. In short, they form when supersaline (very salty) water subsides from the surface of sea ice and sinks towards the seabed, forming an icy sheath during the process. This phenomenon was first filmed by the BBC as part of their series ‘The Frozen Planet’ in 2011.

So how do these sub-zero spears form? One of the main things you need to know is that salt lowers the freezing point of water by acting as an impurity. At 0°C (the freezing point of water and melting point of ice) there is an equal amount of molecules entering and leaving the solid state. Salt interrupts this exchange of water molecules and stops them entering the solid phase, hence the water remains in a liquid form. At a lower temperature the amount of molecules leaving the solid state balances the amount entering, allowing the water to freeze but at a lower temperature than freshwater. As a result saltwater freezes at minus two degrees Celsius.

As the seawater freezes the salt becomes concentrated because it doesn’t fit in with the lattice structure of the ice and it is cooled below zero degrees. This creates an area of water with high concentrations of salt (brine) at temperatures below freezing. Since salty water is denser than pure water and colder water is denser than warmer water, the brine begins to sink and forms a vertical column called a brine plume that stretches towards the seabed. The water around the column is cooled below zero and begins to freeze, forming a ‘Brinicle’.

What makes them important?Brinicles have a biological impact, they freeze any sluggish organisms that are too slow to escape the freezing of the seabed. However they also create areas that never fully freeze in regions such as in the Antarctic, which prove to be a vital refuge for some critters during the bleak winter months.These brine plumes are also important for the climate because they aid the circulation of water throughout the oceans of the world. The heavy supersaline water that sinks and migrates towards the equator helps replenish the cool water that warms and rises in areas such as the tropics. 

Check out these incredible time lapse images of the Brinicles forming.

While these principles are fresh in your mind, think about why we add salt to icy roads in the winter months. Did you figure it out? The salt lowers the melting point of ice so it more readily turns back into liquid form. Ice and salt – much more compelling than you originally thought!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Does time fly for a fly?

by Thien Ho

It appears that time flies for anything but flies – and other small animals. A recent paper published in the journal Animal Behaviour found that the size and metabolic rate of an organism was directly related to its perception of time. The findings, led by Dr Andrew Jackson at Trinity College Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, indicated that smaller animals with faster metabolic rates perceive time in slow motion. Dr Jackson had measured a range of different organisms and their reaction times against individual flashes of fast-flickering light. The scientists then based the measurements on the critical flicker fusion frequency, the point at which the flashes seem to merge together until the light source looks constant, to provide an indication of the time perception in the organisms. It revealed that houseflies saw the light flickering almost seven times faster than humans can, at a rate similar to other small mammals and birds such as squirrels and pigeons. These animals perceive the world in a very different way to everything else as they absorb so much more visual and audio information per second.

“[For the fly] it feels like you are moving so slowly towards them,” Dr Luke McNally, a researcher of Edinburgh University, said. “It's the same as the famous bullet-time scene where the bullets are moving at this incredibly slow rate as far as Keanu Reeves is concerned.” This significantly fast reaction time is the difference between life and death in the wild, especially for smaller animals as their ability to process information quickly is essential in order to escape from predators. Visual systems that send information to the brain at very high frequencies are useless if the brain cannot process it all as quickly. Thus, this research only exposes the impressive abilities of even the smallest brains. “Flies might not be deep thinkers, but they can make good decisions very quickly,” said Professor Graeme Ruxton, who also participated in the research. 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Weird and Wonderful: Hidden Horrors Returns!

Check out these awesome images of tiny creatures under the microscope.

Zebra fish embryo



Spiny Assassin Bug

Velvet mite

Processionary moth caterpillar

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The distinction of mirror images

by Kate Hammond

Despite initial appearances the majority of mirror images are not identical. Each half has a distinct orientation, one left and one right. However, we appear not to retain this orientation information. Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist Daniel D.Dilks asked a random selection of people to recall the direction in which the queen was facing on a one penny coin. Only 50% could correctly identify her direction; even though it is an object seen everyday, the results were as if by chance. This would suggest that our memory of an object is actually independent of its orientation. Similarly, an advertising campaign presented two copies of the Mona Lisa to volunteers. In one (the original) she faced to the left and in the other (a manipulated version) she faced to the right. Although all easily identified the picture as the Mona Lisa, very few could say with confidence which was the correct version. The advertising campaign used the slogan ‘don’t mistake familiarity for knowledge’, but what can also be taken from this is further evidence that we represent the identity of an image in our memory independent of its orientation.

Practically, it makes little sense to store information regarding the orientation of objects. Distinguishing mirror images is very rarely needed, and, furthermore, we need to be able to recognize objects from all view points. However, it has also been shown that for a short period of time immediately after viewing an object, orientation information is retained. Looking at an object, looking away, and picturing it immediately afterwards confirms this. This has lead to a major theory concerning object recognition; objects are remembered as seen from a particular point of view, but the brain has adapted so that it stores with it its mirror image. The object can then be matched equally easily to itself or to its mirror image. In this way, the initial orientation information is lost.

Although it is mainly advantageous, this adaptation also has its downfalls. The visual system begins life unable to distinguish mirror images in memory. Consequently, when it is necessary to distinguish between two mirror images, we have to learn to encode each mirror image as an object in its own right. Taking the every day example of b/d and </>, little children struggle to distinguish between the two but over time the mirror images acquire the status of separate objects. This explains why everyone is able to picture b or d in their head, but is unable to picture the orientation of a coin.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Cyclops: A Huge Terrible Beast

by Rob Cooper

‘As tall and ragged as an alp’ and with a ‘voice like thunder’ in the loosely translated words of Homer from book nine of the Odyssey; the Cyclops was indeed a menacing spectre. As with all legends it seems wildly fanciful to imagine there was such a grumpy one eyed old giant that lived alone butchering sheep and bashing brains from hapless Greeks in his spare time. However, there is some evidence as to what might have inspired the creation of such a story and the progenitor is by no means a less terrifying or majestic apparition.

Around eight million years ago there really was a ‘huge, terrible beast’ wandering around Greece. Its name was Deinotherium giganteum and it literally means ‘huge terrible beast’. The animal in question was a relative of the modern day elephant and stood 4.6 meters tall at the shoulder and could have easily massed over 10 tonnes, making it one of the largest extinct Proboscids (the group containing modern elephants) to have walked the earth, only eclipsed by the titanic imperial and possibly the steppe mammoth. The skull clearly shows an enlarged gape where in life the trunk of the animal would have attached and curious recurved backwards facing tusks which actually emerged from the lower jaw in contrast to the forwards facing tusks emerging from the upper jaw of modern elephants.

Deinotherium also had an enlarged nasal opening situated further back in the skull which indicates a particularly well developed trunk although the specifics of its appearance are difficult to gauge. The prominent trunk, along with the backwards facing tusks, imply Deinotherium may have been adept at manipulating tree branches or other objects in order to reach food. Other proposed uses of the peculiar tusks include the stripping of bark from trees as well as digging for roots and tubers. The 1895 compendium ‘Curiosities Of Science’ even stated: 

‘The family of herbivorous Cetaceans [i.e. sirenians] are connected with the Pachydermata of the land by one of the most wonderful of all the extinct creatures with which geologists have made us acquainted. This is the Deinotherium, or Terrible Beast. … It appears to have lived in the water, where the immense weight of these formidable appendages [i.e. tusks] would not be so inconvenient as on land. What these tusks were used for is a mystery; but perhaps they acted as pickaxes in digging up trees and shrubs, or as harrows in raking the bottom of the water.’

Noting the close relationships between the early whales and elephants and concluding that Deinotherium was too monumentally huge to have lived anywhere other than an aquatic environment and may have used its tusks in order to obtain food from the bottom of lakes and rivers.

Unfortunately the fossil evidence of Deinotherium is still inconclusive as the recovered teeth are suitable for both grinding and shearing indicating a varied diet and there are yet to be found any tusks with clearly preserved marks or scratched to indicate any particular use. 

So how does this tie in to the Cyclops? Many archaic cultures discovered fossil evidence of truly giant animals and it makes sense that the farming oriented Greeks might happen along a skull or two of the extinct Proboscid that used to inhabit their land. How would they have interpreted the skull of such an enormous creature? Perhaps the hole in the front of the skull was interpreted as an eye socket and the genesis of the Cyclops thus occurred. Thomas Strasser, archaeologist at California state university, Sacramento claims ‘With no concept of evolution, it makes sense that they would reconstruct them (fossil bones) in their minds as giants, monsters, sphinxes, and so on,’. 

This line of thought is particularly appealing when considering just how many similarities creatures of the past and legend share. From comparing sea serpents and plesiosaurs to dragons and dinosaurs and even sauropod leg bones to giants it seems likely that our ancestors best attempts at interpreting the fossils may have been manifest in the legends they created; and while they may have been some way of the reality, they were still thrilling to imagine. 

Deinotherium was recreated in walking with beasts interacting with early hominids - check it out in this video!

Happy grass cells!

Monday, 14 October 2013

Weird and Wonderful: A Bioluminescent Bloom!

by Danny Stubbs

You may think the vibrant blue shown in the photo above is part of a scene from Avatar or Tron, but it is in fact naturally sourced.  Some organisms are able to produce light and these are said to be bioluminescent. Bioluminescence has many valuable functions within the animal kingdom, such as illumination, distraction, warning, mimicry and attraction.

A spectacular example of this emission of light is in coastal areas when there are mass accumulations of plankton. The colour is produced by an enzyme called luciferase and a pigment called luciferin. Oxygen in the shallow marine environment reacts with luciferin and luciferase acts as a catalyst during the process. Oxyluciferin is produced in an electronically excited state and in returning to its ground state it emits a photon of light.

The glow is completely harmless to humans, and can prove quite entertaining as the following video shows. Here the surface is being disturbed, prompting the algae to give off their iridescent blue glow.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

@Bristol Space Odyssey

by Laura Rogers

Ever wanted to play on all the exciting exhibits at the At-Bristol science centre, but felt too embarrassed as they are surrounded by children? Ever wanted to stargaze on the roof overlooking Millenium Square? Ever wanted to drink alcohol whilst at a museum? Well, adult-only nights at the At-Bristol are the perfect excuse.

I was lucky enough to attend ‘A Space Odyssey’, the adult-only night that enabled you to adventure into the depths of the sky and discover how we explore them. The night was from 6:30 to 10:00pm, however, this was not enough time to explore the whole venue and experience everything they had to offer. An insightful talk was given, in which experiments were conducted to show how satellites work. A personal favourite was when a spring was placed in hot water and immediately straightened. This phenomenon was applied to a model of a satellite, enabling it to open its wings via a current being passed through the wire, heating it up and straightening it. The welcoming Bristol Astronomical Society exhibited their telescopes, allowing us to observe stars in the sky. It was fascinating to see how a tiny spec in the sky was actually 2 stars, one orange and one blue. We had the chance to explore a recreated Martian landscape and analyse rock samples which was incredible.

At-Bristol has hundreds of interactive exhibits including: a giant hamster wheel, a walk in tornado, various water activities, exhibits to learn about the human body and many more. They were great fun to play with and helped to develop my scientific curiosity. We aimed to play with as many interactive exhibits as possible; my favourite was ‘startle’. This involved air suddenly spraying into your face, the reactions were recorded and played back in hilarious slow motion.

One of the latest exhibits, in the Zone, gives information on the science behind being a top athlete. It involves completing 5 challenges where you are set against an opponent. It was enjoyable and exciting, however, the only challenge I won was the final sprint finish! 

If you have seen the strange silver ball in Millennium Square, you may or may not know it is in fact a planetarium. You can take my word that it is much larger inside than it appears outside (Bristol’s Tardis) with a majestic screen spreading over the top of the sphere. We were transported from a view of the sky affected by light pollution to an astonishing view of the sky from a nearby countryside area. Just by listening to the audience’s ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ it was clear that everyone found the view spectacular. The autumn constellations were shown and a fantastic Astronomer, Lee, described the constellations and their associated Greek myths. This experience was breath-taking and is something I would highly recommend. I even recognised some constellation patterns and can now show off as I know the names and stories. 

The adult-only nights are great fun and enable you to experience the thrills of science through interactive exhibits, talks and demonstrations. The next adult only night is on Monday 9th December so keep an eye out for it.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Lip locking, tonsil tennis and infectious mononucleosis: stop smooching?

by Chloe Palmer 

Infectious mononucleosis (IM), more commonly known as glandular fever or ‘the kissing disease’ is an extremely contagious viral disease predominantly caused by the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV).  Sprunt and Evans in the Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital first described IM in 1920, however the association between this and EBV was not defined until the late 1960’s. EBV is a type of Herpes virus (Human Herpes Virus-4) containing double-stranded DNA, an icosahedral capsid and a glycoprotein-containing envelope. IM is spread via saliva, and just like all Herpes viruses they become a life companion…or not. The virus has an initial incubation period so an individual may be unaware that they are infected until 4-8 weeks later.  By this point, however, you can be sure that your oropharangeal epithelial cells and B-lymphocytes have taken a massive beating.

IM primarily and most commonly affects teenagers and young adults between the ages of 15-25, probably because school socials and university are saliva-swapping playgrounds (unless you do a science degree in which case you probably don’t get out as much). Initially this sub-clinical infection is asymptomatic but as it progresses characteristic symptoms include a sore throat, fatigue, prolonged malaise, swollen lymph nodes, vomiting, muscle and headaches high fever, a lack of energy and a loss of appetite. Diagnosis may be clear from the symptoms but this can be confirmed by a blood test.

Although both mortality and morbidity rates are low, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) serologic tests have shown that approximately 95% of adults worldwide have been infected with EBV.

There is currently no available treatment for this viral infection, however an EBV vaccine is currently in clinical trials, targeting its envelope glycoproteins (gp350/220). Not only will this be a break-through in preventing IM but also decrease the risk of other associated EBV infections such as Burkitt’s lymphoma and nasopharangeal carcinoma. For now pain relief pills...yes, the same ibuprofen that matron gave you at school may be ‘prescribed’ but as any G.C.S.E science student could inform you, antibiotics would have no effect (bar an unwanted red rash) since this is not a bacterial disease. The question still remains when to vaccinate individuals: pre-infection, post-infection or therapeutically, not aided by the fact that EBV expresses different proteins during its lytic and latent phases.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Who says you need air and sunlight to live?

Scientists find life thriving in the hostile oceanic layers of the Earth’s crust

by Daisy Dunne

Scientists studying the activity of the “dark biosphere”, the portion of the Earth shrouded in both darkness and mystery, have revealed how tiny organisms called microbes can obtain the energy required for life directly from their rocky surroundings of the oceanic crust - the layer of rock found covering the Earth directly beneath the sea. Life found deep within the oceanic crust of the Earth has the potential to make up the biggest ecosystem, a functioning unit considering all living organisms as well as their physical environment, the world has ever seen. This is due to the fact that 60% of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceanic crust. This new discovery poses a great challenge to pre-existing views concerning the normal conditions of life, which are based on the theory that energy is fixed by plants from sunlight and passed from organism to organism through a food chain. In contrast, scientists have shown how an astounding number of organisms can exploit energy from the natural reaction of infiltrating sea water with the inorganic (non-living) substances found in the rocky crust.

Why is this new revelation so important? Finding a thriving community of organisms living independently of sunlight and oxygen strengthens the idea that there may indeed be life on other planets. Similar life forms to such microorganisms could potentially exist be deriving energy in the absence of appropriate light from rocky deposits found in their own planet’s constitution. One of the microbiologists behind the paper, Dr Mark Lever, hopes his findings will contribute to our understanding of extra-terrestrial life. He suggests, "I think it's quite likely there is similar life on other planets. On Mars, even though we don't have oxygen, we have rocks there that are iron-rich. It's feasible that similar reactions could be occurring on other planets and perhaps in the deep subsurface of these planets." This research opens a whole new door to the possibilities of life in hostile but mineral-rich environments, both on Earth and on other planets, that were previously disregarded as unsuitable to sustaining life.