Monthly Archives: July 2010

Finding Australia’s Best Science Blogger

In exciting news, Running Ponies is a finalist in a competition to find Australia’s best science blog as part of this year’s National Science Week. The finalists were determined by a panel of Australian science communicators and now it’s down to a popular vote. We’re up against some terrifyingly tough competition, so we could use your votes! The winner will become the official blogger for National Science Week 2010 and will receive a four-day blogging trip to attend Science Week events in August.

For more information on the competition, AND TO CAST YOUR VOTE :)  visit The Big Blog Theory.

– bec xox

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Filed under Events, Science

That’s Just Gross, Leviathan melvillei.

leviathan eating whale

The discovery of a giant sperm whale with 40 centimetre-long teeth has shed new light on the types of predators that once terrorised Miocene waters 12 million years ago. Named Leviathan melvillei, after Herman Melvill and his formidable white whale, L. melvillei grew to between 13 and 18 metres long, about the size of a modern sperm whale, but with one important difference – those huge four-inch-wide teeth.

Prior to this find by a team of Belgian palaeontologists on the southern coast of Peru, the only known whales of this size have been suction feeders, such as baleen and sperm whales. Without any functioning teeth in their upper jaw, these whales generate a powerful flow of water to draw in their prey (usually deep-sea cephalopods) and use small, lower jaw teeth to hold and puncture them.

L. melvillei, however, with its robust jaws filled with interlocking teeth the length of prairie dogs, appears to have been a raptorial feeder which, like the modern killer whales (Orcinus orca), would hunt down large prey, inflicting deep wounds and tearing large chunks of flesh out of their bodies. The team suggests that this prey was likely to have been smaller whales.

“We think that medium-size baleen whales, rich in fat, would have been very convenient prey for Leviathan,” said Oliver Lambert, the palaeontologist who discovered the fossil. “With its three-metre-long head, very large upper and lower teeth… this represents one of the largest raptorial predators and, to our knowledge, the biggest tetropod bite ever found.”

Somewhat similarly, another recent discovery has found that the Pristionchus pacificus, a common bacteria-eating worm, will grow a new mouth and eat other worms when starved. “Environmental factors dictate the kind of mouthparts formed by roundworms,” said Ralf Sommer, Director of the Department of Evolutionary Biology at the Max Planck Institute.

If a larval P. pacificus grows up in an environment with an abundant supply of bacteria to feed on, it develops a narrow oral cavity and very small teeth-like denticles. However, if it grows up in a heavily-populated area with limited food sources, the larvae will develop a much wider mouth filled with larger, stronger “teeth”.

This effect is also triggered by one of the worms’ pheromones, which at times of high population density, exists in increased concentrations. Situations in which overpopulation is coupled with a lack of food sees the “switching on” of a particular gene in P. pacificus , causing the development of different mouthparts.

This done, the worm will bite a neighbouring worm, tearing a hole into its side to devour its insides as they come oozing out (see image below). Unfortunately for the victim, Caenorhabditis elegans – a smaller, closely related worm – it doesn’t possess the same kind of “teeth” to defend itself with.

Yeah, so I don’t know about this. I’m not one to judge, but a whale who eats other whales? Eeesh… I mean, everyone will be out to dinner somewhere, Leviathan will be late as usual because he knows no one is going to start without him because they’re all terrified he’ll sit on them, which means they’ll probably end up inhaling half a dozen cocktails each to tide themselves over while they wait.

Then finally, finally Leviathan will saunter in, but only Megalodon will have the nerve to be like, “Dude, where the shit have you been?”

“What? I don’t know, at home, oh and the supermarket. I’d completely run out of tea. And you know how I never have any tissues? Well I–”

“‘Alright whatever, let’s just order.”

Easier said than done though, because everyone will be so drunk by this stage, having downed a ridiculous amount of mojitos on very empty stomachs, that the clupeid fish will barely be able to stop giggling long enough to say anything coherent, while the giant squid will be like, “…AND THEN HE ATE IT!! What? Oh I’ll have the crab. Wait, wait, have you guys heard the one about the two sea cucumbers in the nightclub bathroom? …THOSE AREN’T CUVIERIAN TUBULES…!”

But then it’s Leviathan’s turn to order and he’ll be like, “I’ll have the baleen whale, thanks,” and all at once the entire table will go dead quiet, except for some horrified gasps and monacles tumbling from faces and smashing on the floor, and Megalodon will whisper urgently from across the table, “For Christ’s sake, you can’t order whale.”

“What? Why not?”

“Because you’re a whale.”

“So?”

So? It’s perverse! There’s a word for people like you, you know.”

“But I eat whale all the time!”

“Well if I’d known that, I never would’ve invited you. Just order something else, people are starting to leave.”

The longfin mako sharks cancel their orders and head for the door.

“Nice to see you again. Sorry. Here, take a menu.”

“Fine. I guess I’ll have the octopus then.”

The giant octopus sitting three seats down from him will throw seven strawberry daiquiris in his face whilst motioning at the waiter, “Seven strawberry daiquiris please.”

The giant squid will suddenly fall off his chair mid-punchline.

“Actually, make that six.”

“But seriously, you guys,” the giant squid will be slurring as he straightens himself out. “You think this is bad, I once had drinks with a worm who told me he ate his wife for dinner because the delivery guy got stuck in traffic and he was too lazy to get off the couch.”

****

Links: Not Exactly Rocket Science for more on Leviathan melvillei
SV-POW! for more on why Leviathan melvillei might need a new  name already
COSMOS Online for more on Pristionchus pacificus.

Both papers were published in Nature. Access them here and here respectively.

Images courtesy of C.Letenneur and the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology / Andreas Weller.

– bec

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Filed under Animals, Fossils, Museum Stuff, New Species!, Science, Sea Creatures

Wandering Ponies #5

For this edition of WP, I’ll attempt to take you on a roller coaster of emotions, most of which will hopefully be pleasant, and one of which, hopefully not. Unless of course you, I don’t know, find birds scary, squids lame, oil fantastic, and humour not so funny, then I’ve completely misrepresented this entire thing. Maybe you don’t even have emotions. Yeah, exactly. But regardless, I suggest you climb aboard. Unless you’re pregnant. In which case you’re going to have to sit this one out. Sorry, lady, rules are rules.

First up is photographer, Andrew Zuckerman’s, new book – Bird, and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. Described by Erin Estell, a bird trainer who worked on the project, as, “like Vogue for birds,” it features 200 stunning photographs of 75 species, including a baby-faced African pygmy falcon, the most villainous-looking ferruginous hawk you’ll ever see, and my absolute favourite, the secretary bird. You can see most of the photo’s on his website here (I’d post some here if I wasn’t terrified to my very soul by that copyright warning).

And speaking of birds, New Scientist’s wonderfully quirky weekly column about bizarre/extraordinary animals, Zoologger, has a great article on the amazing tool manipulation of rare Egyptian vultures. But before you go all, “Birds and tools = old news, GOD,” this particular story includes coprophagy (not quite as bad as matriphagy, but almost), a fascinating story behind the publication of the original research paper, and one of the best scientific journal titles around. If that doesn’t pique your interest, you can leave (but I’m keeping your shoes):

Zoologger: Vultures use twigs to gather wool for nests.

If you’ve ever simultaneously wanted to marry someone while wishing you could be that same person, you’ll understand how I feel about the Oatmeal Guy. Obviously we haven’t got the technology to facilitate the latter, so I’ll just have to keep working on the former. Regrettable fangirl confessions aside, he really does capture the absolute shit of a hand the male angler fish is dealt in his latest comic here. And when I say ‘absolute shit of a hand,’ I mean everyone else got regular playing cards, while he ended up with a handful of angry grizzly bears who just got told he stole their cubs and called them bad parents:

How the Male Angler Fish Gets Completely Screwed.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute never ceases to amaze with its constant output of incredible footage showing everything from otters holding hands to an inside-out vampire squid. Their latest video shows even more deep-sea squids zipping around and ejecting spawn and whatever else squids do for fun:

And finally, Boston.com’s The Big Picture section has a few oil spill photo collections that are devastating to look at, but so, so important:

The Big Picture – Caught in the Oil // Scenes from the Gulf of Mexico // Oil in the Gulf – Two Months Later

But because I don’t want to leave you sadfaced, here’s a cat swimming in beanbag filling:

<3 U, INTERNET.

– bec

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Filed under Animals, Archosaurs, Art, Potential Husbands, Science, Sea Creatures, Video