Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Animals from Mars, on Earth

What? Never seen an antelope pretending to be
a giraffe (or a basketball player) before?
photo Michael Despines
Say you are an antelope, wandering about on the plains of eastern Africa, and it's dry season. You get to a good patch of green shrubs, only to find a whole herd of impala already there munching away.

You can move on, join them, or, if you are a gerenuk, eat above them.

The gerenuk's amazing long neck clearly helps, and its unusual hips swivel somewhat and allow these guys to stand on two legs while eating and reach higher branches that those darned impala can't.

Gerenuks are relatives of gazelles, but they are browsers, meaning they eat leaves and buds of small trees and shrubs (rather than grass). In reaching those taller branches, they get to munch leaves with more moisture, enabling them to feed in areas with little surface water.

It's a smart adaptation that helps them thrive in the drier parts of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

Gerenuks are just one on a very fun list of 22 amazing animals that you probably didn't know exist.

Another on the list is the Vertebrate of the Year for 2013, the anti-aging, anti-cancer naked mole rat.

Hi! It's the naked mole rat: sabre-toothed sausage or
2013 Vertebrate of the Year?
Despite the name, naked mole rats (can we just call them NMRs?) are not rats (or moles!).

They are more more closely related to porcupines, chinchillas, and guinea pigs than they are to moles or rats, and they are the only species of mole-rat that has practically no hair. Naked, even.

The BBC calls them sabre-toothed sausages, which makes sense when you see their long slim bodies and huge front teeth, two characteristics that make them very fit for life underground.

NMRs live in underground colonies with 75-80 of their closest friends and relatives in the driest portions of East Africa, where the outside temps range from cold at night to burning during the day.

By staying down below (probably right underneath the gerenuks!), they don't need hair to protect themselves from the sun. They keep the colony relatively warm through their movements around the many tunnels they build, and they huddle together at night if it gets cold.

It's hard to see, but the few fine hairs on their body act like whiskers to help them feel what's around them in the darkness of their tunnels.

Like other underground rodents, these little guys dig head-first (with those crazy front teeth), so their skulls are – sensibly – strong, wide, and flat. And as in other rodents that burrow in the ground, their lips actually close quite tightly behind those huge front teeth, to keep out the soil they loosen as they dig.

Those sabre-teeth help the NMRs not only to dig, but also to gnaw into the roots and tubers that make up most of their diet. Crunch, crunch.

They are weird and wonderful, and they are just a few of many crazy animals that share the planet with us and that you probably didn't know about, starting with the pink fairy armadillo and ending with the Japanese spider crab. Here is the list -- do take a look, it will make your day!

BTW, gerenuks look just as weird on all fours
photo: Aaron Logan, Wikimedia

and here are those beautiful impala that are common in wetter areas and
challenge the gerenuk to reach up and find food and moisture from the leaves 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

How to stay warm in winter? Ask Fido

It's January in the Polar Vortex that is much of North America this winter, and a guy is walking his dog down a Washington, DC street. The guy is covered by a wool hat, boots, layers of clothing, scarf, and a fleece jacket, all under a thick coat, and the dog walks alongside wearing nothing but his fur.

How does Fido do that?

dog frolicking, with bundled-up owner
image: East Coast Newbie

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Smoking for fitness? Nah, the new news is old news

here I am, able to survive despite my gaudy costume
photo: 10mpx cg, Wikimedia
Male birds show off their bright colors, fancy feathers, and daring dances in order to catch the eye of the ladies, knowing fully well that they may also be attracting the attention of potential predators.

Animal mothers will take it even further, pretending to be hurt or charging a larger animal outright, in order to distract the predator from her den or nest.

In both cases, improving biological fitness may occasionally involve knowingly harmful behavior.

Perhaps smoking cigarettes has a similar function -- it looks cool and may attract the attention of the ladies (or men), despite the overwhelming evidence that it is a potential killer.

Nevertheless, unlike the male bird of paradise dance behavior, smoking isn't universal and it certainly isn't necessary to attract a mate.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Aging with beauty

image: LaterBloomers
“Every man desires to live long, but no man would be old.”
(Irish satirist Jonathan Swift)

Getting older? Me too! Those of us lucky enough to reach our golden years will get to experience the gradual decline in muscle mass and function that come with surviving middle age. Oh boy.

It turns out that much of the loss of strength, speed, and overall fitness in older people appears to be tied as much to a combination of reduced activity and weight gain as to aging itself. They go together: we get busy and exercise less, we get tired and exercise less, and we get out of the habit and exercise less. And repeat. Then we find we are out of shape, and it’s a whole lot harder to get moving again.

In fact, a scientific study that compared the effects of extreme inactivity to aging showed that study participants had lower aerobic fitness after 3 weeks of bed rest at age 20 than they did when re-tested 30 years later.

So it makes sense that study after study is revealing that getting and staying active fights aging in a powerful way, benefitting both our bodies and our brains, and continuing to exercise vigorously as we age may help us to maintain speed and fitness longer than previously understood.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Age before beauty - Vertebrate of the Year beats cancer

naked as a mole rat.
It has mole-like teeth and a rat-like tail, but it's not a mole or a rat!
image: Roman Klementschitz, Wikimedia
Congratulations to the naked mole rat – named Vertebrate of the Year by the respected journal Science. This beauty contest was all about fitness – actually, fitness so long as it also helps us, but never mind.

The naked mole rats earned their honor because they not only live longer than any other rodent (30 years!), they don't get cancer.

Scientists that have watched naked mole rat colonies for several years have never detected cancer, and the cells of these little nude dudes seem to be able to stop the development of human-induced tumors as well. It's this cancer resistance that makes the naked mole rat such a hit.

How do they do it?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Flora and fitness 2: beyond weight

thought for food:  what's in that?
photo: HannahWhitaker, NY Times
Here's a final word on gut bacteria (I promise!) – one more, since they affect not just weight, but also our brains and defense systems. Yowza.

I hadn't thought about this before, but our gut is one of the main areas of the body where the immune system interacts with what's brought in from the outside world.

Food is foreign, just like anything we touch with our fingers or feet.

So it makes sense that the intestine contains the largest mass of lymphoid (immune system) tissue in the body, and our friendly resident gut bacteria work with it to keep us healthy.

How does that work?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Flora and fitness 1

In the last post, we saw how what we eat affects the makeup of microorganisms in our digestive system.

no wonder you felt a little queasy this morning
image: Jurassic Park Wiki
So it makes sense that each of us has a unique microbiota (the trillions of beneficial or neutral bacteria and other microscopic organisms that live in and on us). Sounds like The Lost World, but it's important.

As the many different species of microorganisms inside each of use try to make their world (us) more hospitable, they affect our well-being in the process.

They are struggling to achieve maximum biological fitness, just like other animals and plants, but, of course, their individual and combined actions affect us too. In fact, our gut communities may be influencing our risk of various chronic diseases, weight gain, and mental illness more than we realize.

But how?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Feed your flora

image: TheBetterBaker
I hope everyone enjoyed the holiday festivities and associated feasting and/or drinking!

We all know that the saying "You are what you eat" doesn't actually apply to those last 2 weeks of December, right?

But it does start working again in January, and since now is the time people start paying attention again to what they are eating and drinking, here are some more findings to encourage it!

The idea that how we fuel our bodies affects how they function should be obvious. Put proper fuel in a machine or system and it runs well. It's like that with our cars, and it's like that with our microflora.