Friday, February 28, 2014

Sex differences, Olympic style

Note: "He" and "She" here mean, I think, < 50 people
worldwide, and definitely not anyone I know...
image: B. Berkowitz & A.Cuadra,
Washington Post 25.02.14
We humans are more similar to each other than a single troop of chimpanzees, our closest relative, so what is behind the consistent gap in athletic performance between men and women?

It's clear to any serious athlete. I played tennis university in the US, and though not a great player, I was a good enough to win some matches there and at small professional tournaments afterwards.

However, as a young woman aware of women's increasing independence and role outside the home, it both frustrated and amazed me how much faster my male practice partners were than female ones. My guy opponents always seemed to be able to run down and even return that same great shot that was a "winner" against a woman. I had to work harder and be more patient to win each point. Even though I might have been a better player technically, the guys were stronger and faster, and this was very irritating.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Geckos on the go

As the winter Olympic skiers and skaters amaze us as they leave the ground and leap or soar through the air with grace and agility, some species equally amaze us with their ability to hold on.

no claws, Mom!
Geckos have no problem holding on to screens
If you've been to pretty much any tropical place, you've probably seen a gecko, a type of lizard with those cute rounded toes that sits on walls and gobbles up insects attracted to lights.

Geckos are great climbers, but how do they just walk up those walls?

They don't have glue, hooks, or suction cups on their feet, so how do they stick to surfaces, even smooth ones, like glass, or wet ones, like plants, without falling off or even leaving a mark?

They can scamper up or down, or they can sit quietly upside down, as if gravity plays no role in their lives. Of course it does, so what's their secret? Biologists and engineers have been asking themselves this question for awhile and are only recently figuring it out.

It's their wrinkly, hairy toes.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Sneaky f*ckers and gift-givers

In some species, only one male gets to mate with multiple females, and he is usually the biggest, strongest, or prettiest.

There ARE options for the less well-endowed guys, and one is being sneaky, as you can see in this highly irreverent and funny take on finding a mate if you are not the big, strong alpha dude. Sneakiness can include staying small, moving fast, and even cross-dressing, and "sneaker males," in a variety of species, do get some action.

Video is part of the Wild Sex series by EarthTouch

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How to enjoy outdoor winter workouts

Inspired by a couple of friends preparing to run this week's Tokyo you can not only survive, but even enjoy, outdoor winter workouts!

let it snow, in Tokyo
but what a blow, for the maratho
photo: Kazuhiro Nogi, AFP

If you are skiing or snowboarding, you are probably already an expert, but for runners, cyclists, walkers, and others who may normally avoid freezing temps, here are some pointers collected from various sites:

1. Check the conditions out there, including temperature, wind chill index, and any rain or snow predicted.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Love comes in many forms

smart move there, big guy
gifts are one way to compete for mating rights
image: carilynn27
OK, so now that Valentine's Day is behind us, here's a little dirt on love.

Few animal species are, in fact, monogamous, that lifelong partnership with a single person – what many people would consider the ideal, "natural" family structure.

In less than 5% of mammal species do both males and females stay with one mate for life.

In some species, males have harems, in others, pairs shack up for a single breeding season, and in others, males and/or females cheat.

Each strategy can be successful for the animal to enhance his or her biological fitness by increasing the chance that he or she passes on genes to the next generation. Here's a fun explanation (love these!):

Video from MinuteEarth

Friday, February 14, 2014

5 reasons to eat chocolate with your Valentine

from a happy Valentine!
photo: Lisa Ramshaw
In this crazy world where sugar is bad but (dark) chocolate is good, and alcohol is bad but red wine is good, on Valentine's Day it seems right to focus on the good bits!

So here are 5 reasons to eat chocolate with your Valentine (note: they apply to other days too):

1. Dark chocolate is good for your heart(s). Not any old chocolate, but chocolate with cocoa content of 70% or higher is rich in flavonoids, which help prevent the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Darker chocolate also contains cancer-fighting enzymes and boosts the immune system. That's like 3 in 1.

(Valentine's bonus: Red wine also contains flavonoids, as well as the substance resveratrol, which has been found to lower blood sugar and LDL or "bad" cholesterol).  OK, yes, fruits and veggies contain flavonoids too.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Calorie counter for athletes (or soon-to-be-athletes!)

counting calories? Do beans count?
image: StaceyReid
Many of us want to know how many calories we should be eating per day. OK, maybe we DON'T want to know how many calories we SHOULD be eating per day....

Nevertheless, whether we want to lose, gain, or maintain our weight, the number of calories we consume matters a lot, even if we aren't counting each of them.

Our bodies need energy to keep us going, yet even for active people, most of the energy (which is measured in calories) we use up on a given day goes to our body's internal maintenance. What's that? Read on!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Natural selection of winter Olympians

How does natural selection occur over time?  And how does that relate to the Winter Olympics?  Ahh, great questions.

Here's a fun video by Asap Science to help. It explains some of the changes in body types by winter Olympians over the past 90 years that have come to be the norm because they improve athletes' fitness in terms of their sporting success. These changes in athletes give great insight about evolution in nature, where the forms we now see in plants and animals seem logically helpful for their respective "sports" - their survival and reproduction, i.e. their biological fitness.

While an averaged-sized body was originally thought to be most beneficial for Olympic success, nowadays, athletes' bodies have changed to specialize to specific sports. Have a look:

OK, back to nature: let's compare to some birds. Think about the body types of:
  • hummingbirds, which have longer-than-average bills, some straight, some curved, and tiny lightweight bodies to best reach flower nectar
  • sparrows and finches, which have strong, stocky and sometimes pointy bills to pick out and crush seeds, and relatively short legs for easy access to the ground to pick up 
  • storks, which have long legs to wade in water, long bills to spear fish, frogs or worms, and strong wings to ride the air currents in search of good fishing grounds

the tiny purple-throated mountain gem, a hummingbird
evening grosbeak, a North American finch
photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson, Wikimedia
the leggy yellow-billed stork
in Botswana, Africa

The list goes on -- what's your favorite bird?  An ostrich? Designed for foot speed on the open African plains - the sprinting champion.

even the kids are fast - mom, dad, and the young ostriches

An eagle? Its great vision and strong feet and claws help it find, capture, and carry wily, moving prey - it's the weightlifter.

A flamingo? That crazy curved bill and its upside down feeding posture, combined with super long legs, allow it to win the deep-water crustacean feeding competition (note: not a Sochi 2014 event).

the flamingos' feeding style looks bizarre, but it works for filtering out the small critters they eat
(yes, eating a ton of red, carotonoid-laden crustaceans might turn you pink too)

A vulture? I know, probably not, but s/he rocks at the uncommon bird sport of scavenging, with a bald head that's easy to keep clean and strong wings to fly far and wide to locate newly-dead animals.

I think you get the point -- while there may be several ways to win at survival, certain body shapes or features often do it best for a given ecological niche.

It's the same for the athletes – a champion figure skater and a champion speed skater would be unlikely to win each other's competitions!

Happy Olympics!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How trees survive the winter cold

I recently transported myself to the United States for a couple of weeks, just in time for WINTER. I hate winter, and I'm amazed at how animals stay warm in such cold temperatures.

Trees don't have fur or feathers, yet they, too, survive these long periods of cold and sometimes snow, often looking dead in the process. This impressive capacity has allowed them to expand their reach to cold climates, thus measurably increasing their biological fitness.

All you out there who are equally impressed at how trees survive northern and southern winters will enjoy this quick and fun video (MinuteEarth is great!):

Here's the link from MinuteEarth if you want to see more

Monday, February 3, 2014

Newest members of the planet's team

It's February, but still not too late to welcome the newest members of our planet's team. They've actually been here for millennia, but we hadn't found them yet!

They are the thousands of new species discovered in 2013. We don't know exactly how many, since it may take months for scientists to determine whether each claim is valid or not. For now, have a look at these new team members:

At fullback: the olinguito, a relative of the raccoon
who might just win the cutest new species award
photo: Mark Gurney
Playing midfield, this teeny frog is the new
world's smallest vertebrate - no name yet,
but s/he can turn on a dime
photo: Christopher C. Austin

On average, scientists describe 18,000 new species each year. They have confirmed 19,232 for 2009, the most recent year with a full confirmed assessment, and about half of these were insects.

What makes something a new species? The tried and true definition is a group of living organisms (plants, animals, protozoans) that can interbreed - that is, produce young that could go on to breed successfully themselves. (A mule is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey - they can interbreed, but mules can't reproduce successfully).

At left wing: the Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko
(check out that tail, plus fast feet help too!)
photo: Conrad Hoskin.

Tending goal (calm under pressure, not falling asleep!), the lesula monkey, who looks uncannily human
photo: Maurice Emetshu

The number of species in nature is not distributed equally across the globe. Some places, mostly in the tropics, have many more species than others. Some places have already been well-studied, while others are still poorly inventoried.

For example, the United States has 784 bird species and nearly 18,500 plant species, while Peru, which is 7.5 times smaller in area but is in the tropics, has over 1,700 bird species and 25,000 plant species.

A single 2012 National Geographic expedition to southeastern Suriname (northern South America for the geographically-challenged) found 60 species new to science. In other words, the biological diversity of tropical regions tends to be greater -- more ecosystems, more species, and more genetic variation -- than places farther from the Equator.

Here and here are additional links to new species discovered or described in 2013. They include a new porcupine, tapir, snails, many invertebrates, and fishes, including the bamboo shark, or walking shark (remember him?), below:

Our center forward: the walking shark,
soon to be famous for his sneak attack on goal
photo: Mark Erdmann
The right-winger: a Laotian giant flying squirrel -
over 1m (42 in) long, scaring the you-know-what
out of the opponents
photo: Daosavanh Sanamxay

Do you have any new favorites you'd like to add?

Each species has different strengths – speed, agility, cunning – that allow it to adapt to and thrive in its habitat. I, for one, am happy to be a part of such an amazingly diverse team!