Good morning! On June 14, you'll be able see a Strawberry Supermoon. Even though it was named by the Algonquin Tribe after the extra-large moon that coincides with strawberry harvest in North America, you can view this moon from all over the world. Watch the livestream HERE. In the meantime, read on for chimp poop, stocky giraffes, and genetic marvels.
Bright, beautiful reef fishes get all the attention, but it’s the ugly reef fishes that need it most. A machine learning study showed that drab fishes are more ecologically special and also more likely to be threatened with extinction than the aesthetically pleasing ones. Let’s look beyond the razzle dazzle.
The next best thing to breadcrumbs
Chimpanzee feces will help get captured chimps back home
Every year, 3,000 or more great apes die during illegal capture and trafficking. Most of these are chimpanzees which, along with bonobos, rank as our closest relatives. Despite their endangered status and protection under CITES, chimps are poached from their native habitats and sold as pets or performers.
When chimps are rescued from smugglers, the challenge is figuring out where they came from, so they can be returned to their families. A new study extracted DNA from 828 pieces of chimpanzee poop across their northwestern Africa range. Poop’s not the simplest material for genomic work, but it can be gathered without bothering the chimps. The result is the world’s largest genomic map of chimp populations.
Now, these researchers offer up data to map a chimp to within 60 miles of its home, greatly increasing the chance of the needed family reunion for this highly social animal. “This is so critically important to their conservation,” says study author Tomas Marques-Bonet. As a concerned citizen of the world, you can help study chimps through another research program called Chimp & See.
Giraffe necks may have evolved for fighting, not foraging
Giraffes looks like gentle animals with their long, thin legs and graceful walk. The prevailing theory about the long necks has been that they evolved to capitalize on leaves higher up in the trees. Now, a giraffe ancestor — a “giraffoid” — shows that the long necks may have evolved not for foraging, but for fighting.
A study of fossils of a species named Discokeryx xiezhi found in northern China reveals a shorter, stouter giraffe ancestor with a helmet-like skull. The reinforced skull, along with thick vertebrate and special neck joints, tell the story of an animal adapted to deliver and withstand blunt force on its head.
Today’s longer-neck male giraffes fight for mating opportunities by swinging their necks like a muscular handle and clubbing opponents with their heavy heads. These early giraffoids show that head-to-head competition for females may have been the selection pressure that lengthened giraffe necks. The longer the neck, the more leverage a giraffe gets to wield its club head.
Image credit: Wang Yu & Guo Xiaocong
Genetic changes build up in blood stem cells as we age
We’re all wary about changes that happen to our bodies as we age. Scientists trying to crack the code of aging have known that it’s broadly caused by damage to our cells from mutations that accumulate over time. But the mystery has been why people’s organs suddenly start tanking after 70 years old.
A new study found that the production of blood cells changes with age. Blood stem cells from bone marrow are responsible for pumping out new red blood cells. The researchers found that for younger people, the job of making new blood cells is shared by many stem cells (20,000-200,000). But, after age 70, just 10-20 stem cells make as much as half of the new blood cells.
These “selfish” stem cells take over and don’t necessarily do a great job. Says study author Peter Campbell, "We've shown, for the first time, how steadily accumulating mutations throughout life lead to a catastrophic and inevitable change in blood cell populations after the age of 70.” Cheering, isn’t it?
Have you ever wondered how some fishes can literally generate electric fields? If you’ve been shocked by an electric eel, then your curiosity may have been overshadowed by sheer pain. More than 500 species of fishes have evolved specialized organs for discharging electricity. Now, a study shows how a small genetic change led to electric organs.
In electric eels, tiny motors called sodium channels that usually make muscles contract were repurposed to generate electricity. “We can see how a small change in the gene can completely change where it’s expressed,” said study author Harold Zakon. A short section of the sodium channel gene — the control region — is altered or absent in electric fishes, leading to it powering electrocyte cells instead of muscles.
But electric eels aren’t the only ones with a few genetic tricks up their (lack of) sleeves, another recent study pinpointed the gene regulatory systems involved in the evolution of snake venom. By examining the genomics of the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridus), researchers discovered that snake venom glands evolved from salivary glands through repurposing of regulatory proteins and peptides.
Transposable elements (TEs) moved from one location of the genome to another to make the toxic secretions, which get stored millimeters from a snake’s brain. Said study author Todd Castoe, "This study provides a valuable example that illustrates a surprising number of distinct 'strategies' for how evolution may rewire regulatory networks, providing key expectations for how such rewiring may occur in other species, including humans.”
Of course, most people will live their lives without ever being shocked by an electric eel or bitten by a snake. And genetic mutations in some species have even more direct implications for us than those two scenarios.
A new study of hedgehogs showed that they carry lots of staph bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus) that are resistant to antibiotics. Wait, what? Until now antibiotic resistance was thought to be a problem that emerged from humans using too many antibiotics. While that’s still a problem, this research shows that the antibiotic-resistant staph spread through European hedgehog populations in the early 1800s even before people started using penicillin.
Next time we’ll be looking at some weird new paleontology discoveries, like a dinosaur belly button.
Written by Devin Reese, Edited by Jake Currie
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