Tag Archives: nature

Did You Know… There’s A Plant That Produces Both Tomatoes and Potatoes?

The “TomTato” is a veggie lover’s dream: above ground, it’s a tomato plant; below ground, it’s a potato plant.

The idea was the brainchild of the horticultural firm Thompson and Morgan, based in Ipswich, England.

Although the concept sounds crazy, the plants are not genetically modified; rather, they are created using grafting. This process involves making matching incisions into two different plants which allows you to connect them.

A similar process was recently used by a professor from Syracuse University to create a tree that produces 40 different types of fruit.

A basic diagram of the grafting process. Click to enlarge

The current version of the TomTato is the culmination of 10 years of development.

Early versions of the plant had issues with taste, but advances in grafting technology have allowed Thompson and Morgan to perfect their process.

“It has been very difficult to achieve because the tomato stem and the potato stem have to be the same thickness for the graft to work,”

said Thompson and Morgan director Paul Hansord.

According to the horticultural firm, the tomatoes ripen right around the same time that the potatoes can be dug up.

The “TomTato” plant in all its glory. Click to enlarge

Many people in England have their own small vegetable gardens, but don’t have the space to grow as many different types of vegetables as they would like.

Thompson and Morgan hopes that the plant will gain popularity amongst these people, and possibly even start a trend towards more vegetable hybridization in the future.

If the tomatoes and potatoes really are as good as the company’s director claims, the TomTato could very well start popping in up vegetable plots all over the world.

Read the original story from the BBC here.

Why This Beetle Is Whiter Than Anything Human Technology Can Produce

If you ever visit Southeast Asia, you might come across the whitest thing you’ve ever seen.

And it’s not this guy:

“Double dream hands!”

It’s the Cyphochilus beetle, a beetle whose shell is whiter than even the whitest paper, the whitest snow, even the whitest paint.

In fact, it’s brighter than anything that human technology could create using a material as thin as the beetle does.

So what is this material? Well, it’s called chitin.

Chitin is similar to the cellulose, the main material in a plant’s cell wall. It forms complex, tightly-knit networks of filaments that build the shells of crustaceans and the exoskeletons of many insects.

A close-up of the chitin filament network on the Cyphochilus beetle’s shell. Click to enlarge (Image: Lorenzo Cortese)

But on it’s own, chitin is not a very good reflector of light at all, so researchers at the University of Cambridge and the European Laboratory for Non-linear Spectroscopy in Italy came together to try to uncover the secret behind the Cyphocilus beetle’s extraordinary brilliance.

What they found was that it was not the material itself that made the beetles look so white, but the geometric pattern in which the chitin filaments had arranged themselves.

A close-up of the beetle. Click to enlarge (Photo: P. Vukusic)

The colors we perceive come from the ways in which different colors of light reflect off of different materials.

However, the structure of the beetle’s shell reflects light anisotropically. This means that all the different colors of light get reflected in the same direction, which is why the shell appears to be such a brilliant white (mixing all of the colors of light gives you white light).

But unlike man-made reflectors, which tend to be fairly thick, the beetle’s individual scales are only thousandths of a millimeter thick. This keeps them light, minimizing the amount of energy the beetle has to expend while flying.

Read more from the New Scientist here.

The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya, India (Photo Gallery)

Earlier this week, I was watching an episode of the BBC series Human Planet and saw clips of some amazing, natural-looking root bridges in India.

I immediately wanted to know more about them.

Cherrapunji is a subdivisional town in the East Khasi Hills district in the Indian state of Meghalaya. With over 75 feet of annual rainfall, the climate in this region is one of the wettest in the world.

A map of the region

The intense rains have created a perpetually wet and often harsh environment. Local villagers are forced to cross numerous rivers, many of which can turn into violent rapids during the rainy season.

But the wet climate has also given locals there a gift: it allows the Ficus elastica tree to thrive, giving the locals a solution to their problems.

“Firenados”: What Causes A Fire Tornado? (Photo Gallery)

Seven News in Australia recently released video of a fire tornado captured by Chris Tangey of Alice Springs Film and Television. A still from that video went viral and had everyone asking: What is a fire tornado? And what can cause one?

The recently surfaced “Firenado” picture was captured by Chris when he noticed a wildfire near Curtin Springs in Australia. Right as he began filming the blaze, a small tornado landed. Chris said that when the tornado touched down,

“It sounded like a jet fighter going by, yet there wasn’t a breath of wind where we were.”

According to Australia’s WPTV.com, the twister landed right in the middle of the fire,

“…causing it to build into a spinning flame.”

Chris Tangey, the Australian filmmaker who captured the firenado footage (Image courtesy of Good Morning America)

A phenomenon like this is rarely caught on video, but it isn’t exactly a rare occurrence. Here’s Jason Forthofer, a mechanical engineer at the U.S. Forest Services’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana, speaking about the phenomenon back in 2010:

“Also known as fire whirls, fire devils, or even firenados, these whirlwinds of flame are not really rare, just rarely documented.”

Fire tornadoes occur when intense heat and turbulent wind conditions combine to form a whirling fiery vortex. A fire tornado consists of a core—the part that is actually on fire—and an invisible pocket of rotating air that feeds fresh oxygen to the core.

Edit: We originally said the video was removed from Youtube for copyright infringement. Then, Chris Tangey himself informed us that it is available on vimeo. Thanks Chris! This footage is amazing!

Check out some stills from the video and other “Firenados” below

These “Hero Rats” Are Saving Countless Lives By Detecting Land-mines and Tuberculosis (Video)

As a boy, Bart Weetjens loved to play with his pet rats. One thing that always stuck in his memory was the rat’s strong sense of smell and the ease at which they could be trained.

Bart recalled these skills years later as a student at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, where he was working on an analysis of the global land-mine detection problem (ie. how to find all of the unexploded mines left over from countless wars around the world).

Bart felt that rats could provide a cheaper, more efficient and more locally available solution to the land-mine problem, so he began to do early research on this concept in 1997.

Bart Weetjen, founder of APOPO, with one of his HeroRATs. Click to enlarge (Photo: Getty Images)

Bart called his project APOPO, which stands for  Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling (English translation: Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development).

The organization moved to Mozambique in 2000, where they partnered with the Tanzanian People’s Defence Force to help mine-clearing operations in that  country.

A HeroRAT sniffs out a a land-mine. Click to enlarge (Image courtesy of APOPO)

By 2006, APOPO’s HeroRATS were also fully integrated into land-mine detection programs in Tanzania. In 2010, APOPO began operations in Thailand as well.

Check out below to learn more about the HeroRAT’s mine-detection skills:

The reason that these rats are so good at detecting land-mines is that they have an extremely acute sense of smell, which allows them to easily identify the scent of TNT (after being trained to recognize it).

Early on, Bart realized that the HeroRATS’ amazing sense of smell wasn’t being fully utilized. In 2003, he entered APOPO in the Development Marketplace Global Competition sponsored by the World Bank.

His idea: using the rats to help detect tuberculosis as well as land-mines. APOPO won the competition, and in doing so received the necessary funding for their research into training TB-detecting HeroRATS.

A HeroRAT checks samples for tuberculosis. Click to enlarge (Image courtesy of APOPO)

TB is one of the deadliest diseases in the world. About 9 million new cases are reported annually, and the disease kills nearly 2 million people each year.

The HeroRATS give health workers a huge advantage over humans when it comes to detection of the disease.

A human lab tech can only process about 40 samples in a day; the HeroRATS can do that same amount of work in only seven minutes, and they often find TB-positive samples that the human technicians missed.

Check out the video below to learn more about he HeroRATS’ work in tuberculosis detection:

To learn more about the APOPO organization’s land-mine and tuberculosis detection programs, you can visit their website here.

Villagers Just Caught the Largest Ever Aquatic Insect And It’s Bigger Than Your Hand

Villagers from a village in the Sichuan province of China just collected the largest ever aquatic insect specimen.

The bug, a massive dobsonfly, has a wingspan of more than 8 inches. The previous record-holder for the world’s largest aquatic insect was a South American helicopter damselfly, which had a wingspan of 7.5 inches.

Helicopter damselfly (Megaloprepus coerulatus)

Though dobsonflies are relatively common (there are over 200 species across Asia, Africa and South America), one of this size had been unheard of until now.

Looking at a dobsonfly can actually be very misleading. For one, those massive, grisly-looking mandibles protruding from its head are actually only used for mating. Males flaunt them to impress the females and hold them in place during the actual mating process.

A male dobsonfly (on the right) courts a female before mating. Click to enlarge

Also, those massive wings are pretty much all for show. The insect almost never flies, preferring to spend the bulk of its time in the water (both underwater and on the surface), or sheltering underneath rocks.

Dobsonflies are also a biological indicator of water quality. They prefer clean water with very low levels of pollution and a relatively neutral pH. If water quality falls below their standards, they will leave and find a new body of water to call home.

The villagers gave the record-setting specimen to the Insect Museum of West China.

(h/t Discovery)

Why Are People Paying As Much As $5,000 per Stem for This Orchid? (Photo Gallery)

The Rothschild’s orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum) is one of the rarest and most expensive flowers on the planet.

Those familiar with the black market say that the plant fetches sums of up to $5,000 a stem.

A close up of the rare orchid. Click to enlarge

So you are probably asking why in the world this plant is so valuable? Well, here are some of the key factors that put such a high price tag on this crchid:

  1. The  Rothschild’s orchid is only native  to Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia. This strain of the orchid species is scarce even there so it is protected by the government.
  2. This specific species of orchid was not discovered until 1987 and, according to MySabah.com, “the flower only grows on the slope of Mt. Kinabalu between 500 and 1,200 meters in altitude”.
  3. Since the plant is endangered and protected by the Malaysia government it is illegal to pick. The plant is only available from smugglers on the black market at a price of up to $5,000 per stolen stem.
  4. The flower itself can take up to 15 years to take bloom. This is one reason they are so rare, and even at Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia they are extremely difficult to find.

Scientists and plant lovers alike are extremely excited to learn more about the rare and relatively new species, but they were that illegal trade on the black market could wipe out the orchids before we really have a chance to study them.

According to the BBC…

“…scientists say the illegal collection of orchids is pushing species to the edge of extinction, with dire consequences for biodiversity. With some vulnerable species available on the black market before they can even be formally named, biologists and customs officers alike are battling to preserve the captivating plants.”

The flower is also known as the Rothschild’s Slipper orchid or the “Sumazau” orchid. The second name was given because the orchid’s long stretched side pedals resemble the arms of someone participating in Sumazau, the most traditional type of dance in the Malaysian state of Sabah, where the orchids are found.
A Malaysian woman performs the Sumazau dance
The orchid is also known to the locals as “The Gold of Kinabalu” because of the plants high value and rarity in Kinabalu National Park.

Check out a few more pictures of the extremely rare Rothschild’s orchid below: 

 

12 Pieces of Street Art That Seamlessly Mesh With the Nature Around Them (Photo Gallery)

Street art is one of the more creative art forms around today. Because of its visibility, it is often used to make political or social statements, like the street art that emerged in Brazil before and during the World Cup.

But some street artists like to use their work to bring out parts of the natural environment that we might otherwise take for granted. Check out some of the best examples below (click an image to enlarge):

(h/t Bored Panda)

Why It Took 32 Days and 126 Separate Photos to Capture This 3,200 Year Old Sequoia In One Image

“The President” is one of the world’s largest, oldest and most famous trees.

This giant sequoia is located in the only place giant sequoias are found: on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.

The President is surrounded by smaller trees, which are referred to as the “House” and “Senate” to stick with the political theme. It is approximately 3,200 years old and measures 247 feet high, 27 feet in diameter, and 45,000 cubic meters in volume.

The base of The President’s trunk dwarfs nearby trees and makes the man standing next to it look like an action figure. Click to enlarge

Because of its massive size, the tree had never been captured in a single image. That is, until a group of National Geographic scientists and photographers got together to study and photograph the iconic tree back in 2012.

The team battled cold temperatures while putting together intricate pulley and lever systems to scale the tree. It took a total of 32 days and 126 individual frames to stitch together a full, single image of the tree. It is the first full image of The President ever:

The first single image of The President. Click to enlarge
The first single image of The President. Click to enlarge

The video below includes footage from those 32 days and shows how the image above came together:

Check out some more images of The President below:

(h/t Distractify)

Did You Know… Your Skin Can Smell. And the Scent of Candlewood Makes It Heal Itself

Olfactory receptors are the cells which give us our sense of smell. The average human has five to six million of these olfactory receptors in their nose.

Though there are other creatures with more powerful noses (dogs have up to 220 million olfactory receptors), the human sense of smell is actually one of the more acute in the animal kingdom.

But olfactory receptors aren’t just in the nose. In recent years, scientists have been finding them in all kinds of strange places: the spine, the kidney- even in sperm!

Recently, a group of researchers from the Hanns Hatt’s lab at Germany’s Ruhr University of Bochum discovered that these smell cells are also in our skin. And what’s more, these olfactory receptors seem to be involved in the healing process. Their results were published in the journal Nature.

Ruhr University of Bochum

One of the olfactory receptors they found in the skin is known as OR2AT4. Furthermore, the researchers found that Sandalore (a synthetic sandalwood oil that’s often used in aromatherapy) bonded to the OR2AT4 receptors in the skin.

But rather than sending a signal to the brain when it bonded (like the receptors in your nose do), the Sandalore triggered the skin cells to divide and migrate- the two processes that your skin uses to heal itself.

In their experiments, the researchers mixed skin cells with Sandalore in test tubes and cultures for five days. They found that in the presence of Sandalore, new skin cells were created (through cell division) 32% faster and migrated 50% more than skin cells that hadn’t been exposed to the oil.

Pieces of Sandalore wood (Courtesy of PBS)

The results were undoubtedly impressive, but the researchers also pointed out that just like everyone’s noses are different, so are the smell receptors in our skin. Some people have more, some have less.

Just how much of an impact sandalwood oil has on the healing process depends on the amount and the type of olfactory receptors in your skin.

Check out the original story from PBS here.