Tag Archives: nature

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.

How These All-Female Lizards Are Able to Reproduce and Thrive Without the Help of Any Males

As far back as the 1960s, scientists were aware that a number of whiptail lizards in Mexico and the southwestern United States were made up entirely of females.

The most notable of these species, the New Mexico whiptail lizard, is able to reproduce healthy, well-bred offspring without the aid of male fertilization.

Whiptails aren’t the only species that reproduce asexually. In fact, there are 70 other vertebrate species that can do it. But the New Mexico whiptail may have unlocked the secret as to how it’s possible for a species that produces exclusively asexually to thrive.

Komodo dragons are among the vertebrate species that are able to reproduce asexually

Peter Baumann works at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri. He co-authored a study on the lizards that was published in the journal Nature back in 2010.

Baumann explains that parthenogenteic species (species that reproduce without fertilization), are genetically isolated because they only inherit the DNA of one parent.

This means that any genetic weaknesses, like susceptibility to a disease or physical mutation, can’t be “overridden” by healthy genes from a second parent. The shallower the gene pool, the more likely it is to produce sick or mutated offspring.

To deal with this issue, the all-female whiptail lizard species have evolved to start the reproductive process with twice as many chromosomes as their sexually-producing lizard relatives.

New Mexico whiptail lizards were actually the result of two different species of lizard (the western whiptail and little striped whiptail) interbreeding to form a hybrid species. Because of this, these all-female lizards are equipped with a very diverse gene pool.

Left: little striped whiptail. Middle: New Mexico whiptail. Right: tiger whiptail. Click to enlarge

Instead of combining homologous chromosomes (like sexual species do, getting one set from each parent), the lizards pair recombined sister chromosomes instead. This maintains heterozygosity in the offspring.

Here’s a more simple way to think about it. Every one one us has DNA from generations and generations of our ancestors. When we reproduce, we combine our DNA with our partner’s- the resulting offspring’s genetic codes contains parts of both parents’ DNA.

But since we have such vast genetic diversity from all of our ancestors, the exact coding of the genes we pass along when we reproduce isn’t always the same, which is why brothers and sisters don’t all look the same.

A basic way to visualize how genetic information is passed on in sexual reproduction. Note that the “marbles” passed on by each individual parent are different for the two children. Click to enlarge

So, rather than combining its genetic code with that of a male, the whiptail lizard combines two different versions of its own DNA code, ensuring that each pairing of sister chromosomes will have multiple alleles (different forms of a gene), which gives the offspring the genetic diversity it needs to be healthy.

This discovery means that,

“these lizards have a way of distinguishing sister from homologous chromosomes,”

says Baumann. How do they do this? The researchers aren’t sure yet, but it’s the next question they will be investigating, along with the question of how they evolved to start reproduction with double the normal amount of chromosomes.

Female whiptail lizards perform courtship rituals with one another to stimulate ovulation. The top lizard will lay smaller eggs while the one on the bottom will lay larger eggs. They switch spots every mating season. Click to enlarge

Though it may seem like asexual reproduction would eventually hurt a species in the long run, Baumann also pointed that,

“You’re greatly increasing the chances of populating a new habitat if it only takes one individual.”

It seems to be working pretty well for these lizard ladies.

Read the original story from the Scientific American here.

How Scientists Predicted With 70% Accuracy Which 14-Year-Olds Would Be Binge Drinkers By 16

Five years ago, Robert Whelan, a former postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at University of Vermont (UVM) and current lecturer at University College in Dublin, joined forces with Hugh Garavan, associate professor of psychiatry at UVM.

The pair of psychiatric researchers wanted to see if they could determine the factors that predicted binge drinking in teens.

In the largest longitudinal (long-term) adolescent brain imaging study to date, they gathered 2,400 14-year-olds from 8 regions across Europe, putting each of them through 10 hours of assessments. These tests included, “neuroimaging to assess brain activity and brain structure, along with other measures such as IQ, cognitive task performance, personality and blood tests”.

The amount of reported drinking in high school has actually been slowly decreasing in recent years

Here’s Robert Whelan describing the researchers’ hopes for the study:

“Our goal was to develop a model to better understand the relative roles of brain structure and function, personality, environmental influences and genetics in the development of adolescent abuse of alcohol… This multidimensional risk profile of genes, brain function and environmental influences can help in the prediction of binge drinking at age 16 years.”

They have kept up with the teens since the initial tests 5 years ago, keeping track of which teens developed habits of binge drinking.

Whelan and Garavan’s study, recently published in the journal Nature, attempted to predict which teens would be binge drinking by the age of 16 using only the data collected when the teens were 14.

By examining around 40 different variables, including factors like brain function, genetics and family history, the researchers were able to design a unique analytical method to predict binge drinking in the test subjects. Here’s Hugh Garavan:

“Notably, it’s not the case that there’s a single one or two or three variables that are critical… The final model was very broad — it suggests that a wide mixture of reasons underlie teenage drinking.”

Hugh Garavan, professor of psychiatry at UVM

As Garavan points out, there weren’t a few major factors that were primarily responsible for putting teens at risk- rather, it was the combination of a number of different, seemingly unrelated factors that predisposed a teen to binge drinking.

The best predictors of binge drinking, according to Garavan, were personality, thrill-seeking tendencies, lack of conscientiousness, and a history of drug use in the family. Teens who had experienced stressful life events, like a divorce or family death, were also more likely to binge drink.

But there was another somewhat surprising find: bigger brains predicted higher chances of binge drinking. As our brains mature during adolescence, they destroy rarely-used neural connections to increase efficiency. This can actually shrink the brain.

Here’s Garavan again:

“There’s refining and sculpting of the brain, and most of the gray matter — the neurons and the connections between them, are getting smaller and the white matter is getting larger… Kids with more immature brains — those that are still larger — are more likely to drink.”

The brain is made up of millions of neurons- the connections or pathways between these neurons are what allow us to function. Pathways that we stop using (like that year of Icelandic you took for a foreign language credit) will eventually disappear

Putting all of these factors together, Whelan and Garavan created a model that predicted with 70% accuracy which 14-year-olds in the study would become binge drinkers by the age of 16.

Gunter Schumann is a professor of biological psychiatry who heads the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Center at the King’s College (London) Institute of Psychiatry. He was the principal investigator for the study. He hopes that this new research will help identify and support at-risk teens early on in their adolescence:

“We aimed to develop a ‘gold standard’ model for predicting teenage behavior, which can be used as a benchmark for the development of simpler, widely applicable prediction models… This work will inform the development of specific early interventions in carriers of the risk profile to reduce the incidence of adolescent substance abuse.”

Schumann also adds that the data collected from this study will be used to further investigate how environmental factors affect the development of patterns of substance use.

Read more from Science Daily here.

The First Ever Chimp Fashion Trend: Sticking Blades of Grass In the Ear

A group of chimps at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust sanctuary in Zambia have a new fashion statement: sticking a blade of grass in one ear.

Chimps are highly intelligent and are known to use grass to fish for termites, but after extensive study, scientists have concluded that there is no discernible purpose for what they’re calling the “grass-in-ear behavior”.

It all started back in 2010 when an older female named Julie started sporting a long blade of grass from her ear. Julie was a sort of role model for the other 11 chimps in her group, and they paid close attention to her strange new behavior.

Julie, the chimp who started the fad. Click to enlarge

After repeatedly observing the behavior for a while, other chimps in the group began to join. Although Julie has since passed away, seven of the 11 chimps from her group still sport blades of grass from their ears today.

Edward van Leeuwen is a primate expert at the Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands who led a study to examine the odd behavior. Him and his colleagues spent a year observing four groups of chimps at the Chimfunshi orphanage.

Despite the fact that all four groups lived in the same grassy environment, only Julie’s group exhibited the “grass-in-ear behavior”. After extensive observation, van Leeuwen concluded that there were no genetic or ecological purposes for the behavior- it had simply become part of the group’s culture.

Other chimps from the group adjusting the blades of grass in their ears. Click to enlarge

“The chimps would pick a piece of grass, sometimes fiddle around with it as to make the piece more to their liking, and not until then try and stick it in their ear with one hand… Most of the time, the chimps let the grass hanging out of their ear during subsequent behavior like grooming and playing, sometimes for quite prolonged times. As you can imagine, this looks pretty funny,”

says van Leeuwen. He also pointed out that the behavior isn’t much different then the fads that emerge amongst humans, comparing it to, “wearing earrings or certain kinds of hats.”

Read the original story from The Dodo here.

How Stoats Hypnotize Their Prey When Hunting (Video)

You may have never heard of stoats before. These cute little creatures are closely related to ferrets, which are becoming an increasingly popular house pet these days.

But don’t let their innocent appearance fool you- stoats are ferocious hunters. And when their speed and agility isn’t enough, they have a strange but fascinating secret weapon: hypnotism.

Check out a stoat using this amazing ability to snare a rabbit in the video below:

Stoats are very hardy creatures, and are able to live in all kinds of environments from the Siberian Arctic, to the mountains of Japan to the Great Plains of the United States. They can be found in Europe, North America, Asia and New Zealand.

A large portion of a stoat’s development centers around play fighting, which builds up their strength and stamina and hones their agility. These fine-tuned skills allow them to take down some surprisingly challenging prey.

The video below shows some of this play fighting, and also shows a stoat taking down a rabbit 10 times its size, using the hunting skills it perfected as an adolescent.