Jared Diamond's account of the collapse of Easter Island society is well known by now — how the Islanders decimated their ecosystem and drove themselves to the brink of starvation by using up the island's natural resources at a furious rate. But that's not the only possible explanation for how Easter Island lost its tree cover and ended up with a much-reduced population. In fact, some anthropologists say there's not really any hard evidence that the Islanders were practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing the land with fire.
Instead, this other theory blames the little creature pictured above — the Polynesian rat, an invasive species that stowed away on canoes and chewed its way through the roots, sprouts, and seeds of Easter Island's trees. Instead of willfully destroying themselves, this scenario has the islanders desperately adapting to a quickly changing environment. It's not that the changes had nothing to do with people — the rats got there with human help, after all — but the angle of the story changes somewhat, becoming less about the destructive aspects of human nature and more about the lengths humans will go to in order to survive.
Image: Cliff from Arlington, via CC license
One of the perks that comes with winning a Nobel: Access to the bully pulpit. In the last week, Peter Higgs (of boson fame) spoke out against the pressure to publish
— pressure that he thinks prevents younger scientists from taking the time to formulate really groundbreaking new ideas. Meanwhile, fellow 2013 winner Randy Schekman announced that he's boycotting brand-name journals like Science
because of the negative impact that they have on scientific culture
. — Maggie
As food goes globalized, UNESCO has started thinking about preserving cuisine as a cultural artifact
, the same way it might preserve an ancient city. Japanese food got the nod last week
. — Maggie
Native to the Malaysian rainforest, this orchid mantis does such a good job of mimicking local flora that it inspired Alfred Russell Wallace to propose that some animals mimic plants in order to lure in the pollinators they hope to eat.
It would also go nicely in a thematic collection with the pink fairy armadillo.
By studying the preserved poop of ancient cockroaches
, scientists have determined that those roaches were, themselves, eating poop. Probably that of herbivorous dinosaurs. Isn't science glamorous? — Maggie
Last summer, researchers in Boston announced that they had two patients, men who had battled HIV for years but who now appeared to be virus free. The men had received a treatment similar to that of Timothy Ray Brown, the "Berlin Patient". Like Brown, the men had cancer and had received radiation and chemotherapy treatments followed by bone marrow transplants. But there were some key differences. Brown's radiation and chemo regimes were much harsher, for one thing. For another, his new bone marrow came from a donor with the CCR5-delta32 mutation, which seems to provide natural resistance to HIV infection. The Boston men got their new bone marrow from donors who did not have that mutation.
Nevertheless, both men had seen their viral loads fall to undetectable levels. They hit the news in July after being off of antiretroviral drugs for seven and 15 weeks, respectively, with no return of the virus. Unfortunately, the virus re-emerged in one of the two men the very next month. It re-emerged in the other man in November.
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— one of the many "friendly" bacteria that live in our gut — seems to be capable of altering the behavior of mice
, according to a new study. In a mouse model for autism, exposure to Bacteroides fragilis
improved the mice's gastrointestinal function and, along the way, reduced some of their external behavioral symptoms
, including obsessive behaviors and anxiety. — Maggie
At The New York Times Magazine
, Jon Mooallem has a story about a fight against an invasive species that began with a man called Mike the Hog-a-Nator shop-vac'd five gallons worth of ants
out of his air conditioning ducts. — Maggie
The hunt for an effective, reversible, and socially acceptable male birth control continues. The newest target: The smooth muscle that makes up the tubes connecting the testes to the urethra. This needs to contract in order for sperm to reach their final destination. Now, scientists have shown that you can make mice sterile by eliminating their ability to contract that muscle. The result: A mouse with a dry ejaculation but which is still "pelvis thrusting with appropriate vigor and frequency".
This is a long way from becoming reversible treatment for human gentlemen, though. Right now, probably the most promising male birth control is RISUG, in which a clear polymer gel is injected into the vas deferens. The gel doesn't block the tube up completely, but it does seem to prevent sperm from successfully reaching the urethra and being capable of fertilizing an egg. RISUG is in Phase III clinical trials in India, but, even then, there are still safety questions about it and, so far, it's only been proven to be reversible in tests on non-human primates.
Image: Some rights reserved by Iqbal Osman1
Antarctica's Organic Lake is 8 degrees Fahrenheit, but the water doesn't freeze, thanks to a heavy concentration of salt. But wait, it gets more awesome. Despite the cold and the salt, Organic Lake is also home to a diverse array of life
. — Maggie
My friend Austin took this photograph last week, looking out his office window near the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. That flare in the distance isn't Photoshop. Nor is it the nuclear annihilation of St. Paul. Instead, it's a sun dog — an atmospheric phenomenon that happens when light from the Sun is refracted off of ice crystals in the air. The light gets bent as it passes through the crystals and we see the bright flash of a "false sun" to the side of the actual Sun. The same process can also form rings around the Sun. Whether you get a halo or a sun dog depends on which way the ice crystals are oriented in relation to you.
Mordor has an inhospitable climate
, according to Radagast the Brown (aka climate scientist Dan Lunt) who created a climate model for Middle Earth
based on geography as outlined by Tolkien and climate modeling software from our world. — Maggie
Watching this video about the mosquito I learned that, in some parts of Alaska, mosquitoes are so plentiful that swarms of them have been known to asphyxiate caribou. Another thing I learned: I will not be visiting those parts of Alaska anytime soon.
Fun fact: Saturn has a storm that's every bit as big as Jupiter's better-known Great Red Spot. It's been spinning over Saturn's north pole for 30 years. And it's shaped like a hexagon
. — Maggie
Temperature is just a measure of jigglyness, says Henry Reich of Minute Physics. Not in the "I don't think you're ready for this jelly" sense, but at the scale of atoms. And it's this jiggle that can help explain why two things that are, technically, the exact same temperature can feel totally different when we touch them. Great science for a cold day!