Nicotine is one of nature's bug zappers. Seriously. Lots of plants have evolved to produce bug-repelling chemicals as part of their defense mechanisms and tobacco happens to be one of those plants.
So when city-dwelling birds use the fluffy, nicotine-soaked material from discarded cigarette butts to build their nests it might not be the unmitigated ecological disaster that most of us imagine when we hear that "birds are building nests out of discarded cigarette butts". Researchers at Mexico’s Autonomous University of Tlaxcala think the nicotine in the cigarettes might help keep chicks healthy — essentially serving as an urban substitute for the parasite-repelling plants the birds would have used in the wild.
At Culturing Science, Hannah Waters explains the idea...
But birds are actually quite fond of the chemicals found in some smelly plants, otherwise known as aromatics, from which “essential oils” are derived. Aromatic plants produce these chemicals to defend themselves against insects and other animals that would take them for food—but birds have their own use for them. Some nest-building species, including starlings and blue tits, regularly replenish their nests with fresh aromatics, and scientists hypothesize that the birds use these chemicals as parenting tools.
How would plant-derived chemicals help birds raise their chicks? It’s possible that the chemicals boost the immune systems or development of the chicks so that they survive better after they leave the nest; this is known as the “drug hypothesis.” Alternatively, the “nest protection” hypothesis suggests that the plant chemicals act as insecticides, driving parasites and other harmful insects from the nest.
Nicotine is an insecticide, although we don’t often think of it that way. Tobacco plants generate nicotine because it defends against herbivorous beetles that would otherwise devour the plants–which means a smoker’s buzz is caused by a plant’s chemical defense mechanism. Some remnants of that insecticide remains in cigarette butts left in city streets, which are then transported into bird nests.
A house sparrow stands near a cigarette butt in Mexico City. Photo Credit: © Víctor Argaez
This hummingbird is sleeping in a specialized research container connected to a machine that measures how much oxygen it is breathing. According to forrestertr7, who posted the video to YouTube, this experiment was part of research aimed at understanding the differences between the metabolism of hummingbirds and that of larger species. After its nap, the hummingbird was released back into the wild.
But what about the snoring? Does the hummingbird really need a tiny, little beak strip, or what? I asked science blogger Joe Hanson, who posted this video to Twitter earlier today, and he did some research. Turns out, it's not totally unreasonable to call that adorable little wheeze a "snore". But, at the same time, hummingbirds have very different biology than we do. A snore for them isn't the same as a snore for us.
Hummingbirds have incredibly high metabolic needs. To do all that buzzing around and to keep their tiny bodies warm, they eat the human equivalent of a refrigerator full of food every day, mostly in the form of high-energy nectar and fatty bugs. Because of their small size, they also lose a lot of body heat to the air. In order to preserve energy on cool nights, they have the ability to enter a daily, miniature hibernation called torpor.
...Just before morning, their natural circadian rhythms kick in and they start to thaw out, like heating a car engine on a cold day. What we see in the video is probably a bird coming out of torpor (which is what the scientists in the video were studying), starting to breathe in more oxygen to raise its body temperature, and making that adorable snoring noise.
Read the full story at Joe Hanson's blog, It's Okay To Be Smart
Ravens are a big deal in the Game of Thrones universe. They’re used to transmit information from one place to another, and often seem to be portents of death. This week’s episode begins with a whole dead basket of ‘em, as Prince Theon, in his latest act of swaggering idiocy, has killed all of Winterfell’s birds so that no one can send word to Robb Stark.
Of course, sending notes tied to birds is generally a slow and imperfect form of info transit, especially in the world of this story, which is well-established as massive and hostile to easy passage. I’ve previously written that one of the reasons the series appeals in our current clime is its bold, dialog-provoking approach to patriarchy and sexuality – I wonder if its lavishing upon the preciousness of information and the incredible conveniences we now enjoy in the internet age is another?
"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.
For children of a certain nerdy persuasion, "archaeopteryx" is liable to be the first five-syllable word they ever pronounce. That's because archaeopteryx was a dinosaur with feathers, and wings. The first specimen was uncovered in 1861, and most of us probably grew up being told that archaeopteryx was the first bird. That isn't exactly true. Today, most paleontologists say it wasn't the ancestor of the birds we know, but rather a relative of that ancestor—a lower branch of the bird family tree that died away. That said, archaeopertyx is still incredibly important to our understanding of what the earliest birds might have been like, and archaeopteryx specimens are still incredibly rare, coveted things.
There are only 11 archaeopteryx specimens in the entire world, all hailing from one region of Germany. Most of them are in museums in Europe. But one archaeopteryx—in fact, one of the best-preserved of the bunch—resides in a tiny museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming. For the artistically inclined: Imagine running across a second, legit version of the Mona Lisa in a small museum in Wyoming with no crowds and no lines. In 2007, reader Mark Ryan and his brother got to see the Thermopolis archaeopteryx and took the photo of it posted here.
My brother and I had scheduled one of our regular "geo trips" out west and learned that the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a cool museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming, had somehow acquired an Archaeopteryx specimen (one of only 10 in the world) and would be placing it on display starting the week we were going to be in Wyoming. Thermopolis is located about 2 hours southeast of Yellowstone National Park, but that didn't stop us from driving the 5 hours from Laramie just to see it. It was fantastic! They had the actual fossil on display (I've heard that most of the big museums only display casts of the Archaeopteryx specimens they own). There were no crowds, no lines, no special exhibit fees, just the "Thermopolis specimen" in a small window display in a hallway leading to the main exhibit hall.
According to Wikipedia, Thermopolis got its archaeopteryx as a donation from a Swiss collector who'd previously owned the specimen. It's also worth noting that the Wyoming Dinosaur Center seems to loan out its archaeopteryx to other museums quite frequently. So, if you're in the area, and you want to see an archaeopteryx, you should probably check with the museum before you get your hopes up.
I spent most of my childhood with books about dinosaurs that played up the ancient beasties as overgrown lizards. The connection between dinosaurs and birds, while kind of flipping obvious once somebody points it out, was not much discussed among laypeople until I was in my teens. (That would be the 1990s, FYI.)
But, among scientists, the idea of a dinosaur-bird relationship is nothing new. In fact, Thomas Henry Huxley was making that connection back in the 1860s. On the Dinosaur Tracking blog, Brian Switek tells the fascinating story of how Huxley started to realize that dinosaurs and birds were related—a discovery that's all the more impressive because he figured it out without the help of some of the key transitional fossils we have access to today.
Huxley did not suggest that birds were the direct descendants of dinosaurs. So much geologic time was unaccounted for, and so few dinosaurs were known, that Huxley could not point to any known fossil creature as the forerunner of birds. Instead he made his argument on anatomical grounds and removed the issue of time. Dinosaurs were proxies for what the actual bird ancestor would have been like, and flightless birds (such as the ostrich and emu) stood in for what Huxley thought was the most archaic bird type. (We now know that Huxley got this backwards—the earliest birds could fly, and flightless birds represent a secondary loss of that ability.) As Huxley went about collecting evidence for his case, though, he also gave dinosaurs an overhaul. They were not the bloated, plodding, rhinoceros-like creatures that Richard Owen had envisioned. Dinosaurs were more bird-like than anyone had imagined.
In October of 1867, Huxley met with John Philips, an English geologist and a curator of Oxford’s museum. As Huxley related in his 1870 paper “Further Evidence of the Affinity Between the Dinosaurian Reptiles and Birds,” Philips wanted to discuss details of marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs in his museum’s collection, but as he and Huxley made their way over toward the displays they stopped to look at the bones of the carnivorous dinosaur Megalosaurus. Then Huxley spotted something peculiar:
As Prof. Phillips directed my attention to one after the other of the precious relics, my eye was suddenly caught by what I had never before seen, namely, the complete pectoral arch of the great reptile, consisting of a scapula and a coracoid ankylosed together. Here was a tangle at once unravelled. The coracoid was totally different from the bone described by Cuvier, and by all subsequent anatomists, under that name. What then was the latter bone? Clearly, if it did not belong to the shoulder-girdle it must form a part of the pelvis; and, in the pelvis, the ilium at once suggested itself as the only possible homologue. Comparison with skeletons of reptiles and of birds, close at hand, showed it to be not only an ilium, but an ilium which, though peculiar in its form and proportions, was eminently ornithic in its chief peculiarities.
Earlier naturalists had made a mistake. They had misidentified the shoulder girdle, and one part of what was thought to be part of the shoulder was actually part of the hip. Another strange piece, previously thought to be a clavicle, also turned out to belong to the pelvis. This rearrangement immediately gave the dinosaur a more bird-like character.
If you look at the bottom of the image at the top of this post, you can see how much the re-arrangement of megalosaurus' parts changed our conception of what the whole creature looked like. Where other scientists saw a lumpy, obese crocodile, Thomas Henry Huxley saw a saber-toothed chicken.
Image: Ballista via CC
One of the most common arguments you'll hear against evolution (or, at least, one of the most common arguments I heard growing up amongst creationists) had to do with transitional forms. An eye is a valuable thing, this argument goes. But half an eye? That's just a disability.
Like many of the really common arguments against evolution, this one crumbles the minute you start to apply the slightest bit of fridge logic. Sure, half an eye is less useful than a full eye. (Or, more accurately, a clustering of light-sensitive cells don't have all the functionality of a modern eyeball and optic nerve system.) But, if most of the other creatures have no eyes, and you have a few light-sensitive cells, you've got an advantage. And an advantage is all it takes.
Now apply that to the evolution of birds. One of the cool things about this process is that it appears that feathers evolved before flight. In fact, feathers seems to have evolved rather independently of flight.
You might ask: What's the point of that? How are feathers an advantage if they can't help you fly? Is this just about looking pretty? Maybe. But on his blog, The Loom, Carl Zimmer presents another hypothesis. Feathers and wings, even without flight, might have given their owners a physical advantage over bare-skinned cousins. The birds in this video aren't flying. You can see that their feet don't leave the ground. But the act of flapping those feathers around helps them to walk up inclines that would otherwise be impassable walls. That's enough to escape a predator and live to breed another day. And it's also pretty damn astounding to watch. You'll find more footage at The Loom.
You're welcome. Also, I'm sorry. [video link]