Mei Xiang, the female panda who lives at the Smithsonian National Zoo, gave birth today. Above is a screen shot from the Zoo's Panda Cam, showing the baby shortly after birth.
Why should you care about this not-quite-yet-but-soon-to-be adorable baby animal more than you care about any other adorable baby animal? Because the scientific oddities of panda reproduction make its story very interesting. Read the rest
"Born in the caul" is a phrase that's connected with a lot of cross-cultural myths and superstitions — babies born in the caul are supposed to be destined for lives of fame and fortune (or, possibly, misfortune and grisly death, depending on which legends you're listening to). Biologically, though, it refers to a baby that's born with part of the amniotic sac — the bubble of fluid a fetus grows in inside the uterus — still attached. Usually, a piece of the sac is draped over the baby's head or face. These are called caul births, and they're rare. But, about once in every 80,000 births, you'll get something truly extraordinary — "en-caul", a baby born inside a completely intact amniotic sac, fluid and all.
There's a photo of a recent en-caul birth making the rounds online. The photo is being attributed to Greek obstetrician Aris Tsigris. It's fascinating. But it's also pretty graphic, so fair warning on that. (If the sight of newborn infants and blood gives you the vapors, you might also want to avoid most of the links in this post, as well.) Read the rest
This is a book about "doin' what comes naturally". Which is to say, sex. But what kind of sex? With whom? And to what purpose? At what point do things like gender expression, sex, reproduction, and child-rearing stop being "normal and natural" and start being something weird that humans do because we are diverse/perverted/sinful/creative (depending on your personal point of view)?
In reality, the word "natural" is mainly how we tell each other which behaviors and traits are the socially correct ones. Calling something natural is often more about specific human cultural standards than it is about what actually happens in nature. Crime Against Nature is artist Gwenn Seemel's attempt to correct that mistake. Filled with gorgeous, Klimt-esque illustrations, Seemel's book shows readers just how diverse nature can be and just how often it fails to conform to our ideas of what is normal — from girls who are bigger and tougher than boys; to boys who give birth; to boys and girls that don't have sex or reproduce at all (and don't seem to mind one bit).
The issues at play here are hefty and potentially uncomfortable, but the book itself is light, playful, and pleasantly un-preachy. It's also set up in a way that allows it to evolve with kids as their reading skills improve — pairing simple statements like "Boys can be the pretty ones" with longer but still easy-to-read paragraphs explaining, for instance, the most recent scientific theories about why male peacocks are so much more colorful than females. Read the rest
Back in May, I posted about how the Smithsonian National Zoo took another shot at inseminating Mei Xiang, a female giant panda. Female pandas are only fertile once a year, for 24-72 hours, and the zoo had already tried unsuccessfully to get Mei Xang pregnant for eight years in a row. This year, though, they pulled it off, and Mei Xiang gave birth just a little over a week ago. The bad news, which you may have already heard, is that the baby died last weekend. Nobody really knows why just yet.
Reading the stories about the baby panda's death, I noticed that zookeepers had tried to revive the baby using CPR. And that got me curious. Just how, exactly, do you give a panda CPR. At Slate, L.V. Anderson tackles this question. Turns out, the process isn't all that different from resuscitating a human.
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CPR is appropriate when a patient’s heart has stopped (whether or not the patient is human), and the goal is to maximize the amount of blood flowing out of the patient’s heart into other vital organs and to get some air into the patient’s lungs so the patient’s blood will be oxygenated. Some animals, including humans and baby pandas, have bodies shaped in such a way that the best way to pump the heart is to directly compress the chest. Other animals, Iike most dogs and cats, have much rounder chests, which makes it harder to directly compress the heart. With these animals, vets recommend compressing the chest from the side, which puts secondary pressure on the heart.
Sea urchin egg undergoing mitosis with fluorescent-tagged/stained DNA (blue), microtubules (green).
Cells divide. One single piece of life tugs itself apart and splits in two. It sounds like a purely destructive process, reminiscent of medieval woodcuts where the hands and feet of some unfortunate thief are tied to horses heading in opposite directions. But that's the macro world. On the micro scale, to split is to live. A dividing cell doesn't just rip itself to pieces. Instead, the cell first makes a copy of its genetic information. When the cell splits, what it's really doing is making a new home for that copy to live in. Make enough copies—and enough copies of the copies—and you eventually end up with a living creature.
Back in May, I took part in the Marine Biological Laboratory Science Journalism Fellowship, a 10-day program that gives journalists hands-on experience in what it means to be a scientist. The program is split into two tracks. As part of the environmental track, I went to the Harvard Forest, where nature is one giant laboratory. But, at the same time, other journalists were busy in a different sort of lab.
Steven Ashley is a contributing editor at Scientific American and writes for a host of other publications. He took part in the fellowship's biomedical track. Ashley and the other journalists fertilized the eggs of sea urchins and other small ocean creatures, and then used specialized biomedical microscopes and cell imaging software to create brilliant photos and mesmerizing movies of cell division and growing animals. Read the rest
This is not a geode. It's an animal. An apparently delicious animals with clear blood, whose body is accumulates surprisingly large amounts of a rare metal used to strengthen steel.
This is Pyura chilensis—an immobile ocean creature. Besides the other traits I mentioned, P. chilensis is also capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction. At the Running Ponies blog, Becky Crew explains the results of a 2005 study that detailed the creature's breeding habits for the first time.
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The results showed that P. chilensis is born male, before becoming cosexual – having both male and female gonads – in its adolescence as it increased in size. The researchers also found that given the choice – that is, if situated around other individuals – these organisms prefer to breed via cross-fertilisation, writing, “Given that more events of natural egg spawning followed by successful settlement and metamorphosis were recorded in our paired specimens and in our manipulated cross trials … it appears that cross-fertilisation predominates in this species.”
Manríquez and Castilla also found that a greater number of fertilised eggs resulted from the paired specimens, which suggests that cross-fertilisation, or reproducing with another individual, predominates because it is more effective. This assumption was strengthened by the fact that individuals that had cross-fertilised before being put in isolation took at least two months before successfully producing offspring via selfing. However, they were careful to note that while cross-fertilisation was preferred, selfing did not produce inferior offspring. “No perceptible differences in fertilisation, settlement and metamorphosis success among self and outcross progeny were found,” they reported.
Earlier this week, the Smithsonian National Zoo live-tweeted their most recent attempt to knock up a giant panda. You can read the whole thing at Storify. And, seriously people, you should read it. I originally intended to just post a short link to this, almost as a joke, but it turns out that the process of inseminating a giant panda is actually really interesting.
Besides the photos, which are great, and the revelation that it takes 15-20 people to properly oversee the process (insert obvious jokes here), the Storify contains a lot of neat behind-the-scenes details about what it's like to perform a medical procedure on a large animal. You'll also learn a thing or two about the panda reproductive process. Read the rest