Dracula Orchids and Goblin Spiders

Happy Halloween Everyone! Thought this would be appropriate news for the day…
ScienceDaily (Oct. 29, 2010)

Dracula orchids tempt flies by masquerading as mushrooms. Goblin spiders lurk unseen in the world’s leaf litter. The natural world is often just as haunting as the macabre costumes worn on city streets, as highlighted by two studies published this year by curators in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, David Grimaldi and Norman Platnick.

Dracula Orchid

Dracula Orchids
According to Grimaldi and colleagues, fruit flies (Drosophilidae) of the genus Zygothrica typically swarm on mushrooms and other rain forest fungi. But one group of orchids in the American tropics takes advantage of their preferences, duping the hapless flies into pollinating them with the scent and appearance of mushrooms. These orchids are from the genus Dracula, named so to keep the spirit of a former name, Masdevallia, when it was realized that there were separate orchid groups.

“Over 200 years ago, botanists on major Spanish expeditions to Peru named a new orchid Masdevallia because of the flower’s similarity to monsterly creatures like dragons and bats,” says Lorena Endara of the University of Florida in Gainesville. “Carlyle Luer, who later segregated Dracula from Masdevallia, sees these orchids as little bats flying in the forest since the flower faces down and the triangular sepals and the long sepaline tails display parallel to the ground.”

“Some of the flies attracted to Dracula are new species, and I am presently working on descriptions of them,” says Grimaldi. “I wanted to call this paper ‘Dracula as Lord of the Flies,’ but my co-authors convinced me to use the title ‘Lord of the Flies: Pollination of Dracula orchids.'”

The paper, published in the orchid journal Lankesteriana, presents over 700 hours of observational data on flowers in Ecuadorian cloud forest where fruit flies were seen mating in (and hence pollinating) Dracula orchids. In addition to Endara and Grimaldi, Bitty Roy of the University of Oregon authored the paper; the research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and other institutions.

Goblin spider Australoonops granulatus

Goblin Spiders
Over the past three years, Platnick and colleagues have named or redefined the taxonomy of hundreds of new species of goblin spiders — an often overlooked group named for their unusual appearance and secretive habits. Goblin spiders (members of the family Oonopidae) are extremely small: the largest is 3 millimeters in size, and most are under 2 millimeters.

“Goblins are probably the most poorly known group of spiders,” says Platnick. “Their small size has made them difficult to study, but scanning electron microscopy and recent advances in digital imaging are allowing us to examine their structures in much more detail than was previously possible.”

A recently published Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History unravels the previous taxonomy of the genus Stenoonops, a group of spineless goblin spiders that have a soft abdomen and muddy-orange carapace. Fourteen of the 19 species moved to new genera (in fact, six different genera). But because 17 new species from the Caribbean were described as Stenoonops, the genus increased in numbers and now has 23 species. Two other genera are given new species as well: Longoonops and Australoonops gain five species combined.

“It isn’t surprising that there are so many undescribed goblin spiders,” says Platnick. “When we began the global inventory of the Oonopidae, there were only about 500 species known, a number we thought represented about 20 percent of the actual biodiversity in this group. There are a lot of species that have small ranges — the perfect group for giving us hints about the biogeographic histories of the areas they occupy, as well as for conservation, by showing us what areas are most in need of protection against habitat destruction.”

In addition to Platnick, Nadine Dupérré is an author of this paper. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the American Museum of Natural History. Article posted at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101029152753.htm

Mushrooming on the Mountain

Mushrooming on the Mountain
Saturday November 13 and Sunday November 14, 10am-4pm each day

This two-day class for beginning ‘shroomers offers instruction on identification, ecology, picking and cooking with mushrooms, fungal folklore and more! This class is geared toward people who want to learn about the wonderful, bizarre and interesting kingdom of Fungi – rather than those who only want to find edibles. Marcia Peeters, “Mushroom Queen” and co-founder of Cascade Mycological Society will lead this two- day workshop with interactive demonstrations, discussions and field identification characteristics. Marcia has been studying mushrooms since 1975, and has been involved with the coordination and set-up of the Mt. Pisgah Arboretum Mushroom Festival since its inception. Marcia mentored under Freeman Rowe, the “Mushroom King,” and taught the biology and ecology of fungi at Lane Community College for 11 years. Both days will include class and field time on Mount Pisgah. Rain or shine. Meet at the EPUD building.

Fee: $75.00 (MPA members/$70). Call (541) 747-1504 to sign up or for more information.

Fall Fruits and Foliage

Fall Fruits and Foliage
Saturday November 6, 10am-Noon

Join botanist Rhoda Love and enjoy the fall colors and learn about the adaptive strategies of plants for dealing with the coming of winter, as well as the great variety of fruits and seeds and their diverse dispersal mechanisms. Rain or Shine. Meet at the Mount Pisgah Arboretum Visitors Center.

Fee: $5 (MPA members free, but donations are welcome). Call (541) 747-1504 for more information.

Nature Sketchbooks @ Mt. Pisgah Arboretum

Nature Sketchbooks: Shading and Composition
Saturday November 6, 9am-4pm

Join natural science illustrators Kris Kirkeby and Katura Reynolds for an all-day workshop about sketching in nature, suitable for beginners as well as experienced sketchers. In the morning, Kris will teach basic drawing techniques, focused on studying how to show light and shading. Kris will also discuss ways to composition principles in sketchbooks. Put these lessons into practice in the afternoon, as Katura leads sketching exercises out on the trail. The group will start by sketching the same objects together, followed by free exploration with guidance as needed. We’ll come back together at the end of the day to share our results. Both instructors will be available for the full day. Rain or Shine. Registration required. Bring a sketchbook, pencils, pencil sharpener, erasers, and a bag lunch. Meet at the Mount Pisgah Arboretum Visitors Center. Fee: $30 (MPA members/$25). Register for both this and the September 25 sketching workshop at the same time and get a discount:
Fee: $55 non-members, or $45 for MPA members for both classes.

Call (541) 747-1504 to sign up or for more information.

ASE Summer Apprenticeship

Are You in 9th, 10th or 11th Grade and Interested in Science or Engineering?
Apply for a Summer Apprenticeship in Science or Engineering!

The Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering (ASE) Program provides high-school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors with an intensive experience in a professional scientific or engineering environment. ASE provides the opportunity to explore interests and to make informed educational and career decisions. Positions are available in Oregon and southwest Washington.

For eight weeks during the summer, interns participate in the program for the equivalent of full-time employment at their mentors’ workplaces. Some students work on special projects designed to be completed in the eight weeks; others contribute to the ongoing work of the mentors.

ASE features include:
Interview Skills Workshops
An orientation session for students & parents
Local high school teachers who serve as liaisons between students & mentors
Two conferences for students during the summer
ASE certification sent to schools so that the experience appears on student transcripts

ASE Program Fees
ASE 2011 Final Application Processing Fee: $25*
ASE 2011 Internship Program Fee: $250*
*all fees are waived for students who qualify for the Federal Free & Reduced Lunch Program

ASE Info Session
Thursday, December 9th at 7-8 pm
Thurston High School (Map)
333 58th St
Springfield, OR 97478

For more information, go to the following link: http://www.saturdayacademy.org/ASE/StudentInfo/tabid/142/Default.aspx

Early Sauropod Dinosaur: First Complete Skeleton Found

ScienceDaily (Oct. 28, 2010)

Skull and lower jaw of Yizhousaurus, an early sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Jurassic (~200-million-years-old) of southern China.
(Credit: Bill Mueller)

Scientists have discovered in China the first complete skeleton of a pivotal ancestor of Earth’s largest land animals — the sauropod dinosaurs. The new species, tentatively dubbed Yizhousaurus sunae, lived on the flood plains around Lufeng in the Yunnan Province of South China about 200 million years ago. The species helps explain how the iconic four-footed, long-necked sauropod dinosaurs evolved.

Unlike the 120-foot-long, 100-ton sauropod giants that came later, Yizhousaurus was about 30 feet in length, but it shows all of the hallmarks of later sauropods: the beginning of a long neck, a robust skeleton and four-legged posture. It also comes with an intact fossilized skull — which is very rare and crucial for understanding its place in the evolution of sauropods.

“Sauropods have these big bones but their skulls are very lightly constructed and also very small,” said paleontologist Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University. Chatterjee presents the discovery on Oct. 31 at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver.

Yizhousaurus’s skull is broad, high and domed, less than a foot long with a short snout, eye sockets on the sides for scanning enemies. It has an unusually wide and U-shaped jaw, in top view, like that seen in later Camarasaurus, said Chatterjee. Numerous serrated and spoon-shaped teeth of the upper and lower jaws would shear and slide past each other for cutting plant material during feeding. The sturdy teeth and raised neck let the animal very easily nip small branches from treetops and then chew the plant material.

“Once the plant food was ingested, a gastric mill in the stomach probably provided further mechanical breakdown of the plant,” Chatterjee explained. Apparently the animal was well adapted to a life of eating plants to support its large body.

Besides its telltale physical features, Yizhousaurus was also found in revealing company. A half century ago spectacular specimens of prosauropod dinosaurs such as Lufengosaurus were discovered at the same location. This makes sense, since most paleontologists are of the opinion that prosauropods gave rise to sauropods, despite the fact that the transition has been very vague, Chatterjee said.

“This is why this new one (Yizhousaurus), may bridge this gap,” he said.

Abstract is available at http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2010AM/finalprogram/abstract_175675.htm

Finding a Killer’s Achilles’ Heel

Clues from a Pandemic: The 1918 flu genome may help fight future outbreaks

By Jeneen Interlandi
Thursday, October 28, 2010

It has been five years since a team of scientists resurrected the 1918 influenza virus from the lungs of a long-frozen victim. At the time, the Jurassic Park–like feat was both widely celebrated and sharply criticized. Opponents worried about the risk of an accidental (or intentional) release of the revived killer, which claimed between 50 million and 100 million lives in about 15 months and has been dubbed the worst plague in human history. Proponents insisted that the insights gained from a fully reconstructed virus would be instrumental in fighting the next pandemic.

The 1918 Flu

A paper published in the November issue of the journal Microbe cites a potential new drug target, among other findings, as evidence that the risk was not taken in vain. Terrence Tumpey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and his colleagues have closed in on a protein called PB1 that enables the virus to copy itself. When researchers substituted the PB1 protein in a normal flu virus with the 1918 version of that same protein, the normal virus morphed into a superkiller: it replicated and spread through its rodent host eight times faster, killing more mice as a result. It turns out that all 20th-century pandemic viruses, among them the 2009 swine flu, have avian flu PB1 genes. Most seasonal flu viruses have human flu PB1 genes.

Scientists are now working to develop new drugs that target PB1. Small molecules that bind to the protein’s receptors could prevent the virus from replicating and might greatly reduce virulence. The need for new antiflu drugs is increasingly urgent, as several recent flu strains, including the swine flu, have developed resistance to currently available treatments such as Tami­flu. When combined with the older antivirals, PB1-targeted drugs could drastically reduce the spread of resistance, making the approach of the annual flu season a little less worrisome for everyone.

Vast Amber Deposit from India

New Trove of Fossils Suggests Global Distribution of Tropical Forest Ecosystems in the Eocene

ScienceDaily (Oct. 26, 2010) — A vast new amber deposit in India has yielded 100 fossil spiders, bees, and flies that date to the Early Eocene, or 52-50 million years ago. These arthropods are not unique — as would be expected on an island (which India was at that time) — but have close evolutionary relationships with fossils from the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The amber is also the oldest evidence of a tropical broadleaf rainforest in Asia.

Bees, termites, spiders, and flies entombed in a newly-excavated amber deposit are challenging the assumption that India was an isolated island-continent in the Early Eocene, or 52-50 million years ago. Arthropods found in the Cambay deposit from western India are not unique — as would be expected on an island — but rather have close evolutionary relationships with fossils from other continents. The amber is also the oldest evidence of a tropical broadleaf rainforest in Asia.

The discovery is published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We know India was isolated, but when and for precisely how long is unclear,” says David Grimaldi, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. “The biological evidence in the amber deposit shows that there was some biotic connection.”

“The amber shows, similar to an old photo, what life looked like in India just before the collision with the Asian continent,” says Jes Rust, professor of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Universität Bonn in Germany. “The insects trapped in the fossil resin cast a new light on the history of the sub-continent.”

Amber from broadleaf trees is rare in the fossil record until the Tertiary, or after the dinosaurs went extinct. It was during this era that flowering plants rather than conifers began to dominate forests and developed the ecosystem that still straddles the equator today. The new amber, and amber from Colombia that is 10 million years older, indicates that tropical forests are older than previously thought.

In the research paper, Grimaldi, Rust, and colleagues describe the Cambay amber as the oldest evidence of tropical forests in Asia. The amber has been chemically linked to Dipterocarpaceae, a family of hardwood trees that currently makes up 80 percent of the forest canopy in Southeast Asia. Fossilized wood from this family was found as well, making this deposit the earliest record of these plants in India and showing that this family is nearly twice as old as was commonly believed. It most likely originated when portions of the southern supercontinent Gondwana were still connected.

Also reported in the paper are 100 arthropod species that represent 55 families and 14 orders. Some of these species are early relatives of highly social, or eusocial, insects like honey bees and stingless bees, rhinotermitid termites, and ants, suggesting that these groups radiated during or just prior to the early Eocene. And many of the Cambay fossils have relatives on other continents — although not where it would be expected. Rather than finding evolutionary ties to Africa and Madagascar, landmasses that India had most recently been linked to as part of Gondwana, the researchers found relatives in Northern Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

“What we found indicates that India was not completely isolated, even though the Cambay deposit dates from a time that precedes the slamming of India into Asia,” says Michael Engel, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and curator of entomology at the University of Kansas. “There might have been some linkages.”

Climate might have also played a role in the fauna found in the Cambay amber. The Early Eocene was a time of great climatic warmth: the tropics reached the poles. The researchers predict that the climate would have had an effect on the distribution of arthropods.

“The Cambay Formation spans a period of great warmth which led to a profusion of tropical groups spread around the world,” says Grimaldi. “The diversity and evolutionary relationships in the Cambay deposit show how profound an effect climate has on groups.”

In addition to Grimaldi, Rust, and Engel, authors include Tom McCann, Frauke Gerdes, and Monica Solórzano-Kraemer of the Universität Bonn in Germany; Hukam Singh of Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany in India; Rajendra S. Rana and Lacham Singh of H.N.B. Garhwal University in India; Ken Anderson of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale; Nivedita Sarkar and Ashok Sahni of the University of Lucknow in India; Paul C. Nascimbene of the American Museum of Natural History; Jennifer C. Thomas of the University of Kansas; and Christopher J. Williams of Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. The research was funded in part by several organizations: American Museum of Natural History, U.S. National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, and DFG (German Research Foundation).

Curveballs: When What You See Isn’t What You Get

Curveballs: When What You See Isn’t What You Get
by NPR Staff

Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals winds up for a pitch

Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals winds up for a pitch during spring training in 1936.

October 23, 2010
Some of baseball’s most iconic pitchers were notorious for their devastating curveballs. From Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and Sandy Koufax, to Barry Zito and David Wells, the curveball and its signature look, where the ball bends and breaks, have long been part of the game.

And yet the curveball and whether it actually curves have been debated for decades, with some describing it more as an optical illusion. Of course baseball players whose experience and eyes tell them otherwise often beg to differ. Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean famously once said, “Stand behind a tree 60 feet away, and I’ll whomp you with an optical illusion.”

New research suggests what you see when a curve is thrown isn’t quite what you get, however.

“So the curveball is curving, but there’s also a well-known perceptual puzzle. That is, instead of seeing a smooth curve, batters often see the ball as going through a big giant jump where it falls off the edge of a table or breaks off to the right,” says visual scientist Arthur Shapiro of American University.

Shapiro describes the visual science of a breaking ball as NPR’s Guy Raz takes pitches from Ben Webster, whose curveballs leave Raz catching only air with his bat. As Raz experiences the same frustration thousands of batters have before — seeing a pitch clearly breaking and curving — Shapiro tells him, “It certainly bent down, but we think the reason it looked so strong has to do with how our eye is organized.”

Read Shapiro’s Study

“We think we see the world as one giant uniform spot, but the center of our vision, the fovea, is made up of really tightly packed cells, and the periphery is made up of loosely packed cells,” he says. “It’s like we have an HD camera in the center and a cell phone camera in the periphery.”

This significantly affects how a batter sees an incoming pitch. “If you’re in the batters box, at first you’re seeing it in the central part of your visual system, but after a third of the way, the ball is going too fast to track it,” Shapiro says. “So you take your eye off the ball and see it in an entirely different way.”

To see an example of the Curveball Illusion go here:


In this interactive, a disk descends from the top of the screen to the bottom. If you track the disk in the periphery (for example, look to the right, but see the disk fall out of the corner of your eye), it appears to descend obliquely. Use the lever to adjust the angle of descent.

It is during that switch from central vision to peripheral that creates the illusion of the curve, because peripheral vision isn’t capable of differentiating the movements of a spinning ball. The combination of the spin and velocity of the ball is also confusing, so a widening gap between the ball’s trajectory and its path is created.

The break in the pitch, or when it seems to “fall off the table,” occurs when the ball comes to home plate and the batter reverts to central vision. This return to central vision has the batter seeing the ball in a different spot than expected, and thus the perception that the ball has suddenly changed positions is what creates the illusion of a rapid break as opposed to the gradual curve that physical measurements produce.

“Humans constantly shift objects between central and peripheral vision and may encounter effects like the curveball’s break regularly,” Shapiro says in his work. He believes that not only is his research relevant to baseball fans or hitting coaches, but also that “peripheral vision’s inability to separate different visual signals may have far-reaching implications in understanding human visual perception and functional vision in daily life.”

So the next time you’re at a baseball game and a coach or parent tells a player to “keep his eye on the ball,” consider helping the hitter out by yelling, “Keep your foveal vision on the ball!”

Anticancer protein might combat HIV

Anticancer protein might combat HIV

Tumor suppressor p21 found in abundance in people impervious to developing AIDS
Web edition : Thursday, October 21st, 2010

VANCOUVER — A protein best known as a cancer suppressor may enable some people infected with HIV to fend off the virus indefinitely, a new study shows. Copious production of this protein, called p21, shows up in a select group of HIV-positive people who rarely develop AIDS, scientists reported October 21 at a meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Some HIV patients, dubbed long-term nonprogressors, get infected with HIV yet seem impervious to its effects. While research has suggested factors that could separate these lucky few from most HIV patients, the specifics underlying their resistance are still an area of keen interest. “This is a specific group of patients who are spontaneously able to control HIV and don’t get sick from it,” says infectious disease physician Mathias Lichterfeld of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who presented the new data.

In the new study, researchers compared four groups of people — 14 who were HIV negative, 16 with HIV that had progressed, 10 with HIV who were undergoing treatment and 15 whose HIV infection had totally stalled. This last group included nonprogressors so adept at halting an HIV infection that they didn’t even have any virus detectable by routine tests. (Researchers ascertained infection by testing for antibodies to HIV.) Scientists call this subset of patients elite controllers. “They comprise 1 percent or fewer of HIV-infected people,” Lichterfeld says.

The researchers obtained immune cells called CD4 T cells — the prime targets of HIV — from all the volunteers and subjected these cells to lab tests. The tests showed that elite controllers had CD4 T cells that made 10 to 100 times more p21 than did people in the other three groups. “It’s not a subtle difference. It’s quite striking,” Lichterfeld says.

When the researchers put these cells in lab dishes and subjected them to an HIV assault, the cells loaded with p21 held off the virus.

“These data suggest that this protein can inhibit HIV,” Lichterfeld says. But he notes that the mechanism by which p21 does this and even how these cells make extra amounts of the protein are not yet fully understood. There may be genetic variations involved, he says.

“It might offer an alternative way to control HIV if we can find a way to manipulate this p21 protein in patients,” he says. But using p21 as a tool probably won’t be as simple as giving the protein to people.

“The fact that it occurs in nature is encouraging — that you have a natural model,” says Joel Gallant, an infectious disease physician who specializes in HIV at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Although many questions need to be answered before finding a way to use p21 clinically, he says, “this could be critical someday in getting better control of HIV.”