More Photos of Rare Saharan Cheetah and Other Wildlife

Posted on December 25, 2010  Comments (5)

photo of a sand cat in Niger

Photo of a sand cat by Thomas Rabeil of the Sahara Conservation Fund

In March of 2009 we posted about photos of the rare Saharan cheetahs caught on wildlife cameras. Recently more photos have been released by the Sahara Conservation Fund showing a ghostly cheetah and other wild cats and other wildlife, including this wonderful photo of a sand cat.

Elusive Saharan Cheetah Captured in Photos

The animal is so rare and elusive scientists aren’t sure how many even exist, though they estimate from the few observations they’ve made of the animal and tracks that fewer than 10 individuals call the vast desert of Termit and Tin Toumma in Niger home. Fewer than 200 cheetahs probably exist in the entire Sahara.

Their home can reach sizzling temperatures up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius), and is so parched no standing water exists. “They probably satisfy their water requirements through the moisture in their prey, and on having extremely effective physiological and behavioral adaptations,”

The Saharan cheetah is listed as critically endangered on the 2009 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Camera trap photo of Saharan cheetah at night

The elusive Saharan cheetah in Niger, Africa. Sahara Conservation Fund

The photos are part of the Sahara Carnivores Project

The Saharan race of cheetah (Acynonix jubatus hecki) is very rare, and one of the most specialized and threatened in Africa. As part of a major strategy to conserve Sahelo-Saharan wildlife, in collaboration with the Sahara Conservation Fund we are establishing a project to study and protect Saharan carnivores in the Termit/Tin Toumma region of north Niger. We aim to improve our understanding of sympatric Saharan carnivores, and evaluate the impact of human activities on carnivore populations, and that of carnivore predation on livestock. One of the projects aims is to produce an action plan prepared jointly with local land-users to minimize human-carnivore conflict in the Termit/Tin Toumma.

More ghostly cheetah photos: blurry and walking away

‘Ghostly’ Saharan cheetah filmed in Niger, Africa

it not yet known if Saharan cheetahs are more closely related to other cheetahs in Africa, or those living in Iran, which make up the last remaining wild population of Asiatic cheetahs.
Saharan cheetahs appear to have different colour and spot patterns compared to common cheetahs that roam elsewhere in Africa.
However, “very little is known about the behavioural differences between the two cheetahs, as they have never been studied in the wild,” says Dr Rabeil.
“From observations of tracks and anecdotal reports they seem to be highly adaptable and able to eke out an existence in the Termit and Tin Toumma desert.”

Other posts of animals filmed with remote wildlife monitoring cameras: Sumatran Tiger and CubsJaguars Back in the Southwest USAScottish Highland WildcatsRare Chinese Mountain Cat

Photos by John Hunter of cheetahs and other animals in Kenya.

8-10 Year Olds Research Published in Royal Society Journal

Posted on December 24, 2010  Comments (2)

Eight-year-old children publish bee study in Royal Society journal

Their paper, based on fieldwork carried out in a local churchyard, describes how bumblebees can learn which flowers to forage from with more flexibility than anyone had thought. It’s the culmination of a project [Blackawton Bees] called ‘i, scientist’, designed to get students to actually carry out scientific research themselves.

The class (including Lotto’s son, Misha) came up with their own questions, devised hypotheses, designed experiments, and analysed data. They wrote the paper themselves (except for the abstract), and they drew all the figures with colouring pencils.
It’s a refreshing approach to science education, in that it actually involves doing science.

The children designed a Plexiglas cube with two entrances and a four-panelled light box in the middle. Each panel had 16 coloured lights, illuminated in clear patterns of blue and yellow. Each light had a feeder that dispensed either delicious sugar water or repulsive salty water. Once the bees had learned to drink from the feeders, the kids turned the lights on.

Absolutely great stuff. This is how to engage kids in science. Engage their inquisitive minds. Let them get involved. Let them experiment.

Some of the children’s questions when looking at what to discover using experiments:

What if… we could find out how much effort the bees will go through in order to get a reward? For instance, they have to move something heavy out of the way to get a reward.

What if… we could discover if bees can learn to go to certain colours depending on how sweet they are?

What if… we could find out how many colours they could remember?

Related: Playing Dice and Children’s NumeracyKids on Scientists: Before and AfterTest it Out, Experiment by They Might Be GiantsWhat Kids can LearnTinker School: Engineering CampTeen diagnoses her own disease in science class

And some of their comments:
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Molten Salt Solar Reactor Approved by California

Posted on December 18, 2010  Comments (13)

California has approved a molten salt solar reactor project. The plan is for a 150-megawatt solar power tower project. From the press release: the “Solar Energy Project has the ability to collect and store enough thermal energy each morning to operate at full power all afternoon and for up to 8 hours after sunset. The game-changing technology featuring inherent energy storage affords utilities with a generator that performs with the reliability and dispatchability of a conventional power generator without harmful emissions that are associated with burning coal, natural gas and oil.”

diagram of solar energy project using molton salt

molten salt solar system diagram

The heliostats focus concentrated sunlight on a receiver which sits on top of the tower. Within the receiver, the concentrated sunlight heats molten salt to over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. The heated molten salt then flows into a thermal storage tank where it is stored, maintaining 98% thermal efficiency, and eventually pumped to a steam generator. The steam drives a standard turbine to generate electricity. This process, also known as the “Rankine cycle” is similar to a standard coal-fired power plant, except it is fueled by clean and free solar energy.

This is another green energy project that has a great deal of potential. There is a great need for such new energy sources and hopefully quite a few of these projects will let us enjoy a greener and more sustainable way to meet our future energy needs.

For those interested in the business aspects of this energy project: United Technologies provided SolarReserve with an exclusive worldwide license to develop projects using the proprietary molten salt power tower technology, which has been in development for nearly three decades.

Related: Solar Thermal in Desert, to Beat Coal by 2020Wind Power Capacity Up 170% Worldwide from 2005-2009Cost Efficient Solar Dish by StudentsSolar Tower Power Generation

Getting Closer to a Universal Translator

Posted on December 16, 2010  Comments (5)

I wrote the following to my friend yesterday

> for those that haven’t picked up English, pretty soon Google translate
> will do a decent enough job of imitating a universal translator
> through my cell phone to get by :-)

And today my brother tweeted this video:

Ok, not quite a universal translator yet, but we are moving in the right direction.

Related: Aztec MathHolographic Television on the WayDroid IncredibleLego Mindstorms Robots Solving Sudoku and Rubiks Cube

Top Countries for Science and Math Education: Finland, Hong Kong and Korea

Posted on December 7, 2010  Comments (27)

The 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)* report has been released. The report examines the science of 15 year olds from 57 countries in math, science and reading. The main focus of PISA 2009 was reading. The survey also updated performance assessments in mathematics and science.

The Asian countries continue to do very well for several reason including tutoring; they have even turned tutors into rock stars earning millions of dollars. The results show the value of tutors at takelessons.com and such sites to student achievement.

The emphasis is on mastering processes, understanding concepts and functioning in various contexts within each assessment area. the PISA 2012 survey will return to mathematics as the major assessment area, PISA 2015 will focus on science.

Results for the Science portion (rank – country – mean score)(I am not listing all countries):

  • 1 – Finland – 554
  • 2 – Hong Kong – 549
  • 3 – Japan – 539
  • 4 – Korea – 538
  • 5 – New Zealand – 532
  • 6 – Canada – 529
  • 7 – Estonia – 528
  • 8 – Australia – 527
  • 9 – Netherlands – 522
  • 10 – Taiwan – 520
  • 11 – Germany – 520
  • 14 – United Kingdom – 514
  • 21 – USA – 502 (up from 489 and 29th place in 2006)
  • OECD average – 501
  • 25 – France – 498
  • 46 – Mexico – 416
  • 49 – Brazil – 405

Results for the math portion (rank – country – mean score)(I am not listing all countries):
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Scientific Inquiry: Arsenic for Phosphorus in Bacteria Cells

Posted on December 5, 2010  Comments (0)

As would be expected with significant new scientific claims, scientists are examining the evidence. On her blog, Rosie Redfield, who runs a microbiology research lab in the Life Sciences Centre at the University of British Columbia, disputes NASA’s recent claims. This is how science is suppose to work. Scientists provide evidence. Other scientists review the evidence, try to verify the claims with experiments of their own and the scientific inquiry process moves toward new knowledge.

Arsenic-associated bacteria (NASA’s claims)

NASA’s shameful analysis of the alleged bacteria in the Mars meteorite made me very suspicious of their microbiology, an attitude that’s only strengthened by my reading of this paper. Basically, it doesn’t present ANY convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any other biological molecule).

The authors then grew some cells with radioactive arsenate (73-As) and no phosphate, washed and dissolved them, and used extraction with phenol and phenol:chloroform to separate the major macromolecules. The protein fraction at the interface between the organic and aqueous phases had about 10% of the arsenic label but, because the interface material is typically contaminated with liquid from the aqueous phase, this is not good evidence that the cells’ protein contained covalently-bound arsenate in place of phosphorus. About 75% of the arsenic label was in the ‘supernatant ‘fraction. The authors describe this fraction as DNA/RNA, but it also contains most of the small water-soluble molecules of the cell, so its high arsenic content is not evidence that the DNA and RNA contain arsenic in place of phosphorus. The authors use very indirect evidence to argue that the distribution of arsenic mirrors that expected for phosphate, but this argument depends on so many assumptions that it should be ignored.

I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda. I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.

New claims have to provide strong evidence. time will tell if this discovery is actually a discovery. It will be amazing if it is, so I am pulling for it. But the story will need to have much more confirmation before we can be certain.

Arsenate-based DNA: a big idea with big holes

The study published in Science has a number of flaws. In particular, one subtle but critical piece of evidence has been overlooked, and it demonstrates that the DNA in question actually has a phosphate – not an arsenate -backbone.

Wolfe-Simon et al. used a technique called nanoSIMS to analyze elemental concentrations of the agarose gel at the location of the DNA band. They determined that the part of the gel containing DNA also contained both arsenic and phosphorus. But what did they really analyze?

The answer is that the nanoSIMS determined the concentration of arsenic in the gel – not specifically in the DNA.

Finally, there’s a simple experiment that could resolve this debate: analyze the nucleotides directly. Show a mass spectrum of DNA sequences demonstrating that nucleotides contain arsenate instead of phosphate. This is a very simple experiment, and would be quite convincing – but it has not been performed.

Related: It’s not an arsenic-based life formMono Lake bacteria build their DNA using arsenicClose Encounters of the Media Kind

Changing Life as We Know It

Posted on December 2, 2010  Comments (1)

Update: Independent researchers find no evidence for arsenic life in Mono Lake

NASA has made a discovery that changes our understanding of the very makeup of life itself on earth. I think my favorite scientific discipline name is astrobiology. NASA pursues a great deal of this research not just out in space but also looking at earth based life. Their astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

photo of Felisa Wolfe-Simon

Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake to inoculate media to grow microbes on arsenic.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells.

Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

Researchers conducting tests in the harsh, but beautiful (see photo), environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

“The definition of life has just expanded,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it.” This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth.

In science such huge breakthroughs are not just excepted without debate, however, which is wise.

Thriving on Arsenic:

In other words, every experiment Wolfe-Simon performed pointed to the same conclusion: GFAJ-1 can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its DNA. “I really have no idea what another explanation would be,” Wolfe-Simon says.

But Steven Benner, a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL, remains skeptical. If you “replace all the phosphates by arsenates,” in the backbone of DNA, he says, “every bond in that chain is going to hydrolyze [react with water and fall apart] with a half-life on the order of minutes, say 10 minutes.” So “if there is an arsenate equivalent of DNA in that bug, it has to be seriously stabilized” by some as-yet-unknown mechanism.

It is sure a great story if it is true though. Other scientists will examine more data and confirm or disprove the claims.

“We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we’ve found is a microbe doing something new — building parts of itself out of arsenic,” said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and the research team’s lead scientist. “If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet?”
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Aerobic Exercise Plus Resistance Training Helps Control Type 2 Diabetes

Posted on November 28, 2010  Comments (5)

Exercise Combo Best for Controlling Diabetes

A combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training may offer the biggest benefits for people with type 2 diabetes in helping them control their disease.

HbA1c is a test that measures blood sugar control for the previous few months. Normal HbA1c is 6% or less. People with diabetes are urged to keep their HbA1c below 7%.

In the study, researchers compared the effects of a nine-month aerobic exercise program, a resistance training program, and combination exercise program vs. not exercising in 262 previously sedentary men and women with type 2 diabetes. The results showed that improvements in HbA1c levels were greatest among those who were in the combination group.

Thirty-nine percent of non-exercisers had to increase these medications compared with 32% in the resistance training group, 22% in the aerobic exercise group, and 18% in the combination group.

Diabetes is a huge and growing problem. Exercise is a good strategy to remain healthy. It is best to exercise and avoid becoming sick. But if you do get diabetes then it is even more important to take care to exercise properly.

Related: Surprising New Diabetes DataDiabetes up 90% in USA since 1997 – Study Finds Obesity as Teen as Deadly as Smoking

Backyard Wildlife: Robins Attack Holly Tree

Posted on November 27, 2010  Comments (3)

photo of robin in a holly tree

Robins like to attack my holly tree and feed on the berries. Getting photos of them is hard but there are lots of them flying around all excited (I did manage to catch one of them in the photo on the left). This tree was actually here when I moved in but I also do try to nurture and add plants that feed wildlife. I like just planting things that will feed and shelter birds (and others) rather than filling bird feeders myself. There is information on how to use your backyard to promote wildlife.

Related: Backyard Wildlife: CrowsBackyard Wildlife: HawkBackyard Wildlife: Fox

Great Furniture for Small Spaces

Posted on November 21, 2010  Comments (8)

Wonderful design from Italy with great space saving furniture. Great design with wonderful engineering provides solutions that are a joy to see and live with. These are not cheap though. New York City distributors of the furniture.

Related: Toyota Engineering Development ProcessHonda U3-X Personal TransportTreadmill Cats: Friday Cat Fun #3Engineering Students Design Innovative Hand Dryer

Backyard Wildlife: Walking Leaf

Posted on November 18, 2010  Comments (8)

photo of insect that looks like a leaf

See some more great photos of the hike on Penang Island in Malaysia, from the Capturing Penang blog.

Related: Backyard Wildlife: FoxBackyard Wildlife: Great Spreadwing DamselflyBackyard Wildlife: Turtle