28 February 2008

It's so true...

I'm in about hour 10 I think, the end is in sight.


26 February 2008

Videophilia, or Why people don't go outside anymore

You may be wondering, what is videophilia? I too had to look it up after reading a paper in the Feb 19, 2008 edition of PNAS by Pergams and Zaradic titled "Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation".

(If you don't have PNAS access, a free pdf can be downloaded on their webpage, or if you'd rather hear one of the authors give a summary, they have an audio track there too)

Pergams and Zaradic coined the term "videophilia" to contrast with the term "biophilia" coined by E. O. Wilson to describe people's innate affinity for nature and natural areas. Visits to US national parks have been in a decline starting somewhere between 1981-91. In a 2006 paper, Pergams and Zaradic found that 4 variables could describe about 98% of this decline: time spent on the internet, time spent playing video games, time spent watching movies, and increasing oil prices. So videophilia is a term to describe this phenomenon, that as time spent on electronic media increases, visits to natural parks decreases.

Videophilia: The new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media. (from here)
This most recent paper expanded the study to look also at natural area use in Japan and Spain, and found that this decline is not just restricted to the United States.

I think this trend is something that many people have noticed, over the past decade in particular. I think that it's great that someone has looked at this correlation in a scientific manner so that it goes beyond just anecdotal theories. As the authors caution on their website "less contact with nature is likely to translate to less support for the environment in future generations".

Why am I still writing this blog entry? I'm going to go play outside.


19 February 2008

Cute as a Button

I hadn't been reading Cute Overload lately, but I checked in again recently to fawn over the adorable animals. This of course led to the question, why do humans think baby animals (especially mammals) are cute?
(photos to the right taken from Cute Overload)

Well, Cute Overload has made a list of what makes animal pictures cute (the Rules of Cuteness), and I think two of their rules in particular pertain to why, as humans, we find them so adorable. Rule #2 is "Look helpless" and rule #6 is "Mimic humans".

It seems that since human babies are helpless when born, humans have been wired to respond to and help things that look infantile (like round faces, forward facing eyes, round ears, and floppy limbs to name a few). There was an interesting article titled The Cute Factor, published in the New York Times in 2006, that had this to say about cute animals:

"The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof, and so ends up including the young of virtually every mammalian species, fuzzy-headed birds like Japanese cranes, woolly bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, a big round rock stacked on a smaller rock, a colon, a hyphen and a close parenthesis typed in succession....

Madison Avenue may adapt its strategies for maximal tweaking of our inherent baby radar, but babies themselves, evolutionary scientists say, did not really evolve to be cute. Instead, most of their salient qualities stem from the demands of human anatomy and the human brain, and became appealing to a potential caretaker's eye only because infants wouldn't survive otherwise.

Human babies have unusually large heads because humans have unusually large brains. Their heads are round because their brains continue to grow throughout the first months of life, and the plates of the skull stay flexible and unfused to accommodate the development. Baby eyes and ears are situated comparatively far down the face and skull, and only later migrate upward in proportion to the development of bones in the cheek and jaw areas.

Baby eyes are also notably forward-facing, the binocular vision a likely legacy of our tree-dwelling ancestry, and all our favorite Disney characters also sport forward-facing eyes, including the ducks and mice, species that in reality have eyes on the sides of their heads.

The cartilage tissue in an infant's nose is comparatively soft and undeveloped, which is why most babies have button noses. Baby skin sits relatively loose on the body, rather than being taut, the better to stretch for growth spurts to come, said Paul H. Morris, an evolutionary scientist at the University of Portsmouth in England; that lax packaging accentuates the overall roundness of form.

Baby movements are notably clumsy, an amusing combination of jerky and delayed, because learning to coordinate the body's many bilateral sets of large and fine muscle groups requires years of practice. On starting to walk, toddlers struggle continuously to balance themselves between left foot and right, and so the toddler gait consists as much of lateral movement as of any forward momentum."

Advertisers understand our reaction to all things cute. This is especially true in Japan, where the concept of kawaii (cuteness) pervades many things from products to governmental warnings. Any one who has been a girl or is raising girls understands the immense draw of Sanrio characters like Hello Kitty. The oddest example that I have seen of making objects cute is kawaii poo.

So, no need to be ashamed at your love of baby animals. It's in our nature to want to cuddle and protect them.


18 February 2008

Venus Flytrap

I saw an interesting toy at Target the other day, Backyard Safari's Venus Fly Trap. Sadly, the toy wasn't made because Venus Flytraps are cool plants, but is instead an interesting looking insect catcher. Supposedly you place bait in the bottom and insects fly in, and some sort of motion sensor closes the trap.

In actual Venus flytrap plants (Dionaea muscipula), the traps are modified leaves. They know to close and catch their insect prey by trigger hairs (trichomes) on the inside of the traps. Not just one touch will do it, to distinguish living prey the trichomes must be touched in succession before the trap actually closes. Carnivorous plants in general catch insects because they live in nutrient poor locations, like bogs. The insects they catch and digest provided them with much needed nitrogen. The animated gif to the left (that I found on wikipedia) shows a developing trap in time lapse (click to watch).

Oh, and while I'm on the topic, it appears there is also a Pokémon modeled after a Venus Flytrap, Carnivine. According to the Pokémon website, Carnivine "attracts prey with its sweet-smelling saliva, then chomps down".


15 February 2008

All we need is love?

In honor of Singles Awareness Day today (and Valentine's Day yesterday), I thought I'd link to a entry over at The Science Creative Quarterly. Charlie Hatton wrote a very funny piece about disproving common romantic idioms/sayings in a "scientific" manner. Check it out here.


11 February 2008

Tapeworms and Polar Bears

So, I decided to play voyeur yesterday and spent some time looking at how people arrived at this blog via my Sitemeter.

One search caught my attention, and it appears that Cells in Culture ranks number one on Google for the search: tapeworms and polar bears. In honor of this, I made the logo to the right.

So hurray, I have an entry in case the "Number one on Google" meme makes it's way across the internet again. This blog also ranks number one for "liverwort sperm" but that's harder for me to make into a cartoon.


Sunglasses can cause sunburns?

This weekend I was without a book to read, so I decided to give Survival of the Sickest, by Dr. Sharon Moalem and Jonathan Prince, a try (my boyfriend's parents had mailed him this book and it has been collecting dust every since).

In chapter 3, he talks about the roles of cholesterol and melanin (the pigment responsible for our skin and hair color) and the trade-offs between getting enough vitamin D and folic acid (folate). Vitamin D is made in the skin by using UV B light and cholesterol, but UV light also breaks down folic acid which is needed for cell growth, DNA replication, and red blood cell production.

Anyway, in the chapter he goes on to elaborate that exposure to the sun makes us tan because this stimulates our pituitary glands (which gets its information from the optic nerve) to produce a hormone that triggers the melanocytes in our skin to make more melanin. So when you wear sunglasses, less sunlight reaches your optic nerve, and less warning is sent to your pituitary gland, and less melanin is made. Since melanin is there to protect our cells from the damaging effects of UV radiation, we will be more likely to get a sunburn. In short, wearing sunglasses can cause sunburns.

This story has to be far more complex than he lets on however. Why can't I get tan by say sticking my head out my window and staring at the sun for a while? Why do people get tan in tanning beds if their eyes are covered by those little plastic goggles? Some searches on the internet didn't provide me any answers to these questions - perhaps I need to look in some medical books. Feel free to comment if you can share some wisdom on this topic.

For now, I'll keep wearing my sunglasses and using sunscreen. As for vitamin D, daily vitamins will do the trick.


08 February 2008

Giant microbes in petri dishes

I didn't think that Giant Microbes, that I posted about earlier during the holidays, could get any cuter. But they did!

They now come in miniature form packaged in petri dishes. I think this new product is especially relevant to this blog's title. So check them out, I think I'm going to have to order some of these soon.


07 February 2008

Green Porno

I was watching Sundance tonight, and between programs they had an interview with Isabella Rossellini and her new short films called Green Porno. She basically dresses up like insects and also uses paper mache to show how these insects copulate. The first 3 episodes are premiering at the 2008 Sundance Festival. I'm waiting for these to make it to the internet. Meanwhile, you can watch the video below for the interview and some sneak peaks.


03 February 2008

Puppy Bowl

So, it's Super Bowl Sunday - which for me does not involve watching men run around in pads and spandex, but instead I watch a different kind of bowl - Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet.

If you haven't ever tuned into Puppy Bowl, this year is the 4th year, it features hours of puppies playing and frolicking on a field that looks like a football stadium. And not to be outdone by the actual Super Bowl, it also has a kitty half-time show, that features playful kittens and confetti.

Watching the puppies this year got me thinking about the evolutionary significance of play and why are young animals so active. A quick Google search provided me with two good summary articles on this topic.

So what exactly is play in animals? According to John Byers and Marc Bekoff:

"Play is all motor activity performed postnatally that appears to be purposeless, in which motor patterns from other contexts may often be used in modified forms and altered temporal sequencing."
Perhaps not a factor in domesticated animals like puppies, but playing takes valuable time and energy from developing young, so play must also serve some beneficial purpose for it to be present in a majority of mammals and some birds. It seems that animals are most active when their brains are developing most rapidly - stimulus via play helps create new neural connections. The energetic movements may also help muscle tissue mature.

Play also allows young to practice behaviors they will need as an adult. It seems there are 4 rough categories of play: locomotor play (juveniles moving in ways that mimic adult animal actions), predatory play (juveniles practicing hunting behaviors), object play, and social play (which can safely teach young the skills they will later use in aggressive social behaviors and may also strengthen social bonds between group members). Watching the puppies play tug of war, I can see how this mimics the action of ripping meat off bones. And it is always entertaining to watch kittens stalk and attack felt mice.

So, if you've missed the Puppy Bowl this year, no worries, Animal Planet has a few videos on their site that will tide you over until next year (you can always pretend you've taken an interest in animal behavior and are conducting "research").


01 February 2008

Airborne Liverwort Sperm

Here I go again, stealing parts of others' blog entries. I just saw a very impresive video that shows airborne sperm dispersal in a liverwort, Conocephalum conicum. For why this is important ecologically, I will direct you over to the blog Moss Plants and More.

So, our video of the week, which was submitted as part of paper:
Shimamura, M., Yamaguchi, T. & Deguchi, H. 2008. Airborne sperm of Conocephalum conicum (Conocephalaceae). J. Plant Res. 121: 69-71.