Janice Boekhoff
 

Beneficial Terrors

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The beautiful Fall weather and the only time of low humidity and mild temps in Iowa has brought with it a terrible pest—the minute pirate bug (and maybe also the closely related species of insidious flower bug—no, I’m not making these names up). I’ve lived in Iowa for 18 years and have never heard of a pirate bug, although I must say it is aptly named as it terrorizes every creature around.

This bug is so small it looks like a flea (To see a minute pirate bug picture, click here), but its bite is more painful than a mosquito. On a recent bike ride, we literally couldn’t stop biking without being swarmed by the little pests. I am usually a let-the-bug-live kind of girl, but I found myself grateful these guys didn’t fly away after biting so I could smack them. Only thing is, they smear when you smash them. Blech!

The reason these bugs come out to bother us in the Fall is because they feed on the larval stages of other insects which are maturing by the Fall, so their food source is diminishing. Add to that, the fact that most of the crops are harvested at the same time, leaving the bugs without a home, and you get a swarm of pin-head-sized black monsters heading into suburbia (which admittedly is only yards away from farmland in Iowa).

Thankfully, these little guys aren’t dangerous. Their bite does not exchange fluid or draw blood. The painful part, when they poke their sharp, needle-like beak into our skin, is really them searching for either nectar or the fluid inside a larval-stage bug.

I’m told these are beneficial to the ecosystem because they eat other bugs. Well, God created the ecosystems, so I’m not going to argue with that, but they seem to me to be getting a little out of control here. And their behavior is just not good for their survival rates. I know I assassinated at least 20 of them on my bike ride home.

What about you? Have you ever run into these six-legged villains?

References: http://www.entomology.wisc.edu/mbcn/kyf101.html, http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/iiin/minutep.html

Photo Credit: ID 27281708 © Vyacheslav Biryukov | Dreamstime.com

Giraffe Head Rush

My husband and son when he was 18 months old

There’s something I just love about big things. For instance, my husband is 7 feet tall (keep in mind the giraffe in the picture is bending way down), I love big dogs, especially Great Danes, and I think giraffes are amazing. Giraffes can reach heights of 19 feet tall, making my husband look short.

Have you ever wondered how giraffes get blood up to their head more than 6 feet away from their heart? How do they bridge the distance when they stand without getting a head rush and how do they keep their head from exploding when they lean down?

Scientists once thought the giraffe had an extra-large heart to pump the blood up its long neck. This was an assumption that turned out to be incorrect. At about 25 pounds, the giraffe’s heart is average (if not a little small) when compared with other large animals.

Turns out the giraffe gets blood up to its head the same way my husband does—high blood pressure.

The key for the giraffe is in the construction of the heart. The left ventricle of a giraffe’s heart is very thick and has a small opening for pumping blood. This gives it a strong beat capable of generating twice the blood pressure of a human (about 280/180 mm Hg). Also, the heart beats faster at 150 beats per minute, again double that of a human. This creates the pressure needed to pump the blood up to the neck when a giraffe is standing.

But what about when it leans down? The giraffe has a special configuration of blood vessels called a rete mirabile that acts as a pressure-regulating system. The rete mirabile is a dense network that can temporarily re-route the blood so not all of it flows to the brain and the giraffe’s head doesn’t explode.

It amazes me to see how God designed the complex innermost parts of the stately giraffe. Perhaps my affinity for big things comes from knowing how huge and limitless our God is. Nothing is too great or overwhelming for Him to handle.

 

References: http://www.giraffeconservation.org/giraffe_facts.php?pgid=4, http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8368000/8368915.stm, http://animals.about.com/od/hoofedmammals/a/tenfactsgiraffes.htm

Photo by Janice Boekhoff 2005

Pleistocene Park?

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 Jurassic Park is one of my favorite movies of all time and while the concept behind it continues to exist in the realms of science fiction, scientists are inching closer to the threshold of de-extinction. And the newest candidate for the process is the Wooly Mammoth who lived in the Pliocene and into the Pleistocene Epochs.

De-extinction is basically what it sounds like—bringing an extinct creature back from the dead (that sort of makes them sound like zombies, doesn’t it?). This would obviously be accomplished through cloning of DNA since the creature would be, well, extinct. Which means you need DNA from somewhere.

In 2013, an exceptionally well-preserved Wooly Mammoth was found in Siberia, still frozen in the permafrost. Nicknamed Buttercup, this mammoth was remarkably complete with three legs, most of the body, part of the head and the trunk preserved. Scientists reported that a dark red liquid oozed out of the animal. Chemical analysis concluded it was blood.

Very recently (March, 2015), scientists from Harvard announced they have isolated Wooly Mammoth DNA and have spliced it into elephant cells. While the study hasn’t been peer reviewed or published yet, the geneticists say this is just the first step in bring back these creatures. Eventually, they may grow the hybrid cells in an artificial womb (it’s considered unethical to try to grow it in an elephant womb). So it will probably be a while before we have a Pleistocene Park where Wooly Mammoths lumber around.

Believe it or not, the de-extinction thing has been tried before. In 2003, geneticists succeeded in bringing back the Pyrenean Ibex (extinct since 2000) through cloning. Unfortunately, the cloned animal lived for only 7 minutes.

One of the things I loved most about Jurassic Park is the idea behind it. Imagine meeting a creature that no human being on earth has previously laid eyes on. You might call it the final frontier of sorts. A frontier that no one is actually sure we can explore.

What do you think? Should we be trying to reverse extinction? Are we ignorant of the potential consequences of de-extinction? Or is it our ecological responsibility to try and bring back these animals?

 

References: http://www.livescience.com/50275-bringing-back-woolly-mammoth-dna.html, http://www.foxnews.com/science/2014/11/18/can-long-extinct-woolly-mammoth-be-cloned/

Photo Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/49503098502@N01/3724624458″>DSC02851</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Unicorn of the Sea

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3D computer rendering of a Narwhal

How many of your out there have seen the Sprint commercial with the cartoon characters singing about Narwhals? If you haven’t (and actually want to), click here, but be warned—the song may not leave your head the entire day. It goes something like this:

Narwhals, Narwhals swimming in the ocean

Narwhals, Narwhals causing a commotion, because they are so awesome

Narwhals, Narwhals pretty big and pretty white, can beat a polar bear in a fight

Weird, huh? I watched it the other day with my 11-year-old son and he went nuts for the song. He looked at me and said, “You know a Narwhal is a real thing, right?”

Uh, actually, no I didn’t know that and it stinks when your kid is smarter than you, but don’t tell him I said that. So, of course, I had to go look it up. And I’m glad I did because these guys are seriously one of God’s most amazing creatures. The above picture is just a computer rendering, but the real thing is awe inspiring. Please, please, please click here to see the pictures taken by Paul Nicklen from National Geographic. They are stunning.

A Narwhal is actually a type of whale with a bony protrusion coming out of its head. Because of the protrusion, which can get up to 10 feet long, it’s sometimes called the Unicorn of the Sea. This tusk is actually an enlarged tooth with millions of nerve endings. Most males develop tusks after the first year of life when it starts to grow outward, twisting in a counter clockwise direction and leaving a hollow interior. This is a sensory organ, not an instrument for breaking through the ice, as I first thought.

They live in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia where ice is prevalent. They eat halibut, cod, squid and shrimp and can spend up to five months below the ice, breathing through the cracks.

You might notice the Narwhals in the commercial are white, which is the color for old Narwhals. They are born blue-gray, juveniles are blue-black and adults are a mottled gray. The name Narwhal means “corpse whale” in Old Norse, perhaps a reflection of its skin color.

These majestic animals weigh up to 4,200 pounds and can grow as long as 17 feet in length. And they can also dive in the ocean a mile-and-a-half deep.

I never cease to be amazed by the creatures that God has created. How many more live in the oceans that we’ve never seen? They say it’s the final frontier.

 

Reference: http://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/unicorn-of-the-sea-narwhal-facts

Shocking Eel

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Have you always wanted an electric personality? People are attracted to others with energy, but somehow that hasn’t helped to make the electric eel more popular. Even so, God gave this animal what it needed to survive.

Electric eels are both electroreceptive and electrogenic in that they can detect electrical fields and generate them. An eel can hunt its prey undetected by measuring subtle changes in its own electrically generated field (electroreceptive). It then immobilizes the prey with a powerful electric shock (electrogenic).

Most of an eel’s body is made up of organs involved in making and storing the electrical charge. Using separate organs, it generates electricity from food by charging cells called electrocytes, in much the same way that muscles generate energy, and then stores it for later zapping of prey.

Just about everyone has the same questions about electric eels. How does the eel keep from electrocuting itself while it shocks its food?

Scientists aren’t exactly sure, but they have some theories. First, the eel’s brain is located far away from the electric-producing organs and is insulated with fatty tissue. The animal’s skin also seems to have insulating properties. Some scientists also think there might be an internal switching mechanism for the eel to turn off its own electricity during mating.

Are the complex electrical organs in this animal the result of random chance mutations? It’s hard for me to believe that mutations would have come about simultaneously to generate electricity, store it in a specialized organ and develop measures to protect the eel from shocking itself. For supposedly random mutations, that sounds pretty purposeful. When I look at the electric eel, I see a perfectly designed creature made by God, even if we don’t completely understand it.

What do you think? Is the electrical system of the eel evidence of design? Or did small mutations add up to one shocking creature?

 

 

Reference: Stratham, Dominic. “Stunning and Stealthy: the amazing electric eel.” Creation 36(1), 2014, p.29.

Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/table4five/1285873218/”>Elizabeth/Table4Five</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>

Fun Science Fact

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The Siberian salamander has the brown, scaly skin of an average salamander, but it’s not your average salamander. It has an amazing super power.

During hibernation the Siberian salamander is able to survive temperatures as low as -35 degrees Celsius by allowing its body tissues to freeze. It can survive in this state for long periods of time.

Unable to burrow through the permafrost in winter, this species is often trapped within the ice on the surface of the ground, although rotten trees and logs are also used for hibernation. Some have even been found more than 40 feet down into the ice, although there is debate about whether the salamanders are as old as the surrounding ice or whether they fell through cracks in the ice.

When temperatures begin to increase in spring, the ice thaws out, defrosting the salamander. The animal runs off as if nothing happened and maybe in its mind only a blink of an eye has passed. Scientists aren’t sure what chemicals give this salamander its super freezing power, but it’s clear that God gave the salamander a great gift to aid in its survival.

 

Reference: http://www.arkive.org/siberian-salamander/salamandrella-keyserlingii/,

Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/nicholas_hunter/14732935796/”>NicholasHunterGreen</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

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