Category Archive: Biology

Shark Teeth Weapons

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Natural History Museum collections have been used for a novel study: the past biodiversity of a remote collection of Pacific coral islands. Joshua Drew from Columbia University and colleagues have just published a paper (see below) reporting on their identification of shark teeth used in weapons made by Kiribati people from the Gilbert Islands over a hundred years ago and now in the collection of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Having no metal, but a tradition of hunting the plentiful sharks, the I-Kiribati people used shark teeth to edge coconut wood weapons, both swords and fierce-looking tridents. While the team found plenty of teeth from species of sharks that still roam the local coral reefs, like tiger sharks, two species were represented that no longer exist around the Gilbert Islands, dusky and spottail sharks. The team were excited that museum collections could be used to shed light on past ecosystems, and to highlight changes in those ecosystems over time. …

Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better

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  A few months ago I wrote a piece on some of the most amazing scientific predictions to come out of classical literature. From IVF to space travel, it seems that an unexpected number of major technological innovations have been proceeded by the imaginations of great historical authors. But, if amazing scientific breakthroughs can be predicted before they happen, then surely the reverse must also be true. Indeed, history must be littered with examples of respected authorities confidently postulating the possibility of a discovery one minute, before shame-facedly back-pedalling in the next. So, with that in mind, here’s a run-down of science’s top-5 greatest hypothetical hick-ups.   5) Theory: Planet Vulcan, Proponent: Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier During the 1800s, astronomers were struggling to explain certain peculiarities in Mercury’s celestial orbit. Several scientists, led by Le Verrier, suggested that these disturbances arose due to the existence of another planet or  moon, which was named ‘Vulcan’, after the Roman god of fire. The theory drummed …

All you ever wanted to know about Harvestman, but were too afraid to ask

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Harvestman, Daddy Longlegs, Shepherd Spider, Grandfather Greybeard: all colloquial names for members of the Opiliones order. Yes, they have eight legs, but they’re not actually spiders. In fact, according to Chris Buddle, professor of arthropod ecology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, “Comparing a spider to a harvestmen is like comparing a blue whale to a chimpanzee.”   But how do you tell the difference between a harvestman and a spider? Well, harvestmen don’t have a waist or separate abdomen. Cellar spiders are often mistaken for harvestmen because of their long spindly legs, but they have a definite waist and also make silk. And don’t get confused about Daddy Longlegs either. Chris was surprised to learn that in the UK what we call the Daddy Longlegs is actually a crane fly. If you want to know more about these unfamiliar creatures, you can buy the book by Ricardo Pinto-da-Rocha, Glauco Machado and Gonzalo Giribet called Harvestmen: The Biology of Opiliones.  …

A Question Of Faith

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  To say religion is a contentious issue may qualify as a serious contender for understatement of the millennium. The Western World in particular has experienced a greater number of religious scandals in recent years, along with a growing and more vocal secular movement. But religion is not a recent phenomenon and, from Aristotle to Aquinas, has always been at the forefront of attempts to explain our existence. It is only relatively recently, with the advent of modern scientific discovery, that these traditional modes of faith have been challenged by a new and empirical worldview. And yet, faith and religion continue to hold a prominent place in the hearts and minds of billions of people across the globe. So just what is it that makes them such attractive concepts, and why are they so prevalent throughout human culture? What’s immediately clear, is that the origins of our obsession with faith are mired deep in evolutionary history. Indeed, it all seems …

How Darwin predicted the genetic link

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Just over a century and a half ago, Charles Darwin finally published On the Origin of Species, explaining how all life had been shaped by natural selection. Before he explained this blind mechanism though, he softened up his readers by showing how we humans had shaped some species through artificial selection. His audience of educated Victorian gentlemen would have been more or less familiar with breeding cabbages, cows and dogs for various characteristics, but Darwin also explained the breeding of fancy pigeons. It seems fanciful to us, but scholars used to believe that different breeds of sheep or cattle had each been domesticated from a separate wild variety, instead of from just one. Darwin decided to study one species in detail to explore this notion, and hit upon fancy pigeons. According to John Ross [pictured] –  an historian of Darwin’s pigeons (www.darwinspigeons.com) and a pigeon fancier himself – it was all down to a chance sighting on a trip to London: …

The Biology Of Bigotry

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The House of Commons may have passed draft legislation, but the UK debate surrounding gay marriage continues to rumble on. So why do some people persist in defending opinions that promote the segregation of certain social sectors? Of course, the environment an individual is exposed to, particularly during the early years, is bound to leave a cultural and memetic imprint that will determine how they view certain subjects in later life. But is there a deeper reason, a more intrinsic evolutionary or biological factor to determine why those who are different are often treated with such mistrust? Quite simply, are people pre-programmed to be bigots? Well it seems that the answer is, at least in part, yes. When examined logically there are actually plenty of evolutionarily acceptable reasons for the prevalence of bigotry, or, as it is termed in scientific circles, ‘in-group favoritism’. Psychologist Catherine Cotrell suggests that group living offered ancestral man numerous selective advantages, including an increased ease …

Dinosaurs in bed – foreplay

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What do dinosaurs getting it on have to do with engineering one might well ask? The answer is: surprisingly, rather a lot actually. In fact, all structures, including living things, are subject to engineering principles. Like all structures, animals too are to a large extent optimized for the stresses and strains of their daily lives, and surprisingly, to a certain extent, because they are living things, their structures can adapt to changing conditions. This is why astronauts, once they get into the microgravity of space for example, start losing bone and muscle mass as their bodies adjust to the changed demands placed upon their bodies by their new gravitational regime. Of course, there are tolerances built in, and overall the bodies and skeletal structures of animals are extremely well adapted to deal with the physical stresses of the environment they evolved to live in. In a way, this is why when engaged in normal physical activity like running and jumping, …

Myths, Misconceptions and Misunderstandings

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In late 2012, applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman released an intriguing little book called ‘The Half-Life of Facts’ in which he seeks to explain why a lot of the information that we all thought we knew is continually being disproven. It’s an interesting read, but the central premise should really come as no surprise. After all, science is based upon a continued quest for the refinement of knowledge, in which no theory, no matter how precious, is allowed to become immune to refutation. Still, there remains a stalwart group of pseudo scientific ‘facts’ that possess the peculiar ability to survive intact, even in the face of new contradictory evidence. So in the spirit of public service, and with the hope of helping to cleanup mankind’s collective meme pool, here’s a list of some of science’s most common misconceptions.   5) Bulls are enraged by the colour red This myth is so prevalent it’s even become the basis for a common British …

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