May 2009


ScienceNow Daily News reports on a recent article in the Journal of Proteome Research comparing soy plants planted within the Chernobyl restricted zone near the epicenter of the 1986 nuclear catastrophe to soy plants planted 100km away outside the zone.

The restricted zone still contains a great deal of radioactive material, and there have been conflicting reports on the effects of this on the area’s plant and wildlife. In 2006, National Geographic reported that Chernobyl wildlife, including rare species of lynx and Przewalski’s horses, were thriving “despite mutations”. An article last year in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters noted a reduced abundance of invertebrate species, and hinted at negative initial results of a survey the authors are conducting on mammal species in the area.

The soy plant study emphasizes the effects of radiation by analyzing proteins in both plants, where the Chernobyl-raised mature beans were markedly different from their uncontaminated counterparts.

When compared with normal plants, beans from the high-radiation area had three times more cysteine synthase, a protein known to protect plants by binding heavy metals. They also had 32% more betaine aldehyde dehydrogenase, a compound found to reduce chromosomal abnormalities in human blood exposed to radiation. Seed storage proteins, which provide nitrogen for germinating seeds, also showed up in different concentrations–some higher, some lower–than in regular soy.

The authors haven’t yet determined whether the Chernobyl-raised plants are viable for reproduction, but the high level of adaptability may indicate a potential for “space plants.”

How Plants Survived Chernobyl — Pappas 2009 (515): 2 — ScienceNOW.

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…Not my public library, of course. Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner, of the blog Awful Library Books, are public librarians in Michigan. Sadly (and a bit unfairly, I might add), their blog is limited to public library books only, but they’re accepting submissions. If your library has its own awful library book, send it over to them.

Awfullibrarybooks.wordpress.com is a collection of the worst of public library holdings. The items featured here are so old, obsolete, awful or just plain stupid that we are horrified that people might be actually checking these items out and depending on the information.

This blog contains actual public library holdings. No specific libraries or librarians are named to protect the guilty. Check your shelves, it could be you.

Awful books range from the hilariously out-of-date to the just-hilarious. Some of the posts address valid library management concerns. How can libraries weed books that are constantly checked out if the person in charge of weeding never gets their hands on them? This copy of Anne Frank’s diary is a great example.

New research being published in the next issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences gives insight into how Komodo dragons kill their prey. Komodo dragons can grow over 10 feet long and kill prey as large as deer and even humans. How they manage to do this was never empirically studied, but it was long thought that bacteria in the dragons’ mouths caused acute septicemia after a few days, and that the dragons tracked their prey until they succumbed to the blood poisoning. Science News gives the following report on that widely held notion:

“In the minds of many biologists, that just didn’t make sense,” comments Christopher Shaw, a biological chemist at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. “If you’ve evolved to be the size of a Komodo dragon, it seems to be a waste of time.”

What’s more, rare sightings of the lizards hunting didn’t fit with this method. Victims typically died quickly and quietly after going into shock, the authors say. “No one’s actually seen a Komodo dragon track a prey for three days until it dies of septicemia,” Fry says. “It’s an absolute fairy tale.”

And though the lizards wouldn’t win any gold stars at the dentist, Komodos may have a bad rap for oral hygiene. The Komodo dragon’s mouth is no nastier than those of other predators, Fry says. “A lion has a larger bacterial load.”

MRI imaging of a Komodo dragon head showed six venom compartments and an extensive network of internal ducts and specially serrated teeth, which the authors are calling, “the most structurally complex reptile venom gland described to date.” Mass spectrometry of the venom showed many proteins similar to those found in snake venom. The toxins primarily restrict blood coagulation and induce shock in victims by lowering blood pressure. In order to immobilize prey, Komodo dragons are able to use a much smaller amount of venom than would be needed to completely kill a victim, allowing them to take their time and savor the meal, so to speak. The researchers confirmed the effects of the venom on lab mice.

Oh, look at those cute little eyes. He just can’t wait to grow up, gain 100 pounds, and use his razor-sharp serrated teeth to immobilize you and eat you alive. OM NOM NOM!

It’s Not Their Dirty Mouths / Science News.

Komodo Dragons Even More Deadly Than Thought: Combined Tooth-venom Arsenal Key To Hunting Strategy

Fry et al. A central role for venom in predation by Varanus komodoensis (Komodo Dragon) and the extinct giant Varanus (Megalania) priscus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810883106

A new scientific survey has identified a huge nesting population of leatherback sea turtles in Gabon, West Africa. Science Daily reports on the article in press in this month’s issue of Biological Conservation, the new population may include as many as 41,000 female leatherbacks.

Leatherback sea turtles are classified as critically endangered, and the most recent survey in 1996 found only an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 adult females. The Gabon population could nearly double current population estimates, and may change the turtles’ IUCN listing.

Unlike other sea turtles, leatherbacks have a soft outer shell made from numerous small bones covered with leathery skin, rather than a hard outer shell. They can weigh up to a ton, measuring eight feet in length. Leatherback populations have been found all over the world, in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans as far north as British Columbia, and as far south as the Cape of Good Hope. The Gabon population is by far the largest currently identified. 79% of the nesting sites in the study are located in protected areas, and one of the authors, Dr. Angela Formia of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said:

These findings show the critical importance of protected areas to maintain populations of sea turtles. Gabon should be commended for creating a network of National Parks in 2002 that have provided a sanctuary for this endangered species as well as other rare wildlife.

Matthew J. Witt, Bruno Baert, Annette C. Broderick, Angela Formia, Jacques Fretey, Alain Gibudi, Carine Moussounda, Gil Avery Mounguengui Mounguengui, Solange Ngouessono, Richard J. Parnell, Dominique Roumet, Guy-Philippe Sounguet, Bas Verhage, Alex Zogo, Brendan J. Godley. Aerial surveying of the world’s largest leatherback turtle rookery: A more effective methodology for large-scale monitoring. Biological Conservation, 2009; DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2009.03.009

Science Daily: World’s Largest Leatherback Turtle Population Found.

The Curious Expeditions blog has something very tangentially book-related, so I can post it here, right? They paid a visit to the Paper House, in Rockport, Massachusetts. Their photographs are lovely, and the house sounds like a true oddity…

In 1922, a mechanical engineer, Elis Stenman, began building a small summer home. It started out like any other home, with a timber frame, roof and floors, but Stenman had other plans for the walls; newspaper. 215 sheets of newspaper (about an inch thick) varnished together into walls, to be exact. Paper walls were an economically brilliant idea, not that Stenman needed the money, having designed the machines that make paper clips. Newspapers may be cheap, but they also make great insulators. While no one is quite sure what Stenman’s motivation was, be it thrifty, logical, or merely curious, it is clear that he was utterly devoted to the idea. Layer after layer after layer of newspaper, varnish, and a homemade glue of flour, water and apple peels were pasted together until more than 100,000 newspapers walled the home. Stenman had originally intended to put up clapboards on the outside, but decided to leave the newspaper, just to see what happened. The result is still standing, still insulating, and “pretty waterproof”, according to the Paper House Website.

Here’s their photo of the exterior. It really does look like a relatively normal old house!

Everything inside the paper house is also made of paper, from the curtains to the chairs to the clock, save for two objects; a fireplace and a piano. Those are real, thoughtfully covered in paper. The fireplace is functional, though it is hard to imagine a fire on a cold night not ending in certain disaster in a house made of paper and varnish.

Perhaps the most wonderful part of the paper house is the paper itself. After nearly 100 years of exposure to the elements, the topmost layers of the walls are slowly peeling back, revealing bits of newspaper articles from the 20s. Wanted ads, recipes, news from Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign, and headlines like “LINDBERGH HOPS OFF FOR OCEAN FLIGHT TO PARIS.” can be discovered by inquisitive visitors. The walls are a timecapsule, one that can only be viewed and enjoyed in tiny, random bits. As time goes on, more of of the walls will peel away, offering an ever-changing glimpse into the past.

Here’s a close-up of one of the text snippets from a wall:

Unfortunately, the only photos of the paper furniture are on the Paper House website, and they’re very tiny. The desk of rolled-up paper does look sturdier than I would have expected. I like to see strange structures like this, re-purposing waste products into a useful shelter. Does anyone have a link to a house made of books? That’d be a lovely library design! Instead of discarding old, worn-out, outdated books, we could just save them to turn into another wing.

The Writing on the Walls | Curious Expeditions

I can’t. Or rather, I got only three right. In my defense, San Diego doesn’t have a lot of these, but that’s no excuse. Quiz yourself and report your score in the comments!

Here are the three I knew:


These are found in front of the Tate Modern, so I recognized them.


We had one of these growing in the front yard and one in the back yard of the house I grew up in.


I didn’t even know this was considered a tree, but I recognized those leaves.

Can you name these common trees? – Telegraph.

The latest survey of bird species has been completed by BirdLife International for the IUCN Red List, and despite worldwide conservation efforts, more birds are endangered now than ever before. According to their survey, 1,227 species (12 percent) are classified as globally threatened with extinction. The IUCN Red List now lists 192 species of bird as Critically Endangered, which is the highest threat category.

A recently discovered species from Colombia, the Gorgeted Puffleg (Eriocnemis isabellae), appears for the first time on the IUCN Red List, classified as Critically Endangered. The puffleg, a flamboyantly coloured hummingbird, only has 1,200 hectares of habitat remaining in the cloud forests of the Pinche mountain range in south-west Colombia and eight percent of this is being damaged every year to grow coca.

That’s a photo of the Gorgeted Puffleg. Sadly, that’s probably all most of us will ever see of them, unless part of the population is brought in for a captive breeding program. I’ll try not to be too much of a downer, though. There’s some good news!

In Brazil, Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) has been moved from Critically Endangered to Endangered. Named after the English poet, this spectacular blue parrot has increased four-fold in numbers as a result of a joint effort of many national and international non-governmental organizations, the Brazilian government and local landowners

Beautiful, aren’t they? These Lear’s macaws are at risk of smuggling and poaching, but international protections and careful surveillance of their nesting areas have helped to reduce threats. Other species, such as the Chatham Petrel (Pterodroma axillaris) and Mauritius Fody (Foudia rubra) have also been rescued from the brink of extinction by conservation efforts. No new extinctions were reported.

IUCN – More Critically Endangered birds on IUCN Red List than ever.

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