Monday, March 18, 2013

Jurassic Park 4

Our best guess at what Deinonychus looked like.

Jurassic Park 4 is scheduled to hit theaters on June 13, 2014, so this might be a good time to have a little heart-to-heart discussion with Mr. Spielberg on a few technical details. It’s been 20 years now since Jurassic Park first came out in theaters and paleontologists have learned a great deal since then. 
   Even though the appearance and behavior of dinosaurs is largely speculation, there are a few things that could be updated. From preserved specimens showing quill knobs, we know that Velociraptor had feathers, probably colored black, white and rust brown. And based on their size, those dinosaurs should be called Deinonychus.
   Crichton’s central idea was that the amber which preserved the mosquito also preserved the dinosaur blood from contaminants and harm—a simple idea which made for a compelling story. But there are definitely issues with this. You can’t get dinosaur DNA from a dead mosquito trapped in amber. After sitting in a chunk of resin for millions of years there is going to be mixing of the mosquito’s DNA and the DNA of whatever it fed on and anything else trapped in the amber. Even if it could be done, there’s no way of knowing what kind of animal a mosquito had bitten. How many would Hammond have to go through before finding one that had actually bitten a dinosaur? Not to mention how would extinct plants get cloned since mosquitoes don’t eat plants.
A 70-million-year-old T. rex
fossil has yielded soft tissue.
   There’s a better way. One of the biggest developments in paleontological research in the last two decades has been the discovery of soft tissues preserved in fossil bone interiors. These bones come from the badlands, and are excavated using sterile field techniques and without protective polymers and glues to keep contaminants from entering the bone interiors. The fossils are then taken back to a lab where the mineral components are dissolved in baths. If the dinosaur bones were truly permineralized then the entire fossil would basically dissolve in solution. But that didn’t happen when the first lab tests of this kind were conducted back in the early 2000s. After the mineral components had dissolved away, there was spongy, squishy, soft stuff left over. Paleontologists had discovered bits of tissue, blood remnants and marrow from their samples. This was absolutely unheard of when Crichton wrote Jurassic Park. Even though it’s not yet possible to retrieve 70 million year old DNA, this method is much closer to reality than sucking out dinosaur blood from a fossilized mosquito. If you want a park with a triceratops in it, just head out to the Badlands, find some triceratops bones, and mine them for their soft tissues.
   The other big change for Jurassic Park would have to be the DNA gap-filling. No more frog DNA. They would need to use bird DNA, preferably a more primitive species like an emu or ostrich. There has been a lot of genetic work done on chickens lately, so chicken DNA might work as well because we know so much about it. In a movie, it would not be much of a stretch to say that we have control over the chicken genome, and thus could reduce it back to a stem state, where the combination of the dinosaur DNA with the trimmed chicken genome lets you build a dinosaur.
   Not only could you clone dinosaurs with the soft tissue story line, but marine dinosaurs, too. Giant ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, plesiosaurs—there was plenty of scary stuff in the ancient seas. For the purpose of a movie, anything that’s fossilized could be fair game. There are plenty of big, scary extinct animals to choose from...

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Golden Tortoise Beetle

The Golden Tortoise Beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata)

The golden tortoise beetle is a common North American beetles that lives on and eats morning glory leaves. They can also be found on sweet potatoes which belong to the morning glory family. Both larvae and adults feed on foliage of which they make many small- to medium-sized irregular holes. Rarely are tortoise beetles numerous enough to be considered damaging to the host plants.
   In spring and summer, the beetle earns its name by turning the color of brilliant liquid gold. The color is produced by an optical illusion—the outer cuticle is transparent and reflects light through a layer of liquid over the next layer of cuticle. The beetles change color depending on the availability of the liquid layer which they control through microscopic valves under their shell. In the fall and winter, the beetles become less lustrous and are more orange and bronze often with black spots similar in appearance to ladybugs. If you try and add the beetle to an insect collection, it quickly turns dark brown as is dries, and looses its golden color. The beetle is most beautiful while alive.
   The larvae hatch out in late May and June and are just as interesting as the adults, but in a much different way. The young larvae are surrounded by many small protuberances giving them a spiny appearance. As the larvae molts, it keeps its old skin attached to a fork-like structure hinged to its rear end. The larvae will add its own feces to the old shell to create a type of shield which it can use for defense. When they are disturbed by another insect or predator, they flip the shield up in the direction of the disturbance. This "poo protector" is an unappetizing and effective deterrent against potential predators looking for a meal!

Monday, March 4, 2013

All Eyes on ISON

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) shares many of the same
characteristics as the Great Comet of 1680.

Be sure to keep tabs on comet C/2012 S1 (ISON), which is hurling toward a close approach with the sun this fall. Even though ISON is still a long way away, located just inside Jupiter’s orbit, it has already formed a tail of gas and dust stretching 90,000 km.
   This is thought to be the comet’s first pass into the inner solar system and promises to provide us with a spectacular show between November 2013 and January 2014 after it has its close encounter with the Sun.
   C/2012 S1 was discovered in September 2012 by two amateur astronomers using the International Scientific Optical Network in Russia, hence the nickname ISON has been adopted by the media.
   ISON has been recently observed by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft. Deep Impact, which was launched in January 2005, was originally used to study comet Tempel 1 by hitting the comet with a small metal probe then doing a close flyby to study the debris it kicked up. In 2010, Deep Impact flew past comet Hartley 2 and is now on its way to a January 2020 visit to a near-Earth asteroid that is large enough and close enough to us to be classified as a potentially hazardous object (PHO) by NASA.
   C/2012 S1 will be well placed for observers in the northern hemisphere during the last two weeks in December 2013. Some speculate that if it does not break up as it reaches perihelion it could become brighter than the moon at its peak, but many sungrazing comets do not survive the encounter. It has been calculated that as it nears the Sun it will reach a peak temperature or 2,700°C, hot enough to melt iron. 
   ISON’s orbital path is similar to that of the Great Comet of 1680, another sungrazer that is also known as Newton’s Comet because Isaac Newton used it to verify Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Newton’s Comet was one of the brightest comets of the 17th century. It was noted for its extremely long tail and at its peak it was bright enough to be seen during the day. Time will tell if ISON will someday be known as the Great Comet of 2013.