Potential Sighting of Yangtze River Dolphin

Yangtze River dolphin / baiji
Image credit: Wikipedia.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the likely extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin, also called the baiji. Today’s New Scientist reported that a video shot by a Chinese man on 19 August may show a baiji, though it is difficult to tell from the quality of the footage. Even if it is a baiji, however, one animal is insufficient to repopulate a species. While it is theoretically possible to repopulate from a single breeding pair of animals, in practice, there is typically not enough genetic diversity for this to be successful. It seems likely that even if this sighting is confirmed, the animal is still “functionally” extinct, and that the inevitable “true” extinction has only been delayed by some years.

What has made this especially poignant is that I’ve been reading a book lent to me by a good friend: Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams (the author the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Mark Carwardine. Published in 1990, the documentary is a companion to a BBC radio series highlighting endangered animal species. With his usual wit and humor, Adams narrates their journeys to find these unique creatures. I am just reading the chapter where the group is in China, searching for baijis. Sadly, their effort to draw attention to the plight of the baijis seems to have been futile; less than twenty years later the animal is already extinct or will be so shortly.

At this point, the only potential hope I see is for us to keep the baiji alive long enough (assuming the sighting was real) for us to develop the genetic technology to perpetuate the species. A different part of the book discusses the kakapo, a critically endangered flightless bird found in New Zealand. When Adams asks Don Merton of the New Zealand Department of Conservation about what he thinks the long-term prospects are, he replies:

Well, anything’s possible, and with genetic engineering, who knows. If we can keep them going during our lifespan, it’s over to the next generation with their new range of tools and techniques and science to take it from there. All we can do is perpetuate the during our lifetime and try to hand them on in as good a condition as possible to the next generation and hope like heck that they feel the same way about them as we do. (“Heartbeats in the Night”; p. 142)

It is now up to our generation to develop the science and cultivate the interest to preserve these creatures. And perhaps there is hope: the number of kakapo has apparently doubled since Adams and friends visited New Zealand; there are now eighty-six. And the book, too, lives on in a way; an interested reader maintains a blog following the status of the featured animals and others. (See his entry on the potential sighting of the baiji.)

“Woman Overjoyed by Giant Uterine Parasite”

From the Onion, a parody newspaper, comes this amusing take on a common event:

NEW BRIGHTON, MN—Immediately following a physician’s examination for her menstrual cessation, 37-year-old events planner Janice Crowley told reporters Tuesday that she is “ecstatic” with her diagnosis of a rapidly growing intrauterine parasite.

“I’m so happy!” Crowley said of the golf ball–sized, nutrient-sapping organism embedded deep in the wall of her uterus. “I was beginning to think this would never happen to me.”

(continue reading at the Onion)

While humorous, this article does remind us of just how unusual this physiological state is.

Modern Fish, Coelacanths, Tiktaalik, and Us

Tiktaalik roseae, illustration
An illustration of Tiktaalik roseae from Wikipedia. Credit: ArthurWeasley.

In the last several years, scientists have mapped in detail the lines of descent that resulted in aquatic vertebrates (fish) being able to survive and function outside water—including lines of descent that today have resulted in the mammals. Periodic discoveries stimulate interest in the media, such as the discovery last year of the 375-million-year-old Tiktaalik, or occasional sightings of coelacanths, an order of fish once thought to be long-extinct. But how are these animals related to each other and to us?

New Scientist published an article last week discussing new research into the coelacanth’s fins (specifically, when the difference between the coelacanth’s symmetric appendages and our asymetric appendages arose). But what I found especially interesting was a graphic demonstrating the relationships between extant lifeforms and notable extinct relatives, including when they are thought to have lived.

Diagram showing relationship between extant fish and tetrapods and extinct relatives.
See full-sized image. Source: New Scientist.

Perhaps this will help provide a framework when reading about these fascinating animals.

Queen Guitarist to Receive Astrophysics Doctorate

Just a quick post, since I want to get up early to watch the total lunar eclipse

I’m always pleased to see celebrities promoting science or education or pursuing higher education themselves. (I previously discussed actor Terrence Howard’s interest in obtaining a physics doctorate.) Brian May (wp), lead guitarist for the popular rock band Queen (wp), recently submitted his doctoral thesis in astrophysics. Title “Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud” and 48,000 words long, it should earn him his Ph.D. in May. See SPACE.com‘s article for more.

Tap Water vs. Bottled Water and the Environment

Bottled water has been appearing more frequently in the news recently, especially now that cities like San Francisco and Vancouver have banned its use at government functions and such. It’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken this long for people to realize the environmental damage bottled-water consumption does—or perhaps people simply didn’t (don’t?) care, since the harms should be relatively apparent.

One obvious harm is that of water usage. To make the plastic, it takes at least twice the final amount of water produced (so, for instance, three liters of fresh water are needed to produce one liter of bottled water). That probably adds little to overall fresh-water usage, but the effect on local water sources can be significant (especially depleting groundwater levels and decreasing the downstream water supply).

Furthermore, the effects on pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, are decidedly harmful. Plastic is made from oil; an estimated 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide (that is, about 0.1% of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions) were generated in 2006 for the production of plastic for bottled water. Then, too, a significant amount fossil fuels and more carbon dioxide is generated in transporting the bottles to the water source, and then transporting the bottled water to stores—especially if the water is obtained overseas. And of course, this further increases our country’s demand for fossil fuels.

Finally, bottled water produces an incredible amount of solid waste. According to one estimate, nearly 90% of bottles are not recycled. And plastic does not biodegrade.

However, there are several reasons why people prefer bottled water to tap water. Though there is little or no evidence for most of these, the effect is strong enough that even though tap water is essentially free, people will pay prices for bottled water that at times can rival the price of an equivalent amount of gasoline.

One perception is that bottled water is more healthful than tap water. While this may be true in some developing countries, in countries such as the United States, the municipal water supply is quite safe. In fact, since municipal water supplies tend to be more closely regulated than bottled water, it may be safer to drink tap water. There are no data showing a superior health benefit or decreased health risk from drinking bottled water.

Another perception is that bottled water (or a specific brand of bottled water) tastes better than the alternative. This appears to be more closely related to advertising and brand recognition than actual taste; in general, blind taste tests have not demonstrated the superiority of bottled water (see, for instance, an ABC News story about an [unscientific] taste test). In a recent study, toddlers found food packaged in McDonald’s packaging to taste better than identical, unbranded food; it should come as no surprise that adults are similarly susceptible to branding.

Finally, bottled water is often more convenient than tap water. Especially when on the go, it is often easier to grab a bottle of pre-bottled water than using tap-water alternatives.

What to do?

There are powerful environmental and personal economic reasons to eschew bottled water. But how can one leave it behind, without losing the (possible) advantages of bottled water?

For drinking water at home, many purchase a home water filtration system (such as Brita or Pur). Around one-quarter of bottled water in the United States (including Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aquafina brands) is just derived from municipal water supplies (sometimes with further purification steps), so home water purification is ultimately not much different. Of course, the water supply in the United States is quite safe and there’s no inherent need to further purify water for most people.

For when you’re on the move, the best thing to do is to purchase a reusable water bottle. (In general, it’s not safe to reuse bottled-water bottles, since chemicals can leach out of the plastic over time.) There is quite an array of options; Laura Moser recently reviewed a number of them in Slate.

Though it ranked low on her list, my personal choice has been a Nalgene bottle. I initially considered StopCorporateAbuses’s attractive blue “Think Outside the Bottle” water bottles. However, I don’t believe they are dishwasher-safe, and there are rather prominent anti-corporation messages on the bottles—in my opinion, most people would make the switch due to environmental, not corporate, concerns, and adding unrelated activism would be counterproductive. I ultimately selected Nalgene’s “Refill Not Landfill” bottle—it’s a nice slogan, and not overwhelming. It’s only $10.00, dishwasher-safe, and apparently the entire proceeds are donated to NativeEnergy, so it’s definitely one to consider.

For those who wish to become more environmentally friendly or to fight global warming, eliminating bottled-water use is a relatively easy way to shrink one’s “carbon footprint” and other damage to the environment.

For more information, you may wish to see  “How Do You Take Your Water?” from the New York Times and “The Snob Appeal of Tap Water” from Slate.

Google Earth Adds…the Universe!

I already thought the free Google Earth program was one of the coolest programs out there. Sort of a “digital globe”, you can zoom from looking at the entire Earth right up to your house or favorite location, change viewing angles, and fly to other places. That alone can occupy me to no end, but there is so much more you can do with the program. I think a good side benefit of Google Earth—and I’ve remarked on this before—is that to some degree, I feel it helps promote interest in geography. As one goes about exploring places, it’s difficult not to appreciate their geographical relationships, and eventually one starts exploring other parts of the world, as well.

But now Google’s taken this a step further. In their newest version, they’ve added the ability to explore the sky as well. Complete with Hubble imagery and loads of astronomical tidbits, this is a great new feature and one I hope will stimulate interest in astronomy.

Below is a video demonstration Google has created. There has also been a significant amount of media coverage—see, for instance, articles in New Scientist, SPACE.com, PC World, or other media.

I should note that the astronomical view is displayed as one might see it from Earth—sort of on the inside of a dome, not unlike a planetarium view. You cannot travel out into space. For that, I strongly recommend the excellent, free, and easy-to-use Celestia (wp). It’s beautiful, has an elegant interface, and is quite powerful. Google Earth plays a rather different role, and both programs complement each other nicely. I strongly urge everyone to download and explore both!

Update: Scientific American has a nice article, as well.

Few Americans Reading Books

CNN reports the results of a recent Associated Press–Ipsos poll studying the reading habits of American adults. On the whole, it is mildly disappointing, though not surprising. Among the findings, twenty-seven percent of adults read no books in the past year, and the median number of books read was four (excluding the non-readers, the median number of books read was seven).

While I find this level clearly less than desirable, it certainly could be a lot worse. Of course, there are many reasons cited for the low levels of reading books, such as the availability of so many other forms of entertainment. Also, the rise of the Internet has made it possible for people to easily access information from home, without having to leave the house to purchase a book or borrow one from the library.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism against popular reading phenomena such as the Harry Potter series (wp) or Oprah’s Book Club (wp). Major booksellers such as Barnes & Noble (wp) and Borders (wp) are criticized as well. But I consider these to be positive influences that help stimulate and sustain interest in reading. If they bring books to the attention of the public, if they help make books more accessible, then I support them.

Aliens as DNA-shaped Dust

In some ways, our biologists are hampered by having only one “scheme” to study. Since all extant life on Earth descended from the same primordial unicellular organism (perhaps 3.5 billion years ago), we all share a remarkably similar biochemistry, even in details. It is difficult to imagine what other systems would be possible, and how fundamentally different they might be. This also means that as we search space for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, we tend to concentrate on organisms like us. For the most part, we assume that they, too, will be carbon-based, and use water as a solvent for organic chemistry. Silicon and ammonia have been proposed as alternatives, though the available chemistry doesn’t appear as rich. (See Wikipedia’s article on alternative biochemistry for more information.) Then, too, organisms with this alternative biochemistry still would be rather similar to Earth-based life. What other possibilities could there be? Scientists and science-fiction writers have tackled this question for generations.

Scientists in Germany speculate about life in spirals of dust in outer space. Electrically charged dust immersed in plasma (ionized gas) can produce crystals and spirals. According to a New Scientist article, a simulation suggests double-helices could form as well. In addition, two stable states suggests that information could be “encoded” in these structures. If these structures exist, are stable, and can replicate (perhaps by inducing the surround dust to adopt the same pattern), a self-replicating system that could give rise to life would exist—indeed, many would argue that such a self-replicating system were alive. The researchers speculate that the rings of Saturn or Uranus might be regions to find such spirals.

Of course, this is all hypothetical, but I find it fascinating, nonetheless.

Yangtze River dolphin likely extinct

Yangtze River dolphin / baiji
Image credit: Wikipedia.

I was rather upset to see that the Yangtze River dolphin, also known as the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer), is thought to be likely extinct. This freshwater dolphin, which lived only in China’s Yangtze River, is probably the first cetacean (dolphin or whale) to go extinct due to human influence. Of course, humans have been responsible for wiping out species since before recorded history, but it is disturbing that we still do so. Human-induced extinctions are always regrettable events, but I admit I am especially attached to the dolphins, and I find it quite sad to lose a species of such a highly intelligent mammal.

Cetaceans, of course, evolved from land mammals around fifty million years ago. You’d have to go back only another thirty-five million years to find the last common ancestor of humans and cetaceans. That’s less than 2% of the age of the Earth (around 4.6 billion years)!