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US: Bats - The New Canary In The Coal Mine?

Bat
© Unknown
You may think bats are scary, but what's truly terrifying is the mysterious fungus that's decimating the bat population, according to an article by Stacy Chase in last Sunday's Boston Globe:
At least 1 million bats in the past three years have been wiped out by a puzzling, widespread disease dubbed "white-nose syndrome" in what preeminent US scientists are calling the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in human history. If it isn't slowed or stopped, they believe bats will continue disappearing from the landscape in huge numbers and that entire species could become extinct within a decade.
This would have drastic repercussions for the rest of us. As Tim King, a conservation geneticist with the US Geological Survey in West Virginia, told Chase, "We're at the vanguard of an environmental catastrophe."

Attention

US: What's killing the bats?

At least 1 million have died in the past three years from a mysterious disease, posing serious questions for our environment. But one Boston University biologist is leading the hunt for answers.

Big brown bats
© Unknown
Thomas Kunz emerges from Aeolus cave in East Dorset, Vermont, with a half-dozen metal ID bands -- smaller than SpaghettiOs -- cupped in the palm of his latex-gloved hand. They're tiny emblems of death, having once been affixed to the forearms of little brown bats.

The renowned bat biologist from Boston University, who bears a passing resemblance to Harrison Ford, minutes earlier had recovered the bands while trudging, like a real-life Indiana Jones, through a slippery mud-like ooze of rotting bat carcasses, liquefied internal organs, toothpick-sized bones, piles of guano, and a strange white fungus on the cave floor.

If bats had come out of hell, it couldn't have been worse than this.

"What we saw was bat soup. There were a lot of bones of wings and skulls and emulsified bodies," Kunz says. "There were dead bats -- decomposing bats -- hanging from the walls of the cave.

"My heart sunk," he says, noting some of the bands bore his initials, THK. "It was as if I had lost family members."

It's late August, when bats are in their swarming phase, and the 71-year-old Kunz and two fellow biologists have trekked, at night, in hard rain, with heavy gear, 2,520 feet up the rugged Taconic Mountains to Aeolus -- the largest bat hibernaculum in the Northeast -- to bleed live bats and collect samples for researchers leading the hunt for clues into the cause of mysterious bat deaths like these.

Magnify

Penguin DNA Evolving Faster Than Thought

Image
© D. Denver
The rate at which changes happen in the DNA of Adélie penguins (one shown here with chicks) has been faster than scientists had thought, a new study suggests.
Comparing the DNA in modern birds to that in ancient generations shows molecular evolution can happen at varying rates

The evolutionary march of the penguins happened in double time, according to new genetic calculations.

A study of DNA from ancient and modern Adélie penguins suggests that scientists may have miscalculated the rates at which genetic clocks tick off evolutionary time in other species as well. A team of researchers collected mitochondrial DNA from penguins currently living in rookeries in Antarctica and from bones of penguins that had lived in the same spot as long as 44,000 years ago. Analysis of the DNA reveals that the penguins are evolving on a molecular scale two to six times faster than standard calculations indicated, the team reports in the November Trends in Genetics.

Mitochondria are small structures that generate power inside cells. The organelles were once free-living bacteria and have kept their own circle of DNA, which encodes many of the proteins needed for power production. The function of mitochondria is so crucial to the cell that any changes to mitochondrial genes are likely to throw a wrench into a cell's energy-generating capabilities. As a result, the mitochondrial DNA has evolved slowly. Scientists can use the number of changes in mitochondrial DNA between different species to calculate a molecular rate of evolution and estimate how long ago the species shared a common ancestor.

Bug

Orphan Army Ants Join Nearby Colonies

Image
© Daniel Kronauer/Harvard University
Army ants are group predators that overwhelm large arthropods and other social insect colonies. Here, a raiding swarm of Dorylus molestus is attacking a grasshopper at Mt Kenya.
Colonies of army ants, whose long columns and marauding habits are the stuff of natural-history legend, are usually antagonistic to each other, attacking soldiers from rival colonies in border disputes that keep the colonies separate. But new work by a researcher at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen shows that in some cases the colonies can be cooperative instead of combative.

In those cases, when an army ant colony loses its queen, its workers are absorbed, not killed, by neighboring colonies, and within days are treated as part of the family.

The research, conducted in an ant-rich area on the slopes of Mount Kenya, is detailed in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Army ant colonies are dominated by a single, large queen who produces the eggs that give rise to all of the colony's individuals, which can number millions of workers. When she dies, colonies quickly disappear, raising the question of what happens to the many individuals.

Bizarro Earth

Earthquake Magnitude 6.6 - Queen Charlotte Islands Region

Image
© USGS
Date-Time:
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 at 15:30:46 UTC

Tuesday, November 17, 2009 at 07:30:46 AM at epicenter

Location:
52.151°N, 131.378°W

Depth:
11.6 km (7.2 miles)

Distances:
250 km (155 miles) SSW (197°) from Prince Rupert, BC, Canada

315 km (195 miles) WNW (303°) from Port Hardy, BC, Canada

331 km (206 miles) S (178°) from Metlakatla, AK

662 km (411 miles) WNW (302°) from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Sun

It was the Sun wot done it - Or was it?

A sharp drop in solar activity could soon tell us how much mankind and the Sun are responsible for warming the planet

Like it or not, it will soon be time to start placing bets for a white Christmas. If most climatologists are to be believed you are almost certainly throwing your money away.

The onward march of global warming is consigning such traditional Christmas card scenes to history. No more deep and crisp and even winters for Britain, replaced instead by damp and slush and stormy.

But, if a small group of maverick scientists are right, the chances of Yuletide snow may rise dramatically over the coming decades.

The difference of opinion hinges on what role - if any - the Sun plays in climate change. The vast majority of climate scientists maintain that the solar influence is limited or even negligible, and it is the unsustainable growth of industrialised nations that is driving the climate into chaos. The mavericks contend that the Sun's activity dwarfs the human contribution, and that there is nothing we can do except wait for the Sun to change.

Cow

Goat Lived Like a Reptile - A First

Image
© Jordi Nieva
The prehistoric goat Myotragus, seen here in an artist's reconstruction at the CosmoCaixa museum in Barcelona, lived on what is now the Spanish island of Majorca.
A prehistoric goat survived for millennia on a resource-poor island by living like a reptile - changing its growth rate and metabolism to match the available food supply, according to a new study of the animal's bones.

The discovery marks the first time scientists have seen this cold-blooded survival strategy in mammals.

The surprising skill likely allowed the goats to endure potentially fatal periods of scarcity on what is now the Spanish island of Majorca.

But the technique, developed when the goats had no major natural enemies, came with costs that seem to have made the now extinct goats unable to survive the arrival of skilled predators - humans - some 3,000 years ago.

The goats' energy-saving adaptations made the animals small and slow, noted study co-author Meike Köhler, a paleobiologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain.

Bizarro Earth

Volatile Gas Could Turn Rwandan Lake Into a Freshwater Time Bomb

Image
© iStockphoto/Yves Grau
Lake Kivu on Rwandan side
A dangerous level of carbon dioxide and methane gas haunts Lake Kivu, the freshwater lake system bordering Rwanda and the Republic of Congo.

Scientists can't say for sure if the volatile mixture at the bottom of the lake will remain still for another 1,000 years or someday explode without warning. In a region prone to volcanic and seismic activity, the fragility of Lake Kivu is a serious matter. Compounding the precarious situation is the presence of approximately 2 million people, many of them refugees, living along the north end of the lake.

An international group of researchers will meet Jan. 13-15 in Gisenyi, Rwanda, to grapple with the problem of Lake Kivu. A grant from the National Science Foundation won by Rochester Institute of Technology will fund the travel and lodging for 18 scientists from the United States to attend the three-day workshop. Anthony Vodacek, conference organizer and associate professor at RIT's Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, is working closely with the Rwandan Ministry of Education to organize the meeting.

Bizarro Earth

US: Earthquake Magnitude 3.6 Near Palomar Observatory

Image
© USGS
A magnitude 3.6 earthquake struck northeast of San Diego Monday, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The earthquake struck at 5:54 a.m. about 13 miles east-northeast of the Palomar Observatory and 53 miles north-northeast of San Diego, according to the computer-generated report.

Bizarro Earth

US: Earthquake Magnitude 4.6 - Southern California

Image
© USGS
Date-Time:
Monday, November 16, 2009 at 21:21:30 UTC

Monday, November 16, 2009 at 01:21:30 PM at epicenter

Location:
35.549°N, 117.274°W

Depth:
2 km (1.2 miles)

Distances:
26 km (16 miles) SSE (158°) from Searles Valley, CA

26 km (16 miles) SSE (160°) from Trona, CA

37 km (23 miles) ESE (102°) from Ridgecrest, CA

188 km (117 miles) NNE (28°) from Los Angeles Civic Center, CA