Blog Archives

10 Neat & Random Things About Human Adaptation for Cold Climate Survival

Brrrr… are you guys ready for spring yet? We sure are! But since we still have a little longer in the cold, let’s celebrate more winter goodness.

As you may have read in our last post about animal winter survival methods, there are two basic types of tools for getting through extreme weather: physiological adaptations, and behavioral adaptations. For the human animal, our physiological adaptations may not seem readily apparent, and our behavioral adaptations look more like “culture.” Read on to learn ten awesome (and relatively random) facts about how we walking apes adapted to survive colder temps!

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Extinction and Heartbreak

Today a woman came into the nature center and, after perusing for a good while, came over to the desk to speak to me about a recent trip she’d taken to the Field Museum in Chicago, which is both a natural history and cultural history museum. (I now have a reason to go to Chicago – check out that site, the place looks amazing. Not only that, but they have beautiful descriptions of their exhibits and educational info all over the website.)

The visitor spoke to me about a permanent exhibit there called Evolving Planet, which focuses on how the earth has changed in the last 4.5 billion years. One component of the exhibit focuses on the big extinctions, like that of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic Era. The extinction of the dinosaurs was actually the fifth large extinction in earth’s history which is kind of astounding to us, since we think of it as being ‘the big one.’

The woman said to me, “The exhibit talks about how we’re in another big extinction right now. That one species – mankind – is the cause of the extinctions. That’s never happened before.” She went on to describe a ticker that shows in real-time how many extinctions are happening right now. She quoted 30,000 per year (an underestimate according to the UN Environment Programme), and as she stood there at the end of the tunnel of earth’s evolution, she witnessed the extinction of four species as the ticker ticked away.

Her eyes teared up. She turned away slightly and her voice caught in her throat. “It’s awful,” she said. “It’s so heartbreaking. I want to learn more.”

Admittedly, I’m a big softie inside and I had to fight from tearing up too. The truth is, for a lot of us, this kind of information is devastating. It’s overwhelming. It makes you feel powerless, and nothing feels worse than powerlessness. For this exact reason, I admit that I never read or looked at any photos about the BP oil spill other than what I had to hear from other people’s conversations. I just couldn’t bear it.

Extinctions have sped up since the times of colonization because modern societies have an absolute addiction to development. We wipe out forests, wetlands, and meadows for housing, farming, and shopping centers. We’re only now realizing the interconnectedness of all things; there’s still an argument that early hunters caused the extinction of mammoths, but things are never so simple. Changing climates, changing plant communities, competition, and predator pressure all play a factor in the extinction of a species. Unfortunately, mankind’s need for expansion destroys habitats, which destroys food, and also introduces invasive species that increase competition or predation. While it’s true that extinctions are part of the natural cycles of the earth, there has never before been such a mass extinction on a global scale, encouraged by one singular species the way there has been in the last several thousand years. We still battle for animal rights; it’s clear that the Gray Wolf is an endangered species, but the government allows inflated rancher “interests” to pull the species off the list, further threatening its already dwindled existence in the US.

The Po’ouli, a rare Hawaiian bird believed to be extinct as of 2004.

We’re only now learning to take into account the whole picture. When we fill up our gas tanks, we imagine oil fields in the Middle East, out in the middle of barren deserts. Like the mammoths, it’s not always that simple. For example, Shell is a mega-corporation that owns oil wells in South America and a great deal of oil pollution washes into waterways used by indigenous communities. Villages have been ruined and natural resources dramatically reduced. Because they have no money and no voice, they usually cannot fight to save their lands. This is not just a story of Shell, but of dozens of enormous, wealthy corporations who put money over life.

There are many more pieces to the puzzle than we’ve been taught to believe. At least in America, we’re still teaching our children that we have the right to lord over natural resources and use them up. We’re still indirectly teaching manifest destiny. We are literally taught that being parasites is natural, okay, and the way it should be.

My heart went out to this visitor because I empathize with her pain and the pure shock of such information. A quote attributed to Freeman Tilden but actually by an anonymous park ranger came to mind: “Through interpretation, understanding. Through understanding, appreciation. Through appreciation, protection.” We can’t protect something until we care for it, and often – especially in this society – we can’t care for it until we learn about it. We also have a lot of social injustice to overcome before we can really do what’s necessary; after all, when there are communities struggling to feed their children, how can you convince them to care for their environment?

I told this woman that there’s hope yet. There are tons of amazing organizations that get people out in the dirt, rebuilding shorelines, planting new forests, and trying to restore some of what we’ve lost. The best way to fight the destruction is to become a part of the conservation and reconstruction. Even if all you have time for is conversing with people about the issues and spreading accurate information, you can be a part of the solution.

In the end, our efforts may be futile; at some point, our species will go extinct too, and the earth will do what it’s always done: regenerate and produce new life. A lot of people think that’s nihilistic, but those people are still convinced that nothing is more important than I, we, and man. Sometimes it’s the only notion that rests my heart.

How do you deal with environmental degradation? Does it affect you negatively?

Thanks for reading. Happy Wednesday everyone. :)

Teaching Crows to Contribute to Society.

Joshua Klein had an idea. It was an idea that could revolutionize the world, and, at the same time, revolutionize how we perceive one of the most maligned creatures inhabiting the skies: the corvid.

Corvids are known tool-users.

For centuries, crows and ravens have symbolized death, poverty, trickery, theft, and a million other negative things. In reality, corvids are extraordinarily intelligent, discerning creatures. Like other animals that man hates most, corvids do not simply survive alongside us; they thrive, even in areas that we devastate.  Read the rest of this entry

Of Wolves and Dogs.

Recently I had to put together a display about the family Canidae and thought I’d share some of the very cool things I discovered with you all. Being a big dog lover myself, I’m forever fascinated with this family, which is in the Order Carnivora (from the Latin for “to devour flesh”), which also includes cats (Felidae), bears (Ursidae), and a smattering of other righteously cool predators.

The words “canid,” “canidae,” and “canine” all have roots in the word “canis,” which is Latin for “dog.” Also, “caninus,” meaning “of the dog.” The word “canine” refers to “pointed tooth.” (I heart etymonline.com!)

Yellowstone wolf pack in 2001. Via National Park Service.

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I See You. In Color.

Color vision is something that you, like me, probably take for granted on a daily basis, unless you’re a part of the 8% of men or 0.5% of women that are color blind. Seeing color sets us apart from some other mammals, and places us in a group with a variety of invertebrates, reptiles, birds, and more!

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{News Flash} New Deep-Sea Species Discovered

This freaking adorable purple octopus is part of a group of potentially new species discovered off the coast of Canada.

Via NatGeo

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Evolution Awesomeness Series #4: Goosebumps, the appendix, wisdom teeth, Oh My!

Have you ever wondered why, when you get cold, the flesh on your arms and legs erupts into a sea of tiny bumps?

The answer is simple: to keep you warmer.

via Wiki

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Evolution Awesomeness Series #3: Convergent Evolution

Meet the Emerald Tree Boa and the Green Tree Python, two different species from two different genera.

Emerald Tree Boa, Corallus caninus via Wiki

Green Tree Python, Morella viridis, via Wiki

What’s that you say? Those are the same snake?

Are you calling me a liar?!

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Evolution Awesomeness Series #2: The Antibacterial Lie

Warning: This post is less about the awesomeness of evolution than it is about the evils of antibacterial chemicals. Sorry, but when you run your own blog, you get to be as biased as you want.

I guess that’s not fair, I shouldn’t be biased; I should just present the info and let you make your own decisions. And I’ll start doing that. Right after this post.

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Evolution and Natural Selection

I believe in evolution. Or, at least, that’s it the best theory we have so far for how life came to be what it is today, and all the evidence (if correctly interpreted) is pretty convincing. I also just think it’s plain amazing: that, based on environmental stimulus, a species can change and adapt unwittingly over time.

Let’s take a quick look at what evolution really means.

The word itself comes from the Latin evolutionem, meaning “to unroll a book,” which I think is pretty cool. (I’m a total word nerd, so you’ll be getting a lot of etymological references around here.) The first widely-published ideas about natural selection are attributed by the well-known Charles Darwin, and a whole bunch of lesser-known men such as Alfred Wallace. A lot of other brains contributed and even originated important ideas around the articulation of evolution: writers were talking about the environment’s effects on species as early as the Greek and Roman times. The 1800s saw a rush of publishing and networking between researchers, and the broad dissemination of the information.

Darwin (LEFT) is best known for studying fossils, and later, the varying species living on the Galapagos Islands. Wallace (RIGHT) noticed a division in life on the island of Indonesia: on one side, things more closely resembled species in Australia. On the other side, things more closely resembled those found in Asia.

Evolution describes the changing of inherited traits of a population of organisms over successive generations. So a population can follow paths of new traits and eventually develop into a new species altogether. “Natural selection” describes the result of the process by which random mutations occur in a species’ inheritable traits (genes) and affect survival. Mutations can be negative and interfere with survival, but these traits are typically weeded out because individuals possessing them therefore kind of suck at surviving or procreating. Positive mutations actually aid in survival and so those individuals containing them survive to reproduce, passing those traits on to the next generation. Neutral mutations may be passed on or lost without great consequence.

Evolution is a process that theoretically takes an enormous amount of time, but the more generations a species produces, the faster it evolves. For instance, bacteria can evolve new traits – such as antibiotic resistance – in just weeks. This is the problem with commonly-used drugs both in hospitals and households.

For the next few days I’ll be highlighting some of my favorite examples of evolution. You’ll learn about toxic creatures, twins on opposite sides of the planet, triclosan, and goosebumps!