Hanging Upside-Down in the Tree of Life

On Tetrapod Zoology, Darren Naish acquaints us with all manner of vesper bats, a group which comprises 410 of the 1110 bat species worldwide. In Part I, Darren provides an overview of the group as a whole, including their snub-nosed morphology, invertebrate eating habits, echolocation frequencies, and migratory tactics, which may have “evolved at least six times independently.” In part III, he looks at a sister group to vesper bats called bent-wing bats, which “have the smallest reported genome of any mammal: it’s about half average size.” And in part VII, Darren explains that desert long-eared bats “drop right on to their scorpion prey and may be repeatedly stung on the body and face while subduing them: amazingly, this seems to have no effect.” In all parts, Darren shows us fantastic pictures of the species at hand, and explains their physical attributes and their position in the phylogenetic tree. There are now XX parts in the complete series.

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The Science of Kissing

Kissing remains popular among the people of the world, and in a new book former scibling Sheril Kirshenbaum delves into the emerging science behind the age-old practice. For one, the sensory experience of osculation (as sucking face is more formally known) forges new neuronal connections in the brain. On Dean’s Corner, Dr. Jeffrey Toney says “these new connections represent learning, memory and can enhance sensory perception and even healing.” We at Scienceblogs recommend five to nine servings a day. Dr. Toney also shares a video which demonstrates affection throughout the animal kingdom, including among bonobos, who are known to exercise their synapses in the French style. Sheril provides other insights in a 2009 post on The Intersection, writing that “up to ten percent of humanity doesn’t even touch lips” and kissing “may have evolved from primates feeding their babies mouth-to-mouth.” If that doesn’t quite set the mood, maybe some Marvin Gaye will do.

Celebrating Henrietta Lacks

i-76b237f631d6933435bd146644c8c804-helabuzz.jpgOn February 2, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by ScienceBlogger Rebecca Skloot was officially published. If you haven’t heard, everyone who has read this book has wonderful things to say. Dr. Isis on On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess declares it “the single best piece of non-fiction I have ever read. It is one of the most important stories of the last 100 years and should be required reading for every scientist and physician-in-training.” Henrietta Lacks was a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cervical cancer cells gave rise to the first immortal human cell line. Long after she herself died, HeLa cells continued to multiply, playing a critical role in several scientific breakthroughs. But as Ed Yong describes on Not Exactly Rocket Science, Henrietta never consented to this use of her cells, and her family went 20 years without knowing that part of her was still alive. These days, HeLa is ubiquitous, as “50 million tonnes of these cells have been grown in churning vats of liquid all over the world.” Scicurious on Neurotopia calls the book “a labor of love:” “a love of science, a love of history, and over all things, a love of people.” PalMD on The White Coat Underground values the book for its insight into “the legal and ethical background of human tissue culture.” And Abel Pharmboy on Terra Sigillata emphasizes that “Skloot’s book is of far broader appeal than just the scientific community.” As much about humanity as it is about science, this is a story no one should miss.

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Barricading the Body

i-c9bba66ea3462ae89bd67638e5f99bb3-armorbuzz.jpgIf not always wieldy, armor offers great protection against teeth, talons and pincers–not to mention blades, bullets and shrapnel. On Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong reports that a deep sea snail has evolved one of the toughest shells on the planet, a three-layer system that has scientists rethinking the possibilities of human armor. These creatures must survive “highly acidic water, scorching temperatures and crushing pressures”—as well as prying crabs—and have made the most of their unique environment in doing so. Brian Switek shows us a mammalian version of armor on Laelaps, in his discussion of the peculiar glyptodont. Brian likens these extinct relatives of the armadillo to “extensively armored ground sloths with hard bowl-shaped shells and club-like tails.” And on Tetrapod Zoology, Darren Naish brings reptiles into the mix, with everyone’s favorite walking fortress, the turtle. These particular turtles are unusual, however, in that they have reduced the boniness of their carapace, resulting in a soft, rubbery shell. When everyone’s not out to get you, it’s easy to let down your guard.

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Cause and Effect

i-ef376aa01674d7e92fdfcf87b80dc9b3-causebuzz.jpgEvolutionary change responds to all kinds of pressures, and sometimes, the results can be surprising. On Gene Expression, Razib Khan challenges the idea that human evolution has stopped since “the vast majority of humans reach the age of potential reproduction.” He explains that differential mortality is not a precondition for natural selection, and supports his claim with data on human height and reproduction. In a separate post, Razib considers the feral dogs of Moscow, a pack of 35,000 with unique characteristics, such as the savvy to ride the subway. On Living the Scientific Life, GrrlScientist asks why some birds suffer the “tremendous sacrifices demanded by migration,” when suitable nesting ground is often closer at claw. New research suggests these birds may brave the inhospitable latitudes precisely because these harsh climes are less likely to support ravenous predators. And on Guilty Planet, Jennifer Jacquet wonders if Somali piracy has improved the catch by discouraging commercial fishing, a phenomenon which was previously witnessed after WWII. While wars and piracy may have unexpected upshots, Jennifer writes that if we just “left the ocean alone, fisheries would likely rebound.”

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Gotta Make ‘Em All!

i-f3e8e8a7a47942cfeff88cc7a13accd1-phylobuzz.jpgCharmanders and Squirtles are fascinating creatures–but being fictional, they place pretty low on the relevancy scale. Still, kids of all ages are obsessed with Pokémon, and David Ng on The World’s Fair wants to turn that admiration toward real creatures so that we might better learn and care about the lifeforms on our planet. The project is called Phylomon, and all creative and scientific types are invited to produce illustrations, write content, and design gameplay for the cause. Jessica Palmer sees big potential on Bioephemera, writing this is a chance for kids “to discover that real biology is also incredibly cool.” Meanwhile, candidates for killer playing cards abound. On Living the Scientific Life, GrrlScientist presents the Arctic Tern, “the world’s champion commuters.” Researchers have recently discovered these little birds migrate a staggering 70,000 km each year. On Oscillator, Christina Agapakis wonders at Elysia chlorotica, a symbiotic slug which not only blends in with algae, but also ingests algal chloroplasts in order to photosynthesize energy. And on A Blog Around the Clock, Coturnix makes us double-take at a moth with venomous-looking wings. When real life is this incredible, who needs a Pikachu anyway?

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New Embryonic Stem Cell Lines

i-e35bf3368d623c47f1f6f1910c0c659d-cellbuzz.jpgOn Wednesday, the NIH approved thirteen new embryonic stem cell lines for federally-funded research, with ninety-six additional lines still under review. These new approvals come as a direct result of the “Obama administration’s new rules on federal funding for stem cell research, which reversed the Bush policy of prohibiting such funding in most cases.” Read more about the new rules and a dismissed lawsuit against them on Dispatches From the Culture Wars by Ed Brayton. On Framing Science, Matthew C. Nisbet suggests that public attitudes toward stem cells are changing, and reminds us that much of the research currently underway uses stem cells of non-embryonic origin. Then for a different kind of cell line, Abel Pharmboy tells us about Henrietta Lacks on Terra Sigillata, a “woman whose cervical cancer gave rise to the most famous human cancer cell line.” Her cells live on today, as does her story.

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