They fell from the sky! WTF?

An avalanche of more than 100 apples rained down over a main road in Keresley, Coventry on Monday night. The street was left littered with apples after they pelted car windscreens and bonnets just after rush-hour. The bizarre downpour may have been caused by a current of air that lifted the fruit from a garden or orchard, releasing it over the junction of Keresley Road and Kelmscote Road.


North Sea wind farm has net positive impact on fauna

A North-Sea wind farm has hardly any negative effects on fauna. At most, a few bird species will avoid such a wind farm. It turns out that a wind farm also provides a new natural habitat for organisms living on the sea bed such as mussels, anemones, and crabs, thereby contributing to increased biodiversity. For fish and marine mammals, it provides an oasis of calm in a relatively busy coastal area, according to researcher Prof. Han Lindeboom at IMARES…and several of his colleagues and fellow scientists at Bureau Waardenburg and Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ)…

The research carried out within the OWEZ wind farm revealed little effect during the first few years on the benthic organisms in the sandy areas between the wind turbines. New species establish themselves, and communities of animals arise on the wind turbine piles and the rocks piled around the columns, leading to a local increase in biodiversity. The fish fauna turns out to be very variable, and some minor positive effects have been observed so far. For example, the wind farm seems to provide shelter to cod. Porpoises were also heard more often inside the wind farm than outside it. A striking feature is that various bird species, including the gannet, avoid the wind farm, whereas others, such as seagulls, do not seem to be bothered by the wind turbines. Cormorants were even observed in greater numbers. The number of birds that collided with the turbines was not determined but was estimated to be quite low on the basis of observations and model calculations…

Overall, the OWEZ wind farm functions as a new type of habitat with more species of benthic organisms and a possibly increased use of the area by fish, marine mammals and some bird species, whereas the presence of other bird species is reduced…

In the busy Dutch coastal zone, the wind farm seems to offer a relative oasis of calm, according to the researchers. In the Anthropocene era, the present era during which humans have an impact on almost everything on earth, the effects of intensive fishing, pollution, gas oil and sand extraction, and intensive shipping have already resulted in changes to the ecosystem. Against such a background, a wind farm can contribute to a more diverse habitat and even help nature to recover. However, the rotating blades can also have a significant disruptive effect on some species of birds. The researchers therefore suggest that, for the purpose of generating energy, special areas be designated in the sea for wind farms. Unavoidable effects, such as a local reduction in the numbers of some bird species would then have to be accepted, but by choosing the location appropriately, these effects can be minimised.

I don’t agree with the need for specificity. I worry more about bats than birds around wind generators – a problem virtually non-existent for sea-based wind farms. I worry more about bats because their darting flight after food seems to be less aware of those big slow-moving blades than are birds.

The rest of the positive results shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s investigated the aftereffects of offshore oil production platforms. Some of the best subsistence and sport fishing you’ll ever find. The same kind of questions were being asked when I worked in offshore construction decades ago and beaucoup studies came through with answers as positive as these about offshore structures.

Squatter squirrel

A cheeky young squirrel seems to be making it clear that this bird box is his now. Photographer Christine Haines was confronted by the juvenile grey squirrel in a nesting box in her garden in Spokane in Washington.

She says: “My husband had constructed nest boxes in our yard to attract Northern Flicker birds. One day I heard a strange noise coming from one of the boxes. I looked up and saw a young squirrel peering out. I grabbed my camera and was able to capture a few pictures with its mouth open. I believe the young squirrel was calling for its mother.”

Probably calling for MORE NUTS!

Why we’re creating a chickenosaurus

[Sorry – at least this morning this seems to be slow to load]

When I was a young boy, I dreamed of two things: one, to become a paleontologist, and another, to have a pet dinosaur. I have become a paleontologist, and now I strive to figure out a way to bring back or create my living dinosaur…

But even though we didn’t find DNA in an extinct dinosaur, I decided to see if we could retro-engineer a living dinosaur — all birds are living dinosaurs — and make it look like an extinct dinosaur.

My colleague Hans Larsson, using developmental biology techniques at McGill University, was studying the transition between extinct dinosaurs and birds, trying to understand how birds came to lose their tails and transform hands to wings. I figured if he could figure this out, we could reverse the methods and make a bird with hands and a tail. It was the beginning of the “Build a Dinosaur Project.”

The Build a Dinosaur Project continues as researchers attempt to identify two atavistic genes proposed to control the appearance of the three-fingered hand and the primitive tail. This search involves the knocking out of target genes in early developing chicken embryos.

This is a long process that can take years — so as we wait, the prospect of a chicken-dinosaur is being used as a medium to explain developmental biology and evolutionary biology to the general public.

It is a simple way to demonstrate how evolution works, by showing that the genes for these primitive characteristics continue to reside in DNA — even when they are of no particular use at the present, but when they might be useful in the animal’s evolutionary future. The chicken-dinosaur is also an icon for genetic engineering in animals, providing a focus for discussions concerning ethics…

I think of the dino-chicken as a tool to educate people about the extraordinary characteristics of evolution and give them the primer knowledge to make future decisions about these types of biological research.


Flying drunk proves fatal for bird flock

No – not that sort of drunken bird!

There was nothing mysterious about the death of a flock of birds in Romania last week — they were simply drunk, veterinarians said.

Residents of the Black Sea city of Constanta alerted authorities on Saturday after they found dozens of dead starlings, fearing they may have been infected with bird flu, which triggered mass deaths in avian populations in 2004-2006.

“Tests on five birds showed gizzards full of grape marc which caused their death,” Romeu Lazar, head of the city’s veterinary authority told Reuters, referring to a pulpy residue which is a by-product of winemaking.

“This also applies to two dead crows we tested,” Lazar said. Birds are not used to alcohol but harsh winter and snow had prevented birds from finding food. Had they been able to eat some seeds, this would have diluted the poison…”

There have been a series of unexplained mass bird deaths in several countries across the globe in the last few weeks, including in the United States and Sweden.

A predictable number of conspiracy loonies have come forward with outlandish “causes” – most of which are about as out of touch with reality as the prophets offering them.

You think conspiracy nutballs freak out over birds falling from the sky? What if it rains meat? Again?

Now, where the crap did Dad put Texas?

Flocks of birds falling en masse from the sky in Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky and even Sweden is strange, but these mysterious mass deaths don’t hold a candle to the “Kentucky Meat Shower” of 1876 when it comes to avian oddities.

“Flesh Descending in a Shower. An Astounding Phenomenon in Kentucky – Fresh Meat Like Mutton or Venison Falling From A Clear Sky,” read the headline in the New York Times on March 10, 1876.

A second Times article the next day provided more detail on the strange occurrence.

“Mrs. Crouch, of Olympian Springs, Ky., was employed in the open air and under a particular clear sky, in the celebration of those mysterious rites by which the housewife transmutes scraps of meat, bones and effete overshoes into soap,” it said. “Suddenly, there descended upon her a gentle shower of meat.”

For a couple of minutes, it continued, big pieces of meat, three or four inches square, fell all over Mrs. Crouch’s yard. The meat “appeared to be perfectly fresh.”

The incident was corroborated for the New York Times by two sources – one Mr. Harrison Gill “whose veracity is unquestionable” and a correspondent of the Louisville Commercial newspaper…

After examining several specimens of meat, one scientist determined what fell out of the sky was in fact of “animal origin” (apparently he didn’t trust the taste buds of the locals). Therefore “the Kentucky shower was a veritable ‘meat’ shower.” Beyond that, he admitted that he had no explanation.

However, he relayed the most popular local theory: a large pack of buzzards must have flown over the area after having eaten some dead horses, then one of the buzzards disgorged himself and the others followed suit, (as is their custom, according to the journal).

The scientist reported that similar occurrences with buzzards had been known to happen in the past, so “it would seem that the whole matter is capable of reasonable and simple explanation, and we may expect to hear of similar downfalls in other localities.”

If you add the religious fervor of some vegans to the festering sump of bible-thumping True Believers, you probably could come up with a revival movement to counter the KoolAid Party.

10 ways to find more pleasure every day

Most of these are reasonable suggestions. Mostly, they make sense and you will read them and say to yourself, “yes, that’s something that makes me happy”. And you should follow on by doing whichever will help your day – or forget about it and do whatever you really feel like doing.

Here are a couple I can agree with:

Aren’t you ready, yet?

1. Play that song you love so much. Repeat. As any preschooler can tell you, repetition nurtures pleasure. When you experience something more than once, you notice more details about it each time, thereby increasing your enjoyment. That’s why you love revisiting that jazz standard, favorite roast chicken recipe, and beloved old Woody Allen movie.

6. Look outside. Our species has spent almost all of its existence on the African savanna, surrounded by trees, water, and sky. The world in which most of us spend our time nowadays is unnatural and can corrode the spirit. Even a small dose of nature elevates our mood. But accept no substitutes..!

7. Pet a dog (any dog). You may have heard this before, but it bears repeating: Physical contact with animals works wonders. It increases the brain chemicals associated with pleasure and decreases those associated with stress. Even people without pets can get some of the effect by hanging out for a few minutes at a dog run.

Start your Monday in tolerable fashion.

I’m going for a walk with my dog.

Migratory birds have smaller brains. And..?

Researchers at Centre for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications…shed new light on the evolution of brain size in birds. Scientists have known for some time that migratory birds have smaller brains than their resident relatives. Now a new study looks into the reasons and concludes that the act of migrating leads to a reduced brain size…

Understanding brain evolution is something that has interested scientists since the times of Charles Darwin, who considered that the large size of a human brain went hand in hand with the exceptional cognitive capacities of our species. One of the classic explanations is the protective brain theory, which suggests that a large brain — in comparison to body size — makes learning easier. This protects individuals from changes in the environment, such as those produced by changes in season. In the case of birds however not all species respond to seasonal changes in the same way. Migratory birds avoid these changes by travelling to less inhospitable places when conditions worsen. This is the strategy followed by swallows or cuckoos. Resident bird species stay in the same area throughout the year and face strong environmental fluctuations. Tits and crows belong to this group…

The study…points to the fact that being a migratory bird is what makes these birds have smaller brains. Researchers came to this conclusions by reconstructing the evolutionary history of passerine birds and determining the sequence of evolutionary changes which most probably led to the current situation. In the case of this group of birds “the first step was changing from a resident to a migratory life and the second step was a reduction in the size of the brains of migratory birds,” Daniel Sol explains. “Therefore,” he adds, “differences in brain sizes are not caused by nature’s need to provide resident species with larger brains, as suggested in the protective brain theory, but to provide migratory species with smaller brains.”

Normally a larger brain offers many advantages. Then why is it that in the case of migratory birds natural selection has favoured smaller brains? The study highlights various explanations, but the general idea focuses on the possibility that a large brain does not necessarily have to be better. According to Daniel Sol, “the brain is an organ that consumes a lot of energy and develops slowly and this can be too costly for migratory species which must travel far and have little time to reproduce.”

Several interesting ideas in the study. Some of which would be useful to a stand-up comedian.

The rest are meaningful to evolutionary biologists.