Monarch Butterflies Thrive on Poisonous Milkweed

(p. D5) The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly eats only milkweed, a poisonous plant that should kill it. The caterpillars thrive on the plant, even storing its toxins in their bodies as a defense against hungry birds.

For decades, scientists have marveled at this adaptation. On Thursday [Oct. 3, 2019 [sic]), a team of researchers announced they had pinpointed the key evolutionary steps that led to it.

Only three genetic mutations were necessary to turn the butterflies from vulnerable to resistant, the researchers reported in the journal Nature. They were able to introduce these mutations into fruit flies, and suddenly they were able to eat milkweed, too.

Biologists hailed it as a tour-de-force that harnessed gene-editing technology to unscramble a series of mutations evolving in some species and then test them in yet another.

“The gold standard is to directly test mutations in the organism,” said Joseph W. Thornton, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. The new study “finally elevates our standards.”

For the full story see:

Carl Zimmer. “MATTER; How Monarch Butterflies Evolved to Eat Poison.” The New York Times (Tuesday, October 8, 2019 [sic]): D5.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Oct. 3, 2019 [sic], and has the title “MATTER; These Butterflies Evolved to Eat Poison. How Could That Have Happened?”)

The article in Nature mentioned above is:

Karageorgi, Marianthi, Simon C. Groen, Fidan Sumbul, Julianne N. Pelaez, Kirsten I. Verster, Jessica M. Aguilar, Amy P. Hastings, Susan L. Bernstein, Teruyuki Matsunaga, Michael Astourian, Geno Guerra, Felix Rico, Susanne Dobler, Anurag A. Agrawal, and Noah K. Whiteman. “Genome Editing Retraces the Evolution of Toxin Resistance in the Monarch Butterfly.” Nature 574, no. 7778 (Oct. 2019): 409–12.

The “corresponding author” (often considered the primary author) of the article is Noah K. Whiteman, who has published a book that extensively discusses cases such as the monarch butterfly, where a creature has evolved the ability to consume or make use of chemicals that are poisonous to other creatures:

Whiteman, Noah. Most Delicious Poison: The Story of Nature’s Toxins―from Spices to Vices. New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2023.

Egyptians May Have Tried Surgery on Brain Cancer 4,600 Years Ago

(p. D2) Scientists led by Edgard Camarós, a paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, were studying an approximately 4,600-year-old Egyptian skull when they found signs of brain cancer and its treatment.

. . .

Using a microscope, he and Tatiana Tondini of the University of Tübingen in Germany and Albert Isidro of the University Hospital Sagrat Cor in Spain, the study’s other authors, found cut marks around the skull’s edges surrounding dozens of lesions that earlier researchers had linked to metastasized brain cancer. The shape of the cuts indicated that they had been made with a metal tool. This discovery, reported in a study published Wednesday [May 29, 2024] in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, suggests that ancient Egyptians studied brain cancer using surgery. If the cuts were made while the person was alive, they may have even attempted to treat it.

. . .

The new discovery not only expands scientific knowledge of Egyptian medicine, it may also push back the timeline of humanity’s documented attempts to treat cancer by up to 1,000 years.

For the full story see:

Jordan Pearson. “An Ongoing Search: In an Ancient Egyptian Skull, Evidence of a Cancer Treatment.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 4, 2024): D2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 29, 2024, and has the title “Ancient Skull With Brain Cancer Preserves Clues to Egyptian Medicine.” Where the wording of the versions differs, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

The study co-authored by Camarós, and mentioned above, is:

Tondini, Tatiana, Albert Isidro, and Edgard Camarós. “Case Report: Boundaries of Oncological and Traumatological Medical Care in Ancient Egypt: New Palaeopathological Insights from Two Human Skulls.” Frontiers in Medicine 11 (2024) DOI: 10.3389/fmed.2024.1371645.

On the antiquity of cancer, see also:

Haridy, Yara, Florian Witzmann, Patrick Asbach, Rainer R. Schoch, Nadia Fröbisch, and Bruce M. Rothschild. “Triassic Cancer—Osteosarcoma in a 240-Million-Year-Old Stem-Turtle.” JAMA Oncology 5, no. 3 (March 2019): 425-26.

Bdelloids Frozen for 24,000 Years Return to Life and Reproduce

(p. D2) Bdelloids can . . . come back to life after tens of thousands of years in deep freeze, according to a study published Monday [June 7, 2021] in the journal Current Biology. Bdelloids are one of a handful of teensy creatures, including tardigrades, that are known to survive incredibly inhospitable conditions.

. . .

For the study, scientists collected samples by drilling about 11 feet below the surface of permafrost in northeastern Siberia. They discovered living bdelloid rotifers locked in the ancient permafrost, whose average temperature hovers around 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

. . .

Radiocarbon-dating revealed the bdelloids were 24,000 years old. They then bounced back and were still capable of reproducing once thawed.

For the full story see:

Marion Renault. “The Deepest Sleeper: It Makes Rip Van Winkle Look Like an Amateur.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 15, 2021 [sic]): D2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 7, 2021 [sic], and has the title “This Tiny Creature Survived 24,000 Years Frozen in Siberian Permafrost.” Where the versions differ, in the passages quoted above I follow the online version.)

The study mentioned above is:

Shmakova, Lyubov, Stas Malavin, Nataliia Iakovenko, Tatiana Vishnivetskaya, Daniel Shain, Michael Plewka, and Elizaveta Rivkina. “A Living Bdelloid Rotifer from 24,000-Year-Old Arctic Permafrost.” Current Biology 31, no. 11 (June 7, 2021): R712-R713.

When Ocean Temperatures Dropped 30 Million Years Ago, Some Species Migrated to Warmer Waters; Others Developed New Traits

(p. D2) The Southern Ocean around Antarctica was once warmer. Then about 30 million years ago, the temperature dropped. Few fish could survive temperatures that were just above seawater’s freezing point, and they either migrated to warmer waters or went extinct.

One bottom-dweller held on. Through the power of natural selection, its descendants developed traits that let them survive these unlikely conditions. Today, the Antarctic blackfin icefish, or Chaenocephalus aceratus, thrives in these frigid waters with no scales, blood as clear as water and bones so thin, you can see its brain through its skull.

For the full story see:

JoAnna Klein. “Skullduggery: It’s Not Hard to See How His Brain Works.” The New York Times (Tuesday, March 5, 2019 [sic]): D2.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 28, 2019 [sic], and has the title “How the Icefish Got Its Transparent Blood and See-Through Skull.”)

The article quoted above references the following academic article:

Kim, Bo-Mi, Angel Amores, Seunghyun Kang, Do-Hwan Ahn, Jin-Hyoung Kim, Il-Chan Kim, Jun Hyuck Lee, Sung Gu Lee, Hyoungseok Lee, Jungeun Lee, Han-Woo Kim, Thomas Desvignes, Peter Batzel, Jason Sydes, Tom Titus, Catherine A. Wilson, Julian M. Catchen, Wesley C. Warren, Manfred Schartl, H. William Detrich, John H. Postlethwait, and Hyun Park. “Antarctic Blackfin Icefish Genome Reveals Adaptations to Extreme Environments.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 3, no. 3 (March 2019): 469-78.

Giant Bee “Feared Extinct” Is Found Alive

(p. D2) It’s been 38 years since scientists last spotted the insect known as Wallace’s Giant Bee, a rare species found only in a group of Indonesian islands called the North Moluccas. With a wingspan of 2.5 inches and a body the size of a human thumb, it’s considered the world’s largest bee, and was feared extinct.

Those fears can now be somewhat laid to rest. In January [2019], an international team of conservationists found a Megachile pluto, as the species is called, in the wild.

For the full story see:

Douglas Quenqua. “Still Bite-Size: A Bee Absurdly Big, And Surprisingly Alive.” The New York Times (Tuesday, March 5, 2019 [sic]): D2.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 21, 2019 [sic], and has the title “The World’s Largest Bee Is Not Extinct.”)

Observations of Non-Credentialed Citizens Add to “Scientific” Knowledge

(p. D5) In 1811, a 12-year-old girl named Mary Anning discovered a fossil on the beach near her home in southwestern England — the first scientifically identified specimen of an ichthyosaur, a dolphin-like, ocean-dwelling reptile from the time of the dinosaurs. Two centuries later, less than 50 miles away, an 11-year-old girl named Ruby Reynolds found a fossil from another ichthyosaur. It appears to be the largest marine reptile known to science.

Ms. Reynolds, now 15, and her father, Justin Reynolds, have been fossil hunting for 12 years near their home in Braunton, England. On a family outing in May 2020 to the village of Blue Anchor along the estuary of the River Severn, they came across a piece of fossilized bone set on a rock.

“We were both excited as we had never found a piece of fossilized bone as big as this before,” Mr. Reynolds said. His daughter kept searching the beach, he added, “and it wasn’t long before she found another much larger piece of bone.”

They took home the fragments of bone, the largest of which was about eight inches long, and began their research. A 2018 paper provided a hint at what they’d found: In nearby Lilstock, fossil hunters had discovered similar bone fragments, hypothesized to be part of the jaw bone of a massive ichthyosaur that lived roughly 202 million years ago. However, the scientists who’d worked on the Lilstock fossil had deemed that specimen too incomplete to designate a new species.

Mr. Reynolds contacted those researchers: Dean Lomax, at the University of Bristol, and Paul de la Salle, an amateur fossil collector. They joined the Reynolds family on collecting trips in Blue Anchor, digging in the mud with shovels. Ultimately, they found roughly half of a bone that they estimate would have been more than seven feet long when complete.

. . .

Dr. Lomax said that this discovery also highlighted the importance of amateur fossil collectors. “If you have a keen eye, if you have a passion for something like that, you can make discoveries like this,” he said.

Ruby Reynolds said: “I didn’t realize when I first found the piece of ichthyosaur bone how important it was and what it would lead to. I think the role that young people can play in science is to enjoy the journey of exploring as you never know where a discovery may take you.”

For the full story see:

Kate Golembiewski. “Huge Ocean Reptile From Dinosaur Days.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 30, 2024): D5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 17, 2024, and has the title “An 11-Year-Old Girl’s Fossil Find Is the Largest Known Ocean Reptile.” Where there is a difference in wording between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Lomax co-authored an article with Justin Reynolds and Ruby Reynolds that described and named the huge ocean reptile:

Lomax, Dean R., Paul de la Salle, Marcello Perillo, Justin Reynolds, Ruby Reynolds, and James F. Waldron. “The Last Giants: New Evidence for Giant Late Triassic (Rhaetian) Ichthyosaurs from the UK.” PLOS ONE 19, no. 4 (2024): e0300289.

Economical Parrots Decline an Immediate Smaller Treat to Be Able to Trade a Token for a Bigger Treat

(p. D3) Chalk up another achievement for parrots, . . . .

Anastasia Krasheninnikova and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany tested four species of parrots in an experiment that required trading tokens for food and recently reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

. . .

A metal hoop could be traded for a piece of dry corn, the lowest value food, a metal bracket for a medium value sunflower seed and a plastic ring for the highest value food, a piece of shelled walnut.

The birds were then offered various choices, like a piece of corn or the ring. They all reliably chose to forgo the corn and take the ring. Then they were able to trade the ring for a piece of walnut.

They also did well choosing a bracket instead of the corn, and in other situations where the token was of higher value than the food.

For the full story see:

James Gorman. “Parrots Think They’re Pretty Smart.” The New York Times (Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018 [sic]): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Parrots Think They’re So Smart. Now They’re Bartering Tokens for Food.” Where there is a small difference in wording between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

The paper published in Scientific Reports and mentioned above is:

Krasheninnikova, Anastasia, Friederike Höner, Laurie O’Neill, Elisabetta Penna, and Auguste M. P. von Bayern. “Economic Decision-Making in Parrots.” Scientific Reports 8, no. 1 (2018): 12537.

Repeated Interbreeding of Brown Bears and Polar Bears Illustrates Fuzziness of Defining a Species

(p. D1) Naturalists have been trying for centuries to catalog all of the species on Earth, and the effort remains one of the great unfinished jobs in science. So far, researchers have named about 2.3 million species, but there are millions — perhaps even billions — left to be discovered.

As if this quest isn’t hard enough, biologists cannot agree on what a species is. A 2021 survey found that practicing biologists used 16 different approaches to categorizing species. Any two of the scientists picked at random were overwhelmingly likely to use different ones.

“Everyone uses the term, but no one knows what it is,” said Michal Grabowski, a biologist at the University of Lodz in Poland.

The debate over species is more than an academic pastime. In the current extinction crisis, scientists urgently need to take stock of the world’s biological diversity.

. . .

(p. D4) As scientists gather more genetic data, fresh questions are emerging about what seem, on the surface, to be obviously separate species.

You don’t have to be a mammalogist to understand that polar bears and brown bears are different. Just one look at their white and brown coats will do.

The difference in their colors is the result of their ecological adaptations. White polar bears blend into their Arctic habitats, where they hunt for seals and other prey. Brown bears adapted for life on land further south. The differences are so distinct that paleontologists can distinguish fossils of the two species going back hundreds of thousands of years.

And yet the DNA inside those ancient bones is revealing an astonishing history of interbreeding between polar bears and brown bears. After the two lineages split about half a million years ago, they exchanged DNA for thousands of years. They then became more distinct, but about 120,000 years ago they underwent another extraordinary exchange of genes.

Between 25,000 and 10,000 years ago, the bears interbred in several parts of their range. The exchanges have left a significant imprint on bears today: About 10 percent of the DNA in brown bears comes from polar bears.

Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that the interbreeding most likely occurred when swings in the climate forced polar bears down from the Arctic and into brown bear territory.

For the full story see:

Carl Zimmer. “Defining A Species Is Open To Debate.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 20, 2024): D1 & D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 19, 2024, and has the title “What Is a Species, Anyway?”)

The 2021 survey mentioned above was more fully detailed in:

Stankowski, Sean, and Mark Ravinet. “Quantifying the Use of Species Concepts.” Current Biology 31, no. 9 (May 10, 2021): R428-R429.

“Never Say Die” in Search of Species That We’ve Declared Extinct

(p. D1) Just a few years ago, it seemed like the scarce yellow sally stonefly had gone locally extinct.

In 1995, ecologists collected a single specimen of the aquatic insect in the River Dee near the Wales-England boundary, the species’ only known refuge. For the next two decades, every survey there failed to find another of the stonefly, which is only about a half an inch long.

“There had been so much work done to refind this beast,” said Craig Macadam, conservation director at the Invertebrate Conservation Trust, more commonly known as Buglife, a charity in Britain. “We were all beginning to give up hope.”

. . .

(p. D5) “When you actually see the animal alive in front of you and then the next year it’s gone, you feel like you’ve watched it disappear from Earth,” Mr. Davy-Bowker said. “Nobody could find it, so that was it. It just disappeared.”

But Mr. Davy-Bowker wouldn’t quit. In March 2017, during the season when the River Dee is at its coldest and deepest and stonefly nymphs are large, he put on chest waders and went in.

. . .

About 20 minutes into that day’s expedition, Mr. Davy-Bowker captured a living scarce yellow sally stonefly, upending 22 years of presumed local extinction.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely staggered, really,” he said. “I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to find it again. Never say die.”

. . .

Mr. Macadam, of the Buglife conservation charity, said the species’ rediscovery has rekindled hope for other critically endangered invertebrates that have gone missing.

“For me, it opened up the possibility that there is another species that we’ve declared extinct, that is still holding on somewhere,” he said.

For the full story see:

Marion Renault. “Don’t Believe Your Eyes.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 25, 2020 [sic]): D1 & D5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 25, 2020 [sic], and has the title “‘Never Say Die’: Genetic Sleuths Rediscover Extinct Species.” Where there is a slight difference in wording in the last quoted sentence between the versions, the passage quoted above follows the online version.)

Australian Night Parrot Found Alive After Thought Extinct for 140 Years

(p. D3) Depending on whom you ask, the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine has either been extinct for nearly a century or has been just really good at hiding.

Now new research examining hundreds of reports from more than a century shows there is a good chance the thylacine may have persisted for a few decades longer in the most remote parts of Tasmania.

“There are pockets where the species could have maintained small populations,” said Barry Brook, a professor of environmental sustainability at the University of Tasmania.

One of the problems with the thylacine, and extinction in general, is it’s hard to prove something is truly gone. Australia’s night parrot for instance, was thought to be extinct for 140 years until its recent rediscovery.

. . .

For a study published . . . [online on March 18, 2023 [sic]] in the journal Science of the Total Environment, Dr. Brook’s team studied 1,237 Tasmanian tiger reports from 1910 onward. It classified these reports in terms of credibility.

For the full story see:

Joshua Rapp Learn. “When Did Tasmanian Tigers Actually Disappear?” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 2, 2023 [sic]): D3.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 7, 2023 [sic], and has the title “New Support for Some Extinct Tasmanian Tiger Sightings.”)

The study co-authored by Dr. Brook and mentioned above is:

Brook, Barry W., Stephen R. Sleightholme, Cameron R. Campbell, Ivan Jarić, and Jessie C. Buettel. “Resolving When (and Where) the Thylacine Went Extinct.” Science of The Total Environment 877 (June 2023): 162878.

See also:

Ham, Anthony. “‘Ghost Bird’ Haunts Those Searching for It.” The New York Times, Jan. 4, 2022, D1.

Life Was Resilient Even in the Face of Earth’s Greatest Disaster

(p. D2) The asteroid moved 24 times faster than a rifle bullet as it struck Earth some 66 million years ago. Its supersonic shock wave flattened trees across North and South America, and its heat wave sparked incomprehensibly large forest fires.

The event lofted so much debris into the atmosphere that photosynthesis shut down. The non-avian dinosaurs disappeared. And nearly 75 percent of all species were extinguished.

. . .

But even at ground zero, life managed to return, and quickly.

New findings published in the journal Geology . . . [online on January 17, 2020 [sic]] revealed that cyanobacteria — blue-green algae responsible for harmful toxic blooms — moved into the crater a few years after the impact.

For the full story see:

Shannon Hall. “Small Survivors: They Were Left Off Killer Asteroid’s Hit List.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 18, 2020 [sic]): D2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 1, 2020 [sic], and has the title “Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs Was Great for Bacteria.” Where the wording differs between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the usually more detailed wording of the online version.)

The findings published in Geology and mentioned above appear in the article:

Schaefer, Bettina, Kliti Grice, Marco J.L. Coolen, Roger E. Summons, Xingqian Cui, Thorsten Bauersachs, Lorenz Schwark, Michael E. Böttcher, Timothy J. Bralower, Shelby L. Lyons, Katherine H. Freeman, Charles S. Cockell, Sean P.S. Gulick, Joanna V. Morgan, Michael T. Whalen, Christopher M. Lowery, and Vivi Vajda. “Microbial Life in the Nascent Chicxulub Crater.” Geology 48, no. 4 (2020): 328-32.