May 10, 2013
After 17 years underground, billions of cicadas are ready to emerge and see sunlight for the first time. They will blanket the East Coast until around mid-June, buzzing like jackhammers in harmony as they search for a mate. Since 1996, the periodical insects, which belong to a group called Brood II, have lived as nymphs two feet deep in the soil, feeding on nothing but the liquid they suck out of tree roots. Once they crawl up to the surface, they molt, mate, lay eggs and die within a month.
Scientists are still trying to determine how periodical cicadas know when to emerge. But in the last 17 years, researchers have made some other important discoveries about other insects, some of whom also enjoy swarming the United States. Here are 17 news items about the bugs’ brethren since 1996.
1. British researchers figured out how insects fly. In 1996, scientists at the University of Cambridge solved the mystery of how many winged insects can produce more lift than can be explained by aerodynamic properties. The team unleashed hawkmoths into a wind tunnel with smoke and then took high-speed photos of the insects in flight. By studying how the smoke moved around the moths’ wings, researchers were able to determine that flying insects create whirling spirals of air above the front edges of their wings, providing more lift.
2. Cuba claimed that the United States brought an insect infestation to the island. In 1997, Cuban authorities accused the U.S. of staging a biological attack the previous year by using a crop-duster to spread insects over the island. But what really happened? An American commercial airliner had flown over the country and released smoke to signal its location, an event that coincided with bug infestations on Cuba’s potato plantations.
3. A plague of crickets ravaged the Midwest. In 2001, hordes of crickets descended upon Utah, infesting more than 1.5 million acres in 18 of the state’s 29 counties. The damaged wreaked on the
ironically named Beehive State’s crops totaled nearly $25 million. Michael O. Leavitt, Utah’s governor at the time, declared the infestation a n emergency and sought help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in combating the little critters.
4. Scientists uncovered an entire new order of insects. In 2002, entomologists discovered a group of inch-long wingless creatures that comprised a new order, a taxonomic rank used in the classification of organisms. The first to be identified in 88 years at that time, the order, dubbed Mantophasmatodea, consists of insects with features similar to praying mantises. The finding became the 31st known insect order.
5. A swarm of butterflies, thought to be one single species, turned out to be 10 of them. In 2004, researchers used DNA barcoding technology to study the Astraptes fulgerator butterfly, whose habitat ranges from Texas to northern Argentina. What they found was remarkable: an insect that was thought to be one species was actually 10 different species. The species’ habitats overlapped, but the butterflies never bred with its doppelganger neighbors.
6. Researchers pinpointed the world’s oldest known insect fossil. Until 2004, a 400 million-year-old set of tiny insect jaws—originally found in a block of chert along with a well-preserved and well-studied fossil springtail—lay untouched for almost a century in a drawer at the Natural History Museum in London. The rediscovery and subsequent study of the specimen meant that true insects appeared 10 million to 20 million years earlier than once thought. The researchers believe these ancient insects were capable of flight, which would mean the tiny creatures took to the skies 170 millions years ago, before flying dinosaurs.
7. Brood X invaded the East Coast. In 2004, another group of cicadas known as Brood X emerged after 17 years underground. The bugs’ motto? Strength in numbers. This class is the largest of the periodical insects, including three different species of cicada.
8. America’s bee population started to plummet. By spring of 2007, more than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million honeybee colonies had mysteriously vanished. Something prevented the bees from returning to their hives, and scientists weren’t sure why, but they gave it a name: colony-collapse disorder. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the phenomenon continues to plague apiaries across the country, and no cause has been determined.
9. Gypsy moths destroyed thousands of trees in New Jersey. In 2007, gypsy moths ravaged more than 320,000 acres of forest in the Garden State. One of North America’s most devastating forest pests, the insect feeds on the leaves of trees, stripping branches bare. Agricultural officials said the infestation was the worst of its kind since 1990.
10. Scientists figured out how to extract DNA from preserved insect specimens. In 2009, researchers removed a barrier from the study of early insects, a practice that often left ancient specimens destroyed. In the past, too much tinkering around with tiny specimens meant that the samples often became contaminated or eventually deteriorated. The scientists soaked nearly 200-year-old preserved beetles in a special solution for 16 hours, a process that allowed them to then carefully extract DNA from the bugs without damaging them.
11. Hundreds of ancient insect species were found lodged in one chunk of amber. In 2010, a team of international researchers discovered 700 new species of prehistoric insects inside a block of 50-million-year-old amber in India. The finding signaled to scientists that the area was much more biologically diverse than previously thought.
12. The first truly amphibious insects were discovered. In 2011, a study reported that 11 species of caterpillar with the ability to live underwater indefinitely were found in freshwater streams in Hawaii. The twist? The same insects studied were land-dwellers too.
13. Scientists discovered a cockroach with more than just a spring in its step. In 2011, a new species of cockroach, for whom jumping and hopping accounts for 71 percent of movement, was found in South Africa. Saltoblattella montistabularis can cover a distance 50 times its body length with each hop. Dubbed the leaproach, the insect relies on its powerful hind legs, which are twice the length of its other limbs and make up 10 percent of its body weight, to propel it forward in high-speed bursts.
14. Japanese scientists documented radiation-induced mutations in butterflies. When a massive earthquake and tsunami severely damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, dangerous radioactive materials were spewed into the air and waterways. The following year, Japanese researchers said they observed dented eyes and stunted wings in local butterflies, mutations they believe were a result of radiation exposure.
15. The East Coast suffered a stink bug epidemic. In the summer of 2011, growing numbers of stink bugs prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to issue an emergency ruling that would allow farmers to use lethal insecticides. The insects had invaded crops of apples, cherries, pears and peaches from Virginia to New Jersey.
16. The world’s largest insect was discovered in New Zealand. Scientist Mark Moffett, known as Doctor Bugs, discovered the world’s largest insect, a surprisingly friendly female Weta bug, while traveling in New Zealand in 2011. The massive creature has a wingspan of seven inches and weighs three times as much as a mouse. Here’s a video of the bug eating a carrot out of Moffett’s hand.
17. A fly found in Thailand was determined to be the smallest in the world. Discovered in 2012, the fly, named Euryplatea nanaknihali, is 15 times smaller than a house fly and tinier than a grain of salt. But don’t let the miniature bugs fool you: they feed on tiny ants by burrowing into the larger insects’ head casings, eventually decapitating them.
May 7, 2013
Last month, a trio of engineers debuted an app that allows Icelanders to determine if they’re actually related to a potential date. Why, you ask? Because the entire population of Iceland, roughly 320,000 people, derives from a single family tree, and it’s very possible to bump into a former flame at a family gathering.
The case of Iceland is an extreme one, but the idea that we are all distant cousins, in the scope of human history, is well accepted. A new study, published today in the journal PLOS Biology, explains this degree of relatedness in modern-day Europeans.
The study reveals that just about any two random people from anywhere in Europe, even those living on opposite sides of the continent, share hundreds of genetic ancestors from only 1,000 years ago. In fact, a person living in the United Kingdom shares a chunk of genomic material with someone living in Turkey 20 percent of the time.
Researchers from the University of California, Davis and the University of Southern California studied genomic data for 2,257 Europeans from a massive database of genome-mapped individuals known as the Population Reference Sample. They measured ancestral ties going back 3,000 years by analyzing long segments of genome, passed down from generation to generation, shared by individuals.
Distant relatives share these long blocks of genome because they have both inherited them from common ancestors. First cousins share about one-fourth of their genome, inherited from a shared set of grandparents. Second cousins share just one-sixteenth of their genome, thanks to the same pair of great-grandparents. The researchers detected 1.9 million of these shared DNA sequences within the data pool, and then used their varying lengths to infer how long ago the shared ancestors lived.
These shared chunks of genome become shorter and shorter between more distant relatives because DNA strands undergo recombination, shuffling our genetic makeup around, with each successive generation. For example, a shared block of genome is shorter between second cousins than it is between first cousins. The longer a shared segment, the more recent the common ancestor.
As we might expect, the numbers of shared genetic ancestors dramatically decrease as geographic distance (in this case, across Europe) increases. This means that people who live near each other are more likely to be related to each other than those who don’t. For example, someone living in England will have a higher degree of relatedness to a fellow Briton than he would with someone from Germany. Researchers found that two modern Europeans living in neighboring populations, for example two adjacent countries, share between two and 12 genetic ancestors from the last 1,500 years.
This pattern can be seen in historically small or more isolated populations too, where fewer possible ancestors exist. Such is the case on the Italian and Iberian peninsulas—areas least affected by Slavic and Hunnic migrations between the fourth and eighth centuries—where people share more ancestors with each other than people in most other regions of Europe. Additionally, those living in Western Europe are also somewhat less related to each other than people living in Eastern Europe, a historically tight-knit region in terms of population.
However, some findings deviate from this genealogical norm. The researchers found that people from the United Kingdom shared more recent ancestors with people living in Ireland than with other UK residents. Recent ancestry also tied Germans more closely with Polish people than with other Germans. These instances likely reflect human migration in recent centuries, as smaller populations moved into larger ones.
Although this study looked only at European lineage, the researchers suggest that such patterns probably exist in the rest of the world. In any case, such research in human history brings us closer to learning more about the most recent common ancestor of all modern humans,
which scientists believe who, according to mathematical models, might have walked the Earth roughly as early as 3,500 years ago (PDF). This common ancestor, a product of the intermixing of once-isolated population groups, could have lived much earlier than this if remote populations managed to prevent its members from mating with far-flung explorers, but the recent paper’s finding seems to support the idea that distant populations converged relatively recently when compared to the long history of ancient humans.
May 3, 2013
Lipstick has seen a fair share of funky ingredients in its long history of more than 6,000 years, from seaweed and beetles to modern synthetic chemicals and deer fat
. In recent years, traces of lead have been found in numerous brands of the popular handbag staple, prompting some manufacturers to go the organic route. This week, more dangerous substances joined the roster.
Researchers at Berkeley’s School of Public Health at the University of California tested 32 different types of lipstick and lip gloss commonly found in the brightly lit aisles of grocery and convenience stores. They detected traces of cadmium, chromium, aluminum, manganese and other metals, which are usually found in industrial workplaces, including make-up factories. The report, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, indicated that some of these metals reached potentially health-hazardous levels.
Lipstick is usually ingested little by little as wearers lick or bite their lips throughout the day. On average, the study found, lipstick-clad women consume 24 milligrams of the stuff a day. Those who reapply several times a day take in 87 milligrams.
The researchers estimated risk by comparing consumers’ daily intake of these metals through lip makeup with health guidelines. They report that an average use of some lipsticks and lip glosses results in “excessive exposure” to chromium, and frequent use can lead to overexposure to aluminum, cadmium and manganese.
Minor exposure to cadmium, which is used in batteries, can result in flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills and achy muscles. In the worst cases, the metal is linked to cancer, attacking the cardiovascular, respiratory and other systems in the body. Chromium is a carcinogen linked to stomach ulcers and lung cancer, and aluminum can be toxic to the lungs. Long-term exposure to manganese in high doses is associated with problems in the nervous system. There are no safe levels of chromium, and federal labor regulations require industrial workers to limit exposure to the metal in the workplace. We naturally inhale tiny levels of aluminum present in the air, and many FDA-approved antacids contain the metal in safe levels.
Despite the presence of these metals in lipstick, there’s no need to start abandoning lipstick altogether—rather, the authors call for more oversight when it comes to cosmetics, for which there are no industry standards regulating their metal content if produced in the United States.
After all, cadmium and other metals aren’t an intended ingredient in lipstick—they’re considered a contaminant. They seep into lipstick when the machinery or dyes used to create the product contain the metals themselves. This means trace amounts are not listed on the tiny stickers on lipstick tubes, so there’s no way to know which brands might be contaminated.
Concern about metals in cosmetics came to the forefront of American media in 2007, when an analysis of 33 popular brands of lipstick by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics showed that 61 percent of them contained lead. The report eventually led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which doesn’t regulate cosmetics, to look into the issue, and what it found wasn’t any better: it found lead in all of the samples tested, with levels four times higher than the earlier study, ranging from 0.09 parts per million to 3.06 parts per million. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead for humans.
So we’ve got cadmium, chromium, aluminum, manganese and lead in our lipstick. What else? Today, most lipstick is made with beeswax, which creates a base for pigments, and castor oil, which gives it a shiny, waxy quality. Beeswax has been the base for lipstick for at least 400 years–England’s Queen Elizabeth I popularized a deep lip rouge derived from beeswax and plants.
Lipstick as we know it appeared in 1884 in Paris, wrapped in silk paper and made from beeswax, castor oil and deer tallow, the solid rendered fat of the animal. At the time, lipstick was often colored using carmine dye. The dye combined aluminum and carminic acid, a chemical produced by cochineals–tiny cacti-dwelling insects–to ward off other insect predators.
That early lipstick wasn’t the first attempt at using insects or to stain women’s mouths. Cleopatra’s recipe for homemade lipstick called for red pigments drawn out from mashed-up beetles and ants.
But really, any natural substance with color was fair game for cosmetics, regardless of its health effects: Historians believe women first starting coloring their lips in ancient Mesopotamia, dotting them with dust from crushed semi-precious jewels—these lovely ancients were eating tiny bits of rocks whenever they licked their lips. Ancient Egyptians used lip color too, mixing seaweed, iodine and bromine mannite, a highly toxic plant-derived chemical that sickened its users.
From mannite to heavy metals, humanity’s quest for painted beauty doesn’t seem to have progressed far from toxic roots. The sacrifices we make for fashion!
April 24, 2013
Pop quiz: Why are flamingos pink?
If you answered that it’s because of what they eat—namely shrimp—you’re right. But there’s more to the story than you might think.
naturally synthesize a pigment called melanin, which determines the color of their eyes, fur (or feathers) and skin. Pigments are chemical compounds that create color in animals by absorbing certain wavelengths of light while reflecting others. Many animals can’t create pigments other than melanin on their own. Plant life, on the other hand, can produce a variety of them, and if a large quantity is ingested, those pigments can sometimes mask the melanin produced by the animal. Thus, some animals are often colored by the flowers, roots, seeds and fruits they consume
Flamingos are born with gray plumage. They get their rosy hue pink by ingesting a type of organic pigment called a carotenoid. They obtain this through their main food source, brine shrimp, which feast on microscopic algae that
naturally produce carotenoids. Enzymes in the flamingos’ liver break down the compounds into pink and orange pigment molecules, which are then deposited into the birds’ feathers, legs and beaks. If flamingos didn’t feed on brine shrimp, their blushing plumage would eventually fade.
In captivity, the birds’ diets are supplemented with carotenoids such as beta-carotene and and canthaxanthin. Beta-carotene, responsible for the orange of carrots, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, is converted in the body to vitamin A. Canthaxanthin is responsible for the color of apples, peaches, strawberries and many flowers.
Shrimp can’t produce these compounds either, so they too depend on their diet to color their tiny bodies. Flamingos, though, are arguably the best-known examples of animals dyed by what they eat. What others species get pigment from their food? Here’s a quick list:
Northern cardinals and yellow goldfinches: When these birds consume berries from the dogwood tree, they metabolize carotenoids found inside the seeds of the fruit. The red, orange and yellow pigments contribute to the birds’ vibrant red and gold plumage, which would fade in intensity with each molt if cardinals were fed a carotenoid-free diet.
Salmon: Wild salmon consume small fish and crustaceans that feed on carotenoid-producing algae, accumulating enough of the chemical compounds to turn pink. Farmed salmon are fed color additives to achieve a deeper shades of red and pink.
Nudibranchs: These shell-less mollusks absorb the pigments of their food sources into their normally white bodies, reflecting the bright colors of sponges and cnidarians, which include jellyfish and corals.
Canaries: The birds’ normal diet doesn’t alter the color of its yellow feathers, but they can turn a deep orange if they regularly consume paprika, cayenne or red pepper. These spices each contain multiple carotenoids responsible for creating and red and yellow.
Ghost ants: There’s not much more than meets the eye with ghost ants: these tropical insects get their name from their transparent abdomens. Feed them water mixed with food coloring and watch their tiny, translucent lower halves fill up with brilliantly colored liquid.
Humans: Believe it or not, if a person eats large quantities of carrots, pumpkin or anything else with tons of carotenoids, his or her skin will turn yellow-orange. In fact, the help book Baby 411 includes this question and answer:
Q: My six-month-old started solids and now his skin is turning yellow. HELP!
A: You are what you eat! Babies are often first introduced to a series of yellow vegetables (carrots, squash, sweet potatoes). All these vegetables are rich in vitamin A (carotene). This vitamin has a pigment that can collect harmlessly on the skin, producing a condition called carotinemia.
How to tell that yellow-orange skin isn’t an indication of jaundice? The National Institutes of Health explain that “If the whites of your eyes are not yellow, you may not have jaundice.”
April 15, 2013
This year, prolonged extreme temperatures and seemingly never-ending snowstorms in the United States forced many inside, seeking shelter from what felt like an unusually long winter. This meant some of us were stuck in bed for a day or two clutching a box of Kleenex and downing cough syrup. That’s because viruses that cause the common cold love enclosed spaces with lots of people—the family room, the office, the gym.
And though spring has arrived, cold-causing microbes haven’t slowed down. More than 200 viruses can trigger a runny nose, sore throat, sneezing and coughing—more than 1 billion cases of the common cold occur in the United States each year. The worst offenders (and the most common), known as human rhinoviruses, are most active in spring, summer and early fall.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when infected people cease to be contagious, they’re most likely to spread their cold when symptoms are at their worst, explains Dr. Teresa Hauguel of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. However, there’s another window of opportunity to be wary about. “A person can be infected before they actually develop symptoms, so they can be spreading it without even realizing it if they’re around people,” Hauguel writes in an email.
Surprised? Here are five more facts about the common cold.
Cold-causing viruses can be found in all corners of the world. Rhinoviruses (from the Greek word rhin, meaning “nose”) evolved from enteroviruses, which cause minor infections throughout the human body. They have been identified even in remote areas inside the Amazon. But it’s impossible to tell how long humans have been battling colds. Scientists can’t pinpoint when rhinoviruses evolved: they mutate too quickly and don’t leave a footprint behind in preserved human fossils. They could have been infecting
mankindhominids before our species appeared. Or they might have sprung up as small groups of humans moved out of isolation and into agricultural communities, where the pathogen became highly adapted to infecting them.
Cold-causing microbes can survive for up to two days outside of the body. Rhinoviruses, which cause 30 to 50 percent of colds, usually live for three hours on your skin or any touchable surface, but can sometimes survive for up to 48 hours. The list of touchable surfaces is a lengthy one: door knobs, computer keyboards, kitchen counters, elevator buttons, light switches, shopping carts, toilet paper rolls—the things we come in contact with on a regular basis. The number of microbes that can grow on these surfaces varies, but each spot can contain several different types of microbes.
You can calculate how far away to stand from someone who’s sick. When a sick person coughs, sneezes or talks, they expel virus-containing droplets into the air. These respiratory droplets can travel up to six feet to another person. A recent study found that the largest visible distance over which a sneeze travels is 0.6 meters, which is almost two feet. It did so at 4.5 meters per second, about 15 feet per second. A breath travels the same distance but much slower, at 1.4 meters—4.5 feet—per second. Moral of the story: remain six feet from infected people, and move quickly when they gear up to sneeze.
The weather plays a role in when and how we get sick—but not in the way you might think. Humidity levels can help those droplets whiz through the air quicker: the lower the humidity, the more moisture evaporates from the droplet, shrinking it in size so it can stay airborne for larger distances. Cold weather is notoriously dry, which explains why we’re more likely to catch a cold while we huddle up inside when temperatures start sinking. This type of air can dry out the mucus lining in our nasal passages; without this protective barrier that traps microbes before they enter the body, we’re more vulnerable to infection. So we’re weakened by the air we breathe in when it’s chilly out, not the chilly weather itself.
Contrary to popular belief, stocking up on vitamin C won’t help. Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, popularized the idea of taking high doses of vitamin C to ward off colds. But when put to the test, this cold remedy doesn’t actually work. If you take at least 0.2 grams of vitamin C every day, you’re not likely to have any fewer colds, but you may have colds that are a day or two shorter. When symptoms start to appear, drizzling packets of Emergen-C into glass after glass of water won’t help either. The vitamin is no more effective than a placebo at reducing how long we suffer from cold symptoms.