Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

Site Search







Recent Posts


Eye-opening discovery: 54 million year old fossil flies yield new insight into the evolution of sight

Eyes surprise: fossil eyes from a 54 million year old cranefly. Lindgren et al./Nature By Mike Lee, Flinders University Fossilised flies that lived 54 million years ago have revealed a surprising twist to the tale of how insects’ eyes evolved. These craneflies, unveiled in Nature today, show that insect eyes trap light the same way as human eyes, using the pigment melanin – yet another example of evolution finding similar

Metabolic health is inseparable from the health of our gut microbes

James Hamblin writes: The relationship between microbes and weight gain has long been overlooked in humans, but people have known about similar effects in animals for decades. After World War II, antibiotics became affordable and abundant for the first time. Farmers began giving the drugs to their livestock—for example, to treat a milk cow’s infected udder—and noticed that animals who got antibiotics grew larger and more quickly. This led to

We are not at the center of the microbial world

Ed Yong writes: Aside from those of us with access to microscopes, most people will never see microbes with their own eyes. And so we tend to identify microbes with the disease-causing minority among them, the little buggers that trigger the tickling mist of a sneeze or the pustule on otherwise smooth skin. We become aware of their existence when they threaten our lives, and for much of our history,

Revealing the secret lives of cells with advanced microscopy

Chris Parker writes: Open any biology textbook, and you’ll encounter an artistic rendering of a perfectly round cell, says biophysicist Winfried Wiegraebe. Yet the truth is more complex. Wiegraebe’s team at the Allen Institute for Cell Science in Seattle has been modeling the behavior of individual cells in three dimensions. Among their recent observations: Even with cells of the same type, no two are shaped alike, let alone truly round.

Viruses, the most abundant form of life on Earth, may be essential to the functioning of diverse ecosystems

Arizona State University: The community of viruses is staggeringly vast. Occupying every conceivable biological niche, from searing undersea vents to frigid tundra, these enigmatic invaders, hovering between inert matter and life, circumnavigate the globe in the hundreds of trillions. They are the most abundant life forms on earth. Viruses are justly feared as ingenious pathogens, causing diseases in everything they invade, including virtually all bacteria, fungi, plants and animals. Recent

Why did octopuses become so smart?

Ed Yong writes: A small shark spots its prey—a meaty, seemingly defenseless octopus. The shark ambushes, and then, in one of the most astonishing sequences in the series Blue Planet II, the octopus escapes. First, it shoves one of its arms into the predator’s vulnerable gills. Once released, it moves to protect itself—it grabs discarded seashells and swiftly arranges them into a defensive dome. Thanks to acts like these, cephalopods—the

Mucus has a surprisingly wide array of beneficial biological functions

By Diana Kwon We know it best as a stringy slime dripping from noses and as viscous, discolored goop hacked up by sickened airways. But it’s so much more than that. Coating the surfaces of guts, eyes, mouth, nasal cavity and ears, mucus plays a range of important physiological roles — hydrating, cleaning, supporting good microbes and warding off foreign invaders. “I like to call it the unsung hero of

Orangutans: Palm oil industry still threatens the lives and habitat of ‘people of the forest’

The New York Times reports: The men came at Hope and her baby with spears and guns. But she would not leave. There was no place for her to go. When the air-gun pellets pierced Hope’s eyes, blinding her, she felt her way up the tree trunks, auburn-furred fingers searching out tropical fruit for sustenance. By the end, Hope’s torso was slashed with deep lacerations. Multiple bones were broken. Seventy-four

World scientists’ warning to humanity on microorganisms and climate change

An editorial in Nature says: In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC, and more than 1,700 researchers, issued the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. It cautioned that humans were inflicting “harsh and often irreversible damage” on the environment, and that current practices were endangering humanity’s future. More than 21,000 scientists have so far endorsed a widely publicized and equally stark second warning, issued in 2017. This week,

These animal migrations are huge — and invisible

Carl Zimmer writes: Last week, ladybugs briefly took over the news cycle. Meteorologists at the National Weather Service were looking over radar images in California on the night of June 4 when they spotted what looked like a wide swath of rain. But there were no clouds. The meteorologists contacted an amateur weather-spotter directly under the mysterious disturbance. He wasn’t getting soaked by rain. Instead, he saw ladybugs. Everywhere. Radar

Bacterial complexity revises ideas about ‘which came first?’

Jordana Cepelewicz writes: Open a basic biology textbook published decades ago or one published a few months ago, and both will define the two major categories of cells in the same way: Eukaryotes have membrane-bound compartments called organelles, including a nucleus where they store their genetic information, while prokaryotes do not. The distinction is even embedded in their names: In Greek, the word “eukaryote” means “true kernel” (a reference to

‘Frightening’ number of plant extinctions found in global survey

The Guardian reports: Human destruction of the living world is causing a “frightening” number of plant extinctions, according to scientists who have completed the first global analysis of the issue. They found 571 species had definitely been wiped out since 1750 but with knowledge of many plant species still very limited the true number is likely to be much higher. The researchers said the plant extinction rate was 500 times

The biological origins of rhythm

Ferris Jabr writes: There are moments when we witness an animal do something so far outside its presumed repertoire of behavior — something so uncannily human — that we can never look at that animal, or ourselves, the same way again. For Irena Schulz, one of those moments happened on an otherwise ordinary day in August, 2007. Schulz lived in Schererville, Ind., where she managed a sanctuary for abandoned parrots.

We taught bees a simple number language – and they got it

Maybe the differences between human and non-human animals are not as great as we might previously have thought. from By Scarlett Howard, Université de Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier; Adrian Dyer, RMIT University, and Andrew Greentree, RMIT University Most children learn that written numbers represent quantities in pre-school or junior primary school. Now our new study shows that honeybees too can learn to match symbols and numerosities, much like

In ecology studies and selfless ants, E.O. Wilson finds hope for the future

Claudia Dreifus writes: No one else in biology has ever had a career quite like that of Edward O. Wilson. One of the world’s leading authorities on ants, an influential evolution theorist, and a prolific, highly honored author, E. O. Wilson—his first name comes and goes from bylines, but the middle initial is ever-present—has over several decades been at the center of scientific controversies that spilled out of the journals

Green monkeys borrow vervet monkeys’ eagle warning call when threatened by drones reports: Some 40 years ago, scientists discovered that East African vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) produce distinct alarm calls when they encounter their three main predators: leopards, snakes and eagles. Their cousins in West Africa, green monkeys (Chlorocebus sabaeus), are also known to cry out at the sight of leopard and snakes, but for some unknown reason, they don’t seem to emit a unique call for birds of prey. A