Super Males

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Here is a very strange fact about certain fish species; they can change sex. We usually think of animals as fairly evolved creatures and when a female or male animal is born, it stays whichever sex it started as. But not certain fishes such as the members of the wrasse family or Parrotfish. They are called protogynous hermaphrodites.

If you break down the words in proto (first), gyn (female), they are fish who start out female and then change to male. The small immature wrasses are brown or cyptic (camouflage). They start life as females and lay eggs which are fertilized by the males. As the fish grow and age, they become less female and more male. They turn pretty colors and take on harem collecting behavior. They eventually become functional males that fertilize their harems.

There are many theories of evolutionary fitness that may explain why the wrasses go through this metamorphosis. I’m not sure I buy all the explanations but you may want to read for yourself here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequential_hermaphrodites.
There may be an environmental advantage to a species doing this. If the environment is harsh and the populations are starving and not doing well, more of the fish will stay in the small female stages longer to make more eggs and improve the number of animals. Anyway, I found this story an interesting thing to learn about after we saw this fish at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Florida.

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Guarana

This week was finals week at most US colleges, so I am saluting our burned out students with a post about Energy drinks. These have been very popular for the past few years, offering a burst of sugar, caffeine, and magical herbal substances including Guarana. The main chemical ingredient in Guarana is caffeine. It also contains some antioxidants and theobromine (of chocolate fame) and theophylline which are heart stimulants.

In South America, the Guarana plant has been used for centuries as a stimulant and memory enhancer. No wonder students drink the stuff.

According to tropical lore, the berries from the Guarana plant are processed and dried and then pounded into a dry powder. The powder is added to water and a dough results which is rolled out into small cylinders. It is known as Brazilian coke. It is used by grating into a beverage and sweetened to taste. It is more popular in Brazil than cola drinks. It is so widely known that the word for soda is often “Guarana” regardless of the flavor of the beverage. The most popular brand is the Antarctica soft drink. More caffeine is consumed in South America from guarana than from coffee and colas combined.

There is some evidence to suggest Guarna has some health effects. In the ‘Pharmacological Activity of Guarana (Paullinia cupana) in laboratory Animals’ by Espinola, E.B. Dias RF et al J. Ethnopharmcol 55 (3); 223-9, it increased memory and endurance when compared to a placebo in rats.

In humans, memory, alertness and mood were increased by moderate doses. It is also generally recognised as safe by the US government. Since the main effects seem to be from the caffeine, I cannot say whether it would do much more than a cup or two of coffee, but whatever floats your boat. The main thing that will help you do better on exams is more studying. If a soft drink with mystical powers is your drug of choice, it may allow you to study more. I would think unstimulated study sessions and a good night’s sleep would be the best, but I am just a Mom, not a brain scientist. Good luck, kids.

Martians Have Landed

If you believe in little green men, look no farther than our own planet because there are some strange organisms out there. Infamous was paddling around last week in a fresh water lake and found this unusual life form.

A colony of Bryozoa peeled from a submerged log.

I first thought this was some form of frog egg mass or a glob of algae. Being the curious type, I scooped up this sample and put it on a plate for photos. ]

A colony of the organisms on a paper plate for scale.

I hope the blog police do not catch me for putting an animal on a Botany blog. For it turns out, that gob of stuff was, indeed, an animal. I found a picture of it on Wikipedia under the topic Bryozoa. Being an ever alert blogster, I thought I should bring it to the attention of the proper authorities. This is not a plant. It is a colony of lower animals that hang together like coral. It is soft and squishy so not quite like coral, but that is the closest thing my mind can come up with. The little animals wave tiny tentacles in the water and sweep particles of food into their mouths.

A cross section sliced through the colony to show the clear soft interior.

According to the Wiki article, they reproduce by having both male and female parts inside their bodies. The sperm are released into the water to float around and fertilize the eggs. The black specks in this picture are the reproductive “seeds” (only they are animals so not seeds).

Small black reproductive units that overwinter and start a colony again in the spring

What is this world coming to?

First Pluto and now Triceratops. I guess science moves along, doesn’t it? I thought that in case you missed this, my readers would like to know that there never was a Triceratops.

“According to research by John Scannella and Jack Horner triceratops was just a young version of a different dinosaur known as a torosauras. John Scannella and Jack Horner are researchers at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. They have analyzed skulls from dinosaurs that had been categorized as triceratops and torosaurus. They are confident to declare that the dinosaur was actually just a young version of a Torosaurus.”

Volcanic Activity

This off-topic post is in the category of trivia.  I do not really have a geology category because this is a Botany blog.  However, it is also a blog of whatever I am interested in at the time, so I am sharing some things about volcanoes

I was curious about the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull. ( I do not know how to pronounce that).  I wondered how large a volcano this was compared to other volcanoes.  In an article by Elizabeth Cottrell, geologist at the National Museum of History, I learned that volcanoes are ranked by a bunch of different criteria, but the main one I was interested in is the Volcanic Explosivity Index.  This index goes from 1 to 8 and each number increase is 10 times bigger than the one before.  This is called logarithmic.  So, a 3 volcano is ten times bigger than a 2 volcano.  If you are comparing two volcanoes they are ten times bigger for every number they are apart.  So if you are comparing a couple of volcanoes and they are three numbers apart, then they are ten times bigger for each number, or 10 x 10 x 10 or 1000 times different in size.    On this scale, then,  Eyjafjallajokull started out at a 1 and is now about a 4.  In comparison, Mt. Pinatubo in the Phillipines was a 6.  So that was 100 times bigger than Eyjafjallajokull.

Of course, Eyjafjallajokull is getting a lot of press due to its location and the fact that the ash cloud disrupts air travel for much of Europe.  A similar sized volcano would not rate much of a mention in an isolated area. 

I was also wondering about that ash cloud and why it is so bad to fly in an ash cloud.  I learned that jet engines draw in a tremendous amount of air and so little particles like ash can be very abrasive on the engines.  Not good for jet engines at all.  The reason you cannot fly under the ash cloud, it that the heavier particles are constantly falling down to earth under the clouds.  You may be able to see under the ash cloud, but there is still plenty of gritty ash falling down that would get into the jet engines. 

I also wondered if the ash would block the sun and reduce global warming or make crops fail in the ash plume area.  The answer is no and yes.  It won’t really reduce global warming but in areas shaded by the volcanic ash cloud plume there have been occurences of crop failures.

The year without a summer, was 1816 and it was caused by a big volcano erupting and shading the earth with ash along with a reduction of light from the sun (the Dalton Minimum).  It was actually a series of several big volcanoes from 1812 through 1814, four of which had VEI of at least 4.  Then, with the atmosphere primed with dust from these volcanoes, Mount Tambora erupted in 1815 with a VEI of 7.  People reported seeing red snow, sunsets and a persistent fog.  Crops failed or were damaged by frost in the summer of 1815 causing localized famines, disease outbreaks and rainy weather in the northern temperate climates.  Areas of the earth that are tropical reported frosts and crop failures.  So, in comparison, the Icelandic activity taking place is pretty minor.  Interesting reading about both topics in the links below.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/91838474.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_Without_a_Summer

Ti Plant

The colorful foliage plant pictured here is called by the common name, Ti Plant, pronounced “TEE”.  It is actually a member of the Lily family, not in any way the kind of Tea you make in a teapot.  Its Latin name is Cordyline fruticosa.  It comes in many horticultural varieties respesenting many pretty colors and textures. 

The colorful Ti plant

 Tea that you brew and drink, is Camellia sinensis.  People get these two plants confused because of the common name Ti and Tea are phonetically pronounced the same, but are not related botanically, or in appearance.  This is what tea looks like.

File:Koeh-025.jpgSee?  They are really not the same at all.