Spring at last?

It’s been a long, cold, snowy, dreary, crabby, gimpy winter.

And sometimes it seemed like it would never end.

This morning, despite the cold and threat of sleet – the first hints that spring is here!

A few brave, hardy snowdrops peek out from a very dormant herb garden.

The peeps make one of their first field trips of the year. With no bugs or fresh greens to be found, they’ll end up back in the chicken solarium where they can bask and dream of spring too.

April 1, 2011 at 1:07 pm 3 comments

Mt. Labrador

Mt. Labrador is one of the most bizarre, beautiful and little known rock formations in North America. The outcrop, which bears an amazing resemblance to the breed that shares its name, is located on a remote section of the southern coast of Maine.

The stunning cliff is an outcrop of Cutler complex anorthosite rock. Anorthosite is a somewhat rare, and quite beautiful, form of intrusive igneous rock and, in an odd twist to our story, a plagioclase mineral called Labradorite is a common constituent of anorthositic rocks.

As igneous rocks cool, well developed systems of joints are generated by the tensile stresses of shrinkage. The high temperature minerals in anorthosites also undergo higher rates of chemical weathering than minerals in low temperature rock types like granite do. This combination of factors means that anorthositic rocks undergo high rates of physical and chemical weathering and are therefore known for eroding into dramatic natural features.

Some other unusual examples of anorthosite outcrops can be found in the Black Giants of New Zealand, parts of the New Jersey Palisades, at Minnesota’s Split Rock lighthouse and – most abundantly – the mountains of the moon.

The billion year old rocks of Mt. Labrador are were first exposed during the Pleistocene glacial period and then later modified by digital erosion.

Popular largely only with mountain climbers, Mt. Labrador doesn’t attract many other visitors because of it’s remote location — about 50 miles west of Portland and 50 miles away from anything else.

April 1, 2011 at 2:49 am 2 comments

Foiling urban coyotes

This week local KARE 11 reported that a Maltese in St. Louis Park died from injuries related to a coyote attack.

Jerry Stamm of St. Louis Park let his dog, Cici, outside on St. Patrick’s Day evening, then noticed a coyote in his fenceless backyard.

It’s a sad story that keeps getting repeated with different players. Brilliantly adaptive coyotes are becoming increasingly common in urban and suburban areas around the world. They’ve been a problem here in Red Wing for years and now, following trends of human urbanization, large numbers of the wily tricksters are relocating closer to the city.

“It’s a blessing and a curse to live in a place like Minnesota,” Peggy Callahan said, from the Wildlife Science Center.

Callahan says there are more coyotes than black bear in the state — well over 25,000. They extended east of the Mississippi after 1915, spreading to 48 states. Residents in St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, and Golden Valley have reported coyote sightings.

How should pet owners respond to the threat of sharing their environment with coyotes? The smartest course of action is to deal with it much like you would face a problem with your dog’s behavior — in a proactive way with smart action instead of reactively in fear.

If coyotes live in your area follow these rules to avoid conflicts.

  • Make sure all pets (cats, dogs, rabbits, chickens) are protected by a sturdy, coyote-proof enclosure when they aren’t under your direct supervision. This includes potty breaks, as Mr. Stamm discovered.
  • Keep dogs and cats up to date on vaccinations. Coyotes can carry diseases that are transmissible to pets.
  • Don’t put out food for deer or other ground-dwelling wildlife near your home. Keep areas under bird feeders clean to discourage rodents that may attract coyotes.
  • Don’t feed your pets outside.
  • Keep garbage, compost and other waste in well secured containers.
  • Keep your dog on a leash on all walks unless he has solid off-leash obedience skills. And even if your dog is brilliantly well trained – it is still important to keep him in your sight.
  • If you see coyotes near your home yell, wave your arms, flash bright lights, bang things together and otherwise act like a dangerously mad threat. Don’t let them feel comfortable near your home.

Men have lived side by side with coyotes since we left the trees. Significant problems with the arrangement are more common now because there are few human-free areas left for coyotes to live in. Reduced hunting pressure from humans, and an increasing number of humans who actively or inadvertently encourage coyotes to acclimate to their presence has also created a near perfect environment to increase conflicts between our species.

Coyotes aren’t evil or malevolent, they’re just smart and opportunistic and you don’t need help from the Acme Corporation to foil them. If you put one tenth as much effort into discouraging coyotes as they do into looking for ways to take advantage of you – you’ll come out ahead in the game.

March 31, 2011 at 10:48 am 7 comments

Leashes kill – again

Flexi-type leads are attractive largely because they lure dog owners into a false idea of freedom. They encourage dog walkers to substitute the easy out of physical attachment for mindful attention and training.

In a sadly overdue step to make dog walkers safer, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that extension leashes will be outlawed on San Jose park trails after a dog walker was recently killed when she became entangled in a long leash (I suspect this was a fully extended Flexi type lead), fell and hit her head.

I’ve said it before and [sigh] I’m sure I’ll feel compelled to say it again – while any kind of leash presents some risk, extension type leashes like the uberpopular Flexi-lead present a terrible hidden danger to dogs and dog owners across America every day.

Throw away the attention substitute leash and put the time needed in to train your dog to come reliably when called, ignore distractions on command and walk politely at your side. Your dog will love the attention and you’ll love the results.

March 29, 2011 at 9:11 am 16 comments

Robo-Scooper!

Today Engadget reports on nifty Japanese technology that may revolutionize poop patrol!

The SWITL robotic hand, designed by Furukawakikou can pick up wet, gooey messes and move them without changing their shape. SWITL was developed to speed up and simplify the handling of soft and/or gooey materials at bakeries.

How does it work? According to Engadget it may be the tool of Satan:

Unfortunately, Furukawa Kikou isn’t providing any details about the science behind SWITL so we’ll just assume that it’s Satan’s work until otherwise informed.

When SWITL was first announced back in June of 2009 Japan Tech Niche reported (italics mine):

The “SWITL” was developed base on a need for automated process for lining up bread dough at the factory which was handled manually before. “SWITL” is technology is patent pending and can apply not only in the food industry but also in wide different filed of applications. The company is planning to develop a new products implementing “SWITL” technology in a near future. Interesting idea indeed, I leave it to your imaginative mind to come up with the SWITL new applications.

Evil or not, cross Roomba with SWITL and dog poop littering yards and parks across the country could be, well, eliminated!

March 28, 2011 at 9:25 am 5 comments

Do I smell a rat (er, mouse) in TSA’s future?

I hope so.

Israel21C recently reported on new technology that might someday replace invasive pat-downs and body scans TSA treats us to at the airport:

Israeli startup Bioexplorers has developed a new and unique way to sniff out terrorists – literally. After years of research, company CEO Eran Lumbroso tells ISRAEL21c, Bioexplorers has hit upon a foolproof, non-invasive and easy method to detect contraband in purses, luggage and even cargo – using mice.

Like dogs, mice have an excellent sense of smell and they’re relatively easy to train. As much as it pains to me admit it, mice offer some advantages. Their small size means they’re cheaper and easier to keep than dogs are, and because they don’t need human handlers, mice also won’t be sensitive to their prejudices.

The proposed system will combine low tech mice with high-tech training and screening equipment. The target to be screened will move through a passageway equipped with fans that extract the air surrounding the target and deliver it to chambers containing several mice. Each mouse is trained to respond to a single odor. When a mouse detects the target odor it moves into a second chamber and sets off an alarm.

Bioexplorers’ system is interesting because not only could it allow for less invasive screening than existing measures but, as an improvement over existing canine detection methods, it could also give screeners the ability to determine exactly which odorants have been detected.

Initial tests are promising.

[Bioexplorers] has conducted several tests at sites in Israel to ensure that the sensors work in real situations, including at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Mall. More than 1,000 people passed through a Bioexplorers sensor – some having been given “suspicious” objects and substances to hold – and the mice made the right call every time, says Lumbroso.

The company says they can train mice in just two weeks using a patented Skinnerian computer program. Mice will be expected to work four hour shifts with eight hour rest periods and each mouse’s career is anticipated to last about two years.

It’s an interesting idea and there may be additional uses for the tiny detectors. Bioexplorers’ representatives say they’re also working on systems designed for medical use.

They may be able to detect drugs and explosives at minute concentrations, but the mouse’s nose may be too refined for use in the wine industry. The io9 forums report that researchers at Japan’s Hiroshima University conducted an experiment in 2008 to see if they could teach mice to tell different kinds of wine apart. The experiment was successful so the group decided to take the idea a step further and see if they could teach mice to tell different brands of red wine apart.

The results were interesting.

Only two of the ten mice tested displayed the ability to consistently tell the red wines apart. Six others performed on a what appeared to be a purely random basis.

But the final pair of connoisseur mice could not be persuaded to respond the target wine. These mice were consistently drawn to a specific non-reward wine indicating that they preferred the smell of this wine to the food rewards offered by the alternate choice.

I’m not terribly surprised to hear that well-fed laboratory mice will sometimes prefer an alluring scent over certain food rewards. Smell plays a huge part in the social and intellectual life of a mouse. A good smell, or an interesting one, may provide the kind of intellectual stimulation that could be more lacking in a laboratory mouse’s life than food is.

And while mice may replace dogs in situations where a static location like an airport or freight terminal needs to be screened for a wide array of compounds, I suspect that dogs will continue to be the detector of choice in field situations for some time to come.

March 4, 2011 at 9:33 pm 7 comments

Is there a gene for stupid?

Maybe. Maybe not.

An article in the February 15 edition of Scientific American by Ferris Jabr reported that pharmacologist John Hepler and associates recently discovered a gene in the brains of mice that codes for a signaling protein that “significantly boosted brainpower with seemingly no negative consequences.” Jabr writes:

People have this gene, too, and it is active in the same brain area. In other words, we may have a gene in our heads that is actively making us dumber.

Hepler et al were studying the CA2 section of the hippocampus when they discovered that neurons in that area appeared to be blocked from participating in learning and memory processes when they were saturated with signaling protein RGS14.

When they bred mice who lacked the gene for RGS14 the CA2 neurons were no longer blocked and the mice exhibited some interesting differences in learning and behavior. Scientific American reports that:

The genetic tweak affected more than physiology—it changed how the mice performed on memory tests, too. The experimenters presented two identical objects to knock­out mice, which lacked the RGS14 gene, and to normal mice. Four hours and again 24 hours later, the researchers switched one of the objects with a new object. The knockout mice spent far more time exploring the new object than the normal mice did, indicating that the altered rodents had a better memory for distinguishing familiar and strange objects. Knockout mice also learned to navigate a water maze and locate a submerged platform faster than normal mice did. The scientists observed no detriments from removing the RGS14 gene.

“Why would we have a gene that makes us dumber?” asks Serena Dudek, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a co-author of the study, which was published in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. “We don’t know. But if the gene is conserved by natural selection, there must be some reason. Intuitively, it seems there should be a downside to having this gene knocked out, but we haven’t found it so far. It may be that these mice are hallucinating, and you just can’t tell.”

And this is where I get frustrated that I don’t have unlimited access to journal articles (or an unlimited budget to buy it with) because based on what they’re saying here it sounds to me that while the gene may have something to do with spatial learning, it might also have evolved as a safety mechanism controlling neophobia – not stupidity.

I suppose that one might be able to test this by looking at the action of CA2 in young animals during different stages of development when neophobia typically ebbs and wanes, but since mice reach maturity within weeks of being born, I’m not sure they’d be viable candidates for this.

Either way, I’m sad to say that I don’t think they’ve discovered a genetic cure for stupidity.

Altered rodents

February 22, 2011 at 12:10 am 5 comments

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