Monthly Archives: November 2012

Now posting on PLoS blogs!

Good news everyone! I’ve been invited by Jean Flanagan and PLoS blogs to join their Sci-Ed team: a blog that focuses on science education. My contribution will be on science education in museums, zoos and aquaria. My first post is up:

It was my third time meandering the halls of the Natural History museum – and first as a volunteer interpreter – when I glimpsed a bird without arms: no wings, no arm bones, no hands, no wrists, and no fingers. Nothing. That skeleton I was seeing had once been a statuesque, NBA player-tall bird. Its neck accounted for nearly half its height; its slender legs, almost the rest, with a globular region in between. That was my first sighting of a moa.

Moa (Smithsonian Natural History Museum). Photo by the author.

The moa is a gigantic extinct flightless bird from New Zealand. Imagine an ostrich, but delete the wings and give it some serious growth hormones. This 12 ft tall, 500 lbs bird was driven to extinction in the early 13th century, when humans hunted and ate them all.

Continue reading after the jump…

For the bio- and anthropologically-curious, I’ll post more info on the moa next week!

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Animal Kingdom’s Halloween – part II

Wolf Crystal cautiously examines her Halloween treat. Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Recently I’ve started volunteering at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The new American Trail exhibit opened last Summer, and expecting a flurry of visitors, the Zoo asked for extra help. The goal of American Trail, as one might expect, is to portray animals native to the US,  like beavers, ravens, sea lions, river otters, a bald eagle, and (my favorite) grey wolves.

Last week, American Trail  celebrated its first Halloween. Meanwhile, I was part of  the Boo at the Zoo event, but this time from a different point of view – zoo staff, instead of a visitor. I chose to talk about the bald eagle to a score of power rangers, princesses, iron men, and Marios – who also lined up for my newly-invented “are you a seal or a sea lion?” game.

From my booth in the Zoo’s main path, I could hear the sea lions barking. Where they responding to the children’s philosophical conundrum of “trick or treat”?

Sea lion Sophie has a treat and a toy at the same time. Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Instead, they were busy investigating their own Halloween treats. A collection of photos of the animals and their pumpkins has been posted to the zoo’s Facebook page. Besides being cute and hilarious, the Halloween treats serve the important purpose of enrichment. I’ve talked about this strategy on the blog before, which is an attempt to encourage natural behaviors in captive animals (and some might say, to avoid boredom). Animals will fall back to behaviors they display in the wild, like hunting or scavenging. They exercise their curiosity by investigating the treat (some, like Sophie above and raven Iris, event get a lot of play out of it). Mental abilities are tested as the animals figure out how to open the pumpkin to retrieve the goodies inside.

Selkie feasts on squid she found inside her pumpkin. Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Grey wolves Crystal and Coby got their share of treats. They were able to scavenge for meat hidden inside their pumpkins. It is only after Hurricane Sandy left that I can reflect on those events – specially considering DC and the National Zoo came out of it mostly unscathed. But in pre-hurricane times, people’s minds were filled with Halloween. And, with the risk of anthropomorphizing, I believe both animals and infant humans had a great time.

Animal Kingdom’s Halloween – part I

Vampire bat. Photo credit: Barry Mansell/naturepl.com via NewScientist

Last week I wrote a short piece about bats, which was published on my employer’s website. I was inspired by Halloween, but mainly I wished to talk about something dear to my heart: anticoagulants.

Most of my master’s dissertation revolved around mosquito molecules and the design of anti-clotting drugs. Mosquitos and bats do have a lot in common. You get a Halloween treat if you guessed its because both have a blood-based diet. Below is an excerpt (property of Owen Software) of the post I wrote for work:

The bad reputation of bats stems from their blood-filled diet, even though the vast majority of bat species eat insects or fruit. Out of more than a thousand species, only one drinks blood from other mammals: the aptly named “common vampire bat” (Desmodus rotundus), which preys on cows, pigs, or horses. But did you know these blood-sucking creatures can help scientists design new drugs?
Medical conditions like heart disease and stroke are caused when blood flow is interrupted, in many cases because of a blood clot lodged in an artery. Blood coagulation (or clotting) is a natural process in which blood clots plug wounds and help us recover from injuries and even prevent us from bleeding to death. One way to slow down the clotting process in stroke patients is to dose them with a class of molecules called anticoagulants. Besides halting coagulation, these molecules also dissolve the clot and boost blood flow.
Given the vampire bat’s need for blood, it might seem counterintuitive that those animals can be a source of drugs for heart disease and stroke. Through the course of evolution, vampire bats have developed their own natural anticoagulants. Their saliva is full of anticoagulant molecules that prevent their host’s blood from clotting and allow the bat to drink it. This ingenious feeding solution is not a novelty: in the animal kingdom, many other parasitic species have developed similar mechanisms (e.g, mosquitos, leeches, and ticks). Molecules from the bat’s saliva are the inspiration for new anti-stroke drugs. (…) Fittingly, scientists have paid homage to Halloween when choosing a name for a bat anticoagulant: they called it draculin.
I hope you enjoyed that cross-over of work post into my hobby blog.
Now that hurricane Sandy is gone, a mostly-unaffected Washington DC starts to celebrate Halloween. And that includes the National Zoo and its animals. On Part II of Animal Halloween I will talk about pumpkins treats as enrichments and of my participation on Boo at the Zoo.