Friday, June 6, 2014

Ticks in Amber, Mutant Crickets, and Paleolithic London

Studying ticks preserved in amber, mutant crickets in Hawaii, and flint tools from paleolithic London give scientists a few pages from Earth's story: and help us understand how this astounding world works.
  1. Ticks in Amber
  2. Rise of the Mutant Crickets
  3. Ten Thousand Years on the Thames

Living Amid Ancient Splendors

(From NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team; used w/o permission.)

About a half-dozen centuries after Sargon of Akkad became the first known emperor, quite a few folks thought we lived on a circular plate, surrounded by a cosmic ocean. That's where we get the Old Testament's poetic imagery about this universe. (January 3, 2014)

More recently, a 17th century Calvinist decided that God created the universe at nightfall before October 23, 4004 BC. A remarkable number of folks still think he was right. (April 4, 2014)

I'll grant that, as far as my personal experience goes, the universe might be no more than a few thousand miles across: and six millennia is a very long time when compared to a human lifespan.

But we've learned a great deal about this world in the last few centuries. Based on observations of the cosmic background radiation and red shifts of distant galaxies, we're reasonably certain that this universe is 13,798,000,000 years old: give or take about 36,000,000.

Earth's only been around for 4,540,000,000 years or so, and the earliest signs of life we've found are around 3,500,000,000 years old.

Vast and ancient seem paltry words to describe the scale of this creation. That seems to upset some folks: but I like living amid ancient splendors, and wonders we are only now beginning to find.

Convergent Evolution: Bats, Birds, Pterosaurs, and More

A BBC News article about newly-silent crickets in Hawaii mentions "convergent evolution." That's what scientists call "the independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages." (Wikipedia)

I've seen the eyes of octopi and vertebrates, and the dorsal fin of sharks and porpoises, used as examples of convergent evolution.

Another example is the way bats, birds, and pterosaurs got their wings.

Vertebrates, critters with backbones, evolved wings three times: five, if you count draco lizards and flying squirrels. Make that six. Chrysopelea like the kala jin turn their bodies into a "pseudo concave wing." Those are the ones I know of, anyway.

Three of Earth's airborne vertebrates are quadrupeds whose forelimbs evolved from legs into wings. Come to think of it, they're the ones that fly, rather than glide.

The three forms are similar, but it doesn't take a specialists to see that each is a slightly different structure.

A video about flying and gliding critters in southeast Asia's rainforests:
  • "Snakes that Fly"
    National Geographic, Youtube (46 minutes) (November 8, 2011)

Nanometers, Laws of Nature, and Faith

(Photo by Alan Wolf, via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
("This is a physical model of a bacterial flagellum. It was imaged and modeled at Brandeis University in the DeRosier lab and printed at the University of Wisconsin - Madison."

Bacteria are single cells, so parts of bacteria are very small indeed. A bacterial flagellum is only 20 nanometers across. A bacterial flagella assembly includes the flagellum, a long corckscrew-shaped rod, and a rotary motor with protein molecules as its working parts.

The colors on that model are arbitrary, by the way. Flagella aren't all that much larger than the wavelengths of light. A nanometer is 10 angstroms: and the size of atoms, molecules, and the wavelengths of light are often expressed in angstroms. Flagella are tiny.

Like most of the modules life is made of, a bacterial flagellum is a complex bit of biological machinery.

Some folks say that evolution can't happen because God must have popped flagella into existence in their current form: straight from nothingness. Others seem equally convince that God can't exist because flagella evolved from simpler forms.

Since I'm a Christian, I see God's handiwork in bacteria and galaxies. But since I'm a Catholic, I don't have to assume that secondary causes don't exist.

It's become fairly obvious that life on earth changes in a systematic way, and has been doing so for billions of years.

Like everything else in the universe, life follows knowable physical laws. The idea that evolution happens is no more of a threat to my faith, than being obliged to recognize that gravity exists. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 337, 339, 341)

Bacterial Flagella: Still Collecting Evidence

(From Pixie, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A schematic diagram of the type three secretion system needle complex.)

In the case of flagella, paleobiologists don't have the sort of fossil record to work with that other paleontologists do. Fossilized sauropods aren't exactly common: and those things were huge, with massive bones. We've found fossilized bacteria and other single-celled critters: but not all that many.

However, it's possible to make a good educated guess about how flagella evolved in eukaryotes, bacteria, and archaea.

For example, flagella in bacteria are quite similar to the type three secretion system found in some bacteria. In pathogenic bacteria, the needle-like structure helps the bacteria infect eukaryotes, and evade the host's immune system.

Flagella may have evolved from the 'needle' component in type three secretion systems. Then again, maybe the type three secretion systems are modified flagella. At this point, scientists are still collecting data.

A Thirst for Knowledge

It's become fairly obvious that the universe is vast, and that Earth is billions of years old. I'm not upset that God works on a scale that most of us didn't imagine, just a few centuries back. God's God, I'm not: and even if I didn't like reality, there's not much I can do about it.

We live in a universe that's changing. It's not perfect, but it's moving in that direction. Part of our job is taking care of this creation, and that's another topic. Topics. (Catechism, 302-308, 373, 338-344, 2402)

More of my take on God and reality:
Then there's the notion that God gave us brains and a thirst for knowledge: but that studying this universe offends the Almighty — particularly when we arrive at logical conclusions based on the evidence we find. That, in my considered opinion, is daft.

(From Tim Eagan, via, used w/o permission.)

1. Ticks in Amber

(From George Poinar, Jr.,Oregon State University; via; used w/o permission.)
"This tick trapped in a piece of 15-million-year-old Dominican amber can carry the type of bacteria that causes Lyme disease."
" Lyme Disease Bacteria Found in 15-Million-Year-Old Amber" (May 30, 2014)
"Dominican amber, dating back 15 million years ago, provides the oldest evidence ever found of Borrelia – a kind of bacteria that causes Lyme disease (a stealthy bacterial illness that is spread by tick bites and was only recognized about 40 years ago).

" 'In the United States, Europe and Asia, ticks are a more important insect vector of disease than mosquitos. They can carry bacteria that cause a wide range of diseases, affect many different animal species, and often are not even understood or recognized by doctors,' said Prof George Poinar, Jr., a paleoentomologist with the Oregon State University's College of Science and the author of a paper published in the journal Historical Biology.

" 'It's likely that many ailments in human history for which doctors had no explanation have been caused by tick-borne disease.'

"Lyme disease is a perfect example. It can cause problems with joints, the heart and central nervous system, but researchers didn’t even know it existed until 1975.

"But the discovery of an ancient Borrelia-like bacterium, Palaeoborrelia dominicana, shows these problems with tick-borne disease have been around for millions of years...."
The next sentence says that the professor "...found spirochetes-like cells of Palaeoborrelia dominicana in a series of four ticks...." "Spirochetes" isn't a word you're likely to hear every day, unless you're a paleoentomologist: and maybe not even then.

I checked, and spirochetes is another way of spelling spirochaete which have nothing to do with corkscrew-shaped machetes. Spirochete or spirochetes are corkscrew-shaped bacteria with double cell membranes.

Bacteria, some anyway, have flagella. These little whip-shaped appendages often stick out from the cell wall, but flagella in spirochetes run between the inner and outer cell membrane, letting the bacteria move through water by twisting.

This video shows more than you need; or maybe want; to know about twisting spirochetes.

Rambling About Amber, Ticks, and Bacteria

Anyway, four ticks got stuck in resin about 15,000,000 years back. Time passed, the resin became amber, and eventually professor Poinar examined them at the cellular level.

These four ticks had cells that look a great deal like today's Borrelia bacteria, a genus of spirochete that travel in ticks. 12 of the 36 known Borrelia bacteria cause Lyme disease.

By the way, it seems that amber is fossilized tree resin, not sap: and none of the above have much to do with ambergris, apart from having a biological origin.

Humans, Ticks, and Living in Minnesota

Here in Minnesota, you're most likely to pick up a tick from May through July. Not all ticks carry Lyme disease. Minnesota Department of Health says that From 1996 to 2012, 12,935 out of 17,000 cases of tick-borne diseases were reported in Minnesota were Lyme disease.

Still, it could be worse. In 2012, only 912 Minnesotans got Lyme disease. That's 17.2 out of every 100,000. It's possible to die from Lyme disease: but not likely. It doesn't even make the 'top 15' list for causes of death around here in 2010.

Even so, checking for ticks after I've been outside in tick-friendly places is a habit I picked up in childhood and don't plan to stop.

Finally, I think the professor is probably right:
"...'Humans have probably been getting diseases, including Lyme disease, from tick-borne bacteria as long as there have been humans,' Dr Poinar concluded."
More about health and all that in Minnesota:

2. Rise of the Mutant Crickets

(Franz Lanting, Mint Images, SPL/Science Photo Library; via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
"The first discovery was made on the island of Kauai in 2003"
(BBC News)
"Crickets in two places fall silent to survive"
Jonathan Webb, BBC News (May 29, 2014)
"To hide themselves from deadly flies, crickets on two Hawaiian islands have evolved an inability to sing.

"Ten years ago, two years apart, males appeared on Kauai and Oahu with altered wings, which they would normally rub together to chirp and attract females.

"New findings published in the journal Current Biology show that the wing changes are physically different and arose from separate mutations.

"This makes the silent crickets a brand new example of 'convergent evolution'..."
The ancestors of these crickets lived in Australia before coming to the Hawaiian Islands, probably hitching a ride with humans. In Hawaii, these crickets ran into a variety of North American fly that sprays baby maggots onto a cricket's back. It takes the maggots about a week to burrow into the cricket, feed, and leave the insect's excavated husk.

It's good for the flies, bad for the crickets, and a bit disgusting to quite a few of us: but it's how those flies live.

These particular flies home in on a cricket's chirp. So as long as a cricket doesn't sing, it's safe. That gave quiet crickets a huge bonus in the survival sweepstakes.

It took less than 20 generations for a mutation to appear among the crickets that silenced their song: and helped them survive. That's fast, so my guess is that being off the maggots' menu was a big advantage. What's odd is that mutant crickets showed up on two islands at very nearly the same time.

"The Blink of an Eye in Evolutionary Time"

"...Because they are mute, these 'flatwing' male crickets are hidden from the parasitoid flies and escape being eaten by maggots. That triumph comes at a cost, however, since finding a mate is tricky without a voice. The silent types loiter near the few males still singing away, and intercept females for themselves.

"Two years after the Kauai discovery in 2003, flatwing crickets were also found over 100km away on Oahu.

"Unusually rapid

"Researchers first assumed that the silent crickets had simply travelled the distance - with some help.

" 'An egg laid by a female in some soil could hitch-hike on someone's boot,' said Dr Nathan Bailey, whose group at the University of St Andrews led the new study.

"The idea that the trait had evolved twice, at almost the same time, seemed far-fetched. 'It still seems amazing to me,' Dr Bailey told BBC News...."
(Jonathan Webb, BBC News)
Something odd was going on, though, since the two sets of modified wings weren't the same shape. Scientists discovered that a single gene on the X chromosome had changed.

It took a great deal more research to convince Dr. Nathan Bailey that the mutation had appeared in two different cricket populations, at very nearly the same time.
"...Dr Bailey said this is an unusual example, because it has happened 'in what appears to be the blink of an eye in evolutionary time' and researchers can now watch as the story unfolds further.

" 'This is an exciting opportunity to detect genomic evolution in real time in a wild system, which has usually been quite a challenge, owing to the long timescales over which evolution acts.' "
(Jonathan Webb, BBC News)
I quite agree.

3. Ten Thousand Years on the Thames

(From Museum of London Archeology, used w/o permission.)
"Evidence for first Londoners found at US embassy"
Museum of London Archaeology (May 13, 2014)
"Archaeologists from MOLA [Museum of London Archaeology] excavating the site of the new United States embassy in Vauxhall, in South London, have discovered evidence of prehistoric activity.

"A flint tool dating to the Palaeolithic Period, approximately 700,000-10,000 BC, could be one of the earliest objects found in London. Other Mesolithic (10,000-4,000 BC) and Bronze Age (2,000-600 BC) tools were also found.

"London has a long and rich history, which is often attributed as having begun with the arrival of the Romans. The site in South London was once a river consisting of smaller channels with sandy and gravelly islands in between. Some of the islands were large enough and dry enough for prehistoric people to settle on. The fertile, marshy banks provided access to rich food sources and were a perfect hunting ground for prehistoric communities...."
The place we call London, where the River Effra flows into the Thames, is good place place for transferring stuff from backpacks, wagons, or trucks onto rafts, container ships, or other water transports.

We often build towns and cities at break-in-bulk points like that, and apparently have been for quite a while. About 6,500 years back, someone built a large wooden structure near the the River Effra joins the Thames. Archeologists still aren't sure what it was for.

3,000 or so years later, someone else built a bridge near the current Vauxhall Bridge. More than a dozen centuries later, Romans called the place Londinium, and the name stuck: more or less.

What's remarkable isn't that folks were living where Londinium is, some 10,000 years back. It's that we found such a rich archaeological site there. After several thousand years of fairly continuous building and rebuilding, the place has been rather thoroughly dug up.

Still, I suppose that we'll still be finding odd bits and pieces of the long-buried past when the year 8514 rolls around.

It's early days to tell what today's archaeologists will learn about the folks who left the flint tools, remnants of a camp fire, and a 12-meter-long fish trap, near the shores of the Thames.

Related posts:

1 comment:

Brigid said...

You might want to take another look at the new formatting. The text is huge and there's more space between paragraphs then there is between the bottom of the one section and the heading for another.

It's kinda hard to read.

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.