Category Archives: Environment

Look Out Manatee, Here Comes the Oil

The resent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to turn out very badly for the local wildlife, including multiple bird species, blue-fin tuna, and the ever awesome Manatees (Sea Cows).

What makes this region ecologically special is the unusual patterns
of land and sea conjured into existence by the lazy and variegated exit
of the mighty Mississippi into the Gulf.

Here lie about 25% of US wetlands – areas rich with life, where human occupancy is low, and birds and other animals can thrive.

“For birds, the timing could not be worse; they are
breeding, nesting and especially vulnerable in many of the places where
the oil could come ashore,” warns Melanie Driscoll, a Louisiana-based
bird conservation director with the National Audubon Society, the
leading US bird conservation group.

“We have to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, including a true catastrophe for birds.”


“If you’ve got seagrass beds badly contaminated, clearly the
manatees could be seriously affected,” says Carl-Gustaf Lundin, head of
the Marine Programme at the International Union for the Conservation of
Nature (IUCN).

Here again is a species that is already under
severe stress. Fewer than 2,500 adults remain, and the IUCN Red List
says the Florida subspecies is expected to decline by at least 20% over
the next 40 years, with various factors implicated, including climate
change and impacts from boats.

UPDATE: NASA has some interesting Satellite photos tracking the spill here.

Holy Cow! Amtrak Runs on Beef … Sort Of

Amtrak has jumped into the fight against fossil fuels by looking directly at one of America’s most abundant resources: Cows.

Amtrak is currently running its Heartland Flyer train on a mix of
traditional diesel fuel and biodiesel produced from cow products, in an
experiment that Amtrak argues could make railroads more eco-friendly.

The Heartland Flyer uses about 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel each
year to move 84,000 people. For this one-year test run, Amtrak will
replace 20 percent of that fuel with biodiesel, produced from tallow
from Texas cows. The fat from the cattle, which is normally used to
make animal feed and soap, will now instead help power a train.

Not everyone is on board.  Here’s what PETA had to say:

“The answer to pollution is not to use the ground up remains of
tortured animals for fuel.  Anything using animal remains is going to
be both depleting of and polluting of our environment.”

Personally, I think I’m just gonna hitch a saddle on a cow and ride it around.  Best of both worlds.  Cow gets to live, I get a cow powered vehicle. 

Oh, who am I kidding!  I eat upwards of 1 pound of beef a day.  And the amount of fat that gets rendered out via the ever amazing George Foreman Grill could power a small city. 

Be like the Native Americans, if you’re going to kill an animal, use everything!  Right on Amtrak for thinking outside the box.

Did Competitive Exclusion Cause the Neanderthal Extinction?

Did competition between humans and Neanderthal’s in the same ecological niche lead to the extinction of the Neanderthal’s?

Fat, Pregnant, Teenaged Bears

Yep, bears:

It turns out that urban black bears are much heavier and more likely to die violent deaths than their wilder peers, the study found. Oh, and if female, they’re more likely to get pregnant at a younger age.

Were Dinosaurs Warm Blooded?

During the 1990’s there was a lot of discussion (yelling?) over the question of whether or not Dinosaurs were endothermic, that is, warm blooded. In the regular media there is still a pretty solid leaning toward the idea that they were.

I’m inclined to say they weren’t. Here are two reasons why:

Turbinate Bones

Endothermic (warm blooded) animals have a problem: water loss. In an effort to maintain a constant body temperature (in contrast to cold blooded animals who “go with the flow” of the ambient temperature outside), their metabolisms (the sum total of all chemical reactions in an organism) must run at a breakneck speed nearly all the time–at least in contrast to cold blooded animals (elephants have a rather low metabolism for a mammal, but still higher than a croc). One biproduct of this is water, H2O. Why?

6CH^2O + 6O^2 \rightarrow 6H^2O + 6CO^2 + Energy

The above equation is a basic cellular respiration equation (metabolism). If you put in six Carbohydrates and six Oxygens you get out six water molecules plus six molecules of Carbondioxyde plus energy (usually in the form of heat and ATP, the energy molecule).

The CO2 loss isn’t a big deal, you just breath it out. Much of the water you lose is through your urine, but you lose some water through breathing out also. This is how you can fog up your windows in the winter.

A Turbinate bone is used to reduce this water loss through your nose. How does it work? Well, in short, it is covered in specialized tissues that are responsible for humidifying, filtering, and heating the air you breath. (it does much more, but we’ll leave it at that for now).

[As a side note, if you sleep with your mouth open, thereby bypassing your turbinate bone in your nose for breathing, you’ll dehydrate more during sleep than if you sleep with your mouth closed–of course, there is the snoring problem].

Mammals and Birds both have these bones. All warmblooded species alive today infact, that have been studied for such things, have a turbinate bone to prevent excessive water loss.

Did dinosaurs have a turbinate bone? No. None of the fossils that have been collected have had them. This is strong evidence against the likelyhood of endothermy.


The second piece of evidence is in the climate of the era during which dinosaurs lived and evolved. Particularly two things: Oxygen levels and temperature. The late Triassic and Jurassic periods were both warmer (by a lot) than today and had much lower oxygen levels. We’ll cover the temperature problem first since it’s the key.

Being an endotherm in a hot environment is not easy. It’s even harder for a large creature like a big dinosaur because of a quirk of physics called the volume to surface-area ratio.

If you’re small, like a mouse, you have a large surface area relative to your overall volume. This makes heat transfer to and from the environment easy. Too easy sometimes! Rats and mice have blazing fast metabolisms because they need massive amounts of heat to be generated to maintain body temperature (remember that in the above equation, heat was a byproduct).

A lizard doesn’t have to worry about such things. He’s an ectoderm (coldblooded), so he doesn’t need to maintain the same temperature all the time. Instead he just lets himself cool down or heat up with the outside temperature. Once it’s warm enough, he can get going and catch some food. (The correspondingly low metabolism also helps explain why reptiles can go so long between feedings. A rat, in contrast, has to eat like an elephant to stay alive!)

On the other side of the scale, an elephant, a very large warmblooded mammal, has a much much larger volume than it does surface area. since heat transfer happens only at the surface (the skin), this means the elephant can maintain its temperature rather easily and doesn’t need to worry too much about losing heat. This is great if you’re a mastodon in the snow. However, cooling off in a hot temperature environment becomes a huge pain when you’re huge. As a point of interest, most desert animals are lanky to decrease their volume and increase their surface area. In contrast, cold weather creatures are often more “rounded out” to decrease surface area and increase volume, thereby decreasing heat-loss.

If we think of it that way, a warm-blooded, huge bodied dinosaur in a super hot environment makes little sense. From much of the morphological evidence, many dinosaurs appeared to be quite active. We know they were big. But, if they were big and active, that is they would be increasing their metabolic rate during activity (thereby heat) even higher than baseline we have a problem for an endoderm! Especially if they didn’t have a turbinate bone to decrease water loss!

It is more likely that dinosaurs were cold-blooded (or at least not warmblooded; there is some speculation about gray areas in these matters). A cold blooded animal in a hot environment can be quite active. And they don’t run the serious risk of overheating the way that warmblooded creatures do. Tuna are a good example.

The last thing is a side issue about oxygen levels. Oxygen levels were quite low during the period of time that the dinosaurs rose to power. But, there is mounting evidence that dinosaurs (at least the saurischians) had a specialized kind of air-sac lung system, the same kind that modern birds have (who likely evolved from this subset of dinosaur). This type of lung is FAR more efficient than the one hanging out in your chest (or any chest of a mammal). It’s why birds can fly at altitute and still be so active (they’re flying for heaven sakes!), and we need oxygen masks.

A coldblooded dinosaur with an air-sac lung could have thrived in an environment that was hot and oxygen poor.


The debate on this topic is far from over.  I tend to side with the idea that Saurischian Dinosaurs were ectotherms, but there are plenty of arguments to throw around.

For more on the topic, here’s a site at Berkeley about it.

And the top five hypothesis:

  1. Dinosaurs were complete endotherms, just like birds, their descendants.
  2. Some or all dinosaurs had some intermediate type of physiology between endothermy and ectothermy.
  3. We know too little about dinosaurs to hazard a guess at what their physiology was like.
  4. Dinosaurs were mostly inertial homeotherms; they were ectothermic but maintained a constant body temperature by growing large. Small dinosaurs were typical ectotherms, maybe with a slightly elevated metabolic rate.
  5. All dinosaurs were simple ectotherms, enjoying the warm Mesozoic climate. But that’s okay; many ectotherms are quite active, so dinosaurs could be active, too.

I’m diggin’ on number 4, with a nod to number 5.

On Walden Swamp: The effects of Climate Change on Flowering

In addition to being a great role model for young stoners everywhere, Henry David Thoreau also has provided science with an interesting tid-bit in environmental science.

Many studies have looked at how global warming may cause shifts in where plants grow, but very few have examined how specific traits, such as flowering time, are affected. The necessary long-term records rarely exist. But for 6 years, Thoreau tracked the life histories of more than 400 plant species in a 67-square-kilometer area. Another researcher covered the same ground at Walden Pond and its surrounds circa 1900. Then from 2004 to 2007, Boston University (BU) conservation biologist Richard Primack and his student Abraham Miller-Rushing regularly visited the area to make similar observations of about 350 species and to check how the abundances of these plants had changed through time.

Their data, published in February in Ecology, revealed that many flowers were blossoming a week earlier than in Thoreau’s time. They noted also that about half of the species studied had decreased in number, with 20% having disappeared entirely.

Who knew?  It’s amazing how little of Thoreau’s contributions to science are discussed.  Let’s face it, spending six years gathering information on 400 different plant species is not exactly easy! He has a reputation in the general public as a bit of a loper.  Clearly that’s wrong.  Thanks Henry!

Even Gym-Rats are Going Green

If the Hulk can go green, so can we.

If the Hulk can go green, so can we.

(cross-posted at The Dojo)

it looks like even gym-rats are going green. Here’s Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition being interviewed about what he does to stay green and still stay lean. Hey, if the Hulk can do it …

Bodybuilders and athletes usually eat lots of meat, chicken and other meats. It takes an incredible amount of energy to first bring up all this beef, then the whole process to get it to our table. Have you thought about cutting down on it for the environmental benefits?

Dr Berardi
For me, that’s too extreme…especially since some meat production does tend to be more eco-unfriendly than other meats.

Most of the meat I get is raised locally. Some of it is free range and some of it is grain fed. I also get quite a bit of wild game meat – stuff like venison, elk, etc.

The truth is – I’ve gotta have my lean protein. So cutting down isn’t going to happen any time soon. If we’re keeping score, though, it’s important to note that less energy goes into locally farmed meat vs. factory farmed meat. Remember, not all meat is so costly to bring to our tables.