Loss of food cited as cause of woolly mammoths’ demise

wooly_mammoth-rbc

A major decline in plant diversity resulted in the extinction of the woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and many other large animals following the last Ice Age, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

Relying on DNA-based research, the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark has found that the flowering plants that mammoths and other large creatures depended on for survival disappeared from North American and northern Asia during the last glacial period, eliminating a major food source for the animals.

Prior the that period, the landscapes of the Northern hemisphere were far more diverse and stable than today’s steppes, with megafauna like woolly rhinos and mammoths feeding on grasses and protein-rich flowering plants, or forbs.

But at the height of the last Ice Age – 25,000-15,000 years ago, at a time when the climate was at its coldest and driest – a major loss of plant diversity occurred, the study’s authors wrote.

As a result, the giant animals barely survived.

Once the Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago the climate warmed again. However, the protein-rich forbs did not recover to their former abundance and were replaced with different kinds of vegetation, including grasses prevalent on today’s plains and steppes.

“This likely proved fatal for species like woolly rhino, mammoth, and horse in Asia and North America,” according to the University of Copenhagen. “Even though it became warmer again after the end of the Ice Age the old landscapes did not return.”

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Officials say shipwreck off Haiti is not Columbus’ Santa Maria

Santa Maria stamp

It appears that the shipwreck discovered earlier this year off the coast of northern Haiti is not that of Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, according to the UN cultural agency.

UNESCO released a report earlier this month that concluded that a shipwreck in the Caribbean was likely from a 17th or 18th century vessel.

US explorer Barry Clifford had announced in May that he believed he had found the Santa Maria near the city of Cap-Haitien.

The ship, Columbus’ flagship from his first voyage to the Western Hemisphere, struck a reef and was abandoned in December 1492. Columbus returned to Spain with his two remaining ships, the Niña and the Pinta, beginning in January 1493.

“UNESCO said a team of experts who explored the site at the request of the Haitian government determined the wreckage was from a more recent vessel for reasons that included the discovery of copper nails and pins, used to fasten ship components, at the site,” according to an Associated Press report. “The Santa Maria would have used components of iron or wood, the agency said.”

The experts also believe that contemporary accounts, including Columbus’ own journal, indicate that the wreck is too far from the shore to be that of the Santa Maria, according to CNN.

The report added that it is possible the actual wreckage of the Santa Maria may be buried under what is now land because of heavy sedimentation from nearby rivers. It also recommended further archaeological investigation of the area.

The Santa Maria wasn’t a very big ship by modern standards, being about 60 feet long and weighing about 100 tons.

Clifford still stands by claim, calling the UNESCO report flawed because the agency’s experts did not consult him or the photos and charts he and his associates made of the wreckage site, according to the wire service.

He also said the copper components could have been used on the Santa Maria or the material came from another shipwreck that cross-contaminated the site in an area where a number of ships are known to have sunk.

“The explorer had reached his conclusion based on the location of the wreckage, the presence of the type of stones used for ballast in that era as well as a type of cannon that was there when he first took photos of the site in 2003 but had apparently been looted when he returned this year,” according to the Associated Press.

In its report, UNESCO faulted Clifford for announcing his findings in the media before officially informing the Haitian government of his intention to continue his research in the bay of Cap-Haitien.

(Top: 1892 US postage stamp featuring the Santa Maria.)

Sahara desert ants: A study in adaptability

sahara desert ant

The Sahara desert is about as unforgiving an environment as exists on Earth.

The African desert is characterized by intense heat and a scorching sun, especially during the hot season, when surface temperatures can reach more than 150 degrees during midday.

Most living organisms wait out the broiling heat in the shade, but not the Sahara desert ant, which seizes on the opportunities presented by the high temperatures.

Once the heat becomes unbearable for other species, the Sahara desert ant (Cataglyphis bicolor) emerges from the shade of its burrow to feast on the corpses of insects that have succumbed to conditions.

This species is reported to be able to forage in surface temperatures of up to 158 degrees for short periods despite the fact that it lives in an environment which has almost no identifiable features, according to the BBC.

Several abilities enable the Sahara desert ant to accomplish this feat:

  • While venturing out it periodically takes measurements of its angle in respect to the Sun, which allow it to plot a straight line back to its nest;
  • It relies on a unique odor signature that can guide it back to its home; and
  • It appears to use an internal pedometer to count its steps in a harsh setting where odors quickly vanish, enabling it to “count back” to its nest.

Being able to withstand such extreme heat reduces competition for food from less thermo-tolerant scavengers and likely reduces its chances of running into a predator.

“Three main characteristics and behaviors allow the Sahara desert ant and other thermophilic ants to be active in temperatures that would quickly kill most other animals,” according to the BBC. “They are quick; Cataglyphis fortis and Cataglyphis bombycina, its close relatives, have been clocked moving at one meter (3.3 feet) per second. Their relatively long legs mean temperatures at the height of their bodies are 6-7 degrees cooler than on the ground.

“They also pause on dry stalks of grass onto which they off-load excess body heat,” the news service added.

These abilities allow the Sahara desert ant to venture out at midday for 3-5 minutes at a time. Given the speed at which it can travel, Cataglyphis bicolor has the ability to travel farther from its nest than any other creature that lives in the Sahara with respect to size.

11-year-old me on why ancient man steered clear of Office Depot

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Word is we had a lunar eclipse down our way early this morning. The event offered me an opportunity to recall how utterly obtuse I was 40 years or so ago.

Last night, as I dropped my girls off at their mother’s house, we discussed the eclipse. They explained how they were considering getting up around 5 a.m. to view the unusual celestial occurrence. They had a basic understanding of what caused the event and were excited to see it.

As I drove home, I recalled that when I was the age of my youngest daughter, 11, I not only didn’t understand what an eclipse was, I was utterly unfamiliar with the word. As evidence, I can recall the first time I heard about the concept of an eclipse.

My mother was attempting to explain that people can be afraid of that which they do not understand and was describing how ancient societies were often very superstitious and fearful of rare phenomena. Among things that confused and frightened prehistoric people, she explained, were eclipses.

As I was unacquainted with the word, and not a particularly bright 11-year old, my ears only caught the second part of the word, “clips,” and my mind immediately wandered to “paper clips.”

With an ignorant arrogance not unknown among 11-year-old boys, I immediately thought, “Wow, what a bunch of morons – afraid of paper clips! Ha! Ha! Ha!” Mind you, I wasn’t confident enough in this anthropological assessment to voice this view to my mother; I simply sat there in smug, silent awe that a group of people could be afraid of office supplies.

Sure, paper clips could be exasperating when they got all looped together, and they could cause some really agony if the end of one got under a fingernail, but any society that was afraid of paper clips must have been a pretty pathetic one, I reasoned.

Looking back, I don’t know at what point I finally learned what an eclipse actually was, or at what point I realized what it was my mother had been talking about, but some years later I made the connection that I’d been off base – way off base.

Needless to say, my girls – who are a bit wiser and certainly more intuitive than their father was at their age – always get a chuckle out of that story. And there’s certainly no shortage of similar tales for me to regale them with. I guess that’s one of the few benefits of having been a dense kid.

(Top: Lunar eclipse seen earlier this year. Not pictured: Paper clip.)

Old quarry offers spectacular view of past, present

Abby's photos 10 5 2014 433

There’s something about abandoned quarries that I find utterly alluring. The steep walls, deep pools of dark water, and abundant vegetation and wildlife enable me to imagine myself standing abreast a beautiful Nordic tarn.

This past weekend proved a wonderful opportunity to visit one of the area quarries, so Daughter No. 4 and I drove to Fairfield County, SC, to the old Anderson Quarry, which produced some of the world’s finest blue granite from 1898 through 1946. She is a talented artist and I knew she’d have an opportunity to take some spectacular photographs.

Once populated by an array of workers, skilled and unskilled, with some from as far away as Scotland and Italy, today the quarry is filled with emerald-green water that’s home to largemouth bass and bream. Hawks and buzzards fly overhead, and innumerable other critters – from lizards and turtles to velvet ants and ridiculous amounts of mosquitos – scuttle, scurry and buzz among 40-ton blocks of granite, cut but never delivered.

The quarry was operated by the Winnsboro Granite Co., which provided building materials for many of the nation’s most elaborate structures, including the Flat-Iron Building in New York and the Land Title and Trust Building in Philadelphia.

“The granite is uniform in color and texture, possesses good working qualities, is susceptible of a high polish, and is admirably adapted to monumental purposes. The product is used chiefly for monumental stock, and is reported to have been so used in twenty-four States,” according to a 1910 US Geological Survey titled “Granites of the Southeastern Atlantic States.”

Interestingly, nearly a quarter century after the quarry closed, blue granite was named South Carolina’s state stone, in 1969.

Today, all that remains of the once prosperous operation is decaying machinery, including a crane derrick that rests against a granite wall, 100-plus feet above the water’s surface, abandoned quarry structures, all built of granite, and an array of rusting pipes, likely used decades ago to pump water from the quarry to allow work to continue unabated.

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Simpler, natural lifestyle of ‘olden days’ left something to be desired

dead by 35

In fairness, infant mortality likely kept life-expectancy figures low for prehistoric man.

But among those who made it into adulthood, even the most mundane problems associated with lack of medical care – i.e. rotting teeth, hemorrhoids, sinus infections, etc. - probably made them wish they were dead.

And, as far as I knew, deaths due to injuries incurred during mastodon hunts are way down over the past few millennia.

Death by football: Remembering a college friend 10 years later

justin Strzelczyk

It is not news to anyone who follows professional sports that the National Football League has some serious problems, including issues with domestic abuse, banned substances and players suffering debilitating and life-shortening injuries with all-too alarming frequency.

While this crisis seems to some a recent phenomenon, it’s not. The light has only been shined on it with greater intensity recently.

I remember when I got my first real inkling that something was wrong – really wrong – with professional football. It was perhaps 18 or 19 years ago, while watching a game involving the Pittsburgh Steelers. I don’t remember who the Steelers were playing, but I do remember a specific play which was run toward the Steelers’ sideline, where Pittsburgh players not in the game were standing.

As one of the opposing players slowed up as he ran out of bounds at the end of the play, a Pittsburgh player standing along the sideline took the opportunity to deliver what in football parlance is known as a “forearm shiver,” clocking his opponent with a forearm to the head. As the opponent, not surprisingly, wasn’t expecting a blow, it had a powerful effect.

I remember the network catching the infraction and showing it again, and highlighting the culprit. It was Justin Strzelczyk, a grizzly bear of an offensive lineman. The incident was shocking not because of what happened – most every NFL game has cheap shots and late hits – but because of who committed the offense.

It stunned me because Strzelczyk, who I’d known in college, had been one of the most easygoing individuals I’d known during my time at the University of Maine. He may have been a 6-foot-6, 250-plus pound football player, but he was a genuinely good-natured guy.

I’d actually met him during his recruiting visit to Maine in 1986, when he was still a senior in high school. My dorm room was across the hall from that of one of the captains of the football team. Recruits are paired up with current team members when they visit campus and Strzelczyk spent the weekend of his recruiting visit across the hall, when he wasn’t out getting his first taste of college life.

That weekend, amid the beer, girls and good times of college, Strzelczyk was in hog heaven. I wasn’t surprised when he opted to attend Maine. We remained friends and would chat whenever we  bumped into each other on campus up until I graduated in 1988.

Strzelczyk continued to improve and was a starter and standout during the latter part of his career at Maine. The last time I saw him, ironically, was in April 1990. I’d gone back to Maine to visit some friends still in school and it happened to be the first day of that year’s NFL draft.

While walking on campus we saw each other and talked briefly; I asked him if he thought he’d be drafted. He replied that he hoped so, but he’d have to wait and see. He still had an easy way about him, despite the fact that he was hours away from learning what the future held for him.

In the end, the Pittsburgh Steelers picked him in the 11th round, No. 293 overall. Normally, 11th round draft choices don’t have much of chance of making it in the NFL, but Strzelczyk, who had size, aptitude and desire going for him, made the team.

Over the next nine seasons, Strzelczyk would play in 173 games for the Steelers, starting 75. He was versatile, starting at every position on the offensive line except center. He even played in Super Bowl XXX.

His career came to a close, as nearly all do in the NFL, because of an injury. He suffered a quadriceps tear during a game in 1998, and then was hurt the following year in bar fight. Finally, he suffered another injury during a celebrity hockey game in 2000 and was shortly afterward released by the Steelers.

Without football, Strzelczyk’s life seemed to come apart at the seams. He and his wife of eight years divorced in 2001; he was arrested for drinking and driving in 2003; and his behavior became increasingly erratic.

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