Further Evidence That Homeopathy Doesn't Work.

Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 1:59 PM Bookmark and Share
Over on the otherside of the pond, a group know as the Merseyside Skeptics Society have launched the 1023 Campaign to illustrate that homeopathy doesn't work.  Illustrating the fact is simple: gather up groups of skeptics to "overdose" by taking entire bottles of what are basically sugar pills, then spend the next few days laughing as nothing happens to any of them.

Here's the latest from an orchestrated international "overdose event" that took place this past Saturday (30 Jan 2010.)
At 10:23am on January 30th, more than four hundred homeopathy sceptics nationwide took part in a mass homeopathic 'overdose' in protest at Boots' continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, and to raise public awareness about the fact that homeopathic remedies have nothing in them.

See the links above for more information, or to get your group involved in any future events... I'd imagine there's something happening later this year on October 23rd at 10:23am!

Feather Color Revealed in Dinosaurs

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 8:11 PM Bookmark and Share
Unrelated to my previous post, news came today from the journal Nature that a group of scientists have used SEM techniques to reveal color patterns from some well preserved dinosaur feathers -- cool stuff!

Here's a figure from the paper, showing some of the melanosomes (pigment containing structures within cells).

"Melanosomes in the integumentary filaments of 
the dinosaur Sinornithosaurus (IVPP V12811). 
a, Optical photographs of part of the holotype and SEM samples (insets). 
b, Mouldic phaeomelanosomes.
c, Aligned eumelanosomes preserved as solid bodies (at arrows). 

d, Strongly aligned mouldic eumelanosomes. 
Scale bars: a, main panel, 50mmand inset, 5 mm; b–d, 2 mm." 

In addition to the coloration details, this paper also gets into other aspects of feather structure confirming that these structures are indeed feathers:
Our results demonstrate conclusively that the integumentary filaments of non-avian theropod dinosaurs are epidermal structures. In birds, melanin is synthesized endogenously in specialized pigment producing cells, melanocytes, that occur primarily in the dermis; the melanocytes migrate into the dermal pulp of the developing feather germ, where the melanin is packaged into melanosomes and then those melanosomes are transferred to keratinocytes for deposition into developing feathers. In various avian species melanin granules also form, and are apparently retained, in dermal melanocytes; melanin granules can form a discrete layer in the dermis, but below, and not as part of, the collagen layer. The occurrence of melanosomes embedded inside the filaments of Jehol non-avian dinosaurs thus confirms that these structures are unequivocally epidermal structures, not the degraded remains of dermal collagen fibres, as has been argued recently. Our work confirms that these filaments are probably the evolutionary precursors of true feathers, and it will be interesting to determine whether any fossil filaments might relate to other kinds of epidermal outgrowths in modern birds.

For further discussion of the paper, see...

New bird-like dinosaur fossil?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 9:20 PM Bookmark and Share
Update: Links to the articles in Science are here and here.  Also see the posts here and here on Dave Hone's blog.

Looks like there might be something tomorrow (27 Jan 2010) in the journal Science announcing a new bird-like dinosaur fossil? Details over at Dave Hone's blog in the posts:

"Jonah Choiniere with a typically small alvarezsaur - Mononykys."

Shell Carrying Cephalopods: Defensive Tool Use or Protective Nest Guarding?

Friday, January 22, 2010 at 11:55 AM Bookmark and Share
There's a post over at Jerry Coyne's blog (WEIT) pointing to another video of an octopus using tools for defense.  In this case, the individual (a veined octopus) used 3 shells, then once alarmed carried them off holding them underneath it's body.  While not all that unexpected for this species given their use of shells and such for shelter, the observation follows the recent story of such tool use as a first among invertebrates as published in the journal Current Biology [1] (more on that story on the blogs WEIT and Not Exactly Rocket Science or go here for the journal article and here for comments).

But are we missing something in these videos?? Here's the latest video, as featured on the Current Biology website:

Here's the first video (a supplement to the paper mentioned above) of an individual using coconuts:

The use of shells or coconuts as protective tools is noteworthy, but there might be more to the story than that. I once observed a small octopus inside 2 clam shells in the north eastern part of the Sea of Cortez, and while I didn't observe any of the carrying behavior documented in these videos, there was one additional detail I have yet to see mentioned in these discussions: the shells were lined with octopus eggs.

While I had wondered about my own observation upon first seeing the coconut video, I saw no eggs or behavior to suggest there were eggs present. This time, however, could be different. Here's a still from the video above showing what could be eggs in one of the shells:

If you haven't seen octopus eggs before, here's a closer image pulled from the web

So am I seeing things, or are these eggs? If so, is this not worth mentioning or has it simply gone unnoticed until now?

While perhaps a small detail, if these are indeed eggs in the shells it is important to recognize this fact.  Tool use alone may be a noteworthy observation, but such observations are most valuable when matched with our best description of the context in which the behavior takes place.


  1. Finn, Tregenza and Norman. Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus. Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 23, R1069-R1070, 15 December 2009. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.10.052

Vanity Fair (and Charles Darwin?!) Visit the Creation "Museum"

Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 3:46 PM Bookmark and Share
It's true, Charles Darwin (well, at least the actor who plays Charles Darwin in the movie Creation, English actor Paul Bettany) and A. A. Gill of Vanity Fair magazine put together a nice slide show and scathing critique of the place.

Here's a taste of the smackdown doled out by Gill...
What is truly awe-inspiring about the museum is the task it sets itself: to rationalize a story, written 3,000 years ago, without allowing for any metaphoric or symbolic wiggle room. There’s no poetic license. This is a no-parable zone. It starts with the definitive answer, and all the questions have to be made to fit under it. That’s tough. Science has it a whole lot easier: It can change things. It can expand and hypothesize and tinker. Scientists have all this cool equipment and stuff. They’ve got all these “lenses” and things. They can see shit that’s invisible. And they stayed on at school past 14. Science has given itself millions of years, eons, to play with, but the righteous have got to get the whole lot in, home and dry, in less than 6,000 years, using just a pitchfork and a loud voice. It’s like playing speed chess against a computer and a thousand people with Nobel Prizes.

[Hat tip to PZ Myers]

Behold... the human brain!

Tonight, while sharing a late night bowl of ice cream, my wife and I happened upon the fourth episode of the Brain Series by Charlie Rose. It pretty much poked all my science-dork buttons, so I of course had to run right over to the computer and put up a post telling you to watch the series - it's cool stuff!!

You can see all available episodes of the series here. The discussions cover some interesting and important topics. I'm already excited for next episode on brain development and child learning.

I haven't watched them all yet, but the series seems to touch on a variety of topics related to what our brains do and how they do it. The format is the usual scene: a table full of experts moderated by Charlie Rose. If anything, it's a great chance to hear a handful of experts discussing some of the latest insights into common brain disorders like autism/ASD, schizophrenia, and depression. There is also a fair bit of discussion related to brain development during the first few years of life, which should be of interest to parents.

For more info, check the links above and your local PBS listings.

A "Dietary Antioxidant" for kids, or an environmental chelator?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 4:59 PM Bookmark and Share
I had made a few posts related to autism a while back, and today came across this article (via Orac's post over at Respectful Insolence).  It's a nice example of bullshit truth in advertising by Kentucky company CTI Science, Inc. ran by Boyd Haley.

I first wondered if the product would be equally marketable were it more appropriately named "Chelator, with Titanium and Iron Rust" or maybe "N1, N3-bis(2-mercaptoethyl)isophthalamide", instead of "OSR#1", and in the end I decided the answer was probably no.  Why?  So far it looks like a large portion of the intended consumers are parents and caretakers of autistic children...

More important than the name, I wondered about the truthfulness of the claims on the product website, particularly the scant evidence that the stuff is really safe for children, and of course the story behind this blurb on their FAQ page (as of 19 January 2010):
There is an internet rumor that OSR#1® is an Industrial Chelator. Is this true?

No. OSR#1® as produced by CTI Science is not now and has never been marketed or tested as an environmental or industrial chelator. Nor has OSR#1® been tested in humans as a chelator by CTI Science, and no claims of chelation treatment use are made by CTI Science.

Now, here it's worth noting that CTI Science website also states that OSR#1 was developed in conjunction with...
the University of Kentucky in Lexington which licenses the underlying patent rights to the Company.
(By the way, is it just me, or wouldn't you really like to know what that patent number is?)

According to the articles above, it seems that statement is indeed highly questionable, and the source of that mean ol' "internet rumor" appears to be (gasp!) a University of Kentucky patent -- presumably the very same one mentioned by the CTI Science website?

Reading into this great report and in particular this post (both from 2008), we find...
Prof. Boyd Haley’s new chelator N,N’-bis (2-mercaptoethyl)isophthalamide, or “CT-01” — represented to the FDA as a “new dietary ingredient,” and now marketed as an antioxidant for consumption by autistic children under the trade name “Oxidative Stress Relief” (OSR) — is substantially similar if not identical in its chemical structure to one member of a family of industrial chelators developed by his colleagues at the University of Kentucky, and for which U.S. and international patents were awarded in 2003.

U.S. Patent No. 6,586,600, Multidentate Sulfur-Containing Ligands (issued July 2, 2003) (.pdf) names as its inventors chemists David A. Atwood, Brock S. Howerton and Matthew Matlock of Lexington, Kentucky. David Atwood is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky, and Mr. Howerton and Mr. Matlock are graduate students. The rights to the patent are assigned to the University of Kentucky Research Foundation.
More details on the patent issue were posted later here, but it's pretty clear from patent #6586600 mentioned above (presumable the patent licensed to CTI Science, Inc.) that these compounds were intended to be used as environmental chelators.

Looking back at the claim from the website, we see the beauty of good advertising: so far, it looks like CTI Science hasn't technically lied to their consumers here.  You see, while these chemicals were initially patented as environmental chelators, it's technically true that (bold added for emphasis)...
OSR#1® as produced by CTI Science is not now and has never been marketed or tested as an environmental or industrial chelator.

So what do you think? Are they being maybe just a little bit misleading as they try and dodge the association of their product with it's intended role as an environmental chelation agent?

Disease of the Month: White-nose Syndrome in Bats

Monday, January 18, 2010 at 1:13 PM Bookmark and Share
I've been trying to come up with a nice recurring theme related to my research interests, so this is the first of what will hopefully become a series of posts on transmissible wildlife diseases.  If you're into that sort of thing (which you should be - either because their natural history is so unbelievable and amazing, or maybe because they're wiping out their host population) then definitely check out the blog Parasite of the Day, whose recent post on Geomyces destructans reminded me to finish up this draft and get it off of my to-do list! 

So without further ado, here's one of the nastiest little germs that has flared up recently: the scourge of cave dwelling Chiropterans, White-nose Syndrome (WNS).

Figure1: Little brown bat; close-up of nose with fungus, New York, Oct. 2008.
Photo courtesy Ryan von Linden/NY Department of Environmental Conservation.

In short, while bats hibernate the fungal pathogen somehow manages to subvert their immune defenses (somehow the fungal hyphae that penetrate the skin don't elicit an inflammatory response), and infect their skin - especially on the muzzle.  Infection often causes them to come out of hibernation early (I would imagine this is a consequence of their taxed energy reserves and/or the infection triggering some sort of "wake up and turn on your immune system!" response, though that's purely speculation on my part) and seems to almost always result in death.

It is still unclear whether the sole cause of the disease is Geomyces destructans or if there might be a third factor facilitating the progression and spread of WNS.  Initially researchers were cautious -- the G. destructans infections could have been a symptom of some other less visible disease (e.g. some sort of bat immunodeficiency virus or a build-up of some new environmental toxin) or the primary cause. Recent work suggests the fungus is likely the culprit, but folks are still working to rule out other factors. From this page on the fungal pathogen ...
Another set of experiments is underway to try to prove that G. destructans is the actual cause of death. Koch's postulates have not yet been fulfilled, so it has not been strictly proven that Geomyces destructans causes death in bats. The histopathology has been well documented, and it is very clear that this fungus is the causal agent of white-nose syndrome cutaneous infection. So far, the correlation between the presence of the fungus and bat death is quite substantial, but *cause* has not yet been proven.
Even without knowing the causal details one thing is clear: WNS is decimating bat populations in the northeast.  Once a hibernaculum is infected, winter mortality rates seem to be very high: from near 80% up to 97% in some locations. Even worse, it's possible fungal spores can persist in these caves across multiple winters, and the list of infected hibernacula seems to be increasing in number and extending into previously uninfected areas (click here for a map from this page).

To get a better feel for the real severity of this disease, here's a video by Gerrit Vyn based on his experiences following field researchers during the winter of 2008-2009.

From Gerrit's blog...
White-nose Syndrome is a mysterious disease that is currently decimating bat populations in the northeastern United States. First observed near Albany, New York in 2006, it had spread as far as Virginia by 2009. Scientists fear this disease could rapidly push an entire group of species to extinction and will trigger unknown ecological consequences. Why the bats are dying remains a mystery.

I accompanied researchers to several caves and mines in New York and Vermont during the winter of 2009 in an effort to document the situation. This piece is a result of that effort and aims to communicate the urgency of the situation to the public and policy-makers and to elicit an emotional response to a group of species that are often disregarded or disliked.

Related Links

Evolution at the zoo

Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 8:28 PM Bookmark and Share
I just saw this post over at the Axis of Evo blog, and remembered a photo I took of a sign at the Denver Zoo on primate evolution... which included humans.  The photo was taken in early July, 2009 in front of the gorilla exhibit.

Figure 1. The sign.

First, I think it's fantastic that the Denver Zoo isn't being shy, and is trying to educate the public about where our species sits in the tree of life -- especially in relation to the (other) great apes.  I've seen lesser zoos completely devoid of such efforts.

That said, there were some problems with the sign:  It depicted an outdated relationship between humans and other apes, and it looked as though someone was trying to sugar coat those human-to-primate relationships further by including extinct groups that (conveniently?) introduce extra space between humans and the other primates.  In any case, I think the sign needs an update...  Here's a closer look at the bottom panel -- their presentation of the major modern primate lineages plus one extinct group...

Figure 2. The bottom panel from the sign in Figure 1.

I could be wrong here, but last I recall all the evidence suggests this picture (excluding the extinct "ape-men") should look something more like this:

Figure 3.  An edited (or maybe, corrected?) version of the sign above.

Only a few feet away, should any visitor get curious, were nice close looks at Gorillas and Orangutans.  I was able to snap this picture...

Figure 4. Hand of a female gorilla, napping a few feet away from the sign above.

Perhaps not as impressive as the big silver-back, but it does nicely illustrate how some of our human features maybe aren't as exclusively human as some like to think.

Mid-week Reptilian #9: Going Green

 at 3:13 PM Bookmark and Share
Here is some awesome footage of a wild Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus) eating a Green Iguana (Iguana iguana) at the edge of a pond at Hato Masaguaral, Guarico, Venezuel.  It was taken by a friend of mine who was in the area doing some ornithology research.  Be sure to click over to the video on youtube and give it the 5-star rating it deserves!