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Survival of the fittest – But can the planet fit in all who survive????

March 24, 2013 Leave a comment

21st December 2012 has gone by without any or rather no major events.  And just Yesterday (March 23) we celebrated another earthhour. But I have got this personal feeling that 2013 or 2030 or some year or some day, the end is certain. We are hurtling towards certain DOOM. And pretty obviously, by end i do not mean –  the world or for that matter human beings would simply cease to exist. BUT the sustenance of life on this planet would become very very difficult.

Most of what I have written above or what I am going to write will seem pretty obvious but what is not obvious is – THAT very thing or element or the holy grail which we would fall back on for the solution for the current problems is the problem in itself. What is this secret element I am talking of? It is Science or Technology or Development or simply put – the HUMAN BRAIN.

I am not saying evolution or human evolution was a bad thing to happen. Now, let’s take it step by step.

 

 

 

1)      DEER AND TIGER  Conundrum– DEER in EXCESS

Let’s for a moment take human beings away from the equation. There is a huge forest which currently is home to 100 deer and 10 tigers. The deer start multiplying and in a century’s time there are not 100 but 10000 deer which threaten the existence of the forest and start being a threat to the environment.

But wait, this can not happen for 2 reasons, the deer can not eat up the whole forest’s tree leaves of course due to their bodily limitation and their numbers will be kept in check by the ever increasing number of tigers too. Their numbers would also be kept in check owing to natural deaths.

2)      TIGER IN EXCESS

What if the tigers start multiplying and become a huge force to reckon with (as if they are not the apex predator already) and become a threat to environmental balance. Again, this is not possible because the number of deer would be limited and hence because of resource limitations, the female tiger can successfully raise only a limited number of cubs

3)      INTELLIGENT ANIMAL

Now, let’s complicate things by adding a new animal –an ape which is pretty intelligent, which can use its fingers, can talk, communicate with each other, draw paintings on the walls of caves.

So far so good. The new animal is just a part of the ecosystem – it may hunt both the carnivore and the herbivore for food but that’s about it. The same animal might be bumped off by a tiger.

4)      NEW DISCOVERIES – NEED FOR COMFORT-EARLY SIGNS OF UNNECESSARY CONSUMERISM

The above situation does not stay the same for long – the new animal is smart enough to make tools and weapons for self protection – probably the same weapons it used to hunt down its food. But the new animal also has the option of using these weapons to kill animals not just for food or protection, but for decorative purposes. The reason could be greed or lust for power.

The ape next door  killed a tiger yesterday to decorate the floor of his cave. Lets kill two tigers to decorate ours.

5)      NEED FOR COMFORT- NEED FOR FUEL

Also, now that it has started thinking, it finds that the food is tastier, more palatable when cooked – cooked on fire. Where does the fire come from – wood/trees/dry grass. Here we see early signs of production of green house gases. But no one is complaining. By the way, what does  green house effect mean to this new species anyway?

6)      NEED FOR COMFORT – MOVE AWAY FROM FORESTS – MAKE TOWNS/CITIES- DOMESTICATE ANIMALS

Again, now forests are being cut down to accommodate farming, more clear spaces, ancient towns/ cities.

The animal has started rearing farm animals for farming and for feeding itself. More animals , more methane. More green house. Also more cattle means more cattle feed which means more deforestation .

7)      DEVELOPMENT IN MEDICAL SCIENCE- LESSER DEATHS

The new animal has also started getting some control on the life-death cycle by cheating death and prolonging life – to me, this means expanding your population by cheating nature and hence causing an imbalance in the environment.

8)      INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

Now, this must be the final nail in the coffin – Industrial revolution led to more mining, the concept of engineering, more production, more consumption, automobiles, aero planes, computers, laptops, tablets, what not.

So here we are now with the following problems:-

1)      Ever decreasing resources – Oil, fresh water, energy, food electricity and an ever increasing number of many mouths to feed, to keep happy.

2)      Heights of consumerism – We can make do with lets say X number of clothes but we would be having like 5X clothes. Same with gadgets. Excuse given is – Quality of life. At the cost of what Environment and quality of life of fellow EARTHLINGS(including humans).

3)      Too much competition – competition has been the name of the game since time unknown. All the other animals and prehistoric animals used to compete for territory and food. But here we are competing at a completely different level – We are the only animals who are consciously COMPETING – i.e. we are competing just to outdo each other instead of trying to live within our means.

4)      And last but not the least, the climate, the environment, which was all tuned to help us realize the maximum out of the earth is now working against us  – sea levels will rise, climatic conditions would change, untimely monsoons etc would definitely spell doom.

Is there a solution to this problem? Lets discuss that later….STAY TUNED

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Categories: Paleontology/Biology

Did crocs hunt T-Rex ???

November 14, 2011 1 comment

Recently I came across an article about how the crocs must have been at the top of the food chain at the time of the dinosaurs and not the top Theropod (non-veggie dinos) predators like T-Rex or Allosaurus. Here’s the link to the article in THE ECONOMIST.

Few points first up:-

1)      I am one of the biggest fans of crocodile. As Charles Darwin put it – “Survival is of the fittest”. And who other than croc to prove that. After all, it is one of the few reptiles who survived the great K-T extinction (Their fellow archosaurs i.e. birds and testudines (or turtles) too survived).

2)      Whether or not crocodile was at the top of the food chain during the Mesozoic Era (251.1 – 65 million years ago), right now, it is an apex predator. On its day (especially in water where it is a force to reckon with), it can easily bring down any carnivore like Lion, or even Tiger for that matter who is in fact an expert swimmer.

But, then again I am not fully agreeable to the fact that crocodiles used to munch on T-Rexes or other big dinosaurs. Let us get some facts right first:-

1)      Dinosaurs alone (like many people think) or dinosaurs and crocodiles alone were not the only reptiles existing in the Mesozoic Era. Of course, we will discount the testudines or turtles. There were few others too:-

  1. Phytosauria, Rauisuchia and Rhynchosauria (these guys were veggies), all of whom were CROCODYLOMORPHA (superorder) or “LIKE CROCS”
  2. Pterosauria , the flying reptiles
  3. Ichthyosauria (The fish-like reptiles, the ones seen in ICE AGE 2)
  4. Plesiosauria ( Again, marine reptiles)

2)                  The big Theropods were not the only ones. As was said for crocodilians, they came in many shapes and sizes. There were raptors, like the famous Velociraptor and many others.

3)                  It is almost a proven fact that T-Rex and other big ones were not hunters but scavengers. Their heavy structure and short fore limbs or hands meant that they could not run fast as shown in the movies. Rather they would eat whatever is left of a large diplodocus after a pack of raptors have had their fill.

4)                  I, for one believe that each predator would have its own niche environment. If the Supercroc used to rule the Saharan swamps, it might have been some dinosaur (or maybe some croc) who would have ruled the southern part of Africa.

So, what I am coming to say is that we cannot just for a fact say that crocodiles were the top predators and hunted even the theropods. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, the crocodilians the author is referring to are not actually crocodiles and are just crocodylomorpha and not the direct ancestors of present day crocodile. Of course, even they were present as a part of crocodylomorpha. But again, even to assume that the Crocodylomorpha would rule the roost is too much to assume.

There would definitely have been lot of diversity and lot many diverse ecosystems back then just like today. So if the ornithopods (or the veggies) substitute for the present day herbivores and the theropods substitute for the present day big cats, the crocs or crocodylomorpha would have eaten only the ornithopods (and maybe some small theropods hear and there) and not all theropods. Even today the crocs make a meal of the herbivores without eating the carnivores. And sometimes, a big herbivore (like a hippo in water or elephant on land) is too much for a croc to handle. And throw in a bunch of water dwelling Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs, I am sure even they would have fallen prey to the crocodiles (can’t say for sure though – even they could have never co-existed).

In conclusion, looking at current crocodiles, it was pretty obvious their ancestors would definitely have been pretty aggressive hunters. But, unless we see crocodiles’s teeth-marks on theropod’s skull or vice- versa, we can safely assume that both were apex predators and were at the top of their respective food chains. It is not necessary that they eat each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Right or Left?

August 29, 2010 3 comments

Following on from my previous post,  is handedness observed in other animals? As the term itself is HANDedness, it is pretty intuitive that animals are mostly footed and only the other primates and bears use hand to some extent.  The polar bears are rumoured to be left handed but it is just that – a rumour. There is no scientific evidence for the polar bears being lefties. For all other primates other than humans, though they might acquire a liking for a particular hand, they do not have any preference as such. The reason being that the left and right sides of the brains are identically sized. In humans, as most of you must know, one side is bigger than the other. The lefties have their right brain slightly bigger and vice-versa. The right brain is supposed to control verbal skills and left brain is supposed to control all the quant skills and calculations. Thus, lefties are believed to be more artistic and righties more mathematical.

There is another category – ambidextrous people. By definition, they are people who can do any activity with both hands with equal ease. There are very few people who are ambidextrous in the true sense. But some do become ambidextrous – knowingly or inknowingly. For the record, three of my close friends have been non-right handed. Only one of them is lefty in the full sense. The other two eat/write with the right hand and throw/bowl etc with the left hand. Probably, at a young age, they started writing with the right hand because their teachers/parents told them that is the right way. Thus they are neither lefties nor righties not even ambidextrous – currently and are more of cross-dominant i.e. they have one hand assigned for each task. So how do you determine whether a person is a lefty or a righty in a flash? Throw something at him? No!!He would catch it with the hand nearest to him!!. Make him throw something, the action should be instantaneous and he should not be given enough time to decide which hand to use – he will definitely use his dominant hand to throw.

For a long time, the handedness was believed not to follow Mendel’s genetic rules. Mendel’s rule basically could give an idea what traits a child would have depending on his parent’s traits. For e.g. Mendel’s rules could determine what would be the color of the eyes of a child whose one parent is brown eyed and the other blue eyed. But in this case, two righty parents could have a lefty kid and two lefty parents could have a righty kid. But as late as 2007, a new gene has been discovered – LRRTM1. This gene determines the asymmetry in the brain size and in a way determines handedness.

Developing motor skills in your non-dominant hand is not very difficult and humans can learn it with enough practice. Lefties do it usually because they are forced to do it one way or the other Righties don’t usually do it but can take a shot at it. Yours truly (me, the blog writer) has learnt the same and achieved some success. What I have realized is you can do most routine actions – like throwing with left hand and with lots of practice, doing it in a rhythmic way, you can even take aim and hit the target pretty accurately. The above was an example of an action where you needed more of force/strength and less of dexterity in terms of the usage of fingers. Fingers are used the most while writing. So writing with left hand is difficult – but how difficult? I pretty much write decently with the left hand as well. My handwriting with my right hand is nothing to write home about and so the left hand is not doing very badly at that. Then which are the actions which are most difficult – the ones which need both dexterity and force – brushing teeth. It’s very difficult to reach the inner parts of your mouth from various angles that too with the right force so as to clean your teeth.

As they say- it’s all in the mind (literally too). There is nothing in this world which man can’t learn by practice. Thus, I am reiterating the well known proverb – practice makes a man perfect!!!!

Left or right?

August 29, 2010 6 comments

Ever wondered why you use one hand more than the other or for that matter, why are you right handed? Yes, I am confident that most of you readers are right handed and hence the earlier question- why RIGHT handed. Less than 10% of people around the world are left handed. Sorry lefties!!! Most of the further discussion would be from the perspective of righties!!!! ‘Us’ would mostly mean righties!!!

The majority of tools and equipments are suited for right handers, more than left handers. The door knobs are one such example though these days I myself have seen a number of left handed knobs. The taps and screws are another example which I find interesting. For us Indians, who usually eat with our hands, tap is not a problem as more often than not we have to open the tap with our left hand. But imagine tightening a screw or capping a bottle. Right now, to tighten the screws, you follow a clockwise direction – remember – tightening requires more pressure and accuracy most of the times and you would like to have your hand in a comfortable position for the same. To loosen the screw, only the initial jerk is necessary and the rest of the action is pretty straight forward. Yes, clockwise is much more comfortable than anticlockwise while tightening and vice-versa. The primary reason is the set of muscles in our hand involved. You can refer to supination (for clockwise movement) and pronation (for anti clockwise) for the details of muscle movements.

Another tool is the scissor. Most scissors are for right handed people – handle blade and all. A right handed scissor is one when you hold while cutting, the hand having the thumb faces outside. For lefties, this could be a problem, even if the screw is a little loose as all control is lost.

Lefties also face another problem – that of writing. Usually most of the lefties hold their pen/pencil in a peculiar fashion. They are forced to do it because otherwise, they might smear the ink of the previous letter written with their own hand. This is true for most of the written languages.

In sports, handedness plays a major role. Let’s take cricket – India’s favourite sport. Though bowling and fielding determines whether a person is righty or lefty, some people do wrongly believe that a left handed batsman is a lefty by birth. Actually, the terminology used should be top handed or bottom handed. Yes, a left handed batsman who is a righty by birth is top handed and a right handed righty is bottom handed. For top handed people, it is more like they are hitting a back hand shot (lets say in a game like tennis) with some support from the other hand. So if you are playing a game like tennis or badminton, your preference for backhanded shots might determine your preference in cricket. Now, which is better – being top handed or bottom handed? A left handed batsman has his dominant side – the right side facing the bowler which will give him more confidence. Not only that, there is this concept of right eyed and left eyed people i.e. a right eyed guy uses more of his right eye than the other. Most righties are right eyed and so on. So a top handed batsman would not only be using his dominant side, but can also see the ball more clearly with his dominant eye nearer to the ball. So he has more time than the bottom handed batsman and can execute his shots much better.

No prizes for guessing why Sourav Ganguly had such sweetly timed square cuts. Sachin Tendulkar is more of an enigma. I have read that he uses both hands and I have seen him autograph with his left hand. But I am not very sure if he has practiced that as he still bowls and throws with his right hand. In one particular match, I remember him trying to throw with his left hand and believe me it was not a pretty sight to watch. The ball somehow did reach the keeper’s gloves and the batsman of course couldn’t complete the single. But Sachin himself was all unbalanced and had thrust himself in the air.

Rafael Nadal is right handed but plays tennis with his left hand. It seems he used to play a double handed forehand. This gave his uncle and idea that Nadal could play left handed tennis. Now he  uses a double handed backhand too.

I guess this is enough for now. Read my next post to understand the science behind handedness.

Choosing Water over Land

August 27, 2010 4 comments

It’s a known fact that life originated out of water. The first living organisms – micro organisms took birth in the sea. And slowly they evolved into higher forms of life. Fishes originated and then they took reptilian form and these reptiles came to land and they evolved into mammals. But some of these mammals, strangely enough went back to water.

Modern whales owe their existence to a small wolf like carnivorous mammal PAKICETUS – the name being so because its fossils were first found in Pakistan. Pakicetus has now been included within the order ‘CETACEA’.  Pakicetus used to spend some amount of time in water – sometimes for feeding and sometimes to escape from other land-predators. The cetaceans finally fully settled in water, their lungs and bones – all developing to help them lead an aquatic life.

Let me now introduce another class of animals which you are familiar to – The ARTIODACTYLs or the EVEN TOED UNGULATES. These are all those herbivores you almost usually see – the cattle, pig, camel, giraffe etc. and most importantly hippopotamus. They are distinguished by the presence of 4 toes/hooves (as against 3 in case of odd toed ungulates like horses, donkeys, tapirs, rhinos etc), the weight of the body being borne wholly by 2 of the 4 toes. The closest living relatives of cetaceans are artiodactyls, Hippopotamus being the closest among them all. In fact the two orders – those of cetaceans and artiodactyls are together given a Clade – Cetartiodactyla. So how do early Cetaceans differ from artiodactyls? The structure of the tympanic bone in the ear is what differentiates the cetaceans from artiodactyls.

Interestingly enough, there is another close relative of whales – INDOHYUS (Meaning, Indian Pig), which was a herbivore. It was almost a contemporary of Pakicetus and most probably more recent than Pakicetus. It is a relative of the cetaceans in the sense that it has the same ear structure and belongs to the family Raoellidae.

Another set of mammals which took the aquatic route are the SIRENIA – the sea cows, manatees and dugongs.  SIRENIA are completely herbivorous and feed on plants growing under the sea. Now guess who are the closest relatives of these creatures? Elephants. Yes, Elephants and the Sirenia both evolved from common ancestors PRORASTOMIDAE which were mostly terrestrial animals known to be amphibious too. While they finally went and settled to lead a fully aquatic life to have evolved into Sirenia, somewhere down the line some of them have even come out of water and evolved into Elephants. No marks for guessing why elephants are such good swimmers and why they like to wallow in water so much. The skin of pachyderms is also fit to lead a dual – aquatic plus terrestrial lifestyle. Thus, in a way elephants represent a set of animals who went back to water and then again came back to land.

Here, I would like to touch upon another set of mammals that have gone back to water, though not fully. They are the PINNIPEDs or the super family of mammals having seals, walrus, sea lions etc who feed in water but stay on land. Thus they are semi- aquatic. But it is true that they have evolved from bear-like animals which were fully terrestrial.

Thus, we can see that though evolution forces most animals into being aquatic or terrestrial or amphibious, some of them still like to go back to what suits them the most by evolving themselves.

Unearthing Human Intelligence

August 2, 2010 4 comments

Let me ask you a question. How intelligent were the dinosaurs?  You all might say – ‘definitely not as intelligent as man’. And with walnut sized brains, i must agree they were really dumb. But studies have shown that troodon, the most intelligent dinosaur could have evolved into as intelligent and complex species as man himself.

Encephalization quotient is a measure of ratio of brain to body mass and in a way that reflects the intelligence of the species. Lets look at the Encephalization quotient of various animals.

Man – 7.44

Bottlenose Dolphin – 5.31

Orca (killer whale though actually a dolphin not a whale) – 2.57

Chimpanzee – 2.48

Elephant – 1.87

Whale –  1.76

Dog – 1.17

Cat – 1.00

It is pretty clear that the cetaceans (dolphin, whale etc) are almost as smart as humans and in some cases smarter than our ancestors. But indeed they ran out of luck when it comes to dexterity as they ended up in water and clearly you can’t read and write with your fins. Here i am specially highlighting dexterity as dexterity is something which would enable your brain to evolve as you start handling tools and eventually when the language was developed dexterity alone could help humans form a written format of the language. Even this dexterity was something which we got from our primate ancestors and which we didn’t earn it for ourselves. The monkeys made immense use of their fingers to grab branches of trees and thus even this is an evolved trait.

So by bragging about how intelligent humans are, aren’t we undermining the efforts of so many of our ancestors – reptilian mammals 65 million years ago, then the earliest primates 36 million years back ? Well maybe not. But surely, it was a matter of luck  and timing. What we have got now is not something we have earned but something which was GIFTED to us.

And how are we making use of this SPECIAL GIFT? Of course, full credit to humans for the various developments that have happened since the middle ages and in the past 200 years, man has changed a lot literally. Here, it would not be wrong to say that man has started evolving mentally and very less physically. But has that been of any help?

In the middle ages, man invested in technology only for war and weaponry.  Somewhere in between the Middle Ages and the modern era, man made a lot of important inventions and discoveries. As a result, we have all the comforts of modern technology in our day to day life. But how many of us have access to such a life?  The so called intelligent ones among us have very conveniently developed ways to earn wealth at the cost of others. Speaking about current usage of technology, nuclear fusion has not yet been used for generating electricity but it has already been used for constructing weapons of mass destruction.

Every year a large number of species are wiped out from the face of the earth because of human activities. The global climate change is very much evident now and threatens the very existence of human race. In many newly discovered geographies like Australia, man himself introduced a number of species for his own convenience. Then when he has found out that they are becoming a trouble for him, he has started culling a number of these animals and other animals. Man himself has been multiplying at an enormous rate depleting all the natural resources provided by Mother Nature.

It is not even a matter of superior intelligence but a matter of sheer common sense that we should not be hunting animals just for fun. In spite of man reaching a superior intelligence level man resorts to vulgar methods of entertainment like the infamous Seal hunting in Canada, where young seals are hammered to death.  In a way we are at the top of the food chain because of our intelligence levels. We are the APEX predators now. But is it not our responsibility to use our intelligence with discretion and not use our power for wasteful activities.

The evolution is an ongoing process. Man might go from strength to strength in terms of evolution but at the cost of other living species on the planet. And if sheer brain to body mass ratio is what is intelligence is, then my Question is ‘ Are we really that intelligent?’. It is for you to decide!!!!!

Egg came first or the chicken?

July 23, 2010 1 comment

The chicken or egg causality dilemma has been there with mankind for some time now.  The moot point here is not the term in itself but its actual usage.  There could be two interpretations – it could be either trying to find out the actual cause of a circular dependence or maybe it is really about whether the hen/chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) came first or whether the egg from which it took birth came first.

Now, the first interpretation is pretty self intuitive as there could be many scenarios in daily life where we might have two events which could be plausible reasons of each other. It could be equally applicable to scientific theories or principles Van der Waals equation or Colebrook equation where one equation would be dependent on a certain parameter which could itself only be derived from the said equation.

Now, let’s take a look at the second interpretation.  I for one, all this while thought that no one was ACTUALLY bothered about the literal chicken or its egg and it dependency on each other. And I was least expecting that a team of researchers would actually go about finding the answer to this dilemma. I was pretty much baffled when I found this news article about two British researchers finding an answer to the age old problem. Let me summarize the research results for you.

“Scientists have long believed that a chicken eggshell protein called ovocledidin-17 (OC-17) must play some role in egg shell formation. The protein is found only in the mineral region of the egg (the hard part of the shell) and lab bench results showed that it appeared to influence the transformation of (CaCo3) into calcite crystals. The mechanism of this control remained unclear. How this process could be used to form an actual eggshell remained unclear.

Dr David Quigley from the Department of Physics and Centre for Scientific Computing, University of Warwick, said: “Metadynamics extends conventional molecular dynamics (MD) simulations and is particularly good at sampling transitions between disordered and ordered states of matter.”

Using these tools, the team was able to create simulations that showed exactly how the protein bound to amorphous calcium carbonate surface using two clusters of “arginine residues”, located on two loops of the protein and creating a literal chemical “clamp” to nano sized particles of calcium carbonate.”

With due respect to the researchers as well as my limited knowledge of biology (Indeed I took my last biology class way back in 1999 when I was in 10th standard), I would beg to differ. First things first – If the chicken is able to produce OC-17 , then we all know that even other birds have their very own eggs and there must be some protein even their eggs must be relying upon. So protein is not important. As a matter of fact, the protein is being produced in chicken’s body because of some natural processes which obviously the chicken is not in control of. Neither was it ancestor – Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus). Here, let me touch upon my favorite topic – evolution.

Birds or aves evolved during Jurassic period from theropod dinosaurs and are the last living representatives of dinosaurs. And indeed the dinosaurs too gave birth through eggs. So lets change the topic to did the dinosaur come first or the egg? Here again, Dinosaur was not the first egg laying animal of course. Dinosaurs had evolved by about 230 million years ago, but before that the reptiles (the class to which superorder dinosauria belongs, 320-310 million years ago) also used to give eggs. Can we stop at reptiles then? Yes and No.

No because eggs are not a specialty of reptiles as reptiles evolved from earlier vertebrates like fish who also give eggs. In fact, it is said that all vertebrates (excepting mammals and marsupials) give eggs. Vertebrates are the set of animals (a subphylum of chordates to be precise) who are known distinctly by their backbones (could be cartilage also as in the case of shark).  But as far as I know, earlier invertebrates specially arthropods like crustaceans and insects also give birth through eggs. The time I am talking about is 540 million years ago.

Yes because reptiles are the first type of animals who came out with a calcium covered egg, i.e. the kind of egg which can be protected to some extent from the forces of nature and which can sustain the embryo life inside for a considerable period of time.

The poor chicken which is already carrying the burden of billions of people world over by becoming a part of their meal day in and day out is thus being thrusted upon with the extra responsibility of egg origins. Whereas the actual culprits are early reptiles.

So I would like to conclude by saying that the common man should not be mislead into believing that actually the chicken came first and stuff like that. I firmly believe though that the intention of the researchers was never to solve the egg chicken problem but to find out how to promote and control artificial forms of crystallization which would go a long way in bone formation and related research.

Categories: Paleontology/Biology
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