May 16, 2014

Elephant seals fighting.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Elephant Seals Are Full of Carbon Monoxide

"Smoker's blood" may aid deep diving

Believe it or not, most animals' blood contains a small amount of carbon monoxide—the odorless, colorless, deadly-in-high-concentrations gas—which is released as a by-product of the breakdown of hemoglobin. In healthy humans, about 1 percent of hemoglobin is bound to carbon monoxide. But elephant seals? Their blood contains roughly the same amount of the gas as a person who smokes 40-plus cigarettes a day, new research says.

If our flippery friends aren't smoking cigarettes by the sea, how the heck do their gas levels get so high? Scientists aren't positive, but conjecture in the study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology this week leads some to believe that high amounts of carbon monoxide might protect the mammals from injury when they dive deep for their meals. 

"Elephant seals are known to have the highest blood volume of any mammal, so we knew there was the potential for producing a lot of carbon monoxide," the study's leader, Michael Tift, a comparative physiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego told Live Science. "We can't say for sure that the carbon monoxide is therapeutic for elephant seals, but it definitely has the potential."

The next step is to study the gas levels in nondiving animals such as penguins and sea lions. Scientists hope to find out whether high carbon monoxide levels are found in all marine mammals.

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This is what a fire tornado looks like. U.S. Air Force fire protection specialists battle one forming in a controlled blaze during a training exercise in New Jersey.     Photo: The National Guard/Flickr

Bizarre Start to Wildfire Season

Firenados, arson, and a brewery in danger make news in California

High winds, temperatures, and drought have combined to create unprecedented fire activity in California this year. "Mother Nature was not on our side today," Cal Fire Captain Mike Mohler told CNN Thursday. Neither was a sense of normality, as a series of strange incidents followed the blazes that erupted this week.

Well, some of the incidents followed the blazes. Two teens in San Diego's Escondido area were arrested for arson on Thursday after starting at least two brush fires. Witnesses spotted the 17- and 19-year-olds starting small fires at Kit Carson Park. While one witness successfully extinguished one of the fires, another unsuccessfully chased the teens as they fled on bikes. Police later caught up.

Meanwhile that same day, the law-abiding citizens at Escondido's Stone Brewing Company had to evacuate their building as the Cocos fire in San Diego County forced evacuation of 13,000 homes and businesses in the area. Less well-founded arson suspicions made an appearance here too, as police questioned one man after reports of suspicious behavior near the brewery (they quickly ruled out arson). Still, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore told ABC News that investigators aren't ruling out arson for many of the other fires. "We all have suspicions like the public does when we have nine fires that started all over the county," he said. "We are actively investigating the start of those fires."

Arson or not, these are significant blazes. In fact, smoke from area wildfires is visible from space. NASA's Aqua spacecraft released images of plumes stretching from San Diego into the Pacific Ocean. Closer to earth, onlookers watched an even more startling phenomenon: fire tornados, or "firenados." They look exactly as you might imagine—a funnel made entirely of flames stretching skyward.

Dozens of fires, about 10 of them large in scale, continue to burn thousands of acres throughout Southern California, forcing thousands to evacuate. As of Wednesday, there are reports of one death after firefighters discovered a badly burned body at a campsite in an evacuation area, and at least 20 buildings have been destroyed.

To get a better sense of what many Southern Californians might be seeing right now, watch a time-lapse video the folks at Stone Brewing Company took from their roof. They filmed from 10:17 a.m. to 12:43 p.m. on Thursday before discovering they were supposed to evacuate at 12:30 p.m.

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Cave divers came upon a fascinating find in an underwater pit the size of a professional basketball arena this week.     Photo: Comstock/Getty Images

Discovering the New World's Oldest Skeleton

Nicknamed "Naia," remains shed light on earliest Americans

World, meet Naia. She's from the Yucatan Peninsula and is the oldest teenager you'll meet—about 13,000 years old—but her skeleton, skull, and DNA are intact. And, as the journal Science reports, she might provide us with some of the most concrete clues about how humans spread through the Americas.

You're familiar with the basics: Most scientists believe that somewhere between 26,000 and 18,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers crossed from northeast Asia to what's now Canada via a land bridge over the Bering Strait—known as Beringia—that was formed during the end of the most recent ice age. These humans spread through North America as the Pleistocene period came to a close.

Until now, scientists have had trouble connecting these early American settlers with subsequent Native Americans.

"Individuals from 9,000 or more years ago have morphological attributes—physical form and structure—distinctive from later Native American peoples," says Penn State archeologist and study co-author Douglas Kennett.

Enter Naia. "What we have here is the unique combination of an adolescent Paleoamerican skeleton with a Native American DNA haplotype," Kennett says. She's the missing link scientists have been searching for. 

Divers found Naia's remains 130 feet below sea level in Hoyo Negro—Spanish for "black hole"—a water-filled pit the size of a professional basketball arena that's a part of the Sac Actun cave system on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Scientists think Naia fell to her death while searching for water. Naia's remnants include most of the body's major bones, as well as an intact cranium and set of teeth, making her the most complete skeleton older than 12,000 years found in North America.

"The discoveries are extremely significant," says Pilar Luna, director of underwater archaeology at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History. "Not only do they shed light on the origins of modern Americans, they clearly demonstrate the paleontological potential of the Yucatan Peninsula and the importance of conserving Mexico's unique heritage."

Naia's skeleton sheds light on the archaeological discrepancies between the earliest Americans and later Native Americans. "Modern Native Americans closely resemble people of China, Korea, and Japan, but the older American skeletons do not," says James Chatters, the study's lead author. "This has led to speculation that perhaps the first Americans and Native Americans came from different homelands, or migrated from Asia at different stages in their evolution."

This explanation could be flawed, however, according to the information Chatters's team extracted from Naia's mitochondrial DNA. Despite differences in craniofacial form—basically, the shape of the face and head—Naia had key genes in common with modern Native Americans. Rather than representing separate waves of migration from Eurasia, Paleoamericans and later Native Americans may have diverged from a single population after it crossed the Bering Strait.

The find is remarkable in its own right. Early Americans were highly nomadic and often cremated their dead, making their skeletons rare. And to discover Naia, scientists had to go on a fairly intrepid quest.

"Only technical divers can reach the bottom" of Hoyo Negro, Chatters says. "First they must climb down a 30-foot ladder in a nearby sinkhole, then they swim along 200 feet of tunnel to the pit rim before making a final 100-foot drop. The divers are the astronauts of this project; we scientists are their mission control."

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Members of the U.S. Navy participate in Bike to Work Day 2013.     Photo: NAVFAC/Flickr

Happy Bike to Work Day!

Commuting by bicycle reaches 0.6 percent

It’s not quite a two-wheel takeover, but a recent watershed census data release revealed a 60 percent increase in American bicycle commuting during the past decade—the largest increase in use of all forms of transportation. How's that for cool news on National Bike to Work Day

The bike-to-work crowd makes up only 0.6 percent of commuters countrywide—786,000 people—but a closer look shows that some places have seen veritable cyclapocalypses. Owing in part to its cycling vanguard status, Idaho (yes, Idaho) saw a 110 percent increase in cyclists, and, to the surprise of no one, Portland's cycling crowd blew us all out of the bike lane with its cycling population exploding from 1.8 percent of residents in 2000 to 6.1 percent. 

The report also looked into walking trends, coming away with the sobering statistic that we're not getting more ambulatory by commuting standards. As with biking, some cities broke from the pack with outstanding numbers. Boston leads the way with 15.1 percent of residents beginning their mornings on the right foot.

Census data was collected through the American Community Survey, which asked respondents to comment on the mode of their commute as well as length in time and distance. Internet users can explore the data in a new commuting edition of Census Explorer, the U.S. Census’s interactive map program.

For some, biking to work is a means of emphasizing personal fitness. Others prioritize more efficient use of natural resources. If you're someone for whom being green isn't easy but is necessary, certain environmentalists argue that ridesharing, public transportation, and telecommuting are better choices than cycling. But at Outside, the cyclists have spoke-n: Wheel continue pedaling (or possibly ElliptiGO-ing), thank you.

More Outside coverage of bike commuting:

Strava Data Helps SF Cyclists Bike Better

Bike Commuters Are the Happiest Commuters

L.A. Introduces Bike-Friendly Business Districts

Get Paid to Bike to Work

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Aero everything just looks faster.     Photo: Ed Dunens/Flickr

Aero Bikes Back on the Hour Track

After cycling rules on record

Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the governing body of professional cycling, announced changes this morning to the hour record—how far can you ride in an hour—considered the sport's most prestigious record. Challengers can now ride their endurance competition bikes on the track (equipped with aero bars, disc wheels, and aero helmets) and have their record stand.

In 2000, the UCI ruled that any attempts to break the hour record had to be done on traditional bikes, much like the one Eddie Merckx rode in 1972. That effectively killed interest in the event among professional cyclists who weren't able to use modern equipment.  

After the ruling, the men's record decreased by about four miles. The UCI struck down attempts that didn't comply with the new rule, canceling records set by Graeme Obree on his washing-machine-built "Old Faithful" and Chris Boardman for riding in "Superman position."

The UCI dubbed the men's and women's records—Boardman, 56.375 kilometers, and Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, 48.159 kilometers, both set in 1996—"Best Hour Performances," stripping the aero-bar riders of certain glory.

With today's ruling, UCI president Brian Cookson expects big-time riders will hit the hour track again and chase the now-standing distances to beat: 49.700 kilometers (about 31 miles) for men and 46.065 (about 29 miles) for women.

Earlier today, Cycling Weekly rumored that Trek-rider Fabian Cancellara may announce his pursuit of the hour's hot seat tomorrow.

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Tara, the Hero Cat, stands watch over the Triantafilo family.     Photo: ABC News/Youtube

Hero Cat to Throw First Pitch at Baseball Game

Rescued owner's son from vicious dog attack

Tara, the heroic tabby cat who captured America's heart with a video of her saving a young boy from being mauled by the neighbor's dog, will be honored by the Bakersfield Blaze, a minor league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, at their May 20 game against Lancaster, where she will throw out the first pitch.

The now infamous footage, which you can watch below, shows young Jeremy Triantafilo taking his scooter for a ride around the family driveway in Bakersfield, California, when the neighbor's dog emerges and begins to viciously maul his leg. Suddenly, from the right side of the screen, emerges Tara like a small furry missile. She throws herself into the attacker and chases him off, clearing the way for the boy's rescue.

The neighbor's dog continued to exhibit symptoms of extreme aggression when animal control arrived, and the decision was made to put the dog down. The Triantafilo family has said that there are no hard feelings between the human parties and that everyone is still friendly.

There is no word on how Tara, whom the family adopted five years ago after she followed them home, will throw out the first pitch, being a cat and all, but America thanks her nonetheless.

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