St Patrick’s Day is a rip-off!

There have never been snakes in Ireland!

That’s the conclusion of one of that country’s leading paleontologists who has found no fossil evidence of there having ever been snakes before St Patrick began converting the pagan peoples of Ireland and, so the legend goes, miraculously driving all the snakes into the sea.

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The reason for Ireland’s strange reptile-free status can be found instead in the frigidity of its average temperatures and history of isolation due to ice ages over hundreds of thousands of years.

Still, any excuse for a party…


I’ll be right, thanks…

Okay. Interesting, but a little sickening… News today of a surgical first: removing an appendix via the mouth!

This is what an inflamed  appendix looks like after its removal:

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Nothing more to say.


Bee’s knees. And other bits, too.

There are 2 main types of bee: sterile workers (drones) and queens. They are apparently hatched without difference and for a while at least they are fed the same stuff: Royal Jelly. Drones don’t eat this stuff for long, moving instead to a mix of pollen and nectar.

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But for queens the rationing of this super-food doesn’t stop and, as a result, they become much larger and, importantly, reproductively capable.

Now, a study has discovered a possible mechanism that is triggered by the proteins found in royal jelly. Specifically, the researchers discovered that a substance contained in royal jelly stimulates the expression of a whole range of genes that result in producing a queen from regular bee larvae.

More commentary at Wired’s (rapidly becoming my favourite) science blog here.


Ancestors

Bones of tiny hominids – similar to Homo floresiensis, the so-called Hobbits of Flores (Indonesia) – have been found on the small Pacific island of Palau. The photo below (from National Geographic’s web site) show the comparative sizes of a modern adult female’s jaw and her Palauan relation.

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The structure of these bones is similar enough to modern humans in every respect apart from size as to make them essentially ‘us’.

Thousands of these bones were found in two isolated caves, indicating that these hominids probably used the site for burials – another very human-like behaviour.

We’ve sure come a long way from Proconsul


Study hard, live longer

Well perhaps not. But a large study from Harvard, published in the journal Health Affairs this month, demonstrates that life expectancy is higher for the well-educated.

For instance, people who are “better educated at age 25 could expect to live to age 82; for less educated, 75.” (as reported here).

The authors of the study are unable to say exactly why that is the case other than rates of smoking (higher amongst poorly educated) – there are many possible contributors to longevity – but they are concerned that while life expectancy across the population is rising, the less well educated are not experiencing increases at the same rate as those with more than 12 years of education.

And you can read much into this – my personal take is simple: education is not something we do to mark time until we reach physical adn emotional maturity to enter the work force full-time. Rather, it is an essential component of preparing for a full and fulfilling life.


Near neighbours?

Reports here and here (summarised really well, as always, by Wired here) of intriguing results from some computer simulations, by a researcher at the University of California, of the formation of one of our closest stellar neighbours: Alpha Centauri B (the largest of the three stars in that system). Confirmation of the presence of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B will require a couple of years of intensive observation.

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Earth-like planets orbiting our nearest celestial neighbour are a distinct possibility: simulations of the first 200 million years in the life of the primary star indicated, under all the tested initial conditions, the formation of rocky planets within a ‘Goldilocks’ zone (not too hot, not too cold) where liquid water might form and remain on a planet’s surface.

Persistent liquid water is a necessary condition for life. Which raises the interesting question: if the general conditions for life have been found on the very nearest stars, can we not assume that they are being met with regularity elsewhere?


Beautiful plumage

100 million year old feathers found in France embedded in amber have paleontologists a-flutter (see what I did there??).

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National Geographic reports on the find of 7 feathers preserved in rocks old enough to have existed at with dinosaurs.

Previous finds – mainly imprint/mould fossils of feather-like body parts – indicated that some dinosaurs had primitive feathers and contributed to suspicions that they shared more in common with modern birds than reptiles. While their discoverers are reluctant to declare them dinosaur feathers, there is little doubt the find is going to fuel further speculation about the ancestry of modern birds.