A Rare Find in Tasmania

The spotted handfish is one of the world’s most endangered marine fish, having undergone a massive decline in recent decades.

Handfish grow up to 5” long, and have skin covered with tooth-like scakes, giving them the alternate name warty anglers. They get their name from the way they used their pectoral (side) fins like hands to grip the bottom. They rarely swim – they prefer to walk along the bottom on their fins feeding on small invertebrates.

Once relatively common, red handfish have become scarce in recent years, probably due to habitat loss and changing sea conditions.

Divers in Tasmania have discovered a new population of red handfish. The newly discovered colony could double their total population to 80 individuals.

This very rare red handfish has two color morphs – one a brilliant red with bluish and white fin margins, the other mottled pink with reddish spots and patches on the body and fins.

Photo by Rick Stuart/Reef Live Survey

Threats to red handfish include poaching for use as pets.  Also its low reproductive rate and low dispersal rate have raised fears of extinction.

Hopefully, the discovery of this second population means the red handfish has an alternative destiny ahead of it.

Here’s a short video by Michael Baron of two red handfish on the move:


A Tribute to Audubon

Nineteenth-century naturalist, ornithologist, and artist John James Audubon lived the later years of his life in northern Manhattan, in what is now the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem. Audubon is best known for his comprehensive book, The Birds of America, which was accompanied by beautiful, detailed illustrations of many of the birds.

Illustrated page from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. Photo by Susie Cushner

Today, visitors to Hamilton Heights will discover a series of amazing murals that honor Audubon while bringing attention to the effects of climate change on North America’s bird populations. Known as the Audubon Mural Project, the murals are a collaborative effort of the National Audubon Society and Gitler & ______Gallery (yes, that’s the gallery’s actual name – there is an underlined blank space).

This spray-painted menagerie graces roll-down gates and barren walls with permission of willing property owners. Here are a few examples:

Bay breasted warbler semipalmated plover by Fifty/FFTY Photo by Mike Fernandez/Audubon
Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Western Bluebird at 1614 Amsterdam, NYC Artist: Shawn Bullen Photo: Hillary Eggers/Audubon
Anhinga at 3458 Broadway, NYC Artist: Lexi Bella Photo: Hillary Eggers Audubon
Spotted owl at 3841 Broadway, NYC Artist: Paul Nassar Photo: Hillary Eggers/Audubon
Roseate spoonbill at 3541 Broadway, NYC
Artist: Danielle Mastrion Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

Elsewhere, Audubon himself is rendered in flesh tones and with mutton-chop sideburns, staring curiously at a cerulean warbler on his shoulder with neither his rifle nor palette at hand.

John James Audubon contemplating the Cerulean Warbler at 601 W. 149th NYC Artist: Tom Sanford Photo : Mike Fernandez/Audubon

The National Audubon Society’s website has a map showing the location of each mural. The website also serves as an excellent guide for a tour of the murals, as it gives much more information about each one, including an explanation of how the birds are being affected by climate change and some remarks by each artist about their art.


Check out this video of Damien Mitchell creating a mural of a peregrine falcon for the Audubon Mural Project:

Planthopper Fiber Optics Display

Leafhoppers, treehoppers and planthoppers have the most aerodynamic-shaped body in the insect world. All of them are strong jumpers that can move with equal ease forwards, backwards, or sideways like a crab. The crab-like motion distinguishes hoppers from most other insects.

They also come in many shapes and colors with over 12,500 varities worldwide.

Photo by Robert Oelman
A Heranice miltoglupta treehopper Robert Oelman
Treehopper Membracis mexicana Robert Oelman

The beautiful insect shown below is a planthopper nymph. During the span of time after it hatches and before it becomes fully mature, the planthopper nymph secretes a waxy substance from its abdomen that gives its tail the look of a colorful fiber optic display. It serves as a defense from predators who are somewhat hypnotized by the effect.

Night photograph by Melvyn Yeo

As the planthopper gets ready to do its favorite thing — hop around — it moves the waxy threads into a sleek line.

Waxy protrusion on a planthopper nymph Photo by Melvyn Yeo
Photo by Frank Canon
Walking planthopper nymph found in Colombia Photo by Robert Oelman

It moves ever so slowly before making a great leap, and it can fan the threads back out for an extra boost while it’s in the air.

Treehopper Credit: chinKC/Shutterstock

The final effect is like a dazzling fiber options display.

Science Winners

Five gorgeous examples of science photography.

Fluid Mechanics Credit: Stuart Hirth/New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography

The amazing photograph above shows splashes formed from single drops landing in puddles. Captured over several months, they were photographed in darkness using a high-speed flash to preserve their colors and shapes and then brought together in one image.

Liquid Lace Credit: Phred Peterson/New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography.

This winning photograph shows drops of glycerin and water impacting a thin film of ethanol.  The difference in surface tension creates holes in the drop’s surface making it look like lace.

Growth of agaric toadstool mushroom Credit: Phred Petersen/ Royal Photographic Society.

Another image created by Phred Petersen.  This is a time lapse image showing the progress of an agaric toadstool mushroom as it grows.

Phred Petersen is a Senior Lecturer and Coordinator Scientific Photography, School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, a global university of technology and design.

Obelia hydroid Credit: Teresa A. Zgoda

This last photo is a confocal image of a marine organism (obelia hydroid) taken with the 10x objective.  It was a winner from the 2016 International Images for Science competition.

Confocal cross section view of a dandelion showing curved stigma with pollen. Credit: Dr. Robert Markus

Just one more – an honorable mention from 2017 Nikon Small World Competition.



Marine Hydroids

The hydroid Ectopleura larynx is a fouling organism usually found attached to sunken ropes, floating buoys, piers, mussel shells, rocks, seaweed and the undersides of boats in the seas surrounding Great Britain and the Americas.  This organism grows in colonies that can tolerate exposed habitats and strong water currents. Sometimes called Common Flowerheads in the fish farming industry this hydroid can cause problems by reducing water flow and quality.

Hydroid Ectopleura larynx Alexander Semenov/Flickr.com

Ectopleura larynx has two distinct rings of tentacles, one around its mouth and the other at the base of the head. In between these two rings, are the gonophores, or the sexual buds.

Colored scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of the hydroid Ectopleura larynx Credit: Jannicke Wilk-Nielsen/Science Photo Library
SEM of sexual buds of hydroid Ectopleura larynx Credit: Jannicke Wilk-Nielsen/Science Photo Library
Ectopleura larynx has tentacles for defense and feeding. The chemically challenged hydroid in this image is using its tentacles to protect the sexual buds, from an external threat.  Credit: Jannicke Wilk-Nielsen/Science Photo Library

The hydroid Tubularia indivisa is also called oaten pipes. This large hydroid is also native to northeastern Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, Norwegian Sea and the English Channel.

Hydroid Tubularia indivisa Photo credit: Derek Haslam/Flickr.com
Hydroid Tubularia indivisa Credit: Buiten-Beeld/Alamy Stock Photo

The solitary polps of Hydroid Tubularia indivisa are found on dull yellow unbranched stems that reach a height of 4-6”.   The pinkish to red polps resemble flowers, having two concentric rings of tentacles, with the outer rings being paler and longer than the inner ring.

Hydroid Tubularia indivisa are preyed upon by nudibranch, another marine animal that looks like a snail without a shell.

Nudibranch feeding on Hydroid Tubularia indivisa Credit: Alexander Semenov/Flickr.com

These flower like hydroids are often considered delicate and soft. But beware. Their delicate looks belie their potent nature. They possess an armament of stinging cells equipped in their tentacles to capture and subdue prey.

(SEM) The harpoon-like nematocyst, darting from hydroid Ectopleura larynx, punctures through the hydroid wall, into the prey and releases a toxin that helps immobilize its prey..
Photo Credit: Jannicke Wilk-Nielsen/Science Photo Library



The Marriage of Biology and Engineering

Bioengineering’s most visible branch is the development of medical innovations such as prosthetics and high-tech implants, but genetic, stem cell and tissue engineering are all set to become key fields in the medicine of the future.

For example, to help prep a surgeon who needed to close the hole in an infant’s heart, a biomedical robotic expert at the Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington, DC created a model heart with a 3D printer. He used a mix of hard and soft plastics to replica the feel of a real heart.

A model heart created by 3D printer Photo: Carolyn Cochenour/Washington Post

In China medical doctors at the Orthopedic Hospital in Zhengzhou City created a 3D model of a dislocated spine. This allowed them to practice a complicated surgical procedure ahead of time…isolating and opening the problem area, resetting the dislocation and then screwing everything back together without damaging the patient’s actual spinal cord.

Model of a spine with a 3D-printed vertebra devise in Beijing Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

To rescue babies born with congenital breathing condition which caused their airways to collapse, the University of Michigan has customized tracheal splints made from biocompatible material.   The splints support the collapsed trachea and then get reabsorbed within two years.

Trachea splints Photo courtesy of Leisa Thompson, Photography/UNHA

Using bioengineering to create organ structures that function and restore the health of that tissue for that person, is the holy grail of bioengineering for regenerative medicine.

Scientists at Northwestern University created prosthetic ovaries for mice. The prosthetic ovaries were printed using liquid gelatin made from broken-down collagen, a natural material, which is found in ligaments, tendons, muscles, bones and skin.

A scaffold for a bioprosthetic mouse ovary 3D-printed with gelatin Photo by Kristin Samuelson

The research team built the ovaries by printing various patterns of overlapping gelatin filaments on glass slides—like building with Lincoln Logs, but on a miniature scale: Each scaffold measured just 15 by 15 millimeters. They then carefully inserted mouse follicles—spherical structures containing a growing egg surrounded by hormone-producing cells—into these “scaffolds.”

After punching out 2-millimeter circles through the scaffolds and implanting 40–50 follicles into each one, they created a “bioprosthetic” ovary. The team showed that blood vessels from each mouse infiltrated the scaffolds. This process is critical because it provides oxygen and nutrients to the follicles and allows hormones produced by the follicles to circulate in the blood stream. The result was a fully functional bio-prosthetic ovary that not only restored hormone function, but also allowed the mice to get pregnant, deliver pups and lactate after birth.

In the future ready-to-implant organs should be possible in humans with 3D bioprinting. Scientists are excited that this technique could restore function in cancer patients who have lost their fertility.

Bioengineering is also being used to build artificial biological systems for research, engineering and medical applications.

Illustration of synthetic biology by Eric Proctor and Autumn Kulaga

Synthetic biology gives scientists unprecedented control of living cells at the genetic level. This field encompasses both plant and mammalian cells.

MIT biological engineers have created a programming language that allows them to rapidly design complex, DNA-encoded circuits to give new functions to living cells. The circuit runs inside a bacteria cell.   It’s like they are hacking living cells to program a new language.

Illustration of programing bacteria Image by Janet Iwasa

The MIT team plans to work on several different applications using this approach: bacteria that can be swallowed to aid in digestion of lactose; bacteria that can live on plant roots and produce insecticide if they sense the plant is under attack; and yeast that can be engineered to shut off when they are producing too many toxic byproducts in a fermentation reactor. In the future the bacteria could be programmed to release cancer drugs when encountering a tumor.

Biomedical engineering and biological programming are exciting, expanding new field of research with unlimited possibilities.




Cute but Deadly

Head-on view of caterpillar Credit: Melvyn Yeo/Science Photo Library

Most caterpillars have long hair called setae covering their bodies.  This hair act as a  defense mechanism.  The hairs often have detachable tips that will irritate would-be predators by lodging in the skin or mucous membranes.

Here are a trio to avoid: the puss caterpillar, the hickory tussock caterpillar and the io moth caterpillar.

The most venomous caterpillar in the United States, the puss caterpillar, got its name because it resembles a cuddly house cat. Small, extremely toxic spines stick in your skin releasing venom. At first the sting feels like a bee sting, only worse. The pain rapidly gets worse and can even make your bones hurt. People who have been stung on the hand say the pain can radiate up to their shoulder and last for up to 12 hours.

Furry puss caterpillar feeding. Photo by Caterpillar hunter/Flickr

One dapper critter called the hickory tussock caterpillar has a velvety back and sweeping bristles.  It looks more like a vintage feather boa than a caterpillar and is widely distributed in the eastern half of North America.

Hickory tussock caterpillar Photo by Greg Dwyer/Wikipeida Commons.

Some people have little to no reaction to the hickory tussock’s sting, but others have a reaction that ranges from a mild to severe rash comparable to poison ivy.   It’s microscopic barbs may cause serious medial complications if they are transferred from the hands to the eyes.   The adult moth flies away in May and June.

Caterpillars have to eat a lot. Within a few weeks of devouring as much greenery as physically possible, an io caterpillar can go from being a half-inch-long worm to a nearly three-inch-long monstrosity, brilliant green with red and white racing stripes  like the Io mother caterpillar:

Io moth caterpillar. Photo by Tim Lethbridge

Io caterpillars are indeed capable, and more than willing, to deliver a painful sting. If you brush up against these spines, the tips will break off and start to inject venom.

So what do you do if you get stung by any of these toxic caterpillars? Place Scotch tape over the affected area and strip off repeatedly to remove spines. Apply ice packs to reduce the stinging sensation, and follow with a paste of baking soda and water. If you have a history of hay fever, asthma or allergy, or if allergic reactions develop, contact a physician immediately.