Around 5000 species of mammals inhabit the Earth today, and almost all make their own Vitamin C from simple sugar. Your dog doesn’t need orange juice to live a scurvy-free life.
Human ancestors, and most other primates, lost the genetic ability to perform this impressive biochemical feat around 61 million years ago . How did they/we survive?
Short answer – don’t know (yet). It’s accepted that these primate ancestors were insectivores. Insects, in general, do not contain high levels of Vitamin C . But, insects do like hanging around flowers, fruits, and leaves. An insect could be noshing on some C-rich fruit (insects do require Vitamin C for development and reproduction) when the primate ate it. Or the primate could accidentally eat plant material while aiming for the insect.
What about other Vitamin C deficient mammals – Guinea pigs and bats? Guinea pigs… and fruit bats… certainly get plenty of Vitamin C in their diet. What about insect-eating bats? Well, maybe they aren’t as Vitamin C inept as we thought . And, we deficients may be able to survive on less Vitamin C and/or recycle the little we do ingest .
Lachapelle M.Y. and G. Drouin. 2011. Inactivation dates of the human and guinea pig vitamin C genes. Genetica 139:199–207.
Kourimska L. and A. Adamkova. 2016. Nutritional and sensory quality of edible insects. NSF Journal. 4:22-26.
Cui J., Y.H. Pan, Y. Zhang, G. Jones, and S. Zhang. 2011. Progressive pseudogenization: vitamin C synthesis and its loss in bats. Mol Biol Evol. 28(2): 1025-31.
Troadec, M. and J. Kaplan. 2018. Some vertebrates go with the GLO. Cell. 132(6)921-922.
For over a year, my drawing has been sidelined by a misbehaving carpel tunnel. But I’m picking up a pen again for a fun little project (on a deadline set by a plant).
Lupin, the corpse flower at NC State, is growing another flower set to bloom about a week from now. The amazing greenhouse staff is preparing to host thousands of visitors who want to experience the olfactory disgust. I’m helping with outreach – stickers and coloring pages for younger visitors, and a map of the greenhouses to show off all the other non-corpse plants.
I’ve just finished this first small section of the map, the Sedum bed, and I am LOVING this. Since my hand needs a break, I thought I’d share the (very slow and laborious) process.
Sedum, or stonecrops, are succulants with thick, water-storing leaves. The ones in my yard are easily identified by adorable beak-bites taken out of them. Entire families of house finches settle onto the Sedum and clip mouthfuls of leaf, presumably for the water. I tried to research this behavior in the scientific literature to no avail. I found one lonely reference to an Oriole Finch in Tanzania eating Sedum leaves. That’s it. The behavior must be common since online message boards are full of complaints and advice on keeping the birds away from beloved Sedum in yards.
Seems like a great citizen-science opportunity to me!
Five years ago, this blog was born. In 2013, I wrote a grand total of two posts and received 21 visitors – not stellar for promoting conservation and an appreciation of biodiversity. But the number of posts and visitors have grown over the years… this site has now been viewed over 15,000 times! I can’t thank you enough.
Here’s a brief look back at the “top” posts:
The boreal forest, or taiga, extends across Canada and Russia. Conifers dominate this cold ecosystem. The evergreen needles allow the trees to photosynthesize all year.
While conifers grow well in the frigid taiga, they don’t decompose very quickly when a tree falls. In other habitats, trees that die release their carbon as they decay. The pines, firs, spruce, and larches of the taiga soak in carbon from the atmosphere, add that carbon to their mass, and hold it in their bodies even after they die. One study suggests that the boreal forest sequesters twice as much carbon as tropical forests and six times the amount held in temperate forests (1).
For now, the taiga is helping us combat climate change. As temperatures warm, though, stored carbon can break down and release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, exacerbating the issue. The more we limit carbon emissions now, the more the boreal forest can help us into the future.
Play. It’s well-documented in many mammals and birds. Fish have also been observed leaping over sticks and batting around balls. Frogs play-wrestle and tadpoles ride bubbles. Turtles play tug-of-war (1). Some invertebrates even play. Octopuses, and possibly spiders and wasps, have shown play behaviors too (2).
Welcome to our new playful kittens, adopted from SAFE Haven.
Burghardt, G.M. 2015. Play in fishes, frogs, and reptiles. Current Biology. 25(1) R9-10
Zylinski, S. 2015. Fun and play in invertebrates. Current Biology. 25(1) R10-11
These heirloom varieties of squash are the literal fruits of my springtime obsession with Cucurbits (the gourd family – almost 1000 species of zucchini, pumpkin, watermelon, cucumber, etc).
This obsession grew thanks to Dr. Lori Shapiro who knows the coolest facts about squash! For instance, before domestication, wild gourds contained bitter toxins. Only megafauna like mammoths could ingest and disperse the seeds of these protected fruits (1). In the Americas, early hunter-gatherers used dried gourds as floats for fishing nets and to hold food and water. They also used fresh wild gourds for the medicinal properties of the bitter compounds (2). The wild gourd (Cucurbita pepo) was the first plant domesticated in the Americas, and the first agriculturalists likely grew them for their nutritious seeds rather than the bitter flesh. Thanks, Lori!
Kistler, L., L.A. Newson, T.M. Ryan, A.C. Clarke, B.D. Smith, G.H. Perry. 2015. Adaptive domestication in squashes and gourds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (49) 15107-15112.
Hart, J.P., R.A. Daniels, C.J. Sheviak. 2004. Do Cucurbita pepo gourds float fishnets? American Antiquity. 69(1) 141-148.
The nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) has a lot of friends. It often teams up with chickadees and titmice. While larger flocks give greater protection from predators, more species diversity within the flock improves problem solving (1). Birds in diverse groups were able to get food from a new feeder faster.
Freeberg, T.M., S.K. Eppert, K.E. Sieving, and J.R. Lucas. 2017. Diversity in mixed species groups improves success in a novel feeder test in a wild songbird community. Scientific Reports. Volume 7, Article number: 43014.
Birds nest in trees, on the ground, on water, among cliffs, and in caves. They build their nurseries from plant materials, mud, dung, saliva, spider silk, pebbles, and animal hair. Some nests have roofs or multiple rooms. Some are simple scraped depressions in the earth or natural cavities in trees.
Most songbirds construct cup-shaped nests which require about 1000 trips to bring in building materials (1). The birds use their feet to scrape, chests to push, and beaks to manipulate twigs and grasses as they rotate. Exhausting! Why go to such an extreme effort? Predators. Birds living on predator-free islands nest on the ground.
Some ground-nesting birds have other ways of avoiding predators… like teaming up with defenders. The red-breasted goose of Siberia nests next to peregrine falcons. The geese act as look-outs for foxes; the falcons attack. Some birds build their nests in ant or termite colonies to protect the eggs.
These sleeping bird babies, pictured, are cardinals. Their parents built this camouflaged nest in the crook of a pear tree. If dad hadn’t stopped by with some breakfast, I would have never realized they were there.
Collias, N.E. 1964. The Evolution of Nests and Nest Building in Birds. American Zoologist. 4: 175-190.
I grew up in the great apple-producing state of Michigan. If you haven’t been to an apple cider mill during October in the mitten state, you are missing out on one of the great joys of life.
Thousands of apple varieties grew in agricultural fields when nation’s founders declared independence. Today, 80% of that diversity is gone and with it, the genetic variation that can save apples from pests, weather, and disease.
Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The consequences of low crop diversity were felt during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s which caused the death or emigration of a quarter of Ireland’s citizens. A pathogen entered the potato fields and spread. Since the potatoes were genetically identical, a disease that affected one could infect them all.
Today, cost and transportation constraints benefit massive agricultural operations. The efficiency of monocultures, though, threatens our food and our health. To fight off disease in genetically-similar apples, we turn to pesticides. Apples are continually cited as worst offenders for chemical coatings (fyi, the American Chemical Society recommends a baking soda solution for washing). Today, about half of apples grown in the U.S. are Red Delicious (despite tasting like wood pulp).
Consider trying some local heritage apple varieties. Apple season starts in August!
P.S. An informative Smithsonian blog post about heritage varieties of apple includes a reference to an apple sleuth who lives just down the road from me!
In 1740, an English commodore led an ill-fated squadron of ships out to sea, prepared to circumnavigate the world (and attack some Spanish holdings along the way). Of over 1800 men starting the voyage, only 500 survived. The main killer was not war or weather, but nutrition.
Just a few years after the flotilla returned, a naval doctor conducted one of the most famous experiments in the history of science. After a few months at sea, sailors on Dr. James Lind’s ship began exhibiting signs of scurvy. The doctor treated sick sailors with random supplements to their regular diet. Some shipmen received vinegar, or sea water, or barley water. They made no improvement. Sailors who were given citrus fruits, though, made quick and full recoveries.
Unfortunately, dogma and a small sample size caused many (including Dr. Lind) to underestimate the power of citrus. It wasn’t until the mid-1790s, as scurvy-free anecdotes and experiences grew, that ships rationed out citrus juice to prevent the disease. Enjoy some lemons, limes, or oranges in celebration of science!