Walking in the Trees, 3.35 Billion Year Old Fossils, Furry Fingerprints, Solving Superconductors, Genes and Language, Question of the Week: Curry

 

Download this episode.


Walking in the Trees

orangutan1.jpg Adult female Sumatran Orangutan resting in Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia - Courtesy, SKS Thorpe

How and when human ancestors first started to walk on two legs has been a controversial subject ever since the first fossil ancestors were uncovered. For many years the predominant argument has been that we started out as quadrupeds, walking on all fours, evolved knuckle-walking, in the way chimps and gorillas do today, and from there stood up. According to this theory, we didn't begin this process until we were already out of the trees and living on the African Savannah. However, new fossil evidence doesn't bear this out, as it's apparent we were already bipedal before we left the forests, and at the same time, no one's found any human ancestor that's built for knuckle-walking. With that in mind Professor Robin Crompton, from Liverpool University, decided to look at how other modern great apes get around on two legs. He found orang-utans, the only fully tree dwelling of the great apes, actually were more like us in bipedal walking, than our closer relatives, the chimps. Also, this walking upright provided an advantage to orang-utans for moving from tree to tree. To him, this suggests that our form of walking is actually very old, and that when we first moved out of the trees to the savannah we were already fully capable of walking upright. Knuckle-walking may simply be an evolutionary adaptation of chimps and gorillas that is a more recent innovation.

Listen to this segment:

Download Flash Player to view this content.


Related Links

3.35 Billion Year Old Fossils

fossils_lava.jpg Trace fossils in ancient lava.

Several claims have been made for the oldest fossils preserving traces of life on Earth, but all are controversial. Either the nature of the fossils themselves is in doubt, or the dating of the fossils can be questioned. In new work on fossils found in Australia Dr. Neil Banerjee, a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Western Ontario, and his colleagues hope they've got fossils that will stand up to all scrutiny. The fossils are traces of a rock-eating microbe that drilled tiny tubes through ancient lava. Using a new and quite precise dating technique, the fossils were determined to be at least 3.35 billion years old.

Listen to this segment:

Download Flash Player to view this content.


Related Links



Furry Fingerprints

FisherprintNYStateMuseu.jpg Courtesy - New York State Museum
Following fishers, a member of the weasel family, is full of pitfalls. Conservation biologists generally tell how many fishers are in an area by using tracking boxes, a non-invasive device that will record a fisher's tracks. Unfortunately, if there were several fisher tracks in the same area, it was always impossible to tell whether one or many fishers actually left them. That was until Dr. Justina Ray, the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Canada, and colleagues, were sitting around a campfire and noticed that fisher fingerprints seemed to be every bit as unique as human fingerprints. They wondered, if you could use computer software to identify individual human fingerprints, could you do with the same with fisher fingerprints? The answer turned out to be yes.

Listen to this segment:

Download Flash Player to view this content.


Related Links



Solving Superconductors

superconductor.jpg

Superconductors are truly wondrous materials that can conduct electricity with absolutely no electrical resistance. With superconductors, we can build amazing things, such as magnetically levitating trains and even quantum computers. The one problem: superconductors only work at very low temperatures. The current record is just below minus 100 degrees Celsius. So for years, scientists have been trying to understand exactly how superconductors conduct with the hope of being able to build better ones that work at room temperature, where we could make more practical use of these wondrous materials. In research published this week in both Science and Nature magazines, Dr. Louis Taillefer, a professor of physics at the University of Sherbrooke, thinks he's finally solved one of the vexing mysteries of superconductors and he believes this will give room temperature superconductors a big step forward.

Listen to this segment:

Download Flash Player to view this content.


Related Links

Genes and Language

language_map.jpg Distribution of tonal (grey) and non-tonal (yellow) languages in the old world - Courtesy, Dan Dediu

About half the languages of the world are tonal, which means that the tonal inflection of a word affects its meaning. Chinese is probably the best known, but tonal languages are common throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America. Dr. Robert Ladd, a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh noticed that the distribution of tonal and non-tonal languages is similar to the distribution of variants in two genes researchers think might be important in brain development. A careful statistical study seemed to strengthen the correlation. This is interesting evidence that language and culture might be influenced by differences in our genes.

Listen to this segment:

Download Flash Player to view this content.


Related Links

Question of the Week: Curry

This week's question comes from Mike James of Burlington, Ontario who asks, Why does powdered curry become less intense as it ages, while sitting on your shelf; but become more intense when it has been in a sauce, overnight in the fridge?

For the answer, we go to Dr. Massimo Marcone, an assistant professor in food science at the University of Guelph.

Listen to this segment:

Download Flash Player to view this content.