Arctic Bacteria Survives Below Freezing * Earliest Evidence of Cooking Pots * Entangled Whales Suffer Slow Death * Gila Monster Food Dehydration * The Origin of Feces

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Today on the program, we'll speak to the author of a new book, The Origin of Feces, about why waste matters.  Plus, we'll learn about the earliest use of pottery for cooking; we'll hear the heart-breaking tale of the fate of a whale entangled in fishing gear; and we'll find out how the Gila monster can survive a summer without water. But first, life at low temperatures.

 

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Arctic Bacteria Survives Below Freezing

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courtesy McGill University.
Dr Nadia Mykytczuk and her research team at McGill University have discovered Canada's newest cold weather champion - a bacteria that can reproduce at temperatures as cold as -15°C. That's the lowest temperatures at which anyone's seen bacteria reproduce. Not only can this bacterium grow in such low temperatures, it can also thrive at room temperature. Dr Mykytczuk (who is now at Laurentian University in Sudbury) says it's rare for an extremophile to be so adaptable to different environments. This bacterium can handle both high and low temperatures because it has two copies of many of its genes - one copy adapted to cold weather, and one copy to warmer temperatures. She thinks understanding this bacterium will give scientists clues on where to look for life on other planets.

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Earliest Evidence of Cooking Pots

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Recontruction of earliest cook-pot.  Courtesy Tokamachi City Museum.

The earliest evidence for the use of pottery for cooking has been found in Japan.  The clay pottery fragments - between 12 and 15 thousand years old - belong to the Jomon period.  Scientists from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York in England, including Canadian researcher Dr. Karine Taché, scraped the interior of the fragments for lipids - molecules of fats, waxes, even vitamins - which are the remnants of food once held in the pots.  The fact that these molecules were found in a carbonized crust is an indication that the food was cooked.  Further carbon isotope analysis revealed biomarkers for both freshwater and marine fish, including salmon and some shellfish.  This study also suggests that cooking would have been a relatively new strategy for the hunter-gatherers who made this pottery, and also indicates the beginning of a more sedentary lifestyle.

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Entangled Whales Suffer Slow Death

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North Atlantic right whale before being freed.  Copyright EcoHealth Alliance/WHOI

One of the major threats to whales today is entanglement in commercial fishing gear.  Although the problem is not uncommon, scientists have little opportunity to study the effects of the gear on a living whale.  But in December of 2010, a young female right whale was spotted off the coast of Florida, entangled around its mouth and pectoral fins, and dragging about 30 metres of line behind her.  Marine biologists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts,  including Canadian PhD student Julie van der Hoop, were able to gather information about the animal's movements before and after the gear was removed.  Experiments determined that the fishing gear was severely restricting the whale's behaviour, including its ability to eat.  It was also estimated that towing the gear cost the whale twice as much in terms of physical exertion. 

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Gila Monster Food Dehydration

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Gila Monster
The Gila Monster's diet may drive it to drink.  This large, venomous reptile lives in the Sonoran desert of Southwestern North America, and lives through a long, dry summer, during which drinking water is very scarce.  It copes with this by drinking deeply in the spring, and surviving on that water for the entire summer.  It had been thought that it supplements its water supply by taking advantage of the water in its food - largely eggs and juicy baby animals.  But biologist Christian Wright, a PhD candidate in the School of Life Science at Arizona State University in Tempe, has found that eating adds no net water to the lizard, and may, in fact, dehydrate it slightly.

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The Origin of Feces


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Whether we like it or not, want to believe it or not, or even want to talk about it or not, excrement plays an important role in many aspects of our daily lives.  It's been a part of our evolution, it's engrained in our culture, and it's a huge issue for the environment.  In his latest book - The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology and a Sustainable Society - veterinarian, epidemiologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph Dr. David Waltner-Toews says it's time to stop ignoring excrement and  deal with it, and even put it to good use.  He explains why waste matters to biodiversity, agriculture, public health, food production and distribution, and global ecosystems.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0