Camels in the High Arctic * Bees Get a Buzz from Caffeine * Prehistoric Spiral-toothed Shark * A Martian Flood of Biblical Proportions * Rats Sniff-out Social Status * The Ancient Roman Diet

On today's program, you'll hear how Canadian researchers have found fossil remains of a camel in the High Arctic that might be the ancestor of today's desert dwellers.  We'll also hear how bees get a buzz from caffeine; We'll cower at the ancient whorl-tooth shark that has a circular saw for a mouth; We'll learn about the flood channels on...
Listen to the full episode53:40
On today's program, you'll hear how Canadian researchers have found fossil remains of a camel in the High Arctic that might be the ancestor of today's desert dwellers.  We'll also hear how bees get a buzz from caffeine; We'll cower at the ancient whorl-tooth shark that has a circular saw for a mouth; We'll learn about the flood channels on Mars; We'll find out why rats do all that sniffing when they meet; And we'll reveal what the Roman hoi-polloi ate for dinner.


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Camels in the High Arctic

A Canadian-led team has found the fossil leg bone of a 3.5 million-year-old camel on Ellesmere Island in the high Canadian Arctic. Using features of the highly fragmented bone, and a technique called collagen fingerprinting, the team identified the animal as being closely related to modern dromedaries that are currently most familiar from North Africa and the Middle East.  Camels are known to have originated in North America, and are thought to have migrated into the Old World across the Bering land bridge.  This discovery, according to Dr. Natalia Rybczynski, a paleobiologist from the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, suggests that today's "ships of the desert" came from Arctic-adapted stock, though the Arctic in which they lived was much warmer than it is today.
          
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A Honeybee visits a citrus flower 'cafe' for a caffeine fix.  Dr. Geraldine Wright

The relationship between flowers and pollinators, such as bees, has been well studied.  But when scientists discovered that the nectar and pollen of coffee and citrus species contain caffeine, they were curious to find out if if had similar memory enhancing effects on bees, as some studies showed it had on humans.  In an experiment conducted by Dr. Geraldine Wright, a Reader in Neuroethology at Newcastle University in England, bees were trained to associate a floral scent with a sugar reward.  But when the reward also contained caffeine, three times as many bees remembered the scent after 24 hours, and twice as many still remembered after three days.  This confirms that caffeine triggers changes in neurons in the brain involved in learning and remembering by smell, as it does in the human brain. 

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Spiral-toothed Helicoprion.  Credit Ray Troll
A 270 million-year-old fossil found in Idaho in the 1950's was at the centre of debate among scientists until recently.  The fossil was known to be part of the cranium of a prehistoric fish called a Helicoprion, part of the shark family tree, but mystery surrounded the function and placement of the unusual spiral of teeth.  New research by a Canadian scientist, Dr. Leif Tapanila, an Assistant Professor of Geology at Idaho State University, has found how the teeth functioned and where they were located.  The spiral of teeth belong to the lower jaw and rotate similar to the blade of a circular saw; the spiral moves a one-quarter turn from front to back as the jaw opens and closes.  The fossil also provides evidence as to the overall size of Helicoprion.  Based n the size of the cranium, it is estimated that this fish was over 7 metres in length; one of the largest in the oceans at the time.

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A Martian Flood of Biblical Proportions

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3-D visualization of Marte Vallis, Smithsonian Institution/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Sapienza University of Rome/MOLA Team/USGS
More than 3 billion years ago, Mars was a warm, wet world, quite unlike the cold, arid, largely airless place it is today.  But there have been signs that even after Mars became a dry husk, there were outbursts of water on the surface of the planet, perhaps even in the last 500 million years.  Some of the best evidence of this was a large flood channel, 1000 kilometres long, called Marte Vallis.  But Marte Vallis was largely obscured by lava from a huge volcanic eruption.  Using the Mars Reconnaissance Observer spacecraft, Dr. Gareth Morgan, a geologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and his colleagues used radar to "peel away" the lava, and see what really happened at Marte Vallis.  It was revealed as a huge upwelling of water from deep within the Red Planet, that suggests there may be much water locked away in Mars today.

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Rats Sniff-out Social Status

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Daniel Wesson, Current Biology
One of the most common social interactions among animals is sniffing.  They sniff to gather information about each other, often of a sexual nature, for the purpose of mating.  But a new study by Dr. Daniel Wesson, an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, has found that when rats come face to face, they also sniff to communicate information about social status.  When two or more rats come together, they quickly establish a social hierarchy.   Researchers discovered that dominant rats rapidly increase their rate of sniffing when they encounter a subordinate rat.  By comparison, a subordinate rat will slow its frequency in the presence of the dominate rat.  It is believed that the rats are very likely communicating conflict avoidance and appeasement.

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The Ancient Roman Diet

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Bones of a Roman toddler recovered from a graveyard, courtesy K. Killgrove
The prolific writers of Ancient Rome left a rich record of life in Imperial Rome, but that record was rich in more than one way.  It mostly described the life of the wealthy and educated, with less attention paid to the masses.  So we know that the elite Romans ate widely and well, consuming delicacies from around the ancient world.  But to find out what the poorer classes lived on, Dr. Kristina Killgrove, an anthropologist from the University of West Florida in Pensacola, looked to their remains.  She studied bones of poorer folk from Roman graveyards, and from them extracted chemical evidence of their diet.  What she found was that, in many ways, their diet was more Spartan than Roman.

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

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