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September 28, 2015

Compost Your Dead….Animals!

No matter if you keep a horse in your back yard or raise large scale livestock, one of the biggest struggles for those with large animals is mortality management.  Mortality is a normal part of raising livestock.  Even the most cautious and careful animal handler can lose an animal to predator attacks, complication in birthing or just old age.

By Wilson44691 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Wilson44691 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

As someone who has spent their life in the livestock industry, there are many complications when it comes to mortality management.  In my own case, we were very limited on our ways of handling the remains because of law requirements, high water tables, and the amount of space needed to bury animals; an issue for any sized operation.  There is also a public perception issue that living close to the urban interface further reduces options for livestock owners.

Enter Washington State University and their mortality composting program.  In 2008, a publication was released giving producers the step-by-step directions for composting mortalities.  Unlike burial, it has no affecting on ground water. Washington State University reported that within ten weeks of active composting, only sections of large bone remained from cow carcasses.  Furthermore, the amount of heat that was generated from the composting process reduced pathogens extensively.  Similar projects are found at Colorado State, Texas A&M, Iowa State, and more.

What’s responsible  for the breaking down of such huge amounts of body mass in a matter of weeks? The university has been using a combination of Bacteria, Actinomycetes, Fungi, Protozoa, and rotifers. Not surprising because this is the same list of players that are responsible for the soil systems that we need for life. During the second stage of composting, the thermophilic stage, temperatures can rise as high as 55 degrees Celsius; which can kill most pathogens.  The biggest player of this is bacteria found in the family of Bacillus and Thermus.

Diane Montpetit

Thermus Bacteria by Diane Montpetit

Cornell University is now working on using the same process to compost wildlife road kill.  With over 25,000 wildlife deaths a year as a result of auto collisions, the composting process can allow for easier and faster cleanup while killing most pathogens that can affect human health.

After the decomposition is complete, the remaining compost can be used in agricultural practices as soil amendments to fertilized and develop lands. The compost is devoid of most pathogens, has no smell (thanks to the Actinomycetes) and is high in soil-favored bacteria, protozoa, and fungi.

The biggest challenge? In 1999, the State of New Jersey was faced with a huge problem when a Blue Whale washed up on their shores.  Taking quick action, the state worked with the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI) in Ithaca, NY to compost the whale and, several months later, were able to retrieve the skeleton for display.  After all, it’s the same process that happens to us on burial.

 

 

Editor’s Note: Bacteria are hard to see under a light microscope unless very experienced and using a high quality microscope with excellent resolution. Try the Euromex iScope

August 18, 2015

New, Oldest Flowering Plant

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

New analysis of a fossilized plant found in Central Spain and the Pyrenee Mountains indicate that it may be the world’s first known flowering plant. At 125-130 million years old, Montsechia vidalii dates back to the start of the Cretaceous Period when feathered dinosaurs roamed Earth.

Previously, the oldest known flowering plant was Archeafructus sinensis, found in Liaoning province, China and which dates from 125 million years ago. Like Archeafructus sinensis, Montsechia vidalii grew underwater in shallow lakes and appears to have no roots or petals and only one seed per flower. Its leaves formed either in a spiral or opposite one another.

To get to the fossilized plant, study the ancient plant, Dilcher and his team painstakingly dissolved the limestone around more than 1000 fossils on a “drop-by-drop basis”. The resulting plant fragments were then examined under both light microscopes and scanning electron microscopes.

The plant has been known for years. First discovered over 100 years ago, Dilcher reports that it was misdiagnosed because it “possesses no obvious flower parts, such as petals or nectar-producing structures for attracting insects, and lives out its entire life cycle under water.”

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

This is what makes it interesting. As Dilcher pointed out, at that time animals had not developed any role in dispersing seeds. How the plants were fertilized and reproduced may help us understand and mitigate against the risk of pollinator failure in the modern day. Dilcher thinks the plant had separate male and female flowers. The seeds may have been released straight into the water and then floated away to fertilize another plant.

“We need to understand as much as we can about flowering plant evolution because right now we’re facing a world crisis.” Says Dilcher. Most present-day plants require animal pollinators and of course, bees, which are critical, food crop pollinators are declining in Europe and the US.

“This plant shows us where it all began,” says Dilcher. “If we know more about their evolution, we might come across alternative pollinators that are hidden out of sight today but played a role in the past that we could encourage again.”

Journal Reference:

  1. David L. Dilcherd et al. Montsechia, an ancient aquatic angiosperm.PNAS, August 2015 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1509241112
August 17, 2015

Fertile Fungus that’s Saving the World

Mycorrhizal Image

Mycorrhizal Image: Courtesy of Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS). 2000. Soil Biology Primer. Rev. ed. Ankeny, IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Let’s talk about fungus. Fungus is more than mold in your bathroom, or yeasts in your breads; fungus plays an ever expanding role on global ecosystems and agriculture.  Cambridge University released a study this May that shows fungus may reduce water eutrophication and increase crop yields.

Within soils are a myriad of microscopic biology. One family of microscopic organisms, mycorrhizae, is a symbiotic soil fungi that attaches itself to vascular roots of plants all across the world.  The mycorrhizae was first recognized in the mid-19th century; however, scientists are still learning how they react with crops and wildland ecology.

Rice plants that were “colonized” with mycorrhizae triggered genetic expressions to change in the rice plants, as a result of which both the root mass and Phosphorus intake increased up to 70%-100%.  Why is this important?  Because of 16 essential nutrients that are needed for plants, Phosphorus (along with Nitrogen), is one of the most critical and due to its importance, it is characterized as a macro-nutrient.  Phosphorus is a component of the photosynthesis proteins and is used by the plant for cell division and new tissue development. In other words – growth.

Phosphorus, however, is one of the most detrimental nutrients to the environment when applied incorrectly.   It is mined heavily for agricultural uses and, via run-off, it is one of the leading causes of water pollution. The heavy concentration of nitrogen and phosphorous in run-off causes eutrophication of rivers and lakes and is the leading cause of resulting algae blooms, hypoxia and die-off all affected aquatic life. We have all seen pictures of the thousands of dead fish floating under such conditions.

By creating a more efficient soil system with mycorrhizae, the hope is that less applied phosphorous will be needed with a corresponding slower depletion rate of Phosphorous through mining and less environmental pollution via run-off.

Redwood Mycorrhizae

Redwood Saplings without and with Mycorrhizae: Courtesy of M. Amaranthus, USDA

The Cambridge researchers plan to inoculate agricultural land with mycorrhizae with a view to increasing crop efficiency of the top crops such as rice, wheat and corn.  The idea is to improve yields with less need for applied phosphorous and ultimately to reduce famine in areas where mycorrhizae have been depleted or where mycorrhizae can be utilized for higher crop efficiency. In particular, mycorrhizae might help sustain crops in arid regions, which is an issue that takes on greater significance with changing global rain patterns.

Not bad for a fungus? A significant contributor toward improved crop yields, a possible solution to marginal areas of agriculture AND an environmental savior for that much-overlooked part of the world….water.

Want to see how mycorrhizae looks in a microscope?  Check out this guide on how to identify and view them in stereo microscopes here.  You will need a stereo dissecting microscope, which can be found here at Microscope.com.

Learn more about the Cambridge Study on Cambridge’s Website at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/fungus-enhances-crop-roots-and-could-be-a-future-bio-fertiliser

May 14, 2014

DELICATE GIANTS

Over the years, we have found a range of interesting insects, butterflies and spiders around our offices but none compare to this beauty found resting on our parking lot.

Antheraea Polyphemus is one of the larger moths, part of the family Saturniidae or Giant Silk Moths. Common throughout most of the US, Polyphemus lives in a variety of habitats but usually where undergrowth is available for concealment.

Our specimen is at the extreme in terms of size with a wing span just over 51/2 inches. We know it is a male due to its two exquisitely delicate, antennae shaped like ferns. Females have thinner, less showy antennae.

The colorings are also breathtaking. The underside of the wings display a variety of shades of brown, cream and grey, interspersed with ripples of darker and lighter shades in a perfect camouflage for brush. But it is the upper wing surface that are the stars of the show, especially the hind wings. Here, initially hidden from view are two large eyes. Half an inch in diameter, the ‘pupil’ is transparent, ringed with a brown yellow ‘iris’ and surrounded by the black ‘eye shadow’ more typical of owls than moths. And therein lies the rationale for the eyes. An unsuspecting predator such as an American Robin may launch its attack only to be met by the fierce some sight of these two ‘owl eyes’ as the moth extends its wings.

Polyphemus have some other interesting characteristics. They do not eat during their brief lifespan! In fact, they do not even have mouth parts. All their energy is derived from their earlier life form as a caterpillar. Typically, it takes ten days to hatch the egg into a caterpillar and 5-6 weeks to metamorphose into its full size as a moth. Unsurprisingly, given the moth’s inability to eat, the caterpillars eat voraciously.

Finally, Polyphemus are nocturnal so while common in the US, they are not observed as often as butterflies. During the day, they shelter in the undergrowth and are hard to see for all predators.

We were lucky. This one had mated and was at the end of its lifespan. It was barely alive when Danny spotted it and it makes for some beautiful pictures with both a regular camera and under a stereo microscope

February 05, 2014

Snow under the Microscope

 

For much of the Northeast US, the winter snow has arrived with a vengeance. Schools are closed. Kids are thrilled, but stir crazy and parents are praying for relief. There is only so much sledding you can do and who plays in snow without getting cold and wet? So why not take a closer look?

Snowflakes are not only magical in drifts, but also as individual crystals. With a little bit of patience and a low power microscope, you can successfully engage your kids in a worthwhile activity that will produce some spectacular images. Snowflakes start as water vapor that is supercooled below freezing. It is not frozen rain, which we know as sleet. Rather the water vapor freezes round a particle of dust and grows from there as additional water vapor attaches. The resulting crystals have an extraordinary range of shapes and sizes largely depending on the temperature and humidity outside. In addition, time and the distance additional water vapor has to travel to reach the crystal affects the level of complexity of an individual snowflake.

These four variables: temperature, humidity time and distance are responsible for the fact that every snow crystal is unique although the full science behind it is still a mystery. Interestingly though, snow crystals do fall into approximately 35 different categories that range from the most common, simple hexagonal prism to some extremely complex shapes. The dryer the air (low humidity), typically the simpler the shape. As they grow through a process known as branching, they become more complex

Now, it’s time to try your hand at viewing or photographing a snowflake and an individual snow crystal. You will need a low power microscope (with or without a microscope camera) or a handheld digital microscope. Leave it in the garage so it gets suitably cold although ensure that it is not exposed to any condensation. Similarly, leave a glass slide, small artist’s paint brush and a 3×1” piece of dark-colored, construction paper in the garage or outside where they are protected from the elements. In other words, you want them cold!

Now wrap up warm. First, look at an entire snowflake. Hold the construction paper out in the snow or carefully place a sample of snow on to the paper. Make sure that you keep the underside of the paper dry as you do not want to get your microscope wet. Now quickly place the paper under the microscope and focus it. View it at different magnifications and note the level of detail that you see.

Now take the paint brush and carefully, lift a single flake on to the glass slide Place it quickly, but carefully under the microscope and focus in on the individual crystal. Take a quick picture and try to note its shape and branching characteristics.

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You can achieve good results with any low power microscope or digital microscope.  You should also try different lighting. For example, use a different color filter for more definition or try a back light. For more sophisticated use, we recommend an OCS digital system that includes a microscope camera with a monocular zoom lens.

In any event, it is a rewarding project that will keep your kids happy outside – and that’s the main thing!

November 27, 2013

Exploring Faces in Mold

Mold face in profile

This morning, I had a craving for pâté on toast. Weird maybe, but not as weird as what I found on the pâté, which has been sitting in the refrigerator too long. Mold! I though it would be fun to see what it looks like under one of our new Explorer handheld digital microscopes and before I knew it, I was seeing strange faces in the images.

These images were taken using an Explorer Pro 1 which includes 1.3MP resolution and 10x-50x, 200x variable magnification. It took all of a few seconds to set up and I have been dodging ‘real work’ while I played with it. But it is the day before Thanksgiving, after all!

That’s what I like about these Explorer microscopes. They are easy and fun to use while you can explore all sorts of items around your house and garden.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving and may your turkey be absent any sign of mold.

Mold face close-up

Dinosaur Face

Elephant Man Face

 

November 05, 2013

Take a Leaf….

Clearing Fall leaves is a thankless task so reward yourself by selecting a few of the more colorful leaves to view under a microscope.

Within seconds you will see what could be satellite images of Earth, the leathery skin of an exotic lizard or is that a giant maw, close up and in full color? The colors look glorious on the trees, but under the microscope the full detail is revealed.

The technique is simple. You simply place a leaf under a stereo microscope or, as with these images, under our new Explorer Series of handheld digital microscopes. We have packaged the Explorers with a range of engaging accessories  for the Holidays, all at reduced prices.

It’s a great way to engage your kids during a blustery afternoon. Our family has an annual tradition of catching falling leaves. It can get quite competitive – first to catch ten – but it’s good fun and great exercise.

It also leads in easily to us all gathered round the microscope to check out the various leaves we have collected. It’s such a relief to hear cries of “Wow, that’s so cool” from other than an X-Box game!

The Seasons offer a wealth of such specimens to view under a microscope……next up, at least in the North East,….examining snowflakes!

 

August 28, 2013

CICADA KILLER WASPS

 

Microscopic view of cicada killer head

Eastern Cicada Killer Wasp

Danny brought in this beauty, last week and we took the opportunity to snap a few images under various microscopes.  It looks intimidating, but is harmless in spite of the females having a large stinger. It is an Eastern Cicada Killer wasp, which exists to cull some of the annual cicada population. The female uses her stinger to paralyze a cicada prior to flying it back to her nest which is an amazing sight since the cicada is typically significantly larger than the wasp itself. As a result, she hauls it up a tree and then launches herself off towards her burrow, often repeating this laborious process several times in order to get there. Each male egg gets one cicada and each female at least two cicadas. Unsurprisingly, the female wasps are larger than the males.

Cicada Killer Burrow

You can always identify cicada killer wasps not only due to their size (up to two inches), but due to their burrows which always have a mound of earth outside along with a characteristic trench running through it to the hole. And there will be lots of them, too…….thousands at our last house!

Leg Spines

As you can see, up close under a microscope, they are beautiful. The spines on their legs serve to help the females dig their burrows. They use their powerful jaws to loosen the soil and then excavate the soil using their legs. Hence the mound outside although they also use excavated earth to seal their egg chambers.

We used a Dino-Lite AM4113T to view this one as well as one of our new Explorer Pro digital microscopes that we will be launching soon.

August 27, 2013

TICKS

Engorged nymph deer ticks

Insects seem to be a perennial favorite of my blogs including ticks so how could I resist posting on these disgusting examples?! Rhonda is responsible for bringing these guys to work, but in case you are wondering…… she picked them off her dog and put them in a Zip Lock bag. We could see dozens of them inside the bag and when examined under a digital microscope, we could see them  all crawling around.

You can see quite clearly how engorged the two ticks on the right have become after a good feeding on dog’s blood. The other one, below has not yet started its blood meal so it has yet to engorge itself.

Nymph deer tick - unengorged

Ticks have only one blood meal each year, but they take their time when they do or, at least, the females do. These are nymph ticks. In their nymph state both males and females have a good blood meal. Next year, only the females have a really big blood meal. Most of the adult males eat sparingly, which is why it is important to know the difference between male and female ticks. Female ticks spend more time eating and so have more time to transmit the bacterium.  Females typically have reddish orange coloring. Males have minimal if any coloring beyond black. However, I don’t think we will be adding this lot to our collection of insects in the office. Black widow spiders and rhino beetles are worth keeping, but ticks….I think not! The ticks were viewed under our new Explorer Digital Microscopes which we will launch soon.

June 14, 2013

Jurassic Park Menace

The movie Jurassic Park gave us all a thrilling look into the world of dinosaurs, some of the largest creatures to walk the Earth. The ingenious storyline brings them back to life with a little help from a miniature supporting actor whom every one of us has already met, the ordinary mosquito.

Mosquito under a microscope

Image Credit: National Institute of Health

Since its appearance on the planet 100 million years ago, the mosquito has diversified into 3,000 very different species. There are about 170 different kinds of mosquitoes in North America alone, most of which (or so it may seem) can be found right outside your tent at summer camp.

On a more serious note, these very unwelcome pests and their irritating bites are not to be taken lightly. They carry a parasite known as Plasmodium, which causes malaria in millions and millions of humans. According to the World Health Organization, there were about 219 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2010 and an estimated 660,000 deaths, more than 90% of which occurred in Africa.

Here in the States, the Centers for Disease Control reports that mosquitoes cause 1,500 new cases of Malaria each year, along with several types of encephalitis and West Nile virus. Malaria symptoms tend to make their appearance 9-12 days after a person has been infected. First signs include fever, headache, chills and vomiting, symptoms very similar to the common Flu virus. This can make early detection a challenge.

Malaria can, however, be easily identified with a compound microscope like the Omano OM36 or OM88. The gold standard for malaria identification rests in the laboratory, where testing of a patient’s blood smear can yield timely and life-saving diagnostic information. The technique involves 1000X examination of a thick or thin blood smear which has been stained with a Romanovsky stain such as Giemsa. Infected red blood cells will show the telltale presence of darkly-spotted Plasmodium parasites.

Image Credit: National Institute of Health

Fortunately there are a number of steps we can take to avoid the risk of mosquito-borne diseases and some of the more effective methods involve working directly with Mother Nature herself. First, try to eliminate areas where mosquitoes lay their eggs, like puddles, old tires, children’s play pools, rain gutters and mud puddles. Refresh your bird baths, wading pools and pet drinking dishes at least once a week. For those backyard lily ponds or water gardens, consider using a naturally occurring bacterium like BT (bacillus thuringiensis). Found in most garden centers, BT is nontoxic to people and fish, yet kills mosquito larvae on contact.

As for protecting yourself, it helps to keep in mind that 100 million years of evolution have turned the mosquito into an excellent blood-hunter. They instinctively home in on areas of the body where your skin is thin and blood vessels are close to the surface. Which means your uncovered, untreated ears, neck, ankles, arms and wrists act like ringing dinner bells.

You can swiftly silence those bells by covering up in loose-fitting light-colored clothing or applying herb-based treatments. Lemon eucalyptus, for example, is rated by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the best choices for protection against West Nile virus. Just remember, even though the mosquito may have out-lived the dinosaurs, with a bit of planning you can minimize their intrusion in your outdoor activities this summer.

May 08, 2013

Crunchy Cicada Anyone?

Any day now, an invasion will begin. Unsuspecting people up and down the Eastern seaboard from New England to North Carolina will run for cover. Weddings will be interrupted. The news channels will work themselves into a frenzy – and your lawns, trees and gardens will buzz with bulging, red-eyed invaders. Martians? No. Simply, the hatching of billions of Magicicadas.

Cicada on leaf

Photo Credit: US Dept. of Agriculture

For the past 17 years, billions of the inch-long bugs, which entomologists ominously refer to as “Brood II”, have been lying dormant underfoot. Quietly munching away on tree roots and vegetation 2-3 feet below us, they have awaited Mother Nature’s call to complete their 17 year life cycle.

That call happens when the soil temperature in their underground home climbs above 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the course of the next few weeks, billions of them will emerge and swarm with the primeval goal of mating before they die. Despite their ghoulish looks, they actually are quite harmless to humans and animals. For the most part, they hang out in trees and shrubs for a few weeks and then die, at which time their offspring venture underground to begin another 17-year cycle.

Photo Credit: Tenn. Farm Bureau

Even though this year’s brood is forecast to number in the billions, most of us won’t even see them. We most definitely will hear them. The male Cicada makes music by pushing air through vibrating organs in their abdomen, and quite effectively at that. As they sing their mating cry, a tree filled with males can fill the evening with sound volume approaching 90 decibels!

Apart from their rare appearance and song, what exactly are Cicadas good for besides water-cooler commentary? Well for starters, they’re edible! They are eaten by a wide variety of animals…….including humans. While not quite rising to the popularity of chocolate-covered crickets, they still hold their own at the adventurous dinner table. In fact their hearty flavor, which some intrepid souls describe as asparagus-like, can be found in a surprising variety of dishes like cheese, quiche, casseroles and

even dessert, for those ardent aficionados. Apparently, they are best eaten immediately after hatching which typically, occurs at night. Luckily, they are quite torpid after hatching so they can easily be scraped off the tree branches.

Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institute

Abundant food, totally organic, nutritious, free and hilarious……..it didn’t take long for us here at Microscope.com to decide to hold a contest for the best Cicada recipe.

So dust off your family’s favorite Cicada recipe and send it in. We’d love to hear about it and you could have a chance to win a new microscope. One more reason to enjoy this “Season of the Cicada”…or should that be Cicada Seasoning? Bon Appetite!

Just send us an email, with recipe attached, to [email protected], anytime between now and the June 15, for your chance to win a new Omano OM115 compound microscope. The winner will be announced in a followup blog post.

April 18, 2013

Tick Update – Western Fence Swift

Western Fence Swift

Following my recent blog article on deer ticks @scientificamerican, a reader commented that there was no mention of the miracle of the Western Fence Swift , more commonly known as the Bluebellied Lizard. Being a Brit and having lived on the East Coast for the past 20 years, I had never heard of it before, but it is an amazing story.

Lyme disease, characterized by fever, headache, fatigue and a bullseye rash, is spread through the bite of ticks infected with the bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. However in the western US, the Western Fence Swift actually cleanses the tick of the bacteria. Apparently, the swift has a protein that kills  Borrelia burgdorferi as it feeds on the swift’s blood.

Since 90% of nymph ticks feed on the lizard, it has always been assumed that the presence of the fence swift has accounted for the lower incidence of Lyme Disease in the western states.  Unfortunately, over the past few years the numbers of western fence swift have been declining. As a result, the concern has been that there would be a corresponding increase in Lyme disease infections. However, a 2011 UC Berkeley study found that 95% of nymph ticks failed to find another host and presumably died. Such is the complexity of Nature and disease.

 

March 01, 2010

Weightlifting Ants!

An amazing image of an ant lifting 100 times its body weight has won first prize in a science photography contest.

Image Copyright Dr. Thomas Endlein 2010

Image Copyright Dr. Thomas Endlein 2010

December 03, 2009

Binocular Hammerhead Sharks

Who would have thought that hammerhead sharks have so much in common with a binocular microscope? Remarkable new research by Dr Michelle McComb, Florida Atlantic University demonstrates that contrary to previous thinking, hammerhead sharks have terrific binocular vision. They can also see through the entire vertical plane – up and down! As if that isn’t enough, with a marginal turn of their head, they can see backwards too. Now there’s an idea for a microscope! See the full article at http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8376000/8376740.stm