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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
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

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!

 

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