Archive for October, 2019

Halloween Double Feature: The Lowenmensch and Brain-Eating Amoeba

October 26, 2019

I like to watch horror movie double features on Halloween.  My favorites are the movies made by Hammer Productions, a British company that produced horror movies from 1958-1976.  Turner Classic Movies often airs these every October.  For my annual Halloween blog article I am offering a scary double feature.

The Lowenmensch is a 1 foot tall figurine found in Hohlenstein-Stedelgre Cave, Germany during 1939.  Lowenmensch means Lion-Man in German, and the sculpture depicts a half-man, half lion.  The artifact is estimated to be between 35,000 years-40,000 years old.  Archeologists attempted to reproduce it, and they discovered that it took 370 hours to sculpt.  The artist could have spent 1 hour a day for about a year to make it.  Archeologists suggest this means other people were taking care of him, while he worked on this object because life during the Stone Age consisted of constant subsistence hunting and gathering.  I disagree with this notion.  People didn’t hunt and gather at night when they might be in danger from unseen predators.  Instead, I believe they likely hung around the campfire where there was more security within a crowd of other humans.  The artist probably made this sculpture at night by the light of the campfire.

The Lowenmensch.  Just imagine a beast that was half-man, half lion…a kind of werelion instead of a werewolf 

Who knows what this object symbolizes?  Lions (Panthera spelaea) were a common species that co-existed with humans in Europe 35,000 years ago,  and humans infrequently interacted with them.  The 2 species likely avoided each other most of the time.  Apparently, humans anthropomorphized animals tens of thousands of years before Disney and Warner-Robins.

The 2nd part of this double feature is scarier because it is real.  There is a species of amoeba that eats human brains.

Computer-generated representation of the amoeba Naegleria fowleri, which causes deadly brain infections.

The brain-eating amoeba (Naeglerea fowleri).

The brain-eating amoeba lives in the bottom sediment of warm freshwater lakes and ponds.  Normally, they eat bacteria.  But if a swimmer gets amoeba-filled water in their nose, the amoeba enter the olfactory nerves and penetrate the brain.  The amoeba can’t find bacteria in the brain, so they begin eating brain cells instead, and in response the human immune system fights the invasion, causing the brain to swell.  Symptoms of amoeba meningoencephalitis include headache, fever, nausea, stiff neck, disorientation, and hallucination.  The brain swelling stops the brain’s signals to the spinal cord.   The symptoms mimic bacterial and viral meningitis, often delaying the diagnosis.  The disease has a 97% mortality rate.  There is no sure known cure, but use of an experimental drug known as miltefosine saved 1 girl’s life.  Fortunately, this disease is extremely rare.  Just 146 cases have been recorded since 1962.

The crew of the U.S. Enterprise battled a giant space amoeba in 1 of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek.

 

The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals by Ross Barnett

October 19, 2019

Ross's book The Missing Lynx.

Ross Barnett’s new book.

Ross Barnett is a British paleontologist who specializes in analyzing DNA from subfossil specimens of extinct species of cats.  I have referenced his work in at least 4 of my blog articles.  He just published a book about some of the megafauna that roamed Great Britain during the Pleistocene.  His book includes chapters about hyenas, saber-tooths, lions, woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, Irish elk, bison, aurochs, bears, wolves, Eurasian beavers, and lynx.  I’m familiar with this subject matter but was looking forward to learning something new, and I did.  I learned the most from his chapter on the bovids–the aurochs and bison.  I didn’t know the aurochs (the ancestor of modern cattle) was twice the size of a modern cow. Cave paintings show males were black and females were red–this is something I may have known but had forgotten.  Genetically, the European bison, also known as the wisent, is surprisingly different from the American bison, though they are closely related.  Scientists puzzled over this for a long time.  Cave paintings also suggest differences in the wisent’s appearance over time.  Some are long-horned and robust, while others are shorter-horned and skinnier.  Scientists discovered the modern wisent is actually an hybrid between the bison and the aurochs.  Before 50,000 years ago and after 34,000 years ago European bison appeared more bison-like, but between those dates they were more aurochs-like.  This is recorded in cave paintings as well as genetics.  I think this is the most interesting fact I found in this book.

Ross Barnett explains an ingenious technique scientists use with the tiny bits of DNA they extract from very old subfossils. They add an enzyme from a species of bacteria to the tiny bit of DNA they can extract from a subfossil, and this causes a polymerase chain reaction (polymerase is an enzyme that replicates DNA in cells). This increases the amount of DNA they can analyze.  He was able to analyze the DNA from a 30,000 year old subfossil bone of a saber-tooth cat known as Homotherium latidens.  He determined the 2 lineages of saber-tooths (Homotherium and Smilodon) diverged from the rest of the cats about 20 million years ago.  However, Homotherium and Smilodon were not that closely related to each other.  They diverged 18 million years ago.  But Homotheriums from Great Britain were genetically similar to Homotheriums from the Yukon, and he proposes there was just 1 species in this genus during the late Pleistocene.  Saber-tooths sit on the evolutionary tree between cats and hyenas but are closer to the former.

Ross Barnett strongly leans toward the school of thought that thinks man is responsible for the extinction of most of the megafauna.  This is the only explanation that makes sense to me.  He does favor introducing some species of animals back to Great Britain.  The lynx has been extinct on the island since the 7th century AD.  (Something else I learned in this book–there are 2 species of European lynx: the northern and the Iberian.  At times during pre-history their ranges have overlapped but they haven’t interbred.)  He thinks lynx could be re-introduced with few problems.  They don’t attack people, and farmers could be reimbursed for livestock they might lose.  Lynx would help control the overpopulation of deer in Great Britain.  Apparently, there aren’t enough deer hunters in England.

I discovered just 2 errors in this book.  Dr. Barnett writes bison didn’t colonize North America until 130,000 years BP.  Bison bones excavated from the 10 mile bone bed in South Carolina come from sediment estimated to be from 200,000-240,000 years old.  The presence of bison in North America marks the beginning of the Rancholabrean land mammal age which is thought to have begun about 300,000 years ago.  Bison were in North America prior to his stated date.  He is also unaware that a new species of giant beaver has been named.  Dr. Barnett states Casteroides ohioensis lived in North America from Canada to Florida.  However, the species that lived in Florida and perhaps the mid-south was Casteroides dilophidus.

For people interested in Pleistocene mammals this book is a must read.  Every chapter has nice maps, showing the locations of fossil sites where specimens of each species were found.  The research is up to date but the information is passed on to the reader in a style that is very easy for a layman to understand.

 

Operation Sea Lion

October 12, 2019

Germany could have won World War II and were closer to winning than most people realize.  If instead of invading Russia during the summer of 1941, Hitler had followed the advice of his admirals and diverted more resources to North Africa, the German army would have easily swept aside the British and captured all the oil in the Middle East.  Then, he could have ordered the invasion of southern Russia and captured all of their oil supplies, and it would have been game over for the allies because the Germans would have controlled most of the available worldwide oil.  Another scenario that could have led to German victory was a successful invasion of Great Britain following the surrender of France.  Germany’s plan for this invasion was code named Operation Sea Lion.  If Germany defeated Great Britain, the allies would not have been able to supply the Soviet Union with war materials, and Germany could have gone on to conquer Russia.

Initial German plan; subsequently much changed

The German plan to invade England in 1940.  The Germans were unable to achieve complete air superiority, so Hitler canceled the operation.

By August 1940 the Germans seemed invincible.  Germany crushed the French army and the British Expeditionary Force in 2 months and had 300,000 British troops trapped at Dunkirk along the northern coast of France.  An incredible effort using hundreds of civilian boats rescued these troops and brought them back to England (as depicted in a recent motion picture).  However, the British were forced to leave all their heavy equipment and ammunition behind.  They were a naked army without tanks or artillery.  The British were so desperate for arms the U.S. gave them 300,000 surplus WWI rifles.  At this point of the war the British army was no match for the German Wehrmacht.  3 obstacles stood in the German’s way: the English Channel, the British navy, and the Royal Air Force.  The Germans knew it was critical to destroy the Royal Air Force as an effective fighting force before they could bring their troops across the English Channel on barges.  Otherwise, British bombers and warships would sink the barges and kill thousands of German troops before they even landed in England.  If on the other hand, the German Luftwaffe had complete air superiority, they could sink British ships attempting to interdict the barges.  Operation Sea Lion included a plan to create an alley for the barges using mines and submarines that would also stop British war ships from interfering with the landings.

Germany was winning the air war against England also known as the Battle of Britain.  Herman Goering, Chief of the Luftwaffe, ordered massed bomber formations protected by fighter escorts to attack British airfields.  Though they shot down more German fighters than they lost, England had fewer planes and could not afford the loss in attrition.  England was soon losing more planes and pilots than they could replace.  One day, Churchill, the prime minister of England, ordered a bombing raid on Berlin.  This so infuriated Hitler that he ordered a change in strategy.  Instead of continuing the winning strategy of attacking British air bases, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb civilian targets.  With the aid of newfangled radar and coastal spotters British fighter pilots were able to down lots of German bombers without losing as many planes as they had during the previous phase of the battle.  Meanwhile, British bombers sank many German barges that were moving into position to ferry German troops across the English Channel.  Hitler kept delaying Operation Sea Lion until he finally canceled it during October 1940.  The Germans were just too afraid of losing too many troops in the English Channel.

Military strategists have long wondered what would’ve happened, if Operation Sea Lion had been launched.  Most simulated war games have England winning the campaign.  In the simulations Germans were able to land the 1st echelon of troops but 2nd and 3rd waves were stopped by the British navy, leaving German troops stranded.  However, some simulated war games do have Germany winning the campaign.  In any case it would have been a brutal battle.  Churchill writes they would have used poison gas and were prepared to fight a prolonged guerilla war.  The Germans had a list of prominent British intellectuals and Jews they were planning on arresting immediately.

Hitler didn’t hate the British because he saw them as fellow Aryans.  He just wanted them to surrender and let him conquer the Slavs in Russia who he considered a subhuman slave race.  Perhaps this is why he was so eager to turn his attention to Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union) the following summer.

Reference:

Churchill, Winston

Memoirs of the Second World War

Houghton Mifflin 1959

Bald Faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) are Marvelous Engineers

October 5, 2019

Humans were not the first species to manufacture paper.  Wasps were building paper nests millions of years before  Homo sapiens  evolved.  The bald faced hornet builds the largest, most spectacular nest of any species of wasp, and I always love finding these in the woods.

Bald Faced Hornet

Bald faced hornet’s nest.

A mature bald faced hornet’s nest holds 400-700 workers.  A pregnant queen emerges during spring and begins building the nest but she is soon aided by workers she births. The hornets make the paper by chewing wood.  The workers are all sterile females, and sterile males also live in the nest.  Meanwhile, the queen keeps laying eggs.  By late fall these eggs become future queens and drones (fertile males).  The queens and drones leave the nest, and the latter impregnates the former.  The pregnant queens than overwinter under cover to emerge the following spring.  Bald faced hornets are carnivorous, feeding upon soft-bodied invertebrates and carrion.  They attack caterpillars, fly larva, and spiders that they then feed to their larva.  The adults get their energy from flower nectar and fruit.  People picking fruit need to be careful not to pick up a piece of fruit being enjoyed by a bald faced hornet.  They love my scuppernong grapes.  Plums are another favorite.

The bald faced hornet is not a true hornet but rather a yellow jacket wasp.  All hornets are wasps, but only some species of wasps are hornets.  Hornets are generally larger in size and less colorful than other species of wasps.  Hornets build paper nests, while most wasps build nests suspended in the air, on the ground, or underground.  But to add to the confusion, bald faced hornets do build paper nests though they are not true hornets.  The difference between true hornets and wasps involves technical anatomical differences that I am not going to cover here.

Bald faced hornet.

Bald faced hornets are widespread and adaptable.  This species expanded throughout deglaciated Canada in less than 10,000 years following the last Ice Age.

Bald faced hornet range map.  Note how they occur in the geographic region that used to be covered by glacial ice.  They’ve colonized territory all the way to central Alaska.  Amazing.

As far as I can determine, there is no Pleistocene-aged fossil evidence of bald faced hornets or their nests.  Insects are rarely preserved, and of course paper nests deteriorate rapidly when exposed to the elements.  I’m sure they were just as common during the Pleistocene as they are today.