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Other species’ adapations can be a boon to humankind

Q.  The western painted turtle, the red-eared slider and the wood frog possess superior powers that researchers are trying to copy for the benefit of humankind.  What powers?

A.  Scientists’ understanding of the genetic underpinnings of their adaptations have improved with the mapping of all an animal’s genes — its genome, says Claire Ainsworth in “New Scientist” magazine.  The western painted turtle holds the record among four-legged animals for surviving without oxygen for more than 100 days; a human would normally be dead in minutes.  The red-eared slider (a freshwater turtle) “can survive an impressive six weeks without oxygen under the ice and two days at room temperature…, a remarkable feat of brain preservation.”  Possible human applications here include keeping transplant organs fresh without cooling, and addressing strokes, heart attacks and other conditions involving oxygen starvation.

The “poster beast” for enduring freezing and thawing is the wood frog, which survives harsh Canadian winters by letting two-thirds of its body freeze — “so solidly that it makes a clinking noise if gently tapped.”  This ability may provide a solution to a pressing medical problem:  Two-thirds of donated hearts go to waste each year because conventional freezing would destroy them.

As Ainsworth says, “Nature’s fantastic beasts can help us see what life is capable of.”

Q.  How did a deer-hunting poacher wind up in jail with Bambi?

A.  A Missouri deer-hunter had appeared before a judge on several occasions for misdemeanor infractions and had been given two years of probation, but soon he and his friends were back again, “at the center of a laundry list of brutalities,” says Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” website.  According to NBC News, these included using illegal weapons, such as lights that temporarily blind deer at night, making them an easy kill; cruising in their vehicles and killing deer from the roadside; and sometimes cutting off the heads of the deer (to keep as trophies) and leaving the rest of the carcasses to rot.

This time the hunter was sentenced to a year in jail, with an added mandate:  once each month, he would have to view the 1942 Walt Disney movie “Bambi,” about a baby deer whose mother is shot and killed by hunters.  Once news of the sentence spread, many members of the public offered to mail a DVD of “Bambi” to the jail.  Perhaps the unusual sentence delivered a dose of empathy in the process.

Q.  “Amazing” is but one of many words to describe South America’s Amazon River.  Can you cite any of its numerical superlatives?

A.  “From the Andes Mountains, where it begins, to its plume in the Atlantic, the mighty Amazon covers a 4,000-mile path — about as long as a trip to the center of the Earth,” says Daniel Bastardo Blanco in “Discover” magazine.  (FYI, a plume occurs when freshwater currents mix with ocean water.)  On average, the river empties more than 10 million cubic feet of water per second into the Atlantic.  With clearwater and murkier blackwater at various places along the river, it’s believed that “the diverse water environment has contributed to the evolution of more than 3,000 known Amazonian fish species.” 

Spanning more than 2.3 million square miles is the Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest, with over 160 inches of rainfall every year.  Estimates are that some 16,000 species of trees live there, though just 227 species account for half of all the trees.  But deforestation is taking its toll: “Scientists fear the forest is approaching a critical tipping point at which it will no longer be able to recycle enough moisture to support its own rainfall.”

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