AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: laurasaur

Love in the World of Paleontology: The Story of Annie Alexander

This is not just a biology story

Annie Montaque Alexander was born on December 29th, 1867. In 1901, she found herself attending a lecture by John C. Merriam on paleontology at Berkeley University. She was hooked instantly and requested to join the fossil explorations.

Annie’s life is defined by traveling. She was an outdoors person and fossil exploration was like a gold mine for her. She took part in explorations to Fossil Lake, Oregon (1901), Shasta County, California (1902 & 1903), and the West Humboldt Range in Nevada (1905). This last expedition discovered a large amount of Triassic ichthyosaur skeletons, including some of the largest in the world. 

An ichthyosaur is any member of an extinct species of aquatic reptiles. They are similar to porpoises in appearance and are distant relatives of lizards and snakes. They are highly specialized, but not dinosaurs. Their remains span almost the entire Mesozoic Era, but are abundant and diverse during the Triassic and Jurassic periods.

She took part in all the hard work and hardships that come with field work, as well as cooking the meals for the trip. These expeditions, as a part of her agreement with Merriam, were all expeditions she financed. 

Her interests were not limited to paleontology. In 1908, Annie helped establish the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and made up the difference when State appropriations for its construction fell short. She did this all before she had the right to vote. That’s crazy!

Annie also took part in many trips to Alaska, where she collected mammal skulls. This is where she discovered a new subspecies of grizzly bear, named Ursus alexandrae after her. 

Also in 1908, Annie met and began traveling with Louise Kellogg. Annie and Louise would live and travel together until Annie’s eventual death in 1950.

Same sex marriage was not legal until 2015. Annie and Louise were a couple living in what is referred to as a “Boston Marriage”. A “Boston marriage” is a term for women living in a marriage-like relationship without any male support. While not all “Boston Marriages” are lesbian relationships in a sexual sense, the term is better described as ‘domestic partnerships’. It is derived from Henry James’s 1886 book detailing a marriage-like relationship between two women. Despite all of this, it’s obvious that Annie and Louise loved each other.

Annie and Louise found themselves on adventures in California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and Arizona. The heat could get as high as 136 degrees! Crazy to think about heat like that in cold like this!

Annie and Louise collected over twenty thousand specimens of animals, plants, and fossils for the museums. Like Ursus alexandrae, many of the new species were named after Annie, including Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae (Cretaceous plesiosaur), Swollenia alexandrae (grass species), Shastasaurus alexandrae (Triassic ichthyosaur), Alticamelus alexandrae (Miocene camel), and more. Oh, what I’d give to have a dinosaur named after me! Laurasaurus pasqualae. Pretty awesome!

She followed the field and laboratory work of the paleontologists at Berkeley closely and maintained a close relationship with Dr. Merriam and his successors throughout her life. 

The 1900s was not a pleasant time for women in the STEM field and Annie knew this. Even if the only thing separating men from women is a y-chromosome, many people looked down upon women, and still do today. Annie repeatedly complained about the need for a fireproof building for the fossil collections and reestablish a strong paleontology program. She never gave up on her goals. Yet, she often found herself negotiating her pleas. Her gender, as well as the untimely recent depression, led to complications. Still, she never gave up on what she was passionate about and that is admirable.

The research and specimens founded by Annie and Louise contributed to long-term data today. Both Annie and Louise ignored society’s attempts to hold them down and did what they loved in their life. No one could stop them.

I think Annie Alexander is an extremely interesting person. I’ve never heard of her before I did my research. She appreciated scientific research and understood the important questions and problems for studying, despite not being a research scientist herself. She properly documented and preserved her specimens to keep their scientific value. She is a great judge of character and is extremely loyal to the people she trusts. Louise was a lucky lady to have Annie in her life. We all are lucky to have Annie as a person to look up to.

Equation About Aliens Helps Prove Masks and Social Distancing Are Necessary

Wait, do we really have to wear masks? Short answer: yes. Long answer: Absolutely yes.

It’s the debate that’s been going on since Covid-19 first reached the United States. Are masks and social distancing really necessary? Some people seem to think that it’s not, which is honestly ridiculous. There is so much proof that it is necessary, so I’m going to show it to anyone who doubts it.

According to the American Institute of Physics, the Contagion Airborne Transmission (CAT) inequality model can show how, based on how the virus spreads, masks and social distancing are effective. 

The article starts with researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Mississippi employing basic concepts of fluid dynamics and factors in airborne transmission to propose the CAT inequality model. Not all factors are known, including environment variables and amount of particles needed to trigger an infection. However, it can still be used to assess relative risks. 

Airborne transmitted diseases, like influenza, can spread through the air on dust, fibers, and other microscopic particles. They can also be spread through expiratory droplets. Influenza can also be spread through secondary objects, or fomites, such as door handles or tissues. Little is known about which route is most important, though airborne transmission is harder to protect against.

When a virus like Covid-19 enters the body, the body fights off the virus. It is first fought off with innate immunity, a defense that activates immediately upon infection. It’s nonspecific and rapid. If that proves to be unsuccessful, then adaptive immunity (aka acquired immunity) develops after exposure. It is very specific, though slower. The B-cells of the immune system bind and neutralize the pathogen, while T-cells eliminate any infected cells. There are also B and T memory cells that help recognize the pathogen if a host ever gets reinfected, speeding up the immune response. However, the Covid-19 virus is new. People getting infected do not have these memory cells and the immune system needs more time to react and defend themselves. Time that the virus takes to wreak havoc on the host’s body.

These researchers are able to determine the precautions necessary to prevent transmission. According to their research, increasing physical distance does increase protection. Author Rajat Mittal says doubling your distance generally doubles your protection. The scientists have also found masks to be protective. A simple cloth mask can provide significant protection and reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Physical activity that increases breathing rate and volume of people are still issues when it comes with transmission, which is why reopening schools, malls, and gyms have hard implications.

The CAT inequality model is inspired by the Drake equation in astrobiology. The Drake equation is a formula that gives us an idea about how many alien societies exist and are detectable. The equation estimates the number of transmitting societies in the Milky Way galaxy through a factorization.

Similar to the Drake equation, the model develops a factorization based on the idea that airborne transmission occurs when a person inhales a viral dose. It includes variables added at each of the three stages of airborne transmission, including breathing rates, number of virus-carrying droplets expelled, the environment, and exposure time. This model could also apply to airborne transmission of other respiratory infections like the flu, tuberculosis, and the measles.

Researchers are continuing to look closer at face mask efficiency and transmission details in high-density of outdoor spaces. However, the CAT inequality model shows that a person is less likely to inhale a viral dose if they wear a protective mask and keep their distance.

An Electrifying Tragedy: The Death of Two Giraffes

On March 2nd, two giraffes were found dead after a thunderstorm in Rockwood, which is a private nature reserve to the west of Kimberely, South Africa. The elder, a five year old female, had a fractured skull as well as a broken ossicone (knoblike horns). These injuries indicate she had died after a direct lightning strike to the head. The second giraffe, a four year old female, was found dead  about 23 feet away from the first giraffe. There are no visible injuries on the second giraffe.

According to Ciska P.J. Scheijen, a student in the Department of Animal, Wildlife, and Grassland Sciences, wrote a paper describing the event. In the African Journal of Ecology, Scheijen describes four ways lightning can kill an animal. It can strike the animal directly, as seen in the older giraffe. It can hit as a “side flash”, which is when the lightning arches into the animal’s body after striking a nearby object. It can also kill through “touch potential” (when the animal is in contact with a lightning-struck object) or “step potential” (when the animal is in contact with lightning-struck ground). It can be inferred that the second giraffe either died from a side flash or step potential.

The giraffes were in an area without trees, making them the tallest things in the area. Knowing this, I bet you and I are wondering the same question. Yes, “Do giraffes get struck by lightning more often than other animals?” The question we all need answered!

There have been a few incidents of giraffes dying of lightning strikes, including one at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. However, there aren’t any real concrete numbers to determine a conclusion.

Yet, Universiti Putra Malaysia electrical engineer Chandima Gones wrote a paper on animal lightning strikes. He states that “animals with a large separation between their front and back feet…are vulnerable to receive lightning injuries due to the dangerous potential differences that may built up between these feet…” Gomes also writes how taller animals (lik giraffes) are more likely to be victims of side flashes and touch potential if near a lightning struck tree. Without clear cut numbers, though, it’s hard to be sure if giraffes are struck at higher rates than other animals.

But there’s another factor involved in the deaths of the two giraffes back in March that is important. There was a thunderstorm. It was raining.

Water is a covalently bonded molecule containing two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. It is a polar molecule because oxygen is more electronegative than hydrogen. Water has many cool properties. For example, it has an unusually high specific heat, making it harder to change its temperature. Because of this specific heat, it allows living creatures that are largely made of water (like us) to resist drastic changes in the body. Water keeps us alive.

Water is an extremely important molecule for life, including our own. However, when electrocuted, it could very well kill us. We all know we shouldn’t swim in a thunderstorm, but did you know wet skin has 100 times less resistance than dry? That’s right: the amount of water in the body is a huge factor in whether or not you would survive an electrical shock.

Of course, the giraffes didn’t know this. They couldn’t find shelter during the thunderstorm that ultimately led to their own demise. While we may never know if giraffes are more susceptible to electrical shocks by lightning, we do know it’s wise not to mix water and electricity.

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