Thursday, December 6, 2007

Danger Underground? Coal Mining in Utah

You may have seen the news headlines this summer: six coal miners and three rescue workers were killed when part of the Crandall Canyon Mine, in central Utah, collapsed. (You may even have seen our blog entry about it.) Across the US, around 30 of the more than 79,000 coal miners are killed in accidents at work each year.

If mining can be dangerous, why do we still do it? What makes it risky? How do miners stay safe?

Why do we mine coal? One word: power. Burning coal generates almost 90% of Utah’s electricity. Despite talk about clean, renewable sources of energy, the fact remains that coal is plentiful, cheap, and constant. In the short term, at least, coal is here to stay.

Where’s the risk? Extracting coal in Utah is like scraping the frosting from inside a complex layer cake that’s been smashed, stretched, sat on, and buried. Staying safe means ensuring the tunnels through the coal don’t collapse while people are still using them. But coal is the weakest layer, and the forces on it from the surrounding rock can be uneven and unpredictable. Also, the coal is buried deep, as far as 3,000 feet below the mountainous surface.

To stay safe, miners leave big pillars of coal supporting the roof above their heads. When they finish a section, they collapse the roof to relieve some of the pressure. Sophisticated machines do much of the dirty work, meaning fewer people in harm’s way. Still, it’s a difficult business. “These miners are going places that nobody’s been since the dinosaurs lived on Earth,” says Dave Tabet, of the Utah Geological Survey. “Like astronauts, they accept an inherent risk.”

A typical Utah coal mine. After extracting coal from an area, miners let small sections of roof collapse behind them to relieve pressure from the surrounding rock layers.

Want to know more? Follow the links below for more information about coal mining, Crandall Canyon, and mining in Utah.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Saving Sego Lilies

It takes seven years for a sego lily to grow from a seed to a flower, but if something happens to its home, it can be gone in an instant. That’s why a team of staff has made it their job to save the lilies living at the site where the new Utah Museum of Natural History will be built.

Why go to all that trouble for some plants? Because we’re causing trouble for them. A new building will disrupt the communities that live at the site, but we’re doing all we can to help preserve and protect the small slice of Utah landscape we’re affecting.

In June 2007, volunteers fanned out across the 17 acre plot in the Salt Lake City foothills, where the Museum will one day move, searching for signs of sego lilies – Utah’s official state flower. Each time the salvage team spotted the thin, grass-like leaves of a lily, they dug deep around the plant to retrieve the bulb, buried 6 or 7 inches in the dirt. They moved the plants into pots, and the pots into an outdoor “gated community” at the University of Utah Biology Research Garden. There the lilies will snuggle until 2010, when the new Museum is built and it’s safe to return them to their home in the foothills.

Saving the sego lilies is just one part of the Museum’s effort to take care of the land; staff has also collected seed from plants and rescued tarantulas and other invertebrates that live on the site. Architects are designing the new building to be as friendly as possible to the environment. We know we’ll never be able to eliminate our impact on this piece of the planet, but we hope that, by doing our best to respect and preserve the creatures that live there, we can be proud to one day call it our home too.

To read more about the environmental impact the new Museum will have on the site, check out our official Environmental Impact Statement.

Click below to explore a map of where the new UMNH building will be.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Still Life: BYU's Rhino and the Museum Specimen Controversy

What belongs in a museum? And how far should museums go to get those things?

These are questions that Utahans have been asking themselves this week, as controversy rages over a rhinoceros soon to be on display at the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum at Brigham Young University in Provo. According to the Salt Lake Tribune:

"Bean officials recruited museum benefactor Fred Morris of Draper last year to hunt a rhino at South Africa's Mkuze National Park. The park sells the rights to hunt excess rhinos to finance its conservation efforts, officials said....The Bean's plan is to mount the rhino skin on an artificial form as part of an ongoing taxidermy exhibit at the museum through January and later add the mount to a waterhole diorama. In that exhibit, the rhino would join an elephant that was also obtained by a modern hunter."
Angry words have been flying ever since news of the rhino's hunt hit the public. "If the private university wants stuffed animals in its museum, it should display Teddy bears," said one commentator. "It's education and conservation in its most lifeless form," railed another.

Representatives from the Bean Museum argue that the rhino was killed legally and in line with good management practices.
"Our only intent has been to use it as an educational mechanism for promoting public appreciation of the conservation of these magnificent animals," a Museum spokesman told the Tribune.

So what is the place of dead animals in museum displays? As one of the angry commentators pointed out, the Utah Museum of Natural History has "a collection of moldering mule deer, a spray of birds from Farmington Bay and a scene of Boulder Mountain carnivores, including a bear and bobcat" on display in our Biology Hall. We also have many more specimens that we use in teaching and for research. Are these valuable? Ethical? [author's note: our mule deer aren't moldering, by the way.]

One major difference between UMNH's specimens and the BYU rhino is that most of those on display here were killed or donated more than 30 years ago. We are still adding animals to our collection, but only for research and education purposes, and as UMNH Director Sarah George told the Tribune, "We focus on Utah."

Still, some people are uncomfortable with the idea of displaying dead animals at all. Here at UMNH, we've made the decision that it's worth it. The unique opportunity for observing a real specimen that you might not otherwise see can be a valuable experience. And as for the rhino? You'll have to decide that for yourself.

Tell us your opinion on displaying animal specimens. What kind of experiences have you had with them?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Uncovering Utah's Deep Sea Mysteries

500 million years ago, there were jellyfish living in western Utah. Hard to believe, isn't it? To start with, western Utah is terrible jellyfish habitat - there are no oceans for hundreds of miles! If you went there today, you'd have a hard time finding anything that swims at all, much less a deep-water, ocean-loving creature like a jellyfish. On top of that, 500 million years is a very long time - how do we know what was there?

These are some good questions, and luckily there are good answers. We know that jellyfish were there because two geologists from the University of Utah found them. Or, to be precise, they found fossilized traces of the creatures' remains. Researchers Richard D. Jarrard and Susan Halgedahl spent time cracking open rocks at the fossil site west of Delta, where other ancient animal traces had been seen before. They were pretty excited by what they found - the remains of four different species of ancient jellyfish.

"It's hard to imagine anything more difficult to create a fossil from than a jellyfish that's less than half an inch in size...They just don't have any hard parts at all," Jarrard told the Deseret Morning News. Most of the time, their soft bodies decay and become part of the environment around them, even in areas where the conditions are right for preserving fossil traces of harder material like bones or shells. But not this time.

Why not? And how were there jellyfish in western Utah at all? While today it's a desert - dry as a bone - for hundreds of millions of years, starting around 570 million B.C., western Utah was under the ocean. California and Nevada weren't around, and the west coast of North America ran right through our now-desert state. In the deep water over the present-day fossil site, the jellyfish swam, ate, bred, and died. And for a while during those hundreds of millions of watery years, the guck at the bottom of the western Utah ocean was just right for a jelly to float down and leave its mark. That ocean bottom became the Marjum formation of sedimentary rock, where the jellyfish fossils were found.

After finding the fossils, Jarred and Halgedahl sent them to experts at the University of Kansas, who determined that the fossils are related to modern jellyfish, are much older than any jellyfish fossils ever found before, and are also surprisingly sophisticated. That's exciting for scientists trying to work out the mystery of how life started on Earth, giving them important clues to life in the oceans way far back in time. Hurray for the jellies!

What might the landscape where you live have looked like 500 million years ago? How could you know?

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Earth moves fast in Yellowstone

Quick, look down! The ground is moving!

Can't feel anything? That's because the movement of the Earth's surface is usually pretty slow by human standards. North America, for example, is floating around the planet at about 2 centimeters per year, as fast as your fingernails grow. The Earth's surface is in constant motion, squishing up mountains as land masses run into each other, stretching open deep underwater, and sliding down under continents to be melted by the planet's hot interior. If you could watch Earth's 4.5 billion year history in fast-forward, it would bustle with activity. In your lifetime, though, most of the changes will be too slow to see, other than the occasional abrupt events like earthquakes and volcanoes.

But not in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is one of the most geologically active places in the world, providing unique opportunities to observe change happen fast enough to notice in a lifetime. Small earthquakes rumble through more than once a day (on average); hot water and steam burble from the ground and then shift to a new spot; geysers erupt regularly then stop, or lie dormant and suddenly start again; and according to new findings just released by the University of Utah, the ground swells and recedes like a slowly breathing giant.

In the course of 2.5 years, from July 2004 to December 2006, the Utah geologists used satellites to measure the exact elevation of the caldera, or giant volcanic crater, that lies within the Park, both by bouncing radar beams down and back up to orbit, and by communicating with receivers stationed on the ground. In that time, the land rose 18 centimeters (7 inches), growing faster than your average human child, and three times faster than anyone had seen it grow before.

The scientists attribute this quick expansion to a pancake-shaped blob of molten rock the size of Los Angeles, gurgling six miles underground. This blob of magma originated as part of a "hotspot," or gigantic plume of hot molten rock, that starts 400 miles beneath Earth's surface, travels up through the Earth's layers, then spreads out to a 300-mile pool lying 30 miles underground. From there, hot magma sometimes breaks off, rises up, and fills a chamber below the Park. It's the heat from that chamber that powers Yellowstone's geysers and keeps it so geologically active, and the magma is likely responsible for the recent uplift.

One thing the scientists say for sure is that it's not a sign of an imminent eruption. So if you want to see our Earth systems in action, pack your bags and head for the Park.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fun Plant Tricks with Smell

Have you ever been drawn in by a smell? The aroma of cookies fresh out of the oven, the fragrance of perfume, or the tantalizing scent of a flower? Smell can be a powerful motivator for all kinds of animals, from humans to lizards to insects. Recently, scientists here at the University of Utah unraveled the unusual secret of how one plant uses smell to its advantage.

The Plant
Meet Macrozamia lucida. This Australian wonder is a cycad, a primitive kind of plant that has been around since before the dinosaurs. If you're thinking it looks like a pine cone, you're right! Cycads, like pine trees and junipers, are gymnosperms, which means that they have seeds but not flowers. Instead, they produce cones.

Irene Terry, a biologist at the University of Utah, recently set off to explore just how Macrozamia lucida makes its way through life - particularly, how it reproduces. Like humans, individuals of this species are either male or female. To reproduce, male sexual cells (pollen) must reach and combine with female sexual cells (ovules). For a long time, people thought that the wind moved the pollen from the male cycad cones into the female cones, but in 1999, Terry discovered that small insects, called thrips, were responsible for carrying the pollen from plant to plant.

The Insects
This particular species of thrips spends its life inside the male cycad cones, laying eggs and munching on Macrozamia lucida pollen. The female cones, with no pollen in them to eat, aren't appealing to the thrips. But the plant needs the insects to move some pollen into the female cones so that it can reproduce. How does the plant get the thrips to do that?

The Trick

The answer, it turns out, has to do with the power of smell. The plants let off a special chemical that, in small doses, smells wonderful to the thrips and attracts them. In high doses, though, the chemical is toxic to the thrips and repels them. So, to make sure the insects don't just spend all their time eating pollen in the male cones, every afternoon the male plants burn some of their stored sugars to create energy and heat themselves up. The extra-hot male plants release a high dose of the chemical, driving the thrips away. Many of them fly towards the females, which have an attractively low dose of the chemicals even as the males are too strong. Later, the male plants cool off, and the thrips return to their tasty homes. The whole cycle starts again the next day "until the males wear out and the females are happily pollinated," Terry says.

Have you ever been manipulated by smell? What smells attract you? What smells would you avoid?

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Great Tarantula Rescue

There's some creepy crawly stuff going on at the Museum these days! UMNH insect scientist (or entomologist) Christy Bills delivers this report from the field:

"Knowing there are tarantulas on the site where the new Utah Museum of Natural History facility will be built [starting next year], I thought it would be exciting and important to try to locate and rescue those tarantulas that would otherwise be displaced.

Using a local independent researcher, Zach Valois, I learned how to identify and lure tarantulas out of burrows. There are many burrows at that site because it's often a very hot, dry place so rodents, snakes and invertebrates hide underground to stay cool and keep from drying out.

It's interesting to try to identify what might be living in different burrows. This is especially challenging because some creatures will utilize burrows that were made and abandoned by other animals. However, some burrows are characteristic of the animal that lives in it. Tarantula burrow openings are usually the diameter of a silver-dollar and are tidy and lined with silk.

There are many black widows at the site and their burrows are strewn with a messy and coarse webbing. Black widows are also untidy housekeepers and their burrows are usually littered with insect bits.

In the course of looking for tarantulas, I discovered that the invertebrate night life on that particular hill is ever-changing and always exciting. When I encounter large invertebrates, I often take them home to keep alive. I've found 7 Jerusalem crickets and dozens and dozens of wolf spiders. I've only brought a couple of those home though! Their bites are fairly venomous.

I've only located three tarantulas on the site: 2 roaming males and one female in a burrow. The female has mated with at least one of the males. I missed whether she mated with the second because while I was distracted, she ate him. No telling if mating occured beforehand! I'm looking forward to the spiderlings in the spring!

The female wolf spiders that I have have also been mated and their egg sacs could be formed any day now. The interesting thing about that is that the mother spider will carry the babies on her back for awhile.

The Jerusalem crickets are doing well on a diet of dog food and oatmeal. When I learn to differentiate the genders, I will attempt mating a pair. They are such peculair insects that I'm excited to show them to people. Most people have never seen them even though they are fairly common, probably because they are solitary, nocturnal and they like to live underground.

I'm hoping to keep many invertebrates from the site alive so they can be displayed in the upcoming insect zoo the Museum will be opening next summer! Hooray for bugs from Utah!"

What creepy crawlers have you seen in Utah?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The West On Fire

Have you heard about the wildfires blazing in southern California? A record 500,000 people have evacuated their homes in the San Diego area, and President Bush has declared the situation a major disaster.

So far, the area these fire have burned is about 12% greater than the record-breaking Milford Flat Fire, which made news as it blazed across south-central Utah this summer. While that fire closed large stretches of I-15 and burned several buildings, it didn't even come close to doing as much damage as the San Diego fires have caused so far. What's the difference?

There are two main ways in which the California fires are different from even the biggest fires in Utah: people and wind.

Imagine what the Milford Flat fire might have been like if the whole population of Utah lived in that area! When fires travel into human-occupied areas they can cause big problems as they destroy property, force evacuations, and sometimes take lives. The more people around, the more problems. San Diego County, where the majority of the California fires are clustered right now, has a population of almost 3 million people. By contrast, the entire state of Utah has a population of about 2.5 million. The dense population in the San Diego area is part of why the fires are causing so much disruption.

Utah may have its share of blustery days, but they're nothing compared to the Santa Ana winds racing across southern California. According to a UCLA meteorologist, "Santa Ana winds are dry and warm (often hot) winds in the Southern California area that blow in from the desert." These winds develop from September through March, and usually flow fast and furious for a few days at a time. They help fires start by drying out the surrounding vegetation, and once a fire is going, they can fan the flames and help it spread.

Studying the Science
Each major wildfire is unique, of course, and individual fires can be hard to predict. Researchers all over, including some here at the University of Utah, are trying to find ways both to model what happens once fires start burning, and to anticipate when they're likely to start. In the meantime, we'll keep facing this force of nature as it comes.

Should people be allowed to live in areas prone to wildfires? What experiences with fire have you had? Click "comments" below and let us know!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Figuring out Fall Foliage

If you happen to go outside this month, you might notice that the trees around town are doing something predictable, yet strange: they're changing colors! Leaves fade from brilliant green to red, orange, and yellow, then droop to brown as they litter the ground. This happens ever year, but why? Where do the colors come from?

As winter approaches, the nights get longer. That signals trees to start shedding their leaves, which (unlike the twigs, branches, and trunks) aren't adapted to withstand the cold of winter. To make that happen, the tree gradually cuts off the supply of fluids to the leaves. Without a constant supply of sugars and sap, the chemicals in the plant start to change.

First, chlorophyll decays. Chlorophyll is a chemical that absorbs sunlight and turns it into energy through a process called photosynthesis; it's also what gives leaves their green color. During the spring and summer months, the plant produces lots of chlorophyll, but in the fall production slows down and what's there starts to fade.

As the amount of chlorophyll in a leaf decreases, other colors that were hidden in the leaf all along start to show up. These are the yellow and gold hues, and they're caused by a set of chemicals called carotenoids. At the same time, another set of chemicals, anthocyanins, turn the leaves red and crimson as they're produced in the leaves.

Eventually, the leaves, cut off from the fluids in the rest of the tree, dry up and fall off. They'll provide food and insulation for the tree as they decompose around it. The tree is now ready for winter!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Knocking-out" Mice Genes: The Nobel Prize come to Utah

Have you heard of the Nobel Prize? It's one of the greatest honors a scientist can receive - an international prize awarded each year in five subjects, recognizing world-class achievements. This week, the selection committees are announcing the prizes for 2007, and a scientist from Utah has won!

Mario R. Capecchi is a professor of Biology and Human Genetics here at the University of Utah. He won a share of this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work he did manipulating the genes of mice. Back in the late 1980s, Capecchi and his colleagues created a technique for inactivating or "knocking-out" individual mice genes. That means that they could "turn off" a particular gene and see what happened. (For a more detailed description of the technique, visit the Genetic Science Learning Center's page on the subject).

So what's special about Capecchi's work? The technique he helped develop is useful because it helps scientists understand the role of individual genes. By knocking them out one at a time, scientists can study their effects on all aspects of life, including growth, aging, and disease. According to the Nobel Foundation, the technique "has already produced more than five hundred different mouse models of human disorders, including...diabetes and cancer." The hope is that all this information will lead to new and better cures and prevention. "It's applicable to all diseases, because all of them have a genetic component,"added Capecchi in an interview this week.

Want to learn more about genes? Visit the Genetic Science Learning Center for online lessons about all things gene-related.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Solving The Mystery of Gryposaurus

Terry Gates - better known as Bucky - is a paleontologist here at the Utah Museum of Natural History. Today, there's hot news about a dinosaur he named. Here's what he had to say about the whole experience:

"I study the duck-billed dinosaurs that lived in southern Utah around 75 million years ago (during the Late Cretaceous period). For decades, paleontologists knew that there were duck-billed dinosaurs hidden in the sediments of what is now Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but their identity remained buried. That is, until a volunteer from the Raymond M. Alf Museum in California found a skull within the Kaiparowits Formation of the Monument.

The Alf Museum needed help collecting the large skull from the steep and rugged landscape, so in August 2004 UMNH preparation lab manager Eric Lund and I helped the Alf Museum bring it to UMNH. Everyday I visited Eric as he cleaned the fossil in our preparation lab, trying to decipher any information possible from the bones that he had exposed. (Check out Eric’s blog entry for a description of that process).

It wasn’t until we got our hands on a piece of bone that had eroded from the skull that I was able to tell what kind of duck-billed dinosaur this was. Every known species on Earth has a genus and species name; for instance, the genus name for humans is Homo and the species name is sapien. In the same way, all dinosaurs have a genus and species name, and members of the same genus have characteristics in common. The portion of the skull that I found inside a box of eroded bone was exactly the piece of evidence I needed to quickly identify this specimen’s genus. The species of the genus Gryposaurus share several characteristics that are only present on those animals, most noticeably a prominent hump on the nose bone – and that’s what I found.

Now that I knew the genus, I had to figure out the species name. That was more difficult and I had to wait until preparation of the skull was nearly complete before I could proceed with detailed study. Once Eric completely exposed the skull (after two years) I was finally able to meticulously compare the shape of bones on this skull to that of other known species of duck-bills. I traveled to museums all over the U.S. and Canada (including Bozeman, MT, New York, NY, Drumheller, Alberta, Canada, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), in order to see a broad spectrum of dinosaurs that might help me identify our mystery species.

In the end, I found that there are several differences in the skull found in southern Utah compared to other species of the genus Gryposaurus. Because of these key differences, I named a new species, Gryposaurus monumentensis, meaning “Hooked nose lizard from the monument”.

The process of naming a new species is not easy. First I had to do weeks of research, then spend weeks writing a description of the new species for other scientists. Finally, I submitted the research paper to a scientific journal for publication. More time passed for editing, revisions from other paleontologists, and final editing from the journal. When you count all those phases, it took literally months to name a new species, which explains why it has taken three years since the excavation of the skull for the name to become official. Yet, in the end, all of the work is worth the effort because each new species opens the door a little wider on the ecology and lives of prehistoric animals, and allows us to ask deeper and deeper questions about an ancient world."

Have a question for Bucky about his work? Click "Comments" below and ask him yourself!

Meeting the “Duck” of the Grand Staircase

Eric Lund is the Paleontology Lab Manager here at the Utah Museum of Natural History. Today, there's hot news about a dinosaur he helped uncover. Here's what he remembers about the process:

"The hadrosaur skull was discovered in 2004, in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, by a group from the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in California. When I saw the skull in the field there wasn’t much to see, my first impressions were dulled by the lackluster plaster jacket that covered much of the exposed bones. However, we were dealing with a dinosaur skull, so no matter how much of it was there, it was pretty freakin’ awesome!

The day of the helicopter lift there was an air of excitement beaming from every person who was present. For me, there was some apprehension behind my excitement; a myriad of ‘What If’ questions ran through my head: What if the Helicopter can’t lift the block? What if the jacket isn’t strong enough? What if the helicopter pilot drops the specimen too early? All my uncertainties soon faded to jubilation as the helicopter crested the horizon with the skull safely nestled in the dangling cargo net below. I watched with amazement as the helicopter pilot expertly placed the specimen back on the ground. I think everyone exhaled a collective sigh of relief to see the job done. The skull then made the five hour journey up to the Utah Museum of Natural History, where I would get to spend the next two years preparing it for display.

Cutting open the plaster jacket back in the lab, I soon realized just how much work I had ahead of me; there was a lot of rock surrounding the bone. I cautiously began by removing the loose debris from the surface, and to my amazement much of the surrounding matrix practically fell off the bone. I quickly progressed removing much of the bulk that surrounded the bone. That was until I discovered the deeper matrix pockets were harder than cement, forcing me to use the mini-jack to break through the matrix. As the name of the tool implies it is a hand held jackhammer, and with a little elbow grease chunks through the matrix quite easily. I took things in stride and tediously removed the matrix chip by chip until the skull reached its present state. After spending two years preparing the skull, it makes me very proud to see it on display in the Museum for all to see."

To read more about naming this new species of dinosaur, check out what paleontologist Bucky Gates has to say about it!

Got questions for Eric about preparing the skull or working in a dinosaur lab? Click "Comments" and ask him yourself!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Velociraptor: A Feathered Friend?

If you've seen the movie Jurassic Park, then you probably have a pretty clear picture of what Velociraptor looked like: a smoothed-skinned, long-armed, vicious meat-eater. Unfortunately, that image turns out to be another reminder that you shouldn't believe everything you see on screen. According to evidence published in this week's journal "Science", Velociraptor had feathers!

How could they tell? Scientists from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago looked closely at the arm bone of one of the creatures and found a series of bumps where feathers attached, just like we see today in modern birds like the turkey vulture.

"The question is why an animal that's clearly not flying would have this structure," says Lindsay Zanno, a graduate student who studies related dinosaurs here at the Utah Museum of Natural History. One theory is that Velociraptor descended from ancestors that once flew. Other thoughts include that the feathers were used for display like a peacock's tail, to help keep warm-blooded dinosaurs warm, or to control the temperature of nests. Whatever the reason this species had feathers, "It's good to finally have proof" says Zanno.

Could any of Utah's dinosaurs have had feathers too? Possibly, but no one knows for sure. While Utah was home to many cousins of Velociraptor including the world famous dinosaurs Utahraptor, Falcarius, and Hagryphus, the ancient environment at their burial ground wasn't right to preserve feathers.. However, similar marks on a bone could in theory show up. "It makes you want to go back and look closer, to see if you were missing something," says Zanno. "Each step forward makes you look back; there's a constant reevaluation."

Why do you think a creature who couldn't fly might have had feathers? Click "Comments" below and let us know!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lights Off Utah

If you've been thinking about doing some stargazing, tonight might be your night: between 9 pm and 10 pm, if all goes as planned, Utah will be dark.

The Lights Off Utah campaign is encouraging people, businesses and governments all over the state to go dark for one hour. The idea is to remind people of the importance of energy conservation, and to show that our behavior can have a big impact.

Why bother? Well, there are a lot of reasons to think about saving energy, but one you may not have thought of is to experience night the way Utah's early inhabitants might have. For much of Utah's history, there was little or no artificial light once the sun went down. Native inhabitants and early pioneers saw a very different sky than our cities allow us to witness. Even Utahn's in rural areas aren't immune to the effects of electric lights; in fact, most parts of the globe are in some way affected by lights at night.

It won't exactly be a time machine, but take a moment to turn off some lights and look around tonight. You might be glad you did.

How else might nights have been different before electricity? How might your life change if it were dark at night?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Escaping the heat of a record-hot summer

Feel a little overheated this summer? You're not alone. The National Weather Service announced this week that Summer 2007 was the hottest summer on record in Salt Lake City. The average temperature for June, July, and August was 79.3 degrees, beating the previous record (set in 1994) of 78.6 degrees.

79.3 degrees may not seem that warm, but keep in mind that's the average temperature. Every sweltering day tugged that average temperature up, and every cool evening tugged it back down. This year, the hot days were so hot and the evenings so not-that-cool that the average ended up way above normal (by 5.4 degrees). And it's not just this year that it's been warm: five of the top seven hottest Salt Lake summers have been in the last 13 years.

Sweaty humans, high A/C bills, and melted ice cream cones aren't the only results of high summer temps. Warm weather affects all kinds of things in the natural world, including the life cycles and habitats of plants and animals. In fact, Eric Rickart and Becca Rowe, biologists here at UMNH, are using the Museum's collections to understand how things have changed over the years. They're finding out how animals react to the heat by comparing information about small mammals collected in the 1920s to new data the team is collecting now. The work is still in progress, but so far it seems like the animals are moving up higher into the mountains to escape the increasing heat. While Eric and Becca's research is in Nevada, it provides good clues to what might be happening all over the west.

So next time your thermometer reads 103 degrees, maybe it's time to make like the critters and head for the hills. I recommend making some kind plan, because I bet we're not done with off-the charts heat. Let's just hope we all keep our cool.

Other Summer 2007 records:

  • In St. George, July 6th was an all-time record high minimum at 92 degrees (that means it never got cooler than that, even at night!)
  • July was the hottest month ever recorded in Salt Lake City, with an average monthly temperature of 84 degrees (previous record was July 2003 at 83.4 degrees).
  • This August tied with August 2003 for the record high monthly minimum average in Salt Lake City, at 67.8 degrees (that means it stayed really warm, even at night).
  • The summer included 17 days that were 100 degrees or warmer, the 2nd most all-time in a summer, and 47 days over 95 degrees, which is third most all-time.
  • There were 7 record-breaking daily high temperatures in Salt Lake City, on June 16, July 6, July 14, July 15, August 13, August 14, and August 16.
Did you notice any interesting changes due to this summer's warmth? How did the heat affect you?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Bee Mystery: Scientists Get a Clue

Have you heard the buzz about bees? They're disappearing! All over the country, honeybees have been mysteriously vanishing from their hives.

Beekeepers first noticed the problem in 2006: they'd open a hive, and the worker bees would be gone! A hive could go from healthy to empty in just 2 weeks. No one knew what was causing the problem, but experts named it Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

So far, CCD hasn't made it to Utah. But without knowing how it's caused or spread, we can't be sure it won't get here. If it did come to Utah, bee keepers could lose up to 90% of their hives. That's a problem for more than just people who love honey; bees play an important role in producing much of the food we eat.

"People just don't realize how important pollination is," says Debbie Amundsen, a staff member at UMNH and an amateur beekeeper. According to the US Department of Agriculture, "about one mouthful in three in the diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination." That includes almost 100 crops, such as almonds, peaches, and cucumbers. In Utah, bees also pollinate the alfalfa that is used to feed livestock.

The good news is, a team of scientists has just discovered an important clue to what causes CCD. They noticed that a new virus (first seen in Israel in 2004 ) is usually present in hives that suffer CCD. They don't think the virus is causing the collapse by itself, but teams up with other stresses to bring the bees down. "This research gives us a very good lead to follow," said Jeffery S. Pettis, one of the scientists working on the problem. Let's hope they solve this mystery before it's too late!

Talk to us!
How might your life be different if there were no more bees? Click "Comment" below and let us know!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Old Flowers: New Evidence

Imagine what the earth was like 80 million years ago: the sights, the smells, the sounds.... I bet your mind didn't leap straight to orchids, did it? But scientists at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology are buzzing about new evidence that the first orchids are old enough to have lived that far in the past, right alongside dinosaurs.

To what do we owe this newfound vision of T-rexes tromping along next to showy flowers? Why, to a bee! Lucky for us (though not for the bee), sometime around 15 or 20 million years ago a bee was covered in tree resin as it went about its daily business. Over millions of years, as the tree was buried, the sap hardened into amber with the bee trapped inside. Eventually, someone found the preserved fossil in the Dominican Republic and brought it to the Harvard Museum to study.

So how did a 15 million year old bee tell us about 80 million year old orchids? As it turns out, the amber preserved not only the ancient bee, but also the pollen grains it was carrying on its back. By carefully studying the pollen grains, the scientists were able to determine not only what kind of plant they were from but also how they relate to modern species.

This find was particularly exciting to scientists, because it's the first window into orchid evolution they've discovered. "It's absolutely fantastic," an orchid specialist told Nature magazine. "It's what the orchid community has been waiting for, for a long time."

Monday, August 6, 2007

Utah Mine Collapses: Caused by a Quake?

This morning, the Deseret Morning News reported that six people may be be trapped in a coal mine near Huntington, UT. Rescuers are searching for the miners, but haven't yet been able to reach them. The miners were trapped when a section of the mine caved in.

As the search continues, scientists are trying to understand what might have caused the incident. Seismograph readings show that close to the mine, there were vibrations in the earth around the time of the cave-in. The jolt measured 3.9 on the Richter Scale.

The hard part is knowing whether there was an earthquake that caused the mine to collapse, or if the collapse itself is what caused the earth to shake.

"Normally, rocks in the Earth's crust are constantly subjected to pressures from all sides. This is called a confining pressure. However, the mining of coal leaves a low pressure zone (empty space). After mining, pressures are still being applied to the rock on all other sides, except at the wall of the tunnel. If the rock is not strong enough to withstand this stress, the wall of the mine tunnel gives way. These "bursts" are well named because there is often no warning and large rocks can be thrown horizontally or vertically, as well as drop from the ceiling during these events. In addition to these relatively small rock bursts, more catastrophic "implosional" failures can also occur on a much larger scale. Sometimes large sections of mines can collapse.

"Mine tremors", rock bursts or mine collapse events, are recorded on seismograph instruments in exactly the same manner that earthquakes are recorded."

We still don't know what caused today's incident, but the U of U Seismograph Stations say that in the Utah coal belt, about 1/4 of tremors are a result of mining, while 3/4 are natural earthquakes.


Welcome to the newest feature of the Utah Museum of Natural History! Our blog will bring you the latest in natural history and Utah news.