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!

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