Archive for the ‘Image of the Week’ Category

A dead sea turtle washed ashore near Pass Christian, Mississippi. Since the devastating oil spill over a week ago, dead sea turtles have washed ashore in several U.S. states along the Gulf of Mexico. The number of corpses is much larger than normal.

Earlier this week, 25 sea turtle corpses washed up Mississippi beaches alone. Initial examination of the bodies did not reveal oil on the turtles. However, scientists caution that oil could have doomed the sea turtles in a number of other ways. For example, ingesting oil or fish contaminated with oil could damage the lungs, liver, and red blood cells. Oil exposure could also cause pneumonia or immune system distress. Tissue samples from the turtle corpses are being tested to look for evidence of some of these effects.

Some of the dead turtles include Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, an endangered species. Oil continues to leak from the well of the former Deepwater Horizon oil rig to the tune of about 5,000 barrels per day.

Image provided courtesy of the New York Times and Michael Appleton.

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This true-color image shows southwestern Australia as it appeared on 18 August 2002. A significant chunk of the coastal region is green, a sign that ample seasonal rainfall has done its job. However, to the north and east, hot and dry conditions persist, as a reminder that much of the Australian landscape is dominated by the arid and semi-arid “Outback.”

Australia is the driest inhabited continent, and it is getting drier. The patches of temperate and sub-tropical areas along the coast (including the pictured bit of southwestern Australia) are getting warmer, but receiving less rainfall. Much of southeast Australia (including most of the major urban centers) has been wracked by a decades-long drought. The Murray-Darling river system in the southeast, the only major river system on the continent, is drying up quickly, depriving the country’s limited agricultural land of much-needed irrigation. Cities like Western Australia’s Perth (with a 2009 population of 1,659,000) have seen water demand spike as reservoirs drop. Already, the country has three desalination plants operating to provide water for coastal cities, with three more under construction and at least one more planned. These desalination plants will likely increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, already the highest per capita in the world.

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In 2007, a reindeer herder and his two sons found this remarkably well-preserved baby woolly mammoth frozen solid in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (District) in northern Russia. The herder named her (for it is indeed a she) Lyuba, after his wife. The International Mammoth Committee, a consortium of scientists dedicated to the preservation and study of mammoth remains, has safeguarded and studied Lyuba ever since. Usually quartered at the Shemanovsky Yamal-Nenets Museum and Exhibition Centre in Salekhard, Russia, she is beginning a tour across the United States. Her first stop is Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

Scientists report that Lyuba lived a tragically short life. Yet, the unique circumstances of her death have permitted us to learn a great deal about her mammoth kin, who roamed the planet as recently as ten millennia ago. Some 42,000 years ago, when Lyuba was just one month old and still nursing on her mother’s milk, fell into a muddy river bank. Struggling in vain to free herself, she sank and suffocated in the muck. Her remains froze in the permafrost, slowing decay and preserving soft tissue, skin, hair, and even stomach contents.

In short, Lyuba (pronounced Lee-OO-bah) is a rare and Earth-shattering find. As far as mammoth remains go, we’re used to finding skeletons, occasionally clumps of hair or tissue, or one or two mummified remains. A whole frozen animal can (and in this case, has) revealed a lot. CAT and MRI scans of her soft tissues have shown us how her innards are arranged. Stomach contents revealed that she’d still been nursing when she died. Hair and skin samples have even given molecular biologists like me something to drool over: a rare specimen of intact mammoth DNA!

Lyuba’s tour of the United States will hopefully draw attention to the problems faced by the International Mammoth Committee. Most woolly mammoth specimens (skeletal or otherwise) that have been recovered frozen and relatively well-preserved in permafrost. However, as Siberian permafrost melts for good, no one knows how many undiscovered mammoth specimens there are that will begin to thaw and decay. The International Mammoth Committee is racing against time to unearth mammoth remains and preserve them for study. Otherwise, we’ll only have a handful of samples like Lyuba to help us understand these elephant relatives that roamed the northern latitudes with our ancestors.

If you find yourself in Chicago up through 6 September 2010, head on over to the Field Museum and see Lyuba for yourself. The exhibit will also go to Boston, Jersey City, Saint Louis, Denver, San Diego, and Anchorage.

Image of Lyuba, a one-month old female woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) preserved by Siberian permafrost, is provided courtesy of the International Mammoth Committee and Francis Latreille.

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The above image shows Barack Obama, President of the United States, addressing approximately 200 members of a White House-sponsored conference on space exploration earlier today at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. President Obama used this address to formally announce his administration’s shift in priorities for NASA and deep space exploration. The audience of members of Congress, NASA officials, scientists, and former astronauts listened as the Mr. Obama reiterated previously leaked details, which involved abandoning many plans for space flight set up under President George W. Bush’s administration.

The shift is monumental. In a decision made some six years ago, NASA decided to retire the aging space shuttle fleet at the end of this year. With only 3 space shuttle flights left this year, all to hastily complete construction of the International Space Station (ISS), the ISS will have to rely on Russian rockets to ferry astronauts (including Americans) to and from the station starting in 2011. Under the George W. Bush administration, NASA launched the space shuttle’s replacement project: Constellation. Under the Constellation program’s goals, NASA would develop the necessary rockets, vehicles, and modules to continue to serve the ISS, return to the Moon, and then send them to Mars. NASA began to design, build, and test the Ares rockets to do the heavy lifting, and design the Orion space capsule that would be the focus of the Constellation program.

However, Constellation quickly fell behind schedule and over budget, and some critics questioned how returning to the Moon would not provide the necessary innovative leap NASA would need to venture out into deep space. Some independent commissions recommended scrapping Constellation altogether, while others called for focusing more on low Earth orbit missions and support missions to the ISS. Others bemoaned a future in space exploration where NASA abandons its efforts in manned space flights, and took a back seat to Russian, European, Japanese, and Chinese manned missions. Many also wondered anxiously what role private firms could play in the exploration of space. Thus, the details of President Obama’s plans for the Constellation program have been met with cheers and jeers alike. Here are the details, largely taken from today’s address:

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Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 6:21AM local time on Monday, 5 April 2010. This was only the 35th night launch of a space shuttle into orbit, and likely the last. Now in orbit, Discovery is on its way to the International Space Station. The shuttle will deliver food, supplies, and new scientific research tools and equipment to the station. Some of those tools include a new freezer for storing biological samples and an exercise platform that the space station crew can use to study muscle strength in a zero gravity environment. The shuttle crew will conduct at least three spacewalks to replace an external ammonia tank on the station. Ammonia is used to remove excess heat from inside the station and transfer it to radiators on the station’s exterior.

With just over one full day in space, the crew of 7 spent their day using Discovery‘s robotic arm to inspect the heat tiles on the orbiter’s ventral surface for possible damage. The array of tiles protects the orbiter and crew from the intense heat and pressure of atmospheric re-entry. This precautionary check of has been done on every shuttle mission after it was discovered that heat tile damage was responsible for the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia during re-entry in 2003, killing all 7 astronauts on board. Discovery‘s crew recorded footage of the shuttle’s ventral surface, and will transmit the footage to mission control in Houston from the International Space Station. Discovery‘s own Ku-Band antenna, used for transmitting large data files (like these videos) is malfunctioning. But, the shuttle has numerous back-up communication systems, and the crew’s mission should be unaffected by this minor mission glitch.

This 131st space shuttle mission is only the third to include 3 women among the crew, including Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). There are only 3 remaining shuttle missions (one each for the 3 remaining orbiters), before the fleet is retired at the end of this year. You can read more about the space shuttle program here.

Image courtesy of NASA.

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The above image is the Korean Peninsula at night, via satellite. If the Korean coastline isn’t very familiar to you, there’s a daytime image after the jump.

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A male threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) guards his young (those tadpole-like shapes behind him) among the weeds. When it comes to parental responsibility, male threespine sticklebacks do nearly all the work. They build and nest and defend a territory, court females, guard the fertilized eggs from predators, and try to keep their young in the nest once they hatch. Unfortunately, young threespine sticklebacks just can’t wait to leave home. After a few days, they scatter, leaving dad to rebuild the nest and find a new female to court.

This intense streak of paternal behavior isn’t unique to sticklebacks. Among many of their relatives (tubesnouts, pipefish, and seahorses, to name a few), males take on the majority (or entirety) of parental care. Seahorse males make even stickleback males look neglectful — seahorse males carry the fertilized eggs, giving “birth” to their young once the eggs hatch!

Image courtesy of N. Bedford.

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