CAT | The Natural World
The movie Jurassic Park gave us all a thrilling look into the world of dinosaurs, some of the largest creatures to walk the Earth. The ingenious storyline brings them back to life with a little help from a miniature supporting actor whom every one of us has already met, the ordinary mosquito.
Since its appearance on the planet 100 million years ago, the mosquito has diversified into 3,000 very different species. There are about 170 different kinds of mosquitoes in North America alone, most of which (or so it may seem) can be found right outside your tent at summer camp.
On a more serious note, these very unwelcome pests and their irritating bites are not to be taken lightly. They carry a parasite known as Plasmodium, which causes malaria in millions and millions of humans. According to the World Health Organization, there were about 219 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2010 and an estimated 660,000 deaths, more than 90% of which occurred in Africa.
Here in the States, the Centers for Disease Control reports that mosquitoes cause 1,500 new cases of Malaria each year, along with several types of encephalitis and West Nile virus. Malaria symptoms tend to make their appearance 9-12 days after a person has been infected. First signs include fever, headache, chills and vomiting, symptoms very similar to the common Flu virus. This can make early detection a challenge.
Malaria can, however, be easily identified with a compound microscope like the Omano OM36 or OM88. The gold standard for malaria identification rests in the laboratory, where testing of a patient’s blood smear can yield timely and life-saving diagnostic information. The technique involves 1000X examination of a thick or thin blood smear which has been stained with a Romanovsky stain such as Giemsa. Infected red blood cells will show the telltale presence of darkly-spotted Plasmodium parasites.
Fortunately there are a number of steps we can take to avoid the risk of mosquito-borne diseases and some of the more effective methods involve working directly with Mother Nature herself. First, try to eliminate areas where mosquitoes lay their eggs, like puddles, old tires, children’s play pools, rain gutters and mud puddles. Refresh your bird baths, wading pools and pet drinking dishes at least once a week. For those backyard lily ponds or water gardens, consider using a naturally occurring bacterium like BT (bacillus thuringiensis). Found in most garden centers, BT is nontoxic to people and fish, yet kills mosquito larvae on contact.
As for protecting yourself, it helps to keep in mind that 100 million years of evolution have turned the mosquito into an excellent blood-hunter. They instinctively home in on areas of the body where your skin is thin and blood vessels are close to the surface. Which means your uncovered, untreated ears, neck, ankles, arms and wrists act like ringing dinner bells.
You can swiftly silence those bells by covering up in loose-fitting light-colored clothing or applying herb-based treatments. Lemon eucalyptus, for example, is rated by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the best choices for protection against West Nile virus. Just remember, even though the mosquito may have out-lived the dinosaurs, with a bit of planning you can minimize their intrusion in your outdoor activities this summer.
Any day now, an invasion will begin. Unsuspecting people up and down the Eastern seaboard from New England to North Carolina will run for cover. Weddings will be interrupted. The news channels will work themselves into a frenzy – and your lawns, trees and gardens will buzz with bulging, red-eyed invaders. Martians? No. Simply, the hatching of billions of Magicicadas.
For the past 17 years, billions of the inch-long bugs, which entomologists ominously refer to as “Brood II”, have been lying dormant underfoot. Quietly munching away on tree roots and vegetation 2-3 feet below us, they have awaited Mother Nature’s call to complete their 17 year life cycle.
That call happens when the soil temperature in their underground home climbs above 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the course of the next few weeks, billions of them will emerge and swarm with the primeval goal of mating before they die. Despite their ghoulish looks, they actually are quite harmless to humans and animals. For the most part, they hang out in trees and shrubs for a few weeks and then die, at which time their offspring venture underground to begin another 17-year cycle.
Even though this year’s brood is forecast to number in the billions, most of us won’t even see them. We most definitely will hear them. The male Cicada makes music by pushing air through vibrating organs in their abdomen, and quite effectively at that. As they sing their mating cry, a tree filled with males can fill the evening with sound volume approaching 90 decibels!
Apart from their rare appearance and song, what exactly are Cicadas good for besides water-cooler commentary? Well for starters, they’re edible! They are eaten by a wide variety of animals…….including humans. While not quite rising to the popularity of chocolate-covered crickets, they still hold their own at the adventurous dinner table. In fact their hearty flavor, which some intrepid souls describe as asparagus-like, can be found in a surprising variety of dishes like cheese, quiche, casseroles and
even dessert, for those ardent aficionados. Apparently, they are best eaten immediately after hatching which typically, occurs at night. Luckily, they are quite torpid after hatching so they can easily be scraped off the tree branches.
Abundant food, totally organic, nutritious, free and hilarious……..it didn’t take long for us here at Microscope.com to decide to hold a contest for the best Cicada recipe.
So dust off your family’s favorite Cicada recipe and send it in. We’d love to hear about it and you could have a chance to win a new microscope. One more reason to enjoy this “Season of the Cicada”…or should that be Cicada Seasoning? Bon Appetite!
Just send us an email, with recipe attached, to [email protected], anytime between now and the June 15, for your chance to win a new Omano OM115 compound microscope. The winner will be announced in a followup blog post.
Following my recent blog article on deer ticks @scientificamerican, a reader commented that there was no mention of the miracle of the Western Fence Swift , more commonly known as the Bluebellied Lizard. Being a Brit and having lived on the East Coast for the past 20 years, I had never heard of it before, but it is an amazing story.
Lyme disease, characterized by fever, headache, fatigue and a bullseye rash, is spread through the bite of ticks infected with the bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. However in the western US, the Western Fence Swift actually cleanses the tick of the bacteria. Apparently, the swift has a protein that kills Borrelia burgdorferi as it feeds on the swift’s blood.
Since 90% of nymph ticks feed on the lizard, it has always been assumed that the presence of the fence swift has accounted for the lower incidence of Lyme Disease in the western states. Unfortunately, over the past few years the numbers of western fence swift have been declining. As a result, the concern has been that there would be a corresponding increase in Lyme disease infections. However, a 2011 UC Berkeley study found that 95% of nymph ticks failed to find another host and presumably died. Such is the complexity of Nature and disease.
An amazing image of an ant lifting 100 times its body weight has won first prize in a science photography contest.
Who would have thought that hammerhead sharks have so much in common with a binocular microscope? Remarkable new research by Dr Michelle McComb, Florida Atlantic University demonstrates that contrary to previous thinking, hammerhead sharks have terrific binocular vision. They can also see through the entire vertical plane – up and down! As if that isn’t enough, with a marginal turn of their head, they can see backwards too. Now there’s an idea for a microscope! See the full article at http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8376000/8376740.stm