Saturday, March 30, 2013

Is There a Hidden Treasure Trove at Machu Picchu?

Since its discovery by the legendary Hiram Bingham more than 100 years ago, the mountaintop city called Machu Picchu has yielded invaluable insights into the lives of its Inca builders. Now one researcher believes there is a great treasure trove of gold and silver hidden behind an intentionally blocked entranceway.

Machu Picchu somehow escaped discovery by marauding Spanish conquistadors. Following its discovery by Bingham in 1911, archaeologists and historians have swarmed over the site. Among their major finds are a rich burial site, an equally rich tomb thought to be that of a high-ranking official, and a cache of gold and silver objects believed to be an offering to the Inca gods. And the search is far from over.

French-born archaeologist Thierry Jamin believes he has located a rich tomb hidden behind a blocked entranceway.  He claims that an electromagnetic survey completed in 2012 yielded evidence of several chambers and a staircase. He also believes, based on a survey using “molecular frequency discrimination,” that there is an extensive deposit of gold and silver in the “tomb.”

Thierry has some impressive credentials. He spent fifteen years in the Peruvian jungle and discovered nearly thirty archaeological sites. But so far he has been denied permission to excavate his discovery. David Ugarte, the man in charge of the site, believes that Jamin is a treasure hunter more interested in fame than in unlocking Machu Picchu’s secrets. Ugarte and other scientists also believe that excavations at Thierry’s site might affect the stability of the city itself.

Is Thierry right about the treasure vault? No one will no anytime soon. One thing is certain, however. There are still many secrets to be discovered at Machu Picchu. In the meantime, more than a million people visit this unique and beautiful city every year. It is possible that some of them may be literally walking over some of those secrets.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Are Monarch Butterflies Becoming Extinct?

The monarch butterfly population has been decreasing for three straight years. In fact, their numbers have declined significantly for six of the last seven years. But when they arrived at their Mexican winter refuge this year, their numbers had declined by a whopping 59%. Entomologists studying the monarch butterfly say that there are now only one-fifteenth as many monarchs today as there were in 1997. Are these beautiful creatures facing extinction? And if so, why?

Only a few years ago, black-and-gold Monarchs were common throughout the United States and Canada brightening gardens and entertaining children and adults. For many, Monarchs were seen as symbols of summer. Now they are a rare sight. Entomologists say that the Monarch population is at its lowest since records began to be kept 25 years ago.

The World Wildlfe Fund, which funds the annual Monarch census, says a major reason for the drop in population is probably the use of herbicides. Monarchs feed on milkweed, which is destroyed as a pest throughout Mexico, the United States and Canada. Other factors may include logging operations and the diversion of rivers and streams.

In February 2013, butterfly colonies wintering in the Mexican state of Michoacan were devastated by torrential rains and mudslides. Experts estimate that the area containing the trees butterfly colonies use as their winter quarters has dwindled from an estimated 22 acres (7.44 hectares) down to 2.9 acres (1.92 hectares). It is believed that as many as 50 million butterflies can inhabit a single hectare.

An organization called Monarch Watch is launching a campaign to encourage the planting or preservation of milkweed to help save the butterflies. They hope to bring about changes in roadside management, gardening and farming practices.

Other reasons cited by the experts include ecotourism, especially in their Mexican winter habitat, and illegal logging in an area especially set aside for the butterflies. A special reserve, called the Monarch Butterfly Special Biosphere Reserve was set up to protect the Monarchs in 1986. Logging is banned in the reserve, but trees are still being felled there without regard for the butterflies living in them. Researchers are also trying to discover whether this radical die-off may be part of the butterfles’ natural cycle.

No one can say whether the Monarchs can recover. One thing is certain, though. The world will be a poorer place if these beautiful little creatures go extinct.

For more information about this eco-crisis and how you can help, go here

Friday, March 15, 2013

Evolution in Reverse

Those pesky little dust mites might upset a long-accepted rule in genetics according to researchers at the University of Michigan. And it turns out that this might be a good thing if you suffer from allergies.

Researchers determined that dust mites actually reversed their evolutionary path. Beginning millions of years ago as specialized parasites, they lived inside warm-blooded invertebrates but caused harm to their host. Then they evolved into free-living mites who lived their lives in nests. Later, when people began making sofas, mattresses and pillows, carpets, and other soft, ready-made hiding places, the dust mites devolved once again to take advantage of the new environment.

One of the foundations of the study of evolutionary biology is the idea that evolution only proceeds forward and cannot be reversed. This supposition, called Dollo’s law, has now been challenged by the dust mites. Now that one example of devolution has been discovered, how many more can we expect to find?

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Man Who Was Buried in Three Places at the Same Time

The distinguished author-poet Thomas Hardy passed away on January 11, 1928. One of the most respected authors in Britain at the time of his death, his works included 18 novels, including “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure” along with more than a thousand poems. But a problem arose when his friends and relatives began planning his funeral.

Hardy’s literary status was such that it was assumed that he should be buried at the legendary Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey. But in his will, Hardy had directed that he be buried near the grave of his late first wife at St. Michael’s Church in Stinsford, a few miles from his home in Dorchester.

Hardy had married Emma Lavinia Gifford in 1870, but the marriage was tumultuous and the couple were barely speaking when Emma died suddenly in 1912. Despite the fact that his relationship with his wife was so badly strained, Hardy poured out his grief and love in a massive body of lyrical poetry that easily surpassed any work he had done previously.

Despite his obvious grief over the loss of Emma, Hardy married his secretary, Florence Dugdale, just over a year later. Florence was 40 years younger than her employer and continued to manage his affairs until his death.

Hardy’s literary status was such that it was assumed that he should be buried at the legendary Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey. But in his will, Hardy had directed that he be buried near the grave of his late first wife, his parents and grandparents at St. Michael’s Church in Stinsford, a few miles from his home in Dorchester.

The argument over Hardy’s burial place was finally settled by a strange compromise. His heart was removed and placed in a casket. The rest of Hardy’s body was cremated and the ashes were placed in another coffin. At 2:00 p.m., the ashes, along with a spadeful of dirt from Dorset were interred at Poets Corner. At the same time, Thomas Hardy’s heart was buried at St. Michael’s Church in Stinsford.

Not to be outdone, the people of Dorcester held a memorial service at the same time for the great poet who had lived among them for so many years, even though they had no remains to bury in their churchyard.

Thomas Hardy’s status as one of the greatest novelists and poets England had ever produced has never been challenged. The unique set of funerals for this beloved man bears testament to an enduring regard for both the man and his literature. His graves are still visited by people wishing to pay their respects for the man and his immortal work.

There’s a great website detailing Thomas Hardy’s life and works at

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Shouldn’t He Be Hungry by Now?

He hasn’t eaten since January 2, 2009, but he seems to be none the worse for the experience, although he seems a little lethargic. But for No. 1 and his fellow giant isopods, that’s pretty normal.

He is a giant isopod called No. 1 and lives at Japan’s Toba Aquarium. He and his kind are sometimes known as “scavengers of the deep” because they feed only on dead fish, whales, squids and other marine animals. Hie caretakers have tried to entice him to eat by offering him all sorts of tidbits, including squid tentacles. He has ignored all their efforts so far.

No. 1 is a member of the genus Bathynomus. The largest member of the genus, It is closely related to shrimp and crabs, and a land-based insect known as a pill bug. Some people in fact refer to No. 1 and his relatives as giant pill bugs. The resemblance between the marine giants and the garden-variety of pill bugs is obvious.

The giant isopod can grow to a length of over 16 inches, with a hard, segmented shell that allows the animal to roll itself into a protective ball when threatened. It has very complex compound eyes, typical of many insects and large antennae to help it navigate the sea floor.

Giant isopods are known to be able to survive long periods without eating, although generally captive specimens usually have to eat at least every eight weeks. This makes No. 1 a record- holder for his current fast.

These creatures are usually solitary animals and reproduce by laying eggs. The females carry the eggs in a pouch until the young crustaceans are ready to emerge as small, but nearly fully formed adults. They can be found in most of the world’s oceans. They seem to prefer deep water and are usually found in waters ranging in depth from 550 feet (170 m) to more than 7,000 feet (2,140 m).

If you’re interested in seeing photos of this sea-going pill bug, visit here: