Category Archives: Nature

Your Microbiome

Microorganisms from a Human Mourh
Microorganisms from a Human Mouth, Magnified About a Zillion Times
How many cells make up your body? It’s actually not all that easy to answer that simple question. But recently, scientists have made a pretty good effort. And their final count is…37.2 trillion.
October 24, 2013


You know that your body is made up of cells. Right? But 37 trillion of them! Who could have guessed? And now that we know, what does it really mean? How many is 37 trillion, anyway? And how did they come up with this number in the first place?

Estimate based on volume, and you get only 15 trillion cells; by weight, you get 70 trillion cells. Unfortunately, nobody has actually counted them all yet. (I wonder why?)

They divided the body into parts and estimated the number of cells in each part, from intestines to knees. This works better because cells are packed more densely in some organs than others.

The smallest cell in the human body is the sperm; the largest, the egg. The ostrich lays the largest egg of any living bird, weighing up to 3.3 lb and measuring up to 7.0 in × 5.5 in; but the largest cell on the planet is probably the egg of the whale shark, measuring up to 11.8 in × 5.5 in × 3.5 in. That’s one big cell!

But I haven’t even mentioned your microbiome yet. That consists of all the single-celled bacteria, archaea, fungi, and protists that live and make their living on and in your body. The generally accepted figure is that there are ten times more microbes living on and in you than there are of your own human cells in your own human body.

Blood Cells
Blood Cells

This is possible because a human cell can easily have 1,000 times the volume of a bacterial cell, for example. Again, nobody ever sat down one afternoon and counted them. It’s an estimate.

So that’s 372 trillion critters crawling, swimming, and otherwise making their ways around your body, or just sitting still. Many of them are essrntial to your own health. A few are harmful and any number of them may be neutral, neither harming or hurting you. There are so many and they are so tiny and hard to study that it’ll be a long, long time before all that gets sorted out.

So how many is 372 trillion? It’s 372,000,000,000,000. If they were minutes into the past, no animal or plant life had evolved on earth yet. Your ancestors and mine were teensy, tiny, single-celled creatures not terribly different from an amoeba.

If these 372 trillion microbes were inches, they’d reach more than half-way across the galaxy. Any way you look at it, that;s a lot of bugs! All on you.

Wash your hands before you eat.



Kakapo Joy

No wonder the kakapo is the most endangered parrot in the world!

The kakapo here trying to copulate with a man’s head is Sirocco. His species of large, flightless, nocturnal, ground-dwelling parrots endemic to New Zealand is critically endangered because of humans, but not for the reason you may be thinking.

After New Zealand broke off from the supercontinent  Gondwana, around 82 million years ago, any major predators on it became extinct. Among other creatures that survived were a population of parrots, which eventually evolved into several species, including the kakapo.

There were several species of hawk and an owl that occasionally preyed on the kakapo. but nothing on the ground. Even the avian predators are extinct now, except for two species of hawk. The giant Haast’s eagle died out when humans hunted its main prey, the giant moa, another flightless bird which could reach up to twelve feet tall, to extinction.

The bird was of high value to the Maori, who arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages beginning about 1250 a.d., bringing with them the rats and other vermin that accompany humans everywhere. They hunted the birds for meat and for their beautiful feathers and sometimes kept them as pets.

Sirocco the Kakapo

Then European settlers came in the seventeenth century, bringing dogs, cats, foxes, ferrets and other beasts that go feral and devour the native fauna and flora. The flightless, ground-nesting birds didn’t have a chance!

The Europeans also hunted them for meat and kept
them as pets. One settler wrote that his kakapo’s behavior toward him and his friends was “more like that of a dog than a bird”.

New Zealand has no native non=marine mammals except bats, for the obvious reason that bats flew there and other mammals couldn’t. Why did they? I dunno. Maybe they got lost. Maybe a storm blew them off course from wherever they intended to go.

Birds often lose the power of flight and grow larger on islands with no predators to escape from, and this is what happened to the kakapo. It’s the largest parrot on earth and accumulates masses of body fat, but it didn’t need to fly until humans came with their vermin. Since there were no predators, it also nested on the ground. Big mistake!

After the Polynesian and European colonizations, the kakapo was almost wiped out. Now, all surviving kakapos are kept on three predator-free islands, where they are closely monitored. Two large islands have been the subject of large-scale ecological restoration to create self-sustaining ecosystems with suitable habitats for the kakapo. As of April 2018, there were 149 known adult kakapos.


The Great Tree of Life

From VisuallyThe Great Tree of Life.

The “Tree of Life,” which shows relationships among all forms of life to the extent we know them, is no longer a tree. It has taken the form of an arc with many thick branches. On seeing it depicted this way, one is inclined to remember Charles Darwin’s words:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us (the laws of nature).

On the Origin of Species (First Edition), by Charles Darwin

Here’s Harvey.

Golden retriever mix Otis in survival mode, carrying a bag of dog food in Corpus Christi after Hurricane Harvey
Golden retriever mix Otis in survival mode, carrying a bag of dog food in Corpus Christi after Hurricane Harvey

Otis, a golden retriever mix, was apparently in survival mode yesterday morning in Corpus Christi, after hurricane Harvey tore through the city, when he was seen carrying a large bag of dog food down the street.

“Must be a Texas dog, cause he can survive without help,” one commenter wrote. I’m not sure who the commenter was, but he must not have been a Texan. Even in Texas, the home of the Lone Ranger, this is not the lesson to be learned. Texans do what we can for ourselves, as Otis is doing; but we also help each other, as plenty of other Texans are doing.

The La Quinta Inn in Victoria, for example, sheltered about 70 people plus a collection of dogs, cats, and at least one rabbit Saturday afternoon, after the storm hit the city with winds of over 100 mph. That’s what Texans really do. Even the Lone Ranger had to depend on Tonto sometimes.

It’s not over yet by any means. “It’s going to last four to five days,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who urged drivers to stay off the road. “This is Day One.” That was yesterday.

Take care of yourself, and remember to help somebody. And don’t forget the animals.



Tomorow’s solar eclipse

“It was truly a life-changing experience! Just mind bogglingly beautiful and awe inspiring!”

That’s how science journalist David Barron describes it. He’s talking, of course, about the solar eclipse he watched in Aruba in 1998.

The last total solar eclipse seen in the contiguous United States was on February 26, 1979; but it was visible only across the northwestern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota. The one coming up tomorrow will angle across the whole country from northwest to southeast and coast to coast.

If you’re lucky enough to be in its path, it’ll reach totality between 10:30 am and 3:30 pm, depending on your location. Use this Solar Eclipse Map to see exactly when to expect it.

Total solar eclipses occur roughly once or twice a year somewhere on Earth, always at the time of a new moon. But it’s a big planet, and 70% of it is covered by water. The Arctic and Antarctic take up a lot ofthe rest of it. So  getting a total solar eclipse visible over a large populated area is less common, and one specifically over the United States is actually fairly rare.

Total solar eclipses are said to be one of the most magnficent sights in all of nature. The moon overtakes and slowly covers the Sun, taking nearly 90 minutes to do so. In the last seconds before the Sun is totally covered, the sky grows dark, the air cools, and birds stop singing. Then totality lasts just a few seconds or minutes. But everybody who sees one agrees it was worth the wait.

State capitals in the path of the total solar eclipse: Salem, OR; Lincoln, NE; Jefferson City, MO; Nashville, TN; and Columbia, SC. The optimal local viewing time is given for each. The rust-colored path marks the area where a total eclipse will appear, also called the path of totality. Map developed by CICS-NC in cooperation with NOAA NCEI, Deborah Riddle
State capitals in the path of the total solar eclipse: Salem, OR; Lincoln, NE; Jefferson City, MO; Nashville, TN; and Columbia, SC. The optimal local viewing time is given for each. The rust-colored path marks the area where a total eclipse will appear, also called the path of totality. Map developed by CICS-NC in cooperation with NOAA NCEI, Deborah Riddle

While the strip of totality is only about 70 miles wide and each location will see it for just a few seconds or a couple of minutes, the partial eclipse—when the moon covers just part of the sun—will be visible all over North and Central America plus the northern half of South America. It’ll cover a lot of ocean, and you’ll even be able to see it from Hawaii, if you happen to be there. Unfortunately for the rest of you, this is primarily an American eclipse!

Moments before totality in the 2012 Australian eclipse, just a small part of the Sun is still visible, creating a “diamond ring” effect
Moments before totality in the 2012 Australian eclipse, just a small part of the Sun is still visible, creating a “diamond ring” effect.

The moon’s shadow will race eastward across the nation at the speed of the moon’s orbit around the planet minus earth’s speed of rotation. Roughly 600 mph (combined). This particular eclipse starts in the morning on the west coast, and ends in the afternoon on the east coast. Those lucky enough to actually find themselves in the narrow path of totality–or who have made preparations in advance to be there–will see something similar to the picture above, plus or minus the clouds. It’ll be visible for just a very short time in each location.

And notice, this is a color picture; in the middle of the day, even though it looks like midnight. What you’ll actually see will vary depending on weather conditions, both here and on the sun! If you really fortunate, you may see the sun’s corona writhing for several sun diameters out around the sun itself. And all in glorious color, as you’ll see in some of the videos!

On the center line of totality, you’ll get two or three minutes of it; but along the edge, just 35 miles on either side of the middle line, you’ll only see a few seconds of totality. Outside of the narrow strip, you’ll see just a partial eclipse. No totality. But “just a partial eclipse” is still a thing of wonder!

From North Texas we’ll watch the moon crawl across the top of the sun, covering most of it eventually, and then passing on across. It’ll start at 10:02 am and end at 4:14 pm CDT, with peak at 1:07 pm CDT. I’ll be out there, rolling around in my power chair, enjoying it all.

Use eclipse glasses–available everywhere, cheap, If you’re not too late–or a pinhole camera to see the “bite” out of the sun, and watch how it changes over time. Or stand under a tree and watch the pinholes of light filtering through the leaves, each one showing a picture of the sun with a chunk cut out of it. It’s awesome!

NEVER look directly at the unshielded sun, even during partial eclipse, without proper eye protection! Doing so can easily cause permanent damage to your eyes, up to and including blindness. Sunglasses aren’t enough. Only when you are in the path of totality, and during totality, when the sun’s disk is completely covered right after the Diamond Ring fades, can you safely take off eye protection and look directly at the corona, Baily’s Beads, and other phenomena during the eclipse.

As magnificent as a solar eclipse is, it is purely a natural phenomenon that occurs at predictable times and places dictated by the orbits of the moon around the earth and the earth around the sun. It is not a “magnificent harold of end time events,” as one wannabe prophet proclaims, “Signs in the sky” of the end times, as a few Christians think, or even a “time of darkness and evil,” as some Muslims say.

It is indeed a glorious wonder in the sky, but it is not a sign of evil or things to come. A solar eclipse is just something that happens when the earth, the moon, and the sun all come into their proper positions with respect to each other. It’s something to enjoy, if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place. There is absolutely nothing about it to fear. And that’s the truth.

Watch the videos to learn more. They’re fantastic! And check out NASA’s National and State Maps to learn what you can see from your location and when you can see it.

Or watch it live here on NASA TV (Below), between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm CST, if the channel works. (But it appears to be overloaded already by 9:35 am CST Monday morning. Bill)