Botanical prints of threatened flora

For those of us who find beauty in plant forms, the botanical illustrations available online are an always-blooming visual pleasure. Here are two that came my way via a mention in today’s Botany Photo of the Day.

First, a gallery of members’ works on the site of the The American Society of Botanical Artists, well worth a visit. There are only a couple of examples for each artist, but you can follow links to websites for many of those represented.

Detail, Mountain lilac or Greenbark ceanothus (Ceanothus spinosus), watercolor © Chris Chapman. Source [this is a frames page, click on artist’s name in list at side].

Also, the ASBA has made available online nearly all of a touring exhibition called Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World.The exhibit is at The New York Botanical Garden through July 25 2010, and at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in DC, August 14th through December 10th.

This ASBA blog has about thirty of the 44 artworks featured in the exhibition (another is added every few days), and each is accompanied by the text from the exhibit catalog: a description of the plant and its situation, and commentary from the artist. (Elsewhere, the ASBA also plans to post all 125 pieces that were submitted for the exhibit, with shorter text; only about a dozen are up now.)

Here are a few samples from the blog. The images on the page are thumbnails, be sure to look at the much larger versions.


Detail of Painted trillium (Trillium undulatum), mixed media, © Anne Marie Carney, US.


Detail of Royal catchfly (Silene regia), watercolor © Heeyoung Kim, US.

A perennial wildflower of the US Midwest; its bright red flowers are pollinated by butterflies and hummingbirds.


Detail, Marsh gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe), watercolor © Gillian Barlow, UK.

Marsh gentian is being studied all over northern Europe, mainly because of its fascinating relationship with the rare Alcon blue butterfly (Phengaris alcon). Adult Alcon blues lay their eggs on the outside of marsh gentian flowers, and when the larvae hatch, they emerge inside, where they begin to feed on the flower. After molting 3 times, these caterpillars chew through to the outside of the flower, then lower themselves to the ground on a “silken thread”. The caterpillar awaits the arrival of a Myrmica ant, which adopts it and carries it back to the ant’s nest. There it is fed by the ant colony through the fall and winter, growing quite large. In spring it forms a chrysalis, then emerges and exits the colony as quickly as it can to avoid being killed by the ants.

Actually, it’s even odder than that…

The larvae emit surface chemicals (allomones) that closely match those of ant larvae, causing the ants to carry the Alcon larvae into their nests and place them in their brood chambers, where they are fed by worker ants and where they devour ant larvae.

When the Alcon larva is fully developed it pupates. Once the adult hatches it must run the gauntlet of escaping. The ants recognise the butterfly to be an intruder, but when they go to attack it with their jaws they can’t grab anything substantial as the newly emerged adult butterfly is thickly clothed in loosely attached scales.

Over time, some ant colonies that are parasitized in this manner will slightly change their larva chemicals as a defense, leading to an evolutionary “arms race” between the two species.

The Phengaris alcon larvae are sought underground by the Ichneumon eumerus wasp. On detecting a P. alcon larva the wasp enters the nest and sprays a pheromone that causes the ants to attack each other. In the resulting confusion the wasp locates the butterfly larva and injects it with its eggs. On pupation, the wasp eggs hatch and consume the chrysalis from the inside. [Wikipedia]


Alcon blue butterfly (Phengaris alcon). Source.

Since the butterfly lays its eggs right on the flower, it may be serving the gentian as a pollinator, if it visits more than one plant.

Below, the Santa Cruz Cypress.


The endangered Santa Cruz Cypress, Cupressus abramsiana, is found only in the coastal Santa Cruz Mountains of central California, where it grows in gravelly, sandy soils above the fog belt, with chaparral and other evergreen species. This tree, once abundant, succumbed over the years to vineyard and home development, and road building. Only five populations totaling a few thousand individuals remain, all within a 15-mile stretch of the coast. It was Federally listed in 1987. It is still threatened by competition with non-native plants such as pampas grass and French broom, insect infestation and hybridization with other cypress species.

Visit the ASBA blogspot to see the rest of 30 or so. The catalog of the exhibit, from which these texts are excerpted, is on sale for $29.95 + s & h.

Reading and the brain, and “brain scans”

There’s a new book out about what happens in our brains when we read, which may appeal to people interested in accessible accounts of neuroscience, as well as to those of us who are watching the shift from paper to electronic reading.

Reading in the brain : the science and evolution of a human invention
Stanislas Dehaene. (New York : Viking, 2009)
ISBN: 9780670021109 – Description: xi, 388 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm.


I put a reserve on it at the library and am waiting for it to arrive. In the meantime, I found that the author has put all the color figures online along with short chapter summaries. The imbalance on the webpage between text, and the diagrams and brain maps, makes the book look more forbiddingly technical than it is, I hope. Unfortunately the book on Amazon doesn’t have the LookInside feature, so we can’t look at more of the text. Reviews have been mostly positive (links to several, on author’s page; Barnes and Noble review) though one was critical of the book’s accessibility for us “interested lay readers”:

Unfortunately, he needs to lay a lot of groundwork. This makes the first 100 pages of the book an excruciating slog. While it picks up after the first two chapters, the book still sometimes slips back into detailed explanations of neurophysiology. Dehaene is first and foremost an academic, and he seems to want to make his work defensible to his peers even as he tries to explain it to laymen. This is especially problematic in his diagrams. Rather than helping to clarify points, his visual presentations are almost always overly technical, presenting formulas and pictures of the brain that are difficult to decipher. Part of the problem is that images are all black-and-white. While he offers up full color versions on the book’s website, that’s only useful to readers who are also regularly consulting their computers. …The result is a work that requires focus to read, but rewards the effort.

It is disappointing that, according to this reviewer, the images in the book are not in color like those on the web. This reminds me of a book I looked at recently on the various branches of our early human-ish ancestors, in which maps to locate the various hominid species were poorly done or not there at all. Publishers try to cut corners and end up crippling the book. But I hope that won’t be the case here, and even if parts of it are over my head I look forward to the exploration.

I’m expecting a stimulating mix of actual established neuroscience, conclusions based on new research still open to interpretation, and informed speculation. After discussing how, he believes, reading (including our writing systems) developed in response to our neurological structures—“over time, scribes developed increasingly efficient notations that fitted the organization of our brains”, Dehaene applies the same theory to other areas of human culture: “Mathematics, art, and religion may also be construed as constrained devices, adjusted to our primate brains by millennia of cultural evolution.”

Cautions about fMRI (brain scan) studies: What a fish can tell us

I don’t know how much of Reading in the Brain relies on fMRI data, but many of the popularized “this-is-how-your-brain-works” revelations do rely heavily on brain scans, including fMRI, and we’re seeing some push-back from other scientists. A study at Dartmouth (reported by Wired, and Science News) found that a salmon’s brain had “a beautiful, red-hot area of activity that lit up during emotional scenes [photos put before the salmon’s eyes]”. Wow! Unfortunately for all but the spiritualists among us, the fish in question was dead. Apparently the neural activity that showed up was random, and more rigorous statistical analysis of the data revealed this. While many popularizers, especially in the general media, give the impression that brain scan interpretation is cut and dried, the truth is quite the opposite.

Less dramatic studies have also called attention to flawed statistical methods in fMRI studies. Some such methods, in fact, practically guarantee that researchers will seem to find exactly what they’re looking for in the tangle of fMRI data. Other new research raises questions about one of the most basic assumptions of fMRI — that blood flow is a sign of increased neural activity. At least in some situations, the link between blood flow and nerve action appears to be absent. Still other papers point out insufficient attention to insidious pitfalls in interpreting the complex enigmatic relationship between an active brain region and an emotion or task. (Science News)

Michael Shermer, founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American, gives an excellent presentation of how fMRI works and why “bright spots” in the brain don’t necessarily tell us much of anything. His article (pdf) , “Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us”, is as technical as it needs to be but won’t give you a headache. A more technical but still readable article by Edward Vul et al., “Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition” examines one major source of errors in brain scan analyses. [There’s a short summary here at, if you want to skip the technical details, and an interview with Edward Vul at]

So while the area known as “social cognitive neuroscience” is fascinating, and we all love quick and easy explanations, remember that much of what you read in this area is, like the lottery, best used “for entertainment purposes only”.


Views of a lion skull

Recently I had the opportunity to photograph a lion’s skull. Since there seem to be few detailed photos of this subject online, I’m posting several here.


The ruler at the bottom is 3.5 inches (89mm) long. I don’t know the age or sex of this animal, only that it was an African lion. The ragged hole on top of the skull is a bullet hole; more about that later.

The large openings flanking the nasal cavity, and beneath the huge eye-sockets, puzzled me. Turns out they are the passageways into the eye area for the infraorbital nerve, artery, and vein (technically, each of these two openings is termed the “infraorbital foramen”). The infraorbital foramen is indicated by the arrow in the anatomical illustration below, from the University of Wisconsin’s digital collection of Veterinary Anatomical lllustrations.

In searching out what these openings were, I came across the information that Asiatic lions often have divided infraorbital foramina, with a bony bridge across the opening. Most African lions have the single open foramen seen in the skull I photographed. It is believed that the modern lion originated in Africa, and some researchers think that a severe population bottleneck at some point in the recent past of Asiatic lions may have allowed this variation to become common.


[]Thanks to Bibliodyssey for the post on these great illustrations.


The longitudinal grooves or clefts in the upper canines seem odd, though I found similar ones on another skull pictured online. Most of the lion skull images online were casts, replicas, and lack these grooves.


On the side of the lower mandible, insertion openings for nerves or blood vessels are clearly visible.


Turbinate bones and the air we breathe

Few skulls or replicas online show something I was especially interested in, the delicate turbinate bones within the nasal cavity. These are thin bony structures, with a rich blood supply, found in all modern warm-blooded animals. Here they show a complex scrolled shape that is marvelous to see.


The turbinates are also seen in the first photo; the close-up above is taken from a lower vantage point, looking farther into the nasal cavity.

What is the function of these unusual structures? The tissue covering the turbinate bones warms, cleans, and humidifies air as it is inhaled; the air exhaled from the lungs, which has picked up even more heat and moisture there, is cooled to reclaim moisture and prevent dehydration. The turbinate system also benefits the sense of smell. Humidifying the incoming air is necessary to “preserve the delicate olfactory epithelium needed to keep the olfactory receptors healthy and alert” (Wikipedia); the turbinates also increase the surface area of the inside of the nose and direct air upward toward the olfactory receptors. And, in humans at least, the tissues are what get swollen and obstruct our breathing, when we have allergic reactions.

The dinosaur connexion

The turbinates interested me because I remember reading speculation, in Digging Dinosaurs by palaeontologist Jack Horner, that dinosaurs were endothermic, warm-blooded––and he based this partly on indications that some skulls showed signs of turbinate bones (I don’t recall what exactly he described). However, that book was published in 1988, and it appears that subsequent researchers have failed to substantiate his suggestion. The delicate turbinate bones rarely survive as part of fossilized skulls; for example, none have been found in fossils of ancient birds’ skulls, even though the birds must have been warm-blooded. Some dinosaurs have thin tubular nasal spaces, as do present-day reptiles, and it is argued that those with narrow nasal cavities couldn’t have had turbinate bones. The question is not settled, but the current consensus seems to be that dinosaurs were not warm-blooded. For point-by-point summaries of the controversy, these seem good: The Evidence for Ectothermy in Dinosaurs (cold-blooded) and The Evidence for Endothermy in Dinosaurs (warm-blooded). Wikipedia considers some additional points in Physiology of dinosaurs.

Cause of death of this lion

The lion skull had been lent for a display in our local library, by the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland Oregon. It’s the only lab in the world devoted to crimes against wildlife, and I’ll say more about it in another post. The skull had been evidence in a despicable case: an individual bought up lions (they breed easily in captivity) from roadside zoos, put them in small enclosures and sold the right to shoot them. My grim theory is that the “hunters” were required not to shoot at the head, so that more shots could be taken at the living lion, before the highest-paying customer delivered the coup de grace in a shot to the top of the head. First, that would yield the most money for the scumbag, and second, it would have been very difficult to make this shot to the top of the head of a lion still standing.

At least the person running this was tried, and convicted with the assistance of the Wildlife Lab. Highly unlikely that he received a sentence I’d regard as sufficient, though.


A Cape Lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus, now extinct) in a drawing of the Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Circa 1650-52. Location: Louvre, Paris. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

An early warning system for health threats: the invaluable work of ProMED

ProMED Mail is one of the most important information resources on the net, and most of us have never heard of it. It’s an email list which describes itself as a “global electronic reporting system for outbreaks of infectious diseases and acute exposures to toxins that affect human health, including those in animals and in plants grown for food or animal feed”.

Unlike the official clearinghouses run by WHO and CDC, ProMED is, in its own words, “open to all sources” and its reports are freely available to us all. ProMED was first to raise concern about the aggressive respiratory disease spreading in China in 2003, which became known as SARS. Before the Chinese authorities had permitted their officials to report the disease to WHO, Catherine Strommen, an elementary school teacher in Fremont, California, spotted a post in an international teachers’ chat room from a concerned teacher in China describing “an illness that started like a cold, but killed its victims in days”.

Alarmed, Strommen emailed an old neighbor and friend, Stephen Cunnion, M.D., a retired Navy physician and epidemiologist who now lived in Maryland. A practical, no-nonsense man, Cunnion started searching the web. With no success, he tried a new tack—sending an email to ProMED-mail, a global electronic reporting system for outbreaks of emerging infections and toxins. After quoting Strommen’s missive, he asked: “Does anyone know anything about this problem?”

The tiny ProMED staff conducted its own web search. It, too, came up empty-handed. On February 10, it sent out to tens of thousands of subscribers a posting headed: “PNEUMONIA – CHINA (GUANGDONG): RFI,” or Request for Information.

Thus did the world first learn of SARS, the new and deadly infection that would kill 774 people and infect 8,000 in 27 countries.

From an article by Madeline Drexler in The Journal of Life Sciences.

H1N1 Reports (Swine-avian-human Influenza A)

To keep up on H1N1 flu [I agree with the pig farmers, “swine flu” sounds like your big risk is getting it from pigs and pork, not human sneezes and handshakes] check the ProMED main page. While all the media is now frothing over with “news” about this disease, some of it sounds as reliable as alien abduction accounts. ProMED is timely and scientifically accurate but understandable by non-biologists. It includes valuable, and interesting, commentary on reports and questions: “this has been reported, but here’s what we don’t know, or here are local factors that must be considered in evaluating it”.

What ProMED does

ProMED is a program of the International Society for Infectious Diseases which began in 1994. It does not simply print whatever comes in—this is an extremely well-moderated list. A group of specialists checks and filters the reports, seeks more information from local sources and other experts, and provides judicious commentary. This group also “scans newspapers, the internet, health department and government alerts, and other information sources for inklings that an infectious disease, perhaps not yet reported widely, is threatening animal, plant and/or human health.”

I think I first signed up to receive the digests back when “mad cow disease” was emerging, and have since used ProMED to follow diseases such as anthrax and Ebola.
A topic of interest to me recently concerns outbreaks of measles and mumps in Western nations due to falling rates of vaccination. And as a former zookeeper I keep up on diseases of wildlife and zoo animals, including the fungal disease threatening whole populations of wild bats in the Eastern US. ProMED also covers plant diseases (mostly of crops).

All of this, infectious diseases of humans, wildlife, and crops, is of greatly increased urgency because climate change, global transport, and destruction of wild areas all lead to the spread of familiar diseases to new locales and the emergence of “new” diseases previously only found in remote wild areas. With regard to contaminants and toxins, governments are unable to deal with this effectively due to the political power of corporations and lack f oversight in producing countries. ProMED can’t make your food and furniture non-toxic, but it can sound alarms that might otherwise be silenced.References to a topic’s prior appearances on the list are attached to current reports, and archives are easy to access. Editions in French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish are now available.

“Each posting is limited to 25 KB bandwidth—to ensure that it slips through an old-fashioned dial-up modem in the most remote areas of the world (where new infectious threats tend to smolder). ‘We use technology that was state-of-the-art in 1994. We use email—plain-text email at that. We don’t use fancy fonts,’ Madoff says. ‘The power of the Internet is its ubiquity and speed; it’s not necessarily in all the neat things you can do.’ [from Drexler’s article cited above]

You can subscribe here.

Toxins and contaminants

ProMED also collects, evaluates, and disseminates reports of health problems related to toxins and contamination of food and medicines. These can be quite unusual. For example, the case of the toxic leather sofas in Britain:


Photo: Effect on leg of reaction to toxic chemical contained in sofas. From BBC.

A judge [in the UK] is expected to order several retailers to pay millions of
pounds to people who suffered burns and rashes from faulty leather

More than 1600 people claim to have been affected by the problem. Tens
of thousands more people could have burns not yet traced to sofas.
The High Street stores, along with 11 others, may have to pay more
than 10 million pounds [USD 14.3 million] in compensation and legal
costs, the shoppers’ lawyers say. They claim that makes it “the
largest group compensation claim ever seen in British Courts.”

The sofas, which were manufactured in China, were packed with sachets
of an anti-mould chemical called dimethyl fumarate to stop them from
going moldy during storage in humid conditions.

Commonly known as DMF, the toxic, fine white powder has been used by
some manufacturers to protect leather goods like furniture and shoes
from mold. Even very small amounts can be harmful.

One sofa customer, who is well aware of the health problems caused by
her purchase, is a customer who bought a leather sofa suite from
Argos in April 2007. Almost a year later, she started to notice a
rash developing on her arms and legs. After a few weeks, her skin
started flaking off. She says the irritation was so bad, she was off
work for 2 months. This customer was seen by more than a dozen
doctors, who couldn’t work out what was causing the rash.

She said: “It was very, very painful; I couldn’t sleep at night; I
couldn’t walk about; I couldn’t drive; every time I did walk about,
the skin would fall off, and I would leave a trail of it, therefore,
I couldn’t go to work.”

Reliable histories of outbreaks/events

ProMED doesn’t just present breaking news and requests for additional reports; it frequently publishes very useful summaries of what’s been learned, and what action governmental agencies have taken. For example, “Melamine contaminated food products – Worldwide ex China” and “Prion disease Update 2009 (01)” (Mad Cow Disease and its human infectious disease, the fatal “variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease”.

Supporting ProMED

Believe it or not, ProMED is supported by individuals, with not a penny of funding from any government. That means they are independent (remember the movie Jaws, where the city council wants to suppress news of the shark attacks?) and fast to react. They sift a lot of news from all sorts of sources, put out calls for more information, and disseminate news in a responsible way.

If the work of this group seems like something you’d like to support, here’s your chance. They’re having a brief Spring fundraising campaign. To quote their email,

Your gift funds quick information every day – The economical, low-tech computer programs we use enable us to speed ProMED to your mailboxes, to post it online where anyone can find it, , and to provide the administrative services (accounting, office space, cell phone connections, etc.) required to support a small, agile worldwide enterprise.

ProMED-mail reaches over 50,000 public health officials, students, journalists, agricultural specialists, infectious disease professionals and others around the globe. Because it is free, subscribers in more than 187 countries have an equal opportunity to know when a disease outbreak occurs — and can spring into action when necessary to prevent or minimize its spread.

If the Spring campaign is past, here’s the main donations page.