Saturday, May 28, 2011

Natural History

 This post will also be found in Tehachapi's The Loop Newspaper

There are many different ways that science can be done. But basically the idea is that you compare theories of how the world works to observations of the world itself. When the observations do not match the theory, and the observations are confirmed to be true, you have to change the theory.

So observations are a very important part of science. Though some of the observational sciences are not getting as much attention as they used to. Natural history is one. Natural history is an observational study of nature. 

One of the reasons that natural history isn't as common a practice as it was in previous years (centuries) is that we suffered from an impression that we'd learned it all. OK, not all. But given the slow rate of discovery for new species, a few a year for larger plants and animals, it seemed we were close. (Science doesn't claim to have the final answer to everything, but it is a better answer than anything else.) But every now and then people find things that no one had thought to look for.

Fairly recently a class of fungus has been discovered. A class is a large grouping of related organisms, for example mammals are a class of animals. So finding this new kind of fungi, was almost like noticing mammals for the first time. Well, not quite. While the new class of fungi is distributed around the world all the members are microscopic. What made it so different is the fact that these fungi don't have hard cell walls like the fungi we're used to (like mushrooms). 

But microscopic discoveries are not really very impressive. Perhaps. But another scientist, Oliver Zompro, was recently looking at some fossils and determined that one of them represented a new order of insects (Mantophasmatodea). These insects were like crossing stick insects, mantises and grasshoppers. But also unlike all of these. After this he looked in museum collections and found other specimens. However, some of these were not fossils, but things that had been captured only a century before.

So an “expedition” (sounds bigger than it really was) was sent to Africa to see if these insects were still out there to be found. And lo and behold, after they found the first ones, discovering their habits and habitats, they found them all over.

With one new species discovered at a truck stop, when others went to the restroom, one scientist went out looking and discovered a new species of this new order. (Plus some other new species found at the same stop.)

So there are new things, well not new, they have family trees going back to the first cells just like we do, being discovered every year. But perhaps you're not impressed with fungus or bugs. Well, there is still a lot of new things being discovered. Just since the year 2000, there have been 30 new species of bats discovered and several species of rodent.

There have even been 25 new species of primate found. (Primates are the family that humans belong to.) One of these had the naming rights sold at auction, so the Monkey is out there in South America.

Hmmm. I wonder what I can find in my own backyard.

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