Monday, June 6, 2011

Biology, Science, Chemistry, Technology, Flat animals and biology's age of discovery

Darwin is the obvious example, but imagine being Wallace and finding flying frogs and searching for birds that were said to spend their whole lives on the wing and, so, have no feet. Or being with Banks and Solander as they arrived in New Zealand and discovered an entirely new flora to describe, catalogue and learn from.

It would be pretty great to live in those times, but I wouldn't swap places for the world - biology's age of discovery is still going strong. There are probably ten times as many species on earth as we know about. In the last couple of months we've heard news of new fish species discovered in the kermadecs, a nematode that survives a mile below earth's surface, bioluminescent fungi, and an antelope species discovered in a meat market. Then there's biodiversity's dark matter; whole groups of creatures we know must exist, but have no clue as to their biology. Recently DNA sequences have revealed a new group of fungi discovered in a pond in Devon, and maybe, just maybe, a whole new branch of life in a set of DNA sequences that are similar to each other but like nothing else we know. In the 21st century there is no lack of species for us to discover, and, in fact, modern tools mean we don't have to get on boat to discover them. You're average shovel load of soil almost certainly has bacteria and fungi that aren't known to science.

Sunday spinelessness has, rather arbitrarily, limited itself to animals (I am from a zoology department, these things rub off) - and one of my favourite examples of how little we really know about biology comes from some very strange animals. Meet a placozoan (literally 'flat animal'):  Read More

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