Post List

  • August 18, 2011
  • 12:00 PM
  • 1,438 views

Breaking news: Student drinkers can’t tell how drunk they are.

by Caspar Addyman in Your Brain on Drugs

Okay, so that is hardly news. But it may surprise you to find that researchers are still discovering new ways in which alcohol makes us stupid. What’s more they’ve found your vodka Red Bull or Irish Coffee more dangerous than you think.... Read more »

  • August 18, 2011
  • 11:59 AM
  • 1,059 views

When a "scientific study" is neither

by PalMD in White Coat Underground

There is quite a bit of art to the practice of medicine: knowing how to get and to give information to a patient, how to create a sense of worry without creating a feeling of panic, how to use the best available science to help them maintain or return to health.  Underlying all of the [...]... Read more »

  • August 18, 2011
  • 11:26 AM
  • 964 views

Take it from Mitt Romney: Corporations Are People Too (Even When They're on Trial)

by Persuasion Strategies in Persuasive Litigator

Speaking just before the Ames Straw poll on Republican Presidential contenders, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney faced a heckler. As the unruly crowd member shouted out that taxes should come from corporations, the candidate answered, "corporations are people, my friend." The gaffe-watchers on all sides and in the media immediately pounced, and the statement is now viewed as a flub that might dog a candidate who risks being viewed as a starched-shirt businessman out of touch with working people. But if you look at the full context of the quote, Romney has a point:

"Corporations are people, my friend... of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People's pockets. Human beings my friend."


... Read more »

Mike Owen Benediktsson. (2010) The Deviant Organization and the Bad Apple CEO: Ideology and Accountability in Media Coverage of Corporate Scandals . Social Forces, 88(5). info:/

  • August 18, 2011
  • 11:06 AM
  • 1,540 views

New drugs for old?

by Suzanne Elvidge in Genome Engineering

Drug repositioning ‘repurposes’ older drugs for new indications, to cut drug development costs, speed up time to approval, extend drug lifecycles and create new patents, rescue a development candidate that’s not doing well in its original indication, or just create a new indication for a safe and well-studied drug. Discovering a candidate for drug repositioning can be serendipity or it can be through many hours of research and screening. Researchers have put genomic data to work and succeeded in speeding up the process, in two papers published in Science Translational Medicine.... Read more »

Sirota, M., Dudley, J., Kim, J., Chiang, A., Morgan, A., Sweet-Cordero, A., Sage, J., & Butte, A. (2011) Discovery and Preclinical Validation of Drug Indications Using Compendia of Public Gene Expression Data. Science Translational Medicine, 3(96), 96-96. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3001318  

Dudley, J., Sirota, M., Shenoy, M., Pai, R., Roedder, S., Chiang, A., Morgan, A., Sarwal, M., Pasricha, P., & Butte, A. (2011) Computational Repositioning of the Anticonvulsant Topiramate for Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Science Translational Medicine, 3(96), 96-96. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3002648  

  • August 18, 2011
  • 10:30 AM
  • 1,056 views

Signs of cervical spinal cord compression

by Robert Badgett in ClinDx

Hyperreflexia of the knee and the Hoffman's reflex were the most sensitive findings in this uncontrolled, unblinded study.... Read more »

Chikuda H, Seichi A, Takeshita K, Shoda N, Ono T, Matsudaira K, Kawaguchi H, & Nakamura K. (2010) Correlation between pyramidal signs and the severity of cervical myelopathy. European spine journal : official publication of the European Spine Society, the European Spinal Deformity Society, and the European Section of the Cervical Spine Research Society, 19(10), 1684-9. PMID: 20229121  

  • August 18, 2011
  • 10:00 AM
  • 1,774 views

More sick children are surviving. Are they ready for adult medicine?

by Nancy Fliesler in Vector, a Boston Children's Hospital blog

In the past few decades, what used to be considered medical miracles have become expected and everyday. More children are surviving prematurity, even extreme prematurity. Congenital heart defects are routinely repaired, leukemia has largely become curable, and conditions like sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis have become manageable chronic conditions with a greatly increased life expectancy.

That’s created a new problem: young adults entering an adult healthcare system that isn’t ready for them. Many have cognitive disabilities or emerging coexisting conditions like obesity, asthma and type 2 diabetes. Many are used to having their care managed by their parents.

A national study of patients aged 19 to 23 with special health care needs – the first to draw on interviews of young adults themselves – finds many of them ill-prepared to assume lifelong responsibility for their health. Only 55 percent of the 1,865 respondents had received counseling from health care providers about how their medical needs would change with age, and only 53 percent had been counseled on how to obtain health insurance as an adult.... Read more »

  • August 18, 2011
  • 10:00 AM
  • 1,667 views

Mathematics, Cities, and Brains: What Can A Highway Engineer Learn From A Neuroscientist?

by Jason Goldman in The Thoughtful Animal

Lots of networks have been compared to urban systems. Remember when the internet was referred to as the information superhighway? And high school biology teachers have been comparing the workings of cells to city operations for decades. To what extent, though, might a brain be like a city?... Read more »

  • August 18, 2011
  • 09:11 AM
  • 1,540 views

Emerging infectious diseases and cities

by James Byrne in Disease Prone @SciAmBlogs

Commonly, we think the regions most likely be affected by the emergence of infectious diseases would be the developing nations but in fact very few studies have looked into the spatial arrangement of emerging infectious disease reporting. This has significant implications for funding of surveillance and research as typically developing nations lack the resources to adequately handle their current health burdens let alone monitoring for and dealing with new issues as they arise. So an emphasis must be placed on understanding how diseases emerge, where they emerge and what we can do about it.... Read more »

Jones, K., Patel, N., Levy, M., Storeygard, A., Balk, D., Gittleman, J., & Daszak, P. (2008) Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature, 451(7181), 990-993. DOI: 10.1038/nature06536  

  • August 18, 2011
  • 08:34 AM
  • 1,169 views

A feedback example – dynamic speed displays: do they change driver behaviour?

by pennydeck in Feedback Solutions for Obesity

Dynamic speed displays are large digital sign-boards that broadcast your speed as you travel past. Although they admonish you to slow down if you exceed the speed limit, do they provide effective feedback that changes driver behaviour and reduces risk … Continue reading →... Read more »

Ullman, G., & Rose, E. (2005) Evaluation of Dynamic Speed Display Signs. Transportation Research Record, 1918(1), 92-97. DOI: 10.3141/1918-12  

  • August 18, 2011
  • 07:00 AM
  • 1,666 views

Antidepressants Bad for Babies

by Shaheen Lakhan in Brain Blogger

Recently, two studies reported that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a common class of antidepressant medication, increase the risk for congenital malformations and developmental disorders among children when taken by mothers during pregnancy. The first study, published in Obstetrics and Gynecology, evaluated more than half of a million offspring over 11 years. Of these, just [...]... Read more »

None. (2006) SSRI antidepressants and birth defects. Prescrire international, 15(86), 222-3. PMID: 17167929  

Croen LA, Grether JK, Yoshida CK, Odouli R, & Hendrick V. (2011) Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy and Childhood Autism Spectrum Disorders. Archives of general psychiatry. PMID: 21727247  

Tuccori M, Montagnani S, Testi A, Ruggiero E, Mantarro S, Scollo C, Pergola A, Fornai M, Antonioli L, Colucci R.... (2010) Use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors during pregnancy and risk of major and cardiovascular malformations: an update. Postgraduate medicine, 122(4), 49-65. PMID: 20675971  

  • August 18, 2011
  • 07:00 AM
  • 1,365 views

August 18, 2011

by Erin Campbell in HighMag Blog

I bet you think you’re pretty good at wearing the many proverbial hats in your life. I bet you can align a laser, walk your dog, change a diaper, and play in your awesome band of cell biologists. Well, integrins will put your hat-wearing to shame! Integrins are very important proteins (VIPs!) that play huge roles in adhesion, signaling, polarity, cell migration, cell division, and differentiation. Today’s image is from a paper describing new data on integrin trafficking.

Integrins are membrane proteins that interact with the environment outside of the cell to regulate cell adhesion and signaling. As part of the cell’s plasma membrane, integrins are constantly being brought into the cell and recycled back to the cell surface. Understanding this process is important—the way that integrins are recycled back to the cell’s surface (or not) can dramatically affect a cell’s ability to move, adhere to other cells, divide, and invade (in the case of cells in a tumor). A recent paper by Mai and colleagues describes a protein called RASA1 in regulating integrin recycling back to the membrane. RASA1 binds to integrin on a site where another protein called Rab21 also binds. So, these two proteins compete—Rab21 bound to integrin prevents its recycling back to the cell surface, while RASA1 binding allows integrin to traffic back to the surface. In the images above, when levels of RASA1 were reduced (bottom), cells were able to migrate more efficiently to close a “wound” scratched across a layer of cells, as compared to control cells (top). Images on the left show the wound shortly after it was created, while images on the right are four hours later.

Mai, A., Veltel, S., Pellinen, T., Padzik, A., Coffey, E., Marjomaki, V., & Ivaska, J. (2011). Competitive binding of Rab21 and p120RasGAP to integrins regulates receptor traffic and migration originally published in The Journal of Cell Biology, 194 (2), 291-306 DOI: 10.1083/jcb.201012126

... Read more »

Mai, A., Veltel, S., Pellinen, T., Padzik, A., Coffey, E., Marjomaki, V., & Ivaska, J. (2011) Competitive binding of Rab21 and p120RasGAP to integrins regulates receptor traffic and migration. originally published in The Journal of Cell Biology, 194(2), 291-306. DOI: 10.1083/jcb.201012126  

  • August 18, 2011
  • 06:22 AM
  • 1,371 views

Empathy breeds altruism, unless a person feels they have low status. A brain-scan study with a lesson for riot-hit England

by BPS Research Digest in BPS Research Digest

In a defining image of the recent English riots, a man helped an injured youngster to his feet while an accomplice stole from the same victim's bag. This sheer lack of empathy on the part of the perpetrators has shaken observers to their core. How could humans display such a lack of altruism toward their fellow man?

A possible clue comes from a new brain imaging study that has examined links between the neural correlates of empathy, an act of altruism, and participants' subjective sense of their social status. Among people who feel they have low status, the study finds, increased neural markers of empathy are actually related to reduced altruism. The researchers surmised this is because any feelings of empathy are quashed by a grudging sense of low status. This could be a kind of defence mechanism whereby self-interest dominates over empathy for others. A possible lesson is that by reversing people's feelings of low status, through educational opportunities and other interventions, we all gain, by reinstating the usual link between empathy and altruism.

Yina Ma and her team at Peking University scanned the brains of 33 student participants while they watched numerous video clips of people being pricked painfully in the face or hand by a needle, or touched on those same parts by a cotton bud (referred to as a Q-tip in the US). Extra activity in the brain, in response to the needle clips versus cotton bud clips, was taken to be a neural marker for empathy (seeing someone else in pain is known to trigger activity in the pain matrix of one's own brain).

The participants also rated their own empathy levels and their subjective sense of their socio-economic status. They were shown a ladder with ten rungs, with the top rung representing people with the best jobs and education and most money; participants then indicated which rung they saw themselves as occupying. Although the participants were students at the same university they varied in their subjective sense of status. Finally, the participants were left alone in a room with an anonymous donation box, labelled as raising money to help impoverished patients with cataracts.

Among patients who considered themselves privileged in terms of socio-economic status, there was a positive relationship between empathy and altruism. The more neural signs of empathy they displayed in the scanner (based on extra activity in the left somatosensory cortex when viewing needle clips), the more empathy they said they had, and the more money they chose to donate to charity. By contrast, among participants who considered themselves lower in socio-economic status, the opposite pattern was observed. The greater their empathy-related brain activity in the scanner (based on extra right somatosensory cortex and inferior frontal cortex activity in response to needle clips), the less empathy they said they had, and the less money they chose to donate to charity. The researchers said the empathy-related inferior frontal cortex activity observed in these participants could be a sign of inhibitory processes quashing the emotional impact of seeing another person in pain.

Note, there was no absolute difference in the amount of money donated by participants who self-identified as low or high socio-economic status. The finding is more subtle and suggests empathy has a differential effect on our altruistic behaviour depending on how we see our standing in the world.

"Our findings have significant implications to the social domain," the researchers said, "in that, besides improving objective socio-economic status, raising subjective socio-economic status via education may possibly manifold altruistic behaviours in human society."

The findings add to a complex literature that suggests lower socio-economic status is sometimes associated with more empathy and altruism, but sometimes associated with reduced empathy.
_________________________________

Ma, Y., Wang, C., and Han, S. (2011). Neural responses to perceived pain in others predict real-life monetary donations in different socioeconomic contexts. NeuroImage, 57 (3), 1273-1280 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.05.003

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

... Read more »

  • August 18, 2011
  • 05:30 AM
  • 1,850 views

Why are there less "fit and fat" folks than there used to be?

by Yoni Freedhoff in Weighty Matters

That was the question that leaped to mind after looking at one of the appendices of the recent Edmonton Obesity Staging System paper in the CMAJ.

Looking at the graphic up above (if you click it, it'll get larger), it would appear that the earlier NHANES III cohort (1988-1994) included a significantly higher percentage of so-called, "fit and fat" folks, as compared with the later NHANES 1999-2004 cohort.

In the later cohort, the percentage of the study population with an EOSS score of zero (meaning folks with overweight and obesity and no medical or life related co-morbidity) was pretty much zero, whereas in the earlier cohort it would appear that over 15% of overweight folks had an EOSS score of zero, as did just under 10% of folks whose BMIs ranged between 30 and 35 and just over 5% of folks whose BMIs were greater than 35.

Now I'm far from a statistician, but certainly were than any stats savvy folks reading this post, I'd be very curious to know if that differences up above were statistically significant. Given the size of the cohorts and the dramatic differences seen, I'd be surprised if they weren't.

In terms of what's going on?

According to Obesity Panacea's Travis Saunders', one possibility is that the distribution of our weight is changing, and that where we're carrying it is the problem, with increasing abdominal distribution weight-independently increasing our risks of developing a constellation of different chronic diseases.

Travis forwarded me a paper written by Ian Janssen, Margot Shields, Cora L. Craig and Mark S. Tremblay that looked at differences in waist circumferences and 5 skinfold thicknesses for given weights between 1981 and 2009. What they found was that for any given weight, waist circumferences were higher, as were skinfold thickness values.

Their conclusion in the paper seems downright prescient when applied to that graph up above, "These findings suggest that even in the absence of a change in population obesity prevalence as determined by BMI, the population health consequences of obesity seem likely to increase more than anticipated"Given the impact of exercise on distribution of body weight, this definitely lends ammunition to ongoing exercise promotion efforts, and combining that impact along with the results of the second EOSS paper, the one that suggests lifestyle dramatically attenuates EOSS staged risk, and together they would suggest that exercise promotion should take obesity treatment out of the rationale for exercise, and instead focus on exercise/health at any size.

To suss things out further, I'd love to see which weight related co-morbidities increased in the later years cohort - certainly knowing which co-morbidities are on the rise, would help in understanding what exactly's going on.

So whether it's increased abdominal distribution of weight or not, it would certainly seem that there's something else out there, something other than absolute weight, that's increasing morbidity in the population with overweight and obesity. My recommendation is that we redouble our efforts to figure out what that something else is and work on it, as I'm guessing we'll have more luck treating it, than we do treating weight.

Padwal, R., Pajewski, N., Allison, D., & Sharma, A. (2011). Using the Edmonton obesity staging system to predict mortality in a population-representative cohort of people with overweight and obesity Canadian Medical Association Journal DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.110387

Janssen, I., Shields, M., Craig, C., & Tremblay, M. (2011). Changes in the Obesity Phenotype Within Canadian Children and Adults, 1981 to 2007–2009 Obesity DOI: 10.1038/oby.2011.122

Jennifer L. Kuk, Chris I. Ardern, Timothy S. Church, Arya M. Sharma, Raj Padwal, Xuemei Sui, & Steven Blair (2011). Edmonton Obesity Staging System: association with weight history and mortality risk Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab., 36, 570-576 : 10.1139/H11-058

... Read more »

Jennifer L. Kuk, Chris I. Ardern, Timothy S. Church, Arya M. Sharma, Raj Padwal, Xuemei Sui, & Steven Blair. (2011) Edmonton Obesity Staging System: association with weight history and mortality risk. Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab., 570-576. info:/10.1139/H11-058

  • August 18, 2011
  • 05:00 AM
  • 2,329 views

Why are there so many bird species in the tropics? | GrrlScientist

by GrrlScientist in GrrlScientist

What can we learn about evolution, geography and biodiversity by studying continental patterns of speciation?... Read more »

  • August 18, 2011
  • 03:59 AM
  • 1,293 views

Retractions correlate better with 'Impact Factor' than citations

by Björn Brembs in bjoern.brembs.blog

Thomson Reuters' Impact Factor (IF) is supposed to provide a measure for how often the average publication in a scientific journal is cited and thus a quantitative basis for ranking journals. However, there are (at least) three major problems with the IF:The IF is negotiable and doesn't reflect actual citation counts (source)The IF cannot be reproduced, even if it reflected actual citations (source)The IF is not statistically sound, even if it were reproducible and reflected actual citations (source)Thus, it is not surprising that there is very little correlation between the IF and what it is supposed to measure: actual citations to scientific articles:Fig. 1: Four examples of publications from individual researchers. Plotted are the actual citations of the publications against the Impact Factor of the journals they were published in (image source.)Compare these correlations to the recently published correlation between retractions and Impact Factor (in Infection and Immunity, Infect. Immun. doi:10.1128/IAI.05661-11):Now, one would need to do some thorough quantification and testing of this, but at a first glance, it appears pretty obvious to me that Retractions are a much better predictor for Impact Factor than citations. Can anyone do such a test of this hypothesis?Fang, F., & Casadevall, A. (2011). RETRACTED SCIENCE AND THE RETRACTION INDEX Infection and Immunity DOI: 10.1128/IAI.05661-11Seglen PO (1997). Why the impact factor of journals should not be used for evaluating research. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 314 (7079), 498-502 PMID: 9056804... Read more »

  • August 18, 2011
  • 02:56 AM
  • 546 views

The Power of Confidence

by David Lurie in Setsights

Studies such as that of Cramer et al (2009), point out that confidence, at least in a mock trial setting, leads expert witnesses to be taken as being more credible. And while it’s worth noting that high levels of confidence … Continue reading


Related posts:Confidence Building Audio: The Circle of Confidence
The Disconnect of the Creative Leader
Video: Presenting with Confidence
Embracing our individual differences: the organisational “fit”
Is entrepreneurship the cure to your woes?
... Read more »

Briñol, P., Petty, R., & Wagner, B. (2009) Body posture effects on self-evaluation: A self-validation approach. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39(6), 1053-1064. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.607  

Miller, N., Maruyama, G., Beaber, R., & Valone, K. (1976) Speed of speech and persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(4), 615-624. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.34.4.615  

  • August 18, 2011
  • 02:35 AM
  • 1,306 views

Pieridae (Lepidoptera) as Model Organisms

by Marc in Teaching Biology

The ~1100 species of Pieridae comprise the butterflies known as the sulphurs and the whites. They’re model organisms for numerous fields of biology, and this post introduces their use as such. As background, this post was spurred by a former student demanding I make a post containing my own speculations instead of randomly strung-together facts. [...]... Read more »

  • August 17, 2011
  • 10:30 PM
  • 1,348 views

There Is More Than One Way To Impregnate A Squid

by Dr. M in Deep Sea News


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All sperm are not the same. Among fruit flies the longer the reproductive tract of the female the longer the sperm. In tiny crustaceans called ostracods, sperm length can range from several hundred micrometers to several millimeters. And here is some trivia for your next cocktail party, sperm in ostracods can even be longer than . . . → Read More: There Is More Than One Way To Impregnate A Squid... Read more »

  • August 17, 2011
  • 10:00 PM
  • 770 views

Rise of the planet of the aged

by Vivek Venkataraman in sciencebyte

Identification of neuro-physiological causes of working memory decline in old age... Read more »

Wang, M., Gamo, N., Yang, Y., Jin, L., Wang, X., Laubach, M., Mazer, J., Lee, D., & Arnsten, A. (2011) Neuronal basis of age-related working memory decline. Nature, 476(7359), 210-213. DOI: 10.1038/nature10243  

  • August 17, 2011
  • 09:59 PM
  • 1,006 views

The "living fossil" discussion and that "living fossil" eel you might have heard of

by Daniel in Ego sum Daniel

I don't like the term "living fossil". Sure, when used well it can be eye-catching in a pedagogical way, but it's still sort of vague and problematic, and used badly it's outright confusing and may reinforce misconceptions about evolution. That's why when you see it used, you often see it between quotation marks followed by an explanation motivating why the organism in question is called a "living fossil" to begin with. Today we learn about the discovery of a really striking and interesting new species of eel from Palau, Protoanguilla palau, heralded as a "living fossil" in the title of the scientific publication made available today (see reference below) as well as in most media reports.


Ref: Video still/Jiro Sakaue, Southern Marine Laboratory, Palau.

As you guessed by now, I think this is a bit problematic. It starts with the fact that different people often mean different things when calling something a "living fossil". Darwin himself is acknowledged with originating the term in On the Origin of Species, if only in a passing comment. He wrote:


All fresh-water basins, taken together, make a small area compared with that of the sea or of the land; and, consequently, the competition between fresh-water productions will have been less severe than elsewhere; new forms will have been more slowly formed, and old forms more slowly exterminated. And it is in fresh water that we find seven genera of Ganoid fishes, remnants of a once preponderant order: and in fresh water we find some of the most anomalous forms now known in the world, as the Ornithorhynchus and Lepidosiren, which, like fossils, connect to a certain extent orders now widely separated in the natural scale. These anomalous forms may almost be called living fossils; they have endured to the present day, from having inhabited a confined area, and from having thus been exposed to less severe competition.

In this chapter Darwin is speaking to us about the different environmental conditions that are favorable to natural selection, or rather to the creation of new varieties through natural selection. Here he is trying to explain why some organisms might appear relatively unchanged by natural selection, using ganoid fishes, a now obsolete term describing gars and bichirs or reedfishes, the platypus and the South American lungfish, as examples of this. With "living fossil" he is vaguely referring to organisms that are the sole or almost sole survivors of a relatively old and mostly extinct lineage. This meaning is a bit different to the common use today which is either a species that appears practically unchanged from its ancestors found in the fossil record, like the gingko or the horseshoe crab, or a species that was only known from the fossil record until it was suddenly found to be very much still alive, like the coelacanth. None of these organisms fit comfortably into one coherent definition of what a "living fossil" might be without having to include several other groups that are not usually included.*

So as a term, "living fossil" is potentially misleading and awkwardly defined. But most of all it's just redundant. It's just not worth it. Some biologists see this as a reason to take the term lightly and use it casually, but I guess I just don't take many things lightly.

Discussions about "living fossils" aside, the finding of Protoanguilla palau is very interesting for several reasons. Firstly, I don't think we should underestimate the fantastic sense of wonder about our planet and about life that something like this might awake. The almost 18 cm long Protoanguilla type specimen was discovered in a cave at about 35 m of depth in the reef waters of Palau in the pacific ocean. This sort of mirrors the discovery of the coelacanth and makes you think about the kind of enigmatic species we have yet to find in the as yet unreached corners of the ocean.

Eels were one of the very first now living lineages of bony fish to emerge - it's one of the most basal. They first appear in the fossil record in the Cretaceous about 100 million years ago, but the evolution of the bony fishes as a whole probably goes back to the mid-Paleozoic, some 400-300 million years ago. Protoanguilla has an interesting combination of characters, sharing several with all other now living eels as well as with the fossil eels from the Cretaceous, some specifically only with the fossil eels. It also has yet another number of characters that are seemingly specific to it, and some that are characteristic of bony fish lineages that diverged before eels: notably, gill rakers - toothed protrusions of cartilage along the inner rim of the gills used to trap food particles - and the presence of less than 90 vertebrae. Most eels show an expansion of the vertebral column to include up to 200 vertebrae. In simple terms, it looks like an eel but it also looks really primitive. This pattern of old morphological characteristics paired with molecular phylogenetics analyses based on the mitochondrial genome place Protoanguilla at about 200 million years ago, very close to previous molecular estimations of the earliest divergence of eels and 100 million years before the first known eel fossils. The phylogenetic analyses also place it confidently within the eel lineage, so it's not a different kind of bony fish, and they show that it represents the most basal or oldest known lineage of eel. I checked the method descriptions and the results of the phylogenetic analyses in the supplementary data provided by the journal and it looks solid.

However, none of this makes Protoanguilla a "living fossil" in the same way the coelacanth or the gingko might be considered "living fossils". It doesn't conform to Darwin's original exemplification of some species as "living fossils" either. There are no "dead fossils" of Protoanguilla or similar eels as far back as 200 million years ago to begin with! Frankly, the use of the term in the title of the scientific publication is puzzling. It's the first described species in a new and basal group - why call it a "living fossil" when so much surrounding data is absent? The authors might have answered that question for me themselves in the fist sentence of the article:


Ever since Charles Darwin coined the term ‘living fossil’ in On the Origin of Species (...), organisms that have been called living fossils have received considerable attention.

They define "living fossils" as "extremely long-lived or geologically long-ranging taxa", probably based on the fact that several of the morphological characteristics of Protoanguilla seem to have appeared relatively early in evolution and have been kept since. But this definition would have to include several other groups of organisms that are usually not considered "living fossils" at all. They've strangely conflated "living fossil" with "conserved", which is a very useful and established term in evolutionary biology.

This discussion might be peripheral, but it's worth having and it comes up quite often in evolutionary biology. I really want to highlight how good the analyses in the paper are though, and how exciting the finding of Protoanguilla is for our understanding of early bony fish evolution.

For summarizing reports and videos of this marvelous animal, check out BBC News and Wired Science. Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter also reports - "Living fossil swims in the pacific ocean".

* Are birds "living fossils", for instance, having been the only dinosaur group out of a great number to survive extinction? I think most people would argue that they're not because they are very diverse and numerous, but there's no other reason not to include them. "Living fossil" seems to imply it should be a rare group of organisms, or ideally a single surviving species.

... Read more »

Johnson, G., Ida, H., Sakaue, J., Sado, T., Asahida, T., & Miya, M. (2011) A 'living fossil' eel (Anguilliformes: Protoanguillidae, fam. nov.) from an undersea cave in Palau. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1289  

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