A tale of four giraffes

I have a sweet spot for giraffes. I’d like to say this is because they remind me of myself. Tall. Graceful. Beautifully spotted. Elegant. Content with strolling around all day slowely and chewing leaves. Have scary but awesome looking neck fights.

I’m taller than average, granted, but other than that I am not graceful, if I have spots they’re definitely not beautiful, elegance has never been used to describe me (clumsy however…), I tend to walk quickly and need a bit more nourishment than just leaves, and whoever even dares to get close to my neck will probably get a face-elbow in reply.

Still, that doesn’t mean I can’t find giraffes interesting, and I was quite excited to read that a giraffe-related discovery had been made recently.

There is more than one kind of giraffe.

There are four.

For years, well since 1758, it was assumed that there was one species of giraffes, grouping together nine sub-species. These nine are all relatively similar looking, except for some differences in their spot size and patterns. However, researchers have discovered that there are actually four genetically distinct species. They do not mate with each other in the wild, which was an unexpected finding because giraffes migrate over vast areas and they are able to interbreed in captivity.

You might not find this particularly intriguing, but I can’t help but thinking that it’s a “fun fact” to know that two giraffes, looking very similar, can actually be as different from each other as a brown bear to a polar bear.

Also, it’s like seeing evolution in action. Giraffes are a relatively young species so we are seeing the emergence of different species happen in real time.

Finally, it can give society the boost it needs to protect giraffes. Now that they are different species, three of them can be added to the list of highly endangered species. Which is awful, of course, but can provide the awareness we need to get the numbers back up. We need more of these majestic giraffes in the world. Not more weird tall people who clumsily stumble around in giraffe onesies. (Not me, at all.)


Read more about the four giraffe species in the original publication:  http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(16)30787-4






To the horizon, and beyond!

Both of my subscription magazines – *I’m so sophisticated* – had articles about the advances in space exploration last week (though by now it’s more two weeks ago). It’s been a while since I read so much of my subscription magazines, I usually leaf through most of it – *gone sophistication* – because I’m stuck in the illusion that I don’t have any time.

Which is ridiculous, check my Netflix record.

But nothing better to bring me back into good reading habits than some good ol’ articles about space. And nothing better to get me back to blogging about science subjects again as well. Because let’s be honest, it’s quite difficult to get me to shut up about space.

It had been quiet for a while, in the space news column of your daily/weekly/monthly newspaper. Apart from some back-and-forth travel to and from ISS and the occasional news blast when a countryman was sent up (for me this was Frank De Winne and more recently Tim Peake). But in the last few months, the interest for space has rekindled. Whether it is due to the recent abundance of space movies (Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian), astronomy breakthroughs (LIGA) or NASA’s call for astronauts last year (18400 applicants!), I do not know, but astrosciences has been back in the press.

The most recent exciting news has probably been the discovery of Proxima Centauri b (from now on referred to as PCb). PCb orbit’s the sun’s nearest neighbour, Proxima Centauri, making it close enough to have a very laggy conversation with potential inhabitants of the planet. The possibilities scream to the imagination. It might have an atmosphere. It might have water. It is only 4 light years away. It orbits the Goldilocks zone of Proxima Centauri; 7 million km from it (which is about 1/20 of earth’s to its sun) . It has an estimated weight of 1.3 to 3 that of earth. It is  presumed to be rocky. It has an orbit of 11 days, making me 875 orbits of age. (Read more about PCb in the original article.)

Okay, I realise, and so does the research community, that we barely know anything about PCb. But that’s not really the issue. The possibilities are the issue. It’s closeness, it’s “just right”-ness and its promise of potential life forms are enough to get us all excited. And excitement is quite an understatement, you can be sure of that.

Luckily for us, a new form of space exploration has taken place. A first change is the commercialisation of space travel. It’s no longer just for governments to prove their superiority by making it to a certain satellite first. Several visionaries who happen to be billionaires are investing in space travel. For industry and the commercial sector, such as telecommunication, but also towards tourism. This helps to lower the cost of space travel, making “a trip to orbit” more than a very vivid dream.

Luckily for us, we have an Elon Musk, who dreams of a self-sufficient colony on Mars. Luckily for us, we have a Richard Branson, who wants to make space tourism reality. Luckily for us, we have a Jeff Bezos, who thinks that eventually there will be thousands of satellites in orbit employing millions of people. This idea of “great inversion” could allow us to change the earth into one giant nature reserve.

Luckily for us, the billionaires of the world – or at least some of them – are not only driven by profit but also by curiosity.

Elon Musk all packed up for his move to Mars. (The Simpsons, in case you hadn’t guessed.)

On the other hand, minaturisation is driving a new way of space exploration. We wouldn’t necessarily need to send enormous, fuel-consuming, costly rockets off to the planets and comets and space we’d like to explore. They can be tiny. Made out of components that are already mass produced. Relatively cheap to make. Of course, I love the idea of still sending humans to space, and I’m quite sure they will continue to do so, but the amount of data and knowledge we can gain from small satellites, such as Planet’s “Doves”, is extremely exciting on its own.

So let’s keep exploring. There is so much out there for us to learn about, and we are making the tools to do it.


Meet disco-mouse and Roboctopus


They could be characters from a Cartoon Network show, but they are just some of the amazing outputs of recent science.


A novel technique called ultimate DISCO (uDISCO) removes pigments and lipids, allowing researchers to image through dead animals. uDISCO also causes shrinkage – and consequentially perhaps odd organ proportions – and prepares the mouse for the ultimate rave.

More info: Nature Methods


This octopus-shaped robot (named octobot by the researchers, but I prefer roboctopus because it’s more reminiscent of a certain cyborg) consists entirely of soft materials and is controlled by a fluidic system and a chemical reaction. It also glows in the dark, apparently.

More info: Nature News & Views and Nature article
If you like cephalopods you might also enjoy my friend’s recent blog about cuttlefish; they apparently have amazing crazy eyes.

I already have a few plot ideas to turn this into a show, in case Cartoon Network is interested…