From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Leaving Leaves"

Written by Paul Sutter on Wednesday, 01 November 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

This week's memo arrives courtesy Dr. Katherine O’Brien, a postdoctoral fellow at OSU and the community outreach specialist for the Museum of Biological Diversity.

In the stretch between Halloween and Thanksgiving, fall is in full swing. Despite the characteristically grey weather this is my favorite time of year watching chemistry play out on leaves all across the city. As leaves stop producing chlorophyll as the days have been getting shorter, this shows the other pigments in a leaf like yellow (xanthophyll), orange (carotene), and red (anthocyanin).

If you want to see these underlying colors in leaves that have not changed, you can! All you need are some leaves (spinach works great), rubbing alcohol, a white coffee filter, a pie plate, pencil, a glass, and some plastic wrap. Okay, ready for some home science?!?

1) Tear up the leaf and place it in the glass with enough rubbing alcohol to cover the leaves.

2) Cover the glass with the plastic wrap - this keeps the alcohol from evaporating.

3) Fill the pie plate with warm water and place the glass in the water for 30 minutes so that the alcohol becomes green.

4) Cut the paper filter into strips and tape them to your pencil.

5) Suspend the filter so it is just touching the liquid- set aside for 30-90 min.

What you will see are the pigments that are inside the leaf being masked by the green (chlorophyll) and a large strip of green pigment.


Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 23 October 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

This week's memo arrives courtesy Dr. Meg Daly, Directory of OSU's Museum of Biological Diversity.

To help ourselves prepare for the upcoming dinosaur exhibit at COSI, Katherine O'Brien and I traveled to New York to visit the exhibit mothership, the American Museum of Natural History. We were accompanied on this trip by Dr. Laura Wagner, the OSU faculty member whose experience running the COSI Language Pod has made her our go-to for connecting academic research with COSI exhibits.

Although our primary focus was on dinosaurs and on developing ways that we can use the massive collections in the Museum of Biological Diversity to support learning about them, I couldn't help but be distracted by some of the non-dinosauran treasures on display. Featured prominently in the hall of Biodiversity were incredibly detailed glass models of microscopic plants and animals in which even the internal anatomy of these tiny organisms are rendered in glass. These models are the work of the renowned father and son team of Leopold and Rudof Blaschka. The detail of the glass models exceeds what the average person would see under a modern, research-grade microscope, an especially astonishing feat of technical and observational skill given that the models are more than a century old.

Learn more about the Blaschkas and their sea creatures in glass

"Alternative Universe of Dinosaurs"

Written by Paul Sutter on Thursday, 19 October 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

This week's memo arrives courtesy Dr. Meg Daly, Directory of OSU's Museum of Biological Diversity.

Just as in good fiction, the alternative universe of dinosaurs shares foundational principles with our universe. We can see that the anatomies of dinosaurs and their contemporaries were shaped by physical forces like gravity, that organisms that inhabit similar environments have similar anatomies, that organisms change over time through development and that species change over time through evolution. These shared principles make it possible for us to use comparisons with modern organisms to understand and interpret the seemingly peculiar morphologies of dinosaurs.

Through this lens of comparative biology, we can fill in gaps in the fossil record and flesh out our understanding of fossil animals. For example, the structure of dinosaur eggs and the way in which adult dinosaurs sit on them is identical to what we see in birds, allowing us to interpret dinosaurs as providing care for their young. Similarly, we can understand the flight mechanics of pterosaurs by comparing them to bats, which are distantly related to them but which also have a wing comprised of a membrane stretched across hand bones.

However, some unique aspects of dinosaur biology remain a puzzle, like the spines, spikes, and armor of ceratopsian dinosaurs. We can see that the elaborations on the skulls of these dinosaurs changed over the life of the animal, typically becoming more pronounced and larger as the animal grew. This is a pattern that has echoes in the horns of modern mammals. Nonetheless, the ways in which the spikes and spines functioned is elusive--were these used in male-on-male combat, as are antlers and horns in modern hoofed mammals? Or did these ridges and frills enable muscle attachment and augment the power of grinding jaws, as do the crests on the skulls of modern gorillas? Were they part of a mating display, highlighting the physicality and foraging prowess of a male, like long tail feathers of birds or the antlers of extinct Irish elk? Did these horns dissipate heat, or increase hearing range, functions demonstrated for antlers and horns in mammals? Because these functions are not mutually exclusive and at least some act in concert in modern animals, comparative biology is silent on the probability of each of the possibilities leaving room for a little mystery.

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