Zebra Finch Memory Mapping Skills

Zebra Finch Memory Mapping Skills

Researchers at the University of California – Berkeley have been studying the ability of birds to use a language skill called “fast mapping.” Until now, only humans have shown this ability. However, scientists are discovering zebra finch memory mapping skills.

The researchers examined 20 birds to see what they could remember and how they used the retained information. The researchers found that the finches could identify their mates’ calls 100% of the time. Furthermore, they could identify the calls of every member of their flock for more than a month. They could even do this when they heard the calls of the other finches as few as five times. Even more interesting is that they demonstrated these skills even with changing calls.

It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to see how valuable this memory ability is. For example, birds that flock together need to be able to recognize every member of their flock. Scientists are using this information to study other animals.

Memory is not dependent on the size of the brain.
The zebra finch is a very small bird, and some large animals do not seem to have the memory ability that these finches demonstrate.

Human memory is a subject of intense study, with dementia and Alzheimer’s increasingly becoming a problem that affects us all. Understanding the brain’s design that allows memory storage is essential to improving our ability to store and recall information. Perhaps the zebra finch memory mapping skills can help us understand more of how God designed brains to work.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Reference: National Wildlife magazine, October/November 2021, page 8.

The Purpose for the Woolly Mammoth

The Purpose for the Woolly Mammoth

Often when we see fossil evidence of extinct animals, we wonder what purpose that animal served. For example, the giant plant-eating dinosaurs not only pruned the fast-growing plants of the world in which they lived, but they also spread the plant seeds and fertilized the ground where the plants grew. So what was the purpose for the woolly mammoth?

Russian researchers have found that woolly mammoths played a significant role in shaping the Siberian tundra in the ancient past. Today we see that massive amounts of moss dominate the terrain and causing a build-up of carbon dioxide. Woolly mammoths pulverized the moss, clearing the way for grass to spring up. They enriched the soil for the grass to grow, and the grass stopped soil erosion and took in carbon dioxide.

An American company wants to reconstruct the woolly mammoth’s genome and create herds of woolly mammoths to repeat what happened in the past. That company believes they can increase grass growth and create a whole industry based on herds of woolly mammoths.

This scenario sounds similar to the theme of the movie Jurassic Park. Unfortunately, we don’t have good information about what woolly mammoths were like, how they lived, and what diseases they carried. God had a purpose for woolly mammoths, and the research by the Russian scientists tells how that system worked in the past. When humans try to duplicate what God did, they usually do more damage than good.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Reference: The Herald Bulletin, Anderson, Indiana, October 2, 2020, page A6.

Earth Is Spinning on its Axis

Earth Is Spinning on its Axis

Earth is spinning on its axis, and we can be thankful that it’s spinning at the right speed for life to exist.

If the Earth turned too slowly, surface temperatures would warm too much during the day and cool too much at night. Under those conditions, plants could not survive the long periods of darkness. If plants didn’t survive, animals and humans could not survive either.

If Earth rotated too fast, the temperature would go through wild extremes. Furthermore, a faster spin rate would create strong and dangerous cyclonic winds because of the Coriolis force. Jupiter spins nearly three times as fast as Earth, and astronomers can observe severe tornado and hurricane-like disturbances on its surface.

Earth’s spin rate is slowing and will continue to do so just as a spinning top slows down. However, there is no need to worry because the slowing is very gradual, lengthening the day by less than two milliseconds in a hundred years.

It’s the rotation of Earth on its axis that gives us day and night. In Genesis 1:14, we read about God moving away the clouds of darkness to reveal the Sun, Moon, and stars, which He had created in verse 1. Genesis 1:2 tells us that darkness covered the planet, and in Job 38:9, God tells us that the darkness was because of a garment of clouds. We need daylight for activities of life and night as a time of rest. Every animal, even insects, needs sleep. To thrive, plants also need a daily period of darkness.

Earth is spinning on its axis, and our day and night cycle is one of the many factors that make Earth the “Goldilocks” place–“just right” for humans to live. The chance of all those factors coming together by accident is beyond the realm of probability. Therefore, we suggest that this planet is not an accident but part of a divine design requiring a Designer.

— Roland Earnst © 2021

Unusual Giraffe Features

Unusual Giraffe Features

In an American Scientist magazine article titled “Watchdogs of the Savanna,” Charlotte Ricker described unusual giraffe features. Here are some of those features:

HEIGHT: A giraffe can be almost 19 feet (5.8 meters) tall. For that reason, the circulatory system has to be specially designed to provide enough pressure to supply blood to the brain. That requires special features of the blood vessels, heart, and kidneys. In addition, the long neck allows giraffes to obtain food that other herbivores can’t reach and to see predators from a distance. Because of that, other animals rely on giraffes to alert them of danger.

EYES: Giraffes have the largest eyes of any land animal, allowing them to see those predators. Their long and sensitive eyelashes keep insects away and sense thorns on the acacia tree branches they eat. 

PATTERN: The irregular brown markings on the giraffe are not just for appearance. They act as thermal windows with a complex circulatory system around each splotch to radiate or absorb heat.

SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP: Birds called the oxpeckers have feet designed to cling to the giraffe as they eat ticks and other insects from its skin. This provides food for the oxpeckers and protection for the giraffes. Oxpeckers even clean the giraffe’s teeth. 

LEGS: The giraffe’s thin legs have a “suspensory ligament,” which allows them to support their weight of up to a fourth of a ton (1270 kgs). This unusual giraffe feature gives them the ability to run up to 37 miles per hour (60 km/hr) and a kick strong enough to kill a lion. 

NECK: The neck contains seven cervical vertebrae, the same as a human, but each vertebra can be nearly a foot long. Ball and socket joints connect them for a 360-degree motion range. In addition, a special ligament from the skull to the base of the tail counteracts the weight of the neck and head to relieve muscle strain. 

When you see these unusual giraffe features, you have to ask how they originated. Are they the product of evolutionary processes, or were they designed by an intelligence to fulfill a specific purpose in a given environment? The more unique characteristics we see, the less likely that chance processes could have produced them. These are simplified explanations of a few of the design features of a very complex animal.

Looking at the complexity of all living things is an excellent testimony to the wisdom and planning of God. “We can know there is a God through the things He has made” (Romans 1:20). 

For more information, read Charlott Ricker’s article “Watchdogs of the Savanna” in American Scientist magazine November/December 2021, page 330. 

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Understanding Insect Brains

Understanding Insect Brains -Apple Fly
Apple Fly

One of the mysteries that concern farmers, medical researchers, and biologists alike is how bugs do what they do. How does the apple fly find the apple where it mates and lays its eggs that grow into apple maggots? How does a fly know when I lift a fly swatter that it needs to take off? How does that same fly find some food I left on the table? Scientists find a challenge in understanding insect brains.

The ordinary fly has 1/200,000 as many neurons as a human. But when robotics experts try to build a robot that can do what a fly can do using computer algorithms and bio-based solutions, they are spectacularly unsuccessful. Flying through three-dimensional space is especially difficult when ten meters is the farthest distance you can perceive visual information.

Research has shown that the common insect with wings, six legs, and several hundred lenses can solve problems in flight. They can locate objects of interest by combining sensory clues. Visual senses prevent them from running into things as they fly. Touch clues allow them to sense the wind. They have a sense of smell a million times more sensitive than what humans have. They use polarization patterns to help identify targets and temperatures ahead of them. According to leading entomologist Thomas Eisner of Cornell University, understanding insect brains requires us to “think like a fly.”

Remember that not running into things is only one concern an insect has. Avoiding enemies, mating, and recognizing an approaching object are also necessary skills. For example, apple maggots happen because the insect can identify color, shape, size, and odor to distinguish between an apple and a pear.

There are many reasons understanding insect brains is essential. For example, to avoid infestations of apple maggots without using harsh chemicals, we must understand the mechanisms of the apple fly and know how to defeat the process.

The skeptic will ask, “Why do these insects exist? Why did God allow apple maggots or the common housefly?” We must remember that insects are a staple in the food chain affecting many birds and mammals. Also, we must have living things that can process waste materials. Flies lay eggs that produce larvae called maggots that break down animal carcasses. Imagine a world where there were no processors of dead animals.

Thousands of years ago, God instructed the Israelites how to avoid most insect-carried diseases, such as by burying sewage instead of throwing it on the ground. Insects are a vital part of our world, and we could not exist without them. Managing resources intelligently is an essential part of human survival, and that requires understanding insect brains and how they work.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Data from: “Insect Decision Making” by Shannon Olson and Pavan Kumar Kaushik, American Scientist, Volume 109, November/December 2021, pages 368-375.

October Meteor Showers

Jupiter Comet Shield and October Meteor Showers
Jupiter Struck by Shoemaker-Levy 9

October is the month for two meteor showers—Draconid and Orionid. They get their names from the constellations closest to the places in the night sky where they seem to originate. The truth is that they have no connection to those constellations. Instead, these October meteor showers come from comets.

Meteor showers result from Earth passing through dust trails left by comets. The Draconids peaked this year on the night between October 8 and 9. They originate from debris left by comet 21P/Giaconini-Zinner that makes a revolution around the Sun every 6.6 years. Every October, when Earth passes through the dirty dust trail, the bits of debris burn up from friction as they enter the atmosphere at extremely high speed, and we see them as “shooting stars.”

The Orionid meteors are the result of Halley’s Comet. That comet makes a complete orbit around the Sun every 76 years, but Earth passes through the left-over debris twice a year in May and October. This year’s Orionid shower will peak on the night between October 20 and 21. However, a few of them may be visible even tonight as the October meteor showers almost overlap.

Unlike asteroids, which can be very large and cause severe damage, comet dust is beautiful but harmless. The Chixculub asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was 6.2 miles (10 km) in diameter. The impact was like a 100 million megaton bomb blast, and it wiped out three-fourths of all plant and animal life on Earth.

What if a whole comet struck planet Earth? The result would be catastrophic. We can find comfort in the fact that our solar system was designed with comet sweepers to prevent that from happening. The comet sweepers are named Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, and the main one–Jupiter. Those giant outer planets all travel in the same plane, or ecliptic, as our planet. Comets come from outside the solar system, and because those outer planets are much larger, they have much more gravity. Since they are in line with Earth’s plane, they pull in the comets before they can reach our home planet.

The picture from NASA shows some fragments of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 being pulled into Jupiter after the planet’s gravity ripped it into 21 pieces in July 1994. Those pieces were up to 1.2 miles in diameter and traveling at 134,000 miles per hour. Imagine what would have happened if that comet, or even one of those pieces, had hit the Earth! That is something to think about while watching the beauty of the October meteor showers. There is a reason why God designed the solar system the way He did. It was not an accident–and neither are we.

— Roland Earnst © 2021
Click HERE for information about viewing the Orionid Meteor Shower.

Desert Life at Wupatki National Monument

Desert Life at Wupatki National Monument
Wupatki Ballcourt

Wupatki National Monument is a protected site in Northern Arizona once inhabited by ancient pueblo people. The area’s first inhabitants arrived in about 500 A.D. After the eruption of the nearby Sunset Crater volcano, which enriched the soil with volcanic ash, the population grew to around 2,000. In 1225 the site was permanently abandoned. Desert life at Wupatki was difficult.

We visited the site in late July 2021, just after an unusual summer monsoon rain. As we walked the trail through the ruins, a park ranger was sweeping water off the path. He remarked that it had been over five years since they had rain, and he had never seen anything like that downpour.

One of the unusual features of this ancient settlement was a ballcourt surrounded by a short wall. The wall retained the water in the circular ballcourt forming a pool 105 feet (32 m) across. The ranger said it was the first time he had seen that ballcourt filled with water. Then something unusual happened. Small creatures began swimming in the “pool.”

Tourists, who thought the creatures were large tadpoles, alerted the staff who came to look. Lauren Carter, the lead interpretation ranger, examined them and did some research. She found that they were small crustaceans called triops. “Triops” is Greek for “three eyes.” These three-eyed creatures looked like miniature horseshoe crabs.

Even though the pueblo people abandoned the site centuries ago, desert life at Wupatki still exists. Triops eggs can survive in the desert soil for decades until the rain arrives to create a pool of water so the eggs can hatch. After that, they begin filter-feeding and molting until they mature in about a week. Then they lay eggs to produce a future generation.

There is also aerial desert life at Wupatki. Ravens and common nighthawks flying overhead quickly spotted the rare creatures swimming in the pool. They swooped down to gobble up some nourishment. The pool dried up in 3-4 weeks, the triops were gone, and the desert returned to its normal dry state. Thus, desert life at Wupatki was hidden away until the next significant rainfall in five or ten years, or perhaps decades.

I am amazed by God’s design for life on this planet, even in places where you can’t see it. Desert life in Wupatki has a purpose. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Faher feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matthew 6:26)

— Roland Earnst © 2021

Ultimate Meaning, Purpose, and Morality

Ultimate Meaning, Purpose, and Morality in God's Creation

I enjoy watching BBC’s video programs “Planet Earth” and “The Blue Planet” written and narrated by David Attenborough. Those programs display the fantastic beauty and design of this planet and its many living creatures. Seeing the way planet Earth’s systems work together like a well-designed machine fills me with awe. However, I find it amazing that Attenborough believes that this incredible beauty and structure came about by mere chance and natural selection without any design, purpose, or meaning. How can he not realize that ultimate meaning, purpose, and morality come from the God who created these wonders?

In his book Miracles, Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis refers to unbelievers as “naturalists.” He wrote, “A moment after they have admitted that good and evil are illusions, you will find them exhorting us to work for posterity, to educate, revolutionise, liquidate, live and die for the good of the human race.” Lewis called that “very odd.” Attenborough teaches us about the beautiful design of our planet without a Designer. He advocates for the environment, even though that environment may have no ultimate purpose or meaning. A BBC interviewer once asked Attenborough if he ever had any religious faith, and he replied “no.” He said, “It never really occurred to me to believe in God.”

When asked why he does not believe in a creator, Attenborough will point out what he considers an evil creature, such as the parasitic worm Onchocerca volvulus that infects children’s eyes in tropical climates. He said creationists believe that God created each individual species, so why would “an all-merciful God who cares for each of us individually” make a creature like that. However, as John Clayton has pointed out many times, the Bible says God created “kinds” of animals, not each individual species. (See Genesis 1:11, 12, 21, 24, and 25.) But then He specially created the first humans in His image (Genesis 1:27).

Attenborough strongly advocates for various environmentalist causes telling us what we ought or ought not to do. C.S. Lewis said that those who don’t believe in God often tell us what we ought to do, but their natural impulses can say nothing about objective right or wrong. Lewis wrote, “Do they remember while they are writing thus that when they tell us we ‘ought to make a better world’ the words ‘ought’ and ‘better’ must, on their own showing, refer to an irrationally conditioned impulse which cannot be true or false any more than a vomit or a yawn?”

Lewis goes on to say that if we make moral judgments, “then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature.” He writes that it “can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom…” In other words, ultimate meaning, purpose, and morality come from God, not evolution.

— Roland Earnst © 2021

References: Miracles by C.S. Lewis, and “David Attenborough” on Wikipedia

Flocking Behavior or Murmuration

Flocking Behavior or Murmuration
Murmuration of Common Starlings

One of the most incredible sights we frequently see in the fall of the year is the flocking behavior of birds. Starlings are one of the most visible examples, with tens of thousands forming a massive cloud of flapping wings. The term “murmuration” comes from the fact that thousands of wings flapping at once give a murmur-like sound.

National Geographic magazine (October 2021, pages 26-28) published great pictures of a starling murmuration. The magazine estimates that in their photographs, there are “tens of thousands of starlings … a quarter-mile wide, and several hundred feet tall.” The article asks the question, “What is the purpose of murmurings?” They conclude that it’s a way to avoid predators or gain a feeding advantage. Since starlings don’t eat while migrating, the magazine speculates that starling murmurations offer an advantage over the falcons that feed on starlings.

A bigger question for anyone who observes the flocking behavior of thousands of birds is how they avoid hitting each other. It seems that built into every bird is a genetically imprinted instinctive drive to synchronize their wing beat, reducing the chance of a collision. How do they navigate? I have seen a whole flock make a quick 90-degree turn in which every bird seems to have instructions of when to turn and how far.

Besides the murmuration of birds, we see flocking behavior in many forms of life. Geese fly in flocks, and salmon move upstream in groups. Insects swarm around a hive or nest to protect the hive. Wolves form a pack to bring down a large animal. There are negative swarms such as insect swarms that eat themselves out of food reserves and a bison herd running off a cliff.

Our understanding of the genetic drives designed into living things is very primitive. However, it is clear that, at least in some situations, the grouping of animals presents advantages. Watching starlings move like a giant cloud and hearing their synchronized wing beats, one has to be amazed at the design and complexity God put into all of His creatures. We are continually reminded in Romans 1:20 that “the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made … so the (unbeliever) is without excuse.”

John N. Clayton © 2021

Lightning Is a Useful Tool in God’s Creation

Lightning Is a Useful Tool in God’s Creation
Gigantic jet as seen from the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii

We previously discussed the discovery that hydroxyl radicals are natural agents that clean the atmosphere. They help remove some of the pollution that humans cause. The hydroxyl radicals are produced by lightning. People often see lightning as a harmful and destructive agent on planet Earth. However, lightning is a useful tool in God’s creation.

NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” for September 29, 2021, featured an interesting article about a type of lightning called gigantic jets. The gigantic jet shown on the APOD post moved roughly 70 kilometers in just under a second. These gigantic jets are different from the common lightning traveling from cloud to cloud or cloud to ground that we all have seen. We are less familiar with other types of lightning known as blue jets, red sprites, and these gigantic jets.

As we have said before, lightning is also part of the nitrogen-fixing system in Earth’s atmosphere. Lightning converts the nitrogen that makes up 78% of our air into the nitrates essential for plant growth. Thus, lightning is a useful tool in God’s creation to help produce our food and clean our air.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Use THIS LINK to see the APOD posting with a video of a gigantic jet.