Mountain Chickadee Brains

Mountain Chickadee Brains

One interesting scientific question is whether brain cells can be increased or replenished. People say the brain is the only body part where the cells are not replaced every seven years. That seems reasonable since replacing brain cells could cause us to lose stored memories. Doctors are limited in what they can do to help people with brain injuries because of the inability to repair or replace brain cells. Scientists have found some interesting facts in a recent study of mountain chickadee brains.

The study at the University of Nevada has shown that brains can change when environmental factors demand it. Researchers comparing the brains of chickadees separated by a few kilometers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains found substantial differences in the brains of the two populations. Chickadees living at an elevation of 7800 feet showed significant brain differences compared to those living at 5900 feet. The hippocampus of the higher-elevation chickadees was larger, and the neuron density was greater. Tests showed enhanced spatial cognition at higher elevations, so caching and recovering food will be better for the higher mountain chickadee brains.

If you assume that both populations of chickadees came from a common ancestor, then brain development genetic change has been catalyzed by environmental factors. For example, a greater need for food caching and recall has led to physical changes in mountain chickadee brains.

The question is, could we apply this to humans with brain injuries? Is the brain designed to allow this kind of change? The brains of chickadees living in the harshest environment must develop better spatial memory to survive. Does this mean human intelligence can be affected by life challenges and environments? We need to point out that intelligence is not necessarily related to brain size because a bigger brain does not mean you are more intelligent.

Studies like this demonstrate the flexibility God designed into the DNA of living things. So maybe being called a “bird brain” is not as derogatory as people previously thought.

— John N. Clayton © 2023

Reference: Living Bird magazine from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the winter of 2023, pages 46 – 53, and “Harsh Mountain Winters Have Made Chickadees Smarter” at allaboutbirds.org

Echidnas Are Extremely Sensitive to Heat

Echidnas Are Extremely Sensitive to Heat

One of the most curious animals on our planet is the short-beaked echidna found in Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea. This animal is a monotreme, a mammal that lays eggs. The echidna and the duckbill platypus are the best-known animals in this grouping. Echidnas eat ants, so they are also known as spiny anteaters. What you probably don’t know is that echidnas are extremely sensitive to heat. 

An echidna’s body temperature is normally 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit). If the environmental temperature hits 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), it can be fatal for echidnas. This may sound like an impossible situation since Australia can be very hot, especially in the Dryandra Woodland and Boyagin Nature Reserve. That is where a large echidna population lives about 170 km (105 miles) south of Perth. 

Research published in Biology Letters studied 124 echidnas to see how the animals could handle the heat since they can’t dissipate it by panting, sweating, or licking. The researchers found that echidnas blow bubbles from their noses. The bubbles burst and wet the nose tip. As the moisture evaporates, it cools the animal. The evaporation of water at 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit removes 540 calories per gram of water evaporated. Even though echidnas are extremely sensitive to heat, evaporation protects them from injury.

In addition to the bubble-blowing snout, echidnas have quills to protect them from predators. The echidna’s unique design is very difficult to explain by chance evolution. Instead, God has designed creatures to survive as they deal with the varied conditions around the planet. Everywhere we look, we see that a wonder-working hand has gone before. 

— John N. Clayton © 2023

Reference: Biology Letters and “This egg-laying mammal blows bubbles to cool off” by Ashley Strickland posted on CNN World January 18, 2023

What is a Fetus According to Science?

What is a Fetus According to Science?

One of the most distressing aspects of the abortion debate is the refusal of the press to address scientific facts. What is a fetus? According to Dr. Michael Egnor, Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, there are three choices scientifically: 

  1. It is a part of the mother’s body.
  2. It is not a part of the mother’s body but an individual of another species. 
  3. It is not any kind of living thing but just a clump of biological molecules undergoing chemical reactions

So, then what is a fetus?

If you accept # 1, then all pregnant women are chromosome mosaics with two sets of genomes. That means that 50% of all pregnant women are hermaphrodites having both male and female tissue. If the new life begins with a piece of the mother’s body becoming a new organism, that would be called “budding.” Budding is a form of asexual reproduction used by some species of worms, sponges, corals, and microorganisms. That is not a means of human reproduction. The fetus is not a part of the mother’s body, which is why women experience morning sickness. Her immune system is trying to reject something that is not a part of her body. 

If you accept # 2, then the fetus is a parasitic disease. The transition of this non-human parasite into a human being would be an example of speciation. You would have to call the fetus “Homo-fetus” as it evolves into homo sapiens.

If you accept #3 and say that a fetus is just a clump of biological molecules undergoing chemical reactions, then each pregnancy is an “origin of life” event. It is non-living matter transforming into life. 

Dr. Egnor says that all three of those options are “scientific nonsense.” What is a fetus according to science? He says that the scientific fact is that human life begins when the sperm fertilizes the egg. He concludes his article by saying, “The term’ person’ is a moral and legal category, not a scientific category, and it is a category open to moral discussion and debate. But “human being” is a scientific term, and it is not open to debate. The science is settled. Human life begins at fertilization, and cogent moral reasoning about abortion must begin with that scientific fact.” 

The bottom line is that humanity must decide whether or not it is acceptable to kill a human being who is a burden. We are going down a dangerous and destructive road when we avoid the scientific evidence and the biblical view of the value of human life. Whatever argument someone can make for abortion can also be used to justify the termination of those who are disabled, mentally ill, or too old to function without assistance.

— John N. Clayton © 2023

Reference: “If a Fetus Isn’t a Human Being, What Is It?” by Dr. Michael Egnor on evolutionnews.org

A Grass Called Wheat and the Bread of Life

A Grass Called Wheat and the Bread of Life

The cultivation of a grass called wheat (Triticum aestivum) reaches far back into history. That grass became one of the first domesticated food crops and has been a primary staple food for people ever since. Today, wheat is grown on more land area than any other commercial crop and continues to be an essential food grain source for people. As a result, world trade in wheat is higher than for all other crops combined.

Although small, a wheat kernel has three main parts that enable it to feed the world. The source of white flour comes from the endosperm, which makes up about 83% of the kernel. Bran is the outer coat of the kernel, making up about 14%, and provides an excellent source of fiber. The smallest part of the kernel is the germ. It makes up only about 2.5% of the kernel and stores the embryo. People who mill flour separate the germ from other parts of the wheat kernel because it contains fat that limits flour’s shelf-life.

The endosperm of the wheat kernel contains a protein called gluten. It allows bread dough to rise by trapping minute bubbles of carbon dioxide when fermentation occurs in the leavened dough. Unfortunately, a small segment of the world’s population has to avoid eating gluten because of gluten sensitivity or a more serious autoimmune disorder known as coeliac disease. However, wheat is the most nourishing of the cereal grains, containing vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and fats to make a highly nutritious combination.

The grass called wheat is mentioned many times in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus referred to wheat in His parables and used it to illustrate principles in other ways. For example, people use wheat to make bread, and Jesus referred to himself as the Bread of Life. For thousands of years, wheat has been a vital part of the human diet, and the need for it only becomes greater as the population grows. Likewise, people worldwide need Jesus, the Bread of Life, who can teach us how to live in peace, give us meaning and purpose in life, and bring us into a relationship with God.

— Roland Earnst © 2023

Why Would a Good God Create Viruses?

Why Would a Good God Create Viruses?

Think of the many illnesses that viruses cause, such as rabies, polio, Ebola, measles, mumps, yellow fever, influenza, HIV, chicken pox, hepatitis, shingles, rabies, and, of course, COVID. That is only a partial list. Some skeptics use this as an argument against the existence of God. Why would a good God create viruses?

Viruses are diverse and abundant beyond what we can imagine. The truth is that life on Earth could not exist without them. Even though many of them cause harm, they are essential tools in God’s construction of life.

By the usual definition of life, viruses are not alive since they cannot reproduce on their own. Instead, they must enter a living cell and coopt its replication functions to produce more of themselves. First, they hijack the 3D-printing machinery of the cell that turns genetic information into proteins. Then they damage the cell as they break out and spread to other cells. At least, that’s what happens in the case of the diseases mentioned. In COVID, the damage is to the victim’s respiratory tissue cells. So, why would a good God create viruses?

Viruses are present in every species of living creatures. They can be considered parasites, but sometimes they are in a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationship with their host. They may remain dormant or even contribute to adaptive benefits. Problems often arise when a virus from one species enters another species. That is what happened with COVID and many other viral diseases. Most of them are known to have come into the human population from animals.

Scientists have only recently discovered that some viruses serve as food for certain microbes. They found that a single-celled microbe in the genus Hateria can live and grow on a virus diet, eating up to a million viruses per day. In turn, microbes are eaten by larger plankton which are consumed by larger predators which find their way into the stomachs of ever larger creatures going up the food chain to sustain life.

In addition to viruses contributing adaptive benefits to their hosts and providing food for microbes, they also serve other ecological roles. For example, some viruses infect algae. Algae blooms harm marine life, but the invading viruses help to control these aquatic algae blooms. Scientists have also found that viruses have contributed genes to human DNA that assist in embryonic development and help us resist infections and even fight off cancer.

So there are answers to the skeptic’s challenge, “Why would a good God create viruses?” Viruses are not evil, but they are a reflection of the design of the world in which we live. Their complexity allows them to shape and mold every aspect of the design of life.

— Roland Earnst © 2023

References: “Viruses as prey? It’s just one of the surprising roles they play” and “How viruses shape our world” on NationalGeographic.com

Flamingos Sleep Standing on One Leg

Flamingos Sleep Standing on One Leg

Most of us have seen flamingos or at least pictures of them. Their bright pink plumage is hard to miss, and it is quite a sight when they travel in groups. We also may have marveled at a bird that eats with its head upside down. Even more remarkable is the fact that flamingos sleep standing on one leg. Because they retract the other leg into their body, people assumed that the one-legged stance was to conserve body heat. However, researchers investigating this odd behavior have found that it is both an energy-saving and safety design.

A flamingo’s knee is located close to its body. The joint you may have thought was the knees is actually the ankle. Researchers found that flamingos can lock their knee and stabilize their center of gravity over one leg. When flamingos sleep standing on one leg, they are very stable. When asleep, their swaying decreases sevenfold compared to when they are awake. They have virtually no muscle movements in their legs and feet while they sleep. In fact, dead flamingos are capable of standing on one leg when placed in a vertical position.

Roosting is one of the most dangerous times for any bird because predators can sneak up on them. However, Flamingos can roost while standing in water away from the shore, significantly reducing their risk of being eaten. The design of their legs and knees allows this unusual method of survival.

God has provided special equipment for survival to all living things. We cannot see the unique characteristics of flamingos as accidental mutations. God’s design is incredible and allows the great diversity we see in life on Earth.

— John N. Clayton © 2023

Sand Scorpions and Earthquake Epicenters

Sand Scorpions and Earthquake Epicenters
Sand Scorpion

An environmental design feature we often overlook is the need to control insect populations. Insects do many good things, but if their numbers are not controlled, they can wipe out other forms of life – especially plants. Sand scorpions help control insects in the Mohave Desert using a method similar to how geologists locate earthquake epicenters.

Earthquakes generate longitudinal and transverse waves. Longitudinal waves travel faster. Close to the earthquake epicenters, the two wave types arrive at about the same time, but farther from the epicenter, the time difference becomes greater. Geologists can accurately compute the earthquake’s epicenter by measuring the difference at various locations.

Sand scorpions use a similar technique to locate their prey. The scorpion has eight legs that can detect vibrations of one angstrom (which is the size of a hydrogen atom). An insect traveling either under the surface or on the surface of the ground creates tiny vibrations. The scorpion detects the direction of the prey by comparing when its legs receive the signal from the prey’s movement. Legs closer to the prey detect the signal before legs further away, and the time difference between the two types of waves is a few microseconds.

By comparing the time difference, the scorpion can compute the distance and direction to the prey. The scorpion then moves in that direction and stops at the distance indicated by the arrival times of the vibrations. It then stabs with its pincers at that point and gets its meal without seeing its prey.

Using a method similar to the way geologists locate earthquake epicenters, sand scorpions, hunting primarily at night, can control insect populations in the Mohave Desert. The many ways the natural system maintains balance is an excellent testimony for design. The creation is not an accident but the product of a Supreme Intelligence that has built these systems into our world.

— John N. Clayton © 2023

Reference: Halliday, Resnick, and Walker Fundamentals of Physics 6th edition in the “Waves” chapter, and a research report by Dr. Bijan Nemati at the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

Human Metabolism and Food Energy Production

Human Metabolism and Food Energy Production

Some say that the human body is no different from the bodies of other mammals, and in some senses, that is true. We all have hearts, stomachs, livers, etc., and our body chemistry is pretty much the same. If that were not true, we would be unable to eat meat or maintain a body temperature different from our environment. Still, despite these similarities, there are huge differences between human metabolism and the way we produce the food energy our bodies use.

For our body size, humans consume more calories each day than any other mammal. Evolutionists attempt to relate humans to chimps, gorillas, and orangutans, but the way humans handle food energy is radically different from the apes. When a baby human is born, its metabolism is very similar to an adult human, but it skyrockets over the first year of life. By the first birthday, toddlers burn over 50% more energy than we would expect for their size. Much of this consumption is to develop the brain. Throughout childhood, human metabolism will decline, reaching adult levels at around age 20, with boys declining more slowly than girls. After that, the energy expenditure is steady from age 20 until about age 60, and then it declines again.

Chimps, gorillas, and orangutans foraging for food can obtain between 200 and 300 k/cal each hour. At that rate, it takes apes about seven hours of foraging to get the k/cal they need for the day. Human metabolism requires more k/cal per day – around 2000 for women and 2500 for men, depending on body mass, activity, and age. Human hunter-gatherers can easily bring in 3000 to 5000 food k/cal per hour. Farmers produce much more than that. Until the middle 1800s, more than half of America’s workforce were farmers. Since humans have not had to spend so many hours obtaining food, we have time to devote ourselves to science, medicine, teaching, and the arts.

Human efficiency of food production allows children the freedom to grow and learn without spending every waking hour finding food. The problem we have involves food distribution and food waste. Our bodies are amazing machines of human metabolism. Herman Pontzer of the Duke Global Health Institute wrote, “The human body is a wonder of coordinated chaos. Every second of every day, each of your 37 trillion cells is hard at work, pulling in nutrients, building new proteins, and doing the myriad of other tasks that keep you alive.”

The human body is uniquely designed to serve others and serve God. That fact led the Psalmist to write, “I will praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I know that full well” (Psalms 139:14). It also speaks to the value of human life and the importance of living as God has called us to live.

— John N. Clayton © 2023

Reference: “New Human Metabolism Research Upends Conventional Wisdom about How We Burn Calories” by Herman Pontzer in Scientific American magazine, January 2023.

Glass Frogs Become Translucent

Glass Frogs Becomes Translucent
Hyalinobatrachium fleischmanni

One of the most compelling examples of design in natural things is a frog that escapes predators by making itself practically invisible. During the day, glass frogs (Hyalinobatrachium Fleischmanni) can be up to 61% transparent while sleeping on green leaves in their native Central and South America. At night, they regain their color and become active. Medical researchers want to know how they do this because it might give a clue about how to avoid blood clotting in humans.

Somehow, glass frogs separate their red blood cells from the blood plasma. The plasma is still circulating, and if you look closely, you can see the heart beating. But the red blood cells are temporarily stored in the liver, making the frog transparent enough to avoid notice by predators. When the frog becomes active, its color returns, and, like most frogs, it can evade predators.

Jesse Delia, a researcher at the Museum of Natural History in New York, and Carlos Taboada of Duke University have used ultrasound imaging technology to understand what the glass frogs are doing. They found that the frogs store their red blood cells in the liver, enlarging it by 40%.

The challenges the glass frogs are able to overcome include having little or no oxygen while avoiding blood clotting. That is what the medical researchers want to understand because the application to anti-blood-clotting medications could be significant.

God has built many techniques for survival into living things, and this is one of the most interesting. We continue to learn from the things God has made.

— John N. Clayton © 2023

Reference: BBC News and the journal Science

Spider Webs Have Great Diversity

Spider Webs Have Great Diversity

Not all spiderwebs are the same. The web shape and use are different from one spider species to another. However, scientists have identified more than 49,000 species, so spider webs have great diversity.

Araneidae spiders make a round web with a hub in the center and radii projecting outward with rings of sticky spirals surrounding it. Most people have seen those webs in their gardens or other outdoor locations. Spiders in the family Agelenidae build horizontal sheet webs that insects fall onto. The web is not sticky, but when an insect lands on the platform, the spider quickly rushes over and injects venom into the victim.

The Deinopis spiders are net-casters. They make a small square web and hide above it until an insect walks below. The spider drops the net on the unsuspecting prey and then wraps it in silk. One New Guinea spider species makes a long ladder web to capture moths. The moth’s protective coating falls off when sliding down the ladder, and then it gets stuck. In Australia, a species of orb-weaving spiders produce giant net-like webs up to three feet in diameter.

We can see that spiders have enormous diversity in their webs. Spider silk is very acidic, so fungi and bacteria can’t exist on it. Because of that, humans have used spider webs as a treatment for wounds. Medical research has also found uses for spider venom. Researchers estimate that spiders catch up to 800 million tons of insects every year worldwide. Without spiders, we might be overrun by insects.

We tend to have a negative view of spiders, but they are one of God’s great tools to protect us and help make the world a better place. Spiders are not aggressive toward humans, but they can inflict a painful and sometimes dangerous bite when we invade their spaces. Like many other things, we must learn how to manage spiders and their varied webs designed to remove the plague of insects from our lives.

Reference: The International Society of Arachnology in the Old Farmer’s Almanac 2023, pages 186-7.