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

Asking a Computer if God Exists

Asking a Computer if God Exists

Years ago, I heard a joke that went something like this. Scientists developed a massively powerful computer that could answer any question. The researchers asked the computer, “How did the universe begin?” The computer whirred, lights flashed, and out popped this answer: “See Genesis 1:1.” That joke originated when computers filled a large room, had spinning reels of tape and flashing lights, and used punch cards. Now, computers are small, use keyboards and monitors, have voice recognition, and speak in many languages. Soon we may have quantum computers with capabilities only dreamed of today. Have you ever tried asking a computer if God exists?

A topic that has received much publicity in recent months is artificial intelligence (AI). As computers become more humanlike with their ability to speak and answer questions, we are coming to depend on them more and more. Knowledgeable people suggest that the growth of AI will dramatically affect business, medicine, and entertainment. Other areas expected to face major changes because of AI are work, war, and education.

Recently, I have seen articles concerning a new AI development that worries educators. It’s called ChatGPT. This app can do more than answer questions. It can write essays. A student with an assignment to write a 500-word essay on a subject can input the topic and let ChatGPT write the paper. I decided this would be a good opportunity for asking a computer if God exists.

Going back to that old story, I asked the computer, “How did the universe begin?” ChatGPT responded with a 237-word essay on the Big Bang that agreed with current scientific theories. It was nicely worded, grammatically correct, and would probably satisfy a school teacher. However, it didn’t fully answer the question, just as the Big Bang theory does not.

Then I asked ChatGPT to write an essay about proving the existence of God. The result was 430 words that read in part:

“One of the most commonly cited arguments for the existence of God is the cosmological argument. This argument states that the universe had a beginning, and that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. Therefore, it is reasoned that the universe must have been caused by something that exists outside of the universe, and that this cause is God. This argument is based on the principle of causality, which states that for every effect, there must be a cause.
Another argument for the existence of God is the teleological argument. This argument states that the universe is complex and ordered, with many intricate systems and processes that work together in harmony. This complexity and order is argued to be the result of an intelligent designer, which is God. The design argument is based on the idea that the universe is too complex and ordered to be the result of chance, and that it must have been created by an intelligent being.
A third argument that is often used to prove the existence of God is the moral argument. This argument states that humans have a moral sense, and that this moral sense must come from a higher being, which is God. The moral argument is based on the idea that moral laws and values cannot be explained by natural causes, but must be the result of an intelligent and moral being.
Some people argue that the existence of God can be known through personal experience, through faith. They believe that God can reveal himself in personal experiences, such as through prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practices. They argue that the existence of God is something that can be known through a personal relationship with God, and not something that can be proven through reason or science.”


That summarized the arguments for God’s existence. Then, however, I decided to make the question more direct by asking a computer if God exists. So I asked ChatGPT, “Does God exist?” The answer came back in 195 words that concluded with:

“Ultimately, the question of whether or not God exists is a matter of personal belief and faith. It is important for individuals to form their own opinions on the matter based on their own experiences, beliefs and personal understanding of the world.”

Since ChatGPT never referred me to Genesis 1:1, I decided to ask, “What do we learn from Genesis 1:1?” I received this response:

“It teaches that God is the creator of all things, including the heavens and the earth. Additionally, it implies that God’s creation of the universe was a purposeful and deliberate act, rather than the result of chance or natural processes.”

I certainly can’t argue with that. I conclude that asking a computer if God exists will never result in a definitive answer to the question. Each of us must reach our own conclusion based on examining the evidence with an open mind.

— Roland Earnst © 2023

Reference: ChatGPT from OpenAI

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

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.

Potential Life-Supporting Planets are Hard to Find

Potential Life-Supporting Planets are Hard to Find
Exoplanet Concept

Astronomers have discovered over 5,000 exoplanets in the last 30 years, and 2022 was a banner year. Exoplanets are planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. Astronomers are looking for potential life-supporting planets similar to Earth but orbiting another star like our Sun.

If you are going to find life in space, it would have to be on a planet with surface water and an atmosphere that provides oxidation and protects the surface from radiation and meteorite bombardment. Unfortunately, potential life-supporting planets are hard to find. Here is the breakdown of exoplanet characteristics so far:

*30% of all exoplanets are gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn.
*35% are like Neptune or Uranus, with densities so low that no life form could exist and no surface features that could sustain life.
*31% of all exoplanets are called super-earths which may have rocky surfaces but are too massive to support the chemicals needed for life. They lie somewhere between the mass of Earth and the mass of Neptune.
*Only 4% of all exoplanets are considered to be terrestrial, like Earth. However, many of them orbit the wrong kind of star, have no magnetic field, or have other properties that would be hostile to any life form.


The bottom line is that the study of exoplanets has shown the exceptional qualities of our planet and solar system. We must take care of planet Earth because we have no other potential life-supporting planets to migrate to if we make this planet hostile to life. God designed not only the life on our planet but also the conditions that allow that life to exist.

There are many possible explanations for why exoplanets exist. For example, they may be debris from the construction of our universe or the preparation for other life forms in the distant future. The message of exoplanets is that our planet is unique. The statement “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the skies show the work of His hands” takes on a special meaning in the light of what we see in space.

— John N. Clayton © 2023

Data from NASA/JPL-Caltech reported in Discover magazine January/February 2023.

Bird Nest Designs Display Wisdom

Bird Nest Designs Display Wisdom
Stork Pair Sitting on Their Nest

We tend to ignore the hidden intelligence of design in the natural world. One great example is the wisdom of bird nests. We see that wisdom in a wide variety of bird nest designs in how and where they build and how they use them. 

You may think that bird nests are where birds live, but that isn’t true. Birds do not sleep in their nests, and most birds never return to their nests once their young can fly. Instead, when it’s time to sleep, birds roost in safe, comfortable places. This may be a well-sheltered tree or a sheltered spot under an eave. Perching birds have locking tendons in their legs and feet so they can hold tight to branches, even when they are sleeping. 

When building their nests, birds use ingenious ways to protect their eggs and baby birds. Two main techniques are camouflage and making nests hard to reach. For example, hummingbirds weave their nests with natural objects to blend in with tree branches. Cactus wrens build their nest in sharp-spined cholla cacti, which few predators can navigate. Birds use common materials such as lichens and leaf scraps held together with spider web threads that can stretch as the young grow. 

Some birds set up decoys by building an empty dummy nest in addition to their real one. Flycatchers weave snakeskins into their nests to frighten away squirrels and other nest raiders. Seabirds lay pear-shaped eggs on cliffs beyond where predators can climb. The shape of the eggs keeps them from rolling off the cliff. Some birds will nest within a wing’s reach of each other, so there are many defenders against an approaching predator. 

Small birds sometimes build their nests near large birds for protection. Sparrows and hummingbirds nest within an abandoned eagle’s nest or Cooper’s hawk nest. Snow geese nest near a snowy owl’s nest. Egrets and herons nest above alligator ponds to keep raccoons away. Some wading birds fake an “incubation pose” to decoy predators from their actual nest location.

Other bird nest designs include a floating nest of aquatic vegetation that moves with changing water levels. The decaying vegetation also generates warmth to help incubate the eggs. Canadian jays situate their nests, so they have southern exposure to give them extra heat. All birds line their nests with their own feathers so the featherless baby birds can stay warm. Some species will even pull fur from dogs and other animals to line their nests for warmth. 

Bird nest designs take advantage of many locations to give their babies a chance to survive. For example, Wrens, barn swallows, purple martins, and house finches use locations that include human structures, such as highway overpasses, abandoned cars, skyscraper ledges, and traffic lights. 

Observing the many bird nest designs is a great way to see the wisdom and design God gave them. In Job 39, God challenges Job to explain how various birds do what they do. Job responds by saying, “Who is he that gives counsel without knowledge? Therefore have I uttered things that I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know about” (Job 42:3). The natural world displays so much design and wisdom that we need to have that same attitude.

— John N. Clayton © 2023

Reference: Old Farmer’s Almanac for 2023, Number 231, pages 56- 64.