L is for Living Relatives

Dinosaurs could see in color. The EPB-living relative theory says so. Picture by Sergey Krasovskiy.

EPB. Remember those letters when you think of dinosaurs. They’re hard words–extant phylogenetic bracket–which I will define shortly. But they are like a magic wand for paleontologists and paleobiologists. EPB lets scientists looking at fossil bones, those 100-million-year old rocks, tell what kind of muscles they had, whether their blood vessels were strong, and whether they could see in color. Scientists can tell all sorts of things about the soft tissues inside those bones because they can compare them to the closest Living Relative. (I was going to include this under letter E, but I had to talk about extinction, so I’m slipping it in here under L. By inference, which is how EPB works.)

EPB: Big Words, Brilliant Idea

Let’s break this acronym down. Extant is the opposite of extinct, so that refers to something living, in particular a species or group of animals (remember C for Clade). Phylogenetic is a mouthful. Phylo means group and genetic refers to a group. Bracket also means group.

extant (living) + phylogenetic (group evolutionary tree) + bracket (group) = EPB

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Drought’s Over, Right?

One good January won’t reverse climate change. Photo from Reuters.

Californians always seem to have too much of something: too much sun, too much traffic, too much money, too much water in the wrong place at the wrong time, and not enough elsewhere. Our recent spate of rainy days caused massive flooding and damage, and we gritted our teeth, slowing down for all the construction equipment, muttering the magic words “snowpack” under our breath. Every day in late December and January, the local newscast would have a story that started with, “The rain this past week has everybody asking, ‘Is the Drought over?'” Researchers say…


The creek near Niles Canyon. Spikes won’t last long enough. Photo from waterdata.usg.gov.

It Ain’t Enough

Our snowpack level is at 205%. Woohoo! Creeks have flooded, hills have slid, and all the measurements that can have spiked. But don’t be fooled by all the temporary flooding.

There is good news. The snowpack is at its deepest level in 30 years. News stories like this one are saying “the drought could be coming to an end.” Dams like Shasta and Oroville are back up to 65-70%. This is cool! How many times have we driven by Mt. Shasta when it didn’t have any snow in March? That was depressing. This is good. We want rain; we want snow. Sorry to all of you stuck in snow traffic on highway 50. Too many, California, too many skiers, too much traffic. Same as it ever was.

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Sewage, Save Us!

Wastewater monitoring in Bay Area, courtesy of covid-web.org

Who knew that effluent could be interesting? Who knew that the poop emoji was grinning for a reason? Who could have foretold, two years ago, that wastewater would be the key to everything? The scientists did.

Scientists have been closely monitoring wastewater and COVID since the start of the pandemic, and their data has helped predict patterns that have proved essential to acting on the spread of the disease. This kind of analysis has saved lives before and may be more common than we knew.

Dr. John Snow, who knew plenty. Photo from wikipedia.

The Intrepid Sewage Scientists of Yesteryear

The year is 1854, London. You’ve read your Dickens, so you can visualize the urchins, the dark and narrow alleys, the choking industrial pollution. And the sewage–open cesspool holes near houses and channels of who-knows-what running near the sidewalks. There’s a cholera outbreak, and cholera has to be one of the nastiest diseases ever invented by that clever bacteria kingdom. I mean, if you’re evil bacteria and you want to spread across your host population as quickly as possible, what better way than to infect a human intestinal tract then produce explosive, watery … uh…. output.

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