Why Elephants are Special

from https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/html/raiseorphan.htm

As Kenyan conservationist Daphne Sheldrick mentions in a BBC Witness Interview, the poaching of elephants persists due to poverty in Africa and demand for tusks from eastern Asia. And although any poaching is shameful, that of elephants is especially poignant because they are highly social and intelligent mammals. And being tuned in to chemical compounds I have to point out that even their milk is special!

Savanna elephant populations declined by about 30 percent (equal to 144,000 elephants) between 2007 and 2014. A worse decimation occurred between 1979 and 1989 when the overall population of African elephants decreased from 1.3 million to 0.6 million. Now there are only about 350 000 elephants left on the continent. The latest decline is concentrated in certain countries where large carcasses are also found in protected areas.

Elephant population trends in GEC landscapes over the past ten years based on GEC data and comparable previous surveys (methodology in Chase et al. 2016). Red landscapes declining >5%/year, orange declining 2-5%/year, yellow declining or increasing <2%/year, pale green increasing 2-5%/year, dark green increasing >5%/year. From http://www.greatelephantcensus.com/final-report/

Poaching leaves behind orphans, and human attempts to adopt them has been difficult due to the uniqueness of the species. Baby elephants are fully dependent on mother’s milk until the age of two years old, and they aren’t fully weaned until they’re four or five. It took conservationists many years to find a suitable substitute for mother’s milk  because it is atypical of mammals’ milk. In animals as diverse as cows, sheep, humans and lions the main fatty acid is palmitic acid, a 16-carbon molecule. For example the fat in cow’s milk consists of 52% palmitic and oleic acids.

Palmitic acid,which leads to severe diarrhea in baby elephants. Each vertex in the structural diagram symbolizes a carbon atom. There are 15 such vertices; add the C in the methyl group shown and you have the 16 in C16H32O2

But although elephant’s milk has 2 to 3 times as much fat overall, 82% of the fat contains the smaller fatty acids capric and lauric acids ( 10 and 12 carbons per molecule, respectively). For a long time the adopted elephant babies were dying within as little as 24 hours from dehydration after they were fed milk containing fatty acids that they could not digest. After 28 years of trial and error, Sheldrick and her helpers came up with a tolerable milk-formula that was based on coconut milk, which is 50% lauric acid.

Lauric acid, a fatty acid that infant elephants can digest.

The infants need a support for their trunks while feeding and require constant attention. Due to their intelligence, they need to play in a varied and stimulating environment similar to their natural surroundings. Once off milk, they are still too young to be released into the wild. Then the challenge becomes to find them the right combination of vegetative material to provide them with the necessary trace minerals. They instinctively reject the wrong plants. And of course any time we use that term “instinctive”, we are merely revealing our ignorance as to what kind of visual cues and/or odour or taste receptors are genetically produced within them.

African and Asian elephants belong to different genera. Both Loxodonta and Elephas, respectively, along with the extinct mastodon and mammoth, belong to the order Proboscidea, whose members are characterized by the proboscis or trunk. What is special about this organ? According to the last printed edition of the Britannica, its versatility as an organ among mammals is unrivalled:

(1) The proboscis can be used to lift loads up to 250 kg.

(2) It has transverse muscles(like in a tongue) in a network that also includes radiating muscles. This provides it with fine movement and along with the fine projections at the end of the trunk, it can pick up a coin from flat surfaces (see video).

(3) It serves as a living eating utensil, delivering food to the mouth.

(4) It’s used for drinking and most of the elephant’s inhaling.

(5) It can squirt water or even sand on itself for protection from sun and insect bites.

(6) It’s  used in social “trunk-shakes”.

Ironically in the wild, the tusks, for which most elephants are slaughtered, serve to protect the precious proboscis.


Where is the Derivation, Dude?

p1120407All over the internet and even in underpasses, as photographed above, we are seeing more of science’s and mathematics’ iconic formulas advertised as never before.  On the surface they seem comforting to aficionados, but are they really making the public more likely to delve into the fields?

Anyone can use a hammer, so to a society, the knowledge and skill needed in making one is more important than the skill involved in using it. Similarly anyone— even computers– can plug numbers into mathematical or scientific formulas, so how to derive them is key. Yet schools struggle just to get students to acquire the simple mechanics and end-products of math and science. Increasingly most high schools, perhaps due to preconceived notions, do not emphasize or even cover derivations, acting as if the formulas were brought down on two stone tablets by Moses.

As a result, you can argue that the crux of math and science are not really taught to those who don’t continue to specialise in math and science. This is part of the reason why in the United States, evolution is not understood and why there is a large fraction of climate change deniers in the population. Many other countries’ educational systems are not that far behind in misguiding their youth.

In the same vein,  due to oversimplified models of matter we carry around a bricks-and-mortar-simplification in our heads every day. When some say, “we are nothing but an assembly of molecules”, they don’t realise how much they are shortchanging our understanding of chemistry, physics and biology.

Even if we don’t buy arguments along the ideas of those of Philip Goff, who suspects there are aspects of matter itself that play a key role determining the nature of consciousness, there is simply the fact that atoms and molecules are not solid lego blocks. On the contrary they are something quite special, and the sophisticated models we have arrived at , are just that, models. We have no conclusive, final understanding of what they are.

More precisely, the atom’s constituents: protons, neutrons and electrons are not like anything we experience at the macroscopic level. Sometimes they behave like particles, but in other experiments they also show wave-like properties. (Light also has a dual nature, but it’s distinct from particles because light has no mass.) When atoms bond into molecules, the energy levels of electrons change significantly. And the relationship between molecules and their energetic environment is a very dynamic one, leading to an assortment of effects, ranging from colour, synthesis and decomposition.

Several storms of Jupiter caught by NASA’s Juno

And things get far more complicated when molecules are part of a living entity. It’s even far more complex than having to account for the weather of both Earth and Jupiter. If the reference seems outlandish, here’s what I mean. On Earth, storms are caused by the uneven solar heating of our surface and the ensuing pressure differences. On Jupiter, storms result from the uneven heating from within the Jovian planet. In living systems, molecules not only respond to external energy and to molecules from outside of cells, they respond  to the energy provided from ingested molecules and to the information provided by genetic material. The latter is not static itself–its molecules are also subject to the environment.

And it continues. At every level that molecules enter, new realities emerge. There are beautiful mutual relationships that occur between organisms: trees and orchids whose roots need ectomycorrhizal fungi to absorb adequate ions; lichen who associate with algae in order to get energy-rich molecules; microbiota in our gut that increase our ability to harvest otherwise inaccessible nutrients; parents who cling to their children from birth to adulthood to nourish them with molecules, habits, morals, skills and knowledge.

Isn’t it then an intellectual crime to proclaim “we are nothing but an assembly of molecules” ? The concepts of math and science are too intricate for parents to handle by themselves. But schools, books and the internet have to do a better job. Simple advertising, mere use of formulas or articulation of technical vocabulary alone will leave children’s minds unnourished.

N.B. And in case you were curious about the origin of eπi + 1 =0, here it is:

Start with the MacLaurin series for e, and use xi as its power. After simplifying the powers of i, select-terms turn out to be the MacLaurin series for cos x, and ,after factoring out i, the series for sin x. Then if we let x = π radians and evaluate the trigonometric terms, we end up with our equation.

Odd Roles for Atmospheric Molecules In the Human Body

Molecules that were once associated mainly with the atmosphere have turned out to be produced naturally in our bodies, playing a wide and wild assortment of roles. For instance, in the mid 1980’s and early 1990’s, NO (nitrous oxide), a common pollutant, was shown to be synthesized in the body from the amino acid (arginine).

Model of the amino acid, arginine. An enzyme NO synthase converts arginine to citrulline. The  carbon atom labeled with a red C has one of its amino groups(NH2) replaced with a carbonyl. The amino group is what’s oxidized to nitrogen monoxide.


Nitrous oxide is a blood vessel dilator, allowing  the penis’ limp flesh to engorge with blood and mushroom into a rigid, functional form. It also acts as a neurotransmitter in some parts of the brain, permitting peristalsis in the esophagus.


In the early 2000s, Scripps Research Institute chemists and others discovered that antibodies appear to catalyze the formation of ozone(O3). They also showed that this important stratospheric UV filter but ground-level pollutant is biosynthesized within arteries by atherosclerotic plaques. In the former case, antibodies first produce the short-lived H2O3 molecule, which then breaks down in the following overall reaction:
H2O3 -> O2 + H2O2 + O3

Ozone in aqueous systems is short-lived, with a half life of only a minute, which is probably adequate for killing unwanted invaders. The  production of peroxide alone is not sufficient to kill bacteria.

You will notice that the above overall  reaction is not balanced.
There are several ways of balancing the equation without creating redundant solutions.
n H2O3 -> xO2 + n H2O2 + y O3
3n = 2x + 2n + 3y
n = 2x + 3y
if x = y =1, then n = 5; if x = 2 and y = 1, then n = 7; etc…producing
5 H2O3 -> O2 + 5 H2O2 + O3
7 H2O3 -> 2O2 + 7 H2O2 + O3

There are of course many other solutions. Which is the real overall equation? Perhaps they are all wrong. In a paper published this year Arnold N. Onyango argued that  H2O3 decomposes far too readily in water to form singlet O2 and water, rather than O3 and H2O2. He points out that the literature seems to better support an alternative hypothesis. Ozone can have an amino acid origin, analaogous to the way NO is produced. The progenitors instead could be the  amino acids methionine, tryptophan, histidine, and cysteine. When oxidized by O2 in a high energy state (so-called singlet oxygen 1O2  or 1Δg ) small amounts of ozone could be produced.






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