Several interesting new scientific studies have been released in the last two weeks. Standards for science education in the United States have been examined and were largely found to be woefully inadequate, the mother of modern racehorses has been found, and the biggest mammal on earth shows no sign of stopping its growth. In addition, Russian researchers in Antarctica just announced that their drills have reached a subglacial lake that’s been sealed off from the outside world for 14 million years. Cool!
(Scientific American) The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has released a report that takes a comprehensive look at science education standards in the United States. Each state creates their own set of standards that cover what students are expected to learn at every grade level and in different high school classes, and multiple studies have shown that students learn more when the standards are high. Sadly, few states scored well on their standards. Only California and Washington, DC earned an A, with four more states receiving an A-. Twenty-six states got a D or F. The four main factors examined by the Fordham Institute were attitudes toward the teaching of evolution, specificity of the goals set for students, guidance for teachers on how to teach the history of science and the scientific method, and the amount of math instruction. If you’re curious as to how your state got its grade, check out the full report; it includes links to the reports for each state.
(Irish Times) DNA testing has found that the gene that gives racehorses the ability to perform well in short-distance sprints originated in a single mare that lived in the UK about 300 years ago. A mutant form of the myostatin gene alters muscle development; depending on whether a C or T protein is located at a specific point in the genome determines if the horse is more suitable for quick bursts of speed or longer endurance races (horses that inherit both versions, one from each parent, do well in medium-length races). By genetically analyzing modern racehorses, donkeys, zebras, and samples from a dozen historic racehorses whose remains are preserved in museums, genomics scientist Dr. Emmeline Hill was able to determine the likely timeframe for the introduction of this variant into the thoroughbred gene pool, along with another variant that stemmed from racing legend Nearctic, born in 1954, and was spread widely via the breeding of his son Northern Dancer.
(ABC Science Australia) A new study out of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, has found that blue whales, the largest mammal on earth, keep getting bigger. Evolutionary biologist Dr Alistair Evans and his colleagues studied the growth of hundreds of species over the last 70 million years by comparing fossil evidence to their modern equivalents. The study found that it took 5 million generations over the course of 30 million years for blue whales to evolve from their 25kg (55 lb) ancestor to their current size of approximately 190 metric tons (over 209 tons in US measurements). That’s double the rate for large land mammals such as elephants, probably because life in the water is more conducive to rapid growth since fewer body modifications are needed to support the extra weight. The study also found that most land mammals are smaller today than during the last major ice age. Many large species were hunted to extinction by prehistoric man, and large bodies aren’t as advantageous in warmer climates. Whales, however, have continued to get larger and larger.