TIME animals

Your New Favorite Winter Activity: Squirrel Juggling

Grey Squirrel Robert Trevis-Smith—Getty Images/Flickr RF

For the record, don't juggle squirrels

Tired of this unending winter and ever-elusive spring? Well, here a new way to wile away those winter hours: Squirrel juggling.

A recent article in The Atlantic Cities explained that certain squirrels hibernate so deeply that you could take a page out of Alice in Wonderland and play croquet with the little knocked out fur balls. It’s a fact proven by science. Specifically, a scientist named Hilary Srere. “I did juggle three of them for my niece and nephew when they were younger, because they are just little fluffy balls!” Srere said. “They don’t wake up, they just don’t.”

To be clear, we do not recommend, encourage or condone juggling hibernating squirrels, it’s just interesting to note, scientifically speaking, that one could (if one was a budding squirrel-hating sociopath).

If one was going to juggle a squirrel (again: don’t), there are a few things to note: First, the grey squirrels that you see digging up nuts in winter do not hibernate. So if you see one that is unconscious, it’s either been KO’d by a mini Manny Pacquiao or it’s just asleep. Sleeping squirrels wake up and will bite. Hibernating squirrels are ground squirrels that live in the Central and Western United States who can go into a coma-like state for up to six months. Second, if you’re considering taking up squirrel juggling as a party trick, be aware that a surprising number of squirrels have the bubonic plague.

Not much of a party trick now is it?

[Via Atlantic Cities]

MORE: College Students Go Nuts over Squirrels

MORE: Orphaned Squirrel Now Lives in This Girl’s Ponytail

TIME Biology

Virus Resurrected After Chilling in Siberia for 30,000 years

The chances of "frozen viruses" reactivating is possible thanks to climate change, according to experts.
The chances of "frozen viruses" reactivating is possible thanks to climate change, according to experts. Frank Cezus—Getty Images

Experts say contagion does not present danger to humans or animals

French scientists are celebrating after successfully revitalizing an ancient virus that had been lying dormant for 30,000 years in Siberian permafrost, according to the BBC.

Measuring 1.5 micrometers in length, the Pithovirus sibericum strain is the largest virus to ever be discovered.

“This is the first time we’ve seen a virus that’s still infectious after this length of time,” said Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, from the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) at the University of Aix-Marseille in France.

Researchers say the contagion does not pose a danger to humans or animals; rather, it specializes in attacking single-cell amoebas.

“It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell. It is able to kill the amoeba — but it won’t infect a human cell,” said CNRS’s Dr. Chantal Abergel.

However, experts admit other potentially harmful viruses could reactivate and spread if more frozen ground becomes exposed from increasing global temperatures.


TIME Biology

How to Know If Someone’s Really Dead

Walter Williams in the hospital.
Walter Williams in the hospital in early March. Courtesy of Eddie Hester

A close call at a funeral home has anyone who plans to die one day worrying

Correction added Feb. 28, 2014

Dead is dead—except when it isn’t. That’s the lesson 78-year old Walter Williams of Holmes County, Miss., learned late Wednesday night when he woke up in a body bag on an embalmer’s table, a wee bit more alive than the coroner had declared him to be. Williams, by all accounts, was the victim of bad luck, a sputtering pacemaker and a coronor who maybe hadn’t read the How To Know Someone’s Really Dead chapter when the rest of the class was studying it.

So how often does this happen and what are the odds that you will ever find yourself Zip-Locked for freshness when you’ve still got a bit of life in you?

Pronouncing someone dead has always been an inexact art. The tradition of the wake—or at least a day or two’s mourning period before the funeral—began as a way to give a body a fighting chance to show if it was alive. “The point was to make sure the dead guy is indeed a dead guy,” says Thomas Lynch, a funeral director and best-selling author of The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade, upon which the TV series Six Feet Under was based. “The living have been getting mistaken for the dead for a long time.”

But that was then (OK, if you’re Walter Williams, that was Wednesday) and methods have improved. When someone dies in a hospital, attending physicians do what’s known as “running a tape,” hooking the suspected deceased up to equipment that reads brain waves, heartbeat and respiration. When things go flat line—and stay that way—you’ve probably got yourself a body. Paramedics and other first responders have portable equipment that does the same thing, with the results getting beamed back to a hospital for confirmation.

Further tests make things more certain still. Bedside ultrasound can confirm lack of heart activity, says Dr. Robert Glatter of the department of emergency medicine at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. Brain death can be confirmed by the absence of brainstem reflexes, among other things, as well as the “doll’s eye test,” in which the head is moved from side to side with the eyes open. When the brain is dead, the eyes will not fix on the person in front of them, and will instead simply move with the head.

So what went wrong in Williams’ case? Everything. After he appeared to have suffered heart failure, the local coroner was duly called, and, according to Sheriff Willie March, did a less exacting job than he might have. “The coroner checked for wounds, didn’t get a pulse, and declared he had crossed over,” says March.

In some respects the rules were obeyed, since laws in all 50 states forbid a funeral home to take possession of a body until an authorized medical officer certifies the death. The problem is, not every state has the same definition of what such a person is.

“A coroner is not a medical officer,” says Lynch. “Often it’s just the local undertaker or the local favorite of whoever is in charge.” That may well not have been the case in the current mix-up, but the betting is that the standards will be tightened in the future. Until then, if you must die—and, says Lynch, “the numbers are right around 100% on that”—at least do it outside of Holmes County.

The reassuring news for most of us: The chances of a mix-up happening are exceedingly slim.

-with reporting from Charlotte Alter

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Lenox Hill Hospital emergency care physician. He is Dr. Robert Glatter, not Glattner.


How Life Began: New Clues From New Worlds

Europa, a moon of Jupiter, appears as a thick crescent in this enhanced-color image from NASA's Galileo spacecraft, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 1995.
Europa, a moon of Jupiter, from NASA's Galileo spacecraft, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 1995. Universal History Archive / Getty Images

How simple chemistry turned into biology has always been a mystery, but some smart people have some intriguing ideas

The odds that the universe is bursting with life seem to be getting better all the time. Astronomers recently announced that there could be an astonishing 20 billion Earthlike planets in the Milky Way—and that’s if you’re limiting the pool to planets orbiting stars like the Sun. If you add the small, reddish stars known as M-dwarfs, which also harbor planets, the number is even greater. Within our own Solar System, meanwhile, the evidence for a plausibly life-friendly ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa is stronger than ever, and the Curiosity rover has confirmed that some kinds of bacteria could have thrived in Mars’s Gale Crater billions of years ago. On a more universal scale, scientists know for a fact that two of the essentials for life—water and carbon—can be found literally everywhere.

How abundant life actually is, however, hinges on one crucial factor: given the right conditions and the right raw materials, what is the mathematical likelihood that life will actually would arise? If it’s a 50-50 proposition, then given the vast amount of available real estate, biology would have to be popping up all over the place. But if it’s a one-in-a-trillion shot, we could indeed be all alone in the vastness of space. To date, despite more than a half-century of trying, nobody has managed to figure how life on Earth began. Without knowing the mechanism by which inanimate chemistry assembled and bestirred itself, admits Andrew Ellington, of the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology at the University of Texas, Austin, “I can’t tell you what the probability is. It’s a chapter of the story that’s pretty much blank.”

Given that rather bleak-sounding assessment, it may be surprising to learn that Ellington is actually pretty upbeat. But that’s how he and two colleagues come across in a paper in the latest Science. The crucial step from nonliving stuff to a live cell is still a mystery, they acknowledge, but the number of pathways a mix of inanimate chemicals could have taken to reach the threshold of the living turns out to be many and varied. “It’s difficult to say exactly how things did occur,” says Ellington. “But there are many ways it could have occurred.

(MORE: Unknown Force Kicks Stars Out of Milky Way. Really.)

The first stab at answering the question came all the way back in the 1950s, when chemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey passed an electrical spark through a beaker containing methane, ammonia, water vapor and hydrogen, thought at the time to represent Earth’s primordial atmosphere. When they looked inside, they found they’d created amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

That experiment is now considered a dead end, since the atmosphere probably didn’t look like that after all, and also since the steps from amino acids to life turned out to be hellishly difficult to reproduce—so difficult that it’s never been done. But Ellington sees things differently. “It was a monster achievement,” he says, “and since then we’ve learned a truckload.”

Scientists have learned so much, in fact, that the number of places life might have begun has grown to include such disparate locations as the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean; beds of clay; the billowing clouds of gas emerging from volcanoes; and the spaces in between ice crystals.

(MORE: Why Dust is the Most Important Stuff in the Universe)

The number of ideas about how the key step from organic chemicals to living organisms might have been taken has multiplied as well: there’s the “RNA world hypothesis” and the “lipid world hypothesis” and the “iron-sulfur world hypothesis” and more, all of them dependent on a particular set of chemical circumstances and a particular set of dynamics and all highly speculative.

Worse, however things played out, all evidence of the process has long since vanished: the very first cells have left no traces, and the environments that nurtured them have disappeared as well. The best scientists can hope to do is to create a proto-cell in the lab.

“Maybe when they do,” says Ellington, “we’ll all do a face-plant because it turns out to be so obvious in retrospect.” But even if they succeed, it will only prove that a manufactured cell could represent the earliest life forms, not that it actually does. “It will be a story about what we think might have happened, but it will still be a story.”

The story Ellington and his colleagues have been able to tell already, however, is a reason for optimism. We still don’t know the odds that life will arise under the right conditions. But the underlying biochemistry is abundantly, ubiquitously available—and it would take an awfully perverse universe to take things so far only to shut them down at the last moment.

(IMAGES: Space Photos: 45-Year-Old Footprints and More)

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