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Ask Dr. Universe: If snakes smell with their tongues, what do they do with their noses?

Snakes have an amazing sense of smell. They can use their tongues to pick up on all kinds of scents in the air.

Whenever we smell something in the air, we are actually sniffing tiny building blocks called molecules. These molecules are what make up the scents of everything around us—things like baked bread, fresh-cut grass, and warm cookies.

If you were a snake, you might sniff out the scent of a slug or mouse. You’d use your tongue to pull the molecules from the air into your mouth.

Then those molecules would reach a part of the roof of your mouth called the Jacobson’s organ. This organ helps de-code the molecules into smells. The smell might help you find some prey or let you know to slither away from a predator.

M. Rockwell "Rocky" Parker.

I learned all about snakes from my friend Rocky Parker. He earned his master’s degree in biological sciences at Washington State University and is currently an assistant professor at James Madison University in Virginia. He is very curious about how snakes use their senses.

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Ask Dr. Universe: Why do we have a tailbone?

At the very bottom of the human spine is a bone that sticks out a bit called the coccyx (cox-ix). We sometimes call it the “tailbone,” but it is actually made up of several different spinal bones.

In some animals that actually have tails, those different bones at the bottom of the spine help them move their tail around. But in humans, those bones partially fused together.

You may already know a thing or two about the tailbone if you’ve ever hit a big bump while sledding or you’ve fallen on your behind. It can be pretty painful. You might have even thought that a tailbone seems kind of useless for a human that doesn’t even have a tail.

I decided to ask my friend Erika Deinert about these bones in the human body. She’s a tropical biologist and adjunct professor in biological sciences at Washington State University Vancouver.

Even though your parents and grandparents didn’t have tails, if we went back in time and looked at ancestor species that we have in common with other primates, we would see some tails, Deinert explained.

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The Explosive Science of Epigenetics

The health choices you make today could affect the expression of your kids’ (and grandkids’) DNA — and maybe their risk for disease

The “nature versus nurture” debate has been raging for thousands of years. Are people the products of their DNA, or of their upbringing and environment? The writings of both Plato and Shakespeare discuss this question. As recently as the past century, some big thinkers still subscribed to the philosopher John Locke’s “blank slate” theory, which held that each individual is born “formless” and is shaped by their environment and upbringing. Even more recently, some genetic scientists argued in favor of biological determinism, or the view that everything about a person is predetermined by their DNA.

Today, experts recognize that nature and nurture — far from being independent or at odds — engage in a complex dance. While DNA has a lot to say, a person’s genes and environment interact throughout their life to produce any number of outcomes. And the science of epigenetics lies at the heart of this interaction.

Michael Skinner.

“We know that there are all these molecular marks and processes around the DNA that regulate how the DNA functions,” says Michael Skinner, a distinguished professor and founding director of the Center for Reproductive Biology at Washington State University. Basically, these molecular marks and processes can turn genes on and off, he says. As a result, they have the potential to influence “every area of biology.”

Skinner says more and more research has found that many diseases have overlapping epigenetic signatures, meaning certain genes are predictably turned on or off in people who have the disease. Just last month, a new Harvard Medical School study reported that people with Alzheimer’s disease seem to share certain epigenetic characteristics. This is a big deal because, to date, most of the research on non-epigenetic DNA mutations has failed to find patterns of overlap in people who develop Alzheimer’s, cancer, and other diseases.

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WSU grizzly research reveals remarkable genetic regulation during hibernation

Being a human couch potato can greatly increase fat accumulation, hasten the onset of Type II diabetes symptoms, result in detrimental blood chemistry and cardiovascular changes, and eventually, bring about one’s death.

A woman and two men tend a groggy-looking bear next to an electronic screen displaying sensory information.
Dr. Lynne Nelson (left foreground), and Dr. Charlie Robbins (left back), of the School for the Environment, conduct a cardiac ultrasound on a groggy bear during hibernation in past research done at WSU.

Large hibernators such as bears however have evolved to adapt to and reverse similar metabolic stressors they face each year before and during hibernation to essentially become immune to these ill effects.

New RNA sequencing-based genetic research conducted at Washington State University’s Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center shows grizzlies express a larger number of genes in preparation for, and during hibernation to cope with such stressors, than do any other species studied.

The king-of-the-gene switching superlative even holds true when one corrects for the different sample sizes used in other hibernation studies.

The work was conducted in Pullman, Washington, home of the only university-based captive grizzly bear population in the world.

The WSU results while somewhat expected, far exceeded the level of differing genetic expression seen before.

“The number of differentially expressed genes is striking,” said WSU Associate Professor, Joanna Kelley.

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Pet Training

Ask Dr. Universe: Why are there so many palm trees in California?

Along with beaches, sunshine, and movie stars, a lot of people picture palm trees when they think of southern California. While there are lots of palm tree species in California, they aren’t all originally from the area. Many were brought from different places around the world.

Chuck Cody.

That’s what I found out from my friend Chuck Cody, a biologist who manages some of the greenhouses at Washington State University.

Believe it or not, Washington state also used to be home to lots of palm trees. In the Jacklin Collection Museum at WSU, there are all kinds of petrified wood. One of the pieces is fossilized palm wood from central Washington. Fossils can give us a lot of clues about what life was like before humans were around.

Cody also told me that in prehistoric times, during the earliest days of flowering plants on our planet, palms were a big part of the natural landscapes. This was back more than 145 million years ago when dinosaurs like Iguanodon and Ankylosaurs roamed the earth.

In Washington, palm trees were common 15 million years ago and were able to survive during a time when the climate wasn’t so cold. But as you’ve observed, California is the place that’s home to a lot of palm trees these days.

While the California Fan Palm is a native palm of California, Cody told me that people started bringing other species of palm trees to California around 200 years ago.

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