Science Illustration

Left Hand, Left Hand, Right Hand, Right


Why are some people right-handed and why are some people left-handed? For years it was believed that “handedness” (i.e. if you are left-handed or right-handed) was determined in the fetal brain. Researchers from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany recently suggested that asymmetrical gene expression in the spinal chord might help determine handedness. The researchers looked at gene expression in the spinal chord of fetuses between the eighth and twelfth week of pregnancy. Differences in gene expression on the left and right side could already be detected and those areas of activity correlated with arm and leg movement. The researchers also suggested that differences in left and right gene expression could be due to environmental factors.

The study of changes in genetic expression that occur without changes to genetic sequences is called Epigenetics. Environmental factors can act as a trigger for expression of certain genes both in our fetal development and throughout our lives. It will be interesting to find out more about how environmental factors determine handedness and perhaps we may also find out why left-handed people are superior 🙂

About the Illustration: Watercolor with some Photoshop magic. I kept the illustration pretty basic because handedness is a very basic part of our identity. The title is a play on the first line of the “Foot Book” by Dr. Seuss. It was his birthday a few weeks ago and I have read that book enough times this past year that it’s content might rattle around in my brain for all eternity.

Going, Going, Gone


The remaining portion of the Antarctic ice shelf called ” Larsen C” is showing signs of disintegration and may be no more by the end of the decade. This is deeply concerning since ice shelves help hold glaciers in place. Without that support the pace of glacial movement out to the ocean increases and therefore increases the pace of sea level rise. This particular ice shelf supports three glaciers named Leppard, Flask and Starbuck (anyone recognize the Moby Dick connection?). In 2002 a portion of Larsen C collapsed, it looks like what remains of the  10,000 year old ice shelf will soon be gone. The ice shelf Larsen B collapsed in 2002 which led to the increased flow of supporting glaciers. But Larsen C is 10 times the size of Larsen B and the fourth biggest ice shelf in Antarctica. What this could mean for coastal areas around the world is unknown.

Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently made this discovery through the use of data from NASA’s Operation IceBridge (a six-year airborne survey of the Earth’s polar ice, the largest of it’s kind).

Interested in what’s going on in the Antarctic? Other aspects of climate change? Consider subscribing to Climate Central: “An independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the public.” Facts still matter.

About the Illustration: Micron pen on vellum paper.

Two Heads Aren’t Always Better Than One


Reports of two-headed sharks have increased through the years. Is it due to overfishing which reduces the size of the gene pool and allows for more of these genetic mutations to occur (think inbreeding)? Or is it just easier to report these observations (through scientific papers and social media)? It is a difficult topic to research since most of these sharks never survive. But it is a critical question that needs to be answered. Is it overfishing? Increased reporting? Pollution? Or something else entirely. Global shark populations are not doing well as it is, genetic mutations could be an additional silent threat.

I Spread


As the days get shorter and the nights get cooler we notice the shift in color among the trees around us. If you live near aspen stands you might notice that a group of trees will change colors all at once. This is because aspens grow as a clonal colony from a single seedling. I am referring to the Quaking Aspen (Populous tremuloides) in this post although there are a number of aspen species found around the world. The Quaking Aspen is widely distributed throughout North America. It is one of the first tree species to colonize an area after a forest fire by sprouting new trees through it’s deeply buried root system.

These colonies can live for a surprisingly long time although individual trees die out (only to have a new tree sprout up from the extensive root system). The oldest known colony can be found in Fishlake National Forest in Utah. According to the US Forest Service this clone named Pando (Latin for “I Spread”)  is about 80,000 years old. It spans 106 acres, consists of over 40,000 individual trees, and weighs over 14 million pounds. However, the Pando is beginning to show it’s age. A combination of insects, disease, drought, and human disturbance is compromising the health of this ancient tree. The Forest Service is actively trying to restore the Pando so that future generations can witness this biological marvel.

115 Is The New 40


A recent paper published in the journal Nature claims that the ceiling for earthly existence for human beings is 115. Dr. Jan Vijg from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and his colleagues examined global demographic data and determined that we are reaching our life span limit. Human life spans have increased through time with medical and technological innovations but, according to Dr. Vijg and his colleagues, that has stagnated since the 1990s. Have we reached the limit? Would you really like to live to see your 150th birthday?


The State Of All Things


At the beginning of the month the IUCN World Conservation Congress met in Hawaii to discuss the status of threatened and endangered species across the globe. IUCN stands for International Union for the Conservation of Nature , an international organization focused on conservation and sustainability as it relates to natural resources. The IUCN oversees the  IUCN Red List, a comprehensive global database of the conservation status of plant and animal species.

The World Conservation Congress brings together a diverse group of people (leaders, decision-makers, academics, indigenous people) to determine the state of global conservation and identify necessary actions. The Congress deliberated over many conservation issues. Here are some of the them:

The status of the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) changed from Extinct to Vulnerable. Good news but there is still much that needs to be done to protect this iconic species.

The Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei), the largest primate, is now listed as critically endangered due to poaching. It joins three other ape species on that unfortunate list.

-There are four Giraffe species according to recent genetic analysis. Before the Giraffe was considered to be one species with four subspecies.

The oceans are screwed. Period.

A ban on the trade of ivory. Amen.

-And much, much more… A great list of press briefs from the  recent Congress for those of you who would like to learn more about global conservation.



Art Prints

I now have prints of recent blog posts available for purchase through my Etsy shop, ScienceStories:

Including Migaloo, the albino humpback whale.

Ghost Whale by Arpita Choudhury via The Science of Illustration

Ghost Whale by Arpita Choudhury via The Science of Illustration

Sunflowers from my post on solar tracking.

Sun Worship by Arpita Choudhury via The Science of Illustration

Sun Worship by Arpita Choudhury via The Science of Illustration

And other illustrations…