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Geep: Behold the Sheep-Goat Chimera

Let's say you've got a sheep and a goat (and a bioengineering lab) and want to have a little fun. Why not make a geep? Geeps are created in the lab by effectively mashing up fertilized embryos from sheep and goats, then implanting the result into sheep or goat mothers. The resulting animal isn't a hybrid, it's a chimera: an animal with two genetically distinct sets of cells inside it.

Thus a geep looks like a sort of frankenpet, with patches of its body exhibiting furry goatlike features and others looking like a wooly sheep. Wikipedia has a picture of this cute (?) little fellow:

But here's where it gets nerdy. Apparently some scientists (including Dr. Gary B. Anderson of UC Davis, who provided the above photo) don't approve of the term "geep," preferring the much less catchy "sheep goat hybrid." But the term "geep" has a foothold in the popular imagination, appearing as early as 1984 in a Time Magazine article and in a recent Daily Mail article -- although the latter was referring to an entirely different kind of animal.

The Daily Mail article linked above describes something that isn't a chimera -- it's a rare natural hybrid between a goat and a sheep, created the old-fashioned way (see coverage by our friends Neatorama). Goats have 60 chromosomes while sheep have 54 chromosomes; one hybrid from Botswana, known as The Toast of Botswana, had 57 chromosomes and was infertile. For more on these true hybrids, including a picture of the Botswana animal, check out this BBC article or Wikipedia.

For more on the creation of geeps, run, don't walk, to listen to Radiolab show #404: So-Called Life. (It covers genetically engineered animals of various kinds, but includes some great geep material towards the end.)

Lastly, be careful not to use the term "shoat" when describing these animals. Although it looks like a handy conflation of "sheep" and "goat," shoat is actually a term for a baby pig. Thanks, Wikipedia!

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Why Can Parrots Talk and Other Birds Can't?
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If you've ever seen a pirate movie (or had the privilege of listening to this avian-fronted metal band), you're aware that parrots have the gift of human-sounding gab. Their brains—not their beaks—might be behind the birds' ability to produce mock-human voices, the Sci Show's latest video explains below.

While parrots do have articulate tongues, they also appear to be hardwired to mimic other species, and to create new vocalizations. The only other birds that are capable of vocal learning are hummingbirds and songbirds. While examining the brains of these avians, researchers noted that their brains contain clusters of neurons, which they've dubbed song nuclei. Since other birds don't possess song nuclei, they think that these structures probably play a key role in vocal learning.

Parrots might be better at mimicry than hummingbirds and songbirds thanks to a variation in these neurons: a special shell layer that surrounds each one. Birds with larger shell regions appear to be better at imitating other creatures, although it's still unclear why.

Learn more about parrot speech below (after you're done jamming out to Hatebeak).

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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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