How Climate Change Shaped This Adorable Skunk’s Evolution

The Field Museum/Robby Heischman
The Field Museum/Robby Heischman

If you’re like many people, you’ve often thought, “Boy, am I sure glad there are lots of types of spotted skunks.” (Us too.) And thanks to science, we now know whom to thank for this wonderful diversity: climate change. A report on the sweet-faced skunks’ strange history was published this week in the journal Ecology and Evolution.


Robert C. Dowler

The western spotted skunk (Spilogale gracilis) is a button-nosed, wee critter, maxing out at around just 2 pounds. To maximize its stench-dispersal powers, the skunk flings itself into a little handstand, waving its back legs and rear in the air as noxious gas sprays from a gland under its tail.


Jerry W. Dragoo

For all its exotic appeal, S. gracilis is surprisingly local, making its home up and down the left side of North America from the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest to the hottest desert in Mexico.

Speciation, or the splitting of one species into two, usually happens when two populations of organisms are divided by some physical boundary, like a mountain or a waterfall. Because the two groups are living in slightly different environments, they face slightly different pressures, and eventually evolve into slightly different creatures.

To find out if that’s what happened with S. gracilis, the authors of the current study collected DNA samples from 97 skunks in a range of habitats and areas of the American Southwest.


Sampling skunks is odiferous work.
The Field Museum

They found that the skunks could be divided into three subtypes. But the subtypes aren’t separated by rivers or mountain ranges, nor have they ever been. Instead, the researchers say, the family was split up by climate change a very, very long time ago.

“Western spotted skunks have been around for a million years, since the Pleistocene Ice Age,” lead author Adam Ferguson, of The Field Museum and Texas Tech University, said in a statement. “During the Ice Age, western North America was mostly covered by glaciers, and there were patches of suitable climates for the skunks separated by patches of unsuitable climates.”

It was largely these shifting patches of hostile terrain that kept the skunk families apart. These findings are important not only for lovers of skunk history, but for scientists, conservationists, and policy-makers who care about where our planet and its inhabitants are going.

“What we know about the past can inform what we expect to see in the future,” says Ferguson. “Understanding these genetic subdivisions that happened as a result of changing climatic conditions can help us conserve skunks and other animals in the future.”

For the First Time Ever, a Woman Has Won the Abel Prize—Math's Version of the Nobel Prize

iStock.com/perfectlab
iStock.com/perfectlab

Every year since 2003, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has bestowed the Abel Prize for excellence and contributions in the field of mathematics. Every year, the recipient has been a man. In 2019, Karen Uhlenbeck crushed that dubious tradition and became the first woman to win the Abel Prize and its $700,000 award.

An emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Uhlenbeck’s work is focused on gauge theory and geometric analysis—the latter a field she pioneered. Gauge theory supports theoretical physics and is involved in the research of particle physics and string theory. Uhlenbeck is also credited with work that led to greater comprehension of the unification of forces, a primary objective in physics that attempts to link electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force with strong nuclear force in a single theory, which would help us understand the universe.

Mathematician and Abel Prize winner Karen Uhlenbeck is seen in a portrait
Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

Uhlenbeck arrived at UT Austin in 1987 and stayed after her retirement in 2014. During that time, she co-founded several programs, including the Saturday Morning Math Group and Distinguished Women in Mathematics lecture series, both in Texas, as well as the Park City Mathematics Institute and the Woman and Mathematics program at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

She achieved another milestone in her field in 1990, when she became the second woman (and the first since 1932) to host a plenary lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians.

The Abel Prize, which is modeled after the Nobel Prize, is named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Hendrik Abel. Uhlenbeck will receive the prize in Oslo on May 21.

[h/t New Scientist]

12 Intriguing Facts About the Intestines

When we talk about the belly, gut, or bowels, what we're really talking about are the intestines—long, hollow, coiled tubes that comprise a major part of the digestive tract, running from the stomach to the anus. The intestines begin with the small intestine, divided into three parts whimsically named the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum, which absorb most of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. Food then moves into the large intestine, or colon, which absorbs water from the digested food and expels it into the rectum. That's when sensitive nerves in your rectum create the sensation of needing to poop.

These organs can be the source of intestinal pain, such as in irritable bowel syndrome, but they can also support microbes that are beneficial to your overall health. Here are some more facts about your intestines.

1. The intestines were named by medieval anatomists.

Medieval anatomists had a pretty good understanding of the physiology of the gut, and are the ones who gave the intestinal sections their names, which are still used today in modern anatomy. When they weren't moralizing about the organs, they got metaphorical about them. In 1535, the Spanish doctor Andrés Laguna noted that because the intestines "carry the chyle and all the excrement through the entire region of the stomach as if through the Ocean Sea," they could be likened to "those tall ships which as soon as they have crossed the ocean come to Rouen with their cargoes on their way to Paris but transfer their cargoes at Rouen into small boats for the last stage of the journey up the Seine."

2. Leonardo da Vinci believed the intestines helped you breathe.

Leonardo mistakenly believed the digestive system aided respiratory function. In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and expresses the air." While that isn't anatomically accurate, it is true that the opening of the lungs is helped by the relaxation of stomach muscles, which does draw down the diaphragm.

3. Your intestines could cover two tennis courts ...

Your intestines take up a whole lot of square footage inside you. "The surface area of the intestines, if laid out flat, would cover two tennis courts," Colby Zaph, a professor of immunology in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Melbourne's Monash University, tells Mental Floss. The small intestine alone is about 20 feet long, and the large intestine about 5 feet long.

4. ... and they're pretty athletic.

The process of moving food through your intestines requires a wave-like pattern of muscular action, known as peristalsis, which you can see in action during surgery in this YouTube video.

5. Your intestines can fold like a telescope—but that's not something you want to happen.

Intussusception is the name of a condition where a part of your intestine folds in on itself, usually between the lower part of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine. It often presents as severe intestinal pain and requires immediate medical attention. It's very rare, and in children may be related to a viral infection. In adults, it's more commonly a symptom of an abnormal growth or polyp.

6. Intestines are very discriminating.

"The intestines have to discriminate between good things—food, water, vitamins, good bacteria—and bad things, such as infectious organisms like viruses, parasites and bad bacteria," Zaph says. Researchers don't entirely know how the intestines do this. Zaph says that while your intestines are designed to keep dangerous bacteria contained, infectious microbes can sometimes penetrate your immune system through your intestines.

7. The small intestine is covered in "fingers" ...

The lining of the small intestine is blanketed in tiny finger-like protrusions known as villi. These villi are then covered in even tinier protrusions called microvilli, which help capture food particles to absorb nutrients, and move food on to the large intestine.

8. ... And you can't live without it.

Your small intestine "is the sole point of food and water absorption," Zaph says. Without it, "you'd have to be fed through the blood."

9. The intestines house your microbiome. 

The microbiome is made up of all kinds of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans, "and probably used to include worm parasites too," says Zaph. So in a way, he adds, "we are constantly infected with something, but it [can be] helpful, not harmful."

10. Intestines are sensitive to change.

Zaph says that many factors change the composition of the microbiome, including antibiotics, foods we eat, stress, and infections. But in general, most people's microbiomes return to a stable state after these events. "The microbiome composition is different between people and affected by diseases. But we still don't know whether the different microbiomes cause disease, or are a result in the development of disease," he says.

11. Transferring bacteria from one gut to another can transfer disease—or maybe cure it.

"Studies in mice show that transplanting microbes from obese mice can transfer obesity to thin mice," Zaph says. But transplanting microbes from healthy people into sick people can be a powerful treatment for some intestinal infections, like that of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, he adds. Research is pouring out on how the microbiome affects various diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and even autism.

12. The microbes in your intestines might influence how you respond to medical treatments.

Some people don't respond to cancer drugs as effectively as others, Zaph says. "One reason is that different microbiomes can metabolize the drugs differently." This has huge ramifications for chemotherapy and new cancer treatments called checkpoint inhibitors. As scientists learn more about how different bacteria metabolize drugs, they could possibly improve how effective existing cancer treatments are.

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