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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Can We Determine the Sex of a Dinosaur?

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

On August 12, 1990, the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered was unearthed in the badlands of South Dakota by paleontologists Peter Larson and Susan Hendrickson. The animal was nicknamed “Sue” in honor of the latter scientist and, after a lengthy legal battle, her remains were purchased for the hefty sum of $8.4 million by the Chicago Field Museum. Today, she's easily become the world's most famous dinosaur. But what if “Sue” wasn't actually a female?

“We'd given the T. rex that name and always referred to it as 'she' or 'her',” said Larson, “But even at the site, people were asking me 'What if she's a male?' I'd say that we could always point to that Johnny Cash song 'A Boy Named Sue.'”

Country classics notwithstanding, can paleontologists accurately determine the sex of a long-dead dinosaur?

The short answer is yes ... and no.

While Sue's gender remains very much in question, comparatively recent research has shown that at least some dinosaur specimens may be sexed with reasonable certainty by modern scientists. The riddle's solution may very well lie in the bones of present-day dinos—also known as “birds."

Producing eggs is a very taxing process for expectant avian mothers, as the calcium in their shells is biologically expensive to build. When eggs start forming in the womb of a gravid bird, her body releases a heightened level of estrogen. This triggers the growth of what's known as “medullary bone” inside of her hollow leg and arm bones. The specialized medullary bone tissue provides much-needed calcium for the growing eggshells and lingers until their completion, at which point it disappears.

In 2005, paleontologists at North Carolina State University and Montana State University announced that they'd discovered medullary tissue within the limb bones of a T. rex specimen, suggesting that the animal was A) female and B) gravid at the time of its death.

The approach is hardly fool-proof: Only the bones of pregnant female dinosaurs would show any sign of medullary tissue, rendering the technique useless for deducing the sex of the vast majority of dinosaur skeletons. Nevertheless, the findings have excited a number of paleontologists, including one international team which sought to deduce the link between gender and this tell-tale tissue in a group of well-preserved fossilized birds this past February.

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Big Questions
If Beer and Bread Use Almost the Exact Same Ingredients, Why Isn't Bread Alcoholic?
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If beer and bread use almost the exact same ingredients (minus hops) why isn't bread alcoholic?

Josh Velson:

All yeast breads contain some amount of alcohol. Have you ever smelled a rising loaf of bread or, better yet, smelled the air underneath dough that has been covered while rising? It smells really boozy. And that sweet smell that fresh-baked bread has under the yeast and nutty Maillard reaction notes? Alcohol.

However, during the baking process, most of the alcohol in the dough evaporates into the atmosphere. This is basically the same thing that happens to much of the water in the dough as well. And it’s long been known that bread contains residual alcohol—up to 1.9 percent of it. In the 1920s, the American Chemical Society even had a set of experimenters report on it.

Anecdotally, I’ve also accidentally made really boozy bread by letting a white bread dough rise for too long. The end result was that not enough of the alcohol boiled off, and the darned thing tasted like alcohol. You can also taste alcohol in the doughy bits of underbaked white bread, which I categorically do not recommend you try making.

Putting on my industrial biochemistry hat here, many [people] claim that alcohol is only the product of a “starvation process” on yeast once they run out of oxygen. That’s wrong.

The most common brewers and bread yeasts, of the Saccharomyces genus (and some of the Brettanomyces genus, also used to produce beer), will produce alcohol in both a beer wort
and in bread dough immediately, regardless of aeration. This is actually a surprising result, as it runs counter to what is most efficient for the cell (and, incidentally, the simplistic version of yeast biology that is often taught to home brewers). The expectation would be that the cell would perform aerobic respiration (full conversion of sugar and oxygen to carbon dioxide and water) until oxygen runs out, and only then revert to alcoholic fermentation, which runs without oxygen but produces less energy.

Instead, if a Saccharomyces yeast finds itself in a high-sugar environment, regardless of the presence of air it will start producing ethanol, shunting sugar into the anaerobic respiration pathway while still running the aerobic process in parallel. This phenomenon is known as the Crabtree effect, and is speculated to be an adaptation to suppress competing organisms
in the high-sugar environment because ethanol has antiseptic properties that yeasts are tolerant to but competitors are not. It’s a quirk of Saccharomyces biology that you basically only learn about if you spent a long time doing way too much yeast cell culture … like me.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?
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Mercury passing the Sun.

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the third time this year on Sunday, August 13 (or August 12, depending on where you live). But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."


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