Sometimes I have trouble finding enough interesting science stories to fill up this post, but the last two weeks have been chock-full of cool news! Hopefully we’ll have something to tickle everyone’s fancy. Unless y’all hate dinosaurs and penguins, which I highly doubt. :)
New dinosaurs! The largest feathered dinosaur ever found was recently discovered in northeastern China. Yutyrannus huali (“beautiful feathered tyrant”) is a distant relative of T. Rex but actually lived 60 million years earlier. It doesn’t have full-fledged feathers, but tiny fluffy ones like we see on baby birds today. Aww. Another new species was found in the Patagonia region of Argentina, along with several of its eggs. 70 million year old Bonapartenykus ultimus is most notable because its skeleton is very similar to that of the Nandu, a flightless bird that lives in the region today, and it may lend new insight into how some dinosaurs evolved into modern birds.
Skipping forward in time to about a million years ago, evidence has been found of the oldest definitively man-made fire. Ashes and burned bone fragments were found deep inside the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa and were likely started by Homo erectus. Previously, the oldest known fire was about 700,000 years old; other fire evidence has been found in the intervening years, but in those cases it was impossible to say if the fire was man-made or started by lightning strikes.
Satellites are being put to a really cool use in Antarctica: counting penguins! It turns out there are about 595,000 emperor penguins, about twice as many as were thought to live there based on previous estimates. Scientists used satellite images to look for brown patches on the ice (indicating vast swathes of penguin poop, the more you know!), then took high-resolution pictures and counted the penguins (which isn’t as easy as it sounds).
Ranchers may hate them, and few people want wolves or bears hanging out in their backyards, but healthy predator populations are vital to keeping balance in the ecosystem. The disruption in the food chain caused by overhunting of wolves and bears is causing the deer, moose, and elk populations to explode. These large plant-eaters are changing the compositions of some forests by eating all the young maple trees, annoying homeowners by invading yards to eat up their gardens, and causing an increased number of automobile collisions, which can be extremely dangerous for all involved parties.
Monkeys can read! Well, not exactly, but some baboons have learned to distinguish between real four-letter words and strings of four random letters.
56 out of 82 coral species in US waters are being considered for inclusion on the Endangered Species List amid fears they could go extinct by the year 2100. Increased carbon dioxide levels are making oceans more acidic and water temperatures are increasing, putting the survival of our reefs in peril. Coral extinctions would have widespread effects on ocean life, since reefs are home to about one quarter of all species in the sea.
Glaciers in the Karakoram range may actually be increasing in mass! This is good news considering earlier fears that all glacial ice could disappear from the region in the near future.
Talks are under way that may lead to the UK importing geothermal energy from Iceland via undersea cables.
Have you ever wanted to donate money for scientific research? Now you can! Petridish.org allows scientists to ask for donations to fund various projects. Recently funded projects include a search for new ant species in threatened forests in Madagascar and a quest to find moons orbiting planets outside our solar system. Eighteen projects are currently soliciting donations; maybe one will be right up your alley!