Science News: 8/14/12

The Mars rovers have been busy sending back pictures this week, with some of the first color pictures coming back from Curiosity and Opportunity still going strong eight years into its mission. We’ve also learned about yet another species of prehistoric humans, the importance of an unexpected substance to the ocean ecosystem, and good news on the alternative energy front. 

Curiosity is sending back more pictures! The first color, 360° panoramic picture of Mars was sent back in 130 individual shots that were stitched together by a team at NASA. It has a very low resolution, but it’s still pretty darn cool!

Low-res panoramic picture of Gale Crater on Mars, with Mount Sharp visible at the center.
Gale Crater, with Mount Sharp at the center of the image.

A high-res color image of one part of the crater was sent back a few days later; high-resolution images take much longer to transmit back to Earth. It shows the first image scientists have seen of the remains of an ancient river system on Mars.

View of part of the crater wall surrounding Curiosity, with fluvial system
Crater wall with evidence of water having flown down its sides in the past.

And not wanting to be left out of the Mars enthusiasm, Opportunity sent back some amazing images last week as well. Opportunity landed on Mars eight years ago with a three-month mission but is still going strong. NASA is freaking awesome.

A recent fossil find in Africa may finally prove that a third species known as Homo rudolfensis lived alongside Homo erectus and Homo habilis nearly two million years ago. The species was first posited in 1972 after a single fossil skull was found that didn’t seem to match any known human ancestors, but there wasn’t enough evidence to state definitively if it was a new species or simply member of a known species who just had a much larger head than had previously been found. However, another face and two jawbones with teeth found in Kenya dating to the around the same time as the 1972 specimen are lending credence to its actually being an entirely different kind of human, and there may be even more species that cohabited in our distant past.

spear lined with shark teeth
Ouch!

Weapons made of shark teeth have provided an unexpected look into the disappearance of several species from the Gilbert Islands. 124 artifacts from the collection of Chicago’s Field Museum were analyzed and found to contain teeth from 19 different species of shark. Three species, including two of the ones most commonly used in weapon-making, no longer live anywhere near the waters around the Gilbert Islands in the central Pacific. There is no record of trade between the people who made the weapons and the regions where the sharks are known to live today, so it’s almost certain that they have simply become extinct in the region. Also, remind me never to piss off someone carrying a sword lined with freaking shark teeth!

Ever wonder how nutrients from deep in the ocean can feed surface-dwelling plankton? Two words: whale poop. Blue whales feed on krill underwater, at a volume of about four tons every day, and well, it has to go somewhere. Turns out their poop floats, so animals at the surface of the ocean can take advantage of those nutrients. It can also sequester massive amounts of carbon dioxide and gives scientists lots of information about the whale’s habits. (Yes, there’s a picture at the link if you’re curious.)

Ultraviolet radiation isn’t only dangerous for humans. High levels of UVB can also cause an increase in marine deaths, especially for coral, algae, and crustaceans. Most of the blame for declining ocean populations has fallen on warming water temperatures and ocean acidification, but UVB radiation may be equally to blame since it can impair photosynthesis and nutrient absorption and lower growth rates and reproductive success. The thinning ozone layer has allowed much higher levels of radiation to reach the earth in recent decades, but ozone depletion has largely been ignored in current climate change discussions.

Radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan have caused mutations to appear at a high rate in butterflies in the area. Two months after the meltdown, 144 adult pale grass blue butterflies were collected from ten different sites around Japan. The ones found closest to the plant had an increased number of mutations of their legs, antennae, and wings. Those butterflies then mated in a lab over 1,000 miles from the plant, and the offspring of the Fukushima butterflies had even more mutations, as did butterflies collected six months after the meltdown. Genetic mutations that may not have been visible in the parents seem to have passed on to their offspring, and eating contaminated food also may have harmed those living near the reactors.

A new species of lacewing has been found in a most unexpected place: Flickr. Malaysian photographer Hock Ping Guek posted photos of the insect to the popular photo-sharing site, where they happened to be seen by a researcher who suspected it might be a previously unknown species. A specimen was later acquired and upon examination, it was in fact determined to be a new species dubbed Semachrysa jade.

Green lacewing on a leaf
One of the images that led to the “discovery” of the green lacewing. Image credit: Hock Ping Guek

Alternative energy news! An underwater turbine which will spin to generate electricity from the strong tides off the coast of Maine is being put into place next week and should be up and running by September. If successful, the first turbine will generate enough electricity to power about 30 homes, with two more turbines already planned. If they work as expected and don’t have any safety issues, 18 more turbines will be installed in another stretch of water nearby, making enough power to run all the homes in the small town of Eastport. Also, a study of pink-footed geese that migrate through the area in which an offshore wind farm has been installed in the UK shows that they’ve changed their migratory patterns to avoid collisions with the turbines. Wind turbines are frequently criticized due to fears that birds will fly into them and be killed, but most of the flocks of geese flying nearby have either altered their flight paths to go around the farm or fly through the area at higher altitudes so that they pass safely above the turbines. Hopefully other species will prove to be equally adaptable.

The 2012 London Olympics were the greenest yet, according to a commission set up to monitor the Games’ environmental impact. New venues were made with at least one quarter recycled materials, formerly derelict areas were revitalized and modernized, and public transit was successful in moving athletes and fans to the events, despite fears that the system would be overwhelmed and chaotic. Future games will be expected to meet or hopefully pass the bar set by these games, with an expectation that they would also pay close attention to the social ethics of their vendors and sponsors. And in another win for science, the lab set up to process the drug tests of participating athletes will be converted into a first-of-its-kind metabolic phenome research facility. Researchers will study the chemicals released by human metabolic processes in the hopes of finding links between changes in metabolism and the development of diseases.

Speaking of London, did a volcano kill thousands of its citizens in the mid-13th century? 175 mass graves were unearthed in St. Mary’s churchyard in Spitalfield. Radio-carbon dating shows that the people were buried sometime around 1250 CE, a century too early for them to have been victims of the Black Plague. Records from the time tell of a period of darkness, cold temperatures, and very little rain that led to a massive famine in 1257-8. There is also evidence of an enormous volcanic eruption dated to around the same time, the emissions of which could have caused a short period of global cooling and drought. However, no one knows which volcano actually erupted, because there are no written records of it from the time. It likely occurred in the Americas or possibly Indonesia.

New technologies are assisting in finally identifying some of the unknown dead in New York City’s potter’s field, a cemetery on Hart Island where many deceased homeless people and John Does are laid to rest. About 50 people have been identified so far, mostly via the DNA testing techniques developed in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing, and some through better fingerprint matching technology. Many families have been relieved to finally learn what happened to missing loved ones, though some of the mysteries may never be solved.

Lastly, check out this amazing 3D map of the universe. Data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has been combined to create a video fly-through of thousands of galaxies, and when complete the map will contain 1.5 million galaxies. I feel small.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

9 thoughts on “Science News: 8/14/12”

  1. I loved the shark teeth story, and Ed Yong’s description (on his own blog) made me laugh:

    For those of you who are wondering how you weaponise shark teeth, which are already regenerating, serrated meat knives at the business end of a streamlined, electric-sensing torpedo, here’s how. You drill a tiny hole in them, and then bind them in long rows to a piece of wood to make a sword. Or a trident. Or a four-metre-long lance. And then, presumably, you hit people really hard with them.

    And the Flickr thing: how cool. Crowd-sourcing science, like examining Google Earth for archaeological features.

    1. I love the weird ways we can make scientific discoveries these days. And speaking of Google Earth, have you seen the Google Earth Time Machine blog? I found it a few weeks ago and have been slowly going through the archives. He uses the feature that lets you see the same place at different times to track the changing of geologic features. One of the coolest ones showed an oxbow lake forming.

  2. I love reading your science updates.  I find all the new information fascinating and can’t wait to share with my friends and family.  Love the Whale poop…fits with the penguin poop….and a condor poop set up I had in my master’s degree.  And to imagine science keeps finding new species of things!  Just when you think we found it all….

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