Science News: 11/13/12

Science news is having a total eclipse of the sun today, along with some really smart animals and an awesome gif of the solar system.

Southern Hemisphere Persephoneers are in for a treat today! The only total solar eclipse of the year is going on right now. The area of total eclipse is mostly over the Pacific Ocean, but a partial eclipse will be visible in most of Australia, New Zealand, part of Antarctica, the southern tip of South America, and islands in between. Check local news for exact times, or (carefully) look up!

Mars news! Analysis of the soil scooped up by Curiosity shows that it has a similar composition to the volcanic soils of Hawaii. The rover has not, however, detected any traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Methane is produced by living beings but would dissipate quickly, so not finding it in the air on Mars drastically decreases the odds of finding any life there today. The rover also took its coolest self-portrait to date using a camera on a robotic arm. The finished picture was stitched together from 55 separate shots, with the robotic arm removed to give a better view of Curiosity.

NASA Curiosty Rover on the surface of Mars with Mount Sharp in the background.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Astronomers have spotted two new supernovae, one of which is the oldest supernova ever detected. One of the stars exploded 10.4 billion years ago, while the other exploded an astonishing 12 billion years ago. Since the universe is only 13.7 billion years old, these stars were along the earliest to form following the Big Bang. Another new possibly habitable planet has also been discovered only 42 light-years away.

Because I like sharing cool science gifs with you, check out our solar system! There’s also an interactive version where you can pick a particular year to see where the other planets were.

Animated gif of the planets and moons in our solar system. Shows the motions of the planets during one Earth orbit.
Gif made from the orrery created by Dynamic Designs.

Ancient human news! The discovery of 71,000 year old spear or arrow heads in South Africa may point to human culture and intellect arising earlier than was previously thought. While complex weapon artifacts have been found sporadically dating to up to 65,000 years ago, they aren’t common until about 40,000 years ago. We don’t yet know if the weapon-making technology was isolated to small populations that died out, leaving other groups to rediscover the process, or if we just haven’t found the older artifacts. If the latter, it could explain how our species drove Neanderthals to extinction since they would have had a hard time competing for food against superior human technology. Genetic sequencing of several mummies from across Europe has yielded some surprising results. Otzi the Iceman, who lived more than 5,000 years ago and whose remains were found in the Italian Alps in 1991, is most closely related to modern-day Sardinians of southern Italy. However, his genome was very similar to those of the ancient Swedish and Bulgarian farmers also tested (but not the Swedish hunter-gatherer). It looks like farmers themselves spread across Europe, not just farming technology. Analysis of another set of ancient remains confirms that a skeleton found north of Rome in 1991 is the oldest confirmed case of gigantism. While most men at that time stood about five and a half feet tall, this man would have been 6’8″ and his skull shows signs of the pituitary tumor that causes the disorder.

A fossil of the oldest flying fish ever discovered was found in China. It dates to the Middle Triassic period of about 235-242 million years ago, and shows that ocean ecosystems may have recovered from the Permian extinction faster than we previously thought. And it’s pretty!

Fossilized flying fish skeleton, with long fins in the front that served as glider wings
Potanichthys xingyiensis. Image credit: Dr. Guang-Hui Xu

Two new emperor penguin colonies in eastern Antarctica have been found by French scientists. Satellite imagery from 2009 showed that there was probably a single colony in the area, but then a large chunk of the glacier broke off and the penguins weren’t spotted again until now. The groups are living on sea ice and have 6,000 chicks in total, so there are probably about 8,500 breeding pairs of adults. At the other end of the world, a group of about 20 polar bears has been spotted spending the summer on a large iceberg in Baffin Bay. Researchers previously thought that all of the bears moved from the sea ice to land during the summer, but it appears that some may stay out at sea to avoid human contact.

Add cockatoos to the list of animals that can use tools! A captive Goffin’s Cockatoo named Figaro was spotted using a piece of bamboo to try to retrieve a pebble that he dropped out of his cage at the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna. In subsequent trials he was able to successfully retrieve cashews ten times out of ten, either by using twigs or pieces of bamboo from inside his cage or by tearing off splinters of wood from the beam next to the cage (even trimming one splinter that was initially too long!). Many corvids such as crows and ravens can use tools, but this is the first time a parrot species has been seen to do so. Check him out!

Speaking of smart animals, an elephant at a South Korea zoo seems to have learned to say a few words in Korean. Koshik seems to be imitating his trainers’ speech more than actually communicating, but it’s still pretty impressive.

Well, that’s one way to find new species! Three very similar looking species of moths in South Africa have been differentiated by their differently-shaped genitals. I love science.

Extinction news! Sigh. Ethiopian wolves are in danger of extinction due to lack of genetic diversity. The last 500 or so wolves have been split into six different packs that are hundreds of kilometers apart and it doesn’t appear that they’re able to travel between groups to breed. Their numbers have been decimated by recent rabies outbreaks and by pressures from increased human population in the area, and inbreeding will endanger them even further. Pandas could also be in trouble if climate change keeps increasing the temperature in China. Some bamboo species they depend on as their sole food source can’t survive higher temperatures, so their only chance at survival in some regions is for bamboo to successfully grow at higher elevations that are currently too cool to support it.

New seismic analysis in the wake of the 2011 earthquake that was felt across the eastern U.S. shows that the northeast United States is more susceptible to quake damage than was previously recognized. A typical 5.8 magnitude quake like the one centered in Virginia last August would only cause landslides within about 60 kilometers of the epicenter, but that one caused them up to 245 km away due to the underlying geological features of the region that focus seismic energy toward the northeast. More seismometers may be needed around the major cities of the region to assess how they’re affected by quakes and to determine if buildings need to be reinforced to prevent future damage.

An invisibility cloak has been perfected for the first time, but there’s a catch. A diamond-shaped cloak was successfully able to divert light around a 7.5cm long by 1cm high cylinder, but in microwave wavelengths, not visible light, and it only works if you look at it straight on. However, it’s still a leap forward for cloaking technology and could have some practical applications in telecommunications or radar.

Redhead news! Researchers in Scotland are using genetic tests to create a map of people carrying the gene variations that cause red hair. Despite fears that we gingers are a disappearing breed since the genes are  recessive and relatively rare, many people are carriers without even realizing it. Of course, there’s a downside to our coloring. New research shows that the pigment variation that gives us red hair, pale skin, and freckles may boost our risk of developing melanoma even without UV exposure. Well, fuck.

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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.

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