Science News: 11/27/12

Welcome to the latest installment of science news! We’ve got updates from Mars, a plethora of discoveries about ancient animals, and an island that doesn’t exist.

Mars news! A dust storm on Mars has caused widespread regional effects that have been detected by both NASA rovers as well as the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Opportunity has seen increased haze, while Curiosity has experienced lower barometric pressure and slightly warmer temperatures at night. If the storm causes dust hazes over the entire planet, as sometimes happens with this kind of storm, Opportunity could have trouble recharging its solar-powered battery and both rovers could have decreased clarity in photographs. Meanwhile, Curiosity may have found something amazing last week, but scientists are keeping mum until they can confirm the discovery. Expect some big news in early December!

Streak of light across a dark sky
A Soyuz descent module re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere on November 18, as seen from the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA.

Astronomers have discovered a new planet that’s so huge it defies classification. So far they’re calling it a “super-Jupiter,” but with a mass nearly 13 times that of our solar system’s largest planet, Kappa Andromedae b may even be a dwarf star. Its sun is also interesting in that it’s only 30 million years old (less than half the time since the dinosaurs became extinct).

We’ve finally gotten a closer look at Makemake, one of five known dwarf planets in our solar system. For about one minute in April 2011 Makemake crossed between the Earth and a distant star, giving scientists enough data to approximate its size and density and to determine that it doesn’t have an atmosphere.

If you live in the western US or Canada and wake up bright and early tomorrow, you may be able to see a slight lunar eclipse!

Cool but scary news: Evidence has been found deep under Lake Geneva that points to the source of a large wave that historians recorded on the lake in 563CE. A rockfall dislodged a large amount of sediment, which then caused a tsunami that would have reached Geneva (40 miles away at the far end of the lake) about 70 minutes later. Computer simulations based on the sediment deposit on the lake floor show that the waves would have been about 26′ high. Yikes!

Scientific American has a cool blog post on recent discoveries in the history of vision. A protein known as opsin evolved the ability to detect light about 700 million years ago.

Ancient animal news (and damn is there a lot this week)! New reconstructions of early bird-like dinosaurs show that their wings probably weren’t strong enough for them to actually fly. Feathers may have initially evolved for insulation, and it’s possible that feathered dinos like Archaeopteryx used their wings to glide out of trees. Diatryma, a 7′ tall bird that lived about 10 million years after dinosaurs became extinct, was long thought to be carnivorous and one of the top predators of its age. However, newly discovered footprints show that it lacked the long talons common to other meat-eating birds and was thus likely an herbivore. A newly-described ancient shark has put to rest many questions about the evolutionary history of the great white shark. An ancient relative of modern pandas has been found in an unlikely location – Spain. There isn’t enough evidence at present to say if it’s a direct ancestor or merely a cousin, but at 11.5-12.5 million years old, it predates the oldest pandas found in China by about 4 million years. An ancient wombat-like animal that lived in Australia 15 million years ago could be the largest marsupial to ever live in the trees. At 70kg (150+ lb), it’s five times heavier than modern tree kangaroos. Finally, scientists have found a new source of ancient DNA in the Australian outback, which is so hot that DNA usually degrades rather quickly. 30,000-year-old plant and animal DNA was successfully extracted from several animal middens (aka fossilized poop).

Lonesome George’s species may not be extinct after all! DNA analysis of a tortoise population on Isabela Island in the Galapagos found 17 individuals that were hybrids of the Pinta Island subspecies of Galapagos tortoises. Five of the hybrids were relatively young, under the age of 20, so their purebred parent(s) may still be alive. Researchers also found a hybrid of another species that is extinct on its native island. They plan to return to the island to collect hybrids (and hopefully purebreds) to start a captive breeding program to preserve the species.

Photograph of Lonesome George, a Pinta Island giant Galapagos tortoise
Maybe not the last of his kind after all! Image via Wikimedia Commons/Flickr user Mike Weston

Australia has created the largest system of marine parks in the world, covering more than 888 thousand square miles of ocean. Oil and gas drilling and commercial fishing would be limited in the parks; since the protected areas are far offshore this will affect only about 1% of commercial fishers, though some are still upset at the limitation. The move is intended to protect Australia’s reefs and the endangered species that make their homes there.

Finally, Australian researchers have determined that Sandy Island, which has appeared on Google Earth and scientific maps for at least a decade, doesn’t actually exist. In fact, waters in the area are 1,400m (4620′) deep. Oops?

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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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