Science News Roundup: 5/15/12

We’re going a bit more lowbrow than usual this week (yes, we’re talking about the flatulent dinosaurs). I apologize in advance! But there’s also some good news about extinction, cool discoveries about volcanoes and lightning, pretty pictures from space, and plenty more. Let’s go!

Everyone’s favorite science story last week was, of course, the farting dinosaurs. Extrapolating from the digestive habits of present-day large plant-eaters, researchers were able to estimate that the giant sauropods like Apatosaurus who lived 150 million years ago released about 573 million tons (520 million metric tonnes) of methane per year, which likely contributed to the very warm climate of the day (temperatures averaged 18° F warmer than today). This story was also the source of my favorite bad science article of the week, in which Fox News claimed that the farts of 150 million years ago were more responsible for dinosaur extinctions that the asteroid of 65 million years ago. I’m sure the warmer climate was detrimental to some species even as it allowed others to flourish, but no. They lived for another 85 million years. (Also, the picture they used didn’t even include any sauropods. Looks like a T. Rex eating an Ankylosaur.) Sigh. Ironically, on the same day the New York Times covered a new study that hoped to settle once and for all whether the asteroid was, in fact, to blame. It was inconclusive, showing that while some species were already on the decline in the 12 million years prior to the impact, others were doing just fine. So for now, looks like we’re sticking with the asteroid as the best explanation.

Artist rendition of the saurpod Apatosaurus
Remind me to stay upwind of this fella.

Going swimming in any lakes this summer? Don’t pee in the water. Not just because it’s gross, but because urinating swimmers may be to blame for a large fish die-off at a lake near Hamburg, Germany. The pee itself doesn’t harm the fish, but rather feeds algae growth that sucks up oxygen from the water.

Underwater volcanoes can grow (and collapse) faster than anyone had previously suspected. A research vessel mapping the South Pacific happened to measure the Monowai seamount north of New Zealand mere days before a 5-day-long eruption was detected. When the ship returned about two weeks after the initial measurements, they found that a massive section on the side had collapsed in a landslide, and the peak had grown by an astonishing 79.1 meters (nearly 260 feet). That’s the third-fastest growth ever measured, behind only Vesuvius and Mount St. Helens.

For the first time, seismometers were able to definitively measure the earth-shaking effects of a cloud-to-ground lightning strike. A tree right next to an earthquake observatory in Germany was struck and exploded as a researcher watched. A special seismometer attuned to small ground movements was able to pick up four seismic spikes in less than half a second; the lightning striking the tree, the following thunderclap, the explosion of the tree (probably from sap being superheated and turned to steam), and the shockwave in the air following the explosion.

A rare (and awesome) calico lobster is moving to the Biomes Marine Biology Center in Rhode Island after the kitchen staff at Jasper White’s Summer Shack restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. decided it was too pretty to cook. It’s estimated that only 1 in 30 million lobsters have that coloring.

lobster with calico coloring - dark with orange and yellow spots
You fancy, huh? Image from Tony LaCasse at the New England Aquarium

Many of us may have noticed this in our own yards this year, but researchers have now proven that global warming is causing plants to flower earlier, and much quicker than had been predicted by older models. Current observations show flowers appear 5-6 days earlier each year for every degree Celsius rise in average temperatures. Laboratory models failed to account for other changes such as rainfall that would also be affected by the warmer temperatures.

Analysis of the DNA of species in the cyprus family of trees has given new insight into their evolution after the split-up of the Pangaea supercontinent. Of the two major subfamilies, one occurs mostly on the present-day areas of what was once Laurasia, while the other is confined to the former Gondwana. While the supercontinent split’s effects have previously been studied in several animal species, this was the first study of how plants evolved in the aftermath.

There’s good news on the extinction front for once. New analysis shows that prior claims that we lose three species an hour or up to 150 a day were based on bad assumptions (and worse math). Increasing the size of a habitat leads you to find new species, but decreasing it doesn’t necessarily kill every member of a species. We also don’t know how many species even exist or at what rate they go extinct through no fault of humans, making it even harder to quantify the damage done by global warming and encroaching on habitats.

Potentially awesome news for anyone still sad about Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet: There may yet be a ninth planet lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system. No one’s spotted anything lurking beyond Neptune and Pluto yet, but the erratic orbits of some objects in the Kuiper Belt suggest that something with a pretty big gravitational pull is out there.

The coolest picture of the week comes to us courtesy of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It managed to capture three twisters on the surface of Mars. If you have any 3D glasses, the image below is even cooler. For more 3D Martian images, check out the image gallery of the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) project.

3D image of three twisters on Mars
These are too fucking cool!

By [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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