Science News Update: 6/19/12

Damn, has it been a busy week for science! We’ve learned about the possibility that our oldest known cave paintings may not have been made by humans after all, Voyager 1 is on the verge of leaving our solar system and traveling into the unknown reaches of interstellar space, and China has sent its first woman astronaut into space. Plus, intelligent bears, three stories about lobsters, an unexpected environmental battle, and the weirdest freaking picture I’ve seen in a long time. And more! 

The oldest known cave paintings in the world may not have been made by humans. A new dating technique places the age of the Panel of Hands in Spain’s Cave of El Castillo at at least 37,300 years old, while red dots at a nearby cave may be more than 40,800 years old. Humans were first arriving in Europe around that time, but Neanderthals had been living there for 200,000-300,000 years and may have been the ones who made the paintings. It’s possible that they were made by the first human settlers very soon after their arrival, but the idea that Neanderthals could have made them is pretty awesome. Researchers are now trying to find paintings that definitely predate human civilization in Europe, because it does seem awfully coincidental that the very first paintings Neanderthals made would be at the exact time that humans arrived.

cave painting where red pigment has been sprayed to show the outline of hands
Those may not be human handprints. Awesome. (Image by Pedro Saura)

Voyager 1 is nearing the outer limits of our solar system and will soon be travelling through interstellar space. Launched on September 5, 1977, Voyager 1 was initially tasked with surveying the outer planets of our solar system along with Voyager 2, which actually launched two weeks earlier on a different trajectory. After completing its fly-bys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune by 1989, they were redirected toward the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The plutonium generators on board will provide enough power for the probes to continue transmitting through about 2025, after which they’ll continue on their paths in silence. Voyager 1 will be the first man-made object to leave our solar system.

With the launch of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft on Saturday, Liu Yang became the first female Chinese astronaut. The  33-year-old air force pilot is will conduct medical experiments during the mission, which is expected to last up to 20 days and will include China’s first manned docking with the Tiangong 1 space lab module, where the three crew members will live for part of the trip.

Bears can count. Two North American black bears were trained to use touch screens computers; one was taught to identify which box on the screen contained more dots while the other identified which had fewer dots. Many species are naturally drawn to “more,” so the ability of the bear to correctly identify the smaller number of dots for a food reward shows that it actually understood the concept of counting. It was the first test of its kind on the cognitive abilities of large carnivores. (Nobody tell Stephen Colbert!)

Lobster news! A tiny new species of lobster has been discovered living deep on the slopes of undersea mountains off the coast of Spain. Squat lobsters, as they have been dubbed, are only about 2″ long and are actually closely related to hermit crabs. And blue lobsters have been caught not once but twice in the last month. Over the weekend Captain John Gourley trapped one off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland and is donating it to the National Aquarium in Washington, DC, and Captain Bobby Stoddard caught one in Nova Scotia last month and is keeping it until he can decide what to do with it. Only about 1 in 2 million lobsters has blue pigmentation.

shiny blue lobster
Why so blue? Lobster caught by Bobby Stoddard in Nova Scotia.

In an unusual twist, environmentalists in Texas are fighting the planned destruction of a dormant off-shore oil platform. High Island 389-A was built in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary over 30 years ago and was abandoned several months ago. Interior Department rules require abandoned platforms to be dismantled due to the risk of oil spills or damage to ships if they’re toppled during hurricanes, but an entire marine ecosystem has grown up around the rig in the last three decades which would be destroyed if it were removed. Thousands of fish could be killed by the explosions needed to separate the rig from the ocean floor, and all of the corals growing on it would die when the platform was towed to shore and dismantled. High Island is a popular dive spot because of the diversity of species living there, so it’s hoped that a compromise can be reached.

When you think about unmanned drones, you probably think about the military drones that have been used to carry out attacks on terrorists around the world, but they have other uses as well. A space drone recently returned to earth after a secret 469-day mission in orbit around our planet. The drone was developed by NASA to test technology for the shuttle program and taken over by the Pentagon upon the retirement of the shuttle fleet. More than 400 small drone gliders have also been deployed in our oceans to perform experiments that would be impossible for manned submersibles. Using buoyancy engines that use a tiny amount of energy, they cruise slowly around the oceans and have been used for a wide variety of research, from monitoring undersea eruptions and tracking the spread of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear reactors to exploring under the Antarctic ice shelf and mapping schools of fish.

Hydroelectric power is becoming a more common way to generate electricity. Worldwide, its use has been increasing about 3% per year over the last four decades and in 2011 accounted for 16% of total energy generated. Much of the growth has been in China, which has more than tripled its hydroelectric power generation since the year 2000, whereas levels in the U.S. haven’t changed much recently since our dams are older and hydropower only accounts for about 7% of our electricity.

Last but certainly not least, this is probably the strangest picture you’ll see today, courtesy of Joan Gonzalvo, head of the Ionian Dolphin Project for the Tethys Research Institute.

Dolphin leaping out of the water with an octopus attached to its genital slit
That dolphin has an octopus stuck to its genital slit. Ouch.

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.

8 replies on “Science News Update: 6/19/12”

It’s really striking how similar the handprints in that photo are to some forms of Australian Aboriginal art.

I wonder if there are enough of those ones to measure and compare to contemporary Neanderthal/Homo Sapiens fossil hands.

I don’t know if they’d be able to tell the difference based on hand size. I suspect that the two species are close enough in size that there would be some overlap in hand sizes (assuming we even have complete enough hand skeletons to extrapolate the actual size). That would be a cool way to figure it out, though!

I’m not terribly familiar with Australian Aboriginal art, but that’s awesome that they’re similar. Great (early) minds think alike!

I’m no kind of expert either, but when I lived in Oz I went on a guided walk through the Blue Mountains, and got shown some of the art in and on rock there. The hand art looked almost exactly like that photo, and were done by blowing the pigment through a tube on to the hand, or putting the pigment in the mouth and spitting it out, we were told. And they would have obviously been much more recent than the European ones.

Google Image gives me this: not quite the same place, but similar to how they looked.

Blowing pigment over their hands is likely how the European cave painters made their hand-prints as well. There are some things that are sort of universally true about art craftsmanship, so there are design elements that pop up in cultures that had no contact with each others. Cultures that use bas relief sculpture tend to carve everyone with their face in profile, because it’s easier to do. Just about every ancient culture that believed the gods lived on the mountains built pyramids (or failing that built their temples on hills).  In this case, making hand prints this way is a very simple way to leave a very personalized mark.

Oh, sure. I’m not saying there’s actually some kind of cultural connection. It’s just… interesting to compare. I’d love some art historian/archaeologist/anthropologist to compare and see if what we know about the Australian Aboriginal art can tell us something we didn’t know about the Panel of Hands etc.

I didn’t think you were implying a connection. It’s just that I’ve seen these seemingly odd parallels in art quite a bit in my (admittedly hobbyist) studies. I think it is really interesting as well. Take the whole bas-relief thing, occasionally you find ancient bas-reliefs with the person face forward. And that person tends to look kinda derpy. I can just imagine the carvers looking at it, and thinking, “Well, that was crap. We should probably stick with profiles.” And I think it’s great to imagine all over the world artists struggling with and experiencing the same things.

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