Science News: 9/11/12

It’s science news time again, y’all! We’ve got a couple of the coolest self-portraits ever, alcoholic tree shrews (see if you can spot my truly terrible Shakespeare joke!), and intelligent sharks. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to PMag!

Mars news! The red planet may not have had as much liquid water as we once guessed. The presence of ancient clay led scientists to believe that those rocks must have formed in standing water since that’s mostly how it happens on Earth, but new measurements show that they are remarkably similar to clays formed from watery magma on Mururoa, a volcanic atoll in the South Pacific. It’s also a good example of how results can be interpreted differently (or misrepresented), as the article linked above discusses how Mars may have been cooler than we once thought, since most clays tend to form in warm, swampy regions, but that organic compounds and RNA might still have been able to form in hot water. However, the L.A. Times coverage says that the water in the magma would probably have been too hot to support life, and this somehow translated to a blurb in the CNN news crawl saying that Mars was hotter than we once thought. Nope. (I couldn’t get a screencap, but I saw it and was confused because I knew I’d just read the opposite.)

Curiosity has been testing the air on Mars to determine its chemical composition. We know its atmosphere is predominantly made of carbon dioxide, but some satellites and telescopes have detected methane, which usually disappears quickly and would need to be replenished somehow, and we’d need to figure out where it was coming from. It also took a picture of itself. Awww.

Picture of the Curiosity rover's mast as taken by one of its cameras and rotated by NASA, with Martian horizon in background
“What I did on my summer vacation.” Image courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / Emily Lakdawalla

Curiosity wasn’t the only self-portraitist up in space this week. Check out the amazing picture below taken by Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide during a spacewalk at the International Space Station, and another goofy pic here that he took of American astronaut Sunita Williams reaching out to “hold” the sun. I love nerds; they really are the best people.

Astronaut in space with the sun behind him and his camera, the International Space Station, and Earth reflected in his visor
He’s got the whole world on his face. Image courtesy NASA/JAXA

A mineral once only known to exist on the moon (or in meteorites blasted from the moon’s surface) has finally been found on Earth. Tranquillityite (named for the Sea of Tranquility) was discovered in lunar rock samples brought back from the Apollo landing, but hadn’t been found in rocks formed on Earth until scientists recently discovered traces of the mineral in igneous rocks in Western Australia. It may actually be more common than we thought, since it looks very similar to another mineral and can only be differentiated with specialized equipment.

A huge coronal mass ejection from the sun on August 31 wasn’t aimed directly at the Earth, but hit a glancing blow on our magnetosphere on September 3, causing some pretty cool auroras. The eruption itself was awesome, with material shooting out from the surface of the sun at over 900 miles per second. NASA captured some amazing footage at different wavelengths of light, seen below.

There may be even more planets outside our own solar system that are capable of sustaining life than we previously thought. Current models only look at planets in their sun’s “Goldilocks zone,” where surface temperatures allow for liquid water. However, planets with a sufficiently hot core could have subterranean lakes or oceans capable of hosting microbial life.

Hurricane news! Oil that washed up on shore in Louisiana after Hurricane Isaac came from 2010’s BP oil spill. Also, new information is making storm predictors rethink present hurricane models. We used to think that high waves during storms caused increasing amounts of friction, but as windspeeds pass 144km/h (about 90mph) the spray kicked up by the waves starts to smooth out the surface and the coefficient of drag (friction divided by surface area) starts dropping. In a Category 5 storm with 288km/h (~180mph) winds, ocean waves can reach 65-100 feet high and winds skip right over the troughs. While it sounds scary, this could actually be good news because it means the winds may not push storm surges as high as we once predicted.

As predicted a couple weeks ago, sea ice in the Arctic is at a record low and now appears to be melting even faster than we thought. This could have wide-ranging effects; ice reflects sunlight but the dark ocean absorbs it and heats up, and a warmer arctic could effect the jet stream and weather patterns around the world.

Clouds in the Amazon seem to form with the help of fungus. Water vapor forms when droplets condense on tiny particles of carbon compounds in the air; these particles can come from plants or even pollution and usually take a while to clump together enough to attract water. Scientists have wondered where certain particles over the Amazon came from, and it now appears that they are released when fungi shoot out spores.

Parts of the Yangtze River in China have inexplicably turned red. It’s probably not an algae bloom known as “red tide” since that lives in salt water, so current speculation is blaming either reddish silt from flooding upstream or industrial pollution.

Humans may be reducing biodiversity and even leading to mammalian extinctions in deserts. Arid and semi-arid regions tend to have very delicate ecosystems, so any changes brought about by livestock grazing, invasive species, fires, and hunting can be catastrophic.

Droughts across the United States have led animals in desperate need of food to venture much closer to cities and towns than most people are comfortable with. Elk and mule deer are grazing in farm fields, and bears have been breaking into homes and businesses and raiding trash cans (even in my neighborhood!). Meanwhile, tigers in Nepal are adjusting their habits to actively avoid human contact in national parks. Cameras have caught them using the same trails as people, but the tigers don’t venture out until after dark when people have left the park.

Malaysian tree shrews know how to party! They spend about two hours every night feeding on the nectar of the bertram palm, which ferments to an alcohol concentration of 3.8%. That’s as much as some beers! They don’t seem to suffer any adverse reactions, so they can apparently metabolize alcohol much better than we can.

pen-tailed tree shrew clinging to slender branch
This shrew can’t be tamed. Image courtesy Annette Zitzmann

Mapping the muscle fibers of cheetahs explains how they are able to run so fast in quick bursts. Their hind legs have a high concentration of a particular type of muscle fiber that can produce a lot of energy quickly, but also have a lower endurance than other muscle fibers. Cheetahs can go from zero to 60mph in less than three seconds and are the fastest land animal.

A stick insect unlike any previously known species has been discovered on a mountain in the Philippines. Dubbed Conlephasma enigma, it’s been assigned to a new genus because it’s so dissimilar to other known stick insects, though its mouthparts have mysterious similarities to species living across the Pacific in American tropical regions.

Do birds hold funerals for their fallen compatriots? Not in the sense we think of. A study showed that Western scrub jays reacted loudly to discoveries of dead jays (made by researchers from the skins and feathers of jays), and gathered in a mob when this discovery was accompanied by dead, stuffed owls perched nearby. The jays seemed to be warning others of danger and joining together to fight off a perceived threat, not mourning.

An experiment has shown that lemon sharks have the ability to learn hunting behaviors from each other. Juveniles were paired with either untrained adults or adults that had been trained to swim to a certain part of an enclosure to get a signal to hit a target and receive food. The juveniles with the trained sharks copied their behaviors and learned the pattern much more quickly than those who had to figure it out for themselves.

Crabs living deep in the ocean have some color vision, despite being in a zone that receives no sunlight. All eight species in a recent study were able to detect blue light, and two could see in ultra-violet wavelengths. This likely helps them distinguish between the blue-emitting bioluminescent plankton they feed on and green-emitting bioluminescent coral, which is toxic to them.

315 million year old footprints found in Nova Scotia are the smallest vertebrate footprints ever found. The 30 prints make a path only two inches long. Scientists don’t know exactly which species made the tracks, but suspect it was an ancient amphibian similar to a salamander.

News that’s way above my pay grade to explain! Two mathematicians claim to have found a new unifying theory that alters Einstein’s theories on gravity to account for dark matter and dark energy. I have no idea if this is utter brilliance or utter horseshit; see if you can make any sense of it. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is also being called into question. This makes a bit more sense to me, but still not enough for me to summarize the findings. Mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki claims to have solved a fundamental problem in number theory, the abc conjecture. Even other mathematicians don’t fully understand this proof just yet, so I’m totally in the woods. It sounds cool though! Finally, the ENCODE project has been all over the news this week. It claims to have discovered the purpose behind “junk” DNA; that these strings function as switches to tell genes when to switch on and off. Honestly, I just haven’t had time to look over it all, but Ed Yong of the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog has a fantastic set of recommended articles on the controversies and bad science journalism surrounding it. (Plus, his blog is just delightful and has tons of cool links!)

Also, if you haven’t checked out Ailanthus-altissima’s post from yesterday about how the U.S. presidential candidates stack up on science issues, especially climate change, do so. Then go read about how Mitt Romney still believes in cold fusion, and try not to hurt yourself headdesking.

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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