Science News: 9/25/12

Science news has gone all weird this week. Space geysers, crop circles off the coast of Japan, fishing kittens, cave gifs, and the starriest of Starry Nights are all waiting below the cut!

The oldest galaxy ever discovered has been spotted by scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope and a trick known as gravitational lensing. At 13.2 billion years old, it’s only half a billion years younger than our entire galaxy. Awesome. The brand-new Dark Energy Camera has been busy too, and its first pictures were released last week, including the beautiful spiral galaxy seen below. In December, the 570-megapixel(!) camera will start its true mission of the most ambitious galaxy survey ever, with the hopes of explaining why the universe’s expansion is speeding up instead of slowing down. Maybe we’ll finally learn more about so-called “dark energy.”

Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365
Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365. Image courtesy Dark Energy Survey Collaboration.

A geyser on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, has been photographed shooting a stream of water out into space. The image below, painstakingly composited together by Michael Benson from 19 separate images sent back by the Cassini space probe, shows the backlit water vapor rising from the back side of the moon. Even more remarkably, water vapor from Enceladus apparently helps build up one of Saturn’s rings.

Crescent moon with dark side partially lit by reflected light from Saturn. A small cloud of water vapor is visible over the apparent north pole
Enceladus. Image courtesy Michael Benson

Curiosity news! The Rover has been busy the last few weeks, sending back pictures of several lunar eclipses. Mars’ moons, Phobos and Deimos, are too small to completely obscure the sun, but it’s still pretty when they cross in front of it. Curiosity has also been photographing its American flag medallion, a plaque on the rover signed by Obama, Biden, and other NASA and government officials, and a rock that it will be studying soon. (The link above includes a really freaking trippy “3D” video of the rock. I feel stoned, pun absolutely intended.)

Diamond news! An enormous diamond field has been discovered in Siberia, containing trillions of carats of super-hard industrial diamonds. They formed when a kind of meteorite called a bolide struck the earth 35 million years ago, forming the seventh-largest impact crater ever found. Meanwhile, in Canada, diamond miners stumbled across a 50-million-year-old chunk of fossilized redwood that had been preserved inside a volcanic pipe. It’s millions of years older than previously known forests in the region, since glaciation destroyed most surface features (this unlucky tree fell into a volcanic pipe that opened during a kimberlite eruption and was thus preserved). Analysis shows that the area where it was found just south of the Arctic circle used to be 21 to 30° warmer than today, and four times wetter.

Speaking of the Arctic Circle, MSNBC wins the “most misleading headline of the week” award with this headscratcher: “Fossil forest may sprout again as the Canadian Arctic warms.” No, a fossil forest is not coming back to life. Conditions in the Arctic may be warm enough in the near future to support forestation like that seen 2.5 million years ago on Bylot Island, but it certainly won’t be the same trees (and assumes that tree seeds could somehow make their way back up there). Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice this summer shrank to a new low of only 3.41 million sq km (1.32 million sq mi), leading to fears that it could collapse entirely within the next few years instead of previous estimates putting the disappearance of the ice nearer the end of the century. Yikes. I really really hope that’s wrong. Of course, countries and corporations hoping to profit from mining in the newly-accessible seas are pretty excited and have started jockeying for mineral rights.

A new survey of corals in the Mozambique Strait in the Western Indian Ocean has found that it has the second-highest coral diversity in the world, containing many species that have never been described before and some that are much more common in the Caribbean. Discovery News has an amazing slideshow of pics; I could look at them all day.

These ocean floor “crop circles” aren’t the work of aliens; they’re a puffer fish’s desperate attempt to get laid. Discovered recently in Japanese waters by a scuba diver, a film crew investigating them caught a male puffer fish using his fins to sculpt the elaborate hills and valleys and then a female coming to lay eggs with him in the center. The ridges seem to protect the offspring from the ocean’s currents.

elaborate series of ridged rings made of sand on the ocean floor, with a camera to one side for scale
Puffer fish crop circles. Image courtesy Yoji Ookata/NHK

Killer whales are actually big old mama’s boys according to a new study. Orcas and pilot whales are the only only species aside from humans in which the females undergo a prolonged menopause. Sons stay with their mothers for their entire lives, research shows that they’re eight times more likely than average to die within a year of their mother’s death. Protecting sons helps ensure the continuation of the family line without having the additional burden of feeding and protecting grandkids, since they stay with their moms (and explains why mothers help their adult daughters less than their sons).

In case there were any doubts about invasive species being a bad, bad thing, Guam has irrevocably proven that species just need to stay put. Brown treesnakes were introduced there sometime in the 1940s and proceded to almost completely devour the bird population, with only two native species remaining today. Well, something had to come along to eat all the insects that the birds were no longer eating, and it just had to be fucking spiders. Guam has 40 times as many spiders as otherwise ecologically similar nearby islands. Do not want!

Crow news! Two new studies point to just how intelligent these birds are. In one, they were able to interpret the existence of hidden causal agents. Basically, if someone walked behind a sheet, moved a stick attached to it, and left, they acted as if the stick was no longer of any concern. If the stick moved without them seeing anyone come or go, they were suspicious that it would keep moving. Another study found that they could recognize faces of people who they perceived as dangerous based on past actions, and that other crows who didn’t witness the initial aggression (in this case, trapping and tagging seven crows while wearing a caveman mask) would learn that the mask indicated a threat based on the reaction of others. (Read the full study, it’s cool!)

Cat news! The same gene that causes stripes on tabby cats is responsible for a cheetah’s spots, and a specific mutation causes a mottled pattern in both cats. Cool! And a fishing kitten has been born at a wildlife park on the Isle of Man! Fishing cats, which have webbed feet that they use to catch fish, are endangered in their native Asia. Video at the link; it’s adorable!!

A new species of monkey known as the Lesula has been discovered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s actually been well-known by locals for a while, but scientists hadn’t been able to describe it until recently because the area hasn’t been explored much by outsiders.

Lesula monkey, with a fairly human-like face, pale skin, and a tan/blond ruff of fur
Lesula. Image courtesy Maurice Emetshu.

Prehistoric news! Evidence from sites across Europe suggests that Neanderthals used feathers as ornamentation, particularly dark ones from birds of prey and corvids. Carl Zimmer has an interesting take on whether ancient humans and Neanderthals were really separate species, given current DNA evidence of interbreeding between the two group. A beeswax cap on a cracked 6,500 year old tooth may be the earliest known dental filling. Cave paintings made by Stone Age artists may be the earliest attempts at animation. Many of the animals on cave walls have too many heads, legs, or tails, and flickering torchlight can give the illusion of motion, as seen below. (If the 3D Mars rock video linked above didn’t totally blow your mind, this one certainly will! Cave gifs!!)

The Ig Nobel prizes were announced last week. These prizes are awarded to the most absurd studies of the year, such as the physics that cause different ponytail shapes and the revelation that chimpanzees can identify others simply by looking at a picture of their butts. The Scicurious Brain blog will be going into greater detail on the winning studies; I can’t wait to read the full series. Despite the seeming ridiculousness of the studies, some really do uncover useful information.

Marijuana may combat more than just pain and nausea in cancer patients – it may be able to help fight off certain cancers. In lab tests cannabidiol, or CBD, was able to switch off the overactive genes that cause some cancers to metastasize. Merely smoking or ingesting pot won’t give you enough of the chemical to do any good, but it points to the importance of continued research on the medicinal properties of marijuana.

Hulk Smash news! Last week PNAS published a new study wherein a group of scientists were asked to evaluate a potential lab assistant based on a resume, rating their competence and hireability, stating whether or not they’d be willing to mentor the applicant, and saying what starting salary they’d offer. What they didn’t realize is that they’d all been given resumes that were identical in every way except the name at the top, and across the board both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower than the male applicants. EVEN THOUGH EVERYTHING ELSE WAS EXACTLY THE SAME. Another study found that Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp properties lie about climate change pretty much all the time. In the last six months, 93% of Fox News primetime climate change stories misrepresented the facts, and 81% of coverage in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal in the last year were similarly wrong. They were only right 19% of the time because they occasionally printed letters to the editor that told them how wrong they were.

Lastly, in what has to be the coolest use of photo-mosaic software ever, Harvard astronomer Alex Parker got bored one cloudy night and recreated Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night using images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Aside from the glaring omission of the TARDIS, it’s pretty much the best thing ever.

Van Gogh's Starry Night as composited from hundreds of tiny photographs of space objects.

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.

3 replies on “Science News: 9/25/12”

THe advances that we’ve had about the intelligence of crows from biologists has helped progress the study of anthropology. Crows also use tools, one of the things that earlier anthropologists used to say defined our differences from other animals. (The idea of what makes us human has been around for a long time, and the answer has changed repeatedly as we’ve had proof that other animals- monkeys, birds, etc- have or do a lot of the things we’ve called “human”.)

Cat genetics = awesome. You know, the reason for the wide diversity in the coats of domestic cats has to do with human trade routes and habits? many cats were originally kind of tabby looking, like the north african wildcat. :)


People have been debating the species of Neanderthals for a while- but I’ve noticed that it is more popular a theory as we’ve discovered more and more that Neanderthals had culture of some sort. A lot of people’s pet theory about the previously mentioned question about the difference between humans and other animals is complex culture- like that demonstrated by the bird feather thing mentioned above.

We do have evidence for simple culture (that is, meme propagation) in certain species that use either a technique or a simple tool  for food. There was a study done with a species of Japanese monkey that had certain patterns around fruit scavaging. When young monkeys without experience with observing food gathering were moved away from the original “tribe” to a similar location, they had completely different methods. However, as members of the original group were introduced, their method was propagated in the second one.

Which of course kinda pissed off the “culture is human!” people, who amended their theory over time to  complex culture is human. These Neanderthal (and Denisovian) finds that we’ve had in the past few years have upset that as well, which has had a couple of different reactions. One is that “oh, [xyz find] was just mimicry of human cultural activities, not real culture from that species.” Another is that these other species aren’t  really another species, just a variation within the species. There’s evidence both for and against both arguments .

Obviously this is a simplified summery of a larger issue in paleo anth, but yeah. EXCITING!!! (Personally I think that it’s a bit silly to say we have a monopoly and always have had a monopoly on complex culture. I’m of the opinion that what makes us human is just that we fall within certain genetic perimeters, not a specific activity or behavior. But that’s just me.)

It’s pretty cool about the beeswax filling. I don’t know that it is as “cutting edge” at the time as he article portrays it, but it’s pretty cool for other reasons. One of the folk treatments for a cracked tooth to this day is to use beeswax in it until you can get more permanent treatment. That this method of dealing with tooth pain has lasted so long is a truly fascinating thing. It shows the possible endurance of a meme (cultural unit of measurement kind of) over long stretches of time. There are obviously other examples of similar things, but it’s pretty cool.  (More cutting edge. . . well, there was drilling of teeth 9000 years ago.) Also, there’s actually a Dental Anthropology Association. Cool, huh?

I love the cross field work that the cave “animations” involves. That’s some great optics work being used in that. :D


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