Science News: 2/26/13

A lot of really cool stuff has happened in the last three weeks, so let’s dive right in to find out what’s new with Mars, Antarctica, dinosaurs, adulterous monkeys, and so much more!

Curiosity news! The rover has finally sent back photographic evidence that it has collected a sample of powdered rock from a hole drilled into the surface of Mars. Analysis of the rock’s makeup should begin soon. Curiosity has also spotted another surface anomaly – a shiny protuberance on the top of a rock. Different kinds of rocks erode at different rates, so while some have suggested that it’s metallic (possibly a fragment of a meteorite), it may just be a fine-grained mineral or a trick of the light.

Martian surface, with a shiny finger of rock sticking up from one of them.
Shiny Martian rock (at top center). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Analysis of a moon rock collected during the Apollo 15 mission found traces of water. The rock sample was from the lunar highlands, the oldest part of the moon’s crust, and shows that there was water on the early moon. This calls into question theories that the moon formed after material was blasted off the earth in a large collision with another large object, because the water should have outgassed as it blasted into space.

Exoplanet Kepler 37b has set a new record for smallest known exoplanet – it’s barely bigger than our moon.

Scientists have finally found the source of cosmic radiation and as has been long suspected, the rays are a product of supernovae remnants.

Under the sea news! Scientists have found fragments of an ancient landmass deep below the Indian Ocean. The supercontinent Rodinia, which predated the better-known Pangaea, broke up more than 750 million years ago. At the time, India was joined to Madagascar by a smaller microcontinent called Mauritia, and its remnants are now believed to be buried deep below the ocean. In the Caribbean, meanwhile, researchers have found the deepest known hydrothermal vents. Located at a depth of nearly 5000m (3 miles) in the Cayman Trench, the vents shoot out water that’s about 400°C (750°F), making them the hottest known vents as well.

There is life in Antarctica’s subglacial lakes! The American team that drilled into Lake Whillans has found abundant microbial life in the samples taken from its water and sediments. Further study is needed to see how the bacteria survive without sunlight and how they’re related to other known bacteria.

Dino news! Skin is rarely fossilized, but a recently studied hadrosaur not only had a preserved section of skin, the skin showed evidence that the dinosaur had been bitten by a large predator, probably a T.Rex, and survived long enough for the wounds to heal! Researchers have also figured out how sauropods managed to grow such long necks – their neck vertebrae were mostly hollow, they had relatively tiny heads balanced out by enormous torsos to support the long neck, and their muscles, tendons, and ligaments were arranged to work with maximum efficiency. They also had up to 19 neck vertebrae; most mammals (even giraffes) have seven or fewer.

First Richard III was found under a parking lot, now four new species of toothed baleen whales have been found during excavations to widen a highway in California. Thirty whale skulls were found in an outcrop in Laguna Canyon, along with the remains of sharks and other creatures. The fossils are about 17-19 million years old; scientists previously thought all toothed baleen whales went extinct 5 million years earlier. The complete skeleton of a rare southern mammoth was also recently found in Russia after a cliff face collapsed.

A new species of owl has been identified in Indonesia. They had long been assumed to be the same species as similar-looking owls on nearby islands, but after several researchers realized that it had different vocalizations and other subtle differences, they assigned it a new species name (Otus jolandae).

It’s raining spiders in Brazil? Sort of. Many species can form giant communal webs overnight, so the “flying” spiders likely belonged to a group of colonial or social spiders. Either way, they’re fucking terrifying.

Fish news! Anxiety meds that enter the water through sewage treatment plants can affect fish behavior. A study in Sweden found that perch exposed to doses of Oxazepam in the same concentrations as it’s found in local rivers were anti-social, less risk-averse, and fed more rapidly. A study comparing sockeye salmon migration patterns (whether they go north or south of Vancouver Island) up British Columbia’s Fraser River to fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field has provided strong evidence that the fish do use magnetism to find their way to spawning grounds. And it turns out that you may not be eating the fish you think you’re eating. Genetic testing of seafood samples from across the U.S. found that a lot of fish labeled as red snapper or tuna are actually entirely different species. This can hamper conservation efforts by giving the false impression that overfished species are widely available.

Scientists have known for a while that bottlenose dolphins name themselves with a unique whistle that they use when communicating with others. New research takes this one step further, discovering that dolphins will call the “names” of their loved ones when they become separated. Badass.

Gelada monkeys are sneaky adulterers! Female geladas mostly mate with the leader of their pack, but will sometimes cheat with the bachelor males that hang around the harems. Since leaders will violently break up any adulterous couplings they catch in the act and there’s nowhere to hide in their grassland habitats, the monkeys have learned to keep quiet during illicit mating. When leaders have sex with their females, both make loud vocalizations. Clever!

Some carnivorous plants, including Venus flytraps and two species of pitcher plant, use blue fluorescent emissions to entice insects into their traps.

3D printers have been used to grow human ears. A collagen mold was printed from a laser scan of an ear, then living cells were injected into it that grew into cartilage after three months. While none have been implanted yet, scientists hope that the risk of rejection would be low.

The appendix may not be as useless as we once thought, as it apparently independently evolved at least 32 times in mammals.

Vision news! Lenses have been developed that can help color-blind people distinguish between red and green. The FDA has approved the first bionic eye; it can restore sight in people blinded by a rare condition called retinitis pigmentosa. A camera mounted on special glasses sends a signal to electrodes implanted in the eye to bypass the damaged retina. Another kind of retinal implant that doesn’t require a camera has been developed by German scientists to treat the same condition.

Oklahoma is considering passing a bill that would forbid science teachers from docking the grades of students who insist that evolution or climate change isn’t real or that humans lived alongside dinosaurs. The stupid, it burns.

In much better political news, the White House has asked federal agencies to make all studies funded by taxpayer money available for free within a year of publication. This is great because it allows greater access to information that we helped fund without decimating scientific journals.

Finally, a new prime number has been discovered that’s over 17 million digits long. Awesome.

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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