NOAA Spots Yet Another Bizarre, Deep-Sea Dweller

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 29, 2016 2:45 pm

Yes, this creature lives on Earth. (Credit: NOAA) 

It’s often said that we know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about the solar system.

We haven’t found any extra-terrestrials out there yet, but there are still plenty of fascinating creatures to be discovered right here at home.

Take the latest find from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 10-week mission to explore the depths of the Mariana Trench. This deep-water jellyfish, discovered over two miles beneath the surface, looks more like something from a science fiction movie with its spindly limbs and garishly-colored body. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: unusual organisms

Train-Rattling Peacocks Are Biomechanical Wonders

By Carl Engelking | April 27, 2016 1:00 pm

A peacock unfurls his magnificent train feathers. (Credit: Roslyn Dakin)

When you see a peacock shake a train feather, you’re watching finely tuned natural engineering at work.

When a peacock wants to woo a peahen, he unfurls his glorious, iridescent feathers and furiously vibrates them in what’s called a “train-rattling” display. The vibrations make the bird’s signature eyespots appear to float, motionless atop a swirling sea of wispy feather barbs.

In his book on sexual selection, Darwin believed peacocks vibrated their colorful tails “merely to make noise,” because the motion could “hardly add to the beauty of their plumage.” This, coming from a man who said the sight of a peacock feather was enough to make him sick — peacocks, with their clumsy, massive feathers, didn’t fit nicely into Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” framework. They sort of forced him to develop the idea of sexual selection as an additional mechanism of evolution.


More than 150 years after Darwin’s heyday, scientists now have high-speed imaging, audio analyzers and scanning electron microscopes at their disposal. And in a new study, published Wednesday in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, scientists used these tools to analyze the biomechanics of the peacock tail wiggle. Their results suggest the bird’s feather structure and tail-shaking behavior work in harmony to enhance the appearance of those signature spots. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, evolution

Dogs and Hugs May Not Mix

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 27, 2016 12:47 pm

This dog doesn’t exactly look thrilled. (Credit: Christin Lola/Shutterstock)

It’s hard to resist wrapping your arms around a furry pup, but our well-intentioned hugs might be stressing dogs out.

While it’s natural for us to demonstrate caring by wrapping our arms around our companions, such behavior is likely activating a primal stress response in dogs, says Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia who specializes in canine psychology.

When it comes time to choose between fighting and fleeing in a stressful situation, dogs are cursorial creatures, meaning they are naturally disposed to running away, he says. When we grab them in an embrace and hold on tight, they feel anxious and constrained, because there’s nowhere to run. In other words, our behavior communicates the opposite of what we intended. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, psychology

Dwarf Planet Makemake Isn’t Alone

By John Wenz | April 26, 2016 2:54 pm

The newly discovered moon, MK 2, found in Hubble data orbiting Makemake. (Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Parker)

In 2005, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Chad Trujillo discovered dwarf planet Makemake, currently believed to be the third largest object in the Kuiper Belt after Pluto and Eris. But at the time, astronomers believed it was alone out there on its long path around the Sun. But new data from the Hubble Space Telescope reveal a moon around the tiny world, and offer a little explanation as to where it was hiding.

“The satellite that we found was not that faint and not that close to Makemake,” says Alex Parker, principal investigator of the research and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. “It popped right out of the data when we looked.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system

Is Fracking to Blame for This Burning River in Australia?

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 26, 2016 2:45 pm

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 1.25.45 PM

Are we seeing another Cuyahoga River watershed moment in Australia? Maybe not.

Jeremy Buckingham, an Australian politician and a member of the Greens Party, set the internet ablaze when he lit the Condamine River on fire to make a political statement. The incongruous blaze is caused by a methane seep beneath the river bed, which leaks bubbles to the surface and feeds the flames. Such seeps are known to occur naturally near coals seams, which produce methane.

This is Bloody Crazy!

This particular seep has been blamed on recent mining activity in the region, which is known to destabilize underground structures. The bubbling in the Condamine River began in 2012, and local environmental groups raised concerns that Coal Seam Gas (CSG) wells operated by Origin Energy were responsible for the unusual phenomenon. Origin Energy is one of three energy companies that operate coal seam gas wells in the region, and released a statement saying the gas was naturally occurring.

In 2012, Origin Energy also commissioned a study, which was conducted by a researcher from CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency. CSIRO scientists found that coal mining was unlikely to be responsible for the recent methane seeps, although some environmental groups have called those findings into question.

“The presence of the industry there has not caused that crack to occur or that fault to occur, it’s been there for aeons,” Damian Barrett, research director of the CSIRO’s onshore gas program told the Guardian. “The gas has probably been coming to the surface there for as long as people have been there.”

Buckingham claims it’s more than a coincidence that the Condamine River started bubbling within 12 months of a gas field expansion.

Natural Gas

Methane seeps occur naturally — the oceans contain thousands of such seeps, each surrounded by microbes and organisms that depend on the minerals spewing from the ocean floor to survive. Between North Carolina and Massachusetts, there are some 570 seafloor cold seeps emanating methane from the sea floor.


Methane bubbles from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. (Credit: USGS)

Eternal Flame Falls, located in New York’s Shale Creek Preserve, is a far more accessible demonstration of a natural gas leak. Inside a grotto at the waterfall’s base, a natural gas leak can be ignited to produce a small flame that will burn year round.


(Credit: Wikimedia)

Fracking Possible Explanation

The techniques used to extract natural gas from coal seams, such as fracking, rely on breaking open subterranean coal seams to release the gas held inside. This process has been criticized for using harmful chemicals to crack open and maintain natural gas seams. Mining companies will usually inject the brine, or salty residue, that emerges from wells along with oil and natural gas back into the earth, where it could aggravate instabilities underground. The practice has also been blamed for earthquakes in some areas such as Oklahoma.

Methane seeps can certainly be dangerous — the Aliso Canyon leak last year in California released around 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere from an underground storage facility before it was plugged. Around 2,000 people had to evacuate their homes until the leak was sealed in February.

This particular seep isn’t big enough at the moment to pose much of a threat to human life — unless you go around lighting matches near it of course.


The Good and Bad News About the Amazon River’s Hidden Reef

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 25, 2016 4:40 pm

The mouth of the Amazon River. (Credit: Wikimedia)

A hidden coral reef roughly the size of Delaware was discovered at the mouth of the Amazon River. It was a pleasant surprise for scientists, but the reef is already facing threats.

The reef occupies about 3,600 square miles off the shore of northern Brazil and French Guiana, and is hidden under sediment that spills from the Amazon into the Atlantic Ocean. The find came as a surprise to researchers, who say that the combination of mud and fresh water dumped into the ocean by the Amazon should create near-inhospitable conditions for the fragile coral. By studying samples dredged up from reef, some of which likely represent new species, the researchers hope to learn how corals survive adverse conditions. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts

World’s Largest Primates Face Grave Threat

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 25, 2016 3:21 pm

A male gorilla named Ciminuka at Kahuzi-Biega National Park in 2005. (Credit: Graueri Gorilla/Wikipedia)

For the first time in 20 years, wildlife biologists conducted a comprehensive population survey of the Grauer’s gorilla, the largest primate in the world.

What they found confirmed their worst fears: In the time since the last gorilla census was taken in 1994, their population declined by an estimated 77 percent. The researchers estimate that there are only some 3,800 Grauer’s gorillas left in their native habitat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been wracked with human conflict for the past two decades. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

Playtime Is Better With Music

By Carl Engelking | April 25, 2016 2:10 pm

(Credit: niderlander/Shutterstock)

Playtime might be all the more enriching with a waltz playing in the background.

A new study from University of Washington researchers Christina Zhao and Patricia Kuhl suggests that short sessions of music training can boost a 9-month-old infant’s ability to recognize patterns in music and speech — a crucial skill for learning a language.

Their findings represent another step forward for scientists who are working to establish stronger links between music and brain plasticity. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts

Half a Degree Makes a Big Difference for Global Climate

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 22, 2016 3:28 pm

(Credit: Johan Larson/Shutterstock)

World leaders meeting Friday at the United Nations headquarters in New York hope to make this Earth Day a historic one.

More than 150 countries are expected to sign the Paris Agreement, an accord reached last December designed to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with some nations arguing that the world should rally around a more stringent threshold of 1.5 C. And the difference between the two goals might be significant: A new study shows that the world would look substantially different if mean global temperatures rise by 2 C, rather than 1.5 C.

Small Change, Big Impact

In the paper, a team of European researchers used multiple sets of climate models to analyze the difference between a planet that warms 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees by 2100. It’s a fractional difference, but it holds significant ramifications for at-risk areas near the equator, as well as for populations in Third World countries that will be most affected by climate change.

Sea levels would rise by a third of a foot more if the planet warms by 2 C as opposed to 1.5 C, and swelling coastal estuaries would allow the oceans to creep further into coastal cities. Under the 2 C scenario, nearly every reef worldwide would be at a high risk of degradation, compared to the still-unsettling 70 percent under the 1.5 C contingency, according to researchers’ models. They published their work Thursday in the journal Earth System Dynamics.

Third World Nations Hardest Hit

The researchers find that poor countries near the equator have the most riding on a half degree. With another half a degree increase in temperature, Central America and West Africa would see a twofold decrease in crop yields, compounding issues of food production in regions that are among the most affected by hunger and starvation.

Droughts too would grow worse in critical regions as the globe warms, the researchers say, with the Mediterranean at particular risk. Heat waves are also likely to increase in both length and duration in the tropics, affecting both crops and people. Central America, South Africa and Australia also stand to lose under this scenario, with the amount of water available decreasing by 10 percent under a 1.5 C scenario, and 20 percent if we reach the 2 C threshold.

Most of the models researchers looked at predict increases in crop yields and water levels for regions near the poles, where warming temperatures could prove to be a boon for food production. However, these regions tend to be sparsely populated and more developed, meaning that an increase in food production won’t yield much benefit locally. The populations with the most to lose from climate change, on the other hand, tend to live in areas that will be hardest hit.

Big Changes, Small Numbers

This study provides an insightful perspective of the impact an imperceptible temperature difference can have when applied on a global scale.

While half a degree may seem negligible, it’s important to remember that it is a global average. In some “hot spots”, temperatures are likely to increase far more, offset by smaller increases elsewhere. The impact climate change has on humanity rests on where these changes occur.

The 2 C breaking point represents the extreme for the signees of the Paris Agreement, beyond which humanity enters unknown territory. Even well below that number, we still will not be spared from droughts and rising sea levels. The fate of the agreement now rests in the hands of individual countries that are responsible for enacting the measures laid out in Paris.

It is well worth remembering that even small changes can make a big difference.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts

Remnants of a Supernova Are Pummeling Earth

By John Wenz | April 22, 2016 2:02 pm

Cosmic rays are accelerated toward Earth by the same kind of supernova explosions that carved this bubble into the Large Magellanic Cloud. (Credit: Gemini South Telescope in Chile; composite by Travis Rector of the University of Alaska Anchorage)

Sometime in the last few million years, a not-so-far-off supernova sent charged particles known as cosmic rays out in all directions. The scattered, stripped nuclei of radioactive iron isotopes eventually made their way to Earth as part of a larger stream of material. Now, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have found traces of this stream bombarding our planet, bringing interstellar atomic debris crashing into Earth.

In a paper published Thursday in Science, the researchers report on the findings of 17 years worth of observation from the Cosmic Ray Isotope Spectrometer aboard NASA’s ACE craft. During that time, it detected 15 individual nuclei of iron-60, a by-product of supernova explosions. Because iron-60 tends to decay quickly, and cosmic rays don’t quite reach the speed of light, that means the supernova was likely local. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts


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