New Zealand Declares War on Rats, Weasels and Possums

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 25, 2016 3:07 pm


New Zealand today announced an ambitious plan to rid the island nation of all invasive predators by 2050.

The targeted creatures include rats, weasels, possums and ferrets, all introduced to the island by native settlers and Europeans. If successful, the proposal would eradicate every member of those species on the island in an attempt to restore a more natural ecosystem. It is estimated that some 25 million native birds are killed each year by invasive species, including New Zealand’s iconic, endangered kiwi. All told, Prime Minister John Key says invasive species are costing the island $3.3 billion annually.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, top posts

Grassy Trampolines Are Appearing in Siberia’s Tundra

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 22, 2016 2:16 pm

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There’s trouble brewing in Siberia. Or, should we say, bubbling.

As the Siberian Times reports, researchers working on a remote island off the coast of Siberia stumbled upon an unusual sight: In some places, the normally solid tundra is turning into a grassy trampoline. The cause of the wobbly patches is likely due to climate change. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

Venus Is Messing With Halley’s Comet

By Nola Taylor Redd | July 22, 2016 12:02 pm

Halley’s comet (Credit: NASA)

If you’re waiting for Halley’s comet to show up exactly 75 years after its 1986 appearance, you may be disappointed. The ball of ice has an orbit that varies by months or even years.

And new research suggests that Venus is responsible for the comet’s variations today, rather than the more massive planet Jupiter.

“Comet Halley has been observed throughout history, all the way back to 240 BC by the Chinese,” Tjarda Boekholt, an astrophysicist at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, told Discover by email.

Erratic Schedule

With many well-documented appearances, scientists quickly realized that the arrival time of the comet was constantly changing. For instance, although it passed Earth in February in 1986, it won’t be back until February 2061. In 45 years, it will instead appear in July.

“It is the variation in the time of sightings that provided the first clue to comet Halley’s chaotic orbit,” Boekholt said. “The orbit of comet Halley is not static, but it is evolving.”

Boekholt led a team that investigated the comet’s changing orbit. They found that Venus played an important role in revising the comet’s orbit in the past, and will probably continue to do so in the future, despite its small stature. Mighty Jupiter often dominates the influence of gravitational bodies due to its high mass, but Venus currently dominates Halley’s is movements.

The research will be published in the journal The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. A preprint is available online.

It Adds Up

According to Don Yeomans, a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who models comet and asteroid orbits, the small planet’s role isn’t completely out of line. While the planets more or less line up in a plane, Halley’s path around the sun is angled to their orbit, ducking above and below the path near the orbit of Venus.

“If Venus happens to be there sometime when Halley crosses the plane, it creates substantial perturbations,” says Yeomans. “It sort of gives it a kick and makes tracing the motion forward and backward in time more difficult.”

Boekholt and colleagues suggested that Venus would continue to dominate the path of the comet for another 3,000 years, until Jupiter takes back over. But Yeomans remained skeptical of looking too far into the future, pointing out that, according to the scientist themselves, the comet’s orbit couldn’t be accurately traced longer than 300 years.

Understanding Chaos

Narrowing down how and why Halley’s orbit changes can help improve scientists’ understanding of how other bodies move the solar system.

“Performing such analysis to other bodies in the solar system, we can obtain a better overview and understanding of chaotic orbits, stable orbits, and the dynamical evolution of the solar system and other planetary systems,” says Boekholt.

Follow Nola Taylor Redd on Twitter @NolaTRedd or Google+ or visit her at

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

How Birds and Honey Hunters Stick Together

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 21, 2016 1:00 pm

Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a wild greater honeyguide female in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique. (Credit: Claire N. Spottiswoode)

When members of the Yao tribe in Mozambique set off to search for wild honey, they don’t go alone.

To find hidden bee hives, the tribesmen enlist the help of expert guides, birds native to the African savanna appropriately named “honeyguides” (Indicator indicator). At the outset of a hunt, the Yao will call out with a distinctive vocalization consisting of a sustained trill followed by an emphatic grunt, best described as a “brrr-hm” sound.

If they’re lucky, one of the small, brown birds will show up and flit from tree to tree, chattering all the while, guiding the hunters toward their sweet target. And in this partnership, humans and birds both leave happy. Read More

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

When Republicans and Democrats Started Speaking a Different Language

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 20, 2016 1:51 pm

(Credit: Microgen/Shutterstock)

If someone proposed a “death tax”, how likely would you be to vote for it? What if we called it an “estate tax”?

The words used to frame arguments can play an important role in shaping opinions of important issues — “death” and “estate” can yield two different interpretations of the same concept. That the kinds of words we use to build an argument is important has long been known, but a new study led by a researcher at Stanford University suggests that politicians are playing word games at an unprecedented level — and a specific moment in history is marked as the watershed moment of this shift. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: emotions, psychology

After Rare Event, 2 Earth-sized Exoplanets Are Looking More Habitable

By John Wenz | July 20, 2016 12:35 pm

An artist’s conception of the view from TRAPPIST-1c, showing how the system might look from the surface of the world. (Credit: M. Kornmesser/ESO)

TRAPPIST-1 may well be one of the closest stars to look for life in our own backyard, thanks to three planets in its habitable zone.

Now, we’re one step closer to understanding if those planets could hold life, thanks to a new study published today in Nature.

Using data gathered from the Hubble Space Telescope, researchers at MIT witnessed two occultation events from the innermost planets, TRAPPIST-1b and 1c. The two had near-simultaneous transit events on May 4, 2016 just 12 minutes apart, and some spectrum was gathered from the transit.

Through this, the MIT team made the first atmospheric observation of an Earth-mass planet, and determined the atmosphere of both planets lacked a “gas envelope” of hydrogen and helium around them.

That means that the planets don’t belong to a strange class of planets called gas dwarfs, which is exactly what it sounds like: a mini-mini-Jupiter. They often are terrestrial planets enveloped in a thick atmosphere with a similar composition to Saturn or Jupiter.

“If they were to have such an atmosphere, then they would not be habitable,” says Julien de Wit, lead author of the study and an MIT postdoc. He coauthored the paper announcing the initial discovery of TRAPPIST-1’s system in a May Nature paper.

By ruling out the gas dwarf scenario, the researchers can now home in on more specific details of these two planets. This includes determining if they have atmospheres that are dense and Venus-like or filled with water vapor, which would place them as more Earth-like. There’s also the possibility that, like Mercury, the planets lack anything more than an incredibly thin exosphere.

Some of the really detailed observations of the system, which is is just 39 light years away from Earth, will have to wait for the 2018 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will characterize the atmospheres of Earth-like planets in detail.

In the meantime, de Wit and colleagues will have to rely on data from Hubble, which can still be used to to determine key characteristics like the presence of water or methane. While they might not get as lucky as a two-for-one transit next time, it still could reveal if TRAPPIST-1’s planets contain the ingredients for life.

“What occurred on May 4 was a very rare event,” says de Wit.

This article originally appeared on

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets

The Eye Can Spy a Single Photon

By K. N. Smith | July 19, 2016 1:33 pm


The human eye is sensitive enough pick out a single photon of light in otherwise complete darkness.

Light-sensitive cells called rods, located in the back of your eye, can react to single photons, but that’s not the same as actually seeing the light. Sight, in the way that we think of consciously perceiving a visual, requires the retina and the brain to process those signals. For decades, researchers have wondered how little light the human eye could actually detect. Now, it turns out that one photon – the smallest unit of light — is enough to send a signal to the brain. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts

Zika Virus Case in Utah Raises New Questions for Scientists

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 18, 2016 4:07 pm

(Credit: Tacio Philip Sansonovski/Shutterstock)

Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are scrambling to figure out how a Utah caregiver became ill with Zika.

The virus is overwhelmingly transmitted via bites from infected mosquitoes, but can also spread through sexual contact. The case in Utah seems to be the result of something completely different, however, say state officials. Scientists aren’t exactly sure how the person became infected, but they working to figure what’s behind this latest twist in the ongoing epidemic.
Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts

We Won’t Finish Discovering New Trees in the Amazon for 300 Years

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 15, 2016 3:22 pm

(Credit: Dr. Morley Read/Shutterstock)

While millions of people are out hunting Pokémon, biologists are conducting an equally fervent hunt for new and rare species. And instead of 151 species, they estimate that they need to find another 4,000 or so before they become the very best.

A new study builds a compendium of all the tree species collected from the Amazon over past three centuries, and concludes that we won’t find them all until 2316. In total, researchers from the Field Museum say researchers have, so far, collected 11,676 unique tree species from the Amazon rainforest, and that there are likely some 16,000 there in total, based on recent projections. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, top posts

3-D Map of the Universe’s Galaxies is Largest Ever

By Jordan Rice | July 15, 2016 11:06 am

A slice of the researchers’ map showing about 1/20th of the sky. Each dot represents the position of a galaxy 6 billion years into the past. Color indicates distance from Earth, ranging from yellow on the near side of the slice to purple on the far side. There are 48,741 galaxies in this picture, only about 3 percent of the total surveyed. (Credit: Daniel Eisenstein and SDSS-III)

In the quest for dark energy, astronomers have created an unprecedented 3-D map of galaxies in a volume of about 650 cubic billion light years.

Hundreds of astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III) and the Max Planck Institutes for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) and for Astrophysics (MPA) contributed to this map. The astronomers found that the map agrees with the current cosmological model (the Lambda Cold Dark Matter model) and confirmed that dark energy is a cosmological constant.

Insights Into Dark Energy

Understanding how dark energy interacts and affects our universe is crucial to unraveling how the universe came to be and how it may end. Dark energy is believed to be what contradicts the force of gravity and is what is accelerating the expansion of the universe. These findings were submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) as a collection of papers.

“We have spent a decade collecting measurements of 1.2 million galaxies over one quarter of the sky to map out the structure of the universe over a volume of 650 cubic billion light-years,” says Dr. Jeremy Tinker of New York University in a press release.

The Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) of the SDSS-III carried out the precise measurements found. By studying the tugs between dark energy and dark matter, the scientists were able to determine the Baryonic Acoustic Oscillation (BAO) between the galaxies in the map to measure the expansion rate of the universe.

Frozen Waves

The normal BAO size is found from pressure waves that traveled throughout the universe when it was only 400,000 years old (the universe is currently 13.8 billion years old). The distribution of matter throughout the galaxy represents a frozen image of the life of these waves. All galaxies are therefore separated preferentially by a characteristic distance in what is called the BAO scale.

Using observations from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the size of the acoustic scale at the universe’s current age can be determined. This is because the light that is emitted corresponds to when the pressure waves became frozen. Seeing how the distribution of galaxies has changed since then can give astronomers clues to how dark energy and dark matter have battled over the expansion rate of the universe. Ariel Sanchez, from MPE, was the astronomer who led the search to find the total amounts of dark energy and dark matter in the universe.

“Measuring the acoustic scale across cosmic history gives a direct ruler with which to measure the universe’s expansion rate,” says Sanchez in the same press release. “ With BOSS, we have traced the BAO’s subtle imprint on the distribution of galaxies spanning a range of time from 2 to 7 billion years ago.”


An illustration showing how a 2-dimensional image of the sky was transformed into a 3-D map of the universe. (Credit: Jeremy Tinker and SDSS-III)

How Far Away?

These very precise measurements had to be analyzed many times, in particular the distances from Earth to the galaxies in the map. Using a spectrometer, the light from a galaxy appears red-shifted as it is moving away from us. The red-shift in light is how the astronomers were able to correlate the galaxy’s distance from Earth; the farther a galaxy is, the faster it moves and therefore the more it is red-shifted. Dr. Shun Saito from MPA contributed models to the BOSS data analysis.

“However, galaxies also have peculiar motions and the peculiar velocity component along the line-of-sight leads to the so-called redshift space distortion,” says Saito in the same press release. “This makes the galaxy distribution anisotropic because the line-of-sight direction is now special — only along this direction the distance is measured through a redshift, which is contaminated by peculiar velocity. In other words, the characteristic anisotropic pattern allows us to measure the peculiar velocity of galaxies — and because the motion of galaxies is governed by gravity, we can use this measurement to constrain to what level Einstein’s general relativity is correct at cosmological scales. In order to properly interpret the data, we have developed a refined model to describe the galaxy distribution.”

Another possible approach is to use the angular positions of the galaxies in the sky rather than the 3-D physical positions in the universe.

“This method uses only observables,” says Dr. Salvador Salazar, a junior MPE researcher, in the same press release. “We make no prior assumptions about the cosmological model.”

Many approaches have been used to try and analyze the huge BOSS data set. “We now have seven measurements, which are slightly different, but highly correlated,” Sanchez says in a separate press release. “To extract the most information about the cosmological parameters, we had to find not only the best methods and models for data analysis but also the optimal combination of these measurements.”

Upholds Theory

Their strenuous efforts have paid off as the BOSS data show that dark energy is causing the expansion of the universe with an error of only 5 percent in the cosmological constant found. The cosmological constant is called Lambda, as coined by Albert Einstein as a repellant effect in the universe. These findings are still consistent with the relatively young theory of the cosmological model.

The map also reveals that galaxies tend to move to areas with more matter, staying true to the laws of gravity as well as the infall of material following the laws of general relativity. This suggests that the idea of the expansion of the universe is caused by a phenomenon like dark energy that works on large cosmic scales and dismisses the notion that our laws of gravity are breaking down.

This post originally appeared on



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