Tarzan-inspired Robot Swings Like a Champion

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 13, 2017 1:17 pm

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As robots take on greater roles in society, one simple question remains without a satisfying answer: How are they going to move around?

Researchers have devised robots that run, walk, roll, hop and slither, but each method of locomotion comes with advantages and inherent drawbacks. Wheeled robots are great indoors, but get stuck when faced with even a single step. Legged robots are good at navigating rough terrain, but have difficulty moving quickly and efficiently. There won’t be one solution, in all likelihood, but rather a range of robots adapted to specific environments. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: robots

Hydrothermal Vents on Enceladus Hint at Life Beyond Earth

By John Wenz | April 13, 2017 1:00 pm
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Enceladus (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

In 1977, a group of marine researchers discovered something they’d only before theorized: cracks in the ocean floor releasing heat, warming up (and often boiling) the ocean around it. They also found mollusks in them, and subsequent vents have yielded heat resistant microbes, giant tube worms, and more fantastic creatures living in what are essentially small, underwater volcanoes.

Now, NASA has announced that they have indirect evidence for hydrothermal vents beyond Earth. In its encounters with Saturn’s moon Enceladus, the Cassini craft found chemicals associated with these events. The results were published today in Science. It adds to the body of evidence that Enceladus could be ripe for life. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

Magnetic Maps Behind one of Nature’s Craziest Migrations

By Eric Betz | April 13, 2017 11:15 am
Young eels, or elvers, migrate from their ocean hatcheries to brackish waters where they mature. (Credit: Maryland Fisheries Resources Office, USFWS)

Young eels, or elvers, migrate from their ocean hatcheries to brackish waters where they mature. (Credit: Maryland Fisheries Resources Office, USFWS)

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, there’s an enormous patch of seaweed that’s perplexed sailors for centuries: the Sargasso Sea. This strange place is where American and European eels go to breed. Once born, the little eels — called elvers — have to venture toward land.

American eels live out their lives — which can be more than a decade — just off the eastern seaboard. Their cousins across the pond live everywhere from Scandinavia to North Africa. Then, at the ends of their lives, both species journey thousands of miles out to sea to lay their eggs.

It’s a truly remarkable journey. And scientists have tracked this migration for the first time ever in recent years. For a century, the eels’ path was a mystery. They left the East Coast and just magically appeared in the Sargasso Sea. To crack the case, researchers had to figure out how to attach pop-up satellite tags to the eels that wouldn’t kill them during the sometimes 1,500-mile swim. The researchers figured out that the eels use ocean currents to hitch a ride to their chosen coast.

American and European Eels migrate toward land from the Sargasso Sea. (Credit: USFWS)

After their birth in the Sargasso Sea, American and European Eels migrate toward land. (Credit: USFWS)

And in a paper published Thursday in Current Biology, scientists have announced another discovery into how they do it. By studying European eels, the researchers figured out these eels actually have a magnetic map. Rather than guiding the fierce little swimmers toward land, the “map sense” steers them toward the Gulf Stream, which offers an easier ride toward Europe.

“We were not surprised to find that eels have a magnetic map, but we were surprised to discover how well they can detect subtle differences in magnetic fields,” said University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill scientist Lewis Naisbett-Jones. “We were even more surprised when our ocean simulation models revealed that the little eels use their map not so much to locate Europe, but to target a big conveyor belt — the Gulf Stream — that will take them there. Presumably, a little bit of work (i.e., swimming) helps increase their chances of catching a mostly free ride to their destination.”

The team figured this out by dropping elvers into an experimental apparatus that produced magnetic fields mimicking those experienced along the animals’ migratory path. The scientists simply dropped the baby eels into their contraption and watched which way they swam. Then they used computer models of ocean currents to simulate how their results would play out in the real world. Elvers that swam even vaguely in the right direction would have a much higher chance of reaching the Gulf Stream, scientists found. This sixth magnetic sense put them in good company alongside sea turtles and salmon.

However, the elvers’ journey toward land is actually just the start. There’s a major obstacle once they get there. Elver fishing is booming. American anglers can get thousands of dollars per pound for the well-traveled and tiny eels. Once sold, the elvers are raised to adulthood and sold for sushi — presumably to customers totally unaware of the strange lives these eels have had.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, top posts

Deception Island Keeps Deceiving Gentoo Penguins

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 12, 2017 9:55 am
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A family of gentoo penguins. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past 7,000 years, as mighty civilizations rose and crumbled, another saga was playing out in the southern reaches of the world.

Just off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, a colony of gentoo penguins have long made tiny Ardley Island their home. At times, the colony rose to a mighty power, holding absolute dominion over the mile-long strip of land their forefathers swam, waddled and slid their way to some time around 5,700 B.C. But, nature deals harshly with hubris, and the penguins were laid low by not one, but three volcanic eruptions. Despite this, they return.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, top posts

This Is Why Your Shoelaces Are Always Untied

By Charles Choi | April 11, 2017 6:01 pm
shoelaces

(Credit: leolintang/Shutterstock)

Hey, your shoe is untied, and now scientists know why: the combination of foot stomping and leg swinging cause the laces to slip apart.

Yes, a child could have told you this, but there’s a reason scientists gave knots a closer look. Knots are everywhere, from stitches used in surgery to steel cables used in construction. Sailors are familiar with the clove hitch, bowline and cleat hitch. Even DNA is a snarled knot. With knots holding so much together, scientists thought it couldn’t hurt to clearly explain how they come undone. Read More

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

13,000-Year-Old Fillings Prove Ancient Dentistry Was Brutal

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 10, 2017 2:35 pm
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A pair of 13,000-year-old incisors with excavated pits indicating dental work. (Credit: American Journal of Physical Anthropology)

Going to the dentist may not be any fun today, but 13,000 years ago it would have been outright traumatic.

Before the age of painkillers, specialized tools and antibiotics, dentists used a variety of crude implements to ply their trade. A pair of incisors unearthed in Tuscany and recently analyzed by Italian researchers were hollowed out with sharpened rocks and stuffed with traces of bitumen and organic matter in what appears to be an early attempt at dental fillings.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

Octopuses Edit Their Genetic Code Like No Other Animal

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 7, 2017 3:11 pm
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(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

New research into the cephalopod genome is undermining our assumptions about evolution, and the role that DNA mutations play in updating a species’ physiology.

Researchers from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and Tel Aviv University have been studying how cephalopods — squids, octopuses, cuttlefish and nautiluses — edit their genome, and found that instead of relying on DNA mutations to adapt, they have the ability to make changes to their RNA, the genetic “messengers” that carry out the instructions written by DNA. This means that their fundamental genetic code remains largely the same from generation to generation, while changes occur at the level of the individual and don’t carry over to their offspring. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
MORE ABOUT: animals, evolution

Sizzling Exoplanet Has an Atmosphere, Opening Avenues for Finding Alien Life

By John Wenz | April 7, 2017 12:25 pm
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An artist’s depiction of GJ 1132b (Credit: MPIA)

On the list of exoplanets that could hold life, GJ 1132b wouldn’t come near making the cut. It’s a super-Earth whose upper atmosphere reaches 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius), meaning it only gets hotter as you move down. It’s barely a hair away from its star, completing a year in 1.6 Earth days.

Life is incredibly unlikely to survive there. Yet it may be one of the most important planets to come along in the search for life. So why’s that?

Well, it’s because it has an atmosphere.

GJ 1132b orbits an M-dwarf star. M-dwarfs are the most numerous stars known in the universe, but also some of the most turbulent. While they can last trillions of years, the first few billion years of their lives are spent expelling violent flare events.

Most of these M-dwarfs likely have planets, and a handful of known planets around these stars are in the habitable zone. These early flare events may sweep away those atmospheres, leaving what could have held liquid pools of water and an Earth-like atmosphere instead barren rocks.

And yet GJ 1132b has an atmosphere, according to research from the European Southern Observatory and the Max Planck Institute. The atmosphere appears to have abundant water vapor and methane with a similar thickness to that of Venus.

The research, published in The Astronomical Journal, suggests that planets around M-dwarf stars can retain atmospheres even after their turbulent early years. GJ 1132b, which is about 39 light years away, is considered an older planet. Thus, other M-dwarf planets might be able to retain their atmospheres, and planets in the habitable zone could have a way to actually host life rather than showing false promise.

Instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope may be able to glance at other M-dwarf planets to see if atmospheric retention is common or if 1132b is an outlier.

This article originally appeared in Astronomy.com.

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

TRAPPIST-1: Good News and Bad News

By John Wenz | April 6, 2017 2:55 pm
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(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

TRAPPIST-1 opens up an exciting field for astronomers: a small, nearby, compact planetary system with seven Mars- to Earth-size worlds orbiting in days or weeks instead of months and years. What’s more, because their star is small and cool, all the planets may be habitable.

Maybe. Two new papers are out on TRAPPIST-1. One makes the chances for life even more ripe, while the other virtually strips away all chances of habitability. Read More

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

How Much Exercise Does a Body Need?

By Mark Barna | April 6, 2017 10:26 am
exercise

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Researchers keep moving the goal posts on exercise. For a while, the trend was to show benefits of minimal exercise, perhaps as an olive branch to people too busy for a full workout. Lately, the trend is essentially to say effort matters; more exercise means better health. So which is right? Both are. But one overrides standard health guidelines.

Health institutions say people need about 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of intense aerobic exercise each week. Moderate exercise might be brisk walking or active gardening, while intense exercise would include uphill cycling, sprints, tennis or squash. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health
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