Massive superpods of dolphins sighted near South Africa

Bottlenose dolphins are social animals. Just as wolves live in packs, dolphins live in pods of generally 10-30 individuals (although groups of 50 or even 60 are not uncommon1). Researchers studying Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, however, have been documenting substantial increases in pod sizes off the coast of South Africa. From 2008 to 2016, pod size in the area increased from an average of 18 animals per group to an average of 76.2  On top of this, some of the largest pods ever reported have been observed in the area — with sightings of as many as 600 dolphins in a single group.

Scientists are unsure as to what might be causing pod size to swell. According to research published in Marine Mammal Science,

“neither season nor behavior had a significant effect on mean group size at both sites. Similarly environmental variables such as the depth and substrate type also had no influence on group size. It remains unclear which ecological drivers, such as predation risk and food availability, are leading to the large groups observed in this area, and further research on abundance and distribution of both predators and prey is necessary.”

Check out some video footage of a superpod, below:

Share

The strange Christmas custom of Tió de Nadal

Photograph of a typical contemporary Tió

Image via Wikipedia

There are many holiday traditions that might seem a bit unusual upon closer inspection, and Christmas has more than its fair share (see Krampus, for example). One of the most unique and bizarre Christmas customs comes from Catalonia, Spain: Tió de Nadal (the “Christmas log”), also known as the “Caga tió,” literally meaning “the pooping log.”

The Tió de Nadal, according to Wikipedia, is a popular character in Catalan mythology. Basically, it’s a small, hollow log, typically adorned with legs, a face, and a festive hat. Sounds cute!–but there’s more. Wikipedia goes on:

Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), one gives the tió a little bit to “eat” every night and usually covers him with a little blanket so that he will not be cold at night.

On Christmas day or, depending on the particular household, on Christmas Eve, one puts the tió
partly into the fireplace and orders it to “poop” (the fire part of
this tradition is no longer as widespread as it once was, since many
modern homes do not have a fireplace). To make him “poop”, one beats him
with sticks, while singing various songs of Tió de Nadal.

The tió does not drop larger objects, as those are brought by the Three Wise Men. It does leave candies, nuts and torrons.
Depending on the part of Catalonia, it may also give out dried figs.
When nothing is left to “poop”, it drops a salt herring, a head of
garlic, an onion or “urinates”. What comes out of the tió is a communal rather than individual gift, shared by everyone present.

Catalans even sing carols to the Tió de Nadal. Here’s one such song (translation included):

caga tió,

caga torró,
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó.
caga tió!”

poop log,

poop turrón,
hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don’t poop well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
poop log!

giving log,

give us treats,
give us sweets!
if you don’t want to give,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
give it up!

 

Share

Defense department acknowledges secret program to investigate UFOs

Conspiracy theorists rejoice: according to a recent New York Times report, the Department of Defense spent $22 million to secretly investigate UFOs from 2007-2012. Billed as the “Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program” and instigated at the behest of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the DoD’s efforts “produced documents that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion” and “videos of encounters between unknown objects and American military aircraft.” Although funding for the program expired in 2012, officials have apparently continued to investigate these episodes even while carrying out their other duties.

The video below, filmed in 2004 by a jet fighter near San Diego and investigated as part of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, was released by the Defense Department along with these disclosures.

Of course, this is not the first time that the U.S. government has conducted official, systematic investigations into unidentified flying objects. From 1952 to 1970, Project Blue Book (which might sound familiar to fans of Twin Peaks) was an Air Force program that collected, categorized, and analyzed thousands of reports of UFOs. The results of these efforts were summarized in the Condon Report.

Share

Bizarre interstellar object enters solar system, prompts questions

Original: ESO/M. Kornmesser Derivative: nagualdesign - Derivative of http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1737a/
Artist’s impression of ʻOumuamua. (Via Wikipedia)

“We’ve never seen anything like this before.” That’s how University of Hawaii astronomer Rob Weryk described the unknown object hurtling through our solar system.1 An object a quarter of a mile long and moving startlingly fast – faster than any comet or asteroid seen before, about 55 miles per second. An object with an open-ended trajectory – meaning that it came from somewhere outside our solar system. The first such object ever observed.

Scientists named the mysterious visitor ‘Oumuamua, meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.2 Intriguing not only due to its origin but also its properties – besides its unusual size, shape, and trajectory, the object has no comet tail and shows no trace of water ice, suggesting that it may be composed entirely of solid rock or even metal – astronomers are turning additional eyes on ‘Oumuamua to test some unsettling hypotheses. After all, given the characteristics of this unusual visitor, who can’t but wonder: is it more than just an asteroid? While likely formed by natural processes, astronomers are thus far at a loss as to what could produce the object’s unusual shape. Is it possible, however distantly, that ‘Oumuamua might be some sort of artifact? According to Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb, ‘Oumuamua has the optimal design… of a vessel meant to travel through space.3

That’s a proposition that a research initiative called Breakthrough Listen hopes to test. Breakthrough Listen, per their website, is a “$100 million program of astronomical observations in search of evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth” and  “by far the most comprehensive, intensive and sensitive search ever undertaken for artificial radio and optical signals.” From NPR:

“The possibility that this object is, in fact, an artificial object — that it is a spaceship, essentially — is a remote possibility,” Andrew Siemion, a member of the initiative and director of Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, told The Washington Post on Monday.

[…T]hey’ll be checking on that hypothesis by scanning the object for possible artificial transmitters through a radio telescope at West Virginia’s Green Bank Observatory.

As unlikely as this possibility may be, it certainly seems worth looking into. Before our extrasolar visitor leaves our system just as quickly as it entered, bound for distant reaches that for now we can only dream of.

Share

Scientists electronically “inject” information into monkeys’ brains

Here’s a fascinating development I will present without much additional commentary besides saying: this is the sort of science that really makes it seem as though the future is upon us! (And, incidentally, the sort that I argue will have hugely disruptive consequences for our society a few decades down the line.)

From The New York Times:

[T]wo neuroscientists at the University of Rochester say they have managed to introduce information directly into the premotor cortex of monkeys. The researchers published the results of the experiment on Thursday in the journal Neuron.

Although the research is preliminary, carried out in just two monkeys, the researchers speculated that further research might lead to brain implants for people with strokes.

See the full article here; the scientific results are available here.

Share

The Cranberry Crisis of Thanksgiving 1959

While cranberries have been cultivated and consumed by Native Americans since pre-Columbian times – and have long been associated with Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States – the fruit’s position on our harvest table has not always been so secure.

Near the end of the second Eisenhower administration, fears of widespread chemical contamination prompted the Great Cranberry Scare of 1959. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Arthur S. Flemming announced that

The Food and Drug Administration today urged that no further sales be made of cranberries and cranberry products produced in Washington and Oregon in 1958 and 1959 because of their possible contamination by a chemical weed killer, aminotriazole, which causes cancer in the thyroids of rats when it is contained in their diet, until the cranberry industry has submitted a workable plan to separate the contaminated berries from those that are not contaminated.1

American consumers panicked: a “fifty-million-dollar-a-year business collapsed overnight [and] sales of fresh cranberries […] dropped sixty-three per cent from the year before.” Fearful of poisoning, cranberries vanished from Thanksgiving tables that year; even the Eisenhowers declined to served them at the White House dinner.2

Afterward, two things became clear. First, that the contamination was not widespread, and that scientists had simply erred on the side of caution since there was no way for consumers to determine on short notice where their cranberries had come from. Second, the cranberry industry concluded that it could not depend on Thanksgiving sales alone – prompting the introduction and marketing of cranberry juices that could be sold year-round.3

Share

Coconut crabs, which can grow up to 3 feet, now proven to prey on birds

Our regular readers will know that I’ve long been fascinated by coconut crabs. The world’s largest

Via wikimedia.
Coconut crabs scale palm trees.

terrestrial arthropod (and thought to represent the upper size limit for land-dwelling creatures supported by exoskeletons), coconut crabs can grow to more than 3 feet in length. They can climb trees and crack coconuts. Their claws are as strong as a lion’s jaws. They can live for up to 60 years. And now, researchers have evidence that their diet isn’t limited to fruits, nuts, and scavenged carrion: they sometimes engage in predation, as well.

It has long been known that the crabs will feed on meat, when they encounter it; in a 2007 experiment, coconut crabs made short work of a small pig carcass, quickly stripping its flesh and scattering the bones. Persistent rumors suggest that a dead or wounded Amelia Earhart may have suffered a similar fate. Researchers now have direct evidence, though, that coconut crabs will not only consume dead animals they come across, they will sometimes go on the hunt themselves.

This Washington Post article describes researchers’ encounters with coconut crabs that have hunted (and fed on) seabirds:

[N]ow, finally, we have video evidence that the crabs — thousands strong on one island — can scale trees and hunt full-grown birds in their nests.

[…] After about a month on the island [in the Chagos archipelago], in February of 2016, [Dartmouth biologist Mark Laidre] investigated a giant crab’s underground lair. “Deep inside the crab’s burrow was the carcass of a nearly full-grown red-footed booby,” he wrote. This was Laidre’s first sign that the stories might be true, that giant crabs really were hunting birds. He had his proof a month later.

“In the middle of the night,” Laidre wrote, “I observed a coconut crab attack and kill an adult red-footed booby.”

You can see some footage from this encounter in the video below.

Share

Check out this bonkers robot with 7-foot-long arms

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for robots in general. (And, for that matter, for 7-foot-long arms.) But this one is particularly impressive: the Guardian GT, by Sarcos Robotics. Sarcos bills the bot as a “human-controlled, force-multiplying robotic system with one or two highly dexterous arms mounted on a track or wheeled base, allowing a single operator to do more, safely”; it “multiplies individual effectiveness and adds leverage to human capabilities.”

You can learn more about the Guardian GT at wired.com. They write:

Behold the Guardian GT from Sarcos Robotics, which in all honesty is full-tilt bonkers. Bonkers in the sense that unlike the clunky Power Loader, these 7-foot-long arms replicate human motions with incredible smoothness and accuracy, each limb lifting 500 pounds, then turning around and manipulating the most delicate of objects. Watching it in action is both hypnotic and highly unsettling.

An accurate characterization, I’d say.

 

Share

Huge, mysterious hole opens up in Antarctica

Image: MODIS-Aqua via NASA Worldview; sea ice contours from AMSR2 ASI via University of Bremen
An image of the hole in the ice (the blue outline within the icy area).

A massive, 30,000 square mile hole has just opened up in the Antarctic ice. (For reference, that’s roughly the size of the state of Maine, the surface of Lake Superior, or the entire nation of Belgium.) A hole such as this — an area of open water surrounded by sea ice — is called a polynya. This particular polynya is located in the Weddell Sea, and while its appearance is puzzling, it is not unprecedented: a similar hole was observed in the region in the 1970s. Precisely what led to the formation of the Weddell Sea polynya is unknown. A typical polynya forms close to open water; this one, however, is “deep in the ice pack” and thus “must have formed through other processes that aren’t understood.”1

 

While scientific data on the 1970s Weddell Sea polynya is limited to a few photographs taken by early satellites, technological advances since that time offer researchers greater ability to study — and perhaps understand — the hole’s recurrence. As to precisely what caused this hole to open up, I have my own theory:

Share