Fuzzy green “glacier mice” puzzle scientists

Glacier mice
Glacier mice are colonies of mosses found on some glaciers which appear to move non-randomly across the ice.

“What the heck is this!” was the reaction of one glaciologist when he first encountered glacier mice.1  Long known to researchers but still not fully understood, glacier mice might best be thought of as bundles of moss that form pearl-like around pebbles or other impurities on glacial surfaces.

Found as far afield as Alaska, Chile, and Norway, glacier mice were first described in 1951 by Icelandic meteorologist Jón Eyþórsson, who referred to them as jökla-mýs (Icelandic for “glacier mice”).2

What’s particularly curious about these “critters,” however, is that they seem to move around much more than any ordinary moss might.

From NPR:

The movement of the moss balls was peculiar. The researchers had expected that the balls would travel around randomly by rolling off their ice pedestals. The reality was different. The balls moved about an average of an inch a day in a kind of choreographed formation — like a flock of birds or a herd of wildebeests.

 

The researchers considered several possible explanations. The first, and most obvious one, is that they just rolled downhill. But measurements showed that the moss balls weren’t going down a slope.

 

“We next thought maybe the wind is sort of blowing them in consistent directions,” says Bartholomaus, “and so we measured the dominant direction of the wind.”

 

That didn’t explain it either, nor did the pattern of the sunlight.

 

“We still don’t know,” he says. “I’m still kind of baffled.”

You can listen to an 11-minute NPR story about glacier mice here:

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With billions under lockdown, the Earth’s crust is quieter

We find ourselves at an unprecedented point in history: the majority of humanity, nearly 4 billion souls, are now under lockdown, either totally confined to their homes or ordered to leave only for vital business.1

And it turns out that people are moving around so much less that it’s seismologically notable. Scientific American reports:

Just as natural events such as earthquakes cause Earth’s crust to move, so do vibrations caused by moving vehicles and industrial machinery. And although the effects from individual sources might be small, together they produce background noise, which reduces seismologists’ ability to detect other signals occurring at the same frequency.



Researchers who study Earth’s movement are reporting a drop in seismic noise—the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust—that could be the result of transport networks and other human activities being shut down. They say this could allow detectors to spot smaller earthquakes and boost efforts to monitor volcanic activity and other seismic events.



A noise reduction of this magnitude is usually only experienced briefly around Christmas, says Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, where the drop has been observed.

Sounds like some successful social distancing! You can check out the full article here.

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The unnerving link between pandemics and psychosis

As we continue to face down the coronavirus, and begin to use our time in quarantine to ponder its possible long-term consequences, Vice.com reports on an unexpected side effect of similar disease outbreaks.

In flu pandemics of years past — such as the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the 1889-90 influenza — a few doctors noted something striking. Specifically, they observed that a significant number of patients developed symptoms outside the normal set associated with influenza: hallucinations, mental disorders, psychosis. Sophisticated contemporary research lends support to these observations, finding evidence of a connection between the flu and schizophrenia. (For instance, children of mothers who had the flu while pregnant appear substantially more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life.)

Check out an excerpt from Vice’s article below:

While today, we consider viral infections to be diseases of the body—they infect the lungs, give us fevers, stuffy noses, or a cough—throughout history there’s also been a strange link between influenza and psychotic disorders similar to schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder that can affect how people think.
                 
By 1919, the Spanish Flu pandemic had spread influenza to a third of the world’s population, or around 500 million people. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger was treating people at Boston Psychopathic Hospital who’d recently been infected. But his patients had symptoms far beyond what’s usually associated with the flu. In a paper on 100 cases he saw over three months, he described seeing extreme mental disturbances—over half of his patients had some sort of psychosis, and almost two-thirds had hallucinations.
                 
After outbreaks of influenza in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1889, people experienced insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts, and homicidal urges. One neurologist wrote that it wasn’t uncommon for people with the flu to feel “dark forebodings of…impending disaster” or to think they had committed a “fearful crime” and were about to be punished.

You can read the full article here.

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Freak summer hailstorm buries Mexican city under feet of ice

Hail is not unheard of in severe summertime thunderstorms. And yet you definitely don’t expect a city in southwestern Mexico to be completely buried under multiple feet of ice in late June. “Incongruous” is a word that readily comes to mind!

Ice-covered streets in Guadalajara, Mexico, June 30 2019. (Ulises Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images)

From CNN:

Guadalajara had been enjoying a sweaty summer for the past few weeks until the weekend brought a shocking surprise.

The Mexican city woke up Sunday morning to more than 3 feet of ice in some areas after a heavy hailstorm swept through the region.

Now, that sounds like a lot. But the visuals are even more striking. Check out video footage of the ice below:

Climate change, anyone?

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Something on Mars Is Producing Gas Usually Made by Living Things

Methane is often produced by living things, and it doesn’t persist long in atmospheres because it is quickly broken down by solar radiation. Yet satellites and rovers have periodically detected surges in atmospheric methane concentration on Mars, raising the question: where is that gas coming from?

The New York Times reports:

Methane gas periodically wafts into the atmosphere of Mars; that notion, once considered implausible and perplexing, is now widely accepted by planetary scientists. […]

The presence of methane is significant because the gas decays quickly. Calculations indicate that sunlight and chemical reactions in the thin Martian atmosphere would break up the molecules within a few hundred years, so any methane detected must have been created recently.

It might have been created by a geological process known as serpentinization, which requires both heat and liquid water. Or it could be a product of life — specifically methanogens, microbes that release methane as a waste product. Methanogens thrive in places lacking oxygen, such as rocks deep underground and the digestive tracts of animals.

Even if the source of the methane turns out to be geological, the hydrothermal systems that produce the emissions would still be prime locations to search for signs of life.

Check out the full story here!

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Antarctica’s unsettling blood waterfall

Blood Falls, Antarctica.
Iron oxides cause the blood-like coloring of this waterfall in Antarctica.

Nature’s marvels are boundless, and one of its most visually disturbing is a certain blood-red cascade found in Victoria Land, East Antarctica (aptly named “Blood Falls“). Fortunately for the squeamish, it’s not actually blood:

Blood Falls is an outflow of an iron oxide-tainted plume of saltwater, flowing from the tongue of Taylor Glacier onto the ice-covered surface of West Lake Bonney in the Taylor Valley of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Victoria Land, East Antarctica.

Iron-rich hypersaline water sporadically emerges from small fissures in the ice cascades. The saltwater source is a subglacial pool of unknown size overlain by about 400 metres (1,300 ft) of ice several kilometers from its tiny outlet at Blood Falls.

The reddish deposit was found in 1911 by the Australian geologist Griffith Taylor, who first explored the valley that bears his name. The Antarctica pioneers first attributed the red color to red algae, but later it was proven to be due to iron oxides.

Surely a sight to see! Given the remote location of Blood Falls, though, it’s unlikely to appeal as a tourist destination to any but the hardiest and most well-heeled of travelers.

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The most common vertebrate is probably not what you’d think

There are approximately 7.6 billion people on earth.1

Somewhere between 19 to 24 billion chickens.2,3

But what is the most common vertebrate species on the planet? And how many of them are there?

The answer, it turns out, is the humble bristlemouth fish (Latin family name Gonostomatidae), and it numbers in the Hundreds. Of. Trillions. (And possibly, according to some estimates, in the quadrillions.)4 An unassuming family of fishes, the bristlemouths range in size from 1 to 11 inches5 and prefer the mid-ocean depths of about 0.5 to 1 mile down.6

You can read more about the bristlemouth fish in this fascinating expose!

Gonostoma bathyphilum
Gonostoma bathyphilum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(For the record: if you’re wondering what the most abundant animal of any kind is, it’s not an insect — it’s the nematode, which apparently accounts for 4 out of every 5 living creatures on earth.7)

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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