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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An eery dark region is growing on the sun’s surface

An enormous black blotch known as a “coronal hole” has been spotted spreading across the sun. Coronal holes, according to Wikipedia, are “areas where the Sun’s corona is darker, and colder, and has lower-density plasma than average because there is lower energy and gas levels.” These holes can allow high-density plasma to escape to space, which can disrupt satellite communications here on Earth.

The size and number of coronal holes peak and wane with the solar cycle, which spans 11 years.

The most recent coronal hole of a similar size opened in 2012, and was the “precursor to an extremely powerful solar storm, the most powerful one in 150 years.” That storm was considered a near-miss for Earth: according to Daniel Baker, from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.”

We’ll see what happens with this one. You can read more at UniverseToday.com.

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World’s deepest “blue hole” discovered

It’s located near the Xisha Islands (also known as the Paracel Islands) in the South China Sea.

(Blue holes are underwater caverns or sinkholes, typically formed in shallow seabeds made of carbonate rock such as limestone. They can be hundreds of feet deep, and much deeper than surrounding waters, leading to dramatic photographs as seen here.)

From CBS:Great_Blue_Hole

A new exploration of a legendary blue hole in the South China Sea has found that the underwater feature is the deepest known on Earth.

According to Xinhua News, Dragon Hole, or Longdong, is 987 feet (300.89 meters) deep, far deeper than the previous record holder, Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas.

Read more here!

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Bizarre 307-million-year-old “monster” fossil identified

One of the weirdest-looking creatures ever to have existed has finally been analyzed and categorized. The “Tully Monster” (named after its discoverer Francis Tully, who found the fossils in Illinois nearly sixty years ago) has long puzzled scientists. But a team of researchers recently used scanning electronic microscopes to explore its internal structure, and their findings have allowed them to explain the animal’s lineage. From arstechnicabizarre-monster-fossil

The “Tully monster,” a mysterious animal that swam in the inland oceans of Illinois more than 300 million years ago, left behind a tantalizingly detailed map of its body in a well-preserved package of fossils. Unfortunately, nobody could figure out what the creature was for half a century—until now.

[W]here did Tullimonstrum fit into the history of life in the seas? A team of researchers has just […] analyzed the fossils using scanning electron microscopes, which allowed them to explore the anatomy of the Tully monster inside and out.
[…] “The buccal apparatus of Tullimonstrum suggests that it grasped food with its bifurcate anterior projection and rasped pieces off with the lingual apparatus,” the authors conclude. Which is to say, the Tully monster used that long, toothy protrusion from the front of its body to grab food, and then it ripped bites off using a long, powerful tongue. And it needed that weird-ass eye arrangement to see what it was doing at the end of its mouth proboscis.

Cool stuff! You can read more here.

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What does space really look like?

We’ve all seen gorgeous, colorful images, often courtesy of the Hubble telescope, of faraway galaxies and fantastic nebulae. What most of us probably don’t realize, however, is that these aren’t true-color images — instead, they’ve typically been altered and enhanced for  scientific purposes. So what does space really look like? Check out this interesting and informative video to learn!

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A Meteor Just Exploded Over The Atlantic With More Force Than The Hiroshima Bomb

On February 6, the largest meteor impact since the 2013 Chelyabinsk incident occurred over the southern Atlantic Ocean, yielding a fireball with an explosive force greater than 13,000 tons of TNT (13 kt) — a blast at least as energetic as the Hiroshima bomb. (By comparison, the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded over Russia with a force equal to 440,000 tons of TNT.)

Don’t worry too much, though — this headline is somewhat sensationalist. In fact, NASA keeps track of meteor impacts like this one, and it turns out that they occur on a fairly regular basis, with airbursts of this size happening every five to ten years or so, on average. To put this in a little more context, there have been six impact events during the past ten years equal or greater in size to the February 6 incident. Over this period, NASA has recorded a total of 292 meteor airbursts that have had an explosive force greater than 73 tons of TNT. (The median blast had a force equal to 230 tons of TNT.)

Unfortunately, since the February 6 event occurred in the middle of the ocean, no one was around to capture video footage of what was surely a visually-striking fireball. (Data on the February 6 event, iflscience.com reports, “were given to NASA by the U.S. government. Detecting atmospheric explosions is most likely a high priority of several branches of the U.S. military, so a fireball of such magnitude could have been easily picked up. Satellite imagery and infrasound atmospheric microphones could both be used to detect an impact like this.”)

The Chelyabinsk meteor, on the other hand, exploded over a fairly populated region and consequently was caught on film from multiple angles (you can check out some video footage of that event below). Because the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded so high in the atmosphere (at an altitude of 18.4 miles), it did little damage beyond shattering windows and scaring the bejeezus out of everyone in range.

The last meteor to inflict massive damage on the ground was the Tunguska impacter, which completely flattened 770 square miles of Siberian forest back in 1908. That meteor had a destructive force of at least 15 megatons — 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

Whenever these events happen, of course, the first question on everyone’s mind is something along the lines of, “would we be ready if a bigger one was headed our way?” The answer to this is “probably not.” However, don’t let it concern you too much — the chances of a life-threatening impact occurring during our lifetimes is infinitesimally small, and we’ve got plenty of eyes on the sky that would spot such an object well in advance.

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