Alligator found swimming in Lake Michigan

A kayaker on Lake Michigan spotted something shocking early Monday morning: a 4-foot alligator paddling in the water nearby. The Chicago Tribune reports:

The kayaking fisherman, David Castaneda, reported the animal to Waukegan’s Animal Control, the Lake County News-Sun reported. The animal had its mouth taped shut, and initially reports described it as a caiman, but the Wildlife Discovery Center later confirmed it was indeed an American alligator.

Dave Bernier, a general curator at Lincoln Park Zoo, suspects someone brought it to the area recently and that the gator hasn’t had to endure a Chicago January.

“It would never be able to survive the winter here,” Bernier said.

You can see the kayaker’s video of the encounter below:

This isn’t the first time gators have been spotted in Chicagoland: another small alligator was captured in the Chicago River back in 2010. Given that these cold-blooded creatures can’t survive winters at these latitudes, it is likely they were pets that escaped or were released into the wild.

Alligators aren’t the only exotic animals that are purported to sometimes lurk in Lake Michigan. Persistent urban legends tell of occasional shark sightings (including a supposed 1955 bull shark attack). (None of these instances have ever been confirmed, of course, and experts consider the aforementioned attack unlikely to have ever occurred.)

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Astronomers observe the hungriest black hole in the universe

Black hole quasar NASA
Black hole quasar NASA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll keep this post brief, but these numbers are pretty mind-boggling: Australian astronomers have detected a black hole that is 20 billion times the mass of our sun, one which eats the equivalent of a star every two days. Not only that, it is 10,000 times brighter than the galaxy it lives in, because it is growing so fast — that’s as luminous as 700 trillion suns. (This may make “black hole” seem like a bit of an oxymoron, but as the article explains: “they can only swallow so much, depending on their size; the rest of the matter gets splashed out across space, producing […] fireworks.”) No need to worry about it, though — it’s 12 billion light years away.

Check out the NYT article here, and the original research paper here.

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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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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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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

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Here are some weird facts about leap years.

Happy Leap Day, everyone! One of the rarest holidays of them all (though not nearly as rare as Thanksgivukkah), February 29 only shows up every four years. Lucky for us, this happens to be one of them! To celebrate, here are Five Weird Facts about leap years, courtesy of about.com.

A sampling:

3. Leap Year Capital of the World
In 1988, the town of Anthony, Texas, with a population of 8000, declared itself to be the “Leap Year Capital of the World.”

Its justification for this title was that two members of its Chamber of Commerce were born on leap year days. But in a moment of honesty a member of the Chamber also admitted that, “We just voted arbitrarily to name this as the leap year capital of the world because no one else has.”

As of 2016, the town of Anthony continues to pride itself on being the Leap Year Capital, with festivities planned for February 29.

I’m also partial to the notion of re-envisioning Leap Day as a “day out of time.”

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Volcanic ghost towns of North Sumatra

Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung, a stratovolcano located in North Sumatra, has been dramatically erupting on and off since 2010. (Incidentally, I climbed this volcano in late 2011 — between eruptions, of course.)

Recent eruptions have been so sustained and severe that a number of nearby villages have been abandoned — declared by Indonesian authorities, as The Atlantic reports, “too dangerous to inhabit.” Numerous villages such as Guru Kinayan, Simacem, Kuta Gugung, and Sibintun now sit empty, covered in ash and rapidly being reclaimed by nature, as the images below show:

Volcanic Ghost Villages in Sumatra, Indonesia

(Photo credit goes to Associated Press photographer Binsar Bakkara.)

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Giant ball pit for grown adults opens in DC

It’s a dream come true. Who doesn’t wish that there was some place they could go, as an adult, giant-ball-pit-for-adultsto dive into a giant pit of plastic balls without facing social judgment?

The National Building Museum in Washington, DC, last weekend opened a 10,000 square foot ball pit to the general public.
The installation, called “The Beach,” is literally two massive, gallery-white pools, built by Brooklyn design firm Snarkitecture, filled with plastic balls that fully grown adults can actually play in. It is reportedly very large and very fun, and is accompanied by a few dozen beach chairs.
 

You can see more photos here and here.

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Boston’s snow pile STILL hasn’t melted.

It’s nearly July, and while Boston’s massive mound of snow has certainly shrunk since its heyday, it seems likely that it will take at least a few more weeks before the last of it has melted away. Check out these pics from Twitter:

Before: Boston's snow mound at its height in February.
Before: Boston’s snow mound at its height in February.
After: Boston's snow mound in June, glory days long behind it.
After: Boston’s snow mound in June, glory days long behind it.

Source: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/offbeat/bostons-nasty-snow-pile-still-hasnt-melted/ar-AAcaW12

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“Thigh bone” spotted on Mars is just rock, NASA asserts

No need to worry, folks. It’s certainly not the bone of an alien or a hyper-ape, and there’s nothing anachronistic about it. Just a rock. Yup, no biggie. thigh-bone-on-mars.jpg

NASA released Curiosity’s “thigh bone” Mars rock photo with an explanation on Thursday.
 
In the photo description, NASA officials wrote that while “this Mars rock may look like a femur thigh bone,” it is not the fossilized remains of a mysterious Martian. “Mission science team members think its shape is likely sculpted by erosion, either wind or water.”
 
The Curiosity rover has found evidence that Ma
rs was once a habitable place in the ancient past, but there is no evidence that creatures large enough to leave a bone behind ever existed on the planet.
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