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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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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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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Apparently, Earth is sprouting dark matter “hairs”

The great thing about astrophysics is that… it’s all weird. And not much is weirder than dark matter (a “hypothetical kind of matter that cannot be seen with telescopes but accounts for most of the matter in the universe”; “one of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics”). Should we be surprised that the Earth is growing a dark matter mullet? Well, maybe.

While dark matter is itself unobservable, scientists can track it based on the trail it leaves. And according to a recent study published in the Astrophysical Journal, “some of those trails might come in the form of “hairy” filaments draped around Earth.” The Washington Post goes on:

If Earth is indeed wearing a dark matter toupee, it could be great news for astrophysicists.

“If we could pinpoint the location of the root of these hairs, we could potentially send a probe there and get a bonanza of data about dark matter,” lead study author Gary Prézeau of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement.

Fine-grained streams of dark matter mixed up with matter matter are crisscrossing through our solar system as we speak. Earth’s gravity would bend these streams into dense filaments that Prézeau compares to strands of hair. The densest part of the filament — the “root,” if you will — would have a black matter density a billion times higher than the original stream.

According to the research, these roots might be as close as 600,000 miles away, with the fine tips of the filaments would reach out about twice as far.

Because these roots would boast such a dense trove of dark matter, locating and studying them could give us one of our best ever chances of detecting the mysterious stuff directly.

Strange stuff indeed.

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Bizarre “spaghetti monster” discovered 4000 feet underwater

One never knows what sort of strange life forms the ocean will churn up next.

According to livescience, “workers at the oil and gas company BP videotaped this strange-looking animal while collecting video footage some 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) under the sea with a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV).” Check out the footage below:

The creature, it turns out, is Bathyphysa conifer, a colonial animal similar to jellyfish and corals: “the spaghettilike B. conifer is made up of many different multicellular organisms known as zooids. These organisms are a lot like regular, solitary animals, except that they’re attached to other zooids, forming a more complex organism.”

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Monstrous black hole has outgrown its host galaxy, scientists say

(Water) vortexes may be frightening — easily enough to make your palms sweat, given the

proper set of circumsances — but they pale into insignificance next to the sheer cosmic horror of black holes. Rumor has it that there’s a giant black hole lurking at the center for every galaxy (or so astronomical observations would suggest). Typically, these black holes tend to account for about 0.5% of the total mass of their respective galaxies. However, scientists have located an aberration among these aberrations:

One of the largest black holes ever seen is believed to be nearly 11.7 billion years old, forming just two billion years after the Big Bang. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the black hole is massive too; it has a mass that is equivalent to about 7 billion suns. Lead author Benny Trakhtenbrot, an astrophysicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich said that given the mass of the host galaxy, the black hole was unbelievably big[:][…] this black hole is nearly one-tenth [10%!] the mass of its host galaxy.
The findings can tell us a lot about the early universe – they suggest that the universe was smaller, denser, and much more hospitable to black holes.

Fascinating, in the same sort of way that sharks and viruses and whirlpools are fascinating. More here.

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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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