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Why Indiana Jones Was Right to be Scared of Snakes

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I, like most everyone else, am really looking forward to May 22, when the new Indiana Jones movie hits screens. Indy is the perfect hero, except for that one flaw: his fear of snakes. After some research, though, I found that he may not have been too far off in being scared of snakes. Here are some reasons he was right.

They might take over the country

It sounds like something out of a horror movie: deadly snakes slither into an unsuspecting town, slowly killing the poor citizens. Unfortunately, it's really happening. A drought in Australia earlier this year started pushing snakes into cities in search of water, where they took to biting the people they saw. The number of snake attacks went up during the drought. And not even the Americas are immune from the snake attack. In two events that would shock Captain Planet, deforestation in Brazil is making deadly snakes flee to cities, while global warming might force Burmese pythons to expand their habitat to the southern third of the United States. Ironically, extreme climate change may have created one of Indy's safe havens. Contrary to the popular St. Patrick explanation, Ireland may be snake-free because of the Ice Age. The temperatures were too cold for snakes to survive for years, and once the earth warmed up, the surrounding seas probably kept the snakes away. After all, this was long before snakes discovered air travel.

They're really, really, really deadly

snake fangs.jpg

Popular Science recently called snake venom evolution's most effective killer, which is some pretty high praise. Turns out the poison is so ninja-like, it covers every base. It can slow prey down, giving the snake a better chance to catch it, while some even contain a diuretic, so the prey leaves a trail of urine. Venom can be divided into three categories, each with their own deadly attribute. The cytotoxins break down the cells and muscles, essentially starting digestion before the prey even enters the snake's mouth. Hemotoxins go after the blood, either clotting it or destroying the red blood cells. And neurotoxins either numb or overload the nervous system. Even though these toxins are ridiculously lethal, scientists are mining them for potential cures for cancer and the venom from a Brazilian pit snake even formed the basis for ACE inhibitors.

It's in his genes (your's too)

Those hidden picture games in the old Highlights for Kids magazine may hold the key to why Indy was so scared of snakes. A recent University of Virginia study found that we may be genetically hard-wired to spot snakes. Shown a series of color photographs, both adults and children had an easier time spotting a snake among pictures of non-threatening images than a non-threatening object among pictures of snakes. The researchers also found that the same holds true for spiders, which is why these creepy crawlers freak us out so much.

snake eating deer.jpgHe searched for "snake eating" on Youtube

Searching for "snake eating" on Youtube may make you never want to eat again. You'll find an array of snake meals, from hippos to deer to eggs. The unique jaw structure of the snake allows it to swallow some enormous food. The lower jaw is unattached to the skull, only held on by muscles and tendons, allowing it to open as wide as 150 degrees. Once it traps the prey in its jaws, the snake creeps forward, pushing the food into its body, where muscles and digestive acids break it down. The knowledge that a particularly hungry snake could eat him was probably enough to turn Indy off the critters forever.

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Space
Study Suggests There's Water Beneath the Moon's Surface
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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronauts may not need to go far to find water outside Earth. As CNN reports, Brown University scientists Ralph E. Milliken and Shuai Li suspect there are significant amounts of water churning within the Moon’s interior.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, lean on the discovery of glass beads encased in the Moon’s volcanic rock deposits. As recently as 100 million years ago, the Earth’s moon was a hotbed of volcanic activity. Evidence of that volatile time can still be found in the ancient ash and volcanic rock that’s scattered across the surface.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers identified tiny water droplets preserved inside glass beads that formed in the volcanic deposits. While water makes up a small fraction of each bead, its presence suggests there’s significantly more of it making up the Moon’s mantle.

Milliken and Li aren't the first scientists to notice water in lunar rocks. In 2008, volcanic materials collected from the Moon during the Apollo missions of 1971 and 1972 were revealed to contain the same water-flecked glass beads that the Brown scientists made the basis of their recent study. They took their research further by analyzing images captured across the face of the Moon and quickly saw the Apollo rocks represented a larger trend. "The distribution of these water-rich deposits is the key thing," Milliken said in a press statement. "They're spread across the surface, which tells us that the water found in the Apollo samples isn't a one-off. Lunar pyroclastics seem to be universally water-rich, which suggests the same may be true of the mantle."

The study challenges what we know about the Moon's formation, which scientists think occurred when a planet-sized object slammed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. "The growing evidence for water inside the Moon suggests that water did somehow survive, or that it was brought in shortly after the impact by asteroids or comets before the Moon had completely solidified," Li said. "The exact origin of water in the lunar interior is still a big question."

The findings also hold exciting possibilities for the future of space travel. NASA scientists have already considered turning the Moon into a water station for astronauts on their way to Mars. If water on the celestial body is really as abundant as the evidence may suggest, figuring out how to access that resource will definitely be on NASA's agenda.

[h/t CNN]

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