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What the Heck Is Sea Foam?

Last night, meteorologist Tucker Barnes, from Washington D.C.’s WTTG-TV, was reporting live on Hurricane Irene from Ocean City, Maryland. As the night wore on, Barnes found himself buried in more and more sea foam blowing in from the beach. And Barnes admitted that he had no idea just what he was standing knee-deep in. (“It’s in my face. As you can imagine, it doesn’t taste great.”)

Besides an engine treatment and a blue-green color popular on Fender guitars, what is sea foam, anyway?

I’ve been waiting almost five years to give this answer to a question on the site, and today is my day: It’s just a bunch of random junk.

I’m mostly serious, too. Dissolved organic matter, like protein, fats and a grab bag of other stuff, is constantly being released by sources like dead fish, seaweed and algal blooms, and it's floating around in the ocean. Tides pull some of this stuff in closer to shoreline and as waves break, they churn seawater, air and all this organic matter together likes the world’s grossest milkshake.

The air and the foaming properties of some of the organic compounds help the mixture form bubbles that stick to each other. When waves hit the shore, the foam is often left behind on the beach, and can then be blown around by the wind.

In hurricane conditions like we had last night, water in the ocean is more agitated, leading to an excess of sandy foam, and strong winds are able to carry the foam farther in from the shore. In these conditions, polluted water and sewage from flooded rivers, drainage systems and streets can also make its way to the ocean, creating sea foam with strange colors, odors and various contaminants. Given the conditions last night and the foam’s color, this extra nasty version was probably what Barnes was wading through on the boardwalk.

A Seasonal Delicacy

While sea foam is pretty gross even under normal conditions, it’s an important part of the coastal food web and acts a reservoir of recycled nutrients for some beach-dwelling animals. The menu even changes depending on the season. Researchers studying sea foam in South Carolina in the late 1980s discovered that the foam is composed mostly of macroalgae (seaweeds) in the fall, winter and early spring, and mostly phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like organisms) in the late spring and summer.

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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The Prehistoric Bacteria That Helped Create Our Cells Billions of Years Ago
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We owe the existence of our cells—the very building blocks of life—to a chance relationship between bacteria that occurred more than 2 billion years ago. Flash back to Bio 101, and you might remember that humans, plants, and animals have complex eukaryotic cells, with nucleus-bound DNA, instead of single-celled prokaryotic cells. These contain specialized organelles such as the mitochondria—the cell’s powerhouse—and the chloroplast, which converts sunlight into sugar in plants.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts both look and behave a lot like bacteria, and they also share similar genes. This isn’t a coincidence: Scientists believe these specialized cell subunits are descendants of free-living prehistoric bacteria that somehow merged together to form one. Over time, they became part of our basic biological units—and you can learn how by watching PBS Eons’s latest video below.

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