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New Scientist

5 Extremely Emo Scientific Phenomena

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New Scientist

Know someone who still thinks science is boring? Tell them to get a load of these five phenomena, which prove science can be as painfully poetic as a ghost falling in love with a cirrus cloud.

1. The Moth That Drinks Tears of Sleeping Birds

A Madagascan moth called Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica occasionally slips its proboscis into the eyes of sleeping birds (above), possibly to glean water, sodium, or proteins lacking in its environment during certain times of the year, scientists hypothesize. Despite the vicious-looking barbs on the moth’s proboscis, the process doesn’t seem to induce any pain; but then, sleeping birds are less likely to fly off or fight back. Before the discovery of H. hieroglyphica, scientists had record of moths and butterflies drinking tears from “large, placid animals” elsewhere in Africa, but large placid animals are in short supply in Madagascar. Tear-drinkers sipping on crocodiles or camels ... that sounds less emo and more like a They Might Be Giants song.

2. Beautiful Women Remind Men of Death

Poets have likened sexual attraction to death for centuries, and modern social scientists think they know the reason why. It begins with something called Terror Management Theory (TMT), which basically suggests that humans constantly struggle to balance the fact that they want to stay alive with the fact that they know they’ll someday die. That conflict (AKA terror) is so strong, scientists say, anything that threatens a person’s self esteem/and or reminds them of the limitations of their physical body, also reminds them of their own inevitable death. Things like sexy, fertile, life-giving ladies, for instance. Even if you’re of the belief that social science isn’t as rooted in hard fact as other sciences, National Institutes of Health published a number of studies examining TMT and the different ways it might explain why babes make men totally hulk out.

3. Dew-Covered Webs Are Pretty, But They Don't Catch Bugs

Okay, everyone knows spider webs glisten with dew. But do you know why spider webs glisten with dew? Even the over-simplified answer is complicated: Spider web silk isn’t uniformly smooth, as it appears to the naked eye. Rather, it features teensy tangles of nanofiber (well, nanofibril, actually) which knot up when they get wet from water vapor—like the vapor that forms when night air cools over warm earth. The smooth silk between those knots allows the moisture to slide toward the knots and collect around them, thereby creating the magical shimmering effect that so enchants us. Even scientist Lei Jiang from the Beijing National Laboratory for Molecular Sciences, author of the study examining spider web mechanics, describes the phenomenon by saying: "Bright, pearl-like water drops hang on thin spider silk in the morning after fogging.” But what’s lovely to us isn’t good for the spiders: A wet spider web means a lower likelihood of catching dinner.

4. Jilted Birds Sing the Loudest Songs

No, we’re not going so far as to say birds communicate their innermost feelings in song, but researchers studying a population of rock sparrows (Petronia petronia) in the French Alps have discovered a correlation between a sparrow’s song and his reproductive history. Males who sing less frequently and have a higher maximum frequency tend to sire more chicks—even chicks outside of their main mating pair (scandaleux!). To put it another way: Males who sire chicks outside of their mating pair sing higher, and less often. But even more dramatically, males who lose their social mates to other males consistently sing more loudly. Scientists don’t yet know the exact biological causality behind the amplified song of the jilted sparrow, nor even if the louder song has any effect on getting the mate back. Poor P. petronia.

5. Part Man, Part Flower

Okay, this science story is so emo, it’s actually part art. In 2000, “transgenic” artist Eduardo Kac became famous for conceiving of and commissioning the creation of Alba, an albino rabbit whose fur glowed green in the dark thanks to the genetic addition of DNA from a fluorescent jellyfish. Then in 2003, Kac began a project that would ultimately take six years, combining his own genes with that of a beautiful pink petunia. Kac had a genetics lab isolate a gene that helps produce his antibodies—you know, those proteins in your immune system which distinguish what is you and what is “other.” Minnesota plant biologist Neil Olszewski combined those genes with a bacteria that could affect gene expression in plants, and Edunia was “born,” part Eduardo, part petunia.

True, scientists have implanted flora with fauna for some time now—including plants that have been fitted with human antibody DNA for the purpose of disease research. But few have been as lovely as Edunia, with blood-red veins that beg comparison to our own. “That is pure poetry,” Koc told one journalist.

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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]


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