New Scientist
New Scientist

5 Extremely Emo Scientific Phenomena

New Scientist
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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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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