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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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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
iStock
iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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