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How Giraffes Helped Human Space Travel

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Should human space-travelers ever execute the long-awaited trek to Mars or another distant planet, they'll have baby giraffes to at least partially thank for their voyage.

Extraterrestrial weightlessness—the sensation of floating through space within the confines of one's craft—is both a blessing and a curse for astronauts during long missions, as Canada's Chris Hadfield says in this Youtube video. Hadfield notes that “bodies are designed to work with gravity. The blood is pushed to your feet and your heart squeezes it to your head, and if you take away gravity, your heart's gonna keep squeezing the blood up to your head ... but gravity doesn't push your blood down to your feet anymore, so your head's gonna inflate!”

Additionally, because the blood vessels in an astronaut's lower body aren't used to the same extent as they are on Earth, they gradually lose tone and start growing thinner. Upon re-entry to our planet's atmosphere, this becomes problematic, since the increased gravity rapidly fills the legs and ankles with blood, which results in fainting and dizzy spells.

Though one doesn't generally associate space travelers with fetal giraffes, the two demographics are faced with one remarkably-similar challenge: the rapid transition from a weightless environment to one of significantly greater gravitational pull.

In the 1980s, physiologist Alan Hargens and his colleagues at NASA noted that, shortly after birth, the blood vessels in young giraffes' legs quickly thicken, often enabling them to walk within their first hour of life outside of the womb.

This discovery helped improve the effectiveness of an invention known as the Lower Body Negative Pressure Device (LBNP), which works like an everyday vacuum cleaner to “apply negative pressure over the lower body.” This, in turn, simulates earth-like conditions and prevents homecoming astronauts from blacking out.

But infant giraffes don't hold a monopoly on inspiring NASA technology. As Wisconsin zoologist Neil Anderson explains below, their adult counterparts inspired several aspects of modern space suits:

For a much more technical account, check this out!

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Animals
This Octopus Species in Northern Australia Can Hunt on Dry Land
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YouTube

Most octopuses live in the ocean—but in northern Australia, a small, shallow-water species takes to land in search of food. Abdopus aculeatus is the only octopus that’s specially adapted to walk on dry ground. Using its long, sucker-lined arms, the slimy sea creature pulls itself along the shoreline as it searches tide pools for crabs.

Witness Abdopus aculeatus in action by watching BBC Earth’s video below.

[h/t BBC Earth]

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Weather Watch
Rising Temperatures Are Killing Off African Wild Dogs
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Over the last few decades, images of fluffy white harp seals, polar bears, and penguins have become shorthand for climate change's creeping destruction of our planet. But the poles aren't the only ecosystems in danger. A new study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology finds that rising temperatures near the equator are making it much harder for African wild dogs to survive.

"When people think about climate change affecting wildlife, they mostly think about polar bears," lead researcher Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London told The Guardian. "But wild dogs are adapted to the heat—surely they'd be fine."

To find out, Woodroffe and her colleagues analyzed data from packs of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) in Kenya, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The dog packs have been under scientist surveillance for years—some since the late 1980s—and at least one dog per pack is fitted with a radio collar.

The researchers overlaid information about local weather and temperature with data on the dogs' hunting habits, the size of each litter of pups, and how many pups from each litter survived.

These dogs are creatures of habit. Adults rise early and leave the den for a morning hunt. They range over their large territories, chasing antelopes. At midday, when the Sun is highest, they return to their pups with food. They may go out again in the evening as the temperature drops.

But like the polar bears' glaciers, the dogs' environment is gradually heating up. All three countries saw a temperature increase of about 1.8°F over the study period. This may not sound like much, but for the dogs, it was plenty. Between 1989 and 2012, the number of pups per litter in Botswana surviving to their first birthday dropped from 5.1 to 3.3. Dog packs in Zimbabwe saw a 14 percent decrease in pup survival; in Kenya, the rate declined by 31 percent.

"It's really scary," Woodroffe said.

"If you are an animal who makes your living by running around really fast, obviously you are going to get hot. But there are not enough hours in the day anymore that are cool enough to do that. It is possible that some of these big areas will become too hot for wild dogs to exist."

Woodroffe and her colleagues were not anticipating such clear-cut results. "It is shocking and surprising that even right on the equator these effects are being seen," she said. "It illustrates the global impact of climate change." 

[h/t The Guardian]

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