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Why Won’t These Bugs Cross This Line?

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One of the most tightly-controlled borders in the world is a strip of forest in northwest Tasmania. It runs almost 125 miles and separates two areas by as little as 330 feet in some places. Those that live on one side of the border rarely, if ever, cross to the other. The border isn’t a geographical barrier or a wall, and it doesn’t separate political entities or ethnic groups. Rather, it’s an invisible line where two related species of millipedes meet, but don’t mix—and no one knows why. 

On the western side of the border lives Tasmaniosoma compitale, a 15 millimeter long, yellow-brown millipede. On the eastern side is T. hickmanorum, a similarly sized red-brown millipede in the same genus. Both species were named and scientifically described in 2010 by Bob Mesibov, a millipede specialist and research associate at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania. He describes them and related species as a “head + 19 rings” (the head + 17 segments with limbs + 1 segment without legs + the telson, or end segment). Mesibov spent two years mapping the species’ ranges as preparation for further field studies. When all was said and done, he had an image of a very clear division that he could not explain.

Biogeographers, the scientists that study the spatial distribution of species, have a name for these cases where species meet, but overlap very little or not at all: parapatry. It’s very common with millipedes, and occurs with other invertebrates, some plants, and some vertebrates, like birds. Normally, parapatric boundaries follow some other natural boundary like a river or the edge of a climate zone. This millipede border, though, is the longest and narrowest of any that Mesibov has seen in Australian millipedes, and doesn’t have any apparent environmental or ecological cause. It rises from sea level at Tasmania’s north coast to some 700 meters in elevation and then drops back down to sea level. It crosses many of the island’s western coastal rivers and the headstreams of two major inland river systems in the area. It runs over different geological barriers and covers different soil and vegetation types and local climates. The border seemingly ignores the vast differences in topography, geology, climate, and vegetation that it covers, and maintains its sharpness for its whole length. 


Strong as the border is, Mesibov did find places where each species had managed to cross over into the other’s territory. There’s an “island” of T. hickmanorum surrounded by T. compitale range that’s at least 15 square miles and maybe bigger—Mesibov hasn’t found its outer edge yet. There’s also a group of T. hickmanorum living several miles into T. compitale territory, where they might have been accidentally dropped by a cattle truck.

For now, Mesibov can only speculate that the border is the result of some biological arrangement between the two species, and its origin and the way it’s maintained are a mystery. It’s one that he’ll leave to other biologists to solve as he continues his regular research finding, naming, and describing millipedes new to science (he’s got 100+ under his belt, so far). 

Whoever takes up the border question will have their work cut out for them. Further mapping and investigation is hindered by the fact that parts of the border cross through pastures, farms and other private property, as well as unroaded and inaccessible wilderness. 

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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2017 Ig Nobel Prizes Celebrate Research on How Crocodiles Affect Gambling and Other Odd Studies
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The Ig Nobel Prizes are back, and this year's winning selection of odd scientific research topics is as weird as ever. As The Guardian reports, the 27th annual awards of highly improbable studies "that first make people laugh, then make them think" were handed out on September 14 at a theater at Harvard University. The awards, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, honor research you never would have thought someone would take the time (or the funding) to study, much less would be published.

The 2017 highlights include a study on whether cats can be both a liquid and a solid at the same time and one on whether the presence of a live crocodile can impact the behavior of gamblers. Below, we present the winners from each of the 10 categories, each weirder and more delightful than the last.


"For using fluid dynamics to probe the question 'Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?'"

Winner: Marc-Antoine Fardin

Study: "On the Rheology of Cats," published in Rheology Bulletin [PDF]


"For their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person's willingness to gamble."

Winners: Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer

Study: "Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal," published in the Journal of Gambling Studies


"For his medical research study 'Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?'"

Winner: James A. Heathcote

Study: "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" published in the BMJ


"For their discovery of a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect."

Winners: Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, and Charles Lienhard (who delivered their acceptance speech via video from inside a cave)

Study: "Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect," published in Current Biology


"For studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee."

Winner: Jiwon Han

Study: "A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime," published in Achievements in the Life Sciences


"For the first scientific report of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat."

Winners: Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo A. Torres

Study: "What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata," published in Acta Chiropterologica


"For using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese."

Winners: Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly, and Tao Jiang

Study: "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study," published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience


"For demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually."

Winners: Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, and Salvatore Maria Aglioti

Study: "Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins," published in PLOS One


"For showing that a developing human fetus responds more strongly to music that is played electromechanically inside the mother's vagina than to music that is played electromechanically on the mother's belly."

Winners: Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, Alberto Prats-Galino, and Luis Pallarés Aniorte

Study: "Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission,” published in Ultrasound


"For demonstrating that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring."

Winners: Milo A. Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz, and Otto Braendli

Study: "Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial," published by the BMJ

Congratulations, all.

[h/t The Guardian]


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