What We Can Learn From the Earth's Tiniest Fossils

When it comes to fossils, size doesn't matter; you can learn a lot even from really, really small ones. Among the tiniest fossils on Earth are single-celled, shelled marine organisms called foraminifera, which go back about 650 million years and are only about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Scientists use foram fossils to analyze how Earth's climate has changed over time. "They're very sensitive indicators of environmental change," Neil Landman, curator in the Division of Palentology at the American Museum of Natural History, says in the latest episode of the museum's Shelf Life series.

"One way in which foraminifera can tell us something is by chemical analysis of the shells," research associate Ellen Thomas says. "You can look at the isotopic composition of the oxygen and the carbon and trace element concentrations in the shell. That means that we can say things about direct temperature of the past."

This analysis can tell scientists all kinds of things, from the size of the polar ice caps at the time the foram was fossilized to how much photosynthesis was happening in the ocean—and, therefore, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. "If you look at reconstructions of climate ... in Wikipedia, for instance, then you'll see wiggly lines that tell you something about the climate of, say, the last 70 to 100 million years or so," Thomas says. "Those wiggly lines are all derived from from the analysis of foraminifera."

Back in the mid-20th century, Landman says, "the American Museum was the focus of foram study ... we have a very important collection here." Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, the museum is rehousing the specimen slides and creating a digital catalog of the organisms, complete with photographs and 50 3D CT scans. "Forams are so cool because they're such tiny objects, yet they have so many complex features," says Shaun Mahmood, one of the interns working on the project. The CT scans show that "something the size of a grain of rice suddenly has 100 chambers that you didn't even know where there." Scientists can use those models to take measurements and even 3D print them—much, much bigger than the real creatures—to study. 

The project is important, Thomas says, because scientists "can use Earth's history and foraminifera in Earth's history to learn how life on Earth reacted to those events in the past and to help to predict how we are dealing with the future."

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Afternoon Map
The Most Popular Infomercial Product in Each State

You don't have to pay $19.95 plus shipping and handling to discover the most popular infomercial product in each state: AT&T retailer All Home Connections is giving that information away for free via a handy map.

The map was compiled by cross-referencing the top-grossing infomercial products of all time with Google Trends search interest from the past calendar year. So, which crazy products do people order most from their TVs?

Folks in Arizona know that it's too hot there to wear layers; that's why they invest in the Cami Secret—a clip-on, mock top that gives them the look of a camisole without all the added fabric. No-nonsense New Yorkers are protecting themselves from identity theft with the RFID-blocking Aluma wallet. Delaware's priorities are all sorted out, because tons of its residents are still riding the Snuggie wave. Meanwhile, Vermont has figured out that Pajama Jeans are the way to go—because who needs real pants?

Unsurprisingly, the most popular product in many states has to do with fitness and weight loss, because when you're watching TV late enough to start seeing infomercials, you're probably also thinking to yourself: "I need to get my life together. I should get in shape." Seven states—Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, and Wisconsin—have invested in the P90X home fitness system, while West Virginia and Arkansas prefer the gentler workout provided by the Shake Weight. The ThighMaster is still a thing in Illinois and Washington, while Total Gym and Bowflex were favored by South Dakota and Wyoming, respectively. 

Kitchen items are clearly another category ripe for impulse-buying: Alabama and North Dakota are all over the George Forman Grill; Alaska and Rhode Island are mixing things up with the Magic Bullet; and Floridians must be using their Slice-o-matics to chop up limes for their poolside margaritas.

Cleaning products like OxiClean (D.C. and Hawaii), Sani Sticks (North Carolina), and the infamous ShamWow (which claims the loyalty of Mainers) are also popular, but it's Proactiv that turned out to be the big winner. The beloved skin care system claimed the top spot in eight states—California, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas—making it the most popular item on the map.

Peep the full map above, or check out the full study from All Home Connections here.

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Design
A Florida Brewery Created Edible Six-Pack Rings to Protect Marine Animals

For tiny scraps of plastic, six-pack rings can pose a huge threat to marine life. Small enough and ubiquitous enough that they’re easy to discard and forget about, the little plastic webs all too often make their way to the ocean, where animals can ingest or become trapped in them. In order to combat that problem, Florida-based Saltwater Brewery has created what they say is the world’s first fully biodegradable, compostable, edible six-pack rings.

The edible rings are made of barley and wheat and are, if not necessarily tasty, at least safe for animals and humans to ingest. Saltwater Brewery started packaging their beers with the edible six-pack rings in 2016. They charge slightly more for their brews to offset the cost of the rings' production. They hope that customers will be willing to pay a bit more for the environmentally friendly beers and are encouraging other companies to adopt the edible six-pack rings in order to lower manufacturing prices and save more animals.

As Saltwater Brewery president Chris Gove says in the video above: “We want to influence the big guys and kind of inspire them to also get on board.”

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