Why Do Things Float in Water?

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asksHave a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

I bet you know that wood floats but a rock sinks. But why? Let’s look deep inside each object at its molecules (MOLL-uh-kyools). Everything is made of molecules. Molecules are very, very tiny. You can only see them with a special microscope. In some objects, like a rock, molecules are squished tightly together. In others, like wood, the molecules are more spread out. How closely molecules are crowded together in a space is called density. Density is a big part of why some things float and others don’t.

Objects like coins, rocks, and marbles are more dense than water. They will sink. Objects like apples, wood, and sponges are less dense than water. They will float. Many hollow things like empty bottles, balls, and balloons will also float. That’s because air is less dense than water. This is one reason huge ships can float, even though they’re very heavy. Inside a ship, there’s a lot of hollow space filled only with air. But that’s not all: shape matters, too!

The outside of an object is called its surface. When more of the surface is touching the water, the object is more buoyant (BOY-ant), which means it floats better. When an object floats, it pushes water out of the way. That’s called displacement. But guess what? Water pushes back! So the more surface area an object has, the more water pushes back against it, helping it float. That's another reason why even big ships don't sink if they have the right shape. 

You can test this out yourself. Try making a boat with a flat bottom using tinfoil. Does it float? What happens if you start putting pennies or pebbles inside your boat? What happens if you crumple your tinfoil boat into a ball? Using what you’ve learned about density and buoyancy, why do you think the empty boat floats best?

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

A Dracula Ant's Jaws Snap at 200 Mph—Making It the Fastest Animal Appendage on the Planet

Ant Lab, YouTube
Ant Lab, YouTube

As if Florida’s “skull-collecting” ants weren’t terrifying enough, we’re now going to be having nightmares about Dracula ants. A new study in the journal Royal Society Open Science reveals that a species of Dracula ant (Mystrium camillae), which is found in Australia and Southeast Asia, can snap its jaws shut at speeds of 90 meters per second—or the rough equivalent of 200 mph. This makes their jaws the fastest part of any animal on the planet, researchers said in a statement.

These findings come from a team of three researchers that includes Adrian Smith, who has also studied the gruesome ways that the skull-collecting ants (Formica archboldi) dismember trap-jaw ants, which were previously considered to be the fastest ants on record. But with jaw speeds of just over 100 miles per hour, they’re no match for this Dracula ant. (Fun fact: The Dracula ant subfamily is named after their habit of drinking the blood of their young through a process called "nondestructive cannibalism." Yikes.)

Senior author Andrew Suarez, of the University of Illinois, said the anatomy of this Dracula ant’s jaw is unusual. Instead of closing their jaws from an open position, which is what trap-jaw ants do, they use a spring-loading technique. The ants “press the tips of their mandibles together to build potential energy that is released when one mandible slides across the other, similar to a human finger snap,” researchers write.

They use this maneuver to smack other arthropods or push them away. Once they’re stunned, they can be dragged back to the Dracula ant’s nest, where the unlucky victims will be fed to Dracula ant larvae, Suarez said.

Researchers used X-ray imaging to observe the ants’ anatomy in three dimensions. High-speed cameras were also used to record their jaws snapping at remarkable speeds, which measure 5000 times faster than the blink of a human eye. Check out the ants in slow-motion in the video below.

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