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Why Rudolph’s Shiny Red Nose Makes Scientific Sense

Certain Christmas legends require a suspension of disbelief, but a new paper published by Frontiers for Young Minds ("science edited for kids, by kids") reveals that Rudolph’s iconic red nose isn’t one of them—at least not entirely.

Dartmouth College anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Nathaniel J. Dominy here delves into the unique characteristics of Rangifer tarandus tarandus—specifically, how their eyes are well-suited to winter navigation. Unlike humans and most other mammals, Arctic reindeer are able to see ultraviolet light, which is a useful trait to have during those months of the year when the Sun is low on the horizon and light is scattered high in the atmosphere, making it UV and blue-purplish.

Additionally, reindeer have reflective tissue in their eyes that changes color with the seasons. Golden in the summer, the tissue turns to deep blue in the winter, which is believed to help the animals see blue light. The tissue also improves their ability to see in the dark and makes their eyes shine at night.

So, if reindeer basically have superhero sight, couldn't any random reindeer lead Santa's sleigh? Nope. The problem is fog. As you’ll recall, in Robert L. May’s original story, it was a foggy Christmas Eve when Santa came to say: “Rudolph with your nose so bright / won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” Reindeer are hindered by the fog, which makes purple and blue light practically invisible. Red light, on the other hand, travels well in fog and would be extremely helpful for guiding an airborne sleigh with a planet’s worth of presents. Rudolph’s luminescent snout would be a perfect solution. The final optical benefit comes with the specific red of the nose, which is compared in one version of the story to the color of holly berries. That level of red is quite possibly the maximum redness that the eyes of mammals are able to see. In other words, Rudolph’s nose is perfectly engineered for the task at hand.

There is one small problem. Reindeer noses are vascular, which means they lose a lot of body heat through their schnozzes. Rudolph with his nose so bright might be prone to excessive heat loss, with a risk for hypothermia. The good news, writes Dominy, is that we can do something to help: "It is therefore extremely important for children to provide high-calorie foods to help Rudolph maintain his body temperature on Christmas Eve.”

You heard him. Prepare your plates of milk and cookies accordingly.

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This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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Octopuses can do some pretty amazing things with their skin, like “see” light, resist the pull of their own sticky suction cups, and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. That last part now has the U.S. Army interested, as Co.Design reports. The military branch’s research office has funded the development a new type of morphing material that works like an octopus’s dynamic skin.

The skin of an octopus is covered in small, muscular bumps called papillae that allow them to change textures in a fraction of a second. Using this mechanism, octopuses can mimic coral, rocks, and even other animals. The new government-funded research—conducted by scientists at Cornell University—produced a device that works using a similar principle.

“Technologies that use stretchable materials are increasingly important, yet we are unable to control how they stretch with much more sophistication than inflating balloons,” the scientists write in their study, recently published in the journal Science. “Nature, however, demonstrates remarkable control of stretchable surfaces.”

The membrane of the stretchy, silicone material lays flat most of the time, but when it’s inflated with air, it can morph to form almost any 3D shape. So far, the technology has been used to imitate rocks and plants.

You can see the synthetic skin transform from a two-dimensional pad to 3D models of objects in the video below:

It’s easy to see how this feature could be used in military gear. A soldier’s suit made from material like this could theoretically provide custom camouflage for any environment in an instant. Like a lot of military technology, it could also be useful in civilian life down the road. Co.Design writer Jesus Diaz brings up examples like buttons that appear on a car's dashboard only when you need them, or a mixing bowl that rises from the surface of the kitchen counter while you're cooking.

Even if we can mimic the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, though, other impressive superpowers, like controlling thousands of powerful suction cups or squeezing through spaces the size of a cherry tomato, are still the sole domain of the octopus. For now.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Animals
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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