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A New Hammerhead Shark Species May Have Just Been Discovered

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Scientists have found a genetically unique population of miniature sharks off the coast of Belize. They described their results in the Journal of Fish Biology. 

The hammerhead shark family is made up of 10 known species, five of which are on the petite side (relatively speaking). One of those miniature sharks is the bonnethead, Sphyrna tiburo, which meanders through the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans feeding on crabs, shrimp, and little fish. Female bonnetheads are a bit larger than the males, maxing out at around four feet long.

Bonnethead populations appear to be pretty healthy at the moment, but like just about everything else in the ocean these days, their future is pretty uncertain. Researchers decided to assess the bonnetheads’ current situation at the smallest possible level—by looking at their DNA. They collected tiny skin samples from 239 live sharks in the waters off the Bahamas, Texas, Panama City (Florida), Tampa Bay, the Florida Keys, North Carolina, and Belize, then analyzed their genetic code to check up on the sharks’ health. 

Demian Chapman measuring a wee shark. Image Credit: © FIU

The bonnetheads’ DNA looked good—but it also looked sort of odd. The samples taken in Belize were startlingly different from the rest of the bunch. 

Paper co-author Kevin Feldheim leads The Field Museum’s Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution. He said he and his colleagues were quite surprised with their results. "We thought we were doing a standard analysis of a shark population," he said in a statement, "and suddenly, whoa, we were looking at a whole new species."

That’s the short version. The long version is that Feldheim and his colleagues have more work to do before they can be certain they’ve got a brand-new bonnethead on their hands 

"There’s no cutoff in DNA that indicates you’ve got a different species," he said. "Determining when you have a new species is a tricky thing. But these sharks are living in a separate environment from their fellow bonnetheads, and they’re likely on their own evolutionary trajectory."

New species or no, the sharks still need attention and protection. Co-author Demian Chapman of Florida International University said: "Now we have to define the range of each of these species individually and assess them independently against where the potential threats are … our finding of a new species in Belize highlights that there could be more undescribed ones out there, each one facing a unique set of threats."

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technology
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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