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A New Hammerhead Shark Species May Have Just Been Discovered

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© FIU

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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

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

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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