Earth Still Needs Exploring, Too

A newly-observed snailfish species from the Marianas Trench currently holds the record for the deepest-observed surviving marine animal.The modern era sometimes tends toward a headline culture, a tendency to skip the detail in order to receive as much of the information spectrum as possible. Consider the bland headline for Rebecca Morelle of BBC News, “New Record for deepest fish”. In and of itself, certainly that might be a reason to check in, but it is also true that few of us are rushing to check the sumsα.

But Morelle’s article is written in that classic Beeb voice, with shorter sentences and paragraphs for comprehensibility, and scrolling through one finds astounding bits and pieces—

Until this expedition, the deepest fish had been found in the Japan Trench, also in the Pacific Ocean. A 17-strong shoal of pink, gelatinous snailfish (Pseudoliparis amblystomopsis) were recorded 7,700m down.

Dr Alan Jamieson, from Oceanlab at the University of Aberdeen, said: “After we found these, we started seeing them in other deep trenches. Each trench has its own snailfish species.

—including some that probably deserve their own headline:

During the voyage, researchers also studied the geology of the Mariana Trench by grabbing rocks and returning them to the surface.

Prof Patricia Fryer, from the University of Hawaii, told the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco that a sample collected from an earlier expedition suggested that a previously undiscovered tectonic plate lies at the bottom of the trench.

“The rock we picked up – it turns out this thing is 100 million years younger than the Pacific Plate,” she told BBC News.

“It means that the plate that’s being subducted beneath the Challenger Deep (the lowest point of the trench) is 100 million years or more younger than the Pacific Plate.”

We are nowhere near finished exploring this wonderful, mysterious planet. Fascination abounds.

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α Rachel Feltman of The Washington Post posted more precise numbers; 8,143 meters for the new species, compared to 7,703 for the previous record holder, a difference Morelle describes as “beating the previous depth record by nearly 500m”. As far as headlines are concerned, Feltman wins hands down: “Ghostly new fish discovered at record-breaking depths”.

Morelle, Rebecca. “New record for deepest fish”. BBC News. 18 December 2014.

Feltman, Rachel. “Ghostly new fish discovered at record-breaking depths”. The Washington Post. 19 December 2014.

Ninety Million Years

Nothing lives forever.

However, death does not stop one’s role in the Universe; most dead things go to decay and recycle their basic elements back through nature. But some things go to the fossil record, instead:

Professionals from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, pictured from left to right, Tom Suazo, fossil preparer, Amanda Cantrell, geosciences collections manager, Jake Sayler, volunteer, and Asher Lichtig, student researcher, excavate a 90 million-year-old turtle fossil about six miles east of Turtleback Mountain, a well-known peak near Truth or Consequences. (Robin Zielinski - Sun-News)The terrain looked much like any other in the southern New Mexico desert with its clumps of desert grass, its stands of mesquite bushes and its rock-strewn soil.

But to keen-eyed Jeff Dornbusch, a volunteer with a Truth or Consequences museum, a certain pile of rocks he spotted on a hike years ago looked a bit different.

Sure enough, as he’d later learn, they were fragments of a roughly 90 million-year-old turtle fossil.

“It just looked like a pile of gray rocks out here,” he said.

(Alba Soular)

If there absolutely must be a moral to the story, we might find satisfaction in the reminder that the Universe is a fascinating place, and well worth paying attention to. Sometimes there are wonders very nearly underfoot.

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Alba Soular, Diana. “Team digs up 90 million-year-old turtle remains in Sierra County”. Las Cruces Sun-News. 2 November 2014.

Danger Is a Diet, Not a Middle Name

A female great bustard studies the backside of a male in full courtship display. (Photo by Franz-Josef Kovacs)

Maybe there is something to it. How’s this for a lede?

The lengths we go to for love can sometimes be dramatic—and so it is for male great bustards (Otis tarda), whose daredevil diet of poisonous beetles may actually help them get a date, a new study reveals.

(Bittel)

Jason Bittel’s headline for National Geographic News calls the discovery a first. And perhaps the lede overstates things; the behavior is already known to help reduce parasite infestation. But a first? Then again, the question of just who finds who or what attractive as a symptom of alcohol poisoning through binge drinking is probably a little less clear.

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Bittel, Jason. “Male Birds Poison Themselves to Appear Sexier—a First”. National Geographic News. 24 October 2014.

Image credit: Detail of photograph by Franz-Josef Kovacs.

At an Intersection of Art and Science

Detail of image showing 3D model by Klaus Leitl, ca. 2014.

Perhaps it is simply best to say click the link, or even the picture above.

Suffice to say, what you are looking at is not a real photograph of a real organism, but, rather, a real photograph of a real model created using 3D printing technology.

It is easy enough to forget that the intersection of science and art is hardly rare. While the art of science might seem somewhat elusive, the science of art is everywhere. The work of Klaus Leitl just happens to be a spectacular intersection.

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Alec. “Austrian artist creates life-like insect models using a Form1+ 3D printer”. 3ders.org. 15 October 2014.

Linkadelica

Animal armory

• The legend of rocket cats.

• How does the internet get from here to there?

• Two words to brighten your day: beekeeping donkey.

• It turns out your teeth can teach scientists about how to make glass stronger by cracking it.

• Study well, and one day you, too, can unlock the secrets of the Universe.

• Space is really, really big, right? Contemplate our solar system with interactive models from BBC Future and Josh Worth.

• The name of your next band? Try earthquake lights.

• It’s not all in the wrist; the “flat loop” rope trick is also in the thumb and forefinger.

Rock Hyrax a Trivial Bonanza

P. capensis (rock hyrax)It sounds lonely: “Modern hyraxes are members of the Procaviidae family, the only living family within the Hyracoidea.” Venerable, primitive mammals, rock hyraxes are full of trivial surprises, as Mary Bates explains for Wired Science’s Zoologic:

The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) is full of surprises. While it looks like a slightly more robust version of a guinea pig, it’s no rodent. These squat, furry animals are found across Africa and the middle East, where they like to hang out in rock formations and the seemingly inhospitable nooks on sheer cliff faces. Rock hyraxes are gregarious, living in colonies of up to 80 individuals. They grow up to two feet in length and about 10 pounds in weight.

Weird stomachs, tusks to mark their relation to elephants, toenails, scent gland, suctiony feet, and even cameos in the Bible; the note on reproductive glands, though, is actually a bit … (ahem!) scary.

Even so, at two feet long and ten pounds in adulthood, rock hyraxes have managed to develop a reasonably complex language including twenty-one sounds woven into diverse patterns, as well as regional dialectical differences.

Nor is it actually so lonely; Procaviidae may be the last living family of order Hyracoidea, but the rock hyrax has fellows and neigbors, such as the yellow-spotted rock hyrax and two kinds of tree hyrax.

As an additional note, there is apocrypha … not quite a story, not quite a theory … suggesting that the rock hyrax is the root of Hispania, and therefore the animal after which Spanish-speaking culture is named. Stranger things, of course, have happened … at least, I think.

Sheep Trip

“From another direction he felt the sensation of being a sheep startled by a flying saucer, but it was virtually indistinguishable from the feeling of being a sheep startled by anything else it ever encountered, for they were creatures who learned very little on their journey through life, and would be startled to see the sun rising in the morning, and astonished by all the green stuff in the fields.”

—Douglas Adams

And now they glow in the dark. No, really. Okay, only sort of:

Scientists in Uruguay have genetically modified sheep to glow in the dark. The fluorescent sheep are a world first, the scientists report.

GlowSheep-greenThe flock of nine lambs was born last October at a farm belonging to the Animal Reproduction Institute of Uruguay, an nonprofit organization affiliated with the Pasteur Institute’s genetically modified animals unit. The laboratory incorporated a green fluorescence protein into the genes of the sheep, which will glow when exposed to certain ultraviolet light, making the the ruminants easily identifiable as genetically modified.

Other than glowing green in UV light, the sheep look and behave normally. Scientists modified the sheep’s genes with the fluorescent protein of the Aequarea jellyfish.

“We did not use a protein of medical interest or to help with a particular medicine because we wanted to fine-tune the technique. We used the green protein because the color is easily identifiable in the sheep’s tissues,” said Alejo Menchaca, the head of the research team.

And there you have it.

(We might also note that it makes a decent pitch to the younger generation: Study hard, and you, too, can make random animals glow in the dark. I mean, come on, with that kind of career path? Boundless potential.)

Updates

The upside of being lazy is that you’re not doing anything unpleasant. The downside is that the unpleasantness stacks up at the far end. No, wait, that’s not right. But, you know, sometimes the art of playing catch-up … er … right. Enough about me.

There is plenty going on around the solar system.

First up, Yellowknife Bay, Mars, where our friendly neighborhood robotic space laboratory is still recovering from a memory glitch that forced Curiosity to switch over to its redundant B-side computer:

Pasadena? We Have an Uh-OhNASA’s Mars rover Curiosity continues to move forward with assessment and recovery from a memory glitch that affected the rover’s A-side computer. Curiosity has two computers that are redundant of one another. The rover is currently operating using the B-side computer, which is operating as expected.

Over the weekend, Curiosity’s mission operations team continued testing and assessing the A-side computer’s memory.

“These tests have provided us with a great deal of information about the rover’s A-side memory,” said Jim Erickson, deputy project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We have been able to store new data in many of the memory locations previously affected and believe more runs will demonstrate more memory is available.”

Two software patches, targeting onboard memory allocation and vehicle safing procedures, are likely to be uplinked later this week. After the software patches are installed, the mission team will reassess when to resume full mission operations.

Meanwhile, somewhere near Saturn, faithful Cassini continues to dazzle as the data returns from the fourth and final Rhea flyby of the Solstice mission:

Rhea: Portrait of a LadyCassini flew by Rhea at an altitude of 620 miles (997 kilometers) on March 9, 2013. This flyby was designed primarily for the radio science sub-system to measure Rhea’s gravity field. During closest approach and while the radio science sub-system was measuring the icy satellite’s gravity field, the imaging team rode along and captured 12 images of Rhea’s rough and icy surface. Outbound from Rhea, Cassini’s cameras captured a set of global images from a distance of about 167,000 miles (269,000 kilometers).

Data from Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer were also collected to try to detect any dusty debris flying off the surface from tiny meteoroid bombardments. These data will help scientists understand the rate at which “foreign” objects are raining into the Saturn system.

Cassini will visit Titan (T-90) at a range of 870 miles (1,400 km) on April 5, 2013.

In more earthly realms, Matt McGrath continues his coverage for BBC of the CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand:

BBC-HammerheadHuntThree types of critically endangered but commercially valuable shark have been given added protection at the Cites meeting in Bangkok.

The body, which regulates trade in flora and fauna, voted by a two-thirds majority to upgrade the sharks’ status ….

…. The decisions can still be overturned by a vote on the final day of this meeting later this week.

The oceanic whitetip, three varieties of hammerheads and the porbeagle are all said to be seriously threatened by overfishing.

And maybe a bonus Cassini note, because I so adore the photo:

Cassini - PIA14651The ghostly spokes in Saturn’s B ring continue to put on a show for the Cassini spacecraft cameras in this recent image. The spokes, believed to be a seasonal phenomenon, are expected to disappear as Saturn nears its northern hemisphere summer. Scientists continue to monitor the spokes to better understand their origin and evolution.

The small moon Atlas also appears here barely visible in between the A ring and the F ring, which is the thin ring located furthest from Saturn, as the fainter dot close to the A ring. Atlas is closer to the bottom of the image. A bright star also appears in the gap between the two rings, and there are six other stars visible (one through the C ring, near the planet).

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that people are talking.

Unfortunately, that’s it.

The bad news is that the discussion needs to take place at all. BBC’s Matt McGrath explains:

BBC logoNew plans to protect elephants, rhinos and other species will be discussed at a critical meeting that begins in Bangkok on Sunday.

Delegates will review the convention on the international trade in endangered species (CITES).

Around 35,000 animals and plants are at present protected by the treaty.

But with a global “extinction crisis” facing many species, this year’s meeting is being described as the most critical in its history.

Naturally, one of the foremost controversies is the idea of secret ballots versus transparancy. “CITES ought to be a transparent body,” said Mark Jones of Humane Society International, “but secret ballots have become easier to implement at the behest of certain parties who don’t want their vote to be known.” Sounds about right.

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Jedi Sharks?

Velvet Belly LanternsharkA phrase to send shivers along the spine: Sharks with light sabers.

These are not Jedi sharks, of course, but, rather, E. spinax, the “velvet belly lanternshark”. As Rebecca Morelle explains for the BBC:

This species of lanternshark (Etmopterus spinax) lives in the mesopelagic zone of the ocean, which has a range between 200m and 1,000m in depth.

It is a diminutive shark; the largest can measure up to about 60cm in length, but most are about 45cm long.

Until recently, little had been known about this species, apart from the fact that like many deep sea creatures it has the ability to glow – a trait called bioluminescence.

Previous research found that the shark has light-producing cells called photophores in its belly, and it uses this light to camouflage itself.

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