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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

August 2009

In the News:

Small Sheep - Global warming could be responsible for the sheep on the island of Hirta in the St. Kilda archipelago of Scotland getting smaller. According to an article in the journal Science, the population of Soay sheep on the island, which have been studied intensely since 1985, have been getting smaller for the past 25 years. One theory is that the shorter winters mean that lambs do not have to grow as fast as they once did as because they do not need to put on as much as weight in the first months of life to survive the cold season. "Sheep are getting smaller. Well, at least the wild Soay sheep living on a remote Scottish island are. But according to classic evolutionary theory, they should have been getting bigger, because larger sheep tend to be more likely to survive and reproduce than smaller ones, and offspring tend to resemble their parents," said study author Tim Coulson of Imperial College London. The study is helping scientists understand that environment can be as important as evolution when it comes to changes in animal populations.

Cat Developed Special Purr to get Human Attention - A new study has found that cats have developed a special manipulative purr to get what they want from people. The purr, which involves sounds a bit like a baby crying, appears to be used during times when cats want attention from human beings. "In the case of my cat, if he sees you stirring from sleep at all in the early morning he will immediately switch into giving this solicitation purring and position himself next to your head so you get the full impact," observed lead author Karen McComb of the Behavioral Ecology at the University of Sussex. The scientists explored the acoustic structure of recorded cat purrs and determined that one contains an embedded, high-pitched cry. This they dubbed "solicitation purring." The meow can sound remarkably like a crying child, which is extremely difficult for humans to ignore.

Scientists Hunt Giant Worm - Scientists are searching for the giant Palouse earthworm this summer. The worm, which has been reported to grow three-feet long, supposedly secretes a lily-like smell when handled, spits at predators, and lives in burrows 15 feet deep, maybe on the edge of extinction. The only confirmed example of the species is a six-inch preserved specimen found in 2005 and now in the hands of Jodi Johnson-Maynard University of Idaho. The worm is thought to have lived in the agricultural region that stretches from eastern Washington into the Idaho panhandle. Johnson-Maynard and her team of worm hunters are checking the area hoping to dig up a worm or make one come to the surface by using chemicals or electric shock devices.

Long Nailed Dinosaur - Nine-inch nails isn't just the name of a rock band, but the characteristic of a dinosaur recently unearthed in Utah. Nothronychus graffami, stood 13 feet tall and had claws that looked a lot like scythes. According to an article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society the fossil just found is the most complete remains ever excavated of a therizinosaur ("reaper lizard"). In addition to the long nails the animal also sported a keratinous beak at the front of the mouth and stood 13 feet tall. Despite the formidable-looking claws Nothronychus graffami probably didn't hunt other large animals, but instead dug into termite mounds, mucked on the bottom of a lake or raked leaves into its mouth from a mangrove forest like a ground sloth.

Hubble Back in Service for a Day - NASA interrupted testing of the recently repaired Hubble Space Telescope to check out a mysterious new mark that has just appeared on the planet Jupiter. The mark was probably created when a small comet or asteroid crashed into Jupiter's atmosphere and disintegrated. Although the orbiting observatory's new camera is still being calibrated, NASA decided the Jupiter event was too important not to put Hubble back into operation for a day. "Because we believe this magnitude of impact is rare, we are very fortunate to see it with Hubble," said Amy Simon-Miller of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Details seen in the Hubble view shows a lumpiness to the debris plume caused by turbulence in Jupiter's atmosphere." The object created a mark was about same diameter as Earth, but the object itself was probably only 50 to 100 miles across.


Science Quote of the Month - "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind". - Albert Einstein


What's New at the Museum:

Part Two: The Hunt for the Killer Shark - In twelve days in the summer of 1916 shark attacks along the New Jersey shore had left four dead and one maimed with the rogue shark still on the loose. > Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Glowing Arthropods - Why do scorpions fluoresce under a UV light? - Warren

This is a subject that scientists don't know a great deal about, but let's start with some basic facts. Some materials when hit by a light with a wave-length shorter than humans can see will absorb that light energy and then radiate back light within the visible spectrum so when a person looks at the object, it seems to glow. This process is called fluorescence.

There is a substance in the epicuticle (sometimes called the hyaline layer) of the scorpion's exoskeleton that fluoresces when exposed to ultra-violet light. Nobody knows exactly what this stuff is but some scientists speculate it is a complex of mucosaccharides (a simple form of sugar) and proteins. Also -Carboline, a trytophan derivative, is known to play an important part.

Nobody really knows how the fluorescence gets there either. Baby scorpions aren't born with it and scorpions that have just molted don't have it. This has leads some people to suggest that it is either secreted by the scorpion over time, a side effect of the animal's exoskeleton as it is tanned by the sun or the result of chemical reactions as the new exoskeleton hardens. The fact that some scorpions that live their entire lives in dark caves and still fluoresce, however, leads some people to think that it unlikely to be the tanning process.

Finally we also don't know what advantage this gives the scorpion. Some have speculated that this property somehow helps the scorpion with their ultra-violet light sensitivity, but studies have shown that different levels of UV light seem to have little effect on the animal's behavior.

We do know that scorpions have had this characteristic for a very long time. This kind of fluorescence has even been seen in some of the fossils of ancient scorpions. We also know it is not unique to scorpions as some sow bugs, millipedes, centipedes, solfugids and a few beetles also will glow in ultra-violet light. We also know that with each molting the effect grows stronger so that older scorpions glow brighter than young ones. The amount a scorpion glows is also connected the particular species. Some glow brightly, others hardly at all.

Whatever it is, this characteristic has been a boon to scientists and scorpion enthusiasts. A small camping lamp can have its fluorescent bulb replaced with one that produces ultra-violet (or "black") light that will cause scorpions to glow a soft blue or green at a distance of one or two feet. This is a great aid in finding the small animals. Scientists can then easily use tongs to collect specimens and many new species have been found this way. A flashlight that produces UV light can also be useful when camping in scorpion habitats to check your sleeping back to make sure you are not crawling in with one of the tiny critters.


In History:

Purple Blobs - On the evening of August 10, 1979, a bright light was observed landing next to Sybil Christian's house near Frisco, Texas. The next day she discovered three strange purple blobs sitting on the ground. While one evaporated in the sunlight, the other two were shipped off for analysis. Despite their apparent extra-terrestrial origins, the blobs were found to be just industrial waste.


In the Sky:

The Perseid Meteor Shower - This will be summer's best show. It will be visible from July 25 to August 18, but the shower peaks around August 12. Look for the shooting stars to appear to be coming from the constellation Perseus. A good shower can yield 80 meteors an hour and is the debris left behind from the passage of comet Swift-Tuttle.



Blue in M&Ms Could Save Spine - If you have a severe spinal injury could popping a few blue M&M's keep you from being paralyzed? Well, not quite, but scientists think that blue food dye found in M&Ms (Brilliant Blue G or BBG) may be able to reduce the damage caused by spine injuries. When the spine is injured Adenosine triphosphate, (ATP) rushes into the area. Unfortunately this has the effect of killing off healthy cells, making the initial injury worse. Scientists have found that a substance in BBG can block the effect of the extra ATP. In experiments they tried injecting rats with BBG immediately after a spinal cord injury. These rats eventually regained their ability to walk again, though with a limp. The control group rats, not given BBG, never recovered their ability to walk. Researchers hope that in a couple years they may be able to give people with recent spinal cord injuries a shot to help preserve their mobility. If so, victims might have to contend with a side effect observed in the rats: They all turned bright blue for a few days.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Monster of the Milky Way - Does a supermassive black hole lurk at the center of our galaxy? On PBS. Tuesday, August 25 at 8 pm ET/PT.

Menacing Waters - In the strange coastal waters off remote northern Australia live the earth's most deadly marine creatures. Box jellyfish, blue ring octopi, sea snakes and cone snails are the subject of four scientists' groundbreaking research. On The Science Channel. Aug 08, 9:00 pm; Aug 09, 12:00 am; ET/PT.

Battle for the Beginning - The Science Channel explores the history of our relationship with particle physics and the big bang theory. On The Science Channel. Aug 02, 8:00 pm; Aug 02, 11:00 pm; Aug 04, 3:00 am; Aug 08, 11:00 am; ET/PT.

Is it True? The Skunk Ape & One Wing Landings - Chuck searches the Everglades for the elusive truth behind a series of Internet images of Florida's mysterious Skunk Ape. Then, he takes to the skies to confirm that the online footage of an airplane landing with only one wing is humanly possible. On The Discovery Channel. Aug 10, 10:00 pm; Aug 11, 1:00 am; ET/PT.

That's Impossible Episode: Death Rays & Energy Weapons - Everyone is familiar with the amazing force field and energy weapons from sci-fi movies like Star Wars and Star Trek, but are we just a few years away from having that technology at our fingertips? We'll investigate new, top-secret military weaponry and recent inventions like a new airplane mounted laser cannons from Northrop Grumman that can shoot down enemy planes and shoot nuclear missiles out of the sky. On The History Channel. Tuesday, August 04 10:00 PM; Wednesday, August 05 02:00 AM; Sunday, August 09 08:00 AM; ET/PT.

Valkyrie: The Plot to Kill Hitler - Was it an act of treason or patriotism? Bold in concept and challenging in execution, learn the real story behind the Valkyrie plot--a plan by a group of German officers to assassinate Adolph Hitler and take control of the government. The events leading up to July 20, 1944 are brought to life through interviews with survivors, relatives, firsthand witnesses and historians. Newsreel footage, archival photographs and re-creations are also included. Discover what the Valkyrie Legacy means to Germans and Germany, and what it says about the sometimes complex nature of heroism, and the legacy of the Resistance overall. On The History Channel. Saturday, August 01 10:00 PM; Sunday, August 02 02:00 AM; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009

Copyright Lee Krystek 2009. All Rights Reserved.


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