Sperm whales are among the biggest living things on the planet and, surprisingly for these gentle giants, once must have been among the most fearsome. Palaeontologists working in Peru have uncovered the remains of an extinct long lost relative of today’s sperm whale that had 30-40 cm long teeth in both jaws (the modern form has much smaller teeth in the lower jaw only). With jaws more closely resembling those of a killer whale than its thrust/suction feeding relative, scientists believe the newly named Leviathan melvillei was a 15 m long hunter of large prey, probably other whales. Its size, jaws and undoubted intelligence would have made this marine monster more than a match for the giant shark Megalodon with which it shared its home (Science [article], Nature [paper]).
Sperm whales are still the largest animal ever to have teeth, but today their diet consists mostly of squid – including the infamous giant squid – and therein lies a problem. Whereas most land dwelling creatures live on plant material, or some juicy meaty derivative thereof, and hence are essentially “carbon-neutral”, marine animals from penguins to whales feast upon carbon that was probably sequestered in the oceans hundreds if not thousands of years ago, or has weathered out of rocks that are millions of years old. One upshot of this is that carbon dating is notoriously inaccurate on marine organisms, what scientists call the “reservoir effect”, another is that unlike water breathers such as fish, who return this carbon to the oceans, air breathing animals like whales will release this carbon to the atmosphere as CO2 and so contribute to global warming. However in new research published by the Royal Society of London, researchers have calculated that whales have actually offset their carbon emissions with emissions of another kind. Whale poop is iron rich and comparatively liquid, hence returns the excess iron in the whale’s diet back to the oceans in a form that is readily usable by phytoplankton. The team, led by Trish Lavery of Flinders University in Australia, estimate that sperm whales are responsible for removing 200,000 more tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere annually than they actually emit (Royal Society).
But it’s not all good news for the tree-huggers for while whales might be a boon in the fight against climate change, their free-range, organic farming practices of preference are almost certainly not. In a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences, Jennifer Burney of Stanford University and her colleagues have found that intensive farming is by far the most land and carbon efficient method of agriculture. Because agricultural land use is a major contributor to global warming, increasing the yields from farmland, and thereby reducing the amount of land farmed, strongly outweighed the extra carbon emissions of the intensive farming needed to achieve this. Doing the sums on farm outputs since 1961, the team found that increased yields have produced the same as cultivating an additional area the size of Russia at 1961 levels, which would have led to the release of 590 billion more tonnes of CO2, equal to about a third of all man-made emissions since the industrial revolution (PNAS).
And modern farming may be coming to our rescue in another way, as a source of cheap batteries. Almost since Ben Franklin gave up kite-flying, kids in schools the world over have been making batteries out of apples or a potatoes. Now a trio of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, led by Alex Goldberg, have found a way to turn these vegetable power sources from classroom curiosities into a viable product. What’s more amazing is the method they discovered to generate a tenfold increase the output of their potato power-pack, they boil the potato first. How did no-one think of this before (AIP)?
Another new idea, albeit a less welcome one, is that one should prosecute scientists for not knowing everything. At least that seems to be the approach taken by the public prosecutors of the Italian city of L’Aquilla, which last year was hit unexpectedly by an earthquake that killed over 300 people and injured 1600 more. The defendants include the head of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and the director of the National Earthquake Center along with four other equally prominent scientists and Bernardo De Bernardinis then deputy head of the Civil Protection Agency, who together are looking at being tried for manslaughter for not alerting the population to the imminent disaster at a meeting held one week before the quake struck. It was Bernardinis, a government official, who claimed in a press conference held immediately after the meeting that the scientists had said there was “no danger”, despite the minutes of the meeting clearly showing that at no time was the chance of a major shock ever ruled out (Nature).
You know, even in 1969, despite the prevalence of hype connected with "flower power," I don't think anyone was going to believe that automobiles were pro-nature. And aren't flowers kind of a sissy image for a muscle car anyhow?
Looking for an unusual vacation spot? Then you might consider one of eight strange destinations as listed in this article on the Matador Network. There's Mount Thor (pictured), in Nunavut, Canada which has the highest (4101ft) vertical drop, if you're into rock climbing... or falling, as the case may be. Or you can swing by the Principality of Sealand which is nothing more than several gun platforms in the English Channel that were abandoned by the British after World War II. It was declared an independent nation in 1967 and has its own currency and can issue passports and visas. Sealand is also for sale, if you ever dreamt of owning your own country, and let's face it, all of us here at WU have had that dream I'm sure. But no matter where you might want to go in the world, this list could be a great starting point.
They say news travels fast, but in the speed stakes it can’t hold a candle to dumb. Circling the blogosphere like an angry Superman is news that security guard Jason Cooke has managed to sight the Loch Ness monster on Google Earth. The object, which Cooke claims exactly matches the descriptions of Nessie, is clearly visible as a quadrupedal, long-necked plesiosaur-like creature, and in no way could be the wake behind a boat or anything mundane like that. This latest find comes as a relief to many cryptozoologists, who had expressed concerns that the dearth of recent sightings might mean Nessie had fallen victim to Global Warming (Telegraph).
Or perhaps this is simply proof that Scottish universities have got the jump on their transatlantic counterparts? In a move nearly, but not quite, totally unlike Jurassic Park, Professor Hans Larsson of McGill University in Montreal has announced that he hopes to de-evolve chickens back into their dinosaur ancestors. Larsson stressed that he is not aiming to recreate whole dinosaurs at this time, but by switching on or off certain genes in chick embryos he hopes to induce atavistic dinosaur anatomy in the full grown animals (AFP).
It's hard enough to catch a bite to eat when your prey consists of relatively quick moving land animals. But when you're dealing with tiny, lightning fast fish, what can you do to improve your odds that you'll get a meal? Turn yourself into a tentacled water snake. Scientists at Vanderbilt University used high-speed video to capture images of the snake performing an unusual trick in order to force prey to swim directly into its mouth. The snake will lie motionless, its body in a "J" shape, and wait for prey to swim close. When a fish swims by the curve of the "J", the snake flexes the lower part of its body. The fish senses the movement and turns to swim away from the perceived threat... only to end up directly in the snake's mouth. You can see the slow motion video here. And you can read all about the study here.
Time to point our telescopes of weirdness at "the old country", methinks.
Speaking of old, recent research carried out by the University of Michigan has revealed that US seniors are smarter than their UK counterparts. The study, lead in the US by Kenneth Langa, measured the recall abilities of over 8000 elderly Americans and over 5000 elderly Brits, and found that the yanks scored 1.4 more on the memory tests, out of a possible 24. Langa suggests that part of the difference was due to higher average levels of education and income in the US group, and higher levels of depression in the UK sample, but points out that nothing is certain at the moment. "It's like a view from 30,000 feet" said Langa (New Scientist).
And it's not just British brains that are shrinking, the UK's sheep are getting smaller as well. Because of a trend towards milder weather believed to be due to climate change, Sheep on the Outer Hebridean island of Soay are getting smaller at the rate of 100g/year, say researchers from Imperial College, London. Though it might seem that warmer winters and a greater abundance of food might make for bigger sheep, Tim Coulson, the professor leading the study, points out that fewer weaker and smaller lambs will die over winter, bringing down the average size (Telegraph).
Now, in some good news, UK campaigners have won a second victory in a three-year battle... to bring back a chocolate bar. The "Wispa Bar", made by European confectioners Cadbury, was introduced in 1995 along with a caramel laced version called the "Wispa Gold", only for both to be discontinued in 2003. This prompted some die-hard fans of the bubbly chocolate bar to start a petition to have it go into production again, resulting in a "limited edition" run of the original Wispa last year. When the 40 million bars produced sold out in just 18 weeks, Cadbury decided to relaunch the brand. Not satisfied with just one bar, campaigners have kept up the pressure, causing Cadbury to start producing Wispa Golds "for a limited period," as before. However to some commentators, this latest move looks more like slick PR than grassroots victory (Sky News).