Weird Science – From Whales To Sails

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).

But if the authorities in Rome haven’t appeared to have learnt their lesson with Galileo don’t be too harsh, it might just be down to a combination of Italian food and a Mediterranean climate. Climate first, with another Royal Society paper, in it Timothy Roth of the University of Nevada and his team have shown that harsher environmental conditions may promote the evolution of better cognitive skills, in chickadees at least. Birds from populations at the extreme northern and southern ends of the species' range were reared in identical conditions then presented with a series of puzzles to solve for a food reward, the birds from the colder climate consistently outperformed their soft southern counterparts (Royal Society).

And if it’s not the warm weather sapping your wits, it’s that big lunch you had, at least that’s the message sent by Scott Kanoski and Terry Davidson in a paper for the Journal of Experimental Psychology. In it they show that the observed link between high calorie diets and mental impairment is much more rapid than anyone thought, just 72 hours after being put on a high-energy diet rich in fats and carbohydrates, rats showed a significant change in their ability to perform spatial and memory tests (APA).

Though if the idea of going cold and hungry just to get smarter moves me to tears, that might have lead to a bit of compensation, had I been a mouse. Female mice it seems like a male who shows his sensitive side, and all because the tears of the male mouse release a pheromone that prompts the female to be more sexually receptive. Sadly human females have no receptor for this particular pheromone so tears, of mice or men, will not cause a similar effect (Science).

Ever noticed how women seem to more often have life-long friendships? Well such relationships might also be long-life ones, or so says a report in a recent edition of Current Biology. In a study by Joan Silk of the University of California, female baboons were discovered to live substantially longer if they had closer ties with other members of the troop, the quality of relationships being far more important than the quantity. According to Silk, similar effects have been observed in humans and her results may be useful in understanding our own complex social interactions (eScienceNews).

And finally to sails. When Bobby Darin sang of sailing beyond the sea this is probably not what he had in mind. A team from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have successfully deployed the first “solar sail” satellite in space. Long a staple of science fiction, solar sails use the light from the Sun to move, but the photon pressure involved is so small that the reflective sails used to harness it must be both huge and very lightweight compared to the payload. Despite this the team found room for two tiny wireless cameras, just 6 cm long, with which they were able to photograph the fully opened sails (Universe Today).

     Posted By: Dumbfounded - Fri Jul 02, 2010
     Category: Agriculture | Animals | Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Creatures | Farming | Disasters | Exercise and Fitness | Food | Government | Health | Nature | Natural Resources | Science | Psychology | Excrement

So, cold, starving and smart or hot, fat, and happy? Gee, which to choose....

Whale of a post there, DF.
Posted by Expat47 in Athens, Greece on 07/02/10 at 10:47 PM
Aww, man! I has hoping to see some Mad Science going on! The closest this comes is the Solar Sail, and at only 20 Meters it's no more than a testbed of the mechanism to open the sail & test the LCD variable reflectivity steering. I think a better system of steering might be worked out by combining the LCDs with the self assembling Origami systems currently being worked on:

If they can get the substrate down to the weight needed for solar sails they could speed up the reaction time of the solar sails; kind of like switching from a square rigged sailing ship to a Lateen rigged racing sloop.
Posted by Freddie Freelance on 07/03/10 at 04:45 PM
sperm whales- isn't it interesting, the different paths of evolution. these whales became gentle giants and megalodons became smaller but still lethal killing machines.

farming- who'da thought efficiency is efficient

batteries- wonder how long till this is viable. or how long till it disappears because it is cheap and works well.

scientists- hey i thought it was FIRST kill all the lawyers not scientists!

i agree expat, cold and hungry sucks!

friends- if you have friends and are not alone you live longer, not a stretch for the imagination there.

solar sails-this won't have real world applications.

dumbfounded, you have outdone yourself this time honey!
Posted by Patty in Ohio, USA on 07/03/10 at 04:58 PM
can we just take another cruise mario and let the ship dump the people waste in the ocean ?? .. oh wait ... dang they recycle our crap now for powering the turbines :(
Posted by ANON in Nowhere on 07/04/10 at 06:17 PM
Now I can break out my whale t-shirt and be cool again.

I wonder if the whale poop thing inspired the whole CO2 sequestering + dumping iron in the ocean thing that is gaining acceptance as a means of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Or maybe they just now realized we can't blame the whales for the CO2. At least we can still blame the elephants and hippos for destroying the earth.
Posted by Pablo on 07/05/10 at 02:35 PM
I don't know about it "gaining acceptance" exactly. It certainly works to a certain extent, but recent trials have shown that it (a) sequesters a lot less carbon than anticipated (Nature, Jan 2009), and (b) might have pretty nasty side-effects of its own (Nature, Mar 2010).
Posted by Dumbfounded on 07/05/10 at 02:46 PM
It's not anything's fault but our's, of course. All was in natural balance here, before us. Species arose and became extinct over time. The survivors did just handily, including humans, until we overpopulated, and started f**king with the environment for hundreds of years. Then, over 80 years of people like Rachel Carson researching and warning about this, then after some 30 years of catching on after Earth Day, the public says, 'Whoa, wait a minute, we're actually f**king ourselves'. It's a new day, and there is no solution, folks.
Posted by done on 07/07/10 at 12:07 AM
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