The Monkeypox virus is popping up in the Europe and the U.S. But this smallpox relative had been hanging around in Central and West Africa for decades before this unexplained outbreak. While the world keeps an eye on it, read on for skydiving salamanders, ancient animal competition, and novel ways of making energy.
Fireworks come in a lot of eye-catching forms, but this one takes the (rice) cake. The May 23rd fireworks shaped like paddy rice were honoring the agronomist dubbed “China’s Father of Hybrid Rice,” Yuan Longping. See other ways China reveres its rice HERE.
Skydiving salamanders pull off incredible aerial feats
Personally, I’ve seen salamanders in streams and under rocks. But apparently, there’s a species that prefers hanging out in trees. These “wandering salamanders” (Aneides vagrans) live in the canopies of Pacific Northwest old growth trees. It could take a while for a four-inch salamander to climb down 150 feet to the ground—which explains why they probably don’t.
A new study examines how wandering salamanders skydive from tree to tree, much like a flying squirrel or a gliding frog. Whether the salamanders fall from trees or intentionally take the plunge to get to a different tree is hard to say, but once they’re airborne they show some special skills.
Researchers filmed the salamanders in a vertical wind tunnel and witnessed them accomplishing banking turns, gliding, and aerial righting and parachuting. Given that non-arboreal salamanders without experience in trees just go splat under these conditions, the wandering salamanders have clearly adapted to life in the trees. Or perhaps as California natives they just like to surf.
Sea squirts hold the key to unlocking the genetic origins of human senses
Sea squirts (or tunicates) are little marine animals that you might overlook as they sit around sucking water on the underside of a dock or boat. Bloblike though they may be, tunicates are the closest relatives to animals with backbones, the vertebrates that include ourselves
Now, tunicates are central actors in new findings about how humans and other brains can interpret environmental information from sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Our big heads house thousands of sensory cells that perceive external stimuli and relay it on nerve networks called cranial sensory ganglia inside our skulls.
Although tunicates do not have heads, they have sensory neurons in their tails that process external stimuli. Says study lead researcher Rothbächer, "Tunicates are like an evolutionary prototype for vertebrates."
The study found that the same gene (Hmx) that controls the tunicate tail neurons also controls the vertebrate cranial sensory ganglia, showing that “Hmx was probably crucially involved in the formation of highly specialized head sensory organs in vertebrates.”
Competition may have killed off Earth’s first mysterious complex animals
The first animals on Earth started showing up about 575 – 550 million years ago — a variety of seafloor animals that didn’t move around much like Dickinsonia, which looked kind of like a sand dollar and left telltale creeping tracks; Cloudina, which anchored to the seafloor with tentacles pointed upwards; and Charnia that could easily be mistaken for leaves growing from the sand.
Then, 540 million years ago, most of them vanished in a mysterious extinction not associated with known drivers of other extinctions like asteroids, climate change, or volcanism. Now, a study shows that competition might have been to blame in the demise of the animal assemblage from this period called the Ediacaran.
Says lead author Emily Mitchell, “It is kind of an intrinsic, almost internal, extinction event …Things are going extinct, but it’s because they’re evolving and changing.”
The fossil research found that at first there was little competition, with each species occupying its own ecological space. But over time, organisms interacted more, and competition drive species to become specialized. The most recent group of Ediacaran fossils, just before the extinction event, shows the kind of competitive squeeze that could have edged out species that just couldn’t hold their own.
See what the Ediacaran community might have looked like HERE.
Humans need energy. Our desire to power our homes, cars, and electronics is not going away anytime soon. We are still more than 50% dependent on fossil fuels for electricity in the U.S., not to mention our automobiles, which has clearly got to change.
Burning the ancient organic debris of organisms that lived millions of years ago (there’s a reason they’re called fossil fuels) is blatantly unsustainable. Aside from the carbon emissions, there’s simply a supply chain issue since the coal and natural gas that we’re using this century took millions of years to form.
Lately, other ways of producing energy besides fossil fuels seem to be heating up. Solar energy has been around since humans first discovered they could light a fire using a reflective surface, but research has recently taken a leap forward in producing night solar.
Using a semiconductor sensor found in night vision goggles, researchers managed to capture photons of light in the infrared spectrum and turn them into electricity. This pioneering study is the first to use the “the net emission of light rather than absorption to generate power.” The implication is that we’ll one day be harnessing the energy that radiates back into space from Earth’s surface to create the electricity we crave.
We’re also getting more hip to how to use hydrogen as a clean fuel. Green hydrogen is looked at as a promising replacement for the high-carbon fossil fuels we continue to rely on. The “green” refers to the production of hydrogen with no carbon emissions and now, a new study shows how to use bacteria to generate storage and release of hydrogen.
In the proposed energy model, solar photovoltaics could power the hydrolysis of water during the day to yield hydrogen, which bacteria bind into formic acid, from which the hydrogen gets released again for energy.
While bacteria are managing hydrogen, the future of fusion reactors has never looked brighter. A new study shows that fusion reactors, through a retooling of a fundamental law, can produce way more energy than predicted. An international project called ITER has been working to replicate the way the Sun creates energy through nuclear fusion, only on Earth, inside fusion chambers called tokamaks.
Now, researchers find that the maximum hydrogen fuel density — the “Greenwalt Limit” — that you can put in a tokamak was estimated incorrectly several decades ago. In fact, you can pack twice the amount of hydrogen fuel in the tokamak, which means twice as much energy from fusion. Just don’t try fusion reactions in your 3D-printed tokamak.
Next time we’ll be looking taking a tour of robots that act like noodles, worms, and musicians.
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