April 25, 2013
Penguins seem a bit out of place on land, with their stand-out black jackets and clumsy waddling. But once you see their grace in the water, you know that’s where they’re meant to be–they are well-adapted to life in the ocean.
1. Depending on which scientist you ask, there are 17–20 species of penguins alive today, all of which live in the southern half of the globe. The most northerly penguins are Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus), which occasionally poke their heads north of the equator.
2. While they can’t fly through the air with their flippers, many penguin species take to the air when they leap from the water onto the ice. Just before taking flight, they release air bubbles from their feathers. This cuts the drag on their bodies, allowing them to double or triple their swimming speed quickly and launch into the air.
4. Penguins don’t wear tuxedos to make a fashion statement: it helps them be camouflaged while swimming. From above, their black backs blend into the dark ocean water and, from below, their white bellies match the bright surface lit by sunlight. This helps them avoid predators, such as leopard seals, and hunt for fish unseen.
5. The earliest known penguin fossil was found in 61.6 million-year old Antarctic rock, about 4-5 million years after the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs. Waimanu manneringi stood upright and waddled like modern day penguins, but was likely more awkward in the water. Some fossil penguins were much larger than any penguin living today, reaching 4.5 feet tall!
6. Like other birds, penguins don’t have teeth. Instead, they have backward-facing fleshy spines that line the inside of their mouths. These help them guide their fishy meals down their throat.
7. Penguins are carnivores: they feed on fish, squid, crabs, krill and other seafood they catch while swimming. During the summer, an active, medium-sized penguin will eat about 2 pounds of food each day, but in the winter they’ll eat just a third of that.
8. Eating so much seafood means drinking a lot of saltwater, but penguins have a way to remove it. The supraorbital gland, located just above their eye, filters salt from their bloodstream, which is then excreted through the bill—or by sneezing! But this doesn’t mean they chug seawater to quench their thirst: penguins drink meltwater from pools and streams and eat snow for their hydration fix.
9. Another adaptive gland—the oil (also called preen) gland—produces waterproofing oil. Penguins spread this across their feathers to insulate their bodies and reduce friction when they glide through the water.
10. Once a year, penguins experience a catastrophic molt. (Yes, that’s the official term.) Most birds molt (lose feathers and regrow them) a few at a time throughout the year, but penguins lose them all at once. They can’t swim and fish without feathers, so they fatten themselves up beforehand to survive the 2–3 weeks it takes to replace them.
11. Feathers are quite important to penguins living around Antarctica during the winter. Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) have the highest feather density of any bird, at 100 feathers per square inch. In fact, the surface feathers can get even colder than the surrounding air, helping to keep the penguin’s body stays warm.
12. All but two penguin species breed in large colonies for protection, ranging from 200 to hundreds of thousands of birds. (There’s safety in numbers!) But living in such tight living quarters leads to an abundance of penguin poop—so much that it stains the ice! The upside is that scientists can locate colonies from space just by looking for dark ice patches.
13. Climate change will likely affect different penguin species differently—but in the Antarctic, it appears that the loss of krill, a primary food source, is the main problem. In some areas with sea ice melt, krill density has decreased 80 percent since the 1970s, indirectly harming penguin populations. However, some colonies of Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) have grown as the melting ice exposes more rocky nesting areas.
14. Of the 17 penguin species, the most endangered is New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes): only around 4,000 birds survive in the wild today. But other species are in trouble, including the erect-crested penguin (Eudyptes sclateri) of New Zealand, which has lost approximately 70 percent of its population over the past 20 years, and the Galapagos penguin, which has lost more than 50 percent since the 1970s.
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
April 9, 2013
Ever since the collective “YOU” became Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006, campaigns to get our attention have increasingly sought out our digital selves. You can name a Budweiser Clydesdale. You can pick Lays’ new potato chip flavor. And it’s not just retail that wants your online opinions: You can vote for who will win photography contests. You can play the futures market on who will win elected offices. And with enough signatures, you can get the White House to read your petitions.
Many science endeavors rely on such crowdsourcing. With a simple app, you can let researchers know the exact date that your lilacs or dogwoods bloom, helping them to track how seasonal cycles are shifting as a result of climate change. You can join the search for ever-larger prime numbers. You can even help scientists scan radio waves in space to search for intelligent life outside of Earth. These more traditional crowdsourcing efforts allow users to brainstorm ideas and process data from computers at home.
But now, a few projects are allowing us to put our virtual selves beyond Earth’s atmosphere through recently launched space missions. Who said that rovers, space probes, a handful of astronauts and pigs were the only ones in space? No longer are we just bystanders watching spacecraft launch and cooing over images returned of other planets and stars. Now, we can direct cameras, help run experiments, even send our avatars–of sorts–to inhabit nearby planetary bodies or return to us in a time capsule.
Here are a few examples:
Asteroid Chimney Rock: On April 10 (tomorrow), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will open up a campaign that allows visitors to their site the opportunity of sending their names and brief messages to the near-Earth asteroid (162173) 1999 JU3. Called the “Let’s meet with Le Petit Prince! Million Campaign 2,” the effort aims to get people’s names onto the Hayabusa2 mission, which will likely launch in 2014 to study the asteroid. When Hayabusa 2 lands on the asteroid, the names submitted–embedded in a plaque of sorts on the spacecraft–will stand as a testament to the idea that humans (or at least their robotic representatives) were there.
The campaign is reminiscent of how NASA got more than 1.2 million people to submit their names and signatures, which were then etched on two dime-sized microchips and affixed to the Mars Curiosity rover. Sure, it’s a bit gimmicky–what useful function is brought by having people’s names out in space? But the idea of “tagging” a planet or an asteroid–preserving a bit of yourself on what will over decades become space junk–has powerful pull. It is why Chimney Rock, with its etchings from early explorers and pioneers, is the historical marker it is today, and why gladiators scored their names into the Colosseum before they fought to the death. For mission leaders hoping to get the public enthusiastic about space, nothing’s more exciting than a bit of digital graffiti.
Interplanetary time capsules: A key goal of Hayabusa2 is to return return a sample from the asteroid in 2020. Mission creators saw this as a perfect way to get the public to fill a time capsule. Those seeking to participate are encouraged to send to mission coordinators their thoughts and dreams for the future along with their hopes and expectations for recovery from natural disasters, the latter likely a way to get people to express their feelings on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s east coast. Names, messages, and illustrations will loaded onto a microchip that will not only touch down on the asteroid’s surface, but will also be a part of the probe sent back to Earth with asteroid dust.
But why stop at a mere 6-year time capsule? The European Space Agency, UNESCO, and other partners are blending crowd sourcing with space technology to create the KEO mission–so named because the letters represent common sounds across all of Earth’s languages–which will bundle thoughts and images of anyone who seeks to participate and will launch this bundle in a probe that will only return to Earth in 50,000 years.
Project operators write on KEO’s website: “Each one of us have 4 uncensored pages at our disposal: an identical space of equality and freedom of expression where we can voice our aspirations and our revolts, where we can reveal our deepest fears and our strongest beliefs, where we can relate our lives to our faraway great grandchildren, thus allowing them to witness our times.” That’s 4 pages for every person who chooses to participate.
On board will be photographs detailing Earth’s cultural richness, human blood encased in a diamond, and a durable DVD of humanity’s crowdsourced thoughts. The idea is to launch the time capsule from an Ariane 5 rocket into an orbit more than 2,000 kilometers above Earth, hopefully sometime in 2014. “50,000 years ago, Man created art thus showing his capacity for symbolic abstraction.” the website notes. And in another 50,000 years, “Will Earth still give life? Will human beings still be recognizable as such?”Another logical question: Will whatever’s left on Earth know what’s coming back to them and will be able to retrieve it?
Hayabusa2 and KEO will join capsules already launched into space on Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2. But the contents of these earlier capsules were picked by a handful of people; here, we get to choose what represents us in space, and will get to reflect (in theory) on the thoughts bound in time upon their return.
You, the mission controller and scientist: Short of going to Mars yourself, you can do the next best thing–tell an instrument currently observing Mars where to look. On NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a camera designed to image Mars in great detail. Dubbed “the people’s camera,” HiRISE allows you–yes, you!– to pick its next targets by filling out a form specifying your “HiWishes.”
A recently launched nanosatellite is allowing the crowdsourced winners of a crowdsourced screaming contest the chance to test whether screams can be heard in space. Launched in February, the nanosatellite’s smartphone-powered brain will broadcast the screams–no word yet on results. But you may find just listening to the yelling therapeutic! This guy’s roar got the most votes:
February 26, 2013
Picture a telescope orbiting in space, and your mind probably flies to the Hubble Space Telescope. At roughly 43 feet long and weighing 25,000 pounds, its footprint is the size of a small house and it’s just a little shy of the weight of a subway car. But not all satellite telescopes are behemoths–one launched yesterday from India, designed and developed by the Space Flight Laboratory of the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, is roughly the size of a cooler you’d bring to a picnic.
The telescope is part of the Bright Target Explorer (BRITE) mission, an effort designed to observe stars and record changes in their brightness over time. Launched into orbit above the masking effects of our atmosphere, the telescope and its simultaneously launched twin will focus on the brightest stars–such as those in well-known constellations like Orion and the Big Dipper–looking for pulsations and reverberations in brightness that indicate spots on a star, a planet or another celestial object crossing its orbit, or flickering energy intensities within the star itself. These flickers, called “starquakes,” give clues to the composition and internal structure of stars.
BRITE ‘s telescopes are nanosatellites, meaning that they weigh less than ten kilograms. At seven kilograms–about as heavy as a large bowling ball–and measuring 20 centimeters on each side, they are the smallest telescopes in orbit. The cubic satellites did not require a dedicated rocket to get there–these hitched a ride on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Future launches of similar twin nanosatellites will help BRITE to become a satellite constellation that scans the sky for different wavelengths of light pulsing from stars.
Nanosatellites, part of a recent trend to conduct space-based science at low cost and with fast results, “can be developed quickly, by a small team and at a cost that is within reach of many universities, small companies and other organizations,” said Cordell Grant, manager of satellite systems for the Space Flight Laboratory, in a statement. “A nano-satellite can take anywhere from six months to a few years to develop and test,” he added. In contrast, Hubble took more than 12 years to design and construct before it launched with space shuttle Discovery in 1990.
But nanosatellites aren’t the only kind of small satellites out there. Here are some other tiny orbiters:
First launched on the last flight of Endeavour, sprites–also called femtosatellites–look about the size of a postage stamp. Developed by Cornell University scientists, these satellites are in interplanetary space collecting data about chemistry, radiation and particle impacts. Lead engineer Mason Peck, now a chief technologist at NASA, told the Cornell University Chronicle that “Their small size allows them to travel like space dust.” He added, “Blown by solar winds, they can ‘sail’ to distant locations without fuel.”
The grapefruit-sized CubeSat, a type of picosatellite, measures 10 centimeters on each side. “I got a 4-inch beanie baby box and tacked on some solar cells to see how many would fit on the surface,” Bob Twiggs, the satellite’s lead designer, told Space.com. “I had enough voltage for what I needed so I decided that would be the size.” Developed in 1999 with the help of Jordi Puig-Suari of California Polytechnic State University, along with students at Stanford University while Twigg was a professor there, CubeSats are now the go-to small satellite. They appeal to universities–at roughly $65,ooo to $80,000 a pop, they can fit within research budgets, allowing students the opportunity to design and build a research satellite.
Some, like GeneSat-1 provides life support for bacterium and are aimed at helping scientists learn more about how spaceflight affects the human body. Another–SwissCube-1–examines nightglow in Earth’s atmosphere. Launched alongside BRITE, the STRaND-1–a string of 3 CubeSats stacked together–is the first smartphone-powered satellite ever launched into space. The Android phone that serves as the device’s brain will run apps that will photograph its orbit, monitor the Earth’s magnetic field, and–perhaps most exciting–will allow people to upload videos of themselves screaming to test whether sounds broadcasted in space can be heard by the satellite playing them. Other CubeSats in development will assist researchers understand space weather, phenomena that could short out the other satellites that orbit Earth.
It’s interesting to remember that the first satellite–Sputnik-1, launched in 1957–was a 23-inch diameter sphere. These nano-, pico-, and femto-satellites harken back to those roots. But their size, cost, and ability to be developed quickly may make them the most useful satellites of the future. Hopefully they won’t lead to oodles more space junk!
February 4, 2013
When encountering a two-inch American cockroach, most people quickly skedaddle the other way or raise a foot to stomp the little creeper out of existence. For those curious few who stick around to quietly observe the roach, however, the insect will inevitably fall into a certain diligent, repetitive motion. First, it reaches its spiny little roach feet up towards its head, then grips the base of one of its antennae and finally, as if it were spinning yarn at triple speed, threads the length of its antennae through its furiously working mouthparts.
Insects such as cockroaches, house flies and carpenter ants often engage in such antennae-grooming behavior. Like many animals, scientists know that insects frequently clean themselves, but few researchers have investigated just why bugs bother. Antennae serve not only to feel out the environment but also to sense odors, so researchers have long suspected that grooming keeps the antennae in top shape. But what, specifically, are they scrubbing from their bodies? Do roaches self-clean to remove bacteria or bits of gunk from their last meal?
To figure out just why roaches groom, lead author Katalin Böröczky and colleagues from North Carolina State University along with researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences observed antennae-cleaning behaviors in a couple dozen adult male American cockroaches, describing their experiment today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers used an array of methods to restrain the roaches from self-grooming so that they could compare groomed and ungroomed antennae. In some cases, the scientists used a small plastic clip to tether one antenna at the base of the roaches’ heads. The frustrated insects repeatedly attempted to grab hold of their lassoed antenna but could not get a grip on it in order to clean it. Some roaches also had their mouthparts glued together while others were kept in a box too small to allow for self-grooming.
Here, you can see one of the roaches stymied by the plastic antennae blockers:
Over a period of 24 hours, the tethered antenna began to appear shinier than the other non-tethered one. Examining the shiny antenna with a scanning electron microscope revealed an unidentified substance blocking the roaches’ sensory pores and coating their antennae. The unclean antennae built up three to four times more of the stuff than the clean ones over the day.
To figure out what the unknown build-up was, the researchers took samples of it and analyzed it with gas chromatography, a technique that separates different components of a chemical compound. They found that the natural secretions that the cockroach gives off accounted for most of the substance–mostly fatty molecules that help regulate water loss in insects. Despite the seemingly sterile environment, other external contaminants were stuck on the antennae as well, including stearic acid from surfaces in the roaches’ container and geranyl acetate from the air.
The researchers guessed that this build up might impair the roaches’ ability to sniff out olfactory signals with their antennae. To test this hypothesis, they exposed roaches with groomed and ungroomed antennae to sex pheromones and other odors. Just as they suspected, roaches with clean antennae were more receptive to the odors around them than those with unclean ones. “We conclude that the disruption of grooming interferes with general olfaction,” the authors write in their paper.
Finally, to see if these findings extended to other insects, the researchers repeated their experiment in flies, ants and German cockroaches, all of which exhibited the same build up and loss of antennae function when prevented from self-grooming. They conclude that “our observations with four phylogenetically diverse species indicate that this hitherto unknown role for grooming is common to a wide diversity of insects.”
Just as humans scrub off to remove dead skin cells, sweat and dirt from the day, insects busy themselves to keep clean. While we may share this commonality with earth’s most abundant group of species, however, it may not be quite enough to inspire empathy for the next cockroach that finds its way into a closet or kitchen drawer.
January 31, 2013
You may have never seen a zebrafish in person. But take a look at the zebrafish in the short video above and you’ll get to see something previously unknown to science: a visual representation of a thought moving through a living creature’s brain.
A group of scientists from Japan’s National Institute of Genetics announced the mind-boggling achievement in a paper published today in Current Biology. By inserting a gene into a zebrafish larvae—often used in research because its entire body is transparent—and using probe that detects florescence, they were able to capture the fish’s mental reaction to a swimming paramecium in real time.
The key to the technology is a special gene known as GCaMP that reacts to the presence of calcium ions by increasing in florescence. Since neuron activity in the brain involves rapid increases in concentrations of calcium ions, insertion of the gene causes the particular areas in a zebrafish’s brain that are activated to glow brightly. By using a probe sensitive to florescence, the scientists were able to monitor the locations of the fish’s brain that were activated ay any given moment—and thus, capture the fish’s thought as it “swam” around the brain.
The particular thought captured in the video above occurred after a paramecium (a single-celled organism that the fish considers a food source) was released into the fish’s environment. The scientists know that the thought is the fish’s direct response to the moving paramecium because, as an initial part of the experiment, they identified the particular neurons in the fish’s brain that respond to movement and direction.
They mapped out the individual neurons responsible for this task by inducing the fish to visually follow a dot move across a screen and tracking which neurons were activated. Later, when they did the same for the fish as it watched the swimming paramecium, the same areas of the brain lit up, and the activity moved across these areas in the same way predicted by the mental maps as a result of the paramecium’s directional movement. For example, when the paramecium moved from right to left, the neuron activity moved from left to right, because of the way the brain’s visual map is reversed when compared to the field of vision.
This isn’t the first time that GCaMP has been inserted into a zebrafish for imaging purposes, but it is the first time that the images have been captured as a real-time video, rather than a static image after the fact. The researchers accomplished this by developing an improved version of GCaMP that is more sensitive to changes in calcium ion concentration and gives off greater levels of florescence.
The accomplishment is obviously a marvel in itself, but the scientists involved see it leading to a range of practical applications. If, for example, scientists had the ability to quickly map the parts of the brain affected by a chemical under consideration as a drug, new and effective psychiatric medications could be more easily developed.
They also envision it opening the door to a variety of even more amazing—and perhaps a bit troubling (who, after all, really wants their mind read?)—thought-detecting applications. “In the future, we can interpret an animal’s behavior, including learning and memory, fear, joy, or anger, based on the activity of particular combinations of neurons,” said Koichi Kawakami, one of the paper’s co-authors.
It’s clearly some time away, but this research shows that the concept of reading an animal’s thoughts by analyzing its mental activity might move beyond science fiction to enter the realm of real world science applications.