Science Links of the Week

A passion for the natural world drives many of our adventures. And when we’re not actually outside, we love delving into the discoveries about the places where we live and travel. Here are some of the best natural history links we’ve found this week.

1,400 dolphins slaughtered in Faroe Islands: Grindadráp is an ancient tradition in the Faroe Islands. Hunters drive pilot whales and large dolphin species into the fiords so that they can’t escape, then slaughter them with lances. It is the only indigenous whaling practice that still occurs in Western Europe. This year, hunters slaughtered a super-pod of 1,428 white-sided dolphins, the largest single kill they’ve had since 1940. Environmentalists have long criticized this ritual, but the unnecessary size of the haul has brought criticism from the government, locals, and supporters. “It was a big mistake,” said Olavur Sjurdarberg, chairman of the Faroese Whalers Association.

Making a flight to Mars safer

Is it safe for humans to fly to Mars? A human mission to Mars should not exceed four years, scientists believe. A leading risk of such a long space journey is the particle radiation from the sun, stars, and galaxies. The spacecraft needs strong protection, and the journey should take place during the so-called solar maximum when the sun’s activity is at its peak. This enhanced activity deflects the most energetic particles from distant galaxies. A journey of over four years, even during the solar maximum, would expose astronauts to dangerously high levels of radiation.

The Red Planet. Photo: JPL-Caltech/NASA


A plan to bring back the Woolly Mammoth: If U.S. start-up Colossal Biosciences has its way, the woolly mammoth will again wander the Siberian tundra — sort of. It has proposed using CRISPR gene editing to modify the embryos of the mammoth’s closest living relative –- the Asian elephant –- to resemble those of woolly mammoths. If successful, this would create an elephant-mammoth hybrid, mammophants.

Asian elephants are the closest living relative of woolly mammoths. Photo: Shutterstock


Men sleep poorly when the moon is waxing

Lunar cycle affects men’s sleep more than women’s: Men sleep more briefly and poorly when the moon is waxing. This phase runs from the day after the new moon until the day of the full moon. By contrast, women seem to sleep the same in all phases of the moon. Studies suggest that the male brain responds more to ambient light than female brains. This could explain the difference. During the waxing phase, the moon’s illumination increases.

Modern snakes evolved from a few survivors of dino-killing asteroid: All living snakes evolved from a handful of species that survived the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Researchers consider this asteroid event a form of “creative destruction” that allowed snakes to thrive. Fossils and genetic analysis of different species pinpoint when modern snakes began to evolve. All living species trace back to those that survived the collision 66 million years ago. While many other species perished, the snake’s ability to endure long periods without food or underground shelter helped them survive.

Footprints of ancient elephant calves found in southern Spain. Photo:
C. Neto de Carvalho et al/Scientific Reports 2021


Fossil tracks reveal ancient elephant nursery: Storms in 2020 washed away the sand on a beach in southern Spain and revealed fossilized footprints. The prints included those of elephants, cattle, wolves, pigs, deer, and even Neanderthals. The elephant footprints date to 106,000 years ago. The tiny footprints, which belong to a now-extinct species called straight-tucked elephants, were just 9.6cm across. Researchers believe that the site may have been an elephant nursery.

Half of the planet’s coral reefs have disappeared: We now have half as many coral reefs as we did in the 1950s. A mix of climate change, overfishing, and pollution have destroyed these vibrant underwater ecosystems. Scientists knew that coral reefs were in trouble but they hadn’t realized just how much.