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.

Tonga volcano eruption was a once-in-a-million event: The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano on January 15 caused a volcanic ash plume, an atmospheric shock wave, and a series of tsunamis. Events like this tend to happen every decade, but for the volcano in Tonga, this was a once-in-a-millennium event. The eruption threw rocks, water, and magma 30km into the atmosphere. The clouds that formed were 350km wide and visible from space. It caused supersonic pressure pulses to travel over 2,000km to New Zealand, and even people in the UK felt them. Scientists think that either this or cataclysmic changes to the structure of the volcano caused the giant waves. Usually, tsunamis come from earthquakes, not volcanoes.

The ‘oral plug’ of baleen whales

How baleen whales feed without choking: Baleen whales feed by lunging through the water with their mouths wide open. But how do they manage to do this without choking or drowning? This has long confused scientists since the whales must withstand huge pressure from the water careering toward their throats. It turns out that these whales have a plug made of muscle and fat at the back of their mouths. This acts as a kind of trap door between the whales’ mouths and the pharynx. It physically keeps water from pouring into the whales’ lungs and stomachs as they move forward. “The discovery of the ‘oral plug’ answers a long-standing question about how whales can simultaneously protect their respiratory tract while opening their mouths wide to engulf prey-laden water,” says researcher Sarah Fortune.

Curiosity Rover. Photo: NASA


Signs of ancient life on Mars: NASA’s Curiosity Rover has found organic compounds that could signify ancient life on Mars. The rover collected several powdered rock samples with carbon-rich organic material. The type of carbon found is associated with life on Earth. Samples with this carbon-12 material came from five different sites across the Gale Crater. Carbon-12 often signifies biotic chemistry because organisms on Earth use it in many metabolic processes. Scientists do not yet have enough evidence to confirm that they identified past life and are currently exploring other possible explanations for the carbon signature.

Badger as archaeologist

European badger. Photo: Shutterstock


Badger unearths ancient Roman coins: A hungry badger has unearthed hundreds of Roman coins in a Spanish cave. Archaeologists discovered the find at the entrance to the cave and believe that the badger may have stumbled across them when looking for food. The cave yielded 209 coins that date between the third and fifth centuries. This is the largest treasure trove of Roman coins found in northern Spain, say archaeologists. They are seeking to establish whether this was a one-off hiding place or a dwelling for displaced Romans.

Beached Whales visible from space: As satellite technology improves, it has become possible to see beached whales from space. Previously, they showed up as unidentifiable grey blobs, but scientists can now identify the washed-up mammals. Historically, beached whales have only been accidental finds, and they are usually too decomposed to allow scientists to understand what happened to them.

Satellite resolution is now good enough to identify beached whales. Photo: Shutterstock


Outer space anaemia

Anaemia during long-duration space flights: Every second, the human body destroys and creates around two million red blood cells. Scientists have discovered that astronauts on the space station destroy 54% more — three million red blood cells a second. Since the first space missions, astronauts have returned to Earth with anaemia. Previously, researchers believed that space anaemia was an adaptation to fluids shifting into the astronaut’s upper body while in space. Space anaemia can have severe consequences for astronauts. “When landing on Earth and potentially on other planets or moons, anaemia affects your energy, endurance, and strength,” said Guy Trudel of the University of Ottawa. After three months back on Earth, red blood cells return to their normal levels.

Green lights reduce bycatch: Attaching green LED lights to fishing nets significantly reduces the number of accidental species caught in the nets. Fishermen often use gill nets, which drift for days at a time, catching anything in their path. The nets often catch non-target species. This by-catch has caused the number of dolphins, sea turtles, and sharks to decline. But lights on the nets decrease this by-catch by 63% overall. Specifically, 51% fewer turtles, 81% fewer squid, and 95% fewer sharks turn up in the nets. Yet the little lights did not impact the number of target fish caught. Scientists are trying to decipher why some species are more receptive to light than others.