Science Links of the Week

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

Mars Rover digs up clues: A NASA rover is digging up samples of rock and dirt from Mars. The rocks contain organic molecules that are crucial for life.

When the rover returns to Earth, scientists will analyze the samples for evidence of life on the red planet. One study suggests that the rocks were exposed to water at three different periods.

“Crucially, conditions in the rock during each time that water migrated through it could have supported small communities of microorganisms,” geologist Micheal Tice explained.

Ancient diplomacy

Spider monkey remains tell a story of ancient diplomacy: Researchers have found a 1,700-year-old spider monkey in the ancient city of Teotihuacan, near modern-day Mexico City.

The monkey is both the earliest known primate in captivity and the first monkey sacrifice. The area around Mexico City is a long way from the spider monkey’s natural habitat and it was found alongside Mayan images and objects. Researchers believe that the monkey was a gift from elite Mayans to the Teotihuacans.

This could be an example of diplomatic relations between the two cultures. It shows that they had a relationship before the Teothihucans invaded Mayan cities in 378.

“The war of 378 had a long history leading up to it,” said archeologist David Stuart. “The monkey is a compelling illustration of this relationship.

Gray Wolf pack looking out over a forest.

Gray wolves. Photo: Shutterstock


A sometimes helpful parasite

A parasite makes wolves more likely to be pack leaders: Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that can infect the brains of animals and affect the behavior of the host.

The parasite can eventually kill the host, but scientists have also discovered one way that the parasite is beneficial. They affect the behavior of wolves in a way that it makes the wolf more likely to become a pack leader. It makes the wolves bolder and therefore leads to more opportunities to reproduce.

In other animals, the increased boldness works against them. Within rats, increased confidence can manifest as a lack of fear, which is not ideal for a prey species. The parasite increases the chance the rat will be eaten by cats.

“These parasites are using some generic mind control or personality control that helps them fulfill their life cycle,” biologist Jaap de Roode suggests.

Chimpanzees with the parasite no longer see leopard urine as a marker of nearby danger, and hyena cubs are more likely to venture close to lion territory. When researchers started to analyze the parasite in wolves, they expected similar results. It is the first time they have found that T.gondii can make its host more successful. 

The Palaeolithic diet

Neanderthals were foodies: Most people picture Neanderthals as surviving on berries and raw meat, but remains from the world’s oldest cooked meal have turned up in Iran. It is the first evidence of cooking among Neanderthals.

Archaeologists found the burned food remains in a cave in the Zagreb Mountains. They are 70,000 years old. The team found more ancient charred food in a cave in southern Greece. That meal dates back 12,000 years.

The new evidence suggests Palaeolithic diets were complex and required multiple steps of food preparation. Both groups soaked and pounded pulse seeds and used mixtures of seeds to create certain flavors. A group of researchers tried to replicate one of the recipes using seeds from nearby caves.

“It made a sort of pancake/flatbread which was really very palatable –- a sort of nutty taste,” paleontologist Chris Hunt said. 

Neanderthal Homo adult male, based on 40000 year-old remains. Wax work from the National History Museum

Neanderthal adult male, based on 40,000-year-old remains. A waxwork from the National History Museum. Photo: Shutterstock


Marine life hasn’t recovered from heat blob: From 2014 to 2016, a patch of abnormally warm water made its way across the Pacific Ocean. The environmental blip caused significant shifts in marine ecosystems.

The blob particularly affected sessile species — those that are stuck in one place, such as sea anemones. Unable to seek cooler waters, these species felt the full force of the warming. Six years later, some areas have still not recovered. Populations of sessile invertebrates such as anemones and tube worms dropped by 71% when the warm water impacted their main food source, phytoplankton.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.