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.

The secrets of the giant armadillo: The giant armadillo is poorly understood and rarely seen. Arnaud Desbiez dreamt of seeing this mysterious animal. He set up camera traps, and after months of waiting, he got his first photo. “That picture completely changed my life,” he said.

Desbiez then founded the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project. He and his team study three areas across Brazil: the Pantanal, the Cerrado, and the Atlantic Forest. Their research has cleared up multiple misconceptions about the species.

We initially believed that mothers typically had two pups per pregnancy and that they stayed with her for six months. Giant armadillos actually only have one and it stays with the mother for four years. The species reaches sexual maturity between seven and nine years old.

Despite years of study, Desbiez and his group have only found one viable population of giant armadillos.

Lingering chemicals almost everywhere

‘Forever chemicals’ found in animals on every continent except one: Scientists have found animals containing hazardous ‘forever chemicals’ on every continent except Antarctica. The chemicals, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are water, heat, and stain resistant. We use them in everything from food packaging to clothing.

However, these chemicals don’t break down in the environment. Researchers looked at 125 studies testing PFAS contamination in mammals, birds, and fish from the last five years. Every study found the chemicals.

“This is really a global contamination issue, and it’s likely impacting wildlife everywhere,” scientist David Andrews explained.

Researchers are trying to work out their impact on wildlife. In humans, scientists have linked them to cancer, thyroid diseases, fertility issues, liver damage, high cholesterol, and reduced immune response.

The two brothers’ remains. Photo: Kalisher et al., 2023, PLOS One


A too-delicate operation

Brain surgery carried out 3,500 years ago: Scientists excavating a 3,500-year-old tomb in Israel have found a skull has a square hole in it. Part of the cranium had been deliberately removed.

The skull comes from one of two Bronze Age brothers who were buried together in an elite area of Tel Megiddo. Both skeletons show signs of chronic disease. Their bones have infectious lesions and one had skull bones that had not fused properly as a child.

Only one of them went through trepanation, which involves someone drilling or cutting a hole into the skull. Trepanation happened in several ancient civilizations but was rare in the Middle East.

The high social status of the brothers could be why one of them had surgery. Researchers suggest that after the first brother died, his sibling had surgery in an attempt to prolong his life. However, it was not a success. The area of the brain where the hole was made is particularly delicate to operate on, even today.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they got into it and had bleeding that they couldn’t control,” neurosurgeon Emanuela Binello said.

The winning photo. A pink river dolphin pokes its nose above the waters of the Amazon River in Brazil. Photo: Kat Zhou/UPY 2023


Top underwater photos

Underwater Photographer of the Year: The Underwater Photographer of the Year Award has been running since 1965. Renowned underwater photographers Alex Mustard, Peter Rowlands, and Tobias Freidrich judged 13 different categories.

This year’s winner was Kat Shou’s image of an endangered pink river dolphin breaking the surface of the water with its narrow beak.

“In dark, tannic waters, Kat has created a striking composition capturing this rarely photographed and endangered species in a precision composition. This is by far the best image we’ve ever seen of this species,” Mustard said.

Science Focus has gathered its favorite images from this year’s competition. Photographers submit macro, wide angle, behavior, and wreck images, as well as special categories for photos taken in British waters.

Searching for life on Mars

Perseverance Rover explores Martian crater: The nuclear-powered Perseverance Rover, nicknamed Percy, has explored the Jezero Crater on Mars for two years. It collects samples and is searching for, among other things, microbial life.

The data from Mars is very much a numbers game. “We deal with a lot of numbers. We collect them, evaluate them, compare them, and more times than we want to admit, bore our loved ones with them during a family dinner,” deputy project manager Steve Lee explained.

To name a few data points, the little rover has driven 14.97km, collected 166,000 images, taken 662 audio recordings, and collected 15,769.1 hours of weather data.

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.