November 10, 2012 - Whale Lost and Found * Elephant Talk * Super Supernova * Mayans Dry Decline * The Ocean of Life

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The oceans are unimaginably huge, so it's disturbing to realize how much human activity - pollution and over-exploitation - has changed them. The result is that we're getting less from the oceans than we could, according to a new book, and the solution is to fish less to catch more. Plus, we'll hear about the amazing Korean elephant that can imitate human speech; we'll learn about some super-luminous supernovae that may be the oldest ever seen. And we'll find out how climate change might have led to the demise of the great Mayan civilization But first - a whale of a tale.

 

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Whale Lost and Found
spade_toothed_whale.jpgSpade-toothed beaked whale beached in New Zealand.  New Zealand Dept of Conservation 

Until recently, everything that was known about the spade-toothed beaked whale was based on three partial skulls, gathered over a 140-year period.  Skeletal evidence of the 'world's rarest whale' had first been found in New Zealand in 1872, and the most recent find was washed up on a Chilean island 26 years ago.  Many believed that the whale may have disappeared completely.  But in 2010, a 5-and-1/2 metre-long female and a 3-and-1/2 metre-long calf stranded and later died on a beach in New Zealand.  It provided the first-ever look at the complete whale.  A new study by scientists, including Dr. Scott Baker, professor and associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, and adjunct professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand,  determined that there was enough DNA evidence to link the previous three scattered remains to the intact pair identified recently.  Scientists believe the spade-toothed beaked whale's preference for the deep waters of the South Pacific account for it rarely being seen.
          
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Elephant Talk

It is well known that elephants use a complex communication system to 'talk' to each other in characteristic low-pitch rumbles.  But it was not known - until an elephant named Koshik, living in a South Korean zoo, was studied - that they were capable of imitating human speech.  Dr. Angela Stoeger, from the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, recently studied Koshik and confirmed that this Asian elephant can imitate five different words in Korean.  It is believed that Koshik learned to do this as a result of being raised with humans as his only social contacts.  Koshik is able to match both the pitch and timber of human speech, by placing his trunk inside his mouth and altering the sound originating in the larynx.

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Super Supernova

Super-luminous-supernovae.jpgCourtesy Marie Martig and Adrian Malec, Swinburne University
Supernovae are the spectacular explosions of massive stars at the end of their lives.  The explosions are so bright and powerful that for a time, a single star can outshine an entire galaxy.  Now, astronomers have spotted two extremely distant, extremely old super-luminous supernovae that are up to 100 times brighter than any stellar explosions that happen in the universe around us.  These supernovae occur in stars that are up to five times bigger than stars can become today -- stars that can only form in the conditions of the early universe, only a billion or two years after the Big Bang.  Dr. Raymond Carlberg, an astronomer at the University of Toronto, was part of the team that detected these early supernovae.    

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Mayan Dry Decline

Mayan-Palenque.jpg Mayan temple in the ancient city of Palanque, courtesy P Anderson
At the peak of the Mayan civilization, between 300CE and 1000CE , millions of people lived in large cities that developed around central America.  Arts, culture and science all thrived, and the Maya might just have been the most advanced culture on the planet.  So, what caused Mayan culture to develop and then decline?  Well, probably a lot of things, but new work by Dr. Douglas Kennett, a Professor of Environmental Anthropology at  Penn State University and his colleagues, has shown that it all happened in the context of a changing climate.  They've found that the rise of the Mayan civilization corresponded to a long and productive wet period in Central America, while its decline was accompanied by a centuries-long drying trend, which would have gradually reduced the agricultural productivity of the region.
 

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The Ocean of Life

TheOceanofLife.jpg
It's hard to comprehend the size and richness of the world's oceans.  It's even harder to comprehend how human-caused pollution, environmental degradation and overexploitation have managed to compromise that richness.  Around the world, the oceans are changing.  We've transformed ecosystems by overharvesting, and we've transformed the actual sea-bed with destructive fishing methods.  In his new book, The Ocean of Life - The Fate of Man and the Sea, Dr. Callum Roberts catalogues the impact humans have had on ocean ecosystems.  He covers issues from climate change to noise pollution to plastic contamination to overfishing.  But Dr. Roberts, a marine conservation biologist at the University of York in England, is an optimist.  So, he also explores the ways we might help the oceans recover and rebuild our fisheries - partly by fishing less to catch more.
   
 

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0