The Oldest Dinosaur * Blue Whales Perform Underwater Acrobatics * Nanotech Steam Generator * Insect Jumps on Water * Katydid's Human-like Ears * Forsaking Sex and Stealing DNA

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Today on the show, it's a collection of the unlikely, the improbable and the probably should be impossible.  To begin with, how about producing steam without boiling water. Or perhaps an insect that can not just walk, but jump on water; and another insect that has human-like ears on its legs.  We also have the world's largest animal performing underwater acrobatics, and an animal that has survived 80 million years without sex.  But first - going back to the dawn of the dinosaurs.

 


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Nyasasaurus, The Oldest Dinosaur

Nyasasaurus.jpgArtist's rendering of Nyasasaurus.   Natural History Museum, London, Mark Witton
Until recently, the earliest evidence of a dinosaur in the fossil record is 230 million years ago, in the Triassic period.  That date has now been pushed back 10 to 15 million years, by the new holder of the title, Nyasasaurus.  Fossils of Nyasasaurus were found in Tanzania decades ago, but given a second look two years ago by researchers, including Sarah Werning, a PhD student at the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley.  The new study revealed evidence of a dinosaur - or at least a very close relative - 2 to 3 metres long, including a long tail and long neck.  Nyasasaurus supports the idea that dinosaurs first evolved in the southern part of the massive continent known as Pangea, then spread to other parts of the Earth from there.
          
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Blue Whales Perform Underwater Acrobatics

Blue_Whale.jpg Blue Whale, the world's largest acrobat
Blue whales are the world's largest predators, weighing in at upwards of 200 tonnes.  Because they feed almost exclusively on small crustaceans, called krill, they need to take in an enormous amount in order to meet their energetic needs.  A new study by Dr. Jeremy Goldbogen, a Comparative Physiologist with the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, has found that blue whales are capable of surprising underwater feeding acrobatics for such a large animals.  In order to orient their jaw and mouth to arrive underneath a krill patch, they manoeuvre their body 180 degrees. This enables the whale to take in as big a mouthful as possible before the krill scatter.  After engulfing the krill, blue whales complete the 360-degree roll.  Scientists were also surprised to learn that the entire 'ambush' takes as little as 30 seconds.

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Nanotech Steam Generator

Steam power is cool, all of a sudden - in more ways than one.  Dr. Naomi Halas, a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and her team have developed a new way to generate steam, without boiling large amounts of water.  They suspend nanoparticles of light-absorbing material in water, and shine focused sunlight on them.  The tiny particles heat up quickly, and vaporize the water close to them, creating a bubble of steam that then rises to the top of the vessel, and can be captured to do useful things.  These might include generating power, sterilizing waste, or any of the large number of things steam is useful for.      

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Insect Jumps on Water

Walking on water is difficult.  Jumping on water should be impossible.  But Professor Malcolm Burrows, from the Zoology Department at the University of Cambridge, has found an insect that can jump on water, and he's figured out how it does it.  The Pygmy Mole Cricket lives in burrows next to ponds and streams, and sometimes finds itself in the water.  In order to return to dry land, it kicks its legs, which have oar-like flaps that flare outwards, increasing the surface area of the leg, and propelling the insect out of the water with an audible pop.  The jumps can cover up to twenty times the insect's body length, but it often takes several water jumps for the insect to reach dry land.


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Katydid's Human-like Ears

katydid_ear.jpgSouth American Bush Cricket, courtesy Science
Mammalian hearing, we thought, was tops in the animal kingdom.  The complex three-part ears we humans share with other furry creatures are sensitive to wide ranges of volume and frequency.  But a team, including Dr. Daniel Robert, from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol in England, has found that the ears of a katydid species, called the South American Bush Cricket, are remarkably like ours - sharing the three-part structure.  These insects have evolved a parallel system that, in some ways, is superior to mammalian hearing.  They can discriminate very high frequencies, and they're miniaturized - fitting on the front legs of the katydid.

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Forsaking Sex and Stealing DNA

Bdelloid_Rotifer.jpgBdelloid Rotifer, courtesy B. Blaylock
Sex is the way most organisms solve the problem of mixing DNA to speed adaptation.  By reproducing in a way that exchanges and mixes genes with others of your species, you give your offspring the opportunity to evolve.  Bdelloid rotifers, tiny simple animals, however, abandoned sex millions of years ago - they reproduce clonally.  Biologists consider this an evolutionary mistake that should predispose the animal to extinction.  However, Dr. Alan Tunnacliffe, a professor of Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues have found the rotifer has solved this problem by stealing DNA from other organisms - mostly micro-organisms - which it uses as the fodder for evolution.

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