Quirks & Quarks

Curiosity Rover Jumps in a Lake * Did Life Travel From Earth to Mars? * Peregrine Chicks Drown in the Rain * Beaks Helped Dinosaurs Eat Plants * Chameleons Use Colour To Send A Message * Marine Worms and Micro-Plastics

The Mars rover Curiosity revealed this week that if it had landed 3.6 billion years ago, it would have been Mars' first submarine. The territory it's been exploring was once a freshwater lake that might have been a suitable environment for life. And if life existed on Mars back then, it might have come from Earth - transported to...

The Mars rover Curiosity revealed this week that if it had landed 3.6 billion years ago, it would have been Mars' first submarine. The territory it's been exploring was once a freshwater lake that might have been a suitable environment for life. And if life existed on Mars back then, it might have come from Earth - transported to the Red Planet by a catastrophic asteroid impact. We'll also hear how peregrine falcon chicks in the Arctic are drowning in their nests; we'll learn how and why some dinosaurs developed beaks; we'll find out why some chameleons show off instead of blending in, and we'll find out how microplastics are ending up in the guts of marine worms.


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Curiosity Rover Jumps in a Lake

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Curiosity self-portrait

NASA's Curiosity rover landed in the Gale crater on Mars, a little over a year ago. Since then, it's been exploring the crater and doing geological analysis of samples that it has scooped, dug and blasted out of Martian rocks. This past week, scientists, led by Dr. John Grotzinger, Chief Scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory and Professor of Geology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, presented their first findings from Curiosity. The highlight is that about three-and-a-half billion years ago, the Gale crater was home to a lake - probably fed by run-off from snow on mountains on the crater wall. The lake might have lasted some hundreds of thousands of years, and the chemistry of rocks examined by Curiosity suggests that this might well have been a suitable environment for life.       

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Did Life Travel From Earth to Mars?

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Scientists have long surmised that if life had evolved on Mars, then an asteroid strike might have ejected life-bearing rocks into space, which could have migrated to Earth. The scientists have long thought the trip in the other direction - against the Sun's gravity - would be much harder. But new work by Rachel Worth, a PhD candidate in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State University, and her colleagues, now suggests that it might be harder, but it is certainly possible. They did computer simulations of impacts, similar to that which killed off the dinosaurs, and found that rocks big enough to have carried life could have been ejected into space and made it, not just out to Mars, but as far as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn as well.

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Peregrine Chicks Drown in the Rain


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A peregrine falcon with chicks, victims of heavy Arctic rain. University of Alberta
Warmer summer temperatures in the Arctic have resulted in an increase in the number of heavy rain storms. This is creating a huge problem for peregrine falcons, as they try to look after their chicks. New research by Dr. Alastair Franke, a Research Ecologist with the Canadian Circumpolar Institute at the University of Alberta, has found that the increase in rain is killing peregrine chicks. The adult falcons cover the chicks for as long as they can, but the prolonged rain eventually forces them to leave the nests. With only down to protect them, the chicks quickly die of hypothermia. In one particular storm in the Nunavut study area, 60 to 70 percent of the chicks perished.
   

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Beaks Helped Dinosaurs Eat Plants

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Fossil skull and reproduction of Erlikosaurus andrewsi, Stephan Lautenschlager / Univ. of Bristol

Erlikosaurus andrewsi was a 3-to-4-metre-long theropod that lived during the Cretaceous period, 90 million years ago. Unlike the more famous theropods, including T-Rex and velociraptor, Erlikosaurus was a herbivore, not a carnivore. A group of scientists, including Dr. Emily Rayfield, a Reader in Paleobiology at the University of Bristol in England, studied fossils of the skull and lower jaw of Erliksosaurus, and determined that its snout was covered by a beak. Using CT scans and computer modelling, a beak was shown to help stabilize the skull while feeding on plants and required less muscular stress. It had been previously assumed that beaks evolved to replace teeth and thus save weight, as a requirement for the evolution of flight. 

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Chameleons Use Colour To Send A Message

Chameleons are famous for their ability to change colour. The main purpose is to provide camouflage from both predator and prey. But chameleons also like to stand out as much as blend in, and they do so to communicate specific messages to other chameleons. New research by Russell Ligon, a PhD candidate in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University in Tempe, has looked at how colour change in male-to-male confrontations among the veiled chameleon determines the outcome. During encounters, their body shape changes and their colours go from a muted state to very bright, especially the yellow stripes on their bodies. This is a way of communicating a willingness and motivation to fight. Physical conflict may result, but usually one will back down.

Related Links

  • Paper in Royal Society Biology Letters
  • Arizona State University news
  • Scientific American blog
  • New Scientist story
  • Not Exactly Rocket Science blog

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Marine Worms and Micro-Plastics

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Plastic fragments collected from a European shoreline, courtesy Current Biology, Wright et al.

Micro-plastic - tiny particles of plastic, ground up to sizes from a millimetre to very much smaller - have recently been found contaminating the oceans to a disturbing degree, and scientists are very concerned on their impact on sea life. Tamara Galloway, Professor of Ecotoxicology at the University of Exeter in England, and her group, have been studying the potential impact of micro-plastic that settles into sea-floor sediment on marine worms. The worms filter the sediment for food, much as terrestrial earthworms do. Their study has shown that plastic in the sediment reduces the worms' ability to feed, presumably by clogging their digestive system. Since the worms are essential to the health of the sea-floor, and provide food for other marine animals, this could have significant impact on ocean food chains.

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

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