Quirks and Quarks

Feb 4: Dolphins and fishers work together, Arctic foxes' epic treks and more...

Plus: Neanderthal hunt giant elephants; rubble pile asteroid threat and how particle physics helped us understand what was the matter.
Woman who is 5 foot 2 inches tall comes up to the knee joint of a life-sized reconstruction of a giant 12 ton tusked elephant
Archaeologist Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, who is 160 centimeters (5 feet 2 inches) tall, stands next to a life-sized reconstruction of an adult male straight-tusked elephant in the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte, Halle, Germany (Lutz Kindler)

On this week's episode of Quirks & Quarks with Bob McDonald:

For a century, dolphins and fishers have been cooperating — and the benefits are now clear

In the town of Laguna in southern Brazil, wild dolphins herd schools of fish inshore where fishers with casting nets can capture them – and the dolphins get an easy feed as well. Mauricio Cantor, a marine biologist from Oregon State University, has quantified the benefits for both, but discovered this fragile partnership may be in decline due to industrial scale overfishing. His research was published in PNAS.

Arctic foxes are tremendous travellers

A long-term study of Arctic foxes has shown that these diminutive predators cover remarkable distances when searching for prey or new territory, running a marathon a day, and up to many thousands of kilometres during their short lives in one of the world's most challenging environments. University of Quebec at Rimouski professor and Canada Research Chair on Northern Biodiversity Dominique Berteaux led the study of 170 Arctic foxes on Bylot Island, Nunavut, with the help of satellite collars. The results of this 13-year research were published in Royal Society Open Science.

An arctic fox tracked with a satellite collar carries a goose egg on Bylot Island, Nunavut. Tracking movements of predators facilitates understanding of arctic ecosystem changes. (Dominique Berteaux/Université du Québec à Rimouski)

Elephant graveyard shows Neanderthals were more cooperative than we thought

Cut marks on 125,000-year-old skeletal remains of giant elephants confirm that Neanderthals in Europe routinely hunted and meticulously butchered these now-extinct 12-tonne animals. Lutz Kindler from The MONREPOS Archaeological Research Center in Neuwied, Germany, thinks that because these elephants required a supreme effort to harvest and yielded so much meat, Neanderthals lived in much larger groups than previously thought. The research was published in Science.

Bone of an elephant shows straight cut marks made by a flint butchering tool
Cut marks on a bone of a giant straight tusked elephant were made by skilled Neanderthal butchers 125,000 years ago (Lutz Kindler)

Asteroid sample shows just what we need to deflect a surprise killer impactor

Analysis of a few precious grains retrieved from the asteroid Itokawa by the Japanese Hayabusa mission in 2005 suggests our plans to deflect Earth-killing asteroids may need a revision. Fred Jourdan, a geochronologist from Curtin University, found that this "rubble pile" asteroid is at least 4.2 billion years old, much older than previous models suggested. Its ability to remain intact that long in the asteroid belt means they're shock-resistant enough to really take a beating. We'll need to take that into consideration, Jordan says, to deflect any planet-killing asteroids like this that may sneak up on Earth. The study was published in the journal PNAS.

Read more about rubble asteroids.

A single grain of asteroid sample the width of a human hair is shown in the middle of a small white circle where the material it was transported in was cut out.
Scientists studying three tiny grains from the asteroid Itokawa, like the one seen in this picture, revealed that the asteroid is at least 4.2 billion years old. (Royal Holloway/ISAS/JAXA)

A new book looks at the experiments that gave us the modern picture of matter

Protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, neutrinos, muons, pions and more. In just over a hundred years our picture of what matter can be made of has been populated by a zoo of these subatomic particles. In a new book, physicist Suzie Sheehy, of the University of Melbourne, traces the experiments that built this picture of the world and the many practical applications of this esoteric-seeming science. Bob McDonald speaks with Sheehy about her new book The Matter of Everything: How Curiosity, Physics, and Improbable Experiments Changed the World.

Learn more in a Q&A with Sheehy.

A woman with long hair in front of a large machine with protruding wires.
Particle Physicist Suzie Sheehy at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, which is home to several physics experiments, including a neutron particle accelerator. (Antonio Olmos)