Quirks and Quarks

Nov 19: Octopus chucking, Mayan ruins mercury contamination, neighborhood black hole and more…

Climate makes shrimp snap, discovering T. Rex, and how loons see through the murk

Climate makes shrimp snap, discovering T. Rex, and how loons see through the murk

A bright glowing star near a faint, distorted ring-like object
Artist's impression of the black hole binary found 1600 light years from our solar system (International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva/Spaceengine)

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

Octopuses throw stuff at each other.  Why not with all those arms?

Underwater cameras have revealed, for the first time, octopuses throwing armfuls of scallop shells and silt at each other in Jervis Bay, New South Wales. About 10 octopuses were involved, but it is not clear why they are doing this, or what the behaviour means, but it is believed to be intentional. Stefan Linquist, a philosopher of biology at the University of Guelph, was part of the team that witnessed this unusual behaviour. Their research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Watch a female gloomy octopus throws silt at a male. (Stefan Linquist)

Mayan ruins are heavily contaminated with mercury

A new study led by Duncan Cook, an associate professor of Geography at the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane, has found that many ancient Mayan sites are contaminated with dangerously high levels of mercury. Much of the mercury was in the form of cinnabar, a bright red mineral used as a pigment in paints used on murals and other decorations. The levels at many sites are so high, they are a danger to present day archaeologists. The research was published in Frontiers in Environmental Science.

White stone cup with depiction of man in elaborate costume engraved with red lines
Portraits of two men in ceremonial dance costumes appear on this Mayan stone drinking cup. The red outline is from a cinnabar based paint, which is a source of mercury (Princeton University Art Museum)

A black hole in our galactic neighborhood

Astronomers believe that black holes weighing in the range of ten times the mass of our sun are common in our galaxy. They're just hard to detect because, of course, they're black. But Kareem El-Badry, an astronomer at the Centre for Astrophysics, Harvard-Smithsonian, and his colleagues have found one just 1600 light years away – practically in our back yard – by observing its powerful gravitational tug on a nearby star. They published on their discovery in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Climate change driving shrimp to snap

Snapping shrimp are small crustaceans that inhibit reef systems around the world, and make a sharp, loud popping sound with their claws, producing, en masse, a ubiquitous background sound in the ocean. Now a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, and co-led by soundscape ecologist Ashlee Lillis, has shown that warmer waters make them snap more, which is increasing the volume of the ocean, and ecologists are concerned about how this might affect other marine life.

Listen to the crackling of snapping shrimp (American Geophysical Union)

The tall tale of the discovery of the T. rex

At the turn of the 19th century there was something of a "fossil rush" happening in the American west as prospectors sought out valuable and desirable specimens of new dinosaurs to fill museums. Bob speaks to science writer David Randall about his book, The Monster's Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World, about the culmination of that search. It tells the story of the historic discovery of the giant carnivore Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the way it changed our view of the history of life – and ourselves.

Read an excerpt of the interview here: The tall tale of the discovery of the T. rex

The Royal Saskatchewan museum's 'Scotty’ is the biggest Tyrannosaurus rex ever found ( Amanda Kelley/Submitted by Scott Persons)

Quirks listener question - How are loons able to see into murky water?

For the answer we hear from Doug Tozer, the Director of Waterbirds and Wetlands for Birds Canada. 

An adult female loon feeds a chick
The decline of loon chicks in recent years may be related to diminishing water clarity (Mark Peck, Birds Canada)