Quirks & Quarks

Apr 22: Life on the garbage patch, lumpy dark matter formed the universe, underwater volcanoes and more...

Tadpole’s flexible forms, climate change and Antarctic life, and life with more oxygen

Tadpole’s flexible forms, climate change and Antarctic life, and life with more oxygen

feathery frondlike creatures and white barnacles on a piece of black plastic.
Leaf-like animals called hydroids, normally adapted to coastal environments, and open-ocean gooseneck barnacles are living on floating plastic collected from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (The Ocean Cleanup/Smithsonian Institution)

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

The great Pacific garbage patch is crawling with coastal life

Biologists have found that the mass of plastic circulating in the middle of the Pacific ocean has developed into an ecosystem that is as alien to the open ocean as the plastic is. It's been settled by organisms that are normally found on coastal shallows, rocks and piers, and they're concerned that this represents a new kind of competition to the native species of the remote open ocean. Henry Choong, a curator of invertebrate zoology from the Royal British Columbia Museum, was part of the team that made the surprising discovery. The research was published in the journal Nature.

A new cosmic map shows lumpy dark matter was scaffolding for our universe to evolve

The matter in the universe at one point was just a diffuse cloud, until it began to clump together with an invisible scaffold of dark matter that expanded into galaxies and stars we see today. Now scientists, using the Atacama Cosmology Telescope to peer back in time, used the afterglow from about 400,000 years after the Big Bang as a backlight to illuminate the dark matter in its path. Blake Sherwin, a professor of cosmology at the University of Cambridge, said by measuring how the dark matter's gravity deflected that afterglow, they were able to create the most detailed map of the dark matter's lumpiness that gave rise to the universe as it is today. 

We see an oval with three colourful granual-looking patches, separated by an arc of brightness that shows where dust contamination got in the way, that are made up of tiny orange and purple dots.
Researchers used the Atacama Cosmology Telescope to create this new map of the dark matter. The orange regions show areas with more mass; purple shows where there is less or none. (Atacama Cosmology Telescope Collaboration)

We now know why huge underwater volcanoes don't change the climate much

Underwater volcanic eruptions, like the 2022 explosion of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai in the South Pacific, can rain ash and create destructive tsunamis for nearby coasts, but they don't have the same impact on the Earth's climate as land-based eruptions. Johan Gilchrist and a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia studied past submarine eruptions and built lab simulations to examine their unique features. In a new study in Nature Geoscience, Gilchrist and his co-authors describe terrace-like deposits left by these eruptions, and what these structures can tell scientists about past and future submarine volcanic events.

A grayscale image of a top view on a rising cloud of ash
Studying bronze-age underwater volcanic eruptions is helping researchers better understand the size, hazards and climate impact of their parent eruptions, according to new research from the University of British Columbia. (Johan Gilchrist/University of British Columbia)

Spadefoot toads decide in the egg what kind of tadpoles they need to be

Before spadefoot toads emerge from their eggs, they make adjustments to how their bodies develop and grow based on the food availability they sense in their environment. The tadpoles studied by Emily Harmon, an evolutionary biologist at the University of North Carolina, developed into ordinary omnivorous forms or sharp toothed, powerfully jawed carnivores depending on the abundance of the nutritious tiny shrimp that live in the ponds where they are hatched. Her study was published in the Royal Society's Biology Letters.

Two brown tadpoles pictured on a white background with a smaller pond shrimp
An omnivore tadpole (right) and carnivore tadpole (left) with a fairy shrimp (David Pfennig)

Life in Antarctica survived the last ice age, but is threatened in a warming world

The permanent animal life on Antarctica is dominated by small insect-like creatures, worms and other microscopic critters. Ever since scientists started visiting the Antarctic, they've wondered how these animals have survived there given that the continent was thought to have been completely covered by thick ice at the height of the last ice age. Now Mark Stevens, a senior research scientist from the South Australian Museum who studies terrestrial invertebrates, says the answer to this ice age mystery, published in Biology Letters, provides valuable context for what we can expect with climate change. 

We see a close up shot of two tiny black insect-like creatures that look a bit like ants, but with more bodily segments, with legs and a couple of antennas.
Springtails are the largest terrestrial animals that permanently live on Antarctica. (Cyrille D'Haese)

Antarctic seabirds' breeding seasons are being pre-empted by unseasonal storms

In 2021, an unusually violent storm hit Antarctica and essentially pre-empted an entire breeding season for several species of seabirds, including Antarctic and snow petrels and south polar skuas. Canadian researcher Sebastien Descamps, a seabird ecologist at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said he was shocked to see nearly empty seabird breeding colonies when he visited the sites in early 2022. Missing a single breeding season likely won't have a big effect on these seabirds, but as powerful storms become more frequent with climate change, Descamps said he's concerned that missed breeding seasons could become an increasing and damaging trend. Their research was published in the journal Current Biology. 

A young seabird chick with grey-appearing baby feathers with black beak and eyes sits on and is covered with snow.
Antarctic petrels are one of three seabird species that uses Antarctica as a breeding ground that were impacted by the violent storm that swept over the continent in 2021. (Sébastien Descamps/Norwegian Polar Institute)

Listener Question: What would happen to animals if atmospheric oxygen levels increased significantly?

A listener asks: What would be the effect on animals if the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere were to be doubled or even tripled?

For the answer we hear from Greg Goss, a professor of biology at the University of Alberta.