Quirks & Quarks

Mar 25: Omuamua probably not an alien spaceship, dizzy great apes, baby delivery glove and more…

Prolifically peeing insects, atmospheric rivers and the gravity of climate change.

Prolifically peeing insects, atmospheric rivers and the gravity of climate change.

gorilla hangs on to rope with one hand in front of a tree
Gorillas and other great apes love spinning on ropes in captivity and vines in the wild, and enjoy being dizzy (University of Birmingham)

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

Oumuamua's strange behaviour has a natural explanation, no aliens needed

In 2017, an object from interstellar space whizzed through our solar system and swung by the Sun. As it did so, strangely, it began to accelerate. That led to scientists coming up with exotic explanations, including an artificial — or alien —means of propulsion. Now, Jenny Bergner, an astrochemist from the University of California, Berkeley, thinks she has a better explanation. She argues Oumuamua's odd acceleration is due to a never-before-seen, yet completely natural phenomenon. Her research was published in the journal Nature. 

An object that looks like a flat-pancake asteroid with a wee bit of off-gassing is seen in space.
An artist's depiction of the interstellar comet 'Oumuamua, as it warmed up in its approach to the sun and outgassed hydrogen (white mist), which slightly altered its orbit. (Joseph Olmsted / Frank Summers / STScI / NASA / ESA)

Great apes spin to make themselves dizzy —  apparently just for kicks

Great apes have been observed playfully spinning to intentionally make themselves dizzy, much like children do by winding up playground swings or tumbling down hills. Adriano Lameira, a psychologist from The University of Warwick in England, says this suggests that taking pleasure from this simple behaviour is something we inherited from our early human ancestors. The discovery could provide clues about our drive to seek altered mental states. His research was published in Primates.

WATCH: A juvenile gorilla spins itself dizzy (University of Warwick).

A sensor-equipped surgical glove could help make delivery of babies safer

Researchers in the UK have developed a simple and inexpensive glove for birth attendants to help detect the position of a fetus as it descends down the birth canal — information that can be critical to safe delivery. Obstetrician Dr. Shireen Jaufuraully and engineer Carmen Salvadores Fernandez at the University College London worked together to create the "smart glove" by placing tiny pressure sensors on the finger of a common surgical glove. As the sensor-equipped glove is worn during a manual exam, it can help detect the orientation of the unfused bones in the baby's head to tell the birth attendants which way the baby is facing. The "smart glove" costs less than $1 to produce, which would make it a useful device for labour & delivery hospitals in lower-income countries. This research was published in Frontiers in Global Women's Health.

A gloved hand traces a fetus skull model, with a laptop seen in the background.
Pressure sensors placed on a surgical glove can help birth attendants determine fetal position with better accuracy. Clinicians have tested the "smart glove" on a 3D-printed model of a fetal skull. (Carmen Salvadores Fernandez)

The process of elimination — how tiny insects pee 300 times their own weight every day

Sharpshooter insects have a diet of sap that is 95 per cent water but poor in nutrients. This means they have to drink a lot and pee non-stop. Saad Bhamla, a chemical and biomolecular engineer at Georgia Tech, discovered the insects have to eliminate up to 300 times their own body weight every day. They do this in the form of tiny urine droplets that are propelled away from the anus by a special rotating flicker. His research was published in Nature Communications.

WATCH: Sharpshooter insects urinating on high speed video (Nature)

A new scale for atmospheric river intensity is helping us understand them

Hurricanes, cyclones and tornadoes all are classified by a five-point intensity scale. A similar scale for atmospheric rivers – narrow bands of moisture-laden air that are bringing intensifying rain and snowfall – is helping researchers understand how this weather phenomenon is affected by climate change. Dr. Bin Guan was part of the research team that showed how the atmospheric river intensity scale can be used to track these events around the world. This study was published in JGR Atmospheres

A person looks at their cellphone in the foreground while two submerged cars are seen in a flooded road behind them.
California has been drenched recently by powerful atmospheric river events that have brought high winds and flooding rains. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Extreme weather is increasing — so much that it's changing earth's gravity

Increased flooding in some areas and drought in others – all attributable to global warming – have changed global groundwater levels so much that gravity-sensing satellites have detected the shift from orbit. Dr. Matthew Rodell is one of the NASA scientists who analyzed data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and GRACE Follow-On (GRACE-FO) satellites to model the change in groundwater from 2002 to 2021. Their findings, published in Nature Water, suggest that extreme dry and wet events have become more frequent and intense as the planet warms. 

Red and blue dots that correspond with dry and wet weather events are placed over a map of the world.
Researchers used satellite data from GRACE and GRACE-FO missions to analyze extreme wet and dry weather events over the past two decades. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

Listener Question: Why do geese sometimes fly north in winter?

A listener asks: Why do we sometimes see geese flying north in the winter?

For the answer we hear from Mitch Weegman, the Ducks Unlimited Endowed Chair in Wetland and Waterfowl Conservation, and an Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan.