Fleeing for their lives: Scientists know that phytoplankton can control their movements in the water and move toward light and food. Now, they’ve observed these microscopic aquatic organisms fleeing from predators—something never before reported in a photosynthetic organism. The flight response can mean the difference between life and death for these tiny plants, and ensures the continuation of the many functions they perform in the marine ecosystem. In this image, you see phytoplankton fleeing from predatory zooplankton. Learn more …
New Zealand fossils reveal unknown penguin species: Fossil records show how whales made the leap from land to sea, and allow researchers to trace the evolution of their features (like baleen) across millions of years. But the evolutionary history of penguins and how they made the transition from land to sea is less well known. Researchers are mining fossil deposits from ancient coastal areas in New Zealand and South America to fill in gaps in the history of these popular birds. They described two new species of penguin from fossils discovered in New Zealand. Based on comparisons with living penguins and other known fossils, these fossils represent a new genus, dubbed Kairuku. The fossils suggest the Kairuku are among the largest penguins ever discovered, potentially over a foot taller than modern day emperor penguins. Learn more…
Above you see a majestic line of emperor penguins, Antarctica. Credit: Glenn Grant, National Science Foundation
X-ray reconstruction offers 3-D imaging of joints during activity: Natural movements in animals almost always occur in 3-D and often are very fast. Take the kangaroo. They hop using long tendons in their legs that appear to act as springs. To quantify rapid skeletal movement in 3-D, scientists have developed a 3-D imaging technology called X-ray reconstruction of moving morphology (XROMM). This imaging approach allows scientists to study many different animals, including extinct species, analyzing their locomotion in ways never before possible. Learn more…
You can’t have the winter Olympics without snow and ice, so this week NSF celebrates the International Year of Crystallography with that in mind.
Snowflakes form when tiny water droplets (~10 micron) freeze inside of clouds. The six-fold symmetry of a snowflake is not only beautiful but also alludes to the underlying chemistry of water and its crystalline form. Each molecule of water is composed of two hydrogen atoms covalently bonded (via the sharing of electrons) to one oxygen atom. However, the oxygen still has four orbiting electrons that do not participate in bonding. These electrons are negatively charged and push against each other, bending the H-O-H molecular conformation into a shape that resembles an elbow macaroni noodle. As these molecules freeze into ice, new water molecules are added at each vertex of the hexagon, and slowly the six arms of the snowflake grow. In contrast, ice forms from large pools of sub-freezing water, in which the hexagonal arrays of frozen water molecules grow extensively, forming large stacks of hexagonal sheets that give rise to three-dimensional forms, like ice skating rinks.
Although snow and ice appear to be distinctly different in terms of their physical properties, they are, in fact, the same form of matter. Snow feels soft and fluffy to the touch, and cushions the falls of skiers, because the arms of snowflakes cause loose packing. As a result, masses of snow tend to hold a lot of air, like the down of a puffy winter coat. Unlike snow, ice is hard and can be as sharp as glass because the water molecules in pieces of ice are arranged in very dense, three-dimensional structures.
And if you want to see how some of the world’s greatest athletes approach their sport with a bit of crystal science, check out these videos made through an NSF/NBCLearn partnership.
Increasingly, research problems in security, medicine, public health and social dynamics require the ability to understand how large networks operate and change with time. Sherlock, a computing resource housed at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, analyzes such complex networks of data without the memory lag inherent in other computers.
The computing system can pick apart and understand large chunks of a network at once, without having to split the problem into many pieces and work on them in isolation. For these types of networks, that means far fewer trips back to the stored data to assemble its calculations, surmounting the “memory wall” that previously slowed such computations. In addition, PSC staff customized Sherlock, a universal RDF integration knowledge graph analytics appliance (uRiKA), to give it a broader application for academic problems requiring massive memory to solve.
For those out of the crystallography loop, the United Nations declared 2014 as the International Year of Crystallography. The National Science Foundation– never wanting to miss out on celebrating science – is embracing the occasion by spotlighting a “crystal of the week” throughout 2014.
Earning that inaugural title, calcium carbonate has always been essential to our climate. This week, the AAAS Science podcast features scientists from NSF’s Center for Microbial Oceanography talking about the roles that vesicles released by abundant cyanobacteria may play in ocean systems.
Through photosynthesis, cyanobacteria perform two modes of carbon dioxide capture and storage, including capture as organic molecules and capture as inorganic calcium carbonate (as well as other carbonate minerals). The latter is called “carbonate mineralization” or “calcification.” This process is highly relevant to modern science for two reasons.
Calcium carbonate helps turn cyanobacteria into fossils. This is particularly interesting because cyanobacteria fossils date back 3.5 billion years and offer one of the most continuous fossil records on Earth. To put that in context, the oldest rocks on the Earth are just over 3.8 billion years old. Modern examples include the stromatolites in Shark Bay of Western Australia, which are living fossils! These stromatolites may look like big rocks, but they are actually alive, like coral.
Additionally, cyanobacteria help moderate ocean acidity, thanks to help from calcium carbonate. Scientists investigate cyanobacteria for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies due to their carbonate mineralization capabilities. In turn, because of the extremely widespread distribution of cyanobacteria throughout Earth’s oceans and other bodies of water, cyanobacteria play a significant role in the general CCS ability of natural water bodies. This means cyanobacteria populations help moderate the acidity of fresh and salt water, which is a central issue of climate change and its impact on oceans and marine life.
Incidentally, seashells are made of calcium carbonate, which means mollusks are also important carbon dioxide-capturing organisms. One of the toughest natural materials known, called “nacre,” is a protein-mineral composite that forms the shiny part of pearls and the shiny inner coating of many shells, such as abalone. Nacre is a material of high interest in materials engineering today. Pupa Gilbert is an NSF-funded researcher studying the structure of mollusk shells with a primary focus on the crystallography of nacre/calcium carbonate.
Recognizing a Japanese maple or sweetgum tree is as easy as picking up your cellphone. Researchers at Columbia University and the University of Maryland have created a mobile field guide that uses computer vision to help automate the process of species identification.
To create Leafsnap, computer scientists Peter Belhumeur of Columbia and David Jacobs of Maryland applied techniques they had developed for face recognition to automatic species identification. They collaborated with the Smithsonian’s chief botanist John Kress as they designed and built the system for plant species.
Biologists Teiya Kijimoto, Armin Moczek and Justen Andrews learned that horned beetles rely on a developmental genetic mechanism involving the master regulatory gene “doublesex” to promote horn development in large males, but to inhibit it in females. Experiments to weaken this mechanism resulted in large males lacking horns and females suddenly making them. Learn more about this NSF-funded research.
Cliff swallows nest in colonies. As the name implies, they build their nests out of mud on the sides of cliffs or similarly shaped natural and manmade structures. In the Midwestern U.S., some colonies establish themselves on the metal and concrete structures supporting highway underpasses. This location provides easy access for researchers and an excellent opportunity to investigate the dynamics of group behavior in a nonhuman species.
Researchers working with a unique multi-decade dataset have documented evolutionary change in a colony of cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) under the selective pressure of automobile traffic. The team found that birds with shorter wings were better able to dodge highway traffic near the highway underpass nesting site and that this trait became widespread in the population over many years of observation.
1) Cliff swallows nest on a highway bridge in southwestern Nebraska. Credit: Charles R. Brown, University of Tulsa
Our all-time favorite stat of 2013 is as vast and amazing as the universe itself.
1. Dark energy survey, September 5
When the universe was young, ordinary matter (the stuff of stars and plates and cats) made up about 15 percent of the universe. Another 1 percent was a mysterious force called dark energy.
Today, ordinary matter makes up about 4 percent of the universe, while dark energy makes up more than 70 percent (the rest is dark matter). Dark energy not only appears to be growing, but stretching our universe outward at an increasing speed.
Solving this enigma - Why is the universe speeding up? — is the mission of the Dark Energy Survey. It began on August 31, and will continue over the next five years. Using an extremely powerful digital camera, astronomers will map one-eighth of our sky. The camera will not be able to see dark energy directly. But by collecting data on millions of galaxies, supernovae and galaxy clusters, scientists will be able to study the expansion of the universe, and the growth of large-scale structures.
The survey is using a 570-megapixel digital camera mounted on the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile. Check out this interactive star photo taken with the Dark Energy Camera.
Photo credit: NOAO (National Optical Astronomy Observatory); Wide-angle view of the Milky Way, taken at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory.
Thanks for celebrating the 2013 International Year of Statistics with us! We’ll see you in 2014.