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Tue, 22 May 2018
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Are octopuses aliens?

maldive octopus

Maldive octopus
Octopuses are strange, smart creatures that certainly seem alien-what with the tentacles, camouflage, and shape-shifting skills. Still, the idea that they actually came from outer space would seem to fall strictly into the realm of sci-fi; an update of HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu, say.

But in these interesting times, real life reads like fiction. Recently, a group of 33 scientists worldwide - including molecular immunologist Edward Steele and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe - published a paper suggesting, in all seriousness, that octopuses may indeed be aliens.

The paper, published in the March issue of the the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, is controversial, obviously, and the vast majority of scientists would disagree. But the paper is still worthy of discussion-for one, as a thought exercise, because outlandish ideas are often initially rejected. And in provoking us with seemingly bizarre theories, it forces us to acknowledge that there are aspects of life on Earth for which classic evolutionary theory as yet has no explanation.

Comment: See also:


Web of the woods: Ecologist says trees talk to each other in a language we can learn

web of life
© Diàna Markosian
A walk amongst the trees is rejuvenating, nourishing and healing, yet a forest is so much more than an amazing collection of trees. There is a lot going on in the forests that we can't see. Ecologist Suzanne Simard says trees have a sophisticated and interconnected social network existing underground.

Her 30 years of research in Canadian forests have led to an astounding discovery: trees talk, communicating often and over vast distances. Trees are much more like us humans that you may think. They are extremely social and depend on each other for their survival. Communication is vital, and a massive web of hair-like mushroom roots transmit secret messages between trees, triggering them to share nutrients and water with those in need.


The green blood in lizards likely evolved four times

BLEEDS GREEN The few lizards with green blood, such as this green skink from Papua New Guinea, may have acquired the coloring via a spotty pattern of evolutionary history. Their muscles, bones, tongues and gums also look greenish.
Studying the bizarre color might someday offer insights into human jaundice

Green blood is weird enough. But now the first genealogical tree tracing green blood in New Guinea's Prasinohaema lizards is suggesting something even odder.

These skinks have been lumped into one genus just because of blood color, says biologist Christopher Austin of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Yet they don't all turn out to be close relatives. Green blood looks as if it arose four separate times in the island's lizards, he and colleagues propose May 16 in Science Advances.

These lizards do have crimson red blood cells, but that color is overwhelmed by extreme buildups of a green pigment called biliverdin at levels that could kill other animals. Biliverdin forms as the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin molecules break down in dead red blood cells. In humans, biliverdin is converted into the bile that, in excess, causes yellow jaundice. An excess of the biliverdin itself can cause green jaundice. In one case study, levels reaching nearly 50 micromoles of biliverdin per liter of blood were deadly in humans. Yet Austin has found lizards thriving with 714 to 1,020 micromoles per liter (SN: 8/20/16, p. 4).


The inside of a proton endures more pressure than previously seen elsewhere

Proton pressure
Extreme pressures are found within the proton, scientists report. The proton contains three particles called quarks (illustrated) as well as gluons, which hold the particle together.
For the first time, scientists used experimental data to estimate the pressure inside a proton

Pity the protons: Those little particles are under a lot of pressure. Protons' innards are squeezed harder than any other substance we have measured, a new study finds.

"It's really the highest pressure we have ever seen," says physicist Volker Burkert, a coauthor of the study, published in the May 17 Nature. Protons break the pressure record set by neutron stars, the incredibly dense dead stars that can form when a massive star explodes and its core collapses, squeezing more mass than the sun's into a remnant the size of a city.

The pressure in the proton's center averages a million trillion trillion times the strength of Earth's atmospheric pressure, report Burkert and colleagues, from Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Va. That's around 10 times the pressure found inside a neutron star. Previously, scientists had theoretically predicted that such pressures might occur inside protons, but the new result is the first experimental proton pressure gauge.


Oak processionary caterpillars 'march', 'fluff' and create a scare in London

BAD HAIR SEASON Oak processionary caterpillars (one shown) show great style in marching formation but then there’s the noxious hair problem. (It’s not the long hairs you need to worry about, but near-invisible short ones.)
Threats to trees and health aside, oak processionary moth larvae have socially redeeming qualities. Of course the guy's wearing a full-body protective suit with face mask and goggles good and snug. He's about to confront a nest of little fluffy caterpillars.

Insect control can get surreal in the London area's springtime battle against the young of oak processionary moths (Thaumetopoea processionea). The species, native to southern Europe, probably hitchhiked into England as eggs on live oak trees in 2005, the U.K. forestry commission says.

Adults are just harmless mate-seeking machines in city-soot tones. But when a new generation's caterpillars finish their second molt into a sort of preteen stage, their short barbed hairs (called setae) can prick an irritating, rash-causing protein into any overconfident fool who pokes them. Even people who'd never torment, or even touch, a caterpillar can suffer as stray hairs waft on spring breezes. (More on that below.)

The caterpillars aren't much for house cleaning. The baggy silk nest a group spins itself high in several kinds of oak trees accumulates cast-off skins still hairy with the toxic protein.
Caterpillar march
MARCH OF THE CATERPILLARS Caterpillars of pine processionary moths (relatives of the oak processionaries) demonstrate the classic single-file processions that give the group their common name.


Children are selective imitators, not blind copycats

mom and son
© Baona/iStockphoto
New research challenges the idea that young children blindly copy everything adults do to complete a task, including irrelevant actions. It all depends on whether kids see one or, more realistically, several adults perform the same task.
Psychologists generally regard preschoolers as supreme copycats. Those little bundles of energy will imitate whatever an adult does to remove a prize from a box, including irrelevant and just plain silly stuff. If an experimenter pats a container twice before lifting a latch to open it, so will most kids who watched the demonstration.

There's an official scientific name for mega-mimicry of this sort: overimitation. Maybe copying everything helps youngsters learn rituals and other cultural quirks. Maybe kids imitate to excess so that an adult who appears to possess special knowledge will like them.

Or maybe overimitation is overrated. In realistic learning situations - where children can gauge whether a majority of adults are patting a box or otherwise going off course before getting down to business - copycat fever cools off dramatically.

That's the conclusion of a team led by psychologist Cara Evans of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. "The term 'overimitation' misleadingly suggests that children mindlessly and inefficiently copy irrelevant actions," Evans says. "Instead, children imitate adults in highly flexible, selective and adaptive ways."

Snow Globe

We just had two years of record-breaking cooling world-wide - don't try and tell the global warming people

global cooling
Inconvenient Science: NASA data show that global temperatures dropped sharply over the past two years. Not that you'd know it, since that wasn't deemed news. Does that make NASA a global warming denier?

Writing in Real Clear Markets, Aaron Brown looked at the official NASA global temperature data and noticed something surprising. From February 2016 to February 2018, "global average temperatures dropped by 0.56 degrees Celsius." That, he notes, is the biggest two-year drop in the past century.

"The 2016-2018 Big Chill," he writes, "was composed of two Little Chills, the biggest five month drop ever (February to June 2016) and the fourth biggest (February to June 2017). A similar event from February to June 2018 would bring global average temperatures below the 1980s average."

Isn't this just the sort of man-bites-dog story that the mainstream media always says is newsworthy?

In this case, it didn't warrant any news coverage.


Sea slugs injected with RNA from another may acquire rudimentary memories

sea  slug
Sluggish memories might be captured via RNA. The molecule, when taken from one sea slug and injected into another, appeared to transfer a rudimentary memory between the two, a new study suggests.

Most neuroscientists believe long-term memories are stored by strengthening connections between nerve cells in the brain (SN: 2/3/18, p. 22). But these results, reported May 14 in eNeuro, buoy a competing argument: that some types of RNA molecules, and not linkages between nerve cells, are key to long-term memory storage.

"It's a very controversial idea," admits study coauthor David Glanzman, a neuroscientist at UCLA.

When poked or prodded, some sea slugs (Aplysia californica) will reflexively pull their siphon, a water-filtering appendage, into their bodies. Using electric shocks, Glanzman and his colleagues sensitized sea slugs to have a longer-lasting siphon-withdrawal response - a very basic form of memory. The team extracted RNA from those slugs and injected it into slugs that hadn't been sensitized. These critters then showed the same long-lasting response to touch as their shocked companions.

Comment: There is no evidence for "memory traces" in the brain or elsewhere. The idea itself is logically absurd. (See Stephen Braude on Skeptiko, for instance, and his paper on the subject here.) But this is a fascinating finding, and suggests that RNA may perhaps also serve as a mediator for memory.


Mice used to test 'trolley problem' in real life

trolley problem psychology
© Colleen Hayes / NBC
The trolley problem as featured in the hit TV show The Good Place
Would you kill someone if it would save the lives of five others? This classic thought experiment is known as the trolley problem, and is taking on growing importance as we train self-driving cars to take to the road. It's also had a recent rise in recognition thanks to its role in philosophical sitcom The Good Place. But the first real-life enactment of the problem in a lab - using mice - suggests we may have been approaching it wrong.

The trolley problem involves imagining that a runaway rail car is going to hit and kill five people - unless you pull a lever, diverting the car onto a different track, where it would only wipe out one. Rerouting the car would logically cause the least harm, but some people struggle with the hypothetical guilt of hurting someone through their direct actions and say they wouldn't be able to pull the lever.

Dries Bostyn of Ghent University in Belgium and his colleagues wanted to know if people would show this reluctance in a real-life version of the test. To do this, they used mice as the victims instead of people, and recruited about 200 volunteers. Each person entered a room and was told that a very painful but non-lethal electric shock was about to be applied to a cage of five mice in front of them. But if the person pressed a button, the shock would be diverted to a second cage, containing just one mouse.

Blue Planet

Sea levels are rising, but not because of climate change

sea wall Lyme UK
© VanessaB
There is nothing we can do about it, except to build dikes and sea walls a little bit higher.

Of all known and imagined consequences of climate change, many people fear sea-level rise most. But efforts to determine what causes seas to rise are marred by poor data and disagreements about methodology. The noted oceanographer Walter Munk referred to sea-level rise as an "enigma"; it has also been called a riddle and a puzzle.

It is generally thought that sea-level rise accelerates mainly by thermal expansion of sea water, the so-called steric component. But by studying a very short time interval, it is possible to sidestep most of the complications, like "isostatic adjustment" of the shoreline (as continents rise after the overlying ice has melted) and "subsidence" of the shoreline (as ground water and minerals are extracted).

Comment: Those paying attention are putting their money on an ice age.