A long, hard, sensitive organ, big balls, Virgin, and Buffy.

An illustration of the Narwhal Whale

Tusk for Touch, not “Touche”
Scientists have discovered the function of the narwhal tusk, object of both myth and mystery. For years, people have speculated that the tusk is used for anything from piercing ice, to spearing fish, to wooing females, to establishing dominance. But researchers from Harvard and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have determined the tusk is actually a sensory organ of extraordinary size and sensitivity. Ten-million nerve endings in the tusk detect small changes in temperature, pressure and other characteristics of its surroundings.

“This whale is intent on understanding its environment,” Martin T. Nweeia, the team’s leader and a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, told The New York Times. “The tusk is not about guys duking it out with sticks and swords.” (Source: the New York Times)

Buffy the “Theory Slayer”
A newly discovered large object beyond Pluto has scientists baffled. Buffy, as the object is called, has a nearly circular orbit around the sun, but its plane of orbit is tilted at 47 degrees to most of the orbits of similar objects. This combination of circularity and tilt seem to exclude the possibility that Buffy was once deflected by Neptune. This goes against many formation theories, such as the belief that Neptune is responsible for scattering all Kuiper Belt objects with highly eccentric elliptical paths.

“Maybe Buffy is going to be a bit of a theory slayer,” researcher Lynne Allen told New Scientist. (Source: New Scientist)

Swatting Flies, Smashing Pumpkins
A softball looks bigger when you’re doing a good job of hitting it, according to a new study out of the University of Virginia. Researchers went to several softball fields after players had finished their games and checked the players’ batting averages for the day. They showed the players eight circles of different sizes and asked them to choose the one that best represented the size of the softball they had been trying to hit. The players with higher averages chose the larger circles, and the players batting over .500 that day chose the largest circle. (Source: University of Virginia)

A front view of the army ant Cheliomyrmex, showing its fearsome jaw and teeth. Credit: Michael Kaspari, U of Oklahoma

The Ants Go Marching 1000 By 1000
Army ants may have evolved mass, cooperative food foraging as a way to subdue large prey, according to animal behaviorist Sean O’Donnell. O’Donnell came up with the theory when he witnessed a 16-inch earthworm erupt from a nature preserve floor, only to be pursued by a column of hundreds of army ants, who paralyzed and killed it. This particular brand of army ant, Cheliomyrmex, does not follow the usual pattern of attacking other social insect colonies. Instead, it has claw-shaped jaws, long spiny teeth and toxic venom which are capable of killing large prey. O’Donnell said he believes the behavior of this ant may be an evolutionary predecessor of the killing style of other army ants. (Source: University of Washington) 

Micro-notables

  • Clones v. Bones: According to a survey of 1,005 US adults, 33% of Americans would never buy milk again if they found out it came from the offspring of cloned cows. The FDA has not yet said that milk from cloned cows is identical to milk from conventionally-bred ones, but a University of Connecticut study shows that milk production of cloned cows is no different from that of other cattle. (Source: Dairy Today)
  • Face-Off: The face transplant saga continues, as British surgeons prepare for the first full-transplant operation, scheduled for next year. The team has been granted ethics-board approval to seek five patients for the physically and psychologically risky surgery. (Source: the Guardian)
  • Mona Lisa is Happy: Using a computer program designed to detect emotion in a face, researchers have revealed the Mona Lisa is 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry. There goes one of art’s greatest mysteries. (source: the Scotsman)
  • Black or White: Small changes in a single gene can make huge differences in skin color, a Penn State team reports. A study conducted in zebrafish, which bear remarkable genetic similarities to humans. Further research showed that of people of mixed European and West African descent, the ones with the European form of the gene tended to have lighter skin. (source: BBC)
  • Wikipedia v. Britannica: User-edited Wikipedia is not substantially less accurate than Britannica when it comes to science articles, reports Nature. The expert-led investigation carried out by the journal showed that Britannica averages three errors per science article, whereas Wikipedia averages four errors per science article. The moral: Don’t trust encyclopedias.
  • Not the High-Quality Stuff: An internationally recognized drug test can mistake cheese and milk for cocaine, researchers say. While the test is being phased out and replaced by detailed analysis, many police forces still use it as a preliminary evaluation. (Source: the Scotsman)
  • Virgin in Space: Richard Branson has stuck his Virgin flag into a New Mexico wasteland and claimed a patch as the site of the first commercial spaceport. The underground launch site may be used as early as 2008, when it would take 100 passengers into space at a price of $200,000 a head. The list of hopeful participants includes a 90-year-old granny who went skydiving to celebrate her 85th birthday. (Source: the Guardian)
  • Everybody do the Labiodental Flap: The International Phonetic Association has amended their official alphabet for the first time in 12 years. The new sound, called the labiodental flap, will be represented by a v with a hook off of its right arm. The sound is present in more than 70 African languages and sounds like a buzz capped with a faint pop. (Source: the New York Times)
  • Woah, Nessie!: How much is Big Foot’s grandpa worth? Based on a recent London auction, you’d probably say “about as much as a high-end Mercedes.” The skeleton of a dinosaur thought to be an ancestor of the Loch Ness monster sold for over £35,000 this week. Scientists estimated that the plesiosaur skeleton is 205 million years old. “It has not been scientifically proven that a herd of plesiosaurs does not live in Loch Ness and many people have seen things with their own eyes,” said Loch Ness researcher Mikko Takala. (Source: the Scotsman)

Originally published December 19, 2005

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