A passion for the natural world drives many of our adventures. And when we’re not really outdoors, we like to dive into the discoveries of the places we live and travel. Here are some of the best natural history links we found this week.
Dolphins identify their friends by tasting urine: Marine biologist Jason Bruck wanted to study whether dolphins use signature whistles the same way we use names. Instead, he discovered that dolphins taste urine to identify their mates.
Previous research has shown that wild dolphins swim in other people’s urine. Bruck decided there had to be a reason for it. He and his colleagues discovered that captive dolphins taste urine to identify family and friends.
By evolving, dolphins have lost their sense of smell but their sense of taste is still excellent. Bruck placed the dolphins in different pools, then added urine samples from known and unknown dolphins.
The dolphins spent three times as long studying the familiar urine. The researchers then combined the familiar urine with whistles to see if the dolphins used both for identification purposes. They do. The dolphins paid relatively little attention to the whistles and rattling urine. But if they heard a hiss corresponding to urine, they explored the pool, looking for their friend.
The Pompeian human genome: Researchers studying the remains of Pompeii have extracted DNA from the bones of a woman and a man. They have almost completed the first Pompeian human genome.
The eruption of Vesuvius destroyed this Roman city in 79 AD. The perfect preservation of the bodies in the ashes gave an insight into the health of the victims. Archaeologists found this particular pair in 1933 but have done little research on them until now.
Neither person seemed to be fleeing the city. Instead, they were seated in a dining room. Why didn’t they flee, like other characters from Pompeii? Scientists suggest the couple may have been in poor health. They are now looking at their DNA to confirm if this is the case.
The male DNA indeed contains bacteria responsible for tuberculosis. Analyzing this, scientists realized that the bone at the base of his skull contained enough intact DNA to determine the couple’s entire genome.
Why sharks are important: Jaws is one of the most iconic modern movies in modern history, and it created the myth that sharks are terrifying predators. Warning signs litter some beaches, shark-watching apps advising you in big print to “stay ashore.”
Conservationist David Shiffman doesn’t deny that sharks are predators, but he wants people to realize the minimal risk they pose. “[From] From 1990 to 2006, 11 Americans were killed by sharks, while 16 died by falling into holes on the beach,” he points out mischievously.
Shiffman insists that fearing sharks is foolish and that not understanding their low risk hampers conservation efforts. He wants to bolster those efforts by showing people how cool these cartilaginous fish are. For example, they predate the dinosaurs, trees, and rings of Saturn; some have gums that glow in the dark to attract prey; some can even perform parthenogenesis (reproducing from an unfertilized egg).
‘Trick’ a capricious orca
The sounds of Orca guide the lost whale to the sea: Since May 16, a killer whale has been stranded in the Seine in France. It first appeared in the port of Le Havre, then moved upstream to Rouen. After weeks in fresh water, the orca’s health rapidly deteriorated.
Marine mammologists are trying a new solution to guide the whale to the ocean without potentially dangerous boats. They use a drone to monitor the whale and also to issue recordings of orcas. They hope the orca will follow the sounds of its parents to the sea.
Antibiotic resistant bacteria found in Antarctica: Bacteria in Antarctica have resistance to antibiotics and antimicrobials. This is probably because they evolved under extreme conditions.
But scientists fear that if these bacteria spread beyond the white continent, new resistant infectious diseases could spread around the world. Although they found no disease-carrying species, the bacteria are sources of some resistance genes, which can be transferred to other, more dangerous bacteria.
With climate change, soils that previously held these microorganisms in a freezer have now thawed. These highly resistant bacteria currently pose a critical threat to human health. Some of these bacteria can resist 10 different types of antibiotics.
Chimpanzees combine a few sounds into hundreds of “words”
Secrets of the chimpanzee language: How did we develop such complex languages when all other animals communicate more simply? Our ability to construct complex words, sentences, and concepts comes not from the number of sounds we can produce, but from our ability to join those sounds into an almost infinite number of combinations.
Although their vocalizations are much simpler, chimpanzees provide insight into these building blocks of language. Chimpanzees can make 12 different types of calls. They then combine them into vocal cords. Their “language” is actually much more complex than previously thought. Chimpanzees can combine up to 10 calls into hundreds of different sequences.