Saturday, April 6, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #17

It's Weekly Science Roundup time! Sit back, and enjoy DEEP SPACE EXPLOSIONS, a species of turtle that never existed, and chimps thinking about thinking about bananas (no, that's not a typo).

1. Farthest Supernova Ever Seen

Supernova UDS10Wil in the CANDELS Ultra Deep Survey

Hubble has managed to out-do itself yet again. It's spotted a supernova explosion that's over 9 billion light-years away. As a reminder, 1 light-year is equal to over 26 trillion miles. Just to put this all in perspective for you.

Anyway, the reason this is so important is that the farther away something is, the older the light is reaching us. We're looking back in time 9 billion years when Hubble views this supernova. This gives us clues to the structure and behavior of the early universe.

Finding this particular type of supernova (type 1a) so early helps to determine how which version of type 1a supernovae was more common back in time--a merger of two white dwarfs, or a white dwarf feeding off a normal-sized star until it explodes. The second type can happen relatively quickly, but since there are so few supernovae that far back in time, it suggests that version of type 1a explosions is actually more rare. It's looking more and more likely that type 1a supernovae near the beginning of the universe were usually the result of two merging white dwarfs. That, in turn, is going to tell us more about the timing for the distribution of heavier elements, such as iron, in the early universe. Awesome!

2. Extinct Turtle Never Really Existed At All

A bit of good news for our second topic on the roundup: Pelusios seychellensis isn't extinct!

...It actually never was a real species in the first place.

*Cough* So this is mildy embarrassing. Turns out, the few specimens collected of mud turtle called  Pelusios seychellensis were actually from a species called Pelusios castaneus. The species that was thought to exist would've been native to the Seychelles, but instead these turtles are native to West Africa.

"In fact, for a long time researchers were amazed that the supposed Seychelles turtles looked so deceptively similar to the West African turtles. But due to the great geographic distance, it was thought this had to be a different species," explained Dr. Uwe Fritz, director of the Museum of Zoology at the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden.

The best explanation is that some hitched a ride to the Seychelles at some point, thanks to humans. It wouldn't be the first time. Last year, Dr. Fritz proved another type of mud turtle on the Seychelles was also not native to the islands, and instead there because of people. So yeah. Moral of this story: don't trust the classification of any Seychelles turtle.

On the less silly side of turtle conservation news, while it is nice to know humans are "one species less" on the list of extinctions we've caused, this isn't the time to let our guard down. Nearly 700 pig-nosed turtles were confiscated in an airport in Jakarta, Indonesia last week. These were likely heading to the pet trade, which is a major cause of trouble for many reptiles, including the pig-nosed turtle, which is listed as a species vulnerable to extinction.

3. Chimps Have Metacognition

And for our final story of the roundup, chimpanzees continue to impress. An experiment was designed to quiz chimpanzees about the type of food reward that they would receive if they answered correctly. The food was hidden, and the chimpanzees had to use information the researchers provided to determine what kind of food it was. Once they had it figured out, they would press a symbol that matched it.

Sometimes, that information was simply seeing the food item before it as hidden. But other times, the information was sorely lacking in usefulness, and the chimpanzee had no way of knowing what kind of food could be hidden. So in those cases, chimpanzees actually got up and went to take a look for themselves at the hiding spot, and then came back to report what they learned.

This might seem like a no-brainer solution to us, but just imagine for a moment asking any other animal to do this. Seriously, just think for a moment about telling your dog, "I've got a treat for you, but I'm only going to give it to you if you can point out what kind of treat it is from this giant list. And also, I'm not going to show it to you first or tell you what it is. Your one hint is that the treat is hidden in that box over there. Your move."

Maybe some of you with smarty-pants pooches are saying, "I bet I could teach my dog to do that!"...But that's just it. Chimpanzees came up with this solution on their own. They taught themselves. They are capable of seeking out further information to solve a question being posed to them at an entirely different location, with the reward only coming much later.

This type of thinking, called "metacognition", is actually most easily described as thinking about thinking. We do it all the time. It's the ability to recognize your own cognitive state, to understand that you don't know the answer, but are capable of knowing the answer if you do a bit of detective work. It goes beyond problem solving. It goes beyond tool making. This is another step on the intelligence scale that humans were fairly confident only we out of all the animal kingdom had achieved.

Nope. Wrong again, humans. Chimpanzees are so close to being on-par with us, it's almost unnerving. ...Unnervingly awesome, that is. I freaking love apes.

Sorry, that was a long third part of my roundup. My inner-physical anthropologist nerd is showing through.

No comments:

Post a Comment