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Linkage: Animal Weirdness, Hubble’s Return and Follow-ups

Our weekly roundup of science news from around the world that doesn’t easily fit anywhere else.

A cuscus. Crazy. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A cuscus. Crazy. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Wild Kingdom Gets Weirder

If you’re a fan of weird animal stories, this was a week for you. First, there was the discovery of a never-before-seen giant rat and about 40 other unidentified species by a group of British and American scientists in a volcano crater on the island of Papua New Guinea (they also stumbled upon Doria’s tree kangaroos and cuscuses while they were at it; adorable photo gallery here). Christened the Bosavi woolly rat, it’s 32 inches long and 3.5 pounds, and was completely friendly to humans, having never really seen them before.

Then a report came out in Biology Letters about a group of birds called tits in Hungary that were forced to add an unusual menu item when food became scarce: bats. These cute little birds apparently get on a real mean streak when they’re hungry, attacking hibernating bats (small ones – only 4cm) and dragging them out of their caves for dinner. The paper’s authors found that the tits (okay, stop giggling) would only go for bat meals when other food wasn’t available, which they proved by satiating the carnivorous birds with…bacon. I’d provide some more links on this story, but it’s not exactly the kind of topic you want to be caught Googling at work.

Finally, in a study that will probably end up on some politician’s pork-barrel list, NASA revealed this week they can now make mice float with magnets. The superconducting magnet is powerful enough to use a mouse’s natural water content to cause its entire body to float, an unusual sensation that the mice apparently get used to fairly quickly (3-4 hours). Why levitate mice? To study the effects of microgravity on astronauts, of course, though Switched points out rightly that NASA has already been bringing rodents for ride-alongs into space for decades. Alas, there is nary a video of levitating mice to be found, and the article is accompanied only by terrible overhead pictures. C’mon, NASA.

Hubble: Back and Better Than Ever

For NASA pictures that are not terrible at all, look no further than the first images from the renovated Hubble Telescope, which got an in-space upgrade this past spring. University of Chicago alum John Grunsfeld, one of the astro-repairmen on that mission, said his first reaction to seeing the new pictures was simply, “wow.” There has been a lot of high-brow and giddy discussion of these images on the blog circuit, but some of you may wish to just enjoy a couple pictures, so here’s a sampling courtesy of the NASA website.

Colorful Stars Galore Inside Globular Star Cluster Omega Centauri

Colorful Stars Galore Inside Globular Star Cluster Omega Centauri

Stars Bursting to Life in Chaotic Carina Nebula

Stars Bursting to Life in Chaotic Carina Nebula

Galactic Wreckage in Stephan's Quintet

Galactic Wreckage in Stephan's Quintet

I suddenly have the urge to listen to some Pink Floyd…

Revisiting Some Old Friends

When we last left the novel H1N1 virus, scientists around the world were trying to determine whether one or two doses of the new vaccine would be required to protect a person against the new flu strain. Today, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced that only one injection should be sufficient to protect people, good news given the limited amount of vaccine expected to be available this fall.

When we last left the curious case of Caster Semenya, the women’s 800-meter world champion was being tested to determine whether she was, in fact, a woman. Official results are still pending, but an unconfirmed, leaked report says that Semenya is a hermaphrodite, lacking a uterus and ovaries and possessing internalized testes. As always, there is exhaustive and fascinating coverage of this story at The Science of Sport, including a graphic that charts the surprisingly high number of women Olympians who were found to possess a Y chromosome between 1972-2006, most of which were still allowed to compete as women!

Since we last left the disturbing story about ghostwriting in medical journals, many, many more examples of this unsavory practice have come to light. The editors of the Public Library of Science are just as perturbed about this phenomenon as I was, and have made freely available the 1500 documents released in the Wyeth Pharmaceuticals trial that started this whole fracas. And one journal editor was already fighting against unreported ghostwriting, exploiting a feature of Microsoft Word to determine just who had their hands in a manuscript’s preparation. This story will be going for quite some time.

About Rob Mitchum (514 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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