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Quirks and Quarks

Quirks and Quarks


CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks covers the quirks of the expanding universe to the quarks within a single atom... and everything in between.

604 - The boreal forest is on the move, and we need to understand how,
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  • 604 - The boreal forest is on the move, and we need to understand how,

    Speedy ocean predators change their skin colour to signal they’re going in for the kill (1:02)

    Marlin are predatory fish that can reach tremendous speeds in pursuit of food, making collisions between them potentially deadly. A new study has shown that the fish display bright and vivid skin colours to signal to other marlin when they’re attacking prey, so as to avoid butting heads. Alicia Burns and her team from the Science of Intelligence Cluster, Humboldt University used drones to capture video footage of the marlins’ hunting behaviour.

    The tiny genetic fluke that led humans — and other great apes — to lose our tails (9:15)

    Back when in our evolutionary history, a fragment of genetic material accidentally found itself in in a gene long been known to be important for the development of our entire back end. The result of this mutation, according to a study in the journal Nature, was that we and our great ape ancestors lost our tails. Itai Yanai, a cancer biologist from New York University Grossman Medical School, identified the mutation and found when they duplicated it in mice, they also lost their tails. 

    A cannibal star shows signs of its last meal (18:06)

    Astronomers have identified a nearby white dwarf star with what they are calling a ‘scar’ of material visible on its surface. This was probably an asteroid flung towards the star, ripped apart by its gravity, and its rubble drawn onto the star’s surface by its powerful magnetic field. This is the first time such a phenomenon has been seen. This study was conducted by a team including astronomer John Landstreet, a professor emeritus from the Physics and Astronomy Department at Western University.

    Stone age craftsmen acted like engineers when selecting materials for their tools (26:32)

    A new study of what it takes to make efficient and effective stone tools, like the ones ancient humans were producing back in the Middle Stone Age, shows how discriminating they were in the materials they selected. Patrick Schmidt, an archaeologist from University of Tübingen, published a study in the journal PNAS about a model he developed to assess how well suited the raw materials were for the type of tools they were creating. Schmidt said their findings suggest that stone age craftsmen had an engineer’s understanding of the mechanical properties of the materials they used.

    Boreal forest on the move — the past, present, and potential future of the ‘lungs of the planet’ (35:39)

    The boreal forest has an important role in maintaining a healthy planet, by storing carbon, purifying the air and water, and helping to regulate the climate. Researchers are using novel ways to understand how the boreal forest has changed over time, to help predict how it can change in the future.

    Paleoecologist Sandra Brügger traced a detailed history of the forests in Eastern Canada over the past 850 years by studying trapped pollen found thousands of kilometers away in the Greenland ice sheet. The ice cores allowed the team to look at the shrinking and expansion of the forest since the Little Ice Age, and spot the effects of humans as they took over the landscape. The research was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

    Then, by doing detailed analysis of trees along the Brooks mountain range in Alaska, a team of researchers including Colin Maher discovered a link between retreating sea ice and an expanding Boreal forest. When the sea ice disappears, the open water generates more snow, which not only blankets the landscape and protects the young seedlings, but it also helps the soil unlock more nutrients for the growing trees. The research was published in the journal Science.

    Fri, 01 Mar 2024 - 54min
  • 603 - Icelanders reap the costs and benefits of living on a volcanic island and more…

    We now know what happened to a supernova discovered by a Canadian 37 years ago (0:58)

    A mystery about the ultimate fate of an exploding star has been solved. Canadian astronomer Ian Shelton discovered the new bright light in the sky back in February 1987, and recognized it as the first supernova to be visible to the naked eye in 400 years. In a new study in the journal Science, astrophysicist Claes Fransson from Stockholm University, confirmed that the remaining cinder collapsed into a super-dense neutron star.

    A vibrating pill makes pigs feel full (10:30)

    There’s a lot of interest in weight loss drugs right now, but a new technology could one day be able to help control appetite without pharmaceuticals. Researchers at MIT have developed a mechanical pill that, when ingested, vibrates in the gut, stimulating the nerves that signal fullness much like drinking a full glass of water before a meal. The research was led by Shriya Srinivasan, a former MIT graduate student who is now an assistant professor of bioengineering at Harvard University. She says that while it hasn’t been tested in humans, pigs ate 40% less food after ingesting the pill. The research was published in the journal Science Advances.

    Wildebeest push Zebras out in front in the annual Serengeti migration (18:22)

    Nearly two million animals — zebras, wildebeest and gazelles — migrate through Africa’s Serengeti plain every year. It was thought the Zebras led the migration. But a new large-scale study has shown that the reason the Zebras go first is that they’re being pushed ahead by the more numerous Wildebeest who eat everything in sight. Michael Anderson from Wake Forest University in North Carolina shares the new findings in this migration pattern.

    Temperature and pollution are conspiring to mess up sea turtle sex ratios (26:55)

    Biologists have known that higher temperatures cause endangered green sea turtle hatchlings to develop as females more often. Now a team has discovered that pollution can exacerbate this, causing sex ratios to skew even more. Arthur Barraza of the Australian Rivers Institute in the School of Environment and Science at Griffith University in Australia said this could add to the turtles’ difficulties if too few males are available for reproduction. The research was published in Frontiers in Marine Science.

    How Icelanders suffer and benefit from their volcanically active home (36:14)

    Scientists studying the recent volcanic activity near the town of Grindavik now have a much better understanding of what’s behind the recurring eruptions. Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland, said they’ve seen pressure building up and moving underground repeatedly before erupting at the surface. Their study was published in the journal Science. 

    Over in the northeast region of the country, in Kafla, scientists and engineers are busy preparing to tunnel into a relatively shallow magma chamber. Hjalti Páll Ingólfsson, the director of GEORG, described their plan to dig into the magma chamber that was discovered by accident for scientific research. However they are also interested in whether it can be exploited as a potential energy source ten times more powerful than current geothermal energy sources. 

    Fri, 23 Feb 2024 - 54min
  • 602 - A post valentine’s look at humpback mating songs and a marsupial that’s sleepless for sex

    Atlantic ocean circulation edging closer to potentially catastrophic climate tipping point

    The stability of much of the world’s climate depends on ocean currents in the Atlantic that bring warm water from the tropics north and send cool water south. New research in the journal Science Advances confirms what scientists have long feared: that we are on course to this tipping point that could cut off this important circulation pattern, with severe consequences. René van Westen from Utrecht University, said if we reach this critical threshold, it could plunge Europe into a deep freeze, disrupt rains in India, South America and Africa, and lead to even more sea level rise along the eastern North American coast — all within 100 years.


    Humpback whales look for quiet corners to broadcast their breeding songs

    Scientists wanted to know why the thousands of humpback whales in Hawaii for breeding season move closer to shore to sing their choruses at night. Anke Kuegler, a marine biologist at Syracuse University, tracked whales to get a better understanding of their daily movement patterns. She found that during the day, they take their songs offshore, likely to ensure potential mates or other male competitors can hear their songs in the crowded underwater environment. Their research was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.


    A tiny marsupial sacrifices everything — including sleep and life itself — for love

    The Antechinus, a small mouse-like marsupial that is native to Australia, has a short, frenzied, three week-long annual breeding season, after which the males drop dead. A new study, led by Erika Zaid at La Trobe University, shows the males will sacrifice a significant amount of sleep to ensure they don’t miss out on their one shot at reproductive success. The researchers don't believe the sleep loss leads to their demise—in fact, they show very little signs of exhaustion despite losing out on so many zzz’s.


    How to encourage climate action without bumming people out

    In a global study involving almost 60,000 participants in 63 countries, behavioural psychologists compared 11 different ways of talking about climate change to see which one encouraged the most action. Madalina Vlasceanu and her team at New York University found that, unsurprisingly, the results varied widely depending on demographics. Some of the more successful interventions tested include writing a letter to future generations, showing examples of past effective collective action, and emphasizing scientific consensus on the causes of climate change.


    Saturn’s ‘death star’ moon could have the water of life

    Liquid water has been found in what astronomers say is the solar system’s most unlikely place 

    Saturn’s moon Mimas is a small body with an irregular orbit, best known for its resemblance to the Death Star in the Star Wars movies. A new study in the journal Nature, led by astronomer Valery Lainey, suggests it has a liquid layer of water beneath its frozen surface, which may mean life-sustaining water is far more common in the solar system than we thought. 


    Moths aren’t drawn to the flame - they’re just really confused by them

    A new study suggests that insects flit around artificial light at night because they are confused, not because of a fatal attraction. Sam Fabian and Yash Sondhi used motion capture and high speed imagery to understand insects’ flight patterns, and found that they always turned their backs to the light, which leaves them trapped in a spiral around the source. This suggests the insects are mistaking the lights for the sky, which normally helps tell them which way is up.

    Fri, 16 Feb 2024 - 54min
  • 601 - Scientists explore which came first, the chicken or the egg, and more…

    Blue whales are genetically healthy but are breeding with fin whales, study suggests (1:03) Researchers have sequenced the genome of a blue whale that washed up in Newfoundland in 2014, and used it to do a comparative study of North Atlantic blue whales. A team led by Mark Engstrom, curator emeritus at the Royal Ontario Museum found that despite their small population, the whales are genetically diverse and connected across the north Atlantic, but that on average blue whales from this group are, genetically, about 3.5 per cent fin whale. The work was published in the journal Conservation Genetics. Sea otters’ ravenous appetite for crabs is reshaping a California coastal marshland (10:10) The return of sea otters to salt-marshes on the California coast has halted the erosion of the marshes that occurred in their absence. Without otters, crabs quickly overpopulated and made the area look like “Swiss cheese” by burrowing into the marsh sediments and eating the vegetation’s root system. Brent Hughes from Sonoma State University said their study demonstrates the importance of predators in maintaining the integrity of these vulnerable salt-marshes to boost climate change resiliency along the coast. What will become of our solar system as our sun evolves into a white dwarf star? (19:03) Over many billions of years our sun, and stars of similar size, will first swell into a red giant star, and then contract into a small, dense white dwarf star. A new study using the James Webb Space Telescope has surveyed nearby white dwarf star systems to understand the fate of their planets, and astronomer Susan Mullally says this can help predict our planet’s fate as well. Permafrost has shaped Arctic rivers — and as it melts much will change (27:23) A satellite survey of the frozen north has demonstrated how much permafrost has shaped the landscape, by limiting the number of rivers that can carve into the frozen land. Geoscientist Joanmarie Del Vecchio warns that as permafrost melts, the waters will find many more paths, and this could unleash carbon equal to the annual emissions of 35 million cars for every degree of warming. The research was published in the journal PNAS. Understanding the evolution of what came first, the chicken or the egg (35:44) While the marine ancestors of all terrestrial vertebrates laid eggs in the water, scientists long thought that the first terrestrial animals must have been laying eggs to conquer life on land. In an attempt to untangle this mystery, scientists compared extinct and living animals to trace how far back in their evolution the first egg-layers appeared. Michael Benton, from the University of Bristol, said their study didn’t discern if the first land animals were laying soft-shelled eggs or giving birth to live young, but hard-shelled eggs like modern bird eggs came much later. In the Australian Alps, egg-laying lizards from the valleys breed with live-birth bearing lizards from higher up in the mountain to create hybrids with traits across the whole spectrum in between. Katherine Elmer, from the University of Glasgow, described her study of this population that allowed them to identify the genetic differences between laying eggs and giving birth to live young.

    Fri, 09 Feb 2024 - 54min
  • 600 - An ancient tree’s crowning glory and more…
    Shark declines: finning regulations might have bitten off more than they can chew In recent years governments around the world have attempted to slow the catastrophic decline in shark numbers with regulations, including on the practice of shark finning. But a new study led by marine biologist Boris Worm and published in the journal Science suggests that these regulations have backfired and shark mortality is still rising. The reason is that shark fishers responded by keeping all of the shark, and developing ever more markets for shark meat and oils, such as in supplements, cosmetics, and even hidden as “whitefish” or “flake” in fish and chip markets.

    Dogs like TV about dogs but don’t give a rat’s about squirrels Like a lot of us, dogs spend a certain amount of time in front of the TV. But what are they watching and what do they like? Freya Mowat, a veterinary ophthalmologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was interested in finding what dogs like to watch on TV so that she could develop new ways to test dog vision. Her study, recently published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, revealed that, unsurprisingly, dogs preferred to watch other dogs, and ten per cent also enjoyed watching cartoons as much as live action animals. The more unexpected finding was that the dogs were not as interested in watching humans, squirrels, or trucks.

    An ancient tree’s crowning glory Paleontologists working in Norton, New Brunswick have made an extraordinary discovery: a fully intact 350 million year old fossilized tree unlike any previously known to science. Matt Stinson, the assistant curator of geology and paleontology at the New Brunswick Museum, says it’s extremely rare in the fossil record to find a fully intact tree like this one that has its trunk, branches and leaves still attached. Olivia King, a research associate at the museum, described it as “odd and whimsical,” like the trees from Dr. Seuss’s famous book The Lorax. Their study is in the journal Current Biology.

    There was an old elephant who swallowed an ant… The complex interdependence of plants and animals in an ecosystem are often hard to fathom until they go wrong. This is illustrated by a new study in Kenya showing how an invasive ant led to elephants knocking down trees, affecting how lions hunt zebras, which turned out to be bad news for buffalo. Adam Ford from the University of British Columbia, Okanagan is part of the team on this study published in Science.

    Understanding when (earlier), and how (cleverly), stone-age people lived in Europe New technology to study fragments of bone found in a cave in Germany is leading to a rewriting of the history of how Homo sapiens established themselves in Europe, when the continent was dominated by Neanderthals. A team, led by Jean-Jacques Hublin, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, uncovered human bones dating back 46,000 years in a cave in Northern Germany, which means the Homo sapiens were living side by side much earlier with Neanderthals in a frigid ice-age climate instead of sticking to the tropics like previously believed. The research, including detailed climatic reconstructions, led to three papers published in the journal Nature. A separate find is giving new insight into their material culture as archaeologists have uncovered a subtly clever tool they think ancient humans would have used to spin rope. The team built replicas of the tool and found it worked remarkably effectively to twist plant fibres into strong rope. Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist from the University of Tübingen in Germany, was part of the team, and the work was published in Science Advances.
    Fri, 02 Feb 2024 - 54min
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