Science news in brief: From horses’ moods to snails and metamorphosis

A roundup of other stories from around the world

Tsunami threat: a nearby iceberg has imperiled a tiny village off the coast of Greenland
Tsunami threat: a nearby iceberg has imperiled a tiny village off the coast of Greenland (Reuters)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Enormous iceberg poses tsunami threat to Greenland village

It was a striking sight: a huge iceberg looming over a tiny Arctic village. Ice is ubiquitous along Greenland’s coast, but this giant has put the inhabitants of the village, Innaarsuit, home to 169 people, on edge.

Locals fear that a chunk of the iceberg might tumble into the ocean and unleash an enormous wave on the settlement. Big icebergs don’t always melt politely into the ocean. They tend to break apart in spectacular fashion. “It’s not a peaceful process,” said Joerg Schaefer, a climate researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Thirty-three people were evacuated farther inland. People were also advised to get their boats out of the way. “They lose their boats, they can’t go hunting or fishing,” said Gideon Quist, a police inspector in Nuuk, the capital.

The iceberg is the biggest the villagers have seen, a member of the local council told Greenland’s national radio. Satellite data indicated that it measured roughly 650 feet wide, rose almost 300 feet into the air and weighed up to 11 million tons, an expert from the Danish Meteorological Institute told DR, the Danish broadcaster.

Officials hoped that southerly winds and high tides would lift the iceberg and carry it away from the village.

Dinosaurs were giants earlier than thought

The creatures scientists call sauropodomorphs were long-necked plant eaters and the largest dinosaurs, which included the mighty 70-ton titanosaurs, as well as the Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus. Paleontologists have long wondered how these lumbering 100-foot-long behemoths got so big.

It differed from later species in its group, with seasonal growth spurts leading to its giant proportions, rather than continuous, gradual growth.

“This new dinosaur changes our understanding of how dinosaurs became giants,” said Cecilia Apaldetti, a paleontologist from the Museo de Ciencias Naturales, Universidad Nacional de San Juan in Argentina and lead author of the study.

In 2015, Apaldetti and her colleagues discovered the new species while looking for Triassic Period fossils in northwest Argentina. They called it Ingentia prima, meaning “the first giant.”

But the prehistoric beast they found weighed an estimated 7-10 tons — more than an African elephant — and measured about 33 feet long. It lived from 201 million to 237 million years ago, which was about 47 million years before its colossal cousins, the Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus, and 30 million years before the titanosaurs.

“Until now it was believed that the first giants to inhabit the Earth had originated during the Jurassic period,” Apaldetti said. That sauropod was known as Vulcanodon and it walked the Earth around 180 million years ago and measured about 20-35 feet long.

In studying the dinosaurs’ anatomies, Apaldetti found that like the later Jurassic period giants, Ingentia prima had an avian-like respiratory system, meaning it had air sacs in its neck.

The lessemsaurids grew through quick bursts that occurred seasonally, she said, while their later counterparts grew at a consistent rate until they became adults.

‘Sea monsters’ or simply whales?

There’s an ancient Greco-Roman poem that tells the tale of brave fishermen who harpooned a sea monster. Once they hooked the beast, the men reeled it in from their rowboats near the shore and hauled it onto the beach.

But was this “sea monster,” or “cetus” as it is called in Latin, actually a whale?

A study published recently provides the first direct evidence that two whale species, the gray whale and the North Atlantic right whale, may have lived near Mediterranean shores some 2,000 years ago. Today these whales are not found in the Mediterranean Sea. The finding, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests they once roamed the same waters as the ancient Romans.

The authors also believe the finding could mean that the Romans, who had more than 200 processing plants for fish on the European and African coasts of the Western Mediterranean, may have conducted industrial-scale whaling.

Rodrigues and her colleagues obtained 10 suspected whale bones collected from sites in Spain and Morocco near the stait of Gibraltar. The team genetically analysed the DNA from the bones and found that two belonged to gray whales and three belonged to right whales.

More bones and additional evidence will need to be uncovered before scientists can confidently say that ancient Roman whaling occurred. It is possible the whale bones the team analysed belonged to stranded or dead whales that the Romans scavenged.

Snail's energy-boosting metamorphosis

In the ocean off the coast of Antarctica is the Gigantopelta chessoian snail. Scientists report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the snail's metamorphosis is like nothing they've observed before.

“We’re calling it crypto-metamorphosis,” said Chong Chen, a deep sea biologist at Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology who uncovered this hidden transition that is unlike the external body changes most other animals undergo during metamorphosis.

Once the snail reaches a certain body length, its digestive system stops growing. Its teeth, stomach and intestine make way for an expanding esophageal gland. The organ gets so big, it takes up most of the snail’s body, and basically becomes a new organ. Bacteria colonise it, and the snail, which grazed for food when it was smaller, no longer needs to eat. Instead it just sits there getting bigger, surviving on energy the bacteria produces inside the snail’s cells.

To make a human comparison, imagine growing from an average size adult to one 30 to 60ft tall, with a giant sac of bacteria living inside you.

However this change occurs, the snails gain an advantage by producing their own energy. They can grow bigger and make babies instead of searching for food.

“We think this crypto-metamorphosis could be common in other animals,” Chen said.

Is your horse in a good mood? See if it snorts

A new study set out to find whether horses are trying to tell us something when they snort. Published in the journal PLOS One, researchers in France determined that the snorting exhale that horses often make may be a sign of a positive emotion.

Mathilde Stomp, a doctoral student at the University of Rennes who led the research, said she set out to understand whether the snort could be used as an measure of the horse’s mood.

She and her collaborators recorded 560 snorts among 48 privately-owned and riding-school horses. All the horses snorted — as little as once or as often as 13 times an hour. The horses mainly snorted during calm and relaxing activities, and those that spent more time out of doors snorted the most, the study found.

Sue McDonnell, a specialist in equine physiology and behaviour at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said not enough is known to draw conclusions about a horse’s emotional state from its snorts. “I think it’s a huge overreach, an overinterpretation of their data,” she said.

McDonnell, who daily observes her school’s herd, takes the more traditional view that snorting is a way of clearing a horse’s nasal passages. Horses also snort in negative circumstances, McDonnell said.

Stomp said she planned to investigate whether dust levels in stalls affect snorting, to further explore her hypothesis that snorting is about more than nostril-clearing.

© New York Times

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