You might have missed: Recycling nappies, early Venus, kingfishers, and mini squids

New insight into Venus’ early conditions

The Venus of today is a scorching wasteland – reaching temperatures higher than 426°C – but new research opens up the possibility that the planet was once much more hospitable to life.

According to a new study in Nature Astronomy,Venus may once have had tectonic plate movements similar to those thought to have occurred on early Earth.

Scientists used atmospheric data and computer modelling to show that the planet’s current atmospheric composition and surface pressure would only be possible as a result of an early form of plate tectonics.

Plate tectonics involves multiple continental plates on the surface of a planet pushing, pulling, and sliding beneath one another. Venus’ inhospitable conditions have always had what’s known as a “stagnant lid” – a surface with only a single plate.

A photograph of the planet venus against a black backdrop
The planet Venus. Credit: NASA/JPL

“We’ve so far thought about tectonic state in terms of a binary: it’s either true or it’s false, and it’s either true or false for the duration of the planet,” says co-author Alexander Evans, an assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University in the US.

“This shows that planets may transition in and out of different tectonic states and that this may actually be fairly common. Earth may be the outlier. This also means we might have planets that transition in and out of habitability rather than just being continuously habitable.”

How do kingfishers avoid brain damage?

Many species of kingfishers dive headfirst into water to catch their prey in what researchers call “plunge diving”. But if you’ve ever belly-flopped into a pool, you’d know that water can be surprisingly hard and painful.

To identify genes that might help explain the ability to avoid this pain, researchers compared the genomes of 30 different kingfisher species in a new study in the journal Communications Biology.

“For kingfishers to dive headfirst the way they do, they must have evolved other traits to keep them from hurting their brains,” says Shannon Hackett, associate curator of birds at the Field Museum in the US and the study’s senior author.

42189044932 5bba3d0657 o 850
A diving kingfisher. Credit: Richard Towell

They found mutations in the birds’ MAPT gene, which codes for making a protein called tau that helps stabilise tiny structures inside the brain. However, if too many tau proteins accumulate then that can cause problems.

“The same genes that keep your neurons in your brain all nice and ordered are the things that fail when you get repeated concussions if you’re a football player or if you get Alzheimer’s,” says Hacket.

“My guess is there’s some sort of strong selective pressure on those proteins to protect the birds’ brains in some way.

“The next question is, what do the mutations in these birds’ genes do to the proteins that are being produced? What shape changes are there? What is going on to compensate in a brain for the concussive forces?”

Recycling nappies 200 times faster with light

Superabsorbers used in nappies, bandages, and other hygiene and medical products are difficult to reuse. The highly absorbent material, sodium polyacrylate, has so far required strong acids at 80°C for 16 hours to enable recycling. The process is complex and expensive, so about 2 million tonnes of superabsorbers end up in landfill or incinerated annually.

But researchers have now found that the crosslinked sodium polyacrylate polymers degrade under UV light after taking up water.

A graphic showing the transition of superabsorbers from solid to liquid
Superabsorbers become liquid under UV light after they have taken up sufficient water. Then, they can be reused. Credit: Ken Pekarsky/KIT

“The chains that link the polymers are broken by the light. Then, they are so loose that they swim in water and turn into liquid fibres,” says Pavel Levkin, a professor at the Institute of Biological and Chemical Systems, and co-author of a new study in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

The team cut out the liners from clean conventional nappies, wet them with water, and exposed them to a 1000 Watt lamp. After five minutes the solid material turned into a liquid that dropped into a collector.

“The observation that the substance is soluble and processible was of high importance. Most probably, it can be turned into many other products,” he says.

Two new tiny squid species discovered

Scientists have described two new species of pygmy squid, with the largest measuring just 12 millimetres in length.

They were found off the coast of the Japanese subtropical islands of Okinawa and their scientific names take inspiration from Japanese folklore.

The Ryukyuan Pygmy Squid, Idiosepius kijimuna, is named after the short, red-haired forest fairies that are said to live in the banyan trees of Okinawa. The squid are tiny, with red colouration, and spend their time attached to seagrass vegetation.

Dsc 0742 850
Ryukyuan Pygmy Squid, photographed in the wild. Credit: Shawn Miller

The other species sits within a whole new genus: Hannan’s Pygmy Squid (Kodama jujutsu). The Kodama genus is named after the round-headed spirits whose presence indicates a healthy forest. The species name jujutsu refers to the predator behaviour of the squid which resembles the Japanese martial art.

Ugc8vmbg 850
Hannan’s Pygmy Squid (Kodama jujutsu) with raised arms, photographed in the wild. Credit: Brandon Ryan Hannan

“Jiu-jitsu revolves around grappling and using your opponent’s strength, and the Kodama jujutsu preys on shrimp larger than itself by grappling with its small arms,” says Jeffrey Jolly of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University, Japan, who co-authored a study detailing the new species in the journal Marine Biology.

Buy cosmos print magazine

Please login to favourite this article.