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10 New Mind-Blowing Discoveries

You have to read it to believe it -- here's 10 crazy things the world learned this week.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Mauro Pezzotta/ Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

1. Sex on eight legs

Okay, you think you have kinky sex and I think you have kinky sex, but no one, not the BDSM crowd, not the furries, not the balloon fetishists have anything on orb spiders. The males, for openers, have two detachable penises or penis equivalents. 

“So what?” you say. “Everyone has a phallus or two in the nightstand.” Touche. But we’re talking about their actual organs, “the arachnid equivalent of a penis,” or palp, and to hear Jennifer Welsch of LiveScience tell it, the sex life of the male is kind of a Faustian bargain that’s surreal enough to make any porn you’ve ever seen look like "A Very Brady Christmas."

For openers, 75 percent of male orb spiders are cannibalized by the far-bigger females during mating. If they get away they may leave one or both palps behind. The palp left inside the female keeps pumping sperm into her and keeps other males from inseminating her -- as he has two palps, she has two openings, called the epigynum (these double sex organs make them the most orgy-ready creature I’ve ever heard of who didn’t live in my building). In order to make sure no other males get a chance he will stay behind and fight off competitors.

And here’s the trade-off: researchers say, the sudden extra lightness he experiences without that wiener weight makes him able to outlast any other males in a fight for the mating privilege. In fact, he’s more than twice as fit to fight if he’s a total eunuch. In a test (one that spiders-rights advocates may not like as it involves neutering or half-neutering and then exhausting the spiders) the endurance of half-eunuchs increased by 32 percent and the endurance of full eunuchs increased by a remarkable 80 percent.

So, the more penis equivalents you give up the stronger you get? A Faustian bargain if ever there was one, but that’s the lot of the orb spider.

Anna Salleh, of ABC Science Online notes that the study was done by researchers at the University of Singapore and offers more information, plus a title that refers to the creatures as “Nonad” spiders. 

Someone get that headline writer an ice cream! And bets on how long it takes that to replace “wimp” in the vernacular.

2. Born this way

If reincarnation is true I think some men who were male orb spiders in their last life come back as gay, having had enough of cannibalizing, palp-thieving females to last them several lifetimes. 

Oddly, scientist have other ideas. 

In a story headlined “Why are there gay men?” Natalie Wolchover from Life’s Little Mysteries elaborates on the question, saying, essentially, that since gay men are less likely to have sex with women and thus pass on their genes, “why haven't gay man genes driven themselves extinct?”

While recognizing that many factors might account for “the varied array of sexual orientations that exist, in men as well as in women,” Wolchover focuses on studies from the University of Padova in Italy showing that mothers and maternal relatives of gay men have many more offspring than those of straight men. This supports the "balancing selection hypothesis," which “holds that the same genetic factors that induce gayness in males also promote fecundity (high reproductive success) in those males' female maternal relatives.” These genetic factors get passed on through the fertile Myrtles of the family.

It’s unclear which gene it is, though one appears to be on the X chromosome which is passed on from mom and which men get only one of. If that chromosome holds the gene that “promotes gayness in males and fecundity in females he is likely to be gay while his mom and her female relatives are likely to have lots of kids.” A daughter inheriting the gene might not be gay but her sons might inherit it from her.

So why do these women have more kids? After researching 161 female relatives of gay and straight men researchers found the “gay man gene” seems to make women more attractive to men, that they “are more fertile, displaying fewer gynecological disorders or complications during pregnancy; they are more extroverted, as well as funnier, happier and more relaxed; and they have fewer family problems and social anxieties.”

Probably because they’re around so many gay men. That’ll make any girl feel better.

3. Our friend flora

It’s always fascinating to get a little more insight into why we are the way we are, particularly when we are sad. People with depression and anxiety, especially if they've been told to “look on the bright side,” enough times to make them even more depressed, may get a little more insight into their condition from a new University College Cork study showing a correlation between levels of serotonin in the brain and gut bacteria in early life, Science Daily reports.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that gives us a feeling of well-being. Most “effective antidepressant drugs work by targeting this neurochemical.” The researchers used a “germ-free mouse model” to show that an absence of bacteria in early life had a significant effect on serotonin in the brain. The effect was greater on males and it can’t be reversed. The research builds on previous studies “showing that a microbiome-gut-brain axis exists that is essential for maintaining normal health which can affect brain and behavior,” and “that manipulations of the microbiota (e.g. by antibiotics, diet, or infection) can have profound knock-on effects on brain function.”

Dr. Gerard Clarke, lead author of the study, says, "Although we always believed that the microbiota was essential for our general health, our results also highlight how important our tiny friends are for our mental wellbeing."

While the effect can’t be reversed, Evelyn Ring of the Irish Examiner reports in a related story, the researchers at the University College Dublin found that simply socializing a bit more alleviated symptoms of depression in people who were already getting conventional mental health treatment. 

Personally I find it helpful, on those Debbie Downer days, to talk to someone who’s got it worse than me. Helping other people feels good, plus it makes you realize your own situation might be better than you think. 

4. Little seizures

If reality is bumming you out and you need an escape it can also help to go to a movie…unless the movie gives you a seizure. 

That’s what happened to a 15-year-old boy who went to see Prometheus and ended up passing out and having a seizure in a scene in which one character “performs an emergency caesarian section on herself to remove an alien,” reports Maria Lewis of the Daily Telegraph.

Last year when another intense birthing scene -- this one in Twilight -- caused multiple seizures, CBS Sacramento reported that the flashing red lights in the scene may have induced photosensitive epilepsy, a rare condition in which such stimulus can cause an episode in those genetically predisposed, according to Dr. Michael G. Chez, the medical director of pediatric neurology and epilepsy for Sutter Sacramento.

“It’s like a light switch going off, because it hits your brain all at once,” Dr. Chez said. 

An episode of Pokemon caused such seizures in children, but modern television sets no longer project the light frequency that would have triggered them. Lewis reports that the scene in Pulp Fiction in which one character has to give another a shot of adrenaline right to the heart reportedly also caused seizures…while filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was in the theater. In 1987 Wang Chung’s video “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight” was banned by the BBC for fear its frenetic, rapid-fire cuts would cause epileptic seizures (maybe it worked because I can find no stories that say it did cause seizures). 

But the weirdest case, by far, was when the voice of former "Entertainment Tonight" host Mary Hart caused a 45-year-old woman to have seizures.

There are several politicians that automatically make me throw stuff at the TV screen so I know exactly how she feels.  

5. Sound’s effects

Speaking of noise, researchers at UCLA have found that dissonant music -- the music from Psycho’s shower scene is used as an example -- brings about such a strong reaction in people because it evokes the sounds of animals in distress, Science Daily reports.

Daniel Blumstein, one of the study authors, had previously worked with a team of researchers studying film scores of four genres and found that horror films “had more screaming females and distorted sounds. The researchers were even able to detect recordings of animal screams in some scores,” SD says.

In this study Blumstein worked with Greg Bryant of UCLA and composer Peter Kaye, who composed 10-second musical pieces with synthesizers of several types. The control (which you can hear here) was emotionally neutral while the other was calm and then "broke into distortion, like Hendrix did at Woodstock.” Undergraduate students were asked to listen to the music and report their levels of arousal and whether their emotions were positive or negative. The distorted music was rated as more exciting but also “charged with negative emotion.”

“The researchers believe the effect of listening to music with distortion is similar to hearing the cries of animals in distress, a condition that distorts animals' voices by forcing a large amount of air rapidly through the voice box.

"This study helps explain why the distortion of rock 'n' roll gets people excited; it brings out the animal in us," said Bryant.

The effect was somewhat altered when paired with non-evocative images; in those cases people found the music less arousing but the emotions more negative.

So maybe that’s why I get so worked up and irritable when I’m assaulted by a skull-rattling car stereo bass that sounds like a tuba trying to work its way through an elephant’s colon. I thought I was just old.

6. Finding NEEMO…online

That’s another good reason to want to go to outer space: it’s quiet.

It’s quiet under the ocean, too, and that’s where NASA is having its practice session for future asteroid exploration, which you can follow on Facebook and a slew of other social and educational media as listed by Alan Boyle of MSNBC’s Cosmic Log. NEEMO 16 (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) will “simulate the logistics associated with an extended space mission, as well as the isolation, by sending an astronaut crew into the Aquarius,” the world’s only undersea research station, “and have them practice the routines they'd be doing in scuba gear.”

Last year’s NEEMO 15 was the first to work with NASA’s plan to get to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. This year’s crew is furthering that research by communicating using the time delays “to reflect the light travel times that would be involved with a deep-space mission” and how to explore the negligible-gravity surface of an asteroid. NASA calls the undersea environment “a simulated microgravity environment ” on its cool and informative NEEMO 15 Web site.

You can see the Aquarius research station here -- it’s “situated three and a half miles (5.6 kilometers) off Key Largo on a sandy patch of seafloor sitting next to spectacular coral reefs.”

If they’re trying to sell me on a condo when the ocean floor is colonized I’m in. 

7. Fine brine wine

Actually, a 12-day stint in the Keys, or under the Keys as it were, sounds like a lovely idea and those aquanauts could probably use a little drink after all that exhausting experimentation. 

Perfect time to discover underwater wine.

The AFP reports that French vineyard manager Bruno Lemoine, working with a barrel maker and an oyster farmer experimented with aging wine under the sea and found, to everyone’s delight, that the salt the wine absorbs by osmosis made it taste decidedly better than a batch aged on land. 

The AFP story details some earlier “sea vintages” and the process Lemoine and his colleagues used to age the 2009 wine (so it had already aged two years), including building identical barrels in which to age both batches, and how one was kept at Lemoine’s chateau and the other “sunk underwater among the prized oyster beds of the Bay of Arcachon, north of Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast.” That barrel, in a concrete chamber in which it could “roll around a little” as if it were on the sea floor, was only exposed to a little air when the tide was very low. The wines were named Tellus and Neptune, for the Roman goddess of the land and god of the sea and aged in their respective places for six months. 

In the end Tellus was “disappointing,” while an expert wine taster said that Neptune “lost some of its alcohol content, while on the other it saw its sodium concentration rise, adding a subtly salty note that brings out the best of the tannins,” the AFP reports.

Another way to enjoy wine -- what a lovely legacy to leave to the world. Cheers!

8. A bouquet of “Ew…”

Wine and flowers are typically a lovely combination and undersea wine and undersea flowers sound surreally beautiful…and then you have the “bone-eating snot flower.”Seriously, it’s called Osedax mucofloris, literally translated, “bone-eating snot flower,” which we throw in just because, as io9’s Robert T. Gonzales points out, it’s the weirdest damn thing with the funniest name in the entire world.

It’s actually an animal, not a flower, and it feeds on dead whale bone. It has a root system that goes into the bone and pokes out like flowers, as described by Adrian Glover to the BBC, which also reported, when they were discovered, that they were a new species of what is sometimes called “zombie worms.” The part of the creature that is out in the seawater is “covered in a ball of mucus, so they are quite snotty,” Glover says. “That is probably a defense mechanism.”

Yeah. We know people like that. 

9. Plagued

We’re kind of used to undersea creatures that seem like they’ve come to us from another planet or an ancient era. What we’re not used to -- and don’t want to get used to -- are diseases from the past staging comebacks.

Lynne Terry of the Oregonian reports that a man in a hospital in Bend came in showing symptoms of the Black Plague. It’s now a treatable disease thanks to antibiotics, but four cases have been reported in Oregon in the past 17 years. Emilio DeBess, Oregon’s public health veterinarian, urged people not to handle wild animals -- plague is carried by fleas that infest rodents and the man in the hospital was trying to get a mouse away from a stray cat. Terry reports, “Initially, the man had swollen lymph nodes -- a sign of bubonic plague -- but now he's showing signs of septicemic plague, when the bacteria multiply in the bloodstream. Symptoms include abdominal pain, bleeding mouth, nose or rectum and dying tissue. The third type is pneumonic plague, which affects the lungs.”

The moral of this story is: What the hell are you doing trying to take a mouse away from a stray cat? 

Sorry. Just channeled my mom. Better now. 

10. IDing casings to ID criminals?

Medicine has come a long way from the dark ages into the space age. Now there’s a technology that could take law enforcement “from the Stone age to the jet age,” according to Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III of the Baltimore Police Department -- yet some groups are lobbying against it so heavily the odds don’t look good at the moment. 

The technology is called microstamping. The New York Times' Erica Goode reports that it uses laser technology to stamp a numeric code onto shell casings that can enable law enforcement to track the shell to the gun that fired it and thus the owner. Legislation requiring microstamping on semiautomatic weapons has been proposed in multiple states and Todd Lizotte, who pioneered the technology, is hoping the patents expire so the method can become public domain. Here’s how it works, according to the Times:

“Microstamping works much like an ink stamp. Lasers engrave a unique microscopic numeric code on the tip of a gun’s firing pin and breech face. When the gun is fired, the pressure transfers markings to the shell casing and the primer. By reading the code imprinted on casings found at a crime scene, police officers can identify the gun and track it to the purchaser, even when the weapon is not recovered.”

Opponents, including gun lobbyists and the NRA have numerous reasons for opposing it, saying, among other things that the technology is too costly, doesn’t always work, the full code can’t always be read and that criminals could tamper with it. 

Lizotte, who is an NRA member and “a Second Amendment guy,” counters the criticisms that no tech is tamper-proof, erasing the code isn’t easy, the technology is improving, full codes can be read most of the time and when they can’t can be pieced together like license plate numbers.  

“I just want to be part of the solution of protecting rights, because every time something bad happens with a firearm, my rights get curtailed,” Lizotte told the Times

As for cost, Cooke writes, “Advocates say the cost to manufacturers would be less than $12 a gun.”

“I just can’t comprehend the opposition to it,” Commissioner Bealefield told the NYT.

Cooke writes that the District of Colombia passed a microstamping law in 2009. When it takes effect, it will be exciting to see what a macro difference a microstamp might make when it comes to catching the bad guys.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.
 
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