Scientists Just Discovered There Are 'Bees' in the Oceans
By Mike McRae

For the first time, researchers have found evidence that underwater ecosystems have pollinators that perform the same task as bees on land.

Just like their terrestrial cousins, grasses under the sea shed pollen to sexually reproduce. Until now, biologists assumed the marine plants relied on water alone to spread their genes far and wide. But the discovery of pollen-carrying ‘bees of the sea’ has changed all of that.

Over several years from 2009 to 2012, researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico filmed the spring nocturnal wanderings of crustaceans among beds of turtle seagrass, Thalassia testudinum.

Looking through the videos, they spotted more invertebrates visiting male pollen-bearing flowers than those that lacked pollen – just like bees hovering around pollen-producing plants on land.

“We saw all of these animals coming in, and then we saw some of them carrying pollen,” lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek told New Scientist.

The concept was so new, they invented a new term to describe it: zoobenthophilous pollination. Before that, researchers had never predicted that animals were involved in pollinating marine plants.

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Alien life could thrive in the clouds of failed stars
Mild temperatures one benefit to worlds more massive than Jupiter

There’s an abundant new swath of cosmic real estate that life could call home—and the views would be spectacular. Floating out by themselves in the Milky Way galaxy are perhaps a billion cold brown dwarfs, objects many times as massive as Jupiter but not big enough to ignite as a star. According to a new study, layers of their upper atmospheres sit at temperatures and pressures resembling those on Earth, and could host microbes that surf on thermal updrafts.

The idea expands the concept of a habitable zone to include a vast population of worlds that had previously gone unconsidered. “You don’t necessarily need to have a terrestrial planet with a surface,” says Jack Yates, a planetary scientist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, who led the study.

Atmospheric life isn’t just for the birds. For decades, biologists have known about microbes that drift in the winds high above Earth’s surface. And in 1976, Carl Sagan envisioned the kind of ecosystem that could evolve in the upper layers of Jupiter, fueled by sunlight. You could have sky plankton: small organisms he called “sinkers.” Other organisms could be balloonlike “floaters,” which would rise and fall in the atmosphere by manipulating their body pressure. In the years since, astronomers have also considered the prospects of microbes in the carbon dioxide atmosphere above Venus’s inhospitable surface.

Yates and his colleagues applied the same thinking to a kind of world Sagan didn’t know about. Discovered in 2011, some cold brown dwarfs have surfaces roughly at room temperature or below; lower layers would be downright comfortable. In March 2013, astronomers discovered WISE 0855-0714, a brown dwarf only 7 light-years away that seems to have water clouds in its atmosphere. Yates and his colleagues set out to update Sagan’s calculations and to identify the sizes, densities, and life strategies of microbes that could manage to stay aloft in the habitable region of an enormous atmosphere of predominantly hydrogen gas. Sink too low and you are cooked or crushed. Rise too high and you might freeze.

On such a world, small sinkers like the microbes in Earth’s atmosphere or even smaller would have a better chance than Sagan’s floaters, the researchers will report in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. But a lot depends on the weather: If upwelling winds are powerful on free-floating brown dwarfs, as seems to be true in the bands of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, heavier creatures can carve out a niche. In the absence of sunlight, they could feed on chemical nutrients. Observations of cold brown dwarf atmospheres reveal most of the ingredients Earth life depends on: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, though perhaps not phosphorous.

The idea is speculative but worth considering, says Duncan Forgan, an astrobiologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, who did not participate in the study but says he is close to the team. “It really opens up the field in terms of the number of objects that we might then think, well, these are habitable regions.”

So far, only a few dozen cold brown dwarfs have been discovered, though statistics suggest there should be about 10 within 30 light-years of Earth. These should be ripe targets for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is sensitive in the infrared where brown dwarfs shine brightest. After it launches in 2018, the JWST should reveal the weather and the composition of their atmospheres, says Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. “We’re going to start getting gorgeous spectra of these objects,” she says. “This is making me think about it.”

Testing for life would require anticipating a strong spectral signature of microbe byproducts like methane or oxygen, and then differentiating it from other processes, Faherty says. Another issue would be explaining how life could arise in an environment that lacks the water-rock interfaces, like hydrothermal vents, where life is thought to have begun on Earth. Perhaps life could develop through chemical reactions on the surfaces of dust grains in the brown dwarf’s atmosphere, or perhaps it gained a foothold after arriving as a hitchhiker on an asteroid. “Having little microbes that float in and out of a brown dwarf atmosphere is great,” Forgan says. “But you’ve got to get them there first.”
We Finally Have Footage of Tardigrade Mating, and It's Even Weirder Than Expected
Foreplay is involved.
By Fiona MacDonald

Tardigrades don’t need any help in the weird department - the tiny creatures, also known as water bears, are only a few hundred micrometres long, but are almost impossible to kill. They can survive in the vacuum of space, endure total desiccation, and can even bounce back from being frozen for decades at a time.

Now we finally have footage of the strange creatures having sex, and researchers have shown it’s even more complicated than expected (see below).

When it comes to mating, researchers knew that the some water bear species were bisexual (something that’s not that uncommon in the animal world), and it was suspected that fertilisation happened outside the body.

But, on the whole, their sex lives have remained pretty mysterious.

Now a team of researchers from the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Görlitz, Germany, have finally filmed the process, which you can see in part below, providing new insight into how the creatures reproduce.

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closely related to sharks but with long, flat bodies and wing-like pectoral fins, mobula rays are ideally suited to swooping through the water - here off the gulf of california - yet seem equally at home in the air, so much so that they have earned the name “flying rays”. mobula rays can reach heights of more than two metres, remaining airborne for several seconds. 

mobula rays are quite elusive and difficult to study, so biologists are not quite sure why they jump out of the water. theories vary from a means of communication, to a mating ritual (though both males and females jump), or as a way to shed themselves of parasites. they could also be jumping as a way of better corralling their pray, as seen with them swimming in a circular formation. 

what is known about mobula rays is that they reach sexual maturity late and their investment in their offspring is more akin to mammals than other fishes, usually producing just a single pup after long pregnancies, all of which makes them extremely vulnerable to commercial fishing, especially as a species that likes to come together in large groups.

I’ve seen a lot of videos going around of urban-dwelling critters coming to humans for help with various problems, ranging from boxes stuck on their heads to young trapped down a storm drain, and it’s gotten me to thinking:

On the one hand, it’s kind of fascinating that they know to do that.

On the other hand, setting any questions of how this sort of behaviour must have arisen aside for the nonce, does it ever strike you how weird it is that we’ve got a whole collection of prey species whose basic problem-solving script ends with the step “if all else fails, go bother one of the local apex predators and maybe they’ll fix the problem for no reason”?
Scientists need your help looking at photos of adorable penguins. Seriously
"We can't do this work on our own."
By Fiona MacDonald

Guys, this is not a drill. Antarctic scientists need you to study photos of penguins to help them figure out how climate change is affecting these stumpy little flightless birds.

Scientists from the UK have installed a series of 75 cameras near penguin territories in Antarctica and its surrounding islands to figure out what’s happening with local populations. But with each of those cameras taking hourly photos, they simply can’t get through all the adorable images without your help.

“We can’t do this work on our own,” lead researcher Tom Hart from the University of Oxford told the BBC, “and every penguin that people click on and count on the website - that’s all information that tells us what’s happening at each nest, and what’s happening over time.”

The citizen science project is pretty simple - known as PenguinWatch 2.0, all you need to do is log on, look at photos, and identify adult penguins, chicks, and eggs in each image. Each photo requires just a few clicks to identify, and you can chat about your results in the website’s ‘Discuss’ page with other volunteers.

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The Thirsty Little Snake That Swam Across the World
It’s always dehydrated, and it's not a great swimmer, but it can somehow cross oceans.
By Ed Yong

The 62 species of sea snakes are all wonderfully adapted to life in the oceans, but they almost always come ashore to lay eggs. But not the yellow-bellied one; it is the only member of the group that lives full-time in the open ocean. It eats at sea, mates at sea, and gives birth to live young at sea. It has special valves in its nose to stop water from getting in, and can even partially breathe through its skin. It hunts by sitting amid flotsam and picking off small fish that gather beneath it. And it swims by propelling itself with a flattened, paddle-like tail.

And yet, in some ways, it is so ill-suited to life in the ocean that its existence borders on poetic tragedy. For example, a few years ago, Brischoux and his colleague Harvey Lillywhite from the University of Florida showed that the yellow-bellied sea snake is almost constantly thirsty and dehydrated.

If you tried to swallow water in the ocean, your kidneys would remove the extra salt by diluting it in urine. In doing so, you’d actually get rid of more water than you ingested. This is why, when humans drink seawater, they get dehydrated. Some marine animals cope with this problem using special salt-removing glands, but Lillywhite showed that—contrary to what scientists previously believed—sea snakes do not. They live most of their lives in the oceans, but they never swallow seawater. Instead, they try quench their thirst with fresh water.

Some species stick close to coastal sites with nearby sources of fresh water, like springs or streams that empty into the sea. But the yellow-bellied sea snake has no such option. Instead, it drinks from the thin layers of freshwater that briefly form on the surface of the ocean when it rains. That seems precarious, and it is. For much of the year, from November to May, these snakes are almost constantly dehydrated.

The yellow-bellied sea snake isn’t a great swimmer either. “It is really small,” says Brischoux. “It can move in the water, but not for a very long period of time and not against really strong currents—unlike, say, a seal.” So how could it possibly occupy such a large range? The only other tetrapods that are so widespread are either powerful swimmers like the giant whales or strong fliers like seabirds. The yellow-bellied sea snake is neither, and yet it has spread over two-thirds of the Earth’s surface.

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When Scientists Get Accidentally Artsy

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History lies right at the intersection of art and science, showcasing the inherent beauty of skeletons — that is, fish skeletons.


photos by matt smith from the Illawarra coast in new south wales of bluebottles. despite its resemblance to the jellyfish, the bluebottle is more closely related to coral. known as a zooid, the bluebottle (or portugese man of war) is a colonial animal composed of many highly specialized and physiologically integrated individual organisms incapable of independent survival.

notes matt, “despite their potentially dangerous sting, the bluebottle is an amazingly beautiful creature. with strong winds, hundreds of these cnidaria are blown into the bays around my home town and trapped overnight.” this allows him to capture the above shots, which he creates with use of a fluorescent tube in his strobe light and a homemade waterproof lens dome.