Owls Being Totes Adorbs

This is a science blog and as such, I try not to make a habit of posting obnoxiously cute animal videos… however, when it comes to owls, all the rules go out the window. I’m an avid bird-watcher and I absolutely adore cats. So, when you have a bird that looks like a cat, I can’t help but implode into a hot squishy mess. Given that this will be EXACTLY what will be happening to your brain tonight over your New Years Eve’s celebrations, I thought it only fitting to make an exception.

Enjoy! Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Video Source: Uploaded by mihaifrancu on YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RBNpALibqo

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A Look Back On The Amazing Discoveries of 2015

From a special trauma foam that can stop bleeds in seconds to a concrete that drinks more water than you do beer on a Friday night… here is a collection of some of 2015’s most amazing discoveries!

Video Source: Uploaded by Mark James to YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfBCLf1jNHw

For daily servings of sexy science, intellectual fodder and mind-blowing pictures of Earth, space and animals, follow/like Why? Because Science on Facebook!

Fire and Brimstone – the Story of Volcanoes

eruzione Etna volcano
Mount Etna eruption, Nicolosi Catania, Italy

There’s something beautiful about a woman’s rage (not counting the tarts from Geordie Shore) and in no better way is this sentiment illustrated than by Mother Nature’s ire. As terrifying as it is to be at ground zero, from a safe distance, natural disasters are incredibly awe-inspiring and angry volcanoes deserve a top spot for making people go “ooooh” and “aaaaah” and “oh shit…”

Volcanoes are literal pathways from the Earth’s fiery guts to its crusty exterior. But the channels available for the molten rock and gas that spew forth are far too narrow to satisfy the sheer volume of indigestion within and the result is an immense build-up of pressure. The release of this pressure includes, but is not limited to, violent sprays of lava, devastating pyroclastic flows, stratospheric columns of volcanic ash, electrical storms, scalding gas and dust and Hiroshima-type explosions that not only dislocate millions of tonnes of solid rock, but have been reported to be audible many thousands of kilometres away from the point of origin.

Vesuivio_Eruzione eruption volcano
Source: “Vesuivio Eruzione April 26th, 1872” by Giorgio Sommer – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Volcanoes have the potential to send species to extinction, yet at the very same time, they nourish the biosphere in an appreciable radius around them (volcanic ash is highly fertile). Volcanoes are magnificent and a wonderful example of how the surface of our planet is in a constant state of dynamism.

Where Not To Go On Summer Vacation

Planet tectonics plate diagram

Volcanoes typically form at the convergent and divergent boundaries between the enormous shifting tectonic plates that comprise the Earth’s crust (see gorgeous image above). It is here that the seams of the Earth permit plumes of its molten interior to travel towards the surface. But as it was mentioned, the surface-bound transport of this material is anything but a six-lane highway. It’s more like a gravelly, pothole-ridden country road. The gas and molten rock that are trying to get from A to B encounter rigid rock and the cracks they exploit along their journey are incredibly narrow. A build-up of pressure results in a potentially explosive situation, so that when something finally gives, the results are disastrous for the local biology: human habitation included.

Volcanoes also form over features called “hot spots”, which don’t necessarily occur near plate tectonic boundaries (see diagram below). The Hawaiian Islands – all of them formed by volcanic activity in the middle of the Pacific Plate – are a prime example of this.

volcanic-hot-spots

There are several scientific theories that seek to explain what hot spots are and a popular one is that they are upwelling intrusions of molten material (mantle plumes) that originate at the boundary between the Earth’s core and mantle. The exact depth of this varies, but the Hawaiian hot spot is estimated to be 3,000 km deep. That’s 9,842,520 ft. for those of you in ‘Merica.

Volcano Classification

There’s more to volcanology than your stock standard angry Earth pimple. Volcanoes come in many shapes, sizes and compositions. What happens at the surface – what we see and experience when volcanoes awake from their slumber – is dependent on a suite of factors and an especially important one is the composition of the magma that is trying to escape the lithified constraints of the crust.

Lava Composition

Lava flow in Hawaii

Rock that is rich in silicates tends to form chunky, viscous slow-moving magma. This subset of liquid rock is in no hurry to go anywhere and tends to contribute to terrible congestion. It also has the particularly nasty habit of trapping gas, which is why things can get explosive. Since Hawaii is no stranger to seismic activity, its inhabitants have coined a word for this particular magma and it’s pāhoehoe.

At the other end of the spectrum, you get magma that doesn’t contain a lot of silicates, but is rather rich in ferrous (iron) compounds. This magma – ʻAʻa, pronounced “ah ah” – get’s extremely hot and tends to flow hard and fast. If you’ll excuse the crass analogy, the difference between pāhoehoe and ʻAʻa is much like the difference between constipation and Delhi belly.

Both, however, are extremely uncomfortable.

Magma isn’t, of course, one or the other. There is a vast spectrum of mineral compositions between, but by understanding the difference between one extreme and the other, we can begin to understand how different kinds of volcanoes are formed.

Cone, Shield and Stratovolcanoes

If there’s one thing to be said for geologists, it’s that they don’t mess around with terminology. The name bestowed upon a volcano is as transparent as a wet T-shirt.

Cone (Cinder) Volcanoes

Bromo volcano in Indonesia
Mount Gunung Bromo (Indonesian island of Java): A classic cinder or cone volcano

Cone volcanoes, also known as cinder cones, generally consist of a hill that can be anywhere from 30 meters (98 ft.) to 400 (1,312 ft.) meters in height. Formed from the eruption of materials that are riddled with gas, crystals and a hodgepodge of fragmented rock. To see an example of this kind of volcano, put on your sombrero, crack open the tequila and get on a plane to New Mexico. There, you will find a spectacular volcanic field called Caja Del Rio, which comprises more than 60 cone volcanoes. If the prospect of New Mexico doesn’t appeal, you can always bum a lift on the next scientific mission to Mars or the moon, both of which are believed to feature this type of volcano.

Shield Volcanoes

Kohala-Landsat Hawaii shield volcano
Kohala Mountain, the oldest of Hawaii’s five volcanoes. The entire island is a massive shield volcano. Source: By USGS (source usage) via Wikimedia Commons

Shield volcanoes have a much broader profile than cone volcanoes and, as the name suggests, are shaped like shields. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. These beasts are formed from the eruption of very runny lava that tends to escape the Earth’s crust before causing too much mayhem as a result of a build-up of pressure. Shield volcanoes are, by comparison, the placid elderly aunt of volcanoes and are most commonly found at oceanic tectonic boundaries. Oceanic plates aren’t usually rich in silicates, which explains why the magma produced here is more felsic in composition, hence its lower viscosity. Skjaldbreiður in Iceland (say that three times fast) is an example of a shield volcano. The Hawaiian Islands, which have formed almost smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Plate over a “hot spot,” are also shield volcanoes.

Pyroclastic_flows_at_Mayon_Volcano
In June of 2013, the Mayon stratovolcano in Albay, Philippines, reached Level 1 alert level due to what the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology refers to as “abnormal behavior”.

Stratovolcanoes 

Stratovolcanoes, or composite volcanoes, are the tri-polar member of the volcanic family. They look like your typical volcano but actually consist of alternating layers of different kinds of erupted material as the above diagram depicts. Stratovolcanoes produce a range of eruptions depending upon their mood and these include chunky cinders, choking ash and molten rock (lava). One of the best known (and least loved) of these volcanoes is Mount Vesuvius, which is located in Stromboli, Italy. This one was responsible for the notorious levelling of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79, killing 16,000 people. It is estimated that Mount Vesuvius released 100,000 times the energy liberated by the Hiroshima bomb.

Volcanic Hazards

Mount Pinatubo Explodes
Run? Source: “Point of View Photos” Huffington Post

When volcanoes become active, a number of things can happen, none of them good if you’re fond of life. One of the most devastating of these consequences is ash. You wouldn’t think so… ash is soft and white. How on Earth could it possibly inconvenience you the way a searing hot lake of lava might? Stratovolcanoes are especially fond of explosive eruptions, which send voluminous clouds of ash into the atmosphere and cascading down their slopes.

This ash, however, isn’t the kind you find in your barbeque pit after a night of camping, beer and sing-a-longs. It’s mixed with gas that is hot enough to disassociate your atoms. These eruptions send roiling clouds of gas, dust, ash and other debris down the mountain, which devastate anything organic in their path, leaving behind a scene that looks like a bomb went off in a cocaine factory.

Extinct, Dormant and Active Volcanoes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Stromboli volcanic eruption3

Volcanoes are dangerous creatures. So an apt analogy for the popular classifications of these geological features would be your mother. When she has a gin and tonic in her hand (dormant), you may want to make plans for the evening. When she’s 10 G&T’s down (active), it’s time to execute those plans and get the hell out of the house. When she’s passed out on the couch (extinct), it’s safe to come home, although my recommendation to you would be to move out your childhood home and get yourself an education.

Extinct volcanoes, such as the Netherland’s Zuidwal and Shiprock volcanoes, are no longer considered to be active at all because they don’t have a supply of magma. They also have no documented history of indigestion. Dormant volcanoes, on the other hand, are known to have erupted at some stage in recent history. They may be quiet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t suddenly awaken. Mount Vesuvius (Gulf of Naples) was a purring kitten before it went psycho in AD 79, as was Mount Pinatubo (Philippines) prior to its epic tantrum in 1991. The latter is now considered an active volcano, which is one that has exhibited recent activity and is therefore a potential hazard to all within its vicinity.

Krakatoa

krakatoa-volcano-1883-eruption

If you’ve ever had a fight with Mexican food and lost (who hasn’t?) then integrating “Krakatoa” into your vocabulary is a wonderful idea if you need help explaining exactly what just happened to you to the flat mate who is next in line for the bathroom. You may not be absolved for your sins, but it’ll get you a laugh or two.

Krakatoa is a first class example of what happens when Mother Nature gets really cross and decides to let off a bomb that makes Hiroshima look like a fart. In 1883, the build-up of pressure under the Earth’s crust between the islands of Sumatra and Java in the Sunda Strait was so immense that it caused an apocalyptic-sized explosion, sending a once much bigger island into the stratosphere.

The Krakatoa eruption was reported to have been heard almost 5,000 km away (the loudest sound ever made in recorded history) and the resultant shock waves sent barograph needles oscillating violently off the page. Over 36,000 people were killed by the eruption: if not by the devastating pyroclastic flows and falling debris, then by the tsunamis that followed. The dust catapulted into the atmosphere caused stunning sunsets around the world for months after the eruption.

Too bad colour photography wasn’t in vogue in the 19th Century.

krakatoa - krakatau volcano map
Source: Krakatau Tour Website: A map of ex-Krakatoa and the now much smaller island of Anak Krakatau, which means “son of Krakatoa”. The dotted line represents the size of the island before it went nuclear.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

If you ever needed to respect the fact that we are just not in control of our natural environment, then stand next to an active volcano. From lakes of lava and earthquakes that shake the foundations of your stick hut to falling debris and scalding hot pyroclastic flows that choke the biosphere, volcanoes are creatures to be respected, studied and understood. If ever there were an item to put on your bucket list, it would be to stand next to an active volcano and feel the heat of Earth’s exterior lap at your cheeks. Just make sure you’ve ticked off the rest of those bucket list items before you do so…

Mount Redoubt Eruption
“Mount Redoubt Eruption” by R. Clucas – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Mount Redoubt is a stratovolcano and is part of the very seismically active Aleutian Range in Alaska.

Warning: This Video is a SERIOUS Nail-Biter!

Video Source: “GoPro: Man Fights Off Great White Shark In Sydney Harbour” Uploaded by Terry Tufferson on YouTube www.youtube.com/watch?v=-m3N_BnVdOI

In the spirit of sharks – see yesterday’s post “Sharks, They’re Just Not That Into You” – check out this TERRIFYING GoPro video caught by a very lucky Sydneysider. OH WAIT! I’ve just been told by a few of my reader’s it’s a fake. Great.

Regardless, I’d like to say the following…

Great White Sharks and sharks in general suffer from a bad rap thanks to sensationalist movies such as “Jaws,” “Open Water” and “Deep Blue Sea.” What we have to remember is that IF these creatures viewed humans as prey, their rating on the list of things that are likely to kill you wouldn’t come in under falling coconuts and bad-tempered cows.

Sharks are bullet-sharp killing mechanisms: it’s how they’ve adapted to life in the ocean and it’s how they have come to dominate the food chain. However, and thankfully, humans are not their natural prey. Just as you wouldn’t wander down to the garden to gorge on tree leaves for breakfast, sharks don’t go looking for pudgy human meat to eat. It is more often than not a case of mistaken identity that lands the odd surfer or early morning swimmer in the ER with a missing limb.

Respect the ocean as you would respect any other wilderness and you’ll hold on to all four of your limbs, but more importantly, you’ll avoid further bad press for these gorgeous and powerful creatures.

Today’s Sciencey LOL

Funny science joke

How well do you remember your high school math?

Spoiler: “cos b”

Bonobo Chimpanzees: A Lesson In Immodesty

Bonobo Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, genetically speaking. More interesting than that though: they’ve mastered the art of conflict resolution in a most curious and salacious way! Anytime things get heated… well, Bonobo chimps get heated too and then the conflict is resolved!

Please note that there are scenes of a graphic nature in this video, and if you’ve ever doubted our relationship with apes, this video may finally convince you otherwise!

Video Source: “Wild Wives of Africa – Bonobos” uploaded by NatGeoWild on YouTube channel https://youtu.be/82GUjPConiE

Bonobo Chimpanzees are incredibly sexually liberated and use this intimate act (homosexually and heterosexually) as a way to express just about every emotion. If there’s one thing to be said for this, they certainly spend more time bonking than fighting! What’s also interesting to see in this video is just how humanoid their behaviour is.

It gives credence to the adage: Make love not war!

Sharks – They’re Just Not That Into You

Shark fin above water

When I step into the ocean, the furthest thing from my mind is getting eaten by a shark. There are so many other, more obvious things to think and worry about: getting laid, venereal disease, not getting a venereal disease from getting laid…

Hell, even falling coconuts are more likely to boot you out of this mortal coil than the love bite of a big fish. Yet, I know many people personally who are utterly terrified of sharks. I even had a girlfriend once who made a point of waiting to see whether the water was safe before getting in herself. And she did this by stationing herself on the beach while I cavorted around in the waves for a good ten minutes. When I didn’t disappear in a frothy explosion of blood and surf, she would sidle surreptitiously in and make sure to stay within two metres of the shore.

I dumped her shortly after.

Shark movie poster.png

Most of what we know about sharks comes from their portrayal by movies such as Jaws (1, 2 and 3), Open Water, Deep Blue Sea and a smattering of awful, completely scientifically inaccurate low budget films, a more recent one being the truly horrendous Sharknado and now Sharknado 2. Sweet Lord, as if one wasn’t enough! I can assure you that the last thing on a shark’s mind while being flung through the air by freak atmospheric whirlwinds is food.

True, a horror film about head bludgeoning coconuts probably wouldn’t clean up at the box office, but sharks really do get a bad rap from our insatiable appetite for being terrified in the comfort of our own homes while shovelling fistfuls of popcorn into our face holes. The fact of the matter is, sharks really aren’t that into you! And they’re as misunderstood as men with moustaches.

A hairy lip does not a paedophile make.

Creepy moustache guy

Shark Attack! Or Is It?

My good friend Christopher Reeves – marine biologist by day, superhero by night – raised this incredibly exigent point during one of our many intellectual and totally debauched conversations. Rather it was an exercise he regularly brings up with the bright volunteers that help out at the Seymour Marine Discovery Centre at which he works in Santa Cruz, California. He asks his students to close their eyes and imagine swimming in a cold, dark ocean and I’m going to ask you to do the same right now.

Imagine the feel of the cold salty water gripping your legs, arms and torso and the yawning depths of merciless dark seawater beneath you. A shark is nearby. The hairs on your neck stand up and an atavistic fear clutches at your breast. Imagine the shark: its lines, its inky black eyes, its snout, its rows of jagged, broken teeth.

Did the shark you pictured in your imagination look like this?

Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) in an attack

Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias)

I would put my money on the vast majority of your answers being “yes”. This is a great white shark… the one made famous by Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, Jaws, and later by Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film adaptation. MOST of the subsequent pant-soiling movies made about these fish are based upon the man-eating rampages of this very same species. So, it’s no wonder that our fear of sharks is not actually of the group as a whole, but specifically of great whites. It’s the reason they’re also referred to as “white death.”

Shark Diversity

In reality, the great white is only one of more than 470 different species of sharks in the oceans that comprise 70% of our planet’s surface. And these species are as diverse in habitats, diets and vocations as the crowds that make up a gay pride march. Great whites are amongst the largest species we know of, but sharks come in all shapes and sizes. Many species could easily fit in a paddle pool or even in a fish tank, while the biggest sharks – the whale shark and the basking shark – don’t even eat big fish or seals! Like baleen whales, they trawl the ocean with their mouths wide open, filtering the water for tiny plankton, crab larvae, krill, squid and micro-algae.

Whale shark and underwater photographer
Does a whale shark speak whale or shark?

These massive creatures are, like a vegetarian zombie, slow moving and completely disinterested in eating humans or any other large, fleshy animal for that matter. Braaaaains. That is, unless you were stupid enough to hang out near the mouth of a whale shark, in which case sheer bad luck would see you gagging the poor creature. In any case, you’d drown long before you were digested and I’m guessing that’s probably the more favourable option.

Dwarf_Lanternshark
“Dwarf Lanternshark” photograph by Javontaevious. Previously published: Javontae Murphy@ Facebook. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

On the other end of the size spectrum is the dwarf lanternshark, which is the smallest shark we know of according to the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.The dwarf lanternshark is thought to be the smallest species of shark in the world. I say “thought” because not even humans are arrogant enough to assume that every single species has been discovered and given a place into our taxonomy system. This particular shark lives along the upper continental shelf off of the coast of Venezuela and Columbia and at maturity, reaches a length of around 17 cm (± 6 inches). 6 Inches may be a whole lot of fun in the bedroom, but it’s certainly not going to send bloodied limbs flying in every which direction.

Lanternsharks produce light from tiny pores in their skin, which causes them to glow beautiful otherworldly colours. See? Size doesn’t always count. Pushed really, really hard, a lanternshark could probably give your toe a nip or at the very least a nasty suck, but they’re certainly nothing to be afraid of. In fact, they’re probably utterly terrified of you and so they should be. Ruthless overfishing of the Caribbean has put these sharks and many other species like them on the endangered list.

Why Do Sharks Eat Humans Then?

Great white shark

If you were a seal, a fish or a very unlucky seagull, you’d have every reason to get nervous around great white sharks or other similar carnivorous fish. Of course, sharing the water with a large predator would make even the most masculine of men scream like a four-year old girl, but the point is that we are not sharks’ natural prey. Shark attacks aren’t attacks at all… rather they are “accidents”. Like going on a second date with a guy who spends the whole evening talking to your boobs.

Sharks do make mistakes occasionally and appearances can be deceiving. A thrashing wetsuit-clad surfer on a torpedo-shaped board can quite easily pass for a delicious seal, so can you really hold them accountable for the gore that follows? At least we can blame alcohol for our poor decision-making. Sharks, will take a chomp, realise they’ve been duped and then tend to swim off or around in confusion. This is why so many shark bite victims have escaped with their lives.

Trust me. If an apex predator weighing more than 2,000 kg and having more teeth than a love-struck Tom Cruise wanted to eat you, it would. Consider your arm or leg to be a small sacrifice. An hors d’oeuvre.

So What Do We Need to Know About Sharks?

Funny shark picture meme

 Image Credit: WeKnowMemes.com

There are many hundreds of different species of sharks, but only a tiny handful have been known to take the occasional bite at a human being. Since larger sharks don’t hang around heavily populated beaches to indulge in easy feeding, we can only assume that these very rare events are cases of mistaken identity. We are simply not on the menu.

Does this mean that we don’t need to be afraid? Yes… but that’s not a license to be stupid either. Just because bears, wolves and other large predators don’t normally eat humans doesn’t mean you can go cavorting naked around the wilderness with a rasher of bacon strapped to your pink bits. And the ocean IS one big wet wilderness.

Just like Hugh Heffner’s mansion.

Sharks do not hunt human beings. They aren’t ruthless killing machines out to “get” you. They deserve much more understanding, far more respect and certainly far less blind fear and discrimination. Sharks are magnificent, powerful creatures and incredibly diverse and successful as a group.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Small shark in the ocean with amazing light ray

You are more likely to die from opening a bottle of champagne than by being eaten by a shark. Personally, I’d choose the shark… No one wants “died tragically from flying champagne cork” on their headstone and you didn’t even get to drink the champagne first! Choking, tripping, wind (the weather-related kind), bees and ANTS claim more lives per year than sharks. You love dogs and will readily walk up to one in the park for a scratch and a cuddle, but there are 20 canine-related deaths every year in the United States compared with sharks, which only claim one life every TWO years, according to the endless wisdom of National Geographic News. Hell, even cows pose a greater threat to human safety than sharks!

Sure, there are more cases of shark bites annually (16 in the U.S.) than there are actual fatalities (one every two years), but this is testament to the fact that they don’t like eating us. In most cases, a shark will leave you alone once they find out that you aren’t their type and you can’t say the same for tenacious love-struck human beings.

A Mathematically Accurate Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas science

The Wildlife Video That Will Make You Go “WHOA!” At The End

In an effort to attract attention to their home-shot videos, people often post them with elaborate and totally embellish titles like: “The Totally Best And Most Amazing Video Ever!” The heading of this particular video, however, really does say it all: “Most Amazing Wildlife Video Ever”.

I literally exclaimed “WHOA!!” at the end!

Video Source: “Most Amazing Wildlife Video Ever” uploaded by BestVideosEver911 on YouTube channel https://youtu.be/XPMZ9w8FcaE