Questions you never thought to ask

Scienceline brings you the best obscure science stories from 2011

December 27, 2011

The closer you look at the world, the stranger and more interesting it becomes. 2011 was no exception. The following stories come from people who dedicated themselves to obscure topics — from how to survive as an incompetent carnivorous plant to what makes a queen bee a queen. Their discoveries make great holiday party conversation starters — but consider finishing eating before sharing some of them.

1. The best part of William’s and Kate’s wedding? The ridiculous hats. Leave it to Mother Nature to raise the ante. Treehoppers look like cicadas outfitted in outlandish headgear that put the royal family to shame. Benjamin Prud’homme found that these headpieces are connected to the body by joints, making them less like a beetle’s horn and more like an extraneous wing. The gene Scr normally inhibits this type of growth, but somewhere in the past 250 million years, it lost its potency in the treehopper DNA.

2. Keeping with the theme of bugs and royalty, how do you become a queen bee? While beekeepers and entomologists have known for centuries that it was something in the royal jelly, Masaki Kamakura discovered that it can be pinpointed to a specific protein: royalactin. It’s not even bee-specific! When he fed royal jelly to fruit flies, they bloated up and turned into egg factories, just like a honeybee does.

3. One more bug thing, we swear! If you’ve ever had an Alien inspired nightmare about one day waking up to a xenomorph bursting through your chest, be glad you aren’t a ladybug. One particular species of wasp (Dinocampus coccinellae) injects its larva into the ladybug’s underbelly, a study says. A few days after it hatches, the larva emerges from inside the ladybug and spins a cocoon. Surprisingly, the ladybug is kept alive throughout the maturation process.

4. Did you know you could get tuberculosis from an elephant? Luckily, veterinarians may soon be able to test Asian elephants for TB using rapid DNA analysis, according to a study published in Clinical Microbiology. Scientists would extract bacterial DNA from the fluid elephants expel from their trunks. Tuberculosis infects about 6.3 percent of captive elephants in the United States. Elephant TB tests are currently slow and inaccurate.

5. The Pacific hagfish burrows into corpses on the ocean floor and eats their flesh from the inside out. Unlike other vertebrates, it may absorb amino acids through its skin as well as eating the nutrients, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

6. Most carnivorous plants are fantastic at catching insects, but the Raffles’ pitcher plant lags behind its peers. Now Borneo-based scientists report that it survives by supplementing its insect diet with bat guano. The plant’s deep, narrow pitchers provide a home for a bat species and collect their feces for digestion.

7. The hunt for new species usually takes place deep in the wilderness, but one Vietnamese scientist spotted an unknown type of lizard in a Mekong Delta restaurant in Vietnam. US herpetologists Lee and Jesse Grismer, who helped characterize the species, told National Geographic that it is likely a hybrid of two known species.

8. In case you ever wanted to know, duck semen can kill bacteria. Melissah Rowe at the University Oslo discovered that the brighter a mallard’s bill, the more antibacterial power it had. Perhaps that’s a reason why a vibrantly colored bill attracts all the lady ducks. Or maybe they’re looking at it from the opposite point of view, avoiding dull duck bills because they don’t want to catch avian STDs.

9. Who’d have thought that mathematicians could have skeletons in their closet? Back in the 1970’s, Moscow State University’s math department gave its Jewish applicants a different and substantially harder entrance exam to keep them out of the program. However, each problem had a relatively simple solution, allowing the faculty to “fairly” reject those students and wash their hands clean of any criticism. If you want to test your luck, Tanya Khovanova and Alexey Radul wrote a paper featuring 21 of these problems, and yes, it comes with hints and solutions.

10. By testing her hair follicles for arsenic, scientists could finally figure out what killed Jane Austen, Scientific American reported. Crime novelist Lindsay Ashford told Scientific American that the beloved author may have died of an accidental arsenic overdose. Ashford points to letters in which Austen records symptoms characteristic of arsenic poisoning and theorizes that she could have taken too much of a popular joint pain remedy that contained the poison. So far, there are no plans to administer the test. Perhaps in 2012?

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