Archive for May, 2012


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Stuck Ketchup Problem Solved by MIT Engineers

By: Natalie Wolchover, Life’s Little Mysteries Staff Writer
Date: 23 May 2012 Time: 01:10 PM ET
Ketchup gliding out of a LiquiGlide-coated bottle.. CREDIT: Fastcoexist
Tired of vainly thumping the bottom of a ketchup bottle, trying to knock loose that last inch of condiment? There’s good news: A team of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has invented a bottle coating that makes ketchup pour as easily as milk. They say it could save 1 million tons of perfectly good but inaccessible ketchup and other food from being thrown out each year — not to mention saving untold hours spent in frustration.MIT doctoral candidate Dave Smith and his team of mechanical engineers and nanotechnology researchers spent the past two months considering, and then solving, the notorious difficulty of pouring thick sauces out of bottles. They invented LiquiGlide, a slippery coating made of nontoxic, FDA-approved materials that can be applied to the insides of food packaging, such as ketchup and mayonnaise bottles, and honey jars.LiquiGlide is unique because it’s “kind of a structured liquid,” Smith told the website FastCompany. “It’s rigid like a solid, but it’s lubricated like a liquid.” The substance can be sprayed onto the surfaces of many types of packaging, including glass and plastic. As you can see in the video, the coating allows thick sauces that would normally move sluggishly against those materials’ surfaces to slide out of their containers, as if suspended in space. “It just floats right onto the sandwich,” Smith said.

As for what the slippery coating is made of, Smith isn’t telling, but he and his team worked only with materials that already have the FDA stamp of approval for use in food packaging, for ease of entry into the marketplace. “I can’t say what they are, but we’ve patented the hell out of it,” he said. The engineers are in talks with bottle companies already. [Science Reveals How Not to Spill Your Coffee When Walking]

LiquiGlide could have other future applications, too, Smith said. “We were really interested in — and still are — using this coating for anti-icing, or for preventing clogs that form in oil and gas lines, or for nonwetting applications like, say, on windshields.”

Stuck fluids, your days are numbered.

How Do You Weigh an Atom?


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How Do You Weigh an Atom?

By: Natalie Wolchover, Life’s Little Mysteries Staff Writer
Date: 22 May 2012 Time: 04:18 PM ET
A replica of a mass spectrometer used by the physicist J.J. Thompson in the 1910s. CREDIT: Creative Commons | Jeff Dahl
Imagine plopping an atom down on a scale. As you do so, skin cells that are trillions of atoms thick flake off your hand and flutter down all around it, burying it in a pile of atomic doppelgangers. Meanwhile, moisture and atmospheric particles shoot about, bouncing on and off the scale and sending its atom-sensitive needle whipping back and forth like a windshield wiper. And by the way, how did you manage to isolate a single atom in the first place?A moment’s thought shows you can’t weigh an atom on a traditional scale.Instead, physicists do it using an instrument called a mass spectrometer. Invented in 1912 by the physicist J.J. Thomson and improved incrementally over the past century, it works like this: First, physicists “ionize” a gas of atoms by firing a beam of particles at the gas, which either adds electrons to the atoms in it or knocks a few of their electrons off, depending on the type of particle beam used. This gives the atoms — now known as “ions” — a net negative or positive electric charge.

Next, the ions are sent through a tube in which they’re subjected to electric and magnetic fields. Both of these fields exert a force on the ions, and the strengths of the two forces are proportional to the ions’ charge (neutral atoms don’t feel the forces). The electric force causes the ions to change speed, while the magnetic force bends their path.

The ions are then collected by “Faraday cups” at the end of the tube, generating a current in wires attached to the cups. By measuring where and when the stream of ions hits the Faraday cups, the physicists can determine how much they must have accelerated, and in what direction, as a result of the electric and magnetic forces. Lastly, by way of Newton’s law of motion, F=ma, rearranged as m=F/a, the physicists divide the total force acting on the ions by their resulting acceleration to determine the ions’ mass.

The mass of the electron has also been determined using a mass spectrometer — in that case, electrons were simply sent through the instrument themselves. That measurement enables physicists to determine the mass of an atom when it has the correct number of electrons, rather than a dearth or surplus of them.

Using a mass spectrometer, physicists have determined the mass of a hydrogen atom to be 1.660538921(73)×10−27 kilograms, where the parenthetical digits are not known with complete certainty. That’s accurate enough for most purposes.

Ye old mass

What about before the days of mass spectrometers, when chemists were fuzzy about what an atom even was? Then, they primarily measured the weights of the atoms that composed various elements in terms of their relative masses, rather than their actual masses. In 1811, the Italian scientist Amedeo Avogadro realized that the volume of a gas (at a given pressure and temperature) is proportional to the number of atoms or molecules composing it, regardless of which gas it was. This useful fact allowed chemists to compare the relative weights of equal volumes of different gases to determine the relative masses of the atoms composing them.

They measured atomic weights in terms of atomic mass units (u), where 1 u was equal to one-twelfth of the mass of a carbon-12 atom. When in the second half of the 19th century, chemists used other means to approximate the number of atoms in a given volume of gas — that famous constant known as Avogadro’s number — they began producing rough estimates of the mass of a single atom by weighing the volume of the whole gas, and dividing by the number.

What is Flesh-Eating Bacteria?


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What is Flesh-Eating Bacteria?

By: Life’s Little Mysteries Staff
Georgia college student is in critical condition after getting infected by flesh-eating bacteria during a zip line accident last week. When the zip line broke, Aimee Copeland, 24, fell and cut her leg; she got stitches and went home to recover, but soon returned to the hospital with severe pain deep in her leg. The leg was amputated, but the infection spread to other parts of her body, and she most likely faces additional amputations of her hands and remaining foot.What is flesh-eating bacteria, and why is it so deadly? 

Necrotizing fasciitis, as Copeland’s condition is called, is a severe bacterial infection that destroys muscles, skin, and underlying tissue. (The word “necrotizing” refers to something that causes body tissue to die.) Although many types of bacteria can cause the infection, the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes— the same pathogen that causes Strep throat — brings on a particularly severe and often deadly form of the disease when it infects the fascia, or connective tissue that surrounds muscles, blood vessels and nerves.

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Necrotizing soft tissue infection develops when the bacteria enters the body, usually through a minor cut or scrape. The bacteria begins to grow and release harmful substances (toxins) that kill tissue and affect blood flow to the area. As the tissue dies, the bacteria enters the blood and rapidly spreads throughout the body.”

In the case of S. pyogenes, the bacteria produces a toxin known as a superantigen, which activates white blood cells called T-cells, causing an overproduction of proteins called cytokines. These wreck havoc on cells.

Immediate treatment of necrotizing fasciitis is needed to prevent death — a dilemma, as the disease can often go overlooked by doctors. The bacteria invades tissue deep inside a wound while the surface through which it entered appears to be healing normally, Dr. William Schaffner of the Vanderbilt University Medical School told Reuters.

“This often is a very subtle infection initially,” he said. “These bacteria lodge in the deeper layers of the wound. The organism is deep in the tissues and that’s where it’s causing its mischief.”

Treatment includes powerful, broad-spectrum antibiotics given immediately through a vein, surgery to drain the sore and remove dead tissue, and, in some cases, a dose of antibodies called donor immunoglobulins to help fight the infection.

The Wrong Way To Plan For The Future


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The Wrong Way To Plan For The Future.

By Charlie Jane Anders

The Wrong Way to Plan for the FutureWe all know that thinking ahead is the only way to succeed in life. But a ton of new research shows that the more you think about future goals and events, the more mistakes you’re likely to make. So how can you make forward-looking plans in a way that maximizes your chances of winning out?

We talked to the leading psychologists in the field and reviewed the research, to find out the wrong way — and the right way — to plan ahead.

All images by FuturePresent on Flickr.

According to the latest research, humans have a few problems when we think about our future goals. First of all, we tend to overestimate how much we’ll be able to get done in a particular time period. Second, we overstate how much our willpower will help us achieve our goals, because we think our will is all powerful when it comes to the future. And finally, the further we think into the future, the less we think concretely. All three of these things can lead to failure. However, there are some work-arounds that may make you more likely to make realistic plans.

The Trouble With Looking Forward

You absolutely have to think about the future, or you’re screwed. As Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert tells io9, “Anyone who doesn’t think that thinking about the future is important and useful should give away their retirement savings and subsist on ice cream.” Things like “401k plans and flossing” are proof that thinking about the future is a useful behavior, says Gilbert.

But there are a few problems that can arise when you’re thinking of the future:

The Wrong Way to Plan for the Future1) There’s the “planning fallacy,” which has been written about a lot. As Jennifer Whitson, a professor of Management at University of Texas, Austin explains it, this theory says that “people generally think they can accomplish more in a certain period of time than they actually can.” And it’s also possible, says Whitson, that the planning fallacy may intensify the further into the future you’re planning ahead.

2) But also, some new not-yet-published research by Cornell University’s Thomas Gilovich and Erik Helzer shows that the more you think about the future, the less clearly you’re likely to be thinking.

The Wrong Way to Plan for the FutureIn particular, there’s the study called “Whatever is willed will be,” which shows that people tend to overstate how effective their willpower will be in the future. Helzer and Gilovich did a whopping seven studies to show that people “consider the will to be a more potent determinant of future events than events that happened in the past.”

For example, in one study, they asked people about two girls who have a chemistry test coming up. Allie got a B+ on her last test, while Carolyn got a B-. And the participants were told that Allie has an aptitude for chemistry and enjoys her science classes. Meanwhile, they were told that Carolyn “is known among her friends to have a very strong will; when she sets her mind to something she has been able to surpass the goals she sets for herself.” If they had to bet $5 on which girl would do better on the next test, they were more likely to bet on the girl with the strong will than the girl with the aptitude for chemistry.

The Wrong Way to Plan for the FutureThere’s plenty more — other studies they did found that people generally just thought willpower was a stronger force in the future than in the past. In other words, even if your willpower totally failed you in the past, it was bound to succeed in the future. Also, in other research, Gilovich and Helzer show that people think of the past as being more rigid and dense than the future, which is more vague and open-ended. They choose darker colors for the past, when doing a color coded timeline, and lighter colors for the future.

The Wrong Way to Plan for the FutureAs Helzer tells io9:

To me, the crux of the issue is that the will is not actually more potent in the future, it just seems that way. This means that the future will seem more controllable and more amenable to shaping than it actually is (and than it actually was in the past), and my guess is that this gap is going to lead to performance decrements, rather than improvements. If people overestimate the amount of willful control that is present in the future, they’re likely to underestimate (and not plan for) other external impediments that could limit their future attempts.

Other research (PDF) shows that people place more value on events in the future than events in the past — even if you don’t yet know the outcome of those past events. This could lead people to work harder the more they focus on their future goals — or, says Helzer, it might just make you think you’ll work harder than you did in the past.

The Wrong Way to Plan for the Future3) And then finally, there’s Construal Level Theory, which shows that the further away something is (either in space, or in time) the more abstract it appears. So if you’re thinking about a goal that’s a few years ahead, you can easily fall into woolly thinking, instead of focusing on the concrete steps that will allow you to get there, says Whitson.

Adds Cornell University Psychology Professor David Pizarro:

We seem to think of events that are close-in-time very differently than those that are further away. In short, things that are close in time (or physical space) are seen as more concrete, and we tend to focus more on the details rather than on the ‘big picture’. Things that are further away are viewed as more abstract, and we focus more on the generalities involved.

The Wrong Way to Plan for the FutureWhen we think about an event in the near future, says Pizarro, we focus on the “how” aspects — like if you’re traveling to a conference tomorrow, you think about what you’re going to wear, how you’re getting to the airport, how early you have to get up, and so on. But if you’re thinking about going to a conference next year, you think about the importance of sharing your ideas, how meeting all those people will help your career, and perhaps the idea that travel is good for the soul.

The research on Construal Level Theory shows “that we focus more on our broad goals and priorities when thinking about the future, and that we make better decisions with distance. But we also lose sight of details, and commit ourselves to more than we think we should have,” Pizarro tells io9.

The Right Way to Make Plans

Harvard’s Gilbert says that there are right and wrong ways to think about the future — and the difference between the two can mean the difference between success and failure in planning. In a nutshell, you have to resist your tendency to think about the future in more abstract and optimistic terms — and maybe keep one eye on the mistakes of the past.

The Wrong Way to Plan for the FutureThink about your friends instead of yourself In another recent research paper, Helzer and David Dunning found that “peer prediction” is more accurate than “self-prediction.” In other words, you’re likelier to be accurate in estimating how well your friends will succeed than you are at estimating your own performance. So if you want to form a realistic sense of whether you can count on achieving Steps A, B and C in your plan, imagine you’re thinking about a friend rather than yourself. Another strategy: Ask yourself, “How would someone else expect me to perform at this?” You can even ask a friend for advice about whether you should expect to be able to reach a particular goal.

These sorts of questions can be important in many cases — like if you’re a student trying to decide whether to drop a course before the deadline, or a CEO promising to ship a product by a particular deadline.

The Wrong Way to Plan for the FutureThink about the past rather than the future In that same paper, Helzer and Dunning write:

There are many reasons to use past behavior as an indicator of future action and achievement. The overarching reason is that past behavior is a product of a number of causal variables that sum up to produce it — and that suite of causal variables in the same proportion is likely to be in play for any future behavior in a similar context.

In other words, things that went wrong in the past are likely to go wrong in the future, as well. We just tend to think of the future in more rosy terms. (The whole research paper is well worth reading, especially the discussion section, which is basically a how-to for people trying to make plans they can realistically achieve.)

Focus on concrete details There’s a ton of research on the subject of “Implementation Intentions,” which is basically the science of making plans that are focused on contingencies and detailed steps, rather than wishful thinking. Explains Helzer:

The Wrong Way to Plan for the Future

I think the concreteness of the plan matters a lot. The idea from the implementation intentions literature is to set up if-thens, so that you have concrete action plans to enact when, as you say, unexpected contingencies creep up. It’s also an attempt to take the thinking out of the whole procedure — if you can just “automatize” what you will do in response to distractions or temptations, then you don’t even have to rely upon willpower to keep you focused on the goal.

Take advantage of the good parts of abstract thinking And finally, you can take your tendency to think about the future in abstract terms, and use it to your advantage. Sure, this can lead to wishful thinking — but it can also make you more likely to make worthwhile sacrifices. There’s a ton of research by Ohio State University’s Kentaro Fujita, showing that the kind of abstract thinking that Construal Level Theory talks about can be helpful — if it leads to a preference for deferred gratification instead of instant gratification.

In other words, you can use this tendency towards more vague thought about the future to help yourself focus on future rewards instead of immediate ones.

The Wrong Way to Plan for the FutureBesides the focus on deferred gratification, using abstract thought “leads to decreased preferences for immediate over delayed outcomes, greater physical endurance, stronger intentions to exert self-control, and less positive evaluations of temptations that undermine self-control,” Cornell University’s Jun Fukukura tells io9. Also, other research shows that the further in the future your goal is, the more likely you are to find reasons to exercise self-control.

So if you focus your future thought on controlling your present behavior, and focus on future needs instead of current wants, you can take your innate tendency to loose thinking about the future and turn it to your advantage, says Fukukura.

Further reading: Myths About the Future That Could Ruin Your Life

Russia Will Build a Permanent Moon Base

Posted in THE UNIVERSE & SPACE SCIENCE on May 26, 2012 by 2eyeswatching

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Russia Will Build a Permanent Moon Base

Russia Will Build a Permanent Moon Base

We knew Russia had ambitious plans for interplanetary exploration, and on Tuesday, an announcement from the head of the country’s space agency really drove that point home. Russia wants to go to the Moon; and they want to stay there.

“We’re not talking about repeating what mankind achieved 40 years ago,” said Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, at Tuesday’s Global Space Exploration Conference in Washington, D.C. “We’re talking about establishing permanent bases.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard Russia talk ambitious plans for the Moon; back in March, leaked documents outlined a number of the country’s deep space mission objectives (including sending probes to Jupiter and Venus, and conducting “a demonstrative manned circumlunar test flight, with the subsequent landing of cosmonauts on [the Moon’s] surface”); but it’s the context of Tuesday’s announcement that makes it especially noteworthy.

For one thing, Russia’s not alone in their lunar ambitions; Japan has made its interests in Moon exploration clear, as well. Nor is Russia alone in its willingness to work with other countries in achieving its goals; the benefits of international collaboration, were, after all, a central theme at Tuesday’s space summit. Which calls attention to something important about Tuesday’s multinational conference: America’s conspicuous absence. Writes Nature News Blog’s Eric Hand:

Interestingly, the leader of the space agency whose headquarters is just a few blocks away [from the conference] was not on the stage. That’s because NASA administrator Charles Bolden was in Florida, watching the attempt by SpaceX to send its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station.

But perhaps it was somewhat appropriate for NASA to be absent. Increasingly, the agency has had a hard time consummating its joint ventures, and Europe in particular has had to turn elsewhere for partners. [Hand’s last point is in reference to NASA backing out of ExoMars – a joint Martian mission program between NASA and the European Space Agency — due to budgetary constraints.]

It will be interesting to see how things unfold in the next five, ten, twenty years. America, for the most part, has turned its attention toward asteroids and Mars, not the Moon, so it’s unclear how Russia and international collaborators pushing for its colonization might impact the U.S.’s own plans for space. If nothing else, it should be exciting to see as many areas of space exploration being pursued by as many countries as possible. [Nature | Aviation Week | Global Space Exploration Conference]

Top image via
Contact Robert T. Gonzalez

10 Surprising Things That Bacteria Like to Eat


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10 Surprising Things That Bacteria Like to Eat

10 Surprising Things That Bacteria Like to Eat

You’ve probably heard of necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh-eating bacteria. But bacteria do not actually eat human flesh. They’re actually trying to gobble up something a lot weirder. Here are ten of the stranger things bacteria naturally (and unnaturally) eat. You’ll never look at dirty underwear the same way again.

10. Nuclear Waste The bacteria Geobacter sulfurreducens changes the isotopic form of uranium through the transport of electrons, sucking up energy from the electron gradient and creating a stable, solid form of uranium in the process. This solid form of uranium is easier to recover in clean up efforts. These bacteria are currently being studiedat uranium-contaminated sites in Washington and Tennessee.

9. Arsenic Arsenic is poisonous to humans, killing by quickly disrupting the production of ATP in cells. The GFAJ-1 strain of Halomonadaceae, a bacteria found in some California lakes, thrives in the presence of arsenic. When scientists substituted arsenic for phosphorous in nutrient sources, GFAJ-1 easily substituted arsenic for phosphorous in the creation of proteins. The researchers controversially suggested this quality could increase the probability of finding extraterrestrial life, as phosphorous may not be essential to all life forms.

8. Crude Oil Several types of bacteria naturally consume oil, but in the early 1970s General Electric scientist Ananda Chakrabarty engineered a form of Pseudomonas putida capable of consuming oil in a much more efficient manner. A strain of Alcanivoraxnaturally appeared and consumed oil plumes generated from the Deepwater Horizon spill as well.

7. Caffeine Researchers at the University of Iowa found an unusual food source for Pseudomonas putida CBB5 – caffeine. The group fed CBB5 caffeine as it’s only source of nutrition, with Pseudomonas putida CBB5 eventually metabolizingcaffeine into carbon dioxide and ammonia.

10 Surprising Things That Bacteria Like to Eat 6. Human Waste Bacteria are commonly used to break down waste at sewage treatment plants, but supplying oxygen for the bacteria becomes a problem. The bacteria Brocadia anammoxidans is able to survive in the absence of oxygen by living off of ammonia and nitrite, two molecules prevalent in human waste.

In the process of consuming human waste, the bacteria excrete hydrazine, a molecule used as a thruster fuel for space probes and as a propellant for military artillery.

5. Rocks Bacteria don’t necessarily eat large rocks, but their acidic secretions dissolve them. This is becoming a problem in many abandoned mines within Coloradowhere antiquated blasting techniques left massive cracks in mine walls.

These cracks expose the remaining minerals inside to unwelcome water and bacteria. When the bacteria consume ore containing sulfur, they can excrete sulfuric acid, allowing for the oxidation of iron and causing damage to other rocks if enough acid enters the surrounding water.

4. Nothing for a very long time A 2009 expedition grazed the bottom of the Pacific Gyre, so that researchers from Denmark’s Aarhus University extracting 90 foot cores of sediment. Within the sediment they found an unnamed form of bacteria that went quite along time without substantial food due to a scarcity of nutrients in the sediment. The sediment surrounding the bacteria could be up to eighty-six million years old, so these microbes went quite a while without a nice meal, slowly metabolizing the nutrients they could find.

3. Gonads A strain of the bacteria Wolbachia targets an interesting part of the Aedes aegypti mosquito – the gonads. The bacteria doesn’t destroy the entire reproductive organ, but they make a home there and alter the course of reproduction. While this is a cruel move on the part of Wolbachia, it does prevent the mosquitos from carrying the Dengue virus, a virus that infects 50 million people in third world countries each year.

2. The Titanic The remains of the RMS Titanic sit a few hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland and two miles below the ocean surface. At this depth, bacteria deemed Halomonas Titanicae are consuming the steel of the Titanic as a fuel source. The only material the bacteria stay away from on the ship are brass items. Brass contains copper, which quickly killsmost bacteria.

10 Surprising Things That Bacteria Like to Eat 1. Dirty Astronaut Underwear Living on the International Space Station creates a number of problems. In the late 1990s, Russian scientists created a cocktail of bacteria to degrade the underwear of astronauts to cut down on waste, with the hopes of harnessing the resulting methane gas to use as fuel.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are only allowed to change their underwear every three days due to waste disposal issues, so they might be looking forward to the implementation of this system.

Top image shows colonies bacteria Escherichia coli growing in a agar plate in an image from bjarkihalldors/Flickr. Additional images courtesy of NOAA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, ninasaurusrex/Flickr, the International Bird Rescue Research Center, jasmined/Flickr, mrlego54/Flickr, and Christian Rößler/CC. Sources linked within the article.

Contact Keith Veronese:

Whales have a sensory organ unlike anything we’ve ever seen


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Whales have a sensory organ unlike anything we’ve ever seen

It’s possible that whales can sense things that no other living creatures can. Scientists have discovered a grapefruit-sized mass of vessels and nervous tissues located in whales’ chins, and they believe it’s an entirely new kind of sensory organ. It’s possible the organ is what allows these massive creatures to eat using a lightning-fast mouth movement called “lunge feeding.”

To find out more, we spoke with the study’s lead researcher, paleobiologist Nick Pyenson. He says this sensory organ is just one more thing that makes whales like “mammals from space.”

The first thing you need to understand about baleen whales is that they’re enormous. The biggest of the baleen whales are known as rorqual whales, a group that includes humpback whales, fin whales and, of course, the blue whale — the largest animal to ever live.

Animals as large as rorquals obviously need plenty of food to survive. To acquire that food, they rely on their uncommonly large mouths and a technique known as lunge-feeding. When lunge-feeding, a hungry whale will accelerate to great speeds and open its mouth wide, allowing its pleated throat to expand like a parachute while taking in a giant gulp of water. The mouth then swings shut, and the whale begins the process of straining its prey through filter-like “mouth hairs” known as baleen. Fish, krill, and various other sea creatures are caught in the baleen, and water is expelled.We know rorquals lunge-feed because we’ve seen them do it. What’s less clear is how they go about orchestrating the behavior, which involves the careful cooperation of several enormous anatomical structures. The scale, quickness and precision of rorqual feeding behavior is nothing short of spectacular. In today’s issue of Nature a team of researchers led by paleobiologist Nick Pyenson describes the discovery of a heretofore unknown sensory organ, located in the chin of rorqual whales, that they believe is responsible for coordinating that behavior.

“In blue whales, jaws can be up to six meters long, and those jaws open and close under water in les than ten seconds,” explains Pyenson in an interview with io9. Speed is important, “especially if you want to capture a big swarm of krill before they disperse.”

But lunge feeding-involves more than opening one’s mouth and blindly rushing a group of prey. Pyenson says that a whale needs to be able to sense what’s going on inside its mouth and respond to that sensation in turn, actively controlling both the state of its throat pleats and the positioning of its jaws in order to capture as much prey as possible.

So when Pyenson and his colleagues happened upon a large, nerve-laden mass positioned between the jaws and throat-pleats of dissected fin and minke whales (two rorqual species), it wasn’t long before they realized that the fleshy structure might be implicated in the coordination of the whales’ mouth movements.The organ rests inside the whale’s chin, in the gap between the whale’s bony jaws (pictured above, click to enlarge). The structure is pinched by the jaws, explains Pyenson, “and compresses through the course of a lunge.” But the organ also sits atop a y-shaped stem of fibrous cartilage that connects to the whale’s throat pouch. All this is wired up to the whale’s sensory nervous system. The result is an organ that is well-placed anatomically to help control both the flexible, blubbery tissue of the whale’s throat, and the bony tissue of the jaws, “coordinating both hard and soft tissue together, and linked mechanically to both sets of tissue types.”

What’s really interesting about this find is that the organ appears to be missing from smaller whales, a fact that could point to the organ’s evolutionary importance:

“In terms of evolution, the innovation of this sensory organ has a fundamental role in one of the most extreme feeding methods of aquatic creatures,” said co-author Bob Shadwick.

“Because the physical features required to carry out lunge-feeding evolved before the extremely large body sizes observed in today’s rorquals, it’s likely that this sensory organ — and its role in coordinating successful lunging — is responsible for rorquals claiming the largest-animals-on-Earth status,” he explained.

When we asked Pyenson if there was a human sensory process that he thought this organ could be most closely tied to, he said it was difficult to say, but was a good enough sport about it to take a shot. The nerves and connective tissue that comprise the organ, Pyenson says, show the hallmarks of what are known as mechanoreceptors:

[Humans] have different mechanoreceptors all throughout our skin and joints that relay information about position and pressure. It’s an unusual structure, and what’s really unusual about it is its position. But it’s not about temperature, it’s not taste, it’s really about movement and pressure. That’s probably the closest analogy we have.

The more we investigate the ocean’s largest mammals, the more mind-boggling discoveries we seem to make. Pyenson notes that studies like this one are notoriously difficult to perform, and that whale anatomy is something that remains incredibly mysterious to researchers.

“Whales are like mammals from space,” he explains. “they just have all these strange adaptations to living life in the water.”

“It’s a great irony that we’ve hunted and studied large baleen whales for well over 100 years, and for all those thousand and thousands of whales that have ben killed, nobody’s ever looked at the anatomy at this level of detail. We are still only beginning to understand the anatomy of the largest ocean predators of all time.”

The researchers’ findings are published in today’s issue of Nature.

Top image by Duncan Murrell/Steve Bloom Images / Barcroft Media; illustrations by Carl Buell
Contact Robert T. Gonzalez: