Calling our planet ‘Earth’ seems to be less and less appropriate – not only is its surface mainly liquid but now it seems there are also vast quantities of water hidden miles below our feet.
Ringwoodite may sound like an unpleasant disease but actually it’s a very rare mineral that until now had only been found in meteorites. It is a form of the mineral peridot and was believed to exist in massive amounts deep underground – 400 to 700 kilometres beneath the surface, in the transition zone between the upper and lower mantles.
Naturally, scientists haven’t been able to do any fieldwork at such massive depths, but now a diamond scientist has discovered the first terrestrial sample of this water-rich gem, indicating that there must be vast quantities of water deep within the earth.
Ringwoodite contains a significant amount of water – about 1.5% of its weight – which shows there are at least local wet spots deep in the earth and it may be that the transition zone contains as much water as all the surface oceans put together.
Apparently the fact that we are such a soggy planet has implications for the study of plate tectonics and vulcanism as it affects how rocks melt, cool and move below the crust.
Mesopelagic fish live in the twilight zone of the ocean, between 200 and1,000 metres down and are the most numerous vertebrates in the biosphere.
Coral reef ecosystems may pack in more life per square metre than the rest of the ocean, but the sheer volume of water in the mesopelagic or ‘middle of the sea’ regions means the fish there vastly outweigh all the rest put together.
Stocks of mesopelagic fish have been estimated at 1,000 million tons but scientists have just calculated a figure ten times higher. This has significant implications for our understanding of carbon fluxes in the ocean and the operation of what, up until now, we have thought of as ‘ocean deserts’.
Mesopelagic fish rise up from the depths at night to feed and sink back down at dawn to avoid predators. This behaviour has a massive effect on the movement of organic matter in the ocean, which is the engine driving the biological pump that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Instead of this CO2-laden organic matter slowly sinking from the surface of the ocean, it is rapidly transported some 500-700 metres deep and released as faeces.
These fish also act as a link between plankton and top predators and have a key role in reducing oxygen from the depths of the open ocean.
This week a group of scientists have confirmed the connection, first suggested last year, that ocean salmon use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate.
Experimenters found that juvenile Chinook salmon are programmed to know where to go and how to navigate long before they even reach the ocean. Scientists believe the salmon must be very sensitive because the earth’s magnetic field is relatively weak, so it wouldn’t take much to interfere with their ability to navigate.
Many structures contain electrical wires or reinforcing iron that have the potential to affect the orientation of fish at an early stage of their life cycle. Of course, there are also natural disruptions to the magnetic field, such as chunks of iron in the earth’s crust but salmon will have had thousands of years to get used to those.
Juvenile salmon are at their most vulnerable when they first enter the ocean as they have to adapt to a saltwater environment, find food, avoid predation and begin their journey. If something affects their ability to navigate, they could head off in the wrong direction, end up in a barren part of the ocean and starve.
A team of engineers has developed a group of tiny bio-hybrid machines that can swim like sperm to move through biological fluids on their own.
These bio-bots are modelled on single-celled creatures with long tails, or flagella, and are a combination of a flexible polymer body and a series of heart cells. These muscle cells, when cultured near the junction of the polymer head and tail, self-align and synchronise their beating, sending a wave down the tail, which moves the bio-bot forwards.
Quite how these heart cells communicate with each other is still a mystery, but they must be doing so otherwise the beats wouldn’t become synchronised and the tail wouldn’t move.
The team have also built a two-tailed bot which moves even faster and are daring to dream of self-navigating future bots that react to chemicals or light, opening opportunities for medical or environmental applications.
An unexpected side-effect of the European Union’s policy on bio-fuels (basically, let’s have lots of it) is that we need even more wild pollinators like bees and hoverflies – and there just aren’t enough to go round.
It seems that demand across Europe for pollination services has risen five times faster than the number of bee colonies. Countries like the UK, France, Germany and Italy just don’t have enough honeybees to do the job. In fact, the UK is almost the worst off, with less than 25% of the honeybee colonies it needs. Only the Republic of Moldovia is worse off and it is both the poorest country in Europe and the one most reliant on agriculture for its income.
Taking Europe as a whole, it is estimated there is a deficit of a staggering 13.6 million colonies.
Of course, honeybees are needed for more than just bio-fuel crops. Their value to the agricultural industry in general is put at nearly £9 billion a year, with farmers using placed hives for more than 100 different fruit and vegetable crops.
If you have the space and the inclination to help plug the gap and give yourself (and the rest of us) greater food security, go to the British Beekeepers Association website (www.bbka.org.uk) and find out how.
Caterpillars lose their appetite if the weather is too hot or too cold, but can put on up to 20% of their body weight in an hour if the temperature is just right.
Their chances of survival depend totally on this ability to eat voraciously, grow rapidly and quickly become a butterfly so climate change could be disastrous for them.
However all is not gloom and doom as two butterfly species in Colorado and California have managed to evolve fast enough to feed rapidly at higher temperatures than their great-great-great-grandparents of 40 years ago.
The two types of Sulphur butterfly have evolved slightly differently – one eating faster just at higher temperatures, the other eating faster at both high and low temperatures – but both are better equipped to cope with a hotter, more variable climate than their recent ancestors.
Of course, these are only two out of thousands of species of butterfly so it would be stupid to assume every caterpillar is managing to adapt as quickly, but maybe creatures with such a supercharged metabolism have a head start?
This is the tenth year camera manufacturer Olympus has sponsored a ‘light microscope photography contest’ and here are some of the stunning entrants:
First place went to this Humped Bladderwort trap entrance, showing the open trap of the aquatic carnivorous plant with many smaller microscopic plants inside.
I’d like to introduce you to Desmidiales, which is a type of green algae and this photograph shows ‘a mandala made of Desmids’.
Last but far from least is a section through a lily flower bud.
Amazing aren’t they?
Around 35 million years ago (give or take a million or two) a massive meteor blasted into the floor of a shallow ocean and created a 56-mile wide crater, now known as Chesapeake Bay in North America.
Apart from all the usual surface damage such an event would cause, devastating the local ecosystem, it also created havoc below ground. Aquifers were seriously deformed and pockets of saltwater-bearing rocks left stranded, trapped behind the walls of the impact crater. The state of Virginia has a well-known “inland saltwater wedge” whose boundary with fresh groundwater appears to coincide with the outer rim of this ancient crater.
Now even more salty groundwater has been found, over half a mile below the waters in the Bay and at 100 – 145 million years old, it is the oldest sizeable body of seawater so far discovered on the planet.
Interestingly, this ancient pool of seawater is twice as salty as modern sea water, but it is too soon to speculate why.
What with the weather and the price of heating, solar or PV panels are looking increasingly attractive but they have two major drawbacks.
For a start, they are very shiny and so reflect a lot of sunlight straight back into the sky and secondly, they are a devil to try and keep clean (unless you own enough land to be able to have them at ground level).
However, help may be at hand, from the miraculous and astonishing nano-technology. Scientists suggest it may be possible to add a nanoscopic relief pattern to the cells’ surface. This would give us the triple whammy of making them non-reflective (significantly improving their efficiency), non-stick and self-cleaning.
The “features” of the nano-pattern on the cells are so small that individual bits of it are shorter than the wavelength of light, trapping sunlight and ensuring more of its energy is spent in electricity generation.
The pattern also makes the surface of the cell behave like a lotus leaf, which is very water repellent, so not only will it offer droplets no grippable surface, but cleansing rain will also run off, leaving the panel clean and dry.