New Zealand Scientists Catch Mysterious “Supergiant” Amphipods

A team of scientists, from the University of Aberdeen and National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), captured an elusive “supergiant” amphipod near deep-sea vents off the coast of New Zealand. Amphipods are crustaceans and are usually found in the deeper regions of the ocean.  You can kind of think of them as the insects of the sea. Although, to me they look like they could be some kind of alien monster if they were magnified. They are usually very tiny, ranging somewhere between 2 to 3cm. There is a “giant” species known from Antarctica which measures around 10cm. So what makes a “supergiant”? One of the “supergiant” amphipods caught on this expedition came in at a whopping 34cm long!

Supergiant Amphipod
Courtesy: Oceanlab, University of Aberdeen, UK.

The term “supergiant” stems from the 70’s when the elusive creatures were last caught off the coast of Hawaii. None have been caught since then until now. The team used a deep-sea vehicle designed by the University of Aberdeen equipped with a camera system, along with traps to capture the amphipods. The traps were set 7000 meters deep in the sea in the hopes of catching another elusive creature called the snailfish. When they pulled the traps aboard they got a big surprise. University of Aberdeen’s Dr Alan Jamieson said,

“The moment the traps came on deck we were elated at the sight of the snailfish as we have been after these fish for years.

“However, seconds later, I stopped and thought ‘what on earth is that?’ whilst catching a glimpse of an amphipod far bigger than I ever thought possible. It’s a bit like finding a foot long cockroach.”

Alan Jamieson holds one of the new finds. Courtesy: Oceanlab, University of Aberdeen, UK

When it comes to deep-sea exploration, persistence pays off. The team had been to the Kermadec trench, where these “supergiant” amphipods were discovered, twice before they made the grand find. Dr. Jamieson said, “a few days after the discovery we deployed all the equipment again on the same site and we didn’t photograph or capture a single supergiant; they were there for a day and gone the next.”

Deep-sea exploration has brought about many discoveries lately, and goes to show that there is so much left to be explored in our own little corner of the globe. Recently, we shared with you the discoveries found at the Cayman Trough where scores of shrimp previously unknown to man were found. We also shared with you the story of an Antarctic expedition that produced a new species of crab. Hopefully expeditions like these will help scientists tobe able to ascertain why these particular species get so much larger than their cousins.

For more information about this expedition, go to the University of Aberdeen’s website

LSU Professor Discovers World’s Smallest Vertebrate

Louisiana State University’s Dr. Christopher C. Austin made an itsy-bitsy, yet monumental discovery. His team found two new species of frogs, one of which is the tiniest vertebrate known to man. The previous record had been held by a small Indonesian fish. The tiny discovery was made during a three month long excursion to the tropical island of Papua New Guinea. Though the discovery was made in 2009, the findings were recently published in the Journal PLoS One.

When I say itsy-bitsy I mean tiny enough to fit on the tip of your finger. The frogs belong to the genus Paedophryne, which sports the smallest frogs in the world. The smallest of the two they named Amauensis after Amau Village in the Central Province of New Guinea. The tiny polliwog has an average measurement of 7 millimeters long. You can see this little guy pictured below, sitting on a dime.

Paedophryne Amauensis sitting on a dime (Courtesy of PLoS One)

The second of the two newly discovered species they named Swiftorum after the Swift family who funded the Kamiali Biological Station where the species was found. It is only slightly larger than its record-breaking cousin with an average size of 8.5 millimeters. You can see Swiftorum pictured below, in his natural habitat.

Swiftorum sitting in the wild. (Courtesy PLoS One)

Locating the frogs was not an easy task. Dr. Austin and graduate student Eric Rittmeyer, were intrigued by high pitched calls they were hearing on the forest floor. After several attempts to pinpoint the location of the sound, they decided to scoop up a bunch of leaf litter and bag it up. They then proceeded to search through the litter leaf by leaf until the tiny frog revealed itself. They were caught a little by surprise as they expected it to be an insect. Leaf litter on the forest floor provides essential moisture for these little guys to survive. It seems mini frogs have a tendency to dry out easily. According to the PLoS One publication, “this may explain the absence of diminutive frogs from temperate forests and tropical dry-forests, where the leaf litter is seasonally dry”.

This is a significant find because until recently, extreme sizes in nature were thought to be mostly supported in aquatic environments. For instance, the smallest known vertebrate before this discovery was a fish and the largest known is the blue whale. This led scientists to believe that extreme sizes were a result of buoyancy. Neither of these frogs live in water so this discovery challenges that notion.

For more information about Dr. Austin’s research, visit his laboratory page at the LSU Museum of Natural Science.

Hubble Pinpoints Farthest Protocluster of Galaxies Ever Seen

NASA announced in a press release yesterday, that astronomers using Hubble’s wide field camera discovered a cluster of galaxies at the beginning stages of development. This is the farthest away that a cluster such as this has ever been observed in the early Universe.  Michele Trenti, of the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, presented the results to the American Astronomical Society.

5 Galaxies
This composite image shows 5 bright galaxies clustered together nearly 13 billion light years away. (Courtesy NASA.GOV)

Early Cosmic Get-Together

Hubble was used to do a random sky survey when it came across these five small, but bright, galaxies clustered together in the farthest reaches of space. It is estimated that these galaxies were formed just 600 million years after the big bang. Clusters are the largest objects observed in our universe. They are usually comprised of hundreds of thousands of galaxies that are bound to each other by gravity. It’s sort of like a cosmic game of Pac-Man. These galaxies collide and swallow each other up to form larger galaxies. The galaxies observed in the image above are smaller than our own; however, they match ours in brightness.

“These galaxies formed during the earliest stages of galaxy assembly, when galaxies had just started to cluster together,” said  Trenti.  “The result confirms our theoretical understanding of the buildup of galaxy clusters. And, Hubble is just powerful enough to find the first examples of them at this distance.”

Long Distance Challenge

One of the biggest challenges is finding clusters bright enough to be seen 13 billion light-years away. Finding galaxy clusters this far back is challenging because they are so dim and scattered across the sky.  Trenti expressed the need to examine many different areas as she said, “the search is hit and miss. Typically, a region has nothing, but if we hit the right spot, we can find multiple galaxies.”

Because the systems were so dim, the astronomers honed in on the brightest galaxies. The brighter the galaxy, the more mass it has which, in turn, marks a spot where cluster construction is most likely to occur. Astronomers use computer simulations to determine the way that these clusters likely formed. It is likely that there are many other galaxies in the same region that are just too dim to see.  Based on the simulations, astronomers suspect that these bright galaxies form the central core of the cluster and will eventually form an elliptical giant similar to a closer cluster nearby, Virgo Cluster’s M87.

There is still some work to be done. The distances were measured based on color and the team will soon use spectroscopic observations, which measure the expansion of space. This will help astronomers precisely calculate the cluster’s distance and the velocity of the galaxies, which will show whether they are gravitationally bound to each other.


World’s Most Extreme Deep-Sea Vents Found

A team led by the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and the University of Southampton have discovered the world’s deepest hydrothermal vents boiling in the Cayman Trough, an undersea trench south of the Cayman Islands. The expedition uncovered a new species of  shrimp and may suggest that deep-sea vents are more widespread around the world than previously thought.

Black Smoker
Black Smoker at the BFV 5 Km Deep (Courtesy of

Dr. Jon Copley of the University of Southampton and Dr. Doug Connelly at the National Oceanography Centre used the National Oceanography Centre’s robot submarine, called Autosub6000 and a deep-diving vehicle, HyBIS, to reach the boiling depths of the Cayman Trough nearly 5 Kilometers below the surface. What they found were hydrothermal vents nearly a Kilometer deeper than anywhere else in the world. The vents may be hotter than 450 °C and are shooting a concoction of minerals more than a Kilometre into the ocean above. The team named the vent field the Beebe Vent Field (BVF) after the first scientist to venture into the deep ocean.

The researchers discovered a new species of shrimp which they named Rimicaris hybisae, after the deep-sea vessel they used to collect them. The shrimp are related to shrimp found at other vent sites along the Mid-Atlantic ridge. They are unique as they don’t have eyes, but rather a light-sensing organ on their backs to help them navigate around the vents. Pictured below, you can see a tightly woven bunch of shrimp surrounding a volcanic vent.

New Shrimp
A New Species of Shrimp Congregates on Volcanic Vent (Courtesy

Even more surprising was the discovery of black smokers on the nearby Mount Dent. ““Finding black smoker vents on Mount Dent was a complete surprise,” says Connelly. “Hot and acidic vents have never been seen in an area like this before, and usually we don’t even look for vents in places like this.” Discovering these vents in this location could mean that volcanic vents are more prolific than once thought.

Relatively speaking, we haven’t known about hydrothermal vents very long. Since their discovery, more than 500 new species have been revealed and we have barely scratched the surface of the amount of vents waiting to be explored. This research gives us a much better understanding of the dispersal of fauna throughout the vent system and the evolution of the ocean.

For more information about this expedition see the following links:

You may also enjoy the following Techie Buzz article:

Caught on Film: Mimic Octopus Gets Mimicked by Jawfish

Charles Caleb Colton once said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Some people like to mimic for entertainment, but animals do it for survival! The Mimic Octopus has long been known for its ability to transform its looks to protect itself from predators. However, Godehard Kopp, of the University of Gottingen in Germany, caught on film an unlikely partnership between a Mimic Octopus and a Black-Marble Jawfish. It appears that the Jawfish actually mimicked the Octopus as it changed colors.

Jawfish Mimics Octopus Banding (Courtesy Journal Coral Reefs)

The footage was taken on a dive in Indonesia. While it is not unusual to see the Mimic Octopus venture out under the guise of its own camouflage, seeing the Jawfish venture out was quite unusual. They are not very good swimmers and typically don’t venture out of the burrows they make in the sand. It appears that this one used “opportunistic mimicry” to transform its own colors to match that of the Octopus. This allowed the little guy to venture out, presumably to forage for food away from the confines of its burrow.

In the image below, notice how the Black-Marbled Jawfish makes itself appear to be a tentacle streaming from the Mimic Octopus. This is a great camouflage job because the Octopus is mimicking a deadly Lionfish pattern so that no predators will want to come its way.

Jawfish Mimic
Notice how the Jawfish looks like a tentacle.

Check out the video of the encounter below.

The ability that this Jawfish shows is unique and is not seen in its Japanese counterparts. For this reason, scientists believe this is opportunistic rather than obligate mimicry. A discovery like this shows how unique and diverse life can be in these coral reefs. Hopefully more can be done to protect this treasure.

For more information about this discovery, the original publication can be seen here.

Antarctic Deep-Sea Exploration Reveals Lost World

While space is often referred to as “the final frontier”, a grand and mysterious world awaits exploration in our own back yard. Scientists from the University of Oxford,University of Southampton, the National Oceanography Centre, and British Antarctic Survey have explored the nether regions of the Antarctic Ocean. What it revealed to them was a mysterious world teeming with life and may redefine our understanding of the biogeography of hydrothermal vents.

Hydrothermal Vents of East Scotia Ridge

Using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), scientists were able to explore the hydrothermal vents of the East Scotia Ridge (ESR). The vents were located in the extreme depths of the Antarctic Ocean. A map below shows the ridge location and it’s proximity to the other continents.

East Scotia Ridge
Map of the East Scotia Ridge (Courtesy PLoS Biology)

This expedition marks the first time that researchers were able to explore the depths of the ESR. Here they found hydrothermal vents called “black smokers”, like the one pictured below, which reach temperatures up to 382 degrees  Celsius.  The team reported their findings in this week’s  PLoS Biology.

Black Smoker Vent
An Example of the Black Smoker Vents Taken at the ESR Site (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)

Life in the Great Deep

Hydrothermal vents all over the world have proved to be a breeding ground for a variety of new fauna. The ESR site did not disappoint.

 The first survey of these particular vents, in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, has revealed a hot, dark, lost world’ in which whole communities of previously unknown marine organisms thrive’, said  Professor Alex Rogers of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology.

Rather than getting their energy from sunlight as most of the world we are familiar with, vent creatures gather energy from breaking down chemicals such as, hydrogen sulphide.  The following images highlight some of the wonderful discoveries that were made.

Unidentified Octopus
Unidentified Octopus (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)
Yeti Crab
A new species of Yeti Crab found at the ESR. (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)
Undescribed Seven Armed Predatory Star Fish
Undescribed Seven Armed Predatory Star Fish (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)

A Whole New World

Just as amazing as finding all of these new creatures, was the lack of other creatures familiar to hydrothermal vents across the globe. It was once thought the Antarctic region might have acted as a gateway connecting the vents of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. What turned out to be true was that this area is its own biological region.  Professor Rogers said, “Many animals such as tubeworms, vent mussels, vent crabs, and vent shrimps, found in hydrothermal vents in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, simply weren’t there.” Now they believe that vent systems may be more diverse globally and that the Antarctic Ocean may act as a barrier instead of a gateway between global vents.

These findings are yet more evidence of the precious diversity to be found throughout the world’s oceans,’ said Professor Rogers. Everywhere we look, whether it is in the sunlit coral reefs of tropical waters or these Antarctic vents shrouded in eternal darkness, we find unique ecosystems that we need to understand and protect.’

Such research is vital to our understanding of how these creatures are dispersed and prevents we humans from damaging the fragile environments of these creatures out of ignorance. It only goes to show how much there is still left to learn in our own world.

Year End Special: The Top Ten Science Stories Of 2011

No meteors crashed, no aliens descended. Yet, 2011 was by all means an eventful year! We take a tour of the geeky side of life, with a dash of science! Presenting below are the top 10 science stories in 2011. The list is completely the author’s choice and you are free to disagree with both the ordering and the content. Just let us know, if you do (or even if you don’t)!

Here goes…

Choice 10: Much ado about James Webb

The James Webb Telescope, a proposed super replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, has been under the weather and it has been hard going for NASA. There has been much talk about this telescope taking money out of the other NASA projects.

A mirror on the James Webb telescope. Isn't she a beauty!!

With several budget overruns and a similar number of missed deadlines, it was on the brink of extinction. We told you about the proposed plan to scrap the project altogether. It was then revived by further funding the project from the Senate.

Cannot miss article: How the US fund cuts affect Science

Choice 9: The Tevatron said Goodbye

The once biggest and baddest boy on the block, when it came to particle colliders, bid a timid goodbye this year, far overshadowed by the much more powerful LHC at CERN.

The LHC bids farewell to the Tevatron. (Look at the bottom-left box)

LHC will now carry the mantle of high energy physics research. However, the Tevatron will be missed. It was the first machine to clock 1 TeV energy scale.

Cannot miss article: The end of an era: Fermilab’s Tevatron shuts down A Tribute

Choice 8: Mission to Mars

Mars was a great place to visit for NASA, and not-so-great for Roskosmos this year. NASA launched the giant super hi-tech rover Curiosity’, which is set to replace the previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity is way more powerful and has a host of cool features.

The Curiosity Rover

On the other hand, Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, embarrassed itself with the failed attempt of putting Phobos-Grunt, a craft intended to be orbiting Phobos, the moon of Mars. The craft later made contact with Earth, but couldn’t be recovered!

Cannot miss article: The 10 Coolest Things about the Mars Rover Curiosity

Choice 7: To the Moon

Yeah, the ancients did think that the Moon could’ve been a not-so-smiling face, but we’ve been there, know better and wanted to go back. NASA decided to measure the gravitational field of the only natural satellite of Earth, and do so in style. Thus the GRAIL mission.

No, the moon’s still not habitable, but when it is, we’ll have Domino’s pizza there!

Oh, and yes, the moon did disappear twice this year. Here’re a collection of stunning images from across the world of the first eclipse in July (here) and from the second eclipse in December (here).

Cannot miss article: NASA releases never before seen photos of the moon showing previous moon missions

Choice 6: Planets outside our own Solar System

This has been a boom year for exoplanets! The Kepler Space Telescope found tonnes of planets orbiting other suns! The most promising of these have been Kepler 22b, the only planet found so far to lie in the Goldilocks zone. Further, we found two Earth sized planets around a sun-like star. For me, the best was the discovery of the planet which orbits two stars!

Cannot miss article:  Planet orbiting two stars a real-life Tatooine

Low Trans Fat Diet Equals Better Brain Function in Elderly

An article by Joseph Brownstein  on Live Science, reports a new study indicates that living a low trans fat lifestyle leads to better brain health in the elderly. “Older people with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins B, C, D, and E in their blood do better on cognitive tests than those with lower levels”, according to the study. Not only that, the study also found that high levels of trans fats actually hurt cognition.

Rubens Study of an Old Man
Rubens Study of an Old Man Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Gene Bowman, an assistant professor of neurology at Oregon Health and Science University, headed up the study. It involved 104 people with the average age of 87. The study was a follow up to a former study to address the problem of people not remembering what they ate. Drawing blood allows for scientists to measure the dietary intake of people and eliminates common mistakes people make when filling out questionnaires . The study was meant to discover the role diet plays in the aging brain.

Feeding the Brain

Recent research is starting to show that there is a definite correlation between brain function and what we eat. Trans fats have been the target of scrutiny among heart researchers and now Bowman believes, “it’s not too much of stretch to think that they’re bad for the brain”. Not only did the presence of trans fats hurt cognitive function, but researchers found a correlation between trans fats and brain shrinkage. If the findings of this study are confirmed, this may give doctors another tool to determine whether patients may need to supplement their diets to decrease the chances of cognitive decline.

Sources of Trans Fats

Trans fats were once thought to be a good thing. They increased the shelf life of many products and addressed the shortage of butterfats in the early 1900’s. It didn’t take long before the negative affects of trans fats were seen. According to Wikipedia, studies were showing the negative affects on coronary artery disease as early as 1956.  Trans fats are dangerous because they raise “LDL” (bad cholesterol levels) in the blood. Not only that, they also lower “HDL” (good cholesterol) in the blood. As of January 2006, the FDA requires all food labels to list trans fats.

WebMD lists these food types on their website as potential sources of trans fat:

  • cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and breads such as hamburger buns
  • some stick margarine and vegetable shortening
  • pre-mixed cake mixes, pancake mixes, and chocolate drink mixes
  • fried foods, including donuts, French fries, chicken nuggets, and hard taco shells
  • snack foods, including chips, candy, and packaged or microwave popcorn
  • frozen dinners
In conclusion, this study barely scratches the surface of the affects of trans fats in brain aging and is not without criticism. For instance, one critic states that the study was done mostly on well educated white people. There is a call for a more diverse population to be studied. It does however, seem to fit in with recent research that diet has a definite affect on cognitive function in the aging brain.

Vatican Preserves Ancient Texts Using NASA Technology

You might say they make strange bedfellows. The Vatican isn’t exactly known for the way it embraces science and technology, just ask  Galileo. Oddly enough though, the Vatican finds itself in a bit of a  quandary. How can one of the oldest known libraries preserve ancient texts for future generations? The answer to that question comes from a NASA developed technology used to preserve images from satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Vatican Library

Archivists at the library have already begun the task of scanning the delicate Tomes that it houses into a file format called FITS. FITS stands for Flexible Image Transport System and was developed by NASA in the late 1970’s. The format is open source and designed to always be backwards compatible. According to Wikipedia, there is a saying “once FITS, always FITS” to describe how all future implementations of this format must be backwards compatible. The format stores more than just an image. It contains a text header that contains instructions for processing the data it contains. An overview of FITS can be found on NASA’s website here.

The problem for the Vatican Library staff is that every time the ancients texts are handled, it presents the possibility to damage them.  Luciano Ammenti, director of the Vatican’s Information Technology Center, chose FITS because of its open-source approach, its longevity over several decades, and the fact that it’s not owned by any one company.  Having a format like FITS that will be compatible with computer systems long into the future will cut down on the necessity of having to handle these Tomes again just to convert them to the next big fad in imaging technology.

I think this all goes to show that science and religion don’t always have to be mortal enemies. Through the advances of science, people of faith will be able to delve deep into their origins for years to come, and scientists, such as anthropologists, will be able to see a timeline of human behavior and development over the course of  many years. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Guinness World Records Confirms World’s Shortest Woman

It’s not often that your 18th birthday is accompanied by a world record, but that is exactly what happened to Jyoti Amge of Nagpur, India today. Representatives from Guinness World Records traveled from London to Nagpur today to do final measurements and confirm that Jyoti is indeed the  shortest  living woman. She had already been confirmed as the shortest living teenager back in 2009, but she had to turn 18 to be officially pronounced World’s Shortest Woman. According to Guinness’ standards, she had to be measured 3 times within a 24 hour period by doctors to win the confirmation. Today, it’s official; she is  62.8 cm tall (2 ft 06 in). You can see her pictured below with her new title.

Jyoti Amge
Courtesy of Guinness World Records

Jyoti’s size is due to a type of dwarfism known as  achondroplasia. This means that she will likely grow no further than her current stature. Her small frame doesn’t prevent her from flashing a radiant smile and having big dreams. She actually hopes to someday be a Bollywood film star. Her family does everything they can to ensure that she reaches her dreams. She has been in school since she was 4 and, other than her size, is like any other student. She seems to take her size in stride. For instance, the Guinness World Records’ site quotes her as saying:

“I feel grateful to be this size, after all if I weren’t small and had not achieved these world records I might never have been able to visit Japan and Europe, and many other wonderful countries.”

Guinness World Records Adjudicator, Rob Molloy, said, “Jyoti encourages us all to look beyond mere size and to just celebrate our differences.” Below is a YouTube video that features Jyoti and her superstar smile.


If you are interested in learning more about Jyoti, visit Guinness’ website and look at the article “Ten Things You Need to Know about Jyoti Amge“.