Saturday, July 31, 2010

Moon Sketch

This is a sketch from the British comedy show "That Mitchell and Webb Look." Yay for British humor :-)

Sandy Solutions

Apparently it is a wonderful day for astronomical news. Who knew? I'm one of those people who loves to read about astronomy (particularly planetary science) but never actually goes outside and looks up. Anyway, this next story I found in a couple of places and thought it was pretty interesting.
Way back in 1655 Christian Huygens discovered the moon Titan orbiting around Saturn. In fact, it is Saturn's largest moon and for a long time it was thought to be the largest moon in the solar system. After all, it is bigger than the planet Mercury. Alas, it was then realized we had based that judgement by measuring from the center to the edge of the atmosphere instead of from the center to the surface. But a big ole thick atmosphere on a moon is pretty neat all in itself. The moon runs about -180 degrees Celsius (-290 degrees Fahrenheit), cold enough for liquid methane to rain down and collect into lakes, rivers, and seas. Other parts of the surface, particularly the equatorial regions, are covered in giant sand dunes. These dunes are approximately 1 km (~0.5mi) wide, tens to hundreds of kilometers long, more than 100 m (300ft) high, and composed of organic hydrocarbons.

So lets take a look at a particular paradox that exhists on Titan. What we know about the rotation of planetary atmospheres plus data from the Huygens probe (which landed on Titan's surface) tells us that surface winds should go east to west. Then the Cassini spacecraft sent images of Titan's equatorial dunes which suggested that the winds were moving west to east. A new paper in Aeolian Research, and a related paper in Science, attempt to explain this phenomenon.

These papers propose that there are seasonal changes on Titan that reverse the wind patterns for a short period. The equinoxes appear to be particuarly important. Now it is easy to start thinking of other planets like you think of your own, but Saturn is a large planet to orbit around and it is very far away from the sun. One year on Titan is about 29 Earth years, and during that time the moon will have two equinoxes. These are times when the heat from the sun creates atmospheric upwellings, causing the winds to reverse and accelerate (kinda like monsoons on Earth). Short gusts of west-to-east winds occurring intermittently over two years are so strong that they transport the dunes' sand more effectively than the normal east-to-west winds, causing these reverse striations in the dunes.

Take a look through the articles:
Tokano, Tetsuya. (2010) Relevance of fast westerlies at equinox for the eastward elongation of Titan's dunes. Aeolian Research: In press. (DOI: 10.1016/j.aeolia.2010.04.003)

Lorenz, Ralph D. (2010) Winds of Change on Titan. Science: 329(5991), 519 - 520. (DOI: 10.1126/science.1192840)


(image credit: NASA/JPL)

The Sky is Falling

Are you ready for the Perseid meteor shower? This year's shower occurs on August 11-14, and apparently it is supposed to be one of the best in recent years. Check out MeteorWatch and their Twitter feed for a countdown and more info.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Ants on High

You're an ant, and you're thiiiis big (you can't see it but I'm holding my fingers very close together). How do you know how far away you are from your nest? Is there some way you can judge distance?

You're a scientist, and you're thiiiis big. Right, ok, nevermind. How do you design an experiment to see how ants measure distance?

I'll give you a second to think on it...

You're gonna love this one. So, it is known that ants use the sun kinda like a compass so they know which direction they are going, and they have a component in their brains which acts as a body clock so they know how long they've been gone. Well, this paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology shows how ants count their steps in order to judge distance.

In the study, researchers used Desert ants (Cataglyphis fortis) from a field site near Maharès, Tunisia. First, they trained the ants (Fun Job #1: Training ants) to walk a distance of 10 m in a linear alloy channel from their nest entrance to a feeder due south and back again. All the ants got marked with a color (Fun Job #2: Painting ants) and their leg lengths were manipulated to test their ant-odometers. And here's where we get creative. The researchers wanted to both shorten, lengthen, and keep the same various ants' legs, altering their stride length. To shorten, tarsal segments were removed or the legs were severed mid-tibia (snip, snip). To lengthen the legs, hairs from a pig were individually Superglued onto the end of each leg, extending it by about 2-3 mm (Fun Job #3: Supergluing itty-bitty hairs to itty-bitty ant legs). Oh yeah, ants on stilts!! They allowed the ants to go from their nest to the feeder, there they altered their leg length, allowed them to pick up some food, and then let them try to find their way home. Using a high-speed camera, the ants were filmed as they walked down the channel (Fun Job #4: Going through high speed video frame by frame counting ant steps). The results showed that ants that had their legs lengthened overshot their nests, and ants that had their legs shortened didn't walk far enough. If the ants-on-stilts or ants-with-stumps went to the feeder from the nest and then back again they judged the distance correctly, showing that they have the ability to quickly adjust to their new leggy situation. The paper itself goes over supporting/rejecting various hypotheses as to why, but as I'm just focusing on the fact that they put ants on stilts I'll leave the discussion section of the paper for you to read.

Here's your reference:
Wittlinger, Matthias, Rüdiger Wehner and Harald Wolf (2007) The desert ant odometer: a stride integrator that accounts for stride length and walking speed. Journal of Experimental Biology: 210, 198-207. (DOI: 10.1242/jeb.02657) (or this Link)

(image credit to the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecologists, Markus Knader)

Friday, July 16, 2010

On the Rails

High speed trains. You ask me, I say they are a wonderful idea as long as someone is willing to pony up the money to build the infrastructure. That money thing seems to be the problem in the U.S. at least (how many light rail laws have passed with no actual trains being built?). Anyway, take a look at this proposed train in Britain.

The Mercury Train is a design of Paul Priestman and Priestmangoode, the designer of Britain's widely used Virgin Pendolino train cars. Priestman is determined to convince Britain that a high-speed, high-tech train such as this is the key to achieving sustainable, low-carbon transportation which will invigorate the economy.

The train is a 400 meter long double-decker that travels at 225 mph. Such speed is thanks in part to the extended nose of the train.It houses commuter seats outfitted with entertainment systems, private compartments, a play area for kids, and a bar and lounge.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rosetta Meets a Stone

Over the weekend, on July 10th at 16:10 GMT, ESA's Rosetta spacecraft flew by 21 Lutetia, an asteroid 454 million km from Earth, the largest asteroid ever visited by a satellite. The spacecraft is on its way to a 2014 rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and on its way it was perfectly lined up to skim by the asteroid. By 'skim' we're talking it passed by at only 3,162 km (1964 mi) away, this at a speed of 54,000 km/hr. During its flyby, Rosetta took data on 21 Lutetia's surface, dust environment, exosphere, magnetic field, mass, and density. It also took some spectacular close-up images (details down to a scale of 60m) using its OSIRIS instrument, a camera that combines wide and narrow angles. The asteroid is shown to have a battered, cratered surface which includes a giant bowl-shaped depression stretching across much of one side of the asteroid. The photos suggest it is a very old object, likely left over from the formation of the solar system. These images also confirm that Lutetia is an elongated body, with its longest side approximately 130 km (80 mi) long. After its minute-long flyby, Rosetta began transmitting data to Earth for analysis, so expect more interesting findings from one of the oldest, close objects we've observed.

(image credit ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team)

Summer Skywatching

You don't need a telescope to see some really great stuff in the night sky. You can see stars, planets, meteors, comets, and even the International Space Station, all with the naked eye and all you have to do is go outside (darker is better) and look up. Here are some websites via Astronomy Cast that can help you figure out what you are looking at/for and when it happens:

The SkyMaps Website

Octo on Ice

I may not know who you are, but I would guesss that in all likelihood you will say that octopuses are really neat. So check this out! Its a study about the venom of Antarctic octopuses.

The research was conducted on four Antarctic octopus species (Adelieledone polymorpha, Megaleledone setebos, Pareledone aequipapillae, and P. turqueti) collected from the coast off George V's Land, Antarctica. The scientists investigated the biochemical properties of extract from the posterior salivary glands of these four species. These samples were assayed for alkaline phosphatase (ALP), acetylcholinesterase (AChE), proteolytic, secreted phospholipase A(2) (sPLA(2)), and haemolytic activity. ALP is an enzyme that is also found in spider and snake venom and is thought to help immobilize prey. AChE breakes down acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter), disrupting neuromuscular function. Proteolytic enzymes sever peptide bonds, breaking down proteins. sPLA(2) hydrolyzes phospholipids at the sn-2 position to form fatty acid and lysophospholipid products. Haemolytic refers to the break down of blood or disintegration of red blood cells.

So lets break the results down:
ALP activity - all species
AChE activity - little activity in any species (but results were inconsistent)
Proteolytic activity - all species
sPLA2 activity - all species
Haemolytic activity - all species but weak; P. turqueti had weak to none

So the octopuses have a nice venom cocktail at their disposal. One interesting finding though was that some biochemical activity, like ALP, were tested at two different temperatures: 0 degrees Celcius and 37 degrees Celcius. The researchers found that the biochemicals actually worked better at the colder temperatures, suggesting long term evolution of the chemical structure for optimal function at low temperatures.

Alright, so they tested to see if a bunch of stuff was there. What does that matter? These chemicals characterize the venom itself. They also collected the dietary and morphological data on these species from the literature in order to explore the ecological and evolutionary importance of venom. It is important to note that the authors point out that few clear venom-related adapations in diet or anatomy were present in these species. For example, A. polymorpha feeds on amphipods and polychaete worms, so why exactly is venom necessary? But perhaps that is an experiment for another study.

Here's the article:
Undheim EA, et al. (2010) Venom on ice: First insights into Antarctic octopus venoms. Toxicon: published online. (PubMed link)


(image from via Census of Marine Life)


You know how you can hear about something and it just sticks in your brain until you have to look it up? That's how this story went for me. I mean, how can you not remember a story about mustachioed fish?

When it comes to sexual selection in the animal world, it is the usually the sex that puts more effort (and has more to lose) into the results that gets to be the choosy sex. Usually this means females get to be picky. After all, eggs are more expensive than sperm and females often end up contributing quite a bit with parental care. This choosiness means that males need to impress females through the evolution of secondary sexual traits. This could be, and usually is, just about anything: elaborate feathers, complicated dances or mating calls, gift giving, etc.

In the world of the Mexican molly, Poecilia sphenops, its all about the mustaches. In a new paper published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, researchers performed mate choice experiments where they varied the presence/absence and sizes of the fish-stashes. These fish-stashes consist of epidermal outgrowths at the edge of the scales, they appear to have no sensory function, and are not linked to male body size polymorphism. It is thought that the mustache functions as tactile sexual stimulation for the female, contact of the mustache to the female fish's genital region before copulation. The study found that female mollies spent over 60% of their time with the mustachioed males compared to the clean-shaven males, and they preferred the same males with large stashes rather than small. However, the presence of a mustache was not the only preferred variable - females liked larger males without mustaches rather than smaller males with mustaches. So, if you are a molly, and you want to score big you need to be a big guy with a big mustache.

This is your reference:
Schlupp, I., et al. (2010). A novel, sexually selected trait in poeciliid fishes: female preference for mustache-like, rostral filaments in male Poecilia sphenops Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology: published online (DOI: 10.1007/s00265-010-0996-y)

Old Genes

This story I heard on The Naked Scientists podcast, a science show out of Cambridge University (if you like podcasts then I highly recommend subscribing to this one in iTunes or your RSS feed). I'm just going to quote the story from their site and suggest you listen to the podcast for additional discussion on it.

"Scientists have identified a series of genetic markers capable of predicting, with 77% certainty, who will live to more than 100.

The study, by Boston University researcher Paola Sabastiani and her colleagues and published in Science, looked at DNA from over 1055 centenarians (who survived beyond the ages of 95-119) and 1267 controls (amongst whom the average age of death was 75).

By comparing the patterns of genetic markers called SNPs - single nucleotide polymorphisms - that are common to the members of each group, the researchers identified 150 such SNPs that strongly co-segregated with longevity.

Applying these markers as a screen to other samples showed that they could predict, with high accuracy, those equipped genetically to live to a very old age. Moreover, these SNPs can now also be used to spotlight genes that confer these abilities, informing our understanding of the genetic basis of ageing, its effects, and perhaps how to better control it."

Green Screen

I have a small (some of my friends would say big) addiction to movies. And if you have crawled out from under that rock I mentioned in Fish Fry then you've probably noticed that 3D movies are the newest thing in Hollywood (I'll avoid the word 'trend' as they are probably here to stay). Along with 3D comes the computing power necessary to shoot or convert the films. We're not talking just a 3D video camera, we're talking computer servers the size of 4-8 parking spaces. Computers of any size, particularly ones that large, generate a lot of heat. All that heat must be cooled. So now you have all the energy to run the computers and the energy to run the AC units.

Just out in theaters is the movie Despicable Me starring Steve Carell. This new film is an 3D animated movie by Illumination Entertainment. This small company approached IBM to develop a customized server-farm using the iDataPlex system, green technology that allowed them to cut away the AC system and the associated cost. That's a lot of energy, about 40% less energy compared to traditional server farms.

So how does it work? Well, the iDataPlex system is "a flexible configuration that doubles the amount of systems that can run in a single IBM rack and the ability to run an ambient temperature room." This flexible configuration also decreases the space needed for the server farm, using only 4 parking space sized spots rather than 8. And although this system has been available for over a year, Illumination Entertainment is the first studio to use it for an animated film.

Green movies: Good idea.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Flying for the Other Team

Growing up I had a friend who owned what we all lovingly referred to as the "incestuous lesbian six-toed cats." In that case it was probably just a of a pair of Hemingway cats getting bored. But how prevalent is homosexuality in the animal kingdom and is there an evolutionary cost (or benefit) to an alternate lifestyle?

A new study published online in the journal Animal Behaviour takes a look at parental care and homosexuality in birds. Homosexual behavior is known to occur in over 130 species of birds, making it a very prevalent but sometimes difficult to explain occurrence evolutionarily speaking (in terms of reproduction and the propagating of one's genes). This study, which pulled together mating and behavior data from multiple studies on 93 bird species, shows that the sex that spends the least time on parental care is more likely to engage in homosexual activity. The results show that same-sex courtship, mounting and pair-bonding are prevalent -- 38% of the species participated female–female sexual behaviour and 82% participate in male–male behaviour. But homosexual behavior accounted for less than 5% of all sexual encounters in the analysis.

These results offer a possible explanation for the evolution of homosexuality. Basically, if you aren't the one taking care of the kids then you have lots of free time for other pursuits, but because you have kids you are still passing along your genes. The cause of the behavior is still unclear - neutral evolutionary by-product or adaptive function? Perhaps its to practice courtship displays, reduce social tension, show dominance, form alliances, gain access to resources, share care-taking responsibilities, or maybe they just think its fun to do when they're bored.

This is the reference:
MacFarlane, Geoff R. , Blomberg, Simon P. & Vasey, Paul L. (2010) Homosexual behaviour in birds: frequency of expression is related to parental care disparity between the sexes. Animal Behaviour: published online. (DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.05.009)

(image from

The Spandex Pavillion

Recently, I was perusing the Inhabitat website and came across this little gem. As a swimmer and water polo player I am very familiar with the Speedo brand. Swimmers tend to hold on to their suits, using them to add drag during a workout, until they are literally little more than shreds or scraps of material. This story deals not so much with old suits themselves but a use for suit material.

Not really up-to-date on your swimsuit types? I won't hold it against you. Much. The LZR Racer is considered one of the most technologically advanced swimsuits ever made. Yeah, swimsuits can be technologically advanced too - its all about hydrodynamics. Since its launch in 2008 it has been covering the goodies of 90 swimmers who have broken world records. But, FINA has since banned the suit from competition - making them obsolete and unusable.

This particular piece takes a look at interesting uses for the unused budgy smugglers (<--some fantastic speedo slang I picked up in Australia). As part of the Xpo Pavilion Project, a group of undergraduate students from the Chelsea College of Art & Design transformed 200 LZR Racer swimming suits (sponsored by Speedo) into the s_pavilion for the London Festival of Architecture.

Why would anyone do this? The project was created to "address issues of sustainability through consideration of the use of materials and the development fabrication process." Digital tech was used to optimize the design and production, and different disciplines including textile design, materials engineering , and programming engineering were brought together to collaborate. The pavilion is located at the Rootstein Hopkins Parade Ground at Chelsea College.

Here's the story:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Wrath of George

A little while back I wrote a post called The Force of Light about the Spyder III Pro Arctic, a laser manufactured by Wicked Lasers to look like George Lucas' Star Wars lightsaber. I believe my comment was "if you are making a portable laser why not make it look like a lightsaber?" Note that it was also described as "extremely dangerous is an understatement." That extremely dangerous part is what had made LucasFim a bit unhappy with Wicked Lasers.

Which lead to their response:
"It has come to our attention that a company called Wicked Lasers is selling a highly dangerous product out of Hong Kong that is designed to look like a lightsaber from Star Wars. This product is not licensed or approved by Lucasfilm in any way. We have demanded that Wicked Lasers immediately cease and desist their infringing activities. As Wicked Lasers itself admits, this product can cause serious injury to the user and other people. We strongly discourage consumers from purchasing it."

Ok, I get it. Extremely dangerous laser + stupid or uninformed person = death and/or gigantic lawsuit. And even though it costs $200 and is not marketed as a lightsaber, all you need is one fanatic to ruin it for everybody.

Are you hearing the Imperial March too?...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fish Fry: Ocean Acidification and Clownfish

 I am going to start a post about fish by talking about soft drinks. Actually, I am using soft drinks or soda pop as an allegory for ocean acidification. Soda pop is a carbonated beverage. Carbonation occurs when carbon dioxide (CO2) is dissolved in an aqueous solution. So all those little bubbles that make your drink fizz are carbon dioxide gas. CO2 gas itself is colorless and slightly acidic. As such, when it is dissolved into a solution it increases the acidity of that solution. The more CO2 the more acidic (the lower the pH).

Let's take the next logical (and scientifically tested) leap. Atmospheric CO2 naturally dissolves into the Earth's large bodies of water, like the oceans, particularly in the shallows. If the atmospheric CO2 stays at a constant concentration then this keeps the ocean acidity at a relatively constant concentration. As atmospheric CO2 increases, so does the amount of CO2 that dissolves causing a decline in ocean pH. This process is called ocean acidification. If our current trajectory continues then atmospheric CO2 concentrations will exceed 500 ppm by the middle of the century and reach 730-1020 ppm by the end of the century. This will cause ocean pH to decline by 0.3-0.4 units, which is a lot considering the pH scale only goes to 14. This type of change is known to affect the ability of marine calcifiers form shells and skeletons, and not much is known on how it will affect other species such as fish.With species that have a planktonic larval phase, like many fishes, chemical cues are used to locate suitable adult habitat and avoid predators during the settlement process.

A study published in PNAS, takes a look at ocean acidification and its relationship to marine ecosystem function. The study used both laboratory and field experiments on clownfish (Amphiprion percula) to show that predicted levels of dissolved CO2 for this century are likely to alter the behavior of larval fish, decreasing their survival rates during recruitment into adult populations. Previous studies have shown that these fish lose their ability to distinguish chemical cues from preferred settlement habitat and predators when they are exposed to acidified seawater. This impairment increases the mortality among a life stage that already incurs naturally high mortality rates. With this in mind the authors designed an experiment where they tested the levels of CO2 at which this impairment occurs and if it actually affects mortality in natural populations of clownfish. They reared larval clownfishes under a range of CO2 treatments (a current day control of ~390 ppm, 550, 700, and 850 ppm) and then tested their behavioral responses to olfactory cues from predators. That was the lab part, they then repeated the experiments with wild-caught damselfish larvae (Pomacentrus wardi) to see if they had the same reactions. Finally, they transplanted settlement-stage damselfish to various natural reefs to test if exposure to elevated CO2 altered their behavior and increased the risk of mortality in these fish.

The researchers found that  young clown fish are unable to sense the chemical cues that direct them towards favorable habitats and away from predators, meaning that they swim towards water containing predators' pheromones and away from the safety of the reef. Altered larval behavior was detected in water that contained as little as 700 ppm CO2 (a concentration that could be reached by 2100), and at 850 ppm CO2 the ability to sense predators was completely impaired. These types of results were shown to be similar in the damselfish as well as clown fish, adding to the known body of research about how high concentrations of dissolved CO2 adversely affect shellfish and crustaceans. In general, the larval fish exposed to high dissolved CO2 were found to be more active and exhibit riskier behavior, resulting in 5-9 times higher mortality from predation (mortality increases as CO2 concentration increases). This reduces the recruitment success of these species and affects the sustainability of fish populations.

This is the study:
Munday, Philip L., et al. (2010) Replenishment of fish populations is threatened by ocean acidification. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: 107(29), 12930-12934. (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1004519107)

And here's a story:

(image from

Friday, July 2, 2010


I haven't done a car story in a while, not since Driving Green back in March. So I figured I would take a few minutes and post an update on a bit of electro-auto news.

Back in 2003 BMW held a design competition for a new building and distribution center. BMW Welt (funny name, neat building), in Munich, Germany, was the result - a modern, green plant that houses production and exhibition spaces along with restaurants and shops. It saves energy through solar heating and natural ventilation. Now, BMW is presenting their first electric car, the Megacity Vehicle, to be released in 2013. The car will be built using BMW's "LifeDrive structure." Basically, the car is made out of aluminum and lightweight carbon fiber hardened with epoxy, a technique that offsets the additional weight that batteries add to the car. Despite its flimsy-sounding description it is supposed to be as strong as steel yet about 50% lighter than standard aluminum, and has already passed crash tests. The electric motor itself is much more compact than gasoline engines as it doesn't need things like a transmission, exhaust, or a muffler. This smaller, lighter engine will also offset battery weight and increase range. The batteries themselves will be 35-kWh lithium-ion, and the company hopes to develop a plug-in hybrid version.

Read many many more details about the car here:

Tesla Motors is a company that I check in on from time to time. They have some really interesting ideas and classic yet unique ways of designing vehicles. Enter the newest version of the Roaster - the Tesla Roaster 2.5. This all-electric, zero emissions sports car packs a dense lithium-ion battery (56 kWh of energy) and can go up to 245 miles per charge. 295 lbs-ft of torque and 288 horsepower are produced as the car accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds! It includes software that monitors the car, a charge port that plugs into any outlet, and 'regenerative breaking' (recharges battery when foot lets off the accelerator or you go downhill). Its chassis is composed of resin-bonded and riveted extruded aluminum and is covered with carbon fiber body panels, which offsets the weight of the batteries.

Additional electric cars include the Chevy Volt and previously blogged about Nissan LEAF.

And now we get to what inspired me to write this post to begin with - the I-5. The governor of Washington, Chris Gregoire, announced plans for installing electric car charging stations along the portion of Interstate 5 that runs through the state. Owners of electric cars will be able to dive the full width of the state, 276 miles. The stations are to be funded by $1.3 million in federal stimulus money. The stations will be similar to existing rest stops where you can fast-charge your car (full charge in 15-30 minutes). This effort furthers the agreement Washington made with Oregon, California and British Columbia in agreeing to work together to turn I-5 in a 1,350-mile green highway. The goal is to establish recharging stations and distribution of alternative fuels along the highway's entire length.

Read more here:

Thar She Blows!

When you hear the words "raptorial sperm whale" what do you think of? A warped Moby Dick? A SyFy original movie? The picture above? Go with Door #3.

A new paper in Nature titled "The giant bite of a new raptorial sperm whale from the Miocene epoch of Peru" describes the discovery of one of the biggest predators to ever live - a whale eating whale. Whoa.

The newly discovered whale has been named Leviathan melvillei, a name loosely translated as 'Melville's sea monster.' The bones were discovered in Cerro Colorado in the Pisco-Ica Desert on the southern coast of Peru two years ago by paleontologists Olivier Lambert and Klaas Post and their team. The researchers were able to recover 75% of the whale's skull, including large fragments of jaws and several teeth. The huge whale (13.5-17.5 meters long) is thought to have lived and died about 12-13 million years ago and is most closely related to modern day sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Today's sperm whales have small teeth (less than 26 cm), lack functional teeth in the upper jaw, and feed by suction - a morphology suited to a squiddy diet. Conversely, L. melvillei has large, interlocking teeth approximately 36 cm (15 in) long. The mouth itself is 3 meters (9 ft) long and just over 2 meters (7 ft) wide with a skull structure that suggests very powerful biting muscles. Put these traits together and you get an animal that hunts in a similar way to extant killer whales (Orcinus orca), using its teeth to capture prey and tear off flesh. Yum. L. melvillei is thought to have fed on medium-sized (7-10 m long) baleen whales and other large prey; it would have been an effective competitor with Megalodon (the giant shark of that age).

If you picture a sperm whale what do you see? Yeah, massive head and itty-bitty mouth (well, relatively at least). That big ole head is mostly forehead, a forehead that holds the "spermaceti organ." This organ is composed of a series of oil and wax reservoirs buttressed with massive partitions of connective tissue, and it's thought to help the whales dive deeply. The skull of L. melvillei exhibits a curved basin atop the snout which suggests that it also had this organ, even though it was not a specialized deep diver. So why have it? The authors suggest that the organ existed before modern sperm whales adapted to deep diving, probably for other functions such as echolocation and/or acoustic displays. Another possibility? Aggressive head-butting. Think underwater goats/rams. Wow. Well, there are records of at least two nineteenth-century whaling ships were sunk when large male whales punched holes in their sides with their foreheads, so the idea isn't too far out there. The underwater head-butting could have been used to show dominance in such situations as contests over females. Its just kinda fun to picture two huge whales swimming at each other at full speed and then crashing their heads together - imagine the wave off of that!

The massive cetacean is thought to have been driven to extinction by changes in its environment, namely its prey and the effects of climate cooling. At that time baleen whales were widely diverse and then underwent a significant changes in number, diversity, and size. Changes in prey are known to impact top predators in a drastic way - no prey means a predator must adapt or go extinct. L. melvillei's surviving relatives (Physeter, pygmy and dwarf sperm whales) are deep-diving, squid-eating specialists - a very different ecological niche than L. melvillei.

Here's the article:
Lambert, Olivier et al. (2010) The giant bite of a new raptorial sperm whale from the Miocene epoch of Peru. Nature: 466, 105-108. (DOI: 10.1038/nature09067)

and here's some write-ups about it:
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