Scientific discoveries this week: 12-6-10

Vienna, Austria – Killer whales may mimic each other when they’re socializing. Brigitte Weiss of the University of Vienna in Vienna, Austria, has been studying the behavior of Orca Whales near Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Weiss has noticed that the whales seem to imitate calls that are similar to the calls of whales from another pod. Vocal mimicry among mammals is very uncommon, which is why Weiss took notice when she was analyzing the sonograms of Orca calls and noticed that about one in every 500 calls was a clear imitation. It is as yet unclear why killer whales imitate each other.

Tempe, Arizona – Aliens may be able to live on this planet, right under our very nose. Researchers at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, have found that bacteria can be weaned off of phosphorous and instead live off of arsenic. Phosphorous is one of the fundamental elements in all of life on Earth and arsenic is poisonous in even very small quantities. This new discovery that life can exist with a significant amount of arsenic would seem to allow for life to exist in a fundamentally different manner to that which we normally expect here on Earth.

Hamburg, Germany – New climate models and studies suggest that the massive eruption of the volcano Toba 74,000 years ago may not have actually decimated life to the extent that was originally believed. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, have created an updated climate model that indicates global cooling to be no more than 5 degrees Celsius for a few years after the eruption. Anthropologists have pointed to the Toba eruption as causing a evolutionary “bottleneck” due to the volcanic winter. This new climate model suggests that humans may have weathered the ash storm fairly well.

Rome, Italy – New York, New York – Brain tumors appear to have the ability to develop their own blood vessels, which could be part of the reason they are so hard to kill. Researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Ruggero De Maria at the Instituto Superiore di Sanita in Rome found that brain tumors have the ability to morph and change their shape to essentially grow their own blood vessels. Certain cancer drugs that are intended to block blood flow to the tumor have been shown to be effective for no more than 6 months, at which point the tumor creates its own blood supply.

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