Scientific discoveries this week: 2-28-11

Somerset, United Kingdom – The caves in Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England, hide what scientists are calling the earliest evidence of humans using the skulls of their enemies as some kind of ceremonial cup. The skulls showed signs of careful breakage, which shows that the cannibals were trying to preserve as much of the skull as possible. It is still unclear exactly what the skulls were used for, but other cultures appeared to have similar practices, and the purpose was usually to humiliate their enemies.

Marburg, Germany – It has long been questioned whether or not bears actually do hibernate, due to the fact that they maintain a normal body temperature for the entire hibernation period. A recent study by researchers at the Philipps Universitaet in Marburg, Hessen, Germany, have concluded that bears do indeed hibernate, in spite of their high body temperature. The questions initially arose because other mammals drop their body temperature drastically when they hibernate. Small mammals drop their body temperature to just a few degrees above the freezing point for body fluids for 1-2 weeks at a time, and periodically arouse themselves to bring their core temperature back up to normal. Black bears were found to be able to keep their core temperature at the normal level, while dropping their metabolic rate down to roughly 25% of normal.

Ecuador, South America – A species of frog thought extinct since 1995 was rediscovered in Ecuador during the Search for Lost Frogs campaign, which occurred between August and December of 2010. The frog is the only one on the “top 10” list of frogs that are currently feared to be extinct or nearly so. Scientists and researchers the world over are searching for these frogs, hoping to find many that have not been spotted in as long as 50 years. Scientists have stated that amphibians appear to be disappearing at a rate of roughly 100-1000 times that of years past, and they are currently trying to understand what is causing this mass-extinction.

Madrid, Spain – Migratory behavior in birds appears to be directly related to, if not controlled by, the length of a specific gene. Researchers at Complutense University in Madrid, Spain, found that birds began fidgeting and hopping around at night, and that the length of this flight gene corresponded well to the frequency and duration of the hopping and fidgeting in birds. It appears that the longer the gene is, the longer the length of the birds’ migration. While not entirely conclusive, the study opens new doors in the study of bird migration.

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