Scientific discoveries this week: 10/8/12

Palo Alto, California – Elephants may be more vocal than science currently knows, according to a new study of various methods of communication between the massive mammals. When pachyderms want to talk to each other, what one is likely to hear is a low rumble, which sounds something like a big diesel truck engine-braking on a highway far away. The researchers studying the elephants noticed this behavior when a group of elephants was about to leave a watering hole. Two or three out of the group began making the low rumbles, then the whole group walked away. The researchers witnessed these “conversations” on 14 different occasions, all near watering holes in Etosha National Park in Namibia. The conversations appeared to be fairly lengthy, upwards of two minutes on average. Oftentimes the conversation occurred between the leader of the pack and one or two others, likely the most dominant elephants in the group. This understanding of elephant group behavior is the result of 20 years of observing the largest land mammals.

Tampa, Florida – The genesis of a disease that targets horses has long baffled virologists, but a new study is starting to come up with answers. Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus (EEEV) is transmitted by mosquitoes, which often bite horses. Virologists have wondered how the disease survives North American winters, which are too cold for mosquitoes to live. It appears that snakes play a role in perpetuating the virus, allowing it to survive the cold until spring. After extensive study of the snakes in the swamps of Florida, a group of researchers from the University of South Florida discovered that cottonmouths are the most likely to carry the disease, as roughly 22% of those tested had the RNA from the virus in their blood. While these results are encouraging and seem to indicate that snakes are responsible for the perpetuation of the virus, other virologists not involved in the study caution that the presence of RNA does not guarantee that an active infection exists. The next step in the study is to determine the ability of snakes to infect mosquitoes, who in turn infect horses.

Tallahassee, Florida – Duck-billed dinosaurs could be called the kings of the plant-eating world during the Cretaceous period, roughly 70 million years ago. The giant herbivores were known to be effective plant eaters, capable of processing virtually any plant for food. This skill was likely due to their powerful teeth and jaws, which paleontologists and researchers say are impressive. The jaw of the Edmontosaurus, the most well-known hadrosaurid (duck-billed dinosaur), had roughly 1400 teeth, which it was constantly replacing over its lifetime. The teeth were composed of six different tissues, which gave them enormous strength and versatility. They were flat on top and shaped similarly to horses’ teeth, which meant that they could grind and slice tough, fibrous plants with ease. This ability was the reason the species was so prevalent through the cretaceous period. According to the study, eating any plant for food would cause a rapid increase in population, as well as a long life.

St. Petersburg, Russia – Wooly Mammoths have not walked the Earth for over 10,000 years, but prime specimens of the massive beasts have been preserved for study. Last week a specimen of a mammoth was excavated from a frozen marsh in Siberia, about 2,200 miles Northeast of Moscow, Russia. The mammoth appears to be about 16 years old, according to those studying the find. At roughly six feet six inches tall and 500 pounds, the mammoth is small for its size. The species grew to at least 13 feet tall and 10 tons in weight, roughly the size of the largest elephants ever recorded. The find confirms many assumptions about mammoth physiology, including the purpose of the large humps over their shoulders. It appears that the humps were composed of fat, which served as insulation, helping the mammoth regulate its body temperature during the cold Siberian winters.

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