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The Dirt: This Week in Nature (August 31-Sept 6)

  1. Early Mars May Have Had Essential Element for Life.

    The speculation over whether Mars once had an environment suitable for life took another turn recently as experiments showed that certain phosphates are more abundant on Mars than on Earth. Phosphates are considered essential for RNA and DNA, the basic elements of life as we know it. The Mars rovers have found that Mars has many more times the available dissolvable phosphates that Earth has, so what was a chemical hurdle for life on Earth would have been less of one on early Mars. Assuming a wet early Mars with available oxygen still in its atmosphere, this latest discovery further supports the possibility that some form of life may have once taken root on Mars.

    More at New Scientist.

  2. Musical Gold-aficionados.

    An unusual experiment conducted by scientists in Keio University in Japan seems to demonstrate the ability of goldfish to distinguish between different forms of classical music. The experimenters chose two well-known works, one by Johann Sebastian Bach and the other by Igor Stravinsky. They then trained the goldfish to bite on a red bead when one piece was played and to ignore the other. The result was that the goldfish could distinguish between the composers an impressive 75% of the time. Remaining coy, however, they showed no preference for either composer.

    More at Red Orbit.

  3. Newborn Black Rhino Makes Debut.

    With only about 5,000 animals remaining in the wild, the black rhino is one of the most endangered large animals. In Africa, it is under pressure by poachers who kill the animals driven by the Asian demand for black rhino horn “medicinal” preparations. Against this backdrop, the recent birth of a 60-pound black rhino calf was the cause of celebration at the Chicago Zoo.

    More at Global Animal.

  4. Walking Shark.

    Off the coast of Indonesia, a new shark species has been discovered. Named Hemiscyllium halmahera, this shark eats crustaceans it finds on the ocean floor. Its locomotion is perfectly tailored to its food gathering need; it walks along the ocean floor. Walking sharks are not unique. Nine species are known so far. In an odd way, walking sharks might be the salvation of other sharks that have been endangered from fishing due to the popularity of shark fin soup in this part of the world. By becoming a scuba diving tourist attraction, the walking sharks might increase shark tourism generally and that would lead to a profit driven motive to limit the harvesting of sharks.

    More at Red Orbit.

  5. Chinese Jellyfish in Ireland.

    A fisherman from Limerick Ireland has made surprising discovery. Pat Joyce “nearly fell off his fishing boat” when he saw what appeared to be a tiny jellyfish swimming alongside his boat. He alerted authorities and now several blooms of jellyfish have been confirmed in the waters of Ireland’s coasts. The jellyfish hail from China and are slowly dispersing world-wide, probably because of the increase in ocean temperatures. This particular species is the size of a coin and its sting from its hundreds of small tentacles is harmless to humans.

    More at

  6. Electric Fish Turns to DC.

    Electric fish are related to the better known electric eels, which can generate an electric charge of up to 600 volts. However, electric fish use a much smaller electric current and they use it to sense objects and other creatures that are in the fish’s vicinity in the murky waters of the Brazilian Amazon that it calls home. In this regard, it uses electricity much like a bat uses sound for echolocation. What is fascinating about a particular species of electric fish, however, is that unlike its cousins, the type of electricity it generates is more like direct current than alternating current. When researchers decided to dig deeper, they found the tail of the fish was often lost to predators leading to a collapse of the alternating current design. So evolution stepped in and the fish adapted to direct current, which is less susceptible to disruption due to tail loss.

    More at NewsWatch.

  7. A Mammalian Virus Survey.

    Viruses in mammals that cross over and mutate have been the center of several epidemics over the past few years. “A new study published in the journal mBio” suggests that a methodical effort to catalogue all of the known mammalian viruses, estimated to number around 320,000, would cost $6.3 billion. Such as systematic effort would make virus prediction more certain and give medical researchers a leg up on early diagnoses. To the critics who would scoff at the cost, the proponents point out that the SARS epidemic alone cost $16 billion.

    More at Red Orbit.

  8. Animal Workers.

    This Labor Day, Global Animal salutes the many animal workers who help humans in numerous jobs, some dangerous and others just plain too difficult for humans. You’ll meet a ferret electrician, a hard-working navy dolphin and gardening sheep, among others.

    More at Global Animal.

  9. Salamanders Threatened By Fungus.

    In the Netherlands, the fire salamander is fighting for its survival as a species. The culprit is a fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Once infected through contact with other infected salamanders, the fungus begins to eat away at the salamander’s skin causing lesions and erosion. The epidemic is so severe that it is estimated that only 4% of the fire salamander population of 2010 remains today in the Netherlands. Now the fungus is spreading to Spain and Switzerland where salamander populations are also declining rapidly.

    More at New Scientist.

  10. Deadly Dolphin Virus.

    Hundreds of dead dolphins that washed up along the United States east coast last week died from an infection caused by a virus. Cetacean morbillivirus is related to the same virus that causes measles in humans. In 1987, a similar outbreak of a virus among dolphins caused so many deaths that the populations affected were actually considered depleted. Scientists are attempting to learn whether the viral infections have been made worse by pollution-related weakened immune systems of the dolphins.

    More at

“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.


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