Animals!

Evolution has created wild and weird animals. Get to know a few of them.


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The extinct animal Bill Nye would bring back to life

Bill Nye: Zoos enrich our lives but cost animals their dignity 

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  • Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
  • Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
  • Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.

Astronomers detected a first of its kind hot Jupiter-like planet without clouds or haze. Such planets are very rare, with only one exoplanet with a clear atmosphere previously found – that one classified as a "hot Saturn".

The "hot Jupiter" exoplanet WASP-62b is 75 light years away from Earth, coming in at about half the mass of our Jupiter. It completes a rotation around its sun in only 4.5 days (compared to 12 years for Jupiter). That closeness to the star makes the planet extremely hot.

The discovery was made by astronomers at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. The gas giant was actually first located in 2012 using the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) South survey. But the unique state of its atmosphere has only been understood now.

Munazza Alam, a graduate student from the Center for Astrophysics who led the study, was working on her thesis that involved exoplanet characterization when she zeroed in on the atmosphere of WASP-62b.

She used the Hubble Space Telescope for data and observations that were made via spectroscopy, a method of detecting chemical elements by studying electromagnetic radiation. In particular, Alam focused how WASP-62b looked as it came in front of its host star on three occasions. Observing visible light in such instances can show the existence of sodium and potassium in the atmosphere of the planet. The scientist could see no potassium but a complete fingerprint of sodium's presence. This led her team to conclude that the exoplanet's atmosphere lacked clouds or haze, which would have hidden the sodium's clear signature.

Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.

Credit: Jackie Faherty

"I'll admit that at first I wasn't too excited about this planet," Alam said in a press release. "But once I started to take a look at the data, I got excited." Seeing the sodium was "the smoking gun evidence that we are seeing a clear atmosphere," she added.

Finding such a planet is very unlikely since astronomers estimate under 7% of exoplanets have clear atmospheres. Studying them can help us understand why they were formed in a way that is different from most planets, according to Alam. Without clouds and haze getting in the way, it is also easier to study the chemical makeup of such a planet.

Jupiter itself has a complex and chaotic cloud structure, formed at different altitudes:

Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft

The astronomers plan to study WASP-62b further upon the launch of the next-generation James Web Space Telescope later in 2021.

Check out the new study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

  • Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
  • The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
  • The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.

If you happened to be traversing the seafloor of Eurasia about 20 million years ago, you'd likely come across giant predator worms as long as several meters, claims new research. Scientists discovered that super-long worms may have taken over the ancient seafloor, based on their reconstructions of large burrows found at the bottom of the sea in northeast Taiwan.

The samples studied came from as far back as the Miocene epoch of 23 million to 5.3 million years ago. The research team used 319 specimens found in the sandstone of Yehliu Geopark, an area outside New Taipei City in Taiwan, to reconstruct a trace fossil dubbed Pennichnus formosae. Trace fossils are geological features such as burrows that can be used to make educated inferences about how ancient creatures behaved. The fossil uncovered by the researchers is comprised of an L-shaped burrow about 2 meters in length but only 2-3 centimeters in diameter. The scientists concluded that this fossil was probably left by gigantic sea worms, possibly the ancestors of the bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois), which is still around today.

The way a bobbit worm catches its food is by first hiding in a long burrow in the seafloor, then lunging up to catch its "unsuspecting prey with a snap of their powerful jaws," as the study authors write. The researchers believe the structure they found was created when the ancient worm retreated into the seafloor with its prey, still alive and struggling.

Ludvig Löwemark, a National Taiwan University paleontologist and the study's co-author, explained in an interview with Wired that the fossil they found shows invertebrates like the ancient worms were eating vertebrates.

"Typically, what we find in the sedimentary record is animals that are moving through the sediment," said Löwemark. "But this is a record of a much more active behavior. The worms were actually hiding in the sediment, jumping out, catching their prey, and then dragging this prey down into the sediment."

A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.

Credit: Scientific Reports

What's also remarkable about the study is that studying ancient worms is generally an extremely difficult task. One big problem – they would have had bodies composed mainly of soft tissue, which is hard to preserve. The trace fossil discovered by the scientists is likely the first known fossil made by an ambushing predator of this kind.

If you're wondering, the bobbit worm's unusual name comes from a sordid episode of American culture, referencing the story of John and Lorena Bobbitt, who cut off her husband's penis after years of abuse.

Check out the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Beware the Bobbit Worm!

  • SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. They were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018.
  • The implementation of this law in America has left an international impact, as websites attempt to protect themselves from liability by closing down the sections of their sites that sex workers use to arrange safe meetings with clientele.
  • While supporters of this bill have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.

    What is FOSTA-SESTA?

    SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018. There was some argument that this law may be unconstitutional as it could potentially violate the first amendment. A criminal defense lawyer explains this law in-depth in this video.

    What did FOSTA-SESTA aim to accomplish?

    The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims. FOSTA-SESTA started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. Targeting websites like Backpage and Craigslist, where sex workers would often arrange meetings with their clientele, FOSTA-SESTA aimed to stop the illegal sex-trafficking activity being conducted online. While the aim of FOSTA-SESTA was to keep people safer, these laws have garnered international speculation and have become quite controversial.

    According to BusinessWire, many people are in support of this bill, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and World Without Exploitation (WorldWE).

    "With the growth of the Internet, human trafficking that once happened mainly on street corners has largely shifted online. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 73 percent of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives from the public each year involve ads on the website Backpage.com."

    As soon as this bill was signed into law, websites where sex workers often vetted and arranged meetings with their clients could now be held liable for the actions of the millions of people that used their sites. This meant websites could be prosecuted if they engaged in "the promotion or facilitation of prostitution" or "facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims."

    The bill's effects were felt around the world — from Canadians being unhappy with the impact of this American bill to U.K. politicians considering the implementation of similar laws in the future.

    Heather Jarvis, the program coordinator of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), which supports sex workers in the St. John's area, explained to CBC in an interview that the American bill is impacting everyone, everywhere: "When laws impact the internet — the internet is often borderless — it often expands across different countries. So although these are laws in the United States, what we've seen is they've been shutting down websites in Canada and other countries as well."

    Jarvis suggests in her interview that instead of doing what they aimed to do with the bill and improving the safety of victims of sex trafficking or sexual exploitation, the website shutdowns are actually making sex workers less safe.

    While one U.K. publication refers to FOSTA-SESTA as "well-intentioned but ultimately deeply-flawed laws," it also mentions that politicians in the United Kingdom are hoping to pursue similar laws in the near future.

    Has FOSTA-SESTA done more harm than good?

    sex worker looking online for a job

    Is this really going to help, or is this bill simply pushing sex work and sex-related content further into the dark?

    Credit: Евгений Вершинин on Adobe Stock

    While supporters of this bill have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.

    One of the biggest problems many people have with this bill is that it forces sex workers into an even more dangerous situation, which is quite the opposite of what the bill had intended to do.

    According to Globe and Mail, there has been an upswing in pimps sending sex workers messages that promise work - which puts sex workers on the losing end of a skewed power-dynamic, when before they could attempt to safely arrange their own meetings online.

    How dangerous was online sex work before FOSTA-SESTA?

    The University of Leicester Department of Criminology conducted an online survey that focused on the relative safety of internet-based sex work compared with outdoor sex work. According to the results, 91.6 percent of participants had not experienced a burglary in the past 5 years, 84.4 percent had not experienced physical assault in the same period, and only 5 percent had experienced physical assault in the last 12 months.

    PivotLegal expresses concerns about this: "It is resoundingly clear, both from personal testimony and data, that attacking online sex work is an assault on the health and safety of people in the real world. In a darkly ironic twist, SESTA/FOSTA, legislation aimed at protecting victims of and preventing human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, will do the exact opposite."

    Websites are also being hypervigilant (and censoring more content than needed) because they can't possibly police every single user's activity on their platform.

    Passing this bill meant any website (not just the ones that are commonly used by sex traffickers) could be held liable for their user's posts. Naturally, this saw a general "tightening of the belt" when it came to what was allowed on various platforms. In late 2018, shortly after the FOSTA-SESTA bill was passed, companies like Facebook slowly began to alter their terms and conditions to protect themselves.

    Facebook notably added sections that express prohibited certain sexual content and messages:

    "Content that includes an implicit invitation for sexual intercourse, which can be described as naming a sexual act and other suggestive elements including (but not limited to):

    – vague suggestive statements such as: 'looking forward to an enjoyable evening'

    – sexual use of language […]

    – content (self-made, digital or existing) that possibly portrays explicit sexual acts or a suggestively positioned person/suggestively positioned persons."

    Additionally, sections like this were also added, prohibiting things that could allude to sexual activity:

    "Content in which other acts committed by adults are requested or offered, such as:

    – commercial pornography

    – partners that share fetishes or sexual interests"

    Facebook wasn't the only website to crack down on their policies — the Craigslist classifieds section being removed and Reddit banned quite a large number of sex-worker related subreddits.

    Is FOSTA-SESTA really helpful?

    This is the question many people are facing with the FOSTA-SESTA acts being passed just a few years ago. Is this really going to help, or is this bill simply pushing sex work and sex-related content further into the dark? Opinions seem to be split down the middle on this — what do you think?

    • Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
    • Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
    • In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.

      • A study uses motion-capture to assess the physical interaction between a liar and their victim.
      • Liars unconsciously coordinate their movements to their listener.
      • The more difficult the lie, the more the coordination occurs.

      Lying one-on-one is hard when done correctly. Some people lie compulsively, with little regard to getting caught — for them it's a no-brainer. But concocting a believable lie, selling it, and maintaining it without inadvertently tripping oneself up takes effort. According to a new study, it takes a little too much effort — your brain is so occupied by the lie that your body is at risk of giving off a universal "tell" to anyone who knows to look for it.

      The study, by Dutch and U.K. researchers, is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

      The tell

      Someone who is lying to your face is likely to copy your motions. The trickier the lie, the truer this is, according to experiments described in the study.

      The researchers offer two possible explanations, both of which have to do with cognitive load. In a press release, the authors note that "Lying, especially when fabricating accounts, can be more cognitively demanding than truth telling."

      The first hypothesis is that when someone is lying, their brain is simply too occupied with the subterfuge to pay any attention to the control of physical movements. As a result, the unconscious part of the liar's brain controlling movements defaults to the easiest course of action available: It simply imitates the motions of the person they're lying to.

      The second possibility is that the liar's cognitive load deprives a liar of sufficient bandwidth to devise a clever, effective physical strategy. Instead, while lying, their attention is so laser-focused on their listener's reaction that the liar unconsciously parrots it.

      Experimental whoppers

      Credit: Niels/Adobe Stock

      The phenomenon is referred to as "nonverbal coordination," and there is some existing evidence in deception research that it does occur when someone is under a heavy cognitive load. However, that evidence is based on observations of specific body parts and doesn't comprehensively capture whole-body behavior, and little research has mutually tracked both parties' movements in a lying scenario.

      Nonetheless, say the authors, "Nonverbal coordination is an especially interesting cue to deceit because its occurrence relies on automatic processes and is therefore more difficult to deliberately control."

      To track nonverbal coordination, pairs of participants in the study's two experiments were outfitted with motion-capture devices Velcroed to their wrists, heads, and torsos before being seated facing each other across a low table.

      In the first experiment, a dynamic time-warping algorithm analyzed participants movements as they ran through exercises in which one individual told the truth, and then told increasingly difficult lies. In the second experiment, listeners were given instructions that influenced the amount of attention they paid to the liar's movements.

      The researchers found "nonverbal coordination increased with lie difficulty." They also saw that this increase "was not influenced by the degree to which interviewees paid attention to their nonverbal behavior, nor by the degree of interviewer's suspicion. Our findings are consistent with the broader proposition that people rely on automated processes such as mimicry when under cognitive load."

      Mirroring

      There is, it must be said, a third possible reason that a liar copies their target's behavior: Maybe liars are subconsciously reinforcing their credibility with their victims using "mirroring."

      As Big Think readers and anyone familiar with the art of persuasion knows, copying another person's actions is called "mirroring," and it's a way to get someone else to like you. Our brains have "mirror neurons" that respond positively when someone imitates our actions. The result is something called "limbic synchrony." Deliberately mirroring a companion's movements is an acknowledged sales technique.

      So, how can you tell when mirroring signifies a lie and not benign interpersonal salesmanship? There is an overlap, of course — lying is one form of persuasion, after all. Perhaps the smartest response is to simply take mirroring as a signal that close attention is warranted. No need to automatically shout "liar!" when someone copies you. Just step back a little mentally and listen a bit more carefully to what your companion is saying.