Science Briefs

Ocean winds keep South Pole cold

New research led by Australian National University has explained why Antarctica is not warming as much as other continents, and why southern Australia is recording more droughts.

Researchers have found rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are strengthening the stormy Southern Ocean winds that deliver rain to southern Australia – but pushing them farther south toward Antarctica.

“With greenhouse warming, Antarctica is actually stealing more of Australia’s rainfall. It’s not good news – as greenhouse gases continue to rise, we’ll get fewer storms chased up into Australia,” said lead researcher Nerilie Abram.

“As the westerly winds are getting tighter, they’re actually trapping more of the cold air over Antarctica,” she said. “This is why Antarctica has bucked the trend. Every other continent is warming, and the Arctic is warming fastest of anywhere on Earth.”

Until this study, published in Nature Climate Change, Antarctic climate observations were available only from the middle of last century.

By analyzing ice cores from Antarctica, along with data from tree rings and lakes in South America, Abram and her colleagues were able to extend the history of the westerly winds back over the last millennium.

“The Southern Ocean winds are now stronger than at any other time in the past 1,000 years,” Abram said.

New metal-eating plant discovered

Scientists from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños have discovered a new plant species with an unusual lifestyle: It eats nickel for a living – accumulating up to 18,000 parts per million of the metal in its leaves without itself being poisoned, said Edwino Fernando, lead author of the report. Such an amount is a hundred to a thousand times higher than in most other plants. The study was published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

The new species is called Rinorea niccolifera, reflecting its ability to absorb nickel in very high amounts. Nickel hyperaccumulation is such a rare phenomenon with only about 0.5 to 1 percent of plant species native to nickel-rich soils having been recorded to exhibit the ability.

The new species, according to Marilyn Quimado, one of the lead scientists of the research team, was discovered in western Luzon Island in the Philippines, an area known for soils rich in heavy metals.

Tiny catfish defies classification

Kryptoglanis shajii is a strange fish – and the closer scientists look, the stranger it gets. This small subterranean catfish sees the light of day and human observers only rarely, when it turns up in springs, wells and flooded rice paddies in the Western Ghats mountains of India. It was first described as a new species in 2011.

“The more we looked at the skeleton, the stranger it got,” said John Lundberg, emeritus curator of ichthyology at Drexel University. His team’s study describing the detailed bone structure of Kryptoglanis is in the 2014 issue of the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

“The characteristics of this animal are just so different that we have a hard time fitting it into the family tree of catfishes,” said Lundberg. The fish’s toothy face somewhat resembles the creature from the movie “Alien.”

Based on its teeth and subterranean home, Lundberg said that fish most likely eats meat, in the form of small invertebrates and insect larvae – whatever might be found in the groundwater and could be captured by the fish, which is smaller than an adult human’s pinkie finger.