Science Snippets

Common cold, uncommon facts

Sniffly red nose, incessant sneezing, a hoarse voice and an occasional fever and headaches—even the healthiest amongst us have experienced these annoying symptoms of the common cold. Scientists believe that humans have endured this disease for thousands of years, as many ancient civilizations have records of cold-like symptoms and approaches to treat them, some of which are now debunked by medical science. Yet, even to this day, there’s no known medicine or vaccine to treat this bothersome malad

Crab-castrating barnacles

The ocean is a strange home to many bizarre life forms. One such fascinating marine organism is the barnacles—shelled crustaceans that attach to a surface and filter out the nutrients in the water with their feathery legs. In the world’s oceans, there are around 1,400 species of barnacles. They use their extremely strong adhesives to stick to almost anything interesting—ship hulls, buoys, pilings, rocks, boats and even gigantic whales like the humpbacks and the grey whales. But the barnacles bel

Plastiglomerates: The toxic human legacy

Let’s time-travel to 3023 on Planet Earth. Fossil hunters, belonging to a more intelligent life form than us, are digging up an archaeological site near a future coast. They are spurred by the discovery of some unique rock-like structure—a mix of sand, corals and sediment rocks held together by molten plastic—hidden deep in the ground. While the discovery might seem like a fictional scene from the Indiana Jones movies, that perhaps is a legacy humans may leave behind on the planet, say scientist

Death caps: The world’s deadliest mushrooms

Mushrooms, a delight in the fungi world, are full of flavours—earthy, musty, woody and even slightly meaty—satiating the palette with savoury gust. But some mushrooms, like the death cap mushrooms, are born to kill, quite literally. Death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) is the world’s deadliest mushroom. Just half a mushroom can kill an adult within hours. About 90% of mushroom-related deaths globally are due to this mushroom. Bravehearts who have tasted the death cap say it has a pleasant tas

Autonomous vehicles changing the face of science

It’s the age of autonomous vehicles—from trains to buses, cars, drones and even battlefield tanks—engineers across the world are building vehicles that drive themselves without humans at the wheels. Powered by artificial sensors that ‘see’, ‘feel’ and ‘hear’, and an artificial ‘brain’ that can learn, technology companies are rapidly doling out newer versions of autonomous vehicles to solve some of the toughest challenges. Now, science and scientists are having their moment with autonomous vehicl

When farmers’ friend turns forests’ foe

If you have a garden, you know how welcome earthworms are: they nibble on all the decaying litter and break them up into nutrient-rich chunks that make it easier for plants to absorb and grow. They also help aerate the soil as they dig around, thus helping the roots penetrate further down. The result? A bonanza of flowers, vegetables and fruits in the garden.

But earthworms aren’t harmless when they are in places they aren’t supposed to be. Of the 6,000 plus species of earthworms in the world,

Coconut crabs and their colossal claws

Our planet is home to diverse life forms—some that we swoon over and some that freak us out. Coconut crabs, with their legs spanning a metre wide and extremely powerful claws, are of the latter kind. Unlike most crabs that spend their lives crawling the seafloor or a river bed, these crabs, although born in the sea, are terrestrial and live all of their adult life on land. They roam the coastal forests on tropical islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans, including parts of the Andaman and Nicob

The unwelcome seaweed monster

Could a humble seaweed take over our towns and jeopardise life? If you live in a beachside town in Florida, USA, or are enjoying a vacation on the many islands in the Caribbean right now, chances are a seaweed is throwing a stench of rotten eggs. In the past few days, the crashing waves have been dumping tonnes of decaying Sargassum, a brown algal seaweed, on the beaches. Coastal towns are spending thousands of dollars cleaning up the stinky mess.

Using space-based satellites, scientists foresa

What Should I Do If I Find a Nest Where It Doesn’t Belong?

Mourning Doves are frequent home invaders, laying eggs in an air-conditioning vent, on an outdoor shelf, or, here, in a hanging planter basket.

Pledge to stand with Audubon to call on elected officials to listen to science and work towards climate solutions.

Some birds are quite comfortable building their homes right next to ours. It’s not uncommon to see Mourning Doves in an air-conditioning vent, Eastern Phoebes on a windowsill, American Robins in a wreath, or House Finches in flowerpots.


Fierce warriors, algal farmers

With scales coloured sparkling neon blue to eye-catching bright yellow, and patterns of polka dots to dazzling stripes, the spectacular damselfish are fish world fashionistas. Unsurprisingly, these coral reef inhabitants are prime attractions in many saltwater aquaria around the world. But there’s more to these fish than their beauty: they are the only known farmers in the aquatic world and they farm algae. These fish also fiercely protect their farms—they aggressively chase away other herbivoro

They're not monkeys, but orchids!

At first glance, they look like a troop of monkeys hanging by their tails, looking into your eyes with a smile on their face. A closer look reveals they are in fact flowers. You begin to wonder how nature cleverly tricks the eyes. These are the monkey orchids, native to the cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru, that grow at an altitude of 1,000-2,000 metres. Like many orchids, they are epiphytes—they grow on other plants and absorb nutrients and water from the air, rain and other debris that accumu

Nicobar pigeon: The closest relative of the dodo

The Nicobar pigeon, native to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Malay Archipelago and some islands of Micronesia, is hailed as one of the most beautiful pigeons in the world. It’s draped in a colourful plumage—with hues of green, blue, yellow and copper—that explode into a bomb of colours in the sunlight. The bird’s feathers are iridescent due to the many layers of keratin air sacs in the feathers. Its ornate look makes it a prime attraction in many zoos and aviaries across the world.

But th

Pando: World’s most massive organism

Move over blue whales and mammoths! Plants rule the world, and they also bag the coveted title of the world’s most massive organism on the planet. Would you believe the grove of aspen trees shown above is actually one organism? It’s called the Pando, which is Latin for “I spread”. And that’s what the tree has been doing since the last ice age! It’s also nicknamed The Trembling Giant, after the trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides), a deciduous tree native to the cooler areas of North America, wh
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

Everyday things inspired by space exploration

Space exploration is expensive, and some question why countries spend trillions pursuing the outer world. The answer is simple: space science and technology have bettered human lives beyond imagination. On the World Space Week, here are five useful innovations whose roots trace back to space technology.

Digital cameras and camera phones: Point-and-shoot cameras, an invention of the 1980s, revolutionised photography in that they did away with expensive films. Charge-coupled devices (CCDs), a tec

Sea urchins hold clues about a long life

When one sees the spiny, ball-like organism found on the ocean floor, from the poles to the equator, it may not leave them highly impressed. But the nearly thousand species of sea urchins, feeding primarily on kelp and other marine algae, are a delicacy in many coastal cuisines, from Japan to North America. As invertebrates that are genetically closer to humans than to worms and flies, sea urchins have been a model organism for scientists since the 1800s, spilling secrets about life, reproductio

Our Moon’s many hues

Often, headlines about ‘once in many years’ phases of the moon intrigue everyone. Are these based in science or are they spun out of fancy folklore? Here’s a look.

As the moon reflects sunlight and goes around the Earth, our view of the illuminated part changes every night. In a lunar cycle, we see a completely illuminated ‘full moon’ that progresses to a waning crooked-ball-like gibbous moon, then a half-bright ‘half moon’, followed by a thin crescent of light from the ‘crescent moon’ and then

The world’s only other mammalian farmer

Larger than mice and smaller than rats, gophers are native to parts of North and Central America. With cinnamon-coloured fur, a protruding pair of incisor teeth, and pale-hued feet with claws for digging, these solitary burrowing rodents dig up palatial underground homes with spiral staircases leading to an extensive system of interconnected tunnels—some as long as 160 metres or twice the height of Delhi’s Qutub Minar. Some burrows also have dedicated food chambers, nest chambers and poop chambe

A gas that kills can save lives too

Carbon monoxide, a gas devoid of taste, colour or odour, has a bad rap: It’s often deemed a killer, thanks to its lethal effects. Although most carbon monoxide is generated on Earth due to the partial burning of fossil fuels like coal, the gas is present in trace quantities in our atmosphere and beyond. It is the second-most common molecule with two atoms in the Universe, constituting about 10% of all carbon sources. Since the invention of fire, humans have known the noxious effects of carbon mo

A rocky world beyond ours

The universe is an interesting medley of diverse objects. There are giant, heavy black holes and galaxy superclusters, and then there are infinitesimally tiny, invisible quarks and electrons that make up most matter. Objects like stars radiate energy while planets and moons rely on it to become a world of their own—just like our Earth.

Even within our solar system, not all planets are created equal—the four closest to the Sun, with iron and rocks on their surfaces, are rocky planets while the o

The enigma of the lightning

Monsoon is at our doorstep. It’s the season of roaring skies and lightning strikes. Lightning is the giant spark of electricity in the sky unleashed due to the dynamics between the clouds, air and ground. Scientists believe that this electricity is a result of a massive build of charges in the clouds when tiny hail particles, called graupel, bounce off small ice particles as they are pushed upwards by air. When the high charge build-up breaks the insulation capacity of air, it is released as a b

The knight who sheds his armour

In nature, there are many knights with armours. The pangolin’s keratinous overlapping scales, the turtle’s bony shell, and the armadillo’s bony plates and keratinous scutes are all examples of animals evolving means to escape from predators. The fish scale gecko, found in Madagascar’s forests, also has scales but with a critical difference. Instead of using the scales to deter its predator when danger strikes, it opts to lose it. The predator, who possibly dreamt of a yummy dinner, is left with

The snooze that saves energy

Life has evolved many remarkable ways to survive despite hostile conditions. One of them is for organisms to go into a near-death-like state, called daily torpor. During this phase, the body’s temperature drops significantly, body functions slow down, and the organism is motionless and unresponsive. Warm-blooded animals, which regulate their body temperatures, spend large amounts of energy maintaining it. Any dip or rise may turn out fatal in most cases. However, during frigid temperatures, food

Unassailable bee glue

Honeybees are incredible insects — as pollinators, they help grow a third of our crops, have rich social lives, build architecturally marvellous hives, fill them up with yummy honey and exude fragrant beeswax.

What we don’t know enough about is bee glue, or propolis — a resinous mixture the worker bees make from the resin they collect from different parts of plants. When mixed with beeswax, pollen, essential oils and other organic compounds, it turns into a dark-brown-coloured wax-like substanc

The fish that tweets

“Ouch! That hurt!”— that’s what one would say when struck by 800 V of electricity for a few seconds. But when this jolt comes from the electric eel, the disgust soon turns into wonder because this South American native is the world’s strongest bioelectricity generator! Electrophorus electricus is not really an eel but belongs to the knifefish family, and is closely related to carp and catfish. At about six feet long and weighing around 20 kg, most of the electric eel’s body has been specifically
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