Here are some of the science snippets that I have contributed to the weekly column at Deccan Herald, bylined under "Research Matters"

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

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

Most freshwater is underground

The United Nations observed World Water Day this month to raise awareness about the two billion people who have no access to safe water. This year, the theme was ‘Groundwater: Making the invisible visible’. Here are some amazing facts about the invisible lifeline flowing under our feet: Groundwater is the water found underground in the cracks and crannies of soil, sand and rocks called aquifers. About 90% of the Earth’s available freshwater is groundwater. Groundwater feeds springs, rivers, la

Harm caused by 'forever chemicals'

Have you heard of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFOS)? Even if you haven’t, you would have certainly used products containing them. Worse, you may have unknowingly even ingested a few micrograms because they are ubiquitous. First discovered in the 1940s and named ‘Teflon’, PFOS now contain many fluorinated chemicals that are resistant to water, heat and oil. Thus this ‘miracle of modern chemistry’ has since been used in hundreds of everyday products — from fast food packaging to non-sti

Viruses can do good

As we reel under a viral pandemic that has already killed almost 6 million people, it is hard to imagine how viruses could benefit humanity. These microscopic pathogens have a bad reputation for causing infectious, near-fatal diseases like rabies, measles, smallpox, HIV-AIDS, and Covid-19. But, humans have turned some of the 9,000 known virus species into our helpers using gene editing. A virus infects our cells by hijacking their DNA. Instead of creating copies of the cell, the virus ends up r

Oceans have heatwaves too

Come summer, heat waves resulting from a changing climate hit the headlines across the world. While their ramifications on land are visible, we often don’t hear much about heatwaves in the oceans. Marine heatwaves occur when sea surface temperatures are hotter than a threshold for more than five consecutive days. They are recorded in all of the world’s oceans, including the Southern Ocean near Antarctica. Many factors contribute to their occurrence, frequency and intensity—ocean currents, wind
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