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Overheated reefs are caught in a vicious carbon cycle

By Gemma Conroy | March 16, 2020

Ohad Peleg spent his childhood snorkeling among lush seaweed forests in the cool Mediterranean Sea off the Israeli coast. When he dives there today, though, he sees a barren seascape overrun by tropical invaders, from seaweed-eating rabbitfish to plumes of red calcifying algae. This is tropicalization in action. The phenomenon, in which flora and fauna from warm climates move into cooler regions that have endured heatwaves, is exemplified by tropical sea urchins decimating kelp forests in Tasmania and coral reef fish finding a permanent home in southern Japan.

‘Ecological grief’ grips scientists witnessing Great Barrier Reef’s decline

By Gemma Conroy | September 13, 2019

When Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral-reef system, was hit by record-breaking marine heat waves that bleached two-thirds of it in 2016 and 2017, many researchers were left in a state of shock. Social scientist Michele Barnes witnessed this disaster first hand. She works at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville, which is adjacent to the reef. Barnes decided to interview scientists and others working on the reef to investigate their response to this climate-change-driven catastrophe.

Exotic parrot colonies are flourishing across the country

By Gemma Conroy | June 5, 2019

On a cold, windy day in Chicago eight years ago, Jennifer Uehling strolled through Hyde Park, a picturesque neighborhood known for its bookstores, museums, and grand historical homes. The scenery was hardly tropical, but an exotic element cut through the drone of traffic along Stony Island Avenue that day. “There was this loud squawking,” says Uehling, a graduate student in evolutionary ecology at Cornell University. Zooming over her head were nearly a dozen vibrant green Monk Parakeets. Bewildered, Uehling was sure her eyes were playing tricks on her. “A bunch of parrots was the last thing I expected to see roaming around in the middle of Chicago.”

Dinosaur bones shimmering with opal reveal a new species in Australia

By Gemma Conroy | June 3, 2019

Three decades ago, opal miner Bob Foster was getting frustrated while digging around in his mining field just outside of Lightning Ridge, a dust-swept town in outback New South Wales. Foster and his family spent hours a day searching for a glimmer of rainbow-shaded gems embedded in the rocks 40 feet underground. But all they found were a bunch of dinosaur bones. “We would see these things that looked like horses,” says Foster. “Then we would just smash them up to see if there were any opals inside.”

Seabird poop speeds up coral growth

By Gemma Conroy | April 24, 2019

When marine biologist Candida Savage was collecting samples of nitrogen and other nutrients in the coastal waters of Fiji, she was jarred by what she found at one horseshoe-shaped coral reef: The nitrogen levels were off the charts. It was the last thing she had expected to find in a pristine environment brimming with healthy corals and diverse fish, far from the farming activities and polluted wastewater that typically accompany high nitrogen levels.

A gene linked to alcohol habits may influence who you choose to marry

By Gemma Conroy | April 11, 2019

Should you go on that second date? A gene that influences how much alcohol we drink may also shape our decisions when choosing a partner. It’s no secret that many couples have similar patterns when it comes to alcohol use, but pinning down the underlying reason has been tricky. One explanation could be that a couple’s drinking habits become more alike over time. Laurence Howe at the University of Bristol says previous studies on the link between alcohol use and partner choice have relied mostly on self-reported data.

Stopping marine roadkill

By Gemma Conroy | February 13, 2019

When Vanessa Pirotta is surveying whales in the frigid water off Antarctica, the traffic-packed roads back home are far from her mind. “You see absolutely nothing out there at times,” says Pirotta, a marine biologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “So when a ship eventually comes along, I think about how jarring it must be for a whale or shark.” Marine roads are invisible, but they are busier than ever. Each year, ships use these paths to ferry more than 10 billion tonnes of goods from one country to the next. Global trade relies heavily on seaborne transport, but large whales and sharks are paying the price.

Seagrass safeguards human history

By Gemma Conroy | January 7, 2019

From storing carbon to guarding against ocean acidification, seagrass is fundamental to keeping ocean ecosystems in balance. But new research shows that seagrass meadows play another crucial, if overlooked, role: protecting shipwrecks and other underwater historical heritage. Ancient weapons, prehistoric fishing tools, and textiles are just some of the items scientists have discovered buried beneath the protective cover of seagrass, says Oscar Serrano, a marine ecologist at Edith Cowan University in Australia. Until now, Serrano says, no one has investigated the cultural value of seagrass meadows, which “play an important role in revealing clues about the human past.”

Warming waters could make sharks “right-handed”—and deadlier

By Gemma Conroy | December 3, 2018

Rising ocean temperatures and acidification are known to be altering the way fish grow and reproduce—and now research shows these climate change side-effects may also change how fish think and act. A recent study has found Port Jackson sharks become “right-handed” when incubated at the kind of temperatures projected to prevail by the end of this century, if climate change continues at its current pace. Some scientists think such shifts could lead to behavioral changes that tip marine ecosystems out of balance.

Power balance in clinical trials exposed

By Gemma Conroy | October 9, 2018

Academic researchers are usually excluded from data analysis in industry-funded clinical trials, a study of 200 recent trials has found. Collaborations between academic researchers and industry on clinical trials are common, but often problematic. While academics are expected to bring methodological expertise and trial participants, and industry partners supply the funds, their respective roles are not always clear cut.

When breaking free is a mark of success

By Gemma Conroy | October 3, 2018

For early-career researchers, a good working relationship with a supervisor can open the door to exploring hot research areas, collaborating strategically and publishing papers. But building a career independently of a supervisor has rewards that go further.

150 years of shifting global fishing

By Gemma Conroy | August 22, 2018

For thousands of years, seafood has sustained communities, livelihoods, and economies across the world. In ancient Rome, wealthy entrepreneurs snapped up beachfront property and built elaborate fish farms. In 15th-century Chile, coastal people bartered shellfish for inland resources. The Vikings living on Norway’s Lofoten Islands were fierce and powerful raiders, but they were also prodigious fishers of Atlantic cod. Over millennia, shifts in politics and changing technology have drastically altered when and where people go to fish. But accurate scientific records of this vast history of fishing activity capture, at best, a tiny sliver of the whole.

The A to Z of paper authorship

By Gemma Conroy | August 21, 2018

To keep authorship fair, journals in all fields should list authors based on their contribution rather than in alphabetical order. That’s the conclusion of Matthias Weber, an economist at the University of St. Gallen, who looked at 10 different studies examining the effects of alphabetical authorship in a literature review published in Research Evaluation.

We have unrealistic beauty standards for coral, too

By Gemma Conroy | May 30, 2018

Vibrant images of coral reefs are popular features in glossy travel magazines. This spiraling kaleidoscope of neon corals leads many to believe that “pretty” must also mean “healthy.” But according to Julie Vercelloni, a marine scientist at the University of Queensland in Australia, something more sinister is often at play when corals turn a fluorescent shade.

Citation analysis reveals the game changers

By Gemma Conroy | May 29, 2018

Fewer than two out of every 10,000 scientific papers remain influential in their field decades after publication, finds an analysis of five million articles published between 1980 and 1990. Among these seminal papers is the first tool for sequencing the genome, a longitudinal study linking the hepatitis B virus to higher rates of liver cancer among Chinese men, and the use of hypnosis to investigate the role of emotions in memory.

Scientists go to great lengths in reviewing high-quality research

By Gemma Conroy | April 11, 2018

A bias by journals towards studies with positive findings is undermining the trustworthiness of published science, a new mathematical model suggests. The findings published on the bioRxiv preprint server are a first step in measuring how factors such as competition for funding and bias towards novel findings influence the quality of science published in top-tier journals. Publishing research in high-impact journals is integral to climbing the career ladder, and the pressure is intensifying as researchers compete for dwindling funding.

Western Australia is home to ‘Australia’s Jurassic Park’

By Gemma Conroy | November 8, 2017

The dampier Peninsula in Western Australia is well-known for its white-gold beaches, ochre-rich cliffs and sprawling tableland. But the sandstone rocks beneath the swelling tides tell a different story. If you found yourself strolling along the coast 130 million years ago, you would be surrounded by massive herds of dinosaurs, from giant long-necked plant-eaters to three-toed carnivores. The 25 kilometre stretch of coastline north of Broome is home to thousands of dinosaur tracks belonging to more than 20 different groups, making it the most diverse track site in the world.

Rush to publish weakens scientific integrity, study finds

By Gemma Conroy | October 18, 2017

A bias by journals towards studies with positive findings is undermining the trustworthiness of published science, a new mathematical model suggests. The findings published on the bioRxiv preprint server are a first step in measuring how factors such as competition for funding and bias towards novel findings influence the quality of science published in top-tier journals. Publishing research in high-impact journals is integral to climbing the career ladder, and the pressure is intensifying as researchers compete for dwindling funding.

Gender proportions in medical schools are almost equal, but disparities persist further up the ranks, a new tracking tool reveals

By Gemma Conroy | October 6, 2017

More women have entered the medical profession in the past two decades, tipping the scales towards greater gender balance in the field. Despite this progress, the proportion of female chairs and professors in academic medicine remains low, even in fields that are traditionally female-dominated such as obstetrics and gynaecology. In several countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, the number of female and male students graduating from medical school is almost equal. In Germany, 60% of all medical students in 2013 were women.

This strange creature is the first sunfish species to be discovered in 130 years

By Gemma Conroy | August 2, 2017

For the first time in 130 years, researchers have discovered a new species of sunfish that has escaped taxonomy records for almost three centuries. The bizarre new species has been named the Hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta), and has been found in the cold waters of New Zealand, southern Chile, South Africa and the south-east coast of Australia.

We are entering a new era of colour science and researchers are buzzing 

By Gemma Conroy | August 5, 2017

It’s no secret that animals see the world in a very different light to humans, but an international collaboration between scientists has revealed that we are on the brink of a new era when it comes to figuring out how animals see, use and manipulate colour. The in-depth review takes a deep dive into the field of colour science, which has experienced explosive growth in the last two decades thanks to technological advances. The authors say that the new insights on colouration are set to have an enormous impact on various fields, including medical applications.

Self-driving cars could make moral decisions like humans with a simple algorithm 

By Gemma Conroy | July 6, 2017

Self-driving cars are almost here, but one big question remains – how do they make hard choices in a life and death situation? Now researchers have demonstrated that smart vehicles are capable of making ethical decisions on the road, just like we do everyday. By studying human behaviour in a series of virtual reality-based trials, the team were able to describe moral decision making in the form of an algorithm. This is huge because previously, researchers have assumed that modelling complex ethical choices is out of reach.

The ‘Mona Lisa’ of dinosaurs is so perfect we even know its skin colour 

By Gemma Conroy | August 4, 2017

It may look like a dragon fresh off the set of Game of Thrones, but it turns out that one of the world’s best preserved dinosaurs faced some tough predators when it roamed the Cretaceous landscape some 110 million years ago. The statue-like specimen is so good that researchers were able to see the dinosaur’s skin colour, which likely played a role in camouflage to avoid catching the eye of the massive meat-eaters that dominated the environment.

Ravens can plan for the future like humans and apes 

By Gemma Conroy | July 15, 2017

Just when we thought corvids couldn’t get any smarter, new research shows that ravens are just as capable of planning ahead of time as humans and apes. They can also barter and use tools better than apes, and display greater self-control than four-year-old children. The new findings show that planning for future events may have evolved in these birds after they and mammals shared a common ancestor over 300 million years ago.

Scientists have positive new results for using ketamine to treat severe depression

By Gemma Conroy | July 29, 2017

When it comes to ketamine many might leap to thoughts of electronic music, psychedelic visions and out-of-body experiences. But new research has added to existing evidence that this party drug could be a safe, fast, and effective treatment for severe depression. The new findings represent a glimmer of hope in cases where antidepressant medications, counselling and other therapies have failed to relieve depressive symptoms, and particularly for the elderly.

Is this bizarre tubeworm the longest-living animal in the world? 

By Gemma Conroy | July 22, 2017

Make some room tortoises and whales, because it looks like tubeworms have the real secret to longevity. A new study has found that these deep-sea animals from the Gulf of Mexico can live to be between 100 and 300 years old. “At more than 250 years old, Escarpia laminata achieves a lifespan that exceeds other longevity records,” says lead researcher Alanna Durkin from Temple University in the US.

The Sun is ‘sneezing’ solar storms towards Earth

By Gemma Conroy | July 1, 2017

Right now, the Sun is stirring up violent eruptions capable of wiping out the technology we are so dependent on, and new research has found that these blasts are even harder to predict than scientists first thought. The findings reveal that these coronal mass ejections hurl into Earth’s atmosphere like a sneeze rather than a stream of bubble-like structures. The cloud-like eruptions are also strongly influenced by the solar wind, forcing researchers to reconstruct their space weather forecasting.

Physicists have figured out where the Sun’s plasma jets come from 

By Gemma Conroy | June 24, 2017

After over a century of observations and several theories, scientists may have finally nailed the origin of the high-speed plasma blasting through the Sun’s atmosphere several times a day. Using a state-of-the-art computer simulation, researchers have developed a detailed model of these plasma jets, called spicules. The new findings answer some of the bigger questions in solar physics, including how these plasma jets form and why the Sun’s outer atmosphere is far hotter than the surface.

The perfect material for flexible electronics is based on a plant 

By Gemma Conroy | June 24, 2017

Whether it’s balancing on a blade of grass or taking on the appearance of frozen smoke, aerogels have been blowing us away with their amazing properties in recent years. And just when you thought they couldn’t get any freakier, researchers have created a graphene aerogel that can support over 6,000 times its own weight. Along with being super strong, the new aerographene is bendy, conductive, and mimics the structure of a plant stem. The unique properties of the material could make it an ideal component in flexible electronics such as smart windows, curved TV screens, and printable solar panels.

This amazing robot can grip like a gecko to clean up space junk 

By Gemma Conroy | June 30, 2017

Over the past 60 years, humans have successfully launched satellites, space vehicles and humans into Earth’s orbit. We’ve also managed to leave a whole bunch of stuff floating up there that can destroy satellites in an instant. Thankfully, researchers have designed a robotic gripper that can pick up the junk we’ve left behind on our space adventures. Taking design cues from gecko feet, the gripper’s super clingy adhesive could enable climbing robots to carry out a range of tasks on a spacecraft, from checking and repairing defects to shooting videos.

Physicists just smashed a record to achieve quantum entanglement in space

By Gemma Conroy | June 16, 2017

It may have once been regarded as that ‘freaky kid’ of the physics world, but quantum entanglement has literally come a long way from the days when Einstein laughed it off as “spooky action at a distance”.  In a new study, scientists have successfully transmitted entangled photons between a satellite and Earth at a distance of over 1,200 kilometres (750 miles). This smashes the previous record for entanglement distribution, which only reached up to 100 kilometres.

We’ve finally figured out where some of Earth’s mystery xenon came from

By Gemma Conroy | June 9, 2017

The enigmatic noble gas xenon has been presenting scientists with puzzling riddles for decades, including how it got to Earth, and then its apparent disappearance since arriving. But geochemists may have finally figured out where at least some of the xenon in Earth’s atmosphere might have originated – and it’s not from here. New results from the Rosetta spacecraft reveal that almost a quarter of the xenon found in our atmosphere may have come from comets.

Astronomers just did what Einstein said was impossible: weigh a star with gravity

By Gemma Conroy | June 8, 2017

When Albert Einstein was mapping out his famous theory of general relativity, he didn’t think that one of his predictions would ever be directly observed – the light of a distant star being warped and magnified by the gravity of an object in its path. But now astronomers have seen Einstein’s prediction in real time, and have used it to solve the mystery of a white dwarf star’s mass, which was previously only possible in theory. The new findings blaze a new path to understanding the evolution of galaxies, including our own.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft just shattered what we knew about Jupiter

By Gemma Conroy | May 26, 2017

Just when we thought we had Jupiter all figured out, NASA’s Juno spacecraft reveals new results that challenge almost every assumption we’ve made about the gas giant. The first results from Juno’s initial two flybys back in August 2016 describe giant cyclones, a super powerful magnetic field, and weird northern lights that behave totally different to our own.

Oldest evidence of life on land discovered in Western Australia

By Gemma Conroy | May 10, 2017

THE OLDEST FOSSIL evidence of life on land has been discovered in ancient hot spring deposits in the Pilbara, Western Australia. The new evidence could help pave the way for the search for life on Mars.

Published today in Nature Communications, the new findings indicate that life was present on land 580 million years earlier than previously thought. The discovery also extends the record of microbes living in hot springs by 3 billion years.

10 reasons Australians should celebrate bilbies, not bunnies, this Easter

By Gemma Conroy | April 13, 2017

Just as in other parts of the world at Easter, Australians spend the long weekend eating (often far too many) chocolate bunnies and eggs. But there’s another animal that has found its way into our national Easter celebrations – the threatened Greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis).

DNA from ancient hair sample confirms Aboriginal Australians’ ties to country

By Gemma Conroy | March 15, 2017

A new DNA analysis of hair samples has revealed Aboriginal communities have remained in the same regions since their first arrival 50,000 years ago – confirming the deep connection between Aboriginal people and country spanning thousands of years.

Bearded dragons switch colour to match surroundings

By Gemma Conroy | March 7, 2017

Australia’s central bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) are also known to switch skin colour in seconds, whether for a courtship display or to maintain body temperature.

The University of Melbourne’s Viviana Cadena, an expert in ecophysiology (the study of how organisms adapt to their environment) wanted to find out how bearded dragons switch shades according to changes in their surroundings, such as sand colour and light intensity.