What were the most ferocious land predators before the dinosaurs?

Researchers believe that the saber-toothed gorgons (gorgonopsids), which lived just before the dinosaurs, were probably the most ferocious land predators of that time (about 260 million years ago). The largest gorgonopsids were ten feet long. They were fast, deadly reptiles with a pair of long stabbing teeth, looking something like the saber-toothed tigers that lived in North America until about 12,000 years ago. They probably filled a similar ecological niche as the saber-toothed tigers, although they may not have been as smart, and probably did not form complex social groups. Gorgonopsids were wiped out in the Great Permian Extinction 251 million years ago (see the previous Cool Fact below), but related species formed the line that eventually led to mammals. There is debate about whether or not they were warm blooded.

What is Silly Putty and where did it come from?

Most kids know about Silly Putty, that stretchy, bouncy stuff that comes in a hollow plastic egg. It's a mixture of boric acid and silicone oil, originally invented in 1945 by engineers at General Electric as a substitute for rubber. The strange, new stuff, first known as "gupp," was not a very good rubber replacement because it was too soft and sticky. No one quite knew what to do with it, but it was cool to play with, so some of the scientists took some home or kept a lump on their desk at GE. It was not until 1949 that an unemployed advertisement writer named Peter Hodgson discovered a lump of "gupp" at a toy store in New Haven. The store's owner had gotten it from a GE engineer, but wasn't interested in marketing it. It was packaged by Hodgson as "Nutty Putty" and then renamed "Silly Putty." Now it's everywhere -- it's even been to the moon.

What kind of space propulsion needs no fuel?

A new device called an electrodynamic orbital tether will make it possible for orbiting spacecraft to maneuver without using up fuel. An electrodynamic tether is a long wire that is unreeled upward or downward from a spacecraft, together with an ion-releasing device called a plasma contactor. It works by taking advantage of forces generated in the wire when current flows through it as it slices through the planet's magnetic field. A tether can be used to increase the altitude of an orbit, in which case it consumes electrical power, or it can cause the orbit to become lower, in which case it acts as an electrical generator. Scientists are considering using solar-powered electrodynamic tethers for future missions to Jupiter, a planet with a strong magnetic field. A space probe with such a system could maneuver for many years among Jupiter's moons, powered by sunlight and propelled by the planet's magnetic field. More about advanced space propulsion projects: http://infinity.msfc.nasa.gov/Public/ps01/sprop.html http://www.tethers.com/M-ETethers.html

How do bacteria find food and avoid danger?

Bacteria are the simplest cellular life forms, so their ways of finding food and avoiding danger are also very simple. They do it by alternating between two kinds of swimming. When a bacterium rotates its flagella (tiny helical swimming oars) counterclockwise, it swims steadily forward. When it rotates them the other way, it "tumbles" without making any long-term progress. The bacterium is sensitive to the chemistry of its environment. If the chemical signals show that food is nearby, it tumbles more and swims less. If the chemistry is not so good, it swims more and tumbles less. The result is that it swims away from danger and toward food. More about how bacteria swim, with a movie: http://www.cellsalive.com/animabug.htm An article about the surprising intelligence of bacterial swimming: http://lux.ucs.indiana.edu/~pietsch/microminds.html A previous Cool Fact about another way that bacteria navigate: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/02/03.html

How did fake fossils fool a university professor?

A fossil hoax known as "Beringer's Autographed Stones" was so successful that a university professor published a book about the fake fossils. In the early 18th century fossils were still a matter of considerable debate among geologists. Dr. Hohann Bartholemew Adam Beringer, of the medical faculty at Wuerzberg, held the view that fossils were mostly not the remains of animals, but rather the handiwork of God, made to please Him. Two men who disagreed with his views carved various shapes into stones and planted them at Beringer's favorite digging site. Beringer believed these fake fossils to be produced by the direct intervention of God, and as the hoaxers planted more and more preposterous fakes, Beringer became even more excited. The hoax was eventually revealed, and Beringer was so embarrassed that he bought back as many copies of his book as he could find, at great expense. The hoax ruined the reputations of everyone involved: http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/berstone.htm

When was the first meeting between Europeans and Native Americans?

Columbus was not the first European to meet Native American people. A much earlier meeting happened when Viking explorers landed in the extreme northeast of North America, around the year 1000. The landing was part of a great exploratory wave, when the Vikings sailed all around the north Atlantic visiting Iceland, Greenland, and northern North America. They found these lands almost entirely uninhabited. There are two stories from the 13th and 14th centuries, written records of much older orally transmitted tales, that tell the story of their encounters with Native Americans. They are "The Saga of Erik the Red," and "The Saga of the Greenlanders," both about the explorer Erik the Red and his son, Leif Eriksson. The Vikings were bold explorers: http://www.nmnh.si.edu/arctic/features/viking/ A previous Cool Fact about Vikings: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1997/03/02.html

What kind of spider catches flying insects without using a web?

The arboreal (tree-climbing) tarantula, Avicula versicolor, is so fast that it can grab flying insects right out of the air. It is one of the few spiders that can do this without using a web. A. versicolor is found on Martinique and Guadeloupe islands. It's a huge, furry, red and brown spider that can jump rapidly and accurately among the tree branches where it lives. Like most tarantulas it has excellent eyesight, with full stereo vision. If it sees a flying insect it springs at it, in an act of exquisite timing and precision, and snatches it right out of the air. Dinner is served! Tarantulas are among the most intelligent arthropods: http://www.image.dk/~boston/edderdyr/

What kind of life lives inside solid ice?

Scientists are studying a frozen lake in Antarctica where there are entire ecosystems locked inside solid ice. The lake never thaws, but six feet down in the ice there are tiny clumps of dark material. In the summer, when the sun shines down through the ice, a small amount of liquid water forms around the dark clumps, and in that space grow specialized bacteria and cyanobacteria (sometimes called blue-green algae). How did these clumps of life get down in the ice? During the summer the topmost layer of ice on the lake accumulates bits of dust blown in from the surrounding cold desert. These dust particles soak up sunlight and become warmer, melting the ice around them. They then sink down into the ice, taking living spores with them. The ice-loving life forms are in Lake Bonney: http://research.unc.edu/endeavors/aut97/ice.html Life forms living in such extreme conditions are known as "extremophiles." Today's Cool Word is extremophile: http://www.cool-word.com/archive/1999/02/18.html Previous Cool Facts about extremophiles: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1997/06/21.html http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/05/11.html http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/08/07.html http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/09/08.html

Why does a hurricane have a calm "eye" in the center?

The eye of a hurricane is the inescapable result of the laws of physics. No matter how strong the rotating winds are around the center, there must always be a point where there is no wind at all. That point, and a circular region around it, is the eye. Sometimes the sky in the eye is clear and blue, or stars may be visible if it's night. A hurricane's eye is surrounded by a circular wall of boiling clouds. The cloud wall marks the sudden transition between the raging winds and relative calm. Air pressure in a hurricane's eye is very low, often lower than any (sea-level) pressures outside of such storms. Although we know there must be an eye, there are many unanswered questions. Why is the eye so sharply defined? Why is there a downdraft in most eyes? How can a storm's eye develop two concentric cloud walls, and why does the storm often weaken immediately afterwards? Here's some great writing about hurricane Hugo (South Carolina, 1989): http://www2.sptimes.com/weather/HG.6.html Other Cool Facts about thunderstorms and hurricanes: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/10/29.html http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1999/01/11.html

How many different kinds of life are there?

No one knows for sure how many different kinds (species) of life forms there are on planet Earth, but a vast number have been discovered so far. Just among animals there are at least 1,500,000 different species. How many species are in some of the largest groups? The numbers given here are lower bounds; there are probably more in each group waiting to be discovered: 750,000 species of arthropods (insects, crustaceans, spiders, etc.) 265,000 species of land plants 120,000 species of algae 90,000 species of molluscs (snails, clams, octopuses, squids, etc.) 77,000 species of fungi 18,000 species of flatworms 12,000 species of roundworms 8,600 species of birds 4,000 species of mammals In addition, there are thousands of species of reptiles, amphibians, protozoa, bacteria, viruses, and other life forms. Take a tour through the history of life on Earth: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/education/life/tournew.html

Why do some birds sleep with one eye open?

Many kinds of birds sleep with only one half of their brain at a time, keeping one eye open and one eye closed. They alternate which half of their brain is awake and which half is asleep. A recent study suggests that the reason is simple: the birds are literally keeping an eye out for predators. Birds that are on the edge of the flock are much more likely to sleep this way, and the eye that is open usually faces out into the area surrounding the flock. That way predators cannot approach without being seen. Birds are not the only animals that sleep this way. Dolphins and other sea-mammals sleep with only half their brains, but for a different reason: they need to remember to swim to the surface to get a breath of air. People might also sometimes sleep with only part of the brain: http://www.exn.ca/html/templates/htmlpage.cfm

How does the B-2 bomber avoid detection?

The B-2 bomber has a wing span of 172 feet (52 meters), yet its radar "signature" (apparent size on a radar screen) is as big as that of a bird. Not only that, but it makes very little sound and is difficult to see, from the ground or from the air. The bomber's construction uses graphite composites, which trap radar waves inside the plane, and its outer surfaces contain no flat parts and no right angles, which would reflect radar. The jet's hot exhaust is mixed with cool air before being released, foiling heat-seeking missiles. Its engines are also hidden deep inside the plane, where their noise is muffled by the structure of the aircraft. Even the plane's shape is designed to fool the eye, making it difficult to tell whether it's coming or going. The result is an aircraft that is able to fly deep into enemy territory without detection. More about the amazing B-2 "stealth" bomber: http://www.discovery.com/area/technology/b2/b2.html

How do opals show rainbow colors?

Opal is one of the few gemstones that is not a crystal. Although it's made of silica (silicon dioxide), the same compound as quartz and agate, the molecules are not arranged in crystalline order. Opal is made of millions of extremely tiny spheres of silica molecules, loosely packed together, with water molecules between them. The water content can be as high as 10% or more. The colors come from the interaction between light and the silica spheres. If the spheres are almost the same size, they tend to pack into semi-regular patterns that diffract light, the same way a peacock's feather does. Each opal shows its own unique colored display. More about opals: http://www.theimage.com/gemstone/opal/opal.html http://www.desertusa.com/magfeb98/feb_pap/geo_opal.html

Do rocks from Mars fall onto the Earth?

Analysis of the chemical composition of some meteorites suggests that they may be pieces of the planet Mars. They were probably thrown into space during large asteroid impacts on Mars, and may have spent millions of years in orbit before falling onto the Earth. In 1996 tiny fossil-like structures, smaller than bacteria, were discovered inside one of these Mars rocks. There is debate about whether these cylindrical capsules were once living cells. Is there life on Mars? The presence on Earth of Martian meteorites may have given us a rare, close-up look at Martian chemistry, but we still have no certain answers about Martian life forms. More about the meteorites from Mars, and the controversial "fossils": http://seti1.setileague.org/photos/marspix.htm http://cnn.com/TECH/9608/06/mars.life/ http://www.fas.org/mars/aaas_001.htm A previous Cool Fact about Mars: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1997/06/24.html

How does petrified wood form?

Petrified wood is wood that has turned to stone. Usually it is millions of years old. Often it shows beautiful colors that were not present in the original wood. How does wood turn to stone? When wood dies it begins decaying immediately. To become petrified it must be quickly covered by a layer of volcanic ash, mud, or other material that excludes oxygen, thus preventing it from decaying. If conditions are right, the organic part of the wood dissolves slowly, and at the same time minerals replace the organic matter, duplicating its structure exactly. The mineral replacement can be silica, calcite, pyrite, or marcasite. The colors are caused by impurities in the replacing mineral. The most common impurity is iron, which causes red, orange, or yellow colors. Manganese or copper can cause blue, black, or green colors. One of the finest deposits of petrified wood: http://www.shannontech.com/ParkVision/PetForest/PetWood.html

What's the most powerful kind of light microscope?

The light microscope that can see the smallest details is the laser scanning confocal microscope (LSCM). It's a sophisticated combination of a laser, a computer, and advanced optics. The LSCM eliminates one of the biggest sources of optical "noise" in ordinary microscopes: light from parts of the image that are not in focus. Instead of creating the whole image all at once, a confocal microscope aims a tiny spot of light at the subject, scanning it like the beam of electrons used in a scanning electron microscope. The result is an image that shows much smaller details than traditional light microscope images. There are other devices, like electron microscopes, which achieve much greater magnification than the LSCM. Nevertheless, LSCM images sometimes show information that is impossible to see with any other microscope. Galleries of confocal images: http://www.neuro.soton.ac.uk/BIG/Pretty_Pictures/pretty.pictures.html http://www.is.kochi-u.ac.jp/Bio/clsm/clsm.html
More about how it works: http://www.llt.de/conprin.html

What animal had the longest neck of all?

The longest known neck was that of the dinosaur Mamenchisaurus. Its neck could be as long as 15 meters (49 feet), two and a half times as long as a giraffe's neck. The whole dinosaur could be as long as 26 meters (85 feet) and might weigh as much as ten metric tons. Mamenchisaurus necks contained 19 vertebrae, more than any other known dinosaur. A giraffe's neck contains only seven vertebrae. Memenchisaurus was related to the Diplodocus, another huge dinosaur. Both were herbivores that used their long necks to get at vegetation without having to move their bodies very much. Mamenchisaurus lived during the late Jurassic Period, about 140 million years ago. More about Memenchisaurus: http://www.nature.ca/notebooks/english/mamenchi.htm Previous Cool Facts about unusual necks: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1997/12/18.html http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/05/13.html http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/05/20.html

What kind of human body cell acts like an amoeba?

Your body contains cells that look and act very much like amoebas (see previous Cool Fact below to learn more about amoebas). Certain kinds of leukocytes, or white blood cells, cling to the walls of arteries and veins, moving around by extending pseudopods (temporary protrusions) and flowing along. The most common white blood cells are called neutrophils. Trillions of them are created every day by the bone marrow and released into the blood. They are attracted to substances that are present at the sites of injury or infection. Once they arrive, they engulf bacteria, dead cells, and other debris. The largest white blood cells are the macrophages, which clean up various tissues and organs. One kind of macrophage eats dead neutrophils. There are many other kinds of white blood cells. All of them are part of the human immune system, which keeps the body free of infection. How the human immune system works: http://www.howstuffworks.com/immune-system.htm Previous Cool Facts about amoebas: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/08/24.html Previous Cool Facts about blood: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1997/02/28.html http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/04/28.html

How can telescopes directly image planets of distant stars?

It's about as easy to see a planet of a distant star as it is to see a candle flame next to a searchlight from many miles away. The star's light drowns out the planet, and the planet is lost in the glare. By a method called nulling interferometry, astronomers can optically remove most of the light of the star, leaving the planet's light undimmed. In infrared light, in which planets are relatively bright, a planet might be visible. The method works by using two mirrors to create one image. One mirror is adjusted so the light travels very slightly farther to make the image. Light waves from the star are canceled out, but light from the planet gets through. Several observatories are beginning to explore the idea, and a space- based nulling interferometer is under design. If there are planets like Earth out there, we may soon be able to see some of them. More about nulling interferometry: http://www.spacer.com/planetary/extrasolar-98b.html http://unisci.com/stories/0917981.htm A previous Cool Fact about planets of other stars: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/09/16.html

What kind of single-celled organisms have no nuclei?

Most living cells contain a nucleus, a semi-enclosed compartment where the cell's DNA (genetic material) is stored, but bacteria just have a single, looped DNA molecule, tangled into a mass called the nucleoid. Bacteria are the simplest life forms on Earth, and the most ancient. There are no sub-compartments inside bacterial cells, just a rich, syrupy liquid, thick with enzymes and other organic molecules. Bacteria prosper by growing and dividing as fast as possible. Because they are small and simple, they can be fast and hardy. If the environment is good, the population of some bacteria can double in 20 minutes. More about bacteria: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/bacteria/bacteria.html A previous Cool Fact about bacteria: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1999/02/09.html A previous Cool Fact about cells without nuclei: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/04/28.html

What's the most primitive multicellular animal?

In the animal kingdom, the most primitive multicellular forms are the sponges, members of the phylum Porifera. These animals have been around since just before the Cambrian Period, more than 500 million years ago. Today there are about 5,000 known species of sponges. All the cells of a sponge are nearly identical, and its body has no distinct organs or separate tissues. It is a porous mesh of cells, like a living filter, designed to trap tiny, floating life forms. It does not move, but pulls water through itself, filtering out microscopic life forms, which its cells engulf. The simplest sponges can spontaneously reconstruct themselves after being torn apart into individual cells. The cells move together and build a body much like the old one, but with the individual cells in different places. More about sponges: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/porifera/porifera.html Previous Cool Facts about very primitive life forms: http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/05/08.html http://www.cool-fact.com/archive/1998/10/06.html

What kind of bird spits oil?

It is best to keep well clear of the nests of the fulmar, a seabird that is capable of spitting a foul-smelling, yellowish oil at nest intruders. The oil comes from the bird's stomach. The bird can send the oil as far as 1.5 meters (5 feet) with great accuracy. Fulmars are related to albatrosses and petrels, in the order Procellariiformes. Most birds in this group produce stomach oil and feed it to their young, but only the fulmar spits it at intruders. Even when they are not spitting oil, fulmars and their close relatives are malodorous creatures. Every part of the bird emits a strong, musky odor, even the eggs. Giant petrel egg shells that have been in a museum for 100 years still smell. The northern fulmar's habitat stretches from the Arctic to regions as far south as England, California, and Japan: http://rainbow.ldgo.columbia.edu/edf/info/dist/fulmar/ A research paper about fulmars: http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/Entomology/courses/en570/papers_1998/skinner.html

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