Here on Sciencing, we cover the gamut of science news. We keep you up to date on deep-space discoveries like Ultima Thule (the most distant object photographed in space so far!) and climate news like why global warming doesn't prevent super-snowstorms (it's because warmer oceans mean more moisture in the air – which can turn into heavy snowfall under the right conditions).
But sometimes, we come across science news that's just super out there – and we have to share! One of the beauty of science is that you can study (almost) anything you want, and that the smallest and seemingly weirdest observations can have huge real-world implications.
These three crazy discoveries make that point crystal clear.
How Soggy Cereal Helps Scientists Prevent Flooding
The snap, crackle and pop of rice cereal in milk might seem like the most boring thing in the world – but, surprisingly, watching cereal get soggy is helping scientists save lives.
That's because rice cereal has a surprising amount in common with rocks. As Australian "cereal expert" and engineer Itai Einav tells Science News, both rice cereal and rock have a similar internal structure: hard and strong overall, but filled with holes that allow fluid (milk or water) to pass through. Those similarities allow him to create faux "rock dams" in his lab using cereal and milk – so he can study how real rock dams stand up to pressure.
He sets up his experiments by adding rice cereal (the "rocks") and milk (the "water") to a test tube, then adding weights on top to mimic the pressure of a heavy dam. His experiments help estimate just how much pressure real rock dams can take before they collapse – so they can make recommendations that prevent the dams from failing and flooding the neighboring areas with water.
Einav tells Science News that his experiments might also apply to Arctic ice streams and ice sheets. So who knows – your morning cereal might help researchers learn more about climate change, too!
How Penguin Poop Teaches Us About Climate Change
This may be a thoroughly unscientific fact, but penguins are the cutest animals of all time (sorry, we don't make the rules!). One thing that's not so cute, though? They poop. A lot.
In fact, a supercolony of Adélie penguins – about 1.5 million birds living off the coast of the Antarctic peninsula – actually produce so much feces that scientists use it to study the ecosystem there.
Sounds strange, right? But analyzing the penguins' feces helps scientists learn more about their diet – and how other organisms in the ecosystem are faring under climate change. See, penguins typically prefer to eat fish – but if there aren't enough fish available to support their population, they'll eat krill instead.
Because krill naturally contain pigments called carotenoids, that appear red to pink, looking at the color of the penguins' poop tells researchers about the penguins' diets. If their poop appears pinker than normal – so, they're eating more krill than usual – that can signal that there aren't enough fish nearby and indicate that the ecosystem is under stress. If the penguins have access to enough fish, on the other hand, they poop won't look as pink – and that signals that the ecosystem is probably in better shape.
Studying penguin feces is so useful that scientists have developed new technology to analyze the color of their feces based on photographs taken from space. That will make it easier to track changes in the penguins' diets year over year, without expensive (and disruptive) expeditions to the Antarctic.
How Rotting Meat Teaches Us About Our Ancestors
It doesn't take a genius to know that rotting meat stinks. But the process of putrefaction (the scientific term for "rotting") can tell us about how Neandertals, our most recent ancestors, ate.
That's because "you are what you eat" is true, to an extent. More specifically, the minerals and elements found in food make their way into our bodies – which means your tissues contain chemical traces of the foods you eat.
Through studying the bones of Neandertals, scientists already know they ate a diet rich in meat. That's because Neandertal bones contain a specific isotope of nitrogen, called heavy nitrogen or nitrogen-15. Because nitrogen-15 is primarily found in meat but not in plants, researchers figured out that Neandertals eat a meat-heavy diet – that's how the nitrogen-15 got into their system.
So we know that Neandertals ate meat – but we don't know exactly how they ate it.
And that's where studying rotting meat comes in. During putrefaction, meat undergoes a series of chemical changes (that transform it from a yummy steak into a stinky mess). By studying the isotope levels in meat as it rots, then comparing that to the isotope levels in Neandertal remains, scientists can estimate how fresh their diet was. They might also be able to learn more about how Neandertals prepared their meat – say, by smoking or grilling it.
Rotting meat as the secret to uncovering the real caveman diet. Who knew?