SciTeens’ Ampere News: 5 Cool Current Science Events From This August

Written by Grace Jiang | Wednesday, August 25

Welcome back to SciTeens’ Ampere News! At the end of each month, we publish an article highlighting some interesting developments in the world of science over the last thirty(ish) days. For today's edition, we'll provide a summary of science news from August.

For those curious as to why we named the series Ampere, the ampere is the standard unit of measurement of electrical current. Likewise, we hope that SciTeens will become the standard for keeping up with the most interesting and current news in STEM! The following infographic summarizes what we have in store for this month; feel free to scroll through and jump right to which story seems the most interesting to you!

1. Volcano erupts more often when sea level falls

What happened?

In a report published on August 2nd, scientists analyze the eruption history over 360,000 years for the volcano Santorini in Greece. They find that as sea levels rise, volcanic activity decreases. 

How did it happen?

The team of researchers first created a computer simulation of the volcano’s magma chamber (a location within the volcano that stores molten rock/magma before eruption). When the sea level dropped in the simulation, cracks would form above the magma chamber; this is because the pressure from the surrounding water holding the rock together is released when the sea level falls. Magma is then able to move upwards through the volcano and reach the surface. 

In the following analysis of Santorini’s eruption history, 208 of the 211 past eruptions had occurred under low sea level conditions (over 40 meters below today’s sea level), supporting the computer simulation. 

Why does this matter?

Influences on volcanic activity have not been well-studied. The results of this study uncover a convincing factor affecting the timing of volcanic eruptions. Although measuring the sea level can’t accurately predict any specific eruptions, scientists hope that a better overall understanding of volcanic activity can be reached with this new information. 

2. Engineers build a color-changing chameleon robot

What happened?

In a paper published on August 10th, researchers describe a robot chameleon model that can quickly match its surface color with the background color. 

Watch a video of the robot changing colors!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82eAYWdMU0o&t=27s 

How did it happen?

The crucial part of the robot to get right was its artificial skin, the part that should change color. Scientists covered the skin of the robot with a coating of liquid crystal ink able to display different colors depending on molecule alignment. To change the molecule orientations of this ink, different amounts of heat need to be added. The engineers therefore designed a system of wires capable of providing heat below the robot’s artificial skin. The wires are heated to specific temperatures based on color sensors on the underside of the robot. 

Why does this matter?

Although the robot chameleon by itself may not have a lot of uses (it would be a pretty cool toy though!), the technology behind its color-changing artificial skin has potential. For instance, this development could potentially provide a way for military vehicles or soldiers’ uniforms to adapt to the color of the surrounding terrain.

3. For Westerners, numbers increase to the right; this isn’t the case for everyone

What happened?

When you count forwards, it’s typically from left to right; numbers go up on a mental number line as you go from left to right. For instance, count with me: one, two, three, four…you get the idea. It’s the same with other abstract concepts like time: the rightward direction is generally associated with going to a “higher” or “greater” value. 

It almost seems like the association of “right” with “higher” is common sense, yet, as researchers find in a study published on August 11th, this association may be learned rather than innate (inborn/present from birth).   

How did it happen?

The researchers performed the study on three groups of people: Tsimane teens and adults (the Tsimane’ are a group of Indigenous farmer-foragers from Bolivia), U.S. preschoolers, and U.S. adults. The groups were asked to arrange on a board a variety of item sets.  

Examples of these item sets include five index cards covered in 1 to 5 dots, five blocks ranging from 1 to 5 inches in size, and five bundles of bananas ranging in ripeness from green to almost black. Essentially all of the U.S adults arranged the items from lowest magnitude on the left to greatest magnitude on the right. However, the U.S children and Tsimane people showed little left-to-right directional bias when placing the items in order, being equally likely to arrange the items in either direction.   

Why does this matter?

Scientists have long debated whether the direction of ordering abstract values is innate or learned. This recent study provides evidence for the learned side of the argument. Even if babies are born with innate ideas of left-versus-right directionality, as the study shows, these ideas can be easily overshadowed by life experiences such as formal schooling (another example of this is in Arabic speakers, who read from right to left and likewise tend to place “smaller” items on the right, the opposite of English speakers). 

4. Scientists discover a meat-eating flowering plant

What happened?

In a study published on August 17th, researchers describe a species of plant newly discovered to be carnivorous, or meat-eating: Triantha occidentalis. This plant lives in muddy, nutrient-poor locations in western North America and only traps food when it flowers. See what Triantha looks like in the image below.

Adam Schneider/SCIENCE

How did it happen?

Part of the Triantha flowering stalk is covered with small sticky red hairs, which can trap small insects. To prove that these plants do indeed consume the insects, scientists conducted an experiment. 

Several dozen fruit flies were fed an isotope of nitrogen rarely found in nature. Isotopes are forms of an element that have equal numbers of protons and electrons but different numbers of neutrons. When the fruit flies absorb their food, they will also absorb these rare nitrogen isotopes. 

The flies were then frozen and added to both Triantha plants and a similar sized non-carnivorous control plant. A few weeks later, the researchers collected these plants to analyze in the lab. They detected the rare nitrogen isotope in Triantha but not in the control plants. Carnivorous plants often live in nutrient-poor soil, so they must obtain essential nutrients like nitrogen from the prey they capture. The results of this study show that Triantha digested and absorbed the nitrogen from the bodies of the flies, proving that the plant is carnivorous. 

Why does this matter?

Triantha is not the most obviously-carnivorous plant. Because sticky hairs are relatively common on plants, the sticky hairs on Triantha’s flowering stalks were originally overlooked by scientists. Additionally, carnivorous plants (for example, the famous Venus fly trap) typically trap insects at a location a good distance away from their flowers because these insects are needed for pollination. Most likely, more overlooked carnivorous plants are yet to be discovered. 

5. First documented instance of a tortoise hunting & eating prey

What happened?

Snapping turtles are known to eat a variety of meat, from fish to birds to small mammals. Land turtles, or tortoises, on the other hand, had been assumed to be herbivores (plant-eaters). However, in a paper published on August 23rd, researchers report that tortoises may not necessarily be herbivores. 

How did it happen?

On July 30th, 2020, a manager of the Frégate Island nature reserve in the Seychelles (a group of islands off the coast of East Africa) captured video footage of a Seychelles giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) hunting, capturing, and eating a young bird. Watch this video footage below. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbokKW8ad7Q 

Why does this matter?

While herbivores will sometimes eat meat, perhaps for protein during starvation periods, herbivores don’t go around hunting or killing their own prey. Researchers plan to investigate whether these tortoises hunt for their food regularly, or if the video just shows a rare occurrence. Nevertheless, this new report uncovers a side of tortoises previously unknown. 

Wrapping Up:

  1. Computer simulation shows that lower sea levels mean more volcanic eruptions; analysis of the Santorini volcano’s eruption history confirms this. 
  2. Chameleon robot uses liquid crystal ink selectively heated by wires to change color. 
  3. Indigenous Tsimane people and U.S preschoolers show little directional bias when arranging items from least to greatest; U.S. adults show a left-to-right directional bias for smaller-to-larger items. 
  4. The plant Triantha occidentalis uses sticky red hairs on its flowering stalk to trap insects, which it consumes.
  5. Video footage is captured of a Seychelles giant tortoise hunting and eating a small bird. 

About the Author

About the Author

Grace Jiang is a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She loves many things, the most notable of which being ice cream, harp seals, bubble tea, and (of course!) science. Definitely go contact her at grace@sciteens.org if you have any article suggestions (or just want to discuss life)!