From facial hair to the size of sperm to debunking, or nearly, the legend of the Yeti, and analysing the poo of Neanderthals, 2014 has produced its share of weird science.
Here are the top 10 weirdest science stories of 2014 as selected, purely on subjective grounds, by the Australian Science Media Centre:
In April, Australian researchers found that beards are only attractive to women if they’re a rarity. When too many people conform to bristly non-conformism, it quickly becomes a turn-off. But there was good news for men who’ve resisted rejecting their razors in the current sea of beards; a smooth chin is considered more attractive when everyone else is sporting facial fuzz. The researchers said the findings reflect patterns seen in other animals in that females tend to find rare features attractive in potential mates.
July brought news for mythical animal fans. A detailed analysis of 30 tufts of hair from around the world thought to be from yetis, bigfoot and other extraordinary ape-like creatures showed they all came from ordinary, decidedly non-mythical animals. Ten samples turned out to be bear hair, while others were from dogs, cows, horses, and there was even one from a person. However, some of the results were out of the ordinary. Two of the samples – from the mountains of India and Bhutan – didn’t match any living animals but did match an extinct species of polar bear thought to have died out around 40,000 years ago.
A kiss transfers 80 million bacteria
Watch out under the mistletoe this year. In November, Dutch researchers took bacterial samples from the mouths of 21 couples and found that a ten second kiss transfers as many as 80 million bacteria. They also noticed that partners who kiss nine times a day or more share similar communities of mouth microbes. However, a kiss is good for our health, priming immune systems to fight off infections from partners.
Females with a penis
Scientists announced the first example of an animal where the female has a ‘penis’ and the male a ‘vagina’ – the bizarre Brazilian cave insect Neotrogla – in April. During sex, the aggressive female penetrates a vagina-like opening on the male’s back with a barbed penis-like organ, grappling the couple together. You might want to cross your legs for this next gory detail – the pair bond so tightly that, when separated by the scientists, the male’s body ripped apart, leaving his genitals behind. Mating can last up to 70 hours.
Life imitates art as TV’s Dr House cures a real-life patient
In February, German doctors who were stumped by a tricky case were struck by some remarkably familiar symptoms while watching an episode of the US TV medical drama House. Their patient was suffering from seemingly inexplicable severe heart failure, as was the fictional physician’s. The medical misanthrope diagnosed his patient as suffering from cobalt poisoning caused by a metal hip implant, and when the real-life doctors replaced their own patient’s metal hip implant with a ceramic one, he rapidly recovered.
A most excellent Antarctic robo-pengiun adventure
In November, researchers introduced the world to a rather cute remote-controlled rover disguised as a baby penguin, designed to monitor real penguin populations in the Antarctic. The bogus bird certainly had the real ones fooled – even notoriously shy emperor penguins tried to communicate with it and let it join a crèche of chicks. The pretend penguin will allow scientists to monitor the effects of climate change on wild populations without stressing the birds out or disrupting their natural behaviour.
The oldest fossilised sperm is enormous
In May, scientists revealed supersized sperm fossils they’d found in Queensland which are at least 16 million years old. They are ten times as long as the animals which produced them – crustaceans called ostracods – and 20 times the length of human sperm. The scientists used X-rays to figure out how the giant sperm fit inside the bodies of animals a tenth of their size, but just why the sperm are so large remains a mystery.
Rudyard Kipling probably wasn’t thinking about the weather when he penned his poem, The female of the species is more deadly than the male, but in June, US scientists claimed it may be true of hurricanes. Comparing the death tolls of hurricanes with male and female names between 1950 and 2012, they found the females have, on average, killed more than the males. Further experiments suggested the assumption that males are the more aggressive and dangerous sex may lead people to underestimate the danger posed by female hurricanes. The result is a reluctance to evacuate, increasing the number of fatalities. But the research was not without its critics – other scientists said the facts that all hurricanes were ‘female’ until 1979, and that average fatalities have generally decreased over time, rendered the results meaningless.
In June, scientists announced the results of picking through some 50,000-year-old fossilised faeces they stumbled upon while studying an ancient Neanderthal fire-pit in Spain. Analysing the crystallised crap, which is the oldest human poop ever discovered, they found evidence of plant matter as well as meat, revealing that our ancient cousins enjoyed a side of berries, nuts and other vegetables with their mammoth steaks. The petrified poop also revealed the Neanderthals were infested with various types of parasitic worm, enough to make a modern human very sick indeed.
In May, German scientists said they’d found a way to induce lucid dreaming, the state in which you are conscious during a dream, aware you’re dreaming, and able to control the dream’s plot. Delivering a mild electric current to the frontal and temporal brain regions of 27 dreamers altered their neural patterns. A particular type of brain wave activity called gamma activity increased, and the subjects became aware they were dreaming, and were able to exert greater control over the dreamworld.
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