Monthly News Roundup – December, 2016 in Science

2016 has certainly been an interesting year in the world of science. In the last 12 months, biologists have identified and described no less than 133 new plant and animal species ranging from sharks to beetles. Astronomers have also been busy, discovering over a dozen new exoplanets in the last month alone, with the grand total now standing at 3,557 planets in 2,668 systems. So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the most exciting headlines that have characterised December, 2016 in science.

#1. Weight of All Man-made Objects on Earth Reaches 30 Trillion Tonnes

Landfill SitePixabay

Waste contributes to a sizable portion of the Earth’s so-called technosphere.

Humans have been hording a lot of stuff over thousands of years of history. The unbounded population explosion of the last century has seen the collective mass and volume of all that stuff increase exponentially. On December 5, a study revealed that the estimated mass of our planet’s so-called ‘technosphere’ is now 30 trillion tonnes, which equates to 110 pounds (50 kg) for every square metre of its surface. This includes everything from the mass of buildings to the contents of landfill sites.

#2. Dinosaur Tail Discovered in Amber

Dinosaur tail in amberR.C McKellar/Royal Saskatchewan Museum

An almost perfectly preserved tip of a baby dinosaur’s tail discovered in amber in Myanmar.

In what is perhaps the most important palaeontology breakthrough this century, the discovery of a dinosaur tail preserved amber was announced on December 8. The feathered tail belonged to a baby coelurosaur, the same clade that tyrannosaurs and dromaeosaurs (such as velociraptor) are part of. Some 99-million years ago, the unfortunately hatchling, which was no bigger than a sparrow, died when it got stuck in tree sap. Had it lived to adulthood, it would have grown to the size of an ostrich.

#3. Giraffes Designated a Vulnerable Species

GiraffePixabay

Although still plentiful until quite recently, giraffes are now classified as a vulnerable species.

Despite major global efforts to curb the devastating tide of the ongoing mass extinction event, 2016 has seen more than its fair share of ecological concerns. On December 8, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN) reclassify giraffes from ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Vulnerable’. Since 1985, their numbers in the wild have decreased from 155,000 to 97,000 and dropping. Habitat loss and civil unrest have been cited as the main drivers of their sharp decline.

#4. Flexible Liquid Crystal Display Demonstrated

Future smartphones may soon be bendable and rollable.

The average household is now home to more than six screens but, despite recent advances, many of them are still rather bulky. Flexible LCD displays have been talked about for a while. However, on December 9, a team of researchers at Tohoku University in Japan made a major breakthrough when the demonstrated the world’s first bendable flat-screen display. Perhaps, in the coming years, we’ll start seeing flexible smartphones and even newspapers like those seen in Minority Report!

#5. Method for Repairing Ozone Damage Identified

FactoryPixabay

Factories such as this one are one of the main causes of global warming and depletion of the ozone layer.

With atmospheric CO2 levels having risen by about 50% since the start of the industrial revolution, our planet is warming quickly. However, a team at Harvard proposed on December 12 the possibility of using an aerosol that may be able to reverse its effects. The process involves injecting sulphate-rich aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight. However, I can’t help be reminded of the 2013 science fiction thriller Snowpiercer, in which such a method backfired horribly!

#6. Planet-Devouring ‘Death Star’ Discovered

HIP 68468Gabi Perez/Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias

An artist’s impression showing a planet being devoured by its host star.

Despite being a star not dissimilar to our own, HIP 68468, which is located 300 light-years away, has a disturbing story to tell. On December 15, it was revealed that the star has been consuming some of the inner planets in its system. Although at least two planets remain in the system, HIP 68468 b is almost 34 times closer to its host star than Earth is to the Sun. Analysis of the star’s composition suggests that it has already devoured one or more of its planets, despite the fact it isn’t expanding.

#7. Some Dinosaurs Found to Shed Teeth

Limusaurus shed its teeth before adulthood, after which it used its beak to peck at plants as do modern birds.

A recent discovery reported on December 23 suggests that certain dinosaur species, namely those that are most closely related to modern birds, shed their teeth before reaching adulthood. Limusaurus inextricabilis, which lived around 150-million years ago in what is now China, lost their teeth at around three years of age. They spent their adult lives being toothless like all modern birds, instead using beaks to peck at plants. The discovery could in fact help to explain why birds lost their teeth over the course of evolution.

#8. Ash Tree Genome Sequenced

Fraxinus ExcelsiorPixabay

Ash trees, known as fraxinus excelsior to dendrologists, are under serious threat from both emerald ash borers and ash dieback disease.

Ash is a valuable hardwood that’s been used for centuries in constructions requiring great strength. However, the world’s ash trees have been under grave threat in recent years due to a rapidly spreading fungal infection. In a major step forward in curbing the tide of this epidemic, scientists revealed on December 26 that they had managed to map the genome of the tree. Although the disease can’t be eradicated, this discovery is an important step towards breeding trees that are immune to it.

#9. Bird Migration Patterns Changing

Bird migrationPixabay

Certain bird species are changing their migration patterns in an attempt to adapt to climate change.

On December 28, a team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh concluded that bird migration patterns are changing in response to rising global temperatures. After researching almost three centuries of information gathered on migratory patterns, they discovered that certain species, such as the pied wagtail and lapwing, are now arriving at their breeding grounds earlier than they should. Some of them may even be missing out on food supplies due to the disruption to the ecosystem.

#10. Cheetahs Heading towards Extinction

CheetahPixabay

Cheetahs tend to roam far from protected areas, greatly increasing their chances of coming into contact with poachers.

A report released on December 26 revealed that the cheetah is closer than ever to extinction, with only 7,100 left in the world. There are virtually none left in Asia, and numbers in Africa have plummeted in recent years. Unsurprisingly, human encroachment into their natural habits are largely to blame, although it’s not helped by the fact that they tend to wander far beyond protected regions. There have also been calls for the IUCN to reclassify them from vulnerable to endangered.

Closing Thoughts

I found it rather difficult to find many positive stories among the headlines I collected for this month’s news roundup. It appears that our impact on the natural world is more profound than ever, despite major global efforts to protect and restore our environment. Let’s hope next month’s headlines in the world of science will be a bit more positive. If you have anything you think I should add to this list, or any stories you would like to share yourself, let me know in the comments section!

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