So much has happened in 2020 that even the most well-read individual might have missed a headline or two. We’ve got five fascinating science stories, sourced from journal articles published by CSIRO Publishing, that you should know about.
Science meets whale watching
Studying cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – can be difficult logistically. It requires the use of large boats or helicopters by researchers, which can be costly.
When researchers from Curtin University, Edith Cowan University and The University of Western Australia wanted a baseline study to better understand killer whale populations in Western Australian waters, they joined forces with local ecotourism operators.
The Bremer Sub Basin area is a popular sightseeing spot for tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of killer whales. So wildlife tourism vessels in the area collaborated with researchers to help collect the study data, in a new time- and cost-efficient manner.
Rebecca Wellard is the lead field researcher and co-author of the study, which was published in Australian Mammalogy.
“Now with the baseline study complete and in place, we hope to understand more about the South West’s cetaceans and continue to monitor them, and ultimately attempt to save the mammals from any unintentional future environmental harm,” Rebecca said.
Smells like science
Imagine this: you’re collecting your laundry that’s been hanging on the line in the sun. You close your eyes to inhale that gentle aroma, the smell of sunlight and happiness. This smell of line-dried laundry is well-known – even mimicked in air-fresheners and scented candles. But despite decades of speculation among the scientific community, little has been known about its origin… until now.
Researchers investigated the aroma with a study of freshly washed towels, which when line-dried in the sun, produced a range of aldehydes and ketones, organic compounds that we associate with the scent of plants or perfume. Specifically, the towels emitted pentanal, a compound found in cardamom, octanal, which emits citrus-like aromas, and nonanal, which has a rose-like odour.
“When ozone in the air reacts with the materials in a wet towel, aldehydes and ketones form. Which match the fragrances identified in the study,” said co-author of the study Malte Frydenlund of the University of Copenhagen, in an interview in Futurity. The study’s findings were published in Environmental Chemistry.
“This could be part of the explanation. But we also think that there is something directly attributable to sunlight. For example, pigments or dyes in towels, that exist before any treatment, absorb sunlight and lead to chemical transformations.”
Why is this study useful, beyond understanding a much-romanticised scent?
“This mechanism can take place on nearly any exposed surface and is important for the degradation of substances in the environment,” Malte said.
“Therefore, it is incredibly important for us to gain insight into these processes. Hopefully, this study marks a step in that direction.”
Fred-a-Scare dances for dingoes
The Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man Emporium and Warehouse could see a bit of new business after research revealed dingoes aren’t keen on the colourful waving contraptions.
Farmers are often looking for new ways to effectively and humanely deter dingoes from coming onto their land. So researchers worked with captive dingoes to investigate two potential deterrents, one acoustic (a series of gunshot noises) and the other an oversized inflatable human effigy they dubbed ‘Fred-a-Scare’.
“When you have sound, the dingoes will flinch. They’re a bit nervous but they don’t run away. But the wavy man, boy, they bolted,” said Bradley Smith, animal behaviour researcher at Central Queensland University, in an interview with Science Magazine. The research was published in Pacific Conservation Biology.
Researchers say this has the potential for use in human-dingo conflict hotspots, such as campgrounds and small livestock farms. Future field trials will help researchers determine if the tube men have the same effect on free-ranging dingoes.
Look who’s strolling through the gate!
You didn’t think we’d do a research wrap up without a story about our favourite marsupial, did you? We just had to share this research into wombat gates with you. Yes, wombat gates!
Land managers install fences for a range of reasons, including to protect agricultural land and wildlife populations. But wombats, the furry little tanks that they are, are capable of busting through most fences. Tassie researchers took to exploring how ‘wombat gates’ could reduce the damage they cause, while still keeping out wildlife which might eat crops or prey on vulnerable animals.
Their study, published in Australian Mammalogy, investigated a number of different gate designs. It found that wombats can and do use them, while other animals, such as wallabies and pademelons, do not.
Not only is it adorable to imagine wombats letting themselves into a paddock, but the gates could become important for land managers wanting to save their fences while minimising the impact of certain animals on their land.
Video credit: Michael Driessen / Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.
These fins are made for walking
Walking sharks? It might sound like a movie plot, but these adorable little predators look more like Pokémon than terrifying beasts. They are members of the shark genus Hemiscyllium, which is new to science. Researchers saw them walking on their fins in shallow northern Australian waters.
“At less than a metre long on average, walking sharks present no threat to people. However, their ability to withstand low oxygen environments and walk on their fins gives them a remarkable edge over their prey of small crustaceans and molluscs,” Dr Christine Dudgeon, co-author of the study, said in a media release from The University of Queensland about the research.
“They don’t share these unique features with their closest relatives the bamboo sharks. Or with their more distant relatives in the carpet shark order, including wobbegongs and whale sharks.”
“Data suggests the new species evolved after the sharks moved away from their original population. Since becoming genetically isolated in new areas and developing into new species. Moving may have been possible by swimming or walking on their fins, but it’s also possible they were ‘hitching’ rides on reefs moving westward across the top of New Guinea, about two million years ago,” she said.
The sighting was made during our 12-year collaborative study with The University of Queensland, Conservation International, Florida Museum of Natural History, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries and published in Marine and Freshwater Science.
13th January 2021 at 2:31 pm
Everyone likes a good wombat story!
8th January 2021 at 6:32 pm
Thanks Mark! Appreciate your kind words.
8th January 2021 at 5:09 pm
Love your work. The heater and backbone of Australian science. Think or you ever time I use wifi or curse the ineffectiveness of Aeroguard against sand flies. Dr T