Navy re­searchers mak­ing like an eel and get­ting slimy in the wa­ter

The Woolwich Observer - - LIVING HERE - WEIRD NOTES

Q. “There’s a Day for ev­ery­thing,” ac­cord­ing to Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” web­site. March 14 is Pi Day; Au­gust 4, Choco­late Chip Day; Septem­ber 19, In­ter­na­tional Talk Like a Pi­rate Day, to name a few. “Na­tional Dough­nut Day” ap­par­ently has two days to in­dulge: Novem­ber 5 and the first Fri­day in June. Which is the of­fi­cial one? A. “The June date has a sur­pris­ingly sto­ried his­tory,” Lewis ex­plains. Dur­ing the first World War, when Sal­va­tion Army mem­bers trav­eled to France to sup­port Amer­i­can troops there, they set up “home-away-fromhome” can­teens near the mil­i­tary en­camp­ments, where soldiers could get their clothes mended, buy pa­per and stamps and have a freshly baked snack. Of­ten, dough­nuts were served be­cause, ac­cord­ing to “Men­tal Floss,” the “bat­tle-tested hel­mets were per­fect for fry­ing up to seven dough­nuts at a time.”

Later, in the depth of the Great De­pres­sion, the Sal­va­tion Army, look­ing for ways to help, held the first ever Na­tional Dough­nut Day on or around Fri­day, June 3, 1938, sell­ing dough­nuts “both to raise money and to honor the Dough­nut Lassies who went over­seas.” How Novem­ber 5 be­came con­nected with Dough­nut Day is un­clear, but as Lewis says, “it most likely had to do with the date’s prox­im­ity to Vet­eran’s Day,” also link­ing the treat to those who served in World War I. But the first Fri­day in June is the of­fi­cial date. Q. Many traits once thought to de­fine mod­ern birds – feath­ers, wish­bones, hol­low skele­tons – ac­tu­ally evolved first in their di­nosaur fore­bears. What about col­or­ful eggshells? A. Molec­u­lar pa­le­o­bi­ol­o­gist Jas­mina Wie­mann and her col­leagues used an in­no­va­tive spec­tro­scopic tech­nique to an­a­lyze well-pre­served fos­sil eg­gshell frag­ments from 15 Cre­ta­ceous-era di­nosaurs and ex­tinct birds, re­ports John Pick­rell in “Sci­ence” on­line. Mea­sur­ing the dis­tri­bu­tions of two pig­ments that color mod­ern eggshells, they iden­ti­fied many dif­fer­ent col­ors and speck­ling pat­terns.

As in mod­ern birds, the tint­ing prob­a­bly served as cam­ou­flage, while the speck­ling may have helped par­ents dis­tin­guish their own eggs from cuck­oo­like nest parasites. As the re­searchers con­clude, col­ored eggs evolved “deep within the di­nosaur tree and long be­fore the spec­tac­u­lar ra­di­a­tion of mod­ern birds,” likely more than 150 mil­lion years ago. Q. “U.S. Navy want to fire slime at boats,” the ar­ti­cle ti­tle de­clares. What’s the story here? A. The Navy has its sights on su­per-ex­pand­ing slime that can stop boat pro­pel­lers from turn­ing, says David Ham­bling in “New Sci­en­tist” mag­a­zine. Cur­rently, if the Navy wants to stop, say, a sus­pected smug­gler’s boat, it fires a plas­tic rope at the boat’s pro­pel­ler, tan­gling up the mech­a­nism. But it’s hard to dis­en­tan­gle and isn’t en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly.

En­ter Justin Jones and his col­leagues at Utah State Univer­sity, now at work de­sign­ing syn­thetic slime that could stop small boats be­fore it dis­solves. In­spi­ra­tion comes from the eel-like hag­fish that de­ters preda­tors by pro­ject­ing a jet of slime that clogs the mouth and gills and swells by a fac­tor of sev­eral thou­sand when it comes into con­tact with wa­ter. Pre­vi­ous work with ar­ti­fi­cial spi­der silk will help the lab cre­ate ap­pro­pri­ate pro­teins for the slime. This won’t be easy, though, Jones says. “The devil is in the de­tails ...”

Con­cludes Ham­bling: “As well as smug­glers, a slime bar­rier could stop small boats aimed at larger ves­sels, as in the ter­ror­ist at­tack on the USS Cole in 2000.”

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