Year after year, science marches on, delivering findings that fascinate, educate and awe us. And then there are those other results, the ones that make you sit up and think, "Did we really need to know that?" So, here's a tribute to the sillier side of science, with 14 of the strangest scientific stories from 2019.
Comb jelly sometimes has an anus
Some of the greatest things in life are short-lived, but having an orifice from which to expel waste seems like something that should stick around. Yet for Mnemiopsis leidyi, an anus appears to be a matter of choice. Prior studies had concluded that the jellyfish relative, also known as a warty comb jelly or sea walnut, sported a permanent defecation center. But as researchers with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, discovered this year, the end of M. leidyi's digestive track turned out to be an opening that "appears and disappears" in a regular rhythm. That makes the sea walnut, to date, the only known animal with a "now-you-see-it, now-you-don't" anal orifice, though further investigations may help explain how permanent anuses evolved in other creatures.
Your tongue can smell
It's well known that smell and taste are linked. A large part of the complex information about food flavors that your brain analyzes comes from their smell. But when researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia grew human taste cells in a lab and exposed them to odor molecules, the cells unexpectedly responded like olfactory cells, which are found in your nose. While this was the first demonstration of such sensors in human taste cells, olfactory responses have been found in other odd places in the body, including in the gut, sperm cells and, bizarrely, even hair.
Spider spins web in man's ear
Eek! When a man in eastern China checked into a hospital complaining about "a crawling sensation" in his right ear, one of the last things doctors probably thought they'd find was a spider. The tiny arachnid appeared to be squatting very comfortably near the tympanic membrane, or eardrum, after spinning a web that covered the patient's entire ear canal. A doctor tried to snatch the spider with tweezers, but that failed and the physician eventually succeeded in flushing the critter out with a squirt of saline. This nightmare-inducing scenario caused no harm to the patient and is luckily quite rare, though perhaps not rare enough.
Mathematical puzzle about 42 solved
If there's one thing that fans of Douglas Adams' sci-fi series "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" know, it's that the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything is 42 (the one thing they don't know is the actual question). But this year, mathematicians discovered a candidate question after centuries of frustration. The result came from a stumper known as the Diophantine equation, which asks whether you can you express every number between 1 and 100 as the sum of three cubes. The question is named for the ancient mathematician Diophantus of Alexandria, who proposed a similar conundrum 1,800 years ago. Answers for most of the numbers between 1 and 100 had already been discovered, but a solution for 42 required a global network of 500,000 computers, which crunched through huge numbers of possibilities to find that (-80538738812075974)^3 + (80435758145817515)^3 + (12602123297335631)^3 = 42. There, doesn't that feel satisfying?
Thieves abscond with 1,600-lb. undersea observatory
The police blotter in your town might include some occasional gems, but perhaps nothing compares to this. On Aug. 21, a 1,630-lb. (740 kilograms) piece of equipment at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Kiel in northern Germany, went missing. That day, the detector, which was run by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research and which collected environmental data from the ocean floor, suddenly went silent. At first, researchers suspected that something had gone wrong with the communications transmission. But when divers went to check on the site, they found that the entire observatory had disappeared, with just a shredded power cable left behind. No storm, tide or large animal could have moved the station, GEOMAR said in a statement, adding that the lost data was "priceless."
Bagged salads contain frogs, toads, lizards and bats
Prepackaged salad greens are a miracle of modern convenience. But in a study released this year, researchers found that since 2003, shoppers have discovered unwelcome additions to their kale and romaine: frogs, lizards, rodents and even a bat. The study cataloged 40 examples of bagged salad purchases in 20 states that came with unexpected wildlife stowaways, in whole or in part. And in 10 instances, the animals were still alive. "It remains unclear whether these occurrences indicate a food-safety crisis or a complaint against food quality," the study concluded. Further observations will be necessary to pinpoint when and how the animals found their way into salad bags and what steps might be taken to keep the creatures out, the authors added.
Flat-Earthers plan to sail past edge of the planet
Look out for this delusion-filled event next year: In 2020, the Flat Earth International Conference (FEIC) is planning a cruise to the purported edge of the planet to search for the ice wall that holds back the oceans. The Greeks demonstrated that the Earth was a sphere more than 2,000 years ago, but that hasn't stopped some extremely imaginative folks from continuing to say that our planet is a pancake-like disk with the North Pole smack in the center and an edge surrounded on all sides by ice. Exactly how the flat-Earthers plan to navigate remains a mystery, as our modern global positioning system (GPS) relies on a network of dozens of satellites orbiting a spherical planet. Were the Earth actually flat, GPS would need only three satellites to pinpoint any location on the planet's surface.
ET might look like pasta
In April, a NASA-led report in the journal Astrobiology suggested that future alien hunters keep their eyes peeled for fettuccine or capellini. That's because such pasta-shaped formations accumulate at the edges of hot springs here on Earth, built, in part, by microbes. At the Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, the water ranges in temperature from 149 degrees Fahrenheit to 162 degrees Fahrenheit (65 to 72 degrees Celsius), with an acidic pH of 6.2 to 6.8, There, heat-loving microscopic creatures create mats from calcium carbonate that look like long, mucus-y pasta strands. Should similar formations appear on other planets, they might fossilize and allow scientists to glimpse the handiwork of alien microbes.
Sea gull snatches Chihuahua
A brown-and-white, 4-year-old Chihuahua named Gizmo was minding his own business in a garden in Paignton, Devon, a seaside town in the southern part of the United Kingdom. Suddenly, a gull clutched the tiny pup in its beak. Though the event sounds strange, it's definitely a possibility, experts told Live Science. Such birds are omnivores, eating fish, invertebrates, vegetables, discarded human food and sometimes small mammals such as rats, moles and even rabbits, Viola Ross-Smith, a science communicator with the British Trust for Ornithology, told Live Science. Chihuahua lovers the world over shouldn't lose sleep over it, though; while such attacks can happen, "they are very rare," Ross-Smith said.
Double-headed rattlesnake named Double Dave
Herpetologists Dave Schneider and Dave Burkett, who work with the Herpetological Associates in Pemberton, New Jersey, discovered a rare, two-headed baby rattlesnake in the wild near Pine Barrens, a heavily forested area in the southern tip of the state. Such bicephalic animals, as they're known, rarely survive to maturity unless in captivity. The scientists took the little creature in, fed and cared for it, and named it Double Dave. "It appears the head on the right side is the more dominant one," Schneider told ABC News. "But every once in a while, the other head will want to go in a different direction."
Brainless, single-celled blob can make sophisticated decisions
Next time someone calls you a brainless blob, take it as a compliment. It turns out that even these simple organisms can undertake complex decision-making processes. When exposed to an irritant, the Stentor roeselii — a relatively large, trumpet-shaped, single-celled creature — will try multiple tactics to avoid the problem, including stretching around the offending substance, trying to push it away with hair-like projections called cilia, contracting itself away from the irritant and, if all else fails, swimming away. This ability to "change its mind" rather than follow a simple, preprogrammed set of instructions suggests that single-celled organisms are "much more sophisticated than we generally give them credit for," Jeremy Gunawardena, a systems biologist at Harvard University, said in a statement.
NASA fed moon rocks to roaches
In an effort to make sure there was nothing harmful living on the moon, Apollo scientists fed lunar samples to cockroaches, dumped the rocks in fishbowls and injected them into mice. "We had to prove that we weren't going to contaminate not only human beings, but we weren't going to contaminate fish and birds and animals and plants and you name it," Charles Berry, who was in charge of medical operations during Apollo, said in a 1999 oral history. After Apollo 11, the first mission to land humans on the moon, NASA opened its precious cache of moon rocks and exposed them to representative species: Japanese quail for birds, a couple of nondescript fish, brown shrimp and oysters for shellfish, German cockroaches and houseflies for creepy-crawlies, and even a few plants, which were grown in lunar regolith and seemed to flourish. The Apollo 11 astronauts themselves stayed in quarantine for three weeks following their mission. No lunar microbes were discovered.
Poop knife fails at cutting
According to a widely circulated anthropologist's report from the 1990s, an Inuit man once crafted a knife from his own poop during a freezing storm, killed and butchered a dog with the implement, and disappeared into the darkness riding a sled made from the animal's rib cage. Turns out the popular ethnographic account might have been a tall tale the Inuit man invented to pull the anthropologist's leg. Intending to get to the bottom of the story, researchers at Kent State University in Ohio adopted an eight-day arctic diet consisting of mostly protein and fatty acids. They then squatted and chilled their bodily specimens to temperatures of minus 58 F (minus 50 C), forming poop blades and keeping them frozen with dry ice. The excrement implements were plenty hard, but they didn't hold up to scrutiny, entirely failing to cut meat and instead just leaving brown streaks like filthy crayons.
Thousands of penis fish wash up on shore
This may just be the weirdest thing you've seen today! Thousands of these marine worms, called fat innkeeper worms—or "penis fish"—washed up on Drake's Beach after a recent storm. 🌊 But why? https://t.co/MwY6xkN3kb pic.twitter.com/vGMpSvGoATDecember 11, 2019
Drakes Beach, north of San Francisco, became host to an unusual sight when thousands of penis fish inundated it one winter day. What is a penis fish, you may ask? Oh, just your usual plump, pink, extremely phallic-looking 10-inch (25 centimeters) creature. These organisms are actually a type of nonsegmented marine worm native to the Pacific Coast between southern Oregon and Baja California, Mexico. Normally, they burrow in sand, forming tube-like tunnels in which they live and eat. A storm likely broke apart these sandy domestic formations, smashing thousands of cozy burrows and leaving their residents strewn across the beach.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Adam Mann is a freelance journalist with over a decade of experience, specializing in astronomy and physics stories. He has a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from UC Berkeley. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, National Geographic, Wall Street Journal, Wired, Nature, Science, and many other places. He lives in Oakland, California, where he enjoys riding his bike.