Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Strange but true: 'ghost snake' discovered

Scientists have just discovered in Madagascar the newly-discovered Madagascarophis lolo, or "ghost snake". Credit: Sara Ruane, Louisiana State University
Scientists have just discovered in Madagascar the newly-discovered Madagascarophis lolo, or "ghost snake". Credit: Sara Ruane, Louisiana State University

Scientists have discovered something strange deep in the jungle of Madagascar: the "ghost snake".

Named for its pale colouring and elusiveness, the snake was found on a recently-opened path within the African island nation's Ankarana National Park and later verified as a completely new species.

The ghost snake is part of a common group of snakes called Madagascarophis, or cat-eyed snakes, named for their vertical pupils, which is often found among snakes that are active in the evening or night, typically in developed areas or degraded forests.

"I think what's exciting and important about this work is even though the cat-eyed snakes could be considered one of the most common groups of snakes in Madagascar, there are still new species we don't know about because a lot of regions are hard to get to and poorly explored," said US post-doctoral researcher Sara Ruane, who has published the discovery in the scientific journal Copeia.

"If this commonly known, wide group of snakes harbours this hidden diversity, what else is out there that we don't know about?"

It's worth nothing that new species are continually being discovered here in New Zealand but, fortunately, we're not likely to encounter any hidden snakes.

Is this the world's first CRISPR-edited meal? Photo: Stefan Jansson
Is this the world's first CRISPR-edited meal? Photo: Stefan Jansson

Researcher edits plant genes, then eats it with pasta

If you haven't heard of CRISPR-Cas 9 technology, the chances are you will soon.

The boundless potential of the genome editing technology, often described as "the Swiss Army Knife of genetic engineering" that can snip and splice out genes that might cause diseases or disorders, has attracted growing buzz around the world.

Now a Swedish plant researcher has used it to modify plants that he cultivated, harvested, cooked and ate with a side of pasta.

In humans, researchers have suggested CRSIPR-Cas 9 could be a way to effectively splice out cancer, and in plants, researchers are looking at using it as a potential way to create more sustainable crops.

The concept is something that would horrify opponents of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) - just check headlines over the past two weeks - but there's a question of whether CRSIPR-Cas 9 technology, which introduces no foreign DNA, comes under the category.

Could there be a chance that, in the future, we might all be munching on CRISPR-Cas 9 edited veges?

Kiwi company StretchSense has already taken wearable tech to new heights with its soft-sensor technology. Photo: File
Kiwi company StretchSense has already taken wearable tech to new heights with its soft-sensor technology. Photo: File

It's power walking, but not as you know it

The world of wearable technology is now well established, and we've seen Kiwi companies like StretchSense develop clever innovations that harvest energy from body motion and produce small amounts of useable electricity.

Chinese scientists are pushing the same concept, but using body heat generated from running.

Because of the relatively small temperature difference between skin and the temperature of our surroundings, it's not so easy to make use of body heat.

Researchers have looked at various thermoelectric generators, such as those based on semiconductors, but found they produce too little energy, are too costly, or are too brittle for use in wearable systems.

But a team from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology think they might have cracked it after engineering thermocells with gel-based electrolytes.

These essentially draw upon what's called the thermogalvanic effect: if two electrodes in contact with an electrolyte solution, or an electrolyte gel, are kept at different temperatures, a potential difference is generated.

The researchers say that in an environment at 5C, it was possible to produce 0.7 volts, or enough current to power a device or charge a battery.

The power of invisibility - long confined to sci-fi movies like Hollow Man (pictured) - could become a scientific reality. Photo: File
The power of invisibility - long confined to sci-fi movies like Hollow Man (pictured) - could become a scientific reality. Photo: File

Could invisibility cloaks be scientifically possible?

We think of invisibility as being confined to sci-fi or fantasy - see Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone or the 2000 film Hollow Man - but it's actually a concept that real scientists are grappling with.

A team at Michigan Tech in the US have just published work looking at several novel approaches to making invisibility cloaks more practical.

The researchers habe been investigating a promising new way to manipulate electromagnetic waves to make objects appear invisible, by building a cloak medium from periodic structures known as "photonic crystals".

These crystals are able to provide superluminal phase velocity of propagating waves - that is, the waves move faster than the speed of light - which allows for preserving an original wave front while waves curve past the cloaked object.

The applications for cloaking range as far as imaginations can stretch, and while invisibility cloaks seem mystical, the science seems to be simply controlling the flow of light.

Something weird just happened in the stratosphere. Photo: Maksim Shmeljov
Something weird just happened in the stratosphere. Photo: Maksim Shmeljov

The stratosphere just threw us a curveball

Nasa scientists have just observed something weird happen high up in the stratosphere.

Winds in the tropical stratosphere, an atmospheric layer that extends from about 16km to 48km above Earth's surface, circulate the planet in alternating easterly and westerly directions over roughly a two-year period.

Westerly winds develop at the top of the stratosphere, and gradually descend to the bottom, about 16km above the surface while at the same time being replaced by a layer of easterly winds above them.

In turn, the easterlies descend and are replaced by westerlies, in a pattern that repeats every 28 months and was coined by scientists in the 1960s as the "quasi-biennial oscillation."

They've been observing it since 1953, and it's never changed: until late last year.

As the year came to a close, winds from the west neared the end of their typical descent, and the regular pattern held that weaker easterly winds would soon replace them.

But then the westerlies appeared to move upwards and block the downward movement of the easterlies, creating a new pattern that lasted for nearly half a year; by July 2016 the old regime seemed to resume.

"It's really interesting when nature throws us a curveball," said Nasa scientist Dr Paul Newman, whose colleagues are now trying to figure out what caused the strange anomaly.

- NZ Herald

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