10 of the Craziest Discoveries of 2012

by

When we ring in the new year, we have no idea what unusual scientific discoveries will turn up.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

10 of the Craziest Discoveries of 2012

Scientists and researchers are always busy at work, hoping to create the next greatest consumer product, or identify a new species of mammal, or create a cure for cancer. Similarly, archeologists are constantly digging around to unlock secrets from the past. More often than you'd think, all of this hard work results in some pretty bizarre discoveries.

These discoveries don't come just at the hand of scientists, of course. Plenty of regular citizens have stumbled upon the craziest things. So what's been discovered in 2012? Lots of oddities, just like any other year. Here are 10 of them.

Urea, which comes from decomposing proteins, is a common component of fertilizer. Pelodiscus sinensis, a Chinese soft-shelled turtle, urinates through its mouth to pass urea.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

10: A Chinese Turtle that Pees Through its Mouth

How cool would it be if you could pee through your mouth? Actually, it doesn't sound appealing at all. But scientists have discovered a Chinese soft-shelled turtle that can do just that. Its name is Pelodiscus sinensis, and it comes equipped with unusual gill-like projections on its mouth [source: Choi].

The turtles typically live in salty swamps and marshes. Strangely, when they're on dry land, they often stick their heads in puddles. In fact, researchers discovered these turtles can submerge their heads underwater for as long as 100 minutes. They also found the turtles can pee about 50 times more urea through their mouths than from their rears [source: Choi].

So why are they doing this? Like humans, turtles need to wash out the urea their bodies create. Urea is a result of proteins that decompose in our bodies. Humans create the urine to do this by drinking fresh water. But the soft-shelled turtles can't simply drink some water, because they live in a salty environment, and saltwater's not good to drink. Scientists speculate that to solve this problem, the turtles get rid of their urea by sticking their heads in fresh water, like that found in puddles, and simply rinse the urea out through their mouths [source: Choi].

Slime molds have no brains, but as it turns out, they have ways of remembering where they've been.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

9: A Slime Mold With a Memory

The goopy puddles known as slime molds are part of a group of microbes called protists. These single-celled organisms don't have brains, yet researchers discovered they have memories.

Slime molds secrete a thick, translucent slime as they move. Then, they use the slime trail they've laid down to record where they've been -- which, in turn, helps them go around obstacles and find things. In studies, researchers hid a sugary meal behind a U-shaped barrier, and the slime mold found it by using its trail to figure out where it had already been, and thus where to look next [source: Choi].

Such a memory isn't the same as a human memory, of course. Slime molds can't store memories, for example. Still, the findings help us understand how early organisms figured out problems and puzzles. And the discovery marks the first demonstration of a spatial memory system in a brainless organism [source: Choi].

Although some might think multicolored honey is a sweet idea, the proud beekeepers of Ribeauville, France, disagree.

Comstock/Comstock/Thinkstock

8: French Bees Producing Colored Honey by Eating M&Ms

Blue and green honey? Mon dieu! Sounds like a fun, marketable product. But not to beekeepers in the town of Ribeauville, in northeastern France. France has tough standards for honey production. French honey must have standard coloration (nearly colorless to dark brown), and must come from the nectar of plants. So when the Ribeauville bees starting producing colorful versions of their sweetener, the beekeepers weren't happy [source: Andries].

An investigation ensued, and the beekeepers discovered the culprit: a neighboring biogas factory. The plant was processing colored M&Ms, and storing the sweet waste material outside and in uncovered containers. That lured the Ribeauville bees from their hives 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away, and they promptly began pigging out on the sugary remains. Next thing you know, blue and green honey [source: Andries].

Employees at the waste-processing plant cleaned the outdoor and uncovered containers, then moved all remains into a covered hall [source: Andries]. A bummer for the bees, most likely.

In 2012, scientists identified a new type of plant-eating dinosaur with teeth that worked like self-sharpening scissors.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

7: A Fanged Dwarf Dinosaur

Not all dinosaurs were enormous creatures. Researchers identified a 2-foot-long (0.6-meter) heterodontosaur, P. africanus, that was running around the earth 200 million years ago, living along forested rivers. The pint-sized creature sported quills and a blunt beak, giving it a bird-like appearance. It also had fangs. Yet these little guys weren't out to kill prey. They were plant-eaters, reserving their chompers for self-defense and foraging [source: Dell'Amore].

Interestingly, the finding of a new heterodontosaur species wasn't considered that unusual. What was more surprising was the ensuing discovery that P. africanus had an advanced jaw structure that allowed its choppers to neatly cut plants because the upper and lower jaws worked like self-sharpening scissors. The new dino species was identified from some fossils that had been collected in the 1960s in South Africa, but had been sitting around Harvard University gathering dust [source: Dell'Amore].

In 2012, a study at the University of Tulsa identified virgin female copperhead and cottonmouth snakes giving birth -- despite the presence of healthy males nearby.

Hemera/Thinkstock

6: Virgin Snakes Giving Birth

University of Tulsa researchers discovered virgin female cottonmouth and copperhead snakes giving birth, a process called parthenogenesis. This evolutionary rarity had previously been observed in captive female snakes, Komodo dragons, birds and sharks when they had no other option for reproduction, as there were no males available. But strangely, the cottonmouth and copperhead snakes had given birth as virgins even though there were plenty of healthy males around [source: Than].

Scientists don't know why the virgins forged ahead on their own. One theory is that the snakes, which were smaller than normal, had been scorned by the males and thus didn't have any other options. Another idea is that their parthenogenesis was simply a random biological error, or that the snakes had contracted some kind of bacteria or virus that triggered the blessed events [source: Than].

Parthenogenesis happens when a cell is produced along with the egg, and the cell acts like a sperm to fertilize the egg. The resulting offspring, then, are part-clone and part individual [source: Than].

Although they may seem disgusting most of the time, cockroaches can be very helpful with a little help from some cybernetic implants.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

5: Cockroaches Can be Turned into 'Biobots' to Help Find Earthquake Survivors

"Bring in the cockroaches!" may soon be the first cry when there's been a devastating earthquake. Scientists at North Carolina State University's iBionics Lab have figured out a way to turn the much-maligned cockroach into a "biobot," or biological robot, and steer it remotely. The hope is that soon these tricked-out insects can be sent into earthquake zones to look for survivors in hard-to-reach areas [source: Fiegl].

How does it work? Scientists took cockroaches and inserted electrodes into their antennae and cerci, which are their rear sensors, plus strapped on tiny backpacks with wireless control systems, locator beacons and microphones. With this gear in place, the researchers were able to guide the bugs to stop, go and turn -- skills needed to navigate around rubble when looking for survivors. The microphones would be used to pick up cries for help [source: Fiegl].

Creating cockroach biobots is deemed a better bet than creating robots. Not only can cockroaches already walk around on their own, but they innately scurry away if they sense danger, so they're less likely to get trapped or killed in the rubble than a robot [source: Fiegl].

According to the results of a study released in 2012 show that there's nothing wrong with the sperm of men with lower voices. But those men are likely to have fewer sperm than their higher-voiced counterparts.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

4: Men With Deep Voices have Fewer Sperm

A new study shows men with deep voices tend to have a lower sperm counts than their higher-pitched counterparts. The sperm is just as fertile and mobile, but there are fewer of them swimming around.

That's a surprising discovery. Numerous studies have shown women prefer men with masculine features, such as lots of muscles and that deep voice. And those traits were thought to be present in prime male specimens -- meaning those with plenty of sperm, among other things [source: Dell'Amore].

Researchers already knew that testosterone, a male hormone that lowers your voice pitch, can also lower sperm production. Now they're reasoning that this new finding means men who are biologically programmed to put more effort into attracting women -- by developing lower voices, strong jaws and the like -- may be doing so at the cost of sperm production. This trade-off makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint if the result is that they get the women, and have more status and dominance [source: Dell'Amore].

The SpeechJammer makes you hear your own words, played at a slight delay -- just enough to irritate you and make you stop talking.

Photo courtesy Kazutaka Kurihara

3: A Machine that Can Disrupt Speech by Making You Hear Your Own Delayed Words

Don't you hate it when people are talking in the library when you're trying to study, or chatter through a movie? Or what about colleagues who start talking in a meeting and don't know when to let someone else have the floor? Maybe one day, you'll be able to solve these problems by shooting the offenders with a SpeechJammer gun.

Two Japanese researchers invented a machine that painlessly makes people stop yammering by forcing them to listen to their own spoken words at a slight delay. The device consists of a direction-sensitive microphone and direction-sensitive speaker, which can be set up in, say, a meeting room. The same technology can also be placed into a portable, gun-like device [source: Kurihara].

If someone won't stop talking, the device is turned on, aimed at them and activated. Everything the person is saying can then be heard by the person at a delay of a few hundred milliseconds, which so disturbs people they stop speaking. Only the speaker is affected. This creative invention received the 2012 Ig Noble Acoustic Prize. Ig Noble awards are given to encourage scientific research and reward the unusual [sources: Kurihara, Sinha].

If you like ketchup, but hate having to pound on the bottle to get the condiment flowing, MIT engineers' new LiquiGlide bottle coating may make you very happy.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

2: A Non-stick Ketchup Bottle

Remember when you had to pound the bottom of glass ketchup bottles to get the ketchup out? It was so frustrating. The ketchup would either suddenly plop out in a big glob, or you'd get tired of waiting and have to fish it out with a butter knife, which was really messy. But then came the plastic squeeze bottle -- heaven! The ketchup came out pretty easily and smoothly, although you could never get it all out, and would have to throw out the bottle with several burgers' worth of ketchup still left. Soon, those once-innovative squeeze bottles may seem quaint. Because now there's LiquiGlide.

A crew of Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineers and nanotechnologists created the new, nonstick coating to help all kinds of condiments effortlessly glide out of their bottles, from ketchup and mayonnaise to relish and mustard. Despite some challenges in finding food-safe materials to use, the team did find them, and their project took a mere two months to complete. Now the development team is working hard to sell LiquiGlide to bottle companies. Let's hope they're successful [source: Rogell].

UCLA researchers discovered that there may be a math-based way to predict when a serial killer's next victim's number is up.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

1: Serial Killers May Kill According to a Mathematical Formula

Believe it or not, there may be a method behind serial killers' madness, according to the findings of two researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles. The researchers found a strong correlation between the timing of the murders committed by the "Rostov Ripper" -- a serial killer -- and a mathematical distribution called a power law.

Power laws are used to predict sporadic events such as earthquakes and stock market crashes. Serial killers act sporadically, often killing people in close succession, then waiting months or years before striking again. Scientists have often wondered why.

The researchers plotted the number of days between the Rostov Ripper's murders against the number of times he waited that number of days. The result? A nearly straight line on a log-log plot graph, which matches the results scientists get when they plot the magnitude of earthquakes in a particular area against the number of times each magnitude has occurred.

What does this suggest? A serial killer murders when the firing of neurons in his brain goes awry. Our brains fire neurons that trigger thousands of others to fire. This rapid firing is generally a short-term event. But in serial killers, the firing occasionally crosses some threshold, resulting in an irresistible impulse to kill. The power law may be able to predict when a killer's neuron-firing will next cross that threshold [source: Wolchover].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 of the Craziest Discoveries of 2012

No, one of the craziest discoveries of 2012 wasn't that Elvis is still alive. But a non-stick ketchup bottle? Now that's crazy!

Sources

  • Andries, Kate. "Colorful Honey." National Geographic News. Oct. 11, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/10/pictures/121011-blue-honey-honeybees-animals-science/
  • Choi, Charles. "Potty Mouth! Turtle Dips Head in Puddles to Pee." Live Science. Oct. 11, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://www.livescience.com/23893-turtle-pees-from-mouth.html
  • Choi, Charles. "Puddles of Good? Brainless Slime Molds Have Memories." Live Science. Oct. 8, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://www.livescience.com/23797-brainless-slime-mold-memories.html
  • Dell'Amore, Christine. "Deep-Voiced Men Have Lower Sperm Count, Study Says." National Geographic News. Jan. 5, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/01/120105-deep-voices-sperm-masculine-men-women-science-health-evolution/
  • Dell'Amore, Christine. "New Fanged Dwarf Dinosaur Found -- "Would Be Nice Pet." National Geographic News. Oct. 3, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/10/121003-new-dinosaur-species-fanged-sereno-science/
  • Dell'Amore, Christine. "Tentacled, Carnivorous Plants Catapult Prey Into Traps." National Geographic News. Sept. 27, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/09/120927-catapult-carnivorous-plants-sundew-insects-science-animals/
  • Fiegel, Amanda. "Could Cyborg Cockroaches Save Your Life?" National Geographic News. Sept. 7, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/09/120907-cyborg-cockroaches-video-science-remote-control-robots-bugs/
  • Kurihara, Kazutaka and Koji Tsukada. "SpeechJammer: A System Using Artificial Speech Disturbance with Delayed Auditory Feedback." ArXiv. Feb. 21, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1202/1202.6106.pdf
  • Rogell, Eric. "The New, Mind-Blowingly Slippery Non-Stick Coating: Watch as Ketchup Slides Right Out of the Bottle (Video)." Discovery. Aug. 16, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://dsc.discovery.com/life/the-new-mind-blowingly-slippery-non-stick-coating-watch-as-ketchup-slides-right-out-of-the-bottle-video.html
  • Sinha, Sanskrity. "Winners of 2012 Ig Noble Prizes for Odd Discoveries Revealed [PHOTOS + VIDEO]." International Business Times. Sept. 21, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/386805/20120921/2012-ignobel-prizes-winners-photos-live-nobel.htm
  • Than, Ker. "'Virgin Birth' Seen in Wild Snakes, Even When Males Are Available." National Geographic News. Sept. 14, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/09/120914-virgin-birth-parthenogenesis-snakes-science-biology-letters/
  • Wolchover, Natalie. "Math Formula May Explain Why Serial Killers Kill." Live Science. Jan. 18, 2012. (Oct. 12, 2012) http://www.livescience.com/17983-math-formula-explain-serial-killers-kill.html