News and notes about science

The new leaf-tailed gecko from the north of Madagascar, Uroplatus garamaso. A reptile found in Madagascar is impossible to tell apart from tree bark by day — for decades, scientists had mixed it up with a relative. (Jörn Köhler/Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Germany via The New York Times)
This gecko's camouflage is so good it masqueraded as another species.

As night falls on the northern forests of Madagascar, trees come alive. What appears to be a piece of bark peels off a tree trunk and starts slowly crawling along a branch. It's actually Uroplatus garamaso, a newly identified species of leaf-tailed gecko.اضافة اعلان

This animal is a dazzling camouflager, better than the chameleon but long hidden in plain sight. Many of the features that make it unique are still an evolutionary mystery.

"They look totally different from all of the other reptiles," said Mark D. Scherz, curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum of Denmark and a co-author of the paper describing the find. The 22 species of leaf-tailed geckoes unique to Madagascar can be split into two categories: those who've evolved to look uncannily like leaves and those who imitate tree bark. U. garamaso and the others that blend into bark have a fringe hugging their flanks and legs, a beard around the bottom of their chin, and flattened tails.

During the day, they fold out that fringe and rest on tree trunks, becoming "practically invisible," Scherz said. At night, they come out of that sleeping position and prowl the forest for invertebrate prey, like "little leopards or jaguars," he added.

The James Webb Space Telescope captured a near-infrared image of actively forming stars known as Herbig-Haro 46/47. This image exhibits a peculiar question mark shape. (NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI) via The New York Times)

U. garamaso is so talented at disguise that it's long been mistaken for another leaf-tailed gecko in Madagascar called U. henkeli. It was probably British pet traders in the early 2000s who first wondered if they had their hands on a different beast, Scherz said. The traders noticed small physical differences. This lizard is smaller than U. henkeli and has a narrower tail. Its diamond-pupiled eyes are tinted a gaudier yellowish-red. — SOFIA QUAGLIA

The Biggest Question Mark in Astronomy? You're Looking at It.
The astronomers will tell you it is just an optical illusion, a pair of galaxies caught in the act of mating as seen from the wrong angle. Happens all the time.

In the 1960s and '70s, Halton Arp, an astronomer in Southern California, asserted that galaxies millions of light-years apart — but which appeared superimposed together in the sky — were interacting locally. His claim cast doubt on the Big Bang theory of the universe. Astronomers now agree that he was wrong.

Now a genuine question mark has been discovered, in the corner of a Webb telescope observation of a pair of dust clouds known as Herbig-Haro 46/47 that are in the process of forming into two stars. The discovery made a splash on social media. "Ze space mall information kiosk has been found by JWST," a commenter joked on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.

If you accept the spooky rules of quantum mechanics and the premise, as Albert Einstein disapprovingly put it, that God plays dice with the universe, then you have to accept that chance and randomness are a fundamental bedrock of reality. In such a universe, where the laws of physics have been grinding away for 14 billion years, coincidences are unforeseeable but inevitable.

during the day, Uroplatus garamaso rest hidden, head-down on tree trunks, with their hindlimbs outstretched and fringes pressed against the bark, making them almost impossible to spot.  (Mark D. Scherz/Natural History Museum of Denmark via The New York Times)

Still, there are times when it's worth stepping back to listen to "the music," as Einstein once referred to the beauty and mystery of the cosmos. You are free to consider that question mark as alien graffiti, a comment on both their and our relation to existence. Point being, we've barely begun to know anything — that's why we build telescopes. — DENNIS OVERBYE

Hogfish 'See' With Their Skin, Even When They're Dead
As a marine biologist, Lorian Schweikert knew hogfish could change color to match their surroundings. But as an angler, she noticed something that wasn't in the textbooks: Hogfish can camouflage even after they're dead.

When Schweikert saw a hogfish with a conspicuous spearfishing hole through its body change color to match the texture of a boat's deck, "it gave me this idea that the skin itself was 'seeing' the surrounding environment," she said. Research by Schweikert and her team provides an explanation for how hogfish blend into their background, even in the afterlife. In a study published in Nature Communications, they identified a new type of cell deep in the hogfish's skin that might allow the fish not only to monitor its surroundings but also to edit its skin color.

Schweikert suspected that the hogfish's ability to camouflage while dead was just a quirk, that some part of the color-changing system was taking a while to get the memo that it was a former fish. Schweikert hoped the answer might lie in the arrangement of the cells in the hogfish's skin. Her team used glowing antibodies to pinpoint the opsins, and transmission electron microscopy allowed them to peer into the cellular structures.

The imaging revealed that the opsins weren't on the surface of the skin, where they would have the best view of the outside world. Instead, they were beneath a layer of chromatophores — "inkjet" cells that produce a color change by expanding and contracting packets of pigment — and concentrated in a previously unknown cell type. — ELIZABETH ANNE BROWN

Neptune’s Clouds Have Vanished, and Scientists Think They Know Why
Each planet of the solar system has its own look. Earth has aquamarine oceans. Jupiter has panchromatic tempests. Saturn has glimmering rings. And Neptune has ghostly clouds — or it used to. For the first time in three decades, the electric-blue orb is almost completely cloud-free, and astronomers are spooked.

Neptune’s cloud cover has been known to ebb and flow. But since October 2019, only one patch of wispy white has been present, drifting around the planet’s south pole.

An image of Herbig-Haro 46/47 with a question mark appearing at the center-bottom of the frame, to the right of the reddish cloudy material. (NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI) via The New York Times) 

To crack the case of the vanishing clouds, scientists spooled through 30 years of near-infrared images of Neptune made with ground-based observatories and the Hubble Space Telescope. In a new study, Imke de Pater, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues named the prime suspect in this cloud cleansing: the sun.

The sun goes through cycles of hyperactivity and tranquility driven by the repeated inversion of the sun’s magnetic field. These cycles rise and fall in sync with Neptune’s cloud cover. During the sun’s nadir, Neptune’s vaporous veil fades away — although it’s unclear why the current dearth of clouds is so extreme compared with previous cycles.

It has been suggested these two celestial objects may be improbably linked in this manner. But this study offers evidence that Neptune’s cloudy couture can be attributed to solar flare, hinting at the ice giant’s mysterious dynamism. “That UV emission from the sun could dictate Neptune’s cloud structure is akin to an orchestra conductor giving directions to a lone violin player 2.8 billion miles away,” said astrophysicist Grant Tremblay, who was not involved with the work. — ROBIN GEORGE ANDREWS

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