A neotenic salamander for 2014

Eurycea subfluvicola (photo above by Michael Steffen) is a salamander found in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas (USA) and described in a recent paper.

The species had not previously been recognised, since it resembles the closely related Eurycea multiplicata. One key difference is that, like some other salamanders, the newly discovered species is neotenic (paedomorphic) – it always remains in what looks like a larval stage (with gills), and never fully matures into an adult form. As the song says, it remains “forever young.”

See National Geographic for further details and for more pictures.

The Sydney Aquarium

Aquarium exterior (photo by “Ypsilon”)

The Sydney Aquarium is one of Sydney’s more popular tourist attractions, particularly for families with children. A highlight of the aquarium is the large shark tank, through which visitors can walk in a tunnel.

Sharks! (photo by Peta Holmes)

For more information, see the Wikipedia article and the aquarium website. Tripadvisor gives the aquarium 4 stars.

Clownfish and sea anemone (my photo)

Chaotic dinosaurs?

In the comic above, XKCD is objecting to Jurassic Park (21 years after the movie was released):

MALCOLM: You see? The tyrannosaur doesn’t obey set patterns or park schedules. The essence of Chaos.

ELLIE: I’m still not clear on Chaos.

MALCOLM: It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems. The shorthand is the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.

No, Ian Malcolm, XKCD is right. That doesn’t really clear things up. And I’m pretty sure that topological mixing is actually more fundamental to the concept of Chaos:

Wired also has a piece on the anniversary of the film (concentrating on the special effects).

Arabidopsis thaliana: a model plant

Arabidopsis thaliana, the thale cress (photo above by Peggy Greb, picture below by Johann Georg Sturm and Jacob Sturm, 1796) is a small flowering plant in the family Brassicaceae – the mustard/cabbage family.

During much of the 20th century, A. thaliana was the target of extensive research, facilitated by the small size of the plant (and of its genome), its short life cycle, and its suitability for light microscopy. Sequencing of the genome was completed in the year 2000, and the genome is available at arabidopsis.org. The open-access peer-reviewed The Arabidopsis Book also collates information on the plant, which is in many ways the botanical equivalent of Caenorhabditis elegans. It has taught the world a great deal.

The Google Ngram below shows the explosion in Arabidopsis-related literature since about 1990, outstripping even work on C. elegans:

The analemma

If you photograph the sun at the same time every day (or every few days), you will find that the sun traces out a path in the sky, called the analemma. György Soponyai, in Budapest (Hungary), did exactly that at 8 AM each morning between 29 January last year and 6 January this year, to produce the wonderful photograph below (click to zoom):

More analemma photographs (by Anthony Ayiomamitis) can be found here. The shape of the analemma results from the fact that (1) the Earth is tilted on its axis by 23.5° and (2) the Earth orbits the sun in an ellipse, rather than a circle. The diagram below shows the calculated analemma for 12 noon at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (latitude 51.48° N):

The concept of the analemma can also be used in constructing sundials. If an appropriate analemma is placed in the centre of the sundial, a gnomon placed at the right point on the analemma will correctly tell the time with its shadow (except for daylight-saving, of course).

Such sundials are popular in parks, because the viewer can stand on the analemma at a position corresponding to the current date, and his or her shadow will tell the time, without the need for additional time-of-year correction. I photographed the sundial above and below at Mt Stromlo Observatory in June 2012. It can be seen that the time was about 2:20 PM.

Fire rainbows!

Fire rainbows, illustrated in the photo by “Dehk” above, are actually not rainbows at all, but a halo phenomenon related to the sun dogs previously discussed.

Fire rainbows (or, more accurately, fragments of circumhorizontal arcs) are formed at an angle of 46° from the Sun, and result from light refracting through ice crystals in high-altitude cirrus clouds. In particular, they result from light refracting through one of the 90° angles of an ice crystal, like so:

Fire rainbows are on my bucket list too, given the many beautiful pictures of the phenomenon on Flickr and on Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at Pluto

In what they are calling a “preanniversary,” Wired is highlighting the image above (thanks to NASA, ESA, H. Weaver, A. Stern, and the HST Pluto Companion Search Team) of everybody’s favourite dwarf planet. A year from now, New Horizons will be giving us much better pictures of Pluto. And we will finally find out if Robert Silverberg was right.