Weird Science Weekly: Meet the tiny animals that sex themselves to death


Weird science happens every day, all around us. This week, we have three of the weirdest examples, including sexual-suicide marsupials, pointing for pachyderms, and pre-teens brewing beer in space...

These little marsupials have such frenzied sex lives that it kills them

Some people are better lovers than they are fighters, but a tiny marsupial native to Australia and Papua New Guinea, called Antechinus, takes that to an extreme.

Males mature in less than a year, save up all their sperm for mating season, and 'spend' it all in a sex marathon that can last up to 14 hours. They're so intent on keeping up their frenzied mating that their bodies even break down their own muscles for added energy. Once they're done... they're really done, often dying very soon afterwards.

Why do they go through all this? Australian biologists found that it's a case of extreme sexual selection in the effort for the males to pass on their genes. Of course, it can be said that all species are dedicated to passing on their genes, but these little guys make up for their lack of prowess elsewhere by producing 'super-sperm'. Whereas 'swimmers' is a popular nickname for sperm in other species, these marsupials make 'fighters' — specifically to duke it out with the sperm of other males inside the female's reproductive system.

Let's just take a moment to be thankful we didn't evolve along those lines.

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Elephants know what pointing means

People obviously respond to pointing. We know what it means, even across language barriers. Some animals know it too. Domesticated animals pick up the idea easiest, with repeated exposure from us. There's one animal, though, that seems to instinctively know and respond to pointing, without any exposure to it or training — elephants.

Two researchers from the University of St. Andrews worked with elephants that were only trained to respond to vocal commands, not gestures. Hiding a food reward in one of two buckets, so that the treat was out of the elephant's line of sight, they pointed to the correct bucket and in nearly every case, the elephants understood that the researcher was pointing to a reward. This is compared to other animals, even domesticated ones, that need to be taught what the pointing means. They even tried variations that trip up other animals, like pointing with the arm that was further away from the treat bucket and standing closer to the empty bucket when pointing at the treat, and the elephants still knew.

The researchers believe that the elephant's instinctive knowledge of this likely comes about because they use of their trunks in a very similar way between themselves, and they plan on studying just that. Just make sure that if you're ever going to be pointing at something for an elephant, that there's really something there for them... because they never forget.

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Sixth-grader wants to brew beer in space

Next month, an experiment will be headed up to the International Space Station that I think the astronauts and cosmonauts will really appreciate. It will attempt to brew beer in microgravity.

This is the brainchild of 11-year-old Michal Bodzianowski, from Douglas County, Colorado. Whereas it's tempting to think that Michal is just getting an early start on his college years, his brilliant idea is actually to provide long-lasting clean drinking water supplies for space missions and colonies on other worlds, since the fermentation of the beer would kill harmful bacteria. It probably wouldn't be used as a primary water source, since nothing would ever get done and missions would probably end up wildly off-course. However, it could be used as an emergency backup in case the primary supply was contaminated, and it could even be used for medicinal purposes.

NASA will need to keep close tabs on the crew of the ISS while the experiment is up there, just to make sure there aren't too many 'failed batches' that need to be 'disposed of'.

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Keep your eyes on the wonders of science, and if you spot anything particularly strange you'd like me to check out for next week, comment below or drop me a line on Twitter!

(Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Getty Images)

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