A Newfound Orangutan, Dark Matter Questions, And A Hole In A Pyramid

6:52 minutes

Pongo tapanuliensis
Pongo tapanuliensis. Credit: Maxime Aliaga

In 1997, researchers identified an isolated group of orangutans living in Indonesia. There are currently two species of orangutans on the islands, however, individuals from an isolated population didn’t quite seem to fit into the genetic family tree. Now, a team of anthropologists, writing this week in the journal Current Biology, lay out the case that the group of orangutans is actually a third, distinct species.  

Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, joins Ira to talk about that discovery, and other selected short subjects from the week in science, including new results from the XENON search for dark matter, an unusually-sized planet, and a type of eating behavior in species of sea slugs called ‘kleptopredation.’ Plus, researchers discover an unexplained space in the middle of the Great Pyramid.

[A 14,000 year-old discovery emerges from oral history.]

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Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, Sue Desmond-Hellman, CEO of the Gates Foundation. She’s here to talk about communicating science in a so-called post truth era. But first, back in 1997, researchers identified an isolated group of orangutans living in Indonesia. Indonesia already has two species of orangutans living there, but these new ones didn’t quite seem to fit into the family tree. And now it’s clear why– it’s actually a third distinct species. Ryan Mandelbaum is here to tell us about that and other selected subjects in science. He’s a science writer with Gizmodo here in New York. Welcome back.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Hey, Ira. How are you doing today?

IRA FLATOW: Tell us more about this orangutan. Where is it, what makes it special?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Sure. So it’s a population of about 100 orangutans who are living a little further south than another population. And now, there are not a lot of orangutans in the world– 100,000. About as many as you can fit into the stadium at the University of Michigan. But this new one, it was just a weird population, because it genetically seemed to look more like this group on Borneo than the rest of the orangutans on Sumatra. So they looked at, they found a couple of orangutans to do genetic sequencing on, and they found one that they could do analysis of the skull shape. And yeah– different species.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So they are surprised by this, and have to redo the tree? Or add another species on there?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I mean, not only is it a new species– and I spoke to a lot of scientists about this one who all said, yeah, that looks like a pretty good analysis. It’s definitely new.

IRA FLATOW: And how many are there, do we think?



RYAN MANDELBAUM: I mean, now, it’s this really rare group. yeah.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s move on to talk about some news about the hunt for dark matter. We know that people are looking for that all the time, aren’t they?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: All the time.

IRA FLATOW: All of the time. I am. It’s under my desk here.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well, I didn’t bring any with me, but I do know that the most sensitive detectors are starting to release their first results. We reported on this story back in May, but now they’ve published in a prestigious physics journal, and no– they haven’t found anything yet. But what’s really exciting is just the level of the noise reduction. I mean, they’re really set up to discover dark matter, if they can find it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, do they know what it’s made out of? How do you find something if you don’t know what it’s made out of?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: What they really hope is that somehow, one of these particles from space just– I mean, you remember dark matter. It doesn’t interact with anything except gravity. But they’re hoping that, maybe, a particle just kind of flies through, knocks an electron off of a xenon atom, and they might be able to detect it deep underground in a mountain in Italy and then another in China.

IRA FLATOW: Weekly interactive massive particle.


IRA FLATOW: WIMPS. They’re looking for our wimps! Don’t look at me when you say that.


IRA FLATOW: So are there other projects going on? What’s next in the hunt for this?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Sure. I mean, with these projects, they got to let them run longer to really see if they could find anything. But there are other dark matter proposals. You know, they’re trying to make dark matter at the Large Hadron Collider. There’s a lot of different things that are going on right now. So we really got to wait and see.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this really interesting little bit of news about the insides of the great pyramids, is that giant void. They found a big void in the pyramid. What is it?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, using muons. So cosmic rays turn into these muons, these particles that are like heavy electrons from outer space. And they travel through the pyramid, and more muons came through in one part than they expected in their detectors. And when they looked at it, it turned out that it was a big hole in the pyramid.

IRA FLATOW: How big are we talking about here?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So I think it’s about as large as the other large, the first large chamber that was found– at least 30 meters in length. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: So what are the Egyptians saying about this?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So the Egyptologists, they don’t think it’s a big deal. They don’t think it’s as big of a deal as sort of the rest of the world, at least, you know, from those that I’ve looked into. But people are really excited because some people– it just shows how cool particle physics is. You can use these muons.

IRA FLATOW: Who would have thought? So how do you set up a muon– OK, so you have the cosmic rays coming from outer space–


IRA FLATOW: And you detect the muons that result.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. They sort of shower into other particles and they come through. So nobody’s calling it a chamber, right? Like, we don’t think that there’s actually artifacts in here. But maybe this is something that was built intentionally to reduce the load on the stuff below it. But we really don’t know what it is yet.

IRA FLATOW: It’s another wonderful “we don’t know” of science. But we do know something called a klepto-predation. What is this thing, klepto-predation?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So it’s kind of like if you ate your lunch, and then I immediately ate you because I wanted your lunch, is with klepto-predation is. It’s literally these– scientists think that these sea slugs called nudibranchs are actually eating hydroids, another small, tiny organism, not for the meat, but for the plankton inside of it. And so is this new kind of predator-prey relationship where the predator is eating its prey for what the prey has just eaten.

IRA FLATOW: Is this for sure that the slug is hunting things to take advantage of what they’ve been eating? Maybe there’s another explanation someplace?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, I mean, it was this word that everybody was talking about a couple of days ago. But there are other– you know, maybe what happened was that the hydroid’s defenses were down right after it ate its plankton, so that was the right time for the slug to swoop in. But this is yet another case of more research will let us know for sure what happens.

IRA FLATOW: Always. Finally elsewhere, there’s this story about a very big planet and a very small star out there elsewhere in space some place?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yes. So this would be the smallest difference between a planet and its host star yet. The planet is around a quarter of the size of the star. So in comparison, Jupiter is maybe a tenth of the radius of our sun. But this is just a huge planet compared to this fairly tiny star, and the star is called NGTS1.

IRA FLATOW: And where is it?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It is a couple of hundred light years away, I think. I’d have to check for you. But–

IRA FLATOW: But they don’t know why this– this is the first time they’ve seen this kind of ratio– planet-star ratio. That’s pretty big–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, exactly.

IRA FLATOW: –Compared to the star, and they’ve never seen this before.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: No, this is definitely the smallest difference between a planet and its host star yet. I mean, the star itself is pretty similar to TRAPPIST 1– that star that we found all of those other exoplanets around. But this is just such– people don’t really know how such a big planet could get around a little star, which is pretty cool.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, very cosmic presentation today. Dark matter and stars. Thank you very much.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, thanks again, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer for Gizmodo, and he was here talking with us today.

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