Protoplanet Moon Impact, Drunk Lorises, and More

7:21 minutes

A slow loris, from Shutterstock
A slow loris, from Shutterstock

In this week’s news roundup, Rachel Feltman, editor of the Washington Post’s Speaking of Science blog, talks about a new study that says that the moon’s Imbrium Basin may have been created by a collision with a protoplanet the size of New Jersey. Plus, why the slow loris prefers alcoholic nectar.

Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, and is the host of “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.”

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This week, as you probably know, marked the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in 1969. And you know that the moon has long captured our imagination. Some people describe seeing rabbit or different versions of the man in the moon on the moon and a study out this week looks at the impact that may have created that man or at least one of its eyes the right one to be exact. Rachel Feltman is here to tell us that story and other selected short subjects in science. She’s editor of the Washington Post’s Speaking of Science blog. Welcome back, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Great to be here, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Now, what’s this object that gave the moon a black eye?

RACHEL FELTMAN: So scientists had already been pretty sure that sometime during the late heavy bombardment four billion years ago, something pretty large made this huge crater 750 miles wide on the moon, but they thought it was probably about 50 miles in diameter. And a new study suggests it was actually 150 miles in diameter, which would have meant it was big enough to be like a proto-planet. It was really massive asteroid. And they came to this conclusion by for the first time looking at these markings that are present around the crater and trying to actually recreate them experimentally instead of just using computer models.

So they use this high-velocity gun that NASA has that can shoot projectiles at 16,000 miles per hour using cameras that fill millions of frames crazy and so they were able to create the impact scenario that actually makes these strange markings they’ve never been able to explain. Then went back, confirmed it with computer modeling. And the reason why it’s interesting is because we know that there were tons of asteroids around during this time. All of the terrestrial planets were being bombarded constantly, and this suggests that maybe more of them than we thought were these really large proto-planet type asteroids and that they impacted, broke apart, formed smaller asteroids. So it’s just kind of adding to our scope of how little we actually know about the early solar system.

IRA FLATOW: So what happened to the proto-planet?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, so based on the modeling, it impacted, it formed this huge crater that we know is the moon’s right eye, and it would’ve broken apart. Some of those pieces probably hit the earth. Some of them may have got sling-shotted right back around and hit the moon again. It’s possible that some of them remain on the moon. We don’t really know. But we do know is probably a pretty cataclysmic impact.

IRA FLATOW: So does it tell us anything about the formation of our moon earth interaction or parts of the landscape or anything like that?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Not particularly, because this would have happened after the moon formed, but again, we know so little about the moon’s origin and the origin of our solar system and this just kind of adds to the many things that we are probably wrong about.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s fun looking still looking at the moon while we look at all those planets right. We know you actually there are still so many mysteries about the moon, even while we’re going out to the Kuiper Belt about maybe

IRA FLATOW: Like how was it formed? Some basic details. Let’s move on to a lichens. You know, those green growths that cover the trees. Now, our knowledge says that it’s basically a combination of two organisms a fungus an algae sort of living in some system right but researchers say there might be a third party involved here?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. So after 150 years of this classic that’s a fungus forming the support and then algae or cyanobacteria kind of interweaving itself and providing food via photosynthesis. It’s great symbiosis. But researchers were trying to figure out why there are species of lichen that have the same algae and fungal components but behave differently, have different properties. And they were looking for like tiny mutations in the genes of the fungus or the algae, and instead they found a third party.

They found a second fungus. It’s a kind of yeast that they had never seen before. And once they went looking, they found this third party in 52 genera of lichen. So it seems like this third microbe has been hiding in this symbiosis this whole time and we just didn’t know.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s not in every species could it be if they looked hard enough to find it more than 52?

RACHEL FELTMAN: We don’t know how widespread it is. And we also don’t know exactly what it’s there for. It actually coats the other two microbes, which is kind of ironic because we weren’t able to find it, and it may provide some structural support. But they think it may also produce chemicals that are beneficial to the organism.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to this strange interesting slow loris. A cute little primate, but it likes to get drunk. Well, they don’t get drunk. though, you could argue that a slow loris always seems kind of drunk. They don’t get more drunk. Any more since lower drug prices.

RACHEL FELTMAN: So basically, these prosimian primates, the slow loris and the iaea’s have a genetic mutation that humans and some other primates have that allows us to metabolize alcohol more quickly. And researchers are always trying to figure out why we have this mutation. Why it persisted, and why in humans it’s led us to actually enjoy consuming alcohol, which chimps also do, but no other animals really seek out alcohol to get drunk. For other animals–

IRA FLATOW: Except maybe us.

RACHEL FELTMAN: For other animals, it’s just a food source. It’s high in calories. So they were looking at slow lorises and aye-ayes and trying to determine whether them having this mutation means that they’ll seek out alcohol. And so they made all this fake nectar with varying levels of alcohol content.

And they did find that the slow lorises and the aye-ayes sought out the most alcoholic nectar again and again and would actually go back to the container trying to get more once it was empty. Again, they didn’t show signs of drunkenness per se, at least based on the research observations.

IRA FLATOW: They have no [INAUDIBLE] online [INAUDIBLE].


RACHEL FELTMAN: They already seem a pretty drunk. So yeah, it doesn’t answer the question of why we have this mutation that we share with them.

IRA FLATOW: So we have that mutation?


IRA FLATOW: We have that?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, we do. And so do chimps and some other primates. And researchers think that maybe it’s because once our ancestors started walking upright instead of hanging out in the trees, we needed to adapt to eating fruit that had fallen on the ground and started to ferment. But we’re not really sure how to go about proving that, so looking at other animals that have this mutation is a good place to start.

IRA FLATOW: This seems to be a whole category of drunk animal stuff. Yeah They’re drunk birds slurring their songs, right?

IRA FLATOW: I guess it’s a fruitful place to do, so to speak. Thank you, Rachel.


IRA FLATOW: Rachel Feltman editor, for the Washington Post Speaking of Science blog.

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About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.