©AMNH/R. Mickens
©AMNH/R. Mickens

7 Technologies That Are Revolutionizing Ocean Exploration

©AMNH/R. Mickens
©AMNH/R. Mickens

The Earth is an ocean planet—more than 70 percent of the surface is covered by seawater. But despite being such an essential part of life, the deepest parts of the world's oceans are still largely unexplored. According to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, merely 10 to 15 percent of the seafloor has been mapped with accuracy, which means we know less about the seafloor than the surface of Mars.

But the state of sea exploration is changing fast. The dark, high-pressure conditions of the ocean depths that once made research there impossible are now being explored with cutting-edge technology. That new tech and the discoveries to come from it are the focus of a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History called Unseen Oceans. As museum curator John Sparks said at a press preview, the goal of the exhibition is to show visitors "how little we know, and to tell them how much we're learning so rapidly with technology."

Here are some of the technologies featured in the exhibition, which opens March 12.

1. FLUORESCENCE-DETECTING CAMERAS TO FIND GLOWING FISH

One of the biggest recent discoveries made in the field of deep ocean exploration is the proliferation of biofluorescence in the darkest parts of the sea. Realms that look pitch black to human eyes are actually filled with more than 250 species of fish glowing in red, orange, and green hues. One of these species is the catshark, which fluoresces green in the dim blue light that reaches the sea floor. To detect this effect, researchers built a camera that filters out certain wavelengths of light like the shark's eye does. (This is how the sharks see each other in the darkness.) Combined with artificial blue light to enhance the fluorescent color, this equipment allows scientists to record the light show.

2. AN ALL-IN-ONE ECHOSOUNDER, SPEAKER, AND MICROPHONE THAT "SPEAKS WHALE"

Listening to whales vocalize tells us a lot about the way they live and interact, but this is difficult to do when a species spends most of its time in the deep ocean. In order to eavesdrop on beaked whales, scientists needed to fit sophisticated acoustic equipment into a submersible built to explore high-pressure environments. Enter the Deep Ocean REMUS Echosounder, or DOR-E. (REMUS stands for "Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS.") Developed by marine scientist Kelly Benoit-Bird and her team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the autonomous underwater vehicle can reach depths up to 1970 feet and has enough battery life to record a day's worth of deep-sea audio. The device was named for Finding Nemo's Dory because it "speaks whale," according to Unseen Oceans.

3. SOFT GRIPPERS FOR GENTLY COLLECTING SPECIMENS

Family looking at museum exhibit
©AMNH/D. Finnin

Collecting specimens at the bottom of the ocean isn't as simple as collecting them on land; researchers can't just step out of their submersible to pick up a mollusk from the seabed. The only way to retrieve a sample at such depths is with a machine. When these machines are designed to be bulky and rigid to withstand the intense water pressure around them, they can end up crushing the specimen before scientists have the chance to study it. So-called soft grippers are a clever alternative. Memory foam evenly distributes the force around the creature being handled, and Kevlar lace keeps the fingers from spreading when they inflate with water. Even with its squishy construction, the mechanism is sturdy enough to work at depths reaching 1000 feet.

4. AFFORDABLE AQUATIC DRONES TO EXPLORE HIGH-PRESSURE DEPTHS

A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) can explore the tight, crushing pockets of the ocean that human divers can't reach. This technology is often costly and limited to research teams with big budgets. A new company called OpenROV aims to make underwater drones more accessible to everyday explorers. Their signature ROV, Trident, starts at just $1500.

5. SATELLITE IMAGING FOR MAPPING THE OCEAN FLOOR

Topography exhibit in museum.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

Sometimes the easiest way for scientists to get a view of the bottom of the ocean is by sending equipment to space. Satellites in orbit can estimate measurements of the peaks and valleys shaping the seabed by beaming radar pulses towards Earth and calculating the time it takes for them to bounce back. While this method doesn't provide a terribly accurate map of the ocean floor, it can be used to gauge depths in even the most remote areas.

6. SWARMS OF MINI ROBOTS THAT BOB AND FLOAT LIKE PLANKTON

Autonomous undersea robots come in all shapes and sizes. Mini-autonomous underwater explorers, or m-AUEs, developed by Scripps oceanographer Jules Jaffe are meant to be deployed in large groups or "swarms." The grapefruit-sized devices act like plankton, bobbing at a constant depth in the ocean and measuring factors like water temperature. By studying the underwater explorers, scientists hope to better understand how plankton, major contributors of the Earth's oxygen, thrive and travel through the sea.

7. SUCTION-CUP "TAGS" FOR STUDYING JELLIES

Kids looking at museum exhibit.
©AMNH/R. Mickens

This technology is so new, it hasn't hit the water yet. Once it's ocean-ready, researchers plan to attach the miniature suction cups to the bells of jellies. The device automatically measures a jelly's movements and ocean chemistry as the animal swims around. Eventually the jelly regenerates the top layer of its bell, shedding the tag and moving on unharmed. Once detached, the tag floats to the water's surface where it alerts scientists to its location via a VHF antenna and green reflective tape.

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The Body
10 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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Science Has a Good Explanation For Why You Can't Resist That Doughnut
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Unless you’re one of those rare people who doesn’t like sweets, the lure of a glazed or powdered doughnut is often too powerful to resist. The next time you succumb to that second or third Boston cream, don’t blame it on weak willpower—blame it on your brain.

As the New Scientist reports, a Yale University study published in the journal Cell Metabolism provides new evidence that foods rich in both carbohydrates and fats fire up the brain’s reward center more than most foods. For the study, volunteers were shown pictures of carb-heavy foods (like candy), fatty foods (like cheese), and foods high in both (like doughnuts). They were then asked to bid money on the food they wanted to eat most, all while researchers measured their brain activity.

Not only were volunteers willing to pay more for doughnuts and similar foods, but foods high in carbs and fat also sparked far more activity in the striatum, the area of the brain where dopamine is released. (Chocolate is one of the foods most commonly associated with increases in dopamine, working in the same way as drugs like cocaine and amphetamines.)

Presented with these findings, researcher Dana Small theorized that the brain may have separate systems to assess fats and carbs. Modern junk foods that activate both systems at once may trigger a larger release of dopamine as a result.

This study doesn’t entirely explain why different people crave different foods, though. Much of it has to do with our habits and the foods we repeatedly gravitate towards when we want to feel happy or alleviate stress. Another study from 2015 found that certain treats associated with high levels of reward in the brain—like pizza, chocolate, chips, and cookies—were considered to be the most addictive foods (doughnuts didn’t make the top 20, though).

It's still possible to turn down foods that are bad for you, though. While many people try to improve their self-control, one of the most effective ways to avoid an undesired outcome is to remove the temptation completely. Free doughnuts in the break room? Stay far away.

[h/t New Scientist]

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