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The Red Rose of Saturn – Saturn’s Hurricane

by Raul Buman

Saturn certainly is one of the most visually stunning planets in our Solar System. However, on closer look, the ringed beauty is also beginning to look like one of our weirdest.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft scientists recently released photos of a massive hurricane-like structure at Saturn’s North Pole. Cassini just got a glimpse of the feature in 2004 when Saturn’s North Pole was tipped away from the Sun. It wasn’t until spring of 2009 that scientists were able to re-program the spacecraft so it would fly directly over the feature to reveal this strange and mesmerizing super storm.

The Red Rose of Saturn, a name coined from NASA’s colorized photos of the structure, is very similar to hurricanes on Earth with a few striking differences – size, wind speed and a fueling mechanism.

More Powerful Than Earth Based Hurricanes

The eye of Saturn’s hurricane is about 20 times bigger than an average hurricane eye here on Earth — about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide. To put in terrestrial terms, that’s about half the width of Australia or about the distance from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to central Kansas. That’s one huge eye and the rest of the storm extends out beyond it for another 600 to 700 miles. Even the clouds at the center of the eye are huge. NASA says they are about the size of Texas.

Winds whip around the eye of the super storm at about 330 mph (530 km/h). To put that in perspective, that’s four times hurricane force winds or twice the speed of a Category 5 hurricane here on Earth. Category 5 hurricanes must have sustained winds of over 155 mph. But like an earthly hurricane, the winds spin clockwise.

Another important difference between Earth based hurricanes and Saturn’s maelstrom is that it’s stationary. It appears to be locked in or around Saturn’s North Pole whereas Earth based hurricanes drift due to the Earth’s rotation and atmospheric disturbances.

What Feeds This Monster?

Hurricane’s here on Earth are fueled by warm ocean water but there are no oceans on Saturn, which is basically a huge hydrogen gas ball. There are small amounts of water vapor in Saturn’s atmosphere but scientists are at a loss as to what is feeding the storm and look forward to studying this part of the puzzle.

A Hurricane Wrapped In A Six-sided Vortex?

If it weren’t astounding enough to discover a hurricane like storm of this magnitude on the ringed planet, Cassini sent back photos of a hexagon shaped structure surrounding the hurricane. Scientists believe the walls of this hexagon are similar to high-speed atmospheric jet streams here on Earth. However, no one has ventured an explanation for its mysterious six-sided shape.

What’s Going On At the South Pole?

Another gigantic storm spins around the South Pole. Although the hurricane-like storm at Saturn’s South Pole is not as famous as its northerly counterpart, it’s almost two-thirds the size of Earth. The eye is much more defined, looking like a giant freakish eye. The clouds rise to a height of 18 to 46 miles (30 to 75 kilometers) above the eye.

On July 30, 1610, Galileo wrote to his patron about his discovery of Saturn, “I discovered another very strange wonder . . .” What would Galileo think of his discovery now.

Scientists Discover That Certain Fish Use Sign Language When Hunting

by Raul Buman

Scientists have known for decades that primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees can learn and understand sign language and communicate with one another using gestures. More recently, ravens have been observed to show similar behaviors, but until now, scientists believed that those two types of animals were unique in their ability to do so. However, an article published recently in Nature Communications suggests that our understanding of animals’ ability to communicate through gestures is less complete than we may have believed. Certain fish are showing the ability to communicate with one another using body language in order to hunt more successfully in teams.

bass fishThe body language these fish use is called referential gesturing. Because scientists don’t know what the fish are thinking, it’s hard to prove that a given behavior is a referential gesture, but there are several criteria that scientists use to classify these behaviors as a form of communication. First, the behavior must be directed at an object (for example, the prey) and aimed at a recipient (another fish). The gesture must have no mechanical purpose (for example, swimming) and must appear to be voluntary and intentional. Finally, it must elicit a response from the recipient. The behaviors seen in two kinds of fish, the grouper and the coral trout, while hunting, fit all of these criteria and appear to be a form of sign language.

Grouper and coral trout are known to cooperate with other species of fish, such as octopi, moray eels, and wrasses, to hunt more effectively. Grouper and coral trout are fast swimmers in open water, while the other fish have the ability to navigate small spaces in coral to capture prey. Scientists have observed both grouper and coral trout to point out escaped prey in hiding spaces that they cannot reach. The grouper and coral trout will perform a “headstand” pose, tilting and pointing at the hidden prey. In many instances, the octopus, eel, or wrasse will respond by seeking out the prey in its hiding place and frequently capturing it. By communicating and hunting in teams, the fish are able to greatly increase the number of successful hunts, and all of the predators get a meal more often.

For many years, scientists believed that language and communication required a large amount of intelligence and brain capacity. However, it is clear that fish do not display the same level of intelligence as mammals or birds, and that they actually lack parts of the brain that mammals and birds use. This research may open doors for future study in language development. It appears that intelligence and brain size may be less important than evolutionary pressure for the development of communication behaviors. For the fish, the need to hunt in environments like the insides of reefs that are unsuited to the speedy grouper and coral trout resulted in pressure to develop a partnership with a more agile ally, and all partnerships work better when the partners are able to communicate with one another. Not only may the fish be more intelligent than we have ever given them credit for, but necessity may truly be the mother of invention even in the depths of the ocean.