Editor's Blog

The Top 10 Weirdest Science Stories Of 2015

December 31, 2015 | by Robin Andrews

Photo credit: Science can be splendidly silly sometimes. S.Pytel

2015 has been many things, from happy to melancholy, from tragic to uplifting. In the world of science, however, things have often been decidedly wacky. In honor of the stranger side of science, here are our picks for the Top 10 Weirdest Stories Of 2015.

10DARPA Are Building Vampire Drones

Image credit: concept w/Shutterstock

Drones are everywhere these days. From taking elaborate selfies of snowboarders to drifting above lava lakes, they are slowly becoming an accepted feature of life. It may come as a surprise, then, that the U.S. military’s scientific and technological wing wants them to disappear altogether. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced that they are building drones that completely disappear in sunlight.

They will be made of a specialized material that is able to “sublimate,” turning straight from a solid into a gas, and leaving no trace of their existence. This could either happen when triggered to do so by the operator, or when the Sun comes up. Unsurprisingly, these little flying machines have been referred to as “vampire drones” in the press.

9Syrian Organization Removes Seeds From Doomsday Vault

Image credit: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale frøhvelv/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic Circle keeps caches of native crop seeds from almost every nation in the world just in case an ecological catastrophe occurs and we need to restart a nation’s or several nations’ agriculture. Sometimes referred to as the “Doomsday Vault,” it even has seeds in it from notoriously secretive, isolated nations like North Korea.

However, due to the continuing civil war in Syria, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) – which manages the Syrian seed bank – has demanded the withdrawal of its contribution to the vault. The 116,000 crop seeds are to be taken from Svalbard and moved back to the ruined Syrian city of Aleppo in order to replenish the war-torn country’s own dwindling gene bank.

8Pigeons Have Been Trained To Spot Cancer

Image credit: Copyright Univ. Iowa/Wassermann Lab

Sixteen pigeons at the University of California, Davis, have been trained to distinguish between microscope slides of benign and malignant breast tissue. They were rewarded with food for correctly determining which was which, and in a remarkable display of rapid pattern detection, these common birds learned how to diagnose breast cancer within just a couple of weeks. They not only had an accuracy rate of 85 percent after being trained for just 13 days, but when multiple pigeons were asked to analyze the same slide, their accuracy climbed to 99 percent.

Despite this, it’s unlikely you’ll walk into a hospital and see pigeons flying around with little white lab coats on.

7Lizard Grows Six Tails Simultaneously, Sets New World Record

Image credit: Pelegrin & Leão, 2015

Lizards are renowned for their remarkable ability to regenerate damaged tissue. In particular, their tails are designed to fall off and grow back within days, an ability that is designed to confuse a predator hoping for a lizard-flavored snack. When threatened, a lizard can sever its tail between two specific vertebrae. A fracture appears along one of these weak structural points; bleeding is quickly clotted and shut off, and the cellular regeneration of the tail tissue begins rapidly from the remaining stub.

One particular Argentine black-and-white tegu lizard – Salvator merianae – was found with a world record-setting six tails earlier this year. Researchers think that the regeneration process went slightly haywire when the original tail failed to completely fall off, accidentally causing it to sprout multiple new tails. Although it looks pretty impressive, the numerous additions to its backside have likely rendered it unable to successfully mate with a female.

6Did We Really Find An Alien Megastructure?

Image credit: diversepixel/Shutterstock

Astronomers recently detected unpredictable and highly variable changes in light levels around an old star by the name of KIC 8462852. Although changes in light level normally indicate an orbiting planet or another star moving in front of it, the irregularity of these dips convinced some people that it might be an artificial object that’s causing the changes. Yes – something made by aliens, an enormous construct blocking out the light of a star.

Unfortunately, the truth turned out to be far less exhilarating and revelatory: Recent data suggests that it may be a swarm of comets that are breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces, swirling chaotically around the star. There’re no telltale signs of heat being given off by mechanical alien structures, so for now, we remain tantalizingly alone in the universe.

5Decapitated Flatworms Made To Grow Heads Of Other Species

Image credit: Harald Schottner/Shutterstock

Flatworms, like lizards, have incredible regenerative abilities. One particular species, Girardia dorotocephala, has been shown to be able to take this ability one bizarre step further: It is able to grow the heads and brain structures of completely different species. This ability was induced by using a form of alcohol to electrically manipulate the flatworms' nerve cell connections, or synapses. After a short while, they managed to grow their original heads back, all without changing their own genetic structure.

4Flatworm Reproduces By Injecting Sperm Into Its Own Head

Image credit: Lukas Schärer

Flatworms make the list twice this year, and for good reason: One species was found to reproduce by inseminating its own head. Although this may sound somewhat counterproductive, this species is a hermaphrodite, meaning that it has both male and female sex organs. Although this produces inbred offspring, the researchers argue that it’s still better than not being able to reproduce at all. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

3Hundreds Of Thousands Of Antelopes Keep Suddenly And Mysteriously Dying

Image credit: Albert Salemgareyev

In two separate incidents, tens of thousands of endangered saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan have been dying en masse. The die-offs appear to have begun around the time the pregnant antelopes were giving birth. As the calves died shortly after the mothers, researchers suspect it was something passed on through the mothers’ milk. However, to date, no-one knows what’s causing these massacres.

2Man Fails Paternity Test Because His Unborn Twin Is His Son’s Father

Image credit: isak55/Shutterstock

If you’re confused at just the title, fret not: you aren't alone. After a child was born following assisted conception, testing revealed that his blood type did not match that of his parents. At first it was thought that sperm samples had been mixed up, but doctors discovered that part of the father’s genome belonged to his unborn twin, which never made it past a few cells in the womb. This technically meant that the unborn brother of the father is the biological father to the baby boy. This man is, therefore, a bonafide human chimera: a fusion between two different people.

1Man Dies When His Parasitic Worm Gets Cancer

Image credit: Peter Olson/Natural History Museum

In a somewhat depressing but utterly unique story, a HIV-positive Colombian man died in November after a common tapeworm inside his digestive system became cancerous. This is thought to be the first time that tumors have developed as a result of parasite-derived cancerous cells spreading to the host organism. The discovery, which has confounded medical researchers worldwide, was made just 72 hours before the 41-year-old man died.

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