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hannahsummers
7th February 2024

Science in the news: Sleepy penguins, record-breaking icebergs and the end of wine fraud

An AI sommelier, a remarkable sleeping habit and a giant iceberg are all covered in these stories of science in the news
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Science in the news: Sleepy penguins, record-breaking icebergs and the end of wine fraud
Credit: Lauren Manning @ Canva.

While the temperatures are dropping, the number of scientific discoveries is not. Antarctica is particularly popular this week as penguins have been found to survive on thousands of microsleeps each day, and the largest iceberg in the world has been serendipitously discovered. For the wine lovers, a new AI tool can now identify wines with complete accuracy, uncovering any fraudulent wine sales.

Eyes wide shut: Chinstrap penguins sleep for four seconds at a time

Imagine finally nodding off, only to awaken after only four seconds. Then again, and again and 10,000 more times. It does not sound very satisfying, but it appears to be more than enough for the humble chinstrap penguin. In fact, this penguin species can rack up a whole 11 hours of sleep every day by shutting off one or both of their brain hemispheres for about four seconds at a time.

Researchers used remote EEG monitoring to measure sleep in a population of nesting Chinstrap penguins on King George Island in Antarctica. Penguins are subject to predation of their eggs and chicks, specifically by the brown skua bird, and even aggression from the other penguins. Therefore, nesting individuals must be vigilant at all times to guard their eggs.

Penguins huddling
Chinstrap penguins. Credit: Pallter @ Flickr

The species go through alternate rounds of sleep, using one or both hemispheres of the brain so that both hemispheres of the brain eventually get a full night’s sleep. Whilst it has not been fully confirmed that these “microsleeps” fulfil all of the usual restorative effects of normal sleep, their breeding success was measured and found to be sufficient. These “microsleeps” provide the penguins with a life-saving alternative during their nesting periods. These remarkable results have changed the way fragmented sleep is viewed by scientists in the field.

SommelAIer

The ability to precisely distinguish different wines based on chemical composition alone has evaded scientists for decades, as it depends on complicated interactions of compounds present in specific, minute concentrations. This complexity is brought about by a myriad of factors relating not only to the grape variety, but also the environment in which they are grown (encompassing soil properties, altitude and weather), the method of pressing, and in what type of vessel and for how long a wine is aged before bottling.

The resulting patterns of chemical composition defining taste are too difficult for humans to differentiate, but vast and intricate data is where AI thrives, as proved by researchers who created a tool that can match wines to the Bordeaux estates they were grown in with 100% accuracy.

The team accomplished this by first vaporising 73 Bordeaux wines, then separating and quantifying the compounds that each contained in a process called gas chromatography. This produces a graphical representation of each wine. When manually analysed by humans, only the largest peaks on this type of graph – called a chromatogram – are typically taken into account, but in this case, AI was trained on the entire raw output, meaning it incorporated details which would normally be missed.

Given seven further unidentified chromatograms, the AI was then able to match all of them to the correct chateaux, although it was not always able to pinpoint the year of production (also known as the vintage).

Credit: David Chao @ Flickr

The tool could potentially be used by police looking to stamp out fraud where bootleggers pass off their own second-rate concoctions as expensive vino, an enterprise which has increasingly become a problem for the winemaking industry. The study is also a vindication for wine lovers as chemical proof that there really is a difference between varieties based on the intricacies of the conditions in which grapes are grown and prepared.

British Antarctic Survey comes across the world’s biggest iceberg

By pure lucky coincidence, the voyage of the RRS David Attenborough (the ship that was nearly named Boaty McBoatface by an internet poll) has crossed paths with the “megaberg” A23. With an area of approximately 3900 km2, this icy structure is roughly three times the size of Greater Manchester.

The iceberg had been mostly stationary, anchored against the sea bed, since it separated off from a West Antarctic ice shelf in 1986. However, it is now finally beginning a well-studied trajectory towards a common passage known as an “iceberg alley.” But on its way, it has bumped into the exact group best-equipped to study it.

The route of the RRS David Attenborough had been planned long in advance, with no anticipation of access to A23a, but the biogeochemists and ecologists on board have taken the opportunity to collect samples of seawater around the iceberg. These samples can be analysed to help researchers understand the impact of the iceberg on the surrounding waters and ecosystems.

Credit: Pedro Szekely @ Flickr

The findings will contribute to the overall research aims of the ten-day voyage. Dubbed the BIOPOLE Project, the £9m mission is attempting to uncover how Antarctic ice and ecosystems regulate nutrient cycling and habitats in the surrounding areas and globally, as well as how these processes are being affected by climate change.


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