Pioneers of the American West: The Harvey Girls (Photos)


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Pioneers of the American West: The Harvey Girls (Photos)

Moving across the land

Credit: Library of Congress

Serving the troops

Credit: Library of Congress

The Weird Tale of a Larger-Than-Life Wolf That Outran the Law, Almost


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The Weird Tale of a Larger-Than-Life Wolf That Outran the Law, Almost

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The Weird Tale of a Larger-Than-Life Wolf That Outran the Law, Almost

A North American gray wolf (Canis lupus) strikes a pose in the snow, recalling the storied figure of the Custer Wolf, the so-called “gray devil of the desert” that haunted South Dakota during the early 20th century.

Credit: Shutterstock

For nearly a decade during the dawn of the 20th century, a lone — and furry — figure cut a criminal swath across South Dakota’s badlands, evading government officials as well as seasoned trackers and bounty hunters.

At the peak of his infamy, the price on his head totaled $500 — the equivalent of about $6,000 today. He was the Custer Wolf, a North American gray wolf (Canis lupus) so-named for the nearby town of Custer, South Dakota. The four-legged outlaw that preyed on livestock was widely reviled as a scourge of farmers and ranchers, but was also a source of fearful speculation, rumored to be an enormous monster possessing supernatural powers that prevented its capture.

On this day (Jan. 17) in 1921, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distributed a statement announcing the death of the elusive Custer Wolf at the hands of a federally contracted hunter, naming the wolf “the master criminal of the animal world” and describing it as “the cruelest, the most sagacious, the most successful animal outlaw that the range country had ever known.” [Photos: Brand-New Baby Wolves]

The language in the statement — written by USDA press officer Dixon Lanier Merritt, also a poet and humorist — seems a little over-the-top, but so was the Custer Wolf’s story.

For nine years, the beast hunted and fed on horses and cattle across a range spanning about 300 square miles (780 square kilometers) in South Dakota, costing their owners an estimated $25,000 — an amount equal to about $311,000 in 2017.

But the wolf was also said to mutilate its kills “in atrocious ways for the mere sake of killing,” according to the statement. Over the years, attempts to catch the wolf with traps, guns, dogs and poison were unsuccessful. Fearful rumors circulated that he was no “mere wolf,” but a hybrid of wolf and mountain lion, “possessing the craftiness of both and the cruelty of hell,” and that he was accompanied by two coyotes that served as “bodyguards,” the USDA reported.

Historically, wolves in the Dakotas typically preyed on large ungulates such as bison, moose and elk. But as Europeans settled in the West, they killed off the wolves’ prey. And so the wolves, their ranges now greatly reduced by agriculture and ranching, began hunting livestock in order to survive.

This marked the beginning of federal bounty programs to exterminate wolves. These programs were so effective that North American gray wolves were largely eradicated in most of the lower 48 states before they were offered protection by the Endangered Species Act in 1978, with only a few hundred animals remaining in Minnesota, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reported.

In the end, the Custer Wolf couldn’t outrun the law. The USDA sent one of its own hunters, H.P. Williams, on the trail of the renegade wolf in March 1920, with instructions to catch the animal “no matter how much time was required,” Dixon wrote in the statement.

Federal hunter H.P. Williams (left) and a local rancher stand over the slain Custer Wolf on Oct. 11, 1920.

Federal hunter H.P. Williams (left) and a local rancher stand over the slain Custer Wolf on Oct. 11, 1920.

Credit: Paul Fearn/Alamy

 

Williams trailed the wolf for months, first shooting the alleged coyote“bodyguards” and then laying a series of traps that the wolf managed to avoid or spring without getting caught. But the wolf’s storied luck ran out on Oct. 11, when he stepped into one of Williams’ steel traps, the hunter reported to the USDA.

Even then, the wolf managed to break the trap and run for 3 miles (4.8 km), with the trap’s teeth still gripping his front leg, before Williams ended his life with a bullet.

In death, the wolf was found to be no oversize monster. In fact, he was “an old wolf” with nearly white fur, and he was smaller than average, measuring about 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length and weighing 98 pounds (44 kilograms), Williams recounted.

Despite Merritt’s harsh words in the USDA statement about the Custer Wolf’s lengthy “reign of dread,” the writer clearly held some admiration for the animal that evaded human retribution for so long, and grew into a larger-than-life, four-legged legend of the Wild West.

“He loped through every kind of danger and spurned them all,” Merritt wrote.

Currently, there are no known populations of gray wolves in South Dakota, according to the FWS.

Original article on Live Science.

The History of Russia’s ‘Plague Fort,’ Where Scientists Battled Death (and Lost)


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The History of Russia’s ‘Plague Fort,’ Where Scientists Battled Death (and Lost)

 The History of Russia's 'Plague Fort,' Where Scientists Battled Death (and Lost)
The abandoned Fort Alexander, also called the Plague Fort, sits on an artificial island near St. Petersburg, Russia.

Credit: Shutterstock

With water lapping at its curved, worn stone walls and vegetation spreading on its roof, Fort Alexander looks like the kind of place with an eerie history.

And it is.

This water-bound, bean-shaped fort, built on an artificial island near St. Petersburg, Russia, was once the site of a research laboratory focused on the study of the plague. Two staff members were accidentally infected with the plague and died. The place is now often called “the Plague Fort” in dubious honor of this history.

The fort is now empty, but it occasionally makes forays into the public eye. It was most recently the subject of a Reddit thread in a forum dedicated to photographs of abandoned buildings. In 2016, drone footage of the fortshot around the internet.

The fort was constructed over a period of seven years, built on a platform of sand, concrete and granite that sat on the floor of the Gulf of Finland,according to Atlas Obscura. It was built to protect the strategically important gulf, though it never saw actual battle.

The real fight inside the walls of Fort Alexander was against the plague.Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague, was discovered in 1894. Within a few years, Russia set up a plague lab at Fort Alexander to study the Black Death-causing pathogen and develop a vaccine.

An essay written in 1907 describes the lab animals inoculated with the plague in order to extract their blood serum to develop plague treatment and preventatives: rabbits, guinea pigs, monkeys, even horses. In 1904, the head doctor, VI Turchinovich-Vyzhnyevich, contracted the plague and died, according to the essay. In 1907, another doctor, Emanuel F. Schreiber, fell ill. He was sick for three days, diagnosing himself with the pneumatic, or respiratory, form of the plague. (According to the World Health Organization, the pneumatic plague is almost always fatal unless treated with modern medicine within 24 hours of symptoms appearing.) Schreiber was cremated on-site so that his remains wouldn’t spread the deadly bacteria.

As recounted in the 1907 essay, another doctor, Lev Vladimirovich Podlevsky, came down with the plague within days of Schreiber’s death. But Podlevsky was lucky (relatively). He contracted the bubonic form of the plague, so named because of the distinctive lumps, or buboes, that appear on lymph nodes during an infection. Today, bubonic plague kills between 30 and 60 percent of its victims when untreated, according to the World Health Organization.

Podlevsky was treated with an experimental plague serum developed by the lab. He eventually recovered.

The isolated lab was later used to study other infectious diseases, including cholera and tetanus, according to Atlas Obscura. The lab shut down in 1917, and the Russian navy used the fort as a storage facility until it was abandoned in the 1980s. According to Atlas Obscura, it then became a popular place for illegal, unpermitted raves.

The curious traveler no longer has to trespass to reach this abandoned outpost, though. Today, boat tours are available to take sightseers to the fort.

Original article on Live Science.

Tableware from the Toilet: Colonial Pottery from Philly Privy on Display


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Tableware from the Toilet: Colonial Pottery from Philly Privy on Display

 Tableware from the Toilet: Colonial Pottery from Philly Privy on Display

The colonial dishes are decorated with striking abstract patterns made using what is called “slip trailing.”

Credit: Robert Hunter

Archaeologists may be among the few people who would be happy to find themselves at the bottom of an old toilet.

So imagine the excitement of the researchers who got to dig at the site of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia before the museum’s construction got underway: Those archaeologists found the brick-lined pits of 12 privies, essentially outhouses where people also threw their trash before the era of municipal garbage collection began.

Rare pieces of pottery from the 18th century that were recovered in one of those toilets went on public display for the first time this week (Jan. 18) at the New York Ceramics and Glass Fair. [Toilet Treasures: See Amazing Artifacts Preserved in Philadelphia Privies]

The dishes are decorated with striking abstract patterns made using a technique known as “slip trailing,” in which liquid clay is poured onto the surface of a pot.

A restored 18th-century plate found in an old outhouse.

A restored 18th-century plate found in an old outhouse.

Credit: Robert Hunter

“We’ve seen hints of this type of slipware before but nothing that has this degree of intactness and comprehensiveness as far as the patterns exhibited here,” Robert Hunter, an archaeologist and editor of the journal Ceramics in America, said in a statement. “Nothing else has been this complete. By virtue of that intactness, we have been able to make great bounds in what we can learn from them, about who made them and how they were used.”

Hunter and the researchers who organized the display — called “Buried Treasure: New Discoveries in Philadelphia Slipware from the Collection of the Museum of the American Revolution” — said these dishes were likely made by one of the French or German potters operating in Philadelphia. The pottery was primarily used for decoration, though it may have occasionally been used for serving, the archaeologists said.

The privy shaft where these pots were found had been used by at least one of the old taverns that was located on the site at the corner of South Third and Chestnut Streets, just down the block from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written and adopted.

Here, another example of the gorgeous pottery found in 18th-century privies in Philadelphia.
Here, another example of the gorgeous pottery found in 18th-century privies in Philadelphia.

Credit: Robert Hunter

Human excrement was apparently a good preservative for artifacts. The dishes were among nearly 85,000 artifacts that archaeologists from Commonwealth Heritage Group dug up at the site of the museum, from 2014 to 2016.

“The materials recovered on these sites require years of research to fully appreciate, and so these treasures from the museum site will continue to provide new insight into Revolutionary America,” R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming, said in the statement.

The exhibit runs through Sunday, Jan. 21. After its display in New York, the pottery will return to the collection of the Museum of the American Revolution.

Original article on Live Science.

Medieval Text Resolves Mystery of Viking-Irish Battle


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Medieval Text Resolves Mystery of Viking-Irish Battle

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Medieval Text Resolves Mystery of Viking-Irish Battle

The “Battle of Clontarf,” an 1825 oil-on-canvass painting, depicts the momentus battle fought in 1014.

Credit: Hugh Frazer

The famous Irish king, Brian Boru, is widely credited with defeating the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf more than 1,000 years ago. But not everyone heaps praise on the king. For the past 300 years, historians have cast doubt on whether Boru’s main enemies were the Vikings, or his own countrymen.

Perhaps, say these so-called revisionists, the Battle of Clontarf was actually a domestic feud — that is, a civil war — between different parts of Ireland.

To settle the matter, researchers analyzed a medieval text used by both traditionalists and revisionists to bolster their arguments. The results are a boon for Boru: The hostilities revealed in the text largely indicate that the Irish fought in an international war against the Vikings, although Irish-on-Irish conflict is also described in the manuscripts, according to the new study, published online today (Jan. 24) in the journal Royal Society Open Science. [Fierce Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Culture]

The medieval Irish text, known as Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (“The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill”), describes how an army led by Boru challenged the Viking invaders, culminating in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

The Vikings weren’t new to Ireland. Viking raids against the Emerald Isle began in A.D. 795. In the decades that followed, the Vikings took over Dublin and built camps that evolved into the settlements of Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford, said study lead author Ralph Kenna, a professor of theoretical physics at Coventry University, in the United Kingdom.

But Boru wanted a unified Ireland, and the Vikings and various regional kingdoms stood in his way. Boru achieved his goal of unification in 1011, but merely a year later, the province of Leinster and Viking-controlled Dublin rose against him, leading to the Battle of Clontarf. (Boru’s army defeated Leinster and the Vikings, but victory came at price for Boru, as he was killed at Clontarf.)

An image (A) of a 19th-century facsimile of the first page of the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh and the main kingdoms (B) of Ireland around A.D. 900 with large Viking towns.

An image (A) of a 19th-century facsimile of the first page of the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh and the main kingdoms (B) of Ireland around A.D. 900 with large Viking towns.

Credit: Yose, J. et al./Royal Society Open Science

Leinster’s role in the battle led revisionists to describe the conflict as a civil war, Kenna said. The 18th-century revisionist Charles O’Connor wrote that “in the series of events that led to Clontarf, it was not … the Norse [the Vikings] but the Leinstermen, who played the predominant part,” Kenna told Live Science, adding that the historian “put forward the view that the conflict is not a ‘clear-cut’ one between Irish and Viking.”

“In recent years, this revisionist view has gained a lot of traction and a ‘new orthodoxy’ is being constructed,” Kenna said. “For example, in 2014, which was the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf, an Irish TV station ran a documentary about the conflict with footage of a rugby match,” Kenna said, referring to the use of rugby footage to dramatize the conflict. “The rugby match was between the Irish provinces of Munster and Leinster. This was as if to suggest that the battle was mainly betweentwo provinces in Ireland — not Irish versus Vikings.”

To investigate, the researchers dove into a 217-page, 1867 translation of Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh by James Henthorn Todd.

The research team used social network theory, which measured to what extent the Irish and Viking characters in the text were linked to each other. [Emerald Isle: A Photo Tour of Ireland]

The network of the Cogadh's 315 characters and their 1,190 interactions with one another. Green points represent Irish characters and blue points represent Vikings. Other characters are shown in gray. If an Irish character interacts with another Irish one, the link between them is colored green. If a Viking interacts with another Viking, the link between them is blue. Brown links represent interactions between Irish and Vikings.

The network of the Cogadh’s 315 characters and their 1,190 interactions with one another. Green points represent Irish characters and blue points represent Vikings. Other characters are shown in gray. If an Irish character interacts with another Irish one, the link between them is colored green. If a Viking interacts with another Viking, the link between them is blue. Brown links represent interactions between Irish and Vikings.

Credit: Joseph Yose

“The analysis had to determine whether hostility between characters was mostly Irish versus Viking, or Irish versus Irish (or, indeed, Viking versus Viking),” Kenna said. “A simple tally of hostile interactions between characters will not do, as this would not account for different numbers of Irish and Vikings.”

They found that the text doesn’t indicate a “clear-cut” Irish-versus-Viking conflict, Kenna said. The hostilities in the medieval text are mostly between the Irish and the Vikings, but Irish-versus-Irish conflicts were also present in the document, the researchers wrote.

“Because [the finding] is moderate in magnitude, it indicates that there was a lot of Irish-versus-Irish conflict, too,” Kenna said.

Original article on Live Science.

China’s Quantum-Key Network, the Largest Ever, Is Officially Online


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China’s Quantum-Key Network, the Largest Ever, Is Officially Online

 China's Quantum-Key Network, the Largest Ever, Is Officially Online
A figure from the letter shows how the Micius satellite transfers quantum keys across vast distances.

Credit: Physical Review Letters

China has the quantum technology to perfectly encrypt useful signals over distances far vaster than anyone has ever accomplished, spanning Europe and Asia, according to a stunning new research letter.

Bits of information, or signals, pass through people’s houses, the skies overhead and the flesh of human bodies every second of every day. They’re television signals and radio, as well as private phone calls and data files.

Some of these signals are public, but most are private — encrypted with long strings of numbers known (presumably) only to the senders and receivers. Those keys are powerful enough to keep the secrets of modern society: flirty text messages, bank-account numbers and the passwords to covert databases. But they’re brittle. A sufficiently determined person, wielding a sufficiently powerful computer, could break them.

“Historically, every advance in cryptography has been defeated by advances in cracking technology,” Jian-Wei Pan, a researcher at the University of Science and Technology of China and author on this research letter, wrote in an email. “Quantum key distribution ends this battle.”

Quantum keys are long strings of numbers — keys for opening encrypted files just like the ones used in modern computers — but they’re encoded in the physical states of quantum particles. That means they are protected not only by the limits of computers but the laws of physics.

Quantum keys cannot be copied. They can encrypt transmissions between otherwise classical computers. And no one can steal them — a law of quantum mechanics states that once a subatomic particle is observed, poof, it’s altered — without alerting the sender and receiver to the dirty trick. [What’s That? Your Physics Questions Answered]

And now, according to a new letter due for publication today (Jan. 19) in the journal Physical Review Letters, quantum keys can travel via satellite, encrypting messages sent between cities thousands of miles apart.

The researchers quantum-encrypted images by encoding them as strings of numbers based on the quantum states of photons and sent them across distances of up to 4,722 miles (7,600 kilometers) between Beijing and Vienna — shattering the previous record of 251 miles (404 km), also set in China. Then, for good measure, on Sept. 29, 2017, they held a 75-minute videoconference between researchers in the two cities, also encrypted via quantum key. (This videoconference was announced previously, but the full details of the experiment were reported in this new letter.)

This long-distance quantum-key distribution is yet another achievement of the Chinese satellite Micius, which was responsible for smashing a number of quantum-networking records in 2017. Micius is a powerful photon relay and detector. Launched into low Earth orbit in 2016, it uses its fine lasers and detectors to send and receive packets of quantum information — basically, information about the quantum state of a photon — across vast stretches of space and atmosphere.

“Micius is the brightest star in the sky when it is passing over the station,” Pan wrote to Live Science. “The star is [as] green as the beacon laser [that Micius uses to aim photons at the ground]. If there is some dust in the air, you will [also] see a red light line pointing to the satellite. No sound comes from space. Maybe there are some raised by the movement of the ground station.”

Just about any time Micius does anything, it blows previous records out of the water. That’s because previous quantum networks have relied on passing photons around on the ground, using the air between buildings or fiber optic cables. And there are limits to line-of-sight on the ground, or how far a fiber-optic cable will transfer a photon without losing it.

In June 2017, Micius researchers announced that they had sent two “entangled” photons to ground stations 745 miles (1,200 km) apart. (When a pair of photons gets entangled, they affect each other even when separated by large distances.) A month later, in July, they announced that they had teleported a packet of quantum information 870 miles (1,400 km) from Tibet into orbit, meaning the quantum state of a particle had been beamed directly from a particle on the ground to its twin in space.

Both of these achievements were major steps on the road to real-world quantum-key-encrypted networks.

The new letter announces that the theory has been put into action.

Micius first encrypted two photos, a small image of the Micius satellite itself, then a photo of the early quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Then it encrypted that long video call. No similar act of quantum-key distribution has ever been achieved over that kind of distance.

Already, Pan said, Micius is ready to use to encrypt more important information.

Quantum-key distribution is essentially a creative application of the so-called Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, one of the foundational principles of quantum mechanics. As Live Science has previously reported, the uncertainty principle states that it’s impossible to fully know the quantum state of a particle — and, crucially, that in observing part of that state, a detector forever wipes out the other relevant information that particle contains.

That principle turns out to be very useful for encoding information. As the Belgian cryptographer Gilles Van Assche wrote in his 2006 book “Quantum Cryptography and Secret-Key Distillation,” a sender and receiver can use the quantum states of particles to generate strings of numbers. A computer can then use those strings to encrypt some bit of information, like a video or a text, which it then sends over a classical relay like the internet connection you’re using to read this article.

But it doesn’t send the encryption key over that relay. Instead, it sends those particles across a separate quantum network, Van Assche wrote.

In the case of Micius, that means sending photons, one at a time, through the atmosphere. The receiver can then read the quantum states of those photons to determine the quantum key and use that key to decrypt the classical message. [Album: The World’s Most Beautiful Equations]

If anyone else tried to intercept that message, though, they would leave telltale signs — missing packets of the key that never made it to the sender.

Of course, no network is perfect, especially not one based on shooting information for individual photos across miles of space. As the Micius researchers wrote, the networks typically loses 1 or 2 percent of their key on a clear day. But that’s well within what Micius and the base station can work together to edit out of the key, using some fancy mathematics. Even if an attacker did intercept and wreck a much larger chunk of the transmission, whatever they didn’t catch would still be clean — shorter, but perfectly secure enough to encrypt transmissions in a pinch. [How Quantum Entanglement Works (Infographic)]

The connection between Micius and Earth isn’t perfectly secure yet, however. As the team of Chinese and Austrian authors wrote, the flaw in the network design is the satellite itself. Right now, base stations in each linked city receive different quantum keys from the satellite, which are multiplied together and then disentangled. That system works fine, as long as the communicators trust that no secret squad of nefarious astronauts has broken into Micius itself to read the quantum key at the source. The next step toward truly perfect security, they wrote, is to distribute quantum keys from satellites via entangled photons — keys the satellites would manufacture and distribute, but never themselves be able to read.

In time, the researchers wrote, they plan to launch more quantum satellites into higher orbits — satellites that will communicate with one another and with researchers on Earth in ever-more-complex webs.

This slowly spreading, ever-more-practical quantum network will first be built for China and Europe, they wrote, “and then on a global scale.”

Originally published on Live Science.

This Week’s Strangest Science News


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This Week’s Strangest Science News

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01:1301:13
 At Live Science, we delve into science news from around the world every day — and some of those stories can get a little weird. Here are some of the strangest science news articles from this week.

Credit: Miaopai.com

A man in China buying a replacement battery for his iPhone had an explosive experience when he tested the battery by biting it. [Read more about the exploding battery]

Camels are seen during a beauty contest as part of the annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Rumah, some 160 kilometers east of Riyadh.

Camels are seen during a beauty contest as part of the annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Rumah, some 160 kilometers east of Riyadh.

Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty

Camels are seen during a beauty contest as part of the annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Rumah, some 160 kilometers east of Riyadh.
Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty

The puckered pouts of 12 camel contestants in a Saudi Arabian camel beauty contest led to the camels’ disqualification, when officials discovered that a veterinarian had injected the animals’ faces with Botox. [Read more about the chemically enhanced camels]

Rats, which live alongside people all over the world, recently gave a Parisian trash collector an unpleasant surprise.

Rats, which live alongside people all over the world, recently gave a Parisian trash collector an unpleasant surprise.

Credit: Shutterstock

Rats, which live alongside people all over the world, recently gave a Parisian trash collector an unpleasant surprise.
Credit: Shutterstock

A garbage collector got an unpleasant surprise when he opened a plastic trash bin near the banks of the Seine, and found dozens of rats swarming inside. [Read more about the rat swarm]

Many flat-Earthers believe the Earth is a disc surrounded by an ice wall.

Many flat-Earthers believe the Earth is a disc surrounded by an ice wall.

Credit: FastMotion/Shutterstock

Many flat-Earthers believe the Earth is a disc surrounded by an ice wall.
Credit: FastMotion/Shutterstock

“Mad” Mike Hughes, a flat-Earth conspiracy theorist, is revisiting a previous aborted attempt to prove the Earth is flat, by launching a homemade rocket to take photos from about 1,800 feet (550 meters) above the ground, thereby “revealing” that the planet is a flattened disc (spoiler: it’s not). [Read more about the DIY rocket launch]

Divers recently found a group of red handfish (<i>Thymichthys politus</i>), a rare and critically endangered species known only in southeastern Tasmania, Australia.

Divers recently found a group of red handfish (Thymichthys politus), a rare and critically endangered species known only in southeastern Tasmania, Australia.

Credit: Auscape/UIG/Getty

Divers recently found a group of red handfish (Thymichthys politus), a rare and critically endangered species known only in southeastern Tasmania, Australia.
Credit: Auscape/UIG/Getty

Scientists recently discovered a previously unknown population of peculiar-looking fish in waters near Tasmania, Australia. Known as “red handfish,” they have distinctive red markings, dour expressions, and can “walk” using their fins. [Read more about the red handfish]

Want more weird science news and discoveries? Check out these and other “Strange News” stories on Live Science!