A planet outside our solar system is losing its atmosphere, which is dissipating into a giant cloud, a study said.

GJ 436b is so close to its parent star — 33 times as close as the Earth is to the sun — that its atmosphere is evaporating, creating a large cloud around the planet, said David Ehrenreich, an astrophysicist at the University of Geneva and one of the study’s authors.

“What we see is the planet kind of turning into an enormous monster much bigger than its star,” Ehrenreich said.

The star is much fainter than our sun, and the evaporating gases are not swept away. Instead, the star “allows the huge cloud to gather,” Ehrenreich said. He and his colleagues reported their findings in the journal Nature.

The researchers analyzed ultraviolet observations of the exoplanet, 33 light years from Earth and the approximate mass of Neptune. The planet orbits a small red dwarf star in the constellation Leo. As the planet loses mass, the cloud of hydrogen atoms continues to grow. Stellar radiation has given the cloud a long tail — 9 million miles — trailing the planet. The discovery could help scientists learn more about the rocky, Earth-size planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.


Birds shed light on language

Move over, parrots. There’s another bird with some impressive “language” skills: the chestnut-crowned babbler. Scientists have discovered that the social birds can rearrange meaningless sounds in their calls to form meaningful messages.

The findings, described in the journal PLOS Biology, may shed light on how the features of human language came to be. “Our results indicate that the capacity to rearrange meaningless sounds in order to create new signals occurs outside of humans,” the authors wrote, and could hint at “a potential early step toward the generative phonemic system of human language.”

One of the fundamental abilities that sets humans apart from other animals is language — the ability to string meaningless sounds together to communicate complex ideas to one another.


How your cat wants to be pet

How should you pet your cat? It’s a question that’s stumped pet owners for centuries, but science now has an answer. Here’s what a team of researchers from the University of Lincoln in the UK found:

Cats do not like being stroked at the base of their tail — at least, that was the case for most of the 54 cats in this study, and another, smaller study. That’s sort of a cat erogenous zone, and petting may overstimulate it, the team said.

The cats’ favorite place to be pet: Their faces, especially around their lips, chins and cheeks, where they have scent glands. It doesn’t seem to matter what order you pet the parts of your cat. That suggests that cats see petting as akin to grooming, which happens haphazardly between two friendly cats, rather than allorubbing, which always goes from tip to tail.


Lovebirds can turn heads

Lovebirds can rotate their heads up to 2,700 degrees a second, researchers report in the journal PLOS One. The speedy rotations allow for improved sight and reduced blur as they fly through dense forest environments.

After recording the birds in high-speed videos, researchers at Stanford University and elsewhere found that lovebirds turned their heads at the moment their wings covered their eyes, minimizing the time that their vision was obscured. The researchers hope the study will inspire camera rotation design in drones.

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