Feb 7, 2016

Walking on water: Researchers unravel science of skipping spheres

A high-speed camera captured this image of an elastic sphere bouncing off the water surface in a tank.
It takes a perfect flick of the wrist and just the right angle to get a disk-shaped stone to skip across the surface of the water multiple times. So why is it so easy to get such impressive water-skipping performance from an elastic ball with only a mediocre launch?

Researchers at Utah State University's College of Engineering say they have some answers that may offer new insight into water impact physics -- an important area of study in naval applications and maritime and ocean engineering.

In collaboration with scientists at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I., and Brown University, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Tadd Truscott and his associates at USU's Splash Lab have unraveled the physics of how elastic spheres bounce on water more easily than rigid ones. Truscott and his collaborators published their findings in the latest edition of Nature Communications -- an online open access interdisciplinary journal.

The team uses high-speed cameras to capture images of elastic spheres bouncing across tanks of water in a laboratory. They found that elastic spheres skip along the water surface by deforming into an ideal disk-like geometry that resembles a stone one might find near the shore. Due to the sphere's deformed shape, the water exerts a larger lifting force on elastic spheres than stones.

Truscott's study not only reveals the physics of how elastic spheres interact with water, but also predicts how many skips will occur. In addition, the team found that elastic spheres can bounce off the water surface from much higher impact angles compared to rigid spheres -- a big clue into why these elastic objects are much easier to skip.

Skipping objects along the water surface has a wide range of applications from simple aquatic toys, to naval operations like the WWII-era Wallis Bomb, or the water-walking locomotion of the Basilisk lizard.

Truscott's setup may look like fun and games, but behind the scenes he and his team are conducting highly technical research with funding from the U.S. Navy. His work could help make inflatable boats and other soft-hull vessels safer for passengers and, on a more playful note, improve the design of water toys.

One such toy, the Water Bouncing Ball, or Waboba for short, was the inspiration for this study.

"Our approach was playful at first," said Truscott. "My son and nephew wanted to see the impact of the elastic spheres in slow motion, so that was also part of the initial motivation. We simply wondered why these toys skip so well. In general, I have always found that childish curiosity often leads to profound discovery."

Truscott's findings have various applications. Not only do they explain the physics of water bouncing balls, they also establish a framework for designers to tune elastic objects for better performance.

Read more at Science Daily

Bee virus spread is humanmade, driven by European honeybee populations

Varroa on pupa.
The spread of a disease that is decimating global bee populations is humanmade, and driven by European honeybee populations, new research has concluded.

A study led by the University of Exeter and UC Berkeley and published in the journal Science found that the European honeybee Apis mellifera is overwhelmingly the source of cases of the Deformed Wing Virus infecting hives worldwide. The finding suggests that the pandemic is humanmade rather than naturally occurring, with human trade and transportation of bees for crop pollination driving the spread.

Although separately they are not major threats to bee populations, when the Varroa mite carries the disease, the combination is deadly, and has wiped out millions of honeybees over recent decades. Varroa feed on bee larvae while the Deformed Wing Virus kills off bees, a devastating double blow to colonies. The situation is adding to fears over the future of global bee populations, with major implications for biodiversity, agricultural biosecurity, global economies, and human health.

The study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and supported by a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship. It involved collaborators from the universities of Sheffield, Cambridge, Salford and California, as well as ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

Lead author Dr Lena Wilfert, of the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation, on the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, said: "This is the first study to conclude that Europe is the backbone of the global spread of the bee killing combination of Deformed Wing Virus and Varroa. This demonstrates that the spread of this combination is largely humanmade -- if the spread was naturally occurring, we would expect to see transmission between countries that are close to each other, but we found that, for example, the New Zealand virus population originated in Europe. This significantly strengthens the theory that human transportation of bees is responsible for the spread of this devastating disease. We must now maintain strict limits on the movement of bees, whether they are known to carry Varroa or not. It's also really important that beekeepers at all levels take steps to control Varroa in their hives, as this viral disease can also affect wild pollinators."

Researchers analysed sequence data of Deformed Wing Virus samples across the globe from honeybees and Varroa mites, as well as the occurrence of Varroa. They used the information to reconstruct the spread of Deformed Wing Virus and found that the epidemic largely spread from Europe to North America, Australia and New Zealand. They found some two-way movement between Europe and Asia, but none between Asia and Australasia, despite their closer proximity. The team also looked at samples from other species suspected of transmitting the disease, including different species of honeybee, mite and bumblebees, but concluded that the European honeybee was the key transmitter.

Professor Roger Butlin, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Sheffield, said: "Our study has found that the deformed wing virus is a major threat to honeybee populations across the world and this epidemic has been driven by the trade and movement of honeybee colonies.

"Domesticated honeybee colonies are hugely important for our agriculture systems, but this study shows the risks of moving animals and plants around the world. The consequences can be devastating, both for domestic animals and for wildlife. The risk of introducing viruses or other pathogens is just one of many potential dangers."

Read more at Science Daily

Feb 6, 2016

'Cannibalism' between stars

This is a Simulation of a gravitationally unstable circumstellar disk by means of hydrodynamic calculations. Protoplanetary 'embryo' form in the disc thanks to gravitational fragmentation. The three small pictures show the successive 'disappearance' of the lump by the star.
Stars are born inside a rotating cloud of interstellar gas and dust, which contracts to stellar densities thanks to its own gravity. Before finding itself on the star, however, most of the cloud lands onto a circumstellar disk forming around the star owing to conservation of angular momentum. The manner in which the material is transported through the disk onto the star, causing the star to grow in mass, has recently become a major research topic in astrophysics.

It turned out that stars may not accumulate their final mass steadily, as was previously thought, but in a series of violent events manifesting themselves as sharp stellar brightening. The young FU Orionis star in the constellation of Orion is the prototype example, which showed an increase in brightness by a factor of 250 over a time period of just one year, staying in this high-luminosity state now for almost a century.

One possible mechanism that can explain these brightening events was put forward 10 years ago by Eduard Vorobyov, now working at the Astrophysical Department of the Vienna University, in collaboration with Shantanu Basu from the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

According to their theory, stellar brightening can be caused by fragmentation due to gravitational instabilities in massive gaseous disks surrounding young stars, followed by migration of dense gaseous clumps onto the star. Like the process of throwing logs into a fireplace, these episodes of clump consumption release excess energy which causes the young star to brighten by a factor of hundreds to thousands. During each episode, the star is consuming the equivalent of one Earth mass every ten days. After this, it may take another several thousand years before another event occurs.

Eduard Vorobyov describes the process of clump formation in circumstellar disks followed by their migration onto the star as "cannibalism on astronomical scales." These clumps could have matured into giant planets such as Jupiter, but instead they were swallowed by the parental star. This invokes an interesting analogy with the Greek mythology, wherein Cronus, the leader of the first generation of Titans, ate up his newborn children (though failing to gobble up Zeus, who finally brought death upon his father).

With the advent of advanced observational instruments, such as SUBARU 8.2 meter optical-infrared telescope installed in Mauna Kea (Hawaii), it has become possible for the first time to test the model predictions. Using high-resolution, adaptive optics observations in the polarized light, an international group of astronomers led by Hauyu Liu from European Space Observatory (Garching, Germany) has verified the presence of the key features associated with the disk fragmentation model -- large-scale arms and arcs surrounding four young stars undergoing luminous outbursts, including the prototype FU Orionis star itself. The results of this study were accepted for publication in Science Advances -- a peer-review, open-access journal belonging to the Science publishing group.

Read more at Science Daily

Apollo 14 Astronaut Edgar Mitchell Dead at 85

US astronaut Edgar Mitchell, one of just 12 people to have walked on the moon, has died aged 85, his family and NASA said Friday, calling him a "pioneer."

NASA paid glowing tribute to Mitchell, who died in Florida after a brief illness late Thursday, the eve of the 45th anniversary of his lunar landing.

The late astronaut was a member of the 1971 Apollo 14 mission along with Alan Shepard Jr. and Stuart Roosa.

Mitchell was the last Apollo 14 survivor: Roosa died in 1994 and Shepard in 1998.

Speaking in a 1997 interview for NASA's oral history program, Mitchell said that he was drawn to spaceflight after president John F. Kennedy's call to send astronauts to the Moon.

"That's what I wanted because it was the bear going over the mountain to see what he could see, and what could you learn, and I've been devoted to that, to exploration, education and discovery since my earliest years, and that's what kept me going," Mitchell said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recalled Mitchell marveling at the stunning view of Earth from space.

"Edgar spoke poetically about seeing our home planet from the Moon saying, 'Suddenly, from behind the rim of the Moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery.

"'It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth... home.’"

Bolden added: "He is one of the pioneers in space exploration on whose shoulders we now stand."

Buzz Aldrin, the second person on the Moon, echoed that on Twitter, calling Mitchell a "lunar pioneer."

The Apollo 14 mission -- Mitchell's only spaceflight -- began when the trio blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 31, 1971.

Mitchell was in charge of piloting the Antares lunar module, which landed in the Fra Mauro region of the Moon.

It was the third manned mission to the Moon and Mitchell became the sixth human to walk on the lunar surface.

During the mission the astronauts collected 100 pounds (40 kilos) of lunar rock samples and carried out a series of experiments.

The mission ended when the astronauts, traveling aboard a space capsule, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on February 9, 1971.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 5, 2016

DNA evidence uncovers major upheaval in Europe near end of last Ice Age

DNA evidence lifted from the ancient bones and teeth of people who lived in Europe from the Late Pleistocene to the early Holocene -- spanning almost 30,000 years of European prehistory -- has offered some surprises, according to researchers who report their findings in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on Feb. 4, 2016. Perhaps most notably, the evidence shows a major shift in the population around 14,500 years ago, during a period of severe climatic instability.

"We uncovered a completely unknown chapter of human history: a major population turnover in Europe at the end of the last Ice Age," says leading author Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

The researchers pieced this missing history together by reconstructing the mitochondrial genomes of 35 hunter-gatherer individuals who lived in Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, and Romania from 35,000 to 7,000 years ago. Mitochondria are organelles within cells that carry their own DNA and can be used to infer patterns of maternal ancestry.

"There has been a real lack of genetic data from this time period, so consequently we knew very little about the population structure or dynamics of the first modern humans in Europe," Krause says.

The new data show that the mitochondrial DNA of three individuals who lived in present-day Belgium and France before the coldest period in the last Ice Age -- the Last Glacial Maximum -- belonged to haplogroup M. This is remarkable because the M haplogroup is effectively absent in modern Europeans but is extremely common in modern Asian, Australasian, and Native American populations.

The absence of the M haplogroup and its presence in other parts of the world had previously led to the argument that non-African people dispersed on multiple occasions to spread across Eurasia and Australasia. The researchers say the discovery of this maternal lineage in Europe in the ancient past now suggests instead that all non-Africans dispersed rapidly from a single population, at a time they place around 50,000 years ago. Then, at some later stage, the M haplogroup was apparently lost from Europe.

"When the Last Glacial Maximum began around 25,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer populations retreated south to a number of putative refugia, and the consequent genetic bottleneck probably resulted in the loss of this haplogroup," explains first author of the study Cosimo Posth of Germany's University of Tübingen.

The researchers say their biggest surprise, however, was evidence of a major turnover of the population in Europe around 14,500 years ago, as the climate began to warm. "Our model suggests that during this period of climatic upheaval, the descendants of the hunter-gatherers who survived through the Last Glacial Maximum were largely replaced by a population from another source," says Adam Powell, another senior author at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

Read more at Science Daily

Johnny Cash Tarantula One of 14 New Spiders

Fourteen new species of tarantula have just been discovered in the southwestern U.S., including one named after the popular late singer-songwriter Johnny Cash.

The newfound spiders double the number of known tarantula species from the region, according to a study published in the journal ZooKeys.

“We often hear about how new species are being discovered from remote corners of the earth, but what is remarkable is that these spiders are in our own backyard,” Chris Hamilton, lead author of the study, said in a press release. “With the earth in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, it is astonishing how little we know about our planet’s biodiversity, even for charismatic groups such as tarantulas.”

Hamilton, a researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and his team spent more than a decade searching for tarantulas throughout scorching deserts, frigid mountains, and other locations in the American Southwest, sometimes literally in the backyards of homeowners. The scientists also looked at specimens in museums.

Overall, the researchers studied nearly 3,000 specimens, undertaking what they say is the most comprehensive taxonomic study ever performed on a group of tarantulas.

Many of the leggy spiders look alike, so the researchers had to employ a combination of anatomical, behavioral, distributional, and genetic data to tell the different species apart from one another.

The results indicate there are 29 tarantula species in the United States, 14 of which are new to science. All belong to the genus Aphonopelma, but sizes can widely vary. Some reach 6 inches or more in leg span, while others are about the size of a quarter.

Johnny Cash the tarantula (Aphonopelma johnnycashi) was found near Folsom Prison, the subject of singer Cash’s song “Folsom Prison Blues.” The music star’s nickname, based on his distinctive dressing style, was the “man in black,” which led to another connection with his namesake spider. Mature males of the species are generally solid black in coloration.

Most of the newly discovered species are abundant and have relatively large distributions, but others have highly restricted distributions and could require conservation efforts to save them.

“Two of the new species are confined to single mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona, one of the United States’ biodiversity hotspots,” explained co-author Brent Hendrixson. “These fragile habitats are threatened by increased urbanization, recreation, and climate change. There is also some concern that these spiders will become popular in the pet trade due to their rarity, so we need to consider the impact that collectors may have on populations as well.”

Read more at Discovery News

No, the Ancient Greeks Didn't Have Laptops

The Internet loves conspiracy theories. Last December, silly claims that archaeologists in Austria unearthed a clay tablet with a cuneiform writing perfectly resembling a modern-day mobile phone went viral.

Now it’s time for another crazy theory.

Reports this week have resurrected a 2014 video from the YouTube channel “Still Speaking Out” which maintains that a modern-day laptop, complete with USB ports, is depicted on an ancient Greek grave marker.

Paranormal fans and conspiracy theorists went nuts: this is could be proof of time travel. The laptop would link in with none other than the Oracle of Delphi, they claimed.

“When I look at the sculpture I can’t help but think about the Oracle of Delphi, which was supposed to allow the priests to connect with the gods to retrieve advanced information and various aspects,” StillSpeakingOut said in the video.

Currently on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., the marble carving is titled “Grave Naiskos of an Enthroned Woman with an Attendant” and dates to about 100 B.C.

The relief, which is a little over 37 inches tall, depicts a woman sitting on a cushioned throne while a servant girl holds open a small box.

According to the museum, the rectangular object held by the servant is “the lid of a shallow chest.”

“The depiction of the deceased reaching out for an item held by a servant has a long history in Greek funerary art and probably alludes to the hope of continuing earthly pleasures in the afterlife,” the museum stated.

The dead woman must have come from a wealthy family, as revealed by the snake-bracelets on her upper and lower arms and the elaborate chair showing a leg decorated with lions’ paws and an eagle arm-support.

As for the young attendant, her clothes and hairstyle indicate she was a slave.

But according to StillSpeakingOut the earthly pleasures the deceased woman hoped to continue in the afterlife included the laptop she appears to reach toward, her eyes focused on the screen.

He noted that another picture taken by a random tourist from a better angle reveals the object is wide with a structure too narrow to be a jewel box.

“The claim is ridiculous as it is clearly a box,” classical archaeologist Dorothy Lobel King told Discovery News.

According to Janet Burnett Grossman, author of “Greek Funerary Sculpture: Catalogue of the Collections at the Getty Villa,” the relief was formerly in the collection of British statesman Sir William Fitzmaurice Petty, second Earl of Shelburne and first Marquess of Lansdowne, and most likely came from the Greek island of Delos.

Burnett Grossman described the woman in the relief as reaching out to touch “the lid of an open flat box or mirror held by a girl standing in front of her.”

Read more at Discovery News

The Mystery of Solenodon, the Mammal That Bites Like a Snake

You’re a mammal, so pat yourself on the back—no, not you, lizard people from outer space posing as high-ranking members of the US government. Mammals have got it made: Fur to keep you warm, milk to nourish your young, relatively big brains to keep you not dumb.

What you don’t have, though, is a venomous bite … unless you are in fact a lizard person from outer space. Or, better yet, a mysterious mammal called the solenodon. They’re one of just a handful of mammals with venom glands that deliver a powerful toxin. But wait, there’s more: The solenodon’s nose has a ball-and-socket joint like the human hip, making it crazy flexible. And a lady solenodon’s teats are … oddly placed. Let’s just leave it at that for now.

If you find yourself in the forests of Cuba or Hispaniola, take a deep breath. It might smell kind of like a goat: musky, earthy, maybe a bit like wet dog, definitely pungent. Now look at your feet. You might find strange conical holes in the dirt, with scratch marks ringing the edges.

Chances are you’re not far behind the aromatic wonder that is the solenodon. Foraging typically at night, it jams its long, highly mobile ball-and-socket schnoz into the soil to root around for invertebrates, things like worms and insects. Its many sensitive whiskers help it feel around the dirt, which is just as well because the solenodon ain’t got much going on in the eyesight department.

“They’ve got tiny little eyes and they don’t seem to have particularly good vision, although they’re really sensitive to light,” says ecologist Joe Nunez-Mino. While not many solenodons live in captivity, the ones Nunez-Mino has come across run like hell if you switch a light on. Clearly, this is an animal most comfortable dancing in the dark.

But should you be lucky enough to bump into a solenodon in the wild, you’re in for a treat. Mildly put, this is a singular mammal. It’s about as big as a large rat with a tail to match. (Looks kind of like a Rodent of Unusual Size, don’t it?) It’s got long, sharp nails and ambles with a wobbly, I’m-just-coming-off-anesthesia gait. Females with their young are particularly awkward. “The teats are sort of in the armpit of the rear legs, and sometimes the females will kind of run around dragging the babies,” Nunez-Mino says.

An adult solenodon at right with a juvenile at left. Between them are rocks of indeterminate age.
All laughing at the expense of the solenodon aside, please no touchy this animal if you happen to find one. Not just because solenodon is endangered, but because it has a venomous bite, an extreme rarity for a mammal. (Shrews have a venomous bite too, and male platypuses have venomous spurs on their hind legs, though the males only use these to fight each other.) Sitting underneath the solenodon’s lower incisors are salivary glands that send venom along grooves in its teeth. All the solenodon has to do is break the victim’s skin—or cuticle, in the case of insects—for the venom to get in there and work its magic.

From the few reports of human envenomations, it sounds like the experience is no picnic. Symptoms are similar to a snake bite, including localized swelling and severe pain, perhaps lasting several days. (Ask your doctor if solenodon venom is right for you!)

If you’re lucky, though, you’ll get what’s known as a dry bite—that is, the critter will nip you without producing venom. And that makes good sense from an energy perspective. Snakes know what’s up here: “Snakes quite often will bite and not inject venom because using venom is actually quite wasteful unless you really have to,” says Nunez-Mino.

Check out the solenodon’s tiny eyes. It’s pretty much the Howard Moon of the forest.
Even if you do get a dose of solenodon venom, you’re getting off easy. The venom incapacitates other victims like lizards, and in laboratory tests, scientists dosed mice with the venom and recorded breathing problems, convulsions, and paralysis. And the solenodon doesn’t stop at prey smaller than it. “There’s one report of a solenodon kept in captivity in London that ate an entire chicken,” says molecular biologist Rodrigo Ligabue Braun of Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. “He bit a chicken and then ate all the parts he wanted.”

If the also-venomous shrews are any indication, the solenodon may not always be killing and consuming its prey outright. Shrews will often bite and incapacitate their victims, then drag them to their dens and come back later and gnaw on the comatose things. The solenodon may well do the same. (Oh relax—it’s not that bad in the grand scheme of things. The tarantula hawk is a wasp that stings, well, tarantulas, then drags them back to a den for its larva to devour it alive over the course of several weeks.)

Now the why. Why would the solenodon evolve venomousness while pretty much every mammal on Earth gets along fine without it? Well, it may not be the case of the solenodon evolving venomousness, as much as other mammals losing it.

Mammals have it made right now. But for tens of millions of years, puny little mammals spent the bulk of their time running away from dinosaurs. Many ancient mammals may have enlisted venom so they could better defend themselves.

But the game changed big time when the dinosaurs died out. “From an evolutionary point of view,” says Braun, “you’d be expending too much of your resources producing venom in an environment that did not have the same kind of prey or predators that it had before.” So it might have made sense for mammal lineages to evolve away from venomousness.

For whatever reason, though, solenodon held onto it. Indeed, solenodon is a truly ancient mammal, having diverged some 76 million years ago—not long (in evolutionary time, that is) before the dinos met their match in the form of an asteroid punching Earth right in the face. (Braun notes, though, that debate still swirls around the evolution of venom in mammals. It may be that venomousness was rare in early mammals, as it is today, and solenodon has just always been an oddity.)

While venom can land solenodon a meal and protect it from its natural enemies, it won’t do a lick of good against humans. Habitat destruction on Cuba and Hispaniola has hit the solenodon hard. Add to that the invasive species that humans have brought along and you’ve got a massacre.

Dogs in particular are a problem on Hispaniola, “although we’ve also recorded or heard of cases where the solenodon has bitten a dog and the dog has died from presumably the venom,” Nunez-Mino says. Feral cats, too, aren’t just a potential executioner, but competition: The felines target the lizards and large insects and such that the solenodon relies on to survive.

Read more at Wired Science

Feb 4, 2016

Prehistoric 'Jurassic Butterfly' Fossils Found in China

Scientists have discovered an insect that went extinct for more than 120 million years and featured many of the traits associated with modern butterflies including markings on the wing called eye spots.

Known as Kalligrammatid lacewings, paleobotanists for the past century have known they lived in Eurasia during the Mesozoic. But it’s taken recent discoveries of well-preserved fossils from two sites in northeastern China to demonstrate how similar they were to modern butterflies. Thanks to extensive lakes that limited oxygen exposure in these areas during mid-Jurassic through early Cretaceous time, paleontologists have been able to recover exquisitely preserved fossils that retain much of their original structure.

“Poor preservation of lacewing fossils had always stymied attempts to conduct a detailed morphological and ecological examination of the kalligrammatid,” Indiana University’s David Dilcher, who was part of the team that made the discovery published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, said in a statement. “Upon examining these new fossils, however, we’ve unraveled a surprisingly wide array of physical and ecological similarities between the fossil species and modern butterflies, which shared a common ancestor 320 million years ago.”

Dilcher, who also discovered the first flower last year, found that this insect from the Jurassic period survived in a manner similar their modern sister insects by visiting plants with “flower-like” reproductive organs producing nectar and pollen. They probably used their long tongues to probe nectar deep within the plant and also possessed hairy legs that allowed for carrying pollen from the male flower-like reproductive organs of one plant to the flower-like female reproductive organs of another.

Eventually, this system of pollination by long-tongued lacewings traveling between plants with exposed reproductive parts -  called gymnosperms – gave way to more familiar system of insect pollinators and modern flowers, or angiosperms, in which the reproductive parts of the plants are contained with a protective seed.

This butterfly-like behavior is striking considering that modern butterflies didn’t appear on Earth for another 50 million years.

It is an example of what scientists call convergent evolution where two distantly related animals develop similar characteristics independently. In this case, the butterfly-like insect is an extinct “lacewing” of the genus kalligrammatid called Oregramma illecebrosa. Another genus of this insect – of the order Neuroptera – live on today and are commonly known as fishflies, owlflies or snakeflies.

“Here, we’ve got coevolution of plants with these animals due to their feeding behavior, and we’ve got coevolution of the lacewings and their predators,” Dilcher said. It’s building a web of life that is more and more complex.”

The researchers, which also included Conrad Labandeira, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, and Dong Ren of Capital Normal University in Beijing, China, where the fossils are housed, found that the Kalligrammatid lacewings probably were important pollinators during mid-Mesozoic times.

“Various features of the mouthparts all indicate that these things were sucking fluids from the reproductive structures of gymnosperm plants,” Labandeira said in a statement, of a finding that was confirmed by an analysis of material lingering within the food tube of one fossil, which was found to contain only carbon. Had the insect been feeding on blood, its final meal would have left traces of iron.

Researchers were also able to find the presence of scales on wings and mouthparts, which, like the scales on modern butterflies, likely contained pigments that gave the insects vibrant colors. Based on similarities between Kalligrammatid wing patterns and those found on modern nymphalid butterflies (a group that includes red admirals and painted ladies), Labandeira said Kalligrammatids might have been decorated with red or orange hues.

From there, researchers did a chemical composition of various regions of the Kalligrammatid’s patterned wings including the eyespots. In modern butterflies with eyespots such as the modern owl butterfly, the dark center of the mark is formed by a concentration of the pigment melanin. It seems the Kalligrammatids, too, had melanin at the center of their eyespots.

Read more at Discovery News

Brainless, Eyeless Deep-Sea 'Flatworm' Finally Identified

Four new species of deep-sea flatwormlike animals that look like deflated whoopee cushions and lack complex organs have helped solve a complicated puzzle about their group’s placement on the tree of life, scientists found.

The new study, representing 12 years of specimen collection and analysis, adds the new species to a group previously known by only a single species, and in doing so, provides a clearer picture of the evolutionary position these animals hold.

When describing the physical characteristics of these baggy marine creatures, “simple” doesn’t begin to do justice to how simple they are, as animals go. They have no recognizable face or limbs. Their bodies are blobs that look more like empty socks than animals, and are wrinkled by muscular folds and propelled by cilia. A mouth opening at one end leads to a gut sack, but there is no anal opening in the back end. They have no digestive system, no excretory system, no reproductive organs, but they probably don’t worry about that too much because they don’t have brains, either — just a neural network.

Surface appearances aside, this genus — Xenoturbella — has proved surprisingly difficult to position on the tree of life, ever since the first species, Xenoturbella bocki, was discovered in 1950, according to the study researchers. Scientists first classified it as a flatworm, and then, in the 1990s, suggested that it was a type of mollusk that had “degenerated,” losing its more developed features over time to reach a simpler form. This explanation placed Xenoturbella closer to vertebrates andechinoderms — the group of marine life that includes starfish and sea urchins — rather than in an earlier evolutionary location on a more distant branch from these more complex animals.

But new genetic data, with more than 1,000 genes sequenced from just one of the new species, disproves that Xenoturbellawas once complex, according to study lead author Greg Rouse, a marine biologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California at San Diego. “Our new analysis and that of another paper in the same issue of Nature using much more data overturns this idea, and supports the idea that Xenoturbella is simple,” Rouse told Live Science in an email. “Sequencing more than 1,000 genes of one of the species gave a large amount of data that could be directly compared with other animals,” he said.

The new species — X. hollanduram, X. monstrosa, X. profunda, and X. churro (named after the fried-dough dessert)—were found in diverse and remote deep-sea locations off the coasts of California and Mexico, the deepest of which, where X. produnda hugged the seafloor, was a hydrothermal vent 12,139 feet (3,700 meters) below the surface of the Gulf of California. The biggest species, X. monstrosa, measured 8 inches (20 centimeters) long, while tiny X. hollandorum was a mere 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in length.

Read more at Discovery News