Sep 2, 2015

King Cobra, Python Tangle in Singapore Street Fight

Students on campus at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University got a firsthand look at what happens when big, dangerous snakes clash. This being the Internet era, they also documented it on video.

Channel News Asia reported on a half-hour battle between a king cobra and a python, just off the curb of a busy street on the university's grounds.

Students told Channel News Asia that the python seemed to have been winning, having gotten a constricting grip on the cobra's head. But, as shown about half-way through the video clip above, the cobra somehow wriggled free and headed off for a nearby wooded area.

University pest control staff members were able to bag the python unharmed, but the cobra initially evaded capture. Hours later, though, the cobra was lured out of a storm drain and also captured in a bag.

Read more at Discovery News

Animal Without Organs Digests Food on Its Body

Eating without having internal organs would seem to pose incredible challenges, but the marine animal Trichoplax has solved this challenge by digesting meals on top of its body, a new study finds.

The discovery, reported in the journal PLOS ONE, demonstrates that lack of neurons, muscles and bodily organs does not necessarily mean a creature is lacking in complex behaviors.

"Despite having only six cell types and lacking synapses, Trichoplax coordinates a complex sequence of behaviors culminating in external digestion of algae," lead author Carolyn Smith of the National Institutes of Health, and her colleagues Natalia Pivovarova and Thomas Reese wrote.

German zoologist Franz Eilhard Schulze first discovered Trichoplax in 1883. He noticed it moving along the walls of a seawater aquarium at the Zoological Institute in Graz, Austria. He described the small creature as resembling a hairy plate.

Since then, the species has been found all over the place: in the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, off Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, Japan, Vietnam, Brazil, and Papua New Guinea, and on the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia, just to name a few locations.

It's since been determined that Trichoplax, defined as a marine metazoan, has just six cell types. Humans, in contrast, have about 200.

Using high tech electron microscopy and cell imaging, Smith and her team observed Trichoplax and its behaviors. They noted that the creature has cilia, which are minute, hair-like structures that line certain cells and beat in rhythmic waves. This helps the disk-resembling animal move.

Food, however, stops it in its tracks.

"When Trichoplax glides over a patch of algae," the researchers explained, "its cilia stop beating so it ceases moving."

A subset of one of the animal's cell types, lipophils, then secretes granules that break down the algae.

Read more at Discovery News

New Species of Ancient 'River' Dolphin Lived in the Ocean

The fossilized remains of a new species of ancient river dolphin that lived at least 5.8 million years ago have been found in Panama, and the discovery could shed light on the evolutionary history of these freshwater mammals.

Researchers found half a skull, a lower jaw with an almost complete set of conical teeth, a right shoulder blade and two small bones from a flipper. The fossils are estimated to be between 5.8 million and 6.1 million years old, making them from the late Miocene epoch, researchers said in a new study.

The ancient river dolphin, named Isthminia panamensis, was calculated to be more than 9 feet (2.7 meters) long, according to the study.

The ancient mammal was discovered on the Caribbean coast of Panama, at the same site where other marine animal fossils have been found, which suggests that I. panamensiswas also a saltwater species, the researchers said.

I. panamensis is the only fossil of a river dolphin known from the Caribbean, the researchers said in the study.

"We discovered this new fossil in marine rocks, and many of the features of its skull and jaws point to it having been a marine inhabitant, like modern oceanic dolphins," study lead author Nicholas Pyenson, a curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

But despite dwelling in the salty waters of the Caribbean Sea, I. panamensis is actually more closely related to modern-day freshwater river dolphins, the researchers said. In fact, "Isthminia is actually the closest relative of the living Amazon river dolphin," study co-author Aaron O'Dea, a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, said in a statement.

Only four species of river dolphins exist today (although one, the Yangtze river dolphin, is now likely extinct), all living in freshwater or coastal ecosystems. All of these river dolphins moved from marine to freshwater habitats, developing broad, paddlelike flippers; flexible necks; and heads with particularly long, narrow snouts as they evolved, according to the study. These adaptations allowed the river dolphins to better navigate and hunt in winding, silty rivers, the researchers said.

"Many other iconic freshwater species in the Amazon — such as manatees, turtles and stingrays — have marine ancestors, but until now, the fossil record of river dolphins in this basin has not revealed much about their marine ancestry," Pyenson said. "[I. panamensis] now gives us a clear boundary in geologic time for understanding when this lineage invaded Amazonia."

Read more at Discovery News

Green Slime in Antarctica Offers Window into the Past

A thin layer of bright green slime at the bottom of an Antarctic lake is giving scientists a glimpse at life on Earth 2.4 billion years ago, according to new research from the University of California, Davis.

The bacteria found in the slime produces a millimeter-thick layer of concentrated oxygen at deep depths that are otherwise devoid of oxygen, or anoxic. These so-called “oxygen oases” reflect a time before photosynthesis was widespread, when oxygen was not yet abundant in Earth’s atmosphere.

Instead, the element was found mainly in small, localized pockets that were produced by a select few organisms — similar to the handful of microbes can survive in harsh Antarctic lakes.

“The thought is, that the lakes and rivers were anoxic, but there was light available, and little bits of oxygen could accumulate in the mats,” UC-Davis professor Dawn Sumner explains in a news release.

That all changed approximately 2.5 billion years ago, however, when evolving bacteria began to photosynthesize. The newly capable organisms introduced oxygen throughout the planet, an event that has since been dubbed the Great Oxidation Event.

The rest, of course, is history!

From Discovery News

Fly With New Horizons During Stunning Pluto Encounter

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made history when it zipped past Pluto and its system of moons during a hair-raising encounter on July 14, coming within 7,800 miles of the dwarf planet’s surface.

Now, the mission team has stitched together the observations made by the probe during its historic flyby, creating a stunning high-resolution view of what it looks like to barrel through the Kuiper Belt at 31,000 miles per hour:

Captured in the video is the long approach to Pluto and its moons, the wonderful high-resolution global view of Pluto during closest approach, and then the ring of scattered sunlight as Pluto blocks the sun from view as a stunning eclipse.

As discussed by research scientist Stuart Robbins, at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who created this flyby video, to make the animation more cinematically appealing, he had to tweak the timescale between frames.

“The final product goes from one second of movie time equaling 30 hours at the beginning and end, to one second of movie time equaling 30 minutes for the closest-approach section,” writes Robbins in a blog post. The approach to Pluto occurred over a long period, whereas the point of close approach was gone in a flash, so Robbins basically hit the slow-mo button when New Horizons buzzed the dwarf plant’s surface, but sped up the footage when the spacecraft was far away.

Read more at Discovery News

Sep 1, 2015

5-Foot-Long Spider Relative Found In Iowa

A human-sized prehistoric relative of spiders has just been discovered in northeastern Iowa, according to a new study.

The previously unknown species of sea scorpion, Pentecopterus decorahensis, was named after an ancient Greek warship, the penteconter, and is described in the latest issue of the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

“The new species is incredibly bizarre,” lead author James Lamsdell of Yale University said in a press release. “The shape of the paddle — the leg which it would use to swim — is unique, as is the shape of the head. It’s also big!”

Lamsdell and his colleagues excavated more than 150 fossil fragments from the ancient predator, which lived 460 million years ago, long before the first dinosaurs emerged. The site itself is noteworthy, as the fossils were entombed in thick shale located within an ancient meteorite impact crater that today is mostly submerged by the Upper Iowa River.

“Perhaps most surprising is the fantastic way it is preserved,” Lamsdell said. “The exoskeleton is compressed on the rock but can be peeled off and studied under a microscope. This shows an amazing amount of detail, such as the patterns of small hairs on the legs. At times it seems like you are studying the shed skin of a modern animal — an incredibly exciting opportunity for any paleontologist.”

He and his colleagues believe that Pentecopterus was a eurypterid (sea scorpion), which refers to a group of extinct animals related to today’s spiders, scorpions, mites and ticks. This particular species is the world’s oldest known sea scorpion.

Although the animal lived so long ago, its remains provide clues on how it lived. The structure of its rear limb paddles suggests that it used them for either swimming or digging. Since its second and third pairs of limbs seem to have angled forward, the scientists suspect that they were involved primarily in prey capture.

Its three rearmost pairs of limbs are shorter than its front pairs. This indicates that it might have walked on six legs instead of eight. The rear limbs were also covered in setae (stiff bristles), similar to what covers some modern crabs. They probably expanded the surface area of the paddles during swimming, and could have also helped the sea scorpion to feel its way around, similar to whiskers on a cat.

Huaibao Liu of the Iowa Geological Survey and the University of Iowa led the fossil dig and is a co-author of the paper.

Read more at Discovery News

Titanic's Last Lunch Menu Up for Auction

Before the RMS Titanic plunged into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, passengers aboard the storied passenger ship may have feasted on corned beef, potted shrimp and dumplings, according to an unusual artifact from the doomed ship — a lunch menu dated April 14, 1912, the day before the tragic sinking.

The menu, along with several other items from the Titanic’s final days afloat, will be put up for auction Sept. 30 in New York City. The crumpled menu is expected to sell for at least $50,000, according to Lion Heart Autographs, the online auction house handling the sale.

First-class passenger Abraham Lincoln Salomon salvaged the creased and tattered carte du jour, which was tucked inside his pocket when the ship went down on April 15, 1912. Salomon was one of just 12 people who dodged death by boarding the infamous Lifeboat No. 1 or “Money Boat” (although, in total, about 700 of the ship’s 2,223 passengers and crewmembers survived).

The large lifeboat, which could have held 40 people, was nicknamed for the five wealthy passengers it carried to safety, as well as for the widely held belief that those passengers paid the only other people onboard the boat — seven Titanic crewmembers — to row away from the sinking ship instead of taking on any more survivors.

In addition to the battered menu, Salomon saved a small ticket from the Titanic’s Turkish baths weighing chair, a custom chair that recorded a sitter’s weight. Inscribed on the ticket are the names of three of the passengers who accompanied Salomon on the lifeboat — Miss Laura Mabel Francatelli, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon and Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon. The tiny ticket is expected to fetch as much as $10,000 at auction.

The final “Money Boat” artifact to be auctioned off is a letter sent by Francatelli, who was an employee of fashion designer Lady Duff-Gordon, to Salomon, dated six months after the Titanic’s sinking. The letter reads:

“We do hope you have now quite recovered from the terrible experience. I am afraid our nerves are still bad, as we had such trouble & anxiety added to our already awful experience by the very unjust inquiry when we arrived in London.”

Written on stationary from the upscale Plaza Hotel in New York City, the letter could sell for upward of $4,000, according to Lion Heart Autographs.

In addition to the unusual Titanic memorabilia, the auction will feature a number of other interesting items related to important events in history.

For example, a stack of 170 letters written by Aldrich Ames — the former CIA operative convicted in 1994 for serving as a double agent for the Soviet Union — tells an interesting tale of the inner workings of the CIA, as well as life imprisonment. There is also a letter written by Albert Einstein in April 1938 that was sent to a man named John Stone of St. Petersburg, Florida, in which the Nobel Prize-winning physicist advises Stone against a career in mathematics.

Read more at Discovery News

Fragments of World's Oldest Koran May Predate Muhammad

British scholars have suggested that fragments of the world's oldest known Koran, which were discovered last month, may predate the accepted founding date of Islam by the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

The Times of London reported that radiocarbon dating carried out by experts at the University of Oxford says the fragments were produced between the years 568 A.D. and 645 A.D. Muhammad is generally believed to have lived between 570 A.D. and 632 A.D. The man known to Muslims as The Prophet is thought to have founded Islam sometime after 610 A.D., with the first Muslim community established at Medina, in present-day Saudi Arabia, in 622 A.D.

"This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran's genesis, like that Muhammad and his early followers used a text that was already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda, rather than Muhammad receiving a revelation from heaven," Keith Small of Oxford's Bodleian Library told the Times.

The two sheets of Islam's holy book were discovered in a library at the University of Birmingham in England, where they had been mistakenly bound in a Koran dating to the seventh century. They were part of a collection of 3,000 Middle Eastern texts gathered in Iraq in the 1920s.

Muslims scholars have disputed the idea that the Birmingham Koran predates Muhammad, with Mustafa Shah of the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies telling the Times: "If anything, the manuscript has consolidated traditional accounts of the Koran's origins."

The first known formal text of the Koran was not assembled until 653 A.D. on the orders of Uthman, the third caliph, or leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad's death. Before that, however, fragments of the work had circulated through oral tradition, though parts of the work had also been written down on stones, leaves, parchment and bones. The fragments of the Birmingham Koran were written on either sheepskin or goatskin.

Read more at Discovery News

Mysterious 2,000-Year-Old Podium Found in Jerusalem

A mysterious pyramid-shaped flight of stairs dating to the time of Jesus, has been unearthed in ancient Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced.

Made from large ashlar — or finely cut — stones, the 2,000-year-old stepped structure leads to a podium.

The puzzling staircase was found alongside a stepped street that once led Jewish pilgrims from the rock cut Pool of Siloama on the southern slope of the City of David to the Second Temple which stood atop the Temple Mount.

Consisting of enormous stone slabs, the street was built sometime in the fourth decade of the 1st century A.D. and was one of the largest construction projects undertaken in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period.

The Second temple era, running from 538 B.C. to 70 A.D., refers to the lifetime of the temple built by King Herod the Great to replace the First Temple, razed by the Babylonians around 587 B.C.

In 70 A.D., the Second Temple also vanished as the Romans sacked the city and plundered Herod’s magnificent white and gold temple. Then they paraded the treasure, which also helped finance the building of the Colosseum, through the streets of Rome in triumph.

Archaeologists do not know yet what the pyramid-shaped staircase was used for. Rabbinic texts refer to stone platforms used for auctions or as “Stone of Claims” to find lost belongings, but nothing like that structure has been found in Jerusalem or elsewhere in ancient Israel.

“Given the lack of a clear archaeological parallel to the stepped-structure, the purpose of the staircase remains a mystery,” archaeologists Nahshon Szanton and Joe Uziel said in a statement.

Read more at Discovery News

Yearlong Mock Mars Mission to Test Mental Toll of Isolation

On Friday (Aug. 28), six scientists left the comforts of civilization, set to be gone for an entire year. Their mission will simulate what it might be like for astronauts journeying to Mars.

In the confines of a 36-foot-wide (11 meters) and 20-foot-high (6 m) solar-powered dome in a remote location on the island of Hawaii, the six team members will have to live together for 365 days. They will have no face-to-face contact with humans outside of the dome. This is the fourth and longest such mission carried out by the Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program, and its goal is to find out how people will respond to the isolation that might accompany a mission to Mars.

“We hope that this upcoming mission will build on our current understanding of the social and psychological factors involved in long-duration space exploration,” Kim Binsted, principal investigator for HI-SEAS, said in a statement from the University of Hawaii.

The HI-SEAS project, which is based at University of Hawaii at Manoa, has put crews into the isolated mock Mars colony in four previous missions: two 4-month missions in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and an eight-month mission that ended in June 2015. During those previous trips, the crewmembers were allowed to leave the dome in spacesuits, occasionally engaging in outdoor activities like golfing, but mostly to do research in the local environment, the way members of a real Mars crew would.
MD2: settled into quarters. #domelife #hiseas #montana pic.twitter.com/MUWJJTTl9a — Carmel Johnston (@_CarmelJohnston) August 31, 2015

The team has a yearlong supply of food and water. The cuisine, which the team must be able to store for months at a time, is similar to what astronauts eat. Team member Sheyna Gifford tweeted on Saturday (Aug. 29) a picture of a quesadilla, with some peas and corn. She wrote, “First dinner in simulated space: The cheese & turkey quesadilla & all the veggies were all dehydrated 30 min. ago.”

The HI-SEAS habitat features a downstairs area with a lab, a kitchen, a common workspace, an exercise area, a dining room and a bathroom. Upstairs are six small bedrooms and a bathroom.

The current mission will “focus on crewmember cohesion and performance,” the statement said. “HI-SEAS researchers are working to develop effective team composition and support strategies to allow crews to successfully travel to Mars and back, an estimated three-year journey.”

Researchers will monitor the six crewmembers throughout the mission via cameras, body-movement trackers and other methods. Back in the real world, the researchers will gather data on “a wide range of cognitive, social and emotional factors that may impact team performance,” according to the statement.

Read more at Discovery News