Apr 1, 2015

Dinosaur 'Romeo and Juliet' Found Buried Together

A dinosaur couple that appears to have died together after wooing each other has been identified in remains unearthed at the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.

The dino couple, named Romeo and Juliet since they are reminiscent of Shakespeare's famous doomed lovers, were entombed together for over 75 million years, according to a new study in the journal Scientific Reports.

Key to the research was figuring out the sex of the dinosaurs.

"Determining a dinosaur's gender is really hard," lead author Scott Persons said in a press release. "Because soft anatomy seldom fossilizes, a dinosaur fossil usually provides no direct evidence of whether it was a male or a female."

Persons, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta, and his team compared the remains of the bird-like dinosaurs, which were oviraptors (avian-resembling two-legged predators), with the anatomy of modern birds.

The researchers found evidence that the dinosaurs sported long feathers on the ends of their tails. The feathers were not suitable for flight, so they must have served some other purpose.

"Our theory," explained Persons, "was that these large feather-fans were used for the same purpose as the feather fans of many modern ground birds, like turkeys, peacocks, and prairie chickens: they were used to enhance courtship displays. My analysis of the tail skeletons supported this theory, because the skeletons showed adaptations for both high tail flexibility and enlarged tail musculature — both traits that would have helped an oviraptor to flaunt its tail fan in a mating dance."

Taking their analysis a step further, the research team discovered that one of the two dinosaurs had larger, specially shaped tailbones. The differences were expected, and match that of some male versus female birds today. They provide strong evidence for sexual dimorphism, meaning distinct differences in the size or appearance between the sexes of an animal.

Read more at Discovery News

Scholars' Remains Found Under Cambridge University

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of hundreds of medieval scholars, all fallen upon hard times, on a site that is now a Cambridge College.

Containing more than 1,000 people, the large graveyard was discovered three years ago beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College during refurbishment of the Victorian building. Details of the finding have only now been made public.

A report published in the current issue of the Archaeological Journal reveals that 400 perfectly preserved human skeletons were uncovered, along with the disarticulated and fragmentary remains of up to 1,000 more individuals.

“It’s one of the largest medieval hospital osteoarcheological assemblages from the British Isles,” dig director Craig Cessford, from the university’s department of archaeology and anthropology, said.

Mostly dating from the 13th to 15th centuries, the remains lay in burials belonging to the Hospital of St John the Evangelist. The building, from which St John’s College takes its name, stood opposite the graveyard until 1511 and was established to care for “poor scholars and other wretched persons.”

“Pregnant women, lepers, the wounded, cripples and the insane were all specifically excludedfrom its care,” Cessford wrote.

People were laid to rest without coffins, and even without shrouds, confirming the cemetery was mainly for the poor. Jewellery and personal items, including a crucifix, were only present in a handful of burials.

“Items were found in graves that might represent grave-goods, but their positions were ambiguous and it is equally possible that they represent residual material from earlier activity at the site,” Cessford said.

Anthropological examinations of the remains revealed there was a roughly equal gender balance, with the majority of individuals having died between around 25 and 45 years old.

The archaeologists also noted the complete absence of infants, normally expected in a medieval hospital, and a relative lack of remains of young women, which can be explained by the Hospital’s Augustinian ordinance from 1250 to exclude pregnant women from its care.

Some of the skeletons also did not fit their graves.

“This suggests that some, but not all of the graves may have been dug in advance of being needed,” Cessford wrote in the Archaeological Journal.

Read more at Discovery News

Human Ancestor Lucy Wasn't Alone: Meet 'Little Foot'

A mysterious ancient relative of humanity known as Little Foot apparently roamed the Earth at about the same time as the famed Lucy, suggesting the ancestors of humans may have existed with significant diversity across a good part of Africa, researchers say.

This finding comes from evidence suggesting the mysterious human relative was buried some 3.7 billion years ago, more recently than thought. This new date may one day help shed light on which region and which species gave rise to humanity, scientists added.

Among the earliest known relatives of the human lineage definitely known to walk upright was Australopithecus afarensis, the species that included the famed 3.2-million-year-old Lucy. Australopithecines are the leading candidates for direct ancestors of humans, living about 2.9 million to 4.1 million years ago. (The human lineage, Homo, is thought to have originated about 2 million years ago.)

While Australopithecus afarensis dwelled in eastern Africa, another australopithecine nicknamed Little Foot, due to the diminutive nature of the bones, lived in southern Africa. Discovered about 20 years ago by paleoanthropologist Ronald Clarke from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, Little Foot apparently fell down a narrow shaft in the Sterkfontein Caves. This left behind a nearly complete skeleton that could yield key insights on human evolution.

Lucy's friends

It remains debated what kind of australopithecine Little Foot was. Many scientists think Little Foot was a member of Australopithecus africanus, which had a rounder skull housing a larger brain and smaller teeth than did Lucy and the rest of Australopithecus afarensis. However, Clarke and others suggest Little Foot belonged to another australopithecine known as Australopithecus prometheus, which had a longer, flatter face and larger cheek teeth than Australopithecus africanus.

It was impossible to fit Little Foot into the human family tree with any certainty because "ever since its discovery, the age of Little Foot has been debated," said lead study author Darryl Granger, a geochronologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. If researchers can figure out when Little Foot arose, they might be able to better pinpoint which Australopithecus species and which part of Africa ultimately gave rise to Homo.

Now, Granger and his colleagues have found evidence that Little Foot lived at about the same time as Lucy. Even so, the fossil doesn't give a definitive answer on Little Foot's species.

"The most important implication from dating Little Foot is that we now know that australopithecines were in South Africa early in their evolution," Granger told Live Science. "This implies an evolutionary connection between South Africa and East Africa prior to the age of Little Foot, and with enough time for the australopithecine species to diverge."

This in turn suggests that other australopithecines — and, later, humans — "did not all have to have derived from Australopithecus afarensis," Clarke told Live Science. "There could well have been many species of Australopithecus extending over a much wider area of Africa."

Dating Little Foot

The researchers first tried dating the age of Little Foot more than a decade ago "and got an age of around 4 million years, which would place Little Foot among the oldest of the australopithecines," Granger said.

However, dating the age of fossils in caves is extraordinarily complicated because material can wash into a cave from the outside and easily confound analysis. When others dated the age of minerals known as flowstones near Little Foot, they found those cave formations originated about 2.2 million years ago. "I was disappointed, but I could see nothing wrong with their ages," Granger said.

But a recent study found these nearby flowstones did not reflect Little Foot's age because they were not part of the same layer of rock that held the fossils and therefore did not form at the same time. In the new analysis, Granger and his colleagues pinpointed the fossil's age by measuring levels of aluminum and beryllium isotopes in quartz in the same rock layer as the skeleton.

The researchers also found that the earliest stone tools in the same cave date back to about 2.2 million years ago. This is a similar age to early stone tools found elsewhere in eastern and southern Africa. "This implies a connection between South African and East African hominids that occurred soon after the appearance of stone tools," Granger said.

Read more at Discovery News

Secret Recipe Book for Cooking Jupiters Revealed

When it comes to making planets as big as Jupiter, Mother Nature has kept her recipe secret. But scientists believe they have finally cracked the mystery.

The conundrum centered on how the cores of planets as far away from the sun as Jupiter and Saturn had time to wrap themselves in giant blankets of gas, rather than migrate inward at an early stage, stifling their growth.

The trick, new computer simulations show, is heat released by the planetary embryos themselves, triggering tidal forces in the surrounding gas and dust that offset the sun’s gravitational pull.

Previous computer models didn't take tidal effects into consideration, astronomer Frederic Masset, with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

That idea stemmed from a realization that similar processes drive the migration of stars in compact regions at the center of galaxies.

“A few years ago, after I gave a seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, I was asked by one of the researchers in the audience whether the luminosity of the stars in an AGN (Active Galactic Nuclei) could alter their migration.

“I initially thought that this would have no effect, but I realized afterward that tiny asymmetries in the heated disk in the immediate vicinity of the planet (or star, in an AGN) could potentially have huge effects on the tidal force. This is why I eventually decided to investigate the role that the heating due to planetesimal bombardment could have on planetary migration,” Masset said.

The research brings computer models closer to explaining what is observed in the solar system and a roadmap for understanding planetary development around other stars.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 31, 2015

Lamb in Russia Born with Human-Like Face

In a village in the Russian republic of Dagestan, a lamb was born with distinctly human-like qualities, the Daily Mail reported.

Video of the animal (see below) shows an eerily human-contoured face, with a prominent nose, broad mouth, and a chin Jay Leno might admire.

The lamb was born in the village of Chirka and belongs to a 45-year-old farmer named Blasius Lavrentiev. He expressed some dismay at what he assumed were dim prospects for selling the lamb, but the Irish Mirror reported that he was offered a high price -- well above market value -- for it from a circus.

A veterinarian in the village attributed the deformity to an excess of Vitamin A in the mother's diet, the Irish Mirror reported.

According to the site, Lavrentiev said: "Whatever has caused it she’s a little beauty and I definitely won’t be selling her for anyone’s dinner table either as the buyers want her on display."

From Discovery News

LHC is Fixed, Restarting Awesome Physics Quest in Days

Good news for all you high-energy physics fans: the problem electrical short at one of the Large Hadron Collider’s electromagnets has been fixed, clearing the way for protons to begin zooming around the 17 mile ring as early as this weekend.

After a two year hiatus for a significant power upgrade, it was hoped that the LHC would start circulating particle beams last week. Unfortunately, an electrical short delayed the restart, prompting fears that the delay could suspend operations for weeks or even months while a solution was found.

But after troubleshooting the issue, a small piece of metal debris was found in a diode box — a component of the electromagnet’s safety system — triggering a short with the magnet’s power supply. The debris originated from the upgrade work.

According to Nature News, on Monday, engineers sent an electrical discharge through the problem circuit, burning away the metal debris.

“It’s a bit like deliberately blowing a fuse,” said Paul Collier, head of beams at CERN.

Today, after tests, engineers report that the fix has worked and now the short has cleared. There’s some more work that needs to be done before they can re-power the circuit again, but things are looking up. “We hope to be ready to take beam sometime during the weekend,” added Collier.

Sending an electrical discharge through the problem circuit prevented the need to to warm up the cryogenic magnet and cool it back down again to 1.9 Kelvin (just above absolute zero) after the debris was manually removed. Such a procedure would have caused a lengthy delay.

Now we can start getting (re-)excited for the grand restart, kicking off the second run of the biggest and most powerful particle accelerator on the planet.

Run 2 will see proton beams blasting around the LHC at an energy of 6.5 TeV — providing collision energies of a whopping 13 TeV, nearly double the collision energy of the LHC’s first run. We are about to cross the threshold into a new regime for physics where there are high hopes for answering some of the biggest mysteries in modern science, including the origin of dark matter and the possibility of micro-black holes.

Read more at Discovery News

Bad Memories: Mars Rover Suffers More Amnesia Events

Although engineers identified the problem and applied a software fix for Opportunity’s “amnesia events,” the aging NASA mars rover has again been afflicted with further memory issues.

“We changed how the rover uses flash memory in an attempt to correct problems the rover had been experiencing,” said John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., in a news release “Although we are a little disappointed at the occurrence of an amnesia event only five days after reformatting, we are not surprised. There is still no clear understanding of what is causing the problems. Only time will tell if we have been successful in mitigating the most serious flash problems.”

The problem was thought to be centered around one of the seven memory banks in Opportunity’s flash memory — the rover’s on board “hard drive” of sorts, where data can be stored even if the rover is powered down. Rather than being lost, mission telemetry can be stored when the rover is switched off to preserve battery life during the Martian nights.

But late last year, the rover would “forget” valuable data, caused by a corrupt flash data bank. As a consequence, random resets would occur throughout the day. This was hindering the mission’s progress, prompting mission engineers to adopt a “no-flash mode” where Opportunity would avoid use of its flash memory, instead temporarily storing data to its volatile memory and regularly transmitting the data back to Earth before downtime.

Like the RAM on your PC or Mac, the volatile memory only provides temporary storage of data, becoming wiped when the rover powers down.

After uploading new software to avoid the use of the 7th flash memory bank, on March 20, engineers reformatted Opportunity’s memory. Although the rover isn’t currently exhibiting some of the worst symptoms associated with the amnesia, it appears that its memory problems are far from over.

From Discovery News

Cassini Reveals Rhea in Eye-Catching Color

You’re not seeing double; these are two images of the same world: icy, cratered Rhea, the second-largest natural satellite of Saturn. Made from images captured by the Cassini spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera on Feb. 9 (with a few fillers from the wide-angle cam) these are high-def, hyper-color composite views of a battered moon that to our eyes would otherwise look mostly gray and white.

The left image shows Rhea (that’s pronounced REE-ah) from a distance of about 51,200 to 46,600 miles (82,100–74,600 km) and the right is a bit closer, made of images captured from about 36,000 to 32,100 miles (57,900–51,700 km). The entire image was assembled by Heike Rosenberg and Tilmann Denk at Freie Universit├Ąt in Berlin, Germany.

The images were acquired during T-109, a targeted flyby of Titan.

Rhea is Saturn’s second-largest moon after Titan, but at 950 miles (1,530 km) across Rhea is less than a third of its larger sibling’s diameter. Its high reflectivity is a result of being mainly composed of water ice, which is harder than rock at Rhea’s frigid surface temperatures of -300 degrees Fahrenheit (-185 degrees Celsius).

Rhea is also extensively fractured and cratered. In fact it’s one of the most — if not the most — heavily-cratered worlds in the entire solar system, a hallmark of an extremely ancient surface.

Launched in Oct. 1997, the joint U.S./European Cassini mission arrived at Saturn in June 2004. It has explored the ringed planet and its incredibly varied system of rings and moons like no other mission before, contributing immensely to our understanding of not only Saturn but our entire solar system… and even the galaxy.

But Cassini won’t last forever. Over the next two and a half years the spacecraft will exhaust its last reserves of fuel and, in order to avoid any unwanted collision with Saturn’s moons, will go out in a blaze of glory with a final dive inside the rings and into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Before that happens Cassini will continue its exploration of Saturn’s moons, making a few more passes this year of Titan, Dione, and Enceladus — the latter of which we now know (thanks to Cassini) almost certainly possesses a deep subsurface ocean of salty liquid water.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 30, 2015

Gecko Skin Is Surprisingly Un-Sticky

Geckos may have the ability to stick to walls, but it seems that not much sticks to them.

The skin of the box-patterned gecko (Lucasium sp.) is able to prevent the adhesion of everything from household liquids to dirt and bacteria, according to new research. The skin also exhibited self-cleaning properties.

This discovery may have important implications for the design of medical implants, self-cleaning hospital surfaces and even water filters.

"Gecko skin is very thin -- only a few microns deep -- and they live in a hostile environment where bacteria can flourish, so we wondered what other protective measures the skin might confer," says Dr Greg Watson from the University of the Sunshine Coast, one of the leaders of the international team who undertook the research.

They found that the skin of the gecko consists of dome-shaped scales that are made up of super-tiny spinules -- or hairs -- ranging in size from several hundred nanometres to several microns in length.

When the researchers tested the skin's response to a range of contaminants such as pollen and dust, they found that they just didn't stick.

"The skin's topography provides a super-hydrophobic, anti-wetting layer that allows droplets as small as those found in fog to roll and even jump off the peaks and through the valleys in the skin, taking dirt, pollen and other contaminants with them," Watson explains.

Their study is published in Acta Biomaterialia.

Box-patterned geckos are found in the semi-arid Mingela Ranges in Western Queensland.

"The geckos are small, which means they have a high surface area to volume ratio, that is they have a lot of skin relative to their body mass," Watson says.

Watson and team also found that gecko skin shares many of the same structural properties as cicada wings, which are known to repel water and contaminants.

When the researchers placed Porphyromonas gingivalis, the bacteria that causes gingivtus and periodontal disease, on the gecko skin they found that most were killed within less than a day, without any application of chemicals.

Watson says that while they are not certain of what killed the bacteria, it is possible that they were impaled on the skin's spiny surface.

"However when human stem cells (from tooth pulp) were applied to the skin surface, they grew happily."

He says that stem cells are much larger than bacteria, which may explain why they were able to withstand the impact of the spines.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Egyptian Beer-Making Vessels Found in Israel

Fragments of pottery used by Egyptians to make beer and dating back 5,000 years have been discovered on a building site in Tel Aviv, the Israeli Antiquities Authority said.

Excavation director Diego Barkan said 17 pits were found that had been used to store produce in the Early Bronze Age, from 3500 to 3000 BC.

"Among the hundreds of pottery sherds that characterize the local culture, a number of fragments of large ceramic basins were discovered that were made in an Egyptian tradition and were used to prepare beer," he said in a statement.

The excavation is the first to offer evidence of an "Egyptian occupation" in the center of Tel Aviv 5,000 years ago.

"This is also the northernmost evidence we have of an Egyptian presence in the early Bronze Age," he said.

According to the antiquities authority "beer was the Egyptian national drink and was a staple along with bread."

It said beer was consumed by the entire population of Egypt, regardless of age, gender or status.

"It was made from a mixture of barley and water that was partially baked and then left to ferment in the sun. Various fruit concentrates were added to this mixture in order to flavor the beer," the statement added.

Previous excavations carried out in Egypt's Delta region uncovered breweries that indicate beer was already being produced in the mid-fourth millennium BC, the Israeli authority said.

From Discovery News