Oct 31, 2014

First Afghan Fanged Deer Seen in More Than 60 Years

A fanged creature not seen in Afghanistan for more than 60 years has been spotted by a research team in the northeast part of the country.

The Kashmir musk deer was last seen in Afghanistan in 1948. But a team headed up by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) reports in the October 22 issue of the journal Oryx that it made five sightings in a range of land that included alpine meadows and steep, rocky outcrops.

The sightings featured a solitary male that was spotted three different times in the same area, as well as one female with a juvenile deer and one solitary female. The area where they were seen was scattered with dense bushes of juniper and rhododendron.

Unfortunately, the extremely skittish deer, already difficult to spot, did not remain in place long enough to be photographed, the team said.

The Kashmir musk deer is one of seven similar species in Asia and is considered endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. The deer's scent glands are a high-ticket black market item -- deer musk has been used for ages in perfume, incense, and medical applications -- and can be worth more than $20,000 per pound.

The male of the distinctive herbivores has telltale fangs used during mating season as weapons to joust for mates. For deer, they are small and a bit stocky, topping out at barely more than 2 feet tall at the shoulder.

"Musk deer are one of Afghanistan's living treasures," said Peter Zahler, co-author of the study and WCS deputy director of Asia programs. "This rare species, along with better known wildlife such as snow leopards, are the natural heritage of this struggling nation. We hope that conditions will stabilize soon to allow WCS and local partners to better evaluate conservation needs of this species."

From Discovery News

Ancient Stone Circles in Mideast Baffle Archaeologists

Huge stone circles in the Middle East have been imaged from above, revealing details of structures that have been shrouded in mystery for decades.

Archaeologists in Jordan have taken high-resolution aerial images of 11 ancient "Big Circles," all but one of which are around 400 meters (1,312 feet) in diameter. Why they are so similar is unknown but the similarity seems "too close to be a coincidence" said researcher David Kennedy.

The Big Circles (as archaeologists call them) were built with low stone walls that are no more than a few feet high. The circles originally contained no openings, and people would have had to hop over the walls in order to get inside.

Their purpose is unknown, and archaeologists are unsure when these structures were built. Analysis of the photographs, as well as artifacts found on the ground, suggest the circles date back at least 2,000 years, but they may be much older. They could even have been constructed in prehistoric times, before writing was invented, scientists say.

Though the Big Circles were first spotted by aircraft in the 1920s, little research has focused on these structures, and many scientists are not even aware of their existence, something these archaeologists hope the new aerial images will help to change.

The "most important contribution is simply to collect and make known a large group of rather remarkable sites," writes Kennedy, a professor at the University of Western Australia, in an article published recently in the journal Zeitschrift für Orient Archäologie.

In addition to the 11 photographed circles, researchers have identified another similar circle in Jordan, which appears to have been only partially completed, Kennedy noted. Old satellite imagery also reveals two circles, one in Jordan and another in Syria, which have both been destroyed. The circle in Syria was destroyed within the last decade and the one in Jordan a few decades ago. A separate research team, from Durham University, investigated the Syria circle before it was completely gone.

While there are many smaller stone circles in the Middle East, what makes these 11 Big Circles stand out is their large size and ancient age, Kennedy said.

Kennedy has been leading the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan Project (AAJ) since 1997 and also co-directs the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East (APAAME).

Building the Big Circles

The circles would not have been hard to build, Kennedy said. They were constructed mainly with local rocks, and a dozen people working hard could potentially complete a Big Circle in a week, Kennedy told Live Science in an email.

However, building the circles in a precise shape would have taken some planning. "In the case of those circles that near-precise circles, it would have required at least one person as 'architect,'" Kennedy said, adding that this architect could simply have tied a long rope to a post and walked in a circle, marking the ground as he or she moved around. "That would also explain the glitches [in the circles] where the land was uneven," as the architect wouldn't have been able to keep walking in a perfect circle at those spots.

The purpose of the Big Circles is a mystery, Kennedy said. It seems unlikely that they were originally used as corrals, as the walls were no more than a few feet high, the circles contain no structures that would have helped maintain an animal herd and there's no need for animal corrals to have such a precise shape, he said.

One of the circles contains three cairns, or rock piles, on its edges that may have been used for burial. However, Kennedy said, "my inference is that the cairns [were built] later, when the enclosure was no longer significant."

Solving the circle mystery

In order to solve the mystery, archaeologists must conduct more actual fieldwork, Kennedy said, noting that aerial images are helpful but can't replace excavation.

Archaeologists Graham Philip and Jennie Bradbury, both with Durham University in England, have examined a Big Circle they found near Homs in Syria. While the circle was "badly damaged" when the researchers found it, they completed their fieldwork before land development completely destroyed the structure.

This Big Circle was positioned in such a way that it could give someone standing inside it a "panoramic" view of a basin that would have held crops and settlements, the researchers reported in a 2010 paper in the journal Levant. This "may have played an important part in the location of the enclosure," the two archaeologists wrote in the Levant article.

Recent satellite imagery shows that the circle near Homs is now virtually destroyed, Kennedy wrote.

Read more at Discovery News

Humans Would Beat Neanderthals in Marathon

Humans, versus other great apes, are built for running fast and long as opposed to very impressive strength, but what about Neanderthals? If a modern human and a Neanderthal competed in a marathon, who would win?

In a short sprint, the Neanderthal might have had a chance, but most fit humans would always win longer races, suggests research in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Anthropologist David Raichlen of the University of Arizona and his colleagues determined that our modern human ancestors were better runners. The researchers did this by studying the hominids'fossilized remains.

Recent research suggests that the energy cost of running at a given speed is strongly related to the length of certain limb bones. The longer these bones (Achilles tendon moment arm and calcaneal tuber from the calcaneus are, the more energy it takes for the individual to run.

The scientists' measurements of such bones determined that Neanderthals were lousy at endurance and distance running when compared to modern humans. The sturdy Neanderthal bones, however, were built for long-distance walking and strength.

"Endurance running is generally thought to be beneficial for gaining access to meat in hot environments, where hominins could have used pursuit hunting to run prey taxa into hyperthermia," Raichlen and his team conclude. "We hypothesize that endurance running performance may have been reduced in Neanderthals because they lived in cold climates."

Since there is an inherent trade-off between speed and strength in species throughout the animal kingdom, it is likely that Neanderthals were built more for brawn, with humans evolving lighter, more aerodynamic bodies for running. (This doesn't take into account food consumption and other behavioral factors that can add heft.)

Read more at Discovery News

Hubble Sees the Eerie Ghosts of Long-Dead Galaxies

See that blue glow? That’s the ghostly remains of once-dazzling galaxies that have since been blended in a Cosmic grinder. It may sound like a gruesome Hallowe’en space slasher movie, but this is actually a stunning portrait of galactic evolution as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Abell 2744, or “Pandora’s Cluster,” consists of 500 galaxies over 4 billion light-years away from Earth. The stunning array of galaxies of all shapes and sizes are a sight to behold. But in this case, scientists studying this Hubble observation aren’t admiring the beautiful elegance of the spiral galaxies or arcs of light bent by gravitational lensing, they’re focused on the long-lost stars cast adrift in intergalactic space, released like tiny sparkles after an immense galactic smashup that occurred billions of years ago.

The blue glow has been detected by Hubble’s sensitive optics and represent cosmic forensic evidence of the galactic violence — it is caused by countless billions of stars that are no longer gravitationally bound to their galaxies, forever drifting alone.

“The Hubble data revealing the ghost light are important steps forward in understanding the evolution of galaxy clusters,” said Ignacio Trujillo of The Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain. “It is also amazingly beautiful in that we found the telltale glow by utilizing Hubble’s unique capabilities.” This finding has been published in the Oct. 1 edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

When Abell 2744 was forming, huge numbers of galaxies coalesced under a powerful mutual gravitational well. As each galaxy careened toward one other, intense tidal forces would have ripped some of the galaxies to shreds. Computer models have predicted that this mechanism likely occurs in large clusters of galaxies and, in the case of Abell 2744, over 200 billion stars were scattered throughout the cluster, contributing to 10 percent of the cluster’s brightness.

“The results are in good agreement with what has been predicted to happen inside massive galaxy clusters,” said lead author Mireia Montes also of the IAC.

Interestingly, Hubble wasn’t being used to study this ghostly glow. As a part of the Frontier Fields project, Hubble’s sensitive optics used large galactic clusters like Abell 2744 to study the phenomenon of gravitational lensing. The arcs of light in this observation are examples of lensing artifacts where light from galaxies behind the clusters is being warped and magnified by the cluster’s immense gravity.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 30, 2014

Does Uber-Ancient Earth Water Mean Life Started Earlier?

Just 14 million years after the start of the solar system, Earth and the rest of the inner planets were inundated with water, setting back the clock for when life could have evolved, a new study shows.

Analysis of meteorites from the mini-planet Vesta, located in the main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, show hydrogen isotope ratios that match what has been found in ancient, unaltered meteorites known as carbonaceous chrondrites.

Scientists already had a match between the chemical fingerprints of Earth’s hydrogen and the carbonaceous chrondites, but what they didn’t know is when the water would have been available to accrete into Earth.

The new analysis pushes water’s first appearance in Vesta and presumably on other rocky, planet-like bodies including Earth to just 14 million years after the start of the solar system.

“All the the planets could have gotten their water very early, which means the planets could have been habitable immediately after they formed. They weren’t just sitting there and looking at their watch, waiting for water to come,” Adam Sarafian, a geophysics doctorate student at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told Discovery News.

Water is necessary for life as we know it.

Geologic activity on Earth has destroyed the earliest records of the planet’s formation, with its oldest rocks dating back to about 200 million years after the formation of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago.

Analysis of rocks from the moon, retrieved during the 1969-1972 Apollo missions, show water was available in the inner solar system about 150 million years after the solar system’s formation.

The Vesta meteorites, known as eukrites, date back to 14 million years after the start of the solar system. Sarafian and collegues measured a mineral called apatite in the samples to determine their water content.

“This is the oldest water that anyone has measured that has accreted to something that resembles a planet,” Sarafian said.

The scientists plan additional studies on an ever rarer group of meteorites called angrites that date back to just 2 million years after the formation of the solar system.

The findings aren’t at odds with the idea that comets delivered water to Earth, said astronomer Donald Brownlee, with the University of Washington, the lead researcher in NASA’s Stardust comet sample return mission.

“The early solar system contained tens of Earth masses of materials that could be considered carbonaceous chondrites or comets -- they were the most common planetesimals in the solar nebula. Almost all of them are gone, but surely there were great numbers of comets that formed close enough to the sun to have (hydrogen isotope) ratios similar to carbonaceous chondrites and Earth,” Brownlee wrote in an email to Discovery News.

“Many people consider (comets and carbonaceous chrondites) to be quite different beasts, but I am more impressed with how similar they are to each other. Surely there was a continuum of rocks that were identical to carbonaceous chondrites and rocks (planetesimals) that contained very low temperature ices and would be considered comets,” he said.

Read more at Discovery News

How Diseases Inspired Movie Monsters

Terrifying tales of monstrous creatures such as the Wolfman, zombies, and Count Dracula originated from a poor understanding of medical maladies, according to a forensics expert.

Dracula’s appearance and behavior, for example, matches with a disorder called porphyria that affects the skin and nervous system. Symptoms include sensitivity to sunlight, insomnia, and skin redness, which might make the skin look bloody.

“In the 10th or 11th century, Romanians at the time often didn’t bury their dead in very deep graves,” Greg McDonald, director of forensic medicine at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, was quoted as saying in a press release. “Sometimes, the bodies would shift.”

“So imagine you’re a peasant,” he continued, “and you come across a body that is pale and looks like it has blood around the mouth. You might think he’d been walking around, feasting on the blood of others.”

That’s how Porphyria helped to create the myth, which took on a life of its own via oral tradition and folktales before Bram Stoker penned his famous novel “Dracula” in 1897, bringing the tale to the masses.

Observation of individuals on drugs, as well as graveyard-shifting bodies, probably contributed to the origin of zombies.

Yet another illness that took on Hollywood proportions was the still-dreaded rabies. Its symptoms of panting and foaming at the mouth helped to inspire the Wolfman, McDonald said.

Read more at Discovery News

Freaked Out Fish Grind Their Teeth and Produce Odd Noise

When in distress, a fish called the French grunt produces a jarring sound akin to fingernails-on-a-blackboard, and now a new study reveals how and why the fish do it.

The sound isn’t grunting at all — it’s produced by the fish grinding their teeth. The research, published in The Journal of Experimental Biology, demonstrates how this fish (Haemulon flavolineatum) can audibly communicate with others without a voice box.

The clever fish makes the most of its limited sound-producing anatomy.

“Sound production is probably an adaptation of the food-processing mechanism in this species,” lead author Frédéric Bertucci and colleagues from the Universities of Liège and Antwerp wrote.

The researchers recorded the calls, which are produced when the fish feels threatened. You can hear one of the fish making the sound as a fisherman grasps it.

Bertucci and his team tested French grunts’ hearing and examined high-speed X-ray movies of their heads.

All of this determined that the sound has a pitch of about 700 Hz, but that their hearing sensitivity was strongest at 300 Hz. This doesn’t mean that the fish can’t hear each other. They just don’t specifically tune into the distress calls of their own species, perhaps because the teeth grinding is a relatively new phenomenon. They also must listen for other sounds, such as prey movements.

The fish have what are known as pharyngeal jaws, meaning a second set that’s located in the throat which manipulate prey and aid in its swallowing. And now we know that these jaws have another function.

Read more at Discovery News

5 Spooky Spider Myths Busted

Just the facts, please.
Spiders: they creep, they leap, they haunt the nightmares of arachnophobic humans. But a lot of the fear surrounding spiders is based on myths, not facts, according to the experts who study these eight-legged creatures.

Did you know, for example, that the venom of most tarantulas would hardly make adult humans flinch, let alone kill them? And all those stories you've heard about spiders laying eggs inside an open wound are the stuff of urban legend, not reality.

Here are five more spider myths that irk arachnologists and spider-lovers alike.

Didn't see what bit you? It was probably a spider.

"Unquestionably, the most pernicious of all spider myths is the idea that if you didn't see what bit you, it was a spider," said Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.

Spiders are blamed for all kinds of bites, bumps, rashes and growths that they likely had nothing to do with, according to Crawford. The myth that spiders tend to bite people when they least expect it — like when they're lying in bed — has been making the rounds for well over a hundred years, but it's not clear how it got started, he said.

While it is certainly possible for spiders to bite people in bed, Crawford said this doesn't happen often. Unlike mosquitos or ticks, spiders don't feed on human blood, so they have no reason to venture near a slumbering human on purpose. And even if you were to roll on top of a spider in your sleep, it would be tough for the critter to bite you since its fangsare located underneath its body, Crawford said.

The notion that spider bites are extremely common is also a potentially dangerous myth. Several conditions that are wrongly labeled as spider bites — particularly skin infections and skin cancer — are actually much more serious than spider bites and require immediate medical attention, Crawford said.

Spiders are Insects.

Spiders are not insects, even though both spiders and insects belong to the same phylum (Arthropoda). In fact, spiders and insects are members of different classes: Spiders belong to the class Arachnida, while insects belong to the class Insecta. This means that spiders and other arachnids are as far removed from insects as birds are from fish, Crawford said.

To distinguish a spider from an insect, you can start by counting how many pairs of legs it has, Crawford said. Spiders have four pairs, whereas insects have three. A spider also has two main body parts — the cephalothorax at the front (the legs are attached to this part of the body) and the abdomen in the rear. Insects have three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen.

Misidentifying spiders as insects can be more than just a harmless mistake.

"It leads indirectly to a lot of environmental pollution because it results in unnecessary pesticide use," Crawford said. Pest control companies often use insecticides to kill off the spiders inside a house, but these chemicals aren't formulated to kill spiders and so they don't typically work, he added. Instead of insecticides, sticky traps can be a more effective way to rid your home of eight-legged creatures.

If you see a spider in your house, you should put it back outside.

You may think you're being kind by putting a spider you find in the bathroom sink outside on the lawn, but this isn't necessarily the case. Putting a house spider outside is a little like "freeing" a lion that has spent its whole life inside a zoo: the odds that it'll survive a return to its "native habitat" aren't very good.

This is because most of the spiders found in homes — about 95 percent — have adapted to life indoors, according to Crawford. While spiders may wander into your home from outside every once in a while, this isn't the norm. Spiders found indoors likely belong to a small number of species, dubbed house spiders, that have been living with humans since at least the days of the Roman Empire, Crawford said.

In Seattle, for example, there are approximately 137 species of spiders that live outdoors and there are approximately 25 known species of house spiders. Only eight of those species, however, can survive both inside a house and outside in the garden, Crawford said.

So what should you do when you see a spider in your house? Crawford suggests leaving the critter alone, but if that's not your style, he recommends trying to keep spiders out of certain areas of your home where you'd rather not run into them, such as the bedroom. Seal any gaps in floorboards, cracks in walls or other holes or crevices through which the spiders may access these spaces, Crawford said.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 29, 2014

New Frog Species Discovered in NYC

New York City is the most populous city in the United States, and yet a newly discovered frog species living there has gone unnoticed until recently.

The Manhattan-dwelling amphibian is the leopard frog Rana kauffeldi, which is described in the latest issue of PLOS ONE. The frog looks suitably fashionable, with its distinctive leopard-print skin in shades of brown and green.

"The discovery of a new frog species from the urban Northeast is truly remarkable and completes a journey that began six years ago with a simple frog call in the wilds of New York City," researcher Jeremy Feinberg from Rutgers University was quoted as a saying in a press release.

Feinberg and his team, familiar with frog calls, wondered, "What the heck is that?" when they first heard the call, which consists of a short, repetitive croak. The calls of other leopard frogs have been described as sounding like a "long snore" or even a human, throaty laugh.

The scientists traced the call to the leopard frog. DNA testing revealed that it was a previously undocumented species.

The researchers believe that, in addition to NYC, the frog exists in other parts of New York, as well as in coastal lowland regions from Connecticut to northeastern North Carolina. This video, produced shortly after Feinberg and his team began to investigate the mysterious NYC frog, shows more about leopard frogs in the U.S. and where they are found.

The frog favors "open-canopied wetlands interspersed with upland patches," but it's also seen in muddy NYC puddles, including around Yankee Stadium. The frog's fashionable skin serves as the perfect camouflage, perhaps explaining how a busy New Yorker could walk right by the cleverly nature-disguised amphibian without even noticing it.

Read more at Discovery News

Koala Chlamydia Vaccine Successful in Early Tests

Australian scientists said Wednesday they have successfully tested a vaccine against chlamydia in wild koalas, in what they believe is a breakthrough in combating the sexually-transmitted disease ravaging the native marsupial.

The much-loved furry animal has been under increasing threat, with the government classifying it as a vulnerable species amid a plunge in population numbers from habitat loss, disease and other factors.

Microbiologists from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland hope to be able to protect some of the remaining population after successfully trialling a chlamydia vaccine that they spent five years developing.

"It's all very promising and it's not just that it's doing the right thing from an immune response point of view, but it's actually protecting a significant number of them out in the wild climbing around trees," professor Peter Timms told AFP of the field trial, believed to be the first of its kind.

Chlamydia can lead to blindness, infertility and death among koalas. The risk of infertility also exacerbates the impact of other factors that are already reducing population levels.

Thought to number in excess of 10 million before British settlers arrived in 1788, there are now believed to be as few as 43,000 koalas left in the wild, though their existence high in the treetops makes them difficult to count.

In the trial, microbiologists Timms and Adam Polkinghorne gave 30 koalas the vaccine while 30 others were left unvaccinated against the disease, which is endemic in some koala populations.

All 60 koalas were fitted with radio collars so they could be monitored in their natural habitat at Moreton Bay north of Brisbane.

Of the 30 vaccinated, some were healthy, some were already infected with chlamydia, and some were showing signs of the disease, typically eye infections and reproductive tract infections.

For the trial, seven out of eight koalas suffering from eye infections who received the vaccine showed an improvement. In the unvaccinated group, four of the six koalas with eye infections saw their conditions worsen.

The researchers also found that koalas infected with the chlamydia strain who were then vaccinated did not go on to develop the full-blown disease.

"In the unvaccinated group, three of the animals have already got the disease, but in the vaccinated group, none of them got the disease," Timms said.

Read more at Discovery News