Apr 27, 2015

This T. rex-Like Dino Was Vegetarian

A seven-year-old boy has just discovered a new dinosaur that was closely related to notorious carnivore Tyrannosaurus rex, but surprisingly ate a meat-free diet.

The 145-million-year-old dinosaur, Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, has been nicknamed "The Platypus" because of its extremely bizarre anatomy that was a mish-mash of features associated with huge carnivores, gigantic herbivores and nearly everything in between. It is described in the latest issue of the journal Nature.

The lifestyle of "The Platypus" contrasted with that of its relative, T. rex, which could likely rip the head off of other animals with a single bite.

"Chilesaurus probably fed upon ferns, araucarians, bennetitaleans, and podocarps -- all of which were plants that were abundant at the end of the Jurassic," lead author Fernando Novas of the Bernardino Rivadavia Natural Sciences Museum in Buenos Aires told Discovery News.

Diego Suárez, the son of two of Novas' co-authors, Rita de la Cruz and Manuel Suárez, stumbled upon the fossils of Chilesaurus while he and his sister Macarena were looking for decorative stones at the Toqui Formation in Aysén, south of Chilean Patagonia.

The researchers explored the area further and excavated even more fossils. At first they thought the bones belonged to multiple species, but they found four complete Chilesaurus skeletons, providing strong evidence that the combination of unique anatomical features belonged to a single species.

The dinosaur grew up to 10 feet long and was a member of the typically two-legged theropod group of dinos that included some of the world's most iconic meat eaters, such as Velociraptor and Carnotaurus, in addition to Tyrannosaurus.

Instead of chomping into meat, Chilesaurus could munch on plants either by directly accessing them via its long neck or by stuffing them into its horny-beaked mouth with its short T-rex-resembling forelimbs. Its leaf-shaped teeth could then chew the plant materials into a swallow-ready mass.

Novas and his team believe that the earliest theropods started off as carnivores before some evolved towards an all-plant diet. Chilesaurus wasn't the only such herbivore. Limusaurus also veered toward veggies, probably due to ecological pressures and because plants were likely abundant in its environment.

Other animals in Chilesaurus' ecosystem included small, meat-eating crocodiles and extremely large plant-eating dinosaurs, such as 50-foot-long Diplodocus.

While some theropod dinosaurs evolved into birds, Chilesaurus and its related plant-eating dino relatives experienced another fate.

"Theropods that evolved into herbivores finally went extinct without leaving descendants that switched into carnivores again," Novas said.

Read more at Discovery News

8-Limbed Baby Touted as Reincarnated Indian God

A baby born in India with a parasitic twin last week is being touted as a god. Some locals believe he is the reincarnation of the Hindu deity Ganesha who has multiple arms and an elephant head.

As news spread about this as-yet unnamed boy, the faithful have begun making their way across India to see and revere the infant.

Ganesha is associated with success and good fortune, making him one of the most widely-worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon. In fact the child’s resemblance to Ganesha is somewhat tenuous; the elephant-headed god has six limbs, not eight, and is typically depicted with four arms and two legs, while the boy has four arms and four legs.

Nonetheless the similarity is close enough, and this is not the first time that an eight-limbed baby has been claimed as a reincarnated Hindu god; in fact it happened as recently as November 2014.

Just last month a girl was born with a facial deformity that resembled a small elephant trunk, leading some to call her “Ganesha’s Wife” and suggest that she, too, is divine.

The “Times of India” reported that local interest in seeing the girl created such a frenzy that peace officers “had to arrive at the locality to keep the crowd under control. One of the officers said they wanted to ensure there were no casualties. ‘The house is small and has a staircase leading to the newborn baby’s room. We wanted to make sure that people don’t rush in at the same time,’ he said. Back in the small room where the baby lay, people formed a queue for the ‘Devi Darshan.” Sixty year-old Omvati, the baby’s grandmother, is excited like the rest. She says she’s never seen so many people jostling with each other to enter her house.”

The baby’s father, a vegetable seller who earns less than $5 per day, was delighted with the birth defect and said he hoped that the child would bring him good luck.

For most Indian children the deformity is anything but a sign of providence; a story on the “Medical Daily” web site noted that the defect was likely the result of chemical contamination: Doctors say the deformity “is most likely triggered by a gene mutation from malnutrition and heavy pollution levels in the area.”

Though modern medicine can explain the deformity, the idea that such a baby may be holy is ancient. In fact in Medieval times children born with deformities were often believed to have been “touched by God” and thus partially divine.

Cultural Explanations for Birth Defects

For most of human history (and long before genetics were understood) birth defects were blamed either on the gods or on the mother. The most common belief was that physical deformities, ranging from extra arms and legs to unusual or prominent birthmarks, were caused by the emotional state of the mother during pregnancy. This notion, fueled in part by the sexist stereotype of the emotionally fragile nature of the “weaker sex,” held that anything that startled or frightened a pregnant woman could be imprinted on her fetus. These “maternal impressions,” as they were called, could take many forms but were most often associated with animal encounters.

Jan Bondeson, author of “A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities,” notes that if an expectant mother “saw a duck, the child might be born with webbed hands and feet; if she was frightened by a snake, the baby might have staring eyes and a flickering tongue; if she kicked a pig, the child might speak in grunts through its nose…The belief in maternal impressions is of great antiquity; it has been traced to ancient India and China, as well as to early African and Asian folklore, to the old Japanese and to the Eskimos.”

In fact it can even be found in the Bible; Genesis 30 describes an experiment in which animals’ fur color was changed by the color of the trees where they drank and mated. “Many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century medical scientists and biologists of great repute embraced the maternal impression creed,” Bondeson writes, noting that “Maternal impressions were of common occurrence all over Europe” during the 1500s and 1600s.

By the 1800s the idea of maternal impressions fell out of favor, though the belief remains in some places into modern times. In their book “A Dictionary of Superstitions” Iona Opie and Moira Tatem recount a story told by a midwife from 1939 about “how a patient of hers brought forth a child with a wing instead of an arm because the mother had previously been frightened by a bird.”

Read more at Discovery News

Orchids' Lips Evolved to Lure Pollinators

Orchids, like humans, use their lips to attract and entice others, and now new research finds that intense competition underlies their formation and constant changes.

Two competing groups of proteins are engaged in an evolutionary war that helps to explain why orchids are so beguiling and come in many different shapes and sizes, according to a new study published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Plants.

Co-author Chang-Hsien Yang and his colleagues found that the protein complex "L" (for lip) and the protein complex "SP" (for standard petals) of orchids compete to promote the different shapes. If the proteins for lip formation win out, then the orchid will develop a big, prominent lip. If the competing complex wins, then flowers will develop where all of the petals look about the same. A mixture of the two creates a less obvious lip and countless variations.

An orchid lip is important because "it acts as a landing pad or serves as a platform for potential pollinators, such as insects, moths and butterflies," Yang, a professor in the Graduate Institute of Biotechnology at the National Chung Hsing University, told Discovery News.

"The lip also acts as the main pollinator attractant by employing visual, fragrance and tactile cues," Yang added. "All of these are important for giving orchids a great evolutionary advantage by promoting reproduction."

It's not hard to figure out that this bee orchid hopes to attract bees and other pollinators. When seen from above, it looks like a bee-shaped puppet.

The "come hither" look of orchids, such as this member of the genus Phalaenopsis, ties with their sexy appearance.

Barbara Gravendeel, who co-authored a Nature Plants "News & Views" piece about the latest orchid research, told Discovery News that while bees are very intelligent insects, they really do think that they are mating with another bee when they land on many orchids.

The mistake is understandable, considering that many orchids smell, feel and look like bee bodies.

The new research adds to the growing body of evidence that plants can be clever and develop effective, flexible survival strategies, even though they do not possess a brain. Here, an orchid from the Serapia genus is being pollinated by a bee, which believes he is having sex with another bee.

Gravendeel who is chair of the Biodiversity Department at the University of Applied Sciences, Leiden, explained that many orchids always flower at the beginning of the bee mating season, bursting open a week before female bees emerge above ground.

"Only un-experienced male bees that emerge a bit earlier than the females are fooled into mating with orchid flowers that look, smell and feel like female bees," she said.

In many cases, the orchid provides only a good time with no food reward, but by the time the bee figures this out, the orchid already received what it wants and needs: pollination.

"The male bees only need to be tricked twice: once for removing pollen from one orchid flower, and then once more for depositing this pollen on the stigma of another plant, ensuring pollination and subsequent fertilization and reproduction of the orchid," Gravendeel explained.

She added, "Once the real female bees appear above ground, the male bees quickly learn the difference and do not mate with orchid flowers anymore. These orchids have been pollinated by then, though, so there is no need to fool any more bees."

A moth orchid such as this is colorful enough to human eyes, with its beautiful hints of purple and yellow, but when seen from a pollinator's perspective, the flower is even more attractive. Honeybees, for example, cannot see the color red, but they can see a color that we cannot. It's known as "bee's purple," which is a mixture of yellow and ultraviolet.

Orchids dazzled renowned British naturalist Charles Darwin too. He predicted that many orchids co-evolved with pollinators, such that their shapes should match the bodies of these other beneficial organisms. The new research provides evidence for Darwin's prediction, Yang said, with the competition between the two protein complexes being part of the co-evolution process.

Read more at Discovery News

What are Ceres' Mysterious White Spots? You Decide!

Ever since NASA’s Dawn spacecraft arrived in the vicinity of dwarf planet Ceres, the world has been abuzz with theories as to what those mysterious white spots may be. Now, in an effort to further engage Dawn mission fans and have some fun along the way, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., has created a public poll asking what we think those enigmatic blobs are.

“Can you guess what’s creating those unusual bright spots on Ceres? On March 6, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft began orbiting Ceres, the largest body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Even before the spacecraft arrived at the dwarf planet, images revealed mysterious bright spots that captivated scientists and observers alike. Until Dawn gets a closer look over the next few months, it’s anyone’s guess what those spots could be.” — Dawn mission site.

The mystery surrounding these spots is as interesting as it is confusing. Even NASA has admitted that, for now, they are far from understanding what their origins are.

When initially arriving at Ceres, two conspicuous spots could be seen by Dawn. Presumed to be some kind of cryovolcanic feature, planetary scientists studying Dawn’s observations realized that there was no positive relief feature associated with the spots, hinting of the presence of a vent or crack. Cryovolcanism is still a possibility, but there are other ideas, including features such as reflective minerals or salt deposits.

As Dawn has entered its science orbit around the small world, no doubt the multiple white spots that are now known to dot the surface will become the prime focus of Dawn’s instrumentation.

But for now, JPL wants to know what you think these mystery bright spots are. (Sadly, “Alien Solar Array” isn’t one of the options.)

From Discovery News

Apr 26, 2015

To flare or not to flare: The riddle of galactic thin to thick disk solved

A long-standing puzzle regarding the nature of disk galaxies has finally been solved by a team of astronomers led by Ivan Minchev from the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP), using state-of-the-art theoretical models. The new study shows that groups of stars with the same age always flare as the result of massive galactic collisions. When taken all together, these flares, nested like the petals of a blooming rose, puff up the disk and constitute what astronomers call the "thick" disk.

"We were able to show for the first time that galactic thick disks are not composed only of old stars but must also contain young stars at larger distances from the galactic center," explains Minchev. "The flaring seen in groups of stars with the same age is caused mostly by the bombardment of small satellite galaxies. These cosmological car crashes pummel the young disk and cause it to swell and flare. "

To arrive at this new result, the team ran numerical simulations on massive super computers and examined the structure of their simulated galaxies. The scientists grouped stars by common age and looked at where they were located. What they found was that stars of a given age group constituted a disk with flared edges, much like the mouth of a trumpet. This flaring is unavoidable, being caused when the main galaxy collides with smaller galaxies - a generic feature of how scientists believe galaxies form. Since the oldest stars formed in the inner region of the galaxy, for them this flaring occurs closer to the center, while for the younger stars it occurs at the periphery of the galaxy. When put together, the combination of flaring from all the stars produces the elusive thick disk, as observed.

One of the most fascinating aspects of galaxies is that their stars can be separated into two components: a fluffy thick disk that enshrouds a thin disk. Until now the understanding has been that stars in the thick disk were the oldest. In observations of the Milky Way the oldest stars are found to be closer to the center, while younger stars are more extended. Scientists agree that this separation is likely due to an "inside-out" formation scenario, wherein the Milky Way forms stars first in its center and later in its outer region, much like how cities grow radially from a medieval center to modern suburbs.

Observing the structure of the Milky Way is tricky, since we are located within its disk, roughly half way from the center. Instead, astronomers have to rely on the stars that surround us and build a model from this limited perspective. Nevertheless, if the Milky Way were similar to other galaxies and its thick disk were composed only of old, centrally concentrated stars, then one would naively expect its thick disk to be short. But in other galaxies the thick disks are observed to be as extended as the galaxies themselves. Minchev's results resolve this contradiction by requiring that thick disk stars become younger in the disk outskirts.

Read more at Science Daily

Scientists develop first liquid nanolaser

Northwestern University scientists have developed the first liquid nanoscale laser. And it's tunable in real time, meaning you can quickly and simply produce different colors, a unique and useful feature. The laser technology could lead to practical applications, such as a new form of a "lab on a chip" for medical diagnostics.

To understand the concept, imagine a laser pointer whose color can be changed simply by changing the liquid inside it, instead of needing a different laser pointer for every desired color.

In addition to changing color in real time, the liquid nanolaser has additional advantages over other nanolasers: it is simple to make, inexpensive to produce and operates at room temperature.

Nanoscopic lasers -- first demonstrated in 2009 -- are only found in research labs today. They are, however, of great interest for advances in technology and for military applications.

"Our study allows us to think about new laser designs and what could be possible if they could actually be made," said Teri W. Odom, who led the research. "My lab likes to go after new materials, new structures and new ways of putting them together to achieve things not yet imagined. We believe this work represents a conceptual and practical engineering advance for on-demand, reversible control of light from nanoscopic sources."

Odom is Board of Lady Managers of the Columbian Exposition Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The findings were published this week by the journal Nature Communications.

The liquid nanolaser in this study is not a laser pointer but a laser device on a chip, Odom explained. The laser's color can be changed in real time when the liquid dye in the microfluidic channel above the laser's cavity is changed.

The laser's cavity is made up of an array of reflective gold nanoparticles, where the light is concentrated around each nanoparticle and then amplified. (In contrast to conventional laser cavities, no mirrors are required for the light to bounce back and forth.) Notably, as the laser color is tuned, the nanoparticle cavity stays fixed and does not change; only the liquid gain around the nanoparticles changes.

The main advantages of very small lasers are:

  • They can be used as on-chip light sources for optoelectronic integrated circuits;
  • They can be used in optical data storage and lithography;
  • They can operate reliably at one wavelength; and
  • They should be able to operate much faster than conventional lasers because they are made from metals.

Some technical background

Plasmon lasers are promising nanoscale coherent sources of optical fields because they support ultra-small sizes and show ultra-fast dynamics. Although plasmon lasers have been demonstrated at different spectral ranges, from the ultraviolet to near-infrared, a systematic approach to manipulate the lasing emission wavelength in real time has not been possible.

The main limitation is that only solid gain materials have been used in previous work on plasmon nanolasers; hence, fixed wavelengths were shown because solid materials cannot easily be modified. Odom's research team has found a way to integrate liquid gain materials with gold nanoparticle arrays to achieve nanoscale plasmon lasing that can be tuned dynamical, reversibly and in real time.

The use of liquid gain materials has two significant benefits:

  • The organic dye molecules can be readily dissolved in solvents with different refractive indices. Thus, the dielectric environment around the nanoparticle arrays can be tuned, which also tunes the lasing wavelength.
  • The liquid form of gain materials enables the fluid to be manipulated within a microfluidic channel. Thus, dynamic tuning of the lasing emission is possible simply by flowing liquid with different refractive indices. Moreover, as an added benefit of the liquid environment, the lasing-on-chip devices can show long-term stability because the gain molecules can be constantly refreshed.
Read more at Science Daily

Apr 25, 2015

Giant cosmic tsunami wakes up comatose galaxies

Galaxies are often found in clusters, which contain many 'red and dead' members that stopped forming stars in the distant past. Now an international team of astronomers, led by Andra Stroe of Leiden Observatory and David Sobral of Leiden and the University of Lisbon, have discovered that these comatose galaxies can sometimes come back to life. If clusters of galaxies merge, a huge shock wave can drive the birth of a new generation of stars -- the sleeping galaxies get a new lease of life. The scientists publish their work on 24 April in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Galaxy clusters are like cities, where thousands of galaxies can be packed together, at least in comparison to the sparsely-populated space around them. Over billions of years, they build up structure in the universe -- merging with adjacent clusters, like growing cities absorb nearby towns. When this happens, there is a huge release of energy as the clusters collide. The resulting shock wave travels through the cluster like a tsunami, but until now there was no evidence that the galaxies themselves were affected very much.

Stroe and Sobral observed the merging galaxy cluster CIZA J2242.8+5301, nicknamed the 'Sausage', located 2.3 billion light years away in the direction of the constellation of Lacerta in the northern hemisphere of the sky. They used the Isaac Newton and William Herschel Telescopes on La Palma, and the Subaru, CFHT and Keck Telescopes on Hawaii, and found that far from 'watching from the back' the cluster galaxies were transformed by the shock wave, triggering a new wave of star formation.

Stroe comments: "We assumed that the galaxies would be on the sidelines for this act, but it turns out they have a leading role. The comatose galaxies in the Sausage cluster are coming back to life, with stars forming at a tremendous rate. When we first saw this in the data, we simply couldn't believe what it was telling us."

The new work implies that the merger of galaxy clusters has a major impact on the formation of stars. "Much like a teaspoon stirring a mug of coffee, the shocks lead to turbulence in the galactic gas. These then trigger an avalanche-like collapse, which eventually leads to the formation of very dense, cold gas clouds, which are vital for the formation of new stars," says Stroe.

Sobral adds: "But star formation at this rate leads to a lot of massive, short-lived stars coming into being, which explode as supernovae a few million years later. The explosions drive huge amounts of gas out of the galaxies and with most of the rest consumed in star formation, the galaxies soon run out of fuel. If you wait long enough, the cluster mergers make the galaxies even more red and dead -- they slip back into a coma and have little prospect of a second resurrection."

Read more at Science Daily

Second possible specimen of 'pocket shark' ever found

A very small and rare species of shark is swimming its way through scientific literature. But don't worry, the chances of this inches-long vertebrate biting through your swimsuit is extremely slim, because if you ever spotted one you'd be the third person to ever do so.

This species common name is the "pocket shark," though those in the field of classifying animals refer to it by its scientific name Mollisquama sp., according to a new study published in the international journal of taxonomy Zootaxa. While it is small enough to, yes, fit in your pocket, it's dubbed "pocket" because of the distinctive orifice behind its pectoral fin--one of many physiological features scientists hope to better understand.

"The pocket shark we found was only 5 and a half inches long, and was a recently born male," said Mark Grace of NOAA Fisheries' Pascagoula, Miss., Laboratory, lead author of the new study, who noted the shark displayed an unhealed umbilical scar. "Discovering him has us thinking about where mom and dad may be, and how they got to the Gulf. The only other known specimen was found very far away, off Peru, 36 years ago."

Interestingly, the specimen Grace discovered wasn't found it the ocean, per se; rather in the holdings of NOAA's lab in Pascagoula. It was collected in the deep sea about 190 miles offshore Louisiana during a 2010 mission by the NOAA Ship Pisces to study sperm whale feeding. Grace, who was part of that mission after the rare shark was collected, and upon uncovering the sample at the lab years later, recruited Tulane University researchers Michael Doosey and Henry Bart, and NOAA Ocean Service genetics expert Gavin Naylor, to give the specimen an up-close examination.

A tissue sample was collected, and by tapping into the robust specimen collection of Tulane University's Biodiversity Research Institute, scientists were able to place the specimen into the genus Mollisquama. Further genetic analysis from Naylor indicate that pocket sharks are closely related to the kitefin and cookie cutter species, fellow members of the shark family Dalatiidae. Like other Dalatiidae shark species it is possible that pocket sharks when hungry may remove an oval plug of flesh from their prey (various marine mammals, large fishes and squid).

The specimen is part of the Royal D. Suttkus Fish Collection at Tulane University's Biodiversity Research Institute in Belle Chasse, La., and it is hoped that further study of the specimen will lead to many new discoveries. Already, the specimen--when compared to the 1979 specimen taxonomic description--is found to have a series of glands along the abdomen not previously noted. Partners at the Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and American Natural History Museum in New York City have also contributed to the study of this shark.

Read more at Science Daily

Apr 24, 2015

Oil and Gas Boom May Permanently Harm Ecosystems

Oil and gas drilling in North America is turning the Central Plains into an industrial landscape and causing long-lasting damage to ecosystems, reports a study in the April 24 issue of Science.

Three Yellowstone National Parks worth of land have been filled with well pads, road and storage facilities, from 2000 to 2012.

Satellite data was used to measure the amount of carbon stored by plants, which the authors write is an effective means to gauge the health of ecosystems: "It is a fundamental and supporting ecosystem service that is the basis for all life on Earth" affecting the ability to grow food, biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

"Nearly half of wells drilled in this time period occurred in already highly or extremely water-stressed regions," the study reports. "As refracturing becomes more common to yield greater production, oil and gas development adds to an already fraught competition among agriculture, aquatic ecosystems, and municipalities for water resources, in addition to concerns of water quality"

The impact of the transformation of the Great Plains is hard to detect when viewing a single region, that authors write, but the degradation has lasting impacts for the continent.

The effect is possibly permanent, because recovery of drilled land hasn't kept up with the pace of drilling.

From Discovery News

Rare Bronze Owl Brooch Found on Danish Island

Archaeologists excavating an Iron Age settlement on the Baltic island of Bornholm in Denmark have unearthed a unique enameled bronze clasp.

Cast as a flat piece of bronze and decorated with green enamel and glass disks in brilliant red, yellow, and black colors, the brooch is shaped like an owl and dates between 100-250 A.D.

“The bird’s big black glass pupils seem to stare directly back at you,” Ulla Lund Hansen, a leading scholar in the field of Roman Iron Age research, and Christina Seehusen, archaeologist at Bornholm Museum, wrote in the Danish archaeology magazine Skalk.

“Its large, luminous eyes are made even more dramatic by the stunning inlays of orange glass around the pupils,” she added.

The rare brooch, which measures just 1.5 by 1.5 inches, would have been used to fasten a man’s cloak. It was found in the Roman-age soil deposits of an ancient house in September 2014, but only now the find was made public.

“It is very uncommon to find such items in a settlement context in Denmark. We usually find these things only in burials,” Seehusen told Discovery News.

“The settlement was unusual in itself, as it was extremely well preserved compared to typical standards,” she said.

Indeed, on the settlement site Seehusen’s team found very well preserved remains of workshops, pottery, traces of houses and other buildings.

“We found Roman coins representing Faustina the Younger [the Empress consort to Marcus Aurelius (161-175 AD)] a bronze spur, several dress pins, bronze and iron brooches, glass beads, iron smelting cinders and plenty of animal bones from pig, cattle, horse, bird, fish and dog,” Seehusen said.

The brooch, or fibula, was probably made along the Roman frontier that ran along the Danube and the Rhine in what is now Germany.

How it ended up on Bornholm, an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, remains a mystery.

“We can only guess who the original owner was and how it came to be preserved on the island,” Seehusen said.

The unusual piece represents a personal item, which is very rarely found outside the borders of the Roman Empire. It was possibly owned by a person who served as a mercenary in the Roman army in the northern provinces.

With its unusal shape and bright colors, it probably provided its owner with a great level of prestige.

“Perhaps it was lost or maybe it was deliberately hidden for reasons known only to its owner. Most likely, we will never know the brooch’s full story,” Seehusen said.

Read more at Discovery News