Jul 16, 2011

Dark-energy fingerprints found in ancient radiation

Only cat burglars can match the stealth of dark energy, credited with speeding up the universe's expansion over time, but now its fingerprints have been glimpsed in the universe's oldest radiation.

The strongest evidence for dark energy comes from supernovae, which suggest the universe is expanding faster now than in the past. But the force should also change the extent to which the cosmic microwave background (CMB), relic radiation from the big bang, is warped, or "lensed", by the gravity from distant galaxies and dark matter.

That's because the accelerating expansion of the universe should prevent the growth of very massive structures. "In a universe with no dark energy, massive objects would just keep growing, which results in more gravitational lensing," says Sudeep Das of the University of California, Berkeley.

Gravitational lensing is tough to pick out in the ancient radiation because the CMB contains random fluctuations. But Das and his colleagues have used a new type of mathematical analysis to reveal for the first time the distinctive distortions from gravitational lensing in the CMB.
Planck pending

The measurement, while not breaking any records for accuracy, bolsters the case for dark energy. "Because of dark energy's importance to both the future evolution of the universe and the foundation of physics, it is extremely important to find a variety of evidence that confirms its existence," says Stephen Boughn of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the work.

Das's observations of the CMB were made with the Atacama Cosmology Telescope in Chile, but Europe's Planck satellite will soon return even more detailed measurements.

Applying the same mathematical technique to this Planck data could help astronomers better understand other important problems in cosmology. One outstanding question regards the mass of the neutrino, an elusive particle with a mass so small that it has yet to register in any measurement.
Smooth operator

Nevertheless, neutrinos ought to interact with the universe's mass on the largest scales: as these particles careen through the universe at near light-speed, they interact with ordinary matter and tend to smooth out variations in density. If the neutrinos are more massive, this effect is stronger, but restricted to shorter distances. By contrast, near-massless neutrinos aren't so forceful, but would show their effects over longer distances.

Since gravitational lensing of the CMB gives a measure of matter's tendency to clump together over a large range of distances, it can hint at the strength and scale of the smoothing. And this, in turn, will allow cosmologists to put a limit on the maximum possible mass of the neutrino.

Read more at New Scientist

Studies of studies show that we get things wrong

Morons often like to claim that their truth has been suppressed: that they are like Galileo, a noble outsider, fighting the rigid and political domain of the scientific literature, which resists every challenge to orthodoxy.

Like many claims, this is something where it's possible to gather data.

Firstly, there are individual anecdotes that demonstrate the routine humdrum of medical fact being overturned.

We used to think that hormone-replacement therapy reduced the risk of heart attacks by around half, for example, because this was the finding of a small trial, and a large observational study. That research had limitations. The small trial looked only at "surrogate outcomes", blood markers that are associated with heart attack, rather than real-world attacks; the observational study was hampered by the fact that women who got prescriptions for HRT from their doctors were healthier to start with. But at the time, this research represented our best guess, and that's often all you have to work with.
When a large randomised trial looking at the real-world outcome of heart attacks was conducted, it turned out that HRT increased the risk by 29%. These findings weren't suppressed: they were greeted eagerly, and with some horror.

Even the supposed stories of outright medical intransigence turn out to be pretty weak on close examination: people claim that doctors were slow to embrace Helicobacter pylori as the cause of gastric ulcers, when in reality, it only took a decade from the first murmur of a research finding to international guidelines recommending antibiotic treatment for all patients with ulcers.

But individual stories aren't enough. This week Vinay Prasad and colleagues published a fascinating piece of research about research. They took all 212 academic papers published in the New England Journal of Medicine during 2009. Of those, 124 made some kind of claim about whether a treatment worked or not, so then they set about measuring how those findings fitted into what was already known. Two reviewers assessed whether the results were positive or negative in each study, and then, separately, whether these new findings overturned previous research.

Seventy-three of the studies looked at new treatments, so there was nothing to overturn. But the remaining 51 were very interesting because they were, essentially, evenly split: 16 upheld a current practice as beneficial, 19 were inconclusive, and crucially, 16 found that a practice believed to be effective was, in fact, ineffective, or vice versa.

Is this unexpected? Not at all. If you like, you can look at the same problem from the opposite end of the telescope. In 2005, John Ioannidis gathered together all the major clinical research papers published in three prominent medical journals between 1990 and 2003: specifically, he took the "citation classics", the 49 studies that were cited more than 1,000 times by subsequent academic papers.

Then he checked to see whether their findings had stood the test of time, by conducting a systematic search in the literature, to make sure he was consistent in finding subsequent data. From his 49 citation classics, 45 found that an intervention was effective, but in the time that had passed, only half of these findings had been positively replicated. Seven studies, 16%, were flatly contradicted by subsequent research, and for a further seven studies, follow-up research had found that the benefits originally identified were present, but more modest than first thought.

Read more at The Guardian

Jul 15, 2011

New Virus Jumps From Monkeys to Lab Worker

It started with a single monkey coming down with pneumonia at the California National Primate Research Center in Davis. Within weeks, 19 monkeys were dead and three humans were sick. Now, a new report confirms that the Davis outbreak was the first known case of an adenovirus jumping from monkeys to humans. The upside: the virus may one day be harnessed as a tool for gene therapy.

Adenoviruses are relatively large DNA viruses—as opposed to many other viruses that replicate using RNA—that commonly cause colds and respiratory infections in humans. They’re also responsible for a variety of illnesses in cattle, dogs, horses, pigs, and other animals, but scientists thought the viruses and their ailments couldn’t jump between species.

Full article at ScienceMag

Alpha-Baboon Benefits Come at Stressful Cost

If you’re a baboon, being in charge gives you a lot of advantages: you have better access to food, you get more action from the ladies, and your kids tend to grow faster and live longer. Low-rankers, meanwhile, must expend more time and energy to get food and mating opportunities. It makes sense to assume that the baboons at the bottom of their hierarchy might experience more stress than their high-ranking relatives.

But life at the top of a baboon troop isn’t all fun and games, since the alpha male must constantly struggle to maintain his social position. A new study in Science shows that alpha males suffer from much more stress than the second highest-ranking baboon, and tend to exhibit the same amount of stress hormones as baboons much lower in the hierarchy.

To study stress in a group of wild savannah baboons, the researchers collected 4,000 fecal samples from 125 adult male baboons over nine years in Amboseli, Kenya. Their goals were twofold: to determine how stress differed between high- and low-ranking baboons, and to assess whether this pattern changed in times of upheaval. The scientists tested each fecal sample for a group of hormones called glucocorticoids, which can indicate how much stress each baboon was dealing with at the time.

The researchers found that, with one notable exception, glucocorticoid levels decreased as rank increased; in other words, low rankers experienced much more stress than higher-rankers. The exception, however, was the alpha male’s stress levels, which were just as high as those of the low-ranking baboons. While the males that ranked second through eighth seemed to enjoy relatively low-stress lives, the alpha male experienced just as much stress as the baboons ranking ninth through fourteenth.

One of the most unexpected finding of this research is that the alpha males’ glucocorticoid levels were so different from the second-ranking males’. Two of the study’s other findings may account for the immense amount of stress that the highest-rankers experienced: they had a 17 percent higher rate of aggressive encounters with other baboons and they spent 29 percent more time mating than lower-rankers did. These physiological costs of maintaining the top spot are likely responsible for the sky-high stress levels exhibited by alpha males.

The stress patterns were consistent, no matter which individual held each rank; the study ran long enough for baboons to spend time at several different social ranks, and stress levels were a product of rank, rather than of consistent individual hormone profiles. In times of instability within the troop, this pattern didn’t change, but all the baboons’ stress levels went up a bit.

While short-term bursts of glucocorticoids are beneficial and can help individuals cope in stressful situations, lengthy exposure can be harmful. Over the long term, high glucocorticoid levels are known to suppress the immune system. In the study, alpha males exhibited much higher parasite loads than the baboons just beneath them in the hierarchy.

Read more at  Wired Science

Caligula Statue Unveiled in Italy

Italian police unveiled a colossal marble statue believed to be a rare image of the incestuous and lunatic Roman emperor Caligula sitting on a throne.

The statue lay buried for nearly 2,000 years near Lake Nemi, south of Rome, where Rome’s third emperor Caligula, who ruled from 37 to 41 A.D., had two enormous “love boats.”

The statue was recovered last January, when finance police stopped tomb robbers trying to smuggle large, elaborately carved, marble pieces out of the country.

In order to find the statue's missing pieces, the archaeologists excavated the area where the tomb robbers conducted their illegal dig.

The remains of a large, semicircular nymphaeum, or fountain court, emerged. Originally enclosed by a series of 23-foot-tall columns, the fountain court boasted a niche  at its center in which Caligula’ statue once stood.

Indeed, the area contained more than one hundred fragments belonging to the statue, including the head.

Moreover, the archaeologists unearthed some other 150 objects, such as vases and pieces of jewelry.

"We even found a lead pipe with a stamp bearing the name of Caius Iulius Silanus, who most likely was the villa’s first owner," said Giuseppina Ghini, of the Archaeological Superintendency of Lazio.

Made from Greek marble of Paros, considered in antiquity the world’s best and most precious, the statue shows a young robed man, sitting under a pillow on a beautifully decorated throne as the god Zeus.

On the left foot, the statue is wearing the "caligae" military boot after which the notorious Roman emperor, whose real name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, was nicknamed.

"It’s a unique sculpture, a piece of incredible beauty. Indeed, it shows a rare image of Caligula," Ghini said.

The capricious emperor, who is said to have made his favorite horse Incitatus a senator, used to sail his spectacular ships on Lake Nemi, not far from where his statue stood, indulging his sensual proclivities.

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the vessels had "sterns studded with gems and ample space for baths, porticoes, and dining rooms, and a great variety of vines and fruit-bearing trees. Reclining on these ships all day long, he would sail amid choral dancing and singing."

Read more at Discovery News

Asteroid Vesta Comes into Focus

Only two months ago, the large asteroid Vesta was just a bright star in the lens of Dawn's camera. Then, last month, NASA released a new photograph of this mysterious rock when the probe was only 300,000 miles (480,000 kilometers) from its target. Although few surface features could be recognized, it was slowly coming into focus. Today, however, is an entirely different story.

At a distance of only 26,000 miles (41,000 kilometers) and a few hours from orbital insertion, Dawn has snapped this incredible view of Vesta. Craters, valleys and smooth undulating features are now obvious.

Dawn is scheduled to be captured by Vesta's gravitational field at approximately 10 p.m. PT on July 15 (1 a.m. ET, July 16). No orbital insertion manoeuvre is easy, but Dawn's insertion will be a little more exciting than most. As the large asteroid's mass is not precisely known (and therefore its gravity can only be approximated), NASA scientists have to make continual measurements of Vesta's gravity as the spacecraft approaches and make small trajectory corrections when needed.

At 11:30 p.m PT on July 16 (2:30 a.m. ET, July 17), Dawn will make a scheduled communications pass to let mission control know that it is "OK." At that time, NASA predicts Dawn and Vesta will be 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) apart.

"It has taken nearly four years to get to this point," said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Our latest tests and check-outs show that Dawn is right on target and performing normally."

As Dawn uses ion propulsion to get around space, a very graceful method is used to allow Vesta's gravity to capture the probe. Rather than rapid, impulsive chemical rocket burns to quickly slow the vehicle down, Dawn will ease up next to the asteroid and then enter orbit.

Interestingly, Vesta isn't only a "large asteroid"; it is also considered to be a "protoplanet." Protoplanets are large celestial objects that appear to be still undergoing accretion or were once planetary embryos earlier in the solar system's history. According to research by UCLA scientists, any asteroid measuring over 165 miles (265 kilometers) in diameter is considered a protoplanet. This means the main belt objects Vesta, Ceres and Pallas are also thought to be surviving protoplanets.

More at Discovery News

Jul 14, 2011

World population to hit 7 billion by October

The United Nations commemorates World Population Day against the backdrop of an upcoming landmark event: global population hitting the seven billion mark by late October this year.

According to current projections, and with some of the world’s poorest nations doubling their populations in the next decade, the second milestone will be in 2025 when the global population will reach eight billion.

Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), said seven billion represents a challenge, an opportunity and a call to action.

On World Population Day, July 11, he launches a campaign called “7 Billion Actions”.

“It will engage people on what it means to live in a world with seven billion people and encourage action on issues that affect all of us,” he said.

The rise in population is expected to have a devastating impact on some 215 million women who want – but do not have – access to quality reproductive health and family planning services.

The world’s five most populous countries are China (1.3 billion), India (1.2 billion), the United States (310.2 million), Indonesia (242.9 million) and Brazil (201.1 million).

The date for the eight billion population milestone is projected now to be 2025.

Full story and more facts at Aljazeera.net

Lost Rainbow Toad Found After 87 Years

Herpetologists at Conservation International have rediscovered the exotic Sambas stream toad (aka Borneo rainbow toad, aka Ansonia latidisca) after 87 years of evasion, and released the first ever photographs of the brightly colored amphibian.

The spindly-legged species was last seen in 1924 and European explorers in Borneo only made monochrome illustrations of it. A decade or so later, the CI and the SSC Amphibian Specialist Group added the species to its World’s Top 10 Most Wanted Lost Frogs campaign.

Indraneil Das of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak decided to hunt down the lost frog, and his team looked in the nearby area of Western Sarawak. In the summer of 2010 they made evening searches along the 1,329 meter high ridges of the Gunung Penrissen range to look for the toad.

After months of fruitless hunting, Das decided to include higher elevations in the team’s search. Then, one night, graduate student Pui Yong Min found the small toad two meters up a tree. Later they found another.

In the end the team had found three individuals of the missing toad species — an adult female, an adult male and a juvenile, ranging in size from 51 mm to 30 mm. All three toads exhibited those gangly limbs and the brightly colored patterns on their backs.

Talking about his team’s discovery in a press release, Das says, “They remind us that nature still holds precious secrets that we are still uncovering, which is why targeted protection and conservation is so important.”

Robin Moore of Conservation International agrees, saying in the release, “it is good to know that nature can surprise us when we are close to giving up hope, especially amidst our planet’s escalating extinction crisis.”

The slender-legged critter is only the second species on the “World’s Top 10 Most Wanted Lost Frogs” list to be found. In September 2010, the Rio Pescado Stubfoot Toad was rediscovered in Ecuador after 15 years of hiding. The spotty frog is sadly clinging on to survival.

Read more at Wired Science

July 14, 1850: What a Cool Idea, Dr. Gorrie

1850: Florida physician John Gorrie uses his mechanical ice-maker to astonish the guests at a party. It’s the first public U.S. demonstration of ice made by refrigeration.

William Cullen had demonstrated the principle of artificial refrigeration in a University of Glasgow laboratory in 1748, by allowing ethyl ether to boil into a vacuum. American Oliver Evans designed in 1805 — but never built — a refrigeration machine that used vapor instead of liquid. Jacob Perkins used Evans’ concept for an experimental volatile-liquid, closed-cycle compressor in 1834.

Nonetheless, mid-century cooling in the tropics and subtropics — and in the temperate summer — relied on natural ice blocks carved from frozen lakes and rivers in the North, kept in shaded sheds and cellars under layers of sawdust for insulation, and often delivered at great expense by specially fitted ice ships.

Gorrie was born in the tropics, on the Caribbean island of Nevis. He received his medical education in New York state before settling in the Florida cotton-shipping port of Apalachicola. There, he served at various times as mayor, justice of the peace, postmaster and bank president, besides carrying on his medical practice.

It would be another half-century before the causes of the killer diseases malaria and yellow fever were discovered, but Dr. Gorrie knew they relied on heat and moisture to propagate. He urged the draining of swamps and the enforcement of hygiene in the town’s food market.

Gorrie also sought to improve the survival rate of his feverish patients by cooling them down. He suspended pans of ice water high in their sickrooms, so the cooled, heavy air would flow downward.

But ice was expensive in the Florida summer and often completely unavailable. Gorrie wanted to make ice mechanically. He wrote:

If the air were highly compressed, it would heat up by the energy of compression. If this compressed air were run through metal pipes cooled with water, and if this air cooled to the water temperature was expanded down to atmospheric pressure again, very low temperatures could be obtained, even low enough to freeze water in pans in a refrigerator box.

Gorrie began tinkering with compressor-coolers and had a working model by the mid-1840s. The power source was irrelevant to his invention: It could be driven by wind, water, steam or the brute force of an animal.

He applied for patents in 1848 and had a prototype built in Ohio by the Cincinnati Iron Works. It was described in Scientific American the following year, but Gorrie still had to attract venture capital to fight the existing ice-block industry.

He arranged a dramatic demonstration of his machine for a social, rather than medical, occasion. It was a muggy July in Florida. Ice from the North had been exhausted. Gorrie attended an afternoon reception given by the French consul to honor Bastille Day.

The doctor first complained about drinking warm wine in hot weather, then suddenly announced, “On Bastille Day, France gave her citizens what they wanted. [Consul] Rosan gives his guests what they want, cool wines! Even if it demands a miracle!”

Then he signaled for waiters to enter with bottles of sparkling wine on trays of ice. It was a sensation: mechanically made ice in the sweltering Florida summer. Smithsonian magazine dubbed that party the “chilly reception.”

Read more at Wired

Jul 13, 2011

Rare Hermaphrodite Butterfly Hatches in London Museum

For a short time only, visitors to the Natural History Museum will be able to see a butterfly that is both male and female.

The gynandromorph Papilio Memnon butterfly fortuitously hatched in the puparium at this year’s Sensational Butterflies exhibition. It is one of just 200 gynandromorph butterflies among the 4.5 million butterfly specimens in the museum.

The term gynandromorph comes from the Greek “Gyn” to mean female, and “Andro” to mean male. The butterfly has distinctly different male and female markings — darker colorings on the male side and paler coloring, with flecks of blue, red and tortoiseshell on the female side.

As the coloring denotes, the butterfly is literally half female, half male — its sexual organs are half and half, and, as the BBC adds: “…even its antennae are different lengths”.

The Museum explains: “Insects can become gynandromorphs if the sex chromosomes do not properly separate during the first division of a fertilized egg, resulting in an insect with both male and female cells. They can also occur when an egg with two sex chromosomes, instead of a single one, gets fertilized by two sperm.”

Gynandromorph lobsters, spiders and crabs have also been observed.

Read more at Wired Science

Newts able to regenerate indefinitely, regrowing eye lenses 18 times

Newts have a remarkable ability to regenerate body parts – in this case the lenses in their eyes – time and time again.

Over a 16-year period, Panagiotis Tsonis at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and colleagues removed the lenses of six Japanese newts (Cynops pyrrhogaster) 18 times. After each excision, the lenses regenerated. They did so not from remaining lens tissue, but from pigment epithelial cells in the upper part of the iris.

By the end of the study the newts were 30 years old, five years older than their average lifespan in the wild. Even so, the regenerated lenses from the last two excisions were indistinguishable from lenses of 14-year-old adults that had never regenerated a lens.

Full story at New Scientist

'Pastafarian' wins religious freedom right to wear pasta strainer for driving licence

Niko Alm announced the decision on his blog saying that after three years of struggle a psychologist had passed him fit drive and so he could wear the kitchen implement for the official picture.

A self-styled "pastafarian", Mr Alm said he belonged to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which lampooned religion. "Today I was able to get my new driving licence, and in it you can clearly see that I'm wearing a colander on my head to demonstrate my allegiance to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster," Mr Alm wrote in his blog.

"My headwear has now been recognised by the Republic of Austria."

The spaghetti church was founded in 2005 in opposition to pressure on the Kansas school board in the United States to teach the theory of intelligent design in biology class as an alternative to evolution, and since then it has engaged in a light-hearted campaign against religion.

Read more at The Telegraph

Triceratops Was Last Dinosaur Standing

A Triceratops may have been the last dinosaur standing, according to a new study that determined a fossil from Montana's Hell Creek Formation is "the youngest dinosaur known to science."

The Triceratops, described in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters, dates to 65 million years ago, the critical period of time associated with the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event that wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and many other animals and plants.

Since this rhinoceros-looking, three-horned dinosaur lived so close to the mass extinction moment, it could negate an earlier theory that dinosaurs gradually died out before 65 million years ago.

"Our paper suggests that dinosaurs did not go extinct prior to the impact," lead author Tyler Lyson told Discovery News. "The fact that this dinosaur is so close to the K-T boundary lends support to the idea that they went extinct as a result of a meteorite impact."

Lyson, a researcher in Yale University's Department of Geology and Geophysics, and his team discovered the remains of the Triceratops, including its over 1.5-foot-long horn, just 5 inches below the pollen-calibrated K-T boundary at Camel Butte, a hill at the Hell Creek Formation in southeastern Montana.

By studying the region's geological layers, the scientists can see how dinosaurs suddenly disappeared after the catastrophic event, which Lyson and many other experts believe was a meteorite strike that directly hit Earth at Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Lyson said that "we don't fully understand the kill mechanism," but other researchers "have a proposed a nuclear winter, while others have proposed a thermal pulse."

The prior theory that dinosaurs gradually died out before 65 million years ago was often based on what is known as the "3-meter gap," which referred to an apparent geological zone devoid of dinosaur fossils before the K-T event.

The Hell Creek Triceratops, however, was not only found within that 3-meter region, but it also exists at the upper reaches of it, proving that at least one dinosaur and presumably more were still alive when the meteorite blasted into Chicxulub, Mexico.

Co-author Stephen Chester of Yale's Department of Anthropology told Discovery News that the Camel Butte site is important both because it has "the most recent dinosaur specimen" and "because we are finding a great diversity of small mammals that are first documented directly after the extinction event."

Chester continued, "Although the K-T mass extinction event is mainly known for the disappearance of the non-avian dinosaurs, it is also an extremely important event in mammalian evolution because once the dinosaurs vanished, mammals underwent a large adaptive radiation and began occupying diverse ecological niches in the Paleocene."

These mammals included condylarths, which were hoofed animals proposed to be ancestral to some modern orders of hoofed mammals. They also included multituberculates, which Chester described as being "extinct rodent-like animals with a very specialized dentition."

It remains unclear why certain mammals, turtles and other animals survived the K-T extinction event, but Lyson explained that species with generalist, rather than specialized, diets tended to fare better, as did smaller animals and water dwellers.

Kirk Johnson is vice president of Research & Collections and chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 12, 2011

Tsunamis Buried Ancient Olympics Site

A series of devastating tsunamis -- not an earthquake -- might have swept away the birthplace of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece nearly 1500 years ago, according to new findings.

Scholars have long assumed that Olympia, located at the confluence of the Kladeos and Alpheios rivers in the western Peloponnese, was destroyed by an earthquake in 551 AD and later covered by flood deposits of the Kladeos river.

Indeed the site where the first Olympic Games took place in 776 BC, was rediscovered only some 250 years ago, buried under 26 feet of sand and debris.

Systematic excavations by the German Archaeological Institute, which began in 1875, brought to light the remains of some of the finest works of classical art and architecture, such as the huge temple of Zeus. It boasted a now lost 40-foot statue of the god made of gold and ivory that was numbered among the Seven Wonders of the World.

According to Andreas Vött of the Institute of Geography of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany, the burial of ancient Olympia "is one of the most interesting geoarchaeological mysteries in the Mediterranean world."

It is hard to explain how the tiny Kladeos River could first have buried Olympia under several meters of sediment, only to subsequently get eroded by 10 to 12 meters (33 to 40 feet) down to the flow level used in ancient times.

Vött, who is investigating the paleotsunamis that occurred along the coastlines of the eastern Mediterranean over the last 11,000 years, carried sedimentological, geophysical, geochemical and microfaunal analyses by drilling 22 vibracores at the site.

"Both the composition and thickness of the sediments we find in Olympia do not go with the hydraulic potential of the Kladeos river and the geomorphological inventory of the valley,”  said Vött.

Strong evidence for repeated tsunamis came from the presence of molluscs, snail shells and the remains of abundant foraminifera (marine protozoa). The sediments were transported inland at high speed and energy, reaching Olympia although the site lies some 108 feet above sea level.

"In earlier times, Olympia was not 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) away from the sea as it is today. Back then, the coastline was located eight or perhaps even more kilometers further inland," said Vött.

In this scenario, tsunamis came in from the sea and rushed into the narrow valley of Alpheios, into which the Kladeos River flows, forcing their way over the saddles behind which Olympia is located.

Further supporting the Olympia tsunami hypothesis, is the fact that identical high-energy sediments of tsunamigenic origin were found on the sea facing side of the hills.

"Olympia documents at least four phases of high-energy flood events that obviously affected the whole valley bottom," Vött and colleagues wrote in a paper to be presented in September 2011 at an international academic conference in Corinth, Greece.

One of the high-energy flood deposits encountered near Olympia was dated to 585-647 AD. This fits "well with the earthquake in 551 AD during which Olympia is reported to have been destroyed," wrote the researchers.

According to Vött, more evidence against the earthquake hypothesis lies in the fallen fragments of the columns of the Temple of Zeus, which do not lie directly on top of each other, as expected after an earthquake impact, but are "floating" in sediment.

Read more at Discovery News

Pterosaurs Evolutionary Late Bloomers

Pterosaurs soared over the dinosaurs for millions of years without evolving to fill specific niches in the ecosystem. They stayed generalists. It wasn’t until birds showed up that the flying reptiles started getting creative with their evolution.

Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to take to the skies. The pterosaurs took off in the Triassic Era about 220 million years ago, and for 70 million years they stuck with the same basic body plan. Research published in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology looked at the late-blooming pterosaurs’ evolutionary history.

“Usually, when a new group of animals or plants evolves, they quickly try out all the options. When we did this study, we thought pterosaurs would be the same,” said Katy Prentice, an undergraduate researcher at the University of Bristol, in a university press release.

“Pterosaurs were the first flying animals – they appeared on Earth 50 million years before Archaeopteryx, the first bird – and they were good at what they did. But the amazing thing is that they didn’t really begin to evolve until after the birds had appeared,” said Prentice.

“Pterosaurs were at the height of their success about 125 million years ago, just as the birds became really diverse too,” said Marcello Ruta, Prentice’s supervisor. “Our new numerical studies of all their physical features show they became three times as diverse in adaptations in the Early Cretaceous than they had been in the Jurassic, before Archaeopteryx and the birds appeared.”

Prentice and her supervisors studied 50 different pterosaurs, ranging in size from as small as a blackbird to the giant Quetzalcoatlus.

Early pterosaurs, called rhamphorhynchoids, were all about the same size and shape. They ate either fish or insects and didn’t have wingspans much greater than 2 meters (6.6 feet).

Then in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous, pterosaur diversity exploded. These later pterosaurs are called pterodactyloids.

Some of these new pterosaurs grew as tall as giraffes, like the enormous Quetzalcoatlus with a wingspan of more than 10 meters (32 feet). They also developed fancy headgear and specialized teeth.

Discovery News reported on engineers’ attempts to use pterosaur crest designs to improve aircraft maneuverability.

The different types of crests may have had some effect on flight, but many researchers believe crests may have been more important for helping pterosaurs find mates. Modern birds, descendants of the pterosaurs’ dinosaur cousins, use crests and other displays in much the same way.

The teeth may have been a reaction to new food sources that became available in the Cretaceous as well. The Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution marked a dramatic change in plant and animal life on the ground. The pterosaurs may have been diversifying to take advantage of the new grub.

The appearance of birds may have also given pterosaurs a run for their money.

More at Discovery News

Get Ready for 'Manhattanhenge' on July 13

My favorite three-episode arc on CSI: New York follows Mac and his colleagues on a thrilling race against the clock to find and catch the so-called "Compass Killer," who has been randomly committing murders to the north, south, east and west of Manhattan island. Identified finally as Hollis Eckhart, a delusional schizophrenic who lost his wife, they still have no idea of where he will strike next.

But then, in an episode entitled "Manhattanhenge," Hawkes discovers Eckhart is using solar charts and astronomical instruments to guide him in his killings. It just so happens that December 5th, Eckhart’s birthday and the day of his wife's murder, is also the day where a biannual solar event called Manhattanhenge occurs, where the rising or setting sun aligns with the east-west grid of Manhattan streets.

Manhattanhenge is a very real phenomenon, and it's happening again this coming Wednesday, July 13. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson coined the term back in 2002, inspired by the famous Stonehenge site in the United Kingdom, where the sun sets in alignment with the stones every summer solstice.

Tyson is the director of the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium in New York City, and the museum will be marking the occasion with a special event Tuesday evening, July 12, featuring astrophysicist Jackie Faherty. Among other things, Faherty can tell you the best city locations by which to witness the phenomenon on July 13.

Technically, "Manhattanhenge" occurs around the summer solstice, not on the solstice itself. That's because of the orientation of Manhattan's famous grid pattern -- established by the the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 -- is not perfectly aligned with the geographic north-south line; it's rotated 29 degrees east, shifting the dates of alignment. If that alignment had been perfect, Manhattanhenge would have occurred on the equinoxes every year: the first day of spring and autumn, respectively.

(Historical side note: The goal of the 1811 plan was "a free and abundant circulation of air" to stave off disease. The right angles were also favored because "straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build." The rigid Manhattan grid has been much-maligned over the last 200 years, but recently has come back into favor with city planners.)

This kind of alignment is not unique to Manhattan; any city with a uniform street grid will have dates where the sun aligns with those streets: Chicago (September 25), Toronto (October 25 and February 16), and Montreal (July 12), for example.

But Manhattan also boasts a clear view of the horizon, looking across the Hudson River toward New Jersey. Plus you've got all those tall buildings lining the streets, creating the perfect vertical frame to show the setting sun to best advantage.

More at Discovery News

Surgeons perform first double leg transplant

Spanish surgeons have performed the world’s first double-leg transplant on a man whose legs were amputated above the knee after an accident, officials said.

Surgeons operated through the night on the man, who had faced life in a wheelchair because prosthetic limbs were unsuitable.

“It is the first time in the world that such a transplant has been carried out,” the health authority for the eastern region of Valencia said in a statement.

The surgery was carried out in the La Fe hospital in the city of Valencia.

Neither donors nor the patient were identified but the health authority promised further details later this week.

Spain’s health ministry announced in November that it had authorised a double leg transplant on an unidentified man who had both legs amputated above the knee after an accident.

The doctor in charge of the operation, Pedro Cavadas, is known in Spain for having carried out several transplants.

Full story at ABC

Jul 11, 2011

India offers cars and TV sets for sterilisation

Health officials in India are offering attractive incentives including a car, motorcycles and television sets to men and women who volunteer for sterilisation in a bid to control the country’s surging population.

Launching the scheme yesterday in Rajasthan’s Jhunjunu, 155miles west of New Delhi Sitaram Sharma the desert town’s chief medical officer was hopeful that these enticements would tempt at least 30,000 people to undergo sterilisation.

“We are confident that this idea will work well” Mr Sharma said of the three-month long scheme.

The inducements on offer contributed by a local charitable trust include one Nano, the world’s cheapest car for the first volunteer, five motorcycles and an equal number of colour televisions and food blenders for disbursal amongst subsequent candidates.

Others would be paid varying cash amounts that would supplement the federal government’s Family Welfare scheme which offered Rs1000 (£14.20) to those undergoing vasectomy and Rs200 (2.85 Pounds) to the one who motivated them.

Full story at the Telegraph

Cigarette Smoking Monkey Weds His Lover in India

According to a Reuters report two monkeys tied the knot in the forests of northwestern India on Friday.

Worship of animals as avatars of the gods isn’t new in Hindu beliefs. Monkeys enjoy significant role in Hindu mythology where they are worshiped as avatars of Hanuman, the mighty ape that helped Rama in his fight against evil.

Raju, the “groom,” was famous in his village, attracting crowds wherever he went. He was known for eating, sleeping and smoking cigarettes with his owner, Ramesh Saini, who treated him like a son.

Two months ago Saini met soon-to-be-bride Chinki’s caretaker, a priest in a nearby village, who proposed the marriage of the two monkeys.

Full story at Lbtimes

Tough Turtle Survived What Dinosaurs Couldn't

A tough river turtle, Boremys, not only survived the meteorite impact that likely wiped out the dinosaurs, but it also seemed completely unfazed by the catastrophic event, according to a new Society of Vertebrate Paleontology paper.

The discovery shows that the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction 65-million-years ago was non-random, meaning that some groups perished completely (non-avian dinosaurs and many marine species), some groups suffered heavy losses, while other groups, like turtles, did very well.

"We believe that aquatic turtles were particularly resilient to the meteorite impact because they naturally possess a wide behavioral repertoire that allows them to survive bad times," co-author Walter Joyce of the University of Tubingen's Institute for Earth Sciences told Discovery News.

"When it gets too cold, aquatic turtles naturally will hibernate," he added. "When it gets too hot or dry, aquatic turtles will estivate (dig themselves into mud holes and wait out the problem). These are tools that come in handy during regular times, but apparently also during meteorite impacts."

Lead author Tyler Lyson of Yale University, Walter Joyce, Georgia Knauss and Dean Pearson recovered the remains of Boremys from the Hell Creek and Fort Union rock formations in southwestern North Dakota and eastern Montana. Boremys belonged to a group of extinct river turtles known as the baenids.

Based on the finds, this particular species preferred the swampy areas that surrounded large, tropical rivers. It flourished from approximately 80 to 42 million years ago.

The jaws of this turtle are relatively non-specializing, according to Joyce, so it probably ate a varied diet including soft plants, small mollusks, insects and fish. The smallest Boremys had a shell length of 9.8 inches, while the shell of the largest was 31.5 inches long.

Although the hearty turtle is not closely related to any modern turtles, the researchers believe it behaved similar to extant North American pond turtles, such as what are known as the "painted" turtles or river cooters.

Debate still swirls as to what exactly happened 65 million years ago. A growing consensus among paleontologists is that a single large meteorite strike at the Yucatan Peninsula did in the dinos and numerous other animals.

Joyce thinks "most animals did not die the day of the meteorite impact, but rather during the week to month-long aftermath. "While large land animals must have dropped dead by the hundreds, it appears that many small to medium-sized aquatic amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders, as well as reptiles (turtles, the crocodile-resembling champsosaurs, actual crocodilians, and lizards) generally did well, likely because all of these groups naturally have techniques that help them to survive bad times," Joyce said.

In terms of what did finally kill off tough Boremys, this turtle and other baenids could not withdraw their heads under their shells as living turtles can.

He said, "It therefore appears that baenids may have survived the great meteorite impact with few problems, but could not defend themselves against small predatory mammals."

Several experts informed Discovery News that they agree with the new findings. Nick Fraser, Keeper of Natural Sciences at National Museums Scotland, said the study "highlights that one or two groups of animals were somehow apparently unaffected by what can only be described as extremely harsh environmental changes as a result of the end Cretaceous impact."

Read more at Discovery News

Fish Photographed Using Tools to Eat

Professional diver Scott Gardner has captured what are believed to be the first images of a wild fish using a tool. The picture above, captured in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, shows a foot-long blackspot tuskfish smashing a clam on a rock until it cracks open, so the fish can gobble up the bivalve inside.

Tool use was once thought to be exclusive to humans, and was considered a mark of our superior intelligent and bulging brains. In recent decades, though, more and more animals have shown an ability to work with tools and objects.

Elephants pick up branches with their trunk to swat flies and scratch themselves, a laboratory crow improvised a hooked tool from a wire to extract an insect and primates use sharpened sticks as spears, rocks to smash nuts and sticks to poke into ant nests.

Tool use in fish, however, is much more rare, and there’s never been any photo or video evidence to prove it — until now. “The pictures provide fantastic proof of these intelligent fish at work using tools to access prey that they would otherwise miss out on,” said Culum Brown of Macquarie University in Sydney in a press release.

“It is apparent that this particular individual does this on a regular basis judging by the broken shells scattered around the anvil,” he said in the release.

What specifically constitutes tool use is a controversial topic. Is a seagull using a tool when it drops a shellfish on a rock? How about when archerfish spray a jet of water to knock prey off of twigs? There’s also the tricky problem of the ocean having all that watery stuff, and fish having no limbs.

Read more at Wired Science

Jul 10, 2011

Indian temple elephants to go on 'spa' holiday

The herd of 64 elephants from the Sree Krishna will be fed large quantities of food - enough for them to put on 700-800 pounds - and pampered.

During this period, 64 elephants from Kerala's Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple in Thrissur will be fed large quantities of food and pampered.

TCR Nambiar, a temple veterinary officer, said the Indian elephants were being treated after spending months walking on tarred roads, living on palm leaves and bananas and playing guard of honour during numerous temple festivals.

Their 'spa' daily diet includes special rice, horse gram and turmeric in addition to a mix of multi-vitamins, tonics and mineral and liver extracts, all monitored by experts.

This rejuvenation treatment would also calm them down ahead of a busy work schedule in upcoming events later in the year where they are the principal attraction.

The entire elephant 'holiday' package costs the temple authorities over Rs 900,000 (£12,500) but additional funds were available should they be required for the highly revered animals.

Hindus believe that propitiating Ganesha the elephant god clears all obstacles in addition to providing its worshippers wisdom, prudence and power.

More at The Telegraph

Dear diary: thief makes record of armed robbery

The 21-year-old claimed he was at home watching football on TV while his partner in crime Rashad Delawala stole hundreds of pounds from a Ladbrokes shop in Southsea, Hants.

In fact Ochola, was Delawala’s getaway driver and the pair, who wielded an imitation firearm during the raid in June last year, split the £500 they stole.

Portsmouth Crown Court heard Ochola was arrested after police found an entry on the date of his raid reading simply: "Go Portsmouth. Robbery Happens."

Detective Constable Mel Sinclair, of Hampshire Constabulary, said: “You do not normally get a good piece of evidence like that.

Read more at The Telegraph