Aug 10, 2012

Diseases That Just Won't Quit

If wildfires, droughts, scorching heat and devastating storms aren't enough to have you listening for the hoof beats of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, then consider the resurgence in diseases humans once thought they had beat.

Gonorrhea – No one applauds the clap, but the disease seems to be coming back for an encore. The Centers for Disease Control recently warned that there is now only one drug, ceftriaxone, which is effective as a first treatment for the sexually transmitted gonorrhea, reported Fox News.

Ebola – The intestine-dissolving disease featured in the movies "Outbreak" and "The Hot Zone" struck Uganda in July. So far, 16 have died, but the World Health Organization claims the disease is now under control, reported Voice of America.

Bubonic Plague – The disease which decimated the world's population during the Middle Ages is still around. New Mexico is a stronghold of the disease. In July an Albuquerque man was diagnosed with the disease after he disposed of a dead squirrel, reported KRQE.

Black Lung Disease – Inhaling coal dust can lead to the deadly disease pneumoconiosis, known as black lung disease. It was once hoped that safety devices and filters would save miner's lungs, but an investigation by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity found that not only are the number of cases on the rise, but younger miners are being struck down by a faster progression of the disease.

Malaria – Inhaling coal can kill you, but burning it threatens your life in a more indirect way. As greenhouse gases warm the planet, research warns that the mosquitos may be able to spread malaria further and more easily. In the past, malaria affected North America as far north as Canada. Eradication programs largely wiped the disease out in the United States, but a warmer, wetter climate means more mosquitos, making it harder to control them.

Whooping Cough – With nearly 18,000 cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, reported to the CDC so far this year, 2012 has been a bad year for lungs, reported CNN.

"That's more than twice as many as we had at the at the same time last year," Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC said on CNN. "We may need to go back to 1959 to find a year with as many cases reported by this time so far."

Cholera – No matter what Gabriel Garcia Marquez says, there is no love in the time of cholera, a deadly diarrhea spread by contaminated water. In the wake of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, a cholera outbreak has been raging across Haiti, according to the CDC. Over 150,000 cases have been reported so far.

Tuberculosis – Tuberculosis killed some of history's greats including Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry David Thoreau. The disease seemed to be on its way out after vaccines and a sequence of antibiotics were found to combat the disease. Unfortunately, drug-resistant strains developed in the 1980s and then spread. Tuberculosis is now globally the second largest killer after HIV/AIDS, when considering single infectious agents, according to the World Health Organization. In 2010, 1.4 million people died from tuberculosis.

Polio – Tuberculosis should serve as a warning in the fight against polio. When a disease is down, don't let it get back up. Four organizations, Rotary International, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and UNICEF, are leading the charge to wipe polio off the planet.

Read more at Discovery News

Lost Egyptian Pyramids Found?

Two possible pyramid complexes might have been found in Egypt, according to a Google Earth satellite imagery survey.

Located about 90 miles apart, the sites contain unusual grouping of mounds with intriguing features and orientations, said satellite archaeology researcher Angela Micol of Maiden, N.C.

One site in Upper Egypt, just 12 miles from the city of Abu Sidhum along the Nile, features four mounds each with a larger, triangular-shaped plateau.

The two larger mounds at this site are approximately 250 feet in width, with two smaller mounds approximately 100 feet in width.

The site complex is arranged in a very clear formation with the large mound extending a width of approximately 620 feet -- almost three times the size of the Great Pyramid.

"Upon closer examination of the formation, this mound appears to have a very flat top and a curiously symmetrical triangular shape that has been heavily eroded with time," Micol wrote in her website Google Earth Anomalies.

Intriguingly, when zooming in on the top of the triangular formation, two circular, 20-foot-wide features appear almost in the very center of the triangle.

Some 90 miles north near the Fayoum oasis, the second possible pyramid complex contains a four-sided, truncated mound that is approximately 150 feet wide.

"It has a distinct square center which is very unusual for a mound of this size and it almost seems pyramidal when seen from above," Micol wrote.

Located just 1.5 miles south east of the ancient town of Dimai, the site also contains three smaller mounds in a very clear formation, "similar to the diagonal alignment of the Giza Plateau pyramids," Micol stated in a press release.

"The color of the mounds is dark and similar to the material composition of Dimai's walls which are made of mudbrick and stone," the researcher wrote.

Founded in the third century B.C. under the Ptolemaic king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309 B.C.–246 B.C.), Dimai was built on top of an earlier neolithic settlement.

Also known as Dimeh al-Siba, Dimeh of the Lions, the town is surrounded by a mudbrick wall that stretches up to 32 feet high and 16 feet thick, and features at its center a ruined stone temple dedicated to the crocodile god Soknopaios.

Indeed, the town's Greek name, Soknopaiou Nesos, means "Island of Soknopaios."

Well known to scholars for the amount of papyri and other inscribed material found among its ruins, Dimai reached its peak during the first and second century A.D. thanks to a major trade route. It was abandoned during the mid-third century A.D.

According to Micol, both sites have been verified as undiscovered by Egyptologist and pyramid expert Nabil Selim, whose findings include the pyramid called Sinki at Abydos and the Dry Moat surrounding the Step pyramid complex at Saqqara.

Selim found that the smaller 100-foot mounds at the site near Abu Sidhum are a similar size as the 13th Dynasty Egyptian pyramids, if a square base can be discovered.

Read more at Discovery News

Why Do People Believe in UFOs?

I'm bemused that we are smart enough to land an automobile size payload on another planet, but still live in a culture where a significant percentage of people want to believe in implausible if not impossible things. The reality is that intelligence has nothing to do with believing in "weird things."

A recent National Geographic Society poll reported that 36 percent of Americans -- about 80 million people -- believe UFOs exist, only 17 percent do not, and the rest of the people are undecided. The survey did not specifically equate UFOs with flying saucers or little green men, however.

(If there are any Martians, the pyrotechnics show of the Mars Science Lab's descent and landing earlier this week has made them all UFO believers overnight.)

The percentage of UFO followers agrees with other surveys taken over the years. A 2001 Gallup Poll showed that belief in haunted houses, ghosts, and demonic possession slightly exceeded belief in UFOs.

It's pretty unlikely a ghost will make a grand appearance on CNN, or we'll see an exorcism release the devil. But the discovery of aliens via a SETI signal might conceivably happen someday.

Fortunately, we'll be prepared because the NGS survey shows that 77 percent of Americans believe there are signs that aliens have already visited Earth. No doubt this is anchored in mystical themes that benevolent aliens came by and helped out early civilization on huge public works projects, such as the building of the Egyptian pyramids.

Only 13 percent of 1,114 respondents said they would be afraid of aliens harming them. Apparently sci-fi films such as "Independence Day" and "Signs" haven't made much of an impact. Nor has astrophysicist Stephen Hawking's warnings of ray-gun wielding aliens.

A public relations challenge for NASA and the U.S. military is that 80 percent in the NGS survey feel that the government is hiding information about UFOs. This percentage of government distrust is consistent with a 2009 CBS News poll that found that 77 percent of the population believes that the government covered-up the truth behind the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination. On the flip side, belief that the Apollo moon landings were a government hoax dropped from 11 percent to 6 percent over the past decade.

It's Fun to Believe in Weird Things

Contrary to conventional wisdom, people of all levels of education like to believe in "weird things," says Michael Shermer of the Skeptical Inquirer. Shermer wrote that people tend to seek or interpret evidence favorable to existing beliefs and ignore or misinterpret evidence unfavorable to those beliefs.

This is no more obvious than in the writings of "creationist scientists" who either reject or grossly misinterpret geological, biological and astronomical data to support their biblical-based belief in an 8,000 year-old universe.

This "confirmation bias" is in real science as well. The classic example is the 1903 discovery of "N-rays" a completely new form of radiation announced by Prosper-René Blondlot. At the time, dozens of other scientists confirmed the existence of N-rays in their own laboratories. But further tests showed that N-rays don't exist at all.

How could so many scientists be wrong? They deceived themselves into thinking they were seeing something with their instruments that in fact was not there. This came on the heels of Wilhelm Rontgen's discovery of X-rays and Paul Ulrich Villard’s discovery of gamma rays in the early 1900s. Apparently there was a predisposition to expecting that other invisible forms of radiation must permeate the universe.

Likewise, any two people can see a blob of light in the sky, one thinking it is the planet Venus and the other person predisposed to interpreting it as a space vehicle under alien control. Yes, airline pilots, and law enforcement office seen strange things in the heavens too. But this is outside of their sphere of expertise -- especially when it comes to astronomical phenomena seen under unusual conditions.

Collectively, UFO stories are a sci-fi inspired projection of how we think space visitors would look and behave. Despite over 60 years of "sightings," the purported scientific evidence is largely anecdotal and uncorroborated. The Mars Science Lab landing left more physical evidence strewn on the Red Planet than thousands of alleged flying saucers reported over the decades.

I'd say that UFO beliefs are fueled by a "secular theology" where people look for greater meaning to the universe and our relationship with it. The theme is that the aliens flying the UFOs pay attention to us, worry about our misdeeds (as evident in alleged sighting of UFOs hanging around nuclear power plants) and want to help raise us to a higher level of existence. This is simply a post-industrial age version of ages old stores of visitation by angels, demons, and other imaginary spirits.

A few of my colleagues dismiss the SETI searches as an unscientific experiment that border on theology. We imagine aliens that are intellectually made in our image: they are as curious as we are, they build lasers or radio telescopes like we do, and they are similarly motivated to devote time and resources simply to letting us know that they exist among the stars. This is hypothesis on top of hypothesis.

Also, people simply love to believe in weird things just because it's fun. (As an example, simply listen to the audio track of the UFO sighting posted on the YouTube video shown above.) The staid, rational world described in physics, astronomy or biology 101 classes is a bore to most undergraduates.

Read more at Discovery News

Perseids Peak This Weekend

This is the weekend of the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower and most meteor forecasts predict the annual "shooting star" display will be at its best during the overnight hours of late Saturday (Aug. 11) into the early Sunday.

The Perseid meteor shower occurs each year in late July and early August when the Earth passes through the dusty remains of the comet Swift-Tuttle. In the night sky, the meteor shower appears to radiate out of the constellation Perseus, hence, its name: Perseid meteor shower.

French astronomer, Jérémie Vaubaillon of the The Institut de Mecanique Celeste et de Calcul des Ephemerides (IMCCE) has generated a plot of Earth’s passage through this year’s Perseid meteor swarm. Itshows that our planet will be passing through the greatest concentration of dusty material between approximately 0400 hours and 1300 hours UT on Aug.

This is perfect timing for North America, as it means that the best viewing for the meteor shower will come during the predawn hours on Sunday.

Seeing the Perseids

Over the years I’ve grown accustomed to receiving e-mails from readers who said that they were disappointed with how the Perseid meteor shower performed for them. After all, didn’t most online websites and the mainstream media promise that at their peak the Perseids would produce up to 100 meteors per hour? In most cases, people tend to see far fewer numbers. So why is that?

The number of meteors that you will see will depend on two factors: the time of night observed and sky conditions. An experienced observer in a perfectly clear and dark sky (one in which you can see the faintest stars visible to the unaided eye) with the radiant directly overhead, might theoretically see as many as 100 Perseids per hour. This oft-advertised number is called the shower’s Zenithal Hourly Rate or ZHR.

Such ideal conditions, however, rarely occur in reality.

First, let’s take into account the altitude of Perseid radiant (where the meteors will appear to dart from).  During the evening hours, the radiant in the Perseus constellation will start off low in the east-northeast sky, but gradually it will climb higher during the night. As a result, the number meteors will correspondingly increase.

In the table included with this guide, the altitude of the radiant at a particular time (for viewers at latitude 40 degrees north) is given, along with the corrected percentage amount that you’re likely to see.Based on the table, after about 2:30 a.m. you should be seeing at least 80 percent of the predicted ZHR.  But there’s another, more important factor to also take into account.

Near city lights? Expect fewer meteors

That other factor is light pollution. Unfortunately, very few of us are blessed with perfectly dark, pristine skies. One way to judge how dark your skies are would be to check out the bowl of the Little Dipper.

The brightest star in the bowl is Kochab, which is a second magnitude star on the scale used by astronomers to denote brightness (higher numbers mean dimmer objects, negative number objects are extra bright). The other three stars are 3rd, 4th and 5th magnitude.

If you can easily see all four stars in the bowl, you probably have a limiting magnitude of 6, which means you’ll see about 63 percent of the ZHR. If you can barely see the faintest star in the bowl, you have a 5th magnitude sky, so you’ll only be seeing about 25 percent of the ZHR. If only 3 stars are visible, you only have a fourth magnitude sky and you’ll probably see only about 10 percent of the ZHR.

For example, let's say you are out looking for the Perseid meteor shower at 4 a.m. on Aug. 12. You can just about make out all four stars in the bowl of the Little Dipper, so you have a 5th magnitude sky; that’s not too bad.

The Perseid radiant stands 60 degrees above the horizon, so you’re expecting to see 100 Perseids per hour, but here’s the reality check: 90 percent of 100 is 90 meteors an hour. But then, factoring in sky conditions based on light pollution, 25 percent of 90 give you just 23.

Many of the Perseids tend to be quite bright, so probably 23 per hour for these specific conditions is a bit conservative, but unless you can get yourself to a truly dark and remote location, your hourly rates are likely to be closer to 23 than 100.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 9, 2012

Neolithic Man: The First Lumberjack?

During the Neolithic Age (approximately 10000-6000 BCE), early man evolved from hunter-gatherer to farmer and agriculturalist, living in larger, permanent settlements with a variety of domesticated animals and plant life. This transition brought about significant changes in terms of the economy, architecture, man's relationship to the environment, and more.

Now Dr. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations has shed new light on this milestone in human evolution, demonstrating a direct connection between the development of an agricultural society and the development of woodworking tools.

"Intensive woodworking and tree-felling was a phenomenon that only appeared with the onset of the major changes in human life, including the transition to agriculture and permanent villages," says Dr. Barkai, whose research was published in the journal PLoS One. Prior to the Neolithic period, there is no evidence of tools that were powerful enough to cut and carve wood, let alone fell trees. But new archaeological evidence suggests that as the Neolithic age progressed, sophisticated carpentry developed alongside agriculture.

Evolution of axes

The use of functional tools in relation to woodworking over the course of the Neolithic period has not been studied in detail until now. Through their work at the archaeological site of Motza, a neighbourhood in the Judean Hills, Dr. Barkai and his fellow researchers, Prof. Rick Yerkes of Ohio State University and Dr. Hamudi Khalaily of the Israel Antiquity Authority, have unearthed evidence that increasing sophistication in terms of carpentry tools corresponds with increased agriculture and permanent settlements.

The early part of the Neolithic age is divided into two distinct eras -- Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB). Agriculture and domesticated plants and animals appear only in PPNB, so the transition between these two periods is a watershed moment in human history. And these changes can be tracked in the woodworking tools which belong to each period, says Dr. Barkai.

Within PPNA, humans remained gatherers but lived in more permanent settlements for the first time, he says. Axes associated with this period are small and delicate, used for light carpentry but not suited for felling trees or other massive woodworking tasks. In PPNB, the tools have evolved to much larger and heavier axes, formed by a technique called polishing. The researchers' in-depth analysis of these tools shows that they were used to cut down trees and complete various building projects.

"We can document step by step the transition from the absence of woodworking tools, to delicate woodworking tools, to heavier woodworking tools," Dr. Barkai says, and this follows the "actual transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture." He also identifies a trial-and-error phase during which humans tried to create an axe strong enough to undertake larger woodworking tasks. Eventually, they succeeded in creating a massive ground stone axe in PPNB.

Read more at Science Daily

Scientist Discovers Plate Tectonics On Mars

For years, many scientists had thought that plate tectonics existed nowhere in our solar system but on Earth. Now, a UCLA scientist has discovered that the geological phenomenon, which involves the movement of huge crustal plates beneath a planet's surface, also exists on Mars.

"Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth," said An Yin, a UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences and the sole author of the new research.

Yin made the discovery during his analysis of satellite images from a NASA spacecraft known as THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) and from the HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He analyzed about 100 satellite images -- approximately a dozen were revealing of plate tectonics.

Yin has conducted geologic research in the Himalayas and Tibet, where two of Earth's seven major plates divide.

"When I studied the satellite images from Mars, many of the features looked very much like fault systems I have seen in the Himalayas and Tibet, and in California as well, including the geomorphology," said Yin, a planetary geologist.

For example, he saw a very smooth, flat side of a canyon wall, which can be generated only by a fault, and a steep cliff, comparable to cliffs in California's Death Valley, which also are generated by a fault. Mars has a linear volcanic zone, which Yin said is a typical product of plate tectonics.

"You don't see these features anywhere else on other planets in our solar system, other than Earth and Mars," said Yin, whose research is featured as the cover story in the August issue of the journal Lithosphere.

The surface of Mars contains the longest and deepest system of canyons in our solar system, known as Valles Marineris (Latin for Mariner Valleys and named for the Mariner 9 Mars orbiter of 1971-72, which discovered it). It is nearly 2,500 miles long -- about nine times longer than Earth's Grand Canyon. Scientists have wondered for four decades how it formed. Was it a big crack in Mars' shell that opened up?

"In the beginning, I did not expect plate tectonics, but the more I studied it, the more I realized Mars is so different from what other scientists anticipated," Yin said. "I saw that the idea that it is just a big crack that opened up is incorrect. It is really a plate boundary, with horizontal motion. That is kind of shocking, but the evidence is quite clear.

"The shell is broken and is moving horizontally over a long distance. It is very similar to the Earth's Dead Sea fault system, which has also opened up and is moving horizontally."

The two plates divided by Mars' Valles Marineris have moved approximately 93 miles horizontally relative to each other, Yin said. California's San Andreas Fault, which is over the intersection of two plates, has moved about twice as much -- but Earth is about twice the size of Mars, so Yin said they are comparable.

Yin, whose research is partly funded by the National Science Foundation, calls the two plates on Mars the Valles Marineris North and the Valles Marineris South.

"Earth has a very broken 'egg shell,' so its surface has many plates; Mars' is slightly broken and may be on the way to becoming very broken, except its pace is very slow due to its small size and, thus, less thermal energy to drive it," Yin said. "This may be the reason Mars has fewer plates than on Earth."

Mars has landslides, and Yin said a fault is shifting the landslides, moving them from their source.

Does Yin think there are Mars-quakes?

"I think so," he said. "I think the fault is probably still active, but not every day. It wakes up every once in a while, over a very long duration -- perhaps every million years or more."

Yin is very confident in his findings, but mysteries remain, he said, including how far beneath the surface the plates are located.

"I don't quite understand why the plates are moving with such a large magnitude or what the rate of movement is; maybe Mars has a different form of plate tectonics," Yin said. "The rate is much slower than on Earth."

Earth has a broken shell with seven major plates; pieces of the shell move, and one plate may move over another. Yin is doubtful that Mars has more than two plates.

"We have been able to identify only the two plates," he said. "For the other areas on Mars, I think the chances are very, very small. I don't see any other major crack."

Read more at Science Daily

Russia Sect Lived Underground for 10 Years

Russian police have freed more than a dozen children who were being held in underground isolation by a Muslim sect in Kazan, in the eastern republic of Tartarstan.

Some of the 60 members of the religious group, followers of a local spiritual leader, had lived for more than a decade in a bunker below a mosque in the city, the police said.

The children had been forced to live in squalid conditions with no access to the outside world.

The bunker was discovered in police searches of Islamic organizations in the city following twin attacks last month on moderate clerics.

"The children are living in unsanitary conditions. There is a lack of ventilation. The premises are like monks' cells," police investigator Ranis Bakhitov said.

"Based on the evidence of police officers, all the children require medical attention."

"During the search we found that the building was two story. Below it was a cellar where we found people were living," said Bakhitov in a video released by the local interior ministry.

"The space was built as a labyrinth. There are rooms measuring two by three meters," (six feet by 10), he said.

The police said they had established that around 60 people were living in the underground quarters, including 15 children.

The group's 85-year-old leader, Faizrakhman Satarov, declared himself a prophet in 1964, the ministry said.

In 1996, Satarov acquired land for an Islamic school and built living quarters there where "gradually all the members of the sect moved to live permanently," police said.

"Faizrakhman's supporters lead a closed way of life, not leaving their shelter without extreme necessity," the ministry said.

"The children of the commune grew up in the same conditions. They did not go to educational and medical institutions, which is the most severe breach of children's rights."

Police said they had opened a criminal case against Satarov for his "arbitrariness" in running the compound, a crime that carries a prison term of up to six months.

Read more at Discovery News

Armageddon: Asteroid Splitting Doesn't Work

In the nail-biting climax of the blockbuster film, Armageddon, Harry (Bruce Willis) sacrifices himself to save the planet by lowering himself into a deep fissure and detonating a nuclear bomb, splitting the asteroid in half. Audiences cheered. But scientists groaned.

Armageddon is a perennial favorite target for so-called "nerd-gassing" among the geekerati. Its Wikipedia entry cites at least 168 scientific errors, over a running time of 150 minutes. That's more than one howler per minute. This is why Bad Astronomer Phil Plait often lists it as his choice for the worst science in film, detailing the most egregious errors in a classic 2001 blog post.

Here's a sampling. The opening narration grossly underestimates the energy of that dinosaur-killing asteroid that hit Earth 65 million years ago. Objects in space tend to be shaped like spheres because of gravity, yet the asteroid is shown to be jagged with jutting spikes -- plus there's a mysterious vapor. A gravity scene aboard a Russian space station gets the direction of gravity wrong. Oh, and at one point, a military leader refers to NASA as "Nassau."

About the only scientific fact the movie got right is that asteroids do actually exist.

And the nerd-gassing continues. A new analysis by a group of graduate students at the University of Leicester reveals that all other howlers aside, the nuclear bomb Harry detonates wasn't nearly large or powerful enough to split an asteroid of that size.

Their conclusions appeared in a pair of papers published in the university's Journal of Special Physics Topics. It features short papers written by fourth-year master's students, to give them a flavor of what publishing in a 'real world' academic journal is like.

Creativity is encouraged. So Ben Hall, Gregory Brown, Ashley Back, and Stuart Turner took a closer look at Harry's foolproof plan for saving the Earth from a killer asteroid impact -- and found it wanting.

First, nobody seems to notice the asteroid on a collision course with Earth until 18 days before impact. Scientists would need to detect the asteroid much earlier in order to have time to implement such an elaborate scheme, which is why NASA monitors all such bodies closely.

Second, that nuclear bomb wasn't nearly powerful enough to split an asteroid of that size. The students devised a formula by figuring out just how much kinetic energy would be needed to do so, given the volume and density of the asteroid, its velocity, and its distance from Earth at the point of detonation, based on details gleaned from the film.

Their conclusion: it would take 800 trillion terajoules of energy to split that asteroid in half in such a way that both halves cleared the planet. The USSR's 50-megaton bomb, "Big Ivan," was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated on Earth, amounting to 418,000 terajoules. Impressive though that is, we would need something a billion times stronger for Harry's plan to work.

Read more at Discovery News

Earth's Weird Life Helps Curiosity's Search

Exotic kingdoms and bizarre creatures deep beneath the sea or within the bowels of the Earth have been the stuff of myths, science fiction and steampunk fantasy since before Jules Verne first set pen to paper. However, a real-life realm of strange beings lurks within undersea volcanoes and understanding that ecosystem on Earth helps in the search for past or present life on Mars.

"We're interested in the microbes in the deep rock, and the best place to study them is at hydrothermal vents at undersea volcanoes,” said James Holden of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in a press release. “Warm water there brings the nutrient and energy sources these microbes need....Models have predicted the 'habitability' of the rocky environments we're most interested in, but we wanted to ground-truth these models and refine them."

Conditions that are perfect for one of these microbes would instantly kill a human. Holden and his colleagues had to recreate the deep sea vent's high-pressure, intense heat and cocktail of chemicals in a laboratory. A two liter replica of those extreme conditions was created using a bioreactor.

The microbiologists also had to bring in samples of microbes from the wild to compare to other known species. The research was focused on methanogens, species that inhale hydrogen and carbon dioxide and exhale methane. The wild specimen were collected by Alvin, the research submarine star of numerous documentaries. Alvin caught his quarry a mile beneath the surface about 200 miles off the coast of Washington and Oregon.

The ecosystems that thrive in the rock around undersea vents are proving to be complex. At one site, a species of methanogen was found to feed on the waste of other microorganisms.

"This was extremely exciting," says Holden. "We've described a methanogen ecosystem that includes a symbiotic relationship between microbes." Holden and his team published the first detailed data on methane-exhaling microbes in a recent paper in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 8, 2012

Scientists Discover the Truth Behind Colbert's 'Truthiness'

A picture inflates the perceived truth of true and false claims.

Trusting research over their guts, scientists in New Zealand and Canada examined the phenomenon Stephen Colbert, comedian and news satirist, calls "truthiness" -- the feeling that something is true. In four different experiments they discovered that people believe claims are true, regardless of whether they actually are true, when a decorative photograph appears alongside the claim. The work is published online in the Springer journal, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

"We wanted to examine how the kinds of photos people see every day -- the ones that decorate newspaper or TV headlines, for example -- might produce "truthiness," said lead investigator Eryn J. Newman of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. "We were really surprised by what we found."

In a series of four experiments in both New Zealand and Canada, Newman and colleagues showed people a series of claims such as, "The liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium" and asked them to agree or disagree that each claim was true. In some cases, the claim appeared with a decorative photograph that didn't reveal if the claim was actually true -- such as a thermometer. Other claims appeared alone. When a decorative photograph appeared with the claim, people were more likely to agree that the claim was true, regardless of whether it was actually true.

Across all the experiments, the findings fit with the idea that photos might help people conjure up images and ideas about the claim more easily than if the claim appeared by itself. "We know that when it's easy for people to bring information to mind, it 'feels' right," said Newman.

Read more at Science Daily

Physics and Math Shed New Light On Biology by Mapping the Landscape of Evolution

Although the qualitative description of evolution -- its observed behavior and characteristics -- is well-established, a comprehensive quantitative theory that captures general evolution dynamics is still lacking. There are also many lingering mysteries surrounding the story of life on Earth, including the question of why sex is such a prevalent reproductive strategy. A team of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Jilin University in Jilin, China; and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, led by Prof. Jin Wang, has examined some of these puzzles from a physical science prospective.

They propose a new theory of evolution with two ingredients: the underlying emergent "fitness" landscape and an associated evolutionary force called "curl flux," which causes species to move through the emergent fitness landscape in a spiraling manner.

The researchers captured evolutionary relationships in a system of equations. They then created quantitative pictures that visualized evolutionary pathways as journeys through a mountainous terrain of peaks and valleys of biological fitness. The key breakthrough beyond the conventional quantitative theory of evolution is the emergent curl flux, which is generated by interactions between individuals within or across species. The underlying emergent landscape gradient and the curl flux act together as a "Yin and Yang" duality pair to determine the dynamics of general evolution, says Wang. An example of similar behavior is the particle and wave duality that determines the dynamics of the quantum world, he notes. The researchers also note that this combined effect is analogous to the way electric and magnetic forces both act on electrons.

The new theory provides a physical foundation for general evolution dynamics. The researchers found that interactions between individuals of different species can give rise to the curl flux. This can sustain an endless evolution that does not lead to areas of higher relative fitness, even if the physical environment is unchanged.

This finding offers a theoretical framework to explain the Red Queen Hypothesis, which states that species continually evolve in order to fend off parasites that are themselves continually evolving. The hypothesis, first proposed by evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen in 1973, gets its name from the character of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's book Through the Looking-Glass, who observed that in her world it was necessary to keep running just to stay in one place. The idea of endless co-evolution through the maintenance of the genetic variation due to the curl flux could help explain the benefits of sexual reproduction, since the mixing and matching of genes preserves a greater diversity of traits.

Read more at Science Daily

New Kenyan Fossils Shed Light On Early Human Evolution

Exciting new fossils discovered east of Lake Turkana confirm that there were two additional species of our genus -- Homo -- living alongside our direct human ancestral species, Homo erectus, almost two million years ago. The finds, announced in the scientific journal Nature on August 9th, include a face, a remarkably complete lower jaw, and part of a second lower jaw.

They were uncovered between 2007 and 2009 by the Koobi Fora Research Project (KFRP), led by Meave and Louise Leakey. KFRP's fieldwork was facilitated by the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), and supported by the National Geographic Society, which has funded the KFRP since 1968.

Four decades ago, the KFRP discovered the enigmatic fossil known as KNM-ER 1470 (or "1470" for short). This skull, readily distinguished by its large brain size and long flat face, ignited a longstanding debate about just how many different species of early Homo lived alongside Homo erectus during the Pleistocene epoch. 1470's unusual morphology was attributed by some scientists to sexual differences and natural degrees of variation within a single species, whereas others interpreted the fossil as evidence of a separate species.

This decades-old dilemma has endured for two reasons. First, comparisons with other fossils have been limited due to the fact that 1470's remains do not include its teeth or lower jaw. Second, no other fossil skull has mirrored 1470's flat and long face, leaving in doubt just how representative these characteristics are. The new fossils address both issues.

"For the past 40 years we have looked long and hard in the vast expanse of sediments around Lake Turkana for fossils that confirm the unique features of 1470's face and show us what its teeth and lower jaw would have looked like," says Meave Leakey, co-leader of the KFRP and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. "At last we have some answers."

"Combined, the three new fossils give a much clearer picture of what 1470 looked like," says Fred Spoor, leader of the scientific analyses. "As a result, it is now clear that two species of early Homo lived alongside Homo erectus. The new fossils will greatly help in unraveling how our branch of human evolution first emerged and flourished almost two million years ago."

Found within a radius of just over 10 km from 1470's location, the three new fossils are dated between 1.78 million and 1.95 million years old. The face KNM-ER 62000, discovered by field crew member Elgite Lokorimudang in 2008, is very similar to that of 1470, showing that the latter is not a single "odd one out" individual. Moreover, the face's well-preserved upper jaw has almost all of its cheek teeth still in place, which for the first time makes it possible to infer the type of lower jaw that would have fitted 1470. A particularly good match can be found in the other two new fossils, the lower jaw KNM-ER 60000, found by Cyprian Nyete in 2009, and part of another lower jaw, KNM-ER 62003, found by Robert Moru in 2007. KNM-ER 60000 stands out as the most complete lower jaw of an early member of the genus Homo yet discovered.

The team working on the new finds included Christopher Kiarie (TBI), who carried out the laboratory preparation of the fossils, Craig Feibel (Rutgers University), who studied the age of the fossils, and Susan Antón (New York University), Christopher Dean (UCL, University College London), Meave and Louise Leakey (TBI, Kenya; and Stony Brook University, New York) and Fred Spoor (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig and UCL), who analyzed the fossils. The National Geographic Society funded the fieldwork, the Leaky Foundation funded geological studies, and the Max Planck Society supported laboratory work.

Read more at Science Daily

Early Human Ancestors Had More Variable Diet

New research sheds more light on the diet and home ranges of early hominins belonging to three different genera, notably Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Homo -- that were discovered at sites such as Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Kromdraai in the Cradle of Humankind, about 50 kilometres from Johannesburg. Australopithecus existed before the other two genera evolved about 2 million years ago.

Scientists conducted an analysis of the fossil teeth, indicating that Australopithecus, a predecessor of early Homo, had a more varied diet than early Homo. Its diet was also more variable than the diet of another distant human relative known as Paranthropus.

An international team of researchers, including Professor Francis Thackeray, Director of the Institute for Human Evolution at Wits University, will be publishing their latest research on what our early ancestors ate, online in the journal, Nature, on August 8, 2012. The paper titled 'Evidence for diet but not landscape use in South African early hominins' was authored by Vincent Balter from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France; Jose´ Braga from the Université de Toulouse Paul Sabatier in Toulouse in France; Philippe Te´louk from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon in France; and Thackeray from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in South Africa.

According to Thackeray, the results of the study show that Paranthropus had a primarily herbivorous-like diet, while Homo included a greater consumption of meat.

Signatures of essential chemical elements have been found in trace amounts in the tooth enamel of the three fossils genera, and the results are indicators of what South African hominins ate and what their habitat preferences were.

Strontium and barium levels in organic tissues, including teeth, decrease in animals higher in the food chain. The scientists used a laser ablation device, which allowed them to sample very small quantities of fossil material for analysis. Since the laser beam was pointed along the growth prisms of dental enamel, it was possible to reconstruct the dietary changes for each hominin individual.

Thackeray states that the greater consumption of meat in the diet of early forms of Homo could have contributed to the increase in brain size in this genus.

Australopithecus probably ate both meat and the leaves and fruits of woody plants. The composition of this diet may have varied seasonally.

Apart from the dietary differences, the new results indicate that the home-range area was of similar size for species of the three hominin genera.

The scientists have also measured the strontium isotope composition of dental enamel. Strontium isotope compositions are free of dietary effects but are characteristic of the geological substrate on which the animals lived.

According to the results all the hominids lived in the same general area, not far from the caves where their bones and teeth are found today.

Read more at Science Daily

Aug 7, 2012

Birds Do Better in 'Agroforests' Than On Farms

Compared with open farmland, wooded "shade" plantations that produce coffee and chocolate promote greater bird diversity, although a new University of Utah study says forests remain the best habitat for tropical birds.

The findings suggest that as open farmland replaces forests and "agroforests" -- where crops are grown under trees -- reduced number of bird species and shifts in the populations of various types of birds may hurt "ecosystem services" that birds provide to people, such as eating insect pests, spreading seeds and pollinating crops.

"We found that agroforests are better overall for bird biodiversity in the tropics than open farms," says study author Çağan H. Şekercioğlu (pronounced Cha-awn Shay-care-gee-oh-loo), an assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah.

"This doesn't mean people should farm in intact forests," the ornithologist adds. "But if you have the option of having agroforest versus open farmland, that is better for biodiversity, with shade coffee and shade cacao [the source of cocoa and chocolate] being the prime examples."

Şekercioğlu's new study, funded by the University of Utah, is being published this month in the Journal of Ornithology. He will present the findings on Aug. 9, at the Ecological Society of America's annual meeting in Portland, Ore.

If consumers wish to support bird diversity and agroforests, "a good way is by choosing certified, bird-friendly, shade coffee or shade chocolate," he says. While such coffee or chocolate often cost more because they are more labor-intensive to produce, the certification "is usually better for the farmers' income as well."

He adds: "There are trustworthy environmental organizations that certify shade coffee," including the Smithsonian Institution, the Rainforest Alliance and the Rainforest Action Network.

Other crops grown in shade include cardamom, which is a spice, and yerba mate, which is steeped in hot water to make a beverage popular in South America.

Study Focuses on Birds of Forests, Farms or Both

An agroforest "is a type of farm where the crops are grown under trees at a reasonable density," Şekercioğlu says. "Often, it's not like forest-forest -- it feels more like a open park," although in Ethiopia "commercial coffee is grown under full-on forests in its original native habitat."

Şekercioğlu conducted the study in two steps. First, "I used my world bird database that has information on all the 10,000-plus bird species of the world," he says. "I sorted birds based on habitat choices and compared species that prefer forests to those that prefer agricultural areas and others that prefer both forests and agricultural areas."

Next, he reviewed about 40 previously published studies that examined bird communities in forests, agroforests and open agricultural areas.

"The global analysis of all the birds species mostly agrees with the findings of detailed local bird studies," Şekercioğlu says.

The study focused 6,093 tropical bird species, including migratory birds, in which their top three habitat choices (out of 14 possible habitats) included forests, farms or both, with the latter described as agroforest birds. So the study found 4,574 bird species that include forest but not farms in their top three habitats, 303 species that include farms but not forests in their top three habitat choices, and 1,216 agroforest species tha include both forests and farms among their top three habitats.

The findings suggest, but don't prove, that conversion of forest to farmland may reduce ecosystem services, which are services birds provide to people.

"As you go to more and more open agriculture, you lose some bird groups that provide important ecosystem services like insect control [insect eaters], seed dispersal [fruit eaters] and pollination [nectar eaters], while you get higher numbers of granivores [seed and grain eaters] that actually can be crop pests," Şekercioğlu says. Specifically:

-- Insectivores or insect-eating birds do best in forests -- especially those that live near the ground in the understory, the layer of plants below the tree canopy and above the ground cover. But small and medium insect-eating birds, especially migrant and canopy species, do well in agroforests. The number of insect-eating species declines on open farms, where they help control pests.

-- Frugivores or fruit-eating birds, especially larger ones, "do best in forest because they have more habitat and more food, and the large ones often are hunted outside forests in agricultural settings. Overall, frugivores -- especially smaller ones -- do OK in agroforests, but the number of fruit-eating species decline significantly on open farms." Frugivores help spread the seeds of the fruits they eat.

-- Nectarivores or nectar-eating birds help pollinate many plants. They "tend to increase in agroforests compared with forests. A lot of nectar-eating birds obviously like flowers, and many plants flower when there's some light. When you have extensive forest its often pretty shady so not many things are in flower at any given time." The nectar eaters are less common on open farms.

-- Omnivores, which are birds that eat many things, "tend to do better in agroforests and especially on open farms" than in forests, because their diet is so generalized instead of specialized in certain foods.

- Granivores, or grain- and seed-eating birds are "the only group that significantly increases in open agricultural areas. A lot of the seeds they eat are grass seeds, but also from crops. Some of these seed-eating bird species are major agricultural pests, and that's another reason for encouraging agroforests. In completely open agricultural systems, you have more seed-eating birds that can cause significant crop losses."

While the study found fewer species on farms than in agroforests, and fewer on agroforests than in forests, Şekercioğlu says it doesn't answer a key question: "Does the decline in the number species translate into a decline in individuals providing a given ecosystem service?" If so, farms and agroforests have lost birds that provide important insect-control, pollination and seed-dispersal services.

"It is possible you may lose a lot of species, but some of the remaining species increase in number and compensate and for the decline in ecosystem services by the lost species," he adds. "It's one of the biggest questions in ecology."

Read more at Science Daily

Shedding New Light On How Jaws Evolve

If you're looking for information on the evolution and function of jaws, University of Notre Dame researcher Matt Ravosa is your man.

His integrative research program investigates major adaptive and morphological transformations in the mammalian musculoskeletal system during development and across higher-level groups. In mammals, the greater diversification and increasingly central role of the chewing complex in food procurement and processing has drawn considerable attention to the biomechanics and evolution of this system. Being among the most highly mineralized, and thus well-preserved, tissues in the body, craniodental remains have long been used to offer novel insights into the behavior and affinities of extinct organisms.

Ravosa feels that the study of mandibular symphysis, which is the midline joint between the left and right lower jaws, is one of the most interesting and complex articulations in the bodies of mammals. This is due to the remarkable evolutionary and postnatal variation in the degree of fusion, or the amount of hard versus soft tissue, in this joint. For instance, humans, apes and monkeys all have a bony symphysis, which differs from the condition observed in most other living and fossil primates.

In two papers about adaptive and non-adaptive influences on mandibular evolution with his postdoctoral fellow Jeremiah Scott, Ravosa and his colleagues present analyses based on more than 300 species and 2,900 individual mandibles from highly diverse mammal groups where the feeding behavior of living species is well-documented.

Ravosa is particularly interested in determining if there is a relationship between the properties of food being consumed and the degree of fusion of the jaw. His recent paper in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology is the most broad-based examination to date relating dietary properties of mammals to the degree of fusion. His research reveals that in the case of marsupials, carnivorans and strepsirrhine primates that eat harder, tougher and bigger foods have a lesser degree of fusion. By contrast, animals that consume softer, smaller foods do not have as great a degree of fusion. This supports biomechanical arguments that fusion strengthens the symphyseal joint during postcanine chewing and biting.

In another paper appearing in the journal Evolution, Ravosa reports that in some bat lineages, the fusing of the jaw can be evolutionarily constrained as its morphology does not vary as a function of dietary products. Such evidence about limits on musculoskeletal variation is typically rare in mammals, with these findings having important implications regarding the evolution of the feeding apparatus in humans and other anthropoids. Though dietarily diverse, all members of this primate group exhibit a fused symphysis that also does not vary with diet.

Read more at Science Daily

Caffeinated 'Vomit Drink' Nauseated First City

Caffeine-loaded black drinks apparently dominated the heartland of America earlier than once thought — a beverage neither coffee nor cola, but instead brewed from holly leaves, researchers say.

The ancient people may have downed the brew before ritual vomiting as part of purification ceremonies, the scientists added.

The discovery was made after investigating artifacts from Cahokia, "North America's first city," researcher Thomas Emerson, the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, told LiveScience.

Cahokia existed near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers from about 1050 to 1350 in what is now in St. Louis, East St. Louis and the surrounding five counties, and inspired short-lived settlements as far away as Wisconsin. The core of this society, Greater Cahokia, had as many as 50,000 residents in its heyday living amidst earthen mounds, some more than 100 feet (30 meters) in height, making it the largest prehistoric North American settlement north of Mexico.

Even after decades of research, archaeologists are at a loss to explain the sudden emergence of Greater Cahokia and its rapid decline, but its influences on art, religion and architecture are seen as far away as Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin, Emerson said.

Brew beakers

Archaeologist Patricia Crown at the University of New Mexico and chemist Jeffrey Hurst at the Hershey Technical Center in Pennsylvania analyzed plant residues in eight mug-shaped pottery beakers from Greater Cahokia and its surroundings. They found signs they once held "black drink," a caffeinated brew made from the toasted leaves of the Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) that grew more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the south.

"We're not sure when Native Americans stopped using black drink," Emerson said. "I think its use went more into the closet, due to pressure from Europeans to drop pagan practices."

For many tribes of Native Americans, the black drink was a key component of purification rituals before war parties, religious ceremonies, important political councils or other important events. Rapid consumption of large quantities of the hot drink preceded ritual vomiting as part of the purification rituals. People in South America continue to make drinks from varieties of holly, such as yerba maté and té o' maté, albeit in more relaxed contexts.

"It's always described by Europeans and people who have consumed it as something tasting like tea," Emerson said.

Cahokia trade

The presence of Cahokia biochemicals — such as theobromine, caffeine and ursolic acid — in the black drink suggests the people had a substantial trade network with the southeast. Other artifacts suggested Cahokia also traded with groups ranging from the Gulf Coast to the eastern plains and the Great Lakes, such as marine shells and shark teeth.

"I would argue that it was the first pan-Indian city in North America, because there are both widespread contacts and emigrants," Emerson said. "The evidence from artifacts indicates that people from a broad region, what is now the Midwest and southeast U.S., were in contact with Cahokia. This is a level of population density, a level of political organization that has not been seen before in North America."

How this early city held together for as long as it did has remained a mystery.

"People have said, well, how would you integrate this?" Emerson said. "One of the obvious ways is through religion."

The black drink was used in Cahokia at the same time a series of sophisticated figurines representing the underworld, agricultural fertility and life-renewal were carved from local pipestone. Most of these statuettes were linked with temple sites.

"We postulate that this new pattern of agricultural religious symbolism is tied to the rise of Cahokia, and now we have black drink to wash it down with," Emerson said.

Religious symbolism

The beakers appear ceremonial themselves. Many of these single-serving unglazed pots, which possess a handle on one side and a tiny lip on the other, are carved with symbols representing water and the underworld and are reminiscent of the whelk shells used in black drink ceremonies seen centuries later in the southeast, where the Yaupon holly grows.

"We think one way to connect all these people is through fertility and life-renewal symbolism and religion, and the presence of black drink ceremonial items out even in rural farms and small villages outside Cahokia more or less supports that idea," Emerson said.

Read more at Discovery News

Fossil Dealer Claims Disputed Tyrannosaur

A tyrannosaur may be headed for trial.

A Florida fossil dealer who attempted to sell a fossilized tyrannosaur skeleton at an auction before Mongolia's president intervened has made it clear he wants it back.

The dinosaur, a Tarbosaurus bataar, is now the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office seeking to take ownership of the dinosaur so it can be returned to Mongolia, from which paleontologists and Mongolia President Elbegdorj Tsakhia say it was taken illegally.

In a court filing on July 27, fossil dealer Eric Prokopi put the feds on notice that he plans to fight their attempt to take over ownership of it.

A claim on the fossils

According to the new claim he filed, Prokopi "purchased components of the (tyrannosaur) on the international market and then spent a year of his life and considerable expense identifying, restoring and mounting and preparing it."

 The document refers to the dinosaur fossils as a "display piece."

This terminology reflects the work Prokopi put into preparing the mounted dinosaur, Prokopi's attorney Michael McCullough said.

"We are just trying to create a factual distinction between a fossil which is imported and a finished piece which is what was being sold at the auction," McCullough said.

Dinosaur dispute

Although the fossils fetched nearly $1.1 million at auction, the sale did not go through because of the Mongolian claim on the fossils. Paleontologists have supported this claim, saying that clearly identifiable remains for Tarbosaurus bataar, an Asian relative of T. rex, are only known to have come from a rock formation located within Mongolia.

Prokopi has questioned that, writing in a statement to the media in June that the bones could have come from elsewhere. "Other than (from) the diggers, there is no way for anyone to know for certain when or where the specimen was collected."

"I'm just a guy in Gainesville, Florida, trying to support my family, not some international bone smuggler," he wrote.

The case continues

Had no one put in a claim on the fossils, the federal government would have taken legal possession of them without a trial. Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, has declared his intention to return the dinosaur to Mongolia.

Anyone else with an interest in the dinosaur has until Aug. 26 to file a claim.

 According to customs documents, the fossils were shipped to Prokopi in 2010 from Chris Moore, of Forge Fossils in England. Moore would have split the proceeds of the sale with Prokopi, according to a consignment contract with Heritage Auctions, the auction house that offered the dinosaur for sale. Moore has not been named in the federal lawsuit. His attorney, John Cahill, told LiveScience by email: "Mr. Moore is not involved in the case and has no interest in becoming involved in it." (Image Gallery: Dinosaur Fossils)

Prokopi's attorneys McCullough and Peter Tompa declined to discuss the arrangement between the two fossil dealers.

Fossil law

The international legal landscape for fossils is complicated, since laws regarding fossil ownership and export vary by country. For instance, Mongolian law makes fossils found within its boundaries property of the state, but U.S. law allows for the collection and sale of fossils dug up on private land with permission by the land owner. But this case involves probable Mongolian fossils offered for sale in the United States.

"Until this case is tried in court, I don't know if there are any laws that have been broken here in the U.S.," said George Winters, executive director of the Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences (AAPS), a professional organization whose members include commercial dealers and collectors.

Ultimately, Winters said he suspects this case will result in changes to U.S. law.

"I am assuming that the trade agreements with these countries (such as Mongolia, which don't allow for the export of fossils) will at some point in time be amended to possibly ban the sale or importation of that material," he said.

It's not difficult to find fossils from the same species of dinosaur or others quite likely taken from Mongolia and listed in auction catalogs or on eBay.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 6, 2012

New Bird Species Discovered in 'Cloud Forest' of Peru

A colorful, fruit-eating bird with a black mask, pale belly and scarlet breast -- never before described by science -- has been discovered and named by Cornell University graduates following an expedition to the remote Peruvian Andes.

The Sira Barbet, Capito fitzpatricki, is described in a paper published in the July 2012 issue of The Auk, the official publication of the American Ornithologists' Union.

The new species was discovered during a 2008 expedition led by Michael G. Harvey, Glenn Seeholzer and Ben Winger, young ornithologists who had recently graduated from Cornell at the time. They were accompanied by co-author Daniel Cáceres, a graduate of the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín in Arequipa, Peru, and local Ashéninka guides. The team discovered the barbet on a ridge of montane cloud forest in the Cerros del Sira range in the eastern Andes. Steep ridges and deep river gorges in the Andes produce many isolated habitats and microclimates that give rise to uniquely evolved species.

Though clearly a sister species of the Scarlet-banded Barbet, the Sira Barbet is readily distinguished by differences in color on the bird's flanks, lower back and thighs, and a wider, darker scarlet breast band. By comparing mitochondrial DNA sequences of the new barbet to DNA sequences of its close relatives in the genus Capito, the team secured genetic evidence that this is a new species in the barbet family. The genetic work was done by co-author Jason Weckstein at The Field Museum in Chicago.

The team chose the scientific name of the new species Capito fitzpatricki in honor of Cornell Lab of Ornithology executive director John W. Fitzpatrick, who discovered and named seven new bird species in Peru during the 1970s and '80s.

"Fitz has inspired generations of young ornithologists in scientific discovery and conservation," said Winger. "He was behind us all the way when we presented our plan for this expedition."

Read more at Science Daily

USGS Science Goes to Mars

With the Mars rover Curiosity's successful landing Sunday, Aug. 5, at 10:32 p.m. PDT, U.S. Geological Survey scientists continue their strategic role in the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the most advanced mission yet to explore whether the Red Planet has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

Several USGS scientists are playing important roles in a mission that involves hundreds of people from many government and private agencies in the United States and other countries. Oftentimes, in missions this large, individual contributions are hard to isolate, but doing so allows for a deeper understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness of space exploration. USGS brings its unique multidisciplinary scientific approach to the mission through the work of several scientists doing vital research.

USGS researchers mapped and helped to select the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission's landing site in Mars' feature-rich Gale crater. They also are working to capture video of the descent and landing, to safely guide the rover amid hazards such as deep sections of soft sediment, to record and analyze the chemical and mineral composition of martian rock and dust, and to evaluate the role water played in forming the martian landscape. USGS expertise in marine depositional processes will help ascertain where water might once have flowed on Mars -- an exciting prospect because, on Earth at least, environments that contain water almost always contain life.

Gale crater was chosen for the landing in large part because data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter indicate that alluvial and sedimentary processes possibly driven by water might have occurred there, according to geophysicist Randy Kirk, who led the group that created high-resolution terrain models of the leading candidate locations for the landing.

"The MSL mission would literally have been impossible without the fantastic imaging systems on the current generation of Mars orbiters like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the advanced techniques we now have for processing huge amounts of image and spectral data," Kirk said. "Not only did these instruments pinpoint the ancient sediments that may hold a record of habitable environments for MSL to investigate, their images allowed us to map every rock and slope in the candidate landing sites that could pose a risk to the mission."

Looking for Signs of Water

Among other things, the USGS scientists and their colleagues will be investigating a feature very near the landing site that appears to be an alluvial fan, which could be evidence of prior existence of water. In the months after the landing, Curiosity will approach Aeolis Mons (sometimes informally referred to as "Mount Sharp"), the three-mile-high mountain in Gale crater's center that shows signs of being formed of layered sediments, which may indicate a history of wind or water processes.

Geologist Ken Herkenhoff will use several specialized cameras and instruments aboard Curiosity to study landforms and surface processes on Mars for signs of past water as well as organic compounds that are associated with life on Earth. These instruments will take color video of the craft's approach and landing and, once it lands, color photos and high-definition video of the Martian terrain. Another instrument functions like a geologist's hand lens, providing close-up views of the minerals, structures and textures in martian rocks and dust. Herkenhoff and USGS astrogeologist Ryan Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow, will also work with Curiosity's onboard ChemCam spectrometer and remote microscopic imager, which will fire a laser at martian rocks and dust and analyze the elemental composition of the plasma generated by the laser. It will search for organic compounds, as well as analyze the inorganic geochemistry of rocks and soils.

"The laser lets us rapidly study the chemistry of targets up to 7 meters away, and it is sensitive to light elements like hydrogen and nitrogen that other equipment can't easily detect," Anderson said. A member of the USGS team whose research helped lead to the selection of Gale crater as the landing site, Anderson describes his countdown to Curiosity's landing in his "‪Martian Chronicles" blog for the American Geophysical Union.

Both Herkenhoff and Kirk are science team members for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter camera that was used to map the landing site and will attempt to capture images of the Mars Science Laboratory as it descends via parachute to the martian surface. As well as being exciting documentation of this difficult planetary landing, these high-resolution images from 300 kilometers above Mars' surface will provide important context for the data expected to be collected on the surface.

"It's difficult enough to land a rover on Mars, as the spacecraft must execute every instruction perfectly as it enters and descends through the martian atmosphere," Herkenhoff said. "Acquiring this image will require coordinating the activities of these two spacecraft from a distance so great that they cannot be controlled in real time-the round-trip time for radio signals to travel between Earth and Mars will be almost half an hour.

Beyond verifying that MSL's parachute successfully opened, this image will provide a dramatic view of the most critical and exciting part of MSL's mission to Mars," Herkenhoff said.

Studying Martian Sediments

In contrast to the aforementioned three USGS scientists who work full time on planetary issues out of the USGS Astrogeology Center, USGS geologist David Rubin of the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center in Santa Cruz, CA, was tapped for the Mars mission for his expertise in marine sediments on Earth. As an outside reviewer of data from the Mars Exploration Rover mission, Rubin helped to corroborate NASA findings that there was once flowing water on Mars, judging by the shape of sedimentary ripples found there. On the current mission, he will help to evaluate the sedimentary features that the rover finds for evidence of marine or wind-driven processes.

Rubin explained how he, as a marine geologist, got involved in planetary science. "I've done research on the underwater sand dunes of San Francisco Bay and beach restoration in the Grand Canyon. NASA scientists and I realized that there were similarities to these subaqueous features on Earth and on Mars (as observed by the earlier Mars rover mission)." NASA funded his current research project to study sedimentation data transmitted from Curiosity in the expectation that understanding the processes that form ripples and dunes and their deposits on Earth can help explain how landforms and rocks originated on Mars.

Scheduling the Rover's Tasks

The mission runs not on Earth time but on Mars time, based on martian days, called "sols." For at least the first 30 sols of the mission, Rubin have an additional task: He will be among the scientists of the Surface Materials and Mobility team who chart the rover's daily route amid sand dunes and other potential hazards. To do this, they must make the stressful adaptation to martian time. A Mars sol is just under 40 minutes longer than an Earth day; the difference, not much at first, quickly becomes disruptive, Rubin said. Again, his expertise in dunes and sediments will play an important role -- this time in keeping the rover safe from hazards.

For the first 30 sols of the mission, he and Anderson will also join three science theme groups -- geology, environment and mineralogy -- that direct the rover's daily tasks. Depending on the planets' relative position, it takes about 13 minutes for signals to travel from Earth to Mars, too long an interval to transmit individual instructions. So Curiosity's tasks will be programmed an entire sol at a time, the same operational approach used for previous Mars rovers. Every minute of the rover's sol will be scheduled, taking into account temperature on Mars, data bandwidth, battery power, and time.

Unlike previous rovers, which used solar panels, Curiosity has a 110-watt nuclear generator, but its energy must be carefully budgeted. The team must schedule some mechanical activities later in the sol, when the faraway sun has warmed the rover's robotic limbs. The rover will perform its data-gathering tasks during the martian sol, and begin transmitting each sol's data at martian dusk. Images from Curiosity will thus begin to reach the USGS and other investigators on Earth a sol or two after the landing.

Read more at Science Daily

Apes and Olympians Celebrate the Same Way

Fist pumps, hands in the air and jumping up and down, seen at every event at the Olympics, turn out to be the same across all cultures and likely have their roots in non-human primate displays.

When Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas and Usain Bolt celebrate their wins, they are displaying a declaration of success that could date back to the earliest human societies and beyond, according to a new study that has been accepted for publication in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

“There is evidence for similar behavior in primates,” lead author David Matsumoto told Discovery News. “In non-human primates, there are similar behaviors involving body enlargement, although with different hardware.”

Matsumoto, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, and colleague Hyi Sung Hwang, identified displays of both triumph and pride at the Olympics. The fist-pump-chest-thrust move makes the individual look large and powerful. This expansive posture boosts testosterone, decreases levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and increases feelings of power and risk tolerance.

“We believe that the triumph expression signals victory and achievement, which in turn signals dominance and aids in establishing status in a hierarchy,” Matsumoto explained. “This enables social coordination and enhances reproductive success.”

The pride display is slightly different than triumph. For pride, the person generally has an open stance with arms to the side or akimbo. The chest is out and the head is slightly back. Often the person smiles slightly, as if the athlete is thinking, “Oh yeah. I’m good.”

The researchers think that pride may be related to evaluations of self in connection with achievement, whereas triumph may be more specific to victory over others. A person can display both pride and triumph, which could help to explain why the gestures sometimes intermix. The athlete, for example, might raise his or her arms with no fist pumps -- only the sly “I did it” smile.

For the study, the researchers showed participants photographs of judo competitors from 17 countries. The athletes, snapped by the International Judo Federation photographer, had just won a medal match at the 2004 Olympic Games. The participants, who came from either the U.S. or South Korea, were asked to judge the emotion portrayed in each image.

Across multiple studies, the observers consistently chose the same expressions as representations of either triumph or pride. These now add to universal expressive behaviors among all humans. So far, that list includes anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise.

“There is some evidence for embarrassment and shame as well,” Matsumoto said.

Mark Frank, a professor who is the director of the Communication Science Center at the University of Buffalo, told Discovery News that he “very much agrees with the conclusions.”

In terms of the origins of triumph-and-pride displays, Frank said “that there is likely some other primate (Homo or non-human) linkage. It may be some anger/effort burn off (e.g., in anger there is some redirect of blood to the periphery and upper body). You see this gesture in many sports -- hockey, football, basketball -- so it goes beyond just contact sports.”

Read more at Discovery News

Dinosaur Boom Linked to Rise of Rocky Mountains

The evolution of new dinosaur species may have surged due to the rise of the Rocky Mountains and the emergence of a prehistoric inner sea in North America, researchers say.

Duck-billed and horned dinosaurs flourished in North America, reaching a peak about 75 million years ago, a time known as the Campanian. For instance, one Campanian region known as the Dinosaur Park formation in what is now Canada saw seven different duck-billed dinosaur species and five horned dinosaur species emerge.

A comparable region known as the Hell Creek formation in the United States from the Maastrichtian, the time that led up to the end of the Age of Dinosaurs 65 million years ago, saw only a single duck-billed dinosaur species and maybe three horned dinosaur species at most.

"The reason for this discrepancy in dinosaur diversity has never been adequately explained," said researcher Terry Gates, a vertebrate paleontologist at Ohio University.

Dinosaurs and geology

To help solve the mystery behind this pattern of evolution, Gates and colleagues analyzed the ancient geology of western North America, since environmental alterations often influence evolution. After focusing on trends in mountain and ocean formation 70 million to 80 million years ago, they found the landscape experienced profound changes back then that may have influenced dinosaur evolution.

During the early to middle Cretaceous, geological forces lifted the western United States, creating a huge mountain range known as the Sevier Mountains. This extended in a line from the American southwest through Alberta, Canada. Later, one of the tectonic plates under North America's crust shifted, building another mountain range farther east — the Laramide Orogeny, the infant stage of the modern-day Rocky Mountains.

 The area just to the east of the new Sevier Mountains dipped downward, creating a shallow inner sea known as the Western Interior Seaway that flooded the continent from the Canadian Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. This seaway divided the continent into three large islands to the north, east and west that were densely populated with dinosaurs.

The wild west

The dinosaurs of the west dwelled on an island called Laramidia. "Western North America has been a hotbed for dinosaur discoveries for more than a century, but the recent explosion of new dinosaur species coming out of Utah is sending waves through the paleontological community and revolutionized our understanding of dinosaur evolution on the continent,"  researcher Lindsay Zanno said in a statement. Zanno is the director of the Paleontology and Geology Research Laboratory at the Nature Research Center of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

 Specifically, the new finds helped illustrate how dinosaurs evolved on an island with changing geography. The growth of the Sevier Mountains and the Western Interior Seaway caused dinosaur habitat to shrink on Laramidia.

"It appears that geographic as well as probably also ecological barriers created by the rise of mountain ranges and the seaway caused isolation of the northern and southern populations of the crested duck-billed and horned plant-eating dinosaurs," researcher Albert Prieto-Márquez at the Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology and Geology in Munich, Germany, said in a statement. "We hypothesize that such isolation facilitated rapid speciation and increased diversity in these animals."

New species of duck-billed and horned dinosaurs were being born at an explosive rate of every few hundred thousand years during the brief time when the two mountain ranges and the seaway coexisted. Isolated populations often evolve new features more rapidly, Gates said.

Eventually, the continued rise of the Rocky Mountains kept the sea away from the continent's interior. This change opened up a vast territory for these dinosaurs to roam. This, in turn, reduced how fast new species evolved in the region to every few million years, the researchers suggest.

"Our data suggests that changing geography contributed to the pattern we see in western North America," Gates said.

During the times of isolation, a number of species of giant duck-billed dinosaurs "roamed a much smaller area than you might think given that many were larger than elephants," Gates said. It may be possible these dinosaurs evolved to eat specialized plants found only in certain regions, explaining why they lived in relatively tight confines.

Dinosaur diversity dip

Researchers had suggested that dinosaurs were declining before their mass extinction, due to a dip in diversity in the years leading up to the calamity.

"The major question I've been thinking about for 10 years was, 'Were dinosaurs really declining before they went extinct?'" Gates told LiveScience. "It turns out the time period of dinosaur diversity we were looking at, the Campanian, was a bit of an anomaly. It saw three converging geologic structures all coming together to form perfect conditions for a dinosaur species boom. Everyone was using this time as a baseline for dinosaur diversity, when it should have been seen as an anomaly, and the decrease in diversity later on was really a return to the status quo."

The mountain and seaway changes not only influenced dinosaur diversity in North America, but they also may have had effects elsewhere in the world. For instance, the rise of the predecessor to the Rocky Mountains created a barrier, meaning that only species living in the southern part of Laramidia could get to South America, and only species living north of the mountains could reach Asia across modern-day Alaska.

Read more at Discovery News

Aug 5, 2012

Crayfish Species Proves to Be the Ultimate Survivor

One of the most invasive species on the planet is able to source food from the land as well as its usual food sources in the water, research from Queen Mary, University of London has found.

Scientists analyzed the  of red swamp crayfish in Kenya's Lake Naivasha and found that when the water level of the lake was low, the crayfish found additional food sources on land. The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE  August 3, 2012.

Lead author Dr Jonathan Grey from Queen Mary, University of London explained: "These crayfish are incredible survivors; our research shows they are able to feed off terrestrial plants directly, as well as aquatic plants -- the first study to demonstrate this.

"It has significant implications for anyone looking to introduce these species in other areas."

The research team looked at the diet of the crayfish through a technique called stable isotope analysis, where they used a natural chemical signal of diet in the species' tissues to determine what they were eating.

They found a proportion of the crayfish population had left the main lake and were surviving by burrowing in hippopotamus footprints which left small pools of water. After dark the crayfish clambered out from the footprints and grazed on the surrounding terrestrial plants.

"This study demonstrates how the red swamp crayfish is such an extraordinarily successful invader," Dr Grey said.

The red swamp crayfish has been introduced to multiple locations throughout East Africa from the 1960s to enhance fisheries and to attempt to control populations of snails which carry a parasite causing river blindness in humans.

Read more at Science Daily

New Technology Eliminates Plant Toxins

Plants produce toxins to defend themselves against potential enemies, from herbivorous pests to diseases. Oilseed rape plants produce glucosinolates to serve this purpose. However, due to the content of glucosinolates, farmers can only use limited quantities of the protein-rich rapeseed for pig and chicken feed. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen has developed a method to hinder unwanted toxins from entering the edible parts of the plant.

The breakthrough was published August 5 in the scientific journal Nature.

"We have developed an entirely new technology that we call 'transport engineering'. It can be used to eliminate unwanted substances from the edible parts of crops," says Professor Barbara Ann Halkier, head of the Center of Excellence for Dynamic Molecular Interactions (DynaMo) at the University of Copenhagen's Faculty of Science.

The potential for toxin-free oilseed rape as a feed crop

The oilseed rape plant is but one example of a crop whose use will be greatly enhanced thanks to the new technology. Unlike the healthy glucosinolates found in broccoli, oilseed rape additionally produces a glucosinolate that is harmful to most animals when consumed in larger amounts.

This means that protein-rich rapeseed cake produced using the byproduct of rapeseeds pressed for oil, can only be used in limited quantities for pig and chicken feed. Due to this, Northern Europe continues to import large amounts of soy cake for animal feed.

Two transport proteins found

The breakthrough increases the potential of oilseed rape as a commercial animal feed: "We managed to find two proteins that transport glucosinolates into the seeds of the thale cress plant, a close relative of the oilseed rape. When we subsequently produced thale cress without these two proteins, the remarkable result was that their seeds were completely free of glucosinolates and thus suitable for feed," emphasises Barbara Ann Halkier.

Worldwide, oilseed rape is the third most widely grown oilseed-producing crop. 'Transport engineering', the new technology platform, is so promising that one of the world's largest companies involved in plant biotechnology -- Bayer CropScience -- is now negotiating with the University of Copenhagen's Tech Transfer Unit to collaborate with the research group so as to deploy the new technology and produce an oilseed rape plant with glucosinolate-free seeds. According to Bayer CropScience project leader Peter Denolf such seeds will significantly enhance the use of oilseed rape meal as animal feed and bring along a more sustainable oilseed rape processing procedure.

Read more at Science Daily