Dec 31, 2013

Happy New Scientific Year

I wanted to take the time to wish everybody in the world a happy new year with the hopes it will be a very scientific one.
Lets also hope that 2014 will resolve some of the problems that are in this world of ours.

All of you, take care and be safe.

Danny Boston from A Magical Journey

Dec 30, 2013

Caterpillar Puffs Out Toxic Nicotine in Breath

Bad breath is no stranger to many animals, but tobacco hornworm caterpillars take it to another level with what researchers are calling “toxic halitosis.”

The caterpillars feast on tobacco plants, ingesting large amounts of nicotine as they do so. A study in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the caterpillars retain nicotine toxin in their blood that they puff out as a noxious warning to would-be predators.

Insects have long used plant toxins for their own benefit. There’s even a caterpillar with toxic barf.

As lead author Pavan Kumar and his team explain, “The eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) regurgitates hydrogen cyanide and benzaldehyde ingested from their cyanogenic (i.e. cyanide-containing) host plants when attacked by ants.”

Both of these compounds are poisonous, as mystery book readers likely know. Poisonous puke is obviously not very appealing, even to voracious ants, so the eastern tent caterpillar’s defense mechanism often works.

The Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala) also acquires a toxic substance from plants that turns off bird and ant predators. Rattlebox moths ingest alkaloids that are poisonous to spiders, which then steer clear of the moths.

In the case of the tobacco hornworm caterpillar, Kumar and his colleagues from the Max-Planck-Institute for Chemical Ecology found that wolf spiders, which usually consider the caterpillars to be good eats, avoid them if they puff out nicotine.

Nicotine is a natural toxin. In humans, as for other creatures, it can be deadly, although it usually takes a lot for a person to succumb to its effects. For example, two brothers died after smoking 17-18 pipes full of tobacco. Health problems can also result if someone touches wet tobacco leaves. Nicotine can absorb into the body, causing everything from nausea to dizziness.

The caterpillars, on the other hand, possess a gene that allows them to shunt nicotine into external respiratory openings known as spiracles. It is through these “breath holes” that the caterpillars release their toxic halitosis.

Read more at Discovery News

Tiny Organisms Thrive Well Below Earth's Surface

Miles beneath the Earth's surface, where no light or air reaches, tiny organisms are eking out a meager existence.

Yet despite making up an estimated 6 percent of all life on Earth, researchers know almost nothing about these deep-dwellers. And scientists have failed to culture, or grow, the bacteria in the lab, making it difficult to understand how they survive the harsh, energy-starved environment below the planet's surface.

"We're asking really basic, fundamental, big-time questions: Who is there? What are they doing? How did they get there? How many of them are there?" said Jan Amend, an earth scientist at the University of Southern California's Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations. "These are really, really simple questions but very fundamental ones we don't know the answers to."

To answer some of these questions, scientists have embarked on a census to catalog the life buried beneath the Earth's surface. What they find could help them understand the origins of life on Earth, or reveal the kinds of life that could survive on other planets.

Over the last several decades, researchers have probed the microbial communities living on the seafloor, then gradually pushed beneath the surface. Deeper and deeper, scientists still found life. The deepest life yet found are bacteria living 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) below the surface in South African gold mines. (And in 2011, scientists even found worms that live underground and eat those bacteria.)

But bacteria and archaea have been found in sediments in hydrothermal vents, subglacial lakes, mud volcanoes, underwater mountains and many other environments, said Rick Colwell, a microbiologist at Oregon State University, who presented results from a new census of such organisms earlier this month at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. Everywhere researchers look, the subsurface is teeming with life.

To begin to catalog these communities, Sharon Grim of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and colleagues such as Colwell, with the Census of Deep Life, have begun analyzing genetic data from all the underground archaea and bacteria they can, including a key identifying set of genes.

"It's like an organism's dog tags, it indicates to a rough extent who they are," Colwell told LiveScience.

Though the results are still early, they are finding that the life at that depth is incredibly diverse, Colwell said.

They have also found one type of archaea in about a third of their samples from all over the world, and in all the archaeal communities sequenced. Like the krill that feed a plethora of other animals in the oceans, it may be a keystone species that needs to be present for such primitive organisms to thrive, Colwell said.

Very similar life forms have also been found in communities in wildly differing environments. So either evolution has forced them to evolve to the subsurface in similar ways, or these organisms share an ancient root close to the origin of life.

But interpreting the results takes caution, Colwell said.

Because there are so few of the deep-dwellers and they reproduce so slowly, any whiff of contamination from quickly-growing, plentiful surface microbes can drown out the faint genetic signal from these bacteria.

The dark-dwellers reproduce only every few months or years and have glacially slow metabolisms, with some organisms moving the equivalent of just a few electrons per second, said Jens Kallmeyer, a geochemist at the University of Potsdam in Germany.

"We cannot understand how an organism can possibly survive on that little energy," Kallmeyer told LiveScience.

The findings have broader implications for life on Earth. For one, deep bacteria, like their aboveground brethren, play a role in the breakdown and cycling of carbon in the environment. That, in turn, affects how much carbon dioxide reaches the atmosphere and alters the climate.

But perhaps the greatest insights these groundlings can tell us is about life on other planets.

Read more at Discovery News

'Neanderthal' Remains Actually Medieval Human

A few fragmentary bones thought to be the remains of Neanderthals actually belonged to medieval Italians, new research finds.

The study is a reanalysis of a tooth, which was found in in a cave in northeastern Italy along with a finger bone and another tooth. Originally, researchers identified these scraps as belonging to Neanderthals, the early cousins of humans who went extinct about 30,000 years ago. Instead, the new study reveals the bones to belong to modern Homo sapiens.

There's no telling whom the original owner of the teeth and finger was, but the cave where they were discovered was both a hermitage, or dwelling place, and the site of a grisly medieval massacre.

Mystery find

The teeth and the bone were found in the San Bernardino Cave in the 1980s in a rock layer dating back to Neanderthal times, approximately 28,000 to 59,000 years ago. But location alone is not enough for a firm identification, said study researcher Stefano Benazzi, a physical anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. An analysis of the bones themselves is necessary, too. Earlier, researchers had conducted this analysis, but they lacked the high-tech tools available to scientists today.

"The taxonomical discrimination of the species was based mainly on the layer the human fossil was found instead of the morphological features," or shape and size of the bones, Benazzi told LiveScience.

The size and shape of the teeth were consistent with belonging to Homo sapiens, but their rock layer suggested Neanderthal. A look back at the excavations revealed murky geology — at some point in the late middle ages, a wall to seal off the cave had been built, potentially disturbing the rock layers and preventing the researchers from using the layers as proof of age.

Human or Neanderthal?

Benazzi and his colleagues took a direct approach, analyzing one of the teeth, a molar, found in the cave. (These analyses require the destruction of part of the bone, which is why they are often not done.)

First, they took a look at the shape of the tooth using micro-computed tomography (CT), a scanning method that allows researchers to create virtual 3D models of an object. They also sampled for mitochondrial DNA, a type of DNA passed down the maternal line. Next, they used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the tooth. Finally, they analyzed molecular traces in the tooth to determine the individual's diet.

The results converged on one answer: This tooth was not Neanderthal. The shape was somewhat ambiguous, but suggestive of a Homo sapiens' tooth. The DNA looked far more human than Neanderthal. The date sealed the deal: Instead of being at least 30,000 years old, the tooth dated back to between A.D. 1420 and 1480.

The diet analysis revealed that the ratio of plants and meat eaten by the tooth's owner was consistent with the diet of a medieval Italian who ate millet, a plant not even introduced to Italy until 5,000 years ago or later.

"It's great that technology has advanced so far now that we can reassess these older finds," said Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist at the University of West Florida who was not involved in the study. "Now we can use carbon-14 dating and ancient DNA and compare it to the Neanderthal genome."

Though the researchers did not chemically analyze the other tooth and finger bone, their sizes and close association with the molar suggest that they, too, are medieval in origin.

A grisly history

The discovery of medieval bones highlights the cave's long history. It served as a hermitage in the 1400s, and was possibly inhabited by San Bernardino of Siena, a priest and missionary who spent time in the area. In 1510, during the War of the League of Cambrai, the cave was a site of a massacre of local people by mercenary troops. Some died of asphyxiation in the cave itself, where they had fled to seek refuge.

Whether the bones belong to one of those victims or to another medieval Italian is unknown, but the construction of a wall over the cave mouth in the Late Middle Ages likely pushed the bones into the deeper rock layers, where they were mistaken for Neanderthal remains. After the massacre, the site became a church.

Read more at Discovery News

When Did Galaxies Get Their Spirals?

Look in any given point in the sky and you will see galaxies. Billions and billions and billions of galaxies. Look closer and you’ll find they can be categorized into three main types of galaxy, based on their apparent shape: elliptical, spiral, and irregular. But what makes a spiral galaxy, well, spiral? And how long does it take them to get in a spin?

In a fascinating study to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, married astronomer team Debra Elmegreen (of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York) and Bruce Elmegreen (at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York) looked to the famous Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (UDF) observation of a tiny, ‘empty’ patch of sky in the constellation Fornax. The observation gathered data from September 2003 to January 2004, capturing light that was generated right at the dawn of the Universe.

The ground-shaking revelation to come from the UDF is that even a tiny region of the sky that appears to be empty is actually stuffed full of faint, distant galaxies and in this particular observation, around 10,000 galaxies can be seen.

After some intense scrutiny, the researchers were able to pick out 269 spiral galaxies in the UDF, but whittled that number down to 41 — the others were discarded due to the lack of red-shift data (a metric that would reveal the galaxy’s distance and therefore its age) or the inability to clearly see a spiral pattern.

But of those 41 galaxies, the Elmegreens were able to sub-divide them into five morphological classifications — from the clumpy-armed spirals that had a “wooly” appearance and two symmetrical spiral arm galaxies (designated “Grand Design” galaxies) to more mature, multi-armed spiral structures, not too dissimilar to our galaxy. The different classifications painted a picture of spiral galaxy evolution and has now given astronomers a very privileged look into when the spirals of a galaxy formed in the early Universe.

“The onset of spiral structure in galaxies appears to occur between redshifts 1.4 and 1.8 when disks have developed a cool stellar component, rotation dominates over turbulent motions in the gas, and massive clumps become less frequent,” write the astronomers.

The redshift of a galaxy directly relates to that galaxy’s age. As the Universe expands, ancient light traveling through the universe will get stretched. This ‘light-stretching’ is known as redshift. The higher the redshift, the further the light has traveled, so the older it is.

Therefore, from the redshift measurements of this small collection of galaxies in the UDF, the researchers have found that a definite spiral galaxy structure begins to form for galaxies at redshift 1.8, which equates to approximately 3.7 billion years after the Big Bang. However, these are only the embryos of spiral galaxies, the “woolly”-type galaxies with very basic structures smeared with nebulous clouds of star formation. It’s not until approximately 8 billion years after the Big Bang (redshift 0.6) that more complex, multi-arm spiral structures form.

“The observations of different spiral types are consistent with the interpretation that clumpy disks form first and then transition to spirals as the accretion rate and gas velocity dispersion decrease, and the growing population of old fast-moving stars begins to dominate the disk mass,” they write.

In a nutshell, early galaxies are a turbulent mess of gas, dust and voracious star formation. These tumultuous times are not conducive to the galaxy settling into a more refined spiral structure. But given enough time, older stars begin to dominate the galactic landscape as the once-giant star formation regions shrink. These factors limit the instabilities throughout the galaxy, heralding a long, quiescent spiral galaxy structure not too dissimilar to the Milky Way’s shape some 13.75 billion years after the Big Bang.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 29, 2013

A Magical Journeys Sceptical Award

As a tradition each year I have given away an Sceptical Award and it's not going to change this year.

There are allways alot of people and organisations that work in the sceptical era that derserve recognition but to list them all here would take to much time and space but to name a couple, The James Randi Foundation and The Richard Dawknings Foundation.

Onto this years Sceptical Award. After alot of thought throughout the year and alot of reading the decision this year landed on Pakistani Atheists (@PakistanAtheist at twitter). The motivation to this years award is as follows:
The Pakistani Atheists has throughout the year delivered news about the Arab world, not only about Pakistan so that the western world can be tought about what happens in the perpective of people that lives in the Arab part of the world.
I, Danny Boston congratulate this years winners. Keep up the good work.

Danny Boston from A Magical Journey

Dec 28, 2013

Genetic Clue to Fighting New Strains of Flu

Researchers at the University of Melbourne have discovered a genetic marker that can accurately predict which patients will experience more severe disease in a new strain of influenza (H7N9) currently found in China.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, senior author, Associate Professor Katherine Kedzierska from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology said that being able to predict which patients will be more susceptible to the emerging influenza strain, will allow clinicians to better manage an early intervention strategy.

"By using genetic markers to blood and lung samples, we have discovered that there are certain indicators that signal increased susceptibility to this influenza. Higher than normal levels of cytokines, driven by a genetic variant of a protein called IFITM3, tells us that the severe disease is likely," she said.

"We call this a Cytokine Storm and people with the defective genetic variant of the protein IFITM3 are more likely to succumb to severe influenza infection.

Professor Peter Doherty, AC, Laureate Professor and a lead author of the study from the University of Melbourne said predicting how influenza works in individuals has implications for the management of disease and the resources on our health system.

"We are exploring how genetic sequencing and early identification can allow us to intervene in treating patients before they become too unwell. As new cases of influenza emerge in the Northern Hemisphere, we try to keep a season ahead and prepare to protect the most vulnerable in our community," he said.

Read more at Science Daily

Antioxidant Drug Knocks Down Multiple Sclerosis-Like Disease in Mice

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University have discovered that an antioxidant designed by scientists more than a dozen years ago to fight damage within human cells significantly helps symptoms in mice that have a multiple sclerosis-like disease.

The antioxidant -- called MitoQ -- has shown some promise in fighting neurodegenerative diseases. But this is the first time it has been shown to significantly reverse an MS-like disease in an animal.

The discovery could lead to an entirely new way to treat multiple sclerosis, which affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide.

Multiple sclerosis occurs when the body's immune system attacks the myelin, or the protective sheath, surrounding nerve fibers of the central nervous system. Some underlying nerve fibers are destroyed. Resulting symptoms can include blurred vision and blindness, loss of balance, slurred speech, tremors, numbness and problems with memory and concentration.

The antioxidant research was published in the December edition of Biochimica et Biophysica Acta Molecular Basis of Disease. The research team was led by P. Hemachandra Reddy, Ph.D., an associate scientist in the Division of Neuroscience at OHSU's Oregon National Primate Research Center.

To conduct their study, the researchers induced mice to contract a disease called experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis, or EAE, which is very similar to MS in humans. They separated mice into four groups: a group with EAE only; a group that was given the EAE, then treated with the MitoQ; a third group that was given the MitoQ first, then given the EAE; and a fourth "control" group of mice without EAE and without any other treatment.

After 14 days, the EAE mice that had been treated with the MitoQ exhibited reduced inflammatory markers and increased neuronal activity in the spinal cord -- an affected brain region in MS -- that showed their EAE symptoms were being improved by the treatment. The mice also showed reduced loss of axons, or nerve fibers and reduced neurological disabilities associated with the EAE. The mice that had been pre-treated with the MitoQ showed the least problems. The mice that had been treated with MitoQ after EAE also showed many fewer problems than mice who were just induced to get the EAE and then given no treatment.

"The MitoQ also significantly reduced inflammation of the neurons and reduced demyelination," Reddy said. "These results are really exciting. This could be a new front in the fight against MS."

Even if the treatment continues to show promise, testing in humans would be years away. The next steps for Reddy's team will be to understand the mechanisms of MitoQ neuroprotection in different regions of the brain, and how MitoQ protects mitochondria within the brain cells of the EAE mice. Mitochondria, components within all human cells, convert energy into forms that are usable by the cell.

There is a built-in advantage with MitoQ. Unlike many new drugs, MitoQ has been tested for safety in numerous clinical trails with humans. Since its development in the late 1990s, researchers have tested MitoQ's ability to decrease oxidative damage in mitochondria.

Read more at Science Daily

Dec 27, 2013

Building a Better Malaria Vaccine: Mixing the Right Cocktail

A safe and effective malaria vaccine is high on the wish list of most people concerned with global health. Results published on December 26 in PLOS Pathogens suggest how a leading vaccine candidate could be vastly improved.

The study, led by Sheetij Dutta, from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, USA, and colleagues, focused on a protein called AMA1 needed by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite to invade blood cells and cause disease. Study results suggest that a cocktail of AMA1 proteins from only a few different strains can overcome major limitations of an earlier designed version of AMA1-based vaccines.

The challenge with the malaria parasite in general and its AMA1 surface protein in particular is that both exist as multiple strains. Using AMA1 in a vaccine readies the human immune system for subsequent encounters with the parasite, but when such a vaccine was previously tested in humans, it was effective mostly against one particular P. falciparum strain. To explore the potential for a more broadly protective vaccine, the scientists tested different cocktails of AMA1 from different parasite strains for their ability to elicit a diverse range of antibodies that are active in parasite inhibition assays. They confirmed that a cocktail of AMA1 proteins from three different parasite strains was better than one or two, and one they call Quadvax, which contained AMA1 proteins derived from four different strains, led to an antibody response that was broader than the sum of strain-specific antibodies elicited by the four individual strains. Moreover, Quadvax-elicited antibodies inhibited a range of parasites, including many strains that were different from those in the Quadvax mix. In different laboratory tests, Quadvax-induced antibodies inhibited the growth of 26 different parasite strains, and the scientists suggest that "the combination of four AMA1 variants in Quadvax may be sufficient to overcome global AMA1 diversity."

Besides varying a lot from strain to strain, AMA1 also contains less variable (conserved) exposed parts (so-called epitopes) on its surface. The researchers found that vaccination with Quadvax yielded not only antibodies against the variable epitopes, but also against more conserved epitopes of the AMA1 protein. Such antibodies were not seen when using individual strains for immunization, but Quadvax appeared to enhance the immunogenicity -- the ability to provoke an antibody response -- of these conserved parts of the protein. Since the epitopes are identical across strains, the resulting antibodies are broadly active rather than strain-specific.

The scientists conclude "we had set out to study broadening of antibody responses achieved by mixing AMA1 proteins and were surprised and delighted to find not only greater variety of strain-specific antibodies but also increased antibodies against conserved epitopes were induced by the Quadvax. Perhaps even more exciting, when mixed, combinations of these antibodies were synergistic in their broad inhibition of many parasite strains. Novel conserved epitopes described here can be targets for further improvement of the vaccine. Most importantly, our data strongly supports continued efforts to develop a blood stage vaccine against malaria."

Read more at Science Daily

‘Pufferfish on Steroids’ Gets as Big as a Truck

If Finding Nemo taught us anything, it’s that we may as well rename the clownfish “that Nemo fish.” Beyond that, it’s a great study in marine ecology: Nemo’s rescue party casts off from the safety of the reef into the perilous open ocean, where one must be fast, inconspicuous or untouchably enormous to survive. Our heroes are none of these, and thus hijinks ensue.

Millions of years ago a small fish embarked on its own Nemo-esque voyage, abandoning reefs in favor of open ocean. Over the millennia it lost its tail and grew absolutely immense; today it can reach more than 10 feet in length and 5,000 pounds, thus putting itself beyond threat of all but the mightiest predators.

The bizarre ocean sunfish is the world’s biggest bony fish. The Germans call it “the swimming head,” the Chinese “the toppled car fish,” and taxonomists Mola mola — which, ironically enough for something that floats, is Latin for “millstone.” And unlike Nemo’s compatriots, it is beautifully adapted to the high seas.

The ocean sunfish’s streamlined body allows it to slice easily through the water and sneak up on photographers and pretend that it’s the one who’s surprised.
Mola mola is without doubt the planet’s most oddly proportioned fish. In place of a tail is a structure made of migrated dorsal and anal fin rays known as a clavus, which serves as a rudder. “They look like they’d be a silly design,” said marine biologist and National Geographic explorer Tierney Thys, “but they’re actually very efficient, and one of the few examples of an underwater animal that’s actually flying through the water with lift-based design.”

While most fish swing their tails back and forth to swim, Mola mola has a fused and greatly shortened backbone and relies solely on its towering fins for power. With such a conspicuously flat body, it deftly slices through the water, wide-eyed and mouth agape like a perpetually surprised saw blade.

“They just seem like this conundrum,” Thys said. “Why lose your tail and head off into the open sea? Well, that’s all explained by looking at their ancestry. They come from a group of fishes related to pufferfish and porcupine fish. Essentially they’re just a pufferfish on steroids. And if you look at the way pufferfish and porcupine fish live their lives, they’re built for comfort, not for speed.”

This ancestry is betrayed by the ocean sunfish’s tiny larvae, which develop the pufferfish’s characteristic spines before resorbing them as they mature, said Thys. These barbs help reduce predation — with an emphasis on reduce. Thys has found tuna with their stomachs packed full of sunfish larvae.

Again, the open ocean is an exceedingly difficult place to survive, especially for a young ‘un. Save for the occasional drifting clump of vegetation (or, increasingly, rafts of plastic), there isn’t a lick of cover for such larvae. So Mola mola subscribes to the spray-and-pray method of reproduction. It’s the fecundity record-holder, with a 4-footer observed releasing some 300 million eggs. Each egg is the size of a Times New Roman lowercase “o,” making the ocean for a short time read something like “oooooooooooooooooooo.” For a creature that can reach more than two tons, that’s astonishingly tiny. Indeed, the ocean sunfish also holds the record for vertebrate growth. That diminutive egg will grow in size 60 million times, the equivalent of a human child ballooning to the weight of six Titanics by adulthood.

This incredible growth requires incredible feeding, yet the ocean sunfish hunts one of the sea’s more low-calorie offerings: jellyfish. Your average moon jelly, for instance, packs about four calories per 3.5 ounces of mass. This might not seem worth it for the ocean sunfish, especially to those of you who have been stung by jellies. (I may as well take a moment to mention that you shouldn’t apply urine to a sting. That’s a myth started by some guy who’s probably pretty damn proud of himself at this point).

But Mola mola is well equipped for the abuse. “They’ve got really thick lips,” said Thys. “They’ve got very thick skin, like a hide, and they have a lot of mucus that covers their skin.” Its skin is composed of tiny plates with tiny spines, like those of the pufferfish. It is so rough and tough that an ocean sunfish struck by an Australian ship in 1998 wore the paint down to the metal as it stuck to the bow.

An ocean sunfish skeleton next to a descriptive plaque the creature is fond of carrying around in the wild.
The protection against stings continues right into its guts. The ocean sunfish has a very robust intestinal wall. “In Taiwan there’s a specialty dish called dragon intestines, and that’s made from the guts of Mola, because they’re very thick, tube-like intestines,” said Thys.

The ocean sunfish supplements its diet with all manner of other creatures, from squid to small fish to odd creatures called salps. It can dive to more than 3,000 feet in search of food; in the dark depths of the sea, it relies on large eyes connected to a brain that devotes an unusual amount of computational power to the optic nerve.

It’s on the surface, though, where the ocean sunfish puts on a show that gives it its name — the “sunfish” bit, not the “ocean” part. Curiously, it will turn on its side and bask. It’s a measure to remove parasites, of which Mola mola hosts some 40 genera. By laying on its side, the sunfish presents a buffet to seagulls that pick parasites off its skin. “And then whenever you’re in the ocean and you come across anything floating, it attracts little fishes underneath it,” said Thys. “So by casting this shadow it could also attract little cleaner fishes to come up and eat parasites off them.”

UV rays also could be frying the parasites, said Thys. This may have the added bonus of thermally recharging the fish, which has been tracked during a dive experiencing temperatures falling from 68 degrees Fahrenheit to just 35 degrees. So, yes, the ocean sunfish gets its tan on. And yes, in case you were wondering, accordingly it’s fond of the Jersey Shore.

Read more at Wired Science

Bald Eagle Spotting: Top Spots

Forty years ago, the Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. The act’s authors sought to protect animals, plants and other wildlife from extinction caused by “economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation,” in the words of the Act.

One symbol of the United States, the bald eagle, provides an example of how a change to the economy saved an icon of North America.

DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, weakened eagle and other bird egg shells so much that the eggs would collapse under the mother. The chemical was introduced in the 1940s and already had decimated bird populations by the early 1960s.

In 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the pesticide. The removal of DDT from the market allowed eagle eggs to regain their strength, and the raptors began a recovery.

Bald eagles soared off of the Endangered Species List in 2007. Although off the list, the birds are still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

An eagle-watching trip could be a thrilling way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act and the success of bald eagles.

From coast to coast, National Wildlife Refuges offer winter-long opportunities to observe the raptors, along with special events.

The USFWS presents a cross-country list of these eagle adventures in Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, Utah, California, Oregon and Washington. Here are a few highlights:

Maryland: Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Eagle Festival March 15, 2014, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The festival is a free way to see more than 200 eagles overwintering in the refuge, the largest population on the East Coast, north of Florida.

Read more at Discovery News

Nearby Failed Star Binary May Hide Alien World

Astronomers have spotted signs of a possible exoplanet in a nearby system of twin failed stars. If confirmed, the alien world would be one of the closest to our sun ever found.

Scientists only discovered the pair of failed stars, known as brown dwarfs, last year. At just 6.6 light-years from Earth, the pair is the third closest system to our sun. It's actually so close that "television transmissions from 2006 are now arriving there," Kevin Luhman, of Penn State's Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, noted when their discovery was first announced in June.

The brown dwarf system, which has been dubbed Luhman 16AB and is officially classified as WISE J104915.57-531906, is slightly more distant than Barnard's star, a red dwarf 6 light-years away that was first seen in 1916. Even closer to our sun is Alpha Centauri, whose two main stars form a binary pair about 4.4 light-years away. The alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb is known to orbit one of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system, and currently holds the title of closest exoplanet to our solar system.

The brown dwarfs were spotted in data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft, which took about 1.8 million images of asteroids, stars and galaxies during its ambitious 13-month mission to scan the entire sky. Brown dwarfs are sometimes called failed stars because they are bigger than planets but don't enough mass to kick-off nuclear fusion at their core.

Henri Boffin of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) led a team of astronomers seeking to learn more about our newfound dim neighbors. The group used the very sensitive FORS2 instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope at Paranal in Chile to take astrometric measurements of the objects during a two-month observation campaign from April to June 2013. (Astrometry involves tracking the precise motions of a star in the sky.)

"We have been able to measure the positions of these two objects with a precision of a few milli-arcseconds," Boffin said in a statement. "That is like a person in Paris being able to measure the position of someone in New York with a precision of 10 centimeters."

The group discovered that both brown dwarfs in the system have a mass 30 to 50 times the mass of Jupiter. (By comparison, our sun's mass is about 1,000 Jupiter masses.) Because their mass is so low, they take about 20 years to complete one orbit around each other, the astronomers said.

Boffin's team also discovered slight disturbances in the orbits of these objects during their two-month observation period. They believe the tug of a third object, perhaps a planet around one of the two brown dwarfs, could be behind these slight variations.

"Further observations are required to confirm the existence of a planet," Boffin aid in a statement. "But it may well turn out that the closest brown dwarf binary system to the sun turns out to be a triple system!"

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 24, 2013

Happy Holidays

I wanted to take the time to wish all of you readers of A Magical Journey, happy holidays. Take this time and spenty it with family and loved ones even if you're an atheist. You don't have to be a theist to spend time with those you love or give gifts. Don't do anything stupid is my advice.

Happy Holidays
Danny at A magical Journey

Dec 23, 2013

Thousand-Year-Old Vineyards Discovered in Alava, Spain

Zaballa (Iruña de Oca) was a medieval settlement abandoned in the 15th century. The building of a manor monastery at the heart of it undermined the organisation of the village in the 10th century with the creation of a highly significant rent-seeking system; it was later turned into a veritable factory, a specialised estate in the hands of local lords who, under the auspices of the economic boom in towns like Vitoria-Gasteiz, tried to obtain the maximum profits possible. In the end, the "flight" of its settlers towards the towns caused it to be abandoned.

Today, it is archaeologists from the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country who are endeavouring to reconstruct and salvage our rural heritage by studying deserted settlements like Zaballa.

Zaballa is one of the more than 300 deserted settlements known in Alava-Araba; they are rural spaces abandoned in historical times but now being studied by the UPV/EHU's Cultural Heritage and Landscapes Research Group. Its director, Juan Antonio Quirós-Castillo, highlights the importance of Zaballa and Alavese sites in general, as they are part of one of the most importance archaeological records of the mediaeval era throughout northern Iberia, and on a par with few sites in Europe. "The important thing is not just their number, but that in the decade that we have been working on this project, extensive work has been done on nearly half a dozen of them, and work at other levels has been done on nearly a hundred."

A major site

Zaballa is also the first deserted settlement in Spain that has its own publication and is a major site. The most recent discoveries made there have been published in a special issue of the journal Quaternary International; among the discoveries, the authors stress that the terraced fields built in the 10th century -- still perfectly visible in the landscape -- were devoted to the intensive cultivation of vines. "Archaeo-botanical studies of seed remains found in the excavations and pollen studies have provided material evidence of the existence of vine cultivation in a relatively early period like the 10th century," explained Quirós. This evidence is also supported by the metal tools discovered and which had been destined for this very use, and the study of the agrarian spaces, "which owing to the nature of the crop spaces built and the agrarian practices developed, they are not compatible with cereal crops but they are with vines," he added.

This publication covers the geo-archaeological work conducted at Zaballa and Zornotegi (Salvatierra), another abandoned settlement in Alava, which became deserted in the 15th century and where the terraced fields were devoted to the cultivation of cereals.

These discoveries have been made possible by the use of archaeological excavation protocols, and geo-archaeological sampling and analysis, which are new in Spain and which have allowed the cultivated fields to be dated and the agrarian cycle to be studied. "It is not so much about excavating a site, but about excavating landscapes," explained Quirós. In other words, it is about abandoning the traditional concept of the site, understood as a monumental or monumentalised place, in order to get to know the context in which these places are located."

In comparison with Zaballa, "Zornoztegi has a completely different history," he pointed out. "Even though it was founded at more or less the same time, it is a much more egalitarian social community in which such significant social differences are not observed, and nor is the action of manorial powers which, in some way, undermined the balance of the community."

In Quirós' view, these microhistories constitute small windows into the past that allow one to analyse relatively complex historical processes directly, bottom upwards, "in other words, to see how the peasant community itself gradually adapts to the political and economic changes that take place in the medieval era and later."

What is more, the analytical study of these places of production allows one to abandon those more traditional points of view of history which "conceptualize the high medieval periods as a time of technical simplification, as a meagre period in economic terms, since they point to considerable social and economic complexity. Specifically, it has been possible in these studies to see that there are various important moments in the Basque Country, 5th to 6th centuries and 10th to 11th centuries, which were decisive in the construction of our landscapes."

Read more at Science Daily

Solitons in a Crystal: New Light Source Could Serve in Geo-Navigation, Search for Earth-Like Planets

Soliton water waves can travel several kilometers without any significant change in their shape or amplitude, as opposed to normal waves, which widen as they travel, and eventually disappear. Discovered over 150 years ago in water canals, solitons represent a surprising phenomenon of wave propagation and have been observed in natural phenomena including moving sand dunes and space plasmas. A unique aspect of solitons is that they can retain their shape because of non-linear and dispersive effects that stabilize the wave. Solitons can even occur as pulses of light that can propagate through a suitable transparent medium, e.g. an optical telecommunication fiber.

Publishing in Nature Photonics, EPFL scientists collaborating with the Russian Quantum Center and the M.V. Lomonosov Moscow State University have now discovered that so-called optical dissipative solitons can also exist in small millimeter-size optical resonators.

The optical resonators are crystals shaped to form a resonator that can guide a soliton light pulse on an endless circular path. When such a soliton light pulse circulates inside the resonator, a small fraction of it can be extracted every time the pulse completes one roundtrip.

The scientists at EPFL's Laboratory for Photonics and Quantum Measurement analyzed the extracted light pulses from the resonator and found them to be surprisingly short in duration; much shorter in fact than one millionth of one millionth of a second. Due to the small size of the optical resonator, the time between two extracted pulses is extremely short and the pulse rate very high.

Read more at Science Daily

Clues to How Plants Evolved to Cope With Cold

Researchers have found new clues to how plants evolved to withstand wintry weather. In a study to appear in the December 22 issue of the journal Nature, the team constructed an evolutionary tree of more than 32,000 species of flowering plants -- the largest time-scaled evolutionary tree to date. By combining their tree with freezing exposure records and leaf and stem data for thousands of species, the researchers were able to reconstruct how plants evolved to cope with cold as they spread across the globe. The results suggest that many plants acquired characteristics that helped them thrive in colder climates -- such as dying back to the roots in winter -- long before they first encountered freezing.

Fossil evidence and reconstructions of past climatic conditions suggest that early flowering plants lived in warm tropical environments, explained co-author Jeremy Beaulieu at the National Institute for Mathematical & Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) at the University of Tennessee.

As plants spread to higher latitudes and elevations, they evolved in ways that helped them deal with cold conditions. Plants that live in the tundra, such as Arctic cinquefoil and three-toothed saxifrage, can withstand winter temperatures below minus 15 degrees Celsius.

Unlike animals, most plants can't move to escape the cold or generate heat to keep them warm. It's not so much the cold but the ice that poses problems for plants. For instance, freezing and thawing cause air bubbles to form in the plant's internal water transport system.

"Think about the air bubbles you see suspended in the ice cubes," said co-author Amy Zanne of the George Washington University. "If enough of these air bubbles come together as water thaws they can block the flow of water from the roots to the leaves and kill the plant."

The researchers identified three traits that help plants get around these problems.

Some plants, such as hickories and oaks, avoid freezing damage by dropping their leaves before the winter chill sets in -- effectively shutting off the flow of water between roots and leaves -- and growing new leaves and water transport cells when warmer weather returns.

Other plants, such as birches and poplars, also protect themselves by having narrower water transport cells, which makes the parts of the plant that deliver water less susceptible to blockage during freezing and thawing.

Still others die back to the ground in winter and re-sprout from their roots, or start growing as new plants from seeds when conditions are right.

To compile the plant trait data for their study, the researchers spent hundreds of hours scouring and merging multiple large plant databases containing tens of thousands of species, largely with the support of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in North Carolina and Macquarie University in Australia.

When they mapped their collected leaf and stem data onto their evolutionary tree for flowering plants, they found that many plants were well equipped for icy climates even before cold conditions hit.

Plants that die back to the ground in winter, for example, acquired the ability to die and come back when conditions improve long before they first experienced freezing. Similarly, species with narrow water transport cells acquired a finer circulatory system well before they confronted cold climates.

"This suggests that some other environmental pressure -- possibly drought -- caused these plants to evolve this way, and it happened to work really well for freezing tolerance too," said Zanne.

Read more at Science Daily

Night-Shining Clouds Come Early Over South Pole

Night-shining clouds started glowing high above Antarctica earlier than usual this year, observations from a NASA satellite show.

These rare types of wispy blue-white clouds are called noctilucent clouds, or NLCs. They form when water molecules freeze around "meteor smoke" close to the edge of space, typically about 50 to 53 miles (80 and 85 kilometers) above Earth's surface — so high that they can reflect light after the sun sets.

The phenomenon looks spectacular from the ground, but scientists also have watched these night-shining clouds from above with NASA's AIM (Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere) satellite since 2007. Data from AIM indicate that noctilucent clouds started forming around the South Pole on Nov. 20 this year as a tiny spot of electric blue that quickly expanded to cover the entire frozen continent, as this NASA video shows.

AIM's observations over the past few years helped scientists discover a key ingredient in night-shining clouds: "smoke" from meteoroids that bombard Earth's atmosphere. The falling space rocks leave behind a cloud of tiny particles that hovers about 43 to 62 miles (70 to 100 kilometers) above the ground.

Summer is primetime for noctilucent clouds. Because of global wind and humidity patterns, more water molecules are lifted up from the atmosphere during summer. It's also the season when the upper atmosphere is coldest, meaning more water vapor condenses into tiny ice crystals that latch onto the dust particles of disintegrated meteoroids, according to NASA. Accordingly, noctilucent clouds typically flare up over the South Pole from November to February (summer in the Southern Hemisphere), and then shift to the North Pole from May to August.

In all the years that AIM has been observing the clouds, only the 2009 noctilucent season got off to an earlier start in the South Pole, according to NASA. The 2013 season above the North Pole also started quite early (around May 13).

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 22, 2013

Researchers Grow Liquid Crystal 'Flowers' That Can Be Used as Lenses

A team of material scientists, chemical engineers and physicists from the University of Pennsylvania has made another advance in their effort to use liquid crystals as a medium for assembling structures.

In their earlier studies, the team produced patterns of "defects," useful disruptions in the repeating patterns found in liquid crystals, in nanoscale grids and rings. The new study adds a more complex pattern out of an even simpler template: a three-dimensional array in the shape of a flower.

And because the petals of this "flower" are made of transparent liquid crystal and radiate out in a circle from a central point, the ensemble resembles a compound eye and can thus be used as a lens.

The team consists of Randall Kamien, professor in the School of Arts and Sciences' Department of Physics and Astronomy; Kathleen Stebe, the School of Engineering and Applied Science's deputy dean for research and professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Shu Yang, professor in Engineering's departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Members of their labs also contributed to the new study, including lead author Daniel Beller, Mohamed Gharbi and Apiradee Honglawan.

Their work was published in Physical Review X.

The researchers' ongoing work with liquid crystals is an example of a growing field of nanotechnology known as "directed assembly," in which scientists and engineers aim to manufacture structures on the smallest scales without having to individually manipulate each component. Rather, they set out precisely defined starting conditions and let the physics and chemistry that govern those components do the rest.

The starting conditions in the researchers previous experiments were templates consisting of tiny posts. In one of their studies, they showed that changing the size, shape or spacing of these posts would result in corresponding changes in the patterns of defects on the surface of the liquid crystal resting on top of them. In another experiment, they showed they could make a "hula hoop" of defects around individual posts, which would then act as a second template for a ring of defects at the surface.

In their latest work, the researchers used a much simpler cue.

"Before we were growing these liquid crystals on something like a trellis, a template with precisely ordered features," Kamien said. "Here, we're just planting a seed."

The seed, in this case, were silica beads -- essentially, polished grains of sand. Planted at the top of a pool of liquid crystal flower-like patterns of defects grow around each bead.

The key difference between the template in this experiment and ones in the research team's earlier work was the shape of the interface between the template and the liquid crystal.

In their experiment that generated grid patterns of defects, those patterns stemmed from cues generated by the templates' microposts. Domains of elastic energy originated on the flat tops and edges of these posts and travelled up the liquid crystal's layers, culminating in defects. Using a bead instead of a post, as the researchers did in their latest experiment, makes it so that the interface is no longer flat.

"Not only is the interface at an angle, it's an angle that keeps changing," Kamien said. "The way the liquid crystal responds to that is that it makes these petal-like shapes at smaller and smaller sizes, trying to match the angle of the bead until everything is flat."

Surface tension on the bead also makes it so these petals are arranged in a tiered, convex fashion. And because the liquid crystal can interact with light, the entire assembly can function as a lens, focusing light to a point underneath the bead.

Read more at Science Daily

Ancient Spider Rock Art Sparks Archaeological Mystery

Archaeologists have discovered a panel containing the only known example of spider rock art in Egypt and, it appears, the entire Old World.

The rock panel, now in two pieces, was found on the west wall of a shallow sandstone wadi, or valley, in the Kharga Oasis, located in Egypt's western desert about 108 miles (175 kilometers) west of Luxor. Facing east, and illuminated by the morning sun, the panel is a "very unusual" find, said Egyptologist Salima Ikram, a professor at the American University in Cairo who co-directs the North Kharga Oasis Survey Project.

The identification of the creatures as spiders is tentative and the date of it uncertain, Ikram told LiveScience in an email. Even so, based on other activity in the area, the rock art may date to about 4000 B.C. or earlier, which would put it well into prehistoric times, before Egypt was unified, noted Ikram, who detailed the finding in the most recent edition of the journal Sahara.

The main panel shows what appear to be a few spiders, with a "star" that's possibly meant to depict a web next to the spider on the far left. There are also comblike drawings that are more enigmatic; Ikram said they could be insects being trapped by the spiders, plants or even silken tubes spun by the spiders.

A piece of rock that appears to have been broken off the main panel depicts creatures drawn in a different style, their limbs not flexed, but ratherhave a flat appearance. This could be an attempt to portray a harvestman, an insect that looks like a spider.

The discovery leaves archaeologists with a mystery — why did people in the Kharga Oasis create rock art showing spiders, especially when no other examples are known to exist elsewhere in Egypt or, it appears, the entire Old World?

Why spiders?

There is little evidence the ancient Egyptians had much interest in drawing spiders. The only spider hieroglyphs that Ikram knows of are rare examples from "religious texts dealing with the so-called 'Opening of the Mouth' ritual, a rite that was performed on the mummy or a statue to restore its senses for use in the Hereafter."

The secret to solving the mystery may lie more in the western desert itself. Ikram consulted with Hisham El-Hennawy, an arachnologist who mentioned spiders called Argiope lobata living in the western and eastern deserts may have attracted the interest of ancient people. These spiders can be found "shaded and surviving, in the middle of their orb web under the burning sun at Noon," Ikram writes.

The idea of spiders bathing in the sun may hold religious significance to ancient people in the area. "This would combine the force of the sun and the ability of this solar creature to survive its heat successfully, and thus be worthy of reverence or totemic allegiance," she writes in the Sahara article.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 21, 2013

Ancient Cranial Surgery: Practice of Drilling Holes in the Cranium That Dates Back Thousands of Years

Cranial surgery is tricky business, even under 21st-century conditions (think aseptic environment, specialized surgical instruments and copious amounts of pain medication both during and afterward).

However, evidence shows that healers in Peru practiced trepanation -- a surgical procedure that involves removing a section of the cranial vault using a hand drill or a scraping tool -- more than 1,000 years ago to treat a variety of ailments, from head injuries to heartsickness. And they did so without the benefit of the aforementioned medical advances.

Excavating burial caves in the south-central Andean province of Andahuaylas in Peru, UC Santa Barbara bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin and her research team unearthed the remains of 32 individuals that date back to the Late Intermediate Period (ca. AD 1000-1250). Among them, 45 separate trepanation procedures were in evidence. Kurin's findings appear in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

"When you get a knock on the head that causes your brain to swell dangerously, or you have some kind of neurological, spiritual or psychosomatic illness, drilling a hole in the head becomes a reasonable thing to do," said Kurin, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at UCSB and a specialist in forensic anthropology.

According to Kurin, trepanations first appeared in the south-central Andean highlands during the Early Intermediate Period (ca. AD 200-600), although the technique was not universally practiced. Still, it was considered a viable medical procedure until the Spanish put the kibosh on the practice in the early 16th century.

But Kurin wanted to know how trepanation came to exist in the first place. And she looked to a failed empire to find some answers.

"For about 400 years, from 600 to 1000 AD, the area where I work -- the Andahuaylas -- was living as a prosperous province within an enigmatic empire known as the Wari," she said. "For reasons still unknown, the empire suddenly collapsed." And the collapse of civilization, she noted, brings a lot of problems.

"But it is precisely during times of collapse that we see people's resilience and moxie coming to the fore," Kurin continued. "In the same way that new types of bullet wounds from the Civil War resulted in the development of better glass eyes, the same way IED's are propelling research in prosthetics in the military today, so, too, did these people in Peru employ trepanation to cope with new challenges like violence, disease and deprivation 1,000 years ago."

Kurin's research shows various cutting practices and techniques being employed by practitioners around the same time. Some used scraping, others used cutting and still others made use of a hand drill. "It looks like they were trying different techniques, the same way we might try new medical procedures today," she said. "They're experimenting with different ways of cutting into the skull."

Sometimes they were successful and the patient recovered, and sometimes things didn't go so well. "We can tell a trepanation is healed because we see these finger-like projections of bone that are growing," Kurin explained. "We have several cases where someone suffered a head fracture and were treated with the surgery; in many cases, both the original wound and the trepanation healed." It could take several years for the bone to regrow, and in a subset of those, a trepanation hole in the patient's head might remain for the rest of his life, thereby conferring upon him a new "survivor" identity.

When a patient didn't survive, his skull (almost never hers, as the practice of trepanation on women and children was forbidden in this region) might have been donated to science, so to speak, and used for education purposes. "The idea with this surgery is to go all the way through the bone, but not touch the brain," said Kurin. "That takes incredible skill and practice.

"As bioarchaeologists, we can tell that they're experimenting on recently dead bodies because we can measure the location and depths of the holes they're drilling," she continued. "In one example, each hole is drilled a little deeper than the last. So you can imagine a guy in his prehistoric Peruvian medical school practicing with his hand drill to know how many times he needs to turn it to nimbly and accurately penetrate the thickness of a skull."

Some might consider drilling a hole in someone's head a form of torture, but Kurin doesn't perceive it as such. "We can see where the trepanations are. We can see that they're shaving the hair. We see the black smudge of an herbal remedy they put over the wound," she noted. "To me, those are signs that the intention was to save the life of the sick or injured individual."

The remains Kurin excavated from the caves in Andahuaylas comprise perhaps the largest well-contextualized collection in the world. Most of the trepanned crania already studied reside in museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Field Museum of Natural History or the Hearst Museum of Anthropology. "Most were collected by archaeologists a century ago and so we don't have good contextual information," she said.

But thanks to Kurin's careful archaeological excavation of intact tombs and methodical analysis of the human skeletons and mummies buried therein, she knows exactly where, when and how the remains she found were buried, as well as who and what was buried with them. She used radiocarbon dating and insect casings to determine how long the bodies were left out before they skeletonized or were mummified, and multi-isotopic testing to reconstruct what they ate and where they were born. "That gives us a lot more information," she said.

Read more at Science Daily

Ancient Tributes to the Winter Solstice

Here Comes the Sun

This weekend marks the beginning of the end. Of winter's darkness, that is. Today (Dec. 21), the Northern Hemisphere celebrates the mark of increasingly longer days, while the Southern Hemisphere will transition to shorter days, and those at the equator won't notice much of a difference at all.

The global discrepancy in seasonal sunlight results from Earth's 23.5-degree tilt on its axis: During the Northern Hemisphere winter, the Earth is tilted directly away from the sun, and during the summer, it is tilted directly toward the sun. The equator does not experience much of a change during the year since it sits in the middle of the axis.


For many ancient civilizations that struggled to subsist through harsh winter months, the winter solstice marked a time of spiritual rejoice and celebration. Modern heating technology and the globalization of food markets make the seasonal transition remarkably easier for modern humans to survive, but people still do celebrate the day with festivities and rituals, including a tradition of reading poetry and eating pomegranates in Iran, and the Guatemalan ritual known as polo voladore — or "flying pole dance" — in which three men climb to the top of a 50-foot-tall (15 meters) pole and perform a risky dance to flutes and drums.

Still other people celebrate the day by tuning into the spiritual rituals of ancient civilizations and visiting the sites of winter solstice tributes. Here are six archaeological sites that researchers believe pay tribute to the winter solstice:

1. Stonehenge, England

Stonehenge — one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world — is an arrangement of rocks carefully positioned on a barren ground in southern England. The megalith, which may have been a burial, was built between 3000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., over the course of roughly 1,500 years, in a series of several major phases.

When the sun sets on the winter solstice, its rays align with what are known as the central Altar stone and the Slaughter stone — an event that hundreds of families, tourists, Wiccans, and others visit each year to experience what researchers believe was an important spiritual event for those responsible for creating the monument.

2. Newgrange, Ireland

The Newgrange monument is located northeastern Ireland, and is thought to date back to about 3200 B.C. The mound, with grass on its roof, rises from a green field and, inside, contains a series of tunnels and channels. During sunrise on the winter solstice, the sun pours into the main chambers, which researchers have interpreted to mean it was built to celebrate this special day of the year.

3. Maeshowe, Scotland

Built in Orkney, Scotland, around 2800 B.C., Maeshowe is another burial ground that appears as a grassy mound rising about 24 feet (7.3 m) above a grassy field. Similar to Ireland's Newgrange, the inside of the mound contains a maze of chambers and passageways that become illuminated by sunlight during the winter solstice.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 20, 2013

Enormous Hermit Crab Tears Through Coconuts, Eats Kittens

It’s hard to go wrong with a hermit crab as your child’s first pet. They’re low maintenance and kinda cute in their own way, plus they’re hypoallergenic, as PetSmart feels the need to point out. But use care when choosing your crab. Whatever you do, don’t pick up Birgus latro, which can grow to a leg span of 3 feet, climb out of your terrarium, and assault the family cat.

Birgus latro is more commonly known as the coconut crab, and it’s the largest terrestrial arthropod in the world (the largest overall being the Japanese spider crab — but that’s a story for another week). Also known as the robber crab due to its curious propensity for stealing silverware and pots and pans, it’s the 9-pound hermit crab PetSmart wouldn’t dare carry, no matter how conveniently hypoallergenic it is.

The coconut crab is endemic to a variety of islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans, though its populations are extremely threatened on some of these thanks to, you guessed it, human tomfoolery. It grows remarkably slowly, taking perhaps 120 years to reach full size, said ecologist Michelle Drew of the Max Planck Institute.

As an arthropod, the coconut crab wears its skeleton on the outside and must shed it as it grows, so once a year it crawls into the safety of a burrow and molts. It’s highly vulnerable once it steps out of this rigid shell, so to hasten the development of new armor it … consumes its old exoskeleton.

It is, in effect, recycling the materials, which are in short supply in its terrestrial environment. Coconut crabs that “are disturbed before they have consumed the entire shell often have soft exoskeletons until they have time to reaccumulate the necessary calcium and other minerals,” Drew said in an email to WIRED.

The crab can grow and molt every year like this for more a century, expanding and expanding like a dying star with claws until it threatens to infringe on the very laws of physics.

Just gonna open this window if you don’t mind.
“In a water environment you get support from the water that allows you to move with a much heavier shell,” said Drew. “But on land, gravity will play a huge role on how you can move and how heavy you can get. [Coconut crabs] are probably at the limits of what is sustainable given gravity, the weight of the shell, and resources available to them in terms of food and water.”

Feeding this incredible growth is no small task, so the coconut crab eats anything it can get its claws on. It’ll go after fruit, vegetation, and carrion: dead birds and other coconut crabs and such. It has been observed hunting other crabs, and Drew has records of them ambushing young chickens as well as — don’t hate me for this — kittens, like a far less cuddly Alf of the tropics.

But what it really loves are, of course, coconuts. Now, contrary to what Harry Nilsson sang in his 1971 hit “Coconut,” one does not simply put the lime in the coconut and drink ‘em both up. Coconuts are extremely difficult to open. But as you may have noticed, the coconut crab is equipped with massive pincers. (One of Drew’s friends had one clamp down on his thumb, which lost feeling for three months. She stresses, though, that the coconut crab is in fact quite gentle unless threatened.)

“They use their claws to pull away the outer fibers,” said Drew. “This can sometimes take many days and it often involves a number of crabs. They then use their longest walking leg to puncture a hole through the eyes of the coconut and then they can use their claws to pry open the shell further.”

That may sound like more trouble than it’s worth, but the average mass of crabs living in coconut-rich habitats is double that of their counterparts living in coconut-free habitats, suggesting they extract a whole lot of calories from the things. It also suggests coconut crabs are among the few creatures on this planet besides my father that would actually enjoy a Mounds bar.

Coconut crabs come in all manner of colors. This one is a lovely burnt sienna.
The coconut crab finds food with its extremely well-developed sense of smell. Like an insect, it uses antennae to zero in on its vittles, but takes this to an extreme by devoting considerable brainpower to the sense.

“The neural (brain) development associated with this is massive compared to other crab species,” said Drew, “and has similarities with insect olfactory development, and is a very good example of convergent evolution associated with a land-based adaptation” — convergent evolution occurring when unrelated species arrive independently at the same adaptation.

Despite its rightful place as the world’s largest terrestrial arthropod, coconut crabs begin their lives in the sea. After mating on terra firma, mom releases her fertilized eggs in the ocean, where the larvae swim about for a month. They then enter what’s known as the glaucothoe stage and find a snail shell to occupy.

At this point the coconut crab is in essence much like the hermit crab you’d buy at the pet store. But whereas commercialized crabs live out their days in a shell, forever battling for the choicest homes, the coconut crab eventually leaves that whole keeping-up-with-the-Joneses silliness behind, developing a hard belly and making its way inland. Once it’s gone fully terrestrial, a coconut crab never returns to the sea except to release its eggs. They’ll drown if fully submerged.

Despite its freakish size, massive pincers and formidable armor, the coconut crab increasingly finds itself in peril. They have for millions of years lived on islands with no large mammalian predators, allowing them to reach such incredible proportions. This is changing as human encroachment has thrown their food chains into chaos.

Read more at Wired Science

Winter Solstice: The Sun Pauses on Saturday

This coming Saturday (Dec. 21) marks one of the four major way stations on the Earth’s annual journey around the sun.

Because of the tilt in the Earth’s axis of rotation, the sun appears to rise and fall in our sky over the course of a year. It’s not the sun itself moving, but the Earth moving relative to the sun.

The Earth’s axis currently points in a northerly direction close to the second-magnitude star Polaris, also known as the Pole Star. Everything in the sky, including the sun, appears to revolve around this almost fixed point in the sky.

Because the Earth’s axis points to Polaris no matter where Earth happens to be in its orbit, the sun appears to move over the year from 23.5 degrees north of the celestial equator on June 21 to 23.5 degrees south of the celestial equator on Dec. 21.

The sun crosses the equator travelling northward around March 21 and going southward on Sept. 21, in celestial events known as "equinoxes" (from the Latin for "equal night," as day and night are of roughly equivalent length on these dates.) The exact dates vary a little bit from year to year because of leap years.

On Dec. 21, the sun stops moving southward, pauses, and then starts moving northward. This pause is called the "solstice," from the Latin words "sol" for "sun" and "sisto" for "stop." Similarly, on June 21 the sun stops moving northward and starts moving southward.

These four dates have been extremely important to humanity since we first started to grow crops 10,000 years ago. Our ancestors have built amazing structures over the millennia to track these important landmarks. For example, Stonehenge in England was built as an astronomical observatory, its stones precisely oriented to detect the extremes of the sun’s movement.

Our calendar is based on the dates of the equinoxes and solstices, though errors over the years have caused the calendar to shift by 10 days from the celestial dates. Many cultures in the world use the winter solstice to mark the beginning of the year. The other three dates neatly divide the year into quarters, or seasons.

The chart above shows what the sky would look like this coming Saturday at precisely 12:11 p.m. EST (1711 GMT), if somehow the sun’s light could be dimmed so that you could see the background stars. The sun is traveling from right to left along the green line, called the "ecliptic" because eclipses happen along it. The sun is as far south as it can get at that instant, and begins moving northward immediately.

The celestial equator is marked by the red line, far to the north of the sun's position. You can see the inner planets gathered around the sun. Venus, off to the left, is moving toward the right, and will pass between us and the sun on Jan. 11. Mercury, to the right, is moving to the left and will pass behind the sun on Dec. 29. Pluto is on the far side of the sun and will pass behind it on Jan. 1.

Notice the Milky Way crossing diagonally through the chart. That’s because our solar system is not oriented in any particular way relative to the plane of the Milky Way. The center of the Milky Way is almost directly below the sun’s position on Dec. 21, something that was made much of last year. As astronomers pointed out repeatedly then, the sun passes in front of the Milky Way’s center every year, not just in 2012. Because the Milky Way’s center is so far away, 27,000 light-years distant, it has no measurable effect on the Earth.

Read more at Discovery News

Mediterranean Sea Was Once a Mile-High Salt Field

About 6 million years ago, a mile-high field of salt formed across the entire Mediterranean seafloor, sucking up 6 percent of the oceans' salt.

Now, new research has pinpointed when key events during the formation of that "salt giant" occurred. The new research, presented here Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, could help unravel the mystery behind the great salt crisis.

Every so often, huge accumulations of the world's salt form in one place. The most recent salt crisis happened during the Miocene Epoch, which lasted from about 23 million to 5 million years ago.

About 6 million years ago, the Strait of Gibraltar linking the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean was closed and instead, two channels — one in Northern Morocco and another in Southern Spain — fed the sea with salty water and let it flow out, said study co-author Rachel Flecker, a geologist at the University of Bristol in England.

But during the Messinian Salinity Crisis, as this particular event is known, Eurasia was colliding with Africa, squishing the outlet flow for the Mediterranean Sea. But tectonic shifts left the basin floor below the outlet channel between the two water bodies intact. Dense salty water from the Atlantic rushed in, but couldn't leave the sea. Water evaporated; salt piled high; and sea life collapsed.

"It wasn't a nice place," Flecker said.

In a series of pulses over about 600,000 years, the sea dried out, and a 1-mile-high (1.5 kilometer) salt wall grew across the Mediterranean seafloor, a "bit like the Dead Sea, a huge brine field," Flecker told LiveScience. (In places, it might have been even higher.)

Then, in a geologic flash of time just 200 years' long, waters from the Atlantic cut through the Strait of Gibraltar and flooded the Mediterranean, refilling the sea.

Precise dates

Though scientists understood some of what triggered the great salinity crisis, they still don't fully understand the climatic changes that may have been involved.

The Earth wobbles like a top around its axis as it spins, in a roughly 20,000-year cycle. That shift affects how much sunlight certain parts of the Earth receive at different points in the cycle, thereby changing the climate. In the Mediterranean Sea area, sediments are striped with dark and light bands that correspond to surges and die-offs of sea life as a result of those climactic shifts.

Flecker and her colleagues with the Medgate project, a European Union project that is studying the salinity crisis, looked at those sediments to understand how the salt crisis began.

Unfortunately, they didn't know what part of each band corresponded to a particular position of Earth's axis, making it difficult to sequence events in the crisis.

The team used climate simulations to understand rainfall, evaporation and water flow into and out of the Mediterranean for a period spanning 22,000 years around the crisis onset, and tied that to sediment data. Ancient rivers in North Africa dumped huge pulses of freshwater into the sea in late summer, leaving traces of surging biological activity in the fossil record, the models show.

Based on their simulations, the researchers found the freshwater pulses happened at a time in the Earth's orbital rotation when the Northern Hemisphere would experience colder winters and hotter summers. That, in turn, meant that the evaporation must have started much later in the Earth's orbital cycle.

Read more at Discovery News

Unexplained Mysteries of 2013

Science is all about the pursuit of truth. New discoveries can provide answers, but they can also open the door to new questions.

Explore some of the mysteries left unsolved at the end of the year.

The Impossible Planet

Kepler-78b shouldn't exist. An Earth-sized planet with a rocky surface and an iron core, Kepler-78b is so close to its parent star that it completes an orbital revolution every 8.5 hours.

Kepler-78b is a curiosity because scientists have no way of explaining how the lava world could have formed given its proximity to its parent star.

The (Other) Impossible Planet

Exoplanet hunters had another mystery on their hands in 2013: a gas giant, HD 106906b, 11 times the size of Jupiter with a peculiar orbit. Unlike Kepler-78b, which is very close to its parent star, HD 106906b is 650 AU (astronomical unit) -- the measure of the distance between the Earth and the sun -- away from its parent star.

In fact, that's such a great distance that the orbit is larger than what astronomers once thought possible. Like Kepler-78b, the unusual distance means scientists do not yet how this exoplanet formed.

Mystery Date

Human ancestors were a promiscuous bunch. Ancient Homo sapiens mated not only amongst themselves, but also interbred with Neanderthals, a line of humans known as Denisovans, and a mystery lineage of humans. The unknown, extinct population isn't yet in the DNA record, as reported by LiveScience's Stephanie Pappas.

Given the different hominid species around at the time, Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London, described it as a "Lord of the Rings-type world."

Hidden Hum

Do you hear that? That steady, droning, persistent sound that creeps at night.

If you are hearing things, you're not alone. Since the 1950s, reports have been coming in from around the world of people hearing what is known as "the Hum." As LiveScience's Marc Lallanilla reports, only about 2 percent of the population lives in a hum-prone area. It's louder at night than it is during the day, and typically heard in rural and suburban areas.

The Settlers

Christopher Columbus wasn't the first European to set foot in the New World. The Vikings preceded him. And in 2013, we learned of the arrival of a mysterious group of European settles to the "steps to the Americas" 300 to 500 years before the Vikings arrived in the New World.

Scientists had previously thought the Vikings were the first arrivals to the Faroes in the ninth century. Discovered at an archaeological site of Á Sondum on the island of Sandoy, researchers found evidence of human settlement in patches of burnt peat ash.

Although investigators have yet to discover clear evidence of the group's identity, possibilities include religious hermits from Ireland, late-Iron Age colonists from Scotland or pre-Viking explorers from Scandinavia.

Mona Lisa Mystery

Five hundred years after she had her portrait painted, we're still waiting to find out he identity of the woman in Leonardo da vinci's famous masterpiece, "Mona Lisa."

Lisa Gheradini Del Giocondo, the wife of a rich silk merchant, has long suspected of being the model behind Mona Lisa, and DNA tests of several skeletons found under a Florence convent will confirm whether one of them is Gheradini.

If one of the skeletons is Gheradini, who died in 1542, researchers plan on commissioning a facial reconstruction to determine any similarities between the skeleton and the portrait.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 19, 2013

Powerful Ancient Explosions Explain New Class of Supernovae

Astronomers affiliated with the Supernova Legacy Survey (SNLS) have discovered two of the brightest and most distant supernovae ever recorded, 10 billion light-years away and a hundred times more luminous than a normal supernova. Their findings appear in the Dec. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

These newly discovered supernovae are especially puzzling because the mechanism that powers most of them -- the collapse of a giant star to a black hole or normal neutron star -- cannot explain their extreme luminosity. Discovered in 2006 and 2007, the supernovae were so unusual that astronomers initially could not figure out what they were or even determine their distances from Earth.

"At first, we had no idea what these things were, even whether they were supernovae or whether they were in our galaxy or a distant one," said lead author D. Andrew Howell, a staff scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) and adjunct faculty at UC Santa Barbara. "I showed the observations at a conference, and everyone was baffled. Nobody guessed they were distant supernovae because it would have made the energies mind-bogglingly large. We thought it was impossible."

One of the newly discovered supernovae, named SNLS-06D4eu, is the most distant and possibly the most luminous member of an emerging class of explosions called superluminous supernovae. These new discoveries belong to a special subclass of superluminous supernovae that have no hydrogen.

The new study finds that the supernovae are likely powered by the creation of a magnetar, an extraordinarily magnetized neutron star spinning hundreds of times per second. Magnetars have the mass of the sun packed into a star the size of a city and have magnetic fields a hundred trillion times that of Earth. While a handful of these superluminous supernovae have been seen since they were first announced in 2009, and the creation of a magnetar had been postulated as a possible energy source, the work of Howell and his colleagues is the first to match detailed observations to models of what such an explosion might look like.

Co-author Daniel Kasen from UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab created models of the supernova that explained the data as the explosion of a star only a few times the size of the sun and rich in carbon and oxygen. The star likely was initially much bigger but apparently shed its outer layers long before exploding, leaving only a smallish, naked core.

"What may have made this star special was an extremely rapid rotation," Kasen said. "When it ultimately died, the collapsing core could have spun up a magnetar like a giant top. That enormous spin energy would then be unleashed in a magnetic fury."

Discovered as part of the SNLS -- a five-year program based on observations at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Gemini and Keck telescopes to study thousands of supernovae -- the two supernovae could not initially be properly identified nor could their exact locations be determined. It took subsequent observations of the faint host galaxy with the VLT in Chile for astronomers to determine the distance and energy of the explosions. Years of subsequent theoretical work were required to figure out how such an astounding energy could be produced.

The supernovae are so far away that the ultraviolet (UV) light emitted in the explosion was stretched out by the expansion of the universe until it was redshifted (increased in wavelength) into the part of the spectrum our eyes and telescopes on Earth can see. This explains why the astronomers were initially baffled by the observations; they had never seen a supernova so far into the UV before. This gave them a rare glimpse into the inner workings of these supernovae. Superluminous supernovae are so hot that the peak of their light output is in the UV part of the spectrum. But because UV light is blocked by Earth's atmosphere, it had never been fully observed before.

The supernovae exploded when the universe was only 4 billion years old. "This happened before the sun even existed," Howell explained. "There was another star here that died and whose gas cloud formed the sun and Earth. Life evolved, the dinosaurs evolved and humans evolved and invented telescopes, which we were lucky to be pointing in the right place when the photons hit Earth after their 10-billion-year journey."

Read more at Science Daily