Jan 4, 2014

Amber Fossil Reveals Ancient Reproduction in Flowering Plants

A 100-million-year old piece of amber has been discovered which reveals the oldest evidence of sexual reproduction in a flowering plant -- a cluster of 18 tiny flowers from the Cretaceous Period -- with one of them in the process of making some new seeds for the next generation.

The perfectly-preserved scene, in a plant now extinct, is part of a portrait created in the mid-Cretaceous when flowering plants were changing the face of the Earth forever, adding beauty, biodiversity and food. It appears identical to the reproduction process that "angiosperms," or flowering plants still use today.

Researchers from Oregon State University and Germany published their findings on the fossils in the Journal of the Botanical Institute of Texas.

The flowers themselves are in remarkable condition, as are many such plants and insects preserved for all time in amber. The flowing tree sap covered the specimens and then began the long process of turning into a fossilized, semi-precious gem. The flower cluster is one of the most complete ever found in amber and appeared at a time when many of the flowering plants were still quite small.

Even more remarkable is the microscopic image of pollen tubes growing out of two grains of pollen and penetrating the flower's stigma, the receptive part of the female reproductive system. This sets the stage for fertilization of the egg and would begin the process of seed formation -- had the reproductive act been completed.

"In Cretaceous flowers we've never before seen a fossil that shows the pollen tube actually entering the stigma," said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology at the OSU College of Science. "This is the beauty of amber fossils. They are preserved so rapidly after entering the resin that structures such as pollen grains and tubes can be detected with a microscope."

The pollen of these flowers appeared to be sticky, Poinar said, suggesting it was carried by a pollinating insect, and adding further insights into the biodiversity and biology of life in this distant era. At that time much of the plant life was composed of conifers, ferns, mosses, and cycads. During the Cretaceous, new lineages of mammals and birds were beginning to appear, along with the flowering plants. But dinosaurs still dominated the Earth.

"The evolution of flowering plants caused an enormous change in the biodiversity of life on Earth, especially in the tropics and subtropics," Poinar said.

"New associations between these small flowering plants and various types of insects and other animal life resulted in the successful distribution and evolution of these plants through most of the world today," he said. "It's interesting that the mechanisms for reproduction that are still with us today had already been established some 100 million years ago."

Read more at Science Daily

Pink Fairy Armadillo Crawls Out of the Desert and Into Your Heart

Before J. M. Barrie introduced us to the charmingly cranky and vindictive Tinker Bell, fairies had traditionally been cast as vicious scoundrels hell-bent on stealing your kids and tearing up that lawn you paid so much money for. Today the fairy is a decidedly more whimsical, endearing creature, and nowhere is it more legendary than in the deserts of Argentina.

Here dwells the remarkable pink fairy armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus), a 5-inch-long, quarter-pound critter with a rosy shell atop silky white hair. This smallest of all armadillos spends almost its entire life burrowing through the earth, hunting various invertebrates and chewing up plant matter. It is a rarely seen, almost totally unstudied marvel — what you read here is pretty much all we’ve observed about the pink fairy armadillo.

So exactly how elusive are they? Conservation biologist Mariella Superina of Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council has been studying other armadillos in the pink fairy’s habitat for 13 years and has never once seen one in the wild. And locals can’t tell her how to track them. The only specimens she gets are injured ones found and brought in for rehabilitation or those confiscated from chuckleheads keeping them as pets.

The pink fairy armadillo’s carapace gets its color from underlying blood vessels showing through. Yeah, that’s a bit strange. Sorry to ruin it for you.
Unlike in all other armadillos, the pink fairy’s shell is not fully attached to its body, instead connecting with a membrane that runs along the spinal column. The thin carapace’s underlying blood vessels actually show through, giving it that beautiful hue that you’re now reconsidering being beautiful because it’s made of blood.

The shell’s fragility and flexibility suggest the creature doesn’t rely on it as armor, as other armadillos clearly do. Instead, “it is well possible that it helps them thermoregulate, like a fennec fox’s ears,” Superina wrote in an email interview with WIRED, “as I’ve seen the carapace color change quite rapidly with changing environmental temperature, which was due to an increased (or reduced) irrigation in the blood vessels.”

Exposing more blood to cool air or soil, for example, would lower the animal’s body temperature, while draining the carapace would help it better retain heat. This would prove useful because the tiny pink fairy armadillo has a higher surface-area-to-volume ratio than a large critter, and will thus lose heat more rapidly. According to Bergmann’s rule, this is why we tend to find — with some exceptions — larger creatures like polar bears in cold environments and smaller ones like pink fairy armadillos in deserts.

Now, other than being a big no-no after Labor Day, white and pink might seem odd colors for a desert-dweller. Here, one must blend in with the surroundings or risk predation, but the pink fairy armadillo never spends more than a few moments above ground. It’s an extremely well-adapted burrower, tunneling just 6 inches below the surface in a real-life version of Dig Dug, only the pink fairy armadillo doesn’t hunt by pumping its prey full of air until they explode — as far as scientists can currently tell.

It’s been written that the pink fairy armadillo is a sand-swimmer like the sandfish (which isn’t a fish on account of actually being a lizard), but according to Superina this isn’t the case. Instead, it’s burrowing through relatively firm earth with its enormous claws — so enormous, in fact, that the critter has a difficult time walking on hard surfaces.

Because its forelimbs are tied up in digging, the pink fairy armadillo has a sort of club tail that helps it balance as a “fifth limb.” It’s also equipped with a butt plate, with which it compacts the dirt behind it as it advances forward, “thus closing the burrow and leaving an ‘empty space’ in front of them that allows them to breathe and explore the environment,” said Superina. “I suspect this also helps them prevent burrow collapses.”

A pink fairy armadillo demonstrates its digging and butt-shoveling. This is in black and white, but trust me, the armadillo is actually pink.
Yet even with those huge claws and busy little tractor bum, the pink fairy armadillo can hit insurmountable substrate. “The majority of reported sightings we’ve received are from animals that were trying to cross a road or track, or appeared in the middle of a village,” she added. “The most probable explanation is that the [pink fairy armadillos] encountered a hard substrate through which they couldn’t dig, emerged to cross the obstacle, and were seen by someone.”

This is where the creature runs into trouble. Attempting to cross a road, the pink fairy armadillo is often either killed outright or, perhaps just as fatefully, picked up by a human. If it’s lucky, it gets taken to the authorities, who call in Superina. But if kept as a pet, it’ll almost surely die from stress or the inability to adapt to an artificial diet. Superina estimates that 95 percent of pink fairy armadillos in captivity die within eight days.

And just like the earthworms I once collected and did mean things to after rainstorms (I’ve since publicly apologized), pink fairy armadillos can be reliably expected to make appearances during wet weather. While only 8 inches of rain may fall in a given year in its environment, when storms come they’re an intense soak that inundate burrows and force the armadillo to retreat to the surface.

In addition, they may be surfacing because “if their fur gets wet, this will affect their thermoregulation — armadillos in general have problems thermoregulating,” said Superina. She also notes that another desert armadillo, the pichi, “can get a skin disease when exposed to humid substrate for prolonged periods,” and that the pink fairy may have the same susceptibility.

So we can thus only hope to steal rare glimpses of the incredible little pink fairy armadillo, a creature so scarcely seen that Superina and other scientists aren’t even able to determine if it’s endangered or not. There simply isn’t enough data. For all they know, it could be on the brink of extinction, threatened by human encroachment on its territory.

Read more at Wired Science

Giraffe Was on Menu in Pompeii Restaurants

Giraffe was on the menu in Pompeii's standard restaurants, says a new research into a non-elite section of the ancient Roman city buried by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 A.D.

The study, which will be presented on Jan. 4 at the Archaeological Institute of America and American Philological Association Joint Annual Meeting in Chicago, draws on a multi-year excavation in a forgotten area inside one of the busiest gates of Pompeii, the Porta Stabia.

Steven Ellis, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of classics, said his team has spent more than a decade researching the life of the middle and lower classes in Pompeii, including the foods they ate.

The excavated area covered 10 separate building plots, comprising homes and a total of 20 shop fronts, most of which served food and drink.

The researchers dug out drains as well as 10 latrines and cesspits, and analyzed residues such as excrement and food waste from kitchens.

It emerged that the poor ate rather well in Pompeii, living on a diet of inexpensive and widely available grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish and chicken eggs. But they also ate more expensive meat, shellfish, sea urchin and salted fish from Spain — not to mention delicacies such as giraffe meat.

"The traditional vision of some mass of hapless lemmings — scrounging for whatever they can pinch from the side of a street, or huddled around a bowl of gruel — needs to be replaced by a higher fare and standard of living, at least for the urbanites in Pompeii," Ellis said in a statement.

Waste from neighboring drains turned up variety of foods which included exotic and imported spices, some from as far away as Indonesia, revealing a socioeconomic distinction between neighbors.

But it was the butchered leg joint of the giraffe that intrigued the archaeologists.

Representing the height of exotic food, it is also "the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy," Ellis said.

Read more at Discovery News

Astronauts Work to Make Water That Burns

Here on Earth we can use water to put out most fires, both because it helps prevent easy contact with oxygen in the air and reduces heat via rapid evaporation. But astronaut researchers on board the International Space Station (ISS) are working to develop a special kind of water that actually makes things burn — except without the flame part.

Called supercritical water, this exotic substance is neither a solid, liquid, nor gas but rather a “liquid-like gas.” Made by compressing ordinary liquid water to 217 times the air pressure found at sea level and heating it above 703 degrees Fahrenheit (373 degrees Celsius), supercritical water rapidly oxidizes any organic substance it comes in contact with — in other words, it burns it.

One specific use for supercritical water is to aid in waste disposal, both in space and on Earth. Burning via supercritical water breaks down harmful substances in liquid waste but doesn’t produce particularly dangerous byproducts — mostly just water and carbon dioxide, which can easily be filtered out.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 2, 2014

New Technique Enables Patient With 'Word Blindness' to Read Again

In the journal Neurology, researchers report a novel technique that enables a patient with "word blindness" to read again.

Word blindness is a rare neurological condition. (The medical term is "alexia without agraphia.") Although a patient can write and understand the spoken word, the patient is unable to read.

The article is written by Jason Cuomo, Murray Flaster, MD, PhD and Jose Biller, MD, of Loyola University Medical Center.

Here's how the technique works: When shown a word, the patient looks at the first letter. Although she clearly sees it, she cannot recognize it. So beginning with the letter A, she traces each letter of the alphabet over the unknown letter until she gets a match. For example, when shown the word Mother, she will trace the letters of the alphabet, one at a time, until she comes to M and finds a match. Three letters later, she guesses correctly that the word is Mother.

"To see this curious adaption in practice is to witness the very unique and focal nature" of the deficit, the authors write.

The authors describe how word blindness came on suddenly to a 40-year-old kindergarten teacher and reading specialist. She couldn't make sense of her lesson plan, and her attendance sheet was as incomprehensible as hieroglyphs. She also couldn't tell time.

The condition was due to a stroke that probably was caused by an unusual type of blood vessel inflammation within the brain called primary central nervous system angiitis.

Once a passionate reader, she was determined to learn how to read again. But none of the techniques that she had taught her students -- phonics, sight words, flash cards, writing exercises, etc. -- worked. So she taught herself a remarkable new technique that employed tactile skills that she still possessed.

The woman can have an emotional reaction to a word, even if she can't read it. Shown the word "dessert," she says "Oooh, I like that." But when shown "asparagus," she says, "Something's upsetting me about this word."

Shown two personal letters that came in the mail, she correctly determined which was sent by a friend of her mother's and which was sent by one of her own friends. "When asked who these friends were, she could not say, but their names nevertheless provoked an emotional response that served as a powerful contextual clue," the authors write.

Read more at Science Daily

Clump of Spiders? Viral Video Shows Something Else

A video circulating around the net shows what looks to be a scary clump of spiders, but in reality it shows a harmless cluster of opillonids, aka "daddy long legs" just trying to stay warm.

The nickname "daddy long legs" and the appearance of the creepy crawlies have contributed to the confusion.

Opillonids, according to the UC Riverside Department of Entomology, are arachnids in the order Opiliones and aren’t even spiders.

Keep in mind that all spiders are arachnids, but not all arachnids are spiders. Opillonids, also called harvestmen, consist of one basic body segment — plus legs — while spiders have two main body parts: the cephalothorax and abdomen.

Harvestmen are not at all poisonous to humans.

"These arachnids make their living by eating decomposing vegetative and animal matter although are opportunist predators if they can get away with it," a fact sheet released by the university shares. "They do not have venom glands, fangs or any other mechanism for chemically subduing their food. Therefore, they do not have poison and, by the powers of logic, cannot be poisonous from venom."

Paglo Barroeta posted the video online. He, or whoever shot the footage, was not in any danger when he poked the toupee-resembling clump with his finger.

As for why opillonids (also called harvestmen) gather in such a tight mass, Brazilian arachnologist Ricardo Pinto-da-Rocha can explain.

In his book "Harvestmen: The Biology of Opiliones", he and his colleagues mention that harvestmen are sensitive to temperature changes and "are inefficient in avoiding water loss."

Harvestmen's super thin legs and bodies don't offer much protection, so these arachnids tend to clump together, particularly during the fall, to retain warmth and moisture and to guard against predation.

Read more at Discovery News

Elusive Biblical Blue Color Revealed

The elusive Biblical blue, a sacred color whose exact shade has puzzled scholars for centuries, has been revealed in a nearly 2,000-year-old patch of dyed fabric.

The piece of cloth was found in Israeli caves just south of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1946 and 1956. It features a blue hue called tekhelet.

In accordance with the biblical commandment, tekhelet was used to dye the tassels, or tzitzit, attached to the four-cornered garment worn by Jews. It was also used as the color of ceremonial robes donned by high priests in the Jerusalem Temple.

But the biblical dye was lost in antiquity, and scholars have long attempted to rediscover its origins.

A team of researchers at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) analyzed the dye of 180 textiles specimens from the Judean Desert caves.

Using advanced analytical instrumentation for identifying dye substances, the researchers found that most textiles were dyed using substances derived from plants.

However, three fabrics — two purple-colored textiles and the bluish cloth — were dyed using two of the most expensive materials in antiquity: excretions from a sea snail named Murex trunculus and crushed specimens of the insect American Cochineal.

"These Roman-era fabrics represent the most prestigious colors in antiquity: indigo, purple and crimson," the IAA said in a statement.

The researchers traced the woolen tekhelet textile to the Murex trunculus snail.

"The importance of this fabric is extremely significant as there are practically no parallels for it in the archaeological record," the IAA said.

Naama Sukenik, the IAA researcher who identified the rare dyed fabrics, added: “Until now, our most important discovery had been the piles and piles of Murex trunculus (hillazon snail) shells from the area, which served as a silent testimony to the presence of an ancient dyeing industry in Israel.”

Tekhelet was produced from the yellow glandular secretion of the Murex trunculus snail. Dipped into the solution for the dye, the fabrics turned blue after a brief exposure to air and sunlight.

Hundreds of snails were necessary to dye cloths, making tekhelet prohibitively expensive.

Scholars are still debating whether tekhelet was a sky-blue color or a rather a darker, purple-hued blue. Traditional interpretations indicate that tekhelet was a sky blue, symbolic of the heavens.

The newly identified fragment is sky blue.

Tests on the structure of the fabrics revealed the two purple fragments were most likely imported, while the tekhelet cloth was produced in the same fashion as the local fabrics.

“This sky blue fabric from the Dead Sea regions is definitive proof of both a colored fabrics trade and strict adherence to the biblical commandment of tekhelet in ancient Israel,” Sukenik said.

How the precious fabrics got into the caves remains a mystery.

Read more at Discovery News

We Saw It Coming: Dinky Asteroid Hits Earth, Burns Up

For only the second time in history, an asteroid has hit Earth that was discovered hours before impact. But don’t panic! The asteroid didn’t put a city-sized divot in our planet, it most likely burned up somewhere between Africa and South America over the Atlantic Ocean at midnight EST.

Asteroid 2014 AA, the first asteroid discovery of the year, was spotted by astronomers using the Mt. Lemmon Survey telescope in Arizona. As shrewdly pointed out by Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, the asteroid was the approximate size of a couch — measuring only a couple of meters across. That’s around one-half of a Mini Cooper, whichever takes your fancy. But whatever your preferred size comparison, the outcome was likely the same; the asteroid burned up on atmospheric entry as a meteor.

This might have provided a nice visual spectacle only a day after New Years, but 2014 AA is notable as being the first pre-impact discovery of an asteroid since 2008.

“2014 AA was unlikely to have survived atmospheric entry intact, as it was comparable in size to 2008 TC3, the only other example of an impacting object observed prior to atmospheric entry,” said a Minor Planet Electronic Circular announcement.

In 2008, 2008 TC3 was discovered hours before it disintegrated over Sudan. Knowing the precise time of impact and its approximate geographical location, meteorite hunters were able to find fragments of the fireball strewn over the desert. This was the first time an asteroid had been discovered, impact location predicted and fragments recovered from that location.

Although it’s unlikely that fragments from 2014 AA will be recovered from the ground (as the most likely region of reentry was off the western coast of Africa), this is a stunning achievement by asteroid hunters who were able to detect a tiny (and very faint) object approaching Earth and forecast the time and approximate location of impact.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 1, 2014

Researchers Use Hubble Telescope to Reveal Cloudy Weather On Alien World

Weather forecasters on exoplanet GJ 1214b would have an easy job. Today's forecast: cloudy. Tomorrow: overcast. Extended outlook: more clouds.

A team of scientists led by researchers in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago report they have definitively characterized the atmosphere of a super-Earth class planet orbiting another star for the first time.

The scrutinized planet, which is known as GJ1214b, is classified as a super-Earth type planet because its mass is intermediate between those of Earth and Neptune. Recent searches for planets around other stars ("exoplanets") have shown that super-Earths like GJ 1214b are among the most common type of planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Because no such planets exist in our Solar System, the physical nature of super-Earths is largely unknown.

Previous studies of GJ 1214b yielded two possible interpretations of the planet's atmosphere. Its atmosphere could consist entirely of water vapor or some other type of heavy molecule, or it could contain high-altitude clouds that prevent the observation of what lies underneath.

But now a team of astronomers led by UChicago's Laura Kreidberg and Jacob Bean have detected clear evidence of clouds in the atmosphere of GJ 1214b from data collected with the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble observations used 96 hours of telescope time spread over 11 months. This was the largest Hubble program ever devoted to studying a single exoplanet.

The researchers describe their work as an important milestone on the road to identifying potentially habitable, Earth-like planets beyond our Solar System. The results appear in the Jan. 2 issue of the journal Nature.

"We really pushed the limits of what is possible with Hubble to make this measurement," said Kreidberg, a third-year graduate student and first author of the new paper. "This advance lays the foundation for characterizing other Earths with similar techniques."

"I think it's very exciting that we can use a telescope like Hubble that was never designed with this in mind, do these kinds of observations with such exquisite precision, and really nail down some property of a small planet orbiting a distant star," explained Bean, an assistant professor and the project's principal investigator.

GJ 1214b is located just 40 light-years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus. Because of its proximity to our solar system and the small size of its host star, GJ 1214b is the most easily observed super-Earth. It transits, or passes in front of its parent star, every 38 hours, giving scientists an opportunity to study its atmosphere as starlight filters through it.

Kreidberg, Bean and their colleagues used Hubble to precisely measure the spectrum of GJ 1214b in near-infrared light, finding what they consider definitive evidence of high clouds blanketing the planet. These clouds hide any information about the composition and behavior of the lower atmosphere and surface.

The planet was discovered in 2009 by the MEarth Project, which monitors two thousand red dwarf stars for transiting planets. The planet was next targeted for follow-up observations to characterize its atmosphere. The first spectra, which were obtained by Bean in 2010 using a ground-based telescope, suggested that the planet's atmosphere either was predominantly water vapor or hydrogen-dominated with high-altitude clouds.

More precise Hubble observations made in 2012 and 2013 allowed the team to distinguish between these two scenarios. The news is about what they didn't find. The Hubble spectra revealed no chemical fingerprints whatsoever in the planet's atmosphere. This allowed the astronomers to rule out cloud-free atmospheres made of water vapor, methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide.

The best explanation for the new data is that there are high-altitude clouds in the atmosphere of the planet, though their composition is unknown. Models of super-Earth atmospheres predict clouds could be made out of potassium chloride or zinc sulfide at the scorching temperatures of 450 degrees Fahrenheit found on GJ 1214b. "You would expect very different kinds of clouds to form than you would expect, say, on Earth," Kreidberg said.

Read more at Science Daily

Third of Americans Don't Believe in Human Evolution

Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe in evolution, while a third say that humans and other life forms have existed in their current states since the beginning of time, according to a new poll.

The new findings come from to the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, which surveyed a national sample of 1,983 adults over the phone and also collected survey questionnaires from an additional 4,006 adults. The margin of error for the results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

A belief in evolution does not necessarily preclude belief in God, the survey found. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of Americans agreed with the statement, "a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today."

Religion and science

Pew last surveyed Americans about their beliefs in evolution in 2009, and found that the proportion of believers and non-believers has not changed. Sixty percent of Americans say they believe that humans and other animals have evolved over time. Thirty-three percent say there is no such thing as evolution.

Major religious differences underlie these responses. A majority (64 percent) of white evangelical Protestants disbelieve evolution, compared with 15 percent of white mainline Protestants. Black Protestants are evenly split on the question of evolution.

Among Catholics, Hispanics are slightly less likely to believe in evolution than whites: Fifty-three percent of Hispanic Catholics said humans have evolved over time, compared with 68 percent of White Catholics.

Both white Catholics and white Protestants are similarly likely to see God's hand guiding evolution if they do believe, with 36 percent of all white mainline Protestants and 33 percent of all white Catholics saying a supreme being guided the evolution of living things. Eighteen percent of all white evangelical Protestants believed the same, with only 8 percent saying that natural processes drove evolution.

Politics and demographics

While overall belief in evolution hasn't budged since 2009, the gap between Democrats and Republicans has expanded, Pew found. In 2009, 54 percent of Republicans believed in evolution, compared with 43 percent today. Democrats have not shifted their views, with about 67 percent saying they believed in evolution in both years. Independents are similar to Democrats, with 65 percent saying they believe in evolution. Their views have also been stable since 2009.

Demographics matter, too. Men are slightly more likely to believe in evolution (65 percent) than women (55 percent), and younger people believe more than older people. For example, 68 percent of those under the age of 29 believe in evolution, while only 49 percent of those over 65 do.

Read more at Discovery News

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