Jan 11, 2014

Researchers Unveil Rich World of Fish Biofluorescence

A team of researchers led by scientists from the American Museum of Natural History has released the first report of widespread biofluorescence in the tree of life of fishes, identifying more than 180 species that glow in a wide range of colors and patterns. Published today in PLOS ONE, the research shows that biofluorescence -- a phenomenon by which organisms absorb light, transform it, and eject it as a different color -- is common and variable among marine fish species, indicating its potential use in communication and mating. The report opens the door for the discovery of new fluorescent proteins that could be used in biomedical research.

"We've long known about biofluorescence underwater in organisms like corals, jellyfish, and even in land animals like butterflies and parrots, but fish biofluorescence has been reported in only a few research publications," said co-lead author John Sparks, a curator in the Museum's Department of Ichthyology. "This paper is the first to look at the wide distribution of biofluorescence across fishes, and it opens up a number of new research areas."

Unlike the full-color environment that humans and other terrestrial animals inhabit, fishes live in a world that is predominantly blue because, with depth, water quickly absorbs the majority of the visible light spectrum. In recent years, the research team has discovered that many fishes absorb the remaining blue light and re-emit it in neon greens, reds, and oranges.

"By designing scientific lighting that mimics the ocean's light along with cameras that can capture the animals' fluorescent light, we can now catch a glimpse of this hidden biofluorescent universe," said co-lead author David Gruber, an associate professor of biology at Baruch College and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. "Many shallow reef inhabitants and fish have the capabilities to detect fluorescent light and may be using biofluorescence in similar fashions to how animals use bioluminescence, such as to find mates and to camouflage."

The researchers' investigations into fish biofluorescence began with a serendipitous observation of green eel fluorescence off of Little Cayman Island as Sparks and Gruber were imaging coral biofluorescence for an exhibit for the traveling American Museum of Natural History exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence.

To further explore this phenomenon, Sparks, Gruber, and researchers from the John B. Pierce Laboratory of Yale University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Haifa, Israel, along with professional photographers and videographers, embarked on four additional high-tech expeditions to tropical waters off of the Exumas in the Bahamas and the Solomon Islands. During night dives, the team stimulated biofluorescence in the fish with high-intensity blue light arrays housed in watertight cases. The resulting underwater light show is invisible to the human eye. To record this activity, the researchers used custom-built underwater cameras with yellow filters, which block out the blue light, as well as yellow head visors that allow them to see the biofluorescent glow while swimming on the reef.

The most recent expedition was The Explore21 Solomon Islands Expedition, the first trip under a new Museum initiative that supports exploratory fieldwork that is multidisciplinary and heavily integrated with emerging technologies. From the research vessel Alucia the scientists conducted technical scuba dives and descended in a three-person submersible to examine deep coral reef biofluorescence down to 1,000 meters. They also submitted the scientific paper while aboard.

These expeditions revealed a zoo of biofluorescent fishes -- from both cartilaginous (e.g. sharks and rays) and bony (e.g. eels and lizardfishes) lineages -- especially among cryptically patterned, well-camouflaged species living in coral reefs. By imaging and collecting specimens in the island waters, and conducting supplementary studies at public aquariums after hours, researchers identified more than 180 species of biofluorescent fishes, including species-specific emission patterns among close relatives.

The team also noted that many biofluorescent fishes have yellow filters in their eyes, possibly allowing them to see the otherwise hidden fluorescent displays taking place in the water. Although more research is needed, this finding indicates that biofluorescence could be used for interspecific communication while remaining camouflaged to predators. This ability might be especially important during full moons, when fishes have been shown to partake in mating rituals.

"The cryptically patterned gobies, flatfishes, eels, and scorpionfishes -- these are animals that you'd never normally see during a dive," Sparks said. "To our eyes, they blend right into their environment. But to a fish that has a yellow intraocular filter, they must stick out like a sore thumb."

Read more at Science Daily

Quantum Mechanics Explains Efficiency of Photosynthesis

Light-gathering macromolecules in plant cells transfer energy by taking advantage of molecular vibrations whose physical descriptions have no equivalents in classical physics, according to the first unambiguous theoretical evidence of quantum effects in photosynthesis published today in the journal Nature Communications.

The majority of light-gathering macromolecules are composed of chromophores (responsible for the colour of molecules) attached to proteins, which carry out the first step of photosynthesis, capturing sunlight and transferring the associated energy highly efficiently. Previous experiments suggest that energy is transferred in a wave-like manner, exploiting quantum phenomena, but crucially, a non-classical explanation could not be conclusively proved as the phenomena identified could equally be described using classical physics.

Often, to observe or exploit quantum mechanical phenomena systems need to be cooled to very low temperatures. This however does not seem to be the case in some biological systems, which display quantum properties even at ambient temperatures.

Now, a team at UCL have attempted to identify features in these biological systems which can only be predicted by quantum physics, and for which no classical analogues exist.

"Energy transfer in light-harvesting macromolecules is assisted by specific vibrational motions of the chromophores," said Alexandra Olaya-Castro (UCL Physics & Astronomy), supervisor and co-author of the research. "We found that the properties of some of the chromophore vibrations that assist energy transfer during photosynthesis can never be described with classical laws, and moreover, this non-classical behaviour enhances the efficiency of the energy transfer."

Molecular vibrations are periodic motions of the atoms in a molecule, like the motion of a mass attached to a spring. When the energy of a collective vibration of two chromphores matches the energy difference between the electronic transitions of these chromophores a resonance occurs and efficient energy exchange between electronic and vibrational degrees of freedom takes place.

Providing that the energy associated to the vibration is higher than the temperature scale, only a discrete unit or quantum of energy is exchanged. Consequently, as energy is transferred from one chromophore to the other, the collective vibration displays properties that have no classical counterpart.

The UCL team found the unambiguous signature of non-classicality is given by a negative joint probability of finding the chromophores with certain relative positions and momenta. In classical physics, probability distributions are always positive.

"The negative values in these probability distributions are a manifestation of a truly quantum feature, that is, the coherent exchange of a single quantum of energy," explained Edward O'Reilly (UCL Physics & Astronomy), first author of the study. "When this happens electronic and vibrational degrees of freedom are jointly and transiently in a superposition of quantum states, a feature that can never be predicted with classical physics."

Read more at Science Daily

Jan 10, 2014

Ferocious, Fearless Mantis Shrimp Is the Honey Badger of the Sea

One of the kung fu film genre’s greatest fight scenes comes from 1979’s Dance of the Drunk Mantis, in which bad guy Rubber Legs channels the raw power of the praying mantis style to deftly tear the pants off our hero Sam Seed, uttering the immortal quip: “Old man, you should be ashamed. Drunk mantis grabs ass.”

Our hero should thank his lucky stars that Rubber Legs didn’t mimic the praying mantis’ oceanic (though totally unrelated) counterpart: the astonishingly lethal mantis shrimp. He would have been dismembered limb by limb with surgical strikes, which would have really mucked up the tone of an otherwise lighthearted movie.

These are the stomatopods, some 550 known species of mantis shrimp that range from less than an inch long to well over a foot. They’re feisty, beautifully complex creatures that strike so quickly that they momentarily superheat the water around their spring-loaded clubs to a temperature nearly as hot as the surface of the sun.

They may not be particularly big, but they will fight just about anything that so much as looks at them funny. Octopuses, humans, each other — you name it. You see, the mantis shrimp doesn’t grab ass. It kicks it.

In da Club

Mantis shrimp are split into two groups. Smashers methodically dismember and knock their prey unconscious. Spearers impale fish with spikey appendages, much like their insect namesake. The speed and power with which these creatures strike simply defies logic. While the spearers can lash at their prey in a mere 20 to 30 milliseconds, the smashers can be 10 times as quick. This is the fastest predatory strike on the planet.

How can so small creature release such energy? “They basically have a spring that they can load using a very forceful but slowly contracting muscle,” said biologist Sheila Patek of Duke University, “and then a latch that releases that energy when they’re ready. And it releases the energy over a really short time period, which means that that appendage comes flying out at really high speeds and acceleration.”

Hemisquilla californiensis, a large burrowing smasher from Southern California. The mantis shrimp’s often vivid colors are thought to play a part in species recognition and in looking fabulous.
Stomatopods manage this strength because invertebrates generally have a more flexible muscle architecture than vertebrates like humans, according to Patek. “This is why when you get pinched by a crab you’re like, ‘What the heck? That’s a tiny little crab,’” she said. “How could that thing possibly generate so much force? And it’s because it has a force-modified muscle that we don’t see in vertebrates.”

With such muscles, the mantis shrimp can launch its clubs at 75 feet per second — through the resistance of water, no less. Such speed generates an area of low pressure that forms vapor bubbles in a process called cavitation. When these collapse, they release tremendous energy in the form of, oddly enough, light and heat, an incredible 8,500 degrees Fahrenheit. (Although no one has ever measured the temperature of a mantis shrimp strike, according to Patek other measurements of cavitation’s heat release can be reliably applied to the punch.)

This searing heat is too fleeting to fry the prey, but that’s no consolation to the poor critter. The shock wave from the implosion of bubbles follows the punch and slams into the stomatopod’s target, often knocking it out cold. Keep in mind that this is happening with a pair of clubs, bringing the total impacts in each strike to four.

In this manner the mantis shrimp can smash through even the most mightily armored clams and snails. As for crabs, it’ll cleverly blast off their claws first, then amputate the remaining limbs to immobilize it — if it isn’t already unconscious, which would be a pretty merciful exit, all things considered.

Patek is trying to figure out whether stomatopods have some measure of control over cavitation. The phenomenon can only happen in certain conditions — typically warm, low-pressure waters, which these creatures happen to call home. According to Patek, their strikes cavitate without fail.

“Is there anything about their appendages that allow them to wield cavitation bubbles effectively or not, or is it just simply an accident of just moving fast?” Patek asked. It could well be that the mantis shrimp has evolved to weaponize bubbles.

Now, boating enthusiasts are all too aware of the destructive power of these cavitation bubbles. The same phenomenon happens to propellers as they slice through the water, eventually wearing away the metal so badly that you must buy a replacement. Or a whole new boat if you’re baller like that.

So how do mantis shrimp not eventually wear their reinforced clubs down to the muscle? Well, they do, but as arthropods, every so often they molt, and are afforded the opportunity to build up a brand new club. This molting period is a highly vulnerable time, what with their as-yet unhardened clubs blowing to pieces if they strike something. So they’ll dance a little jig, waving their appendages around and pretending to strike. It’s a bluff. I don’t know about you, but I’d never call them on it, though.

The Eyes Have It

Behind this incredible method of hunting are the animal kingdom’s most complex eyes, peepers so amazingly evolved that their sophistication seems damn near unnecessary. (That’s me being hyperbolic. They’re anything but unnecessary, of course. Animals don’t just waste energy and resources building worthless features.)

As with bees or flies or crabs, they are compound eyes, but unlike those creatures, mantis shrimp “have a very unusual adaptation in that multiple parts of the same eye view the same point in space,” said biologist Tom Cronin of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “which is sort of like having multiple eyes in one, in a way.” Whereas we use two eyes to judge distance, mantis shrimp can do that with a single eye.

Some mantis shrimp species also have the most complex set of color receptors of any animal on Earth, a total of 16 classes compared to our measly four (interestingly, though, half of all stomatopods can’t detect color at all). Their often wild coloration combined with these highly developed powers of color-detection aren’t accidents — they’re likely key in species recognition. You’d hate to try to mate with the wrong species and get a club to the face for your efforts.

On top of that, some mantis shrimp can see a variety of colors in ultraviolet, so “they’re seeing colors that no other animal can see, in a sense,” said Cronin. “Basically color is a property of the nervous system so it’s not really present in the real world, but they can see aspects of the ultraviolet that nothing else can see.”

Lysiosquillina lisa, a burrowing spearer from Indonesia, is named after the Mona Lisa. See the resemblance? Yeah it’s not really named after the Mona Lisa.
That’s right: Colors only exist because your brain thinks they do. Your noodle is simply assigning a color to a wavelength of light collected by your retina. Same goes for the mantis shrimp with its ridiculous variety of photoreceptors. (It’s a polychromatic philosophical nightmare, really. What if a mantis shrimp had synesthesia, a human brain disorder in which sounds can produce the experience of color? They’d be freaking out, man, but not really because their brain would perceive it as normal reality. It’s … complicated.)

Anyway, in addition to all of these visual superpowers, the mantis shrimp is the only known critter to see circular polarization of light. Linearly polarized light — the glare off windows and such that’s neutralized by those expensive polarized sunglasses you lost recently — is common, but the circular type is quite rare.

“It’s only created under very special circumstances,” said Cronin, “and the only thing we know about it for sure with the mantis shrimp is that they use it for signaling, so they themselves produce patterns that are circularly polarized on their bodies, which is extremely odd.”

It’d be easy to assume that this staggering amount of information would require an enormous brain to handle, but this is not the case with a mantis shrimp. Whereas our eyes funnel raw data to the brain, in stomatopods the bulk of the processing is done in the eye itself. Indeed, the mantis shrimp’s eye is actually larger than its brain, which if you think about it would look crazy weird if humans were the same way.

“By having all of this complexity at the receptor level,” said Cronin, “you basically are preprocessing everything. So that when it leaves the receptors it’s already streamed into information channels and the brain just basically says, How much is there of this, and How much is there of that, and Make a decision based on that.”

All this data and processing power is pivotal when hunting with such speed and strength, or when defending yourself, for that matter. These things are seriously ornery, like the honey badgers of the sea, and the more information they have to work with to push back against large predators like octopuses, the better.

If you were a mantis shrimp, this photo would definitely be NSFW, if catch my drift.
Mantis Shrimp Falling in Love and Wrecking Homes

The mantis shrimp has certainly had plenty of time to evolve the planet’s most impressive eyes — stomatopods split off from other crustacean stock about 400 million years ago. That’s truly ancient, considering that while life has been around on Earth for almost 4 billion years (or 6,000 years, depending on your math), lifeforms we’d recognize as animals only showed up some 570 million years ago.

Early stomatopods began with a single simple spiked appendage, and have since evolved into the spearer-smasher dichotomy. Smashers tend to keep to preexisting burrows under rocks, which they will fight each other for, while spearers actively burrow into sand to ambush fish swimming above, with some smaller species even swimming up the water column to grab plankton. And without the powerful weaponry of the smashers, spearers will abandon a burrow if challenged and just dig a new one.

Surveying the scene outside their burrow, the smashers can emerge in a flash and “certainly can take shrimp and crabs, even fish, and disable them with a single strike,” said marine biologist Roy Caldwell of the University of California, Berkeley. “Then they almost always will bring the body of the prey back to their cavity and process it and break it up into pieces and pull out the meat.”

Interestingly, in one group of spearers, burrows are actually shared — by a couple in the stomatopod version of love. “They’ve evolved monogamous mating systems,” said Caldwell, “and pairs form and spend a lifetime together, which can be 30 to 40 years.” The males do the hunting, catching a fish for themselves and the next for the female, while she digs and lays eggs.

Indeed, their sexual dimorphism — physical differences between males and females of a species — reflects this. Males in this monogamous dynamic are more powerfully built, though this doesn’t excuse them from parental duties. In some such species the female will actually lay a second clutch of eggs for the male to schlep around, effectively doubling their number of potential offspring.

Read more at Wired Science

Inch-Long Cockroach Pulled from Man's Ear

A man in Australia endured a painful hospital visit after a large cockroach burrowed into his ear and his efforts to suck it out with a vacuum cleaner failed.

Darwin-based Hendrik Helmer's ordeal began in the early hours of Wednesday morning when he was woken by a sharp pain in his right ear, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said.

"I was hoping it was not a poisonous spider... I was hoping it didn't bite me," he said, adding that as the pain got worse he tried to suck the insect out with a vacuum cleaner before squirting water in his ear.

"Whatever was in my ear didn't like it at all," he told the broadcaster on Friday.

With the pain becoming excruciating, his flatmate rushed him to hospital where a doctor put oil down the ear canal.

This only forced the two centimeter (0.8 inch) roach to crawl in deeper, before it eventually began to die.

"Near the 10 minute mark ... somewhere about there, he started to stop burrowing but he was still in the throes of death twitching," said Helmer.

At that point the doctor put forceps into his ear and pulled out the cockroach.

"She (the doctor) said, 'You know how I said a little cockroach, that may have been an underestimate'," he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Eating 'Paleo?' Don't Forget Worms and Tubers

So much for Fred Flintstone’s brontosaurus ribs.

The popular caveman diet claims people will feel more powerful and healthier if they only eat items popular during the Paleolithic, pointing to nuts, berries and red meat. But a new study from Oxford University says meat wasn’t making it for our ancient ancestors: 2.4 million years ago, man survived mainly on “tiger nuts” -- edible grass bulbs still eaten in parts of the world today.

“Tiger nuts, still sold in health food shops as well as being widely used for grinding down and baking in many countries, would be relatively easy to find,” explained Gabriele Macho with Oxford University’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art.

“They also provided a good source of nourishment for a medium-sized hominin with a large brain. This is why these hominins were able to survive for around one million years because they could successfully forage – even through periods of climatic change.

But early man couldn't live on nuts alone, of course, and Fred Flintstone was likely no exception. These early relatives may have also sought additional nourishment from fruits and invertebrates, like worms and grasshoppers, the study concluded.

To find what cavemen really ate, Macho compared the diet of Paranthropus boisei, nicknamed “Nutcracker Man” because of his big flat molar teeth and powerful jaws, and modern Kenyan baboons. Scientists have debated whether high-fiber foods would have been sufficient nourishment for early man.

Macho found that modern baboons living in an environment similar to Nutcracker Man’s eat large quantities of tiger nuts, and this food would have contained sufficiently high amounts of minerals, vitamins, and the fatty acids that would have been particularly important for the hominin brain.

She concludes that the nutritional demands of ancient man would have been quite similar.

Read more at Discovery News

Searching for Time Travelers Probably a Waste of Time

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in the "hoverboard" scene from Back to the Future II when he travels forward in time to 2015 to avoid a temporal catastrophe.
After carrying out the first search for evidence of time travelers using social media networks, a pair of physicists have turned up empty handed. This search for "prescient" messages online has yet to be picked up by a peer-reviewed journal, but the media has jumped on the news nonetheless.

Although I filed this research under “There’s too much cool sciencey stuff coming from the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C. this week for me to find the time to write about time travel,” I’ve received a few emails pointing me to this work. So, as it’s Wednesday,* here we go.

Prescience in the Search Engine

The crux of the study by astrophysicist Robert Nemiroff and physics graduate student Teresa Wilson from Michigan Technological University is that they carried out an unprecedented search of the Internet for any signs of prescient knowledge of future events. Of particular interest was any mention of “Comet ISON” or “Pope Francis”. The idea is that should time travelers travel back in time from the future and arrive before Comet ISON was discovered (in September 2012) or before Pope Francis was elected head of the Catholic Church (in March 2013), they might have accidentally (or otherwise) let slip about these future events on an Internet-based platform. Both search terms were considered unique enough for there to be a very low chance of false positives.

Searching for prescient information on the Internet proved to be a somewhat tricky affair, however.

For example, using Google Search to tease out prescient mentions of “Pope Francis” or “Comet ISON” turned out to be “unreliable.” As did Google’s competitor Bing.com. The researchers then turned to social media for help. They carried out searches of all the popular social sites including Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Facebook, however, was another unreliable source of prescient messages as the platform allows back-dated messages to be published.

Twitter, it seems, reigned supreme. Yay Twitter.

“Our most comprehensive search for potentially prescient Internet content was achieved using the microblogging Internet platform Twitter,” they wrote.

Assuming our temporal travelers were social media savvy, Nemiroff and Wilson found that hashtags (“#”) were an especially useful tool for their hunt. They therefore tried to weed-out any mention of #cometison or #popefrancis before the events themselves occurred.

“No clearly prescient content involving ‘Comet ISON’, ‘#cometison’, ‘Pope Francis’, or ‘#popefrancis’ was found from any Twitter tweet — ever,” they concluded.

Interestingly, they also rummaged through search queries (i.e. queries typed into search engines by Internet users) to see if anyone was looking for information about “Comet ISON” or “Pope Francis” before the events occurred. This search also turned up zero definitive prescient candidates.

Come to my Party, Yesterday

Finally, they also tried to actively engage time travelers on Twitter. In September 2013, the hypothetical time travelers were asked, via an Internet forum bulletin, to tweet one of two hashtags on August 2013 — one month before the bulletin was sent out. Time travelers were requested to tweet either #ICanChangeThePast2″ or “#ICannotChangeThePast2″ — the first would be tweeted if the author’s past could be altered and the second would be tweeted if the author’s past could not be altered. A similar strategy was used by Stephen Hawking in 2009 who advertised a “Time Travelers Party” but only advertised the event after the party had taken place. Nobody — no candidate time travelers or random party crashers — turned up. Good effort though, Stephen.

This is the very basis of the “Grandfather Paradox” that posits that if reverse time travel were possible, could you go back in time and kill your grandfather. In this scenario, would you cease to exist in that timeline or would you cease to exist in another timeline? You remember when Marty McFly’s hand starts to disappear during The Enchantment Under The Sea dance in “Back To The Future”? That paradox.

Using both passive and active means to find evidence of time travelers, no strategy turned up evidence of time traveler activity. “No time travelers were discovered,” they wrote. “Although the negative results reported here may indicate that time travelers from the future are not among us and cannot communicate with us over the modern day Internet, they are by no means proof.”

Time Travelers: Not So Smart?

Although this Internet search was fun, and it demonstrates a potential strategy for teasing out prescient knowledge of events using social media, its limited scope greatly reduced any hope of success even if time travelers are out there. The study assumes that, a) travelers from the future want to be discovered or, b) they are careless to let slip about two specific future events. Both options I find difficult to swallow.

If the first option is true, and they used their future knowledge to be discovered, one would have to question their motives and/or sanity — aren’t they breaking some time traveling “code of ethics”? If b) is true, the intellect of our future selves could be called into question. If they can’t keep quiet and avoid babbling on social media, how the heck did they had the smarts to build a time machine in the first place?

Also, why would time travelers just pop onto the social web and start tweeting? No doubt they’d have the ability, but it’s hard to see what they’d get from it — apart from giggling at Justin Bieber’s “I’ve retired at 19″ tweets and lamenting that even in the year 2082, Biebs is still singing his little heart out and peeing into mop buckets.

And, why now? Sure, we think we’re important and our era is unbelievably epic, but in the grand scheme of things, over tens (or hundreds) of thousands of years of civilization (from the past to the undefined future) — not to mention all those billions of years when humans weren’t roaming around and polluting the planet — the early 21st century may not be all that.

Perhaps all the “cool” time travelers travel back to see the dinosaurs to experience the gritty Jurassic era; or explore ancient Rome to find out if Julius Caesar really was a tyrant or just misunderstood; or hit up the rowdy pubs of London during the Industrial Revolution? The problem with humans is that we all think we’re special, that this time in history is special and we are the specialest of all special entities in all of human history.

What if our future selves think we’re all a bit “meh” and crossed off the 21st century as a snooze fest? Assuming that these time travelers are even human! So many questions.

Scouring the Internet for prescient knowledge probably isn’t very reliable anyway. If we were to scale this up, research hundreds or even thousands of search terms that could have only been thought up right at the time of a specific event and devoted a supercomputer (or a distributed computer effort SETI@home style) to trawl the web for “prescient candidates,” the sheer number of false positives would likely cause the system to unravel. (Although, looking at the rapid advancement of computing, it’s not that inconceivable that we might build some form of artificial intelligence that can pick through the web, searching for messages from John Connor. Wait a minute.) The Internet is not infallible, after all, regardless on how full-proof the researchers think data from Twitter is.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 9, 2014

Gender-Bending Bird Breaks Migration Record

A gender-bending Scottish bird migrated 16,000 miles, breaking the record for longest European bird migration, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds(RSPB).

The epic round-trip journey, undertaken by a red-necked phalarope, took the well-traveled bird across two oceans. The bird flew from the island of Fetlar in Shetland, Scotland, across the Atlantic, south down the eastern seaboard of the United States, across the Caribbean, and Mexico, ending up off the coast of Peru. After wintering in the Pacific, it returned to Fetlar following a similar route.

It's not the longest bird migration ever, as this list shows, but the feat is still a record-breaker for Europe.

Scientists from the RSPB tracked the red-necked phalarope's travels using a geolocator device that weighs less than a paperclip. Ten of the birds were outfitted with the device while on the Scottish isle.

The researchers couldn't believe how long and far the birds traveled. The scientists conducted the study just trying to figure out where the birds spent the winter. Little did they know that these were world-class fliers.

"To think this bird, which is smaller than a starling, can undertake such an arduous journey and return safely to Shetland is truly extraordinary," Malcie Smith of the RSPB said in a press release. "This tiny tracker has provided a valuable piece of the puzzle when building a picture of where phalaropes go when they leave our shores. We hadn’t realized that some Scottish birds were traveling thousands of miles to join other wintering populations in the Pacific Ocean."

The red-necked phalarope had already captured the attention of researchers, but for another reason. It turns the table on tradition gender roles.

During the summer, male birds can be found incubating eggs and raising young. At the same time, the female birds are out strutting their stuff, showing off their brightly colored plumage in hopes of attracting new partners.

In the bird world, often females are rather drab colored while the males are quite colorful. Since female red-necked phalaropes are the aggressive maters, they instead have the showy feather garb.

The red-necked phalarope is one of the UK's rarest birds. It is now only found in Shetland and the Western Isles, and numbers fluctuate between just 15 and 50 nesting males. Scotland marks the southern limit of its breeding range, with the species far more abundant further north, where it occupies wetlands around the northern hemisphere.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Greeks Used Portable Grills at Their Picnics

The ancient Mycenaeans have a reputation as palace-builders and warriors, but they were also quite sophisticated cooks. More than 3,000 years ago, they used portable grill pits to make souvlaki and non-stick pans to make bread, new cooking experiments suggest.

The Mycenaean civilization, which was the backdrop for Homer's "Odyssey" and "Iliad," thrived in Greece during the late Bronze Age from around 1700 B.C. until the society mysteriously collapsed around 1200 B.C. The Mycenaeans left behind amazing palaces and gold-littered tombs at sites like Pylos and Mycenae, but in these places, archaeologists also have found less glamorous artifacts, such as souvlaki trays and griddles made from gritty clays.

It wasn't clear how these two types of pans were used, said Julie Hruby of Dartmouth College, presenting her research at the Archaeological Institute of America's annual meeting here on Saturday (Jan. 4).

"We don't have any recipes," Hruby told LiveScience. "What we do have are tablets that talk about provisions for feasts, so we have some idea of what the ingredients might have been, but in terms of understanding how people cooked, the cooking pots are really our best bet."

The souvlaki trays were rectangular ceramic pans that sat underneath skewers of meat. Scientists weren't sure whether these trays would have been placed directly over a fire, catching fat drippings from the meat, or if the pans would have held hot coals like a portable barbeque pit. The round griddles, meanwhile, had one smooth side and one side covered with tiny holes, and archaeologists have debated which side would have been facing up during cooking.

To solve these culinary mysteries, Hruby and ceramicist Connie Podleski, of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, mixed American clays to mimic Mycenaean clay and created two griddles and two souvlaki trays in the ancient style. With their replica coarsewares, they tried to cook meat and bread.

Hruby and Podleski found that the souvlaki trays were too thick to transfer heat when placed over a fire pit, resulting in a pretty raw meal; placing the coals inside the tray was a much more effective cooking method.

"We should probably envision these as portable cooking devices — perhaps used during Mycenaean picnics," Hruby said.

As for the griddles, bread was more likely to stick when it was cooked on the smooth side of the pan. The holes, however, seemed to be an ancient non-sticking technology, ensuring that oil spread quite evenly over the griddle.

Lowly cooking pots were often overlooked, or even thrown out, during early excavations at Mycenaean sites in the 20th century, but researchers are starting to pay more attention to these vessels to glean a full picture of ancient lifestyles.

Read more at Discovery News

Fate of Ark of the Covenant Revealed in Hebrew Text

A newly translated Hebrew text claims to reveal where treasures from King Solomon's temple were hidden and discusses the fate of the Ark of the Covenant itself.

But unlike the Indiana Jones movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the text leaves the exact location of the Ark unclear and states that it, and the other treasures, "shall not be revealed until the day of the coming of the Messiah son of David …" putting it out of reach of any would-be treasure seeker.

King Solomon's Temple, also called the First Temple, was plundered and torched by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in the sixth century B.C., according to the Hebrew Bible. The Ark of the Covenant is a chest that, when originally built, was said to have held tablets containing the 10 commandments. It was housed in Solomon's Temple, a place that contained many different treasures.

The newly translated text, called "Treatise of the Vessels" (Massekhet Kelim in Hebrew), says the "treasures were concealed by a number of Levites and prophets," writes James Davila, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, in an article in the book "Old Testament Pseudepigrapha More Noncanonical Scriptures Volume 1" (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013).

"Some of these (treasures) were hidden in various locations in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia, while others were delivered into the hands of the angels Shamshiel, Michael, Gabriel and perhaps Sariel …" writes Davila in his article.

The treatise is similar in some ways to the metallic "Copper Scroll," one of the Dead Sea Scrolls found near the site of Qumran in the West Bank. The Copper Scroll also discusses the location of hidden treasure, although not from Solomon's Temple.

The treatise describes the treasures in an imaginative way. One part refers to "seventy-seven tables of gold, and their gold was from the walls of the Garden of Eden that was revealed to Solomon, and they radiated like the radiance of the sun and moon, which radiate at the height of the world."

The oldest confirmed example of the treatise, which survives to present day, is from a book published in Amsterdam in 1648 called "Emek Halachah." In 1876, a scholar named Adolph Jellinek published another copy of the text, which was virtually identical to the 1648 version. Davila is the first to translate the text fully into English.

A story of legends

The writer of the text likely was not trying to convey factual locations of the hidden treasures of Solomon's Temple, but rather was writing a work of fiction, based on different legends, Davila told LiveScience.

"The writer draws on traditional methods of scriptural exegesis to deduce where the treasures might have been hidden, but I think the writer was approaching the story as a piece of entertaining fiction, not any kind of real guide for finding the lost Temple treasures," he wrote in the email.

The structure of the story is confusing. In the prologue it states that Shimmur the Levite (he doesn't appear to be a biblical figure) and his companions hid the treasures, "but later on the text mentions the treasures being in the keeping of or hidden by Shamshiel and other angels," Davila said. "I suspect the author collected various legends without too much concern about making them consistent."

Similarities to the Copper Scroll

The Copper Scroll, which dates back around 1,900 years, and is made of copper, shows several "striking parallels" with the newly translated treatise, Davila said.

The treatise says that the treasures from Solomon's Temple were recorded "on a tablet of bronze," a metal like the Copper Scroll. Additionally, among other similarities, the Treatise of the Vessels and Copper Scroll both refer to "vessels" or "implements," including examples made of gold and silver.

These similarities could be a coincidence or part of a tradition of recording important information on metal.

"My guess is that whoever wrote the Treatise of Vessels came up with the same idea [of writing a treasure list on metal] coincidentally on their own, although it is not unthinkable that the writer knew of some ancient tradition or custom about inscribing important information on metal," wrote Davila in the email, noting that metal is a more durable material than parchment or papyrus.

An ongoing story

The study of the treatise is ongoing, and discoveries continue to be made. For instance, in the mid-20th century a copy of it (with some variations) was discovered and recorded in Beirut, Lebanon, at the end of a series of inscribed plates that record the Book of Ezekiel.

Read more at Discovery News

Hubble Takes Deepest View Into Cosmic Frontier

The Hubble Space Telescope's ambitious new mission to use natural gravitational lenses to magnify some of the earliest galaxies has returned its first stunning views of the depths of the Cosmos.

At the 223rd American Astronomical Society meeting being held this week in Washington, D.C., a breathtaking view of Abell 2744 was showcased by Hubble Frontier Fields astronomers. The massive galactic cluster, which is located nearly 4 billion light-years away, plays host to hundreds of galaxies, all exerting an immense gravitational pull on spacetime.

The space-time warping effect of Abell 2744, also known as the Pandora Cluster, causes the light from more distant galaxies to become warped; distorted by the curvature of spacetime. The distortion has a magnifying effect -- much like the lens of a telescope or that of a magnifying glass -- boosting the light from galaxies that formed some 12 billion years ago, shortly after the Big Bang.

"The Frontier Fields is an experiment; can we use Hubble's exquisite image quality and Einstein's theory of General Relativity to search for the first galaxies?" said Space Telescope Science Institute Director Matt Mountain. "With the other Great Observatories, we are undertaking an ambitious joint program to use galaxy clusters to explore the first billion years of the universe's history."

Hubble observations are being complemented by data from NASA's two other Great Observatories, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, so a complete range of wavelengths can be analyzed, providing astronomers with an unparallelled view into the furthest most regions of the Universe.

According to the Frontier Fields team, although there are a few hundred galaxies of Abell 2744 in the foreground of this first observation, another 3,000 primordial galaxies lurk in the background -- many are distorted and very faint. But these most distant galactic examples would not be visible at all if it wasn't for the magnifying effect of Abell 2744's immense gravitational field. These galaxies appear 10 to 20 times brighter than they would have otherwise.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 8, 2014

Ancient Sea Monsters Were Black

Some of the largest beasts in the ancient seas had black skin or scales, new research finds.

Ancient leatherback turtles, toothy predators called mosasaurs and dolphinlike reptiles called ichthyosaurs all had black pigmentation, researchers report today (Jan. 8) in the journal Nature. The findings come from an analysis of preserved skin from each of these creatures.

The animals' blackness likely helped them in a variety of ways, said study researcher Johan Lindgren, a mosasaur expert at Lund University in Sweden. "We suggest … that they used it not only as camouflage and UV protection, but also to be able to regulate their body temperature," Lindgren told LiveScience.

Ancient colors

The study isn't the first to delve into the color of ancient creatures. Paleontologists have found that Microraptor, a small winged dinosaur from 130 million years ago, had black, crowlike feathers. The "dino-bird" Archaeopteryx had wing feathers with a black-and-white pattern, too, according to a 2012 study detailed in the journal Nature Communications. The color of ancient feathers is somewhat controversial, however, with some scientists suggesting the fossilization process might distort the pigment-containing organelles in the feathers.

But marine animal color was uncharted territory. Some fossils of extinct sea monsters have been found with black "halos" around the bones, suggesting remnants of skin. Anatomical analysis suggested these remnants were, in fact, melanosomes, the tiny packets of pigments that give skin, feathers and hair their color. Melanosomes contain melanin, a dark brown or black pigment. In fact, the black pigment eumelanin is extremely persistent in the environment, Lindgren said, so the presence of melanosomes may be the reason these skin halos survived.

Lindgren and his colleagues conducted a microscopic analysis of the fossilized skin of a 55-million-year-old leatherback turtle, an 86-million-year-old mosasaur and a 190-million year-old ichthyosaur. Mosasaurs were reptilian, fishlike apex predators in the Cretaceous seas. Ichthyosaurs were also marine reptiles, but with their long snouts, they resembled modern dolphins.

Dark and dangerous

A microscopic look at the fossils showed oval bodies consistent with the look of melanosomes. To confirm that the oval bodies were melanosomes, the researchers used a technique called energy-dispersive X-ray microanalysis, which focuses X-rays on the sample. The reaction of the sample depends on its chemical makeup. This analysis showed that the tiny ovals were associated with the preserved skin film, but not with the sediment around it, suggesting they are really melanosomes and not microbial contamination.

To understand how ancient sea creatures benefited from black skin and scales, Lindgren and his colleagues turned to the only sea turtle that stays black into adulthood: the modern leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). These turtles have a broad range, all the way into the Arctic circle, and the color seems to help them trap heat from sunlight in the same way that black asphalt gets hot on a bright day, Lindgren said. Black pigments also protect the skin from damage from UV rays (also known as sunburn). Mosasaurs, ichthyosaurs and ancient may have gotten a similar advantage from their coloration.

Black skin and scales may also have helped these creatures stay stealthy in the dark seas. Living leatherback turtles are dark on top with light underbellies, so they blend in with the depths from above and with the sunlight at the surface from below. Many ocean-dwelling creatures show this coloration pattern, Lindgren said, but the fossil skin samples from the ancient turtle and mosasaur are too small to say for sure whether they shared countershading camouflage.

Read more at Discovery News

Google Earth Zooms in on Ancient Trade Routes

Google Earth may be a fun way to bring the far reaches of the present-day globe to people's fingertips, but archaeologists are now using the high-tech software to recreate maps of ancient civilizations. The endeavor is opening a window for researchers to the political and geographical changes that have shaped history.

Kristina Neumann, a doctoral candidate in the department of classics at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, used Google Earth to track trade around the ancient city of Antioch, located in present-day southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, at the beginning of its takeover by the Roman Empire in 64 B.C. Neumann found the use of Antioch's civic coins was more widespread than was previously thought, suggesting the city had developed broad political authority within the region before being absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Neumann used the movement of ancient coins to track political relationships between cities, since authorities typically decided which foreign currencies were accepted in commerce. As such, if coins from Antioch were prevalent in a neighboring city, the two governments likely shared a political agreement, Neumann explained.

"I trace the process of change by working with historical proxies — in this case, coins," she said in a statement. "I created my own database from previously published excavation reports and lists of coin hoards, and imported it to Google Earth. My criteria are so detailed that I can see all the coins for a particular emperor or of a particular material."

Neumann tracked where different coins were found, and collected information on when they were minted and under whose authority. Using Google Earth, she was able to plot the flow of coins across different historical periods, creating a visual representation of Antioch's political reach.

"I'm very interested in the idea of an empire — physical empires, but also empires similar to what America has with its cultural and informational empires, and the idea of globalization," Neumann said. "My bigger question is, 'How do you get one empire which absorbs a lot of different people and yet lasts so long? How is stability achieved even with vast diversity?' I think that can speak to today's society with the culture changes we're seeing."

Antioch's civic coins were particularly abundant along a known trade routebut were also used more widely among neighboring cities than was previously thought, Neumann found. Her maps effectively followed the contraction of Antioch's political authority as the ancient city was eventually integrated into the Roman Empire.

Neumann hopes this work will encourage historians and archaeologists to think of new ways to use technology for research.

Read more at Discovery News

Dust Bunnies Discovered Around 'Dirty' Supernova

Dust. It’s a nuisance. It’s dirty. It makes you have to clean your house. And without it, we wouldn’t even be here. That’s why astronomers are so happy to find a whole lot of dust with a state-of-the-art radio telescope.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) promises great things. Located at one of the highest, driest spots on Earth, this new radio array lets astronomers explore a rich area of the electromagnetic spectrum that is difficult to access through the Earth’s atmosphere. It can see the birth of stars, the formation of galaxies, the origins of planets, and, oh yeah, dust.

Dust in the universe is actually quite fascinating. Tiny dust grains around young stars seed the formation of planets. Dust is also crucial to helping gas clouds cool so that they can collapse to form stars. Though dust is often made by very old middle-sized and smaller stars, that doesn’t explain how dust came to be early in the Universe’s history after only the most massive stars had exploded in supernovae. Though it seemed that supernovae could make some dust, it was not nearly enough.

This week, at the 223rd American Astronomy Meeting in Washington, D.C. astronomers announced that they had found the missing dust, or at least an important example of where it comes from.

Supernova 1987A blasted its way into existence just 27 years ago in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud, allowing astronomers a chance to watch a supernova evolve right in front of their eyes (or telescopes). In the image above, a characteristic ring of material shows where the shock wave of the exploded supernova is in space, so that the remnants of the massive star that exploded can be found within that ring.

The team, led by Remy Indebetouw of the University of Virginia, pointed ALMA at supernova 1987A looking for warm dust, and they found it. A lot of it. The dust cloud seen has a full quarter of the mass of our sun! This is ample dust, produced by the star that went supernova, to explain where dust came from in the early universe, allowing the generations of star formation that eventually led to planets and people.

Read more at Discovery News

Massive Black Holes are Everywhere!

Too often, the term “paradigm-shift” is used in science reporting for things that, really, aren’t much of a shift in our thinking at all. However, this week it was used to describe a new astronomical discovery, and for once I agree that this is a BIG DEAL.

The story is in the discovery of massive black holes in the centers of dwarf galaxies by Amy Reines of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Now, we are quite familiar with the story that all massive galaxies have supermassive black holes in their centers. In fact, the bigger the galaxy’s central bulge, the bigger the supermassive black hole, or SMBH. There seems to be a definite link between the evolution of galaxies and the evolution of their central black holes.

An outstanding question is: how do these supermassive black holes form? Many millions or billions of “regular” mass black holes would fit inside one SMBH, but its hard to imagine this ever happening realistically in the Universe. It is likely, however, that SMBHs started as simply Massive Black Holes (MBHs) during the early days of the Universe, either as gas clouds collapsed catastrophically or supermassive stars somehow formed massive seed black holes. These seed black holes are far too distant to observe with current capabilities though.

This is why astronomers are so excited to find an analog of these massive black holes in an unexpected place: dwarf galaxies. We already knew that all large galaxies, such as our Milky Way, harbor supermassive black holes in their centers, but the tiny dwarf galaxies that have no central bulge and tend to cluster around bigger galaxies didn’t appear to have such central black holes.

Then, a few years ago, Reines serendipitously discovered a massive black hole at the heart of dwarf galaxy Henize 2-10. This took her work in a whole new direction. Now, after having closely studying some 25,000 dwarf galaxies, she and her collaborators have found evidence for massive accreting black holes in 100 of them. These MBHs are not millions or billions of times the mass of the sun, but a few hundred thousand times the mass of the sun. These are very much like what the seeds of supermassive black holes may have been like in the early Universe, and they are close enough to study.

100 out of 25,000 doesn’t seem like a lot. However, these are only the ones that have material actively falling on to them. We know that about 10 percent of supermassive black holes are active, leaving the other 90 percent to be pretty quiet. We don’t know the percentage of active to quiet massive black holes in dwarf galaxies just yet, but it is likely that the 100 are just the tip of the iceberg. And so now we have many dwarf galaxies harboring central massive black holes as well as their larger counterparts, and that does indeed represent a paradigm-shift in what we know about black hole and galaxy evolution.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 7, 2014

Prehistoric Shark Nursery Found at Illinois Nuke Plant

The earliest shark nursery containing fossils of both young sharks and eggs has been found at the site of a nuclear power plant in northeastern Illinois.

The nursery, once located at what is now Mazon Creek at the Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station site, dates to 310 million years ago, according to a paper published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. It used to be teeming with a long-snouted shark called Bandringa, which was one of the earliest close relatives of all modern sharks.

"At least a dozen juvenile Bandringa shark fossils -- and probably more -- have been recovered from the site," University of Michigan paleontologist Lauren Sallan, who co-authored the paper with Michael Coates, told Discovery News.

Some of the fossils are in a remarkable state of preservation.

"We even have soft body tissue from the juvenile sharks," Sallan said, adding that the tissue retains pigment that, in the future, could reveal the precise coloration of the sharks. DNA could probably not be extracted from it, though.

The paleontologists studied the fossils, along with those of 12 adult Bandringas. This shark was previously classified into two species, but the researchers determined that all of the fossils belonged to just one species. The scientists also gained a more complete picture of the extinct shark's anatomy and distinctive features.

"Bandringa had a head entirely covered in large spines, a long paddle-like rostrum (snout) with electroreceptors, and one of the earliest jaws capable of protruding and suction feeding," Sallan said.

It resembled present-day sawfish and paddlefish. The huge snout took up half of its body length. The electroreceptors on the snout helped the sharks to locate prey, which consisted of small crustaceans and other marine life.

Juveniles were 4 to 6 inches long. They grew into adults of up to 10 feet long.

The stomachs of some of the juvenile sharks even had tiny crustaceans still in them, indicating that these sharks died a sudden death before their meals digested. It remains a mystery for now as to what did them in.

Based on the location of the adult Bandringa sharks and the nursery, the researchers conclude that the adults migrated downstream from freshwater swamps in what are now Pennsylvania and Ohio to a tropical coastline to spawn. That prehistoric coastline is where the nuclear power plant now is.

The defined route marks the earliest known example of shark migration, according to Sallan and Coates. This early route additionally reveals the only known example of a freshwater to saltwater shark migration.

"It's also the earliest evidence for segregation, meaning that juveniles and adults were living in different locations, which (further) implies migration into and out of these nursery waters," Sallan said.

As to why sharks then, and now, rely upon nurseries, she explained that the more isolated regions chosen for nurseries protect juveniles from larger sharks and other potential predators.

The gestation period for sharks can also be quite long -- up to two years -- making the protection all the more important.

Read more at Discovery News

49-Million-Year-Old Cockroach Fossil Found

A common European and African cockroach may have gotten its evolutionary start in North America, according to new fossil findings.

More than 70 species of cockroaches in the genus Ectobius currently crawl through Europe and Africa, making them amongst the most common cockroaches in that part of the world. They measure only about 0.25 to 0.5 inches long (6.35 to 12.7 millimeters), considerably smaller than the American cockroaches (Periplaneta Americana) that can grow to about 1.5 in. long (4 centimeters) and plague major cities and small towns across the United States.

Researchers have previously thought that Ectobius first evolved in Europe and Africa, scuttling around the region since at least 44 million years ago, based on a specimen preserved in Baltic amber of this age. Now, researchers based at the Slovak Academy of Sciences have discovered 49-million-year-old fossils of four different Ectobius species in northwest Colorado, pushing back the insects' first appearance on Earth by roughly 5 million years and its place of origin as modern-day United States rather than the Old World.

The ancient species — discovered in sedimentary rocks dating back to a warm, humid geologic epoch known as the Eocene — have since gone extinct, for reasons that remain unclear to the researchers. However, over the past 70 years or so, at least four different Ectobius species have made their way into parts of the United States and Canada.

"It was always assumed that these four newcomers were the first Ectobius species to have ever lived in North America," study co-author Conrad Labandeira of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History said in a statement. "But the discovery in Colorado proves that their relatives were here nearly 50 million years ago."

Three of the four new species have yet to be described in detail, because they are poorly preserved in the rock. The best preserved has been named Ectobius kohlsi, after fossil collector David Kohls who contributed all of the study specimens along with nearly 150,000 other insect fossils to Smithsonian's Department of Paleobiology.

Read more at Discovery News

'Fish-Lizard' Fossil Just Misses U.K. Storm

After approximately 200 million years in the Earth, a dino-era ichthyosaur fossil surfaced after heavy storms rocked the southwest coast of England on Dec. 26, reported the BBC. Then the fossil nearly crumbled into the sea as another storm rumbled in with high waves.

However, fossil hunters excavated the remains of the extinct dolphin-like reptile (ichthyosaur is Greek for “fish lizard”) approximately eight hours before the storm hit. Had the storm hit before the excavation was complete, the crumbling rock of the cliff could have collapsed and destroyed the fossil.

“There was a very difficult, short window before another storm blew in so we were limited for time before it got ploughed out,” professional fossil hunter Paul Crossley, who was involved in the excavation, told the BBC.

The ichthyosaur fossil measured 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and included most of the ancient animals’ bones, making it one of only a few nearly-complete fossils found in the region during the past decade, according to Crossley. The region along the Dorset coast of the U.K. where the  ichthyosaur excavation occurred goes by the name of Jurassic Coast, and is a U.N. World Heritage Site.

The Jurassic Coast holds a hallowed place in the history of ichthyosaurs. In the early 1800s, siblings Mary and Joseph Anning discovered a 17-foot-long (5.2 meter) fossil of an unknown beast in the cliffs of Charmouth, Dorset, near where the storm-threatened fossil rescue occurred. Continued fossil finds by Mary Anning informed the first published scientific description of the ichthiosaurs in 1821.

Read more at Discovery News

Paleo Diet May Have Included Sweets, Carbs

Ancient hunter-gatherers from the area that is now Morocco had cavities and missing teeth, a new study finds.

The rotten teeth on the ancient skeletons, which date back to about 15,000 years ago, probably resulted from a carbohydrate-rich diet full of acorns, according to the study, described today (Jan. 6) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings show that at least some ancient populations were loading up on carbs thousands of years before the cultivation of grain took hold, said study co-author Louise Humphrey, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum in London.

The skeletal remains of the hunter-gatherers were found in a large cave known as Grotte des Pigeons, in northern Morocco. Ochre-stained beads and other artifacts have shown that humans occupied the cave intermittently from at least 80,000 years ago till about 10,000 years ago, with people living in the front of the cave and burying their dead in the back.

Though archaeologists have known of the cave for about a century and had already excavated about 100 burials, in 2004, Humphrey and her colleagues found a new patch of 14 burials tucked into the back of the cave.

The researchers combined those finds with cave skeletons that were already in museum collections, analyzing 52 sets of adult teeth that date to between 15,000 and 13,900 years ago.

The hunter-gatherers did not have good oral hygiene. Half of the teeth showed evidence of severe tooth decay, and only three hunter-gatherers had no cavities. The ancient people also had cavities and abscesses that ate holes through their jaws, and 90 percent of the skeletons were missing incisors, apparently because of a ritual removal process.

The culprit? Sweet acorns.

Analysis of sediments from the front of the cave revealed the ancient people feasted on snails, pine nuts and, crucially, carbohydrate-rich acorns that might have tasted a bit like sweet chestnuts, Humphrey said. The team also found evidence of grasses likely used to make baskets — perhaps to store those acorns.

"They're quite good snack foods," Humphrey told LiveScience. "Acorns form neat little storable packages of food."

But the sweet nuts probably also provided food for Streptococcus mutans, the plaque-causing culprit in tooth decay.

These bacteria produce acid as a byproduct of breaking down sugars. This acid then attacks tooth enamel and leads to cavities, Peter S. Ungar, an anthropologist at the University of Arkansas who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.

Most scientists believe that hunter-gatherers ate a diet low in carbohydrates and rich in protein, and that it was only during the agricultural revolution that carbohydrate consumption increased.

But the new findings suggest humanity's sweet tooth may be much older than that.

For instance, new evidence has revealed that other Paleolithic communities "ate a range of starchy and fat-rich seeds and nuts, as well as berries," Marijke van der Veen, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email to LiveScience.

Still, the carb-loading cave dwellers were probably the exception, not the rule.

Read more at Discovery News

New Exoplanet Hunter Directly Images Alien Worlds

A new instrument, attached to one of the most powerful telescopes in the world, has opened its infrared eye for the first time, taking snapshots of a nearby planet orbiting another star and a ring of proto-planetary stellar dust.

The sophisticated car-sized instrument, called the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), is attached to the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile and represents a new era in exoplanetary discovery. The GPI, which has been in development since 2003, is capable of not only resolving the dim light from an exoplanet orbiting close to its parent star; it can also analyze the planet’s atmospheric composition and temperature.

The majority of ground-based exoplanet surveys watch for stars’ “wobbles” to betray the gravitational presence of massive exoplanets in orbit -- known as the “radial velocity technique.” Another powerful technique for discovering smaller exoplanets in tight orbits around their star is employed by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. As an exoplanet passes in front of its host star, a small dip in brightness can be detected by Kepler’s sensitive optics – this is known as a "transit."

Other methods for exoplanetary detection are possible (such as microlensing), but the “Holy Grail” for astronomers is to use a powerful telescope to directly image star systems, picking out tiny dots of light in orbit. This feat has been achieved a handful of times (most notably the 2008 Hubble and Keck/Gemini announcements of directly imaging exoplanets around the stars Fomalhaut and HR 8799) its wholesale use as an effective exoplanet-hunting tool has been limited by technology, a limit that the GPI has now dramatically lifted.

Through the ingenious combination of adaptive optics -- a laser system used on some observatories that can actively counteract the blurring effects of turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere -- and an active obscuring coronagraph perfectly covering the star (to counteract the glaring effect of the starlight), GPI has the power to distinguish star from exoplanet to unparalleled precision.

“Most planets that we know about to date are only known because of indirect methods that tell us a planet is there, a bit about its orbit and mass, but not much else,” said Bruce Macintosh of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who led the team that developed GPI. “With GPI we directly image planets around stars -- it’s a bit like being able to dissect the system and really dive into the planet’s atmospheric makeup and characteristics.”

Speaking at the 223rd American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, Macintosh showcased images from the GPI’s “first light” campaign in November.

“Even these early first-light images are almost a factor of 10 better than the previous generation of instruments,” he said in a Gemini Observatory press release. “In one minute, we are seeing planets that used to take us an hour to detect.”

In a stunning image of the Beta Pictoris system, located some 63.4 light-years from Earth, the GPI clearly picked out the known exoplanet Beta Pictoris b and measured the world’s spectrum for the first time. This is akin to trying to photograph a firefly buzzing around a streetlamp thousands of miles away and measuring the spectrum of the chemicals providing the luminescence in the firefly’s tail.

In addition to imaging Beta Pictoris, GPI turned to the young star HR4796A, located 237 light-years away, which is surrounded by a ring of proto-planetary dust (above). Using the instrument’s polarization filter, astronomers were able to see the full detail of the ring.

A little closer to home, the GPI also focused on Europa, Jupiter’s enigmatic icy moon, and resolved surface features that closely matched observations by flyby missions.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 6, 2014

Tiny Ancestor of All Modern Carnivores Found

Lions, tigers, bears and even loyal pups and playful kitties all come from the same line of carnivorous mammals, a lineage whose origins are lost in time. Now, scientists have discovered one of the earliest ancestors of all modern carnivores in Belgium.

The new species, Dormaalocyon latouri, was a 2-pound (1 kilogram) tree-dweller that likely fed on even smaller mammals and insects.

"It wasn't frightening. It wasn't dreadful," said study researcher Floréal Solé, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. What it was, Solé said, is a clue to the beginnings of today's toothy beasts. [In Photos: Mammals Through Time]

"It is one of the oldest carnivorous mammals which is related to present-day carnivores," Solé told LiveScience.

Carnivore history

All modern carnivores descend from a single group, one of four groups of carnivorous mammals found in the Paleocene and Eocene periods, Solé said. The Paleocene ran from 66 million to 56 million years ago, and the Eocene followed from 56 to 33.9 million years ago.

The carnivoraforms, as they're known, appear widespread during the Eocene, but without earlier fossils, paleontologists are unsure about their origins. Solé and his colleagues examined fossils from the very earliest Eocene, about 56 million years ago, from Dormaal, Belgium, east of Brussels.

The site was first discovered in the 1880s and has yielded 40 species of mammals over the years. Richard Smith, also of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, and a colleague of Solé's, has sifted nearly 14,000 teeth from the soil in Dormaal.

Among them are 280 new specimens of teeth from a species hinted at previously from only two molars. With the new information from the teeth (including baby teeth from juveniles) and some ankle bones, Solé, Smith and their colleagues described this species today (Jan. 6) in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The ankle bone fossils reveal that Dormaalocyon lived an arboreal life, scampering through the trees in what was then a humid, subtropical forest, the researchers report. It likely looked like something of a cross between a tiny panther and a squirrel, with a long tail and a catlike snout.

The study confirms previous work suggesting that carnivores emerged during the Paleocene, before Dormaalocyon's time, said Gregg Gunnell, the director of the division of fossil primates at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, who was not involved in the research.

"It really shows that there is a lot of diversity very early in the Eocene, and we have absolutely no idea where it came from," Gunnell told LiveScience.

Part of the challenge of uncovering carnivore history is that, on the whole, meat-eating mammals aren't that common, Gunnell said — there are many more herbivores and omnivores on the planet and in the fossil record. In addition, Solé said, fossils from Europe, which appears to be an important stop for, and potentially the origin of, carnivore evolution and spread, are rarer than fossils from North America.

The geographical origin of the carnivoraforms remains mysterious, however. One theory holds they originated in North America and spread to Europe; the relationships of the fossils in Dormaal seem to suggest something more complex, Solé said. It's possible that carnivoraforms began in Asia and made it to North America through Europe.

Read more at Discovery News

Diabetes Risk May Come from Neanderthal Gene

Mexicans and other Latin Americans have a higher risk of diabetes because of a Neanderthal gene mutation, researchers say.

These findings could uncover new targets for diabetes drugs, investigators added.

An international team of researchers focused on Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, accounting for 90 percent to 95 percent of diabetes cases in humans. In Type 2 diabetes, the body either does not generate enough insulin or its cells ignore the molecule. Insulin is a hormone the body needs in order to use sugar for energy.

The scientists investigated the genetic basis of Type 2 diabetes in Mexican and other Latin American populations, where the disease is roughly twice as common as it is in white, non-Hispanic populations in the United States.

Diabetes risk

The research team, known as the Slim Initiative in Genomic Medicine for the Americas (SIGMA) Type 2 Diabetes Consortium, performed the largest and most comprehensive genetic study to date of Type 2 diabetes in Mexican and Mexican-American populations. This involved analyzing the genomes of more than 8,200 Mexicans and other Latin Americans, including more than 3,800 people with Type 2 diabetes and more than 4,300 without the condition.

The investigators discovered a risk gene for Type 2 diabetes known as SLC16A11 that had gone undetected in previous research. People who carry the higher-risk mutation of the gene, which is active in the liver, are 25 percent more likely to have diabetes than those who lack the mutation, and people who inherited copies of this gene variant from both parents are 50 percent more likely to have diabetes.

The higher-risk version of this gene is seen in up to half of people who have recent Native American ancestry, including Latin Americans. The fact that this gene mutation is more common in Latin Americans could account for as much as 20 percent of their increased levels of Type 2 diabetes.

The researchers noted changing levels of the protein that the gene encodes could alter the amount of a specific type of fat, one that prior studies have linked to the risk of diabetes.

"What is most exciting to me, and has the greatest long-term implication, is a new clue about the biology of Type 2 diabetes,"study co-authorDavid Altshuler, professor of genetics and medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute, told LiveScience.

"If we can come to understand the biological function of SLC16A11, and how changing its sequence increases risk of Type 2 diabetes, then we may in the long run be able to develop improved prevention or treatment," Altshuler added.

Roots of diabetes

Although this gene variant is common among people with recent Native American ancestry and is also found in about 20 percent of East Asians, only 2 percent of Europeans have it, and no known Africans carry SLC16A11. This pattern is somewhat unusual; modern humans arose in Africa, so nearly all common human genetic variants are found in African populations.

To uncover the roots of this odd pattern, the researchers investigated ancient human DNA and found the high-risk mutation of this gene was apparently inherited from Neanderthals, the closest extinct relatives of modern humans. Recent analysis of Neanderthal DNA revealed the ancestors of modern humans interbred with Neanderthals; the first high-quality genome sequence from a Neanderthal suggests about 1.5 percent to 2.1 percent of the DNA of modern humans living outside Africa is Neanderthal in origin. In contrast, Neanderthal DNA is much less common among modern Africans, matching these latest findings.

The scientists are now using their findings "to design new studies that aim to understand how this variant influences metabolism and disease," study co-authorTeresa Tusie-Luna, principal investigator at the National University of Mexico's Biomedical Research Institute, said in a statement.

Read more at Discovery News

Amazing Time Lapse of Atacama's Star-Filled Sky

Ancients from Nicholas Buer on Vimeo.

You may have looked up before on a cool, clear night to see the hazy glow of the Milky Way stretching across the sky, but probably nothing like this. The video above, a mesmerizing time-lapse by photographer Nicholas Buer, features the otherworldly landscape and incredibly clear night sky of Chile’s Atacama desert — the same place that the European Southern Observatory selected to build its enormous telescope arrays that allow astronomers to get their best ground-based views of the universe.

Nicholas describes the high and dry location on his Vimeo page:

The Atacama is well-known for what are arguably the cleanest, darkest skies on Earth. The dry air adds an extra transparency and this coupled with the altitude creates a night sky like no other. I visited at a time when Venus was situated quite close to the centre of the Milky Way; an astronomical event that only takes place every 8 years or so. I also timed my visit with the Autumn equinox which is a good time of year to capture Zodiacal light; the celestial phenomenon caused by sunlight scattering interplanetary space dust in the Zodiacal cloud. It stretches across the ecliptic and glows for a short while after sunset like a UFO beam and I was lucky enough to witness this every night I stepped out into the dark.

“Ancients,” the result of Nicholas’ long voyage to San Pedro de Atacama and 12 days of shooting in a harsh, remote location, is simply amazing.

Read more at Discovery News

Weird Small 'Puffed-Up' Exoplanet Discovered

NASA’s Kepler space telescope has discovered a veritable menagerie of alien worlds orbiting other stars, but this most recent exoplanetary find is perhaps one of the strangest. The world is of the approximate mass of the Earth, yet it has a ‘puffed-up’ atmosphere, making it appear 60 percent larger than our planet.

Located 200 light-years away, KOI-314c orbits its dim red dwarf star once every 23 days. The close proximity to its star ensures that it has a rather toasty atmosphere of around 220 degrees Fahrenheit (or 104 degrees Celsius) — a little above the boiling point of water at sea-level (on Earth). Any discussion of the possibility for life as we know it is moot, but this new discovery is notable nonetheless; this is the first Earth-mass exoplanet discovered that had its mass measured by using Transit Timing Variations (TTVs).

The easiest way to gauge an exoplanet’s mass is to watch the ‘wobble’ of its host star as it orbits. This may be an effective tool for the more massive exoplanets, but when it comes to planets of Earth-like masses, their featherweight gravitational fields have a minimal effect on the star, making the wobble difficult to discern. Lacking star ‘wobble’ data (otherwise known as radial velocity data), an international team of astronomers used an ingenious technique to measure KOI-314c’s mass.

KOI-314c has company. This exoplanet exists in a multi-planetary system with at least one other exoplanet. The second exoplanet, called KOI-314b, also travels across the face of its star from our perspective (an event known as a ‘transit’), allowing Kepler to make very precise measurements of both planet’s orbital periods. KOI-314b is around the same size as KOI-314c, but it is a lot more dense, ‘weighing-in’ at 4 times the mass of the Earth.

Like the planets in our solar system — and, indeed, the systems of moons around Saturn and Jupiter — KOI-314b and KOI-314c tug on each other gravitationally. From Kepler’s perspective, this gravitational tugging manifests itself as slight changes in transit timings. TTVs have been used to discover the gravitational presence of undiscovered planets that lurk in unseen multi-planetary systems, tugging on other planets that transit their star.

Fascinatingly, TTVs are also being used in an effort to detect exomoons orbiting transiting exoplanets (as the moons’ gravitational tug should cause their parent exoplanet to wobble very slightly, causing a TTV) and the team of astronomers were actually seeking out exomoons in Kepler TTV data when they serendipitously discovered a unique way of deducing KOI-314c’s mass.

“When we noticed this planet showed transit timing variations, the signature was clearly due to the other planet in the system and not a moon,” said David Kipping of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and lead author of the discovery. “At first we were disappointed it wasn’t a moon but then we soon realized it was an extraordinary measurement.”

“Rather than looking for a wobbling star, we essentially look for a wobbling planet,” said co-investigator David Nesvorny, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). “Kepler saw two planets transiting in front of the same star over and over again. By measuring the times at which these transits occurred very carefully, we were able to discover that the two planets are locked in an intricate dance of tiny wobbles giving away their masses.”

KOI-314b orbits the star every 13 days, giving it a 5-to-3 resonance with KOI-314c — for every 5 orbits by KOI-314b, KOI-314c orbits 3 times.

Apart from proving that TTVs can be used to gauge the mass of transiting exoplanets, the discovery only adds to the fascinating variety of strange new worlds Kepler is uncovering in our galaxy.

“This planet might have the same mass as Earth, but it is certainly not Earth-like,” said Kipping. “It proves that there is no clear dividing line between rocky worlds like Earth and fluffier planets like water worlds or gas giants.”

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 5, 2014

Supervolcanoes Burst Like Bubbles

The Earth's largest volcanic eruptions have a lot in common with bubbles rising up in a glass of soda or beer.

New experiments and computer simulations show that gigantic eruptions like those which blasted open the Yellowstone caldera are caused by vast pools of hot magma so buoyant they press incessantly on the rocks above until they break through with incredible eruptive force.

The new research, presented by two teams in two papers in the Jan. 5 issue of Nature Geoscience, suggests the magma's buoyancy triggers these rare super eruptions rather than some local trigger like an earthquake or an injection of more magma into the magma chamber from below.

The supervolcanic trigger appears to be markedly different from how smaller, more frequently erupting volcanoes blow their tops.

Volcanoes like Stromboli and Mount St. Helens have much smaller magma sources and are thought to erupt when, for instance, a quake shakes the magma up like a bottle of soda.

The eruption releases gases that dramatically increase the pressure -- or the shaking causes a large landslide that essentially uncaps the mountain that's holding the magma in, as happened at St. Helens in 1980. 

“In general there may be some local triggers (for supervolcanic eruptions), but the magma chamber must be in critical condition,” said Luca Caricchi of the University of Bristol and University of Geneva. It's the buoyancy which makes it critical.

Caracchi, the lead author of one of the papers, compares the way magma buoys up through the crust to how a balloon buoys up in water -- so powerfully that it's difficult to keep it just under the surface. “It's got to come up,” he said. 

There is also another factor which helps enlarge the magma chamber itself, at least for Yellowstone, according to the University of Utah's Robert B. Smith, chief seismologist for the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. 

“In Yellowstone we have made a case that (the magma chamber is) so big because it's in an area of lithospheric extension,” Smith said. This means the crust of the Earth there is being pulled apart.

“It allows magma to ascend much more easily," Smith said. "It allows it to rise and enlarge.”

In fact, GPS stations used to monitor Yellowstone show that it's stretching apart at a rate of 3.5 to 4 millimeters per year, Smith said. That's 3.5 to 4 meters per thousand years or 3.5 to 4 kilometers over a million years.

The last Yellowstone eruptions were 160,000 to 70,000 years ago. That was preceded by eruptions at 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. Understanding exactly what sets off these giant eruptions -- none have occurred in human history -- is critical for forecasting them, Smith said.

Read more at Discovery News