Jun 7, 2014

Another Glimpse of 'New Physics' at the LHC?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is currently on the long road to re-start, but for physicists pouring over the huge wealth of data stored from countless trillions of particle collisions already carried out by the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the work never paused.

And this week, at the LHC Physics meeting in New York City, researchers who are currently analyzing data from one of the LHC’s seven detectors announced an intriguing finding. As reported by Symmetry Magazine, the finding — which isn’t quite a discovery (yet) — focuses on the production of electrons, muons and taus in the post-collision soup of particles that are produced inside the LHCb detector.

Messing with the Standard Model

In a nutshell, these three types of subatomic particle — all known as “leptons” — should be produced in equal numbers as decay products after the two counter-rotating ‘beams’ of protons inside the LHC’s superconducting electromagnets collide with one another. The Standard Model predicts this and, so far, experiments have yet to prove otherwise.

“The Standard Model doesn’t distinguish between muons and electrons in these decays,” said particle physicist Tom Blake, a Royal Society University Research Fellow. “As far as our equations are concerned, they are the same particle, so we should see them produced in near equal amounts.”

The Standard Model is the all-encompassing theory of quantum mechanics and has been formulated over decades of theory and experimentation. It is a reliable “universal recipe book” of sorts that can predict what types of particle will be generated inside the LHC’s detectors. But there are some holes in the Standard Model — most notably the fact that gravity doesn’t ‘fit’; we don’t know what dark matter is; and why the Universe is mostly matter (and not antimatter).

In an effort to possibly detect physics beyond the Standard Model (i.e. ‘new’ physics that could explain some of the Standard Model’s shortcomings), physicists are looking closely at the data spewing from the LHC in the hope of seeing patterns that cannot be explained using our current understanding of physics theory.

Particle Cake

Although it is just a hint, LHCb physicists are baffled as to why the production of electrons, muons and taus should be defying Standard Model predictions. According to decay measurements, electrons were produced 25 percent more often than muons. If the Standard Model were a cake recipe, it would be like throwing all the ingredients for a chocolate cake into a bowl, baking it and then getting a vanilla cake out of the oven. Obviously there’s something not quite right with the cake recipe.

In 2013, Discovery News reported on a related LHCb finding that there is a discrepancy in the decays of B-mesons. B-mesons, which are hadrons composed of a quark and anti-quark, decay in a very specific way and physicists noticed a non-random pattern in the angular distribution of decay products that was not predicted by the Standard Model. Once again, the recipe appears to be slightly askew.

Could there be some commonality between these two findings? Last year, LHCb physicists suggested that supersymmetry may have a part to play in the B-meson results and the same could be said for the lepton decay products in this latest work.

“If we continue to see this discrepancy, it could be evidence of a new particle—like a heavier cousin of the Z boson-interfering with the muon production,” said co-investigator Michel De Cian, postdoc at the University of Heidelberg.

Read more at Discovery News

Newly discovered insect 'Supersonus' hits animal kingdom's highest-pitch love call

In the rainforests of South America, scientists have discovered a new genus and three new species of insect with the highest ultrasonic calling songs ever recorded in the animal kingdom.

Katydids (or bushcrickets) are insects known for their acoustic communication, with the male producing sound by rubbing its wings together (stridulation) to attract distant females for mating.

Scientists from the universities of Lincoln, Strathclyde and Toronto located a new genus with three new species of katydid in the rainforests of Colombia and Ecuador. These insects were found to produce the highest ultrasonic calling songs known in nature, with males reaching 150 kHz. The calling frequencies used by most katydids range between 5 kHz and 30 kHz. The nominal human hearing range ends at around 20 kHz. For this reason, the new genus has been named Supersonus.

Dr Fernando Montealegre-Z, from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, said: "To call distant females, male katydids produce songs by 'stridulation' where one wing (the scraper) rubs against a row of 'teeth' on the other wing. The scraper is next to a vibrating drum that acts like a speaker. The forewings and drums are unusually reduced in size in the Supersonus species, yet they still manage to be highly ultrasonic and very loud."

"Using a combination of state-of-the-art technologies, we found that Supersonus creates a 'closed box' with its right wing in order to radiate sound. Human-made loud speakers also use this system to radiate sound. Large speakers radiate low frequencies, while small speakers emit high frequencies. So, these reduced wings are responsible for tuning their calling songs at such high frequencies."

These insects have lost the ability of flight due to their reduced wing size, so the adoption of extreme ultrasonic frequencies might play a role in avoiding predators, such as bats. Bats can detect their prey's movements using echolocation but can also eavesdrop and detect the calls of singing animals like katydids and frogs. Rainforest katydids have learned to avoid bats by reducing the time spent singing and by evolving an ear that can detect the ultrasonic echolocation calls of the bats. Although some bats can detect 150 kHz, by singing at extreme ultrasonic frequencies, the katydid calls degrade faster with distance so that a flying bat will find it harder to hear the signal.

Dr James Windmill, from the Centre of Ultrasonic Engineering, University of Strathclyde, added: "These insects can produce, and hear, loud ultrasonic calls in air. Understanding how nature's systems do this can give us inspiration for our engineered ultrasonics."

Read more at Science Daily

Jun 6, 2014

Asteroid 'Beast' to Fly By Earth on Sunday

A new-found huge asteroid, nicknamed "The Beast," is expected zoom by Earth this weekend.

The asteroid 2014 HQ124, which is the size of a football stadium, poses no chance of hitting Earth in its flyby on Sunday (June 8), and will pass by at a range of three times the distance between the Earth-moon on Sunday (June 8). It was discovered on April 23 by NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, a sky-mapping space telescope.

The mammoth asteroid 2014 HQ124 is about 1,100 feet (352 meters) across, according to scientists with NASA's Asteroid Watch program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Asteroid 2014 HQ124 will be traveling up to 31,000 mph (14 km/s) -- 17 times faster than a shot from a high-speed rifle -- when it makes its closest approach to Earth on Sunday at 1:56 a.m. EDT (0556 GMT) at three lunar distances away. One lunar distance, or the distance between the Earth and the moon, is about 238,855 miles (384,400 kilometers).

Astronomer Bob Berman, of the online Slooh community observatory, said it is "disconcerting" that an asteroid this large flying so close to the planet was only spotted less than two months before its nearest approach to Earth. Slooh held a special event on Thursday previewing the close approach of 2014 HQ124.

"HQ124 is at least 10 times bigger, and possibly 20 times, than the asteroid that injured a thousand people last year in Chelyabinsk, Siberia," Berman said in a statement. "If it were impact us, the energy released would be measured not in kilotons like the atomic bombs that ended World War II, but in H-bomb type megatons."

NASA estimates that more than 90 percent of the mountain-sized near-Earth asteroids, or objects wider than 0.6 miles (1 km), have been discovered. A space rock of this size could unleash global destruction if it were to collide with Earth.

Read more at Discovery News

4 in 10 Americans Believe God Created Earth 10,000 Years Ago

"The Creation of Adam," in the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo.
Four in 10 Americans believe God created the Earth and anatomically modern humans, less than 10,000 years ago, according to a new Gallup poll.

About half of Americans believe humans evolved over millions of years, with most of those people saying that God guided the process. Religious, less educated, and older respondents were likelier to espouse a young Earth creationist view -- that life was created some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago -- according to the poll.

Though the percentage of people who believe in creationism has changed little over the decades, the percentage of people who believe humans evolved without God has more than doubled, and the percentage who believe in God-guided evolution has decreased.

Supernatural beliefs

Americans consistently report high levels of belief in the supernatural. About 80 percent of Americans believe in miracles and three-quarters believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, according to a 2013 Pew survey.

At the same time, while most Americans have a healthy respect for science, many could use a refresher course in the basics. For instance, a 2014 National Science Foundation study found that only three out of four Americans know that the Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, and a large percentage didn't know the Earth's core was hot. Large percentages didn't know that the father's sperm determines a baby's sex.

Evolving views?

As part of the Values and Beliefs Survey, Gallup called a random sample of 1,028 landline and cellphone users and asked them which of three descriptions most closely matched their beliefs: that humans have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process; that humans have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process; or that God created human beings pretty much in their present form sometime in the last 10,000 years or so. Gallup has asked people similar questions since 1982.

About 42 percent espoused the creationist view presented, whereas 31 percent said God guided the evolutionary process, and just 19 said they believe evolution operated without God involved.

Religion was positively tied to creationism beliefs, with more than two-thirds of those who attend weekly religious services espousing a belief in a young Earth, compared with just 23 percent of those who never go to church saying the same.

Just over a quarter of those with a college degree hold creationist beliefs, compared with 57 percent of people with such views who had at most a high-school education, the poll found.

Read more at Discovery News

Microbes May Drive the Evolution of New Animal Species

Symbiotic microbes seem to play a major role in preventing three related species of Nasonia wasp from interbreeding. The species vary in wing size: N. vitripennis has the smallest wing, N. giraulti has the largest, and N. longicornis is somewhere in between.
You could call it Seth Bordenstein’s “Frankenstein” moment. A little over a year ago, Bordenstein, a biologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and his then-graduate student, Robert Brucker, mated two incompatible species of wasp in the lab, creating a hardy hybrid that lived when most others died.

Normally, when members of two related species of parasitic wasps in the genus Nasonia, N. giraulti and N. longicornis, mate with their more distant relative N. vitripennis, the hybrid offspring die. Until recently, no one could figure out exactly why, but it was clear that this was one of the major barriers dividing the species. But when Bordenstein and Brucker treated the wasps with antibiotics, eliminating the millions of microbes that lived on their bodies, they found that many of the hybrid offspring unexpectedly could survive and thrive. By stripping off the wasps’ microbiomes — the microbial community inhabiting the insects — Bordenstein and Brucker had brought a totally new hybrid wasp to life.

The findings, published in Science in July 2013, highlight a surprising idea in biology: that symbiosis — a long-term, stable and often beneficial interaction between organisms — could drive two populations apart, the first step in the development of new species. Although the idea has been floating around for nearly a century, it has only recently begun to gain traction in biology. This idea contrasts sharply with the traditional picture of evolution, in which new species emerge either from geological isolation or from a relentless struggle for food and mates. According to this new hypothesis, a host organism’s microbes might trigger changes in mating and reproduction that begin to define two different populations.

Almost all animals, including humans, are an amalgam of host and microbe, with thousands of microorganisms occupying every available niche. In exchange for a home, these microbes perform vital functions for their hosts, protecting them from pathogens, processing food, and even altering social behavior. New, sophisticated methods for tracking microbial communities have helped scientists appreciate just how important microbes are. Bordenstein’s work is part of a new offshoot in the study of symbiosis, exploring how different collections of microbes might shape the evolution of new species.

“This work is changing our idea of what a species is and how it might form,” said Nicole Webster, a marine microbiologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Beginning in the mid-1990s, some scientists, including Bordenstein, began to define a species not just as a single organism, but as the organism plus its microbiome.

Seth Bordenstein, a biologist at Vanderbilt University, is studying how symbiotic microbes keep different species of Nasonia wasps from interbreeding.
Other scientists have joined Bordenstein on his quest, discovering evidence that microbes might play a role in the development of other species as well. Gut microbes in fruit flies can rapidly change the insects’ mating behaviors, often a precursor to the development of new species. In hyenas, bacteria synthesize many of the chemical compounds animals use to communicate, and changes to the microbes might have helped to push populations apart.

Bordenstein’s team is now trying to figure out exactly how microbes can turn one host species into two by destroying their ability to produce healthy hybrid offspring. Preliminary findings suggest that the presence of certain symbiotic microbes alters the activity of genes that regulate the immune system. Bordenstein theorizes that when a wasp, such as a hybrid, plays host to the wrong microbes, the wasp’s immune system may attack and kill itself instead of foreign pathogens. Conversely, the immune system can also affect the types and numbers of microbes that colonize the wasp. If this work holds up, Bordenstein may have added a new dimension to how scientists think about evolution.

“It’s now very clear that symbiosis is the rule, and not the exception, and that it plays a much more important role in evolution than anyone thought,” Bordenstein said.

The idea that cooperation could be a driving force in evolution was first proposed more than a century ago by Peter Kropotkin, a Russian naturalist. In his 1902 book “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” Kropotkin writes, “There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species … there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense. … Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”

Kropotkin, however, was best known as an anarchist, not as a biologist. “Mutual Aid” was big on ideas but short on the kind of experimental proof needed to convince scientists that symbiosis and cooperation are important factors in natural selection.

Over sixty years after the publication of “Mutual Aid,” Lynn Margulis, then a young biologist at the Boston University, took up the cause of symbiosis. In 1966, Margulis provided evidence that mitochondria, molecular machines that help cells produce energy, and chloroplasts, which help plant cells turn sunlight into sugar, originated from symbiotic bacteria. According to the theory, billions of years ago, one microbe engulfed another, one of the first major steps toward the complex plant and animal cells we see today.

Margulis’ idea was met with skepticism. It took 20 years of intense debate for scientists to somewhat reluctantly accept it, and they believed it to be a freak occurrence.

Removing the microbes from three species of Nasonia wasps allows them to produce viable offspring, suggesting that their microbes play a crucial role in keeping the species apart.
In 2001, a study of Nasonia wasps conducted by Bordenstein a decade before his breakthrough with Brucker suggested that microbes influence the evolution of their hosts more often than scientists had expected. He knew that two closely related species, N. giraulti and N. longicornis, diverged from a common ancestor only about 400,000 years ago — “the blink of an eye in evolutionary time,” Bordenstein said. Historically, he said, researchers would have looked for genetic changes in Nasonia DNA to help explain how the species diverged. Bordenstein believed that a symbiotic bacterium called Wolbachia might be keeping the two species apart. Previous work had shown that if members of the same species carry different types of Wolbachia, they can’t produce healthy offspring. But scientists didn’t yet know if Wolbachia strains were the major difference between the two species. Bordenstein theorized that different types of Wolbachia divided the parent species into two groups that were unable to interbreed — the traditional definition of a new species.

By removing Wolbachia from these wasps, the researchers showed that the Wolbachia infections were the wasps’ major barrier to interbreeding. “It was as if they were no longer two separate species,” Bordenstein said. “This was some of the first evidence that a symbiotic microbe could wedge two species apart.”

Far from being a rare, one-off event, Bordenstein’s findings suggested that the microbiome has played a larger than expected role in the evolution of new species. Thousands of insect species are infected with Wolbachia, making symbiosis a potentially major player in the development of these species.

Bordenstein’s study generated a lot of interest and some skepticism. Many evolutionary biologists had historically not paid much attention to the role of symbiosis in evolution and thus lacked a context in which to understand the work, said Bradford Harris, a doctoral candidate in the history of science at Stanford University. “People still think of evolution as the ‘survival of the fittest,’” Harris said. “It’s a nice, convenient one-liner to explain a very complicated phenomenon.” But this simplistic explanation makes it difficult to grasp the less individualistic aspects of evolution.

In Bordenstein’s most recent study, the researchers found that it’s not just Wolbachia that’s important. Eradicating the full complement of the wasps’ microbes allowed hybrids of N. vitripennis and its two distant relatives to survive. The findings are significant because they suggest the phenomenon might not be limited to insects. Only insects carry Wolbachia, but all animals have a range of symbiotic microbes.

“These experiments can’t tell us whether the microbes were actually causing speciation, but they were certainly a major contributor, adding to the reproductive barrier that was already in place,” Brucker said. Scientists still don’t know whether the microbes can create the reproductive barrier in the first place, widen an already existing barrier, or even do both.

Joshua Gibson, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and a Nasonia expert, thinks it’s too soon to say conclusively that the microbiome can cause speciation based on Bordenstein’s work. “It’s not clear whether the microbiome led to the genetic changes or whether the genetic changes caused the microbiome to shift,” he said.

Even if the microbiome did cause a new species of Nasonia to evolve, that doesn’t mean it is happening everywhere across the animal kingdom, Gibson added. The factors affecting each species will be different, as will the importance of the microbiome, he said.

Preliminary evidence does suggest that microbes might help to keep two animal species separate. The spotted hyena and the striped hyena live side by side on the African savanna. Both species communicate information on sex and reproductive status via a complex combination of volatile chemicals found in a foul-smelling, orange-brown paste extruded from scent glands near the anus.

Kevin Theis, an evolutionary ecologist at Michigan State University holding a spotted hyena.
“They basically rub their hindquarters on the long grass, which spreads the paste,” said Kevin Theis, an evolutionary ecologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, who studies the animals. “Hyenas paste at the highest rates at the borders of their territory and at communal dens.”

Previous work speculated that microbes are the actual producers of the chemical compounds used in mammalian communication, and Theis now had the genetic tools to test this hypothesis. He swabbed the paste laid down by members of both species and identified the microbes found in each sample. Theis’ results, published in 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that the microbes found in the paste were highly correlated to the type of chemicals present.

Theis’ most recent work, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February, showed that not only did the two species have different microbiomes, they also had different social behaviors. He is currently studying whether the two might be linked. He also found that microbes differed between males and females. Because females pick mates in part based on the scent of a male’s paste, it’s possible that a major changes to a male’s scent, perhaps rendering him unrecognizable, could drastically change who mates with whom. It’s not yet clear whether symbiotic microbes led to the split between striped and spotted hyenas, but Theis said scientists now better understand the broad influence that microbes can have. “Microbes can play a role in evolution because we are showing that they affect behavior, and behavior is a primary target of selection,” Theis said.

What might change an organism’s microbiome in the first place? Animals acquire their symbiotic microbes in a variety of ways, by touching things or from the very process of being born. Diet, however, remains one of the main avenues through which symbiotic microbes populate an organism. Changes in diet, as Webster points out, can also favor one population of microbes over another, which scientists have found leads to changes in mating behavior.

In 1989, Diane Dodd, a biologist then working at Yale University, wanted to find out how dietary changes could contribute to speciation. She fed one group of flies a starch diet while another group got maltose, a simple sugar. After 25 generations, Dodd found that the starch-eating flies would no longer mate with the maltose eaters. The two populations had started down the path to becoming separate species. But exactly how this happened remained unclear for more than 20 years.

Looking at Dodd’s study in 2009, Gil Sharon thought he knew why. A graduate student in microbiology at Tel Aviv University in Israel at the time, Sharon thought that the flies’ constellation of symbiotic microbes might be the cause of their change in behavior. So Sharon repeated Dodds’ experiment and verified that the change in diet caused a change in behavior. Then he dosed the flies with antibiotics and found that their mating preferences disappeared. When Sharon then provided the germ-free flies with bacteria-laden food, he found that these preferences returned in just one generation. In a 2010 paper in PNAS, Sharon concluded that symbiotic bacteria could alter mating preferences.

Read more at Wired Science

This Fish Can Support 300 Times Its Weight With a Super Suction Cup

I was going to wait until the end of this caption to mention that this fish is in fact dead, but PETA doesn’t wait to get to the end of captions before sending angry emails. Anyway, this is the world’s most disturbing ventriloquist dummy, the clingfish, which had no idea what it was getting into when it checked the “donor” box at the DMV.
Dan Goodman, who refers to himself as SpiderDan so as to not waste all that time on hyphens like Spider-Man, set out more than 30 years ago to build a suction cup he could use to ascend the 110-story Sears Tower. Totally retooling the suckers that window glaziers use to transport glass, he donned a Spider-Man suit on May 25, 1981, and climbed the thing in seven and a half hours. He was of course arrested at the top, but after Sears came to his defense, he got a $35 fine and was released.

Impressive, SpiderDan, very impressive—for a man with a fear of hyphens. But stuck fast to reefs and sea cliffs the world over is a critter with a suction cup far more impressive than yours. This is the clingfish, which sports a belly sucker that can support a staggering 300 times the fish’s weight.

The 161 known species of clingfish vary greatly, from a tiny one that sticks itself to the individual spines of sea urchins, to a deep-sea type with hardly any sucker at all, to a relatively giant species the size of your forearm (no, not yours, Shaq—this doesn’t apply to you). Perhaps one of the best-studied species, thanks in part to fish biologist Adam Summers of the University of Washington, is the northern clingfish, which calls the Pacific coasts of Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. its home.

While SpiderDan had the benefit of human ingenuity, the clingfish has the benefit of evolutionary time. Its sucker, according to Summers, is in fact made of its pelvic and pectoral fins, which have converged to form a disk. All around the edge of this disk are tiny hexagons that to the naked eye look totally flat.

“But when you look at them under a scanning electron microscope,” said Summers, “you see the top of each of those hexagons is a field of spaghetti, of long, thin hairs that are the same aspect ratio and length as the hairs on geckos’ feet or spiders’ toes or beetles’ feet.”

The clingfish’s sucker is made up of highly modified pectoral and pelvic fins. The pectorals are normally on the sides of fish, somewhat analogous to our arms, so the clingfish therefore is not able to high-five other fish without awkwardly sticking to them. Because of this, it suffers from social anxiety. You and me both, clingfish. You and me both.
This is pivotal in keeping a strong hold. Not only does the clingfish’s highly compliant sucker conform to bumps on rocks to get a good seal, all of those hairs cause a lot of friction. “They keep the edges of the disk from sliding,” said Summers, “so on a rough surface the hairs interlock with the surface, and by interlocking with the surface they’re able to keep the cup from moving.” Movement, you see, is a suction cup’s worst enemy.

More on that in a second, but first, some suction basics. When you press a suction cup against a surface, you force much of the air out of the cavity, creating a partial vacuum. The sucker holds its place because the surrounding air pressure is so much greater than the air pressure in the suction cup. It’s actually atmospheric pressure that keeps it it stuck.

A scanning electron microscope image of the clingfish’s hexagonal pads and another zoomed into its many clingy hairs. Why yes, the clingfish does in fact condition. Thanks for noticing.
Now, think about the last suction cup to fail on you, like those on your shower caddy, perhaps. That’s a weird request, and for that I apologize. But stick with me. It probably started sliding down under the heavy burden of shampoo, and when it did, the amount of air leaking into those suction cups accelerated. The air pressure inside got closer and closer to the surrounding pressure, especially if the sucker began moving over grout, until the suction cup catastrophically failed.

Let some clingfish loose in your shower, though, and they wouldn’t have the slightest difficulty holding on indefinitely. (Well, for a while at least. Like many fish in the intertidal zone, which is submerged at high tide and dry at low, clingfish can spend considerable time out of water, breathing with their gills and even absorbing oxygen through their skin.) The clingfish’s sucker, far more pliable than plastic suction cups, could fill in the grout gaps, and those innumerable microscopic hairs would provide plenty of friction to keep the fish from sliding around. The same principles go for it suctioning in the ocean: as long as the clingfish can keep the pressure in its sucker low enough, it maintains its hold.

And now we come to the why. Why on Earth would such a structure evolve if the clingfish has never been asked to support shower caddies?

“There’s several purposes for it,” said Summers. “One is they are able to stick to rocks when they’re in the intertidal, when they’re being battered by waves. So it keeps them still in high-energy environments.”

“Please don’t notice me, please don’t notice me,” whispers the limpet. “I finally paid off the mortgage on this rock last week.”
The second purpose is rather more clever. The northern clingfish hunts limpets, round little mollusks that themselves cling tightly to rocks. “And when they see one,” said Summers, “they get really close without touching it and then they suck down to give themselves a nice solid launch point. And then they open their mouth and thrust forward while remaining sucked down and jam their lower jaw teeth under the limpet and suck it off the rock.”

Elsewhere in the clingfish family, species too tiny to assault limpets are giving up their own secrets. Just last month, researchers observing Caribbean clingfish that has been closely studied for 260 years discovered something entirely new: the bones that support their gill covers have evolved into venomous barbs. Indeed, according to Summers, who was not involved in the study, these are the world’s smallest known venomous vertebrates.

Read more at Wired Science

Jun 5, 2014

Pterosaurs Were Super-Social Flying Reptiles

A tragedy that claimed the lives of hundreds of pterosaurs 120 million years ago is now providing a slice of prehistoric life, revealing that these dinosaur-era flying reptiles were extremely social creatures.

Discovery of the disaster site, described in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology, includes the first known 3-D pterosaur eggs, thousands of fossilized pterosaur bones, and nearly fully intact pterosaur skulls of both males and females. The remains represent a new pterosaur genus and species: the formidable-looking Hamipterus tianshanensis.

Sediments at the site strongly suggest that a huge colony of these large flying reptiles bit the dust during a violent storm. Beforehand, young and old alike were enjoying life next to what was then a peaceful, scenic lake.

Pterosaurs therefore definitely were not solo, or lonesome. Adults lived around youngsters in crowded surroundings that must have been buzzing with social activity.

"Based on the discoveries, we know that this pterosaur lived together with other pterosaurs and laid its eggs in the bank of the ancient lake, similar (behavior) to that of some modern birds, such as flamingos," lead author Xiaolin Wang told Discovery News.

Wang, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, added that male and female pterosaurs looked very different from each other in terms of size, shape and heftiness, with males of this particular species sporting an elaborate crest that they might have used to woo potential mates.

Wang and his colleagues studied the fossils found at the site, located in the Turpan-Hami Basin, south of the Tian Shan Mountains in Xinjiang, northwestern China.

Back in the prehistoric day, the pterosaurs must have been attracted to the area because of food opportunities and the lakeside's moist environment.

The researchers determined that their eggs consisted of a thin, calcium carbonate shell covering a soft, thick membrane that surrounded the developing pterosaur.

"This makes pterosaur eggs similar to that of the 'soft' eggs of some modern snakes," Wang said, explaining that the eggs therefore had to be laid "in a moist environment, because the eggs needed water from the outside."

The snake similarity makes sense, given that pterosaurs were reptiles and would have been distantly related. Although pterosaurs had wings and could fly, they did not give rise to birds. All pterosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, when non-avian dinosaurs and many other animals also died out.

It's even possible that pterosaurs and the earliest birds were archenemies.

Scientists at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum recently found that there was a striking lack of diversity among the earliest known birds.

"There were no swans, no swallows, no herons, nothing like that," lead author Jonathan Mitchell said. "They were pretty much all between a sparrow and a crow."

One feasible explanation is that the literal early birds continuously had to compete with pterosaurs. Another is that birds were simply newer to the scene and hadn't had time yet to diversify. In the long run, however, birds won out, surviving the mass extinction that did in pterosaurs.

Read more at Discovery News

Frog Uses Drainpipe to Amp Up Mating Calls

A clever frog uses manmade storm drains as a microphone, blasting his mating calls over long distances, a new study finds.

Male mientien tree frogs (Kurixalus diootocus) have figured out that city storm drains amplify their mating calls, according to the paper, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Zoology. The louder and longer the calls are, the greater the chances are that the male will find an available mate.

“Structures, such as wall surfaces, may change the acoustic environment for signals transmitted by animals,” wrote study authors Wen-Hao Tan and colleagues, “creating novel environments that animals must either adapt to or abandon.”

Tan, a researcher in the Department of Life Science at National Taiwan University, and his team conducted field experiments and noticed that frogs intentionally went into city storm drains in Taiwan and then let loose with their mating calls. In fact, the males “selected perches inside drains that facilitated call transmission,” according to the researchers.

The frogs therefore found their own sound sweet spots in the drains that improved both call duration and amplification.

The scientists next created a replica of a concrete drain in a lab and introduced frogs. Once again, males went for the drain — and to spots with good acoustics — to do their calling.

This species is relatively small and has a higher pitched call than other frogs native to Taiwan, so it needs all the help it can get.

As for what female frogs think about all of this, the researchers report that “females have been observed coming to drains or perching on nearby vegetation.”

Open concrete drains are a common feature in suburban and rural areas across Taiwan and are usually built alongside paved roads or foot-trails. The researchers refer to them as “miniature urban canyons.”

Although male frogs gain acoustic advantages thanks to the drains, their use might not be so good in the long run. For example, animals monitor calls to help determine a potential mate — or a potential competitor’s fitness. Humans do this too, associating a person’s voice with their size and emotional and physical states.

Read more at Discovery News

11-Million-Year-Old Weird Worm Lizard Discovered

They look like snakes, but don't be fooled: Legless, slithering amphisbaenians are more closely related to lizards than to boa constrictors.

Now, the first complete skull of the ancestor of today's bizarre "worm lizards" reveals that these strange reptiles have been largely unchanged for at least 11 million years. The fossil skull, discovered in Spain, is only 0.44 inches (11.2 millimeters long), but represents a new species, Blanus mendezi.

This family, known as blanids, includes the only worm lizards found on land in Europe, said study researcher Arnau Bolet, a doctoral student at the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont in Barcelona.

"Their fossil record was until now limited to isolated and usually fragmented bones," Bolet told Live Science in an email. "Thus, the study of a complete fossil skull more than 11 million years old was an unprecedented opportunity."

Lizards without legs

Worm lizards are found around the world today, though most of the 180 or so extant species live in the Arabian Peninsula, Africa and South America. Some have rudimentary legs, but most have no limbs at all, and resemble large earthworms.

Today, there are three groups of worm lizards in the Mediterranean region: one group is eastern, one is Iberian and one is northwest African. The Iberian and northwest African groups probably arose from one western Mediterranean group that only later subdivided, Bolet and his colleagues explain today (June 4) in the journal PLOS ONE.

The new skull was found in sediments excavated in 2011 in the Vallès-Penedès Basin in Spain's Catalonia region. Manel Méndez, a technician at the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont, was sifting through the dirt for fossils using a screen when he found a lumpy, pinkish rock that he knew was something more.

"We were lucky to have him doing this work, because it would have been relatively easy to dismiss the fossil," Bolet said. The skull is surrounded by a concretion of carbonate rock that has hardened around it like cement.

Locked in stone

Fortunately, Bolet said, Méndez "immediately realized that what he had found was a small vertebrate skull, a rather exceptional finding, because screen-washing techniques mostly retrieve disarticulated bones and isolated teeth."

The researchers were used to working with tiny fossils, even ones less than a half-inch across, like this one. But removing the rock crust from the fossilized bone would be impossible without damaging the skull inside, they knew. So they turned to technology. Using computed tomography (CT) scanning, the same sort of imaging used in hospitals, the researchers created a virtual reconstruction of the bone still locked in the rock.

The result, Bolet said, is a three-dimensional digital model that allows the researchers to study the skull. They realized the specimen, which measured only 0.23 inches (5.8 mm) at its widest spot and had 20 teeth, was a previously unknown species. They dubbed the animal Blanus mendezi in honor of the technician who discovered the skull.

B. mendezi dates back to the Miocene epoch and is about 11.6 million years old, but its skull looked very similar to those of worm lizards alive today. The researchers suspect this species lived after the evolutionary split between eastern and western Mediterranean worm lizards, and represents the oldest known record of the western group.

The study also highlighted the mystery of worm lizards, Bolet said — even modern species.

Read more at Discovery News

Bits of Earth-Shattering Impactor Found on the Moon

Scientists have found telltale chemical fingerprints of the Mars-sized body that is believed to have crashed into baby Earth, pulverizing itself into debris that later formed the moon.

Evidence for the so-called giant impact theory comes from studies of oxygen isotopes in Apollo moon samples.

“We have developed a technique that guarantees perfect separation” of oxygen isotopes from other trace gases, lead researcher Daniel Herwartz, with the University of Cologne in Germany, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

The team studied several lunar meteorites and three basalt rock samples brought back by the crews of the Apollo 11, Apollo 12 and Apollo 16 missions, which took place between 1969 and 1972.

“We also had soil samples from NASA, but this material is not ideal for determining the bulk oxygen isotopic composition of the moon, as lunar soil may be contaminated by micrometeorites and the like,” Herwartz said.

The scientists were seeking evidence of Theia, a mysterious Mars-sized object that is believed to have crashed into Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, sending a cloud of debris into space that later reformed into the moon.

Most computer models predict that between 70 percent and 90 percent of the moon is Theia, which, like most planets in the solar system, should have a unique isotopic composition. If the moon was mostly Theia, scientists believe it would have a slightly different chemical makeup than Earth.

Other models predict as little as 8 percent of the moon is Theia, with the rest of the material coming from Earth.

Based on the slightly higher concentration of oxygen isotopes in the lunar samples, the actual mix of Theia and Earth in the moon may be closer to 50-50, but that has yet to be confirmed, the researchers wrote in a paper published in this week's Science.

Meanwhile, other teams of scientists have been looking at titanium, silicon, chromium, tungsten and other chemical elements, but so far the lunar samples show no detectable differences from Earth samples.

Read more at Discovery News

Kepler Returns! Exoplanet Mission Makes New Discoveries

A year after being sidelined by a positioning system failure, NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope is back at work on a new and expanded mission called K2.

The telescope was launched in 2009 to find Earth-sized planets suitably positioned from their parent stars to support liquid water on their surfaces, a condition believed to be necessary for life. Analysis for a true Earth analog -- one that circles a sun-like star -- is still under way, but scientists already have added 974 confirmations and 3,846 candidates to the list of nearly 1,800 planets discovered beyond the solar system.

The telescope works by capturing slight changes in the amount of light coming from about 150,000 target stars, some of which were caused by orbiting planets passing by, or transiting, relative to Kepler’s line of sight.

After four years of observations, the telescope lost the second of four gyroscope-like wheels, which are used to maintain the observatory’s laser-like focus on its target stars. At least three wheels are needed to steady the spacecraft -- or so engineers thought.

Telescope manufacturer Ball Aerospace came up with a plan to use two wheels and a combination of pressure from sunlight and tiny thruster burns to maintain orientation.

“After the loss of the second reaction wheel there were many doubters that we could do anything to repurpose the spacecraft,” Kepler project scientist Steve Howell, said at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston this week.

Any lingering doubts ended last week when Kepler completed a 5.5-week engineering test to check out its new pointing system.

“We drift about one pixel about every six hours and then we thruster fire and return to the same position. It’s a very, very good pointing,” astronomer Thomas Barclay, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston this week.

In its first nine days of science observations, the K2 campaign already has turned up three more candidate planets, all around the size of Jupiter, circling relatively bright stars, Barclay said.

To balance the telescope with pressure from sunlight, Kepler must be nearly parallel to its orbital path around the sun, which is slightly offset from the orbital plane of Earth. The so-called ecliptic plane -- the band of sky containing the constellations of the zodiac -– is Kepler’s new hunting ground.

Rather than continuously stare at a single patch of the sky for years, K2 science is limited to 80-day increments. That means it will no longer be able to search for Earth-sized worlds circling sun-like stars (which would transit only once a year), but it does open the search for planets around different kinds of stars.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 4, 2014

Spiders Pluck Web Strings, Get Info on Prey

There's more to spider silk than just its maximum-strength engineering properties. It turns out the silk can carry vibrations across many frequencies, relaying information to the spider about what type of prey may be caught, or even what type of mate may be broadcasting its availabilty.

This is all thanks to a research group from the universities of Oxford, Strathclyde, and Sheffield. The team took the "Dirty Harry" approach and fired bullets at spider silk to study how it vibrated (they also fired lasers, which Harry Callahan didn't have, at least not in the first film). Super-high-speed cameras caught the silk being hit, and the lasers gave the researchers precise measurements of the smallest of vibrations.

Looking over the data, the researchers, who will publish their findings in the journal Advanced Materials, found that spider silk can, in a sense, carry tunes, only the tunes are particular vibrations at particular frequencies. Spiders can "hear" the vibrating frequencies by listening with their legs, through organs called slit sensillae.

"Most spiders have poor eyesight and rely almost exclusively on the vibration of the silk in their web for sensory information," said research lead Beth Mortimer, of the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University. Luckily for the spider, found her team, the vibrations are packed with info, about the next meal, the next mate, or even the state of the web itself.

A spider can also use the vibrations to see if its home needs any repairs.

"By plucking the silk like a guitar string and listening to the 'echoes' the spider can also assess the condition of its web," Mortimer said. If there's a problem, the spider can "tune" the silk, adjusting its properties, tensions and how it interconnects with other areas.

"These findings further demonstrate the outstanding properties of many spider silks that are able to combine exceptional toughness with the ability to transfer delicate information," said the paper's author, Professor Fritz Vollrath, of the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University.

Read more at Discovery News

Oldest Known Pair of Pants Unearthed

The world’s first-known pants were recently excavated from tombs in western China, reports a new study.

The pants, which date from 3,000 to 3,300 years ago, are tattered, but are surprisingly stylish, combining attractive form with function. Made out of wool, the trousers feature straight-fitting legs and a wide crotch.

The pants were discovered in an excavation led by archaeologists Ulrike Beck and Mayke Wagner of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. The trousers, and related finds, are described in the journal Quaternary International.

This new paper definitely supports the idea that trousers were invented for horse riding by mobile pastoralists, and that trousers were brought to the Tarim Basin by horse-riding peoples,” linguist and China authority Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania told Bruce Bower of Science News.

Bower writes that before pants were invented, Europeans wore gowns, robes, tunic, togas or a three-piece ensemble. The latter, for men, consisted of a loincloth and individual leggings. Early leather leggings found in places like Switzerland suggest that, as for the Chinese pants, people back in the day were interested in both style and function.

Mair theorizes that horseback riding began at least 3,400 years ago, just before pants likely came on to the scene. One can imagine that trying to ride with two separate leggings and a loincloth was uncomfortable.

Wool seems to have been the preferred fabric for pants for quite a while, as Mair previously helped to find a 2,600-year-old mummy who was buried wearing wool, burgundy trousers.

The latest finds were discovered in the Yanghai graveyard at China’s Tarim Basin. Nomadic herders of Central Asia inhabited this region when the now-ancient pants were new.

The Yanghai man who wore the trousers, plus another similarly clad male nearby, died at about 40. The researchers suspect that the men were both warriors and herders. They were found buried with objects such as a decorated leather bridle, a wooden horse bit, a battle-ax, a leather bracer for arm protection, a whip, a decorated horsetail, a bow sheath and a bow.

As for their pants, Science News reports they were “sewn together from three pieces of brown-colored wool cloth, one piece for each leg and an insert for the crotch. The tailoring involved no cutting: Pant sections were shaped on a loom in the final size. Finished pants included side slits, strings for fastening at the waist and woven designs on the legs.”

Given the complexity and sophistication of this construction, pants were likely invented some time beforehand. We just haven’t found those earlier pairs, or they’ve since eroded away.

Read more at Discovery News

Star Within a Star: Weird Stellar 'Hybrid' Discovered

A weird type of ‘hybrid’ star has been discovered nearly 40 years since it was first theorized — but until now has been curiously difficult to find.

In 1975, renowned astrophysicists Kip Thorne, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif., and Anna Żytkow, of the University of Cambridge, UK, assembled a theory on how a large dying star could swallow its neutron star binary partner, thus becoming a very rare type of stellar hybrid, nicknamed a Thorne-Żytkow object (or TŻO). The neutron star — a dense husk of degenerate matter that was once a massive star long since gone supernova — would spiral into the red supergiant’s core, interrupting normal fusion processes.

According to the Thorne-Żytkow theory, after the two objects have merged, an excess of the elements rubidium, lithium and molybdenum will be generated by the hybrid. So astronomers have been on the lookout for stars in our galaxy, which is thought to contain only a few dozen of these objects at any one time, with this specific chemical signature in their atmospheres.

Now, according to Emily Levesque of the University of Colorado Boulder and her team, a bona fide TŻO has been discovered and their findings have been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters.

“Studying these objects is exciting because it represents a completely new model of how stellar interiors can work,” said Levesque. “In these interiors we also have a new way of producing heavy elements in our universe. You’ve heard that everything is made of ‘star stuff’—inside these stars we might now have a new way to make some of it.”

In January, Discovery News reported on Levesque’s work and the identification of several Thorne-Żytkow object candidates. Now, the team of astronomers have narrowed the selection down to a single red supergiant star in the Small Magellanic Cloud (called HV 2112) that has very similar chemical abundances and temperature to the Thorne-Żytkow model. The astronomers used the 6.5-meter Magellan Clay telescope on Las Campanas, in Chile, to record the starlight spectrum from HV 2112.

“I am extremely happy that observational confirmation of our theoretical prediction has started to emerge,” said Żytkow, who is also a co-investigator on this study. “Since Kip Thorne and I proposed our models of stars with neutron cores, people were not able to disprove our work. If theory is sound, experimental confirmation shows up sooner or later. So it was a matter of identification of a promising group of stars, getting telescope time and proceeding with the project.”

Read more at Discovery News

Awesome Exoplanet Imager Begins Hunt for Alien Worlds

A new instrument attached to one of the most powerful telescopes in the world has been switched on and acquired its ‘first light’ images of alien star systems and Saturn’s moon Titan.

The Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (or SPHIRES) instrument has been recently installed at the ESO’s Very Large Telescope’s already impressive suite of sophisticated instrumentation. The VLT is located in the ultra-dry high-altitude climes of the Atacama Desert in Chile.

In the observation above, an ‘Eye of Sauron‘-like dust ring surrounding the star HR 4796A in the southern constellation of Centaurus, a testament to the sheer power of the multiple technique SPHIRES will use to acquire precision views of directly-imaged exoplanets.

The biggest problem with trying to directly image a world orbiting close to its parent star is that of glare; stars are many magnitudes brighter that the reflected light from its orbiting exoplanet, so how the heck are you supposed to gain enough contrast between the bright star and exoplanet to resolve the two? The SPHIRES instrument is using a combination of three sophisticated techniques to remove a star’s glare and zero-in on its exoplanetary targets.

The first technique, known as adaptive optics, is employed by the VLT itself. By firing a laser into the Earth’s atmosphere during the observation, a gauge on the turbulence in the upper atmospheric gases can be measured and the effects of which can be removed from the imagery. Any blurriness caused by our thick atmosphere can be adjusted for.

Next up is a precision coronograph inside the instrument that blocks the light from the target star. By doing this, any glare can be removed and any exoplanet in orbit may be bright enough to spot.

But the third technique, which really teases out any exoplanet signal, is the detection of different polarizations of light from the star system. The polarization of infrared light being generated by the star and the infrared glow from the exoplanet are very subtle. SPHIRES can differentiate between the two, thereby further boosting the observation’s contrast.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 3, 2014

900-Lb. Ancient Croc Tore Through Turtles, Battled Snakes

It was 16 feet (4.8 meters) long and tipped the scales at 900 lbs. (408 kilograms). With a blunt snout and powerful bite, it ate turtles and battled monster snakes. Now this extinct dyrosaur, a type of crocodilian, which roamed an ancient rainforest a few million years after the dinosaurs died, has a scientific name.

It's called Anthracosuchus balrogus after the fiery Balrog that lurked deep in the Middle-Earth mines of Moria in J.R.R. Tolkien's novel "The Lord of the Rings."

"Much like that giant beast, Anthracosuchus balrogus was from deep within a mine after 60 million years trapped within the rocks of tropical South America," study researcher Jonathan Bloch, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, told Live Science in an email.

Four specimens of the new species were unearthed in a layer of rock in the fossil-rich Cerrejón coal mine of northern Colombia, where scientists previously have found huge turtles with shells as thick as high-school textbooks and skeletons of the world's largest snake, Titanoboa, a 48-foot-long (14.6 m) beast that recently starred in a Smithsonian Channel documentary.

A. balrogus is the third new species of ancient crocodilian found at Cerrejón, scientists say. (Another, Acherontisuchus guajiraensis, was described in the journal Palaeontology in 2011.) The newly named croc belonged to an intrepid family known as the dyrosaurids.

These creatures arose in Africa, paddled across the Atlantic Ocean to South America about 75 million years ago and remarkably survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, scientists say. Some dyrosaurid species, such as A. balrogus, adapted to freshwater ecosystems like the rainforest of Cerrejón, which was much warmer and swampier 60 million years ago than it is today.

"This group offers clues as to how animals survive extinctions and other catastrophes," Alex Hastings, a postdoctoral researcher at Martin Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg and former graduate student at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said in a statement. "As we face climates that are warmer today, it is important to understand how animals responded in the past. This family of crocodyliforms in Cerrejón adapted and did very well despite incredible obstacles, which could speak to the ability of living crocodiles to adapt and overcome."

Read more at Discovery News

Early Dogs Helped Humans Hunt Mammoths

Early dogs may have helped human hunters track and kill mammoths in Ice Age Europe and Asia. The fierce dogs may have then guarded the meat from their wolf relatives.

Penn State archeologist Pat Shipman recently calculated that the age ranges of mammoths found in these ancient boneyards suggest that the animals were hunted, not just scavenged after a catastrophe killed an entire herd. Shipman suggested that the domestication of wolves, along with improvements in projectile weapons, may have allowed people to successfully hunt large numbers of mammoths. The journal Quaternary International published her results.

From approximately 40,000 to 15,000 years ago, human campsites from Siberia to central Europe contained tremendous numbers of mammoth bones, sometimes from more than 100 individual pachyderms. In many cases, humans constructed buildings using the mammoth bones, tusks and hides.

Shipman noted that high numbers of wild wolf and Arctic fox bones appear along with the mammoth bones. Dogs may have helped guard the mammoth meat by alerting people when other carnivores came sniffing around. The wolves and foxes were then killed and skinned for their pelts and meat.

Earlier archeological discoveries, published in the Journal of Archeological Sciences, described a breed of dog, or semi-domesticated wolf, from approximately 32,000 years ago in what is now Belgium, the Ukraine and Russia. Genetic and skeletal evidence show that the dog-like creature was different from known wolves, yet its genetic signature didn’t survive in modern dog populations. This could mean the mammoth-hunting dogs either died out, or interbred with other dogs and wolves until they became indistinguishable.

Read more at Discovery News

Violent Galaxy Cluster Smash Spawns Weird Radio Wiggle

When two clusters of galaxies collide, vast regions of space are energized by powerful shock waves, ripping through intergalactic gas and dust, triggering bright emissions across the electromagnetic spectrum. But what if four (yes, four!) galactic clusters slammed into one another?

In new observations captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s Chandra X-ray space observatory and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), the complex violence of a galactic cluster four-way has been recorded 5 billion light-years distant and astronomers don’t yet fully understand what they are witnessing.

In this stunning composite image described today (Tuesday) at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Boston, Mass., the blue glow represents hot intergalactic gases emitting X-ray radiation as seen by Chandra. But the red wiggly structure threading through the vast cloud of colliding galaxies — which represents intense radio wave emissions as recorded by the ground-based VLA — is something of a conundrum.

“The complex shape of this region is unique; we’ve never spotted anything like this before,” said Reinout van Weeren, an Einstein Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “The shape probably is the result of the multiple ongoing collisions.”

It is thought that the wiggly radio wave emitting structure is being formed by monstrous shock waves blasting through the intergalactic medium, accelerating the hot gas and dust. As these energized particles interact with the intertwined magnetic fields that are undoubtedly threading through the clusters, intense radio emissions are generated. This structure is therefore most likely magnetic in origin, but more research is needed to fully understand its nature.

In addition to this phenomenon, other radio emissions can be seen. The red straight line just below the wiggly structure is a foreground galaxy whose central black hole is blasting out two elongated jets of radio-bright material light-years through space. The other red structure in the bottom left is a radio galaxy that is likely falling into the colliding clusters’ immense gravitational well.

Read more at Discovery News

Space Telescope Gazes Deep Inside Powerful Solar Eruption

CMEs — coronal mass ejections — are some of the most energetic and powerful events that can regularly occur on our sun. Created by huge looping magnetic fields that rise up from deep inside our nearest star, carrying solar plasma along for the ride, a CME occurs when the magnetic field “snaps” and flings its load of stellar material out into the solar system.

If the outward-bound cloud of material happens to collide with Earth, usually several days later, the resulting geomagnetic storm effects can range from increased auroral activity across upper-to-middle latitudes to actual physical damage to satellite electronics and sensitive equipment on the ground.

One particularly powerful CME in 1989 illuminated auroras as far south as Florida and caused a blackout across the entire province of Québec!

On May 9 of this year a CME erupted from the sun and was caught on camera by NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft, the first to be captured by the orbiting observatory. Because IRIS is specially designed to observe close-up portions of the Sun’s chromosphere and transition region in high definition, this is the best view yet of what happens near the “surface” of the sun during such an event.

Because IRIS’ imaging area has to be programmed a day ahead of time, catching a CME in action involves quite a bit of luck.

“We focus in on active regions to try to see a flare or a CME,” said Bart De Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory. “And then we wait and hope that we’ll catch something. This is the first clear CME for IRIS so the team is very excited.”

The video above shows the May 9 CME sending a huge gout of solar material streaming out from the sun at 1.5 million miles an hour, in an area about seven times the size of Earth.

From Discovery News

Jun 2, 2014

Because you can't eat just one: Star will swallow two planets

Two worlds orbiting a distant star are about to become a snack of cosmic proportions. Astronomers announced today that the planets Kepler-56b and Kepler-56c will be swallowed by their star in a short time by astronomical standards. Their ends will come in 130 million and 155 million years, respectively.

"As far as we know, this is the first time two known exoplanets in a single system have a predicted 'time of death,'" says lead author Gongjie Li of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

She presented her research today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The Kepler-56 system provides a glimpse into the future of our solar system. In about five billion years our Sun will become a red giant star, swelling to immense proportions and engulfing Mercury and Venus.

The star Kepler-56 is becoming a red giant star as well. It already has ballooned out to four times the Sun's size. As it ages, it will continue to expand outward. Not only will the star grow larger, but its tides will get stronger, dragging its planets inward to their eventual doom.

Kepler-56b orbits its host star once every 10.5 days, while Kepler-56c orbits every 21.4 days. Both of them are much closer to their star than Mercury is to the Sun. As a result, they will meet their fate much faster. Li and her collaborators calculated the evolution of both the star's size (using the publicly available MESA code) and the planets' orbits to predict when the planets will be destroyed.

Even before they vanish, the two planets will be subjected to immense heating from the steadily growing star. Their atmospheres will begin to boil off, and the planets themselves will be stretched into egg shapes by stellar tides.

The only survivor in the system will be Kepler-56d, a gas giant planet circling in a 3.3-Earth-year orbit. It will watch from a safe distance as its two sibling worlds meet their demise.

The Kepler-56 planetary system also is notable for being the first "tilted" multiplanet system to be discovered. The orbits of the inner two planets are tipped significantly from the star's equator. This was unexpected since planets form from the same disk of gas and dust as the star, so they should orbit in nearly the same plane as the star's equator (as do the planets in our solar system).

Read more at Science Daily

'Neapolitan' exoplanets come in three flavors

The planets of our solar system come in two basic flavors, like vanilla and chocolate ice cream. We have small, rocky terrestrials like Earth and Mars, and large gas giants like Neptune and Jupiter. We're missing the astronomical equivalent of strawberry ice cream -- planets between about one and four times the size of Earth. NASA's Kepler mission has discovered that these types of planets are very common around other stars.

New research following up on the Kepler discoveries shows that alien worlds, or exoplanets, can be divided into three groups -- terrestrials, gas giants, and mid-sized "gas dwarfs" -- based on how their host stars tend to fall into three distinct groups defined by their compositions.

"We were particularly interested in probing the planetary regime smaller than four times the size of Earth, because it includes three-fourths of the planets found by Kepler. That's where you'll find rocky worlds, which are the only kind that we would consider potentially habitable," says lead author Lars A. Buchhave of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

Buchhave presented his research today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Kepler finds exoplanets using the transit method, looking for a star that dims as a planet passes in front of it from our point of view. We can learn the planet's size from how much starlight it blocks. However, to determine the planet's composition we need to measure its mass, so its density can be calculated. A rocky planet will be much denser than a gas giant. Unfortunately, the smaller a planet, the harder it is to measure its mass, especially for the dim and distant stars examined by Kepler.

Buchhave and his colleagues took a different approach. They measured the amount of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, which astronomers collectively call metals, in stars with exoplanet candidates. Since a star and its planets form from the same disk of material, the metallicity of a star reflects the composition of the protoplanetary disk.

The team took follow-up spectra of more than 400 stars hosting over 600 exoplanets. Then, they conducted a statistical test to see if the sizes of the planets fell into natural groups, along with the stellar metallicities.

They found two clear dividing lines -- one at a size 1.7 times as large as Earth and the other at a size 3.9 times larger than Earth. They infer that these boundaries also mark changes in composition. Planets smaller than 1.7 Earths are likely to be completely rocky, while those larger than 3.9 Earths are probably gas giants.

Planets between 1.7 and 3.9 times the size of Earth were dubbed gas dwarfs since they have thick atmospheres of hydrogen and helium. The rocky cores of gas dwarfs formed early enough to accrete some gas, although they did not grow as large as gas giants like Jupiter.

In addition, Buchhave and his collaborators discovered that the size of the largest rocky world isn't fixed. The farther a planet is from its star, the larger it can grow before accumulating a thick atmosphere and turning into a gas dwarf. This suggests that some super-Earths can grow into true monsters.

Finally, the team found that stars with small, terrestrial worlds tended to have metallicities similar to the Sun. Stars hosting gas dwarfs tended to be slightly more metal-rich. Stars with gas giants contained the most metals -- about 50 percent more than our Sun.

Read more at Science Daily

Strange New World Discovered: The 'Mega Earth'

Meet “mega-Earth,” a souped-up, all-solid planet that, according to theory, should not exist.

First spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, the planet is about 2.3 times larger than Earth. Computer models show planets that big would be more like Neptune or the other gas planets of the outer solar system since they would have the gravitational heft to collect vast amounts of hydrogen and helium from their primordial cradles.

But follow-up observations of the planet, designated as Kepler-10c, show it has 17 times as much mass as Earth, meaning it must be filled with rock and other materials much heavier than hydrogen and helium.

“Kepler-10c is a big problem for the theory,” astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, told Discovery News. “It’s nice that we have a solid piece of evidence and measurements for it because that gives motivations to the theorists to improve the theory,” he said.

Scientists aren’t sure how mega-Earths, or their diminutive cousins, super-Earths, form, nor why our solar system has nothing in between the largest rocky planet, Earth, and the smallest gas giant, Neptune.

“There was enough material for a super-Earth or mega-Earth to form, so it’s not that the building materials weren’t there. We think that the reason it didn’t form -- or that in some planetary systems they don’t form -- is because the conditions don’t work out to form a bigger rocky planet than the Earth. They don’t get their act together on time and you end up with a bunch of small planets which are rocky and a completely different bunch of bigger planets, which are the gas planets,” Sasselov said.

“We see that the rest of the galaxy’s planetary systems have members in all different shapes and forms,” he added “But how unique is the solar system, we don’t know the answer to this yet.”

Read more at Discovery News

Red Dwarfs Could Sterilize Alien Worlds of Life

Red dwarf stars -- the most common stars in the galaxy -- bathe planets in their habitable zones with potentially deadly stellar winds, a finding that could have significant impacts on the prevalence of life beyond Earth, new research shows.

About 70 percent of stars are red dwarfs, or M-type stars, which are cooler and smaller than the sun. Any red dwarf planets suitable for liquid water, therefore, would have to orbit much closer to their parent star than Earth circles the sun.

That presents a problem for life -- at least life as we know it on Earth, says physicist Ofer Cohen, with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Cohen and colleagues used a computer model based on data from the sun’s solar wind -- a continuous stream of charged particles that permeates and defines the solar system –- to estimate the space environment around red dwarf stars.

“We find that the conditions are very extreme. If you move planets very close to the star, the force of this flow is very, very strong. Essentially it can strip the atmosphere of the planet unless the planet has a strong magnetic field or a thick atmosphere to start with,” Cohen told Discovery News.

To be the right surface temperature for water, a planet would need to be about 9.3 million to 18.6 million miles from its host red dwarf star. By comparison, airless Mercury is about 36 million miles from the sun. Earth is about 93 million miles away.

Solar radiation pressure, however, is about the same for sun-like stars and red dwarfs.

“You have stronger flow as you move closer and closer,” Cohen said. “It applies a stripping force on the planet. It’s mostly due to the fact that they are close, it depends less on the star itself.”

Red dwarf stars also are more magnetically active than the sun and emit more X-ray and ultraviolet light, factors that can heighten space weather impacts, Cohen added.

“Planets may lose their atmospheres much faster,” due to star flares and other solar-type storms, Cohen said.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 1, 2014

Subtle change in DNA, protein levels determines blond or brunette tresses, study finds

A molecule critical to stem cell function plays a major role in determining human hair color, according to a study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The study describes for the first time the molecular basis for one of our most noticeable traits. It also outlines how tiny DNA changes can reverberate through our genome in ways that may affect evolution, migration and even human history.

"We've been trying to track down the genetic and molecular basis of naturally occurring traits -- such as hair and skin pigmentation -- in fish and humans to get insight into the general principles by which traits evolve," said David Kingsley, PhD, professor of developmental biology. "Now we find that one of the most crucial signaling molecules in mammalian development also affects hair color."

Kingsley, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, is the senior author of the study, which will be published online June 1 in Nature Genetics. Research specialist Catherine Guenther, PhD, is the lead author.

The researchers found that the blond hair commonly seen in Northern Europeans is caused by a single change in the DNA that regulates the expression of a gene that encodes a protein called KITLG, also known as stem cell factor. This change affects how much KITLG is expressed in the hair follicles without changing how it's expressed in the rest of the body. Introducing the change into normally brown-haired laboratory mice yields an animal with a decidedly lighter coat -- not quite Norma Jeane to Marilyn Monroe, but significant nonetheless.

The study shows that even small, tissue-specific changes in the expression of genes can have noticeable morphological effects. It also emphasizes how difficult it can be to clearly connect specific DNA changes with particular clinical or phenotypic outcomes. In this case, the change is subtle: A single nucleotide called an adenine is replaced by another called a guanine on human chromosome 12. The change occurs over 350,000 nucleotides away from the KITLG gene and only alters the amount of gene expression about 20 percent -- a relatively tiny blip on a biological scale more often assessed in terms of gene expression being 100 percent "on" or "off."

"What we're seeing is that this regulatory region exercises exquisite control over where, and how much, KITLG expression occurs," said Kingsley. "In this case, it controls hair color. In another situation -- perhaps under the influence of a different regulatory region -- it probably controls stem cell division. Dialing up and down the expression of an essential growth factor in this manner could be a common mechanism that underlies many different traits."

Kingsley is known for his studies of the evolution of a tiny fish called the threespine stickleback. The stickleback adapts quickly to changes in its environment. It becomes darker in murky lakes, and develops modified spine, fin and armor structures in response to different types of predators. Kingsley's research has shown that these adaptive changes are often driven by changes in the regulatory regions that surround and control gene expression, rather than within the coding regions of the genes themselves.

In the current study, the researchers had a couple of clues as to which regulatory regions might be important in hair color. One was the fact that the adenine-to-guanine nucleotide change had been previously associated with blond hair color in Northern Europeans in genome-wide association studies. The second was the existence in laboratory mice of a large mutation called an inversion that affects several million nucleotides near the KITLG gene. Mice with two copies of this mutation (one on each chromosome) are white; those with just one copy are significantly lighter than wild-type mice. But it wasn't known exactly how either of these changes affects hair pigment.

The researchers began by confirming that the mouse mutation occurs in a region that is similar, or homologous, to where the single nucleotide change occurs in humans. They also showed that the skin of mice with one copy of the mutation expressed about 60 percent the amount of KITLG as the skin of mice without the mutation.

Further study showed that the region of human DNA that contained the single nucleotide change associated with blondness specifically affected the expression of KITLG only in hair follicles.

Finally, the researchers replaced the mouse mutation with human sequences with and without the blond-associated nucleotide change. Those with the guanine tied to blond hair in humans did in fact have significantly lighter hair.

Read more at Science Daily

How to erase a memory –- and restore it

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have erased and reactivated memories in rats, profoundly altering the animals' reaction to past events.

The study, published in the June 1 advanced online issue of the journal Nature, is the first to show the ability to selectively remove a memory and predictably reactivate it by stimulating nerves in the brain at frequencies that are known to weaken and strengthen the connections between nerve cells, called synapses.

"We can form a memory, erase that memory and we can reactivate it, at will, by applying a stimulus that selectively strengthens or weakens synaptic connections," said Roberto Malinow, MD, PhD, professor of neurosciences and senior author of the study.

Scientists optically stimulated a group of nerves in a rat's brain that had been genetically modified to make them sensitive to light, and simultaneously delivered an electrical shock to the animal's foot. The rats soon learned to associate the optical nerve stimulation with pain and displayed fear behaviors when these nerves were stimulated.

Analyses showed chemical changes within the optically stimulated nerve synapses, indicative of synaptic strengthening.

In the next stage of the experiment, the research team demonstrated the ability to weaken this circuitry by stimulating the same nerves with a memory-erasing, low-frequency train of optical pulses. These rats subsequently no longer responded to the original nerve stimulation with fear, suggesting the pain-association memory had been erased.

In what may be the study's most startlingly discovery, scientists found they could re-activate the lost memory by re-stimulating the same nerves with a memory-forming, high-frequency train of optical pulses. These re-conditioned rats once again responded to the original stimulation with fear, even though they had not had their feet re-shocked.

"We can cause an animal to have fear and then not have fear and then to have fear again by stimulating the nerves at frequencies that strengthen or weaken the synapses," said Sadegh Nabavi, a postdoctoral researcher in the Malinow lab and the study's lead author.

Read more at Science Daily