Jun 21, 2014

Ticks Packing More than One Disease in Single Bite

Some ticks are nearly twice as likely than previously expected to carry not only the Lyme disease bacterium but also the organism that causes babesiosis, according to findings from a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Lyme disease is the most common tick-delivered illness. It can cause a rash in its early stages and, if not treated with antibiotics, can affect the central nervous system and heart.

Babesiosis is an infectious disease that, though treatable, can escalate to malaria-like symptoms of high fever, chills and anemia.

For the study, researchers from Bard College, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies examined thousands of blacklegged ticks from more than 100 sites across Duchess County, NY, an area known for its frequency of tick-borne sickness.

The researchers took DNA samples from each tick and documented the presence of several brands of pathogen. They found that nearly 30 percent of the ticks carried the bacterium for Lyme disease, and that about one third of those ticks also carried a second pathogen.

About 7 percent of the ticks contained both Lyme disease and babesiosis. The team crunched some probability numbers for this kind of co-infection occurring by chance alone vs. the data they observed and found the likelihood of co-infection was greater than expected.

Ticks typically get their pathogens from infected wildlife. Lead author of the study, and assistant professor of biology at Sarah Lawrence College, Michelle Hersh, singled out two such critters. "Mice and chipmunks are critical reservoirs for these two pathogens, so ticks that have fed on these animals are much more likely to be co-infected," she said.

Just as spooky as the double-pathogen delivery was the team's finding that the chance of a triple infection -- Lyme, babesiosis and anaplasmosis (which causes anaplasmosis in humans) -- was twice as likely as expected.

The moral of the story? Expect the unexpected, if you get a tick bite.

Read more at Discovery News

Biology of infection: A bacterial ballistic system

Bacteria secrete a broad range of specific proteins that can affect the behavior or survival of cells in their environment. Among the specialized transport systems responsible for the export of such factors are so-called Type VI secretion systems. In collaboration with Axel Mogk of the Center for Molecular Biology Heidelberg (ZMBH), biochemist Petra Wendler at the LMU's Gene Center has now determined the three-dimensional structure of one of these export complexes. "Bacterial species employ these systems primarily to secrete specific toxic proteins directed against competitors or host cells. The protein complexes involved in secretion essentially function as nanosyringes," says Wendler.

Type VI secretion systems were discovered only a few years ago, but they are synthesized by many bacterial species, including important pathogens, such as Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa which can induce severe lung damage during chronic infections. While antibiotic resistance continues to rise, there is a pressing need for alternative ways to combat bacterial pathogens. In this context, Type VI secretion systems offer an interesting target, as blocking their function would effectively disarm pathogenic bacteria in a highly specific manner.

The contractile sheath

"However, in order to identify weak points in this bacterial secretion system, we need to obtain further insights into how its export machinery works," says Wendler. "A tubular protein complex was recently characterized, which contracts to expel toxins from the cell. Besides characterizing a possible target for novel antibiotics, we were particularly interested in elucidating the mechanism of contraction of the complex, which does not require input of metabolic energy." To answer both of these questions, it is essential to obtain a more detailed picture of the structure of the complex -- and Wendler and her associates have taken a significant step in that direction.

"We were able to determine the structure of the contracted form of the outer sheath complex at sub-nanometer resolution. It turns out that its basic architecture and the structural elements that stabilize the complex are related to those of certain proteins found in bacterial viruses, but have been modified in the course of evolution to enable them to serve a secretory function," as Wendler explains. Notably, in the contracted form of the complex studied by Wendler and her colleagues, the recognition site for ClpV, a protein that recycles the subunits of the tubular complex after ejection of effector proteins, is exposed and available for binding. In contrast, in a model of the extended configuration, this site is inaccessible. This neatly explains why the sheath is disassembled only after the toxins have been injected into the target cell.

Read more at Science Daily

Jun 20, 2014

Rare Emperor Nero Coin Found in England

A rare gold coin from the Roman Empire has been unearthed in England.

Archaeologists found the valuable coin, which is embossed with the image of the hated Emperor Nero and dates to between A.D. 64 and 65, at a site in Northern England. The archaeological site, called Vindolanda, was once a Roman fort near Hadrian's Wall.

"My first find at Vindolanda nearly 20 years ago was a coin, but because of their scarcity, I didn't think for a moment that I would ever see a gold coin unearthed at the site. It was an absolutely magical moment for the whole team," Justin Blake, the deputy director of excavations at the site, said in a statement.

The weighty piece of currency, called an aureus, would have equaled more than half of a soldier's yearly salary at the time.

A volunteer, Marcel Albert from France, unearthed the ancient coin in a layer of sediments that dated to the fourth century and that various archaeological teams had thoroughly scoured over several decades. Though the site has yielded thousands of coins over the years, none have been gold.

"I thought it can't be true. It was just sitting there as I scraped back the soil, shining, as if someone had just dropped it," Albert said in the statement.

The fact that the coin is much older than the archaeological layer in which it was found suggests it had been circulating for more than 300 years before it was lost.

Emperor Nero was one of the most controversial figures of the Roman era. He rose to power at the tender age of 16 under his mother's thumb, but went on to murder her and at least one of his wives.

He was also suspected of starting the great fire of Rome and then pinning the blame on Christians. He then executed many of them, burning the religious minority for sources of light in the evenings, setting wild dogs upon them or nailing them to crosses, according to the annals of Roman historian Tacitus.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Parasite Uncovered in Mesopotamian Tomb

Some of the earliest evidence of a human parasite infection has been unearthed in an ancient burial site in Syria.

The egg of a parasite that still infects people today was found in the burial plot of a child who lived 6,200 years ago in an ancient farming community.

"We found the earliest evidence for a parasite [that causes] Schistosomiasis in humans," said study co-author Dr. Piers Mitchell, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge in England. The oldest Schistosoma egg found previously, in Egyptian mummies, was dated to 5,200 years ago.

The parasite egg hails from the Fertile Crescent, a region around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the Middle East, where some of the first irrigation techniques were invented about 7,500 years ago.

That suggests that advances in farming technologies caused the rise of human infections with the water-borne worm, Mitchell told Live Science.

Schistosoma parasites live in freshwater snails and burrow into human skin when people wade into warm, fresh water. In the Middle East, the parasite typically infects the blood vessels in the kidneys and can lead to blood in the urine, anemia and eventually bladder cancer, while in Africa, the flatworm typically infects the bowels, where it causes bleeding and anemia as well. The parasite can spread when eggs are shed in the feces or urine of infected people.

Agricultural technologies are tied to the parasite's prevalence, experts say.

"Studies in Africa in modern times have shown that farming, irrigation and dams are by far the most common reasons why people get Schistosomiasis," Mitchell told Live Science.

The egg was uncovered in a cemetery with 26 skeletons at a site called Tell Zeidan in Syria. The site was occupied by people from about 7,800 to 5,800 years ago, and may have housed a few thousand people, said study co-author Gil Stein, the director of excavations at the site and an archaeologist at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

The team collected samples of soil from around the skeletons' abdomens, where the parasite would be expected to be found, and also from around the feet and heads, which served as a control (eggs found there would suggest the soil at the site was contaminated with the parasite more recently). The researchers sifted through the soil, looking for particles that were the right size to be the parasite's egg — just 0.003 inches (0.1 millimeter) in diameter, Mitchell said. They then mixed those particles with water and placed them under a microscope.

The researchers found one egg in the soil around the abdomen and pelvis of a child's skeleton. By contrast, they didn't find any around the head or the feet — suggesting that it came from the person in the burial site, and not from some later person who urinated or defecated at the same site.

Although the centuries have wiped away any traces of irrigation technology at Tell Zeidan, remnants of wheat and barley were found at the site.

"There was not enough rainfall for barley to grow by itself, but it would have flourished with irrigation," Stein told Live Science.

The site also lies on a floodplain where the Euphrates and Balikh Rivers meet.

When the rivers overflowed their banks, water would have spread across the adjacent plains, and inhabitants may have built little mud retaining walls to keep the water on the fields for longer. (Even today, farmers along Egypt's Nile River use similar irrigation methods).

The farmers could have waded into the water-covered fields, to do weeding and planting, and the rivers' warm, slow-moving water would have been an ideal breeding ground for the snail hosts of the parasite, Stein said.

Read more at Discovery News

Optical Illusion: Child Mummy Opens And Closes Her Eyes

Italian researchers have debunked morbid claims that a child mummy in Sicily opens and closes her eyes every day.

Recorded in time lapse photos and videos, the creepy phenomenon has been the subject of various speculations for some years. This week, Italian newspapers again reported that Rosalia Lombardo, a two-year-old girl who died of pneumonia in 1920, moves her eyelids several times during the day, slightly opening them to reveal intact blue eyes.

One of the world’s best preserved mummies, Rosalia is the most famous among some 8,000 thousands mummies lining the catacombs beneath the Capuchin convent in Palermo, Sicily.

Nicknamed “sleeping beauty,” she looks like a 2-year-old baby taking a nap. Poking above a blanket, her peaceful face is framed by curly blond hair, while a ribbon is still tied around her head.

Although amazingly mummified, Rosalia doesn’t open and shut her eyes.

“It’s an optical illusion produced by the light that filters through the side windows, which during the day is subject to change,” Dario Piombino-Mascali, curator of the Capuchin Catacombs, said in a statement Thursday.

He noted the mummy was moved slightly and shifted to a horizontal position in a humidity-free glass coffin.

The new position makes it easier see Rosalia’s eyelids.

“They are not completely closed, and indeed they have never been,” Piombino-Mascali said.

The anthropologist unearthed Rosalia’s real secret in 2009, when he found the mysterious formula used for her amazing preservation.

While most of the mummies buried in the catacombs were treated by the monks and basically desiccated by the dry environment, Rosalia was mummified artificially.

To preserve her for eternity, Rosalia’s heartbroken father turned to embalmer Alfredo Salafia, a Sicilian taxidermist and embalmer who died in 1933. Salafia never revealed the chemicals used in his preservative.

In 2009 Piombino-Mascali found a handwritten manuscript in which Salafia listed the ingredients used to mummify Rosalia. The formula read: “one part glycerin, one part formalin saturated with both zinc sulfate and chloride, and one part of an alcohol solution saturated with salicylic acid.”

The procedure was very simple, consisting of a single point injection without any drainage or cavity treatment.

The concoction worked perfectly. Formalin killed bacteria, glycerin kept her body from overdrying, salicylic acid killed fungi, while zinc salts basically petrified Rosalia’s body.

Read more at Discovery News

The Ferocious Bug That Sucks Prey Dry and Wears Their Corpses

A young assassin bug with a backpack made of dead ants and a veritable license to be the creepiest kid in school.
If one thing is true about human beings, from the Mayans to the Chinese to the Celts, it’s that we just can’t help decapitating our enemies and putting their disembodied heads to “good” use. Certain peoples believe the heads provide spirit to the community, others use them to intimidate their foes, and still others shrink them and keep them as souvenirs. Even Disneyland has an animatronic head called Shrunken-Head Ned, because nothing quite says family values like ritualistic decapitation.

Meanwhile, the aptly named assassin bug looks on and wonders what all the mercy is about, for this insect impales its prey and sucks it dry, then attaches the entire corpse to its back. Not just one or two at a time, mind you—these bugs can be found lugging around massive piles of their foes. Burdensome and unnecessarily sinister, it would seem, but this functions both as visual and olfactory camouflage as well as highly effective armor.

There are some 7,000 species of assassin bugs the world over, and while not all engage in this remarkable behavior, each is equipped with nasty, highly hardened mouthparts called a rostrum. With this the assassin bug stabs through the exoskeleton of its prey—ants and termites and bees and such. An outer sheath peels back once inside to expose the maxillae (mouthparts used for chewing) and mandibles, according to biologist Christiane Weirauch of the University of California, Riverside.

An assassin bug’s rostrum with a lovely shade of lipstick.
They then inject a toxin that paralyzes the victim in a fraction of a second and begins liquefying its innards, as a spider would do to its prey. “Essentially they make the hole,” Weirauch said, “they hook the mandibles in, they inject the stuff, then once the victim stops twitching they can insert the maxillae even a little bit farther and then start slurping up the contents.” It’s all quite a bit like that bug from Starship Troopers drinking that guy’s brains (link is NSFW, obviously, unless you work at the Official Starship Troopers Fan Club, in which case, kudos to you for not giving up on the things you love).

Then, utilizing a sticky secretion on their exoskeletons, some species will pop the corpse up onto their back. Exactly how they do this is a mystery, according to Weirauch, given that they can’t reach their back any better than humans can lick their elbows. But in addition to the pile acting as camouflage from predators, Weirauch says: “What happens when a gecko tries to capture one of those, is it might actually end up with a mouth full of ant carcasses rather than a juicy assassin bug.”

The camouflage actually works the other way around as well, helping the assassin bug avoid detection by the critters it hunts. A species that goes after termites, for instance, will cover itself in their nest material to not only blend into the surroundings, but also to assume their scent.

For assassin bugs, “poking” on Facebook has a totally different meaning.
Yet even more brilliant is this species’ hunting techniques. Like ants, termites practice what is known as social immunity, removing dead or dying comrades from the colony to avoid outbreaks of disease (and sadness, possibly). “And the assassin bugs seem to be taking advantage of that, in the sense that they would capture one termite, suck it dry, and then have it dangle from their rostrum into the termite mound and lure the next termite that way,” Weirauch said. One observer, she noted, witnessed an assassin bug use this trick to capture 48 termites in a single sitting.

Still other species turn themselves into veritable flypaper by excreting sticky goo onto their forelegs to help them snag prey. Others harvest resins from plants for the same purpose. And that’s particularly remarkable, because it comes damn close to actually being a kind of tool use. (Interestingly, as far as insects go there is in fact a wasp that grabs pebbles with its mouth and uses them to tamp the soil where it’s buried its eggs. And it was probably doing it long before our ancestors figured out that stones hurt when you throw them at something’s head.)

But why steal plant goo when you can harness the power of the millipede? Some assassin bugs exclusively target the many-legged critters, which release a noxious secretion to ward off predators. (Hilariously, lemurs exploit this by chomping down on millipedes and getting high off the toxins.) This doesn’t seem to bother the assassins in the slightest—they even release similarly powerful toxins from their own defense glands.

While some assassin bugs coat their sticky exoskeletons in corpses, others settle for common debris. Though I suppose “settle” is a relative word here.
Weirauch learned that the hard way while collecting specimens from a light trap in Cameroon last year. “For some reason I touched my neck, and that burned like crazy,” she said. “So there must be some substance in those defense glands in these millipede-feeding assassin bugs that make them a lot more obnoxious than your typical assassin bug defense gland, and we’re suspecting that there might be sequestration from the millipede chemicals happening there.”

Now, apart from occasionally delivering a painful bite, assassin bugs are usually no real threat to humans. Save for one group: the blood-sucking kissing bugs, so called because they typically bite humans painlessly around the mouth while we sleep. But if they happen to defecate in the process, protozoans from their feces get into the wound, leading to chronic heart problems that may only manifest decades later. Chagas disease, as it’s known, is a serious issue in South America, where substandard housing leaves more points of entry for the bugs, though infections may now be on the rise in the U.S.

Read more at Wired Science

Jun 19, 2014

When Slime Ruled: Life Slowed by Earth's Stuck Plates

The "boring billion," the long evolutionary pause when slime ruled the Earth, might be due to a planetary cooling-off period that stalled plate tectonics, a new study suggests.

The so-called boring billion refers to the span from 1.7 billion years to 750 million years ago when algae and microbes had the run of Earth. Why boring? The long pause comes after these single-celled creatures mastered photosynthesis, meaning they could absorb energy from the sun instead of munching rocks and metal. After that extraordinary leap, there was little evolutionary advancement for another billion years, until the first complex life emerged.

Scientists have long sought an explanation for this big hold-up. Now, researchers think they've found a possible cause: the planet itself. It turns out plate tectonics also had a boring billion, according to research presented last week at the annual Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Sacramento, California. The findings were also published in the June 2014 issue of the journal Geology.

Study authors Peter Cawood and Chris Hawkesworth of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland looked at how the continents behaved in the past by analyzing indicators of tectonic activity such as volcanic eruptions, global glaciations and giant gold and sulfur deposits. The continents weren't the same size through time, nor did they plow across the planet at the same speed. They found the continents grew quickly on the early Earth, had a stable middle age and are now entering a midlife crisis.

"We are going from a time when you didn't destroy much crust to a time when you do," Hawkesworth said.

The transition from stability to destruction, which marks an uptick in tectonic motion, took place 750 million years ago, the same time as the emergence of complex life.

"This increase in activity could have kick-started a myriad of changes, including changes to levels of key elements in the atmosphere and seas, which in turn may have induced evolutionary changes in the life forms present," Cawood said.

Blame Earth's temperature for the fits and starts in continental speed. According to the study, on the hot, young Earth, continents grew quickly, with about 70 percent of the "scum of the Earth" forming by 3 billion years ago, the researchers said. But the mantle, the hotter layer between the crust and the core, was still too warm for modern plate tectonics to rev up. Big fragments of continents couldn't slide into the mantle at collisions called subduction zones. So when the first supercontinent formed, the plates stuck together in a massive jam for a billion years while the mantle continued to cool off.

Read more at Discovery News

Bronze Age Bling: Black Stone, Amber and Shells

A 4,200-year-old necklace made of alternating black and white disc-shaped beads has helped British researchers devise a new, minimally micro-destructive approach for the identification of shell species in archaeological artifacts.

Mollusc shells appear to have been among the first durable materials used for personal ornaments and building tools, but their often degraded condition makes it hard to identify the shell species taxa with traditional morphological analysis.

Beatrice Demarchi, of York University’s department of Archaeology, Julie Wilson, of York University’s departments of Chemistry and Mathematics, and colleagues used statistical pattern recognition methods and amino acid racemisation analysis (a technique previously adopted used for dating rocks and fossil molluscs) to distinguish shells taxonomically.

“Shells preserve organic molecules trapped within the mineral skeleton, particularly proteins that are responsible for the process of biomineralisation,” they wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

The new approach was tested on a necklace which has intrigued archaeologists ever since its discovery in 2009.

Found at an early Bronze Age site in Great Cornard, near Suffolk in eastern England, the necklace was unearthed by a team of archaeologists of Suffolk County Council Archaeology Service in the grave of a young adult woman. Her bones were radiocarbon-dated to around 2200 B.C.

“The necklace had not been worn on the body, but was found near the head. On the other side of the head was a Beaker pot which had probably contained drink for the journey into the afterlife,” Alison Sheridan, principal curator of Early Prehistory at National Museums in Scotland, told Discovery News.

The necklace consisted of strings of tiny disc beads of shells and black Whitby jet (a semi-precious stone which, when polished, takes on a waxy luster of the deepest opaque black), possibly carved out of the fossils of monkey puzzle trees at Whitby some 160 miles north.

“Beads of jet and shell alternated in a zebra design. Interspersed with these — and I am currently trying to work out exactly how the arrangement worked — were a number of amber beads, some perforated straight through, some with cross-shaped perforations,” Sheridan said.

She noted that both the amber and the jet would have been accorded magical properties and used as amulets, to ward off evil and protect the woman.

“The necklace design is unique, although a lot of Early Bronze Age jet jewellery, and some amber jewellery, is known,” Sheridan said.

“However, the use of sea shells for jewellery during the Early Bronze Age in Britain is incredibly rare,” she added.

To determine whether the tiny beads were made from locally sourced shells or from species originating from further afield, such as the Mediterranean thorny oyster (Spondylus) often used to make personal adornments in prehistory, the researchers sampled six of the necklace’s beads.

Demarchi and colleagues compared the beads’ amino acid concentrations with a data set comprising 777 molluscan samples. The investigation was integrated with morphological observations by electron and light microscopy and mineralogical examinations by Raman spectroscopy.

From the results, it appears that Bronze Age craftspeople used local shells like dog whelk (Nucella lapillus) and tusk shells (Antalis) to make the necklace.

Conical, curved and open at both ends, tusk shells resemble miniature elephant tusks, hence the name. Dog whelks are predatory, carnivorous sea snails often found on rocky shores.

While dog whelks are abundant around the Suffolk coast today, tusk shells are less widespread but present along the southern coast. According to the researchers, both shells were likely to have been sourced and worked locally.

“Now we have a relatively simple and only micro-destructive approach that provides information about the raw materials used for these precious and rare artifacts,” Julie Wilson told Discovery News.

Read more at Discovery News

Neanderthal-Human Skulls Shed Light on Evolution

Skulls found in a Spanish cave exhibit both Neanderthal and primitive human features, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

The discovery provides clues about when the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals lived, what happened after the two groups diverged, and how the two became so different over a relatively short period of time.

There is consensus about the ending of the story: Modern humans and Neanderthals  interbred, and Neanderthal DNA is still present in people of European and Asian ancestry. But the thousands of years before they connected, however, have been a mystery.

That’s where the Spanish excavation site comes in. Sima de los Huesos in Atapuerca holds the largest collection of ancient human fossils recovered from a single site.

“What makes the Sima de los Huesos site unique is the extraordinary and unprecedented accumulation of hominin (human family tree) fossils there,”  lead author Juan-Luis Arsuaga, a professor of paleontology at the Complutense University of Madrid, said in a press release. “Nothing quite so big has ever been discovered for any extinct hominin species — including Neanderthals.”

“This site has been excavated continuously since 1984,” added co-author Ignacio Martínez. “After 30 years, we have recovered nearly 7,000 human fossils corresponding to all skeletal regions of at least 28 individuals. This extraordinary collection includes 17 fragmentary skulls, many of which are very complete.”

Using multiple, independent dating techniques, the researchers determined that the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals lived more than 430,000 years ago. This alone is significant, the authors write: “With this new age, the SH hominins are now the oldest reliably dated hominins to show clear Neandertal (features).”

Other studies support that between 400,000 to 500,000 years ago, ancient humans lived in Africa and East Asia. Some split off, ultimately settling in Europe and Asia. Others remained in Africa.

The separation between the groups resulted in key physical differences, which the researchers believe evolved separately, and at different times — as opposed to all at once, as some other scientists have proposed. Neanderthals found at other locations, for example, have a shorter and stockier build, angled cheekbones, prominent brow ridges and wide noses.

The skulls from Spain suggest that these individuals had brains comparable to those of more primitive humans, but evolution led to changes in their face and teeth. The observed features were mostly related to chewing.

“It seems these modifications had to do with an intensive use of the frontal teeth,” Arsuaga said. “The incisors show a great wear as if they had been used as a ‘third hand,’ typical of Neanderthals.”

Even today, we often use our teeth to cut or manipulate objects. These early humans frequently used their teeth in this manner, and it affected their evolution.

Another fascinating twist is the diversity of the skulls. As Arsuaga said, “One thing that surprised me about the skulls we analyzed is how similar the different individuals were. The other fossils of the same geological period are different and don´t fit in the Sima pattern. This means that there was a lot of diversity among different populations in the Middle Pleistocene (around 400,000 years ago).”

Read more at Discovery News

Universe's Expansion Measured to Extreme Precision

Scientists studying more than 140,000 extremely bright galaxies have calculated the expansion of the universe with unprecedented accuracy.

The distant galaxies, known as quasars, serve as a "standard ruler" to map density variations in the universe. Physicists were able to extend their calculations almost twice as far back in time as has been previously accomplished.

Using the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), two teams of physicists have improved on scientists' understanding of the mysterious dark energy that drives the accelerating universe. By nearly tripling the number of quasars previously studied, as well as implementing a new technique, the scientists were able to calculate the expansion rate to 42 miles (68 kilometers) per second per 1 million light-years with greater precision, while looking farther back in time.

Andreu Font-Ribera, of the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, led one of the two teams, while Timothée Delubac of EPFL, Switzerland, and France’s Centre de Saclay headed the other one. Font-Ribera presented the new findings in April at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Savannah, Georgia.

The new research "explores a region of the universe that was not explored before," Font-Ribera said.

Stretching the Standard Ruler

The expanding universe stretches light waves as they travel through it, a process astronomers refer to as redshifting. An object's physical distance from the observer depends on how quickly the universe is expanding.

Baryon acoustic oscillations (BAOs) are sound waves imprinted in large structures of matter in the early universe. Competing forces of inward-pushing gravity and outward, heat-related pressure cause oscillations similar to sound waves in the baryonic, or "normal" matter in the universe.

Dark matter, which interacts with normal matter only gravitationally, stays at the center of the sound wave, while the baryonic matter travels outward, eventually creating a shell at a set radius known as the sound horizon.

Quasars, like other galaxies, are surrounded by dust. Light leaving galaxies streams through that dust, revealing the imprint of the BAOs. Studying this light allows researchers to map the distribution of quasars, as well as the gas in the early universe.

By using BOSS, the largest component of the third Sloan Digital Sky Survey, to map BAOs, scientists can determine how matter is distributed in the early universe. When it comes to measuring the expansion of the universe, BAOs serve as a "standard ruler."

"We think we know its size, and its apparent size depends on how far away it is," Patrick McDonald, of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, said at the conference.

Previously, astronomers have used BAOs to measure the distances to galaxies in order to determine the distribution of mass in the universe, and thus the universe's expansion rate. But galaxies grow fainter at greater distances, so previous studies were limited to looking back only 6 billion light-years into the universe's 13.8-billion-year lifetime.

Font-Ribera and his team, which included McDonald, pioneered a method of measuring BAOs by using quasars, which are galaxies that are far brighter than normal due to the activity of a supermassive black hole at their center. As matter falls into the black hole, it grows extremely hot, radiating light at far brighter wavelengths and over farther distances than conventional galaxies. This allowed the scientists to measure the mass distribution of the universe out to 12 billion years.

Font-Ribera's research involved approximately 50,000 quasars. The new study published by Delubac's team reviewed nearly three times as many sources, more precisely calculating the expansion rate to an accuracy of 2.2 percent.

"If we looked back to the universe when it was less than a quarter of its present age, we'd see that a pair of galaxies separated by a million light-years would be drifting apart at a velocity of 68 kilometers a second as the universe expands," Font-Ribera said in an accompanying press release.

"The uncertainty is plus or minus only a kilometer and a half per second."

The Expanding Universe

In the early twentieth century, astronomer Edwin Hubble determined that the galaxies in the universe are all moving away from the Milky Way because the universe is expanding. Further studies led astronomers to conclude that the rate of expansion is speeding up rather than slowing down.

McDonald compared the process to a ball thrown in the air.

"Acceleration is like you throw the ball up, and it starts going up faster and faster," McDonald said. "No normal attractive gravity will do that."

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 18, 2014

New horned dinosaur reveals unique wing-shaped headgear

Scientists have named a new species of horned dinosaur (ceratopsian) based on fossils collected from Montana in the United States and Alberta, Canada. Mercuriceratops (mer-cure-E-sare-ah-tops) gemini was approximately 6 meters (20 feet) long and weighed more than 2 tons. It lived about 77 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous Period. Research describing the new species is published online in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

Mercuriceratops (Mercuri + ceratops) means "Mercury horned-face," referring to the wing-like ornamentation on its head that resembles the wings on the helmet of the Roman god, Mercury. The name "gemini" refers to the almost identical twin specimens found in north central Montana and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dinosaur Provincial Park, in Alberta, Canada. Mercuriceratops had a parrot-like beak and probably had two long brow horns above its eyes. It was a plant-eating dinosaur.

"Mercuriceratops took a unique evolutionary path that shaped the large frill on the back of its skull into protruding wings like the decorative fins on classic 1950s cars. It definitively would have stood out from the herd during the Late Cretaceous," said lead author Dr. Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "Horned dinosaurs in North America used their elaborate skull ornamentation to identify each other and to attract mates -- not just for protection from predators. The wing-like protrusions on the sides of its frill may have offered male Mercuriceratops a competitive advantage in attracting mates."

"The butterfly-shaped frill, or neck shield, of Mercuriceratops is unlike anything we have seen before," said co-author Dr. David Evans, curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum. "Mercuriceratops shows that evolution gave rise to much greater variation in horned dinosaur headgear than we had previously suspected."

The new dinosaur is described from skull fragments from two individuals collected from the Judith River Formation of Montana and the Dinosaur Park Formation of Alberta. The Montana specimen was originally collected on private land and acquired by the Royal Ontario Museum. The Alberta specimen was collected by Susan Owen-Kagen, a preparator in Dr. Philip Currie's lab at the University of Alberta. "Susan showed me her specimen during one of my trips to Alberta," said Ryan. "I instantly recognized it as being from the same type of dinosaur that the Royal Ontario Museum had from Montana."

The Alberta specimen confirmed that the fossil from Montana was not a pathological specimen, nor had it somehow been distorted during the process of fossilization," said Dr. Philip Currie, professor and Canada research chair in dinosaur paleobiology at the University of Alberta. "The two fossils -- squamosal bones from the side of the frill -- have all the features you would expect, just presented in a unique shape."

Read more at Science Daily

Brown Bears Seen Performing Oral Sex

The club of fellatio-loving animals just gained a new member: bears.

Scientists have observed a pair of male brown bears in captivity in Croatia that regularly engaged in oral sex over several years. While the creatures in this case study likely do it for pleasure, their fellatio habits might have started because they were forced to wean too early, the researchers suspect.

The two, unrelated male bears in the study were orphaned soon after they were born in 2003 and put in captivity at a sanctuary in Kuterevo, Croatia. Over the course of six years and 116 hours of observation time, scientists led by Agnieszka Sergiel, of the Polish Academy of Sciences' Department of Wildlife Conservation, witnessed 28 acts of fellatio between the two male bears.

The study, published online earlier this month in the journal Zoo Biology, isn't shy about the details. The larger bear was always the one to receive fellatio. In many incidents, he appeared to reach orgasm from the sex act (which lasted for just a few minutes), as evidenced by muscular contractions and, well, fluids on the muzzle of the provider. When the deed was done, he often pushed the provider off with his hind legs or turned away.

The scientists billed their study as the "first observations of long-term, recurrent fellatio in captive brown bears kept in proper conditions after being orphaned." Researchers had previously seen bears in captivity performing fellatio, or auto-fellatio combined with masturbation, but these were viewed as abnormal incidents, where the bears may have been living in substandard conditions.

Why do it? Sexual reward seems to be a motivation for many species that engage in non-reproductive sex acts. Female cheetahs and lions lick their partners' genitals as a courtship ritual. Famously kinky bonobos do it to ease social tension. Female Chinese fruit bats perform oral sex, seemingly to get the males to prolong the deed.

These two brown bears might engage in fellatio for sexual satisfaction. But the team of researchers was puzzled by one recurring theme: The provider always instigated oral sex.

Read more at Discovery News

King Richard III's Tomb Design Unveiled

King Richard III of England will be laid back to rest in a wooden coffin sealed inside a tomb made of Swaledale fossil stone in Leicester Cathedral, the dean of the cathedral announced Monday (June 16).

Michael Ibsen, a descendant to King Richard III's sister Anne of York, will make the king's coffin.

The announcement comes on the heels of a judicial verdict that concluded the University of Leicester has the legal right to reinter Richard III's bones. The king ruled England from 1483 until his death at the Bottle of Bosworth Field in 1485. His body was taken to Leicester from the battlefield and buried in a hastily dug grave.

In 2012, a dig led by the University of Leicester rediscovered this grave under a city council parking lot. Because the university had the excavation permit for the dig, it was the university's responsibility to rebury the remains after study. The plan, according to university and city officials, has always been to rebury Richard in the city's cathedral.

However, independent groups of Richard enthusiasts contested this decision, arguing that the university should have to take other opinions into account. In particular, a group of indirect descendants known as the Plantagenet Alliance advocated to have Richard III reburied in York, England, instead.

Burial plans

The Plantagenet Alliance and its supporters argued that Richard III had adopted York as his hometown in life (he spent about a third of his 33 years in the city). Leicester, the scene of his ignominious burial in 1485, would not be the king's choice of resting place, the group argued.

However, a British High Court ruled on May 23 that the University of Leicester had a valid exhumation license, and thus could reinter Richard's remains.

Today, the Very Reverend David Monteith of the Leicester Cathedral announced the final plans for Richard's tomb, which, he said, will combine three elements: It will be distinctive and elegant; it will evoke memory and be deeply respectful of history; and it will be deeply imbued in spirituality.

The design also points to Christianity, which would've been a fundamental belief of King Richard's, noted the Reverend Canon Mandy Ford of Leicester Cathedral. For instance, a deep cut in the stone — which will include embedded fossils — in the shape of a cross will let light flood through it, "symbolizing that for Christians death is not the end but that we all receive new life in Christ," Ford said during the unveiling.

The stone tomb will also be tilted slightly "as if rising to meet the risen Jesus," Ford said.

The design is different in some respects from burial plans unveiled in September 2013, which showed a modernistic stone tomb with a simple cross design. Rather, the remains will be laid to rest inside a lead ossuary placed inside a coffin made of English oak. The entire coffin will then be placed into a brick-lined vault in the floor of the cathedral and sealed off with the stone tomb. That tomb, rather than resting over a large white rose — the heraldic symbol of the House of York — will sit on a slab of dark Kilkenny marble, Ford said, which will be inscribed with the king's name, dates, motto and coat of arms.

The Richard III Society noted displeasure with that last tomb feature: "Some of our members will have reservations about the design, and whilst we understand the rationale behind the tomb's design its starkness will not appeal to all. There is a particular need for clearly identifiable white roses within its design," the society noted in a statement.

"We hope that some of the issues we have with the latest tomb design can be resolved amicably, and a meeting with the cathedral authorities to discuss these matters is scheduled," the society added in the statement.

The cost of the tomb and interment is estimated at 2.5 million pounds ($4.2 million), according to Monteith.

King and controversy

Richard III's reburial is not the only focus on controversy surrounding the king. The University of Leicester has taken samples of DNA from the king's bones, and researchers plan to sequence Richard's entire genome. That plan has raised criticism from some, including independent historian John Ashdown-Hill.

"We're talking about a member of the royal family and a former head of state," Ashdown-Hill told Live Science in February. No other former head of state would be subject to such study, he said.

Read more at Discovery News

One-Cent Stamp Sells for Record $9.5 Million

An incredibly rare 19th century postage stamp, a tiny one-cent magenta from British colonial Guyana, sold for a world record US$9.5 million at a New York auction on Tuesday.

It took just two minutes for an anonymous collector on the phone to seal the deal after quick-fire bidding opened at US$4.5 million in a packed room at Sotheby's in Manhattan.

The auction house had valued the tiny specimen of British colonial memorabilia at $10-20 million, an estimate which it said was vindicated by the sale price.

"The stamp has just sold for approximately US$9.5 million, which means it has set a new world record price for a stamp," announced David Redden, the auctioneer and Sotheby's director of special projects.

The previous auction record for a single stamp was $2.2 million, set by the Treskilling Yellow in 1996.

Made in 1856 in Guyana and measuring just one by 1.25 inches (2.54 by 3.18 centimeters), the stamp is octagonal, printed in black ink and bears the initials of its past owners on the back.

Redden told AFP that the one-cent magenta has a "wonderful aura" which made it "almost the Mona Lisa of stamps."

He said he "did not know" whether the new owner would add their own initials to the back.

Encased in glass, the stamp dates back more than 150 years and has passed through great collections, now breaking a world record price four times since 1922.

Last bought by convicted murderer and American multi-millionaire John du Pont in 1980, it was last seen in public in 1986, before going on display at Sotheby's in the build-up to Tuesday's sale.

The auction house says the stamp is the only surviving example of a one-cent magenta, so rare that it is missing even from the British royal family's philatelic collection.

"This is the most expensive object in the world by weight," Redden told AFP, marveling that it's " just a tiny piece of paper."

Colonial Guyana depended on supplies of stamps from England, but when a shipment was delayed in 1856, the postmaster commissioned a contingency supply.

The only surviving example of the one-cent variety was rediscovered in 1873 by Vernon Vaughan, a 12-year-old Scottish boy living with his family in British Guyana.

He found it among some family papers and added the stamp to his album. Vaughan then sold it to another collector for a few shillings, and the stamp made its way to Britain in 1878.

It was bought by French Count Philippe la Renotiere von Ferrary, perhaps the greatest stamp collector in history, and later donated to a museum in Berlin.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 17, 2014

Why Do Some Turtles 'Breathe' Out of Their Butts?

Nature has a juvenile sense of humor. That, at first, seems like the only explanation for why certain turtles, among them the Australian Fitzroy river turtle and the North American eastern painted turtle, breathe through the back end. Both turtles can breathe through their mouths if they so chose.

And yet, when scientists placed a small amount of food coloring in the water near these turtles, they found that the turtles were drawing in water from both ends (and sometimes just the hind end.) Technically, this hind end isn't an anus, it's a cloaca — an opening through which the turtle excretes, urinates, and lays its eggs. Still, the entire situation begs the question: why? If the turtle can use its anus like a mouth to breathe, why doesn't it just use its mouth to breathe?

The possible answer to the question lies in the turtle's shell. The shell, which evolved from ribs and vertebrae that flattened out and fused together, does more than keep the turtle safe from bites. When a turtle hibernates, it buries itself in cold water for up to five months. To survive, it has to change a lot of things about the way its body works. Some processes, such as fat burning, go anaerobic — or without oxygen — in a hibernating turtle. Anaerobic processes result in the build up of lactic acid, and anyone who has seen Aliens knows that too much acid isn't good for a body. The turtle's shell can not only store some lactic acid, but release bicarbonates (baking soda to the acid's vinegar) into the turtle's body. It's not just armor plating, it's a chemistry set.

It is, however, a fairly restrictive chemistry set. Without ribs that expand and contract, the turtle has no use for the lung and muscle set-up that most mammals have. Instead it has muscles that pull the body outwards, towards the openings of the shell, to allow it to inhale, and more muscles to squish the turtle's guts against its lungs to make it exhale. The combination makes for a lot of work, which is especially costly if every time you use a muscle your body's acid levels go up and oxygen levels go down.

Read more at Discovery News

Dracula's Tomb Found in Italy? Er...Not Really

Has the tomb of Vlad III the Impaler, the historical Dracula, been found in the center of Naples in Italy? Not really.

Experts and bloggers are now debunking the claim that circulated late last week, saying it’s not rooted in real history but rather resembles a Da Vinci Code conspiracy novel.

According to a report in the Italian daily Il Mattino, the remains of the 15th century Romanian prince upon which Bram Stoker's gothic novel "Dracula" is based, lie in a cloister in the Santa Maria La Nova church in Naples.

The report cited historian Raffaele Glinni, his brother Giandomenico, a researcher at the University of Tallin in Estonia, and Nicola Barbatelli, director of Italy’s Museum of Ancient Populations as the team behind the discovery.

Following a tip from a student Erika Stella, who was researching the cloister of Santa Maria Nova in Naples for her doctorate, Glinni and colleagues investigated a marble tomb covered in what they believe are clear symbols pointing to Dracula: a dragon and two opposing sphinxes.

"The dragon means Dracula and the two opposing sphinxes represent the city of Thebes which the Egyptians called Tepes. In these symbols, the very name of count Dracula Tepes is written," Raffaello Glinni told Il Mattino.

Glinni and colleagues, who have already filed an official request to open the tomb, believe Vlad III, the Prince of Wallachia, didn’t die in a battle sometime between October 31 and December 31, 1476, as it was previously assumed, but was imprisoned by the Turks.

According to the researchers, his daughter Maria Balsa, who was brought to the Neapolitan court at the age of seven and later married to Count Giacomo Alfonso Ferrillo, paid the ransom. Vlad eventually died in Naples and was buried in the church of Santa Maria Nova in the grave of the Ferrillo family.

As intriguing as it might sound, the story appears to have many holes.

"The article doesn’t say how credible these researchers are. A simple Google search would have been enough. In 2009 they claimed to have discovered a Leonardo da Vinci self portrait," art historian Tomaso Montanari wrote in the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Raffaele Glinni, a lawyer and self declared historian, appears with his brother in the website "Mysterious Lucania" which reveals his somewhat mixed area of research.

"Knights Templar? Check. Freemasonry? Check. Da Vinci? You bet. Gibberings about non-specific magical vortices? Not looking too good," The BS Historian wrote.

The blogger noted that basic errors emerge in Glinni quotes: "Vlad was not a 'Count' like his fictional namesake, he was a voivode (prince)." Glinni should have known that.

Moreover, while the dragon was indeed the main element in the badge of the Order of the Dragon to which Vlad III's father belonged, none of the Order dragon depictions resemble that on the Italian bas-relief.

As for the sphinxes, the "Thebes/Tepes connection seems to be entirely spurious," the BS Historian said.

"Thebes itself is a Greek placename, Tepes a Turkish word for Impaler. Where's the connection?" the blogger asked.

It is unlikely the Tepes nickname was used in Vlad’s lifetime since it was considered an insult.

Indeed Vlad, born sometime between 1428 and 1431, probably in Sighişaora, Transylvania, gained the infamous nickname from his cruel method of execution. During the fight against Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire  in 1462, he impaled some 20,000 people outside the city of Targoviste. The sight was so shocking that the Ottomans retreated to Constantinople.

As for Vlad's secret daughter, a historical figure named Maria Balsa does exist, but there is no account which links her to Vlad, whose recorded offspring are only sons.

Most historians believe that Dracula was killed on a road between Bucharest and Giurgiu, Romania, during a fight to reconquer Wallachia from its Turkish ruler Basarab Laiota.

Laiota beheaded Vlad and sent the head as a trophy to Constantinople.

"The body was buried without special ornaments or a more distinguished tombstone, in the nearest church built by or connected to his name," medieval historian Constantin Rezachevici, chief researcher with the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History of the Romanian Academy, wrote in a paper presented at a symposium on Vlad the Impaler in Romania in 2001.

According to Rezachevici, one such building in the area was the monastery of Comana. Built by Vlad III himself, it was demolished about one century after his death.

As for the carved dragon on the alleged Dracula tomb in Naples, historical records associate it to the coat of arms of Matteo Ferrillo, Maria Balsa's father-in-law.

"There you have it. The tomb is that of a known Italian noble, with recognized arms," Jason Colavito writes in his blog. He found in Arthur Charles Fox-Davies’s Art of Heraldry (1904) the exact description of Ferrillo's arms.

"Just to put a nail in the coffin, so to speak, on the same page Fox-Davies gives two more examples of Italian nobles who also had nearly identical dragon's head arms on their tombs," Colavito writes.

Read more at Discovery News

Remains of Ancient Egyptian Epidemic Uncovered

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of an epidemic in Egypt so terrible that one ancient writer believed the world was coming to an end.

Working at the Funerary Complex of Harwa and Akhimenru in the west bank of the ancient city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor) in Egypt, the team of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor (MAIL) found bodies covered with a thick layer of lime (historically used as a disinfectant). The researchers also found three kilns where the lime was produced, as well as a giant bonfire containing human remains, where many of the plague victims were incinerated.

Pottery remains found in the kilns allowed researchers to date the grisly operation to the third century A.D., a time when a series of epidemics now dubbed the "Plague of Cyprian" ravaged the Roman Empire, which included Egypt. Saint Cyprian was a bishop of Carthage (a city in Tunisia) who described the plague as signaling the end of the world.

Occurring between roughly A.D. 250-271, the plague "according to some sources killed more than 5,000 people a day in Rome alone," wrote Francesco Tiradritti, director of the MAIL, in the latest issue of Egyptian Archaeology, a magazine published by the Egypt Exploration Society.

Tiradritti's team uncovered the remains of this body-disposal operation between 1997 and 2012. The monument his team is excavating was originally built in the seventh century B.C. for a grand steward named Harwa. After Harwa's death, the Egyptians continuously used the monument for burial (Akhimenru was a successor who built his own tomb there). However, after its use for body disposal during the plague, the monument was abandoned and never used again.

The use of the complex "for the disposal of infected corpses gave the monument a lasting bad reputation and doomed it to centuries of oblivion until tomb robbers entered the complex in the early 19th century," Tiradritti writes.

Cyprian left a gut-wrenching record of what the victims suffered before they died. "The bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces (an area of the mouth)," he wrote in Latin in a work called "De mortalitate." The "intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting, the eyes are on fire with the injected blood," he wrote, adding that "in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction …"

Cyprian believed that the world was coming to an end.

"The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world …" (translation by Philip Schaff, from the book "Ante-Nicene Fathers", volume 5, 1885).

While the world, of course, did not end, the plague weakened the Roman Empire. "It killed two Emperors, Hostilian in A.D. 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in A.D. 270," wrote Tiradritti. It is "a generally held opinion that the 'Plague of Cyprian' seriously weakened the Roman Empire, hastening its fall."

The newly unearthed remains at Luxor underscore the plague's potency. Tiradritti'steam found no evidence that the victims received any sort of religious rites during their incineration. "We found evidence of corpses either burned or buried inside the lime," he told Live Science in an interview. "They had to dispose of them without losing any time."

The plague may have been some form of smallpox or measles, accordingto modern day scientists. While the discovery of human remains associated with the plague will give anthropologists new material to study, Tiradritti cautions they will not be able to extract DNA from the bodies.

While stories about researchers extracting DNA from mummies (such as Tutankhamun) have made headlines in recent years, Tiradritti told Live Science he doesn't believe the results from such ancient specimens. "In a climate like Egypt, the DNA is completely destroyed," he said. DNA breaks down over time, and permafrost (something not found in Egypt) is the best place to find ancient DNA samples, Tiradritti said.

Read more at Discovery News

Earth's Most Abundant, But Hidden Mineral Revealed

Earth's most abundant mineral lies deep in the planet's interior, sealed off from human eyes. Now, scientists for the first time have gotten a glimpse of the material in nature, enclosed inside a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite. The result: They have characterized and named the elusive mineral.

The new official name, bridgmanite, was approved for the mineral formerly known by its chemical components and crystal structure — silicate-perovskite.

The magnesium-silicate mineral was named after Percy Bridgman, a 1946 Nobel Prize-winning physicist, according to the American Geophysical Union blog.

"It is a very exciting discovery," Chi Ma of Caltech and Oliver Tschauner, of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told Live Science in an email.

"We finally tracked down natural silicate-perovskite (now bridgmanite) in a meteorite after a five-year investigation, and got to name the most abundant mineral on Earth. How cool is that?"

The mineral likely resides beneath Earth's surface in an area called the lower mantle, between the transition zone in the mantle and the core-mantle boundary, or between the depths of416 and 1,802 miles (670 and 2,900 kilometers), scientists said.

Scientists have been searching for the mineral for a long time, because in order to identify a mineral one must know its chemical composition and crystal structure, Ma said.

Researchers found the bridgmanite in a meteorite that had fallen to Earth near the Tenham station in western Queensland, Australia, in 1879.

The meteorite, Ma said, is highly shocked, meaning it endured high temperatures and pressures as it slammed into other rocks in space. Those impacts can create shock veins of minerals within the meteorites.

"Scientists have identified high-pressure minerals in its shock-melt veins since 1960s. Now we have identified bridgmanite," Tschauner said, referring to the Tenham meteorite.

The meteorite is considered a chondrite, the most common type of meteorite found on Earth; scientists think these meteorites are remnants shed from the original building blocks of planets.

Most meteors (which are called meteorites once they strike Earth) are fragments of asteroids, while others are the cosmic dust discarded by comets. Rarely, meteorites represent impact debris from the moon and from Mars.

Read more at Discovery News

Moon Bumps: Earth's Gravity Creates Lunar Bulges

Earth's gravitational pull is so powerful that it creates a small bulge on the surface of the moon. For the first time, scientists have observed this bump from orbit, using NASA satellites.

The gravitational tug-of-war between Earth and the moon is enough to stretch both celestial bodies, so they each end up having a slight oval shape, with the tapered ends facing each other.

On Earth, this gravitational tension shows up in the form of tides. The moon's pull has a strong effect on Earth's oceans because water has so much freedom of movement.

The corresponding distorting effect on the moon, called the lunar body tide, is more difficult to see, because the moon is solid except for a molten core. But Earth's pull raises a small bulge about 20 inches (50 centimeters) from the surface on the near side of the moon and a matching bulge on the far side.

"The deformation of the moon due to Earth's pull is very challenging to measure, but learning more about it gives us clues about the interior of the moon," Erwan Mazarico, a scientist who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

The same side of the moon always faces Earth, but the bulge does move around a few inches over time, wobbling and following Earth's pull like a magnet, as the moon shifts slightly during its orbit.

Scientists observed the lunar body tide using NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite, which is mapping the height of features on the moon's surface, and NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory satellite, which is mapping the moon's gravitational field. The satellites measured the height of 350,000 locations spread across areas of the moon closest to Earth and areas of the moon on the opposite side from Earth. The satellites passed over each location several times, so scientists could compare the height of each spot from one satellite pass to the next. By identifying which spots changed height, the researchers could track the lunar tide.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 16, 2014

Bachelor Party Finds Massive Mastodon Skull

Some guys have trouble remembering just what happened during their bachelor party, but a group of men on a recent stag send-off in New Mexico aren’t likely to forget their celebration very soon — since they stumbled upon a perfectly preserved three-million-year-old mastodon skull.

The party was on a hike in Elephant Butte Lake State Park near Albuquerque when they saw a bone jutting one to two inches from the sand, according to a recent report in the Telegraph. They started digging and uncovered the enormous skull. Their first thought was it could be the remains of a woolly mammoth so they snapped photos and sent them to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

Scientists there made the identification — it wasn’t a woolly mammoth, but, in fact, a much more exciting find. The skull belonged to a stegomastodon -- a prehistoric ancestor of the woolly mammoth — as well as today’s elephants. The massive animal stood about 9 feet tall, weighed six tons and walked the Earth during the Ice Age, according to Gary Morgan, a paleontologist at the museum who analyzed the fossil. He estimates the animal was about 50 years old when it died on a sandbar of the ancient Rio Grande River.

The family of mastodons migrated to North America around 15 million years ago and died out around 10,000 years ago.

“This is far and away the best one we’ve ever found,” said Morgan about the bachelor party’s discovery.

Scientists, following up on the party’s tip, went to the site and sealed the skull, which weighed more than 1,000 pounds, in a cast. It was transported to the museum, where it will eventually will be placed on display.

Read more at Discovery News

Million-Year-Old Fossils Show Hippos Going for a Swim

More than a million years ago, hippopotamuses paddled across a shallow pool in the region that's now northern Kenya, occasionally scraping their feet on the sandy bottom. Today, researchers have evidence of the hippos' fleeting swim in the form of fossilized footprints.

The newly identified prints represent the first known tracks of ancient mammals taking a dip, joining previously discovered trace fossils left behind by swimming dinosaurs, turtles and crocodiles, the researchers said.

The hippo foot impressions were found in Kenya's Koobi Fora region, which is part of the Lake Turkana Basin, considered the cradle of human evolution because the area contains some of the oldest fossils from hominins — a group that comprises multiple species that came after Homo, the human lineage, split from chimpanzees. In fact, early humans may have witnessed the aquatic adventures of these ancient hippos; hominin footprints were discovered on the same geologic surface a mere 230 feet (70 meters) from the hippo tracks.

'Bottom walkers'

Recent excavations in Koobi Fora revealed dozens of large animal tracks, dating back to 1.4 million years ago, but a majority of the prints appear to have been left by a four-toed animal "bottom walking" in a shallow water body, study leader Matthew Bennett, of the United Kingdom's Bournemouth University, and his colleagues said.

Because of the size and shape of the prints, the team thinks the tracks could belong to adults and juveniles of the species Hippopotamus gorgops, which went extinct during the Ice Age, and perhaps the pygmy hippo species Hippopotamus aethiopicus.

At the time, the Lake Turkana area was much more fertile than it is today. The semi-arid environment had lots of shallow pools and channels, all feeding into larger lakes, and it supported a striking diversity of plants and animals, Bennett said.

The hippo prints appear to have been pressed into fine sands and silts deposited on the floor of a shallow body of water, before being buried by a layer of coarser sand, likely during a small flood, Bennett explained in an email to Live Science.

Today's gliding hippos

To look for a modern comparison to these extinct animals, the researchers observed the swimming styles of two female common Nile hippopotamuses (Hippopotamus amphibius) through a glass tank at the Adventure Aquarium in Philadelphia.

Underwater, the Nile hippos would glide with their limbs folded beneath their bodies. They would occasionally scratch the bottom of the tank with one leg, dragging only their digits across the ground. Sometimes, the hippos would thrust upward, toward the water surface, using both of their hind legs. These movements were reflected in the shape of the ancient tracks, the researchers said.

Read more at Discovery News

Human Ancestors Got Herpes from Chimps

A herpes virus that infects humans originated in chimpanzees before it jumped into early human ancestors, according to a new study.

Researchers found that herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) infected hominids before their evolutionary split from chimpanzees 6 million years ago, whereas herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2) was transferred from ancient chimpanzees to human ancestors such as Homo erectus about 1.6 million years ago, long before the rise of early modern humans about 200,000 years ago.

"Before we were human, there was still cross-species transmission into our evolutionary lineage," study author Joel O. Wertheim, assistant research scientist at the University of California, San Diego AntiViral Research Center, told Live Science.

About two-thirds of the human population is infected with at least one kind of herpes simplex virus, according to the researchers. HSV-1 commonly manifests itself as cold sores on the mouth or lips, whereas HSV-2 can cause blisters on the genitals.

Humans are also the only primate species that can be infected by more than one herpes simplex virus, the researchers said.

In the study, the researchers compared human herpes viruses with those of other primates. They used advanced models of molecular evolution to estimate when and how exactly the viruses had diverged from each other, and how they were introduced into humans.

According to a previous hypothesis, HSV-1 was thought to have been introduced to humans "potentially from another ape species, like orangutans," Wertheim said. And the split between HSV-2 and its chimpanzee counterpart was thought to have coincided with the split between humans and chimpanzees.

In contrast, the new study suggests that HSV-2 is the result of cross-species transmission to humans from ancestors of modern chimpanzees, and that HSV-1 is the result of a split between the human and chimpanzee viruses, he said.

Now, humans and chimpanzees have their own version of the HSV-1 virus, he said.

The results may help scientists better understand the mechanism of species-to-species transmission, which still happens, the study authors said. For instance, people today often get infected with a macaque simplex virus, which can result in severe illness, the researchers wrote in the study. But human-to-human transmission of this virus is extremely rare, they wrote.

"Understanding how and when we acquired viruses that currently infect us can give us perspective on future, potential cross-species transmission events that would lead to the introduction of new human viruses," Wertheim said.

Read more at Discovery News

Maria Mystery: Why Moon's Far Side Has No 'Face'

Heat radiating from the young Earth could help solve the more than 50-year-old mystery of why the far side of the moon, which faces away from Earth, lacks the dark, vast expanses of volcanic rock that define the face of the Man in the Moon as seen from Earth, researchers say.

The Man in the Moon was born when cosmic impacts struck the near side of the moon, the side that faces Earth. These collisions punched holes in the moon's crust, which later filled with vast lakes of lava that formed the dark areas known as maria or "seas."

In 1959, when the Soviet spacecraft Luna 3 transmitted the first images of the "dark" or far side of the moon, the side facing away from Earth, scientists immediately noticed fewer maria there. This mystery — why no Man in the Moon exists on the moon's far side — is called the Lunar Farside Highlands Problem.

"I remember the first time I saw a globe of the moon as a boy, being struck by how different the far side looks," study co-author Jason Wright, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, said in a statement. "It was all mountains and craters. Where were the maria?"

Now scientists may have solved the 55-year-old mystery; heat from the young Earth as the newborn moon was cooling caused the difference. The researchers came up with the solution during their work on exoplanets, which are worlds outside the solar system.

"There are many exoplanets that are really close to their host stars,"lead study author Arpita Roy, also of Penn State, told Space.com. "That really affects the geology of those planets."

Similarly, the moon and Earth are generally thought to have orbited very close together after they formed. The leading idea explaining the moon's formation suggests that it arose shortly after the nascent Earth collided with a Mars-size planet about 4.5 billion years ago, with the resulting debris coalescing into the moon. Scientists say the newborn moon and Earth were 10 to 20 times closer to each other than they are now.

"The moon and Earth loomed large in each other's skies when they formed, " Roy said in a statement.

Since the moon was so close to Earth, the mutual pull of gravity was strong. The gravitational tidal forces the moon and Earth exerted on each other braked their rotations, resulting in the moon always showing the same face to Earth, a situation known as tidal lock.

The moon and Earth were very hot shortly after the giant impact that formed the moon. The moon, being much smaller than Earth, cooled more quickly. Since the moon and Earth were tidally locked early on, the still-hot Earth — more than 4,530 degrees Fahrenheit (2,500 degrees Celsius) — would have cooked the near side of the moon, keeping it molten. On the other hand, the far side of the moon would have cooled, albeit slowly.

The difference in temperature between the moon's halves influenced the formation of its crust. The lunar crust possesses high concentrations of aluminum and calcium, elements that are very hard to vaporize.

"When rock vapor starts to cool, the very first elements that snow out are aluminum and calcium," study co-author Steinn Sigurdsson of Penn State said in a statement.

Aluminum and calcium would have more easily condensed in the atmosphere on the colder far side of the moon. Eventually, these elements combined with silicates in the mantle of the moon to form minerals known as plagioclase feldspars, making the crust of the far side about twice as thick as that of the near side.

"Earthshine, the heat of Earth soon after the giant impact, was a really important factor shaping the moon," Roy said.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 15, 2014

Arctic warming linked to fewer European and US cold weather extremes, new study shows

Climate change is unlikely to lead to more days of extreme cold, similar to those that gripped the USA in a deep freeze last winter, new research has shown.

The Arctic amplification phenomenon refers to the faster rate of warming in the Arctic compared to places further south. It is this phenomenon that has been linked to a spike in the number of severe cold spells experienced in recent years over Europe and North America.

However, new research by University of Exeter expert Dr James Screen has shown that Arctic amplification has actually reduced the risk of cold extremes across large swathes of the Northern Hemisphere.

The intriguing new study, published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, questions growing fears that parts of Europe and North America will experience a greater number, or more severe, extreme cold days over the course of the next century.

Dr Screen, a Mathematics Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, said: "Autumn and winter days are becoming warmer on average, and less variable from day-to-day. Both factors reduce the chance of extremely cold days."

The idea that there was a link between Arctic amplification and extreme weather conditions became prevalent during the severe winter weather that plagued large areas of the United States in January 2014, leading to major transport disruption, power cuts and crop damage.

In his study, Dr Screen examined detailed climate records to show that autumn and winter temperature variability has significantly decreased over the mid-to-high latitude Northern Hemisphere in recent decades.

He found that this has occurred mainly because northerly winds and associated cold days are warming more rapidly than southerly winds and warm days.

Dr Screen said: "Cold days tend to occur when the wind is blowing from the north, bringing Arctic air south into the mid-latitudes. Because the Arctic air is warming so rapidly these cold days are now less cold than they were in the past."

Read more at Science Daily

Plate tectonics: Studies show movements of continents speeding up after slow 'middle age'

Two studies show that the movement rate of plates carrying Earth's crust may not be constant over time. This could provide a new explanation for the patterns observed in the speed of evolution and has implications for the interpretation of climate models. The work is presented today at Goldschmidt 2014, the premier geochemistry conference taking place in Sacramento, California, USA.

Earth's continental crust can be thought of as an archive of Earth's history, containing information on rock formation, the atmosphere and the fossil record. However, it is not clear when and how regularly crust formed since the beginning of Earth history, 4.5 billion years ago.

Researchers led by Professor Peter Cawood, from the University of St. Andrews, UK, examined several measures of continental movement and geologic processes from a number of previous studies. They found that, from 1.7 to 0.75 billion years ago (termed Earth's middle age), Earth appears to have been very stable in terms of its environment, with little in the way of crust building activity, no major fluctuations in atmospheric composition and few major developments seen in the fossil record. This contrasts markedly with the time periods either side of this, which contained major ice ages and changes in oxygen levels. Earth's middle age also coincides with the formation of a supercontinent called Rodinia, which appears to have been stable throughout this time.

Professor Cawood suggests this stability may have been due to the gradual cooling of Earth's crust over time. "Before 1.7 billion years ago, the Earth's crust would have been substantially hotter, meaning that continental plate movement may have been governed by different rules to those that operate today," said Professor Cawood. "0.75 billion years ago, the crust reached a point where it had cooled sufficiently to allow modern day plate tectonics to start working, in particular allowing subduction zones to form (where one plate of the crust moves under another). This increase in activity could have kick-started a myriad of changes including the break-up of Rodinia and changes to levels of key elements in the atmosphere and seas, which in turn may have induced evolutionary changes in the life forms present."

This view is backed up by work from Professor Kent Condie from New Mexico Tech, USA, which suggests the movement rate of Earth's crust is not constant but may be speeding up over time. Professor Condie examined how supercontinents assemble and break up. "Our results challenge the view that the rate of plate movement is stable over time," said Professor Condie. "The interpretation of data from many other disciplines such as stable isotope geochemistry, palaeontology and paleoclimatology in part rely on the assumption that the movement rate of the Earth's crust is constant."

Read more at Science Daily