Nov 15, 2014

More Than 300 Spiders Pretend to Be Ants

Tarantulas and black widows may cause human Miss Muffets to get off their tuffets, but several studies show that many spiders themselves run for their lives if they encounter Myrmarachne melanotarsa, a gregarious jumping spider that pretends to be an ant.

The jumping spider is not the only faux ant. A new Phys Org report notes that there are more than 300 species of spider that mimic the outward appearance of ants.

The jumping spider looks like, acts like, and hangs out with ants, even forming mini, colony-type gangs to foil their own predators.

Most spiders are afraid of ants, and they even fear these fake ants that are really spiders.

“Ants are very dangerous to arthropods,” Ximena Nelson, of the University of Canterbury, told Discovery News. Nelson is one of the world’s leading experts on myrmecomorphy, or resembling an ant.

Nelson said ants “are social and can mount a strong response if alerted to potential danger, and they have strong mandibles and are extremely lethal to many spiders. Many ants also contain formic acid, which they can use for defense by squirting it on potential predators, causing considerable harm.”

Spiders that make the mistake of putting an ant in their mouths, she added, often spit them out immediately, suggesting that “ants don’t taste good either.”

What’s an ant-loathing spider to do, then, to avoid being bullied? Mimicry comes into play, because it’s a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Many animals impersonate other species temporarily. Some birds, for example, copy avian songs that aren’t their own. Cats sometimes chatter like birds, presumably to fool their potential prey. Even hunters sometimes don camouflage clothing to disguise themselves.

Evolving a permanent new body to facilitate mimicry, however, takes deception to a whole new level.

Nelson believes the ant-resembling jumping spider evolved its ant-like ways over a long period of evolution “in which each morph that resembled ants more was selected for and morphs that did not resemble ants were selected against.”

The deception works better if the fake ant behaves like an actual ant too, so natural selection appears to have also selected for spiders within this species that act like ants. The end result is a spider that is the spitting image of an ant.

Read more at Discovery News

'Ice Tsunami' Smashes Houses: Why?

A viral video clip from last winter is making the rounds again, and with good reason. The clip shows a sheet of ice creepily moving across a yard and then taking aim at -- and smashing into -- a house. So what's going on here?

Strong winds blowing off Lake Mille Lacs in Onamia, Minn., pushed the ice -- in some places 3 feet thick -- in a wave that destroyed more than a dozen two-story homes.

"It basically has the same mechanism of an iceberg," Todd Borek, a CNN meteorologist, told the network. "Winds, but more so ocean currents, allow icebergs to drift. Same premise: A chunk of ice (relatively shallow) was pushed by a strong, sustained wind. The momentum of the ice sheet overcame the friction of the land."

Around the same time in Manitoba, Canada, a 9-foot-tall wall of ice destroyed half a dozen cabins and cottages.

"You know you've got cement, concrete blocks, and steel and the ice goes through it like its just a toothpick," Manitoba resident Dennis Stykalo told CBC News. "It just shows the power. There is nothing you can do, you just get out of the way and just watch."

From Discovery News

Nov 14, 2014

Butterfly Uses Eyespots to Deflect Attacks

A species of butterfly uses its eyepsots to perfect the art of "made you miss!" when trying to save the best of itself from predators, underpinning what a research team calls the first experimental evidence that colors and patterns can be used by an animal to trick its most likely predators into attacking its non-essential parts instead of its more vulnerable areas.

In a new study, a team of researchers from Oregon State University, Yale University and four other institutions says it has documented such behavior by observing a species of butterfly called Bycyclus anyana and its distinctive wing shapes, or eyespots.

"Eyespots are conspicuous, they draw your attention and are thought to be used by many animal species to avoid death or attack, by either startling or confusing the predator," explained Katy Prudic, the study's lead author, in a release. "Many insects have eyespots, which suggests they are an important adaptation," the researcher from Oregon State University added.

Bycyclus anyana cranks out five generations a year across both wet and dry seasons. It has a neat genetic trick up its sleeve: It can make two different eyespot patterns from the same genes. This handy feature allows it to use different looks for the wet and dry seasons, when different predators will need to be fooled by different patterns.

In the wet season, the resourceful butterfly creates big, bright eyespots -- the better to fool typical predators of the moment, such as praying mantids, into attacking the bright spots on the wings instead of the head or body.

This comes at a gruesome cost, of course. The butterfly's wings are likely to be badly damaged in an attack, but the made-you-miss trick at least gives it a chance to escape and live to procreate another day.

In the dry season, meanwhile, the butterfly sports small, dull eyespots (see photo above). Most insect predators are dead at this time, but birds are still a threat. The butterfly's drab appearance can help it avoid becoming a meal, because birds have a harder time detecting it.

"Having the right type of eyespot in the right season allowed the butterflies to live long enough to lay eggs and have more offspring in the next generation," said Prudic. "With the wrong eyespot at the wrong time, they were quickly annihilated by the mantids."

The idea of colors, patterns and eyespots being used for protection against predators isn't new to science. But such changes have been difficult to observe and document in a controlled fashion, the researchers say. Their findings have just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

From Discovery News

140-Million-Year-Old Dino Tooth Found in Malaysia

A dinosaur tooth found in Malaysia is at least 140 million years old and belongs to a new species within the "bird-hipped" Ornithischian order, researchers said Thursday.

While still unsure of the exact species of dinosaur, lead researcher Masatoshi Sone from the University of Malaya said the discovery means "it is plausible that large dinosaur fossil deposits still remain in Malaysia".

"We started the programme to look for dinosaur fossils two years ago. We are very excited to have found the tooth of the dinosaurian order called Ornithischian in central Pahang state" last year, he said.

Researchers from Japan's Waseda University and Kumamoto University also took part in the project.

Ornithischian, or "bird-hipped", is a major group comprised of herbivous dinosaurs such as triceratops.

The dinosaur would have been about as big as a horse, Sone said.

The darkened tooth fossil -- 13-mm-long (0.5-inches) and 10.5-mm-wide -- was discovered in a sedimentary rock formation by a team of Malaysian and Japanese palaeontologists.

It was found close to where the first Malaysian dinosaur fossil, estimated to be at least 75 million years old, was discovered in 2012.

That fossil was found to belong to a fish-eating predator belonging to the family of dinosaur known as Spinosaurid, believed to be semi-aquatic.

The exact location of the discoveries is being kept secret in order to preserve it.

From Discovery News

Extreme Storms Erupt on Uranus, Baffling Astronomers

Uranus is finally having some summer storms, seven years after the planet reached its closest approach to the sun, leaving scientists wondering why the massive storms are so late.

The usually quiet gas giant now has such "incredibly active" weather that some of the features are even visible to amateurs, said Imke de Pater, the project's lead researcher and an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley. Astronomers first announced the extreme storms on Uranus in August, and have been trying to understand them ever since.

This is by far the most active weather de Pater's team has seen on Uranus in the past decade, examining its storms and northern convective features. It also paints a different picture of the quiet planet Voyager 2 saw when the NASA spacecraft flew by in 1986.

"This type of activity would have been expected in 2007, when Uranus' once-every-42-year equinox occurred and the sun shined directly on the equator," research co-investigator Heidi Hammel, of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, said in a statement. "But we predicted that such activity would have died down by now. Why we see these incredible storms now is beyond anybody's guess."

But here's where the mystery comes in: As far as anyone can tell, Uranus has no source of internal heat. Sunlight is thought to be responsible for changes in its atmosphere, such as storms. But the sun's light is currently weak in Uranus' northern hemisphere, so scientists are puzzled as to why that area is so active today.

De Pater's team tracked eight large storms in Uranus' northern hemisphere when observing the planet with the Keck II telescope between Aug. 5 and 6. One storm stood out from the rest: Shining in 2.2 microns, a wavelength sensitive to clouds in the tropopause (just below the stratosphere), it made up 30 percent of all of the light reflected from Uranus.

Another storm, visible at 1.6 microns, could even be seen by amateur astronomers. One observer, Marc Delcroix from France, photographed it with his 1-meter telescope.

"I was thrilled to see such activity on Uranus," Delcroix said in a Keck Observatory statement. "Getting details on Mars, Jupiter or Saturn is now routine. But seeing details on Uranus and Neptune are the new frontiers for us amateurs, and I did not want to miss that."

Based on the colors and structure of the storm spotted by amateurs, professional astronomers believe it could hint at a vortex deeper in the atmosphere — similar to phenomena spotted on Jupiter, such as the Great Red Spot.

Read more at Discovery News

The Nightmarish Shark That Lures Victims With Its Effed Up Teeth

Don’t confuse that for a smile. This shark is dead, and that’s nothing to smile about.
Not unlike Garth Brooks concerts and Applebee’s, the deep sea is one of those places you don’t need to visit to know that it sucks. Down in the depths, mates are hard to find, thus the male anglerfish bites onto a female and fuses to her body, living the rest of his bummer of a life as a gonad. In the blackness seeing is next to impossible, even with the huge eyes of, say, the giant squid. And you really never know when you’ll get your next meal, so you’d do well to have an outsized mouth to take on whatever comes your way.

It also doesn’t hurt to have row after row of backward-facing, needle-like teeth—hundreds and hundreds of them, each forked into three nasty prongs. Such is the grotesque mouth of the frilled shark, surely one of the more bizarre sharks in the sea. And it’s a mouth that biologist David A. Ebert, director of the Pacific Shark Research Center, knows all too well to respect.

“I can tell you from snagging my fingers on the teeth, you can only back out one way and that’s in toward the mouth and then out,” he said. “It didn’t feel good, I can tell you that.”

Now, science has known about the frilled shark since the 19th century, but it was Ebert who first described a second species in 2009, some 20 years after he discovered it off the coast of southern Africa. (“It happens a lot of the time,” he said nonchalantly of the delay. “You get stuck trying to go through the publishing process.”) At 3 feet long, it was about half the length of the previously known species, but no less well equipped with nasty teeth.

“Alright, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my closeup.
Perfect, Ebert says, for not only snagging squid, but luring them. In contrast to the shark’s dark brown or grayish skin, “the bright teeth might serve as almost a lure to bring in prey items that see this light color,” he said. “And by the time they realize, Oh, that’s the teeth of a shark, they’re too close and the shark is able to ambush them at that point.”

“It’s almost like when you drive out of a parking lot exit and they have the spikes sticking out that say, ‘Do not back up,’” he added. “That’s kind of what happens when these things catch prey items.”

As if that weren’t enough, there are extra spines that line the mouth, what are known as dermal denticles. These are scales that have been modified into pseudo-teeth—and in fact all shark teeth are scales. Incredibly, over the course of their evolution, sharks have turned scales into all manner of wonderful chompers, from the 6-inch teeth of megalodon to the frilled shark’s pronged pearly whites to the fused picket-fence-like grill of the cookiecutter shark that took a chunk out of a dude I once had the honor of interviewing.

The dermal denticles, essentially an extra set of teeth along the lips.
You may have also noticed that the shape of the frilled shark’s mouth is a bit peculiar, more like a snake’s than a shark’s. This is no accident. It’s likely an adaptation that allows the shark to gape far wider than a shark with a typical mouth orientation. (It’s worth noting that the frilled shark’s deep-sea cousin, the goblin shark, has its own lovely oral adaptation: jaws that fire so far forward they look like they’re trying to escape from its face.)

Because it has that incredible maw, the frilled shark can take prey up to half the length of its own body, including other sharks (that’s like you swallowing a person half your height, if you were looking for an analogy). Again, the better adapted you are to tackle prey of all sizes in a desolate environment, the better equipped you are to survive. “It’s kind of a contrast from, say, the white sharks, which sometimes bite and spit things out,” Ebert said. “But where they’re hunting they probably have a better chance of coming across something again.” White sharks will return to spots where the hunting is good, and while frilled sharks may do the same, there’s no doubting that their stomping grounds are far less productive than a reef ecosystem.

The frilled shark is so named for its fluffy red gills, which may help it thrive in oxygen-deprived environments. In the depths, you see, sometimes there’s enough oxygen, on account of good currents and the fact cold water more readily absorbs the gas than warm, but there often are zones where blooms of bacteria consume all the oxygen. Ebert cautions, though, that there isn’t enough data on frilled sharks to confirm that their frilly gills are an adaptation to cope with low oxygen levels.

Also a bit of a mystery is the shark’s life cycle. Critters in the deep tend to grow slowly to conserve energy because of the relative lack of food. And the frilled shark is no exception. It’s viviparous, meaning its young develop inside the mother, and according to Ebert, this can take an incredible two years (a colleague of his estimates it could be as long as three and a half years), making their gestation among the longest in the animal kingdom—the elephant’s also clocks in at about two years.

A frilled shark that goes by the name H0-34, sometimes mispronounced HO-34.
This prolonged pregnancy is an excellent strategy—if you look past the two years of weird cravings for pickles and the back pain—because the highly developed babies, as many as a dozen of them, are better suited to take on their world. “So they have larger young that are able to fend for themselves when they’re born,” said Ebert. “A lot of the bony fishes, things like salmon and stuff, they put out millions of eggs, and maybe two out of a million will survive. Whereas with the sharks and rays, they’re looking at having a much higher percentage survive.” Still, there’s an advantage in the spray-and-pray method: You can do it often, and it takes nowhere near the energy of viviparity.

Read more at Wired Science

Nov 13, 2014

Ice Age Infant Skeletons Offer Clues to Burial Rites

The fragile skeletons of two infants, discovered beneath the cremated remains of a 3-year-old child, may help researchers understand death rituals practiced during the last ice age in North America, a new study finds.

The children's remains, which date back to 11,500 years ago, were found in a hearth at Upward Sun River, an archaeological site in central Alaska. Researchers uncovered the cremated skeleton of the 3-year-old child in 2010, and returned to the site in 2013, digging deeper to see what else lay within the prehistoric hearth.

About 15.7 inches (40 centimeters) beneath the first cremated child, they found the double burial.

"When we got to the bottom [of the hearth], we identified a carpet of red ochre. That clearly set it out," said Ben Potter, an associate professor and chairman of anthropology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. "Then, we encountered the human remains and the grave goods at the very bottom. That was very unexpected and amazing."

The team immediately stopped the excavation, and contacted local and regional native groups and state officials, asking for permission to study the remains of the tiny infants.

"They were treating the human remains with respect, and that's really what you need to do," said Roy Carlson, professor emeritus of archaeology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, who was not involved in the study.

The skeletal remains of the two infants, found with their legs bent toward their chests, are a "remarkable and unusual" find, Carlson said. An analysis of the infants' teeth and bones suggests that one was likely a late-term fetus, and the other was about five weeks old, making them the youngest known individuals from the late Pleistocene epoch to receive burial treatment, the researchers wrote in the study.

The grave also holds a prehistoric hunting tool kit. The team found several stone-made bifaces, dart or spear points, and antler foreshafts decorated with geometric incisions next to the infants. Other ice-age findings have suggested that early hunters may have used stone weapons and foreshafts together, but the new finding is the first to provide concrete evidence that they were used in tandem.

"They were placed in the position that we could infer that they were attached," Potter told Live Science. "Imagine if you are a hunter on the landscape. You wouldn't want to carry a large amount of heavy spears or dart shafts with you. You would just have one or two , but you would have many points in case you break one."

The burial placement of the hunting tools suggests that terrestrial hunting, as opposed to fishing rods or other hunting weapons, were of utmost importance to the ice-age people, Potter said.

The relationship between the two infants, likely girls, remains a mystery. It's possible that the girls are twins, Potter said, but a DNA test would be needed to verify the idea.

It's unlikely that a highly mobile foraging society would have two deaths from different mothers at exactly the same time, he said. If they were twins, it might explain why the girls are buried together, he said.

"One could have died in utero, and then that enhances the potential for an early death for the surviving child," Potter said.

The soil at the burial site isn't that disturbed, so the infants may have been buried at the same time, the researchers said. Or, they could have died within a season or two of each other, which could indicate that they are not twins, Potter said.

Either way, researchers are looking forward to the results of the genetic tests. And regardless of whether the infants were twins, the people who buried the children clearly gave them deferential treatment.

"You have grave goods, ochre, burial in a highly flexed orientation, and the grave goods are quite amazing," Potter said. "For the upper [3-year-old] child, you do not have grave goods, you do not have ochre and the child is cremated. So this is quite interesting."

Read more at Discovery News

5,000-Year-Old Footprints Found in Denmark

Archaeologists have discovered 5,000-year-old footprints in southern Denmark that reveal how Stone Age people made strenuous attempts to cope with the destructive forces of the sea.

The prints were found during work for the Femern Belt link scheme, an immersed tunnel that will connect the German island of Fehmarn with the Danish island of Lolland.

For thousands of years, this area, rich in fjords and streams, has been under the constant influence of the sea.

Finds of fixed gillnets on stakes, dated to 5,000 years ago, are clear evidence of a fishing system which was used to feed a Stone Age community.

Indeed, the footprints were found alongside this system of fishing weirs.

“These prints show the population attempted to save parts of their fishing system before it was flooded and covered in sand,” Anne-Lotte Sjørup Mathiesen of the Museum Lolland-Falster, said.

The footprints suggest that at least two people stepped out into the swampy seabed to save whatever they could. Subsequently, they set up the fixed gillnet on stakes some distance away.

“Their footprints were covered with a layer of sand and dirt shortly after, and have been there since,” Sjørup Mathiesen told Discovery News.

She added the prints correspond to foot size 36 (size 5.5 US women's) and 42 (size US 9 men's).

“One print is very small compared to the other. At the moment we can’t tell whether it belonged to a boy or a woman,” Sjørup Mathiesen said.

The findings promise to provide new insight into the population’s everyday life and challenges.

“Here we have direct imprints from ancient people’s activities, which can be associated with a concrete event – a storm destroying the fixed gillnet on stakes. In order to secure the survival of the population, the fishing system had to be repaired,” Sjørup Mathiesen said.

Read more at Discovery News

Bilingual People Are Like Brain 'Bodybuilders'

People who speak two languages may have brains that are more efficient at language processing and other tasks, new research suggests.

Scientists have long assumed that the "bilingualism advantage" — the enhanced ability to filter out important information among nonimportant material — stems from how bilingual people process language. The new study confirms that assumption, and goes on to suggest that bilingual people are more efficient at higher-level brain functions such as ignoring other irrelevant information, said Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, who was not involved in the research.

In the study, brain scans showed that people who spoke only one language had to work harder to focus on a single word, according to the study published today (Nov. 12) in the journal Brain and Language.

People who are bilingual are constantly activating both languages in their brain, choosing which to use and which to ignore, said study leader Viorica Marian, a linguistic psychologist at Northwestern University.

Compared with people who speak only a single tongue, "bilinguals are much better at ignoring irrelevant words," Marian told Live Science.

Brain bodybuilders

In previous studies of people's eye movements, Marian and her colleagues found that when bilingual people heard a word in one language, they often looked at objects whose names sounded similar to that word in their second language. In the new study, the researchers looked at how the ability to filter information manifests itself in the brain.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 35 people from the University of Houston, including 17 who were fluent in both Spanish and English and 18 who spoke only English.

During the experiment, volunteers heard the name of an object and simultaneously were shown a picture of that object, as well as an object with a similar-sounding name, and two unrelated objects. For example, they might hear the word "cloud," and see pictures of a cloud, a clown and two other things. As fast as they could, the volunteers had to pick the picture that showed the word they heard.

Bilingual people were no faster at performing the task than monolinguals. However, their brain activity was markedly different, the scans revealed.

The brains of people who spoke only one language lit up much more than those of their bilingual counterparts in regions of the brain involved in controlling higher-level functions, including suppressing competing word meanings. In other words, monolinguals' brains had to work much harder to perform the task, the researchers said.

The researchers compared the task with weightlifting at a gym. "The bilingual has to lift more weight than the monolingual, because bilinguals experience competition within and between both their languages while listening to speech," the researchers told Live Science, in an email signed by all of them. "But the bilingual is also stronger, because they've been mentally 'working out' like this for their whole life."

Bilingual benefits

Other scientists praised the study for its approach to studying the brain activity of bilingual people.

"This study fills in one of the important missing pieces in our understanding of how bilingualism leads to cognitive benefits," Bialystok said.

Most of the previous research on the benefits of bilingualism has focused solely on behavior, which has drawn criticism from some scientists.

"There is actually a big discussion about whether the bilingual advantage exists or not," said Dr. Jubin Abutalebi, a cognitive neurologist at the University San Raffaele, in Milan, Italy.

The new study added to the field by showing that the task of filtering information activates different brain areas in bilinguals versus monolinguals, Abutalebi told Live Science.

Read more at Discovery News

Here's How a Bird Imitates a Laser Gun Perfectly

A viral video making the rounds shows a lyrebird mimicking a laser gun with incredible accuracy. So how is this possible? The video demonstrates the prevalence of mimicry in nature, where looks — and, in this case, sounds — can be deceiving.

Lyrebirds, which are large songbirds native to Australia, are so good at copying sounds that they can even fool the animals that originated the vocalizations or other noises.

For example, lyrebirds imitate the complex songs of grey shrike-thrushes. Researcher Anastasia Dalziell of James Cook University and colleague Robert Magrath recorded the lyrebird’s versions of the songs and played them back to the birds being imitated.

“Mimicry was so accurate that even the imitated species rarely picked copies,” the researchers wrote in the study, which was published in the journal Animal Behavior. The scientists added that “despite copy accuracy, lyrebirds abridged songs by reducing repetition of notes.”

When a lyrebird lets out a call, it can consist of everything from baby cry sounds to camera shutter noises to motorcycles revving up and much more.

How then does the bird achieve such vocal feats, and why are the sounds so short and, well, eccentric?

All sounds consist of vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach the ear of a person or other animal. With the right equipment, any sound can theoretically be copied.

Dalziell explained to ABC Science that nearly all songbirds possess a vocal organ called the syrinx located at the base of the trachea. Because it’s positioned where the trachea forks into the bronchii that lead to the lungs, birds can produce more than one sound at the same time. There’s a sound coming from each of the two bronchii, giving vocalizations a stereo effect.

The syrinx of the lyrebird is unique in that it has fewer muscles, Dalziell said, making it extremely flexible. So it can produce a seemingly unlimited variety of vibrations  – and sounds.

Now the question is, why in the world would a bird want to sound like a laser gun, a cat fighting or other sounds that would appear to have little connection to its avian life?

The answer is sex.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 12, 2014

Skeleton Emerges From Mysterious Greek Tomb

A skeleton has emerged from the Alexander the Great-era tomb in Amphipolis in northern Greece, according to a news announcement by the Greek Ministry of Culture on Wednesday.

At least one archaeologist has suggested that the remains, if male, could belong to Hephaestion, a close friend and possible lover of Alexander the Great -- or someone like him.

Archaeologists led by Katerina Peristeri found the human remains in a box-shaped grave. The 10.6 by 5.1-foot limestone burial was found at about 5.3 feet beneath the floor of the third chamber in the massive tomb site.

Within the limestone grave, the archaeologists unearthed the remains of a wooden coffin, along with iron and copper nails, bone and glass fragments — most likely decorative elements of the coffin.

“Parts of the skeleton were found scattered within and outside of the grave. Obviously, an anthropological investigation will be carried on the remains,” the Greek ministry of culture said in a statement.

According to Dorothy King, a classical archaeologist not involved in the excavation, the fact that the bones were found in and out of the sarcophagus, suggests the tomb was looted.

However, she noted the finding points to the deceased being someone uniquely important.

“A burial like this in a sarcophagus, a whole body rather than a box with ashes, is unusual in Macedonia,” King told Discovery News.

According to the scholar, most people who died abroad were buried in foreign land and only very important people like Alexander and Hephaestion, Alexander the Great’s close friend and possible lover, were embalmed to be returned.

“I think that if the bones are male, they are most likely to be those of someone like Hephaestion,” King wrote in her blog.

“The remains show that the sarcophagus was very elaborate and made of precious materials, as the sources say his funerary cortege was,” she added.

Hephaestion was a Macedonian nobleman and a battlefield general in the army of Alexander and was Alexander’s closest friend since childhood. The two were tutored under Aristotle.

Although more than one historian has suggested that the handsome Hephaestion had a physical relationship with his emperor, no contemporary source states that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers.

Yet, according to Guy MacLean Rogers, professor of history at Wellesley College and the author of "Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness," modern sexual categories like homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual did not exist at the time.

Read more at Discovery News

Experts Debunk Claim Jesus Was a Husband and Father

Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered two children with her, according to a new book based on an ancient manuscript.

Due to be released on Wednesday, the book, “The Lost Gospel,” also claims Jesus survived an assassination attempt at age 20 and was connected to powerful political figures in the Roman Empire.

Hailed as a bombshell, the claim by Simcha Jacobovici, an Israeli-Canadian writer and film-maker, and Barrie Wilson, a religious studies professor at York University in Toronto, follows the well-beaten path of The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ, portraying Jesus as the husband of Mary Magdalene.

“What the Vatican feared — and what Dan Brown only suspected — has come true,” begins the book. “There is now written evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had children together,” it states.

The evidence, according to the authors, lies in a manuscript that was “gathering dust in the British Library.”

Written on treated animal skin in Syriac, a Middle Eastern literary language related to Aramaic, the text is known in its English translation as “The Ecclesiastical History of Zacharias Rhetor.” It was purchased by the British Museum in 1847 from an Egyptian monastery and moved 20 years ago to the British Library.

According to Wilson and Jacobovici, the 29-chapter-long manuscript is no less than a sixth century copy of an unknown first-century gospel.

Picking up where Matthew, Mark, Luke and John leave off, this missing fifth gospel would tell how Jesus “became engaged, got married, had sexual relations, and produced children,” the authors wrote.

“Before anyone gets his/her theological back up, keep in mind that we are not attacking anyone’s theology. We are reporting on text,” they added.

The problem is that the text, far from being a forgotten manuscript covered in dust, does not even mention Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

“It’s a well-known ancient text, often called Joseph and Aseneth. Most scholars consider it a Jewish story, although it was possibly edited or even composed by Christians,” Greg Carey, a professor of the New Testament at the Lancaster Theological Seminary, told Discovery News.

He noted that several translations have long been available to scholars.

“One of my friends even recalls translating the text in an intermediate Greek course for undergraduates. In other words, I don’t know whether the actual manuscript in question is new, but the contents of the text are widely known,” Carey said.

Indeed, Mark Goodacre, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke University, created a Joseph and Aseneth website already in 1999.

“Joseph and Aseneth has been widely known to scholars for a long time. The British library document is a Syriac translation of the Greek text — explicitly stated to be such. And the text has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus and Mary Magdalene,” Goodacre told Discovery News.

On their side, Wilson and Jacobovici interpreted the tale of the Old Testament character Joseph and his Egyptian wife Aseneth as an encoded account of Jesus’ relationship to Mary Magdalene.

The key would be a newly translated passage which tells of the couple’s marriage ceremony. It was celebrated by the Pharaoh of Egypt himself who said to Aseneth: “Blessed are you by the Lord God of Joseph, because he is the first-born of God, and you will be called the Daughter of God Most High and the bride of Joseph now and for ever.”

The text later reveals that “Joseph had intercourse with Aseneth … And Aseneth conceived from Joseph and gave birth to Manasseh and his brother Ephraim in Joseph’s house.”

Thus, the claim goes, the manuscript provides the first evidence for Jesus being a husband and father.

“I’m glad to hear that Jesus’s name was really Joseph, as I always wondered about that,” Robert Eisenman, author of “James the Brother of Jesus” and “The New Testament Code,” told Discovery News.

“Anyhow, Joseph and Asaneth is just what it says it is, an apocryphal book about Joseph’s relation with the Egyptian priest of On’s daughter Asaneth in the Old Testament. It has no hidden meaning or esoteric interpretations,” he added.

It’s not the first time Jacobovici has made controversial claims. Among his most debated findings are the discovery of the nails that crucified Jesus and the identification of the Tomb of Jesus and his family in the Talpiot suburb of Jerusalem.

“Jacobovici has made some pretty outlandish claims in his time, but this latest one may just be the most incredible,” Goodacre said.

The idea that Jesus may have been married has been widely proposed. Last year Harvard Professor Karen L. King unveiled the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a business card-sized papyrus written in Coptic and containing text that refers to Jesus being married. Carbon dating indicate the papyrus dates to approximately the eighth century.

“We have no evidence for Jesus being married or fathering children. That is not to rule out the possibility. However, the gospels provide the strong impression that Jesus was celibate and encouraged his followers to lead celibate lives as well, and we have no reason to believe otherwise,” Carey said.

Read more at Discovery News

World's Oldest People Are Genetically Superior

Researchers have just sequenced the genomes of 17 “supercentarians” -- people over 110 years of age -- and conclude that these long-lived individuals likely have genes that promote longevity, but the fountain of youth component remains elusive so far.

The good news, or bad, depending on how you look at it, is that lifestyle choices don’t seem to matter much for those hoping to reach such advanced ages, according to the study, which is published in the latest issue of PLOS ONE.

“Lifestyle choices in terms of smoking, alcohol consumption, exercise, or diet do not appear to differ between centenarians and controls,” wrote Hinco Gierman and colleagues. “Controls” in this case refers to younger people who served as comparisons.

That aspect isn’t too surprising, given all of the interviews with people aged 100+ who say they still enjoy a glass of wine, a cigar or other indulgence, although most indicate that they do such things in moderation.

Gierman, of the Stanford University Departments of Developmental Biology and Genetics, and his team limited the majority of their analysis to 13 genomes from Caucasian females, just to avoid other major differences that might exist between various genomes.

The researchers suspect that super old people may be “enriched for a rare protein-altering variant” or variants that confer extreme longevity.

A possibility for the fountain-of-youth source is a gene called TSHZ3.

“From our gene-based analysis, the gene showing the most enrichment for protein-altering variants in supercentenarians compared to controls was the TSHZ3 transcription-factor gene,” the researchers wrote.

“Because it was the top hit,” they added, “we pursued this gene further in a study consisting of 99 genomes from subjects aged 98–105 years old. We found that TSHZ3 carried protein-altering variants in more of the long-lived subjects than the controls.”

The effect wasn’t incredibly strong, though. Instead, the researchers now suspect that multiple genes somehow come into play.

An interesting finding is that one of the supercentarians had a disease-associated genetic variant associated with a terrible heart condition. Some people with this pathogenic allele keel over from sudden cardiac death. Clearly that didn’t happen to this woman, who reached a ripe old age.

Cancer risk also seems to be lessened for supercentarians. The researchers report that there is a 19 percent lifetime incidence of cancer in the world’s oldest people compared to 49 percent in normal population.

The scientists have made their new data available on Google Genomics, so anyone researching longevity can have a go at finding the key, or keys, to a long life.

They concluded, “Supercentarians are extremely rare and their genomes could hold secrets for the genetic basis of extreme longevity.”

From Discovery News

Rosetta's Lander Grabs Onto Comet and Lands

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission has succeeded in landing its tiny Philae probe on the surface of a comet. This is the first time in history that a soft landing on a comet has been attempted and, at 17:03 CET (11:03 a.m. EDT), Rosetta mission control at ESA’s Space Operation Center in Darmstadt, Germany, said that they had received a signal from the lander confirming touchdown.

Rosetta Flight Director Andrea Accomazzo was the first to announce the news: "We see the lander sitting on the road. We've definitely confirmed that the lander is on the surface."

"Touchdown! My new address: 67P!" said the official Philae Twitter feed.

Although a landing was achieved there is growing concern for the harpoon system that was supposed to fire, holding Philae in place. It appears this anchoring system did not operate as planned meaning the lander may not be fully stable on the comet's surface. Mission managers are now deciding whether or not to attempt re-firing the anchoring system.

Landing came after Philae successfully detached from the Rosetta satellite 7 hours earlier and began its descent to the icy surface. Images beamed back from Rosetta showed a lander, with lander feet and instruments deployed, indicating that the robot was in good health as it dropped toward Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

NEWS: First-Time Comet Landing No Sure Bet

"You have all heard that Philae has landed and ... this is a big step for human civilization. Because this is science, knowledge," said Director General of ESA, Jean-Jacques Dordain shortly after landing.

"The problem with success is it looks easy. When you know the sum of expertise, the sum of dedication the sum of teams working ... when you know that you know that this type of success is not coming from the sky -- it comes from hard work and expertise."

"The only way to reconcile risk and success is expertise."

The landing gear is composed of shock-absorbing landing legs and a harpoon system that was triggered as soon at the robot came in contact with the cometary surface, allowing Philae to grapple itself in the extremely low comet gravity.

Critical to mission success is the lander’s ability to hold onto the rock, dust and ice at landing. As there was a real risk of the lander bouncing off the comet, harpoons, landing leg ice screws and thrusters needed to work in concert to ensure Philae stayed in place. Apart from the harpoon system failing, another component of the landing system did not operate -- the cold gas thrusters. These thrusters were designed to push the lander into the cometary surface on landing.

The lander's ice screws have deployed successfully, however, providing some hope for the lander remaining in-situ.

Even though there seems to be some uncertainty about the stability of the lander, science operations will begin immediately. Philae only has a limited battery supply, so all of the lander’s 10 instruments will be feverishly working to squeeze out all the observational data they can. However, Philae comes equipped with solar cells that can recharge its batteries, so mission managers hope that the lander can remain operational for the duration of Rosetta's mission until March 2015.

The first images from Philae on the comet's surface are expected to be released within hours of touchdown.

From Discovery News

Fantastically Wrong: The Scientist Who Seriously Believed Criminals Were Part Ape

Cesare Lombroso, accomplished pseudoscientist.
If you’ve been following this column, you’ve noticed that I while I’m admittedly a tad flippant and snarky, I try to make it clear that in science, being wrong is perfectly OK. Because when someone comes along to prove you incorrect, it’s progress. Edmond Halley hypothesizing that our Earth was hollow, for instance, helped solidify the scientific method as we know it. Even the dazzling cruelty of trying animals for crimes and executing them strangely enough had an upside. You can be wrong and still contribute much to society.

The 19th century professor of criminology Cesare Lombroso was not one of those people. Cesare was a dum-dum.

Lombroso took Darwin’s recently published theory of evolution and added a horrifying twist that would reverberate for decades. You’d be hard-pressed to find an upside to his argument that criminals in fact express the physical qualities of our ancestors, bringing them closer to the dispositions of an ape than a human. Or see what good came from the towering whirlwind of racism that accompanied his hypothesis. Or in profiling people with big earlobes, “as in the ancient Egyptians,” as born criminals.

But you’re welcome to give it a shot.

Around the World in 80 Racial Slurs

Where to begin? Well, first of all, Lombroso’s “revelation.” It was during a post-mortem of a famous brigand that Lombroso discovered a distinct impression at the base of the man’s skull, which he named the median occipital fossa. This was indeed peculiar, similar to the skull of “inferior animals, especially rodents.”

“This was not merely an idea, but a revelation,” Lombroso later wrote. “At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal—an atavistic being who produces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.”

Now, when diagnosing someone as a “born criminal,” we don’t exactly have the option of opening their heads to find this tell-tale giveaway of their savage nature. But we have savages all over the world to help us profile the fiends in our midst. How lucky! (In fairness, it should be noted, to a degree Lombroso was a product of his time—even in On the Origin of Species, Darwin himself invoked the “savagery” language.) Their features, Lombroso argued, are the hard evidence we need to identify their counterpart European delinquents.

Tattoos, according to Lombroso, aligned criminals with savage peoples who also got ink done.
Like the related pseudoscience of physiognomy, which advocated judging your personality based solely on your face (a story for another week, perhaps), criminal anthropology had a long list of qualities to look out for in hooligans. Here are just a few of the giveaways of being apish, which Lombroso’s daughter summarized in 1911’s Criminal Man, the first English translation of her father’s views:

  • “The projection of the lower face and jaws (prognathism) found in negroes.”
  • “Oblique eyelids, a Mongolian characteristic.”
  • A nose with a “tip rising like an isolated peak from the swollen nostrils, a form found among the Akkas, a tribe of pygmies of Central Africa.”
  • Aside from biology, the tattoos criminals adorn themselves further harken to the same practice “among primitive peoples.” And their pictographs scrawled on prison walls are also much like the hieroglyphics used by ancient man.

We might also find characteristics the European criminal shares not just with his fellow savage man, but with beasts:

  • An entirely missing earlobe, or one that “is atrophied till the ear assumes the form like that common to apes.”
  • A hooked nose, which “so often imparts to criminals the aspect of birds of prey.”
  • “And in some cases there is a prolongation of the coccyx, which resembles the stump of a tail, sometimes tufted with hair.” (What, what?)

Indeed, Lombroso thought many animals themselves are criminals, according to Adalbert Albrecht in his 1910 essay “Cesare Lombroso: A Glance at His Life Work.” The bloodshot eyes of the tiger and hyena, for instance, is a sign of their immorality. Birds of prey, in addition to their nasty hooked beaks, have large eye sockets that indicate sexual perversity. Animals in general, he insisted, are exceedingly violent and prone to murder.

Some thieves and, interestingly, an effeminate pyromaniac at lower left known as “The Woman.”
“In view of these facts,” Lombroso wrote, “how can one fail to come to the conclusion that crime in its rudimentary expressions is bound to organic conditions and is one of their direct effects? This is absolutely confirmed when we study crime and prostitution among savages.”

And study he did—at length. While a French psychiatrist named Bénédict Morel already had declared “the criminal to be a form of degeneration or a morbid variation from the normal type of mankind,” Lombroso took those ideas and got a bit … carried away with the whole thing, to the point where “no one can dispute his right to be considered the godfather” of what would become known as criminal anthropology, writes Albrecht.

Smuggling a dagger into prison inside a crucifix is either sacrilegious or genius—or both.
Among the many criminals Lombroso studied, there are a few standouts worth mentioning. Representing the cynicism with which many deviants operate, “one criminal humbly entreated to be allowed to retain his own crucifix while in prison,” Lombroso’s daughter writes. “It was subsequently discovered that the sacred image served as a sheath for his dagger.” Representing impulsiveness was a man who had a habit of killing horses, who “even went to the length of throwing a lady down a well, because she ventured to contradict him.” Still another rather impulsive criminal was sentenced to labor aboard a galley, where he bravely “stole the bands from the masts, nails, and copper plates.” Classy.

Now, the question becomes: What to do with these scoundrels who are fated by their very nature to compulsively commit crimes? One of Lombroso’s colleagues, according to the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, suggested that if “they ravish, steal, and kill, it is by virtue of their own nature and their past, but there is all the more reason for destroying them when it has been proved that they will always remain orang-utans.” Ouch. And Lombroso himself hinted at such. When it comes to criminals “organically fitted for evil,” we should have no compassion, for the fact that they continue their terrors “steels us against all pity.”

Picking on Epileptics, Because Why Not

There is of course the problem of criminals that don’t bear any of the requisite attributes: the small ears, the general hairiness, the long arms. What to make of them?

Well, not every criminal is born with qualities of earlier humans, Lombroso argued. There is the criminal of passion, which women tend to fall into more than men, and the criminal of opportunity, which, oddly, Lombroso ties to epilepsy. “According to him,” writes Albrecht, “epilepsy is not much else than a highly strung normal function of the nerves, so that some epileptics would appear to be merely highly strung impulsive natures.”

Lombroso believed epileptics, with their impulsive actions, were natural criminals.
Also, there’s the habitual criminal without the brain defects of the born criminal. “In consequence of a neglected upbringing, however,” writes Albrecht, “he does not gain the strength to overcome the naturally bad qualities of the child, developing them perhaps till habit makes him a criminal.” Interestingly enough, for all of the horrible predestination-style theories of Lombroso, this actually touches closer to what we now consider to be the driving factors of criminality.

While much debate still rages about what drives people into the life of crime, it seems clear that both genetic and environmental factors are at work. Men, for instance, may be more prone to aggression, but that doesn’t mean all men are like my crazy uncle, who probably spent 90 percent of his waking hours starting fights. On top of socioeconomic status and education, your upbringing, as Lombroso rightly noted, likely also plays a part. But a less-than-ideal upbringing of course doesn’t necessarily turn you into a criminal. My dad, for instance, is a lamb to his brother’s knife-wielding wolf. (I may be understating my uncle’s aggression. This was a man, after all, who once got in a bar fight and ended up with a pickax embedded in his brain.)

Read more at Wired Science

Nov 11, 2014

Farmers, scientists divided over climate change

Crop producers and scientists hold deeply different views on climate change and its possible causes, a study by Purdue and Iowa State universities shows.

Associate professor of natural resource social science Linda Prokopy and fellow researchers surveyed 6,795 people in the agricultural sector in 2011-2012 to determine their beliefs about climate change and whether variation in the climate is triggered by human activities, natural causes or an equal combination of both.

More than 90 percent of the scientists and climatologists surveyed said they believed climate change was occurring, with more than 50 percent attributing climate change primarily to human activities.

In contrast, 66 percent of corn producers surveyed said they believed climate change was occurring, with 8 percent pinpointing human activities as the main cause. A quarter of producers said they believed climate change was caused mostly by natural shifts in the environment, and 31 percent said there was not enough evidence to determine whether climate change was happening or not.

The survey results highlight the division between scientists and farmers over climate change and the challenges in communicating climate data and trends in non-polarizing ways, Prokopy said.

"Whenever climate change gets introduced, the conversation tends to turn political," she said. "Scientists and climatologists are saying climate change is happening, and agricultural commodity groups and farmers are saying they don't believe that. Our research suggests that this disparity in beliefs may cause agricultural stakeholders to respond to climate information very differently."

Climate change presents both potential gains and threats to U.S. agriculture. Warmer temperatures could extend the growing season in northern latitudes, and an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide could improve the water use efficiency of some crops. But increases in weather variability and extreme weather events could lower crop yields.

Growers can manage the potential risks linked to extreme rain events and soil degradation by using adaptive strategies such as planting cover crops, using no-till techniques, increasing the biodiversity of grasses and forage and extending crop rotations, Prokopy said. These strategies contribute to soil health and water quality and also help capture carbon dioxide, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by agricultural systems.

Currently, agriculture accounts for 10-12 percent of the total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Focusing on the causes of climate change, however, is likely to polarize the agricultural community and lead to inaction, said study co-author Lois Wright Morton, professor of sociology at Iowa State University. To foster productive dialogue, she said, scientists and climatologists need to "start from the farmer's perspective."

"Farmers are problem solvers," she said. "A majority of farmers view excess water on their land and variable weather as problems and are willing to adapt their practices to protect their farm operation. Initiating conversations about adaptive management is more effective than talking about the causes of climate change."

The gap in views on climate change is caused in part by how individuals combine scientific facts with their own personal values, Morton said.

"Differences in beliefs are related to a variety of factors, such as personal experiences, cultural and social influences, and perceptions of risk and vulnerability," she said.

Prokopy advises scientists to "recognize that their worldviews may be different than those of farmers. Moderating communication of climate information based on that realization is key."

Read more at Science Daily

Best evidence yet for galactic merger in distant protocluster

Nestled among a triplet of young galaxies more than 12.5 billion light-years away is a cosmic powerhouse: a galaxy that is producing stars nearly 1,000 times faster than our own Milky Way. This energetic starburst galaxy, known as AzTEC-3, together with its gang of calmer galaxies may represent the best evidence yet that large galaxies grow from the merger of smaller ones in the early Universe, a process known as hierarchical merging.

An international team of astronomers observed these remarkable objects with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

"The ALMA data reveal that AzTEC-3 is a very compact, highly disturbed galaxy that is bursting with new stars at close to its theoretically predicted maximum limit and is surrounded by a population of more normal, but also actively star-forming galaxies," said Dominik Riechers, an astronomer and assistant professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and lead author on a paper published today (Nov. 10) in the Astrophysical Journal. "This particular grouping of galaxies represents an important milestone in the evolution of our Universe: the formation of a galaxy cluster and the early assemblage of large, mature galaxies."

In the early Universe, starburst galaxies like AzTEC-3 were forming new stars at a monstrous pace fueled by the enormous quantities of star-forming material they devoured and by merging with other adolescent galaxies. Over billions of years, these mergers continued, eventually producing the large galaxies and clusters of galaxies we see in the Universe today.

Evidence for this hierarchical model of galaxy evolution has been mounting, but these latest ALMA data show a strikingly clear picture of the all-important first steps along this process when the Universe was only 8 percent of its current age.

"One of the primary science goals of ALMA is the detection and detailed study of galaxies throughout cosmic time," said Chris Carilli, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico. "These new observations help us put the pieces together by showing the first steps of a galaxy merger in the early Universe."

AzTEC-3, which is located in the direction of the constellation Sextans, is what astronomers refer to as a submillimeter galaxy, since it shines brightly in that portion of the spectrum, but is remarkably dim at optical and infrared wavelengths. This is due to light from its stars being absorbed by dust in the star-forming environments of the galaxy and then re-emitted by the dust at far-infrared wavelengths. As this light travels across the cosmos, it becomes stretched due to the expansion of the Universe, so by the time it arrives at Earth, the far-infrared light has shifted to the submillimeter/millimeter portion of the spectrum.

ALMA, with its remarkable sensitivity and high resolving power, was able to observe this system at these wavelengths in unprecedented detail. It also was able to study, for the first time, the star-forming gas in three additional, extremely distant members of an emerging galactic protocluster.

The ALMA data revealed that the three smaller, more normal galaxies are indeed producing stars from their gas at a relatively calm and steady pace. Unlike its neighbors, however, AzTEC-3 is burning through star-forming fuel at breakneck speed. Indeed, AzTEC-3 appears to form more new stars each day than our Milky Way galaxy forms in an entire year -- outpacing the normal galaxies in its proximity by about a factor of 100.

The researchers also observed very little rotation in AzTEC-3's dust and gas -- suggesting that something had disrupted its motion. Taken together, these two characteristics are strong indications that AzTEC-3 recently merged with another galaxy.

Read more at Science Daily

Tomorrow, a Spacecraft Will Try to Land on a Comet for the First Time Ever

Tomorrow morning, a 10-year, 4-billion-mile journey will end when a spacecraft attempts to land on a comet for the first time.

The ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on August 6, settling in an orbit around the roughly 20-trillion-pound space rock, which, if you squint, kind of looks like a rubber duck. For the last couple months, Rosetta has been studying the comet, surveying its surface and measuring the dust particles and gases around it. Scientists are finding that 67P, which stretches for about 2.5 miles at its widest, is expelling methane, ethanol, and sulfur, which might give it a rotten-egg-like stench.

Tonight, at 11:35 p.m. PST, Rosetta will release its 220-pound lander craft, dubbed Philae, which will slowly descend from a height of about 13 miles onto the landing site named Agilkia, a relatively flat spot on the duck’s head. You can follow along here (above) as the landing unfolds on live webcast from the ESA’s mission control starting at 11:00 a.m. PST/2:00 p.m. EST today. NASA TV is also providing live coverage starting at 6:00 a.m. PST/9:00 a.m. EST tomorrow.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from 17.8 miles away.
Scientists didn’t know what the comet’s surface would be like until Rosetta got close, so they couldn’t choose a landing site ahead of time. Once the spacecraft arrived, it scoured the comet for potential places to touch down—the first time a spacecraft had to look for its own landing site. In previous missions to Mars, for instance, data from orbiting spacecraft gave scientists the luxury to spend months and years pondering their options. But Rosetta had to find a location in just six weeks.

Rosetta discovered that the comet was more dusty than it was icy. To maximize the chances of a successful landing, scientists modeled how Philae would land on different kinds of soil—some harder, some softer. Still, there’s a lot of uncertainty. The comet is a rugged place, covered with jagged edges and huge boulders. Philae can’t steer, so if there’s a rock in the way, there isn’t much anyone can do. “That’s the part that worries me most,” said Andrea Accomazzo, flight director of the European Space Operations Centre, in an online media briefing last week.

Once Philae is released, it will float freely toward the comet for seven hours before gently dropping onto the surface. If all goes well, mission controllers will receive confirmation of a successful landing at 8:02 a.m. PST/11:02 a.m. EST.

Philae’s landing spot, seen from about 19 miles away.
Once Philae lands on its three spindly legs, it will fire a harpoon straight into the surface, anchoring itself to the comet to prevent it from floating away. Small thrusters will also blast upward from the lander to help it stay grounded. It will then begin its preprogrammed sequence of snapping pictures and taking data. The lander is equipped with 10 instruments, including cameras and a drill, to analyze the comet’s surface and chemical composition. Rosetta will also send radio signals through the comet to probe 67P’s interior structure; Philae will relay those signals back to Rosetta.

The initial automated phase will last about 65 hours, but the lander is expected to continue doing science until March, when the comet gets so close to the sun that the scorching temperatures will damage Philae’s electronics. Dust may also accumulate on its solar panels over time, choking off its power source.

Meanwhile, Rosetta will remain in orbit as the comet swings by the sun, whose solar wind blows the gases and dust that surround the comet into its characteristic tail. No one’s sure how long Rosetta will last in the sun’s heat and the harsh environment of space, but the spacecraft’s designed to continue studying 67P for 17 more months—and likely several months more. Even though Philae’s landing is certainly important, 80 percent of the scientific data from the mission will be from Rosetta, simply because it will spend more time studying the comet, says Fred Jansen, the Rosetta mission manager.

Read more at Wired Science

Beautiful Polar Photos Tell a Haunting Story About Climate Change

When Camille Seaman started photographing icebergs and other arctic wonders, she wasn’t thinking about climate change. She simply found the frozen landscape and white vistas visually stunning.

Still, you can’t help but associate her images with the ongoing conversation about climate change. Seaman, 45, says she too sees her work as directly connected and aptly titled her new book of pictures from the two poles Melting Away.

“Honestly, I was out there because I thought, ‘What an amazing place,'” she says. “I wasn’t thinking this as record of posterity but was lucky in the end to create work that was on the right wave.”

The project started more than a decade ago when Seaman visited Alaska, Svalbard and Antarctica. She was drawn to the rugged, unforgiving country and couldn’t keep herself from photographing all she saw. The views and wildlife made for beautiful, serene photos, of course, but Seaman also felt a connection to her Native American heritage. Her father is of the Shinnecock tribe on Long Island, and she grew up with a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, nature. She saw those icebergs as part of her own world.

“I approached them as my relatives, literally, and not in some poetic way,” she says. “I saw them as part of my lineage, as part of my existence. And I think that kind of approach allowed for emotion to be present in the photos. I saw them as more than chunks of ice.”

The images Seaman made on those first trips gained recognition when he showed them at Review Santa Fe and the Eddie Adams Barnstorm Workshop. Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder was so taken by them that he personally delivered them to David Griffin, who eventually published them in National Geographic.

That led to a stint as the ship photographer aboard the I/B Kapitan Klebnikov, a Russian icebreaker. She would spend five summers in the Arctic and five winters in Antarctica on various tourist and research vessels. Her photographs documented her own experience while also bringing this rapidly changing world closer to people who will never see it with their own eyes.
She stopped traveling to the polar regions in 2011 in part because she didn’t want to contribute to their demise by traveling aboard airplanes and ships burning fossil fuels. Seaman also worried that, although her photos helped spark conversations, they weren’t doing enough to foster true change.

“I stopped going because it felt so futile,” she says. “I felt like no picture I could take would make enough of a difference.”

Seaman hasn’t given up though. Her photos continue appearing in magazines worldwide, illustrating the issue and explaining what might be done to slow the change. She’s also a senior TED fellow; she created The Earth Academy, an online educational resource about sustainable living; and she is a member of the Council on the Uncertain Human Future.

Read more at Wired Science

Nov 10, 2014

Astronomers dissect the aftermath of a supernova

In research published today in the Astrophysical Journal, an Australian led team of astronomers has used radio telescopes in Australia and Chile to see inside the remains of a supernova.

The supernova, known as SN1987A, was first seen by observers in the Southern Hemisphere in 1987 when a giant star suddenly exploded at the edge of a nearby dwarf galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud.

In the two and a half decades since then the remnant of Supernova 1987A has continued to be a focus for researchers the world over, providing a wealth of information about one of the Universe's most extreme events.

PhD Candidate Giovanna Zanardo at The University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research led the team that used the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile's Atacama Desert and the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) in New South Wales to observe the remnant at wavelengths spanning the radio to the far infrared.

"By combining observations from the two telescopes we've been able to distinguish radiation being emitted by the supernova's expanding shock wave from the radiation caused by dust forming in the inner regions of the remnant," said Giovanna Zanardo of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth, Western Australia.

"This is important because it means we're able to separate out the different types of emission we're seeing and look for signs of a new object which may have formed when the star's core collapsed. It's like doing a forensic investigation into the death of a star."

"Our observations with the ATCA and ALMA radio telescopes have shown signs of something never seen before, located at the centre or the remnant. It could be a pulsar wind nebula, driven by the spinning neutron star, or pulsar, which astronomers have been searching for since 1987. It's amazing that only now, with large telescopes like ALMA and the upgraded ATCA, we can peek through the bulk of debris ejected when the star exploded and see what's hiding underneath."

More research published recently in the Astrophysical Journal also attempts to shine a light on another long-standing mystery surrounding the supernova remnant. Since 1992 the radio emission from one side of the remnant has appeared 'brighter' than the other.

In an effort to solve this puzzle, Dr Toby Potter, another researcher from ICRAR's UWA node has developed a detailed three-dimensional simulation of the expanding supernova shockwave.

"By introducing asymmetry into the explosion and adjusting the gas properties of the surrounding environment, we were able to reproduce a number of observed features from the real supernova such as the persistent one-sidedness in the radio images," said Dr Toby Potter.

The time evolving model shows that the eastern (left) side of the expanding shock front expands more quickly than the other side, and generates more radio emission than its weaker counterpart. This effect becomes even more apparent as the shock collides into the equatorial ring, as observed in Hubble Space Telescope images of the supernova.

Read more at Science Daily

Dogs with Arthritis May Respond to Natural Remedy

There may be a new kind of relief on the horizon for dogs with arthritis, one without side effects, after promising results are reported in a study of a plant- and supplement-based treatment for achy pups.

Professor Éric Troncy, senior author of the study, and co-author Maxim Moreau, from the University of Montreal's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, created a two-stage formula for arthritic dogs. The first stage consisted of curcumin, devil's claw, black current, Indian frankincense (Salai), willow bark, pineapple bromelaine and camomile. The second stage added to that roster supplements such as chondroitin sulfate, omega 3, and glutamine.

The plant-based formula was geared to help treat the inflammation that comes with arthritis in dogs, while the second stage, adding the nutritional supplements, was designed to promote healing of the joints.

The researchers divided in half a group of 32 arthritic dogs, each weighing more than 62 pounds. One group received one month of plant-based treatment followed by a second month with the supplements added into the mix. The other 16 dogs received a placebo.

The team measured the dogs' progress by taking readings of their paw strength as they walked on a special platform that could collect strength data. They also monitored the dogs' activity levels with electronic collars.

As a final method to gauge whether or not the treatment was working on the dogs, the team queried the owners about the behavior of their sore pets.

Just one month in, the researchers saw improvement in the dogs, and after the two-month treatment period the dogs that got the special formulas had on average greater paw strength, with none of them getting any worse in their condition. Dogs who got the treatment also increased their daily activity from 6 to 8 hours. The poor placebo pups, however, became less physically active, and 35.8 percent saw their health decline, according to the researchers.

Reviews from the dogs' owners were a bit more mixed, the researchers said. Their evaluation was "more subjective, and the contrast between the test group and the control group less stark," Troncy said in a press release. "We suspect that the owner may have forgotten what the animal's behavior was like before it developed arthritis."

The formulas used in the trials were built around studies done with rodents, and the team cautions that they are not yet available commercially.

Results of the study were published in the journal Research in Veterinary Science.

From Discovery News

Pregnant Mare Fossil Sheds Light on Ancient Horses

When a thirsty pregnant horse drank from a freshwater lake 47 million years ago, she was unaware that poisonous volcanic gases might lead to her sudden demise. Now, the fossilized remains of the mare and her tiny, unborn foal are revealing new insights into reproduction in ancient horses, including surprising reproductive similarities with today's horses, according to a new study.

Researchers found the ancient horse (Eurohippus messelensis) in the Messel Pit fossil site in Germany, a location renowned for its well-preserved fossils that date back to the Eocene Epoch, between about 57 million and 36 million years ago, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The reproductive similarities between ancient and modern-day horses might seem surprising, given the differences in the animals' size and anatomy. The ancient mare was small — about the size of a modern fox terrier — and had four toes on her front feet and three on her rear feet.

A team from the Senckenberg Research Institute Frankfurt found the fossil in 2000. But in 2009, Jens Lorenz Franzen, a researcher at the Senckenberg Research Institute, and his colleagues studied the specimen with a micro X-ray, and found exquisite details covering the fossil's surface.

"It's magnificently preserved," Franzen told Live Science. "It turned out this was an almost complete and articulated skeleton with a fetus."

The X-ray analysis showed the broad ligament, a structure that connects the horse's uterus to the backbone, and helps support the developing foal, Franzen said.

The X-ray also showed traces of the animal's crumpled outer uterine wall, a feature that still exists in modern horses.

It's "exceptional" to find a pregnant fossilized horse in such good condition, said Bruce MacFadden, a distinguished professor and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Florida, who was not involved in the study.

"Completely preserved skeletons of fossil horses are rare," MacFadden told Live Science. "Usually, they're fragmented and the bones are all dissociated. If you find a skeleton with a preserved foal inside, that indicates exceptional preservation, which is normally not found in the fossil record."

The mare's skeleton is one of many fossils that researchers have uncovered in the oil shales at Messel Pit. Since about 1900, researchers have found dozens of fossils in the quarry, including those of mating turtles, moths and lizards.

It's possible that poisonous volcanic gases killed some of these animals, which sank to the bottom of the lake and became embedded in its muddy sediments. These bodies then decayed as anaerobic bacteria decomposed their skin, muscles and other soft tissues.

However, this process also helped preserve these animals. The bacteria produced carbon dioxide, which precipitated iron that was present in the lake's water, Franzen said. The bacteria slowly petrified, creating a thin bacterial residue that depicted the soft tissue. Now, researchers can see these soft-tissue remains as images on top of the fossilized bone.

"The bacteria helped a lot and in a very wonderful way," Franzen said. When they looked at the mare with the high-resolution X-ray, the scientists can see the "tips of hairs of the outer ears — even the interior, like blood vessels, become visible in some cases," he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Woolly Mammoth Mummy Yields Well-Preserved Brain

The mummified brain of a well-preserved woolly mammoth found in the Siberian permafrost is the only mostly intact mammoth brain known to science, which has been described in a new study.

The mummified carcass of the 39,000-year-old woolly mammoth, which included the brain with folds and blood vessels visible, was found in August 2010 on the Laptev Sea coast near Yukagir, Russia. The mammoth, named Yuka, was 6 to 9 years old when it died, the researchers found.

The mummy mammoth was then transported from the coast and put into ice storage about 93 miles (150 kilometers) from the site, but has changed locations several times since. Having arrived at its most recent destination, Moscow, the specimen is on display until Nov. 6 at the first festival of the Russian Geographic Society.

In the new study, researchers examined the animal's brain using computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Thanks to the scanning technology, the investigators were able to study the well-preserved cerebellum, located at the back of the brain, and even see the white and gray matter of the cerebrum. The forebrain was in poorer condition than the cerebellum, the researchers wrote in the study, published online Oct. 25 in the journal Quaternary International.

"Until now, there was no opportunity to examine the whole brain of a woolly mammoth, which might have had complicated behavior, similar to modern elephants," Anastasia Kharlamova, of the Research Institute of Human Morphology, Russian Academy of the Medical Sciences, in Moscow, and colleagues write in the journal article.

Moreover, the investigators even found traces of nervous tissue — the main component of the nervous system, responsible for reacting to stimuli and communicating impulses to different parts of the body — while examining the brain.

"The Yuka woolly mammoth specimen is the first mammoth [and large mammal] finding with the preserved brain from permafrost in the history of paleoneurology," Kharlamova told Live Science in an email.

"And it is still only mammoth specimen with the preserved brain," she said, describing the presence of the brain in this large extinct species as something absolutely new in this field of research.

When the researchers trepanned the animal's skull to get to the brain, which means that they made a cut in the skull, using tools that included an angle grinder, a dental drill and chisels, they saw that there were still remains of soft tissue on its surface, according to the study.

The mammoth specimen also had a well-preserved dura mater — Latin for "tough mother" — a dense membrane that protects the brain and spinal cord, as well as visible vessels and sinuses, the researchers wrote. The brain was stained brown due to oxidation, and it had shrunk, as its volume was 45 percent smaller than the volume of the cranial cavity, or the space inside the skull that houses the brain.

The brain may have thawed and frozen again several times, as the carcass has been stored in different conditions, the researchers wrote in the study. They found that the brain's structure was similar to that in modern-day elephants, which are related to mammoths, as both species belong to the same family of Elephantidae.

Based on their experience with Yuka, the researchers even came up with a set of tips that suggest the best strategies on how to proceed with preserving mammoth brains in the future.

"If there is an indication that the specimen discovered in permafrost has a preserved brain, it should be transported in a frozen condition," while it is inside the cranium, to avoid mechanical damage and deformations, they wrote in the study, also recommending that repeated thawing and freezing should be avoided at all costs.

Read more at Discovery News