Nov 22, 2014

Deep-Earth carbon offers clues on origin of life: New organic carbon species linked to formation of diamonds -- and life itself

New findings by a Johns Hopkins University-led team reveal long unknown details about carbon deep beneath Earth's surface and suggest ways this subterranean carbon might have influenced the history of life on the planet.

The team also developed a new, related theory about how diamonds form in Earth's mantle.

For decades scientists have had little understanding of how carbon behaved deep below Earth's surface even as they learned more and more about the element's vital role at the planet's crust. Using a model created by Johns Hopkins geochemist Dimitri Sverjensky, he, Vincenzo Stagno of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Fang Huang, a Johns Hopkins graduate student, have become the first to calculate how much carbon and what types exist in fluids at 100 miles below Earth's surface at temperatures up to 2,100 degrees F.

In an article published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, Sverjensky and his team demonstrate that in addition to the carbon dioxide and methane already documented deep in subduction zones, there exists a rich variety of organic carbon species that could spark the formation of diamonds and perhaps even become food for microbial life.

"It is a very exciting possibility that these deep fluids might transport building blocks for life into the shallow Earth," said Sverjensky, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "This may be a key to the origin of life itself."

Sverjensky's theoretical model, called the Deep Earth Water model, allowed the team to determine the chemical makeup of fluids in Earth's mantle, expelled from descending tectonic plates. Some of the fluids, those in equilibrium with mantle peridotite minerals, contained the expected carbon dioxide and methane. But others, those in equilibrium with diamonds and eclogitic minerals, contained dissolved organic carbon species including a vinegar-like acetic acid.

These high concentrations of dissolved carbon species, previously unknown at great depth in Earth, suggest they are helping to ferry large amounts of carbon from the subduction zone into the overlying mantle wedge where they are likely to alter the mantle and affect the cycling of elements back into Earth's atmosphere.

Read more at Science Daily

Ancient Egyptian Mummy Wearing Jewels Found

Spanish archaeologists digging in Egypt have unearthed a female mummy still wearing her jewels.

The mummy was discovered in the necropolis below the temple of Pharaoh Thutmosis III (1490-1436 B.C.), on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor (southern Egypt). The find dates to the Middle Kingdom (2137-1781 B.C.).

For nearly four millennia, the “Lady of the Jewels,” as the mummy was nicknamed, eluded tomb raiders, her sarcophagus trapped under a collapsed roof.

The archaeologists were cleaning and restoring several tombs in the necropolis that had been already looted in antiquity when they realized that in one of the chambers of tomb XIV, part of the roof had already collapsed before robbers entered it.

“A large boulder, which had fallen down before the tomb was looted, had crushed and buried a previously untouched coffin with all its content,” Egyptologists Myriam Seco, director of the Thutmosis III Temple Project, said in a statement.

As Seco’s team removed the stone, they found a wooden sarcophagus and an utterly destroyed female mummy.

“She still wore the marvelous jewelry that was attached during the process of mummification,” Seco said.

Belonging to a higher social class, the woman, possibly in her 30s, was buried with a necklace in which semiprecious stones and gold plates alternate. A pendant in the form of a finely-wrought golden shell weighting over 20 grams was attached.

“Furthermore, she carried two golden bangles on her arms, each formed by two pieces of twisted wire, connected to each other and silver bracelets on both ankles,” Seco said.

While the golden shell and the two bangles were found in a perfect state of preservation, the silver ankle bracelets were very worn.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 21, 2014

Ancient Rhino, Horse Relative Roamed 'Island' of India

Paleontologists have gotten a leg up on their understanding of the evolution of modern horses and rhinos, with new fossils that place an ancient relative of the creatures on the Asian subcontinent, at a time when it was an island.

Since 2001, for two weeks at a stretch, every year or two, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University dug in an open-pit coal mine in India, northeast of Mumbai. The site was bountiful, to say the least, yielding a vast collection of bones.

Among those bones were in excess of 200 fossils from a previously little-documented animal called Cambaytherium thewissi. The bones were dated to about 54.5 million years old.

What was so special about a couple of hundred really old bones in a mine in India? The researchers consider them the closest thing yet seen to a common ancestor of Perissodactyla-- the group to which modern horses, tapirs, and rhinos belong.

"Many of Cambaytherium’s features, like the teeth, the number of sacral vertebrae, and the bones of the hands and feet, are intermediate between Perissodactyla and more primitive animals," said lead researcher Ken Rose, Ph.D., a professor of functional anatomy and evolution at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a release.

Paleontologists already have a fairly long view of Perissodactyla -- fossils from the group have been described as far back as about 56 million years ago, at the beginning of the Eocene. But the group's earlier evolution remained a mystery. While the Cambaytherium bones are a bit younger than the oldest of those already known fossils, the Johns Hopkins team says Cambaytherium provides a window into what a common ancestor of all Perissodactyla would have looked like (see photo above for a depiction).

In addition to opening a wider window onto the ancestry of modern rhinos and horses, the scientists say the Cambaytherium thewissi fossils also represent the first evidence to support the notion that several groups of mammals from the early Eocene might have evolved on the Indian subcontinent while it was still isolated at sea and had not yet smashed into Asia. That idea was first posed in a 1990 paper by David Krause and Mary Maas, of Stony Brook University.

Read more at Discovery News

Worm Lives in Man's Head for Four Years

A worm lived in a man’s head near his brain for four years, according to a new study that also determined the parasite had an incredibly long genome.

The research, conducted at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, reveals the genetic secrets of the elusive parasite with origins in the Far East. It’s a tapeworm known as Spirometra erinaceieuropaei that no human would want as a guest.

The worm causes sparganosis, meaning inflammation of the body’s tissues in response to the parasite. When this occurs in the brain, it can result in seizures, memory loss and headaches. Thankfully the UK man lived to tell the tale and is now doing well.

“We did not expect to see an infection of this kind in the UK, but global travel means that unfamiliar parasites do sometimes appear,” co-author Effrossyni Gkrania-Klotsas from the Department of Infectious Disease at Addenbrooke’s NHS Trust said in a press release.

It is thought that people may become infected with the worm by accidentally consuming tiny infected crustaceans from lakes, eating raw meat from reptiles and amphibians, or by using a raw frog poultice, which is a Chinese remedy to calm sore eyes.

Before the nearly ½-inch-long parasite was diagnosed in the man and successfully removed by surgery, it had traveled 2 inches from the right side of the man’s brain to the left. It’s little wonder that the victim reported suffering from headaches. The tapeworm was reserved for the later genome sequencing.

Fortunately for the patient, the gene’s DNA sequence revealed that the parasite was the more benign of two known sparganosis-causing worm species. The researchers, however, were shocked by the size of the tapeworm’s genome.

Spirometra erinaceieuropaei’s genome turned out to be 1.26Gb long, making it 10 times larger than other tapeworm genomes and one-third the size of the human genome. The medical experts suspect that some of this comes from an increase in the number of genes that may help the parasite to break up proteins and invade its host, coupled with the fact that the genome is much more repetitive than other tapeworm genomes.

The tapeworm was also found to possess a large selection of molecular motors for moving proteins around its cells, which could underpin the large changes in body shape and environmental adaptions that the worm undergoes during its complicated lifecycle.

Read more at Discovery News

Albert Einstein's WWII-Era Letter Up for Auction

In 1939, renowned physicist Albert Einstein penned a letter to a businessman in New York, acknowledging the man's efforts to help Jewish refugees at the start of World War II. Now, 75 years later, that document is up for auction in Los Angeles.

The letter, typed on Einstein's personal stationary, is dated June 10, 1939, and was sent from the scientist's residence on Mercer Street in Princeton, New Jersey, to Isidore Zelniker, a Jewish hat merchant in midtown Manhattan.

The historical document is expected to fetch at least $10,000, according to Nate D. Sanders Inc., the auction house handling the sale. Bids for the online auction will close today (Nov. 20) at 5 p.m. PT (8 p.m. ET).

At the time the letter was written, Einsteinhad been living in Princeton for six years, and was serving as a professor of theoretical physics at the Institute for Advanced Study. Previously, Einstein lived in several European countries, including Italy and Switzerland, but he moved to the U.S. in 1933 from Berlin — the same city where Adolf Hitler had recently been elected chancellor.

Considering Einstein was born to Jewish parents in Ulm, Germany, the timing of his departure was no coincidence. After escaping the horrors of the Nazi regime with his family, Einstein never stopped advocating for those he referred to as his "Jewish brethren" in Europe.

When he wasn't revolutionizing the world of physics, Einstein worked to help Jewish refugees escape the Nazis and tried to persuade political leaders in the United States and Europe to take action to help the Jewish population. He wrote countless letters thanking those who were involved in the effort to help imperiled Jews. The letter now up for auction is just one example.

The document reads:

''My dear Mr. Zelniker: May I offer my sincere congratulations to you on the splendid work you have undertaken on behalf of the refugees during Dedication Week. The power of resistance which has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years has been based to a large extent on traditions of mutual helpfulness. In these years of affliction our readiness to help one another is being put to an especially severe test. May we stand this test as well as did our fathers before us. We have no other means of self-defense than our solidarity and our knowledge that the cause for which we are suffering is a momentous and sacred cause. It must be a source of deep gratification to you to be making so important a contribution toward rescuing our persecuted fellow-Jews from their calamitous peril and leading them toward a better future.''

In 1939, when Einstein wrote this letter, Europe was in turmoil. Hitler was just months away from invading Poland — an action that would result in the United Kingdom's official declaration of war. But the Nazis' persecution of minority groups had been ongoing since Hitler's rise to power in 1933, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

Read more at Discovery News

1 in 3 Adults Drink Excessively, but Aren't Alcoholics

About a third of U.S. adults drink excessively, but most of these people are not alcoholics, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study analyzed information from more than 138,000 U.S. adults between 2009 and 2011.

Nearly 1 in 3adults was an excessive drinker, usually because they engaged in binge drinking on multiple occasions. Excessive drinking is defined as either binge drinking — consuming four or more drinks on an occasion for women, five or more drinks on occasion for men — or consuming eight or more drinks per week for women, and 15 or more per week for men. Any alcohol use by people under 21 or pregnant women is also considered excessive drinking.

However, only about 10 percent of excessive drinkers are alcohol dependent, meaning they have a craving for alcohol, they continue to use alcohol despite repeated problems with drinking, and they have an inability to control their alcohol consumption.

Even among people who reported binge drinking 10 or more times per month, more than two-thirds did not meet criteria for alcohol dependence, the researchers said.

Overall, about 1 in 30 (3 percent) of adults are alcohol dependent, the report found.

Binge drinking was most common among people with annual family incomes of more than $75,000, while alcohol dependence was most common among people with incomes less than $25,000, the report said.

Drinking too much alcohol is responsible for 88,000 deaths yearly in the U.S., costing $223.5 billion in 2006, the report said.

"Although alcohol dependence is an important public health problem, these findings suggest that most excessive drinkers are unlikely to need addiction treatment," the researchers wrote in the Nov. 20 issue of the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

Read more at Discovery News

The Adorably Creepy Gliding Mammal That’s Basically Just a Big Flap of Skin

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…neither. It’s actually the colugo, a gliding mammal with no sense of decency.
In 16th century Scotland, the alchemist John Damian, who was known to expense a suspicious amount of whiskey in his experiments to find the elusive philosopher’s stone, decided he could fly. He fashioned a pair of wings from feathers and “took off from the lofty battlements of Stirling Castle for a flight to Paris.” He didn’t make it to France, but he did plummet a few feet away from the castle and break a leg. The failure, he later claimed, was due to using feathers from chickens, which can’t so much fly, when he should have used eagle feathers instead.

Really, the problem had more to do with mammals like us not being cut out for flight. Well, except for bats. There are, though, critters like sugar gliders and flying squirrels, which can pull off some pretty solid glides. But compared to the adorable and little-known colugo, they got nothin’. This is the most accomplished mammalian glider of all—on account of being essentially a giant flap of skin—capable of soaring an incredible 200 feet from tree to tree. Its expansive membrane, known as a patagium, stretches from its face to the tips of its digits all the way back to its tail, so “geometrically, it has the greatest surface area that you can have between those limbs without actually evolving an entire wing like bats did,” said conservation biologist Jan Janecka of Duquesne University.

With undeniable cuteness and way too much skin, the colugo is an aesthetic conundrum, like adorable old people.
With such a beautifully evolved body, the colugo, also known misleadingly as a flying lemur (more on that later), spends its nights leisurely gliding through the forests of Southeast Asia. Their skeletons, while not nearly as frail as those of bats, are thinner and more elongated than that of a squirrel, reducing their weight while increasing their surface area. And their huge eyes, Janecka says, gives them not only good night vision, but excellent depth perception—no insignificant advantage when you’re coming in for a hard landing on the trunk of a tree.

Colugos are such adept gliders that mothers have no problem bringing their babies along for the ride. And they’ll do so for quite some time, for their young are born highly underdeveloped. They’re not as helpless as, say, marsupial young ‘uns, which enjoy the comfort of their mother’s pouch, but certainly not as developed as most mammals.

The colugo’s unique comb-shaped teeth, which may help in feeding or grooming, but only when it’s not a skeleton though.
Still, the newborns cling to mom as she sails around the rainforest in search of food, mostly sap and leaves and shoots. And as if the colugo’s flappy skin weren’t bizarre enough, its teeth are shaped like little combs. This could be helping them in some way to feed, says Janecka, or may play a part in grooming to snag parasites on their skin. That’s right. Colugos may be brushing their hair with combs built right into their faces.

Unfortunately, beyond watching mothers sail around with their babies, we don’t know much at all about the colugo’s social life. And efforts to keep them in captivity have largely been for naught. Remember that these are creatures used to gliding up to 200 feet, and good luck finding that kind of space in a zoo. “Basically their enclosures weren’t large enough to allow them to glide long distances,” said Janecka. “And because they couldn’t glide, they couldn’t keep their patagium well maintained and dry enough.” They developed infections on their skin, perhaps from a fungus, and died.

Ironically enough, it’s too much space in the wild that’s threatening some colugo populations. Deforestation can strand species in islands of trees, but even if loggers just thin out spots in the forest, it’s big trouble for the colugo. They’re the most accomplished mammalian glider on Earth, sure, but if there’s too much space between trees, the colugo runs the risk of sinking right to the ground. And as you can see below in the video from National Geographic (they strapped a camera to a colugo—enough said), the creature’s extra skin makes it all but worthless when anywhere but the canopy. It’s an easy target in a habitat packed with predators.

Of Parasites and Primates

Because colugos tend to live in isolated habitats and because they insist on emerging only at night, much of what we know about them comes from anecdotal evidence. Case in point: colugo doo-doo. It … moves.

“I’ve seen some videos of fecal material that they’ve dropped where there’s so many worms it’s actually moving,” said Janecka. “It’s squirming around.” The colugo digestive tract, it seems, has a really, really high parasite load. “And that whole dynamic, whether it happened to be in a population that has a lot of parasites or it’s something that’s more normal for the colugos that they’ve learned to deal with, that’s one of those unknown questions at this point.”

What is abundantly clear is that the colugo has a very long digestive tract, which makes sense for a creature that eats trees. That stuff takes a whole lot of time to digest. But such long guts could also be acting as a sort of mansions for parasitic worms, which have lots of room to make themselves comfortable. Until someone starts studying colugo turds at length, though, we’ll have to leave this one a mystery.

Read more at Wired Science

Nov 20, 2014

Mysterious 'Glow Worm' Found in Peruvian Rainforest

A mysterious glowing worm has been discovered lighting up the soil in the Peruvian rainforest.

The strange glow worms, which are thought to be the larval stage of an as-yet-unidentified species of beetle, may use their phosphorescence to lure unsuspecting flies and ants into their waiting, open jaws.

Ants or termites will "fly right into their jaws, and then they'll just clamp shut and that's their meal," said Aaron Pomerantz, an entomologist who works with a rainforest expedition company at the Refugio Amazonas near the Tambopata Research Center in Peru, where the glowing larvae were discovered.

In tests, the glow worms readily devoured stick insects and termites, Pomerantz said. Their style of attack seems similar to that of the enormous, man-eating worms in the 1990 campy movie "Tremors," albeit at a much smaller scale, he said.

"They're underground, and they burst from the earth," Pomerantz told Live Science.

Nature photographer Jeff Cremer found the tiny pinpricks of light glowing in a wall of earth when he was working at a lodge in the Peruvian jungle. On closer inspection, Cremer discovered several dozen of these tiny insects, which measured about 0.5 inches (1.2 centimeters), shining green in the night.

Cremer brought them to the attention of entomologists who work at the rainforest nature lodge, who had never seen anything similar in the region.

The team determined that the worms were the larvae of an unknown species of click beetle. These beetles, which belong to the family Elateridae, use a fast popping or "clicking" motion to escape predators, Pomerantz said. Adults may feed on flowers and nectar, but the larvae are probably predatory.

There are more than 10,000 species of click beetles, including about 200 that are bioluminescent, meaning that they give off light. These strange little creatures may potentially be cousins of Brazilian fire beetles and could belong to the group of bugs called Pyrophorini, Pomerantz said.

Brazilian fire beetles burrow into termite mounds, creating ethereal, glowing towers at night, Pomerantz said. Though it's not exactly clear how the newly discovered insects produce light, similar creatures use a class of molecules known as luciferins to give off their ghostly yellow glow. Pyrophorini typically maintain a constant glow through the night, and may even shine brighter when a predator touches them.

Bioluminescent animals usually glow to either lure in prey or to warn predators that they contain noxious chemicals. But the glowing also occasionally serves other purposes. For instance, fireflies' blinking is essentially a come-hither signal for potential mates, Pomerantz said.

Read more at Discovery News

Small 'Underwater Pompeii' Found Off Greek Island

Remains of an ancient settlement, complete with a ruined pottery workshop, have been found on the bottom of the Aegean sea off the small island of Delos, the Greek ministry of culture has announced.

Dubbed by the Greek media “a small underwater Pompeii,” the structures lay at a depth of just 6 feet on the northeastern coast of Delos.

“In the past these ruins were identified as port facilities,” the culture ministry said.

But a new investigation by the National Hellenic Research Foundation and the Ephorate of Undersea Archaeology, led to different conclusions. Rather than a dock, a pottery workshop and other buildings once stood at the site.

Archaeologists found 16 terracotta pots and remains of a kiln embedded in the sea floor.

“Similar workshops have been found in Pompeii and Herculaneum,” the ministry said.

Large stones were found lined in front of the workshop remains. According to the archaeologists, they were probably part of the settlement’s waterfront.

Possibly related to commercial and crafting activities, the settlement somehow collapsed. The man-made ruins have remained hidden on the sea bed ever since.

Underwater archaeologists identified several structures, including fallen colonnades and the remains of walls which once extended along the shoreline.

The findings add new intriguing details to one of Greece’s most important archaeological sites.

Located in the center of the Cyclades archipelago near the island of Mykonos, Delos is where, according to Greek myth, the sun god Apollo was born.

As the site of the Apollo cult and one of the main centers of the Aegean slave trade (as many as 10,000 slaves were said to be sold in a single day) Delos flourished for 700 years, from the 8th until the 1st centuries B.C.

For much of antiquity people were not allowed to die or give birth on the sacred island, which nonetheless became a thriving commercial port, especially under the Romans in the 3rd and 2nd century BC.

Decline came as the troops of Mithridates VI of Pontus attacked the island in 88 BC, slaughtering 20,000 inhabitants.

Read more at Discovery News

Mystery of Exoplanet's Magnetic Field Unlocked

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope were thrilled to catch a view of the Jupiter-sized exoplanet HD 209454b as it passed across the face of its parent star, relative to the observatory’s line of sight.

But what they found left them puzzled: a strange, asymmetrical pattern of highly charged hydrogen atoms moving quickly away from the star.

With the help of a new three-dimensional computer model, they now have an explanation. The model, which takes into account all known interactions between stellar winds and planetary atmospheres, indicates that the mysterious hydrogen flow is a telltale sign of the planet being bathed in stellar winds from its parent star that reached 249 mile-per-second during the transit.

The model also shows that the planet’s magnetic field was about 10 percent as powerful as Jupiter’s at the time.

The new model, reported in this week’s Science, is expected to become a useful tool for assessing how planets beyond the solar system are interacting with their host stars.

From Discovery News

X-Rays: Next-Gen Way to Travel and Talk in Space?

NASA scientists say they have figured out a way to use X-rays to both communicate with long-distance spacecraft, as well as navigate as they sail past the outer limits of the solar system.

They say that using X-rays is faster than existing radio wave communications, can carry more information and won’t be blocked when spacecraft enter a planet’s thick atmosphere.

“While we are using X-ray navigation to guide us to Pluto, we might also use X-ray communication to talk back to Earth,” said Keith Gendreau, principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The concept of X-ray navigation will be tested during a NASA mission called NICER/SEXTANT that is set to launch in August 2016. The spacecraft will study the insides of neutron stars, which produce X-rays, and test equipment that could be used for x-ray navigation.

Gendreau and other scientists have been thinking for several decades about using pulsars, which also emit beams of X-rays, as outer space lighthouses to help spacecraft tell where they are. Instead of just using a single radio source from Earth to tell their position and location, a future mission would tap into a hypothetical map of pulsars, each of which sends out its own identifiable frequency.

Existing “star charts will tell your spacecraft orientation, but it won’t tell you in three dimensions,” Gendreau said. “With radio waves, you get precise range information between your spacecraft and the Earth, but that’s only one direction in the sky. Pulsars are distributed all over the galaxy. They are more or less uniform in the sky.”

Other engineering teams have also been working on pulsar navigation using X-rays, but so far haven’t convinced NASA or other space agencies to fully implement the idea yet. Werner Becker, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, has been simulating pulsar navigation in his laboratory and published a study last year about using pulsar navigation to allow spacecraft to navigate autonomously.

“This technology of pulsar navigation is so simple,” Becker said. “You just need a demonstrator mission.”

Becker thinks pulsar navigation could also be used for missions closer to Earth. Perhaps setting up a super-accurate, pulsar-linked satellite in Earth orbit as a reference point and thereby eliminating the need to synchronize the existing Global Position System (GPS) satellites every three days to maintain the entire system’s accuracy.

Becker is so excited about pulsar navigation that he’s putting on a conference in Germany next year to further explore the idea.

Other experts say that X-ray navigation, or XNAV, just needs a little push to get it going, according to Dan Jablonski, communications engineer at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

“Things are constantly being adapted from one mission to another and they find their way to the communications market pretty quickly,” Jablonski said. “Everybody watches everybody else’s projects with great interest. When it works they take it and run with it.”

NASA’s Gendreau also believes he can communicate and send scientific data back to Earth in almost real-time using X-rays. In a crowded second floor lab in Goddard’s Building 34, Gendreau has set up a small experiment that uses a small X-ray source to transmit digital music from his iPhone across a workbench to a nearby speaker.

“We’ve developed the core technology, we just now just need to refining existing encoding techniques and maybe going beyond,” Gendreau said.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 19, 2014

Captive-Bred Animals Don't Care for Wild Partners

Captive-bred animals prefer to mate with each other than with partners from the wild, a new study suggests.

If the findings in house mice translate to threatened species, it means captive-bred animals may not be as effective at increasing the genetic diversity of wild populations as originally expected, the researchers say.

Their findings are published today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

Millions of dollars are spent each year on breeding threatened species in captivity for release into the wild, says team member Dr Michael Magrath, a senior scientist at Zoos Victoria.

In some cases, he says, the aim is to increase the genetic diversity of existing populations, but the success of such programs is variable.

The strategy relies on captive-bred animals interbreeding with wild animals but there is much evidence that captivity affects the behaviour of animals.

Magrath and colleagues wondered whether periods of captivity could affect an animal's preference for a mate.

The researchers kept house mice in captivity for three generations before releasing them into a larger "semi-naturalistic" enclosure with mice freshly caught from the wild.

After 20 weeks they took genetic samples of the offspring that resulted to find out which mice had mated together.

They discovered the vast majority of mice mated with their own kind.

"Only 17 per cent of offspring were produced from mixed-source pairings," says Magrath.

Magrath says the mate preferences found in the study could have implications for the success of captive breeding programs.

"If you are starting a new population and there is no existing wild population then it is not an issue because the animals you are introducing are all from captivity," he says.

But, says Magrath, if the aim is to introduce captive animals to increase genetic diversity of an existing wild population there may be a problem -- at least in the short term.

"They may pair with each other and this will reduce integration of their genetic material into the wild population," he says.

Magrath says if a batch of introduced captive-bred males failed to mate with wild females conservation programs could fail.

Alternatively, a batch of introduced males and females may breed with each other and form a sub-population.

But this sub-population may be at a disadvantage because failing to mix with the wild animals means they may not inherit or learn crucial 'streetwise' behaviours like predator awareness.

Magrath, who is involved in captive breeding programs for the eastern barred bandicoot, Leadbeater's possom and Tasmanian devil, among others, says the next step is to monitor programs to see if mate choice is affecting their success.

If it is, he says, then it would be good to find out what causes this behaviour.

One explanation is that animals may stick to breeding with their own kind because other animals have a different smell due to the diet and environment they had when they were reared, says Magrath.

Read more at Discovery News

Comet Lander Sniffs Organic Molecules in Atmosphere

The Philae comet-lander has found traces of organic molecules on the surface of the comet 67P.

The initial sample data from the robot probe also found that the surface was much harder than thought, the scientists report.

The lander control center in Cologne, operated by German Aerospace Center (DLR), said Philae has uncovered much about the comet in spite of a rough touchdown in a less-than-perfect spot.

"We are well on our way to achieving a greater understanding of comets," said project scientific director Ekkehard Kuhrt.

"Their surface properties appear to be quite different than was previously thought."

The DLR said the MUPUS probe -- one of Philae's 10 onboard science instruments -- hammered into the comet to discover it was "a tough nut to crack."

"Although the power of the hammer was gradually increased, we were not able to go deep into the surface," research team leader Tilman Spohn said.

Electric and acoustic experiments confirm the comet was "not nearly as soft and fluffy as it was believed to be" underneath a surface layer of dust.

Despite its imperfect footing, Philae managed to deploy a drill, but it's not clear whether any soil sample has been examined onboard.

Yet, the team said that Philae's COSAC gas analyzer managed to "sniff the atmosphere and detect the first organic molecules" shortly after landing.

Some astrophysicists theorise that comets seeded our fledgling planet with the beginnings of life-giving water and organic molecules, and hoped that analysis of 67P would prove this.

"Analysis of the spectra and the identification of the molecules are continuing," the team said.

Philae may get in touch next year

Philae fell asleep on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Saturday, having run out of onboard battery power after 60 hours of prodding and probing the surface.

Project manager Stephan Ulamec said he was confident that Philae would make contact later "and that we will be able to operate the instruments again" as the comet moves closer to the sun.

Read more at Discovery News

How People’s Political Passions Distort Their Sense of Reality

Though people might disagree on how to solve a problem, they can at least agree that the problem exists. Or can they? A new study finds that deeply held beliefs can undermine rationality: When confronted with solutions that challenge deeply held values, people may be inclined to disbelieve the problem.

Psychologists tested hundreds of American adults on their beliefs about climate change and violent crime after proposing solutions involving, respectively, government regulations and gun ownership. Spooked by legally mandated fossil fuel restrictions, conservatives were less likely to accept the best scientific estimates on global temperature changes. Conversely, after being told that looser gun control laws reduced violent crime, liberals were less likely to believe that crime is a problem.

Solution aversion, as the researchers call it, seems to know no partisan bounds. “In any issue where people’s cherished beliefs and identities are in play, you’re probably going to see some amount of solution aversion,” said Troy Campbell, a consumer behavior researcher at Duke University’s business school. “We alter our view of reality to be as flattering as possible.”

Campbell’s new study, co-authored by Duke psychologist Aaron Kay and published in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, belongs to a body of research on what’s known as motivated reasoning: how psychological influences, from emotion to basic physiological traits, influence ostensibly rational thought.

The field’s origins lay not in political thinking, but personal—for example, the tendency of people to accept or challenge medical diagnoses. But the political implications are seductive, particularly regarding the conundrum of human-caused climate change, an issue on which the essential details are uncontested among scientists but remain a matter of partisan divide among the public.

Previous motivated reasoning research has highlighted the role social factors may play, positing climate change rejection as a sort of tribal identifier among Republicans, one that might touch on a reflexive antipathy to negative information or perhaps a partisan distrust of science. Whereas that research focused on the science and communication of climate change itself, Kay and Campbell were more interested in how proposed solutions affected people’s thinking.

In the first of several experiments, they asked 72 men and 117 women, equally split between self-identified Democrats and Republicans, whether they agreed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment that human-induced climate change would raise Earth’s temperature by 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century. As expected, there was a strong party-line divide; and among Republicans, the strength of disbelief tracked with expectations that fixing the problem would cause economic harm.

Republicans who thought preventing climate change would be an inconvenience were more likely to accept that warming would occur, but just by a couple degrees. If they expected the solution to result in economic catastrophe, they’d be more likely to say Earth wouldn’t warm at all.

In the next of their experiments, Kay and Campbell asked a different group of 121 adults to read one of two passages describing possible responses to climate change: one a free-market approach that emphasized the economic boon of green technologies, the other a regulatory proscription of energy cuts.

Proportion of Democrats (left) and Republicans (right) who agreed with the scientific consensus on climate change after reading about a free-market solution (light shading) or government regulation (dark shading).
Democrats were slightly less likely to accept climate change after reading about the free-market solution. Among Republicans, however, the aversion was much more pronounced: whereas after reading about regulations just 22 percent said Earth’s temperatures would rise by at least 3 degrees, that number leaped to 55 percent after reading about free markets.

The findings support the idea “that Republicans’ skepticism toward climate change science is linked to beliefs about the policy solutions,” wrote Kay and Campbell. But conservatives don’t have a monopoly on solution aversion. In their next experiment, the researchers changed topics, to gun control and crime. When test participants who favored tight gun control laws, a politically liberal stance, read that expanded gun access reduced violent home invasions, they suddenly became less likely to think invasions were a widespread problem.

“This is a general phenomenon, and liberals do it, too,” said psychologist Peter Ditto of University of California, Irvine, an expert in motivated reasoning who was not involved in the new study. “What we’ve got is this contest of moral visions that has become a factual fight because of this tendency of people to change their factual beliefs to fit their moral inclinations,” said Ditto of America’s political landscape. One of Ditto’s own studies involved capital punishment: reading about its inherent morality or immorality affected what people thought about its costs.

Campbell and Kay say solution aversion complements two existing, non-exclusive explanations of motivated reasoning. The first, called system justification theory, describes how people want to believe, and subconsciously try to convince themselves, that existing social systems are essentially good. The other, moral coherence, is a subset of what’s known as cognitive coherence theory: we want our beliefs to fit nicely together.

'If you don't want the solution to happen, then you deny that the problem exists.'

“If you feel really negatively about the solution, if you don’t want the solution to happen, then you deny that the problem exists,” said Campbell. “Then there will be coherence in your belief systems.”

Caveats do apply. The new findings involve just one set of experiments, as yet unreplicated, involving people answering online questionnaires rather than questions in real-life situations. And Campbell stressed that, even if solution aversion does exist, it’s not going to provide an all-encompassing explanation for factual disagreements.

Neither is solution aversion deterministic, Campbell says. Rather, it’s one influence among many, a gentle—or maybe not-so-gentle when an issue bears directly on foundational beliefs and identities—push on the gears of cognition.

If the findings seem pessimistic, predicting that facts are often dictated by belief and reason clouded in self-serving ways, they also suggest ways of mitigating solution aversion, said Campbell. Problems might be framed with aversion in mind: regarding climate change, a liberal might emphasize those free-market solutions. Of course, if people feel they’re being manipulated, that could backfire; a more durable strategy, if also a more difficult one, involves making open-mindedness a personal and social virtue.

Read more at Wired Science

Fantastically Wrong: Unicorns Dig Virgin Women, and Other Lessons From Medieval Bestiaries

The unicorn, perhaps the most famous of legendary medieval beasts, here in the embrace of a maiden who's like "Oh looks like you've got a little boo-boo back here."
Unicorns may be magical, majestic, beautiful, etc., but they have a serious weakness: virgin women. Indeed, ancient lore says that using a maiden as bait is the only way to snag yourself one of these elusive beasts. When the unicorn falls asleep in her lap, you can capture it, or if you’re feeling particularly plucky, run it through with a spear.

That was far from mere fantasy back in the Middle Ages, though. The story was one of the more famous passages in what are known as bestiaries, gorgeous compendiums of creatures both real and imagined that sold like mad—second only to the Bible itself. While they were passed off as solid knowledge, bestiaries were almost always wildly wrong about the natural world. Nonetheless, these charming tomes were indispensable to the beginnings of modern science, helping lay the groundwork for the field of zoology as we know it.

Unicorn murder notwithstanding, bestiaries tended to hold a certain reverence for the natural world, ascribing the cleverness, not to mention vices, of humans to various animals. The beaver, for instance, was said to chew its own testicles off when pursued by hunters. And the asp could resist the snake charmer’s song by putting one ear against the ground and plugging the other with its tail.

Adorable little hedgehogs roll around on fruit to stick them to their quills. They’ll then store them in their den for the lean times.
Each creature usually was explained in just a few paragraphs, followed by an often lengthy moral tale to relate its biology or behavior to human beings. So in casting off its testicles and throwing them in the hunter’s face, the beaver thus relieves himself of vice and tosses it right back at the devil. By plugging its ears, the asp is unwisely resisting the word of Christ.

A few more examples of fantastical bestiary critters, which you can see in the gallery at top:

  • To steal a tiger cub, a hunter must grab a bunch at once and make off on a swift horse. As their furious mother closes in on him, he drops a single cub, which the mother snatches up and takes back to her den. She thus returns to the hunter for one cub at a time, until he escapes on a ship, ideally with at least one left.
  • The magical salamander was said to be fireproof as well as extremely poisonous, tainting wells and even fruit on trees. Indeed, when a salamander got into a river that Alexander the Great’s army drank from, 4,000 men and 2,000 horses supposedly grew sick and, no doubt weakened by the embarrassment of being bested by a salamander, keeled over.
  • Crocodiles may be jerks, but they’re far from invincible. As they sun themselves on the shore, mouths agape, the serpent will crawl in and make its way into the crocodile’s guts, eventually bursting through the poor reptile.

For all of the popularity of bestiaries in the Middle Ages, strangely enough one wasn’t translated into English (most were written in Latin) until 1954: T. H. White’s seminal Book of Beasts. In it, White goes to lengths to emphasize that while bestiaries were wildly wrong nearly all of the time, they were in fact quite compassionate works, painting animals as creatures to be not only respected, but revered.

The fox was said to roll itself in red mud to appear blood-stained, then flop over on its back and hold its breath. The scavenging birds that come to investigate it are thus bamboozled (read: devoured).
Now, it’d be an understatement to say there was a bit of an illiteracy problem in the Middle Ages. Consequently, bestiaries featured incredibly vivid, lively illustrations that spelled out the behaviors of the various creatures. Above, for instance, is a fox, a “fraudulent and ingenious animal” that was said to play dead to attract and attack birds. A medieval illiterate peasant would have heard such a cautionary tale in church, for the devil metaphorically works in much the same way on humans. Thus was the bestiary a work of universal accessibility.

Such symbolism was so important in the Middle Ages, according to White, “that it did not matter whether certain animals existed”—the part man, part lion, part scorpion with probably some identity issues known as the manticore, for instance—but “what did matter was what they meant.” It was an era of intense faith that a higher power had created every creature with a meaning to be decoded by man, or in the case of plants, a clue that the species was meant to treat a certain organ. Known as the doctrine of signatures, this held that a walnut, for instance, could treat brain problems because it looks an awful lot like a brain itself.

The bestiaries can all trace their lineage to one masterwork: the Physiologus, whose anonymous author probably lived in Alexandria in the first few centuries AD. He or she dug deep into the animal lore of the ancients, combining thoughts of Aristotle, who was arguably the first true scientist (if you haven’t yet picked up Armand Marie Leroi’s fantastic new book The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science, do so immediately), as well as Pliny the Elder, who in compiling an encyclopedia of all Roman knowledge was sure to include epically fantastical animal “facts,” I guess just in case they turned out to be true.

Not only is the asp exceedingly deadly to humans, it’s far from easy to charm. When snake charmers try to lure it out of its hiding place, the asp will press one ear against the ground and plug the other with its tail. White’s bestiary translation notes: “Apart from men, asps are the only other creatures which do such a thing, namely, refuse to listen.”
The Physiologus was a huge hit. It was translated into everything from Syriac to Latin to Icelandic, spreading all over Europe and the Middle East and Africa. And when a scribe got his hands on it, according to White there was no reason he “should not expand his copy with interpolations” from later authorities. Thus the bestiary “began to grow like a living tree.” Later authors grabbed older bestiaries and tacked on extra bits. They cut things here and there. In the words of White, the bestiary was “a kind of naturalist’s scrapbook, which has grown with the additions of several hands.”

This went on throughout the Middle Ages until the 16th century rolled around, and naturalists started growing suspicious of the bestiaries’ claims. Then came along British polymath Sir Thomas Browne, science’s most accomplished party pooper, whose work Vulgar Errors ripped the bestiary’s many bizarre claims to pieces. Elephants do indeed have knees, he assured his readers, and beavers aren’t anywhere close to being capable of chewing off their own testicles. And in busting these myths, according to White, Browne “began to raise the subject of biology to a scientific level for the first time since Aristotle.”

Generations of natural historians followed Browne, trusting not in the strange moral tales of their forebears, but in direct observation. And in 1859, the science of biology tallied what is arguably its ultimate triumph with Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species. Far from the fanciful speculations of the bestiaries, science could now explain not only the deep biology of animals, but how and why they got that way.

Read more at Wired Science

Nov 18, 2014

Fur Seal Sex With Penguin: Why Does It Happen?

Antarctic fur seal males have been seen forcing themselves on king penguins multiple times in shocking sexual acts that are radically changing the way animal experts attempt to explain such seemingly bizarre behavior.

At first it was thought that sex between animals of different species was a colossal error -- a result, maybe, of mistaken identity. The occurrences of male seals raping penguins, documented in the latest issue of the journal Polar Biology, suggest otherwise. Instead it may be a learned behavior by hormone-fueled males, which could weaken the overall reproductive fitness of both animals if it gets out of hand.

The seal-penguin rapes "may be learned behavior associated with some sort of reward, or it may be an extreme case of reproductive interference," wrote senior author Nico de Bruyn of the University of Pretoria and his team in the journal.

"Reproductive interference occurs when individuals of one species engage in reproductive activities with individuals of another species, and when these interactions reduce the fitness of one or both species," Emily Burdfield-Steel, who is a researcher at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, explained to Discovery News.

The fitness of the birds is definitely reduced, since at least one penguin victim was seen bleeding between its legs. The seal population would also appear to suffer, given that mating requires time and energy that, in this case, would not result in offspring.

The possible reward, however, could be the male's immediate sexual fulfillment.

As de Bruyn and his team wrote of one seal-penguin encounter: "The seal ran up to the penguin and bumped it down. It lay on top of the penguin and started thrusting its hips in a copulatory fashion. The seal's erect penis was clearly visible."

A disturbing video (warning: it's graphic) that has since gone viral shows one of four such encounters that the researchers observed on Marion Island, located in the Indian Ocean just north of Antarctica.

De Bruyn first saw an Antarctic fur seal attempt to copulate with a king penguin six years ago on the same island. Although this location has been heavily studied for three and a half decades, the behavior had never been noted before. Recently, on a return visit, de Bruyn and his team documented the four seal-penguin rapes, so they think the behavior is "newly emerging."

The region has a "bachelors beach" dominated by young male seals, so without many female seals around, the male seals could wind up chasing, for sex, what is normally a dinner item for them: penguins.

The seal-penguin copulations all happened during the seal's breeding season on the island, from late November to early January. On one occasion, a male seal ate a penguin that it had just raped.

In terms of why a predator would suddenly view a prey animal sexually, Burdfield-Steel suggests that raging hormones could reduce an individual's choosiness.

"For the less choosy sex," she said, "this keenness to mate may lead to individuals being less discriminating when choosing mates and therefore more likely to fail to differentiate between species."

She and colleague David Shuker report that there are at least 167 documented instances of animals having, or attempting to have, sex with other species. This excludes hybridization, where such mating can lead to offspring (think mule). Humans, of course, are included in this group -- everything from the Bible to cave art has shown that some people have practiced bestiality.

In other examples, male sea otters have been documented raping and drowning young seals. Another viral video shows a young chimp raping a frog. Yet another video shows a rabbit attempting to mount a dog. Most dog owners have stories of their pets going at it with a person's leg, arm or other reachable area.

Read more at Discovery News

How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization

Roughly 9,000 years ago, humans had mastered farming to the point where food was plentiful. Populations boomed, and people began moving into large settlements full of thousands of people. And then, abruptly, these proto-cities were abandoned for millennia. It's one of the greatest mysteries of early human civilization.

The dawn of the age of agriculture falls during the "Neolithic," also known as the late stone age. At that time, about 12,000 years ago, people had already developed incredibly sophisticated stone tools, weapons, and clay vessels for cooking and storage. And when they found seeds that grew into particularly delicious plants, they took them along on their treks, planting them in river valleys on their route, so that they would have a tasty harvest the following year.

Once these informal farms had gotten a little bigger, it started to seem less advantageous to keep roaming when there was so much food in one place. In the Levant area along the eastern Mediterranean, nomadic groups who had once lived by hunting and gathering began settling down in small villages for part of the year.

The Rise and Fall of the Mega-Village

As people accumulated more food stores, women began giving birth to more children. Nomadic groups of 20 or 30 people became villages of 200. And some of those villages, like Çatalhöyük in the region today known as central Turkey, grew to a few thousand people.

It's hard to say what, exactly, Çatalhöyük was. Was it a city or just some kind of bizarre, outsized village? We know it lasted for millennia, with thousands of people living there continuously from about 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE. Perhaps we might say that was the closest thing to a city in the Neolithic, since hundreds more people lived there than in typical villages nearby. But it had none of the features we associate with the grand, walled cities that emerged thousands of years later in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

There were no palaces, no massive ziggurats or pyramids dedicated to the gods, and no signs of class distinction. Every family had a small, slightly rectangular one-room home with a hearth. Each home was roughly the same size. Streets didn't exist in Çatalhöyük — homes were erected next to each other, honeycomb-style, and people just walked over each other's roofs to get home through doors in their ceilings. Though there was art, there was no writing. And there was little in the way of specialized labor. Unlike in ancient Uruk or Mohenjo-Daro, there were no cottage industries in bead-making or weapons production. Families lived by hunting, but mostly by keeping farms and small herds of animals like goats in the nearby hills.

Maybe Çatalhöyük didn't look much like cities as we know them, but it and other mega-sites were the most developed forms of settlement anywhere in the world at that time. They were the urban developments of their age, sheltering huge populations and fostering technological progress like cooking with dairy and making fired pottery (both were major high tech inventions in the Neolithic).

Here's where things get weird. In the mid-5000s BCE, Çatalhöyük was suddenly abandoned. The same thing happened to several other outsized village-cities in the Levant. Their populations drained away, and people returned to small village life for thousands of years. Below, you can see a graph showing how the size of settlements dropped dramatically about 7,000 years ago (5000 BCE).

Even more mysterious is the fact that we see a similar pattern — intensification of farming, booming population, growing settlements, and abandonment — elsewhere in the world. Farming came later to Western Europe and England, so we see this cycle starting roughly 5,000 years ago (around 3,000 BCE) in many European regions and in England.

What happened?

The Trouble with Settling Down

Settled life may have meant more food and less hiking around, but it wasn't easy. Once there's a large population dependent on a few local food sources, humans become vulnerable in ways that we never were as hunter-gatherers on the road all the time. A season of bad weather can wreck the entire food supply. And it's not easy to hike to another place when you've got a population of 1,000 people or more, who are accustomed to settled life.

In the Levant, climate change seems to be an obvious culprit in the dissolution of mega-sites. Çatalhöyük was once surrounded by gushing rivers; today they have run dry.

As Harvard paleontologist Ofer Bar Josef has argued for most of his career, it seems certain that favorable climate conditions allowed agriculture to flourish in the Levant. But in the late Neolithic, the weather cooled down and dried out. A place like Çatalhöyük could no longer sustain itself on locally-grown crops and famine may have become a major issue. Scattering into smaller villages gave people a chance to have the comforts of settled life without depending on massive crop yields to feed everyone.

But archaeologists who study the population drops in Europe suggest another explanation. University College London archaeologist Stephen Shennan and his team found that there was no correlation between climate shifts and population drops in Europe. They suggest that what appears to be abandonment of megasites may actually be population drops due to disease. One of the major downsides to life in a large settlement is that diseases spread like wildfire — especially given that sanitation was minimal. Mostly, people dumped their trash right next to their homes.

Still, there are plenty of cities that have endured plagues and famines in the past several thousand years — and then rose again. Why did people abandon the proto-city designs of large Neolithic settlements, never to build them again?

Agriculture is often dubbed the "neolithic revolution," so University of Notre Dame anthropologist Ian Kuijt dubs these collapses "failure of the neolithic experiment." He describes the expansion and abandonment of a mega-village called Basta, located in what is now Jordan. Like Çatalhöyük, Basta grew larger than other villages around it. To cope with growing populations, the people of Basta invented two-story architecture, and began sub-dividing their living spaces into smaller and smaller rooms. Many homes contained specialized areas for living and for food storage.

But Kuijt doesn't believe people abandoned Basta because its population outstripped its resources. Instead, its population outstripped its belief systems.

Old Beliefs and New Technologies

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

You can see this set of beliefs reflected in the built environment of Çatalhöyük, where everyone's house is roughly the same size. Some houses have a lot more stuff in them — more pieces of art, or more ritual objects — but as I said earlier, nobody is living in the Neolithic equivalent of a mansion.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours (even if you don't like them very much). But once you have a thousand people living together, it's harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

But the ideology of these Neolithic people in mega-villages, Kuijt speculates, may have treated any kind of social differentiation as taboo. As soon as somebody took enough power to be a representative or proto-politician, other people would rail against them. He believes that major conflicts may have grown out of this tension between a belief in flat social organization and the need to create social hierarchies in larger societies. It's an intriguing hypothesis, especially when you consider that when cities re-emerge in the 4,000s BCE, they have rigid social hierarchies with kings, shamans, and slaves. Plus, they have writing, which is primarily used to tally up who lives where and owns what.

Read more at Discovery News

'Forgotten' Brain Region Rediscovered a Century Later

A major pathway of the human brain involved in visual perception, attention and movement — and overlooked by many researchers for more than a century — is finally getting its moment in the sun.

In 2012, researchers made note of a pathway in a region of the brain associated with reading, but "we couldn't find it in any atlas," said Jason Yeatman, a research scientist at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. "We'd thought we had discovered a new pathway that no one else had noticed before."

A quick investigation showed that the pathway, known as the vertical occipital fasciculus (VOF), was not actually unknown. Famed neuroscientist Carl Wernicke discovered the pathway in 1881, during the dissection of a monkey brain that was most likely a macaque.

But besides Wernicke's discovery, and a few other mentions throughout the years, the VOF is largely absent from studies of the human brain. This made Yeatman and his colleagues wonder, "How did a whole piece of brain anatomy get forgotten?" he said.

The researchers immersed themselves in century-old brain atlases and studies, trying to decipher when and why the VOF went missing from mainstream scientific literature. They also scanned the brains of 37 individuals, and found an algorithm that can help present-day researchers pinpoint the elusive pathway.

The study provides a comprehensive look at the VOF's history, said Dr. Jeremy Schmahmann, a professor of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the new research. Schmahmann co-wrote the book "Fiber Pathways of the Brain" (Oxford University Press, 2006), which describes how the VOF is structured in the brain of a monkey and a human.

The new study confirms the VOF's location in the human brain "and then presents a coherent discussion about how it could be relevant," said Schmahmann, who is also a director of the Laboratory for Neuroanatomy and Cerebellar Neurobiology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The VOF may have been the victim of a disagreement between Wernicke and his famous teacher, Theodor Meynert, a German-Austrian neuroanatomist. Meynert directed the psychiatric clinic at the University of Vienna, and also taught Sigmund Freud and the famed Russian neuropsychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff.

Wernicke is known for his 1874 discovery of Wernicke's area, a region of the brain essential for understanding written and spoken language. After his breakthrough, Wernicke studied in Meynert's lab for about six months in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

But although Wernicke also discovered the VOF, Meynert did not include it in any of his studies. It's possible that Meynert ignored the pathway because it broke one of his tenets about brain organization, Yeatman told Live Science.

"Meynert had proposed the original theory of the organization of these pathways," Yeatman said. "He proposed that, as a rule, they all go anterior-posterior, or basically from front to back, longitudinally across the brain."

The VOF, in contrast, goes up and down. "Wernicke's discovery contradicted this majorly accepted principle of brain organization," Yeatman said.

Other neuroanatomists found the VOF in the human brain, but the pathway sits largely unlabeled in brain atlases throughout history, Yeatman said.

Yet maybe Meynert didn't mean any harm, Schmahmann said. Meynert did not focus on fiber pathways in the occipital lobe, including, but not limited to the VOF. "Meynert's apparent non-discussion of these fiber systems may simply have reflected his interest and focus," Schmahmann said.

Moreover, the VOF's also went by many names, which may have pushed it into further obscurity. Atlases give it different labels, including "Wernicke's perpendicular fasciculus," "perpendicular occipital fasciculus of Wernicke" and "stratum profundum convexitatis."

Varying dissection techniques in the late 1800s and early 1900s also made the VOF hard to pinpoint.

"You're slicing with a knife and trying to look for structure. It's very easy to miss something if you slice it a different way," Yeatman said.

To remedy the confusion, Yeatman and his colleagues wrote an algorithm to help researchers find and identify the VOF. They used an MRI technique called diffusion-weighted imaging, which measures the size and direction of the brain's different pathways.

After imaging the brains of 37 people, the researchers found that the VOF starts in the occipital lobe, a part of the brain that processes visual information. It then spreads out like a sheet, connecting different brain regions: those that help people perceive visual categories, such as words and faces, and those involved with eye movements, attention and motion perception, the researchers said. The pathway could therefore help explain how the brain connects the two types of visual perception, Schmahmann said.

"There has to be some way for that dichotomy to merge," he said, "and the Wernicke fascicle is one way for the 'where' and the 'what' streams in the visual modality to become a unified whole."

Read more at Discovery News

Milky Way's Black Hole May Be Neutrino Factory

Less than three hours after astronomers detected the biggest burst of X-rays streaming from the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, a rarely seen, high-energy neutrino showed up in an underground detector in the South Pole.

A coincidence?

Scientists think not. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory made several more detections of the ghost-like particles a few days after the black hole, known as Sagittarius A*, flared, a newly released study shows.

The source of these tiny particles, which have virtually no mass and carry no electrical charge, has long been the subject of much debate. The particles permeate space, but are difficult to detect since they cannot be absorbed by matter or deflected by magnetic fields.

Since opening in 2010, IceCube has logged just 36 high-energy neutrinos.

While the study, published in Physical Review D, is not conclusive, it provides the first evidence that the Milky Way’s black hole, a region so dense with matter that not even photons of light can escape its gravitational fist, may be producing high-energy neutrinos. Sgr A*, as the black hole is known, is located about 26,000 light-years from Earth. Astronomers believe most galaxies harbor supermassive black holes in their cores.

“Figuring out where high-energy neutrinos come from is one of the biggest problems in astrophysics today,” study co-author Yang Bai, with the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said in a press release.

“We now have the first evidence that an astronomical source — the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole — may be producing these very energetic neutrinos,” Bai said.

Astronomers made the first correlation with observations from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Additional flares were observed by two more X-ray telescopes, Swift and NuSTAR.

Read more at Discovery News

Volcanoes May Have Warmed Mars Enough for Water

Volcanic eruptions could have kept Mars warm enough for liquid water to intermittently flow across its ancient surface, suggests a new study.

The new findings, reported in Nature Geoscience, could explain the discrepancy between climate models showing Mars was never capable of having liquid water on its surface, and clear geological signatures of lake beds and river valleys formed by flowing water.

"There's indisputable evidence that Mars was once warm enough for liquid water to flow on its surface," says one of the study's authors, Professor James Head of Brown University in Providence Rhode Island.

"It's difficult to reconcile this fact with the latest generation of very robust climate models, showing Mars was always very cold and very icy, with an atmosphere too thin to heat the planet enough for water to flow."

The picture of a warmer early Mars is further complicated by the Sun also being much dimmer billions of years ago than it is today.

Head and the study's lead author Dr Itay Halevy of the Weizmann Institute in Tel Aviv, found there was a huge increase in volcanic activity on Mars about 3.7 billion years ago, the same time as water flowed on the red planet's surface, forming river valleys, deltas and lakes.

Significant volcanic eruptions on Earth can cause cooling rather than warming, as sulfuric acid particles and thick ash plumes either absorb solar radiation or reflect it back into space, lowering temperatures.

But dust in the Martian atmosphere mitigates the cooling effect, says Head.

"We looked at Mars' early atmosphere being dusty, and our calculations suggest a lot of the [volcanic plume] minerals like sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid will adhere to these dust particles, reducing their ability to reflect the Sun's rays, delaying cooling," he explains.

The authors found brief periods of intense volcanic activity would have pumped significant levels of greenhouse-inducing sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere, warming the Martian equatorial region sufficiently for liquid water to flow.

"We calculate that 30 per cent of Mars was resurfaced by lava flows, that's a lot of lava, and it can erupt over relatively short periods of time," says Head.

"It comes out as flood basalts and can have a huge affect on a planet's atmosphere."

Similar flood basalt formations on Earth, such as India's Deccan traps, and the Siberian traps in Russia, covered thousands of square kilometres, and are thought to have been caused by deep mantle plumes.

"If you bring the temperature up above freezing for decades to centuries, that melts enough ice and snow to produce the geological features we see in Martian valley networks and open basin lakes, even in a cold and icy early Mars," says Head.

Head thinks the climate on early Mars may have some similarities to the cold, desert-like McMurdo dry valleys he's studied in Antarctica.

"The average yearly temperature in the Antarctic dry valleys is way below freezing, but peak summer daytime temperatures can exceed the melting point of water, forming transient streams, which then refreeze," says Head.

"In a similar manner, we find that volcanism can bring the temperature on early Mars above the melting point for decades to centuries at a time causing episodic periods of stream and lake formation."

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 17, 2014

Drone Spies Dolphins Surfing Ahead of Humpback Whale

A dolphin and whale tour group has caused a buzz on Facebook feeds of late with its footage (see video below) of dolphins swimming just ahead of the waves made by a local celebrity humpback whale.

Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Safari, in Dana Point, Calif., launched a drone on several days between early September and early November in order to document the unusual sight of dolphins happily deriving free propulsion from a whale known as Gooseneck. The humpback seems to have made a home off Orange County in the last 6-8 weeks and has been seen there almost every day.

In addition to the dolphins gliding along just below and above the water's surface, the video captures some terrific footage up close of Gooseneck underwater and also surfacing alongside a boat full of excited tourists.

The tour organizer says on its Youtube page that Gooseneck has also been seen "kelping," or draping itself in kelp, a behavior whose reason isn't yet understood.

From Discovery News

Vases in Pompeii Reveal Panic Before Eruption

French and Italian archaeologists digging out a pottery workshop in Pompeii have brought to light 10 raw clay vases, revealing a frozen-in-time picture of the exact moment panicked potters realized they were facing an impending catastrophe.

The vases were found sealed under a layer of ash and pumice from Mount Vesuvius' devastating eruption of 79 A.D. and it appears they were just ready to be fired.

They were dropped and abandoned, along with the kilns, after frightened potters saw a pine tree-shaped column of smoke bursting from Vesuvius on Aug. 24, 79 A.D.

Reaching nine miles into the sky, the column began spewing a thick pumice rain. Like many Pompeii residents, the scared potters probably rushed in the streets, trying to leave the city.

"They abandoned the workshop and everything they were doing at that moment," dig director Laëtitia Cavassa of the Center Jean Bérard, told Discovery News.

The pottery workshop was found in the area just outside the Herculaneum Gate. It consists of at least three rooms and two kilns.

"All the tools for the production of vases came to light with this excavation, including the pottery wheels," Fabio Galeandro, archaeologist at Pompeii surperintendency, told Discovery News.

Decorated with small carvings, the newly unearthed vases were used to pour wine or water.

"They are really unique items. The potters made them with clay, embellished them with decorations, and were ready to place them into the kiln when the Vesuvius erupted," Cavassa said.

Read more at Discovery News

San Francisco Streets Painted With Hidden Creeks

When Spanish explorers first mapped San Francisco, what they found would surprise today's residents. Nearly every valley had its own arroyo, or a creek that only appears when there's enough rain to fill it. A new art project will place them under the feet of busy commuters, approximating in paint or light where the small waterways used to run.

The concept was developed for the Market Street Prototyping Festival by designer Emily Schlickman and her collaborator, radio producer Kristina Loring, who will contribute a soundscape for the project.

Though they're hidden, some of the creeks still exist after a fasion. They've been routed underground and tied into the city's sewer system.

The Oakland Museum of California has created a map of the hidden waterways and reports that in Hayes Valley, where Hayes Creek would have run in wet weather: "It is said that a high groundwater table can be found at the basement of the San Francisco Symphony Hall and other Civic Center buildings."

From Discovery News

Major Quakes May Be Predicted by Subtle Shifts

When it comes to predicting major earthquakes -- and tsunamis -- scientists still get caught off guard. But a new way to measure small shifts in the Earth's offshore plates using GPS sensors may accurately provide a heads up, according to a new study.

"Giant earthquakes and tsunamis in the last decade -- Sumatra in 2004 and Japan in 2011 -- are a reminder that our ability to forecast these destructive events is painfully weak," said University of South Florida geologist Tim Dixon.

So-called "slow-slip events" were discovered about 15 years ago, and according to Dixon and his team they can be useful in predicting major quakes and tsunamis. The researchers used high-precision GPS to check on small shifts at a fault line in Costa Rica.

That data shows a number of slow-slip events -- which release energy slowly, over weeks and months and can't be felt or measured using conventional seismographs -- in the decade leading up to the 2012 Costa Rica earthquake.

The findings were published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

From Discovery News

Leonid Meteor Shower: What to Expect

In recent days, I've been hearing the excited murmurings of skywatchers: "The Leonids are coming!" That is indeed true. In fact, the Leonids are expected to reach their peak before dawn on Tuesday (Nov. 18).

No doubt, some folks are visualizing a sky filled with shooting stars pouring down through the sky like rain. Such meteor storms have indeed occurred with the Leonid meteor shower, such as in 1833 and 1966 when meteor rates of tens of thousands per hour were observed. In more recent years, most notably 1999, 2001 and 2002, lesser Leonid displays of up "only" a few thousand meteors per hour took place.

Those turn-of-the-century Leonid showers -- and their accompanying hype -- are what are remembered by many. So I think it is important to stress here at the outset that any suggestion of a spectacular meteor Leonid display this year is, to put it mildly, overly optimistic.

In fact, the 2014 Leonid meteor shower is more than likely to be a major disappointment chiefly because of the expected lack of any significant activity. It is for this reason then, that although the Leonids are one of the most famous of all the annual meteor displays we certainly would not advertise them as a major shower this year, especially to a newcomer to meteor observing, since they likely will be weak and there probably will be long stretches when not a single Leonid will be seen.

If bad weather or light pollution spoils your meteor display, you can also catch them online in two free webcasts Monday night by NASA and the Slooh Community Observatory. The webcast will begin at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT) and feature views of the night sky from the observatory's telescopes in the Canary Islands and Prescott, Arizona. NASA's webcast begins at 7:30 p.m. EST (0030 GMT) and will include a telescope view from the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

You can watch the Leonid meteor shower webcasts on, courtesy of Slooh and NASA.

Crumbs from a comet

The Leonid meteor shower gets its name because the shower's radiant point, from where the meteors seem to fan out, is located within the constellation of Leo, the Lion, from the backward question mark pattern of stars known as The Sickle." The meteors are caused by the Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which sweeps through the inner solar system every 33.5 years.

Each time the comet passes closest to the sun it leaves a "river of rubble" in its wake; a dense trail of dusty debris. A meteor storm becomes possible if the Earth were to score a direct hit on a fresh dust trail ejected by the comet over the past couple of centuries.

The "lion's share" (no pun intended) of comet dust can be found just ahead and trailing behind Tempel-Tuttle. That comet swept through the inner solar system in 1998. That's why spectacular meteor showers were seen in 1999, 2001 and 2002, with declining numbers thereafter.

This year finds Comet Tempel-Tuttle nearing the far end of its elongated orbit. In 2010, the comet crossed the orbit of Uranus and in 2016 it will be as far from the sun as it can get: 1.84 billion miles (2.96 billion km). That's not only where the comet is, but also where the heaviest concentrations of meteoroids are as well. In contrast, at the point in the comet's orbit where we will be passing by on Tuesday morning, there is nothing save for a scattered few particles; stragglers likely loosed from the comet's nucleus a millennium or two ago.

So the 2014 Leonids are expected to show only low activity this year; "maybe" at best 5 to 10 Leonids per hour might be seen. The moon will rise at around 2:40 a.m. your local time, but it will pose very little interference, being just a very thin crescent.

How to observe the Leonids: What you'll see

Watching a meteor shower consists of lying back, looking up at the sky … and waiting. Keep in mind that any local light pollution or obstructions like tall trees or buildings will further reduce your chances of making a meteor sighting.

The constellation Leo does not start coming fully into view until the after midnight hours, so that would be the best time to concentrate on looking for Leonids. As dawn is about to break at around 5 a.m. your local time, The Sickle will have climbed more than two-thirds of the way up from the southeast horizon to the point directly overhead (called the zenith). Brilliant Jupiter will not be too far away, shining like a dazzling non-twinkling silvery "star" to the west (right) of The Sickle.

Also, because the Leonids are moving along in their orbit around the sun in a direction opposite to that of Earth, they slam into our atmosphere nearly head-on, resulting in the fastest meteor velocities possible: 45 miles (72 km) per second. Such speeds tend to produce bright meteors, which leave long-lasting streaks or vapor trains in their wake.

A mighty Leonid fireball can be quite spectacular, but such outstandingly bright meteors are likely to be very few and very far between this year (if any are seen at all).

So, here's the bottom line: If you plan to brave the chill of a mid-November morning, and the prospects of catching a glimpse of only a few Leonids, well … you should get an award for perseverance. Good luck!

Read more at Discovery News