Dec 20, 2014

New species found in the deepest trench on Earth

Whitman biology professor Paul Yancey and students Anna Downing '16 and Chloe Weinstock '17 have returned from the first detailed study of the Mariana Trench aboard Schmidt Ocean Institute's research vessel Falkor.

The Mariana Trench -- located in the Western Pacific near Guam -- has been the focus of high-profile voyages to conquer Challenger Deep, the deepest place on Earth. This recent expedition to the Trench onboard Research Vessel Falkor targeted multiple depths and found active thriving communities of animals. The expedition set many new records, including the deepest rock samples ever collected and the discovery of new fish species at the greatest depths ever recorded.

This Hadal Ecosystem Studies (HADES) expedition departed from other deep-sea trench research by sampling a broad spectrum of environments using five deep-sea vehicle systems called landers at specifically targeted depths from 5000 to 10,600 meters (16,404 to 34,777 feet). Rather than solely focusing on the deepest point in the Mariana Trench, a concerted effort was made to gain a better understanding of the interplay between life and geologic processes across the entire hadal zone.

Dr. Jeff Drazen, co-chief scientist, expressed the drive behind this method: "Many studies have rushed to the bottom of the trench, but from an ecological view that is very limiting. It's like trying to understand a mountain ecosystem by only looking at its summit."

The findings from this research will help to answer important questions about Earth's largest and least explored habitat, including what organisms live there and how life adapts to these extreme conditions, as well as, how much carbon in the atmosphere reaches the deep sea and if it affects the food chains there.

New species were discovered on this expedition that will provide insight into the physiological adaptations of animals to this high-pressure environment. This research is being conducted in the lab of Whitman College's Professor of Biology Paul Yancey. In the past, Yancey and his students, working on animals from moderate depths, discovered certain organic molecules that protect the cells of deep-sea animals from the effects of high pressure, which distorts proteins such as enzymes. These kinds of protective molecules are also being tested to treat human diseases that are caused by malformed proteins, such as cystic fibrosis. Additionally, his work on protective molecules in fishes predicted that fish would not be able to live below about 8,200 meters (27,060 feet). Prior to this expedition, the deepest documented fish was from 7,700 meters (25,410 feet).

"In this new research, my students Chloe Weinstock '17 and Anna Downing '16 and I want to see if such molecules help animals at the greatest ocean depths -- about 35,000 feet in the Mariana Trench," said Yancey. "In a preliminary analysis of amphipods we got from the Kermadec Trench (33,000 feet deep) last spring, Gemma Wallace '14 and I discovered high levels of a potentially protective molecule, scyllo-inositol, that is coincidentally being tested by medical researchers to treat malformed proteins thought to cause Alzheimer's Disease."

The expedition also broke several records for the deepest living fish either caught or seen on video. Setting the record at 8,143 meters, (26,872 feet) was a completely unknown variety of snailfish, which stunned scientists when it was filmed several times during seafloor experiments. The white translucent fish had broad wing-like fins and an eel-like tail, and slowly glided over the bottom.

Additionally, the deepest rock samples ever obtained from the inner slope of the Trench represent some of the earliest volcanic eruptions of the Mariana Island arc. These rocks can provide significant information on the geology of the trench system.

Read more at Science Daily

Atom-thick CCD could capture images

An atomically thin material developed at Rice University may lead to the thinnest-ever imaging platform.

Synthetic two-dimensional materials based on metal chalcogenide compounds could be the basis for superthin devices, according to Rice researchers. One such material, molybdenum disulfide, is being widely studied for its light-detecting properties, but copper indium selenide (CIS) also shows extraordinary promise.

Sidong Lei, a graduate student in the Rice lab of materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan, synthesized CIS, a single-layer matrix of copper, indium and selenium atoms. Lei also built a prototype -- a three-pixel, charge-coupled device (CCD) -- to prove the material's ability to capture an image.

The details appear this month in the American Chemical Society journal Nano Letters.

Lei said the optoelectronic memory material could be an important component in two-dimensional electronics that capture images. "Traditional CCDs are thick and rigid, and it would not make sense to combine them with 2-D elements," he said. "CIS-based CCDs would be ultrathin, transparent and flexible, and are the missing piece for things like 2-D imaging devices."

The device traps electrons formed when light hits the material and holds them until released for storage, Lei said.

CIS pixels are highly sensitive to light because the trapped electrons dissipate so slowly, said Robert Vajtai, a senior faculty fellow in Rice's Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering. "There are many two-dimensional materials that can sense light, but none are as efficient as this material," he said. "This material is 10 times more efficient than the best we've seen before."

Because the material is transparent, a CIS-based scanner might use light from one side to illuminate the image on the other for capture. For medical applications, Lei envisions CIS being combined with other 2-D electronics in tiny bio-imaging devices that monitor real-time conditions.

In the experiments for the newly reported study, Lei and colleagues grew synthetic CIS crystals, pulled single-layer sheets from the crystals and then tested the ability of the layers to capture light. He said the layer is about two nanometers thick and consists of a nine-atom-thick lattice. The material may also be grown via chemical vapor deposition to a size limited only by the size of the furnace, Lei said.

Because it's flexible, CIS could also be curved to match the focal surface of an imaging lens system. He said this would allow for the real-time correction of aberrations and significantly simplify the entire optical system.

Co-authors of the paper are Rice graduate students Fangfang Wen and Yongji Gong; postdoctoral researchers Bo Li, Pei Dong, Anthony George and Liehui Ge; undergraduates Qizhong Wang, James Bellah and Yihan Huang; complementary appointee Yongmin He of Lanzhou University, China; Jun Lou, an associate professor of materials science and nanoengineering, and Naomi Halas, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of chemistry, biomedical engineering, physics and astronomy and of materials science and nanoengineering. Ajayan is Rice's Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Engineering, professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry and chair of the Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering.

Read more at Science Daily

Dec 19, 2014

Greek Mystery Tomb Occupant to Be Revealed Soon

The identity of the skeleton found in the mysterious, richly decorated tomb in Amphipolis in northern Greece will be revealed next month, the Greek Ministry of Culture said.

According to the statement, macroscopic study of the bones, conducted by universities in Thessaloniki and Thrace, will provide answers on the individual’s sex, age and height.

Archaeologists led by Katerina Peristeri unearthed the human remains last month. The skeleton was found scattered within and outside a box-shaped limestone grave placed at about 5.3 feet beneath the floor of the the tomb’s third chamber.

The finding was the last chapter of an extraordinary archaeological exploration that winded through huge decapitated sphinxes, walls guarded by colossal caryatids (female statues that serve as architectural support) and floors decorated with stunning mosaics.

The ministry dismissed as “unfounded” some leaks on the Internet and Greek websites about the identity of the individual buried at the massive tomb — about a third of a mile in circumference — dating back to Alexander the Great’s reign in the late 4th century B.C.

Indeed, citing “exclusive information,” the Amfipoli News website wrote the skeleton belongs to a 54-year-old woman. This would mean that the tomb’s occupant is most likely Olympias, Alexander the Great’s mother.

According to Andrew Chugg, author of “The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great” and the first scholar who suggested Olympias as the tomb occupant, the Greek ministry statement “does not actually contradict the leak that the skeleton belongs to a woman aged 54.”

“It does suggest that an examination of the skeleton has taken place and that there are results to report, because the ministry could not otherwise be certain that it would have results to announce in January as it has promised,” Chugg told Discovery News.

A princess from the Epirus region in the northwest of the Greek peninsula, Olympias played a key role in the power struggle that followed the deaths his husband Philip II and her son Alexander the Great.

Her effort to establish her grandson Alexander IV as the sole king of an enormous empire prompted her enemy Cassander to orchestrate her execution in 316 B.C.

Read more at Discovery News

THIS is What it's Like to Reenter the Earth's Atmosphere: Video

In a mesmerizing new video released by NASA, the full reentry of the Orion test space vehicle is chronicled — and it’s a phenomenal 10-minute ride from fiery reentry to sudden splashdown into the Pacific Ocean, all put to dreamy space music.

On Dec. 5, Orion was blasted into space by a Delta 4 Heavy rocket in the first space worthiness test of the US space agency’s next-generation space vehicle. The successful test flight was intended to imitate the full force of slamming into the Earth’s atmosphere at velocities close to the speed a spacecraft would be traveling if it was on a return trajectory from a deep space origin.

The unmanned Orion test vehicle was sent on an elliptical orbit around the Earth, traveling a maximum distance of 3,604 miles from Earth, far beyond the orbit of the International Space Station. The manned version of Orion will will eventually be tasked with transporting astronauts to destinations beyond Earth orbit — an altitude an astronaut hasn’t traveled beyond since the Apollo era and the 1960′s and 70′s — to asteroids and, potentially, Mars.

So for now, we have this stunning video that gives us a capsule-eye view of reentry. For reference, the camera is looking ‘up’ from behind the capsule, so as Orion’s lager heat shield bears the brunt of atmospheric heating as it reenters through the stratosphere, we’re looking along the ionization trail of this man-made meteor as it dashes through the sky.


From Discovery News

The Flame Nebula Smolders in New Spitzer Photo

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which views the cosmos in infrared light, has taken a fresh look at the beautiful Flame Nebula, revealing some fascinating features that would otherwise remain invisible at other wavelengths.

But wait, what’s that hiding in the delicate tendrils of gas and dust to the right of the observation?

That familiar shape is of course the Horsehead Nebula, a feature made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope in optical wavelengths. However, when viewed in infrared light, the Horsehead Nebula becomes a ghostly apparition.

Observations in optical wavelengths highlight the opaque dust, but in infrared wavelengths, that dust becomes invisible, the infrared light cuts straight through, leaving only wisps of structure that outlines the ‘head’ of the nebula.

Infrared astronomy is a powerful tool when studying nebulae like the Flame Nebula, located around 1,200 light-years away adjacent to Alnitak, the westernmost star in Orion’s belt. Deep inside the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, of which the Flame and Horsehead Nebula are members, is a frenzy of stellar evolution. Stars are forming from the molecular hydrogen, but in optical wavelengths, we cannot see the stars coming to life.

Infrared observations, on the other hand, act as a stellar ultrasound of sorts; the infrared light from intense heating by the baby stars cuts straight through the dense nebula, allowing us to see inside the cloud of dust and gas.

In this observation, the white and blueish represent hues represent the hottest objects, whereas the green and reddish hues represent the cooler dust in the nebula. Data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, was also used to complement the Spitzer data surrounding this Orion Molecular Cloud Complex view.

From Discovery News

The Most Massive Young Galaxy Cluster Ever Discovered

This image, a composite of x-ray, infrared, and optical data, shows the most massive galaxy cluster ever discovered at its distance: a staggering 9.6 billion light-years away, altogether containing the equivalent mass of 400 trillion suns.

With the unwieldy official name of XDCP J0044.0-2033 researchers have nicknamed the cluster “Gioiello,” meaning “jewel” in Italian. And it’s a fitting name due to the brightness of the energetic star-forming galaxies in X-ray wavelengths, which NASA’s Chandra and ESA’s XMM-Newton X-ray space observatories are designed to detect.

About 6.2 million light-years across in its entirety, the Gioiello cluster is located in the constellation of Cetus, the Whale. Its estimated age is about 800 million years — which is very young for such a massive cluster at that distance. By comparison our own Milky Way galaxy is at least 13.4 billion years old, if not older.

“Unlike the galaxy clusters that are close to us, this cluster still has lots of stars forming within its galaxies,” said study co-author Joana Santos. “This gives us a unique window into what galaxy clusters are like when they are very young.”

Combined with other recent discoveries of extremely massive and distant galaxy clusters — such as El Gordo, seven billion light-years away — these findings are forcing a reconsideration of how the early universe evolved.

From Discovery News

The World’s Goofiest-Looking Spider Is Actually a Brutal Ninja

Assassin spiders are like giraffes with giant jaws and way too many legs. All the way at the top of that neck is its head, which sprouts those wonderful jaws.
Among Inspector Gadget’s many strange features—teeth that fly around on their own (go, go gadget teeth) and a flower that pops out of his hat (go, go gadget flower) and of course gadget Spanish translation—it’s his telescoping neck that seems to most defy conventional biology. But it’d be hard to argue that a super-long neck doesn’t come in handy in a pinch.

Just ask the bizarre assassin spiders of Australia, South America, and Madagascar, with their craning necks and enormous jaws and general what-in-the-what-now appearance. These beauties (also known appropriately enough as pelican spiders) hunt other spiders, and by deploying their jaws out 90 degrees from their necks, they can impale prey, inject venom, and let them dangle there to die, all without getting bitten themselves. It’s a bit like the school bully holding a nerd at arm’s-length while the poor kid swings hopelessly at the air.

Now, spiders aren’t supposed to have necks, and in fact calling this a neck is a bit of a misnomer. The front bit of a spider is known as the cephalothorax, where you find its legs and mouthparts and eyes, and on top of that is a plate known as a carapace (these terms are a bit goofy so I’m going to keep calling it a neck for the sake of your brain, but now you know the score). So they don’t really have a head as we’d recognize it. But in the assassin spiders, that carapace has been extremely elongated into a kind of tube. The eyes and the jaws (scientifically known as chelicerae, so I’ll just keep calling them jaws if you don’t mind) sit up at the top. Perhaps most weirdly, though, the feeding mouthparts remain down at the base of the neck. So really they have necks in the middle of their faces.

Madagascar’s Eriauchenius gracilicollis assassin spider and its victim. One of its jaws is lowered, while the prey is impaled on the other.
This all makes the assassin spiders somewhat … ungainly. Indeed, they tend to spend nearly all their time hanging upside down on leaves and such, and “it’s almost awkward for them to walk upright,” said arachnologist Hannah Wood of the University of California, Davis. “They’re a little bit top-heavy, especially the species with the longest necks.” But Wood reckons that instead of their weird bodies long ago encouraging them to walk upside down, “it might be that since they all were upside down, that allowed for some of the necks to get really, really long, longer than if they were constrained walking upright.”

This is not to say that these spiders are anything short of master hunters. They’re the stealthy ninjas of the forest, feeling around for other spiders’ silk droplines with their elongated front legs, which function almost like antennae (they never build their own webs, by the way—they’re nomads). Once they’ve got a lead, they move gingerly toward the web so as to not arouse the suspicion of their prey. As they get closer, they pause at the edge of the web, or drop down on top of it with a silk line like Batman and whatnot. “It’s all very, very slow,” said Wood. “And I think it’s such a slow movement that their prey probably doesn’t register that it’s another spider that’s coming to attack them.”

They’ll then begin plucking at the web with those elongated front legs, all the while constantly feeling around for their target (they’re unlikely to use vision at this point, because their two biggest eyes are situated almost on the sides of their heads). The dupe comes to investigate, and the assassin strikes, firing those jaws from their tucked-in resting position to 90 degrees and lunging to impale the poor critter (think of it like a forklift, but instead of lifting something gently with the forks the spider is just murdering it). Fangs at the tips of the jaws inject venom, as the assassin holds its prey well away from its body. It would seem this bizarre body evolved, then, to keep the wounded spider from biting back. And in this way, the assassin spider can take on prey almost as big as itself.

Austrarchaea nodosa from Australia. The assassin spider’s beautiful dough eyes probably only help it stalk prey from afar. They’ll use their front legs as antennae when they get in close for the kill.
Weirdly, as soon as the prey is impaled, the assassin lowers one of its jaws back to the resting position, leaving the other at 90 degrees. Why that is, Wood can’t say. Really, it seems like a good way for your meal to slip out of your grasp. But it probably has something to do with energy efficiency, and it usually doesn’t take long for the prey to perish anyway. After a while, the assassin spider will use those long legs to feel the prey to make sure it isn’t moving anymore, then lower the jaws back down, perfectly aligning the food at the tip with the mouthparts at the base of the neck. And then it’s feeding time.

Those crazy jaws aren’t just for hunting, though. They’re also sexy violins.

A doting mama assassin spider, Eriauchenius workmani, with her egg case. They look a bit like Milk Duds, don’t they? Also, what’s the deal with calling them Milk Duds? Doesn’t seem to telegraph much faith in your product.
 You see, when two assassin spiders love each other very much, they flirt by vibrating their abdomens. “And then they also have these little modified pair of legs called pedipalps, really close to the mouthparts,” Wood said. “And they have specialized hairs that they rub on the jaws, and they vibrate that really quickly and make sounds.” Then once they do decide to mate, they line up belly to belly, facing away from each other—on account of those big heads being in the way. The male will then use his pedipalps to grab a sperm bundle from his genital opening and place it in the female’s genital opening.

Read more at Wired Science

Dec 18, 2014

Prehistoric Platypus-like Reptile Uncovered in China

A bizarre prehistoric platypus-like species of marine reptile with a short neck and duck-like beak has been discovered by palaeontologists in China.

The 248-million-year-old fossil, which has been named Eohupehsuchus brevicollis, belongs to a group of mysterious early Triassic marine reptiles called hupehsuchians, which have so far only been unearthed in two counties in Hubei Province.

The 40-centimetre-long creature lived in a shallow inland sea, and was a distant cousin of the ichthyosaur.

"Probably the best living analogue for this marine reptile is the duck-billed platypus from Australia," says one of the paper's authors Professor Ryosuke Motani of the University of California Davis.

"Although it's a very different animal, it had a skull and beak like a duck without teeth, a very heavily built body with thick bones, and paddles to swim through the water. The details are different, but the general body design looks similar to a platypus."

Motani thinks the new species, described today in the journal PLOS ONE, probably lived on a diet of worms and shrimp, hence the unusual duck bill for sifting through sediments on the sea floor.

Unlike other hupehsuchians which have distinctive moderately long necks containing nine or ten cervical vertebrae, Eohupehsuchus brevicollis is the first member of the group to have a very short neck with only six cervical vertebrae.

The animal's skull is also different with a narrow forehead and parietal bones on the top of the head shifted back.

Ossification on the bones indicated this was a fully-grown adult member of its species rather than a juvenile.

The fossil was discovered in 2011 during a systematic excavation undertaken by the Geological Survey of China in the Yuan'an County in Hubei Province.

The nearly complete fossil is only missing the tip of the left forelimb which ended in a series of broken digits.

"The tip of the paddle is broken in a strange way, that could only have happened prior to burial," says Motani.

"It looks like the tip was bitten off by a predator, but the creature escaped and the wound healed.

"This small animal was living with much bigger predators reaching three metres or more, with big teeth, and they probably saw it as prey."

Hupehsuchians have been known about for half a century, however this new discovery shows they were far more diverse than previously thought with at least four species now known.

"We're finding many new specimens and surprisingly these bizarre-looking animals have a lot of diversity about them," says Motani.

Hupehsuchians lived just after the end Permian mass extinction event which peaked about 252 million years ago, killing off some 96 per cent of all marine life, and 70 per cent of terrestrial life on Earth.

"This was the planet's worst mass extinction event and it took a long time for the ecosystem to recover, so we were surprised to see so much diversity so soon after the mass extinction," says Motani.

Read more at Discovery News

Million-Mummy Cemetery Unearthed in Egypt

She's literally one in a million.

The remains of a child, laid to rest more than 1,500 years ago when the Roman Empire controlled Egypt, was found in an ancient cemetery that contains more than 1 million mummies, according to a team of archaeologists from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

The cemetery is now called Fag el-Gamous, which means "Way of the Water Buffalo," a title that comes from the name of a nearby road. Archaeologists from Brigham Young University have been excavating Fag el-Gamous, along with a nearby pyramid, for about 30 years. Many of the mummies date to the time when the Roman or Byzantine Empire ruled Egypt, from the 1st century to the 7th century A.D.

"We are fairly certain we have over a million burials within this cemetery. It's large, and it's dense," Project Director Kerry Muhlestein, an associate professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, said in a paper he presented at the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities Scholars Colloquium, which was held last month in Toronto.

This cemetery was not a burial ground for kings or royalty. The people buried here were often laid to rest without grave goods, and without coffins for that matter, the researchers said. The deceased's internal organs were rarely removed; instead, it was the arid natural environment that mummified them. "I don't think you would term what happens to these burials as true mummification," Muhlestein said. "If we want to use the term loosely, then they were mummified."

Despite the low status of the dead, the researchers found some remarkably beautiful items, including linen, glass and even colorful booties designed for a child.

"A lot of their wealth, as little as they had, was poured into these burials," Muhlestein said.

The mummified child was buried with several other mummies. It was wrapped in a tunic and wore a necklace with two bracelets on each arm.

"There was some evidence that they tried much of the full mummification process. The toes and toenails and brain and tongue were amazingly preserved," the researchers wrote on the project's Facebook page. "The jewelry makes us think it was a girl, but we cannot tell."

Researchers estimate the infant was 18 months old when she died. "She was buried with great care, as someone who obviously loved her very much did all they could to take care of this little girl in burial," the researchers wrote. It's "very sad, but they succeeded. It was a beautiful burial."

Where exactly these million mummies came from is an ongoing mystery, and one that the team has yet to solve. A nearby village seems too small to warrant such a large cemetery, the researchers said. There is an ancient town named Philadelphia (so named after King Ptolemy II Philadelphus) not far away, but that town has burial sites of its own.

While there is a small pyramid nearby, it was built more than 4,500 years ago, which is more than two millennia before the cemetery was first used.

"It's hard to know where all these people were coming from," Muhlestein told Live Science.

The stories that these million mummies tell appear endless. The Brigham Young team has excavated more than 1,000 of the mummies over the past 30 years, and Muhlestein admits the team has a publishing backlog.

One discovery that hasn't been published is of a mummy who is more than 7 feet (2 meters) tall. "We once found a male who was over 7 feet tall who was far too tall to fit into the shaft, so they bent him in half and tossed him in," Muhlestein told the audience in Toronto.

That's an extraordinary height given the generally poor nutrition these people had, Muhlestein told Live Science in an interview, adding that "even with great nutrition, it's really unusual" for an individual to reach that height. The great height could be because of a medical condition that caused an excess of growth hormone, but more research needs to be done to determine this.

This surprisingly tall mummy was discovered before Muhlestein became director, and the findings have yet to be published, he said. "We have a large publishing backlog, we're trying to catch up on making our colleagues and the public aware [of the finds]."

Read more at Discovery News

Robot Captures Views of Hidden Arctic Ecosystem

A nimble underwater robot has traveled below Arctic sea ice and collected the most extensive real-time video footage yet from this largely unexplored environment, revealing an unexpectedly rich ecosystem, scientists report.

Researchers have long known that algae and other small organisms thrive on the undersurface of Arctic sea ice — particularly in regions thin enough for sunlight to shine through and support photosynthesis. But, scientists have not been able to closely examine this environment in its pristine state, because the icebreakers they typically use to reach field sites tend to disturb the sea ice.

Researchers based at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts have now built a new remotely operated vehicle (ROV), called the Nereid Under Ice (NUI) vehicle, that solves this problem by diving beneath ice and delicately transmitting oceanographic data and real-time video footage to researchers on a ship through a thin fiber-optic cable.

Sixteen hours of video footage from the NUI vehicle's first four trial runs this past summer revealed a surprising abundance of life under the ice, including algae, jellyfish, and gelatinous animals called larvaceans, the team reported here Tuesday (Dec. 16) at the 47th annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

"What might look on the surface like a barren wasteland may actually be a thriving ecosystem," study co-author Christopher German, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told reporters in a news briefing.

The underwater robot's thin fiber-optic cable is only about as thick as a human hair, and gives it more flexibility and finesse than typical ROVs with thicker tethers that usually only travel directly below a ship. During its trial runs, the NUI vehicle was able to travel as far as 2,600 feet (800 meters) laterally from the ship, and was able to complete 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers) of track-line surveys, the team reported. If the cable breaks, the robot is programmed to find its way back to the ship autonomously.

The robot documented organisms that form not only the base of the Arctic food web that supports larger animals like seals and polar bears, but smaller organisms that also play an important role in the global carbon cycle, by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and eventually dragging it to the seafloor when they die. This so-called biological pump helps mitigate the warming effects of fossil fuel emissions by drawing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, the researchers said.

The scientists are using the NUI's data to gather baseline information about this important sub-ice environment now, so they can better understand how its role in the global carbon cycle may change in the future, with thinning ice due to climate change.

"It's one of these habitats that we have never seen before and we are understanding them as we are changing them," study researcher Antje Boetius, a marine biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, said during the news briefing.

The team is now working to analyze the data collected from the robot, and eventually hopes to equip the ROV to explore more extreme environments. The team's ultimate goal is to send it beneath the underbelly of a floating glacial tongue to study the region where a glacier meets the seabed, called its grounding line. A glacier's grounding line plays an important role in the speed at which it melts and slips into a body of water, which has key implications for rising sea levels.

Read more at Discovery News

Think You're All European or African? Most Are Mixed

Many Americans who identify as European actually carry African ancestry just as many Americans who identify as African carry European ancestry, finds an extensive new genetic analysis.

DNA tells no lies, so the findings, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, reveal just what a melting pot of different racial and ethnic groups exists in the United States.

“Our study not only reveals the historical underpinnings of regional differences in genetic ancestry, but also sheds light on the complex relationships between genetic ancestry and self-identified race and ethnicity,” study author Katarzyna Bryc of 23andMe and Harvard Medical School said in a press release.

Bryc and her team studied DNA sequence variations called “single-nucleotide polymorphisms” in the genomes of more than 160,000 African Americans, Latinos and European Americans. Study participants provided saliva samples, where the DNA sequence variations were found.

The researchers found that more than 6 million Americans who self-identify as European likely carry African ancestry. As many as 5 million self-described European Americans might have at least 1 percent Native American ancestry, according to the study.

The researchers also determined that regional ancestry differences reflect historical events in the United States, such as waves of immigration. For example, Scandinavian ancestry is found in trace proportions in most states, but it makes up about 10 percent of ancestry in European Americans living in Minnesota and the Dakotas.

The scientists also discovered that people identify roughly with the majority of their genetic ancestry.

Read more at Discovery News

Could the Higgs be Part of the Matter-Antimatter Problem?

As excitement grows for the the second 3-year run of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), physicists are frantically planning the experiments that will be carried out when the particle accelerator starts slamming particles together at record energies in 2015.

One of those experiments, as discussed by a collaboration of particle physicists in a new paper published in the journal Physical Review D, could focus on why the universe is dominated by matter and not antimatter, one of the most enduring mysteries in modern physics.

And the focus of the study? Yes, the infamous Higgs boson may be at least partially to blame for our universe’s matter-antimatter asymmetry.

When the universe began, right at the ignition of the Big Bang some 13.75 billion years ago, particles of matter and antimatter should have been generated in equal numbers. As all Star Trek fans know, should matter and antimatter meet, total annihilation occurs. Therefore, if equal quantities of matter and antimatter were generated, there should be no matter or antimatter left in the universe — instead, the universe would have remained as a soup of energy where matter (or antimatter) could not form.

But as we look around us, although tiny quantities of antimatter can be found, the universe is obviously filled with matter. So the question is: Why did matter win out?

Since the discovery of the Higgs boson, physicists have been studying its characteristics in the LHC data. As the particle accelerator collides protons inside its building-sized detectors, a few isolated Higgs bosons are generated. But they don’t last long in isolation; they quickly break down — or “decay” — into other subatomic particles and energy.

The Higgs boson itself is not directly observed by the LHC, instead it is the Higgs’ decay particles that are detected. After billions and billions of collisions, eventually a strong enough signal was generated that, in 2012, LHC scientists were able to triumphantly announce the Higgs boson’s historic discovery. This was significant, not only because it was observational evidence of a boson that was theorized back in the 1960s, but because it appeared to be a Standard Model Higgs at a theorized energy of 125 GeV/c2 — basically the final and elusive piece of the Standard Model that describes all particles and forces (except gravity) in nature.

Now there could be a twist to the Higgs story.

As the Higgs field is intimately tied to matter, physicists are understandably asking whether the Higgs could be the driving force of the matter-antimatter unbalance, which specifically focuses on a phenomenon known as charge-parity (CP) violation.

“Searching for CP violation at the LHC is tricky,” said Matt Dolan, a research associate at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, Calif. “We’ve just started to look into the properties of the Higgs, and the experiments must be very carefully designed if we are to improve our understanding of how the Higgs behaves under different conditions.”

In its most basic sense, CP violation means that nature treats a particle (matter) and its antiparticle (antimatter) differently, a phenomenon that SLAC’s BaBar experiment studies. When the universe was born, there must have been a CP violation as nature somehow treats matter differently from antimatter, so there is some physical subtlety that we haven’t yet understood.

As detailed in a SLAC news release, physicists first need to confirm the Higgs fits into the Standard Model, then they need to take extremely detailed measurements of the decay products and the jets of energy the Higgs decay generates. One particular type of Higgs decay centers on the production of two tau particles — leptons that are basically massive electrons — where the remaining energy of the proton-proton collisions sprays into two defined jets.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 17, 2014

Femme Fatale Mantis Makes a Meal Out of Males

A starving female mantis is better than her well-fed counterparts at using pheromones to attract males, new research suggests.

But her signals are deceptive. While they promise sex, the female's real quest is to eat the male so she has the energy to reproduce, says evolutionary biologist Dr Kate Barry of Macquarie University.

"The male is quite a large meal compared to any other prey type that the female would consume, and they can therefore use those resources to produce more eggs and have more babies," says Barry.

For a couple of decades now, some scientists have believed that malnourished female mantises can use sex pheromones to deceptively attract males so they can cannibalise them for food.

But studies to date, including two by Barry herself, have not supported this Femme Fatale hypothesis.

Instead, research has found that the more nourished a female mantis is, the more pheromones she produces. And poorly-nourished females have not been found to attract more males than those that are well-nourished.

This has led many scientists to conclude that a female needs to be well-nourished to produce pheromones, and that these chemicals are a reliable signal to males that a female is in good condition, with lots of eggs, and is likely to be a good mate.

However, Barry was still convinced hungry females were practising chemical deception but the design of experiments was just failing to pick this up, so she set up a new experiment designed to make up for what she saw as defects in earlier studies.

She put three groups of eight female false garden mantids (Pseudomantis albofimbriata) in cages made of mesh, which obscured the females from sight.

Each group of eight included females whose nourishment status was either 'very poor', 'poor', 'medium' or 'good'.

Barry then watched what happened as she released males around the caged females.

She found that for the 'poor', 'medium' and 'good' groups, the higher the nourishment status the more males the females attracted (5, 10 and 15, respectively).

"There was a nice positive correlation between female body condition and the number of males attracted," says Barry. "That's what you would expect in a normal non-deceptive system."

But Barry found the females in the 'very poor' group attracted the most males of all (25).

She says this was presumably due to the production of better quality or greater amounts of pheromones for deceptive purposes.

The findings support the Femme Fatale hypothesis, and the idea that a hungry female will spend resources on producing pheromone because it's worth the benefits she gets from deceiving the male.

The results are published today in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B.

A key difference between Barry's most recent study and earlier research was that it took into consideration research showing that a female mantis needs to have at least one egg to produce sex pheromones.

While previous studies had not considered this, Barry confirmed the presence of eggs in all the females by dissecting them at the end of the experiment.

Cannibalism in Pseudomantis albofimbriata begins before copulation, says Barry.

The first thing the female does is bite off the male's head and forelegs to disable him as quickly as possible.

But, says Barry, the male can still get his end in before he is completely eaten.

Because he has two brains — one in his head, and one in his abdomen — a headless male is able to bend the rest of his long body around to copulate.

Read more at Discovery News

Strange Rock from Russia Contains 30,000 Diamonds

Here's the perfect Christmas gift for the person who has everything: A red and green rock, ornament-sized, stuffed with 30,000 teeny-tiny diamonds.

The sparkly chunk was pulled from Russia's huge Udachnaya diamond mine and donated to science (the diamonds' tiny size means they're worthless as gems). It was a lucky break for researchers, because the diamond-rich rock is a rare find in many ways, scientists reported Monday (Dec. 15) at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting.

"The exciting thing for me is there are 30,000 itty-bitty, perfect octahedrons, and not one big diamond," said Larry Taylor, a geologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who presented the findings. "It's like they formed instantaneously."

The concentration of diamonds in the rock is millions of times greater than that in typical diamond ore, which averages 1 to 6 carats per ton, Taylor said. A carat is a unit of weight (not size), and is roughly equal to one-fifth of a gram, or 0.007 ounces.

The astonishing amount of diamonds, and the rock's unusual Christmas coloring, will provide important clues to Earth's geologic history as well as the origin of these prized gemstones, Taylor said. "The associations of minerals will tell us something about the genesis of this rock, which is a strange one indeed," he said.

Although diamonds have been desired for centuries, and are now understood well enough to be recreated in a lab, their natural origins are still a mystery.

"The reactions in which diamonds occur still remain an enigma," Taylor told Live Science.

Scientists think diamonds are born deep below Earth's surface, in the layer between the crust and core called the mantle. Explosive volcanic eruptions then carry hunks of diamond-rich mantle to the surface. However, most mantle rocks disintegrate during the trip, leaving only loose crystals at the surface. The Udachnaya rock is one of the rare nuggets that survived the rocketing ride.

Taylor works with researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences to study Udachnaya diamonds. The scientists first probed the entire rock with an industrial X-ray tomography scanner, which is similar to a medical CT scanner but capable of higher X-ray intensities. Different minerals glow in different colors in the X-ray images, with diamonds appearing black.

The thousands upon thousands of diamonds in the rock cluster together in a tight band. The clear crystals are just 0.04 inches (1 millimeter) tall and are octahedral, meaning they are shaped like two pyramids that are glued together at the base. The rest of the rock is speckled with larger crystals of red garnet, and green olivine and pyroxene. Minerals called sulfides round out the mix. A 3D model built from the X-rays revealed the diamonds formed after the garnet, olivine and pyroxene minerals.

Exotic materials captured inside diamonds, in tiny capsules called inclusions, can also provide hints as to how they were made. The researchers beamed electrons into the inclusions to identify the chemicals trapped inside. The chemicals included carbonate, a common mineral in limestone and seashells, as well as garnet.

Read more at Discovery News

Strict Belief-Based Diet Contributes to Child's Death

A religious couple in Calgary, Canada, face trial following the death of their toddler son who died in November of 2013, allegedly brought about due to a belief-based diet and lack of medical care.

The coroner determined that the parents, who are Seventh Day Adventists, hadn’t taken their 14-month-old boy, John Clark, to a doctor since birth and are strict vegans. According to an article on CTV News:
“An autopsy and additional tests confirmed the child’s death was the result of a Staph infection complicated by malnutrition. According to police, the parents, Jeromie and Jennifer, attempted to conceal the infant’s failing health. ‘We believe that the family followed a strict dietary regiment based on their beliefs,’ said CPS S/Sgt. Doug Andrus.”

Calgary police determined that John Clark was not born at a hospital but instead at home—a lawful practice, but one that led to the child not receiving any neonatal care or indeed any medical attention at all during his life. The infection the boy died from would have been easily treatable with antibiotics had his parents brought him to medical attention during its early stages. The child, weakened by the extreme vegan diet enforced by his parents, was not healthy enough to allow him to recover on his own.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church is known for promoting a healthy lifestyle among its members, including not smoking, avoiding “unclean” food products mentioned in Leviticus (such as pork) and vegetarianism. The church does not officially endorse veganism, though according to an article in the Calgary Sun, “more than 60 percent of Adventists are vegetarian.”

The rise over the past decade of health eating, driven by a renewed health consciousness, has also given rise to an increase in the number of babies and children dying of starvation induced by their vegetarian and vegan parents. As an article in “The New York Times” notes:
“A vegan diet is dangerous for weaned babies and toddlers, who need plenty of protein and calcium. Too often, vegans turn to soy, which actually inhibits growth and reduces absorption of protein and minerals. That’s why health officials in Britain, Canada and other countries express caution about soy for babies.”

Read more at Discovery News

Fantastically Wrong: What Darwin Really Screwed Up About Evolution

Oh cheer up, old pal. You had one of the greatest ideas ever. So what if you got a bit of it wrong? Plus, you’ve got that sweet beard. Not all of us can have such sweet beards.
It’s hard to overstate just how brilliant and huge an idea Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was and continues to be. It absolutely rocked Victorian England, to the extent that stuffy old Victorian England could be rocked past people just barely raising their voices in polite protest. But some folks, particularly highly religious types, weren’t too happy with the idea that nature can run perfectly fine on its own, without the guiding hand of a higher power. Not happy in the least bit.

But contrary to popular belief today, scientists were kicking around the idea of evolution before Darwin—even Charles’ grandpa, Erasmus, alluded to it in verse, like a true OG. Charles’ contribution was specifically the natural selection bit, that organisms vary, and these variations can better suit individuals to their environment, thus boosting their chances of passing down these traits to future generations. (Weirdly, Darwin’s friend, the brilliant naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, had arrived at the same idea independently at around the same time. The two presented their preliminary findings to the Linnean Society of London, before Darwin blew the lid off the whole thing with On the Origin of Species.)

There was a bit of a problem with all of this natural selection stuff, though: Darwin didn’t know how it, uh, worked. Offspring had a mix of their parents’ features, sure. But how? What was going on at the moment of conception? It was a huge hole in Darwin’s theory of evolution. So in 1868, almost a decade after he published On the Origin of Species, Darwin tried to plug that hole with the theory of “pangenesis,” a wildly wrong idea that goes a little something like this:

Charles’ grandaddy, Erasmus, a real gangsta.
Every cell in our bodies sheds tiny particles called gemmules, “which are dispersed throughout the whole system,” Darwin wrote, and “these, when supplied with proper nutriment, multiply by self-division, and are ultimately developed into units like those from which they were originally derived.” Gemmules are, in essence, seeds of cells. “They are collected from all parts of the system to constitute the sexual elements, and their development in the next generation forms a new being.”

Because both parents contribute these cell seeds, offspring end up blending the features of mom and dad. But what about a child exhibiting more features of one parent than the other? This comes about when “the gemmules in the fertilized germ are superabundant in number,” where the gemmules “derived from one parent may have some advantage in number, affinity, or vigor over those derived from the other parent.” In other words, they kinda just put more effort into it.

Gemmules must develop in the proper order to build a healthy organism. When something glitches along the way, though, you get birth defects. “According to the doctrine of pangenesis,” Darwin wrote, “the gemmules of the transposed organs become developed in the wrong place, from uniting with wrong cells or aggregates of cells during their nascent state.”

But most important of all, Darwin’s theory of pangenesis could finally explain variations among organisms—the raw fuel of evolution. This has two causes. First, “fluctuating variability” comes from “the deficiency, superabundance, and transposition of gemmules, and the redevelopment of those which have long been dormant.” In other words, they’re expressed in a grandchild after skipping a generation, though the gemmules themselves haven’t “undergone any modification.”

Darwin’s theory of pangenesis could finally explain variations among organisms—the raw fuel of evolution.

The second touches on a now discredited theory of Lamarckism, which argued that traits an organism acquires during its lifetime, perhaps because of environmental factors, can then be inherited by its young. Darwin believed gemmules could be altered during an organism’s lifetime, and these newly altered gemmules could multiply and supplant the old ones. (Lamarckism is dead, but some modern scientists argue that because behaviors like your language are acquired, this represents nongenetic inheritance that can change the course of an organism’s evolution. But it’s still quite a controversial subject that we needn’t get into here. Those interested should read this good primer on the topic.)

So to sum up: Gemmules are seeds of cells that you get when your parents conceive you. They must form in the proper order to build a healthy organism, and the way they mix results in variations. Some gemmules can lie dormant, resulting in traits that skip generations, or change over an organism’s lifetime, resulting in offspring inheriting traits that their parents had developed due to environmental factors.

Any theory needs a solid experiment, and that fell to Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton. To prove gemmules induce variation, he took the blood of one rabbit and injected it into another, with the idea that the offspring of the latter would show traits of the former. In his essay “Darwin and Heredity: The Evolution of His Hypothesis of Pangenesis,” Gerald Geison writes: “These experiments, like all that followed, failed utterly to confirm Darwin’s view; and when, in addition, the idea of the inheritance of acquired characters became discredited, Pangenesis was rapidly swept out of court by more satisfying explanations.”

Francis Galton, tester of theories on bunnies, and person of general sadness.
“As a result,” Geison adds, “Pangenesis has often been looked upon as one of those mysterious and inexplicable failures of genius. Perhaps because they wish to present only Darwin’s genius, several of his biographers fail to mention Pangenesis at all.”

I’ve said it before in this column and I’ll say it again: Being wildly wrong is perfectly healthy in science, because when someone comes along to prove that you’re wrong, that’s progress. Somewhat embarrassing progress for the person being corrected, sure, but progress nonetheless.

The real logic behind genetics was first discovered, oddly enough, by a monk and his pea plants in the 1850s, just as Darwin was preparing On the Origin of Species. By breeding these plants and recording how traits get passed down from generation to generation, Gregor Mendel noticed that offspring weren’t simply a blend of their two parents, as biologists had reckoned at that time. The offspring of a plant with smooth peas and another with wrinkled peas, for instance, wouldn’t itself have kinda-wrinkled peas, but either full-blown smooth or wrinkled peas. This is what we now refer to as dominant and recessive alleles, or versions of a particular gene: If you have blue eyes, for instance, you’re expressing a recessive allele, and if you have brown eyes, it’s the dominant trait. This happens because you get two copies of each gene, one from your mother and another from your father.

DNA isn’t actually this colorful in your body, unless you’re like a Muppet or clown or something.
“Hey dudes, I found this cool thing here,” Mendel may have said, to the deafening sound of crickets. No one gave a hoot about his work. It wasn’t until 1900 that his research was rediscovered by botanists, kicking off the age of genetics. Soon scientists had figured out that it was DNA that held the information that gives you your many traits, and in 1953 Watson, Crick, and colleagues finally gave it a shape: the famous double helix.

We now know that inheriting traits has nothing to do with gemmules mixing together. We of course get our DNA, which contains genes, from both our mother and father. But these are combined in unique ways at each conception, leading to variations even among siblings. Variation can also come from mutations: When our cells divide they frequently make copies of their DNA that don’t always come out perfect (you probably have a whole lot of mutations that you don’t even notice). So these mutations, combined with genetic shuffling at birth, drive variations and therefore evolution: Some individuals are born with traits that may suit them better to their environment, which boosts their chances of surviving and breeding and passing those genes to future generations.

Read more at Wired Science

Dec 16, 2014

First detection of organic matter on Mars

The team responsible for the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on NASA's Curiosity rover has made the first definitive detection of organic molecules at Mars. Organic molecules are the building blocks of all known forms of terrestrial life, and consist of a wide variety of molecules made primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. However, organic molecules can also be made by chemical reactions that don't involve life, and there is not enough evidence to tell if the matter found by the team came from ancient Martian life or from a non-biological process. Examples of non-biological sources include chemical reactions in water at ancient Martian hot springs or delivery of organic material to Mars by interplanetary dust or fragments of asteroids and comets.

The surface of Mars is currently inhospitable to life as we know it, but there is evidence that the Red Planet once had a climate that could have supported life billions of years ago. For example, features resembling dry riverbeds and minerals that only form in the presence of liquid water have been discovered on the Martian surface. The Curiosity rover with its suite of instruments including SAM was sent to Mars in 2011 to discover more about the ancient habitable Martian environment by examining clues in the chemistry of rocks and the atmosphere.

The organic molecules found by the team were in a drilled sample of the Sheepbed mudstone in Gale crater, the landing site for the Curiosity rover. Scientists think the crater was once the site of a lake billions of years ago, and rocks like mudstone formed from sediment in the lake. Moreover, this mudstone was found to contain 20 percent smectite clays. On Earth, such clays are known to provide high surface area and optimal interlayer sites for the concentration and preservation of organic compounds when rapidly deposited under reducing chemical conditions.

While the team can't conclude that there was life at Gale crater, the discovery shows that the ancient environment offered a supply of reduced organic molecules for use as building blocks for life and an energy source for life. Curiosity's earlier analysis of this same mudstone revealed that the environment offered water and chemical elements essential for life and a different chemical energy source.

"We think life began on Earth around 3.8 billion years ago, and our result shows that places on Mars had the same conditions at that time -- liquid water, a warm environment, and organic matter," said Caroline Freissinet of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "So if life emerged on Earth in these conditions, why not on Mars as well?" Freissinet is lead author of a paper on this research submitted to the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets.

The organic molecules found by the team also have chlorine atoms, and include chlorobenzene and several dichloroalkanes, such as dichloroethane, dichloropropane and dichlorobutane. Chlorobenzene is the most abundant with concentrations between 150 and 300 parts-per-billion. Chlorobenzene is not a naturally occurring compound on Earth. It is used in the manufacturing process for pesticides (insecticide DDT), herbicides, adhesives, paints and rubber. Dichloropropane is used as an industrial solvent to make paint strippers, varnishes and furniture finish removers, and is classified as a carcinogen.

It's possible that these chlorine-containing organic molecules were present as such in the mudstone. However, according to the team, it's more likely that a different suite of precursor organic molecules was in the mudstone, and that the chlorinated organics formed from reactions inside the SAM instrument as the sample was heated for analysis. Perchlorates (a chlorine atom bound to four oxygen atoms) are abundant on the surface of Mars. It's possible that as the sample was heated, chlorine from perchlorate combined with fragments from precursor organic molecules in the mudstone to produce the chlorinated organic molecules detected by SAM.

In 1976, the Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer instrument on NASA's Viking landers detected two simple chlorinated hydrocarbons after heating Martian soils for analysis (chloromethane and dichloromethane). However they were not able to rule out that the compounds were derived from the instrument itself, according to the team. While sources within the SAM instrument also produce chlorinated hydrocarbons, they don't make more than 22 parts-per-billion of chlorobenzene, far below the amounts detected in the mudstone sample, giving the team confidence that organic molecules really are present on Mars.

The SAM instrument suite was built at NASA Goddard with significant elements provided by industry, university, and national and international NASA partners.

For this analysis, the Curiosity rover sample acquisition system drilled into a mudstone and filtered fine particles of it through a sieve, then delivered a portion of the sample to the SAM laboratory. SAM detected the compounds using its Evolved Gas Analysis (EGA) mode by heating the sample up to about 875 degrees Celsius (around 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit) and then monitoring the volatiles released from the sample using a quadrupole mass spectrometer, which identifies molecules by their mass using electric fields. SAM also detected and identified the compounds using its Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) mode. In this mode, volatiles are separated by the amount of time they take to travel through a narrow tube (gas chromatography -- certain molecules interact with the sides of the tube more readily and thus travel more slowly) and then identified by their signature mass fragments in the mass spectrometer.

The first evidence for elevated levels of chlorobenzene and dichloroalkanes released from the mudstone was obtained on Curiosity Sol 290 (May 30, 2013) with the third analysis of the Cumberland sample at Sheepbed. The team spent over a year carefully analyzing the result, including conducting laboratory experiments with instruments and methods similar to SAM, to be sure that SAM could not be producing the amount of organic material detected.

Read more at Science Daily

DNA sheds light on why largest lemurs disappeared: Giant lemurs' demise linked to size, low numbers

Ancient DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of giant lemurs that lived thousands of years ago in Madagascar may help explain why the giant lemurs went extinct. It also explains what factors make some surviving species more at risk today, says a study in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Most scientists agree that humans played a role in the giant lemurs' demise by hunting them for food and forcing them out of habitats. But an analysis of their DNA suggests that the largest lemurs were more prone to extinction than smaller-bodied species because of their smaller population sizes, according to this team of American and Malagasy researchers.

By comparing the species that died out to those that survived, scientists hope to better predict which lemurs are most in need of protection in the future.

The African island of Madagascar has long been known as a treasure trove of unusual creatures. More than 80 percent of the island's plants and animals are found nowhere else. But not long ago, fossil evidence shows there were even more species on the island than there are today. Before humans arrived on the island some 2,000 years ago, Madagascar was home to 10-foot-tall elephant birds, pygmy hippos, monstrous tortoises, a horned crocodile, and at least 17 species of lemurs that are no longer living -- some of which tipped the scales at 350 pounds, as large as a male gorilla.

Using genetic material extracted from lemur bones and teeth dating back 550 to 5,600 years, an international team of researchers analyzed DNA from as many as 23 individuals from each of five extinct lemur species that died out after human arrival. They looked at a giant ruffed lemur, a baboon lemur, a koala lemur and two sloth lemurs -- all housed in the collections at the University of Antananarivo and the Duke Lemur Center at Duke University. The study also included genetic data from eight extant species, including the three largest lemur species still alive today.

The researchers found that the species that died out had lower genetic diversity than the ones that survived -- a hallmark of small population size.

The results aren't entirely surprising, said George Perry, a scientist from Penn State University who was part of the research team. "Larger-bodied species often need larger territories and are fewer in number than smaller-bodied species," he explained, so they would have been more susceptible to extinction as hunting, logging, farming and other human activities took their toll.

But the researchers hope that lessons learned from ancient DNA will be useful in protecting the species that remain.

More than 70 percent of the roughly 100 lemur species living today are now considered endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), making them the most threatened group of mammals on Earth, according to a paper published in 2014 in Science.

The team found no link between body size and genetic diversity in lemur species living today -- the largest of which tip the scales at about 15 pounds. So they think that body size is less useful for establishing conservation priorities.

For this study the researchers looked only at mitochondrial DNA, which represents only a small portion of the DNA in each animal's cells. Their next step is to try to sequence the DNA in the cell nucleus, where most of an organism's genetic material is located.

Read more at Science Daily

Amazonian Chick Mimics a Poisonous Caterpillar

An Amazonian chick has evolved a crafty way to keep from being eaten: pretend you're a poisonous caterpillar by looking and moving just like one.

In a paper published recently in the journal American Naturalist, scientists report finding, in 2012 observations, an example of mimicry in birds so effective it went unnoticed until now.

The chick in question is the cinereous mourner (Laniocera hypopyrra). The young ones have to wait three weeks as nestlings before they develop enough to take flight, and their nests on the ground leave the chicks especially vulnerable to predation.

With those odds stacked against it, the bird has taken to apparent mimicry, according to the researchers. In short, it looks and acts like either of two toxic caterpillars -- Podalia or Megalopyge. (See video below to be amazed that the creature isn't actually a caterpillar but a baby bird.)

The chick's down comes in a bright orange hue flecked with black spots, and the team found that after six days the hatchlings even started moving their heads from side to side slowly when disturbed, in a deft impersonation of a caterpillar's movement. It even knows to keeps its more birdly parts tucked to its underside while it's alone and waiting for its next feeding.

The scientists, led by biologist Gustavo Londoño, of the University of California, argue that the bird's slow growth phase of three weeks, coupled with a high incidence of nest predation, were the catalysts for evolving anti-predation tactics such as the mimicry L. hypopyrra employs.

From Discovery News

November in Books, 2014 On Pace for Hottest Year

With November’s temperature numbers in the books, 2014 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded, newly released data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show.

During the month, the patterns that have been in place for much of the year held fast: While the eastern U.S. was plunged into a deep freeze, the world as a whole continued warming, fueled by the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

November didn’t set a global warm mark (as August, September and October did), in part because oceans cooled slightly and because of the cold that covered much of North America, said Jessica Blunden, a climate scientist with ERT, Inc., at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. But the month still came in 1.17°F above average, according to both NOAA and NASA records. That’s enough to keep the year on track to set the record.

The 11 months of the year to date are the hottest such period on record, according to NOAA, coming in at 1.22°F above the 20th century average of 57°F. For 2014 to set the mark, Blunden said it would need to be only around the 18th warmest December on record, which is a definite possibility.

No matter how December impacts the final tally, it will mean that 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred in the 21st century (the exception was the blockbuster El Niño year of 1998). That clustering of hot years in the two most recent decades highlights the long-term warming trend. And as some climate scientists — such as Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, which keeps NASA’s temperature data — like to note, that’s far more important than any monthly or yearly temperature record.

Another indicator of that long-term warming trend is the lack of record cold years for more than a century, despite the chill across the eastern U.S. The world’s last record cold year was 1911, according to a Climate Central analysis. Meanwhile, over that same period, 18 records for hottest years were set; 2014 would make the 19th.

November was unusually chilly in the eastern U.S., ranking as the 16th coldest November in the records, which extend back to 1895, and the coldest November since 2000. The deep freeze was due to several bouts of Arctic airthat descended over a broad swath of the country to the east of the Rockies, leading to stark 24-hour temperature changes and the largest November snow coverin the 49-year satellite record.

The West, however, saw its continued pattern of warmer-than-normal temperatures, with California recording its ninth warmest November. All year, the state has been baking under a ridge of high pressure that has brought record temperatures and exacerbated the three-year-long drought. California is all but certain to see it’s warmest year on record.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 15, 2014

Oldest African Penguin Treated for Skin Cancer

A 40-year-old penguin from Pueblo Zoo that hatched when "All in the Family" was the top-rated television show underwent a specialized treatment for skin cancer at Colorado State University (CSU).

Tess, the world's oldest known African penguin, had a sarcoma between her beak and right eye. Veterinarians at the university trained a tiny shaft of radiation at the growth for just shy of 22 minutes. The treatment, electronic brachytherapy, is able to focus the beam of radiation so precisely that tissues and organs surrounding the area aren't affected.

The procedure was so non-invasive, in fact, that Tess was out the door and on her way back to Pueblo Zoo the same day. After two weeks of isolation in which to recuperate, she was placed back in her habitat, where a reunion ensued with her 33-year-old mate Mongo. The video below has some terrific footage of Tess and her treatment.

The zoo's primary penguin keeper, Melanie Pococke, said it was fortunate that Tess' tumor was in a place where it could be seen readily. Otherwise, it would likely have been hidden in her dense feathers. "I have always known that Tess is spectacular and extremely special. It was fun to see the excitement everyone had for her at the CSU vet hospital," she said in a statement.

Skin cancer is rare to encounter in captive penguins, according to Pueblo Zoo. The facility reports that Tess is in otherwise excellent health, though, noting that her age is a marvel, given that African penguins don't typically live beyond 20 years in the wild.

Read more at Discovery News

Sixth-Remaining Northern White Rhino Dies

Angalifu, a northern white rhino housed at the San Diego Zoo's Safari Park, has died of old age at 44. With his death the subspecies draws closer to extinction, as only five remain.

Angalifu was housed at San Diego Zoo with another elderly northern white rhino named Nola. The pair, however, was not able to produce offspring, and the outlook for babies elsewhere looks grim.

All hopes for offspring rest with a single male named Sudan living on a reserve in Kenya with two females. Dvur Kralove Zoo, in the Czech Republic, meanwhile, is home to one elderly female.

The northern white rhino has been brought to the brink of extinction by poachers, who kill the animals for their horns, which are sold in markets in East Asia, where rhino horn is believed to have medicinal value.

From Discovery News

Birds Evolved in 'Big Bang,' New Family Tree Reveals

A new family tree of the world's bird species may be the most complete one ever made, and reveals some surprising relationships, as well as showing how characteristics such as birdsong evolved.

More than 200 scientists at 80 institutions spent more than four years sequencing the genomes of bird species and analyzing them using supercomputers as part of a massive effort to reconstruct how birds evolved.

The new bird genealogy is the most comprehensive one to date in terms of the amount of genomic data and the scientific approaches used, said Erich Jarvis, a neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who led one of eight reports based on the findings published today (Dec. 11) in the journal Science.

In one finding, the analysis revealed that the common ancestor of a group called the core landbirds — which includes today's songbirds, parrots and woodpeckers — was a top-level predator of its time, the researchers said.

Previous studies have tried to reconstruct the relationships between bird species using just a few dozen genes, but each study gave different results. "You couldn't figure out who to believe," Jarvis said.

More than 10,000 bird species are alive today, and from the colorful birds-of-paradise of New Guinea, to the iconic blue-footed boobies of the west coast of the Americas, birds are some of the most varied and fascinating creatures around.

In the new project, the researchers analyzed the genomes of 48 bird species (including 45 that had not been sequenced before), representing all major branches of birds, including the crow, duck, falcon, parakeet, crane, ibis, woodpecker and eagle. About 95 percent of today's birds belong to a group called Neoaves, and most of the species the researchers analyzed belong to this group.

The new findings show that Neoaves underwent a "Big Bang" of evolution, with many new species appearing within just a few million years of the time that most dinosaurs went extinct about 66 million years ago. Previous work had suggested a more gradual evolutionof this group.

Neoavesinitially split into two groups, called Columbea and Passerea, Jarvis and his colleagues said.

One of the most surprising findings was that flamingoes are closely related to pigeons, much more so than they are to birds that might seem more similar, such as pelicans, the researchers said.

Another important finding was that vocal learning, which is the ability to hear sounds and reproduce them (a key feature of human speech), may have evolved independently in several groups of birds. What's more, a brain region in these birds shares similarities with human brain areas involved in speech.

To construct the family tree, the researchers used supercomputers to compare the complete genome sequences of all the birds studied. Using nine supercomputers, the analysis took 300 CPU years (a CPU year is the time it would take a single computer to complete the task on its own).

Birds have smaller genomes than most other vertebrates, but even with these powerful tools, some parts of the tree were hard to flesh out. It wasn't enough to look at the parts of the genome that encode proteins, the vital biological machinery in cells, the researchers found. They had to look at non-coding sequences between genes, too.

Read more at Discovery News

Denmark Makes Land Grab for North Pole

Denmark will lay claim to energy-rich but contested territory around the North Pole on Monday by submitting data to the UN which it says demonstrates the area is an extension of its continental shelf.

The Danish government said it would tell the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that data collected since 2002 supports its claim to ownership over an area of about 895,000 square kilometres (346,000 square miles) beyond the current nautical borders of Greenland, an autonomous Danish territory.

"The submission of our claim to the continental shelf north of Greenland is a historic and important milestone for the Kingdom of Denmark," Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard said in a statement.

"The objective of this huge project is to define the outer limits of our continental shelf and thereby -- ultimately -- of the Kingdom of Denmark," he added.

Claims on a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from a country's borders must be supported by scientific and technical data. However, the remote region is hotly disputed by other countries.

Norway already lays claim to an area overlapping the one outlined in the Danish submission to the UN, and there is "potential overlap with Canada, the Russian Federation and the US," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

"It will be up to the parties themselves to negotiate bilateral delimitation agreements," it said.

Moscow has increased its military presence in the pristine but energy-rich Arctic region, while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has made asserting sovereignty over an expansive Arctic archipelago and surrounding waters a key policy.

When Russia planted a flag on the Arctic sea bed directly under the North Pole in 2007, Canada raised its voice to highlight that both countries claim sovereignty over the area.

Read more at Discovery News

LHC Revs-Up for Most Powerful Particle Collisions Ever

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is on the verge of restarting for its second 3-year run that will see it double its collisional energy and dramatically step-up the search for new physics, hopefully solving some of the most perplexing mysteries in modern physics along the way.

When starting up the world’s largest particle accelerator, it’s not just a simple case of flicking the “on” switch, however. As the most complex machine ever constructed by humankind, the LHC, which is managed by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and located near Geneva, Switzerland, takes months to power up each component of the complex chain of superconducting magnets and massive detectors.

Announced by CERN on Friday, the LHC’s main 17 mile (27 kilometer) long ring of superconducting magnets have been cooled close to “its nominal operating temperature of 1.9 degrees above absolute zero.” 1.9 degrees Kelvin is -271.25 degrees Celsius or -456.25 degrees Fahrenheit.

After a 2 year pause in collisions in the LHC for maintenance and upgrades, the accelerator is on track to be powered up again in March 2015 to begin a new era of ultra-high energy particle collisions by the following May. The goal for 2015 is to push for proton-proton collision energies of up to 13 TeV — nearly double the energy of the first LHC run.

“With this new energy level, the LHC will open new horizons for physics and for future discoveries,” said CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer. “I’m looking forward to seeing what nature has in store for us.”

“After the huge amount of work done over the last two years, the LHC is almost like a new machine,” said CERN’s Director for Accelerators and Technology Frédérick Bordry. “Restarting this extraordinary accelerator is far from routine. Nevertheless, I’m confident that we will be on schedule to provide collisions to the LHC experiments by May 2015.”

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 14, 2014

How bird eggs get their bling

Splashy blue and green hues pop from under the glassy finish of the Tinamou species' (bird relatives of ostriches, rheas and emus) eggs.

Pigments covered by a thin, smooth cuticle reveal the mystery behind these curious shells, University of Akron researchers discovered.

The finding could lead to the development of glossy new coatings for ceramics and floors, potentially enhancing their aesthetic qualities and durability.

After removing the outer layer of the eggshells and examining their chemistry and nanostructure, the researchers discovered the presence of a weak iridescence in the Tinamou's eggshells, creating superficial colors and color changes depending on the angle at which they are viewed and the light cast upon them. The researchers' investigation of how non-pigmentary nanometer-scale structures influence light reflection and produce iridescence that impact eggshell coloration has never before been documented.

"The perceived color changes in relationship with the angles of observation and illumination. This effect can only be produced by nanostructures that influence how light is reflected," says UA post-doctoral researcher Brani Igic. He used experimental manipulations in conjunction with angle-resolved spectrophotometry, scanning electron and atomic-force microscopy, optical calculations and chemical analyses to examine the mechanical construction behind the eggshell gloss and coloration.

Sheen covering

Igic and UA research team members Matthew Shawkey, associate professor of biology, and graduate students Daphne Fechyr-Lippens and Ming Xiao, Andrew Chan and Geoffrey I. N. Waterhouse from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Daniel Hanley and Tomas Grim from Palacký University in the Czech Republic, Patricia R. L. Brennan from the University of Massachusetts, and Mark E. Hauber from Hunter College also found Tinamou eggs' sheen results from an ultra-smooth coating, or cuticle, distinct from typically bumpy eggshells.

Read more at Science Daily