Feb 14, 2015

Walrus Fossil Turns Out to Be Oldest Known Fur Seal

While searching among fossil collections in a California paleontological center, a PhD student in geology came upon a fossil that would soon fill a huge gap in scientists' understanding of sea lion and fur seal evolution.

Robert Boessenecker, of New Zealand's University of Otago, was browsing the collections at the John D. Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center in Orange County, Calif. when he came upon a fossil of a partial jaw alongside several well-preserved teeth. The samples were discovered in the early '80s and came from a rock formation in Southern California that was about 15 to 17 million years old.

While credited to the small walrus Neotherium, Boessenecker recognized right away that the remains were actually those of an early, very small, fur seal. Its real identity was welcome news.

"This was very exciting as fur seals and sea lions -- the family Otariidae -- have a limited fossil record that, up until now, extended back to about 10-12 million years ago," Boessenecker said in a release.

"Yet we know that their fossil record must go back to around 16-17 million years ago or so, because walruses -- the closest modern relative of the otariids -- have a record reaching back that far," he added. "Until now we had no fossil evidence for the first five million years of fur seal and sea lion evolution."

Boessenecker said the fur seal fossil is a key transitional piece because of its teeth. They're in a middle ground between the simplified teeth of today's sea lions and the complex "bear-like" teeth found in the earliest pinnipeds (the scientific group name that includes all seals).

The creature itself was very small, with adults just a bit bigger than a sea otter and roughly the size of a juvenile New Zealand fur seal.

While the discovery of this earliest fur seal is satisfying, a question lingers, Boessenecker noted.

"The mystery remains of why there has only been one of these fur seals ever found, given that there have been extensive fossil excavations of similarly aged rocks in California," Boessenecker said.

The answer may come from an earlier proposal by Japanese palaeontologist Naoki Kohno, who suggested that the earliest fur seals made their living in the open ocean rather than in continental shelf areas, where preservation of their remains would have been more likely.

Read more at Discovery News

Distant species produce 'love child' fern after 60-million-year breakup

A delicate woodland fern discovered in the mountains of France is the love child of two distantly-related groups of plants that haven't interbred in 60 million years, genetic analyses show.

For most plants and animals, reuniting after such a long hiatus is thought to be impossible due to genetic and other incompatibilities between species that develop over time.

Reproducing after such a long evolutionary breakup is akin to an elephant hybridizing with a manatee, or a human with a lemur, said co-author Kathleen Pryer, who directs the Duke University Herbarium.

Led by Pryer and Carl Rothfels of the University of California, Berkeley, the study appears online today and in the March 2015 issue of the journal American Naturalist.

The pale green fern was found growing wild on a forest floor in the Pyrenees and eventually made its way to a nursery, where researchers plucked several fronds and extracted the DNA to pinpoint its parentage.

To their surprise, genetic analyses revealed that the fern was the result of a cross between an oak fern and a fragile fern -- two distantly related groups that co-occur across much of the northern hemisphere, but stopped exchanging genes and split into separate lineages some 60 million years ago.

"To most people they just look like two ferns, but to fern researchers these two groups look really different," Rothfels said.

Other studies have documented instances of tree frog species that proved capable of producing offspring after going their separate ways for 34 million years, and sunfish who hybridized after nearly 40 million years, but until now those were the most extreme reunions ever recorded.

"For most plant and animal species, reproductive incompatibility takes only a few million years at the most," Rothfels said.

The sex lives of ferns may help explain why divergent fern lineages remain compatible for so long, the researchers say.

Fern sex is no different from hanky panky in many other creatures in that it requires a union between sperm and eggs. But whereas many other plants rely on birds, bees or other animals to play matchmaker, all ferns need is wind and water.

Plants that require pollinators to reproduce may have a harder time rekindling the spark after calling it quits, especially if the animals they rely on to do the deed are picky about flower shape, size or other traits that may have changed over time.

"It's tempting to think that there's something special about flowering plants that gives them a competitive advantage, but these results raise a different possibility," Rothfels said.

Read more at Science Daily

Feb 13, 2015

South American Monkeys May Have Come from Africa

The evolutionary mystery of how monkeys arrived in South America may have been solved. New fossil evidence collected by Ken Campbell and his team indicates that monkeys came to the New World from Africa. “One of the teeth is very, very similar to a fossil tooth from Africa,” Campbell, a curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, told FoxNews.com. “In paleontology, when the specimens that you have look very similar then that’s a general indication of comparable ancestry. So the fact that these two teeth are very similar suggests - not prove, but suggests - that there might be a relationship between them.”

An island continent for millions of years, South America has seen a variety of creatures somehow arrive to its shores, according to fossil records. However, the evolutionary history of monkeys on the continent has remained a mystery, the general belief among researchers being that the monkeys somehow managed to journey across the Atlantic from Africa. Until now, there was little evidence to back this theory.

“The general hypothesis is that - first of all, these monkeys were very small,” Campbell said. “They’re about the size of a small squirrel with a long tail. So they’re very small and as a consequence their food and water requirements would be much less than if they were very large. So the general hypothesis is that there were monkeys on a river bank. During flood season, trees get swept into the river and carried out to the ocean. As vegetation rafts, [the trees are] carried across on the Atlantic based on wind and current directions. This remains a hypothesis- there’s no proof yet, although the similarities between the monkeys suggests that it did happen.” The fossils show that the monkeys arrived on the continent at least 36 million years ago. Previous fossil records dated the monkey’s arrival back at 26 million years.

The fossils were discovered along a riverbank in the east Peruvian Amazon, a notoriously challenging place for researchers to work. According to Campbell, “The Amazon is a bit of a difficult place to work because there are no outcrops to speak of because they’re all covered by forest. And so the only outcrops that one finds are along riverbanks, and that means that you can only look for fossils during the dry season, when the rivers are at their lowest point.” The fossils were discovered in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2012 that Campbell realized they belonged to a primitive monkey. “Finding primates was a possibility, but they are very rare and very small,” he said. “So yea, in the end, it was a surprise.” Campbell has been working with a team of Argentinian paleontologists to scour the Amazon with the hope to unlock the mysteries of its evolutionary history. One of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, the region holds many secrets that researchers have yet to discover. Campbell and his team are hoping to change that. “I’ve worked in the Amazon for many, many years - a lot of it dedicated toward looking for fossils and trying to understand the geology of the region,” he said.

From Discovery News

Bahamas Hummingbird May Become Its Own Species

If a research team from the University of California, Riverside (UCR) has its way, a hummingbird in the Bahamas will soon be in need of new mailing address labels to accommodate a name change.

The story begins with two hummingbirds sharing the same familiar name.

The Bahama woodstar is comprised of two subspecies: Calliphlox evelynae evelynae and Calliphlox evelynae lyrura. The former can be found throughout the islands of the Bahamas, particularly those in the north. The latter is seen only on the southern Inaguan islands of the Bahama Archipelago.

This month in the journal The Auk, the researchers from UCR argue that the two birds should be regarded as distinct species, which would create a kind of "everything old is new again" situation.

"The two subspecies were originally described as separate species, partly on the basis of small differences in the tail feathers between them, but were then classified in 1945 as subspecies of the Bahama woodstar," said study team member Christopher J. Clark, a UCR assistant professor of biology, in a statement. "It’s time now to call these two distinct species of hummingbirds."

Clark and his team based that conclusion upon the results of comparative analyses of the birds' sounds made during field recordings of courtship, scolding, and singing. They also compared beak and wing lengths between lyrura and evelynae and used tissue samples to figure out how much their populations' genetics diverged.

After all was said and done, the researchers determined that the adult male lyrura's tail was more strongly forked and the sound its tail feathers made during courtship much higher than that of evelynae.

Meanwhile, lyrura's scolding calls were qualitatively different from evelynae's and the birds' singing styles differed greatly (evelynae's songs were deemed "rambling" while lyrura's sounded to the team like "wet, squeaky shoes").

Finally, the DNA analysis told the UCR team that the two birds diverged genetically about 400,000 to 1 million years ago.

Read more at Discovery News

Skeletons in 6,000-Year-Old Embrace Found in Cave

A 6,000-year-old romance has been uncovered in a Greek cave as archaeologists unearthed the skeletons of an undisturbed Neolithic couple locked in embrace.

Found in the Alepotrypa, or foxhole, one of the Diros caves in southern Greece, the prehistoric remains were positioned curled into the fetal position, as if spooning each other. The grave also contained broken arrowheads.

Although the pair was originally found in 2014 by a team of archaeologists and speleologists led by George Papathanassopoulos, the Greek Ministry of Culture announced the results of DNA and radio carbon tests on Thursday, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

The skeletons were dated to 3800 B.C. and DNA analysis confirmed the remains belong to a man and a woman.

“Double burials in embrace are extremely rare,” the ministry said. “The skeletons of Diros represent one of the oldest, if not the oldest found to this date,” it added.

Discovered in 1958, the Alepotrypa Cave was used between 6000 and 3200 B.C. and served as both a settlement and a cemetery.

Around 3200 B.C. the entrance collapsed because of a severe earthquake, burying the cave inhabitants alive.

Excavations in recent years has yielded the remains of adults, children and even embryos.

The archaeologists also discovered a 13-foot wide crypt, paved with a unique pebble floor. The burial contained dozens of skeletons, along with pottery, beads and a dagger.

The researchers have been so far unable to establish the cause of death of the 5,800-year-old couple. But the fact that they were buried together in such a position suggests they possibly died at the same time.

From Discovery News

The Badass Snail That Has a Shell Made of Iron

Dare to step on the scaly-foot snail and your foot will probably snap off…probably.
In what is arguably the most famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur faces the Black Knight, relieving him of his limbs even though he’s wearing some nice chain mail. But there’s a Black Knight in the depths of the Indian Ocean whose armor doesn’t yield to blows quite so easily.

I present to you the scaly-foot snail, which has evolved a shell made of iron sulfide. I’ll repeat that: It builds a shell out of iron. On top of this, the squishy part that protrudes out of the shell, known as the foot, is covered with iron plates, making the scaly-foot snail more metal than Ozzy Osbourne wrapped in tin foil. And it’s all thanks to bacteria, which seem to be building the armor. No other animal on Earth can utilize iron this way. The thing is magnetic, for Pete’s sake.

This is no ordinary snail, but then again, it lives in no ordinary environment. It’s hanging around hydrothermal vents, where seawater percolates into the crust and is heated by underlying magma, reaching 750 degrees F or more, pouring out and bringing toxins with it. This is a very, very rough neighborhood.

According to biologist Shana Goffredi of Occidental College, among the animals down there are the mortal enemies of the scaly-foot snail: crabs and other snails. “It’s very strange because a lot of snails must have the same kinds of predators,” she said. “So I don’t think there’s anything special about the predatory challenges on them, but still it looks like they have really beefed up their shells for some reason.”

This is what a scaly-foot snail would look like if you tossed it up in the sky and took a photo. But please don’t toss a scaly-foot snail up in the sky and take a photo.
These shells aren’t totally rigid like plate armor. They’re more like the Black Knight’s chain mail—pliable, yet strong (well, maybe the Black Knight’s armor wasn’t all that strong, what with all the dismemberment). This is because there are three layers to the shell: the top layer is that iron-plated material and the bottom is a calcified material, with a thick, squishy organic layer in between. The iron provides the strength, while the squishy bit allows the shell to absorb the shock of, say, an ill-mannered crab clamping down on it.

The scales on the foot serve a rather more righteous purpose. Some predatory snails hunt by firing harpoons into the flesh of fish and other snails and injecting a venom. It’s thought that the iron plating of the scaly-foot snail deflects that missile, like a knight’s armor deflecting a lance.

Weirdly, there are two varieties of the scaly-foot. The other isn’t black, but instead whiter. It lives in the same environment as the Black Knight, yet it lacks the iron. Why?

The answer comes down to bacteria that the black variety has and the white lacks. “They have beneficial bacteria on and in them,” Goffredi says, “and we think that the beneficial bacteria on the outside of the animal are actually helping facilitate the production of these iron sulfides.” Sulfides pouring out of vents are really toxic, “but as soon as it gets mineralized and incorporated into a solid form, then it’s not toxic anymore,” said Goffredi. “I think that the microbes play a role in changing the nature of that compound by making it less poisonous.” So not only is the snail clad in badass armor, it’s armor is made out of poisons. Good god that’s metal as hell.

That’s the working hypothesis, at least. The bacteria hasn’t been cultured in the lab, so we can’t know for sure. “There’s another group that thinks that the snail is making the iron sulfides itself, but that is completely unprecedented,” Goffredi said. “We doubt it, but nobody can know for sure unless we could manipulate either of the players involved. We’re left with speculating.”

Then there’s the bacteria inside the scaly-foot snail. It’s probably serving its host in an even more important way: chemosynthesis. That’s a five-dollar word meaning the snail isn’t eating food, but instead relying on bacteria for sustenance. Its digestive system is practically nonexistent, but it does have a gland—which is 1,000 times bigger than in other snails—where the bacteria live and produce food.

Like the kind of bacteria that builds the snail’s shell, this type takes the chemicals in the neighborhood and synthesizes them into grub for the snail, probably a kind of sugar (this bacteria also hasn’t yet been cultured in the lab, so we’re still a bit in the dark here, too). In exchange for its services, the microbe gets a nice little home to live in.

So the scaly-foot snail has stumbled upon a brilliant adaptation to life in the deep, where food is scarce—to put it mildly. “Any carbon that ‘rains’ down that deep has already been used by everybody else it has passed by, and they get essentially the dregs,” said Goffredi. “So, instead they’ve teamed up with bacteria that can harness that energy coming from the center of the Earth.”

Read more at Wired Science

Feb 12, 2015

Mammal Ancestors Lived High, Low, Chewed Gum

Ancestors of the earliest known tree-dwelling, as well as subterranean mammals have just been discovered in China.

The fossils, described in the journal Science, suggest that the wide-ranging ecological diversity of modern mammals had a precedent more than 160 million years ago.

“We consistently find with every new fossil that the earliest mammals were just as diverse in both feeding and locomotor adaptations as modern mammals," Zhe-Xi Luo, a co-author of both papers, said in a press release. "The groundwork for mammalian success today appears to have been laid long ago."

Luo, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, and colleagues studied the animals’ remains and named two new species: Agilodocodon scansorius and Docofossor brachydactylus.

Based on the finds, Agilodocon is the first known tree-dwelling “mammaliaform,” which refers to the long-extinct relatives of modern mammals. It lived about 165 million years ago and had hands and feet with curved horny claws. Its limb proportions were typical for mammals that live in trees or bushes.

Its spade-like front teeth, which could gnaw into bark, were adapted for feeding on the gum or sap of trees. Some modern New World monkeys possess similar teeth. Agilodocodon also had well-developed, flexible elbows and wrist and ankle joints that allowed for much greater mobility. These are all characteristics of climbing mammals.

"It's amazing that these arboreal adaptions occurred so early in the history of mammals and shows that at least some extinct mammalian relatives exploited evolutionarily significant herbivorous niches, long before true mammals," said study co-author David Grossnickle, a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

Docofossor, which lived around 160 million years ago, looked a lot like the modern African golden mole. Docofossor had shovel-like fingers for digging, short and wide upper molars typical of mammals that forage underground, and a sprawling posture indicative of subterranean movement.

Together, the two early mammal ancestors provide strong evidence that arboreal and subterranean lifestyles evolved early in the evolutionary history of our mammal ancestors. Clearly, these scrappy animals were making the most out of all habitat possibilities.

Read more at Discovery News

Dogs Understand Human Smiles, Scowls

Feeling happy or mad? A dog can tell your mood just by looking at the expression on your face.

New research in the journal Current Biology represents the first solid evidence that an animal other than humans can discriminate between emotional expressions in another species.

As any dog owner knows, canines are skilled at figuring us out, but previously more attention was paid by scientists to how dogs read us using their other senses, such as smell and hearing, and by observing our behaviors. The latest study strongly suggests that the sight alone of a smile, frown, scowl and more conveys our moods to dogs.

"We think the dogs in our study could have solved the task only by applying their knowledge of emotional expressions in humans to the unfamiliar pictures we presented to them," co-author Corsin Müller of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna said in a press release.

For the study, Müller and his team took photos of the same person making either a happy or an angry face. The researchers then showed the photos to dogs, which were trained to discriminate between the happy and angry expressions. The researchers then showed only the upper or lower halves of the images to the dogs, which lost none of their ability to discriminate.

The researchers next presented the dogs with photos of different people making their own happy and angry expressions. Müller and his colleagues mixed up the images, sometimes showing the dogs one person or the other, or showing the upper or lower halves of the pictures.

The dogs were able to select the angry or happy face more often than would be expected by random chance in every case.

"Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans," lead author Ludwig Huber of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna's Messerli Research Institute said. He added that "they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before."

He continued that "it appears likely to us that the dogs associate a smiling face with a positive meaning and an angry facial expression with a negative meaning."

Supporting this is the fact that dogs have a hard time learning to associate an angry human face with a reward, suggesting that they already know -- based on prior experience -- that mad people aren’t likely to offer treats and head rubs.

More studies are in the works to learn more about how dogs recognize human emotions. The researchers also plan to study how dogs themselves express different emotions, and how their feelings are influenced by those of their owners or other people.

"We expect to gain important insights into the extraordinary bond between humans and one of their favorite pets, and into the emotional lives of animals in general," Müller said.

Read more at Discovery News

Oklahoma Owl Cam Delivers as First Egg Hatches

An owl dubbed "Mrs. Tiger" is causing a stir on the Internet these days. She has been starring in a live cam feed trained on her nest and her collection of three eggs, laid in early January.

The feed, "Alessondra's OKC Great Horned Owl-Cam," was set up by a family of four in Oklahoma whose upper-story planter's box has been commandeered by Mrs. T. for the last six years for her annual egg-laying and nesting needs.

The family has maintained the live owl feed for several years, and it's addictive fun for viewers, just wondering what will happen next. A great moment could happen at any time, such as when the first of Mrs. T.'s three egg hatched on Feb. 10.

The video directly below, from an Alessondra OKC fan on Youtube, documents the new baby, named Java, being fed for the first time, when Mrs. T. brought home some food for the newbie. Watching the little ball of fluff flip and flop around while mom is gone makes for a stunning sight.

Of course, this being the Internet, there are plenty of other live cams available for fans of winged creatures such as eagles, falcons, herons, and ospreys, just to name a few.

For example, Cornell's Lab of Ornithology maintains a dozen cams featuring owls, kestrels, ospreys, hawks, and even an albatross.

And Discovery's own Animal Planet, meanwhile, has its own live bird feeder cam keeping an eye on some feathered friends in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

Eagle fans, for their part, can turn to the Southwest Florida Eagle cam channel on Youtube. It live-streams the comings and goings of a pair of bald eagles and the nest they call home. Seen just above is the current stream. You can check the channel for future ones as they are posted and others are deactivated.

Read more at Discovery News

How to Get Silicon Valley’s Anti-Vaxxers to Change Their Minds

There’s been a lot of shaming and blaming of the anti-vaccination crowd in response to the Disneyland measles outbreak (even we did it). And when we released our investigation of vaccination rates at Silicon Valley preschools, people were justifiably angry: Every unvaccinated kid at those schools threatens the greater community’s protection against disease. But yelling at anti-vaxxers won’t change their minds—which is what we need most to prevent more outbreaks. That begs the question: What can turn them around?

After writing about how vaccinated people got measles in California, I read the comments posted about it on Facebook. Among the anti-vax commenters, there were a few science-hating, vitriol-slinging, homeopathy-hawking kooks. But the vast majority were…reasonable. Take this person, for example:

Someone strong enough to get the vaccine (and thus be conferred limited immunity for 2-10 years) is likely strong enough to handle the disease and consequently have real life-long immunity, which is what is really needed for “herd immunity” to actually work.

This person is wrong, of course, but there’s some science—or at least some attempts at using science—in there. It’s worth repeating, clearly: Refusing vaccines is a bad choice, but anti-vaxxers aren’t evil for making that choice. Every parent who turns down a vaccine is simply trying to make the right decision for their kid. As long as that motivation exists, there’s a chance that a parent can be convinced that vaccination is the safest choice—for their child, and those around them.

To figure out how to turn that “no” into a “yes,” it’s important to know how that decision occurred in the first place. As Amy Wallace explained in a WIRED cover story, vaccine refusal comes down to one emotion: fear. Or, in the current environment, the lack of it.

Thanks to the success of vaccination programs, many Americans have never seen a single case of measles—they didn’t get it themselves, and probably don’t know anyone who’s had it. That interferes with how they process fear in two ways.

Number one, we get responses like this one (from that same story, on Facebook):

Measles is not a dangerous disease, it is just a normal childhood disease, it’s safer to get antibodies from the actual virus than from vaccines. Unvaccinated children have higher and stronger immune systems, so they fight it fast…

Measles has, for many, become a hypothetical disease. And a hypothetical disease isn’t scary. “People become desensitized to the seriousness of the disease when they’re not exposed,” says Kristin Hendrix, a pediatric researcher at Indiana University School of Medicine. Measles was eradicated in the US in 2000, so even if you’ve seen a case, you probably haven’t met someone who pulled the short straw: The one person in 10 who gets an ear infection, potentially resulting in deafness, or the one in 20 who gets pneumonia, or the one in 1,000 who develops encephalitis—or dies.

Which leads us to number two. The risk of vaccines—the one in 3,000 chance of seizure for the MMR, or the one in more than a million chance of a serious allergic reaction—starts to seem much bigger in comparison to those fading memories of measles past. “Parents can be scared very easily by hearing about potentially negative consequences,” says Gary Freed, a pediatric researcher at the University of Michigan. And the act of stabbing your kid in the arm with a needle far more immediately threatening than the potential exposure to measles, especially if you’re counting on her not being exposed to the disease in the first place.

My husband nearly died from the tetanus vaccine when he was a kid.

Fear is a powerful, often irrational emotion. No matter how many times you drive home the statistical near-impossibility of a negative vaccine reaction, it’s often overlooked in the face of a personal anecdote. If someone has a relative who had a bad reaction to a vaccine—or even a great-aunt on Facebook whose friend’s daughter became withdrawn after one—the immediacy of that story will carry more cognitive weight than numbers. Humans are big on narrative. Science (usually) is not. So now, medical professionals and researchers must figure out how to use information—cold, impersonal facts—in a way that can counteract the power of that primal (and inaccurate) risk calculation.

That job is far harder than it used to be. Doctors once were the primary source of medical information, but now it’s everywhere online—some of it true, some of it not, and the vast majority somewhere in between. That’s a problem, because humans suffer from a major case of confirmation bias. “We seek out and gravitate toward information that confirms what we know to be true,” says Hendrix. Sometimes confirmation bias is so extreme that it even turns positive messages into negative ones: One paper last year found that while pro-vaccine information corrected some misperceptions about vaccines—like the fallacy that it causes autism—reading it actually made some resolutely anti-vax parents even less likely to vaccinate.

Unfortunately, recent research has shown that presenting provaccine messages and evidence to anti-vaxers only makes them become more ingrained in their misguided beliefs.

Researchers don’t have any great ideas about how to change the “stickiness” of bad information once it gets that distorted. But there’s hope. There always have been a certain number of staunchly anti-vaccine parents—researchers estimate about 2 percent of parents fall into that camp, and that number isn’t changing much. It’s a second group of parents and patients—the so-called vaccine-hesitant—that are the ones fueling the fire of vaccine refusal. But they’re also the ones that still may be open to change.

Doug Opel is a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital working to target those fence-sitters with individually tailored information. “Parents themselves can have a hard time knowing where they are, or they don’t fully disclose what they think about vaccines in an appointment,” says Opel. “That turns a pediatric appointment into a chess match.”

Opel’s shot at a solution is a 15-question survey that gives parents a score on a scale of 0 to 100—over 50, and you’re much less likely to vaccinate. He’s most interested in targeting parents in that 50-to-80 range, by addressing their specific concerns in one-on-one conversations instead of relying solely on an impersonal Vaccine Information Statement from the CDC.

It’s not an easy job: Any conversation he has with a patient is going head-to-head with personal horror stories from Facebook friends and anti-vaccine celebrities. “We know that personal narratives and anecdotes that are emotionally laden are very persuasive,” says Hendrix, “and that people play into fear-based information more than positive information.”

Read more at Wired Science

Feb 11, 2015

Dinos Got High, Oldest Grass Fungus Fossil Hints

Millions of years before LSD and rock and roll, dinosaurs munched on psychedelic fungus, a new study suggests. The hints that dinos got high come from the first amber fossil ever found of ergot, a grass parasite that can have poisonous and mind-altering effects on animals that nibble the dark fungi.

Ergot provided the precursor to LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). And people who eat ergot-contaminated rye (or other ergot-tainted grains) develop powerful muscle spasms and hallucinations. The phrase "St. Anthony's Fire" refers to both ergotism and the horrible burning feeling that ergot triggers by constricting blood vessels.

Now, it turns out that ergot has plagued grass-eaters since dinosaurs stomped the Earth. The hunk of amber from Myanmar encases an exquisitely preserved ergot fungus, perched atop a grass spikelet that grew about 100 million years ago, researchers report in the 2015 issue of the journal Palaeodiversity. The amber was excavated in a mine and collected by Joerg Wunderlich, a German paleontologist.

"This establishes for sure that grasses were in the Old World 100 million years ago," said lead study author George Poinar Jr., a zoology professor at Oregon State University.

Evidence is mounting that grasses evolved alongside the dinosaurs, rather than after the giant reptiles disappeared. Fossils suggest the first grasslands appeared some 30 million years after the mass extinction that killed off the dinos at the end of the Cretaceous Period about 65 million years ago. But even if grasses didn't spread widely early on, grasses discovered in dinosaur dung, and clues in pieces of amber, hint that grasses were around for creatures to graze on during the Cretaceous Period.

Fossilized dinosaur poop, known as coprolites, contains tiny cells found only in plants, several other studies have reported. The droppings are from sauropods, some of the largest plant-eating dinosaurs that ever lived.

No one knows when ergot fungus first attacked grass, but both fossils discovered inside the amber resemble modern species, Poinar said.

"It indicates that psychedelic compounds were present back in the Cretaceous," Poinar told Live Science. "What effect it had on animals is difficult to tell, but my feeling is dinosaurs definitely fed on this grass."

Researchers may also have to rethink the origins of ergot because of the new find. Earlier studies have suggested that ergot originated in South America toward the end of the Cretaceous Period, then migrated northward and spread to Europe and Africa. The amber fossils put the fungus firmly in the Old World, and the researchers suggested both grasses and their parasite were around since the older Jurassic Period, which lasted from about 199.6 million to 145.5 million years ago.

"Grasses probably go back to the Early Cretaceous Period and possibly even the Jurassic Period," Poinar said.

Read more at Discovery News

Oldest Twin Remains Found in Siberia

A team of Canadian and Russian researchers investigating an early Neolithic cemetery in Siberia have identified the world’s oldest set of human twins, buried with their young mother.

The skeleton of the woman was exhumed in 1997 from a hunter-gatherer cemetery in south-eastern Siberia. Found with 15 marmot teeth — decorative accessories which were probably attached to clothing — the remains were photographed and labelled, but were not investigated by anthropologists.

Now Angela Lieverse, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, and colleagues Andrzej Weber from the University of Alberta, Canada, and Vladimir Bazaliiskii from Irkutsk University, Russia, have examined the skeleton and found remains of twin fetuses nestled between the pelvis and upper legs.

The twins, about 36 to 40 weeks old, probably suffocated during their mother’s troubled labor nearly 8,000 years ago.

“This is not only one of the oldest archaeologically documented cases of death during childbirth, but also the earliest confirmed set of human twins in the world,” Lieverse said.

Radiocarbon dating on small samples of the mother’s and twins’ bones confirmed the skeletal remains are about 7,700 years old.

Death from childbirth was quite common in prehistoric and pre-modern societies, but it has rarely been documented.

This could be because women and their children were rarely buried together or simply because the delicate remains of the unborn didn’t survive.

Evidence of twins is exceptionally rare.

“They are basically invisible from the archaeological record,” Lieverse told Discovery News.

She noted that only one other case of confirmed human twins has been reported in the archaeological literature. The case involved 400-year-old twin remains, aged about 24 week gestation, which were excavated from a burial in South Dakota. However, death for the twins and their mother did not appear to have resulted from complications related to premature childbirth.

According to Lieverse, the skeleton of the Siberian woman, who lived with her Neolithic community near the shore of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest, tells “a compelling story and very personal window into life—and death—almost 8,000 years ago.”

The researcher estimates the woman was in her early twenties when she went into labor. She likely didn’t know she was having twins.

The location of the fetal remains suggests the first baby was breech — coming out feet first — a dangerous condition complicated by the presence of the twin.

While the first baby was partially delivered, at some point labor was obstructed, either by interlocked twins, head entrapment or some other condition such as the infant’s arms beside or behind its head.

Read more at Discovery News

Storm in the Teacup: 'Doomsday' Ripples Through Galaxy

Astronomers studying an otherwise "boring" galaxy over a billion light-years from Earth have been surprised to see a powerful storm erupt from its core, an event that will quench any new star formation in the foreseeable future.

“It appears that a supermassive black hole is explosively heating and blasting around the gas in this galaxy and, as a result, is transforming it from an actively star-forming galaxy into one devoid of gas that can no longer form stars,” said lead-researcher Chris Harrison, of The Center for Extragalactic Astronomy at Durham University in the U.K.

Using the National Science Foundation’s famous Very Large Array (VLA) — a "Y"-shaped configuration of radio telescopes in New Mexico that featured heavily in the Jody Foster movie “Contact” — Harrison and his team studied J1430+1339, also known as the “Teacup” owing to its apparent shape. This research has been published in the Astrophysical Journal.

The Teacup has been identified as possessing an active supermassive black hole in its core, consuming any material that falls too close, but it is also thought to be a galaxy in transition. Once an active star-forming galaxy, it now has the appearance of a giant elliptical galaxy, a sign that star formation may be coming to an end. It is for this reason that the astronomers are keen to observe galaxies such as these; they are galaxies undergoing huge changes and by understanding black hole activity, the processes driving pan-galactic transformation can be revealed.

The impact of the supermassive black hole in the core of the Teacup is clear — vast radio bright bubbles expanding up to 40,000 light-years protrude from the galaxy’s core with smaller-scale jets of plasma accelerating material to around 1,000 kilometers per second (2.2 million miles per hour). This incredibly high level of activity came as a surprise.

“These radio observations have revealed that the central black hole is whipping up a storm at the center of this galaxy, by launching powerful jets that are accelerating the gas in the host galaxy and are colliding with the gas on larger scales,” said co-investigator Alasdair Thomson, also from Durham. “This is the same kind of powerful process we’d previously seen in rare, extremely radio-luminous galaxies. The incredible capabilities of the VLA have allowed us to discover that these processes can occur in the more-common, radio-faint galaxies, as long as you look hard enough.”

Read more at Discovery News

The Creepy Collective Behavior of Boston Dynamics’ New Robot Dog

Robotics company Boston Dynamics has a new four-legged addition to its family: a 160-pound quadruped named Spot—and dude is impressive. In a short video posted yesterday, the Google-owned company shows Spot gallivanting with a weird equestrian hop through office corridors, up concrete stairs, and along rocky hills with little trouble. Spot even keeps his balance after being kicked by one of its human overlords. You can almost hear the canine whimper over the drone of his hydraulics.

We’ve seen all of this—admittedly amazing—stuff out of BD’s four-legged robots before. But it gets crazier around the 1:20 mark, when a pair of Spots begin trekking up a hill. Spot Number One starts repeatedly colliding into Spot Number Two—and neither loses balance. After a few seconds and a bit of subtle push-and-shove, they straighten out and walk in parallel again, and then turn together once they reach the top of the hill. This is getting creepy, guys—it looks like these robots are exhibiting the same swarm-like behavior that we see in animals.

We checked in with Iain Couzin, a Princeton biologist and expert in the study of collective animal behavior, to get his take on the robots’ seeming hive mind.

We know from Spot’s reaction to that kick that he can dynamically correct his stability—behavior that’s modeled after biological systems. From what Couzin can tell, the robots’ collective movement is an organic outgrowth of that self-correction. When the two Spots collide at the 1:25 mark, they’re both able to recover quickly from the nudge and continue on their route up the hill. “But the collision does result in them tending to align with one another (since each pushes against the other),” Couzin wrote in an email. “That can be an important factor: Simple collisions among individuals can result in collective motion.”

In Couzin’s research on locusts, for example, the insects form plagues that move together by just barely avoiding collisions. “Recently, avoidance has also been shown to allow the humble fruit fly to make effective collective decisions,” he wrote.

It doesn’t look like Spot is programmed to work with his twin brothers and sisters—but that doesn’t matter if their coordination emerges naturally from the physical rules that govern each individual robot. Clearly, bumping into each other isn’t the safest or most efficient way to get your robot army to march in lock step, but it’s a good start. And it’s relatively easy to imagine several Spots working together in organized ways if the LIDAR sensors fitted on their “heads” were programmed to create avoidance behaviors—like those locusts—rather than simply reacting to collisions.

Read more at Wired Science

Feb 10, 2015

Earth's surprise inside: Geologists unlock mysteries of the planet's inner core

Seismic waves are helping scientists to plumb the world's deepest mystery: the planet's inner core.

Thanks to a novel application of earthquake-reading technology, a research team at the University of Illinois and colleagues at Nanjing University in China have found that the Earth's inner core has an inner core of its own, which has surprising properties that could reveal information about our planet.

Led by Xiaodong Song, a professor of geology at the U. of I., and visiting postdoctoral researcher Tao Wang, the team published its work in the journal Nature Geoscience on Feb. 9.

"Even though the inner core is small -- smaller than the moon -- it has some really interesting features," said Song. "It may tell us about how our planet formed, its history, and other dynamic processes of the Earth. It shapes our understanding of what's going on deep inside the Earth."

Researchers use seismic waves from earthquakes to scan below the planet's surface, much like doctors use ultrasound to see inside patients. The team used a technology that gathers data not from the initial shock of an earthquake, but from the waves that resonate in the earthquake's aftermath. The earthquake is like a hammer striking a bell; much like a listener hears the clear tone that resonates after the bell strike, seismic sensors collect a coherent signal in the earthquake's coda.

"It turns out the coherent signal enhanced by the technology is clearer than the ring itself," said Song. "The basic idea of the method has been around for a while, and people have used it for other kinds of studies near the surface. But we are looking all the way through the center of the Earth."

Looking through the core revealed a surprise at the center of the planet -- though not of the type envisioned by novelist Jules Verne.

The inner core, once thought to be a solid ball of iron, has some complex structural properties. The team found a distinct inner-inner core, about half the diameter of the whole inner core. The iron crystals in the outer layer of the inner core are aligned directionally, north-south. However, in the inner-inner core, the iron crystals point roughly east-west.

Read more at Science Daily

100 Ancient Cult Sites Discovered in Israel

Some 100 prehistoric "cult sites," complete with penis stone structures and artifacts with vulva shapes cut into them, have been discovered in the Eilat Mountains, an extremely arid area of the Negev Desert in Israel.

At the sites, which date back around 8,000 years, archaeologists discovered a variety of stone structures and artifacts, including stone circles that measure 1.5 to 2.5 meters across (roughly 5 to 8 feet) with penis-shaped installations pointing toward them. Other findings there include standing stones that reach up to 2.6 feet (80 centimeters) high, stone bowls and stone carvings that have a humanlike shape.

These sites are often clustered together. In one area the team discovered 44 cult sites in a spot encompassing only 0.8 square kilometers (less than 200 acres). "Taking in consideration the topography, environmental conditions and the small number of known Neolithic habitations in the general southern Negev, the density of cult sites in this region is phenomenal," the team wrote in an article published recently in the Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society.

These sites were used for ritual activities of some form. Archaeologists know little about what activities went on at these sites although animal sacrifice, as seen from bones found there, seems to be one of them.

Fertility and death

Archaeologists are working to decipher any meaning from the artifacts and structures, noting that both death and fertility seem to be symbolized at the sites.

For instance, in addition to the penis-shaped structures, researchers also found that some of the stones have vulva-shaped holes cut into them. The circles that the penis-shaped structures point to also seem to represent females.

"The circle is a female symbol, and the elongated cell is a male one (phallus)," said Uzi Avner, a researcher with the Arava-Dead Sea Science Center and the Arava Institute, in an email to Live Science.

Death is "signified by the burial of stone objects and by setting them upside down," the team members wrote in their paper. In one case, a humanlike stone carving was found buried "with only the very top visible on the surface."

The two symbols identified so far, fertility and death, go hand in hand in many cultures. "Combinations of both are actually well-known in anthropological studies as relating to ancestral cult," the archaeologists wrote.

Harsh landscape

The 100 cult sites were found in a mountainous area that receives only 20 mm (0.79 inches) of rain per year, on average, the archaeologists said.

Around 8,000 years ago it would have been somewhat wetter. "The climate of the 7th-6th millennia B.C. was a little moister than that of the present, 40%-20% more rainfall, but the desert was a desert," said Avner in the email.

The cult sites tended to be built in relatively flat sections of the mountains. "Their position on topographic 'shoulders' or comparatively flat locations probably enabled several dozens of people to gather around them, for example, an extended family," the archaeologists wrote.

The sites also provide a good view. "Commonly, a broad view is seen from the sites, so possibly, the scenery was one element in the selection of their location," the archaeologists added.

While the researchers discovered many cult sites, they found few domestic ones. "In contrast to the density of cult sites, only two small habitations and one small campsite were found on the ridge," they wrote, noting that these three sites were all associated with the cult sites.

Read more at Discovery News

Brian Williams and the Psychology of False Memories

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was criticized last week for a dramatic first-person story he’d told and retold since 2003 of being in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq. After questions were raised about the truthfulness of his account and how it had changed over time, Williams apologized.

Wartime events and memories are especially fraught with baggage — including political, personal, and patriotic. Those who falsely characterize their first-hand experiences during wartime, and especially under enemy fire, are often accused of “stolen valor” akin to a person wearing medals he or she did not earn, or pretending to be a combat veteran. In fact the subject is taken so seriously that in 2013 President Obama signed the Stolen Valor Act, making it a federal crime for people to falsely pass themselves off as war heroes by wearing unearned medals.

But a case like that of Brian Williams is not so clear-cut; he did not pretend to be a veteran soldier, nor did he wear any military uniform or medals. He told a story whose narrative changed over time and veered into inaccuracy.

Williams is hardly alone. In 2008 Sen. Hillary Clinton recalled a first-hand experience during which she remembered landing in Bosnia in 1996 under sniper fire, yet news footage showed that her group did not arrive under attack. Clinton’s critics accused her of deception, but she claimed she simply and honestly misremembered her experience and apologized.

Mark Kirk, a Republican Senator from Illinois, admitted in 2010 that he made “mistakes” in describing his military service. During his Senate campaign, Kirk claimed that he’d served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (“The last time I was in Iraq, I was in uniform flying at 20,000 feet and the Iraqi Air Defense network was shooting at us,” he said in 2003), and that he’d received the U.S. Navy’s Intelligence Officer of the Year award. Kirk later admitted that he had not served (nor come under fire) in the Gulf, nor did he receive the award he claimed.

Serving in the military and seeing combat is of course no guarantee that the veteran’s memories and accounts are necessarily completely accurate. There have been many first-person accounts of heroism in the battlefield disputed by others there at the time. Sometimes the discrepancies can be chalked up to the fog of war, misunderstandings, and faulty memories; other times there seem to be political motivations behind raising the conflicting accounts. (For an analysis of false and exaggerated eyewitness wartime stories by and among Vietnam veterans, see Gary Kulik’s book “War Stories: False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers—What Really Happened in Vietnam.”)

Other times military exaggerations are chalked up to a difference in interpretation. For example former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura was accused by a Navy SEAL of exaggerating his military credentials by claiming to have been a SEAL himself. Ventura was a member of the Navy’s elite Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) and received SEAL training, but did not operate on a SEAL team. Ventura later acknowledged that he had not technically been a Navy SEAL, but said that those who served in the UDTs were also commonly called “SEALs.”

No one disputes that Brian Williams’s story was wrong; instead the question is whether it was a sincere memory error or an intentional act of deception. David Carr, media writer for “The New York Times,” quoted a man named Joe Summerlin, who was in the helicopter that was actually fired upon in Williams’s story: “‘Everyone tells lies,’ he wrote. ‘Every single one of us. The issue isn’t whether or not you lie. It is how you deal with it once you are caught. I thank you for stepping down for a few nights, Mr. Williams. Now can you admit that you didn’t ‘misremember’ and perform a real apology?’”

Summerlin may be correct that the account is a “lie,” an intentional deception on the part of Brian Williams. But others — including prominent psychologists and memory researchers — suggest that it’s plausible that Williams sincerely misremembered. How could Williams come to wrongly believe that a helicopter he was in was hit by enemy fire?

Psychology of False Memories

Part of the answer is that memories are created by experiences, and no one disputes that Williams was in a helicopter when another in the group was hit. He didn’t simply hear about the event from someone else, or see it in a movie, or read about it third-hand. He was there — kind of. Memory is not, as many suggest, like a tape recorder that plays back perfectly each time you recall an event. Instead there are many factors that can influence how an experience is remembered.

A review of the evolution of Williams’s account suggests a clue about how the incident could have migrated from one helicopter to another. In a 2013 retelling of the story to David Letterman in which Williams stated that his helicopter had been hit, he repeatedly uses the word “we” to describe the group he was in that came under fire. There seemed to be a blurring of the distinction in his mind between “we” (the crew and passengers on the specific helicopter he was on) and “we” (the whole group on that mission, of whom he states “two of our four helicopters were hit… we were only at 100 feet doing 100 forward knots” — which accurately described all of the helicopters, including both the one that was hit and the one he was in).

It is certainly true that the group of helicopters Brian Williams was in came under enemy fire, though whether his particular helicopter came under fire is unknown. Of course there is no way to know exactly what Williams was thinking, but his use of the words “we” and “us” to describe who came under fire suggests that he began to see himself as the target and possibly misremember whose helicopter was actually hit.

Williams’s story may in fact be a lie, but given what we know about the fallibility of memory and how easily details can be confused, his claim that he misremembered is not psychologically implausible.

Psychologist Tom Gilovich, in his book “How We Know What Isn’t So,” explains how memories change over time and become distorted: “When people are given a message to relay to someone else, they rarely convey the message verbatim. The limits of human memory and the implicit demand that the listener not be burdened with too many details constrain the amount and kind of information that is transmitted… Secondhand accounts often become simpler and ‘cleaner’ stories that are not encumbered by minor inconsistencies or ambiguous details.”

This has been borne out in many studies; in 2009 researchers at the University of Warwick conducted experiments to see if they could create false eyewitness testimony using faked videotapes. In a study published in the journal “Applied Cognitive Psychology,” subjects viewed a digitally faked videotape of something they had personally experienced, and were asked to confirm whether or not the tape was accurate.

Those who visually experienced the actions on the tape were three times more likely to affirm the accuracy of the faked tape than controls who were merely told what the tape showed. This demonstrates that some subjects incorporated what they saw on a television screen into their “real” memories, and when given a choice between relying on what they actually remembered and what they saw represented as reality, they chose the latter.

Read more at Discovery News

Hubble Spies Cosmic Emoticon Smiling Back

A chance alignment of galaxies and a touch of extreme physics was all it took for the universe to create an uncanny smiley face in deep space.

As captured by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), this ‘cosmic smiley’ was created by the extreme gravitational environment surrounding the galactic cluster SDSS J1038+4849. Space-time is so warped around the mass of galaxies that light from behind the cluster is being bent and magnified as if through a vast cosmic lens.

Gravitational lensing has become a powerful tool for Hubble in recent years and the mission is currently using these natural lenses to look well beyond its normal range. By analyzing these enigmatic arcs of light, never before seen detail of galaxies usually too far away to be spied has been resolved — part of an observing campaign known as Frontier Fields.

But in this case, the magnified arcs of light appear to etch the outline of a face sporting two similar galaxies as eyes and a perfectly-placed smile.

This rare example of a gravitational lens is known as an ‘Einstein Ring’ — after Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity that predicts the existence of gravitational lenses in deep space — where the galactic cluster in the foreground and the hidden (lensed) galaxy behind are in almost perfect alignment from our perspective.

From Discovery News

Feb 9, 2015

Original Magna Carta Copy Found in Scrapbook

An original copy of the Magna Carta has been discovered in a scrapbook in Kent, England.

The tattered document dates back to 1300, 85 years after King John of England was compelled to sign the first agreement limiting the rights of kings. This version was issued by King Edward I (King John's grandson), who was under pressure from the church and the barons to reaffirm good governance, said Sophie Ambler, a research associate with the Magna Carta Project.

"Nobody knew it was there," Ambler said of the damaged document. "This Magna Carta had been stuck into a scrapbook by a Victorian official from the British Museum at the end of the 19th century."

The copy was then placed in the Sandwich archive in Kent, where it was forgotten, Ambler told Live Science. Its rediscovery was sparked by the efforts of researchers with the Magna Carta Project, who are investigating the history of the Magna Carta in the lead-up to its 800th anniversary this year. The leader of the project, the University of East Anglia's Nicholas Vincent, asked a historian in Kent to look up Sandwich's Charter of the Forest, a complementary document to the Magna Carta. In the process, the historian found the forgotten edition of the Magna Carta.

Often considered a precursor to modern constitutional law, the Magna Carta was first affirmed on June 15, 1215, by a beleaguered King John, who faced an uprising by a group of powerful barons upset over taxation. The charter limited the king's power and set limits on taxation, also establishing rights to justice. Four copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta survive, including a badly burnt document held at the British Library.

After King John, England's kings periodically reaffirmed and reissued the Magna Carta, as was the case with this version. The new copy brings the total number of surviving 13th-century versions to 24, Ambler said. The newly discovered edition is the seventh surviving copy from the year 1300.

The charter is more than 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) long, but about one-third of the text is missing, according to the Magna Carta Project. Water damage has eaten away at the paper, and the royal seal is missing. Nevertheless, the date of issue survives at the bottom of the document, Ambler said. Determining the authenticity of the charter was relatively straightforward, she added: The layout, handwriting and text all match what would be expected from a Magna Carta of this time.

The document's discovery in Sandwich reveals that copies of the Magna Carta were distributed more widely than ever known, Ambler said. Sandwich was what is known as a "Cinque Port," a coastal town given exemptions from certain taxes and oversight in return for maintaining ships for the kingdom's defense needs.

Read more at Discovery News

Mystery Over 15th-Century Drilled Skull Solved

Researchers at the University of Pisa, Italy, have solved the mystery over the honeycombed skull of one of the Italian martyrs beheaded by 15th century Ottoman Turk invaders when they refused to give up their Christian faith.

Featuring 16 perfectly round holes of various sizes and depth, the skull belonged to an individual who was executed on a hill outside the town of Otranto in Apulia along with more than 800 other men.

The skull was later drilled, most likely to obtain bone powder to treat diseases such as paralysis, stroke, and epilepsy, which were believed to arise from magical or demonic influences.

Beatified in 1771 and canonized by Pope Francis on May 12, 2013 the so-called "martyrs of Otranto," whose identities are largely unknown, are now the patron saints of the city of Otranto.

They all met their end on Aug. 14, 1480, following a 15-day siege by the Ottoman force commanded by Gedik Ahmed Pasha. During the assault, all Otranto men over the age of 50 were slaughtered, while women and children under the age of 15 were either slain or sold into Albanian slavery.

The remaining men, including more than 800 exhausted survivors, were told to convert to Islam. As they refused, they were taken to a hill and beheaded one by one.

The remains of the martyrs are now impressively exposed behind five large glass cabinets in the Cathedral of Otranto.In particular, the skulls are meticulously lined in horizontal rows, with the facial bones turned towards the visitors.

However, in a low row of the central window, a skull is positioned with the face towards the ceiling and the cranium facing visitors.

"The specimen was probably arranged in this manner so as to show a series of holes on the cranial vault," Gino Fornaciari, professor of history of medicine and paleopathology at the University of Pisa, and colleagues wrote in the February issue of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

Although the window could not be opened, not allowing the removal of the skull for study, the researchers noted the holes featured a regular rounded shape.

Of the 16 holes, eight holes turned to be complete perforations, involving the bone in all its thickness and producing a rounded conical-shaped hole. The edges featured rounded walls.

"The perfectly cupped shape of the incomplete perforations leads to hypothesize the use of a particular type of trepan, with semi-lunar shaped blade or rounded bit; a tool of this type could not produce bone discs, but only bone powder," Fornaciari said.

This would make the Otranto skull a unique evidence which supports historical accounts on the use of skull bone powder as an ingredient in pharmacological preparations.

"The finding is particularly interesting because of its religious context," Fornaciari told Discovery News.

Powdered skull bone obtained from saints or individuals who died a violent death and were not buried, such as the martyrs of Otranto, was believed to be particularly effective and prescriptions appear already in the Late Middle Ages.

"The head was considered the most important part of the human body. It was believed that right there invisible spiritual forces remained active even after death," Valentina Giuffra, from Pisa University's division of paleopathology, told Discovery News.

Indeed, in his Pharmacopée universelle, a comprehensive work on phamaceutical composition, French chemist Nicolas Lémery (1645 –1715) detailed how powdered human skull drunk in water was effective to treat "paralysis, stroke, epilepsy and other illness of the brain."

"The dose is from half scruple up to two scruples," Lémery wrote.

"The skull of a person who died of violent and sudden death is better than that of a man who died of a long illness or who had been taken from a cemetery: the formers has held almost all of his spirits, which in the latter they have been consumed, either by illness or by the earth," he added.

According to Fornaciari, trepanation in the Otranto skull was probably performed during the arrangement of the bones in the cathedral’s glass cabinet, which took place in 1711.

Read more at Discovery News

Mysterious Stone Carving May Contain Old Message

A weighty stone carved with a mysterious pattern that may be writing has been discovered in a garden in Leicester, England.

The hefty carving was up for sale as a garden ornament when archaeologist and TV presenter James Balme found it. The carving, which was very dirty, may have been plowed up many years ago, Balme said. Despite the carving's poor shape, he thought it was no ordinary ornament; so he purchased it and carefully cleaned it.

When he was done conserving it, Balme saw a stone carving with an extremely complex pattern that is difficult to describe. It's possible the "pattern carved may be some form of writing," Balme told Live Science in an email. The carving's use is unknown, though it could be "a keystone from an archway or indeed a vaulted ceiling," Balme said.

The carving, which weighs between 55 and 65 pounds (25 and 30 kilograms), appears to be made out of a hard form of sandstone, Balme said. It's wide at its base but get narrower toward the top. It stands about 18 inches (46 centimeters) high and is 5.5 inches (14 cm) thick. Its decorations are entirely on the front face "although it does have many chisel marks on the sides and back," he said.

The date of the carving is uncertain. Balme says that it may date to the Anglo-Saxon period, which started in 410 when the Roman Empire abandoned Britain, and lasted until 1066, when a group called the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, invaded England.

During the Anglo-Saxon period several different groups migrated to England. These people created fine works of art such as complex stone carvings, some of which survive today. Literature also flourished at this time, the poem "Beowulf" being one of the most famous works from this period.

Although an Anglo-Saxon date for the stone carving is a distinct possibility, Balme cannot be certain. Questions also remain as to what exactly the carving was used for and whether the pattern may represent some form of writing. Balme has taken to Twitter, seeking help to unravel the carving's mysteries.

Garden ornament archaeology

"Garden ornament" may conjure up images of tacky gnomes or other modern-day items. However, over the past few years archaeologists studying garden ornaments have made several interesting discoveries. In 2009, the BBC reported on a garden ornament in Dorset that turned out to be an ancient Egyptian terracotta vase.

Read more at Discovery News

Merging White Dwarf Stars March to Supernova Doom

Astronomers have discovered a stellar rarity deep inside an oddly-shaped nebula — two white dwarf stars on the verge of a cataclysmic merging event.

During a survey to try to understand the peculiar shapes of nebulae in our galaxy, astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile zoomed in on the planetary nebula Henize 2-428, which is lop-sided. Planetary nebulae are formed during the later stages of a star’s life after it has run out of hydrogen in its core. This violent phase sheds the star’s outermost layers through powerful stellar winds.

But some distant planetary nebula have strange asymmetries — i.e. the cloud of dust and plasma expand into unexpected, non-uniform shapes. This is a puzzle to astronomers; if the nebula was created by a single dying star, surely all the material should be ballooning out as the same speed in all directions?

Now part of Henize 2-428′s asymmetry mystery has been solved. Embedded deep inside the cloud there’s not a single star, but two stars — a fact that has led to an explosive realization.

“Further observations made with telescopes in the Canary Islands allowed us to determine the orbit of the two stars and deduce both the masses of the two stars and their separation. This was when the biggest surprise was revealed,” said Romano Corradi, a researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (Tenerife, IAC), and co-author of a paper published in the journal Nature on Monday (Feb. 9).

Both stars are white dwarfs, tiny yet dense stars each with a mass slightly less than the sun. By the researchers’ calculations, the stars orbit every 4 hours and they are slowly spiraling into one another. In around 700 million years, the pair will merge.

Not only have astronomers now explained why this particular nebula has a weird shape, they’ve also uncovered a gravitational wave factory — energy is gradually being lost as both stars rip around one another, causing their orbital distance to decrease.

But what will happen when both stars collide and merge? Their combined masses will be 1.8 times the mass of the sun, well above the mass threshold (known as the Chandrasekhar limit) that will cause an object to collapse in on itself. In other words, supernova!

Read more at Discovery News

Celestial Bauble Is True Death Star

Delicate shrouds of super-heated plasma floating across the diamond canopy of space are all that's left of a star that exploded in a supernova some 600 years ago.

The supernova remnant -- called SNR B0519-69.0 -- is located over 150,000 light-years away in the satellite dwarf galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.

The image combines a visible light image from the Hubble Space Telescope with an X-ray image from NASA's Earth orbiting Chandra X-ray Telescope.

The super-heated plasma is emitting x-rays which were picked up by Chandra and are shown in blue. The thin glowing red outer hydrogen shells of the supernova remnant are seen in visible light from the Hubble image.

The bubble-shaped remnant is over 23 light-years across and expanding at a rate of 18 million kilometers per hour.

The star that exploded was a white dwarf, the stellar corpse of a sun-like star in the final stages of its life. The white dwarf was in orbit with another star in a binary system, close enough to draw huge volumes of material off its companion.

Eventually it sucked off enough material to become unstable and violently blew itself apart as a thermonuclear or type 1A supernova, briefly outshining an entire galaxy.

From Discovery News

Feb 8, 2015

Rare Case of Conjoined Lizard Twins Reported

In a first-of-its-kind case, a pair of conjoined lizards called Quince monitor lizards were discovered at a German zoo, according to a new report. The lizards were dead when they were discovered.

The animals were found in June 2009 in a clutch deposited in a terrarium at the Cologne Zoo, in Germany. Other cases of conjoined twins have been reported in reptiles such as turtles, crocodiles and other lizard species, according to the report.

The parents of the conjoined lizards were siblings that were kept together at the zoo. Another clutch from the same parents, laid in September 2009, included a dead, malformed hatchling.

"Interesting for us was that both clutches of the same pair comprised malformed offspring, which indicates that this probably did not happen coincidentally," said Mona van Schingen, a reptile expert at the University of Cologne in Germany and co-author of the report.

The lizards' heads and abdominal tissues were conjoined, but each had a body that was generally well-developed, including entire limbs and tails, according to the report.

Both the conjoined lizards and the dead, malformed hatchling that was found in the other clutch had curved spinal columns, and the skin on their undersides had not fully formed, so their bellies were open and their internal organs were visible.

All three were smaller than the typical size of hatchlings of this species, van Schingen said.

The Quince monitor lizard, Varanus melinus, which was described in 1997, is relatively new to science.

Nearly nothing is known about the species' biology in the wild, said study co-author Thomas Ziegler, the curator of the aquarium and terrarium department at the Cologne Zoo. Almost all the information about this species comes from lizards in captivity, Ziegler told Live Science.

The lizards are 2.6 to 4 feet (80 to 120 cm) long as adults, and are native to Indonesia.

It is possible that the reason the lizards were conjoined was partly due to the low amount of genetic variation that stemmed from having parents that were siblings, according to the report.

In 2002, research was published on snakes, called Natrix tessellata, which showed a link between an increased rate of developmental abnormalities and a low genetic variability in small populations that had a limited number of ancestors.

Moreover, a study on sand lizards "revealed a significant effect of parental genetic similarity on the risk of hatching malformations," van Schingen said.

However, previous reports have also pointed to other potential causes of malformations in reptiles. For instance, in 2010, researchers described a case of a crocodile hatchling with eight legs and two tails in Venezuela that was found in an area that was exposed to chemicals from agriculture, according to the report.

Another cause of deformations in reptiles may be adiet that is not well-suited to the needs of animals kept in captivity, which has previously been the case with bone malformations in green iguanas, van Schingen said.

It's rare that cases of conjoined twinning in lizards are reported, van Schingen said. When such cases do happen, people who keep lizards may chose to not reveal details about genetic relationships between the parents of the malformed offspring, or the conditions in which the animals were kept, she added.

Among lizards, conjoined twinning has been most commonly observed in bearded dragons of the genus Pogona and geckos such as crested geckos, which are very popular as pets, van Schingen said.

Read more at Discovery News

Iceland Building First Pagan Temple in 1,000 Years

For the first time in 1,000 years a new pagan temple is being constructed in Iceland’s capital city that will house a shrine to the Norse gods Thor, Odin and Frigg.

“We see this as so much part of our heritage,” said Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, high priest of the Asatru religion.

The temple is ten years in the making and is currently under construction. The 4,000 square foot facility will overlook the Icelandic capital and be completed in 2016. It will give Icelanders the opportunity to publicly worship at the shrine to gods.

“Some people love the idea, they really want to go back to the Viking era,” Hilmarsson said.

Iceland was originally founded by pagan settlers. Asatru remained the sole religion of the country for over 100 years until it gave way to Christianity in the year 1000. Some Icelanders experienced religious conflicts with northern European countries.

“Some Icelanders converted to Christianity, but it was a business deicision because some business owners would not trade with pagans,” Hilmarsson said.

The high priest tells Foxnews.com Norse paganism experienced a revival in Iceland beginning in the 1970’s that’s paved the way for the new temple.

The temple will serve as a place of worship but it won’t be a lively or organized celebration.

“It’s more like coming together, sanctifying the movement, having a sacred space,” Hilmarsson said. “More close to Hindu ceremonies.”

Hilmarsson said Thor, Ordin and Frigg are important deities in the religion. Thor is the protector of mankind, Ordin is the god of wisdom and poetry, and Frigg is the goddess of domestic and love.

If names like Thor ring a bell, it might be because some Asatru gods have recently seen a surge in America thanks to Marvel’s blockbuster films about them.

“There is a skewed vision because the Marvel version is like a Shakespeare,” Hilmarsson said. “We certainly enjoy them but don’t see them as religious in any sense.

The priest said the gods are viewed as mystical and symbolic. Most modern worshipers don’t consider them to be living beings that are capable of flying down from the clouds.

“We don’t tend to be literal in our beliefs in Iceland, not even the Christian ones,” Hilmarsson said.

The Asatru religion might describe itself as poetic--but if some Christians, especially those in the Western hemisphere, were to take a literal look at the new altar to pagan gods they might consider it satanic. Hilmarsson says Norse is the opposite of devil worship.

Read more at Discovery News