May 16, 2015

Mysterious Caribbean Shipwreck Identified

Underwater archaeologists have solved the mystery of a shipwreck filled with sword blades, scissors and mule shoes more than three years after finding it in the waters off the Caribbean coast of Panama.

The vessel has been identified as the Nuestra Señora de Encarnación, a colonial Spanish ship known as a nao, or merchant ship, that sank in 1681 during a storm at the mouth of Panama’s Chagres River.

“This truly is an exciting and intriguing shipwreck,” said project director Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann, the project director and underwater archaeologist at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

Very few Spanish merchant naos have ever been found, and even fewer have been unearthed in the Encarnacións’s amazing condition.

Resting at a depth of just 40 feet, the 334-year-old wreck is buried in up to 3 feet of muddy sand and silt that preserved the entire lower portion of the ship’s hull.

“The cargo includes a wide variety of artifacts, in particular over 100 wooden boxes containing sword blades, scissors, mule shoes, nails and ceramics,” Hanselmann said.

Originally constructed in Veracruz, Mexico, Encarnación sailed as part of the Tierra Firme fleet, en route to Portobelo, Panama from Cartagena, Colombia.

One of Spain’s great treasure convoys, the Tierra Firme left Spain for the New World every year carrying supplies for the colonists and returning with precious metals, emeralds and pearls. The trade was the backbone of Spain’s colonial economy.

Hanselmann and colleagues stumbled upon the vessel in 2011, during their ongoing search for five ships the 17th century pirate Captain Henry Morgan lost en route to sacking Panama City in 1671. A year before, the team recovered guns that were lost overboard when Morgan’s ships ran aground.

The researchers have no doubt the wreck is the Encarnación.

“The location of the ship is consistent with the story of the wrecking event. The only other vessel that went down immediately after that storm in that location was a small salvage barge. This is no barge,” Hanselmann told Discovery News.

He noted that three other vessels were lost during that storm, but closer to Portobelo.

“Other than the loss of Morgan’s ships in this area 10 years prior, there are no other contemporaneous accounts of Spanish merchant vessel losses off the Chagres,” he said.

According to maritime archaeologist and assistant project director Melanie Damour, the vessel’s construction matches the information currently available on Encarnación.

“We have a substantial amount of preserved hull structure and our measurements are fairly consistent with the construction details we have found so far. In addition, we know that Encarnación was constructed of mahogany and oak, both of which we documented,” Damour said.

Moreover, Encarnación’s cargo manifest matches what has been found in the archaeological record so far.

The ship sank with barrels and wooden boxes filled with swords, mule shoes, tacks, cloth roles, and lead bale seals with inscriptions. Apart from perishable organic material, the items are still in place.

“The contemporary salvage attempts after the wrecking event were mostly unsuccessful as the only thing they could recover was a few bales of cloths,” Chris Horrell, maritime archaeologist and assistant project director, told Discovery News.

Hanselmann noted a certain duality in most of the cargo. The objects themselves provide a snapshot of colonial Spanish life in late 17th century.

“Sword blades, scissors and mule shoes were very common items that had multiple uses and were employed in everyday life,” he said.

“The sword blade could serve as a weapon of the Crown’s soldiers, but could also be utilized for everyday cutting needs. The scissors that could assist in treating wounds would also have other uses in other professions. The mule shoes were necessary not only for transporting silver and gold across the isthmus, but transporting goods and merchandise from one town to the next,” he added.

According to the researchers, the area where the Encarnación lies may and hold up to 30 shipwrecks.

Read more at Discovery News

Giant Squid Lore and Legends Date Back Centuries

A giant squid washed up on New Zealand’s South Island earlier this week, a specimen whose tentacles reached over 16 feet in length. It caused quite a stir when found, and was rescued from birds and other scavengers by a local museum.

According to an ABC News story, “Marine biologist and aquarium owner Megan Lewis… identified it as a mature female. ‘They tend to grow very fast and live not very long,’ Lewis said, noting that the specimen’s head was in ‘pristine condition.’” It’s not clear how the squid died, but since it was intact and its stomach was full it likely wasn’t the result of predation or starvation.

For centuries scientists had no definitive evidence that the giant squid (genus Architeuthis) actually existed. They are creatures of the deep sea and spend most of their lives far away from mankind’s prying eyes. On the rare occasion that a giant squid was found washed up on a beach (most often in Newfoundland and New Zealand), they were invariably dead and decomposing.

The giant squid’s imposing size and fearsome appearance has long cast them as predatory monsters in human imaginations and fictional depictions (Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” describes an attack on a submarine by a giant squid).

In his book “The Search for the Giant Squid” marine biologist Richard Ellis notes that “There is probably no apparition more terrifying than a gigantic, saucer-eyed creature of the depths… Even the man-eating shark pales by comparison to such a horror… An animal that can reach a length of 60 feet is already intimidating, and if it happens to have eight squirmy arms, two feeding tentacles, gigantic unblinking eyes, and a gnashing beak, it becomes the stuff of nightmares.”

It’s a Lovecraftian horror that resonates in the human psyche, though the giant squid are not aggressive against humans and typically feed on other squid and deep-sea fish.

It’s likely that the giant squid served as the basis for centuries of sea monster reports. Ancient sea stories told of the fearsome Kraken, a huge many-tentacled beast, said to attack ships and sailors on the high seas (known to modern audiences in Liam Neeson’s “Clash of the Titans” command to “Release the Kraken!”).

The Kraken was first described in early Scandinavian mythology, a marine colossus so large that its body appeared as a series of small islands. Lured by the promise of fresh water and provisions, sailors would approach just before huge tentacles would rise out of the water and drag them to their doom (this legend was faithfully and dramatically depicted in the 2006 film “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”).

Aside from the occasional specimens recovered and preserved in museums, another important piece of the giant squid puzzle was found in and on sperm whales. Whalers would occasionally notice huge scars on whale skins indicating a battle with some sort of obviously huge and powerful animal.

Read more at Discovery News

May 15, 2015

Common Bacterium Cures Bats' White-nose Syndrome

A common bacterium we find in everyday things, like food flavorings, is giving scientists hope that bat populations can be saved from deadly White-nose Syndrome.

The new treatment was developed in Missouri by Forest Service scientists Sybill Amelon and Dan Lindner, and Chris Cornelison of Georgia State University.

The bacterium, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, dwells in pretty much all soils found in North America and is safe for plants and animals. In fact, it’s been used in more than one industrial application, including flavorings for our food, for over half a century, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

This time, the researchers grew the bacterium on cobalt, which produced so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that stop the fungus, Psuedogymnoascus destructans, from growing.

“The amazing part about this is that these compounds diffuse through the air and act at very low concentrations, so the bats are treated by exposing them to air containing the VOCs (the compounds do not need to be ‘directly’ applied to the bats),” according to a USFS press release.

However, more than one chemical is created from the reaction, so the scientists’ next step is to isolate which chemical is the one that stops the fungus from growing.

White-nose Syndrome attacks a bat’s nose, ears, and wings while it hibernates, when the animal’s temperature is at its lowest. All infected bats in a colony die, usually because their immune systems are compromised and they use twice as much energy during hibernation as healthy bats do, shedding precious fat reserves too early, according to researchers.

The disease has been plowing through bat populations since the early 2000s, killing nearly 6 million bats since 2006, according to Twenty-six U.S. states have confirmed the presence of the disease.

If there’s no cure found for White-nose Syndrome, many scientists fear that bats will be extinct within a few decades.

Read more at Discovery News

Blues Legend B.B. King Dies, Aged 89

Patty King confirmed on CNN that her father, a singular figure in music history, died late Thursday.

The guitar legend, who had kept a rigorous touring schedule until last year, had issued a statement on May 1 saying that he was entering hospice care at his home in Las Vegas.

News of King’s death elicited an array of tributes from musicians across genres who credited the guitarist as a towering influence.

“BB, anyone could play a thousand notes and never say what you said in one. #RIP,” a younger star guitarist and singer, Lenny Kravitz, wrote on Twitter.

The Canadian singer Bryan Adams tweeted: “RIP BB King, one of the best blues guitarists ever, maybe the best. He could do more on one note than anyone.”

Born in poverty in Mississippi as Riley B. King, the future legend learned to play a guitar that was given to him at age 12 by a plantation owner.

King mastered the instrument and he later christened his trusty guitar Lucille as he brought the blues to a mainstream audience — and also helped chart the course of rock.

He was invited in 1968 to perform at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, a haven for hippies, and a year later opened 18 US concerts for the Rolling Stones.

King’s signature song was “The Thrill is Gone” — full of the feelings of angst so often identified with the blues, interspersed with biting guitar licks.

In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him the third greatest guitar legend after Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman and one ahead of Eric Clapton.

King developed his distinct style in the 1950s as he toured incessantly with his band. A natural entertainer on stage, he wove stories from the poor south with tales and jokes from his often colorful love life.

– Well-chosen notes–

His guitar playing focused not on speed or on sweeping chords but instead on well-chosen, sharp single notes.

He never took up the slide guitar like most Delta bluesmen, but substituted with a vibrato from his left hand on the neck that rounded out his unique sound.

King in his prime put in more than 300 concerts a year. Despite suffering Type II diabetes for the past two decades, until recently he kept up a touring schedule that would tire many musicians far younger than him.

But fans noticed that his recent performances became increasingly erratic and he finally ended his touring after falling ill at a show in Chicago in October.

“I have a disease which I believe might be contagious,” he told AFP in an interview in 2007. “It’s called ‘need more.’”

But another reason King stayed on the road was in hopes of keeping the blues alive.

“With the exception of satellite radio today I don’t hear no blues playing on the radio,” he told AFP. “So one of the reasons I travel a lot is so I can carry the music to the people. Because if I don’t carry it, it don’t go on the air.”

Read more at Discovery News

Cosmic 'Dinosaur Egg' Ready to Hatch

The youngest example of one of the oldest objects in the universe may have been discovered by astronomers, who say it appears ready to hatch millions of stars.

The object, which astronomers are calling the “Firecracker,” is a dense, massive cloud of molecular gas and may be the youngest example of what’s known as a globular cluster. Millions of stars can form from the material inside a globular cluster, but observations show that not a single star twinkles within the depths of the newly discovered Firecracker. You can see a video of this incredible discovery on

“We may be witnessing one of the most ancient and extreme modes of star formation in the universe,” lead author Kelsey Johnson, an astronomer at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said in a statement. “This remarkable object looks like it was plucked straight out of the early universe. To discover something that has all the characteristics of a globular cluster, yet has not begun making stars, is like finding a dinosaur egg that’s about to hatch.”

Beating the odds

Globular clusters are common throughout the universe — the Milky Way contains over 150 known clusters, and may hide others. As the dense clouds form new stars, heat and radiation from the newborns change the environment around them, making it difficult for scientists to understand the original conditions that birthed the clusters.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Johnson and her team studied a famous pair of interacting galaxies, NGC 4038 and NGC 4039, known as the Antennae galaxies. The forces generated by the two merging galaxies, which lie approximately 50 million light-years away, trigger star formation at a rapid clip.

But in one region, dubbed the Firecracker by the researchers, star formation has yet to begin. This allows the astronomers a first-ever look at the conditions that may have led to the creation of most, if not all, of these massive clusters.

“Until now, clouds with this potential have only been seen as teenagers, after star formation has begun,” Johnson said. “That meant that the nursery had already been disturbed. To understand how a globular cluster forms, you need to see its true beginnings.”

While most globular clusters formed around 12 billion years ago, when the first galaxies started out, a smaller population was created in more recent times by the merger of existing galaxies. The window for formation is relatively short, as the clusters are thought to evolve out of their star-free stage within a million years. Such clouds are rare, as they may be torn apart by gravitational forces.

“The survival rate for a massive young star cluster to remain intact is very low –around 1 percent,” said Johnson.

Read more at Discovery News

Can We Just Save This Adorable Parrot for Christ’s Sake?

I mean, look at this thing.
There are two things you need to know about New Zealand: It’s impossibly green, and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a sheep (don’t actually throw rocks at sheep, it’s just a figure of speech). The place is lousy with them, and for that you can thank Captain Cook, who introduced them in 1773. It was just one of the many mammals humans have brought to New Zealand, which has historically had zero mammals other than bats. Now, they’re everywhere—rats, cats, dogs, and about eleventy million sheep.

And it’s an ecological nightmare. Rats eat eggs and cats eat birds, and the endemic wildlife is suffering for it. Almost half of New Zealand’s native bird species are now extinct, while a particularly bizarre bird is teetering on the edge: the kakapo. It is the world’s only flightless parrot. It can live 100 years. Its sex life is best described as … involved. And there are just 126 left in the wild. But those 126 birds have guardians, dedicated rangers who’ve sequestered them on three small mammal-free islands, tracking them and feeding them and slowly, ever so slowly, boosting their numbers.

Back in the 19th century, New Zealand was positively swarming with kakapo, according to biologist Andrew Digby of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. Hundreds of thousands of them, perhaps millions. “With early European explorers in the 1800s,” he says, “there’s records of them saying that they’d have a dozen of them land in their camp at night and make so much noise that they couldn’t sleep. They used to say they’d catch them just by shaking a tree, and then they’d get a couple of birds falling out.”

But the introduced mammalian predators have been pecking away at the kakapo’s numbers, until in the 1970s scientists feared only a population of males was left—not exactly good news for a species. But another population of kakapo, with females, was soon found on Stewart Island at the southern tip of New Zealand. Thus the kakapo was saved, but its numbers continued dwindling until hitting their lowest in the mid-1990s: 50. Ever since, though, conservation efforts have slowly but surely been bringing the kakapo back.

Feeding kakapo does two things: Gives them energy for the mating season and results in hilarious pictures.
So why are kakapo so vulnerable to mammals? Well, they’d evolved over 18 million years without having the furry things around. They took up the terrestrial life because, simply put, they could. They blend in well with the undergrowth and there were no mammalian predators stalking about in search of eggs, so it made sense to give up flight, which is highly energy intensive. It’s among the many illustrations that there’s no such thing as “progress” in evolution. Sure, flight was an impressive achievement in the history of life on Earth, but if it no longer behooves a species to fly, it can be better to evolve it away. Unfortunately for a kakapo, the introduction of mammals made this evolutionary path rather problematic.

Counterintuitively, the kakapo actually has relatively huge wings for a flightless bird (its flightless counterpart in New Zealand, the kiwi, has wings that have almost disappeared entirely), which it uses to glide out of trees—or, more accurately, awkwardly tumble out of them. Kakapo are accomplished climbers, using their talons and beak to make their way as much as 100 feet up into the canopy in search of berries. “And sometimes in the summer when the females are breeding they’re in such a hurry, they need to get the food back to their chicks as quickly as possible,” Digby says. “So rather than climbing back down they’ll just jump off from high up in the tree. They’re tens of meters up, and they’ll sort of crash to the ground.”

Indeed, scientists will find them injured from such stunts—but it’s worth it for the birds to get back and protect their young ‘uns from things like owls (which are too small to go after adult kakapo). There is much at stake here, and not just because the species is in trouble, but because kakapo only mate every three years. This coincides with the fruiting of the rimu tree, which produces the caloric energy that fuels the kakapo’s bizarre mating ritual.

Which goes as follows. Toward the end of the year, right around Christmas, male kakapo ascend hills all around the three islands they call home. Here they build networks known as “tracks and bowls,” which are, as you’d expect, depressions that the males scrape out of the dirt and connect with trails. Every night they sit in these bowls, puffing themselves up and booming an unexpectedly deep sound that can travel more than four miles. The males will do this for eight hours a night for months on end, booming booming booming, to attract females, who will mate with suitable fellas for up to 45 minutes a go. (A kakapo has also mated on at least one occasion with the head of a BBC presenter, as you can see below.) “So it’s a pretty unusual mating system,” Digby says. “And this booming noise is kind of weird. You feel it in your stomach. It’s not just hearing it, it’s just a really, really low frequency.”

Females will typically lay a single egg—just one egg every three years. The good news is that kakapo may live for up to a century, making for a whole lot of breeding seasons. The bad news is that when you have such small populations, inbreeding is inevitable.

This is where the rangers come in.

An artificial insemination of a kakapo.
Humans Cleaning Up Human Messes

The Department of Conservation’s four permanent rangers, who rotate between the three kakapo islands, are obsessively monitoring the 126 remaining birds. Transmitters tell them not only where each bird is, but who is mating with whom. “So we want to make sure that we don’t have birds too closely related that are mating with each other,” Digby says. “Brothers and sisters, that sort of stuff.”

They’ll also preempt the birds by artificially inseminating them, because inbreeding can severely lower the fertility of female kakapo. Plus, genetic diversity in general is pivotal in any population, and especially so in such a small one. Genetic diversity means healthy variation among animals, and healthy variation allows a species to better adapt to its environment. Those with advantageous variations survive to mate and pass the genes responsible for them along, while their less fit peers perish, helping the species adapt. Plus variation means a species can better handle outbreaks of disease: Some individuals will be better equipped to fight it and pass down those convenient genes. If a population is inbred, though, it may be that none of the individuals can fight it.

Kakapo chicks.
Accordingly, an outbreak among kakapos could be devastating. So their islands are under strict biocontrol. Not only are visitors’ bags checked for rats and mice, but everything is sprayed with disinfectant to snuff out any diseases.

However precarious the kakapo’s existence may be, so far the program seems to be working. More birds are being born than are dying, so the population is growing, and Digby is realistically optimistic.

Read more at Wired Science

May 14, 2015

First Warm-Blooded Fish Identified

The opah, or moonfish, is the first known fully warm-blooded fish, according to a study published in the journal Science.

The determination helps to explain why opah are such high performance predators that have a keen sense of vision, swim speedily, react quickly, and have the stamina to chase down fast-moving prey.

“Before this discovery I was under the impression this was a slow moving fish, like most other fish in cold environments,” lead author Nicholas Wegner said in a press release. “But because it can warm its body, it turns out to be a very active predator that chases down agile prey like squid and can migrate long distances.”

Wegner is a fisheries biologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. He first became aware that opah were unlike other fish when a colleague, Owyn Snodgrass, collected a sample of an opah’s gill tissue.

Wegner noticed that the tissue had blood vessels to carry warm blood into the fish’s gills. The blood vessels then wound around those carrying cold blood back to the body core after absorbing oxygen from water. Engineers call this a “counter-current heat exchange.”

In this case, the car radiator-like system means that warm blood leaving the fish’s body core helps to heat up cold blood returning from the respiratory surface of the gills where it absorbs oxygen.

Opah live up to 1000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface in very cold, dimly lit waters, making this discovery all the more remarkable.

The researchers found that the industrious fish constantly flap its fins, which generate body heat. The flapping also speeds up the opah’s metabolism, movement and reaction times.

Temperature measurements found that the opah’s body is about 41 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the surrounding chilly waters. While such a temperature is a drop in the bucket compared to the body temps of humans and other mammals, we are not living in a perpetually cold environment as these fish are.

“There has never been anything like this seen in a fish’s gills before,” Wegner said. “This is a cool innovation by these animals that gives them a competitive edge. The concept of counter-current heat exchange was invented in fish long before we thought of it.”

Certain other fish, such as some sharks and tuna, have what’s known as “regional endothermy,” or limited warm-bloodedness. It allows them to stay active in colder depths, as well as shallower waters. But the fully warm-blooded opah are unlike all other fish, at least so far as we know it.

Read more at Discovery News

Gold-Filled Tomb Found at Construction Site in China

A Ming Dynasty tomb containing gold treasures has been discovered at a construction site in Nanjing, China. However, the real treasures may be two stone epitaphs that tell the story of the person buried there — Lady Mei, a woman who went from being a concubine to becoming a political and military strategist.

The epitaphs, found inside the brick tomb, reveal that Lady Mei was a 21-year-old "unwashed and unkempt" woman who "called herself the survivor." Later she became the mother of a duke who ruled a province in southwest China. Lady Mei came to wield much power, providing her son with "strategies for bringing peace to the barbarian tribes and pacifying faraway lands," according to the epitaphs, which were translated from Chinese.

The treasures in her more than 500-year-old tomb include gold bracelets, a gold fragrance box and gold hairpins, all inlaid with a mix of gemstones, including sapphires, rubies and turquoise.

Archaeologists from Nanjing Municipal Museum and the Jiangning District Museum of Nanjing City excavated the tomb in 2008, and their findings were recently translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics. Lady Mei's coffin was damaged by water, but her skeletal remains were found.

From "survivor" to "dowager duchess"

Researchers say that Lady Mei was one of three wives of Mu Bin, a Duke of Qian who ruled Yunnan, a province in southwest China on the country's frontier.

Born in 1430, she probably would have been about 15 years old when she married the duke, who would've been more than 30 years older than her, researchers say.

She probably didn't enjoy the same status as his other two wives. "Lady Mei was probably a concubine whom he married after he went to guard and rule Yunnan," wrote researchers in the journal article.

But while Lady Mei was a concubine, her own family appears to have had some wealth: Her great-great grandfather "Cheng" was a general who "won every battle" and was granted a fiefdom over "1,000 households," read the epitaphs.

Lady Mei's life changed when she gave birth to the duke's son, Mu Zong, who was 10 months old when the duke died. The newly widowed Lady Mei "was only 21 years of age. She was unwashed and unkempt, and called herself the survivor," the epitaphs say.

She took charge of Mu Zong's upbringing, grooming him to be the next duke.

"She raised the third-generation duke. She managed the family with strong discipline and diligence, and kept the internal domestic affairs in great order, and no one had any complaint," the epitaphs read.

Lady Mei "urged him to study hard mornings and evenings, and taught him loyalty and filial devotion, as well as services of duty."

When Mu Zong came of age, he and Lady Mei traveled to meet the emperor, who charged him with controlling Yunnan, the province his father had ruled. The emperor was pleased with Lady Mei and, sometime after the meeting, awarded her the title of "Dowager Duchess," according to the epitaphs.

As Mu Zong began his rule over Yunnan, he relied on his mother for advice.

"Every morning when the third-generation duke got up, after taking care of official business, he returned to pay respect to the Dowager Duchess in the main hall," the epitaphs read.

"The Dowager Duchess would always talk to the third-generation duke about her loyalty to the emperor, and kind concerns for the people under the rule of the departed former duke, and strategies for bringing peace to the barbarian tribes and pacifying faraway lands."

Lady Mei's death

Lady Mei died at age 45 in the year 1474. The epitaphs say that she passed away of illness in southern Yunnan and was brought to Nanjing for burial.

"On the day of her death, the people of Yunnan, military servicemen or civilians, old and young, all mourned and grieved for her as if their own parents had passed away," the epitaphs read.

"When the obituary reached the imperial court, the emperor sent out officials and ordered them to consecrate and prepare for the funeral and burial."

The epitaphs praise her role in nurturing the young duke and preparing him for the responsibilities of ruling Yunnan. "Using her love and her hard work, she raised and educated the child, and brought him up to be a man of ability and good moral character …" the epitaphs read.

Read more at Discovery News

Surprise Quasar Quartet Defies Explanation

Astronomers have found a quartet of quasars embedded in a single cloud of cold gas, a discovery that challenges currently held theories about how these rare objects form.

“The discovery is significant both because there are four of them, and because they are so close together,” lead researcher Joseph Hennawi, with the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, told Discovery News.

Astronomers are lucky to catch a glimpse of a single quasar, which appear for a tiny sliver of time at the peak of a supermassive black hole’s feeding frenzy.

The influx of material into a galaxy’s central black hole – areas where gravity is so strong that not even photons of light can escape -- doesn’t last long, but the turmoil causes the region around the black hole to shine hundreds of times brighter than its host galaxy, becoming the most luminous objects in the universe.

Quasars are typically solitary beasts, separated by hundreds of millions of light years. About 100 have been found in pairs. Only two sets of triplets have been discovered, and now, a single quartet.

“This was extremely surprising, as we knew that quasars are very rare objects, and it should be extremely unlikely to find four of them so close together,” Hennawi wrote in an email.

The newly found foursome are within 650,000 light years of one another, which is equivalent to about 25 percent of the distance between Milky Way and its nearest big neighbor galaxy Andromeda, he added.

The odds that the discovery is a chance encounter are one in 10 million, Hennawi said, raising the prospect that quasars are more likely to occur in specific environments than current models predict.

The quadruple quasar, for example, is embedded in a single dense cloud of cold hydrogen gas. It also is located in a massive proto-cluster of galaxies.

“It may be that quasar episodes are more likely to be triggered in such an unusual environment, which is rich in both gas and galaxies” – conditions that were thought to be mutually exclusive, Hennawi said.

“Current models of how structure forms in the universe would never predict that there would be so much cool, dense gas around. Instead, those models predict that the gas in such a massive object should be 1,000 times hotter and 1,000 times less dense,” he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Mysterious New Type of Star Cluster Carries Extra Baggage

Astronomers studying the globular star clusters orbiting the giant elliptical galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128) have stumbled upon a fascinating discovery — the clusters are too massive.

What does this mean? Well, it could be that each of the dozens of clusters studied are packed with dark matter or may even by hiding a massive black hole, but neither of the explanations make any sense.

Globular star clusters are ancient ensembles of thousands of stars that can be found orbiting galaxies like our Milky Way. Their study is critical to help us understand how galaxies on the whole evolve as the stars they are known to contain are often as old as the galaxies they orbit.

“Globular clusters and their constituent stars are keys to understanding the formation and evolution of galaxies. For decades, astronomers thought that the stars that made up a given globular cluster all shared the same ages and chemical compositions — but we now know that they are stranger and more complicated creatures,” said Matt Taylor, a PhD student at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile, and lead author of the study.

Using the FLAMES instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, Taylor and his team surveyed 125 of the around 2,000 globular clusters in orbit around Centaurus A and gauged their masses. Usually, the mass of a globular cluster can be derived by measuring their brightness. The brighter the cluster, the more stars it has and the more massive it is.

As expected, for the most part, this brightness-mass relationship held true. But something strange started to emerge from the data — some of the clusters were more massive than the brightness data suggested. What’s more, the more massive these strange clusters were, the greater the fraction of their mass was dark.

Naturally, the researchers’ suspicions are focusing on these clusters amassing a reservoir of dark matter. But globular star clusters are not thought to contain significant quantities of invisible stuff. Perhaps, therefore, these islands of stars have massive black holes in their cores, or maybe a massive graveyard of other stellar corpses, like the burnt-out husks of stars like neutron stars? For now, where this extra baggage comes from remains mystery.

“Our discovery of star clusters with unexpectedly high masses for the amount of stars they contain hints that there might be multiple families of globular clusters, with differing formation histories. Apparently some star clusters look like, walk like, and smell like run-of-the-mill globulars, but there may quite literally be more to them than meets the eye,” added co-author Thomas Puzia, also at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile.

Read more at Discovery News

Galactic Strangulation Behind Cosmic Murder Mystery

Astronomers may have solved the decades-long cosmic murder mystery of what kills most galaxies in the universe: They are strangled to death, so they can no longer create new stars.

For two decades, astronomers have known that there are two main classes of galaxies. About half are live, gas-rich galaxies where stars form, and the other half are dead, gas-deprived galaxies where stars do not form, said study lead author Yingjie Peng, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in England.

Until now, scientists were unsure of what stifled star formation in galaxies. "What kills galaxies is one of the most challenging questions in the past 20 years," Peng told

Scientists have proposed two ideas for what may extinguish star formation in galaxies. One explanation is known as strangulation, in which the supply of the cold gas needed to fuel star formation in a galaxy is slowly choked off. The other involves the sudden removal of gas from a galaxy, perhaps stripped off by the gravitational pull of another galaxy.

By analyzing more than 26,000 nearby galaxies, the researchers have found clues revealing the cause of the deaths of most galaxies: strangulation.

"This is the first conclusive evidence that galaxies are being strangled to death," Peng said.

Stars are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. The researchers focused on concentrations of "metals" — elements heavier than hydrogen and helium — in galaxies. Such "metals" are formed when stars fuse hydrogen and helium into heavier elements.

The scientists found that dead galaxies had much higher amounts of metals than live galaxies did. This finding is consistent with how strangulation would lead galaxies to evolve over time, Peng said.

After a galaxy's gas supply is choked off, it still has some gas left inside that can be used to form stars. In turn, these stars can form elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. In contrast, in galaxies where gas is suddenly removed, star formation stops abruptly too, leading to less metals.

The computer models suggested that strangulation takes about 4 billion years to extinguish star formation. This is consistent with the age difference seen between star-forming and "dead" galaxies, the investigators said.

The researchers said the strangulation theory accounts for galaxies up to 100 billion times heavier than the sun, which make up more than 95 percent of all galaxies. For larger galaxies, the evidence was not conclusive for either the strangulation or sudden-removal theories, Peng said.

Although the researchers have found that most galaxies die via strangulation, they still need to better understand the mechanism that causes the strangulation, Peng said. One possibility is that nearby galaxies may help deplete a star-forming galaxy's gas supply, Peng added.

Read more at Discovery News

May 13, 2015

Bee Die-Offs Second-Highest Ever in Past Year

The number of bee colonies that died in the year since April 2014 reached levels only ever seen once before, reported the Bee Informed Partnership.

Of the total number of colonies managed over the past 12 months, U.S. beekeepers said 42.1 percent were lost. It was the second-highest annual loss recorded.

Annual beehive losses varied across the nation, with the highest in Oklahoma at 63.4 percent and the lowest in Hawaii, with 14 percent.

During this past winter season, the Bee Informed Partnership gathered data from 6,128 beekeepers in the United States who managed 398,247 colonies as of October 2014. That represents about 14.5 percent of the estimated 2.74 million managed honey bee colonies in the country.

Winter die-offs were reported to be 18.7 percent, which is quite a bit lower than the nine-year average total loss of 28.7 percent, the partnership noted. But bees don’t just die in the winter; they perish in the summer too.

From April to October 2014, the summer colony mortality eclipsed winter numbers, with beekeepers reporting 27.4 percent of colonies gone, compared with summer losses of 19.8 percent in 2013.

“Importantly, commercial beekeepers appear to consistently lose greater numbers of colonies over the summer months than over the winter months, whereas the opposite seems true for smaller-scale beekeepers,” the Bee Informed Partnership said in its press release.

The Bee Informed Partnership gets most of its funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA.

While the cause of ongoing bee colony failure hasn’t been fully pinned down, it’s widely accepted that pesticides — specifically neonicotinoids — are one of the biggest reasons that bees are dying, threatening the national food supply. Other causes are bad nutrition and pests.

“These dire honey bee numbers add to the consistent pattern of unsustainable bee losses in recent years that threatens our food system. The science is clear — we must take action now to protect these essential pollinators from bee-toxic pesticides.” said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner with Friends of the Earth, in a press release.

Read more at Discovery News

What a Global Typhoid Outbreak Means for the U.S.

Diseases don't respect borders, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention likes to remind us. Even with a disease like typhoid, which is somewhat contained to developing countries with poor sanitation, there can be global implications when treatments fail.

So when researchers announced this week that they had mapped a strain that has become resistant to multiple antibiotics, health organizations around the world took note of its widening spread.

"We are limited in our treatment options" since the superbug has become resistant to a number of first-line antibiotics used to treat typhoid, said Dr. Vanessa Wong, an infectious-disease specialist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, who sequenced the genomes of more than 1,800 Salmonella typhi samples for the study published in Nature Genetics.

"If it continues to develop resistance to newer agents, eventually we'll run out of options."

While it's extremely unlikely that typhoid would rage in country with good sanitation (of the estimated 5,700 cases of typhoid the United States sees annually, the CDC says most are picked up through travel), the resistance of the strain known as H58 has implications far beyond the countries where the disease is common.

The researchers traced the strain, which they found in 47 percent of the typhoid-causing bacteria, to Southeast Asia, Western Asia, East Africa and Fiji. It's also been found in Southern Africa.

Typhoid, which is spread through contaminated food or water, causes fever, headaches, aches and lethargy for 3-4 weeks; if untreated with antibiotics, it has a 20 percent fatality rate.

Ever since typhoid first showed resistance to an antibiotic back in the middle of the 20th century, new drugs have had to replace versions that stopped working. But the problem isn’t just that researchers are running out of new antibiotics for treating typhoid.

Other related diseases could potentially stop responding to antibiotics as well. One common type of traveler's E. coli, for example, is typically treated with antibiotics, said Dr. Eric Mintz, an epidemiologist for CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases. If you consider the environment bacteria live in, he said, they can pass around genetic material like peanuts at a cocktail party.

In other words, E. coli could pick up the resistance of the typhoid, making it no longer responsive to antibiotics.

"Having a gene that encodes for resistance in that pool could get to other types of salmonella or E. coli or any other bugs that cause disease," he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Exoplanet Forecast: Cloudy Morning. Outlook: Horrific Heat

Like Earth, exoplanets with atmospheres have distinct and complex weather systems and climates, but the dynamics of exo-atmospheres have remained largely a mystery.

Now, researchers from the University of Toronto, York University and Queen’s University Belfast have used precision data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope to focus on six large exoplanets as they orbit their stars to seek out patterns in global weather patterns. And there appears to be a trend: Cloudy mornings that clear into midday, followed by extreme heating through the afternoon.

Of course, we’re not talking about exoplanets resembling anything like Earth; these worlds are hot (over 1,600 degrees Celsius or 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit) and massive gas giants orbiting close to their stars. But the techniques used to gauge these alien weather systems could be used on smaller planets as our instrumentation becomes more sophisticated in the future.

To probe these worlds, the researchers observed the six exoplanets during different phases of their orbits. Like our moon has different phases depending on the angle of the sun illuminating its surface from Earth’s perspective, distant exoplanets exhibit similar phases that can be detected from many light-years distant.

“We determined the weather on these alien worlds by measuring changes as the planets circle their host stars, and identifying the day-night cycle,” said Lisa Esteves, of the University of Toronto and lead author of the study. “We traced each of them going through a cycle of phases in which different portions of the planet are illuminated by its star, from fully lit to completely dark.”

Esteves’ and her team’s work is published in the May 12 edition of The Astrophysical Journal.

As planetary systems form around their stars, the planets in tow are predicted to rotate counter-clockwise, the right side moving in the direction of the planet’s orbit. Therefore, in the case of these massive gas giant alien worlds, there is expected to be an eastward flow of atmospheric winds. The team found that the clouds forming on the exoplanet’s night side are blown across the day side and then become heated where they rapidly dissipate.

Interestingly, the team saw an excess in brightness in four of the worlds during their morning time and in the other two they spotted an excess brightness in the evening, both findings providing interesting clues to the nature of the atmospherics in the six exoplanets.

“As the winds continue to transport the clouds to the day side, they heat up and dissipate, leaving the afternoon sky cloud-free,” said Esteves. “These winds also push the hot air eastward from the meridian, where it is the middle of the day, resulting in higher temperatures in the afternoon.”

“By comparing the planets’ previously determined temperatures to the phase cycle measurements provided by Kepler, we found that the excess brightness on the morning side is most likely generated by reflected starlight,” said Esteves. “These four planets are not hot enough to generate this excess light through thermal emission.

“The excess light seen on the two very hot planets can be explained by thermal emission,” she added. “A likely explanation is that on these two planets, the winds are moving heat towards the evening side, resulting in the excess brightness.”

Read more at Discovery News

Cannibalism: A History of People Who Eat People

A Multicourse History

Any shopper walking down the aisles of a modern grocery is spoiled for choice when it comes to food options. As of 2008, the number of products carried by the average supermarket stood around 47,000, according to Consumer Reports.

There is one particular item, however, that shouldn't ever appear in anyone's shopping cart, despite its place as a historical foodstuff, particularly during desperate times: human meat.

Cannibalism strikes the human conscience like few other taboo acts, eliciting a mix of dread, disdain and plain old nausea. But as seen in this slideshow, humans eating other humans has been an inseparable part of our history.

Homo Antecessor

Even before modern humans walked the Earth, human ancestors practiced cannibalism.

Homo antecessor, the last common ancestor between Neanderthals and modern humans, relied on cannibalism regularly, even when other food sources were available. These humans would sometimes hold cannibal feasts, with members of rival groups on the menu.

The remains of the victims were found alongside the bones of ancient bears, mammoths, foxes and other animals.

Neanderthals vs. Humans

In the early history of our species, Neanderthals and humans coexisted. They lived together. They interbred. They ate together, and even ate each other.

During periods of starvation, Neanderthals supplemented their diets with cannibalism, according to a 2006 study on eight 43,000-year-old Neanderthal skeletons. The bones bore evidence of cut and tearing, indications that these individuals were butchered. The remains were excavated from an underground cave in El Sidrón, Spain.

The earliest humans in Europe 32,000 years ago practiced ritual cannibalism, according to a study published in 2011 in the journal PLoS One. The oldest evidence of cannibalism suggests that humans ate other humans not for nutritional purposes but rather as a part of funeral rites.

Siege Warfare

The advent of siege warfare more than 5,000 years ago set off an arms race between the invaders, who sought ever more damaging weapons, and the defenders, who built taller, stronger fortifications to fend off attack.

Caught in the middle stood the entire population of a city or town, sometimes for weeks, months or even years. During that time, if cut off from outside supplies, city dwellers had to resort to extreme means of survival, including cannibalism. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple and the sacking of the city, starvation and plague wore down the city residents, who resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.

The victims of a siege weren't always the ones who had to resort to cannibalism to survive. Following the Siege of Maarat in 1098, the victorious crusaders, short on supplies, turned to the dead bodies of the vanquished Muslims for their source of food.

Corpse Medicine

Up until the Middle Ages, cannibalism was primarily practiced as a means to supplement nutrition. Starting around the 12th century, the practice of incorporating human remains into medical remedies was common practice.

The deceased who unwillingly donated their bodies to medical science were stolen from Egyptian tombs or abducted from Irish burial sites, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Treatments called for the use of bones, blood or fat for conditions as common as a headache.

Nevermind that consuming other humans could be detrimental to a person's health. Prion diseases spread by cannibalism can cause the brain to form sponge-like holes, condition known as "spongiform encephalopathies."

The use of "corpse medicine" started to fall out of favor in the 16th century, but remained in use until the late 18th century. In some parts of Africa, a similar but much more severe form of barbarism still occurs, with albinos in particular murdered and butchered for magical protections and remedies.

Read more at Discovery News

May 12, 2015

Swedish 'Gay Sailor' Message Intimidates Russian Subs

A Swedish peace group said Tuesday it has lowered a sonar device into the Baltic Sea off Stockholm to deter Russian submarines, emitting the message “This Way if You Are Gay.”

The Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society’s (SPAS) cheeky device emits the message in Morse code and is designed to scare off subs from Russia, which does not share Sweden’s acceptance of homosexuality.

The so-called Singing Sailor also features a flashing pink neon outline of a seaman clad only in white underpants and a boater’s hat, gyrating his hips above the text “Welcome to Sweden -- Gay Since 1944.”

That was the year when Sweden decriminalised homosexuality. In contrast, rights groups have recently sounded the alarm over a rising number of homophobic attacks in Russia, saying that a ban on “gay propaganda” effectively legalizes discrimination.

SPAS said on its website that its device was made to provide “interesting info for any submarines passing close by.”

In October last year, Sweden’s navy launched a massive hunt for a foreign submarine, suspected to be Russian, in the Stockholm archipelago.

The military subsequently confirmed that “a mini submarine” had violated its territorial waters, but was never able to establish the vessel’s nationality.

Following the incident, as well as several airspace violations by Russian jets over the last year, the Swedish government announced in April that it would raise defence spending by 10.2 billion kronor (1.1 billion euros, $1.2 billion) for the period 2016 to 2020, largely due to concerns over Russia’s military resurgence.

Read more at Discovery News

Dawn Gets Closer Look at Ceres' Mystery Bright Spots

This is the closest view of dwarf planet Ceres’ cratered surface captured to date — it’s also the most detailed view yet of those mysterious bright dots. Detailed it may be, but their exact nature remains elusive.

This new series of observations, stitched together as an animation, were captured between May 3 and 4 at a distance of only 8,400 miles (13.600 kilometers), providing a resolution of 0.8 mile (1.3 kilometers) per pixel.

“Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dawn’s science mission is now well underway since arriving in orbit around the small world in March. The spacecraft has now completed its first mapping orbit, a 15 day single orbit, allowing the mission’s instrumentation to study the entire dwarf planet’s surface. Scientists are now planning a survey orbit that will see Dawn orbit Ceres every 3 days at an altitude of only 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers).

From Discovery News

Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummy Scandal Revealed

The animal mummification industry that thrived in ancient Egypt held a secret which was not revealed for almost 3,000 years: around a third of the carefully wrapped religious offerings are boneless — and, for the most part, empty.

Researchers from at Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester reached this conclusion following a study that looked at more than 800 animal mummies.

The project to scan every mummy of animal shapes, from cats and birds to crocodiles, is the largest of its kind. It will culminate with an exhibition opening at Manchester Museum on Thursday Oct. 8, 2015.

About a third of the X-rayed and CT scanned artifacts do in fact contain complete and remarkably well preserved animals. Another third contain partial remains. The rest is simply empty.

Highlighted in a BBC documentary, the “mummy scandal” was exposed as scan of beautifully crafted animal mummies showed linens padded out with various items.

“Basically, organic material such as mud, sticks and reeds, that would have been lying around the embalmers workshops, and also things like eggshells and feathers, which were associated with the animals, but aren’t the animals themselves,” Lidija McKnight, an Egyptologist from the University of Manchester, told the BBC.

Experts believe as many as 70 million animals were‭ ‬ritually slaughtered by the Egyptians to foster a huge mummification industry that even drove some species extinct.‭

There were four kinds of animal mummies: pets that died of natural causes before their mummification and were buried with their owners; sacred beasts, worshiped and pampered in life, and buried in elaborate tombs at their death; animals serving as food for their owners in the afterlife; and religious offerings, which were the majority.

Having miserable, short lives, these poor animals were simply bred to become votive mummies — offered to the gods in a gesture similar to the way people light candles in churches today.

The practice began as early as‭ ‬3,000 B.C. and reached its zenith from about‭ ‬650‭ ‬B.C. to‭ ‬200‭ ‬A.D., when millions of animals like dogs and cats were raised by temple priests and mummified.‭

According to the researchers, there was an element of demand outstripping supply which may have accounted for some mummies not containing a complete animal.

Read more at Discovery News

Survey Turns Up No Evidence for Advanced Aliens, Yet

A wide-ranging search of faraway galaxies has turned up no obvious signs of advanced alien civilizations.

A team of scientists dug through observations made by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft, hunting for telltale heat signatures coming from 100,000 galaxies— a strategy suggested by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson back in the 1960s.

"Whether an advanced spacefaring civilization uses the large amounts of energy from its galaxy's stars to power computers, spaceflight, communication or something we can't yet imagine, fundamental thermodynamics tells us that this energy must be radiated away as heat in the midinfrared wavelengths," study co-author Jason Wright, of Pennsylvania State University, said in a statement. "This same basic physics causes your computer to radiate heat while it is turned on."

The team found no smoking guns during this pilot study, known as the Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies Survey (G-HAT).

"Our results mean that, out of the 100,000 galaxies that WISE could see in sufficient detail, none of them is widely populated by an alien civilization using most of the starlight in its galaxy for its own purposes," Wright said in the statement.

"That's interesting because these galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations, if they exist," he added. "Either they don't exist, or they don't yet use enough energy for us to recognize them."

That's not to say the G-HAT team found nothing interesting, intriguing or odd in their hunt for heat signatures. Indeed, about 50 of the galaxies had unusually high levels of midinfrared radiation. Follow-up studies could help determine if this heat is being generated by natural processes, or if it could be a sign of intelligent aliens, the researchers said.

"As we look more carefully at the light from these galaxies, we should be able to push our sensitivity to alien technology down to much lower levels, and to better distinguish heat resulting from natural astronomical sources from heat produced by advanced technologies," Wright said. "This pilot study is just the beginning."

Read more at Discovery News

Chicken Embryos With Dino Snouts Created in Lab

Chicks with dino-snouts? With a little molecular tinkering, for the first time scientists have created chicken embryos with broad, Velociraptor-like muzzles in the place of their beaks.

The bizarrely developing chickens shed new light on how the bird beak evolved, scientists added.

The Age of Dinosaurs came to an end with a bang about 65 million years ago, due to an impact from a giant rock from space, which was probably about 6 miles (10 kilometers) across. However, not all of the dinosaurs went extinct because of this catastrophe — birds, or avian dinosaurs, are now found on every continent on Earth.

“There are between 10,000 and 20,000 species of birds alive today, at least twice as many as the total number of mammal species, and so in many ways it is still the Age of Dinosaurs,” study lead author Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, a paleontologist and developmental biologist at Yale University, told Live Science.

Fossil discoveries have recently yielded great insights into how birds evolved from their reptilian ancestors, such as how feathers and flight emerged. Another key structure that sets birds apart from their dinosaurs ancestors is their beaks. Researchers suspect that beaks evolved to act like tweezers to give birds a kind of precision grip. The beaks help make up for the dinosaurs’ grasping arms, which evolved into wings, giving them the ability to peck at food such as seeds and bugs.

“The beak is a crucial part of the avian feeding apparatus, and is the component of the avian skeleton that has perhaps diversified most extensively and most radically — consider flamingos, parrots, hawks, pelicans and hummingbirds, among others,” Bhullar said in a statement. “Yet little work has been done on what exactly a beak is, anatomically, and how it got that way either evolutionarily or developmentally.”

To learn more about how the beak evolved, a research team led by Bhullar and developmental biologist Arkhat Abzhanov at Harvard University have now successfully reverted the beaks of chicken embryos into snouts more similar to ones seen in Velociraptor and Archaeopteryx than in birds.

These embryos did not live to hatch, researchers stressed. “They could have,” Bhullar said. “They actually probably wouldn’t have done that badly if they did hatch. Mostly, though, we were interested in the evolution of the beak, and not in hatching a ‘dino-chicken’ just for the sake of it.”

The bird beak developed from the premaxillae, which are a pair of small bones at the tip of the upper jaw in most animals. However, in birds, the premaxillae are enlarged and fused to form a beak.

The researchers next looked for genetic changes in birds that were linked with these anatomical changes. They analyzed genetic activity in the embryos of emus, alligators, lizards and turtles, with Bhullar sampling DNA from various animals, such as alligator nests in the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in southern Louisiana and an emu farm in western Massachusetts.

The researchers focused on two genes that help control the development of the middle of the face. The activity of these genes differed from that of reptiles early in embryonic development. They developed molecules that suppressed the activity of the proteins that these genes produced, which led to the embryos developing snouts that resembled their ancestral dinosaur state.

The researchers stressed that they are not yet capable of genetically modifying chickens to make them resemble their dinosaur ancestors. "We're not altering the genes themselves yet — we're altering the proteins that the genes produce," Bhullar said.

One intriguing implication of this research is that relatively simple genetic changes could have caused this anatomical change in the ancestors of birds, and that one might expect to see abrupt changes in anatomy in the fossil record. Bhullar said that such changes are seen in an extinct near relative of modern birds known as Hesperornis.

Read more at Discovery News

May 11, 2015

Yellowstone Lesson: What to Do If You Encounter a Bear

Video showing tourists at Yellowstone National Park running away from a mother bear and her three cubs provides a lesson on what not to do when you encounter bears, suggests information provided by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) and the National Park Service.

The tourists appear to have gotten too close to the bears, with some putting priority on photographing the bears as opposed to their own and the bears’ safety.

FWP videographer Winston Greely, standing at a safer distance near the North Entrance to Yellowstone close to Gardiner, Montana, captured the footage, which has since gone viral on the net:

The post from the MFWP via social media included this information: “It (the video) serves as a reminder that wildlife can be unpredictable. For your safety and theirs, respect wildlife and give them room to roam. View and photograph from established observation areas. Stay a safe distance to reduce stress on wildlife. Luckily, no one was hurt and these bears made it safely back to the forest.”

Clearly the individuals on the left with photography equipment were not situated at “established observation areas.”

The visitors were lucky that the three cubs were about 13 months old. Since they were older, the mother was not as protective as she might have been had the cubs been younger. As it stands, the bears look to be more scared, annoyed and confused than anything.

The National Park Service instructs that if you see a bear in a developed area, “keep your distance (at least 50 yards, or about the distance four shuttle buses parked end to end would take up). If you get closer, you will be helping the bear become used to being around people.”

That wasn’t so easy for the tourists in the video, as the bears were going in the same direction that they were.

Nevertheless, MFWP advises that park visitors should do the following:

• Stay calm

• Immediately pick up small children and stay in a group (the people in the recent incident broke off into separate groups)

• Slowly back away, if possible

• Do not run

Not running (also advised for encounters with aggressive dogs) is tough for most people, given that our “fight or flight” fear system kicks in. The MFWP, however, explains that “running may trigger a natural predator-prey attack response” from the bear.

Read more at Discovery News

Mummies' Height Reveals Incest

The height of the pharaohs who ruled ancient Egypt supports historical records that they might have married their sisters and cousins, says new research into 259 mummies.

It's known from historical sources that incestuous marriages were common among the ancient Egyptian royalty. The pharaohs believed they descended from the gods so inbreeding was seen as a way to retain the sacred bloodline.

But it is hard to prove incest in royal marriages through genetic testings because of ethical consideration when destroying mummies' tissues.

Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, and colleagues used a highly hereditable character, body height, to look for evidence of incest in 259 mummies of both commoners and royals.

"It is actually one of the largest collections of body height of ancient Egyptians and spans all major periods of their history," Rühli told Discovery News.

The researchers tested the hypothesis of royal incest by studying variation (difference between individuals) of body heights of royals and comparing it with variations among commoners.

"Pharaohs varied less in height than men of the common population. This is one indicator of inbreeding," Rühli said.

Detailing their results in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Rühli and colleagues noted that the pharaohs were taller than non-royal males from the same time period, while there was little difference between the stature of queens and common Egyptian women.

The average height of the male population varied between 161 cm (5.28 feet) in the New Kingdom (about 1550–1070 BC) and 169.6 cm (5.56 feet) in the Early Dynastic period (about 2925–2575 BC), making an average of 165.7 cm (5.43 feet) for all time periods.

Females ranged between 155.6 cm (5.10 feet) in the Late Period (712-332 B.C) to 159.5 cm (5.23 feet) in the Early Dynastic period – an average stature of 157.8 cm (5.17 feet)

Overall, the average height of kings was a steady 166 cm (5.44 feet), featuring much less variations compared to the general population. Queens and princesses averaged 156.7 cm (5.14 feet).

The tallest pharaoh among those under investigation appears to be Ramses II (about 1303 – 1212 B.C.), who stood at least 173 cm (5.67 feet) and was married to Queen Nefertari-merj-em-Mut. She too was an outstandingly tall woman for her time, at 165 cm (5.41 feet) -- taller than the average man in the New Kingdom.

The study also confirmed the highly incestuous levels in the rulers of the 17th and 18th Dynasty, with the 165 cm-tall King Amenhotep I scoring the highest on the incest scale.

He probably was the product of three generations of sibling marriages. In comparison, King Tutankhamun earned a half ranking point.

In the lower range of the scoring system, which researchers admit is rather rough, were pharaohs such as Thutmosis III, whose grandparents were siblings, but not his parents.

Pharaohs who were married to their sisters, but whose parents were not siblings, were not considered since the incest effect would only affect their offspring.

"The study shows some evidence for consanguineous (incestuous) marriages in a reliable, non-invasive way," Barry Bogin, professor of biological anthropology at Loughborough University, U.K., told Discovery News.

He achieved similar results in a study carried out in Guatemala on living boys and girls between five and 14 years old.

"The height variation was reduced in the children from very wealthy families and very, very poor families compared with more middle-to-low income families," Bogin said.

Read more at Discovery News

Will Philae Wake Up? Rosetta Comet Probe is Listening

Europe launched a new bid Friday to communicate with its comet lander Philae, hurtling towards the sun some 360 million kilometers (224 million miles) from Earth, ground operators said.

Philae's orbiting mothership Rosetta has reopened communications lines for 10 days to listen for any call from the slumbering robot, Paris-based Rosetta project manager Francis Rocard of France's CNES space agency told AFP on Thursday.

Chances for contact improve daily as comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko draws closer to the sun and its battery-replenishing rays, though the orientation of Philae's solar panels is unknown.

There had been two previous, unsuccessful attempts, in March and April, to contact the washing machine-sized probe, which fell silent three days after touching down on "67P" last November.

"We will listen anew from May 8-17," Rocard told AFP, but added a note of caution: "We cannot say with 100 percent certainty that it will wake up."

The 100-kilogram (220-pound) robot lab touched down on the comet on November 12 after a 10-year trek piggybacking on its mother ship, Rosetta.

But instead of harpooning itself onto the dusty iceball's surface, Philae bounced several times before settling at an angle in a dark ditch.

The little lander had enough stored battery power for 60 hours of experiments, and sent home reams of data before going into standby mode on November 15.

As "67P" draws closer to the sun, scientists hope better light will recharge Philae's batteries enough for it to reboot, then make contact, and ultimately carry out a new series of experiments.

But the window is shrinking.

By Aug. 13 the comet will reach its closest point to the sun, or perihelion, before veering off again into the deeper reaches of space.

Read more at Discovery News

How to See the Brightest Planets of May

The "elusive planet" Mercury kicks off the month in the midst of its best evening apparition of 2015. But Mercury isn't the only visible planet this month.

Jupiter, "King of the Planets," sits high in the southwest as darkness falls and remains in good position for telescopic viewing until after midnight. Venus reaches the pinnacle of its evening visibility, not setting until almost the middle of the night.

But the most beautiful spectacle is provided by Saturn, which comes into view low in the southeast after evening twilight ends. Check out Saturn with a small telescope and you'll be treated with the best view of its famous ring system in more than a decade. Read on below to see our picks for the best planet views in the May night sky.

Here, we present a schedule that provides some of the best planet-viewing times and provides tips and tricks to spot them.

May 7: Mercury has taken a superb leap into the evening sky. On May 7, it arrives at its greatest eastern elongation of 21 degrees (remember your clenched fist held at arm's length measures roughly 10 degrees).

Just 2 degrees to its right you may be able to spot the Pleiades. Have you ever seen this wintertime cluster in the evening so late in spring? Its conjunction with the sun will occur May 20. As it swings to the near side of the sun, Mercury fades about 0.16 magnitude per day. So the earlier this month you look, the easier it will be. You'll have quite a bit of difficulty after May 14. Inferior conjunction will be on May 30.

Also in the western sky is dazzling Venus, which reaches the peak of its fine evening apparition in May, burning prominently in the west during twilight and long after dark. All month, Venus stands due west almost 40 degrees high at sunset (for observers around 40 degrees north latitude). How soon after sunset – or even before! – can you first pick it out of the deepening blue?

Brightening from a blazing magnitude -4.2 to -4.4 this month, Venus seems to swell enormously as twilight fades, and all through May it remains shining in a dark sky for about 1.5 hours after twilight's end.  Telescopes reveal Venus swelling somewhat while waning in its gibbous phase.  By the end of May it's hardly more than half lit.

May 9: Venus passes less than 2 degrees from the star cluster M35 in the feet of Gemini.

May 21: Despite being widely separated by more than 8 degrees, Venus and the crescent moon still make for an eye-catching scene in the west-northwest sky. Venus is situated far to the upper right of the moon.

May 22: Saturn becomes the second planet this year to reach opposition, that is, to be opposite to the sun in our sky. It rises in twilight for most of May and is visible for the rest of the night. Saturn is 10 degrees northwest of the red star Antares, and is shining at magnitude 0.0, unusually bright for this faintest of the five classical naked-eye planets. The reason is that its rings are tilted 24 degrees toward us, presenting a larger-than-usual profile. The rings will be tilted to their maximum extent of 27 degrees in 2017.

Read more at Discovery News

May 10, 2015

Altering genes with the aid of light

Scientists have been manipulating genes for a while. The University of Pittsburgh's Alexander Deiters just found a way to control the process with higher precision.

By using light.

Deiters and his group are the first to achieve this. The resulting paper was recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Since 2013, scientists have used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9. The method employs a bacterially derived protein (Cas9) and a synthetic guide RNA to induce a double-strand break at a specific location in the genome. This enables excision of a gene, alteration of its function, or introduction of desired mutations.

In practice, the CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats of DNA base sequences) method has shown tremendous promise to enable researchers to treat cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia, create laboratory animals that mimic human disease, and create a strain of wheat resistant to powdery mildew.

Deiters, professor of chemistry in Pitt's Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, along with colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have, through a series of experiments, found a lysine residue (lysine is an amino acid) in Cas9 that can be replaced with a light-activated analog.

The approach developed by Deiters generates a Cas9 protein that is functionally inactive, so called "caged," until the cage is removed through light exposure, activating the enzyme and thereby activating gene editing.

"This method may allow people to engineer genes in cells or animals with better spatial and temporal control than ever before," Deiters says. "Previously, if you wanted to knock out a gene, you had limited control over where and when it would happen. Engineering a light switch into Cas9 provides a more precise editing tool. You can say, 'In this cell, at this time point, is where I want to modify the genome.'"

The improved control over the time and location at which a gene will be manipulated, Deiters says, may help eliminate "off-target effects" and could potentially enable genetic studies with unprecedented resolution.

From Science Daily

Matching physical and virtual atomic friction experiments

Technological limitations have made studying friction on the atomic scale difficult, but researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Merced, have now made advances in that quest on two fronts.

By speeding up a real atomic force microscope and slowing down a simulation of one, the team has conducted the first atomic-scale experiments on friction at overlapping speeds.

The study was led by graduate student Xin-Zhou Liu and professor and department chair Robert Carpick, both of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics in Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Ashlie Martini, associate professor in UC Merced's School of Engineering, with Zhijiang Ye, a graduate student at UC Merced. Yalin Dong, a former member of Martini's research group, and Philip Egberts, then a member of Carpick's research group, also contributed to the research.

Their study was published in Physical Review Letters.

A phenomenon known as "stick-slip friction" is very often involved in sliding at both the macro and the atomic scales. The resistance associated with friction is the product of atomic points of contact between two objects being temporarily stuck together, where they remain until the applied force provides enough elastic energy for those points to break apart. These points then slip and slide until they get stuck again. At the atomic scale, sticking points occur for every repeating set of atoms along the sliding direction.

Studying the atomic interactions that underlie stick-slip friction is inherently difficult as the points of contact are obscured by being flush against one another. To get around this problem, friction researchers often use the tip of an atomic force microscope, or AFM, an ultra-sensitive instrument capable of measuring nanonewton forces, as one of the points of contact. Since an AFM tip works much like a record needle, researchers can measure the friction the tip experiences while it is dragged over surface. Friction researchers also use simulations, which can model the dynamics of all of the individual atoms.

"A powerful approach is to combine experiment with simulations," Liu said, "But the major problem doing this in the past has been that the sliding speeds at which the experiments and the simulations are performed don't match up."

The quality of the measurements in an AFM experiment depends on isolating the tip from any stray vibrations, so traditionally researchers drag the tip very slowly, moving about one micrometer in a second at the fastest. To match this experiment in a simulation, the individual atoms of the tip and the surface are modeled on a computer, and the virtual tip is dragged the same distance as the real AFM tip.

This presents a problem, however, because, to capture the impact individual atoms have, each frame in the simulations must be calculated in femtosecond steps. A computer processing a million steps a second would need about 30 years to simulate the real AFM experiment's micrometer-per-second speed.

"That means to get the same distance in a shorter period of time, we need to move the model tip much, much faster," said Martini.

With the sliding speed of the virtual tips starting a million times faster than the physical ones, the researchers resolved to meet in the middle. The UC Merced contingent worked on slowing the tip in their simulations, while their counterparts at Penn developed ways to speed up their physical experiments.

As traditional motors can't move AFM tips with the nanoscopic precision necessary for their experiments, the tip and the cantilever it is mounted on is driven by a piezoelectric plate. The top layer of this type of the plate shifts laterally away from the bottom layer when a certain voltage is applied, pushing the cantilever and tip across a sample surface.

"For the resolution required for our atomic friction study, the scanner inside a commercial AFM can only reach a few hundred nanometers per second," Carpick said. "That's an intrinsic limitation of the instrument; if you go over that top speed, you get large oscillations in your signal. Our solution was to make a very compact shear piezo plate and use it to move the sample instead of the tip."

By moving the sample, a thin film of gold coated on a silicon die, instead of the tip that is driven by a much heavier scanner, the Penn team was able radically increase the experiment's overall speed. With lower mass, the smaller plate can move faster without causing noisy oscillations.

"The relative motion is the same," Liu said, "but this means we can go a thousand times faster than before while maintaining the resolution we need. We had to add entirely new electronics for capturing the data as well since no one has had to record it so fast before."

While the Penn team was speeding up their systems, the UC Merced team was slowing them down. The researchers there took advantage of the relatively long periods of inactivity where the tip was stuck, waiting for enough energy to slip forward. Some of this energy is provided by the relative motion of the sample against the tip, but the random vibrations of the atoms involved, resulting from thermal energy, can make the slipping transition occur faster or slower.

"Recognizing that," Martini said, "gives us the ability to use a suite of simulation tools for what are called 'infrequent event systems.' These are tools for making these infrequent events happen more quickly while still preserving the underlying physics."

Using a technique known as "parallel replica dynamics," Martini's group used the fact that the probability of one of these infrequent events occurring is the same whether one simulation was run for a thousand femtoseconds or a thousand simulations were run for one femtosecond each. Running identical simulations on as many processors as possible, the researchers would stop them all as soon as one virtual tip slipped, then synchronize the simulations at that point and start them all again.

"This allows us to effectively increase the duration of the simulation by parallelizing it in time," said Martini. "You're increasing the simulation time and therefore decreasing the model tip speed by a factor of how many processors you have."

By matching the tip speeds in the physical and virtual experiments, the researchers were able to demonstrate a heretofore-theoretical difference between macroscale and atomic slip-stick friction. Velocity typically doesn't factor into the amount of friction macroscale objects encounter, but on the atomic scale the vibration of individual atoms due to thermal energy could play a role. The researchers showed that these vibrations do counteract friction by helping the tip slip forward but only to a point. At fast enough speeds, the tip is not stuck long enough to receive a "boost" from thermal energy.

Read more at Science Daily