May 23, 2015

Ticks Marching Earlier and Farther Due to Warming

You might not be aware of it, but May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, devoted to reminding people who spend time in wooded areas to cover up. Otherwise, a bite from a black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis, a.k.a. a deer tick) could lead to joint and muscle pain — and in some cases, to chronic arthritis and even heart problems.

But in a warming world, May is really too late to get people thinking about protecting themselves, said Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

“The nymphs used to peak in June,” he said, referring to immature ticks, which are most likely to transmit disease. “Now it’s happening in mid-May, and if you project forward with simple climate models, it’ll be early May within a couple of decades.”

That’s the conclusion of a paper Ostfeld co-authored recently in the journal Philosophical Transactions B, published by Britain’s Royal Society. He and his co-authors looked at 19 years’ worth of data on the Cary Institute grounds, about two hours’ drive north of New York City, where there’s a weather station and an abundance of Ixodes. That allowed them to tie changes in tick emergence directly to climatic changes.

“The climate has clearly warmed,” said Ostfield. “That’s not even slightly controversial.” And in this one location, at least, ticks have shifted their lifecycles accordingly.

Ticks are also shifting their ranges, moving to higher altitudes and higher latitudes into areas where temperatures used to be too cool for comfort. This is just the sort of thing scientists have been expecting as the planet warms (although Ostfeld said that some of the expansion in tick range also comes as forests cleared for agriculture have grown back, allowing ticks to recolonize places in which they used to live).

As Ixodes ticks move into new areas, they’re also retreating from areas that have warmed too much, including parts of south Florida and other areas of the Southeast. “But these areas are tiny compared the with total area of spread,” Ostfeld said.

Changes are afoot in other parts of the U.S. as well, however. A study out of Indiana University, published in Molecular Ecology, shows that disease-carrying ticks are shifting their ranges in southern Indiana. The most worrisome culprit in this case: the lone-star tick, which causes something known as southern tick-associated rash illness, or STARI — one of no fewer than 16 tick-borne diseases listed by the CDC. (A possible 17th: there’s some evidence that lone-star tick bites may also trigger an allergy to red meat,)

“Ten, 12 years ago, you couldn’t find a lone-star tick in our area,” said Indiana’s Keith Clay, an expert on the microbes found in ticks and other insects. “Now it’s the dominant species.”

Both Clay and Ostfeld emphasize range expansion by itself doesn’t guarantee that tick-borne illnesses will become more of a problem.

“It’s possible that the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium that causes Lyme disease, for example, will find it harder to survive in warmer conditions, even if the ticks do. But I consider it unlikely,” Ostfeld said.

Read more at Discovery News

Atheists Inspire Thoughts of Death in Many Americans

Atheists consistently rank among the lowest of the low in the court of American public opinion. Now, research suggests one reason why: Thinking about atheists reminds people of death.

In fact, prompting people to think about atheism triggered death-related thoughts just as strongly as, well, directly prompting people to think about death, a new study finds. These death thoughts help trigger a subconscious dislike of atheists, said study leader Corey Cook, a social psychologist at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Not only do thoughts of death put people in a negative frame of mind, Cook told Live Science, but they also prompt people to hold more tightly onto their own values.

“There’s a little circular thing going on where encountering atheism will make people grasp their values closer and then become more negative because atheists are perceived as not having values,” Cook said.

Anti-atheist prejudice

Atheists in America have an image problem. Studies and surveys consistently rank nonbelievers as untrustworthy, threatening and un-American. Researchers reporting in a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology even found that people viewed atheists as equally untrustworthy as rapists.

This previous work found that atheists are perceived as without morals and values, Cook said. Intriguingly, people’s values are closely tied up with people’s feelings about death. When people are reminded of their own impending deaths, they become more protective of their worldviews and show increased prejudice against those with different worldviews.

As such, Cook’s co-author, Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College in New York, reasoned, if atheists threaten believers’ values, they should also prompt thoughts of death.

The researchers joined with Florette Cohen at the College of Staten Island CUNY to survey a diverse group of students at that school in order to test the idea. First, 236 students were asked to sit down and write about either thoughts of their own deaths or thoughts of being in extreme pain. After a few distraction tasks, the students next answered questions about their feelings toward either atheists or Quakers (a Christian religion). About 65 percent of the participants were Christian, while the rest were Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish or another faith.

Overall, people viewed atheists much more negatively than Quakers, Cook said. But when prompted to think of death, people became even more negative toward atheists, while their attitudes toward Quakers didn’t budge. They trusted atheists less, reported fewer warm feelings toward them, and felt more prejudice, the researchers reported in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Death and belief

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers flipped the script. Instead of nudging people to think about death to see how that changed their views on atheism, they had people think about atheism and then tested the effect on thoughts of death. Two hundred students of various religious faiths first wrote about their thoughts on their own deaths, on atheism, or on experiencing extreme pain. Next, they did a word-completion task where they were given prompts like “S K _ _ L,” which could spell out a neutral word (skill) or a death-related word (skull).

The people prompted to think about death were more likely than those prompted to think about pain to complete the words with death-related options, unsurprisingly. But more shocking was that the people who thought about atheism were just as likely as the people who thought about death to pick death-related answers.

“We found that thinking about atheism actually increased thoughts of death to the same extent as thinking about death itself," said Cook, who described the result as "surprising."

Read more at Discovery News

See Jupiter and the Moon Tonight in Cosmic Spectacle

If your local weather is clear tonight (May 23), check out the western sky around mid-twilight – about an hour after sunset. There, about half way up from the south-southwest horizon to the overhead point, you’ll see an eye-catching sight for the Memorial Day weekend: Jupiter and the moon in a celestial display.

Tonight, a rather wide crescent moon, 34-percent illuminated will be visible against the darkening sky and hovering about 3 degrees almost directly above this lunar sliver will be a brilliant silvery white “star.” But this isn’t a star, but the planet identified with the supreme sky-god, Jupiter. To judge how far apart Jupiter and the moon will appear in the sky, remember that your clenched fist, correctly held, will measure 10 degrees of the night sky. So you can use your fist to make a reasonable estimate of degrees either horizontally or vertically.

In this case, Jupiter and the moon will appear relatively close together; roughly one-third of a fist apart. And because they will be the two brightest objects in the sky, the moon and Jupiter will likely attract the attention of even those who aren’t consciously looking up at the sky.

The celestial pair will appear to descend down the sky, finally disappearing beyond the west-northwest horizon just before 1 a.m. your local time. This is the last month (until October) in which this biggest of planets is high enough in a dark sky to permit crisp telescopic views of its cloud patterns and four big satellites.

Next to Venus, Jupiter is the brightest starlike object in the evening and among the first to come out each night at dusk. But for the rest of May on into June Jupiter will slowly slip farther down into the glow of evening twilight in the west-northwest. And by the second week of June it will be setting right around the time evening twilight ends.

This month, Jupiter is falling far behind Earth in the never-ending planetary race around the sun and it continues to move slowly eastward among the stars. Currently it can be found in the dim zodiacal constellation of Cancer, the Crab. Because it takes nearly 12 years to orbit the sun, Jupiter spends about a year in each of the 12 zodiacal constellations. Jupiter moved into Cancer in early July of 2014 and will exit Cancer and move into Leo, the Lion early in June.

Read more at Discovery News

May 22, 2015

425-Million-Year-Old Parasite Fossilized Mid-Invasion

About 425 million years ago, a sneaky worm-like parasite invaded a crustacean before the two were fossilized together in the limestone of modern-day England, a new study finds.

The parasite, a newly identified species, is an ancient type of tongue worm, an arthropod that has a wormlike body with a head and two pairs of limbs, the researchers said. It is the first adult tongue worm to be found in the fossil record, they added.

“This is the most important fossil evidence yet discovered of the origins of this type of parasitism,” study co-author Derek Briggs, a professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University and curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, both in New Haven, Connecticut, said in a statement.

The new species was dubbed Invavita piratica, meaning “ancient intruder,” as a nod to maritime piracy. It was discoveredin a crustacean host, called Nymphatelina gravida, a marine creature with two shells connected by a hinge. In fact, the researchers found several specimens of I. piratica in the fossil, which the scientists found in limestone rocks in Herefordshire, England.

The I. piratica specimens are “exceptionally preserved,” and range in size from about 0.04 to 0.16 inches (1 to 4 millimeters) long, the researchers wrote in the study.

“This discovery is important not only because examples of parasites are exceptionally rare in the fossil record, but also because the possible host of fossil tongue worms — and the origin of the lifestyle of tongue worms — has been the subject of much debate,” said the study’s lead author, David Siveter, a paleontologist at the University of Leicester, in the United Kingdom.

Researchers found several of the parasites inside the crustacean’s shell, near a bundle of eggs that may have belonged to the host, the researchers said. Other parasites were anchored to the outside of the shell, a position that is unique even among living tongue worms, the researchers said.

Nowadays, there are about 140 known species of parasitic tongue worms, known as pentastomids, which mostly prey on vertebrates, especially fish and reptiles.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Aqueduct Unearthed In Jerusalem

Workers building a sewer line in Jerusalem unearthed a section of the ancient lower aqueduct, which had long been one of the city’s principal sources of water.

Constructed by the Hasmonean kings more than 2,000 years ago to provide clean water to Jerusalem, the aqueduct was part of an elaborate water supply system devised for a city that had experienced a number of droughts.

The water conduit functioned intermittently until about 100 years ago, when it was replaced by a modern electrically operated system.

Unearthed in Umm Tuba, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the aqueduct begins at the Eitam spring near Solomon’s Pools, three reservoirs south of Bethlehem that are the heart of the water system, and is approximately 13 miles long.

“Despite its length, it flows along a very gentle downward slope whereby the water level falls just one meter (3.2 feet) per kilometer of distance (0.62 miles),” Ya’akov Billig, the excavation director, said.

“At first, the water was conveyed inside an open channel and about 500 years ago, during the Ottoman period, a terracotta pipe was installed inside the channel in order to better protect the water,” he added.

The aqueduct tunneled beneath the town of Bethlehem, ran through a number of neighborhoods in Jerusalem and finally entered the Temple Mound over Wilson’s Arch bridge.

The Umm Tuba section of the aqueduct has now being covered up again “for the sake of future generations,” the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) said.

The archaeologists are now working to expose sections of its remains and make them soon accessible to the general public.

From Discovery News

Strange 'Nasty' Star May Be Spawned by Cannibalism

An ongoing act of cosmic cannibalism may be responsible for the strange appearance and unprecedented behavior of a gigantic star nicknamed “Nasty 1,” a new study reports.

Observations by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have revealed a disk of gas nearly 3 trillion miles (4.8 trillion kilometers) wide surrounding Nasty 1, which is a massive, rapidly aging object known as a Wolf-Rayet star.

Wolf-Rayet stars start out big, initially containing at least 20 times more mass than the sun. But their hydrogen-dominated outer layers soon puff up and are lost, exposing the objects’ helium-burning cores to space. Astronomers aren’t exactly sure how this process unfolds, but they have a few ideas.

For example, some scientists think these massive stars’ powerful stellar winds blow away their own hydrogen envelopes. Another idea holds that the outer layers are siphoned off by a cannibalistic companion star.

“That’s what we think is happening in Nasty 1,” study lead author Jon Mauerhan, of the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement, referring to the second hypothesis. “We think there is a Wolf-Rayet star buried inside the nebula, and we think the nebula is being created by this mass-transfer process. So this type of sloppy stellar cannibalism actually makes Nasty 1 a rather fitting nickname.”

Such a disc had never before been seen surrounding a Wolf-Rayet star, researchers said. The nebula is likely only a few thousand years old and lies about 3,000 light-years from Earth, they added.

Several other factors further bolster the cannibalism idea over the stellar-wind hypothesis, study team members said. For one thing, at least 70 percent of all massive stars belong to binary systems. And modeling work suggests that such a star’s own winds may not be strong enough to push it to Wolf-Rayet status.

“We’re finding that it is hard to form all the Wolf-Rayet stars we observe by the traditional wind mechanism, because mass loss isn’t as strong as we used to think,” co-author Nathan Smith, of the University of Arizona, said in the same statement.

“Mass exchange in binary systems seems to be vital to account for Wolf-Rayet stars and the supernovae they make, and catching binary stars in this short-lived phase will help us understand this process,” Smith added.

It’s tough to get a precise bead on Nasty 1, whose nickname is a play off its formal catalog name NaSt1 (the star was discovered in 1963 by Jason Nassau and Charles Stephenson). The star is obscured by a great deal of gas and dust, so Mauerhan and his team were not able to determine the mass of Nasty 1 or its companion, the distance between them or the amount of material the companion is ingesting, researchers said.

It’s also unclear exactly what will happen to Nasty 1 down the road, but the star’s evolutionary path “will definitely not be boring,” Mauerhan said.

Read more at Discovery News

World's Largest Particle Collider Busts Record

The world's largest particle smasher broke the record for energy levels late Wednesday in a test run after a two-year upgrade, CERN announced Thursday.

"Last night, protons collided in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the record-breaking energy of 13 TeV (teraelectronvolts) for the first time," the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) said in a statement.

The LHC's previous highest energy for collisions was eight TeV, reached in 2012.

In April, it started up again after a two-year overhaul designed to pave the way to experiments at 13 TeV. It has the potential to be cranked up to 14 TeV.

Experiments at the collider are aimed at unlocking clues as to how the universe came into existence by studying fundamental particles, the building blocks of all matter, and the forces that control them.

Before the upgrade, the LHC was used to prove the existence of the Higgs Boson, also known as the God particle, which confers mass.

That discovery earned the 2013 Nobel physics prize for two of the scientists who had theorized the existence of the Higgs back in 1964.

Wednesday's collisions at the giant lab, housed in a 27-kilometer (17-mile) tunnel straddling the French-Swiss border, are part of a recommissioning program ahead of an even more ambitious roster of experiments, due to start next month.

"These test collisions were to set up systems that protect the machine and detectors from particles that stray from the edges of the beam," CERN said.

The LHC allows beams containing billions of protons traveling at 99.9 percent the speed of light to shoot through the massive collider in opposite directions.

Powerful magnets bend the beams so that they collide at points around the track where four laboratories have batteries of sensors to monitor the smashups.

Read more at Discovery News

May 21, 2015

Fears for Syria's Palmyra As ISIS Seizes Historic City

The ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the desert northeast of Damascus, is on the brink of destruction, having just fallen under the control of ISIS.

The seizure of the 2,000-year-old city at the end of a week-long siege that led to the collapse of Syrian pro-government forces means Isis now controls 50 percent of the country.

“There are no forces to stop them entering the ruins,” Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

Known as the “Venice of the Sands,” Palmyra was once Syria’s star attraction for its towering Roman colonnades and temple remains spectacularly rising from a palm-fringed oasis.

The city’s unique collection of monuments blending Greek, Roman and Persian influences might be bulldozed at anytime, following the fate of major archaeological sites in Iraq that that pre-date Islam.

Nothing remains of the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, not to mention statues and artifacts at the Mosul Museum.

“Hundreds and hundreds of statues we were worried would be smashed and sold are all now in safe places,” Syria antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told reporters.

“The fear is for the museum and the large monuments that cannot be moved. This is the entire world’s battle,” he said.

Palmyra has already suffered four years of conflict, going through looting and damage.

A wealthy caravan center that stood at the crossroads of several civilizations, the city has been at the center of struggles throughout much of its history.

In 41 B.C., Mark Anthony attempted to lay hands on its riches, but had to give up on any booty as he found the city deserted by its inhabitants.

Palmyra, also known as Tadmur in Arabic, was made part of the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Tiberius (14–37) and grew to become the wealthiest center in the eastern empire during its golden age in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The Romans gave the Palmyrenes considerable freedom, allowing them to elect their own senators and govern the city under the Roman banner.

Standing across stone-paved streets, the city’s columns and archways represent both the power of the Roman empire and the fight against it.

Indeed, in the 3rd century, queen Zenobia, the widow of the local ruler Odenathus, declared her independence from the Romans. She resisted sporadic attacks by the Roman legions and created an empire that stretched from Turkey to Egypt. Eventually she was defeated by the emperor Aurelian in 271 A.D. Sent to Rome, Zenobia was reputedly paraded as a trophy in the streets, bound in gold chains.

A further rebellion in 273 saw the Palmyrenes massacring the Roman garrison. This led to a mass slaugthering; the city was torched and never really recovered from the blow.

Reduced to a small frontier city, Palmyra was conquered in 634 by Khālid ibn al-Walīd and assimilated into the Muslim caliphate.

It was devastated by earthquakes in 1068 and 1089 and fell into ruin after the Turko-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane sacked it at the end of the 14th century.

But the city has never entirely succumbed to its turbulent history. With its warm colored, intricately carved stoneworks, Palmyra boasts some of the most beautiful and well-preserved ruins of antiquity.

A grand colonnaded street stretching some 3,600 feet still stands as testament to the city’s imposing and wealthy past.

Major monuments include the Temple of Ba’al, the Agora, the Theatre, and other temples and urban quarters.

“Architectural ornament including unique examples of funerary sculpture unites the forms of Greco-Roman art with indigenous elements and Persian influences in a strongly original style. Outside the city’s walls are remains of a Roman aqueduct and immense necropolises,” the UNESCO wrote about the city.

Read more at Discovery News

Dogs and Humans Bonded Earlier Than Thought

New DNA evidence from a wolf bone suggests humans and dogs were companions for much longer than previously thought.

Modern Siberian huskies and Greenland dogs turn out to share an unusually large number of genes with a wolf that lived 35,000 years ago -- a time when our species was just beginning to populate Europe and Asia, reports the Current Biology study.

This animal, the Taimyr wolf of Siberia, is the most recent common ancestor of modern wolves and dogs.

"We find that the ancestors of domestic dogs must have separated from the ancestors of wolves at least 27,000 years ago," lead author Pontus Skoglund, a Harvard University geneticist, told Discovery News.

"As for the genetic link between the 35,000-year-old wolf and Husky-type dogs, the most natural explanation is that these dog breeds absorbed local wolf ancestry that still lived on in Siberia when they followed early human groups to this region," he said. "This is the first direct evidence we have that the diversity in common dog breeds today has such deep roots."

It's likely that many other dog breeds today are also related to prehistoric regional gray wolf populations, helping to explain why there is such incredible diversity among dogs, from Golden retrievers to poodles, due to factors beyond humans selecting for certain traits.

Skoglund and his colleagues made the discoveries after analyzing a small bone picked up during an expedition to the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia. DNA tests revealed that the bone belonged to the prehistoric Taimyr wolf.

The direct dating of the wolf bone, combined with further genetic analysis, enabled the researchers to recalibrate the molecular timescale of wolves and dogs. This found that the mutation rate between the two is substantially slower than assumed by most prior studies, suggesting that the ancestors of dogs were separated from present-day wolves around 27,000 years ago.

Senior author Love Dalén of the Swedish Museum of Natural History told Discovery News that some of the debate over when dogs were "domesticated" hinges on the precise meaning of that word. If it is taken to mean a fully tame dog that doesn't look much like a wolf, then that happened much later.

"But if 'being domesticated' means an animal population that is held and breeds in captivity, then our results are consistent with dogs being domesticated at least 27,000 years ago," Dalén said.

Based on the new findings, the researchers propose that this kind of domestication happened just once, and probably from "a population of wolf that roamed the tundra steppe of the last Ice Age," Dalén shared.

As for what triggered the event, he and her colleagues suspect that "dogs may have originated through capture of wolf cubs or through self-domestication via attraction to food scraps," such as the meat and bones left behind by hunter-gatherers.

This is significant, because other research groups have tied dog domestication to farming, when humans first settled down to grow crops. That happened long after 27,000 years ago, however, so Skoglund and his team do not think farming led to dog domestication.

After domestication occurred, the researchers believe that as the wolf-resembling dogs traveled with humans, they interbred with multiple regional wolf populations, such as the one for the Taimyr wolf in Siberia.

Greger Larson, director of the Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network at the University of Oxford, told Discovery News that the new study "is a significant step forward in the long winding road toward a satisfying understanding of how, when and where dogs were domesticated."

Larson said that the two major findings of the new paper are the recalibration of the molecular rate of evolution between dogs and wolves, and the demonstration that some modern dog breeds may share genes with certain early regional wolves.

Read more at Discovery News

Remains of Bronze-Age Cultic Priestess Hold Surprise

An iconic Bronze Age girl who was buried in Denmark about 3,400 years ago came from a foreign land, a new analysis of her hair and teeth suggests.

The Egtved girl was named after the village where she was found. All of her bones were missing from her remains, but her clothing, hair, nails and some teeth were still in pristine condition.

The new analysis, which was published today (May 21) in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests the woman may have spent her early life in southern Germany, making several long trips in the last two years of her life, said study co-author Karin Frei, a geologist and archaeology researcher at the National Museum of Denmark.

Ancient teenager

The girl’s final resting place was first unearthed in in 1921, in a large burial mound made of peat bog. In addition to the remains of a 16- to 18-year-old girl, the oak coffin bore the cremated remains of a child, who was about 5 or 6 when he or she died.

The grave formed a unique microclimate: The acidic peat created a thin layer of iron around the coffin, which let rainwater seep into, but not out of, the coffin, Frei said. These acidic, oxygen-free, waterlogged conditions led to the decay of the bones but left her hair, nails and clothing intact, Frei said.

The Bronze Age teenager was wearing a wool skirt belted with a large bronze disk with spirals on it.

“She looks, in a way, very modern, in this kind of miniskirt and a kind of T-shirt,” Frei told Live Science. (Her unique fashion sense has inspired scores of Pinterest-worthy re-enactments.)

Figurines from the Bronze Age show women in similar dress, with spiral symbols associated with a Scandinavian sun cult, so historians have concluded the girl must have been a priestess of that cult, Frei said.

Long-distance traveler

Frei first analyzed strontium isotopes, or atoms of the element with different numbers of neutrons, in the wool skirt. Because the rocks in different regions contain different ratios of strontium isotopes, which are then taken up by the plants, animals and people who eat in that region, the ratio can reveal where a person or animal lived.

The wool was not from anywhere near Denmark, and likely came from near the Black Forest in Germany, the team found.

Next, Frei analyzed a portion of the girl’s hair and a molar tooth, which forms early in childhood and doesn’t change after that. The girl had about 9 inches (23 centimeters) of hair at the longest point, and hair grows about 0.4 inches (1 cm) per month, allowing the team to recreate the last two years of her life.

“She moved from one place outside Denmark, to a place that could be Denmark, to a place very far from Denmark,” where she spent a large portion of the last six months of her life,” Frei said. “She probably died or got sick and died very shortly after her arrival to Egtved,” Frei said.

Given how many trips the girl made over long distances, she was likely traveling quickly by boat, Frei said.

The cremated cranial bones of the child buried alongside the Egtved girl revealed he or she spent much time in the same distant region as the Egtved girl.

Denmark and southern Germany were centers of power at the time, so the southern German girl was likely married in a strategic power alliance to a chieftain in Denmark, and may have been traveling back to her hometown in her last years. The two individuals may or may not have been related; either way, the youngster spent time in the same rough locale as the Egtved girl.

Read more at Discovery News

Newly Created Fungus Is Part Human, Part Yeast

A living yeast that is part human and part fungus has been engineered by scientists in a feat that shows how, despite a billion years of evolution separating humans from yeast, the two species share hundreds of genes in common.

Those genes remain, in part, from the last common ancestor of humans and yeast.

“Cells use a common set of parts and those parts, even after a billion years of independent evolution, are swappable,” Edward Marcotte, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, said in a press release.

“It’s a beautiful demonstration of the common heritage of all living things — to be able to take DNA from a human and replace the matching DNA in a yeast cell and have it successfully support the life of the cell.”

That’s just what Marcotte and his colleagues did, as they describe in their study published in the journal Science. Although yeast (such as the Baker’s yeast that might be in your refrigerator now) consists of a single cell and humans have trillions of cells organized into complex systems, multiple genes are shared between the two.

Of those, about 450 are critical for yeast’s survival, so the researchers removed the yeast version of each one and replaced it with the human version and waited to see whether the yeast would die.

They wound up creating hundreds of new strains of yeast, each with a single human gene. About half of these resulted in an organism that could survive and reproduce.

While this might sound like an eerie Frankenstein-like experiment, the goal is to produce a new way of researching human genetic diseases caused by mutations.

It’s actually cutting edge research, since the technique could help to reduce or even eliminate testing on live animals.

Another benefit is that the testing could lead to treatments designed for a particular individual. For example, researchers might insert precise versions of a human gene mutation into yeast and then expose the yeast to different drugs to test new therapies. As a result, the treatments could be tailored to a person’s precise genetic mutation.

Read more at Discovery News

Ceres' Mysterious Bright Spots May Be Light Reflected by Ice

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is still getting itself into position for a 16-month study of the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt, but scientists already are delving into photos taken for navigation purposes to learn more about mysterious bright white spots on Ceres’ surface.

Newly released pictures, taken when Dawn was about 4,500 miles from Ceres, confirm that the bright areas are patches of sunlight bouncing off some very reflective material on the surface, such as ice.

Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, its second destination in the main asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. It has been using its ion propulsion system to gradually lower its orbit.

Scientists suspect Ceres may have once had an underground ocean that later froze.  Europe’s Herschel telescope last year detected water vapor around Ceres, a clue that impacting bodies may periodically send plumes of watery material shooting into space. Dawn will attempt to confirm those findings.

From Discovery News

May 20, 2015

Sophisticated Tool Kit Predates Humans

A recently unearthed stone tool kit consisting of hammer stones, anvils, worked cobblestones and other items dates to 3.3 million years ago, predating our genus Homo by over half a million years, according to a new study.

The items, described in the latest issue of the journal Nature, are now the oldest stone tools ever found.

They "show that early humans (essentially proto-humans) used and made stone tools 3.3 million years ago, which is about 700,000 years earlier than the previously earliest known date for early stone tools," Erella Hovers, who authored an accompanying "News & Views" article, told Discovery News.

Hovers, who is a senior member of the Institute of Archaeology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, added that the other more recent tools were attributed to Homo habilis, aka "Handy Man," whose culture is called the Oldowan. Now it looks like there was a much earlier culture--as of yet unnamed--and that stone tool making was not unique to our genus.

The approximately 149 stone artifacts tied to tool making were found at a site called Lomekwi 3 next to Lake Turkana in Kenya.

"The tools from Lomekwi show a mixture of pounding and flaking activities," Hovers said.

Lead author Sonia Harmand of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University and her team think that the tools could have been used for breaking open nuts or tubers, for bashing open dead logs to get at insects inside, and for other purposes.

The presence of volcanic ash layers, together with evidence about Earth's magnetic field, allowed the researchers to date the finds. Co-author Dennis Kent explained that Earth's magnetic field periodically reverses itself, and the chronology of those changes has been well documented going back millions of years.

"We essentially have a magnetic tape recorder that records the magnetic field…the music of the outer core," he said in a press release.

Now a key question is: Who made the tools?

Non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and certain monkeys, are all known to make and use rudimentary tools. Other than cracking open nuts with big rocks, the non-human primates mostly just use twigs and other plant-based materials as tools. Hovers therefore believes that stone tool crafting is predominantly associated with humans.

The Lomekwi 3 toolkit "clearly predates the earlier known occurrence of Homo, which is currently known (from) 2.8 million years ago in the Afar region of Ethiopia," Hovers said.

A possible maker of the tools is Australopithecus afarensis, which had both ape and human characteristics. Yet another possibility is Kenyathropus platyops. As its name suggests, Kenyathropus lived in Kenya. It also exhibited a mixture of human and ape features.

Still another possibility is that the maker and user of the tools represents a species of human that is not known yet to anthropologists. What is clear is that the maker had good hand-eye coordination and ease in using his or her hands and arms.

This is significant, because that suggests changes in the brain and spinal tract needed for such activity could have occurred well before 3.3 million years ago.

Intriguingly, animal bones from Dikaka, Ethiopia, which bear stone-inflicted cut marks, date to at least 3.39 million years ago, suggesting that stone tools were made and used even before the Lomekwi 3 items.

Read more at Discovery News

Code Cracker IDs Shakespeare Portrait in Botany Book

The true face of William Shakespeare lies in a 16th-century botany book, according to a code-cracking botanist and historian.

The playwright is portrayed in a 3.5-inch-tall drawing as a young, bearded and mustachioed man. Wearing a Roman dress and laurels in his curly hair, he holds an ear of sweetcorn in one hand and a fritillary, a flower of the lily family, in the other.

Detailed in the U.K.’s Country Life magazine, the controversial claim is based on a five-year investigation by botanist Mark Griffiths that echoes a Dan Brown novel.

“Griffiths cracked a many-layered Tudor code and revealed the living face of Shakespeare for the first time on the title page of 'The Herball' by John Gerard, a 16th-century book on plants, 400 years after it was first published,” Country Life said in a statement.

A 1,484-page volume, the "Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes" was the largest single volume work on plants published in English in 1597. On the title page it features an elaborate engraving by William Rogers showing four male figures amid heraldic motifs and emblematic flowers.

The four figures shown in the engraving were long thought to have been imaginary, but according to Griffiths, they are real people who had been involved in the creation of the book.

Decoding symbolic plants and heraldic motifs surrounding the figures, Griffiths identified three of them as Gerard himself, renowned Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens and Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley. The three appear to be somewhat related as Dodoens was a source of inspiration to Gerard, who gardened for Burghley.

Griffiths was left with the fourth figure.

“He was dressed as a Roman and appeared to have something to do with poetry,” he said.

He noted the man carries a fritillary and an ear of sweetcorn -- a reference to Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, published in 1593, and the 1594 play Titus Andronicus. The laurel wreath is said to point to Apollo and the classical poets he inspired.

Griffiths noted that the bearded man is standing on a statue base marked with a code.

“It is coded in the style of clever men of the time but it says ‘William Shakespeare,’” he said.

But why would Shakespeare be portrayed in a botany book?

Griffiths believes the Bard was helped in his literary career by Burghley, the most powerful man in the country, and in his turn helped Gerard with Greek and Latin translations in the book. So the four figures would all be linked.

“This is the literary discovery of the century. We have a new portrait of Shakespeare, the first ever that is identified as him by the artist and made in his lifetime,” Mark Hedges, editor of Country Life magazine, said.

There is no definitive portrait of the Bard painted in his lifetime. Only two likenesses, both posthumous, are widely accepted as authentic: a bust on his tomb in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, restored and repainted several times, and the Droeshout engraving, used as a frontispiece to the Folio edition of his plays in 1623.

The 3.5-inch-tall figure is said to depict Shakespeare aged 33 at the height of his celebrity, shortly before he wrote “Hamlet” and after “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The depiction is a far cry from the bald man portrayed in the First Folio.

Read more at Discovery News

Birds Tap Their Beaks in Rhythm to Songs

Java sparrows click their bills together in rhythm to the songs that they sing, similar to a person imitating the sounds of a drum machine while humming at the same time.

The discovery reveals that bird songs can be incredibly complex, integrating non-vocal sounds with tweeted songs. The findings, published in PLOS ONE, add to the growing body of evidence that humans aren’t the only animals with rhythm.

The video below captures some of the bird’s songs. Note how the bill clicks blend seamlessly into the “tunes.”

“We show that male Java sparrows coordinate their bill-click sounds with the syntax of their song-note sequences, similar to percussionists,” co-authors Masayo Soma and Chihiro Mori wrote in the paper.

For the study, they analyzed archived recordings of Java sparrows, also known as Java finches. They investigated differences in bill click frequency as well as the coordination between song notes and bill clicks. They further looked at how easy the songs were to learn, and if the songs were passed down from parents to their offspring.

Soma and Mori determined “that bill-clicking patterns are similar between social fathers and their sons.” This suggests that fathers teach their sons the rhythmic clicks, just as they teach them the song notes.

Now the question is: Why do the birds even bother to do this?

Could creating a beat help to attract females when the males are courting them with songs? Does the rhythm prompt females to tap their beaks too, encouraging a seductive synchronicity between the bird pair? Females are known to produce bill clicks, according to the authors, so perhaps this may be true.

Read more at Discovery News

Washington State Now Has Its First Dinosaur

The first ever dinosaur remains from Washington state have been found along the shores of Sucia Island State Park in the San Juan Islands.

Based on a large leg bone that itself would have been over 3 feet long when complete, paleontologists believe that the dinosaur was large, but slightly smaller than famous meat eater Tyrannosaurus rex. The discovery is described in the new issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

“This fossil won’t win a beauty contest,” co-author Christian Sidor of the Burke Museum said in a press release. “But fortunately it preserves enough anatomy that we were able to compare it to other dinosaurs and be confident of its identification.”

Burke and colleague Brandon Peecook believe that the fossil belonged to a theropod. This refers to a group of dinosaurs that includes such iconic species Velociraptor, the aforementioned T. rex, and modern birds.

The fossil dates to the Late Cretaceous period and is about 80 million years old, so that’s when this Washington-dwelling dinosaur would have stomped around the Evergreen State. It probably lived in more of a marine environment, however, since clams from the same time period were also found fossilized with the dinosaur remains.

These particular clams, representative of the species Crassatellites conradiana, lived in shallow water. It’s therefore likely that the dinosaur died near the sea, was tossed by the waves, and eventually came to rest among the clams.

During the time of the as-of-yet unnamed dinosaur’s existence, rocks that today form Sucia Island were likely deposited farther south. Much of what is now Washington state was underwater then, so this dinosaur must have lived in a pocket of land surrounded by water.

“The fossil record of the West Coast is very spotty when compared to the rich record of the interior of North America,” Peecook said. “This specimen, though fragmentary, gives us insight into what the West Coast was like 80 million years ago, plus it gets Washington into the dinosaur club.”

Read more at Discovery News

What the First Snake Looked Like

Nighttime was the right time for the world's first snakes, according to a new study that found these slithery reptiles were once nocturnal predators with tiny back legs complete with ankles and toes.

The study, published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, also concludes that the first snakes likely emerged 128 million years ago in a warm and forested part of the then supercontinent Laurasia. (Laurasia included what are now North America, Europe and Asia.)

The research helps to clear up many long-standing debates over the earliest snakes.

"While snake origins have been debated for a long time, this is the first time these hypotheses have been tested thoroughly using cutting-edge methods," lead author Allison Hsiang of Yale University said in a press release.

She continued, "By analyzing the genes, fossils and anatomy of 73 different snake and lizard species, both living and extinct, we've managed to generate the first comprehensive reconstruction of what the ancestral snake was like."

Hsiang and her team identified similarities and differences between the 73 species, and used this to create a large family tree for snakes. They further noted some of the major characteristics of snakes throughout time.

The researchers believe that snakes originated on land as opposed to water, which had previously been theorized. The emergence of snakes during the Early Cretaceous coincided with the rapid appearance of many species of mammals and birds.

As for what the first snakes ate, the researchers believe that they could take on almost anything, but not super big prey like what some of today’s snakes can handle. That's because the early snakes hadn't yet evolved the ability to use constriction as a form of attack, like today’s boa constrictors.

The "ancestral" snake's nocturnal ways passed on to many generations, so that diurnal or day-living snakes didn’t show up much until around 50-45 million years ago. That’s when Colubroidea — the family of snakes that now make up over 85 percent of living snake species — came onto the scene. Colder night temperatures probably led to the daytime ways of these snakes.

Read more at Discovery News

May 19, 2015

Aliens Will Be Bear-Size, According to Math

With thousands of planets outside Earth’s solar system, there’s a pretty good chance that some of them have the conditions needed for life. If alien life does exist, scientists aren’t quite sure what it would look like, but they might be able to see how much these foreign “beings” might weigh. Most of these creatures will be big — nearly 700 lbs. (314 kilograms), one cosmologist says.

Fergus Simpson, of the University of Barcelona, outlines his statistical argument on the prepublished site arXiv. The finding is based on a model called Bayes’ theorem and a branch of mathematics called Bayesian statistics. The purpose of such techniques is to estimate the probabilities that change depending on the information available.

But although Simpson’s mathematical experiment may get scientists and others thinking about the possibilities of alien life, some researchers say some of his statistical assumptions may not hold true.

Estimating alien size

Simpson started his calculation with the number of individuals who would most likely live in a given alien civilization, and came up with about 50 million or fewer individuals. He posited that there are many civilizations in the galaxy and that any individual alien would be more likely than not to be from a highly populated civilization. The population distributions across planets would follow a bell-shaped distribution but not a true bell curve, he said in the paper. That means most cultures would support an average number of people, with fewer populations holding very low or very high populations.

As an analogy, consider the populations on Earth. If you were to pick any single person from Earth, that individual would be more likely to be from China (1-in-5 chance) than from New Zealand (about a 1-in-1,600 chance). However, there are a lot more New Zealand-size countries than China-size ones, so if you were to pick country names at random, you’d be much more likely to pick a Spain- or Mozambique-size country than a Russia-, China- or United States-size nation.

The same idea applies to aliens. Assuming Earth is at the high end for the number of residents, a habitable alien planet would hold about 50 million aliens, Simpson found.

Using a similar argument, Simpson wrote that the size of the planet supporting extraterrestrial life is likely to be smaller than Earth, at least most of the time. In his model, he assumed that about 50 percent of Earth’s diameter is at the lower limit, because if it were any smaller, it would be difficult for the planet to retain an atmosphere or water. Mars, for example, is about 53 percent the size of Earth.

Once again, each individual alien would be more likely to live on a big planet, Simpson wrote, because those planets are likely to support more people. But a whole species has better odds of coming from a small one, because there are more small planets than large ones. Simpson wrote that, 95 percent of the time, planets will have a radius of 1.4 times Earth’s or less.

The last part of Simpson’s analysis focused on the size of other life forms. Earth animals have a widely known relation between size and the number of individuals — the smaller the species is, the more individuals of that species tend to exist. For example, an alien seeking life on Earth would be far likelier to run into a mosquito than a blue whale.

However, the relation between size and population can also be plotted on a curve against probability, which predicts that the median weight of an alien would be about 692 lbs. (314 kg) — about the size of a bear or an elk. So, based on the results of this model, about half of extraterrestrial creatures would weigh more than that, and half would weigh less.

It might sound contradictory for large creatures to be from smaller planets, but it isn’t: Remember that the populations from small planets, on average, would be small relative to the 7 billion humans who live on Earth.

Statistical caveats

However, some scientists say this mathematical prediction has some serious caveats. Michael Kopp, a professor of theoretical biology and evolution at Aix-Marseille University in France, said he isn’t sure about the statistical argument because it is not clear if humans are a random sample of intelligent beings. It’s also quite possible that humans on Earth could be about the median of all civilizations — in other words, in the grand scheme of the universe, Earth is more comparable to a country like Canada in terms of population than India or China.

“The prediction that most civilizations contain less than 50 million individuals is based on the assumption that the distribution of civilization sizes corresponds to the distribution of species sizes … but there are no particular reasons to believe this is so,” Kopp told Live Science.

The argument that intelligent extraterrestrial life would tend to be larger would be less problematic, he said, because the size distribution of terrestrial species is similar and the relation between size and population seems to be pretty consistent. However, he added that it isn’t necessarily true that the distribution of sizes among intelligent species follows the kind of curve Simpson modeled.

Seth Shostak, a researcher at the SETI Institute, said it’s unlikely Simpson is exactly right, especially about alien body size. “Anything that large, and you’re likely to be in the water,” he said. While whales are probably quite intelligent, for the purposes of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, you need radio telescopes or lasers, because that’s the simplest way to be detected over interstellar distances. “You can’t make a radio telescope underwater,” Shostak noted.

Read more at Discovery News

Undigested Bamboo Showing Up in Panda Poop

Even though bamboo is their main food source, giant pandas are horrible at digesting it, a new study of their gut bacteria finds.

A look at the giant-panda gut microbiome (bacteria living in the stomach and intestines) showed that the animals have relatively few bacteria that help digest fibrous plants such as bamboo. Instead, most of the panda’s gut is covered with bacteria such as Escherichia/Shigella and Streptococcus, organisms typically found in meat eaters, the researchers said.

These bacteria may be leftovers from an ancestor, the researchers said. The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) evolved from bears that ate both plants and meat. Ancient giant pandas likely began eating bamboo about 7 million years ago but became exclusive bamboo eaters about 2 million years ago, the researchers noted.

Yet modern pandas spend about 14 hours a day eating bamboo, and it isn’t an easy food for them to digest. Over time, the giant panda developed a powerful jaw and teeth to help it chew the fibrous plant. It also developed enlarged pseudothumbs (a wrist bone that acts like a thumb) to help it grasp bamboo stems, the researchers wrote in the study. But the animal’s gut still looks like that of a carnivore, and it can digest only about 17 percent of the bamboo it eats, the researchers said.

“Unlike other plant-eating animals that have successfully evolved anatomically specialized digestive systems to efficiently deconstruct fibrous plant matter, the giant panda still retains a gastrointestinal tract typical of carnivores,” Zhihe Zhang, the study’s lead author and director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, said in a statement.

“The animals also do not have the genes for plant-digesting enzymes in their own genome,” Zhang said. “This combined scenario may have increased their risk for extinction.”

In the study, researchers did a genetic analysis of the gut bacteria in the poop of 45 healthy pandas living at the Chengdu Research Base. After about one year, they collected 112 fecal samples from panda cubs, juveniles and adults. Except for the cubs, which drank milk, each panda ate about 22 lbs. (10 kilograms) of bamboo and bamboo shoots, as well as up to 1.7 lbs. (800 grams) of steamed bread every day.

But the feces were full of undigested bamboo fragments, the researchers found.

“This result is unexpected and quite interesting, because it implies the giant panda’s gut microbiota may not have well adapted to its unique diet, and places pandas at an evolutionary dilemma,” said study co-author Xiaoyan Pang, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and Biotechnology at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.

All of the giant pandas, including nine captive and seven wild pandas previously studied, had a low diversity of gut microbiota. Moreover, the animal’s microbiome didn’t contain plant-degrading bacteria, such as Ruminococcaceae and Bacteroides, which are widespread in other herbivorous animals.

Read more at Discovery News

Chance of Arachnids? 'Spider Rain' Explained

Millions of tiny spiders recently fell from the sky in Australia, alarming residents whose properties were suddenly covered with not only the creepy critters, but also mounds of their silky threads. But that’s not where the frightful news ends: Experts say that such arachnid rains aren’t as uncommon as you might think.

This month’s spider downpour in the country’s Southern Tablelands region is just the most recent example of a phenomenon commonly known as “spider rain” or, in some circles, “angel hair,” because of the silky, hairlike threads the spiders leave behind. Ian Watson, who lives in the region affected by the spooky shower, took to Facebook to describe what this strange “weather” looks like, according to the Goulburn Post.

“Anyone else experiencing this “Angel Hair” or maybe aka millions of spiders falling from the sky right now? I’m 10 minutes out of town, and you can clearly see hundreds of little spiders floating along with their webs and my home is covered in them. Someone call a scientist!” Watson wrote on the Goulburn Community Forum Facebook page.

So, here at Live Science, call a scientist (or two) is exactly what we did. Rick Vetter, a retired arachnologist at the University of California, Riverside, said Watson and his neighbors likely saw a form of spider transportation known as ballooning.

“Ballooning is a not-uncommon behavior of many spiders. They climb some high area and stick their butts up in the air and release silk. Then they just take off,” Vetter told Live Science. “This is going on all around us all the time. We just don’t notice it.”

The reason people don’t usually notice this ingenious spider behavior is that it’s not common for millions of spiders to do this at the same time, and then land in the same place, said Todd Blackledge, a biology professor at the University of Akron in Ohio.

“In these kinds of events [spider rains], what’s thought to be going on is that there’s a whole cohort of spiders that’s ready to do this ballooning dispersal behavior, but for whatever reason, the weather conditions haven’t been optimal and allowed them to do that. But then the weather changes, and they have the proper conditions to balloon, and they all start to do it,” Blackledge told Live Science.

This is likely what happened in New South Wales, where certain species of small spiders — as well as the tiny hatchlings of larger spider species— are known to balloon around the Outback during late autumn (May) and early spring (August). But, as Blackledge explained, an abrupt change in the weather or wind pattern may have carried these migrating spiders up and away and then back down to earth en mass — not the orderly dispersal that they (or the residents of the Southern Tablelands region) were expecting.

For the startled citizens of Goulburn and surrounding areas, however, the tiny spiders raining down from the sky probably pose no threat to humans, both Blackledge and Vetter said.

“There’s a tiny, tiny number of species that have venom that’s actually dangerous to people. And even then, if these are juvenile spiders, they’re going to be too small to even bite, in all likelihood,” Blackledge said.

Read more at Discovery News

Octopus, Diver Play Peekaboo

An octopus filmed off the coast of Kalaoa in Hawaii has shown that even cephalopods can get into a game of peekaboo.

In the footage, shot last month by the GoPro camera of diver Timothy Ewing, the octopus bobs up and down behind a rock as a Ewing does the same in an effort to take the animal's picture.

It's clear from the video that the octopus is wary of Ewing and his big, light-equipped camera — but the animal is also very curious.

Watch the video below:

“Octopus are one of the more intelligent creatures in the ocean. Sometimes they are too curious for their own good. If you hide from them they will come out and look for you," the diver wrote in his online posting of the video.

Ewing explained to that the encounter wasn't limited to the time captured on his GoPro.

"I was interacting with that octopus for about 10 minutes before I took the video," Ewing told "I normally mount my GoPro to my big camera housing, however I always carry a small tripod with me to use with the GoPro for stationary shots like this or selfie videos."

The octopus, found worldwide in tropical, subtropical and temperate areas, is known for its smarts and striking ability to camouflage itself. When it feels threatened, pigment cells in its skin allow it to change color instantly to blend in with its surroundings. The animals can also adapt their skin texture and body posture to further match their background.

They are solitary animals, spending most of their time in burrows dug into rocks or corals. But as this octopus shows, while they may be solitary, they clearly remain curious about the world around them.

From Discovery News

May 18, 2015

Vikings Traded First (Then Plundered)

The Viking Age may not have started with the plundering of England, but with the peaceful trading of handcrafted combs made out of reindeer antlers, a new study suggests.

Until now, researchers thought the Viking Age began in June 793, when Norwegian Vikings raided Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England. But new research suggests Vikings were traveling from Norway to Ribe, one of Scandinavia’s earliest towns and a lively trading center on the west coast of Denmark, as early as 725, the researchers said.

In fact, the bustling mercantile town may have given the Vikings an economic incentive to sail south to Denmark, the researchers said. And, coincidentally, these types of travels likely helped the Vikings refine and master the boating and navigational skills that helped them explore (and plunder) countries near and far, they added.

“This shows us that merchants and other travelers from the north were visiting Ribe long before the start of the Viking Age as we know it,” the study’s lead researcher, Steve Ashby, a lecturer of medieval archaeology at the University of York in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. “Even in its early stages, the town was attracting visitors from afar. We have long wondered whether Ribe, and places like it, kick-started the Viking expansion in trade, travel and warfare, but it has been difficult to prove.”

To learn more, the researchers studied antler combs and fragments at the archaeological site of Ribe’s medieval marketplace. They used a biomolecular method called Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) to identify the species of deer that grew the antlers used in the crafts, the researchers said.

ZooMS works by analyzing fragments in collagen, a protein found in skin and connective tissues. After each sample is examined, the researchers can compare them with reference sequences from other animals in a database, they said.

The study showed that reindeer, which are not local to Denmark, made up a number of the crafts. Reindeer did live in Norway during that time, and it’s likely the Vikings brought the antlers to Denmark to trade with their neighbors, the researchers said.

“Now for the first time, we can confidently say that people in the more remote parts of Scandinavia were visiting places like Ribe, presumably for commercial gain, from a very early stage,” Ashby said. “It’s a vital contribution to the question of what caused the Viking Age: It looks as though towns and maritime trade may have been the engine driving all this change.”

In fact, combs fashioned out of deer antlers were a sizable industry during the Viking Age, which lasted until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It’s likely that the early Norwegian Vikings had access to vast amounts of reindeer antlers, the researches said.

Reindeer live in large herds, and shed their antlers in the open tundra, making them easy to collect, the researchers said. Once the early Vikings had enough antlers, they likely sold them to artisans in southern Scandinavia, who crafted them into combs, they added.

Other studies have found that “finds in graves suggest that a considerable proportion of the Scandinavian population” had reindeer antler combs, which served as a hygienic and aesthetic amenity, the researchers wrote in the study.

While the Vikings were aggressive, they were also highly skilled in their seafaring travels, said study co-author, Søren Sindbæk a professor of medieval and renaissance archaeology at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Read more at Discovery News

Class Field Trip Finds New Pillbug Species in L.A.

It’s not every day that a new species is found in a major metropolis — by a class on a field trip.

But that’s what happened on a recent outing of Loyola Marymount University students at the very southernmost tip of the city of Los Angeles — less than a mile from the busiest port in America. The invertebrate zoology lab class was canvassing a rocky beach scanning for critters when they spotted an unusual pillbug clinging to a common sea star.

“As soon as we saw this bumpy little guy, we knew it was something special that the researchers at NHM had to see, but my class and I had no idea we were looking at a new species,” said Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County  Dean Pentcheff in a press release.

The new marine pillbug (known as isopod to biologists) belongs to the family of pillbugs that are commonly found in the dirt in backyards across the country. Despite their name, these creatures aren’t actually insects — but crustaceans adapted for land.

Pentcheff handed off their pillbug to experts at NHM for an identification. That’s when they learned the class had found a new species altogether. It was named Exosphaeroma pentcheffi — after the instructor who, with his class, found the new pillbug.

“It is amazing to think that you can discover a new species in one of the most urban places in the world like the Port of Los Angeles,” said Adam Wall, Assistant Collections Manager for Crustacea at NHM. Wall identified the new pillbug with colleague Regina Wetzer, associate curator and director of the Marine Biodiversity Center at NHM.

“What is even better is that it wasn’t an older guy wearing a white lab coat or a marine biologist in SCUBA gear that discovered it. It was a group of college students and their teacher in a regular college class — true citizen scientists.”

Wall was lead author of the scientific paper describing the new discovery in the open access journal ZooKeys.

Read more at Discovery News

Million-Year-Old Bubbles Reveal Climate Snapshot

A whiff of air frozen in ice for 1 million years provides a new snapshot of Earth's ancestral climate.

Scientists uncovered the ancient climate record from Antarctic blue ice. The ice core was drilled from a region called the Allan Hills, about an hour by plane from the McMurdo research station. Bubbles inside the ice are tiny windows into Earth's former atmosphere. Gases such as carbon dioxide and methane were trapped and preserved inside the bubbles when snow fell in the past.

Though the ice core doesn't capture a continuous climate record, the "time machine" does offer the oldest picture yet of Earth's bygone climate from Antarctic ice, researchers said.

The timeworn ice suggests a strong link between carbon dioxide levels and glacial cycles for the past million years. In the oldest ice, levels of the greenhouse gas were about 30 parts per million (ppm) higher, at most, than more recent measurements from between 800,000 to 450,000 years ago, according to the findings, reported today (May 11) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Parts per million denotes the volume of a gas in the air; in this case, for every 1 million air molecules, 300 are carbon dioxide.

The new findings could help scientists tackle a big question in climate science. About 1 million years ago, Earth's ice ages would wax and wane on a roughly 40,000-year cycle, different than today. After around 800,000 years ago, the planet entered a cooler climate phase and the ice ages shifted to a 100,000-year cycle. Many researchers think lower carbon dioxide levels were a key player in the changeover. Directly measuring levels of the gas could reveal whether a drop in carbon dioxide triggered the flip.

"Gas bubbles are the gold standard for reconstructing climate," said lead study author John Higgins, a geochemist at Princeton University.

The ice analysis reveals there weren't any major swings in greenhouse gas levels while the planet was in its warmer phase, an interglacial period, before 800,000 years ago, the study reported. Also, for the past 1 million years, carbon dioxide levels never rose above about 300 ppm. (Carbon dioxide levels are currently at about 400 ppm and rising due to human activity, such as fossil fuel emissions.)

"In general, the variability is like what we've seen for the last 800,000 years, and this is not unexpected," Higgins told Live Science. "We're seeing a very strong correlation between carbon dioxide and glacial cycles that extends back a million years."

Higgins also said that levels of atmospheric methane were surprisingly low in the oldest ice, for reasons that are as yet unknown.

The study is only a first step in filling in the climate record during this critical shift in Earth's temperature. Because the ice is so old, the layers are no longer stacked like pancakes. Some layers are missing, so there is a gap of missing time reported in the study, between the oldest ice and the ice at the surface.

Read more at Discovery News

Space Station Could Get Laser Cannon to Destroy Orbital Debris

The International Space Station could one day get armed with a laser to shoot down orbiting debris, researchers say.

This concept could eventually lead to a laser-firing satellite that could get rid of a large percentage of the most troublesome space junk orbiting Earth, scientists added.

NASA researchers suggest that nearly 3,000 tons of space debris reside in low-Earth orbit, including derelict satellites, rocket bodies and parts and tiny bits of wreckage produced by collisions involving larger objects. Impacts from pieces of junk that are only the size of screws can still inflict catastrophic damage on satellites, since these projectiles can travel at speeds on the order of 22,370 mph (36,000 km/h).

The problem of space debris is growing as more satellites and spacecraft get sent into space. Moreover, large pieces of junk can generate lots of small fragments if they get hit, and those fragments can then go on to strike other objects in orbit for a chain reaction of destruction.

Most spacecraft, including the International Space Station, can withstand impacts from debris smaller than about 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) with adequate shielding. However, ground-based radar and computer models suggest that more than 700,000 pieces of debris larger than 0.4 inches now orbit Earth. Although items larger than 4 inches (10 cm) are big enough for astronomers to spot, debris between 0.4 and 4 inches (1 to 10 cm) in size is significantly more difficult to identify and dodge.

Now researchers suggest the Extreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO), scheduled to be installed on Japan’s module on the space station in 2017, could help the orbiting complex detect dangerous debris. They add that a powerful laser under development could then help shoot down this space garbage.

“The EUSO telescope, which was originally designed to detect cosmic rays, could also be put to use for this useful project,” study lead author Toshikazu Ebisuzaki, an astrophysicist and chief scientist at the RIKEN (Rikagaku Kenky?sho) Computational Astrophysics Laboratory in Wako, Japan, told

EUSO was originally developed to detect ultraviolet light produced by ultrahigh-energy cosmic raysas they enter the atmosphere at night. The scientists reasoned that its wide range of view and powerful optics could also help it detect high-speed debris near the International Space Station.

Once EUSO detects incoming space junk, the researchers suggest, a Coherent Amplification Network (CAN) laser can then blast the debris. The CAN laser consists of many small lasers working together to generate a single powerful beam. This device is currently under development to drive particles at high speeds in atom smashers.

The scientists would use the laser to vaporize a thin film of matter off the surface of debris. The resulting high-speed plasma would act like a rocket plume, nudging the junk downward, and away from the space station to eventually burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

A full-scale version of their system would be armed with a 100,000-watt ultraviolet CAN laser that can fire 10,000 pulses per second, each lasting one-tenth of one-billionth of a second. The researchers say this system could blast debris from a range of about 60 miles (100 kilometers), and the laser would need about 17 lbs. (8 kilograms) of lithium-ion batteries.

The scientists plan to deploy a small proof-of-concept version of their system at the International Space Station. This would consist of a miniature version of EUSO and a prototype 10-watt ultraviolet CAN laser firing 100 pulses per second. A RIKEN spokesman noted that the mini-EUSO telescope has been accepted as a project on the International Space Station and could perhaps go up in 2017 or 2018, but the laser system is still a concept that has not been built.

If the proof-of-concept and full-scale versions of this system are successful, the researchers suggest developing a satellite devoted solely to blasting space debris. They suggest the satellite should assume an orbit that takes it over both of Earth’s poles, allowing it to shoot down debris all over the planet, and be armed with a 500,000-watt ultraviolet CAN laser that can fire 50,000 pulses per second. They estimate it could blast one piece of debris every five minutes, or 100,000 pieces of space junk each year.

Most space debris is concentrated at an altitude of nearly 500 miles (800 km). The researchers suggest that a satellite dedicated to blasting debris could start from an orbit of 620 miles (1,000 km) and gradually spiral downward at a rate of 6 miles (10 km) per month. After 50 months, it would have removed most of the most troublesome debris orbiting between 310 and 620 miles (500 and 1,000 km).

Read more at Discovery News

May 17, 2015

Long Lost Egyptian Temple Found

Remains of the long lost temple of Kheny have been unearthed at Gebel el Silsila, north of Aswan, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities announced today.

Revealing the foundations and blockwork of the temple, the ruins are one of the few remnants of the settlement of Kheny or Khenu, which is the ancient Egyptian name — meaning “Rowing Place” — for Gebel el-Silsila.

The site, located on both banks of the Nile between Edfu and Kom Ombo, was extensively used as a quarry from the New Kingdom until Roman times.

“We know that huge quantities of sandstone for temple building were quarried there,” Lund University archaeologist Maria Nilsson, director of the Gebel el Silsila Survey Project, told Discovery News.

Indeed, virtually all of Egypt’s great temples, including those at Karnak and Luxor, were built with sandstone from Gebel el Silsila.

“Now this finding changes the history of the site, and it firmly establishes Gebel el Silsila as not only a quarry, but also a sacred location,” she added.

While cult activities at the site were mainly associated with the Nile and its inundation, the principal deity was Sobek, the god of crocodiles who controlled the waters.

“At the moment we do not know to whom the temple was dedicated,” Nilsson said.

“We believe it marked the beginning of the east bank quarries. We hope further archaeological work and research will reveal more,” she added.

Nilsson and associate director John Ward have been working at Gebel el-Silsila since 2012, unearthing cartouches for Amenhotep III and Ramses II as well as hundreds of rock inscriptions.

The temple remains were recorded somewhere between 1906 and 1925 and described as a destroyed Ramesside temple in a map published by German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt in 1934. The temple was then forgotten.

Nilsson and John Ward located its remains by studying Borchardt’s rudimentary map along with an unpublished plan drawing by Egyptologist Peter Lacovara, curator at the M. C. Carlos Museum in Emory University.

They found foundations measuring approximately 115 feet by 60 feet. Blockwork included four visible dressed floor levels, column bases, inner and outer walls.

While obvious marks on the ground refer to five columns bases in the west side of the building, two painted sandstone fragments featuring the Egyptian star and sky indicate the temple boasted a starred ceiling.

According to Nilsson and Ward, the remains reveal evidence for at least four chronological periods, spanning about 1500 years, from the reigns of Thutmosis/Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III, Ramses II to Roman times.

“The oldest building phase of the temple was made up by limestone, which is unique within a sandstone quarry, and may signify the official changeover from limestone construction to sandstone,” Nilsson said.

The archaeologists unearthed hundreds of decorated and painted blockwork, and over 300 decorated limestone fragments which showed iconography characteristic to the early Thutmosid period (1500-1450 BC). Hieroglyphic text mentioned the name of the site, Kheny.

“The limestone scenes had been destroyed during antiquity to be reused as foundation filling together with sand and pebbles for a later construction phase. A square decorated limestone base was still intact,” Nilsson said.

Read more at Discovery News

Ecuador Breaks Guinness Reforestation Record

Ecuador broke a world record for reforestation Saturday, as thousands of people pitched in to plant 647,250 trees of more than 200 species, President Rafael Correa said.

"I have just been informed that we have broken the Guinness record for reforestation," the president said in his weekly address.

Correa said the seedlings were planted all over Ecuador, which boasts varied geography from its Pacific coast, high Andean peaks and low Amazon basin areas.

Environment Minister Lorena Tapia said on Twitter that 44,883 people planted the trees on more than 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) of land.

Guinness Records adjudicator Carlos Martinez, said hundreds of varieties were planted as part of the mass reforestation effort.

"There is no record in history of similar events involving over 150 species," he told AFP.

Some of the volunteers, who planted trees in more than 150 spots across Ecuador, said while they were proud of the record, they wouldn't mind seeing it broken again.

"I wish everyone would beat this record," said government employee Ricardo Quiroga, who volunteered as a tree planter in Catequilla.

"I want to beat it once a month so the planet will be full of trees in very little time, which is what we need."

The Philippines holds the record for the most trees planted in an hour, with 3.2 million seedlings sown last September as part of a national forestation program.

Read more at Discovery News