Jul 25, 2015

Mammoths Died Out Because of Sudden Climate Change

The mighty megafauna of the last ice age, including the wooly mammoths, short-faced bears and cave lions, largely went extinct because of rapid climate-warming events, a new study finds.

During the unstable climate of the Late Pleistocene, about 60,000 to 12,000 years ago, abrupt climate spikes, called interstadials, increased temperatures between 7 and 29 degrees Fahrenheit (4 and 16 degrees Celsius) in a matter of decades. Large animals likely found it difficult to survive in these hot conditions, possibly because of the effects it had on their habitats and prey, the researchers said.

Interstadials “are known to have caused dramatic shifts in global rainfall and vegetation patterns,” the study’s first author Alan Cooper, director for the Australian Center for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide in Australia, said in a statement emailed to Live Science.

Temperature drops during the Late Pleistocene showed no association with animal extinctions, Cooper said. Instead, only the hot interstadial periods were associated with the large die-offs that hit populations (local events) and entire species of animals (global events), he said.

Ancient humans also played a role in the megafaunal extinction, albeit a smaller one, he said. By disrupting the animals’ environments, human societies and hunting parties likely made it harder for megafauna to migrate to new areas and to refill areas once populated by animals that had gone extinct, he said.

Extinction analysis

The study is the latest in a long string of research examining what caused megafauna, or animals weighing more than 99 pounds (45 kilograms), to die off during the Late Pleistocene.

George Cuvier, the French paleontologist who first recognized the mammoth and the giant ground sloth, started the speculation in 1796 when he suggested that giant biblical floods were to blame for the animals’ demise. The extinctions also baffled Charles Darwin after he encountered megafaunal remains in South America.

Since then, various studies have placed the bulk of responsibility on ice age humans, temperature swings and a perfect storm of events.

However, advances in examining ancient DNA and ancient climate allowed Cooper and his colleagues to get to the bottom of the issue.

They examined DNA from dozens of megafaunal species that lived during the Late Pleistocene, combing through more than 50,000 years of DNA records for extinction events. The ancient DNA not only told them about global extinction events, but also local population turnovers, which occur when a group of animals dies and another population of animals moves in to replace them.

They then compared the data on megafauna extinction with detailed records of severe climate events, which they gathered from Greenland ice cores and the sedimentary record of the Cariaco Basin off Venezuela.

“By combining these two records, we can place the climate and radiocarbon dating data on the same timescale, thereby allowing us to precisely align the dated fossils against climate,” Cooper said. “The high-resolution view we gained through this approach clearly showed a strong relationship between warming events and megafaunal extinctions.”

The findings also show that extinction events were staggered over time and space, likely because the interstadial warming events had different effects on different regions, Cooper said.

Modern connections

Earth’s climate is much more stable today than it was during the Late Pleistocene, making the world’s current warming trends a “major concern,” the researchers said.

“In many ways, the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and resulting warming effects are expected to have a similar rate of change to the onset of past interstadials, heralding another major phase of large mammal extinctions,” Cooper said.

In addition, humans have disrupted the habitats and surrounding areas of many wild animals, making it challenging for species to migrate or shift ranges to places where they would be better adapted to deal with climate change, he said.

Other researchers called the new study an important one.

It shows “that the extinction and population turnover of many megafauna was associated with rapid warming periods, rather than the last glacial maximum [when the ice sheets reached their maximum during the last glacial period] or Younger Dryas [a sudden, cold spell that happened when the Earth was starting to warm] as has previously been suggested,” said Eline Lorenzen, an assistant professor of paleogenetics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Read more at Discovery News

Hazy Atmosphere Reveals Pluto's Red Secret

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has given scientists their first hint about why Pluto has a reddish hue.

Looking back at Pluto seven hours after its historic July 14 flyby, New Horizons captured a striking view of the distant world backlit by the sun. Aesthetics aside, the image, which was released Friday, shows a surprisingly diffuse and structured layer of haze in Pluto’s atmosphere rising more than 100 miles off the surface -- five times higher than predicted by computer models.

Scientists believe methane in the atmosphere is being chemically processed by solar ultraviolet radiation, leading to the production of reddish colored hydrocarbons known as tholins that end up on Pluto’s surface.

“We think that is how Pluto’s surface got its reddish hue,” New Horizons scientist Michael Summers, with George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., told reporters during a teleconferenced press briefing.

Scientists don’t understand why Pluto’s skies are hazy and why the particles extend so far from the surface of the frozen world.

“It’s a mystery,” Summers said.

New Horizons also looked for an atmosphere on Charon, Pluto’s primary moon, but found none, a preliminary assessment shows.

“Charon has much less atmosphere than Pluto, if any. We don’t yet have the full spectral data set. We won’t have that until September,” said New Horizons lead scientist Alan Stern, with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

Using radio waves blasted from NASA’s Deep Space Network, New Horizons was able to measure Pluto’s atmospheric pressure. At the surface, atmosphere pressure, which is a measure of the overall weight or mass of the atmosphere, turned out to be far less than it was just two years ago.

Pluto reached the closest point to the sun in its 248-year long orbit in 1989. Scientists suspect the atmosphere could be freezing out as Pluto careens back out into the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune.

Newly released close-ups of Pluto’s surface showed additional signs of geologically recent activity, including nitrogen ice flows.

“You can actually see the ice going around what look to be barrier islands,” said New Horizons scientist William McKinnon, with Washington University in St. Louis.

In the northern region of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum, swirl-shaped patterns of light and dark suggest that a surface layer of exotic ices has flowed around obstacles and into depressions, much like glaciers on Earth.
The ice flows are located in a Texas-sized piece of real estate, known as Sputnik Planum and located in the western side of Pluto’s heart-shaped bright region.

“We’ve only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars,” John Spencer, with the Southwest Research Institute, added in a statement.

Initial analysis of materials on the surface of Sputnik Planum show it is flush with nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 24, 2015

Assembly of galaxies in the early universe witnessed for the first time

When the first galaxies started to form a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, the Universe was full of a fog of hydrogen gas. But as more and more brilliant sources -- both stars and quasars powered by huge black holes -- started to shine they cleared away the mist and made the Universe transparent to ultraviolet light [1]. Astronomers call this the epoch of reionisation, but little is known about these first galaxies, and up to now they have just been seen as very faint blobs. But now new observations using the power of ALMA are starting to change this.

A team of astronomers led by Roberto Maiolino (Cavendish Laboratory and Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge , United Kingdom) trained ALMA on galaxies that were known to be seen only about 800 million years after the Big Bang [2]. The astronomers were not looking for the light from stars, but instead for the faint glow of ionised carbon [3] coming from the clouds of gas from which the stars were forming. They wanted to study the interaction between a young generation of stars and the cold clumps that were assembling into these first galaxies.

They were also not looking for the extremely brilliant rare objects -- such as quasars and galaxies with very high rates of star formation -- that had been seen up to now. Instead they concentrated on rather less dramatic, but much more common, galaxies that reionised the Universe and went on to turn into the bulk of the galaxies that we see around us now.

From one of the galaxies -- given the label BDF 3299 -- ALMA could pick up a faint but clear signal from the glowing carbon. However, this glow wasn't coming from the centre of the galaxy, but rather from one side.

Co-author Andrea Ferrara (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy) explains the significance of the new findings: "This is the most distant detection ever of this kind of emission from a 'normal' galaxy, seen less than one billion years after the Big Bang. It gives us the opportunity to watch the build-up of the first galaxies. For the first time we are seeing early galaxies not merely as tiny blobs, but as objects with internal structure!"

The astronomers think that the off-centre location of the glow is because the central clouds are being disrupted by the harsh environment created by the newly formed stars -- both their intense radiation and the effects of supernova explosions -- while the carbon glow is tracing fresh cold gas that is being accreted from the intergalactic medium.

By combining the new ALMA observations with computer simulations, it has been possible to understand in detail key processes occurring within the first galaxies. The effects of the radiation from stars, the survival of molecular clouds, the escape of ionising radiation and the complex structure of the interstellar medium can now be calculated and compared with observation. BDF 3299 is likely to be a typical example of the galaxies responsible for reionisation.

"We have been trying to understand the interstellar medium and the formation of the reionisation sources for many years. Finally to be able to test predictions and hypotheses on real data from ALMA is an exciting moment and opens up a new set of questions.This type of observation will clarify many of the thorny problems we have with the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the Universe," adds Andrea Ferrara.

Read more at Science Daily

Why Can't We Forecast Night Thunderstorms Better?

If you live in the middle of the country, you've probably woken to booming thunder and flashing lightning at least once this summer. If it seems like thunderstorms happen more at night, it's because they do.

What scientists are just beginning to figure out, though, is why. This summer, a major government-sponsored field project called PECAN (Plains Elevated Convection At Night) has gathered data that researchers say will lead to breakthroughs in understanding nighttime storms.

"We already know we have the data we need. We're going to be able to analyze the data and map windfields and temperature and moisture, which will allow us to understand it to give forecasters a much better idea," said Conrad Ziegler, a research meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) and the study's principal scientist.

Forecasters can more accurately predict what storms will do in the daytime, largely because the air near the earth's surface in the daytime is fairly representative of what's above it, allowing surface-based measurements such as radar to predict when a storm's going to stir up.

"When the sun goes down it gets interesting," Ziegler said.

During the day, the sun heats the ground and the warm air rises and mixes with the air above it. But when the sun goes down, all bets are off. As the surface air cools, it doesn't mix much, if at all, with the air above it, rendering surface measurements unreliable at predicting what's going on in the atmosphere.

For decades, mobile radar, ground-based weather stations, and weather balloons (deployed at a rate of once an hour at the most) have been used to observe storm systems. But in order to fully understand how the environment might affect the storm after sundown, more frequent readings are needed at higher points in the lower atmosphere.

At the moment, forecasters can see systems developing, but "the challenge is knowing when they're going to become severe with hail or strong winds or a tornado," said NSSL scientist Dave Turner, who was in charge of deploying the equipment used in PECAN. "We don't understand nighttime storms well enough, so computers don't model it. I don't think we have the right instrumentation."

For the PECAN study, scientists and graduate students spent six weeks this summer using state-of-the-art equipment in order to capture as much data from as many storms as possible, focusing on large systems of nighttime storms called Mesoscale Convective Systems that often produce severe weather. Turner set up 10 Infrared and microwave devices that provided temperature, humidity, and wind profiles about every five minutes, including four that could be moved around.

"We certainly saw many examples of a rapidly evolving atmosphere," he said, noting that they went on over 30 storm-tracking missions.

In many cases, the storms followed the pattern the scientists and students predicted, but in some cases what happened "wasn't anywhere close" to what they had expected, Turner said.

Read more at Discovery News

Rotting Fungus Creates Beautiful, Glistening 'Hair Ice'

A century-long puzzle over how delicate strands of glistening ice burst through rotting tree branches, like heads of hair, is closer to being solved.

The strands, called “hair ice,” exist only when cold-tolerant fungi are present, and scientists now understand how the fungi can stimulate ice growth.

Alfred Wegener, famous for his continental drift theory, first identified and studied hair ice in 1918. At the time, he suspected the ice formation was linked to the presence of mycelium — the roots of a fungus that live on rotting wood and absorb nutrients, forming a pale, white, cobweb-like coating. However, it wasn’t until about 90 years later that researchers found evidence that the fungal roots were vital precursors to hair ice. After treating mycelium-covered wood with a fungicide or dipping it in scalding water, hair ice didn’t grow, they found.

“The same amount of ice is produced on wood with or without fungal activity, but without this activity, the ice forms a crustlike structure,” Christian Mätzler, a co-author of the study and professor emeritus at the Institute of Applied Physics at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said in a statement.

The fungus helps the ice grow into thin hairs with diameters of just 0.01 millimeters (0.0004 inches), and helps to keep the strands in this shape over several hours at temperatures close to 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), he added.

Researchers blamed the century-long delayed explanation for how hair ice grows on its ephemeral nature and northern range — the glimmering threads grow predominately at latitudes between 45 and 55 degrees north through countries including Canada, France, Germany, India, Ireland, the Netherlands, Russia, Scotland, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States and Wales.

“Hair ice grows mostly during the night and melts again when the sun rises,” said Gisela Preuß, a biologist at the Wiedtal-Gymnasium in Neustadt, Germany, who captured some of the hair-ice photos for the new study. “It’s invisible in the snow and inconspicuous in hoarfrost.”

Hunting for hair ice

“When we saw hair ice for the first time on a forest walk, we were surprised by its beauty,” Mätzler said. Although the hair ice typically melts the same day it forms, if the temperature stays below the freezing point and the air is humid, “it can last longer, but then it fades away,” Preuß told Live Science in an email.

In the new study, Preuß examined samples of dead wood that bore hair ice from the winters of 2012, 2013 and 2014 in forests near Brachbach in western Germany. She looked at the wood pieces under a microscope and found 11 different species of fungi. One species — Exidiopsis effuse — appeared in every sample.

“Similar ice formations are known from soil and dead stalks of some plants, but up to now, there is no hint the presence of a fungus in these cases,” Preuß said.

From rotting wood to hair ice

The researchers also analyzed the melted hair ice and found fragments of the organic compounds lignin and tannin. Lignin, which is found in vascular plants including land plants like mosses and conifers, makes up about 20 to 30 percent of dry wood and helps give wood its hardness and resistance to rotting.Tannin also occurs widely in vascular plants, and protect plants from herbivories, who dislike its astringent taste.

However, certain fungi and bacteria can secrete the enzyme lignase and break down the lignin, causing rot with moist, soft and spongy bark that looks white or yellow. White rot can enhance the fungi’s effects — the brightness of hair ice on wood increases as the wood decomposes, the researchers found, because the decomposed wood is brighter.

Fungus also acts as a hairspray by shaping the fragile ice hairs and keeping the strands in place, while lignin likely prevents recrystallization, which is the conversion of small ice crystals to bigger ones.

The hair ice is also influenced by the structure of the wood from which it radiates, the new study revealed. Tufts can grow outward from a branch, forming a center part much like human hair and can extend straight or curl back toward the branch. The latter radial growth pattern is more common and seems to be an extension of the natural rays that radiate in wood. All the strands grow 10,000 times longer than they are thick.

The researchers also found that the root of the hair ice — called a crystallization nucleus — is likely composed of lignin and tannin. When the air temperature drops sufficiently, water freezes into crystallization nuclei on the wood. Then, the nuclei create a passage for water to seep out of the pores of the wood and extend into ice hairs.

Read more at Discovery News

The Barnacle That Invades Crabs in a Not OK Way

The most miserable rainbow on Earth. That's a hermit crab with a rhizocephalan parasite, which comes in a lovely shade of yellow.
Crabs get a bad rap. After all, people who are into cheerfulness call me “crabby” all the time. But let’s cut them some slack (the crabs, not the cheerful people—forget them), because a lot of these critters could be going through some stuff. And by stuff I mean what has to be one of the most disturbing and wildly complex parasitizations in the animal kingdom.

So the rhizocephalans are these species of barnacle, and unlike most barnacles, they aren’t content living life stuck to rocks. Indeed, they look nothing like barnacles. Well, they start out as regular barnacle-ish larvae, shaped like an oval, but that’s where the similarities end. Instead of developing into your classical shelled variety, they invade the bodies of various crab species. And not as mere tiny hitchhikers: After penetrating a crab’s shell, a rhizocephalan grows as meandering roots throughout its victim’s flesh, sometimes reaching nearly every part of its body.

And then things start getting weird.

That mass on the lower bit of the crab’s abdomen is a parasitic barnacle. The other bits are its legs and claws, but you probably already knew that.
Like a Tree, Only It Grows Inside You and Instead of Drinking Water It Drinks Your Bodily Fluids

Life for a rhizo begins as an aforementioned larva, which is tasked with the seemingly impossible mission of not only finding the right species of crab (they tend to be able to infect just one type—that is, they’re highly “host-specific”), but somehow landing on it in the vastness of the sea. Rhizo babies appear in huge numbers, though, so by pure chance a few are bound to find their target. The rest—well, points for trying.

When one lands on a crab, it makes its way to one of the host’s many sensory hairs, known as setae, where the carapace is the weakest. Here the rhizo secretes a cement to anchor itself, just as a typical barnacle would. Next “it forms a so-called stylet, which is a hollow structure,” says Henrik Glenner of Norway’s University of Bergen. “It’s almost arrow-shaped, and with this it penetrates the cuticle of the host.”

A rhizo larva in its days of relative innocence. Ah, to be young again and not torturing crabs.
With this syringe, the rhizo injects cells of itself into the crab’s hemolymph, the invertebrate equivalent of blood. And you know how bad a sinus infection feels? Well, the rhizo ends up in the hemolymph sinuses, much to the chagrin of the crab. It’s here where it starts to grow as roots, which have a covering that somehow protects them from a potential immune response as they work their way through the host. They’ll soak up massive amounts of nutrients from the crab, and the roots can end up pretty much anywhere, even in the claws.

All the while, the crab is still miraculously growing, periodically shedding its exoskeleton. But eventually it stops, likely because the rhizo is appropriating too much of its nutrients. It’s at this point that the parasite enters its next stage: sexy time.

The Merits of Being Pretty Much Just a Testicle

Because the crab is no longer molting its exoskeleton away, the rhizo can now extend itself out of the host, forming a mass on the crab’s abdomen. “The funny thing about this is that this sac-like structure, the externa, is situated exactly where an adult female crab would have its egg mass,” says Glenner. “And we don’t know what the mechanism is, but the host considers the parasite as a part of itself.” The crab even takes care to groom and ventilate the sac, full of the rhizo’s eggs. (If the rhizo has infected a male crab, the host will actually start transforming morphologically, widening its abdomen to more closely resemble a female. This serves as better protection for the sac: If it grows on a wider abdomen, it won’t overflow past the edge of the carapace.)

All the more incredible, the rhizo is pulling this all off without a brain of its own and only the remnants of a nervous system. And the commandeering doesn’t end at the crab caring for the parasite. Somehow, the rhizo directs the crab away from the general crustacean population into deeper waters, thus avoiding feeding competition with healthy crabs. Non-parasitized gravid (that is, preggers) females do this with them, since they’ll find better protection from their enemies in the depths.

Another parasitized crab. It too has “legs.”
Now, it’s only female rhizos that infect crabs. Dwarf males look much like the larval form, and must somehow find not only a specific species of crab, but a specific species of crab that’s been invaded by a female. And that female has to be a virgin. The search, as you might expect, can be rather frustrating.

But should a male find a virgin female, he inserts himself into receptacles in her sac-like structure. “There the male changes form completely and becomes just a mass of cells,” says Glenner. “And actually it becomes a functional testicle, nothing more, and it’s nursed by the female. Then they are united for life.” Again and again, the male produces sperm to fertilize her eggs.

The eggs will hatch right inside the female, and when she’s ready to release the larvae, she gets an assist from her host. Your regular unparasitized female crabs will raise themselves up and shake their abdomens to disperse their eggs, and so too do infected crabs shimmy as the rhizo pumps out its larvae, boosting them into the water column. And off they go to infect still more crabs.

As a final insult, during all of this the crab itself cannot reproduce, for the rhizo has sterilized it. A lot of parasites do this—energy that the host isn’t putting toward reproduction can instead go to the parasite. The rhizo may pull this off with some kind of chemical, or it may just be a matter of exhaustion for the crab. Remember that all this time the parasite has been sapping it of nutrients, so it could be that the crab has gone into dire survival mode, and reproduction is the first thing that goes.

Read more at Wired Science

Jul 23, 2015

Climate Change, Human Hunger Erased Ice Age Animals

Woolly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, giant sloths and other large animals from the last Ice Age became extinct due to rapid climate change and human-related causes, finds new research.

The abrupt climate warming that had such a negative impact on these animals is similar to the rapid man-made climate change that’s occurring today, according to the study, published in the journal Science.

“This abrupt warming had a profound impact on climate that caused marked shifts in global rainfall and vegetation patterns,” co-author Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide and the Australian Center for Ancient DNA said in a press release.

He continued, “Even without the presence of humans we saw mass extinctions. When you add the modern addition of human pressures and fragmenting of the environment to the rapid changes brought by global warming, it raises serious concerns about the future of our environment.”

In short, many animals today could soon go the way of mammoths. That march to extinction already seems to be underway for many large mammals, such as the Javan rhino and the Cross River gorilla, which have experienced worrisome population drops over the past recent decades.

As for the prehistoric animals, which were the mega fauna of their time, the researchers compared data on these large animals’ DNA with radiocarbon measurements covering the past 56,000 years. Previously, when looking at the DNA information alone, the scientists detected a pattern. It showed that large species started to quickly bite the proverbial dust around 10,000–11,000 years ago.

At first they thought the extinctions were related to intense cold snaps. Two breakthroughs changed that view. First, the scientists were able to obtain more DNA from fossils in museum specimen collections. Second, carbon dating and understanding of temperature records have vastly improved over the years, permitting better resolution through time.

Read more at Discovery News

Mounting Threat to Galapagos From 'El Nino'

The Galapagos Islands, celebrated for their breathtaking biodiversity, could face a major threat from "El Nino," the weather system known to wreak havoc every few years.

The archipelago sustains a vast variety of plant and animal life, and has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But the fragile Galapagos ecosystem may prove no match for the strong winds, heavy rains and warmer than usual ocean currents that accompany El Nino.

The dangers posed by those climatic changes are particularly acute for marine iguanas -- reptiles found only on the Galapagos -- which live on land but get their food from the ocean.

"Marine iguanas feed only on algae," Eduardo Espinoza, 46, director of marine research at Galapagos National Park, explained to AFP.

"During times of El Nino, these algae may be scarce and many begin to die," Espinoza said.

"El Nino" refers to the abnormal warming of surface waters in the tropical sections of the Pacific Ocean every three to five years.

Climatologists began observing the most recent ElNino several months ago, and fear that because of global warming, the phenomenon will hit the Galapagos with increasing frequency and greater destructive potential in coming years.

Read more at Discovery News

Kepler Discovers Earth's Older Sister

NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found the closest match yet to a world that is similarly sized to Earth and circling a sun-like star at the right distance for liquid surface water, a condition believed to be necessary for life, scientists said Thursday.

The newly found world, called Kepler-452b, is located about 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus.

“In my mind, this is the closet thing we have to another planet like the Earth,” Jon Jenkins, head of Kepler data analysis at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., told reporters on a conference call Thursday.

Kepler-452b is about 60 percent wider than Earth and estimated to have five times the mass, making it most likely a rocky world. It circles a G-type star very much like the sun, but estimated to be closer to 6 billion years old, compared to the 4.6-billion-year age of the solar system.

“That’s a considerable opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet,” Jenkins said.

“It’s simply awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star,” Jenkins said. “That’s considerable time and opportunity for life to arise somewhere on its surface, or in its oceans, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”

Kepler-452b orbits its parent star every 385 days, so it is located just about 5 percent farther away from the star than Earth circles the sun. The star’s age means it’s about 10 percent bigger and 20 percent brighter than the sun, Jenkins said.

If Kepler-452b is rocky, scientists expect it would be about five times more massive than Earth and twice Earth’s surface gravity. It would have a thicker, cloudier atmosphere and most likely active volcanoes, Jenkins added.

Read more at Discovery News

Adventure Science Enters the Space Age

Science is an intellectual adventure. Sometimes it is also a physical adventure.

The recent flyby of Pluto and its moon Charon by NASA’s New Horizons mission, for example, has reconnoitered new reaches of space for science, and it has expanded our knowledge of the outer solar system. The mission will continue through the Kuiper Belt, investigating a realm far from immediate human experience.

Yet when some adventurous soul does travel as far as Pluto, perhaps to set a record, or merely for bragging rights, it will be a day far more memorable -- and perhaps more scientifically valuable -- than New Horizon’s feat.

Sometimes adventures not intended as anything more than personal excitement or narrow competition have resulted in surprising discoveries. In earlier eras, adventure was often necessary to advance science. Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole in 1909 and Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole in 1911 exemplify the spirit of adventure science, but they had many predecessors.

Early modern mariners literally sailed off the map, and their stories are now an essential piece of human culture and history. Later, the French Geodesic Mission to the equator of 1735-1739 was recounted in the 1748 book Relación histórica del viaje a la América meridional by Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, which is as much about the adventure as about the science of the expedition.

The accounts of the French Geodesic Mission partly inspired Alexander von Humboldt’s 1799-1804 travels in South America. Humboldt himself became one of the most famous Europeans on the 19th century and inspired the academic field of biogeography. Darwin’s years on board the Beagle opened his eyes to the diversity of life, and continued to serve as an inspiration for decades after his return. We’re told his later theories even had some impact on the scientific community.

Now the Earth has been largely explored, and adventures in exploration become increasingly more contrived as the world is known in increasingly fine detail. The adventure science of Humboldt, Darwin, Peary, and Amundsen no longer holds its esteemed position either in popular imagination or in serious science.

Wealthy, idiosyncratic elites like James Cameron still spark occasional headlines, yet the era is gone in which adventurers could make a disproportionate contribution to science by going where no human being had previously set foot, or where no trained scientific observer had recorded their experiences. Researchers willing to sleep in the rough and forego the comforts of home still make discoveries in Earth’s jungles, deserts, deeps and tundras, yet their work remains bound to restrictive grants and professionalized disciplines.

Not only has the world been explored, but the conditions of science have changed. “Big” science now makes headlines. Scientific research papers in fields like particle physics and genetics might boast lists of up to three thousand co-authors or more. The scientific instruments necessary to conduct cutting edge experiments in particle physics, for instance, cost billions of dollars and take years or decades for construction. Once constructed, they must be maintained and updated at further expense.

Thomas Edison was among the first to demonstrate the power of this kind of systematic research, yet such expenses can only be borne by large, well-financed organizations. This kind of institutionalization comes with a battery of social as well as scientific constraints. In this context, the individual (to say nothing of the adventurer) experiences little scope for innovation or eureka moments.

The great age of adventure science has given way to an age of big science, but there may yet be a role for adventure science in the future. Adventure science is a considerable departure from “big science,” and the renewal of adventure science in our future will mean renewed opportunities for individuals to contribute to science in a way that individuals cannot contribute today.

Once the costs of human spaceflight are reduced to a point that spaceflight can become routine, the greater part of humanity will continue to prefer the comforts of Earth, but some individuals, drawn by a need to explore, will strike out into the cosmos. What they learn may accrue to us all. A single geologist walking the surface of Mars with a shovel and a rock hammer could make discoveries of great significance.

The space age of adventure science will not remake civilization. We will not, for example, go into space in order to transmit energy down to Earth. By the time we have a robust and routine presence in space we will already have solved our energy problems on Earth. The terrestrial power grid is already in the midst of being reconfigured for sustainability, and increasingly sophisticated technology will allow us to continue to live well while no longer fouling our own nest (one of the authors of the present article has argued this position in The Conversion of the Terrestrial Power Grid and The Human Future in Space).

And we will not go into space in order to relieve the population pressure on Earth. Buckminster Fuller once observed that, “The entire population of the earth could live compactly on a properly designed Haiti and comfortably on the British Isles.” We are not yet at the point of a global Hong Kong, yet urbanization continues along with improved efficiencies that allow greater densities to live in comfort. And increasing these population destinies will not continue indefinitely. If demographics is destiny, our destiny today is likely that of peak population at some time in the coming century, followed by demographic contraction.

Read more at Discovery News

Second Mountain Range Rises From the Heart of Pluto

Newly released images taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show a second range of mountains in Pluto’s heart-shaped, bright region, named Tombaugh Regio, or Tombaugh Region, after Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh.

The peaks are estimated to be one-half mile to one mile high, roughly the same height as the Appalachian Mountains in the United States. The first close-up images of Pluto turned up mountains towering about 2 miles above the surface. The second group of mountains  is about 65 miles northwest of the previously discovered range and situated between bright, icy plains and a dark heavily cratered region.

“There’s a complex interaction going on between the bright and the dark materials that we’re still trying to understand,” geologist Jeff Moore, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said in a statement.

The bright region, known as Sputnik Planum, is relatively free of craters, indicating a surface that is as young as about 100 million years old. The darker, cratered areas likely date back billions of years.

The image was taken by New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 as the spacecraft passed 48,000 miles from Pluto.  At that distance, features as small as a half-mile are visible on Pluto’s surface. The picture was relayed back to Earth on July 20.

From Discovery News

Jul 22, 2015

World's Oldest Koran Fragments Found in U.K.

Fragments of what could be the world’s oldest Koran have been found in an English library after laying unrecognized for nearly a century.

The finding “is news to rejoice Muslim hearts,” Muhammad Isa Waley, lead curator for Persian and Turkish manuscripts at the British Library, said.

Written with ink in a surprisingly clear early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi, the manuscript consists of two parchment leaves and is part of the Mingana Collection, held in the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library.

The collection is made up of over 3,000 Middle Eastern manuscripts in over 20 languages and was the property of Alphonse Mingana (1878-1937), a Chaldean priest and historian. He built up his collection in the 1920s, when he embarked on three trips to the Middle East to purchase manuscripts.

The collection was later acquired “to raise the status of Birmingham as a center for religious studies and attract prominent theological scholars,” the University of Birmingham said in a statement.

For years the manuscript had been bound with leaves of a similar Koran manuscript, which is datable to the late seventh century.

The importance of the two parchment leaves was first noticed by Alba Fedeli during her Ph.D. research, prompting a radiocarbon dating test.

The results were “exciting,” said Susan Worrall, the university’s director of special collections.

The tests, carried out by the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, dated the parchment on which the text is written to between 568 and 645 A.D. with 95.4 percent accuracy. The dating places the leaves close to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, who is generally thought to have lived between 570 and 632 A.D.

“They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam,” David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, said in a statement.

He noted that, according to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Koran between 610 and 632 A.D., the year of his death.

“At this time, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today. Instead, the revelations were preserved in ‘the memories of men.’ Parts of it had also been written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels,” Thomas said.

Read more at Discovery News

Cracked Bones Reveal Cannibalism by Doomed Arctic Explorers

An ill-fated 19th-century expedition that became trapped in the Canadian Arctic ended in a particularly gruesome type of cannibalism, new research suggests.

The gory end was faced by the British navy on the Franklin expedition, the doomed 1845 voyage to discover a sea route through the Canadian Arctic to the Orient.

Though scientists had long known that the shipmen likely resorted to cannibalism to survive, the new study reveals the true extremes the crew went to. Not only did the starving explorers cut flesh off the bones of their fallen comrades, they also cracked open the bones to suck out the marrow.

Still, the new finds leave one huge question unanswered: What caused the trip to go so horribly wrong in the first place?

On paper, the high-profile Arctic voyage looked like a plum gig. The famous Sir John Franklin, who had helmed two other Arctic explorations, led the team. The two ships, called the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, were sturdy and well provisioned, with between five and seven years of food stowed onboard. In addition, other Arctic expeditions had gone off without major problems.

"Being a polar explorer in the 19th century British Navy was a surprisingly safe occupation. You'd expect a 1 percent mortality rate," said study author Simon Mays, an archaeologist with Historic England, an organization of the British government that preserves historic buildings, monuments and sites.

The first year of the voyage, 1845, was a low ice year, and the 129-man expedition made it past Baffin Bay, near Greenland, and then threaded its way between islands in the Canadian Archipelago, looking for a Northwest Passage. Once the ocean froze, the ships were stuck for the winter, just off one of the islands, called King William Island. (The crew anticipated being frozen in for a few winters, which was why they had provisioned the ships so heavily, Mays said).

Unfortunately, the next few summers had heavy sea ice, so the ships remained stuck. The last communication from the British navy men was a terse note dated April 25, 1848, which revealed that 24 men had already died before they left the ships.

Bafflingly, the crew abandoned their food-laden ships and decided to trek 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) to the nearest Hudson's Bay trading post, following the fish-rich Back River to safety.

The plan was foolhardy: There were just a few Arctic birds in the region, and the fishing was poor and required cutting through thick ice. Even the Inuit stayed away from the area because food was scarce, Mays said.

"You aren't going to feed a group that size by knocking holes in the ice," Mays told Live Science.

None of the crewmembers made it even a fifth of the way to the outpost, and for years, no one knew what had happened. Then in 1854, a Canadian mapmaker heard Inuit reports of cannibalism. Over the next 150 years, scientists found more and more remains from the crew and the original ships, and scientists found cut marks on many of the bones, suggesting that someone had cut flesh from the bones.

In the new study, which was published online June 18 in the Journal of Osteoarchaeology, Mays and his colleague Owen Beattie, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta in Canada, took a second look at 35 bones from two areas: Booth Point and Erebus Bay. The bones had signs of breakage and "pot polishing," which occurs when the ends of bones heated in boiling water rub against the cooking pot they are placed in. This typically occurs in the end stage of cannibalism, when starving people extract the marrow to eke out the last bit of calories and nutrition they can.

Read more at Discovery News

First Humans Out of Africa Were Small, Scrappy

The most comprehensive dataset ever assembled on our early human ancestors provides evidence that the first humans emerged in South Africa, and that the first humans to migrate out of Africa came from a small-bodied species such as Homo habilis, aka "Handy Man."

The theory is a complete shake-up of the human family tree, since it has long been theorized that a relatively tall, muscular human, Homo erectus (Upright Man), was the first to leave Africa for Asia and Europe.

Traditionally, Handy Man "was viewed as a little human, with a relatively big brain, bipedalism, and tool-making forming part of the picture," said Mark Collard, a professor at Simon Fraser University's Human Evolutionary Studies Program and Department of Archaeology, and senior author of the study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Collard, however, added that a revised view of Handy Man is that this human was much more ape-like than us, combining walking on two legs with frequent climbing.

Since the scrappy individuals were thought to have been a favorite snack of non-human predators at the time, one can imagine that Handy Man had to be handy with his feet as well when he was threatened.

For the study, Collard and his team compared alternative human evolutionary trees, seeing how well they fit the newly constructed dataset. The output from each, he explained, was a statistic representing one of the following: it was consistent with the dataset, it was not consistent and therefore could be rejected, or it fell somewhere in the middle.

The study rejected the theory that Homo floresiensis individuals, "Hobbit Humans," were simply deformed members of our own species. The data instead shows that these tiny residents of the Island of Flores, Indonesia, did indeed belong to a unique species. Collard and his team suspect that the hobbits descended from a small-bodied early Homo species, such as Handy Man.

Following this theory, Handy Man gave rise to Upright Man in Asia.

"Homo erectus would then have spread from Asia into Africa, rather than the reverse, which is what the current consensus contends," Collard said.

As for Neanderthals, "We're pretty sure that Neanderthals are an exclusively Eurasian species; there is no evidence for them in Africa," he shared.

The species that gave rise to Neanderthals remains a mystery for now. This puzzlement about them, and other Middle Pleistocene humans, is referred to as "the muddle in the middle," Collard said.

Somewhat less confusing is the evidence on where the first humans likely emerged. The researchers plugged in information concerning the two-million-year-old human ancestor Australopithecus sediba, to help make that determination.

"The fact that Australopithecus sediba groups with Homo is consistent with the idea that the earliest known representative of the genus Homo originated in South Africa," Collard said.

Terry Harrison, director of the Center for the Study of Human Origins and New York University, where Harrison is also a professor, told Discovery News that the new study "will surely spark passionate debate on all sides of the paleoanthropological community."

Read more at Discovery News

Mysterious 'Haze' Seen Above Ceres' Weird Bright Spots

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only dwarf planet news right now is on Pluto, but Pluto isn’t the only small world with interesting stuff going on.

Closer to the sun, tucked deep inside the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, is another dwarf planet called Ceres (you may have heard of it) and something wonderfully interesting has just been spotted by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting Ceres since March.

As the Dawn mission approached the cratered, mega-asteroid, one phenomenon quickly made itself known: mysterious bright spots. One particular crater became the focus of these spots, called Occator crater, where there’s a central cluster surrounded by a peppering of other bright spots. Since their discovery, these strange features have mystified planetary scientists and, although there are theories, their true nature is still being worked out.

But today, as reported by Nature’s Alexandra Witze, Dawn mission scientists have announced a brand new discovery that could explain what these bright spots are: They seem to be producing haze.

“At noontime, if you look at a glancing angle, you can see what seems to be haze,” said Christopher Russell, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Dawn principal investigator. “It comes back in a regular pattern.”

According to Russell, who was speaking at a NASA exploration meeting at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the haze covers about half of the crater and reaches as far as the rim.

So far, scientists have theorized that the bright spots could be concentrations of minerals or salts. Or they might be icy deposits; potentially evidence for cryovolcanism.

The spacecraft hasn’t yet been able to properly analyze the spots, but the discovery of haze above a crater filled with bright dots could indicate something is outgassing into space — possibly sublimating water ice.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 21, 2015

Hybrid Horse-Cow, 6-Legged Sheep Found in Iron Age Pit

Weird, "hybridized" animal skeletons, including a cow-horse and a six-legged sheep litter the bottom of storage pits in an Iron Age site in England, archaeologists have found. One pit even holds the bones of a woman with a slit throat laid on top of animal bones, the scientists said.

The unusual remains belong to an ancient people who lived in southern England from about 400 B.C. until just before the Roman invasion, in A.D. 43, said dig co-director Paul Cheetham, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom.

It appears that the people dug the pits to store food such as grain near their dwellings. They had "no decent way of refrigerating stuff" back then, and the chalky earth would have provided a cool storage area, Cheetham told Live Science.

The people would have used each pit for only a year or two before digging a new one. Just before they abandoned a pit, it appears, the people buried a hybridized animal in it, sometimes with the flesh still attached, possibly as a way to honor the gods, Cheetham and his colleagues said. (When skeletons are well connected, or articulated, it indicates that the individual had ligaments and flesh holding it together when it was buried, the researchers said.)

These "hybrids" would have been formed from the body parts of various other animals.

"[They were] creating combinations of prized animals as an offering to particular deities," said dig co-director Miles Russell, a senior lecturer of prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. "What this meant precisely to the tribes we don't know, as nothing sadly was written down from the period and we have no record of the names or nature of the gods being invoked."

The archaeologists found all kinds of mix-and-matched animals in the pits. Many contained combinations of horse and cow body parts — such as a cow skull with a horse jaw and a horse skull with a cow horn sticking out, resulting in something that looked like a bizarre unicorn.

Some pits contained man-made items, such as combs made from bone and weaving needles. Others held sheep and cow combinations and the entire bodies of sacrificed dogs and pigs. In one pit, the archaeologists found a decapitated sheep's body with a cow skull on its rear.

Such animal sacrifices are not to be taken lightly, the archaeologists said. Cows, sheep and horses were likely the basis of the economy and also a food source, "so to dispose of an animal like a pig is quite a big thing to do," Cheetham said.

Archaeologists also found the skeleton of a woman buried facedown on a bed of bones. A cut mark on her collarbone suggested someone had sliced her throat, Cheetham said.

"People were not buried in the Iron Age in this part of Britain," he said. "We don't know what they did with their bodies. They either cast them into water or exposed them," leaving them out in the elements.

So, like the hybridized animals, it's likely the woman was part of a ritual or sacrifice, Cheetham said. Furthermore, her body was laid over bones from cows, horses, sheep, pigs and dogs. Curiously, her legs are on top of the animals' rear limbs, while her pelvis covers their pelvises, and so on.

"It’s like she was an addition to this hybrid human animal," Cheetham said.

Archaeologists haven't named the Iron Age people who lived at the settlement, but the scientists did name the site "Duropolis," after the tribe, the Durotriges, that lived there from about 50 B.C. to the Roman invasion. The origin of the Durotriges people is unclear, but it's possible they came from mainland Europe, said Cheetham.

The Durotriges tribe left a trove of artifacts, including pottery, coins and oval-shaped graves that held the tribe's dead, he said. However, it's unclear if the Durotriges merged with the Iron Age people (responsible for the hybridized animal pits), or if they displaced them. It's also possible that with cultural changes and the emergence of new ideas, these Iron Age people started new practices, such as oval burials and pottery, the researchers said.

Given the scant record, archaeologists are trying to learn as much as they can about the Iron Age people. The researchers have studied the region since 2009; they found the site with the hybridized animals just two months ago during a geophysical survey of a ploughed field, Russell said.

"The results, which showed an area of around 30 hectares [74 acres] of pits, roundhouses and ditches, was totally unexpected, no trace of it showing on the surface," Russell said.

So far, they've excavated 16 roundhouses and have about 200 more to uncover, he said. Each roundhouse is between 35 and 50 feet in diameter (11 and 15 meters), and the structures were likely covered with wattle and daub walls and thatched roofs during the Iron Age, Russell said.

Read more at Discovery News

Where Is the Tomb of Alexander the Great's Father?

The “Tomb of Philip” in the northern Greek town of Vergina does not belong to King Philip II of Macedon, says new research which fuels the long-standing dispute over the final resting place of Alexander the Great’s father.

According to the study, a skeleton found in an adjacent tomb shows evidence of a leg wound which is consistent with the one sustained by Philip II, as reported by some historical accounts.

The claim is in stark contrast to other research published two months ago which maintains Alexander the Great’s father was indeed buried in the famous “Tomb of Philip.”

Scholars have argued over Philip II’s tomb ever since Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos discovered the site of his likely burial in 1977-78. He excavated a large mound — the Great Tumulus — at Vergina on the advice of the English classicist Nicholas Hammond.

Among the monuments found within the tumulus were three tombs. One, called Tomb I, had been looted, but contained a stunning wall painting of the Rape of Persephone, along with fragmentary human remains.

Tomb II remained undisturbed and contained the almost complete cremated remains of a male skeleton in the main chamber and the cremated remains of a female in the antechamber. Grave goods included silver and bronze vessels, gold wreaths, weapons, armor and two gold larnakes.

Tomb III was also found undisturbed, with a silver funerary urn that contained the bones of a young male, and a number of silver vessels and ivory reliefs.

“There is an unanimous agreement that Tomb III, which has a façade strikingly similar to that of Tomb II, belongs to Alexander the Great’s son, Alexander IV,” Antonis Bartsiokas of the Democritus University of Thrace and Juan-Luis Arsuaga of the Centro Mixto Universidad Complutense de Madrid and colleagues wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

In fact, most of the scholarly debate concentrates on the occupants of Tomb II.

“Despite anthropological and archaeological evidence that the tomb belongs to King Arrhidaeus and his wife Eurydice, the archaeological establishment still maintains that Tomb II belongs to Philip II,” the researchers wrote.

A powerful 4th century B.C. military ruler from the Greek kingdom of Macedon, King Philip II gained control of Greece and the Balkan peninsula through tactful use of warfare, diplomacy, and marriage alliances (the Macedonians practiced polygamy).

His efforts — he reformed the Macedonian army and proposed the invasion of Persia — later provided the basis for the achievements of his son and successor Alexander the Great, who went on to conquer most of the known world.

The overlord of an empire stretching from Greece and Egypt eastward across Asia to India, Alexander died in Babylon, now in central Iraq, in June of 323 B.C. — just before his 33rd birthday.

His elusive tomb is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the ancient world.

Using scanning and radiography, Bartsiokas and colleagues analyzed a partial skeleton of a middle-aged male that had been long disinterred from Tomb I at Vergina.

The researchers judged the individual to be around 45 when he died, matching the age at which Philip was killed, and estimated he was 5.9 feet tall.

They noticed the individual had a knee joint showing signs of fusion (ankylosis), and a hole through the overgrowth of the knee, likely produced by a penetrating instrument, such as a fast-moving projectile, like a spear.

The wound “would have affected locomotion and rendered the person lame, with an uneven gait,” the researchers concluded.

According to some historical reports, a lance impaled Philip’s leg three years before his assassination in 336 BC, leaving him lame.

The injury “is conclusive evidence for the identification of one tomb occupant as Philip,” the researchers said.

Bartsiokas and colleagues also stated that Tomb I contains the remains of a 18-year-old female and a 42-week-old infant of unknown gender.

The researchers believe the individuals are Philip’s wife Cleopatra, and their newborn child, both killed shortly after Philip’s death. He was killed by his bodyguard Pausanias as he walked into a theater in the Macedonian capital of Aegae.

“As a consequence, Tomb II could only belong to King Arrhidaeus and Eurydice and may well contain some of the armor of Alexander the Great,” Bartsiokas and colleagues concluded.

However, according to Theodore Antikas, author of another study which concluded the bones found in Tomb II are those of Philip II and a Scythian princess, Bartsiokas and colleagues are missing a point—or more precisely, some bones.

In a letter to the editor of PNAS, Antikas, head of the anthropological research team of Vergina Excavation at Aristotle University, maintains Bartsiokas’s research has been done on a small part of the bones found in Tomb I in 1977-78.

According to the researcher, the bones from Tomb I took different routes ever since their discovery. Some were first kept at Vergina, and some were sent to the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki (AMT).

How the bones shown in the Bartsiokas and colleagues paper ended up in the Lab of Anthropology at Democritus University of Thrace remains to be investigated.

To add to the mystery, in July 2014 Antikas's team found in an old storage place two wooden boxes containing artifacts and two bags of human and animal bones from Tomb I. The bones had been stored at the Vergina Museum since their discovery in 1977 and were not known or seen by anyone.

"It is evident that some bones from Tomb I were kept at the University of Thrace--at some unknown period in the past--and some remained at Vergina's storage area," Antikas wrote.

From the plastic bags containing over one hundred bone fragments of inhumed individuals, Antikas's analyzed and identified 70 bones.

Surprisingly, it emerged that the looted Tomb I contained the remains of at least seven individuals: one male, one female, one adolescent (sex unknown), one fetus and three infants.

"Some human bones may belong to the same individuals reported in the PNAS paper, or to three different occupants of the tomb," Antikas said.

He added it is also possible that some of them may belong to looters, or "dumped" humans and animals for convenience.

Read more at Discovery News

One Migration from Siberia Peopled the Americas: Study

Native American ancestors reached the New World in a single, initial migration from Siberia at most 23,000 years ago, only later differentiating into today’s distinct groups, DNA research revealed Tuesday.

Most scientists agree the Americas were peopled by forefathers who crossed the Bering land and ice bridge which connected modern-day Russia and Alaska in Earth’s last glacial period.

And it is known through archaeological finds that humans were already present in the Americas 15,000 years ago.

But there was a long list of outstanding questions.

When did the migration take place? In one or several waves? And how long did these early pioneers spend in Beringia — the then-raised land area between Asia and America?

On Tuesday, analysis of Native American and Siberian DNA, present-day and ancient, sought to fill in some of the blanks with two studies carried simultaneously in the journals Science and Nature.

The first, led by the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen and published in Science, found there was only one initial migration, no more than 23,000 years ago.

This ancestral pool split into two main branches about 13,000 years ago, coinciding with glacier melt and the opening of routes into the North American interior, researchers found.

These became the groups which anthropologists refer to as Amerindians (American Indians) and Athabascans (a native Alaskan people).

Previous research had suggested that Amerindian and Athabascan ancestors had crossed the strait independently.

“Our study presents the most comprehensive picture of the genetic prehistory of the Americas to date,” said Maanasa Raghavan, one of the study’s lead authors.

“We show that all Native Americans, including the major sub-groups of Amerindians and Athabascans, descend from the same migration wave into the Americas.”

This was distinct from later waves which gave rise to the Paleo-Eskimo and Inuit populations, she added.

Given that the earliest evidence for the presence of humans in the Americas dates to 15,000 years ago, the first ancestors may have remained in Beringia for about 8,000 years before their final push into the New World, the team said.

This is much shorter than the tens of thousands of years of isolation theorized by some earlier research.

But diversification into the distinct tribes we know today, happened only after arrival in the Americas, not before.

Read more at Discovery News

New Horizons Zooms-in on Pluto's Tiny Moons Nix and Hydra

Since their discovery by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005, Pluto’s tiny moons Nix and Hydra have been mere distant specks of reflected light. But with new observations transmitted back to Earth by NASA’s New Horizons mission, that has all changed.

Blasting through the Pluto system at around 31,000 miles per hour on July 14, New Horizons was able to quickly image the dwarf planet’s moons as it made its rapid close encounter, coming within 7,750 miles of Pluto’s surface. By now, we are becoming very familiar with Pluto’s and largest moon Charon’s beautifully detailed geology, but the smaller moons have yet to be so well defined.

However, that’s beginning to change, in new imagery showcased on Tuesday.

Shown here are Nix and Hydra, the second and third Pluto moons to be discovered after Charon. Nix’s color has been enhanced and an intriguing region has been revealed, appearing reddish. According to NASA, the moon is “jelly bean-shaped,” around 26 miles (42 kilometers) long and 22 miles (36 kilometers) wide.

This reddish region has piqued mission scientists’ interest, and they already speculate that this region may be the site of a large impact crater, but they have to be patient for the spacecraft to send more data.

“Additional compositional data has already been taken of Nix, but is not yet downlinked. It will tell us why this region is redder than its surroundings,” said Carly Howett, New Horizons mission scientist with the Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder, Colo. “This observation is so tantalizing, I’m finding it hard to be patient for more Nix data to be downlinked.”

In addition to Nix, New Horizons also sent an observation of Hydra made by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) from a distance of 143,000 miles (231,000 kilometers). This observation reveals an irregularly-shaped moon around 34 miles (55 kilometers) long and 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide with what appear to be two large craters and some variation in surface composition.

Read more at Discovery News

Massive Search Will Scour Cosmos for Intelligent Aliens

The most far-reaching search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is now underway: A new $100 million initiative invites the world’s top minds to scour the universe for signals from distant planets, scientists announced Monday.

Yuri Milner, a billionaire particle physicist and investor, announced the 10-year “Breakthrough” initiatives at the Royal Society in London with other top scientists, including physicist Stephen Hawking and SETI pioneer Frank Drake.

“Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean,” said Hawking, according to Space.com, a sister site to Live Science. “Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos — unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the universe discovered its existence?”

“Either way, there is no bigger question,” Hawking said. “It’s time to commit to finding the answer — to search for life beyond Earth.”

Incredible initiatives

The SETI Institute and previous SETI projects have spent the past few decades scanning the cosmos with radio dishes, looking for non-random signals that could be created by intelligent civilizations beyond Earth. The SETI Institute will be involved in the new initiative, and talks are ongoing about how the Institute’s Allen Telescope Array, located in northern California, may be a part of the project, said Pete Worden, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

The first of the new initiatives, dubbed Breakthrough Listen, will be the most comprehensive SETI search to date, using two of the world’s most powerful telescopes: the 328-foot-diameter (100 meters) Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and the 210-foot-diameter (64 m) Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

The new search will be 50 times more sensitive and will search an area 10 times larger than earlier SETI programs, the researchers said. It will also scan at least five times more of the radio spectrum, and 100 times faster, project officials said in a statement.

“This new SETI program will be deeper, more sensitive and superior to past programs,” veteran planet hunter Geoff Marcy, a professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, said at a news conference today.

The researchers will have access to each of the two telescopes for between one and two months every year, Marcy said.

“With all of the telescope time that we are going to acquire, we can achieve longer dwell times on the targets, so we can sense weaker, fainter radio signals,” Marcy added. The increased telescope time will also help researchers survey about 1 million stars at about 100 galaxies in addition to the Milky Way galaxy, the researchers said.

Laser locator

Breakthrough Listen will also use the Automated Planet Finder Telescope at the Lick Observatory, located on the summit of Mount Hamilton in California, to commence the deepest and broadest search for optical laser transmissions, the researchers said.

Optical laser communication is becoming more common, whether it’s air-to-air communication or ground-to-satellite laser communication, Marcy said.

Advanced alien civilizations may realize that lasers are a good communication means, as humanity has, Marcy said. “There could therefore be a sort of galactic Internet not born of copper wire, not born of fiber optics, but carried by laser beams crisscrossing the galaxy,” Marcy said. “And we, here on the Earth, may serendipitously just happen to fall on those laser beams.”

The Lick Telescope will measure the spectra of stars and galaxies, “looking for specific, single wavelengths of which there’s a lot of light, which would be best interpreted as lasers from some other civilization,” Marcy said.

The search will be so powerful that Breakthrough Listen’s optical search will be able to detect a 100-watt laser — the energy equivalent of a typical light bulb — from a “nearby” star 25 trillion miles (40 trillion kilometers) away, the researchers said.

If an intriguing signal is found, the researchers said, they will spend several months verifying it within the scientific community before publishing the detailed results in a scientific journal.

“It must be reproducible,” Marcy said. “We must be able to point other radio telescopes at the same coordinates, verify that the radio waves really are coming at the radio [or laser] frequencies that we thought.”

Public invitation

The public will have access to the enormous data trove collected by Breakthrough Listen, the researchers said. In fact, experts invite the public to join them as they use open-source software to sift through the vast amounts of data.

Furthermore, Breakthrough Listen’s software and hardware will be compatible with other telescopes, so people around the world can join the quest to find intelligent alien life, possibly developing their own methods to analyze the data, the researchers said.

At the University of California, Berkeley, 9 million volunteers from around the world will be able to use a supercomputer platform to search the data for possible extraterrestrial life, they added.

Enthusiasts can also contribute in other ways. A second initiative, Breakthrough Message, asks people around the world to create digital messages that represent humanity and Earth that could one day be sent to advanced alien civilizations.

Read more at Discovery News

Jul 20, 2015

Rhino-Cam Could Help Catch Poachers in the Act

If a new camera-driven anti-poaching system works as well as hoped, rhinoceros poachers may soon find themselves caught in the act on video, the Independent reports.

The system has been dubbed "Rapid" -- Real-Time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device -- and is driven by a camera embedded in the animal's horn (a painless procedure, according to this BBC News video showing the drilling in action).

Along with the spy camera, the rhino will be outfitted with a heart-rate monitor and a location tracker.

The Rapid system will alert authorities if the heart-rate monitor on the rhino is triggered by an attack. The tracking device will capture the location of the attack, to within a few meters.

Attack location in hand, rangers can quickly head to the scene via truck or helicopter and stop the poachers. The camera, meanwhile, will have collected visual evidence to use against them.

According to the Independent, the Rapid system was developed by Chester University's Dr. Paul O'Donoghue, a specialist who has worked extensively with endangered black rhinos.

"You can’t outrun a helicopter," O'Donoghue told the Independent. "Rapid renders poaching a pointless exercise.”

Officials hope to have the system up and running in trials in South Africa, where the vast majority of the world's remaining rhinoceroses live, early in 2017.

From Discovery News

Surf Pro Fights Off Shark Attack on Live TV

Johannesburg (AFP) - An Australian surfing champion fought back against a shark attack on live television during a competition in South Africa on Sunday, escaping from the terrifying scene without injury.

Mick Fanning, 34, was competing in the final heat of a world tour event at Jeffrey's Bay in the country's Eastern Cape province when a looming black fin appeared in the water behind him.

In a churn of water and spray, Fanning could be seen battling to fend off the shark.

"It came up and got stuck in my leg rope," he said in a television interview afterwards.

"I was kicking and screaming. I just saw a fin. I didn't see teeth. I was waiting for the teeth to come at me as I was swimming. I punched it in the back."

Fanning, a triple world champion nicknamed White Lightning, was sitting on his board in the water when the shark lunged at him, tipping him off the board.

He was taken out of the water by safety crews, and said he had only lost his leg rope.

"We've never seen anything that dramatic and that frightening," commentator Joe Turpel was quoted as saying.

The competition was abandoned after the incident.

From Discovery News

Deep-Diving Dolphins Avoid 'Bends' with Strong Lungs

When dolphins dive deep below the water's surface, they avoid succumbing to decompression sickness, or "the bends," likely because the massive sea creatures have collapsible lungs, a new study finds. These lungs allow dolphins to inhale and exhale two to three times quicker than humans.

Understanding how dolphins breathe rapidly and maintain lung functionality under immense pressure could help scientists keep humans safe when they are in similarly extreme situations, such as under anesthesia during surgeries, the researchers said.

Unlike humans, dolphins do not need to be strapped to an oxygen tank to achieve their impressive diving feats. This is because dolphins have compressible lungs that help them withstand high pressures deep in the ocean.

"The deeper go into the ocean, the smaller the volume of gas or air in the lungs gets," said study lead author Andreas Fahlman, a professor of biology at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. Fahlman found that dolphins can replace as much as 95 percent of the air in their lungs in a single breath. For comparison, humans are capable of replacing only as much as 65 percent. Dolphins exhale and then inhale above water before diving back down with lungs filled with air — each breath consumes and releases a certain amount of oxygen that energizes the animals as they swim the ocean.

The researchers studied six male bottlenose dolphins at Dolphin Quest Oahu, a dolphin training facility in Hawaii that is open to the public. The dolphins were free to swim away from the researchers whenever they wished, Fahlman said, though the animals were trained to sit still and breathe into a mask, called a pneumotachometer. This device essentially functioned as a "speedometer for the lungs," Fahlman said. The mask covered the dolphins' blowholes at the backs of their necks.

When trainers had dolphins breathe as hard as they could, in breaths researchers called "chuffs," the animals could inhale 8 gallons (30 liters) of air in one second, and exhale 34 gallons (130 liters) of air per second. A human's strongest exhale moves at a rate of 4 gallons (15 liters) per second, and human coughs range from about 10 to 16 gallons (40 to 60 liters) per second. In other words, dolphins move air two to three times faster than humans could ever do, Fahlman said.

Part of the reason dolphins are expert divers is because they can collapse their alveoli, the little sacks on the lungs that monitor air flow, and then open them up again, "but humans can't do that," Fahlman said.

This has implications for humans who are exposed to similarly extreme conditions, such as patients who undergo emergency operations.

"f you're in the hospital and you're undergoing surgery, oftentimes what they do is put a tube down your throat and put a positive pressure to prevent a collapse from happening," Fahlman said.

Putting positive pressure on the lungs keeps them open, but can also be dangerous, he added. "This is a clinically relevant issue for people in emergency care, for people undergoing surgery, because we cannot as easily open up the alveoli."

Fahlman said it's possible that dolphins' lungs look completely different from humans' or that dolphins have a very different biochemical composition in their lungs, which could explain their impressive exhalation abilities. Lungs typically contain a compound called surfactant, or pulmonary surfactant, that helps with breathing. Previous research found that surfactant in some seals and sea lions can keep the alveoli more lubricated so they open up easily.

All mammals use surfactant while breathing; it's a "way of trying to reduce the number of calories that it costs inhale and exhale," Fahlman said, adding that animals developed differences in surfactant to adapt to their environments.

Prematurely born babies benefit from surfactant manufactured from cows, Fahlman said, because the babies can't produce enough of the substance at such a young age.

Surfactant from dolphins and other sea mammals could be beneficial under different circumstances, he added. "We can learn about the structure of the surfactant [that animals] have and replicate it for humans," Fahlman said.

Studying animal breathing rhythms and capacities can also help scientists better understand respiratory disease in marine animals, which is a major cause of morbidity and mortality among marine animals in the wild and under human care, Fahlman said.

Humans are exposed to pollen, debris and other airborne pollutants that many dolphins and other mammals are unable to remove from their blowholes. This can make some animals susceptible to certain diseases like lung disease.

Fahlman said he plans to expand his research to beluga whales and porpoises to investigate their breathing patterns. He said there is especially high concern around mammals living in waters near oil rigs. Researchers are planning to travel to Alaska and the Arctic to study the mammals before oil reserves there are exploited, to establish a baseline for animal health, he added.

Read more at Discovery News

Hawking Spearheads New Hunt for Intelligent Aliens

On Monday, famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking announced the launch of a new $100 million effort to track down an alien civilization within the next decade.

Funded by US-based tech billionaire Yuri Milner, the initiative, called “Breakthrough Listen,” will take a “Silicon Valley approach” to discovering aliens, using two powerful radio telescopes and leveraging the problem-solving power of social networks. Frank Drake, the father of modern SETI who started the hunt for alien transmissions with "Project Ozma" in 1960, was also in attendance at the announcement with Hawking and other participating astronomers.

“Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean,” said Hawking. “Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos — unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence. Either way, there is no bigger question. It’s time to commit to finding the answer — to search for life beyond Earth.

“We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.”

According to Breakthrough Listen, this will be the biggest scientific search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, a survey that will cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs, monitoring 5 times more of the radio spectrum, 100 times faster, reports BBC News.

Breakthrough Listen is the first half of the group's mission. The second, "Breakthrough Message," will consist of an international competition to compile a global message that will one day be transmitted to another civilization.

Breakthrough Listen will take observational data from the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, and the public will be asked to participate in the SETI@home project, the stalwart alien-hunting software that first appeared in 1999 to leverage the distributed computer power of computers connected to the internet all over the world.

But will it be successful at eking out an alien radio signal? Well, that’s anybody’s guess. Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence(s) is a minefield of unknowns, some of which are explored by Trace and myself during this very special TestTube Plus+ video. Check it out:

From Discovery News

Red Planet, Icy World? New Picture of Ancient Mars Emerges

This image paints two very different views of ancient Mars: one warm and wet (top left), and the other a frozen, icy world.
Ancient Mars might have looked more like an icy snowball than the warmer, wetter planet that many researchers have suggested, according to a new study. The study suggests that channels seen on the Red Planet’s surface are better explained by erosion from ice and snow runoff — and not by flowing water — in the ancient past.

But if ancient Mars was, indeed, an icy wasteland, that would have made it harder for potential life to take hold 3 billion or 4 billion years ago, researchers behind the study say.

“I’m still trying to keep an open mind about this,” Robin Wordsworth, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said in a statement. “There is lots of work to be done.”

Wordsworth and his collaborators arrived at this conclusion after running 3-D atmospheric models to see how water moved between Mars’ surface and its atmosphere billions of years ago.

The first scenario envisioned Mars as a temperate place, with an average global temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). The second scenario then cast the Red Planet into ice-ball conditions, with an average global temperature of minus 54 F (minus 48 C).

The results showed that the “cold” model did a better job of eroding features on the planet’s surface similar to those observed by spacecraft currently on and orbiting Mars. Further, the researchers said the “cold model” was based on a more accurate representation of the sun’s history (it was 25 percent dimmer at the time) and the way Mars’ axis was tilted 3 billion to 4 billion years ago.In that scenario, Mars’ poles would have been pointed at the sun, which would have caused a buildup of ice along the planet’s equator.

There also would have been a thicker atmosphere that would have exaggerated the effect: The equator highlands would have been cold, and the lower lands at the poles would have been warm.So, is it possible that Mars was warm and wet? The scientists said that scenario is more unlikely, as previous work shows that carbon dioxide, dust and clouds are still not quite enough to make the planet that way.

After adding more effects to their model, however, the scientists came up with a scenario where rainfall changed greatly across the planet. Arabia and the Hellas basin, where there are few erosion features spotted today, would have been the wettest areas, the researchers said.

Read more at Discovery News