Oct 10, 2015

New clues about how humans become tool users

New research from the University of Georgia department of psychology gives researchers a unique glimpse at how humans develop an ability to use tools in childhood while nonhuman primates -- such as capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees -- remain only occasional tool users.

Dorothy Fragaszy, a psychology professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Primate Behavior Laboratory at UGA, created two studies to look at how nonhuman primates and human children differ in completing simple spatial reasoning tasks.

Much like a game of Operation, human children ages 2, 3 and 4 and adult nonhuman primates were asked to fit a stick, a cross and a tomahawk into a matching cutout space on a tray. Children were also given an opportunity to complete this task by placing the sticks on a mat with a drawing of the matching shape, as well as into a space on a tray.

"We did the study with nonhuman primates specifically to look at the management of objects in space," Fragaszy said. "I wanted to give them a spatial reasoning task that was not a tool-using task. We wanted to look at how they worked with these objects and arranged them in relation to features of another surface and from that gain some insight as to how they use objects as tools.

"In the case of the children, we wanted to see how they completed the same spatial reasoning task, but with a developmental dimension to it that is not present with our study of nonhuman primates because they were all adults."

What they found, she said, was a clear age effect in the children. Two-year-olds were able to fit the straight stick and the cross-shaped stick properly into the cutout most of the time. Three- and 4-year-olds were even better at it. However, when it came time to fit the tomahawk stick into the cutout, 2-year-olds were unable to complete the task most of the time, while 3- and 4-year-olds were also challenged.

Children were adept at using sight to help figure out how an object should be aligned to fit it into the space. Sometimes some of the 3- and 4-year-olds would hold the object, especially the cross or tomahawk stick, a little bit above the tray and move it in the air as if they were aligning it visually before they put it down.

Instead of depending on sight, nonhuman primates often used their sense of touch, known as their haptic senses, to feel how the object fit into the space.

"Adult chimps and capuchin monkeys are among the most accomplished spatial problem solvers among the nonhuman primates, but even the 2-year-olds are much better than they are at alignment," Fragaszy said.

Between 16-18 months and 2 years, humans develop a new relationship between vision and action. Prior to this development, they have trouble orienting another object that's not their own body in space.

When asked to complete the task in a two-dimensional version that involved visually aligning an object in the correct place, children were less successful and made fewer attempts than with the three-dimensional tasks.

"This makes sense if you think about the contribution of haptic perception to what's going on," Fragaszy said. "You can feel when a three-dimensional object hits the edge of a cutout. You don't feel anything with a flat two-dimensional object such as a disk. It indicates again that vision is not enough for young children. The haptic component is also helpful for them. For nonhuman primates, the haptic component is essential."

Humans use what's known as a vision for action system. Visual information is integrated into planning action and guiding movements of the body in space, especially to use the hands to reach for and grasp objects and manipulate them in space. Researchers have studied what happens if part of that system doesn't work very well, but researchers haven't known much about how that system develops until now.

Read more at Science Daily

New York to London by Car?

If you’re into road trips, here’s something that will blow your mind.

The Russian government has proposed building a cross-country superhighway that would link to both European and U.S. highway systems. If the Trans-Eurasian Belt Development, which would also include a high-speed rail system, eventually becomes a reality, it might be possible someday to drive from London to New York, by way of Siberia.

That’s about 13,000 miles, so be prepared to stop for a couple of oil changes along the way

Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin unveiled the idea this spring, at a meeting of the Russian Academy of Science, according to the English-language website Siberian Times.

Yakunin didn’t specify exactly how cars would get across the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska, a distance of  47 miles across an expanse of water often filled with ice flows and buffeted by powerful winds. But others have proposed a variety of solutions, including a bridge supported by 200 piers made from a special type of concrete that could withstand the incredible pressures generated by the ice.

An underwater tunnel is another possibility, but constructing beneath the hard, uneven sea floor of the strait would be one of the most difficult public works projects in history. Massive machines would be employed to drill deep into the rock, and the tunnel would have to be sufficiently reinforced to withstand a 7.9 magnitude earthquake in the seismically volatile region.

It’s hard to say how much the superhighway and bridge or tunnel would cost. Global Construction Review vaguely estimated the budget as “trillions of dollars.” Where Russia, whose total annual gross economic output is about $2.1 trillion, would get the funding is unclear.

If the road is ever built, it hopefully will be an improvement over the existing Trans-Siberian Highway, which is only partially paved and has a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous routes.

From Discovery News

Oct 9, 2015

Smallest Free-Living Insect Confirmed: Meet the Beetle

It's a small world, after all. A featherwing beetle named Scydosella musawasensis has just been confirmed, with new measurements, as the world-record title holder for the smallest recorded free-living insect.

That's according to Lomonosov Moscow State University scientist Alexey Polilov, who took new measurements of the tiny bug. Polilov writes in the journal Zookeys that S. musawasensis measured just 325 micrometers (0.325 millimeters, 0.0127 inches).

S. musawasensis is yellowish-brown, with a stretched oval body and 10-segmented antennae, and it's been down the measurement road before.

It was first described in 1999, when a specimen measured at 300 micrometers (0.30 millimeters, 0.0118 inches) took the "smallest" crown. But those readings, Polilov writes, were of insects embedded in preparations for microscopy study, making precise measurements difficult.

New measurements, then, were needed to accurately confirm S. musawasensis's state of extreme tininess. Polilov collected 85 new samples of the insect from Colombia and then took new measurements of his own, using a scanning electron microscope and specialized software.

When all of the measurements were in, "the smallest beetle and the smallest known free-living insect has a body length of 325 µm," Polilov wrote.

The "free-living" part of the beetle's title differentiates it from parasitic insects, the smallest of which, the male Dicopomorpha eschmepterigis , is understood to be the smallest parasitoid, at 139 micrometers.

From Discovery News

Extendable Jaws Gave Fish an Evolutionary Edge

Taking your mouth to your plate might not be accepted practice at the human dinner table, but in the fish world it is a winner.

The ability, known as protrusion, allows fish to extend their jaw and snap up otherwise elusive prey, making them effective hunters.

Now an Australian study has tracked the evolution of this trait and suggests it may have been the catalyst for evolutionary change among other marine animals.

Professor David Bellwood, of James Cook University, said protrusion was one of the key traits that made fish efficient hunters with some fish today able to extend their jaws by up to 20 per cent of their body length.

"When we eat a meal we've got to use our hands and forks to bring the food up and push it into our mouth," Professor Bellwood said.

"What the fish can do is take their mouth and put it on to the food.

"It's a huge advantage if you are trying to feed on something that is elusive and fast moving if you are chasing something on the bottom and you've got to get your whole body on to it, then it's like smashing on to a wall.

"We take it for granted that all fishes can snap up elusive prey, but it wasn't like that millions of years ago."

Professor Bellwood, from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, and his colleagues examined 73 fish from 60 modern species.

The team found the length of a bone in the fish's head - known as the premaxilla - determined its ability to stick its jaws and teeth out.

"There is a strong relationship between the size of that bone and the amount of protrusion," Professor Bellwood said.

"The longer the bone the more protrusion you can do."

The researchers used this marker to then track the evolution of the trait in the fossil record.

"The skeleton of a fish is a little bit like the Rosetta stone of history," Professor Bellwood said.

"If you can read the language of fishes' bones you can then understand their abilities."

He said the trait first appeared around 140 million years, with the appearance of a new group of fish known as acanthomorphs.

However he said the best examples were most evident in fossils around 100 million years old.

"So when the dinosaurs were running around on land, fishes were beginning to play at sticking their lips out," Professor Bellwood said.

Since that time there has been a five-fold increase in the average and maximum jaw protrusion in fish, the researchers report in the journal Current Biology.

Professor Bellwood said this was driven by the increase in acanthomorphs, known as spiny-rayed fish, which are today make up more than one-third of all fish species.

He said protrusion helped acanthomorphs succeed in the evolution arms race.

"They've got this really neat innovation called protrusion and it probably gave them an advantage over a lot of other groups," he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Earth's Frozen Center Formed a Billion Years Ago

The Pluto-size ball of solid iron that makes up Earth’s inner core formed between 1 billion and 1.5 billion years ago, according to new research.

What’s more, the new findings suggest that Earth’s magnetic field, which is powered by the swirling flow of liquid iron surrounding the inner core, could continue going strong for quite a while, said study co-author Andy Biggin, a paleomagnetism researcher at the University of Liverpool in England. (Paleomagnetism is the study of the record of the Earth’s magnetic field in rocks, sediment or archaeological materials.)

"The theoretical model which best fits our data indicates that the core is losing heat more slowly than at any point in the last 4.5 billion years and that this flow of energy should keep the Earth's magnetic field going for another billion years or more," Biggin said in a statement.

Heart of iron

The first rocky bits of Earth coalesced around 4.54 billion years ago, less than 100 million years after the solar system formed. For much of those early years, Earth was a blob of molten rock, but over time, the surface cooled and formed a crust that floated on the Earth’s liquid core. In time, the Earth developed an atmosphere, life, and the rest is, well, history.

At some point in this process, the liquid iron churning at the heart of the planet froze. Exactly when, however, remained a matter of hot debate; some scientists said it formed just 500 million years ago, while others said it formed about 2 billion years ago.

This so-called nucleation of the inner core is important because the planet’s frozen heart helps power Earth’s magnetic field, which shields life from harmful radiation from solar wind.

Swirling magnetism

The strength of the magnetic field is proportional to the movements of magnetic iron churning within the molten outer core. This motion is driven by convection, a swirling heat-transfer process that occurs as the outer core loses heat to theEarth’s mantle, the rocky layer sandwiched between the core and Earth’s crust. Convective heat loss jumped markedly when the core froze, leading to a stronger magnetic field, the researchers said in the statement.

But exactly when this process occurred was never sorted out. To answer this question, Biggin and his colleagues looked at a database that tracked the orientation and intensity of magnetic particles in ancient rocks. Based on that data, they found a huge increase in the Earth’s magnetic field between 1.5 billion and 1 billion years ago.

Read more at Discovery News

Vaccination Could Save Your Next Vacation

Before any vacation, all travelers have their lists: items to pack, arrangements to make and last-minute details to sort out. But many holiday-goers often forget one important entry on their to-do lists: get vaccinated.

More than 68 million Americans traveled abroad last year, U.S. Department of Commerce data show. Travel increases stress on the immune system, which can leave vacationers more vulnerable to illness. If that weren’t bad enough, vaccines specifically prevent the transmission of preventable diseases that would otherwise ruin a perfectly good vacation… or worse.

Take the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, for example. According to a study of 40,000 U.S. travelers, 16 percent were eligible to receive the vaccine, because they were either not immunized or under-immunized per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Of those eligible, fewer than half bothered to get the shot.

Measles is a highly contagious disease, which means travelers that contract it are not only putting themselves at risk but also everyone else around them who also isn’t properly immunized. Some travelers visiting countries with high standards of living may think they can avoid the illness, but measles can pop up unexpectedly on many different tours.

“Many travelers heading to developed countries, including those in Europe, might not realize that there are outbreaks of measles occurring in those areas, and they are at risk for becoming ill,” said Emily Hyle of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, who is lead author of the study.

Hepatitis A is another illness preventable with vaccines. Typically seen in countries with infrastructure issues leading to inadequate sanitation or limited clean drinking water, this disease is most often contracted through contaminated food or waste and can lead to exhaustion, fever and stomach pain, among other symptoms, guaranteeing an unpleasant end to a vacation.

Because hepatitis A comes in a series and, like many vaccines, takes time to confer immunity, travelers have to plan well in advance to ensure they are immunologically equipped for their next trip.

Vaccines, of course, aren’t only a concern for travelers, but for everyone. Adults in the United States, however, tend to skip routine vaccinations or boosters, according to CDC data.

For example, tdap, a combination vaccine that protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough), requires a booster every 10 years. Less than two-thirds of Americans between 19 and 65 followed up with a booster, however.

The figures dipped further for seniors, ages 65 and older, with only 56 percent of them receiving the vaccine. Numbers are even lower across all age groups among adults inoculated against diseases like hepatitis A, hepatitis B or HPV, the CDC found.

Read more at Discovery News

NASA: What We Have To Do To Get to Mars

NASA outlined the many challenges that remain before humans can set foot on Mars, calling the problems “solvable” but setting no firm date for an astronaut mission to the Red Planet.

Updated details of the space agency’s Mars strategy were contained in a 36-page document released to the public ahead of upcoming talks with Congress about budgets for space exploration and a major international meeting of the space industry to be held in Jerusalem next week.

The United States is “closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

“In the coming weeks, I look forward to continuing to discuss the details of our plan with members of Congress, as well as our commercial and our international partners, many of whom will be attending the International Astronautical Congress next week,” he said in a statement.

Astronauts who journey to Mars could spend three years in deep space, where radiation is high and so are the risks of cancer, bone loss and immune problems, said the document, called “NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.”

“Living and working in space require accepting risk, and the journey is worth the risk,” it said, calling Mars “an achievable goal” and “the next tangible frontier for expanding human presence.”

- Three phases -

The plan ahead is divided into three stages, the first of which is already under way with testing and experiments on human health and behavior, life support systems like growing food and recycling water, and 3-D printing aboard the International Space Station.

The second phase, called “Proving Ground,” begins in 2018 with the launch of the new deep space capsule Orion and the most powerful rocket ever built, known as the Space Launch System, or SLS.

The space agency plans to practice other missions in the area of space between the Earth and Moon, or in the Moon’s orbit, known as cislunar space.

These include sending a robotic spacecraft in 2020 to lasso a boulder from a near-Earth asteroid and ferry it to an area in deep space that astronauts can investigate.

“NASA will learn to conduct complex operations in a deep space environment that allows crews to return to Earth in a matter of days,” said the report.

“Primarily operating in cislunar space, NASA will advance and validate capabilities required for human exploration of Mars.”

The third phase involves living and working on Mars’ surface and in transiting spaceships “that support human life for years, with only routine maintenance,” as well as “harvesting Martian resources to create fuel, water, oxygen, and building materials.”

NASA gave no precise dates for this phase in the report, though one graphic mentioned “human missions to Mars vicinity in 2030+.”

- Obstacles remain -

As NASA presses further into space, the agency acknowledged that the problems will grow more complex.

“Future missions will face increasingly difficult challenges associated with transportation, working in space, and staying healthy,” said the report.

NASA also said it needs to develop adequate space suits for deep space exploration, and must test advanced solar electric propulsion to power spacecraft efficiently.

“NASA will have to learn new ways of operating in space,” said the report.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 8, 2015

Mars Rover Finds Gale Crater was Once a Big Lake

About the time that life was taking hold on Earth, Mars not only had the ingredients for life as well, but long-lived lakes that could support it, new research from NASA’s Curiosity rover team shows.

Analysis of sediments and geologic features found in the rover’s Gale Crater landing site show that the basin periodically filled with water that lasted for hundreds or even thousands of years. Previously, the rover discovered evidence of an ancient shallow lake and streams.

“You have a deep hole, filled with water that is stable,” which indicates that Mars must have had a denser atmosphere at that point in its history than can be explained by current computer models, geologist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology, told Discovery News.

“It also means that other places were wet as well,” he added.

The new research “strongly bolsters the case that if life ever did evolve on Mars there would have been many habitable environments,” Grotzinger said. “This is the definitive evidence that you need to say that lakes were stable on Mars.”

The study, published in this week’s Science, not only proves that impact craters can -- and indeed did -- fill with water, but also settles debate about how Mount Sharp, a three-mile high mound of sediment rising from the floor of Gale Crater, formed.

Analysis of data collected by the rover shows that water collected on the crater’s floor, which gradually rose over time until the basin was completely filled.

“The only way to get that is to have a body of standing water that receives sediment and fills the lake. Then the water rises and that creates more space for sediment to accumulate again and again. In that fashion, like a dipstick rising, you see the crater progressively filling up layer after layer after layer after layer after layer until it goes up to 1,000 meters, maybe 2,000 meters, then stops,” Grotzinger said.

Then a new cycle began, this time driven by winds. The layers of sediment eroded away until all that was left was a mountain in the middle of the crater.

Scientists estimate the crater filled and eroded within a span of about 500 million years approximately 3.2 billion to 3.7 billion years ago, a period of time that overlaps with the oldest sedimentary rocks on Earth.

Read more at Discovery News

Extinct Hippolike Creature Suctioned Up Its Food

About 23 million years ago, an ancient hippo-size mammal used its long snout like a vacuum cleaner, suctioning up food from the heavily vegetated shoreline whenever it was hungry, a new study finds.

Fossils of the newfound species — found on the Aleutian Islands' Unalaska, the location of the popular reality TV show "Deadliest Catch" — show that it had a long snout and tusks. Its unique tooth and jaw structure indicates it was a vegetarian, said study co-author Louis Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

"They were marine mammals, but they were not completely marine, like whales," Jacobs said in a video about his research. It's likely they lived both on land and in water, like seals, and could move around on land like a "big, lumbering, clumsy sort of giant sloth," he said.

"But when they were in the water, they swam like polar bears," Jacobs said. "They were front-limb-powered swimmers."

Researchers named the new species Ounalashkastylus tomidai. The word Ounalashka translates to "near the peninsula" in the Aleut language of the indigenous Aleutian Island people, and stylus is Latin for "column," a reference to the creatures' column-shaped teeth. The species name tomidai honors the Japanese vertebrate paleontologist Yukimitsu Tomida.

O. tomidai belongs to the order Desmostylia — the only known order of marine mammals to go completely extinct, the researchers said. Desmostylians lived between about 33 million and 10 million years ago along the coastline of the North Pacific Ocean, and the new specimens show that the order was more diverse than previously thought, said co-researcher Anthony Fiorillo, chief curator at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Texas.

The creature's odd, columnar teeth and suction-style feeding have never been seen in any other mammal, the researchers said. When O. tomidai ate, it would have buttressed its lower jaw and teeth against the upper jaw, and then used its powerful muscles to slurp up vegetation — such as marine algae, sea grass and other near-shore plants — from the coastal area, the researchers said.

"The new animal — when compared to one of a different species from Japan — made us realize that Desmos do not chew like any other animal," Jacobs said in a statement. "They clench their teeth, root up plants and suck them in."

"No other mammal eats like that," he added. "The enamel rings on the teeth show wear and polish, but they don't reveal consistent patterns related to habitual chewing motions."

The fossils represent four O. tomidai, including one baby, the researchers said.

"The baby tells us they had a breeding population up there," Jacobs said. "They must have stayed in sheltered areas to protect the young from surf and currents."

Read more at Discovery News

Fossil Could Settle Debate Over Flight in Earliest Birds

We know some dinosaurs had feathers but there remains plenty of debate over whether prehistoric birds such as Archaeopteryx could actually take to the air and fly.

A new study in Scientific Reports goes some ways to answering that question with the discovery of new, 125-million-year-old bird from central Spain. The exceptionally well preserved fossil found in limestone from the Lower Cretaceous period has an intricate arrangement of the muscles and ligaments that controlled the main feathers of the wing of an ancient bird – the oldest occurrence of connective tissue in association with flight feathers of birds.

That would support the notion that at least some of the most ancient birds performed aerodynamic feats in a fashion similar to living birds.

"The anatomical match between the muscle network preserved in the fossil and those that characterize the wings of living birds strongly indicates that some of the earliest birds were capable of aerodynamic prowess like many present-day birds," said Luis Chiappe, one of the authors of the study, who is with the National History Museum of Los Angeles County, in a press release.

Guillermo Navalón, a doctorate candidate at the University of Bristol in the U.K. and lead author of the report, said he was so surprised how this ancient bird looked so similar to what we might find in our backyards.

"It is very surprising that despite being skeletally quite different from their modern counterparts, these primitive birds show striking similarities in their soft anatomy," he said, in the press release.

The characteristic features of birds are believed to have evolved slowly about 150 million years ago, and such things as wings and feathers developed over tens of millions of years. Since the 1990s, hundreds, if not thousands, of dinosaurs with feathers have been unearthed in China - helping firm up the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Read more at Discovery News

Warming Is Causing Global Coral Bleaching

Record ocean temperatures are putting coral reefs at risk, causing a third-ever global coral bleaching effect, NOAA reported this week. The effects of global warming, which are heightened by the current El Nino effect, have exposed about 95 percent of U.S. coral reefs to conditions that cause coral bleaching, which can lead the coral to die off.

The effect has been visible across a wide area of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, NOAA reported.

“The coral bleaching and disease ... are the largest and most pervasive threats to coral reefs around the world,” said Mark Eakin, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch coordinator.

“As a result, we are losing huge areas of coral across the U.S., as well as internationally. What really has us concerned is this event has been going on for more than a year and our preliminary model projections indicate it’s likely to last well into 2016.”

Coral bleaching happens when high temperatures cause the coral to expel symbiotic algae, which gives the coral its color. Short-term bleaching events occur naturally and the coral can recover.

Long-term events, like the one NOAA scientists are observing, cause coral to lose its primary food source and expose it to disease.

The current event follows bleaching in 2014 that widely affected reefs in the main Hawaiian Islands.

“Last year’s bleaching at Lisianski Atoll was the worst our scientists have seen,” said Randy Kosaki, NOAA’s deputy superintendent for the monument. “Almost one and a half square miles of reef bleached last year and are now completely dead.”

Global bleaching first occurred in 1998, during a record El Nino, and a second bleaching event happend in 2010.

From Discovery News

Pluto: A World of Blue Skies and Red Ice

A tiny frozen world three billion miles away from the sun isn’t the place where you might expect to find a brilliant blue sky, but that’s exactly what NASA’s New Horizons team has discovered on far-off Pluto.

The image above is a color-composite made from data acquired by New Horizons’ Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) as the spacecraft was traveling away from Pluto after its historic close encounter on July 14. It shows the silhouette of Pluto backlit by the sun, surrounded by a sky-blue multilayered haze.

“Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It’s gorgeous,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Here on Earth, the daytime sky appears blue because of the way molecules of nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere disperse visible light from the sun, an effect called Rayleigh scattering. Shorter blue wavelengths are scattered more effectively, giving the sky its blue color.

On Pluto, 33 times farther from the sun than Earth is, light from our star is scattered through layers of atmospheric haze in much the same way — except there it’s not by molecules of oxygen or nitrogen but by very tiny soot-like particles called tholins.

The tholins are created from the breakdown of nitrogen and methane in Pluto’s atmosphere by ultraviolet radiation from the sun, a complex chemical process also found at Saturn’s moon Titan. Individual tholin particles themselves aren’t blue but rather grey or red in color; eventually they grow large and heavy enough to “rain” down onto Pluto’s surface — the likely source of its large red-stained areas.

In addition to a cerulean sky the New Horizons team also identified areas of exposed water ice on Pluto. While you might expect ice to be covering a world located in the far frozen reaches of the Kuiper Belt, on Pluto much of the surface hasn’t been found to have ice made of water but rather other more volatile substances, like nitrogen.

Curiously, the areas that show signatures of water ice are also regions that have shown up in high-resolution color image as particularly bright red — have these also been stained by tholins from Pluto’s atmosphere?

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 7, 2015

48-Million-Year-Old Pregnant Horse Found

New research has confirmed that a 48-million-year-old horse predecessor, whose exceptionally well-preserved remains were discovered in Germany, still has its fetus and some soft tissues intact.

Announcement of the find occurred at last year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting, but the new study confirms that the preserved soft tissues, which include the mother’s placenta and a uterine ligament, represent the earliest fossil record of the uterine system of such an animal.

The findings are published in the latest issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

“The fetus is the earliest and best-preserved fossil specimen of its kind,” wrote lead author Jens Lorenz Franzen from the Senckenberg Research Institute Frankfurt and his colleagues.

They used scanning electronic microscopy to analyze the remains, which were found at a quarry in Messel, near Frankfurt.

The extremely high magnification revealed the nearly 5-inch-long fetus, which retains almost all of its tiny bones. Only its skull was damaged, having been crushed at some point.

The researchers believe the mare, from the species Eurohippus messelensis, died shortly before giving birth. They do not, however, think that her death was related to her pregnancy. The cause of her demise is a mystery so far, although it is thought that many prehistoric animals perished at the site as a result of asphyxiation.

Lake Messel, present during the mare’s lifetime, is known to have released toxic carbon dioxide gas from time to time, due to volcanic activity. This might have caused the death of the mother, who perhaps sought water as she was about to deliver.

Eurohippus messelensis was only first described in 2006. The now-extinct species was smaller than today’s horses, being only about the size of a fox terrier, and had toes: four on its front “feet” and three on its back ones.

Franzen and his colleagues were able to reconstruct the position of the fetus as it would have been when its mother perished.

They found that the positioning “was normal and corresponds to late gestation of modern horses.”

Read more at Discovery News

Spiders Invented Knees

Spiders were the first creatures on Earth to evolve knees, according to a new study that also explains how this happened.

Knees began as a gene in fruit flies and other insects that duplicated and evolved in spiders, resulting in primary leg joints, reports the study, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

“Species constantly adapt and evolve by inventing new body features,” lead author Nikola-Michael Prpic of the Göttingen Center for Molecular Biosciences explained in a press release.

Prpic and his colleagues focused their work on a particular gene called dachshund, or dac for short. The name reflects a bit of nerd humor, because the gene was first discovered in fruit flies, and was named for the missing leg segments and shortened legs that result from dac mutant flies.

What clued the scientists in on this gene in the first place is that arachnids, such as spiders, possess a second dac gene, dac2. It results only in the spider’s kneecaps (patellas) during the individual’s overall growth and development.

The researchers used a technique called RNA interference to deactivate dac2. The deactivation caused the kneecaps to fuse to the tibias, resulting in single knee-less leg segments.

Spiders therefore likely experienced ancient gene duplication of the original dac gene. Over time, dac2 led to the evolution of an entirely new function and unique way of walking in spiders.

Prpic said, “Our work shows how a gene can be duplicated and then used during evolution to invent a new morphological feature.”

In humans, scientists continue to investigate how genes affect our knees. Many medical experts have theorized, for example, that fragile knees could be inherited. At least we only have two knees to deal with, as opposed to spiders and their multiple leg joints.

From Discovery News

Pigs Unearth Hunter-Gatherer Civilization

Pigs foraging along a Scottish coastline have unwittingly uprooted the earliest evidence for a remote population of hunter-gatherers.

The uprooted items, stone tools that have been dated to around 12,000 years ago, are described in the latest issue of British Archaeology. The tools were discovered on the east coast of the Isle of Islay, Scotland, and include sharp points -- likely used for hunting big game -- scrapers and more.

Archaeologists Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks of the University of Reading explained to Discovery News that a gamekeeper had previously released the pigs at a local port on Islay to reduce the bracken there. While feasting away, the pigs managed to dig up the ancient tools.

"Previously, the earliest evidence (for humans at Islay) dated to 9,000 years ago, after the end of the Ice Age,” Mithen said. “The new discovery puts people on Islay before the Ice Age had come to an end at 12,000 years ago.”

Mithen and Wicks were already working on a project in Scotland when they were informed of the pigs’ finds. They investigated the site, Rubha Port an t-Seilich, as well as nearby areas, and found layers of many other artifacts dating to different time periods. These included remains of animal bones, antlers, spatula-like objects, crystal quartz tools, and what was once a very well used fireplace.

Based on the age of the tools and their craftsmanship, the researchers suspect they belonged to the Ahrensburgian and Hamburgian cultures. These people originated in central Europe, with most coming from what is now northern Germany.

“They emerged primarily as reindeer hunters on the Ice Age tundras, most likely targeting migrating herds,” Mithen explained.

He and Wicks said that Britain during the Late Glacial Period 12,000 years ago was joined to Europe by a landmass called “Doggerland.” The landmass is now submerged beneath the North Sea.

Islay then, according to Mithen, “would have been largely a frozen tundra, with a mix of grasses and shrubs, with possibly some dwarf birch, much like the far north today.”

Reindeer flourished there at the time, and were clearly a favorite of the hunters. Their tools suggest that they used every part of the animal, from the horns to the meat to the hide.

Basking sharks, seals, otters and other animals are also in the region, so the researchers believe the hunter-gatherers were tracking down some of these animals too -- especially meaty seals.

Despite the remoteness of the site, Mithen said it is even plausible that the area’s natural resources sustained Neanderthals long beforehand.

“The nearest Neanderthal-like remains come from a cave in North Wales and date to 230,000 years ago,” he said. “It is not inconceivable that they might have reached western Scotland, but the last ice sheets and glaciers are likely to have destroyed all evidence.”

Traveling to the remote location would have been a challenge even for the hunter-gatherers who lived on Islay 12,000 years ago. Felix Reide of Aarhus University, who is an expert on Late Glacial Period tool making, believes that these people developed “a maritime adaption” that enabled them to explore northern regions, including Scandinavia and Scotland.

Read more at Discovery News

Tree-Climbing Extinct Human Had Swagger

A recently unearthed extinct human species — perhaps the most primitive ever discovered — had hands and feet adapted for a life both on the ground and in the trees, researchers say.

This finding sheds light on how early humans experimented with a variety of designs, scientists added. And though the international teams of scientists are not certain how this extinct human would have walked, they say the swagger would have been quite different from ours.

Although modern humans are the only human species alive today, other human species once walked the Earth. The human lineage, the genus Homo, and its close relatives, including australopithecines such as the famed Lucy, are together referred to as hominins.

The most recently discovered human species, Homo naledi, had a brain about the size of an orange, but it nevertheless possessed enough of a mind to perform ritual burials of its dead. More than 1,550 bones and bone fragments of H. naledi have been recovered from a cave in South Africa, the single-largest fossil hominin find made yet in Africa. Scientists have yet to pin down a date for when H. naledi lived because the nature of the cave in which it was found makes it difficult to determine the age of its fossils.

Scientists investigated the hands and feet of H. naledi to learn more about a key shift in human evolution — the move from a life of climbing trees to one spent walking on the ground. Modern humans dominate the planet partly because walking upright frees their hands for tool use, scientists have found.

The researchers analyzed more than 150 H. naledi hand bones, including a nearly complete adult right hand that was missing just one wrist bone. They found the species shared a long, robust thumb and wrist architecture with modern humans and Neanderthals, potentially giving the hand a precise, forceful grip that may have been useful for tool use.

However, its fingers were longer and more curved than most australopithecines — indeed, more curved than those of nearly any other species of early hominin. This quality hints at a life suited for moving and climbing through trees. The scientists detailed their findings on H. naledi‘s hands and feet online today (Oct. 6) in two papers in the journal Nature Communications.

“The tool-using features of the H. naledi hand, in combination with its small brain size, has interesting implications for what cognitive requirements might be needed to make and use tools, and, depending on the age of these fossils, who might have made the stone tools that we find in South Africa,” Tracy Kivell at the University of Kent in England, lead author of one of the two H. naledi papers, said in a statement.

The scientists also investigated 107 H. naledi foot bones, including a nearly complete adult right foot. They found the ancient hominin’s foot shared many features with the modern human foot, suggesting that it was well-suited for standing and walking on two feet.

“The foot is not entirely humanlike, but it’s more humanlike than not,” William Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College in the Bronx and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, told Live Science. “I think it would’ve been very good at walking on the ground.”

However, the H. naledi foot had toes that were more curved than those of modern humans, supporting the notion that the hominin was also relatively adept at life in the trees.

“H. naledi wouldn’t have been in any way as proficient as chimpanzees or much more primitive hominins at climbing trees, but it still would be better-suited than we are,” said Harcourt-Smith, lead author of the other H. naledi paper.

Intriguingly, H. naledi‘s pelvis was more like that of australopithecines such as Lucy, flaring outward more than that of modern humans.

“This configuration moved the hip muscles away from the hip joints and gave them more leverage in walking — perhaps more of an advantage than humans have today,” study co-author Jeremy DeSilva, an anthropologist at Dartmouth University, said in the statement. “Over time, the architecture of the pelvis evolved and expanded to allow the birth of larger-brained babies.”

These findings suggest that early human evolution involved many experiments “on different ways to be bipedal,” Harcourt-Smith said.

Read more at Discovery News

Our Universe: It's the 'Simplest' Thing We Know

Our universe is actually really simple, it's just our cosmological theories that are getting needlessly complex, argues one of the world's leading theoretical physicists.

This conclusion may sound counterintuitive; after all, to fully understand the true complexities of Nature, you need to think bigger, study things on finer and finer scales, add new variables to equations, and think up "new" and "exotic" physics. Eventually we'll discover what dark matter is; eventually we'll gain a grasp of where those gravitational waves are hiding – if only our theoretical models were more advanced and more... complex.

Not so, says Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Ontario, Canada. By Turok's rationale, if anything, the universe, on its largest and smallest scales, is telling us that it is actually amazingly simple. But to fully grasp what this means, we'll need a revolution in physics.

In an interview with Discovery News, Turok pointed out that the biggest discoveries of the last few decades have confirmed the structure of the universe on cosmological and quantum scales.

"On the largest scales, we've mapped the whole sky -- the cosmic microwave background -- and measured the evolution of the universe, the way it's changing, the way it's expanding ... and these discoveries reveal that the universe is astonishingly simple," he said. "In other words you can describe the structure of the universe, its geometry, and the density of matter ... you can essentially describe all that with just one number (the cosmological constant)."

The most fascinating outcome of this reasoning is that to describe the universe's geometry with one number, it is actually simpler than the numerical description of the simplest atom we know -- the hydrogen atom. The hydrogen atom's geometry is described by 3 numbers, which arise from Schrodinger's equation.

"It basically tells us that the universe is smooth but it has a small level of fluctuation, which this number describes. And that's it. The universe is the simplest thing we know."

At the opposite end of the scale, a similar thing happened when physicists probed into the Higgs field, using the most complex machine ever constructed by humankind, the Large Hadron Collider. When, in 2012, physicists made the historic discovery of the particle that mediates the Higgs field, the Higgs boson, it turned out to be the simplest type of Higgs described by the Standard Model of physics.

"Nature has gotten away with the minimal solution, the minimal mechanism you could imagine to give particles their mass, their electric charges and so on and so forth," said Turok.

Physics from the 20th century has taught us that as you gain more precision and you probe deeper into the quantum realm, you discover a zoo of new particles. So as the experimental results generated a bounty of quantum information, theoretical models predicted more and more outlandish particles and forces. But now we're reaching a crossroads where many of our most advanced theoretical ideas about what lies "beyond" our current understanding of physics are turning up few experimental results that support their predictions.

"We're in this bizarre situation where the universe is talking to us; it's telling us that it's extremely simple. At the same time, the theories that have been popular (from the last 100 years of physics) have become more and more complicated and arbitrary and un-predictive," he said.

Turok pointed to String Theory that was billed as the "final unified theory," wrapping all of the universe's mysteries up in a neat package. Also, the search for evidence of inflation -- the rapid expansion of the universe just after the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago -- in the form of primordial gravitational waves etched into the cosmic microwave background (CMB), or the "echo" of the Big Bang. But as we seek out experimental evidence, we're left clutching at proverbial straws; the experimental evidence simply is not agreeing with our maddeningly complex theories.

Our Cosmic Origins

Turok's theoretical work focuses around the origins of the universe, a subject that has garnered a lot of attention in recent months.

Last year, the BICEP2 collaboration, which uses a telescope located at the South Pole to study the CMB, announced the discovery of primordial gravitational wave signals in the Big Bang's echo. This is basically the "Holy Grail" of cosmology -- the discovery of gravitational waves that were spawned by the Big Bang would confirm certain inflationary theories of the universe. But unfortunately, for the BICEP2 team, they announced the "discovery" prematurely and the European Planck space telescope (that is also mapping the CMB) revealed that the BICEP2 signal was caused by dust in our galaxy and not ancient gravitational waves.

What if these primordial gravitational waves are never found? Many theorists who have pinned their hopes on the Big Bang followed by a rapid period of inflation may be disappointed, but according to Turok, "it will be a very powerful clue" that the Big Bang (in a classical sense) may not be the absolute beginning of the universe.

"The biggest challenge for me has been to describe the Big Bang itself, mathematically," Turok added.

Perhaps a cyclical model for universal evolution -- where our universe collapses and rebounds anew -- may better fit the observations. These models do not necessarily generate primordial gravitational waves and if these waves are not detected, perhaps our inflationary theories need to be thrown out or modified.

As for the gravitational waves that are predicted to be generated by the rapid motion of massive objects in our modern universe, Turok is confident that we are reaching a realm of sensitivity that our gravitational wave detectors will detect them very soon, confirming another one Einstein's space-time predictions. "We do expect to see the gravitational waves from black hole collisions within the next 5 years," he said.

The Next Revolution?

From the largest scales to the smallest scales, the universe seems to be "scale-free" -- in other words, no matter what spatial or energy scale you look at, no scale is "special." And this finding actually suggests the universe has a far simpler nature than current theories suggest.

"Yes, it's a crisis, but it's a crisis of the best kind," said Turok.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 6, 2015

Ancient Roman Mosaic Found in Tuscany

Italian archaeologists digging in a small Tuscan village have unearthed part of what they believe is a large and impressive ancient Roman mosaic.

Laying in a private property next to a local road in the village Capraia e Limite, the mosaic features two different designs. One, dating to the second half of the 4th century AD, features geometric patterns framed by floral motifs, the other, dating to the 5th century AD, boasts octagons decorated with animals, flowers and a human bust.

The large mosaic graced the floor of a luxurious Roman villa that stood in the Tuscan countryside for four centuries, from the 1st to the beginning of the 6th century AD.

"Evidence of this villa was first found in 1983, when workers digging to build an orchard unearthed some black and white mosaic fragments and, most interestingly, an inscription mentioning one of the owners of the complex," Lorella Alderighi of the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany, told Discovery News.

The inscribed slab of stone referred to Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, one of the most famous pagan senators of the later fourth century AD. He came from an ancient and noble family and died in 384 while serving as the praetorian prefect at the court of Emperor Valentinian II.

It is well known that Vettius Agorius Praetextatus owned villas in Tuscany -- and liked them very much.

"The Roman statesman and orator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus even complained in his letters that Vettius enjoyed too much opium in his estates in Etruria, instead of dealing with politics in Rome," Federico Cantini, the archaeologist of the University of Pisa who led the dig, told Discovery News.

Built in the first century, the villa in Capraia e Limite had its most glorious time in the 4th century AD, when Vettius Agorius Praetextatus rebuilt it according to luxurious standards. By the beginning of the 6th century AD it was completely abandoned and plundered.

"Luckily, they could not remove the mosaics," Alderighi said.

Excavations in 2013 brought to light a stunning oval mosaic with a wild boar hunting scene which dates to the second half of the 4th century AD.

Because of legal issues and lack of funding, the mosaic was covered soon after its discovery in order to preserve it. The finding prompted new archaeological investigations.

"We speculated the mosaic floor extends further, thus we tested the hypothesis with a survey dig," Cantini said.

The excavation proved Cantini and his team were right.

Parts of two floor mosaics came to light. The older one consisted of geometric patterns framed by red decorations with acanthus and vine leaves in various shades of grey, blue and black. The other displayed scenes with animals, flowers, geometric patterns framed by octagons. Catching the attention at the center of one of such octagons, is the bust of a man with a tunic and large eyes.

"We believe it is not a portrait, but just a decoration," Alderighi said.

According to the archaeologists, the investigated portion of the villa had an hexagonal structure with rooms opening onto a central hall.

"We estimate the size of the floor mosaic to be about 300 square meters (984 square feet). We only have unearthed one-eighth of it," Cantini said.

Read more at Discovery News

'Gospel of Jesus's Wife' Papyrus' Improbable Journey

The search to uncover the true story behind the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife," a controversial papyrus that suggests that Jesus Christ had a wife, has extended beyond the theology halls of Harvard Divinity School, back to 1960s East Germany.

The origin of the papyrus has remained elusive, and many scholars debate the document's authenticity.

Now, records obtained from various sources by Live Science — many of which are publicly available online in databases in Florida and Germany, as well as on the Internet Archive— show that if the papyrus is authentic, the story behind how it came to the United States would be astounding. The records also describe how, if the papyrus is fake, the forger (or forgers) may have crafted such a realistic specimen.

Specifically, the documents provide a detailed account of the life of Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, the alleged former owner of the Gospel of Jesus's Wife. They describe a highly skilled industrialist who built a business with operations in Florida and Germany. Laukamp is a key figure in the debate of whether the papyrus is authentic, and may hold the key to solving this mystery.

Grand discovery

Karen King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, first announced the discovery of the so-called Gospel of Jesus's Wife in September 2012. Written in Coptic (an Egyptian language), the papyrus fragment contains a translated line that reads, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife …'" and also refers to a "Mary," possibly Mary Magdalene.

King has said the papyrus doesn't prove that Jesus himself was actually married, but rather that some people, who lived after Jesus' time, believed he was.

Radiocarbon dating indicates that the papyrus dates to around A.D. 800, and tests on the papyrus's ink confirm that it could have been created at that time.

Based on these findings, King and a few other scholars have argued that the text is authentic, as it could be a copy of a text written in earlier times. However, a number of scholars have noted peculiar features of the "gospel's" writing that suggest it is a modern forgery — one possibly based off a text that first appeared online in 1997.

"Those in favor of authenticity have, since the beginning [when the text was discovered], looked to scientific testing — carbon dating, ink analysis — to justify their claims," Joel Baden and Candida Moss, professors at Yale University and Notre Dame University, respectively, wrote in an article published in September in The Atlantic. "Those who believe it is a forgery have leaned on the analysis of letter forms, of grammar, of syntax."

Men of mystery

The current owner of the papyrus has insisted on remaining anonymous. He provided King with signed documents that claim he bought the papyrus in 1999 from Laukamp, and that Laukamp got it from Potsdam, in what was East Germany, in 1963. (The exact location where he would have gotten the papyrus in Potsdam is unknown.)

Laukamp died in 2002, and the claim that he owned the text has been strongly disputed by Rene Ernest, the man whom Laukamp and his wife Helga charged with representing their estate. Ernest told Live Science that Laukamp had no interest in antiquities, did not collect them and was living in West Berlin in 1963 and thus couldn't have traveled to Potsdam from across the Berlin Wall. (West Berliners were not allowed to visit Potsdam at that time.)

Similarly, Axel Herzsprung, Laukamp's friend and business associate, told Live Science that Laukamp never had an interest in antiquities and never owned a papyrus. Laukamp has no children or living relatives who could verify these claims.

The newly obtained records show that, between 1995 and 2002, Laukamp was the owner of a fast-growing manufacturing company called ACMB (American Corporation for Milling and Boreworks). By 2000, Laukamp's operations had expanded to encompass a 25,000-square-foot (2,300 square meters) factory in Berlin, an office in Florida and a staff that included scientists, engineers and skilled tradespeople.

Laukamp and his wife moved to Venice, Florida, in 1997. The records show that in 2001, after Helga had died, he wrapped up his affairs in the United States and departed for Berlin, where he passed away. Laukamp's company collapsed not long after his death in 2002.

Improbable journey

If the "Jesus's Wife" papyrus is authentic, it would mean that Laukamp would have had to figure out a way to reach Potsdam in 1963. In that year, West Berliners could only travel to East Berlin at Christmas, and only if they had family on that side of the city, according to historical records from that time period. President John F. Kennedy himself protested these conditions, flying to West Berlin in 1963 to give his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

If Laukamp did try to reach Potsdam, he would have risked being caught and would have had to explain to East German, and possibly Soviet, authorities that the papyrus he was carrying, with the Coptic handwriting, was simply an ancient papyrus and not a coded message.

The new records offer few clues as to how Laukamp could have reached Potsdam from West Berlin in 1963. The documents show that Laukamp was technically proficient with automobiles and motorcycles, as his business manufactured a variety of products for the automobile industry and Laukamp himself co-patented a new motorcycle brake design. Whether these skills could have helped him get over the Berlin Wall and reach Potsdam while avoiding East German police is unknown.

Another possibility is that Laukamp got into Potsdam with the help of East German or Soviet authorities. If this is true, it raises questions as to what involvement these authorities could have had in the Gospel of Jesus's Wife.

If the papyrus is authentic, it would mean Laukamp withheld its existence (and his interest in antiquities) from Ernest and that he concealed it from Herzsprung, his friend and business associate.

Does the signature fit?

As Live Science reported in August, five notarized documents have been found that together held seven of Laukamp's signatures, dating to between 1997 and 2001. In a 2014 article published in Harvard Theological Review, King said she had a copy of the signed document recording the sale of the papyrus. With that document, Harvard scientists could work with forensic handwriting experts to verify the signature on the sale document.

If the signature on the sale record is Laukamp's, the origins of the papyrus (whether authentic or fake) lie with him. On the other hand, if Laukamp's signature was forged, then the papyrus is likely a fake and the anonymous owner may have been involved in the forgery.

Whether Harvard researchers are performing these tests is unknown. King and communications staff at Harvard Divinity School have not responded to requests for comment.

Could Laukamp have forged it?

Many scholars believe that the Gospel of Jesus's Wife is a fake that was likely created by Laukamp or the anonymous owner.

King said in the 2014 Harvard Theological Review article that although it's theoretically possible to create a gospel that could withstand scientific testing, such a creation would require a "clever forger" with sophisticated technical skills to pull it off. The new records show that the people whom Laukamp employed or otherwise worked with were scientists, engineers and skilled tradespeople.

The newly discovered records indicate that if Laukamp helped to forge the papyrus, his motivation might have been monetary. The records show that in the period leading up to 1999, Laukamp was spending a large amount of cash: He had built a new factory in Berlin that encompassed 25,000 square feet; he bought a newly built house in Venice, Florida; he opened a branch office of ACMB in the same city; and he hired additional staff for his business.

Did the anonymous owner forge it?

If the anonymous owner forged the papyrus, it would mean that he or someone working with him likely had knowledge of Laukamp's personal life, including that Laukamp had no children and no living relatives who could talk to Harvard or the news media when the discovery was announced. The Gospel of Jesus's Wife has generated a tremendous amount of media coverage all over the world and was even the focus of a Smithsonian documentary.

Paul Barford, an independent archaeologist who writes about antiquities collecting, noted that a forger would find it "convenient" that Laukamp had no living relatives who could speak for him.

Read more at Discovery News

Could This Tough Bacteria Survive on Mars?

The last thing scientists searching for life on Mars want to find is a colony of hitchhiking microbes from Earth. To that end, an experiment poised to begin week aims to put some of the planet’s most tenacious bacteria through an ultimate survivors’ challenge.

Four million spores of Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032, a highly resilient strain of bacteria, will ride a helium balloon to the edge of space so they can bask in the frigid cold, extreme low pressure and intense solar ultraviolet radiation at the edge of space.

The idea is to simulate conditions that would be experienced on Mars so that scientists can better gauge which microbes or types of microbes pose the greatest risk of contamination.

“We want to make sure that if we find life on Mars we know we found life that is Martian life, not contamination we brought from the Earth,” said NASA lead scientist Ellen Stofan.

“Certainly in areas where there is water, we need to be cautious -- extremely cautious -- as we move toward exploring them. However, those areas could potentially be the most interesting areas to explore,” she added.

The strain of bacteria to be tested first is commonly found in clean rooms where spacecraft are assembly for launch. The experiment samples have been divided into four groups of 1 million spores each. One group will be exposed to the near-space environment for six hours, the next for 12 hours, the next for 18 hours and the last for 24 hours before the experiment chamber parachutes back to Earth for recovery.

It takes seven months or longer for a spacecraft to reach Mars, but scientists say they expect to see changes in the bacteria after even short exposures in the near-space environment.

“We do expect to see a pretty measurable decline in the viability of these spores … and we can extrapolate what this may look like for a longer period of time,” microbiologist David Smith, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, told Discovery News.

In addition to looking for surviving spores, scientists will analyze the genome of cells to look for changes due to exposure in the stratosphere.

“Hopefully, work like this will be able to tell us which contamination to expect. That’s basically the essence of the work,” Smith said.

Read more at Discovery News

Neutrino Research Earns Physics Nobel

Takaaki Kajita of Japan and Arthur McDonald of Canada were awarded the Nobel Physics Prize on Tuesday for determining that neutrinos have mass, a key piece of the puzzle in understanding the cosmos.

“The discovery has changed our understanding of the innermost workings of matter and can prove crucial to our view of the Universe,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

The findings are so far-reaching that they challenge the so-called Standard Model, the conceptual model of fundamental particles and forces, it said.

Neutrinos are lightweight neutral particles that are created as the result of nuclear reactions, such as the process that makes the Sun shine.

Next to particles of light called photons, they are the most abundant particles in the Universe.

Their existence was tentatively proposed in 1930, but was only proved in the 1950s, when nuclear reactors began to produce streams of the particles.

The prevailing theory was that neutrinos were massless, but experiments carried out separately in underground labs by teams led by Kajita in Japan and McDonald in Canada showed that this was not the case.

Many neutrinos blasted out from the Sun — a type called electron neutrinos — “oscillated” en route to become cousin particles called muon-neutrinos and tau-neutrinos, they found.

Since the 1960s, scientists had estimated the number of neutrinos created in the nuclear reactions that make the Sun shine.

But when this figure was compared against actual measurements on Earth, an anomaly emerged.

Up to two-thirds of the calculated tally of neutrinos coming from the Sun was missing, and no one knew where they were going.

In 1998, working at the Super-Kamiokande detector — a 50,000-tonne tank of highly purified water built at the bottom of an old zinc mine in central Japan — Kajita discovered that neutrinos seemed to change identities on their way from the Sun to Earth.

Meanwhile, in 1999, scientists led by McDonald at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, built deep under the ground in an old nickel mine in Ontario, Canada, were also studying neutrinos coming from the Sun. In 2001, his group also proved that neutrinos had a chameleon-like nature.

Under the quirky rules of quantum physics, the identity shift the scientists observed can only happen if neutrinos have mass.

“You can chalk up yet another success for quantum mechanics because without it we would not be able to make sense of the experimental results that have led to this prize,” said Robert Brown, head of the American Institute of Physics.

The Nobel committee said the work threw down the gauntlet to theoretical physics.

“The experiments have… revealed the first apparent crack in the Standard Model,” the panel said.

“It has become obvious that the Standard Model cannot be the complete theory of how the fundamental constituents of the Universe function.”

Intense activity is underway to understand more about the elusive particles.

“New discoveries about their deepest secrets are expected to change our current understanding of the history, structure and future fate of the Universe,” the jury said.

Kajita and McDonald will share the prize sum of eight million Swedish kronor (around $950,000 or 855,000 euros).

McDonald, 72, told the Nobel Foundation that winning the prize was “a very daunting experience, needless to say,” recalling the “eureka moment” when he made his discovery.

“Fortunately I have many colleagues as well who share this prize with me,” he added.

McDonald is a professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Canada.

Kajita, 56, meanwhile said “it was a real surprise to me. It’s kind of unbelievable.”

Asked whether he ever dreamed of winning the Nobel, he replied: ”As really a dream maybe yes, but not a serious dream so far.”

He is the director of the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research and a professor at the University of Tokyo.

This year’s physics prize follows the 2002 award to Raymond Davis of the US and Masatoshi Koshiba of Japan, pioneers in the field of cosmic neutrinos.

Read more at Discovery News

There's a (Magnetic) Hole in the Sun

Yes, that’s right, there’s a hole in the sun, but it’s not a sign of anything scary, it’s actually a wonderful insight to some pretty “cool” solar dynamics.

Imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory through filters that are sensitive to extreme ultraviolet light, this huge dark spot in the center of the sun’s disk is a low density region of plasma in the sun’s corona (the sun’s multimillion degree magnetized atmosphere).

The solar corona is a magnetically-dominated region, populated with “open” and “closed” magnetic field lines, that protrude from the sun’s interior and into the corona, along which the super-heated plasma is guided. The bright regions in this image are locations of closed field lines, known as coronal loops. Dense plasma is trapped in these elegant loops, being heated, generating intense radiation.

However, in this observation of the sun, an obvious dark patch has rotated into view, a sign that density is low and the hot plasma is escaping from the corona into interplanetary space.

Coronal holes are the source of the fast solar wind that can impact space weather at Earth, and this coronal hole shows that a stream of high-velocity plasma (highly-energetic particles composed mainly of protons) is headed our way. The magnetic field in coronal holes act like a fire-hose, spraying coronal plasma away from the sun as it rotates, spiraling through the solar system.

According to Spaceweather.com, plasma from this coronal hole will reach Earth orbit on Oct. 8-9. It’s possible that, depending on magnetic conditions, arrival of this stream of fast solar wind may intensify auroral activity in high latitudes.

Like solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), intense bursts of solar wind activity can increase the radiation environment surrounding Earth, impacting sensitive electronics in satellites and spacecraft. The SDO and armada of other solar observatories such as the NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and Japanese Hinode space telescopes are on constant watch for explosive events in the corona and the presence of coronal holes so space weather can be better predicted before it impacts Earth.

From Discovery News

Why Haven't we Returned to Venus' Hellish Surface?

It was 40 years ago this month that Venera 9 transmitted the first surface images from Venus, a hellish world that is not only hot, but also under high pressure at the surface.

The Soviet Union sent several spacecraft to the surface in the 1970s and 1980s. The longest any of them survived was just two hours. Could we do better now? NASA’s Geoffrey Landis has hope that new technologies could get more surface science out of Venus, eventually.

Landis is a researcher in advanced concepts and a Venus advocate at the NASA Glenn Research Center who has several streams of Venus research ranging from astrobiology to atmospheric flights. He’s also been tinkering with several concepts over the years, such as a “Zephyr” wheeled rover that would sail across the parched surface using Venus winds. Most recently, he and colleagues at NASA Glenn began work on the Glenn Extreme Environment Rig (GEER) that would be big enough to test spacecraft in a Venus-like environment.

“Venus has been tremendously difficult to land on,” Landis acknowledged in an interview with Discovery News, adding that the surface is hotter than a conventional oven. One key challenge facing robotic explorers is conventional silicon electronics would not work. Silicon degrades in the acidic, hot environment because there are so many electrons from the atmosphere flowing across the “band gap” across which electric current flows.

He suggests a couple of ways around it. One idea: silicon carbide is a semiconductor that has a high-energy band gap and performs well at high temperatures. Or, one could refrigerate the electronics and leave the rest of the spacecraft exposed to the elements — as long as the spacecraft was made of a tough, light material like a titanium pressure shell.

Or perhaps future robotic explorers could avoid the surface altogether. Another group at the NASA Langley Research Center has speculated that airships — even airships with humans — could easily work in the more temperate latitudes about 35 miles (50 kilometers) above the surface. The atmosphere is at a more Earth-like pressure there. As for composition, it is mostly carbon dioxide — meaning that an oxygen balloon would float because it is lighter than the surrounding atmosphere.

While Landis says there is real value to going all the way down to the surface — “we’ve learned so much on Mars by sending rovers to the surface” — Venus is full of mysteries no matter what altitude one studies. The upper atmosphere is full of ultraviolet-absorbing particles, but nobody knows exactly what those particles are. Some scientists speculate they could even be microbes, a form of life on Venus.

Even the lower atmosphere of Venus is dynamic, with winds flowing at hundreds of miles an hour. Getting a better picture of how the entire atmosphere works would tell us more about the greenhouse effect generally, Landis says.

Read more at Discovery News

Oct 5, 2015

Chile Creates Easter Island Marine Reserve

Chile and the United States declared huge new marine reserves on Monday at the start of a major conference in Chile on protecting the world's oceans and fisheries.

Chile opened the Our Ocean conference by declaring a 243,630-square-mile (631,368-square-kilometer) sanctuary around Easter Island in the Pacific off its eastern coast.

The area is a source of food in the vast expanse of the ocean and a spawning ground for tuna, shark, marlin and swordfish and a food source for the Rapa Nui people of the island.

It joins reserves declared by the United States, Britain and New Zealand off the US Pacific Islands, Pitcairn and the Kermadecs, as areas protected from the depredations of unregulated fishing.

President Michelle Bachelet announced the plan to warm applause from international delegates and a traditional song from a Rapa Nui group.

"We commit to the creation of protected areas around the Rapa Nui islands," said the Socialist leader, using the territory's Polynesian name.

Charitable institutions the Pew Charitable Trusts and The Bertarelli Foundation welcomed the decision, which they said would protect 27 endangered species and the people who fish there.

"The Easter Island park protects one of the last near-pristine ocean wildernesses on Earth and one that holds great cultural, religious and economic importance to the Rapa Nui people," said Joshua Reichert of Pew.

Chile is hosting Our Ocean in the picturesque Pacific port city of Valparaiso, a second annual day-long get-together for states and foundations to pledge support for the marine ecosystem.

US President Barack Obama addressed the meeting in a video message to announce two new "National Marine Sanctuaries" in the United States.

An 875-square-mile (2,300-square-kilometer) area of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin that holds dozens of historic wrecks will be protected, US officials said.

Mallows Bay on the Potomac River in Maryland, a tidal wetland and a graveyard for scuttled warships since the Revolutionary War, will also become a reserve.

"And, in the coming months, I will look for even more opportunities to protect our waters," Obama said.

"We will leave our children a planet as full of possibilities as the one we inherited."

Several more countries and foundations are expected to pledge funds and propose initiatives to fight pollution, overfishing and the acidification of the ocean by carbon emissions.

Last year's conference in Washington saw $800 million pledged to support various environmental initiatives and this year's host Chile hoped for similar success.

But perhaps the initiative with the most long-term potential is a US plan to regulate the world fish trade.

According to a 2014 study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 29 percent of the world's fish stocks which have been adequately studied are overexploited.

Regulation and quota systems vary wildly around the world and some countries -– particularly in Southeast Asia -– have been accused of allowing large-scale unregulated fishing.

Part of the US plan, dubbed Sea Scout, will seek to unite governments around the world in the fight to identify illegal fishing vessels and fleets and bar them from landing catches.

Under the plan, experts will identify regional fishing sea "hot spots" and target them for enforcement by member states' fisheries protection teams, the White House said.

The US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration will track suspicious fishing boats by satellite and alert authorities in Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries.

Meanwhile, Washington will make its own fishing industry and importers serving its huge market –- Americans eat 4.6 billion pounds of seafood per year -– track products from their origin.

Officials traveling with US Secretary of State John Kerry to the Valparaiso conference said rules coming into place next year will track species representing 80 percent of US seafood.

The United States will negotiate with its Asian partners to try to embed the seafood tracking system into the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal it is currently negotiating.

Read more at Discovery News

Snakes Use 'Leg Genes' to Make Phalluses

Snakes lack limbs, but new research finds that they still have DNA crucial to limb development lurking in their genomes. So, why keep that genetic baggage around?

To build a penis, of course.

A new study, published today (Oct. 1) in the journal Developmental Cell, reveals that the same genetic snippets that control the outgrowth of limbs (called enhancers) during embryonic development in mammals are crucial to the development of the phallus in both mammals and reptiles — including legless snakes. (The embryonic phallus structure eventually becomes a penis in males and a clitoris in females.)

"It tells us that we are a little bit myopic in thinking about what these limb enhancers are doing in mammals," said study leader Doug Menke, a genetics researcher at the University of Georgia. "We've really been thinking of these as limb enhancers, but more broadly, these genetic components are actually also participating in development and driving gene expression in other body tissues," he told Live Science.

Menke and his team are interested in DNA components called cis-regulatory elements, or enhancers. Unlike DNA coding, these segments of genetic information don't provide the recipe for proteins. Instead, they're noncoding segments. Their job is to control how the protein-coding genes get turned on and off.

Hundreds of these segments are involved in the process of building limbs in utero, Menke said, referring to knowledge gained mostly through research in mice. The researchers wanted to gain a better understanding of how the limb enhancers contribute to the evolution of different sizes and shapes of limbs.

"You can't get much more extreme than an animal that completely lacks limbs," Menke said. (Some snakes do have tiny vestigial hind limbs, leftovers from the days when snakes did have limbs more than 80 million years ago.)

The researchers first looked at the genomes of three snake species (boa constrictors, Burmese pythons and king cobras) and a reptile with legs, the Anolis lizard. They found a surprise.

"The number of these enhancers that we could detect in lizards versus snakes was very similar," Menke said. "By and large, if we could find a limb enhancer that was conserved between mammals and lizards, we could also find the same enhancer in a snake."

This finding was strange, because DNA is a "use it or lose it" sort of tool, Menke said. In the 80 million years since snakes lost their legs, the limb-enhancing DNA should have become a mess of random mutations. The fact that these sequences were intact suggested they might serve an important function, he said.

The researchers already knew that many mammalian limb enhancers are also active during embryonic development of the external genitalia. In the new study, Menke's team used mice to find that about half of gene segments dubbed limb enhancers are also active in phallus development. After all, both limbs and phalluses are outgrowths off the main body, Menke said, so it makes sense that they'd share genes to get the job done.

When looking at the Anolis lizards, the researchers found limb enhancers also affected both hind limbs and genitals. Then, they took snake enhancer sequences and spliced them into the DNA of developing mouse embryos. They found that the snake DNA segments could no longer "turn on" the genes in the mouse back legs — but they could activate the genes in the mouse genital tract. In other words, Menke said, the snake's enhancer segments have specialized to become phallus-specific.

These findings matter in part because they expand scientists' knowledge of the evolution of external genitalia. The hypothesis, Menke said, is that ancient, limbless animals reused their leg genes to develop penises when internal fertilization developed. (The penis first showed up about 310 million years ago in evolution.) These findings mesh with that notion.

The research also has implications for humans. There are genetic disorders that result in limb and genital birth defects. One example is the rare hand-foot-genital syndrome, in which people have shortened thumbs and shortened big toes, abnormalities in the wrists and ankles, and defects in the urethra and sometimes in the uterus. That syndrome is the result of a mutation in a protein-coding gene, Menke said. The new research suggests that defects in noncoding limb enhancers might cause problems, too.

Read more at Discovery News

Scrappy 'Primeval Beaver' Rose From Dino Ashes

The mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs and other animals was just a blip in time for a family of beaver-resembling animals that not only survived the onslaught, but also thrived for several million years afterwards.

Paleontologists have just discovered the remains of one of these hardy, beaver-like animals. The furry, toothy mammal is called Kimbetopsalis simmonsae, a.k.a. "Primeval Beaver," and is described in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

"It is a new species of primitive beaver-like mammal from New Mexico that lived just a few hundred thousand years after the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs," co-author Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences told Discovery News.

"Its ancestors made it through the firestorm and then began to evolve incredibly quickly, setting the stage for today’s mammal-dominated world," he added.

Brusatte, lead author Thomas Williamson of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, and colleagues Ross Secord and Sarah Shelley analyzed the remains of Primeval Beaver, which were found in the Nacimiento Formation of the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico.

Primeval Beaver was about the size of today's beavers and had large molars with several rows of cusps that it would have used to grind up even the toughest of plants. Its incisor teeth could cut through trunks, stems and more, the researchers believe.

"Plants definitely were affected by the extinction, but it's not like all plants died out," Brusatte said.

During the Dino Era, mammals, including the ancestors of Primeval Beaver, tended to be small. None has been found that was larger than a modern badger. This coexistence of dinosaurs and small mammals went on for over 100 million years.

Shortly after the dinos (aside from birds) were wiped off the face of the earth, mammals started to grow much larger. A close relative of Primeval Beaver was Taeniolabis, also known as "Ribbon Lips." According to Brusatte and his colleagues, Ribbon Lips weighed up to 220 pounds, and resembled an enormous beaver.

Both Primeval Beaver and Ribbon Lips were animals called multituberculates. This now-extinct group of mammals originated around 160 million years ago. It thrived for some 35 million years.

Primeval Beaver lived during the earliest Paleocene, which is one of the hottest times of the last 100 million years. During this period, there were several severe temperature spikes, called hyperthermals, which the mammals had to endure.

Primeval Beaver's environment, however, was full of rivers, swamps and lakes.

"It was an incredibly diverse habitat," Brusatte said. "Lots of turtles and alligators and birds. And also tons of other mammals. Within a few hundred thousand years after the dinosaur extinction, mammals were really prospering. Some of these were placental mammals, so early members of our group."

Eventually the multituberculates were superseded by rodents, which are placental mammals like us.

Read more at Discovery News

Nobel Prize for Medicine Winners Announced

A trio of scientists earned the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday for unlocking revolutionary treatments for malaria and roundworm, helping to roll back two parasitic diseases that blight millions of lives.

Tu Youyou of China won half of the award for her work in artemisinin, a drug based on ancient Chinese herbal medicine, the Nobel jury announced. She is the first Chinese woman national to win a Nobel prize in science.

Irish-born William Campbell and Satoshi Omura of Japan shared the other half for an anti-roundworm treatment dubbed avermectin, derived from soil-dwelling bacteria.

"These two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually," the Nobel committee said.

"The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable."

Tu, 84, has been chief professor at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine since 2000.

She conducted research in the 1970s, at the height of China's Cultural Revolution, that led to the discovery of artemisinin, a drug that has slashed the number of malaria deaths.

The treatment is based on traditional medicine -- a herb called sweet wormwood or Artemisia annua.

Artemisinin-based drugs are now the standard combination for treating malaria since the mosquito-transferred Plasmodium parasite developed resistance to other drug types like chloroquine.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were about 198 million malaria infections in 2013 and 584,000 deaths -- most of them African children.

The other half of the prize honoured Omura and Campbell for "a new class of drugs with extraordinary efficacy against parasitic diseases," the Nobel statement said.

Registered drugs derived from avermectin "have radically lowered" the incidence of river blindness and elephantiasis, both caused by parasitic worms, it added.

River blindness, also known as onchocerciasis, is caused by a worm transmitted to humans through the bites of infected blackflies. Its symptoms include disfiguring skin conditions and visual impairment, including permanent blindness.

More than 99 percent of those affected live in Africa.

Elephantiasis or lymphatic filariasis, is a mosquito-borne infection which causes grotesque and disfiguring swelling of the limbs.

Omura, a microbiologist, isolated new strains of a group of bacteria called Streptomyces, and successfully cultured them in the lab.

Campbell, a research fellow emeritus at Drew University in New Jersey in the United States, was born in 1930 in Ramelton, Ireland.

His role was to show that a component from one of Omura's cultures was active against parasites -- this became avermectin.

"I humbly accept the prize," 80-year-old Omura, a professor emeritus at Kitasato University, said in a interview with the Nobel Foundation.

He thanked the "many, many researchers" who had contributed to his findings, saying he was "very, very lucky."

The Swedish news agency TT said the Nobel Foundation had not yet been able to reach Tu and Campbell to inform them of their prizes.

This year's Nobel laureates will share the prize sum of eight million Swedish kronor (about $950,000 or 855,000 euros).

Read more at Discovery News