Nov 21, 2015

Historical Archive Found in Russian Birds' Nest

Restoration work on a 15th century Russian cathedral has brought to light one of the most unusual archives: a pile of historic scraps of papers collected by nest-building birds.

Found in the attic of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod, an old town 40 miles west of Moscow, the collection consists of beak-selected fragments of letters, banknotes, books, cigarette packs, candy wrappers, bus tickets, and even church documents.

“For several centuries swifts and jackdaws built their nests under the roof of the cathedral,” Dmitriy Sedov, deputy research director at Zvenigorod’s Historical and Architectural Museum, said in a statement.

“We found a thick layer made of dirt, branches, and fragments of papers stolen by birds to keep their chicks warm,” he added.

Sedov estimates the oldest fragments date to the 1830s, when the roof was last replaced.

Although most of the papers are torn and ruined by beaks, it is still possible to read their contents.

Most of the fragments are pieces of letters written in elegant calligraphy, mentioning in particular Count Karl Nesselrode, foreign minister of imperial Russia from 1822 to 1856.

A scrap of a calendar bears the date of December 6, 1917 with a note referring to Russian Emperor Nicolas II, the last tsar of Russia executed with his family by the Bolsheviks the following year.

Other documents include bus tickets, delivery contracts, students’ diplomas, church documents, birth certificates and scribbled down notes. One reads: “Good afternoon, Vera! I send you greetings.”

Read more at Discovery News

New NASA Tool Displays Earth's CO2

Until recently, efforts to measure and model climate change contained a greater degree of uncertainty than scientists would prefer. This was due to the limitations of ground-based monitoring stations and satellites that collect data about carbon dioxide.

But that's changing due to NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite, which is designed to provide a more precise and complete view of how carbon dioxide moves through the atmosphere, as well as between the atmosphere and plants, soil and the oceans.

"Carbon can't hide anymore," NASA climate scientist Lesley Ott explained in a telephone interview.

The satellite measures the number of molecules of CO2 and air between the surface and outer space by analyzing wavelengths of light that CO2 absorbs. It takes 24 readings each second and provides measurements that are accurate to 0.25 percent. It's also capable of providing information about regions where there's poor coverage by ground-based sampling.

Those capabilities allow climate researchers "to see the kind of gradients that we need for good science," Ott said.

The $465 million satellite, launched in 2014, has now amassed more than a year's worth of data, and it's helping scientists to see both the sources of carbon dioxide emissions and also the sinks -- that is, places where carbon is stored. OCO-2's information could help them to fill in some gaps in their knowledge, and to get a clearer idea of much the Earth's climate will change in the future.

"We already know that plants and the ocean absorb half of human carbon emissions, which is doing us a big favor," Ott said. "But we haven't understood where that CO2 is being sequestered, and what are the processes that do it."

One key question that scientists need to answer is how climate change will affect the carbon-storing capacity of forests, Ott said. In the short term, it may actually boost forests' ability to serve as carbon sinks, because the CO2 acts "like a fertilizer in the ground," causing more and bigger plants to grow. "But we know that can't happen indefinitely," she said. "That makes it important to understand the sensitivity of that process to moisture and higher temperatures."

Paul Wennberg, director of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science at California Institute of Technology, wrote in an email that OCO-2 already has provided new insights about atmospheric exchange of carbon dioxide with forests in the upper latitudes, whose growth is likely be affected by climate change.

"In particular, we are able to see much better the changing pattern of CO2 uptake during spring," Wennberg wrote. "One of the very exciting new products from OCO-2 is the so-called 'solar induced fluorescence (SIF)' -- a measure of the active hotosynthesis by plants. Combining the SIF and CO2 data from OCO-2 we can essentially image the onset of spring as it begins in Europe, spreads across Asia and finally arrived in North America."

According to a news release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., OCO-2's data also shows the dynamic ebb and flow of atmospheric carbon according to the seasons. Between mid-May and mid-July, for example, it detected a "dramatic" reduction in atmospheric CO2 of 2 to 3 percent, as plants absorbed it from the atmosphere and used to form new leaves, stems and roots. Scientists were able to observe the "spring drawdown," as they call it, in detail, seeing week-to-week changes.

The satellite also detected increased concentrations of C02 in areas where fossil fuels are being burned by power plants and large cities, as well as in the Amazon, central Africa and Indonesia, where forests are being slashed and burned to clear fields for farming.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 20, 2015

Weird Sea Mollusk Has Hundreds of Eyes Made of Armor

A marine mollusk built like a tiny tank can see with eyes made of the same material as its armor.

Acanthopleura granulata is a chiton, a pill bug of the sea. This animal has a shell made of overlapping plates, which allows it to roll up in defense if a predator manages to pry it from the tidal-zone rock it calls home. Researchers have long known that chitons have soft tissue embedded in their flexible suits of armor, and that some of this soft tissue is sensitive to light. Now, they've discovered that A. granulata has hundreds of actual eyes that can see an 8-inch-long (20 centimeters) fish from 6.5 feet (2 meters) away.

Even weirder, these eyes are made of the same calcium-carbonate mineral as the chiton shell. However, the animal does have to trade off some structural integrity in return for the sensory function.

"We think this system might provide design lessons for us to learn how nature is able to produce material structures with multiple different functions," said Ling Li, one of the authors of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Ling and the rest of the research team have studied multiple animals with bizarre multitasking armor and exoskeletons. Brittle stars, which are relatives of sea stars (also called starfish), have light-sensing lenses built into their exoskeletons. Some limpets have structurally special areas in their otherwise translucent shells that create colorful displays. Windowpane oysters have nearly transparent shells that nevertheless are extremely strong.

The goal, Li told Live Science, is to use nature's designs for improvements in engineering and technology. Windowpane oysters, for example, might inspire stronger windshields for combat vehicles. And chiton shells could provide a basis for creating self-monitoring materials, such as walls embedded with sensors that would detect cracks, Li said.

The new work, published in the Nov. 20 issue of the journal Science, reveals that chiton eyes are very different from human eyes. Whereas human eyes are made of proteins, chiton eyes are made of aragonite, a mineral. Aragonite is a kind of calcium carbonate found in many mollusks. Pearls, created by oysters, are a mix of aragonite and a protein called conchiolin.

The researchers examined the microscopic structure of these aragonite eyes, comparing them with the surrounding armor structure. They also ran experiments and simulations to reveal that the eyes are more than just light-sensitive spots; they actually resolve images. From more than 6 feet away, chitons can see a blur representing a small fish. This gives them time to clamp down hard on the rock below so the potential predator can't dislodge them, Li said.

Sight has its costs, though. The researchers found that the aragonite eye structures are not as strong as the surrounding armor. Though the two are made of the same mineral, the aragonite in the eyes has a different crystalline structure. That different structure, along with a pore space beneath the eyes, makes them weaker. Thus, they fracture more easily.

"It's a compromise," Li said.

Chitons have come up with a few protective strategies, the researchers found. The eye structures are clustered in tiny "valleys" in the mollusk's armor, which help keep them safe. Their underlying layers seem to be hard and thick, so that any damage doesn't penetrate fully. And chitons have up to 1,000 eyes and can grow more throughout their lifetimes, replacing any that are damaged.

Read more at Discovery News

Trove of Antique Roman Coins Found in Swiss Orchard

A Swiss fruit-and-vegetable farmer stumbled across more than tree roots when inspecting his cherry orchard recently, uncovering a massive trove of coins buried some 1,700 years earlier, archaeologists said Thursday.

The trove of more than 4,000 bronze and silver coins dating back to Ancient Rome and weighing 15 kilos (33 pounds) was discovered in Ueken, in the northern canton of Aargau, the regional archaeological service said, describing it as one of the biggest such treasures ever found in Switzerland.

A farmer had made the spectacular discovery back in July, when he spotted a molehill with some shimmering green coins.

A few months earlier, remains of an early Roman settlement were discovered in a dig in the nearby town of Frick, so the farmer suspected he may have found Roman coins.

He contacted the regional archeological service and his suspicions were confirmed.

The service announced Thursday that after months of discreet excavations, a total of 4,166 coins had been found in excellent condition.

Their imprints remain legible, allowing an expert to determine they date back to Ancient Rome, stretching from the rein of Emperor Aurelian (year 270-275) to that of Maximilian (286-305), with the most recent coins dated to year 294.

“The orchard where the coins were found was never built on. It is land that has always been farmed,” archeologist Georg Matter told AFP, explaining how the treasure could have laid dormant for so long.

The coins’ excellent condition indicates that their owner systematically stashed them away shortly after they were made, the archeologists said.

For some reason, the owner had buried them shortly after 294 and never retrieved them, the archeologists said.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Fossil Forests Discovered in the Arctic

What did some of the first trees on Earth look like? Earth scientists from Cardiff University digging around in Arctic Norway are closing in on an answer. And that answer is: weirdly familiar.

Fossilized stumps from a forest dating back 380 million years indicate that these trees must have resembled palm trees covered in fern-like leaves. They grew close together and reached about 13 feet in height.

Cardiff University paleobotonist Chris Berry and his colleagues found the fossils in Svalbard, an archipelago that would have been located close to the equator hundreds of millions of years ago. They identified the trees as a now-extinct lycopod with the zippy name Protolepidodendropsis pulchra.

The discovery of these strange forests could finally help explain a drastic drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the late Devonian time period. Just how drastic? It was a 15-fold reduction, a university press release said.

“It is rare fossil forests such as this that inform our understanding of the ecology and global distribution of large land plants during the transition to a forested planet,” the team wrote in the journal Geology.

This isn’t the first time Berry and his colleagues have pieced together an ancient forest. Back in 2012, he and his colleagues mapped out another Devonian forest that once grew in what is now Gilboa, N.Y., on the eastern side of the state.

“The fossil forest came to life in front of my eyes in a way that has never happened before,” he told Discovery News at the time.

These densely-packed ancient forests got me thinking. What if we could engineer a new tree with the powerful CO2-absorbing abilities of these early lycopods? They sound perfect for cities where space is at a premium. And with temperatures rising, I bet they’d thrive.

From Discovery News

'Dead' Galaxy May Hide Dark Matter Surprise

While measuring the speed of stars whirling around a nearby dwarf galaxy, astronomers have realized that a reservoir of dark matter may be lurking within.

Astronomers grew suspicious of Triangulum II when they tried to measure its mass. Using 6 stars as tracers, they measured their speed around the galaxy’s center. Known only to contain around a 1,000 stars, this particular galaxy is a welterweight by cosmic standards, but looks can be decieving. What they found was an amazingly dense galaxy apparently filled with dark matter.

“The total mass I measured was much, much greater than the mass of the total number of stars — implying that there’s a ton of densely packed dark matter contributing to the total mass,” said astronomer Evan Kirby, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. “The ratio of dark matter to luminous matter is the highest of any galaxy we know. After I had made my measurements, I was just thinking — wow.”

Indeed, dark matter is believed to account for the vast majority of matter in the entire universe — approximately 85 percent is thought to be composed of dark matter particles that do not interact with normal matter, except via the gravitational force.

After clocking the speeds of stars inside Triangulum II with the Keck Observatory, located on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, Kirby’s team found that to account for their high speed, there had to me more mass that can be explained by adding up all the stars’ masses. Even more, they realized that the tiny galaxy possibly possesses the highest concentration of dark matter yet discovered in any galaxy.

So what’s going on? One theory is that, for some reason, Triangulum II may be home to a dense cloud of Weakly Interacting Massive particles, or WIMPs. WIMPs are hypothetical particles that carry mass, but do not interact with normal matter. They are ghostly particles that exert a gravitational force and yet cannot be seen (i.e. they do not interact via the electromagnetic force). However, WIMPs do annihilate with one another should they collide, so if Triangulum II is stuffed full of dark matter particles, we should be able to observe an excess of gamma-ray radiation being emitted from the galaxy.

To make things easier, Triangulum II is known as a “dead” galaxy — it lacks star forming regions and is very faint (in fact, the reason why Kirby’s team only tracked 6 stars is that only 6 stars are bright enough to be tracked by the Keck telescope). Therefore, the dwarf galaxy shouldn’t produce much in the way of high energy radiation, such as gamma-rays. So if we detect gamma-rays, perhpas this would be the “smoking gun” of WIMP annihilation.

Read more at Discovery News

Silly Caterpillar, You Shouldn’t Be Devouring Snails Alive

A snail-eating caterpillar in its characteristic silk burrito of protection, doing what it does best: tying a snail down before devouring it alive. Damn, now I want a burrito. Not of silk, of course–carnitas, I'm thinking.
That children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar is bullcrap. I mean, there’s no way a caterpillar could eat all that food, not to mention those kinds of foods. Ice cream? Give me a break. And chocolate cake? Now I’m kinda worried this little thing is hypoglycemic.

And sausage? Really? Wait, actually, scratch that. Caterpillars are diehard vegetarians, but no, not me, says Hawaii’s Hyposmocoma molluscivora. Incredibly, it’s got an appetite for snails, and a big appetite at that. As a snail slumbers, this creepy-crawly carefully approaches and spins silk over the snail’s shell, pinning it to a leaf. Then it crawls in there and devours the trapped victim alive.

The so-called snail-eating caterpillar joins just .13 percent of caterpillars that are predatory. And while other meat eaters go after insects, this species solely targets snails (even if it’s starving, it won’t touch plants). “That’s just ridiculous,” says entomologist Daniel Rubinoff of the University of Hawaii. “In an evolutionary sense, it’s like a vampire cow, essentially. You have all these other cows running around eating grass like they’re supposed to be, and then suddenly you discover one that is attacking and sucking the blood of fish. That’s how weird it would be. Not even other mammals, but fish.”

This caterpillar, which is only a bit over a quarter inch long, spins itself a little burrito-like case that it slips into and drags around for camouflage. But around 10 years ago, folks on Maui noticed that some of the caterpillars had stuck snail shells to these cases, perhaps as an extra fashion accessory to kick up their camo one more notch.

The assumption went that the caterpillars were just coming across empty shells. But then Rubinoff caught the things on video actually hunting snails. Even with the evidence Rubinoff still had a hard time coming to terms with the whole thing. “Even though I had video of it, I still really deep down couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It was just such a stretch, such a bizarre thing to see.”

A caterpillar pinning down a snail with its silk. Someone should really tell it that it’s not a spider. Break the news gently, though.
Snails may be slow, but a caterpillar burdened with a burrito is downright ungainly. So the hunter will only approach sleeping snails—if the target is active, the caterpillar won’t bother. If the snail is satisfactory, the caterpillar will start spinning silk over its shell, pinning it to the leaf below. Think of it like that scene in Gulliver’s Travels where our hero wakes up to find that the tiny Lilliputians have tied him to the ground, only Gulliver survives to go on other adventures. The snail won’t. The only adventuring it’ll be doing is sliding through a caterpillar’s guts.

And unlike the Very Hungry Caterpillar, Hyposmocoma molluscivora exercises a little thing called restraint. “We’ve actually got videos of snails waking up halfway through and trying to get away,” says Rubinoff. “The caterpillar doesn’t attack it, just waits. The snail gives up and goes back inside, and then the caterpillar finishes the spin, comes around, and goes into the snail shell.” It then proceeds to consume the victim alive in its own home.

The whole saga so dramatically departs from typical caterpillar behavior that it’s no wonder Rubinoff had trouble believing it. Caterpillars can’t be bothered with delayed gratification—they just gnaw at leaves and gnaw at leaves some more, as any gardener can tell you. Hyposmocoma molluscivora is a zen master of self-control, planning out a sophisticated attack and launching it only if it’s sure to succeed.

This is about where the snail’s life ends. It shall be remembered, though, as caterpillar turds.
And think about what’s going on physiologically with this caterpillar. It should have different mouthparts than a vegetarian caterpillar, yeah? Nope, as it turns out. They’re pretty much the same. Rubinoff is looking to do more work here, but it may be that snail-eating caterpillars don’t need all that different mandibles. For a vegetarian slicing through leaves, scissor-like mouthparts work great. And scissor-like mouthparts could work just as fine for meat eaters too. (Vampire cows, on the other hand, would need something other than a cow’s typical grinding molars.)

Another physiological conundrum is how the snail-eating caterpillar’s tummy is handling the switch to meat. “Vegans get sick when they eat a burger, and we’re programmed or able to eat meat pretty easily,” Rubinoff says. “If you’re a species that doesn’t eat protein like that, how do you make that kind of adjustment?” At the moment, it’s still a mystery.

Hawaii: The Land Where Snails Rule and Fish Poop Out Beaches

Then there’s the why. Why would Hyposmocoma molluscivora give up the vegan lifestyle? After all, Hawaii isn’t exactly hurting for lush vegetation.

The answer may be that the snails had it coming. Hawaii has historically been lousy with the things, scientists having described over 1,000 different species (many, though, have gone extinct thanks to humans, while many are in serious trouble). Island ecosystems tend to be a bit goofy like that: Not every kind of animal will make it there from the mainland—keep in mind that Hawaii is wildly isolated, and accordingly only has two native mammals, a bat and a seal. Among the animals that do get there, some will grow more successful than others by assuming niches they normally wouldn’t bother with.

“In other places, there are lots and lots of things that eat snails,” says Rubinoff. “There are beetles that eat snails and a range of other animals that will go and attack snails. And Hawaii happens to have a really high diversity of snails.” Because of this diversity, the snail-eating caterpillar would have done well to start hunting them, thus filling the niche that other predators may not have been around to fill themselves.

And it’s not just this species that got creative on the islands. The group the snail-eating caterpillar belongs to, Hyposmocoma, tallies some 400 species with all manner of lifestyles. “There are Hyposmocoma that are aquatic, that dive underwater, and eat algae and lichens around streams,” says Rubinoff. “So Hyposmocoma molluscivora is almost par for the course for Hyposmocoma, and that seems to be something that Hawaii brings out.”

Read more at Wired Science

Nov 19, 2015

Tiny Skin Structures Make Fish 'Invisible' to Predators

Some species of fish have a neat trick: They can seem to disappear, leaving predators thinking, "Whuzzuh?? Where'd my next meal go?" How they do this has been a bit of a mystery, but now scientists think they know the answer.

Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin suggest, in a new study just published in the journal Science, that the disappearing act is the work of microscopic structures in fish skin cells called platelets, which reflect polarized light to make the crafty swimmers look, well, "not there."

Polarized light -- light waves all moving in the same plane, like sunlight glare bouncing off water -- typically permeates the scenery underwater, and many fish are able to detect variations in it, using a heightened perception of contrast to help them spot prey.

"Fish have evolved the means to detect polarized light," said Molly Cummings, professor of integrative biology at UT Austin, in a statement. "Given that, we suggested they've probably evolved the means to hide in polarized light. If we can identify that process, then we can improve upon our own camouflage technology for that environment."

Cummings and her team studied five species of fish, using special video equipment in an open ocean setting to record each fish's efficacy at hiding itself in the ocean light.

Two fish -- a lookout and a bigeye scad -- were especially adept at camouflage, saving their best hiding skills for when they were viewed from key predator "chase angles": vectors going out in 45 degrees, in all directions, from the fish's head or tail.

Then came the "how." What allowed their skilled deception to take place? Lab study of the disappearing fish revealed platelets in their skin cells that scattered polarized light to varying degrees, depending on the angle.

Read more at Discovery News

Largest Diamond in More Than a Century Found in Botswana

A 1,111 carat "high quality diamond" has been discovered at a mine in Botswana, said to be the biggest find in more than a century, according to the mine company.

The gem, only second in size to the Cullinan diamond which was unearthed in South Africa in 1905, was mined by Lucara Diamond Corp.

"The magnificent stone, which originated from the south lobe of Lucara's Karowe Mine, is the world second largest gem quality diamond ever recovered and largest ever to be recovered through a modern processing facility," the Stockholm listed company said a statement.Shares in Lucara shot up 34 percent to 14.2 kronor in morning Thursday trading in Stockholm.

Botswana is the world's second biggest diamond producer, and Lucara said the gem was the largest ever to be recovered in the country.

"The significance of the recovery of a gem quality stone larger than 1,000 carats, the largest for more than a century....cannot be overstated," said William Lamb, the President and chief executive of Lucara.

The biggest diamond discovered is the 3,106-carat Cullinan, found near Pretoria in South Africa in 1905.

It was cut to form the Great Star of Africa and the Lesser Star of Africa, which are set in the Crown Jewels of Britain.

Lucara indicated on its website that the Karowe Mine had also this week turned up further finds -- an 813 carat stone and a 374 carat stone, prompting Lamb to laud "an amazing week" for the company.

From Discovery News

You Share 70% of Your Genes with This Slimy Worm

People have more in common with deep-sea worms than one might suspect. Over 500 million years ago, humans and certain worms shared a common ancestor, and people still share thousands of genes with the worms, said scientists who recently sequenced genomes from two marine worm species.

The results suggest humans and acorn worms, so called because of their acorn-shaped “heads,” are distant cousins, said the researchers, led by Oleg Simakov of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Okinawa, Japan. The researchers analyzed genes from two acorn worm species: Ptychodera flava, collected off Hawaii, and Saccoglossus kowalevskii, from the Atlantic Ocean.

Clearly, acorn worms look nothing like people; the worms have no limbs and breathe through slits in their guts. But they share approximately 14,000 genes with humans, scientists found, comprising about 70 percent of the human genome. These genes can be traced back to an ancestor of both acorn worms and humans that lived more than 500 million years ago, during a period known as the Cambrian explosion.

Genes from this ancient ancestor exist today not only in humans, but also in sea stars and their relatives, in cephalopods (octopuses and squid), and in all animals with backbones. The animals in this lineage are called “deuterostomes” (pronounced DOO-teh-roe-stomes.)

Of all deuterostomes alive now, acorn worms have been around the longest. “Acorn worms are our most ancient deuterostome relatives, dating back to the origin of deuterostomes, around 570 million years ago,” Simakov told Live Science in an email.

Species like the acorn worms can help scientists understand how genes that first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago control the development of different but related physical features across animal species. This happens even in species as different as acorn worms and humans.

As deuterostomes evolved, many species emerged that were more complex than their acorn-worm cousins. But even in later species, some physical features can still be linked to genes in acorn worms for simpler structures that perform the same jobs, Simakov and his colleagues found.

“The genomic data fills in the gaps in our understanding of their evolution,” Simakov explained.

After sequencing the worms’ genomes and comparing them with genomic data from a range of diverse animals, scientists found 8,716 gene families, or sets of similar genes, in the acorn worms that are shared across all deuterostomes.

One family contained a gene cluster unique to deuterostomes, linked to feeding and breathing in acorn worms. These genes were particularly interesting to the scientists, they said. Acorn worms feed using specialized slits near their gut regions, located between the mouth and the esophagus. The slits allow water to pass through the worm’s mouth but bypass the animal’s digestive tracts. No animal outside the deutorostome group has structures like these, so the scientists took a closer look at the genes that controlled them.

The researchers found that these genes could be linked to gill development in deuterostomes. Even in humans, the researchers suggest, these genes could play a part in the development of the pharynx, the tube connecting the esophagus with the nose and mouth.

Read more at Discovery News

Violent Tiny Star Is a Magnetic Powerhouse

Some stars are just born with extremely magnetic personalities.

Take TVLM 513-46546 for example. It’s a small M-class red dwarf, a star that belongs to the most populous stellar group in the galaxy. But TVLM 513-46546 would find it hard blending in with the crowd.

As observed by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), this little star was found to have an extremely powerful magnetic field, rivaling the most powerful magnetically active regions on our sun. It is so active, argue astronomers, that if our planet was in orbit around this star, satellites would not function.

“If we lived around a star like this one, we wouldn’t have any satellite communications. In fact, it might be extremely difficult for life to evolve at all in such a stormy environment,” said Peter Williams, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. and lead author of the study published in the Astrophysical Journal.

TVLM 513-46546 is located some 35 light-years from Earth in the constellation Boötes. It is a teeny tiny star is only 10 percent the mass of our sun, so tiny in fact that it is on the cusp of the bridging gap between what constitutes a star and what constitutes a planet. If the star were any smaller, there would be insufficient pressure in its core to ignite fusion, making it a brown dwarf, or a “failed star.” But a brown dwarf TVLM 513-46546 is not, it is a magnetic powerhouse and one of the most violent stellar objects we’ve seen in the Milky Way.

The red dwarf is spinning rapidly, taking only 2 hours to spin a full rotation — by comparison, our sun takes 25 days to complete one rotation — and this rotation rate could be the root as to why TVLM 513-46546′s magnetic field is so strong.

“This star is a very different beast from our sun, magnetically speaking,” said coauthor Edo Berger, also from the CfA.

When studying the object with ALMA, the researchers detected powerful radio signals that betrayed the star’s magnetic personality. They measured a signal at 95 GHz, a high-frequency radiation produced by a process known as synchrotron emission, which is generated by high-energy electrons rapidly accelerated by intense magnetic fields. From this measured frequency, the researchers realized the star had a global magnetic field hundreds of times more powerful than the average magnetic field observed in our sun. Although our sun can muster the strength to occasionally generate synchrotron emissions at these frequencies, only the most powerful solar flares can generate them.

Read more at Discovery News

Galactic Monster Mystery Revealed in Ancient Universe

Astronomers have detected something baffling at the furthest frontiers of our observable universe: massive galaxies -- lots of massive galaxies -- that shouldn’t even exist.

Depending on the wavelength you observe the universe in, different celestial objects and cosmic phenomena present themselves. This rule is especially true when looking deeper into the universe — the further you look, the farther back in time you can see. Because the universe is expanding, the most ancient light traveling over these vast distances becomes more difficult to observe.

This nature of space-time becomes abundantly clear when considering new discoveries in the infrared realm — light has become so red-shifted (basically stretched) that only infrared observatories can see the faint glow at the most distant corners of the cosmos.

In an effort to reveal galaxies that have remained hidden from view at these vast distances, the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile has revealed some of the youngest galaxies discovered to date, galaxies that were born a mere billion years after the Big Bang. But there’s something weird going on: There’s lots of them. And they’re monsters.

When peering that far into our universe’s past, the light generated by stars that were born nearly 13 billion years ago is very difficult to resolve. Therefore, when making ancient galaxy discoveries, it’s often only the brightest galaxies that get spotted. But by staring at the same patch of sky since 2009 as part of the UltraVISTA survey, and combining longer wavelength infrared data collected by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers have been able to tease the faint signal of hundreds of previously undetected galaxies that have, until now, been overlooked.

“We uncovered 574 new massive galaxies — the largest sample of such hidden galaxies in the early Universe ever assembled,” said Karina Caputi, of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute at the University of Groningen. “Studying them allows us to answer a simple but important question: when did the first massive galaxies appear?”

This selection of massive galaxies all seem to have formed no earlier than around 1 billion years after the Big Bang; there is little evidence from this survey that suggests massive galaxies formed before this time.

“We found no evidence of these massive galaxies earlier than around one billion years after the Big Bang, so we’re confident that this is when the first massive galaxies must have formed,” said coauthor Henry Joy McCracken, of the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris.

But this finding has thrown a wrench in modern galaxy formation models — these massive galaxies shouldn’t even exist; these monsters represent approximately half of the galaxies that were present between 1.1 and 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang. Models predict that only small galaxies should have existed during this epoch.

What’s more, according to an ESO press release, these large galaxies contain huge quantities of dust. In fact, they have to be really dusty for the UltraVISTA survey to detect them at all. This is yet another contradiction to current galaxy formation models.

So what’s going on? At the very least, there’s a fundamental problem with our galactic formation theories and we need to gain a better view of these titanic galaxies so we can at least understand some of their characteristics. This discovery could ultimately revolutionize how we view the mechanisms driving stellar and galactic evolution.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 18, 2015

Weird Mucus Parasites Are Jellyfish

Microscopic parasites only a few cells large are essentially greatly degenerated jellyfish, a finding that could expand the definition of the animal kingdom, researchers say.

“When people think of an animal, they think of a macroscopic, multicellular, complex organism, and now they’ll have to expand their definition of an animal to include very simple microscopic organisms,” study co-author Paulyn Cartwright, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Kansas,told Live Science.

Investigators analyzed myxozoans, a very diverse group of more than 2,100 microscopic parasites whose name means “mucus animals” in Greek, which refers to how scientists thought they were once associated with slime molds.

Myxozoans commonly plague commercial fish, infecting them as part of their life cycle. For instance, they can cause whirling disease in trout and salmon, where the parasites attack the brain and spinal cord and make fish start swimming in circles.

Although scientists have investigated myxozoans since the 1880s, much about the evolutionary origins of these parasites was uncertain.

“Some people originally thought they were single-celled organisms,” Cartwright said in a statement. “But when their DNA was sequenced, researchers started to surmise they were animals — just really weird ones.”

For instance, prior research found that myxozoans lack so-called Hox genes, which are generally vital to embryonic development in animals. “Because they’re so weird, it’s difficult to imagine they were jellyfish,” Cartwright said in a statement.

Myxozoans are extremely simple organisms consisting of just a few cells and lacking a mouth or a gut. However, previous research found that myxozoans possess complex structures that resemble the stinging cells of cnidarians, the group that includes jellyfish, corals and sea anemones.

After the researchers analyzed genomes from two distantly related myxozoan species, they found the parasites are actually cnidarians. They were most closely related to medusozoans, the cnidarians that include jellyfish.

“This is a remarkable case of extreme degeneration of an animal body plan,” Cartwright said in a statement.

The myxozoans not only had stripped-down bodies — the bell-shaped part of a traditional jellyfish — but also had drastically simplified genomes.

“These were 20 to 40 times smaller than average jellyfish genomes,” Cartwright said in the statement. “It’s one of the smallest animal genomes ever reported. It only has about 20 million base pairs, whereas the average cnidarian has over 300 million. These are tiny little genomes by comparison.” (Humans, for comparison, are equipped with 3 billion pairs of bases in our genomes.)

This degeneration of the genome was unexpected. “A lot of small organisms have big genomes, and big organisms can have small genomes,” Cartwright said. “I think the easiest explanation for what happened with myxozoans was that they experienced an extreme case of degeneration to just a few cells, and many genes were no longer needed.”

Read more at Discovery News

Is This the Loneliest Galaxy In the Universe?

The universe has structure: long filaments of dark matter threaded with galaxies and clusters of galaxies punctuated by vast voids. These voids are just that; devoid of the rich concoction of stars that are beaded along the universal 3-dimensional web of matter. But, as this Hubble Space Telescope observation shows, not all voids are completely empty.

This spiral beauty, as seen by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, has the unromantic designation of “MCG+01-02-015,” but it’s situation inspired the European Space Agency to describe it as “the loneliest of galaxies” — a galaxy that is stuck inside the famous Boötes void.

How the galaxy got there, it is not known. Perhaps it was it born there? Did an island of gas find itself in the middle of a sparsely populated volume of the cosmos, only to spark its galactic evolution in solitary confinement? Or did some gravitational turmoil, billions of years in the galaxy’s past, hurl MCG+01-02-015 into the void?

As lonely as it is, MCG+01-02-015 isn’t alone inside the 250 million light-year-wide Boötes void, a small handful of other isolated galaxies live there too. Some theories suggest these “void galaxies” may be some of the most pristine examples of galactic evolution, having been formed in near-isolation away from the turmoil of other galactic encounters, forming from the soup of primordial intergalactic gases. And looking at MCG+01-02-015, it does look like a picture-perfect spiral galaxy.

Included in this observation are 3 foreground stars, all from our own galaxy — those 3 points of bright light with obvious diffraction spikes. But these are the only individual stars in Hubble’s field of view, all other points of light are background galaxies, each containing billions of stars, some also with elegant spiral structures. Even that spiral galaxy just below of MCG+01-02-015 is far behind and likely out of the void.

Interestingly, according to ESA, “the galaxy is so isolated that if our galaxy, the Milky Way, were to be situated in the same way, we would not have known of the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s.” It’s hard to imagine how isolated MCG+01-02-015 is, our Milky Way galaxy is living in a thriving galactic metropolis in comparison! For any hypothetical aliens living in the void, lacking advanced telescopes and astronomical imaging techniques, the universe would look like a far different place than what we are accustomed to. They would have very dark skies, save for the stars in their own galaxy.

Read more at Discovery News

Skeleton of Burnt 'Witch Girl' Found in Italy

Italian archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a Medieval teenage girl who was burnt and thrown carelessly in a pit, her grave covered with heavy stone slabs.

Her burial shows she was seen as a danger even when dead, according to the archaeologists.

The skeleton was discovered at the complex of San Calocero in Albenga on the Ligurian Riviera, by a team led by scientific director Philippe Pergola, professor of topography of the Orbis Christianus Antiquus at the Pontifical Institute of Archaeology at the Vatican.

At the same location, in September 2014, the team unearthed the remains of another “witch girl,” a 13-year-old female who was buried face-down.

Like other deviant burials, in which the dead were buried with a brick in the mouth, nailed or staked to the ground, or even decapitated and dismembered, both the face-down burial and the stone-covered tomb aimed at preventing the dead girls from rising from the grave.

Further analysis determined the “witch girl” who was buried face-down just suffered from scurvy, a disorder caused by an insufficient intake of vitamin C.

It is unlikely the two witch girls are related. While the first girl died between the first half of 1400 and the beginning of 1500, the newly found skeleton is likely older, the archaeologists say.

“We are waiting for the radiocarbon dating results. At the moment we can date the burial between the 9th and the 15th century,” said archaeologist Stefano Roascio, the excavation director.

Standing just 4.75 feet tall, the girl was 15-17 years old when she died. She was burnt in an unknown location and then brought to the San Calocero site where she was hastily buried.

“We can’t say whether she was alive or not when she was burnt. Fire attacked her body when soft tissues were still present, so it could have occurred before death or soon after,” anthropologist Elena Dellù told Discovery News.

The girl was hurriedly interred, with only heavy stones thrown over her grave.

“She was taken by her elbows and just thrown in the pit. Her head leaned on the vertical wall of the pit, so that it was bent. Indeed, her chin almost touched the breastbone,” Dellù said.

Preliminary analysis revealed porotic hyperostosis on the skull and orbits. These are areas of spongy or porous bone tissue and are the result of severe iron deficiency anemia.

Enamel hypoplasia, a condition in which enamel becomes weak, was also present and pointed to childhood stresses such as malnutrition.

Her pallor, her possible hematomas and fainting might have scared the community.

The condition appear similar to that of the first “witch girl” who was diagnosed with scurvy on the basis of porotic hyperostosis found in crucial points. The spongy areas were present on the external surface of the occipital bone, on the orbital roofs, near the dental sockets and on the palate, and on the greater wings of the sphenoid.

Read more at Discovery News

This Massive Exoplanet Is Being Born Right Now

For the first time, astronomers have directly observed a planet in the making.

The baby planet circles a very young, sun-like star located in a giant cloud of molecular gas 430 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

Astronomers had previously noted a hefty gap in the disk of gas and dust surrounding the star, known as LkCa 15. They suspected the gravitational pull of an evolving planet had cleared out an orbital zone, similar to how some moons circling Saturn create gaps in its rings.

Now, a new series of observations adds key details of the planet-in-the-making, showing for the first time how it is feeding on hydrogen gas.

“This discovery has far-reaching implications for our understanding of the planet-forming process and of the properties of young planets,” Princeton University astrophysicist Zhaohuan Zhu wrote in a commentary in this week’s Nature.

The research also reveals that the planet, called LkCa 15 b, seems to have one or two siblings.

“You have your star, and then there’s this gap as you move out from the star. In the images, you see a few points of light in that gap. Those would be the planet candidates,” astronomy graduate student Stephanie Sallum, with the University of Arizona, told Discovery News.

Because LkCa 15 is so far away, the span between the star and its planets appears mind-bogglingly close to Earth-based telescopes, like the width of a pin from a kilometer (0.62 miles) away.

With adaptive optics that corrects for atmospheric distortions and a new masking technique, Sallum and colleagues used the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona to peer directly into the gap in LkCa 15’s dust disk. There they found telltale chemical fingerprints of superheated, 17,500-degree Fahrenheit hydrogen gas falling deeply into the cavity containing LkCa 15 b, located about 16 times farther away from its parent star than Earth is to the sun.

Read more at Discovery News

Superflares Spell Doom For Life on 'Habitable' Exoplanet

In the search for Earth-like worlds beyond the solar system, Kepler-438b seems to have it all.

The planet is only about 12 percent bigger than Earth and orbits in its star’s so-called “habitable zone,” where temperatures are suitable for liquid surface water, a condition believed to be necessary for life.

But new research shows 438b’s parent star is probably a poor host. The red dwarf star is prone to violent outbursts, producing flares 10 times more powerful than anything ever recorded on our sun.

Along with the superflares, which occur every few hundred days, scientists suspect the star is spewing out high-energy particles, similar to solar storms known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs.  That plasma could be the planet’s doom.

“The likelihood of a coronal mass ejection occurring increases with the occurrence of powerful flares, and large coronal mass ejections have the potential to strip away any atmosphere that a close-in planet like Kepler-438b might have, rendering it uninhabitable,” astrophysicist Chloe Pugh, with the United Kingdom’s University of Warwick, said in a statement.

“With little atmosphere, the planet would also be subject to harsh ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the superflares, along with charged particle radiation, all of which are damaging to life,” she noted.

The research is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

From Discovery News

Nov 17, 2015

Snake-Killing Fungus in Eastern U.S. Identified

Snake fungal disease (SFD), a frequently deadly skin infection found in snakes in the eastern half of the United States, now has a known cause: a fungus called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola.

That's according to new research published in the online journal mBio by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Since 2009, SFD has been documented by the USGS in seven snake species across nine eastern U.S. states. The infection in some species, such as the massasauga rattlesnake in Illinois, is almost always fatal, researchers say, while in other species the impact is not always so dramatic.

Scabs, scales, and opaque eye cloudiness not related to skin molting are among the typical clinical signs of SFD, according to the USGS.

By inoculating laboratory snakes with cultured O. ophiodiicola, a research team led by USGS National Wildlife Health Center microbiologist Jeffrey Lorch was able to prove definitively that the fungus was behind SFD.

SFD is reminiscent of other fungal diseases currently ravaging animals such as bats, with white-nose syndrome, and frogs, with chytridiomycosis. For some snakes, then, the stakes could not be higher.

"There is a fear that Ophidiomyces could drive at least some populations of snakes to extinction," said Lorch, in a statement.

It's still not certain exactly how the disease causes death in the wild, though Lorch thinks a number of factors combine to kill the animal.

"It could be due to predation or exposure if snakes are out and about when they shouldn't be," he said. "They could be getting secondary skin infections if bacteria get in."

Meanwhile, the mortality rate of FSD has been tough to peg, thanks to a lack of long-term data on the condition as well as the difficulty in studying the solitary, often inscrutable nature of snakes.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancient Board Game Found in Looted China Tomb

Pieces from a mysterious board game that hasn’t been played for 1,500 years were discovered in a heavily looted 2,300-year-old tomb near Qingzhou City in China.

There, archaeologists found a 14-face die made of animal tooth, 21 rectangular game pieces with numbers painted on them and a broken tile which was once part of a game board. The tile when reconstructed was “decorated with two eyes, which are surrounded by cloud-and-thunder patterns,” wrote the archaeologists in a report published recently in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

The skeleton of possibly one of the grave robbers was also discovered in a shaft made within the tomb by looters.

Dead game?

Twelve faces of the die are numbered 1 through 6 in a form of ancient Chinese writing known as “seal script.” Each number appears twice on the die while two faces were left blank, the researchers noted.

The artifacts seem to be part of a game called “bo,” sometimes referred to as “liubo” the archaeologists said. Researchers who have studied the game of bo are uncertain exactly how it was played. People stopped playing it around 1,500 years ago and the rules may have changed during the time that it was played.

However, a poem written about 2,200 years ago by a man named Song Yu gives an idea as to what the game was like:

“Then, with bamboo dice and ivory pieces, the game of Liu Bo is begun; sides are taken; they advance together; keenly they threaten each other. Pieces are kinged, and the scoring doubled. Shouts of ‘five white!’ arise” (translation by David Hawkes).

Massive tomb

The tomb itself has two large ramps that lead to a staircase descending into the burial chamber. Five pits holding grave goods for the deceased are located beside the tomb. In ancient times, the tomb — which is about 330 feet (100 meters) long — was covered with a burial mound (now destroyed).

At the time the tomb was built, China was divided into several states that often fought against each other. Archaeologists believe that this tomb was built to bury aristocrats from the state of Qi.

“Despite the huge scale of the tomb, it has been thoroughly robbed,” the archaeologists wrote. “The coffin chamber was almost completely dug out and robbed, suffering severe damage in the process.”

Archaeologists found 26 shafts dug into the tomb by looters. One of the shafts “yielded a curled-up human skeleton, which might be the remains of one of the tomb robbers,” wrote the archaeologists, who said they don’t know when this person died, why he or she was buried in the looting shaft, or the person’s age or sex.

Read more at Discovery News

Firefighter Gets Face Transplant

More than 100 doctors, nurses and medical support staff took part in the 26-hour operation on August 14-15 at the NYU Langone Medical Center after more than a year of preparation, it said.

The recipient was Patrick Hardison, 41, from Senatobia, Mississippi who suffered extensive facial burns as a volunteer firefighter, just days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Hardison was severely disfigured when the roof of a burning home collapsed on top of him during a rescue search. He lost his eyelids, ears, lips, most of his nose, hair and eyebrows.

Eduardo Rodriquez led the surgery to give Hardison a new face, scalp, ears, ear canals, and selected portions of bone from the chin, cheeks, and nose, the medical center said.

He was given new eyelids and muscles that control blinking, as he was previously unable to shut his eyes completely, it added.

Hardison came to Rodriguez after more than 70 previous surgeries after a fellow fire fighter in Mississippi wrote to the doctor who performed an earlier face transplant in Maryland in 2012.

But he had to wait more than a year for a donor, someone with the right age, height, weight, skin and hair color and similar bone structure, and whose family would agree.

- Great risk -

That suddenly happened in August, when David Rodebaugh, a 26-year-old award-winning BMX cyclist who lived in Brooklyn, died in a road accident. His mother agreed to organ donation.

NYU Langone met the $850,000 to $1 million cost of Hardison’s preparatory, surgical and rehabilitative care, similar to the cost of a liver transplant, said Rodriguez.

The doctor said he gave Hardison a 50:50 chance of success, because he wanted him to understand the “great risk in being listed for this experimental procedure.”

“This is not an operation for everyone, it’s for very courageous individuals,” he told a news conference.

Face transplants have become increasingly common since the first, partial face transplant was carried out by doctors in France in 2005 on a woman who had been mauled by her dog.

In March, Barcelona’s Vall d’Hebron University Hospital said it had carried out what it called the world’s most complex face transplant, reconstructing two thirds of the lower face of a 45-year-old man terribly disfigured by disease.

The same hospital in 2010 carried out the world’s first full face transplant on a man who suffered an accident that left him without a nose and deformed his jaw and cheekbones.

Rodriguez said the New York operation would make future transplants safer and with better results, and proved that the entire scalp can be transplanted with the face.

- Medication for life -

The transplant of eyelids, in particular, “provides a great hope for individuals missing eyelids with vision,” he said.

Rodriguez also said it was the most facial tissue that had been transplanted, stressing that removing all Hardison’s damaged tissue was vital to making the results as normal as possible.

“I am deeply grateful to my donor and his family,” Hardison said in a statement released by the medical center. “I hope they see in me the goodness of their decision. I also want to thank Dr. Rodriguez and his amazing team. They have given me more than a new face. They have given me a new life.”

Read more at Discovery News

Strange Stellar Spirals Could Hide Baby Exoplanets

Artist's illustration of a protoplanetary disc and a young star. Can we spot giant planets from the patterns in spirals?
When planets are in the process of being born, they grow from clouds of gas and dust surrounding their young star. However, penetrating this dense region to see planets coming to be, or to understand if planets outside of the dust are influencing them, is a difficult task.

To face this challenge, new research has found that some spiral patterns in the dust could, however, be evidence of huge planets swimming in its midst.

Scientists observed a protoplanetary disc around star MWC 758, using the ground-based Very Large Telescope. They found a spiral pattern that could suggest a planet lurking nearby. It's about 1.7 times the mass of our sun and only 8 million years old, a youngster compared to the sun's 4.5 billion years. The planet is believed to be outside the arms at about five times Neptune's equivalent distance from the sun.

"Our model with a 10 Jupiter mass planet is the best (and I would say the only) model so far to be able to account for all the major aspects of the arms as seen in the observations," wrote lead author Ruobing Dong, a NASA Hubble Fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, in an e-mail to Discovery News. "Also, in such a young system, it is quite reasonable to believe there are giant planets currently forming. 10 Jupiter mass planets have been found around other (much older) stars, for example HR 8799."

A protoplanetary disc around MWC 758, a young star, based on observations from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. The spiral arms are each about 10 billion miles long, or more than three times the diameter of Neptune's orbit.
The challenge is these features are hard to spot. You need to be able to see extremely fine detail, which can only be achieved by the Hubble Space Telescope and a few 8-meter ground based telescopes, Dong said. Worse, the light from the star can wash out the details in the disc. Adaptive optics on Earth can help account for that, but such a system to reduce the star's glare does not exist on Hubble.

The James Webb Space Telescope, which launches in 2018, should "in principle" be able to block out the light of the star and perhaps be able to better see these features than Hubble. The challenge, however, is it observes at longer wavelengths of light than Hubble and ground-based telescope, which makes the resolution more blurry. "Without carrying out detailed simulations to examine the predicted performance of JWST in this sort of observations, I would just say it might (work), but not sure," he added.

But if we were to see better in these systems, it would complement all the Kepler space telescope observations of older stars that we already have in hand. We would understand more about the older stars' history by looking at the youngsters, Dong said, using the analogy of observing business mogul (and presidential candidate) Donald Trump today versus when he was a child.

This computer model attempts to duplicate the structure seen in MWC 758. The "X" marked in the picture is where a planet supposedly lurks, unseen among all the dust and creating the arms.
"You don’t know what kind of baby he was when he was two years old," Dong said. "Did he cry a lot? Was he friendly to his playmates in day care? What kind of fairy tales did he like? In one sentence, Kepler finds 70-year-old Trumps, while the significance of our research is that we want to find baby Trumps."

The shape of the arms tells us about the mass of the planet, which they estimate is about 10 times the size of Jupiter. A smaller planet would be too weak to make the arms the shape that we see, according to the simulations, while a larger planet should already have been spotted in the disc, dusty as it is. Dong allowed, however, that there is some uncertainty in the calculations and the planet could be a slightly different mass than predicted.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 16, 2015

1700-Year-Old Mosaic Floor Unveiled in Israel

Israel’s Antiquities Authority unveiled Monday an impressive mosaic that paved the courtyard pavement of a magnificent villa some 1,700 years ago.

Measuring 36 feet by 42 feet, the colorful mosaic was unearthed in the central Israeli city of Lod last year during the construction of a visitor center for the Lod Mosaic, one of the most spectacular artwork in the country that was discovered two decades ago in the same place. It covered the villa’s living room.

“The villa was part of a neighborhood of affluent houses that stood here during the Roman and Byzantine periods,” Amir Gorzalczany, excavation director, said in a statement.

“At that time Lod was called Diospolis and was the district capital, until it was replaced by Ramla after the Muslim conquest. The building was used for a very long time,” he added.

The new mosaic features scenes of hunting and hunted animals, fish, flowers in baskets, vases and birds.

“The quality of the images indicates a highly developed artistic ability,” Gorzalczany said.

Currently on display at the Cini Gallery in Venice, Italy, the Lod Mosaic has been exhibited in recent years in some of the world’s leading museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Louvre in Paris, and the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg.

It will return to Lod after the visitors’ center is finished.

The part of the villa containing the new mosaic will also be incorporated in the new display.

From Discovery News

500-Year-Old Church Found in Slave Trade Settlement

Archaeologists have uncovered a 500-year-old church that may be the oldest known European Christian church in the tropics.

Deformed by floods and possibly visited by famed naturalist Charles Darwin, the church had been built by Portuguese colonizers in Cidade Velha, the former capital of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. The historic settlement was recently made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are upward of 1,000 bodies, many of them likely slaves, buried underneath the nave of the church. For hundreds of years, Cape Verde was a place where African slaves were held and sold before being sent to Portugal and the Americas. That ugly industry made Cidade Velha, at its peak, the second richest city in the Portuguese empire.

Darwin’s most famous stop during his long voyage aboard the HMS Beagle may have been the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. But his first port of call was a different volcanic archipelago that was uninhabited until the 15th century: Cape Verde.

Darwin was unimpressed with what he saw. However, among his disparaging remarks about Cape Verde and its people, he mentions visiting the ruins of a church:

"This little town, before its harbour was filled up, was the principal place in the island: it now presents a melancholy, but very picturesque appearance. Having procured a black Padre for a guide, and a Spaniard who had served in the Peninsular war as an interpreter, we visited a collection of buildings, of which an ancient church formed the principal part. It is here the governors and captain-generals of the islands have been buried. Some of the tombstones recorded dates of the sixteenth century. The heraldic ornaments were the only things in this retired place that reminded us of Europe. The church or chapel formed one side of a quadrangle, in the middle of which a large clump of bananas were growing. On another side was a hospital, containing about a dozen miserable-looking inmates."

Over the last year, archaeologists from Cambridge University have revealed a ruined church in what may be the first major excavations to take place at Cape Verde. Christopher Evans, director of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, thinks the church is likely the same one that Darwin described.

For a city built on the slave trade, Cidade Velha had a lot of Christian churches. The newly revealed building, which probably could have fit about 75 people, was just one of about two dozen churches and chapels in the small river valley where Cidade Velha is located, Evans said.

"Religion was an integral part of early Portuguese colonialism," Evans told Live Science. "People were competitively building churches. You also have religious orders establishing themselves in the early 16th century, and Cidade Velha becomes the seat of the bishopric of Africa."

Slaves may not have been excluded from religious life in Cape Verde. Already, isotope analyses of teeth suggest that many of the people buried under the church were African, and likely slaves.

"The fact that they're getting a church burial could be evidence that converting the slaves to Christianity meant something," Evans said. Further investigation of the bones could reveal more about the work conditions and the diets of the slaves, shedding light on slavery in a late medieval context.

While the main church was built during the decade straddling 1500, there are some early stone foundations from a Gothic chapel that date back to around 1470, which would make it the earliest building on the Cape Verde islands, Evans said.

Since the colonizers were the first people to inhabit the island, they had no knowledge of the local environment, and they made some critical mistakes when building the church. First, they built it on top of a seasonal stream course. Second, the church was located at the bend of a river. These factors made the building vulnerable to flash floods, and the church had to be rebuilt twice in the 16th and 17th centuries, Evans said.

Read more at Discovery News

'Blood Rain' on Spanish Village Remains a Mystery

Here’s one that sounds like a plot line from the upcoming reboot of “The X-Files” — or for a more arcane reference — the files of Charles Fort, the early 20th Century author who collected accounts of bizarre occurrences.

Last year, residents of the Spanish village of Zamora were startled when what looked like raindrops of blood fell from the sky. As the red fluid filled outdoor basins, some people reportedly feared that it was some sort of hazardous chemical that had been dropped from airplanes. Others remembered the Old Testament plagues afflicted upon Egypt.

As news of the strange event got around, a man from a nearby town came to see the blood-colored water for himself, and gathered a sample of it. Over the fall and winter, he kept the blood-colored water and observed it. He noticed that the small particles in the water were staining the containers red. Finally, he sent some of the water to scientists at the University of Salamanca.

When the scientists analyzed the water under a microscope, they quickly deduced what was causing the red liquid. In a newly-published study in Spanish Royal Society of Natural History Journal, they reveal that the culprit is Haematococcus pluvialis, a freshwater green microalgae that’s capable of synthesizing a red carotene pigment called astaxanthin.

But that only solves part of the mystery. Haematococcus pluvialis isn’t usually found in the Mediterranean region, so the scientists aren’t sure how it got into the rainfall over Zamora. Meteorological data analyzed by the scientists suggests that it could have been blown across the ocean by westerly winds, possibly from as far away as North America.

The blood rain is rare, but  isn’t unprecedented. According to an article in the Hindu, an Indian newspaper, since the 1890s there have been sporadic reports of similar rainfall in the south Indian state of Kerala and the neighboring island nation of Sri Lanka, most recently in 2013.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Phylogenetics and Evolutionary Biology pointed to a different microalgae, Trentepohlia annulata, as the source. That species had previously been reported only in Austria. Scientists theorize that it somehow spreads through exchanges between ocean clouds, and that the rain is part of its very weird reproductive process.

From Discovery News

Look Up! The Hunt for Leonid Meteors Is On

I recall it well: It was November 1999 and I had wrapped myself up in as many layers as I could and come midnight, I was out under a dark, clear sky with temperatures plummeting. Comfort was my watchword for the night, so I relaxed on a sun lounger, wrapped up and toasty warm in preparation for a long night's observing.

I remember seeing the Milky Way glistening away to the south and the moon was out of sight. The view that greeted me was one that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately, this year’s Leonid meteor shower will likely not be as spectacular as the one I saw in 1999 when a meteor erupted overhead every few seconds. The shower peaks every year around Nov. 17 and 18 and is the result of an interaction between the Earth and remnants of the Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The comet travels around the sun and completes an orbit once every 33 years and, as it hurtles around the solar system, it leaves dusty debris along its orbit like a celestial trail of bread crumbs.

When Earth passes through the comet debris, which it does every year, the remnants of Tempel-Tuttle get swept up. If this happens to coincide with a recent passage of the comet then we can encounter storm levels of activity, igniting an impressive meteor display. Sadly, meteor shower forecasts suggest that we'll have to wait until 2032 for the next great display.

This week, instead of hundreds (or even thousands) of meteors per hour, this year's display is expected to peak at around 15 meteors per hour by the early hours of Wednesday (Nov. 18).

To understand why meteor activity tends to intensify during the hours after midnight, imagine a car travelling down a country road when it encounters a swarm of flies. As the car heads through the unsuspecting insects, they all get splatted by the front of the car. In a similar way, as the Earth plows through the stream of meteors, its the forward facing hemisphere of the Earth that gets the best display of splatted meteors. The Earth's spin makes sure that observers located on the forward facing side of the Earth will get the best view, and this happens in the few hours before dawn.

It's not just Nov. 17/18 that meteors from the Leonid display can be seen, they can be spotted any time from around Nov. 6 until the end of the month. To spot them, you need to wrap up warm, find a location far from any city lights and make yourself comfortable. While the peak is expected in the early hours of the 18th, it's a good idea to also keep an eye out on the 17th too as meteors care little for schedules!

You can tell if you have spotted a meteor from the Leonid shower by tracing its path backwards in the sky and seeing if it came from the constellation Leo -- then you will have bagged your first Leonid meteor. It is best not to look directly toward Leo, the best chances of spotting meteors are when you look either side -- just lie back and try to have an uninterrupted view of the sky. Typically, Leonids are fast, travelling through our atmosphere with speeds in excess of 45 miles (70 kilometers) per second!

Read more at Discovery News

To Find Alien Worlds, First Look at Our Sun

One well-trusted method of finding an exoplanet is to see how much wobble it induces in its parent star. Right now, the state of the art precision for detecting planets a few dozen light-years away via this method is about one meter per second, which is produced by planets more massive than Earth. But if something disturbs the surface of the star — say, a sunspot — this can mess with the measurements and produce false positives.

A team of researchers is hoping to get around this by doing a test study on our own sun. If it works out, their project will allow them to detect Venus orbiting the sun using this “radial velocity” technique. This will be a proof of concept for finding Earth-size or smaller planets around other stars.

“We decided to build an instrument that was able to get radial velocity of the sun as if it was another star,” said Xavier Dumusque, an astrophysicist and data scientist at Geneva Observatory, in an e-mail to Discovery News. He co-led the study with David F. Phillips of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“The sun is extremely close,” he added, “so we can resolve its surface and therefore see the different sunspots on its surface. By comparing resolved images of the sun and the radial velocity obtained with this new instrument, we hope to understand better the effect of sunspots on radial velocity measurements, and find optimal correction techniques applicable to other stars.”

A test run over seven days, using the HARPS-N instrument on a 3.6-meter telescope in Chile, showed promising results. They rigged a solar telescope to pass the sunlight of the entire disc (just like a distant star) into the instrument, which is generally used to hunt exoplanets by night. They then calibrated the light with an “astro-comb”, a device used by spectrographs to detect star wobbles. They plan to repeat this technique during every clear day for the next two to three years.

“The first data obtained with this new instrument show that we reach a precision on the sun of 0.5 meters per second. We are therefore at the precision we wanted,” Dumusque wrote. “We also show that at first order, the radial velocity variation observed on the sun can be estimated using the full disc photometry (the total light emitted by the sun). This is not surprising because sunspots are darker than than the surface of the sun, and therefore induce a variation in photometry.”

To be sure, planets that are Earth’s size and smaller have been detected around small stars very far away from us, usually using the Kepler space telescope — a prolific planet-hunting device. However, this proves a challenge for planets that are much closer to us and orbiting bright stars. Kepler looks at how much the light dims as the planet passes in front of a star. A small planet going across a bright star could slip by unnoticed.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 15, 2015

Dinosaur Puke Fossil Mystery Deepens

A small, unusual skeleton in fossilized dinosaur yak discovered back in 1989 might not be the creature we thought it was after all.

So what actually got caught in this prehistoric upchuck? Italian scientists tackle one heck of a cold case.

When researchers came across a unique fossil in Northern Italy in 1989, they concluded it was dinosaur vomit roughly 220 million years old. The fossil lacked the mineralization that would have put it in the dinosaur poop category — that’s “coprolite” if you want to be technical.

They also identified the bones captured for eternity inside the puke as a tiny winged pterosaur. These reptilian dinosaur cousins evolved into dozens of species, and were the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

Vomit like this, usually from a predator regurgitating indigestible animal parts, is called a “gastric pellet” containing “ejecta.” Owl pellets are basically the same thing, PLOS blogger Andrew Farke pointed out.

Although pterosaurs could range in size from a sparrow to an F-16 fighter jet, the one in Northern Italy was small. And rare. For decades it was “one of the very few cases of gastric ejecta containing pterosaur bones,” the researchers wrote in their recent PLOS ONE journal article. The group included paleontologist Fabio Marco Dalla Vecchia, who worked on the 1989 study.

But closer examination prompted the group to doubt there was a winged pterosaur in the vom. Using an X-ray microCT, they compared the bones with basal pterosaurs and concluded it had to be a different animal. The bones seem like they belonged to a lizard-like protorosaur, only not the same species found in the same rock formation where the puke was discovered.

Read more at Discovery News

Paris Attacks: The Mental Scars of Terrorism

When terrorists strike, as they did in Paris in a coordinated attack orchestrated by the Islamic State that left at least 128 people dead, the events are felt around the world as images and video of the aftermath pour through mass communications channels.

Terrorists choose their targets not based on military or political importance, but rather emotional and visceral impact, as I note in an earlier post. After extremists strike, there are notable behavioral and psychological changes among both victims and observers of terrorist actions.

Behavioral Impacts of a Terrorist Attack

After a terrorist attack, those affected by the assault covet control, according to a study by Vanderbilt University researchers published in September in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

The study analyzed the effects of terrorist attacks on consumer behavior, specifically among those affected by extremist actions in Israel. After all, one of the aims of such actions is to disrupt economic and commercial activity and the researchers found that consumers will change their habits in the wake of a terrorist attack, at times drastically.

For example, as suicide attacks often target restaurants, some of the study’s participants chose to sit near the kitchen when they dined out, creating the possibility of an alternative exit in an attack, a subtle change in otherwise normal behavior. Others, however, quit restaurants entirely for fear of a terrorist attack.

The greater the sense of a loss of control a particular victim or observer feels, the more dramatic the changes in behavior to regain a sense of stability, the researchers found.

The Psychological Toll of Terrorism

The immediate impact of a terrorist attack is physical, claiming lives and causing injuries. But psychological damage quickly follows. As Arieh Shalev, an NYU School of Medicine psychiatry professor, explained in “Treating Survivors in the Acute Aftermath of Traumatic Events (PDF)“:

Shortly after exposure, the traumatic event ceases to be a concrete event and starts to become a psychological event. As such, it has to be metabolized and assimilated, that is, become part of the survivor’s inner network of meanings and experiences.

Traumatic events are not only internalized, but repeatedly recalled, reassessed and progressively assimilated. As a result, early intervention is necessary to help recovery, the author writes.

If left unaddressed, particularly among those who deal with long-term exposure to terrorism, the stress can take a physical toll, according to research published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In a study of over 17,000 Israelis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers found that fear of terror was a major contributor to increases in resting heart rate, a predictor of death from cardiovascular disease, stroke and other causes.

Changes in Beliefs

Psychological impacts aren’t limited strictly to victims. A 2013 study published in Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences looked at the long-lasting emotional toll of the 2004 Beslan massacre, in which Chechen terrorists took an entire school hostage, a tragedy that ended in the deaths of 385 people.

Victims, relatives and others emotionally connected to an extreme traumatic event suffered severe emotional anguish. In particular, basic beliefs they once held changed. For example, researchers found that among adults, “beliefs in meaningfulness and benevolence of the world were destroyed,” the authors wrote.

Winning the Psychological War?

To the extent that terrorists use violence to elicit a strong emotional and psychological response, they’re effective at the most basic level in inducing mental anguish and affecting some behaviors and beliefs.

Reactions to traumatic events, however, are complicated. Everyone looks to reestablish a sense of security in different ways, and this can often result in affected individuals and observers coming together. Look no further than the global response to the Paris attacks of countries incorporating the colors of the French flag in their landmarks.

On a local level, among those who most closely felt the attack, behavior can sometimes be counterintuitive. Take the example of the reaction of young people in London following the 7/7 bombings in 2005.

According to an article published in the book “Evolutionary Psychology and Terrorism,” attendance at nightclubs in the capital increased that month, a trend not seen elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Rather than locking themselves in their homes to feel secure, young London residents congregated in large numbers in public.

Read more at Discovery News

Mars Rover Finds Rich Mineral Stew in Fractured Rock

Chemical analysis by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity indicates that water made several repeat appearances to create the rich mineral veins at a site called “Garden City” in the lower part of Mount Sharp.

The veins form in places where fluids have move through fractured rocks, depositing minerals and leaving telltale chemical fingerprints on surrounding areas. Some of the mineral veins at Garden City protrude the equivalent of two finger widths above the now-eroded bedrock in which they formed.

The site was not accessible to Curiosity’s drill, but in March the rover zapped 17 targets with its ChemCam laser and discovered a diverse chemical stew.

“I think this has some of the most extreme chemistry that we’ve seen in a very localized area. There’s been other places where we’ve seen very strong chemistry, but in this kind of meter-square area, up until this point I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere with this much variability and this much unexpected chemistry,” Curiosity scientist Diana Blaney, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, told Discovery News.

Many of the veins contain rich deposits of calcium sulfate. Others are laced with magnesium sulfate or fluorine. Levels of iron vary.

The three-mile-high Mount Sharp rises from the floor of a huge impact basin that once held water. The Garden City veins were created after mud in the lake had hardened into rock and cracked.

“At Garden City, because there’s such good preservation and we get the cross-cutting, we’re able to start pulling out some chemical signatures that we saw at different places into distinct fluids. And by looking at the cross-cutting relationships and the difference in chemistries, I think we have really strong evidence that they’re distinct fluid events,” Blaney said.

“We don’t know how far apart in time these different events occurred, or what was driving them,” she added. “I think as we get more information on what it’s going to take to chemically evolve these fluids, we might be able to pin that down.”

Curiosity is scouring Mount Sharp to look for habitats that could have supported past life and for places suitable to preserve organics.

“Veins have a good potential — because it’s a fluid and there is crystallization — to include things as inclusions, but the organic preservation has a lot of factors,” Blaney said.

Read more at Discovery News