Dec 18, 2015

Shrimp-Like Creature Shows Earliest Brood Care in Fossil Record

New analysis of a shrimp-like, 508-million-year fossil in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum has resulted in a surprising find: embryos with eggs preserved in its body. Scientists say that makes the remains the earliest evidence of brood care in the fossil record.

The brood-caring critter was an early arthropod called Waptia fieldensis. It was found in the renowned Burgess Shale deposit in Canada, and the remains had rested quietly in the museum for about 100 years before museum scientists, alongside researchers from the University of Toronto and France’s National Center for Scientific Research, took a new look.

“As the oldest direct evidence of a creature caring for its offspring, the discovery adds another piece to our understanding of brood care practices during the Cambrian Explosion, a period of rapid evolutionary development when most major animal groups appear in the fossil record,” said Jean-Bernard Caron, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum and associate professor at the University of Toronto, in a statement.

An illustration of Waptia fieldensis (middle Cambrian) shows eggs brooded between the inner surface of the carapace and the body.
Waptia fieldensis, from the same group as lobsters and crayfish, had a two-part structure — a bivalved carapace, or hard shell — covering the front segment of its body. Scientists think the structure was key to the creature’s care of the eggs.

“Clusters of egg-shaped objects are evident in five of the many specimens we observed, all located on the underside of the carapace and alongside the anterior third of the body,” said Caron.

The researchers observed at most 24 eggs carried by each animal, the clusters of eggs grouped in single layers on either side of its body.

Researchers say their find opens a new window on the different approaches taken to brood care by early arthropods.

“The relatively large size of the eggs and the small number of them, contrasts with the high number of small eggs found previously in another bivalved arthropod known as Kunmingella douvillei,” said the study’s co-author, Jean Vannier, of the National Center for Scientific Research.

“And though that creature predates Waptia by about seven million years,” Vannier added, “none of its eggs contained embryos.”

Read more at Discovery News

Darwin's Finch Species Threatened by Parasitic Flies

A species of Darwin’s finch could face extinction in as little as four decades because of a parasitic fly, new mathematical models show.

In a study that will be published December 18 in the Journal of Applied Ecology, University of Utah researchers forecast turbulent flying ahead for the medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis), one of the most common of the dozen-plus species of Darwin's finch. (They're named for the man who first collected them, naturalist Charles Darwin, who used observations of the finches' adaptations to inform his work on natural selection. They're also known as Galapagos finches, for the islands they call home.)

The fly in question is the nest fly Philornis downsi, first documented in birds’ nests in the Galapagos in 1997. It lays its eggs in finches' nests, the larvae infesting the area and feeding, to a fatal degree, on new nestlings.

This medium ground finch has nostril and abdomen lesions caused by a nest infested with parasitic fly larvae.
The researchers gathered five years’ worth of data from the island of Santa Cruz, documenting the harm the fly was causing to the finch’s reproductive success. Then they used those results to help fuel mathematical models of different long-term outcomes for the finch species.

The team ran simulations based around three broad future scenarios: “good” years likely to come, where conditions such as weather and food supply were conducive to successful breeding; “bad” years ahead; and neutral years, where both bad and good conditions were equally likely.

Two of the three model runs -- "bad" and neutral -- predicted the medium ground finch's extinction. Only the "good" model showed the species able to survive.

The "bad" model predicted extinction in anywhere from 43 to 57 years, while the "neutral" model had the bird disappearing in 65 to 95 years.

Worse still, the problem may not just apply to the medium ground finch. Study lead author Dale Clayton, a University of Utah biology professor, pointed out that the bird's other Galapagos cousins could be at risk as well.

If a species of Darwin's finch as common as the medium ground finch can face extinction because of the nest fly, "then the less common species, which have the same fly problem, are likely at risk as well," Clayton said in a release.

Glum scenarios aside, there is still hope. The bird's extinction risk is closely tied to the fly infestation problem, so there's no mystery, and the scientists have a clear target.

“Even though these guys may be going locally extinct, the model also shows that if you can reduce the probability of infestation, then you significantly alleviate the risk of extinction,” said study co-author Jennifer Koop, a professor of biology now teaching at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She said extinction could be avoided if nest infestation could be reduced by 40 percent.

Read more at Discovery News

The Planet Keeps Breaking Heat Records

In news that will surprise almost no one, the third gatekeeper of global temperatures agrees that 2015 is on track to set a heat record after a toasty November.

On the heels of NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency’s data release earlier this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has published its November temperature data. It shows that November was record warm and it’s a given that the world is going to have its hottest year on record.

November was 1.75°F above the 20th century average, making it the hottest November by a long shot and the second most-anomalously warm month recorded in the 135 years of measurements. It marks the seventh month in a row with record setting warmth and has locked in record heat for the year.

“December 2015 would have to be 0.43°F colder than the coldest December on record to not break the record,” Jake Crouch, a climate scientist at NOAA, said. “That’s not going to happen in December 2015.”

This year will bump 2014 off the top of the charts as the hottest year on record. It’ll be the first time there have been back-to-back hottest years since 1997 and 1998.

Those years saw one of the strongest El Niños on record, similar to what the world is experiencing in 2015. But while El Niño tends to give the global average temperature a boost, a Climate Central analysis shows that this year’s record heat is almost completely due to carbon pollution.

Early signs already indicate that 2016 could again be a record setter due to the residual effects of El Niño and, of course, the influence of human greenhouse gas emissions.

With all the talk about record heat, you may be wondering when the last cold record was set. Let’s just say it’s been awhile.

The planet’s coldest year on record is all the way back in 1908 (it was tied in 1911). Since then, the global average temperature has trended one direction.

Read more at Discovery News

LHC Has Found a Bump: Exotic Physics or Just Noise?

Science at the Large Hadron Collider is starting to wind down ahead of a scheduled winter break after carrying out experiments at record-breaking energies. Needless to say, these are exciting times; physicists are in an unknown realm of discovery where physics ideas beyond the Standard Model are being tested. And this week, LHC scientists announced something peculiar in two of the collider’s experiments.

But this “something peculiar” could just be a glitch in the data. Or maybe it’s not. Regardless, a tiny “bump” in datasets from two detectors has caused a buzz.

Conditions of the Big Bang

Before we go neck-deep into what the LHC has (or, more likely, hasn’t) found, we need to quickly understand how the largest experiment ever devised my humankind discovers new particles and new forces.

On Dec. 15, LHC collaborators met at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), the laboratory that manages the LHC located just outside Geneva, Switzerland. This was the first major meeting since the particle accelerator was upgraded earlier this year to accommodate higher energy collisions — a new phase called “Run 2″. The LHC is now accelerating particles around its 17-mile circumference ring of supercooled electromagnets at 13 teraelectronvolts (TeV) — an energy nearly double that of the energies physicists used to discover the Higgs boson in 2012.

Around the ring of electromagnets, several experiments are housed. These experiments are huge, building-sized detectors that are highly sensitive to finding particles that are generated after two counter-rotating “beams” of hadrons (such as protons or heavy ions, like lead nuclei) are forced to collide. These counter-rotating beams are traveling at relativistic speeds, so when they smash into one another, for the briefest of moments, the conditions that the universe hasn’t seen since the Big Bang are created.

The Big Bang is the genesis of the universe; all energy in the universe was unleashed from an infinitely dense singularity nearly 14 billion years ago. From this energy, as the universe cooled, a zoo of subatomic particles condensed to form the matter we know and love in the modern universe.

By recreating the conditions of the Big Bang in the LHC, physicists are able to peel back time and see for a very brief moment what primordial particles can be created by Nature, thereby testing physics theories on what particles are possible in our universe. In the case of the Higgs boson, physicists needed huge energies to produce the massive particle — “weighing in” at a mass of 125 gigaelectronvolts (GeV). The discovery of the Higgs confirmed that the Standard Model of physics (a quantum recipe book of sorts) correctly described all known particles and forces in the cosmos.

A Mysterious Bump?

Physics didn’t simply “end” with the confirmation of the Higgs, however. Many mysteries remain, not least why gravity was ominously not invited to the Standard Model party. Now physicists are looking beyond the Standard Model for answers — a realm known as “exotic physics.” It is in this realm that physicists hope to reveal evidence for dark matter particles, extra-dimensions, the possibility of supersymmetry, the hypothetical graviton and other stuff that we haven’t even thought of yet.

So, inside the same two LHC experiments that made the Higgs boson discovery in 2012 comes a signal that, albeit weak, has caused a minor stir.

Now that the LHC is smashing particles together at the highest energies ever attained, there’s hope that we may start glimpsing some exotic physics that, so far, are only hypothetical ideas. Like a photographic film that slowly collects photons to produce a photograph, the LHC’s detectors must carry out months or years of experiments to develop a clear picture. As we’re only a few months into this high energy experimental run, any results or signals will likely be blurry, but according to Run 2 preliminary results from the CMS and ATLAS detectors, a very slight bump in energy at around 750 GeV has been spotted. What could it be?

“We’ve been working round-the-clock to understand and triple-check our numbers, and (Dec. 15) was the culmination of the year’s worth of work by thousands of people,” said particle physicist James Beacham, a post-doctoral research fellow with the Ohio State University, in an interview with Discovery News.

Beacham is based at CERN and working on the ATLAS experiment to seek out “diphoton” signals in the huge quantities of data flowing from the massive detector.

Basically, when new particles are produced by high energy collisions, like the Higgs boson, they tend to decay very quickly. As they decay, they produce other particles that may be detected by LHC experiments.

The signature of this signal can reveal a fingerprint of the particle that decayed — in this case the excess could be caused by pairs of photons (diphotons) with an energy of 750 GeV. After more and more data are collected from billions and billions of collisions, small and unexpected bumps in collision data may start to rise from the noise, above what would be predicted by the Standard Model. These bumps are known as “excesses” and they can signal the production of new and exotic particles.

“The diphoton search, the one that has the most significant excess, is interesting because it could possibly discover things like exotic Higgs bosons or gravitons (the as-yet-undiscovered particles of gravity),” said Beacham. “Both of these discoveries would be revolutionary, because they’d be concrete evidence of physics beyond-the-Standard-Model, something we’ve never seen.”

The size of the bump is indeed tiny and may well wash away as more collision data is added, but the thing that makes this statistically tiny event interesting is that another detector, the CMS, has also detected a tiny signal in exactly the same 750 GeV energy range.

Although the signal is most likely noise at this early stage, physicists will of course be hoping for something exotic. But as cautioned by LHC physicists, even if this signal does turn out to be real, it could represent the presence of something decidedly un-exotic, like a more massive Higgs boson.

More Data Needed

As interesting as these matching bumps may be, it’s only the tiniest of hints that there’s something really there and Beacham is very clear, pointing out that the take home message is that "we need more data."

“When we saw this tiny hill in the diphoton mass spectrum in ATLAS we’re like, ‘Hmmmmm…‘ and then we instantly started poking it with our most ruthless experimental sticks, as usual, to see if it would withstand scrutiny. After poking and prodding (e.g., ruling out detector problems, multiple-checking the statistical methods) it was still there. But, again, the ‘it’ is just a slight uptick that, statistically, is just a hint,” he said. “We will have to remain on the edges of our seats for a few more months to years.”

His LHC colleagues agree: “It’s interesting because we did not expect it, and both experiments are seeing something in roughly the same place,” Jim Olsen, of Princeton University who works on the CMS detector, told Symmetry Magazine. “However, it’s not a discovery. It could be the first spark of a discovery, but we need more data before we know what it means -- if it means anything at all.”

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 17, 2015

Plesiosaurs Literally Flew Through Oceans

Dinosaur Era marine reptiles known as plesiosaurs literally flew through the water, according to new research that found their swimming technique was very similar to that of birds in flight.

The discovery, reported in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, solves a longstanding plesiosaur puzzle over how these now-extinct animals used their unusual, four-flippered body to swim through the ocean.

“Plesiosaur swimming has remained a mystery for almost 200 years, so it was exciting to see the plesiosaur come alive on the computer screen,” co-author Adam Smith of the Nottingham Natural History Museum said in a press release.

The “computer screen” refers to computer simulations that he, lead author Shiqlu Liu of the Georgia Institute of Technology and their colleagues created.

Based on fossil finds, the scientists modeled plesiosaurs. They then simulated thousands of different swimming motions to see which ones would have been the most effective, given the plesiosaur’s unique body plan.

Surprisingly, flapping the rear flippers did not increase forward speed much.

“Our simulations show that the forelimbs provide the majority of thrust, and that the thrust from the hind limbs is weak,” explained the researchers. “The plesiosaur swims primarily with its forelimbs using an underwater flight stroke, essentially the same as turtles and penguins.”

Mosasaurs, another group of predatory marine reptiles that is now extinct, also had four flippers. They are featured in the below Discovery production from 2012, which took an educated guess, based on research at the time, on how they moved.

With the latest findings, expect future recreations of these iconic marine predators (which sometimes became prey themselves to sharks) to reflect the newly determined underwater flight move.

The new study also suggests how penguins managed to evolve from being flying birds to such good swimmers. Penguins used to have hollow bones and wings, but the bones became denser over time and the wings evolved into tapered, flattened flippers. They basically flap their flippers, however, just as the plesiosaurs did, to travel through water.

Read more at Discovery News

Restored King Tut Mask Back on Display

After eight weeks of restoration, the golden burial mask of King Tutankhamun is back on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities announced on Wednesday.

The intervention was carried out as the long, narrow, blue and gold beard suffered a botched repair more than a year ago.

Braided like a pigtail with the end jutting forward, the beard was unintentionally severed from the chin in August 2014 by workers adjusting the lighting in the case holding the priceless artifact.

Panicked curators did further damage by hastily gluing the beard back onto the fragile 3,300-year-old mask with fast-drying epoxy normally used for wood or metal.

Moreover, the glue was used abundantly, causing it to flow along the beard and chin.

News about the botched repair broke in January, followed by a press conference by Egypt’s antiquities ministry. At the news conference German restorer Christian Eckmann told reporters that the mask could be properly restored after removing the glue.

A German-Egyptian team led by Eckmann began the restoration by studying the best materials to remove the epoxy and reattach the beard.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Eckmann told reporters his team resolved to detach the glue using old-fashioned tools.

“We used wooden tools, spatulas, other wooden instruments,” he told the Associated Press.

“In addition, we slightly warmed up the adhesive,” Eckmann said.

The beard was loose when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s treasure-packed tomb in 1922 in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. It was re-affixed with adhesive in 1946.

Read more at Discovery News

Could a Human Not in Our Species Still Exist?

An ancient species of human from China, thought to be long extinct, likely survived until at least the last Ice Age 14,000 years ago, new research finds.

Since the timeframe of these so-called Red Deer Cave people, as well as Homo floresiensis (aka Hobbit humans) from Indonesia, overlapped for many years with that of Homo sapiens, it is possible -- however remote -- that a human not in our species could still exist.

"It's always possible that a pre-modern human population still exists somewhere in the world," associate professor Darren Curnoe from The University of New South Wales, who co-led the new study of the Red Deer Cave people fossils, told Discovery News.

"New species are being found all of the time by scientists, but with a large-bodied species like humans, you would think it would be difficult to miss, that someone would have reported it or a scientist found it somewhere (already)," added Curnoe. "My guess is if any did exist -- and I'm doubtful -- it would be in a remote place like Siberia, but some very grandiose claims have been made about Yetis and other creatures being Neanderthals surviving today in places like Siberia."

Curnoe, co-leader Ji Xueping from the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, and their team focused on China, however, for the recent finds. The research is outlined in the latest issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

The remains were excavated from Yunnan Province's Maludong ("Red Deer Cave") in 1989, but had lain unstudied in a southeastern Yunnan museum until now. The bones date to 14,000 years ago, according to the new analysis, and retain features of early human species like Homo habilis and Homo erectus. The researchers therefore think the Red Deer Cave people descended from one of those populations, but could represent their own unique species.

A thighbone suggests the Red Deer Cave people had a gait that was different than ours, but the precise movement has not yet been determined. The researchers, however, could deduce that these 110-pound small individuals lived at least part of the year at the cave, which was located in a tropical evergreen forest close to water. An abundance of deer bones showing signs of butchery were also found in the cave, along with evidence for large fires being built there.

Robin Dennell of The University of Sheffield's Department of Archaeology told Discovery News, "There is no doubt the material found by Curnoe and Xueping is strange, and it does push the boundaries of what we think of as Homo sapiens. My take on it is that it may well represent an archaic population that resulted from interbreeding between Homo erectus and an early immigrant population of Homo sapiens."

He and other researchers confirmed that there is good fossil evidence that our species was in South China by 80,000-100,000 years ago, "so there is plenty of time now for an isolated hybrid to survive -- and survive alongside younger populations of immigrant Homo sapiens," Dennell said, adding that human evolution in East Asia is turning out to be a lot more complex than anyone had ever previously imagined.

Colin Groves, a professor at the Australian National University's School of Archaeology & Anthropology, also thinks it is possible that the Red Deer Cave people could represent interbreeding that occurred between our species and an archaic population.

The researchers do not believe that the Red Deer Cave people are still alive today, but all say it is theoretically possible that a non-Homo sapiens human-like population could still exist, given all of the past overlapping that occurred among different species on our family tree.

Homo floresiensis, for example, was thought to have lived until 12,000 years ago, but anthropologist Gregory Forth from the University of Alberta interviewed multiple Indonesian locals who knew of these "Hobbit humans" long before the archaeological finds and even had particular words to identify these "little not quite human people," Groves said.

Read more at Discovery News

How Anti-Evolution Policies Evolve

Evolution by natural selection isn’t a matter of debate, at least among the scientific community. But policymakers and advocates in state legislatures and school districts across the country aren’t so convinced, and they’re advancing anti-evolution policies.

Since 1920, proponents of creationism, a literal interpretation of the biblical account of the origin of the universe and all life within it, have sought to tune out evolution in science classrooms in public schools.

A new study by Australian National University researcher Nick Matzke shows how the tactics of anti-evolution advocates evolved even in the wake of repeated decisions by U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled against their cause.

In 1968, in the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court first ruled that teaching creationism in public schools is a violation of the First Amendment because it endorsed a religious viewpoint. Two decades later, in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard, the court determined that creationism could not be taught as an alternative to evolution, as required by a law passed in Louisiana.

Again in 2005, the justices decided in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District that public schools couldn’t require a curriculum that taught intelligent design, a rebranded version of creationism, as a competing scientific theory with evolution.

The study, published in the journal Science, shows how creationists have entered a new phase in their advocacy efforts by pushing through policies and laws on the district and state level that encourage teachers to promote anti-evolutionism. Matzke refers to these efforts as “stealth creationism,” because they hide their religious motivations by “strategic vagueness” in an attempt to pass legal muster.

Matzke conducted a phylogenetic analysis, a technique used in the study of evolution, to flesh out and diagram the relationships among different anti-evolution policies beginning in 2004, a year before the Kitzmiller verdict, through the present.

This analysis revealed how text was copied and modified, otherwise known as “descent with modification,” in 65 separate bills to shift tactics away from a stance of promoting “academic freedom,” i.e. teaching intelligent design, and toward “science education acts.”

These acts encourage but don’t require teachers to provide a critical perspective in their instruction of not only evolution but also other scientific topics like climate change.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 16, 2015

New evidence of tool use discovered in parrots

Psychologists at the University of York and University of St Andrews have uncovered the first evidence of tool use by greater vasa parrots (Coracopsis vasa).

Studying ten captive parrots, researchers in the Department of Psychology at York observed the birds adopt a novel tool-using technique to acquire calcium from seashells and also the active sharing of tools among themselves.

The birds used small pebbles or date pits to grind calcium powder from the shells or to break off small pieces of shell to ingest. This behaviour, never before seen in this species, is the first evidence of a nonhuman using tools for grinding, and one of the few reports of nonhuman animals sharing tools directly.

Observing and filming the parrots over an eight month period (March to October), researchers documented their interactions with cockle shells on the floor of their aviary. Shells are a known source of calcium for birds.

Five out of ten birds were documented using tools, placing either pebbles or date pits inside shells to grind against the shell, or using them as a wedge to break apart the seashell.

Interest in the shells was greatest from March to mid-April, just before the breeding season -- this may be due to calcium supplementation being critical for egg-laying. Researchers were therefore initially surprised to find that it was the males, not the females who showed the greatest interest in shells.

However, observation of the parrots' breeding behaviour showed that males often engaged in regurgitative feeding of females before copulating with them, thus potentially passing on the calcium benefits.

Megan Lambert, PhD student in York's Department of Psychology and lead author on the study, said: "The use of tools by nonhuman animals remains an exceedingly rare phenomenon. These observations provide new insights into the tool-using capabilities of parrots and give rise to further questions as to why this species uses tools.

Read more at Science Daily

Evidence for more recent clay formation on Mars discovered

Recent orbital and rover missions to Mars have turned up ample evidence of clays and other hydrated minerals formed when rocks are altered by the presence of water. Most of that alteration is thought to have happened during the earliest part of Martian history, more than 3.7 billion years ago. But a new study shows that later alteration -- within the last 2 billion years or so -- may be more common than many scientists had thought.

The research, by Brown University geologists Ralph Milliken and Vivian Sun, is in press in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

The lion's share of the clay deposits found on Mars thus far have turned up in terrains that date back to the earliest Martian epoch, known as the Noachian period. Clays also tend to be found in and around large impact craters, where material from deep below the surface has been excavated. Scientists have generally assumed that the clays found at impact sites probably formed in the ancient Noachian, became buried over time, and then were brought back to the surface by the impact.

That assumption is particularly true of clay deposits found in crater central peaks. Central peaks are formed when, in the aftermath of an impact, rocks from within the crust rebound upward, bringing layers to the surface that had been buried many kilometers deep.

"Because central peaks contain rocks uplifted from depth, some previous studies have assumed the clays found within central peak regions are uplifted too," said Milliken, assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences. "What we wanted to do was look at lots of these craters in detail to see if that's actually correct."

Milliken and Sun performed a survey of 633 crater central peaks distributed across the Martian surface. They looked at detailed mineralogy data collected by NASA's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), combined with high-resolution stereo images taken by NASA's HiRISE camera. Both instruments fly aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Of those 633 peaks, Milliken and Sun found 265 that have evidence of hydrated minerals, the majority of which were consistent with clays. The researchers then used HiRISE images to establish a detailed geologic context for each of those craters to help determine if the clays were in rocks that had indeed been excavated from depth. They found that in about 65 percent of cases the clay minerals were indeed associated with uplifted bedrock.

"That's a majority," Milliken said, "but it still leaves a substantial number of craters -- 35 percent -- where these minerals are present and not clearly associated with uplift."

Within those 35 percent, Milliken and Sun found examples where clays exist in dunes, unconsolidated soil, or other formations not associated with bedrock. In other cases, clays were found in impact melt -- deposits of rock that had been melted by the heat of the impact and then re-solidified as it cooled. Both of these scenarios suggest that the clay minerals at these sites are likely "authigenic," meaning they formed in place sometime after impact occurred, rather than being excavated from underground.

In a number of cases, these authigenic clays were found in fairly young craters, ones formed in the last 2 billion years or so.

"What this tells us is that the formation of clays isn't restricted to the most ancient time period on Mars," Milliken said. "You do apparently have a lot of local environments in these crater settings where you can still form clays, and it may have occurred more often than many people had thought."

One mechanism for forming these clays could be related to the impact process itself, the researchers say. Impacts generate heat, which could melt any ice or pre-existing hydrated minerals that may have been present within the nearby crust. Any liberated water could then percolate through surrounding rock to form clays. Some impact simulations suggest that these hydrothermal conditions could persist for perhaps thousands of years, making for potentially habitable conditions.

Read more at Science Daily

New Dinosaur Had a Sail on Its Back

A distinctive new dinosaur with a “sail” on its back has just been unearthed in Spain.

The new plant-eating dino, named Morelladon beltrani, adds to a growing number of medium to large-bodied dinosaurs of a similar kind that have all been found in the region that now comprises parts of Spain and Portugal.

In this case, Morelladon beltrani was discovered in Morella, Spain, according to a paper published in the latest issue of PLOS ONE. The authors mention that “the specimen was found in a body of red clays belonging to the upper Barremian Arcillas de Morella Formation.” It dates to around 125 million years ago.

“The generic name (of the new dino) is derived from Morella, the name of the type locality, and ‘odon,’ the Greek word for tooth,” wrote lead author José Miguel Gasulla from Grupo Biología Evolutiva (UNED-UAM) and his colleagues.

The recreation has a bit of a toothy grin because 14 large teeth were associated with the dinosaur’s remains. The teeth helped it to grab and process a variety of tough plant material back in the Early Cretaceous period, when the dinosaur was alive.

Even with such impressive teeth, the most conspicuous feature of this dinosaur was its sail, according to the researchers. They could detect its former presence based on tall spines that would have jutted up out of the dino’s back.

Paleontologists have speculated about these sails, which were found on other dinosaurs, as well as on certain large lizard-like reptiles.

Although this particular dinosaur was no size slouch at about 20 feet long and just over 8 feet tall, the sail when extended would have made it look much larger. Since it was a plant eater, carnivorous dinosaurs in the area must have been higher on the food chain, so the tactic would have been useful.

Also, imagine a predator trying to take a bite out of this dinosaur. If it hit the substantial sail, it would not have damaged any internal organs, giving M. beltrani a chance to escape.

There are some other theories about the sails, though. The appendage could have been used as an identifier, helping members of a species find each other over long distances.

Still other paleontologists suspect that the sails were used for thermoregulation, allowing heat to escape over a wider surface during hot days, and capturing warmth on colder days.

Finally, some suspect that the sail was like a hump on a camel, providing a place to store fat that the dinosaur could have relied on during periods of low food supply. Since whatever fat that might have been in place has since broken down, it is now not fully possible to know just how the sail was used.

Read more at Discovery News

Arctic Report Card Shows Warming Air, Less Ice

Surface air temperatures over the Arctic have climbed 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th Century – more than twice the level of warming experienced elsewhere on Earth, scientists said Tuesday in an annual report.

Between October 2014 and September 2015, the average surface air temperature in the region was 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the baseline average set between 1981 to 2010 — the highest temperature in 115 years, said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cold regions researcher Jackie Richter-Menge.

“In general, air temperatures in all seasons were above average throughout the Arctic, with extensive regions exceeding 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the 1981-2010 baseline,” Richter-Menge told reporters at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

The warmer air contributed to changes in the amount of Arctic sea ice, which peaked on Feb. 25 – 15 days earlier than average. This winter ice pack was the smallest on record since 1979.

In addition, only 3 percent of the ice cover in February and March 2015 was so-called “old ice,” which is older than four years. New, first-year ice made up 70 percent of the pack, the research showed.

Three decades ago, 20 percent of the ice pack was more than four years old and just 35 percent of the pack was first-year ice, Richter-Menge said.

After the summer, the level of sea ice receded to the fourth lowest level on record since satellite observations began in 1979.

“These observations collectively confirm a trend toward a thinner and more vulnerable Arctic sea ice cover,” Richter-Menge said.

The changes are impacting Arctic marine animals, including walruses, which have taken to congregating on land, rather than sea ice, said researcher Kit Kovacs, with the Norwegian Polar Institute in Norway.

“This new haul-out behavior is raising concerns about the well-being of females and their young that must now have to make 110-mile feeding trips, each direction … rather than just simply going to nearby ice edges as they did in the past,” Kovacs said.

“Given consistent projections of continued warming temperatures, we can expect to see continued widespread and sustained change throughout the Arctic environmental system,” she added.

The changing Arctic is impacting the rest of the planet as well, said Rick Spinrad, chief scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which released the 2015 Arctic Report Card.

Read more at Discovery News

Earthquake Forced Rapid Evolution in Fish

We usually think of evolution as something that happens over millions of years. But according to a just-published study, scientists reveal that the 1964 Alaska earthquake,  which measured 9.2 in magnitude, sped up the process for a tiny saltwater fish species, forcing it to radically change its physical features over a 50 year period so that it could survive in freshwater.

In an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Oregon and University of Alaska focused upon the changes in the threespine stickleback, a tiny fish species usually found in saltwater.

After the massive quake, some populations of the fish were stranded by geological uplift in freshwater ponds. The researchers discovered that those fish subsequently experienced changes in both their genes and visible external traits such as eyes, shape, color, bone size and body armor in their adaptation to fresh water.

“We’ve now moved the timescale of the evolution of stickleback fish to decades, and it may even be sooner than that,” said University of Oregon biology professor William Cresko, one of the study’s co-authors.

“In some of the populations that we studied we found evidence of changes in fewer than even 10 years,” Cresko said. “For the field, it indicates that evolutionary change can happen quickly, and this likely has been happening with other organisms as well.”

The changes were similar to those seen in the same species after it was forced to exist in freshwater when glaciers receded 13,000 years ago. That shift was documented in a 2010 study, of which Cresko also was a co-author.

In the latest article, Cresko and his colleagues noted that stickleback now have regions of their genomes alternatively honed for either freshwater or marine life. That may explain why they were able to adapt so rapidly to their new environment.

From Discovery News

Dec 15, 2015

Life-Friendly Chemistry Revealed Inside Saturn Moon

After determining that the ocean beneath the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus has roughly the same pH as Windex or soapy water -- an indication that the water has been in contact with rock, creating potentially life-friendly chemistry -- scientists are moving on to the trickier hunt for evidence of hydrothermal venting.

The data comes from NASA’s Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft, which in October made its deepest dive into plumes of vapor and ice jetting off the southern polar region of Enceladus, a 310-mile wide moon that has emerged as a top contender in the search for life beyond Earth.

“This is really is a world with a habitable environment in its interior,” planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine, with Cornell University, said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

Early analysis of Cassini’s 30-mile high pass over Enceladus on Oct. 28 indicates that the moon’s subsurface ocean, which is believed to be the source of the plumes, has telltale chemical fingerprints of water that has interacted with rock.

“This is remarkably high pH solution,” said geochemist Christopher Glein with the University of Toronto and the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“How did it get that way? We think that what happened on Enceladus, and which could still be happening today, is that there were geochemical reactions between magnesium and iron-rich rocks in Enceladus’ core reacting with ocean water. Those reactions led to the high pH,” Glein said.

The process, known as serpentinization, has been found on Earth, such as in Lost City, a field of alkaline hydrothermal vents in the mid-Atlantic ocean.

Another geochemical consequence of serpentinization is the mass production of hydrogen gas.

So far, attempts to tease out signs of hydrogen in Enceladus’ plumes has had mixed results.

But if confirmed, the presence of hydrogen could have significant implications for the prospect of life, Glein said.

“Hydrogen … has the potential to drive the synthesis of organic molecules -- and much more,” Glein said.

Read more at Discovery News

Clouds Behind Missing Exoplanet Water Mystery

When it comes to studying planets beyond the solar system, more is indeed merrier, especially when the results clear up a long-standing mystery.

Consider the case of so-called “hot Jupiters” — gaseous planets bigger than our own solar system’s Jupiter orbiting their parent stars closer than Mercury orbits the sun. Those locations make the planets both sizzlingly hot and difficult to study.

Nevertheless, a handful of observations by the Hubble Space Telescope turned up one puzzling find: Many hot Jupiters seem to be missing water from their atmospheres.

That prompted an international team of astronomers to mount a comparative study of 10 hot Jupiters, the largest exoplanet study to date and an indication of just how rapidly the field  has grown since the detection of the first planet beyond the solar system in 1992.

Using Hubble and NASA’s infrared Spitzer space telescope, astronomers measured the planets’ atmospheres, which turned out to be much more diverse than expected.

Scientists were able to figure out that some of the hot Jupiters had clouds, while others did not. Interestingly, the cloud-free worlds showed strong signs of water, and the planets with clouds did not. The team  realized that clouds, along with haze, are most likely masking the chemical fingerprints of water.

“The alternative  is that planets form in an environment deprived of water — but this would require us to completely rethink our current theories of how planets are born,” astronomer Jonathan Fortney, with the University of California in Santa Cruz, said in a statement.

“Our results have ruled out the dry scenario, and strongly suggest that it’s simply clouds hiding the water from prying eyes,” he added.

The research is published in this week’s Nature.

From Discovery News

Earth May Spin Faster as Glaciers Melt

Melting ice triggered by global warming may make Earth whirl faster than before and could shift the axis on which the planet spins, researchers say.

This could also affect sunset times, as the length of Earth’s day depends on the speed at which the planet rotates on its axis. Prior research found the rate at which Earth spins has changed over time.

For instance, ancient Babylonian, Chinese, Arab and Greek astronomers often recorded when eclipses occurred and where these phenomena were seen. This knowledge, in combination with astronomical models that calculate what the positions of the Earth, sun and moon were on any given date and time, can help reveal how fast Earth must have been spinning. To do so, researchers calculate the speed necessary for the planet to face the sun and moon in ways that allowed those astronomers to observe the eclipses.

In general, the gravitational pull of the moon and sun on Earth is relentlessly slowing the planet’s rate of spin. However, in the short term, a variety of different factors can also speed up and slow down how fast Earth whirls.

Previous research has found that melting glaciers triggered by global warming helped cause a significant amount of global sea-level rise in the 20th century. In theory, rising sea levels — once estimated to be climbing at a rate of about 0.06 to 0.08 inches (1.5 to 2 millimeters) per year — should also have slightly shifted Earth’s axis and increased the rate at which the planet spins.

When polar ice caps melt, they remove weight off underlying rock, which then rebounds upward. This makes the poles less flat and the planet more round overall. This should in turn cause Earth to tilt a bit and spin more quickly.

However, previous research mysteriously could not find evidence that melting glaciers were triggering a shift in either Earth’s rotation or axis that was as great as predicted. This problem is known as “Munk’s enigma,” after oceanographer Walter Munk at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who first noted the mystery, in 2002.

Now, in a new study, researchers may have solved this enigma and shown that rising sea levels are indeed affecting Earth’s spin and axis.

“The rise of sea level and the melting of glaciers during the 20th century is confirmed not only by some of the most dramatic changes in the Earth system — for example, catastrophic flooding events, droughts heat waves — but also in some of the most subtle — incredibly small changes in Earth’s rotation rate,” said study lead author Jerry X. Mitrovica, a geophysicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

First, the scientists noted that recent studies suggested 20th-century glacial melting was about 30 percent less severe than Munk assumed. This should significantly reduce the predicted amount of shift in Earth’s spin and axis.

Moreover, the research team’s mathematical calculations and computer simulations found that prior research relied on erroneous models of Earth’s internal structure. This meant previous studies did not correctly account for how much glaciers would deform underlying rock and influence Earth’s spin.

Furthermore, interactions between Earth’s rocky mantle and the planet’s molten metal outer core should have helped slow the planet’s spin more than was previously thought.

Read more at Discovery News

Extinct 'Lonesome George' Tortoise Species May Be Revived

Fans of nature would be hard pressed not to recall the iconic Galapagos tortoise nicknamed “Lonesome George,” a last-of-his-kind creature that died in 2012 at more than 100 years old.

George is gone, but soon his species of Galapagos tortoise may once again lumber on his native island.

According to the New York Times, plans are afoot to revive George’s species (the Pinta tortoise) with some help from close blood relatives of the famous animal.

Lonesome George was found alone on Pinta in the Galapagos Islands in 1971 — the sole remaining tortoise on the island. He was moved to Santa Cruz Island for his own protection, where he lived another 41 years, all mating attempts to keep his line alive failing.

George's death would seem to have been the end of the line, for the Pinta tortoise. But, according to the Times, living tortoises on Isabela Island, south of Pinta, were found during a 2008 survey to have high amounts of Pinta-tortoise DNA, raising the tantalizing possibility that some of them may be in the family tree of George himself.

Next up, scientists plan to breed the tortoises from Isabela that are as genetically close as possible to the original Pinta species.

If that captive-breeding effort is a success, the hope is that new tortoise populations can once again wander Pinta within a decade and within a few generations they'll be near genetic matches for animals like George.

That's a boon not only for the Pinta species, but also for the island itself, which benefits from tortoises, as the slow-movers disperse seeds that help the ecosystem thrive.

From Discovery News

DNA Dates Dog Domestication Back 33,000 Years

All dogs alive today can trace at least some of their ancestry back to dogs that were domesticated 33,000 years ago in southern East Asia, suggests one of the most extensive ever investigations of canine DNA.

In addition to pinpointing the place and time for the earliest dog domestication, the new study, published in the journal Cell Research, found that the first domesticated dogs descended from grey wolves that likely came from China.

The research, conducted by an international team, further determined that dogs began to migrate out of East Asia and towards the Middle East and Africa 15,000 years ago. They then reached Europe in large numbers approximately 10,000 years ago. It appears that the dogs self-initiated the moves.

"For some reason, dogs stayed around East Asia for a long time before their migration out of Asia," senior author Ya-Ping Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Kunming Institute of Zoology told Discovery News. "We speculated that the glacial period might have been the environmental factor that prevented dogs from migrating out of Asia."

For the study, Zhang, Peter Savolainen of the KTH- Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, and their colleagues sequenced the genomes of 58 canines, including grey wolves, indigenous dogs from Southeast and Northeast Asia, village dogs from Nigeria, and numerous dog breeds from around the world.

Based on the DNA analysis, they found that dogs from Southeast Asia have a higher degree of genetic diversity than all other dogs. Such genetic diversity is an indicator of where a species originates. Additionally, these dogs were most closely related to grey wolves.

DNA remains a focus for research on the history of dogs because the fossil record for dogs in East Asia is so poor. Zhang said that the warm, humid conditions of the region are not favorable for preserving fossils. Also, there have not been many targeted excavations in the region.

“Yet another unfavorable detail is that the soil in southern East Asia is mostly quite acidic, pH often below 5, which makes bones dissolve within a few hundred years,” Savolainen said.

It could then be that no remains still exist for the world’s first major population of domesticated dogs.

It is often said that cats, loving the comforts provided by humans, domesticated themselves. A subset of wolves might have done something similar.

As Zhang said, “dogs at the time of migration out of East Asia might still have been very loosely engaged with humans. Dogs might have followed existing human settlements and spread as scavengers living around human beings.”

Just as humans travel back and forth, it appears that some of the earliest dogs did too. The DNA evidence suggests that dogs from a group that migrated out of southern East Asia later travelled back, but this time toward northern China. There, the dogs interbred with local populations before spreading to the Americas, according to the new research.

Intriguingly, two excavated early dog skulls, analyzed by other scientists, date to 33,000 years ago. One was found in a cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia. Another was discovered in a cave in Belgium.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 13, 2015

Nanostructured metal coatings let the light through for electronic devices

Light and electricity dance a complicated tango in devices like LEDs, solar cells and sensors. A new anti-reflection coating developed by engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, lets light through without hampering the flow of electricity, a step that could increase efficiency in such devices.

The coating is a specially engraved, nanostructured thin film that allows more light through than a flat surface, yet also provides electrical access to the underlying material -- a crucial combination for optoelectronics, devices that convert electricity to light or vice versa. The researchers, led by U. of I. electrical and computer engineering professor Daniel Wasserman, published their findings in the journal Advanced Materials.

"The ability to improve both electrical and optical access to a material is an important step towards higher-efficiency optoelectronic devices," said Wasserman, a member of the Micro and Nano Technology Laboratory at Illinois.

At the interface between two materials, such as a semiconductor and air, some light is always reflected, Wasserman said. This limits the efficiency of optoelectronic devices. If light is emitted in a semiconductor, some fraction of this light will never escape the semiconductor material. Alternatively, for a sensor or solar cell, some fraction of light will never make it to the detector to be collected and turned into an electrical signal. Researchers use a model called Fresnel's equations to describe the reflection and transmission at the interface between two materials.

"It has been long known that structuring the surface of a material can increase light transmission," said study co-author Viktor Podolskiy, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "Among such structures, one of the more interesting is similar to structures found in nature, and is referred to as a 'moth-eye' pattern: tiny nanopillars which can 'beat' the Fresnel equations at certain wavelengths and angles."

Although such patterned surfaces aid in light transmission, they hinder electrical transmission, creating a barrier to the underlying electrical material.

"In most cases, the addition of a conducting material to the surface results in absorption and reflection, both of which will degrade device performance," Wasserman said.

The Illinois and Massachusetts team used a patented method of metal-assisted chemical etching, MacEtch, developed at Illinois by Xiuling Li, U. of I. professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-author of the new paper. The researchers used MacEtch to engrave a patterned metal film into a semiconductor to create an array of tiny nanopillars rising above the metal film. The combination of these "moth-eye" nanopillars and the metal film created a partially coated material that outperformed the untreated semiconductor.

"The nanopillars enhance the optical transmission while the metal film offers electrical contact. Remarkably, we can improve our optical transmission and electrical access simultaneously," said Runyu Liu, a graduate researcher at Illinois and a co-lead author of the work along with Illinois graduate researcher Xiang Zhao and Massachusetts graduate researcher Christopher Roberts.

The researchers demonstrated that their technique, which results in metal covering roughly half of the surface, can transmit about 90 percent of light to or from the surface. For comparison, the bare, unpatterned surface with no metal can only transmit 70 percent of the light and has no electrical contact.

Read more at Science Daily

Spaniel-Size Triceratops Cousin Walked on Hind Legs

The discovery of a spaniel-size ceratopsian that walked on its two hind legs reveals that Late Jurassic horned dinosaurs were much more diverse than previously thought, a new study finds.

Researchers uncovered the remains of the 160-million-year-old, plant-eating creature in China’s Gobi desert. The new specimen has a unique ornamental texture on its skull, and it’s much smaller than its famous distant cousin, Triceratops, which lived about 95 million years later in North America during the Late Cretaceous, the researchers said.

Though its anatomy suggests the newfound beast was an early horned dinosaur, it didn’t sport any horns. That’s no surprise — other early horned dinosaurs, including the small bipedal Yinlong downsi, which the researchers found in the same Gobi desert fossil bed, didn’t have horns, either, the researchers said.

“It looks like Yinlong downsi, but much larger,” said study lead author Fenglu Han, a postdoctoral student in the School of Earth Sciences at the China University of Geosciences. “Most of the skull bones [of the new species] are sculpted.”

After analyzing the fossils — a partial skull and foot — the researchers named the newly identified species Hualianceratops wucaiwanensis (HWAL-ee-on SAR-ah-tops woo-sigh-wahn-EN-sis). In Mandarin, Hualian means “ornamental face,” referring to the unique texture on its skull, and ceratops means “horned face” in Greek. The wucaiwan part of the species name refers to the area in which the fossil was discovered, and means “five color bay” in Mandarin.

When the researchers uncovered H. wucaiwanensis in 2002, they initially thought it was an ankylosaur, Han told Live Science. But a detailed study confirmed that, like Yinlong downsi, the newfound plant eater is among the oldest ceratopsians known to science, he said.

“Finding these two species in the same fossil beds reveals there was more diversity there than we previously recognized,” study co-author Catherine Forster, a professor of biology at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. “It suggests that the ceratopsian dinosaurs already had diversified into at least four lineages by the beginning of the Jurassic period.”

A comparison of H. wucaiwanensis with other ceratopsians is helping researchers reassess the pace and pattern of horned-dinosaur evolution, the researchers said. For instance, little is known about the evolution of the small, parrot-beaked horned dinosaur group Psittacosaurus, which lived in China during the Early Cretaceous.

“Hualianceratops preserved some derived features of Psittacosaurus, and may provide more information of the origin of Psittacosaurus,” Han said.

Read more at Discovery News