Feb 13, 2016

Love Bug Wears Its Heart on Its Leg

Valentine’s Day is every day for a newly discovered group of beetles whose members sport a prominent “heart” on their legs.

The heart is actually a trochanter, a joint or leg segment that helps connect the upper leg to the abdomen. Humans also have a part called the “greater trochanter,” only not in such a fancy shape.

The beetles, described in a new study in the journal Acta Entomologica, have another connection to Valentine’s Day. They only seem to think about one thing: mating.

“All of the specimens so far have been male. We have yet to see a female,” lead author Max Barclay said in a press release. “Its closest relatives are parasites developing inside other insects. We don’t yet know what its heart-shaped joint is used for, but we do know that the males don’t even have a functional mouth to eat, so their only purpose is to search for mates. They certainly have a one-track mind.”

Barclay is the beetle collections manager at London's National History Museum, which houses specimens representing more than half of the known beetle species on Earth, making it the largest and most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world. Barclay is, therefore, arguably the planet’s foremost beetle expert.

While examining a batch of several thousand mixed insects collected during a field trip to Central America, Barclay spotted the unusual beetles. He knew they were extraordinary when he spotted the prominent heart-shaped joints.

More research determined that the beetles represent a new genus, named Ivierhipidius, whose members live in a Belize rainforest.

“There are more than 400,000 known beetle species. They are the largest group of organisms on the planet, playing a critical role in ecosystems,” Barclay said.

“One in five of living creatures is a beetle," Barclay added, "and we are still uncovering new species today, even some with new modifications of body parts that disclose more about their evolution and way of life.”

From Discovery News

Pacific Coast Apartments Are About to Fall Off a Cliff

Plenty of people love the idea of living in a house or apartment close to the ocean. It’s safe to say that nobody likes the idea of their house or apartment actually tumbling into the ocean, but that’s precisely the situation that’s facing residents of an apartment complex in Pacifica, Calif.

They find themselves living closer and closer to the sea as the 80-foot cliff on which their dwellings are perched crumbles away. And yet remarkably, at least some of them are reluctant to move away.

Both the scale of the problem and the determination of the residents are vividly highlighted in the video below. At around the 30-second mark, a chunk of cliff collapses into the sea; yet, later on, the video shows people calmly smoking on their balcony.

The Pacifica cliffs have been crumbling for decades, but the pace has steadily increased as sediment from the San Francisco Bay, which sustained the beaches and protected the cliffs, has been greatly reduced by damming, water diversion and dredging. Increasing sea level rise will only exacerbate the problem; but by then, the buildings will likely be long gone.

“I filmed a small portion of a very large problem with that city,” Duncan Sinfield, an assignment editor at KTVU told The New York Times. “It’s got to be happening a lot more often. We’re just not seeing it.”

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 12, 2016

Wasps Fly Backwards to Ensure They Can Get Home

When sand wasps leave home in the morning they capture snapshots of the landscape around their nest to make sure they can find their way back later, a study using high-speed video has found.

The field study, published today in the journalCurrent Biology, is the first to reconstruct what a homing insect in the field sees, co-author Professor Jochen Zeil from the Australian National University’s Research School of Biology said.

“They look back at the nest from the view point of their future return,” he said.

“It’s a bit like when you leave a hotel in an unfamiliar environment. To make sure you recognise it when you come back, you turn back as you are leaving it.

“It’s a very smart way of obtaining all the information you need to get back.”

It has long been known that insects use orientation flights to help find their way back to the nest, but until now, no-one knew exactly what information they used in this process and how they used it.

To investigate this question, Dr Zeil and colleagues used two high-speed cameras to record the brief orientation flight of the female ground-nesting wasp Cerceris australis.

The researchers captured both the three-dimensional path travelled by the wasp and the direction the insect was looking at the time.

“In a way we were sitting in cockpit of this animal while it was learning how the scene looks like around the nest on departure,” Dr Zeil said.

Wasps have compound eyes that capture the world in low resolution and panoramic vision.

The researchers combined this fact with flight path information to reconstruct what the wasps saw on their orientation flight.

Dr Zeil and colleagues showed that during the orientation flight the wasp flies backwards away from the nest in a very systematic zigzag pattern of arcs around the nest, slowly getting higher and further away (see video below).

The researchers hypothesized that during the orientation flight, the wasp would produce a systematic sequence of views of the nest in its landscape, which they used when deciding what direction to fly in on their return.

Read more at Discovery News

Goa May List India's Treasured Peacocks as Vermin

India’s popular tourist state of Goa has ruffled a few feathers with its proposal to reclassify the national bird the peacock as vermin, making them easier to cull, reports said Friday.

The move comes just weeks after Goa’s legislative assembly caused similar consternation when it ruled that the resort state’s beloved coconut trees were not in fact trees, but palms.

“We have listed several wild species including wild boar, monkey, wild bison (Gaur), peacock as nuisance animals,” the Press Trust of India quoted Goa’s agriculture minister Ramesh Tawadkar as saying.

“These animals are creating (a) problem for farmers and are destroying their cultivation in rural areas,” he told reporters on Thursday evening, according to the PTI report.

The colourful peacock is India’s national bird and is protected under the country’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

But animal rights groups fear the Goa government’s proposal to reclassify the peacock as a “nuisance animal” is intended to make it easier to cull the birds.

“Goa seems to be trying to… (have) India’s national bird labelled this way so that they may be hunted and killed,” Poorva Joshipura, the CEO of PETA India, told AFP.

“If Goa wants to remain on the tourist map, people expect it to be a paradise for animals too,” she added.

Last month, opposition politicians in Goa reacted with outrage after the state government reclassified the coconut tree as a palm because it doesn’t have any branches.

Read more at Discovery News

Spider Triumphs Over Venomous Snake in Outback Duel

A plucky little spider has once again proved that size doesn’t matter by taking on — and beating — a much larger venomous snake, in a very Australian telling of the story of David and Goliath.

The spindly Daddy Long Legs spider appeared to have come out on top after going head-to-head with a brown snake in rural New South Wales.

Farmer Patrick Lees said he was astonished to discover the expired reptile dangling from a web at his outback home in Weethalle, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) west of Sydney, on Saturday.

“The snake was already dead, I made sure of that before I took the photo,” he told AFP, referring to the creature’s reputation for its deadly venom and quick bite.

Lees’ photo, posted on his Aussie Farmer Facebook page, has proved a huge hit in a country well known for its array of fearsome animals.

Many Australians take Mother Nature in their stride, but visitors to the vast island country marvel at its range of dangerous wildlife, from gargantuan saltwater crocodiles to the deadly Sydney Funnel Web Spider.

Brown snakes are common in eastern Australia, and can be as much as two metres (six feet) long when fully grown, according to the website of the Australian Museum.

Their bite, which delivers a potent mix of neurotoxins and coagulants, can be fatal to humans.

Lees said that after taking his photograph, he left the determined little arachnid to enjoy its moment.

“I can’t deny the spider its victory,” Lees said.

“I’m not sure if it killed it but it definitely won in the long run.”

Wildlife experts said it was possible the snake and the spider had duked it out — to the death — but it was impossible to know for sure.

“The most likely scenario is that the snake got entangled in the spider’s web,” Graham Milledge of The Australian Museum told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Read more at Discovery News

Snowballs Form Spontaneously, Roll On

Here’s the sort of thing that you might expect to see on the reboot of “The X-Files.” Thousands of snowballs spontaneously form, without any human hands to help, and then roll together like a ghostly invasion force through a field in Idaho.

But as agent Mulder probably would explain to us, all those snowballs actually are a natural, albeit extremely rare, phenomenon known as snow rollers.

As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website explains, snow rollers form when an unusual sequence of events occur. First, a smooth crust of snow that’s already on the ground is covered by newer, lighter layer of snow. Then, the weather abruptly changes, warming rapidly, and strong wind kicks up. The wind picks up small pieces of moist, sticky snow and sends them rolling along. Once the pieces are on the move, they collect more snow around them.

While snow rollers often are cylindrical, the ones in Idaho formed spherical shapes that resembled snowballs. Unlike the ones you threw at your neighbors as a kid, snow rollers aren’t packed together firmly, and sometimes they’re even hollow.

While snow rollers don’t occur very often, scientists have known about them for a long time. This 1893 article describes their appearance in a field in Ohio.

In this case, the snow rollers appeared in and around The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve in south-central Idaho. Sunny Healey, the preserve’s manager, told Nature’s Cool Green Science blog that she had never seen them before in 20 years of living on the preserve. She described the snow rollers as being about 18 inches in diameter.

When Healey first glimpsed the snow rollers from a distance, she thought they were trumpeter swans, which sometimes bunch together in the fields. On closer observation, she realized they were frozen spheres, and noticed the roll marks that they left in the snow.

From Discovery News

Meet the Bird That Lies and Tricks Its Way Into Sex

Disneyland’s a lie. Mickey Mouse, for instance, isn’t a mouse at all, but a costume with a person inside. The architecture, too, is deceptive. That giant castle isn’t as tall as it looks, because designers deployed something called forced perspective, making the windows near the top smaller so they seem farther away.

It’s some next-level sneakiness that the great bowerbird would find laughable. It was deploying its own visual tricks long before Walt Disney came around. The male great bowerbird constructs a beautiful tubular structure out of twigs, depositing bones and snail shells to make courts at either end. He arranges these in a very specific way, though, opposite of what’s going on in Disneyland: By deploying forced perspective, the male bowerbird actually makes his court look smaller. Also very unlike Disneyland, he does it to help him get laid.

This is the saga of bowerbird hanky-panky, a romance packed with more lies, illusions, and thievery than a soap opera—with none of the insufferable soft focus.

In Australia and New Guinea, 24 species of bowerbird undertake some of the most bizarre mating rituals among avians. Some males build big cave-like structures—known as bowers—out of sticks, clearing a court in front where they hoard objects of very particular colors. A pile of blue junk, for instance, might include berries and the odd piece of blue plastic. Other bowerbirds build simpler, smaller “avenue” bowers—two rows of sticks arranged vertically to create a kind of tunnel.

The male great bowerbird is in this latter camp. Among the builders, his bower is kind of meh if I’m being honest: He chooses drab rocks and snail shells and bones to decorate his court.

The female bowerbird doesn’t really care, though. Here’s how the seduction goes down. The male flutters into a bush above his bower and calls to the female. Should she join him, he’ll drop down to his crib and take up position in one of the courts. “He starts strutting about and then she goes inside [the bower], and he struts about a bit more and makes a funny sound,” says evolutionary ecologist John Endler of Australia’s Deakin University. “It’s sort of like, tick tick tick tick.”

Now pretend you’re a female great bowerbird. The tight walls of the structure direct your attention to the court. If the male had placed objects of any size willy-nilly throughout the court, to your eye the court would seem fairly large: Objects farther away of course look smaller and give a sense of depth.

Notice the arrangement of larger objects farther away from the bower. This tricks the female into thinking that the court is smaller or, at the very least, that she’s on acid.
But that’s not what you see here. The bones and stones and such all look to be the same size because the male is tricking you. He’s placed the larger objects farther away from your eye and the smaller ones closer to you. “The effect of that is to make a more even pattern,” says Endler. “It would probably have an effect of making the court look smaller and therefore the bird itself might look larger.” He’s using the art of forced perspective to show off.

That’s not the only visual illusion the bowerbird uses. In another part of the mating process, he takes up a position off to the side of the bower entrance, popping just his head into view to wave objects at the female, real needy-like. The males who find the best, most colorful objects are the most desirable, after all.

Here’s where it gets interesting: While the outside of the bower looks fairly plain, the male has painted the inside red by chewing up bits of plants and fruits. He didn’t do that to get the female in the mood—he’s actually messing with her color vision. The male picks up a typically colorful object, which she sees set against the dullness of the court, and gives it a wave. He throws the object away, grabs a new one, and gives that a wave. He’ll also flash the vivid crest on the back of his head every so often for good measure.

All the while the female’s eyes are adjusting to the red paint lining the bower. As this is happening, her retina is comparing the data from its red-sensitive cones and green-sensitive cones in order to sense colors.

But the paint is overwhelming the red cones. “The effect on the bowerbird is she’s going to become less sensitive to red light, which means that green objects are going to be brighter,” Endler says. The battle between red cones and green cones has tipped toward the greens. (Human peepers work the same: You can see how tightly green and red are paired in your eyeball with this demo. By staring at green stripes, you desensitize your green cones, so when you look at something white, red magically replaces the green.) Indeed, the male will wave a disproportionate amount of green objects to red ones in order to impress her.

The male great bowerbird’s beautiful crest is as alluring to female bowerbirds as the human male’s fedora is to women. Wait…
After an average of a minute or so of all this, the male will run around the back. If the female is receptive, she’ll let him mate with her. If not, she’ll just burn him and fly away.

Males don’t only have to worry about how to best seduce the ladies. Opportunistic males will often tear down their neighbors’ bowers or steal objects left unattended. This is relatively rare if bowers are nice and spaced out, perhaps over a half mile apart, but as density increases, so does the marauding. “There’s the other side of the story: If you’re going away to maraud someone, your own bower might get ruined,” Endler says. “Sounds a lot like politicians, doesn’t it?”

Read more at Wired Science

Feb 11, 2016

Fear of Vengeful Gods Helped Societies Expand

Belief in an all-seeing punitive god motivates people to be more charitable towards strangers outside their own family and community, particularly to those of similar beliefs, researchers have found.

A study, published Wednesday in Nature, suggests religiosity may contribute to greater cooperation and collaboration despite geographic separation.

“People may trust in, cooperate with and interact fairly within wider social circles, partly because they believe that knowing gods will punish them if they do not,” the study’s authors wrote.

“Moreover, the social radius within which people are willing to engage in behaviors that benefit others at a cost to themselves may enlarge as gods’ powers to monitor and punish increase.”

To explore these ideas, researchers studied 591 people from eight diverse communities in Brazil, Mauritius, Siberia, Tanzania, Fiji and Vanuatu.

People in these communities adhere to a wide array of religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism as well as local traditions such as animism and ancestor worship.

The participants played a game in which they were given the option to exercise financial favoritism towards themselves and their local community, or to be completely impartial by obeying the roll of a die, which could mean giving money to a distant person of the same religion.

Each participant’s religious beliefs were also explored through interviews designed to assess how much their god or gods cared about morality, punishment, and how much those knowledge the gods had of individual’s behavior.

The researchers found people who believed in a more punitive, all-knowing god ended up giving more money to distant people who shared the same religious belief.

Lead author Benjamin Purzycki said the results suggested people of the belief that one’s actions are monitored, judged and punished by a deity were more likely to play fair than to play favorites.

“Ultimately we’ve all got very similar constitutions; we behave a certain way when we feel like we’re being watched and if there’s a threat of a punisher around, that alters our behavior,” said Purzycki, post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture at the University of British Columbia.

“So what these gods seem to do is they harness that suite of psychological predispositions we have and it can steer our sociality and pro-sociality in specific ways.”

Purzycki said the stronger motivation provided by the threat of punishment rather than reward reflected human nature; when driven by reward, people are more likely to do dishonest things than when driven by the threat of punishment.

This can even overcome our evolutionary drive to look after our own – although the study did show that the more children people had, the more likely they were to play favorites.

“We found exactly what you would expect from a rational being where the more children people had the more likely they were to favor themselves and their local community at the expense of these geographically distant communities who shared the same religion beliefs and practices,” Purzycki said.

Given we live in an unprecedented global culture, the authors suggested religiosity may have helped to expand cooperation, trust and fairness towards far-flung strangers of similar religious persuasions.

“In addition to some forms of religious rituals and non-religious norms and institutions, such as courts, markets and police, the present results point to the role that commitment to knowledgeable, moralistic and punitive gods plays in solidifying the social bonds that create broader imagined communities,” they wrote.

Read more at Discovery News

Neanderthal Genes Make Us Depressed, Smoke

Having Neanderthal DNA in your genes significantly increases the risk for depression, nicotine addiction, stroke, pregnancy complications and many other health problems, finds a new survey.

The study, published in the journal Science, provides a living reminder that no human today is a "purebred," since early Homo sapiens interbred with different species in Africa, Asia and Europe. Less is known about what happened in Africa, but sequencing of the Neanderthal genome has made it possible to link Neanderthal DNA to aspects of appearance and the health risks of today's Europeans and Asians.

"This study has modern-day clinical relevance, because it reveals how evolutionary history has led to some differences in disease risk between populations," senior author John Anthony "Tony" Capra told Discovery News.

"In terms of treating these diseases, it will be important to understand how these bits of Neanderthal DNA exert their influence at the molecular level."

Capra, an evolutionary geneticist and assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, and his colleagues analyzed a database containing the anonymous health records of 28,000 U.S. patients. The scientists next looked at the genomes of each person, focusing on their Neanderthal DNA, and then compared the two sets of data to see how the DNA had influenced the patients' risks for the different health problems.

A finding is "that having Neanderthal DNA at one location in the genome significantly increased risk for blood hyper-coagulation," Capra said. Back in the day, this trait might have helped early humans to seal wounds more quickly, preventing infections, but now it can increase the risk for stroke, blood clots and pregnancy complications.

Neanderthal DNA also appears to affect skin and hair color, freckles, and even warts and calluses.

"We also found several surprising associations between Neanderthal DNA and psychiatric and neurological phenotypes (resulting behaviors) like depression and nicotine addiction," Capra said.

He quickly added that Neanderthals did not even have tobacco, which is native to the Americas. They probably were not depressed, either.

Capra explained that "depression is an incredibly complex disease and we don't fully understand the genetic and environmental drivers of depression today in modern populations. Thus, like nicotine addiction, depression might not even make sense as a 'disease' 50,000 years ago. Nonetheless, this does suggest a potential influence of Neanderthal DNA on related systems."

Reaction to the new study reflects ongoing debates about human history and evolution. Some researchers, for example, believe that Neanderthals and humans were very different, with Neanderthals going extinct possibly at the hands of Homo sapiens around 40,000 years ago. Still others believe that Neanderthals were simply absorbed into the Homo sapiens population. These are just two theories.

There are also ongoing debates about "Out of Africa" and "Out of Asia" on where various human species originated and migrated to over the years. One thing is clear: our family trees are far more complex than anthropologists from earlier generations had ever imagined.

Ian Tattersall, a curator and professor emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History, told Discovery News that "any (DNA) admixture did little to affect the future evolutionary trajectory of either Homo neanderthalensis or Homo sapiens. Whether or not the conditions the authors discuss are based on Neanderthal-derived genes, they present identical issues to clinicians. Blaming certain forms of depression on 'Neanderthal' genes doesn't help us much in dealing with them."

Read more at Discovery News

We Just Heard the Spacetime 'Chirp' of Black Hole Rebirth

Today will go down in the history books as the day we directly detected gravitational waves. The discovery, made by scientists of the LIGO Science Collaboration, is a Nobel Prize-worthy event that equals, and maybe even surpasses, the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 and the realization by Edwin Hubble in 1929 that the universe is expanding.

“We can now hear the universe,” said LIGO physicist and spokesperson Gabriela Gonzalez during Thursday’s National Science Foundation’s historic meeting in Washington D.C. “The detection is the beginning of a new era: The field of gravitational astronomy is now a reality.”

Although gravitational waves were first theorized by Einstein’s theory of general relativity a century ago, it’s only now that humanity has the technology to physically measure these ripples in spacetime. Using LIGO, which stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, exquisitely tiny fluctuations in spacetime can be measured and, shortly after its sensitivity upgrade in September last year, the universe gave LIGO a gravitational gift.

Gravitational waves are generated when massive objects accelerate, collide or explode. If we can measure the gravitational wave signature of these events, we can learn a lot about their properties and even use them in a new era of gravitational wave astronomy.

It would be a paradigm shift away from “regular” astronomy that studies cosmic radiation from the electromagnetic spectrum; the gravitational wave spectrum can reveal the “dark” universe, where black holes collide and neutron stars quietly orbit one another in the night.

And on Sept. 14, 2015, one of the biggest eruptions of gravitational waves thought possible to occur in the universe was detected by LIGO’s freshly upgraded laser system.

Approximately 1.3 billion light-years away, two black holes became trapped in their mutual gravitational well and started to rapidly orbit one another. Binary black holes are thought to be an inevitable part of the cosmic landscape, but this is the first time that we have directly detected two black holes — 29 and 36 times the mass of our sun — just before merging. Watch a computer visualization of merging black holes:

Their gravitational battle was short-lived, however. In a fraction of a second, the two rapidly spinning objects touched and unleashed a fury of energy. In an instant, the black holes lost 3 times the mass of our sun — this mass was converted into pure gravitational energy, peaking in power output 50 times the output of all the stars in the universe combined.

If we remember our “tossing a pebble in a pond” analogy for the generation of gravitational waves, this black hole merger was like throwing a brick into that pond; a gargantuan surge of gravitational wave energy erupted, blasting these spacetime ripples into the universe.

Then, 1.3 billion years later, these waves reached Earth. And it just so happened that LIGO had only just been upgraded to detect this ancient event. It’s cosmic serendipity at its finest.

Theory suggests that when two black holes collide and merge, their gravitational wave signal should produce a very fast pulse and, if slowed down sufficiently, the rapid spinning and collision should be represented in the waves as a “chirp.” And guess what? Almost exactly as predicted by computer models based on Einstein’s 100-year-old equations of general relativity, the black hole merger "chirped." Listen:

What you just heard were two black holes spiraling into one another and merging as one — an event that is thought to occur somewhere in the universe once every 15 minutes. This is the physical embodiment of a quest that has taken 100 years for physicists to achieve.

There is no question about the validity of the signal, this is the cutting edge of physics theory meeting observation; the chirp was predicted and this chirp represents black hole rebirth.

When you sit down and really think about it, it’s hard to comprehend that this signal, from two black holes, washed through our planet. In fact, it washed through each and every person on the planet. This has happened countless times and will continue to do so in the future, it’s only just now that we have the right “hearing aid” installed to actually detect these signals.

Read more at Discovery News

Gravitational Waves Detected for First Time

A century after being proposed by physicist Albert Einstein, scientists have made the first detection of gravitational waves -- massive celestial objects on the move causing spacetime itself to ripple -- a historic discovery that opens up an entirely new way of studying the cosmos.

The detection was made by the twin LIGO interferometers on Sept. 14, 2015, located in Livingston, La., and Hanford, Wash., just two days after the system was significantly upgraded to boost its sensitivity.

Like radio waves, visible light, X-rays and other forms of electromagnetic radiation, Einstein believed that gravity also travels in waves. But even the most energetic events in the universe, such as two black holes crashing together, would cause only the slightest rippling through space and across time.

After decades of failed attempts, scientists fished out the first confirmed measurement of gravitational waves passing through Earth, a detection that required measuring 2.5-mile long L-shaped laser beams to a precision 10,000 times smaller than a proton.

Since everything from traffic to earthquakes will distort the beams, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, consists of two detectors separated by 1,865 miles. Because gravitational waves are believed to travel at light speed, a detection from a cosmic source picked up at one LIGO site should be followed up by an identical detection in the other 10 milliseconds later.

That’s exactly what scientists saw when they fished out waves set off by a pair of black holes 1.3 billion light-years from Earth spiraling toward each other and then colliding to form an even larger black hole, researchers said at a webcast press conference Thursday.

“My reaction was ‘Wow!’ I couldn’t believe it,” said LIGO executive director David Reitze.

In addition to proving that gravitational waves exist, the discovery confirms that black holes exist in binary pairs.

“This is the first time that this kind of a system has ever been seen,” Reitze said.

Decades of work with supercomputers to generate models of what the gravitational waves would look like set the stage for the detection.

“Our theoretical predictions lie right on top of the experimentalists' measurements -- an exciting confirmation of general relativity,” said Cornell University astrophysicist Saul Teukolsky.

The black holes detected by LIGO were roughly about 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun. Their merger created a new black hole about 62 times the mass of the sun. The missing three solar masses is what went into generating the gravitational waves detected 1.3 billion years later on Earth.

The European Space Agency in December launched a pathfinder satellite to test a technique for fishing out longer wavelength gravity ripples in space.

“The colliding black holes created a violent storm in the fabric of spacetime,” said physicist Kip Thorne, with the California Institute of Technology.

The storm lasted just 20 milliseconds, but during that span it pumped out more power than 50 times all the stars in the universe, Thorne added.

Just as light radiates in waves of different lengths, ripples produced by gravity stretch space and time differently, similar to how a bowling ball rolling across a trampoline will warp the surface more than a baseball.

“You get electromagnetic radiation – basically light – when you move some sort of charged particles. It’s the same idea with a radio tower … charges go up and down the antenna. If you’re moving masses, instead of moving charges, you get gravitational waves,” NASA astrophysicist Ira Thorpe, with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told Discovery News.

The longest gravitational waves were produced in the Big Bang explosion 13.8 billion years ago. Colliding black holes are the most powerful cosmic events since the Big Bang.

Thursday’s discovery, which is detailed in a paper in Physical Review Letters, opens the door to an entirely new branch of astronomy, a way to listen to the universe in addition to seeing it.

“The frequency of these waveforms are in the human hearing range. We can hear gravitational waves, we can hear the universe. That’s one of the beautiful things about this. We are not only going to be seeing the universe, we’re going to be listening,” said LIGO physicist Gabriela Gonzalez, with Louisiana State University.

Read more at Discovery News

February's Last-Quarter Moon: Why It's Missing

As you gaze at the first-quarter moon this week, you may wonder when the last-quarter moon will occur this month. But there won’t be one, if you live in North or South America.

Take the situation in eastern North America, which is in the Eastern Standard Time (EST) zone. The previous last-quarter moon was on Jan. 31 at 10:28 p.m. EST, and the next one will be on March 1 at 6:11 p.m.

The mathematics behind this is that the average synodic lunar month — from new moon to new moon — is 29.53 days long, while February is either 28 or 29 days long. So it is possible, even in a leap year like 2016, to have one of the four main lunar phases fall outside the calendar month of February.

Other parts of the world, such as Europe, had a last-quarter moon this month early on the morning of Feb. 1.

We make a big fuss about the “Blue Moon,” when there are two full moons in a month, but we don’t seem to notice when one of the lunar phases goes missing.

This raises the question of why our months vary so much in their number of days: 28 or 29 in February, 30 in April, June, September and November, and 31 in the other seven months. The problem is that the sun, moon and Earth don’t move to the tune of simple arithmetic.

The lunar month consists of 29.530589 days, and the tropical year (equinox to equinox) is 365.242190 days long. When the ancient astronomers attempted to construct a calendar with these bizarre numbers, they found that, literally, it did not compute.

Early astronomers divided the shape of a circle into 360 degrees. This seems like a strange number to us with our decimal system, but it made sense with a number system based on 12. It also came close to the number of days in a year, though not close enough. The year was divided into 12 months (a natural in a base-12 number system) of 30 days each — but that left the awkward 5-and-a-bit-days remaining.

Mathematicians struggled with this problem for thousands of years, until finally a papal commission in 1582 came up with a complex but elegant solution, known as the Gregorian calendar, after Pope Gregory XIII, who commissioned it.

In order to get the church’s feast days back in phase with the astronomical calendar, it was necessary to omit 11 days.

The Pope had the power to enforce the new calendar in Catholic countries, though there was a bit of grumbling about the 11 days, which went missing between Oct. 4 and Oct. 15, 1582. Just for fun, try entering Oct. 4, 1582, in a planetarium program like Starry Night, and then advance to the next day. You will find it is Oct. 15.

Naturally, England (along with its North American colonies) was one of the strongholds of the old Julian calendar, and resisted adopting the popish Gregorian calendar until 1752. By that time, the calendar used by the English was off by 12 days, so that Sept. 2, 1752, was followed by Sept. 14, 1752, in England and its colonies.

To avoid the missing-days problem, we now have a system of 30- and 31-day months, with poor February being stuck with making the whole thing fit. Thus, we have 29 days in February every four years, with a few exceptions to fine-tune the length of the year over the centuries. The result is that most months are a little longer than the lunar month, so they sometimes have two full moons (or other double phases). And February sometimes ends up missing a phase, as happens this year.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 10, 2016

Waiting for a Treat: Sign of Dog Intelligence

Your dog’s ability to wait for a treat may predict how well your pet solves problems, and could even reveal at least certain aspects of Fido’s intelligence.

The key skill is inhibitory control, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE. A dog or other animal that lets emotion and impatience get in the way of self-control appears to be far less successful in solving problems.

The ability is even inherited, at least in part.

“It seems safe to say that inhibitory control has a genetic component, but is also subject to environmental influences,” lead author Corsin Müller from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna told Discovery News.

While practice helps, it does not make perfect in dogs.

“I would not expect that every dog can reach the ‘perfect’ level of inhibitory control,” Müller said.

Studies on young children have come to similar conclusions, but humans have another problem-solving ability. It’s our talent for figuring out the physical rules underlying a challenge, and then applying that knowledge, when needed, to other problems.

For example, a child may figure out that a key opens the front door. When presented with another key, the child could use it to open something else, understanding its function and the relationship between keys and locks. Dogs turn out to be not so good at detecting such underlying physical rules.

The new study looked at how well 40 border collie dogs performed in a variety of tasks observed over a period of 18 months, starting when the dogs were puppies. Just the one breed was analyzed, to avoid behavioral and other variations seen between different types of dogs.

The dogs in the study were divided into three groups as puppies. One group received a set of toys that offered dogs opportunities to learn about means-to-an-end connections, the effects of gravity and other defined learning objectives. The second group received similar toys, but these toys were not associated with such clear learning objectives. The third and final group grew up with balls, ropes, rubber toys and other basic playthings.

The researchers predicted that the dogs raised with the first set of toys would do better at later physical problem-solving tasks, but this was not the case.

“When it comes to understanding how a particular task can be solved, what dogs learned when solving previous tasks does not seem to help them in solving other tasks with similar underlying physical rules,” Müller explained.

He added, however, that “for one problem-solving task, dogs with better inhibitory control scores indeed performed significantly better than dogs with poorer control scores.”

Read more at Discovery News

Imperial Rome Migrants ID'd

The first physical evidence of individual migrants to Imperial Rome has been found in the teeth of some 2,000-year-old skeletons, says a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The investigation took place in two Imperial-era cemeteries and showed that several individuals, mostly men and children, migrated to Rome, changing significantly their diet after their move.

It is believed that up to one million people lived in Imperial Rome, with voluntary immigrants accounting for about 5 percent of the population and slaves for up to 40 percent. However, these are just estimates, as there is no complete Imperial-era census for the city of Rome.

"They say that all roads lead to Rome, but finding direct evidence of immigrants to the Eternal City has troubled archaeologists for decades," bioarchaeologists Kristina Killgrove of the University of West Florida, said.

To find physical evidence of human migration in Imperial Rome, Killgrove and colleague Janet Montgomery of Durham University, UK, examined skeletal remains buried at two Rome-area cemeteries during the 1st through 3rd centuries AD.

By analyzing the isotopes of the elements strontium and oxygen, it was possible to determine whether a person's tooth was formed during a time he or she was living in Rome.

Killgrove analyzed 105 teeth for strontium isotopes, and Montgomery examined 55 of those for oxygen isotopes.

Aqueduct water and imported grain were also taken into account to assess the local isotope ranges.

"In the end, there was one female skeleton, several male skeletons, and several children whose sex could not be determined that likely were not born at Rome," Killgrove said.

At least eight individuals, five of them quite young, turned to be migrants from outside Rome, possibly from North Africa, the Alps and the Apennine Mountains in Italy.

The presence of many young individuals is particularly intriguing, as most known voluntary migration was by adult men.

"Children and adolescents could have come to Rome to be educated, to become apprentices, to be married, as part of a family that migrated, or even as slaves," Killgrove told Discovery News.

The scale of slavery within the Empire was quite large.

Read more at Discovery News

Climate Change May Delay Flights

The upper-level jet stream gives a slight tailwind boost to aircraft headed from the United States to Europe, while making the return trip a bit slower. But new research predicts that climate change will speed up these winds, forcing transatlantic aircraft to spend an extra 2,000 hours in the air each year, and adding millions of dollars to fuel costs.

The study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, looked at the effects of doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, which will occur within the next few decades unless emissions are cut quickly.

The average jet-stream winds along the flight route between London’s Heathrow airport and New York’s John F. Kennedy International airport are predicted to become 15 percent faster in winter, increasing from 77 to 89 km/hr (48 to 55 mph), with similar increases in the other seasons.

As a result, London-bound flights will become twice as likely to take under 5h 20m, implying that record-breaking crossing times will occur with increasing frequency in future. On the other hand, New York-bound flights will become twice as likely to take over 7h 00m, suggesting that delayed arrivals will become increasingly common.

Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading and author of the new study, explained that the jet stream is driven by temperature difference between equator and the pole, and by the laws of fluid dynamics.

“Climate change is increasing that temperature difference,” Williams told Discovery News. “When we run the detailed supercomputer simulations that is what they show.”

Due to the extra time spent in the air, transatlantic flights will burn an extra $22 million worth of fuel annually, and will emit an extra 70 million kg of CO2 – equivalent to the annual emissions of 7,100 British homes.  And this might only be the tip of the iceberg.

Since the jet stream encircles the globe in both the northern and southern hemispheres, Williams expects the same effect on cross-country flights from Los Angeles to New York, for example, or Sydney to Sao Paulo.

In some of Williams’ previous work, he calculated that air turbulence will also increase because of the faster winds, making for a bumpier ride for passengers. The faster winds will keep airlines busy in an attempt to save fuel.

“Airlines employ mathematicians every day to calculate the fastest route,” Williams said. “They take in the wind speed from satellite observations and weather forecasts, plug it into an algorithm and out pops the fastest route. What I have done is using same routing algorithms, but generating the winds in a climate model.”

Williams says airplanes can’t just fly faster to compensate because of another effect, air friction that builds up as the plane gets closer to breaking the sound barrier.

“Airplanes fly at about 550 miles per hour, or 75 percent speed of sound (767 miles per hour),” he said. “The closer they get to 80 percent, the fuel efficiency drops off a cliff and the airline has to put an afterburner, real gas guzzlers. That’s why they don’t go any faster.”

There is one bright spot, Williams noted. North-south routes should not be affected by the jet stream winds.

Read more at Discovery News

Medium-Sized Asteroid Hit Could Unleash Ice Age

A strike by a medium-size asteroid could change Earth’s climate dramatically for a few years, making life difficult for people around the world, a new study suggests.

Such an impact on land (as opposed to at sea) could cause average global temperatures to plunge to ice age levels and lead to steep drops in precipitation and plant productivity, among other effects, researchers said.

“These would not be pleasant times,” Charles Bardeen, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said in December during a presentation at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

Short-term climate change

Bardeen and his colleagues modeled what would happen to Earth’s climate if a 0.6-mile-wide (1 kilometer) space rock plowed into one of the planet’s landmasses. Such an impact would probably gouge out a crater about 9 miles (15 km) wide, throw huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere and trigger large-scale fires that lofted lots of soot into the air, provided the strike didn’t occur in a desert area with little vegetation, Bardeen said.

The material lofted after this hypothetical asteroid strike would stay in the atmosphere for a long time — about six years in the case of dust and 10 years for soot, according to the researchers’ results for the “worst-case scenario” (which assumed widespread fires).

These particles would warm in the sun, heating the stratosphere significantly and speeding up chemical reactions that destroy ozone, which protects Earth from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Indeed, atmospheric ozone would be temporarily reduced by 55 percent, causing the surface UV index to top 20 in the tropics for several years. (According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a UV index of 11 or above denotes “extreme risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure.”)

The atmospheric soot and dust would also reduce the amount of sunlight hitting Earth’s surface by up to 70 percent for the first year or two, Bardeen said. As a result, average global surface temperatures would cool by 14.5 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius), “which is about the equivalent of the ice ages,” Bardeen said during his AGU presentation.

The bulk of this temperature drop would occur on land, he added. But effects would be felt in the oceans as well; sea-ice cover would increase, and water has a high thermal inertia, so changes in ocean temperature would last for a relatively long time. For example, the team’s models suggest that the top layers of the ocean would still be about 0.9 degrees F (0.5 degrees C) cooler than normal 15 years after the asteroid impact.

The global cooling would also lead to a drop in precipitation of about 50 percent around the world, Bardeen said.

“This is due to the lost heating and the lost temperature, so we lose convection; we don’t have as many fronts,” he said.

The decrease in sunlight, rain and snow would lead to a roughly 50 percent drop in plant productivity — not good news for farmers and the people who depend on them (which is to say, everyone in the world). Crops in North America, Europe and northern Asia would be especially hard-hit, while agricultural lands in India, South America and Africa would not be affected as much, Bardeen said.

So, the overall picture is not pretty. A strike by a 0.6-mile-wide asteroid could cause “a very severe global impact” for several years, Bardeen said.

But a space rock would likely have to be about 10 times bigger to cause a mass extinction, he added. (The asteroid that’s thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs, along with many other species, 65 million years ago was probably about 6 miles, or 10 km, wide.)

Ocean impact?

Bardeen and his team modeled the aftermath of an asteroid strike on land. But it’s more likely that a space rock would come down in water, since oceans cover about 70 percent of Earth’s surface. What would happen then?

A 2010 modeling study by the late Elisabetta Pierazzo and her colleagues looked into this scenario, and determined that the effects on Earth’s protective ozone layer would be dramatic.

An ocean strike by a 0.6-mile-wide asteroid, the team found, would loft enough salty water vapor to destroy huge quantities of ozone, causing the surface UV index to spike temporarily to 56. Such high radiation levels, which have never been experienced in human history, would probably force people to stay inside during the day, Pierazzo said when the study came out.

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 9, 2016

'Dead' Baby Awakes Just Before Cremation

A Chinese baby boy who was declared dead and spent the night in a morgue showed signs of life just as he was about to be cremated, local TV reported.

Workers at the crematorium in Pan’an in the eastern province of Zhejiang were preparing to cremate the baby on Friday when he suddenly starting moaning, provincial television reported.

The boy had been declared dead the day before and had spent 15 hours in the morgue at a temperature of about -12 degrees Celsius (10.4 F).

After finding the child alive, the crematorium notified his father and the baby was taken to a hospital intensive care unit.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen this. It’s a true miracle,” said a doctor at the Pan’an hospital where the infant was born prematurely in January.

The child spent 23 days in an incubator and was then taken home by his father, who wanted him there for the start of the Lunar New Year which began Monday.

But the baby’s condition worsened a few days after returning home. He was declared dead on February 4 after a doctor decided his heart had stopped beating.

Before the baby was sent to the morgue, his father had wrapped him in two layers of clothing and a thick bag which may have saved his life.

However, doctors are cautious about his chances of recovery.

From Discovery News

Big-Mouthed, Plankton-Eating Fish from Dino Era Unearthed

A pair of fossils from an exceedingly rare, plankton-eating, dinosaur-era fish have been unearthed, shedding new light on an animal with a specialized jaw that could open extra-wide at meal time.

The new fossils come from the genus Rhinconichthys, samples of which are very tough to come by: Just one other fossil was known, from a find in England. But now, thanks to a re-examination of a skull from Japan and a new skull found in Colorado, a team of scientists from the United States and the United Kingdom is getting a better idea about how the fish ate and how widely distributed it may have been.

The big-mouthed fish lived during the Cretaceous, some 92 million years ago, and patrolled the ocean feasting on plankton.  A specialized, lever-like pair of bones in its jaw allowed its mouth to open extremely wide, to take in as much plankton as it could.

Scientists call this form of food intake “suspension feeding” -- seen today in creatures such as the manta ray, blue whale, and whale shark -- and say it’s still a new area of inquiry in creatures from the dinosaur era.

Details about the new finds will appear in a study to be published in the next issue of the journal Cretaceous Research.

“Based on our new study, we now have three different species of Rhinconichthys, from three separate regions of the globe, each represented by a single skull,” said study co-author Kenshu Shimada, a paleobiologist from DePaul University.

“This tells just how little we still know about the biodiversity of organisms through the Earth’s history. It’s really mind-boggling,” Shimada added, in a press release.

From Discovery News

Rare Albino Turtle Hatchling Treks Across Aussie Beach

Queensland, Australia’s Castaways Beach played host to a rare sight, as an albino green sea turtle was spotted in the sand, soon to head for the ocean.

The Coolum District Coast Care turtle survey group posted pictures of the tiny hatchling on its Facebook page, noting that it’s the first albino turtle it has seen in nine years of monitoring turtles.

The group said the turtle, dubbed “Alby,” was the last of more than 100 hatchlings to make its way out to sea from the beach.

“Albino hatchlings are extremely rare. It probably occurs at the rate of one in many hundreds of thousands of eggs that are laid,” Queensland scientist Col Limpu told Australia’s ABC.

Alby’s chances of survival are dicey, Coolum District Coast Care President Leigh Warneminde told CNN. His color will make him stand out to predators, and, as it is, only 1 in 1,000 green sea turtles survives to adulthood.

From Discovery News

Fossilized Pollen Reveals Climate Clues

Fossilized pollen is sometimes used to determine what sort of vegetation grew as Earth’s climate changed over time. But until recently, samples could only be dated back about 500,000 years, a relatively narrow window for study. But now researchers in Australia have found a way to date and examine pollen found in stalagmites of any age.

A new technique developed at the University of Melbourne allows researchers to date speleothems (stalagmites, stalactites and flowstones) and then dissolve them to examine the pollen inside.

“It is also home to a scientific treasure trove of palaeoclimate information that has potential global significance,” said Professor Jon Woodhead, from the University’s School of Earth Sciences.”

Samples from speleothems found in Australia’s arid Nullarbor Plain give clues to what grew in the area 5 million years ago when the area received four times as much rain.

“Most didn’t contain any pollen, which isn’t surprising since many speleothems grew in caves that had no openings to the surface,” palaeoclimate scientist Kale Sniderman said in a statement.

“But some did contain fossil pollen, which revealed the nature of the vegetation growing at those times. Through that we’ve been able to develop a new understanding of the history of the Nullarbor’s climate.”

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

From Discovery News

Hundreds of Galaxies Found Hiding Behind Milky Way

Our Milky Way may be beautiful, but it sure can ruin our view of the cosmos.

Now, astronomers have just taken a peek behind the mess of stars and dust to find a veritable galactic zoo in a previously unexplored region of space. But we’re not talking about just one or two galaxies; researchers have applied a new survey technique using the Australia-based Parkes radio telescope to find hundreds of undiscovered galaxies.

“The Milky Way is very beautiful of course and it’s very interesting to study our own galaxy but it completely blocks out the view of the more distant galaxies behind it,” said Lister Staveley-Smith, of The University of Western Australia and International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR).

A total of 883 galaxies have been identified within 250 million light-years from Earth, a third of which have never been seen before. They are all located in the "Zone of Avoidance", a region of space usually inaccessible to telescopes beyond the Milky Way's galactic bulge.

Staveley-Smith’s team are investigating the mysterious “Great Attractor” — a region of space that appears to be pulling local galaxies (including the Milky Way) with an immense gravitational force the equivalent of a million billion suns. There are few satisfactory explanations for the phenomenon, but seeing “behind” the Milky Way could add a critical piece to the cosmic puzzle.

“We don’t actually understand what’s causing this gravitational acceleration on the Milky Way or where it’s coming from,” Staveley-Smith said in a ICRAR press release. “We know that in this region there are a few very large collections of galaxies we call clusters or superclusters, and our whole Milky Way is moving towards them at more than two million kilometers per hour.”

His team has mapped three dense concentrations of galaxies (named NW1, NW2 and NW3) and two new galaxy clusters (CW1 and CW2) that may be contributing to the large-scale flow of galaxies in that direction.

“We’ve used a range of techniques but only radio observations have really succeeded in allowing us to see through the thickest foreground layer of dust and stars,” said collaborator Renée Kraan-Korteweg of the University of Cape Town. “An average galaxy contains 100 billion stars, so finding hundreds of new galaxies hidden behind the Milky Way points to a lot of mass we didn’t know about until now.”

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 8, 2016

Canine IQ Test Developed

Dog owners who think their beloved pets are just smarter than the others might be right, according to a report published in Britain on Monday based on intelligence tests on 68 border collies.

Researchers from the London School of Economics (LSE) and University of Edinburgh said they used a “purpose-built barn” to measure navigation ability, speed and skills in following a pointed arm.

One of the tests involved the dogs, who were all from farms in Wales, finding their way to a food reward they could see but was behind a barrier.

Another involved offering two plates of food and measuring how quickly the dogs would go to the one with the bigger portion.

They said that because “confounding” factors such as drinking, smoking and different socio-economic backgrounds did not apply, it was easier to measure differences in intelligence and links between longevity and intelligence than with humans.

Dogs also develop dementia in similar ways to their human masters, the researchers said in a research paper published in Intelligence, meaning that the findings could be comparable to human beings.

“Even within one breed of dog… there is a variability in test scores. A dog that is fast and accurate at one task has a propensity to be fast and accurate at another,” the researchers said.

This type of research “will provide crucial information on the relationship between intelligence and health, aging and mortality,” they added.

Rosalind Arden, a research associate at the LSE, said the research was “the first step in trying to develop a really snappy, reliable dog IQ test.”

Read more at Discovery News

Mummy Identification Still Uncertain Science

King Tutankhamun is the only 18th Dynasty pharaoh whose mummy has been identified with certainty, says a new study into some of the most famous ancient Egyptian royal mummies.

King Tut’s great-grandparents, Yuya and Thuya, have also been identified beyond doubt, while different opinions appear to circulate about the identity of almost all the other mummies.

Published in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, the research reviews methods and pitfalls used to name the mummies of the famous 18th Dynasty, which includes royals such as Amenhotep III, Akhenaton, Nefertiti and Tutankhamun.

The meta-analysis examines all the procedures used to identify these mummies, such as anthropological examination, genetics, facial resemblance, historic inscriptions, and name tags found directly on the bandages.

"Overall, agreement emerges only for the identities of Tutankhamun and his great-grandparents Yuya and Thuya. Such results demonstrate the difficulties in identifying ancient Egyptian royal mummies," Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, told Discovery News.

Rühli and colleagues Michael Habicht and Abigail Bouwman focused their investigation on the mummies of the so-called Thutmoside dynasty, from Thutmosis II to Tutankhamun.

Some of these mummies have been recently investigated using molecular genetics in the so-called "Tutankhamun Family project,” carried out by a team recruited by Zahi Hawass, Egypt's former head of antiquities.

The scientists tested 11 royal mummies suspected of being related to King Tut, while five other royal individuals dating to the early New Kingdom (1550-1479 B.C.) were chosen as a control group.

To create a genetic fingerprint for each mummy, the researchers led by Hawass used eight sets of genetic markers. Shared markers helped produce a five-generation pedigree of Tutankhamun's immediate lineage.

Yuya and Thuya were recognized as King Tut's great-grandparents. Pharaoh Amenhotep III and the mummy known as the Elder Lady (KV35EL) were found to be his grandparents, while the skeleton known as KV55 -- most likely Akhenaton -- and KV35YL, the Younger Lady, were identified as siblings, as well as King Tut's parents.

“Our review basically supports the DNA results,” Rühli said.

The researchers noted however that the genetic tests would have not been enough in UK and US courts today to claim parentage.

In UK courts at least 10 matches are required, while in North America 13 matches are necessary to claim relationship. The Tutankhamun Family project gave 8 matches.

"It should be said that working with modern genetic material is one thing, analyzing some 3,500 year-old DNA a totally different one. Obviously, it is much more challenging," Rühli said.

After reviewing all the possible methods used to name the mummies, Rühli and colleagues proposed their own identification.

They agreed with the genetic tests on the identifications of the mummies of Thutmosis II, Amenhotep III, Yuya, Thuya, Queen Tjye, Akhenaton and Tutankhamun.

The study differs from the genetic research for one identification, that of the mummy CG 61072 or KV35YL, the Younger Lady.

Kidney Spotted For First Time in Egyptian Mummy

While the body remains unidentified according to DNA tests, Rühli and colleagues present her as Queen Nefertiti.

"We can't be fully certain of her identity, however inscriptional evidence and facial resemblance with Tutankhamun as seen in CT scans, strongly suggests the mummy belongs to Nefertiti," Rühli said.

"Nefertiti is labelled in inscriptions to be Tutankhamun's mother and indeed the mummy known as the Younger Lady is genetically suggested to be King Tut's mother," he added.

Read more at Discovery News

Climate Change Is Leaving Native Plants Behind

Willis Linn Jepson encountered a squat shrub while he was collecting botanical specimens on California’s Mount Tamalpais in the fall of 1936. He trimmed off a few branches and jotted down the location along the ridge trail where the manzanita grew, 2,255 feet above sea level.

The desiccated specimen is now part of an herbarium here that’s named for the famed botanist. It was among hundreds of thousands of specimens of thousands of different species that were used recently to track the movement of plant species up the state’s many hills.

The results of the analysis warn that native plants are struggling to keep up with changes around them as pollution from fuel burning and deforestation continues to warm the planet. Earlier research into the movement of Californian animals shows they’re shifting more quickly than the native plants.

“The big takeaway is that species are on the move, and they’re moving at different rates,” said Jon Christensen, a scientist and historian at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Which raises the concern that the ecosystems of California could be unraveling.”

Christensen and four other scientists analyzed a database of 2 million specimens from a network of 35 Californian herbariums. Herbariums are like little-known natural history museums that store vast collections of ferns, mosses, algae and other plants. They found 681,609 specimen records to include in their analysis.

They discovered that the range of the Eastwood’s manzanita, which was the type of plant Jepson trimmed on the mountain trail in 1936, hasn’t budged — even as temperatures have risen around it.

Temperatures have been rising around the world because of the heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide, methane and other types of atmospheric pollution. The combined effects of global warming and phases in ocean cycles contributed to record-breaking warmth globally in 2015.

More warming is anticipated in the years and decades ahead, yet ecologists remain unsure how wildlife will be affected. The discovery that the Eastwood’s manzanita range has been locked in its original range “raises questions” about whether it will be able to adapt as the climate changes around it, Christensen said.

Overall, just one in eight native Californian species shifted their ranges significantly upward during more than a century of specimen collecting in California, during which time temperatures rose by about 1°C (nearly 2°F), the researchers concluded in a paper published in Global Ecology and Biogeography.

“Plants and animals aren’t moving together in sync,” University of Connecticut ornithologist Morgan Tingley, who has studied the shifting ranges of native birds in parts of California, said after reading the new paper.

“This leads us to suspect that ecological communities are breaking down and disassembling,” Tingley said. “It’s a worrying possibility, and one that we don’t yet know the consequences of.”

The native plants were also found to be moving more slowly into higher altitudes than their invasive counterparts, one in four of which were found to be spreading uphill.

As the planet warms, ideal climatic conditions for different species of wildlife tend to shift to higher latitudes and greater altitudes. Not all species are expected to be able to keep pace with the changes underway. Of those that do, some will encounter mountaintops, shorelines and freeways that prevent them from going any further.

“If the climate changes too quickly, and species can’t keep up with it, they might be left behind in a climate that’s completely unsuitable for them,” said Nate Stephenson, a federal forest ecologist who researches climate change. “Then their population numbers may go down. In extreme cases, they might even blink out.”

While animals can fly or clamber to new grounds, most plants expand their ranges only when they cast their seeds.

“There’s a legitimate concern that many plant species are simply not evolved to be able to shift their population distributions as fast as the current climate-change event will require,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Williams described the new paper, with which he was not involved, as the “culmination of an incredible amount of work.” He said its conclusions are also “broadly relevant” outside California.

“California is a great place to study species’ range responses to climate,” Williams said. “They have a great dataset, and also a lot of diversity in terms of elevation and climate type.”

The new study relied on the results of the ongoing digitization of the specimens at the Californian herbariums. Digitization involves shooting digital photographs of samples and noting the coordinates and other details of the sites where they were collected.

About a quarter of more than 2 million specimens stored in manilla folders in long rows of tall cabinets in a large herbarium at the University of California, Berkeley have been digitized so far. “Big data is a big thing on our campus,” said Brent Mishler, a biology professor who oversees the collection.

The potential power of each piece of data is limited by the amount of information recorded when the specimen was collected.

“The older ones — they may not have as much data,” Mishler said. “But it still tells you where it was collected and when.”

The analysis of the big herbarium data showed small-seeded native plant species, such as grasses, are moving more quickly and more often up California’s hills than those with larger seeds — such as manzanita. Small seeds travel further than large ones, making it easier for those types of plants to spread.

“There’s huge variation in the species distribution shifts, depending on whether a plant is endemic, native or invasive,” said Adam Wolf, a former Princeton University scientist who led the study. “On top of that, there’s huge variation, depending on whether they have little seeds, medium seeds or big seeds.”

Read more at Discovery News

Managed Forests Accelerate Climate Change

Planting conifers to replace broadleaved forests is contributing to climate change, even when tree coverage increases, reports a new study published in the journal Science.

Commercially desirable trees — such as Scot pines, Norway spruce and beech — absorb more heat than light-green broadleaf trees, such as oak, maple and birch.

“It’s not all about carbon,” lead author Kim Naudts of France’s Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, told Reuters. “Two and a half centuries of forest management in Europe have not cooled the climate.”

Deciduous trees do a better job of reflecting light than evergreens, but reforestation favors fast-growing conifers. In Europe 85 percent of forests were managed by humans as of 2010, the study reports.

Since 1850, the number of broadleaf trees has decreased by about 170,000 square miles (436,000 kilometers).

The conversion to conifers has reduced the amount of solar energy reflected back into space, say the authors, accelerating climate change rather than mitigating it even as the overall tree coverage has increased in the last two and a half centuries.

The researchers argue warming should be considered in addition to simply replacing the same land area, to reduce the impact on Earth’s climate.

The study was produced by France’s Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement and published in the journal Science.

From Discovery News

More Gravitational Wave Rumors: Colliding Black Holes?

More gravitational wave discovery rumors are flying, but this time they’ve taken a specific — and, possibly, really exciting — new twist. And what’s more, we should find out whether the astrophysical rumor mill is correct or not by the end of this week; a National Science Foundation press announcement is planned for 10:30 a.m. ET on Thursday (Feb. 11), billed as an opportunity to bring together scientists from “Caltech, MIT and the LIGO Scientific Collaboration to update the scientific community on efforts to detect (gravitational waves).”

Hot on the heels of Lawrence Krauss’ tweeted rumors about a gravitational wave discovery last month, this new clue comes from a physicist who spoke with someone who saw a pre-published paper describing the historic discovery. This may sound like sketchy third-hand information, but the details discussed sound eerily specific.

“Spies who have seen the paper say they have seen gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger,” wrote theoretical physicist Clifford Burgess, of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, in an email to his faculty that was leaked to Twitter last week.

OK, so a “black hole merger”… interesting. But there’s more.

“They claim that the two detectors detected it consistent with it moving at speed c given the distance between them, and quote an equivalent 5.1 sigma detection,” he continues. “The bh masses were 36 and 29 solar masses initially and 62 at the end. Apparently the signal is spectacular and they even see the ring-down to kerr at the end.”

Burgess closes with: “Woohoo! (I hope)”

The news (like previous rumors) focuses around the powerful Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which was upgraded in September 2015 to detect the hypothesized minuscule spacetime warping caused by gravitational waves. LIGO, which consists of 2 stations on opposite sides of the US, is finely tuned to detect the propagation of gravitational waves through our local volume of space.

From Burgess’ message we can grasp some of the physics he is describing. If (IF!) the rumors are true, the twin LIGO stations (located in Louisiana and Washington) have detected the same gravitational wave signal — with the time delay expected between the 2 stations. That signal, traveling at the speed of light (“c”), carries with it information of the phenomenon that is creating the waves. Burgess also mentions that the signal has a statistical significance of 5.1 sigma, which exceeds the criteria for the signal being real — it is therefore a solid discovery. He also points out that the paper in question will be published by the journal Nature on Feb. 11 (Thursday), coinciding with the National Science Foundation’s meeting on the same day.

Merging Black Holes?

It is predicted that any acceleration of a large mass in the cosmos will generate ripples in spacetime. For example, 2 black holes colliding would be a hotbed of gravitational wave generation. And the email describes just that: 2 black holes (of 36 and 29 times the mass of our sun) collided and merged to create a more massive black hole “weighing in” at 62 solar masses. He also hints that the gravitational wave signal reveals the resulting black hole is spinning (a "Kerr" black hole).

Read more at Discovery News

Feb 7, 2016

Walking on water: Researchers unravel science of skipping spheres

A high-speed camera captured this image of an elastic sphere bouncing off the water surface in a tank.
It takes a perfect flick of the wrist and just the right angle to get a disk-shaped stone to skip across the surface of the water multiple times. So why is it so easy to get such impressive water-skipping performance from an elastic ball with only a mediocre launch?

Researchers at Utah State University's College of Engineering say they have some answers that may offer new insight into water impact physics -- an important area of study in naval applications and maritime and ocean engineering.

In collaboration with scientists at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I., and Brown University, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Tadd Truscott and his associates at USU's Splash Lab have unraveled the physics of how elastic spheres bounce on water more easily than rigid ones. Truscott and his collaborators published their findings in the latest edition of Nature Communications -- an online open access interdisciplinary journal.

The team uses high-speed cameras to capture images of elastic spheres bouncing across tanks of water in a laboratory. They found that elastic spheres skip along the water surface by deforming into an ideal disk-like geometry that resembles a stone one might find near the shore. Due to the sphere's deformed shape, the water exerts a larger lifting force on elastic spheres than stones.

Truscott's study not only reveals the physics of how elastic spheres interact with water, but also predicts how many skips will occur. In addition, the team found that elastic spheres can bounce off the water surface from much higher impact angles compared to rigid spheres -- a big clue into why these elastic objects are much easier to skip.

Skipping objects along the water surface has a wide range of applications from simple aquatic toys, to naval operations like the WWII-era Wallis Bomb, or the water-walking locomotion of the Basilisk lizard.

Truscott's setup may look like fun and games, but behind the scenes he and his team are conducting highly technical research with funding from the U.S. Navy. His work could help make inflatable boats and other soft-hull vessels safer for passengers and, on a more playful note, improve the design of water toys.

One such toy, the Water Bouncing Ball, or Waboba for short, was the inspiration for this study.

"Our approach was playful at first," said Truscott. "My son and nephew wanted to see the impact of the elastic spheres in slow motion, so that was also part of the initial motivation. We simply wondered why these toys skip so well. In general, I have always found that childish curiosity often leads to profound discovery."

Truscott's findings have various applications. Not only do they explain the physics of water bouncing balls, they also establish a framework for designers to tune elastic objects for better performance.

Read more at Science Daily

Bee virus spread is humanmade, driven by European honeybee populations

Varroa on pupa.
The spread of a disease that is decimating global bee populations is humanmade, and driven by European honeybee populations, new research has concluded.

A study led by the University of Exeter and UC Berkeley and published in the journal Science found that the European honeybee Apis mellifera is overwhelmingly the source of cases of the Deformed Wing Virus infecting hives worldwide. The finding suggests that the pandemic is humanmade rather than naturally occurring, with human trade and transportation of bees for crop pollination driving the spread.

Although separately they are not major threats to bee populations, when the Varroa mite carries the disease, the combination is deadly, and has wiped out millions of honeybees over recent decades. Varroa feed on bee larvae while the Deformed Wing Virus kills off bees, a devastating double blow to colonies. The situation is adding to fears over the future of global bee populations, with major implications for biodiversity, agricultural biosecurity, global economies, and human health.

The study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and supported by a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship. It involved collaborators from the universities of Sheffield, Cambridge, Salford and California, as well as ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

Lead author Dr Lena Wilfert, of the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation, on the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, said: "This is the first study to conclude that Europe is the backbone of the global spread of the bee killing combination of Deformed Wing Virus and Varroa. This demonstrates that the spread of this combination is largely humanmade -- if the spread was naturally occurring, we would expect to see transmission between countries that are close to each other, but we found that, for example, the New Zealand virus population originated in Europe. This significantly strengthens the theory that human transportation of bees is responsible for the spread of this devastating disease. We must now maintain strict limits on the movement of bees, whether they are known to carry Varroa or not. It's also really important that beekeepers at all levels take steps to control Varroa in their hives, as this viral disease can also affect wild pollinators."

Researchers analysed sequence data of Deformed Wing Virus samples across the globe from honeybees and Varroa mites, as well as the occurrence of Varroa. They used the information to reconstruct the spread of Deformed Wing Virus and found that the epidemic largely spread from Europe to North America, Australia and New Zealand. They found some two-way movement between Europe and Asia, but none between Asia and Australasia, despite their closer proximity. The team also looked at samples from other species suspected of transmitting the disease, including different species of honeybee, mite and bumblebees, but concluded that the European honeybee was the key transmitter.

Professor Roger Butlin, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Sheffield, said: "Our study has found that the deformed wing virus is a major threat to honeybee populations across the world and this epidemic has been driven by the trade and movement of honeybee colonies.

"Domesticated honeybee colonies are hugely important for our agriculture systems, but this study shows the risks of moving animals and plants around the world. The consequences can be devastating, both for domestic animals and for wildlife. The risk of introducing viruses or other pathogens is just one of many potential dangers."

Read more at Science Daily