Mar 24, 2016

Fish Walks, Climbs Waterfalls Like a Salamander

A species of cavefish in Thailand has been documented walking and climbing waterfalls in a manner similar to four-footed creatures such as salamanders, in a find researchers call “huge” in evolutionary terms.

In a new study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) scientists describe the behavior in the blind, walking cavefish Cryptotora thamicola.

Study co-author Brooke E. Flammang, an assistant professor of biological sciences at NJIT, said in a press release that the fish has anatomical features previously known only in tetrapods — four-limbed vertebrates that include amphibians and reptiles.

“What these fish do, in complete darkness, is stick to the rock and climb waterfalls, completely underwater,” Flammang said.

While some other fish species have means of moving on land, the NJIT researchers write that no other living fish has the gait employed by the cavefish, which uses a tetrapod-like, “robust pelvic girdle” to climb.

“The pelvis and vertebral column of this fish allow it to support its body weight against gravity and provide large sites for muscle attachment for walking,” Flammang said.

The NJIT team says the find could tell scientists more about how the anatomy for land-walking evolved, as tetrapods made the long transition from finned to limbed beginning in the Devonian period about 420 million years ago.

“From an evolutionary perspective, this is a huge finding,” Flammang said. “This is one of the first fish that we have as a living species that acts in a way that we think they must have acted when they evolved from a fluid environment to a terrestrial environment.”

From Discovery News

Radar Scan Stokes Mystery Over Shakespeare's 'Missing' Skull

A radar scan of William Shakespeare’s tomb has discovered signs of tampering with his final resting place that lend credence to a story about his skull being stolen in the 18th century, researchers say.

Archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar on the grave, which is protected by a curse, for a documentary airing on Saturday to mark the 400th anniversary of the famous playwright’s death.

“We have Shakespeare’s burial with an odd disturbance at the head end,” said Kevin Colls, who is heading up the research on the grave site at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, central England, Shakespeare’s home town.

“It’s very, very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all,” he said.

According to a story published in 1879, trophy hunters removed the skull in the late 18th century.

The robbers would have defied the inscription on a stone slab above the grave reading: “Bleste be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.”

The grave is only a metre (three feet) below the floor of the church and there is no evidence of metal, indicating that the body of the “Bard” was wrapped in a shroud rather than buried in a coffin, the survey also found.

Shakespeare is buried alongside his wife, Anne Hathaway, and the grave is a place of pilgrimage for the many fans who flock to Stratford every year.

The discovery will feature in a documentary being broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 television as part of commemorations ahead of the April 23 anniversary of Shakespeare’s death when there will be a series of performances and a candlelit vigil in the church.

The scan — the first ever carried out — revealed significant repairs to the head-end of the grave.

Read more at Discovery News

Maggots Modified to Heal Wounds Faster

When a wound won’t heal, send in the maggots.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have genetically engineered larvae (i.e. maggots) of the green bottle fly so they secrete human growth factor molecules shown to boost healing.

It may sound icky, but using maggots to promote healing isn’t new — the wormy insects have been placed on wounds for more than a century. The maggots eat dead tissue and leave living tissue alone. The young insects also secrete antimicrobial compounds that help keep the wound clean.

It’s a cheap way to treat wounds, but until now some have doubted the treatment’s effectiveness. Past clinical trials have failed to show that maggots actually speed up a wound’s healing time.

That’s where genetic engineering comes in.

The North Carolina team created two brands of maggots — one was engineered to produce human platelet derived growth factor-BB when the maggots were warmed to 37 degrees Celsius (98.6° F). The second group was designed to release the growth factor when their diet lacked a specific antibiotic.

The lab results showed the first group did not end up releasing adequate amounts of the healing growth factor, but the second group with the antibiotic-limited diet did.

The next step is to test the modified maggots in clinical trials.

While placing maggots on a wound may sound gross, it holds out particular promise for Diabetes patients who often suffer from long-lasting ulcers on their legs and feet.

“A vast majority of people with diabetes live in low- or middle-income countries, with less access to expensive treatment options,” said author Max Scott, an NC State professor of entomology in a press release. Scott said the engineered maggots could offer “a cost-effective means for wound treatment that could save people from amputation and other harmful effects of diabetes.”

From Discovery News

Fog Detected on Surface of Saturn Moon Titan

More evidence has emerged, so to speak, of fog over a very special place: Titan. Titan is one of the largest moons in the solar system and is full of hydrocarbons, making it an interesting Saturn moon that looks like a precursor to what Earth was billions of years ago.

After multiple pictures of fog from Mars were released, the research team behind this new work wanted to know if it was possible to find fog using Huygens. Huygens was the European Space Agency’s lander, attached to NASA’s Cassini probe, that briefly survived on the surface of Titan in 2005.

“Ground fog on Titan has been seen before from orbit (Brown et al. 2009) so it’s not unexpected to find fog on the surface,” wrote York University postdoctoral researcher Christina Smith, the lead author of the study, in an email to Discovery News. “But it hadn’t been detected from the surface before, which is what we did in our research and why it’s exciting.”

Titan has very active weather, as shown by this infrared image of clouds near the south pole. Image taken by the Cassini spacecraft.
The work came from analyzing Huygens’ “side-looking imager” data after the craft had landed. They noticed that some of the image frames had linear features, compared with the average data found in most frames.

“We evaluated possible origins. Clouds were considered, but no consistent movement across the frame was detected, so this is unlikely,” Smith wrote. “A superior mirage was considered, but there was no temperature inversion detected on descent so again, this is considered unlikely. We considered a background rise, but due to several considerations our most likely explanation (in our opinions) is that this feature is due to a fog bank rising and falling.”

Fog was first recorded on this moon in 2009. At the time, California Institute of Technology co-discoverer Mike Brown said fog must have happened because of high humidity; in other words, it had rained. Cold air is uncommon on Titan — although it likely can cool somewhat above a pool of evaporating methane — and there are no mountains high enough on the surface for fog.

Mars is also known to have fog.
“Evaporating methane means it must have rained,” Brown wrote on his blog at the time. “Rain means streams and pools and erosion and geology. Fog means that Titan has a currently active methane hydrological cycle doing who knows what on Titan.”

Read more at Discovery News

Volcanoes May Have Caused Moon's Poles to Wander

Ice deposits that formed in craters on opposite sides of the moon three billion years ago indicate it may have once spun on a different axis.

Volcanic activity in the moon’s interior billions of years ago may have moved the lunar poles to their present position, according to a team of scientists from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

They said their calculations, published in the journal Nature, open the way to better understand how water reached the inner solar system.

Lead author Matthew Siegler said the moon’s axis had moved about six degrees to the rotation we see today.

“It takes a huge change in the mass of the moon to do that — something like a giant crater or volcano forming,” Siegler said.

The team was able to source the change in rotation to the center of the Procellarum region — the black part of the face of the moon — which is also the center of nearly all of the volcanism on the moon.

“By looking at how much the pole moved, we are able to see how this region, which is about 30 per cent of the moon, and the interior of the moon evolved,” Siegler said.

Because the Procellarum region was most geologically active early in the moon’s history, Siegler said it was likely the change in spin axis, known as polar wander, occurred billions of years ago.

The team used modelling to determine what changes in density needed to happen in the Moon’s interior to cause a six-degree movement in the satellite’s orientation.

While analyzing lunar hydrogen data from the Moon from almost a decade ago, Siegler’s team noticed that each lunar pole had a hydrogen deposit that was slightly displaced from the true north and south poles.

These hydrogen deposits were directly opposite each other, so that a line drawn from one to the other would pass through the center of the moon — and were located equal distances from their respective poles, but in opposite directions.

This suggested these deposits were evidence of “paleopoles” and that the moon’s spin axis had shifted to its current alignment.

Because the hydrogen was most concentrated in the moon’s extreme cold regions, it was believed to be water.

“It is really cold in the shadowed craters near the lunar poles, most areas never get above minus 170 degrees Celsius,” Siegler said.

“At these temperatures water ice acts like any other rock — it doesn’t melt or evaporate — so it can stick around forever.

“The ice we are observing, or at least most of it, had to have arrived before the spin axis changed. That likely happened around three billion years ago.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 23, 2016

Is Ceres' Mysterious Bright Dome an Ice Volcano?

After a year of speculation since NASA’s Dawn mission arrived in orbit around dwarf planet Ceres, we may be coming close to answer as to what is causing its mysterious bright spots inside the famous Occator Crater.

“Before Dawn began its intensive observations of Ceres last year, Occator Crater looked to be one large bright area,” said Ralf Jaumann, planetary scientist and Dawn co-investigator at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin. “Now, with the latest close views, we can see complex features that provide new mysteries to investigate.”

Revealed at the 47th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas on Tuesday, this enhanced color view (pictured top) inside the 57 mile-wide crater reveals a wonderfully detailed observation of a dome-like structure. The dome, nestled inside a smooth-walled pit, exhibits fractures and is surrounded by blotchy white clusters.

These are the highest-resolution pictures of this famous region captured so far as Dawn was carrying out low mapping orbits yet, coming within 240 miles from the small world’s surface.

“The intricate geometry of the crater interior suggests geologic activity in the recent past, but we will need to complete detailed geologic mapping of the crater in order to test hypotheses for its formation,” said Jaumann.

Further work is needed to fully understand what internal mechanisms are driving Occator’s strange geology, but from these observations, the domed structure certainly appears to be volcanic in origin. However, if confirmed, this is a very different kind of volcano than what we are familiar with on Earth.

Long before Dawn entered Ceres orbit, it was known that Ceres, which lives in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, has significant quantities of water in the upper layers of its surface. The bright spots inside Occator were also observed, leading to speculation that Ceres’ geology is driven by cryovolcanoes. Assuming significant quantities of volatiles (ices) inside Ceres are gently heated by the dwarf planet’s interior, these chemicals could be erupting through the surface layers. Over time, a dome may form, cracking and resurfacing the crust.

This finding ties in with other recent discoveries on Ceres. Primarily, there are less craters than would be expected for such an ancient body; perhaps ongoing icy processes like cryovolcanism is constantly resurfacing Ceres. Also, ground-based observations of the bright spots have shown daily variations. Even possible vapor has been spied by Dawn around the vicinity of Occator — a sign of sublimating ice.

In other findings summarized at Tuesday’s meeting, planetary scientists said that Dawn’s VIR instrument had detected water inside the young 6 mile-wide Oxo Crater in the northern hemisphere of Ceres. Also, the dwarf planet has a rich variety of mineral variations across its surface. VIR analysis on another crater called Haulani has revealed a very different material composition below the surface. “The diversity of materials implies either that there is a mixed layer underneath, or that the impact itself changed the properties of the materials,” said VIR instrument lead scientist Maria Cristina de Sanctis, at the National Institute of Astrophysics, Rome.

Of course, Ceres wasn’t the first asteroid belt body Dawn has visited. The spacecraft also spent 14 months from 2011-2012 in orbit around massive asteroid Vesta, allowing mission scientists to carry out direct comparisons between the two bodies.

Read more at Discovery News

Extinct Hawaiian Bat Joins Short List of Island Native Mammals

A long-studied bat fossil has been confirmed as an entirely new species, bringing to two the count of bats known to be endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.

The newly named bat, Synemporion keana, has just been described in a new study in the journal American Museum Novitates. It joins the extant Hawaiian hoary bat on the skimpy list of bats native to Hawaii and brings to three the number of mammals endemic to the islands (the monk seal is also an island native).

According to the scientists, Synemporion keana was smaller than the hoary bat (the latter weighs about half an ounce, with a wingspan of about 12 inches) and first popped up in the islands fossil record about 320,000 years ago, before going extinct around 1,100 years ago.

“Finding that there actually was a different bat — a second native land mammal for the islands — living there for such a long period of time was quite a surprise,” said study co-author Nancy Simmons, curator-in-charge of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Mammalogy.

Calling it “really something new, not just a slight variation on an existing genus,” Simmons said the extinct bat had a veritable melting pot of characteristics documented in creatures all over the world.

“The new bat contains a mosaic of features from taxa seen on many different continents,” she said. “At some point, their ancestors flew to Hawaii, but we can’t tell if they came from North America, Asia, or the Pacific Islands. They really could have come from anywhere based on what we know now.”

Synemporion keana was originally discovered from fossils found in a cave on Maui in 1981, with later samples turning up on Hawaii, Kauai, Molokai, and Oahu. Now, more than 30 years and much study later, the bat has been deemed a new species.

Read more at Discovery News

2015 One for the Climate Record Books

The long-term warming of the planet, as well as an exceptionally strong El Niño, led to numerous climate records in 2015, including milestones for global temperatures, carbon dioxide levels and ocean heat, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s annual State of the Climate Report.

“The future is happening now,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement. “The alarming rate of change we are now witnessing in our climate as a result of greenhouse gas emissions is unprecedented in modern records.”

With record heat continuing into the first few months of 2015, these trends reinforce the need to implement the Paris climate agreement, hashed out in December, to start to curb emissions, Taalas said.

“Our planet is sending a powerful message to world leaders to sign and implement the Paris Agreement on climate change and cut greenhouse gases now before we pass the point of no return,” he said.

The WMO report, released Monday, noted that the average global temperature for 2015 was 1.37°F (0.76°C) above the average from 1961-1980, making it the “warmest on record by a clear margin.”  (The WMO’s temperature analysis is based on the records of three agencies: NASA, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.K. Met Office.)

Going back further, that temperature was about 1.8°F (1°C) above the average for the second half of the 19th century, meaning global temperatures are already halfway to 2°C (4°F) above preindustrial levels. The goal of the Paris pact is to keep warming below that mark by century’s end.

While the report was focused on 2015, WMO officials noted that the exceptional heat has continued into 2016. In both the NASA and NOAA records, January and February were both record warm, with February besting January as the most anomalously warm month ever recorded, going back 135 years.

“The startlingly high temperatures so far in 2016 have sent shockwaves around the climate science community,” David Carlson, director of the World Climate Research Programme, co-sponsored by the WMO, said in a statement.

Of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases, 93 percent is stored in the oceans. The heat content of the ocean going down to a depth of 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) also hit a new record high last year, the report noted.

Ocean heating accounts for about 40 percent of global sea level rise, because water expands as it warms up; global average sea level from January through November was also a record high, the WMO said.

Hotter ocean waters also contributed to a global coral bleaching event that is still ongoing, and scientists are concerned that a growing amount of that heat trapped in the ocean could be released into the atmosphere, fueling even more and faster warming.

Heat wasn’t the only arena where records were set: Preliminary data from NOAA suggests that 2015 saw the biggest single-year leap in global carbon dioxide levels, and Arctic sea ice saw a record low winter maximum and its fourth lowest summer minimum.

Read more at Discovery News

How Science, Religion Square Off in the Brain

Science versus faith. It’s a heavyweight match-up between two often entirely opposed different worldviews that has been playing out for centuries.

Whatever tension exists between the ideas of those who lean more toward faith versus others more inclined toward reason, the roots of the conflict could trace back to the structure of our brains, according to a new study in the journal PLOS ONE.

Previous research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) suggests the brain has an analytical neural network that allows for critical thinking as well as a social network that supports empathy. This idea of tension existing between the two networks in the brain is known as the opposing domains hypothesis.

The two networks play a game of tug-of-war when faced with a problem. When critical thinking is required, the empathetic part of the brain is suppressed. When moral reasoning is needed, the analytical network is subdued.

Belief in a higher power tends to engage the empathetic network of the brain, tuning out the more analytical area. Thinking analytically about the physical world has the opposite effect, according to the authors.

For their study, researchers from Case Western Reserve University and Babson College conducted a series of eight experiments, involving between 159 to 527 adults. Individuals who were more likely to be religious also tended to show a greater moral concern, though the researchers couldn’t demonstrate cause and effect.

Similarly, strong analytic thinking tended to discourage any kind of spiritual or religious belief. Again, the relationship was correlational rather than causal.

“When there’s a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd,” said lead author Tony Jack of Case Western Reserve University. “But, from what we understand about the brain, the leap of faith to belief in the supernatural amounts to pushing aside the critical/analytical way of thinking to help us achieve greater social and emotional insight.”

The role that these neural networks play in the brain in affecting belief helps to explain certain trends seen in religiosity across different groups. Women, for example, tend to be more empathetic than men, the study’s authors point out, and past research has demonstrated that women also tend to be more religious or spiritual.

Religious individuals aren’t necessarily less intelligent than their agnostic or atheist counterparts. As the researchers note, citing a book that documented the religious affiliations of Nobel Prize winners, nearly 90 percent of the laureates adhered to some sort of faith.

Are science and religion really in conflict? Nearly three-in-five Americans believe they are, according to a survey published last year by the Pew Research Center.

Interestingly, both individuals who are highly religious as well as those more scientific-minded are less likely to see such a conflict, previous surveys have found. A Rice University survey published in 2015 found that nearly 70 percent of evangelicals saw no conflict between science and religion and close to half of them saw the two as complimentary.

Read more at Discovery News

Solar Storms Trigger Intense X-Ray Auroras on Jupiter

Powerful solar storms are the engine behind the intense X-ray auroras seen at Jupiter, a new study has found. This discovery was revealed after a coronal mass ejection — a vast stream of particles ejected from the sun during a magnetic storm — was observed heading out to Jupiter in October 2011.

Across two 11-hour observations on Oct. 2 and 4, researchers gathered data to create a 3-D spherical image of Jupiter. This showed where X-ray activity was most intense. They also found that during the storm, the solar wind compresses the boundary of Jupiter’s magnetosphere and creates the high-energy X-rays.

“We want to understand this interaction and what effect it has on the planet,” said lead author William Dunn, a Ph.D. candidate at University College London, in a statement.

Artist’s impression of the solar wind hitting Mars and stripping ions off the upper atmosphere.
“By studying how the aurora changes, we can discover more about the region of space controlled by Jupiter’s magnetic field, and if or how this is influenced by the Sun. Understanding this relationship is important for the countless magnetic objects across the galaxy, including exoplanets, brown dwarfs and neutron stars,” he added.

The researchers said that this will have particular relevance for the Juno mission, which is en route to Jupiter and will arrive at the planet later this year. The spacecraft is designed to study the magnetic environment around Jupiter.

The study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research — Space Physics.

From Discovery News

Mar 22, 2016

Urban Birds Smarter, Healthier than Rural Birds

City-slicker birds may have an intellectual wing up on their country counterparts, according to a new study out of McGill University.

In a paper appearing now in the journal Behavioral Ecology, researchers present findings that show cognitive differences between urban-dwelling birds and those that live in more rural areas.

The birds in question were bullfinches (Loxigilla barbadensis) from both rural and urbanized settings on the Caribbean island of Barbados.

The researchers put the birds through two general kinds of tests: those assessing associative learning and those presenting problems to be solved, the latter considered more helpful to birds in their daily lives.

For problem-solving, the birds were rated for their ability in such areas as pulling open drawers to obtain food. You can see some of that avian acumen in action in the accompanying video, as an urbanized bird works out the best way to draw out some tasty treats.

And the results? “We found that not only were birds from urbanized areas better at innovative problem-solving tasks than bullfinches from rural environments, but that, surprisingly, urban birds also had a better immunity than rural birds,” said lead author Jean-Nicolas Audet in a statement.

The healthier immune system finding countered an assumption the scientists had made.

“Since urban birds were better at problem-solving,” said Audet, “we expected that there would be a trade-off, and that the immunity would be lower, just because we assumed that you can’t be good at everything. In fact, both traits are costly. It seems that in this case, the urban birds have it all.”

Read more at Discovery News

King Richard III's Grave Recreated in 3-D

University of Leicester archaeologists who discovered the remains of King Richard III have created a fully rotatable computer model which shows the skeleton of the controversial monarch exactly as it was found almost four years ago in a car park.

Revealing in an immersive way the hastily dug burial of the last Plantagenet king, the interactive model was lunched on Tuesday, on the first anniversary of the procession of Richard’s remains across Leicestershire and reinterment at Leicester Cathedral in 2015.

Richard III was killed in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth, which was the last act of the decades-long fight over the throne known as War of the Roses. The king was defeated by Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII.

Vilified, stripped naked, slung across a horse and paraded through Leicester, Richard’s corpse was buried in a poor grave. There it remained, trashed by history until his remains were discovered in 2012.

Richard, the last English king to die in battle, was solemnly reinterred on March 26, 2015 in Leicester Cathedral following one of the most unusual royal funerals in Britain’s history.

The ceremonies began on March 22 when the king’s lead-lined oak coffin was carried into the cathedral after a 22-mile procession. There it stayed for three days of public viewing.

To allow everyone a detailed view of Richard III’s first grave, the University of Leicester teamed up with 3D platform Sketchfab to create an accurate representation of the grave and the skeleton.

The researchers used photographs taken from multiple angles during the excavation and a sophisticated photogrammetry software.

“Photogrammetry provides a fantastic analytical tool that allows us to examine the grave from angles that would have been physically difficult or impossible to achieve during the excavation, and gives us the ability to continue to examine the king’s grave long after the excavation has finished,” Mathew Morris, the University of Leicester Archaeological Services site supervisor who first discovered Richard’s remains, said in a statement.

Read more at Discovery News

Pharaoh Ramesses III Killed by Multiple Assailants

The New Kingdom Pharaoh Ramesses III was assassinated by multiple assailants — and given postmortem cosmetic surgery to improve his mummy’s appearance.

Those are some of the new tidbits on ancient Egyptian royalty detailed in a new book by Egyptologist Zahi Hawass and Cairo University radiologist Sahar Saleem, “Scanning the Pharaohs: CT Imaging of the New Kingdom Royal Mummies” (American University in Cairo Press, 2016).

Hawass and Saleem studied royal mummies from the 18th to 20th dynasties of Egypt, spanning from about 1543 B.C. to 1064 B.C. Rulers during this period included famous names like Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Tutankhamun, Seti I and the murdered Ramesses III. Previously, Hawass and colleagues had reported that Ramesses III’s throat was slit, likely killing him instantly. Now, Saleem, one of the authors of that study, has found that the pharaoh’s toe was hacked off, likely with an ax, suggesting he was set upon by multiple assailants with different weapons.

“The site of foot injury is anatomically far from the neck-cut wound; also the shape of the fractured toe bones indicate that it was induced by a different weapon than that used to induce the neck cut,” Saleem wrote in an email to Live Science. “So there must have been an assailant with an ax/sword attacking the king from the front, and another one with a knife or a dagger attacking the king from his back, both attacking at the same time.”

A murderous plot

Ancient papyrus documents refer to a plot to assassinate Ramesses III, who ruled Egypt from 1186 B.C. to 1155 B.C. But until researchers studied the pharaoh’s mummy with computed tomography (CT) scanning, they didn’t have any evidence that the plot had succeeded. Then, in 2012, researchers reported the discovery that Ramesses III’s throat had been cut with a sharp knife, severing his trachea and esophagus. He would have died immediately, the team wrote in The BMJ.

Court documents outline the tale of a harem conspiracy to take Ramesses III’s life, hatched by one of his wives, Tiye. Her son Pentawere was in line for the throne after his half-brother, Ramesses IV (who was named Amun-her-khepeshef before assuming the throne). Tiye and other members of the royal household, including servants and administrators, meant to kill Ramesses III and then oust Ramesses IV to install Pentawere as ruler.

They seem to have succeeded in killing Ramesses III, but were brought to trial for that murder under the rule of Ramesses IV. Tiye, Pentawere and their conspirators were convicted and executed. A mummy thought to be Pentawere’s has been studied, and Egyptologists believe he died of suffocation or strangulation. Ancient documents show that Pentawere took his own life after his conviction.

The new book adds detail to this lurid tale, suggesting that Ramesses III’s attackers outnumbered him. Part of his big toe had been hacked off and had not healed, meaning the injury happened around the time of death, Saleem said. Embalmers had fashioned a sort of postmortem prosthesis out of linen to replace it when they mummified him.

In fact, the embalmers may have gone the extra mile to try to hide the toe injury. In the late 1800s, an authority at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo tried to unwrap Ramesses III’s mummy, but was unable to penetrate the thick layers of resin that covered the bandages around the feet.

Read more at Discovery News

France's Top Wines Face Climate 'Tipping Point'

Climate change has pushed French wines into uncharted territory, and could force producers to relocate, or abandon the grapes that helped to make their vineyards famous, scientists said Monday.

Since 1980, growing conditions in northern climes such as Champagne and Burgundy, as well as in sun-drenched Bordeaux, have fundamentally changed the “harvest equation” that defined these storied regions, they reported in NatureClimate Change.

“For much of France, local climates have been relatively stable for hundreds or thousands of years,” said Elizabeth Wolkovich, an assistant professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University and co-author of the study.

“But that is shifting with climate change,” she told AFP.

Many ingredients go into great winemaking: soil, grape variety, slope, exposure to the Sun, along with savoir faire in the vineyards and the cellar.

But exceptional vintages have historically also required an early harvest produced by abundant spring rains, hot summers, and a late-season drought.

Droughts helped heighten temperatures just enough to bring in the harvest a few weeks early, said lead author Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York City and lead author of the study.

It is “basic physics at work,” he explained.

In ordinary years, the daily evaporation of moisture from soil has a cooling effect. A Indian summer makes the soil dryer — less evaporation means a warmer soil surface.

Since about 1980, however, this last element of the equation has largely vanished, the study found.

“Now, it’s become so warm thanks to climate change, grape growers don’t need drought to get these very warm temperatures,” Cook said.

That, he added, is a “fundamental shift in the large-scale climate under which other, local factors operate.”

Using meticulous records dating back to 1600, Cook and Wolkovich found harvest dates have moved up by two full weeks since 1980 compared to the average for the preceding 400 years.

Identity crisis 

For France as a whole, temperatures have warmed by about 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the 20th Century, and the mercury is still rising.

In the short term, that has produced some “grands millesimes,” the French term for stand-out years.

For Bordeaux, 1990, 2005 and 2010 have all been described as once-a-century vintages, while in Burgundy 2005 and 2009 are said to hold exceptional promise.

But in the long run — measured in decades — these conditions may evolve into something far less favourable, the study warned.

“If we keep warming, the globe will reach a tipping point,” said Wolkovich, pointing to what happened in 2003.

During that summer, the thermometer climbed past 40C (104F) on half-a-dozen days in the Bordeaux region in early August.

“That may be a good indicator of where we are headed,” she added. “If we keep pushing the heat up, vineyards can’t maintain that forever.”

In France, signature grape varietals — pinot noir in Burgundy, and Merlot in Bordeaux — will no longer be as well-adapted. Instead, southern England could become the new Champagne, with better climate conditions for Chardonnay.

Read more at Discovery News

Astronomers See Supernova Shockwave for First Time

The shockwave generated by the explosion of an ageing giant star has been observed by an international team of astronomers.

The discovery, accepted for publishing in the Astrophysical Journal, will help scientists understand the life cycle of stars, said study co-author Brad Tucker of the Australian National University.

“This is the first time we’ve seen this in the normal visible colours, and we now know it happens,” Dr Tucker said.

“The fundamental way we believe that core collapse happens is related to this shockwave happening. So the physics has been around … for decades and we’ve finally now been able to physically examine and test what’s going on.”

The team of scientists observed the earliest moments of two old stars exploding using the Kepler Space Telescope.

They spotted the shockwave around the smaller of the two stars — a red supergiant over 270 times the radius of the Sun and 750 million light years away.

As the star ran out of fuel it began collapsing and compressing on its central core.

“It’s like packing in dirt,” Dr Tucker said. “You keep pressing it till it’s so dense you can’t get it in anymore, and that’s when you create a neutron star.

“But you reach a limit when you can’t pack it in anymore, and that force pushing in bounces back and it triggers a shockwave to go through the star, causing the star to actually blow up.”

That’s the moment the supernova starts creating the heavier elements on the periodic table, such as gold, silver and platinum.

“It’s that singular moment when we can see the periodic table happening, when we can see the process of creating these new elements, and also see a switch from fission to fusion all at the same time because of this residual shockwave going through this star,” Dr Tucker said.

The shockwave that initiated the core collapse or type IIp supernova was seen as a quick brightening — or flash. The supernova itself also creates a brightening, but this fades over a longer period of time.

Because the shockwave doesn’t last very long — typically hours to days — it’s been a challenge to catch one.

Scientists have previously observed a shockwave in X-ray (as opposed to visible light) but that was just pure luck, Dr Tucker said.

“They were actually looking at another exploding star and one happened to go right off in the exact patch of sky in the exact moment they were looking at it. It was the definition of luck.”

The Kepler Space Telescope enabled the astronomers to systematically scan the sky.

“Kepler is unique,” Dr Tucker said, “because it’s in space and the way it’s set up, you can monitor the sky every 30 minutes. So you know that once the star blows up, you catch it within 30 minutes.”

The second exploding red giant they observed, however, did not shows signs of a shockwave.

The researchers suggested this was because the huge size of the second star — with a radius of 400 times our Sun — made it hard for the shockwave to get through the star to escape out into space.

“Because it had to travel twice the distance [of the other shockwave] we believe it happened but it never made it outside the surface of the star and we never saw it,” Dr Tucker said.

The exploding red giants were found in the first Kepler space observatory mission, known as K1. Four other supernovae have been found in this mission — three previously discovered were caused by the collision of pairs of very old, dense stars called white dwarfs — and another star is yet to be analysed.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 21, 2016

Life-Sucking Parasites Can Help Save Species

Doing what’s in the best interest of an endangered species means supporting the parasites that can do the animals harm, according to a new study in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

In an effort to protect endangered species, specifically those brought up in captive-rearing programs, conservation experts often do their best to ensure a healthy, parasite-free environment. A parasitic infection not only weakens a single animal but could spread through an entire population.

While the idea of preserving parasites no doubt appears to betray the idea of supporting an endangered species, despite the risk of illness or even death, parasites can provide critical long-term immunological benefits that are key to a species’ survival.

“Exposure to parasites in early life can confer improved resistance to the same parasites later on,” said Hamish Spencer of the University of Otago in New Zealand, “and recent research shows that such exposure may enhance the overall development and efficacy of the immune system in defending against a wide variety of infections.”

The loss of these parasites threatens the long-term survival of endangered species, particularly with any efforts to reintroduce them into a natural habitat. As much as they may threaten an individual’s health, parasites play an important ecological role.

According to a 2011 study published in Biological Conservation, parasitism is the most common life strategy on Earth. “t least 76,000 parasitic species inhabit the nearly 45,000 species of described vertebrate hosts,” the authors write. Ignoring such a major player within any ecosystem threatens the success of other species with which the parasites coevolved.

The evolution of the relationship between a parasite and its host over time also has implications for whole networks of species. In the same way that the food web transfers energy across species and affects animal populations, the integration of parasites and host animals within the same ecosystem affects growth, reproduction and long-term survival.

Read more at Discovery News

Pennsylvania Goldfish Gets Life-Saving Braces

A goldfish in Pennsylvania is now sporting a special brace that helps keep it alive and nourished.

A veterinarian with Lehigh Valley Veterinary Dermatology, in Allentown, Pa., created the special mouthwear for “Mr. Hot Wing,” a goldfish born with no lower jaw bone.

A post about the procedure on Lehigh Valley Veterinary Dermatology’s Facebook page has since cemented Mr. Hot Wing’s status as a genuine social-media star.

The fish’s defect meant Mr. Hot Wing could not keep his mouth open, which gave him difficulty both eating and breathing. So veterinary dermatologist Brian Palmeiro attached the device to act as a weight to keep his mouth open.

The brace was made inexpensively, out of material from a credit card, according to a report that aired on WPVI-TV.

As unusual as it seems, this is not the first time a goldfish has either had surgery or become a star. "George the goldfish" attained celebrity status in 2014 for his tumor surgery. And a goldfish in Scotland had a cancerous eye removed in 2015.

From Discovery News

Metallic Ink Revealed in Burned Vesuvius Scrolls

Metallic ink has been found in two papyrus fragments, says new research into the famous scrolls carbonized nearly 2,000 years ago by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption.

The finding proves that metal-bearing ink was used several centuries earlier than previously believed.

The research, published in the journal PNAS, relied on synchrotron X-ray based techniques at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, to reveal a high concentration of lead in the ancient ink.

“We are reasonably certain that lead was intentionally used. It doesn’t come from contamination of water from Roman aqueducts or from a bronze container,” Vito Mocella, a physicist from the National Research Council’s Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, told Discovery News.

Along with Emmanuel Brun at the Grenoble Institute of Neurosciences, Daniel Delattre, papyrologist from the CNRS-IRHT- Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, and colleagues, Mocella examined two multilayered fragments that were handed to Napoleon Bonaparte as a gift in 1802 and now belong to the collection of the Institut de France.

“We do not know their exact dating. Most of the papyri in the villa date from the first century B.C., though the oldest one goes back to the 3rd century B.C.,” Mocella said.

Until now it was assumed the ink used for the most ancient manuscripts, particularly the literary papyri both in Greek and Latin, was carbon-based -– obtained from smoke residues of wood burnt in furnaces.

Researchers estimate that metal was only introduced to ink by the fourth century A.D.

From around 420 A.D., a metallic iron-gall mixture was adopted for parchments as this support required a more adherent ink. Thereafter, metallic inks became the standard for parchments in late Antiquity and for most of the Middle Ages.

The scroll fragments used by the researchers were excavated more than 260 years ago from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, a magnificent seafront estate perhaps owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.

Carefully stored in shelves covering the walls, the scrolls made one of the finest libraries of antiquity.

They were reduced to lumps of coal by the 750-degree Fahrenheit cloud that enveloped the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum during the Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. Ironically the incineration preserved the scrolls forever (Herculaneum’s seaside air would have destroyed them otherwise) and they are now stored at the National Library of Naples.

They make up the only library known to have survived the ancient world. The carbonized scrolls are thought to hold Aristotle’s lost 30 dialogues, philosophical work by Epicurus, erotic poems by Philodemus, Virgilius, scientific work by Archimedes and lesbian poetry by Sappho.

Out of the 1,785 scrolls discovered during the 18th century excavation, only 585 had been completely unrolled using a 18th century mechanical method, while 209 have been partly unrolled.

About 400 have never been unrolled and 450 are so difficult to read that their text remains unknown.

Any attempt using non invasive procedures to read the scroll, including multi-spectral technology, had proven ineffective -– until last year.

In January 2015, Mocella and colleagues used a powerful X-ray procedure to decipher words in the scrolls. Indeed, they reconstructed an almost complete Greek alphabet from inside badly damaged and rolled papyri.

The latest work focused on the chemical composition of the ink and papyrus texture in the fragments.

It emerged that a lead-bearing material was intentionally introduced in the ink production process.

Moreover, the analysis revealed the scribes used straight and thick horizontal papyrus fibers to guide the writing of letters in straight lines, avoiding any additional material to trace ruled lines.

The finding “deeply modifies our knowledge of Greek and Latin writing in antiquity,” the researchers wrote.

They speculate that lead could have been added for its property to speed up the process of ink drying.

The new finding promises to open new paths of exploration into the Herculaneum scrolls.

Read more at Discovery News

Goths vs. Greeks: Text Reveals Epic Ancient Battle

Fragments of an ancient Greek text telling of an invasion of Greece by the Goths during the third century A.D. have been discovered in the Austrian National Library. The text includes a battle fought at the pass of Thermopylae.

Researchers used spectral imaging to enhance the fragments, making it possible to read them. The analysis suggests the fragments were copied in the 11th century A.D. and are from a text that was written in the third-century A.D. by an Athens writer named Dexippus.

During Dexippus’ life, Greece (part of the Roman Empire) and Rome struggled to repel a series of Gothic invasions.

“Warding off the battle columns”

Lecturers Christopher Mallan, of Oxford University, and Caillan Davenport, of the University of Queensland in Australia, recently translated one of the fragments into English. The translated text, detailed in the Journal of Roman Studies, describes the Thermopylae battle: At the start of the fragment, “battle columns” of Goths, a people who flourished in Europe whom the Romans considered barbarians, are attacking the Greek city of Thessalonica.

“Making an assault upon the city of the Thessalonians, they tried to capture it as a close-packed band,” Dexippus wrote of the attack, as translated by Mallan and Davenport. “Those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands.”

Unable to capture Thessalonica, the Goth force turned south toward Athens, “envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries, for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect,” Dexippus wrote.

A Greek force assembled at the narrow pass of Thermopylae in an attempt to stop the Gothic advance. “Some [of the Greeks] carried small spears, others axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with,” Dexippus wrote. “When they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste.”

“Terrifying to the enemy”

In the text, Dexippus said the commander of the Greek force, a general named Marianus, tried to raise morale by reminding the Greeks of the battles their ancestors had fought at Thermopylae in the past, including the famous fifth-century B.C. battle between the Persians and a Spartan-led force. [In Photos: Spartan Temple and Cultic Artifacts Discovered]

“O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds,” Marianus’ speech to his troops reads, as translated from the fragment. “For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state.

“In previous attacks, you seemed terrifying to the enemies,” said Marianus. “On account of these things, future events do not appear to me not without hope …”

The fragment ends before the completion of Marianus’ speech, and the outcome of the battle is uncertain, researchers said.

Marianus may well have given a speech (or speeches) to the troops, the researchers said; however, the speech recorded in this text was likely invented by Dexippus, something ancient historians often did.

Though no one has an exact date for the Thermopylae battle, it was likely fought in the 250s or 260s, researchers said.

An emperor fights

The Thermopylae fragment is one of several written by Dexippus, discovered in the Austrian National Library book, that discuss the invasion of Greece by the Goths. The Thermopylae battle fragment was first published in 2014 in German in the journal Wiener Studies by Gunther Martin and Jana Grusková, researchers at the University of Bern and Comenius University in Bratislava, respectively.

Martin and Grusková have published several articles in German and English on the other fragments. Some of the fragments tell of an attempt by the Roman Emperor Decius (who lived A.D. 201-251) to stop the Gothic forces, as described by Martin and Grusková in 2014 in the journal Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. In those fragments, Dexippus wrote that Emperor Decius suffered a series of setbacks, losing territory and men.

Like Marianus, Emperor Decius also supposedly gave a speech to raise morale among his troops. “Men, I wish the military force and all the provincial territory were in a good condition and not humiliated by the enemy,” Emperor Decius told his troops (translation by Martin and Grusková).

Read more at Discovery News

Butchered Bear Bone Rewrites Human History in Ireland

Analysis of a bear bone found in an Irish cave has provided evidence of human existence in Ireland 2,500 years earlier than previously thought, academics announced Sunday.

For decades, the earliest evidence of human life in Ireland dated from 8,000 BC.

But radiocarbon dating of a bear’s knee bone indicated it had been butchered by a human in about 10,500 BC — some 12,500 years ago and far earlier than the previous date.

“This find adds a new chapter to the human history of Ireland,” said Marion Dowd, an archaeologist at the Institute of Technology Sligo who made the discovery along with Ruth Carden, a research associate with the National Museum of Ireland.

The knee bone, which is marked by cuts from a sharp tool, was one of thousands of bones first found in 1903 in a cave in County Clare on the west coast of Ireland.

It was stored in the National Museum of Ireland since the 1920s, until Carden and Dowd re-examined it and applied for funding to have it radiocarbon dated — a technique developed in the 1940s — by Queen’s University Belfast.

The team sent a second sample to the University of Oxford to double-check the result. Both tests indicated the bear had been cut up by a human about 12,500 years ago.

The new date means there was human activity in Ireland in the Stone Age or Palaeolithic period, whereas previously, scientists only had evidence of humans in Ireland in the later Mesolithic period.

“Archaeologists have been searching for the Irish Palaeolithic since the 19th century, and now, finally, the first piece of the jigsaw has been revealed,” Dowd said.

Three experts further confirmed that the cut marks on the bone had been made when the bone was fresh, confirming they dated from the same time as the bone.

The results were revealed in a paper published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

As well as pushing back the date of human history in Ireland, the find may have important implications for zoology, as scientists have not previously considered that humans could have influenced extinctions of species in Ireland so long ago.

“From a zoological point of view, this is very exciting,” Carden said. “This paper should generate a lot of discussion within the zoological research world and it’s time to start thinking outside the box… or even dismantling it entirely!”

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 20, 2016

Astronomers found a star with a record variation period

The Lomonosov Moscow State University astronomers who created a global network of robotelescopes MASTER detected that a bright star TYC 2505-672-1 has actually faded significantly. That finding led to new questions: and the scientists now suggest that TYC 2505-672-1 is actually a double star system, though a nature of its companion remains unknown.

Three years ago a team of Russian scientists working with the global MASTER network of robotic telescopes spotted that the giant star in Leo minor with a catalogue number TYC 2505-672-1, which was considered to be extinct, in fact just faded -- its brightness decreased nearly 100 times.

The MASTER network of telescopes was constructed by MSU scientists under a guidance of Prof. Vladimir Lipunov for a purpose of detecting and researching the most energetic flashes in the Universe -- Gamma-ray bursts (a process accompanying formations of black holes and neutron stars), and also thermonuclear flashes on white dwarfs, galactic center flares and quasars. MASTER telescopes already detected more that 1000 flashes in a distance from several hundred to a billion light years away, and spotted a number of potentially dangerous asteroids. The telescopes belonging to the network are located near Blagoveshchensk, Irkutsk, Kislovodsk, in the Ural region, Moscow region, and also in Argentina, Republic of South Africa ans Spain (on the Canary islands).

Initially the discovery concerning the star's fading did not seem significant: phenomena of that kind may sometimes take place. However the question, why did the star become that dim, remained not answered. Diverge hypotheses were suggested, among which the most likely one seemed the idea that a red giant following its evolutionary processes emitted a cloud of stardust consisting of carbon particles and 'hid' itself from view.

Though, the later photometric measurements by MASTER-Amur and spectral measurements by the 6-metre BTA-6 telescope showed that the star did not turn red, as, for example, the Sun does before sunset (this happens because it takes longer for the sun rays to pierce the atmosphere). For that reason the star was tracked attentively, and soon it started to restore its luminosity. In October 2014 it recovered its normal shine level completely.

At approximately the same time Rolf Yansen, Dutch astronomer (Arizona university) draw attention to the star. He revised that data of Harvard observatory picture library, publicly available since June 2014, and suddenly detected that in 1942-1945 TYC 2505-672-1 underwent the same decrease in luminosity. According to the scientist's calculations, the star has an unprecedented variation period of 25245 days, which is about 69 years.

This fact means that a common star became a record-breaker in a length of variation period, absolutely out of a reach. According to Denis Denisenko, one of the discovery's authors, the longest known variation period used to belong to Epsilon Aurigae. Its eclipses repeat in 9890 days, which is a bit more than 27 years. Only five stars are known to have a period of more than ten years. In other words, the new variable star exceeds the existing record more than two and a half times.

'Ironically, the project MASTER, initially intended for observing fast happening phenomena, such as for example the consequences of the Gamma-ray bursts and star flashes, discovered an unprecedented variability of a totally different scale,' comments Denis Denisenko.

Professor Vladimir Lipunov who leads the MASTER team, the main initiator and creator of this global network of robotelescopes, prognoses a quick and wide popularity to the new record-breaker from Leo minor.

'If you try to count the number of links to Epsilon Aurigae, you find thousands of mentions,' he says. 'Despite the fact, that the difference between the maximal and minimal luminosity is measured by tens of percents, and now it is nearly a hundred times! The main similarity of the two star is that the reasons why they change their brightness remain absolutely mysterious.'

Scientists assume, that the star is actually a double system, though the nature of its companion by now allows only various guesses.

'The scale of the new object is already impressive,' tells Denis Denisenko. 'Giant stars of such spectral class are about three and a half times heavier than the Sun. Taking into account the second component, the mass of the system should be around at least four solar masses. Orbital radius of such star should be about 33 astronomical units, the orbital length should then exceed two hundred astronomical units.'

Read more at Science Daily

Shock compression research shows hexagonal diamond could serve as meteor impact marker

In 1967, a hexagonal form of diamond, later named lonsdaleite, was identified for the first time inside fragments of the Canyon Diablo meteorite, the asteroid that created the Barringer Crater in Arizona.

Since then, occurrences of lonsdaleite and nanometer-sized diamonds have been speculated to serve as a marker for meteorite impacts, having also been connected to the Tunguska explosion in Russia, the Ries crater in Germany, the Younger Dryas event in sites across Northern America and more.

It has been hypothesized that lonsdaleite forms when graphite-bearing meteors strike Earth. The violent impact generates incredible heat and pressure, transforming the graphite into diamond while retaining the graphite's original hexagonal structure. However, despite numerous theoretical and limited experimental studies, crucial questions have remained unresolved for short-time high-pressure environments relevant to meteor impacts, particularly the structural state immediately after the shock transit, the timescales involved and the influence of crystalline orientation.

In a new paper published by Nature Communications, a team of researchers, including scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), provide new insight into the process of the shock-induced transition from graphite to diamond and uniquely resolve the dynamics of the phase change.

The experiments show unprecedented in situ X-ray diffraction measurements of dynamic diamond formation on nanosecond timescales by shock compression of graphite starting at pressures above 0.5 Mbar (1 Mbar = 1 million atmospheres). The team observed the direct formation of lonsdaleite above 1.7 Mbar, for the first time resolving the process that has been proposed to explain the main natural occurrence of this crystal structure being close to meteor impact sites.

"Due to difficulties in creating lonsdaleite under static conditions, the overall existence of this crystal structure in nature has been questioned recently," said lead author Dominik Kraus. Kraus conducted this research while working as a University of California, Berkeley, Physics Department postdoc sited within LLNL's NIF & Photon Science directorate. He now serves as the Helmholtz Young Investigator group leader at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf in Germany.

"However, static experiments cannot mimic fast dynamics such as those in violent meteor impact events," he said. "Here we show that we can indeed create a lonsdaleite structure during dynamic high-pressure events. This is interesting for modeling dynamic phase transitions in general, but also shows that the lonsdaleite found in nature could indeed serve as a marker for violent meteor impacts."

The experiments were conducted at the Matter at Extreme Conditions (MEC) experimental area at the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford. Graphite samples were shock-compressed to pressures of up to 2 million atmospheres (2 Mbar) to trigger the structural transitions from graphite to diamond and lonsdaleite. The phase changes in the high-pressure samples were probed with ultrafast (femtosecond) X-ray pulses created by LCLS.

According to Kraus, this was the very first in situ structure measurement of the shock-induced graphite to diamond transition. Before these experiments, all conclusions regarding this structural transition where based from the material that was recovered after applying the shock drive or dynamic measurements of macroscopic quantities, such as density and pressure.

Read more at Science Daily