Apr 23, 2016

Cosmic beacons reveal the Milky Way's ancient core

An international team of astronomers led by Dr. Andrea Kunder of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP) in Germany has discovered that the central 2000 light years within the Milky Way Galaxy hosts an ancient population of stars. These stars are more than 10 billion years old and their orbits in space preserve the early history of the formation of the Milky Way.

For the first time the team kinematically disentangled this ancient component from the stellar population that currently dominates the mass of the central Galaxy. The astronomers used the AAOmega spectrograph on the Anglo Australian Telescope near Siding Spring, Australia, and focussed on a well-known and ancient class of stars, called RR Lyrae variables. These stars pulsate in brightness roughly once a day, which make them more challenging to study than their static counterparts, but they have the advantage of being "standard candles." RR Lyrae stars allow exact distance estimations and are found only in stellar populations more than 10 billion years old, for example, in ancient halo globular clusters. The velocities of hundreds of stars were simultaneously recorded toward the constellation of Sagittarius over an area of the sky larger than the full moon. The team therefore was able to use the age stamp on the stars to explore the conditions in the central part of our Milky Way when it was formed.

Just as London and Paris are built on more ancient Roman or even older remains, our Milky Way galaxy also has multiple generations of stars that span the time from its formation to the present. Since heavy elements, referred to by astronomers as "metals," are brewed in stars, subsequent stellar generations become more and more metal-rich. Therefore, the most ancient components of our Milky Way are expected to be metal-poor stars. Most of our Galaxy's central regions are dominated by metal-rich stars, meaning that they have approximately the same metal content as our Sun, and are arrayed in a football-shaped structure called the "bar." These stars in the bar were found to orbit in roughly the same direction around the Galactic Centre. Hydrogen gas in the Milky Way also follows this rotation. Hence it was widely believed that all stars in the centre would rotate in this way.

But to the astronomers' astonishment, the RR Lyrae stars do not follow football-shaped orbits, but have large random motions more consistent with their having formed at a great distance from the centre of the Milky Way. "We expected to find that these stars rotate just like the rest of the bar" states lead investigator Kunder. Coauthor Juntai Shen of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory adds, "They account for only one percent of the total mass of the bar, but this even more ancient population of stars appears to have a completely different origin than other stars there, consistent with having been one of the first parts of the Milky Way to form."

Read more at Science Daily

Chemists shed new light on global energy, food supply challenge

All living things require nitrogen for survival, but the world depends on only two known processes to break nitrogen's ultra-strong bonds to allow conversion to a form humans, animals and plants can consume. One is a natural, bacterial process on which farmers have relied since the dawn of agriculture. The other is the century-old Haber-Bösch process, which revolutionized fertilizer production and spurred unprecedented growth of the global food supply.

"We live in a sea of nitrogen, yet our bodies can't access it from the air," says Utah State University biochemist Lance Seefeldt. "Instead, we get this life-sustaining compound from protein in our food."

But now, Seefeldt and colleagues announce a light-driven process that could, once again, revolutionize agriculture, while reducing the world food supply's dependence on fossil fuels and relieving Haber-Bösch's heavy carbon footprint. The research team, which includes USU's Seefeldt, Derek Harris, Andrew Rasmussen and Nimesh Khadka; Katherine A. Brown and Paul W. King of Colorado's National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Molly Wilker, Hayden Hamby and Gordana Dukovic of the University of Colorado and Stephen Keable and John Peters of Montana State University, publishes findings in the April 22, 2016 issue of the journal Science.

"Our research demonstrates photochemical energy can replace adenosine triphosphate, which is typically used to convert dinitrogen, the form of nitrogen found in the air, to ammonia, a main ingredient of commercially produced fertilizers," says Seefeldt, professor in USU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow.

Any way you slice it, he says, nitrogen fixation is an energy-intensive process.

"The Haber-Bösch process currently consumes about two percent of the world's fossil fuel supply," Seefeldt says. "So, the new process, which uses nanomaterials to capture light energy, could be a game-changer."

"Using light directly to create a catalyst is much more energy efficient, says Brown, NREL research scientist. "This new ammonia-producing process is the first example of how light energy can be directly coupled to dinitrogen reduction, meaning sunlight or artificial light can power the reaction."

Energy-efficient production of ammonia holds promise not only for food production, but also for development of technologies that enable use of environmentally cleaner alternative fuels, including improved fuel cells to store solar energy.

Read more at Science Daily

Apr 22, 2016

Tooth of Extinct Killer Sperm Whale Found in Australia

A huge, five-million-year-old whale tooth has been discovered on an Australian beach, providing the first evidence of the now extinct killer sperm whale outside the Americas.

The 30-centimeter-long (12-inch) fossilized tooth, which is larger than that of a Tyrannosaurus rex, was found by a fossil enthusiast at Beaumaris Bay near Melbourne in February.

“After I found the tooth I just sat down and stared at it in disbelief,” Murray Orr said after the find was announced on Thursday by Museum Victoria, to whom he has donated the tooth.

“I knew this was an important find that needed to be shared with everyone.”

Museum Victoria said the unique fossil belonged to an extinct species of “killer sperm whale” which would have measured up to 18 meters (60 feet) in length and weighed some 40 tonnes.

It is the only example ever found outside the Americas, it added.

“Until this find at Beaumaris all fossils of giant killer sperm whales were found on the west coast of South and North America,” Erich Fitzgerald, a paleontologist at the museum, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The museum said the tooth, which dates from the Pliocene epoch of some five million years ago, was not only larger than those of a living sperm whale but also of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Unlike today’s sperm whales, which eat a diet of squid and fish, their extinct relatives are thought to have used their bone-crushing teeth to prey on much larger animals, including fellow whales.

“If we only had today’s deep-diving, squid-sucking sperm whales to go on, we could not predict that just five million years ago there were giant predatory sperm whales with immense teeth that hunted other whales,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Read more at Discovery News

Key Gene ID'd in Evolution of Darwin's Finches

Changes in beak size have allowed the iconic Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos Islands to expand the types of food available to them. And now, scientists from Uppsala University and Princeton University say they have identified the key gene that regulates the size of those beaks.

In a study published in the journal Science, researchers identify HMGA2 -- a gene typically associated with body size in dogs and horses as well as variation in human size -- as the gene that controls beak size in Darwin’s finches.

Since their common ancestor came to the islands some 2 million years ago, spawning 18 different species, beak size has been a key to the finches’ ability to access varied food sources – from cactus flower nectar to seeds to insects.

In a previous finding, study co-authors Peter and Rosemary Grant documented a rapid shrinking of beak size of the medium ground finch on Daphne Major Island, after a severe drought there in 2004 and 2005 left food supplies depleted. Birds with smaller beaks were better able to crack open smaller seeds — the most ample food left after larger seeds had been eaten in prior years by a newer species on the island, the large ground finch.

“Now we have demonstrated that the HMGA2 locus played a critical role in this evolutionary shift and that natural selection acting on this gene during the drought is one of the highest yet recorded in nature,” said the Grants, in a joint statement.

Exactly how does HMGA2 impact beak size? The researchers aren’t yet sure.

“The HMGA2 gene regulates the expression of other genes but the exact mechanism for how it controls beak size in Darwin’s finches or human stature is unknown,” said the study’s lead author, Uppsala University’s Leif Andersson.

“It is clear that more research to better understand the function of this gene is well justified,” Andersson added.

From Discovery News

Building for Egypt's First Female Pharaoh Discovered

Ancient stone blocks depicting Queen Hatshepsut have been discovered on Egypt’s Elephantine Island, providing insights into the early years of her reign, Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities announced this week. The blocks may have been part of a building that served as a way station for an ancient Egyptian deity.

On several of the blocks, Queen Hatshepsut was represented as a woman, according to the Ministry, suggesting that the blocks and building it came from were erected during the early part of the first female pharaoh’s reign, which lasted from 1473 B.C. to 1458 B.C. Later in her reign, the queen was depicted as a male.

Mentions of Queen Hatshepsut were erased and monuments bearing her image were defaced after her death, and her female figure was replaced with images of a male king: her deceased husband Thutmose II. It is believed that her co-ruler and stepson/nephew Thutmose III ordered the change.

It was unusual for a woman to become pharaoh of Egypt. As Egyptologist Ian Shaw noted in his book “Exploring Ancient Egypt” (Oxford University Press, 2003), “In the history of Egypt during the dynastic period (3000 to 332 B.C.) there were only two or three women who managed to rule as pharaohs, rather than wielding power as the ‘great wife’ of a male king.”

And she was a builder: In his National Geographic feature on Hatshepsut “The King Herself,” Chip Brown wrote about her legacy, and said she was “one of the greatest builders in one of the greatest Egyptian dynasties.” During her reign, Hatshepsut erected and renovated many temples and shrines to the gods.

In fact, the newfound blocks likely were part of a previously unknown building of Queen Hatshepsut that was discovered this year by the German Archaeological Institute, said Mahmoud Afify, head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector, in the Ministry of Antiquities’ statement on Facebook. In previous excavation seasons at the same site, members of the Swiss Institute also discovered some blocks that may have come from the same building.

The building would have served as a way station for the festival barque of the god Khnum, said Felix Arnold, field director of the Elephantine Island mission. In ancient Egypt, “barques,” or sacred boats, were used to help carry the dead to the afterlife.

Based on the discoveries thus far, in the same statement, the Ministry of Antiquities described the building’s construction as a chamber for the barque of the god Khnum, which is surrounded by pillars on all four sides.

“On the pillars are representations of several versions of the god Khnum, as well as other gods, such as Imi-peref ‘He-who-is-in-his-house,’ Nebet-menit ‘Lady-of-the-mooring-post’ and Min-Amun of Nubia,” according to the Ministry statement on Facebook. “The building thus not only adds to our knowledge of the history of Queen Hatshepsut, but also to our understanding of the religious beliefs current on the Island of Elephantine during her reign.”

From Discovery News

Broad Reef Ecosystem Discovered in the Amazon

A reef ecosystem unlike any seen before has just been discovered at the mouth of the Amazon River.

Wedged between the French Guiana-Brazil border and the Maranhão State in Brazil, the reef lies underneath a plume of river water, helping to explain how it went undetected for so long, suggests a new study, which is published in the journal Science Advances.

For over 60 years, however, scientists have suspected that reefs might be in the region.

Senior author Fabiano Thompson told Discovery News, “There were some studies back in the 1950s that suggested the presence of reefs, but none pinpointed the reef bodies, dimensions, locations, and compositions.”

Thompson is an oceanographer and professor of marine biology at the Institute of Biology and the SAGE-COPPE of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He, lead author Rodrigo Moura, and their team explored the poorly known region during three oceanographic cruises resulting from a U.S./Brazil collaboration.

Marine life found at the reef include enormous sponges, multiple types of algae, corals and related animals, hydroids (small predators related to jellyfish), spiny lobsters, at least 73 different species of fish, and other organisms. Much of the reef was made up of rhodolith beds. Rhodoliths are a type of marine algae that resemble coral.

The scientists said that the features of the newly identified reef ecosystem deviate from those of other reef habitats classified to date. Light is very low to non-existent throughout the reef, resulting in conditions similar to those of “shadow zones.” Extremely low levels of oxygen characterize such zones, which are typically hundreds to thousands of feet under the water’s surface.

Another unusual feature of the reef is its location within murky, sediment-rich water. Usually reefs develop in transparent, low nutrient waters, Thompson said. In this case, however, the highly turbid Amazon -- one of the world’s largest rivers -- sheds up to 333,000 nutrients per second as it flows.

Water sampling at the site also yielded an incredible number of different microbes, revealing that single-celled organisms play a central role in the reef ecosystem, which Thompson said he and his colleagues “consider to be a new biome.” “Biome” refers to a community of plants and animals that occupy a distinct region. The scientists suspect that the sponges, corals and other creatures at the site could rely upon the microbes for food.

The reef and its unusual collection of marine life are already under threat. First, there are problems associated with climate change and other man-made stressors.

In another paper published in the same journal, lead author Willem Renema from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and colleagues studied why many reefs the world over are faring so poorly. They focused on a particular type of common coral, staghorn.

Renema and his team found that staghorn and likely other types of coral reefs are now victims of their own past successes.

He explained that, “The cost of being able to become dominant by growing fast and reproducing by fragmentation is that they have a less dense skeleton and are thus more sensitive to bleaching, pollution, mass predator outbreaks and more.”

The newly discovered Amazon River reef is under yet another big threat. Up to 125 portions of the river substrate were acquired by the petroleum industry for exploratory drilling in 2013. These areas will soon be producing oil in very close proximity to the newly discovered reef.

As a result, the scientists call for further studies of the area in order to properly map its marine life diversity. The overall region encompassing the reef is quite large, extending over 5592 square miles.

“We sampled only 10–20 percent of it,” Thompson said.

Read more at Discovery News

Weird Polygonal Crater Reveals Ceres' Faults

It may not be the biggest crater on dwarf planet Ceres’ surface, but it’s certainly one of the most compelling.

Though attention is usually focused on the small world’s 57 mile (92 kilometer) wide Occator Crater that contains possible signs of an ice, or “cryo-”, volcano in its center, the 21 mile (34 kilometer) wide Haulani Crater is revealing that not all impact craters are circular. This crater is doing its own thing, sporting a rather compelling polygonal shape.

Also, it appears Haulani is a comparatively young crater that exhibits landslides down its rims and freshly excavated material from below the surface, factors that will be important when studying Ceres’ composition.

“Haulani perfectly displays the properties we would expect from a fresh impact into the surface of Ceres,” said Martin Hoffmann, co-investigator on the Dawn framing camera team, of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany. “The crater floor is largely free of impacts, and it contrasts sharply in color from older parts of the surface.”

But what’s its polygonal shape about? Well, it looks like Haulani it telling us something about Ceres’ internal structure. According to Dawn mission scientists, the straight edges seen along Haulani’s rim and other Cerean craters revel pre-existing faults and stresses in the crust.

This highly detailed image of Haulani comes as NASA’s Dawn probe continues its in-depth study of Ceres in its lowest mapping orbit, skimming above the surface at an altitude of only 240 miles (385 kilometers).

Planetary scientists have also taken an interest in Oxo crater, a feature a NASA news release refers to as a “hidden treasure”. It may be only 6 miles (10 kilometers) across, but it is the brightest feature on Ceres after Occator’s mysterious bright spots. Oxo is also revealing something interesting about Ceres’ sub-surface. On one of its sides, material has slumped below the surface, indicating there’s deep fractures and possibly caverns where the material has slumped into.

“Little Oxo may be poised to make a big contribution to understanding the upper crust of Ceres,” said Chris Russell, Dawn mission principal investigator, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 21, 2016

Polar Bears Forced to Swim More as Ice Retreats

Polar bears are excellent swimmers, their massive front paws perfectly designed for propelling through the water between Arctic ice floes. But swimming comes at an energetic cost, and swimming any kind of distance is something bears in the wild generally avoid if they can. Unfortunately, a new study has found, as climate change causes, avoiding long swims is becoming increasingly hard for some polar bears to do.

Researchers from the University of Alberta and Environment and Climate Change Canada studied telemetry data from collars with GPS transmitters, affixed to 58 adult females and 18 subadults from the Beaufort Sea and 59 adult females from Hudson Bay, for evidence of long-distance swimming during seasonal migrations in 2007–2012. (Fully mature adult males are unsuitable for such studies, as their necks are too large for the collars; researchers continue to develop alternative means of satellite tracking for these bears.) They published their findings in the journal Ecography.

During the study period, the tracked bears undertook a total of 115 swims greater than 31 miles (50 kilometers) in length, 100 of them in the Beaufort Sea, where ice conditions were more varied; there, subadults swam as frequently as lone adult females, but more frequently than adult females with offspring, which tend to swim less to avoid submersion of youngsters in cold waters.

During 2012, when summer Arctic sea ice extent hit a record low, 69 percent of tracked adult females in the Beaufort Sea swam 31 miles or more at least once. The single longest swim recorded by any bear was by a subadult female that swam more than 249 miles (400 kilometers) over nine days.

According to lead author Nicholas Pilfold, now a postdoctoral fellow at San Diego Zoo Global, “the pattern of long-distance swimming by polar bears in the Beaufort Sea shows the fingerprint of climate change. Swims are occurring more often, in association with sea ice melting faster and moving farther from shore in the summer.”

In an interview with Radio Canada International, co-author Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta noted that, “When I started studying polar bears in 1984, sea ice in the Beaufort Sea was visible from shore year round. In recent years, the ice has retreated several hundred kilometers offshore by September and it’s a much more challenging habitat for the bears to live in.” He added that, while polar bears as a species are eminently suited to swimming, not all bears are equally able to swim long distances.

Read more at Discovery News

Elks Belt Evil 'Lord of the Rings' Sound

Bull elks produce a shrieking call that many have likened to the cries of sinister characters known as Ringwraiths in the “Lord of the Rings,” and now new research shows how the animals produce this unusual sound.

The elks, also known as North American red deer or wapitis, manage to roar and whistle at the same time, resulting in the vocalization known as a bugle. The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Bugling bull elk:

“Lord of the Rings” Ringwraiths (also called the Nazgûl or Dark Riders):

An initial surprise upon hearing the elk’s bugle is how high-pitched the sound is for such a big beast.

“Larger animals tend to have deeper resonances and lower voices,” lead author David Reby from the University of Sussex explained in a press release.

The paradox has puzzled scientists for decades, so when Reby’s colleague Megan Wyman returned from a trip recording deer bellows in New Zealand, Reby knew that they might have a chance to finally solve the mystery.

While studying these and other recordings of the animals, another stroke of good luck happened — at least for the researchers.

A member of the research team, Yann Locatelli, learned that a male elk in the herd at France’s Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle had died. The natural death gave the scientists a chance to study the elk’s anatomy underlying calls.

All of the analysis allowed the team to determine that elks whistle while simultaneously roaring through their vocal chords. The call includes an unnatural sounding, high-pitched shriek that reaches frequencies up to 4000 Hz.

The high and low pitched sounds can shift independently. For example, sometimes the high-pitched wail rises and falls while the tone of the lower-pitched roar remains constant. The vocal folds vibrate and produce a call that matches the animal’s size, while the bull simultaneously produces a high-pitched, high-volume, wraith-like cry by whistling.

Physicist Joel Gilbert, also on the research team, calculated how the air released by the bull might vibrate in the animal’s oral cavity. He realized that the jet of air could hit the elk’s soft palate (known as the velum) in much the same way that air in a flute vibrates.

Like a wind instrument musician, the process requires the elk to make some skillful mouth and other facial movements, too.

Read more at Discovery News

Giant Prehistoric Bears Evolved to Fill Scavenger Gap

Ancient bears evolved to become giants so they could scavenge prey killed by others, a new study suggests.

The findings, published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, found that short-faced bears weighing over a tonne evolved independently in North and South America.

“We think their large size was a particular advantage that let them exploit carcasses from other predatory species,” said evolutionary biologist Dr Kieren Mitchell from the University of Adelaide, who was lead author on the new paper.

Dr Mitchell said giant bears from the Tremarctinae group were among the largest land-based carnivorous mammals that ever lived. The bears roamed the grasslands and open woodlands of the New World from about 2.5 million years ago to about 12,000 years ago.

The animals strode around on their long legs, eating whatever they could find, but the shape of their teeth suggests they were better adapted for eating meat than plants, he said.

At the time the giant bears lived there would have been lots of large herbivores, such as bison and mammoth in North America, and horses and giant ground sloths in South America.

There would also have been specialized predators like wolves, lions and sabre-tooth cats, but there would have been no specialized scavengers, Dr Mitchell said.

“This opened up a bit of a gap that looks like the bears took advantage of separately in North and South America.”

By turning into giants, the bears could spot vultures circling and quickly get to any newly-killed prey and get a meat meal without the risk and energy of having to do their own hunting.

“They could just get anything out of the way that was there originally, and just tuck in,” Dr Mitchell said.

The giant bears in North America belonged to the genus Arctodus while in the South America it was the genus Arctotherium.

Both were members of a group, which today has only one living member — the much smaller and largely vegetarian Andean spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus).

To shed light on the evolution of the giant bears, Dr Mitchell and colleagues compared the mitochondrial DNA of Arctotherium and Arctodus bears with the DNA of the living spectacled bear.

Read more at Discovery News

Brain Circuit for Adaptability Fades With Age

People often find it harder to adapt to new situations as they age and now a new mouse study may have shed light on why.

A study published today in the journal Neuron has described, for the first time, how activity in a key brain circuit that allows mammals to adapt to change fades with age.

The circuit is critical to developing new strategies to meet goals, said senior author J. Bertran-Gonzalez, a neuroscientist at the Queensland Brain Institute

He and colleagues hypothesized that older mammals find it harder to adapt because of natural deterioration in this brain circuit involving neurones in the striatum, which is located in the brain’s core.

To test their ideas, Bertran-Gonzalez and colleagues set up an experiment in which mice were trained to press levers to obtain food pellets.

One lever gave them access to grain-tasting pellets, while the other gave them access to sweet pellets.

After training, the animals were then given just one type of pellet to eat, before again being given a choice of pellets.

Because mice prefer variety in their diet, after having gorged on one type of pellet they chose the lever that would give them the other type of pellet.

But then the researchers switched the levers so the lever that used to deliver grain-flavored pellets now delivered sweet pellets and vice versa.

The younger mice in the group quickly learned which lever to press to get the pellets they wanted, but the older mice repeatedly pressed both levers, apparently confused about what to do.

Further experiments showed the brains of the older mice had less activity in the neurones of the striatum previously identified as being critical to the ability to adapt.

Finally, the study found that young mice in which this brain circuit had been deactivated, were just as confused as the older normal mice when the levers were switched.

This confirmed that deterioration in the striatum circuit was responsible for a failure to adapt to change.

The striatum is a very ancient part of the brain that is common to all mammals, so the findings could help explain problems with adapting in older humans, Bertran-Gonzalez said.

Read more at Discovery News

Hubble Spies 26th Birthday Bubble Beauty

To celebrate its 26th year in space — yes, twenty-six years! — Hubble has gotten into the birthday spirit and captured a stunning portrait of the aptly-named “Bubble Nebula.”

This nebula is located around 8,000 light-years away in the constellation of Cassiopia. Although the Hubble Space Telescope has observed this iridescent object before, as it is so big, we’ve usually only seen close-up sections of its shape. This time, however, 4 separate images taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) have been stitched together as a mosaic, capturing it’s full, bubbly personality for the first time.

At first sight, you may assume the Bubble Nebula to be the aftermath of some kind of stellar eruption; a supernova remnant perhaps. But the engine behind the bubble is actually a star generating powerful stellar winds, producing a near-perfect bubble that looks like it came straight from a bubble bath.

The star, called SAO 20575, can be seen to the left of center of the bubble. It is a massive star, around 10 to 20 times the mass of our sun. The star is embedded inside a molecular cloud of gas and dust, the type of cloud where young stars are born. But in the case of SAO 20575, its powerful stellar winds are blasting through the molecular cloud, pushing against the surrounding cloud, producing the bright bubbly appearance.

The bubble is approximately 10 light-years across — more than double the distance from the sun to neighboring star system Alpha Centauri — and the stellar winds have been clocked traveling some 100,000 kilometers per hour. This is a bubble of epic proportions and it continues to expand, driven by the ferocious stellar hurricane that relentlessly rips through the molecular cloud.

Interestingly, previous close-up Hubble observations have shown small knots of gas and dust sitting in the middle of this relentless wind, around the mass of the Earth but with elegant tails blown back.

26 years after launch aboard NASA’s space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990, Hubble continues to wow us with stunning science and beautiful imagery we never thought possible and, though aging, is showing few signs of slowing down.

From Discovery News

Apr 20, 2016

Remains of North America's First Monkey Found

The remains of the first known monkey in North America were recently unearthed in the southernmost point of the continent, Panama, according to a new study.

The discovery suggests that the monkey, which would have looked like a modern capuchin, managed to travel across 100 miles of water dividing North America from South America 21 million years ago. The findings are published in the journal Nature.

Co-author Jonathan Bloch, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus, said the discovery adds a new chapter to the “utterly bizarre” history of New World monkeys.

“Somehow they made a transoceanic journey from Africa, then they dispersed throughout South America,” Bloch said in a press release. “Now we see that they, as far as we know, are the only mammal that successfully crossed the early Miocene Central American Seaway into present day Panama. So how were monkeys able to do this? Hopefully future fossil discoveries will help us better understand this extraordinary history.”

He and his colleagues say that the monkey might have swum across the ancient sea, but this would have required covering a distance of more than 100 miles, a difficult feat for even the most talented long-distance swimmers.

They believe the monkey is more likely to have unintentionally rafted across on mats of vegetation, much like its earlier ancestors likely did when they made their way from Africa to South America.

The fossils of the pioneering North American monkey reveal the similarity to today’s capuchins. Bloch and his team found the fossils during recent excavations related to the expansion of the Panama Canal.

The monkey was not the only animal to make the journey from South America to North America. Fossils of other species from the same time period were also found near the monkey’s remains.

Now a question is: once the monkey and others of its kind made it to Panama, why didn’t they travel long distances northward?

“While the fossil mammals found with the monkey include horses, camels and squirrels that look like what paleontologists have found in the early Miocene of Mexico, Texas and Florida, the new monkey was limited to the southernmost point of the continent,” co-author Aaron Wood said.

Read more at Discovery News

Harriet Tubman to Replace Jackson on $20

Celebrated former slave Harriet Tubman will replace the late president Andrew Jackson on the $20 banknote, the first time an African-American has appeared on US currency, a Treasury official said Wednesday.

The Treasury is expected to announce the change later Wednesday along with a long-awaited redesign of the $10 bill, which is also expected to feature depictions of women on one side.

Plans made last year to remove first Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton — the inspiration for a hit Broadway musical — from the $10 bill were dropped, however, in the face of popular opposition.

US Senator Jeanne Shaheen cheered the choice of Tubman on Twitter.

“If this is true, great news! Tubman on $20 is the right call. The redesign needs to happen as soon as possible. Women have waited long enough.”

Tubman, who went from slavery to helping run the legendary Underground Railroad that helped thousands of slaves flee to freedom in the 19th century, was the most popular candidate in a poll of 600,000 people conducted by the Women On 20s pressure group.

The changes follow a review that collected opinions from around the country on the redesign of the $10 note planned for 2020.

Groups like Women On 20s had campaigned to have a woman on a banknote by 2020 to mark the 100th anniversary of American women gaining the right to vote.

They had expressed unhappiness over initial proposals to have a woman share the $10 note with Hamilton, after it was decided he would not be replaced.

The $20 bill, one of the world’s most circulated banknotes, was not scheduled for updating until 2030. Women On 20s said Wednesday that, while the choice of Tubman was an “exciting one”, the change needs to come earlier.

Read more at Discovery News

Oldest Message in a Bottle Discovered

A 108-year-old postcard offering a shilling in exchange for its return to an English marine research institute is now officially the world’s oldest message in a bottle after being recovered in Germany.

The Plymouth Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association (MBA), which received the card, said this week that the bottle had smashed the old record of 99 years and 43 days in the Guinness World Records.

It was discovered by retired German postal worker Marianne Winkler while on holiday on Germany’s North Frisian islands, 108 years and 138 days after it was thrown into the North Sea off the English coast by distinguished marine biologist George Parker Bidder on November 30, 1906.

Winkler followed the message inside reading “break the bottle”, and found a postcard inside asking to be returned to the MBA in Plymouth, on England’s south coast.

“The postcard asked the finder to fill out information about where the bottle was found, if it was trawled up, what the boat’s name was, and asked once the postcard was completed for it to be returned to a George Parker Bidder in Plymouth for a reward of one shilling,” said Guy Baker of the MBA.

When Winkler wrote a letter addressed to Bidder “our receptionist was somewhat confused”.

Bidder released a total of 1,020 bottles between 1904 and 1906.

He found that many bottles that sank to the bottom of the southern North Sea washed up in England, while floating bottles moved towards mainland Europe.

From this, he deduced for the first time that the North Sea’s deep sea current flowed from east to west.

The MBA is still an internationally renowned research institution, and Bidder served as its president between 1939-45 before his death in 1954, aged 91.

Honoring its promise, the MBA forwarded a thank you letter and an old shilling piece to the finder.

From Discovery News

How Far Ahead Can We Predict the Weather?

One of the country’s leading commercial forecasters, AccuWeather, said earlier this month that it could predict the weather conditions and temperature three months ahead of time. It’s a bold claim that has been refuted by some meteorologists who say such a 90-day forecast will only be as good as historical averages and not much use to someone planning a hike or outdoor wedding this summer.

That’s because the Earth’s atmosphere is a chaotic system that doesn’t follow an easily predictable path, according to Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society in Boston.

“If anybody kept track about how (AccuWeather) did, they would find it’s a pretty horrible forecast,” Seitter said.

The best weather forecasters can do now is seven to 10 days. After that, accuracy drops off quickly.

The good news is that forecasting has gotten better over the years. Improvements in computer technology, data collection and weather models have improved this forecasting number about one day each decade.

One of the biggest advancements has come in boosting computer power. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Weather Service, operates supercomputers in Reston, Va., (“Luna”) and Orlando, Fla., (“Surge”) to come up with weather forecasts.

After a $44 million upgrade in January, each one has the capacity of 2.89 petaflops, or 2.89 quadrillion calculations per second, according to Richard Michaud, director of NOAA’s office of central processing. That’s up from 778 teraflops (1 petaflop equals 1,000 teraflops) of computing power last year.

In simpler terms, it means that the faster, bigger computers will allow the agency’s scientists to:

  • Better predict the amount, timing and type of precipitation in both winter storms and thunderstorms
  • Create “water forecasts” and more accurately predict drought and floods
  • Connect the air, ocean and waves to track eight hurricanes at once

These supercomputers are the brains behind the weather forecasts you see on TV each night or your smartphone when you wake up.

“Its not just about adding more computing time,” he said. “You have to have the appropriate way to assimilate the data into the models.”

Building better models is the work of computer scientists, climate scientists and meteorologists.

In this instance, the European forecast model (which includes forecasts for both the United States and Europe) has a slight advantage over the U.S. weather model. That’s because the European weather agency has fewer weather-related forecasts to produce, according to Seitter, so they can focus more effort on one product.

Read more at Discovery News

Sleepy Sun's Heart-Shaped Sunspot Erupts

A huge, heart-shaped sunspot shot off a strong solar flare Sunday evening (April 17), temporarily disrupting radio communications here on Earth.

The flare erupted at 8:29 p.m. EDT Sunday (0029 GMT on Monday) from a giant sunspot known as active region (AR) 2529, which is currently big enough to fit nearly five Earths inside it. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured amazing video of the solar flare as it happened.

The eruption caused moderate radio blackouts in some places, which have since cleared up, according to officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center.

Sunday's flare clocked in at M6.7 on the three-tiered classification scale scientists use. In this system, C flares are the weakest, M flares are medium-strength and X flares are the most powerful. X flares are 10 times more potent than M flares, which, in turn, are 10 times stronger than C eruptions. (And an M6 flare is six times more intense than an M1 event.)

Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the sun that are slightly cooler than surrounding regions. Sunspots serve as launchpads for solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which blast gigantic clouds of solar plasma into space at millions of miles per hour. (Flares, by contrast, are bursts of extremely energetic radiation.)

AR 2529 has been an object of fascination recently for professional and amateur astronomers alike, but the viewing party is about to end.

"This sunspot has changed shape and size as it slowly made its way across the sun's face over the past week and half. For much of that time, it was big enough to be visible from the ground without magnification," NASA officials wrote today (April 18) in a description of the new flare video. "This sunspot will rotate out of our view over the right side of the sun by April 20, 2016."

The heart-shaped sunspot AR 2529 is visible in the upper right of this image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. AR 2529 poduced a solar flare at 8:29 p.m. EDT on April 17, 2016.
From Discovery News

Apr 19, 2016

Dog Claimed World's Oldest Dies at 30

An Australian kelpie named Maggie took her last breath April 16, at the ripe old age of 30, according to The Weekly Times Now.

The geriatric sheepdog lived on a dairy farm in Victoria, Australia.

“She just went downhill in two days, and I said yesterday morning when I went home for lunch: ‘She hasn’t got long now,’” Maggie’s owner Brian McLaren told the publication.

Metro U.K. reports that McLaren lost Maggie’s original paperwork, so official verification that she was indeed the oldest dog won’t happen anytime soon.

To date, Guinness World Records list another dog from Australia, a 29-year-old cattle dog named Bluey, as the oldest dog on record. Bluey lived from 1910 until 1939.

According to this report from 7 News Melbourne in November 2015, Maggie spent her time on the farm alongside 30 cats, sleeping roughly half of the day. At the time, she was deaf but otherwise seemed in good health.

“When I come to work every day, I poke her, just to be sure she’s still breathing,” McLaren told the station.

From Discovery News

Oldest Depiction of Ancient Egyptian Demons Found

A Belgium-based Egyptologist has discovered the oldest depictions of ancient Egyptian demons, showing that demonic entities populated the ancient Egyptians’ imaginations as far back as 4,000 years ago.

Presented recently at the International Conference on Ancient Egyptian Demonology at Swansea University, U.K., these demons gripped their victims and cut off their heads.

Wael Sherbiny, an independent scholar who specializes in the ancient Egyptian religious texts, found two demons on two Middle Kingdom coffins about 4,000 years old.

The third was portrayed in a 4,000-year-old leather roll the researcher had previously discovered in the shelves of the Egyptian museum in Cairo, where it was stored and forgotten for more than 70 years. It was the oldest and longest Egyptian leather manuscript.

“These three demons are already familiar to scholars from ancient texts. However, the depiction of two of them was unknown until now,” Sherbiny told Discovery News.

“The drawings show them in either a purely zoomorphic or anthropomorphic representation,” he added.

Two demons, called In-tep, pictured as a dog-like baboon, and Chery-benut, depicted as unspecified figure with human head, appear as guardians at the entrance of a complex building, possibly a kind of temple, that contains several chambers guarded by other demonic entities.

“The texts link this building to the moon god Thoth and the bark of the sun god,” Sherbiny said.

He noted that apart from their names, no accompanying textual elements refer to the tasks of these two demons.

“The name of the first demon, In-tep, may denote his dangerous role in severing heads as a punishment to any intruder of the sacred space,” Sherbiny said.

The third demon, Ikenty, was the guardian of a fiery gate that led to a restricted area concealing a divine image. The demon’s appearance was already known as it was portrayed on a Middle Kingdom coffin (1870-1830 BC) in the form of a large bird with a black feline head.

Sherbiny discovered the same demon in a slightly different, but highly intriguing form in the much older Cairo leather roll, basically finding the oldest image of Ikenty.

“The texts indicate that this demon has a swift attack with inescapably powerful grip on whomever he sees,” Sherbiny said.

The ancient Egyptian world of belief was inhabited by a huge number of entities with super powers. They could play both malevolent or benevolent roles, as threats, maladies and dangers, or as protectors, helpers and defenders.

“They turn up in variety of contexts that touch upon different spheres of human life and after life,” Sherbiny said.

Read more at Discovery News

Earth Sees 11 Record Hot Months in a Row

The past 11 months have been the hottest such months in 135 years of recordkeeping, a streak that has itself set a record and puts in clear terms just how much the planet has warmed due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

New global temperature data released by NASA put March at 2.3°F (1.28°C) above the 1951-1980 average for the month, making it the warmest March on record. It beat out the previous warmest March, from 2010, by 0.65°F (0.36°C) — a handy margin.

It also marked the sixth month in a row to set such a record in NASA data and was confirmed Tuesday as the 11th month in a row in data kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, beating out the previous such streak of 10 months set back in 1944.

March also marked six straight months with temperatures that were more than 1°C above average, a notable mark given the stated goal of international climate talks to keep warming in the 21st century below 2°C (with some talk of even aiming for 1.5°C).

March wasn’t as anomalously warm as February, which retains its title as the most anomalously warm month on record. (January 2016 had previously held the No. 1 position.)

Several other agencies around the world keep their own global temperature records. So far this year, the NOAA and NASA data has tracked fairly closely. The Japan Meteorological Agency put March at 1.93°F (1.07°C) above the 20th century average. Each agency uses different baselines and their numbers can differ slightly from each other because of different ways of processing the temperature data.

For the last few months, global temperatures have received a boost from an exceptionally strong El Niño, but the bulk of the temperature rise is due to the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by human activities.

The succession of temperature records has also been accompanied by other notable climate records, including thebiggest ever year-to-year jump in carbon dioxide levels at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, as well as a record low winter Arctic sea ice peak. The Arctic, in fact, has been one of the most anomalously warm areas of the planet over the past year and is warming at twice the rate of the planet as a whole.

Read more at Discovery News

Freddie Mercury's Incredible Singing Voice Explained

An in-depth scientific analysis has studied the distinctive singing voice of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.

Mercury wowed audiences as Queen’s lead vocalist for just over two decades before his death in 1991. Now, a team of researchers have performed an in-depth analysis of his vocal talents and have published their results in the journal Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology.

Led by Christian Herbst, a voice scientist at the University of Vienna, the researchers analyzed  “Freddie Mercury: The Solo Collection,” as well as 23 commercially available Queen recordings. The scientists also used an endoscopic video camera to study a  rock singer brought in to imitate Mercury’s singing voice. Additionally, the experts analyzed a series of interviews given by the late Queen lead singer.

An analysis of Mercury’s speaking voice suggests that he was a baritone, according to the research. A-cappella recordings of Mercury highlighted “a surprisingly high mean fundamental frequency modulation rate (vibrato) of 7.0 Hz, reaching the range of vocal tremor.”

The scientists also identified “subharmonic vibration” in Mercury’s singing voice that likely created his famous “growl.”

“Their occurrence aids in creating the impression of a sound production system driven to its limits, even while used with great finesse,” the paper said. “These traits, in combination with the fast and irregular vibrato, might have helped create Freddie Mercury’s eccentric and flamboyant stage persona.”The study, however, was unable to prove claims that Mercury possessed a four-octave singing voice. The analyzed data, it said, could not conclude nor rule out that “such a phenomenon existed in Freddie Mercury’s voice.”

Nonetheless, the scientists stated that “it is not too far-fetched to conjecture that Freddie Mercury was rather skillful in adapting his laryngeal configuration to musical needs, thus exhibiting a great variability of sound timbres for enhanced musical expression.”

From Discovery News

Star's Wobble Could Reveal 'Earth-Like' Exoplanet

Starlight contains a lot of information.

By studying the electromagnetic spectrum of a star’s light, you can see what elements it contains. You can also deduce its age, mass, stability and spin. As astronomical techniques and technologies have become more sophisticated, alien planets that would have otherwise remained invisible can also be detected via their gravitational tug on their host star.

This mode of exoplanetary detection is known as the “radial velocity method” and it depends on the analysis of the periodic shift in the frequency of starlight to reveal the gravitational fingerprint of orbiting worlds. Basically, by watching a star’s light for a long enough period, astronomers can see a star’s “wobble,” a sure sign that a planet — or a system of planets — is in tow.

Now, a team of astronomers, led by Suman Satyal of the University of Texas at Arlington, has delved into the starlight of a nearby red dwarf star already known to possess two exoplanets, revealing there’s the potential for a third exoplanet, possibly as small and as rocky as Earth, sandwiched between the orbits of the two known worlds.

Gliese 832 is a well-known red dwarf. With a mass around half that of our sun, this diminutive star, located only 16 light-years away, has two exoplanets called Gliese 832b and Gliese 832c. Gliese 832b is the larger of the two and has the widest orbit, located 3.53 AU from its host star. It is also more massive, “weighing in” at around 60 percent the mass of Jupiter. Gliese 832c on the other hand is classified as a “super-Earth” of around five times more massive than Earth. It’s orbit is extremely compact, coming within 0.16 AU of its star. As a comparison, in our solar system, the innermost planet Mercury comes no closer than 0.3 AU to the sun.

Gliese 832c hit the headlines in 2014, lauded as a possible “Earth 2.0.” Though this is certainly a possibility, according to planetary scientists, it is more likely to be a hostile “Venus 2.0″ with a thick, life-choking atmosphere.

Both 832b and 832c were detected by astronomers watching the star’s light frequency slightly oscillate, an effect known as Doppler Shift. Much in the same way we hear a higher-pitch siren as a police car approaches compared to when the police car drives away, as a planet’s gravity pulls a star toward us, its wavelength will become more compressed (increasing in frequency). As the planet orbits away, the star will also be pulled away, increasing the light’s wavelength (decreasing the frequency). Through computer analysis of these oscillations, astronomers can “see” the orbits of planets around stars without actually seeing the planets themselves. Within these radial velocity measurements the companion planets’ masses, orbital periods and orbital distances can be deduced by using established Keplerian laws of planetary motion.

Now, by revisiting the Gliese 832 star system, Satyal’s team has taken a high-resolution look at the radial velocity data from the star and used computer modeling to see if another exoplanet “fits” between the orbits of 832b and 832c.

“We obtained several radial velocity curves for varying masses and distances for the middle planet,” they write in a paper published by the arXiv pre-print service.

Their analysis reveals that another exoplanet could indeed exist with an orbit between 0.25 to 2.0 AU from the star with a mass of 1 to 15 Earth masses. This range is pretty wide, but it provides an invaluable insight for future observations of the star system. An exoplanet within these orbital constraints would be in a stable orbit and would likely be another super-Earth, possibly a world occupying the star’s habitable zone.

The habitable zone around any star is the region that is neither too hot or too cold, where water could exist in a liquid state on the planetary surface. As we all know, this is one of the key conditions for life (as we know it) to evolve, hence all the excitement whenever any world is discovered orbiting its star within the habitable zone.

It’s worth remembering that Earth orbits the sun at 1 AU, pretty much in the middle of our star’s habitable zone. Red dwarfs are much smaller and therefore cooler, so have far more compact habitable zones. Therefore, to maintain water in a liquid state on a hypothetical “Earth-like” planet orbiting a red dwarf, its orbit would have to be far closer. Red dwarfs have often been sited as key locations for alien life to thrive as, by their nature, they are long-lived and may allow complex life to evolve. But red dwarfs are known to be extremely active, often erupting with powerful flares that would irradiate any planet that orbits too close, requiring that planet to have a very well developed natural shielding in the form of a strong magnetosphere.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 18, 2016

Bumble Bees Born with Ability to Buzz for Pollen

Bumble bees are born with the ability to vibrate flowers and buzz pollen loose, and they get better at it over time.

Those were the key findings from a study published in the Journal of Insect Behavior by scientists from the University of Stirling.

The process examined in the the study is called buzz pollination, the buzzing itself known as sonication. Bumble bees basically just grab onto the pollen-producing anther of the flower with their mandibles and then vibrate their muscles to shake loose the pollen. (Other types of bee, including carpenters, do it, although honey bees can't.)

Led by evolutionary biologist Mario Vallejo-Marin, researchers from the university observed bumble bees interacting for the first time with flowers that would only release their pollen with a good shake.

Having never done it before, the bees vibrated the flowers instinctively.

What’s more, they got better at this innate behavior with practice.

“Over time and with practice, bees are able to tune down their vibrations, removing pollen while potentially saving energy,” Vallejo-Marin said.

“Initially bees tend to vibrate on the flower petals,” he explained, “but after two or three visits they focus their efforts exclusively on the part of the flower where pollen is produced.”

While bumble bees’ nectar-collecting smarts are well understood, this changing of their vibration while in search of pollen is new, say the researchers. It also proves, they add, that bee buzzes made during flight and pollen collecting are distinct from each other acoustically.

“Gaining this insight into how bumblebee pollination behavior is innate, and yet perfected through learning, is essential to comprehend the complexity of pollination services provided by bees,” said Vallejo-Marin.

Read more at Discovery News

Dinosaur Die Out Was Gradual, Miserable, Painful

Dinosaurs gradually began to die out at least 40 million years before the devastating asteroid impact killed the rest in a dramatic way about 66 million years ago, concludes an extensive new study.

The research, outlined in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to incorporate phylogenetic information — meaning how species are related to one another — when studying speciation and extinction in dinosaurs.

The data provides evidence that things went from really bad to worse for most dinosaurs that did not evolve into birds.

“Some dinosaurs definitely would have been instantly killed in the impact, those in the vicinity of the impact site for instance; others may have perished in the tsunami caused by the blast,” lead author Manabu Sakamoto of the University of Reading’s School of Biological Sciences told Discovery News.

He continued, “The majority of the remaining dinosaurs all over the rest of the world would have likely starved to death as vegetation died out owing to the layer of ash that blacked out the sky (nuclear winter).”

A model created by Sakamoto and colleagues Michael Benton and Chris Venditti found that most dinosaur populations were already declining as early as 48–53 million years before the asteroid impact, which left the massive Chicxulub crater in Mexico. They say that the Cretaceous Period was a time of extreme geological and environmental changes.

“For instance,” Sakamoto said, “sea level was fluctuating, climate was shifting from a hot house to a global cooling, there were prolonged volcanic activities, and continents were breaking apart, establishing the main continents we have today.”

He explained that the supercontinent breakup would have resulted in less available land for dinosaurs to use for migration, which previously helped to fuel the evolution of new species. Climate change, both then and now, could induce major environmental and ecological shifts.

Sea level rise turned out to be more complex. Initially, it favored the evolution of more dinosaur species, but smaller land areas eventually restricted population growth.

Our ancestors, the early mammals, could have posed a big threat to dinos as well.

“Another possibility is that mammals, which were small rodent-like creatures at that time, were in some way contributing to the dinosaur’s downfall,” Benton, a professor of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Bristol, told Discovery News. “Recent studies show evidence that mammals were on the rise prior to the K-Pg (extinction) event, so this scenario would be consistent with our finding.”

Venditti, from the University of Reading, added that mammals might have outcompeted dinosaurs for resources, eaten their eggs, spread diseases or caused other problems for the once mighty dinos.

Aside from the dinosaur lineage that evolved to become birds, two other major groups of dinosaurs — the plant-eating hadrosaurs and ceratopsians — remained strong until the asteroid struck. Sakamoto explained that these dinos acquired specialized jaw structures that allowed them to process plant foods efficiently.

Paleontologist Steve Brusatte from the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences said the new study is an impressive take on “a subject that has been studied to death.”

Read more at Discovery News

Insects Have Consciousness, Self-Awareness and Egos

Insects are conscious, egocentric beings, according to a new paper that also helps to explain why and likely when consciousness first evolved.

Recent neuroimaging suggests insects are fully hardwired for both consciousness and egocentric behavior, providing strong evidence that organisms from flies to fleas exhibit both.

Consciousness comes in many levels, and researchers say that insects have the capacity for at least one basic form: subjective experience.

“When you and I are hungry, we don't just move towards food; our hunger also has a particular feeling associated with it,” Colin Klein, who co-authored the new paper, told Discovery News. "An organism has subjective experience if its mental states feel like something when they happen.”

Klein, a researcher at Macquarie University, and colleague Andrew Barron studied detailed neuroimaging reports concerning insect brains. They then compared the structure of such brains with those of humans and other animals. The resulting information is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Their work focused on the midbrain, a set of evolutionarily ancient structures that are surrounded by the gray folds of the cortex. The arrangement, they say, looks a bit like the flesh of a peach surrounding the pit.

“In humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone and/or spinal column) there is good evidence that the midbrain is responsible for the basic capacity for subjective experience,” Klein said. “The cortex determines much about what we are aware of, but the midbrain is what makes us capable of being aware in the first place. It does so, very crudely, by forming a single integrated picture of the world from a single point of view.”

Portions of insect brains work in a similar way to the midbrain in humans, performing the same sort of modeling of the world, the authors believe.

As for being egocentric, Barron explained that there is now compelling evidence that insects display selective attention to their processing of the world.

“They don’t pay attention to all sensory input equally," Barron explained. "The insect selectively pays attention to what is most relevant to it at the moment, hence (it is) egocentric.”

The term “insect” is a broad one, generally referring to any small animal that has six legs, a body formed of three parts, and may have wings. Since diverse species under this umbrella term have widely varying sensory systems and ways of life, the authors expect that to be reflected in their conscious lives.

Not all living things are thought to have consciousness, though. Plants, for example, do not have the necessary structures for it. Jellyfish and nematodes (certain unsegmented worms, such as roundworms) do not have such hardwiring either.

Barron and Klein believe the origins of consciousness date to the Cambrian or even to the Precambrian Periods (more than 600 years ago).

“When organisms began to move freely in their environment, they faced many new challenges,” Klein explained. “They had to decide where to go next. They had to prioritize their needs. They had to interpret sensory information that changed as a consequence of their motion. That required a new kind of integrated modeling, and that's where we think consciousness arose.

Bruno van Swinderen is an associate professor at the University of Queensland and is a leader in the field of insect neurobiology.

Van Swinderen told Discovery News that one of the most important points of the new paper is the realization that understanding the evolution of consciousness will not come from looking for intelligent behavior in other animals, but rather from understanding the fundamental mechanisms that support subjective awareness and selective attention, which he said “we now know insects have.”

Read more at Discovery News

Mystery of Mummified Lung Solved

The mystery of how a lung from ancient French royalty became mummified has been solved after decades of uncertainty, according to an international team of researchers.

In 1959, a preserved lung was uncovered by archaeologist Michel Fleury inside a stone sarcophagus in the Basilica of St Denis, Paris, the site where the kings of France have been buried for centuries. The lung was found with a skeleton, a strand of hair, jewelry and several fragments of textiles and leather.

On a gold ring, the inscription "Arnegundis" around a central monogram "Regine" revealed the remains belonged to the Merovingian Queen Arnegunde (about 515–about 580), one of the six wives of King Clotaire I (511-561) and the mother of King Chilpéric I (about 534-584).

Since the discovery, the fine preservation of the lung raised questions over whether her lung had naturally mummified or had been embalmed.

“From a macroscopic point of view, the lung appears nicely preserved, while the body is completely skeletonized,” Raffaella Bianucci, a bio-anthropologist in the Legal Medicine Section at the University of Turin, told Discovery News.

It turns out an elaborate copper belt played a key role in the lung's mummification.

The international team led by Bianucci presented the results of their investigation at the International Conference of Comparative Mummy Studies in Hildesheim, Germany.

Scanning electron microscopy on the lung biopsies revealed a massive concentration of copper ion on the surface of the lung tissue. Other analysis turned up massive concentrations of a copper oxide throughout the lung biopsies.

Further biochemical analysis showed the presence of benzoic acid and related compounds in the lung, although at low levels.

"These substances are widespread in the plant kingdom and similar profiles have been already reported in the balms of Egyptian mummified bodies," Bianucci said.

According to the researchers, the findings support the theory that, as suggested by historians, Arnegunde might have undergone an oral injection of a fluid made of spices/aromatic plants.

"Since Arnegunde was wearing a copper alloy ... belt around her waist, we speculate the copper oxide in the lungs is from weathering of the belt," Bianucci said.

"The preserving properties of copper, combined with the spice embalming treatment, might have allowed the preservation of the lungs," she added.

Historical accounts indicate that artificial mummification, based on the use of spices and aromatic plants, was used in sixth century France to treat the bodies of kings, queens, holymen and holywomen.

The Merovingians embalmed these elite individuals following a procedure they had learned from the Romans, which they, in turn, had adopted from Egypt.

“Clearly the Merovingian mummification was much less sophisticated,” Bianucci said,

“It was essentially based on the use of oil and resin-soaked linen strips used with spices and aromatic plants such as thyme, nettles, myrrh and aloe,” Bianucci said.

“Queen Arnegunde is a particularly complex case,” Bianucci said. "Since she was exhumed in 1959, her remains underwent several displacements, disappearing in the 1960s to finally resurface in 2003."

Investigations on Arnegunde’ skeletal remains revealed the queen was 5’1″ tall and around 61 years old when she died of unknown causes.

Albert Zink, Head of the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, found the research to be similar to the case of a Coptic mummy, dating from about 600-1000 A.D.

"During the study of this mummy we discovered the body did not undergo organ and brain removal. Instead, it appears that an embalming solution was injected through the mouth," Zink told Discovery News.

"Just like in the case of the Merovingian queen, the liquid agglomerated in the lung, which is the only organ that is well preserved," Zink said.

Queen Arnegunde represents one of the few specimens from the Early Middle Ages for whom researchers have both an historical account, human remains and artifacts. Moreover, Arnegunde belonged to Merovingian royalty.

Distinctive for their shoulder-length hair, these Frankish kings ruled in parts of France and Germany from the fifth to the eighth centuries, establishing the most successful post-Roman kingdom in western Europe.

More recently, the Merovingians became popular with the publishing of Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code,” which revived the story that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene had married and their bloodline survived in the Merovingian dynasty.

Read more at Discovery News

Alien 'Wow!' Signal Could Soon be Explained

The story behind the famous “Wow!” signal has an eerie quality that has inspired countless science fiction alien encounters and is often lauded as one of the strongest pieces of evidence that we are, in fact, not alone in the universe.

However, its “alien intelligence” authenticity has been questioned since that fabled night on Aug. 15, 1977 at 10:16 p.m. ET when astronomer Jerry Ehman used the Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope to sweep the skies for signals that may have originated from an extraterrestrial civilization.

On that night, Ehman found something. And since that night, astronomers have been trying to figure out what it means.

While pointed in the direction of 3 star systems named Chi Sagittarii, in the constellation of Sagittarius, Big Ear detected a 72 second radio wave burst, a signal far stronger than background noise. On the observatory’s computer printout, Ehman circled the burst with the infamous annotation “Wow!”

This excitement wasn’t an overstatement, it was this kind of signal he was looking for, the kind of signal astronomers thought a technologically-capable alien civilization would produce.

The Big Ear printout contains a bunch of apparently random numbers and letters, but Ehman’s red pen circles a cluster of digits “6EQUJ5" with other circles around a "6" and "7" on separate columns. This particular code first uses the numbers 1-9 and then the alphabet A-Z to denote signal strength. As the burst suggests, the signal strength hit “6" and then blasted through the letters reaching a peak of “U” before subsiding back into the numerical scale at "5." There was then a slight wave trailing the main signal (hence the circled “6″ and “7″). The wave profile of the “Wow!” signal is graphically envisaged here.

However, since that day in 1977, a detection of a signal of that strength has not been replicated. Even after the SETI Institute was founded in 1984, and countless efforts have been made to find another radio burst like the “Wow!” signal, astronomers have been faced with silence in the cosmos; a problem that has only served to intensify the Fermi Paradox unease.

Now, Antonio Paris of St Petersburg College, Fla., an ex-analyst of the US Department of Defense, hopes to solve the mystery and he suspects that an entirely different cosmic phenomenon is to blame.

In an interview with TheGuardian.com, Paris says that his investigative background sent him on a mission to find another possible explanation for the “Wow!” signal and he tracked down two “suspicious” comets that may have been in the vicinity of Chi Sagittarii on Aug. 15, 1977. Interestingly, these comets, called 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, were only discovered in 2006 and 2008, so weren’t considered as possible reasons for the signal in 1977 as no one knew of their existence.

But what have comets got to do with errant radio bursts?

The “Wow!” signal was recorded in the 1420MHz radio frequency band. It just so happens that cosmic neutral hydrogen naturally radiates at this frequency -- it is therefore an abundant signal that is commonly used in astronomy. This is no coincidence; through alien-hunting logic, should there be an extraterrestrial species wanting to make contact, what frequency would they use? Firstly, as we only have ourselves to use as an alien template, we have to assume that hypothetical aliens will likely use radio waves. Secondly, if they are using radio waves to communicate with us, they would likely use a frequency that other intelligent aliens would be naturally tuned into. 1420MHz is the “universal water cooler,” where intelligent life could check into and potentially chat.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 17, 2016

Extreme universe recreated in the lab

Artist representation of laboratory astrophysics experiments. By mimicking fundamental physics aspects in the lab, researchers hope to better understand violent cosmic phenomena.
Conditions in the vast universe can be quite extreme: Violent collisions scar the surfaces of planets. Nuclear reactions in bright stars generate tremendous amounts of energy. Gigantic explosions catapult matter far out into space. But how exactly do processes like these unfold? What do they tell us about the universe? And could their power be harnessed for the benefit of humankind?

To find out, researchers from the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory perform sophisticated experiments and computer simulations that recreate violent cosmic conditions on a small scale in the lab.

"The field of laboratory astrophysics is growing very rapidly, fueled by a number of technological breakthroughs," says Siegfried Glenzer, head of SLAC's High Energy Density Science Division. "We now have high-power lasers to create extreme states of matter, cutting-edge X-ray sources to analyze these states at the atomic level, and high-performance supercomputers to run complex simulations that guide and help explain our experiments. With its outstanding capabilities in these areas, SLAC is a particularly fertile ground for this type of research."

Three recent studies exemplify this approach, shining light on meteor impacts, the cores of giant planets and cosmic particle accelerators a million times more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle racetrack on Earth.

Cosmic 'Bling' as Marker for Meteor Impacts

High pressure can turn a soft form of carbon -- graphite, used as pencil lead -- into an extremely hard form of carbon, diamond. Could the same thing happen when a meteor hits graphite in the ground? Scientists have predicted that it could, and that these impacts, in fact, might be powerful enough to produce a form of diamond, called lonsdaleite, that is even harder than regular diamond.

"The existence of lonsdaleite has been disputed, but we've now found compelling evidence for it," says Glenzer, the co-principal investigator of a study published March 14 in Nature Communications.

The team heated the surface of graphite with a powerful optical laser pulse that set off a shock wave inside the sample and rapidly compressed it. By shining bright, ultrafast X-rays from SLAC's X-ray laser Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) through the sample, the researchers were able to see how the shock changed the graphite's atomic structure. LCLS is a DOE Office of Science User Facility.

"We saw that lonsdaleite formed for certain graphite samples within a few billionths of a second and at a pressure of about 200 gigapascals -- 2 million times the atmospheric pressure at sea level," says lead author Dominik Kraus from the German Helmholtz Center Dresden-Rossendorf, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley at the time of the study. "These results strongly support the idea that violent impacts can synthesize this form of diamond, and that traces of it in the ground could help identify meteor impact sites."

Giant Planets Turn Hydrogen into Metal

A second study, published today in Nature Communications, looked at another peculiar transformation that might occur inside giant gas planets like Jupiter, whose interior is largely made of liquid hydrogen: At high pressure and temperature, this material is believed to switch from its "normal," electrically insulating state into a metallic, conducting one.

"Understanding this process provides new details about planet formation and the evolution of the solar system," says Glenzer, who was also the co-principal investigator of this study. "Although the transition had already been predicted in the 1930s, we've never had a direct window into the atomic processes."

That is, not until Glenzer and his fellow scientists performed an experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), where they used the high-power Janus laser to rapidly compress and heat a sample of liquid deuterium, a heavy form of hydrogen, and to create a burst of X-rays that probed subsequent structural changes in the sample.

The team saw that above a pressure of 250,000 atmospheres and a temperature of 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, deuterium indeed changed from a neutral, insulating fluid to an ionized, metallic one.

"Computer simulations suggest that the transition coincides with the separation of the two atoms normally bound together in deuterium molecules," says lead author Paul Davis, who was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley and LLNL at the time of the study. "It appears that as the pressure and temperature of the laser-induced shock wave rip the molecules apart, their electrons become unbound and are able to conduct electricity."

In addition to planetary science, the study could also inform energy research aimed at using deuterium as nuclear fuel for fusion reactions that replicate analogous processes inside the sun and other stars.

How to Build a Cosmic Accelerator

In a third example of the extreme universe, tremendously powerful cosmic particle accelerators -- near supermassive black holes, for instance -- propel streams of ionized gas, called plasma, hundreds of thousands of light-years into space. The energy stored in these streams and in their electromagnetic fields can convert into a few extremely energetic particles, which produce very brief but intense bursts of gamma rays that can be detected on Earth.

Scientists want to know how these energy boosters work because it would help them better understand the universe. It could also give them fresh ideas for building better accelerators -- particle racetracks that are at the heart of a large number of fundamental physics experiments and medical devices.

Researchers believe one of the main driving forces behind cosmic accelerators could be "magnetic reconnection" -- a process in which the magnetic field lines in plasmas break and reconnect in a different way, releasing magnetic energy.

"Magnetic reconnection has been observed in the lab before, for instance in experiments with two colliding plasmas that were created with high-power lasers," says Frederico Fiúza, a researcher from SLAC's High Energy Density Science Division and the principal investigator of a theoretical study published March 3 in Physical Review Letters. "However, none of these laser experiments have seen non-thermal particle acceleration -- an acceleration not just related to the heating of the plasma. But our work demonstrates that with the right design, current experiments should be able to see it."

His team ran a number of computer simulations that predicted how plasma particles would behave in such experiments. The most demanding calculations, with about 100 billion particles, took more than a million CPU hours and more than a terabyte of memory on Argonne National Laboratory's Mira supercomputer.

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First-ever videos show how heat moves through materials at the nanoscale and speed of sound

This is a false-colored ultrafast electron microscope (UEM) snapshot of a thin semiconducting crystal. The image was captured with an extremely fast shutter lasting only a few hundred femtoseconds (a millionth of a billionth of a second).
Using a state-of-the-art ultrafast electron microscope, University of Minnesota researchers have recorded the first-ever videos showing how heat moves through materials at the nanoscale traveling at the speed of sound.

The research, published today in Nature Communications, provides unprecedented insight into roles played by individual atomic and nanoscale features that could aid in the design of better, more efficient materials with a wide array of uses, from personal electronics to alternative-energy technologies.

Energy in the form of heat impacts all technologies and is a major factor in how electronic devices and public infrastructure are designed and engineered. It is also the largest form of waste energy in critical applications, including power transmission and especially transportation, where, for example, roughly 70 percent of the energy in gasoline is wasted as heat in automobile engines.

Materials scientists and engineers have spent decades researching how to control thermal energy at the atomic level in order to recycle and use it to dramatically increase efficiencies and ultimately drive down the use of fossil fuels. Such work would be greatly aided by actually watching heat move through materials, but capturing images of the basic physical processes at the heart of thermal-energy motion has presented enormous challenges. This is because the fundamental length scales are nanometers (a billionth of a meter) and the speeds can be many miles per second. Such extreme conditions have made imaging this ubiquitous process extraordinarily challenging.

To overcome these challenges and image the movement of heat energy, the researchers used a cutting-edge FEI Tecnai™ Femto ultrafast electron microscope (UEM) capable of examining the dynamics of materials at the atomic and molecular scale over time spans measured in femtoseconds (one millionth of a billionth of a second). In this work, the researchers used a brief laser pulse to excite electrons and very rapidly heat crystalline semiconducting materials of tungsten diselenide and germanium. They then captured slow-motion videos (slowed by over a billion times the normal speed) of the resulting waves of energy moving through the crystals.

"As soon as we saw the waves, we knew it was an extremely exciting observation," said lead researcher David Flannigan, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota. "Actually watching this process happen at the nanoscale is a dream come true."

Flannigan said the movement of heat through the material looks like ripples on a pond after a pebble is dropped in the water. The videos show waves of energy moving at about 6 nanometers (0.000000006 meters) per picosecond (0.000000000001 second). Mapping the oscillations of energy, called phonons, at the nanoscale is critical to developing a detailed understanding of the fundamentals of thermal-energy motion.

"In many applications, scientists and engineers want to understand thermal-energy motion, control it, collect it, and precisely guide it to do useful work or very quickly move it away from sensitive components," Flannigan said. "Because the lengths and times are so small and so fast, it has been very difficult to understand in detail how this occurs in materials that have imperfections, as essentially all materials do. Literally watching this process happen would go a very long way in building our understanding, and now we can do just that."

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