Apr 30, 2016

Universe Likely Has Many Extinct Civilizations: Study

Is there life in the universe? If there is, can it communicate — and does it want to talk to us? If such a civilization is out there, how long could it survive? These are some of the fundamental questions astronomers regularly consider when they think about aliens.

Suffice it to say the answers are not as easy as Star Trek or Star Wars would make you believe. The most famous answer took place in 1961, when astronomer Frank Drake proposed what is now known as the Drake equation. You can read it on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) website here in full, but understand that it outlines the variables needed for a technological civilization to communicate with us.

A new paper in Astrobiology suggests there could be a way to simplify the equation, based on the observations of exoplanets that we have made since the first one was discovered in the 1990s. While the result is depressing — life was plentiful, but is likely extinct — it does have applications to help us extend our own civilization, the researchers said. The research was led by Adam Frank, a physics and astronomer professor at the University of Rochester.

“The question of whether advanced civilizations exist elsewhere in the universe has always been vexed with three large uncertainties in the Drake equation,” Frank said in a statement.

“We’ve known for a long time approximately how many stars exist,” Frank added. “We didn’t know how many of those stars had planets that could potentially harbor life, how often life might evolve and lead to intelligent beings, and how long any civilizations might last before becoming extinct.”

Here are the elements that Frank and co-author Woodruff Sullivan (of the astronomy department and astrobiology program at the University of Washington) propose could be changed:

  • How many stars have habitable planets? 1/5 of stars have planets in habitable zones. This is known due to the Kepler space telescope’s search of exoplanets as well as other planetary research.
  • How long can civilizations survive? That question is very hard to answer, so the researchers instead asked “Are we the only technological species that has ever arisen?” More on that subject later in this article.
  • How likely is it for advanced life to arise on a planet? The researchers instead tried to imagine a universe where humanity is the only one. By applying this probability question to the number of known stars the researchers found a probability of one in 10 billion trillion. In our own Milky Way, the number rises to just one chance in 60 billion.
An array of Earth-sized planets. The four on the left (all artist’s impressions) were discovered by the Kepler space telescope, while the one at far right is a picture of our own planet. The full list, from left to right, is Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth.
 The authors dub their result the “archaelogical form” of the Drake equation. Their equation multiplies the terms “Nast” and “fbt” to get the result. “Nast” refers to the “number of habitable planets in a given volume of the universe,” and “fbt” is the “likelihood of a technological species arising on one of these planets.”

The researchers say one in 10 billion trillion seems a very low probability that humanity is alone out there. But the vast distances of the universe, coupled with the uncertainty of how long civilizations exist, mean it may never be possible to communicate with anyone out there.

Read more at Discovery News

Who Really Invented Baseball?

Earlier this week, a set of historical documents called “The Laws of Base Ball” sold at auction for $3.26 million, becoming one the most valuable of sports memorabilia artifacts ever discovered.

The sale also opened up a new round of discussion about the origins of baseball in America. The story most people know – that Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown, New York – is a popular myth, but has been conclusively dismissed by historians.

The auctioned documents throw new light on the actual origins of baseball. Written by medical doctor and baseball league organizer Daniel “Doc” Adams in 1857, “Laws” establishes rules familiar to fans of the modern game – nine innings, 90 feet between bases, and nine players to a team.

The documents are the earliest comprehensive rules in writing. But they’re also very specific. The 12-page collection is essentially a written record of an official meeting, convened by 14 New York sports clubs, to establish rules for a local league — just one of several operating on the East Coast at that time.

Which raises the question: Is it even possible to trace the origin of baseball to one person, place or bright idea?

“In a word, no” says David Vaught, author of “The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America” and head of the department of history at Texas A&M.

“To quote the pioneering baseball historian Harold Seymour … ‘To ascertain who invented baseball would be equivalent to trying to locate to discoverer of fire.’”

Vaught notes that determining the origin of baseball as it is played today depends largely on how you define your terms.

“Just how far back baseball’s history extends depends on how much one wants to stretch its definition,” he says. “Various bat and ball games were played in France in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in England following the Norman invasion of 1066, in Central America by Mayan tribes in the 900s A.D., and in ancient Egypt as far back as 1500 B.C., as depicted on wall inscriptions in tombs excavated by archaeologists.”

Still, “The Laws of Base Ball” do provide some interesting insights into the development of the modern game. For example, the rules established in the auctioned documents were designed for men in 19th-century New York social clubs.

“The New York game of baseball was developed by professionals looking for leisurely fun and to create a game that they — older men, not athletes — could play,” says Villanova law professor Mitch Nathanson, author of the book “A People’s History of Baseball.”

Often referred to as the “Knickerbocker Rules,” this style of play was different than others in use at the time. One oft-cited example is that, in earlier variations of the game, fielders were allowed to throw the ball directly at runners on the basepaths to record an out. This was called “plugging” or “soaking” the runner.

The Knickerbocker Rules did away with this tradition. “These were not kids playing the game, these were older men,” Natherson says. “As such, they didn’t want to engage in an activity where they might be hit with a thrown ball while running the bases.”

The documents sold at auction this week provide a critical written record of early baseball, as it was played in one particular region at one particular time. The rules established gradually merged with other traditions as the game grew in popularity.

As for the popular Cooperstown story, it turns out that narrative was largely a matter of marketing. In 1907, sporting goods manufacturer Al Spalding – sound familiar? – convened a panel of executives and lawmakers to establish the “official” origins of baseball in America. In order to lend the game an air of patriotism, Civil War general Abner Doubleday was anointed the inventor of America’s pastime.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 28, 2016

Half the World's Farmed Fish May Be Hard of Hearing

An ear bone deformity has left an estimated half of the world’s farmed fish with hearing loss, according to research just published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Hearing is critical for a fish’s balance as well as its hearing. If something in the farming process is causing the deformity, the study’s authors say, there may be animal welfare issues to address.

Also, the deformity could help explain the underperformance of some fish conservation programs, which breed fish in captivity so they can be released into the wild.

Thanks to a malformed chemical structure, the deformed ear bones end up being bigger, lighter and more brittle than they should be. This impacts proper hearing in the animal.

The prevalence of the deformity – 10 times more likely in farmed fish than wild, regardless of species — was uncovered by researchers from the University of Melbourne, who chose to study Atlantic salmon farms from the world’s top salmon producers: Canada, Chile, Norway, Scotland and Australia.

Shown are the left and right ear bones of a juvenile farmed salmon. The left one is normal, and the right one is deformed. The deformed ear bone is larger and more opaque.
“The deformity occurs at an early age, most often when fish are in a hatchery, but its effects on hearing become increasingly more severe as the fish age,” explained the study’s lead author Tormey Reimer in a statement, adding that the deformity can cost a fish up to 50 percent of its hearing.

The scientists compared ear structures in both farmed and wild salmon from the top-producing countries and also used a mathematical model to predict what the fish would be able to hear based upon their ear structures.

The researchers found that no matter which country’s fish they studied the ear bone deformity was much higher in the farmed fish versus wild.

“We estimate that roughly half of these fish have the earbone deformity and thus have compromised hearing,” said Reimer. “We don’t yet know exactly how this hearing loss affects their performance in farms.”

"However," she added, "producing farmed animals with deformities contravenes two of the 'Five Freedoms' that form the basis of legislation to ensure the welfare of farmed animals in many countries."

“We now need to work out what is the root cause, to help the global salmon industry produce fish with acceptable welfare standards,” Reimer said.

Read more at Discovery News

Snoring Lizards Reveal Sleep Predates Dinosaurs

Owners of pet lizards for years have anecdotally reported that their reptilian friends snore, appear to dream, and seem to enjoy snoozing just as we do, and now new research finds that reptiles do indeed experience the same sleep states of mammals and birds.

Before, it was thought that only birds, humans and other mammals went through rapid eye movement sleep (REM) and slow-wave sleep (SWS) as they snoozed, but the new findings, published in the journal Science, suggest that these sleep patterns evolved in the common ancestor of all such animals more than 300 million years ago.

By extension, it is then likely that today’s reptiles dream, and that many long-extinct animals such as dinosaurs did so as well.

“Dreaming, like sleep, consciousness, language, pain etc. are all concepts or phenomena that were first experienced and described in a self-referential manner by humans, assigned a word and implicitly considered as uniquely human,” senior author Gilles Laurent, director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, told Discovery News.

“But if you think as a biologist about these phenomena, accept that most of them probably did not drop from the sky onto the first human being, but rather result from some slow evolutionary process, then we can start thinking about dreams as patterns of neuronal activity in the brain during sleep that are at least partly built up from past experience,” he added. “If you are ready to accept that bits of neuronal playback in certain brain areas during sleep can be called dreams, then I’ll bet that lizards dream.”

Scientists for decades tried to detect sleep patterns in reptiles by placing electrodes on the surface of the animals’ brains, similar to doing an EEG. Laurent and his team took this a step further, by implanting probes right into the brains of five bearded dragons (lizards). As a result, the researchers were better able to record the sleep patterns and to match them to eye movements.

Humans go through four or five 60 to 90 minute SWS-REM cycles on average every night, but the lizards experienced about 350 80-second cycles. Rest is unaffected, Laurent said, as the two sleep cycles run together, just as they do in humans. The individual is basically unaware that all of this brain wave change is happening.

“Among mammals, there tends to be some relationship between animal size and length of sleep cycle,” he said. “It is not absolute, but is statistically true. For example, the human sleep cycle is about 60–90 minutes, while it is 30 minutes for cats and 15 minutes for rats.”

Even insects and arachnids like spiders sleep, but it is unclear if they experience REM and SWS sleep patterns. Some animals rest, but do not technically sleep.

Laurent explained, “Multicellular animals without brains, such as sponges and jellyfish…most likely do not express ‘brain sleep’ both by definition since they lack a brain and because REM and SWS require certain neural circuits that, as far as we know, they lack.”

Even for these creatures, prior amounts of rest, temperature shifts and other environmental factors seem to affect rest, which in multicellular animals without brains probably is expressed through their circadian rhythms, otherwise known as their internal “body clocks.”

As for now-extinct dinosaurs, Laurent said that “it seems likely they expressed REM and SWS.” They therefore probably dreamed and consolidated their memories as they slept in a way that was at least somewhat similar to how we and many other animals do so today.

Thanos Siapas, a professor of computation and neural systems at Caltech, told Discovery News that the new study “is a truly groundbreaking paper that sheds new light into how the architecture of sleep evolved. The data and analysis are very compelling and suggest an ancient origin of the two alternating stages of sleep.”

Read more at Discovery News

Kennewick Man to Receive Native American Burial

Kennewick Man, one of the oldest and best-preserved skeletons ever found in North America, is related to modern Native American tribes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday, possibly closing a debate that lasted 20 years.

The corps, which owns and has custody of the remains, said the 8,500-year-old bones are now covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, opening the process to return Kennewick Man to tribes for Native American burial.

The decision was based upon review and analysis of new information, in particular a DNA study and skeletal analyses published last year in the journal Nature.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Stanford University School of Medicine used the latest in DNA isolation and sequencing techniques to analyze the genetic material in a bone sample.

They concluded that, although it is impossible to assign Kennewick Man to a particular tribe, he is closely related to members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington.

The results challenged a 2014 study that assumed, based on anatomical data, that Kennewick Man was more related to indigenous Japanese or Polynesian peoples than to Native Americans.

Earlier this month scientists from the University of Chicago, independently validated the genetic study published in Nature.

“We concur with the findings of the original paper that the sample is genetically closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide,” John Novembre, David Witonsky, and Anna Di Rienzo of Chicago University wrote.

The validated DNA and skeletal analyses prompted Army Brig. Gen. Scott Spellmon, commander of the corps’ Northwestern Division to put to an end a decade-long debate over the skeleton’s origins.

“I find that there is substantial evidence to determine that Kennewick Man is related to modern Native Americans from the United States,” Spellmon ruled.

The skeletal remains were discovered in 1996 along the shores of the Columbia River in Washington state. The finding prompted a legal, spiritual and scientific dispute between scientists, who wanted to study the bones, and Native Americans, who claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor and called him the Ancient One.

The court battle began with a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by eight scientists seeking access to study the bones.

In February 2004, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the anthropologists, concluding that “a significant relationship of the tribal claimants with Kennewick Man” could not be proved.

Reburial requests were halted to allow further investigation into the skeleton’s origins.

Legally the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as they were found on land under its custody, the remains of Kennewick Man are locked away at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, where they were deposited in 1998.

“At present, there has been no decision to transfer the remains,” Spellmon said.

Read more at Discovery News

One of Titan's Strange Seas is Pure Methane

A new study of eight years of radar data collected by the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft shows that the planet’s largest moon, Titan — the only other body in the solar system besides Earth where liquids pool on the surface — has a sea of pure methane.

Before Cassini, scientists had expected Titan’s seas to be dominated by ethane, since sunlight breaks apart methane and converts it into the more complex ethane hydrocarbon.

Instead, Alice Le Gall, a Cassini scientist at France’s LATMOS research laboratory, and colleagues discovered that Ligeia Mare, Titan’s second-largest sea, is almost pure methane.

Scientists suspect that methane rain may be regularly filling the sea, or that ethane is locked in the sea’s crust, or flowing into the adjacent sea, according to a press release about the study, which was published in the March 11 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research Planets.

The findings are based on radar observations made by Cassini between 2007 and 2015. Those measurements of heat given off by Ligeia Mare were combined with results of a 2013 experiment that bounced radar waves off the seafloor, which allowed scientists to estimate the sea’s depth.

Ligeia Mare, which turns out to be as deep as 525 feet, also likely sports a layer of organic-rich sludge on its floor, the scientists said.

“It’s a marvelous feat of exploration that we’re doing extraterrestrial oceanography on an alien moon,” Cassini scientist Steve Wall, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., noted in the press release.

Cassini, which has been studying the Saturn system for almost 12 years, has revealed that almost 2 percent of Titan’s 620,000 square miles of real estate are covered in liquid.

The moon has three large seas, all located in the northern polar region, that are surrounded by small lakes. So far, just one large lake has been found in Titan’s southern hemisphere.

From Discovery News

Mysterious 'Haloes' on Pluto Puzzle Scientists

The discovery of strange halo-like craters on Pluto has raised a new mystery about how the odd scars formed on the icy world.

Pluto’s “halo” craters are clearly visible in a new image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which made the first-ever flyby of the dwarf planet in July 2015. In the image, a black-and-white view reveals dozens of ringed craters (NASA describes these formations as “haloed”) strewn across the dark landscape of Vega Terra, a region in the far western reaches of the hemisphere photographed by New Horizons during its flyby. The craters have bright walls and rims, making them stand out from their darker surroundings.

While the haloed craters are eye-catching, what has really stumped scientists is what these features are made of.

A glimpse at the craters provided by New Horizons’ Ralph/Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array revealed a surprising connection between the bright halo features and the distribution of methane ice, NASA officials explained in an image description. This methane ice around the craters shows up as a deep purple in an inset view included in the new image. The crater floors and in-between regions, meanwhile, are colored blue to indicate water ice.

“Exactly why the bright methane ice settles on these crater rims and walls is a mystery; also puzzling is why this same effect doesn’t occur broadly across Pluto,” NASA officials wrote in the image description.

So that’s yet another mystery for scientists to ponder as the images and data continue to beam back to Earth from New Horizon’s Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015. Mission scientists have said the probe’s data download should be complete by October or November.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006 and is currently headed out into the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. Last week, mission scientists submitted a proposal for an extended mission that, if approved, would send the probe by the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019.

From Discovery News

Apr 27, 2016

Hyena Ate Early Human 500,000 Years Ago

About 500,000 years ago, a hyena ate a human literally down to the bone, according to a new paper that describes the gory find.

The chewed up human thighbone adds to the growing body of evidence that humans were frequently both predators and prey before their numbers increased and weapons improved. The discovery is reported in the journal PLOS ONE.

Project leader Camille Daujeard and colleagues analyzed the ancient gnawed human bone, which was unearthed in a cave named “Grotte à Hominidés,” located near Casablanca, Morocco.

“This bone represents the first evidence of consumption of human remains by carnivores in the cave,” the authors wrote. They added that the “chewed femur indicates that humans were a (food) resource for carnivores, underlying their close relationships during the Middle Pleistocene in Atlantic Morocco.”

The relationships appear to have been too close, with Daujeard and colleagues sharing that there was “competition for resources as well as for living spaces.”

The researchers suspect that a hyena ate the human, based on both the many tooth marks left on the thighbone and the way in which the individual was eaten. Once the hungry hyena finished with the flesh, it crushed the bone ends and ate the deceased’s marrow.

The human was probably a member of the species Homo rhodesiensis, since other remains of this early human have been found elsewhere at the site. Such individuals looked a lot like we do today.

The researchers wrote that, at the time, the early humans “hunted in groups and relied on new effective weapons; these two improvements allowed them to slaughter larger gregarious prey and to handle encounters with dangerous competitors. Still, this was a period of stiff competition between large carnivores and hominins…” The authors added that both groups “shared the same landscapes and competed for resources and natural shelter.”

It remains unclear if the hyena killed the human, or if the toothy mammal came upon an already dead individual and consumed the remains. Both scenarios are possible, according to the researchers.

Bones for many other species were found at and around the site, revealing that gazelles, antelopes, bears, leopards, porcupines, wildebeest, baboons, zebras, rhinos and many other animals were in the ecosystem with humans, who likely hunted most, if not all, of them.

“Coprolites (fossilized clumps of poo) are numerous,” according to the researchers, providing further evidence of the animals’ presence.

We will probably never know the true extent of the killing that went on back in the day: both humans hunting multiple species, and animals killing early humans.

Read more at Discovery News

Face of Neanderthal 'Altamura Man' Recreated

The calcite-encrusted face of a Neanderthal who lived around 150,000 years ago has come alive as researchers reconstructed a hyper-realistic model of his face and body.

The fossilized complete skeleton, known as the Altamura Man, is the most ancient Neanderthal from which portions of genetic material DNA have been extracted.

Discovered in 1993 in the karstic cave of Lamalunga, near the town of Altamura in Puglia, the skeleton has been shown in a life-size model complete with hair, beard and moustache.

Featuring a short and stocky body, the Altamura Man had a jutting brow, an elongated cranium and a very big nose.

“To me he looks beautiful,” David Caramelli, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Florence, told Discovery News.

The Altamura Man rested undisturbed in the cave until a group of speleologists spotted a 26-foot-deep well. Inside was a tunnel that opened into a large cavity, with other tunnels branching out from it. One of them, about 200 feet long, led to another cave, rich with stalagmites. There, encrusted in a corner, looking like a large piece of coral, was a skeleton lying on its back.

Researchers assume the unfortunate hominid fell in a well and remained trapped there, dying of starvation or from lack of water intake. The skeleton was then covered with droplets of limestone that helped preserve it for millennia.

Last year, Caramelli, Giorgio Manzi, professor of paleoanthropology and human ecology at Rome’s Sapienza University, and colleagues were able to extract DNA from the articular portion of the right scapula.

The analysis confirmed the Altamura Man was a Neanderthal, the species that inhabited Europe between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago.

The researchers estimated the hominid lived approximately 150,000 years ago, in the late-Middle to early-Late Pleistocene — an ancient phase in the existence of Neanderthals.

To create the hyper-realistic model, Manzi and Caramelli used photogrammetry and laser scanning of the encrusted skeleton combined with data from the DNA analysis.

Read more at Discovery News

Pyramid Interior Revealed Using Cosmic Rays

The internal structure of an ancient Egyptian pyramid was revealed for the first time using cosmic particles, a team of international researchers reports.

The innovative technology was applied to the Bent Pyramid, a 4,500-year-old monument so named because of its sloping upper half.

According to the researchers, who presented their results in Cairo on Tuesday to Khaled El-Enany, minister of Antiquities and the former minister Mamdouh El-Damaty, the outcome was “excellent” as it showed the inside of the monument as with an X-ray.

The technology relies on muons, cosmic particles that permanently and naturally rain on Earth, which are able to penetrate any material very deeply.

This is the first of four pyramids to be investigated within the ScanPyramids, a project carried out by a team from Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering and the Paris-based non-profit organization Heritage, Innovation and Preservation under the authority of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. The others are the Great Pyramid, Khafre or Chephren at Giza, and the Red pyramid at Dahshur.

Scheduled to last a year, the project uses a mix of innovative technologies such as infrared thermography, muon radiography, and 3-D reconstruction to better understand the monument and possibly identify the presence of unknown internal structures and cavities.

Located at the royal necropolis of Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, the Bent pyramid was built under the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Sneferu (about  2600 BC). It's the first with a smooth face, after generations of stepped pyramids.

The monument has two entrances, one on the north side and one on the west side. These entries open on two corridors leading to two burial chambers arranged one above the other.

It was speculated that pharaoh Sneferu rests inside the pyramid in an undiscovered burial chamber, but the innovative technology ruled out the hypothesis. The scanning did not detect any additional chamber of the size of the upper chamber or beyond in the field of view covered by the muography.

“Nevertheless, this is indeed a scientific breakthrough as it validates the muography principle applied to Egyptian pyramids. It paves the way to new investigations,” said Mehdi Tayoubi, co-director of the ScanPyramids mission with Hany Helal, professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering and former minister of research and higher education.

The results come four months after a team led by specialist Kunihiro Morishima, from the Institute for Advanced Research of Nagoya University, Japan, installed (as explained in this video) 40 muon detector plates inside the lower chamber of the Bent pyramid.

Covering a surface of about 10 square feet in the pyramid’s lower chamber, the plates contained two emulsion films that are sensitive to muons that continually shower the Earth’s surface.

They come from the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere, where they're created from collisions between cosmic rays and the nuclei of atoms in the atmosphere.

“Just like X-rays pass through our bodies allowing us to visualize our skeleton, these elementary particles, weighing around 200 times more than electrons, can very easily pass through any structure, even large and thick rocks, such as mountains,” Tayoubi said.

The plate detectors allow researchers to discern void areas -- these are places where muons cross without problem -- from denser areas where some muons are absorbed or deflected.

Morishima’s team retrieved the detector plates from the Bent pyramid in January 2016 after 40 days of exposure. This is the maximal lifetime of chemical emulsions within the temperature and humidity conditions inside that pyramid.

The films were then developed in a dedicated lab installed at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), and shipped to Nagoya University for analysis.

“From these plates, more than 10 millions of muon tracks were analyzed. We count the muons and according to their angular distribution we are able to reconstruct an image,” Tayoubi said.

“For the first time ever, the internal structure of a pyramid was revealed with muon particles. The images obtained clearly show the second chamber of the pyramid located roughly 60 feet above the lower one in which emulsions plates were installed,” he added.

Tayoubi stressed that each step in the project is important.

“We learn a lot from the reality of the field. We improve the knowledge of the monuments but we also improve the technologies progressively. We are not in a hurry,” he said.

Tayoubi admitted that the available statistics from the 40 days of exposure is not yet sufficient to precisely reveal the known corridors or unknown voids smaller than those in the upper chamber.

However, the researchers made simulations by randomly placing, within the field of view, a hypothetic chamber of size similar or larger than the upper one.

“Compared with the results obtained, these simulations could validate the fact there is no additional chamber of this size in the surroundings,” professor Morishima said.

Strong of their results, the researchers will now apply the muography to other Old Kingdom pyramids.

Read more at Discovery News

Explore Mariana Trench with Live Video Feed

Here’s an odd fact about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Okeanos Explorer, the nation’s only federally funded ship assigned to explore the world’s oceans: Most of the scientists who participate in its missions remain onshore.

That’s because the ship is wired with video cameras and broadband Internet to enable telepresence, in which observers on land can watch live images from the ocean floor from the comfort of their own desks.

Now, NOAA is providing you with a chance to see some of the same amazing sights that the scientists view. From now until July 10, as the Okeanos Explorer probes some largely unexplored areas in and around the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument and the Northern Marianas Islands in the Pacific, you’ll be able to watch a live video feed.

The ship is equipped with two robotic remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), which descend into the depths. Here’s a map that tracks the ship’s location in real time.

Located in the Mariana Archipelago east of the Philippines, the national monument protects about 95,000 square miles of ocean waters and floor. The Mariana Trench itself is the deepest place on the planet, farther down than the summit of Mount Everest is above sea level.

One portion of the monument, an arc of undersea mud volcanoes and thermal vents, supports exotic life forms that exist in some of the harshest conditions imaginable on the planet — highly acidic and boiling-hot water.

One of its features, the Champagne vent, produces almost pure carbon dioxide, one of only two such known sites in the world.

Another of the monument’s curiosities is the Daikoku submarine volcano, which has the planet’s only pool of liquid molten sulfur. The other such known pool is on Io, a moon of the planet Jupiter. For more information, check out this primer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

From Discovery News

Lake Beneath Antarctic Ice Could Hold Hidden Life

British scientists believe they may have discovered a large lake beneath the ice of the Antarctic continent, one that may harbor life that has lain undisturbed for millennia. They believe the lake, which measures approximately 87 by 12 miles, is connected to a canyon system that in total is roughly 680 miles in extent. The scientists first published their finding in the journal Geology and expanded upon them this month at the European Geosciences Meeting in Vienna.

Their conclusions are based on discerning faint grooves in the ice after closely examining satellite imagery of the area, in a region of the froze continent known as Princess Elizabeth Land.

“We’ve seen these strange, linear channels on the surface, and are inferring these are above massive, 1000-kilometer-long channels, and there’s a relatively large subglacial lake there too,” Martin Siegert of Imperial College London, a member of the research team, told New Scientist.

Siegert further stated that researchers from China and the US have flown over the region and gathered ice penetrating radar data, which they hope will confirm the presence of the under-ice features.

“We’re meeting in May to look at the data,” he said. “It will be a very good test of our hypothesis about the lake and channels.”

Although big, the putative lake would not be the largest discovered under the frozen ice cap of the Antarctic. That honor belongs to Lake Vostok, which measures 160 by 30 miles — which would make it the sixth-largest in the United States, more than twice as large as Utah’s Great Salt Lake and bested only by the Great Lakes.

In 2012, Russian scientists drilled a borehole into Lake Vostok, which has been covered by ice for 15 million years and lies more than two and a quarter miles below the surface, and claimed to have found evidence of unusual life. However, their findings were met with skepticism and controversy because the water samples were contaminated with fluid used to help the drilling process; last year, having corrected their technique, they began to drill for a second time.

An American team that drilled into Lake Whillans — a sliver of water just 7 feet deep, which is half a mile below the surface of the Ross Ice Shelf — in 2013 was able to avoid such contamination issues by deploying a series of sterilization measures. To their astonishment, they found microbial life in a density comparable to that in many of the world’s deep oceans, and a complex community of bacteria and archaea at least 4,000 species strong.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 26, 2016

Camera Shows Catsharks May Glow to Communicate

When catsharks glow, they become easier for others of their kind to see, the deeper they swim. And, what’s more, all of that glowing might help the sharks communicate with each other.

Those were the findings of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, who used a special “shark’s eye” camera designed to reveal what biofluorescing sharks look like to one another.

Biofluorescence –- absorbing light and then emitting, or “glowing” it back as different colors, such as neon greens -- is a relatively new finding among fish.

Earlier work by study co-author John Sparks and his fellow researchers had established that more than 180 fish biofluoresce. That finding begged the question “Why?” What was the meaning behind all of the glowing?

“Can these animals see other animals that are biofluorescing in the deep blue sea?” wondered co-author David Gruber, an associate professor of biology at Baruch College, in a statement. “And are they using it in some way?”

Those questions set the researchers on the path advanced in the new study.

Sparks and his team observed catsharks -- small sharks that cruise on the floor of the ocean, where visibility is very poor -- in the Scripps Canyon underwater gorge in Southern California.

They stimulated biofluorescence in the sharks by training special light on them (not visible to the human eye) that mimics ocean light, all the while recording with the “shark’s eye” camera.

When the team applied mathematical models to the recorded images -- pictures of the world as catsharks would see them — they noticed that the contrast of the catshark’s pattern under biofluorescence got sharper the deeper underwater they went.

So, to another catshark — or camera pretending to see like a shark — the biofluorescence effectively made it easier to see the glowing shark. This told the researchers not only that the sharks could see each other but that the glowing also might help them communicate (perhaps by “telling” other catsharks that they are of the same species, the authors speculate).

“This is one of the first papers on biofluorescence to show a connection between visual capability and fluorescence emission, and a big step toward a functional explanation for fluorescence in fishes,” said Sparks.

“We’ve already shown that catsharks are brightly fluorescent,” he added. “And this work takes that research a step further, making the case that biofluorescence makes them easier to see by members of the same species.”

Read more at Discovery News

New Titanosaur: Big Body, Small Brain, Major Appetite

A new titanosaur dig includes one of the best dinosaur skulls ever discovered, allowing researchers to reconstruct everything from the dino’s intellect -- or lack thereof -- to its senses and head posture.

Named Sarmientosaurus musacchioi, the new, small-brained dino had good eyesight, hearing tuned to low frequencies, and habitually held its head with its snout facing downward, according to a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE. The head was at the end of a long neck and featured a mouth full of sharp teeth.

The researchers believe that the plant-eating dinosaur lived life basically like a giant weed whacker, sweeping its neck over the ground to find plants that it would grab, but not chew.

“Sarmientosaurus had powerful teeth … but those teeth did not chew,” lead author Rubén Martínez of the Laboratorio de Paleovertebrados of the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia San Juan Bosco told Discovery News. “(The teeth) would only cut the leaves and the dinosaur would eat them with almost no chewing.”

Co-author Lawrence Witmer of the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine added that the dinosaur “had a large feeding envelope. When you’re as large as these sauropods were, being able to scarf down a lot of food without having to move saves a lot of energy.”

Witmer estimates that the dinosaur, which lived roughly 95 million years ago, was about 40–50 feet long and weighed 8–12 tons. He and his colleagues consider it to have been a modest-sized titanosaur, given that others could grow to 90 feet in length and weigh as much as 50 tons. They were the largest animals ever to walk the earth.

The new species was excavated in southern Chubut Province, Argentina, near the town of Sarmiento, for which the dino was named. The species name also honors the late paleontologist Eduardo Musacchio, who was a friend of Martínez and other members of the team.

Of the 60 plus species of titanosaur that have been discovered so far, only four are represented by nearly or even reasonably complete skulls. They include Nemegtosaurus, Rapetosaurus, Tapuiasaurus, and now, possibly with the best preserved skull of all, Sarmientosaurus.

The dino certainly did not have a lot of brain matter to weigh down its head. The researchers estimate that the creature's brain was the size of a lime. Witmer said that “Sarmientosaurus certainly was no Einstein and was governed mostly by instinct. It probably had enough intelligence to have some fairly complicated behaviors, but this was not a clever animal by any means.”

At least it could see and hear predators, like the meat-eating Megaraptor. Its cochlear duct was different from that of most other known titanosaurs, and enabled it to hear low-frequency sounds spread out over long distances. Witmer said the ability “could have helped the animals keep track of others in the herd as they spread out over the countryside.”

He added that it might have been a primitive trait inherited from its ancestors. Sarmientosaurus appears to have been an intermediate species on the titanosaur family tree, providing a unique glimpse at evolution in action when compared with additional dinosaurs in the group.

The dinosaur’s well-preserved inner ear, revealed via CT scanning, reveals that it habitually held its snout pointing downward with its eyes directed forward.

As for its long neck, Martínez said that the bones in it were extremely light and nearly hollow with up to 80 percent air.

It's the first non-bird dinosaur to preserve a bizarre structure in the neck that the researchers interpret to have been a long bony tendon. The scientists support the widely held view, however, that birds evolved from two-legged, meat-eating dinosaurs similar to Velociraptor and not from large plant-eaters like Sarmientosaurus.

They suspect that other plant-eating dinosaurs, known as sauropods, had the bony tendon, but that, for some reason, it didn't fossilize in them the way that it did in the Sarmientosaurus remains.

Read more at Discovery News

When Plants Are Cut, They Bleed, Sort Of

When humans suffer a cut, our blood coagulates into a gel, attempting to create a semi-solid blockage so that we don’t lose more blood than necessary.

The field of plant “intelligence,” that word being a not-really-correct shorthand for how plants interpret and respond to their environments, has lately been exploding. We understand more and more about the intricate, efficient ways plants react to the world — did you know that plants can tell when they’re being eaten? And that they don’t much like it?

Plants also have a version of blood clotting, but the specifics of how it works have long been a mystery. When a plant is cut, it seems able to direct nutrients and minerals around the cut, sealing the cut area off and protecting healthier parts of the plant. It’s not quite the self-healing mechanism that animals have, but more like a cauterization: it stops the bleeding.

On the other hand … plants don’t have blood, and don’t bleed.

What they do instead, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Delaware, is open and close channels between cells. Animal cells are highly mobile; blood flows, skin cells grow and move towards the surface to replace older cells, that kind of thing. Plant cells, not so much: They’re more like coral, glued onto each other to form a structure and then remaining motionless.

So given that plant cells can’t move, there has to be some way to transmit all kinds of stuff from one part of the plant to another: nutrients to make the plant grow, minerals to keep it healthy, various communications to let it know if it’s in trouble. That stuff moves from cell to cell through little passages in the cell walls known as plasmodesmata. (The singular, confusingly, is plasmodesma.)

The University of Delaware researchers looked hard at the way these plasmodesmata are guarded. The guards of these little passages is a substance called callose, a glucose-like deposit the plant manufactures. Callose levels can go up and down, a process not previously very well understood: Basically, if there’s a lot of callose, the plasmodesmata passages are blocked, and nothing can get through. If there’s not very much callose, the plasmodesmata are open.

The researchers discovered that the amount of callose at any given part of the plant can be controlled by a few enzymes in response to all kinds of stimuli. If a plant is infected with some sort of bacteria, it knows that bacteria can travel through the plasmodesmata passages: quick, callose, deploy! Block the bacteria!

And if there’s a physical problem, like, say, a cut, the callose also builds up to keep the plant from trying to fire off nutrients into a part of the plant that won’t survive. Interestingly, the callose immediately adjacent to a plant’s cut, but in a healthy part of the plant, will drop significantly, allowing that part of the plant to grow faster.

Read more at Discovery News

Pluto's 'Little Sister' Makemake Has a Moon

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found a tiny, dark moon circling the dwarf planet Makemake, a Pluto sibling in the solar system’s distant Kuiper Belt.

It is the first satellite to be discovered circling Makemake, an 870-mile wide dwarf planet discovered in 2005.

Makemake, which is named for a creation deity of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, is the second brightest object in the Kuiper Belt after Pluto.

The dwarf planet’s newly found moon, spotted in an April Hubble Wide Field Camera 3 image, is more than 1,300 fainter than Makemake, NASA said in a press release issued Tuesday, the same day the discovery was announced in a Minor Planet Electronic Circular.

The moon, nicknamed MK 2, is estimated to be about 100 miles in diameter. It is located about 13,000 miles from Makemake and appears to be orbiting edge-on, relative to Earth’s perspective.

“That means that often when you look at the system you are going to miss the moon because it gets lost in the bright glare of Makemake,” astronomer Alex Parker, with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement.

Astronomers will now try to learn more about the moon’s orbit so they can calculate a mass for the system and learn more about how it formed.

“The discovery … has given us an opportunity to study Makemake in far greater detail than we ever would have been able to without the companion,” Parker said.

Preliminary estimates indicate that if the moon is in a circular orbit, it completes a circuit around Makemake in 12 days or longer.

From Discovery News

Apr 25, 2016

Bed Bugs Have Fave Colors, Dislike Others

Bed bugs favor the colors red and black, but tend to avoid green and yellow, finds new research on the parasites.

The study is the first to show that bed bugs have color preferences. The findings could improve ways of controlling the pest, whose bites can cause itching, inflammation and allergic reactions.

For the experiments, outlined in the Journal of Medical Entomology, scientists created tent-like “harborages” for the bugs, to see which ones they gravitated to or avoided. Outside of the lab setting, bedding and luggage often function as bed bug retreats.

“It was speculated that a bed bug would go to any harborage in an attempt to hide,” the authors wrote. “However, these color experiments show that bed bugs … will select a harborage based on its color when moving in the light.”

Co-author Corraine McNeill of Union College said in a release: “We originally thought the bed bugs might prefer red because blood is red and that’s what they feed on. However, after doing the study, the main reason we think they preferred red colors is because bed bugs themselves appear red, so they go to these harborages because they want to be with other bed bugs.”

McNeill and her colleagues determined that many factors influenced which color the bed bugs chose. For example, the bugs’ color preferences changed as they grew older, and they chose different colors in groups than when alone. Whether the bugs were satiated or hungry also affected their choices. Males and females additionally seemed to prefer different colors.

Despite the variation, favoring red and black and avoiding yellow and green hues remained mostly consistent.

According to the “Bugs Without Borders” survey conducted last year by the University of Kentucky and the National Pest Management Association, the top three places where pest professionals report finding bed bugs are apartments/condos (95 percent), single-family homes (93 percent), and hotels/motels (75 percent). Bed bugs have also been found in nursing homes, college dorms, offices, schools and daycare centers, hospitals and public transportation.

While a CDC fact sheet maintains, “Bed bugs should not be considered as a medical or public health hazard,” clearly the parasite’s prevalence is a concern and bites could pose more of a threat to children, the elderly and those already weakened by illness. So creating more effective traps for the bugs is one of the researchers’ goals.

“We are thinking about how you can enhance bed bug traps by using … a specific color that is attractive to the bug,” McNeill said. “However, the point isn’t to use the color traps in isolation, but to use color preference as something in your toolkit to be paired with other things such as pheromones or carbon dioxide to potentially increase the number of bed bugs in a trap.”

Read more at Discovery News

First C-section Evidence Found on Hungarian Mummy

By analyzing 18th century mummified remains, Hungarian researchers have found the first direct evidence of a C-section performed on a deceased mother.

The procedure was widely performed in the 18th century on dead mothers in order to attempt baptize the baby while still alive.

“Caesarean section was made exclusively on women who had died in childbirth," Ildikó Szikossy, an anthropologist and senior curator at the Department of Anthropology at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest, told Discovery News. "Indeed, alive patients could have not survived the operation at that time."

“In most cases the baby too died shortly after receiving the sacrament,” she added.

Szikossy and colleagues found traces of a sharp-edged 5.7 inch long cut, running from the umbilical ring to the pubic symphysis, in one of the 265 natural mummified bodies kept at the Natural History Museum in Budapest.

The mummies were uncovered in 1994-1995 from a long forgotten crypt in the Dominican church of Vác, a town 22 miles north of the capital on the eastern bank of the Danube river.

“The coffins were beautiful decorated and contain the name, age and age of death of each individual,” Szikossy said.

She presented her findings at the International Conference of Comparative Mummy Studies in Hildesheim, Germany. Szikossy and colleagues explained that the mummified remains of a young woman buried with her baby are so far the only evidence for a procedure widely performed in the 18th century.

“Legal regulations appeared in Hungary already at the end of the 16th century to make after-death intervention obligatory,” Szikossy said. Also the Church urged the removal of the fetus to save the soul of the baby, if still alive." While the name on the coffin revealed the young woman was Terézia Borsodi, the death registry, written in Latin, provided more details.

Dated Dec. 9, 1794, it explained that Borsodi was the wife of postmaster John Weiskopf and died in childbirth at the age of 26 with her son, “who was delivered by Caesarean section alive and baptized while still alive.”

In addition to the recorded history of the young woman, the researchers found other physical proof that Borsodi was dead at the time of the C-section.

“The bad quality of the sewing is enough evidence that the mother had already died when the procedure was made,” Szikossy said.

The researchers determined the fetus, a male, was 38 to 39 weeks old.

“The baby was mature and normal sized. That was the sixth birth for Terézia (Borsodi),” Szikossy said.

She speculated the birth went wrong because the baby was probably in abnormal position.

Read more at Discovery News

Bacteria in Clouds Could Make Rain on Demand

When you’re lying on your back in a meadow gazing at the sky, the clouds above you might look utterly pristine. But don’t let appearances fool you. In recent years, scientists have discovered that clouds are full of hundreds of varieties of bacteria. Moreover, those microbes may actually play a role in creating precipitation.

That’s led some researchers to wonder if we might actually be able to deliberately seed clouds with bacteria and make it rain in places where we need it, according to a recent article in the British publication New Scientist.

The link between cloud-borne microbes and precipitation began to emerge in the late 1970s, when Montana State University scientist David C. Sands, who was trying to find the source of a mysterious blight afflicting local wheat crops, got a hunch and flew into the clouds in an aircraft, carrying a Petri dish. Sure enough, Sands found the microbe in question. He also developed the concept of bio-precipitation — that is, that bacteria was involved in making rain — but other scientists were skeptical.

In recent years, though, Sands and other researchers have found evidence to support bio-precipitation. In a 2008 study, Sands and fellow MSU scientist Christine Foreman, Brent Christner from Louisiana State University and Cindy Morris, from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research in Avignon, published a study of precipitation in locations ranging from Montana to Russia. They found that most ice nuclei in clouds — an early stage in the precipitation process — were formed around microbes, rather than dust and soot, as scientists previously had believed.

Bacteria apparently use precipitation to spread themselves. What happens, apparently, is that bacteria clinging to the outside of plants is swept by wind up into the atmosphere.

When the microbes get into the clouds, ice crystals form around them, and water clumps onto the crystals, making them bigger. Eventually, the crystals turn into rain and fall to back to Earth, where the microbes land on more plants, and then multiply. Then the cycle repeats itself. (Here’s an MSU press release with more detail.)

Read more at Discovery News

Did Asteroid Impacts Incubate Mars' Ancient Oceans?

Last year, NASA researchers looked at water in the Red Planet’s atmosphere and compared it to water trapped in ancient meteorites from Mars. The research suggested that roughly 87 percent of the water escaped to space. But there’s ample evidence out there that Mars was once soaked in water. For example: All three rovers that landed on the surface have found evidence of it in various forms — minerals formed in water, or ancient streambeds.

If an ocean did exist, it would be where the rovers are — in the northern plains, since it is low-lying ground. But how did that water get there in the first place?

An emerging hypothesis suggests that a few billion years ago, much of Mars was covered in water ice (similar to the poles of today). The ice likely came from asteroids depositing it on to the surface. Then came an event known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, where asteroid debris pummeled the inner solar system roughly four billion years ago. The asteroids could have melted the Martian ice and created an ocean for as long as 200 million years.

The research comes from Timothy Parker, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who has researched the possibility of a past ocean on Mars since the 1980s. That’s when the Viking missions were beaming back black-and-white images of Mars at what today would be considered extremely low resolution. Even then, Parker told Discovery News, he could see what he described as “wave-refracted shorelines” in the northern plains of Mars, shorelines that appeared similar to what is on Earth.

As better, more high-resolution data arrived in the 1990s and beyond, Parker noticed something odd. The supposed Martian ocean interiors are lower than the shorelines. This is opposite to what happened on Earth, when isostatic rebound (the ground rising up after large icebergs melt) made the interiors higher than the shorelines. What accounted for the mystery?

The new work on Mars focuses on Meridiani Planum, the region in which the Opportunity rover has been driving since 2003. Researchers have seen a lot of material associated with evaporation there — primarily sulfate (salt) deposits. From Earth observations (such as in the Bahamas), Parker says that to get that kind of deposition, you need to have a very shallow ocean just a few meters deep. This leads to concentrated water evaporation over a broad, shallow area, leaving behind expansive sulfate deposits.

Parker suggests that Mars did not natively have an ocean — it was too far from the sun and its atmosphere, even back then, was quite thin. Instead, he suggests that Mars was an ice-covered planet. The sulfates came from meteorites that hit the surface and temporarily melted the ice, forming a shallow pool of water.

“Once the Late Heavy Bombardment ceased, the ocean regressed and froze over,” Parker said. That would explain the shorelines staying depressed, because the resulting ice didn’t evaporate rapidly as what was seen on Earth after ice ages; instead, it slowly sublimated into the Martian atmosphere.

He also pointed out that such an ocean would have been covered in debris and ice. At the shorelines, it would create channels that look like they were carved by thick lava (an alternate explanation for possibly water-carved channels on Mars).

Parker believes that Opportunity is driving on an ocean lakebed because of the number of large polygonal cracks it has encountered (implying massive evaporation). Also, some parts of Endeavour Crater (its current roving grounds) have damage, scour marks and the like that suggest ice being pushed around in vast quantities by water and hitting the shoreline. But his hypothesis is not universally accepted by the team, he added.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 24, 2016

Leg-wing cooperation in baby birds, dinosaurs is key transition in origin of flight

New research based on high-resolution x-ray movies reveals that despite having extremely underdeveloped muscles and wings, young birds acquire a mature flight stroke early in their development, initially relying heavily on their legs and wings to work in tandem to power the strenuous movement. The new study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, is important for understanding the development of flight in modern birds and reconstructing its origins in extinct dinosaurs.

"The transition from ground-living dinosaurs to flight-capable birds is one of the major evolutionary transitions in vertebrate history, because flight is the most physically demanding form of locomotion," said lead author Ashley Heers, a postdoctoral researcher in the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Paleontology. "The kind of flight that we normally think of in living birds--for example, what you might see in a pigeon or a robin--involved a huge evolutionary overhaul of the animal's basic body plan over time. And although scientists have been studying flight for more a century, there's actually a surprising amount that we don't know about how birds fly."

Adult birds have many anatomical features that presumably help meet the demands of flight. However, juvenile birds, like the first winged dinosaurs, lack many hallmarks of advanced flight. Instead of large wings, they have small "protowings," and instead of robust, interlocking forelimb skeletons, their limbs are more gracile and their joints less constrained. These traits are often thought to preclude extinct theropods--the group of dinosaurs most closely related to modern birds--from powered flight, but young birds with similar rudimentary anatomies flap their wings as they run up slopes and even briefly fly, challenging longstanding ideas about the origin of flight.

To further explore this work, Heers and colleagues used a technique called x-ray reconstruction of moving morphology (XROMM)--which essentially produces a 3-D x-ray movie--to visualize skeletal movement in developing birds.

"For a long time, researchers weren't able to tell how birds were moving their skeletons because, of course, they are covered in feathers and muscles," Heers said. "This x-ray technique allows us to look at what's happening inside of the animals as they're performing different behaviors."

At Brown University, the researchers used XROMM to look at Chukar partridges (Alectoris chukar) at a variety of ages as they flapped their wings to help climb steep slopes--a behavior scientists call wing-assisted incline running (WAIR). They found that when flap-running at similar levels of effort, juvenile and adult birds show similar patterns of joint movement. Despite their undeveloped anatomy, young birds can produce all of the elements of the avian flight stroke and modify their wing stroke for different behaviors, just like adults.

How is this possible? The study suggests that the cooperation between a juvenile bird's legs and wings is key in early life: the force generated by flapping pushes the birds forward as well as upward, improving traction as they climb.

"When wings and legs are viewed in isolation, it is difficult to imagine how animals lacking flight adaptions could produce useful aerodynamic forces," Heers said. "However, flapping behaviors that involve cooperative use of wings and legs, like WAIR, require less muscle power and less aerodynamic force than level flight. Transitional behaviors therefore allow flight-incapable juveniles to transition to flight-capable adults in a continuous fashion, supplementing their underdeveloped wings and flight muscles with their legs until the flight apparatus can fully support body weight."

Read more at Science Daily

New state of water molecule discovered

Neutron scattering and computational modeling have revealed unique and unexpected behavior of water molecules under extreme confinement that is unmatched by any known gas, liquid or solid states.

In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory describe a new tunneling state of water molecules confined in hexagonal ultra-small channels -- 5 angstrom across -- of the mineral beryl. An angstrom is 1/10-billionth of a meter, and individual atoms are typically about 1 angstrom in diameter.

The discovery, made possible with experiments at ORNL's Spallation Neutron Source and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom, demonstrates features of water under ultra confinement in rocks, soil and cell walls, which scientists predict will be of interest across many disciplines.

"At low temperatures, this tunneling water exhibits quantum motion through the separating potential walls, which is forbidden in the classical world," said lead author Alexander Kolesnikov of ORNL's Chemical and Engineering Materials Division. "This means that the oxygen and hydrogen atoms of the water molecule are 'delocalized' and therefore simultaneously present in all six symmetrically equivalent positions in the channel at the same time. It's one of those phenomena that only occur in quantum mechanics and has no parallel in our everyday experience."

The existence of the tunneling state of water shown in ORNL's study should help scientists better describe the thermodynamic properties and behavior of water in highly confined environments such as water diffusion and transport in the channels of cell membranes, in carbon nanotubes and along grain boundaries and at mineral interfaces in a host of geological environments.

ORNL co-author Lawrence Anovitz noted that the discovery is apt to spark discussions among materials, biological, geological and computational scientists as they attempt to explain the mechanism behind this phenomenon and understand how it applies to their materials.

"This discovery represents a new fundamental understanding of the behavior of water and the way water utilizes energy," Anovitz said. "It's also interesting to think that those water molecules in your aquamarine or emerald ring -- blue and green varieties of beryl -- are undergoing the same quantum tunneling we've seen in our experiments."

While previous studies have observed tunneling of atomic hydrogen in other systems, the ORNL discovery that water exhibits such tunneling behavior is unprecedented. The neutron scattering and computational chemistry experiments showed that, in the tunneling state, the water molecules are delocalized around a ring so the water molecule assumes an unusual double top-like shape.

"The average kinetic energy of the water protons directly obtained from the neutron experiment is a measure of their motion at almost absolute zero temperature and is about 30 percent less than it is in bulk liquid or solid water," Kolesnikov said. "This is in complete disagreement with accepted models based on the energies of its vibrational modes."

Read more at Science Daily