Birds are the modern descendants of dinosaurs, but the exact details of the family tree are controversial. Archaeopteryx, the winged creature found in German fossil beds whose name means “first from a feather,” was long thought to be the first bird. Last summer, a Nature paper by Xu Xing, of China’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, claimed that Archaeopteryx was related to birds but actually belonged on a separate branch of the tree, with other bird-like dinosaurs.
Scientists still debate the rightful place of Archaeopteryx in the dinosaur-bird lineage, but what’s undisputed are Xu’s contributions to paleontology. He has named 60 dinosaur species, more than any other living paleontologist, and his stamping grounds are the fossil beds of Liaoning Province, northeast of Beijing, where many of the feathered dinosaurs and early birds were discovered. Kerri Smith enumerates Xu Xing’s contributions to the study of birds and their dinosaur relatives in a profile at Nature News: Read More
Carved into the northern slopes of China’s Mount Gongga, the Yaijiageng river valley looks like the site of a massive paint spill. But the red is actually all-natural: it is a massive bloom of a newly discovered variety of algae. The alga belongs to the species Trentepohlia jolithus, which is capable of growing on rocks and tree trunks. This yajiagengensis variety, named after the river valley where it originates, only grows on local exposed rock—and with debris and human activities blocking and rerouting the flow of the Yajiageng river in recent years, a lot more stone has become exposed. The alga’s spread has turned the location into a tourist attraction with the nickname “Red-Stone-Valley.”
[via New Scientist]
Image courtesy of Guoxiang Liu
The launch of the Long March-2F rocket carrying Shenzhou-9 into space
On Monday, Chinese spaceship Shenzhou-9 docked with Tiangong-1, the first time that China connected a manned craft with an orbiting module. Liu Yang, one of the three crew members, also became the nation’s first woman in space.
China’s ground base regulated the docking by remote control, and then Yang, along with fellow crew member Liu Wang and mission commander Jing Haipeng, entered the Tiangong-1 module for a 10-day stay in space. Although China did not send a man into space until 2003, becoming the third nation to do so behind both Russia and the United States, its space program does not lack for ambition. It plans to launch more manned space missions, possibly even to the moon, and to replace tiny Tiangong-1 with a larger 60-ton space station by 2020.
Olive oil tops the list of adulterated products.
You might think that the days when unscrupulous shopkeepers mixed food with plaster or ditchwater to boost profits are long gone, on the far side of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. You’d be wrong, though: more often than you’d like to think, companies cut corners by adulterating their products with other substances, sometimes killing customers in process.
Topping the list of most-frequently adulterated foods are olive oil, milk, honey, and saffron, according to a new database put together by the US Pharmacopeial Convention, the non-profit that sets standards for drug and food ingredients. Developed to help trace patterns in adulteration, the database includes more than a thousand cases from 1980 to 2010 and records exactly what the foods were mixed with and how the adulteration was detected, along with links to the press reports and scientific papers on each case. Read More
The disastrous economic policies of Mao’s Great Leap Forward caused the single deadliest famine in the history of the world. Between 1958 and 1961, an estimated 15 to 45 million people died of malnutrition in China. And during this period, according to a new study, a strangely high proportion of babies born were female.
China has had a long cultural tradition of favoring sons over daughters, and boys outnumber girls every year in this data from 1940 to 1980. But from one year after the famine’s beginning to two years after its end, the proportion of males drops sharply, as you can see in the graph above.
This study may bolster the Trivers-Willard hypothesis, which suggests that poor maternal condition, such as famine, would favor giving birth to more girls. Since the reproductive success of males tend to be more variable—a reproductively successful male can father many children, whereas a unfit one fathers none—girls are a “safer” evolutionary investment in risky times. The birth sex ratios of mammals such as ground squirrels and red deer follow this pattern. Lab experiments where the male blastocytes of cows survive better in glucose-rich environments identified a possible mechanism.
One hundred and twenty million years ago, this fearsome creature roamed the skies above China. This recently discovered skull is the first evidence of this species of pterosaur (a flying reptile, not a dinosaur) that scientists have found, though similar fossils have been unearthed halfway around the world in Brazil. The new species name, Guidraco venator, is a portmanteau of Chinese and Latin words together meaning “ghost dragon hunter.” Those dramatic teeth have got scientists talking about how the heck it ate: did it hunt actively for the fish whose bones are in those clumps of poop (“copr” stands for “coprolite“) scattered around it, or did it scavenge? Either way, it looks like a creature that gets whatever it wants, when it wants it.
If you carry classified government information or trade secrets as part of your job, traveling in China is risky. Hackers, whether affiliated with the government, on the payroll of competing companies, or operating alone, are a constant threat, and you generally have to assume that you are never unobserved online. But a piece in the New York Times makes it exceedingly clear just how far one has to go to get even a measure of electronic privacy and security in China:
When Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, travels to that country, he follows a routine that seems straight from a spy film. Kenneth G. Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution takes precautions while traveling. He leaves his cellphone and laptop at home and instead brings “loaner” devices, which he erases before he leaves the United States and wipes clean the minute he returns. In China, he disables Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, never lets his phone out of his sight and, in meetings, not only turns off his phone but also removes the battery, for fear his microphone could be turned on remotely. He connects to the Internet only through an encrypted, password-protected channel, and copies and pastes his password from a USB thumb drive. He never types in a password directly, because, he said, “the Chinese are very good at installing key-logging software on your laptop.”
This is a philosophy that Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, calls traveling “electronically naked”; Jacob Olcott, a cybersecurity expert at Good Harbor Consulting, calls it ‘Business 101’ for people involved in commerce in China. Read the NYT piece for more, but here’s one more nugget that emphasizes how dangerous, in terms of information security, it is to have any contact at all with Chinese systems:
McAfee, the security company, said that if any employee’s device was inspected at the Chinese border, it could never be plugged into McAfee’s network again. Ever. “We just wouldn’t take the risk,” said Simon Hunt, a vice president.
The holidays are hard on Christmas lights. Exposed to the vagaries of small nephews and exuberant pets, most strings will experience a few casualties, and while a missing bulb no longer means the entire set stops working, Americans still throw out millions of pounds of lights a year. Adam Minter, who’s writing a book on the globalization of recycling, describes exactly what happens to your old lights when they’re shipped over to a concern in China, which, ironically, makes better use of minced-up lights than any US company could.
Workers untangle the lights and toss them into small shredders, where they are chopped into millimeter-sized fragments and mixed with water into a sticky mud-like substance. Next, they’re shoveled onto a large, downward-angled, vibrating table, covered in a thin sheen of flowing water.
Beijing smog as seen from the China World Hotel, March 2003.
While top Chinese government officials have many advantages in terms of wealth, education, and status compared to most of their countrymen, the consolation remained that the rich had to breathe the same polluted air as the poor in smog-ridden cities like Beijing. But as a story in the New York Times points out, that may not be entirely accurate:
Artist’s rendering of the Tiangog-1 docking
with another craft.
Today, with much fanfare, China launched its Tiangong-1 space craft into orbit from a site in the Gobi Desert. The unmanned craft is set to dock with later Chinese ships, allowing engineers to practice and experiment with the techniques they’ll need to assemble the space station China plans to build by 2020. Reports from earlier this year suggested that the Tiangong-1 will be converted to taikonaut living quarters in the station, but more recent news indicates that it will be primarily a testing device. For more details about China’s space station dreams, including scientific goals, questions about the military’s intentions, and more, check out our coverage here.
Image courtesy of Xinhua News Agency