System of Super-Earths Discovered Around A Nearby Star

By John Wenz | August 11, 2017 11:06 am
Astronomers still don't know what life might be like -- or if it could exist -- on planets near twice the size of our own. Would these worlds be toxic wastelands or ocean oases? (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames)

Astronomers still don’t know what life might be like — or if it could exist — on planets near twice the size of our own. Would these worlds be toxic wastelands or ocean oases?

If you look up at Earth’s night sky and find the constellation Cetus — it looks something like a sea monster — you might also notice a rather average looking star called Tau Ceti. It’s slightly smaller than our sun and sits just 12 light years from Earth.

Now, a new study suggests that the system has at least four planets, and two of them orbit on the edge of their habitable zones — the region where liquid surface water might exist. All four are likely super-Earths, and some could potentially even be as big as Neptune. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets

Canadians Are First to Sample Genetically Modified Salmon

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 10, 2017 4:05 pm
(Credit: Aristokrates/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Aristokrates/Shutterstock)

After a protracted fight, salmon have become the first genetically modified animal to be sold in stores.

The salmon, implanted with genes that boost their growth, come from the U.S.-based biotech firm AquaBounty Technologies, which has been attempting to gain regulatory approval for their product for some 25 years. Last week, AquaBounty announced it had indeed sold salmon fillets to customers in Canada after receiving regulatory approval in 2016, though it isn’t clear where they were sold.

They were approved here by the FDA in 2015 after extensive testing to ensure safety, a move that led almost immediately to a lawsuit against the regulatory agency on behalf of a consumer advocacy group. It has since blocked sales until guidelines for labeling can be established. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, top posts

CubeSats Have 1 Major Shortcoming, But Not for Long

By Bryce Tappan | August 10, 2017 3:49 pm


Over the past decade and a half, satellites the size of a toaster have opened up new possibilities for using space. Called CubeSats, these diminutive spacecraft offer several appealing virtues for scientific and national security missions and one major handicap—but a fix is on the way.

Built to a standard size of roughly 10 centimeters on each side, the featherweight CubeSats can be quickly developed and inexpensively launched, because they piggyback on rockets hauling bigger payloads into low Earth orbit. And they are adaptable: While orbiting, they can be reprogrammed from the ground. Traditional satellites can’t. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Oldest Gliding Mammals Shed Light on the History of Flight

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 9, 2017 3:30 pm
A reconstruction of the gliding mammals. (Credit: April I. Neander/UChicago)

A reconstruction of the gliding mammals. (Credit: April I. Neander/UChicago)

The oldest gliding mammals ever discovered are strengthening the case for taking to the skies.

Well, they couldn’t exactly soar like the eagles, but the two new species, discovered in China, at least sampled the aerial life. Both date to around 160 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, when mammals as a lineage were first getting off the ground — both metaphorically and literally. They’re not directly related to the gliders of today, however. Gliding instead seems to be advantageous enough that it has appeared several times throughout our evolutionary history. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: paleontology

A New Take on the Biodegradable Car

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 8, 2017 1:35 pm
The Lina biodegradable car. (Credit: Eindhoven University)

The Lina biodegradable car. (Credit: Eindhoven University)

A concept car in the Netherlands is constructed almost entirely of materials the grow in the soil.

Called “Lina,” the biodegradable car is the work of students at Eindhoven University of Technology and is composed mainly of sugar beet resin and flax. It weighs in at under 700 pounds and can reach a top speed of around 50 miles per hour. The four-seater runs on batteries and can go about 60 miles on a single charge, according to the university. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, top posts

Bronze Age Teens Ate Dogs to Become Men

By Bridget Alex | August 8, 2017 1:18 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Some 4,000 years ago in the Russian steppe, the relationship between man and dog was, you could say, complicated.

It seems in that time and place, as a rite of passage into manhood, teenage boys were sent to a ritual site to “transform” into dogs by eating their flesh.

This is the new interpretation, presented in an upcoming paper in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, of roasted and chopped bones from at least 64 dogs and wolves, found at the Bronze Age site of Krasnosamarskoe (Kras-no-sa-MAR-sko-yeh), north of the Caspian Sea in the Russian steppe.

Initiation rites, in which boys lived in the wild, acting like wolves and dogs, are described in ancient texts of Greek, Latin, Germanic, Celtic, Iranian, and Vedic Sanskrit—all Indo-European cultures that descended from the same ancestral group.

Dog- and wolf-themed initiations were “very widespread in Indo-European mythology,” says archaeologist David Anthony, who coauthored the study with Dorcas Brown, both of Hartwick College, New York. “This seems to be the first site where we have concrete evidence for the actual existence of this kind of practice.”

Moreover, finding a common Indo-European ritual of this age, in this region, adds support to a debated hypothesis: that Indo-European peoples originated on the Pontic-Caspian steppe and spread across Eurasia, aided by their invention of horse-drawn, wheeled vehicles.


Chopped Up Canids

The small settlement of Krasnosamarskoe held a cemetery and two or three buildings, inhabited 3,700-3,900 years ago by people of the Srubnaya culture, sedentary pastoralists of the steppe. Although Srubnaya people left no written records, some say they spoke an Indo-European language based on cultural and genetic similarities with other Indo-European groups.

Archaeologists from the U.S. and Russia excavated the site between 1995-2001, to investigate if, in addition to herding, the Srubnaya were also farming, as is the case with most sedentary people.

“We found no evidence for agriculture whatsoever,” says Anthony.


A dog skull with the common chopping patterns outlined. (Credit: David W. Anthony, Dorcas R. Brown)

What they did find was chopped dogs and wolves—a lot of them. Dozens of dogs and at least seven wolves comprised 40 percent of the animal bones at Krasnosamarskoe. Other Srubnaya sites had less than 3 percent canid.

“It was a surprise. It was anomalous,” says Anthony. He recalls thinking, “uh oh what does this mean?”

Butchered dogs are relatively rare from archaeological sites worldwide, according to Lidar Sapir-Hen, an animal bone specialist at Tel Aviv University, Israel, who was not involved in the study.

“If they are found they are usually buried complete…eating them is not a common practice,” says Sapir-Hen.

At Krasnosamarskoe, the dogs and wolves had been roasted, fileted and chopped into bit-sized, 1- to 3-inch pieces. Over the span of about two generations, the canids were killed predominately in winter, based on microscopic analysis of growth lines in their teeth formed annually during warm and cold seasons. Most of the dogs were old, between six and 12 years, and well treated in life; their bones showed few signs of trauma before they were sacrificed.

According to Anthony, “They were familiar pets.”

Cows, sheep and other animals at the site did not show these patterns. They were killed year-round, sometimes at young ages, and butchered less intensively. While other animals were chopped into eight to 23 pieces, the average dog ended up in 54 parts.

“Particularly the dog heads were chopped in a very standardized way with an axe, like somebody who has practiced and done it many times,” adds Anthony.

And over 70 percent of the dogs subjected to DNA analysis proved to be male, hinting the canids were involved in male initiation rites.

A Ritual Settlement

The dog remains caused archaeologists to reevaluate other unusual features of the site. For example, although the researchers did not find agricultural plants, they did identify wild ones with medicinal properties, such as Seseli, a sedative possibly given to animals or humans during the rituals.

With 27 graves, the site’s cemetery contained mostly children and only 4 complete adults — two males and two females. The adult men had unusual skeletal injuries caused by twisting to their knees, ankles, and lower backs.


One of the bone scatters under excavation. (Credit: David W. Anthony, Dorcas R. Brown)

Anthony thinks the adults represent two generations — two couples — of ritual specialists who lived at the site. And the injuries: “This is just speculative… but it might be related to shamanic dancing,” he says.

Based on the archaeological finds, researchers concluded that Krasnosamarskoe was a place where males went episodically, over many years, to eat dogs and wolves during rituals overseen by the site’s residents. But to understand the meaning of those rituals, Anthony and Brown reviewed the myths of many ancient and modern cultures.

“We start looking for explanations for a male-centered rite of passage in which they’re being symbolically transformed into dogs and wolves,” says Anthony.

There turned out to be plenty of examples in ancient Indo-European texts. These widespread sources discussed groups of adolescent boys, usually from elite families, who would spend a few years behaving like dogs or wolves in order to be initiated as warrior men.

During this period, the teens were permitted to “behave obnoxiously in many ways,” explains Michael Witzel, a scholar of Sanskrit and ancient mythology at Harvard University. “Use words they shouldn’t use…Take away cattle from their neighbors.”

The boys could raid, steal and have their way with women. They were landless, with no possessions aside from weapons. And they symbolically became dogs or wolves by assuming canid names, wearing skins and sometimes eating the animals.

Anthony and Brown propose that Krasnosamarskoe was the place where Srubnaya boys went to become dogs, to become men.

According to Witzel, “their evidence fits quite nicely,” with the ancient texts.

Regarding the dog remains, archaeologist Paula Wapnish-Hesse, says, they “present a pretty good range of arguments that are traditionally used for identifying ritual in animal bone collections.” An expert in ancient texts and animal bones, Wapnish-Hesse has analyzed the largest known dog cemetery, comprising more than 1,000 skeletons of mostly puppies, buried some 2,500 years ago at the site of Ashkelon, Israel.

Their attempt to extrapolate myths to a culture without written texts, is “a very ambitious bite,” she adds. “They’re going out on a limb and it’s good.”

However, some scholars disagree with the views that the Srubnaya culture belonged to Indo-European traditions, and that Indo-Europeans originated in the steppe. The main alternative hypothesis is that these cultures descend from early farmers of Anatolia, in present-day Turkey.

To this objection, Anthony and Brown respond, in the article, that Indo-European languages were spoken across much of Bronze Age Eurasia in this period and “therefore are ‘on the table’ as possible sources of information.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

Parasitic Worm Treatments Could Soon Be Legal in Germany

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 7, 2017 3:18 pm
A collection of helminth eggs seen under a microscope. (Credit: By Jarun Ontakrai/Shutterstock)

A collection of helminth eggs seen under a microscope. (Credit: By Jarun Ontakrai/Shutterstock)

In Germany, treatments for disease may entail adding a vial of parasitic worms to a meal or beverage.

The country’s food and consumer safety organization is set to weigh in on the relative merits of parasitic worms as a treatment for a range of autoimmune disorders. So called “helminthic therapies” have been slowly gaining ground in the past two decades or so, although the scientific evidence in favor of the treatment is mixed. Read More

With Gene Editing, Ants Could Be the New Model Organism

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 4, 2017 5:33 pm
(Credit: Irina Kozorog/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Irina Kozorog/Shutterstock)

An ant without a sense of smell is an ant that’s lost.

After creating ants that had been genetically modified to lack a sense of smell, scientists watched them wander away from their colonies, steal food, refuse to mate and fail to tend to eggs — antisocial behavior that contradicts the hive-mind mentality of most ant communities.

It’s likely not because of any sociopathic tendencies on the ant’s part, but because they’ve been effectively blinded. Ants use a suite of pheromones to communicate everything from the location of nearby food to when it’s time to mate, and without these important signals, they become wandering souls. Read More

MORE ABOUT: animals, CRISPR, genetics

How Scientists Are Saving The Dodo’s Pink Cousin

By Nayanah Siva | August 3, 2017 2:30 pm
A genetic rescue project has restored the pink pigeon population from just 12 remaining birds to over 400 today. (Vikash Tatayah/Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)

A genetic rescue project has restored the pink pigeon population from just 12 birds to over 400 today. (Vikash Tatayah/Mauritian Wildlife Foundation)

“Voldemort outlived Harry Potter,” Christelle Ferriere tells me as we walk around the small, uninhabited island of Ile aux Aigrettes, off the east coast of Mauritius. “Whoever bands them gets to name them,” she explains. Ferriere is a bird expert with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) and the fantastical beasts she was referring to are pink pigeons.

Pink pigeons are native only to Mauritius. And in 1990, the population was down to 12. These unique birds faced a fate similar to their extinct cousin, the dodo — the last sighting of which was reported in 1662.

But an intensive conservation project brought the pink pigeon population up to 400 within two decades, nearing the team’s goal of 600. “But getting those last 200 has not been easy,” says Vikash Tatyah, MWF’s conservation director. And there are still challenges ahead, he says.

Unlike the mainland, which is of volcanic origin, Ile aux Aigrettes is made of coral limestone. The island was declared a nature reserve in 1965. And today, 35 pink pigeons live here. You arrive by crossing glistening green-blue waters from the mainland. Stepping onto the island is like stepping back in time. Its area covers about 67 acres, but it’s still large enough to contain ghosts of several lost Mauritian species, including the infamous dodo. Yet this island is still full of hope.

Upon arriving, we are checked to ensure no unwanted seeds or guests have hitchhiked a ride that may disrupt the conservation work on the island. Like the dodo, one main cause for the pink pigeon’s decline is predators like rats and cats that steal eggs and fledglings. And even the wrong plant growing on the island could have a detrimental impact to the closely monitored habitat.

(Credit: Stephen Cussen)

The view of the main island of Mauritius from the islet of Ile aux Aigrettes. (Credit: Stephen Cussen)

There are no paths, you just have to watch your step — look out for coral embedded within the ground, hanging roots of ficus trees, untouched white ebony trees and newly planted endemic seedlings. Exotic birds call, native fruit bats hang, indigenous ornate day geckos scamper, and giant Aldabra tortoises, with names such as ‘the ghost’ and ‘big daddy,’ roam around. Conservationists have carefully considered every plant and animal on this island. That effort has led to the restoration of the forest and reintroduction of endangered species that had completely disappeared from the island.

Controversial Conservation

Not pink in the typical sense, their pale pink bodies and brown wings can make them look grayish at a distance. Their existence was once controversial. The initial project was led by Welsh biologist and conservationist Carl Jones, who was criticized for his methods, which included moving eggs from nests. Decades later, he has been hailed for bringing nine critically endangered species back to Mauritius, including the pink pigeon. He was awarded the Indianapolis Prize of conservation last year.

“Captive breeding means they took the pigeons, had them breed in captivity and let the parents rear the squabs, or even hand reared them,” explains Ferriere, referring to the baby pigeons. “Another method was cross fostering, which is when the eggs were incubated and squabs were reared by another species, Barbary doves.”

But there’s still work ahead. Forest quality is declining, Tatayah says, which affects how much food animals have. And pink pigeons are still up against a thriving predator population, as well as diseases and weak genetics.

To tackle some of these challenges, the team helps feed the endangered birds on the island. “Pink pigeons are fed maize and wheat every week,” Ferriere says.

(Credit: Stephen Cussen)

Careful restoration of the forest has allowed the reintroduction of endangered species like the pink pigeon. (Credit: Stephen Cussen)

Eggs in One Basket

The team is slowly releasing more and more sub populations of birds across Mauritius and its islets. Bird populations typically go through cyclical changes anyway, Tatayah says. “But to overcome this, the only thing we can do is to release pink pigeons in different locations across Mauritius.” They need to spread across, you would not want to put all your eggs in one basket, he says.

As was the case with the dodo, deforestation is still a real threat.

Mauritian forests — the good quality portion, anyway — are now just two percent of what existed back when the dodo was alive in the 15th century. So, until this habitat is carefully restored, pink pigeons and other precarious species will need a helping hand from bold conservationists.

And Voldemort.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

Scorpion Venom Has A Secret Ingredient: Acid

By John Wenz | August 3, 2017 12:31 pm
An emperor scorpion. (Credit: By Vova Shevchuk/Shutterstock)

An emperor scorpion. (Credit: By Vova Shevchuk/Shutterstock)

A scorpion’s sting doesn’t just impart venom — it uses a special acid to bring the pain.

In research published Wednesday in Science Advances, a team of researchers looked into why scorpion venom packs such a punch. The venom targets several pain receptors to warn away would-be predators, and it uses acid to make the sting all the more excruciating. Read More

MORE ABOUT: animals


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