The Mystery Of Alaska’s Sea Otter Deaths Continue To Baffle Scientists

An unusually high number of sick or dying sea otters has washed onto the shores of Alaska’s southern coast this year. But despite the efforts of many baffled scientists to find an answer, the exact cause of the die-off remains unknown.

More than 250 sick or dead sea otters have turned up on beaches in the Kachemak Bay region this year. Joel Garlich-Miller, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told Hakai Magazine that this number is more than double 2014’s — which had already been a “higher than average” figure.

Based on the symptoms of the otters that have been found, scientists believe something peculiar may be plaguing the animals. Preliminary tests suggest that toxins from harmful algal blooms and infections caused by bacteria might be contributing to the otter deaths; but given the spike in morbidity, another as-yet-unknown factor is also suspected.

“Something is hitting them harder and faster, in addition to the disease that we’re familiar with seeing, something else seems to be involved,” Marc Webber of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told Alaska Public Media last month. “That’s just speculation, we don’t have any evidence yet, but that’s what we’re seeing on the beach.”

Compounding this mystery, reports say that while some dead otters were found emaciated, indicative of a long illness; some of them appear to have died suddenly at a healthy weight, which is “even more curious,”Alaska SeaLife Center veterinarian Carrie Goertz told Hakai Magazine.

These seemingly healthy otters act paralyzed, or “seize” up just before death, reports Homer News.

Kachemak Bay is home to about 6,000 sea otters. Since the marine mammals play a critical role in their ecosystems, experts say the mass die-off is likely a sign that the entire ecosystem is being impacted by something —> Read More

New study finds that teaching is not essential for people to learn to make effective tools

A new study from the University of Exeter has found that teaching is not essential for people to learn to make effective tools. The results counter established views about how human tools and technologies come to improve from generation to generation and point to an explanation for the extraordinary success of humans as a species. The study reveals that although teaching is useful, it is not essential for cultural progress because people can use reasoning and reverse engineering of existing items to work out how to make tools. —> Read More

Weekend Roundup: Now It’s NATO vs. NATO (New Anti-Terror Organization)

The Turkish downing of a Russian jet that crossed into its territory while bombing targets in Syria complicates even further the play of contraries in an already bewildering set of Mideast conflicts. The episode introduces a fresh tension that could well pit NATO, of which Turkey is a member, against what Gopalkrishna Gandhi calls a fledgling new NATO, or New Anti-Terror Organization, that French President François Hollande is trying to organize globally in the wake of the Paris attacks. Hollande meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week.

Oxford Chancellor Chris Patten endorses Hollande’s approach, calling for a broad effort that includes the U.S., Russia, China and the United Nations to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Writing from Moscow, Fyodor Lukyanov argues that, after Paris, perhaps the West now sees the sense in Russia’s Mideast strategy to save the Syrian state and says in a separate article that the new clash between Turkey and Russia should not derail an “ad hoc coalition” against terrorism. From the Turkish side, a source closely involved at the top levels there over recent years tells the WorldPost: “Turkey is trying to say: you can’t simply ignore me. I am here, I am assuming a huge burden vis-à-vis the refugees and I have already paid a high cost for fighting this war, so I may create serious disturbances if and when I want to prevent a Russian-U.S. rapprochement over fighting ISIS that departs from the priority of ousting Assad.” WorldPost Middle East Correspondent Sophia Jones writes from Istanbul that Putin has charged Turkey with “supporting ISIS” by shooting down his warplane.

As if all this were not ominous enough, Joe Cirincione worries that, with Russia’s recent announcement of a devastating new —> Read More

Homo Naledi may be Two Million Years Old (Give or Take)

Francis Thackeray, University of the Witwatersrand

There has been global interest in the announcement of new fossils from a cave called Rising Star in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa.

These fossils were recently reported by Lee Berger and his team, who described the discovery of more than 1500 fossils as representing a new species of the genus Homo. It has been called Homo naledi, associated with a name for star in the Sesotho language.

But the age of Homo naledi is not yet known with certainty. The new species has not yet been dated. Unsuccessful attempts had been made by Paul Dirks and members of the Rising Star team to obtain an age. They used techniques applied previously to date a range of fossils. These included Australopithecus africanus, such as the famous “Mrs Ples” skull, as more than two million years old, and fossils of Paranthropus robustus and Homo erectus.

In a new paper in the South African Journal of Science I suggest that Homo naledi lived two million years ago (plus or minus 500,000 years). If shown to be correct, this will help to place Homo naledi in the family tree of human relatives.

The variance is based on the fact that the earliest date for Homo rudolfensis is about 2.5 million years, and the date for certain African Homo erectus samples is about 1.5 million years.

Although different, Homo naledi is most similar to fossils attributed to Homo habilis (about 1.8 million years old), and to a lesser extent to fossils of Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus.

Taken together I am suggesting that Homo naledi is in the order of two million years old, with upper and lower limits of about 1.5 and 2.5 million years respectively.

Why is dating so important

Estimating —> Read More

First Mirror Installed on NASA’s Webb Telescope, Final Assembly Phase Starts

The James Webb Space Telescope team successfully installed the first flight mirror onto the telescope structure at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

The James Webb Space Telescope team successfully installed the first flight mirror onto the telescope structure at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

After years of construction, the first of 18 primary flight mirrors has been installed onto NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, signifying the start of the final assembly phase for the mammoth observatory that will eventually become the most powerful telescope ever sent to space.

The milestone first mirror installation was achieved this week just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday as the engineering team, working inside the massive clean room at NASA Goddard, used a robotic arm to precisely lift and lower the gold coated mirror into place on the observatory’s critical mirror holding backplane assembly.

Each of the 18 hexagonal-shaped primary mirror segments (…)
Read the rest of First Mirror Installed on NASA’s Webb Telescope, Final Assembly Phase Starts (946 words)

© Ken Kremer for Universe Today, 2015. |
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