Scientists have discovered a new ant species from the Philippines and named it the ‘pirate ant’ because of a distinctive dark stripe across its eyes that resemble a pirate eye patch.
Cardiocondyla pirata or the pirate ant has a bizarre pigmentation pattern in its eyes.
The female castes in the colonies of these species can be recognised by the dark stripe across the eyes that resembles a pirate eye patch, which inspired the authors to choose the name of the species.
“On a collection trip to the Philippines we looked for different species of the genus Cardiocondyla that is known for its astonishing morphological and behavioural diversity of male ants,” said researcher Sabine Frohschammer from Universitat Regensburg in Germany.
“Beside already known species we also detected a until then undiscovered species in the cleavage of big stones in a shady streambed.
“Due to the darkness of the rainforest and the translucent body parts of the tiny ants they were nearly invisible. Under bright light and a magnifier we detected the nice stripe across the eyes and therefore always referred to these species as ‘the pirates’,” Frohschammer said.
The adaptive significance of the extraordinary pigmentation pattern is still a mystery to scientists.
The poor vision and the fact that these ants mate in the dark exclude one of the most obvious hypotheses that the dark patch serve as a sign for sexual differentiation and thus a cue for recognition during mating.
A possible guess about the function of this bizarre pirate-like colouration pattern is that it serves as a tool to distract and confuse the enemy.
The combination of the dark stripes together with a rather translucent body when living could leave the impression in predators that the anterior and posterior body parts are in fact two separate objects.
An international team of scientists have revealed that a total of 14 different crocodile species existed and at least seven of them occupied the same area at the same time about five million years ago.
But today, the most diverse species of crocodile are found in northern South America and Southeast Asia. Though as many as six species of alligator and four true crocodiles exist today, no more than two or three ever live alongside one another at the same time.
The team behind the study was headed by paleontologists Marcelo Sanchez and Torsten Scheyer from the University of Zurich.
The deltas of the Amazonas and the Urumaco, a river on the Gulf of Venezuela that no longer exists, boasted an abundance of extremely diverse, highly specialized species of crocodile that has remained unparalleled ever since.
While studying the wealth of fossil crocodiles from the Miocene in the Urumaco region, the scientists discovered two new crocodile species: the Globidentosuchus brachyrostris, which belonged to the caiman family and had spherical teeth, and Crocodylus falconensis, a crocodile that the researchers assume grew up to well over four meters long.
As Sanchez and his team reveal, Venezuela’s fossils include all the families of crocodile species that still exist all over the world today: the Crocodylidae, the so-called true crocodiles; the Alligatoridae, which, besides the true alligators, also include caimans; and the Gavialidae, which are characterized by their extremely long, thin snouts and are only found in Southeast Asia nowadays.
On account of the species’ extremely different jaw shapes, the researchers are convinced that the different crocodilians were highly specialized feeders: With their pointed, slender snouts, the fossil gharials must have preyed on fish.
“Gharials occupied the niche in the habitat that was filled by dolphins after they became extinct,” Sanchez suspects.
With its spherical teeth, however, Globidentosuchus brachyrostris most likely specialized in shellfish, snails or crabs. And giant crocodiles, which grew up to 12 meters long, fed on turtles, giant rodents and smaller crocodiles.
“There were no predators back then in South America that could have hunted the three-meter-long turtles or giant rodents. Giant crocodiles occupied this very niche,” explained Scheyer.
The unusual variety of species in the coastal and brackish water regions of Urumaco and Amazonas came to an end around 5 million years ago when all the crocodile species died out.
The reason behind their extinction, however, was not temperature or climate changes – temperatures in the Caribbean remained stable around the Miocene/Pliocene boundary.
Instead, it was caused by a tectonic event: “The Andean uplift changed the courses of rivers. As a result, the Amazon River no longer drains into the Caribbean, but the considerably cooler Atlantic Ocean,” explained Sanchez.
With the destruction of the habitat, an entirely new fauna emerged that we know from the Orinoco and Amazon regions today. In the earlier Urumaco region, however, a very dry climate has prevailed ever since the Urumaco River dried up.
It is believed that the mighty T. rex may have thrashed its massive head from side to side to dismember prey, but a new study has shown that its smaller cousin Allosaurus was a more dexterous hunter and tugged at prey more like a modern-day falcon.
“Many people think of Allosaurus as a smaller and earlier version of T. rex, but our engineering analyses show that they were very different predators,” said Ohio University paleontologist Eric Snively, lead author of the new study.
Snively led a diverse team of Ohio University researchers, including experts in mechanical engineering, computer visualization and dinosaur anatomy. They started with a high-resolution cast of the five-foot-long skull plus neck of the 150-million-year-old predatory theropod dinosaur Allosaurus, one of the best known dinosaurs.
They CT-scanned the bones at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, which produced digital data that the authors could manipulate in a computer.
Snively and mechanical engineer John Cotton applied a specialized engineering analysis borrowed from robotics called multibody dynamics. This allowed the scientists to run sophisticated simulations of the head and neck movements Allosaurus made when attacking prey, stripping flesh from a carcass or even just looking around.
To figure out how Allosaurus de-fleshed a Stegosaurus, the team had to “re-flesh” Allosaurus. The anatomical structure of modern-day dinosaur relatives, such as birds and crocodilians, combined with tell-tale clues on the dinosaur bones, allowed Snively and anatomists Lawrence Witmer and Ryan Ridgely to build in neck and jaw muscles, air sinuses, the windpipe and other soft tissues into their Allosaurus 3D computer model.
A key finding was an unusually placed neck muscle called longissimus capitis superficialis. In most predatory dinosaurs, such as T. rex, which Snively studied previously, this muscle passed from the side of the neck to a bony wing on the outer back corners of the skull.
“This neck muscle acts like a rider pulling on the reins of a horse’s bridle. If the muscle on one side contracts, it would turn the head in that direction, but if the muscles on both sides pull, it pulls the head straight back,” explained Snively.
But the analysis of Allosaurus revealed that the longissimus muscle attached much lower on the skull, which, according to the engineering analyses, would have caused “head ventroflexion followed by retraction.”
“Allosaurus was uniquely equipped to drive its head down into prey, hold it there, and then pull the head straight up and back with the neck and body, tearing flesh from the carcass … kind of like how a power shovel or backhoe rips into the ground,” Snively said.
In the animal world, this same de-fleshing technique is used by small falcons, such as kestrels. Tyrannosaurs like T. rex, on the other hand, were engineered to use a grab-and-shake technique to tear off hunks of flesh, more like a crocodile.
But the team’s engineering analyses revealed a cost to T. rex’s feeding style: high rotational inertia. That large bony and toothy skull perched at the end of the neck made it hard for T. rex to speed up or slow down its head or to change its course as it swung its head around.
Allosaurus, however, had a relatively very light head, which the team discovered as they restored the soft tissues and air sinuses.
“Allosaurus, with its lighter head and neck, was like a skater who starts spinning with her arms tucked in,” said Snively, “whereas T. rex, with its massive head and neck and heavy teeth out front, was more like the skater with her arms fully extended … and holding bowling balls in her hands. She and the T. rex need a lot more muscle force to get going.”
The end result is that Allosaurus was a much more flexible hunter that could move its head and neck around relatively rapidly and with considerable control. That control, however, came at the cost of brute-force power, requiring a de-fleshing style that, like a falcon, recruited the whole neck and body to strip flesh from the bones.
Results of the new study have been published in Palaeontologia Electronica.
A new research has found evidence of a major cosmic event near the end of the Ice Age, which resulted in a climate change that forced many species, including woolly mammoths, to die.
Something – global-scale combustion caused by a comet scraping our planet’s atmosphere or a meteorite slamming into its surface – scorched the air, melted bedrock and altered the course of Earth’s history. Exactly what it was is unclear, but this event jump-started what Kenneth Tankersley, an assistant professor of anthropology and geology at the University of Cincinnati, calls the last gasp of the last ice age.
“Imagine living in a time when you look outside and there are elephants walking around in Cincinnati. But by the time you’re at the end of your years, there are no more elephants. It happens within your lifetime,” Tankersley said.
Tankersley explained what he and a team of international researchers found might have caused this catastrophic event in Earth’s history in their research.
This research might indicate that it wasn’t the cosmic collision that extinguished the mammoths and other species, Tankersley said, but the drastic change to their environment.
Tankersley found a treasure trove of answers to some of those questions in Sheriden Cave in Wyandot County, Ohio. It’s in that spot, 100 feet below the surface, where Tankersley has been studying geological layers that date to the Younger Dryas time period, about 13,000 years ago.
In studying this layer, Tankersley found ample evidence to support the theory that something came close enough to Earth to melt rock and produce other interesting geological phenomena. Foremost among the findings were carbon spherules. These tiny bits of carbon are formed when substances are burned at very high temperatures.
Tankersley said the ones in his study could only have been formed from the combustion of rock.
The spherules also were found at 17 other sites across four continents – an estimated 10 million metric tons’ worth – further supporting the idea that whatever changed Earth did so on a massive scale. It’s unlikely that a wildfire or thunderstorm would leave a geological calling card that immense – covering about 50 million square kilometres.
Other important findings include:
Micrometeorites: smaller pieces of meteorites or particles of cosmic dust that have made contact with the Earth’s surface.
Nano-diamonds: microscopic diamonds formed when a carbon source is subjected to an extreme impact, often found in meteorite craters.
Lonsdaleite: a rare type of diamond, also called a hexagonal diamond, only found in non-terrestrial areas such as meteorite craters.
Tankersley said while the cosmic strike had an immediate and deadly effect, the long-term side effects were far more devastating – similar to Krakatoa’s aftermath but many times worse – making it unique in modern human history.
In the cataclysm’s wake, toxic gas poisoned the air and clouded the sky, causing temperatures to plummet. The roiling climate challenged the existence of plant and animal populations, and it produced what Tankersley has classified as “winners” and “losers” of the Younger Dryas.
He stated that inhabitants of this time period had three choices: relocate to another environment where they could make a similar living; downsize or adjust their way of living to fit the current surroundings; or swiftly go extinct. “Winners” chose one of the first two options while “losers,” such as the woolly mammoth, took the last.
“Whatever this was, it did not cause the extinctions. Rather, this likely caused climate change. And climate change forced this scenario: You can move, downsize or you can go extinct,” said Tankersley.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A scientist has named an ancient extinct creature with ‘scissor hand-like’ claws, which he discovered in fossil records, in honour of his favourite movie star Johnny Depp.
The 505 million year old fossil called Kooteninchela deppi (pronounced Koo-ten-ee-che-la depp-eye), which is a distant ancestor of lobsters and scorpions, was named after the actor for his starring role as Edward Scissorhands – a movie about an artificial man named Edward, an unfinished creation, who has scissors for hands.
Kooteninchela deppi is helping researchers to piece together more information about life on Earth during the Cambrian period when nearly all modern animal types emerged.
David Legg carried out the research as part of his PhD in the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London.
“When I first saw the pair of isolated claws in the fossil records of this species I could not help but think of Edward Scissorhands. Even the genus name, Kootenichela, includes the reference to this film as ‘chela’ is Latin for claws or scissors. In truth, I am also a bit of a Depp fan and so what better way to honour the man than to immortalise him as an ancient creature that once roamed the sea?” he said.
Edward Scissorhands and Kooteninchela deppi
Kooteninchela deppi lived in very shallow seas, similar to modern coastal environments, off the cost of British Columbia in Canada, which was situated much closer to the equator 500 million years ago. The sea temperature would have been much hotter than it is today and although coral reefs had not yet been established, Kooteninchela deppi would have lived in a similar environment consisting of sponges.
The researcher believes that Kooteninchela deppi would have been a hunter or scavenger. Its large Edward Scissorhands-like claws with their elongated spines may have been used to capture prey, or they could have helped it to probe the sea floor looking for sea creatures hiding in sediment.
Kooteninchela deppi was approximately four centimetres long with an elongated trunk for a body and millipede-like legs, which it used to scuttle along the sea floor with the occasional short swim.
It also had large eyes composed of many lenses like the compound eyes of a fly. They were positioned on top of movable stalks called peduncles to help it more easily search for food and look out for predators.
The researcher discovered that Kooteninchela deppi belongs to a group known as the ‘great-appendage’ arthropods, or megacheirans, which refers to the enlarged pincer-like frontal claws that they share.
The ‘great-appendage’ arthropods are an early relation of arthropods, which includes spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, insects and crabs.
Canadian astronaut and outgoing International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield has recorded the first music video in space while floating in zero gravity, strumming an acoustic guitar and crooning his own rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as a special farewell before heading back to Earth.
The lyrics – tweaked a bit here and there – are particularly fitting:
“Ground control to Major Tom Lock your Soyuz hatch and put your helmet on Ground control to Major Tom Commencing countdown, engines on Detach from station and may God’s love be with you”
Hadfield launched from Kazakhstan as part of Expedition 35 Dec 19, 2012, and took command of the ISS March 13. Since then, he has found time to tweet to more than 800,000 followers, share photos of the galaxy, and wow fans with cool videos of playing guitar and cooking spinach in space.
His video of wringing out a washcloth in zero gravity quickly went viral, netting more than five million views in the days after it was posted.
In short, he made space travel cool.
He tweeted about the video in announcing its release Sunday. And got a reply from Bowie a short while later.
Hadfield turned over control of the space station to Russian Pavel Vinogradov Sunday, and is scheduled to return to Earth and land in Kazakhstan.
“Who’d have thought that five months away from the planet would you make you feel closer to people,” Hadfield said in a video about his journey.
A team at Tel Aviv University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has just discovered an exoplanet using a new method that relies on Einstein’s special theory of relativity.
“We are looking for very subtle effects. We needed high quality measurements of stellar brightnesses, accurate to a few parts per million,” said team member David Latham of the CfA.
“This was only possible because of the exquisite data NASA is collecting with the Kepler spacecraft,” added lead author Simchon Faigler of Tel Aviv University, Israel.
The two most prolific techniques for finding exoplanets are radial velocity (looking for wobbling stars) and transits (looking for dimming stars).
Although Kepler was designed to find transiting planets, this planet was not identified using the transit method. Instead, it was discovered using a technique first proposed by Avi Loeb of the CfA and his colleague Scott Gaudi (now at Ohio State University) in 2003. (Coincidentally, they developed their theory while visiting the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Einstein once worked.)
The new method looks for three small effects that occur simultaneously as a planet orbits the star. Einstein’s “beaming” effect causes the star to brighten as it moves toward us, tugged by the planet, and dim as it moves away. The brightening results from photons “piling up” in energy, as well as light getting focused in the direction of the star’s motion due to relativistic effects.
Kepler-76b: Grazing Transit Path. Image credit: Dood Evan
“This is the first time that this aspect of Einstein’s theory of relativity has been used to discover a planet,” said co-author Tsevi Mazeh of Tel Aviv University.
The team also looked for signs that the star was stretched into a football shape by gravitational tides from the orbiting planet. The star would appear brighter when we observe the “football” from the side, due to more visible surface area, and fainter when viewed end-on. The third small effect was due to starlight reflected by the planet itself.
Once the new planet was identified, it was confirmed by Latham using radial velocity observations gathered by the TRES spectrograph at Whipple Observatory in Arizona, and by Lev Tal-Or (Tel Aviv University) using the SOPHIE spectrograph at the Haute-Provence Observatory in France. A closer look at the Kepler data also showed that the planet transits its star, providing additional confirmation.
“Einstein’s planet,” formally known as Kepler-76b, is a “hot Jupiter” that orbits its star every 1.5 days. Its diameter is about 25 percent larger than Jupiter and it weighs twice as much. It orbits a type F star located about 2,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.
The planet is tidally locked to its star, always showing the same face to it, just as the Moon is tidally locked to Earth. As a result, Kepler-76b broils at a temperature of about 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
Interestingly, the team found strong evidence that the planet has extremely fast jet-stream winds that carry the heat around it. As a result, the hottest point on Kepler-76b isn’t the substellar point (“high noon”) but a location offset by about 10,000 miles. This effect has only been observed once before, on HD 189733b, and only in infrared light with the Spitzer Space Telescope. This is the first time optical observations have shown evidence of alien jet stream winds at work.
Although the new method can’t find Earth-sized worlds using current technology, it offers astronomers a unique discovery opportunity. Unlike radial velocity searches, it doesn’t require high-precision spectra. Unlike transits, it doesn’t require a precise alignment of planet and star as seen from Earth.
“Each planet-hunting technique has its strengths and weaknesses. And each novel technique we add to the arsenal allows us to probe planets in new regimes,” said CfA’s Avi Loeb.
Kepler-76b was identified by the BEER algorithm, whose acronym stands for relativistic BEaming, Ellipsoidal, and Reflection/emission modulations. BEER was developed by Professor Tsevi Mazeh and his student, Simchon Faigler, at Tel Aviv University, Israel.
The paper announcing this discovery has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.
Researchers believe study of early human fossil ear bones could shed new light on the earliest existence of humans.
A new study led by Binghamton University anthropologist Rolf Quam analyzed the tiny ear bones, the malleus, incus and stapes, from two species of early human ancestor in South Africa. The ear ossicles are the smallest bones in the human body and are among the rarest of human fossils recovered.
Unlike other bones of the skeleton, the ossicles are already fully formed and adult-sized at birth. This indicates that their size and shape is under very strong genetic control and, despite their small size, they hold a wealth of evolutionary information.
The international team of researchers from institutions in the US, Italy and Spain, analyzed several auditory ossicles representing the early hominin species Paranthropus robustus and Australopithecus africanus. The new study includes the oldest complete ossicular chain (i.e. all three ear bones) of a fossil hominin ever recovered.
The bones date to around two million years ago and come from the well-known South African cave sites of Swartkrans and Sterkfontein, which have yielded abundant fossils of these early human ancestors.
The researchers report several significant findings from the study. The malleus is clearly human-like, and its size and shape can be easily distinguished from our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.
Many aspects of the skull, teeth and skeleton in these early human ancestors remain quite primitive and ape-like, but the malleus is one of the very few features of these early hominins that is similar to our own species, Homo sapiens.
Since both the early hominin species share this human-like malleus, the anatomical changes in this bone must have occurred very early in our evolutionary history.
Quam said “Bipedalism (walking on two feet) and a reduction in the size of the canine teeth have long been held up as the “hallmark of humanity” since they seem to be present in the earliest human fossils recovered to date. Our study suggests that the list may need to be updated to include changes in the malleus as well.”
More fossils from even earlier time periods are needed to corroborate this assertion, asserted Quam.
In contrast to the malleus, the two other ear ossicles, the incus and stapes, appear more similar to chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. The ossicles, then, show an interesting mixture of ape-like and human-like features.
The anatomical differences from humans found in the ossicles, along with other differences in the outer, middle and inner ear, are consistent with different hearing capacities in these early hominin taxa compared to modern humans.
Although the current study does not demonstrate this conclusively, the team plans on studying the functional aspects of the ear in these early hominins relying on 3D virtual reconstructions based on high resolution CT scans.
The team has already applied this approach previously to the 500,000 year-old human fossils from the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain. The fossils from this site represent the ancestors of the Neandertals, but the results suggested their hearing pattern already resembled Homo sapiens. Extending this type of analysis to Australopithecus and Paranthropus should provide new insight into when our modern human pattern of hearing may have evolved.
The study has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Archaeologists have found a mosaic dating back around 1,500 years in an area in the northern part of Be’er Sheva, the largest city in the Negev desert of southern Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authority said.
“The well-preserved mosaic is decorated with geometric patterns and its corners are enhanced with amphorae (jars used to transport wine), a pair of peacocks, and a pair of doves pecking at grapes on a tendril. These are common designs that are known from this period; however, what makes this mosaic unique is the large number of motifs that were incorporated in one carpet,” the authority said.
The colourful mosaic, which dates back to the Byzantine period, was discovered in the fields of Kibbutz Bet Qama, the authority said in a statement.
“The main building at the site was a large hall 12 meters long by 8.5 meters wide and its ceiling was apparently covered with roof tiles. The hall’s impressive opening and the breathtaking mosaic that adorns its floor suggest that the structure was a public building,” the authority said.
1,500-year-old mosaic found at an archaeological site in Kibbutz Bet Qama, Israel. Image credit: Yael Yolovitch
Archaeologists said the site would have required extensive resources to develop at the time it was built.
“The site, which was located along an ancient road that ran north from Be’er Sheva, seems to have consisted of a large estate that included a church, residential buildings and storerooms, a large cistern, a public building and pools surrounded by farmland. Presumably, one of the structures served as an inn for travellers who visited the place,” the authority said.
The estate was located between Jewish and Christian settlements.
Baylor University researchers have found the earliest archaeological evidence of human hunting and scavenging.
Beginning around two million years ago, early stone tool-making humans, known scientifically as Oldowan hominin, started to exhibit a number of physiological and ecological adaptations that required greater daily energy expenditures, including an increase in brain and body size, heavier investment in their offspring and significant home-range expansion.
Demonstrating how these early humans acquired the extra energy they needed to sustain these shifts has been the subject of much debate among researchers.
The recent study led by Joseph Ferraro, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology at Baylor, offers new insight in this debate with a wealth of archaeological evidence from the two million-year-old site of Kanjera South (KJS), Kenya.
“Considered in total, this study provides important early archaeological evidence for meat eating, hunting and scavenging behaviors -cornerstone adaptations that likely facilitated brain expansion in human evolution, movement of hominins out of Africa and into Eurasia, as well as important shifts in our social behavior, anatomy and physiology,” Ferraro said.
Located on the shores of Lake Victoria, KJS contains “three large, well-preserved, stratified” layers of animal remains. The research team worked at the site for more than a decade, recovering thousands of animal bones and rudimentary stone tools.
According to researchers, hominins at KJS met their new energy requirements through an increased reliance on meat eating. Specifically, the archaeological record at KJS shows that hominins acquired an abundance of nutritious animal remains through a combination of both hunting and scavenging behaviors. The KJS site is the earliest known archaeological evidence of these behaviors.
“Our study helps inform the ‘hunting vs. scavenging’ debate in Paleolithic archaeology. The record at KJS shows that it isn’t a case of either/or for Oldowan hominins two million years ago. Rather hominins at KJS were clearly doing both,” Ferraro said.
The fossil evidence for hominin hunting is particularly compelling. The record shows that Oldowan hominins acquired and butchered numerous small antelope carcasses. These animals are well represented at the site by most or all of their bones from the tops of their head to the tips of their hooves, indicating to researchers that they were transported to the site as whole carcasses.
Many of the bones also show evidence of cut marks made when hominins used simple stone tools to remove animal flesh. Some bones also bear evidence that hominins used fist-sized stones to break them open to acquire bone marrow.
In addition, modern studies in the Serengeti-an environment similar to KJS two million years ago-have also shown that predators completely devour antelopes of this size within minutes of their deaths. As a result, hominins could only have acquired these valuable remains on the savanna through active hunting.
The site also contains a large number of isolated heads of wildebeest-sized antelopes. In contrast to small antelope carcasses, the heads of these somewhat larger individuals are able to be consumed several days after death and could be scavenged, as even the largest African predators like lions and hyenas were unable to break them open to access their nutrient-rich brains.
“Tool-wielding hominins at KJS, on the other hand, could access this tissue and likely did so by scavenging these heads after the initial non-human hunters had consumed the rest of the carcass,” Ferraro said.
“KJS hominins not only scavenged these head remains, they also transported them some distance to the archaeological site before breaking them open and consuming the brains. This is important because it provides the earliest archaeological evidence of this type of resource transport behavior in the human lineage.”
The study’s findings were recently published in PLOS One.
Scientists have confirmed that the Justinianic Plague of the sixth to eighth centuries was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.
This pandemic, named after the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, killed more than 100 million people. Some historians have even suggested it contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.
From the several pandemics generally called ‘pestilences’ three are historically recognized as due to plague, but only for the third pandemic of the 19th-21st centuries AD there were microbiological evidences that the causing agent was the bacterium Yersinia pestis .
“For a long time scholars from different disciplines have intensively discussed about the actual etiological agents of the past pandemics. Only ancient DNA analyses carried out on skeletal remains of plague victims could finally conclude the debate”, said Dr. Barbara Bramanti of the Palaeogenetics Group at the Institute of Anthropology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).
About two years ago, she headed the international team that demonstrated beyond any doubt that Y. pestis also caused the second pandemic of the 14th-17th centuries including the Black Death, the infamous epidemic that ravaged Europe from 1346-1351.
Bramanti and her Mainz colleague Stephanie Hansch now cooperated with the University of Munich, the German Bundeswehr, and international scholars to solve the debate as to whether Y. pestis caused the so-called Justinianic Plague of the 6th-8th centuries AD.
The results of ancient DNA analyses carried out on the early medieval cemetery of Aschheim in Bavaria confirmed unambiguously that Y. pestis was indeed the causing agent of the first pandemic, in contrast to what has been postulated by other scientists recently.
This revolutionary result is supported by the analysis of the genotype of the ancient strain, which provide information about the phylogeny, and the place of origin of this plague. As for the second and third pandemic, the original sources of the plague bacillus were in Asia.
“It remains questionable whether at the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian only one strain or more were disseminated in Europe, as it was at the time of the Black Death,” suggested Bramanti and Hansch.
To further investigate this and other open questions about the modalities and route of transmission of the medieval plagues, Bramanti has recently obtained an ERC Advanced Grant for the project “The medieval plagues: ecology, transmission modalities and routes of the infection” (MedPlag) and will move to the Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES) at the University of Oslo in Norway.
The CEES, chaired by Nils Chr. Stenseth, has an outstanding and rewarded record of excellence in the research on infectious diseases and in particular on Y. pestis.
The results of their study were published last week in PloS Pathogens.
The NASA/ ESA Hubble Space Telescope has found signs of Earth-like planets in the atmospheres of a pair of burnt-out stars in a nearby star cluster.
The white dwarf stars are being polluted by debris from asteroid-like objects falling onto them.
This discovery suggests that rocky planet assembly is common in clusters, researchers said.
The stars, known as white dwarfs-small, dim remnants of stars once like the Sun-reside 150 light-years away in the Hyades star cluster, in the constellation of Taurus (The Bull). The cluster is relatively young, at only 625 million years old.
Astronomers believe that all stars formed in clusters.
However, searches for planets in these clusters have not been fruitful-of the roughly 800 exoplanets known, only four are known to orbit stars in clusters.
This scarcity may be due to the nature of the cluster stars, which are young and active, producing stellar flares and other outbursts that make it difficult to study them in detail.
A new study led by Jay Farihi of the University of Cambridge, UK, instead observed “retired” cluster stars to hunt for signs of planet formation.
This illustration is an artist’s impression of the thin, rocky debris disc discovered around the two Hyades white dwarfs. Image credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, and G. Bacon (STScI)
Hubble’s spectroscopic observations identified silicon in the atmospheres of two white dwarfs, a major ingredient of the rocky material that forms Earth and other terrestrial planets in the solar system.
This silicon may have come from asteroids that were shredded by the white dwarfs’ gravity when they veered too close to the stars.
The rocky debris likely formed a ring around the dead stars, which then funneled the material inwards.
The debris detected whirling around the white dwarfs suggests that terrestrial planets formed when these stars were born.
After the stars collapsed to form white dwarfs, surviving gas giant planets may have gravitationally nudged members of any leftover asteroid belts into star-grazing orbits.
“We have identified chemical evidence for the building blocks of rocky planets,” Farihi said.
“When these stars were born, they built planets, and there’s a good chance that they currently retain some of them. The signs of rocky debris we are seeing are evidence of this-it is at least as rocky as the most primitive terrestrial bodies in our solar system,” he said.
Besides finding silicon in the Hyades stars’ atmospheres, Hubble also detected low levels of carbon. This is another sign of the rocky nature of the debris, as astronomers know that carbon levels should be very low in rocky, Earth-like material.
Finding its faint chemical signature required Hubble’s powerful Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), as carbon’s fingerprints can be detected only in ultraviolet light, which cannot be observed from ground-based telescopes.
“The one thing the white dwarf pollution technique gives us that we won’t get with any other planet detection technique is the chemistry of solid planets,” Farihi said.
“Based on the silicon-to-carbon ratio in our study, for example, we can actually say that this material is basically Earth-like,” he added.
A bizarre 12-centimetre-long skeleton found in a pouch in a ghost town in the Atacama Desert of Chile ten years ago has confused scientists and UFO enthusiasts.
The diminutive skeleton, named Ata, is shown in a new documentary on UFOs titled ‘ Sirius’.
The skeleton ended up in a private collection in Barcelona; and producers of the documentary latched onto the bizarre mummy as evidence of alien life.
Among the apparent abnormalities, that the skeleton sports are 10 ribs instead of the usual 12 and a severely misshapen skull.
To study the specimen, immunologist Garry Nolan, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Proteomics Centre for Systems Immunology at Stanford in California, sought clues in it’s genome.
He initially presumed that the specimen was tens or hundreds of thousands of years old, so he consulted experts who had extracted DNA from bones of the Denisovans, an Asian relative of European Stone Age Neandertals but it turned out that the DNA was modern, abundant, and high quality, indicating that the specimen is probably a few decades old.
To much chagrin of UFO hunters, Ata is decidedly of this world, after mapping more than 500 million reads to a reference human genome, equating to 17.7-fold coverage of the genome, Nolan concluded that the specimen’s B2 haplotype-a category of mitochondrial DNA – reveals that its mother was from west coast of South America, Chile that is, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
After examining X-rays, paediatric radiologist Ralph Lachman, co-director of the International Skeletal Dysplasia Registry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, concluded that the skeletal development, based on the density of the epiphyseal plates of the knees (growth plates at the end of long bones found only in children), surprisingly seemed to be equivalent to that of a six- to eight-year-old kid.
If that holds up, there are two possibilities, Nolan said, one, a long shot, is that Ata had a severe form of dwarfism, and was actually born as a tiny human, and lived until that calendar age.
The second possibility is that Ata, the size of a 22-week-old foetus, was suffering from a severe form of a rare rapid ageing disease, progeria, and died in the womb or after premature birth.
Another possibility is a teratogen, which is a birth defect-inducing toxicant along the lines of thalidomide.
Nolan is planning to analyse tissue using mass spectrometry to look for toxicants or metabolites. But reports of a handful of other similar-sized skeletons from Russia and elsewhere has him leaning toward a genetic explanation.
William Jungers, a palaeoanthropologist and anatomist at Stony Brook University Medical Centre in New York, said that this looks to him like a badly desiccated and mummified human foetus or premature stillbirth. He noted that “barely ossified and immature elements” of the hands and feet, and the wide open metopic suture, where the two frontal bones of the skull come together down the middle of the forehead.
Nolan said that the number of ribs and epiphyseal plate densities remain a riddle; while he is open to the foetus hypothesis, he thinks that the jury is still out.
The study has been published in ScienceNOW, the online daily news service of the journal Science.
Scientists have unveiled the ‘super-language’ used by our Ice-Age ancestors to communicate in Europe 15,000 years ago.
New research from the University of Reading shows that Ice Age people living in Europe might have used forms of some common words including I, you, we, man and bark, that in some cases could still be recognised today.
Using statistical models, Professor of Evolutionary Biology Mark Pagel and his team predicted that certain words would have changed so slowly over long periods of time as to retain traces of their ancestry for up to ten thousand or more years.
These words point to the existence of a linguistic super-family tree that unites seven major language families of Eurasia.
Previously linguists have relied solely on studying shared sounds among words to identify those that are likely to be derived from common ancestral words, such as the Latin pater and the English father.
A difficulty with this approach is that two words might have similar sounds just by accident, such as the words team and cream.
To combat this problem, Pagel’s team showed that a subset of words used frequently in everyday speech, are more likely to be retained over long periods of time.
The team used this method to predict words likely to have shared sounds, giving greater confidence that when such sound similarities are discovered they do not merely reflect the workings of chance.
“The way in which we use a certain set of words in everyday speech is something common to all human languages. We discovered numerals, pronouns and special adverbs are replaced far more slowly, with linguistic half-lives of once every 10,000 or even more years,” Pagel, from the University of Reading’s School of Biological Sciences, said.
“As a rule of thumb, words used more than about once per thousand in everyday speech were seven to ten times more likely to show deep ancestry in the Eurasian super-family,” Pagel said.
Pagel’s previous research on the evolution of human languages has built up a picture of how our 7,000 living human languages have evolved.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.