Ancient Human Fossil Hiding in Plain Sight.
It sat in the laboratory building at the Maropeng Center in Gauteng, South Africa, for years, virtually unnoticed. Then, a lab technician noticed what looked like a tooth sticking out of the three foot wide boulder. What was hiding inside the boulder turns out to be one of the most complete fossil skeletons of Australopithecus sediba, a 2-million year old branch on the human family tree. Among the treasures that lay inside the rock, as shown by CT scans, are rib bones, which usually disintegrate before fossilizing and possibly hand and foot bones. The extraction of the fossilized bones will be broadcast live over the internet.
More at National Geographic.
Genetically Engineered Apple Doesn’t Turn Brown.
A new kind of apple, the Arctic Apple, is trying to make an entry into the domestic fruit market. Scientists have tinkered with the apple’s genetics and have produced a version that does not turn brown when bruised or sliced open and exposed to the air. However, the new entry is not being received lovingly by the apple industry. Opposition is not based upon any fear of a health danger, but is grounded in fears that the new product will dilute the apple’s traditional image as an unmodified American classic. Perhaps a more significant objection is the possibility that the apple will cross-pollinate with traditional apple species, a likelihood that the makers of the Arctic apple say is remote.
More at the New York Times.
Whales Can Learn to Decrease Hearing Sensitivity.
Manmade noise, be it Navy sonar or industrial drilling, fills the oceans with loud sounds that travel hundreds of miles. The effects on sea life, especially hearing sensitive marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, has been dramatic. Hearing loss and deafness has been known to affect huge numbers of animals. New research, however, as reported in the New York Times, shows that at least whales may be able develop the ability to partially block out such sounds by selectively decreasing their hearing sensitivity. The findings are important because hearing loss in sea mammals is especially serious since these creatures rely so heavily upon their acute sense of hearing to navigate and find food.
A Formula to Count the Species on Earth.
Camilo Mora is a young biodiversity researcher at the University of Hawaii. Using natural mathematical patterns, he has developed a mathematical formula to count the number of species on earth. His formula suggests that there are 8.7 million complex cellular (which excludes viruses and some other microbes) species on earth. It is estimated that around 15,000 new species are discovered each year. However, the bad news is that around 25,000 species become extinct each year; obviously, many before they are ever discovered. Mora is passionate about preserving biodiversity, and he will next apply his counting technique to local areas so that we can know just how many species a specific area on earth contains.
More at Pacific Standard.
Mother Dolphin Photographed Carrying Dead Calf.
Chinese tourists witnessed what is being described as another piece of evidence that dolphins do in fact grieve. The photos show a mother dolphin who is carrying her dead calf on her back out to sea. The calf was apparently hit by a tourist boat — an all too common occurrence. According to observers, even though the calf slid off her back several times, the mother dove back under and raised it up again.
More at Huffington Post.
Lucky French Cows Get Two Bottles a Day.
The Japanese feed their cows beer to improve beef taste and texture. The French have decided to take a different tact. Inspired by the notion that happy cows produce better beef, French farmers have been giving their cows the equivalent of two bottles of wine a day and have called the resulting beef, “Vinbouvin.” Although the cows may well be happier now and eat with vigor, it appears that the high cost of this approach might make it cost prohibitive. In fact, the cost of feeding cows wine has tripled the daily feed cost from 6$ per cow to $18. It’s hard to say ‘cheers’ to that.
More at Discovery.
What Do Tennis Players and Neanderthals Have in Common?
Ever notice how tennis players have asymmetric arms? By exclusively using one arm for serving year after year, the dominant arm becomes much larger than its counterpart. So, too, with Neanderthals, albeit for a different reason. The average human has something like a 4-13% size differential between the dominant and subordinate arm. In Neanderthals, the difference appears to be around 50%. Paleontologists believe that Neanderthals used their dominant arm (usually the right arm, just like us) for an especially strenuous purpose. Spear thrusting was first suggested, but recent experiments with human volunteers suggests that a more mundane but extremely intense activity, such as scraping animal skins, is more likely responsible for the asymmetry.
More at Live Science.
The Survival Advantage of Big Brains.
Brain size in mammals is measured relative to body size. Overall, the ratio is predictably constant, but a recent study suggests that at least in smaller mammals, having a relatively oversized brain may confer a distinct survival advantage. Larger brained mammals seem to be more likely to develop new strategies for surviving in a changing environment such as ours. And since the chances of death is already reduced for smaller mammals because they do not as readily attract the attention of humans, it may be that these smaller brainier mammals will be the evolutionary winners in an environmentally changing world.
More at Scientific American.
The Tale of the Space Mice.
After spending a non-human record-breaking 91 days in space aboard the international space station, three mice returned to earth with some valuable information about life in space. There was some good news: it seems that the thyroid glands in the mice actually might have aged less than they would have on earth — a benefit since a slowing thyroid is one of the problems associated with aging. On the other hand, damage to blood cells and sperm from space exposure was problematic and the risks of sterility and blood diseases will have to be addressed if space travel becomes a reality. As to bone loss, some of the mice were genetically altered in an attempt to reduce bone loss — another known hazard of space travel. This seemed to work and the GM mice showed significantly less bone loss than their untreated peers.
More at New Scientist.
Mega-fires — the Modern Costs of Living Near Forests.
Nature has a way of preventing major forest conflagrations. It permits many small fires to clear away the dead growth that litters the forest floor. But when people live in and about the forests in modern developments (about one in four Colorado homes is in a fire zone), they quickly stamp out even these small beneficial fires. The result is an unnatural accumulation of forest debris so thick and dry that it leads to mega-fires that cannot be easily controlled and that in turn lead to even more death and destruction than is necessary. Volunteer action to remove forest debris from millions of acres of land is underway, but this may be too little too late.
More at CBS News.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.