It’s Shark Week on Discovery Channel!

It’s hard to believe, but Discovery Channel is celebrating 25 years of Shark Week! All of Discovery’s programming is turned on its head as their prime time slots swallowed whole by these fearsome creatures of the deep. In a press release, Discovery promises their viewers “eight all-new shark-filled specials that get you so close to the action, if you were any closer you’d be bait!” Now that is close my friends!

Sharks
Shiyam ElkCloner via Wikimedia Commons

If you want to know everything you could possibly imagine about sharks, then Shark Week is for you. Discovery has a website dedicated to Shark Week at http://www.sharkweek.com. There is a ton of trivia, videos, show previews, games, and lots of teeth! Embedded below, you can see a preview of tonight’s episode called “Sharkzilla”.

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If TV isn’t enough for you, fear not, Discovery has you covered. You can download the “Discovery Channel HD” app that let’s you in on all the action via your iPad. It is available in iTunes via this link. When you download this app, iPad users will have exclusive access to “Shark Week Plus”, an interactive second screen experience, synchronized to select shows from Shark Week’s 25th Anniversary! You can also play along with your Facebook friends while you’re watching Shark Week with Shark Week Bingo. Pictured below, you can pick which episode you are watching and you can click on game pieces as you see them come across your TV screen.

Shark Week Bingo

Somewhere in all the horror, fun and games, and the sheer amazement of Shark Week; hopefully, the most important message comes across. Sharks are extremely misunderstood and are suffering from both natural and man-made stressors that threaten their very existence. Perhaps the most important aspect of Discovery’s website is the link where you can support shark conservation efforts. For more information, visit https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/239-sharks-in-danger-of-extinction.

New Bird on The Block

All you bird-lovers, it’s time to say hello to a new species in the bird kingdom that has just been discovered. Capito fitzpatricki, discovered in the mountains of Peru, is the latest ‘official’ bird. It has been named after Dr. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who himself has previously been involved in the discovery of six bird species.

The Andes in South America is a region with an unrivaled rate of new species discovery; however, a thorough exploration of these regions is hindered by the difficult terrain. In 2008, a group of researchers undertook an expedition to a region of the mountains called the “Cerros del Sira” and chanced upon this colourful bird, also called the ‘Sira barbet’ in a flock consisting of birds of multiple species. After 6 days of exploration in nearby regions, they found more samples of this bird.

Behold the newest bird known to mankind [Image credit: Cornell University]
Behold the newest bird known to mankind [Image credit: Cornell University]

Capito fitzpatrickibelongs to the group of birds called barbets. These are tropical, frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds characterized by big heads and bristles below their bills. They are greenish or brown with splashes of bright colours or white and are found in South and Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia.

How can we be sure Capito fitzpatricki belongs to a different species and is not merely a distant cousin of an existing barbet species? Firstly, it has different plumage characteristics—it has different colourings on its thigh and lower back. Secondly, the DNA sequences of this species were compared with other species in the genera Capito. The divergence, or dissimilarity, in mitochondrial DNA sequence from fitzpatricki and its closest ‘genetic neighbour’ Capito wallacei was in general greater than the divergence seen between two species.

The discovery was published here.

 

Extraordinary Human Sculpture Found in Turkey

Archaeologists from the University of Toronto have made an extraordinary find at the Tayinat Archaeological Project (TAP) on the Amuq Plain in southeastern Turkey.

Suppiluliuma
Suppiluliuma Sculpture, Likely King of Pitina (Courtesy Jennifer Jackson)

Described as a “beautiful and colossal” sculpture, it dates back to the Neo-Hittite Kingdom of Pitina, circa 1000-738 BC. The sculpture from the waist up is about 1.5meters tall and is ornately decorated with curly hair and a beard.

“These newly discovered Tayinat sculptures are the product of a vibrant local Neo-Hittite sculptural tradition,” said Professor Tim Harrison, the Tayinat Project director and professor of Near Eastern Archaeology in the University of Toronto’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. “They provide a vivid glimpse into the innovative character and sophistication of the Iron Age cultures that emerged in the eastern Mediterranean following the collapse of the great imperial powers of the Bronze Age at the end of the second millennium BC.”

The archaeologists believe that this sculpture and an accompanying ornately decorated base were part of a gate complex marking the territory of the king. They were found buried together under rock pavement of a road leading to the upper citadel of the royal city. It is believe that the gate conquest was destroyed following the Assyrian conquest of the region in 738 BC.

Isaiah 10:9-10 actually makes reference to a “Kingdom of Idols” and asks, “Has not Calno fared like Carchemish?” Many scholars believe that Calno referred to in the Bible is the kingdom of Kunulua or Tayanat. The destruction of these monuments by the Assyrians may be what the biblical oracle is referring to.

For more information about the TAP site, visit http://www.utoronto.ca/tap/index.html.

Moon Race Team Recruits Google VIP

Moon Express, a “privately funded lunar transportation and data services company”, announced today that Dr. James (Jimi) Crawford has joined their team as Chief Technology Officer and Software Architect. Crawford had been the Engineering Director for Google Books since 2009.

Moon Express Logo

As CTO, Dr. Crawford will guide Moon Express’ technology to fulfill the company’s long term goals. He will also serve as a software architect, where he will develop software for the company’s space missions including the race to win the Google Lunar X prize. The Lunar X project is giving $30 million dollars to the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon. Moon Express is one of several teams that are competing for the illustrious prize.

In their press release, Moon Express co-Founder and CEO Bob Richards said, “We are thrilled to have Jimi join us as CTO and Software Architect…With Jimi’s combined space mission and software experience, our technical team just took another giant leap forward.” Dr. Crawford’s resume is quite impressive and one could see why the Moon Express team is encouraged to have him on board. This guy is not a newbie when it comes to space technology. He spent three years at NASA’s Ames Research Center as lead for Autonomy and Robotics. His teams “delivered the optimized activity planner used by both the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rovers, demonstrated next generation rovers with much higher levels of autonomy, and created optimized spacecraft antenna using genetic algorithms.”

For more information about the Google Lunar X competition, see the embedded video below.

[Video Link]

 

New Species Named After Bob Marley

A recent study, funded by the National Science Foundation, has resulted in the discovery of a new coral reef species which was given the name Gnathia marleyi as a tribute to the late reggae legend, Bob Marley.

Bob Marley
Bob Marley (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Sikkel, an assistant professor of marine ecology and a field marine biologist at Arkansas State University initially discovered the species 10 years ago in the  U.S. Virgin Islands, but they were so common, Sikkel assumed the species had been named already. It turns out he had a hunch and decided to consult fellow researchers and the next thing you know, he’s naming a brand new species. Gnathia marleyi is a gnathiid isopod and is a parasitic blood feeder in its juvenile stages. It infests certain fish that inhabit the coral reef and is the first new species to be named out of the Caribbean for years.

Juvenile Gnathiids
Juvenile gnathiids that have recently fed on fresh blood. Only juvenile gnathiids are parasitic.
Credit: Ann Marie Coile, Department of Biology, Arkansas State University

Sikkel’s research is primarily focused on the health of the reef. Recent reports say the reef is degrading in the Caribbean. According to the NSF press release, Sikkel says,”we are currently researching the relationships between the health of coral reef communities and gnathiid populations”. It appears that as the reef degrades the parasites that infest them gain ground. Sikkel likens the gnathiids to mosquitoes, which are known to carry blood born diseases. “Our current work is focused on how changes in coral reef environments, such as coral bleaching, influences interactions between hosts and parasites,” said Sikkel. “We’re including in our studies any effects on cleaning organisms that remove parasites from hosts.” As it turns out, there are “cleaner fish” that rely heavily on these parasites as food. Sikkel believes these little guys may be playing a large role in transmitting disease in the reef.

As to why these little guys were named for Marley, Sikkel said,”I named this species, which is truly a natural wonder, after Marley because of my respect and admiration for Marley’s music. Plus, this species is as uniquely Caribbean as was Marley”. The study was published in the June 6th issue of Zootaxia.

 

Medical Implants of the Future May Be Powered by Sugar

It’s like something out of a science fiction magazine, but leave it to MIT to turn science fiction into science fact. A study published in the June 12th edition of PLoS ONE reveals a new glucose powered chip that literally will create an interface between brain and machine. The glucose “fuel cell” brings hope that in the future we will be able to help paralytics regain control of their limbs using neural prosthetics powered by this new technology.

Glucose is basically the sugar that can be found in our blood. It is the usable form of energy that our bodies use to power our muscles and our brain. The glucose powered fuel cells can be seen, pictured below, on a silicon wafer.

Glucose Fuel Cell
Glucose Fuel Cells on Silicon Wafer (Courtesy PLoS ONE)

The new fuel cells strip electrons from glucose molecules to create a small electric current. Implantable electronics are nothing new. Consider the pace maker, for instance. Many heart patients are alive and well today due to the tiny electronic module that keeps their heart in perfect rhythm. Oddly enough, scientists in the 1970’s originally proved they could power a pacemaker using glucose but due to some inefficiencies with an enzyme necessary to run them, they eventually decided to use lithium ion batteries instead. The difference in this new technology is that it contains no biological components whatsoever. It can generate hundreds of microwatts which can be used to power “ultra-low-power” implants.

Location, Location, Location

One of the groundbreaking aspects of this new research is not only that the fuel cells are powered by glucose, but also its placement in the body. Before this study, any research done using glucose fuel cells relied on blood or tissue fluid. This research suggested using cerebrospinal fluid which basically is a sugar filled barrier that surrounds the brain. One reason is that this fluid basically contains no cells that would stimulate an immune response. The other reason is that it is so rich in glucose. Due to the relatively small amount of glucose needed to power these fuel cells, no adverse affects are expected to occur in the brain.

Research like this is very encouraging especially for those who have lost use of their limbs due to paralysis. However, it may be a few years before we see this research being used in practical medical setting. If you would like more information, you can read the MIT press release http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/glucose-fuel-cell-0612.html, or for a more technical experience you can find the published study at this link http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038436.

 

Rare Microorganism is Man’s Remotest Relative

Researchers from the University of Oslo, Norway have discovered a protozoan that may represent a new branch on the tree of life. The tiny creature was discovered in the sludge at the bottom of a lake Ås, 30KM south of Oslo.

Microorganism
Microorganism Courtesy UiO/MERG

Identifying A Mystery

Researchers from the University of Oslo made many attempts to compare the organism’s DNA to databases worldwide, but an exact match could not be found. Associate professor, Kamran Shalchian-Tabrizi, head of the Microbial Evolution Research Group (MERG) at the University of Oslo said, “We have found an unknown branch of the tree of life that lives in this lake. It is unique! So far we know of no other group of organisms that descend from closer to the roots of the tree of life than this species.”

The protozoan didn’t quite fit the mold for any known type of life such fungus, alga, parasite, plant or animal. Life on our planet can be divided into two types of species, prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Prokaryotes are the simplest living things. An example of these would be bacteria. Eukaryotes represent all other life such as plants, animals, and even man. This protozoan is a Eukaryote and represents one of the oldest known life forms to exist on the planet. It is estimated that this organism evolved around a billion years ago. It exhibits characteristics of several eukaryote  groups. For instance, it has the same intracellular structure as excavates, but uses protuberances like amoebae to capture its food. This tells scientists that this organism may predate these groups and may show a glimpse into our primordial history.

Baiting the Hook

These little guys were not easy to find. They were hiding in the sludge at the bottom of the lake. Fortunately, they were hungry. Using a pipe to capture some of the sludge, Professor Dag Klaveness poured an algae mixture draw the little guys out. Once the protozoans began to feed on the mixture, he was able to use a pipette to capture them.

Interestingly this particular species is found nowhere else in the world. Why did such an ancient form of life survive in this area of the world? Very little is known about this protozoan. Researchers have determined that it likes to eat algae but have yet to discover if it has any predators of its own. They have also observed that it flourishes better as a loner.

For more information about this research, visit University of Oslo’s website at http://www.apollon.uio.no/english/articles/2012/microorganism.html.

 

Permian Era Forest Preserved in Pompeii-like Ash Found in China

Imagine being able to go back in time nearly 300 million years and see the flora and fauna that has long since been extinct. Then imagine being able to freeze that moment in time like a snapshot. For professor Hermann W. Pfefferkorn, of the University of Pennsylvania, that experience became a reality. Pfefferkorn and a team of Chinese scientists found a nearly complete Permian era forest frozen in volcanic ash near a mining site in Wuda, China.

Hermann Pfefferkorn
Professor Hermann Pfefferkorn of Penn (Photo courtesy Penn News)

According to Penn News, Pfefferkorn is quoted saying, “It’s marvelously preserved…We can stand there and find a branch with the leaves attached, and then we find the next branch and the next branch and the next branch. And then we find the stump from the same tree. That’s really exciting.” The Wuda site is near a large coal mining operation. This provided a very unique opportunity for them to study this ancient forest on a large scale. They were able to study nearly 1000 square meters. This gave them an unprecedented look at the flora from that time. Pictured below, you can see a well preserved branch from trees classified as a Noeggerathiales. These trees were small spore-bearing trees that are long since extinct.

Noeggerathiales
Noeggerathiales an extinct tree (Courtesy of PNAS.org)

The ancient tropical forest dates back nearly 300 million years ago to what is called the Permian era. It sat on a peat bed which eventually became a layer of coal due to many years of pressure. Reminiscent of Pompeii, this forest was beautifully preserved in a bed of volcanic ash. The scientists examined and mapped out this preserved forest and were able to reconstruct how it must have looked millions of years ago. They worked with an artist to reconstruct this vast tropical forest. You can see one of the renderings pictured below.

Reconstruction
Reconstruction of Permian Era Forest (Courtesy of PNAS.org)

This is certainly a significant find. It’s the first such finding in Asia and the first peat forest of its kind to be found anywhere from this period. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences early edition. You can also see the fantastic images of the preserved flora in the “Supporting Information” supplement here.

World’s Smallest Chameleon Discovered

A team of scientists have discovered the world’s smallest chameleon on a tiny island off the coast of Madagascar. The leaf litter dweller measures in at a whopping 16mm long. Pictured below, is an example of one of four new species discovered in this expedition, the juvenile of the species Brookesia micra.

Chameleon on Finger Tip
Juvenile Brookesia micra on Finger Tip (Courtesy PLoS One)

The Brookesia micra was identified as the world’s tiniest chameleon species. It was found on a tiny island called Nosy Hara just off the coast of Madagascar. Three other distinct species of chameleon were also found. It inhabits the leaf litter on the forest floor and according to the report published in the journal PLoS One, it climbs on “low perches in the vegetation for sleeping”. You can see in the picture below, the beautiful habitat where scientists discovered the tiny amniote.

Habitat
Creek Bed where the Brookesia micra was found. (Courtesy PLoS One)

Dwarfism in vertebrates has been brought to center stage lately. Back in January, we reported the discovery of what was then thought to be the world’s smallest vertebrate. It was a tiny species of frog which similarly foraged in the leaf litter on the forest floor of Papua New Guinea. Miniaturization of species has brought about many new evolutionary theories. It also brings about new challenges for scientists to identify differences in the species.

While the news of a newly discovered species is very exciting, we’re also reminded of the fragility of these creatures. The Brookesia tristis, Latin for sorrowful, and the Brookesia desperata, Latin for desperate, both suffer from the consequences of deforestation and habitat loss. Hopefully discoveries like these will shed light on the importance of protecting these creatures and lead to better stewardship of their habitats.

 

North America’s Largest Dinosaur Discovered

Montana State University’s  Museum of the Rockies  and the State Museum of Pennsylvania have made BIG news. The largest dinosaur to ever be discovered in North America has been found in New Mexico according to a publication of  Acta Palaeontologica Polonica where  MSU researcher, Denver Fowler along with Robert Sullivan, of Harrisburg PA, made the revelation of their massive find. Pictured below, you can see the  badlands’  conditions of the Naashoibito beds in San Juan, New Mexico, where the discovery was made.

Sullivan and Fowler
Sullivan and Fowler Working in the Naashoibito Beds - Courtesy Montana.edu

The bones were of a saurapod called the Alamosaurus. It was a long-necked dinosaur that lived in the Southwestern part of the U.S. about 69 million years ago. The Alamosaurus isn’t new to researchers however, the sheer size of this particular specimen is what sets it apart from the pack.

“We used to think that a fully grown  Alamosaurus  measured around 60 feet long and weighed about 30 tons; but a 2009 study by another MSU researcher, Dr. Holly Woodward, found that a femur thought to belong to an adult was still growing,” Fowler said. “This told us thatAlamosaurus  got even bigger, but we didn’t imagine that it could get quite this big.”

Now that they have compared the fragmentary remains to that of its South American cousin, the Argentinosaurus, it is estimated that this heavy hitter could have been as much as 70 tons! The team collected two vertebrae and a femur. Just to give you an idea of how enormous this find was, it took most of a day for the team to carry the collection 1.2 miles back to camp. In the image below, you can see a reconstructed vertebrae and how large in scale this creature was in comparison to humans.

Vertebrae
Nate Carroll stands beside the reconstructed vertebrae he sculpted along with Liz Freedman, a doctoral student in Jack Horner's paleontology lab. - Courtesy of MSU website.

One thing this discovery reveals is the importance of continued research. It is apparent now that many of the assumptions about the Alamosaurus were based on immature remains. Fowler and his team hope that they can get back to New Mexico in hopes of finding a more complete specimen. Unfortunately, to date there have only been  fragmentary  discoveries of the Alamosaurus.  Fowler said. “Our findings show that  Alamosaurus  was originally described based on immature material, and this is a problem as characteristics that define a species are typically only fully gained at adult size. This means that we might be misinterpreting the relationships of  Alamosaurus  and possibly other sauropod dinosaurs too.” Though Fowler’s teams have made significant discoveries, a big challenge they have is to try to make super size discoveries with a small team of two or three people.

If you would like to follow the research from the Horner Paleo Lab at the Museum of the Rockies, go to their  Facebook  page or  http://www.museumoftherockies.org.