The Universe’s Faintest Stars

Astrophysicists find the universe’s faintest stars

By David Chandler

The two faintest star-like objects ever found, a pair of twin “brown dwarfs” each just a millionth as bright as the sun, have been spotted by a team led by MIT physicist Adam Burgasser.

“These brown dwarfs are the lowest power stellar light bulbs in the sky that we know of,” said Burgasser. And these extra-dim brown dwarfs may be the first discoveries of the predominant type in space. “In this regime [of faintness] we expect to find the bulk of the brown dwarfs that have formed over the lifetime of the galaxy,” he said. “So in that sense these objects are the first of these ‘most common’ brown dwarfs, which haven’t been found yet because they are simply really faint.”

Burgasser, an assistant professor of physics at MIT, said “both of these objects are the first to break the barrier of one millionth the total light-emitting power of the sun.” He is lead author of a paper about the discovery appearing in the Astrophysical Journal Letters on Dec. 10.

Astronomers had thought the pair of dim bulbs was just a single typical, faint brown dwarf with no record-smashing titles. But when Burgasser and his team used NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to observe the brown dwarf in infrared light, it was able to accurately measure the object’s extreme faintness and low temperature for the first time. The Spitzer data revealed that what seemed to be a single brown dwarf is in fact twins.

Brown dwarfs are compact balls of gas floating freely in space, too cool and lightweight to be stars but too warm and massive to be planets. The name “brown dwarf” comes from the fact that these small star-like bodies change color over time as they cool, and thus have no definitive color. In reality, most brown dwarfs would appear reddish if they could be seen with the naked eye.

When Burgasser and his collaborators used Spitzer’s ultrasensitive infrared vision to learn more about the object, thought to be a solo brown dwarf, the data revealed a warm atmospheric temperature of 565 to 635 Kelvin (560 to 680 degrees Fahrenheit). While this is hundreds of degrees hotter than Jupiter, it’s still downright cold as far as stars go. In fact, the brown dwarfs, called 2MASS J09393548-2448279, or 2M 0939 for short, are among the coldest brown dwarfs measured so far.

To calculate the object’s brightness, the researchers had to first determine its distance from Earth. After three years of precise measurements with the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Australia, they concluded that 2M 0939 is the fifth closest known brown dwarf to us, 17 light-years away toward the constellation Antlia. This distance together with Spitzer’s measurements told the astronomers the object was both cool and extremely dim.

But something was puzzling. The brightness of the object was twice what would be expected for a brown dwarf with its particular temperature. The solution? The object must have twice the surface area. In other words, it’s twins, with each body shining only half as bright, and each with a mass of 30 to 40 times that of Jupiter. Both bodies are one million times fainter than the sun in total light, and at least one billion times fainter in visible light alone.

Burgasser said studying these objects could help astronomers understand details of brown dwarf structure and evolution. These observations “allow us to see for the first time what the atmospheres of very old and/or very low mass brown dwarfs contain and how they are structured,” he said.

Other authors of this paper are Chris Tinney of the University of New South Wales, Australia; Michael C. Cushing of the University of Hawaii, Manoa; Didier Saumon of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M.; Mark S. Marley, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; and student Clara S. Bennett (’10) of MIT.

The work was funded in part by a NASA grant.

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Grave of a Kurgan Warrior Discovered

Meanwhile, somewhere in the big city, a mysterious highlander is looking into a series of bizarre beheadings, while the police try to identify the headless men. Perhaps this Kurgan can answer, “I know his name.” Gimme the prize! Don’t lose your head!

Grave of Kurgan Warrior Discovered at Khoda-Afarin Dam Reservoir

Iranian archaeological teams working at the reservoir area of the Khoda-Afarin Dam have recently discovered a burial site of a Kurgan warrior during their rescue excavations.

A bull statuette, a number of ancient weapons, dishes, and bronze artefacts have also been found in the warrior’s grave, Archaeological Research Centre of Iran (ARCI) Director Mohammad-Hassan Fazeli Nashli told the Persian service of CHN on Sunday.

“According to the archaeologists, the warrior enjoyed a special status among his people,” he added.

The Kurgans were an Indo-European culture living in northern Europe, from Russia across Germany during the fifth, fourth, and third millennia BCE.

A number of the people also immigrated to northwestern Iran and lived there around 1500 to 2000 BCE, when the Bronze Age was ending in Iran.

So far, a total of 20 graves of Kurgans have been dug out at the site, nine of which were discovered during the recent excavations, Fazeli Nashli said.

“Along with the bull, a number of grey pottery dishes bearing geometrical shapes and weapons such as a dagger, sword, and bayonet have been presented to the warrior in the grave,” he explained.

The archaeologists had previously discovered Kurgan graves containing skeletons of a horse, sheep and other animals during the previous season of excavations last year.

The warrior’s grave, which measures about 6 x 1.5 meters, has been constructed by mud and stones. The stones are larger in lower part of the grave and become smaller in upper part.

“This is the first time the Kurgan people are being studied in Iran, however we don’t know much about their architecture and residential areas in Iran,” Fazeli Nashli noted.

The teams have also discovered strata dating back to the Parthian and Achaemenid dynastic periods. They also hope to find signs of habitation by Kurgans in the strata.

Five teams of experts are currently working at the reservoir area of the Khoda-Afarin Dam, which is home to many archaeological sites.

The dam has been completed one year ago and its filling was postponed following an ARCI’s appeal for rescue excavations.

However, it is not clear how the team can continue working at the site, because the dam was officially launched by the Islamic Republic’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during his tour of East Azarbaijan Province last week.

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Summer Christmas?

When I was in college, there was a little bar I sometimes went to when visiting my parents back home on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi which always ran a summer special called “Christmas in July.” It was basically a break from the summer heat. For that month, the place was decorated to the roof, the floor was kneedeep in styrofoam “snow,” bartenders wore red outfits and santa hats, Christmas music was playing, and there were drinks specials for all us elves.

Thought it was all just fun and games. Turns out that bar was hitting it fairly close after all.

‘Jesus was born in June’, astronomers claim

Astronomers have calculated that Christmas should be in June, by charting the appearance of the ‘Christmas star’ which the Bible says led the three Wise Men to Jesus.

They found that a bright star which appeared over Bethlehem 2,000 years ago pinpointed the date of Christ’s birth as June 17 rather than December 25.

The researchers claim the ‘Christmas star’ was most likely a magnificent conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter, which were so close together they would have shone unusually brightly as a single “beacon of light” which appeared suddenly.

If the team is correct, it would mean Jesus was a Gemini, not a Capricorn as previously believed.

Australian astronomer Dave Reneke used complex computer software to chart the exact positions of all celestial bodies and map the night sky as it would have appeared over the Holy Land more than 2,000 years ago.

It revealed a spectacular astronomical event around the time of Jesus’s birth.

Mr Reneke says the wise men probably interpreted it as the sign they had been waiting for, and they followed the ‘star’ to Christ’s birthplace in a stable in Bethlehem, as described in the Bible.

Generally accepted research has placed the nativity to somewhere between 3BC and 1AD.

Using the St Matthew’s Gospel as a reference point, Mr Reneke pinpointed the planetary conjunction, which appeared in the constellation of Leo, to the exact date of June 17 in the year 2BC.

The astronomy lecturer, who is also news editor of Sky and Space magazine, said: “We have software that can recreate exactly the night sky as it was at any point in the last several thousand years.

“We used it to go back to the time when Jesus was born, according to the Bible.

“Venus and Jupiter became very close in the the year 2BC and they would have appeared to be one bright beacon of light.

“We are not saying this was definitely the Christmas star – but it is the strongest explanation for it of any I have seen so far.

“There’s no other explanation that so closely matches the facts we have from the time.
“This could well have been what the three wise men interpreted as a sign. They could easily have mistaken it for one bright star.

“Astronomy is such a precise science, we can plot exactly where the planets were, and it certainly seems this is the fabled Christmas star.”

Mr Reneke, formerly the chief lecturer at the Port Macquarie Observatory in New South Wales, added: “December is an arbitrary date we have accepted but it doesn’t really mean that is when it happened.

“This is not an attempt to decry religion. It’s really backing it up as it shows there really was a bright object appearing in the East at the right time.

“Often when we mix science with religion in this kind of forum, it can upset people. In this case, I think this could serve to reinforce people’s faith.”

Previous theories have speculated the star was a supernova – an exploding star – or even a comet. But Mr Reneke says by narrowing the date down, the technology has provided the most compelling explanation yet.

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The Dry, Dusty Decline of Empires


Cave’s climate clues show ancient empires declined during dry spell

The decline of the Roman and Byzantine empires in the Eastern Mediterranean more than 1,400 years ago may have been driven by unfavorable climate changes.

Based on chemical signatures in a piece of calcite from a cave near Jerusalem, a team of American and Israeli geologists pieced together a detailed record of the area’s climate from roughly 200 B.C. to 1100 A.D. Their analysis, to be reported in an upcoming issue of the journal Quaternary Research, reveals increasingly dry weather from 100 A.D. to 700 A.D. that coincided with the fall of both Roman and Byzantine rule in the region.

The researchers, led by University of Wisconsin-Madison geology graduate student Ian Orland and professor John Valley, reconstructed the high-resolution climate record based on geochemical analysis of a stalagmite from Soreq Cave, located in the Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve near Jerusalem.

“It looks sort of like tree rings in cross-section. You have many concentric rings and you can analyze across these rings, but instead of looking at the ring widths, we’re looking at the geochemical composition of each ring,” says Orland.

Using oxygen isotope signatures and impurities — such as organic matter flushed into the cave by surface rain — trapped in the layered mineral deposits, Orland determined annual rainfall levels for the years the stalagmite was growing, from approximately 200 B.C. to 1100 A.D.

While cave formations have previously been used as climate indicators, past analyses have relied on relatively crude sampling tools, typically small dental drills, which required averaging across 10 or even 100 years at a time. The current analysis used an advanced ion microprobe in the Wisconsin Secondary-Ion Mass-Spectrometer (Wisc-SIMS) laboratory to sample spots just one-hundredth of a millimeter across. That represents about 100 times sharper detail than previous methods. With such fine resolution, the scientists were able to discriminate weather patterns from individual years and seasons.

Their detailed climate record shows that the Eastern Mediterranean became drier between 100 A.D. and 700 A.D., a time when Roman and Byzantine power in the region waned, including steep drops in precipitation around 100 A.D. and 400 A.D. “Whether this is what weakened the Byzantines or not isn’t known, but it is an interesting correlation,” Valley says. “These things were certainly going on at the time that those historic changes occurred.”

The team is now applying the same techniques to older samples from the same cave. “One period of interest is the last glacial termination, around 19,000 years ago — the most recent period in Earth’s history when the whole globe experienced a warming of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius,” Orland says.

Formations from this period of rapid change may help them better understand how weather patterns respond to quickly warming temperatures.

Soreq Cave — at least 185,000 years old and still active — also offers the hope of creating a high-resolution long-term climate change record to parallel those generated from Greenland and Antarctic ice cores.

“No one knows what happened on the continents… At the poles, the climate might have been quite different,” says Valley. “This is a record of what was going on in a very different part of the world.”

In addition to Valley and Orland, the paper was authored by Miryam Bar-Matthews and Avner Ayalon from the Geological Survey of Israel, Alan Matthews of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Noriko Kita of UW-Madison.

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Paradise Deferred


Paradise deferred: John Milton still divides readers

Next week is the 400th anniversary of John Milton’s birth. Epic poet, champion of freedom, attack-dog for the English republic, he still divides readers. Boyd Tonkin looks at his legacy

Never before have I dared to suggest that Simon Schama might be – not wrong, but in sore need of an extra footnote. Viewers and readers of his The American Future may recall its fervent praise for the “Statute of Religious Freedom” that Thomas Jefferson drafted for the state of Virginia in 1779. This trumpet-call for liberty of conscience was, Schama enthused, “arguably the greatest and bravest thing he ever wrote”, and a cornerstone of the freedom that America would export to the world. And very fine Jefferson’s words sound too, with their affirmation that “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself”. Almost as fine, in fact, as the words written 135 years before by a radical Englishman in the pamphlet that, surely, buzzed somewhere in the back – or front – of Jefferson’s brain.

“Let her and Falsehood grapple,” proclaimed John Milton in Areopagitica, the 1644 tract against censorship that began the poet’s second career as a polemicist: “Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” From Massachusetts to Virginia, the Londoner’s chimes of freedom echoed in revolutionary minds. As Milton’s new biographers, Gordon Campbell and Thomas N Corns, put it: “In intellectual terms, Milton is one of the founding fathers of America.”

Next Tuesday will mark the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth on 9 December 1608 to a property-dealing family living in Bread Street in the City. But the United States that put some – not all – of his most cherished ideals into constitutional practice seems to be surging ahead in the birthday stakes. Here, we have had solid commemorations at Christ’s College, the Cambridge seat of learning where the young prodigy failed to thrive, at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and at St Giles Cripplegate, the City church – now marooned in the Barbican – where Milton was buried in 1674 despite having stayed away from all churches for 30 years.

In the US, whose founders inwardly digested Milton’s thoughts about church, state and liberty, they do things with a little more pizzazz. A few weeks ago, the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center in Brooklyn hosted the “Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball”. Guests in Edenic or Satanic garb celebrated the epic that crowned Milton’s career in bittersweet triumph, after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 had destroyed the Republican cause to which he devoted almost 20 years as a spin-doctor and civil servant.

The walls were bedecked with 90 works of art inspired by the poem’s war-in-heaven set-pieces and its earthly drama of Adam, Eve and the seductive serpent – part of a tradition of barnstorming illustration that dates to John Baptist Medina’s engravings in 1688. Later visualisers of the poem include William Blake, Henry Fuseli, John Martin, Gustav Doré; even Salvador Dalí.

Prominent among the modern takes on Paradise Lost were the paintings of Terrance Lindall, who once drew for Marvel Comics and published some of his Milton phantasmagorias in Heavy Metal magazine. A New York Times reviewer surveyed the Brooklyn pandaemonium (a word Milton created) and sneered that the artworks’ fleshy style suggested “that the poem made particular mention of … naked female breasts”. Which just goes to show that contemporaries who seek to judge Milton without knowing about him will drop into a pit of their own making.

In Book IV of Paradise Lost, Milton takes care to portray the torrid intensity of sin-free sex between Adam and Eve in their unfallen state. At one point, Eve “half embracing leaned/ On our first father”, when “half her swelling breast/ Naked met his under the flowing gold/ Of her loose tresses hid”. Innocent bliss, free of death and time – this, rather than year-round sub-tropical harvests, makes his paradise, and makes its loss a howling tragedy only Jesus can redeem. I suspect Milton might have trusted his vision to a heavy-metal illustrator more readily than to any licensed preacher, then or now.

Licensed preachers have more or less given up on Milton. He defeats their categories. Keen on chastity in theory, he married three times (though his daughters spurned him as a tyrant). He rhapsodised over “connubial” passion, and was the opposite of what we call a “puritan”. Indeed, he spent years railing against the puritan takeover of the English revolution and their theocratic urge to set up a state religion and persecute “heretics”. Oliver Cromwell, whom he served as a letter-writing diplomat and attack-dog in the international pamphlet media, at root agreed. But the ancestors of today’s canting “religious right” prevailed in the 1650s. Milton, who hated all “establishments”, hated this type too.

The preachers may stay silent, but Milton’s critics make a devilish din. One positive effect of the quatercentenary has been the publication of a handful of books that prove how richly contentious this supreme controversialist remains. For the novice, Neil Forsyth in John Milton: a biography (Lion Hudson, £10.99) does his friendly and fair-minded best to make lucid sense of a life and work misted at every turn by the fogs of war – both military and intellectuual. Much more original, but less welcoming to non-specialists, Campbell and Corns’s John Milton: life, work and thought (Oxford, £25) goes doggedly about its scholarly work of disenchantment. It aims to drive away illusions and reveal hidden corners of the truth about a “self-contradictory, self-serving, arrogant, passionate, ruthless, ambitious and cunning” writer. Like many scrupulous researchers, they show their quarry a tough sort of love.

Most biographers praise Milton’s anti-monarchical tract The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. In 1649, it lent crucial propaganda muscle to the regicides who had just beheaded Charles I for treason, and so helped win the fiery radical his job – at £288 per annum – as foreign-languages secretary for the new Council of State (later, he worked for Cromwell’s Protectorate). Only Campbell and Corns pay equal attention to the Observations on rebellion in Ireland which, in the same year, paved the way for Cromwell’s bloody campaigns. Unable to resist a topical spin of their own, they maintain that “Milton produced a tendentious dossier designed to launch and excuse a dubious war of aggression. He would not be the last public servant to do so; though he may, perhaps, have been the first.”

Far closer in spirit to the idolatry that made Milton the idol of Georgian Whigs and Victorian Liberals, Philip Pullman has laboured angelically to rescue Milton from the library stacks and seminar rooms. His own trilogy His Dark Materials (reference: Paradise Lost, Book II, line 916) is inconceivable without the model of Milton’s epic imaginings of the pitfalls of proud authority, and the glorious adventures of free will. Oxford has reissued its illustrated edition of Paradise Lost (£9.99) with Pullman’s notes. He champions his version of the temptation-and-fall theme as a vindication of “the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence”. Pullman agrees with William Blake that witty Satan, not whiny God, wins every rhetorical game – “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”. For Blake, Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it”.

Now turn to Theo Hobson’s Milton’s Vision (Continuum, £16.99), a peppery defence of the writer as a lost pioneer of “liberal Protestantism”. Hobson combines literary bad manners and big-hearted vituperation – both features of Milton’s own polemical prose. He sees any attempt to strip Christian doctrine out of Milton as absurd, and curses Pullman as “the chief cliché-monger of our time”. As for Blake’s oft-cited one-liner, it is “the silliest thing in the history of criticism”. Hobson backs Milton’s infamous reluctance to grant Roman Catholics the same liberty as other sects on modern grounds, likening the Counter-Reformation papacy to the “Islamic extremism” that scorns democracy today. Milton still lives in the clatter and smoke of battle.

Take the heart-clutching chamber-tragedy of Samson Agonistes. As his sightless hero pulls down the Philistine temple, does the ageing Milton – dejected by the corrupt court of Charles II – advocate the sort of terrorism that crushes powerful and powerless alike? For all the interior anguish of a work in which the long-blind poet (from “intermittent close-angle glaucoma”, Campbell and Corns conclude) imagines Samson “dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon”, politics returns.

With Milton, whose lyric drama can make Shakespeare sound dull, it somehow always does. If Samson fails to stir as a parable of political violence, then sultry Delilah’s deceptions will rock the critical boats. In her readable and well-balanced biography Milton: poet, pamphleteer and patriot (Bloomsbury, £14.99), Anna Beer deems that “the misogyny of Samson Agonistes does belong to its author”. As for Eve in Paradise Lost, she splits the house as utterly as ever – perhaps because she tore Milton apart. Feminist critics such as Diane McColley have argued that Milton’s portrayal is not only far less “sexist” than the tradition he drew on, but more respectful than the secular radicals who damn him so glibly. Beer, a reliable guide for newcomers on this and many other issues, insists that “Eve is not demonised after the Fall”. Milton “demonstrates her quiet heroism”.

The freedom Milton hailed in politics and religion also meant, to the poet, the freedom to fall. He views liberty not as a stroll in the garden but as the root of tragedy – a necessary, uplifting tragedy. Doomed to freedom, Eve and Adam leave paradise to find that the story of humankind begins. “The world was all before them” – the same world of choice, conflict and difficult togetherness that Milton’s heirs, from Jefferson to Pullman, have sought to interpret by his lights. “They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow/ Through Eden took their solitary way.”

Marvel or misogynist?

Stevie Davies

Novelist and critic

He was ‘Eikonoklastes’, the breaker of images – and I’m sure he stands behind the West’s movements towards freedom of thought, speech and press … On women, the ‘Lady of Christ’s’ misogyny streaks much of his writing with something dark and painful, born somehow of his own visceral pain. Yet the reader of ‘Paradise Lost’ can hardly fail to notice the waves of tender feeling,,, in his portrait of Eve … Wherever you look, Milton is cloven, fissured, riven – and it is in those rifts and flaws that his greatest poetry roots itself. ‘Paradise Lost’ was prized by American slaves for its libertarianism … Some of his modern-seeming liberalism springs from the root of his illiberal religious prejudice. His attitude to Islam … was more tolerant than his attitude to European Catholics.

Anna Beer


It can be argued that Milton’s religious beliefs informed his political beliefs. Above all, he wished for religious tolerance, freedom of conscience. He would support any political system that would deliver this, and safeguard it … Above all, however, Milton is fascinated with language and power – he is particularly fascinated with the ways those who exert tyranny are often the best orators. Satan is, of course, the prime example. Milton reminds us … that the citizens of a free country must have the ability (created by education) to sift the false from the true. Without that, we are prey to tyranny: religious tyranny, domestic tyranny, political tyranny. The three are related constantly by Milton. To insist that we must attend to one, and not the others, is to stunt Milton.

Claire Tomalin

Biographer and critic

The relationship with his daughters is pretty unforgivable. It’s terribly sad that they hated him. But, in a sense, the fact that he believed that marriage should be companionate, and that he wrote in favour of divorce, is a good thing. He does show a rather wonderful marriage in ‘Paradise Lost’… You read ‘Paradise Lost’ because it’s cracking good story with a wonderful use of language. Satan is a compelling Jacobean villain. On the other hand, you have this exquisite picture of Adam and Eve in paradise … There will always be, please God, children who have a piece of poetry put in front of them and are enraptured by it. There is something magical about well-written poetry.

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Rolling With the Jollbot


This robot can roll like a ball

London (IANS): The first robot that can jump like a grasshopper and roll like a ball could play a key role in space exploration.

The ‘Jollbot’, created by Rhodri Armour, PhD student from University of Bath, can jump over obstacles and roll over smoother terrain, could be used for space exploration or land survey work.

One of the major challenges that face robots designed for space exploration is being able to move over rough terrain. Robots with legs are generally very complex, expensive to build and control, and encounter problems if they fall over.

Wheels are a simpler solution to this, but are limited by the size of obstacles they can overcome, said a Bath release. Accordingly, Rhodri and colleagues at the University’s Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies have been looking to nature for inspiration – designing a robot that jumps obstacles in its path like an insect.

The ‘Jollbot’ is shaped like a spherical cage, which can roll in any direction, giving it the manoeuvrability of wheels without the problem of overturning or getting stuck in potholes.

The robot is also flexible and small, weighing less than a kg, meaning it’s not damaged when landing after jumping and is therefore less expensive than conventional exploration robots. Armour explained: “Others in the past have made robots that jump and robots that roll; but we’ve made the first robot that can do both.

“We’ve made a robot that jumps in a similar way to the grasshopper, but uses electrical motors to slowly store the energy needed to leap in its springy skeleton.

Armour, who has just submitted his PhD thesis, took measurements using a high speed camera to analyse how the robot jumped and to predict how it might behave in a low-gravity environment, such as in space.

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Pterosaurs Bigger Than Cars


Ancient flying reptile bigger than a car

A fossil of a toothless flying pterosaur, with a body bigger than some family cars, represents the largest of these extinct reptiles ever to be found and has forced the creation of a new genus, scientists announced on Thursday.

Pterosaurs ruled the skies 115 million years ago during the dinosaur age. They are often mistaken for dinosaurs.

Mark Witton of the University of Portsmouth identified the creature from a partial skull fossil. Witton estimates the beast would have had a 5.5-yard (5-meter) wingspan. It stood more than a yard (about 1 meter) tall at the shoulder.

“Some of the previous examples we have from this family in China are just 60 centimeters (about two feet) long – as big as the skull of the new species. Put simply, it dwarfs any chaoyangopterid we’ve seen before by miles,” Witton said.

The finding also is significant because it originated in Brazil and is the only example of the Chaoyangopteridae, a group of toothless pterosaurs, to be found outside China.

Witton has christened the new species Lacusovagus, meaning “lake wanderer,” after the large body of water in which the remains were buried. The findings are detailed in the November issue of the journal Palaeontology.

He was asked to examine the specimen which had lain in a German museum for several years after its discovery in the Crato Formation of the Araripe Basin in North East Brazil, an area well known for the its fossils and their excellent state of preservation. However, he said that this fossil was preserved in an unusual way, making its interpretation difficult.

“Usually fossils like this are found lying on their sides but this one was lying on the roof of its mouth and had been rather squashed which made even figuring out whether it had teeth difficult,” Witton said.

“Still, it’s clear to see that Lacusovagus had an unusually wide skull which has implications for its feeding habits – maybe it liked particularly large prey. The remains are very fragmentary, however, so we need more specimens before we can draw any conclusions.”

The discovery of this pterosaur fossil in Brazil, so far away from its closest relatives in China, demonstrates how little scientists still know about the distribution and evolutionary history of this group of creatures, Witton said.

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