A Spider Bit Me While I Slept


Hurt too. And now my flesh is rotting. Great.

This is the culprit, I believe.

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Striped Bunnies, Cyanide Millipedes, and Plate-Sized Spiders


Plate-sized spider among 1068 new species found in Mekong

STRIPED rabbits, bright pink millipedes laced with cyanide and a spider bigger than a dinner plate are among a host of new species discovered in a remote wildlife hotspot.

The Greater Mekong is described as one of the last scientifically unexplored regions of the world and it abounds in life seen nowhere else in the world.

So little is known about the ecology of the region that previously unknown animals and plants have been turning up at a rate of two a week for a decade. At least 1,068 new species were identified in the Greater Mekong from 1997 to 2007 along with several thousand tiny invertebrates.

Annamite striped rabbits, Nesolagus timminsi, with black and brown fur, were discovered in Vietnam and Laos in 2000 and are only the second species of striped rabbit to be identified. The other is in Sumatra, the two sharing a common ancestor that lived several million years ago.

Among the most bizarre to be discovered was a hot-pink, spiny dragon millipede, Desmoxytes purpurosea. Several were found simultaneously in Thailand as they crawled over limestone rocks and palm leaves.

To defend themselves from predators the millipedes have glands that produce cyanide. Scientists believe that the shocking-pink colouration is to signal to predators that they would make a fatal snack. “They would do well to heed this warning,” concluded a WWF report on the Greater Mekong discoveries.

A huntsman spider, named Heteropoda maxima, measured 30cm across and was found in caves in Laos. It was described as the “most remarkable” of 88 new species of spider located in Laos, Thailand and the Yunnan province of China.

The Greater Mekong comprises 600,000 square kilometres of wetlands and rainforest along 4,500km of the Mekong River in Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and China.

Wars, internal problems and the remoteness of the region kept most international scientists away for decades but in the 1990s it began to be surveyed extensively for its wildlife.

Thomas Ziegler, curator at Cologne Zoo, was among the researchers to explore the Greater Mekong. “It is a great feeling being in an unexplored area and to document its biodiversity for the first time, both enigmatic and beautiful,” he said.

The discoveries documented in the WWF report First Contact in the Greater Mekong, published today, include 519 plants, 15 mammals, 89 frogs, 279 fish, 46 lizards, 22 snakes, 4 birds, 4 turtles and 2 salamanders.

Stuart Chapman, the director of WWF’s Greater Mekong program, said: “We thought discoveries of this scale were confined to the history books. This reaffirms the Greater Mekong’s place on the world map of conservation priorities.”

Among the 15 mammals discovered in the region was the Laotian rock rat, Laonastes aenigmamus. It was thought to have been extinct for 11 million years but a researcher spotted the corpse of one on sale in a food market in Laos in 2005. While unknown to scientists, the rock rat was known to locals as kha-nyou and was enjoyed roasted and served whole on a skewer.

Two of the biggest surprises were the discoveries of two types of muntjac deer. One, the dark Annamite muntjac, Muntiacus truongsonensis, was identified in Vietnam from skulls and descriptions by local people who knew it as samsoi cacoong – “the deer that lives in the deep, thick forest”. Live specimens still elude researchers.

One new snake – the Siamese Peninsula pit viper, Trimeresurus fucatus – was spotted slithering through the rafters of a restaurant in Thailand.

There are estimated to be 20,000 different types of plant, 1,200 species of bird, 430 mammals, 800 reptiles and amphibians, and 1,300 fish in the Greater Mekong. Among the mammals is one of the two remaining populations of the critically endangered Javan rhino.

Much more on these new species here, plus tons of photos.

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Enceladus Goes Tectonic


Enceladus has ‘spreading surface’

A US space agency (Nasa) probe has witnessed a moon of Saturn do something very unusual and Earth-like.

Pictures of the icy satellite Enceladus suggest its surface splits and spreads apart – just like the ocean floor on our planet splits to create new crust.

The information was released at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

The data from the Cassini spacecraft is said to strengthen the idea that Enceladus harbours a sub-surface sea.

“Bit by bit, we’re accumulating the evidence that there is liquid water on Enceladus,” said Carolyn Porco, team leader of the Cassini imaging group and one of the senior scientists on the mission.

The observation on Earth that the sea floor is splitting at mid-ocean ridges and moving apart was one of the great scientific discoveries of the 20th Century; and became a key feature in the theory of plate tectonics – the idea that massive slabs of the Earth’s surface move around and are recycled.

Cassini sees something very similar on Enceladus.

The surface of this snow-white moon is riven with cracks – dubbed tiger stripes – at its south pole.

Dr Paul Helfenstein from Cornell University used digital maps of this region to reconstruct a history of the stripes, pushing the fractures around on a computer screen until they fitted together like pieces in a puzzle.

He found that sections of the cracks had clearly moved from their original locations.

Dr Helfenstein told BBC News that the resemblance to the Earth process was remarkable.

“What’s different about them is that spreading ridges on the Earth typically spread symmetrically about a rift,” he said.

“On Enceladus, what we see is a type of spreading but it is strongly asymmetric – it’s like a conveyor belt, in which, if it’s true it’s coming up from a convection well, it seems to be only pushing in one direction. It does happen on Earth, but only in very peculiar situations.”

On Earth, sea-floor spreading is fuelled by molten rock upwelling from deep inside the Earth.

On Enceladus, the scientists speculate the liquid may be water.

If that is the case, it makes this moon one of the most exciting targets for future exploration.

Enceladus is already known to have some of the fundamental chemistry required to make and sustain life. Liquid water currently is the major missing ingredient.

Dr Porco commented: “We first discovered this region in early 2005 and now it’s nearly four years later, so it’s still kind of brand new; but already there are some of us who really want to go back with a spacecraft that focuses on the south pole of Enceladus and investigates whether or not it is a site of either pre-biotic or biotic processes.”

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Donut Holes in Space


Cookie cutter in the sky: Seeing the shape of material around black holes for first time

Black holes can now be thought of as donut holes. The shape of material around black holes has been seen for the first time: an analysis of over 200 active galactic nuclei—cores of galaxies powered by disks of hot material feeding a super-massive black hole—shows that all have a consistent, ordered physical structure that seems to be independent of the black hole’s size.

“This should be a very messy and complicated environment, but the stuff flowing onto different black holes looks the same, no matter how massive the black hole is,” says Barry McKernan, a Research Associate in Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History and a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. “This observed shape should constrain all our ideas as to how the glow around black holes is produced, and if we can handle the stuff around black holes, we can begin to study black holes themselves.”

Although black holes cannot be seen directly, the hot material swirling around super-massive black holes can be observed. In this paper, McKernan and colleagues tested a hypothesis about the relationship between two extremes of radiation coming from around super-massive black holes: X-rays should come from very hot material close to the black hole, and infrared light should come from warm material much further from the hole. This pattern allowed them to tell if matter around the black hole was being observed face-on (looking directly down onto the black hole ringed by X-rays and infrared light) or edge-on (seeing only the side of the donut of material). Some of the infrared light should also come from part of the donut that has been fried by X-ray bombardment. By comparing the proportion of X-rays to infrared light coming from around a black hole, it is possible to indirectly figure out how material may be distributed around the black hole.

McKernan and colleagues looked at a large sample size of 245 active galactic nuclei containing black holes between 1 million and 100 million times heavier than the sun. All of these active galactic nuclei have been described, and data is available through the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database. After partitioning the systems into those observed edge-on and those observed face-on, the team found that 90% of the active galactic nuclei observable face-on had basically the same proportion of X-rays to infrared light.

“Because the data points in the infrared range are from the old Infrared Astronomical Satellite, we can say this is not a infrared-biased sample because the satellite looked at all of the sky,” says coauthor K.E. Saavik Ford, also a Research Associate in Astrophysics at AMNH and a professor at BMCC, CUNY. “It is interesting to learn something about black holes as a class.”

McKernan agrees. “Now we know they all look like donuts, and the same kind of donut too. The lack of variety would disappoint Homer Simpson.”

The research is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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Prehistoric Giants of the Sahara


Palaeontologists discover new species of prehistoric giants in the Sahara

Dinosaur hunters on a month-long expedition to the Sahara desert have returned home in time for Christmas with more than they ever dreamed of finding. They have unearthed not one but two possible new species of extinct animals. Their success marks one of the most exciting discoveries to come out of Africa for 50 years. The team have discovered what appears to be a new type of pterosaur and a previously unknown sauropod, a species of giant plant-eating dinosaur. Both would have lived almost one hundred million years ago.

The palaeontologists discovered a large fragment of beak from a giant flying reptile and a more than one metre long bone from a sauropod, which indicates an animal of almost 20 metres (65 feet) in length. The discovery of both is extremely rare.

The expedition was composed of scientists from the University of Portsmouth, University College Dublin (UCD) and the Universite Hassan II in Casablanca and was led by UCD palaeontologist, Nizar Ibrahim.

Ibrahim, who is an expert on North African dinosaurs, said: ‘Finding two specimens in one expedition is remarkable, especially as both might well represent completely new species.’

Dr David Martill, a reader in Palaeobiology at the University of Portsmouth, said: ‘Plant eaters are uncommon in this deposit, extremely rare in this region and to find one this large is very exciting. It’s a major discovery.’

For Martill it was also significant because it marked a successful conclusion to a quest begun almost 25 years ago. In 1984, driven back by sandstorms, his original mission to find a sauropod came to a halt just 20 miles away from the area of desert he had pinpointed as ripe for excavation. He returned empty handed but was left itching to retrace his steps.

A quarter of a century later he unearthed the dinosaur that eluded him so long ago, together with fellow enthusiast, Ibrahim to whom he is passing the baton.

Ibrahim will undertake the detailed analysis of the sauropod bone, which both scientists expect is a new species and genus of the sauropod family.

‘From our initial examination on site, we’re almost certain that we have a new species on our hands,’ said Ibrahim, who will spend the next six months examining all of the fossils and writing about them for his PhD thesis.

He will also examine the pterosaur remains which are particularly uncommon because their bones, optimised for flight, were light and flimsy and seldom well preserved.

He said: ‘Most pterosaur discoveries are just fragments of teeth and bone so it was thrilling to find a large part of a beak and this was enough to tell us we probably have a new species.’

The team spent a month in the desert and travelled over five thousand miles by Landrover in an epic overland trip which has taken them through the Atlas mountains and has seen them battling sandstorms and floods in an Indiana Jones-style quest.

Having discovered the giant sauropod bone they had to return to the nearest town to get more water and plaster with which to protect it, a trip which involved crossing flooded rivers in their Landrover at night with water coming in through the doors.

During their fieldwork they were cut off from civilisation for 4 days when heavy rain in the Atlas mountains flooded the river Ziz. To retrieve the bone they had to manhandle the fossil in its plaster jacket down the side of a mountain, clearing thousands of stones to make a safe path to carry it on a wooden stretcher.

‘There was a point when we wondered if we would make it out of the desert with the bone, but we had worked so hard to find it so there was no way I was leaving it behind. It took us 5 days to get the bone out of the ground and down the mountain – and that was not the end of our problems,’ said Ibrahim.

Dr Martill added: ‘When we had managed to get the bone in the Landrover the extra weight meant we kept sinking in the sand dunes and on several occasions everybody except the driver had to walk while we negotiated difficult terrain. Our journey home was equally eventful. While crossing the Atlas mountains we got caught in a snowstorm and total whiteout. But it’s all been worth it.’

The team were also excited to discover some rare dinosaur footprints, including some that record several animals walking along the same trail.

As well as discovering hundreds of dinosaur teeth, they also unearthed bits of giant crocodiles and some new species of fish.

Ibrahim said: ‘It’s amazing to think that millions of years ago the Sahara was in fact a lush green tropical paradise, home to giant dinosaurs and crocodiles and nothing like the dusty desert we see today. Even to a palaeontologist dealing in millions of years it gives one an overwhelming sense of deep time.’

The team also included Moroccan scientists Prof Samir Zouhri and Dr Lahssen Baidder as well as Portsmouth researchers Dr Darren Naish, Dr Robert Loveridge and Richard Hing.

Prof. Samir Zouhri, head of the Department of Geology at the Universite Hassan II in Casablanca said: ‘Nizar Ibrahim is a very determined researcher and I knew that he would have success on this trip, but these fossils exceeded our expectations. It is wonderful that we have made these siginficant discoveries and that they will return to Morocco for display after study in Dublin.’

The sauropod and the pterosaur were found in south-east Morocco, near the Algerian border.

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Japanese Scientists Can Read Your Mind

Not to turn a Cheap Trick with three times the love, but, “The Dream Police they live inside of my head,” is now reality.

Wow. Talk about the evolution of the police state. Wait until they start utilizing thought scanners on people and convicting them for imagibnary, potential crimes. Wait… where have I heard of that before?

PKD in the Big House.


Images read from human brain

OSAKA–In a world first, a research group in Kyoto Prefecture has succeeded in processing and displaying optically received images directly from the human brain.

The group of researchers at Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, including Yukiyasu Kamitani and Yoichi Miyawaki, from its NeuroInformatics Department, said about 100 million images can be read, adding that dreams as well as mental images are likely to be visualized in the future in the same manner.

The research will be published Thursday in the U.S. scientific journal “Neuron.”

Optically received images are converted to electrical signals in the retina and treated in the brain’s visual cortex.

In the recent experiment, the research group asked two people to look at 440 different still images one by one on a 100-pixel screen. Each of the images comprised random gray sections and flashing sections.

The research group measured subtle differences in brain activity patterns in the visual cortexes of the two people with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They then subdivided the images and recorded the subjects’ recognition patterns.

The research group later measured the visual cortexes of the two people who were looking at the word “neuron” and five geometric figures such as a square and a cross. Based on the stored brain patterns, the research group analyzed the brain activities and reconstructed the images of Roman letters and other figures, succeeding in recreating optically received images.

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The Late Spanish Neanderthals

More proof that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens interacted.

The Last Neandertals? Late Neandertals And Modern Human Contact In Southeastern Iberia

It is widely accepted that Upper Paleolithic early modern humans spread westward across Europe about 42,000 years ago, variably displacing and absorbing Neandertal populations in the process. However, Middle Paleolithic assemblages persisted for another 8,000 years in Iberia, presumably made by Neandertals. It has been unclear whether these late Middle Paleolithic Iberian assemblages were made by Neandertals, and what the nature of those humans might have been.

New research, published Dec. 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is now shedding some light on what were probably the last Neandertals.

The research is based on a study of human fossils found during the past decade at the Sima de la Palomas, Murcia, Spain by Michael Walker, professor at Universidad de Murcia, and colleagues, and published by Michael Walker, Erik Trinkaus, professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and colleagues.

The human fossils from the upper levels of the Sima de las Palomas are anatomically clearly Neandertals, and they are now securely dated to 40,000 years ago. They therefore establish the late persistence of Neandertals in this southwestern cul-de-sac of Europe. This reinforces the conclusion that the Neandertals were not merely swept away by advancing modern humans. The behavioral differences between these human groups must have been more subtle than the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic technological contrasts might imply.

In addition, the Palomas Neandertals variably exhibit a series of modern human features rare or absent in earlier Neandertals. Either they were evolving on their own towards the modern human pattern, or more likely, they had contact with early modern humans around the Pyrenees. If the latter, it implies that the persistence of the Middle Paleolithic in Iberia was a matter of choice, and not cultural retardation.

From the Sima de las Palomas, other late Neandertal sites, and recent discoveries of the earliest modern humans across Europe, a complex picture is emerging of shifting contact between behaviorally similar, if culturally and biologically different, human populations. Researchers are coming to see them all more as people, flexibly making a living through the changing human and natural landscapes of the Late Pleistocene.

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