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Sunday, October 4, 2009

First ape woman suggests human ancestors may have started walking in pursuit of sex

By Daily Mail Reporter

She lived at the dawn of a new era, when chimps and people began walking (or climbing) along their own evolutionary trails. This is Ardi - the oldest member of the human family tree we've found so far.

Short, hairy and with long arms, she roamed the forests of Africa 4.4million years ago.

Her discovery, reported in detail for the first time today, sheds light on a crucial period when we were just leaving the trees. Some scientists said she could provide evidence that our ancestors first started walking upright in the pursuit of sex.

skeleton
humanoid

Ardi's skeleton (left) revealed she was 4ft tall and weighed 7st 12oz

Conventional wisdom says our earliest ancestors first stood up on two legs when they moved out of the forest and into the open savannas. But this does not explain why Ardi's species was bipedal (able to walk on two legs) while still living partly in the trees.

Owen Lovejoy from Kent State University said the answer could be as simple as food and sex.

He pointed out that throughout evolution males have fought with other males for the right to mate with fertile females. Therefore you would expect dominant males with big fierce canines to pass their genes down the generations.

But say a lesser male, with small stubby teeth realised he could entice a fertile female into mating by bringing her some food? Males would be far more successful food-providers if they had their hands free to carry home items like fruit and roots if they walked on two legs.

Mr Lovejoy said this could explain why males from Ardi's species had small canines and stood upright - it was all in the pursuit of sex.

He added that it could also suggest that monogamous relationships may be far older than was first thought.

Ardi - short for Ardipithecus ramidus or 'root of the ground ape' - stood 4ft tall and weighed 110lb.

She lived a million years before the famous Lucy, the previous earliest skeleton of a hominid who was dug up in 1974.

Experts believe Ardi is very, very close to the 'missing link' common ancestor of humans and chimps, thought to have lived five to seven million years ago.

'This is not that common ancestor, but it's the closest we have ever been able to come,' said Dr Tim White, director of the Human Evolution Research Centre at the University of California, Berkeley, who reports the discovery today in Science. The first fossilised and crushed bones of Ardi were found in 1994 in Ethiopia's Afar Rift.

But it has taken an international team of 47 scientists 17 years to piece together, analyse and describe the remains.


Ardi's skeleton had been trampled and scattered, while the skull was crushed to just two inches in height.

Despite this, Dr David Pilbeam, curator of palaeoanthropology at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology said: 'This is one of the most important discoveries for the study of human evolution.

'It is relatively complete in that it preserves head, hands, feet, and some critical parts in between.'

Digital representations of Ardi's skull (left) and hand (right)

Researchers have pieced together 125 fragments of bone - including much of her skull, hands, feet, arms, legs and pelvis - which were dated using the volcanic layers of soil above and below the find.

The results were surprising. Previously, scientists believed that our common ancestor would have been very chimp-like, and that ancient hominids such as Ardi would still have much in common with them.

But she was not suited like a modern- day chimp to swinging or hanging from trees or walking on her knuckles.

This suggests that chimps and gorillas developed those characteristics after the split with humans - challenging the idea that they are merely an 'unevolved' version of us.

ape skeleton Ardi found in Ethiopia
ardi

Analysis of the ape skeleton of Ardi, found in Ethiopia in 1994, reveals humans and chimps evolved separately from a common ancestor

Ardipithecus ramidus


- Volcanic layers around the fossil were used to date it from 4.4million years ago

- Ardi's upper canine teeth are more similar to stubby human teeth than sharp chimpanzee teeth

- Tooth enamel analysis revealed they ate fruit, nuts and leaves

- Ardi's brain was positioned in a similar way to that of humans

- Pelvis and hip show the gluteal muscles were positioned so she could walk upright

Ardi's feet were rigid enough to allow her to walk upright some of the time, but she still had a grasping big toe for use in climbing trees.

And she had long arms but short palms and fingers which were flexible, allowing her to support her body weight on her palms.

Her upper canine teeth are more like the stubby teeth of modern people than the long, sharp ones of chimps. An analysis of her tooth enamel suggests she ate fruit, nuts and leaves.

Scientists believe she was a female because her skull is relatively small and lightly built. Her teeth were also smaller than other members of the same family that were found later.

Alan Walker, of Pennsylvania Sate University, told Science: 'These things were very odd creatures. You know what Tim (White) once said: 'If you wanted to find something that moved like these things you'd have to go to the bar in Star Wars'.'

Since the discovery, scientists have unearthed another 35 members of the Ardipithecus family.

Ardi was found in alongside crumbling fossils of 29 species of birds and 20 species of small mammals - including owls, parrots, shrews, bats and mice.

Lucy, also found in Africa, thrived a million years after Ardi and was of the more human-like genus Australopithecus.

'In Ardipithecus we have an unspecialized form that hasn't evolved very far in the direction of Australopithecus. So when you go from head to toe, you're seeing a mosaic creature that is neither chimpanzee, nor is it human. It is Ardipithecus,' said Dr White.

Last_Common_2.jpg

How Ardipithecus fits into humankind's evolutionary path

He noted that Charles Darwin, whose research in the 19th century paved the way for the science of evolution, was cautious about the last common ancestor between humans and apes.

'Darwin said we have to be really careful. The only way we're really going to know what this last common ancestor looked like is to go and find it. Well, at 4.4 million years ago we found something pretty close to it,' Dr White added.

'And, just like Darwin appreciated, evolution of the ape lineages and the human lineage has been going on independently since the time those lines split, since that last common ancestor we shared.'
Some details about Ardi in the collection of papers:

- Ardi was found in Ethiopia's Afar Rift, where many fossils of ancient plants and animals have been discovered. Findings near the skeleton indicate that at the time it was a wooded environment. Fossils of 29 species of birds and 20 species of small mammals were found at the site.

- Geologist Giday WoldeGabriel of Los Alamos National Laboratory was able to use volcanic layers above and below the fossil to date it to 4.4 million years ago.

- Paleoanthropologist Gen Suwa of the University of Tokyo reported that Ardi's face had a projecting muzzle, giving her an ape-like appearance. But it didn't thrust forward quite as much as the lower faces of modern African apes do.

Some features of her skull, such as the ridge above the eye socket, are quite different from those of chimpanzees.

The details of the bottom of the skull, where nerves and blood vessels enter the brain, indicate that Ardi's brain was positioned in a way similar to modern humans, possibly suggesting that the hominid brain may have been already poised to expand areas involving aspects of visual and spatial perception.

The first signs of Ardi were discovered in Middle Awash, a desert site that would have been much wetter, teeming with animal life and thickly covered with trees 4 million years ago. A graduate student from the University of California at Berkley found two finger bones. Further excavation turned up pieces of pelvis, feet, hands and skull. By the end of three years, scientists realised they'd found a paleontological treasure.

The search continues for the 'last common ancestor' from which both modern humans and modern chimpanzees can trace their ancestry.

Many experts think the common ancestor lived at least 7 million years ago.

Research on Ardi suggests that this ancestor didn't look nearly as much like a modern chimpanzee as had been previously suspected.

This suggests that chimpanzees have themselves evolved significantly.

For more information visit www.sciencemag.org

Opportunity Finds Another Big Meteorite

Written by Nancy Atkinson

Another Mars meteorite seen by Opportunity.  Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It's amazing what a rover can find laying by the side of the road. The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has found a rock that apparently is another meteorite. Less than three weeks ago, Opportunity drove away from a larger meteorite called "Block Island" that the rover examined for six weeks. Now, this new meteorite, dubbed "Shelter Island," is another fairly big rock, about 47 centimeters (18.8 inches) long, that fell from the skies. Block Island is about 60 centimeters (2 feet) across and was just 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) away from this latest meteorite find. At first look, the two meteorites look to be of a similar makeup; Opportunity found that Block Island was is made of nickel and iron.

This image was taken during Oppy's 2,022nd Martian day, or sol, (Oct. 1, 2009).

See below for a 3-D version of this image created by Stu Atkinson.

Scientists Discover What Makes The Same Type Of Cells Different

A research team led by Lucas Pelkmans at ETH Zürich has managed to decipher a well-known phenomenon that had, until now, remained unexplained: why cells of the same type can react differently, and what the reason for this is.

The properties of a cell population determine the different cell activities observed in cells of the same type. This is the conclusion drawn by a research team lead by Lucas Pelkmans, professor at the Institute for Molecular Systems Biology at ETH Zürich. The scientists examined the cause of the well-known phenomenon of cell heterogeneity. Until now, the reasons behind the different reactions seen in cells of the same type had not been scrutinised.

No random distribution

After three years of intensive development and research work, researchers have developed a computer-supported process, which allows them to observe the processes behind the variability of individual cells in cell cultures with millions of cells for the first time, and uncover the secret behind these processes. Until now, cell variability was simply called “noise”, implying statistical random distribution. However, the results of the study now show that the different reactions are not random, but that certain causes lead to predictable distribution patterns. The study has now been published in “Nature” and Pelkmans is glad to be reaping the first rewards for the research project, which was supported by ETH Zürich to the sum of 1.8 million Swiss Francs.

“For the project, we created an automated setup, the RNAi image-based screening centre, which we used to carry out a high turnover of cell experiments”, Pelkmans explains. The computer-supported methods were developed in conjunction with the experiments and allow the phenotypes of the cells to be quantified and described automatically. The data is fed into models and used to show how individual cell properties develop and affect each other.

The scientists focused their study on the cell properties predetermined by the population of the cell culture. This includes, for example, the size of the population, the local cell density, the size of an individual cell, whether the cell is on the edge of the cell culture and therefore not limited by another cell on one side, whether the cell is in the process of duplicating its nucleus (mitosis) or whether it is in the process of so-called programmed cell death.

Collecting large volumes of data

For each cell, the scientists examined the variety in endocytosis activity, by which cells invaginate parts of its biological membrane and absorbs the surrounding medium. They further looked at the variable amounts of a certain fat molecule (sphingolipid) on the surface of the cell, which plays an important role in relaying the cell’s signals and reactions. They also infected the cell culture with three different viruses and observed the differences in progression of the infection.

“We created a multivariable analysis of individual cells and obtained a very large number of very different readings”, Pelkmans explains. With this huge volume of data, the researchers used computer models to determine which variables affect each other. This allowed them to establish many rules, coined “heterogeneity signatures” by the scientists, which describe the way in which population-dependant properties of a cell culture influence cell reactions in the models.

Properties of the cell cultures determine variability

As the next step, the scientists tested how well the models would be able to predict the reactions of the cell. It was shown that this is possible with a high degree of accuracy and that the variability is clearly determined by the properties of the cell population. The cell cultures are naturally different from one another, explaining the broad variation in reactions of individual cells in the respective cell cultures during endocytosis and viral infections. For example, endocytosis is more uniform and is easier to control when the cell culture is densely populated, and certain diarrhoea-causing viruses can infect a less densely populated cell area more easily.

The findings are of particular significance for research using comparative cell cultures: “This is one of the most important methods, but at the same time also one that poses big problems for cell biologists”, says Pelkmans. The study has shown that reactions in two cell cultures can be better compared when the models to predict these reactions in each cell culture are used as a reference, taking into account the effect of the properties of a cell population of at least ten thousand cells. This is an important aspect, for example, for the pharmaceutical industry. As the study shows, many changes do not directly influence the cell, but the population as a whole, which then leads to changes in behaviour of individual cells.

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The Mating Game is a Team Sport

Are you looking for love but having trouble convincing the target of your infatuation to take you seriously? Or maybe hoping that certain unsavory types will stop looking for love with you? Well I'd recommend maybe updating your wardrobe and not hanging out in seedy bars by yourself anymore, but you might also be interested in new research suggesting that a important means of achieving your romantic goals involves less about what you do or where you do it, and more about who you do it with. That is, social coordination can improve your love life, whether that means finding the right person or avoiding the wrong one.

The idea that other people often factor into our search for romance is not new. Overbearing parents and desirable-but-pompous peers are two classic archetypes of history, literature and Hollywood movies (think Egeus in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Iceman in Top Gun). In scientific research, the role these other people play has by and large been restricted to competition. If you're a guy, other men represent people to trump in status or best in fights. If you're a girl, being more attractive or popular than other women is the name of the game. However, this other-people-as-competition framework misses a huge chunk of how we interact socially within romantic situations. We also: talk about potential romantic partners with people, find people to date by socially networking, and even directly help each other perform better on the mating market. You've probably done such things with your friends and family members. You may even have actively refrained from competing over the same guy or girl. These more cooperative forms of courtship behavior emerge through successful coordination of our own romantic interests with the interests of people with whom we share close, platonic relationships.

These behaviors may be immediately familiar, but research is now examining the evolutionary basis for "cooperative courtship" and identifying its differential appeal for women and men. Evolutionarily, the mating behavior of males and females (in all species) tends to be influenced by the physical and resource-based costs of pregnancy. Pregnancy is expensive, on the body as well as the pocketbook. The biological sex that spends the most effort gestating and rearing kids has the most to invest, and thus tends to be the most picky about choosing romantic partners (i.e., if you have to pay the cost, make sure to get a good deal). In many animals, including people, females are relatively more choosy. When it comes to cooperative courtship, therefore, females help each other to evaluate potential mates and avoid mates who don't make the grade. Males, on the other hand, tend to help each other get chosen. We see evidence for these strategies in animals, as when male turkeys help each other attract mates and when female bonobo chimpanzees form alliances to reduce sexual coercion.

People use very similar strategies, even though birth control has lowered the actual chance of unintended pregnancy. With my colleague Douglas Kenrick, I conducted several studies looking at how people coordinate their romantic interests. In one study, we showed people drawings of flirtatious scenes (see one in the image below) and asked them to identify who was a woman and who was a man.

Who would you guess? In other studies, we asked people about what kind of help people give to their friends and what kind of help they want to receive. We consistently found that everyone wants to help-competition is not the inevitable outcome. And though everyone helped in multiple ways, we found that women tended to help their friends build romantic barriers (weeding out the undesirable guys and testing the desirable ones), and men tended to help their friends break down those barriers (attempting to counter women's strategies). People used all sorts of techniques to do this, including having friends pose as counterfeit romantic partners (this worked for women AND men). Not only that, people also switched the kind of help they gave to their opposite-sex friends-now men helped women build barriers and women helped men break down barriers.

We even set up a Dating Game experiment in which people came to the lab expecting to be a contestant on a game show. The show wasn't all about competition though. At one point in the game, contestants had the option to act cooperatively with other contestants. Interestingly, in this "real-world" environment, women still gave more help when the potential date was an undesirable guy (suggesting barrier-building) and men still gave more help when the potential date was a desirable woman (suggesting barrier-breaking). We concluded that many of the romantic behaviors we think of as unique to our time and culture actually have their roots in universal biological principles.

There is still a lot of research to be done. I'd love to hear from people who have observed cooperative courtship in other cultures. Not all of the behaviors I mentioned will be cross-culturally identical, but I expect that people everywhere are helping each other achieve their romantic goals (e.g., in some cultures, family might provide more help than friends). I also think these findings are interesting because of their implications for cooperation in other contexts. For instance, how do people cooperate in business negotiations or in non-romantic social networking, and might women and men be better at certain negotiation and networking strategies than at others? Leave some comments below and let me know your thoughts.

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Scientists Develop Nasal Spray That Improves Memory


Good news for procrastinating students: a nasal spray developed by a team of German scientists promises to give late night cram sessions a major boost, if a good night's sleep follows. (Credit: iStockphoto/Ana Blazic)

Good news for procrastinating students: a nasal spray developed by a team of German scientists promises to give late night cram sessions a major boost, if a good night's sleep follows. In a research report featured as the cover story of the October 2009 print issue of The FASEB Journal, these scientists show that a molecule from the body's immune system (interleukin-6) when administered through the nose helps the brain retain emotional and procedural memories during REM sleep.

"Sleep to remember, a dream or reality?" said Lisa Marshall, co-author of the study, from the Department of Neuroendocrinology at the University of Lubeck in Germany. "Here, we provide the first evidence that the immunoregulatory signal interleukin-6 plays a beneficial role in sleep-dependent formation of long-term memory in humans."

To make this discovery, Marshall and colleagues had 17 healthy young men spend two nights in the laboratory. On each night after reading either an emotional or neutral short story, they sprayed a fluid into their nostrils which contained either interleukin-6 or a placebo fluid. The subsequent sleep and brain electric activity was monitored throughout the night. The next morning subjects wrote down as many words as they could remember from each of the two stories. Those who received the dose of IL-6 could remember more words.

"If a nasal spray can improve memory, perhaps we're on our way to giving some folks a whiff of common sense, such as accepting the realities of evolution," said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. "This is exciting piece of interdisciplinary science, since IL-6 had previously been considered a by-product of inflammation, not an agent that affects cognition."

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New fossil moves story of mankind back one million years

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent

The seven stone, four-foot tall female roamed forests 4.4 million years ago – a million years before the previous oldest discovered fossil.

Her skeleton promises to fill in gaps about how we became human and evolved from apes. It has already reversed some common assumptions of evolution.

Rather than humans evolving from chimps, the new find provides evidence that chimps and humans evolved together from another common more ancient ancestor.


Each has evolved and changed separately along the way, it is believed.

Formally known as Ardipithecus ramidus — which means root of the ground ape — the find is detailed in 11 research papers published in the journal Science.

“This is not that common ancestor, but it’s the closest we have ever been able to come,” said Dr Tim White, an anthropologist and one of the researchers at the University of California.

The lines that evolved into modern humans and living apes probably shared an ancestor six million to seven million years ago, the research suggests.

Ardi has many traits that do not appear in modern-day African apes, leading to the conclusion that the apes evolved extensively since they shared that last common ancestor with humans.

A study of Ardi, under way since the first bones were discovered in 1994 in the Afar region of Ethiopia, indicates her species lived in the woodlands and could climb on all fours along tree branches.

But the development of arms and legs indicates she did not spend much time in the trees, the study claims.

Her pelvis suggests she walked upright and her teeth are closer to humans than primates. While she would have had a muzzle, it did not project out as much as modern apes.

Dr White described her as a “mosaic” that was neither human or chimpanzee.

“The only way we’re really going to know what this last common ancestor looked like is to go and find it,” he said. “Well, at 4.4 million years ago we found something pretty close to it.”

Dr David Pilbeam, palaeoanthropology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, said: “This is one of the most important discoveries for the study of human evolution.

“It is relatively complete in that it preserves head, hands, feet, and some critical parts in between.”

Until the discovery of Ardi, the earliest well-known stage of human evolution was Australopithecus, the small-brained, fully bipedal “ape man” that lived between four million and one million years ago.

The most famous Australopithecus fossil is the 3.2-million-year-old “Lucy,” found in 1974 about 45 miles north of where Ardi would later be discovered.

Lucy was described as the “mother of man” and the missing link between humans and chimps. Before Ardi, she was thought to be the oldest fossil of a human ancestor that walked on two legs.

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Making people move in slow motion

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Brain artwork (SPL)
Brain waves appear to have a direct effect on behaviour

Researchers have used electrodes to make people move in slow motion.

The scientists "boosted" human subjects' brain waves - applying a small alternating current via electrodes on the volunteers' scalps.

These waves are patterns generated naturally by groups of neurons, or brain cells, firing in a rhythm.

In the journal Current Biology, the researchers described how their finding shows that brain waves directly affect human behaviour.

The results also reveal clues about movement disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, sufferers of which have difficulty making voluntary movements.

Lead author Professor Peter Brown, from University College London in the UK, said: "We induced the same patterns as you see in normal brains via electrodes."

He and his team boosted one specific form of relatively low frequency brain wave called a beta oscillation.

"Different parts of the brain work together and generate certain frequencies," he explained, "and the movement areas of the brain come together in beta activity.

"That activity is suppressed just prior to and during movement, so we think the body gets rid of it to prepare to make a new movement."

Subject with electrodes on scalp
Boosting beta brain waves slowed people's movement by 10%

To investigate the effect of this beta activity, the research team gave healthy human subjects electrical stimulation through their scalps.

"The currents we use are very small... but [they] shape the likelihood of neurons firing in the imposed rhythm," he told BBC News.

During the test each volunteer was shown a dot on a computer screen. They were able to control another marker on the same screen with a joystick.

"The dot jumped to a new location and when they were signalled to by an alarm they had to move [their marker] to that new location as quickly as they could," Professor Brown explained.

"When we applied the beta stimulation that quick movement was slowed by 10%.

"So we have a direct experiment showing a causal link between the oscillations and the behaviour," he said.

Professor Brown explained that beta activity was important in Parkinson's disease.

"So this information is very helpful," he said. "Since we've shown that this slows people down, it tells us what Parkinson's disease treatments should be trying to suppress."

Professor John Stein, a neuroscientist from the University of Oxford pioneered the theory of what he refers to as a "beta straitjacket" - a pattern of brain activity that prevents Parkinson's disease patients from making voluntary movements.

"The theory is that... in Parkinson's disease when people try to move they cannot suppress beta [brain waves] and therefore cannot move," he told BBC News.

"This study is the first to show... in normal subjects that beta activity actually slows movement. This supports a causal role for [the] activity in causing a fixed posture and tending to prevent voluntary movements."

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Shell Executives Accuse Oil-Covered Otter Of Playing It Up

The otter, milking it for every last ounce of sympathy.

OAK HARBOR, WA—Executives from the Shell Oil Company blasted a floundering, oil-covered sea otter Monday, accusing the small aquatic mammal of grossly exaggerating the effects of last week's hazardous petroleum spill.

According to Shell president Marvin Odum, the otter has been putting on "quite a show" in front of rescue workers and clean-up crews, and is making the 860,000-gallon, three-mile-wide toxic slick seem like a much bigger deal than it actually is.

"He's fine," said Odum, referring to the 40-pound sea creature, who was found washed ashore and appeared to be suffering from anaphylactic shock. "Trust me, before all of the cameras and reporters showed up, our little buddy here was having no problem at all cleaning himself off. Now, all of a sudden, it's severe spastic convulsions this and complete kidney failure that."

"Seriously, come on," the Shell executive continued. "Talk about laying it on thick."

Odum, who was alerted to the massive petroleum spill early Monday morning, claimed that the attention-seeking otter was not only overdoing it with his frantic and anguished squealing, but that his habit of gasping desperately for oxygen was "melodramatic."

In addition, Odum claimed that the otter's rapidly fluctuating body temperature and growing heart palpitations were nothing more than a sad attempt to curry favor with Coast Guard officials, Greenpeace volunteers, and anybody else not smart enough to see right through his "little ploy."

Enlarge Image Oil Clean-Up

Shell executives were disgusted by the flamboyant, over-the-top act put on by contaminated wildlife Monday.

"Give me a break," Odum said as rescue crews tried to remove hazardous waste from the mammal's pelt. "Clearly, this otter has some weird, personal vendetta against Shell and large corporations in general, and wants everyone to cry at his pathetic sob story."

"Just look at him out there," Odum added while volunteers tried to keep the sea creature from losing consciousness. "The sick bastard's loving every minute of this."

Odum also downplayed claims by rescue workers that the otter may not be able to handle the stress of the clean-off process, saying that the animal is "acting ridiculous" and is just doing an impression of what he thinks an otter affected by a massive oil spill is supposed to act like.

"The extreme shivering, the wheezing, the prolonged dehydration, it's all part of the same gaudy burlesque," Shell CEO Peter Voser said. "It's simple: The otter gets some oil on his body, and he thinks that gives him carte blanche to play the victim. Don't you people get it? This is exactly what he wants. You're all playing right into his twisted little game."

Voser even called into question the otter's mental stability, citing the sea pup's early attempts to drink the highly contaminated water around him as an example of just how far the publicity-hungry mammal was willing to go to make the Shell Oil Company look like "the bad guy."

On Saturday, Shell chairman Jorma J. Ollila issued a statement accusing the sea mammal of being a master manipulator, and said that what the otter really needs to do is grow up.

Ollila went on to praise a number of petroleum-soaked seals, pelicans, and sea turtles in the contaminated area, commending them for remaining completely still and silent, and not "making a big production" out of the environmental disaster when rescue and camera crews arrived at the scene.

The one-page document, however, focused largely on the single otter, who as of press time was in critical condition.

"Rescue crews have to stop coddling him and giving him everything he wants," Ollila said. "Because if they don't, other otters are just going to pull the exact same crap the next time one of our tankers ruptures and we spill crude oil everywhere."

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Dinosaur eggs are found in India

By Jyotsna Singh


Dinosaur egg found at the Tamil Nadu site
The find has been likened to the discovery of a treasure trove

Geologists in southern India say they have found hundreds of dinosaur egg clusters which could be about 65 million years old.

It was a chance find discovered when a team of scientists were locating a place to excavate an ancient riverbed in the state of Tamil Nadu.

As they dug deeper they saw layers of what looked like fossilised eggs.

The photos and samples were then sent to various universities who confirmed that they were dinosaur eggs.

Each egg is the size of a football - about 13 to 23cm in diameter, lying buried in sandy nests.

The leader of the team, MU Ramkumar, told the BBC the finding is significant and could help to unravel the mystery about the extinction of dinosaurs.

'Infertile'

"The important finding is that these eggs have been found in different layers that means the dinosaurs came to the place over and over year after year," he said.

Sauropod dinosaur
Sauropods are renowned for their size

"The second important thing is that we have got volcanic ash deposits on the eggs which suggests that volcanic activity could have caused their extinction.

"The other thing we have found is that all these eggs are unhatched and infertile. So what made the eggs infertile? We need to carry out further studies to learn more from the findings."

Scientists believe the eggs belong to the docile leaf-eating Sauropod branch of dinosaurs. Their remains have been dug up on every continent, including Antarctica.

Palaeontologists use the term to describe large, four-legged, plant-eating dinosaurs with bulky bodies, long necks and tails and tiny heads with relatively small brains.

Dr Ramkumar and his team have called on the central and state governments to protect what they are calling a "Jurassic treasure trove".

The presence of dinosaur eggs was first recorded in the same district by a British geologist in the 1860s. In the 1990s a dinosaur egg was found in a government-owned factory in the state.

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Triton's Ice Doesn't Mix


Content prepared in collaboration with Discovery Space partner Lowell Observatory.

Triton is a mysterious world. Orbiting the gas giant Neptune, the planet's biggest moon was imaged up-close for the first time during Voyager 2's flyby of the outer reaches of the Solar System in 1989. Since then, no other robotic explorer has strayed close enough to catch a glimpse.

What makes Triton an interesting moon for me is the fact that it wasn't born from Neptune's debris disk when the planet was forming; Triton was kidnapped from the Kuiper Belt. Neptune is a gravitational bully, stirring up the Kuiper Belt population, nudging Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) into "resonances". However, Triton wasn't nudged, it was plucked from this icy region of asteroids and dwarf planets to become the oddball of Neptune's moon system.

Triton, if it wasn't the victim of planetary abduction, is actually an impressively-sized world itself. With a diameter of 2700 km (1680 miles), the is 40% larger than Pluto! It also orbits Neptune the wrong way, its retrograde orbit an obvious sign that it doesn't really belong there.

As one would expect with such a distant moon, it is actually rather icy, and planetary scientists and astronomers have been intrigued by Triton's composition for some time. In a publication soon to appear in the journal Icarus, a team of researchers have carried out a decade-long detailed infrared analysis (NASA Infrared Telescope Facility's SpeX instrument) of the various ices on the surface of Triton and discovered something peculiar. The different types of ice do not mix and they appear to be distributed separately, varying in concentration during the seasons.

"The expectation is that nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide should all go together," said Will Grundy, a Lowell Observatory planetary scientist and lead author of the paper. "They are volatile enough to move around even on the stately seasonal pace of Triton time scales. What we've observed, however, is that carbon monoxide and nitrogen do go together nicely, but the methane is doing its own thing."

Grundy suspects that methane has a different distribution due to the molecule's less volatile behavior at Triton's extremely cold surface temperatures.

The researchers also noticed a significant enhancement of nitrogen ice on Triton's Neptune-facing hemisphere. Also, carbon monoxide ice exhibits similar behaviour as nitrogen concentrations, indicating they occupy the same location. However, the methane ice has a completely different spatial distribution; it appears to be located in regions facing away from Neptune.

Over the 10-year study, the team also noticed that water and carbon dioxide ices (non-volatile ice species) are evenly distributed over the moon's surface.

"This type of long-term, detailed analysis would be equally valuable for small icy planets like Pluto, Eris, and Makemake, all of which are similar to Triton in having volatile ices like methane and nitrogen on their surfaces," said Grundy. "We have been monitoring Pluto's spectrum in parallel with that of Triton, but Eris and Makemake are quite a bit fainter. It is hard to get time on large telescopes to monitor them year after year. We expect that Lowell Observatory's Discovery Channel Telescope will play a valuable role in this type of research when it comes on line."

A special thanks to Steele Wotkyns, Public Relations Manager at Lowell Observatory for providing the material for this article.

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Gravitational Corridors Act Like Space Lanes


By Bill Christensen

Gravitational corridors describe minimum energy pathways between objects in the solar system; they connect Lagrange points where gravitational forces balance out. They were first investigated by Jules-Henri Poincare, the French mathematician, in the 1890's.

These twisting, ever-changing pathways provide low speed but highly fuel efficient paths between planets and moons. They create what some call an Interplanetary Transport Network connecting all of the major bodies in the solar system.

These paths are reminiscent of that wonderful sf notion space-lanes. As far as I know, the first mention of this phrase was in Edmond Hamilton's 1928 classic Crashing Suns:

He had travelled the space-lanes of the solar system for the greater part of his life, and now all of his time-honored rules of interplanetary navigation had been upset by this new cruiser.

Just a generation later, Philip K. Dick borrowed this majestic term and used it to describe a harrowing daily commute back to Earth:

Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearily home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office. The Ganymede-Terra lanes were choked with exhausted, grim-faced businessmen; Jupiter was in opposition to Earth and the trip was a good two hours.

In more modern sf movies, you might want to use a stellar cartography room, like the ones depicted in Star Trek: The Next Generation, to plot these routes.

Hardy spacefarers eager to ply the gravitational corridors between the Earth and Mars in real life should be prepared for a long voyage, though; it could take thousands of years. The best use for these "space-lanes" is as low-consumption routes between the moons of a planet like Jupiter.

One example of a real-life space voyage to use this method was the Genesis spacecraft launched in 2004 to capture solar wind particles and return with them to Earth.

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