Category Archives: New Scientist

New Scientist – Domesticated Dogs, A New Giant Dinosaur and Guess What the Oldest Image of an Animal Ever Found Shows?

Photo One By Gunner Ries Amphibol - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5996125

Wolf on the look out (Photo One)

Original article by Michael Marshall here.

Dear Readers, domesticated dogs split genetically from wolves at some point between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago, but we don’t know where it happened, or why. Some scientists believe that the wolves helped humans to hunt, and the relationship developed from there. Others think that wolves scavenged around waste dumps, and so became used to humans.

However, Maria Lahtinen of the Finnish Food Authority has another explanation. She and her colleagues estimated how much food was available during the Arctic winters, and has calculated that humans probably ended up with more meat than they could eat – humans have a limited capacity to process protein, which would have led to food being available to feed to orphaned wolf cubs. To my mind, this is part of an explanation rather than the whole thing: after all, lots of animals eat meat, but only wolves ended up becoming domesticated. Maybe the cubs were recognised as being useful in the hunt, and so were treated as working animals rather than pets? It’s an interesting theory, however, and helps to fill in the mosaic of reasons for why dogs rather than wolverines or badgers or otters ended up becoming ‘man’s best friend’.

Photo Two by Dinosaur Zoo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Argentinosaurus with human for size comparison (Photo Two)

Stop press! Scientists in Argentina are excavating a fossil that they *think* might belong to the largest land animal that ever lived. Known as Argentinosaurs or titanosaurs, these huge animals lived about 98 million years ago. They are sauropods, more familiar to old ‘uns like me via animals like the brontasaurus and brachiosaurus – all of them have small heads, a long, long neck and tail, and four pillar-like legs. When I was growing up, it was assumed that they had to be at least semi-aquatic to bear the weight of their bodies, but these days scientists think that, while they probably lived in wet and coastal areas, they had plenty of physical adaptations to ensure that they could wander across the landscape like so many gigantic reptilian giraffes.

So, how big were they? The scientists, led by researchers from Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, are saying that, from the remains that they’ve discovered, they think that their sauropod is ‘bigger than Patagotitan’, a creature that measured 37 metres (121 feet) long, and weighed 85 tonnes. However, everyone is a little nervous about definitively stating that this is ‘the big one’, as researchers have been found to have overestimated the size of ‘their’ critter before.

One very interesting thing is that there were sauropods of various sizes walking around 98 million years ago – some were a mere 6 metres long (which is still bigger than a car of course). It’s likely that each species had a particular ecological niche, preferring specific plants or types of habitat. Oh for a time machine, to go back and see these amazing creatures in action! Though I’ve watched enough science fiction films to know what happens if I accidentally drop a hair pin or a pair of nail scissors, so it’s probably not a great idea.

The original article by Joshua Rapp Learn is here

Cave paintings showing three pigs (one complete, two vestigial) plus two handprints (Photos by A. A. Octaviana)

And finally, cave paintings found in Indonesia show the oldest known image of an animal in the world – they are at least 45,000 years old, and could be older. The paintings, in Sulawesi, show a complete life size Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), an animal that was extremely important to the early hunter-gatherers of the region. The painting has been partly covered by a mineral deposit, and it’s this that gives the approximate date although, as the deposit overlaps the image of the pigs, the image itself could be much older.

The hand prints in the top left-hand corner are usually made by someone taking a mouthful of paint and blowing it over the hand, so the researchers hope that they can extract some residual saliva for DNA analysis.

The date of the paintings, which makes them as old as those found in Europe, raises interesting questions about the routes taken by humans when they left Africa – it used to be thought that eastern Asia was inhabited rather later. There is a scarcity of human remains in the area, so there are some thoughts that the paintings could actually have been made by Neanderthals, rather than humans. It will be very interesting to see how this story develops, but what it does point up, to me, is the extremely close observation of animals by early societies, and the significance that such creatures had in the lives of humans.

You can read the original story, by Ibrahim Sawal, here, and there is also a short film which gives an idea of the scale of the painting

Photo Credits

Photo One By Gunner Ries Amphibol – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5996125

Photo Two by Dinosaur Zoo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

New Scientist – Harvesting Plants for Rare Metals

Photo One by Anthony van der Ent from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24933160-900-plants-that-suck-metals-from-the-soil-can-be-farmed-to-make-our-tech/

Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi oozing nickel-rich sap (Photo One by Anthony van der Ent) 

This post is based on this article from New Scientist by Michael Allen. 

Dear Readers, for many years it’s been known that plants are useful for bioremediation: some species of brassica guzzle up metals such as nickel from the soil, cleaning it in the process, and lichens are also known to help clean up pollutants. It’s thought that plants do this because the metals are toxic, and might therefore help to protect them against insect predators. Such plants are known as hyperaccumulators because they store so much of the element.

However, when Anthony van der Ent, a plant-hunter based at the University of Queensland in Australia, found a shrub called Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi at a park ranger’s station in Malaysian Borneo, he noticed that it oozed a bright blue-green sap. Upon analysis, it turned out that the sap contained 25% nickel by weight.

Nickel is an essential ingredient in products such as computers and smart phones, but will become even more important with the advent of the rechargeable batteries in electric cars. The metal is also needed for wind turbines. It’s estimated that for electric cars alone, the amount of nickel needed will double, to 256,000 tonnes, by 2025. But the normal method of getting the metal is by strip-mining, one of the most environmentally devastating extraction methods: it creates defoliation, soil erosion and pollutant run-off which contaminates sea water and rivers. One of the leading world nickel producers is the tiny island of New Caledonia. 

Photo Two by Gunnar Ries, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Open cast nickel mine in New Caledonia (Photo Two)

So, would it be possible to grow hyperaccumulating plants so that the nickel could be extracted from them, rather than despoiling the environment? One problem is that the plants don’t grow just anywhere: the metals in the soil are found in areas which had a lot of tectonic activity which meant that instead of just sinking, the elements were raised to the surface. Such soil is known as ‘ultramafic’.

Having found his plant, Anthony van der Ent set about creating the world’s ‘first tropical metal farm’ in Sabah in Borneo. He and his colleagues are growing Phyllanthus ruruschaneyi: every year the shrub is coppiced, the stems and leaves are pulped, and the nickel is extracted. In 2019 they reported a yield of 250 kilograms per hectare, currently worth almost $4000.

A long-time collaborator of van der Ent’s, Guillaume Echevarria of the University of Lorraine in France, also wanted to see what was possible, but using a tropical plant didn’t seem the right way to go. Instead, he used a different hyperaccumulator (not specified in the article but probably an Alyssum species). He has chosen some plots on ultramafic soil in Albania, and the plant is sowed and harvested by local farmers. The plant is then transported to France and burned to produce nickel-rich ash, from which the metal is extracted. The energy yielded by the burning is used as a heat source for nearby buildings, so Echevarria considers that the whole project comes in as carbon-neutral.

Although the results are not as promising as in Borneo, the plant still yields about 200 kilograms per hectare which, at around $3000 at today’s prices still makes this a viable business. For comparison, a hectare’s worth of wheat in the UK can be sold for about $2100.

While Van der Ent thinks that the whole project could be scaled up in areas where there are ultramafic soils, such as Indonesia, Echevarria is more cautious, and I have to say that I would be worried about large scale ‘phytomining’ too. Many areas of the world which are otherwise suitable for growing hyperaccumulators are also biodiversity hotspots and protected areas, and having seen the palm oil plantations in Sabah, the last thing the world needs is more hectares of monocultures. However, there are some areas, particularly in Greece, Albania and Bulgaria, where farms are being abandoned because the soil is so poor for other agricultural applications, and at least growing plants could help to stabilise and revegetate such areas, whilst providing the farmers with some extra income. Echevarria thinks that phytomining could provide a few percent of the global nickel requirements, which is not to be sniffed at.

It’s not just nickel either. Plants that hyperaccumulate arsenic, cobalt, manganese, zinc and rare earths have been discovered. Marie-Odile Simonnot, also at the University of Lorraine, has been assessing Dicranopteris dichotoma, a fern that grows naturally on spoil heaps near rare earth mines in China’s Jiangxi province.

Photo Three from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dicranopteris-dichotoma-Fern-100-Seeds/dp/B07BJ9GPVG

Dicranopteris dichotoma (Photo Three)

It seems to be possible to harvest about 300 kilograms of mixed rare earth metals per hectare, including lanthanum, cerium, prasedoymium and neodymium from this plant, and Simonnot is working with Chinese scientists to run trials at old mining sites. This seems like a win-win to me, as the plant seems to grow in landscapes that are already environmentally devastated, and which could only be improved by a bit of native plant cover.

Nowadays, though, Van der Ent is no longer trudging through the jungles of Borneo. Instead, he is hunting through the herbariums of the world’s museums with a handheld X-Ray flourescence spectroscope. This gives an instant read-out of the elements that a specimen contains, and hundreds of new hyperaccumulators have been found in this way. Who knows what other secrets the plant kingdom contains? Let’s hope that this time we are able to work with nature to make the most of them, rather than against her.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Anthony van der Ent from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24933160-900-plants-that-suck-metals-from-the-soil-can-be-farmed-to-make-our-tech/

Photo Two by Gunnar Ries, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dicranopteris-dichotoma-Fern-100-Seeds/dp/B07BJ9GPVG

New Scientist Highlights of 2020 – Part Two

Photo by Gerry Matthews (Alamy) from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2255352-coronavirus-lockdown-changed-how-birds-sing-in-san-francisco/

White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, before we finally say goodbye to 2020, here are a few final stories from New Scientist that caught my eye.

The first is pandemic-related, as nearly everything seems to be at the moment. White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucphrys) were found to be singing differently during the Covid lockdown in San Francisco, and scientist Elizabeth Derryberry, from the University of Tennessee, wondered how, and why.

The birds were found to be singing more quietly and at a deeper pitch – it’s known that birds react to the low-frequency background drone of traffic and air conditioners by singing not only louder, but at a higher frequency so that they can be heard over the racket. The noise level in San Francisco had dropped by a full 7 decibels, and so the birds seem to have reverted to their older, sexier songs – birds actually seem to prefer deeper sounds (think Barry White as opposed to Tiny Tim). If you go to the full article here, you can hear both birdsongs. The scientist says that ‘they sing like they used to thirty years ago’. I suppose this is both sad, but also hopeful – birds and other urban animals seem to be so much more adaptable than we thought.

Photo Two by By Ra'ike (see also: de:Benutzer:Ra'ike) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4540111

Skeleton of cave bear showing enormous sinuses! (Photo Two)

But not all animals are able to adapt. The prehistoric cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) that used to weigh over 1000 kilograms, and existed alongside our present-day brown bears (Ursus arctos), probably became extinct because they had over-large sinuses. Who knew? These huge animals, who disappeared about 24,000 years ago, lived on a largely plant-based diet. When the ice-ages made vegetation difficult to come by, the cave bears couldn’t switch to a meat-based diet, because their sinuses meant that they could only chew food with their back teeth, while carnivores typically cut up their food with their incisors and canines at the front. The brown bears had smaller sinuses, and hence could switch from a herbivorous to a carnivorous diet.

But why have such big sinuses in the first place? They are thought to play an important role in gas-exchange during hibernation, allowing the bears to hibernate for longer. However, as the poor cave bears wouldn’t have been able to fatten up due to the lack of plant food, they probably starved while they were sleeping. It was one of those evolutionary trade-offs that failed.

You can read the whole article here.

Photo Three from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2229070-hagfish-tie-their-bodies-into-complicated-knots-to-escape-tight-spots/

Pacific hagfish (Photo Three)

Hagfish are extraordinary animals. Early ancestors of the eel, they have four times as much blood compared to their volume as any other fish, four hearts and only half a jaw. When trapped by a predator or accidentally stuck in a tight spot, they throw complex knots and shapes in an attempt to escape. Because this is a very slippery fast-moving process, it’s taken modern technology and a slow-motion camera to decipher what’s going on. Now, scientist Theodore Uyeno has discovered that the animals prefer more complex knots – the hypothesis is that the simpler ones may be more uncomfortable because the loops are so tight.

So, 45 percent of the time the hagfish do a trefoil knot:

Photo Four from By Jim.belkAnimation: MichaelFrey (talk) - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75360346

Trefoil knot (Photo Four)

33% of the time they do a figure-of-eight knot…

Photo Five by By Lucasbosch - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17249329

Figure-of-eight knot (Photo Five)

and 4% of the time they manage a three-twist knot, the only animal able to do so (Moray eels can knock up a knot, but nothing this complicated). Kompologists rejoice!

Photo Six by Original: Jim.belk Animation: MichaelFrey, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Three-twist knot (Photo Six)

And finally, how about this little creature with its ‘hats’?

Photo Seven by Alan Henderson at Cover Images. Photo from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24632881-200-weird-caterpillar-uses-its-old-heads-to-make-an-elaborate-hat/

Uraba lugens caterpillar – the moth is also known as the ‘gumleaf skeletoniser’ (Photo Seven)

Each ‘hat’ is the moulted skin of the caterpillar’s head – they moult up to thirteen times before they metamorphose into moths, and from the fourth moult on, each ‘hat’ stays stuck. You can see how the size of the head gets bigger from the top down, as the larva munches on eucalyptus leaves: an alternative name is the ‘gumleaf skeletoniser’ because the foliage is eaten right back to the veins.

The ‘hats’ seem to fulfil a useful purpose: biologists have watched the caterpillar using them to swat away predators, and they may also serve to distract a curious bird who will hopefully peck at the wrong ‘head’. You can read the whole article here.

And so, dear readers, onwards and into 2021. Who knows what those scientists will discover next?

Photo Credits

Photo One by Gerry Matthews (Alamy) from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2255352-coronavirus-lockdown-changed-how-birds-sing-in-san-francisco/

Photo Two By Ra’ike (see also: de:Benutzer:Ra’ike) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4540111

Photo Three from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2229070-hagfish-tie-their-bodies-into-complicated-knots-to-escape-tight-spots/

Photo Four By Jim.belkAnimation: MichaelFrey (talk) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75360346

Photo Five  By Lucasbosch – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17249329

Photo Six by Original: Jim.belk Animation: MichaelFrey, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by Alan Henderson at Cover Images. Photo from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24632881-200-weird-caterpillar-uses-its-old-heads-to-make-an-elaborate-hat/

New Scientist – Highlights of 2020 Part One

Title Photo from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24833132-300-image-of-fairy-penguins-watching-melbourne-lights-wins-photo-prize/

Two Fairy Penguins at St Kilda Pier, Melbourne, Australia – winner of Oceanographic Magazines ‘Ocean Photography Awards’ 2020. The photographer is Tobias Baumgaertner (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, whilst 2020 has been in many ways the gift that just keeps giving, New Scientist has kept me fascinated and amused with its stories of wildlife and plants, both extinct and extant. This lovely photo of two Fairy Penguins (Eudyptula minor) seems so appropriate for this time somehow. Fairy Penguins (also known as Little Penguins) are, indeed, little – they only stand just over a foot tall. This pair would stand and watch the twinkling lights of Melbourne for hours, according to the photographer Tobias Baumgaertner. The Fairy Penguin colony at St Kilda Pier numbers about 1400 individuals, but the penguins in the photo wanted a few minutes away from the bustle of the colony.

And while we’re on the subject of photography, the world’s largest digital camera, which will form part of the sensor array at the Vera C.Rubin Observatory in Chile, was tested by taking the largest photograph every taken – this 3.2 gigapixel photo of a romanesco cauliflower. The camera is powerful enough to take a detailed photo of a golf ball 24 kilometres away, and will eventually be part of a project that will survey the southern sky for the next ten years.

Photo Two from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2253897-this-3-2-gigapixel-cauliflower-is-the-largest-photograph-ever-taken/

The largest photo ever taken (Photo Two) from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Now, if you go out for a walk during lockdown in the UK, you are more likely than ever to spot some of these most unlikely creatures – red-necked wallabies.

Photo Two by By Noodle snacks (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/)Bennett's Wallaby) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12200847

Red-necked wallaby (Notamacropus rufogriseus) (Photo Three)

Wild wallabies have been spotted on the UK on at least 100 occasions during the past decade, according to a study by Holly English at University College Dublin. Originally from Eastern Australia and Tasmania, these animals were popular in collections all across the UK, and have thrived when they’ve managed to jump over the fence. There is a population of about 1750 individuals on the Isle of Man, a breeding population on Inchconnan Island in Loch Lomond which were set free by their owner in the 1940’s, and English believes that there might also be wallabies breeding in Cornwall and the Chilterns.

The native habitat of these wallabies is surprisingly not that different from the warmer, wetter parts of the UK (and of course everywhere is getting warmer and probably wetter with climate change).

There was also a small population in the Peak District, but these died out in about 2009 following big winter storms.

Generally wallabies are not thought to present any problems with regard to native UK species, but they have become invasive in New Zealand, so one to watch I think.

You can read the whole article here.

And finally, Johan Hermans, a botanist from Kew Gardens thinks he may have found ‘the world’s ugliest plant’ in Madagascar. The orchid lives in deep shade in the leaf-litter of a forest in the south-eastern part of the country.  Gastrodia agnicellis’s species name, which means ‘little lamb’, refers to its woolly root, and the idea that the flower looks a bit like a lamb’s tongue.

Hermans expected the flower to smell unpleasant – many forest-floor orchids are pollinated by flies, and so smell like decaying flesh. However, this one has ‘a fresh citrussy smell’, and Hermans says that we still don’t know how the plant reproduces. It spends most of its time underground and only emerges to flower and disperse its seeds. Let’s hope that this strange plant, which grows only in a tiny area of the south-eastern forest, where deforestation and burning for agriculture are a constant threat, will survive.

Photo Four by Rick Burian. Taken from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2263273-newly-discovered-orchid-species-labelled-the-ugliest-in-the-world/

Gastrodia agnicellis (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Title Photo from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24833132-300-image-of-fairy-penguins-watching-melbourne-lights-wins-photo-prize/ by Tobias Baumgaertner

Photo Two from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2253897-this-3-2-gigapixel-cauliflower-is-the-largest-photograph-ever-taken/  by SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Photo Three By Noodle snacks (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/)Bennett’s Wallaby) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12200847

Photo Four by Rick Burian. Taken from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2263273-newly-discovered-orchid-species-labelled-the-ugliest-in-the-world/

 

 

Highlights from New Scientist – More Ivy, Earlier Autumn and Plane-Sabotaging Wasps

Ivy bee (Colletes hederae)

Dear Readers, as you might know I am generally a big fan of ivy as a wildlife habitat, and so the news that ivy is becoming more common right across Europe might be a kind of good news. Michael Perring at Ghent University in Belgium has been looking at more than 1800 research plots in 40 forest regions across temperate Europe. The data covers the period between 1933 and 2015, and by the end of this period, ivy was found in 14% more of the sites than at the beginning. Most other plant species haven’t spread, and some species are found at fewer sites.

The biggest predictor was local temperature rise, so our old friend climate change is implicated yet again. However, two other factors were the amount of shade and nitrogen levels. Many managed forests are becoming shadier, though the article doesn’t say why – in forestry sites I would imagine this is because of higher stocking density, but in other woods it might be due to the decline of techniques such as coppicing. In shady woods, ivy has an immediate advantage because it’s evergreen, and so can photosynthesize when the leaves on the trees are gone in winter. In the uncoppiced parts of Coldfall, it’s mainly the evergreens such as yew and holly that survive in the understorey, along with ivy.

Nitrogen pollution through the burning of fossil fuels and agricultural run-off also seems to encourage the growth of ivy, possibly a reason that it’s one of those plants that still flourishes in cities.

The Woodland Trust agrees that it isn’t all bad news – as we know ivy is a great wildlife plant. But I do worry about the lessening of biodiversity that this study shows. What about species that are disappearing from our woods? It would be good to know about them too.

Let’s stay in the forest for now – a study by Constantin Zohner at ETH Zurich in Switzerland has completed a study that shows that climate change is causing autumn leaves to fall earlier than they used to. Zohner and his colleagues looked at leaf fall data from 1948 to 2015 for six tree species (including the common oak, Quercus robur) across 4000 sites in Central Europe. They also grew trees in chambers containing different amounts of carbon dioxide and different levels of sunlight to see when the leaves fell. Finally, they modelled the data to see what would have happened by 2100 if carbon dioxide levels remained high.

They found that leaf-fall would probably start about three to six days earlier than now. This happens because higher carbon dioxide levels and temperatures mean that the spring leaves grow faster and are more productive, and so the life of the leaf is shortened.

Why does it matter? Leaves are a major way of storing carbon, which they tie up when they photosynthesise. If they fall earlier, that’s less time for them to absorb the carbon. Zohner thinks this could account for about 1 gigatonne of carbon less stored globally each year by temperature forests – this is roughly a tenth of what we currently emit. The way that climate change disrupts the cycles of life are myriad and complex.

Photo One By gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K - Mason Wasp inspecting holes, Pachodynerus nasidens, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49860259

Keyhole wasp (Pachnodynerus nasidens) (Photo One)

And finally, who knew that a little wasp could crash a plane? The keyhole wasp (Pachnodynerus nasidens) is a type of mason wasp who would normally find a tiny hole in a wall and build its nest there. It is native to the Neotropics, but has recently found its way to the northern United States and to some parts of Oceania, including, of all places, Brisbane Airport. At the airport, there were a number of incidents with pilots having problems with their airspeed monitors, which are housed in devices called pitot tubes.

To find out what was going on Alan House, at consulting firm Eco Logical Australia, created some 3D replica pitot tubes and set them up at the airport. After 39 months it was found that 93 of the tubes had become completely blocked by the nests of the keyhole wasps.

For once, the solution wasn’t to spray the whole place with insecticide. Instead, the tubes are now covered when planes arrive at Brisbane airport, so the wasps have to find somewhere else to make their nests. Simple.

Photo Credits

Photo One By gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K – Mason Wasp inspecting holes, Pachodynerus nasidens, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49860259