No updates for a while

I wish this notice could be more precise, but this is a time when under the dictate of highly unpredictable events, I have to set aside my long-standing commitment to update this site. Paul Woodward

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Why your brain hates other people

Robert Sapolsky writes: As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups.

It’s been said, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.” In reality, there’s lots more of the former. And it can be vastly consequential when people are divided into Us and Them, ingroup and outgroup, “the people” (i.e., our kind) and the Others.

Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture. We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex taxonomies and classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality. Pretty depressing.

But crucially, there is room for optimism. Much of that is grounded in something definedly human, which is that we all carry multiple Us/Them divisions in our heads. A Them in one case can be an Us in another, and it can only take an instant for that identity to flip. Thus, there is hope that, with science’s help, clannishness and xenophobia can lessen, perhaps even so much so that Hollywood-extra chimps and gorillas can break bread together. [Continue reading…]

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Why human society isn’t more — or less — violent than in the past

Michael Price writes: Are people in big, modern societies more or less violent than our forebears? The answer is neither, according to a controversial new study: People who lived in small bands in the past had no more proclivity toward violence than we do today. The finding—based on estimates of war casualties throughout history—undercuts the popular argument that humans have become a more peaceful species over time, thanks to advances in technology and governance. But some critics aren’t convinced.

That includes the man who most recently popularized the idea, psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University, who calls the new findings “a statistical gimmick.” He argues in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that the emergence of institutions like nation-states with strong central governments, trade networks, and wide-ranging communication increased interdependence and reduced deaths due to violence. He cited data suggesting that fewer people die in wars today, relative to a society’s total population, than among small tribes of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and horticulturalists—how human society organized for most of its history.

But a team led by anthropologist Rahul Oka at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana wondered whether there was a mathematical explanation for why fewer people proportionally are lost to violence nowadays. They reasoned that as populations get bigger, their armies don’t necessarily grow at the same rate. In a small group of 100 adults, for example, it would be perfectly reasonable to have 25 warriors, says anthropologist and study co-author Mark Golitko, also at Notre Dame. But in a population of 100 million, supporting and coordinating an army of 25 million soldiers is logistically impossible, to say nothing of such an army’s effectiveness. Researchers call that incongruity a scaling effect. [Continue reading…]

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We found evidence of early humans in the jungles of Borneo

File 20171214 27562 12z05o6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Digging in Traders Cave in the iconic Niah Caves archaeological complex. Darren Curnoe excavates while Roshan Peiris observes. (Photo: Mhd. S. Sauffi/Darren Curnoe) Author provided

By Darren Curnoe, UNSW

I recently led a team excavating at one of the most iconic archaeological locations in Southeast Asia, Niah Caves in Malaysia.

Over a period of three weeks, we dug through what we believe to be around 20,000 years of human history. We uncovered several human bones, the remains of large mammals (probably deer and wild cattle) and marine oyster shells indicating a period of seafood meals. Stone tools and charred rocks were also unearthed.

It was exciting and a little bit daunting to be digging at Niah Caves, given its place in both the history of archaeology and more broadly of humankind.

Daily Dig Diary Day 21: ancient human bones, tools and oyster shells were found at various depths. All diary postings can be seen at https://www.facebook.com/curnoeanthropologist/.

Read more: Curious Kids: Where did the first person come from?


Famous for head hunters

Niah Caves National Park is located in the eastern part of Sarawak, a state of Malaysia that hugs the northern coastal strip of the island of Borneo.

Borneo straddles the equator, and is covered mostly by dense tropical rainforest. It’s home to a remarkable variety of wildlife, including the endangered orangutan.

Sarawak also has a rich cultural heritage with almost 40 indigenous linguistic or cultural groups living there. It is an island that was famous until the 1970s for its head hunters.

It’s also the place where Alfred Wallace, credited by history as the discoverer of evolution by means of natural selection, developed his ideas during the nineteenth century.


Read more: World’s scientists turn to Asia and Australia to rewrite human history


Sarawak also has an extraordinary history of human occupation. This stretches back at least 46,000 years ago, soon after the earliest modern humans settled the region after they made their long journey out of Africa.

Borneo is the island where these early people began island hopping across Southeast Asia and eventually settling New Guinea and Australia, making it crucial also to understanding ancient human history across the Australasian region.

[Read more…]

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Ancient penguins were giant waddling predators

Carl Zimmer writes: The 57 million-year-old fossil is both fearsome and comical: a long-beaked penguin that stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed about 220 pounds.

“It was as tall as a medium-sized man,” said Gerald Mayr, a paleontologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, and lead author of a report in Nature Communications on Tuesday announcing the discovery.

By comparison, the tallest living species, the emperor penguin, reaches about four feet in height. Kumimanu biceae, as the fossil was named, would have towered above the emperor, and above just about all other known ancient penguins.

(In 2014, another team of researchers estimated that a 34-million-year-old species stood six feet tall, but they based that estimate only on two bone fragments.)

Kumimanu wasn’t just exceptionally big; it also ranks among the oldest penguin fossils yet found. Both its age and its size make Kumimanu important to understanding the astonishing transformation that turned a lineage of flying birds into flightless swimmers.

The 18 modern species of penguin, ranging from the coast of Antarctica to the Galápagos Islands at the Equator, are impressively adapted to aquatic life. Rigid, blade-shaped wings enable them to shoot through the water at up to 22 miles an hour. Record-setting human swimmers don’t even reach six m.p.h.

But their adaptations to water have also left them unable to fly. When penguins haul out to rest or rear their young, they can only waddle about on stumpy legs. “They’re so unbirdlike that many people would not know they are birds,” Dr. Mayr said.

While penguins may look profoundly different from other birds, their DNA points to a close kinship to such species as albatrosses and petrels. These birds all fly over water to hunt for prey, hinting that the ancestors of penguins may have, too. [Continue reading…]

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The Pentagon’s secret search for UFOs

Politico reports: The Pentagon, at the direction of Congress, a decade ago quietly set up a multi-million dollar program to investigate what are popularly known as unidentified flying objects—UFOs.

The “unidentified aerial phenomena” claimed to have been seen by pilots and other military personnel appeared vastly more advanced than those in American or foreign arsenals. In some cases they maneuvered so unusually and so fast that they seemed to defy the laws of physics, according to multiple sources directly involved in or briefed on the effort and a review of unclassified Defense Department and congressional documents.

The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, whose existence was not classified but operated with the knowledge of an extremely limited number of officials, was the brainchild of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who first secured the appropriation to begin the program in 2009 with the support of the late Senators Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Republican Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), two World War II veterans who were similarly concerned about the potential national security implications, the sources involved in the effort said. The origins of the program, the existence of which the Pentagon confirmed on Friday, are being revealed publicly for the first time by POLITICO and the New York Times in nearly simultaneous reports on Saturday.

One possible theory behind the unexplained incidents, according to a former congressional staffer who described the motivations behind the program, was that a foreign power—perhaps the Chinese or the Russians—had developed next-generation technologies that could threaten the United States.

“Was this China or Russia trying to do something or has some propulsion system we are not familiar with?” said a former staffer who spoke with POLITICO on condition of anonymity.

The revelation of the program could give a credibility boost to UFO theorists, who have long pointed to public accounts by military pilots and others describing phenomena that defy obvious explanation, and could fuel demands for increased transparency about the scope and findings of the Pentagon effort, which focused some of its inquiries into sci-fi sounding concepts like “wormholes” and “warp drives.” The program also drafted a series of what the office referred to as “queried unverified event under evaluation,” QUEU reports, in which pilots and other personnel who had reported encounters were interviewed about their experiences. [Continue reading…]

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The minds of plants

Laura Ruggles writes: At first glance, the Cornish mallow (Lavatera cretica) is little more than an unprepossessing weed. It has pinkish flowers and broad, flat leaves that track sunlight throughout the day. However, it’s what the mallow does at night that has propelled this humble plant into the scientific spotlight. Hours before the dawn, it springs into action, turning its leaves to face the anticipated direction of the sunrise. The mallow seems to remember where and when the Sun has come up on previous days, and acts to make sure it can gather as much light energy as possible each morning. When scientists try to confuse mallows in their laboratories by swapping the location of the light source, the plants simply learn the new orientation.

What does it even mean to say that a mallow can learn and remember the location of the sunrise? The idea that plants can behave intelligently, let alone learn or form memories, was a fringe notion until quite recently. Memories are thought to be so fundamentally cognitive that some theorists argue that they’re a necessary and sufficient marker of whether an organism can do the most basic kinds of thinking. Surely memory requires a brain, and plants lack even the rudimentary nervous systems of bugs and worms.

However, over the past decade or so this view has been forcefully challenged. The mallow isn’t an anomaly. Plants are not simply organic, passive automata. We now know that they can sense and integrate information about dozens of different environmental variables, and that they use this knowledge to guide flexible, adaptive behaviour.

For example, plants can recognise whether nearby plants are kin or unrelated, and adjust their foraging strategies accordingly. The flower Impatiens pallida, also known as pale jewelweed, is one of several species that tends to devote a greater share of resources to growing leaves rather than roots when put with strangers – a tactic apparently geared towards competing for sunlight, an imperative that is diminished when you are growing next to your siblings. Plants also mount complex, targeted defences in response to recognising specific predators. The small, flowering Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as thale or mouse-ear cress, can detect the vibrations caused by caterpillars munching on it and so release oils and chemicals to repel the insects. [Continue reading…]

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Ticks preserved in amber were likely sucking dinosaur blood

The New York Times reports: Paleontologists have found entombed in amber a 99-million-year-old tick grasping the feather of a dinosaur, providing the first direct evidence that the tiny pests drank dinosaur blood.

Immortalized in the golden gemstone, the bloodsucker’s last supper is remarkable because it is rare to find parasites with their hosts in the fossil record. The finding, which was published Tuesday, gives researchers tantalizing insight into the prehistoric diet of one of today’s most prevalent pests.

“This study provides the most compelling evidence to date for ticks feeding on feathered animals in the Cretaceous,” said Ryan C. McKellar, a paleontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada who was not involved in the study. “It demonstrates just how much detail can be obtained from a few pieces of amber in the hands of the right researchers.”

David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History and an author of the paper published in the journal Nature Communications, was inspecting a private collection of amber from northern Myanmar when he and his colleagues spotted the eight-legged stowaway.

“Holy moly this is cool,” he recounted thinking at the time. “This is the first time we’ve been able to find ticks directly associated with the dinosaur feathers.”

Upon further inspection, he and his colleagues concluded that the tick was a nymph, similar in size to a deer tick nymph, and that its host was most likely some sort of fledgling dinosaur no bigger than a hummingbird, which Dr. Grimaldi referred to as a “nanoraptor.” The parasites were most likely unwanted roommates living in the dinosaurs’ nests and sucking their blood. [Continue reading…]

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Expansion of tillage through use of draft animals led to the growth of inequality across the Old World

Researchers at Washington State University and 13 other institutions have found that the arc of prehistory bends towards economic inequality.

In the largest study of its kind, the researchers saw disparities in wealth mount with the rise of agriculture, specifically the domestication of plants and large animals, and increased social organization.

Their findings, published last month in the journal Nature, have profound implications for contemporary society, as inequality repeatedly leads to social disruption, even collapse, said Tim Kohler, lead author and WSU Regents professor of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology at WSU. The United States, he noted, currently has one of the highest levels of inequality in the history of the world.

“Inequality has a lot of subtle and potentially pernicious effects on societies,” Kohler said.

The study gathered data from 63 archaeological sites or groups of sites. Comparing house sizes within each site, researchers assigned Gini coefficients, common measures of inequality developed more than a century ago by the Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini. In theory, a country with complete wealth equality would have a Gini coefficient of 0, while a country with all the wealth concentrated in one household would get a 1.

The researchers found that hunter-gatherer societies typically had low wealth disparities, with a median Gini of .17. Their mobility would make it hard to accumulate wealth, let alone pass it on to subsequent generations. Horticulturalists — small-scale, low-intensity farmers — had a median Gini of .27. Larger scale agricultural societies had a media Gini of .35.

To the researchers’ surprise, inequality kept rising in the Old World, while it hit a plateau in the New World, said Kohler. The researchers attribute this to the ability of Old World societies “to literally harness big domesticated mammals like cattle and eventually horses and water buffalo,” Kohler said.

Draft animals, which were not available in the New World, let richer farmers till more land and expand into new areas. This increased their wealth while ultimately creating a class of landless peasants.

“These processes increased inequality by operating on both ends of the wealth distribution, increasing the holdings of the rich while decreasing the holdings of the poor,” the researchers write.

The Old World also saw the arrival of bronze metallurgy and a mounted warrior elite that increased Ginis through large houses and territorial conquests. [Continue reading…]

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It’s official: Timeline for human migration gets a rewrite

Gemma Tarlach writes: The great thing about science is supposed to be that you come up with a hypothesis and then you and other researchers try to shoot it down and, if the hypothesis doesn’t hold up, you come up with a new one based on what you learned from destroying the old one. And the scientific method generally works, as long as everyone keeps their egos in check.

Unfortunately, many researchers clung to the idea of a single migration out of Africa, no earlier than 60,000 years ago, for too long. Finds such as a human presence in the Levant 100,000 years ago, for example, were dismissed as a single band of early humans that strayed too far from home and went extinct— in other words, an evolutionary dead end.

Today, however, writing in Science, researchers say that no one can ignore the preponderance of evidence. It’s time, at long last, to revise that tired old timeline of human migration.

The timeline they call for is one of multiple migrations out of Africa beginning perhaps 120,000 years ago. While some of these early explorations certainly failed and became evolutionary dead ends, others, say the authors, survived, not only spreading across Asia but interbreeding with Denisovans and Neanderthals.

Both the archaeological and genetic evidence support a large dispersal from Africa around 60,000 years ago, but it was by no means the first — or the last — to occur. [Continue reading…]

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Matter inside a neutron star is so dense that a teaspoonful would weigh a billion tons

Science News reports: On astrophysicists’ charts of star stuff, there’s a substance that still merits the label “here be dragons.” That poorly understood material is found inside neutron stars — the collapsed remnants of once-mighty stars — and is now being mapped out, as scientists better characterize the weird matter.

The detection of two colliding neutron stars, announced in October (SN: 11/11/17, p. 6), has accelerated the pace of discovery. Since the event, which scientists spied with gravitational waves and various wavelengths of light, several studies have placed new limits on the sizes and masses possible for such stellar husks and on how squishy or stiff they are.

“The properties of neutron star matter are not very well known,” says physicist Andreas Bauswein of the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies in Germany. Part of the problem is that the matter inside a neutron star is so dense that a teaspoonful would weigh a billion tons, so the substance can’t be reproduced in any laboratory on Earth.

In the collision, the two neutron stars merged into a single behemoth. This remnant may have immediately collapsed into a black hole. Or it may have formed a bigger, spinning neutron star that, propped up by its own rapid rotation, existed for a few milliseconds — or potentially much longer — before collapsing. The speed of the object’s demise is helping scientists figure out whether neutron stars are made of material that is relatively soft, compressing when squeezed like a pillow, or whether the neutron star stuff is stiff, standing up to pressure. This property, known as the equation of state, determines the radius of a neutron star of a particular mass. [Continue reading…]

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‘Let the soul dangle’: How mind-wandering spurs creativity

By Julia Christensen, Guido Giglioni, and Manos Tsakiris

The Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer was regarded by his friends as a master in the art of mind-wandering. He could become ‘enwrapped’ in his own pleasant reflections, wrote the German humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, at which times Dürer ‘would seem the happiest person on Earth’.

Many of us are familiar with mind-wandering in a number of guises: procrastination, reflection, meditation, self-flagellation, daydreaming. But while some mental meandering seems fruitful, on other occasions it has the unmistakeable bite of a bad habit, something that holds us back from reaching our full potential. Reverie can be a reprieve from reality and a font of inspiration, yes. But equally familiar is the mind’s tendency to devolve into sour and fruitless rumination when left to its own devices, especially when we’re in the grip of depression, anxiety or obsession.

Can art itself be a useful catalyst for nudging us towards more helpful emotions and mental states? Whether in the form of literature, rap or abstract oil painting, many of us know we can improve the tenor of our thoughts by contemplating art. The Germans have a lovely saying for the benefits of keeping an idle (or idling) mind: ‘die Seele baumeln lassen’, meaning ‘let the soul dangle’. Now, the emerging science of neuroaesthetics is beginning to reveal the biological processes that sit behind such ‘dangling’.

[Read more…]

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What the Pliocene epoch can teach us about future warming on Earth

Science News reports: Imagine a world where the polar ice sheets are melting, sea level is rising and the atmosphere is stuffed with about 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Sound familiar? It should. We’re living it. But the description also matches Earth a little over 3 million years ago, in the middle of the geologic epoch known as the Pliocene.

To understand how our planet might respond as global temperatures rise, scientists are looking to warm periods of the past. These include the steamy worlds of the Cretaceous Period, such as around 90 million years ago, and the boundary of the Paleocene and Eocene epochs, about 56 million years ago.

But to many researchers, the best reference for today’s warming is the more recent Pliocene, which lasted from 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago. The mid-Pliocene was the last time atmospheric CO2 levels were similar to today’s, trapping heat and raising global temperatures to above the levels Earth is experiencing now.

New research is illuminating how the planet responded to Pliocene warmth. One set of scientists has fanned out across the Arctic, gathering geologic clues to how temperatures there may have been as much as 19 degrees Celsius higher than today. The warmth allowed trees to spread far to the north, creating Arctic forests where three-toed horses, giant camels and other animals roamed. When lightning struck, wildfires roared across the landscape, spewing soot into the air and altering the region’s climate.

Other researchers are pushing the frontiers of climate modeling, simulating how the oceans, atmosphere and land responded as Pliocene temperatures soared. One new study shows how the warmth may have triggered huge changes in ocean circulation, setting up an enormous overturning current in the Pacific Ocean, similar to the “conveyor belt” in today’s Atlantic that drives weather and climate. A second new paper suggests that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets might have responded differently to Pliocene heat, melting at different times.

All this research into the last great warm period is helping scientists think more deeply about how the future might play out. It may not be a road map to the next 100 years, but the Pliocene is a rough guide to the high sea levels, vanishing ice and altered weather patterns that might arrive hundreds to thousands of years from now.

“It’s a case study for understanding how warm climates function,” says Heather Ford, a paleoceanographer at the University of Cambridge. “It’s our closest analog for future climate change.” [Continue reading…]

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America’s ancient heritage is rapidly disappearing

Kathleen Sharp writes: Like many pre-Columbian sites on this timeless plateau [in Arizona], Little Giant’s Chair is both a Hopi shrine and a crime scene. America’s ancient heritage is disappearing at an alarming rate. Some archaeologists estimate that more than half of America’s historic sites have been vandalized or looted. According to the non-profit Saving Antiquities for Everyone, over 90 percent of known American Indian archaeological sites have been destroyed or degraded by looters.

As the cultural legacy of Native American tribes has vanished, the demand for genuine U.S. antiquities has exploded. And few objects are more coveted than a Hopi religious item, Kuwanwisiwma says. “People love them so much, they are slowly robbing us to death.”

The outside world calls them “artifacts,” but they are often ceremonial items that have been passed down over the years and are still in use by the tribes. Others are ripped from grave sites like the one at Little Giant’s Chair. If this burial ground had been in Arlington, Virginia, or Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the police would have wrapped the scene in yellow crime tape and called in their top investigators. But on this case, the primary detectives were a Hopi ranger and the skeleton crew at the CPO, whose mission is to find, repatriate, and protect the cultural objects that belong to the Hopi people. [Continue reading…]

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How bacteria help regulate blood pressure

Veronique Greenwood writes: Some years ago, when Jennifer Pluznick was nearing the end of her training in physiology and sensory systems, she was startled to discover something in the kidneys that seemed weirdly out of place. It was a smell receptor, a protein that would have looked more at home in the nose. Given that the kidneys filter waste into urine and maintain the right salt content in the blood, it was hard to see how a smell receptor could be useful there. Yet as she delved deeper into what the smell receptor was doing, Pluznick came to a surprising conclusion: The kidney receives messages from the gut microbiome, the symbiotic bacteria that live in the intestines.

In the past few years, Pluznick, who is now an associate professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins University, and a small band of like-minded researchers have put together a picture of what the denizens of the gut are telling the kidney. They have found that these communiqués affect blood pressure, such that if the microbes are destroyed, the host suffers. The researchers have uncovered a direct, molecular-level explanation of how the microbiome conspires with the kidneys and the blood vessels to manipulate the flow of blood.

The smell receptor, called Olfr78, was an orphan at first: It had previously been noticed in the sensory tissues of the nose, but no one knew what specific scent or chemical messenger it responded to. Pluznick began by testing various chemical possibilities and eventually narrowed down the candidates to acetate and propionate. These short-chain fatty acid molecules come from the fermentation breakdown of long chains of carbohydrates — what nutritionists call dietary fiber. Humans, mice, rats and other animals cannot digest fiber, but the bacteria that live in their guts can.

As a result, more than 99 percent of the acetate and propionate that floats through the bloodstream is released by bacteria as they feed. “Any host contribution is really minimal,” Pluznick said. Bacteria are therefore the only meaningful source of what activates Olfr78 — which, further experiments showed, is involved in the regulation of blood pressure. [Continue reading…]

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The scallop sees its world with hundreds of space-age eyes

Carl Zimmer writes: It’s hard to see what’s so special about a scallop. It looks a lot like a clam, mussel or any other bivalve. Inside its hinged shell lurks a musclebound creature that’s best enjoyed seared in butter.

But there’s something more to this ubiquitous entree: the scallop sees its world with hundreds of eyes. Arrayed across the opening of its shell, the eyes glitter like an underwater necklace. Each sits at the tip of its own tentacle and can be extended beyond the rim of the shell.

While some invertebrate eyes can sense only light and dark, scientists have long suspected that scallops can make out images, perhaps even recognizing predators quickly enough to jet away to safety. But scallop eyes — each about the size of a poppy seed — are so tiny and delicate that scientists have struggled to understand how they work.

Now, a team of Israeli researchers has gotten a look at the hidden sophistication of the scallop eye, thanks to powerful new microscopes. On Thursday, they reported in the journal Science that each eye contains a miniature mirror made up of millions of square tiles. The mirror reflects incoming light onto two retinas, each of which can detect different parts of the scallop’s surroundings.

Our own eye has been likened to a camera: it uses a lens to focus light on the retina. The new research suggests that scallop eyes are more akin to another kind of technology: a reflector telescope of the sort first invented by Newton. Today, astronomers build gigantic reflector telescopes to look in deep space, and they also build their mirrors out of tiles.

“For me, Newton and Darwin come together in these eyes,” said Gáspár Jékely, a neuroscientist at the University of Exeter who was not involved in the new study. [Continue reading…]

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Bacteria from outer space rendezvous with Russians at International Space Station?

National Geographic reports: Living bacteria have been found on the outside of the International Space Station, a Russian cosmonaut told the state news agency TASS this week.

Anton Shkaplerov, who will lead Russia’s ISS crew in December, said that previous cosmonauts swabbed the station’s Russian segment during spacewalks and sent the samples back to Earth. The samples came from places on the station that had accumulated fuel waste, as well as other obscure nooks and crannies. Their tests showed that the swabs held types of bacteria that were not on the module when it originally launched into orbit, Shkaplerov says.

In his interview with TASS, Shkaplerov says the bacteria “have come from outer space and settled along the external surface”—a claim that sparked some media outlets to issue frenzied reports about aliens colonizing the space station.

For now, though, details about the swabbing experiment are thin on the ground. Shkaplerov did not note whether the study has been vetted by a peer-reviewed journal, which means it’s unclear exactly when and how the full experiment was conducted, or how the team avoided any contamination from much more mundane bacteria on the cosmonauts or in the Earth-bound lab. Interview requests with the Russian space agency were unanswered when this article went to press.

Rather than microbes raining down from outer space, it’s much more plausible that the outside of the space station became contaminated by earthly organisms, many of which can survive in the harsh environment in orbit. [Continue reading…]

Indeed, the journey along Occam’s Razor is much shorter and vastly easier than any voyage from distant worlds.

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Cockatoos match shapes better than primates

James Gorman writes: Cockatoos are smart birds, and the Goffin’s cockatoos in a Vienna lab are among the smartest. In an experiment reported about a year ago, they turned out to be real stars at making tools from a variety of materials in order to get a treat.

In a new study, researchers tested the birds’ ability to match shapes using an apparatus reminiscent of a child’s toy. The birds had to put a square tile into a square hole and more complicated, asymmetrical shapes into matching holes. If they were successful, they got a treat.

Cornelia Habl, a master’s student at the University of Vienna, and Alice M. I. Auersperg, a researcher at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, ran several experiments. They reported in the journal PLOS One that the cockatoos were not only able to match the shapes to the holes, but did much better than monkeys or chimpanzees.

“It was thought to be an exclusively human ability for a long time,” Ms. Habl said. Tests of matching shapes are used to mark milestones in child development.

Babies can put a sphere into the right hole at age 1, but they can’t place a cube until age 2. From there, they continue to improve.

Some primates can do similar tasks, although they need a lot of basic training to get up to speed before they can use the experimental apparatus, called a key box.

The birds jumped right in without any training and excelled. “Compared to primates, the cockatoos performed very well,” Ms. Habl said.

Why are they so good? In the wild, they haven’t been observed using tools. But they are generalists, foragers who take whatever food they can find. [Continue reading…]

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