Science Tuesday: No Event Horizon, Neanderthals Gave Us Diabetes, and Underwater Fairy Rings.

Hawking study shakes up long-held beliefs about black holes: Black holes may not behave the way science thinks they do, and may not have event horizons, according to a study by celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking. “The absence of event horizons means that there are no black holes, in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape,” Hawking said in his report. Instead, black holes have “apparent horizons,” which only trap matter and energy temporarily, later reemerging as radiation.

Archaeologists uncover evidence of 300,000-year-old hearth in Israeli cave: A hearth found in a cave in Israel has provided archaeologists with clues about the use of fire about 300,000 years ago, according to a report in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Researchers found the hearth full of ash and charred bone as well as evidence of stone tools nearby likely used in the butchering of animals, suggesting the use of the fire as a central gathering place. “They also tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago,” said the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Ruth Shahack-Gross.

Polar bears shifting to land-based diet as Arctic ice melts, study suggests: The melting sea ice in the Arctic has forced polar bears to move to a more land-based diet, according to a study. “We found they were eating more of what is available on the land,” said vertebrate biologist Linda Gormezano of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the study’s co-author. Polar bears normally rely on marine mammals such as seals for food, but appear to be eating more snow geese, caribou and eggs that they find on land, according to the study.

Personal sub takes flight underwater for $1.7M: The DeepFlight Super Falcon, a two-seat, winged submersible built by Hawkes Ocean Technologies, can take passengers on a unique trip under the sea. “It is like an airplane with wings upside down. It is like flying in the air, but we are flying underwater,” said founder and Chief Technical Officer Graham Hawkes. The 21-foot personal sub can reach depths of about 394 feet, or 120 meters, and is available for purchase for $1.7 million, which includes pilot and operations training.

Video shows wild beaver, thought to be extinct in England for 800 years: Night-vision footage shot by a retired environmental scientist suggests that wild beavers may not be extinct in England after all. Wild beavers were killed off more than 800 years ago in England and there have been plans to reintroduce them there, but the video suggests they may have come back on their own. Tom Buckley filmed the beaver gnawing on trees in the town of Ottery Saint Mary, leaving locals and scientists scratching their heads about where it came from.

Skull found on school grounds may belong to new species of extinct sperm whale: A whale skull found embedded in a boulder at a private school in Southern California may belong to a new species of an extinct sperm whale, according to paleontologist Howell Thomas of the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Thomas was alerted to the fossil’s existence by a 7th-grade science teacher who noticed the skull and other fossils on boulders left by the school’s builders about 80 years ago. The museum will take the boulder next week for cleaning and analysis.

Black Death bacteria may have felled the Roman Empire: Sequenced DNA from two skeletons buried in 6th-century Germany suggests that a virulent plague that struck the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Justinian in 541 A.D. came from a strain of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that caused the Black Death, which struck Europe in 1348. Scientists mapped the entire genome of Y. pestis with DNA found in the skeletons’ teeth, according to a study in the Lancet Infectious Diseases, which warns that it could emerge again. Study leader Hendrik Poinar of the McMaster University in Canada said that Y. pestis may not have been the sole cause of both plagues, but is more likely “part of the larger story.”

Interplanetary dust carries water generated by solar wind, study finds: Water formed by solar wind on interplanetary dust “may well have acted as a continuous rainfall of little reaction vessels containing both the water and organics needed for the eventual origin of life,” says astromaterials scientist Hope Ishii, co-author of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. University of Hawaii researchers were originally looking for helium implanted by solar wind in the rims of minerals within the dust particles and were surprised to find water. The study suggests that solar wind can, indeed, generate water, a subject that has been hotly debated for years.

Study: Subduction zones move vast amounts of water into Earth’s mantle: Vast amounts of water are transported deep into the Earth’s mantle by subduction zones, according to a study in Geology. The tectonic plates rub together creating a kind of conveyor belt that ferries water into the mantle over billions of years. “We found that fault zones that form in the deep oceanic trench offshore Northern Japan persist to depths of up to 150 kilometers [roughly 93 miles]. These hydrated fault zones can carry large amounts of water, suggesting that subduction zones carry much more water from the ocean down to the mantle than has previously been suggested,” said seismologist Tom Garth of the University of Liverpool and lead author of the study.

Scientists ID healing mechanism in birch bark: Birch bark extract has been thought for centuries to encourage wound healing, and scientists at Germany’s University of Freiburg have identified the mechanism behind it. Substances in the bark attract keratinocytes to the wound, encouraging it to close, the researchers report in the journal PLoS ONE. The finding could lead to new wound-care treatments.

Study: Interbreeding with Neanderthals gave us disease gene variants: Neanderthals that mated with Homo sapiens passed along variants of diseases in their genes, including type 2 diabetes and Crohn’s disease, according to a study in Nature. Researchers said they also found a gene variant for smoking addiction. The gene mutation for smoking may have more than one function, since it’s unlikely Neanderthals had a smoking habit, scientists said.

Antarctic ice shelves in danger as snow layer thins: Meltwater is threatening Antarctica’s ice shelves left vulnerable by thinning layers of snow, according to a study in the Journal of Glaciology. Snow acts as a sponge-like barrier that soaks up the meltwater before it has a chance to reach the fragile ice shelves, but gradually warming temperatures are putting some of the shelves at risk, researchers say. “The amount of ice shelves under the threat of collapse is dependent on the temperature increase we are going to get in the next few centuries,” said study leader Peter Kuipers Munneke of Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Rural Calif. communities could go without water during drought: A drought in California could lead to 17 rural communities running out of water in the next few months, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. These small communities, ranging from 39 to 11,000 people, don’t have the resources to pay for backup water supplies or fix broken equipment. The state is looking at several options, including trucking water in or drilling new wells, to try to get ahead of the crisis.

Resurgence of bats seen in Europe: Bats are making a comeback in Europe, the European Environment Agency reported in a large-scale study. Sixteen of the 45 bat species in Europe were surveyed in nine countries, with a 43% increase seen between 1993 and 2011. “This is the first time such a large group of monitoring schemes within Europe all got together,” said Bat Conservation Trust science director Karen Haysom, who helped coordinate the study.

Snake flattens to glide from tree to tree, study finds: The Southeast Asian flying snake gets a little extra gliding time by flattening into a saucer-like shape, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Chrysopelea paradisi launches itself from tree branches to glide limb from limb. “The shape is unusual. You never find this kind of shape in any other animal flyer; you don’t find it in engineered flyers. We didn’t know if that was a good shape to have,” said Virginia Tech biomechanics researcher Jake Socha, the study’s co-author.

Skull of 200M-year-old long-nosed phytosaur found: The 200 million-year-old skull of a long-nosed creature has been discovered in Texas. Researchers say it belongs to a previously unknown species of phytosaur that hunted along the edges of rivers and lakes. “They had basically the same lifestyle as the modern crocodile, by living in and around the water, eating fish, and whatever animals came to the margins of the rivers and lakes,” said Museum of Texas Tech University’s Bill Mueller.

Sharp decline in monarch butterfly migration noted: The once-thriving population of monarch butterflies that migrate from the northern U.S. and Canada to Mexico each winter is dwindling, researchers said this week. The orange-and-black butterflies would fill up to 45 acres of Mexican forest each year, according to records kept over the past 20 years. But as of December, they filled only 1.6 acres, the smallest area ever recorded. Environmentalists say the decline could be due to a number of factors, including illegal logging and the use of herbicides that have killed off milkweed plants where the butterflies lay their eggs.

Large-headed, bottom-feeding fish in Idaho, Mont. rivers a new species: A small fish with a big head found in Idaho and Montana rivers has been identified as a new species of freshwater sculpin, according to a report in Zootaxa. Dubbed the cedar sculpin, the new species belongs to a class of bottom-feeding fish known to have unusually large heads and shoulders in proportion to the rest of their bodies. Biologist Michael Young, who co-authored the description of the find, said, “The discovery of a new fish is something I never thought would happen in my career because it’s very rare in the United States.”

Study of cuttlefish could lead to innovation in military camouflage: Scientists are studying how cuttlefish change their colors to blend into their environment with an eye toward developing similar camouflage for soldiers’ uniforms. Harvard University and Marine Biological Laboratory researchers studied chromatophores, or pigment-containing cells, that change the cuttlefish’s color and skin patterns. “[O]ur results suggest that they play a more complex role: [Chromatophores] contain luminescent protein nanostructures that enable the cuttlefish to make quick and elaborate changes in its skin pigmentation,” said Harvard’s Leila Deravi, the study’s co-author.

Researchers develop one-way sound device: Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed an acoustic circulator, a one-way sound machine that could lead to the sound equivalent of a one-way mirror. “I can listen to you, but you cannot detect me back, you cannot hear my presence,” said electrical engineer Andrea Alu, co-author of the study published in the journal Science. The device could lead to several sound insulation applications.

Tiny leg hairs keep spiders adhered to surfaces, study finds: Thousands of tiny hairs on the ends of a spider’s legs help the arachnids stick to surfaces, researchers say. The method allows the spider to quickly detach itself, unlike the more permanent gluing method used by a barnacle, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. “Temporary attachment systems, like hairy adhesive pads, can be used multiple times [and] adhere strongly enough to hold the animal, but the contact can be loosened very quickly and effortlessly,” said biologist Jonas Wolff of the University of Kiel in Germany.

Lemur mates have synced scents, study suggests: Lemur couples mimic each other’s scent-marking habits and start to give off similar scents after they reproduce, according to a study of animals at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, N.C. Researchers, who centered their study on the endangered Coquerel’s sifakas lemurs, believe the synced scents help the lemurs signal their relationship status or increase their territory-marking prowess. “It could be a signal that they’re a united front,” said Duke University’s Christine Drea, a researcher on the study, which was published in Animal Behaviour.

Volcanic heat is next frontier for geothermal projects: A geothermal drilling project in Iceland accidentally drilled directly into magma, but instead of plugging the hole, researchers harnessed the heat using a perforated-steel casing to extract superheated, high-pressure steam. “This could lead to a revolution in the energy efficiency of high-temperature geothermal projects in the future,” says Wilfred Elders, a co-author of the research.

Study predicts heat-related deaths will rise sharply by mid-century: Researchers in the U.K. have projected four times more heat-related deaths by the 2050s compared with what it is today in England and Wales. Researchers looked at daily average temperatures from 2000 through 2009 to calculate the projected temperatures for the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s. According to the study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the number of hot days will increase sharply by the 2080s with the number of cold days dipping at a slower pace.

Mysterious hexagonal jet stream on Saturn shown in Cassini photo: The unique hexagonal jet stream that swirls around the north pole of Saturn has been captured in an image from NASA’s Cassini space probe. The photograph was taken in November showing Saturn’s polar vortex and the rings that surround the planet. The hexagonal shape of the jet stream has not be found anywhere else in the solar system, according to NASA officials.

Study: Buildup of sulfide in mud creates Baltic Sea eelgrass circles: The unique circular formations of eelgrass in the Baltic Sea is caused by a buildup of sulfide, which kills the grass in the center of the rings, according to biologists at the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Copenhagen. Eelgrass typically grows out radially in a meadowlike configuration, but when the grass traps sulfide-infused mud, the older, weaker grass at the center is killed, leaving the circles. “The mud seemed to exist only inside the circle, so only here the plants are attacked by poison,” the researchers said.

Underwater fairy rings!


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Published by

Rebecca Enzor

Rebecca Enzor is a chemist in Charleston, SC who writes Young Adult and New Adult Fantasy and Magical Realism. Repped by Eric Smith of P.S. Literary.

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