Science Tuesday (on a Wednesday): Crazy Ants, Fish-Faces, and Crocodiles Can Climb Trees

This week’s science news is a day late, but it’s worth it! Enjoy.

Scientists to map out genome of King Richard III: Researchers plan to sequence the genome of King Richard III, whose remains were found last year in a Leicester, England, parking lot. “Sequencing the genome of Richard III is a hugely important project that will help to teach us not only about him, but ferment discussion about how our DNA informs our sense of identity, our past and our future,” said University of Leicester geneticist Turi King. The sequencing will help scientists learn more about the monarch’s ancestry and health issues, which included a curved spine due to scoliosis and intestinal parasites.

Bottle gourds bobbed to South America on ocean currents, study suggests: The bottle gourd, a plant with many uses, is believed to have floated from Africa to South American shores thousands of years ago, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. A multidisciplinary research team studied ancient ocean currents as well as the gourds’ DNA to see if the plant’s travels within a single year were plausible. Computer models did, indeed, suggest that a gourd could successfully make the trip, seeds intact, well within a year’s time.

Ants feed tree they live in, study suggests: Ants not only offer protection for the Humboldtia brunonis tree in India, they also feed it, according to a report in Functional Ecology. Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science added a radioactive isotope to sugar fed to whitefooted house ants, which act as protectors to the tree they call home, as well as to another species of ant that lives in the tree but does not provide any protection. When they studied the tree’s tissue, researchers found traces of the sugar, indicating it received sustenance from both species.

Some crocodile species can climb trees, research suggests: Some species of crocodile have the ability to climb trees, researchers say. “Climbing a steep hill or steep branch is mechanically similar, assuming the branch is wide enough to walk on. Still, the ability to climb vertically is a measure of crocodiles’ spectacular agility on land,” according to a report published in Herpetology Notes. The American crocodile, Nile crocodile, Australian freshwater crocodile and Central African slender-snouted crocodile all climb trees, but with varying ability, according to their size, the researchers said.

This is really surprising, especially since some parts of the Everglades use nothing more than a steep incline to keep visitors safe.

Abundance of well-preserved fossils found in Canada: A wealth of well-preserved fossils has been found in Kootenay National Park in Canada. The site is within the Burgess Shale, an ancient rock formation that has yielded many fossil discoveries since 1909, the largest of which is in Yoho National Park. “The rate at which we are finding animals — many of which are new — is astonishing, and there is a high possibility that we’ll eventually find more species here than at the original Yoho National Park site, and potentially more than from anywhere else in the world,” said invertebrate paleontologist Jean-Bernard Caron of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, lead author of the study.

New glasses help surgeons see cancer cells: New technology may help surgeons visualize the distinction between normal tissue and cancer cells with the help of a contrast agent. The new technology, dubbed “cancer goggles,” is still in the testing phase, but its creator, Dr. Samuel Achilefu, director of the Optical Radiology Lab at Washington University in St. Louis, thinks the technology could have many applications. The tool will be tested by veterinarians surgically removing cancer from dogs at the University of Missouri veterinary school, and human testing will follow.

Scientists create fusion reaction with lasers: Scientists used lasers to create a fusion reaction, in which more energy was put out than was put into the fuel. The experiment has recharged hopes of using fusion as a nuclear energy source. National Ignition Facility researchers shot 192 laser beams at a small hohlraum that held a fuel target, producing the brief reaction, according to the study published in Nature. About 17 kilojoules of energy were produced, said lead physicist Omar Hurricane of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Study: 12,000-year-old remains of child shed light on origin of Native Americans: The 12,000-year-old remains of a child found in Montana have linked Native Americans to the first people who populated what is now the Lower 48 states and South America, according to a study published in the journal Nature. “We found the genome of this boy is more closely related to Native Americans today than to any other peoples anywhere else,” said study leader Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen. Scientists compared the boy’s DNA with ancient as well as current genomes, and estimated that a majority of Native Americans today are descended from the boy’s family.

415M-year-old fish key in development of the face, study suggests: A small, ancient fish is giving researchers insight into how faces evolved, according to a report in Nature. The Romundina, which lived about 415 million years ago, is one of the first fish to have jaws, but it also had features that were present in jawless fish, which allowed researchers to show the steps taken as the face evolved. “When you look at Romundina, it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror, but with a 415 million-year-old image. It’s like in a science-fiction movie. You look at the mirror, but it’s not you. It’s your ancestor,” said Uppsala University’s Vincent Dupret, a member of the research team.

Mammoth tusk found at Seattle construction site: Plumbing contractors in Seattle this week unearthed the tusk of a mammoth. Paleontologists say the fossil belongs to the Columbian mammoth, the Washington state fossil. Researchers are working to remove the Ice Age-era mammoth’s tusk so it could be displayed at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in time for Dino Day, which is March 8.

Remaining fetal cells in mothers may aid in stroke recovery: Fetal cells remain in mothers long after pregnancy and appear to act like stem cells by regenerating stroke-damaged tissue, according to a study on mice that was presented at the American Heart Association’s International Stroke Conference. However, while these cells may protect women from diseases, it could also cause autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, which are common in women especially during childbearing years, lead investigator Louise McCullough said.

Geneticists map out timeline of how human populations mixed: Geneticists are deciphering how human populations mixed over the past 4,000 years in an effort to provide new information to historians. The researchers have developed a way to affix a date on major blending events by identifying chromosomal segments using statistics gathered from samples of genomes from throughout the world, according to research published in Science. “We are among the first to try to date ancestry events, and we have more ability to determine the source populations,” said Oxford University’s Simon Myers, who is leading the research team.

Mesozoic-era ichthyosaur had live births on land, study suggests: The fossil remains of a 248 million-year-old ichthyosaur have revealed that the Mesozoic-era reptile died while giving birth with two offspring still inside it, according to a study published in PLoS ONE. Scientists were surprised to note that the birth was occurring on land, which goes against a long-held belief that the sea creatures delivered their young in water. Researchers noted that the young were coming out head first, which is associated with land animals; marine animals are born tail first.

Southeastern fire ants threatened by invasive “crazy” cousins: So-called “crazy ants” are invading the southern United States, neutralizing the venom of the area’s native fire ants, research published in the journal Science suggests. Fire ants defend themselves by releasing venom deadly to most other ants or insects that threaten them, but the crazy ants combat that by secreting a substance that detoxifies the venom. “As this plays out, unless something new and different happens, crazy ants are going to displace fire ants from much of the southeastern U.S. and become the new ecologically dominant invasive ant species,” said University of Texas at Austin researcher Ed LeBrun, who led the study.

As long as they don’t bite like fire ants I can totally get behind this invasive species.

Detailed map of Ganymede unveiled: A map of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede has been created, giving scientists one of the most detailed surveys ever created of the solar system’s largest moon. “We’ve been over every single square of Ganymede in detail to create the best product we can, but there are still some gaps where we couldn’t see it very well,” said Geoffrey Collins of Wheaton College, who began the project in 2000. Data collected by Voyagers I and II in the late 1970s, and Galileo, which circled Jupiter from 1995 to 2003, was used to create the map, which can be seen on the U.S. Geological Survey website.

Bonobos show ability to keep a beat, research suggests: The bonobo can match a tempo, researchers reported, a finding that could help scientists establish how musical ability evolved in humans. Researchers at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Florida set a rhythm of about 280 beats per minute that was picked up and synchronized by bonobos on their own drum.

NASA: “Jelly doughnut” on Mars is a rock Opportunity drove over: A mysterious white object with a crimson center that was photographed by the Mars rover Opportunity in December is a rock, according to NASA officials. The object, which resembles a jelly doughnut, became the subject of intense speculation after it suddenly appeared in before-and-after photos taken by the rover. NASA scientists reject the supposition that the object is some sort of Martian fungus, saying it is a rock that Opportunity drove over.

Human lungs grown in Texas lab: Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch have grown human lungs in a lab, raising hopes to one day address donor shortages. Researchers combined the shell of a damaged lung with viable cells from another lung and submerged them in nutrient-rich liquid, growing an engineered lung. Scientists say it will be at least 12 years before the engineered lungs could be ready for transplant trials.

Ocean-floor “carpet” seen as way to capture wave power: Just 11 square feet of engineered “carpet” on the ocean floor would be enough to power two U.S. households. That’s the calculation of mechanical engineers at the University of California at Berkeley. The researchers believe the system they’re designing can mimic the wave-energy absorbing nature of ocean-floor mud and transmit that power to shore to generate electricity.

Beluga whales infected with cat parasites: Parasites known to infect cats have been discovered in Arctic beluga whales. Toxoplasma gondii can cause people to go blind. Scientists have issued a health advisory for those in the Western Arctic region who eat beluga meat. “Ice is a significant ecological barrier and it influences the way in which pathogens can be transmitted in nature and your risk of exposure. What we’re finding with the changes ongoing in the Arctic is that we’re getting new pathogens emerging to cause diseases in the region that haven’t been there before,” said Michael Grigg, a molecular parasitologist.

Early animals may have lived on little oxygen, study suggests: Early animals, such as sponges, may have survived on very little oxygen, suggesting that animals may have brought increased oxygen to the oceans instead of the other way around, researchers say. Scientists at the University of Southern Denmark tested breadcrumb sponges, gradually removing oxygen from their environment. They found that the creatures survived until the end of the study and suggested that early animals could have done the same. “There are still many researchers who contend that animals could not have arisen until oxygen levels became relatively high. Our results challenge that,” said researcher Daniel Mills.

Genetic differences may help explain children’s risk for obesity: In two U.K. studies published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that genes played an important role in predicting children’s predisposition for obesity. Data from a large sample of twins showed that infants with a greater appetite at 3 months weighed an average of almost two pounds more than their twin at age 15 months. The second study involving 10-year-olds found that higher genetic obesity-risk scores were associated with greater body mass index and larger waistlines.

Biomarker for depression could help identify teens at risk: A recently discovered biomarker for clinical depression could help identify teen boys who are most at risk, according to neuropsychology researchers. The scientists found that boys with higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, along with symptoms of depression are 14 times more likely to see their depression worsen compared with teens with neither trait. “Depression is a terrible illness. We now have a very real way of identifying those teenage boys most likely to develop clinical depression,” said lead researcher Ian Goodyer.

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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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