Science Tuesday: Contacts with Zoom, Ant Colony Toilets, and a New Species of Sea Dragon

(Image of Ruby Red Seadragon by Josefin Stiller , Nerida G. Wilson , Greg W. Rouse [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Tuesday, Aledan Merfolk! We have a full platter of science news for the week, so let’s get right to it!

Strange haze in upper Mars atmosphere has scientists scratching their heads: Scientists are stumped by a haze that appeared twice in the southern Mars atmosphere in 2012, lasting for days each time. An amateur astronomer first noticed the plume that was later confirmed by a team of international scientists, who speculate that the haze could be a large cloud or a particularly bright aurora, but “it raises more questions than answers,” noted European Space Agency planetary scientist Antonio Garcia Munoz, co-author of a paper on the plume published in Nature. He points out that if either explanation is correct, it would mean current theories about Mars’ upper atmosphere are incorrect.

Satellite images show new deltas forming off La. coast: Two new deltas have formed in Louisiana, protruding into the Gulf of Mexico, satellite images have revealed. Louisiana has been slowly losing land, and the discovery of the new deltas is offering clues on how to slow land loss. “We are looking carefully at the Wax Lake and Atchafalaya deltas as models for building new land and preserving some of our coastal marshlands,” said Harry Roberts, a coastal studies researcher.

National Park Service map shows patterns of sound across the U.S.: The eastern U.S. is louder than the West, according to a sound map created by the National Park Service that uses computer algorithms to assess the loudness of a summer day across the country. The map, released Monday during the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, includes natural as well as man-made sounds and could be useful to urban planners, biologists and the Park Service itself as it works to preserve “natural quiet.” A second version of the map shows the U.S. soundscape without human sounds, with the West still quieter than the East.

Research absolves humans in extinction of Alaskan mastodons: Humans weren’t responsible for the extinction of the Alaskan mastodon, according to research that puts the creatures in the region much earlier. “For at the least the story of the mastodon, we now know for what we call Beringia — Alaska, parts of Yukon and over into northeastern Asia — they were wiped out in those areas for things that had nothing to do with humans, because they all died out before there were humans there,” said Pat Druckenmiller, a co-author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Druckenmiller and his colleagues re-examined about 40 fossil specimens and redated them to about 120,000 years ago.

Tuscany cemetery offers clues to 1850s cholera epidemic, researchers say: Skeletons found in the cemetery of the Badia Pozzeveri church near Lucca in Tuscany are offering archaeologists clues about the cholera epidemic that killed thousands of people in the 1850s. “To our knowledge, these are the best-preserved remains of cholera victims of this time period ever found,” said Clark Spencer Larsen, an archaeologist at Ohio State University who reported on his team’s findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The scientists are searching the soil where the skeletons were buried in search of cholera DNA to compare it with today’s strain to see how it has evolved.

Advanced contacts include telescopic zoom feature: A team of scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has developed an innovative set of contact lenses that includes a telephoto-like feature that enables users to zoom in on faraway objects. The wearer can, with specialized glasses, toggle between normal and magnified viewing modes by blinking, and researchers say the lenses could be good for people who have macular degeneration.

Space-age technology helping curb zoonotic diseases: With the help of satellites, researchers are learning to predict high-transmission areas for certain zoonotic diseases including schistosomiasis and chikungunya virus. The satellites garner information such as where and how species involved in transmission move. Combining this information with data on human populations is being used to predict and ultimately reduce disease transmission.

Study: There was enough nitrogen 3.2B years ago to sustain life: There was plenty of nitrogen around 3.2 billion years ago to sustain many basic lifeforms such as bacteria or viruses, suggesting that life came to be on Earth about a billion years earlier than previously thought, according to a study published in Nature. Researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Johannesburg studied rocks between 2.75 billion and 3.2 billion years old, finding abundant nitrogen, an essential gene building block.

Latest images of Ceres enthrall, baffle NASA scientists: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is drawing ever nearer to Ceres, giving scientists more tantalizing images of the dwarf planet. “As we slowly approach the stage, our eyes transfixed on Ceres and her planetary dance, we find she has beguiled us but left us none the wiser. We expected to be surprised; we did not expect to be this puzzled,” said Dawn mission principal investigator Chris Russell. Dawn is expected to enter orbit around Ceres on March 6.

Acidity of Earth’s oceans seen in satellite data maps: The acidity of ocean water can be seen in maps created using satellite images, indicating a rise in carbon dioxide absorbed by the seawater. Scientists at the University of Exeter in the U.K. used satellite data to create global maps charting areas of ocean acidity. “We are pioneering these techniques so that we can monitor large areas of the Earth’s oceans, allowing us to quickly and easily identify those areas most at risk from the increasing acidification,” said Jamie Shutler, leader of the study published in Environmental Science and Technology.

Divers find ancient gold coins off the coast of Israel: About 2,000 gold coins dating back about 1,000 years have been found by amateur scuba divers in an ancient harbor off the coast of Israel, raising the possibility of an ancient shipwreck somewhere in the vicinity. “There is probably a shipwreck there of an official treasury boat, which was on its way to the central government in Egypt with taxes that had been collected. Perhaps the treasure of coins was meant to pay the salaries of the Fatimid [Kingdom] military garrison, which was stationed in Caesarea and protected the city,” said Israel Antiquities Authority official Kobi Sharvit.

New species of ichthyosaur discovered in museum storage room: A new species of ichthyosaur has been identified from a long-forgotten fossil in the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery in the U.K. For 30 years, the fossil was thought to be a plaster copy until a paleontologist spotted it was the real thing, according findings published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The 189-million-year-old species has been named Ichthyosaurus anningae.

Ant colonies have designated waste areas, study finds: Ants have designated places in their colonies where their waste is kept, according to a study published in PLOS ONE. Researchers dyed food for black garden ants red and blue, resulting in feces that also retained those colors, and found that the feces accumulated in the corners of the colony, away from the living space. Why the ants keep their waste inside the colony as opposed to moving it outside remains unclear, the scientists say.

Giant bed of manganese nodules found deep in Atlantic Ocean: An extensive bed of round manganese nodules of varying sizes has been found along the Atlantic seafloor between South America and Africa. Researchers on a German ship had dragged a mesh net to gather marine life several hundred miles off the coast of Barbados when they brought up balls of manganese ore instead. Although manganese nodules are not unheard of on the ocean floor, this patch is the largest ever found in the Atlantic, according to scientists.

Some raindrops surpass terminal velocity in race to the ground, study suggests: Some raindrops outstrip others, moving faster than terminal velocity, according to a study in Geophysical Research Letters. The study, which builds on earlier research by the same scientists, measured the speeds of 1.5 million raindrops as they passed through laser beams during six storms in South Carolina. “Occasionally, smaller drops fall more than 10 times faster than expected. On average, small drops move about 30 percent faster than expected, but it depends on rain type and strength,” said researcher Alexander Kostinski.

Smaller moons seen orbiting Pluto and Charon in New Horizons images: The New Horizons spacecraft has captured images of Pluto’s moons Nix and Hydra as they orbit the dwarf planet and its other moon Charon. New Horizons will continue observing the smaller moons’ orbits through March 6, when the spacecraft will take a break to downlink data before starting observations again April 5.

Genetic technique may protect against HIV infection, study suggests: Researchers have successfully protected monkeys from HIV infection by using non-life-threatening viruses to change the creatures’ genomes to produce antibody-like molecules that neutralize HIV, according to a study published in Nature. Since traditional kinds of vaccines have been ineffective in protecting against HIV infection, researchers say this technique could be developed as a kind of vaccine for HIV. Scientists say more study is needed before testing can be done with humans.

Neanderthals interbred with ancient Asians at 2 points in history, studies suggest: Neanderthals interbred with the ancestors of Asians twice in ancient history, according to a pair of studies published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. The studies approached the same question from different directions, but came to the same conclusion, looking at why Asians have more Neanderthal DNA than Europeans. According to the studies, ancient Asians must have come in contact with Neanderthals a second time after splitting off from Europeans.

Marine animals a lot larger today than ancient counterparts, study finds: Marine animals are about 150 times larger on average today than their ancient ancestors of the Cambrian period, a study published in Science suggests. Researchers compared the measurements of animals from more than 17,000 genera over a 542 million-year time span. Today’s smallest creatures are a tenth the size of their ancient counterparts, but the largest, whales, are more than 100,000 times bigger than their ancestors. “Classes of animals that were already big … tended to persist longer and diversify more than classes that were, on average, smaller,” said paleontologist Noel Heim, co-author of the study.

Study: Bottlenose dolphins moved to the Mediterranean at end of last ice age: Bottlenose dolphins came to the Mediterranean Sea about 18,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, according to a study published in Evolutionary Biology. Before that, the Mediterranean would have been too salty for many sea creatures to live in. But as ice age glaciers melted, it became less salty and fish and other marine life moved in, followed by hungry bottlenose dolphins, researchers say.

Toxins cocktail helps bees fight off parasites, study suggests: Bees given a concoction of toxins, including nicotine and caffeine, were better able to ward off infection by intestinal parasites, researchers have found. The toxins, taken from plants that use the substances to discourage predators, helped reduce parasite infection levels by up to 81% in the bees and one day may help farmers and gardeners improve their bees’ health. “Having bees consume these protective chemicals could be a natural treatment of the future,” said evolutionary ecologist Lynn Adler, lead author of the study published in the Royal Society’s Proceedings B journal.

Scientists measure strength of winds surrounding a black hole: NASA and European Space Agency scientists say they have calculated the size, shape and speed of winds that ring black holes, helping them understand how they affect their galaxies. Researchers looked at winds surrounding black hole PDS-456 in a galaxy 2 billion light-years from Earth, and found that the gusts contain more energy per second than a trillion suns, blowing strongly enough to stop star formation. “Now we know quasar winds significantly contribute to mass loss in a galaxy, driving out its supply of gas, which is fuel for star formation,” said Emanuele Nardini, lead author of the study published in Science.

Skin damage continues long after sun exposure, study suggests: Damage to skin from sun exposure may continue long after coming inside, and melanin, long thought to help protect skin from the damaging effects, may play a role, according to research. The study, published in Science, found that melanin is broken apart by a reaction to two enzymes forming a high energy molecule that damages cells long after sun exposure. While melanin can protect people from short-term damage, “it also causes some of it. It was an interesting finding, but it felt kind of heretical,” said Douglas Brash, author of the study.

Ice may exist hidden in Martian hills, ESA observations suggest: The Phlegra Montes in Mars’ northern hemisphere may be hiding deposits of ice, observations by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express suggest. The hills were covered by glaciers hundreds of millions of years ago, geological evidence suggests, and researchers think ice could be hidden not far beneath their surface.

Search for alien life on Europa begins with NASA workshop: Ideas on how best to search for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa were discussed at a workshop last week at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Funding has been allocated in the 2016 budget request for NASA’s mission to Europa, which scientists believe holds the best chance for harboring life, but what kind of life and whether we’d be able to recognize it are questions the workshop hoped to help answer. “Europa is clearly such a prime target for astrobiology that having a workshop like this to try and figure out all the ways in which we could possibly sample its ocean … [is] critically important,” said astrobiologist Kevin Hand, who attended the meeting.

Dark matter may have played a role in mass extinction events, study suggests: The cataclysmic events that cause mass extinctions on Earth about every 30 million years may be the result of the planet’s interaction with dark matter, according to findings reported online in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Previously, researchers have noticed that mass extinctions seem to happen when our solar system passes through the plane of the Milky Way, suggesting that the gas and dust encountered may trigger comet collisions or geological upheaval. The study suggests that passing through dark matter may have the same effect.

Modern cities’ growth mirrors that of ancient ones, study finds: There are many similarities between the growth of modern cities and ancient ones, according to archaeological data gathered by researchers, who suggest that social behaviors play a big role in developing urban spaces. Researchers used data collected on the pre-Hispanic Basin of Mexico to make their initial comparisons and hope to test it on other ancient sites and cultures. “It implies that some of the most robust patterns in modern urban systems derive from processes that have been part of human societies all along,” said anthropologist Scott Ortman, a co-author of the study published in Science Advances.

Thunderstorms drawn to large cities more than rural sites, study finds: Large cities have more thunderstorms than rural areas, according to research published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. Researchers studied radar data collected between 1997 and 2013 and hope their findings can help cities prepare for these events. “City planners, meteorologists and citizens who live in or near large urban areas should be aware of the increased risk,” said study lead author Alex Haberlie. “These storms can produce dangerous weather hazards, including lightning, hail, strong winds and flash floods, often with little or no warning.”

New species of seadragon found: A third species of seadragon has been discovered, the first new species of the sea creature found in 150 years. Scientists analyzing tissue samples found a DNA sequence that was unlike other seadragons and requested the full specimen, and knew they were seeing something brand new. “If we can overlook such a charismatic new species for so long, we definitely have many more exciting discoveries awaiting us in the oceans,” said study co-author Nerida Wilson.

Skeletons of embracing couple discovered in Greece: Archaeologists excavating the Alepotrypa Cave in Greece found 5,800-year-old skeletons of a man and woman embracing. The cave has been called a “Neolithic Pompeii,” and is one of the largest burial sites of that period. Researchers found two other Neolithic double burials as well as a Mycenaean ossuary dating back 3,300 years holding bone fragments of several individuals, as well as numerous artifacts.

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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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