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Updated: 29 min 48 sec ago

Fossils survive volcanic eruption to tell us about the origin of the Canary Islands

Thu, 2015-01-22 16:52
The most recent eruption on the Canary Islands – at El Hierro in 2011 – produced spectacularly enigmatic white “floating rocks” that originated from the layers of oceanic sedimentary rock underneath the island.

An international team of researchers, led from Uppsala University, use microscopic fossils found in the rocks to shed new light on the long-standing puzzle about the origin of the Canary Islands.

Despite being violently transported through the volcano, some of the rocks produced by the El Hierro eruption contain microscopic fossils of delicate single-celled marine organisms, making the survival of these fossils all the more extraordinary.

A new study published today in Scientific Reports, an open access journal of the Nature Publishing Group, by a team of scientists from the universities of Uppsala, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Lisbon, and the Research Council of Spain, uses these fossil time-travellers to date the sedimentary layers beneath El Hierro and, in turn, shed new light on the long-standing puzzle about the origin of the Canary Islands.

The origin and life cycle of oceanic volcanoes, such as the Canary Islands, has long been a source of debate among natural scientists. There are two competing models for the origin of the Canaries – one in which ocean floor fractures control the location of volcanic activity, and another in which an anomalously hot plume of molten rock from the Earth’s mantle feeds island growth from below.

A cornerstone of the debate concerns the validity of an age-progression along the island chain. A fixed mantle plume under the roughly eastwards moving African tectonic plate would cause the islands and the pre-volcanic ocean sediments underlying them to become progressively younger towards the westernmost island of El Hierro. The fracture model, in turn, would give rise to randomly distributed island ages.

– Fossils and volcanoes are not usually compatible with each other, which is what makes these samples so special, says Valentin Troll, professor at the Department of Earth Sciences at Uppsala University, who led the study that is now being published in Scientific Reports.

The study offers a unique perspective on the plume versus fracture model debate for the origin of the Canary Islands. The fossils are de facto witnesses of the pre-island environment. Researchers can now place constraints on the ages of the sedimentary strata present before island-building and, indeed, on the initiation of island-building itself.

In combination with known sediment ages from the east of the archipelago, it is now clear that the oceanic sediments become younger towards the west of the island chain, thus verifying an age-progression among the islands. These findings are in strong agreement with the mantle plume model for the origin of the Canary Islands and thus contribute to our wider understanding of ocean island volcano genesis.

Uppsala University

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Categories: General

MAXICULTURE boosts initiatives in digital culture

Wed, 2015-01-21 14:38
Digital technologies provide a unique opportunity to preserve, access and spread our cultural heritage. But what are their socio-economic and technological impacts?

The MAXICULTURE project provides a toolkit for measuring projects’ socio-economic and technological impact and how they can best use ICT in the cultural heritage domain.

Recent scientific projects in the digital culture domain digitise cultural heritage, making it accessible to many in creative ways and preserving its content. However, often, the results are not exploited to their full potential.MAXICULTURE offers two tools to help them: one is an assessment tool, the other is a community platform.

‘Digital cultural heritage is a large domain,’ says George Ioannidis, director of IN2, the company behind the technology for the MAXICULTURE community platform and project partner. Activities include scanning books, developing tools for digital storytelling, tools for accessing collections of multimedia documents, supporting collaboration in museums and libraries, and so on.

‘Working with partners across the EU has been very useful, to get a clearer picture in this large domain,’ explains Mr Ioannidis. The international partners (Eurokleis, T6, VDJ and IN2) got in touch with European experts in digital cultural heritage who helped to shape the assessment tool and improve the community platform.

Giving people a clear idea of how effective their project is

The self-assessment toolkit is available to 39 projects, some of which can be read about on this site. So far half have completed at least one assessment cycle. The projects can choose what to evaluate, for example their technological, economic or social impact. They complete an in-depth questionnaire and get back an assessment report which calculates a performance score.

This can be compared against the average result of other projects and allows progress to be monitored over time. From this report, projects can then see what they need to do to improve their scores and devise a plan to achieve their target results.

Cultural heritage projects across the EU tell their story

MAXICULTURE, which drew to a close at the end of 2014 and was backed by EUR 600 000 of EU funding, also offers a community platform which automatically creates collections of posts from information projects publish on social media along with articles, audiovisual files and photos that they upload to their website.

‘So far 20 000 items have been harvested’, explains Mr Ioannidis, adding ‘Collections are put together attractively, giving the user the chance to browse all the relevant posts and uploads in just one place.’

EC-funded projects gain a targeted platform to showcase their results. Projects looking for partners can see who is relevant to them and policy makers, museums, libraries and archives can gain an insight into what is working. The tool can also be used by investors to. find the latest innovations in digital culture.

Building up engaging event resources

‘The community platform also includes posts from events that the EC-funded projects attend’, says Mr Ioannidis, adding ‘so in MAXICULTURE we experimentedalso on how we can create engaging stories about what happens at events’.

Building on these ideas, the STOM and mymeedia projects now aggregate social media posts surrounding an event, along with visual material (photos, videos), presentations and keynotes. This is built up into an event resource which organisers can use, for example, to present the best moments from a conference.

For ICT Proposers Day 2014 in Florence, Italy, mymeedia made a digital stage available featuring the social stream and the highlights of the event. Over 3 000 posts from social media networks and event presentations were collected. The stage was visited over 600 times during the two day event.

European Commission, CORDIS

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Categories: General

Paleontologist names 9-foot-long ‘predator croc’ that preceded dinosaurs

Wed, 2015-01-21 14:25
Finding a new species of dinosaur is pretty rare. Getting a hand in the discovery and naming of one – that’s rarer still.

Or it would be for anyone other than 32-year-old Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of geological sciences in the College of Science and the newest addition to Virginia Tech’s paleontology team.

Nesbitt has been responsible for naming more than half a dozen reptiles (including dinosaurs) in his young career.

His latest addition to the paleontological vernacular is Nundasuchus, (noon-dah-suh-kis) a 9-foot-long carnivorous reptile with steak knifelike teeth, bony plates on the back, and legs that lie under the body.

Nundasuchus is not a dinosaur, but one of the large reptiles that lived before dinosaurs took over the world.

“The full name is actually Nundasuchus songeaensis,” Nesbitt explained. “It’s Swahili mixed with Greek.”

The basic meaning of Nundasuchus, is “predator crocodile,” “Nunda” meaning predator in Swahili, and “suchus” a reference to a crocodile in Greek.

“The ‘songeaensis’ comes from the town, Songea, near where we found the bones,” Nesbitt said. “The reptile itself was heavy-bodied with limbs under its body like a dinosaur, or bird, but with bony plates on its back like a crocodilian.”

The new, albeit ancient, reptile, is featured online in November in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“We discovered the partial skeleton in 2007 when I was a graduate student, but it took some years to piece the bones together as they were in thousands of pieces,” Nesbitt said.

Although a large number of skeleton bones were found, most of the skull was not recovered despite three trips to the site and more than 1,000 hours spent painstakingly piecing the bones back together and cleaning them.

Nundasuchus was found in southwestern Tanzania, while Nesbitt and a team of researchers were looking for prehistoric relatives of birds and crocodiles, but not really expecting to find something entirely new.

“There’s such a huge gap in our understanding around the time when the the common ancestor of birds and crocodilians was alive – there isn’t a lot out there in the fossil record from that part of the reptile family tree,” Nesbitt said. “This helps us fill in some gaps in reptile family tree, but we’re still studying it and figuring out the implications.”

The find itself was a bit of a “eureka moment” for the team. Nesbitt said he realized very quickly what he had found.

“Sometimes you know instantly if it’s new and within about 30 seconds of picking up this bone I knew it was a new species,” he said. “I had hoped to find a leg bone to identify it, and I thought, This is exactly why we’re here’ and I looked down and there were bones everywhere. It turns out I was standing on bones that had been weathering out of the rock for hundreds of years – and it was all one individual of a new species.”

Nesbitt says he has been very lucky to put himself in the right position for finding bones, but it also takes a lot of work doing research on what has been found in various locations through previous research; what type of animals were known to inhabit certain areas; and research into the geological maps of areas to determine the most likely places to find fossils.

Nesbitt has been involved in naming 17 different reptiles, dinosaurs, and dinosaur relatives in the last 10 years, including seven of which he discovered.

Virginia Tech

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Categories: General

Mons Meg leaves Edinburgh Castle for MOT

Tue, 2015-01-20 12:42
The six tonne cannon was transported from Edinburgh Castle for specialist restoration and conservation work.

Mons Meg was lifted by crane in the morning, in a tightly-controlled operation involving specialist personnel. She has now been moved off-site and, over the next few weeks, will be carefully examined by Historic Scotland’s expert conservation team.

Richard Welander, Head of Collections for Historic Scotland said: “Mons Meg undergoes regular ‘health checks’ each year and is lifted off its carriage every five years for a closer inspection.

“This time it’s getting a major service, which means it must leave the castle for the first time for 30 years. The last time Mons Meg left was in March 1985, when she went to the Royal Armouries research establishment in Kent for a short technical examination.

We’ll be using state-of-the-art equipment to examine the cannon and carriage inside and out, to assess their condition. Then we’ll commence with treatment and restoration, which is a delicate and specialist task.

We’re hopeful that she’ll be back on display at the castle by late February.

Over the next few weeks, the cannon will be closely assessed by conservators, including a laser scan and 3-D examination. The existing paintwork will be removed using a high pressure water system in combination with bead blasting. The iron surface revealed will then be examined, cleaned and dried carefully, before being re-painted using a protective paint system by Historic Scotland painters.

The oak carriage that Mons Meg sits on will also undergo some conservation and repair works by Historic Scotland joiners. The carriage was built in 1934 and cost the Lord Provost of Edinburgh £178 at the time.

The Historic Scotland team will also use the time off site to uncover the truth behind some of Mons Meg’s mysteries.

Richard Welander explained: “Obviously in the past we didn’t have the technology which we have today, so there are now a number of techniques that can be applied which could potentially reveal different aspects of Mons Meg’s story.

“This gives us the opportunity to gather and verify more evidence on Mons Meg’s past, which is an exciting prospect.”

Despite many people believing that Mons Meg is fired each day at one o’clock, it is, in fact, a modern military cannon so visitors to the castle will still be able to see and hear the world-famous One o’clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle.

About Mons Meg:

• One of the world’s most famous guns, Mons Meg was given to King James II by Duke Philip of Burgundy in 1457.

• At the time she was considered cutting edge military technology, capable of firing a 150kg gunstone for up to 3.2km (two miles) to devastating effect.

• James II had Mons Meg hauled nearly 50 miles to besiege Roxburgh Castle in 1460. He was killed during the battle, when another of his cannon exploded.

• His grandson James IV used Mons Meg to besiege Dumbarton Castle, then held by the rebellious Earl of Lennox, and to attack Norham Castle in northern England. She ended her fighting days in King James V’s navy and was taken out of military service in about 1550.

• She was however still used to fire salutes. In 1558, she fired a stone ball to Wardie Muir, where the Royal Botanic Garden now stands, to celebrate the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots. Her barrel burst in 1681.

• She was last fired in 1681 as a birthday salute for the Duke of Albany when her barrel burst. After this she was dumped in the Middle Ward at Edinburgh Castle and remained there until 1754 when she was taken to the Tower of London as part of the Disarming Act, after the Jacobite Uprising.

• She was returned to Edinburgh Castle in 1829 after a series of campaigns by Sir Walter Scott and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. She was brought by boat to Leith, then escorted by three troops of cavalry and a foot regiment, back to the castle.

Historic Scotland

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Categories: General

Fossil ankles indicate Earth’s earliest primates lived in trees

Tue, 2015-01-20 12:20
Earth’s earliest primates have taken a step up in the world, now that researchers have gotten a good look at their ankles.

A new study has found that Purgatorius, a small mammal that lived on a diet of fruit and insects, was a tree dweller. Paleontologists made the discovery by analyzing 65-million-year-old ankle bones collected from sites in northeastern Montana.

Purgatorius, part of an extinct group of primates called plesiadapiforms, first appears in the fossil record shortly after the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. Some researchers have speculated over the years that primitive plesiadapiforms were terrestrial, and that primates moved into the tree canopy later. These ideas can still be found in some textbooks today.

“The textbook that I am currently using in my biological anthropology courses still has an illustration of Purgatorius walking on the ground. Hopefully this study will change what students are learning about earliest primate evolution and will place Purgatorius in the trees where it rightfully belongs,” said Stephen Chester, the paper’s lead author. Chester, who conducted much of the research while at Yale University studying for his Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Chester is also a curatorial affiliate at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Until now, paleontologists had only the animal’s teeth and jaws to examine, which left much of its appearance and behavior a mystery. The identification of Purgatorius ankle bones, found in the same area as the teeth, gave researchers a better sense of how it lived.

“The ankle bones have diagnostic features for mobility that are only present in those of primates and their close relatives today,” Chester said. “These unique features would have allowed an animal such as Purgatorius to rotate and adjust its feet accordingly to grab branches while moving through trees. In contrast, ground-dwelling mammals lack these features and are better suited for propelling themselves forward in a more restricted, fore-and-aft motion.”

The research provides the oldest fossil evidence to date that arboreality played a key role in primate evolution. In essence, said the researchers, it implies that the divergence of primates from other mammals was not a dramatic event. Rather, primates developed subtle changes that made for easier navigation and better access to food in the trees.

Yale University

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Categories: General

Preserved fossil represents oldest record of parental care in group of prehistoric reptiles

Mon, 2015-01-19 19:57
New research details how a preserved fossil found in China could be the oldest record of post-natal parental care from the Middle Jurassic.

The specimen, found by a farmer in China, is of an apparent family group with an adult, surrounded by six juveniles of the same species. Given that the smaller individuals are of similar sizes, the group interpreted this as indicating an adult with its offspring, apparently from the same clutch.

A fossil specimen discovered by a farmer in China represents the oldest record of post-natal parental care, dating back to the Middle Jurassic.

The tendency for adults to care for their offspring beyond birth is a key feature of the reproductive biology of living archosaurs – birds and crocodilians – with the latter protecting their young from potential predators and birds, not only providing protection but also provision of food.

This behaviour seems to have evolved numerous times in vertebrates, with evidence of a long evolutionary history in diapsids – a group of amniotes which developed holes in each side of the skull about 300 million years ago and from which all existing lizards, snakes and birds are descended

However, unequivocal evidence of post-natal parental care is extremely rare in the fossil record and is only reported for two types of dinosaurs and varanopid ‘pelycosaurs’ – a reptile which resembled a monitor lizard.

A new study by the Institute of Geology, Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, Beijing; the University of Lincoln, UK; and Hokkaido University, Japan, presents new evidence of post-natal parental care in Philydrosauras, a choristodere from the Yixian Formation of western Liaoning Province, China. Choristoderes are a group of relatively small aquatic and semi-aquatic diapsid reptiles which emerged in the Middle Jurassic Period more than 160 million years ago.

The team reviewed the fossil record of reproduction in this group using exceptionally preserved skeletons of the aquatic choristoderan Philydrosauras. The specimen was donated to the Jinzhou Paleontological Museum in Jinzhou City four years ago by a local farmer who discovered the skeleton.

The skeletons are of an apparent family group with an adult, surrounded by six juveniles of the same species. Given that the smaller individuals are of similar sizes, the group interpreted this as indicating an adult with its offspring, apparently from the same clutch.

Dr Charles Deeming, from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, said: “That Philydrosauras shows parental care of the young after hatching suggests protection by the adult, presumably against predators. Their relatively small size would have meant that choristoderes were probably exposed to high predation pressure and strategies, such as live birth, and post-natal parental care may have improved survival of the offspring. This specimen represents the oldest record of post-natal parental care in diapsids to our knowledge and is the latest in an increasingly detailed collection of choristoderes exhibiting different levels of reproduction and parental care.”

A test of whether post-natal parental care is an ancestral behaviour that has persisted in the evolutionary development of amniotes will depend on future fossil discoveries.

The study is published in Geosciences Journal.

University of Lincoln

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Categories: General

HMS Beagle sketchbooks added to Digital Library

Fri, 2015-01-16 17:54
Tiny sketchbooks that bring to life one of the most famous voyages in history have been digitised and made available online for the first time.

The intricate pencil drawings and watercolours in the sketchbooks were made by Conrad Martens, shipmate to Charles Darwin as they travelled around South America on the voyage of HMS Beagle.

Now, for the first time, all of Martens’ Beagle sketches have been made freely available online through Cambridge University Library’s Digital Library: http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/ and can also be seen in the photo film above.

Martens made the drawings between the summer of 1833 and the early months of 1835. Cambridge University Library owns his two sketchbooks from this period and has made the above audio slideshow to celebrate their addition to the Digital Library.

“These drawings were made almost two centuries ago but even now, they still really vividly bring to life one of the most famous voyages in the world and arguably the most famous in the history of science,” said Dr Alison Pearn, Associate Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project.

“Each of these pages is only 14cm by 20cm. It’s wonderful that everyone now has the opportunity to flick through these sketchbooks in their virtual representation and to follow the journey as Martens and Darwin saw it unfold.”

The first sketchbook begins just before Martens heard that the Beagle was looking for a new ship’s artist, capturing street life in Montevideo in August 1833. The later sketches give a sense of how hard and difficult the journey must have been both on sea and land in uncharted territory.

Martens did not have much time to make his sketches and the notebooks are littered with hastily-scribbled notes to himself about colours, textures and the geology of the landscapes before him.

“Darwin described the Beagle voyage as the most formative experience of his life and to see it through the eyes of one of his companions is a very vivid reminder of the reality of that journey,” added Pearn. “Martens’ sketches are a visual counterpart to Darwin’s letters home. Both bring to life a really remarkable adventure in a vast and remote part of the world.”

University of Cambridge

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Categories: General

Antiquity of dairying on Emerald Isle revealed

Fri, 2015-01-16 17:47
As dairy farmers across Europe anxiously await the lifting of EU milk quotas in April this year, new research from the University of Bristol, UK has revealed the antiquity of dairy farming in a region famous for its dairy exports: Ireland.

Research published today in the Journal of Environmental Archaeology shows that dairying on the island goes back approximately 6,000 years, revealed through traces of ancient dairy fats found in pots dating to around 4,000 to 2,500 BC.

Dr Jessica Smyth of Bristol’s School of Chemistry analysed nearly 500 pots from the Neolithic, the period when people switched from hunting and gathering to farming. In Britain and Ireland, this change occurred around 4,000 BC, more than 1,000 years later than on the Continent. The Bristol team use a combination of fat or lipid ‘fingerprinting’ and compound-specific carbon isotope techniques to identify the origin of fats preserved in the walls of prehistoric cooking pots.

Dr Smyth, who led the study, said: “We know from previous research that dairying was an important part of many early farming economies, but what was a big surprise was the prevalence of dairy residues in Irish pots. It looks to have been a very important food source.”

Ninety per cent of the residues tested for fat origin were found to be dairy fats, with ten per cent found to be meat fats (beef or mutton) or a mixture of milk and meat.

Dr Smyth added: “People can obviously cook meat in other ways than boiling it in pots, and there is plenty of evidence for cereal processing at this time, but the Irish dairy signal remains very striking, particularly when you compare it with the continental European data sets. Ireland really does seem to go mad for milk in the Neolithic.”

Milk is still a traditional and valuable food in Europe today, produced by over 30 million dairy cows and representing 14 per cent of the value of European agricultural production [2011 figures]. Six thousand years ago, dairying in Ireland looked very different.

Dr Smyth said: “We know that settlements were small in the Irish Neolithic, usually one or two houses, so it’s likely that early farming groups had just one or two animals supporting the household with their products, which were perhaps part of a wider community herd.”

Such results are even more significant given the fact that domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep and goats had to be physically shipped to Ireland as part of the process, as these animals were not native to the island.

“These are a very determined group of pioneer farmers. They are setting up everything from scratch, and taking a significant gamble with their livelihoods and those of their dependants,” Dr Smyth said.

It would appear that the Irish love of dairy products is very ancient, and the suitability of the island for dairy farming was recognised early in prehistory.

University of Bristol

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Categories: General

Tiny plant fossils a window into Earth’s landscape millions of years ago

Fri, 2015-01-16 17:40
Minuscule, fossilized pieces of plants could tell a detailed story of what the Earth looked like 50 million years ago.

An international team led by the University of Washington has discovered a way to determine the tree cover and density of trees, shrubs and bushes in locations over time based on clues in the cells of plant fossils preserved in rocks and soil. Tree density directly affects precipitation, erosion, animal behavior and a host of other factors in the natural world. Quantifying vegetation structure throughout time could shed light on how the Earth’s ecosystems changed over millions of years.

“Knowing an area’s vegetation structure and the arrangement of leaves on the Earth’s surface is key for understanding the terrestrial ecosystem. It’s the context in which all land-based organisms live, but we didn’t have a way to measure it until now,” said lead author Regan Dunn, a paleontologist at the UW’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Dunn completed this work as a UW doctoral student in the lab of Caroline Strömberg, the Estella B. Leopold associate professor in biology and curator of paleobotany at the Burke Museum.

The findings are published Jan. 16 in the journal Science.

The team focused its fieldwork on several sites in Patagonia, Argentina, which have some of the best-preserved fossils in the world and together represent 38 million years of ecosystem history (49-11 million years ago). Paleontologists have for years painstakingly collected fossils from these sites, and worked to precisely determine their ages using radiometric dating. The new study builds on this growing body of knowledge.

In Patagonia and other places, scientists have some idea based on ancient plant remains such as fossilized pollen and leaves what species of plants were alive at given periods in Earth’s history. For example, the team’s previous work documented vegetation composition for this area of Patagonia. But there hasn’t been a way to precisely quantify vegetation openness, aside from general speculations of open or bare habitats, as opposed to closed or tree-covered habitats.

“Now we have a tool to go and look at a lot of different important intervals in our history where we don’t know what happened to the structure of vegetation,” said Dunn, citing the period just after the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs.

“The significance of this work cannot be understated,” said co-author Strömberg. “Vegetation structure links all aspects of modern ecosystems, from soil moisture to primary productivity to global climate. Using this method, we can finally quantify in detail how Earth’s plant and animal communities have responded to climate change over millions of years, which is vital for forecasting how ecosystems will change under predicted future climate scenarios.”

Work by other scientists has shown that the cells found in a plant’s outermost layer, called the epidermis, change in size and shape depending on how much sun the plant is exposed to while its leaves develop. For example, the cells of a leaf that grow in deeper shade will be larger and curvier than the cells of leaves that develop in less covered areas.

Dunn and collaborators found that these cell patterns, indicating growth in shade or sun, similarly show up in some plant fossils. When a plant’s leaves fall to the ground and decompose, tiny silica particles inside the plants called phytoliths remain as part of the soil layer. The phytoliths were found to perfectly mimic the cell shapes and sizes that indicate whether or not the plant grew in a shady or open area.

The researchers decided to check their hypothesis that fossilized cells could tell a more complete story of vegetation structure by testing it in a modern setting: Costa Rica.

Dunn took soil samples from sites in Costa Rica that varied from covered rainforests to grassy savannahs to woody shrub lands. She also took photos looking directly up at the tree canopy (or lack thereof) at each site, noting the total vegetation coverage.

Back in the lab, she extracted the phytoliths from each soil sample and measured them under the microscope. When compared with tree coverage estimated from the corresponding photos, Dunn and co-authors found that the curves and sizes of the cells directly related to the amount of shade in their environments. The researchers characterized the amount of shade as “leaf area index,” which is a standard way of measuring vegetation over a specific area.

Testing this relationship between leaf area index and plant cell structures in modern environments allowed the team to develop an equation that can be used to predict vegetation openness at any time in the past, provided there are preserved plant fossils.

“Leaf area index is a well-known variable for ecologists, climate scientists and modelers, but no one’s ever been able to imagine how you could reconstruct tree coverage in the past — and now we can,” said co-author Richard Madden of the University of Chicago. “We should be able to reconstruct leaf area index by using all kinds of fossil plant preservation, not just phytoliths. Once that is demonstrated, then the places in the world where we can reconstruct this will increase.”

When Dunn and co-authors applied their method to 40-million-year-old phytoliths from Patagonia, they found something surprising — habitats lost dense tree cover and opened up much earlier than previously thought based on other paleobotanic studies. This is significant because the decline in vegetation cover occurred during the same period as cooling ocean temperatures and the evolution of animals with the type of teeth that feed in open, dusty habitats.

The research team plans to test the relationship between vegetation coverage and plant cell structure in other regions around the world. They also hope to find other types of plant fossils that hold the same information at the cellular level as do phytoliths.

University of Washington

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Categories: General

Did the Anthropocene begin with the nuclear age?

Thu, 2015-01-15 19:44
An international group of scientists has proposed a start date for the dawn of the Anthropocene – a new chapter in the Earth’s geological history.

Humans are having such a marked impact on the Earth that they are changing its geology, creating new and distinctive strata that will persist far into the future. This is the idea behind the Anthropocene, a new epoch in Earth history proposed by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen just 15 years ago. Since then the idea has spread widely through both the sciences and humanities.

But if the Anthropocene is to be a geological epoch – when should it begin? Humans have long affected the environment, and ideas as to when the Anthropocene might start range from the thousands of years ago with the dawn of agriculture, to the Industrial Revolution – and even to the future (for the greatest human-made changes could still be to come).

Now, members of the international working group formally analysing the Anthropocene suggest that the key turning point happened in the mid-twentieth century. This was when humans did not just leave traces of their actions, but began to alter the whole Earth system. There was a ‘Great Acceleration’ of population, of carbon emissions, of species invasions and extinctions, of earth moving, of the production of concrete, plastics and metals.

It included the start, too, of the nuclear age, when artificial radionuclides were scattered across the Earth, from the poles to the Equator, to be leave a detectable signal in modern strata virtually everywhere.

The proposal, signed up to by 26 members of the working group, including lead author Dr Jan Zalasiewicz, who also chairs the working group, and Professor Mark Williams, both of the University of Leicester’s Department of Geology, is that the beginning of the Anthropocene could be considered to be drawn at the moment of detonation of the world’s first nuclear test: on July 16th 1945. The beginning of the nuclear age, it marks the historic turning point when humans first accessed an enormous new energy source – and is also a time level that can be effectively tracked within geological strata, using a variety of geological clues.

Dr Zalasiewicz said: “Like any geological boundary, it is not a perfect marker – levels of global radiation really rose in the early 1950s, as salvoes of bomb tests took place. But it may be the optimal way to resolve the multiple lines of evidence on human-driven planetary change. Time – and much more discussion – will tell.”

This year, the Anthropocene Working Group will put together more evidence on the Anthropocene, including discussion of possible alternative time boundaries. In 2016, the group aims to make recommendations on whether this new time unit should be formalized and, if so, how it might be defined and characterised.

University of Leicester

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Categories: General

Out of the pouch: Ancient DNA from extinct giant roos

Thu, 2015-01-15 19:03
Scientists have finally managed to extract DNA from Australia’s extinct giant kangaroos – the mysterious marsupial megafauna that roamed Australia over 40,000 years ago.

A team of scientists led by Dr Bastien Llamas and Professor Alan Cooper from the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) have extracted DNA sequences from two species: a giant short-faced kangaroo (Simosthenurus occidentalis) and a giant wallaby (Protemnodon anak). These specimens died around 45,000 years ago and their remains were discovered in a cold and dry cave in Tasmania.

Relatively good preservation conditions in the cave allowed enough short pieces of DNA to survive so researchers could reconstruct partial “mitochondrial genomes” – genetic material transmitted from mother to offspring and widely used to infer evolutionary relationships.

“The ancient DNA reveals that extinct giant wallabies are very close relatives of large living kangaroos, such as the red and western grey kangaroos,” says lead author Dr Bastien Llamas, ACAD senior research associate. “Their skeletons had suggested they were quite primitive macropods a group that includes kangaroos, wallabies, pademelons and quokkas – but now we can place giant wallaby much higher up the kangaroo family tree.”

The research has also confirmed that short-faced kangaroos are a highly distinct lineage of macropods, which had been predicted on their unusual anatomy.

Generally poor preservation conditions and the age of Australian megafaunal remains has prevented retrieval of its DNA until now, although complete nuclear or mitochondrial genomes have been previously obtained from extinct megafauna from Eurasia, the Americas, and New Zealand. Scientists attempting to decipher the evolutionary relationships of the Australian megafauna were previously restricted to using information from bones.

“In addition to poor DNA preservation, most of the extinct Australian megafauna do not have very close relatives roaming around today, which makes it more difficult to retrieve and interpret the genetic data,” says Dr Llamas. “Together with my colleagues Alan Cooper and Paul Brotherton, we had to think hard about experimental and bioinformatics approaches to overcome more than 10 million years of divergent evolution between the extinct and living species.”

Although ancient DNA confirms that the short-faced kangaroos left no descendants, it also shows their closest living cousin could be the banded hare-wallaby (Lagostrophus fasciatus), which is now restricted to small isolated islands off the coast of Western Australia.

“Our results suggest the banded hare-wallaby is the last living representative of a previously diverse lineage of kangaroos. It will hopefully further encourage and justify conservation efforts for this endangered species,” says co-author Professor Mike Lee of the South Australian Museum and the University’s School of Biological Sciences.

University of Adelaide

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Stone Age man wasn’t necessarily more advanced than the Neanderthals

Wed, 2015-01-14 22:47
A multi-purpose bone tool dating from the Neanderthal era has been discovered by University of Montreal researchers, throwing into question our current understanding of the evolution of human behaviour.

It was found at an archaeological site in France. “This is the first time a multi-purpose bone tool from this period has been discovered. It proves that Neanderthals were able to understand the mechanical properties of bone and knew how to use it to make tools, abilities usually attributed to our species, Homo sapiens,” said Luc Doyon of the university’s Department of Anthropology, who participated in the digs. Neanderthals lived in Europe and western Asia in the Middle Paleolithic between around 250,000 to 28,000 years ago. Homo sapiens is the scientific term for modern man.

The production of bone tools by Neanderthals is open to debate. For much of the twentieth century, prehistoric experts were reluctant to recognize the ability of this species to incorporate materials like bone into their technological know-how and likewise their ability to master the techniques needed to work bone. However, over the past two decades, many clues indicate the use of hard materials from animals by Neanderthals. “Our discovery is an additional indicator of bone work by Neanderthals and helps put into question the linear view of the evolution of human behaviour,” Doyon said.

Bone Tool Discovered by University of Montreal Researchers (image)

The tool in question was uncovered in June 2014 during the annual digs at the Grotte du Bison at Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy, France. Extremely well preserved, the tool comes from the left femur of an adult reindeer and its age is estimated between 55,000 and 60,000 years ago. Marks observed on it allow us to trace its history. Obtaining bones for the manufacture of tools was not the primary motivation for Neanderthals hunting – above all, they hunted to obtain the rich energy provided by meat and marrow. Evidence of meat butchering and bone fracturing to extract marrow are evident on the tool. Percussion marks suggest the use of the bone fragment for carved sharpening the cutting edges of stone tools. Finally, chipping and a significant polish show the use of the bone as a scraper.

“The presence of this tool at a context where stone tools are abundant suggests an opportunistic choice of the bone fragment and its intentional modification into a tool by Neanderthals,” Doyon said. “It was long thought that before Homo sapiens, other species did not have the cognitive ability to produce this type of artefact. This discovery reduces the presumed gap between the two species and prevents us from saying that one was technically superior to the other.”

University of Montreal

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Archaeologists make unique discoveries in Egypt

Wed, 2015-01-14 14:44
A team of archaeologists in Egypt has made a number of exceptional discoveries, including a stela – a relief design carved into a stone wall – with what are believed to be 2500-year-old inscriptions. The project is led by Maria Nilsson from Lund University in Sweden.

“What is unique about the stela is that it shows the gods Amun-Ra and Toth together. These two deities are rarely represented together”, says Maria Nilsson. “We believe that the combination is related to a connection with the moon. Our research indicates the existence of a previously unexamined moon cult”, she continues.

Image Credit : Lund University

The international Swedish-led research project, the Gebel el Silsila Survey Project, has been underway since 2012 and involves around 15 researchers. Gebel el Silsila is a stone quarry outside the city of Aswan, 850 km south of Cairo. The quarry supplied the stone for sites such as Luxor and other temple constructions in southern Egypt.

Another interesting find is that of two physical obelisks made of sandstone, abandoned in their original location due to a crack which appeared during the stone-cutting process. Researchers were familiar with the famous obelisks present in the Aswan quarry, but Maria Nilsson’s team has now found two more.

A different, but somewhat related find includes two engraved obelisks are represented in an image inside the famous monument of the Speos of Horemheb.

“What is spectacular about this find is that the scene is visible through a second scene which was engraved on top of it, and through stylistic comparisons we believe the underlying scene, showing a boat transporting obelisks, to be from the early 18th dynasty, possibly from the time of the famous female pharaoh Hatshepsut”, explains Maria Nilsson.

Previous research teams that have worked in the quarry have thought that the location did not contain any significant Prehistoric remains.

“We have found over 60 Rock Art sites with the flint tools used there, and documented around 5000 quarry marks and 800 texts since we started in 2012. We have refuted previous observations and thereby re-written the history of the location”, says Maria Nilsson.

Besides the head of the research team, Maria Nilsson, two other researchers from Lund University have taken part in the fieldwork of the previous autumn – Stefan Lindgren at Lund University’s Humanities Laboratory and Giacomo Landeschi from the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. They have worked with photographic technology that generates 3D reconstructions of monuments. This technology allows us to interpret the remains in various lights and from various angles, making it easier to discover details that are not visible to the naked eye.

The objectives of the project in Gebel el Silsila include comprehensively documenting, categorising and analysing engravings (quarry markings) for the first time to find out more about who was responsible for these markings and why they were created.

“For people in Antiquity, this was more than a mere workplace. Religion was a natural part of their lives and everything they did was protected by the gods. The stelae, the engraved reliefs, are an example of an offering by the workers of the time to the gods, partly as an expression of gratitude that nobody was injured during the work”, says Maria Nilsson.

What happens next?

”Many more discoveries remain to be made. For example, we would like to find stone carving tools in order to learn more about the workers”, says Maria Nilsson, who is looking forward to a further 20 years or so of research in the area, as long as the funding lasts.

Lund University – Header Image Credit : Lund University

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The Oldest Chinese Bone Acheulean Handaxe Has Been Found

Tue, 2015-01-13 22:22
The municipality of Chongqing, southwestern China appears to have been a very active area archaeological and zoologically, during the Pleistocene.

Of the many sites, one has revealed a new exciting piece in the puzzle of the archaeology of Pleistocene China. At over 500 metres above sea level, the Triassic Rock quarry contained the remains of ancient fauna from the Pleistocene from Tapirus sinensis (tapirs), to Rhinoceros sinensis (rhinos) to Stegodon orientalis (elephants). Among these fossil remains was a S. orientalis lower jaw which is the focus of the latest announcement from the Quarry on the outskirts of Huangma Village.

The site was dated using the Uranium-Series. What follows is a simplified summary of the dating technique. Elements within the Uranium-Series have to decay/reach a stable state. They are radioactive. Uranium-234 will morph into Thorium-230, after releasing energy. You can calculate how much of the element has decayed by noting the half-life of an element in question. So, it takes 245,000 years for half of Uranium-234 to decay into Thorium-230.

Diorama of a Homo erectus group performing various tasks such as carcass processing and setting up a camp fire – Credit Wiki Commons

There are assumptions involved in the analysis, despite this, it remains a reasonably useful method to date Pleistocene deposits. In 2010, a fossil sample from Huangma Quarry was sent to the Radiogenic Isotope Laboratory at the University of Queensland, Australia and provided an age for the fossil remains of between 167,000 to 171,000 years of ago. So what is so amazing about this fossil mandible? Well some genius (of a group of Homo erectus?) decided to turn it into a tool, a Handaxe. The team of scientists who discovered the tool back in 2002, decided to classify this object as a Handaxe, based upon the criteria given by Xing Gao in a paper he published in 2012. That criteria is as follows:

1. Retouched/ Flaked on both sides (Bifacially)
2. Shape needs to symmetrical both on the face and from the side
3. The point needs to be narrow/ thin, base needs to be wide/thick

It was however the criteria for a subcategory of handaxe – the Proto-Handaxe – that best described this object. The criteria was slightly different to the above, such as a more pick-like form and short/deep retouch. The team were under no illusions, however that the Huangma bone handaxe is consistent with the classic Acheulean handaxe morphology. It diverges in form from the classic Acheulean morphology.

Italy currently holds the earliest bone object that was fashioned into a handaxe. At just under half a million years old, the Fontana Ranuccio Handaxe surprises, given that the expectation is for Africa to hold the earliest well-defined deliberately crafted tool. Not so.

A Cave at the famed Zhoukoudien Site China – Credit: Wiki Commons

The earliest example on the African continent is a mere 70,000 years old. Europe continues to produce the goods with another bone handaxe from Bilsingsleben, Germany at 370,000 years old. The paucity of bone as a raw material for tools in the Pleistocene speaks to the inefficiency at cutting, especially during carcass processing. Nothing can beat stone, especially obsidian and flint to get a task done.

Why do we find these objects in the archaeological record at all? Here we are engaging in hypotheticals such as improvisation, to experimentation of bone as a raw material. The team suggest that this tool’s existence represents an adaptive response to the subtropical climate.

The Huangma and Renzidong handaxes were both extracted from the mandibles of S. orientalis (elephant), which is more durable and because the handaxes were carved out of a mandible and not leg bones like those of Europe and Africa, there was more raw material to craft a proper handaxe. Elephants were the most dominant megafauna on the Chinese subcontinent, found in all assemblages, in every site. Hebei, northern China demonstrates a predator-prey relationship existed for at least the last one and a half million years between humans and elephants.

Finally, the fauna of the cave at Huangma suggests the climate of MIS 6 was very wet and cold indeed requiring the shelter of caves like Huangma. There is little or no evidence, hominins were using caves during interstadials (we are in one now), but when the stadials develop, caves become invaluable places to shelter.

Written by Charles T. G. Clarke

Header Image : The Original Handaxe of Saint Acheul, Somme, France – Credit: Wiki Commons

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Dinosaurs wiped out rapidly in Europe 66 million years ago

Tue, 2015-01-13 22:09
Dinosaurs flourished in Europe right up until the asteroid impact that wiped them out 66 million years ago, a new study shows.

The theory that an asteroid rapidly killed off the dinosaurs is widely recognized, but until recently dinosaur fossils from the latest Cretaceous–the final stanza of dinosaur evolution–were known almost exclusively from North America. This has raised questions about whether the sudden decline of dinosaurs in the American and Canadian west was merely a local story.

The new study synthesizes a flurry of research on European dinosaurs over the past two decades. Fossils of latest Cretaceous dinosaurs are now commonly discovered in Spain, France, Romania, and other countries.

By looking at the variety and ages of these fossils, a team of researchers led by Zoltán Csiki-Sava of the University of Bucharest’s Faculty of Geology and Geophysics has determined that dinosaurs remained diverse in European ecosystems very late into the Cretaceous.

In the Pyrenees of Spain and France, the best area in Europe for finding latest Cretaceous dinosaurs, meat and plant-eating species are present and seemingly flourishing during the final few hundred thousand years before the asteroid hit.

Dr Csiki-Sava said “For a long time, Europe was overshadowed by other continents when the understanding of the nature, composition and evolution of latest Cretaceous continental ecosystems was concerned. The last 25 years witnessed a huge effort across all Europe to improve our knowledge, and now we are on the brink of fathoming the significance of these new discoveries, and of the strange and new story they tell about life at the end of the Dinosaur Era.”

Dr Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences (UK), an author on the report, added: “Everyone knows that an asteroid hit 66 million years ago and dinosaurs disappeared, but this story is mostly based on fossils from one part of the world, North America. We now know that European dinosaurs were thriving up to the asteroid impact, just like in North America. This is strong evidence that the asteroid really did kill off dinosaurs in their prime, all over the world at once.”

The new study is published in the open access journal ZooKeys. It reviews the fossil record of Late Cretaceous land-living vertebrates (including dinosaurs) from Europe and provides the most up-to-date survey of how these animals were changing in the run up to the asteroid impact.

Pensoft Publishers

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World’s oldest butchering tools gave evolutionary edge to human communication

Tue, 2015-01-13 21:56
Two and a half million years ago, our hominin ancestors in the African savanna crafted rocks into shards that could slice apart a dead gazelle, zebra or other game animal.

Over the next 700,000 years, this butchering technology spread throughout the continent and, it turns out, came to be a major evolutionary force, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Liverpool and the University of St. Andrews, both in the UK.

Combining the tools of psychology, evolutionary biology and archaeology, scientists have found compelling evidence for the co-evolution of early Stone Age slaughtering tools and our ability to communicate and teach, shedding new light on the power of human culture to shape evolution.

To be reported Jan. 13 in the journal Nature Communications, the study is the largest to date to look at gene-culture co-evolution in the context of prehistoric Oldowan tools, the oldest-known cutting devices. It suggests communication among our earliest ancestors may be more complex than previously thought, with teaching and perhaps even a primitive proto-language occurring some 1.8 million years ago.

“Our findings suggest that stone tools weren’t just a product of human evolution, but actually drove it as well, creating the evolutionary advantage necessary for the development of modern human communication and teaching,” said Thomas Morgan, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at UC Berkeley.

“Our data show this process was ongoing two and a half million years ago, which allows us to consider a very drawn-out and gradual evolution of the modern human capacity for language and suggests simple ‘proto-languages’ might be older than we previously thought,” Morgan added.

Morgan and University of Liverpool archaeologist Natalie Uomini arrived at their conclusions by conducting a series of experiments in teaching contemporary humans the art of “Oldowan stone-knapping,” in which butchering “flakes” are created by hammering a hard rock against certain volcanic or glassy rocks, like basalt or flint.

Oldowan stone-knapping dates back to the Lower Paleolithic period in eastern Africa, and remained largely unchanged for 700,000 years until more sophisticated Acheulean hand-axes and cleavers, which marked the next generation of stone tool technology, came on the scene. It was practiced by some of our earliest ancestors, such as Homo habilis and the even older Australopithecus garhi, who walked on two legs, but whose facial features and brain size were closer to those of apes.

In testing five different ways to convey Oldowan stone-knapping skills to more than 180 college students, the researchers found that the demonstration that used spoken communication – versus imitation, non-verbal presentations or gestures – yielded the highest volume and quality of flakes in the least amount of time and with the least waste.

To measure the rate of transmission of the ancient butchery technology, and establish whether more complex communication such as language would get the best results, study volunteers were divided into five- or 10-member “learning chains.” The head of the chain received a knapping demonstration, the raw materials and five minutes to try their hand at it. That person then showed it to the next person in the chain, who in turn showed the next person, and so on. Their competence picked up significantly with verbal instruction.

“If someone is trying to learn a skill that has lots of subtlety to it, it helps to engage with a teacher and have them correct you,” Morgan said. “You learn so much faster when someone is telling you what to do.”

As for what the results mean for the Oldowan hominins: “They were probably not talking,” Morgan said. “These tools are the only tools they made for 700,000 years. So if people had language, they would have learned faster and developed newer technologies more rapidly.”

Without language, one can assume that a hominin version of, say, Steve Jobs would have been hard-pressed to pass on visionary ideas. Still, the seeds of language, teaching and learning were planted due to the demand for Oldowan tools, the study suggests, and at some point hominins got better at communicating, hence the advent of Acheulean hand-axes and cleavers some 1.7 million years ago.

“To sustain Acheulean technology, there must have been some kind of teaching, and maybe even a kind of language, going on, even just a simple proto-language using sounds or gestures for ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ or ‘here’ or ‘there,'” Morgan said.

Indeed, the data suggest that when the Oldowan stone-tool industry started, it was most likely not being taught, but communication methods to teach it were developed later.

“At some point they reached a threshold level of communication that allowed Acheulean hand axes to start being taught and spread around successfully and that almost certainly involved some sort of teaching and proto-type language,” Morgan said.

University of California – Berkeley

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