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Science News

Ancient Sea Creatures Were Actually One Of World’s Earliest Land-dwelling Organisms

Image Caption: Dickinsonia fossils in South Australia, shown here, were likely formed by lichen or other microbial consortia, not from marine invertebrates or giant protists as previously theorized. Credit: Courtesy of Greg RetallackredOrbit Staff & Wire Reports

Mysterious multicellular fossils believed to be ancient sea creatures may actually be some of the earliest land-dwelling organisms, according to a paper published online on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The controversial hypothesis has been fiercely criticized, with some paleontologists flatly rejecting the idea, but if true, the finding would push back life’s transition from sea to land by as much as 100 million years or more.

The Ediacaran fossils were first discovered in 1946 in Australia’s Ediacara Hills, and date to 542-635 million years ago. They were long considered fossil jellyfish, worms and sea pens.

Gregory Retallack, an Australian native who has been studying the fossil soils of South Australia, examined the ancient Ediacaran soils with a variety of chemical and microscopic techniques, including an electron microprobe and scanning electron microscope.

The soils with fossils “are distinguished by a surface called ‘old elephant skin,’ which is best preserved under covering sandstone beds,” wrote Retallack, professor of geological sciences and co-director of paleontological collections at the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History, in his report.

The healed cracks and lumpy appearance of sandy “old elephant skin” are most like the surface of microbial soil crusts in modern deserts.

Studies Find Culprits To Drop In Elephant Populations

Image Credit: javarman / ShutterstockLee Rannals for

Researchers say that violence in Mali is threatening the survival of endangered African elephant populations.

The team wrote in the journal Biological Conservation that recent violence in Mali may be putting the animals as risk.

During the two-year study, the researchers tracked the elephants’ migration with Global Positioning System (GPS) collars. The research could help advance conservation for the animals, which face increased armed conflict in Mali between government forces and Touareg rebels.

“In recent years, the Mali elephants have largely managed to maintain their numbers in extreme natural conditions of heat and drought,” said lead researcher Jake Wall, a University of British Columbia (UBC) Dept. of Geography PhD candidate. “The uprising occurring in northern Mali puts them at greater risk, as does increasing human settlement in their traditional territory and the growing risk of ivory poaching.”

This study focused on the Gourma elephants in Mali’s northern region. This species of elephant faces sand storms, water shortages, and temperatures over 122 Fahrenheit.

Technology News

The king of maps is back and better than ever


Like an old friend returning home from a long trip, Google Maps is back on iOS. It's familiar, it's comfortable, a bit surprising, and instantly satisfying. And it's the best navigation app available on the device.

Absolutely, it runs circles around the much-lampooned Apple Maps. Yet, it's also vastly improved over not only the Google Maps we had back in iOS 5, but also the version accessible through the iOS browser. The complete interface redesign adds a new twist, and turn-by-turn directions with voice, Street View, more points of interest, and Google's mapping accuracy sweeten the pot. Oh, and don't forget the cherry on top: transit directions.

Our major gripe is that there is no dedicated iPad app as there is for Google Maps on Android. You can use the app on Apple's tablet, but you have to resort to the smaller screen or use pixel doubling to expand it to the iPad's full size.


After downloading the free app from the App Store, you'll have to sign in to go any further. Don't be fazed by this extra step, as there's a very good reason for it. Once you sign in, you'll see any previous searches plus integration and custom maps.

‘Non-Harmful’ Phone Spoofing OK, Appeals Court Says

Photo: Alex Washburn/WiredBy David Kravets

A federal appeals court is nullifying a Mississippi law that forbids phone spoofing of any type, ruling that Congress has authorized so-called “non-harmful” spoofing.

Spoofing, misrepresenting the originating telephone caller’s identification to the call recipient, was outlawed entirely in Mississippi under the 2010 Caller ID Anti-Spoofing Act (ASA), punishable by up to a year in prison.

The decision (.pdf) is likely a death blow to the eight states that are mulling laws similar to Mississippi’s, as well as Oklahoma and Louisiana, which already have similar statutes on the books, said Mark Del Bianco, the Maryland plaintiff’s attorney in the case.

“It’s almost impossible now for a state to pass a law that would survive judicial scrutiny,” he said.

Del Bianco represented New Jersey-based Teltech Systems and Michigan-based Wonderland Rentals — companies that provide nationwide, third-party spoofing services.

Teltech offers its customers the SpoofCard, which operates like a long-distance calling card with the ability to manipulate the caller ID displayed to the called party. Wonderland uses spoofing to conduct quality control for businesses by faking the phone numbers of its client customers in order to anonymously test customer service representatives.

Environmental News

Climate Warming Unlikely to Cause Near-Term Extinction of Ancient Amazon Trees, but Multiple Threats to the Forest Remain

A small fragment of mature Amazon forest surrounded by agricultural land in Manaus, Brazil. Forest fragmentation may prevent tree populations from migrating to suitable habitats in response to climate change. (Credit: Photo by Christopher Dick, University of Michigan)University of Michigan

Dec. 13, 2012 — A new genetic analysis has revealed that many Amazon tree species are likely to survive human-caused climate warming in the coming century, contrary to previous findings that temperature increases would cause them to die out.

However, the authors of the new study warn that extreme drought and forest fires will impact Amazonia as temperatures rise, and the over-exploitation of the region's resources continues to be a major threat to its future. Conservation policy for the Amazon should remain focused on reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions and preventing deforestation, they said.

The study by University of Michigan evolutionary biologist Christopher Dick and his colleagues demonstrates the surprising age of some Amazonian tree species -- more than 8 million years -- and thereby shows that they have survived previous periods as warm as many of the global warming scenarios forecast for the year 2100.

Top Officials Meet at U.S. Office of Naval Research as Arctic Changes Quicken

Arctic iceOffice of Naval Research

Dec. 13, 2012 — The U.S. Navy's chief of naval research, Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, met this week with leaders from U.S. and Canadian government agencies to address research efforts in the Arctic, in response to dramatic and accelerating changes in summer sea ice coverage.

"Our Sailors and Marines need to have a full understanding of the dynamic Arctic environment, which will be critical to protecting and maintaining our national, economic and security interests," said Klunder. "Our research will allow us to know what's happening, to predict what is likely to come for the region, and give leadership the information it needs to formulate the best policies and plans for future Arctic operations."

The Arctic Summit, held Dec. 11 at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) headquarters in Arlington, enabled senior leaders from ONR, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Research and Development Canada, the Departments of Energy and Interior, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation, the Navy Task Force Climate Change and more to share important scientific ideas on the region. One of the goals of the summit was to assess the different Arctic research efforts -- and potentially form new research partnerships.

Medical News

Zinc may help treat box jellyfish stings

Cubozoan’s lethal venom strikes red blood cells, new study finds
The Australian box jellyfish delivers a sting thought to be among the deadliest in the world. Zinc might counteract its effects, a new study suggestsBy Nathan Seppa

A zinc compound sometimes taken to treat the common cold might have a second career as emergency treatment for anyone unlucky enough to get stung by an Australian box jellyfish, a new study finds. Researchers also find that venom from stings seems to poke holes in red blood cells, triggering the release of potassium that stops the heart when tested in mice.

Box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri), which roam the seas off northern Australia, deliver some of the most potent venom found in nature. In the last decade, scientists have shown that the venom can create pores in cells, spilling their contents. But the fundamental aspects of the venom’s lethality have been poorly understood.

Australian researchers have proposed that the venom attacks heart muscle cells, which would explain why sting victims sometimes suffer cardiac arrest. But in the new study, published online December 12 in PLOS ONE, Angel Yanagihara and Ralph Shohet of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu report that reinforced pores form in red blood cells exposed to the box jellyfish’s venom.

Wearable technology can monitor rehabilitation

Neurorehabilitation researchers from Italy have developed a low cost, wearable system, consisting of strain sensors made of conductive elastomers printed onto fabric.Physics & Chemistry

Wearable technology is not only for sports and fashion enthusiasts; it can also be used to monitor and aid clinical rehabilitation, according to new research published in BioMed Central's open access journal BioMedical Engineering OnLine. Neurorehabilitation researchers from Italy have developed a low cost, wearable system, consisting of strain sensors made of conductive elastomers printed onto fabric. A low voltage battery powers the sensors, which are then able to send data to a computer via Bluetooth.

In this case study a wireless inertial sensor (MEMS) containing triaxial accelerometers and magnetometers was used to validate the accuracy of their results. Tested in a healthy subject the wearable sensors were used to collect a comprehensive set of over 600 different movements, at varying speeds and number of repetitions, over a range of movements. In all examples the wearable sensor was accurately able to measure movement.

Space News

Moon probes set for smashing end

NASA to guide gravity-seeking spacecraft into the side of a lunar cliff
GRAIL probesBy Alexandra Witze

NASA’s twin GRAIL probes are on a crash course to hit the lunar surface on December 17.

The cosmic collision is intentional: Mission engineers need to guide the spacecraft down because they have run out of fuel to keep themselves in lunar orbit. Scientists will be watching until the very end, because how GRAIL hits may yield more discoveries about the moon.

GRAIL consists of two washing machine–sized probes named Ebb and Flow. Launched in September 2011, they arrived in January and completed their main task of mapping lunar gravity between March and May. GRAIL’s discoveries include the fact that the moon’s crust is thinner and more fractured by meteorite impacts than scientists had suspected (SN Online: 12/6/12).

But Ebb and Flow will meet their ends at 5:28 and 5:29 p.m. Eastern time on December 17. NASA will guide them at a very shallow angle into the side of a small mountain, part of the rim of an impact crater. The collision will take place in the dark, but far overhead the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite will photograph the crash site before and after the event. By comparing those pictures, scientists will able to see how much of the mountain’s rock was broken up during the crash — and know how intact the lunar crust is at that spot, says the mission’s chief scientist, MIT geophysicist Maria Zuber.

Clutch of distant galaxies reveals the infant universe

Hubble spies stars lighting up the cosmic dawn
The deepest look yet into the distant universe reveals galaxies as they appear when the universe was less than 3 percent of its current age.By Alexandra Witze

Peering into the far reaches of the universe, astronomers have spotted seven galaxies so distant that they appear as they did less than 600 million years after the Big Bang.

Finding so many primordial galaxies allows scientists to pin down crucial questions about the newborn universe, such as when light from early stars and galaxies penetrated the early cosmic gloom.

“It’s the scientific study of Genesis,” says Avi Loeb, a Harvard astronomer who was not involved in the work.

The discovery comes from the hardworking Hubble Space Telescope, which in August and September spent more than 100 hours staring deeply into a small patch of sky. That region, in the southern constellation Fornax, is the same one that was targeted in 2009 for a long-duration exposure known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

Astronomers led by Caltech’s Richard Ellis looked there again, but for longer exposure times and with an additional filter that’s sensitive to the faint, red light of faraway galaxies. The new census, to appear in an upcoming Astrophysical Journal Letters, includes seven galaxies at great distances — including one that might be the record-breaker of them all, seen as it was just 380 million years after the Big Bang.

Odd News

Rhesus Monkeys Cannot Hear the Beat in Music

Macaque monkey. Beat induction, the ability to pick up regularity -- the beat -- from a varying rhythm, is not an ability that rhesus monkeys possess. (Credit: (c) Petr Malyshev / Fotolia)Universiteit van Amsterdam (UVA)

Dec. 13, 2012 — Beat induction, the ability to pick up regularity -- the beat -- from a varying rhythm, is not an ability that rhesus monkeys possess. These are the findings of researchers from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which have recently been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

The research conducted by Henkjan Honing, professor of Music Cognition at the UvA, and a team of neurobiologists headed by Hugo Merchant from the UNAM, shows that rhesus monkeys cannot detect the beat in music, although they are able to detect rhythmic groups in music. The results of this research support the view that beat induction is a uniquely human, cognitive skill and contribute to a further understanding of the biology and evolution of human music.

Monkey versus human

It seems a trivial skill: children that clap along with a song, musicians that tap their foot to the music, or a stage full of line dancers that dance in synchrony. And in way, it is indeed trivial that most people can easily pick up a regular pulse from the music or judge whether the music speeds up or slows down. However, the realisation that perceiving this regularity in music allows us to dance and make music together makes it less trivial a phenomenon.

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