Fossil female pterosaur found with preserved egg

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News
It was the males which carried a crest, the latest research published in Science magazine suggests

For fossil hunters, it represents one of those breakthrough moments.

A pterosaur has been found in China beautifully preserved with an egg.

The egg indicates this ancient flying reptile was a female, and that realisation has allowed researchers to sex these creatures for the first time.

Writing in Science magazine, the palaeontologists make some broad statements about gender differences in pterosaurs, including the observation that only males sported a head-crest.

David Unwin, a palaeobiologist in the Department of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, was part of the research team.

He told the BBC the discovery was astonishing: “If somebody had said to me a few years back that we would find this kind of association, I would just have laughed and said, ‘yeah, maybe in a million years’, because these sorts of things are incredibly rare.”

Pterosaurs, also sometimes referred to as pterodactyls, dominated the skies in the Mesozoic Era, 220-65 million years ago. Although reptiles like the dinosaurs were plodding on the ground below them, they were not actually dinosaurs themselves – a common misconception.

This particular specimen has been dated to about 160 million years ago.

It was found by Junchang Lü and colleagues and excavated from sedimentary rocks in the famous fossil-hunting grounds of Liaoning Province in China. Liaoning has yielded many of the great finds in recent years, including a series of feathered dinos that have transformed thinking on bird evolution.

The new creature is from the Darwinopterus genus, or grouping, but has been dubbed simply as “Mrs T” (a contraction of “Mrs Pterodactyl”) by the research team.

The state of the egg’s shell suggests it was well developed and that Mrs T must have been very close to laying it when she died.

She appears to have had some sort of accident as her left forearm is broken. The researchers speculate she may have fallen from the sky during a storm or perhaps a volcanic eruption, sunk to the bottom of a lake and then been preserved in the sediments.

“The most important thing about this particular individual is that she has a relatively large pelvis compared to other individuals of the same pterosaur, Darwinopterus,” explained Dr Unwin.

“This seems quite reasonable – females lay eggs, they probably need a slightly wider pelvis. And then the really exciting thing is that she has a skull which lacks any kind of adornment or decoration whatsoever. When we look at other individuals of Darwinopterus, we find quite a few individuals with a large crest on the skull.

“We’re very confident now that we’re dealing with two genders here – males with big crests and small hips, and females with no crest on the skull and large hips.”

The female fossil partially prepared (A). After being fully prepared (B), the egg is clear to see (red circle)

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

Audio included on original page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12242596

Two forms of world’s ‘newest’ cat


By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

The “newest” cat species described to science, the Sunda clouded leopard, actually exists in two distinct forms, scientists have confirmed.

This big cat is so enigmatic that researchers only realised it was a new species – distinct from clouded leopards living elsewhere in Asia – in 2007. The first footage of the cat in the wild to made public was only released last year.

Now a genetic analysis has confirmed that the cat comes in two forms, one living in Sumatra, the other on Borneo.

Clouded leopards are the most elusive of all the big cats, which include lions, tigers, jaguars, snow leopards and normal spotted leopards.

Living across south-east Asia, into China and India, the leopards have larger cloud-like spots than ordinary leopards.

Until 2006, all clouded leopards were thought to belong to a single species.

However, genetic studies revealed that there are actually two quite distinct clouded leopard species.

As well as the better known clouded leopard living on the Asian mainland ( Neofelis nebulosa ), scientists determined that a separate clouded leopard species lives on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

The two species are thought to have diverged over one million years ago.

This leopard is now known as the Sunda clouded leopard ( Neofelis diardi ), though it was previously and erroneously called the Bornean clouded leopard.

Since 2008, it has been listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

In 2010, a team of scientists working in the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Malaysia released the first footage of the cat in the wild to be made public.

Led by Mr Andreas Wilting of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, the researchers captured images of a Sunda clouded leopard walking along a road.

Now Mr Wilting and colleagues have published new research which reveals even more about this mysterious cat.

They sampled 15 Sunda clouded leopards living on Borneo and 16 living in Sumatra, conducting molecular and genetic studies to reveal their origin.

The researchers also examined the skulls of 28 further Sunda clouded leopards and the fur coats of 20 specimens held in museums, as well as the coats of cats photographed on both islands.

“Although we suspected that Sunda clouded leopards on Borneo and Sumatra have likely been geographically separated since the last Ice Age, it was not known whether this long isolation had caused them to split up into separate sub-species,” explains Wilting.

But his team’s analysis confirms that the latest “new” species of cat to be discovered actually comes in two forms, a Bornean subspecies N. d. borneensis and the Sumatran subspecies N. d. diardi .

Their results are published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

The differences aren’t obvious: the Sunda clouded leopards on Borneo and Sumatra look alike.

Both cats have similar patterned coats as they live in similar jungle habitats, the researchers suspect.

But as well as being genetically distinct, the clouded leopards on both islands are also morphologically different, having unique features in their skulls and teeth.

It is unclear what caused the Sunda clouded leopard to evolve into two forms.

“So far we can only speculate about the specific course of events in the evolution of the clouded leopard,” says team member Joerns Fickel, also at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

But the researchers think that a volcanic eruption on Sumatra 75,000 years ago may have wiped out most clouded leopards.

One group survived in China and colonised the rest of mainland Asia.

Another hung on in Borneo, becoming the Sunda clouded leopard. This evolved into two types after a group colonised Sumatra via glacial land bridges, and then became cut off as sea levels rose.

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_9369000/9369238.stm

Published: 2011/01/22 20:10:55 GMT

© BBC 2011

Can You Hear Me? Cell Phone Rings From Croc’s Belly

By MARIA DANILOVA, Associated Press Maria Danilova, Associated Press – Fri Jan 21, 4:05 pm ET

KIEV, Ukraine – Workers at a Ukrainian aquarium didn’t believe it when a visitor said a crocodile swallowed her phone. Then the reptile started ringing.

The accident in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk sounds a bit like “Peter Pan,” in which a crocodile happily went “tick-tock” after gulping down an alarm clock.

But Gena, the 14-year-old croc who swallowed the phone, has hardly been living a fairy tale: He hasn’t eaten or had a bowel movement in four weeks and appears depressed and in pain.

Gena noshed on the Nokia phone after Rimma Golovko dropped it in the water. She had stretched out her arm, trying to snap a photo of Gena opening his mouth, when the phone slipped.

“This should have been a very dramatic shot, but things didn’t work out,” she said.

Employees were skeptical when Golovko told them what happened. “But then the phone started ringing and the sound was coming from inside our Gena’s stomach and we understood she wasn’t lying,” said Alexandra, an employee who declined to give her last name as she wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

Since then, Gena has been refusing food and acting listless. He also won’t play with three fellow African crocodiles, despite being the leader in the group.

“His behavior has changed,” Alexandra said. “He moves very little and swims much less than he used to.”

Doctors tried to whet the crocodile’s appetite this week by feeding him live quail rather than the pork or beef he usually gets once a week. The quail were injected with vitamins and a laxative, but while Gena smothered one bird, he didn’t eat it.

Dnipropetrovsk chief veterinarian Oleksandr Shushlenko said the crocodile will be taken for an X-ray next week if he continues to refuse food. Surgically removing the phone would be a last resort, he said, since incisions and stitches usually take at least three weeks to heal in reptiles and the procedure is dangerous for the animal and the vets.

“Everything will depend on where the foreign body is located,” Shushlenko said. “We don’t have much experience working with such large animals.”

The crocodile in “Peter Pan” with the ticking stomach was on the hunt for Captain Hook after getting a taste for the pirate’s flesh from eating one of his hands. But luckily for Hook, he could always hear the crocodile coming.

Golovko has about as much optimism for retrieving her phone as Hook did for retrieving his hand. But she does want to get back the phone’s SIM card, which holds her precious photos and contacts.

Researchers aim to resurrect mammoth in five years

by Shingo Ito Shingo Ito
Mon Jan 17, 5:44 am ET


TOKYO (AFP) – Japanese researchers will launch a project this year to resurrect the long-extinct mammoth by using cloning technology to bring the ancient pachyderm back to life in around five years time.

The researchers will try to revive the species by obtaining tissue this summer from the carcass of a mammoth preserved in a Russian research laboratory, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported.

“Preparations to realise this goal have been made,” Akira Iritani, leader of the team and a professor emeritus of Kyoto University, told the mass-circulation daily.

Under the plan, the nuclei of mammoth cells will be inserted into an elephant’s egg cell from which the nuclei have been removed, to create an embryo containing mammoth genes, the report said.

The embryo will then be inserted into an elephant’s uterus in the hope that the animal will eventually give birth to a baby mammoth.

The elephant is the closest modern relative of the mammoth, a huge woolly mammal believed to have died out with the last Ice Age.

Some mammoth remains still retain usable tissue samples, making it possible to recover cells for cloning, unlike dinosaurs, which disappeared around 65 million years ago and whose remains exist only as fossils

Researchers hope to achieve their aim within five to six years, the Yomiuri said.

The team, which has invited a Russian mammoth researcher and two US elephant experts to join the project, has established a technique to extract DNA from frozen cells, previously an obstacle to cloning attempts because of the damage cells sustained in the freezing process.

Another Japanese researcher, Teruhiko Wakayama of the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology, succeeded in 2008 in cloning a mouse from the cells of another that had been kept in temperatures similar to frozen ground for 16 years.

The scientists extracted a cell nucleus from an organ of a dead mouse and planted it into the egg of another mouse which was alive, leading to the birth of the cloned mouse.

Based on Wakayama’s techniques, Iritani’s team devised a method to extract the nuclei of mammoth eggs without damaging them.

But a successful cloning will also pose challenges for the team, Iritani warned.

“If a cloned embryo can be created, we need to discuss, before transplanting it into the womb, how to breed (the mammoth) and whether to display it to the public,” Iritani said.

“After the mammoth is born, we will examine its ecology and genes to study why the species became extinct and other factors.”

More than 80 percent of all mammoth finds have been dug up in the permafrost of the vast Sakha Republic in eastern Siberia.

Exactly why a majority of the huge creatures that once strode in large herds across Eurasia and North America died out towards the end of the last Ice Age has generated fiery debate.

Some experts hold that mammoths were hunted to extinction by the species that was to become the planet’s dominant predator — humans.

Others argue that climate change was more to blame, leaving a species adapted for frozen climes ill-equipped to cope with a warming world.

Drought triggered Mayan demise

By Helen Sewell
BBC News Online science staff

Climate change was largely to blame for the collapse of the Mayan civilisation in Central America more than 1,000 years ago, research suggests.
By the middle of the 8th Century there were up to 13 million people in the Mayan population but within 200 years their cities lay abandoned.

The Mayans built complex systems of canals and reservoirs to collect rainwater for drinking in the hot, dry summers.

Despite this there has long been speculation that the whole population was wiped out by drought, but there has not been enough evidence to support this theory.

Now research published in the journal Science suggests that climate change was indeed a major factor.

Coloured bands

To investigate the Mayan decline, scientists studied the ancient build-up of sediment on the sea floor just off the northern coast of Venezuela.

They discovered layers of deposits in bands of alternating dark and light colours each about a millimetre deep. The light bands consisted of algae and tiny fossils, while the dark bands were due to sediments of the metal titanium.

The scientists say titanium was washed into the sea by rivers during the rainy seasons. Shallower dark bands, which indicate lower levels of the metal, show the rivers were flowing more weakly. The researchers say this was because there was less rain.

They have worked out that in the 9th and 10th Centuries, probably just before the Mayan civilisation collapsed, there was a long period of dry weather and three intense droughts.

Modern implications

Archaeological evidence suggests that one reason for the Mayans’ initial success over other societies was that they controlled the artificial reservoirs.

If this is true, the scientists say the drought could easily have pushed the whole civilisation to the verge of collapse.

The German scientist who led the research, Gerald Haug, said this had serious implications for climate change today.

“A three-to-nine-year drought, which could be a failure of the monsoon systems in Africa or in India, and in particular the change in the background state of climate… is a very severe threat to modern humanity,” he told BBC News Online.

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/science/nature/2848977.stm

Published: 2003/03/14 04:20:31 GMT

Roman rise and fall ‘recorded in trees’

14 January 2011 Last updated at 12:19 ET

By Mark Kinver

The study offers a link between changes to the climate and the rise and fall of human societies

An extensive study of tree growth rings says there could be a link between the rise and fall of past civilisations and sudden shifts in Europe’s climate.

A team of researchers based their findings on data from 9,000 wooden artifacts from the past 2,500 years.

They found that periods of warm, wet summers coincided with prosperity, while political turmoil occurred during times of climate instability.

The findings have been published online by the journal Science.

“Looking back on 2,500 years, there are examples where climate change impacted human history,” co-author Ulf Buntgen, a paleoclimatologist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape, told the Science website.

Ring record

The team capitalised on a system used to date material unearthed during excavations.

“Distinct drying in the 3rd Century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire” – Ulf Buntgen

“Archaeologists have developed oak ring width chronologies from Central Europe that cover nearly the entire Holocene and have used them for the purpose of dating artefacts, historical buildings, antique artwork and furniture,” they wrote.

“Chronologies of living and relict oaks may reflect distinct patterns of summer precipitation and drought.”

The team looked at how weather over the past couple of centuries affected living trees’ growth rings.

During good growing seasons, when water and nutrients are in plentiful supply, trees form broad rings, with their boundaries relatively far apart.

But in unfavourable conditions, such as drought, the rings grow in much tighter formation.

The researchers then used this data to reconstruct annual weather patterns from the growth rings preserved in the artefacts.

Once they had developed a chronology stretching back over the past 2,500 years, they identified a link with prosperity levels in past societies, such as the Roman Empire.

“Wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from 250-600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period,” the team reported.

“Distinct drying in the 3rd Century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic dislocation in several provinces of Gaul.”

Dr Buntgen explained: “We were aware of these super-big data sets, and we brought them together and analyzed them in a new way to get the climate signal.

“If you have enough wood, the dating is secure. You just need a lot of material and a lot of rings.”

Early T. Rex ancestor found in South America


By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP Science Writer Randolph E. Schmid, Ap Science Writer
Thu Jan 13, 6:23 pm ET

WASHINGTON – Back at the dawn of the dinosaur era, a quick-moving predator set the stage for the famous and fearsome giants that followed in its footsteps, according to new research. “It was a little dinosaur, but it carried a big evolutionary stick,” said Paul C. Sereno of the University of Chicago, a leader of the team that discovered Eodromaeus.

The 4-foot-long hunter lived 230 million years ago in what is now South America and appears to be the ancestor of such creatures as Tyrannosaurus rex.

“It is stunning,” Sereno said of the find, reported in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

Its features, such as a balancing tail and air pockets in the skull, show it was closely related to T. rex, he said.

But while it stood on two feet like T. rex, Eodromaeus (pronounced eyo-DRO-may-us) was a lightweight at just 10- to 15-pounds.

“This is a very exciting find indeed,” said Oliver W. M. Rauhut, a curator at the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology in Munich, Germany.

“The origin and early diversification of dinosaurs is still poorly understood,” said Rauhut, who was not on the research team.

Nick Longrich of the department of geology and geophysics at Yale University agreed: “It’s very significant, because it helps give us a better idea of what the ancestor of carnivorous dinosaurs — including Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus and the birds — would have looked like.”

“A new species of early dinosaur is always an exciting find, especially when the specimens are so complete, like Eodromaeus,” added Randall B. Irmis, a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.

It shares many features with an early carnivorous dinosaur named Tawa from New Mexico and reported last year by Irmis and colleagues.

The similarity supports the idea that these early carnivorous dinosaurs moved between North and South America during the Late Triassic period, said Irmis, who was not part of Sereno’s research team.

In addition to the discovery of Eodromaeus — which means dawn runner — the researchers proposed reclassifying a previously known dinosaur called Eoraptor.

It was similar in size to Eodromaeus, but differences in the teeth indicate Eoraptor more likely was an ancestor of the giant plant-eating sauropod dinosaurs than the hunting theropods like T. rex with which it had been associated, according to Sereno, Paul N. Martinez of the National University of San Juan in Argentina, and their co-authors.

“The reclassification of Eoraptor actually makes perfect sense … the teeth have always made me wonder,” said Longrich, who was not on the research team.

Added Longrich, “this paper helps sort out the origin of several major groups — the big carnivores like T. rex, the birds, and the giant plant eaters like Apatosaurus,” formerly known as Brontosaurus.

The new find brings scientists to within a few million years of the original “Eve” dinosaur, Sereno commented. But now the search gets elusive because of the lack of bones below the level where Eodromaeus was found.

Lower, there are footprints but not bones, Sereno said.

The Eodromaeus’ fossils were discovered in the late 1990s in the Ischigualasto formation in northeastern Argentina.

___

Online: http://www.sciencemag.org

Puerto Rico aims to protect newly discovered reefs


By DANICA COTO, Associated Press Danica Coto, Associated Press
Thu Jan 13, 9:29 pm ET
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico

As the ocean floor plunges off southwestern Puerto Rico, it reveals coral reefs dotted with bright-blue sea squirts and a multitude of other organisms whose existence has given hope to scientists who strive to save the island’s threatened ecosystems.

The organisms are an integral part of a group of reefs discovered to be thriving near an area where most shallow coral reefs and the fish that depend on them are in poor health overall.

The reefs — at a depth of up to 500 feet (152 meters) in an area 12 miles (19 kilometers) across — were recently discovered as part of a federally funded mission to conduct research on deep-water corals, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We stumbled across this area,” Richard Appeldoorn, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez who was involved in the mission, told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Divers enrolled in a one-year training course to depths of up to 100 feet (31 meters) noticed the thriving reefs and large predators lurking nearby, said Appeldoorn, who oversees the university’s fisheries, biology and coral reef studies program.

The deep underwater landscape they encountered was populated by lettuce coral, the lace-like star coral and several species of sponges, as well as groupers, snappers and reef sharks, said Appledoorn, who is calling for the protection of the reefs and nearby shallower areas where fish spawn and later retreat to deeper waters.

“Any large fish is always neat to see, not having seen them on top of the (ocean) platform for decades, or not at all,” he said.

The reef’s existence means that struggling, shallow ecosystems in the U.S. Caribbean territory may have a better-than-believed chance at survival, because fish species thriving at a deeper level can help replenish stocks in more shallow reefs, said Appeldoorn and Ernesto Diaz, director of Puerto Rico’s Coastal Zone Management Program.

“It’s a pleasant surprise to know that species you thought you wouldn’t see again exist,” Diaz said.

The discovery — first announced by NOAA last week — comes as officials in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands seek to create the Caribbean Regional Ocean Partnership, an endeavor that aims to better coordinate the use of coastal waters and the implementation of conservation programs.

The two islands recently submitted a proposal for the partnership to NOAA, which also financed the mission that led to the discovery of the new reefs.

Among the partnership’s proposed goals is the creation of a zoning map for waters surrounding Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The map would designate certain areas for conservation, recreation or commercial purposes, Diaz said.

The project also would allow researchers to explore how the ocean could be harnessed for energy or for the development of fish farms or the installation of underwater fiber-optic cables, Diaz said.

Officials decided to launch the project shortly after the administration of President Barack Obama approved a recent new policy that strengthens the way the U.S. manages its oceans and coasts.

“About 22 percent of Puerto Rico’s waters are protected,” Diaz said. “The other 78 percent, what potential do they have?”

Diaz said the partnership would eventually extend to the nearby Dominican Republic and the British Virgin Islands.

As Diaz awaits approval from NOAA, scientists including Appeldoorn are beginning to explore reefs off the nearby island of Mona, which is just west of Puerto Rico and is sometimes the unintended final destination of migrants from Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

SOTM: January 2011

Shayan Louie – General Biology

Another high flying freshman in a sophomore class, Shayan has consistently performed at a high level. His work ethic and quiet reserve have helped him to stand out as a leader among the top of all my Biology students. He has made an effort to participate more in class and assist his classmates.