Mammal on Victorian beach thought to be rare dwarf sperm whale
The 2.42-metre whale washed up on Lake Tyers beach and authorities suspect it could be rare species spotted only 17 times since records began in Australia
Tuesday 3 May 2016 05.22 BST
A rare dwarf sperm whale that has been spotted only 17 times since records began in Australia may have washed up on a Victorian beach, local authorities have said.
The 2.42-metre whale died after becoming stranded on Lake Tyers beach in Gippsland, about 330km east of Melbourne, on Saturday.
The species is yet to be confirmed, but Tony Mitchell, biodiversity officer with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in Victoria, said it was believed it could be a dwarf sperm whale, Kogia sima, which has never been recorded in Australia before.
“It’s leading us towards a dwarf sperm whale rather than the more commonly encountered dwarf pygmy whale,” Mitchell told ABC news.
Charlie Franken, wildlife manager with the department, said the final identification would depend on genetic testing and also comparing the animal’s bone structure to skeletons in storage.
“It’s not 100% yet but it’s maybe 95 to 99% certain,” he said. “It’s not [like] if you look at an emu or a budgie and you can clearly see one’s one or one is the other.”
A second, similar whale washed up on a beach at Wonthaggi, 136km south of Melbourne, on Monday, but authorities are confident it is a pygmy sperm whale.
At an average length of just 2.7 metres the dwarf sperm whale is the smallest whale species in the world and a head shorter than a bottlenose dolphin.
Dr Kevin Rowe, senior curator of mammals at Museum Victoria, said sightings of pygmy and dwarf sperm whales were extremely rare because the animals appeared to live in deep-sea chasms at the edge of continental shelfs.
Like their more famous large cousin, the smaller sperm whales are predatory, hunting crabs and squid.
But while the slightly larger pygmy sperm whales, Kogia breviceps, have been known to wash up on Australian beaches on rare occasions, Rowe said there were only six physical records of dwarf sperm whales mentioned in the 150-year history of the Atlas of Living Australia, and all were incomplete specimens.
“There’s so much we don’t know about these animals because it’s hard to study things in the deep ocean, even things that are three metres long,” Rowe said. “We can really only study them through carcasses.”
Department firefighters were called in to lift the body off the beach on Saturday and a preliminary examination by a department vet has found no obvious cause of death.
It will be delivered to Museum Victoria for a closer examination on Wednesday.
“We know it’s a Kogia [the genus for both pygmy and dwarf sperm whales] but differentiating between these two is very difficult,” Rowe said.
The main differences are the placement of the dorsal fin, which is further down the back on a pygmy sperm whale, and the shape of the “false gill”, a light patch near the whale’s head which, combined with their relatively small size, meant the whales were frequently mistaken for sharks.
Rowe said both attributes were visible on photos he had seen of a second whale that washed up on Monday but not in photos of Saturday’s whale.
Even if both turn out to be pygmy sperm whales it would provide scientists with two intact carcasses to study, which Rowe said was itself a rarity: “Usually by the time you come to a whale carcass it is rotting away and we are lucky to get the skeleton out of it.”
Rowe said researchers would also try to figure out why the whales were so close to the coast, saying the animals, which are believed to dive to depths of 1,000 metres, “wouldn’t be coming near shore unless they were a bit crook”.
The discovery of the two small sperm whales comes two months after a tooth believed to belong to a long-extinct giant sperm whale was found on a Melbourne beach. The 30cm fossil dates from the Pliocene epoch (about five million years ago) and is believed to have belonged to an 18-metre, 40-tonne whale.
on: May 03, 2016, 05:40 AM
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on: May 03, 2016, 05:38 AM
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Mother duck and ducklings waddle through school halls in Michigan
Elementary in Hartland is used to hosting ‘Vanessa’, who hatches her brood under the same shrub each year, then parades them through buildings to a pond
Associated Press in Hartland
Tuesday 3 May 2016 01.08 BST
A mother duck has grown attached to a Michigan elementary school’s courtyard, returning each year to lay her eggs and then walk the hallways with her ducklings — with the help of students and staff — to get to a nearby pond.
The duck named Vanessa has appeared at Village Elementary School in Hartland for the past 13 years and made her latest waddle through the school took place last week, according to the Livingston Daily Press & Argus of Howell.
The duck flies into the closed-off courtyard, where children in the surrounding classrooms can take a peek out the window to watch, and then crawls under a specific shrub, digs out her nest, lays her eggs and waits for them to hatch.
After the ducklings appear, now-retired teacher Ruth Darrah and others tape black construction paper along the walls, creating a clear path for the ducks to get to a nearby pond outside the school. Teachers and staff make sure students are out of Vanessa’s path so they don’t frighten her.
“It’s so unusual, but everyone gets so invested in this duck because how cool is it that she comes back each and every year,” said Elizabeth Krause, a mother who has witnessed the duck’s appearance almost every year.
This year, Vanessa waited by the courtyard door for it to be unlocked and waddled with her ducklings through the school within minutes.
“She has it down by now, after 13 years,” Darrah said.
on: May 03, 2016, 05:35 AM
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Feast of cat shown on eagle cam scares feline owners: 'Nature isn't pretty'
Footage from a live web camera nest shows bald eagles serving up a cat to eaglets – but the Audubon Society determines dead cat was not preyed upon
Monday 2 May 2016 19.06 BST
Cat owners have been warned of the dangers their feline companions face when venturing outdoors after video emerged of bald eagles feasting on the body of a dead cat near Pittsburgh.
Footage from a live web camera mounted at the Hays bald eagle nest, located a few miles from the center of Pittsburgh, showed the eagles serving up the cat to hungry eaglets. Concerned cat owners bombarded the local Audubon Society about why the eagles had preyed upon the cat.
“After reviewing the footage, we believe that the cat was dead when brought to the nest,” the Audubon Society of western Pennsylvania in a statement. “While many may cringe at this, the eagles bring squirrels, rabbits, fish (and other animals) into the nest to eat multiple times each day.”
“To people, the cat represents a pet but to the eagles and to other raptors, the cat is a way to sustain the eaglets and help them to grow. While seeing a cat in the nest was difficult for many, we’re hopeful that people will understand that this is a part of nature, and nature isn’t always kind or pretty.”
Eagles aren’t the only threat facing cats. Coyotes are considered one of the most common predators of felines. Coyotes have expanded their range in parts of the US, causing occasional clashes with cats and dogs. In 2009, residents of a Denver suburb decided to scare off problem coyotes using paintball guns.
Other threats to cats include snakes, raccoons and porcupines. Katie Lisnik, director of cat protection and policy at the Humane Society, said eagles and owls are the biggest threats to cats.
“I live in New England and the fisher [a small carnivorous mammal] can take a cat too,” she told the Guardian. “When cats are outside, they are part of the natural world. The animals that prey upon them don’t think ‘that’s a pet, it’s different’.”
But it’s worth noting that cats are more often predators than prey. The Audubon Society has urged people to keep cats indoors because the felines kill and eat “many, many songbirds”.
Cats kill an estimated 1.3 billion to four billion birds and an incredible 6.3 billion to 22.3 billion mammals, such as rodents, each year in the US. While the majority of these deaths are caused be free-ranging “feral” cats, rather than pets, separate studies suggest that around a third of all domesticated cats engage in hunting.
In Australia, where huge numbers of native animals are threatened by feral cats, several jurisdictions have considered making owners place bells around cats’ necks, in order to warn unsuspecting birds. The Australian government has authorized a mass cull of feral cats, to the dismay of celebrities including French actor Brigitte Bardot and British singer Morrissey, but no such intervention is planned in the US.
The Humane Society said that more needs to be done to reduce the number of feral cats, although primarily through trapping and neutering untamed felines.
“There should be an overall goal of fewer unowned cats,” Lisnik said. “Cats being harmed isn’t a good thing and nor is killing large numbers of birds and other wildlife.”
Click to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWc6aF6aMQ8
on: May 03, 2016, 05:28 AM
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'The end of an era': Ringling Bros circus closes curtain on elephant shows
Final show for the pachyderms comes after local government actions made touring with the animals difficult, as activists herald ‘victory’ for animal rights
Susan Zalkind in Providence, Rhode Island
Monday 2 May 2016 18.21 BST
After the last-ever circus to feature elephants, capping 145 years of elephant shows and decades of pressure from animal activists, two professional clowns walked into a bar to reflect on the state of the circus industry.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Crickett McGrath, sipping a gin and tonic. “It’s older than baseball.”
“And Coca-Cola,” added Anthony Hoang.
Feld Entertainment, the production company behind Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus, has retired its elephant herd and discontinued the act. Sunday evening’s show in Providence, Rhode Island, was a formal farewell to the practice that McGrath called “the hooks on which a circus is hung”, paraphrasing PT Barnum.
Feld is retiring eleven animals in total, after five others performed their final show in Pennsylvania on Sunday.
In Providence, Kellyann, a four-ton Asian elephant renowned for amusing her fellow entertainers with rude noises by pressing her foot to her trunk and emitting air, took her final bow along with five other females. The elephants stood on their hind legs, feigned sleep and spun on circular podiums, shorter than the elephants are wide, dancing to choruses of “This is the greatest show on earth!”
Feld Entertainment has fought lawsuits against animal rights groups in the past. In 2014, it won a $16m settlement, and in 2011 the USDA fined it $270,000 for Animal Welfare Act violations after Mother Jones reported the elephants spent most of their lives chained, were often whipped with bullhooks, and were left in cages full of feces.
None of the efforts of animal rights groups appeared to have any direct impact on the circus until last year, when local governments began taking action. Los Angeles and Oakland both banned the use of bullhooks, short hooked poles used to train and instruct elephants; and Asheville, North Carolina, banned performing elephants at the 7,600-seat US Cellular Center.
The bans put limitations on the circus’s ability to tour. In an interview on the Ringling Bros elephant conservation website, Kenneth Feld, the company’s CEO, also cited a shift in the public’s attitude toward touring wild animals. Earlier this year, SeaWorld banned the breeding of captive orcas.
The company’s response to criticism seemed to be written into the show script Sunday night. “We have the healthiest, happiest and most physically fit herd in the world!” boomed ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, as a half dozen female elephants strolled into the arena in a neat line, trunk grasping tail.
The audience burst into applause, peppered with the excited screams of children, twirling an assortment of plastic light-up toys.
Dropping the elephant act and moving the animals to the Ringling Brothers Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida is not an admission of guilt, said Feld spokesman Stephen Payne, who insists that nothing about the training or the touring process is abusive. “You cannot make 9,000lbs do what 9,000lbs doesn’t want to do,” said Payne.
Answering concerns that the elephants are taken away from their mothers too young and spend much of their lives in chains, Payne said they were separated at around two to three years old and were tethered only at night, “so they don’t disturb each other”.
Elizabeth Hogan, US wildlife campaign manager at World Animal Protection, welcomes the change from the household circus name. “It is a victory, certainly, for the elephants,” she said, adding that there is a “growing awareness” among the general public about animal rights issues.
Still, she is still concerned about other wild animals featured in the circus as well, such as lions, tigers and a kangaroo.
The history of the mistreatment of elephants is as long as the history of the circus itself. One called Jumbo was known to be fed large quantities of alcohol by his trainer, and was hit by a train. After his death, Barnum proceeded to take the beast’s skeleton on tour.
Elephants are not normally afraid of rodents in the wild, but circus elephants such as Jumbo were often kept in rat-infested stalls, and were gnawed on by the beasts.
Meanwhile, Ringling Bros faces the challenge of coming up with a new act as popular as the elephants.
Circus aficionado Ernest Albrecht said taking elephants out of the show would cause irreparable damage to the event.
“Elephants in the circus in America have always been just about the most important ingredient; it was the way a circus was measured, and if it [didn’t] have any elephants, it wasn’t considered much of a circus,” said Albrecht.
Several children at the Providence show reported having no interest in attending the show without elephants. “I hear elephants are endangered,” said Rama Colley, seven, who had seen Peta protesters outside the arena.
John De Leonardo, a Peta employee, said: “We’re going to continue protesting until all the animals are out of the circus.” He held a model elephant bullhook and a sign that read “Elephants are beaten” alongside a dozen other protesters outside the arena.
De Leonardo has no faith in the wellbeing of elephants at the Ringling Bros-run Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. “If they are calling it a sanctuary, it’s like calling a puppy mill a dog rescue,” he said.
Payne maintained animal activists have no first-hand knowledge about the Center for Elephant Conservation. He said the circus would evolve with new traditions, including a new ice-skating feature.
Click to watch: <iframe src="https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/stage/video/2016/may/02/ringling-brothers-circus-elephant-animal-sanctuary-video" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
on: May 03, 2016, 05:24 AM
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'Climate Hustle': The new manifesto of climate change deniers?
The first "global warming comedy" may be coming to a theater near you.
By Story Hinckley, Staff May 2, 2016
"Climate Hustle" premieres in theaters for one night Monday, a film referred to as a "global warming comedy."
"Are emissions from our cars, factories, and farms causing catastrophic climate change? Is there a genuine scientific consensus?" asks the film's website. "Or is man-made 'global warming' an overheated environmental con job being used to push for increased government regulations and a new 'Green' energy agenda?"
It's clear where the film's producers come down on the answers to those questions.
The two-hour long film is only showing on May 2 in 400 theaters across the United States, but the early reviews prove to be as polarizing as the topic of climate change. Whereas the environmental protection group Greenpeace says the film should be renamed "Get Rich or Lie Tryin," conservative Breitbart News says the movie is "dynamite." Thus, "Climate Hustle" may emerge as a new rally cry of climate change skeptics, validating their cause much like Al Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" did in 2006 for environmental advocates.
Financed by the conservative group Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), the film was written and narrated by prominent climate change skeptic Marc Morano. A previous Republican aide to Rush Limbaugh and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma (who famously brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to insinuate that climate change doesn't exist), Mr. Morano also runs the CFACT-funded blog ClimateDepot.com.
Although 97 percent of scientists published in peer-reviewed scientific journals say that climate change is real and caused by human activities, Morano is a member of the small community of those who refute this claim.
After the film's premiere on Capitol Hill last month, Morano's panel discussion included "some of the biggest names in the climate debate" such as Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, Chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee; former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; and climatologist David Legates, who has authored numerous papers refuting climate change with funding from Koch Industries and other fossil fuel sponsors.
"We go through the hard science, yes, but we actually use the climate activists' and the global warming establishment's own arguments to have a lot of fun with," Morano tells OneNewsNow. "We go after the fact that they're predicting that global warming causes more prostitution, barroom brawls, airline turbulence, [and] we go after the fact that they blame every bad weather event on global warming."
But contrary to Morano's claims, climate change is not just a conspiracy created by scientists and politicians. It is also seen a real, eminent threat by average citizens both in the US and internationally.
"Majorities in all 40 nations polled say climate change is a very serious problem, and a global median of 54% believe it is a very serious problem," Pew Research found in a 2015 poll. "A global median of 51% say climate change is already harming people around the world, while another 28% believe it will do so in the next few years."
According to a Gallup poll from March, 64 percent of US adults say they are worried a "great deal" or "fair amount" about global warming – an eight-year high. And 65 percent of Americans perceive human activities as the main cause of global warming, the highest percentage in the 21st century.
On the other hand, only 10 percent of Americans agree with Morano and believe the effects of human-induced global warming will never occur.
Regardless of the veracity of the film's content, it does not shine cinematically, say critics.
"As a result, I would say to everyone in the climate community who might be terrified of it sweeping the nation's box office, 'It ain't gonna happen' – any more than the kid down the block shooting hoops in the driveway is going to play in the NBA next year. Not impossible, but ain't gonna happen," Randy Olsen, a biologist-turned-filmmaker, writes in a review of the film. "Overall the editing is decent so the movie does move along – it’s not torture. But it’s also not amazing."
Mr. Olsen is one of the few people to see the film who says anthropogenic climate change is real, as Morano "has carefully controlled the list of people who have been able to see the film" says DeSmog, an environmental advocacy group, that was denied access to the film's April premiere in Washington, D.C.
About 94 percent of poll respondents on Morano's ClimateDepot website agreed that "Climate Hustle" is equivalent to the "Anti-Inconvenient Truth," likely a reassuring review for Morano.
on: May 03, 2016, 05:20 AM
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Greenpeace leaks TTIP docs: Could secrecy scuttle EU-US trade talks?
The environment group says the documents show a US attempt to erode European environmental protections. But an EU official dismisses them as 'a storm in a teacup,' and that negotiations are still underway.
By Max Lewontin, Staff May 2, 2016
United States and European negotiators are struggling over food safety and environmental regulations in the controversial trade deal championed by President Obama, according to leaked documents released Monday by Greenpeace – an opponent of the deal.
Advocacy groups argue the hundreds of pages of documents show negotiations around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which has been conducted in a series of highly secretive meetings, may be about to collapse.
"The TTIP negotiations will never survive this leak," John Hilary, the executive director of antipoverty group War on Want, told The Independent. "Now we can see the details for ourselves, and they are truly shocking. This is surely the beginning of the end for this much hated deal."
The US Trade Representative's office said that it would not comment on the "validity of alleged leaks," but a spokesman told Reuters that "the interpretations being given to these texts appear to be misleading at best and flat-out wrong at worst."
The trade negotiations have sparked a series of protests, including most recently in Hannover, Germany – where Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly pledged her support for the TTIP – last week.
The documents show the US trying to push its own approach to environmental protections over the more expansive rights granted to EU citizens, Greenpeace says.
"It is time to shine a light on these negotiations. Hard won environmental progress is being bartered away behind closed doors. These documents reveal that civil society was right to be concerned about TTIP. We should stop the negotiations and start the debate," says Faiza Oulahsen, a campaigner for Greenpeace Netherlands, in a statement.
For example, none of the documents' 13 chapters mention the "precautionary principle," a European Union concept that governs how potentially harmful products are sold, Greenpeace says.
But according to the conservation group EcoLogic, "The characteristic feature of the precautionary principle is risk prevention in the face of scientific uncertainty. The precautionary principle aims to prevent harm before a hazard has come into existence."
The US, by contrast, uses what environmental groups say is a weaker approach that attempts to minimize the risks from potentially harmful products rather than avoid them entirely. If the deal moves forward, Britain and Europe might be forced to adopt that approach, The Independent reports.
The leaked documents also don't appear to make reference to the landmark Paris climate deal to cut CO2 emissions and limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees C., Greenpeace says. That appears to go against the European Commission's stated commitment to addressing climate issues in future trade deals.
But European regulators say the "consolidated texts" released by Greenpeace reflect the current position of each side, not the final outcome of the deal.
"It is only normal that both parties in a negotiation want to achieve as many of their own objectives as possible," writes Cecilia Malmström, a Swedish politician who serves as European Commissioner for Trade in a blog post Monday.
"That does not mean that the other side gives in to those demands.... In areas where we are too far apart in a negotiation, we simply will not agree. In that sense, many of today's alarmist headlines are a storm in a teacup."
A publicly available document released in February does include a reference to the precautionary principle, Ms. Malmström writes.
But for environmental groups and some lawmakers, the secrecy surrounding the negotiations has been a long-running concern. Another issue is the influence of industry groups over the deal.
"The leaked documents indicate that the EU has not been open about the high degree of industry influence," Greenpeace says its statement.
While the EU's public reports only briefly mention discussions with industry groups, the group says, the leaked documents often mention consultations with such groups, including the chemical industry.
In Germany, skepticism about the deal has also cut across party lines and increased dramatically over the past year. One nationwide poll found that only 17 percent of Germans consider the deal a good thing, compared to 55 percent in 2014, as the negotiations began.
The high levels of secrecy – previously, German lawmakers could only review pages of the deal in a specially designated room under strict conditions – has also frustrated Sigmar Gabriel, Ms. Merkel's economy minister, Time reports.
"We are adult citizens. We are adult democracies," he told US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, during a panel discussion in Hannover last week. "It must be possible to allow somebody to look" at what's already been agreed, he added, noting that the secrecy around the talks "creates mistrust."
Citing the revelations in the documents, Greenpeace is pushing for a more open approach, arguing that a complete version of the treaty text should be immediately released.
"Whether you care about environmental issues, animal welfare, labor rights or Internet privacy, you should be concerned about what is in these leaked documents," says Ms. Oulahsen of Greenpeace Netherlands. "We call on all elected representatives and other concerned parties to read these documents and engage in the debate."
on: May 03, 2016, 05:18 AM
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Will European countries ever land a rover on Mars?
ExoMars, a joint program of European and Russian space agencies, was supposed to send the first European rover to Mars in 2018. Now technical problems have forced the agencies to delay that mission.
By Lonnie Shekhtman, Staff May 2, 2016
Equipment problems have pushed back from 2018 to 2020 a rover mission to the surface of Mars, called ExoMars, that is in joint development with European and Russian space agencies.
"Having assessed the possible ways to ensure successful mission implementation, the [ExoMars steering board] concluded that, taking into account the delays in European and Russian industrial activities and deliveries of the scientific payload, a launch in 2020 would be the best solution," the European Space Agency (ESA) announced on its website Monday. It had previously warned that the delay was likely.
The rover is the second phase of the ExoMars program. The first phase, Trace Gas Orbiter, launched in March. Once it reaches the Red Planet in October, and locks into orbit around it, the instrument will scour for signs of methane gas which could signal microbial life, according to Science.
The orbiter is also carrying a lander, Schiaparelli, which will attempt to land on Mars and to test important instruments in anticipation of the rover's landing, such as a parachute and a radar altimeter, a tool used to measure altitude.
But it is the second phase of ExoMars that is the most exciting. Its main objective is to find life, which it will attempt to do by drilling up to 6-1/2 feet beneath the Martian surface, where any evidence of past or present life on Mars is more likely to be found, as SpaceNews reports.
There is also a bit of a competitive angle to the successful landing of a rover on Mars by European countries, as it would make for the first non-American rover landing on Mars.
"The successful implementation of both ExoMars missions will allow Russia and Europe to jointly validate cutting-edge technologies for Mars entry, descent, and landing, for the control of surface assets, to develop new engineering concepts and service systems that can be used by other Solar System exploration missions, and to carry out novel science at Mars," said the ESA in Monday’s statement.
Russia joined the ExoMars project after NASA pulled out of the partnership with ESA in 2012. Its contribution to the nearly $1.4-billion program – now getting pricier because of delays – is rockets to deliver equipment for the two missions to Mars and the system that will be used to deliver the rover to the planet’s surface.
The country has recently cut its space program budget by 30 percent because of an economic crisis spurred by declining oil prices and Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine. This means that Russia's space budget for 2016 to 2025 will be reduced to $29 billion. In contrast, NASA's budget for 2016 alone is $19.3 billion.
Rolf de Groot, head of ESA's robotic exploration coordination office, told SpaceNews Monday that Russia's economic problems are not responsible for the ExoMars delay.
"No, it has nothing to do with that," he said. "They are having severe budget cuts compared to last year, but this is not impacting ExoMars. ExoMars is still a high priority for them," said Dr. de Groot.
on: May 03, 2016, 05:16 AM
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This newly-found 'Manx comet' is missing its tail. Why?
Tail-free comet: A piece of the early inner solar system – maybe even early Earth – was flung out to the Oort Cloud and has only now found its way back, say scientists.
By Christina Beck, Staff 5/3/ 2016
Is that an asteroid-like comet? A comet-like asteroid?
A space rock with a bit of a split personality, born near Earth, has found its way back home, according to a new study published on Friday in the journal Science Advances.
“If you’d shown me the spectrum, I would have just said this is another stupid asteroid,” said paper co-author Olivier Hainaut to Gizmodo. “If you showed me the orbit, I’d say yeah, it’s a standard long-period comet. But you don’t at all expect to find a rocky asteroid on an Oort cloud orbit. That’s wrong.”
The confusion comes from the juxtaposition of a rocky composition, typical of an asteroid that has never wandered further than Jupiter, with the flight plan of a comet from out beyond Neptune.
Unlike asteroids, comets aren't solid rocks – they're made almost entirely of ice, with just a smattering of dust and maybe a few pebbles.
This combination has never been seen before.
Scientists have settled for calling the tail-less comet a Manx comet, named after a breed of tail-less cats. It formed more than 4 billion years ago near Earth, Venus, and Mars, say the researchers, before an unlikely collision must have bounced it to the outer reaches of the solar system.
Now, the Manx comet is back. After billions of years in deep-freeze, the ancient hunk of rock has returned to the inner solar system for the first time, allowing astronomers to study its unique clues to the formation of Earth and its neighboring planets.
“This is super exciting, because it could be a piece of what formed the Earth,” said Dr. Hainaut.
Because of their icy composition, comets usually have smoky looking tails, as their icy surfaces vaporize when they get closer to the sun.
The Manx comet, however, had no such tail when astronomers first spotted it in 2014. Astronomers using the PANSTARSS-S1, a telescope based in Hawaii, named the tail-less comet C/2014 S3.
The comet's oddities don't end with its composition. Its spectrum – the unique pattern of light reflecting off the comet – shows that its rocks haven't been baked by the sun, like the asteroids hanging out in the belt between Mars and Jupiter have been.
Researchers concluded that it had spent time in the solar system’s “deep freezer,” the Oort Cloud, which contains trillions of comets and other icy astronomical bodies – and, apparently, some non-icy bodies.
“We already knew of many asteroids, but they have all been baked by billions of years near the Sun,” said the study’s lead author Karen Meech in a press release. “This one is the first uncooked asteroid we could observe: it has been preserved in the best freezer there is.”
Upon further observation, astronomers determined that the comet had “undergone very little processing,” meaning that this is the first time it has been bumped out of the Oort cloud since arriving there.
Its trajectory is similar to that of other objects from the Oort Cloud, with an orbital period of around 860 years, but it does not share much else with long-period comets.
Notably, a long-period comet at its distance from the sun should have about one million times more ice sublimating off, say the researchers.
The tail-less comet could hold the key to decoding the early history of the solar system, say the researchers. Astronomers have created many theoretical models of planetary formation, and the deep-frozen chemistry tucked inside this Manx comet gives them important data to test those models.
“We’ve found the first rocky comet, and we are looking for others,” said Hainaut. “Depending how many we find, we will know whether the giant planets danced across the Solar System when they were young, or if they grew up quietly without moving much.”
on: May 03, 2016, 05:14 AM
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Florida's sawfish makes a rare video cameo. Can it be saved?
The Florida sawfish certainly isn't cuddly, but marine biologists say the creature is fascinating and charismatic. A recent catch in Florida has people taking notice.
By Christina Beck, Staff May 3, 2016
Sawfish are not particularly pretty, nor are they cuddly or friendly or even majestic. But they did make headlines this week after a video of an accidental catch-and-release in Florida went viral, prompting calls to do more to protect the endangered animal.
"Sawfish are essentially a victim of the same things that happen to a lot of marine fish: habitat destruction, overfishing, and very low reproductive rates," George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "They have a hard time recovering in terms of their population growth.
Sawfish are relatives of the shark family, and look almost like a sword fish, except that their long, tooth-ridged snouts look more like sawblades than swords.
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They evolved from ancient rays and sharks over the past several million years, and can grow up to 20-feet long and weigh up to a 1,000 pounds.
While there are several different species of sawfish worldwide, including some in the waters off the shores of the United Arab Emirates, today the United States' remaining sawfish inhabit the shores of a few southern states, such as Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi.
One particular species of sawfish, however, the smalltooth sawfish, is found only in a small portion off the west coast of Florida. The US smalltooth sawfish population was listed as endangered in April, 2003.
Since that time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have worked together to develop a plan to protect the sawfish.
Although sawfish populations used to range from around New Jersey to Central America, there are only approximately 2,000 sawfish remaining, a population loss of around 99 percent.
Habitat loss and gill damage are two of the sawfish's greatest foes. Florida has made some progress in its efforts to save the sawfish, with a 1992 law that banned possession of a sawfish (to control overfishing) and a 1994 law banning gill nets.
The sawfish doesn't get a lot of media attention which makes conservation efforts difficult, according to scientists.
"The smalltooth sawfish has kind of been under the radar screen for quite a while," research biologist John Carlson told the Naples Daily News, "and we really don't know much about these animals at all."
A recent video of an accidental sawfish catch and release at a Florida pier has raised awareness of the animal, which scientists say could be key in helping to save the creature.
Other endangered Florida animals, such as the panther or the manatee, have much more media exposure due to widespread efforts to conserve their species.
Despite the sawfish's rare forays into the public eye, Dr. Leonard says it is a fascinating animal that has captured the attention of the conservation community.
"As a marine biologist, I think that sawfish are incredible," says Leonard. "They're a very charismatic species with really interesting behavior. They've been historically and culturally important for a long time."
And Leonard says the sawfish's appeal should not be limited to conservationists and wildlife advocates.
"They are charismatic enough that Jim Toomey did a special cartoon about them. Once you’ve made it to the national funnies page, you're pretty darn cool," he says.
In fact, the fish's cultural importance could be one of the factors that is hindering its recovery. The rostrum, or the sawlike front part of the sawfish's head, has been used in cultural traditions for a long time.
"There's still black market demand for that part of the animal," Leonard told the Monitor. The sawfish's fins are also still prized as a component of shark fin soup, despite global backlash against shark-fin harvesting.
Although recent efforts have certainly raised the sawfish's public profile, scientists say that even with conservation efforts, sawfish populations could take up to 100 years to recover.
It is crucial, Leonard says, to address issues of bycatch, and to teach fishermen how to properly release sawfish if they are caught by mistake.
Officials are also working on protecting habitats and restricting dredging projects in soft bottom coastal habitats where sawfish like to live.
"People think of whales and polar bears and sea otters as obviously charismatic," says Leonard, "but the ocean is full of a host of unbelievably cool species, and there's a huge opportunity for people to appreciate the diversity of life in the sea."
on: May 03, 2016, 05:11 AM
|Started by Rad - Last post by Rad|
May 3, 2016
Analysis unlocks genetic secrets of Ice Age Europe
by Chuck Bednar
A new genetic analysis of prehistoric humans has led to the discovery of two significant shifts in population across Europe, both of which were linked to the end of the last Ice Age, researchers at Harvard Medical School reported in Monday’s edition of the journal Nature.
As part of their new study, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator David Reich and his colleagues found that, as the ice sheet began to retreat and the Ice Age grew less intense roughly 19,000 years ago, prehistoric humans from southwest Europe repopulated the continent.
Then, in a separate event some 5,000 years later, humans from the southeast (including Turkey and Greece) spread into Europe and displaced the previous group. The study sheds new light on how human populations migrated and evolved during the era spanning from 45,000 years ago to 7,000 years ago by providing never-before-seen genomic data from the period.
Previously, there were only four samples of prehistoric European modern humans available for analysis, which Reich compared to “trying to summarize a movie with four still images.” Thanks to his team’s work, however, they now have access to 51 samples, which allows them to “follow the narrative arc” and “get a vivid sense of the dynamic changes” that occurred over time.
“What we see,” he said in a statement, “is a population history that is no less complicated than that in the last 7,000 years, with multiple episodes of population replacement and immigration on a vast and dramatic scale, at a time when the climate was changing dramatically.”
DNA analysis reveals two expansion events, mixing with Neanderthals
Based on the DNA analysis, the authors concluded that, starting 37,000 years ago, Europeans all came from a single founding population that was able to survive through the Ice Age. However, this group included different branches from different regions of the continent, including one that is represented from a Belgium population apparently displaced some 33,000 years ago.
About 19,000 years ago, a population related to this Belgium branch was able to once again re-expand throughout Europe, Reich explained. Based on the DNA evidence, he believes that this group may have expanded from the southwest, near modern-day Spain, after the Ice Age reached its peak. Then, 14,000 years ago, there is a second expansion event that takes place, he said.
“We see a new population turnover in Europe, and this time it seems to be from the east, not the west,” the Harvard researcher said. “We see very different genetics spreading across Europe that displaces the people from the southwest who were there before. These people persisted for many thousands of years until the arrival of farming.”
Reich and his colleagues Svante Pääbo and Johannes Krause also detected some intermingling with Neanderthals as modern humans spread throughout Europe some 45,000 years ago. These discoveries were made possible by a technique in-solution hybrid capture enrichment, which enabled them to extract and study DNA from ancient human remains without fear of the samples being contaminated by anyone who had previously handled the specimens.