Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This Can Only End Well

Russia is considering sending a spacecraft to a large asteroid to knock it off its path and prevent a possible collision with Earth, the head of the country's space agency said Wednesday.

Anatoly Perminov said the space agency will hold a meeting soon to assess a mission to Apophis, telling Golos Rossii radio that it would invite NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese space agency and others to join the project once it is finalized.

When the 270-meter (885-foot) asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers estimated the chances of it smashing into Earth in its first flyby in 2029 were as high as 1-in-37, but have since lowered their estimate.

Further studies ruled out the possibility of an impact in 2029, when the asteroid is expected to come no closer than 18,300 miles (29,450 kilometers) above Earth's surface, but they indicated a small possibility of a hit on subsequent encounters.

In October, NASA lowered the odds that Apophis could hit Earth in 2036 from a 1-in-45,000 as earlier thought to a 1-in-250,000 chance after researchers recalculated the asteroid's path. It said another close encounter in 2068 will involve a 1-in-330,000 chance of impact.

Without mentioning NASA findings, Perminov said that he heard from a scientist that Apophis is getting closer and may hit the planet. "I don't remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032," Perminov said.

"People's lives are at stake. We should pay several hundred million dollars and build a system that would allow to prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people," Perminov said.

Scientists have long theorized about asteroid deflection strategies. Some have proposed sending a probe to circle around a dangerous asteroid to gradually change its trajectory. Others suggested sending a spacecraft to collide with the asteroid and alter its momentum, or using nuclear weapons to hit it.

Perminov wouldn't disclose any details of the project, saying they still need to be worked out. But he said the mission wouldn't require any nuclear explosions.

Ah! I can see it now! Putin's only interested in reducing nuclear weapons because he has *BOLIDES*!


We have an asteroid gap.

Actually, btw, the Russians thought that the Deep Impact mission had a sinister dual use purpose: we were testing banned space weapons when we did it. *sighs* Conspiracy theory thinking is like...well...some nasty venereal disease over there: they got it and they can't fscking get rid of it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Russia: We Need New Offensive Nukes to Preserve Strategic Balance

Russia needs to develop "offensive strike systems" to preserve strategic balance with the United States, without producing its own missile defense, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Tuesday.

Putin's comment, made at a press briefing in the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, echoed a similar call from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week.

"If we want to retain the balance, we have to establish an exchange of information: Let the U.S. partners provide us information on [their] missile defense while we will give them information on [our] offensive weapons," Putin said.

Putin also spoke positively about ongoing negotiations between the two countries on a new nuclear arms control agreement that would replace the U.S.-Russian START treaty, which expired December 5.

The United States and Russia plan to complete it and sign it at the beginning of 2010, Russian and American leaders have said. As envisioned, the new treaty would significantly reduce nuclear arms on both sides.

"I think that we need certain rules on weapons limitation which could be equally understood, easily verifiable and transparent," Putin said. "The existence of those rules is better than their absence."

He repeated that offensive and defensive arms should be linked, because they are closely related.

"It was the balance of forces -- including missile defense, air defense and offensive weapons systems -- that preserved peace even during the Cold War," Putin said.

"Since we are not developing [our own] missile defense, there is a threat that our [U.S.] partners would feel totally secure having created an umbrella against our offensive systems," he added. "Then our partners might do whatever they want; the aggressiveness in real politics and economics would increase because of the broken balance."

Putin: And, oh, by the way, please give us all your data about your defensive weapons, too.

So, it brings us to the double stage question.

Is there a strategic balance that must be maintained with Russia? Russia is emphatically not a peer nation to the US anymore. While they ought to be treated with respect, they are not the same force in the world that the Soviet Union was. The way Putin makes his statements, you would think that Russia is our peer.

The second part of this question is if there is a balance between us, what is it that we ought to be doing to preserve it? For that matter, should we be trying to preserve it? The defensive weapons that the US has are not sufficient to stop an all out nuclear exchange. Not even close. They were never meant to be. It does take off the table the idea that a singular or small number of nukes would be usable as a first strike capability. Unless, of course, the Russians are worried that their nuclear deterrent is a strawman and in practicality completely useless.

Pliocene Climate as Predictor for the Year 2100?

There is increased evidence that the Arctic could face seasonally ice-free conditions and much warmer temperatures in the future.

Scientists documented evidence that the Arctic Ocean and Nordic Seas were too warm to support summer sea ice during the mid-Pliocene warm period (3.3 to 3 million years ago). This period is characterized by warm temperatures similar to those projected for the end of this century, and is used as an analog to understand future conditions.

The U.S. Geological Survey found that summer sea-surface temperatures in the Arctic were between 10 to 18°C (50 to 64°F) during the mid-Pliocene, while current temperatures are around or below 0°C (32°F).

Examining past climate conditions allows for a true understanding of how Earth's climate system really functions. USGS research on the mid-Pliocene is the most comprehensive global reconstruction for any warm period. This will help refine climate models, which currently underestimate the rate of sea ice loss in the Arctic.

Loss of sea ice could have varied and extensive consequences, such as contributions to continued Arctic warming, accelerated coastal erosion due to increased wave activity, impacts to large predators (polar bears and seals) that depend on sea ice cover, intensified mid-latitude storm tracks and increased winter precipitation in western and southern Europe, and less rainfall in the American west.

"In looking back 3 million years, we see a very different pattern of heat distribution than today with much warmer waters in the high latitudes," said USGS scientist Marci Robinson. "The lack of summer sea ice during the mid-Pliocene suggests that the record-setting melting of Arctic sea ice over the past few years could be an early warning of more significant changes to come."

Global average surface temperatures during the mid-Pliocene were about 3°C (5.5°F) greater than today and within the range projected for the 21st century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Note. Copenhagen might have been hailed by politicos as a success. The climate scientists are seeing it as an outright failure. There were vague promises to limit warming to 2 C (which would mean another 1 C over now, btw). We're headed to the Pliocene climate most likely by IPCC reckoning no matter what. It's very, very likely that we will end up at a Neogene (Neo-Eocene (hotter, wetter) or Neo-Oligocene (hotter drier)) climate since many consider the IPCC reports to be underestimating a lot of feedbacks.

Note: Neo-Oligocene is really, really bad for the US and China. Schadenfreude?

I really need to get to the differences between Neo-Oligocene and Neo-Eocene scenarios at some point soon. I'm trying to get through the Medean wrap up (five pages and counting...and I'm only half done with the first draft) and then I've promised myself I am tackling Xenosuchus Is Not An Archosaur.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Brown Dwarves Around Red Giant Cause Confusion

Two brown dwarf-sized objects orbiting a giant old star show that planets may assemble around stars more quickly and efficiently than anyone thought possible, according to an international team of astronomers.Justify Full

"We have found two brown dwarf-sized masses around an ordinary star, which is very rare," said Alex Wolszczan, Evan Pugh professor of astronomy and astrophysics, Penn State and lead scientist on the project.

The star, BD +20 2457, is a K2 giant -- an old bloated star nearing the end of its life. Seeing a pair of brown dwarfs around a K-type giant is a first for astronomers and offers a unique window into how they can be produced. The researchers from the Toruń Center for Astronomy, Poland and the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, Penn State report their findings in the current issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Brown dwarfs are dim, elusive objects that straddle the dividing line between planets and stars. They are too massive to be planets, but not massive enough to generate the fusion-powered energy of a star. These stellar cousins represent a kind of "missing link" between planets and stars, but little is known about how they are made.

"If we find one brown dwarf, we are not sure where it came from," Wolszczan explained. "It could be either from the process of planet formation or it could be a direct product of star formation."

Seeing two of them around a parent star means they must have originally formed from the enormous supply of raw materials that surrounded the star when it was young. Astronomers call this thick, solar system-sized pancake of gas and dust the "circumstellar disk."

"If that is the case," he continued, "then if we add up the minimum masses of these two objects, we know the disk had to be extremely massive."

To find these faint companions, the astronomers used the High Resolution Spectrograph on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in west Texas to split up the light of BD +20 2457. This technique is similar to the way a prism breaks light into a rainbow -- spectrum -- of colors. They looked for shifts in color of certain features in the spectrum, called spectral lines, as the dwarfs moved around the star and caused the star to wobble back and forth from their gravitational tugs.

When the brown dwarfs' gravitational influence causes BD +20 2457 to move towards Earth slightly, its spectral lines decrease in wavelength, becoming slightly bluer. As it moves away, the wavelengths increase, becoming slightly redder. By noting how quickly and strongly the spectral lines shift, astronomers can infer the objects' masses, as well as the sizes and shapes of their orbits.

The scientists determined that the two companions are at least 21 and 13 times the mass of Jupiter. Therefore, they are likely to exceed the minimum mass of a brown dwarf, 13 times the mass of Jupiter. They are separated from their star by about 1.5 and 2 times the distance between the Earth and the sun and complete a "year" in 380 and 622 days, respectively.

What is even more unusual is the timescale involved in making these brown dwarfs.

Several million years ago, BD +20 2457 was on the "main sequence," the stage in stellar evolution where the star produced light by burning its hydrogen fuel, much like our sun does now. Except this star, three times the mass of the sun, was much hotter and more luminous.

"The intense radiation of this star would have heated up and evaporated anything that was still forming around it," Wolszczan said. "The fact that these dwarfs are still here means that they had to accumulate a lot of material very quickly and be fully formed by the time the star 'switched on.' "

A star like BD +20 2457 takes about 10 million years to form and enter the main sequence. As a rough estimate, in order keep up with their parent star, the dwarfs would have to accrue as much mass as the Earth's moon every year.

More meetings.

'M.' uintensis Redescription Diversifies Early Carnivores

More than a hundred years after its discovery, the limbs and vertebrae of a fossil have been pulled off the shelf at the American Museum of Natural History to revise the view of early carnivore lifestyles. Carnivores—currently a diverse group of mostly meat-eating mammals like bears, cats, raccoons, seals, and hyenas—had been considered arboreal in their early evolutionary history. But now that the skeleton of 'Miacis' uintensis has been unpacked from its matrix of sandstone, it is clear that some early carnivores were built to walk on the ground at least part of the time. The new research is published this month in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

"Carnivores are highly varied today, and they were also very diverse in the past," says lead author Michelle Spaulding, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and the Museum. "Examination of this fossil tells us that they were not all sitting in trees, looking down. 'M.' uintensis did not have a lot of adaptations for an arboreal lifestyle."

"It is typically thought that the miacoids of the Eocene—the basal fossil relatives of modern Carnivora that root the family tree—were arboreal," concurs co-author John Flynn, Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals at the Museum. "But we now are beginning to see that there was a greater diversity of locomotor styles in early carnivores."

'M.' uintensis was discovered on an American Museum of Natural History expedition in 1894 among the brown and red sandstones of the White River beds in Utah. Paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, who first named the iconic dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor mongoliensis, described the teeth of the newly discovered mammal carnivore species in a Museum monograph the following year. The specimen dates to 39-42 million years ago.

blah. New Meeting day.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Yikes! Venomous Raptors!

A group of University of Kansas researchers working with Chinese colleagues have discovered a venomous, birdlike raptor that thrived some 128 million years ago in China. This is the first report of venom in the lineage that leads to modern birds.

"This thing is a venomous bird for all intents and purposes," said Larry Martin, KU professor and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute. "It was a real shock to us and we made a special trip to China to work on this."

The KU-China team's findings will be published in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences during the week of Dec. 21.

"We think it's going to make a big splash," said Martin.

The article's authors are Enpu Gong, geology department at Northeastern University in Shenyang, China, and researchers Martin, David Burnham and Amanda Falk at the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute.

The dromaeosaur or raptor, Sinornithosaurus (Chinese-bird-lizard), is a close relative to Velociraptor. It lived in prehistoric forests of northeastern China that were filled with a diverse assemblage of animals including other primitive birds and dinosaurs.

"This is an animal about the size of a turkey," said Martin. "It's a specialized predator of small dinosaurs and birds. It was almost certainly feathered. It's a very close relative of the four-winged glider called Microraptor."

The venom most likely sent the victim into rapid shock, shrinking the odds of retaliation, escape or piracy from other predators while the raptor manipulated its prey.

"You wouldn't have seen it coming," said Burnham. "It would have swooped down behind you from a low-hanging tree branch and attacked from the back. It wanted to get its jaws around you. Once the teeth were embedded in your skin the venom could seep into the wound. The prey would rapidly go into shock, but it would still be living, and it might have seen itself being slowly devoured by this raptor."

The genus had special depressions on the side of its face thought by the investigators to have housed a poison gland, connected by a long lateral depression above the tooth row that delivered venom to a series of long, grooved teeth on the upper jaw. This arrangement is similar to the venom-delivery system in modern rear-fanged snakes and lizards. The researchers believe it to be specialized for predation on birds.

"When we were looking at Sinornithosaurus, we realized that its teeth were unusual, and then we began to look at the whole structure of the teeth and jaw, and at that point, we realized it was similar to modern-day snakes," Martin said.

More also at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

It'd be funny if the reason why there were so few large carnivores in the Maastrichtian was because the medium sized ones were all poisonous lil monsters...and pack hunters. Wow. Talk about a nasty combo!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Graph *EVERYONE* Should See! What I Mean By Carbon Effiency

This is the amount of CO2 released per $ GDP. This is what I have been talking about with respect to carbon effiency. While linear extrapolations are dangerous and oft times stupid, just imagine China with a per capita GDP of America.

Yup. Not purty! The best case scenario then might be the Neo-Oligocene!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Just In: Reports of Gompotheres Ghost Lineage...from 13,500 years ago?!

(image source: Karen Carr)
Sometime during 2007, a rancher in the northern Mexican state of Sonora took a visitor to see large bones he had found in an arroyo, or creek bed. The visitor was Guadalupe Sanchez, who works for Mexico’s INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia). It turns out that the bones were not the only item that piqued Guadalupe’s interest; several stone implements were found in association with them. What makes this discovery so very special and highly interesting is the kind of animal the bones belonged to and the nature of the stone tools.

After two years of hushed up investigations, the scientists recently announced that these bones represent two juvenile gomphotheres and the tools belong to the so-called Clovis tradition, a topic which has been the subject of earlier blog entries . The focus here is not on who came first, Clovis or others (that argument has been settled anyway), but rather on the implications of the find of the Gomphothere bones together with Paleoindian tools like those of the Clovis tradition. That is what is drawing the attention of a lot of North American archaeologists these days. In a nutshell, what we have here is described as “the first documentation that there was some sort of human interaction with gomphotheres in North America.”


No time to comment, but gomphotheres in nearly the fscking Holocene?!


I wonder if this will hold up?

Hat tip: Beyond Bones.

UberWant: Questioning Collapse

It's here. I want for Christmas!!!

The SuperEarth Discoveries in Visual Perspective

Note. These are not more habitable than Earth. If anything, despite being SuperEarths, they are definitely less likely to have life.

6th Mass Extinction in NorAm Documented in Mammals

Study shows loss of 15-42 percent of mammals in North America

Mammals may be nearly half way toward mass extinction

If the planet is headed for another mass extinction like the previous five, each of which wiped out more than 75 percent of all species on the planet, then North American mammals are one-fifth to one-half the way there, according to a University of California, Berkeley, and Pennsylvania State University analysis.

Many scientists warn that the perfect storm of global warming and environmental degradation – both the result of human activity is leading to a sixth mass extinction equal to the "Big Five" that have occurred over the past 450 million years, the last of which killed off the dinosaurs 68 million years ago.

Yet estimates of how dire the current loss of species is have been hampered by the inability to compare species diversity today with the past.

By combining data from three catalogs of mammal diversity in the United States between 30 million years ago and 500 years ago, UC Berkeley and Penn State researchers show that the bulk of mammal extinctions occurred within a few thousand years after the arrival of humans, with losses dropping after that. Although modern humans emerged from Africa into Europe and Asia by about 40,000 years ago, they didn't reach North American until about 13,000 years ago, and most mammal extinctions occurred in the subsequent 1-2,000 years.

"The optimistic part of the study is that we haven't come all that far on extinction in the past 10,000 years," said co-author Anthony Barnosky, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology. "We have this pulse when humans had their first effect about 13,000 years ago, but diversity has remained pretty steady for about 10,000 years."

He expects to see a similar pattern in Europe after the invasion of Homo sapiens some 40,000 years ago.

In the last 100 or so years, however, "we are seeing a lot of geographic range reductions that are of a greater magnitude than we would expect, and we are seeing loss of subspecies and even a few species. So it looks like we are going into another one of these extinction events."

"I'm optimistic that, because we haven't lost those species yet, if we redouble our conservation efforts we can stem the tide of extinctions and have those species around in the future," he added.

The study's 30 million-year timeline allowed the researchers to compare species diversity over a period of dramatic change in the landscape. The Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada ranges formed in the West, while there were dramatic swings in climate that may have been larger than and as fast as the Earth is seeing today, said co-author and UC Berkeley research associate Marc A. Carrasco. Yet these changes did not have a great effect on mammal diversity, compared to what happened when the last glacial period ended, the ice retreated in North America, and humans crossed from Asia into America.

"The only difference is that 13,000 years ago humans appear on the scene," Carrasco said. "The bottom line is, mammals in general were able to deal with these changes in the past. Only when humans arrive do the numbers fall off a cliff."

The analysis by Barnosky, Carrasco and Russell W. Graham, professor of geosciences at Penn State in University Park, Pa., appears online this week in the open-access journal PLoS One.

Their analysis combined two databases compiled over the past 15 years ago by Graham and one database created by a UC Berkeley team led by Barnosky and Carrasco in the past few years. Graham's databases are FAUNMAP I, which lists all mammal fossils and their geographic ranges in the United States between 40,000 and 500 years ago, and FAUNMAP II, a compilation of mammalian fossils dating from 40,000 to 5 million years ago. The UC Berkeley database is MIOMAP, which includes all fossil occurrences in the U.S. between 5 and 30 million years ago, which covers the Miocene and part of the Oligocene periods. The databases include all terrestrial mammals from shrews to mammoths, except bats.

If similar databases were analyzed for other terrestrial species, such as reptiles or birds, scientists could look for similar patterns, the researchers say. However, few plant or animal groups produce the abundant fossil record of mammals, Carrasco said.

If a similar analysis of European mammal extinctions were performed, Barnosky said, he expects that it would show a similar pulse of extinction following the arrival of humans, followed by a leveling off until the present day. He ascribes that initial pulse of extinction to a synergistic effect of burgeoning humanity and natural global warming after the Ice Age.

I have two posts coming up on mass extinctions. One is about some misconceptions about mass extinctions and the other is about the 6th Mass Extinction. I want to get the other one out first before the sixth. However, they are bother contending with the wrap up of the Medea Hypothesis post.

Noel! Wish Granted! Remember Panic Attack?

A producer from Uruguay who uploaded a short film to YouTube in November 2009 has been offered a $30m (£18.6m) contract to make a Hollywood film.

The movie will be sponsored by director Sam Raimi, whose credits include the Spiderman and Evil Dead films.

Fede Alvarez's short film "Ataque de Panico!" (Panic Attack!) featured giant robots invading and destroying Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.

It is 4 mins 48 seconds long and was made on a budget of $300 (£186).

So far it has had more than 1.5 million views on YouTube.

"I uploaded (Panic Attack!) on a Thursday and on Monday my inbox was totally full of e-mails from Hollywood studios," he told the BBC's Latin American service BBC Mundo.

"It was amazing, we were all shocked."

The movie Mr Alvarez has been asked to produce is a sci-fi film to be shot in Uruguay and Argentina. He says he intends to start from scratch and develop a new story for the project.

Noel: Movie to be made!

Predator Drones: WATCH THIS NOW Channel

Insurgents in Iraq have hacked into live video feeds from Predator drones, the military's eyes in the sky for surveillance and intelligence collection.

A senior defense official says militants could see the video, but there is no evidence they were able to jam the electronic signals from the unmanned aerial crafts or take control of the vehicles. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.

The Wall Street Journal first reported Thursday that Shiite fighters in Iraq used off-the-shelf software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds. The hacking was possible because some of the remotely flown planes have an unprotected communications link.

Officials say the Defense Department is working to encrypt the drone feeds.

And a more sophisticated opponent would do so much more. gah.

And if the Iraqis are doing it, what do you want to bet the Afghanistanis are? double gah.

Encrypt your links, damnit!

More info from Danger Room.

Why Global Warming is Inevitable 2009 Edition

China’s climate negotiators have told Western counterparts they can’t agree to an “operational agreement” on climate change that President Barack Obama had hoped to bring home from Copenhagen and will push for a short, noncommittal collective statement at the end of the talks, according to American staffers briefed on the situation.

It’s not clear if remarks by Chinese officials, made during negotiating sessions on Wednesday night, signal the end of efforts to reach a significant agreement or simply represent an eleventh-hour bargaining tactic less than a day before Obama was due to arrive in Copenhagen.

But U.S. officials fear it's the former, with little time left to negotiate a real deal before COP-15’s conclusion Friday.

Lead U.S. negotiator Todd Stern told POLITICO late Wednesday that his staff had not engaged in one-on-one “bilats” with China for a whole day — and hadn’t even addressed a major issue, a proposed “border tax” on countries that flouted international accords. That provision was included in the cap-and-trade measure the House passed in July, and no bill omitting it is likely to pass the Senate.

The apparent stalemate coincides with the arrival in Copenhagen of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a 20-member delegation of House members, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had viewed the trip as a triumph following the lower chamber’s summer passage of a sweeping climate change bill.

If China has, in fact, pulled the plug, it would deal a major blow to efforts by Democrats in the Senate to revive stalled efforts at passing vitally important companion legislation. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) warned the conference Wednesday that the Senate isn’t likely to move if lawmakers perceive America taking more stringent steps than trading partners and rivals in China and India.

I still owe Noel a few posts. One of them being why a carbon tariff is a necessity. The above is part of it.

Now They Go Too Far!

Nene Anegasaki is a witty, doe-eyed beauty. She looks perfectly perky in sexy skirts, doesn't pick fights and is always at one Tokyo man's beck and call -- that is why the 27-year-old decided to marry her.

The only complication: She is a videogame character in the Nintendo DS game called "Love Plus."

Still, that didn't stop Sal 9000 -- the only name the groom would give -- from marrying Nene in a ceremony witnessed live by thousands on the Web.

When asked if Nene is his dream woman, Sal replied, "Yes, she is. Her character changes to my liking as we talk and travel to different places."

Japan's Internet community has witnessed relationships and marriages to avatars, though it's typically been within the confines of the virtual world. Last month, Sal decided to be the first human-to-avatar union. Clad in a white tux, Sal married Nene in front of some friends and Web users watching the ceremony live online.

She's not even an AI yet! This goes too far!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

NorAm Megafauna Held Out For Past 13k Years Ago

Woolly mammoths and prehistoric horses grazed on the North American plains for several thousand years longer than hitherto assumed

This is shown by samples of ancient DNA, analysed by an international team of research scientists under the leadership of Professor Eske Willerslev from Copenhagen University. Analyses of ancient DNA thereby once again revoke results of more common methods of dating, such as carbon 14 analysis of bone and tooth remains from extinct animals. These methods which had previously dated the extinction of mammoths and prehistoric horses in Central Asia to within 13-15,000 years ago. But with the DNA-test methods of Eske Willerslev and his colleagues, this boundary has now moved between 2,600 and 5,600 years closer to our time and has thus revised our previous opinion of when the last mammoths and prehistoric horses grazed on the North American Plains.

The ancient DNA that formed the basis for this sensational result, was discovered by scientists in samples of soil from the permafrost tundra surrounding the windswept town of Stevens Village on the bank of the Yukon River in Central Alaska.

Professor Eske Willerslev says about his discovery:

"In principle, one can take a pinch of soil and uncover which living creatures, animals and plants lived in the area half a million years back in time. With ancient DNA analysis, we are completely independent of skeletons, bones, teeth and other macro-fossil evidence from extinct animals. This greatly increases the possibility of finding evidence of the existence of a species through time. Whilst an animal leaves only a single corpse when it dies, it leaves quantities of DNA traces through urine and faeces whilst it is still alive. It is these DNA traces which we find in the soil."

When the remains of the last member of an extinct species were hard to find, Willerslev and a team of international research scientists decided to carry out an expedition to Central Alaska to solve the riddle of "The last surviving mammoths" using ancient-DNA tests from permafrost soil.

Surprisingly, the scientists found that the later samples with mammoth DNA could be dated back to between 10,500 and 7,500 years ago, and are therefore between 2,600 and 5,600 years after the supposed extinction of the mammoths from mainland Alaska. Thus, the scientists found proof that mammoths had walked the earth several thousand years longer than previously believed; presumably by lesser herds of these animals threatened with extinction, surviving in small, isolated enclaves, where living conditions were intact.

DNA extraction from soil. Interesting. They draw some conclusions about the extinction that may not be right, does knock the comet impact something hard.

New Exoplanets Found Including Two Super Earths

An international team of planet hunters has discovered as many as six low-mass planets around two nearby Sun-like stars, including two "super-Earths" with masses 5 and 7.5 times the mass of Earth. The researchers, led by Steven Vogt of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said the two "super-Earths" are the first ones found around Sun-like stars.

"These detections indicate that low-mass planets are quite common around nearby stars. The discovery of potentially habitable nearby worlds may be just a few years away," said Vogt, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC.

The team found the new planet systems by combining data gathered at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) in New South Wales, Australia. Two papers describing the new planets have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

Three of the new planets orbit the bright star 61 Virginis, which can be seen with the naked eye under dark skies in the Spring constellation Virgo. Astronomers and astrobiologists have long been fascinated with this particular star, which is only 28 light-years away. Among hundreds of our nearest stellar neighbors, 61 Vir stands out as being the most nearly similar to the Sun in terms of age, mass, and other essential properties. Vogt and his collaborators have found that 61 Vir hosts at least three planets, with masses ranging from about 5 to 25 times the mass of Earth.

Recently, a separate team of astronomers used NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to discover that 61 Vir also contains a thick ring of dust at a distance roughly twice as far from 61 Vir as Pluto is from our Sun. The dust is apparently created by collisions of comet-like bodies in the cold outer reaches of the system.

"Spitzer's detection of cold dust orbiting 61 Vir indicates that there's a real kinship between the Sun and 61 Vir," said Eugenio Rivera, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSC. Rivera computed an extensive set of numerical simulations to find that a habitable Earth-like world could easily exist in the as-yet unexplored region between the newly discovered planets and the outer dust disk.

According to Vogt, the planetary system around 61 Vir is an excellent candidate for study by the new Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope recently constructed at Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton near San Jose. "Needless to say, we're very excited to continue monitoring this system using APF," said Vogt, who is the principal investigator for the APF and is building a spectrometer for the new telescope that is optimized for finding planets.

The second new system found by the team features a 7.5-Earth-mass planet orbiting HD 1461, another near-perfect twin of the Sun located 76 light-years away. At least one and possibly two additional planets also orbit the star. Lying in the constellation Cetus, HD 1461 can be seen with the naked eye in the early evening under good dark-sky conditions.

The 7.5-Earth-mass planet, assigned the name HD 1461b, has a mass nearly midway between the masses of Earth and Uranus. The researchers said they cannot tell yet if HD 1461b is a scaled-up version of Earth, composed largely of rock and iron, or whether, like Uranus and Neptune, it is composed mostly of water.

No time to comment.

HPC Meet Paleontology: Simulating the Gait of Hadrosaurs

The team – from The University of Manchester, University of Oregon and Yale - set up the ‘dinosaur dressage’ with the help of Hector, the UK Research Council’s supercomputer, currently the 20th fastest super computer in the world.

They found that hopping hadrosaurs were fastest but – for safety reasons - a two-legged running gait was most likely. In the same way that we can all muster a John Cleese ‘silly walk’ few can sustain it!

In addition the team, funded by National Geographic and The Natural Environment Research Council, has shown how more research can be done to find out how large and fast animals moved, both living and extinct.

In the meantime, Jurassic fanatics can simulate their very own dinosaur as the software (Windows, Mac, Linux) and models are freely available to download from

Team leader Dr Bill Sellers, whose results are published in Palaeontologica Electronica this week, explains: “Everyone knows that dinosaurs come in all shapes and sizes. Most don't look like anything that's alive today and some are just plain bizarre. One group that fit this description well is the duck-billed dinosaurs, also known as hadrosaurs. Along with the strange appearance – the eponymous duck-bill, peculiar skull ornaments, and long, slender forelimbs – scientists have argued about how they might have moved. Did they walk on four limbs, two limbs, or a combination of both depending on the speed? It has even been suggested that some may have hopped like a kangaroo!

“Previously we have used computer simulation to calculate the top running speed of a range of two-legged dinosaurs. It turns out that looking at all the possible locomotor options in a single four-legged dinosaur is actually much trickier. Much like a dressage trained horse, the basic body shape is capable of using a whole range of possible gaits even though it is likely that it would much prefer some over others.”

His colleague Dr Phil Manning, a palaeontologist at the University of Manchester, says: “Hadrosaurs are a much overlooked group of dinosaurs, often coming second place to the predators, such as their contemporary T. rex. However, in this running race, it seems that the hadrosaurs had the edge on the predators...not surprising if they wanted to survive in a landscape shared by the largest predator on Earth.

“Fortunately for us Hector had just come online and could provide sufficient computational power for the job. We gave the computer simulation a completely free rein to come up with whatever form of locomotion it could. And indeed from a completely random set of starting conditions the model generated a full range of possible gaits: bipedal running and hopping as well as quadrupedal trotting, pacing and galloping.

“The big surprise was that hopping gait came out as fastest at 61 km/h, followed by quadrupedal galloping (58 km/h), and bipedal running (50 km/h).”

Dr Sellers, based at Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences, adds: “We also looked at how these different ways of moving would apply forces to the skeleton. Here hopping came out the worst: if the hadrosaur had moved like that it would have destroyed its own skeleton.

“In the end bipedal running came out as probably the best compromise between performance and skeletal loading. But the really clear message is that there is still more research to be done particularly looking at how large and fast animals can move within the margins of safety required by their skeletons.”

No speeding tickets *HERE*!

The paper is located here.

Jared Diamond Wrong Yet Again (this time about Austronesians)

Note the flow of population does not originate from Taiwan, unlike what Diamond posits. This is the result of studying the mitochondrial DNA.

Hat-tip to James.

Molluscan Tool Use

Scientists once thought of tool use as a defining feature of humans. That's until examples of tool use came in from other primates, along with birds and an array of other mammals. Now, a report in the December 14th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, adds an octopus to the growing list of tool users.

The veined octopus under study manages a behavioral trick that the researchers call stilt walking. In it, the soft-bodied octopus spreads itself over stacked, upright coconut shell "bowls," makes its eight arms rigid, and raises the whole assembly to amble on eight "stilts" across the seafloor. The only benefit to the octopus's ungainly maneuver is to use the shells later as a shelter or lair, and that's what makes it wholly different from a hermit crab using the discarded shell of a snail.

"There is a fundamental difference between picking up a nearby object and putting it over your head as protection versus collecting, arranging, transporting (awkwardly), and assembling portable armor as required," said Mark Norman of the Museum Victoria in Australia.

Julian Finn, also of the Museum Victoria, said the initial discovery was completely serendipitous.

"While I have observed and videoed octopuses hiding in shells many times, I never expected to find an octopus that stacks multiple coconut shells and jogs across the seafloor carrying them," he said.

In recalling the first time that he saw this behavior, Finn added, "I could tell that the octopus, busy manipulating coconut shells, was up to something, but I never expected it would pick up the stacked shells and run away. It was an extremely comical sight—I have never laughed so hard underwater."


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Medea Hypothesis Part 7: Ward's Summation


This is the final post summarizing the Medea Hypothesis. Rather than doing my own summation of Ward’s Summation. I will quote the important points. It’s about a page and a half, so it will be quick. The previous posts are here, here, here, here, here, and here. The completed Medea Hypothesis Review Table of Contents is here.

Ward’s Own Summation
Let us sum up – in the shortest chapter of all. Three hypotheses have been presented. The first, the Gaia hypothesis (Optomizing), promotes the idea that life makes conditions better for itself. The second Gaia hypothesis (Self-regulating or Homeostatic) posits that life maintains conditions that, if not optimal, certainly stay within habitable bounds. Third, the Medea hypothesis suggests quite the opposite – that life, and future life, limits itself in any number of ways and does so in no small way by causing positive feedbacks in various ways necessary for life. A number of specific tests were supposed early on. They included the following.

1. Does the history of life support the Gaia hypothesis? It should show ever-increasing diversity through time. It does not Diversity of animals and higher plants seems to have been in a steady state for more than 300 million years since the evolutionary conquests of land, with this long-term value depleted on occasion by mass extinctions. Second, we do not know what the diversity of microbial life was prior to animals, but it was likely higher. The almost complete loss of stromatolites with the Cambrian Explosion indicates that microbial biomass was certainly higher prior to animals, and it may be that biodiversity was as well.

2. Does the history of biomass through time support the Gaia hypothesis? It does not. Model results indicate that biomass on Earth peaked some 1 billion to perhaps 300 million years ago and has been diminishing ever since. Since two main factors biomass values – temperature and atmospheric carbon values – we should look to these two. Temperature has remained faily constant, byt carbon values have plummeted as CO2 has been removed from the atmosphere by increasing carbonate silicate weathering by plants, as well as the increased efficiency of carbonate skeleton production by animals and plants, microbial to macro in size. Both of these factors causing reduction of CO2 where caused by life. This is not in accordance with predictions from either Gaia Hypothesis

3. Will the future of biomass show a steady decline through time up until the loss of the oceans? The Gaia hypotheses predict that life will extend the life of biosphere. But model results suggest quite the opposite – that, through the removal of CO2, life itself will cause a shortening of the timeframe within which the Earth can sustain surface life. While microbial life might still survive folliwng the loss of plants, an oxygen atmosphere, and finally the oceans, where is no consensus that the Deep Microbial Biosphere can withstand the loss of all surface life.

4. Do individual events during the life of the biosphere show evidence of Gaian influences? Since the main life-related events on the planet after life’s first appearance include the oxygen rise, the Snowball Earth events, the Cambrian Explosion (appearance of animals), and the various Phanerozoic mass extinctions, this question can be proposed in the light of these events. Each, however, produced a reduction of biomass at the time.

In summary, the four points above seem to me, at least, sufficient to falsify the Gaia hypotheses. Does this mean that the Medea hypothesis is correct? Not necessarily – the hoary “more research is needed” is all too true. But the evidence at hand certainly points to it being a better descriptor of how life works than the Gaia hypotheses.

Pages 126-7, Chapter 9: Summation, The Medea Hypothesis, by Dr Peter Ward.

A Postal Conclusion

Ward writes further in the book, but it deviates away from the scientific into the political and cultural. It goes on about the misconception that if we stop interfering in nature that life will heal everything. He goes on to say that it won't. I happen to sorta agree with him, but I am not here to examine the political aspects or modern ecological recovery. I'm here to examine his Medea Hypothesis.

The next post will be a critique, but it might be a while before I can write all of it. This is going to be long. Wow. Just getting to this point was long!

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Medea Hypothesis Review: Part Six

A Quick Introduction

This is the sixth post on the Medea Hypothesis. Here I am delving into Chapter 8: Predicted Future Trends of Biomass. The previous posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here. The completed Medea Hypothesis Review Table of Contents is here.This will be the second to last post that summarizes the Medea Hypothesis. The next one will just be Ward’s own Summation (Chapter 9). Then I will do my critique. Afterwards, I will make an index post and then tie all this together on the side bar.

The Medea Hypothesis: Future Biomass Trends.

Based on the previous post and the idea that biomass has already peaked in the past, the obvious conclusion that Ward is going to draw is that the future is going to be a general downward slope for the biomass for the planetary biosphere from here on out. The rason he states is that life is drawing down the carbon dioxide levels over time, sequestering the carbon bit by bit, due to the less than perfect nature of carbon cycle. He bases his future trends and conclusions on the same Franck et al models he did before.

Projected Future CO2 Levels in the Deep Future

However, he gives more background about the history of the future of the biosphere and when life will die out. A long belief up until the 1980s was that life would persist, the whole of the complex life and the biosphere in general until the sun turned into a red giant and consumed the world. It turns out that a number of modelers over time have shown this may not be the case.

The first of these was James Lovelock, the so-called father of the Gaia Theory. He along with coauthors explored the time period that life would go extinct. That pointed out that too much CO2 is bad and that too little is also bad in their 1981 paper in Nature. They predicted that life would, based on the carbon cycle, go extinct approximately 100 million years in the future. They based their projection on when life the atmosphere would drop below 150 ppm of CO2.

Kasting et al followed up on the Lovelock article in 1992. They revised their model which they based on Lovelock’s with the information that had been developed since 1981 in the carbon-silicate cycle. They projected that the so-called critical CO2 point would take place around 550 million years rather than 100 million years. They also pointed out that this critical point would only affect the C3 photosynethic pathway plants. C4 plants and CAM plants would be just fine. However, the total amount of biomass would be decreasing from here on out.

Franck et all started following up in 1999. Their results varied with the error bars placing the critical 150 ppm CO2 550 to 850 million years from now. They also projected the global productivity was already falling and would continue to do so, reducing the complexity of life and the total biomass until its final extinction. The end, when it comes, they projected would come as a whimper rather than a bang.

There have been others that have worked on the same problem. They all, according to Ward, give predictions that the critical CO2 level will come between 500 million years from now to 1.5 billion years from now.

What Would the Deep Future Look Like?

Ward then discusses the differences between the different photosynthetic pathways. I’ll just link to C3 photosynthesis, C4 photosynthesis, and CAM photosynthesis. You can read about them there much better than I can write about them. He also states that the evolution of C4 plants only took place eight to ten million years ago (pg 119). C4 plants need a minimum of 10 ppm CO2.

“The formation of new photosynthetic pathways is a sure sign that long-term reduction in atmospheric CO2 is having a profound affect on the biosphere. The continued long-term reduction in CO2 over next hundreds of millions of years should produce a decisive change in the global floras.”

Pg 119, Chapter 8: Predicted Future Trends of Biomass.

Ward speculates that the world will transition gradually from C3 woody plants to C4 and CAM plants: he refers to CAM plants as “succulents and their ilk.” He posits that it is possible the world will just be grasslands which will be less productive than the forests of now. Then he also points out that there are ‘trees’ that are C4 plants: bamboos and palms. The forests may be still be present, just as bamboo and palms rather than the types of trees we are familiar with.

He accepts that it may be possible plants will develop other photosynthetic pathways to adapt to the ever lowering CO2 levels. He dismisses this as eventually they too will succumb to the ever lowering CO2 levels as well.

Ward paints a picture of what will happen when plants finally go extinct. The soils will cease to exist. Weathering will drop. The nutrients from plants that oceanic life depends on will cease. Life will slowly collapse even in the oceans to much simpler life. He basically posits a reverse Cambrian Explosion – an Antephytozoic Implosion. Complex life will all but end. Life will be reduced to microbial in nature very quickly. Once plant life goes extinct, Ward cites David Catling as stating that within 15 million years that after the extinction of plants that the atmospheric oxygen content will drop to 1%. This dooms animal life.

Wrap Up Of Future Trends

Ward blames life for the supposedly broken carbon cycle. He states that this supports the Medea Hypothesis and Chapter 8 is the predictions of the Medea Hypothesis. The next post will be a summation of the Medea Hypothesis. I will be pretty much just quoting Ward. It’s less than two pages to type in.

Yet Another Paleo Artist

A different take on Lycosuchus. He's actually quite good. Go check him out. (link in title)

Paleoasian Sea (???) Disappearance Nailed Down...Sorta.

Note. This is a translated article:

The collision between the Siberian Plate and North China Plate was a significant geological event in earth history, which led to the final closure of the Paleoasian Ocean and the formation of the Eurasian continent. Despite numerous research efforts in recent decades, the precise time of this event has remained a puzzle until now. New evidence in helping settle this issue is provided by Prof. Deng Shenghui and his colleagues in their paper newly published in Science in China (2009, vol.52).

Geological studies have demonstrated that during the early Paleozoic, an interval from 450-300 million year ago, the Siberian paleo-land was thousands kilometers away from the North China paleo-land, which is very different from their present situation. An immense ocean of thousands kilometers wide, namely the Paleoasian Ocean, separated these two paleo-lands. During the Carboniferous and Early Permian (about 360-270 million year ago), the North China paleo-land was located near the equator, where subtropic-tropic type of flora grew, named as "the Cathaysia Flora". In contrast, the Siberian paleo-land was located at high latitude, where temperate flora was distributed, known as "the Angara Flora". These two types of floras are very distinctive and do not mix with each other because of the geological barrier and their separate niches in different climatic zone.

Prof. Deng and his collaborators concluded that the time of the Paleoasian Ocean's disappearance is the end of the Permian, about 251 million years ago, based on their study of land plant fossils. Several years ago, Deng and his research group found many plant fossils from the rocks that were formed in the Late Permian during their stratigraphical and paleontological investigation in Heilongjiang, Northeast China. These fossils could be divided into two types after detailed identifications. One belongs to Angara Flora and the other to Cathaysia Flora. So, these plant fossils represent a mixed flora. The mixed flora implies that the Angara type plants lived together with some Cathaysia type plants at this location in the Late Permian. This means that the Paleoasian Ocean, once a barrier of plant immigration, must have disappeared in the Late Permian, and those plants grew previously in North China paleo-land now immigrated to the Siberian paleo-land. Therefore, Deng and his colleagues suggested that the Paleoasian Ocean finally closed at the end of the Late Permian, about 251 million years ago.

Paleoasian sea is probably the paleotethys. I think. Or part of it.

Another Beast of Khandhar/RQ-170 Sentinel Picture

Via Ares.

Best Avatar Description Yet


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Swap: Kickerstarter Invites for Backing

I have 4 kickerstarter invites. I'll swap them for backing on the project. I'll hand them out to the top 4 backers by next week.

A Simple Model for Predicting Sea Level Rise

Global sea level linked to global temperature

1. Martin Vermeer (a,1)
2. Stefan Rahmstorf (b)

a. Department of Surveying, Helsinki University of Technology, P.O. Box 1200, FI-02150, Espoo, Finland

b. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Telegrafenberg A62, 14473 Potsdam, Germany

1. To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:


We propose a simple relationship linking global sea-level variations on time scales of decades to centuries to global mean temperature. This relationship is tested on synthetic data from a global climate model for the past millennium and the next century. When applied to observed data of sea level and temperature for 1880–2000, and taking into account known anthropogenic hydrologic contributions to sea level, the correlation is >0.99, explaining 98% of the variance. For future global temperature scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report, the relationship projects a sea-level rise ranging from 75 to 190 cm for the period 1990–2100.

That's much less than what I've heard here. I'm putting this on the stack. I've not finished the papers from earlier today as yet.

Say Hi to Tawa!

Bill Parker has the best post on the critter at Chinleana. There have been a plethora of pop sci and press releases as well. Here. Here. Here. Here. Link to the paper later. NSF special report with videos here.

Russian Defense Industry Continues to Flail

Russia’s new Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile failed its fourth successive launch test on Wednesday, December 9. The missile was fired from the submarine Dmitry Donskoy in the White Sea.

Russia’s RosBusinessConsulting news agency, citing defense ministry sources, reported that the failure involved the missile’s third stage.


This was the 11th test launch of Bulava. Only five launches have been successful since tests started in 2004, but the Russian military is still committed the program. Bulava will be the main armament of the new Borei-class SSBNs. The first sub of the class - Yuri Dolgorukiy – is undergoing sea trials and is due to be commissioned in 2010. The Russian Navy plans to have 8 such submarines by 2017 to replace ageing Delta-IV class SSBNs.

Story from here.

The first flight of the Sukhoi T-50 “fifth-generation” fighter (also known as PAK-FA), has been officially postponed until next year. On December 8, RIA Novosti news agency cited Russia’s vice-premier Sergey Ivanov as saying that the new fighter will fly in 2010.

This looks like a third delay for the T-50’s first flight. At the end of 2008, Russian Air Force Commander Gen.-Col. Alexander Zelin said the jet would fly in August, but said later in 2009 that the flight should take place by year-end.

Story here.

New SLBM keeps failing (a lot) and the T-50 is at least two years behind schedule if not a lot more. The T-50 reminds me a lot of the previous attempts at flying an 'advanced' fighter for the Russians post Soviet collapse. Lots of talk, almost as many delays, and when it actually flew, not so impressive.

No Evidence of Impact at Onset of Younger Dryas

An international team of scientists led by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa has found no evidence supporting an extraterrestrial impact event at the onset of the Younger Dryas approximately 13,000 years ago.

The Younger Dryas is an abrupt cooling event in Earth's history. It coincided with the extinction of many large mammals including the woolly mammoth, the saber toothed jaguar and many sloths. This cooling period is generally considered to be the result of the complex global climate system, possibly spurred on by a reduction or slowdown of the thermohaline circulation in North America. This paradigm was challenged two years ago by a group of researchers that reported finding high iridium concentrations in terrestrial sediments dated during this time period, which led them to theorise that an impact event was instead the instigator of this climate shift.

A team led by François Paquay, a Doctoral graduate student in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM) decided to also investigate this theory, to add more evidence to what they considered a conceptually appealing theory. However, not only were they unable to replicate the results found by the other researchers, but additional lines of evidence failed to support an impact theory for the onset of the Younger Dryas.

Their results will be published in the December 7th early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper is here:

Absence of geochemical evidence for an impact event at the Bølling–Allerød/Younger Dryas transition

1. François S. Paquay (a,1)
2. Steven Goderis (b,c)
3. Greg Ravizza (a)
4. Frank Vanhaeck (c)
5. Matthew Boyd (d)
6. Todd A. Surovell (e)
7. Vance T. Holliday (f)
8. C. Vance Haynes Jr.(f)
9. Philippe Claeys (b)

a Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI 96822;

b Earth System Sciences and Department of Geology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 1050 Elsene, Brussels, Belgium;

c Department of Analytical Chemistry, Universiteit Ghent, 9000 Ghent, Belgium;

d Department of Anthropology, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, ON, Canada P7B 5E1;

e Department of Anthropology, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82070; and

f Departments of Anthropology and Geosciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721

1 To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:


High concentrations of iridium have been reported in terrestrial sediments dated at 12.9 ka and are interpreted to support an extraterrestrial impact event as the cause of the observed extinction in the Rancholabrean fauna, changes in the Paleoindian cultures, and the onset of the Younger Dryas cooling [Firestone RB, et al. (2007) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:16016–16021]. Here, we report platinum group element (PGE: Os, Ir, Ru, Rh, Pt, Pd), gold (Au) concentrations, and 187Os/188Os ratios in time-equivalent terrestrial, lacustrine, and marine sections to seek robust evidence of an extraterrestrial contribution. First, our results do not reproduce the previously reported elevated Ir concentrations. Second, 187Os/188Os isotopic ratios in the sediment layers investigated are similar to average crustal values, indicating the absence of a significant meteoritic Os contribution to these sediments. Third, no PGE anomalies distinct from crustal signatures are present in the marine record in either the Gulf of California (DSDP 480, Guaymas Basin) or the Cariaco Basin (ODP 1002C). Our data show no evidence of an extraterrestrial (ET)-PGE enrichment anomaly in any of the investigated depositional settings investigated across North America and in one section in Belgium. The lack of a clear ET-PGE signature in this sample suite is inconsistent with the impact of a large chondritic projectile at the Bølling–Allerød/Younger Dryas transition.

The back and forth continues. Reading the paper now.

Some Surprising Bits About Horse Evolution from Ancient DNA

Ancient DNA retrieved from extinct horse species from around the world has challenged one of the textbook examples of evolution – the fossil record of the horse family Equidae over the past 55 million years.

The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved an international team of researchers and the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) based at the University of Adelaide.

Only the modern horse, zebras, wild asses and donkey survive today, but many other lineages have become extinct over the last 50,000 years.

ACAD Director Professor Alan Cooper says despite an excellent fossil record of the Equidae, there are still many gaps in our evolutionary knowledge. "Our results change both the basic picture of recent equid evolution, and ideas about the number and nature of extinct species."

The study used bones from caves to identify new horse species in Eurasia and South America, and reveal that the Cape zebra, an extinct giant species from South Africa, were simply large variants of the modern Plains zebra. The Cape zebra weighed up to 400 kilograms and stood up to 150 centimetres at the shoulder blades.

"The Plains zebra group once included the famous extinct quagga, so our results confirm that this group was highly variable in both coat colour and size."

Lead author of the paper, Dr Ludovic Orlando from the University of Lyon, says the group discovered a new species of the distinct, small hippidion horse in South America.

"Previous fossil records suggested this group was part of an ancient lineage from North America but the DNA showed these unusual forms were part of the modern radiation of equid species," Dr Orlando says.

A new species of ass was also detected on the Russian Plains and appears to be related to European fossils dating back more than 1.5 million years. Carbon dates on the bones reveal that this species was alive as recently as 50,000 years ago.

"Overall, the new genetic results suggest that we have under-estimated how much a single species can vary over time and space, and mistakenly assumed more diversity among extinct species of megafauna," Professor Cooper says.

"This has important implications for our understanding of human evolution, where a large number of species are currently recognised from a relatively fragmentary fossil record.

"It also implies that the loss of species diversity that occurred during the megafaunal extinctions at the end of the last Ice Age may not have been as extensive as previously thought.

Paper is located here.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Permian Basal Synapsid Cladistics

Eothyris and Oedaleops: Do These Early Permian Synapsids from Texas and New Mexico form a Clade?

1. Robert R. Reisz (A,*)
2. Stephen J. Godfrey (A,B)
3. Diane Scott (A)

A. Department of Biology, University of Toronto at Mississauga, 3359 Mississauga Road, Mississauga, Ontario, L5L 1C6, Canada,;

B. Present Address: Department of Paleontology, Calvert Marine Museum, P.O. Box 97, Solomons, Maryland, 20688, U.S.A.,

* Corresponding author.


The monospecific genera Eothyris (Petrolia Formation, Leonardian, Archer County, Texas) and Oedaleops (Abo/Cutler Formation, Wolfcampian, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico), known solely from cranial remains, are confidently assigned to the monophyletic Caseasauria based on cranial and dental characters. In addition, Eothyris and Oedaleops comprise the monophyletic Eothyrididae based on nine cranial and dental characters. In contrast to the medium to large sized herbivorous caseids, the small eothyridids exhibit dental features that indicate that they were faunivores. The presence of well-developed caniniform teeth suggests that they were predators. Both Eothyris parkeyi Romer and Oedaleops campi Langsten exhibit a suite of plesiomorphic cranial characters that identify them as basal synapsids. Thus, the eothyridids are better representatives of the primitive synapsid cranial morphotype than the oftenused ophiacodontids. Although they appear relatively late in synapsid evolution, both eothyridids are significantly older than all other caseasaurs, forcing the establishment of a long unrecorded lineage for caseids.

No time to comment. Link to paper in title.

Propellantless Propulsion Proposal

In recent years, a new way of thinking about the quantum vacuum has emerged which has vastly more potential. And today, one physicist describes how it could be used to create propulsion.

Before we discuss that, let's track back a little. According to quantum mechanics, any vacuum will be filled with electromagnetic waves leaping in and out of existence. It turns out that these waves can have various measurable effects, such as the Casimir-Polder force.

The new approach focuses on the momentum associated with these electromagnetic fields rather than the force they exert. The question is whether it is possible to modify this momentum because, if you can, you should receive an equal and opposite kick. That's what rocket scientists call propulsion.

Today, Alex Feigel at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center, a government lab in Yavne Israel, suggests an entirely new way to modify the momentum of the quantum vacuum and how this can be exploited to generate propulsion.

Feigel's approach combines two well-established ideas. The first is the Lorentz force experienced by a charged particle in electric and magnetic fields that are crossed. The second is the magnetoelectric effect--the phenomenon in which an external magnetic field induces a polarised internal electric field in certain materials and vice versa.

The question that Feigel asks is in what circumstances the electromagnetic fields in a quantum vacuum can exert a Lorentz force. The answer is that the quantum vacuum constantly interacts with magnetoelectric materials generating Lorentz forces. Most of the time, however, these forces sum to zero.

Hwever, Feigel says there are four cases in which the forces do not sum to zero. Two of these are already known, for example confining the quantum field between two plates, which excludes longer wavelength waves.

But Feigel says the two others offer entirely new ways to exploit the quantum vacuum using magnetoelectric nanoparticles to interact with the electromagnetic fields it contains.

The first method is to rapidly aggregate a number of magnetoelectric nanoparticles, a process which influences the boundary conditions for higher frequency electromagnetic waves, generating a force.

The second is simply to rotate a group of magnetoelectric nanoparticles, which also generates a Lorentz force.

Either way, the result is a change in velocity. As Feigel puts it: "mechanical action of quantum vacuum on magneto-electric objects may be observable and have a significant value."

The beauty of Feigel's idea is that it can be easily tested. He suggests building an addressable array of magnetoelectric nanoparticles, perhaps made of a material such as FeGaO3 which has a magnetoelectric constant of 10^-4 in a weak magnetic field.

These nanoparticles simply have to be rotated in the required way to generate a force. Feigel calls it a magnetoelectric quantum wheel.

So. hmm. At least its testable.

Biseridens qilianicus, Basal Anomodont

A new specimen of Biseridens qilianicus indicates its phylogenetic position as the most basal anomodont

1. Jun Liu (A,*)
2. Bruce Rubidge (B)
3. Jinling Li (A)

A. Key Laboratory of Evolutionary Systematics of Vertebrates, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100044, People's Republic of China

B. Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, WITS, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa

* Author for correspondence (

A new well-preserved basal therapsid skull from the Xidagou Formation, Middle Permian of China, is identified as Biseridens qilianicus. The following synapomorphies distinguish Biseridens as an anomodont and not an eotitanosuchian as previously described: short snout; dorsally elevated zygomatic arch and septomaxilla lacking elongated posterodorsal process between nasal and maxilla. The presence of a differentiated tooth row; denticles on vomer, palatine and pterygoid; contact between tabular and opisthotic; lateral process of transverse flange of pterygoid free of posterior ramus and absence of mandibular foramen exclude it from other anomodonts. Our cladistic analysis indicates Biseridens to be the most basal anomodont, highlights separate Laurasian and Gondwanan basal anomodont clades and suggests that dicynodonts had their origins in the Gondwanan clade. The co-occurrence of the most basal anomodont (Biseridens) together with the most basal therapsid (Raranimus), basal anteosaurid dinocephalians, bolosaurids and dissorophids suggests that the earliest therapsid faunas are from China.

Paper link is in the title. The paper is free access it seems.

Wednesday Family Pix

Lyuda has commented that Orest looks incredibly like his grandfather.

Note: three of the people, all of us on the left, in this picture are in the above. Time. Wow. I still have nightmares and I was only 6 when they ended.

Me Quasimodo! Hopefully being unphotogenic is not a dominant phenotype!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Caterpillars did not evolve from onychophorans by hybridogenesis

Caterpillars did not evolve from onychophorans by hybridogenesis

1. Michael W. Hart (a,1)
2. Richard K. Grosberg (b)

- Author Affiliations

a. Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada V5A 1S6; and
b. College of Biological Sciences and Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616

1. To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:


The evolution and loss of distinctive larval forms in animal life cycles have produced complex patterns of similarity and difference among life-history stages and major animal lineages. One example of this similarity is the morphological forms of Onychophora (velvet worms) and the caterpillar-like larvae of some insects. Williamson [(2009) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106:15786–15790] has made the astonishing and unfounded claim that the ancestors of the velvet worms directly gave rise to insect caterpillars via hybridization and that evidence of this ancient “larval transfer” could be found in comparisons among the genomes of extant onychophorans, insects with larvae, and insects without larvae. Williamson has made a series of predictions arising from his hypothesis and urged genomicists to test them. Here, we use data already in the literature to show these predictions to be false. Hybridogenesis between distantly related animals does not explain patterns of morphological and life-history evolution in general, and the genes and genomes of animals provide strong evidence against hybridization or larval transfer between a velvet worm and an insect in particular.

The paper really smashes the previous really out there one I linked to here.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Talk About Times Past

Three brothers, one son (me) and my sister.

Geez. My father was younger than I am now. I was about the same age as Avrora is now.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Team Phoenicia: Giving Kickstarter a Try

The nice thing about this is that whatever you offer, it won't go through and be transfered to us unless this is fully funded. Link here in case you can't use the widget.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Beast of Kandahar Outed as RQ-170 Sentinel

The secret is out. The U.S. Air Force has confirmed the existence of the “Beast of Kandahar” UAV that was seen flying out of Afghanistan in late 2007. The jet aircraft – a tailless flying wing with sensor pods faired into the upper surface of each wing – is the RQ-170 Sentinel, developed by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. An Air Force official revealed to Aviation Week Friday afternoon that the service is “developing a stealthy unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward deployed combat forces.”

The USAF statement came after discussion of the UAV emerged here on Ares. “The fielding of the RQ-170 aligns with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ request for increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support to the Combatant Commanders and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz’s vision for an increased USAF reliance on unmanned aircraft,” according to the statement.

Some people are speculating that this outing was intentional to cover for something else. Perhaps. It's possible. However, more likely is that they are just ready to start using this a lot and there's not much to be gained from hiding the Sentinel anymore. As noted, RQ means unmanned and unarmed.

What is the Medea Hypothesis: Review Part Five

A Small Introduction

This is my latest post on the Medea Hypothesis as proposed by Dr Peter Ward of the University of Washington. The hypothesis is a counter to the more mainstream, if misused, Gaia Hypothesis. The Gaia Hypothesis states that the world is a self-regulating system with compensatory feedback systems to prevent or at least dampen, runaway effects. The primary instrument of the system in the Gaia Hypothesis is life and its interactions with the environment. The Medea Hypothesis is a rejection of that idea and in its place proposes that life does not, in fact, dampen the effects of runaway processes, but rather amplifies them. The short and perhaps overly dramatic version is that life is suicidal.

I have posted summarizing the Medea Hypothesis in several previous posts. You can find them here (introduction/competing theories of life), here (summary of what Medean Life), here (Paleo Medean Events) and here (biodiversity through time). The complete Medea Hypothesis Review Table of Contents is here.

The main theme of this post is a summary of biomass through time and that the Medea Hypothesis predicts that over time, biomass will fall from past peaks due to the interactions and evolution of life. This is based on Chapter 7 Biomass Through Time as a Test and takes a small amount from Chapter 8 Predicted Future Trends of Biomass in the book of the same title. Again, I am going to minimize the commentary until after. This is where it is actually hardest to do so since Ward relies very, very heavily on computational models. Now that I have had a lot more sleep since we all got sick and the holiday, plus some commentary from Carlos (thank you!), I have developed some pretty strong opinions on the subject. I will attempt to avoid interjecting them and save them for the criticism post…which is coming quite soon.

If the post seems a bit different than the others, it is in part due to the fact that it took a while to pull together everything so that I could write it. I took notes, rather than reading directly from the book, and had more time to ponder the narrative. That may be good or bad.

The Tolkienesque Decline of Biomass Through Deep Time

The Medea Hypothesis conjectures that life works in contrary to its own interests. In this case, biomass, it actually works over time to reduce biomass through its interactions with other life and the environment. Ward predicts that biomass was actually more in the past – two potential times, the Devonian, just after the evolution of forests and the the Cambrian, just after the evolution of animals – and has been in decline ever since. Ward does note that it is very difficult to measure biomass through deep time though. He suggests that there are proxies that work to be able to model life’s biomass.

Biomass is limited by several things, but there are three that Ward specifically identifies and elaborates on. The first is energy. If there is not sufficient energy coming into the system where life resides, there is a very little life possible. The second limiting factor is the amount of nutrients available. The difference between a bare rock environment and the soil of any temperature climate are excellent extremes: one is highly nutrient rich and supports a cast of living characters that is quite extensive and the other is very, shall we say, barren, in comparison. The final example item that Ward narrows in on that limits biomass is temperature. The Arctic has a far more limited biomass than does the tropics. Ward cites temperature as the reason.

Energy has increased over time as far as the sun’s input into the world which would argue that there is an increased biomass as related to the solar input. However, early life was not photosynthetic. A lot of it consumed the primordial chemicals that were left over from the world’s formation. This is supposedly an easier to consume form of energy than photosynthesis. Early life ran through and consumed all this easily available nutrients and caused a crash. Theoretically. A lot of this is based on modern conjecture and the modeling work of S Franck et al. To be discussed below. This caused a biomass crash until photosynthetic based energy systems take over. Because there was a crash, a life induced biomass reduction, this counts as a Medean Effect.

Nutrients tie into this. Life Ward claims that carbon dioxide is actually the most important nutrient and the one that is the biggest clue to biomass over time is actually carbon dioxide. He makes the argument that the higher carbon dioxide levels in the past were indicators of a high biomass. The reason that he argues this is that there was far more carbon dioxide – his key nutrient – therefore there was far more potential for life to exist. During the Pharenozoic, the CO2 levels have dropped significantly. This means that the potential for life – according to Ward – has dropped. The cause, Ward states is because life is slowly sequestering the carbon: carbon cycle is broken from his point of view (strongly implied). Ultimately, this will be what dooms life according to Ward: the CO2 will run out because life will have sequestered it all.

Temperature is the final of the three limiting factors that Ward discusses in some detail. This is the one that he talks about the most. He states that 70 C is the upper limit for life to exist and be productive on a large scale. 0 C is equally bad. The ideal from his point of view for biological productivity is between 20 C and 70 C. The Pharenozoic has had a temperature band of 15 C +/- 10 C on average. Trace evidence, especially isotope ratios and the types of minerals in the sediments are the evidence for the temperatures in the Pharenozoic.

According to Ward, the traditional view of the temperature evolution of the world went something like this. Around 3.8 billion years ago, the world cooled to around 80 C. It then cooled to approximately 40 C around 3 billion years ago. Sometime around 2 billion years ago it cooled to about 20 C: near the Pharenozoic temperature band. After that, never rose above 30 C.

He counters that new research using ‘pristine cherts’ – that not altered by subsequent geological events – indicate that the temperature changes were rather different than what the ‘traditional’ view is. The time steps with temperatures he cites are 70 C at three billion years, 60 C at 2 billion years, and 40 C at 1 billion years.

Ward then relies on Franck et al 2006/2002/2000 papers to back his claims on biomass. The microbial ecology that existed prior to the evolution of complex life is in the models as sustaining biomass at a higher rate than the subsequent ecologies. It was some form of steady state or near to it in their models. Their ideal temperature for productivity is 40 C. The actual peak of biomass according to the Franck et al model was just after the evolution of complex life.

[figure to be added on Sat]

Based on figure 7.3 from the paper, (see above, tomorrow morning), Ward argues that biodiviserity and biomass are divorced from one another. He goes on to use the Franck paper to to argue that life made jumps in biomass with each breakthrough in exploiting a new energy resource and that afterward a slow decline would take place until the next energy source was ‘found’ and exploited. He implies that there are no more energy sources to exploit for another breakthrough.

Part of his argument is wrapped up in the idea that at the time of the Edicarian/Vendian fauna there was a fundamentally different form of ecology present. The world was covered in bacterial mats. This is demonstrated through the Ediacarian fossils themselves. They were lain down in sandstone and that makes it terribly hard, if not impossible so says Ward, to preserve soft tissue like those fossils have. He uses a class of his to demonstrate how they were created. If there was a bacterial mat under the dead organism and then another ground on top when it silted over quickly, then you would be able to get the fossils as seen. Otherwise, they will decay and not produce fossils. Because bacteria were so common, and able to form the mats, the biomass was higher then. This is the proof that biomass was higher then.

Conclusion (for this post):

Ward then states that the biomass peak, in his opinion, was between the evolution of forests until the Eocene. This is a bit confusing because of what he argued just prior. Ward argues that life caused the temperature drop and that this is due to its Medean nature: by absorbing CO2 as it does, causing a breaking of the global greenhouse, life is dooming itself.

Post Epilogue:

That tackles the Ward’s arguments about biomass through time. He goes on to the next chapter describing what the future of biomass is. This is bound up in Franck et al’s model again. I think I will tackle that as a separate post. I have most of the notes already, but it needs a few more bits to make me even close to happy with it.