Monday’s Top 3 Science News Stories

Top 3 new stories this Monday:

1. Spanish Mountain Goat back from extinction!Image

Scientists in Zaragoza, Spain have received funding to test whether an extinct mountain goat is able to be cloned from preserved cells. The Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo, became extinct in 2000, however scientists collected cells from the animal before it died, which were frozen in liquid nitrogen.

This is not the first study to bring back the bucardo from extinction. In 2003,a bucardo calf was born, but died shortly after birth.

However, Alberto Fernandez-Arias of the Center of Research and Food Technology of Aragon in Zaragoza, told BBC News that they have begun to work on the cells from the last animal, named Celia, although “At this moment, we are not initiating a ‘burcardo recovery plan’, we only want to know if Celia’s cells are still alive after having been maintained frozen during 14 years in liquid nitrogen.”

If the cells prove to be healthy, they’ll attempt to clone embryos and implant them in female goats, or another possible approach could be to cross a healthy female bucardo clone with a closely related sub-species such as the Spanish ibex, and then selectively breed the offspring to enhance the traits of the classic bucardo.

However, the likelihood of this method proving to be effective and its controversial ethical position in the science society remains a question on every reproductive scientist’s lips…

2.       Indonesia raises Sumatra volcano alert to the highest status!

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Mount Sinabung is a stratovolcano in North Sumatra, Indonesia, has been erupting since the 15th September, evacuating 3,700 people from a 3km radius of the volcano.

The eruption then quietened down, however it erupted again on the 5th November, spewing a 7km column of ash into the air, followed by a strong pyroclastic flow (fast moving avalanche of ash, lava fragments and air), which raced down the peaks of the volcano, blasting out ash explosions atleast twice daily since, ejecting hot-ash and red hot rocks 5 miles up into the air.

Thick, grey ash covers villages, farms and trees as far as 70 km north of Mount Sinabung.

Today, it erupted 8 times, causing thousands of terrified residents to flee their homes. A local government official said “”People panicked as the eruption was accompanied by a loud thunderous sound and vibrations. Then it started raining down rocks. They ran helter-skelter out of their homes and cried for help.”[i]

Now the volcano has been issued with the highest alert possible, which is an alarming scenario even for a volcano situated on the Pacific ring of fire.[ii]

A dangerous eruption could happen at any moment.

3.       Brightest ever Gamma-ray burst witnessed by Scientists!

Scientists have analysed a cosmic explosion caused by the death of a massive star. The flare of radiation, called a ‘gamma-ray burst’, was spotted earlier this year by telescopes positioned in space and has been confirmed as the brightest ever seen.

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Known by astronomers as ‘The Monster’, it was the biggest and brightest cosmic explosion ever witnessed. Any closer, Earth would have been toast.

Thankfully, however, the star was situated a mere 3.7 billion light years away, but it was spotted by orbiting telescopes in April.

The blast was a gamma-ray burst, caused when a star dies, collapsing, creating a brand-new black hole, generating a supernova and ejecting energetic radiation that is so bright it can be seen to travel across the universe at the speed of light.

The star is thought to be 20-30 times the mass of the Sun, but only a couple of times bigger in width- making it incredibly dense, and so when it exploded, it took the light approximately four billion years to reach us.

The gamma-ray burst had the “largest fluence, highest-energy photon,longest gamma-ray duration (20 hours) and one for the largest isotropic energy releases ever observed from a gamma-ray burst.[iii]

BBC News reported that the Astronomer Prof Paul O’Brien, from the University of Leicester, said that “These events can happen in any galaxy at any time. We have no way to predict them”.[iv]

NASA telescopes readily observe a gamma ray burst every few days for the past 20 years. But this one was slightly different, flooding NASA with five times the energy of the largest gamma-ray burst to date, a blast which occurred in 1999.

We don’t see any gamma-ray bursts on the Earth because the atmosphere obscures them and their light is not detectable with our eyes, but luckily, NASA has satellites that look for them.[v]

It’s unknown when the next supernova will be formed, but hopefully it’ll occur a good few light years from us!

NASA launch MAVEN Mars Mission

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Image: http://www.space.com/23631-maven-mars-orbiter-launch-photos.html

NASA’s next exploration is set for Mars. Many questions are still left unanswered by this mysterious red planet, and this exploration is set to answer one of the biggest queries yet; If Mars did have a thicker atmosphere and a surface of flowing water; how and why did the climate change so dramatically?

Yesterday, MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, from Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida.  The rocket was launched at 13:28 local time (18:28 GMT), and the total project cost the tiny sum of $671m (£416m).

The sole aim of MAVEN is to measure the rates of which different air molecules are being lost today, in order to distinguish between the various responsible processes for the loss of water from this big Red Planet.

Bruce Jakosky, the mission’s principle investigator said that “After ten years of working on this, I can’t tell you how excited I am to see this finished spacecraft ready to go”.  Stationed at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he leads the mission into investigating the thinning of Mars’ atmosphere and answering of the question on ever physicists lips- where and why has the water gone from Mars? The latest theory states that the sun may have a role in aiding the escape of gas from the planet’s upper atmosphere.

The rocket’s upper stage will release Maven approximately 53 minutes into the flight, and the probe will then undertake a 10 month cruise to its destination.  But how does the rocket know exactly where to go? Well, during the cruise, four planned trajectory correction manoeuvres are planned whereby fire thrusters are fired to tweak the trajectory so that the rocket arrives at the right place and the right time to jump into orbit around Mars.

The atmosphere of Mars is composed mainly of carbon dioxide and is extremely thin, with atmospheric pressure at the surface of only 0.6% of the Earth’s surface pressure- any open liquid water rapidly boils away.  However, upon the Marsian landscape, there are numerous channels that were evidently cut with abundant, flowing water- could this be proof that the atmosphere was thicker in the past?!

The best explanation for the loss of water from Mars, is the solar wind, an outflow of energetic particles from the sun, which could have caused the water to simply be eroded throughout time, as Mars does not have a protective global magnetic field, unlike Earth.  But is this theory true?

The arrival date is set for 22 September next year, so we might have to wait a while to get the answer to this probing question.

http://www.nasa.gov/content/maven-seeks-to-solve-another-mars-riddle/#.UonqxNK-3To

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24962919

 

 

Was the typhoon Haiyan cause by climate change?

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Image 1: http://static1.businessinsider.com/image/52823af0eab8eaba499f9e8f/heres-what-typhoon-haiyan-means-for-the-philippine-economy.jpg

On the 8th November, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines causing mass devastation. The 300 mile across typhoon was one of the most intense tropical storms to ever make landfall anywhere in the world, bringing torrential rain, sustained winds of over 195mph and a storm surge of up to 30 feet which devastated coastal areas.

Over 11 million people have been affected. Hundreds of thousands of families have been forced to flee their homes, and there are countless dead.  The aftermath of the typhoon is horrific. Bodies lay in the street, merely covered by a thin sheet of plastic, and every day, the risk if disease increases.

On the 14th November, World Vision distributed food, water and sanitation supplies to 900 families in northern Cebu, this was the first aid the region has received since the typhoon struck. 250 volunteers had been working since Sunday to pack aid kits in the offices of CAFOD, these packs contain enough supplies to last a family office for three days.

“[We have been] distributing water, water tanks, thousands of ready-to-eat meals, medicine, shelter, blankets, generators and inevitably, body bags” says Richard Gordon, Chairman of the Philippine Red Cross.

 

Could this typhoon have been caused by climate change?

Just as the news of the typhoon Haiayan was spreading worldwide, a young Filipino diplomat, Naderev Sano, was leading his country’s negotiations in the UN climate talks in Warsaw, Poland. By the time he gave his talk in the UN conference, the world knew that this was the largest storm ever measured.

 He gave his emotive and passionate speech to the rest of the delegates, urging them to open their eyes to the possibility of the typhoon being caused by climate change and to see themselves what was happening on the other side of the world.

Once he finished his speech, he sat down, sobbing and was awarded with a standing ovation from the other delegates.

A self proclaimed ‘revolutionary’ and ‘philosopher’, Yeb stated that he would go on a hunger strike for the whole of the two week meeting. He was soon joined by many activists. But was this actually caused by climate change?

Undoubtedly, the issue of climate change is not aiding the argument that extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, melting of the Arctic sea ice and heat waves in USA, Russian and Australia can be attributed to climate change.

Scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmopsheric Administration (NOAA), the UK Met Office ad research teams from 16 other global organisations collaborated and tried to calculate how much the climate change had positively influenced 12 extreme weather events that occurred in 2012.

They concluded that climate change had indeed helped to raise the temperatures during the run of 37.7’C days in the heat wave throughout the US last year, it was behind the melting of the Arctic’s ice, the storm of Hurricane Sandy, and many, many other extreme weather events.

Something needs to be done about the effects of climate change, and many of the issues for causing climate change are being discussed at the UN conference in Poland, especially the devastating news that Japan is backing away from its emission reduction targets, and the news that Australia is rejecting green house gas-curbing measures.

However, more importantly for the present time, efforts need to be focused on rebuilding the lives of families in the Phillpines. Many people are still without basic sanitation and fresh water supply, boats are stationary, smashed into houses due to the force of the storm as people try and carry on vaguely normal lives.

 

How can you help?

Fundraise for the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which brings together 14 leading UK aid charities in times of crisis, including the Red Cross. The Red Cross have been on the ground since before the storm hit, helping with evacuation plans and warning communities. Now, they’re helping people most in need and are preparing to help thousands more. Or perhaps turn your unwanted good into cash through eBay for charity, and select the DEC when listing an item to donate a share of the sales.

 

Whatever you do, please help rebuild the lives of millions of people, help them reconstruct schools, public services and their homes. Help this poor country recover from the worst storm ever recorded.

 

 Watch the emotive, amazing speech by Yeb here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=7SSXLIZkM3E

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/12/typhoon-haiyan-climate-change-blame-philippines

Don’t call me a ‘bird-brain’!

           For years, the phrase ‘Bird Brain’ has been used to describe a stupid person with a short attention span. However, scientists are now starting to believe that birds could well be more intelligent, as a class, than mammals and primates of comparable size.

As you probably know, birds are well known for having increased auditory and visual senses compared to other mammals and primates, but are often deemed an ‘inferior’ species due to their lack of forearms to modify their surroundings. However, new research has come to light, indicating that birds’ brains may be evolving to adapt to their lack of appendages and starting to use tools to compete with the ‘superior’ classes.

New Caledonian Crows are renown in the realms of Animal Behaviour for just that reason. They have the ability to transform a stick from the forest floor into a hook and use this to poke into holes in trees in search for bugs and larvae, creating a remarkable method of foraging for food. This is very productive and is a difficult, unique mechanism that many scientists themselves have extreme trouble when trying themselves!

So how come their ‘small’ brains came up with this ingenious idea? Truth be told, their brains aren’t as small as we all thought. Scientists have found the New Caledonian Crow to have one of the largest avian brains for their body size, so could evolution cause their increasing ‘intelligence’ to spark novel foraging methods?

When brains evolve to a larger size, during a process called encephalization, it is most often thought to be because of a larger increase in one area of the brain, not just general brain size.  A group of scientists, headed by Julia Mehlhorn, aimed to investigate this phenomena , comparing the volume of 15 brain areas between New Caledonian Crows and three other  bird species; Carrion crows, European Jays and domestic sparrows.

Their results showed that the NC crow has four enlarged brain areas compared to the other bird species; mesopallium, stratopallidal complex, septum and tegmentum, and these areas could be the key to unravelling the blueprint for their increased intelligence (see Figure 1, below.)

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Figure 1- The brain of the New Caledonian (NC) Crow. 

A, B, lateral and dorsal view of the NC crow brain. C– Coronal section through the brianof a NC crw to illustrate subdivisions. (D= deicephalon; E= entopallium, Ha=hyperpallum apicale, Hi= Hippocampus (YELLOW); M=mesopallium (BLUE); N=Nidopallium; Stc= Striatopallidal complex (GREEN); Tc- Tectum opticum; Il Tractus opticus. Gallyas stain. (Melhorn et al, 2010).

The mesopallium is a key area of the bird brain, associated with the learning of key complex motor sequences, and imprinting and avoidance learning.  And so the relative growth of this area enhances the capacity to which the bird can learn different techniques,  increasing its ability to use tools effectively. The stratopallidal complex is the main area of dense neurons in the bird brain, and the process of gaining food by a tool increases the firing rate of these neurons, making this a more frequent task. The tegmentum and septum work in unison, with the tegmentum  engineering the fine motor skills necessary for the tool manufacture and use, the septum works alongside the hippocampus modulating this unique feeding method in a temporally, spatially and socially appropriate manner.

So, overall, this study not only supported Melhorn’s teams view that NC crows impressive tool use is  associated with specific enlarged regions of the brain, but gave them empirical evidence to back up this idea, proving that even though birds may be small, they definitely aren’t all stupid!

Bibliography

Mehlhorn J, Hunt G, Gray R.D, Rehkamper G, Gunturkun O, (2010). Tool-Making New Caledonian Crows Have Large Associative Brain Areas. Brain, Behaviour and Evolution, pp. 63-70.

Weir A, Kacelnik A. (2006). A New Caledonian crow creatively re-designs toold by bending or unbending aluminium strips.. Animal Cognition, October, 9(4), pp. 317-334.