Thursday, 5 December 2019

Typhoon Kammuri causes at least thirteen fatalities as it sweeps across the Philippines.

At least thirteen people have died after Typhoon Kamuri swept across the Philippines on Monday 2-Tuesday 3 December 2019. The storm, known in the Philippines as Typhoon Tisoy, first made landfall in Sorsogon Province on Luzon Island at about 11.00 pm on Monday 2 December, as a Category 4 Typhoon (a storm with sustained winds of between 209 and 251 kilometres per hour), sweeping across Luzon island over the next few hours, then heading out to sea. It made landfall again on Burias Island at about 4.00 am, before continuing to move westward, eventually making landfall for a third time on Marinduque Island at about 8.30 am, then Mindoro Island at about 12.30 pm on Tuesday 3 December. The majority of the fatalities are thought to have occurred on Luzon Island, where at least three people drowned, on person was electrocuted, and several more were crushed by falling trees and other objects.

Damage caused by Typhoon Kammuri in Legazpi City in Albay Province, on southern Luzon Island. Reuters.

Tropical storms are caused by the warming effect of the Sun over tropical seas. As the air warms it expands, causing a drop in air pressure, and rises, causing air from outside the area to rush in to replace it. If this happens over a sufficiently wide area then the inrushing winds will be affected by centrifugal forces caused by the Earth's rotation (the Coriolis effect). This means that winds will be deflected clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the southern hemisphere, eventually creating a large, rotating Tropical Storm. They have different names in different parts of the world, with those in the northwest Pacific being referred to as typhoons.

 The path and strength of Typhoon Kammuri. Thick line indicates the past path of the storm (till 6.00 am GMT on Thursday 5 December 2019), while the thin line indicates the predicted future path of the storm, and the dotted circles the margin of error at twelve and twenty four, and thirty six hours ahead. Colour indicated the severity of the storm. Tropical Storm Risk.

Despite the obvious danger of winds of this speed, which can physically blow people, and other large objects, away as well as damaging buildings and uprooting trees, the real danger from these storms comes from the flooding they bring. Each drop millibar drop in air-pressure leads to an approximate 1 cm rise in sea level, with big tropical storms capable of causing a storm surge of several meters. This is always accompanied by heavy rainfall, since warm air over the ocean leads to evaporation of sea water, which is then carried with the storm. These combined often lead to catastrophic flooding in areas hit by tropical storms. 

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Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Amamiclytus wuxingensis: A new species of Longhorn Beetle from Guizhou Province, China.

Longhorn Beetles, Cerambycidae, are a widespread and diverse group, noted for their elongated antennae, which are often longer than their bodies (though some species lack these). Their larvae are wood-boring grubs, which can be destructive to timber, and many species are considered pests, both in the forestry industry and in human dwellings as woodworm. Some of the largest species of Beetle are Longhorns, including the 16 cm Titan Beetle (Titanus giganteus) of South America. Members of the genus Amamiclytus are Small-bodied Longhorn Beetles with black, glossy bodies and white pubescent markings on the elytra (wing cases), found across Asia including India, Sri Lanka, China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and the Ryukyu Islands. There are currently nineteen described species in the genus, two of which are known from China.

In a paper published in the journal ZooKeys on 14 November 2019, Shulin Yang and Cha Wang of the School of Life Sciences at Guizhou Normal University, describe a new species of Amamiclytus from Guizhou Province, China.

The species is decribed from two male specimens collected by by net sweeping on a Flowering Bird Cherry, Prunus sp., in the village of Wuxing in Leishan County. The species is named Amamiclytus wuxingensis, meaning 'from Wuxing'. These specimens are 3.5 and 5.0 mm in length, predominantly black and glossy, with brown mouthparts, antenna, abdomen and legs. The body is sparsely covered with long pale hairs.

Amamiclytus wuxingensis, male specimen in dorsal view. Scale bar is 1 mm. Yang & Wang (2019).

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Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff approaches the Earth.

Comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff will make its closest approach to the Earth on Wednesday 4 December 2019, reaching a distance of 0.71 AU from the Earth (71% of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, or 106 364 000 km). At this distance the comet will be not naked eye visible, having a magnitude of slightly over 14, requiring a reasonably good telescope to see it, in the Constellation of Andromeda, which is better observed from the Northern Hemisphere, though viewing for those with the right equipment should be reasonable as the closest approach coincides with the First Quarter Moon, so that glare from the Moon should not be excessive.

Image of Comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff  taken from Ehime Prefecture, Japan, in October 1999. Position of comet is indicated by two lines. Akimasa Nakamura/Kuma Kogen Astronomical Observatory/Cometography.

Comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff was discovered in January 1987 by Jennifer Wiseman, then an undergraduate at the Michigan Institute of Technology, while examining  two photographic plates taken in December 1986 by Brian Skiff at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The designation 114P/Wiseman-Skiff implies that it was the 114th Periodic Comet (Periodic Comets are defined as comets with orbital periods of less than 200 years) discovered, and that it was discovered by Wiseman and Skiff.

The calculated orbit and current position of 114P/Wiseman-Skiff. JPL Small Body Database.

Comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff has an orbital period of 2435 days (6.67 years) and a highly eccentric orbit tilted at an angle of 18.3° to the plain of the Solar System, that brings it from 1.57 AU from the Sun at perihelion (157% of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and slightly outside the orbit of the planet Mars); to 5.51 AU from the Sun at aphelion (5.51 times as far from the Sun as the Earth or slightly outside the orbit of the planet Jupiter). As a comet with a period of less than 20 years with an orbit angled at less than 30° to the plane of the Solar System, 114P/Wiseman-Skiff is considered to be a Jupiter Family Comet.
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Sumatran Orangutan found with gunshot wounds in Aceh Province, Indonesia.

A male Sumatran Orangutan, Pongo abelii, has been found with multiple injuries by staff from the Indonesian Natural Resources Conservation Agency while carrying out a patrol in the South Aceh District of Aceh Province, on the island of Sumatra on Thursday 28 November 2019. The Ape, who has been named Paguh by rescuers, was found to have 24 air rifles pellets in his body, and to have been blinded in both eyes. He was taken to the Batu Mbelin Sibolangit Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, run by the Lestari Ecosystem Foundation and PanEco Foundation - Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, where he was treated for his injuries; he is expected to survive, but not to be able to return to the wild.

A male Orangutan named Pugeh who was rescued after  being blinded with airgun pellets last week. EPA.

The Sumatran Orangutan is considered to be Critically Endangered under the terms of the the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species,with less than 14 000 individuals surviving in the wild,  in a total area of 16 775 km² of forest. They are considered to be at threat from habitat loss and fragmentation, as a result of Indonesia's rapidly expanding Human population and associated development projects, such as mining, road building, and plantation forestry, as well as more directly from poaching. 

X-ray image of Paguh showing airgun pellets within his head. EPA.

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Monday, 2 December 2019

Magnitude 4.5 Earthquake in Curry County, Oregon.

The United States Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 4.5 Earthquake at a depth of 16.7 km, roughly 6 km to the northeast of the city of Port Oreford in Curry County, Oregon, at about 1.45 am local time (about 9.45 am GMT) on Saturday 30 November 2019. This was not a large quake, and no damage or injuries have been reported, but it was across much of southwest Oregon and in parts of northern California.

The approximate location of the 30 November 2019 Curry County Earthquake. USGS.

Oregon forms the southern part of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, along which the Juan De Fuca plate, which underlies part of the northeast Pacific, is being subducted beneath the western margin of the North American Plate. This is not a smooth process, and the two plates frequently stick together then break apart again as the pressure builds up, causing Earthquakes in the process. The heat and pressure within the Earth also slowly melts the subducting plate, liquefying more volatile minerals which then rise through the overlying North American Plate as magma, fuelling the volcanoes of America's Pacific Northwest.
Subduction along the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Kathleen Cantner/American Geosciences Institute/Earth Magazine.

Witness accounts of quakes can help geologists to understand these events and the rock structures that cause them. If you felt this quake (or if you were in the area but did not, which is also useful information) you can report it to the United States Geological Survey here.

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Sunday, 1 December 2019

Angimordella burmitina: A pollen-associated Tumbling Flower Beetle from Cretaceous Burmese Amber.

Angiosperms, Flowering Plants, are the most diverse group of Land Plants. The earliest unequivocal pollen and macrofossils of Angiosperms are generally thought to date from the early Hauterivian (about 130 million years ago) and early Aptian (about 125 million years ago), respectively, despite claims based on other fossils and molecular analyses. The apparently rapid and tremendous evolutionary diversification of Angiosperms during the Cretaceous was the great 'abominable mystery' mentioned by Darwin and continues to be an active and sometimes a controversial area of research. Insect pollination (entomophily) is generally considered to be a key contributor to the Cretaceous radiation of Angiosperms. It is generally thought to be the dominant pollination mode of Angiosperms during the early mid-Cretaceous with specialisation increasing during the angiosperm radiation, supported by basal flower morphology, palynological data, and phylogenetic inferences. Some Cretaceous Insects are palynivores of Angiosperms based on their pollen- or nectar-feeding mouthparts, gut contents, or coprolites. However, a palynivore is not equivalent to a pollinator. Only direct evidence (pollen-carrying behaviour and pollen-feeding mouthparts) can provide unambiguous demonstration of ancient Insect pollination. Until now, direct evidence of Cretaceous Insect pollination supports Insect-Gymnosperm pollination, such as that involving Thrips, True Flies, Beetles, and Scorpionflies. Although both Insects and Angiosperms were common during the mid-Cretaceous, direct evidence for Cretaceous Insect-Angiosperm pollination mode has been absent.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Accademy of Sciences of the USA on 11 November 2019, Tong Bao of the State Key Laboratory of Palaeobiology and Stratigraphy at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, the Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Institut für Geowissenschaften at Universität Bonn, Bo Wang, also of the State Key Laboratory of Palaeobiology and Stratigraphy at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, the Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and of the Key Laboratory of Zoological Systematics and Evolution at the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Jianguo Li, again of the State Key Laboratory of Palaeobiology and Stratigraphy at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, the Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and David Dilcher of the Department of Geology and Atmospheric Science at Indiana University, describe a new species of Tumbling Flower Beetle, Mordellidae, from a pieces of Burmese Amber, with associated Angiosperm pollen, which they argue provides the first direct evidence of Insect pollination of Angiosperms in the Cretaceous.

Beetles constitute almost a quarter of all Animal species on Earth, and are among the most prominent pollinators of Angiosperms. More than 77 000 beetle species are estimated to visit flowers. Among these flower-visiting Beetles, Tumbling Flower Beetles are one of the most species-rich families, and adults are easily recognised by their humpbacked body, deflexed head, pointed abdomen, and stout hind legs. The majority of extant adult Mordellids feed on Angiosperm pollen Cretaceous Mordellids have been hypothesised to be Angiosperm pollinators, but direct evidence of this has been lacking.

Cretaceous ‘Burmese Amber’ has been extensively worked at several sites across northern Myanmar (though mostly in Kachin State) in the last 20 years. The amber is fairly clear, and often found in large chunks, providing an exceptional window into the Middle Cretaceous Insect fauna. This amber is thought to have started out as the resin of a Coniferous Tree, possibly a Cypress or an Araucaria, growing in a moist tropical forest. This amber has been dated to between 105 and 95 million years old, based upon pollen inclusions, and to about 98.8 million years by uranium/lead dating of ash inclusions in the amber.

The new species is named  Angimordella burmitina, where 'Angimordella' is a combination of Angiosperm, for Flowering Plant, and Mordella, the genus name from which Mordellidae is derived, and 'burmitina' is a mineralogical name used for Burmese Amber. The species is described from a single specimen, a complete Beetle with left side visible but its right side covered by abundant microbubbles. A Thrips is near the maxillary palpi of the Beetle on the left side. This Beetle is small, about 4.25 mm in length, with serrated antennae, abundant wrinkles and folds on the protonum (backplate covering the abdomen) and elytra (wingcases), but not the legs.

Cretaceous Tumbling Flower beetle Angimordella burmitina. (A) Habitus. (B) Drawing. (C) Prothorax and pronotum highlighted by red dashed lines. (D) Microtomographic reconstruction of the head. Maxillary palpi highlighted in yellow. (E) Abdomen, I−IV represent first to fifth abdominal ventrites. (F) Hind leg, I−IV represent first to fourth metatarsomeres. an, antennae; cl, claw; mp, maxillary palp; py, pygidium; sp, spines on metatibiae and metatarsi; tr, trochanter. Bao et al. (2019).

The body of Angimordella burmitina is strongly convex, wedge-shaped, and widest near base of prothorax, becoming slightly narrowed anteriorly and posteriorly. The head is strongly declined, with mouthparts directly posteriorly, and compound eyes which are finely faceted and glabrous. The occipital regionis wide, and has a a surface covered with wrinkles and hairs, matching perfectly with anterior edge of the pronotum. The antennae are comparatively short, with 7 visible antennomeres, and obviously serrate, all features considered diagnostic of a Tumbling Flower Beetle

There are at least 62 pollen grains (from only the visible left side of the Beetle) in the amber in total, of which 24 pollen grains aggregate into two small clusters near the abdominal end of the Insect. Pollen grains in the amber are retitricolpate and highly uniform in morphology. The shape of the grains is approximately oblate spheroidal, and they  measure 30.95−22.08 μm × 20.68−13.93 μm in equatorial view, based on measurement of the 27 best preserved pollen grains. The pollen clump shape is irregular, and the pollen grains are well preserved, indicating that they are natural floral remains rather than coprolites. These pollen grains can be confidently attributed to the Eudicot monophyletic group (true Dicotyledons), members of which are distinguished from all other Angiosperms by their tricolpate pollen structure. Bao et al. do not assign the pollen to a taxon given the nature of this microscopic method conducted within amber.

Angimordella burmitina and tricolpate pollen grains. (A) Habitus. Pollen grains attached to the body are indicated by red dots, unattached are indicated by yellow dots, clumped pollen are indicated by blue squares. (B)−(H) Locations are highlighted in (A). (B) and (C) Pollen grains near the body. Yellow arrows point to colpi. (D) and (E) Pollen grains on the body. (F)−(H) Clumped pollen grains. (G) and (H) Locations are highlighted in (F) and (G), respectively. Blue arrows point to colpi. Bao et al. (2019).

Angimordella burmitina exhibits a series of specialized body structures related to its flower-visiting behavior, similar to its modern counterparts, which feed on various angiosperm pollen. It has the Mordella-type apical maxillary palpomere (part of the mouth), which is enlarged and securiform (axe-shaped). This maxillary palpomere is blocked by a Thrips, but the palpomere shape was revealed by micro-tomography. This specialised modification of the maxillary palpomere has been known to aid collecting and most likely transporting pollen grains. Angimordella burmitina has a curved and laterally compressed body with a strongly declined head, allowing for flexibility when feeding inside the flower. Its hind legs are well developed, with enlarged metacoxa and metafemora and spiny metatibiae and metatarsi, which make it easier to move on the corolla and from one flower to another. Moreover, Angimordella burmitina has fine hairs; the spacing and height of these hairs influence the ability of the hairs to carry pollen grains. Accordingly, the hairs on the Beetle’s thorax and abdominal sternites are distinctly longer than 30 μm, and the spacing between the hairs is consistent with the width of the coexistent pollen grains (about 20 μm) and is well-adapted for holding and transporting pollen grains. 

Angimordella burmitina is covered by abundant tricolpate pollen grains that are mainly distributed on the thorax and abdomen. Tricolpate pollen is both the defining and most important character of the Eudicots, a group which comprises about 75% of extant Angiosperm species. The earliest fossil record of tricolpate pollen is about 125 million years old, slightly older than the earliest Eudicot macrofossil. By 99 million years ago (i.e. Burmese Amber age), tricolpate pollen had become widespread worldwide and Eudicot macrofossils are reported from Burmese Amber. Many Cretaceous plants with tricolpate pollen are animal-pollinated and characterised by their ornamentation, size (10−300 μm), and clumping characteristics. Small Angiosperm pollen grains in amber, especially those buried under Insect body hairs, are often not visible under optical microscopy and, thus, could be easily overlooked. In Bao et al's study, the pollen grains between body hairs were detected by confocal laser scanning microscopy, which takes advantage of pollen fluorescence, which contrasts with the surrounding dark Insect cuticle. The tricolpate pollen grains found in Burmese amber exhibit remarkable zoophilous pollination features including their reticulate surface and presence of pollen clumping, thus providing more evidence to support beetle-mediated pollination. Interestingly, only one type of pollen was found on this Beetle. This could reflect that there were not very many different types of flowers during the mid-Cretaceous or that the Insect visited only one type of flower before it was trapped in the amber.

Ecological reconstruction of Angimordella burmitina. These Tumbling Flower Beetles are feeding on Eudicot flowers. The colour and morphology of flowers are artistic only. Bao et al. (2019).

The Mordellidae, comprising about 1500 extant species worldwide, are among the most basal group of Tenebrionoidea based on morphological analysis and molecular data. Although Mordellid-like beetles are reported from the Middle-Late Jurassic of China and Kazakhstan, the earliest true Mordellids (i.e. members of the extant subfamily) are known from the mid-Cretaceous Spanish and Burmese amber. Angimordella burmitina is among the earliest true Mordellids and indicates that Mordellid-Angiosperm pollination mutualisms have been present since at least 99 million years ago. These mutualisms may be an important driver for the radiation of true Mordellids.

Bao et al. believe this provides direct evidence of Cretaceous Insect pollination of Angiosperms, which is strongly supported by the flower-visiting body shape, specialised pollen-feeding mouthparts, and zoophilous pollen grains attached to the body. The prior earliest direct evidence of Insect pollination of Angiosperms was reported from several pollen-collecting Bees from the Middle Eocene of Eckfeld and Messel (48 and 45 million years old, respectively) in Germany. Their findings thereby extend the known geological range of direct evidence of Insect pollination of Angiosperms by at least 50 million years.

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Balaenoptera acutorostrata: Northern Minke Whale found dead in the River Thames.

The Port of London Authority has reported a the discovery of the body of a Whale on the south bank of the River Thames on Friday 29 November 2019. The animal was discovered by a dog walker near Battersea Bridge at about 9.30 pm local time, and is visibly not breathing. The Wale is thought to be a Northern Minke Whale, Balaenoptera acutorostrata; it is currently being assessed by experts from British Divers Marine Life Rescue, who hope to move the body so that it can be delivered to the Zoological Society of London for a post-mortem examination.

A Minke Whale on the South Bank of the River Thames near Battersea Bridge. Clio Georgiadis/BBC.

Northern Minke Whales are considered to be of Least Concern  under the terms of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species. They were heavily hunted before the general moratorium on whaling began in 1986, with several nations still hunting them today, including Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland in the North Atlantic, albeit at a much lower level that before the moratorium; they are also vulnerable to ship strikes, entanglement in fishing nets and anthropogenic noise. Despite this they maintain a healthy population in many areas, including the North Atlantic, and are regularly sighted in British waters, particularly off the west coast of Scotland. The species reaches about ten metres in length, but the Thames individual is less than half this size, suggesting that it was a calf that became separated from its mother, and was unable to find food on its own.

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