Monday, 31 October 2016

Fifteen confirmed deaths following explosion at Chinese coal mine.

Fifteen miners have been confirmed dead and another eighteen are still missing following an explosion at the Jinshangou Coal Mine in Chongqing in southwest China. The incident happened at about 11.30 am local time on Monday 31 October 2016, when the mine was active and 35 men were bellow ground; only two of there were able to escape to safety. Around 200 rescue workers from a variety of agencies are said to be involved in attempts to locate the missing men, and operations at all mines in the area have been suspended pending safety inspections.

Rescue workers entering the Jinshangou Coal Mine in Chongqing following an explosion on 31 October 2016. Tang Yi/Xinhua.

Coal is formed when buried organic material, principally wood, in heated and pressurised, forcing off hydrogen and oxygen (i.e. water) and leaving more-or-less pure carbon. Methane is formed by the decay of organic material within the coal. There is typically little pore-space within coal, but the methane can be trapped in a liquid form under pressure. Some countries have started to extract this gas as a fuel in its own right. When this pressure is released suddenly, as by mining activity, then the methane turns back to a gas, expanding rapidly causing, an outburst or explosion. This is a bit like the pressure being released on a carbonated drink; the term 'explosion' does not necessarily imply fire in this context, although as methane is flammable this is quite likely.

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Sunday, 30 October 2016

Mimetus lamelliformis & Mimetus wangi: Two new species of Pirate Spider from China.

Pirate Spiders, Mimetidae, are unusual in that they are specilists in hunting and consuming other Spiders. They typically hunt by approaching the web of  another Spider, then plucking at a strand of that web to simulate the struggling of a prey animal, attacking and consuming the webmaker when it comes to investigate. Mating in Pirate Spiders has not been observed, and is a subject of some curiosity, firstly because in most Spider species the male approaches the web of the females and secondly because many male Pirate Spiders have elaborate sexual organs, the purpose of which is unknown.

In a paper published in the journal ZooKeys on 25 October 2016, Chen Zeng of the College of Life Sciences at Hunan Normal University, Cheng Wang of the College of Biological, Agricultural and Forest Engineering, and Xian-Jin Peng, also ot the College of Life Sciences at Hunan Normal University, describe two new species of Pirate Spider from China.

The first new species described is placed in the genus Mimetus, and given the specific name lamellaris, meaning 'flakey' in reference to the flakey covering of the tip of the cymbial process (part of the male reproductive organ). The species is described from a single male specimen collected in the Mayanhe National Nature Reserve in Yanhe County in Guizhou Province. This specimen is slightly over 3 mm in length, and yellow in colour with red and brown markings.

Mimetus lamellaris, male specimen in dorsal view. Scale bar is 0.5 mm. Zeng et al. (2016).

The second new species described is also placed in the genus Mimetus, and is given the specific name wangi, in honour of the Spider taxonomist Jiafu Wang. This species is described from one male and five female specimens collected in the Gaoligong Mountains of Yunnan Province. The male was 3.34 mm in length, the females 3.65 mm, all were yellowish brown in colour with yellow and brown markings.

Mimetus wangi, female specimen in dorsal view. Scale bar is 0.5 mm. Zeng et al. (2016).

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Twenty six confirmed deaths in Egypt flooding.

Twenty six people have been confirmed dead and at least 72 more have been injured followng heavy rainfall which has caused flash flooding in parts of Egypt. Nine people are reported to have died in the South Sinia Province, while another eight have died in the Sohag Province, where the towns of Saqilata and Akhmim have been inundated by waters from the Nile, washing away cars and buses. On the Red Sea Coast seven people have been reported dead in the town of Ras Gharib. Five people have been confirmed dead in Asyut, where a number if factory buildings have collapsed.

 Flooding in Ras Gharib on Thursday 26 October 2016. Ahram.

Egypt has an arid climate, with many areas receiving am average of less than 25 mm rain per year. However like other desert areas occasional outbreaks of heavy rain do occur, and when this happens flash flooding is a serious problem, as protracted periods of dry weather can cause topsoil to dry out completely, making it vulnerable to being blown away by the wind. When rain does arrive it then falls on exposed bedrock, which is much less absorbent, triggering flash flooding as the water escapes over the surface of the ground rather than sinking into it. These floods wash away more topsoil, making the problem progressively worse over time.

This situation is made worse by the country's week infrastructure, which lowers its capacity to put preventative measures in place and aleviate problems once they occur. The majority of fatalities caused by flooding in Egtpt are in road traffic accidents and as a result of electrecution from downed power lines, rather than more direct causes such as drowning.

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Basilica of St Benedict destroyed by Magnitude 6.6 Earthquake.

The United States Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 6.6 Earthquake at a depth of 10 km, roughly 6 km to the north of the town of Norcia in Perugia Provice in Umbria, Central Italy, at about 7.40 am local time (about 6.40 am GMT) on Sunday 30 October 2016. The Earthquake is reported to have destroyed a number of historic buildings in the area, including the historic Basilica of St Benedict in Norcia, parts of which dated back to the fourteenth century. There are no reports of any casualties from this event yet, however this is unlikely to remain the case given the number of buildings that have collapsed in the area; the United States Geological Survey is estimating that there is a 76% chance on there being more that 100 fatalities as a result of this event and a 41% chance of more than 1000 people having died. People have reported feeling the event across Italy as well as in Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The remains of the historic Basilica of St Benedict in Norcia, Italy. Destroyed by an Earthquake on 30 October 2016. Cameron Sinclair/Twitter.

Historically Italy has suffered a number of devastating Earthquakes that lead to large numbers of casualties, though in recent decades the country has made serious attempts to prevent this, with better warning systems and tighter building regulations, though the large number of historic buildings in Italy, which cannot easily be replaced (and any attempt to do so would be unlikely to succeed due to their high cultural value), meaning that the country is unlikely to be completely risk free any time soon.
Collapsed building in L’Aquila, Italy, following the 30 October 2016 Earthquake. Claudio Lattanzio/EPA

Italy is in an unusual tectonic setting, with the west of the country lying on the Eurasian Plate, but the east of the country lying on the Adriatic Plate, a microplate which broke away from North Africa some time in the past and which is now wedged into the southern margin of Europe, underlying eastern Italy, the Adriatic Sea and the west of the Balkan Peninsula. This, combined with the northward movement of the African Plate into Italy from the south, leads to uplift in the Apennine Mountains that run the length of the country, and makes Italy extremely prone to Earthquakes. 

 Outline map showing the approximate positions of the Eurasian (EU), Adriatic (AD) and African (AF) Plates. Di Bucci & Mazzuli (2003).

Witness accounts of Earthquakes can help geologists to understand these events, and the structures that cause them. The international non-profit organisation Earthquake Report is interested in hearing from people who may have felt this event; if you felt this quake then you can report it to Earthquake Report here.
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Saturday, 29 October 2016

Identifying the cause of the 2016 Bangladesh Wheat Blast epidemic.

In February 2016 farmers in the west of Bangladesg began to report cases of a severe Blast Fungus infection in Wheat fields, which spread rapidly to eight districts, destroying up to 100% of the crop. This caused considerable alarm, as Wheat, an introduced crop that lacks any indigenous pathogens in South Asia, is now the second most widely grown cerial crop in Bangladesh (after Rice), and is also widely grown in several neighbouring states.

In a paper published in the journal BMC Biology on 3 October 2016, a group of scientists led by Tofazzal Islam of the Department of Biotechnology at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University describe the results of an intensive study aimed at determining the cause of this outbreak.

Islam et al. initially tried inoculating seedlings of a variety of wild and cultivated plants grown in the region in an attempt to assertain if the Fungal infection had jumped from another species. They found that a number of other plants could be infected in this way, but notably the Fungus did not infect Rice seedlings. This pointed strongly towards an infection by the Blast Fungus Magnaporthe oryzae, several different strains of which ate known, with strains that infect both Wheat and Rice and which will infect other plants under laboratory conditions, but no strains that can infect both main host species.

Symptoms of blast disease in spikes, leaves, and seeds of wheat in a farmer’s field in Jhenaidah in Bangladesh, and a micrograph showing two conidia of Magnaporthe oryzae. (a) A completely bleached wheat spike with traces of gray from blast sporulation at the neck (arrow) of the spike. (b) Complete bleaching of a wheat spike above the point (arrow) of infection. (c) Two completely bleached spikes with traces of gray (upper arrow) and a lesion (lower arrow) from blast sporulation at the base. (d) Typical eye-shaped lesion (arrow) and dark gray spots on a severely diseased wheat leaf. (e) Mild blast disease-affected slightly shriveled wheat seeds. (f) Severe blast-affected shriveled and pale wheat seeds. (g) A severely infected rachis with dark gray blast sporulation at the neck (arrow) and severely damaged spikelets. (h) Micrograph of two conidia isolated from the infected spike of wheat. Scale bars in (e) and (f) are 1 cm and that in (h) is 10 μm. Islam et al. (2016).

Armed with this information Islam et al. then sequenced the genome of the Blast Fungus and published their results on Open Wheat Blast, an open access archive of Wheat Blast genomes which allows experts around the world to compare the data on such outnreaks. This revealed that the genome of the Banglsdeshi Wheat Blast was very close to those collected from outbreaks of Magnaporthe oryzae in Brazil over the past 25 years, strongly suggesting that the Bangladesh outbreak was caused by spores or infected Wheat brought to the country from South America.

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Mendozachelys wichmanni: A new species of Turtle from the Late Cretaceous of Argentina.

During the Late Cretaceous rising sea levels caused the Atlantic Ocean to cover much of what is now Patagonia, laying down a succession of marine sediments that are collectively known as the Malargüe Group. The lowermost deposits of this group are the sediments of the Loncoche Formation, which are interpreted as having been laid down in coastal lagoons, estuaries, tidal flats and deltaic to shallow marine environments along a narrow, elongate embayment. These sediments have produced a range of marine and terrestrial Vertebrate fossils, including Fish, Turtles, Tortoises, Theropods, Titanosaurs and Plesiosaurs. 

In a paper published in the journal Cretaceous Research on 21 September 2016, Marcelo de la Fuente, Ignacio Maniel, and Juan Marcos Jannello of the Grupo Vinculado al Instituto Argentino de Nivología, Glaciología y Ciencias Ambientales at the Museo de Historia Natural deSan Rafael and The National Scientific and Technical Research Councilof Argentina, Juliana Sterli, also of The National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina, and of the MuseoPaleontológico EgidioFeruglio, Bernardo Gonzalez Riga, again of The National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina, and also of the Laboratorio de Dinosaurios at the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, and Fernando Novas of the Laboratorio de Anatomía Comparada y Evolución de los Vertebrados at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales“Bernardino Rivadavia”, and also of The National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina describe a new species of Turtle from the Ranquil-Có exposure of the Loncoche Formation in Southern Mendoza Province, Argentina.

The new species named Mendozachelys wichmanni, where 'Mendozachelys' comes from 'Mendoza' the province where it was discovered, plus 'chelys', which is Greek for Turtle. It is described from a single specimen excavated in 1990 by a team lead by palaeontologist José Bonaparte, and given a preliminary description in a paper by the same authors presented at the 5th Turtle Evolution Symposium in Rio de Janeiro in 2015 and published in the journal PeerJ. The specimen is largely complete, if somewhat flattened, and was articulated when discovered, although it was disassembled during preparation. It is calculated to have had a shell length of about 190 mm when alive, and a histological examination of the bones of the shell suggests an aquatic or semi-aquatic lifestyle.

Mendozachelys wichmanni gen. et sp. nov. Loncoche Formation (Upper Cretaceous). Carapace dorsal view: (A) Photograph; (B) Drawing. De la Fuente et al. (2016).

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Savannasaurus elliottorum & Diamantinasaurus matildae: Sauropod Dinosaurs from the Late Cretaceous of Queensland.

The breakup of the Gondwanan Supercontintent into its constituent parts (South America, Antarctica, Africa, Madagascar, India, Australia, New Zealand and some smaller landmasses) during the Cretaceous played an important role in the distribution of terrestrial animals and plants in the Southern Hemisphere that can still be seen today. How this would have affected the distribution of large animals such as Dinosaurs is particularly interesting, but is hard to assess as of these continents only South America has a good terrestrial fossil record extending all the way through the Cretaceous. Northern and Southeast Africa, and eastern Australia have strata which produce numerous terrestrial fossils including Dinosaurs, but almost no such fossils are known from the Late Cretaceous here, while the reverse is true in India, Madagascar and Antarctica, with numerous Late Cretaceous Dinosaurs but very few Middle Cretaceous specimens.

In a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports on 20 October 2016, Stephen Poropat of the Department of Earth Sciences at Uppsala University and the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of NaturalHistory, Philip Mannion of the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, Paul Upchurch of the Department of Earth Sciences at University College London, ScottHocknull of Geosciences at the Queensland Museum, Benjamin Kear, also of the Department of Earth Sciences at Uppsala University and of the Museum of Evolution, also at Uppsala University, Martin Kundrát of the Department of Ecology at Comenius University and the Center for Interdisciplinary Biosciences at the University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik, and Travis Tischler, Trish Sloan, George Sinapius, Judy Elliott and David Elliott, all of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History, describe two new Sauropod Dinosaur specimens from the early Late Cretaceous Winton Formation of Queensland.

The Winton Formation is an iron rich sandstone laid down in a shallow inland sea (the Etomanga Sea) and associated river systems that covered parts of Queensland and central Australia during the early Late Cretaceous (98-95 million years ago). which extends from Hungerford on the New South Wakes border northwest to the area around Kynuna, a distance of over 1000 kilometres. This formation is famous for its Dinosaurs, but also produces Crocodylians, Turtles, Fish and a wide range of Invertebrates. It is also noted for the production of opals, which are typically found in cracks in ironstone concretions (themselves formed by precipitation from water that has accumulated iron as it peculated through the feruginous sandstone), and is commonly called 'boulder opal'.

 Map of Queensland, northeast Australia, showing the distribution of Cretaceous outcrop. Porapat et al. (2016).

The first specimen described is assigned to a new species and genus and named Savannasaurus elliottorum, where 'Savannasaurus' refers to the Savanah Grasslands where the specimen was found and 'elliottorum' honours the Elliott family for their contributions to Australian palaeontology. The specimen comprises a series of vertebrae and ribs plus a fragmentary scapula, a left coracoid, the left and right sternal plates, incomplete left and right humeri, a shattered ulna, the left radius a number of metacarpals and phalanges, fragments of the left and right ilias, the left and right pubes and ischia, fused together, the left astragalus the right third metatarsal and some other fragmentary remains.

Savannasaurus elliottorum. (a–e) Dorsal vertebrae (left lateral view). (f) Sacrum (ventral view). (g,h) Caudal vertebrae (left lateral view). (i) Left coracoid (lateral view). (j) Right sternal plate (ventral view). (k) Left radius (posterior view). (l) Right metacarpal III (anterior view). (m) Left astragalus (anterior view). (n) Co-ossified right and left pubes (anterior view). A number of ribs were preserved but have been omitted for clarity. Scale bar is 500 mm. Porapat et al. (2016).

The second of specimen is referred to the species Diamantinasaurus matildae, which has previously been described from the Winton Formation. This specimen comprises a left squamosal, a nearly complete braincase, a right surangular, several skull fragments, the atlas-axis, five post-axial cervical vertebrae, three dorsal vertebrae, a partial sacrum, some dorsal ribs, a right scapula, both iliac preacetabular processes, a paired pubes and ischia and some other fragmentary material. The preservation of skull material in this specimen is particularly noteworthy, as this is the first such material known not only for this species but for any Australian Sauropod.

 Diamantinasaurus matildae, new specimen. (a,b) Braincase (left lateral and caudal views). (c,d) endocranium (left lateral oblique and ventral views). (e) Axis (left lateral view). (f) Cervical vertebra III (left lateral view). Abbreviations: bt, basal tuber; cca, internal carotid artery; coch, cochlea; crb, cerebral hemisphere; crbl, cerebellum; dds, dorsal dural sinus; fm, foramen magnum; hfp, hypophyseal fossa placement; ioa, internal ophthalmic artery; jug, jugular vein; lbr, endosseous labyrinth; mf, metotic foramen; midb, midbrain; mo, medulla oblongata; nc, nuchal crest; occ, occipital condyle; ofb, olfactory bulb; oft, olfactory tract; pp, paroccipital process; II, optic tract; III, oculomotor nerve; IV, trochlear nerve; V, trigeminal nerve; V1, ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve; V2+3, maxillo-mandibular branch of the trigeminal nerve; VI, abducens nerve; VII, facial nerve; IX, glossopharyngeal nerve; X, vagus nerve; XI, accessory nerve; XII, hypoglossal nerve? structure of unknown or disputable identity/placement. Scale bar is 100 mm. Porapat et al. (2016).

Both of these specimens are adjudged to be Titanosaurs, a group of (often extremely large) Sauropod Dinosaurs that originated in South America and spread across much of the globe during the Cretaceous, which has interesting biogeographical implications for the Australian fauna of the Cretaceous. The extremely large size of Titanosaurs means that they are highly unlikely to have been dispersed across oceans by rafting or any similar mechanism, suggesting that they must have walked from South America to Australia overland. This was certainly possible during the Cretaceous, as the continents of Gondwana were still largely attached at the beginning of this period, and even at the end Australia was still attached to South America via a land-bridge across Antarctica. Titanosaurs, and Sauropods in general, appear to have favoured warmer climates, being absent from latitudes higher than 66° in either hemisphere, and much less diverse in higher latitudes than they were within the tropics. Antarctica was attached to both South America and Australia throughout the Cretaceous, but is known to have had a much cooler climate, with a distinct flora and fauna of its own that were apparently adapted to much cooler conditions during the Middle Cretaceous. This would appear to make a dispersal from South America across Africa, Madagascar and India during the Early Cretaceous (reaching Australia before 119 million years ago, when the connection between Indo-Madagascar and Australia was finally broken) the most likely method for these animals to reach Australia.

Palaeogeographic map of the mid-Cretaceous world. Showing the possible high latitude dispersal routes that might have been utilised by titanosaurs and other sauropods during the late Albian–Turonian. Porapat et al. (2016).

However, Australia has a reasonably good fossil record for part of the Middle Cretaceous (in this case roughly the period from 115-105 million years ago, which has produced a wide variety of Dinosaur specimens, but not yet to date any Sauropods. Neither have Titanosaurs thought to be closely related to the Australian species been recovered from the Middle Cretaceous deposits of Africa or the Late Cretaceous deposits of India or Madagascar, something which might be expected if the ancestors of these Sauropods had walked across Africa, India and Madagascar into Australia.

As an alternative route Porapat et al. suggest that the arrival of Titanosaurs in Australia may have occurred via Antarctica in the much warmer climate of the Late Cretaceous, after about 105 million years ago, when rapidly rising global temperatures brought a much warmer climate to Antarctica, possibly allowing rapid dispersal of warmth-loving Titanosaurs across the Antarctic land bridge.

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