Tuesday 31 July 2012

Ceramic figurines from the Pleistocene of Croatia.

Ceramic artifacts from the Pleistocene are extremely rare. Ceramic hearths from Klisoura Caves in Greece have been dated to between 34 000 and 32 000 years old. The oldest known ceramic objects considered to be artistic rather than functional are 'Pavlovian' figurines from Moravia in the Czech Republic, and neighboring areas, dated to between 31 000 and 27 000 years old. A single anthropomorphic figurine is known from Maina in southern Siberia, which is believed to be about 27 400 years old, another ceramic figurine from Tamar Hat in Algeria is thought to be between 20 600 and 19 800 years old. Fragmentary ceramic objects from Kostenki in Russia have been dated to between 25 300 and 21 930 years old. A number of fragmentary ceramic objects from Yuchanyan Cave in Hunan Province, China, have been dated to between 21 000 and 13 800 years old. Large clay statues from Tuc d'Audoubert and Montespan Cave in France have been dated as 15 000 and 20 000 years old, respectively. 12 000-year-old pottery is known from Japan, the Japanese are considered to have been continuously making ceramic objects from this point.

In a paper published in the journal PLoS One on 24 July 2012, a team of scientists led by Rebecca Farbstein of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge describe the discovery of 36 ceramic objects, believed to be animal figurines, from the Vela Spila archaeological site in Croatia, dated to between 17 500 and 15 000 years old.

Map of Europe showing Pleistocene sites that have produced ceramic objects. Farbstein et al. (2012).

The objects show similar manufacturing styles to the 'Pavlovian' figurines, but the long time interval between the two set of figurines (about 10 000 years) suggests strongly that these were a separate, if coincidental, technological innovation. Ceramic objects are not known elsewhere in the Balkans before the Neolithic, with the next most recent objects being Impressed-ware ceramics dated to between 7000 and 6400 years old, from higher layers at the Vela Spila site.

Artifact C1, from Vela Spila. Interpreted to be the torso and foreleg of a horse or deer. The object weighs 4 g and measures 26.0 × 27.0 × 9.0 mm. The smooth brown texture implies a high, constant, firing temperature. The figurine appears to have been made in several sections which were then pinched together. Farbstein et al. (2012).

Artifact C2, from Vela Spila. Possibly the hindquarters of an animal. Farbstein et al. (2012).

Artifact C34, from Vela Spila. The wight box highlights a fingerprint. Scale bar is 1 cm. Farbstein et al. (2012).

See also Pollen from potshards, and what it can tell us about the ancient climate of northwest ChinaThe origin of domestic dogsDating the Chauvet Cave artThe earliest evidence of fire use from million year old sediments in Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape Province? and Pleistocene rock carving from Brazil; possibly the oldest art in the Americas.

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Three new species of Frog from the Peruvian Andes.

Frogs of the genus Oreobates are found in the forests of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. They do not have a tadpole stage, developing into miniature frogs within their eggs. In a paper published in the American Museum Novitates on 20 July 2012, a team of scientists led by Jose Padial of the Division of Vertebrate Zoology (Herpetology) at the American Museum of Natural History, carry out a review of the genus Oreobates, taking into account recently collected specimens and genetic data which was not previously available, in which they describe three new members of the genus from the forests of the Peruvian Andes.

The first new species described is Oreobates amarakaeri, named in honour of the Amarakaeri Amazonian indigenous group who are intimately associated with the Amazonian forests. The frogs were discovered close to the rivers Mabe and Nusinuscato (both tributaries of the Río Araza) in the Río Madre de Dios basin in the Andean foothills. The area was forested, with dense clumps of thorny Bamboo. The frogs were active on the ground at night during the end of the rainy season, where they were collected by members of an exhibition led by Juan Chaparro of the Museo de Historia Natural at the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco; only male frogs were found.

Map showing the distribution of Oreobates amarakaeri (red stars), as well as that of a number of previously described species in the same genus. Padial et al. (2012). 

The location on the Río Nusinuscato in Cusco Province, Peru, at an altitude of about 685 m, where Oreobates amarakaeri was collected. Padial et al. (2012).

Oreobates amarakaeri is a small (slightly over 30 mm), warty, brown Frog with black, white, pink and gold markings. It is wartier on its dorsal surface (back), the warts on its flanks being roughly triangular in profile. It has long, slender, toes which lack webbing. The eyes are golden, with black pupils. 

Three male specimens of Oreobates amarakaeri. Padial et al. (2012).

The next species described is Oreobates gemcare, named for the GEMCare (Golden Empire Managed Care) medical group, which sponsored one of the exhibitions to Peru that contributed to this study. The population of Frogs assigned to Oreobates gemcare was previously assigned to another species, Oreobates lehri, when they were first described in 2007. However the genetic study which formed part of the research for this paper revealed that the two known populations of Oreobates lehri are in fact genetically distinct, so one of these populations, in the cloud forrests of the Andean hills of the Kosñipata Valley, is formally described as a separate species. Oreobates gemcare is a cryptic species, one that cannot be distinguished on morphological traits alone, but which has been shown to be distinct genetically.

The cloud forests of the Kosñipata Valley  in Cusco Province, Peru, at an altitude of about 2700 m, where Oreobates gemcare was collected. Padial et al. (2012).

Oreobates gemcare is a robust, warty, brown or grayish-brown Frog, 30-40 mm in length, with orange and yellow markings and a cream belly. The females are notably larger than the males. 

Oreobates gemcare. Four male specimens. Padial et al. (2012).

The third new species named is Oreobates machiguenga, named in honour of the Machiguenga Amazonian indigenous group, and in particular those of the Reserva Comunal Machiguenga, who both permitted and aided the collection of Frogs on their land. The Frogs were found on the slopes of Cordillera Vilcabamba, in the Río Kimbiri Valley, in the Río Apurimac Basin, in La Convención Province, Peru. The frog was found on montane forest floors in the rainy season.

Map of Peru showing the distribution of Oreobates gemcareOreobates machiguenga, and four other previously described members of the genus (including Oreobates lehri). Padial et al. (2012).

The montane forests of the Río Kimbiri, on the western slopes of Cordillera
Vilcabamba, Cusco, Peru, at about 1400 m, where Oreobates machiguenga was collected. Padial et al. (2012).

Oreobates machiguenga is a moderately robust Frog with granular skin on its back but otherwise smooth, described from a single, female, specimen. The Frog was brown, with darker markings; several large, orange, eggs could be seen through the skin.

Oreobates machiguenga. adial et al. (2012).

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Monday 30 July 2012

New species of Scorpion from Arizona.

Scorpions of the family Vaejovidae are found throughout North America, and into Central America as far south as Guatemala. There are at least 176 species, divided into 17 genera, inhabiting a broad range of environments, though most favor arid conditions. Their stings are painful, but seldom dangerous.

In a paper published in the American Museum Novitates on 3 May 2012, a group of scientists led by David Sissom of the Department of Life, Earth, and Environmental Sciences at West Texas A&M University, describe a new species of Vaejovid Scorpion from the Hualapai Mountains of Arizona.

The Hualapai Mountains are largely covered by Pine/Oak Montane Forest, and cut of from other similar environments by arid desert plains, making them an excellent place to look for endemic species. The new Scorpions were found living in leaf-litter and under rocks.

The woodlands of the Hualapai Mountains, where the new Scorpions were found. Sissom et al. (2012).

The new species is placed in the existing genus Vaejovis, and given the specific name tenuipalpus, meaning 'slender-clawed'. Vaejovis tenuipalpus is a yellowish-brown Scorpion averaging 25 mm in length when fully grown.

Vaejovis tenuipalpus, male specimen in life. Sissom et al. (2012).

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Sunday 29 July 2012

Dinosaur skeleton vandalized in Alberta, Canada.

A more-or-less complete Hadrosaur skeleton discovered on 15 June 2012, near Red Willow River in Alberta, Canada, was found to have been destroyed when scientists  from the University of Alberta returned to the sight on 21 June. The dinosaur  had been covered by a protective plaster coating prior to excavation be the by scientists, who had hoped to house the skeleton at the new River of Death and Discovery Museum being built in nearby Wembley, but this had been ripped apart, and the skeleton beneath destroyed, apparently with sledgehammers. 

The vandalized dinosaur site. HQ Grande Prairie.

Vandalism has become an increasingly worrying problem at palaeontological excavation sites in Alberta in the past few years, with a number of sites being targeted, apparently by looters; dinosaur remains are extremely valuable and there is (unfortunately) a thriving black market. This had previously been curtailed by legislation in the 1970s which introduced stiff penalties for damaging sites in Canada (up to C$40 000 in fines and a year in prison), however the crime appears to be on the rise again, apparently fueled by the rising value of black-market material. To make matters worse the new generation of Canadian illegal excavators do not seem to be particularly talented, reducing the chances of the material being recovered in reasonable condition by law enforcement agencies, as has happened in other parts of the world. Dinosaur sites have also been vandalized in some places by people who object to the science behind the discoveries.

The precise motivation for the Red Willow Creek Vandalism remains unclear; a number of bones appear to be missing, but others seem to have been smashed and left at the site. There appears to have been some sort of alcohol-fueled party at the site, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are in possession of liquor-store receipts found at the site, which they hope to use to track the perpetrators. 

Scientists from the University of Alberta hope to be able to salvage some of the material from the site, but it is unlikely a full reconstruction will ever now be possible. Intact dinosaur skeletons are extremely rare, and are of great value to palaeontologists, who can learn a great deal about how dinosaurs lived from them. They are also of considerable value to museums as public exhibits, and can contribute significantly to tourism revenues in areas where they are found, both for museums and for other local businesses.

The remains of the vandalized Hadrosaur. Philip Bell/University of Alberta. 

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Substantial new aquifer found under northern Namibia.

Scientists from the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, working in northern Namibia have this month announced the discovery of a substantial new aquifer, named Ohangwena II. The reservoir covers an area of roughly 40 by 70 km at a depth of 280-350 m beneath ground level in Namibia, and also to extends under southern Angola. It is thought to contain enough water to supply the 800 000 people of northern Namibia for 400 years at current consumption rates, although water consumption rates tend to go up when abundant fresh water becomes available. 

Namibia is generally considered to be the driest country in Sub-Saharan Africa, though fortunately it is not among the poorest. It has a population of 2.4 million, and a population growth rate of 1.8% per annum, low for Sub-Saharan Africa, but still twice that of the US or nearly three times that of the US. Much of the north of the country gets its water from an aging canal network brining water south from Angola. As such Namibia is in need of new and reliable sources of water.

Geologist Martin Quinger, who led the project that discovered the new aquifer, believes that it cane be managed in a sustainable way, with water being drawn off only at a rate which matches the replenishment rate for the aquifer, which is fed by rainfall in southern Angola. However he cautions that the resource must be managed carefully, as it is overlain by a shallower, saline aquifer, Ohangwena I, and inexpertly carried out drilling could potentially contaminate the lower water source.

Simplified diagram showing the positions of the Ohangwena I & II aquifers. Planet Erde.

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Major Earthquake shakes New Ireland & New Britain.

On Sunday 29 July 2012, slightly after 6.00 am local time (slightly after 8.00 pm on Saturday 28 July, GMT) the Papuan islands of New Ireland and New Britain were shaken by an Earthquake 20 km east of the southern coast of New Ireland, recorded by the United States Geological Survey as measuring 6.6 on the Richter Scale and occurring at a depth of 66.7 km, and by Geoscience Australia as measuring 6.5 on the Richter Scale and occurring at a depth of 91 km. 

This is fairly deep, and deeper Earthquakes are less likely to cause problems at the surface, as much of their energy is absorbed by the intervening rocks, but this is also a fairly large quake, so it still has the potential to cause harm. Geoscience Australia calculate that much of southern New Ireland is at risk of damage from this quake, and the United States Geological Survey estimate that there is a 30% risk of the quake causing fatalities, though neither damage nor casualties have been reported at the time of writing. No tsunami warning has been issued for this event.

The location of the 29 July 2012 Earthquake, and the areas likely to have felt the strongest shaking. Damage to buildings is a possibility within the inner circle, and the quake would have been felt within the outer circle. USGS.

New Ireland lies on the North Bismarck Plate, one of a group of microplates caught in the collisional zone between the Pacific and Australian Plates. New Britain lies on the South Bismarck Plate, another of these microplates. The 29 July Earthquake appears to have occurred on one of a number of transform faults (faults where two tectonic blocks are moving past one-another horizontally) between these two microplates that cross eastern New Britain and southern New Ireland. This faulting is caused by an area of rifting (movement apart by two tectonic plates, with new crust being formed between them) to the north of New Britain and west of New Ireland, which is pushing the eastern part of the South Bismarck Plate southward with regard to the North Bismark Plate.

Simplified map of the microplates to the east of Papua New Guinea. Oregon State University.

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Saturday 28 July 2012

New species of Ox-eye Bean from Costa Rica and Panama.

Ox-eye Beans (or Dear-eye Beans, or Hamburger Seeds) are Legumes in the genus Mucuna, found throughout the tropics. They get their common names from the three-layered structure of their seeds, which resembles the eye of a large Mammal (or a hamburger). These seeds are sea-beans; they are capable of surviving long periods of immersion in sea-water, enabling them to use ocean currents to colonize new areas; several species of Mucuna are found in both the American and African tropics. The  plants themselves form woody shrubs or lianas (erect woody vines that climb trees to gain access to light in tropical forest canopies). They have large, scented, colourless flowers that are typically pollenated by Bats.

Mucuna beans from a beech in Texas (where the plant is not found). John Batchelder's Beach Beans Blog.

In a paper published in the journal Phytotaxa on 17 July 2012, a team of scientists led by Tânia Moura of the Programa de Pós-graduação em Biologia Vegetal at the Instituto de Biologia at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil describe a new species of Mucuna from the tropical forests of Costa Rica and Panama.

Map showing the distribution of sites where the new species of Mucuna was found growing. Moura et al. (2012).

The new plant is named Mucuna monticola, referring to the montane forests where it was found growing. It is a liana-forming species, distinguished from other members of the genus in that the seed-pods are not 'pinched' between the seeds.

Photographs of Mucuna monticola. (A) Inflorescence. (B) Detail of inflorescence. (C) Individual flower. (D) Seed pods. (E) Detail of seed pod. (F) Leaf. Moura et al. (2012).

Line drawings of Mucuna monticola by Ana Lucia Souza. (A) Branchlet with leaf and inflorescence. (B) Flower. (C) Standard. (D) Wings. (E) Keel. (F) Androecium. (G) Gynoecium. (H) Opened calyx. (I) Calyx, lateral view. (J) Fruit. Moura et al. (2012).

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Friday 27 July 2012

New Caviomorph Rodents from the Early Oligocene Tinguiririca Fauna of the Andean Main Range of central Chile

All South American Rodents are classified as members of a single monophyletic group, the Caviomorpha. This appears to be most closely related to Rodents with African and Asian distributions; a single fossil from the Early Oligocene of Egypt has been described as a possible Caviomorph. This suggests the Caviomorphs colonized South America from Africa, though since there is no evidence the group ever reached Antarctica or Australia (continents that remained attached to South America longer than Africa during the breakup of the ancient continent of Gondwana), this probably occurred by rafting across a young, narrow, Atlantic Ocean.

Exactly when the Caviomorpha appeared is unclear; Rodent fossils are known from the Santa Rosa locality in Peru, which is thought to be Palaeogene in origin, but this date is not very confident. Rodents  have also been described from the mid-Eocene (roughly 41 million years old) Contamana Fauna from Peru. Middle Oligocene Caviomorph fossils are known from the Lacayani locality of Bolivia and a handful of sites in Patagonia. The group become abundant and widespread in Miocene deposits.

In a paper published in the American Museum Novitates on 20 July 2012, a team of scientists led by Ornella Bertrand of the Laboratoire de Paléontologie at the Institut des Sciences de l’Évolution at Université Montpellier II, and the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History, describe two new species of Caviomorph Rodents from the Early Oligocene Tinguiririca Fauna from outcrops north and south of the Tinguiririca River near the town of Termas del Flaco in the Andean main range of central Chile, based upon partial remains of the animals jaws and teeth.

The locality where the new Caviomorph remains were discovered. Bertrand et al. (2012).

The first new species described is named as Andemys termasi, where Andemys means 'Andean Mouse' and termasi refers to the town of Termas del Flago, which is near to the site where the specimen was discovered. The species is described from a section of the right mandible, with several teeth intact. It is thought to be related to the modern Dasyproctidae (Agoutis and Acouchis).

Andemys termasi. (A) Photograph in latteral view. (B) Photograph in occlusal view. (C) Shaded drawing in lateral view. (D) Shaded drawing in occlusal view. (E) Labeled line drawing in lateral view. (F) Labeled line drawing in occlusal view. Abbreviations: Atfd, anterofossettid; Atld, anterolophid; E, entoconid; Etlp, ectolophid; Hd, hypoconid; Hfxd, hypoflexid; Hlpd, hypolophid; Hpfd, hypofossettid; Ic, incisor; M, metaconid; Mc, masseter crest; Mf, mental foramen; Msfd, mesofossettid; Mtfd, metafossettid; Mtld, metalophid; nMpi, notch for the insertion of the tendon of the pars maxillomandibularis; Prd, protoconid; Psld, posterolophid; Rt, root; tMpi, tubercle for the insertion of the tendon of the pars maxillomandibularis. The angled arrow indicates anterior and lingual directions for occlusal views. Bertrand et al. (2012).

The second species described is placed in the genus Eoviscaccia, previously used to describe fossils from the Miocene of Argentina. It is given the specific name frassinettii, in honour of Daniel Frassinetti, a distinguished Chilean palaeontologist formerly of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural in Santiago, who died in 2010. Eoviscaccia frassinettii is described from a partial right mandible, with several teeth present. It is thought to be related to the modern Chinchillas.

Eoviscaccia frassinettii. (A) Photograph in occlusal view. (B) Labeled line drawing in occlusal view. (C) Photograph in labial view. (D) Labeled line drawing in labial view. Abbreviations: Al, anterior lobe; Atfd, anterofossettid, E, entoconid; H, hypoconid; Hfxd, hypoflexid; M, metaconid; P, protoconid; Pl, posterior lobe. Bertrand et al. (2012).

Both these new Rodents, and other mammal remains from the Tinguiririca Fauna show a condition called 'hypsodonty' in which the teeth have high crowns, and enamel that extends past the gum line. This provides extra protection against erosion of the teeth when chewing abrasive foods, and is generally associated with a diet of silica-rich grasses, rather than leaves.

The post-Cretaceous Cenozoic Era is split into two Periods, the Palaeogene (65.5-23.03 million years ago), comprising the Palaeocene and Eocene Epochs and the Neogene (23.05-2.558 million years ago), comprising the Miocene and Pliocene. Both these Periods have terrestrial vertebrate faunas dominated by Mammals and Birds, but the Neogene is distinguished by the spread of grasslands, and animals that could live on them, around the world. Consequently the development of hypsodont dentition occurred  repeatedly in different lineages of Mammals during this period.

The discovery of a hypsodont dominated fauna in the Oligocene of what is now the Chilean Andes suggests that grasslands may already have appeared there at this time. If so these would be the earliest known grasslands, possibly making Chile the place where grasslands first developed, and subsequently spread around the globe.

The origin of the grasslands has important climatic implications; grasslands pump less water into the atmosphere than woodlands, leading to a cooler, drier climate (water is a powerful greenhouse gas). The spread of the grasslands is generally credited with a steady cooling of the Earth's climate during the Neogene, culminating in the Pleistocene glaciations.

See also Earthquake in eastern ChileA new Ground Sloth from the Late Miocene of ArgentinaThree new species of Tapir from the Early Eocene of PakistanThe Dwarf Pachyderms of Crete, Mammoths or Straight-Tusked Elephants? and Mammals on Sciency Thoughts YouTube.

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Thursday 26 July 2012

Movement beneath the Tongariro Volcanic Complex.

The Tongariro Volcanic Complex is an andesitic volcanic massif hosting at least 12 distinct volcanic cones, situated in the central part of North Island, New Zealand, northeast of Mount Ruapehu and southwest of Lake Taupo. The complex is thought to have been active for slightly over a quarter of a million years, with over 70 eruptions between 1839 and 1977, since when the complex has produced fumaroles (gas emissions) and occasional bouts of Earthquake activity, but no eruptions. The complex forms part of the Tongariro National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Aerial photograph of the Tongariro Volcanic Complex seen from the northeast. PhotoVolcanica.

Between 13 and 23 July 2012 the GetNet Data Center recorded a series of small tremors (less than magnitude 2.5) beneath the Tongariro Volcanic Complex, clustered between the Emerald Lakes and Te Mari Craters. Such tremors beneath volcanoes are monitored closely by volcanologists as they may be indicative of magma movements, which in turn may be a precursor of new eruptions; though this is not always the case, Tongariro suffered periods of Earthquake activity in 1983, 2006 and 2008-9, none of which led to an eruption. 

Map of the Tongariro National Park. Green triangles within circles represent volcanic craters. TripFinding.

New Zealand is located on the boundary beneath the Australian and Pacific Plates. Beneath the islands the Pacific Plate is being subducted beneath the Australian Plate. This causes a great deal of friction which causes Earthquakes where the boundary between the two plates is close to the surface; this is to the east of North Island, but onshore on South Island, where it can lead to strong Earthquakes such as the ones felt in Christchurch recently. Technically such quakes also occur where the plate margin is deeper, but these are felt less strongly as the rocks between the boundary and the surface absorb much of the energy, making strong tremors much less frequent on North Island. As the Pacific Plate sinks deeper into the Earth it is partially melted by the friction and the heat of the planet's interior. Some of the melted material then rises through the overlying Australian Plate, fueling the volcanoes of New Zealand.

Diagrammatic representation of the passage of the Pacific Plate beneath North Island, New Zealand, and how this fuels volcanoes there. Natural Hazards Research Platform

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Wednesday 25 July 2012

Woman killed by rockfall on Dorset Beach.

Part of the cliffs at Burton Bradstock beach between Lyme Regis and Weymouth collapsed at about 12.30 pm British Summertime (11.30 am GMT) on Tuesday 24 July 2012, burying a party of three tourists. Two of the three, described as a man in his 50s an his son were quickly freed by other tourists and evacuated from the beach by the RNLI, but the third, described as a woman aged 22 and the younger man's girlfriend, was still trapped when a second, larger, landslip occurred. In total about 400 tonnes of rocks and mud are said to have fallen over a 60 m section of the 50 m high cliffs, forming a pile of rubble over 10 m high.

Rescue workers assessing the landslip at Burton Bradstock beach.  Bournemouth News & Picture Service.

Rescue workers consulted with geologists before searching the scene with sniffer dogs, heat seeking cameras and mechanical diggers. A woman's body was located at around 9.40 pm, according to Dorset Police. Dorset County Council have reportedly closed off a 25 km stretch of beaches and coastal paths to the west of Lyme Regis for urgent consultations with geologists.

The cliffs at Burton Bradstock are made of layers of sandstone and limestone. They can be extremely dangerous after periods of heavy rain, which tends to wash out the sandstone layers close to the cliff-face, leaving the limestone layers unsupported and prone to sudden collapses. The rocks are highly fossiliferous, and form part of the Jurassic Coast UNESCO World Heritage Site, making the area popular with both professional and amateur geologists and palaeontologists, as well as tourists from the nearby Freshwater Beach Holiday Park.

The University of Southampton offers the following advice to geologists 'The well-known exposures of fossiliferous limestone on the beach at Burton Cliff are, of course, the result of a cliff falls. Major falls are not frequent, but special care must be taken to watch for areas where loose material may fall. Much of the cliff is unstable and these cliffs are dangerous in several places. Keep away from the foot of the cliff here, as far as is feasible in terms of geological study, in case there is a fall of loose material. Members of parties should wear safety helmets, although these are of little use with regard to large rock falls. There is some risk of being cut off by the tide or swept into the sea in stormy weather conditions. Care must be taken when walking along the cliff top, which is retreating with cliff falls, and may overhang in places. Visitors and field leaders should make their own assessment of risk at the time and no responsibility is accepted.'. 

The cliffs at Burton Bradstock. University of Southampton. 

However little similar advice seems to be available for the general tourist, with scantily clad sunbathers often seen alongside geology students wearing conspicuous safety gear. Many geologists have long thought that better information on geological hazards should be available to tourists in Dorset and other coastal cliff areas. This incident comes less than three weeks after a couple were killed in their car by a landslip at Beaminster, also in Dorset.

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, dies aged 61.

On 23 July 2012 Professor Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, third woman in space, and youngest ever American in space, passed away after a 17 month battle with pancreatic cancer.

Sally Ride was born in Encino, Los Angeles in May 1951, the elder of two daughters of Dale Burdell Ride, Professor of Political Science at Santa Monica Community College, and Joyce Hoyce Ride, a counselor at a women's correctional institution. She attended Westlake School for GirlsSwarthmore College and UCLA before entering Stanford University where she achieved first a bachelor's, then a master's and finally a PhD in physics. She was also involved in sport, being at one point nearly becoming a professional tennis player.

In 1978 Sally Ride joined NASA after responding to a newspaper advertisement, and became one of the first six women to join the astronaut training program. Ride was part of the team that developed the Space Shuttle's robot arm. She served as CapCom (ground based communication officer) to the second and third Space Shuttle missions, before being selected for the crew of the seventh mission.

On 18 June 1983 Sally Ride was one of five crew members launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, making her the first American woman in space, proceeded only by the Russians Valentina Tereshkova (16 June 1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (19 August 1982). She was also the youngest American in Space, a record that remains unbroken. The mission was also noted as being the largest number of people to leave the Earth aboard a single craft to date.

The mission badge for the seventh shuttle mission. Wikipedia

During the mission the crew launched two communications satellites and one experimental satellite, SPAS-l, which flew alongside the Shuttle for several hours before being recaptured by the Shuttle's robot arm, operated by Sally Ride, making Ride the first person to capture a satellite in this way.

In 1984 Ride returned to space aboard the thirteenth Shuttle mission, again on the Space Shuttle Challenger. This was the first mission to take a crew of seven into space, the first mission to carry two women (Ride plus Kathryn Sullivan), the first mission to carry a Canadian astronaut (Marc Garneau), and the first mission to include a space walk by a woman (Sullivan). 

Ride was in training for a third mission aboard the Challenger when the Shuttle exploded during a takeoff in January 1986. Ride served on the investigative commission into the accident, before being reassigned to NASA headquarters in Washington DC, where she founded NASA's Office of Exploration, before resigning to take up a post at Stanford University in 1987.

In 1989 Ride became professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego and Director of the California Space Institute. In 2003 she served on the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the only person to serve on both Shuttle accident investigation boards. She wrote a number of books on science aimed at children, as well as being involved with a number of outreach programs by NASA and JPL aimed at school children. She also founded a company, Sally Ride Science, dedicated to promoting science to young students.

She is survived by her (female) partner of 27 years, co-author of several books, and Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of Sally Ride Science, Tam O'Shaughnessy, as well as her mother, her sister, Bear Ride and former husband, fellow astronaut Steven Hawley. Ride and O'Shaughnessy had come out in 1985, while Ride was still married to Hawley, however Ride, who was intensely private, had never sought to publicize the fact widely.

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Tuesday 24 July 2012

New species of carnivorous Leech from Taiwan.

Leeches are a group of Annelid Worms (segmented Worms) best known for their habit of latching onto larger organisms and sucking their blood, although many Leeches, possibly the majority, do not actually do this, being instead carnivores preying on smaller invertebrates. The majority of known species live in freshwater or are amphibious, able to leave the water in damp environments. Members of the genus Orobdella are specialist carnivores of other Annelid Worms, known from Japan, Korea and the Russian Far East.

In a paper published in the journal ZooKeys on 11 June 2012, Takafumi Nakano of the Department of Zoology at the Graduate School of Science at Kyoto University and Yi-Te Lai of the Institute of Zoology at the National Taiwan University and the Department of Biology at the University of Eastern Finland describe a new species of Orobdella from Taipei, the capitol of Taiwan, the first species described from the country.

Map of Taiwan and the surrounding area, showing the location where the new Leech was found. Nakano & Lai (2012).

The new species is named Orobdella ketagalan, after the indigenous Ketagalan people of the Taipei Basin. It is distinguished from other members of the genus by the anatomy of its reproductive system, and by genetic data; gene sequencing of Orobdella ketagalan revealed that it was most closely related to members of the genus from the Ryukyu Archipelago, a string of islands belonging to Japan that connect Taiwan to Kyushu, the most southwesterly of Japan's main islands. It is a flattened segmented worm, slightly over 7 cm in length.

Orobdella ketagalan. (A) Dorsal view. (B) Ventral view. Scale bar is 5 mm. Nakano & Lai (2012).

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Monday 23 July 2012

Asteroid 2002 AM₃₁ flies past the Earth.

On Sunday 22 July 2012 the asteroid 2002 AM₃₁ flew past the Earth at a distance of 5.2 million km. This is a fairly safe distance, nearly 14 times as far from us as the Moon, but it will give scientists a chance to try to examine the object, which is currently not well known; estimates of the size of 2002 AM₃₁ vary from 340 m to 1.4 km in diameter, with corresponding variations in the estimation of its mass.

The orbit of 2002 AM₃₁. JPL.

2002 AM₃₁ was discovered in 2002 by Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research and is considered to be potentially hazardous by the Minor Planet Center. It takes 812 days (2.22 years) to complete one orbit about the Sun, during which time it will fall to 0.934 AU of the Sun (slightly inside the orbit of the Earth, which orbits the Sun at an average of 1.0 AU) then rise to 2.47 AU, considerably outside the orbit of Mars. This means that it crosses the orbits of both the Earth and Mars during each of its orbits, but it does not necessarily come close to the planets when it does so. 2002 AM₃₁ last came this close to the Earth in July 1923, and it will next do so in July 2032. There is no danger of a collision with the Earth in the next 200 years.

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Sunday 22 July 2012

New Ommatid Beetles from the Mesozoic of China.

The Ommatidae are generally considered to be one of the most primitive groups of Beetles, possibly close to the origin of the group. There are six known extant species in two genera, restricted to arid subtropical regions of Australia and South America. A number of fossil species have also been described, from Mesozoic sites across Eurasia; since Beetles are known to have been in existence by the late Carboniferous, if the Ommatidae are close to the origin of the group, then the fossil record of the earliest members is apparently missing.

The extant Ommatid Beetle, Omma rutherfordi, from the Twin Creeks Community Conservation Reserve in Western Australia. Farhan Bokhari.

In a paper published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology on 9 July 2012, a team of scientists led by Jingjing Tan of the Key Laboratory of Zoological Systematics and Evolution at the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the College of Life Sciences at Capital Normal University describe four new species of Ommatid Beetles from the Mesozoic of China.

The first new species described is placed in the genus Pareuryomma, which already contains one species (Pareuryomma tylodes) from the Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota of northeast China. This is Pareuryomma ancistrodonta, where ancistrodonta means 'curved tooth', in reference to the shape of the mandible. This comes from the Middle Jurassic Jiulongshan Formation at Daohugou Village in Inner Mongolia.

Pareuryomma ancistrodonta, a new Ommatid Beetle from the Middle Jurassic of Inner Mongolia. Tan et al. (2012).

The second new species described is also placed in the genus Pareuryomma. This is Pareuryomma cardiobasis, where cardiobasis means 'heart-shaped' a reference to a marking on the Beetle's thorax. Pareuryomma cardiobasis comes from the Early Cretaceous Yixian Formation at Chaomidian Village in Liaoning Province, the same locality as Pareuryomma tylodes.

Pareuryomma cardiobasis, a new Ommatid Beetle from the Early Cretaceous of Liaoning Province. Tan et al. (2012).

The third new species is placed in the genus Omma; this species is still extant, with four known species in Australia, as well as eleven previously described species from the Late Triassic to Early Cretaceous of England, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Germany and Russia. This new species is named as Omma delicata, where delicata means 'delicate' a reference to the small size of the fossil. It comes from the Middle Jurassic Jiulongshan Formation of Daohugou Village in Inner Mongolia.

Omma delicataa new Ommatid Beetle from the Middle Jurassic of Inner Mongolia. Tan et al. (2012).

The final new species described is placed in the genus Tetraphalerus, a genus that includes two extant species from South America and 23 previously described fossil species from the Mesozoic of Eurasia. It is named Tetraphalerus decorosus, where decorosus means 'well-preserved'. It also comes from the Middle Jurassic Jiulongshan Formation of Daohugou Village in Inner Mongolia.

Tetraphalerus decorosusa new Ommatid Beetle from the Middle Jurassic of Inner Mongolia. Tan et al. (2012).

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New species of Ichneumon Wasp from Jalisco State in central Mexico.

Ichneumon Wasps are specialist parasites of other insects; typically they lay their eggs in the larvae of other insects, and their larvae then consume their hosts from the inside as they grow, eventually killing the host as they emerge. They are sometimes called Scorpion Wasps due to their elongated abdomens and formidable-looking ovipositors (egg laying organs), which resemble the stings of Scorpions, although they do not actually poses stings. This lifestyle, while gruesome to human observers, is clearly highly successful, with the Ichneumon Wasps being one of the most numerous and widespread groups of insects, with over 60 000 described species. 

In a paper published in the journal ZooKeys on 11 July 2012, Andrey Khalaim of the División de Estudios de Postgrado e Investigación at the Facultad de Ingeniería y Ciencias at the Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas and the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Enrique Ruíz-Cancino and Juana Coronado-Blanco, also of the División de Estudios de Postgrado e Investigación at the Facultad de Ingeniería y Ciencias at the Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas describe a new species of Ichneumon Wasp from Jalisco Province in central Mexico.

The new species is named from a single female Wasp, black, and 12.6 mm in length. It is placed within the subfamily Metopiinae, which are specialist parasites of Caterpillars, in a new genus, Ojuelos, after the municipality of Ojuelos de Jalisco, the capitol of Jalisco State, where the Wasp was discovered, and given the specific name juachicus, after the city of Juachí, where it was found.

Ojuelos juachicus, a new species of Ichneumon Wasp named from a single female specimen found in Jalisco State, Mexico. Khalaim et al. (2012).

See also New species of Leafcutter Bee from Saudi ArabiaA Hatchet Wasp preserved in Tertiary amber from MexicoThree new species of Braconid Wasps from the Late Cretaceous of Magadan Province in the Russian Far EastThree new species of Braconid Wasp from Peru and Evidence of fungal parasites modifying the behavior of ants from the Eocene Messel Shale.

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