Tuesday 27 November 2018

Macrocollum itaquii: A new species of Sauropodomorph Dinosaur from the Late Triassic of Brazil.

Sauropod Dinosaurs are the largest known land animals ever to have walked the Earth, with some species reaching masses of around 60 tonnes, larger than any member of any other Dinosaur group, and exceeded only by the modern Baleen Whales (which are fully marine in nature). These Dinosaurs descended from the Prosauropods, a polyphyletic group (i.e. a group which does not include all the descendants of their most recent common ancestor, since Sauropods are not considered to be Prosauropods; polyphyletic groups are not considered valid by many modern taxonomists) which includes early bipedal forms, and which may have split of from other Dinosaur groups before the Ornithischia/Saurischia split, with the two groups being together known as the Sauropodomorphs.

The earliest known Sauropodomorphs are relatively small-bodied forms from early Late Triassic (about 233 million years old) in Brazil, suggesting that the group originated in this area, though these forms lack many of the key features associated with the group, such as elongate necks and slender skulls.

In a paper published in the journal Biology Letters on 21 November 2018, Rodrigo Temp Müller of the Programa de Pós Graduaçaõ em Biodiversidade Animal and the Centro de Apoio à Pesquisa Paleontológica da Quarta Colônia at the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria, Max Cardoso Langer of the Laboratório de Paleontologia at the Universidade de São Paulo, and Sérgio Dias-da-Silva, also of the Centro de Apoio à Pesquisa Paleontológica da Quarta Colônia at the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria, describe a new species of Sauropodomorph Dinosaur from the Late Triassic of Rio Grande do Sul State, Brazil.

The new species is named Macrocollum itaquii, where ‘Macrocollum’ means ‘long-neck’ and ‘itaquii’ honours José Jerundino Machado Itaqui, for his role in the formation of the Centro de Apoio à Pesquisa Paleontológica da Quarta Colônia. The species is described from three specimens, two almost complete and one lacking the skull and cervical vertebrae (neck). The specimens clearly show the elongate neck and slender skull of later Sauropodomorphs, and is dated to about 225 million years ago, coming from the upper portion of the Candelária Sequence of the Paraná Basin, making this species only about eight million years younger that the oldest known Sauropodomorphs. Müller et al. also suggest that the fact that three specimens were found together may be indicative that Macrocollum itaquii had began to develop social behaviour.

Reconstructed skeleton and representative elements of Macrocollum itaquii. (a) Skull in left lateral view. (b) Skull in dorsal view. (c) Skull in ventral view. (d) Fourth cervical vertebra in left lateral view. (e) Mid-truncal vertebra in left lateral view. (f) Left ilium in lateral view. (g) Left ischium in lateral view. (h) Right pectoral girdle in lateral view. (i) Right manual digit I in medial view. (j) Right astragalus in dorsal view. (k) Right femur in cranial view. (l) Left pes in cranial view. Abbreviations: I-1, phalanx one of the digit I; I-2, phalanx two of the digit I; a, angular; ap, ascending process; co, coracoid; crt, crest; ct, cranial trochanter; d, dentary; dp, diapophysis; epi, epipophysis; f, frontral; fh, femoral head; fob, fossa for the olfactoy bulbus; inf, internarial fenestra; is, ischium shaft; j, jugal; mc, medial condyle; mcI, metacarpal I; mtI, metatarsal I; mtIII, metatarsal III; mtV, metatarsal V; mw, medial wall; mx, maxilla; n, nasal; ns, neural spine; opl, obturador plate; p, parietal; pa, parapophysis; paa, postacetabular ala; pmfo, promaxillary fenestra; pmx, premaxilla; po, postorbital; poz, postzygapophysis; prf, prefrontal; prz, prezygapophysis; q, quadrate; qj, quadratojugal; sa, surangular; sac, supracetabular crest; scp, scapula; sq, squamosal; stf, supratemporal fenestra. Scale bar is 50 mm. Müller et al. (2018).

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Sunday 25 November 2018

Large numbers of cold-stunned Sea Turtles wash up on beaches at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Over 400 Sea Turtles have washed up on beaches around Cape Cod, Massachusetts this week. Volunteers from the Massachusetts Audubon Society patrol the area at this time of year looking for distressed Turtles, but have been surprised by the high numbers found this week, which compare to about 600 found between October and December in recent years. A total of 173 Turtles have died as a result of hypothermia, many of them Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle's, Lepidochelys kempii, a species considered to be Critically Endangered under the terms of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species

 Volunteers measuring rescued Turtles at the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Ironically, though the Turtles are suffering as a result of the cold, the root cause of the problems is thought to be rising sea temperatures associated with global warming. Turtles breed in the warm waters of the Caribbean during the northern winter, and come northward during the summer to feed in the nutrient rich waters off the American east coast, however they have not, until fairly recently, come as far north Cape Cod, where they are apparently caught out by the sharp decline in water temperatures late in the year, resulting in the stranding of frozen animals seen this week.

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Lijinganthus revoluta: A Core Dicot flower from Cretaceous Burmese Amber.

The Core Dicots are the single largest grouping of Flowering Plants, Angiosperms, and include groups such as the Saxifrages, Vines, Beaches, Oaks, Roses, Gourds, Willows, Geraniums, Myrtles, Cabbages, Citruses,Horse Chestnuts, Mangoes, Cacti, Heathers, Sunflowers, Honeysuckles, Nightshades, Olives, and Lavenders. The oldest fossils currently assigned to the group come from the Late Cretaceous of North America, though molecular clock dating methods suggest that the group is likely to be considerably older.

In a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports on 13 November 2018, Zhong-Jian Liu of the Key Laboratory of National Forestry and Grassland Administration for Orchid Conservation and Utilization at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, Diying Huang and Chenyang Cai of the State Key Laboratory of Palaeobiology and Stratigraphy at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology and Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Xin Wang of the Key Laboratory of Economic Stratigraphy and Paleogeography at the at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology and Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, describe a new Core Dicot flower from Middle Cretaceous Burmese Amber.

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 flower is named Lijinganthus revoluta, where 'Lijinganthus' means 'Li Jing's flower', in honour of Li Jing (1967–2015) for her talent and poetry, and 'revoluta' refers to the petals of the flower, which are revolute (are rolled back at the edges). The flower is 6.5 mm in length and 4.8 mm in width, with five petals and five sepals, a pedicel, stamens, and a gynoecium.

Lijinganthus revoluta embedded in a Myanmar amber. (a) Side view of the flower, showing physically connected pedicel (white triangle), petals (1–5), and stamens. Scale bar is 1 mm. (b) Top view of the flower, showing petals (1–5), anthers (white triangles), and ovary (double triangle). Note the relationship between stamens (a,b) and Petal 4. Scale bar is 1 mm. (c) Bottom view of the flower, showing revolute petals (1–5) and stamens. Scale bar is 1 mm. (d) Detailed view of the rectangular region in 1c, showing the relationship among sepal (white line), petal (4), and 2 filaments (white triangles). Scale bar is 0.1 mm. Liu et al. (2018).

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Psoralis darienensis: A new species of Skipper from the Darién National Park in Panama.

Skippers, Hesperiidae, are a large group of Butterflies named for their quick darting flights. They are global in distribution, but reach their maximum diversity in the tropical regions of Central and South America.

In a paper published in the journal Tropical Lepidoptera Reasearch on 31 May 2018, Fabian Gaviria, Ricardo Siewert, Olaf Mielke, and Mirna Casagrande of the Laboratório de Estudos de Lepidoptera Neotropical at the Universidade Federal do Paraná, describe a new species of Skipper from the Darién National Park in Panama.

The new species is placed in the genus Psoralis, which currently contains 12 species from South America, and given the specific name darienensis, meaning 'from Darién'. The species is described from two male specimens collected from an abandoned mine site within the Darién National Park, at an altitude of about 1500 m above sealevel. These are brown in colour with yellow and black markings and a forewing length of 19 mm.

Psoralis darienensis. Male from Darién National Park, Darién Province, Panama, dorsal (a) and ventral (b) views. Gaviria et al. (2018).

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Saturday 24 November 2018

Physeter macrocephalus: Sperm Whales wash up on beaches in Sulawesi, Indonesia, and Northland, New Zealand.

Two Sperm Whales, Physeter macrocephalus, have washed up on beaches on southern Sulawesi, Indonesia, and Northland, New Zealand, this week. The first Whale, measuring 9.5 m in length, washed up on a beach near Wakatobi on southeastern Sulawesi on Monday 19 November 2018. Examination by staff from the Wakatobi National Park found 5.9 kg of plastic inside the animal's stomach, which is thought to have been the cause of the Whale's death. The second Whale, which measured about 15 m, was stranded alive on a beach near Doubtless Bay in Northland, New Zealand late on Saturday 23 November, and despite attempts to save it died overnight. In keeping with local tradition the Whale will be given a full funeral by the Ngāti Kahu Māori people, as is the case with all Whales and Dolphins washed up in the region, though in a break with tradition the group have decided to allow scientists to take samples from the animal's stomach, due to concerns that plastic in the environment may be harming the species.

A Sperm Whale, Physeter macrocephalus, that washed up on a beach in southeast Sulawesi on Monday 19 November 2018. Kartika Sumolang/WWF Indonesia.

Sperm Whales are the largest species of Toothed Whales, reaching about 20.5 m in length. The species is currently considered to be Vulnerable under the terms of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, with a population that probably measures somewhere in the hundreds of thousands. The species is thought to have had a population of over a million around the beginning of the nineteenth century, but to have fallen to about 29 000 by1880. The population rose again in the early twentieth century, as targeting of the species by Whalers declined, then fell from 1946 to 1980 as hunting of Sperm Whales increased again. Since 1985 the species has been protected by a moratorium on the taking of Whales agreed by the International Whaling Commission, and although a few Sperm Whales have been taken by the Japanese Whaling fleet since this time, the main threat to these animals is thought to come from Fishing nets, in which they can become entangled and drown, and plastics, which they can ingest, filling up their stomachs and preventing them from taking their normal food (mostly Squid).

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Asteroid 2018 VS8 passes the Earth.

Asteroid 2018 VS8 passed by the Earth at a distance of about 748 300 km (1.95 times the average distance between the Earth and the Moon, or 0.50% of the distance between the Earth and the Sun), slightly after 4.50 am GMT on Saturday 17 November 2018. There was no danger of the asteroid hitting us, though were it to do so it would not have presented a significant threat. 2018 VS8 has an estimated equivalent diameter of 6-22 m (i.e. it is estimated that a spherical object with the same volume would be 6-22 m in diameter), and an object of this size would be expected to explode in an airburst (an explosion caused by superheating from friction with the Earth's atmosphere, which is greater than that caused by simply falling, due to the orbital momentum of the asteroid) in the atmosphere between 38 and 20 km above the ground, with only fragmentary material reaching the Earth's surface.

The calculated orbit of 2018 VX1. Minor Planet Center.

2018 VS8 was discovered on 12 November 2018 (five days before its closest approach to the Earth) by the University of Arizona's Mt. Lemmon Survey at the Steward Observatory on Mount Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. The designation 2018 VS8 implies that the asteroid was the 218th object (object S8) discovered in the first half of November 2018 (period 2018 V).

2018 VS8 has an 998 day orbital period and an eccentric orbit tilted at an angle of 3.40° to the plane of the Solar System, which takes it from 0.94 AU from the Sun (i.e. 94% of he average distance at which the Earth orbits the Sun) to 2.97 AU from the Sun (i.e. 297% of the average distance at which the Earth orbits the Sun, almost twice as far from the Sun as the Planet Mars). It is therefore classed as an Apollo Group Asteroid (an asteroid that is on average further from the Sun than the Earth, but which does get closer). As such the asteroid has occasional close encounters with the planet Earth, which it last came close to in January 1955.

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Phyllium yapicum: A new species of Leaf Insect from Yap Island, Micronesia.

Leaf Insects, Phylliidae are a group of Stick Insects, Phasmida, currently known from as far west as the Seychelles, as far east as Fiji, as far north as Tibet and as far south as New Caledonia. Several new species have been described in this group in recent years, but most of these have been cryptic species (i.e. species which so closely resemble other species that they cannot readily be told apart by physical examination, but which are reproductively isolated from them) split from other species with ranges previously presumed to have larger ranges than was actually the case, rather than new populations living in areas where these Insects had not previously been observed.

In a paper published in the journal Insecta Mundi on 31 August 2018, Royce Cumming and Sierra Teemsma of the Montreal Insectarium describe a new species of Pyllid Leaf Insect from Yap Island in Micronesia.

The new species is placed in the widespread genus Phyllium, and given the specific name yapicum, in reference to the island where it was discovered. It is described from a single female specimen, which was collected in 1980 and deposited in the collection of the California Academy of Natural Sciences, where it has remained overlooked until now. The specimen is 73.4 mm in length and yellow and brown in colour, though it is likely to have been a bright green when alive.

Phyllium yapicum. (A) Dorsal view. (B) Ventral view. (C) Thorax side view. Cumming & Teemsma (2018). 

Phyllium yapicum appears to be most closely related to other members of the genus Phyllium from the Philippines, which is unsurprising as this is the nearest area where they have been recorded to date. However, Yap is separated from the Philippines by 1400 km of open ocean, which would seem rather hard for a Leaf Insect to cross, so Cumming and Teemsma suggest that there may be undiscovered species of Phyllium on the islands of Palau or Guam.

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Heavy rains bring flooding to Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Heavy rains have brought flooding to parts of southwestern Iran, southeastern Iraq, Kuwait and northeastern Saudi Arabia this week. Saudi Arabia has been the worst hit, with at least 35 killed in flash flooding incidents and 4000 being forced to evacuate their homes. The flooding has also killed at least 12 people in Iraq. Neither Iran not Kuwait have reported any casualties, but both countries have been forced to evacuate people from areas effected by the flooding.

Two Indian nationals trapped on top of a vehicle in the Al-Lith Valley in Saudi Arabia. Both were later rescued by the Royal Saudi Air Defence Forces. Al-Ekhbariya.

The Middle East, while generally arid, is prone to occasional severe flooding. This stems from two causes; firstly the arid climate prevents the development of a thick soil layer which would be expected in less dry areas, so that in much of the area (non-porous) bedrock is either exposed or close to the surface, and secondly the hot climate leads to heavy evaporation from nearby seas and oceans, so that if the wind changes direction and brings water-laden air to the area, it brings a lot of precipitation with it. This combination of heavy rainfall and low ground absorbency leads to large amounts of water at the surface, typically moving downhill at some speed. Wadis, dry channels or ravines through which these sudden floods are channelled, can be particularly dangerous at these times, particularly as they often appear to resemble natural pathways or even camp sites to people unfamiliar with the climate.

 Another man being rescued from flooding in Makkah Province, Saudi Arabia, on Friday 23 November 2018. Saudi Gazzette.

The storms have been caused by a low pressure system over the western Persian Gulf, caused by exceptionally hot weather in the region. As the air is heated the the air pressure drops and the air rises, causing new air to rush in from outside the forming storm zone. If this zone is sufficiently large, then it will be influenced by the Coriolis Effect, which loosely speaking means the winds closer to the equator will be faster than those further away, causing the storm to rotate, clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the southern hemisphere.

 Rescue workers aiding flood victims in the Al-Shirqat District of Iraq on Friday 23 November 2018. Middle East Monitor.

Whilst the high winds associated these storms is extremely dangerous, the real danger from such storms is often the flooding. Each millibar drop in air pressure can lead to a 1 cm rise in sea level, and large storms can be accompanied by storm surges several meters high. This tends to be accompanied by high levels of rainfall, caused by water picked up by the storm while still at sea, which can lead to flooding, swollen rivers and landslides; which occur when waterlogged soils on hill slopes lose their cohesion and slump downwards, over whatever happens to be in their path.

Damage caused by flooding in Kuwait City earlier this month. Noufal Ibrahim/EPA.

This extreme weather is thought to be connected with a developing El Niño weather system, which warms the waters of the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. The El Niño is the warm phase of a long-term climatic oscillation affecting the southern Pacific, which can influence the climate around the world. The onset of El Niño conditions is marked by a sharp rise in temperature and pressure over the southern Indian Ocean, which then moves eastward over the southern Pacific. This pulls rainfall with it, leading to higher rainfall over the Pacific and lower rainfall over South Asia. This reduced rainfall during the already hot and dry summer leads to soaring temperatures in southern Asia, followed by a rise in rainfall that often causes flooding in the Americas and sometimes Africa. Worryingly climatic predictions for the next century suggest that global warming could lead to more frequent and severe El Niño conditions, extreme weather conditions a common occurrence.

 Movements of air masses and changes in precipitation in an El Niño weather system. Fiona Martin/NOAA.

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