Thursday 28 February 2019

Choerades analogos, a new species of Robber Fly from Africa.

Robber Flies (Asilidae) are True Flies (Diptera) noted for their aggressive predatory behaviour, which includes taking other Insects on the wing. They are stout, bristly Flies, found across the globe other than in the Antarctic, but favouring open grasslands. Robber Flies can be quite large, with most species over 1 cm in length, and the biggest exceeding 5 cm. Members of the genus Choerades are widespread in Africa, with most species being tree-dwellers found in tropical regions of the continent, though Southern Africa is home to a number of species which inhabit more open environments. They tend to be shiny black Flies, 1-2 cm in length, and somewhat flattened dorsoventrally.

In a paper published in the journal African Invertebrates on 13 February 2019, Jason Londt of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum and the School of Biological & Conservation Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Torsten Dikow of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, describe a new species of Choerades from Southern, Eastern and Central Africa.

The new species is based upon re-examination of specimens in museum and university collections previously assigned to the Robber Fly species Andrenosoma serpentina. It is named Choerades analogos, where ‘analogos’ means ‘resembling’ because of this similarity. The species is black, with some white hairs giving it a silvery appearance, males having more white hairs than females. Most known specimens of the species were collected in South Africa and Namibia, but there are also examples from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, and Kenya, suggesting a widespread distribution.

Choerades analogos, male. Londt & Dikow (2019).

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Tuesday 26 February 2019

Animal mummies from the Saqqara Necropolis.

In 1964 archaeologist Walter Bryan Emery of the Egypt Exploration Society was excavating a Third Dynasty mastaba tomb (above-ground tomb constructed of mud bricks), while looking for the tomb of the legendary Egyptian pyramid-builder Imhotep, when he discovered that it had apparently been entered and re-used much later, during the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BC), by people who had left graffiti, pottery and mummified Bulls and Ibis. Subsequent investigations showed that the south burial shaft of this tomb, as well as the main burial shaft of an adjacent tomb, had been filled with large numbers of lidded pots containing Animal Mummy bundles. Emery cleared one of these shafts to a depth of ten metres, finding a corridor off which there were numerous side galleries, all containing numerous animal-mummy-pots. Emery removed about 500 of these offerings, which he noted were of pleasing appearance and probably produced by a single workshop, but did not study them extensively, instead distributing them to museums across the UK. However, if records of how this distribution was carried out were kept, and when in 1981 Geoffrey Martin of the University of Cambridge attempted to trace the fate of these mummies he could locate only 164.

In a paper published in the journal Antiquity on 18 February 2019, Stephanie Atherton-Woolham and Lidija McKnight of the University of Manchester, Campbell Price of the Manchester Museum, and Judith Adams of Radiology at Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Manchester Academic Health Science Centre, and the Division of Informatics, Imaging & Data Sciences at the University of Manchester, describe the results of a study of the Saqqara Animal Mummies, in which those they were able to locate in UK museums (now down to thirteen with location data preserved, plus three that they believe to have come from the same location - Atherton-Woolham et al. report being aware of a further six Saqqara Animal Mummies in the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but the remainder of the material appears to have been lost) were examined at Manchester University using non-invasive macroscopic and radiographic techniques, including digital radiography using a Philips Eleve Digital Diagnostic system, and computed tomography conducted using a Siemens Somatom Definition AS+.

(Top) The approximate location of the Saqqara Tombs. (Bottom) Section of Tomb 3508 showing the South Shaft filled with Ibis mummies and a Bull mummy. Atherton-Woolham et al. (2019).

The first two Mummies listed, 3508-46 DUROM.1971.121, and 3508-46 DUROM.1971.122, are housed in the Oriental Museum in Durham, having been acquired from the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1960s as ‘Ibis Mummies’; Emery recorded almost all of the Mummies as Ibises, though several have now been shown to contain other animals. Both of these are wrapped in linen shrouds; in 3508-46 the outer linen shroud has a gap at the upper end of the bundle, though this is obscured by a heavy wrapping of string, while in 3508-166 the shroud is simple, with a linen appliqué and dyed linen string motif representing the Sacred Ibis, shown standing upon a divine plinth.

Durham Oriental Museum: 3508-46: (Left) Shroud covered with concentric and lozenge thread layers. 3508-166: (Right) Appliqué ibis standing on a plinth Lidija McKnight in Atherton-Woolham et al. (2019).

The next four mummies examined come from the collection of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, who obtained them from the Egypt Exploration Society; no date of acquisition was recorded, but given the designations assigned to the specimens (3508-42 1969.A.450, 3508-58 1969.A.540, 3508-59 1969.A.464, and 3508-97 1969.A.449) it seems likely that the specimens were received in 1969. Three of these mummies are identified in the museum records as Ibis, while one, 3508-59 1969.A.464, is listed as a Snake or Crocodile.

3508-58 1969.A.540 has a shroud which is folded around the front of the mummy, meeting at the back in a seem which is covered by a linen strip that runs from the shoulder to the foot. The collar of the mummy is circled by a strip of slightly darker linen, and the sides of the head packed out with folded linen strips. The mummy has a moulded Ibis head, and the remains of similar feet, though the skeletal remains inside seem to be those of a small Bird of Prey rather than an Ibis. 

3508-58 1969.A.540, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: Shroud with simple modelled head. Lidija McKnight in Atherton-Woolham et al. (2019).

3508-59 1969.A.464 is listed in the museum records as a Snake or Crocodile, while Geoffrey Martin identified it as a Snake, on the basis that similar bundles found elsewhere had contained Snakes or other Reptiles. The specimen is an amorphous bundle rapped in plain linen, which could quite conceivably have contained a coiled snake, but which when examined radiographicly was shown to contain the skulls and articulated limbs of three Shrews, placed upon a linen pad then wrapped in another sheet of linen and coated with resin.

3508-59 1969.A.464, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: (Top) Amorphous shape with simple design of overlapping circular strips; (Bottom) AP digital radiograph showing the contents of the bundle with an MNI of 3, demonstrated by three Shrew skulls. Atherton-Woolham et al. (2019). 

Specimen 3508-157 1969.11.42 comes from the collection of the World Museum at National Museums Liverpool, who obtained it from the Egypt Exploration Society in 1969, and is again listed as an Ibis. This mummy is wrapped in linen with the outer layer made up of elaborately folded linen strips that form a lozenge or diamond shape on its surface.

3508-157 1969.11.42, World Museum Liverpool: Elaborate nested lozenge design formed from linen strips and thread. Lidija McKnight in Atherton-Woolham et al. (2019).

The next two specimens, 3508-160 UC.30692, and 3508-165 UC.30693, are both in the collection of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, who obtained them from the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1960s; both are listed as Ibis mummies. 3508-160 UC.30692 has a linen covering folded into an elaborate pleated herringbone pattern, with an appliqué motif comprising the partial remains of an ibis wearing an Atef crown, on an elaborate divine standard, facing the squatting figure of the goddess Maat, while 3508-165 UC.30693 is damaged and has lost most of its outer covering.

3508-160 UC.30692, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Herringbone with appliqué design. Lidija McKnight in Atherton-Woolham et al. (2019).

Specimen 3508-174 1969.486, from the Ashmolean Museum, who again obtained it from the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1960s, is also listed as an Ibis mummy.

Specimen 3508-179 E.3.1969, from the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, who again obtained it from the Egypt Exploration Society in 1969, is also listed as an Ibis mummy, and has an image of the god Thoth on its outer surface.

Specimen 3508-180 A.53.1969, from the collection of the Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, who again obtained it from the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1960s, is also listed as an Ibis mummy.

Specimen 3508-181 UC.30690, from the collection of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, who again obtained it from the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1960s, is also listed as an Ibis mummy, and was shown by radiography to have contained a single, complete, articulated individual at the time of mummification.

The final three specimens have no recorded point of origin, but are assumed to have come from the Saqqara tomb due to their similarity to the other mummies.

Specimen 11501, from the collection of the Manchester Museum, who obtained it from the British Museum in 1969, the British Museum having received it from the Egypt Exploration Society. This is again recorded as an Ibis mummy. This specimen has a shroud made from a single square of light-coloured linen, with an outer covering of 63 linen strips folded into a herringbone pattern, with an appliqué motif of the god Thoth wearing an Atef crown and holding an ankh in his right hand (the left hand is missing, and seated on a throne, made from three different-coloured linens. Specimen 11501 was shown by radiography to have contained a single, complete, articulated individual at the time of mummification, though it had suffered significant postdepositional damage to the thoracic spine, which suggests a lack of evisceration during mummification, which resulted in biological degradation of the internal organs, which in turn resulted in the collapse of delicate structural elements, such as the ribcage.

11501, Manchester Museum: Fine herringbone with shroud cap and appliqué design. Lidija McKnight in Atherton-Woolham et al. (2019).

Axial and reformatted coronalCTslices showing the contents of 11501 as an example of mummification in toto of a complete Ibis. Atherton-Woolham et al. (2019).

Specimens 1969.0212.12 and 1971.0227.153 are in the collection of the British Museum, and were obtained from the Egypt Exploration Society in 1969 and 1971 respectively. Both are listed as Ibis mummies.

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Saturday 23 February 2019

Magnitude 3.5 Earthquake in Ifrane Province, Morocco.

The United States Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 3.5 Earthquake at a depth of about 10 km, roughly close to the town of Azrou in  Ifrane Province, northern Morocco, slightly before 1.50 pm local time (slightly before 12.50 pm GMT) on Friday 22 February 2019. There are no reports of any damage or casualties associated with this event, but it may have been felt locally.

 The approximate location of the 22 February 2019 Ifrane Province Earthquake. Centre Seismologique Euro-Méditeranéen.

Morocco lies on the northernmost part of the African Plate, while Spain to the north is part of Eurasia. Africa is pushing into Europe from the south, which causes Earthquakes around the Mediterranean Basin. These are most common in southeast Europe, but those in northwest Africa, while less frequent, are often larger and more deadly.

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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Plagues of Locusts from Sudan and Eritrea threatens Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Nations around the Red Sea are being threatened by a series of Desert Locusts, Schistocerca gregaria, that have been breeding in Sudan and Eritrea over the winter. The Insects often build up in numbers towards the end of summer in the region, but typically the end of the rainy season in October results in a fall-off of these numbers, but this year exceptionally wet weather in the region has enabled them to keep breeding through the dry season. A further two generations of Locusts have been born in East Africa since October, with one swarm crossing the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, where they have also been reported to be breeding in the country's Empty Quarter, with Locusts reaching the borders of the United Arab Emirates, and potentially threatening Yemen, a country already devastated by war and famine, and potentially crossing the Persian Gulf to reach southern Iran, Pakistan or even India. Another swarm has been moving up the west coast of the Red Sea, and is thought likely to reach Egypt in the near future.

Desert Locusts in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, this month. Getty Images.

Desert Locusts typically have two or three generations in a year, but when conditions are favourable then five or more generations can occur. The females lay eggs in an ootheca (egg sack) in soft sand, where they can remain dormant until conditions are favourable or hatch within a few days. Hatchlings can reach maturity in about five weeks, eating as much as one-and-a-half times their body weight each day, when they are potentially able to breed again.

The adult form of the Desert Locust has two forms, the more usual solitary form, which does not usually move far from the area where they emerge, and a gregarious form, which forms large swarms and can roam long distances. The change from solitary to gregarious Locusts can happen in individuals, which change from one to the other in response to a rise in population density, but the reverse, a change from gregarious to solitary Locusts, can only happen when a new generation reaches maturity.

Solitary (top) and gregarious (bottom) Desert Locust nymphs. Compton Tucker/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Wikimedia Commons.

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Fisherman killed by Crocodile on Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria.

A fisheman has been killed in an apparent Crocodile attack on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria. Kennedy Ouma, 22, of Oele Beach in Siaya County, went missing on Tuesday 19 February 2019, prompting a search by officers of the Kenya Wildlife Services, which resulted in the discovery of his partially eaten body three days later.

Residents of Siaya County in Kenya with the body of Kennedy Ouma, 22, who is believed to have been killed by a Crocodile. Isaiah Gwengi/Standard.

Lake Victoria is home to a large population of Nile Crocodiles, Crocodylus niloticus, which are considered to be a high risk to Humans in the area, with frequent stories of fatal attacks in nations around the lake. A rising Human population appears to be fuelling this conflict, with people becoming more dependant on the lake for water, with many villagers calling for more governmental investment in borehole-drilling projects, which will enable them to spend less time close to the Crocodile-infested waters. 

The approximate location of the 19 February 2019 Crocodile attack. Google Maps.

Nile Crocodiles 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, but are still protected in many countries, due to historic hunting which decimated populations in many areas. However, the rising number of attacks on Humans by the animals has led to calls for regulated hunting to be introduced to control the population.

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Asteroid 2019 CY5 passes the Earth.

Asteroid 2019 CY5 passed by the Earth at a distance of about 545 700 km (1.42 times the average distance between the Earth and the Moon, or 0.36% of the distance between the Earth and the Sun), slightly before 8.00 am GMT on Tuesday 12 February 2019. There was no danger of the asteroid hitting us, though were it to do so it would not have presented a significant threat. 2019 CY5 has an estimated equivalent diameter of 11-36 m (i.e. it is estimated that a spherical object with the same volume would be 11-36 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 30 and 12 km above the ground, with only fragmentary material reaching the Earth's surface.
 The calculated orbit of 2019 CY5. JPL Small Body Database.

2019 CY5 was discovered on 15 February 2018 (three days after its closest approach to the Earth) by the Atlas MLO Telescope at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The designation 2019 CY5 implies that the asteroid was the 149th object (object Y5 - in numbering asteroids the letters A-Z, excluding I, are assigned numbers from 1 to 25, so that V2 = (25 x 5) + 24 = 149) discovered in the first half of February 2019 (period 2019 C).

2019 CY5 has an 1047 day orbital period and an eccentric orbit tilted at an angle of 5.80° to the plane of the Solar System, which takes it from 0.96 AU from the Sun (i.e. 96% of the the average distance at which the Earth orbits the Sun) to 3.07 AU from the Sun (i.e. 307% of the average distance at which the Earth orbits the Sun, more than twice the distance at which Mars orbits). 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).

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