September 30, 2014

How Dinosaur Arms Became Bird Wings

Although people now appreciate that birds evolved from a branch of the dinosaur family tree, a crucial adaptation for flight has continued to puzzle evolutionary biologists. Over time, wrists went from straight to bent and hyperflexible, allowing birds to fold their wings neatly against their bodies when not flying.
Hoatzin, a tropical bird whose chicks have claws on two
 of their wing digits. Photo by Linda De Volder.

How this happened has been the subject of much debate. Developmental biologists, who study how the wings of modern birds develop in the growing embryo, have generally disagreed with palaeontologists, who study the bones of extinct animals. By combining information from developmental biologists and palaeontologists, a new study may have found an answer to the question of how dinosaur arms and wrists became wings.

Self-Compassion: Key to Positive Body Image and Personal Strength

Women who treat themselves with compassion appear to have a significantly more positive body image. Regardless of their body mass index (BMI), these women are better able than others to overcome disappointments and setbacks.

In a new study of 153 young women, researchers at the University of Waterloo found that this self-compassion may be an important means to increase positive body image. Compassion may protect girls and young women against eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Self-compassion leads to health and happiness. Self-loathing does not.

"Women may experience a more positive body image and better eating habits if they approach disappointments and distress with kindness and the recognition that these struggles are a normal part of life," said Allison Kelly, the study's lead author.

September 29, 2014

More Men and Boys Are Suffering from Anorexia

A new study from the University of Montreal finds that more men and boys suffer from anorexia nervosa than previously believed.

"Most of the knowledge about anorexia pertains to females. However, about 10% of persons affected are males, and we believe this figure is underestimated," says Laurence Corbeil-Serre, lead author of the study. "Our results show that there appear to be similarities between the behavioral symptoms of males and females [with anorexia], but certain particularities can be identified in males, especially related to personality, gender identity, and sexual orientation."

Researchers found that males and females affected by anorexia share the same fear of gaining weight and "getting fat." Participants in the study had an average body mass index (BMI) of 16.1, placing them in a dangerous state of malnutrition. 

Earth's Water is Older than the Sun

Washington, D.C.—Water was crucial to the rise of life on Earth and is also important to evaluating the possibility of life on other planets. Identifying the original source of Earth's water is key to understanding how life-fostering environments come into being and how likely they are to be found elsewhere. New work from a team including Conel Alexander of Carnegie Institution for Science has found that much of our Solar System's water likely originated as ices that formed in interstellar space. Their work is published in the journal Science.
Illustration courtesy of Bill Saxton,

Water has been found throughout our Solar System. Not just on Earth, but also on icy comets and moons, and in the shadowed basins of Mercury. Evidence of water has been found in mineral samples from meteorites, the Moon, and Mars.

Comets and asteroids in particular, being primitive objects, provide a natural time capsule of the conditions during the early days of our Solar System. Their ices can tell scientists about the ice that encircled the Sun after its birth, the origin of which was an unanswered question until now.

September 26, 2014

Genetically Modifying Deadly Bacteria Could End Their Resistance to Antibiotics

In the past decade, many deadly bacteria have developed ways to resist antibiotics. Altering these bacteria at the genetic level may help people to fight back.
A cluster of drug-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. Streptococcus pneumoniae (or pneumococcus) is the leading cause of bacterial pneumonia and meningitis. It also is a major cause of bloodstream infections and ear and sinus infections. Image courtesy of the CDC/Melissa Brower.

With increased use of antibiotics, deadly bacteria such as those that cause tuberculosis, bacterial pneumonia, meningitis, typhoid, and others have found ways to stay alive, multiply, and infect our bodies. For example, when we take antibiotics, some germs have the ability to remove those antibiotics from their cells. Others produce an enzyme called NDM-1, which dissolves antibiotics, thus rendering them powerless.

September 24, 2014

Antarctic Fish Doesn't Freeze, Doesn't Thaw

Fish that have adapted to life in icy Antarctic waters by developing antifreeze proteins are swimming in an evolutionary paradox, researchers say. Even when swimming in warmer water, the fish have small ice crystals in their bodies.
A notothenoid fish swims at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.
Photo by Paul Cziko

The proteins in the bodies of Antarctic notothenioid fish are what keep the fish from freezing in sub-zero sea water. However, those same proteins have a side effect: They cause the fish to carry ice crystals in their bodies even when swimming in warmer water, preventing the fish from ever completely thawing out. Scientists have known for years that Antarctic fish make their own antifreeze, but the fishes' inability to thaw has only recently come to light.

September 23, 2014

Super-Strong Underwater Glue Inspired by Mussels

Engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a prototype underwater adhesive that is incredibly strong, versatile, and inspired by mussels.
A bed of Cornish mussels, photo by Mark A. Wilson

The new bio-inspired adhesive is the strongest ever made, according to the MIT engineers. It works underwater by using proteins that mussels use to attach themselves to rocks, piers, ship hulls, and other sea animals. If you've ever tried to pull a mussel off of a rock, then you have an idea of how tough that glue can be.

September 22, 2014

World Carbon Emissions Hit Record High, with China in the Lead

World carbon dioxide emissions have reached a record high in 2014 with China's increased emissions causing a large portion of the problem, according to a recent study on climate change.

According to the Global Carbon Project report, more than half of fossil fuel reserves may have to stay in the ground if national governments are serious about a 2010 pledge to limit a rise in average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6F). Globally, average temperatures have risen by 0.85 C (1.4 F) in the past 100 years, alone.

September 19, 2014

Artificial Sweeteners Linked with Metabolism Problems

The results of a new study suggest that instead of helping people loose weight, non-caloric artificial sweeteners may lead to health problems.

Researchers have found a connection between non-caloric artificial sweeteners and metabolic irregularities leading to high blood glucose levels and diabetes.

According to the authors of the study, "Non-caloric artificial sweeteners (NAS) are among the most widely used food additives worldwide, regularly consumed by lean and obese individuals alike. NAS consumption is considered safe and beneficial owing to their low caloric content, yet supporting scientific data remain sparse and controversial." The study links consumption of artificial sweeteners with dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities. The authors call for a reassessment of global usage of artificial sweeteners as substitutes for natural sugars.

The study was recently published in the journal Nature and was led by computational biologist Eran Segal and immunologist Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

Illustration by Piyaphon at

September 16, 2014

Map of Wikipedia Edits Reveals Data Hotspots and "Deserts"

A new study of Wikipedia edits reveals that some regions of the United States contribute more Wikipedia editing than others. A map of the results is so striking that it shows several "data deserts," shown as white patches on the map. These areas were found to have lower population density, higher median age, and less broadband Internet access.
White indicates that no edits were recorded for that county, and darker color indicates
higher edit rates. Map published with permission from the Center for Data Innovation.
Daniel Castro, Director of the Center for Data Innovation, describes data deserts as, "areas characterized by a lack of access to high-quality data that may be used to generate social and economic benefits."

September 12, 2014

What sound does a single atom make?

Quantum computing is still in its infancy, but a recent breakthrough in quantum acoustics could lead toward significantly faster computers.

Researchers at Columbia University in the US and Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have recorded the sound of a single, excited atom. The sound was produced by an artificial atom under laboratory conditions. It is a tiny vibration that the researchers were able to listen to using a specially-made chip that converts small acoustic waves into microwaves. It's a very quiet sound, and one that could usher in a new era of ultra-fast computing power. How? Essentially, quantum packets of sounds, known as phonons, could be used instead of packets of light to transmit information.

September 9, 2014

Ships Slowing Down to Avoid Collisions with Whales

Large container ships traveling through the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of southern California are being offered a bonus of US$2,500 per trip to slow down.
A fin whale, the second largest animal after the blue whale,
Photo courtesy of NOAA

The purpose of the program is two-fold: To combat exhaust emissions from the ships, which account for half of the ozone pollution in Santa Barbara County, and to reduce the number of whales that are struck by ships each year. Dead whales are often found washed up on the shore with blunt force trauma from collisions, Hastings said. Recently, a dead fin whale washed up on the beach. It may have been struck by a passing container ship. Fin whales can grow up to 90 feet in length and are the second largest living animals after the endangered blue whale. 

September 5, 2014

Possible Good News for California Blue Whales

Blue whale, courtesy of the U.S. National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration
Blue whales off the coast of California may be making an historic comeback! According to a paper published today in the journal Marine Mammal Science, there are now about 2,200 blue whales along the California coast. The population of blue whales in this area reached an all-time low of only 951 individuals in 1931. The population was nearly wiped out by whaling and has not suddenly bounced back. Instead, this has been a slow and steady recovery. According to Trevor Branch, University of Washington assistant professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, the blue whale population has been recovering steadily since the international hunting of blue whales ceased in 1971.

September 3, 2014

New species of prehistoric bird discovered

Fossil of a juvenile Enantiorithe
A team of paleontologists has uncovered a prehistoric bird that is large and distinct enough to merit the naming of a new species. The new species is being called Zhouornis hani, and it is a type of Enantiornithine. Enantiornithes are an extinct group of primitive birds. Almost all of these ancient birds had teeth. They also had clawed fingers on each wing. Aside from the teeth and claws, they probably looked much like modern birds. They even had the modified wrist joint that allows modern birds to fold their wings neatly against their sides.