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Dec. 15, 2008 -- Scientists have discovered more than 1,000 species in Southeast Asia's Greater Mekong region in the past decade, including a spider as big as a dinner plate, the World Wildlife Fund said Monday.

A rat thought to have become extinct 11 million years ago and a cyanide-laced, shocking pink millipede were among creatures found in what the group called a "biological treasure trove."

The species were all found in the rainforests and wetlands along the Mekong River, which flows through Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the southern Chinese province of Yunnan.

"It doesn't get any better than this," Stuart Chapman, director of World Wildlife Fund: Greater Mekong PrgroamWWF's Greater Mekong Program, was quoted as saying in a statement by the group.

"We thought discoveries of this scale were confined to the history books."

The WWF report, "First Contact in the Greater Mekong", said that "between 1997 and 2007, at least 1,068 have been officially described by science as being newly discovered species."

These included the world's largest huntsman spider, with a leg span of 30 centimeters (11.8 inches), and the "startlingly" colored "dragon millipede," which produces the deadly compound cyanide.

Not all species were found hiding in remote jungles -- the Laotian rock rat, which the study said was thought to be extinct about 11 million years ago, was first encountered by scientists in a local food market in 2005, it said.

One species of pitviper was first noted by scientists after it was found in the rafters of a restaurant at the headquarters of Thailand's Khao Yai national park in 2001.

"This region is like what I read about as a child in the stories of Charles Darwin," said Dr Thomas Ziegler, curator at the Cologne Zoo, who was involved in the research.

"It is a great feeling being in an unexplored area and to document its biodiversity for the first time both enigmatic and beautiful," he said.

The new species highlighted in the report include 519 plants, 279 fish, 88 frogs, 88 spiders, 46 lizards, 22 snakes, 15 mammals, four birds, four turtles, two salamanders and a toad -- an average of two previously undiscovered species a week for the past 10 years.

The report warned, however, that many of the species could be at risk from development, and called for a cross-border agreement between the countries in the Greater Mekong area to protect it.

Larry O'Hanlon, Discovery News
Dec. 1, 2008 -- A spectacular new species of coral has been discovered thriving in veritable forests on the peaks of undersea mountains off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The large candelabra or fan-like "bamboo corals" have been spotted by marine scientists growing to heights in excess of a meter. They are so abundant they create oases for numerous other deep sea creatures.

"They look really, really big when you're underwater," said marine biologist Peter Etnoyer of Texas A & M University. Etnoyer is also the coauthor of the Deep Sea News blog which appears on the Discovery News Web site.

Etnoyer and his colleagues discovered the corals at depths of 700 to 1,000 meters in the famous Alvin submersible. A paper officially describing the new species as well as giving it an official scientific name will appear in the late December issue of the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

Bits and pieces of the mysterious bamboo corals had been seen for years, brought up in the nets of trawlers, Etnoyer said. But none of these fragments hinted at the size, beauty and importance of the corals and for other life at such depths.

"Bamboo corals have remarkable scientific utility," says coral researcher Tom Shirley of Texas A & M's Harte Research Institute. "Their growth rings are imprinted with carbon isotopes that allow us to unravel their growth history." Cross-sections exhibit growth rings that indicate some colonies can be 150 years old and more.

Deep sea fans like the bamboo coral are animals that feed on suspended organic material that floats by. Unlike better-known hard corals, deep sea corals live in pitch-black, cold waters. The new deep sea species also has very unusual and impressive skirt of long tentacles on its trunk that billow in the current. It's a feature that can only be seen and appreciated by looking at the living organism, as they could with Alvin, Etnoyer explained.

The deep sea corals were also clearly providing cover and solid foothold for fish, crabs and other animals -- essentially a shelter -- in the otherwise mucky, largely deserted expanses of deep ocean floor.

"They provide a lot of shelter, food and breeding grounds," said deep sea coral researcher Di Tracey of New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. That makes them important for fisheries, since deep sea fish can't thrive without places to breed.

Deep sea corals of the same genus Isidella appear off the coast of New Zealand as well, Tracey said. That's one reason why marine biologists are meeting there on Dec. 5 for the Fourth International Deep Sea Coral Symposium.

"We have a lot of deep sea corals in the world that haven't been described," Tracey said. "We've known about them since the 18th century, but they've been sort of out of sight, out of mind."

Now with the help of technological advances like the Alvin and remotely controlled submersible vehicles, these unusual creatures can finally be given the scientific attention they deserve, she said.

Nov. 19, 2008 -- Biologists on Wednesday explained how the larvae of marine zooplankton can see with just two cells, using what is believed to be the world's simplest vision system.

Zooplankton are tiny creatures such as copepods and krill that drift in the ocean's water columns, swimming up from the depths towards the light in order to graze on marine plants called phytoplankton near the surface.

This movement, called phototaxis, is the biggest biomass displacement in the world.

In a study published by the British-based journal Nature, European scientists looked at the larvae of the marine ragworm Platyneris dumerilii to try to explain how plankton are able to do the phototaxis trick.

The larva has just two eye cells, consisting of a pigment cell and a light-sensitive cell, say the investigators.

The cells are unable to form images but enable the plankton to sense the difference between light and dark and send appropriate signals to its swimming mechanism, say the investigators.

First, the pigment cell absorbs light and casts a shadow over the photoreceptor cell. The shape of the shadow varies according to the position of the light source.

The photoreceptor cell then converts this light signal into electricity, sending it in a signal along a nerve that connects to a band of cells endowed with thin hairs, called cilia, that beat to displace water.

The basic but effective system could explain how the very first eyes in evolution may have worked, say the team from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the Max Planck Institute.

"For a long time, nobody knew how the animals do phototaxis with their simple eyes and nervous system," said EMBL's Detlev Arendt.

"We assume that the first eyes in the animal kingdom evolved for exactly this purpose. Understanding phototaxis thus unravels the first steps of eye evolution."

Nov. 17, 2008 -- Scientists have discovered for the first time a menagerie of perfectly intact marine microorganisms trapped in tree resin at least 100 million years ago, according to a new study.

The unexpected find in the Charente region of southwestern France pushes back by at least 20 million years the period when a type of single-cell algae called diatoms are known to have appeared on Earth, said the study.

It also creates a mystery: how did sea creatures wind up trapped in a glob of resinated amber that oozes out of trees?

The most likely scenario, the scientists concluded, is that the forest producing the amber was very near the coast, and that the tiny organisms -- which also included primitive plankton -- were either carried inland by strong winds or flood waters during a storm.

"This discovery will deepen our understanding of these lost marine species as well as providing precious data about the coastal environment of western France during the Cretaceous Period," which spanned from 145 to 65 million years ago, the researchers said in a statement.

It also challenges certain theories about the evolution of these organisms, and vindicates the research of molecular geneticists, said Jean-Paul Saint Martin, a scientist at the National History Museum in Paris and a co-author of the study.

Using "molecular clocks," biochemists move backward in time to figure out at what point in the evolutionary process certain plant and animal species split off into different branches.

"We had no record of these microorganisms over a period of 20 million years. These fossils have filled that void in the most extraordinary manner," Saint Martin told AFP.

The study, carried out in collaboration with the National Center for Scientific Research in Strasbourg, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Larry O'Hanlon, Discovery News
Nov. 14, 2008 -- After a long search researchers think they have found a cryptic microbe that helps fertilize ocean waters worldwide. Or at least they have found the single-celled critter's very telling and surprising genome.

The actual microbe -- a type of bacteria known as cyanobacteria -- has so far eluded direct observation, although perhaps not for much longer.

"This is a microscopic organism that I've been chasing for 10 years now," said researcher Jonathan Zehr of the University of California at Santa Cruz. "We couldn't culture it (in a laboratory) and couldn't see it." He is the lead author of a paper on the discovery featured in the Nov. 14 issue of the journal Science.

Hints of the mysterious organism have been popping up all over the world in DNA analysis of sea water, said Zehr. Those hints indicated that there was some small organism which was rigged to grab nitrogen from the air and feed the microscopic plants -- called phytoplankton -- that form the base of the ocean food chain. This makes it a rather important player in the oceans.

"In order to pull down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we need phytoplankton," explained Woods Hole marine scientist Anton Post. And in order for sun-loving phytoplankton to grow, they need a host of nutrients -- just like land plants. "More often than not, nitrogen is the limiting nutrient."

Tracking down a widespread organism that gets nitrogen into the ocean food web has implications for global warming, which is driven by excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

By applying a powerful suite of new technologies to the task, Zehr and his colleagues were finally able to nail down the size and color of the organism and map out its genome. What they found was a shock.

"The first thing that surprised us is that this turned out to be a small cell," Zehr said. It also lacked photosynthetic plant pigments or any of the genes for being a photosynthetic plant. That means it had to make a living from other living things.

The discovery is remarkable because the only other nitrogen-fixing organisms found in the ocean also perform photosynthesis -- which creates the oxygen we breathe. The two processes are tricky to accomplish side-by-side because the molecular equipment used to grab nitrogen is destroyed by oxygen.

"Some cyanobacteria get around this by just fixing nitrogen at night, when there is less oxygen" because photosynthesis is not happening in the dark, Zehr said.

The newfound organism can fix nitrogen during the day, however, and it lacks genes for living like a plant, he said. So it's either a weird relict organism from the early days of life on Earth, before photosynthesis evolved -- or it lost the genes for living like a plant in favor of some other arrangement.

"One of our hypotheses is that it's living in symbiosis with some other organism," Zehr said. But that other organism, too, has proven elusive.

Fortunately, now that they have clues to the nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria's lifestyle, it might be finally possible to grow it in a lab and then really study it in detail, Zehr explained.

Zombied Snail

Leucochloridium paradoxum are a parasitic flatworm that prey on birds.
The worms begin their lives as eggs in bird droppings, and are consumed by snails along vegetation floors. Once consumed, the worms infect the snail's brains, take control of their mind, then "hypnotize" them into climbing just high enough to become bird food - where the cycle repeats.

Zombied Crickets

Gordian worm live inside crickets for long periods, feeding on the cricket's diet. Once fully grown, they inject chemicals into the cricket's brain "brainwashing" it and forcing it to kill itself by jumping into the water. Once in water, the worm wriggles out of the writhing body and swims off in search of a mate.

Zombied Ants

David Attenborough speaks on the amazing Cordyceps fungus that infect insects in the jungle. Each fungus attacks only one species of insect, first by altering their behavior and then bursts from their bodies to grow and eventually produce another generation of highly infective spores.

Eric Bland, Discovery News

Oct. 21, 2008 -- The same cells electric eels use to shock predators and prey can be engineered to power implanted biomedical devices , say researchers from Yale University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
"We now understand how the natural electric eel cells work," said David LaVan of NIST. "Now we can think about how we can use those cells to power medical devices."

Natural electric eel cells generate and release electric pulses of more than 500 volts with eight different channels and pumps.
By pumping positively charged potassium and sodium ions out of the cell, the number of negatively charged ions inside the cells rises. Opening certain channels causes electrons to flood out of the cell, producing enough electricity to stun the eel's victim.
Using computer models, the scientists experimented with different combinations of those eight pumps and channels. A cell with four pumps and channels was easier to make but only about four percent as efficient at converting sugar to electricity.

Surprisingly, by eliminating one pump (an "evolutionary leftover," as LaVan calls it) and adjusting the ratio of the other pumps and channels, the scientists designed a cell that was both powerful and energy efficient.

"It's like having a Ferrari that is also the most fuel-efficient car in the world," said LaVan. Natural electric eel cells are about 14 percent efficient at converting sugar into electricity, compared to 19 percent for the engineered cells.

The pumps and channels are powered by the same fuel that drives every human cell: adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. Stripping off one phosphate group drives cellular activities and in the process turns ATP into adenosine diphosphate, or ADP. Sugar helps recycle ADP back into ATP.
Scientists would divert the sugar naturally produced in the body into the implanted electrical generator. Each individual cell would produce an estimate 150 millivolts.
Lining up those cells and sandwiching them between an insulting material, a four-millimeter cube could produce three volts of electricity, enough to power a retinal implants, for example. A typical TV remote battery produces about 1.5 volts.
Sugar is plentiful. Sunlight is even more plentiful. Eventually, the researchers want to use photosynthesis , the process plants use to turn sunlight into sugar, instead of using the body's own supply.
"Those pieces [that plants use for photosynthesis] exist, but we will have to sit down and rework them," said LaVan. "That's still an open question."
Another open question is whether these cells can actually be built; so far the powerful and efficient cellular powerhouses are only present in virtual reality.
Actually creating them can be done in two ways, said Atul Parikh, a scientist at the University of California, Davis.
One way is top-down -- essentially breeding live electric eels, harvesting their cells, and reconfiguring them to power implanted devices.
The other way is to engineer the cells from the bottom up, growing them into a designed configuration. The bottom-up method will likely be harder, but it would produce power more efficiently, said Parikh.
However the cells are created, Parikh said they could be used not only to power biomedical devices, but also energy outside the body.
"This could be a new way to make solar panels more efficient or bring us closer to a hydrogen economy," he said.
Basic prototypes could be developed within a couple of years, and an actual device could be implanted in as little as five years, if everything goes smoothly.
"The practical implications of this are huge," said Parikh. "The notion of biobatteries is very real."

Rebecca Carroll
for National Geographic News
October 28, 2008

Recently identified electrical activity on Saturn's largest moon bolsters arguments that Titan is the kind of place that could harbor life.

At a brisk -350 degrees Fahrenheit (-180 Celsius), Titan is currently much too cold to host anything close to life as we know it, scientists say
But a new study reports faint signs of a natural electric field in Titan's thick cloud cover that are similar to the energy radiated by lightning on Earth.

Lightning is thought to have sparked the chemical reactions that led to the origin of life on our planet.

"As of now, lightning activity has not been observed in Titan's atmosphere," said lead author Juan Antonio Morente of the University of Granada in Spain.

But, he said, the signals that have been detected "are an irrefutable proof for the existence of electric activity."

Frozen, Prebiotic Casserole

Morente's team studied data returned from the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, which broke away from NASA's Cassini spacecraft in 2005 to become the first probe to go below Titan's clouds. (Read "Voyage to Saturn" in National Geographic magazine.)

As soon as the probe entered the moon's atmosphere, a strong wind tilted the device about 30 degrees.

This accidental motion enabled Huygens to detect the Earthlike electrical resonances that it otherwise would have missed, which Morente and colleagues describe their study, published in a recent issue of the journal Icarus.

Jeffrey Bada, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, believes the process that allowed lightning to spark life on Earth is universal and could happen in many environments—including on Titan.

Confirmation earlier this year of Titan's hydrocarbon lakes makes the Saturnian moon the first place other than Earth where open bodies of liquid have been found.

Hydrocarbons are organic molecules, and the fact that they exist in large quantities on Titan suggests that life could take root there under the right conditions.

"If you had lightning taking place in the atmosphere of Titan, you could make what we call precursor molecules," said Bada, who was not involved with Morente's study.

"To go any further than that," he said, "you need liquid water."

Titan's water is currently frozen into chunks as hard as granite. If those ice "rocks" were to melt, however, the environment could become more hospitable to the building blocks of life.

With liquid water, the planet could host the formation of amino acids and then full proteins, which drive all biochemistry and set the stage for more complex molecules.

"I look at Titan as a big, frozen, prebiotic casserole," Bada said, referring to the state before the emergence of life.

"The idea that life could be widespread in the universe, I think, is very credible."

A Field of Its Own

Advocates of theories about life on Titan note that various celestial events could temporarily warm up the moon enough to melt its ice into water.

Perhaps this happened in the past, they say—or it could happen in the future.

But study author Morente said it's impossible to precisely assess such possibilities with the scientific knowledge available today.

What astronomers do know is that Titan does not have its own magnetic field, he said. The moon instead orbits within Saturn's magnetosphere at differing distances from the planet.

This means that the strength of Titan's magnetic field is constantly changing, leaving its surface more vulnerable to damaging cosmic rays.

Without stable protection from radiation, Morente said, "the existence of life is very unlikely."

Doug Mellgren, Associated Press

Feb. 26, 2008 -- A "doomsday" seed vault built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters opened Tuesday deep within an Arctic mountain in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

"The The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is our insurance policy," Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told delegates at the opening ceremony. "It is the Noah's Ark for securing biological diversity for future generations."

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya were among the dozens of guests who had bundled up for the ceremony inside the vault, about 425 feet deep inside a frozen mountain.

"This is a frozen Garden of Eden," Barroso said.

The vault will serve as a backup for hundreds of other seed banks worldwide. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples from around the world and shield them from man-made and natural disasters.

Dug into the permafrost of the mountain, it has been built to withstand an earthquake or a nuclear strike.
Norway owns the vault in Svalbard, a frigid archipelago about 620 miles from the North Pole.

It paid $9.1 million for construction, which took less than a year. Other countries can deposit seeds without charge and reserve the right to withdraw them upon need.

The operation is funded by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which was founded by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and Biodiversity International, a Rome-based research group.

"Crop diversity will soon prove to be our most potent and indispensable resource for addressing climate change, water and energy supply constraints, and for meeting the food needs of a growing population," said Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Svalbard is cold, but giant air conditioning units have chilled the vault further to -0.4 Fahrenheit, a temperature at which experts say many seeds could last for 1,000 years.

Stoltenberg and Maathai delivered the first box of seeds to the vault during the opening ceremony--a container of rice seeds from 104 countries.

"This is unique. This is very visionary. It is a precaution for the future," Maathai, a Crop Diversity Trust board member, told The Associated Press after the ceremony.

The seeds are packed in silvery foil containers--as many as 500 in each sample--and placed on blue and orange metal shelves inside three 32-foot-by-88-foot storage chambers. Each vault can hold 1.5 million sample packages of all types of crop seeds, from carrots to wheat.

Construction leader Magnus Bredeli-Tveiten said the vault is designed to withstand earthquakes--successfully tested by a 6.2-magnitude temblor off Svalbard last week--and even a direct nuclear strike.

Many other seed banks are in less protected areas. For example, war wiped out seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one in the Philippines was flooded in the wake of a typhoon in 2006.

Larry O'Hanlon, Discovery News

March 31, 2008 -- A new report of tiny beads of meteor impact glass strewn high in Antarctica's Transantarctic Mountains may expand a debris field to a tenth of Earth's surface -- despite no sign of the crater which spewed out the molten rock 800,000 years ago.

The accidental discovery of the glass "microtektites" in the high mountains of Antarctica extends what's called the Australasian tektite strewn field south by nearly 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers).

The microtektites were found while a team of researchers were searching the exposed rocks atop the Transantarctic Frontier Mountain for more pieces of an unrelated meteorite that disintegrated in the skies there long ago.

"The gradiometer kept on beeping at every fracture of the granitic bedrock surface," recalled Italian researcher Luigi Folco of the Museo Nazionale dell'Antartide, Università di Siena and the Italian Programma Nazionale delle Ricerche in Antartide.

A magnetic gradiometer detects minute changes in magnetic fields caused by rocks containing magnetic minerals. The most likely cause for the beeping was magnetic minerals in volcanic ash from one of the relatively recent volcanoes in the region.

"When we get back to the lab, to our great surprise, we found thousands of micrometeorite and cosmic spherules thus explaining the magnetic signal," Folco told Discovery News.

But they also found glass spheres 0.5 millimeter in diameter with a pale-yellow color, which is unusual for glassy cosmic spherules, which are the debris of meteors melting in Earth's atmosphere.

The chemical composition of the yellow spheres revealed them to be Earth rocks. That meant there was only one likely way they could have been created -- in the heat of an impact, which flung melted rock into space and then rained back down, cooling and solidifying into spheres while in free fall.

The discovery was written up and reported in the April issue of the journal Geology.

The analysis of the microtektites revealed they are similar enough in appearance, composition and age to represent the edges of the Australasian strewnfield, said Folco. That strewnfield already had been found to extend from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.

"It's a pretty big strewn field," said tektite pioneer and professor emeritus Bill Glass of the University of Delaware.

Larger tektites from the impact have been found all over Australia and smaller microtektites have been extracted from the bottom of the Indian Ocean, he told Discovery News. But this is the first good evidence that the debris might have been flung even further, he explained.

"You'd think that something that big would be easy to find," said Glass. "It's a real puzzle."

The most likely location of the hidden crater is somewhere in Indochina, said Glass. One possibility is that the meteor struck down on what is the sea floor today. But 800,000 years ago, an ice age would have lowered the sea level and exposed the seafloor. Since then it could have been buried by marine sediments.

Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press

Feb. 28, 2008 -- Those beautiful snowflakes drifting out of the sky may have a surprise inside--bacteria.

Most snow and rain forms in chilly conditions high in the sky and atmospheric scientists have long known that, under most conditions, the moisture needs something to cling to in order to condense.

Now, a new study shows a surprisingly large share of those so-called nucleators turn out to be bacteria that can affect plants.

"Bacteria are by far the most active ice nuclei in nature," said Brent C. Christner, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University.

Christner and colleagues sampled snow from Antarctica, France, Montana and the Yukon and they report their findings in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

In some samples as much as 85 percent of the nuclei were bacteria, Christner said in a telephone interview. The bacteria were most common in France, followed by Montana and the Yukon, and was even present to a lesser degree in Antarctica.

The most common bacteria found was Pseudomonas syringae, which can cause disease in several types of plants including tomatoes and beans.

The study found it in 20 samples of snow from around the world and subsequent research has also found it in summer rainfall in Louisiana.

The focus on Pseudomonas in the past has been to try and eliminate it, Christner said, but now that it turns out to be a major factor in encouraging snow and rain, he wonders if that is a good idea. Would elimination of this bacteria result in less rain or snow, or would it be replaced by other nuclei such as soot and dust?

"The question is, are they a good guy or a bad guy," he said, "and I don't have the answer to that."

What is clear is that Pseudomonas is effective at getting moisture in a cloud to condense, he pointed out. Killed bacteria are even used as an additive in snow making at ski resorts.

Which raises the question, Christner said, of whether planting crops known to be infected by Pseudomonas in areas experiencing drought might help increase precipitation there by adding more nuclei to the atmosphere.

It has been known that microbes and insects and algae blow around in the atmosphere, Christner added, "but the atmosphere has not been recognized as a place where things are active. That has been changing in the last decade. In a cloud you've got water, organic carbon," everything necessary to support a microorganism.

Virginia K. Walker, a biologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, said other researchers have found bacteria serving as snow nuclei, but had not identified it as Pseudomonas.

"It's one of those great bacteria ... you can find them anywhere," said Walker, who was not part of the research team. "They are really interesting."

Charles Knight, a cloud physics expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., wasn't surprised by the finding, however.

At relatively warm temperatures of just a few degrees below freezing, bacteria are "remarkably effective" at attracting ice formation, said Knight, who also was not part of the research group.

The study was supported by a Louisiana State University research grant.

In a second paper published online by Science, researchers report that the amount of dust blown into the tropical Pacific over the last half-million years has varied widely between warm and cold periods.

Dust also has important impacts on weather and climate ranging from serving as nuclei for rain to blocking some incoming radiation from the sun, and it also delivers minerals like iron that increase growth of plankton in ocean areas.

Cores of seafloor sediment were taken from locations across the tropical Pacific covering a period of 500,000 years.

Researchers led by Gisela Winckler of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University found that dust deposited in the ocean peaked during cold periods and was less during warm periods. Using isotopes, the scientists traced the dust on the western side to Asia and that on the eastern side to South America.

They say the reasons for the change are complex but in general it tends to be windier in cold periods meaning more dust gets blown around.

They found that cold peaks occurred about every 100,000 years, with the last one at 20,000 years ago.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Larry O'Hanlon, Discovery News

March 11, 2008 -- One of the longest-running mysteries in the U.S. National Parks has been solved: The crater-like Upheaval Dome in Utah's Canyonlands National Park was caused by a meteor impact, say German researchers. 

For decades geologists have debated whether the picturesque "Sphinx of Geology," viewed by millions of park visitors, was created by a volcanic outburst, an eruption of salt or a meteor impact. Then a crucial clue was discovered: "shocked quartz," which can be created only by the intense pressures of a violent meteor impact. 

"This is great news because finally, after so many years of searching, the final clue that Upheaval Dome is an impact structure has been discovered," said impact crater researcher Christian Koeberl of the University of Vienna in Austria. "Their data are convincing."

The discovery was made by German researchers Elmar Buchner and Thomas Kenkmann, who published their findings in the March issue of the journal Geology. Surprisingly, the shocked grains of quartz were located not at the center of the crater, but off to one side, suggesting that the meteor struck the Earth at an angle. 

"Discovery of shock metamorphic a requirement to 'nail' the impact origin of a feature, and they have done it," Koeberl told Discovery News. 

In the 1930s, Upheaval Dome was interpreted as a volcanic feature by one geologist. Thirty years later, in the 1960s, another geologist proposed that it was the result of ancient sea salts buried under the rock. The salt, less dense than rock, rises up in the ground -- like a drop of oil rising up through water -- and buoys up the rock into a dome. 

The meteor impact idea wasn't officially taken up by any researchers until the 1980s, and remained inconclusive until now.

"The very controversial debate about Upheaval Dome's origin has lasted nearly a century, over the course of which extremely different hypotheses (gradualism versus catastrophism) have been proposed," report Buchner and Kenkmann. 

The debate has, in fact, reflected a historical divide of ideas in geology over those decades. 

On one hand there were the "gradualists" who adhered to the idea that just about everything we see on the planet today is the result of gradual processes still at work -- glaciers moving, rains falling, rivers flowing, etc. Gradualism was considered heretical when it was proposed by James Hutton in the late 18th century because it implies the Earth was tremendously older than some Biblical scholars had claimed. 

These Biblical scholars cited such catastrophes as Noah's flood to explain such geological oddities as marine fossils atop mountains. These early "catastrophists" tended to ignore evidence that went against their Biblical interpretation of the geological record. In other words, they weren't very scientific. 

As a result, geologists are trained to tread very carefully wherever extraordinary events are being called on to explain geological features. The trouble is, of course, there are some things like Upheaval Dome, which are, as we now know, genuine creations of extraordinary -- albeit non-Biblical -- catastrophic events.

Ray Lilley, Associated Press

March 21, 2008 -- Scientists who conducted the most comprehensive survey to date of New Zealand's Antarctic waters were surprised by the size of some specimens found, including jellyfish with 12-foot tentacles and 2-foot-wide starfish.

A 2,000-mile journey through the Ross Sea that ended Thursday has also potentially turned up several new species, including as many as eight new mollusks.

It's "exciting when you come across a new species," said Chris Jones, a fisheries scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "All the fish people go nuts about that -- but you have to take it with a grain of salt."

The finds must still be reviewed by experts to determine if they are in fact new, said Stu Hanchet, a fisheries scientist at New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

But beyond the discovery of new species, scientists said the survey, the most comprehensive to date in the Ross Sea, turned up other surprises.

Hanchet singled out the discovery of "fields" of sea lilies that stretched for hundreds of yards across the ocean floor.

"Some of these big meadows of sea lilies I don't think anybody has seen before," Hanchet said.
Previously only small-scale scientific samplings have been staged in the Ross Sea.

The survey was part of the International Polar Year program involving 23 countries in 11 voyages to survey marine life and habitats around Antarctica. The program hopes to set benchmarks for determining the effects of global warming on Antarctica, researchers said.

Large sea spiders, jellyfish with 12-foot tentacles, huge sea snails and starfish the size of big food platters were found during a 50-day voyage, marine scientist Don Robertson said.

Cold temperatures, a small number of predators, high levels of oxygen in the sea water and even longevity could explain the size of some specimens, said Robertson, a scientist with NIWA.

Robertson added that of the 30,000 specimens collected, hundreds might turn out to be new species.

Stefano Schiaparelli, a mollusk specialist at Italy's National Antarctic Museum in Genoa, said he thought the find would yield at least eight new mollusks.

"This is a new brick in the wall of Antarctic knowledge," Schiaparelli said.

Associated Press

Feb. 20, 2008 -- Scientists investigating the icy waters of Antarctica said they have collected mysterious creatures including giant sea spiders and huge worms in the murky depths.

Australian experts taking part in an international program to take a census of marine life in the ocean at the far south of the world collected specimens from up to 6,500 feet beneath the surface, and said many may never have been seen before.

Some of the animals far under the sea grow to unusually large sizes, a phenomenon called gigantism that scientists still do not fully understand.

"Gigantism is very common in Antarctic waters," Martin Riddle, the Australian Antarctic Division scientist who led the expedition, said in a statement. "We have collected huge worms, giant crustaceans and sea spiders the size of dinner plates."

The French and Japanese ships sought specimens from the mid- and upper-level environment, while the Australian ship plumbed deeper waters with remote-controlled cameras.

"In some places every inch of the sea floor is covered in life," Riddle said. "In other places we can see deep scars and gouges where icebergs scour the sea floor as they pass by."

Among the bizarre-looking creatures the scientists spotted were tunicates, plankton-eating animals that resemble slender glass structures up to a yard tall "standing in fields like poppies," Riddle said.

Other animals were equally baffling.

"They had fins in various places, they had funny dangly bits around their mouths," Riddle told reporters. "They were all bottom dwellers so they were all evolved in different ways to live down on the sea bed in the dark. So many of them had very large eyes -- very strange looking fish."

Scientists are planning a follow-up expedition in 10 to 15 years to examine the effects of climate changes on the region's environment.

The specimens were being sent to universities and museums around the world for identification, tissue sampling and DNA studies.

"Not all of the creatures that we found could be identified and it is very likely that some new species will be recorded as a result of these voyages," said Graham Hosie, head of the census project.

The expedition is part of an ambitious international effort to map life forms in the Antarctic Ocean, also known as the Southern Ocean, and to study the impact of forces such as climate change on the undersea environment.

Three ships -- Aurora Australis from Australia, France's L'Astrolabe and Japan's Umitaka Maru -- returned recently from two months in the region as part of the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census. The work is part of a larger project to map the biodiversity of the world's oceans.

Seth Borentstein, Associated Press

Jan. 11, 2008 -- The deeper astronomers gaze into the cosmos, the more they find it's a bizarre and violent universe.  The research findings from this week's annual meeting of U.S. astronomers range from blue orphaned baby stars to menacing "rogue" black holes that roam our galaxy.

"It's an odd universe we live in," said Vanderbilt University astronomer Kelly Holley-Bockelmann. She presented her theory on rogue black holes at the American Astronomical Society's meeting in Austin, Texas, earlier this week.

It should be noted that she's not worried, and you shouldn't be either. The odds of one of these black holes swallowing up Earth or the sun or wreaking other havoc is somewhere around 1 in 10 quadrillion in any given year.

"This is the glory of the universe," added J. Craig Wheeler, president of the astronomy association. "What is odd and what is normal is changing."

Just five years ago, astronomers were gazing at a few thousand galaxies where stars formed in a bizarre and violent manner. Now the number is in the millions, thanks to more powerful telescopes and supercomputers to crunch the crucial numbers streaming in from space, said Wheeler, a University of Texas astronomer.

Scientists are finding that not only are they improving their understanding of the basic questions of the universe -- such as how did it all start and where is it all going -- they also keep stumbling upon unexpected, hard-to-explain cosmic quirks and the potential, but comfortably distant, dangers.

Much of what they keep finding plays out like a stellar version of a violent Quentin Tarantino movie. The violence surrounds and approaches Earth, even though our planet is safe and "in a pretty quiet neighborhood," said Wheeler, author of the book "Cosmic Catastrophes."

One example is an approaching gas cloud discussed at the meeting Friday. The cloud has a mass 1 million times that of the sun. It is 47 quadrillion miles away. But it's heading toward our Milky Way galaxy at 150 miles per second. And when it hits, there will be fireworks that form new stars and "really light up the neighborhood," said astronomer Jay Lockman at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia.

But don't worry. It will hit a part of the Milky Way far from Earth and the biggest collision will be 40 million years in the future.

The giant cloud has been known for more than 40 years, but only now have scientists realized how fast it's moving. So fast, Lockman said, that "we can see it sort of plowing up a wave of galactic material in front of it."

When astronomers this week unveiled a giant map of mysterious dark matter in a super-cluster of galaxies, they explained that the violence of the cramped-together galaxies is so great that there is now an accepted vocabulary for various types of cosmic brutal behavior.

The gravitational force between the clashing galaxies can cause "slow strangulation," in which crucial gas is gradually removed from the victim galaxy. "Stripping" is a more violent process in which the larger galaxy rips gas from the smaller one. And then there's "harassment," which is a quick fly-by encounter, said astronomer Meghan Gray of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

Gray's presentation essentially showed the victims of galaxy-on-galaxy violence. She and her colleagues are trying to figure out the how the dirty deeds were done.

In the past few days, scientists have unveiled plenty to ooh and aah over:

Photos of "blue blobs" that astronomers figure are orphaned baby stars. They're called orphans because they were "born in the middle of nowhere" instead of within gas clouds, said Catholic University of America astronomer Duilia F. de Mello.

*A strange quadruplet of four hugging stars, which may eventually help astronomers understand better how stars form. 

*A young star surrounded by dust, that may eventually become a planet. It's nicknamed "the moth," because the interaction of star and dust are shaped like one. 

*A spiral galaxy with two pairs of arms spinning in opposite directions, like a double pinwheel. It defies what astronomers believe should happen. It is akin to one of those spinning-armed flamingo lawn ornaments, said astronomer Gene Byrd of the University of Alabama. 

*The equivalent of post-menopausal stars giving unlikely birth to new planets. Most planets form soon after a sun, but astronomers found two older stars, one at least 400 million years old, with new planets. 

"Intellectually and spiritually, if I can use that word with a lower case 's,' it's awe-inspiring," Wheeler said. "It's a great universe."

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