Science News Roundup: 4/3/12

Two weeks ago, we discussed several new species and a possible new human ancestor that have been recently discovered, and this week we’ve found trees thought to be extinct and what may be a new step (literally) in human evolution. Researchers may have also discovered the reason behind declining bee populations. And in space news, we may have a new method of finding our way through the stars, and a piece of NASA history has been rediscovered after more than 40 years.

(MSNBC) Botanists from Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam University have rediscovered two tree species that were thought to have become extinct in recent years in a small patch of forest in Tanzania. Erythrina schliebenii was first described in the 1930s and declared extinct in 1998. It was then found again in 2001 in a small patch of forest that was cleared for a plantation in 2008, leading to its reclassification as extinct. Only one Karomia gigas tree was previously known, but it was chopped down a few years after its 1977 discovery in Kenya, and a reported second specimen can no longer be located. Sadly, both trees are still at risk of extinction since very few of each species are left and the coastal forest where they were found is unprotected and could still be cleared for future agricultural use.

Erythrina schliebenii
Erythrina schliebenii (Image credit Frank Mbago)

(BBC) A new fossil discovery in Ethiopia could shed new light on how humans evolved to walk upright. The 3.4 million year old foot bones have an opposable big toe that would allow them to grip tree branches while climbing, but also have a more modern joint structure that would allow the foot to flex at the toes while walking, which is impossible for flat-footed apes to do. Without further skeletal evidence it is impossible to say what species the bones belong to, but they can rule out Australopithecus afarensis (the famous Lucy’s species) because it has an even more modern foot structure despite living at the same time and in the same region. The find is significant because foot bones aren’t found very often and this helps scientists figure out how they evolved over time.

fossilized foot bones and diagram of their place in the foot
Amazing how much they can learn from so few bones! (Image credit Cleveland Museum of Natural History)

(New York Times) Researchers may have finally confirmed a reason for the decline in bee populations worldwide, and as many have long speculated, it appears to be tied to pesticides. Two teams independently studied the effect of a kind of pesticide known as neonicotinoids on bees; British researchers found that the pesticide prevents bumblebees from collecting enough food for new queens to be born and thus reduces the number of future hives, and French researchers found that the chemicals cause confusion in honeybees’ brains and interfere with their ability to navigate. The accuracy of both studies has been called into question, so more work is needed to confirm how much of an effect the pesticides have. Bees have also become increasingly susceptible to disease and have lost much of their food supply in recent years.

(BBC) German scientists are working on a new kind of “gps” that could help future spacecraft navigate more precisely as they move farther away from Earth. The current method of triangulating a spacecraft’s location by determining when radio signals sent from the craft arrive at different antennae around the planet is highly imprecise. At the distance of Mars it has a margin of error of about 10 km; at the edge of the solar system it can be hundreds of km. The proposed new method would triangulates the spacecraft’s location to within about 5 km by measuring X-ray signals from pulsars, dead stars that emit X-rays at an extremely precise rate as they rotate (imagine a lighthouse’s beacon). For this to be practical in the future, scientists must first develop lighter-weight X-ray telescopes, as the current ones are too large to be easily carried into space.

(Bezos Expeditions) Jeff Bezos, the founder of amazon.com, announced last week that he has found the boosters that launched the Apollo 11 moon mission in 1969. The rocket engines burned for several minutes to lift the spacecraft off the launch pad, then when their fuel supply was exhausted, separated from the craft and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Bezos’s team used deep-sea sonar to locate their final resting place at a depth of about 14,000 feet. Plans are under way to try to raise one or more back to the surface; it’s unknown what condition they’re in after hitting the ocean’s surface at high velocity and then resting in salt water for decades.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

11 thoughts on “Science News Roundup: 4/3/12”

    1. for future reference, if you’re interested, I learned from my genius-at-gardening mother that you can self-pollinate squashes (of any variety) with a toothbrush or paintbrush and a little patience, just touch the brush to the insides of each flower sequentially making sure each one gets a bit of pollen from another and it should do the work of the bees. :)

  1. Wow! I’m surprised the new foot bones are not from Lucy but come from the same time and region. I would be very interested to hear more! I wonder if the two species could have been interbreeding? Sounds like they might have been too different. I love this stuff! I’m also feeling really good about new space GPS. Although, I’m a firm believer that we as a species should be grounded on earth  to mature a bit longer before we screw up the rest of the universe. Lastly, I’m SO excited that we may have solved the bee problem and I hope findings enforces better sustainable agriculture! :)

    1. I know, it’s so cool that the species were so close together! And we have no way of knowing right now which one is our ancestor, or if they did interbreed at some point and we’re related to both, or if they were both evolutionary dead ends. So cool! And I love anything having to do with space travel or even just sending probes out. And yay bees!

      (And I really need to stop starting sentences with “And” before Team Copyedit smacks me with a changesock. Can’t be tamed!)

    1. I don’t know how much of a movement there is in Tanzania to protect the trees. It sounds like the forest they were just found in would be really lousy for agricultural use, but if they run out of other land and people need food and jobs, I don’t know how much they’d care. Sad.

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