Science News Roundup: 3/20/12

The last few weeks have been very busy in the animal kingdom, with the discovery of several new species, including a possible new relative or ancestor of humankind. There have also been some interesting insights about alcohol addiction from two very different yet surprising angles.

Artist rendition of new shark discovered in the Galapagos
Artist's depiction of B. giddingsi. (Alison Schroeer)

(Discovery News) A new species of shark was unveiled to the world last week. Bythaelurus giddingsi was first discovered in the deep waters of the Galapagos in 1995 and after years of study was determined to be a new species of catshark. But don’t worry! This little guy is only about a bit more than a foot long and eats fish near the ocean floor. The last six years have brought an extraordinary number of similar discoveries, with 200 new shark, ray, and other similar fish species being described.

(BBC) New fossils discovered in southern China may be a previously unidentified human ancestor or a close relation that died out thousands of years ago. The bones of at least five individuals have been identified and are being called Red Deer Cave people after the cave where several were found, and they’re thought to be 11,500-14,500 years old. While the skulls show some similarities to modern humans, they are much more primitive in other ways. With their flat faces, thick brow ridges, and lack of a chin, they looked quite different from us, but scans of their brain cavities show that the frontal lobes of their brains were more modern than the parietal lobes. Scientists aren’t yet sure how to classify these individuals; they may be very primitive Homo sapiens, a distinct species that lived alongside our Stone Age ancestors but died out, or a population of hybrids between Homo sapiens and another ancient species. Researchers are hoping to extract a DNA sample from the fossils to try to better understand where they fit in to our lineage.

image of new species of leopard frog found in NYC
Credit: Bill Curr

(MSNBC) A new species of leopard frog has been hiding right under our noses in New York City. The frog, which has yet to be given a scientific name, was undetected until now because it looks almost identical to other species in the region. However, its croak sounds totally different so biologists decided to study it further, and comparing DNA samples confirmed that it has a different ancestry than the larger population. Thus far the new species has been found in Staten Island, northern New Jersey, and southeastern New York, though it may have once lived on Manhattan and Long Island as well.

(New York Times) It turns out we humans aren’t the only ones who sometimes turn to booze when our sexual advances are rejected. A study involving fruit flies shows that they too self-medicate, giving researches new insight into the evolution of the reward centers of the brain. As discussed by our own Ailanthus yesterday, in a study conducted at UCSF, scientists allowed one group of male fruit flies to mate with females, while another group was paired with females that had already mated and were thus uninterested in sex. Then, the males were offered the opportunity to feed from straws either containing their normal diet of yeast and sugar or straws with 15% alcohol added to the yeast and sugar. While the males that had mated ate the alcohol mixture about half the time, the sexually frustrated males went for the alcohol about 70% of the time. The researchers were able to link higher alcohol consumption to a lower level of a brain chemical called neuropeptide F, which may work in a similar way to neuropeptide Y in humans. If this bears out, drugs could be developed to help curb alcoholism by regulating this chemical in the brain.

(Huffington Post) In other alcohol news, several studies of the effects of LSD are garnering new attention after having been ignored when they were first published between 1966 and 1970. A group of researches affiliated with Harvard and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology took a new look at their results and realized that LSD can be beneficial in the treatment of alcohol abuse, and also makes users more optimistic about themselves and the world. Since LSD affects serotonin receptors in the brain, it has long been known to affect users’ mood and perception, but it remains to be seen if this will be accepted as a viable treatment option.



By [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.

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