Science News Roundup: 7/17/12

Another week, another science news roundup. We’ve got some awesome space news, baby snow leopards, HPV vaccine news, dinosaur sex, and more!

How did I miss this news? Lost amongst all the excitement over the Higgs boson was an equally astonishing discovery of the strongest evidence yet for dark matter filaments connecting galaxy clusters. Scientists have long postulated the existence of a web of dark matter criss-crossing the galaxy, with galaxy clusters forming at intersections of the filaments due to the gravitational pull of the increased mass there. Since dark matter doesn’t emit light or cast shadows, it’s damned hard to find. However, using gravitational lensing to measure the bending of light from even more distant galaxies has for the first time shown evidence of a filament of dark matter connecting the Abell 223 and 224 galaxy clusters. Awesome!

Pluto may not be a planet anymore, but it does have a fifth moon! P5, as it’s being called for now, was spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope on July 7. The Hubble is being used to check for dangerous dust rings and other unknown moons in advance of the New Horizons spacecraft’s planned 2015 flyby of Pluto. Just last year, Pluto’s fourth moon, P4, was discovered, and scientists are waiting to see if any more moons can be found before naming the new discoveries. There’s also been discussion of whether Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, may actually be a binary system with Charon being a second planetoid instead of a moon. Charon is relatively large compared to Pluto and doesn’t simply orbit around the planetoid, but rather both orbit around a point in space between the two bodies. The smaller moons’ orbits are similarly focused around this point such that they circle both larger bodies. While binary stars are incredibly common and binary asteroids have been found as well, this would be the first known instance of binary planets.

Hubble image of Pluto and Charon with orbital paths of the four smaller moons drawn in around the pair
Small moons orbiting Pluto (and Charon?)

Many lemurs may be in danger of extinction according to a new survey by the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Of the 103 known species (several of which were only identified during the survey), 23 species are Critically Endangered, 52 are Endangered, and 19 are classified as Vulnerable. Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar, which has undergone vast deforestation in recent years and laws protecting native species from poaching have gone largely unenforced in the wake of a 2009 political coup. Sad.

A new study of chimpanzees shows that they use many hand gestures that are similar to ones used by humans, including a similar “come here” gesture and waving arms around to make someone go away. About 20-30 different gestures were identified, several of which resemble ours. The gestures were understood by other chimps, leading the researcher who led the study to conclude that these gestures were probably used by the common ancestor of chimps and humans and were the earliest form of communication that eventually evolved into language.

For the first time ever, two snow leopard mothers and their cubs have been filmed in their dens in the wild in Mongolia. Snow leopards live in remote mountain regions of Asia and little is known about their lives due to their elusive nature, with most current information based on leopards kept in zoos. Researchers from Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust located the two dens and were able to film the leopard families using a camera attached to a pole. They also entered the dens while the mothers were away so they could take measurements of the cubs and implant tiny microchips in two of them to be able to track their future growth and behavior. It’s hoped that increased knowledge of snow leopard breeding will help in conservation efforts. The video is at the link, but look at these babies!!

Two snow leopard cubs seemingly sleeping in their den against a rock wall.
Awwwwwww! (Image courtesy Panthera/Snow Leopard Trust)

Sexist bird news! An experiment with blue tits shows that males were more attentive to the offspring of attractive mates. Scientists captured some mother birds and chemically dulled the shiny blue spots on their heads before returning them to their nests. The mates of these females made fewer trips to bring food to their offspring compared to the mates of unaltered females. The researchers believe that the duller females are seen as less likely to produce healthy offspring, so the males didn’t care to waste energy on what  they thought were inferior chicks. Harsh, dudes.

Awesome health news! It looks like herd immunity may already be kicking in to protect even those who haven’t received the HPV vaccine. A small study comparing infection rates at a couple primary care clinic shows a remarkable drop in new infections. Six years ago, prior to the introduction of the vaccine, around 30% of teenage and young adult women tested positive for HPV; today the rate is 13%. Even those who weren’t vaccinated dropped to a 15% infection rate. Increased vaccination means that the virus can’t spread as quickly, as it has difficulty finding hosts. Larger scale studies are needed to see if this decreased rate is widespread, but it’s likely that overall infection rates are down. Since herd immunity takes time to build up, the infection rate should continue to drop as more of the population becomes immune and is thus unable to spread it to those who are still vulnerable.

Remember the study from a couple weeks ago that showed that two early humanoids were found who appeared to eat bark? Scientists have found more Australopithecus sediba bones inside a block of rock recovered from the site where the two skeletons were initially found. If the bones really do belong to the same young male of the pair, it would make this the most complete pre-human skeleton ever found. Perhaps the most exciting part of the find is the apparent femur in the rock, which combined with the partial shinbone and foot bones already recovered would give us more information about his height and gait. The bones were found via a CT scan of the rock, and thanks to 3D scanning technology scientists can reconstruct the skeleton before beginning the laborious process of extracting the bones from the rock. Remarkably, the scientists working with the skeleton plan to set up a special lab so others can observe the extraction process either in person or online. Awesome!

The largest-ever DNA study of Native Americans has shown that while most are descended from a single wave of migrants that crossed the Bering Strait from Asia about 15,00o years ago, two more groups crossed at a later date and have descendants in modern-day Alaska and northern Canada. The study compared gene variations in 52 Native American groups to 17 Siberian groups. Based on linguistic patterns researchers had previously suggested that there could have been three waves of migration into the Americas, and this study backs up this theory. A second study released last week shows that by 13,000 years ago there were probably two separate cultures with different technologies established in the Americas. It was previously thought that the Clovis people were the sole inhabitants at that time, with people of the Western Stemmed Tradition coming later, but dating new evidence found in the Paisley Cave in Oregon shows that both lived at the same time. Given the DNA study, it’s likely that the ancestors of both groups came over in the same initial wave and their technology diverged over the following 2,000 years as they settled in different regions and lost contact for a time.

I was initially excited to bring y’all this story about dinosaur sex, but it looks like it wasn’t really news after all. No new information, nothing to prompt the story aside from some adolescent giggling over dinopeen. HuffPo has a whole slideshow of artist renditions and video animations of dinosaurs purportedly having sex, except that the artists don’t quite grasp the finer points of the cloacal kiss and have the dinos in the wrong positions. Scientists currently believe that, like their bird ancestors, dinosaurs had cloacas, a single opening used for peeing, pooping, and sexing, and the pictured positions don’t actually allow for the dino’s cloacas to come into contact. Oops. If you still want to giggle over the pics (I know I’m not the only 12-year-old here!), go for it, but if you actually want to learn more about dino sex lives, check out the Wired article and the links within.

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.

4 replies on “Science News Roundup: 7/17/12”

Oh Pluto, you’re always so wonderfully full of surprises.

I mentioned the P5 discovery casually at a party (cause you know, it’s nifty), and my friend’s brother then proceeded to loudly and wildly incorrectly mansplain astronomy/astrophysics to me.  My master’s thesis was heavily based on celestial mechanics, and I was not about to be mansplained at about physics.  Admittedly he didn’t know this, but eesh.  It was something.

It’s great to see that HPV vaccine result – hopefully to be replicated, of course, and also hopefully it will encourage more people to get it rather than thinking “oh great, herd immunity, that means I don’t have to do anything”. I’d be curious to see if rates of genital warts are decreasing too (assuming Gardasil rather than Cervarix was used).

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