Science News: 2/5/13

Richard III was found under a car park in Leicester? Go home, Your Majesty, you’re drunk.

After months of speculation, experts confirmed today that a skeleton found underneath a car park in Leicester in September 2012 does, in fact, belong to King Richard III. After his death during the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, he was buried in the chapel of the Greyfriars priory. It was destroyed in the 16th century, and the exact location was unknown until archaeologists went in search of it last year. The skeleton showed many of the wounds Richard was reported to have suffered in the battle and the curved spine of someone with scoliosis, and his identity was confirmed via DNA testing of two of his known descendants.

The moon, a few days past the first quarter, with the International Space Station passing by it.
That’s no moon. It’s a space station! (Fine, it’s both.) Image credit NASA/Lauren Hartnett

Mars news! Curiosity’s initial drilling tests are going well, and if no problems are detected, the rover will start testing subsurface materials soon. Also, analysis of new photos taken by the HIRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has provided new evidence of Mars’ watery past. A system of ridges on the surface is likely the result of water depositing minerals in cracks in the rock underground; they’re visible now because the softer clay around them eroded away faster.

Iran’s space program has sent a monkey into space”¦ maybe. Iranian officials announced the successful mission last Monday, but questions quickly arose when people realized that different monkeys were shown in the before and after pictures. It now appears that the pictures used in the Iranian press in the leadup to the mission were archive pictures from 2011, possibly from an unacknowledged failed mission.

On February 15, an asteroid will pass closer to Earth than any other since we started tracking them in the 1990s. Asteroid 2012 DA14 is half the size of a football field and will pass below the orbits of some satellites (and much closer than the Moon). However, there’s no risk of a planetary impact since it’ll still be more than 17,200 miles away.

New evidence showing that Polynesians may have travelled to South America around the year 1000 comes from an unusual source – sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes were domesticated in the Andes mountains, but many early explorers report seeing them on islands throughout the Pacific, including Hawaii. While it was long thought that other European explorers must have introduced them, genetic analysis of sweet potatoes saved in museums confirms that prior to 1800 they were genetically distinct from potatoes introduced later.

Scientists have figured out how owls can swivel their heads 270° without cutting off blood flow to their brains. The major arteries in owls (and some other birds) are closer to the spine than in humans, so they torque less, blood vessels within the spinal column are padded with air pockets much larger than in other animals, and most surprisingly, their carotid arteries have the ability to pool extra blood as a reserve in case they do get pinched off.

Researchers in Africa have figured out how dung beetles travel in straight lines even on dark, moonless nights – they orient themselves to the Milky Way. Freaking cool.

A new genetic comparison of modern dogs and wolves shows that differences in the ability to digest carbohydrates may explain why some of their ancestors became domesticated about 10,000 years ago, while others remained wild. Feeding off the scraps of human civilization was safer than hunting, and the findings lend credence to the popular theory that dogs essentially domesticated themselves.

Efforts are under way to have wolverines listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act; their habitat is shrinking due to climate change and, if approved, the new designation would protect them from trapping.

Was an Arctic cyclone to blame for last summer’s record-low sea ice level? Simulations say no. The storm lasted 13 days and had the lowest barometric pressure ever measured in the Arctic, but its high winds and wave action were likely only responsible for an extra 5% loss of ice. Overall sea ice loss was 18% higher than the old record, so it would have been broken even without the storm.

Satellite image of a storm covering a large swath of the Arctic Ocean
Giant cyclone over the Arctic Ocean, August 6, 2012
Image credit: NASA / Goddard / MODIS Rapid Response Team

At the other end of the earth, an American team has successfully drilled through half a mile of Antarctic ice to reach the subglacial Lake Whillans, and initial tests show it may indeed have microscopic lifeforms. Further tests will be needed to confirm that the microbes aren’t the result of surface contamination from the drill.

And now to an even weirder place to find microbes – the upper atmosphere. Bacteria can be lifted aloft by hurricanes and other storms, but 17 species of bacteria have been found in every air sample taken, so they may have found a way to live full-time several miles above the Earth’s surface.

France will enact new legislation in July to limit light pollution, consume less energy in the overnight hours, and lower CO2 emissions. Non-residential buildings will have to turn off all interior lights one hour after the last person leaves, and lighted signs in store windows and on the exterior of buildings will have to turn off by 1 a.m, though exceptions can be made for landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and for holiday displays.

Scientists have successfully stored data on strands of DNA and retrieved it with 100% accuracy. The data was translated from computer files in binary code into a system using DNA’s four base nucleotides. DNA sequencing is currently too expensive to be a viable option for data storage, but as the price comes down, it could prove invaluable for long-term archiving of information, since one gram of DNA can hold more information than a million CDs.

Researchers in the Czech Republic have built the world’s first successful (if tiny) tractor beam. While it’s easy to use lasers to push particles away, pulling them toward a beam has until now been solely in the realm of science fiction.

Finally, President Obama honored the winners of the National Medals of Science and the National Medals of Technology and Innovation in a ceremony at the White House on Friday. These are the highest awards for achievements in science and technology in our country. The full list of winners can be found here.

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.

5 replies on “Science News: 2/5/13”

A quick correction/clarification to the post — the DNA match did not come from Richard III’s own descendents, but from female-line descendents of his sister Anne of York. The mitochondrial DNA that was tested is passed only through the mother. Paragraphs 9 and 10 of the New York Times article (linked above) discuss this.

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