A total of 754 million domestic passenger trips were made in China in the first seven days of the 8-day National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival holidays, a year-on-year increase of 78.9%. Holiday tourism generated 668.1 billion yuan ($92.80 billion), up 132.6% year-on-year, official data showed on Friday.
The high-altitude pressurized liable building independently developed and built by China Construction Third Engineering Bureau Co. Ltd, China's first "zero-altitude astronomical observation station," held a handover ceremony in the Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and was officially delivered for demonstration application, authorities confirmed recently.
"Zero-altitude building" refers to the use of pressurization and other technologies to adjust the indoor key human settlement environment indicators to the low altitude level in the plain area, so that the human body feels more comfortable. When used, the altitude inside the building can be set according to the needs of personnel and reduce the impact of altitude sickness.
The observatory is located near Muztagh Ata, the third highest peak of the West Kunlun Mountains in Akto county. It sits at an altitude of 4,526 meters, with a total construction area of approximately 150 square meters, capable of supporting scientific research, residential, and office functions.
The observation station is a scientific research pressurized building specially designed for plateau astronomical work in response to the needs of its cooperative organization, Beijing Normal University. It can increase the overall atmospheric pressure inside the building to one standard atmospheric pressure while solving the problems of low pressure and oxygen deficiency in the plateau.
The facility provides a comfortable and healthy environment for astronomers to work and live in high-altitude areas, lowering the risk of physiological damage caused by the plateau's extreme environment.
It is expected to support a new phase of rapid development in China's astronomical scientific research work, according to media reports.
Neandertals hung out in what’s now northern Spain around 430,000 years ago, an analysis of ancient DNA suggests. That’s an earlier Neandertal presence in Europe, by at least 30,000 years, than many researchers had assumed.
Fragments of nuclear DNA from a tooth and partial leg bone discovered at Sima de los Huesos, a chamber deep inside a Spanish cave, resemble corresponding parts of a previously reassembled Neandertal genome, researchers say in a study published online March 14 in Nature.
Not much nuclear DNA survives in such ancient fossils, say paleogeneticist Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues. Meyer’s group recovered DNA fragments covering a fraction of 1 percent of the newly recovered Neandertal tooth and leg genomes. Just enough DNA remained to enable comparisons with DNA of a Neandertal woman (SN: 1/25/14, p. 17) and a Denisovan woman (SN: 9/22/12, p. 5). Denisovans are considered close genetic cousins of Neandertals.
The early age for the new genetic finds challenges the idea that fossils from Sima de los Huesos, or pit of bones, come from a species called Homo heidelbergensis. Some researchers have suspected that by around 400,000 years ago, H. heidelbergensis gave rise to evolutionary precursors of both Neandertals and Homo sapiens.
An ancient genetic puzzle has also emerged at Sima de los Huesos. On one hand, nuclear DNA — which passes from both parents to their children — pegs the Spanish hominids as Neandertals. But mitochondrial DNA — typically inherited only from the mother — already extracted from one Sima de los Huesos fossil (SN: 12/28/13, p. 8) and described for a second fossil in the new study has more in common with Denisovans.
Denisovans lived in East Asia at least 44,000 years ago, but their evolutionary history is unknown.
If early Neandertals lived in northern Spain roughly 430,000 years ago, “we have to go back further in time to reach the common ancestor of Neandertals and Denisovans,” Meyer says.
The new genetic data from Sima de los Huesos now suggest that Denisovans split from Neandertals perhaps 450,000 years ago, says paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. Genetic and fossil evidence point to Neandertals and H. sapiens diverging from a common ancestor around 650,000 years ago, he proposes.
But it’s hard to say whether that common ancestor was H. heidelbergensis, Stringer adds. “Research must refocus on fossils from 400,000 to 800,000 years ago to determine which ones might lie on ancestral lineages of Neandertals, Denisovans and modern humans.”
Hominids throughout Eurasia during that time may have shared a mitochondrial DNA pattern observed in Sima de los Huesos Neandertals and Asian Denisovans, Meyer suggests. If that was the case, Neandertals acquired a new form of mitochondrial DNA by interbreeding with modern humans or their direct ancestors from Africa sometime between 430,000 and 100,000 years ago (SN: 3/19/16, p. 6).
Another possibility is that Neandertals traveled to Europe from Asia more than 430,000 years ago, carrying Denisovan mitochondrial DNA with them, says paleogeneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona. Or hybrid descendants of early Neandertals and early Denisovans may have lived at Sima de los Huesos, carrying Denisovan mitochondrial DNA, he speculates.
“We really need more genetic data from Sima de los Huesos, and other sites of that age, to narrow down these scenarios,” Meyer says.
In the 1967 animated Disney film The Jungle Book, the feral boy Mowgli encounters a jazz-singing orangutan named King Louie, who implores Mowgli to teach him the secret of fire. King Louie presented a challenge for the producers of Disney’s live-action, CGI-enhanced remake of the film, opening April 15. “We had this notion that we would be as authentic as we could be to the region,” says producer Brigham Taylor. The problem: Orangutans are not native to India.
In fact, King Louie himself is not native to Rudyard Kipling’s original stories. But instead of scrapping the character, the filmmakers got creative. While researching India’s wildlife, the film’s art department learned that a colossal ape named Gigantopithecus once roamed the region. Various species of Gigantopithecus lived in India, China and Southeast Asia from about 6.5 million years ago until as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago. The ape was truly gigantic — by some estimates, twice as big as a gorilla.
So King Louie morphed from orangutan to Gigantopithecus. The switch was a “fun justification,” Taylor says, to keep the character and play up his size while still staying true to India’s fauna. (Yes, the ape is extinct, but this is a movie about talking animals. And fossil evidence does suggest that the ape at least mingled with the human ancestor Homo erectus.)
Using the scientific information they could find on the Internet, visual effects artists imagined how the animal would look and move, Taylor says. The result: an ape that resembles an overgrown orangutan, Gigantopithecus’ closest living relative. The movie ape has shaggy hair, flaring cheeks and a saggy pouch that hangs from the throat like a double chin — and towers about 12 feet tall.
It’s difficult to judge how accurate Disney’s rendering is. Despite possibly having been the largest primate ever to have lived, Gigantopithecus
left behind few fossils. Scientists have just four lower jaws and over a thousand teeth, says biological anthropologist Russell Ciochon of the University of Iowa. That’s not much to go on, but Ciochon and colleagues made their own reconstruction a couple decades ago.
The researchers took a jaw from China and made an outline of a skull that could fit such a jaw. Because most primate skulls scale to body size, Ciochon says, his group could estimate Gigantopithecus’ weight, 800 to 900 pounds, and height, about 9 feet from head to toe. (The species that lived in India was actually probably smaller.) Adding other details like hair to the animal is a matter of conjecture, Ciochon says.
But the teeth do offer some solid details about the ape’s lifestyle. Wear patterns and microscopic debris stuck to the teeth indicate Gigantopithecus dined on fruits, leaves, shoots, roots and perhaps even bamboo. Last year, researchers confirmed those details after analyzing the ratios of carbon isotopes in teeth found in Southeast Asia. The analysis also determined that Gigantopithecus was a strict forest dweller, even though it also lived near grasslands in some areas. In fact, the researchers contend, Gigantopithecus’ reliance on forests and its big size — and therefore big appetite — may have been the animal’s undoing. As Southeast Asia’s jungles gave way to expanding grasslands during the last glacial period, Gigantopithecus may have been unable to cope.
Perhaps if our ancestors had shared the secret of fire with Gigantopithecus, the giant ape would still be around today.
In the summer of 2013, an epidemic began sweeping through the intertidal zone off the west coast of North America. The victims were several species of sea star, including Pisaster ochraceus, a species that comes in orange and purple variants. (It’s also notable because it’s the starfish that provided ecology with the fundamental concept of a keystone species.) Affected individuals appeared to “melt,” losing grip with the rocks to which they were attached — and then losing their arms. This sea star wasting disease, as it is known, soon killed sea stars from Baja California to Alaska.
This wasn’t the first outbreak of sea star wasting disease. A 1978 outbreak in the Gulf of California, for instance, killed so many Heliaster kubinjiisun stars that the once ubiquitous species is now incredibly rare.
These past incidents, though, happened fast and within smaller regions, so scientists had struggled to figure out what had happened. With the latest outbreak happening over such a large — and well-studied — region and period of time, marine biologists have been able to gather more data on the disease than ever before. And they’re getting closer to figuring out just what happened in this latest incident.
One likely factor is the sea star-associated densovirus, which, in 2014, scientists reported finding in greater abundance in starfish with sea star wasting disease than in healthy sea stars. But the virus can’t be the only cause of the disease; it’s found in both healthy and sick sea stars, and it has been around since at least 1942, the earliest year it has been found in museum specimens. So there must be some other factor at play.
Earlier this year, scientists studying the outbreak in Washington state reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B thatwarm waters may increase disease progression and rates of death. Studies of California starfish came to a similar conclusion. But a new study, appearing May 4 in PLOS One , finds that may not be true for sea stars in Oregon. Bruce Menge and colleagues at Oregon State University took advantage of their long-term study of Oregon starfish to evaluate what happened to sea stars during the recent epidemic and found that wasting disease increased with cooler , not warmer, temperatures. “Given conflicting results on the role of temperature as a trigger of [sea star wasting disease], it seems most likely that multiple factors interacted in complex ways to cause the outbreak,” they conclude.
What those factors are, though, is still a mystery.
Also unclear is what long-term effects this outbreak will have on Pacific intertidal communities.
In the 1960s, Robert Paine of the University of Washington performed what is now considered a classic experiment. For years, he removed starfish from one area of rock in Makah Bay at the northwestern tip of Washington and left another bit of rock alone as a control. Without the starfish to prey on them, mussels were able to take over. The sea stars, Paine concluded, were a “keystone species” that kept the local food web in control.
If sea star wasting disease has similar effects on the Pacific intertidal food web, Menge and his colleagues write, “it would result in losses or large reductions of many species of macrophytes, anemones, limpets, chitons, sea urchins and other organisms from the low intertidal zone.”
What happens, the group says, may depend on how quickly the disease disappears from the region and how many young sea stars can grow up and start munching on mussels.
It’s hard to believe that it took reality television this long to get around to dealing with space, time and our place in the cosmos.
In PBS’ Genius by Stephen Hawking, the physicist sets out to prove that anyone can tackle humankind’s big questions for themselves. Each of the series’ six installments focuses on a different problem, such as the possibility of time travel or the likelihood that there is life elsewhere in the universe. With Hawking as a guide, three ordinary folks must solve a series of puzzles that guide them toward enlightenment about that episode’s theme. Rather than line up scientists to talk at viewers, the show invites us to follow each episode’s trio on a journey of discovery.
By putting the focus on nonexperts, Genius emphasizes that science is not a tome of facts handed down from above but a process driven by curiosity. After working through a demonstration of how time slows down near a black hole, one participant reflects: “It’s amazing to see it play out like this.”
The show is a fun approach to big ideas in science and philosophy, and the enthusiasm of the guests is infectious. Without knowing what was edited out, though, it’s difficult to say whether the show proves Hawking’s belief that anyone can tackle these heady questions. Each situation is carefully designed to lead the participants to specific conclusions, and there seems to be some off-camera prompting.
But the bigger message is a noble one: A simple and often surprising chain of reasoning can lead to powerful insights about the universe, and reading about the cosmos pales next to interacting with stand-ins for its grandeur. It’s one thing, for example, to hear that there are roughly 300 billion stars in the Milky Way. But to stand next to a mountain of sand where each grain represents one of those stars is quite another. “I never would have got it until I saw it,” says one of the guests, gesturing to the galaxy of sand grains. “This I get.”
In hunting down delicious fish, Flipper may have a secret weapon: snot.
Dolphins emit a series of quick, high-frequency sounds — probably by forcing air over tissues in the nasal passage — to find and track potential prey. “It’s kind of like making a raspberry,” says Aaron Thode of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Thode and colleagues tweaked a human speech modeling technique to reproduce dolphin sounds and discern the intricacies of their unique style of sound production. He presented the results on May 24 in Salt Lake City at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.
Dolphin chirps have two parts: a thump and a ring. Their model worked on the assumption that lumps of tissue bumping together produce the thump, and those tissues pulling apart produce the ring. But to match the high frequencies of live bottlenose dolphins, the researchers had to make the surfaces of those tissues sticky. That suggests that mucus lining the nasal passage tissue is crucial to dolphin sonar.
The vocal model also successfully mimicked whistling noises used to communicate with other dolphins and faulty clicks that probably result from inadequate snot. Such techniques could be adapted to study sound production or echolocation in sperm whales and other dolphin relatives.
Researchers modified a human speech model developed in the 1970s to study dolphin echolocation. The animation above mimics the vibration of lumps of tissue (green) in the dolphin’s nasal passage (black) that are drenched in mucus. Snot-covered tissues (blue) stick together (red) and pull apart to create the click sound.
Jupiter’s turbulence is not just skin deep. The giant planet’s visible storms and blemishes have roots far below the clouds, researchers report in the June 3 Science. The new observations offer a preview of what NASA’s Juno spacecraft will see when it sidles up to Jupiter later this year.
A chain of rising plumes, each reaching nearly 100 kilometers into Jupiter, dredges up ammonia to form ice clouds. Between the plumes, dry air sinks back into the Jovian depths. And the famous Great Red Spot, a storm more than twice as wide as Earth that has churned for several hundred years, extends at least dozens of kilometers below the clouds as well.
Jupiter’s dynamic atmosphere provides a possible window into how the planet works inside. “One of the big questions is what is driving that change,” says Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester in England. “Why does it change so rapidly, and what are the environmental and climate-related factors that result from those changes?”
To address some of those questions, Imke de Pater, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues observed Jupiter with the Very Large Array radio observatory in New Mexico. Jupiter emits radio waves generated by heat left over from its formation about 4.6 billion years ago. Ammonia gas within Jupiter’s atmosphere intercepts certain radio frequencies. By mapping how and where those frequencies are absorbed, the researchers created a three-dimensional map of the ammonia that lurks beneath Jupiter’s clouds. Those plumes and downdrafts appear to be powered by a narrow wave of gas that wraps around much of the planet.
The depths of Jupiter’s atmospheric choppiness isn’t too surprising, says Scott Bolton, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Almost everyone I know would have guessed that,” he says. But the observations do provide a teaser for what to expect from the Juno mission, led by Bolton. The spacecraft arrives at Jupiter on July 4 to begin a 20-month investigation of what’s going on beneath Jupiter’s clouds using tools similar to those used in this study.
The new observations confirm that Juno should work as planned, Bolton says.
By getting close to the planet — just 5,000 kilometers from the cloud tops — Juno will break through the fog of radio waves from Jupiter’s radiation belts that obscures observations made from Earth and limits what telescopes like the Very Large Array can see. But the spacecraft will see only a narrow swath of Jupiter’s bulk at a time. “That’s where ground-based work like the research de Pater has been doing is really essential,” Fletcher says. Observations such as these will let Juno scientists know what’s going on throughout the atmosphere so they can better understand what Jupiter is telling them.
There’s an osprey nest just outside Jeffrey Brodeur’s office at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “I literally turn to my left and they’re right there,” says Brodeur, the organization’s communications and outreach specialist. WHOI started live-streaming the osprey nest in 2005.
For the first few years, few people really noticed. All that changed in 2014. An osprey pair had taken up residence and produced two chicks. But the mother began to attack her own offspring. Brodeur began getting e-mails complaining about “momzilla.” And that was just the beginning.
“We became this trainwreck of an osprey nest,” he says. In the summer of 2015, the osprey family tried again. This time, they suffered food shortages. The camera received an avalanche of attention, complaints and e-mails protesting the institute’s lack of intervention. One scolded, “it is absolutely disgusting that you will not take those chicks away from that demented witch of a parent!!!!! Instead you let them be constantly abused and go without [sic] food. Yes this is nature but you have a choice to help or not. This is totally unacceptable. She should be done away with so not to abuse again.” By mid-2015, Brodeur began to receive threats. “People were saying ‘we’re gonna come help them if you don’t,’” he recalls.
The osprey cam was turned off, and remains off to this day. Brodeur says he’s always wondered why people had such strong feelings about a bird’s parenting skills.
Why do people spend so much time and emotion attempting to apply their own moral sense to an animal’s actions? The answer lies in the human capacity for empathy — one of the qualities that helps us along as a social species.
When we are confronted with another person — say, someone in pain — our brains respond not just by observing, but by copying the experience. “Empathy results in emotion sharing,” explains Claus Lamm, a social cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Vienna in Austria. “I don’t just know what you are feeling, I create an emotion in myself. This emotion makes connections to situations when I was in that emotional state myself.”
Lamm and his colleagues showed that viewing someone in pain activates certain brain areas such as the insula, anterior cingulate cortex and medial cingulate cortex, regions that are active when we ourselves are in pain. “They allow us to have this first person experience of the pain of the other person,” Lamm explains.
When participants viewed someone reacting as though they were in pain to a stimulus that wasn’t painful for the viewer, the participants showed activity in the frontal cortex in areas important for distinction between “self” and “other.” We can still sympathize with someone else’s pain, even if we don’t know what it feels like, Lamm and his colleagues reported in 2010 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
This works for animals, too: We ascribe certain emotions or feelings to animals based on their actions. “You know you have a mind, thoughts and feelings,” says Kurt Gray, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “You take it for granted that other people do too, but you can never really know. With animals, you can’t know for sure, so your best guess is what you would do in that situation.”
When people see an animal suffering — such as, say, a suffering osprey chick — they feel empathy. They then categorize that sufferer into a “feeler,” or a victim. But that suffering chick can’t exist in a vacuum. “When there’s a starving chick, we think, ‘oh, it’s terrible!’” Gray says. “It’s not enough for us to say nature is red in tooth and claw. There must be someone to blame for this.”
In a theory he calls dyadic completion, he explains that we think of moral situations — situations in which there is suffering — as dyads or pairs. Every victim needs a perpetrator. A sufferer with no one responsible is psychologically incomplete, and viewers will fill in a perpetrator in response. In the case of suffering osprey chicks, he notes, that perpetrator might be an uncaring osprey mom, or the camera operator who refuses to intervene in a natural process. Gray and his colleagues published their ideas on dyadic completion in 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Anthropomorphizing animals — whether or not it is logical or realistic — is usually pretty harmless. “It’s probably OK to say a cat is content,” says John Hadley, an ethicist at Western Sydney University in Australia. Similarly, it’s OK to say that a mother osprey is being violent when she attacks her own young. People are describing what they see in emotional terms they recognize. But this doesn’t mean that these animals should be held responsible for their actions, he says. When we judge an animal for its parenting skills, “in one sense it implies we want to hold these animals up as objects of praise or blame.” The natural tendency to ascribe emotions to animals, he says, is “only really problematic if [the emotions] are inaccurate or if they lead to some kind of ethical problem.”
People can’t put an osprey on trial for being a bad parent. But as in the case of an abandoned bison calf in Yellowstone, people do sometimes intervene — even though their actions might not be helpful. “That’s a question of ethical systems coming in to conflict,” Hadley says. “National parks apply a holistic ethic, try to let nature run its course…. But a more common-sense approach would be that you can intervene, there’s suffering you can stop and you should try and stop it.”
The feelings of pity and the desire to intervene is really all about us. “When we look at nonhuman animals and we read them as if they are humans … that might just be our being narrow and unable to imagine any creature that is not somehow a reflection of us,” says Janet Stemwedel, a philosopher at San Jose State University in California. “There’s a way in which looking at animals and reading them as human and imagining them as having emotions and inner lives is maybe a gateway to caring,” Stemwedel says. This caring might be erring on the side of caution, she explains, “acknowledging the limits of what we can know about how [animals] experience the world.” If we fail to imagine what animals might be feeling, “we could do a great deal of harm, [and] put suffering in the world that doesn’t need to be there,” she notes.
Our caring for the suffering and the lonely is part of what makes us a social species. “Evolution endowed us with a moral sense because it was useful for living in groups,” Gray notes. “It’s not crazy. It’s the same impulse that leads us to protect children from child abuse, and it so happens that we extend that to osprey children.” Those anthropomorphizing impulses aren’t stupid or useless. Instead, they tell us something, not about animals, but about ourselves.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Organisms as different as plants, bacteria, yeast and humans could hold genetic swap meets and come away with fully functional genes, new research suggests.
Researchers have known for decades that organisms on all parts of the evolutionary tree have many of the same genes. “How many of these shared genes are truly functionally the same thing?” wondered Aashiq Kachroo, a geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin, and colleagues. The answer, Kachroo revealed July 15 at the Allied Genetics Conference, is that about half of shared genes are interchangeable across species.
Last year, Kachroo and colleagues reported that human genes could substitute for 47 percent of yeast genes that the two species have in common (SN: 6/27/15, p. 5). Now, in unpublished experiments, the researchers have swapped yeast genes with analogous ones from Escherichia coli bacteria or with those from the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. About 60 percent of E. coli genes could stand in for their yeast counterparts, Kachroo reported. Plant swaps are ongoing, but the researchers already have evidence that plant genes can substitute for yeast genes involved in some important biological processes.
In particular, many organisms share the eight-step biochemical chain reaction that makes the molecule heme. The researchers found that all but one of yeast’s heme-producing genes could be swapped with one from E. coli or plants.