Saturday, April 13, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #18

I geek out about fossils for most of this roundup, and then we get serious and talk about predictions for this year's hurricane season. It's Weekly Science Roundup time!

1. Oldest Dinosaur Embryo's Found (With Organic Remains!)

Artist rendition of a theropod embryo. The new discovery is over 100 million years older than this species.
It's the beginning of the Jurassic. Dinosaurs that most people have never heard of roam around Earth, including sauropodomorph Lufengosaurus--an 8-meter-long two-legged, long-necked dinosaur that may be an ancestor of the more familiar four-legged, long-necked dinosaurs of the later Jurassic.

But people should know this name, because it's going to go down in paleontology history of providing not only the oldest known fossil dinosaur embryos, but also the oldest organic material from dinosaurs (to my knowledge and research).

The fossils were found in China. A whole set of disarticulated (scattered) bone remains include embryos at different stages of development. By studying these various fossils at different stages, paleontologists have already deduced that this animal likely moved about in its egg, just like modern birds. Additionally, they've learned that these animals grew rapidly, which make sense given how huge they get. By growing quickly, they'd also avoid predation easier when young. It's fun when biology makes sense.

The organic material found is in the form of proteins from the bone-tissue called collagen, and this stuff can be used to compare to proteins of other species. Since this collagen is so old, it opens doors to discovering organic materials in other fossils that paleontologists have never dreamed of recovering such material from. Cool!

And now, to jump ahead in time...

2. New Insight into the Life of Australopithecus Sebida

Full disclosure: I was trained as a physical anthropologist, so I always have more than my fair share of skepticism from any story involving human ancestors (and want to smack certain "science news" organizations for reporting this story as a new "half-human, half-ape that knocks Lucy out of the park"...grrrrrr...stupid media hype...)

Ahem. Anyway.

Here's what we do know about the latest studies concerning Australopithecus sebida:

Just as forensics teams use dental records to identify remains, paleoanthropologists use dental remains to figure out who is related to who in the fossil record. New studies have shown that A. sebida has dental traits that likely make it a sister group to Homo, potentially more closely related to us than A. afarensis (Lucy's species). However, do keep in mind, these remains are a million years younger than Lucy's, meaning there's been a million years of potential changes between the two species. From what I've read, I'm personally intrigued at this potential relationship to Homo, but not yet convinced. After all, everyone wants to find and work on the species that gave rise to the genus Homo. However, the fact that the researchers who work on A. sebida are from varied institutions gives me hope that this is indeed good science, and that the relationship of A. sebida to Homo may yet be much more than just a pipe dream. It'd be awesome if it was.

In the less controversial side of this, the postcranial remains (everything other than the head) show that while A. sebida definitely walked upright, it likely wasn't walking like we do. It's foot bones indicate that it turned its feet inwards when striding, and may have still been using its feet for climbing trees in addition to walking. Also, it's flaring rib cage would make it difficult to run and have its arms swing with each step, like we do. It definitely wasn't as adept a biped as us, but it does show that there were many different styles of bipedalism back in the day. Ours just happened to win out.

If I still had access to paleo journals, I could go into a lot more legitimate analysis here, but alas, we must move on to something completely different:

3. Hurricane Season 2013

Hurricane Sandy, as seen from space.
We're just a few weeks away from the start of the 2013 Hurricane Season! And as someone who was stuck in the path of Sandy (and who's poor sister bore the brunt of it), I'm personally anxious to hear the predictions for this year.

So...what are the predictions?

Well...pretty much a copy-paste from last year, honestly. Last year we saw 19 named storms. This year, they're predicting around 18 storms: including 9 hurricanes, of which around 4 will be intense hurricanes. This is going to be another very active storm season. For perspective, usually there are only around 11 named storms each year, which includes 6 hurricanes.

They're also predicting a nearly 50% chance of a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast, and a smidge higher chance of one hitting the East Coast.

These predictions stem from two major factors (again, click here to learn more):

1. El Niño is going to be quiet this year. During active El Niño years, hurricanes are less likely because the increase in high-up winds over the Atlantic tear storms apart.

2. Sea Surface Temperatures were above average in the eastern tropical part of the Atlantic this spring. Warmer waters from this region help spawn storms. Interestingly, the pattern of atmospheric pressure that has increased the temperatures in these waters is the same pattern responsible for the colder-than-average spring we've been having in North America.

I guess all this means is that once summer hits, I should stock up on emergency supplies again.

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