Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lay of the (Green)land

Last year, American geologists from the University of Vermont identified a landscape in Greenland that was 800,000 years old. This year, they announced the discovery of an ancient landscape more than 3 times older. The tundra has been preserved under the Greenland Ice Sheet beneath 2 miles of ice for 2.7 million years! Ice core samples the international team of scientists brought up (IMAGE ABOVE) include organic soil, which usually would have been scraped away by moving glaciers. This indicates that the ice sheet has persisted much longer than previously known and has endured many past periods of global warming. Instead of acting as an agent of erosion, the ice worked as a giant refrigerator for the organic materials they have now been able to analyze. Researcher Dylan Rood of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre and the University of California, Santa Barbara comments, "Greenland really was green! However, it was millions of years ago. Greenland looked like the green Alaskan tundra, before it was covered by the second largest body of ice on Earth."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Female phallus

Four species of winged cave-dwelling insects living in Brazil's Peruaçu River Valley have just been discovered to have a singular distinction. They are the only animals in which the females possess a penis and the males have vaginas.* The mating process – which lasts 40 to 70 hours – consists of the female mounting the male, inflating her spiny phallus (IMAGE ABOVE), and inserting it into the male to gather large quantities of sperm that she uses to fertilize her eggs. Says Japanese entomologist Yoshizawa Kazunori of Hokkaido University, co-author of the newly-published study, "The female penis is a completely novel structure."

* For some even weirder news, click on this link.

Friday, April 18, 2014


If you have money to spare and are in the market for your own private island, you may wish to consider Poveglia. The 17-acre island in Italy's Venice lagoon will be auctioned off, complete with its abandoned buildings (IMAGE ABOVE, MORE PHOTOS HERE). The high bidder will own a piece of history. In the 18th c., the island was used as a quarantine station for passengers on plague-riddèn ships. In the mid-20th c., the mentally ill were hospitalized there and questionable experiments were performed on them. Buyer beware. Despite the lovely view of St. Mark's Square, the property is billed as one of the most haunted places in the world.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Indian twins

"We don't wish to get separated. We will stay like this even when we grow old. We want to live as we are," says Shivram Sahu, the twin on the right in the photo above. He and his conjoined brother were born 12 years ago in a tiny village near Raipur in central India, sharing 2 legs, 4 arms, and a single stomach, but having independent hearts and lungs. They are able to walk, ride a bicycle to school (where they are among the top students in their class), and play cricket on all 6 limbs with their friends (SLIDESHOW HERE). Surgical separation would leave them both debilitated – Shivram more so without legs and a lifetime of medical issues ahead of him. I learned when I researched my book that, unless the surgery can be done successfully when they are babies, it is best psychologically for conjoined twins to make the decision themselves when they are old enough. Advocates also caution against narrow definitions of what a "normal" body is.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Copper-plated mummies

In a burial ritual unknown to experts, several bodies from a medieval necropolis near the Arctic Circle in Siberia were found shrouded in copper. The naturally mummified remains had also been covered in reindeer, beaver, wolverine, or bear fur, and outfitted with a wide range of grave goods (PHOTOS HERE). Genetic experts from the Russian Academy of Sciences will now try to determine from these bodies – none of whom are womenthe identity of this mystery civilization.

Monday, April 14, 2014

La Brea bees

"I had read some of the big literature that said leafcutter bees aren't really identifiable by their nest cells. But I thought, 'That just can't be true; there's got to be a way,'" thought entomologist Anna Holden of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, California, U.S. She was examining 2 nest cells from their collection, which had been excavated from the La Brea tar pits in 1970 and she was sure they were leafcutters. With the help of her colleagues, she found a way. The researchers analyzed the nest cell architecture and the physical features of the bee pupae using high-resolution micro-computed tomography (CT) scanners. They cross-referenced their data with environmental niche models that predict the geographic distribution of species, and determined that their Ice Age specimens belonged to Megachile gentilis, a bee species that still exists today. The image above compares a modern female leafcutter bee pupa on the left with the scan of the male leafcutter that buzzed around the tar pits 23,000 years ago.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


"It’s 6' from a window so gets a bit of sunlight. It grows towards the light so it gets turned round every so often so it grows evenly. Otherwise, it’s the definition of low-maintenance. I’ve never pruned it, it just seems to have grown to the limits of the bottle," says 80-year-old David Latimer of Cranleigh, Surrey, U.K.(IMAGE ABOVE), who has discovered the beauty of a terrarium. He has not had to water his thriving spiderwort in its sealed 10-gallon container since 1972 – 40 years ago!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dutch delight

Earlier this month, a hilarious video was uploaded to YouTube. You may have seen it. European telecom company Vodafone had launched a campaign to let people experience things for the first time, so 78-year-old Ria Van den Brand from the Netherlands went to an amusement park in The Hague accompanied by her granddaughter and experienced her first roller coaster ride (VIDEO HERE).


Wednesday, April 9, 2014


When I researched my book Skulls and Skeletons, I managed to miss a collection of more than 18,000 human remains. The Duckworth Laboratory at the University of Cambridge houses the skulls of Iron Age warriors and 17th c. plague victims, mummy heads and overmodeled skulls, and death masks, ámong other things (VIDEO HERE).

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Recognized Rembrandt

A portrait (DETAIL ABOVE) of Dirck van Os III (1590-1668), a well-respected Dutch citizen, was purchased in 1942 from a private collection by the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. It hung on the wall for 45 years as the work of Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn, but was then demoted – believed to have been by a student of the master – and later placed in storage. In 2010, one of the world's foremost authorities on Rembrandt, Ernst van de Wetering, had a look and later asked that it be sent to Amsterdam for further analysis and conservation. That done, he has restored the painting's reputation as an original Rembrandt. Executive director of the museum Jack Becker understates, "It's unusual that it goes this way. It usually goes the other way. So that's exciting."

Monday, April 7, 2014

Bríef reef

Scientists have determined that the green sea slug – because it produces chlorophyll – is part plant and part animal. Meanwhile, I am still warming up to the fact that coral is an animal. Australian photographer Daniel Stoupin, a doctoral student in marine biology at the University of Queensland, makes that clearer with a 3 1/2 minute high–magnification time-lapse video that took him 9 months to create. As its title indicates, coral live at an infinitesimally smaller pace than we do. Watch the video HERE.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Living in the past

This is not an antique photo. This is 41-year-old Dutch historical consultant Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse, who has decided to live her work (SLIDESHOW HERE). Here she sits in her parlor, darning socks by the wireless. She has no television and instead surrounds herself with the furniture, literature, and accessories of the 1930s. Her business requires that she use a computer, but she only has a refrigerator because it would be impossible to have ice delivered for an icebox. She uses a Bakelite phone instead of a cell phone. She feels quite comfortable inhabiting the lifestyle of a lower-middle-class woman in Amsterdam. She owns a period vacuum cleaner, scrubs the floor on her hands and knees, and washes her clothes by hand. She doesn't ignore the present, but began filling her life with things from the past as a child and finally, as an adult, honed in on the your 1939. I felt right at home," she says.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Craic of the county

When Irish farmer Paddy Murphy was interviewed about the offspring birthed by one of his ewes last month, he mentioned that it was a great source of craic for the lads in the pub he also owns in Ballymore Eustace, County Kildare. After determining that craic is entertaining news and the subject of enjoyable conversation, I read on to learn that the animal (IMAGE ABOVE, VIDEO HERE) is a rare natural goat–sheep hybrid. Murphy describes, It had all the hallmarks of a goat. I knew a goat had gotten in among a few of the hoggets, I didn’t know what would turn out. They were all normal lambs apart from this fella. He looks like a goat, trapped in a lamb’s body, a Geep I think it’s called! He even has horns like a goat and he is very quick on his feet. He’s perfectly healthy and thriving away." Although the farmer does not plan to encourage breeding of any more hybrids, he will keep it around instead of sending it for slaughter, unless it becomes a nuisance.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Chasing after the chase

At first I was disappointed when I read that scientists had digitally reconstructed a dinosaur chase, but the video (HERE) did not show the animation of a theropod and a sauropod in motion. Then I realized the beauty of what this team of biologists have done. A famous set of dinosaur tracks in Texas called the Paluxy River tracks no longer exist. They were excavated 70 years ago by American paleontologist Roland Bird who removed them from their original location, divided them into blocks, and parceled them out to colleagues around the world. Realizing that much information could be gained from viewing the tracks in one piece again, Peter Falkingham of the Royal Veterinary College, London, and his team referred to Bird's original documentation to recreate the 147' (45 m) long site. They scanned the 17 existing photos (EXAMPLES ABOVE), referred to notes left by Bird, and correlated it all to maps drawn at the time of the original excavation. Falkingham comments, "In recent years technology has advanced to the point where highly accurate 3D models can be produced easily and at very little cost just from digital photos, and this has been revolutionizing many different fields. That we can apply that technology to specimens, or even entire sites, that no longer exist but were recorded photographically is extremely exciting."

Hi Chase!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Abbey asbestos

It was news to me that asbestos, which we now know to be carcinogenic, is a natural mineral. I also had no idea that before its industrial application beginning in the late 19th c. as a fire retardant and insulating material, it had been in use for millennia. Artisans mixed asbestos with clay to produce stronger pottery 4,500 years ago. Weavers added the fibers to textiles 2,000 years ago to give them what were considered magical powers: asbestos napkins could be tossed into the fire to be cleansed and asbestos shrouds could keep human ashes separate from the materials used for cremations. Even so, it was a surprise to UCLA archaeologist Ionna Kakoulli (IMAGE ABOVE) to find a form of the mineral underlying the 12th c. wall paintings she was studying. She and her fellow researchers found it when they applied modern techniques to the paintings, including infrared, ultraviolet, and X-ray fluorescence imaging, and analyzed micro-samples with scanning electron microscopes. The murals are located in the Byzantine monastery Enkleistra of St. Neophytos in Cyprus and the monks may have applied the layer of white asbestos to the plaster to provide a smooth, mirrorlike surface for painting. But the scientists are still puzzled as to why the asbestos-rich layer was only found beneath certain areas of the paintings, for instance behind the frame around the depiction of the "Enthroned Christ" on the ceiling. Kakoulli remarks, "So far, we've only found it in relation to those red pigments. I have a feeling that it's something that can be easily missed. This was quite an accidental discovery."

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