Friday, February 27, 2015

Underground railroad

Beneath the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York is a secret train platform that was built in the 1930s to allow VIPs a private entrance. Most notably, it was used by Franklin D. Roosevelt and still houses the train car and private elevator, which were both large enough for FDR's armor-plated Pierce Arrow car. It has since been the site of a party hosted by Andy Warhol, a home for squatters, and a destination for urban explorers (IMAGES HERE).

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Friendly fronds

Two species of ferns with tens of millions of years of evolution between them reproduced, creating a hybrid named Cystocarpium roskamianum, which botanists have always thought looked a bit strange. This unlikely pairing between a fern that grew on rocky outcrops and another fern that grew on the forest floor was confirmed by DNA analysis at the University of British Columbia. As researcher Carl Rothfels puts it, "A 60 million year divergence is approximately equivalent to a human mating with a lemur."

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Twins immemorial

Behold the earliest known example of twins in the archaeological record, dating back almost 8,000 years to the Neolithic Era. Sad to say, it is also the oldest example of death by dystocia, or obstructed labor. The skeleton of the 20- to 25-year-old mother– with the bones of 2 infants, one in a breech position, in her pelvic region – was discovered in a prehistoric cemetery called Lokomotiv, near present-day Irkutsk in Russia, and her burial was indistinct from others at the site. As Canadian archaeologist Angela Lieverse of the University of Saskatchewan points out, "It suggests either they didn't know she had twins or that dying during childbirth wasn't so out of the realm of possibility that it would be considered unique."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Manganese in raw form

Members of the German research organization GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel were on a research expedition looking for deep-sea organisms in the Atlantic Ocean when they stumbled upon natural deposits of the rare earth metal manganese. The mineral accretes over millions of years into nodules that range in size from golf balls to bowling balls. Lead scientist Colin Devey explains the rarity of the find, "Manganese nodules are found in all oceans. But the largest deposits are known to occur in the Pacific. Nodules of this size and density in the Atlantic are not known."

Monday, February 23, 2015

16th c. spread

Fire ants have a dubious distinction as one of the first worldwide invasive species, being spread from the New World around the globe in 16th c. Spanish galleons. Entomologist Andrew Suarez of the University of Illinois explains, "A lot of these ships, particularly if they were going somewhere to pick up commerce, would fill their ballast with soil and then they would dump the soil out in a new port and replace it with cargo. They were unknowingly moving huge numbers of organisms in the ballast soil."

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Buddha body

Now on temporary display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest is a Buddha statue recently found to contain the mummified remains of 12th c. Chinese Buddhist master Liuquan. His body was revealed by CT scan (IMAGES HERE), his abdominal cavity was determined to contain paper scraps with Chinese characters, and DNA analysis is being carried out on his bones.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Gallagh guy

The male bog body of a 20-year-old known as Gallagh Man, who was killed in Iron Age between 470 and 120 B.C.E., is housed at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Discovered in Co. Galway in 1821, the mummy was not acquired by the Royal Irish Academy until 1829. By then it had greatly deteriorated, which is why it is in a relatively poor state of preservation today. The family who found it while digging their peat was reluctant to part with it:

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lowly limpet

The humble rock-scouring limpet, which is not as storied as the barnacle, now has a claim to fame. The teeth of the snail-like creature are believed to be the strongest natural material yet found on the planet. British researcher Asa Barber of the University of Portsmouth says of the newly announced superlative, "Until now, we thought that spider silk was the strongest biological material because of its super-strength and potential applications in everything from bulletproof vests to computer electronics, but now we have discovered that limpet teeth exhibit a strength that is potentially higher.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On with her head

The battered lead disc above, the Moost Happi medal in the British Museum in London, Is the only remaining undisputed likeness of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII. After she was beheaded in 1536, there was a concerted effort to erase her memory. But an interdisciplinary team at the University of California, Riverside, may have resurrected another image of the queen. Using state-of-the-art facial recognition software, they have found a close match with the privately owned Nidd Hall portrait, held at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. Admits Amit Roy-Chowdhury, head of the video computing group, "What the computer gives at the end is another source of evidence for the discussions that have been going on about these questions.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sand sculpture

What is has taken millions of years to do to sandstone, the wind has done on a miniature scale to frozen sand in a matter of days and weeks. The photo was taken at Silver Beach County Park in Saint Joseph, Michigan, U.S., on February 14, 2015, by Joshua Nowicki, who noted that the largest of the formations was only about 12" (30 cm) tall.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Remote rumors

This puffin-hunting lodge, with no electricity or indoor plumbing, was built in 1953 and is now trumpeted as the most isolated house in the world. It is located on the island of Elliðaey, part of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago south of Iceland. While native pop singer Björk may or may not have considered buying the property, and Iceland may or may not be interested in selling the islands off its coast, the fact is that it was not presented to her as a gift by the government of the country grateful for the attention she has brought it.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dentures from the dead

To meet the 19th c. European demand for dentures, the mouths of men killed in battle were plundered for their teeth. The human teeth were more valuable and longer-lasting than those carved from elephant, walrus, or hippopotamus ivory. Dentists made no bones about where the teeth were harvested, advertising them as "Waterloo teeth" or "Waterloo ivory," and guaranteed that they came from young, healthy soldiers rather than buried corpses or executed criminals. A British plunderer named Butler openly wished for a huge battle, boasting “there’ll be no want of teeth, I’ll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.” He was half right, as the business turned to imports from the American Civil War.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Antler amputation

When Minnesota, U.S., residents called to report 2 deer whose antlers were tangled in the woods behind their houses, the responding officers were surprised to find that one of the bucks was still alive. Policeman Ricky Syhre commented, "They must have been stuck together like that for hours." He and his colleagues used a Taser to subdue the animal, and an electric saw to quickly cut away its antler (VIDEO HERE). The successful rival walked off and will shed and grow another pair of antlers in time for the next rutting season.


Thursday, February 12, 2015


When Boston Dynamics developed its first quadrupedal robot BigDog (ABOVE RIGHT), it was agile, but heavy and – because of its gasoline-powered engine – loud like a lawnmower. Now meet its sleeker younger sibling Spot (ABOVE LEFT), whose electric power source makes it quieter and greener (VIDEO HERE). Apparently, it is the organic reflexes of the robot which creep people out. Tech Times points out, "When kicked and pushed, Spot stumbles briefly and quickly regains its balance -- even on smooth surfaces, the robot recovers without falling."

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Fetuses in fetu

Fetus in fetu is a developmental abnormality in which a mass resembling a fetus (IMAGE ABOVE) develops within the body. According to one theory the growth is a mature teratoma (a kind of tumor), but according to another theory it begins as a normal fetus but is absorbed by its own twin within the womb. The condition has been documented 200 times in the medical literature, but the case reported in the Hong Kong Medical Journal, in which a Chinese baby was born in 2010 containing two fetuses of its own, is a little atypical. The authors write:
In our case, both the twin parasitic fetuses had body weights, sizes, and fetal structures that corresponded well with a gestational age of 10 weeks. A normal ultrasound during the early antenatal period rather suggests that they might have been tiny parasitic fetuses that had grown slowly with the ‘patient’ and reached their significant sizes at term, instead of the popular theory of early normal development followed by parasitic inclusion and arrest of growth. Although with limited antenatal documentation, our case report does not support the popular monozygotic multiple pregnancy theory, and favours, by default, the traditional classification into a teratoma.
But of course the popular media is blaring headlines about a baby born pregnant with twins.

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