Thursday, January 31, 2019

science news 31.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


Baboons provide new insights into the evolution of the genome
"A team of researchers including scientists from Vetmeduni Vienna investigated the process of evolutionary diversification by looking at six baboon species. The results of the study provide exciting new insights into the evolution of the genome - including that of humans."

The 210-million-year-old Smok was crushing bones like a hyena
"Coprolites, or fossil droppings, of the dinosaur-like archosaur Smok wawelski contain lots of chewed-up bone fragments. This led researchers at Uppsala University to conclude that this top predator was exploiting bones for salt and marrow, a behavior often linked to mammals but seldom to archosaurs."


ARS microscopy research helps unravel the workings of a major honey bee pest

Urban biodiversity: Remarkable diversity of small animals in Basel gardens

Genes behind lager yeast's cold- and sugar-loving success revealed

Patagonian galls such as these harbor a parent of the hybrid yeast used to make lager or cold-brewed beer.
Credit: Diego Libkind, Institute for Biodiversity and Environment Research


Big cities feed on their hinterlands to sustain growth

Difference in brain connectivity may explain autism spectrum disorder
Something or other that "may explain autism spectrum disorder" gets heralded several times every week, so I usually ignore these, but I like the brain connectivity bit.

Babies who hear two languages at home develop advantages in attention

Ancient Mongolian skull is the earliest modern human yet found in the region


MIT robot combines vision and touch to learn the game of Jenga
Sadly, there was no video or picture of the Jenga-playing robot included with the PR.

A step closer to self-aware machines
"Columbia Engineers have created a robot that learns what it is, with zero prior knowledge of physics, geometry, or motor dynamics. Initially the robot has no clue what its shape is. After a brief period of 'babbling,' and within about a day of intensive computing, the robot creates a self-simulation, which it can then use to contemplate and adapt to different situations, handling new tasks as well as detecting and repairing damage in its body."

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

science news 30.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


Earth's continental nurseries discovered beneath mountains

environment and climate change

China's regulations unsuccessful in curbing methane emissions

Cattle urine's planet-warming power can be curtailed with land restoration

Plastic pollution causes mussels to lose grip


Long-necked dinosaurs rotated their forefeet to the side
Dances with dinosaurs ...

These are well preserved footprints of the find site in Morocco, with clearly visible claw impressions.

© Foto: The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology


Anemones are friends to fish
"A new study sheds light on the coral reef ecosystem and suggests many species of fish rely on anemones to avoid predators."

Why do beaked whales return to a Navy sonar range despite frequent disturbance?
"Using data from underwater robots, scientists have discovered that beaked whales prefer to feed within parts of a Navy sonar test range off Southern California that have dense patches of deep-sea squid. A new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, shows that beaked whales need these prey hotspots to survive, and that similar patches do not exist in nearby 'sonar-free' areas."


Columbia engineers translate brain signals directly into speech

Study identifies biomedical potential of bivalves
"Shellfish like oysters and mussels have the potential to revolutionize human health research, according to a new paper in Developmental and Comparative Immunology. The study reveals how using bivalves as model organisms offers numerous promising avenues for medical research -- from pharmaceutical development to bone regeneration."


Meet the quantum fridge -- at 3 atoms in size, it's much smaller than a minibar


From the news media

Lions switch to seafood diet, reports the Guardian

your brain on LSD

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

science news 29.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


Missing link in planet evolution found
"For the first time ever, astronomers have detected a 1.3 km radius body at the edge of the solar system. Kilometer-sized bodies like the one discovered have been predicted to exist for more than 70 years. These objects acted as an important step in the planet formation process between small initial amalgamations of dust and ice and the planets we see today."

This is an artist's impression of the newly discovered object.
Credit: Ko Arimatsu


How do fish and birds hang together without colliding? Researchers find the answer is a wake with purpose
"Fish and birds are able to move in groups, without separating or colliding, due to a newly discovered dynamic: the followers interact with the wake left behind by the leaders. The finding offers new insights into animal locomotion and points to potential ways to harness energy from natural resources."

climate change

Study: Climate change reshaping how heat moves around globe


For endangered lemurs, internet fame has a dark side
"A ring-tailed lemur named Sefo became an internet sensation in 2016 when a video of him demanding back scratches from two boys was viewed 20 million times in a week. Now, a new study of Twitter activity shows that viral videos of seemingly cuddly endangered animals can have a dark side too -- by fueling demand for them as pets."

Haiti's first-ever private nature reserve created to protect imperiled species
"In a race against time, an American professor and a Haitian CEO have teamed up to establish private nature reserves to protect Haiti's disappearing species. Now, with funding from Global Wildlife Conservation and Rainforest Trust, the first such park has been purchased: Grand Bois, a mountain in the southwest of Haiti with rare and endangered plants and animals."


Molecular analysis of anchiornis feather gives clues to origin of flight

Birds-of-paradise genomes target sexual selection


Brexit could lead to thousands of extra heart disease and stroke deaths
"Thousands of extra deaths from heart disease and stroke might become a reality in England over the next decade if Britain presses ahead with Brexit on March 29, reveals research published in the online journal BMJ Open."


Monday, January 28, 2019

fighting Ebola

Open Archive Day

A year ago, I published my second feature about Ebola virus disease, and since then the Democratic Republic of the Congo has suffered two further outbreaks of the disease. Scientific efforts geared up after the devastating outbreak in West Africa in 2014 are now beginning to bear fruit, and the past few weeks have seen some interesting developments in this field. Specifically, the hypothesis that wild bats are the natural reservoir from which outbreaks in the human population originate (especially if and when bat populations are disturbed eg by deforestation) has been strengthened by the discovery of Ebola in a West African bat. Also, there are further related filoviruses found in bats that could become a worry some day. A new genus of such viruses has now been discovered in bats in China. Meanwhile, the vaccine work is making progress, and researchers have this month reported that a candidate vaccine is safe and effective in monkeys.

And not to forget my feature is now freely accessible:

Preparing for the next Ebola epidemic

(and the first one from 2014, too, of course)

but if things continue to develop at this pace, I may have to write a third one soon ...

This is a Leschenault's rousette fruit bat (Rousettus leschenaultii) seen in a temple in Madurai, Tamilnadu, India. Researchers discovered a new genus of filoviruses in this species.
Credit: Rajesh Puttaswamaiah, Bat Conservation India Trust

Sunday, January 27, 2019

partita for flute

It may not be quite as famous as the six cello suites, but JS Bach also wrote a suite of dances for the unaccompanied flute, which only survived in a single transcript, and which after its rediscovery became known as the partita for flute (BWV 1013). Like the cello suites it involves a lot of jumping around between higher and lower registers to create the illusion that the soloist can simultaneously play the tune and the accompaniment. Here is a recording of the entire partita by Peter-Lukas Graf.

I prepared the second movement, the Corrente, for this year's festival and performed it yesterday, which was a huge challenge, but I got through in one piece. In a desperate attempt to persuade my brain that it has seen the notes before and doesn't need to panic at every accidental, I memorised it, meaning that for each line I have at one point been able to play it from memory (slowly), although some lines may have faded once I moved on to tackle the next bit. Intriguingly, even though recall from memory is too slow to be useful for performing, this helped with playing it from the sheet.

I've also learned the first movement, the allemande. The main difficulty in that one is that the composer seems to be blissfully unaware of the fact that flautists need to breathe to survive. Among the references the Wikipedia article cites, most focus on the Allemande, and one, intriguingly, even on one note, the F# in bar 20: Michel, Winfried. 1992. "'Ein Ton': Das fis im zwanzigsten Takt von Bachs Flötenpartita". In Travers und controvers: Festschrift Nikolaus Delius, edited by Mirjam Nastasi, 67–87. Celle: Hermann Moeck. ISBN 3-8754-9057-6.

I will also go through the last two movements, but at first reading they seem to be much more accessible than the Corrente.

So here comes the still life with Grandfather(ish) clock:

Again, a score found at Oxfam, and based on the copyright date it could be as old as I am.

PS: A couple of weeks after the performance, I've now decided to move from father to son ....

Saturday, January 26, 2019


All our instruments series, episode 4

Here's one (out of two) instruments acquired by marriage - a Hohner Clarina from about 1973. Hohner are famous as makers of accordions and harmonicas, so even if they make simple toys, you can expect them to sound good. The clarina is essentially a melodica (which happens to be a Hohner invention as well) with the white keys only, so you can only play within one scale, which at least for this instrument is G major. The notes are arranged for the right hand to play them as on a piano, so the lower notes are on the thumb side, i.e. nearer the mouth. This is maddening for all woodwind players, and it invalidates the description as a toy clarinet. (Incidentally I had a toy saxophone as a child which probably worked the same way, but I have no idea what happened to that one.) On the plus side, however, you can play chords.

The instrument must have been the last generation of Clarinas made with metal keys - most versions I could find online have got plastic keys (eg the Clarina12). (Stop press: just found one with metal keys on ebay.)

The instrument was red with a cardboard-like surface, but for reasons that have fallen into oblivion, its young owner covered it in black insulating tape, which doesn't come off without destroying the cardboard layer, so it now looks like this (I put the original box in the picture which shows that it's a Hohner instrument):

For the video, I've had a slightly polyphonic go at the anthem of our Galician session, Fisterra:

Further Hohner instruments will be coming along in this series ...

Friday, January 25, 2019

science news 25.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


Environmental protection in outer space
"Should regulations for environmental protection be valid beyond our solar system? Currently, extra-terrestrial forms of life are only deemed worth protecting if they can be scientifically investigated. But what about the numerous, presumably lifeless planets whose oxygen atmospheres open up the possibility of their settlement by terrestrial life forms? Theoretical physicist Claudius Gros from Goethe University has taken a closer look at this issue."

Study of archaeal cells could teach us more about ourselves
"Researchers wanted to better understand the archaeal cell by studying Sulfolobus islandicus, an archaeal microorganism that is found in geothermal hot springs. Their results give insight into archaea's potential shared ancestry with eukaryotes and the evolutionary history of cells, while overturning previously held beliefs about what S. islandicus requires for growth."

The helix, of DNA fame, may have arisen with startling ease


An entire botanical garden of genomes
"An article in the open-access journal GigaScience provides genome sequencing data that triples the number of plant species with available genome data. To date, around 350 land plant genomes have been sequenced; this article provides multiple data types for 760 plant specimens (689 species). This includes images, raw sequencing data, assembled chloroplast genomes, and preliminary nuclear genome assemblies -- all freely available. Effectively this work is a digital representation of an entire botanical garden."
See also my recent feature on the importance of botanic gardens for conservation.


In polar regions, warm-blooded marine predators rule
"Even though diversity typically decreases from the tropics to the poles, in the frigid waters of the high latitudes, warm-blooded marine mammals and birds thrive, both in number and species richness."

Biosecurity strategy needed for China's Belt and Road Initiative, researchers say
"China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched five years ago, includes more than 120 countries, linked by six proposed land-based Economic Corridors between core cities and key ports along traditional international transport routes. But, as new evidence reported in the journal Current Biology on Jan. 24 shows, the risk of introducing invasive species into new areas is substantial as it would threaten native species and biodiversity."


A reptile platypus from the early Triassic
"No animal alive today looks quite like a duckbilled platypus, but about 250 million years ago something very similar swam the shallow seas in what is now China, finding prey by touch with a cartilaginous bill."

Artist's impression of Eretmorhipis carrolldongi. Related to the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, Eretmorhipis evolved in a world devastated by the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian era. Its small eyes and bill suggest that like the duckbilled platypus, it hunted by touch.
Credit: Gianluca Danini

Crocodiles have complex past
A new study offers a different version to the evolutionary past of modern-day crocodiles and alligators. The study, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, says crocodiles and alligators came from a variety of surroundings beginning in the early Jurassic Period, and various species occupied a host of ecosystems over time, including land, estuarine, freshwater and marine.

Research shows what it takes to be a giant shark


Dopamine modulates reward experiences elicited by music
Don't think that's very surprising, but now you know. Wonder if they also considered the angry and sad songs of the following story:

Computer analysis shows that popular music lyrics become angrier and sadder over time
"A scientific analysis of the sentiment of popular music lyrics from the 1950s to 2016 showed that the expression of anger and sadness in popular music has increased gradually over time, while the expression of joy has declined."

PopPUNK advances speed of bacterial pathogen surveillance
"In a study published today in Genome Research, researchers developed PopPUNK (Population Partitioning Using Nucleotide K-mers), a computational tool for analyzing tens of thousands of bacterial genomes in a single run, up to 200-fold faster than previous methods." Obviously, not really music-related, but I just love the sound of that acronym.


The first tendril-like soft robot able to climb
"Researchers at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia obtained the first soft robot mimicking plant tendrils: it is able to curl and climb, using the same physical principles determining water transport in plants. The research team is led by Barbara Mazzolai and results have been published in Nature Communications. In the future this tendril-like soft robot could inspire the development of wearable devices, such as soft braces, able to actively morph their shape."


From the news media:

cod supplies to crash due to ocean warming
, warns the Guardian.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

science news 24.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


Planetary collision that formed the moon made life possible on Earth

SwRI scientist sheds light on Titan's mysterious atmosphere

Astronomers find star material could be building block of life

climate change

Climate change tipping point could be coming sooner than we think

New study establishes link between climate change, conflict, and migration

marine mammals

Humpback whales' songs at subarctic feeding areas are complex, progressive

An icy forecast for ringed seal populations

Scientists have already observed and predicted that high ringed seal pup mortality rates are linked to poor environmental conditions like early ice breakup and low snow. Researchers have now gone a step further by coupling these hypotheses with forecasts of future spring snow and ice conditions, developing a mathematical model, and following it to some stark conclusions for populations off the Amundsen Gulf and Prince Albert Sound in Canada.

A ringed seal pup, still covered in its white baby fur, lies exposed on the sea ice.
Credit: Ian Stirling


from the news media:

a long read on the quest for a reliable flu vaccine in the Guardian

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

science news 23.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


For zombie microbes, deep-sea buffet is just out of reach
"A new study from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is beginning to pick apart how bizarre zombie-like microbes survive by examining their source of 'food' -- nearby molecules of organic carbon. The study helps further our understanding of the limitations of life on Earth and could help inform how life might exist on other planets."

climate change

Dry inland waters are underrated players in climate change


Without habitat management, small land parcels do not protect birds

Possible Oahu populations offer new hope for Hawaiian seabirds

Unique camera enables researchers to see the world the way birds do

How much rainforest do birds need?

The blue-headed bee-eater is native to African rainforests.
Credit: Professor Matthias Waltert

ecology & evolution

Otago researcher contributes piece to the puzzle of baleen whales' evolution

Urbanization changes shape of mosquitoes' wings

Plants blink: Proceeding with caution in sunlight

Green fluorescence from reef-building corals attracts symbiotic algae


Thirty percent fewer prostate cancer deaths with PSA screening


The first nucleophilic gold complex

Graphene and related materials safety: human health and the environment

Properties of 'wonder material' graphene change in humid conditions


Increasing skepticism against robots

Surveillance in our schools
"ClassDojo is one of the most popular education apps in the world. Its company estimates it is used by millions of teachers and children across 180 countries. Beneath its friendly exterior lie disturbing implications."


Improved plastics recycling thanks to spectral imaging

From toilet to brickyard: Recycling biosolids to make sustainable bricks

musical instruments

Do endangered woods make better guitars?
Spoiler alert: no.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

science news 22.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


Fossilized slime of 100-million-year-old hagfish shakes up vertebrate family tree

Ancient carpet shark discovered with 'spaceship-shaped' teeth
"The world of the dinosaurs just got a bit more bizarre with a newly discovered species of freshwater shark whose tiny teeth resemble the alien ships from the popular 1980s video game Galaga."

Credit: (c) Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum

climate change

Greenland ice melting four times faster than in 2003, study finds


Broadband achromatic metalens focuses light regardless of polarization


The diversity of rural African populations extends to their microbiomes

Study: On Facebook and Twitter your privacy is at risk -- even if you don't have an account


from the news media

"If all of Greenland’s vast ice sheet, 3km thick in places, was to melt, global sea levels would rise by seven meters," writes the Guardian, in a piece about faster than expected ice loss in Greenland (see the press release for the PNAS paper above, under climate change). Note,however, that melting isn't even necessary for this catastrophic sea level rise to happen. If the ice were to slide off the landmass and float around in the Atlantic, it would cause exactly the same effect, as it displaces its own weight in liquid water.

Monday, January 21, 2019

out of the freezer

Following a helpful suggestion from one of the scientific editors at Current Biology, I looked at the scary things that can come out of the Arctic permafrost soils as they continue to thaw due to climate change. The defrosted threats include pathogens like anthrax, poisons like methyl mercury, and, as is already widely known, lots of methane, which could further accelerate global warming in a positive feedback loop.

The scary but fascinating finds out of the Earths freezer compartment are collected in today's feature which is out now:

Permafrost thaw releases problems

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 2, pages R39-R41, January 21, 2019

FREE access to full text and PDF download

The photo shows researchers from several US institutions investigating the impact of vegetation on permafrost soils (Environ. Res. Lett. (2018) 13, 105006). (Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory.)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

a question of fingering

All our instruments series, episode 3

We're now arriving at the earliest surviving instrument from my childhood (not sure what happened to the poor old toy saxophone?), namely my school recorder.

I learned to play it in primary school and still have the booklet with the tunes, and the dates of the lessons written in. Apparently it was a peripatetic teacher who scribbled the date of the next lesson into the book.

The recorder bears the trademark Schneider, so I think it was made by the company of Werner Schneider in Markneukirchen, Saxony, whose sons now trade as Gebr. Schneider. The tradition of making musical instruments in the Musikwinkel (musical corner) of the country was added to Germany's list of immaterial cultural heritage in 2014. Unlike the Hopf family, makers of my guitar, who also come from that area but moved to Taunusstein in 1948, the Schneider recorders stayed there.

Today it looks like this:

You may notice that the holes for the right hand look different from UK school recorders (and, indeed, from the grown-up recorders that proper musicians use). In fact, hole sizes are adapted to the so-called German fingering system (as opposed to the English / Baroque fingering). Although I was aware that there are two types of fingerings listed in the finger charts, it only dawned on me recently that the one I learned is a simplification. Thanks to the changes in hole sizes, I can play a scale from the lowest note (C in this case) by lifting off one finger at a time, without any gaps. By contrast, the English system requires a more complex fingering for the fourth step of the scale (F in this case).

Musicians including Hans Martin Linde have criticised the German simplification on the grounds that it makes some of the "black key" notes needed in more remote keys impossible to play in tune. I guess the tunes you learn at school carefully avoid the notes that don't work well, so I never spotted any problems until I heard about this. I can also work with the English system (several recorders with that are going to turn up later in the series).

For some weird reason, on the German system recorder I particularly like the sound of the Bb, so in the video, after a quick scale to demonstrate the fingering, I am playing a song from my primary school recorder book in F, with lots of Bb (Der Mond ist aufgegangen), followed by an attempt to remember Brahms' famous lullaby:

Friday, January 18, 2019

science news 18.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


Scientists find increase in asteroid impacts on ancient Earth by studying the Moon
Did the frequency of asteroid hits increase around 290 million years ago?

Saturn hasn't always had rings
"In its last days, the Cassini spacecraft looped between Saturn and its rings so that Earth-based radio telescopes could track the gravitational tug of each. Scientists in Italy and the U.S. have now used these measurements to determine the mass of the rings and estimate its age, which is young: 10-100 million years. This supports the hypothesis that the rings are rubble from a comet or Kuiper Belt object captured late in Saturn's history."


Orchards in natural habitats draw bee diversity, improve apple production

Bee surveys in newest US national park could aid pollinator studies elsewhere


Mapping the neural circuit of innate responses to odors
as studied in flies


More animal species under threat of extinction, new method shows

Penguins, starfish, whales: Which animals will win and lose in a warming Antarctic?

Researchers race against extinction to uncover tree's cancer-fighting properties

cute picture department

Emperor penguins' first journey to sea

Caption: "When the chicks first go in the water, they are very awkward and unsure of themselves," says Sara Labrousse, a postdoctoral investigator at WHOI and lead author of the paper. "They are not the fast and graceful swimmers their parents are."

Credit: Photo by Vincent Munier


Understanding our early human ancestors: Australopithecus sediba

Study highlights lack of fair access to urban green spaces


Models of life
Friedrich Simmel und Aurore Dupin, researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), have for the first time created artificial cell assemblies that can communicate with each other. The cells, separated by fatty membranes, exchange small chemical signaling molecules to trigger more complex reactions, such as the production of RNA and other proteins.


from the news media:

possibly the oldest surviving wall chart of the Periodic Table found in St. Andrews.

tardigrades under the ice of Antarctica

Thursday, January 17, 2019

science news 17.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.


New study finds evidence of changing seasons, rain on Titan's north pole


Feathers: better than Velcro?
"The structures zipping together the barbs in bird feathers could provide a model for new adhesives and new aerospace materials, according to a study by an international team of researchers publishing in the Jan. 16 issue of Science Advances. Researchers 3D printed models of the structures to better understand their properties."

Vampire bat venom could hold key to new medical treatments
"Vampire bats could hold the key to new treatments for a range of serious medical problems, but researchers have hit a snag accessing the specimens needed to advance their work. An international team led by The University of Queensland has found a new class of blood pressure-regulating peptides in the venom of the common vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata)."


Ammonia by phosphorus catalysis
"More than 100 years after the introduction of the Haber-Bosch process, scientists continue to search for alternative ammonia production routes that are less energy demanding. Chinese scientists have now discovered that black phosphorus is an excellent catalyst for the electroreduction of nitrogen to ammonia. According to their study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, layered black phosphorus nanosheets are a highly selective and efficient catalyst in this process."
See also my recent feature on the quest for new approaches to industrial ammonia synthesis, especially in Asia.

climate change

Water, not temperature, limits global forest growth as climate warms

The pace at which the world's permafrost soils are warming

Record-breaking ocean temperatures point to trends of global warming


Urbanization may hold key to tiger survival

Marine mammals and sea turtles recovering after Endangered Species Act protection

Ocean giant gets a health check: Combination blood, tissue test reveals whale shark diets
"Whale sharks, the world's largest fish, likely endure periods of starvation and may eat more plants than previously thought, according to the first results of a new health check developed at the University of Tokyo. Ocean scientists now have a powerful, simple tool to discover the diets, migrations, and conservation needs of this endangered species."

Caption: Whale sharks, like this individual at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, are the world's largest species of fish, growing to 10 to 12 meters in length. Despite their large size and threatened status, whale shark ecology remains mysterious. A University of Tokyo research team led by Alex Wyatt, a project researcher at the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, created a blood test and tissue isotope analysis health check to better understand the animals.
Credit: Image by K. Sato, Okinawa Churashima Foundation Research Center CC-BY-NC-ND.


Artificial intelligence applied to the genome identifies an unknown human ancestor
New insights on the Neanderthal / Denisovan / modern human love triangle

Dental study of juvenile archaic Homo< fossil gives clues about human development

Mechanism helps explain the ear's exquisite sensitivity

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

science news 16.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.

animal weaponry

Unraveling threads of bizarre hagfish's explosive slime
How to stun a shark ...

Mojave rattlesnakes' life-threatening venom is more widespread than expected

life on the edge

Scientists identify two new species of fungi in retreating Arctic glacier

A microbial hot spring in your basement
extremophiles are beginning to colonise domestic heating systems ...


New study shows animals may get used to drones

'Outdated' management plan increases risks to Alaska's large carnivores
"Alaskan wildlife management that prioritizes reducing bear and wolf populations so hunters can kill more moose, caribou and deer is both backward and lacks scientific monitoring."

Caption: Alaskan brown bears on Kodiak Island.
Credit: Lisa Hupp, US Fish and Wildlife Service


New insights into what Neolithic people ate in southeastern Europe

3,000-year-old eastern North American quinoa discovered in Ontario

11,500-year-old animal bones in Jordan suggest early dogs helped humans hunt

Cop voice: Jay-Z, Public Enemy songs highlight police tactic to frighten people of color

NYSCF scientists make strides in creation of clinical-grade bone


From the news media:

Growing cotton on the Moon

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

science news 15.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.

(Categories are still evolving. Don't really want to put stuff in boxes, but have to have some kind of structure here.)


Double star system flips planet-forming disk into pole position
"... the first confirmed example of a double star system that has flipped its surrounding disc to a position that leaps over the orbital plane of those stars."

Caption: Artist's impression of a view of the double star system and surrounding disc.
Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick


DNA origami: A precise measuring tool for optimal antibody effectiveness


A new study shows that wine experts differ by geographic region
That was to be expected - it's all about the terroir the experts grow on ...

Step forward in understanding human feet

The secret to Rembrandt's impasto unveiled
"Rembrandt van Rijn revolutionized painting with a 3D effect using his impasto technique, where thick paint makes a masterpiece protrude from the surface. Thanks to the ESRF, the European Synchrotron, Grenoble, France, three centuries later an international team of scientists [...] have found how he did it."


Using genomic data, NYU Abu Dhabi researchers unlock history of North African date palm

Fossil deposit is much richer than expected
"Near the Dutch town of Winterswijk is an Eldorado for fossil lovers. A student at the University of Bonn has now analyzed pieces from museums and private collections for his master's thesis. He found an amazing amount of almost completely preserved skeletons, between 242 and 247 million years old. The good condition is presumably due to particularly favorable development conditions. These make Winterswijk a cornucopia for paleontology."
I picked this one up only because from a corner of Germany that I happen to know, Winterswijk is the nearest Dutch town, just across the border. I never knew it had any claim to scientific fame.


Let's prepare now so farming insects as food is environmentally friendly, say scientists

Cities could play a key role in pollinator conservation


WSU smart home tests first elder care robot

Where is George? Ask this software to look at the crowd
" is a mix of conventional algorithms and artificial intelligence developed at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown. From the video footage of a moving crowd composed of dozens of individuals, it learns to identify each and every individual in that crowd."


In the news media:

Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’

"To save the rainforest, we need to work with the palm oil industry," says Jennifer Lucey in the Guardian. "As a tropical field ecologist in Borneo, I learned why science must work with industry to protect the planet."

Monday, January 14, 2019

bobtail squid in starring role

Open Archive Day

Starting its third year now, the Open Archive Day happens on the Mondays between those when new features come out. It highlights one feature that was published more than a year ago and is thus on permanent open access. From 2011 to 2017, there are 160 to choose from now, with two from 2018 joining every month, so I won't get bored soon.

Today's edition stars the Hawaiian bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes whose genome sequence has just been reported in PNAS (also on open access, apparently). The transparent larvae of this cephalopod represent an important model system for studies of the symbiosis between higher organisms and bioluminescent bacteria. And these bacteria normally coordinate their light production by quorum sensing, which was the topic of my last feature of 2017, which is in the open archive now:

Shining new light on quorum sensing

The adult Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) with inset scale.

Image source: Margaret McFall-Ngai - Divining the Essence of Symbiosis: Insights from the Squid-Vibrio Model

Sunday, January 13, 2019

catching up

... with a few months worth of publications in German magazines (all in the same magazine in fact, but pieces in the other titles just had to queue a bit and will be out soon), here goes:

Ausgeforscht: Löchrig by design
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 66, Issue 9 September 2018 Page 935
Access via Wiley Online Library

Quanteneffekte – ganz natürlich
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 66, Issue 10 Oktober 2018 Pages 949-951
Access via Wiley Online Library

Ausgeforscht: Grünlilie mit Alarmanlage
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 66, Issue 10 Oktober 2018 Page 1027
Access via Wiley Online Library

Ausgeforscht: Der älteste Käse der Welt?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 66, Issue 11 November 2018 Page 1127
Access via Wiley Online Library
NB this fun-poking piece on very old cheese inspired my feature article in Current Biology on the same topic, this time very serious and in English.

Bienenverträgliche Insektizide – eine Utopie?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 66, Issue 12 Dezember 2018 Pages 1141-1142
Access via Wiley Online Library
The next generation of insecticides after Neonics may also harm bees. A related feature in English is here.

Ausgeforscht: FakeCon 2019 - jetzt buchen!
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 66, Issue 12 Dezember 2018 Page 1219
Access via Wiley Online Library

Ausgeforscht: Analytische Filmbewertung
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 67, Issue 1, Januar 2019, Page 114
Access via Wiley Online Library

As it happens, the Nachrichten have undergone a re-design and now look like this:

Saturday, January 12, 2019

blue notes

All our instruments series, episode 2

After Heinrich the cello and a tuba mouthpiece sadly lacking the rest of the instrument, the next longest serving instrument in my house is a Hopf classical guitar which turned 50 last summer. This is a precise dating, as my cousin got it as a birthday present back in 1968. I've been playing it badly since the mid-1970s, but less regularly since I started to toot a flute, back in 1999. However, I did play a few notes on it at the Misa Campesina 2017.

On the occasion of its 50th birthday, the young stringplayer named it Blue, and as that refers to the figure Johnny Blue in the eponymous song, I suspect it's henceforth a he. Here's a portrait of Blue and yours truly, taken back in 2012:

And here's the video of a few notes I can still remember after 20 years of not playing very much ...

It includes the intro to a song by Reinhard Mey, then a piece I learned from a guitar magazine under the title of Shake that thing, but googling that title now leads to a different piece, and finally a failed attempt to remember Fuer Elise - I had a nice guitar score for that but appear to have lost it.

Friday, January 11, 2019

science news 11.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.

(Categories are still evolving. Don't really want to put stuff in boxes, but have to have some kind of structure here.)


Termites mitigate effects of drought in Tropical Rainforest

Bizarre 'bristle-jaw' creatures finally placed on tree of life
this one is about chaetognaths, aka arrow worms

Chaetognaths, or arrow worms, have a distinct jaw structure composed of dense protein matrix and a fibrous substance called chitin. These organisms display an ambiguous set of developmental and morphological features, making them difficult to categorize on the Tree of Life.


Social and environmental costs of hydropower are underestimated, study shows
see also my feature on megadam mania, now in the open archives.

How dangerous is microplastic?
"Natalia Ivleva, a researcher with the Technical University of Munich (TUM), has developed new analytical methods for the identification and quantification of microplastic. In this interview, she shares her latest findings." (there is a new publication, dated 2019, referenced too.)

Ocean warming is accelerating

marine biology

Far-ranging fin whales find year-round residence in Gulf of California

Fish farmers of the Caribbean
that could be a 21st century sequel to those movies ...


Neuroimaging shows social exclusion spurs extremism in those vulnerable to radicalisation


Chirality in 'real-time'
"a method that uses ultrashort deep-ultraviolet pulses to accurately probe [chirality] changes in real-time in (bio)molecular systems."

Saving energy by taking a close look inside transistors


reclaim your time, says Linda Geddes in the Guardian.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

science news 10.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.

(Categories are still evolving. Don't really want to put stuff in boxes, but have to have some kind of structure here.)

elephants special issue

Elephants take to the road for reliable resources
"Landscapes can change from day-to-day and year-to-year, and many animals will move about according to resource availability. But do they remember past resource conditions? Just how important is memory and spatial cognition when seeking to understand wildlife movement? Researchers in Etosha National Park, Namibia, examined this question through African elephants."

Collared African elephants like this one near a water source helped supply movement data for the study.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Miriam Tsalyuk.

Scientists hit on the protein and lipid composition of the Siberian mammoth bone

Change of teeth causes yo-yo effect in elephants' weight

ecology & evolution

15-meter-long ancient whale Basilosaurus isis was top marine predator

Reconstruction of trilobite ancestral range in the southern hemisphere


Sunscreen and cosmetics compound may harm coral by altering fatty acids


Illuminating women's role in the creation of medieval manuscripts
"An international team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York have revealed direct evidence of medieval women's involvement in the production of illuminated manuscripts. Lapis lazuli in the dental calculus of a woman buried at a 12th-century German monastery suggests that she created richly illustrated religious texts."


Stick insect study shows the significance of passive muscle force for fast movements

Artificial bug eyes


In the news today:

Hubble in trouble and

possible signals from aliens ?

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

science news 9.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.

(Categories are still evolving. Don't really want to put stuff in boxes, but have to have some kind of structure here.)


Nature's magnifying glass reveals unexpected intermediate mass exoplanets

Space microbes aren't so alien after all
How bacteria adapt to life on the ISS.


Giant singers from neighboring oceans share song parts over time
"Singing humpback whales from different ocean basins seem to be picking up musical ideas from afar, and incorporating these new phrases and themes into the latest song, according to a newly published study in Royal Society Open Science that's helping scientists better understand how whales learn and change their musical compositions."
see also my feature on whale cultures now in the open archive.


Future of planet-cooling tech: Study creates roadmap for geoengineering research


The first case of a Portuguese beetle living exclusively in groundwater

Study shows algae thrive under Greenland sea ice

Bee mite arrival in Hawaii causes pathogen changes in honeybee predators
"A team led by entomologists at the University of California, Riverside, performed a study on the Big Island and found viruses associated with the varroa mite, a parasite of honeybees, have spilled over into the western yellowjacket, a honeybee predator and honey raider. The result is a hidden, yet remarkable, change in the genetic diversity of viruses associated with the larger pathogen community of the mite and wasp, with repercussions yet to be understood."


Finding an elusive mutation that turns altruism into selfish behavior among honeybees

How locusts switch colors in different settings
Locusts also appear in my feature on bugs, out this week.

A green solitary locust (left) sits alongside black/brown sociable (or 'gregarious') locusts.
Credit: Yang, Wang, Liu et al., eLife, 2019


The new green alternative for drug production
Using manganese as earth-abundant catalyst

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

science news 8.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.

(Categories are still evolving. Don't really want to put stuff in boxes, but have to have some kind of structure here.)


Researchers say auditory testing can identify children for autism screening

Salk team reveals clues into early development of autism spectrum disorder
"Researchers at the Salk Institute compared stem cells created from individuals with ASD against stem cells created from those without ASD to uncover, for the first time, measurable differences in the patterns and speed of development in the ASD-derived cells."


TESS discovers its third new planet, with longest orbit yet


A century and half of reconstructed ocean warming offers clues for the future

Deep low-frequency earthquakes indicate migration of magmatic fluids beneath Laacher See


Scientists call for more diversity in genomic research

mind and brain

Opioids fueled a doubling of suicides and overdoses in the US

Recent research suggests new therapeutic role for caffeine in neuropsychiatric disorders


Seawater turns into freshwater through solar energy: A new low-cost technology

Can artificial intelligence tell a polar bear from a can opener?
judging from recent experience with tumblr's censorship AI, my guess would be: no.


Evolution used same genetic formula to turn animals monogamous
those prairie voles are up to their old tricks again ...

Female penguins are getting stranded along the South American coast

This image shows Magellanic penguins.
Credit: Takashi Yamamoto


In the news:

Bath plans to use thermal waters from their famous Roman baths for heating, reports The Guardian.

Oh, and anyone for spicy tomatoes?

Monday, January 07, 2019

bugs in the system

The true bugs and allies (Hemiptera) have a bad reputation and serve as a metaphor for everything that malfunctions, but looking at the biosphere at a systems level, surely they are a feature rather than a bug in the system? A recent paper on bug diversity and evolution made me realise I have never written about bugs, so I set out to fix that bug, errr, that gap in my CV.

Here's the feature about bugs not being bugs but features:

Beneficial bugs

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 1, pages R1-R3, January 07, 2019

FREE access to full text and PDF download

This is a Chinese spittlebug species (genus Philagra). The nymphs of spittlebugs produce their characteristic spittle to protect themselves. (Photo: Christopher Dietrich.)

Sunday, January 06, 2019

getting faster

The Oxford Slow Session has been running for five years now, and it is both getting faster and more popular. Last year there were quite a few sessions with around 20 people, and today there were over 30. Looks like "joining a folk sesssion" is a popular new year's resolution.

To celebrate the anniversary, I brought in a tripod and filmed the session going round in circles:

I think I missed the first three sessions back in 2014 and first went in April. Back then I started as a struggling flautist with support from the young cellist, now I play the easier tunes on the cello myself and have lost all inhibitions on the flute. As I often say, I'm beginning to see some improvement ...

Saturday, January 05, 2019

all our instruments

A recent scientific survey has revealed that there are around 50 musical instruments living under my roof. The precise number depends on whether or how you count the contents of my percussions box, which includes 8 scallop shells, a pair of table spoons, a triangle, and other weird and wonderful things. The number also tends to increase with time.

Around ten of the instruments (and the percussions box) get to go out regularly, but the others may get a bit bored, so I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to give each instrument a place in the spotlight, i.e. on YouTube. Posting one video per week that project should keep running for the year (follow the series with the all instruments tag). The order of appearance will be chronological, i.e. the instruments that have been in the family the longest will come first.

So without a doubt the first spot goes to Heinrich the cello, who has been in the family for almost a century now, although I am afraid to say he had to spend a few decades in places not really suited for cellos, such as my grandparents’ attic. I have written about his life story until 2009 before, so I’ll just have to add that since then Heinrich has played lots of lovely music with the young cellist in the family (who is also responsible for the naming of all string instruments).

(a recent portrait of Heinrich)

When she is away at uni and/or playing lots of other instruments, Heinrich may get a little bit lonely, so I like to take him to the Oxford Slow Session and to Cowley Orchestra, and sometimes also to the Galician session, although that can be a bit noisy and rowdy for a gentleman of nearly 100 years.

Heinrich has appeared in a few videos already, but to start the new series, I recorded one of my favourite Galician songs, Lela, music by Rosendo Mato Hermida (1914- 1994):

I've taken inspiration from the version sung by Maria do Ceo. Please don't look too closely at my non-existing technique. The bow-hold goes back to my youthful attempts to play double bass, and the fingerings are based on the fact that the fourth position is a lot easier to locate than those either side of it. (For reference, here's the young cellist playing the same tune faster and with all the fingers in the right places.)

I'll also take this opportunity to round up some of Heinrich's earlier adventures with the young cellist:

Gerald Finzi: Clarinet Concerto 3rd Movement
. Oxford Concerto Orchestra, Madhavi Berks (Clarinet). Heinrich is just inside the frame of this video, most of the young cellist just outside.

Mozart: Allegro from Quintet in E minor K516 - The Cardwell Quintet, Oxford Chamber Course 2015.

Anton Rubinstein: Melodie in F - The Downes Cello Quartet at the Oxford Chamber Course 2015.

Guillaume Paque: Souvenir de Curis - The Foxwell Cello Quartet at the Oxford Chamber Course 2014 (more about the composer).

Friday, January 04, 2019

science new 4.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.

Slime proves valuable in developing method for counting salmon in Alaska
"Scientists have published a novel method for counting Pacific salmon -- analyzing DNA from the slime the fish leave behind in their spawning streams."

Artificial intelligence advances threaten privacy of health data

Bulldogs' screw tails linked to human genetic disease

DNA on auto-pilot
"Hao Yan and his colleagues, in collaboration with scientists at MIT, describe a method allowing for the automation of DNA origami construction, vastly accelerating and simplifying the process of crafting desired forms, and opening the world of DNA architecture to a broader audience."

Catastrophic galactic collision could send Solar System flying into space
Don't panic, we still have 2 billion years left ...

This vibrant image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our own Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI

Forest soundscapes monitor conservation efforts inexpensively, effectively
See also my recent feature on soundscape ecology.

Melting ice sheets release tons of methane into the atmosphere, study finds


in the news media:

Greater Manchester region moves to ban fracking

Thursday, January 03, 2019

science news 3.1.2019

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about.

If you missed the memo: In the last five years or so I used to share/archive a selection of news stories from Eurekalert on tumblr each day (as well as tweeting them), but as I expect tumblr will sink after the ridiculous nipple purge of Dec 17, I have now moved the archive function here, with one post each Tue-Fri collecting links to releases that I found noteworthy. Anyhow, here goes (not very many items today, so no categories needed):

Juno mission captures images of volcanic plumes on Jupiter's moon Io

Engineers, zoologists reveal how gulls 'wing morph' for stable soaring

Feisty hummingbirds prioritize fencing over feeding
"Hummingbirds are fierce fighters, but also efficient feeders with tongues and bills well adapted to extracting every bit of nectar from a flower. Why, then, do the males of some tropical species have bizarre hooks, serrations and hard tips that defeat efficient nectar extraction? Using high-speed video, UC Berkeley researchers have documented how these males use their weaponized bills to fight rivals for food and mates, and the trade-offs in choosing fighting prowess over feeding."

How does the brain learn by talking to itself?
My brain keeps asking itself that question, but never gets a good answer.

Fewer monarch butterflies are reaching their overwintering destination

This is a monarch butterfly.
Credit: Pat Davis

A 'pacemaker' for North African climate
"Researchers at MIT have analyzed dust deposited off the coast of west Africa over the last 240,000 years, and found that the Sahara, and North Africa in general, has swung between wet and dry climates every 20,000 years."


In the news media today, we have a whole load of solar system exploration

* China's landing on the far side of the Moon. Media reports somehow forgot to mention that there must be an orbiter involved to relay communications. I'm pretty sure no existing communications technology can tunnel through the Moon. Anyhow, the Guardian report is here.

* And New Horizons' pics of Ultima Thule are getting better, here.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

educating tumblr's AI

Update on the tumblr situation two weeks after the supposed purge: The change of policy has successfully driven away many of the creative people that made tumblr special, but so far (I last checked on Dec 31st) it has spectacularly failed to cover up most of the NSFW material.

My impression is that the AI is clearly failing to keep up with the sheer bulk of stuff swilling around on tumblr - I like to think that is just so busy with the photos that it hasn't got round to watching gifs and videos. Moreover, its sex education appears to be stuck in pre-school. It can recognise a female-presenting nipple in good light, but it is entirely clueless what people might be up to with their hands down their trousers, for instance.

Thus, watching tumblr's AI learning about the birds and the bees would be immensely fascinating if it wasn't at the same time in the business of killing an entire culture. I've spent way too much time throughout December testing the limits of the new system and making sure the interesting materials that mysteriously remained unflagged find wider distribution. But as of the new year, I'll take a bit of a break from that and look into alternatives, as tumblr is going down anyway, no matter how hopeless its censorship AI is.

So far there is a silver lining in that the rescue site seems to be working as an uncensored archive, although it has no connectivity yet. Some have suggested it's a scam but so far it works for me, so let's hope for the best. Just under half of my main tumblr has copied across and is now to be seen uncensored (including lots of protest nipples from December) here. (I now also copied Street Music Oxford) Recently, an archive mode has also materialised, and just now my page features 4 "zombie posts" highlighted at the top, so things are definitely happening at 2mblr. (Update 7.1.: the site now has a follow button, network building starts here!)

Even my poor old painter smurf got flagged by the tumblr AI. This programme has no sense of humour and no appreciation for art.