Science & Technology


Human activity driving genetic differences among monkeys in Tanzania

An endangered monkey species in Tanzania is living in geographical pockets that are becoming isolated from one another. The situation, researchers say, is mostly driven by the monkeys' proximity to villages and the deliberate burning of forests to make way for crops and pastures.

An international team, led by Maria Jose Ruiz-Lopez, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oregon, combed five distinct forested areas from 2011 to 2012. Gathered were 170 fecal samples of the Udzungwa red colobus monkey (Procolobus gordonorum), for DNA analyses. These monkeys are considered an indicator species of ecological change.

The region studied has fertile soils and forests scattered in valleys and along mountain ridges in the Eastern Arc Mountains, part of a vast region known as the Eastern Afromontane Hotspot. It is home to many plants and animals that live nowhere else in the world.

The team employed a landscape-genetics approach not commonly used in tropical zones to probe genetic differences in 121 different monkeys and see if human activity is playing a role in ecological changes occurring in the region, said corresponding author Nelson Ting, a professor of anthropology and member of the UO's Institute of Ecology and Evolution.

Landscape genetics relies on geographic information systems and combines landscape ecology with population genetics. Alone, population genetics allows researchers to see such differences but not explicitly explain why they exist. In this study, the largest genetic differences were found between monkeys that were separated by villages and areas that experienced the highest densities of fires, based on fire data spanning 2000-2007.

"We found that human activities are driving genetic differentiation in these monkeys across this landscape," Ting said. "This ecosystem is an important one for conservation in general because of the high level of diversity in it. This research is showing that this ecosystem is in a precarious state. This monkey is a forest-adapted species that lives in the trees. We really thought that the best explanation for what is driving genetic differentiation would be forest coverage."

Comment: Animals across the planet are dying off in mass. Sadly, humanity is creating a monstrous void in Mother Nature. Are humans next?


Earth-like planets orbiting near small stars may have protective magnetic fields

Earth-like planets orbiting close to small stars probably have magnetic fields that protect them from stellar radiation and help maintain surface conditions that could be conducive to life, according to research from astronomers at the University of Washington.

A planet's magnetic field emanates from its core and is thought to deflect the charged particles of the stellar wind, protecting the atmosphere from being lost to space. Magnetic fields, born from the cooling of a planet's interior, could also protect life on the surface from harmful radiation, as the Earth's magnetic field protects us.

Low-mass stars are among the most common in the universe. Planets orbiting near such stars are easier for astronomers to target for study because when they transit, or pass in front of, their host star, they block a larger fraction of the light than if they transited a more massive star. But because such a star is small and dim, its habitable zone—where an orbiting planet gets the heat necessary to maintain life-friendly liquid water on the surface—also lies relatively close in.


Bug-infected music: Androids can be hacked through opening song or video

Cybersecurity warning: Listen at your own risk!
A billion Android devices across the world are vulnerable to a bug that may be exploited to infect your smartphone or tablet when you try to preview a song or video on the internet, cybersecurity experts warn.

"Meet Stagefright 2.0, a set of two vulnerabilities that manifest when processing specially crafted MP3 audio or MP4 video files," says a report from Zimperium, a cybersecurity company specializing in mobile devices.

The first Stagefright exploit was found by Zimperium in April and was publicly announced in July this year. It involved an Android multimedia engine library known as libstagefright, which could be made to execute malicious code via an MMS message. A bug fix was rolled out two days ago after it was reported to Google by the cybersecurity company.

The new exploit affects the same library, but does so via a malicious MP3 or MP4 file played on a webpage. According to Zimperium, the bug is capable of affecting "almost every Android device since version 1.0 released in 2008."

The risk lies "in the processing of metadata within the files," say the experts so you can 'catch the bug' when you are playing a song or a video.

"Since the primary attack vector of MMS has been removed in newer versions of Google's Hangouts and Messenger apps, the likely attack vector would be via the Web browser. An attacker would try to convince an unsuspecting user to visit a URL pointing at an attacker controlled Web site."

Comment: The first vulnerability (in libutils) impacts almost every Android device since version 1.0 released in 2008. Methods were found to trigger that vulnerability in devices running version 5.0 and up using the second vulnerability (in libstagefright). Do you Android?


The mystery of 'crow funerals' solved: Scientists say birds are trying to learn about potential dangers to their own lives


Previous research has found crows have an excellent memory for human faces.
Crows mourn their dead to try and learn about potential dangers to their own lives, researchers have found.

They found the birds can even remember an animal or person seen with a dead crow.

The birds were also able to easily distinguish between people or hawks carrying dead crows and other birds.

'The funeral behaviour of crows is so widely observed, and people often asked about it - but we haven't known what was happening,' Kaeli Swift at the University of Washington, who led the research, told

The study recorded the crow's behaviour when stuffed crows which appeared dead were introduced to areas where they are feeding.


Study shows that common mealworms can safely biodegrade various types of plastic

Mealworms munch on Styrofoam, a hopeful sign that solutions to plastics pollution exist. Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, discovered the larvae can live on polystyrene.
Consider the plastic foam cup. Every year, Americans throw away 2.5 billion of them. And yet, that waste is just a fraction of the 33 million tons of plastic Americans discard every year. Less than 10 percent of that total gets recycled, and the remainder presents challenges ranging from water contamination to animal poisoning.

Enter the mighty mealworm. The tiny worm, which is the larvae form of the darkling beetle, can subsist on a diet of Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene, according to two companion studies co-authored by Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford. Microorganisms in the worms' guts biodegrade the plastic in the process - a surprising and hopeful finding.

"Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem," Wu said.

Comment: There is a Plague of Plastic killing the world's oceans, its marine life and is slowly moving up the food chain:


Scientists find evidence that sudden rapid collapse of Fogo volcano 73K years ago triggered massive tsunami

© Ricardo Ramalho
The tsunami generated by Fogo's collapse apparently swept boulders like this one from the shoreline up into the highlands of Santiago island. Here, a researcher chisels out a sample.
Scientists working off west Africa in the Cape Verde Islands have found evidence that the sudden collapse of a volcano there tens of thousands of years ago generated an ocean tsunami that dwarfed anything ever seen by humans. The researchers say an 800-foot wave engulfed an island more than 30 miles away. The study could revive a simmering controversy over whether sudden giant collapses present a realistic hazard today around volcanic islands, or even along more distant continental coasts. The study appears today in the journal Science Advances.

"Our point is that flank collapses can happen extremely fast and catastrophically, and therefore are capable of triggering giant tsunamis," said lead author Ricardo Ramalho, who did the research as a postdoctoral associate at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where he is now an adjunct scientist. "They probably don't happen very often. But we need to take this into account when we think about the hazard potential of these kinds of volcanic features."

The apparent collapse occurred some 73,000 years ago at the Fogo volcano, one of the world's largest and most active island volcanoes. Nowadays, it towers 2,829 meters (9,300 feet) above sea level, and erupts about every 20 years, most recently last fall. Santiago Island, where the wave apparently hit, is now home to some 250,000 people.


Craters reveal two asteroids crashed into Earth's ocean simultaneously

Double trouble.
Geologists have discovered the craters of two large asteroids they believed crashed into earth simultaneously. Scientists from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found the impact craters just ten miles apart in Jämtland, Sweden. It is believed they are the world's first confirmed simultaneous significant craters. One of them is a huge 4.7 miles wide, while the other spans 1.3 miles across.

The space rocks, which struck in the sea, would have caused devastating tsunamis, and could have even wiped out some species, scientists believe.

Erik Sturkell, professor of geophysics at the university, said: "Around 470 million years ago, two large asteroids collided in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and many fragments were thrown off in new orbits. Many of these crashed on Earth, such as these two in Jämtland. Information from drilling operations demonstrates that identical sequences are present in the two craters, and the sediment above the impact sequences is of the same age. In other words, these are simultaneous impacts."

Comment: There is a distinct possibility that the double hit was a fragmentation of one asteroid body. This article doesn't address this more likely option.

NASA says "nothing is scheduled to hit earth for several hundred years"...because NASA currently has no satellite telescope capable of this sort of monitoring. It has reportedly cancelled recent cooperative projects that would offer this service, at least that is what is being told to the public. Near-zero capability, with all the recent influx of fireballs and such? Hard to imagine that it isn't otherwise!


NASA terminates contract with asteroid-hunting company

© / NASA
Asteroid 243 Ida
NASA has terminated its 10-year contract with a company hoping to build a spacecraft that would hunt for Earth-threatening asteroids. NASA cited "limited resources" and an inability to further "reserve funds" for the $450 million mission.

The B612 Foundation - the company whose "interplanetary mission" is to build a spacecraft that would track asteroids - signed what is called a Space Act Agreement (SAA) back in 2012.

Under the agreement with NASA, B612 would have been able to obtain NASA's technical consultation and tracking facilities for Sentinel, if it had been launched. For its part, B612 would inform NASA on the spacecraft's findings and deliver data from the spacecraft to the Minor Planet Center.

Expected to last 10 years, the contract laid out a number of milestones that the foundation needed to meet.

Blue Planet

Floating landscape on Gowanus Canal, NY purifies one of the most polluted waterways

© Balmori Associates
An oasis of greenery is floating on the Gowanus Canal in New York City, purifying the water and brightening the murky waterway.

The Gowanus Canal in New York City is known to be one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. You can imagine everyone's surprise, then, when an oasis of greenery was spotted sprouting on the surface of the river three weeks ago.

Not only is the brackish water's appeal improved with the improbable garden, the stream is being cleansed at the same time.


'Alien Threat': Microbes in Mars water may pose danger to Earth

© Flickr/Cyril Rana
Now that liquid water has officially been found on Mars, scientists are warning of the risk of interstellar contamination that may put our planet's ecosystem in danger.

After decades of research and exploration of the Red Planet, NASA announced Monday the definitive existence of surface water on Mars. And where there is water, there's likely life.

Germs resistant to highly inhospitable environments — hot, salty, devoid of light — have been found and studied here on Earth. Astrobiologists have long suggested this same kind of highly resilient, primitive life could be possible on other planets, too. The announcement of water on Mars this week suggests they may be right.

Comment: It seems like "lifeless" planets aren't the only places that hold microbial life.

See also: Meteorites: Tool kits for creating life on Earth