Tuesday, May 19, 2009

47 Million Year Old Fossil Hailed as "Missing-Link" Between Humans and Other Primates Open to Skepticism

A perfectly preserved fossil of a 47 million year old primate has been discovered, and is claimed to be a "missing link" between today's higher primates - monkeys, apes and humans - and more distant relatives. The fossil is in such great condition that it is possible to see traces of fur, and scientists have even identified the remnants of its last meal. Although this is a potentially groundbreaking scientific discovery, independent scientists are skeptical of the significance of the fossil, nicknamed Ida.

Ida was discovered in the 1980s in a fossil treasure-trove called Messel Pit, near Darmstadt in Germany. For much of the time period since then, it has been in a private collection. The investigation of the fossil's significance was led by Jorn Hurum of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Hurum claims the fossil creature was "the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor" and described the discovery as "a dream come true".

The female animal lived during an epoch in Earth history known as the Eocene, which was crucial for the development of early primates.At first glance, Ida resembles a lemur, yet she lacks very specific features which are characteristic of the lemur - including elongated canine teeth.

The team concluded that she was not simply another lemur, but a new species. They have called her Darwinius masillae, to celebrate her place of origin and the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

Dr Jens Franzen, an expert on the Messel Pit and a member of the team, described Ida as "like the Eighth Wonder of the World", because of the extraordinary completeness of the skeleton.

It was information "palaeontologists can normally only dream of", he said.

In addition, Ida bears "a close resemblance to ourselves" he said, with nails instead of claws, a grasping hand and an opposable thumb - like humans and some other primates. But he said some aspects of the teeth indicate she is not a direct ancestor - more of an "aunt" than a "grandmother".

"She belongs to the group from which higher primates and human beings developed but my impression is she is not on the direct line."

Independent experts are keen to see the new fossil but somewhat skeptical of any claim that it could be "a missing link".

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rare "LSD-Fish" Caught in the UK

A rare fish that causes two full days of hallucinations, apparently quite similar to LSD, has been caught off the coast of Cornwall.

The sarpa salpa, usually found in the Mediterranean and off the coast of southern Africa, was caught by fisherman Andy Giles.

He told The Sun: "I had never seen one before so I brought it back for experts to have a look at. Now I know what it was perhaps I should have taken it into town to sell to some clubbers."

This is a very interesting discovery, as it is only the third time the fish has been found in UK waters.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Searchers Set Record Finding Meteorites

The luminous fireball that lit up Alberta and Saskatchewan's night sky last fall, previously covered on Markit Science (Meteorite Spotted + Found!), has set a Canadian record for the number of meteorites recovered from a single fall. Scientists from University of Calgary have searched for the scattered remnants and have found more than 1000 fragments in fields near Lloydminster on the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary.

This beat the previous record of 700 pieces set after a meteor hit the ground in central Alberta in 1960. Now that the snow has melted, the search continues, and Alan Hildebrand says they are finding dozens of meteorites a day.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Mysterious Spokes Discovered in Crater on Mercury

A bizarre spoke-like pattern of troughs and ridges has been found on the surface of Mercury by NASA's Messenger spacecraft. The feature is unlike any to be found in basins on Mercury or elsewhere in the solar system.

The feature sits in the Rembrandt impact basin, the second-largest impact scar on the planet. The basin was discovered during Messenger's second flyby of the planet on 6 October 2008, a maneuver that allowed the probe to photograph 30% of the planet's surface not previously seen by spacecraft.

By examining the craters that formed on top of it, researchers estimate that Rembrandt formed in an impact some 3.9 billion years ago, near the end of a barrage of impacts in the inner solar system known as the Late Heavy Bombardment.

The impact that created Rembrandt also fractured the crust beneath it, allowing magma to flow to the surface and partly fill the 700-kilometre-wide basin.

But researchers cannot yet explain some of the features etched in that volcanic material: a spoke-like pattern of troughs and ridges emanating from the centre of the basin.

The pattern is even stranger than a mysterious spider-shaped pattern of troughs found in Mercury's Caloris basin, during Messenger's first Mercury flyby in January 2008, says team member Thomas Watters of the Smithsonian Institution.

Troughs and ridges, which are thought to form through very different processes, are not expected to be found lying side by side.

So-called "wrinkle ridges" are caused when the crust compresses, while troughs are formed when it is stretched, causing the surface to separate.

"What's so bizarre is these features are sitting beside each other. We've never seen anything like that – not in Caloris, not anywhere," Watters told New Scientist.

Models cannot yet explain how this feature might have formed, Watters says. Multiple episodes of volcanic material bubbling up from below may be needed to explain the features.

A 1000-kilometre-long cliff, or scarp, though to be formed as Mercury's surface, was found, cutting across the rim and floor of the Rembrandt basin. It is the longest such scarp to be discovered on Mercury.

Messenger will make one last flyby of the planet on 29 September before entering into orbit around Mercury on 18 March 2011, where it is expected to operate for at least one year.