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Two ‘extinct’ snakes spotted swimming off Australia’s coast

(Grant Griffin, W.A. Dept. Parks and Wildlife)

(Grant Griffin, W.A. Dept. Parks and Wildlife)

Scientists feared the last of Australia’s short-nosed sea snakes died about 15 years ago, which makes this new sighting doubly auspicious: A wildlife official snapped a photo of not one but two of the snakes swimming off the western coast—and they were making googly eyes at each other.

“What is even more exciting is that they were courting, suggesting that they are members of a breeding population,” says researcher Blanche D’Anastasi of James Cook University in a press release.

No such snake had been spotted since the species disappeared from its habitat at Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea more than a decade ago. Scientists at JCU confirmed that the photos, taken at Ningaloo Reef, captured images of the sea snakes in the journal Biological Conservation.

“We were blown away, these potentially extinct snakes were there in plain sight, living on one of Australia’s natural icons,” says D’Anastasi. The journal article had another piece of good news: A decent population of another species, called the rare leaf-scaled sea snake, was spotted in Shark Bay, more than 1,000 miles from the snakes’ only previously known habitat, notes Gizmodo.

Both species are officially listed as critically endangered. The good news, however, was tempered with the bad. Generally speaking, sea snakes are on the decline in Western Australia, and the reason “remains unexplained.” (Scientists, do however, have a pretty good idea about why snakes lost their legs.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: 2 ‘Extinct’ Snakes Found Swimming Happily

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Scientist shocked by what he sees moon jellyfish doing

Scientist shocked by what he sees moon jellyfish doing

Moon jellyfish are pictured. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File)

When Caltech biologist Michael Abrams cut two arms off a young jellyfish in 2013, he figured it would do what many marine invertebrates do—grow new ones. But no.

“[Abrams] started yelling… ‘You won’t believe this, you’ve got to come here and see what’s happening,'” his PhD adviser Lea Goentoro tells National Geographic.Reporting this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Abrams says he watched the jellyfish, which relies on being symmetrical to move about, not regenerate the missing arms but rather rearrange its remaining six limbs so that they were symmetrical again.

The phenomenon, dubbed symmetrization, has never before been observed in nature, and Abrams was floored. The jellyfish was using its own muscles to push and pull on its remaining six arms to space them out evenly again.

(They confirmed this by observing that muscle relaxants made the jellies unable to rearrange their arms, while increasing muscular pulses allowed them to rearrange their arms faster.) And the discovery was accidental; Abrams and his team had only been cutting into the common moon jellyfish to practice for their future study on what are called immortal jellyfish, which had yet to arrive in the lab.

They’ve since observed symmetrization in moon jellies many times, and it takes anywhere from 12 hours to four days to complete. (Scientists recently made another staggering observation, this one in Norway.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Moon Jellyfish Shock Scientists With This Trick

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Archaeologists find rare writing, and then it vanishes

RareInscription.jpg

Inscriptions on the walls of the ritual bath. (Shai Halevy, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Archaeologists digging for ruins ahead of a new construction project in Jerusalem made an incredible discovery—that immediately began to vanish. During the last hours of a “salvage excavation” two months ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority stumbled upon a 2,000-year-old ritual bath when a stone suddenly disappeared into a black hole, reports Haaretz.

That hole turned out to be the remains of the bath, accessible by a stone staircase, which includes an anteroom with benches and a winepress. Carved into a natural stone cave, the bath itself wasn’t so unusual, but the graffiti that covered the plaster walls was.

Archaeologists were therefore horrified to find the Aramaic inscriptions and paintings in mud and soot, dating to the Second Temple era from 530BC to 70AD, per Discovery News, disappearing within hours of their discovery.

“The wall paintings are so sensitive that their exposure to the air causes damage to them,” the IAA says, per Ynetnews. Crews quickly removed and sealed the plaster so the graffiti, along with a few carvings, can be preserved.

Archaeologists say the Aramaic inscriptions are particularly special as few such writings have been found, though the script is hardly legible now. They guess at a few words, including what translates to “served” and the name “Cohen.” Still, the inscriptions back up the argument that Aramaic was commonly used at the time and perhaps even the language of Jesus.

The plaster also holds drawings of a boat, palm trees and other plants, and what might be a menorah—portrayals of which were then considered taboo. An IAA rep says graffiti in baths may have been “common, but not usually preserved.” (Another recent find: the remnants of a “treasured landmark” destroyed by the Nazis.)

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Aliens are likely huge, says scientist

Aliens are likely huge, says scientist

This video game publicity image released by 2K Games shows extraterrestrial invaders in “XCOM: Enemy Unknown.” (AP Photo/2K Games, File)

If you’re traveling to distant planets anytime soon, you might think twice about raising a ruckus: The inhabitants likely weigh an average of 650 pounds, a cosmologist says.

Apparently it all comes down to planet size and the conservation of energy,CNET reports. “Throughout the animal kingdom, species which are physically larger invariably possess a lower population density, possibly due to their enhanced energy demands,” says Fergus Simpson of the University of Barcelona.

That’s quite true on Earth, where we have seven billion (relatively big) people, and, the BBC noted last year, up to 100 trillion (tiny) ants.

Which brings us to outer space, where, Simpson says, “most inhabited planets are likely to be closer in size to Mars than the Earth.” And “since population density is widely observed to decline with increasing body mass, we conclude that most intelligent species are expected to exceed 300kg (660lbs),” he adds.

A scientist in Scotland says Simpson’s “average size calculation is reasonable,” but doesn’t account for gravitational pull—and planets with stronger gravity would probably have smaller animals, Newsweek reports.

SETI Institute researcher Seth Shostak says Simpson’s paper, published at arXiv.org, also leaves out evolutionary theory: With humans, for example, it’s our ability to walk upright and use opposable thumbs that gave us the upper hand on Earth.

“Polar bears are large but do not write great literature and build radio towers,” he says, “and a lot of that is probably because they are walking around on all fours.” (See which moon is the top contender for life outside Earth.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Scientist: Aliens Are Likely Huge

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Europeans’ white skin developed later than thought

Europeans' white skin developed later than thought

Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel in 2011. Traits of white skin emerged more recently than thought in Europe. (AP Photo/Lehtikuva/Vesa Moilanen)

Science notes that Europe is often thought of as the “ancestral home of white people.” But a new DNA study suggests that pale skin and other traits we associate with the continent may have emerged only within the last 8,000 years—a “relatively recent” occurrence.

The study—published last month on the bioRxiv.com server and presented last week at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists’ annual meeting—compared genome DNA across three populations of farmers and hunter-gatherers who crossed over into Europe in discrete migrations within the past eight millennia, Science notes.

What scientists found: a handful of genes tied to diet and skin pigmentation that withstood natural selection and thrived in the northern regions. The data indicates hunter-gatherers who settled in Spain, Hungary, and Luxembourg about 8,500 years ago lacked two specific genes—SLC24A5 and SLC45A2—and had darker skin, Science notes.

But hunter-gatherers hunkered down further north in Sweden had both those light-skin genes and also a third gene that leads to blue eyes (and possibly fair skin and blond hair).

When the third demographic, the Near East farmers, arrived, they also carried the SLC24A5 and SLC45A2 genes, so paler skin started emerging throughout the continent as the populations interbred.

Although researchers don’t offer a definitive answer as to why natural selection picked those genes to thrive in the north, one paleoanthropologist speculated at the meeting that the lack of sun in the northern parts of Europe required people to adapt by developing lighter skin to better absorb more vitamin D, as well as the LCT gene that allowed them to digest the sugars their ancestors couldn’t in milk, also filled with vitamin D.

(This one infant could tell us where the first Americans came from.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Europeans’ White Skin Came Later Than Thought

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Scientists make new discovery about Stone-Age sex

Scientists make new discovery about Stone-Age sex

This undated image made available by the NIH’s National Cancer Institute shows the 46 human chromosomes. (AP Photo/NIH, National Cancer Institute, Hesed Padilla-Nash, Thomas Ried)

Scientists are puzzling over a new discovery regarding Stone Age sex: It seems that for every 17 women who reproduced at the time, just one man did the same.

The findings are based on an analysis of the DNA of 450 people from geographically diverse locations. Researchers compared Y-chromosome DNA, which is inherited only from our male forbears, with mitochondrial DNA, which comes from women, Pacific Standard reports.

Such analysis can show experts our numbers of male and female ancestors, and the mystery here is why these ancient numbers are so out of whack.

“It wasn’t like there was a mass death of males,” says Melissa Wilson Sayres of Arizona State University. “They were there, so what were they doing?” Her team has suggested that perhaps a few males accumulated a great deal of wealth, pushing out others when it came to reproduction.

As Danielle Paquette puts it at the Washington Post, “Survival of the fittest might have actually been survival of the richest.” This would have occurred after the dawn of agriculture, suggesting that the top male reproducers were essentially the best farmers.

Amanda Marcotte writes at Slate that the findings would seem to run counter to the thinking of evolutionary biologists who believe our nature was defined during the earlier hunter-gatherer period of cavemen.

She’s also glad that an age in which a few men got all the women is long gone. “That sounds terrible for both men and women.” (Other recent evolutionary research examines why men like curvy women.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: 8K Years Ago, Women Reproduced Way More Often Than Men

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2M-year-old find may be ancient ‘playground’

2M-year-old find may be ancient 'playground'

Have archaeologists found an ancient playground? (stock photo) (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Edmund D. Fountain, Pool)

An investigation into what appears to be a nearly 2 million-year-old site in China’s Hebei province suggests the spot served an important purpose: fun. The South China Morning Post compares the dig site to a “playground” for ancient hominids, noting that it was home to some 700 stone objects and 20,000 fragments; some may well have been kids’ toys, believes lead researcher Wei Qi.

He speculates that the objects, most less than two inches long, were made by children and their mothers. “You can almost feel the maker’s love and passion,” says Wei of one piece he describes as “beautifully shaped.” The other bits of evidence supporting his playground theory: The remains of animals or large tools in the area are scarce, suggesting it’s not where hominids lived and a limited number of adults toiled there.

The site is part of the Nihewan basin, which has been the source of a vast trove of ancient discoveries since 1921, Ancient Origins reports.

What’s also relatively new is the dating of the site, carried out by studying its magnetic properties. Results suggesting it dates to between 1.77 million and 1.95 million years ago could make it older than the Dmanisi site in Georgia, which UNESCO calls the “most ancient” in Eurasia.

But outside researchers have their doubts about the playground theory: “It is difficult to rule out the possibility that (the objects) were just stone fragments created by natural forces,” says one.

If the discoveries really were made by hominids more than 1.8 million years ago—when the first hominid is though to have left Africa—it could change the story of human origins, the Week notes.

(A recently discovered jawbone is also challenging such conceptions.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: 2M-Year-Old Stones May Have Belonged to Children

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