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    The Paja Formation: An ecosystem of monsters / ArsTechnica · Thursday, 23 March - 17:22

Image of dark brown bones on a tan background.

Enlarge / A sea turtle of the sort found in the Paja Formation. (credit: Wikimedia Commons )

Roughly 130 million years ago, in an area within what is now central Colombia, the ocean was filled with a diversity of species unseen today. Within that water swam several massive apex predators that are the stuff of nightmares. These marine reptiles could reach lengths of 2 to 10 meters (about 6 to 32 feet), some with enormous mouths filled with teeth, others with relatively small heads (also filled with teeth) attached to long, snake-like necks.

These giants shared the ocean with countless smaller species, many of them predators themselves. These included ichthyosaurs—dolphin-like reptiles—as well as turtles, fish, ammonites, crabs, mollusks, sharks, and at least one species of crocodyliform .

Allowing all these creatures to thrive must have required a flourishing ecosystem at all levels. Thanks to discoveries in what’s called the Paja Formation, a treasure trove where fossils are abundantly and exquisitely preserved, researchers are now beginning to figure out how the ecosystem supported so many apex predators. And they may find hints of how it flourished so soon after a mass extinction brought the Jurassic to a close.

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    Animals without a brain still form associative memories / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 22 March - 18:54 · 1 minute

Image of a sea anemone, with an orange base and white tentacles.

Enlarge (credit: Paul Starosta )

Our brains are filled with lots of specialized structures that do things like process visual information, handle memories, or interpret language. One of the ways we try to understand what a brain is capable of is by comparing it with the brains of other species—what structures are present in the brain, and what behaviors those brains support.

But what if the animal doesn't have a brain? Presumably, most of the behaviors we've looked at require at least some sort of centralized nervous system. But there are a lot of species, including anemones, corals, and jellyfish, that have a fairly diffuse nerve net and lack anything that's clearly brain-like. But apparently, that's enough to perform associative learning, the sort most often (forgive me) associated with Ivan Pavlov.

Is our cnidarian learning?

Associative learning is pretty much what it sounds like: Through repetition, an animal learns to associate an event with something that's otherwise unrelated to that event. In Pavlov's case, he trained dogs to associate a specific sound with being fed. Once trained, the dogs would start salivating once they heard the noise—even if food wasn't present. A huge range of animals are capable of associative learning, and it's easy to see how it can provide a selective advantage.

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    Beethoven’s genome, sequenced for first time, yields clues on cause of death / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 22 March - 16:35 · 1 minute

(7) Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Enlarge / Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820 (credit: Beethoven-Haus Bonn)

Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the greatest composers of all time, but he was plagued throughout his life by myriad health problems, most notably going mostly deaf by 1818. These issues certainly affected his career and emotional state, so much so that Beethoven requested— via a letter addressed to his brothers—that his favorite physician examine his body after his death to determine the cause of all his suffering.

Nearly two centuries after the composer's demise, scientists say they have sequenced his genome based on preserved locks of hair. While the analysis of that genome failed to pinpoint a definitive cause of Beethoven's hearing loss or chronic digestive problems, he did have numerous risk factors for liver disease and was infected with hepatitis B, according to a new paper published in the journal Current Biology. The researchers also found genetic evidence that somewhere in the Beethoven paternal line, an ancestor had an extramarital affair.

“We cannot say definitely what killed Beethoven, but we can now at least confirm the presence of significant heritable risk and an infection with hepatitis B virus,” said co-author Johannes Krause , an expert in ancient DNA at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology. “We can also eliminate several other less plausible genetic causes.” The fully sequenced genome will be made publicly available so other researchers can have access to conduct future studies.

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    National Academies: We can’t define “race,” so stop using it in science / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 15 March - 22:50

Image of two women's eyes.

Enlarge (credit: National Academies of Science )

With the advent of genomic studies, it's become ever more clear that humanity's genetic history is one of churn. Populations migrated, intermingled, and fragmented wherever they went, leaving us with a tangled genetic legacy that we often struggle to understand. The environment—in the form of disease, diet, and technology—also played a critical role in shaping populations.

But this understanding is frequently at odds with the popular understanding, which often views genetics as a determinative factor and, far too often, interprets genetics in terms of race . Worse still, even though race cannot be defined or quantified scientifically, popular thinking creeps back into scientific thought, shaping the sort of research we do and how we interpret the results.

Those are some of the conclusions of a new report produced by the National Academies of Science. Done at the request of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the report calls for scientists and the agencies that fund them to stop thinking of genetics in terms of race, and instead to focus on things that can be determined scientifically.

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    Bees learn to dance and to solve puzzles from their peers / ArsTechnica · Monday, 13 March - 22:45 · 1 minute

Bumblebees can learn to solve puzzles from experienced peers. Honeybees do the same to learn their waggle dances.

Enlarge / Bumblebees can learn to solve puzzles from experienced peers. Honeybees do the same to learn their waggle dances. (credit: Diego Perez-Lopez, PLoS/CC-BY 4.0 )

Social insects like bees demonstrate a remarkable range of behaviors, from working together to build structurally complex nests (complete with built-in climate control) to the pragmatic division of labor within their communities. Biologists have traditionally viewed these behaviors as pre-programmed responses that evolved over generations in response to external factors. But two papers last week reported results indicating that social learning might also play a role.

The first, published in the journal PLoS Biology, demonstrated that bumblebees could learn to solve simple puzzles by watching more experienced peers. The second , published in the journal Science, reported evidence for similar social learning in how honeybees learn to perform their trademark "waggle dance" to tell other bees in their colony where to find food or other resources. Taken together, both studies add to a growing body of evidence of a kind of "culture" among social insects like bees.

"Culture can be broadly defined as behaviors that are acquired through social learning and are maintained in a population over time, and essentially serves as a 'second form of inheritance,' but most studies have been conducted on species with relatively large brains: primates, cetaceans, and passerine birds," said co-author Alice Bridges , a graduate student at Queen Mary University of London who works in the lab of co-author Lars Chittka . "I wanted to study bumblebees in particular because they are perfect models for social learning experiments. They have previously been shown to be able to learn really complex, novel, non-natural behaviors such as string-pulling both individually and socially."

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    These juvenile snapping shrimp have the fastest claws in the sea / ArsTechnica · Tuesday, 7 March - 21:36 · 1 minute

Juvenile snapping shrimp now hold the acceleration record for a repeatable body movement underwater. They can snap their claws at accelerations on par with a bullet shot from a gun.

Juvenile snapping shrimp now hold the acceleration record for a repeatable body movement underwater. They can snap their claws at accelerations on par with a bullet shot from a gun. (credit: Harrison and Patek, 2023)

The snapping shrimp , aka the pistol shrimp, is one of the loudest creatures in the ocean, thanks to the snaps produced by its whip-fast claws. And juvenile snapping shrimp are even faster than their fully grown elders, according to a recent paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Juvenile claws accelerate as fast as a bullet shot from a gun when they snap, essentially setting a new acceleration record for a repeated movement performed underwater.

As we've reported previously, the source of that loud snap is an impressive set of asymmetrically sized claws; the larger of the two produces the snap. Each snap also produces a powerful shockwave that can stun or even kill a small fish. That shockwave produces collapsing bubbles that emit a barely visible flash of light—a rare natural example of sonoluminescence .

Scientists believe that the snapping is used for communication, as well as for hunting. A shrimp on the prowl will hide in a burrow or similar obscured spot, extending antennae to detect any passing fish. When it does, the shrimp emerges from its hiding place, pulls back its claw, and lets loose with a powerful snap, producing the deadly shockwave. It can then pull the stunned prey back into the burrow to feed.

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    Watch these glassy-winged sharpshooters fling pee bubbles with anal catapult / ArsTechnica · Tuesday, 28 February - 19:23 · 1 minute

Insects called glassy-wing sharpshooters have an "anal stylus" capable of flicking pee droplets at very high speeds.

The glassy-winged sharpshooter drinks huge amounts of water and thus pees frequently, expelling as much as 300 times its own body weight in urine every day. Rather than producing a steady stream of urine, sharpshooters form drops of urine at the anus and then catapult those drops away from their bodies at remarkable speeds, boasting accelerations 10 times faster than a Lamborghini. Georgia Tech scientists have determined that the insect uses this unusual "superpropulsion" mechanism to conserve energy, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature Communications.

A type of leafhopper , the glassy-winged sharpshooter ( Homalodisca vitripennis) is technically an agricultural pest, the bane of California winemakers in particular since the 1990s. It feeds on many plant species (including grapes), piercing a plant's xylem (which transports water from the roots to stems and leaves) with its needle-like mouth to suck out the sap. The insects consume a lot of sap, and their frequent urination consumes a lot of energy in turn, because of their small size and the sap's viscosity and negative surface tension (it naturally gets sucked inward). But the sap is about 95 percent water, so there's not much nutritional content to fuel all that peeing.

“If you were only drinking diet lemonade, and that was your entire diet, then you really wouldn’t want to waste energy in any part of your biological process,” co-author Saad Bhamla of Georgia Tech told New Scientist . “That’s sort of how it is for this tiny organism.”

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    Sauropods had soft foot pads to help support their massive weight / ArsTechnica · Thursday, 11 August, 2022 - 20:48 · 1 minute

A 3D paleoreconstruction of a sauropod dinosaur has revealed that the hind feet had a soft tissue pad beneath the "heel," cushioning the foot to absorb the animals immense weight.

Enlarge / A 3D paleoreconstruction of a sauropod dinosaur has revealed that the hind feet had a soft tissue pad beneath the "heel," cushioning the foot to absorb the animals immense weight. (credit: Andreas Jannel)

Ask people to think of a dinosaur, and they'll likely name Tyrannosaurus Rex , the carnivorous antagonist prominently featured in the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World film franchises. But an equally well-known dinosaur clade are the herbivorous sauropods , which include Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus , Argentinosaurus , and Brontosaurus . Australian paleontologists have digitally reconstructed these plant-munching giants to glean insight into how their feet managed to support their enormous weight, according to a new paper published in the journal Science Advances.

"We've finally confirmed a long-suspected idea and we provide, for the first time, biomechanical evidence that a soft tissue pad—particularly in their back feet—would have played a crucial role in reducing locomotor pressures and bone stresses," said co-author Andreas Jannel , who worked on the project while completing doctoral studies at the University of Queensland. "It is mind-blowing to imagine that these giant creatures could have been able to support their own weight on land."

Sauropods (clade name: Sauropoda, or "lizard feet") had long-necked, long-tailed bodies that made them the lengthiest animals to have roamed the Earth. They had thick and powerful hind legs, club-like feet with five toes, and more slender forearms. It's rare to find complete Sauropod fossils, and even those that are mostly complete still lack the heads, tail tips, and limbs. Scientists have nonetheless managed to learn a great deal about them, and digital reconstruction is proving to be a valuable new tool in advancing our knowledge even further.

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