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When George Washington chose to build his Mount Vernon estate along the Potomac River, he declared the then-pristine body of water “the nation’s river.” At the time, even dolphins were a common sight. In fact, as Karin Bruillard at the Washington Post reports, the porpoises were seen as far upriver as Alexandria, Virginia, in the 1840s.
But by the 1960s, the river that flows through the nation’s capital had lost its luster. Bald eagles—the national bird—struggled for survival on its shores. Dolphins had long since disappeared from its waters. The Potomac became overrun with algae, trash, human waste and pollutants. The nation's river became a “national disgrace,” as President Lyndon Johnson called it at the time.
Now, after almost 50 years of pollution control, clean-up and restoration efforts, researchers have catalogued well over 1,000 bottlenose dolphins living, mating, and even giving birth in the lower reaches of the river.
“People actually forgot that there were dolphins in the river because they hadn’t been seen since the 1880s and because the river was in poor condition, people weren't seeing them,” Melissa Diemand, spokesperson for Potomac Conservancy tells NBC4.
Over the past four years, researchers from Georgetown University’s Potomac-Chesapeake Dolphin Project have been cataloguing dolphins in the lake-like area where the Potomac joins the Chesapeake Bay, reports Bruillard for the Post. In 2015, they counted only 200 individuals. Now, population has reached more than 1,000 individuals in the area, with several small groups of 200 dolphins hanging out in the river. Some have even swam upstream within 50 miles of Washington, D.C.
But the most exciting development came in August, when researchers witnessed a dolphin giving birth in the river. It was one of only three times scientists have seen a bottlenose dolphin giving birth in the wild anywhere, reports Briullard.
Ann-Marie Jacoby, the assistant director of the Potomac-Chesapeake Dolphin Project, was following a group of 50 dolphins near Lewisetta, Virginia, when a cloud of blood floated to the surface of the river, according to a Potomac Conservancy blog post. Then she saw a “slightly bent and wobbly fin” surface near an adult dolphin. Without underwater video, Jacoby is cautious to claim she witnessed a birth right then and there. What she saw was evidence of a birth that certainly happened recently, given the size of the baby as well as its location in the river.
“We have been trying to understand why dolphins come into the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay,” Georgetown biologist Janet Mann, director of the project, tells Whitney Pipkin at the MarylandReporter.com. “We see some very young calves and we see lots of mating behavior, but this is the most definitive evidence we have that they have their calves here.”
The team named the mother dolphin after Patsy Mink, the former Hawaiian congresswoman and co-author of the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act, which requires equal access to educational employment and activities for women. The dolphin baby was named after Mink’s daughter, Gwendolyn.
Earlier this year, the public was invited by the Conservancy to name two other Potomac dolphins, reports Cory Smith and Christian Paz at NBC4 in Washington. The names Mac and Chessie were ultimately chosen. (Yes, Dolphin McDolphinFace was in the running.) About 600 dolphins in the area have also been named after political figures, including George, Lyndon, Pelosi and Zachary Taylor. The team has used up so many political names they are now moving on to other historical figures, including abolitionists.
MarylandReporter.com’s Pipkin reports that the dolphin project runs a phone app that lets the public log dolphin sightings from the area. Photographs are the most useful because the team uses sophisticated fin matching software to indentify individual dolphins and track their movements throughout the year. So far, citizen scientists have logged 2,700 dolphin sightings.
While bottlenose dolphins are one of the most widely studied marine mammals, researchers still don’t know everything about them. Pipkin reports that the team doesn’t know if the dolphins have been there all along, but went unnoticed, or if the cleaner water has drawn them back. The team hopes to interview local fishers to find out how long they’ve seen the dolphins in the area and also gather family stories or anecdotes from their parents and grandparents.
The team also wants to figure out where the dolphins come from. Currently, they believe there is a resident group of dolphins in the lower Potomac, along with two migratory groups that come to the area in the summer. Biologists hope that as the river becomes even cleaner and fish populations increase, the dolphins and other marine mammals will move farther upriver.
Due to pollution and sewage, people have been warned for several generations not to swim in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, the District’s main waterways. But Jacob Fenston at NPR reports that things have improved so much that D.C. may have swimming platforms in the Potomac by 2025. Currently, the city is working on a 2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project, which will separate its sewage system and storm run-off systems—and hopefully make the river even cleaner.
But as the album celebrates its 50th anniversary, few may realize just how groundbreaking its tracks were for the band.
In my forthcoming book, “Recording Analysis: How the Record Shapes the Song,” I show how the recording process can enhance the artistry of songs, and “Abbey Road” is one of the albums I highlight.
Beginning with 1965’s “Rubber Soul,” The Beatles started exploring new sounds. This quest continued in “Abbey Road,” where the band was able to deftly incorporate emerging recording technology in a way that set the album apart from everything they had previously done.
Sound in motion
“Abbey Road” is the first album that the band released in stereo only.
Stereo was established in the early 1930s as a way to capture and replicate the way humans hear sounds. Stereo recordings contain two separate channels of sound – similar to our two ears – while mono contains everything on one channel.
Stereo’s two channels can create the illusion of sounds emerging from different directions, with some coming from the listener’s left and others coming from the right. In mono, all sounds are always centered.
The Beatles had recorded all their previous albums in mono, with stereo versions made without the Beatles’ participation. In “Abbey Road,” however, stereo is central to the album’s creative vision.
Take the opening minute of “Here Comes the Sun,” the first track on the record’s second side.
If you listen to the record on a stereo, George Harrison’s acoustic guitar emerges from the left speaker. It’s soon joined by several delicate synthesizer sounds. At the end of the song’s introduction, a lone synthesizer sound gradually sweeps from the left speaker to the listener’s center.
Harrison’s voice then enters in the center, in front of the listener, and is joined by strings located toward the right speaker’s location. This sort of sonic movement can only happen in stereo – and The Beatles masterfully deployed this effect.
Then there are Ringo Starr’s drums in “The End,” which fill the entire sonic space, from left to right. But each drum is individually fixed in a separate position, creating the illusion of many drums in multiple locations – a dramatic cacophony of rhythms that’s especially noticeable in the track’s drum solo.
Enter: The synthesizer
In the mid-1960s, an engineer named Robert Moog invented the modular synthesizer, a new type of instrument that generated unique sounds from oscillators and electronic controls that could be used to play melodies or enhance tracks with sound effects.
Harrison received a demonstration of the device in October 1968. A month later, he ordered one of his own.Robert Moog poses with one of his synthesizers in a 2000 photograph. (AP Photo/Alan Marler)
The Beatles are among the very first popular musicians to use this revolutionary instrument. Harrison first played it during the “Abbey Road” sessions in August 1969, when he used it for the track “Because.”
The synthesizer ended up being used in three other tracks on the album: “Here Comes the Sun,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
Instead, on “Abbey Road,” the band capitalizes on the synthesizer’s versatility, creatively using it to enhance, rather than dominate, their tracks.
In some cases, the synthesizer simply sounds like another instrument: In “Here Comes the Sun,” the Moog mimics the guitar. In other tracks, like “Because,” the synthesizer actually carries the song’s main melody, effectively replacing the band’s voices.
A dramatic pause
In 1969, the LP record still reigned supreme. The Walkman – the device that made music a more private and portable experience – wouldn’t be invented for another 10 years.
So when “Abbey Road” was released, people still listened to music in a room, either alone or with friends, on a record player.
The record had two sides; after the last song on the first side, you had to get up, flip the LP and drop the needle – a process that could take about a minute.
The Beatles, conscious of this process, incorporated this pause into the album’s overall experience.
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” ends side one. It’s full of energetic sounds that span the entire left-to-right spectrum of stereo, bounce from lower to higher frequencies and include sweeps of white noise synthesizer sounds. These sounds gradually amass throughout the course of the song, the tension growing – until it suddenly stops: the point at which John Lennon decided the tape should be cut.
The silence in the gap of time it takes to flip the LP allows the dramatic and sudden conclusion of side one to reverberate within the listener.
Then side two begins, and not with a bang: It’s the gentle, thin guitar of “Here Comes the Sun.” The transition represents the greatest contrast between any two tracks on the album.
That gap of silence between each side is integral to the album, an experience you can’t have listening to “Abbey Road” on Spotify.
“Abbey Road,” perhaps more than any other Beatles album, shows how a song can be poetically written and an instrument deftly played. But the way a track is recorded can be the artist’s final stamp on the song.
Today marks the official start of Fat Bear Week, basically October Madness for Alaska's salmon-chomping, chonky brown bears. Fans of the big-bellied omnivores can vote for the fattest of 12 fat bears in a single-elimination tournament on Facebook to determine which animal camped out on the banks of the Brooks River in Katmai National Park should be crowned jiggliest of them all.
The contest first began in 2014 to raise awareness of the bears and the critical part migrating salmon play in helping them pack on the pounds for winter. Over the years, Fat Bear Week has grown into a cult competition, with fans poring over live footage of the bears hosted at Explore.org to debate the merits of each chubby cubby.
As a press release explains, the bears station themselves near the Brooks River during the annual sockeye salmon run and gorge themselves on as much fish as they can catch. The bears, eating almost non-stop, will ingest about 90 pounds of fish, berries, small mammals and vegetation per day to prepare themselves for hibernation. They will lose over one-third of their body fat during that deep sleep, which lasts about six months. That means if they don’t add enough pounds to their pooches in the fall, they may not survive the winter, especially if it is long and harsh.
Despite the seriousness of the feasting, watching the bears grow enormously fat is fun. Hence the rise of Fat Bear week. Each day during the week, pairs of ursine plumpers will be pitted against each other, with the ones receiving the most votes moving on to the next round. The winners of Wednesday and Thursday will be pitted against previous year’s winners or particularly plump bears during round two on Friday. The 2019 champion will be crowned on Tuesday, October 8.
It’s anyone’s game. Last year’s winner, the popular 409 Beadnose, did not show up for this year’s competition. Mike Fitz, former Katmai Ranger and naturalist for Explore.org tells Mark Kaufman at Mashable that she hasn’t appeared on any bear cams this year. It’s possible the 20-year-old sow, who had four litters of cubs, passed away, or perhaps she found a different salmon run to gorge on. “When we last saw her, she appeared very fat and just as healthy as any other bear,” Fitz says, suggesting she was well positioned to survive hibernation. “Yet, she wasn’t seen at the river this summer and her absence remains unexplained.”
Another superchunk, 30-year-old sow Bear 410 pulled a similar vanishing trick several years ago, but returned in full, overstuffed form last year. She did not return to the river this year either.
So the crown is up for grabs. “Overall the bears who use Brooks River appear fat and healthy,” Fitz wrote in a July preview of the competition. A bumper crop of salmon provided more than enough noms for the bears this year. “I thought Fat Bear Week 2018 might be the fattest Fat Bear Week ever, but the “contestants” could beat that this year! Some already look ready to hibernate.”
In a separate article, Fat Bear fanatic Kaufman agrees that this year’s competition is particularly heated. Three-time winner and fan favorite Bear 480 Otis is back in the mix. Other top contenders include male bear 747, who is jumbo jet swole, and Bear 32 Chunk. The massive bears both are both using their girth to take over the river’s best fishing spots. Already, they likely exceed 1,000 pounds and may have even reached 1,200 pounds.
Meanwhile, two sow bears, 435 Holly and 128 Grazer, both had a summer free of raising cubs and were able to work on themselves, adding impressive poundage. And both may also be pregnant again, adding to their widening profiles. “Holly and Grazer are smaller overall compared to the big adult males, but they may be even proportionally fatter than Chunk and 747,” Fitz tells Kaufman.
Who will win? It’s hard to say—and it’s not always the fattest bear. Sometimes it’s the cutest bear, the one with the best personality on the livecams or the bear with the most devoted fanbase. One thing’s for sure, with plentiful salmon and full, swinging bellies, almost all the bears on the river this year can be declared winners.
When the Korean artist Lee Ufan was first commissioned to do a site-specific exhibition in the plaza of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden two years ago, he came to Washington, D.C. see what he would be dealing with.
The museum, itself designed as a “large piece of functional sculpture” by the renowned architect Gordon Bunshaft in the 1960s, is centered on a large 4.3-acre plaza on the National Mall. There surrounding the cylindrical building, works of art are displayed outdoors and year-round in the quiet recesses and grassy nooks of the walled plaza.
Now for the first time in the Hirshhorn’s 44-year history, curators have relocated or stored the artworks on the museum’s plaza and devoted the space, almost in its entirety, to a single artist.
Lee, 83, a leading voice of Japan’s avant-garde Mono-ha movement, meaning “School of Things,” has exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2007, the Guggenheim Museum in 2011 and the Palace of Versailles in 2014. But the artist who is a painter, sculptor, poet and writer, as well as part philosopher, sees his contributions as the finishing of a dialogue begun by the spaces in which he works. “By limiting one’s self to the minimum,” he has written, “one allows the maximum interaction with the world.”For every one of Lee's sculptures, (above: Relatum—Horizontal and Vertical, 2019) Relatum refers to the relations of objects to their surroundings, to each other and to the viewer. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, photo by Cathy Carver)
To create his distinctive, sleek sculptures, the artist brought tons of rock and steel to Washington D.C. But as he said while walking around the ten creations a week before the opening of his exhibition, “Not important, object. Space is more important.”
So in front of a piece on the plaza’s southeast corner with a nearly 20-foot-high vertical silver needle, a steel circle on the ground and two large stones in a field of white gravel that replaces the museum’s grass, the artist explains, because “tension is what I needed.” That helped define the space “because of this gravel and steel, my choice.”
Like every one of his sculptures, it has the title Relatum, to refer to the relations of objects to their surroundings, to each other, and to the viewer. Each work in the series also has a subtitle, and this one, Horizontal and Vertical, refers to the gleaming needle. The piece is now standing at the point where the soaring aluminum tubes and stainless-steel wires of Kenneth Snelson’s Needle Tower long reigned.
Lee’s work is just as defining of the space, while it also echoes the strong vertical of an industrial crane that happens to soar over the National Air and Space Museum, which is undergoing a major renovation across 7th Street. The artist waves this off as a coincidence.The museum's fountain is surrounded by 11 curved steel pieces, mirrored on one side and placed in a kind of maze. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, photo by Cathy Carver)
“A plain, natural stone, a steel plate . . . and existing space are arranged in a simple, organic fashion,” Lee once wrote. “Through my planning and the dynamic relationships between these elements, a scene is created in which opposition and acceptance are intertwined.”
The Hirshhorn exhibition, “Open Dimension,” curated by Anne Reeve, is Lee’s largest outdoor sculpture installation of new work in the U.S. It is accompanied by a complementary installation on the museum's third floor of four of Lee’s Dialogue paintings from the past four years, where clouds of color float on white or untreated canvas.
Lee’s takeover required moving or storing familiar plaza sculptures. Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin was transferred to the museum’s sculpture garden across the street; and Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke is on loan to the Kennedy Center’s new performance spaces known as The REACH, but Jimmie Dunham’s sculpture Still Life with Spirit and Xitle, installed in 2016, remains. The work mirrors Lee’s with its use of stone—a nine-ton volcanic boulder (with a smile on its face) crushes a 1992 Chrysler Spirit.
Lee’s work is more sleek. With his Relatum—Open Corner elegantly reflecting the curves in the alcoves of Bunshaft’s Brutalist building; his Relatum—Step by Step has the step climbing a couple of stairs with curling stainless steel.“A plain, natural stone, a steel plate … and existing space are arranged in a simple, organic fashion,” Lee once wrote. “Through my planning and the dynamic relationships between these elements, a scene is created in which opposition and acceptance are intertwined.” (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, photo by Cathy Carver)
In another alcove, a shiny piece of stainless steel on its edge curls inward, allowing a visitor to enter and be alone in the center swirl. “It’s kind of like a hall of mirrors,” Lee says to me through a translator. “You’re going to get a little bit disoriented.” Is it meant to be one of those big, rusting spirals by Richard Serra that similarly swallow viewers?
“Not same idea,” Lee says. “Big difference for me.” But, he adds, “Serra is very old friend. First time I met him was in 1970 in Tokyo. He and I were in the same gallery in Germany.”
The works with white gravel especially suggest the quiet grace of a Japanese rock garden, other works with stainless steel bases are placed on the grass, which continue to be watered in the dry autumn. “It’s a problem,” he says. Rivulets from a sprinkler on Relatum—Position, later turned to orange stains in the late afternoon sun.
He plays with the sun and shadow in a two-rock piece called Relatum—Dialogue, in which two boulders placed near one another have their morning shadows painted black on the white gravel (causing two different shadows most of the day, aside from the one moment when they align).
Despite the title, one rock seems to be turning away. “It’s supposed to be a dialogue,” Lee says, “but his mind is different.” Asked if he was trying to depict the kind of ideological division familiar in Washington D.C. within sight of the U.S. Capitol, Lee just laughs.
Some of the work did reflect the city, however. Lee says he admires Washington’s clean layout, compared to the bustle of New York City. “Here, very quiet, very smooth, very slow,” Lee says. “New York is a big difference.” So, Lee created his own pool, a square with two rocks, four sheets of shiny stainless steel and water called Relatum—Box Garden, with only the wind creating ripples on its still, reflecting surface. The work is placed between the Jefferson Drive entrance from the Sculpture Garden and the Bunshaft-created fountain, now working again following two years of repair work.
The centerpiece of the plaza is the fountain, which is also a main focus of Lee’s exhibition. Eleven curved steel pieces—mirrored on one side, are placed in a kind of maze, allowing for two entrances. Once in, a viewer can see how the addition of black ink to the water better reflects the blue sky and the curves of the building above (though the coloring gives a greenish tint to the water spouting at the center of the fountain).
Lee was vexed by the heavy concrete boxes in some of the sculpture spaces that were originally meant to hold landscaping lights, though one of these didn’t seem to infringe much on the steel circles and stone placements in Relatum—Ring and Stone.
The museum wants to keep visitors off the white gravel, though they can approach the works on the grass. Signs all over ask that visitors not touch or climb on the art works—even though Lee subtitles the work Come In.
Lee says the many annual visitors of the Hirshhorn—numbering 880,000 last year—needn’t have a deep understanding of conceptual art to get something out of it. “Experience is more important; not meaning,” he says. “My work has some meaning, but more important is pure experience.” Just then, a passerby noticing the artist stopped him in the plaza. “We wanted to tell you how beautiful it is,” she said.
The next time you raise a glass of craft beer, make sure you toast former President Jimmy Carter. No, really. You should be offering your suds up to the man who was reported by the media during the 1976 election to be a non-drinker. As crazy as it may seem now, homebrewing used to be illegal and Jimmy Carter actually played a part in changing that, contributing to the craft beer revolution. But that’s just one unexpected facet in the story of how our current beer industry came to be.
The thirteen years of Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, had been a hard slog of bootleg liquor, moonshine, and yes – homebrewed beer. Before and during Prohibition, many breweries essentially encouraged homebrewing by marketing malt extract. This product could be used as a baking ingredient, but was more often used to homebrew beer. In fact, breweries often included instructions of what not to do with the extract to avoid accidentally producing beer. (Wink, wink.)As Prohibition approached, the brewing industry created ingredients such as this “beer extract” (aka malt extract) to encourage Americans to brew at home. Advertisement, around 1900. Courtesy of Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, many homebrewers returned to buying professionally made beer and most homebrewing activities declined. Homebrewing remained illegal at the federal level. Federal regulators were concerned about people using the brewing grain not for beer, but for moonshine, a homemade and highly potent hard liquor. Unlike homebrewed beer, moonshine was often toxic due to impure ingredients and clumsy—if not negligent distilling conditions—when prepared by amateurs, making it proved dangerous. By the 1960s, even with homebrewing’s continued illegality, homebrewing clubs sprang up around the country as hobbyists tried to make beer that was different from the American light lager that was so common at the time.
One of these hobbyists was Charlie Papazian. While studying at the University of Virginia in 1970, a friend’s neighbor who made “Prohibition-style homebrew” introduced Papazian to homebrewing. Papazian found that homebrewed beer tasted more flavorful than the beer he was used to. “I never knew beer could taste like this,” he recalled.Charlie Papazian’s first recipe for homebrewed beer, “Log Boom Brew" from 1971. (Division of Work and Industry)
After graduating from college in 1972, Papazian moved to Boulder, Colorado, to try to figure out his life plans. Some people there discovered that he knew how to brew beer and asked him to teach a class on homebrewing at the local community free school. The classes were incredibly popular and attracted many curious local residents.
As word spread through newspaper articles, administrators grew concerned that the classes might be attracting the wrong type of attention. “After about the third year…those classes became notorious,” Papazian recounted. “One time at registration for the class, the administration contacted me, and said, ‘You know… there’s a guy, who’s registering for this class. He may be from the ATF.’” The ATF is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—the law enforcement agency in charge of regulating activities such as homebrewing. As Papazian started the class, a man walked in wearing a dark pair of slacks, a white shirt, and a skinny black tie. Papazian suspected he was the ATF agent right away. Curious as to the agent’s intent, he started the class by making sure to point out the illicit nature of their activity, with a plea for mercy. “I mentioned that it was illegal. But the ATF has better things to do than… to arrest homebrewers that are making homebrew for …home consumption.” As it turned out, the ATF agent wasn’t there to arrest anybody, he just wanted to take the class. “He seemed to enjoy it, but I think his gig was up after three [classes]. So, he had to leave after that.” Luckily, encounters such as this would prove rare as Papazian did not have to wait long for his hobby to become legal.A spoon used by homebrew pioneer Charlie Papazian from 1974. (Division of Work and Industry)
This is where Jimmy Carter’s role in the story came into play. In 1976, a group of homebrewers in California, where homebrewing had become popular, lobbied Senator Alan Cranston for federal legalization. After two years of failed attempts, Cranston was finally able to incorporate the legislation into a transportation bill to avoid scrutiny. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed HR 1337, legalizing homebrewing at the federal level and giving Carter the unlikely distinction of homebrewing hero. The law took effect on February 1st, 1979, just as Papazian was launching his homebrewing magazine Zymurgy (Zymurgy is a scientific term that is defined as fermentation by yeast) and the American Homebrewers Association. Today, homebrewing is how over 95 percent of craft brewers learn their trade.Coaster showing the logo of the American Homebrewers Association, founded by Charlie Papazian in 1978. This coaster dates to 1983-1986. (Division of Work and Industry)
Charlie Papazian’s quotes from this article were provided by an oral history recorded in 2017 for the American Brewing History Initiative, a research and collecting initiative to document the history of beer and brewing in the United States. Several artifacts relating to Papazian’s story will go on display for the first time this fall with the reopening of the museum’s refreshed exhibit FOOD: Transforming the American Table in late October 2019.
John Harry was an intern at the National Museum of American History.
The American Brewing History Initiative is made possible through generous support from the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American brewers.
It’s no stretch to say Mono Lake, located in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, is one of the weirdest bodies of water in the United States. For example, it’s three times as salty as the ocean. It has an pH of 10, making it as high in alkalinity as milk of magnesia. Rising from its strange waters are tufa towers, or naturally erected columns of limestone. Conditions are so harsh that it’s believed only two species could survive in its waters: a brine shrimp and a diving fly.
But a new study published in the journal Current Biology has now described a third type of extremophile in Mono Lake, a group of microscopic nematode species that are as unusual as the lake they live in.
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) biologist Paul Sternberg and his team typically study the genomes of microscopic worms called nematodes, which are the most abundant multicellular creatures on Earth, reports Abby Olena at The Scientist. However, in their free time, some members of the lab search out nematodes in unusual places. In the summer of 2016, Amir Sapir was a postdoctoral researcher in Sternberg’s lab when he and some colleagues decided to dig up samples from three sites around the lake. Sapir, now a biologist at University of Haifa-Orani, and his team sampled scoops of dirt from the dry lakeside, the intertidal zone and from sediment within the lake.
When they analyzed the samples, they found nematodes living in all three areas, representing eight species in total. According to the paper, three were already known to science, but the other five were unknown. Looking at the shape of their mouthparts, the team predicted that the nematodes had different lifestyles; some were adapted for grazing on microbes, some were designed for predation and others were set up for parasitizing a host animal.
The team found that the Mono Lake nematodes are quite unusual. All of them show resistance to arsenic at 500 times the dose lethal to humans.
“Extremophiles can teach us so much about innovative strategies for dealing with stress," study coauthor Pei-Yin Shih of Caltech says in the press release. “Our study shows we still have much to learn about how these 1000-celled animals have mastered survival in extreme environments.”
One of the new species, however, is particularly exciting. According to a press release, creatures that live in extreme conditions, like tardigrades, are difficult to culture in the lab. But one of the new nematodes from the genus Auanema did reproduce in the lab, which will provide researchers a new model extremophile to work with.
The as-yet-unnamed Auanema species has three sexes, male, female and hermaphrodite, reports Ryan F. Mandelbaum at Gizmodo. It also raises its larvae in a pouch, like a microscopic, wormy kangaroo.
The team found that Auanema resists arsenic due to a mutation in the Auanema dbt-1 gene, reports Olena. When they looked at three other nematode species in the genus Auanema collected from less-harsh conditions, the team found that they too carried the mutation. The finding suggests that those nematodes have a genetic predisposition to adapting to many different environments.
“Mono Lake is famous for being a limited ecosystem in terms of animals . . . so it’s really cool that they’ve managed to demonstrate that there are a bunch of nematode species living in there, as well as the shrimp and the flies,” microbiologist Lucy Stewart of GNS Science in New Zealand, who not involved in the study, tells Olena. “It expands the whole ecosystem considerably.”
Learning about extremophiles and how they deal with environments like the deep ocean, volcanoes, ice caps and arsenic-contaminated lakes can teach scientists how humans could use similar strategies to develop new types of agriculture or show us how to live on other planets.
“Perhaps we can figure out new pathways that animals such as ourselves may be able use to our advantage,” study coauthor James Lee, a molecular biophysicist from Rockefeller University, tells Mandelbaum.
The color of a male giraffe’s spots may reveal insights on its behavior, new research suggests. As scientists led by Madelaine Castles of Australia’s University of Queensland report in the journal Animal Behaviour, dark-furred giraffes tend to be both more dominant and solitary than their lighter-hued counterparts.
These findings, based on a survey of 66 males living in Namibia’s Etosha National Park over a 12-year period, contradict previous research associating darker coloring with advanced age rather than social status.
Per Cosmos’ Tanya Loos, the latest study—drawing on 1,793 photographs and calculations of gregariousness versus sociability, as represented by time spent alone or within a group—supports the idea that most giraffes’ spots darken over time but identifies significant exceptions to this trend.
In a press release, Castles notes, “We now know that—rather than simply indicating age—colour may display males’ physical condition and be used as a way to signal competitive ability to others.”
Of the 66 subjects surveyed, nine actually grew paler as they aged. Others retained the light coloring seen in their youth, never making the switch from sienna brown to darker black. As the study’s authors explain, “This suggests that color is not solely an age-based trait but could be a secondary sexual trait.”Paler giraffes tend to travel in groups, while darker ones are more solitary (Castles et al.)
According to the statement, dark-hued males assert their dominance through what Castles calls an “often-successful but risky” mating strategy. Whereas paler male giraffes travel in packs with females, darker ones roam alone, moving between groups in search of potential mates.
“In contrast,” Castles says, “the lighter, less dominant males may be making the best of a bad situation so to speak, by remaining with females in the hope of getting lucky when a dominant male is not around.”
Staying in close proximity to females offers several benefits for younger subordinate males. Per the study, delaying breeding gives these giraffes time to grow and increase their physical fitness—a decision likely to “prove more beneficial over a lifetime.” At the same time, the researchers write, females in heat may be more willing to mate with familiar males than unknown ones.
According to Cosmos’ Loos, the researchers’ findings suggest giraffes’ coloring acts similarly to African lions’ manes, which signal bearers’ fitness to potential female mates. The study further notes that lions’ mane growth and coloring tend to change with age but are also influenced by a wide array of factors, including injuries, testosterone, nutrition and ambient temperature.
In the press release, study co-author Anne Goldizen, also of the University of Queensland, notes that scientists’ next step will be determining how color can signal a male giraffe’s physical condition.
Much like lions, she adds, giraffes’ “color could be linked to testosterone, to heat stress, diet, genetics or a combination of multiple factors.”
At a moment when civil rights groups are protesting Amazon’s offering its face-matching service Rekognition to the police, and Chinese authorities are using surveillance cameras in Hong Kong to try to arrest pro-democracy campaigners, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum offers a new show that could not be more timely.
The exhibition, “Face Values: Exploring Artificial Intelligence,” is the New York iteration of a show the museum organized, as the official representative of the United States, for the 2018 London Design Biennial. It includes original works the museum commissioned from three Americans, R. Luke DuBois, Jessica Helfand, Zachary Lieberman as well as a new interactive video experience about AI by the London filmmaker Karen Palmer of ThoughtWorks. The imaginative installation, which includes a screen set into a wall of ceiling-high metal cat tails, was designed by Matter Architecture Practice of Brooklyn, New York.
“We are trying to show that artificial intelligence is not all that accurate, that technology has bias,” says the museum’s Ellen Lupton, senior curator of contemporary design.
R. Luke DuBois’s installation, Expression Portrait, for example, invites a museumgoer to sit in front of a computer and display an emotion, such as anger or joy, on his or her face. A camera records the visitor’s expression and employs software tools to judge the sitter’s age, sex, gender and emotional state. (No identifying data is collected and the images are not shared.) We learn that such systems often make mistakes when interpreting facial data.
“Emotion is culturally coded,” says DuBois. “To say that open eyes and raised corners of the mouth imply happiness is a gross oversimplification.”
DuBois wants the viewer to experience the limits of A.I. in real time. He explains that systems often used in business or governmental surveillance can make mistakes because they have built-in biases. They are “learning” from databases of images of certain, limited populations but not others. Typically, the systems work best on white males but less for so just about everybody else.
Machine-learning algorithms normally seek patterns from large collections of images—but not always. To calculate emotion for Expression Portrait, DuBois used the Ryerson Audio-Visual Database of Speech and Song (RAVDESS), which is comprised of video files of 24 young, mostly white, drama students, as well as AffectNet, which includes celebrity portraits and stock photos. DuBois also used the IMDB-WIKI dataset, which relies on photos of famous people, to calculate people's age. Knowing the sources of Dubois’s image bank and how databases can be biased makes it easy to see how digital systems can produced flawed results.
DuBois is director of the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. He trained as a composer and works as a performer and conceptual artist. He combines art, music and technology to foster greater understanding of the societal implications of new technologies.
He is certainly on to something.The imaginative installation, which includes a screen set into a wall of ceiling-high metal cat tails, was designed by Matter Architecture Practice of Brooklyn, New York. (Matt Flynn, Cooper Hewitt)
Last week the creators of ImageNet, the 10-year-old database used for facial recognition training of AI machine learning technologies, announced the removal of more than 600,000 photos from its system. The company admitted it pulled millions of photos in its database from the Internet, and then hired 50,000 low-paid workers to attach labels to the images. These labels included offensive, bizarre words like enchantress, rapist, slut, Negroid and criminal. After being exposed, the company issued a statement: “As AI technology advances from research lab curiosities into people’s daily lives, ensuring that AI systems produce appropriate and fair results has become an important scientific question.”
Zachary Lieberman, a New Media artist based in New York, created Expression Mirror for the Cooper Hewitt show. He invites the visitor to use his or her own face in conjunction with a computer, camera and screen. He has created software that maps 68 landmarks on the visitor’s face. He mixes fragments of the facial expression of the viewer with those of previous visitors, combining the fragments to produce unique combined portraits.
“It matches the facial expression with that of previous visitors, so if the visitor frowns, he or she sees other faces with frowns,” Lieberman says. “The visitor sees his expression of an emotion through those on other people’s faces. As you interact you are creating content for the next visitor.”
“He shows it can be fun to be playful with data,” Lupton says. “The software can ID your emotional state. In my case, it reported I was 90 percent happy and 10 percent sad. What is scary is when the computer confuses happy and sad. It’s evidence the technology is imperfect even though we put our trust in it.”
Lieberman c0-founded openFrameworks, a tool for creative coding, and is a founder of the School for Poetic Computation in New York. He helped create EyeWriter, an eye-tracking device designed for the paralyzed. In his Expression Mirror, white lines produce an abstract, graphic interpretation of the viewer’s emotional status. “If you look happy you might see white lines coming out of your mouth, based on how the computer is reading your expression,” he says.
Jessica Helfand, a designer, critic, historian and a founder of the blog and website “Design Observer,” has contributed a visual essay (and soundtrack) for the show on the long history of facial profiling and racial stereotyping titled A History of Facial Measurement.
“It’s a history of the face as a source of data,” Lupton says. Helfand tracks how past and present scientists, criminologists and even beauty experts have tried to quantify and interpret the human face, often in the belief that moral character can be determined by facial features.
Karen Palmer, the black British filmmaker, calls herself a “Storyteller from the Future.” For the show, she created Perception IO (Input Output), a reality simulator film.
The visitor takes the position of a police officer watching a training video that portrays a volatile, fraught scene. A person is running toward him and he tries to de-escalate the situation. How the visitor responds has consequences. A defensive stance leads to one response from the officer, while a calm, unthreatening one leads to a different response.
Perception IO tracks eye movements and facial expressions. Thus, the visitor is able to see his or her own implicit bias in the situation. If you are a white policeman and the “suspect” is black, do you respond differently? And visa versa. Palmer’s goal is for viewers to see how perceptions of reality have real-life consequences.
The takeaway from the show?
“We need to understand better what AI is and that it’s created by human beings who use data that human beings select,” Lupton says. “Our aim it to demystify it, show how it’s made.”
And the show is also meant to be entertaining: “We are trying to show what the computer thinks you are.”
“Face Values: Exploring Artificial Intelligence,” is on view at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City through May 17, 2020. The museum is located at 2 East 91st Street (between 5th and Madison Avenues.
Farmers have always been diligent data collectors, knowing approximately what each acreage yields or how much milk an individual cow produces. But with the complex data collecting devices of today’s world, agriculture is in the midst of a high-tech revolution—particularly in the area of precision farming.
Farmers can use the same “big data” tools that are integrated into other industries. Things like drones that communicate with satellites to collect data while soaring over a field. The internet of things era means just about anything in our lives can be linked to a WiFi connection and the same applies for farming. For example, Wifi-enabled moisture sensors can help farmers conserve water by only watering parts of the field that need it most. Cow tags can be linked to GPS or even “Fitbit-like” devices to track their vitals remotely. Most machines can be programmed to use machine-learning; for example, fertilizer application equipment can be trained to “see” a field and only spray plants that need a boost, saving farmers product and money.
“The future of farming is becoming more sophisticated,” says Peter Liebhold, a curator in the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum for American History. “The notion of farmers wearing denim overalls with a straw in their mouth is dead.”
It might not seem immediately intuitive, given the Old McDonald stereotypes people grow up with, but one major area of tech that stands to be highly influential in bringing precision farming to life is robotics.
Today’s farmers face lots of challenges: an aging workforce, a shortage of low-cost labor, environmental hazards and climate change, to name only a few, notes Jordan Berg, a National Science Foundation program director for their Future of Work initiative, which supports research “at the intersection of future work, technology, and workers.” And for every problem there seems to be a robot or robotic device in the works to fix it.
“It gives them [farmers] the permission to be creative, the ability to be creative with their equipment,” says Berg. “It empowers the farmers to take back ownership of their own technology.”
In this agricultural revolution, there are plenty of mind-blowing devices to awe and excite. Here are just five different types of robotics in development or already hard at work in fields.
Fruit PickersThe Octinion Rubion scours rows and rows of strawberry plants indoors. (Octinion)
The traditional view of robots is that they’re clumsy and bulky—certainly not nimble enough to gently pluck a strawberry off its stem, right? However, that’s exactly what Belgian company Octinion’s Rubion robot can do. Strawberry plants continue producing berries throughout the growing season, but currently, there aren’t enough workers to continually pick every berry that every plant produces. Typically, as Nell Lewis reports for CNN, a farmer can hire workers to clear the field once, leaving any fruit that became ripe before or after that time to rot on the fields.
So, of course, a robot that can pluck berries continuously has appeal. The Rubion bot uses a special vision system to detect when a berry is ripe and then plucks it with a soft 3D-printed hand. Octinion has already commercialized the robot, which is being used in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Ideally, the bot would scour rows and rows of strawberry plants indoors. One of the biggest challenges for robots like these is to withstand the elements in traditional farm fields.
In a farmer’s perfect world, there would be no weeds. Prior to the 1900s, weeds were tackled with plowing, or tillage, explains Liebhold. But plowing releases carbon dioxide into the air, increases soil erosion and requires more fertilizer. Currently, no-till farming, or not disturbing soil through tillage, is gaining popularity, but that means herbicide use is sky rocketing. With increased herbicide use, more weeds become resistant to chemicals.
Enter one solution: FarmWise’s massive weed pulling robot. This agri-bot looks more like a Zamboni than farm equipment. The California-based team trained machine-learning cameras using millions of images so that the robot can differentiate between crop and weed. The robot is trained to spot the center of each crop so it doesn’t disturb its growth when it goes in to snag a weed.
“Developing FarmWise’s weeding robots has been an interesting and exciting challenge combining multiple domains of expertise such as machine learning, robotics and mechanical engineering,” says CEO Sebastien Boyer via email. The team recently received $14.5 million from investors after successfully introducing the machine on two farms in California. With the money, they’ll expand to more farms in the Sunshine State and Arizona.
But we won’t see a FarmWise robot on every field. The team’s plan for growth involves a Robot-as-a-Service model so that farmers aren’t burdened by mechanical upkeep.
“We take care of our customers' weeding needs from A to Z, freeing them from the recruiting and maintenance hassles,” explain Boyer. “Moreover, operating as a service enables us to offer the latest software and design updates to our customers.”
LiDAR for Farm Fields
Small rover-like bots are designed to tackle problems on a variety of terrain, from our living room carpeting to our lawns. Now, they’re in farm fields too. EarthSense’s TerraSentia rover is about the same size as a robotic lawnmower, but souped-up with the machine learning and visual programming of NASA’s moon and Mars rovers.
In fact, TerraSentia, developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E, uses LiDAR—or light detection and ranging—technology to collect data from a field’s hard-to-reach understory. It’s a simpler version of the technology that NASA is using on its rovers to study the surface of the moon and Mars and that deep-sea remotely operated vehicles use to study the ocean floor.
Combined with other on-board technology systems, TerraSentia can “collect data on traits for plant health, physiology, and stress response,” according to the EarthSense website. Its creators hope to soon program the bot to measure young plant health, corn ear height, soybean pods, plant biomass as well as detect and identify diseases and abiotic stresses, according to the site. So far, it’s been deployed in corn, soybean, wheat, sorghum, vegetable crops, orchards, and vineyards.
DronesRaleigh-based PrecisionHawk promises “with their bird’s eye view and advanced sensors, a drone can gather data on 500 to 1,000 acres in less than a day.” (PrecisionHawk)
In terms of “disruptive technology” that can change agriculture, Liebhold puts drone technology on par with the 1918 invention of the Waterloo Boy tractor, which propelled farming away from the horse-and-plow days of the past.
“Eventually horse-drawn replaces manual labor, gasoline replaces horse-drawn, and the bleeding edge of today is the drone,” says Liebhold.
Drones aren’t particularly new tech at this point; they’ve been used commercially since the early 1980s. They aren’t exactly new to farming either, having been used to capture aerial photography of fields for years. However, agriculture has quickly become a pioneering space for developing new applications for unmanned aerial vehicles. Major uses for drones right now include 3D-imaging, map-building and crop monitoring.
Wilmington, Delaware-based Corteva Agriscience’s Drone Deploy program sends out fleets of drones to “offer immediate insights to diagnose and correct agronomic, disease, and pest concerns.” PrecisionHawk, headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, notes that it can take 11 hours to sample an acre of crops on foot. They promise, “with their bird’s eye view and advanced sensors, a drone can gather data on 500 to 1,000 acres in less than a day.”
The appeal of drone-use is the potential to get precision data about sections of a field—or even an individual plant. In the future, drones could be used for soil analysis, planting, crop spraying, irrigation and crop health analysis, as MIT Technology Review lists.
Farming ExoskeletonsFarmers could use this lifting assist device. (Virginia Tech)
Some—the U.S. Department of Agriculture included—say farmers are superheroes, but those heroes are getting older. The average age of a farmer is now 50 to 58 years old, according to the 2012 USDA census of agriculture. This aging workforce is a major issue, especially in small and medium size farms, as is a lack of a generational stream of labor the industry once had. Scientists are addressing the problem with a solution certainly fit for a superhero—wearable exoskeletons, or supersuits.
A team of engineers at Virginia Tech is working on lightweight, easy-to-use exosuits that ease pressure on a farmer’s knees and back, reports Erica Corder for Virginia Tech Engineer magazine. Another group at the university is creating a robotic glove to help farmers with arthritis. The hope is that farmers will use the tech when they are say, in their 50s, so that they can age less painfully into their 60s and retire, explains Virginia Tech engineer Alexander Leonessa in a press release.
“These devices will be something the farmers will wear to fulfill their daily tasks in a more comfortable way,” said Leonessa. “Many of our older farmers have age-related issues, such as arthritis, and by providing this technology we can ensure they can complete their tasks. The goal is not for farmers to work until they are 90 years old, but to allow them to work with less fatigue and be able to continue to do what they love to do while staying healthy.”
Last Saturday marked the conclusion of the annual Banned Books Week, which seeks to highlight the dangers of censorship and celebrate the freedom to read. To coincide with the campaign, the advocacy organization PEN America released a new report on book restrictions within the U.S. prison system, according to the group, “the largest book ban policy in the United States.”
Rules governing what prisoners can and cannot read vary from state to state, even from prison to prison. “Prison systems function as a hierarchy, meaning officials at multiple levels can act as censors and block incarcerated people’s access to books,” the report states. Book bans often do not follow a formal process, and can be based on the discretion of individual officers. This can make it difficult to track just how many authors and titles have been banned in U.S. prisons. But around 20,000 books are off limits to inmates in Florida, as the report points out. More than 10,000 titles have been banned in Texas. The list of books and magazines prohibited to prisoners in Florida numbers 7,000.
Generally speaking, according to the report, books are often banned based on their content. Nudity or obscenity, depictions of violence or criminal activity, language that encourages escape, or language that encourages “racial animus” or hatred can be grounds for restriction. Officials say that removing certain titles from the prison roster can help prevent inmates from getting information that will lead to violence or escapes, as Mihir Zaveri of the New York Times reports. But the PEN reports cites multiple examples showing that the rules are “arbitrary and irrational.” In Tennessee, officials refused to allow a prisoner to receive a book about the Holocaust because it contained nudity. An Ohio prison blocked a biology textbook for the same reason. In Colorado, officials at a federal prison stopped an inmate from receiving Barack Obama’s memoirs on the grounds that the books were “potentially detrimental to national security”; that decision was later reversed.
Books on civil rights are frequent targets of censorship, according to the report. In one high-profile example, the New Jersey Department of Corrections banned The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which explores the devastating impact of mass incarceration on black communities, in some of its facilities. After a protest by the American Civil Liberties Union, the department rolled back the ban.
Other restrictions have little to do with the content of a literary work. In an effort to stop the flow of contraband into prisons, some state and federal systems have implemented policies that allow prisoners to acquire books only from “secure vendors” with limited reading options. Prisoners have to pay for the books, rather than receive them from family members or activist groups, which can be prohibitive. “Such content-neutral bans are actually far more damaging to incarcerated people’s right to read than content-specific bans,” the report states. They are also controversial. The New York State Corrections Department, for instance, suspended its secure vendor program just 10 days after it launched, following an outcry.
The PEN report notes that it is difficult for prisoners to challenge book bans on First Amendment grounds due to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which, according to the New Yorker’s Rachel Poser, “was designed to reduce the number of lawsuits brought by inmates against prisons.” Under this law, incarcerated individuals must submit their complaint to the prison’s administration, and then appeal that decision within the state’s correction system, before they can bring a case to an actual court.
“Functioning properly, a grievance system can provide corrections officials with early warnings of staff misconduct, deficient medical care, and unsanitary or dangerous conditions,” Poser writes. “But in practice, critics say, these systems create a tangle of administrative procedures that discourage or disqualify inmates from filing lawsuits.”
The PEN report makes a number of recommendations to approve inmates’ access to literature, among them repealing or reforming the PLRA. The report also suggests that state and federal officials conduct periodic reviews of their book restriction policies, and make lists of banned books easily accessible to the public.
“The goal of this briefer is not to demonize prison officials or to belittle legitimate security concerns,” the report notes. “It does aim to demonstrate, however, that the book restrictions in American prisons are often arbitrary, overbroad, opaque, subject to little meaningful review, and overly dismissive of incarcerated people’s right to access literature behind bars. The result is a book banning system that fails incarcerated people, and fails to live up to our democratic and Constitutional ideals. As both a practical and a moral matter, it is time to re-evaluate the state of the right to read within American prisons.”
Roosevelt's African trip; the story of his life, the voyage from New York to Mombasa, and the route through the heart of Africa, including the big game and other ferocious animals, strange peoples and countries found in the course of his travels. By Frederick William Unger, the famous ..
Also available online.
MAMM copy 39088009411026 has bookplate: Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Gift of Dr. Robert Hoffmann.
AFA copy is a gift from Robert D. Bailey.
by Kristen Minogue This October, you’re invited to meet a woman who has spent decades working to save the ocean. The journey has taken her from the coasts of Oregon to Panama, New Zealand, South Africa and the Seychelles. Her name is Jane Lubchenco. In 2009, she broke ground as the first woman to head […]
The post Because of Her Story: Jane Lubchenco, Voice for the Ocean appeared first on Shorelines.
Twenty-five years ago, a man in Mattituck, New York, came across a collection of audiotapes in his basement and put them aside for a rainy day. Years later, when he finally investigated the tapes, he found that he was in possession of original recordings of some of the most important broadcasts of World War II.
As Michael E. Ruane reports for the Washington Post, the man, 63-year-old Bruce Campbell, now of Loxahatchee, Florida, decided to donate the collection of tapes and assorted artifacts to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. Most notable in the collection is a dispatch recorded by American war correspondent George Hicks on D-Day.
Hicks, the London bureau chief for the Blue Network (a predecessor of ABC), was reporting from the U.S.S. Ancon. The Ancon, which served as a communication ship in the D-Day invasion, was among 5,000 ships that traveled across the English Channel to France carrying troops, supplies and in this case, a bold journalist toting a tape-recording machine called a Recordgraph.
The ship was stationed off the coast of Normandy when the Nazis began to attack the Allied troops from the air. The recording captures the sounds of gunfire, aircraft and shouting interspersed with Hicks’s commentary. At one point, Hicks and others aboard exclaimed “we got one!” as a German plane fell from the sky in a fiery blaze, according to the Post.
Hicks’s D-Day broadcast is known as one of the best audio recordings to come out of World War II, but only copies of the recording were available before Campbell’s discovery of what appears to be the original tape. The Post describes the report as “iconic and frightening,” and Campbell echoes the sentiment.
“I’m listening to this, and I feel like I’m standing on the battleship with this guy,” Campbell tells the Post of the first time he heard the audiotape. “It made my hair stand up. … This is the original media and masters it was actually recorded on.”
In full, Campbell’s basement trove yielded 16 audiotape recordings of Hicks and other famous World War II journalists, including Edward R. Murrow. The collection also included pieces of the Recordgraph machine that was used to make the recordings. That makes sense because, as it turns out, the artifacts belonged to the previous homeowner, the late Albert Stern, who was the vice president of the very company that manufactured the Recordgraph.
The Recordgraph system was first developed by Frederick Hart & Co. in the late 1930s and used to record audio on loops of cellulose acetate film called Amertape. Without a functional machine to play the antiquated tapes, Campbell initially had no clue how to listen to them. But after some research, he got in touch with a British electrical engineer and audio expert named Adrian Tuddenham. Campbell traveled to Bristol, England, in 2004, and with the help of a device created by Tuddenham, he finally heard the D-Day dispatch.
Hicks’s distinctive voice is instantly recognizable in it: “Here we go again; another plane’s come over!” he narrates. “Looks like we’re going to have a night tonight.”
Almost everything paleontologists know about ancient sharks comes from their teeth. That’s because the animals had skeletons made of cartilage, which does not fossilize as easily as bone. So researchers were surprised to find several shark skulls and an almost complete skeleton of 360-million-year-old primitive shark in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
The fossils, described in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, come from two species of sharks in the genus Phoebodus, which went extinct during the Caroboniferous Period about 299 to 359 million years ago, leaving behind no known ancestral species. Bob Yirka at Phys.org reports that prior to the discovery, Phoebodus sharks were only known from three teeth.
These fossils survived because the area where the animals died was a shallow sea basin. Their bodies were covered in sediment and limited water circulation and low oxygen levels allowed them to fossilize without being destroyed by predators or broken down by bacteria.
Still, the fossils were fragile, so the team chose to examine them using a CT scan instead of chipping them out of the rock. The imaging reveals a very strange, un-shark-like creature. Yirka reports Phoebodus had a long, thin body along with a flat skull and jaw. The creature looks much more like a giant eel than a typical modern shark.
But it does resemble an atypical modern shark—the elusive frilled shark. That species is found in deep water around the world, but is little studied. Until 2004 when the creature was first video recorded, it was only known from being pulled up in fishing nets.
Tim Vernimen at National Geographic reports that the three-cusped teeth of the ancient species and the frilled shark are similar and can offer clues to how the ancient species hunted.
“The frilled shark is a specialized predator, with the ability to suddenly burst forward to catch its prey,” David Ebert at the Pacific Shark Research Center, who has studied frilled sharks, but was not involved in the new study, says. “The inward-pointing teeth then help to make sure the prey can only go one way: into its throat. Maybe Phoebodus did something similar.”
While most modern sharks use their teeth to rip prey to pieces before gobbling them up, the frilled shark—and perhaps Phoebodus—use their unique teeth to capture prey and swallow them whole, study coauthor Christian Klug of the University of Zurich tells Vernimen .
Because data on frilled sharks is almost as elusive as fossils of Phoebodus, the team also examined the jaws and teeth of the alligator gar, a species of North American fish dating back 100 million years that has a surprisingly similar mouth to the ancient shark. The gar hunts in open water, and its long jaw and flat head allows it to snap at a fishing coming from almost any direction.
It’s possible that Phoebodus developed its unique shape hundreds of millions of years earlier to hunt in the same manner. “When a certain structure or strategy is effective, there is a tendency for it to show up time and time again—both in living creatures and in the fossil record,” Justin Lemberg, gar researcher at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the study, tells Vernimmen. “While a lot has changed since Phoebodus swam the Devonian oceans, the physics of feeding in water have not.”
This isn’t the only rare shark fossil rewriting what we know about ancient sharks. Last month, researchers from the University of Chicago made a CT scan of a 2-foot-long, 335-million-year-old shark found in Scotland in 1837. They found that the early shark was a suction feeder, using mouth parts in a manner similar to modern day nurse-sharks and carp.
Modern imaging techniques are showing researchers that ancient sharks had diverse feeding patterns, similar to modern sharks.
“The quantity of data that is emerging from studies such as this is staggering,” paleontologist John Maisey of the American Museum of Natural History, not involved in the study, tells Vernimmen. “We are experiencing a renaissance of anatomy.”