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"Lost Continent" Rises Again With New Expedition

Smithsonian Magazine

Tens of millions of years after it disappeared under the waters of the Pacific Ocean, scientists have completed the first explorations of what some scientists are calling a hidden continent, Naaman Zhou reports at the Guardian.

During a two-month ocean voyage this summer, a team of more than 30 scientists from 12 countries explored the submerged landmass of Zealandia on an advanced research vessel and collected samples from the seabed. Scientists were able to drill into the ocean floor at depths of more than 4,000 feet, collecting more than 8,000 feet of sediment cores that provides a window into 70 million years of geologic history, reports Georgie Burgess for ABC News.

More than 8,000 fossils from hundreds of species were also collected in the drilling, giving scientists a glimpse at terrestrial life that lived tens of millions of years ago in the area. "The discovery of microscopic shells of organisms that lived in warm shallow seas, and of spores and pollen from land plants, reveal that the geography and climate of Zealandia were dramatically different in the past," expedition leader Gerald Dickens said in a statement. While more than 90 percent of Zealandia is now submerged under more than a kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) of water, when it was above the surface, it likely provided a path that many land animals and plants could have used to spread across the South Pacific, notes Naaman Zhou of the Guardian.

The Geological Society of America officially endorsed the long-standing theory that a nearly 2 million-square-mile section of Pacific Ocean floor around the country of New Zealand was actually continental crust that had submerged beneath the water in a paper published by its journal in February. As Sarah Sloat reports for Inverse, this sinking, believed have taken place after the continent broke off from Australia around 60 to 85 million years ago, made New Zealand, and other seemingly disparate islands in the area, the remains of what was once a large landmass. 

However, classifying Zealandia as a continent is still a source of debate among scientists. In an interview with Michael Greshko of National Geographic in February, Christopher Scotese, a Northwestern University geologist was skeptical. “My judgment is that though Zealandia is continental, it is not a continent,” Scotese said. “If it were emergent, we would readily identify it with Australia, much like we identify Greenland with North America and Madagascar with Africa.” 

Scientists now plan to study the sediment cores and fossils to help create models of how the region looked and changed over the course of tens of millions of years, reports Sloat, and plans are always in the works for a return expedition next year.

"Missing Link" Cave Fish Walks Like a Salamander

Smithsonian Magazine

The earliest vertebrate animals to walk on land were ancient four-limbed tetrapods that waggled their way across the ground like salamanders. Yet researchers still haven’t found many intermediate species showing just how swimming fish evolved to walk on land. Now, an endangered species only found in a handful of caverns in Thailand might finally help straighten things out.

The species in question is a type of blind cave fish called Cryptotora thamicola, or the waterfall-climbing cave fish. Documented in a study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, the creature uses its four fins to crawl over rocks and up slick walls. The fish even has a full pelvis fused to its spine—a skeletal feature absent from any of the other 30,000 fish species in the world. This particular feature, however, is found in terrestrial vertebrates and fossils of the earliest tetrapods, making the waterfall cave fish a unique window into evolution.

“It’s really weird,” John R. Hutchinson, a biologist at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London tells Carl Zimmer at The New York Times. “It’s a good example of how much fish diversity there’s left to be discovered.”

The species was first found in Northern Thailand in 1985 in eight caves near the Myanmar border. The Thai government is now extremely protective of those caves, allowing only a handful of researchers to examine them and their strange fish.

Last year, Apinun Suvarnaraksha, an ichthyologist from Maejo University in Thailand and Daphne Soares, a biologist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology observed the fish on an expedition to those caves and took a video . When Soares shared the images with her NJIT colleague Brooke Flammang, a biomechanics researcher, she was stunned. “I was like, ‘Fish can’t do that,’” Flammang tells Diane Kelly at Wired. “That’s ridiculous.”

Flammang hoped to get specimens of the rare fish to study, but that was not possible. So she began working with Suvarnaraksha, who returned to the caves and began briefly capturing the fish and putting them in an aquarium for filming before releasing them. He was also able to perform a CT scan of a preserved museum specimen of Cryptotora thamicola at a local dental school.

Armed with that data, Flammang began to unravel the secrets of the cave fish. It didn’t take long. “When they sent me the files, I thought someone was playing a trick on me,” she tells Kelly. “There was this gigantic pelvis [on the CT scan] that looks nothing like any fish pelvis.”

While it’s highly unlikely that the waterfall cave fish is an ancestor of ancient tetrapods, its evolution sheds some light on how other fish could have evolved to move on land. It also calls into question some of the 400-million-year-old tetrapod “footprints” scientists have found  in recent years.

Researchers may now need to evaluate those prints—the next likely candidate is the giant waddling fish. “The physics are the same,” Flammang tells Zimmer. 

"Newton's New and Improved Terrestrial Globe"

National Museum of American History

"Out of Many, One" by Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada Preview - National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery
"Out of Many One" was commissioned by The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and created by Cuban American urban artist, Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada. This giant portrait was placed temporarily on the National Mall; and open to the public Oct. 4 through Oct. 31, 2014. See the full video at: http://youtu.be/PjxK7Vt5eGw For the work titled “Out of Many, One,” the English translation of E pluribus unum, Rodríguez-Gerada is using dozens of images of people photographed in Washington, D.C., to create a composite portrait that will be an interactive walk-through experience for visitors and also be viewable from the newly reopened Washington Monument. The work is so large it is also visible via satellite. The project covers 6 acres and falls midway between the World War II and Lincoln memorials along the south side of the Reflecting Pool. “Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada’s work demonstrates that the art of portraiture knows no boundaries,” said Kim Sajet, director of the Portrait Gallery. “Who we are, how we perceive others, those we recognize and those we place in high esteem constantly shifts over time. Portraits and the people they represent can be as big as we are willing to imagine.” Rodríguez-Gerada has translated his drawing into a digital format incorporating parallel lines. Currently each line is being drawn out using TopCon high-precision satellite navigation receivers on the ground. The image is created using different colors of dirt and sand based on these lines. The GPS technology allows the artist to place the large-scale image at the location with high resolution and precision. ““This portrait, a stunning compilation of American faces, reflects the unique composition of the National Mall’s 29 million annual visitors and honors the legacy of diversity that has made this park—and our country—so great,” said Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall. The installation began in September and will be completed by the end of the month. The project will require approximately 2,000 tons of sand, 800 tons of soil, 10,000 wooden pegs and 8 miles of string. At the conclusion of the temporary exhibition, the high-quality sand and dirt will be tilled back into the soil to help the National Park Service as they move forward with the next phase of turf restoration on the National Mall. The sand-soil composition will leave the grounds in better condition than when the project began. “‘Out of Many, One’ reflects what the National Mall stands for—democracy, diversity and freedom of expression,” said National Mall and Memorial Parks Superintendent Bob Vogel. “It will provide visitors with a unique national park experience and, in keeping with our mission, will improve the soil for better turf in the future. These benefits would not be possible without this unique partnership.” Rodríguez-Gerada, born in Cuba and raised in New Jersey since the age of 3, has worked in this style of urban portraiture since 2002. His art aims to create a dialogue about the concept of identity, and it questions the role models who are chosen to represent people in the public sphere. These works have no negative environmental impact and are created to poetically blend back into the land. All of Rodríguez-Gerada’s large-scale “facescapes” can be seen from space and are part of his TERRESTRIAL series; this is the first placed in the United States. Others have been created in Barcelona, Spain; Amsterdam; and Belfast, Northern Ireland. The work has come together in large part due to a group of in-kind donors, including Clark Construction, Chaney Enterprises, The Bulldog Group, Alvin Hatcher Group and Topcon, with consulting assistance from Terry Stancill. The National Portrait Gallery presents “Out of Many, One,” by Rodríguez-Gerada in partnership with the Trust for the National Mall and the National Park Service.

"Out of Many, One" by artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada

National Portrait Gallery
"Out of Many, One" was commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and created by Cuban American urban artist, Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada. This giant portrait was placed temporarily on the National Mall from Oct. 4 through Oct. 31, 2014. For the work titled “Out of Many, One,” the English translation of E pluribus unum, Rodríguez-Gerada is using dozens of images of people photographed in Washington, D.C., to create a composite portrait that will be an interactive walk-through experience for visitors and also be viewable from the newly reopened Washington Monument. The work is so large it is also visible via satellite. The project covers 6 acres and falls midway between the World War II and Lincoln memorials along the south side of the Reflecting Pool. “Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada’s work demonstrates that the art of portraiture knows no boundaries,” said Kim Sajet, director of the Portrait Gallery. “Who we are, how we perceive others, those we recognize and those we place in high esteem constantly shifts over time. Portraits and the people they represent can be as big as we are willing to imagine.” Rodríguez-Gerada has translated his drawing into a digital format incorporating parallel lines. Currently each line is being drawn out using TopCon high-precision satellite navigation receivers on the ground. The image is created using different colors of dirt and sand based on these lines. The GPS technology allows the artist to place the large-scale image at the location with high resolution and precision. ““This portrait, a stunning compilation of American faces, reflects the unique composition of the National Mall’s 29 million annual visitors and honors the legacy of diversity that has made this park—and our country—so great,” said Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall. The installation began in September 2014 and was completed by October 1, 2014. The project required approximately 2,000 tons of sand, 800 tons of soil, 10,000 wooden pegs and 8 miles of string. At the conclusion of the temporary exhibition, the high-quality sand and dirt was tilled back into the soil to help the National Park Service as they move forward with the next phase of turf restoration on the National Mall. The sand-soil composition will leave the grounds in better condition than when the project began. “‘Out of Many, One’ reflects what the National Mall stands for—democracy, diversity and freedom of expression,” said National Mall and Memorial Parks Superintendent Bob Vogel. “It will provide visitors with a unique national park experience and, in keeping with our mission, will improve the soil for better turf in the future. These benefits would not be possible without this unique partnership.” Rodríguez-Gerada, born in Cuba and raised in New Jersey since the age of 3, has worked in this style of urban portraiture since 2002. His art aims to create a dialogue about the concept of identity, and it questions the role models who are chosen to represent people in the public sphere. These works have no negative environmental impact and are created to poetically blend back into the land. All of Rodríguez-Gerada’s large-scale “facescapes” can be seen from space and are part of his TERRESTRIAL series; this is the first placed in the United States. Others have been created in Barcelona, Spain; Amsterdam; and Belfast, Northern Ireland. With great thanks to the individuals and companies who made this project a reality: PARTNERS National Portrait Gallery Trust for the National Mall National Park Service COMPANIES Clark Construction ValleyCrest Landscape Companies Shirley Contracting Company, LLC Bulldog Group Metro Earthworks Chaney Enterprises Topcon A.H. Hatcher, Inc. Jesco Jaleo by José Andrés DONORS Anonymous Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia Carol and John Boochever Irene and Alan Wurtzel Graham Holdings Anonymous Terry Stancill Other Individual Contributors The National Portrait Gallery presents “Out of Many, One,” by Rodríguez-Gerada in partnership with the Trust for the National Mall and the National Park Service.

"Sleeping" Birch Trees Rest Their Branches at Night

Smithsonian Magazine

In recent years, researchers have discovered that trees can comminicate and share nutrients via an underground fungal net. Now, scientists in Europe have found that trees also “sleep,” or at least relax a little at night, Andy Coghlan reports for New Scientist

Using a terrestrial laser scanner on windless nights close to the equinox, researchers scanned two birch trees over the course of the night, one in Finland and one in Austria. Researchers scanned the birch in Finland hourly and the one in Austrain about every 10 minutes. The results, published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, show that the trees drooped up to nearly four inches during the night.

According to a press release, the leaves and branches slowly relaxed over time, reaching their lowest position about two hours before sunrise. Over the course of the morning, the trees returned to their original positions.

In some ways the study was a test of the laser scanning technology. Using traditional photography, which needs lots of light to produce an image, would have interfered with the trees’ nighttime patterns. But the infrared laser illuminated points on the tree for a fraction of a second. That allowed the entire tree to be mapped in minutes with minimal disturbance.

The right laser scan is the tree's regular branch positioning, while the left laser scan shows its nighttime drooping limbs. (Vienna University of Technology)

This technique could allow scientists to delve further into the study of "plant sleep patterns," moving from individual trees to much larger areas, study co-author Norbert Pfeifer explains in the press release.

It’s likely that the droop is caused by a decrease in turgor pressure, a type of internal water pressure that keeps plants upright. “It means branches and leaf stems are less rigid, and more prone to drooping under their own weight,” study co-author András Zlinszky, a biologist at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, tells CoghlanWhen photosynthesis stops at night, turgor pressure is reduced, likely causing the branches to “relax.”

It’s possible the droop is also related to circadian rhythms, which are encoded in almost every creature on earth, Brian Resnick at Vox points out. The researchers tell Coglan that they hope to repeat the experiment on other tree species, and are particularly interested in chestnuts and poplars, two trees in which genes associated with circadian rhythms have been found.

“Perhaps the most important open question is whether the observed branch movements take place under the influence of light from sunset and sunrise, or if they are independent from light and governed by the internal circadian clock of the plant,” according to the study. Some branches started to return to their daytime position before sunrise, hinting that perhaps the plants do follow an internal clock. But only more study of the tree's daily patterns will help determine if this is the case.

“There have been some studies on circadian rhythms in trees, mostly studying gene expression, but this latest research is a beautiful way to watch it happen in individual trees,” biologist C. Robertson McClung of Dartmouth College, who is not involved in the study, tells Coghlan. “It shows things are happening in the real world.”

The study might have practical applications as well. Study author Eetu Puttonen says knowing the daily cycle of how water moves through trees could help both the timber and rubber industries, both of which rely on water content of the trees.

'Staggering' Damage to Florida’s Everglades Remains in the Wake of Hurricane Irma

Smithsonian Magazine

In September of last year, as Hurricane Irma tore through the southern United States, fierce winds battered the Florida’s Everglades National Park. As Megan Gannon reports for Live Science, NASA scientists recently conducted an aerial survey of the Everglades to assess the impact of the storm—and found massive damage to the region's mangrove forests.

The research team was able to get a particularly good sense of forest casualties because in April of last year, several months before the storm hit, NASA surveyed the area using an airborne instrument called G-LiHT, which stands for Goddard’s Lidar, Hyperspectral and Thermal Imager. This device maps terrestrial ecosystems using thermal measurements, imaging spectroscopy and a remote sensing technique known as LiDAR. By sending out up to 500,000 laser pulses per second, LiDAR can create detailed 3-D maps of dense forested areas from far above the ground.

As NASA explains on its website, the goal of the 2017 project was to find out how freshwater ecosystems—like the marshes of the Everglades—are transitioning to saltwater ecosystems due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. By comparing images from this dataset to information gleaned from the most recent aerial survey, researchers were able to assess how the Everglades changed after Irma.

The team returned to the area in December of this year, flying the same path across 500 square miles of wetlands and supplementing that information with 3D scans taken from the ground by local agencies. Researchers discovered that 60 percent of the area’s mangrove forests were severely damaged. Heavy winds had sliced off the limbs of trees and torn them out of the ground, creating gaps across 40 percent of the forest canopy in the surveyed area. The average height of the canopy dropped between three to five feet due to fallen trees and branches.

“It’s staggering how much was lost,” Lola Fatoyinbo, a remote sensing scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in the agency’s statement. “The question is, which areas will regrow and which areas won’t.”

The team plans to compare datasets from before and after the storm to see if areas that were under stress prior to Irma recover as quickly as ones that were not. As Maddie Stone explains in Earther, it is important to track the health of this ecosystem because the Everglades act as a buffer that protects residents of south Florida from storms and rising sea levels. “If the Glades are being weakened and lost by natural disasters, development and climate change,” Stone writes, “that’s bad news for the nearly seven million people living nearby.”

NASA researchers are now heading to Puerto Rico to conduct G-LiHT flights over areas that were hit hard by both Irma and Hurricane Maria last year.

“It’s a good way to document which areas were more susceptible to events like Hurricane Maria,” Bruce Cook, G-LiHT lead scientist at NASA Goddard. “And also it’s a way to start tracking recovery as well. A lot of people are interested in the recovery, and what we might be talking about in terms of reestablishing the forests in the future, and whether it will require human intervention.”

10 Must-Do Experiences in Australia’s Northern Territory

Smithsonian Magazine

Sunset lingers on the still waters of the Yellow Water Billabong as an evening cruise glides past water lilies slowly closing their vibrant blooms for the night. Gazing out at this tranquil view, you can almost forget how just a few days before, standing on the bow of a similar boat on the Adelaide River, you watched with heart-pounding glee as a 20-foot crocodile launched itself vertically out of the water.

Australia’s Northern Territory, a 520,902 square mile area spanning the tropical shores of the north to the arid desert of the country's Red Center, packs beauty and adventure into every turn. Waterfalls tumble into crystal plunge pools, wallabies dart through monsoon forests and star trails glimmer over Aboriginal rock art sites dating back up to 50,000 years.

On the coast, open-air markets take over Darwin’s beaches and indigenous guides teach visitors Aboriginal art on the Tiwi Islands.

With so much to see, you need a few places to start. Here are ten experiences you can't miss:

See Ancient Aboriginal Rock Art at Ubirr and Nourlangie

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kakadu National Park is home to more than 5,000 recorded Aboriginal art sites. Two of the most famous are Ubirr and Nourlangie, ancient shelters that contain rock paintings dating back 50,000 years. A one-mile path takes visitors through Nourlangie, and a steep climb to Gunwarddehwardde lookout offers incredible views over the Kakadu and neighboring Arnhem Land escarpment. Here a rock painting depicts the Lightning Man, an ancestral spirit heralding the monsoon season (which typically runs November to March). Like Nourlangie, Ubirr boasts breathtaking views over the Nadab floodplain. Look out for unique birdlife and native wildlife across the floodplain.

Cruise the Yellow Water Billabong

The Yellow Water billabong is one of Kakadu's best-known landmarks. Located in the heart of the national park, the billabong flows through the region's majestic wetlands, reflecting picture-perfect sunsets in the calm waters. Pink and white water lilies dot its surface, and paperbark forests, pandanus and fresh water mangroves line its shores. Cruises operate daily and are a fantastic way to discover the billabong's remarkable flora and fauna. From the deck of your boat, spot crocodiles, wild horses, buffalo and other wildlife.

Explore the Waterfalls of Litchfield National Park

A short, 90-minute drive from Darwin, Litchfield National Park is a favorite for locals. Free to enter, it is home to crystal clear waterfalls and swimming pools. Don’t miss Buley Rockhole, Wangi Falls and Florence Falls. From Buley Rockhole, take the two-mile Florence Creek Walk through the monsoon rainforest and spot a range of wildlife, from unique bird species such as kingfishers and fairy-wrens, to bandicoots (small terrestrial marsupials).

Cool off in the plunge pool beneath Florence Falls, or enjoy panoramic views from the viewing platform above. Farther afield, Wangi Falls is one of the park's most popular attractions, featuring waterfalls and a post-card perfect swimming hole.

Embark on a Jumping Croc Cruise

The Australian saltwater crocodile is one of the most magnificent species on the continent. A protected species, today an estimated 150,000 inhabit Northern Australia. The world's largest living reptiles, Australian salties can grow to be more than 20 feet in length.

On the one-hour Jumping Crocodile Cruise, cruise down the Adelaide River and see the massive territorial crocs jump vertically out of the water at close range. Their size and raw power will thrill and amaze you.

Dive With Crocodiles at Crocosaurus Cove

For a bigger adrenaline rush, get even closer to Australia's iconic crocs at Darwin's Crocosaurus Cove. Peer into their underwater environment through aquarium walls, or dare to dive with them in the Cage of Death experience. Australia’s only crocodile dive, the Cage of Death takes up to two visitors into an enclosure for 15 minutes. Regular feeding by caretakers ensures that the massive reptiles are active. Watch out for those tails!

Wander the Mindil Beach Sunset Market

Fresh flavors from across Asia and Australia mix with local arts and crafts in a balmy, tropical setting at Darwin's Mindil Beach Sunset Market. Held every Thursday and Sunday evenings in the dry season months between May and October, this vibrant market is something of a Darwin institution. Locals start arriving at dusk, armed with tables, chairs and rugs, and settle on the beach or grass to watch the sun sink in a blaze of color.

Cruise Darwin Harbor

Larger than Sydney Harbor, Darwin Harbor supports a diverse range of marine ecosystems and is a vital transport hub for northern Australia. Cruise its sparkling blue waters surrounded by scenic mangroves aboard the schooner Tumlaren or multi-level catamaran Charles Darwin for a slice of the Northern Territory's Top End lifestyle. Watching sunset over the city from your intimate vantage point on the sea will take your breath away.

See World-Famous Tiwi Island Art 

Comprising Bathurst and Melville Islands, with a population of around 2,500, the Tiwi Islands are only 50 miles north of Darwin, accessible via the 2.5-hour SeaLink ferry service. The Tiwi people are known internationally for their unique style of art which includes carvings and bright textile designs. Prized by collectors, many Tiwi artists have exhibited around the world. A Tiwi Art Tour introduces visitors to the islands' rich culture.

Discover Indigenous Culture at Top Didj

This two-hour experience led by indigenous artists from the Katherine region and Central Australia immerses you in authentic Aboriginal culture. Try your hand at dot painting, building fire with sticks or spear and boomerang throwing, and even feed a baby wallaby. You can also browse a local art gallery featuring didgeridoos, Aboriginal artwork, boomerangs, weavings, clap sticks, carvings and souvenirs.

Paddle Through Katherine Gorge

The Outback meets the tropics in Katherine, a region home to the world-renowned Katherine Gorge. A series of 13 gorges carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River, the Gorge is a paddler's dream come true. Push off from the river bank, fasten your life jacket, and embark on an unforgettable journey past waterfalls, Aboriginal rock art sites and wildlife. Regular cruises also run through the Gorge. Helicopters leaving from near the visitor center offer stunning aerial views of the gorge system and Arnhem Land plateau.

Discover more of the Northern Territory's Top End.

1250 lire 400th Anniversary Union of Breast-Litovsk single

National Postal Museum
On March 15, 1996, Vatican City issued a series of stamps commemorating two events in the history of the Church in Eastern Europe. The Union of Brest-Litovsk was proclaimed at a Ukrainian Orthodox synod at Brest-Litovsk (present-day Belarus) in 1596. As a result, a number of Ukrainian Orthodox bishops pledged obedience to the pope and reunited with the Roman Catholic Church, though they retained their distinctive Eastern rites and customs. In the Union of Uzhorod of 1646, Orthodox members of the Byzantine rite of Slovakia reunited with Rome.

A 1,250-lire stamp commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Union of Brest-Litovsk. It depicts an angel, hovering above the terrestrial globe, holding two crosses, symbolizing the effort of the Eastern and Western Churches to achieve unity. Two hands representing God are above the angel.

A 2,000-lire stamp commemorates the 350th anniversary of the Union of Uzhorod. It features a cross bearing branches, symbolizing that it is the Tree of Life, with a Latin Episcopal miter and Byzantine miter on the transverse part. In the background, inscribed within a circle representing the "oikumene," are the words CRUX FIDELE ARBOR UNA NOBILIS.

Professor Giovanni Hajnal designed the stamps. Both stamps include the words CITTA DEL VATICANO and the Papal Crown and Crossed Keys at the lower left and the value and an inscription indicating the commemorated event at the lower right.

The stamps are vertical, measuring 40 x 30 mm, and have a perforation of 13 1/4 x 14. The Istituto Polygragico e Zecca dello Stato Italiano printed 450,000 complete series on white chalky paper in color rotogravure and issued in sheets of twenty.

Reference:

Crimando, Thomas I. "New Issues." Vatican Notes 44, no. 6 (May 1996): 4, 6.

16 Million Years Ago This Giant Bat Walked the Jungles of New Zealand

Smithsonian Magazine

New Zealand has always been home to exotic residents—kiwi birds, rare whales, hobbits and, many millions of years ago, giant walking bats. On the rolling plains of Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island, a team of paleontologists stumbled upon the remains an ancient bat (Mystacina miocenalis), and analysis of the bat fossil published June 17 in PLOS ONE suggests it roamed the area at least 16 million years ago.

Bats are the only terrestrial mammals native to New Zealand, but it’s unclear how and when they got there. (Possums, though extremely common, arrived by boat in 1837.) Two modern species come from the same genus as the giant fossil, and are likely contemporary relatives of the ancient species. Previously, the oldest bat specimen found in New Zealand was about 17,500 years old.

A few things set this particular bat apart, a Laura Geggel notes for Live Science. First, it’s size: The researchers estimate that M. miocenalis weighed in at 1.4 ounces or .08 pounds. That might seem extremely light, and it is compared to some animals, but by bat standards it's quite large. For context: that’s roughly three times the size of most modern bats. In fact, it's so large that the bat probably didn't fly all that much. Suzanne Hand, one of the co-authors on the study and a paleontologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, explained in a statement:

The size of bats is physically constrained by the demands of flight and echolocation, as you need to be small, quick and accurate to chase insects in the dark. The unusually large size of this bat suggests it was doing less in-flight hunting and was taking heavier prey from the ground, and larger fruit than even its living cousin.

Sure enough, based on the shape of its limb bones, this bat spent at least some of its time walking on the ground, rather than flying. The bat’s two modern relatives also spend part of their lives on the forest floor, burrowing for insects.

Mystacina tuberculata is a burrowing bat. It spends some of its time foraging for spiders and insects on the ground and the other part of its time drinking flower nectar and eating pollen, which covers its face in the picture above. (Nga Manu Images NZ/Flickr)

So what did this bat see when walking along the forest floor16 to 19 million years ago? At the time, a lake called Manuherikia spread across this part of Otago, surrounded by subtropical rainforest. Fossils near the bat provide a snapshot of what the rainforest might have looked like: lots of insects and diverse plants, as well as a few birds and crocodiles. M. miocenalis’s teeth suggest it took advantage of the food sources around it, eating nectar, pollen, fruit, insects and even a few spiders. Like one of its modern relatives, this bat probably played an important role in pollinating local plants.

The fossilized teeth of this 16 million year old bat suggest it ate a varied diet. (Rod Morris)

Some of the same tree species that Mystacina bats use to roost today were also around back then and are present in the fossil record. In fact, the rainforest these bats lived in probably didn’t look two different from New Zealand's temperate old growth forests of today.

2000 lire 350th Anniversary Union of Uzhorod single

National Postal Museum
On March 15, 1996, Vatican City issued a series of stamps commemorating two events in the history of the Church in Eastern Europe. The Union of Brest-Litovsk was proclaimed at a Ukrainian Orthodox synod at Brest-Litovsk (present-day Belarus) in 1596. As a result, a number of Ukrainian Orthodox bishops pledged obedience to the pope and reunited with the Roman Catholic Church, though they retained their distinctive Eastern rites and customs. In the Union of Uzhorod of 1646, Orthodox members of the Byzantine rite of Slovakia reunited with Rome.

A 1,250-lire stamp commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Union of Brest-Litovsk. It depicts an angel, hovering above the terrestrial globe, holding two crosses, symbolizing the effort of the Eastern and Western Churches to achieve unity. Two hands representing God are above the angel.

A 2,000-lire stamp commemorates the 350th anniversary of the Union of Uzhorod. It features a cross bearing branches, symbolizing that it is the Tree of Life, with a Latin Episcopal miter and Byzantine miter on the transverse part. In the background, inscribed within a circle representing the "oikumene," are the words CRUX FIDELE ARBOR UNA NOBILIS.

Professor Giovanni Hajnal designed the stamps. Both stamps include the words CITTA DEL VATICANO and the Papal Crown and Crossed Keys at the lower left and the value and an inscription indicating the commemorated event at the lower right.

The stamps are vertical, measuring 40 x 30 mm, and have a perforation of 13 1/4 x 14. The Istituto Polygragico e Zecca dello Stato Italiano printed 450,000 complete series on white chalky paper in color rotogravure and issued in sheets of twenty.

Reference:

Crimando, Thomas I. "New Issues." Vatican Notes 44, no. 6 (May 1996): 4, 6.

2000 lire Stylized Portrait of Marco Polo single

National Postal Museum
On March 15, 1996, Vatican City issued a series of stamps and a souvenir sheet commemorating the 700th anniversary of Marco Polo's return from China. It is also intended as a memento of Vatican participation in the International Philatelic Exhibition "CHINA," which took place in Beijing from May 18 to 24, 1996.

Born in Venice ca. 1254, Marco Polo joined his father and uncle on a journey to China in 1271, entering the service of the Mongol ruler Kublai Kahn. Marco Polo went on diplomatic missions throughout the Mongol Empire. In 1292, the Polos left China with a delegation escorting a Mongol princess to Persia. They continued west, eventually returning to Venice. In 1298, Marco Polo was captured in a naval battle between fleets from Venice and Genoa. While in prison, he wrote a detailed account of his travels in Asia.

The souvenir sheet, which measures 138 x 100 mm, features a terrestrial globe whose right hemisphere shows the route Marco Polo followed on his return to Venice. The globe is from a volume preserved in the Pontifical Lateran Library. The Coat of Arms of Vatican City, the logo of the International Philatelic Exhibition "CHINA '96," and the inscription in Italian and Chinese, 700 ANNIVERSARIO DEL RITORNO DI MARCO POLO DALLA CINA appear along the sheet's top.

A 2,000-lire stamp measures 28.56 x 39.23 mm and has a perforation of 11 3/4. The above inscription, the value, and the words CITTA DEL VATICANO are along the border. It features a portrait of Marco Polo from the first printed edition of his account of his travels, II Millione: the Papal Crown and Crossed Keys are visible at the lower left.

Helio Courvoisier S.A. of Switzerland printed 300,000 souvenir sheets on white chalky paper in color rotogravure.

Reference:

Crimando, Thomas I. "New Issues." Vatican Notes 44, no. 6 (May 1996): 4, 6.

33c "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial" single

National Postal Museum
CELEBRATE THE CENTURY

1980s

"E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" movie

33-cent mint single

Issued January 12, 2000

SPHAERUM ARTIFIALIUM TYPICA REPRAESENTATION / novissime adumbrate / A JOHANNE BAPTISTA HOMANNO NORIBERGAE

National Museum of American History
This engraving shows a celestial globe, a terrestrial globe, and an armillary sphere, each supported on a mount decorated with caryatids. The signature refers to John Baptist Homann (1664-1724), a German engraver who established an influential cartographic house in Nuremberg in 1702. Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr, a professor of mathematics who worked with Homann on several astronomical projects, may have had a hand in the creation of this image.

A Ban on Salamanders Is Just Part of the Fight Against This Deadly Fungus

Smithsonian Magazine

Species of all types are disappearing around the globe, but no group may be more threatened than amphibians. One recent analysis found that 43 percent of amphibian species are on the decline and nearly a third are officially threatened. Scientists have also counted 168 species that have gone extinct in the wild, and more than half of those extinctions have occurred in the last few decades.

One big factor has been Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a fungal disease also known as chytrid that was virtually unknown two decades ago. Since its discovery, scientists have witnessed mass die-offs of amphibians, especially frogs, around the world, sometimes happening overnight.

Now, a related fungal disease is spreading among salamanders, B. salamandrivorans, or Bsal, and scientists are racing to apply what they have learned about chytrid to prevent this new threat from devastating amphibians in North America. 

Amphibians are an integral part of the ecosystem, providing a link between the aquatic and terrestrial worlds, Karen Lips, who studies the animals at the University of Maryland College Park, said this week at the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C.

Amphibians are key predators of insects—many of which can transmit diseases such as Zika and dengue to humans—and they serve as meals for other creatures. When frogs disappear, “there are big impacts on pretty much all aspects of the ecosystem,” from water quality to snake abundance, says Lips, who has seen the effects of chytrid on amphibians in Panama.

The animals have also become key in research on limb regeneration. That makes amphibian declines, which may be even worse than reported, especially worrisome, Lips says. So researchers around the world are jumping in to find out as much as they can about the attacking fungi.

“The discovery of these two diseases has changed the way we think about pathogens,” says Ana Longo, of the University of Maryland College Park and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. When chytrid first appeared, scientists were reluctant to believe that a single pathogen could be so dangerous to more than a single species.

While studies have since shown that it's possible, scientists they have also discovered that there are several kinds of Batrachochytrium. Some appear to be endemic in certain regions, such as Brazil, Switzerland and Korea, and amphibians there are able to tolerate the fungus.

But two other versions have spread widely, largely due to the pet trade. These invasive fungi are mostly responsible for the mass die-offs of frogs and other amphibians in the wild. 

Scientists sample chytrid fungus on a dart frog in French Guiana. (Quentin Martinez/Biosphoto/Corbis)

Scientists have also recognized that the chytrid epidemic began decades earlier than they thought. By studying amphibians in natural history collections, they have been able to see that declines in some species, such as the Yosemite toad, occurred around the same time as the arrival of chytrid in a particular region.

“Museums are giving us a view of the past that may help us interpret the status of present-day populations,” says Vance Vredenburg, an amphibian ecologist at San Francisco State University.

One big takeaway so far is that the fungus may not actually doom all frogs, as scientists once feared. Many factors can interact to determine whether a population­—or an entire species—survives. For instance, while chytrid thrives in cooler climates, the local climate and ecology can influence the spread of the disease and amphibian susceptibility.

Interactions with the other microbes living on an animal’s skin may also play a role, along with the response of its immune system. Some researchers are now working on probiotics that might help a frog fight off a chytrid infection. And zoos, including the Smithsonian National Zoo, are raising animals that have gone extinct in the wild, such as the Panamanian golden frog, with plans to eventually reestablish lost populations once they figure out how to control the fungus. 

The Panamanian golden frog. (courtesy Brian Gratwicke)

Such efforts are giving scientists a head start for tackling Bsal, a disease that was first officially described in 2013. Thought to be native to Asia, this fungus arrived in the Netherlands via the pet trade and spread through Europe from there. The disease has not yet been found in North America, but it could be a huge problem if it makes the leap across the Atlantic.

“The threat of the new salamander-eating chytrid fungus is something we should all be very concerned about, because the Appalachian region is the world’s major biodiversity hot spot for salamanders,” says Brian Gratwicke, a conservation biologist at the National Zoo. “We have a responsibility do everything we can to preserve them as an important feature of the continent’s biodiversity.”

The U.S. Geological Survey has developed a rapid-response plan for handling suspicious salamander deaths, and herpetologists would love to see any dead salamanders people find. The National Zoo has also teamed up with a citizen-science project, the Amphibian Survival Alliance, to test pet salamanders for the fungus. In the meantime, researchers are hoping to apply the lessons they are learning about chytrid biology to Bsal.

But for now, the best way to keep U.S. salamanders safe is to keep Bsal out of the country. To that end, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a ban earlier this year on the import and interstate trade of 201 salamander species that could transmit Bsal.

“We know that there’s no treatment,” Lips said, “so it’s pretty obvious that the only thing that is going to give us any amount of time to come up with a solution or treatment … is to keep it out as long as possible.”

A GIS Model Predicting Potential Distributions of a Lineage: A Test Case on Hermit Spiders (Nephilidae: Nephilengys)

Smithsonian Libraries
Background: Although numerous studies model species distributions, these models are almost exclusively on single species, while studies of evolutionary lineages are preferred as they by definition study closely related species with shared history and ecology. Hermit spiders, genus Nephilengys, represent an ecologically important but relatively species-poor lineage with a globally allopatric distribution. Here, we model Nephilengys global habitat suitability based on known localities and four ecological parameters. Methodology/Principal Findings: We geo-referenced 751 localities for the four most studied Nephilengys species: N. cruentata (Africa, New World), N. livida (Madagascar), N. malabarensis (S-SE Asia), and N. papuana (Australasia). For each locality we overlaid four ecological parameters: elevation, annual mean temperature, annual mean precipitation, and land cover. We used linear backward regression within ArcGIS to select two best fit parameters per species model, and ModelBuilder to map areas of high, moderate and low habitat suitability for each species within its directional distribution. For Nephilengys cruentata suitable habitats are mid elevation tropics within Africa (natural range), a large part of Brazil and the Guianas (area of synanthropic spread), and even North Africa, Mediterranean, and Arabia. Nephilengys livida is confined to its known range with suitable habitats being mid-elevation natural and cultivated lands. Nephilengys malabarensis, however, ranges across the Equator throughout Asia where the model predicts many areas of high ecological suitability in the wet tropics. Its directional distribution suggests the species may potentially spread eastwards to New Guinea where the suitable areas of N. malabarensis largely surpass those of the native N. papuana, a species that prefers dry forests of Australian (sub) tropics. Conclusions: Our model is a customizable GIS tool intended to predict current and future potential distributions of globally distributed terrestrial lineages. Its predictive potential may be tested in foreseeing species distribution shifts due to habitat destruction and global climate change.

A Giant Planetary Smashup May Have Turned Venus Hot and Hellish

Smithsonian Magazine

Despite its hellish conditions today, Venus may once have been a welcoming world. It's just a bit smaller than Earth, and if water arrived at both planets the same way, Venus could have once hosted oceans on its surface. At some point, however, its atmosphere took off in a runaway greenhouse effect, and now surface temperatures are hot enough to melt lead.

Planetary scientists have been trying to figure out what happened to poor Venus to trigger this dramatic transformation. Now simulations have offered an intriguing—if still very early—theory: Venus developed its stifling atmosphere following a collision with a Texas-sized object.

Cedric Gillmann of the Royal Observatory of Belgium and his colleagues simulated what would happen if various sized objects crashed into Venus. They found that immediate effects, such as blowing part of the atmosphere into space, made only small changes that the planet could quickly recover from. But a significant impact could have driven changes deep within the mantle that could have changed the geology and atmosphere of the planet over hundreds of millions of years, especially if it occurred when Venus was relatively young.

"There are some periods of time when a large impact can be enough to switch a cool surface to a hot surface and change the history of the planet," Gillmann says.

According to their models, if a spherical object between 500 and 1,000 miles wide hit Venus, energy from the colliding object would have heated the upper mantle enough to melt it. That melted portion would have risen to the surface, spreading into a long, shallow layer just beneath the crust. Water and carbon dioxide within the mantle could then be released to the surface as gases, which could have caused a significant shift in the planet's atmosphere.

If Venus suffered an impact early enough in its lifetime, water released from the mantle could have then been stripped away by the stronger solar wind streaming from a more active young sun, leaving behind a drier planet. With the bulk of the planet's water pulled from the mantle early on, little would be left to become trapped in the atmosphere once solar activity calmed down. The resulting dense atmosphere, rich in carbon dioxide, would help to dramatically heat the planet, the team reports in the April issue of Icarus.

"A large collision is going to affect not just the formation of large craters on the surface, but it may also affect the atmosphere through a range of processes," says Simone Marchi of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, was not involved in the research. "[The new study] focuses on an effect that perhaps has not been fully investigated in the past—what happens precisely to the internal evolution of the planet."

Impacts of objects of this size are rare. According to other studies, bodies roughly the size of the dwarf planet Ceres, which is 590 miles wide, crash into planets approximately once in their lifetime. Larger objects are even rarer.

"No such impacts should have happened in the last 3 billion years or so," Gillmann says. Still, we know that the early solar system went through a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment, when fragments of protoplanets smashed into the rocky worlds near the sun, leaving scores of craters. And there's plenty of evidence Earth suffered a significant collision in its youth. Scientists think that a Mars-sized body slammed into our planet, carving out the material that formed the moon.

So why didn't Earth wind up with a super-greenhouse effect? The colliding object is estimated to be far larger—around 4,000 miles wide. Such a drastic impact would have completely removed and reformed Earth's surface, essentially allowing it to be reset. On Venus, however, the crust would have remained intact, with only a small portion of the mantle allowed to leak out into the planet's atmosphere.

Radar maps of Venus's surface show a world dominated by volcanic structures. (NASA/JPL)

If a massive impact really did scar Venus enough to change its atmosphere, other effects aren't readily apparent. The planet's surface is fairly young, covered up with lava that could have come from an impact or from its once active volcanoes. But there are more indirect clues. The planet has a strangely slow rotation—a day on Venus is longer than its year—and it spins backwards compared to the rest of the planets in the solar system.

Previous studies have suggested that Venus's strange spin could have been caused by a major impact. Still, a significant impactor isn't the only way to heat up the planet's atmosphere. Volcanoes erupting over the course of billions of years could also have funneled carbon dioxide from the mantle to the surface, heating the planet over its history.

Marchi adds that he would like to have seen more detailed estimates on the amounts and composition of the gases removed from the various collisions, factors which would depend on when in the history of the planet an impact occurred.

"This is a very fundamental process not just for Venus, but for all the terrestrial planets," he says.

One of the biggest difficulties in creating more detailed models comes from the fact that we have very little data to work with. While Mars has received a slew of robotic visitors over the past 40 years, Earth's "evil twin" has garnered much less attention.

"At the moment, we simply do not have a lot of information on the history of Venus, which could help us find out evidence of an impact," Gillmann says. "We hope that further missions and observations could find some areas which could be older."

A Male Orca and Its Mother Worked Together to Kill a Newborn Calf

Smithsonian Magazine

A grisly scene unfolded off the coast of Vancouver Island, Canada when a male orca attacked and killed a newborn calf—with help from his mother. As Brandon Specktor reports for Live Science, this is the first recorded case of infanticide among orcas, and the only time that a non-human mother and son have been seen working together to kill an infant.

The incident took place in 2016 and was observed by marine biologists at the research station OrcaLab, who recently described the attack in the journal Scientific Reports. On that fateful day, scientists picked up strange calls on an underwater microphone and set out to investigate. They came across a 28-year-old mother traveling with several of her young, including an infant that was likely only a day old, judging by its visible fetal folds (only apparent a few days after birth) and a dorsal fin that was not yet erect. Lurking behind the family was a 32-year-old male and his 46-year-old mother.

Suddenly, the researchers write in the paper, they saw “erratic movements and splashing suggestive of a predation event.” They also noticed that the baby orca was not surfacing with its mother. When the adult male swam past the researchers’ boat, they could see that he had the calf’s fluke clamped in its mouth, the newborn’s body trailing beneath his jaw.

“We were a bit horrified, but more so I think we were fascinated,” Jared Towers, a cetacean researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, tells Amy B. Wang of the Washington Post. “We knew that it was time to just collect as much data as we could to accurately record our observations.”

The researchers watched as the mother orca tried desperately to save her baby. At one point, she rammed the male so hard that his body undulated and a spray of blood and water flew into the air. But the mother of the male aggressor intervened in the fight, blocking the newborn’s mom from attacking her son. According to a video published on the Facebook page of the BC Killer Whale Research Report, the male and his mother spent the next four hours taking turns pushing and dragging the baby around. Unable to surface for air, the infant ultimately drowned.

Terrestrial species like primates and rodents have been known to commit infanticide, and the behavior has been infrequently observed among dolphins. Scientists have suggested a number of reasons why animals might kill infants of their own species—one of which is cannibalism. But the OrcaLab researchers did not see any signs of feeding, leading them to suspect that the infant was not killed as prey.

It is more likely, they suggest in the paper, that the male was trying to mate with the mother of the newborn calf. As Sarah Gibbens explains in National Geographic, female orcas are unable to breed while they are nursing their offspring. So once the mother stopped lactating, she would have been ready to mate once again.

But why did the male’s mother get involved in the killing? The researchers speculate that she may have been trying to ensure the success of her lineage by helping her son mate. Female orcas and their children can share strong bonds, and have been known to cooperate in predation. In this case, it is possible that mother and son were collaborating to remove an obstacle—the baby orca—that was preventing them from passing on their genes.

“I think we don’t give a lot of animals enough credit for their ability to plan and think ahead,” Towers said in an interview with Gibbens of National Geographic. “[B]ut I think that’s exactly what was happening here.”

A Mystery of Hiding Orchids, Solved

Smithsonian Magazine

Orchids can hide. Members of this diverse family of plants, known for their wildly attractive flowers, have long been recognized for their ability to enter extended periods of dormancy—sometimes for a year or longer. The plants take refuge underground, and with no leaves and no need for photosynthesis, the orchids rely on fungi for the nutrients they need to survive. 

Scientists have long puzzled over what prompts the plants to switch from a state of dormancy and send up shoots. Now, a new study by a group of scientists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, explains how concentrations of certain fungus in the soil cause one North American species of orchid, the small-whorled pogonia, to awaken.

“This is an extremely rare orchid and as rare as it is, it's not as rare as we thought because it spends a lot of time hiding out underground,” says Smithsonian ecologist Melissa McCormick, one of the authors of the paper. “We had done some previous research into orchid mycorrhizal fungi. . . we were interested in whether the abundance of fungi in the soil was affecting not just where they are, but also when they emerge.”

The fungi turned out to be the key. Most orchids form symbiotic partnerships with particular species of fungi in order to survive. Orchid seeds lack the starchy endosperm that helps to feed the new sprouts of many other types of plants. Instead, the seeds depend on mycorrhizal fungus in the soil. They only send a shoot up when it is time to flower and reproduce. The small-whorled pogonia has this relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus in the Russulaceae family.

Smithsonian researcher Melissa McCormick says there is a link between the dormancy period of the small-whorled pogonias and the amount of a specific type of fungus in the soil. (Dennis Whigham)

McCormick analyzed the DNA of soil samples collected immediately adjacent to wild small-whorled pogonias, and used that data to calculate how much Russulaceae hyphae was present in the soil at each site. 

When McCormick and the four other scientists involved with the research compared the abundance of Russulaceae in the soil with the frequency that the dormant pogonias awoke and sent up shoots, they found a clear relationship: Greater populations of the fungus meant that the rare pogonias were more likely to emerge. In other words, more of the right fungus in the soil helps the orchid to come out of dormancy more often.

In the past, without the ability to analyze the DNA of a sample, it wasn't practical to calculate exactly how much of any one fungus was present. Even under a microscope, a lot of fungi look very similar. “In a sample of soil the size of a lima bean you have probably several hundred species of fungus,” McCormick says.

“This fungal aspect of all this work has been known since Darwin's time,” says Dennis Whigham, senior botanist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and a co-author of the study. “But only in recent years have we been able to really go after it and look at the DNA of the fungi to see what they are.”

When fungi come into contact with an orchid root, they form pelotons, or coiled balls, that the orchid uses for nutrients. (Liz Kabanoff)

Some of the showiest orchids from tropical regions have lent the impression that orchids are an exotic, tropical group of plants. But orchids are actually very widespread, even in the United States. “We have over 200 species and they occur in every state,” Whigham says. “About 60 percent of them are in trouble somewhere that they occur.”

The decline of many populations of American orchids prompted Whigham and others to help create the North American Orchid Conservation Center, based out of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The center works with around 50 collaborators to preserve habitats and to bank seeds and samples of mycorrhizal fungi, and conduct studies like this one.

What does the fungus get out of this relationship with the orchid? Probably not much.

“All terrestrial plants on Earth have interactions with fungi,” Whigham says. Those partnerships are called 'mutualistic.' But almost all of the evidence indicates that in a fungi-orchid relationship, the orchid is a very needy partner.

A New Generation of Interplanetary Rovers Is Crawling Toward the Stars

Smithsonian Magazine

The surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s four moons, makes a formidable foe. First off, it's wrapped in a thick rind of ice, torn open into great chasms by Jupiter’s massive gravitational pull. Then there’s the extremely low surface gravity and sheer, slippery ice canyons. But beneath all that ice, Europa is also thought to have an ocean of liquid that might support life—making it a prime target for our next in-depth solar system exploration.  

So how will NASA overcome this treacherous challenge? It certainly can’t send a wheeled rover like Sojourner, which made one giant leap for robotkind when it first traversed Mars’ Ares Valles in 1996. Instead, NASA is looking to do away with those once-revolutionary wheels and reimagine how the next generation of robots will explore asteroids and the frigid outer worlds of the Solar System in the next few decades.

Enter: LEMUR.

Currently weighing in at around 75 pounds, this next-gen rover is a fraction of the size of Mars’ Curiosity, which checks in at nearly a ton. Its size alone stretches the boundaries of robotic ability—but if it’s ever deployed, it will need to do more than that. The pint-sized rover will have to withstand wildly extreme temperatures and magnetic conditions; navigate any surface; and do it long enough to gather meaningful data with some of the lightest, smartest space science instruments ever built.

Is it up to the task?

Three generations of NASA’s Mars rovers from 1997 to 2012, photographed inside the Mars Yard at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif: flight spare for Sojourner (front), Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover (left) and Curiosity test rover (right). (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Admittedly, the robotic LEMUR—an acronym for “limbed excursion mechanical utility robot”—isn’t as cute as the wide-eyed, fluffy tailed species popularized by Dreamworks’ Madagascar. Rather, the robot gets its name from the real mammal’s ambidexterity. Initially intended to be a repair robot for manned moon missions, the rover has been redesigned for microgravity exploration of the vertical and inverted surfaces of canyons and caves.

“[Lemurs] use both their hands and feet for mobility and manipulation,” explains Aaron Parness, extreme environment robotics group leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “Even though our robot doesn’t have distinct arms and legs, it’s similar to a monkey or lemur in that it can use its feet for doing things much more efficiently than humans can.”

To ensure that the robot can move around in even stranger environments than those found on Mars, Parness's group has created what might be called a “chimerobot”: a robot that draws upon the abilities of many different terrestrial animals. With its reaching limbs and paddle-like feet, LEMUR evokes a spider or starfish, using its appendages to creep and cling to sheer surfaces.

The robot’s four limbs are fitted with interchangeable circular “feet,” which can be swapped out for attachments with different functions, Swiss Army knife-style, to help it traverse a variety of surfaces. Rock-climbing feet feature a series of tiny, razor-sharp steel hooks, known as microspines, to grip the rough surfaces of rocks firmly enough for one foot to hold the entire robot’s weight. For smooth surfaces, such as the outer hulls of space stations or satellites, LEMUR adheres itself with gecko-like sticky feet.

Recently, researchers took one of LEMUR’s “hands” to Antarctica to test out a new and potentially crucial attachment: screw-like ice drills. When Parness and his team are ready to test their hardware, they “look for the toughest places we can find,” Parness said. “We have to strike the right balance between having the right environment, but also not being so remote that it’s crazy expensive and impossible to get the team there. Antarctica was on the very edge of that.”

To do so, they called upon Aaron Curtis, a geographer-turned-volcanologist-turned-roboticist who has spent several summers on the far southern continent, crawling around icy tunnels formed by Mount Erebus, Earth’s southernmost active volcano. With average summertime temperatures dipping to -22 degrees Fahrenheit, the volcano, the ice formations it creates, and its standing lava lake represent a fair proxy of conditions a legged rover might encounter on icy moons like Europa or Enceladus.

Aaron Curtis traveled to Antarctica this past December, where he tested robots and instruments designed for icy worlds like Europa. (Nial Peters)

As a research associate with Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory for six of the last seven years, Curtis charted the topography of the ice surrounding the volcano. His particular interests were beneath the surface, in the caves and tunnels melted into the ice by gases escaping the volcano’s fissures. Finding places where the tunnels connected to the outside was sometimes as simple as finding a towering “ice chimney,” meters-high structures formed by escaping gas. Other times that meant finding cave entrances by dropping a snowmobile into an obscured hole in the ground by accident.

After spending four years mapping one cave in 3-D to observe its changes over time, Curtis found himself repeatedly running into the same challenges over and over. First, his team wasn't able to get to certain areas because they were too toxic for human exploration. Second, they feared that their human presence could be inadvertently contaminating the rare environment with introduced microbes. These two concerns led him to consider the utility of robotic explorers.

“If we had a robot that could get around on ice, we could explore microbially sensitive and gas-filled caves,” says Curtis. His own ice-bot tinkering ended up being a good fit for the work already underway on at JPL, which he joined as a roboticist last October.

Microspines, it turns out, tend to just shred ice instead of grip them, since the attachment is designed to squeeze the spines down onto the rock to gain purchase. So Curtis designed an attachment that used tiny drills to dig itself into an icy surface.

The original design became clogged with ice, Curtis says, so he turned to something human ice enthusiasts trust with their lives: off-the-shelf ice screws. They’re hollow, allowing ice to pass through instead of building up behind the drilling end, and would also allow LEMUR to produce and collect ice samples as it creeps slowly along.

The next ice-world tests will likely take place on the glaciers atop Mount Rainier in Washington—with the full LEMUR chassis and not just a disembodied foot attachment. But Parness said that the ability to test out sampling capabilities also underscores another key goal of the entire development process.

“With field testing, we’re always trying to hit two objectives: to demonstrate technologies for future use, but also to do meaningful science at that location,” he says. In other words, not only are LEMUR tests helping us to eventually understand cryovolcanoes on other bodies; “this benefits us on Earth as well," says Parness.

LEMUR gets a workout in Aaron Parness' lab at JPL during a recent test run. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

For more than 35 years, Penelope Boston has sought out microbial life and its indicators in extreme environments, such as in the sulfuric acid-soaked Cueva de Villa Luz in Tabasco, in Mexico. In her former role as director of cave and karst studies at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, where she studied aging and erosion processes of subterranean caves and sinkholes, Boston directed Parness toward locations where his team and LEMUR could learn what to look for, and how to look for it. 

“I’ve helped Aaron’s team understand what the subtle cues might be that could indicate possible microbial or mineral deposits of interest for LEMUR to inspect,” said Boston, who now leads NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, over email.

The menu of possibilities, she added, are patterns left behind in or on rock formations by biological processes, such as textures that show microorganisms have been at work transforming bedrock or mineral deposits. On Earth, such evidence exists in places like Lechugilla Cave in New Mexico, where bacteria that feed on sulfur, iron and manganese are thought to have played a role in shaping the caves and spectacular stone formations there.

Clues left behind by microbial life are usually not so obvious. But by testing out a variety of instruments on both living and fossilized microbial remains, robots like LEMUR can shed more light on how these microbes lived, shaped their environments, and died.

Part of the challenge is making sure the tools are small enough to be mobile. So in addition to testing out the hardware, Parness and his team have been working with university partners to develop miniaturized remote sensing and analysis instruments. The idea is that LEMUR could wear them on its belly or like a backpack, mapping a cave or terrain in 3D with lidar, to gas chromatography, to looking for organics and carbon-rich molecules with a tiny near-infrared spectrometer. 

“[Aaron] Parness’s group is exploring the possibilities of endowing LEMUR with pattern recognition and machine learning to help her see like a human being,” Boston said. “Paleobiology can often be very fine-scale and subtle, and enhanced visual and interpretation capabilities that robots can bring to the table are potentially immensely powerful tools to help us see and understand paleobiology better.”

Aaron Curtis, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL, atop Antarctica's Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on earth. (Dylan Taylor)

Under the proposed federal budget from the White House, funding for the Asteroid Redirect Mission—the program where LEMUR is most likely to be used—would be eliminated. However, Parness and his team have been directed to continue their work on LEMUR. At the end of 2017, Parness will be heading back to the Titus Canyon area of Death Valley, where he's tested  LEMUR before, stopping by lava tubes in New Mexico in the summertime.

There, 500-million-year-old fossilized algae stand in as an analog for potential ancient remains elsewhere—but engineers must make sure LEMUR can see them. “If we’re trying to look for life on cliff walls of Mars or other planets, we should look for oldest traces of life on Earth and test our instruments there,” Parness says. “If we can’t detect life on our own planet, what gives us confidence that we’d be able to find it in an older, harsher sample?”

A Review of Microhydromys (Rodentia: Murinae), with Description of a New Species from Southern New Guinea

Smithsonian Libraries
The murine rodent genus Microhydromys Tate and Archbold, 1941, includes the smallest of the native rodents of New Guinea and is the rarest Australo-Papuan rodent genus preserved in world museums. We discuss the morphological characteristics of Microhydromys and diagnose two species in the genus: M. richardsoni Tate and Archbold, 1941, distributed over northern New Guinea. and M. argenteus, n. sp., recorded from three localities in southern New Guinea. The only other species previously classified in the genus-Microhydromys musseri Flannery, 1989-is reallocated to the genus Pseudohydromys Rummler, 1934. The little available information relating to their biology indicates the species of Microhydromys to be terrestrial inhabitants of foothill and lower montane forest formations and probably naturally rare in those environments.

A Spacecraft Will Follow NASA's Asteroid-Smashing Mission to Measure the Effects of the Impact

Smithsonian Magazine

Statistically speaking, a large space rock will strike Earth one day. If humans are still around when the impact occurs, we may witness the destruction of a city, a nation or a significant portion of terrestrial life. A mission approved by the European Space Agency (ESA) this week is part of the first step in building a planetary defense system to ensure we’re ready if and when an asteroid comes knocking.

The Hera mission is a companion to NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, scheduled to launch in July 2021. The spacecraft will travel for more than a year to the double asteroid Didymos, a 2,560-foot diameter main body orbited by a 525-foot satellite moonlet called Didymos B or Didymoon. DART will slam into the Didymoon, altering the object’s speed by a fraction of one percent. Scientists project the impact will be enough to change its orbit by several minutes. The test mission will help scientists prepare in case humanity ever needs to alter the course of a real asteroid to prevent it from hitting Earth.

While observations from Earth can somewhat assess DART’s success at altering Didymoon’s orbit, a closer vantage point will give a much more detailed picture. That’s where the Hera mission comes in. Mike Wall at Space.com reports the probe will likely launch in 2023 or 2024, taking two years to reach the asteroid. Upon arrival, Hera will circle Didymoon, mapping its surface, measuring its mass and determining the effect of DART on its orbit. In addition, two briefcase-sized CubeSats will land and collect data on the asteroid’s composition and history.

“Simulations of asteroid deflection by impact are only as good as the knowledge we put into them. With Hera and DART, we have the unique opportunity to test our simulations and feed them with new knowledge about the asteroid’s response on impact,” Kai Wunnemann, who studies meteorite impacts and planetary physics at Freie Universitat Berlin said at the conference, reports Space Daily.

Both missions are part of the multi-agency Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA). Originally, Wall reports, the ESA signed onto the AIDA collaboration to build a spacecraft for their Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) scheduled to launch this year, well before DART. The early launch would have allowed AIM to arrive at Didymos B to observe the collision in real time. However, in 2016 Germany pulled funding from its portion of the AIM project, leading the ESA to cancel the mission. NASA, in the meantime, soldiered on with DART, deciding to assess its impact as best it could with terrestrial telescopes.

Last year, the ESA proposed the Hera mission to replace AIM and help collect as much data as possible from the asteroid impact. Earlier this month, in anticipation of an ESA budget meeting that greenlights new projects every three years, scientists around the world began a campaign called “Support Hera.” At a press conference in Berlin last month, organizers released an open letter supporting the $320 million mission signed by 1,200 scientists.

Patrick Michel, the lead scientist for the Hera mission, told Megan Gannon at Space.com that the mission was necessary to get the maximum data from DART. “You need a detective that goes to the crime scene to understand carefully what happened,” he said.

Space agencies have recognized the threat from asteroids for decades. In 1967, a group of MIT students designed a plan to detonate a nuclear bomb near an asteroid to prevent a collision with Earth. Others have suggested building a gravity tractor—a spacecraft that would slowly pull an asteroid off its trajectory over years or decades. But it wasn’t until 2016 that NASA established the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. AIDA is the first attempt to test the defense techniques.

“The probability [of an asteroid impact] is low but the consequences are high,” Michel tells Gannon. “This is why it’s relevant to take care of it. Moreover, we have the tools. … We can’t lose more time. We have studied this for 15 years, so what are we going to do if it doesn’t happen this time? Do more paperwork? Spend more money?”

In a press release from the Europlanet Society, Michel explains that what we know about these space rocks is very limited. For instance, when the Japanese probe Hayabusa2 dropped a projectile on the asteroid Ryugu earlier this year, it made a crater much larger than expected, suggesting the asteroid is very low density and primarily made of loose rock and dust held together by gravity. Such findings can completely alter how researchers approach asteroids that threaten Earth, and scientists hope Hera will help close the knowledge gap.

“Ultimately, very little is known about the behavior of these small bodies during impacts and this could have big consequences for planetary defense,” Michel says.

A Tour of Alpha Centauri

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
In humanity's search for life outside our Solar System, one of the best places to look is Alpha Centauri, a system containing the three nearest stars beyond the Sun. A new study that has involved monitoring of Alpha Centauri for more than a decade by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory provides encouraging news about one key aspect of planetary habitability. It indicates that any planets orbiting the two brightest stars in the Alpha Cen system are likely not being pummeled by large amounts of X-ray radiation from their host stars. Alpha Centauri is a triple star system located just over four light years, or about 25 trillion miles, from Earth. While this is a large distance in terrestrial terms, it is three times closer than the next nearest Sun-like star. The stars in the Alpha Centauri system include a pair called "A" and "B," that we'll call AB, which orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Cen A is a near twin of our Sun in almost every way, including age, while Alpha Cen B is somewhat smaller and dimmer but still quite similar to the Sun. The third member, Alpha Cen C (also known as Proxima), is a much smaller red dwarf star that travels around the AB pair in a much larger orbit that takes it more than 10 thousand times farther from the AB pair than the Earth-Sun distance. Proxima currently holds the title of the nearest star to Earth, although AB is a very close second. The Chandra data reveal that the prospects for life in terms of current X-ray bombardment are actually better around Alpha Cen A than for the Sun, and Alpha Cen B fares only slightly worse. Proxima, on the other hand, is a type of active red dwarf star known to frequently send out dangerous flares of X-ray radiation, and is likely hostile to life.

A global perspective on conserving butterflies and moths and their habitats

Smithsonian Libraries
Lepidoptera are one of the four major insect orders. They are scale-winged insects, traditionally divided into three major assemblages: micro-moths, butterflies and macro-moths. Before discussing practical conservation of Lepidoptera, it is necessary to consider their known rates and causes of change, and whether these are representative of other insect species. The chapter states that declines in Lepidoptera are driven primarily by factors that affect all species, rather than by targeted overcollecting. Butterflies may be useful indicators of habitat change. The chapter suggests that butterflies can be sensitive predictors of the impacts of environmental change on other organisms, as well as useful representatives of less conspicuous terrestrial insects. It comments on how approaches to Lepidoptera conservation differ between regions and land use types, and stresses the importance of adopting a landscape scale allied to a resource-based view, both for single-species and for biotope/community conservation.
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