NEW YORK (AP) — A new study suggests Neanderthals formed small, tightknit communities where females may have traveled to move in with their mates.
The research used genetic sleuthing to offer a rare snapshot of Neanderthal family dynamics — including a father and his teenage daughter who lived together in Siberia more than 50,000 years ago.
Researchers were able to pull DNA out of tiny bone fragments found in two Russian caves. In their study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, they used the genetic data to map out relationships between 13 different Neanderthals and get clues to how they lived.
“When I work on a bone or two, it’s very easy to forget that these are actually people with their own lives and stories,” said study author Bence Viola, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto. “Figuring out how they’re related to each other really makes them much more human.”
Our ancient cousins, the Neanderthals, lived across Europe and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years. They died out around 40,000 years ago, shortly after our species, the Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe from Africa.
Scientists have only recently been able to dig around in these early humans’ DNA. New Nobel laureate Svante Paabo — who is an author on this latest study — published the first draft of a Neanderthal genome a little over a decade ago.
Since then, scientists have sequenced 18 Neanderthal genomes, said lead author Laurits Skov, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. But it’s rare to find bones from multiple Neanderthals from the same time and place, he said — which is why these cave discoveries were so special.
“If there was ever a chance to find a Neanderthal community, this would be it,” Skov said.
The caves, located in remote foothills above a river valley, have been a rich source of materials from stone tools to fossil fragments, Viola said. With their prime view of migrating herds in the valley below, researchers think the caves might have served as a short-term hunting stop for Neanderthals.
Archaeologists excavating the caves have found remains from at least a dozen different Neanderthals, Viola said. These remains usually come in small bits and pieces — “a finger bone here, a tooth there” — but they’re enough for scientists to extract valuable DNA details.
The researchers were able to identify a couple of relatives among the group. Along with the father and daughter, there was a pair of other relatives — maybe a boy and his aunt, or a couple of cousins.
Overall, the analysis found that everyone in the group had a lot of DNA in common. That suggests that at least in this area, Neanderthals lived in very small communities of 10 to 20 individuals, the authors concluded.
But not everyone in these groups stayed put, according to the study.
Researchers looked at other genetic clues from mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down on the mother’s side, and the Y chromosome, which is passed down on the father’s side.
The female side showed more genetic differences than the male side — which means females may have moved around more, Skov said. It’s possible that when a female Neanderthal found a mate, she would leave home to live with his family.
University of Wisconsin anthropologist John Hawks, who was not involved in the study, said the research was an exciting application of ancient DNA evidence, even as many questions remain about Neanderthal social structures and lifestyles.
Figuring out how early humans lived is like “putting together a puzzle where we have many, many missing pieces,” Hawks said. But this study means “somebody’s dumped a bunch more pieces on the table.”
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
By Looking Back Through Hubble Data, Astronomers Have Identified six Massive Stars Before They Exploded as Core-Collapse Supernovae – Universe Today
The venerable Hubble Space Telescope has given us so much during the history of its service (32 years, 7 months, 6 days, and counting!) Even after all these years, the versatile and sophisticated observatory is still pulling its weight alongside more recent addition, like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and other members of NASA’s Great Observatories family. In addition to how it is still conducting observation campaigns, astronomers and astrophysicists are combing through the volumes of data Hubble accumulated over the years to find even more hidden gems.
A team led by Caltech’s recently made some very interesting finds in the Hubble archives, where they observed the sites of six supernovae to learn more about their progenitor stars. Their observations were part of the Hubble Space Telescope Snapshot program, where astronomers use HST images to chart the life cycle and evolution of stars, galaxies, and other celestial objects. From this, they were able to place constraints on the size, mass, and other key characteristics of the progenitor stars and what they experienced before experiencing core collapse.
The team was led by Dr. Schuyler D. Van Dyk, a senior research scientist with Caltech’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC). His teammates included researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, the University of Hawai’i’s Institute for Astronomy, and the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. Their findings were published in a paper titled “The disappearance of six supernova progenitors” that will appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
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As they indicate in their paper, the targets of their study were all nearby core-collapse supernovae (SNe) that Hubble imaged at high spatial resolutions. The images were part of the Hubble Snapshot program, created by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) to provide a large sample of images for various targets. Every target is observed in a single orbit of Hubble around the Earth between other observation programs, allowing a degree of flexibility that is not possible with other observatories.
For their study, Van Dyk and his colleagues examined images of six extragalactic supernovae before and after they exploded – designated SN 2012A, SN 2013ej, SN 2016gkg, SN 2017eaw, SN 2018zd, and SN 2018aoq. With extragalactic targets, astronomers have difficulty knowing if the stars they identified were progenitors to the supernova, given the distance involved. As Van Dyk to Universe Today via email, the only way to be sure is to wait for the supernova to dim, then confirm that the progenitor star has disappeared:
“Since the supernova explosion is so luminous, we have to wait a number of years until it has faded enough that it is less luminous than was the progenitor. In a few of the cases we show in our paper, there is little question that the star that was there pre-explosion is now gone. In the other cases, we’re reasonably sure, but the supernova is still detectable and is just faint enough for us to infer that the progenitor has vanished. “
In a previous study, Van Dyk and several colleagues who were co-authors of this study investigated another supernova (iPTF13bvn) whose progenitor star disappeared. In this case, the research team relied on data obtained by Hubble of the SN site – as part of the Ultraviolet Ultra Deep Field (UVUDF) campaign – roughly 740 days after the star exploded. In 2013, Van Dyk led a study that used images from an earlier Snapshot program to confirm that the progenitor of SN 2011dh in the Whirlpool Galaxy (Messier 51) had disappeared.
These and other papers over the years have shown that progenitor candidates can be directly identified from pre-explosion images. In this most recent study, Van Dyk and his colleagues observed supernovae in the later stages of their evolution to learn what mechanisms are powering them. In many cases, the mechanism is the decay of radioactive nuclei (in particular, radioactive nickel, cobalt, and iron) that were synthesized by the enormous energy of the explosion. But as he explained, they suspected that other mechanisms might be involved:
“However, we have indications that some supernovae inevitably have additional power sources — one possibility is that the light of the supernova has been scattered by interstellar dust immediate to the explosion, in the form of a ‘light echo’; another more likely possibility is that the shockwave associated with the explosion is interacting with gas that was deposited around the progenitor star by the star itself during the course of the star’s life, in the form of wind or outburst, that is, circumstellar matter. The ejecta from the explosion moving through and interacting with this circumstellar matter can result in luminous energy that can persist for years, even for decades.”
In short, the team was trying to estimate how many of the supernovae they observed evolved through radioactive decay versus more exotic powering mechanisms. Their results showed that SN 2012A, SN 2018zd, and SN 2018aoq had faded to the point where they were no longer detectable in the Hubble Snapshot images, whereas SN 2013ej, SN 2016gkg, and SN 2017eaw had faded just enough. Therefore, they could infer in all six cases that the progenitors had disappeared. However, not all were the result of a single massive star undergoing core collapse.
In the case of SN 2016gkg, the images acquired by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) were of much higher spatial resolution and sensitivity than the images of the host galaxy, previously taken by the now-retired WFC2. This allowed them to theorize that SN 2016gkg was not the result of a single core-collapse supernova but a progenitor star interacting with a neighboring star. Said Van Dyk:
“So, in the old image, the progenitor looked like one “star,” whereas in the new images, we could see that the progenitor had to have been spatially distinct from the neighboring star. Therefore, we were able to obtain a better estimate of the progenitor’s luminosity and color, now uncontaminated by the neighbor, and from that, we were able to make some new inferences about the overall properties of the progenitor, or, in this case, progenitor system, since we characterized the new results using existing models of binary star systems.”
Specifically, they determined that the progenitor belonged to the class of “stripped-envelope” supernovae (SESNe), in which the outer hydrogen H-rich envelope of the progenitor star has been significantly or entirely removed. They further estimated that the progenitor was the primary and its companion was likely a main sequence star. They even placed constraints on their respective masses before the explosion (4.6 and 17–20.5 solar masses, respectively).
After consulting images taken around the same time by another Snapshot program, they also noticed something interesting about SN 2017eaw. These images indicated that this supernova was especially luminous in the UV band (an “ultraviolet excess”). By combining these images with their data, Va Dyk and his team speculated that SN 2017eaw had an excess of light in the UV at the time it was observed, which was likely caused by interaction between the supernova shock and the circumstellar medium around that progenitor.
The team also noted that the dust created by a supernova explosion is a complicating factor due to how it cools as it expands outward. This dust, said Van Dyk, can obscure light from distant sources and lead to complications with the observations:
“The caveat here, then, is that the star that we saw pre-explosion might not be the progenitor at all, for instance and — again, because of the distances to the host galaxies — that star is within fractions of a pixel of the actual progenitor (physically, in the immediate neighborhood of the progenitor), such that, if the supernova has made dust, that dust is effectively blanketing both the supernova and that neighboring star. This is possible, but not inordinately likely. And it becomes a harder argument to make in those few cases where nothing is seen at the supernova position years later — as we point out in the paper, that would require enormous amounts of dust, which is likely physically not possible.”
Tracing the origins of supernovae is one of the many ways astronomers can learn more about the life cycle of stars. With improved instruments, data collection, and flexibility, they are able to reveal more about how our Universe evolved and will continue to change over time.
Further Reading: arXiv
Clamshells Face the Acid Test
It’s low tide in Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, California, and Hannah Hensel is squishing through thick mud, on the hunt for clams. The hinged mollusks are everywhere, burrowed into the sediment, filtering seawater to feed on plankton. But Hensel isn’t looking for living bivalves—she’s searching the mudflat for the shells of dead clams.
“I did lose a boot or two,” she recalls. “You can get sunk into it pretty deep.”
Hensel, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis, is studying shells, which are composed of acid-buffering calcium carbonate, as a tool that could one day help shelled species survive in the world’s rapidly acidifying oceans.
The inspiration for Hensel’s research comes from Indigenous sea gardening practices. On beaches from Alaska to Washington State, First Nations and tribal communities built rock-walled terraces in the intertidal zone to bolster populations of shellfish and other invertebrates. Although these sea gardens have not been documented farther south, clams were also vital sustenance in central California. Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo people harvested clams for food and shaped shells into bead money, says Tsim Schneider, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. “So taking care of your clam beds was actually kind of protecting your vault, your bank,” says Schneider.
In the sea gardens of the Pacific Northwest, caretakers crushed the shells of harvested clams and mixed the fragments back into the beach. Recent research has shown multiple positive effects of this broken shell “hash,” from opening spaces in the sediment so young clams can more easily burrow and grow, to releasing chemical cues that encourage larval clams to settle nearby.
This millennia-old practice may hold the key to addressing a new crisis. As humans burn fossil fuels, oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making seawater more acidic. At lower pH levels, clams and other shellfish struggle to build shells. As their protective structures weaken and dissolve, the animals become vulnerable to damage and predation. But studies suggest that adding shell fragments to clam beds could release carbonate into the water, potentially neutralizing acidity caused by the greenhouse gas.
To find out whether shell hash could help California’s clams survive increasingly acidic conditions, Hensel brought shells from the tidal flat back to the lab, where she crushed them with a mortar and pestle and mixed the fragments into four plastic buckets of sand. Hensel filled these buckets, and four others containing sand alone, with local seawater and added the pinky nail–sized progeny of Pacific littleneck clams collected from Bodega Bay. She bubbled carbon dioxide through the seawater in half of the buckets to increase acidity. With their delicate shells, young clams are thought to be especially vulnerable to acidification.
After 90 days, Hensel dug up all the clams. Comparing the buckets containing more acidic seawater, she observed that the bivalves burrowed in shell hash had grown bigger than the clams in sand alone. Strangely, though, the larger clams were not heavier, and Hensel plans to cross-section the shells to assess whether the new growth was thinner or less dense.
The results inform researchers that shell hash does have a buffering effect under certain conditions, says Leah Bendell, a marine ecologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who was not involved in the study. “It was a well-done lab experiment.”
Bendell also studies the buffering power of shell hash. Working with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Bendell and graduate student Bridget Doyle added shell fragments to clam beds in Burrard Inlet, near Vancouver, British Columbia. In that study, hash reduced pH fluctuations in seawater seeping through the sediment, which can vary markedly with rising and falling tides. Although the reduction was limited to areas with coarse sediments, and the hash did not reduce the overall pH, Bendell sees the results as a hint of something promising. Given a longer period of time, shell hash could have a greater effect on pH in certain clam beds, she says.
Shell hash may not be a panacea for ocean acidification everywhere, but Bendell and Hensel are slowly piecing together how carbonate might help individual beaches weather caustic conditions. Next summer, when Hensel begins adding shell hash to Bodega Bay’s clam beds, she will incorporate another element of traditional sea gardening. Indigenous caretakers regularly tilled clam beds, loosening the sediment and mixing in shell fragments. This repeated digging could bring oxygen to burrowed clams, open more space in the sediments, and alter seawater chemistry, Hensel says, and she plans to measure how the physical process affects both seawater chemistry and clam growth.
Schneider is hopeful that Hensel’s work will improve the health of his community’s clam beds, and the two researchers are discussing ways to involve the Indigenous communities around Bodega Bay. “I think it would just be really rewarding to see community members from my tribe having opportunities to be back out on the landscape to interact with traditional resources in the ways that our ancestors did,” Schneider says.
Australia begins construction of its section of giant radio telescope
Construction has got underway in Australia and South Africa of a network of antennas which, when complete, together will form the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
The giant cross-continental telescope is expected to produce scientific results that will change our understanding of the universe.
Both South Africa and Australia have huge expanses of land in remote areas with little radio disturbance which is ideal for this kind of installation.
The idea for the telescope was first conceived in the early 1990s, but the project was plagued by delays, funding issues, and diplomatic jockeying.
The SKA is headquartered in the United Kingdom and has 14 members: Britain, Australia, South Africa, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and The Netherlands.
The director general of the Square Kilometre Array Organisation, Philip Diamond, has described the beginning of its construction as ‘momentous’ saying it will be ‘one of humanity’s biggest-ever scientific endeavours’.
More than 130,000 Christmas tree-shaped antennas are planned in Western Australia, to be built on the traditional lands of the Wajarri Aboriginal people. In South Africa, the site will feature nearly 200 dishes in the remote Karoo region.
The large distances between the antennas, and their sheer number, mean that the telescope will pick up radio signals with unprecedented sensitivity as the SKA probes targets in the sky.
‘The two complementary telescopes will be the ears on either side of the planet, allowing us to listen to those murmurings from the deep universe which are driving such excitement in both science and deepen our understanding of the universe in which we live and the origins of life,’ says George Freeman, Britain’s Minister of State for Science, Research and Innovation.
Construction of the SKA is due to be completed in 2028.
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