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Spotted skunks are small, sneaky and exceedingly cute — and they stand on their hands before spraying you with their butts.
And now scientists say the little critters are a lot more genetically diverse than they appear at first glance.
While similar in appearance, spotted skunks are, in fact, made up of seven unique species, according to a new study published in the the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.
“We didn’t know before, and I think the best line is you can’t conserve or protect what we don’t know,” Adam Ferguson, an evolutionary ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.
If there’s anyone who wants to protect the skunks, it’s Ferguson. He’s been studying the stinky creatures for years and has handled literally hundreds of them. His wife Molly McDonough — also a scientist and co-author on the study — calls him “the skunk wrassler.”
“I’ve only been sprayed about five or six times, so that’s a pretty good ratio,” he said.
Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to avoid getting sprayed by a spotted skunk. Ferguson says tiny nocturnal predators are “very acrobatic,” and they use their gymnast-like skills to give anyone who comes too close a fair warning of what’s to come.
“They do the handstand as a warning to basically remind you — as if the black and white colouration wasn’t enough — that: ‘I have this weapon. I’m not afraid to use it. Leave me alone,” Ferguson said.
In fact, he says, all skunk species have warning mechanisms before they spray. The classic striped skunk slides forward and back and puffs up its tail, while the hog-nosed skunk stomps up and down and lets out a mean hiss.
“But the spotted skunks are kind of taking it to the extreme with the handstand, and they’re actually quite capable of walking, you know, forward and backwards in that handstand position.”
Despite their unique patterns and acrobatic antics, people don’t encounter spotted skunks nearly as often as their striped counterparts.
That’s because they’re nocturnal and prefer to spend their waking hours in densely forested areas, hidden from the owls that hunt them for dinner.
“They’re kind of sneaky,” Ferguson said. “And so it’s not that they’re necessarily rare. They’re just rarely encountered unless you learn about their behaviour and where to find them.”
That’s why scientists are just now figuring out how many species of spotted skunks exist. There’s long been debate and speculation about it, but the wily critters are hard to catch, so the available data has been limited.
Ferguson and his colleagues gathered DNA samples from far and wide for their study, using both decades-old remains collected at museums around the world, and fresh samples collected in the field from living skunks.
They say the discovery brings the net total of skunk species worldwide to 14. That information is key for those who want to study, and help conserve, the animals.
“Skunks are valuable to us as a species in terms of their ecosystem services and contributions. And then there’s also, I would say, the intrinsic argument that, you know, all lifeforms have the intrinsic right to life and to live and evolve and respond to the environment,” Ferguson said.
While he loves his work, he admits the research was not without its foibles.
“During this study, I got indirectly sprayed by one spotted skunk we caught in the trap. The skunks are usually pretty calm. If you walk up to them, you can take a blanket or a towel and move very slowly and cover the trap, and they don’t spray. But this one just decided to spray under the blanket,” he said.
“And I get this question a lot — I personally think the spotted skunk smells the most potent and worse than the other two.”
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.
Fossilized footprints discovered in New Mexico indicate that early humans were walking across North America around 23,000 years ago, researchers reported Thursday.
The first footprints were found in a dry lake bed in White Sands National Park in 2009. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey recently analyzed seeds stuck in the footprints to determine their approximate age, ranging from around 22,800 and 21,130 years ago.
The findings may shed light on a mystery that has long intrigued scientists: When did people first arrive in the Americas, after dispersing from Africa and Asia?
Most scientists believe ancient migration came by way of a now-submerged land bridge that connected Asia to Alaska. Based on various evidence — including stone tools, fossil bones and genetic analysis — other researchers have offered a range of possible dates for human arrival in the Americas, from 13,000 to 26,000 years ago or more.
The current study provides a more solid baseline for when humans definitely were in North America, although they could have arrived even earlier, the authors say. Fossil footprints are more indisputable and direct evidence than “cultural artifacts, modified bones, or other more conventional fossils,” they wrote in the journal Science, which published the study Thursday.
“What we present here is evidence of a firm time and location,” they said.
Based on the size of the footprints, researchers believe that at least some were made by children and teenagers who lived during the last ice age.
David Bustos, the park’s resource program manager, spotted the first footprints in ancient wetlands in 2009. He and others found more in the park over the years.
“We knew they were old, but we had no way to date the prints before we discovered some with (seeds) on top,” he said Thursday.
Made of fine silt and clay, the footprints are fragile, so the researchers had to work quickly to gather samples, Bustos said.
“The only way we can save them is to record them — to take a lot of photos and make 3D models,” he said.
Earlier excavations in White Sands National Park have uncovered fossilized tracks left by a saber-toothed cat, dire wolf, Columbian mammoth and other ice age animals.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Tampa, Florida (WFLA) — SpaceX made history on Wednesday night when it launched the world’s first all-civil mission to get going from the Space Coast, Florida.
The Inspiration4 mission took off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center around 8:03 pm on Wednesday. The four crew members on the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft were launched onto a reusable Falcon 9 rocket and later separated from the spacecraft and landed on the drone.
The mission’s five-hour launch window began at 8:02 EST. The window was very large, as the crew was sent to orbit the Earth rather than the International Space Station, and therefore did not have such strict time constraints.
The crew is set to travel 350 miles above the surface of the Earth, about 100 miles higher than the International Space Station.
“This is important and historic, because it’s the best time humans have been in orbit since the Hubble Space Telescope mission,” said Benjireed, SpaceX’s manned spaceflight director.
The crew will spend three days in orbit to participate in research experiments on human health and performance. We hope that the results of our research will apply not only to future space flight, but also to human health here on Earth.
Inspiration4’s main goal is to provide and inspire support for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. They want to raise $ 200 million for St. Jude in a three-day mission.
According to SpaceX, each of the four members of the crew was chosen to represent the pillars of a mission of prosperity, generosity, hope and leadership. The Inspiration 4 crew and the pillars they represent are:
SpaceX trained all four crew members as commercial astronauts on Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft. The crew was trained in orbital mechanics, microgravity, weightlessness, other stress tests, emergency preparedness, and spacesuit training.
The mission was funded by Isaacman in a private transaction with SpaceX. Isaacman has also invested $ 100 million towards a funding target for the St. Jude mission.
Inspiration4 Lift Off: SpaceX Launches World’s First All-Citizen Mission in Earth’s Orbit
Source link Inspiration4 Lift Off: SpaceX Launches World’s First All-Citizen Mission in Earth’s Orbit
Researchers have created a winged microchip around the size of a sand grain that may be the smallest flying device yet made, Vice has reported. They’re designed to be carried around by the wind and could be used in numerous applications including disease and air pollution tracking, according to a paper published by Nature. At the same time, they could be made from biodegradable materials to prevent environmental contamination.
The design of the flyers was inspired by spinning seeds from cottonwood and other trees. Those fall slowly by spinning like helicopters so they can be picked up by the wind and spread a long distance from the tree, increasing the range of the species.
The team from Northwest University ran with that idea but made it better, and smaller. “We think we’ve beaten biology… we’ve been able to build structures that fall in a more stable trajectory at slower terminal velocities than equivalent seeds,” said lead Professor John A. Rogers. “The other thing… was that we were able to make these helicopter flyer structures that are much smaller than seeds you would see in the natural world.”
They’re not so small that the aerodynamics starts to break down, though. “All of the advantages of the helicopter design begin to disappear below a certain length scale, so we pushed it all the way, as far as you can go or as physics would allow,” Rogers told Vice. “Below that size scale, everything looks and falls like a sphere.”
The devices are also large enough to carry electronics, sensors and power sources. The team tested multiple versions that could carry payloads like antenna so that they could wireless communicate with a smartphone or each other. Other sensors could monitor things like air acidity, water quality and solar radiation.
The flyers are still concepts right now and not ready to deploy into the atmosphere, but the team plans to expand their findings with different designs. Key to that is the use of biodegradable materials so they wouldn’t persist in the environment.
“We don’t think about these devices… as a permanent monitoring componentry but rather temporary ones that are addressing a particular need that’s of finite time duration,” Rogers said. “That’s the way that we’re envisioning things currently: you monitor for a month and then the devices die out, dissolve, and disappear, and maybe you have to redeploy them.”
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