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World’s oldest forest found in New York state
The 385-million-year-old fossils show that trees evolved modern features millions of years earlier than previously estimated.
- The world's oldest forest fossils were located in an abandoned quarry near Cairo, New York.
- Research of site specimens suggests that the forebearers to modern plants evolved much earlier than expected.
- The findings help scientists better understand how trees advanced life's evolutionary trajectory to land during a critical period.
As card-carrying members of the universe's exclusive Terrestrial Existence Club, we don't give the Devonian period near enough credit. Beginning 416 million years ago, this period of the Paleozoic era blazed the trail toward manufacturing a surface habitable to life.
New plant species evolved that could survive on dry land. The fresh-faced forests drew carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, beginning a process that would drastically refashion the planet's climate. Insects and arachnids proliferated, while early tetrapods flirted with land's safety in the newly-formed wetlands – allowing many animal ancestors to escape the mass extinction event soon to devastate the Earth's oceans.
Flash forward to 2019, researchers in an abandoned quarry near Cairo, New York, have discovered a 385-million-year-old Devonian forest, the world's oldest to date. Their findings, published this month in Current Biology, are helping scientists better understand the enigmatic origins of terrestrial life.
And into the forest science goes
Researchers explore an Archaeopteris root system at the Cairo fossil forest site.
Today, this ancient arboretum exists in the form of fossilized root systems. Slices of prehistoric botany spread horizontally across the ground, with the quarry acting like a giant, stone microscope slide. Some roots measure 15 centimeters in diameter and form 11-meter-wide radial patterns.
"The Cairo site is very special," paleobotanist Christopher Berry, a team member at Cardiff University, told Science. "You are walking through the roots of ancient trees. Standing on the quarry surface, we can reconstruct the living forest around us in our imagination."
After analyzing the root systems, the researchers suggest the presence of three different groups of extinct plants: Eospermatopteris, Archaeopteris, and a currently obscure specimen.
Eospermatopteris was a palm tree-like plant well-represented in the Devonian fossil record. These trees had lofty trunks that crowned into "branchlets"—effectively frond-like groupings of stalks that were photosynthetic yet predated broad, flat leaves. They reproduced by spores and sported a rudimentary root system with a limited range.
Considered an intermediate between land plants and the ancestors to modern ferns and horsetails, Eospermatopteris is plentiful at another fossil forest located nearby, at a quarry near Gilboa, New York. The Gilboa site was the previous record holder for the oldest fossil forest.
A glimpse of the oldest forests takes root
The fossilized remains of the world's oldest fossil forest in the abandoned sandstone quarry.
But the other two root systems are unique to the Cairo site. Archaeopteris shares several characteristics with modern seed plants. These characteristics, many assembled in tandem for the first time in the fossil record, include an upright habit, laminate leaves, endogenous root production, and more contemporary vascular systems.
Archaeopteris's appearance at the Cairo site means the genus took root roughly 20 million years earlier than previous estimates. The discovery helps clarify the enigmatic evolution of trees and forests during the Devonian period, as well as the indelible ripple effect they had on Earth's ecology, geochemical cycles, and atmospheric makeup.
As for the third specimen, it is represented by a single obscure root system. The researchers postulate it may belong to the class Lycopsida, a.k.a. "scale trees." These trees dominated the Late Carboniferous coal swamps, and the oldest fossils date back to the Late Devonian. However, like Archaeopteris, its presence at the Cairo site may push current estimates deeper into prehistory.
"Our findings are perhaps suggestive that these plants were already in the forest, but perhaps in a different environment, earlier than generally believed. Yet we only have a footprint, and we await additional fossil evidence for confirmation," William Stein, the study's first author and an emeritus professor of biological science at Binghamton University, said in a statement.
He added, "It seems to me, worldwide, many of these kinds of environments are preserved in fossil soils. And I'd like to know what happened historically, not just in the Catskills, but everywhere."
Climate change, then and now
When and how trees began evolving modern root and vascular systems, as well as their upright habit, remain a mystery. But Archaeopteris's elongated rooting systems appear identical to trees that would become numerous in the Carboniferous period's vast swamp forests.
As trees evolved these root systems, they began pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into carbonate ions in groundwater. These ions then flowed into the oceans where they were locked away in limestone, preventing them from re-entering the atmosphere. This development added a new wrinkle to Earth's substance turnovers.
Originally, carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere constituted more than 95 percent. Soon after the introduction of vascular plants and forests, these levels began dropping to modern levels. By the Carboniferous, oxygen levels reached an all-time high of 35 percent. Today, they remain at a respectable, and livable, 21 percent. Thanks to vascular plants.
Vascular plants have modified other geological cycles on a planet-wide scale, too. These include deposition and erosion, the physical characteristics of soil, and the cycle of freshwater and various elements.
As Stein noted in the same statement:
The effects were of first order magnitude, in terms of changes in ecosystems, what happens on the Earth's surface and oceans, in global atmosphere, CO₂ concentration in the atmosphere, and global climate. So many dramatic changes occurred at that time as a result of those original forests that basically, the world has never been the same since.
Today, Devonian plants and their Carboniferous progeny are again altering the Earth's climate, but in a way that is making the world less hospitable to life.
After being buried for millions of years, the remains of these giant plants transformed under the heat and pressure to create the large reserves of coal that drove the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the name "Carboniferous" references to the rich coal deposits found in this geologic layer and literally means "coal-bearing."
As we continue to burn these ancient fossil fuels, we release the carbon dioxide they trapped back into the atmosphere, where they heat up our planet by way of an enhanced "greenhouse effect." Ironically, it seems powering our planet with these plants' remains is undoing the hard work the world's first forests endeavored.
- Understanding the core tenets of the flat-Earth hypothesis ›
- Dark Forest theory: Why aliens haven't contacted us - Big Think ›
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
What’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota?
This is a mysterious map. Obviously about music, or more precisely musicians. But what’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota? None of these musicians are from those states! Everyone knows that! Is this map that stupid, or just looking for a fight? Let’s pause a moment and consider our attention spans, shrinking faster than polar ice caps.
Researchers make the case for "deep evidential regression."
- MIT researchers claim that deep learning neural networks need better uncertainty analysis to reduce errors.
- "Deep evidential regression" reduces uncertainty after only one pass on a network, greatly reducing time and memory.
- This could help mitigate problems in medical diagnoses, autonomous driving, and much more.
Credit: scharsfinn86 / Adobe Stock<p>On the road, 1 percent could be the difference between stopping at an intersection or rushing through just as another car runs a stop sign. Amini and colleagues wanted to produce a model that could better detect patterns in giant data sets. They named their solution "deep evidential regression."</p><p>Sorting through billions of parameters is no easy task. Amini's model utilizes uncertainly analysis—learning how much error exists within a model and supplying missing data. This approach in deep learning isn't novel, though it often takes a lot of time and memory. Deep evidential regression estimates uncertainty after only one run of the neural network. According to the team, they can assess uncertainty in both input data <em>and</em> the final decision, after which they can either address the neural network or recognize noise in the input data.</p><p>In real-world terms, this is the difference between trusting an initial medical diagnosis or seeking a second opinion. By arming AI with a built-in detection system for uncertainty, a new level of honesty with data is reached—in this model, with pixels. During a test run, the neural network was given novel images; it was able to detect changes imperceptible to the human eye. Ramini believes this technology can also be used to pinpoint <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jan/13/what-are-deepfakes-and-how-can-you-spot-them" target="_blank">deepfakes</a>, a serious problem we must begin to grapple with.</p><p>Any field that uses machine learning will have to factor in uncertainty awareness, be it medicine, cars, or otherwise. As Amini says, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any user of the method, whether it's a doctor or a person in the passenger seat of a vehicle, needs to be aware of any risk or uncertainty associated with that decision."</p><p>We might not have to worry about alien robots turning on us (yet), but we should be concerned with that new feature we just downloaded into our electric car. There will be many other issues to face with the emergence of AI in our world—and workforce. The safer we can make the transition, the better. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His new book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
Can passenger airships make a triumphantly 'green' comeback?
Large airships were too sensitive to wind gusts and too sluggish to win against aeroplanes. But today, they have a chance to make a spectacular return.
Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.