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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.
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Welcome to the world's newest motorsport: manned multicopter races that exceed speeds of 100 mph.
- Airspeeder is a company that aims to put on high-speed races featuring electric flying vehicles.
- The so-called Speeders are able to fly at speeds of up to 120 mph.
- The motorsport aims to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector, which could usher in the age of air taxis.
Airspeeder, the world's newest motorsport, is set to debut its first race in 2021.
What can you expect to see? Something like a mix between Red Bull's air racing and the pod-racing scenes from "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" — manned electric cars flying close together in the desert at 120 mph, nose-diving off cliffs, and racing over lakes, all while hopefully avoiding collisions.
Airspeeder calls its vehicles flying electric cars, but it's probably easier to think of the wheelless multicopters as car-sized drones. Powered by electric batteries, the carbon-fiber craft use eight propellers to fly, and the tiltable motors are designed to allow pilots to navigate through the course's pylons at high speeds.
To prevent crashes, Airspeeder is working with the companies Acronis and Teknov8 to develop "high-speed collision avoidance" systems for its Speeders.
"As they compete, Speeders will utilise cutting-edge LiDAR and Machine Vision technology to ensure close but safe racing, with defined and digitally governed no-fly areas surrounding spectators and officials," Airspeeder wrote in a blog post.
Beyond motorsports, Airspeeder hopes to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector. This sector is where companies like Uber, Hyundai, and Airbus are working to develop air taxis, which could someday take the ridesharing industry into the skies. By 2040, the autonomous urban aircraft industry could be worth $1.5 trillion, according to a 2019 report from Morgan Stanley.
Still, many technical and regulatory hurdles remain. Matt Pearson, Airspeeder's founder and CEO, thinks the futuristic motorsport will help to not only speed up that process, but also pave the way for self-driving cars.
"Even with autonomous vehicles on the ground, it's a difficult thing to get right because computers have to make decisions very fast," Airspeeder's founder and CEO, Matt Pearson, told GQ." But in a racing environment, you have a pretty controlled course and you have the ability to make all the vehicles cooperate with each other. You have a whole load of vehicles talking to each other, so if there's an incident or a pilot slows down or there's a traffic jam on the course they're all aware of each other. This is something we think will revolutionise autonomous vehicles on the ground. It's technology that will make flying cars a reality in our cities in the future."
Airspeeder has yet to announce a date for the first race, but Pearson said he hopes to put on three races over the first season. The company is developing two courses: one in California's Mojave Desert, and one near Coober Pedy in South Australia.
The way you speak might reveal a lot about you, such as your willingness to engage in casual sex.
- A new study finds a deeper voice is associated with self-reported extraversion, dominance, and casual sex.
- It was the first study on the topic to objectively measure voice pitch.
- The authors suggest that hormones like testosterone might explain their findings.
We make snap decisions about other people based on information that we can gather quickly. One of the many ways that we do this is by making bold conclusions about other people's personalities based on their voices alone. Various studies demonstrate that people associate a deep voice with dominance, but those with higher pitched voices are perceived as nervous or neurotic. Popular culture seems to agree with and reinforce these stereotypes.
Are these perceptions accurate? Maybe. A new study by an international team of researchers with the goal of more accurately determining what our voices reveal about us has demonstrated that there is some connection between how we sound and who we think we are.
The voice-personality connection
Lead author Dr. Julia Stern of the University of Göttingen explained:
"Even if we just hear someone's voice without any visual clues — for instance on the phone — we know pretty soon whether we're talking to a man, a woman, a child, or an older person. We can pick up on whether the person sounds interested, friendly, sad, nervous, or whether they have an attractive voice. We also start to make assumptions about trust and dominance. The first step was to investigate whether voices are, indeed, related to people's personality."
The study included data from 2,000 people from four countries involved in eleven previous independent studies focused on other questions. Each of these studies involved some kind of self-reporting of personality traits and vocal recordings. The recordings were analyzed with Praat, software that determined the frequencies of the participants' speaking voices.
The study is the largest ever conducted on the topic and the first to use an objective measure of pitch rather than subjective rankings such as "high pitched" or "deep." Each participant's vocal pitch was then compared to the self-reported personality data they provided.
The findings associated self-reported levels of dominant tendencies, extroversion, and increased interest in and acceptance of sociosexuality (casual sex or sex outside of a relationship) with a lower pitched voice. This was true for men and women of any age. The findings were in line with the previous, less robust studies on the subject.
Other stereotypes, like if a higher pitched voice hints at neuroticism, openness to new experiences, or agreeableness, were impossible to determine with the data at hand.
Voice isn't everything
It should be remembered that the personality traits that this study associates with vocal pitch are self-reported, so there are some serious limitations. For instance, it is entirely possible that vocal pitch is associated with thinking you're extroverted when you actually aren't. Furthermore, all four countries in the study are WEIRD, so the findings probably cannot be universalized.
Additionally, there are plenty of examples of people for whom the voice-personality link doesn't apply. For example, Teddy Roosevelt, an extremely extroverted, dominating man, had a fairly high pitched voice.
The authors do speculate that there could be a connection between testosterone levels in men, their vocal pitch, and their perceived level of dominance that would be supported by previous studies. However, they have no hypothesis explaining why that same relationship exists for women.
The authors suggest that further studies in this area could focus on finding a possible physical connection between these traits and vocal pitch and to determine if they hold for traits which are not self-reported.
Who needs steroids when you have the placebo effect?
- A study suggests that the effectiveness of sports drinks may depend in part on their color.
- Runners who rinsed with a pink liquid ran better than those who consumed the same but colorless drink.
- Improvement in their performance is likely due to a placebo effect.
The "placebo effect" is real. It's the name for a strange phenomenon that most notably occurs during clinical trials. People who are given an inactive substance, like a sugar pill, often experience the same therapeutic benefit as those who are given actual medicine. It's not their imagination — it really happens. (Even better, recent research suggests that therapeutic benefits occur even when the person knows that they were given a placebo.)
Now, a new study from the University of Westminster (UOW) Centre for Nutraceuticals in London and published in Frontiers in Nutrition suggests that the placebo effect may explain yet another phenomenon: Athletic performance.
The research showed that treadmill runners who rinsed their mouths with a pink liquid increased their performance over runners who swished with exactly the same liquid but without the coloring. Why pink? The color is generally linked to sweetness, and the researchers wondered if that association would subconsciously trick the runners into an expectation of more carbohydrates and thus energy.
Author Sanjoy Deb explains:
"The influence of color on athletic performance has received interest previously, from its effect on a sportsperson's kit to its impact on testosterone and muscular power. Similarly, the role of color in gastronomy has received widespread interest, with research published on how visual cues or color can affect subsequent flavor perception when eating and drinking."
Running for science
Credit: Ryan De Hamer / Unsplash
For the study, the researchers recruited ten healthy adults — six men, four women. All were regular exercisers, with an average age of 30. The participants were told that they would be testing the relative benefits of two commercial sports drinks after watching a brief video explaining the value of such beverages. Previous research found that mid-exercise rinsing with such drinks can reduce the perceived intensity of exercise.
The drinks consisted of 0.12 grams of sucralose dissolved in 500 mL of plain water — an artificially sweetened rinse low in calories. The liquids contained no other additives common to sports drinks such as caffeine. The pink version had non-caloric coloring added but was otherwise identical.
After a 12-minute warmup phase of jogging followed by running, the athletes ran at a difficult pace for 30 minutes, rinsing with their drinks as they ran. Following a brief cool-down, they were interviewed to capture their impressions of the exercise session. (Each runner tested both drinks.)
The researchers found that when the volunteers used the pink rinse, they ran an average of 212 meters farther and 4.4 percent faster. They also enjoyed the exercise more.
Deb said, "The findings from our study combine the art of gastronomy with performance nutrition, as adding a pink colorant to an artificially sweetened solution not only enhanced the perception of sweetness, but also enhanced feelings of pleasure, self-selected running speed, and distance covered during a run."
The researchers also plan to dig deeper into the phenomenon by investigating the possibility that the pinkness of the beverage is somehow directly activating the brain's reward areas.