Mastodons, rhinos, and even camels — all in the great state of California.
- A ranger working for a San Francisco water utility discovers a massive petrified forest and its ancient residents.
- The forest dates from the Miocene era 10 million years ago.
- Mastodons, horses, and rhinoceroses lived there.
As we go about our daily lives, it's easy to forget that the places we find ourselves weren't always the way they are now. While people driving down Highway 163 in Utah's Monument Valley may be awestruck by the towering red rocks, they may not think about what those rocks signify — the floor of an ancient ocean. In some places, history is simply hidden by the passage of time.
In the summer of 2020, Ranger Naturalist Greg Francek suddenly noticed he was standing in the midst of an entire petrified forest. Looking further, he discovered the fossilized remains of some of its ancient inhabitants. It soon became clear that Francek had come across one of the most important fossil sites ever discovered in California.
To protect the site, its exact location has not been revealed beyond its location nestled somewhere near the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills.
One fossil, the another
Credit: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr
Francek was poking around the Mokelumne River Watershed east of San Francisco. He works for the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), which has managed the land around the Pardee and Camanche reservoirs that supply water to 1.4 million people living in San Francisco's East Bay for about a century.
Francek's eye was caught by an anomalous shape in the dirt. Closer examination revealed it was a piece of fossilized wood. "I looked around the area further," he recalled in a statement to EBMUD, "and I found a second tree. And then a third and so on. After finding dozens of trees I realized that what I was looking at was the remains of a petrified forest."
A few weeks later, he says, "I located the first vertebrate fossils. What I didn't comprehend at the time was the amazing fact that I was looking at the bones of great beasts that had roamed this landscape millions of years ago."
Realizing he'd found something significant, Francek reached out to EBMUD, who contacted an environmental consulting firm, who in turn reached out to Chico State's Russell Shapiro, a professor of paleontology and stratigraphy in the Geological and Environmental Sciences Department. Soon, paleontologists and geologists poured into the site, where excavation is ongoing.
Shapiro explains the excitement. "What you hope to find is a tip of a tusk. Not only do we have the tip, but we have the entire thing. And it's just beautiful ivory. It's mind-blowing." He and his students are among those working the site. They describe the process in Chico State Today.
"This new find is highly significant for both the sheer volume and diversity of the fossils," Shapiro told EBMUD. "This was a profound juncture in time when land animals evolved as forestland shifted to grassland."
The great beasts of the petrified forest
Credit: Chico State Today
A wide variety of fossilized remains have been found in the watershed. There are the ancestors of elephants: mastodons and four-tusked gomphotheres. (The last mastodon fossils discovered in California were found in 1947 during construction of a pipeline in Contra Costa County.)
Researchers have also unearthed camel fossils (!) and a massive 400-pound salmon with spiked teeth. Add to the list tapirs, horses, tortoises, and even rhinoceroses. No other site comparable in diversity has ever been found in the Golden State. Shapiro describes the story the fossils tell:
"I can look out and picture a movie reel of the lands changing. Through the trees, I see one group of elephants peek out as another walks by, and then great horses come in."
According to EBMUD, experts hope to find answers to an assortment of intriguing questions as work progresses: "Why are all these fossils in this location? How did they die? What happened and when?"
Unfortunately, we'll have to wait. It will take years to complete the study of the site.
Roughly the size of a thumbnail, this newly discovered toadlet has some anatomical surprises.
- A new species of "pumpkin toadlet" is discovered skittering along the forest floor in Brazil.
- It's highly poisonous and brightly colored, and some if its bones glow under UV light.
- An analysis of the toadlets' chirp song helped scientists establish that it's something new.
It's tiny, just a little bigger than a thumbnail. It's partially fluorescent. It's orange. And it's very poisonous.
Led by herpetologist Ivan Nunes, scientists have reported in the journal PLOS ONE the discovery of a new "pumpkin toadlet" species of the genus Brachycephalus. Found in the Mantiqueira mountain range along Brazil's Atlantic coast, it joins 35 other Brachycephalus species. The newcomer's official name is Brachycephalus rotenbergae, named after Brazilian conservationist Elise Laura K. Rotenberg.
Distinguishing one Brachycephalus species from another isn't straightforward, as there's no telltale identifying mark. Instead, a more holistic profile has to be developed to tell one species from another.
In this case, scientists considered the toad's genes, natural history, gross anatomy (including its skeletal structure), and even its songs. Brachycephalus toadlets emit what's considered an "advertisement call" — as in "Hey, I'm here!" — consisting of long sequences of chirps.
A find on the forest floor
The toadlet was studied on the forest floor in two areas.Credit: Nunes, et al. / PLOS ONE
Between October 2017 and September 2019, 76 field surveys were conducted in Brazil's Atlantic forests as researchers studied B. rotenbergae, whose turf is the forest floor in the São Francisco Xavier Government Protected Area. Among the new species' distinguishing features are a rounded snout and dark spots on its head. Additionally, it's a bit smaller than its similar-looking cousin B. ephippium, and its chirps are not quite like those of any other Brazilian pumpkin toadlet.
Some of the toadlets' bones glow under UV lightCredit: Nunes, et al. / PLOS ONE
When B. rotenbergae is exposed to UV light, some of the bones just underneath their skin emit a green glow. "There's an idea," Nunes tells Smithsonian Magazine, "that fluorescence acts as signals for potential mates, to signal to rival males or some other biological role."
As for the brilliant orange color, it may be one of nature's warnings, a "don't eat me" signal of extreme toxicity. Indeed, other Brachycephalus toadlets have tetrodoxins in their skin, and the researchers suspect this toadlet does, too. (Pufferfish and blue-ringed octopi also carry tetrodoxins.) Ingestion of these neurotoxins can cause a number of progressively nasty things, from a pins-and-needles sensation to convulsions, heart attacks, and even death.
Currently, there is neither an indication that the species is endangered, nor is it especially rare. The only concern the researchers have for the species' survival is the growing population of wild boars in the area. The boars are tearing up the habitat of B. rotenbergae, rooting around for tasty seeds, nuts, acorns, and roots.
However, accidentally gobbling up a toadlet probably would be bad news for the boar.
We're cautiously optimistic about our new findings.
Dark matter, microscopic black holes and hidden dimensions were just some of the possibilities. But aside from the spectacular discovery of the Higgs boson, the project has failed to yield any clues as to what might lie beyond the standard model of particle physics, our current best theory of the micro-cosmos.
So our new paper from LHCb, one of the four giant LHC experiments, is likely to set physicists' hearts beating just a little faster. After analysing trillions of collisions produced over the last decade, we may be seeing evidence of something altogether new – potentially the carrier of a brand new force of nature.
But the excitement is tempered by extreme caution. The standard model has withstood every experimental test thrown at it since it was assembled in the 1970s, so to claim that we're finally seeing something it can't explain requires extraordinary evidence.
The standard model describes nature on the smallest of scales, comprising fundamental particles known as leptons (such as electrons) and quarks (which can come together to form heavier particles such as protons and neutrons) and the forces they interact with.
There are many different kinds of quarks, some of which are unstable and can decay into other particles. The new result relates to an experimental anomaly that was first hinted at in 2014, when LHCb physicists spotted "beauty" quarks decaying in unexpected ways.
Specifically, beauty quarks appeared to be decaying into leptons called "muons" less often than they decayed into electrons. This is strange because the muon is in essence a carbon-copy of the electron, identical in every way except that it's around 200 times heavier.
You would expect beauty quarks to decay into muons just as often as they do to electrons. The only way these decays could happen at different rates is if some never-before-seen particles were getting involved in the decay and tipping the scales against muons.
While the 2014 result was intriguing, it wasn't precise enough to draw a firm conclusion. Since then, a number of other anomalies have appeared in related processes. They have all individually been too subtle for researchers to be confident that they were genuine signs of new physics, but tantalisingly, they all seemed to be pointing in a similar direction.
The big question was whether these anomalies would get stronger as more data was analysed or melt away into nothing. In 2019, LHCb performed the same measurement of beauty quark decay again but with extra data taken in 2015 and 2016. But things weren't much clearer than they'd been five years earlier.
Today's result doubles the existing dataset by adding the sample recorded in 2017 and 2018. To avoid accidentally introducing biases, the data was analysed "blind" – the scientists couldn't see the result until all the procedures used in the measurement had been tested and reviewed.
Mitesh Patel, a particle physicist at Imperial College London and one of the leaders of the experiment, described the excitement he felt when the moment came to look at the result. "I was actually shaking", he said, "I realised this was probably the most exciting thing I've done in my 20 years in particle physics."
When the result came up on the screen, the anomaly was still there – around 85 muon decays for every 100 electron decays, but with a smaller uncertainty than before.
What will excite many physicists is that the uncertainty of the result is now over "three sigma" – scientists' way of saying that there is only around a one in a thousand chance that the result is a random fluke of the data. Conventionally, particle physicists call anything over three sigma "evidence". However, we are still a long way from a confirmed "discovery" or "observation" – that would require five sigma.
Theorists have shown it is possible to explain this anomaly (and others) by recognising the existence of brand new particles that are influencing the ways in which the quarks decays. One possibility is a fundamental particle called a "Z prime" – in essence a carrier of a brand new force of nature. This force would be extremely weak, which is why we haven't seen any signs of it until now, and would interact with electrons and muons differently.
Another option is the hypothetical "leptoquark" – a particle that has the unique ability to decay to quarks and leptons simultaneously and could be part of a larger puzzle that explains why we see the particles that we do in nature.
Interpreting the findings
So have we finally seen evidence of new physics? Well, maybe, maybe not. We do a lot of measurements at the LHC, so you might expect at least some of them to fall this far from the standard model. And we can never totally discount the possibility that there's some bias in our experiment that we haven't properly accounted for, even though this result has been checked extraordinarily thoroughly. Ultimately, the picture will only become clearer with more data. LHCb is currently undergoing a major upgrade to dramatically increase the rate it can record collisions.
Even if the anomaly persists, it will probably only be fully accepted once an independent experiment confirms the results. One exciting possibility is that we might be able to detect the new particles responsible for the effect being created directly in the collisions at the LHC. Meanwhile, the Belle II experiment in Japan should be able to make similar measurements.
What then, could this mean for the future of fundamental physics? If what we are seeing is really the harbinger of some new fundamental particles then it will finally be the breakthrough that physicists have been yearning for for decades.
We will have finally seen a part of the larger picture that lies beyond the standard model, which ultimately could allow us to unravel any number of established mysteries. These include the nature of the invisible dark matter that fills the universe, or the nature of the Higgs boson. It could even help theorists unify the fundamental particles and forces. Or, perhaps best of all, it could be pointing at something we have never even considered.
So, should we be excited? Yes, results like this don't come around very often, the hunt is definitely on. But we should be cautious and humble too; extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Only time and hard work will tell if we have finally seen the first glimmer of what lies beyond our current understanding of particle physics.
Harry Cliff, Particle physicist, University of Cambridge; Konstantinos Alexandros Petridis, Senior lecturer in Particle Physics, University of Bristol, and Paula Alvarez Cartelle, Lecturer of Particle Physics, University of Cambridge
Researchers find that the coffee pulp is valuable in its own right.
The coffee beans that keep us going don't grow on the vine in bean form. They grow as coffee "cherries," skin and pulp inside of which resides the precious beans. Before coffee beans can be fermented in water as many are, the cherries pass through a machine that extracts the bean from the skin and pulp. Miraculous as coffee beans are, new research suggests that their typically discarded pulp is even more amazing. It can restore tropical forests.
Researchers from ETH-Zurich and the University of Hawaii have found that this waste from coffee manufacturing is a fantastic growing agent after testing it out on some agriculturally depleted land in Costa Rica.
"The results were dramatic," reports lead author of the study Rebecca Cole. "The area treated with a thick layer of coffee pulp turned into a small forest in only two years while the control plot remained dominated by non-native pasture grasses."
Coffee pulp arrivesCredit: Rebecca Cole/British Ecological Society
The researchers delivered 30 dump trucks full of coffee pulp to a 35- by 40-meter parcel on Reserva Biológica Sabalito in Costa Rica's Coto Brus county. The land, previously part of a coffee plantation, is in the process of being reforested.
Starting in the 1950s, Costa Rica experienced rapid deforestation followed by coffee-growing and farming that resulted in a 25% loss of its natural forest cover by 2014.
Before spreading out the coffee pulp into a half-meter-thick layer for their test, the researchers measured the nutrients in the soil. They also catalogued the species living nearby, and made note of the size of woody stems present. The amount of forest ground cover was recorded, and drones were sent aloft to capture the amount of canopy cover.
Reforestation in the blink of an eye
(A) Coffee pulp layer; (B) control area after two years; (C) coffee pulp area after two years; (D) overhead view of canopy in control area, above the red line, and the coffee-pulp area, below the red lineCredits: A, B, and C: R. Cole. D: credit R. Zahawi/British Ecological Society
At the end of the two years, the control area had grown forest covering over 20% of its area. In contrast, 80% of the coffee-pulp section was canopied by trees, and these trees were four times the height of those in the control parcel.
The researchers analyzed the nutrients available in the soil and found significantly elevated levels of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous, all vital agricultural nutrients. Curiously, potassium, also important for growth, was lower in the coffee-pulp area than in the control section.
The researchers also found that the coffee pulp eliminated invasive pasture grasses that inhibit reforestation. Their removal facilitated the reemergence of tree species whose seeds were introduced by wind or animal dispersal.
A much-needed growth agent
According to Cole, "This case study suggests that agricultural by-products can be used to speed up forest recovery on degraded tropical lands. In situations where processing these by-products incurs a cost to agricultural industries, using them for restoration to meet global reforestation objectives can represent a 'win-win' scenario."
Promising as coffee pulp may be, Cole cautions: "This study was done at only one large site, so more testing is needed to see if this strategy works across a broader range of conditions. The measurements we share are only from the first two years. Longer-term monitoring would show how the coffee pulp affected soil and vegetation over time. Additional testing can also assess whether there are any undesirable effects from the coffee pulp application."
In addition, she notes, the experiment only documents the value of coffee pulp on flat land when delivery of the substance by truck is fairly simple. "We would like," Cole says, "to scale up the study by testing this method across a variety of degraded sites in the landscape."
Just as exciting is the possibility that other such agricultural waste products may be good for reforesting depleted areas. Cole mentions orange husks as a material worthy of investigation.
"We hope," Cole concludes, "our study is a jumping off point for other researchers and industries to take a look at how they might make their production more efficient by creating links to the global restoration movement."
Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago find that death triggers increased activity in certain brain cells.
As bioethicist L. Syd M Johnson of SUNY-Upstate Medical University tells Big Think, "Death is not an event — it's a process." It's not as if there's a big on/off switch that gets flipped. It takes a while for a body's systems to wind down and eventually cease functioning.
Now a new study from researchers at University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) reports that gene expression within certain brain cells actually kicks into high gear when we die. "Most studies assume that everything in the brain stops when the heart stops beating, but this is not so," says the study's corresponding author Jeffrey Loeb, the John S. Garvin Professor and head of neurology and rehabilitation at the UIC's College of Medicine.
The study was recently published in Scientific Reports.
A brain brain-teaser
Loeb and his colleagues discovered the puzzling phenomenon when examining brain tissue they'd collected in surgery. The gene expressions they were seeing didn't match up with any published reports of such cells from people with or without neurological disorders.
"We decided to run a simulated death experiment by looking at the expression of all human genes, at time points from 0 to 24 hours, from a large block of recently collected brain tissues, which were allowed to sit at room temperature to replicate the postmortem interval," Loeb tells UIC Today.
Loeb's team is uniquely qualified to conduct such an experiment since Loeb is director of brain-tissue bank, the UI NeuroRepository. The bank collects brain tissue, with permission, from people with neurological disorders for research purposes. In addition, epileptic brain tissue, for example, is collected for pathological diagnoses in the hopes of reducing or eliminating seizures. Brain tissue not required for resolving donors' medical issues remains available for research.
Credit: Evgeniy Kalinovskiy/Adobe Stock
Brain tissue after death
The team found that brain tissue behaved in one of three different ways "post-mortem."
Most of the genes in the brain tissue, 80 percent of them, did nothing, remaining essentially stable throughout the 24-hour test period. These genes were predominantly "housekeeping" genes that handled basic cellular functions.
The second group were genes known to be involved in activities such as memory and thinking. They're also implicated in seizure events and are important in schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease research. These genes degraded rapidly once the test period began.
The third group, the "zombie" genes, were found in glial cells involved in inflammation during life. The activity of these genes was inversely proportional to the rapidly fading second group. During the test period, the zombie cells grew and sprouted long arm-like appendages for hours.
Says Loeb, "That glial cells enlarge after death isn't too surprising given that they are inflammatory and their job is to clean things up after brain injuries like oxygen deprivation or stroke."
Progress of glial cells in hours after simulated death
Credit: Dachet et el./scientific reports
Why this matters, aside from being weird
There's a great deal of research that involves post-mortem brain tissue, and the revelation that their states are not necessarily static at death changes things a bit.
"Our findings don't mean that we should throw away human tissue research programs," says Loeb. "It just means that researchers need to take into account these genetic and cellular changes, and reduce the post-mortem interval as much as possible to reduce the magnitude of these changes."
He adds, "The good news from our findings is that we now know which genes and cell types are stable, which degrade, and which increase over time so that results from postmortem brain studies can be better understood."
The discovery of the zombie genes is sort of bizarre, but it can lead to better research going forward. As Loeb says, "Our findings will be needed to interpret research on human brain tissues. We just haven't quantified these changes until now."