The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.
- The 'Monkeydactly', or Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, was a species of pterosaur, a group of flying reptiles that were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
- In a recent study, a team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning to analyze the anatomy of the newly discovered species, finding that it was the first known species to develop opposable thumbs.
- As highly specialized dinosaurs, pterosaurs boasted unusual anatomy that gave them special advantages as aerial predators in the Mesozoic Era.
A newly discovered flying dinosaur nicknamed "Monkeydactyl" is the oldest known creature that evolved opposable thumbs, according to new research published in Current Biology.
The 160-million-year-old reptile is officially named Kunpengopterus antipollicatus. Discovered in China, the dinosaur was a darwinopteran pterosaur, a subgroup of pterosaurs, which first appeared 215 million years ago during the Triassic Period. Pterosaurs, like the pterodactyl, were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
But unlike other pterosaurs, the Monkeydactyl was the only species in its group known to have opposable thumbs. It's a rare adaptation for non-mammals: The only extant examples are chameleons and some species of tree frogs. (Most birds have at least one opposable digit, though that digit is usually classified as a hallux, not a pollex, which means "thumb" in Latin.)
To analyze the anatomy of K. antipollicatus, an international team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning, which generates images of the inside of the body.
"The fingers of 'Monkeydactyl' are tiny and partly embedded in the slab," study co-author Fion Waisum Ma said in a press release. "Thanks to micro-CT scanning, we could see through the rocks, create digital models, and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones."
"This is an interesting discovery. It provides the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur — which wasn't known for having an opposed thumb."
As a tree-dwelling reptile, the Monkeydactyl probably evolved opposable thumbs so it could grasp tree branches, which would have helped it hang, avoid falls, and obtain food. This arboreal (tree-dwelling) locomotion would help the Monkeydactyl adapt to its home ecosystem, the subtropical forests of the Tiaojishan Formation in China during the Jurassic Period.
The researchers noted that the forests of the Tiaojishan Formation were likely warm and humid, thriving with "a rich and complex" diversity of tree-dwelling animals. But while the forests were home to multiple pterosaur species, the Monkeydactyl was likely the only one that was arboreal, spending most of its time in the treetops, while other pterosaurs occupied different levels of the forest.
K. antipollicatus and its phylogenetic position. (A and B) Holotype specimen BPMC 0042 (A) and a schematic skeletal drawing (B). Scale bars, 50 mm.Credit: Zhou et al.
This process — in which competing species manage to coexist by using the environment in different ways — is called "niche partitioning."
"Tiaojishan palaeoforest is home to many organisms, including three genera of darwinopteran pterosaurs," study author Xuanyu Zhou said in the press release. "Our results show that K. antipollicatus has occupied a different niche from Darwinopterus and Wukongopterus, which has likely minimized competition among these pterosaurs."
In general, pterosaurs are a prime example of how animals can evolve remarkably specialized adaptations. As pioneers of vertebrate flight, pterosaurs had strong and lightweight skeletons that ranged widely in size, with some boasting wingspans of more than 30 feet. The largest pterosaurs weighed more than 650 pounds and had jaws twice the length of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Unlike birds, which jump into the air using only their hind limbs, pterosaurs used their exceptionally strong hind limbs and forelimbs to push off the ground and gain enough launch power for flight. That these massive dinosaurs managed to fly, and did so successfully for about 80 million years, has long fascinated and puzzled scientists.The recent discovery shows that pterosaurs developed even more remarkable adaptations than previously thought, suggesting there's still more to learn about the "monsters of the Mesozoic skies."
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.
About 66 million years ago, a massive asteroid slammed into present-day Chicxulub, Mexico, triggering the extinction of dinosaurs. Scientists estimate the impact killed 75 percent of life on Earth. But what's remained more mysterious is how the event shaped the future of plant life, specifically tropical rainforests.
A new study published in Science explores how the so-called bolide impact at the end of the Cretaceous period paved the way for the evolution of our modern rainforests, the most diverse terrestrial ecosystems on Earth.
For the study, researchers analyzed thousands of samples of fossil pollen, leaves, and spores collected from various sites across Colombia. The researchers analyzed the samples to determine which types of plants were dominant, the diversity of plant life, and how insects interacted with plants.
All samples dated back to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, some 70 million to 56 million years ago. Back then, the region's climate was mostly humid and hot, as it is today. However, the composition and structure of forests were quite different before the impact, according to the study results.
Tropical jungle with river and sun beam and foggy in the gardenSASITHORN via Adobe Stock
For one, the region's rainforests used to have a roughly equal mix of angiosperms (shrubs and flowering trees) and plants like conifers and ferns. The rainforests also had a more open canopy structure, which allowed more light to reach the forest floor and meant that plants faced less competition for light.
What changed after the asteroid hit? The results suggest the impact and its aftermath led to a 45 percent decrease in plant diversity, a loss from which the region took about 6 million years to recover. But different plants came to replace the old ones, with an increasing proportion of flowering plants sprouting up over the millennia.
"A single historical accident changed the ecological and evolutionary trajectory of tropical rainforests," Carlos Jaramillo, study author and paleopalynologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, told Science News. "The forests that we have today are really the by-product of what happened 66 million years ago."
Today's rainforests are significantly more biodiverse than they were 66 million years ago. One potential reason is that the more densely packed canopy structure of the post-impact era increased competition among plants, "leading to the vertical complexity seen in modern rainforests," the researchers wrote.
The extinction of long-necked, leaf-eating dinosaurs probably helped maintain this closed-canopy structure. Also boosting biodiversity was ash from the impact, which effectively fertilized the soil by adding more phosphorus. This likely benefited flowering plants over the conifers and ferns of the pre-impact era.
In addition to unraveling some of the mysteries about the origins of South America's lush biodiversity, the findings highlight how, even though life finds a way to recover from catastrophe, it can take a long time.
The uptick in Arctic lightning could cause more wildfires, potentially triggering a feedback loop that releases massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
- In recent years, researchers have recorded unusually high numbers of lightning strikes and wildfires in Arctic regions.
- A new study explored how increased lightning could cause a "lightning-fire-vegetation feedback loop" that could accelerate permafrost loss.
- To better monitor changing conditions in the Arctic, the researchers called for more high-quality lightning monitoring systems.
Lighting strikes in the Arctic may increase by approximately 100 percent by the end of the 21st century, according to a new study published in Nature Climate Change. If that happens, places like Alaska could suffer significantly higher rates of wildfires and permafrost loss, both of which could accelerate warming in the Arctic.
Some evidence suggests these changes are already underway. In 2015, Alaska suffered the second-most wildfires on record, burning more than 5.1 million acres across the state's northern region. Although it's difficult to measure, lightning likely started many of these fires.
Still, lightning is relatively rare in the Arctic. That's because lightning occurs when warm, moist air rises to meet cold air, which builds up electrical charge. When that charge exceeds a certain threshold, lightning strikes. Because places like Alaska have relatively cold, dry air, thunderstorms only form occasionally.
But climate change may be changing that. In 2019, the National Weather Service's office in Fairbanks, Alaska, reported an unusually high number of lightning strikes within 300 miles of the North Pole. The uptick in lighting may be no surprise, considering the Arctic is warming by more than twice the global average.
In the recent study, researchers used satellite observations and climate data to explore how increasingly frequent lightning could transform the Arctic through changes like increased wildfires and permafrost loss.
"We projected how lightning in high-latitude boreal forests and Arctic tundra regions will change across North America and Eurasia," Yang Chen, study author and research scientist in the UCI Department of Earth System Science, said in a press release. "The size of the lightning response surprised us because expected changes at mid-latitudes are much smaller."
What's especially concerning about the uptick in Arctic lightning is that it could start a "lightning-fire-vegetation feedback loop."
The researchers explained how more lightning could cause more wildfires, which would burn away many of the shrubs, mosses, and other low-lying plants covering the Arctic terrain. Without those plants covering the ground, soil temperatures would rise, making it easier for deciduous trees to grow.
That might sound like a good thing. But expanding forests could also cause regional temperatures to rise because they would absorb more sunlight than the reflective, snow-covered Arctic terrain currently does. What's more, wildfires would melt Arctic permafrost, which stores massive amounts of organic carbon.
The end result of the lightning-fire-vegetation feedback loop would be the release of carbon into the atmosphere.
Still, the variability in climate modeling and lightning monitoring makes it difficult to predict future changes with a high degree of accuracy.
"This phenomenon is very sporadic, and it's very difficult to measure accurately over long time periods," James T. Randerson, study co-author and professor in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, said in the press release. "It's so rare to have lightning above the Arctic Circle."
The researchers concluded the study by calling for more high-quality lightning monitoring systems, based on the ground and in space.
"Given the large amount of permafrost soil carbon stored in northern ecosystems, this analysis highlights the importance of improving lightning monitoring in the Arctic and the need to develop better models of lightning, fire dynamics, and feedback with vegetation and soils," they wrote.
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