Tag Archives: America

Extinct Australian rodent is re-discovered, alive, after 150 years

It’s always a sad day when you have to report on a species going extinct. This is what makes this occasion especially merry: researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) report that Gould’s mouse has been rediscovered on several small islands off the coast of Western Australia.

Shark Bay mouse (Pseudomys fieldi). Image credis Australian Wildlife Conservancy Photographer Wayne Lawler.

The species was assumed to have been wiped out some 150 years ago, likely due to the environmental changes spurred by the arrival and settling of Europeans, such as invasive species.

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“The resurrection of this species brings good news in the face of the disproportionally high rate of native rodent extinction, making up 41 percent of Australian mammal extinction since European colonisation in 1788,” Dr. Roycroft said.

“It is exciting that Gould’s mouse is still around, but its disappearance from the mainland highlights how quickly this species went from being distributed across most of Australia, to only surviving on offshore islands in Western Australia.It’s a huge population collapse.”

The team compared DNA samples taken from extinct Australian rodents and 42 of their living relatives, aiming to understand the dynamics of Australia’s native rodents since the arrival of Europeans.

They were surprised to find that the extinct Gould’s mouse was genetically indistinguishable from the Shark Bay mouse, which is still alive and well on several islands. In essence, although we’ve perceived these two groups as separate species, they are, in fact, the same.

Several other extinct species were also considered in this study. Based on the samples we have, the team reports that all of them showed high levels of genetic diversity immediately before their extinction. This suggests that the species had numerous populations spread wide across Australia prior to Europeans making landfall here.

“This shows genetic diversity does not provide guaranteed insurance against extinction,” Dr. Roycroft said. “They were likely common, with large populations prior to the arrival of Europeans. But the introduction of feral cats, foxes, and other invasive species, agricultural land clearing, and new diseases have absolutely decimated native species.”

“The extinction of these species happened very quickly. We still have a lot of biodiversity to lose here in Australia and we’re not doing enough to protect it.”

Biodiversity, both in the context of ecosystems and single species, is a measure of genetic variety. It’s life’s insurance policy — the theory is that if a pathogen or threat can take down one individual or species based on their genetic traits, there are other actors of the same species, or completely new species, which can take their place and have a chance to resist said threat. In the context of individual species, this ensures the survival of the species through natural selection. In the context of ecosystems, this ensures that critical processes such as water or nutrient recycling will still be performed even if one species goes extinct.

Biodiversity directly benefits us, as it underpins the healthy functioning of the world around us, ensuring we’re provided with air, water, and pollen for our crops. Degradation of this diversity wouldn’t be great for nature, but it wouldn’t be deadly, either — in time, new species will evolve to fit empty niches. However, it would definitely be a huge issue for us, as the loss of key species can represent a real threat to our short- and long-term survival as a civilization and a species.

The paper “Museum genomics reveals the rapid decline and extinction of Australian rodents since European settlement” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Fossil Friday: 300 million-year-old “Godzilla Shark” from New Mexico finally gets an official name

A press release from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) on Thursday announces, at long last, the scientific name of this impressive shark.

The fossil and a 3D reconstruction of the animal’s skeleton. Image credits Jesse Pruitt / New Mexico Museum Of Natural History & Science.

First discovered eight years ago, the species has so far been known by an unofficial (if cool) name: the “Godzilla Shark”. But researchers are now confident enough in their observations to place the animal on the tree of life, and with that, give it its official scientific name. The animal lived around 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous period.

Big shark

The shark, uncovered in the Manzano Mountains of New Mexico, has been named Dracopristis hoffmanorum. It’s part of an ancient lineage that split off from the main family, but one which did not stand the test of time. It’s unofficial names include “Godzilla Shark” and “Hoffman’s Dragon Shark” in recognition of its big jaws, large spine, and in honor of the Hoffman family who own the land where the fossil was found.

“Dracopristis and other ctenacanth sharks represent a unique evolutionary branch of the sharks that split off from the modern sharks and rays approximately 390 million years ago, but that went extinct by the end of the Paleozoic Era, about 252 million years ago,” the museum explained in the release.

Judging from the fossils, the animal could grow to around 6.7 feet in length. It had 12 rows of teeth growing out from powerful jaws, and two large fin spines on its back that could reach an estimated 2.5 feet in length. These could have played a role as a defensive measure against predators, the team explains. The animal was most likely an ambush predator, lurking in shallow lagoons and estuaries where it would surprise prey like crustaceans, fish, and anything else it could find, with a tooth-lined maw.

Dracopristis was discovered by accident, when John-Paul Hodnett, a paleontologist at the Maryland National Capital Parks was poking through some limestone fragments with his knife in the Manzano Mountains to sift through them. “At first, I thought what was flipped over was the cross-section of a limb bone, which was exciting as no large tetrapod had been found at that site before,” Hodnett explains.

Still, a day later, Hodnett and his team were convinced that the discovery was in fact a new species of fish, most likely from the genus Ctenacanthus, which is today extinct. It eventually turned out to be the most complete ctenacanth ever discovered in the whole of North America.

The last seven years were spent studying the fossil, which included preparation and digital scanning at the NMMNHS’s labs. This allowed the team to describe the new fossil and identify its place in the tree of life.

The paper “Ctenacanthiform Sharks From The Late Pennsylvanian (Missourian) Tinajas Member Of The Atrasado Formation, Central New Mexico” has been published in the Bulletin of the NMMNHS

Archaeologists confirm location of elusive Spanish fort in Florida

Fort San Antón de Carlos was built in 1566 in the capital of the Calusa, the most powerful Native American tribe in the region. Now, archaeologists know for sure where it was located: Mound Key, Florida.

Spanish historical records named Florida’s Mound Key, the capital of the Calusa kingdom, as the site of Fort San Antón de Carlos, home of one of the earliest North American Jesuit missions. Archaeologists have now uncovered evidence of the fort on one of the island’s shell mounds. Credit: Victor Thompson

Being a modern archaeologist is a lot like working in forensics — you spend your time looking for evidence regarding people’s lives. Finding clues is one thing, but actually proving something — is another.

For instance, archaeologists and historians have long suspected that the fort, named for the Catholic patron saint of lost things, was located on Mound Key. But they were never really able to prove it, until now.

They started searching for concrete evidence in the area since 2013, in what was once Calusa territory.

“Before our work, the only information we had was from Spanish documents, which suggested that the Calusa capital was on Mound Key and that Fort San Antón de Carlos was there, too,” said William Marquardt, curator emeritus of South Florida archaeology and ethnography at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“Archaeologists and historians had visited the site and collected pottery from the surface, but until we found physical evidence of the Calusa king’s house and the fort, we could not be absolutely certain.”

The Calusa were a Native American people of Florida’s southwest coast. They developed from archaic peoples of the Everglades region and built one of the most politically complex groups of fisher-gatherer-hunters in the world.

They were able to resist colonization for nearly 200 years, Marquardt said.

They are also considered to be the first “shell collectors,” using shells as tools, utensils, and jewelry. They would discard the fragments in enormous mounds once they were finished, and also developed massive structures to act as fish corrals to help feed their growing population. Fort San Antón de Carlos was actually built on one of these shell mounds — the only known one of this type.

The Spanish Jesuit mission living on Mount Key did not have a good relationship with the Calusa, and researchers aren’t even sure how the mission was able to survive, given that shipments from other colonies would have been scarce and infrequent.

The Spanish developed a brief alliance with the Calusa in 1569, but it quickly deteriorated, and the fort was abandoned.

“Despite being the most powerful society in South Florida, the Calusa were inexorably drawn into the broader world economic system by the Spaniards,” Marquardt said. “However, by staying true to their values and way of life, the Calusa showed a resiliency unmatched by most other Native societies in the Southeastern United States.”

Researchers from the University of Florida, the University of Georgia (UGA), and students from UGA’s archaeological field school used remote sensing and ground-penetrating radar to find the most likely hotspots for archaeological evidence, as well as to understand the overall structure of the fort (including what lies beneath the ground). Then, they carried out archaeological digs, uncovering the walls of the fort and several artifacts, including ceramic shards and beads.

The team not only confirmed the location of the fort, but also found the earliest-known North American example of “tabby” architecture — a type of concrete made from shells.

“Tabby” is made by burning shells to create lime, which is then mixed with sand, ash, water, and more broken shells. It’s a rough and primitive form of concrete, but it was successfully used at Mount Key as mortar, to stabilize posts in the walls. Tabby remained a trademark for some English colonies in the Americas, particularly in the Southern plantations — but this is the first evidence of such a structure on the continent.

“Seeing the straight walls of the fort emerge, just inches below the surface, was quite exciting to us,” Marquardt said. “Not only was this a confirmation of the location of the fort, but it shows the promise of Mound Key to shed light on a time in Florida’s—and America’s—history that is very poorly known.”

Journal Reference: Victor D. Thompson et al, Discovering San Antón de Carlos: The Sixteenth-Century Spanish Buildings and Fortifications of Mound Key, Capital of the Calusa, Historical Archaeology (2020). DOI: 10.1007/s41636-020-00236-6

One in two American adults could be obese by 2030 — and one in four severely obese

Almost half of all adult Americans will be obese, and around a quarter will be severely obese, by 2030, according to a new study.

Image via Pixabay.

The paper, led by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, predicts that more than half of the adult population of 29 US states will be obese by 2030 and that, among adults, all states will have an obesity prevalence of over 35% by the same year. They further estimate that the current rates of adult obesity and severe adult obesity in the US are around 40% and 18%, respectively.

Too big to fall

“The high projected prevalence of severe obesity among low-income adults has substantial implications for future Medicaid costs,” said lead author Zachary Ward, programmer/analyst at Harvard Chan School’s Center for Health Decision Science and lead author of the study.

“In addition, the effect of weight stigma could have far-reaching implications for socioeconomic disparities as severe obesity becomes the most common BMI category among low-income adults in nearly every state.”

The prediction is quite troubling as obesity comes associated with several health and economic impacts, on both an individual and social scale. Severe obesity is especially linked to increased rates of chronic disease and medical spending, the team explains, and with drastic reductions in life expectancy.

The team drew on self-reported body mass index (BMI) data from adults who participated in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey (BRFSS) between 1993 and 2016 (for a total of 6.2 million data points). The BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters. A BMI of over 30 is considered indicative of obesity, while one of 35 or higher corresponds to severe obesity.

Since self-reported data in general and self-reported BMIs, in particular, tend to be unreliable (as people conform to their own biases), the team developed and used novel statistical methods to correct the data. Furthermore, using the wealth of information collected by the BRFSS, they looked at obesity rates for specific states, income levels, and subpopulations.

Several US states will have adult obesity rates close to 60% by 2030, they report, while the least-affected states will still record rates close to 40%. On a national average, they report, severe obesity will become the most common BMI category for women, non-Hispanic black adults, and those with annual incomes below $50,000 per year.

The team hopes that their study will help guide policy meant to prevent such a situation. For example, they cite previous research showing that a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is an efficient and cost-effective prevention method for obesity.

“Prevention is going to be key to better managing this epidemic,” said Ward.

The paper “Projected U.S. State-Level Prevalence of Adult Obesity and Severe Obesity” has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Suicide rates are rising across the US, especially in rural areas

Suicide is, sadly, becoming more common in America, especially in rural areas.

Image credits Engin Akyurt.

A new study from The Ohio State University found that suicide rates jumped by 41%, from an average of 15 per 100,000 residents to 21.2 per 100,000 between 2014 and 2016. The study evaluated national suicide data from 1999 to 2016 to provide a county-by-county picture of the suicide toll among adults.

It also highlights a cluster of factors, including lack of insurance and the prevalence of gun shops, that are associated with high suicide rates.

Highest where life is hardest

“While our findings are disheartening, we’re hopeful that they will help guide efforts to support Americans who are struggling, especially in rural areas where suicide has increased the most and the fastest,” said lead researcher Danielle Steelesmith, a postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.

The study found that suicide rates were highest in the least-populous counties of the US, and in the areas where people have the lowest income and most limited access to resources. From 2014 through 2016, suicide rates were 17.6 per 100,000 in large metropolitan counties compared with 22 per 100,000 in rural counties. In urban areas, the team adds, counties with more guns shops tended to have higher rates of adult suicide.

All in all, counties in Western states including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming tended to have the highest rates of suicide, as did the Appalachian states of Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and those in the Ozarks, including Arkansas and Missouri.

“Suicide is so complex, and many factors contribute, but this research helps us understand the toll and some of the potential contributing influences based on geography, and that could drive better efforts to prevent these deaths,” said Steelesmith.

The study analyzed 453,577 suicides by adults (25 to 64 years old) from 1996 to 2016. Suicides were most common among men and those 45 to 54 years old. The team says adult suicide rates have increased between 2014 and 2016 despite a national prevention effort that kicked off in 2015, which aimed to reduce suicide rates by 20% by 2025.

Ohio State University.

The findings can help guide and bolster the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts says Cynthia Fontanella, a study co-author and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Ohio State.

“For example, all communities might benefit from strategies that enhance coping and problem-solving skills, strengthen economic support and identify and support those who are at risk for suicide,” Fontanella said.

She adds that the link between urban gun shops and higher suicide rates suggests they can be targeted to reduce access to the means people use to commit suicide. In rural areas, “deprivation” was a closely-related factor to suicide rates. Deprivation includes a cluster of conditions including underemployment, poverty, and low educational attainment.

Long-term and persistent poverty may be more entrenched in rural areas, the team explains, and economic opportunities more limited. Steelesmith adds that many rural Americans rely on jobs in agriculture and industries like coal mining, which are dwindling. They also suffer from a lack of support services that they may turn to in their time of need.

“In cities, you have a core of services that are much easier to get to in many cases. You may have better access to job assistance, food banks and nonprofits that might all contribute to less desperation among residents,” Steelesmith said.

High social fragmentation — which factors in levels of single-person households, rates of unmarried residents, and the impermanence of residents — and low social capital were also particularly pronounced in rural America, the team explains. Social capital is a measure of how connected or closely-knit a given society is.

Other factors associated with higher suicide rates included high percentages of veterans in a county and lower rates of insurance coverage.

Fontanella explains that people who live in rural America would particularly benefit from strategies designed to promote social connections. Community engagement activities that give residents the chance to interact and to become familiar with supportive resources in their area would be a good approach. Steelesmith adds that some states, particularly in the West, have large counties with great variability in terms of resident life experiences, for instance, so solutions need to be tailored for individual communities.

The paper “Contextual Factors Associated With County-Level Suicide Rates in the United States, 1999 to 2016” has been published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

This is the oldest human footprint in the Americas. Credit: Universidad Austral de Chile.

Scientists discover 15,000-year-old footprits in Chile — it’s the earliest evidence of human presence in the Americas

This is the oldest human footprint in the Americas. Credit: Universidad Austral de Chile.

This is the oldest human footprint in the Americas. Credit: Universidad Austral de Chile.

Most of the evidence scientists have gathered thus far suggests that humans didn’t reach the southern tip of South America until 12,000 years ago. This hypothesis has been cast in doubt by the monumental discovery of a footprint in Chile belonging to a modern human relative dated to 15,000 years ago.

The footprint, which scientists believe was etched by the right foot of a 70-kg male, was first discovered in 2010 at the archaeological of Pilauco. Previously, scientists had dug up extinct elephants and horses from the site, which is located some 800 km (500 miles) south of Santiago, Chile’s capital.

Researchers at the Austral University of Chile applied radiocarbon dating techniques to organic plant material found in the same place as the print, finding it was at least 15,600 years old — the earliest human presence in the Americas. But before the researchers could make such a daring announcement, they had to be sure that they pieced all the jigsaw puzzle pieces together.

Illustration by Mauricio Alvarez.

Illustration by Mauricio Alvarez.

For years, paleontologist Karen Moreno and geologist Mario Pino carefully studied the footprint and performed tests in order to confirm without a doubt that it was made by a human. In order to discount the possibility that the print was actually made of animal tracks that were misshapen and elongated over-time, the researchers carried footprint tests with humans over a wide range of walking scenarios. In time, the evidence proved undeniable. “We confirmed and checked and re-checked,” the researchers said in a statement.

After countless trials, the researchers established that the ancient Chilean footprint was made by a barefoot man weighing about 70 kilograms (155 pounds) and of the species Hominipes modernus, a relative of Homo sapiens.

The researchers performed foot printing tests using different types of soils and moisture conidtions in order to replica the Pleistocene footprint. Credit: Universidad Austral de Chile.

The researchers performed footprinting tests using different types of soils and moisture conditions in order to replica the Pleistocene footprint. Credit: Universidad Austral de Chile.

“The results demonstrate that a human agent could easily generate a footprint morphology equivalent to the sedimentary structure when walking on a saturated substrate. Based on the evidence, we conclude that the trackmaker might well have been a bare-footed adult human. This finding, along with the presence of lithic artifacts in the same sedimentary levels, might represent further evidence for a pre-Clovis South American colonization of northern Patagonia, as originally proposed for the nearby Monte Verde site,” the authors wrote in their study published in PLOS One.

The oldest human footprints that we know of are 3.6 million years old and were found in Laetoli, Tanzania. It took millions of years before our relatives began their long march to explore the world, which eventually brought them to the Americas through an ice bridge over the Bering Strait between Russian and Alaska, according to the leading theory of migration into the Americas.

Last year, paleontologists found 13,000-year-old footprints in Canada along with several artifacts, indicating that people were passing through the area. Not only are the Chilean footprints older, but they’re also located near the southern tip of South America, suggesting that humans were already an established presence by that time. This means that the story of our ancestors’ migration into the Americas was richer and more complicated than meets the eye. The new findings support evidence of ancient colonization previously unearthed at Monte Verde, Chile, a region in the extreme south of the Americas. Taken together, the body of evidence points towards a coastal migration model which claims that the first settlers, which may have been Pacific Islanders, followed coastlines.

What’s certain now is that humans were settling North and South America much earlier than previously thought. Here comes the hard part: finding out how they got there.

Researchers use ultra-violet light to study first English voyage to America

In 1496, William Weston, a British merchant from Bristol, set sail for “Terra Nova” — known today as America. The evidence of this journey was hidden in giant parchment rolls and was only identified thanks to ultra-violet light.

The rolled-up parchment that holds news of the reward William Weston received from King Henry VII. Image credits: The National Archives.

When Columbus “discovered” America, news of it spread across Europe. Several explorers tried their skill (and luck) attempting to explore the new continent. William Weston, a Bristol merchant who was probably the first Englishman to set foot on North America, prepared an expedition with the help of King Henry VII just one year after Columbus first landed on mainland South America. Initially, the expedition was undertaken under a royal patent for John Cabot, an Italian navigator and explorer — but what happened after that remained largely unclear.

Evan Jones, a senior lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Bristol, and colleagues analyzed a long parchment roll, created from the skin of 200 sheep. Each segment on the roll was 6.5 feet (2 meters) long and the scroll was so old and deteriorated that the ink was virtually invisible to the naked eye — but not under ultraviolet light.

Margaret Condon, a co-author, painstakingly went through the roll to see what could still be derived from it.

“First time I read the roll, I almost missed it,” Condon said in a statement. “These rolls are beasts to deal with, but also precious and irreplaceable documents. Handling them, it sometimes feels like you’re wrestling, very gently, with an obstreperous [boisterous] baby elephant!”

Margaret Condon, an honorary research associate at the University of Bristol, studies a 500-year-old parchment. Image credits: The National Archives.

The parchment features transactions and travel expenses, and by analyzing it, Condon learned that Cabot received a hefty 30-pound reward from the king for his exploration of ‘nova terra’ (the ‘new land’). This sum would have been enough to live decently for about six years, so the king was presumably pretty pleased by the results.
Writing in the journal Historical Research, researchers add that Cabot and Weston received the reward in 1498, after an audience with Henry VII.
Although history hasn’t kept Cabot nearly as famous as some of the other seamen of his time, he was very much appreciated by his peers.

“Cabot’s voyages have been famous since Elizabethan times and were used to justify England’s later colonisation of North America. But we’ve never known the identity of his English supporters. Until recently, we didn’t even know that there was an expedition in 1499.”

The new research is also remarkable as it confirms two of the extraordinary claims made by a deceased historian, Dr. Alwyn Ruddock of the University of London, who suggested that Cabot explored much of the US east coast, and that a group of Italian friars, who accompanied Cabot’s 1498 expedition, went on to establish Europe’s first Christian colony and church in North America.


Stanford designed software to spot every solar panel in the US (there’s a lot of them)

A new open-access tool developed at Stanford University reveals that, in certain U.S. states, solar panels now account over 10% of total energy generation.


The interactive map of the United States on the DeepSolar website.
Image credits DeepSolar / Stanford University

Policy-makers, utility companies, researchers, and engineers currently have a hard time estimating just how many solar panels installed throughout the country. Stanford University researchers have come to their aid, however, with a new algorithm that makes it easier than ever before to quantify them and analyze development. The tool (accompanied by an open-access website) draws on high-resolution satellite data and automated image analysis.

Sunnyside up

“With these methods, we can not only maintain and update a high-fidelity database of solar installations, but also correlate them at the census-tract level with the amount of incoming solar radiation as well as non-physical factors such as household income and education level,” says co-senior author Arun Majumdar, a mechanical engineering professor at Stanford and co-Director of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

The tool, dubbed DeepSolar, offers unprecedented insight into the trends that drive solar power adoption by society at large, the team says. The algorithm works by analyzing high-resolution images across the U.S., looking for solar panels. When it finds a match, the program records the location and calculates its size.

In stark contrast to its predecessors, DeepSolar isn’t painfully slow. “Previous algorithms were so slow that they would have needed at least a year of computational time” to identify most of the solar panels in the U.S., says co-senior author Ram Rajagopal, a civil engineering professor at Stanford. Meanwhile, DeepSolar only needs a “fraction” of that time.

The team reports using DeepSolar to locate roughly 1.47 million individual solar installations across the country. These included rooftop panels, solar farms, and utility-scale installations. The software should help optimize solar development at the aggregate level, the team explains, especially since decentralization of solar power made it hard to keep track of all the panels being installed.

DeepSolar city.

DeepSolar interactive map showing solar panel distribution by county in the region surrounding Chicago.
Image credits DeepSolar / Stanford University.

One area the team hopes to make an immediate impact with DeepSolar is in the U.S. power grid. The tool, they say, could be used to better integrate solar into the grid by accounting for daily and seasonal fluctuations in incoming sunlight.

“Now that we know where the solar panels are, or are likely to be in the future, we can feed that information into questions of modeling the electricity system and predicting where storage units and substations should go,” says Majumdar.

DeepSolar could also help in pinpointing new areas for solar deployment. The team used the program to establish correlations between solar installation density and variables such as population density or household income — which, when pooled together, allowed them to create a model predicting which areas are most likely to adopt solar in the future.

“Utilities, companies that install solar panels, even community planners that are thinking about sustainability, they all can benefit from this high-resolution spatial data and a website where they can explore and analyze the different trends involved,” Rajagopal says.

The team plans to expand the DeepSolar database to include solar installations in other countries with suitably high-resolution satellite images and to improve its ability to estimate energy output based on characteristics such as the angle of incoming light.

The paper “DeepSolar: A Machine Learning Framework to Efficiently Construct Solar Deployment Database in the United States” has been published in the journal Joule.

Credit: Posth et al./Cell.

Ancient DNA reveals two previously unknown migrations into South America

Credit: Posth et al./Cell.

Credit: Posth et al./Cell.

Scientists analyzed the ancient DNA of individuals who lived in Central and South America up to 10,000 years ago and found that these regions were settled by at least three waves of migration. The studies paint a rich and diverse history of the Americas, suggesting that the people who formed these migratory waves branched out of a single population that crossed the Bering Strait into North America about 15,000 years ago.

“Our work multiplied the number of ancient genomes available from these areas by about 20, giving us a much more comprehensive picture of indigenous history in the Americas,” co-senior author David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said in a statement. “This broader dataset reveals a common origin of North, Central, and South Americans as well as two previously unknown genetic exchanges between North and South America.”

The DNA collected from 49 individuals who lived in Belize, Brazil, the Central Andes, and southern South America shows that they all originate from the same ancestral population that colonized North America. In and of itself, this fact is not particularly remarkable because scientists have always known that Central and South America were peopled by a migration that moved southward. However, what was truly surprising about the findings of three new ancient DNA studies, all published this week (Cell, ScienceScience Advances), was that there were multiple distinct migratory movements — some that mixed, others that formed new lineages.

Archaeologists believe that the Clovis people were the first to pass through the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, which is now underwater, settling in the lower 48 states some 13,000 years ago. The Clovis culture was named after flint spearheads found in the 1930s at a site in Clovis, New Mexico. These mammoth-hunting people are considered to be the ancestors of most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas. Now, the new genomic analysis has yielded fresh insights into how Clovis people may have spread across the Americas.

Researchers compared the genome of a Clovis toddler who lived in Montana about 12,700 years ago to the earliest genome analyzed from South and Central America dating to between 9,000 and 11,000 years ago. The analysis revealed a common ancestry between the remains found in Montana and Lagoa Santa in Brazil, which suggests that the Clovis made a major impact much further south. Previously, anthropologists believed that the people at Lagoa Santa originated from a separate migration from Asia.

“We weren’t expecting to find a relation to people associated with the Clovis culture in South America,” says co-first author Nathan Nakatsuka from Harvard. “But it seems the expansion of the Clovis-associated lineage extended to parts of Central and South America.”

From around 9,000 years ago, however, the Clovis culture-associated ancestry completely disappeared in Peru. We don’t know what was the cause of such a dramatic large-scale population replacement but what seems certain is that the region was populated by a separate wave of migration, which showed remarkable continuity compared to Eurasia and Africa.

“There is remarkable continuity between earlier and later skeletons with South Americans today,” said Cosimo Posth, an archaeogeneticist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “For example, modern-day Quechua and Aymara from the Central Andes can trace their ancestry back to the ancient people of the Cuncaicha site from 9,000 years ago onwards. This is a longer-standing continuity than you see in other continents.”

The big question right now is why the branching occurred so fast. What seems certain is that the narrative of humanity’s distribution across the Americas is far more complex than meets the eye.

“We’re very enthusiastic about the prospects for a much richer understanding of American population history, but this is still a vast region full of geographic and chronological holes,” says Reich. “We’d like to collect more genetic material from earlier and later sites and from more countries, such as Colombia, Venezuela, and other parts of Brazil. We also want to examine the evolution of genetic traits over time.”

Ankylosaur art.

Newly-discovered American ankylosaur turns out to be an Asian immigrant

A new species of dinosaur has been discovered in Utah — and it seems to be more closely related to species in Asia than those in North America.

Ankylosaur art.

Artist’s impression of the newly-discovered species.
Image credits Andrey Atuchin // The Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The fossil of a new genus and species of ankylosaur has been unearthed in the Kaiparowits Formation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), in Kane County, southern Utah. Dubbed Akainacephalus johnsoni, the dino is helping reveal the complicated evolutionary history of the club-tailed, bone-plated reptiles.

The fossil represents the most complete skeleton of an ankylosaurid dinosaur ever discovered in the southwestern US, its discoverers report. It includes a complete skull, much of the vertebral column, a complete tail club, fore and hind limbs elements, and bony body armor that includes two neck rings and spiked armor plates.

Made in China-ish

After analyzing the remains, the team found that it is distinct enough from anything else in the fossil record to warrant its own species and genus. The name Akainacephalus johnsoni is derived from the Greek words ‘akaina’ (meaning ‘thorn’ or ‘spike’) and cephalus (‘head’). The ‘johnsoni’ honors Randy Johnson, a volunteer at the museum who helped prepare the specimen — the whole painstaking process took almost four years to complete.

“I’m a retired chemist, but I’ve always been interested in most of the science disciplines. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to actually work on fossils that could be important for paleontologists,” Johnson says.

“Now that I’m a museum volunteer, I’m getting the opportunity to work on a large variety of fossils and consult with top paleontologists – it’s like a dream second career. I couldn’t believe it when they told me they are naming the ankylosaur after me, a once in a lifetime honor.”

But exactly what sets this dinosaur apart from its peers surprised even the team. Instead of following the same trend laid out by North American ankylosaurids during its time (the Late Cretaceous), such as smooth armor plates on its skull, A. johnsoni is more similar to Asian ankylosaurids — who sport pronounced spikes on their skull plates.

The arrangement of the dinosaur’s bony armor — which features small cones and pyramids — was the key giveaway that it is more closely related to Asian species (such as Saichania and Tarchia) than to other North American species of its time (including Ankylosaurus and Euoplocephalus). It also helped the team identify the close ties between this new species and the New Mexican ankylosaurid Nodocephalosaurus kirtlandensis.

“A reasonable hypothesis would be that ankylosaurids from Utah are related to those found elsewhere in western North America, so we were really surprised to discover that Akainacephalus was so closely related to species from Asia,” remarked Randall Irmis, co-author of the study.

Ankylosaurids originated in current-day Asia, first appearing in the fossil record some 125 to 100 million years ago. The first known evidence of them in western North America is roughly 77 million years old. A. johnsoni is roughly just as old, living some 76 million years ago.

Lead author Jelle Wiersma says this distribution of North American ankylosaurs during the Late Cretaceous points to several geologically-brief intervals of low sea levels. These events exposed the Beringian land bridge, allowing Asian ankylosaurids (and other species) to move to present-day North America on several occasions during the time — resulting in the two groups we see today.

Taken together with Nodocephalosaurus from New Mexico, A. jonhsoni points to two separate immigration events over the Beringian land bridge. The earliest group evolved flatter armor, while the second maintained the spikier plates characteristic of Asian ankylosaurs.

The team further reports that the dino once roamed the southern part of Laramidia — a landmass on the western coast of a shallow sea that spanned the central region, splitting the continent of North America in two. This caused isolation along western and eastern portions of the North American continent during the Late Cretaceous Period, between 95-70 million years ago.

The findings have been published in the science journal PeerJ.

Why the US spends so much on healthcare, but doesn’t get the benefits it should

The US spends almost twice as much as other high-income countries on health care, and yet has consistently poorer results in many areas, with the lowest life expectancy and highest infant mortality rate of all developed countries. A new study analyzed why this happens, and what can be done to improve it.

The US spends about three times more on healthcare, per capita, than the UK. Image credits: Papanicolas et al, 2018 / JAMA.

Despite this, the US still lags behind all other developed countries when it comes to the quality of said healthcare. Image credits: Papanicolas et al, 2018 / JAMA.

With only 2.9 beds per 1,000 people, the US falls way below other developed countries, especially compared to Japan’s 13.2 and Germany’s 8.2. Similar figures pop up for many metrics relating to healthcare availability and efficiency. However, on a per capita basis, the US spends much more than any other country: $9451 in 2015, compared to Germany’s $5267.

The US is also the only developed country which doesn’t offer universal healthcare.

Of course, much ink has been spilled over health care in the past decades, and the causes are complex and difficult to thoroughly assess. But in a new study, Harvard researchers took on that gargantuan task. This is what they found:

  • In 2016, the US spent nearly two times more than other high-income countries on healthcare.
  • Despite this, the country had significantly poorer health outcomes in many areas. Out of all the developed countries, the US had the lowest life expectancy and highest infant mortality rate,
  • Contrary to popular belief, high utilization of healthcare services and low spending on social services are not the main reasons for the costs and lack of efficiency.
  • Instead, the main drivers of higher healthcare spending in the U.S. are generally high prices, particularly for medical devices and pharmaceuticals. The US spends much more than other countries on planning, regulating, and managing health systems and services.
  • Other causes of unneeded spending are the overuse of expensive health services, low social spending, and the lack of an adequate number of primary health physicians.
  • The US also pays higher salaries for nurses and physicians (on average).
  • The good news is that despite poor overall outcomes, when people are sick, the quality of delivered healthcare is quite high.

The main problem, researchers say, is that most policies regarding health care have focused on utilization. However, the authors write that “efforts targeting utilization alone are unlikely to reduce the growth in health care spending”. Instead, an effort to reduce prices and administrative costs is needed.

“We know that the U.S. is an outlier in healthcare costs, spending twice as much as peer nations to deliver care. This gap and the challenges it poses for American consumers, policymakers, and business leaders was a major impetus for healthcare reform in the U.S., including delivery reforms implemented as part of the Affordable Care Act,” said senior author Ashish Jha, a professor at the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI).

“In addition, the reasons for these substantially higher costs have been misunderstood: These data suggest that many of the policy efforts in the U.S. have not been truly evidence-based.”

Several studies have already found that counterintuitive measures, such as increasing social spending, can actually reduce expenses in the long term. However, while the US spends a bit less on social care than other countries, it’s not necessarily an outlier. The study also contradicts several common beliefs, such as the idea that America uses more healthcare services than peer countries (it actually has lower rates of physician visits and days spent in the hospital than other nations) and that the quality of healthcare is always lower than in other countries. The US actually has excellent healthcare for those who have heart attacks or strokes but is below average in avoidable hospitalizations for things like diabetes and asthma.

The problem is that despite investing heavily in health care, Americans don’t have access to the quality they’re paying for. This is an old, systemic problem for the country, but the good news is that it can be fixed, researchers conclude. What’s needed is a reduction in unnecessary costs and an investment in the areas where the country is still lagging behind.

“As the U.S. continues to struggle with high healthcare spending, it is critical that we make progress on curtailing these costs. International comparisons are very valuable–they allow for reflection on national performance and serve to promote accountability,” said first author Irene Papanicolas, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard Chan School.

Journal Reference: “Health Care Spending in the United States and Other High-Income Countries,” Irene Papanicolas, Liana R. Woskie, Ashish K. Jha, JAMA, online March 13, 2018, doi: 10.1001/jama.2018.1150

Who really discovered America? (Spoiler: it’s not Columbus)

If not Columbus, then who?

There are several theories as to who “discovered” America, some more substantiated than others. We know for sure that Vikings were in America centuries before Columbus got there, and there is also (disputed) evidence that Polynesian explorers also visited the continent before the Spaniard. Technically, Nomadic Asian tribes first discovered America over 15,000 years ago.

But let’s take it step by step.

The Columbus Expedition

Christopher Columbus arrives in America, by L. Prang & Co., Boston.

In 1492, Columbus departed from the Spanish city of Palos de la Frontera with three ships. Ironically, Spanish citizens were forced to contribute to the expedition against their will, although that’s the smallest of Columbus’ sins.

Fast forward a few weeks, and a lookout sailoron one of the ships saw land. The captain of that ship (not Columbus) confirmed the sighting and alerted Columbus. Seizing the opportunity, Columbus later maintained that he himself had already seen a light hours beforehand — because the first man to see new land would earn a lifetime pension from the Spanish crown.

As we’re already starting to see, Columbus wasn’t really the nicest or most honest person.

What island they found will remain a question for the ages. What we do know is that Columbus and his crew called it San Salvador; the natives called it Guanahani. It was an island in the Bahamas, but we don’t really know which one.

They encountered peaceful natives, who welcomed them peacefully. Columbus noticed the natives were wearing gold bracelets and necklaces, so in true colonial fashion, he took six of them as slaves without hesitation. He wrote in his diary:

“They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”

Columbus was also pleased to note that they didn’t seem to have any weapons or army.

“I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”

What happened later is well-known history. For the locals, it was genocide. For the Europeans of the time, it was a quick way to get incredibly rich and conquer new territories — which they did to the best of their ability.

Even conservative estimates suggest that in less than a decade, the population of the Island of Hispaniola plunged from 500,000 to less than 100,000, either from sickness or conflict with colonists. Columbus became rich beyond his wildest dreams: he was given 10% of all the removable assets of the newly discovered lands, including gold, silver, pearls, and precious stones, and the trade therein was to be a crown monopoly under his control.

Columbus paved the way for all of this… is this really the person we want to celebrate for discovering America? After all, other explorers visited America centuries before him.

American Vikings

Viking ships found America one thousand years ago. Image credits: Carolin W.

Sure, Columbus made America known to the Europeans who ultimately conquered it, but he didn’t discover it by any means.

Leif Erikson, the son of Erik the Red, was a Norse explorer from Iceland — a Viking. Erik the Red founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Discovery and expansion ran through their blood, as Leif went on to travel much farther: to America.

Leif and his crew traveled from Greenland to Norway in 999 AD, where he converted to Christianity. Not long after that, he sailed the Atlantic. According to the Sagas of Icelanders, he established a Norse settlement at Vinland, which is (debatably) in Newfoundland in modern-day Canada. For many years, this was thought to be only a mythological story — more myth than reality — but archaeological evidence has shown, beyond a doubt, that Vikings reached Canada.

The first Viking archaeological site in the New World is L’Anse aux Meadows, a thousand-year-old way station discovered in 1960 on the northern tip of Newfoundland. The feature was a clear indication that Vikings had visited North America centuries before Columbus — at least partially, the myth was proven to be true. Archaeologists actually used clues from the sagas to guide their research.

Leif Erikson plaque in Cambridge, MA. The Vikings called America Vineland because it was rich in grapes which made delicious wine.

When archaeologists discovered another site, the second Viking settlement in America, things became much clearer. Not only have Vikings visited the American continent, but they actually colonized some parts of it — or at least attempted to do so.

“The sagas suggest a short period of activity and a very brief and failed colonization attempt,” says Douglas Bolender, an archaeologist specializing in Norse settlements. “L’Anse aux Meadows fits well with that story but is only one site. Point Rosee could reinforce that story or completely change it if the dating is different from L’Anse aux Meadows. We could end up with a much longer period of Norse activity in the New World.”

There is also other indirect evidence suggesting that Vikings went to America. Icelandic sagas claim that in 1004, Leif’s brother Thorvald Eiriksson was said to have sailed with a crew of 30 men, spending the following winter at Leif’s camp. In the spring, Thorvald attacked the local population and was ultimately killed by an arrow, but his crew appears to have remained in place. Just five years later, in 1009, Thorfinn the Valiant supplied three ships with livestock and 160 men and women — a proper colony. Accounts differ as to what happened to this colony, but the sagas mention a peace agreement between the indigenous peoples and the Norsemen.

So, we have solid evidence that Vikings — Leif and his extended family — visited America and remained then for at least 10 years. There is some evidence that they tried to establish an outpost, but the natives didn’t seem to appreciate their presence. Feeling threatened and outnumbered, the Vikings presumably left, though they likely returned from time to time to trade.

Another interesting piece of evidence was recently found by researchers analyzing Viking tombs: teeth filing. Researchers believe that the Vikings learned the practice from some other culture, but teeth filing was not done by any European culture. The only culture to employ such a practice was in America.

Polynesian yams and shakier claims

Another population who probably visited America way before Columbus are the Polynesians. The main clue for this behavior is the inconspicuous sweet potato (yam).

Image credits: 5aday.gov

The oldest carbonized sweet potato evidence in the Pacific hails back to about 1,000 A.D.—500 years before Columbus sailed to the Americas. But it wasn’t a convincing enough proof, so it remained as a hunch more than anything else.

However, French scientists found better samples from a herbarium collected by early European explorers. Through genetic analysis, they were able to show that Polynesians took the sweet potatoes from America and spread them across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where they are now ubiquitous. There are also studies which link Brazilian DNA to that of Polynesians, though another recent study put the findings under question. It seems very likely that Polynesians did reach America and established some kind of trade route. If this happened, it was before Columbus’ time, but it’s not clear if it was before the Vikings.

Another intriguing analysis on Peruvian mummies found that at least one such mummy had been embalmed using resin from a tree that only grew only in Oceania and New Guinea. Both the mummy and the tree were dated to 1200 AD.

There is also a “China first” theory, but that’s highly speculative. While a massive Chinese fleet explored Africa, reaching present-day Kenya, there’s no real evidence to support that idea. Several explorers also claimed to have discovered the continent a few years before Columbus, but there’s almost no way to prove such claims.

The first explorers of America might have come from this area.

The first true Americans

So, we’ve established that while Columbus made America known to Europe’s colonial powers, he definitely wasn’t the first one. Polynesian sailors probably also visited South America. But if we really want to get true here, every time these explorers reached the continent, natives were already there. Because America was first discovered by humans over 15,000 years ago.

After all, when Columbus got there, and when the Vikings got there, there was always someone there to greet them.

The first explorers came from the frozen wastelands of Siberia. Image via Prezi.

Exactly when this happened is also a heated debate, but recent studies place the earliest migration rate between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago. Technically, you could say they were the first ones to discover America.

17 Charts and Figures that show the US is not as developed as you’d think

The US was traditionally regarded as the world’s richest nation, the leading economy, the home of leading businesses. But is it really so nowadays? These charts seem to suggest otherwise and really leave us wondering. In many essential ways, the US fares much worse than all other developed countries.


The first thing that strikes you is the social inequality in the US. For a country so rich, it seems bizarre and unexplainable that so many people are poor. The poverty line is defined as the bare minimum with which one can survive, and apparently, the income of 1 in 6 Americans falls below that line. The rich are definitely rich, but the poor are really poor.

It might seem that it’s not a big difference to other developed countries such as Spain and Greece, but at the point of this statistic, the two countries had an unemployment rate over 20%. The US managed to top them with a much lower unemployment rate which means that even if you are working, there’s a chance you’re below the poverty line.

Actually, the US is the developed country with the highest income inequality, faring closer to China or African countries than countries like Norway or Germany.


This is where things start to really get rough.

This time, the difference is much more striking. With only 2.9 beds per 1,000 people, the US falls way below other developed countries. France and Germany more than double that figure, whereas developed Asian countries are in a completely different league.
To confirm that this is not some anomaly, a similar trend exists for physicians per 1,000 people. Not only does the US not have enough hospital beds, it also doesn’t have enough doctors.

Ironically, this happens despite the US spending much more money per capita in terms of health. So not only is the US providing insuficient health coverage, but it’s doing this for more money.

Again, there’s a big disparity between the US and other developed countries. What this tells us is that although the country spends enormously on healthcare, this expenditure is extremely inefficient. Also, consider that many Americans aren’t even insured — something which doesn’t happen in the other developed countries on this list, where everyone is insured by default.

Together, this indicates that the US spends a lot of money, insures few people, and is an overall extremely inefficient system. Many argue that not insuring your citizens loses more money than it saves in the long run. This isn’t something related to recent events, this is a trend that has been evident for a few decades already.

Americans also aren’t healthy. In a ranking of the world’s healthiest countries, the US was again mediocre, coming at #34th, behind Cuba, Lebanon, and Costa Rica; just above Croatia, Qatar, and Brunei.

Much of this can be attributed to an unhealthy diet. More than 1 in 3 Americans are obese, more than any other developed country in the world. More youth are obese than anywhere else in the world too, indicating that the country’s position as a “leader” in obesity will carry on in the future.

Gender equality

The land of all possibilities? Maybe… but especially if you’re a man. Few places in the world if any ensure true gender equality but the US seems to be especially bad. It’s notoriously difficult to advance through a company if you’re a woman. Just have a look at the percentage of women on the boards of public companies. Just 1 in 6 board members are women.

But that doesn’t even begin to say just how hard it is to be a woman in the US. There are just two countries in the world that don’t provide a paid maternity leave: Lesotho and (you’ve guessed it) the US.

Although the difference isn’t quite as striking, women in the US are also more likely to be a victim of violence than anywhere else in the developed world.


Education is another problematic aspect. In terms of literacy, the US fares just above average compared to other OECD countries, whereas in Advanced literacy, it fares below average.

The fact that teachers in the US are drastically underpaid doesn’t really do much to help the problem.


This is another aspect where the US fares dismally. This chart only begins to reveal the problem.

No other developed country comes even close to the US when it comes to gun-related violence. Sure, you can pick countries like Swaziland or Brazil and make the US look good by comparison, but if you look at the developed world, it’s not a pleasant sight. The chart above makes a lot of sense when you understand that most assaults are carried out with a gun, and all other countries on the list have much stricter gun laws.

When it comes to incarceration rates, the US is also a distant leader. You can compare the incarceration rates with the Seychelles and Turkmenistan, but when it comes to the developed world, there’s no rivaling it. Not even close. The US incarcerates almost 7 out of every 1,000 citizens, compared to 1 in 1,000 in France or 0.7 in Germany.

You might think that this is somehow due to the large number of assaults, but that’s not really the case; this happens, to a large extent, due to incarceration for minor crimes, especially drug related issues, and due to the fact that much of the prison system in the US is private. This gives prisons an incentive to keep people in prison (because they make money) instead of rehabilitating them.

Image via Wikipedia.

Car accidents are also a reason for concern, though in this case, South Korea takes the cherry. For the US — this represents another dent in personal safety.

Renewable energy

President Trump boasted that the US is a leader in renewable energy, but the figures seem to say otherwise. The US simply fares worse than other countries. Unlike the rest of the world, the US also largely overlooks wind energy, which President Trump considers to be ‘ugly.’

Things aren’t getting better

It’s also interesting to note that these areas, in which the performance of the US is mediocre at best, are largely the areas from which Trump is withdrawing funding — to invest more in the military spending.

To sum it up, we’re not saying that the US isn’t a developed country — quite the opposite. We’re signaling that despite it being a developed country and especially, despite having enormous wealth and economic potential, the country has a dismal performance in many crucial aspects. When your education, your health, and your social and physical security is mediocre, then what’s the point of being a rich country?

Fast Food.

It’s not just the poor: all Americans eat fast food about as often

If there’s a common denominator for every American today, it’s got to be fast food, researchers report. Everyone is having a bite, regardless of socio-economic background.

Fast Food.

Popular wisdom says that the poor gorge on fast-food and the rich dine on fine, healthy courses. There is definitely a kernel of truth to this stereotype, as fast food is usually very cheap, feels like a filling meal as it’s high in fats and salt, so it seems a good deal. For people who don’t have the shops or (especially) time or to ensure they get a healthy, balanced diet, fast food seems like a viable alternative — but it’s actually a barren wasteland from a nutrient point of view.

But the stereotype needs to be revisited, according to a team from the Ohio State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Following a nationwide study of young baby boomers, they report that middle-income Americans are the most likely socio-economic group to eat fast food. There was only a relatively small difference between them and the other groups, however, suggesting that everyone bites in — even the richest people were only slightly less likely to report eating fast food.


Fast food, wide reach

“It’s not mostly poor people eating fast food in America,” said Jay Zagorsky, co-author of the study and research scientist at The Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research.

“Rich people may have more eating options, but that’s not stopping them from going to places like McDonald’s or KFC.”

Zagorsky worked on the study with Patricia Smith of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. They used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a survey conducted y Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research which has been questioning the same group of randomly selected Americans from 1979 to today.

The team drew on data from around 8,000 people who were questioned on their fast-food consumption in 2008, 2010 and 2012 as part of the survey. The surveyees, who were in their 40s and 50s at the time they answered the questions, were asked how many times they had eaten “food from a fast-food restaurant such as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut or Taco Bell” in the past week.

The results were compared to the participants’ reported income and wealth. All in all, 79% of respondents ate fast food at least once and 23% ate three or more meals during any one of the weeks recorded in the study. While the team did find some slight differences in how fast-food consumption related to both self-reported indices, Zagorsky says that the results were statistically similar.

In one analysis of the data, the team divided the participants into 10 groups based on income. Around 80% in the lowest bracket, 85% of those in the middle (brackets 4 and 5), and about 75% in the highest bracket reported eating fast food least once in the last week. Some pretty consistent numbers overall.

A similar pattern emerged when the team looked at the number of fast-food meals eaten during the three weeks of the study. People in the lower bracket ate 3.6, those in the middle brackets ate 4.2, and those in the highest bracket ate 3 fast food meals during this timeframe.

The team also found that people whose income or wealth changed significantly since 2012 (either for good or for worse) didn’t actually change their eating habits.

So what does matter?

One defining feature of those who relied heavily on fast food for their meals was a lack of time — or time poverty. The authors report that fast food eaters tended to have less leisure time and were more likely to work — and work more hours — than their counterparts.

Another surprise find represented one very select group of people. The team reports that in 2008, 10 respondents claimed to eat only at fast-food restaurants, as did five people in 2010, and two in 2012. Given that the total sample was of 8,000 people, it’s likely that there are only a few people in the US who only eat fast food for longer periods of time.

Still, the study is not without limitations. First, participants were asked if they ate fast food, not what they ate. Some fast food restaurants do carry healthier options such as salads, or non-food items such as coffee. The study included only people in their 40s or 50s, so the findings should be taken with a pinch of salt when expanding to other age groups.

But all in all, the study is a good starting point for policy designed to fight obesity or improve the overall nutrition of the average American consumer.

“If government wants to get involved in regulating nutrition and food choices, it should be based on facts. This study helps reject the myth that poor people eat more fast food than others and may need special protection,” Zagorsky said.

The full paper “The association between socioeconomic status and adult fast-food consumption in the U.S.” has been published in the journal  Economics & Human Biology.

This U.S. flag is only a couple nanometers wide or thousands of times thinner than a human hair. It's practically invisible to the human eye and the tiniest Old Flag ever. This pattern appeared unexpectedly when researchers heated the "stripe" material molybdenum ditelluride. Credit: University of Texas at Dalla.

Tiniest U.S. flag ever appeared by accident after researchers toyed with a 2-D material

This U.S. flag is only a couple nanometers wide or thousands of times thinner than a human hair. It's practically invisible to the human eye and the tiniest Old Flag ever. This pattern appeared unexpectedly when researchers heated the "stripe" material molybdenum ditelluride. Credit: University of Texas at Dalla.

This U.S. flag is only a couple nanometers wide or thousands of times thinner than a human hair. It’s practically invisible to the human eye and the tiniest American flag ever. This pattern appeared unexpectedly when researchers heated the “stripe” material molybdenum ditelluride. Credit: University of Texas at Dalla.

Captioned above is an intriguing, two-dimensional sheet that’s just about to transform into an array of nanowires, each just a few atoms wide. This image shows how the material momentarily morphs into the familiar Old Glory. Completely by accident, the researchers made the tiniest U.S. flag ever. Moreover, this patriotic material could lead to transistors that are ten times smaller than the current state of the art.

An unexpected discovery

A team from the University of Texas at Dallas was investigating new materials whose properties look promising as small, energy-efficient transistors for tomorrow’s next generation electronics. One such material was an anatomically-thin sheet made of one layer of molybdenum atoms and two layers of tellurium atoms. It belongs to a class of materials called metal dichalcogenides (TMDs), which have the potential to replace silicon in transistors. Silicon has had a fantastic run but it’s increasingly becoming limited. If a good replacement isn’t found soon, Moore’s Law — the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years — will cease to become relevant.

“We wanted to understand the thermal stability of this particular material,” said lead researcher Dr. Moon Kim in a statement. “We thought it was a good candidate for next-generation nanoelectronics. Out of curiosity, we set out to see whether it would be stable above room temperature.”

Kim and colleagues cranked the heat to 450 degrees Celsius and almost immediately two things started happening.

First, the researchers were surprised to see a new pattern emerge that was “aesthetically pleasing to the eye,” Kim said. The repeating rows or stripes of molybdenum ditelluride transformed into a shape that resembled six-pointed stars. Later, the researchers learned that, in fact, the material was transitioning into hexa-molybdenum hexa-telluride, a huge mouthful that’s a one-dimensional wire-like structure. Essentially, it’s a structure consisting of six central atoms of molybdenum surrounded by six atoms of tellurium.

The “stripes” and “stars” looked very much like the United States flag so the researchers made a false-color version with a blue field behind the stars and half of the stripes coloured in red to much effect. It’s a nanoflag!

“Then, when we examined the material more closely, we found that the transition we were seeing from ‘stripes’ to ‘stars’ was not in any of the phase diagrams,” Kim said in a statement. “Normally, when you heat up particular materials, you expect to see a different kind of material emerge as predicted by a phase diagram. But in this case, something unusual happened — it formed a whole new phase.”

Each of these nanowires from the array is a semiconductor, meaning it can switch current on and off — a basic property for any transistor. But when these individual nanowires are group together though they start behaving like a metal.

“We would want to use the nanowires one at a time because we are pushing the size of a transistor as small as possible,” Kim said. “Currently, the smallest transistor size is about 10 times larger than our nanowire. Each of ours is smaller than 1 nanometer in diameter, which is essentially an atomic-scale wire.”

“If used in future technology, would result in powerful energy-efficient devices,” Kim said.

It’s interesting to note that the material’s behavior could not be predicted in theory. When subjected to varying external conditions such as temperature or pressure, certain materials will undergo a phase change. One classic example is water’s phase change from a liquid into vapor when it’s boiled at temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Celsius (at sea level). Some materials, however, undergo phase changes differently, namely the atoms rearrange and redistribute changing the structure and composition of the material. This can, of course, affect the material’s properties. Scientists have made so many experiments to phase changing materials that there’s enough data to make a so-called phase diagram which can predict property changes in a material when it changes phase.

However, no phase diagram could predict this exotic material’s behaviour. Next, Kim and colleagues plan on running more tests meant to determine how to turn the material into a functioning material. Particularly challenging will be separating out the individual nanowires. They would then “But this is a start,” Kim said.


The ‘hateback’ loop of dehumanization could plunge America into civil violence

Dehumanizing certain groups of people — viewing them as less evolved or civilized compared to your own — may lead to a vicious circle of hate and violence between the two groups, a new study shows. More worryingly, the team showed that this process can become a common denominator for people supporting particular political figures, whose views and rhetoric end up fueling violent or hateful reactions from the targets — a feedback loop which reinforces a new cycle of dehumanization.

Image credits: Carlo Sardena / Pixabay.

It’s a bad time to be a Muslim or Mexican immigrant in the US right now. And the main reason is all the hate being thrown around by the president, echoed by a large part of his supporters. A team of psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania set out to understand why some Americans are so happy to vilify these groups, and what impact this can have on society. The root cause, they say, is a process called dehumanization — basically considering these groups as less human than the rest of society.

If you’ve read that last sentence and got flashbacks to 1930’s Germany, congratulations, you’ve spotted the problem. The team warns that it may ultimately lead to a self-reinforcing loop of ever greater hate and violence between a perceived ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Less than us

Two of the experiments carried out by the team involved the “Ascent of Man” diagram, which illustrates stages of human evolution from our earliest ape-like ancestors to modern man. Participants were asked to think of the diagram as a scale, with the most primitive member being ‘0’ and the modern human ‘100’.

First, the researchers asked 342 non-Hispanic Americans to place Mexican immigrants and non-Hispanic Americans on the scale. In the second, 455 non-Muslim Americans were asked to perform the same task for Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. All participants in both experiments were asked which presidential candidate they supported.

Some of the participants placed Mexican immigrants or Muslims lower on the Ascent than their non-Hispanic or non-Muslim counterparts, respectively. Essentially, what these people were saying is that Mexicans and Muslims were less human than others. Supporters of Trump were more much more likely to dehumanize these former groups compared to those who rooted for other Democratic or Republican candidates.

The team also looked at how the two groups’ experience of being dehumanized might affect their place in society. This part of the study included 283 Mexican immigrants and 124 Muslims. For the former, participants who said they felt dehumanized were more likely to dehumanize Trump in turn and support anti-Trump initiatives such as boycotting his business compared with those who did not feel dehumanized, the researchers report. They were also more likely  to “want to see him personally suffer, and endorse hostile actions such as spitting in his face.” Muslims who felt dehumanized by non-Muslim counterparts were more likely to endorse violent approaches of supporting civil rights of Muslims in the U.S. than those who didn’t feel dehumanized, the authors add.

Hateback loop

But to be clear, these attitudes come as a response from a group that has suffered “widespread derogation and dehumanization,” both of which are “highly associated with supporting Republican candidates (especially Donald Trump),” the authors note. The very first line written down in this study clarifies that “members of advantaged groups who feel dehumanized by other groups respond aggressively”, so if anything their actions don’t make them different, but just as human as the rest of American society. In fact, immigrants as a group have been shown to engage in less crime and violent behavior than the native population in normal conditions.

Image credits Lorie Shaull / Flickr.

These aren’t the actions of groups who is out to get you — these are people who are oppressed, publicly insulted as hordes of thieves and rapists, considered less than the rest, under “man” on the chart of evolution. Guess who also put a word on that concept.

Yep, it was Nazis. Apparently what America needed to be great again was some Reich. Ugh.

Apart from the indelible fact that it’s morally wrong and deeply bigoted to consider others as inferior beings to your own group — especially when that group historically formed from ‘others’ migrating to the US — a rhetoric of hate and dehumanization actually creates and deepens the issues for which these groups are shunned.

“If we use rhetoric and enact policies that make Muslims feel dehumanized, this may lead them to support exactly the types of aggression that reinforce the perception that they are ‘less civilized’ than ‘us,'” study co-author Emile Bruneau said in a statement.

“In this way, dehumanization can become self-fulfilling in the minds of the dehumanizers and justify their aggression.”

The authors note that there are some limitations to the study, most notably that correlation does not imply causation — and a certain cause-effect relationship couldn’t be established for certain elements of the findings. For example, although the process of dehumanization was strongly correlated to people’s support for Trump, the researchers can’t prove or disprove if someone’s tendency to dehumanize these groups led to their support of the candidate. But as the researchers note, it’s likely that people aren’t supporting him despite his rhetoric, “but in part because of it.”

So you’ll have to draw your own conclusion on that last point. But the study passed peer-review and made it to publication in a reputed scientific journal — it’s not bogus, and it draws some huge warning signs that a healthy society will never be born from hate and oppression. Especially not one who fashions itself the land of the free.

The full paper “Backlash: The Politics and Real-World Consequences of Minority Group Dehumanization” has been published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.



The U.S. public doesn’t trust scientists over GMO foods, Pew report says

Are GMOs winning the fight for Americans’ holiday meals? A new Pew Research Center report picks the public’s collective brain on the issue.


Image credits Pineapple Supply Co. / Pexels.

Like them or hate them, the one thing we can all agree about GMOs is that they’re controversial. The debate around them is so heated that it’s surprising they don’t spontaneously cook themselves into GMO meals on-shelf. Scientists, as a group, are all for them — they could solve a lot of problems, such as combat drought and reduce CO2 emissions from agriculture while feeding more mouths than before — so there’s a need for them. With the FDA approval of modified salmon farming last year, there is also a precedent. But until people are actually willing to eat these crops and animals, farmers won’t be able to start growing them. So how do the people of America feel about GMOs?

Well, the Pew Research Center has just the answer (and it’s a very comprehensive one): a 99-page strong report on the attitudes toward genetic modification, organic food, and the importance of eating healthy. And on the off-chance you’re not looking forward to reading a report for the next two days or so, here’s the highlights from their survey.

There are no clear-drawn groups

There’s a lot of mixed opinions on GMOs. To make things even more complicated, there aren’t clear groups of people all believing the same things about the issue. For example, 18% of respondents said that their main interest was in eating healthy and nutritious food. Some 16% said they care about genetically modified foods “a whole lot”. But these are not the same people. Only about a third of those in the first category also fall into the latter. Almost half the respondents (46%) say that they care about the issue of GMOs “not too much” or “not at all.”

And whether someone wants to eat healthily doesn’t seem to make him or her more likely to believe that GMOs are bad for people — which is usually what critics shell out at the stuff even though it’s complete, if fully organic, baloney. One visible link identified by the study is that which develops between attitudes about healthy eating and organic food. Those who reported their “main focus” was on healthy eating were three times as likely to eat organic food compared with those who consider healthy eating “not at all important.”

Views about GMOs and their effect on health, as well as the health qualities of organic food didn’t vary much between men and women, or between rich and poor — with one exception; unsurprisingly, rich people did actually buy more organic food, and they did so more regularly.

And lastly, people aren’t “against GMO” per se as much as they’re “pro-organic“, which is to say that some three-quarters of respondents said they bought local food recently, and two-thirds saying they had purchased organic food. Only 44% reported they’d recently purchased food labeled as “GMO-free”.

Political affiliation doesn’t play a role in what food you like

Red or Blue, both sides of the political spectrum had roughly the same views on food. Republicans and Democrats feel that GMOs are worse for your health in about equal shares (39% R vs 40% D). This result comes in stark contrast to Pew’s results on climate change says Cary Funk, the Pew Research Center’s associate director of research on science and society. Here, Republicans are more likely to consider it a natural event or dismiss it altogether, while liberal Democrats are much more likely to believe that humans are responsible. The only polarization the survey found is that more Democrats think organic food is healthier, with 60% vs 50% of Republicans. Still, it’s a very narrow difference.

There was consensus on one point: 72% of respondents said healthy eating habits are paramount to a long and healthy life. An additional 25% said it’s “somewhat important”. Most, however (58%) also say they fall short of their goals and that “most days I probably should be eating healthier.”

But probably most troubling is the next point.

Most of Americans don’t give two modified beans about what scientists think about GMOs.

39 percent of the respondents believe that GMOs are worse for your health than non-GM food, flying in the face of pretty much all of scientific literature. From those 16% that said they care about the GM foods issue “a great deal”, three-quarters think GMOs are bad for your health. More than 50% of respondents think that “about half or fewer” of scientists agree that GM foods are safe. Only a tiny 14% think that “almost all” scientists agree that GM foods are safe to eat — which they do.

Americans also don’t really trust scientists on the issue. The survey revealed that Americans feel researchers are influenced by the best available scientific evidence, a desire to help their industries, and desire to advance their careers. They also feel that these factors are put ahead of the public’s best interest. There’s a silver lining, though! The public still trusts scientists more than politicians, the survey found — 60% say they want scientists to play a major role in setting up policies regarding GM food, while only 24% would want elected officials to work through the issue. That’s a kind of victory, though truth be told, who among us really trusts politicians?

Still, the main takeaway from this is that people should definitely start trusting GMOs more than their politicians.


Study estimates Zika Virus risk across 50 biggest cities in US

With the Zika virus running rampant through South America, outbreaks could pop up in several US cities. A study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) estimated this hazard in the largest cities in the US, finding that the south and especially the southeast is quite vulnerable to the threat posed by Zika.

Many US cities face potential risk in summer of low, moderate, or high populations of the mosquito species that transmits Zika virus (colored circles). The mosquito has been observed in parts of the United States (shaded portion of map) and can establish populations in additional cities because of favorable summertime meteorological conditions. In addiiton, Zika risk may be elevated in cities with more air travelers arriving from Latin America and the Caribbean (larger circles). This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.
Credit: Image based on data mapped by Olga Wilhelmi, NCAR GIS program.

Key factors can combine to produce a devastating Zika outbreak, and those unfortunate conditions may very well allign in some American cities. The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is spreading the virus in much of Latin America and the Caribbean, will start moving more and more to the north as the weather warms up. The east coast is in a similar situation, with higher temperatures than most of the ocuntry. Summertime weather conditions are highly favorable for mosquito populations as far north as New York City and across the southern tier of the country as far west as Phoenix and Los Angeles, NCAR models showed. Wintertime conditions are too cold across all the country, bar southern Florida and Texas. However, it’s especially these (often impoverished) areas that especially vulnerable in the case of an outbreak.

“This research can help us anticipate the timing and location of possible Zika virus outbreaks in certain U.S. cities,” said NCAR scientist Andrew Monaghan, the lead author of the study.

“While there is much we still don’t know about the dynamics of Zika virus transmission, understanding where the Aedes aegypti mosquito can survive in the U.S. and how its abundance fluctuates seasonally may help guide mosquito control efforts and public health preparedness.”

“Even if the virus is transmitted here in the continental U.S., a quick response can reduce its impact,” added NCAR scientist Mary Hayden, a medical anthropologist and co-author of the study.

The study doesn’t propose a fixed chance for this year, but even in the case of an outbreak, it wouldn’t be as dramatic as it was in South America. A higher percentage
of Americans live in air-conditioned conditions or in sealed offices, and green areas and parks are often sprayed with insecticide. But this doesn’t mean that there is
no risk.

Aside for meteorological conditions, poverty and lack of access to proper sanitation also favorize the spread of the virus. Add to this the higher mobility of people
from the US, and you could end up with a recipe for disaster. All in all, this is a complex issue, and a disease we don’t properly understand yet. If we want to avoid
a global outbreak, basic precautions have to be set.

“The results of this study are a step toward providing information to the broader scientific and public health communities on the highest risk areas for Zika emergence in the United States,” said Kacey Ernst, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona and co-author of the study. “We hope that others will build on this work as more information becomes available. All areas with an environment suitable to the establishment of Aedes aegypti should be working to enhance surveillance strategies to monitor the Aedes aegypti populations and human populations for disease emergence.”

“This research highlights the complex set of human and environmental factors that determine whether a mosquito-borne disease is carried from one area to another, and how severely it affects different human populations,” said Sarah Ruth, program director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. “By integrating information on weather, travel patterns, mosquito biology, and human behavior, the project team has improved our ability to forecast, deal with, and possibly even prevent future outbreaks of Zika and other serious diseases.”

Journal Reference:

Andrew Monaghan, Cory Morin, Daniel Steinhoff, Olga Wilhelmi, Mary Hayden, Dale Quattrochi, Michael Reiskind, Alun Lloyd, Kirk Smith, Christopher Schmidt, Paige Scalf and Kacey Ernst. On the seasonal occurrence and abundance of the Zika virus vector mosquito Aedes aegypti in the contiguous United States. PLOS Currents Outbreaks,

The first Americans came from Russia’s frozen expanse, Siberia, some 23,000 years ago

A new study comes to dismiss the popular idea that Native Americans draw their genetic heritage from Polynesians or European peoples.

The first humans to reach the Americas came from Siberia in a single group some 23,000 years ago, at the height of the last Ice Age, says the new study. On their way to Alaska, they hanged around in the northern regions for a few thousands of years before moving deeper into North and South America.

Presumably for that delicious, cave-made maple syrup.

Presumably for that delicious, cave-made maple syrup.

They lived in low-land, shrubby areas for an estimated 10.000 years, but archaeological evidence is hard to come by to help reach a definite number.

This map shows the outlines of modern Siberia (left) and Alaska (right) with dashed lines. The broader area in darker green (now covered by ocean) represents the Bering land bridge near the end of the last glacial maximum, a period that lasted from 28,000 to 18,000 years ago when sea levels were low and ice sheets extended south into what is now the northern part of the lower 48 states. University of Utah anthropologist Dennis O’Rourke argues in the Feb. 28 issue of the journal Science that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from Asia onto the Bering land bridge or “Beringia” some 25,000 years ago and spent 10,000 years there until they began moving into the Americas 15,000 years ago as the ice sheets melted.
Credit: Wlliam Manley, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado.

They settled on a land bridge that connected Eurasia to the Americas, named Beringia. The ice sheets extended south into the Pacific Northwest, Wyoming, Wisconsin and Ohio. Large expanses of Siberia and Beringia were cold but lacked glaciers. As the planet warmed up however, ice melted, sea levels rose the area got slowly flooded, creating what we today know as the Bering Strait. These early settlers were forced to relocate and some of them found their way to America, but their settlements, and any traces of their daily lives were lost under the waters.

The lack of archaeological evidence makes precisely dating these events very tricky, but scientists are confident that genetic sequencing can help us with that:

“There is some uncertainty in the dates of the migration and the divergence between the northern and southern Amerindian populations. But as we get more ancient genomes sequenced, we will be able to put more precise dates on the times of migration,” said one of the study authors Yun Song, associate professor at University of California, Berkeley.

The analysis, using the most comprehensive genetic data set from Native Americans to date, was conducted using three different statistical models. The data consisted of the sequenced genomes of 31 living Native Americans, Siberians and people from around the Pacific Ocean, and the genomes of 23 ancient individuals from North and South America, spanning a time between 200 and 6,000 years ago.

The international team concluded that the northern and southern Native American populations diverged between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago.

The southern branch peopled Central and South America as well as part of northern North America. The findings will be presented in the forthcoming issue of the journal Science.

“The diversification of modern Native Americans appears to have started around 13,000 years ago when the first unique Native American culture appears in the archaeological record: the Clovis culture,” said Rasmus Nielsen, a professor at the California university. “We can date this split so precisely in part because we previously have analysed the 12,600-year-old remains of a boy associated with the Clovis culture,” Nielsen added.

Green America: how to turn the power grid 100% eco friendly by 2050

Converting the power infrastructure to rely on clean, renewable energy seems like a daunting, expensive and some would say, unachievable task. But Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, and his colleagues, including U.C. Berkeley researcher Mark Delucchi, are the first to outline how each of the 50 states can achieve such a transition by 2050. The plan relies on technologies and methods currently available and calls for aggressive changes in the way power is produced, transmitted and used, with solutions and methods tailored individually for each of the 50 states.

Attainable 100% green energy in America? Dam.

“The main barriers are social, political and getting industries to change. One way to overcome the barriers is to inform people about what is possible,” said Jacobson. “By showing that it’s technologically and economically possible, this study could reduce the barriers to a large scale transformation.”

The team started by looking at the current energy demands under four categories per state: residential, commercial, industrial and transportation. They then extrapolated how these would change by 2050 under business-as-usual circumstances.

After getting a good idea of how much power is used and by whom, they analyzed how much fuel each sector uses and it’s source — fossil, nuclear or renewables — and calculated the total need for power should all these consumers switched to using electricity. In other words, how much power would be needed if all cars were electric, if homes used only electric heating and cooling systems, if industry relied only on electricity for their power needs.

I love the smell of voltage in the morning.
Imagie via: huffingtonpost.com

When we did this across all 50 states, we saw a 39 percent reduction in total end-use power demand by the year 2050,” Jacobson said. “About 6 percentage points of that is gained through efficiency improvements to infrastructure, but the bulk is the result of replacing current sources and uses of combustion energy with electricity.”

The next step was to look at the suppliers. The researchers focused on meeting each state’s power demands using only the renewable energies — wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and tiny amounts of tidal and wave — available to each state. They looked at each state’s sun exposure, and at the number of southern facing, non-shaded roofs that can house solar panels. They put together and used wind maps to find out if local and offshore turbines were an option. Thirteen states were also found to have economically-viable geothermal energy potential. No new power dams were proposed, but the plan aims to improve the efficiency of the ones already in usage.

The power ratios they propose for 2050’s America is this:

In their study they show how the shift towards renewables would stimulate the economy by creating jobs, reduce power-inefficiency across the board and directly impact our lives by improving the quality of the environment we live in. They estimate that this will save the lives of nearly 46.000 people who die prematurely due to pollution-associated conditions each year, reducing the country’s health system spending by US$ 600 bil. and carbon emission-associated costs by US$ 3.3 tril. in 2050.

“When you account for the health and climate costs — as well as the rising price of fossil fuels — wind, water and solar are half the cost of conventional systems,” Jacobson said. “A conversion of this scale would also create jobs, stabilize fuel prices, reduce pollution-related health problems and eliminate emissions from the United States. There is very little downside to a conversion, at least based on this science.”

The roadmaps they set out for each individual state aims to achieve 80% transition by 2030 and full conversion by 2050. But the team is optimistic in the nation’s ability to reach the goals, and show that several states are already well on their way: Washington state, for example, could perform the transition quite easily as it already draws 70% of its energy from hydroelectric sources. Wind and solar could fill most of the remaining power requirements. Iowa and South Dakota also generate nearly 30% of their electricity from wind turbines.

Wind farms in the United States, as of year-end 2009.
Image via: bls.gov

California, which was the focus of Jacobson’s second single-state roadmap to renewables after New York, has already adopted some of his group’s suggestions and has a plan to be 60 percent electrified by renewables by 2030.

The guys over at thesolutionsproject.org have put together a really handy application showing the proposed power mixes for each state in the USA, so a big shout-out to them for the effort and superb results (it has nice colours and it’s interactive. Sweet).

As Jacobson himself said, the biggest obstacles this plan has to overcome are social, political, and economic. Huge industry has huge inertia, and the changes proposed in this green plan would affect each and everyone of us in our day-to-day life.

But i feel that we, as humans, after becoming such a huge force on our home planet, being able to influence so much of our environment and the natural systems that were in place long before we showed up, have taken upon ourselves the responsibility for it’s well being. Jacobson’s plan gives us a way to do so while also making life better for ourselves. And i support it full-heartedly.