New Insights From Old DNA, Flowing Ants, Insecticides in Question

A computer-generated image of a single Neanderthal toe bone found in a Siberian cave in 2010.

Every family has its traditions. Researchers last week reported that Neanderthals probably not only buried family members, but sometimes reproduced with them, too. Happy holidays, everyone.

Developments

Genetics

New Techniques, Ancient DNA

In a remarkable feat of genetic extraction, scientists have reconstructed the entire genome of a 130,000-year-old Neanderthal from a single toe bone, yielding a bumper crop of insights. The result, described in the journal Nature, was said to be similar in quality to what scientists would achieve if they had sequenced the DNA of a living Neanderthal.

Analysis revealed that the toe, found in a cave in Siberia, belonged to a female Neanderthal who was highly inbred. The genome also contained evidence of more interbreeding among ancient human populations than was previously known.

Paleontology

Bones of Contention

Nathan P. Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive, and a dinosaur hobbyist and cookbook author, published an article in PLoS One alleging serious errors and inconsistencies in dinosaur research by top paleontologists. In the studies, skeletons were measured to calculate how quickly dinosaurs grew; in one instance, researchers concluded that the Apatosaurus grew 12,000 pounds in a year.

The author of the original research, Gregory M. Erickson, is standing behind his work, though some of his co-authors agreed that the papers have errors that should be corrected.

Image
Credit...Bence Viola

Physics

Fire Ant and Penguin Traffic

Penguins and fire ants both display complex, tightly coordinated movements when acting as part of a group, according to new studies. Fire ants form themselves into a single mass that can flow like liquid or resist pressure like a solid, depending on the situation. The findings, which could aid development of self-building robots or self-healing materials, were presented last month at a meeting of the American Physical Society.

Emperor penguins, on the other hand, maintain their tight huddles during Antarctic winters by moving like cars in traffic, according to a study in the New Journal of Physics. If a single penguin moves as little as two centimeters in any direction, a wave of tiny movements ripples through the group, keeping everyone within a comfortable distance.

Chemicals

Deadly to Bees, Dangerous to Us

A class of pesticides linked to the deaths of honeybees might also be harmful to humans, and their use should be restricted, European food regulators said. Several reports have blamed neonicotinoids, a relatively new class of pesticide, for aiding in the nearly decade-long die-off of honeybees.

A new assessment has found that some neonicotinoids may affect the developing nervous system of children. Bayer, which developed one of the popular insecticides in question, disputed the assessment.

Coming Up

Exhibitions

Weird Things in Jars

Monday is Weird-Thing-in-a-Jar Day at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. Stop by for a closer look at some of the stranger specimens in the museum’s collection, and learn how scientists prepare them for study and storage.

Bring the kids, because you can even make your own weird thing in a jar to take home.

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