Beetle Byte (28 October 2014 edition)

“Ancient” data; ancient DNA; zombies; other algae-covered creatures… and more.


“Ancient” satellite images

‘All of it’ turned out to be 25 boxes full of tins containing several thousand 60-metre rolls of photos, and quickly-deteriorating magnetic film with infrared imagery – unopened, and labeled with useless information on orbit numbers rather than locations. But the prize was too great, and he was running out of time: with the surviving NASA scientists who had taken the original images well into their 80s, he knew it wasn’t long before the knowledge he needed to decipher the data would be gone forever.


It makes sense to be slothful

Slowness is the ultimate weapon in an evolutionary war against eagle-eyed, fleet-footed predators. What better way to blend in with the forest than to cosy up with algae and fungi. Ritual defecation is the sloth equivalent of speed dating, just without the speed.



This morning, our friend Rebecca at Calipidder alerted us via a Facebook post to a woman named Casey Nocket who had traveled to the west coast from New York for a few weeks. Ms. Nocket had been enjoying her time in the outdoors so much that she decided to document her trip on Instagram. And apparently Nocket was so moved by all the natural beauty she saw that she just had to paint all over it.


Fossil forest… in a mine

But it was a different thing entirely when John Nelson and Scott Elrick, geologists with the Illinois State Geological Survey, examined the Riola and Vermilion Grove coal mines in eastern Illinois. Etched into ceilings of the mine shafts is the largest intact fossil forest ever seen—at least four square miles of tropical wilderness preserved 307 million years ago. That’s when an earthquake suddenly lowered the swamp 15 to 30 feet and mud and sand rushed in, covering everything with sediment and killing trees and other plants. “It must have happened in a matter of weeks,” says Elrick. “What we see here is the death of a peat swamp, a moment in geologic time frozen by an accident of nature.”


In time for Hallowe’en… zombie corals

Last year, marine biologist Peter Mumby took a dive into the Rangiroa lagoon, in French Polynesia. What he saw shocked him so much he thought he might be lost.He’d expected to be surrounded by death, by a reef of dying coral whose skeletons were slowly crumbling into the sea. Instead, majestic, olive-green Porites corals, the size of large hippos, carpeted the sea floor, providing a playground for parrotfishes and the occasional shark that weaved between the cauliflower-shaped giants.


You won’t catch me doing this

The 57-year-old leapt out in a specially-designed space suit, reaching speeds of more than 1,300km/h. He exceeded the speed of sound, setting off a small sonic boom, and set several skydiving records in the process.


Human evolution is always fascinating

But Petraglia sees Ust’-Ishim’s genome differently. “I think this is part of a population boom that’s going on around 45,000 years ago, which means modern humans got to the ends of the world by 45,000 years ago,” he says. Their numbers might have swamped human populations that arrived in earlier migrations.