On October 11th, 2018 we learned about

Curious George’s impressive predictions for primate participation in Project Mercury

It would obviously be absurd to suggest that NASA planned the Mercury space program on H.A. and Margret Rey’s children’s book, Curious George Gets a Medal. In the book, George the suspiciously chimp-like ‘monkey’ is depicted destroying property, stealing farm equipment, and rustling cattle, none of which were really prerequisites for the animals NASA did send into space. Nonetheless, the book does seem to somehow predict a key milestone in Project Mercury, most specifically the successful voyage of the chimpanzee No. 65, or Ham as he was later known.

Before the book

Curious George Gets a Medal was published just a few weeks before the Soviet Union sent a dog named Laika into orbit in 1957. However, animals traveling to space wasn’t a completely novel idea at that point, as the United States and Soviet Union had been sending everything from fruit flies to monkeys into space since 1947. However, an important distinction that Rey somehow predicted years before NASA was the need for the passenger organism to do something during their flight. At the time of the book’s publication, monkeys like Albert I were noted largely for their mortality rates, even though they traveled in restrictive harnesses with no real autonomy inside their V2 rockets.

Some of the similarities between Curious George and Ham could probably be explained by the necessary optimism needed for a kids’ book. It’s not exactly ‘fun’ to see a small simian strapped into a metal tube, so obviously George’s situation needed a bit more levity in the presentation. However, similarly to George’s origins in Africa, Ham was also captured in Cameroon when he was young (having been born in 1957, coincidentally enough). Like George, Ham was also noted for being a good, cooperative little chimpanzee. Just as the fictional monkey behaves a lot like a curious toddler, Ham’s handler remarked that Ham “…performed so well and was a remarkably easy chimp to handle. I’d hold him and he was just like a little kid.” Ham probably never destroyed a dinosaur exhibit in a museum, instead using these traits to excel among the other chimps competing to fly in an MR-2 rocket in 1961.

A more demanding mission

One detail omitted from Curious George Gets a Medal was the motivation behind flying a curious monkey in a rocket in the first place. The one clue is that George was not meant to be a passive passenger, as he had to pull a lever in a specific time frame so that he could eject from the rocket before it continued into deeper space. This isn’t explained in much detail, but again, it was very similar to the goals NASA had for Ham on the chimp’s test flight. In 1959 a rhesus monkey named Sam had been allowed to move his arms during his test flight, but before researchers wanted to confirm that an animal could not only survive, but also concentrate and function while in microgravity. To this end, Ham was trained to pull a lever on the dashboard in front of him withing five seconds of seeing an illuminated blue light. Ham did very well, responding to cues only a touch slower than on Earth. The fact that his pressurized spacesuit also performed well when a seal broke further cemented the notion that NASA was ready to launch a human in a rocket, paving the way for Alan Shepard’s historic flight.

As the name of the book implies, Curious George pulled his lever as instructed, and lands on the ground a hero. He is awarded a medal for being the “First Space Monkey,” which obviously missed a few bits of history, but otherwise wasn’t too far off the mark. Up until the flight completed, Ham had been known as No. 65 in order to make his possible death easier for the public to accept. So when the chimp survived the flight, he was essentially awarded a name, based off the acronym of Holloman Aerospace Medical Center. The chimp appeared on television and in documentary films, adding a bit of personality to a space program that had previously had fairly grim results. Ham was suddenly a hero.

Post-rocket retirement

There’s not much of an epilogue to Curious George’s trip in a rocket, but other stories have revisited the idea of the curious monkey going to space, including resupplying some incarnation of the International Space Station. In the biggest divergence from the Curious George books, Ham’s career was basically over once he landed. The chimp lived at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. where he was noted for seeming reserved and lonely in his retirement. Melanie Bond, a trainer at the zoo, found that the chimp seemed to reluctantly enjoy affectionate interactions, like tickling his feet. Later on, she learned that this was likely due to his training for the Project Mercury, wherein his feet were given electric shocks as a form of negative reinforcement for unwanted behaviors (something the Man with the Yellow Hat has obviously never considered). This need for control highlights an element of Ham’s experience that’s perhaps a bit too dark for a children’s book-— Ham wasn’t exactly a volunteer in his mission, and films of his flight suggest that it was a survivable but frightening experience for the chimp.

In 1980, Ham was transferred to the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro where he could live with other chimps with a bit more autonomy. He was only able to enjoy this final adventure for a few years though, dying in 1983 at the relatively young age of 25 years old. Instead of being fully taxidermied and displayed in a museum, Ham’s bones are currently preserved in a drawer at the US National Museum of Health and Medicine. It’s not exactly a grand tribute, but perhaps H.A. and Margaret Rey’s unintentionally prognosticative kids’ book is doing a better job of keeping Ham’s accomplishments in our memory today.

Source: Heroes of Space: Ham the chimpanzee by Gemma Lavender, Space Answers

On October 11th, 2018 we learned about

Moonmoons: scientists look at the likelyhood of moons of moons

Moons can be inert pieces of rock, hunks of ice or volcanically active. They can be caught in slow death spirals or potential homes to life. Atmospheres can be thick, thin or non-existent. Even size doesn’t matter all the much, as long as the moon is relatively small enough to be held by a planet’s gravitational pull. This is because the only real rules about being a moon are that the object is naturally occurring (ruling out the International Space Station, for instance) and that they orbit a planet specifically (ensuring that planets aren’t moons of their local stars). It all seems logical enough from our single-mooned planet, but since these satellites could potentially be large enough to trap objects in their own orbit, it raises questions about why we’ve defined moons like this, and if secondary moons of moons are even a possibility to consider.

Optimal orbits

Even with just a handful of planets, our solar system is still home to hundreds of moons. Making up the lack of moons around the inner planets, a gas giant like Jupiter has at least 78 moons in orbit. The more we look, the more we seem to find, indicating that a big planet doesn’t have a lot of trouble scooping up satellites. The lack of moons around those moons indicates that the latter relationship is much harder to maintain. This is essentially due to the limited range where a smaller object can fall into orbit around a moon without being pulled towards the larger planet nearby. Called the Hill sphere, this distance is highly dependent on the relative size and distance of the larger body in the equation, meaning the Earth’s smaller size and proximity to the Sun give our planet a smaller Hill sphere than Jupiter.

Even if an object does fall into a consistent orbit around a planet or moon, there’s also the issue of tidal forces. On Earth, the Moon ends up “pulling” more on the axis that is pointed at the Moon, which gives us high and low tides as the planet’s water essentially shifts around to always be aligned with the Moon. On a planet-wide scale, this results in internal friction and the release of heat, slowing the rotational speed of the objects in question. Over the course of millions of years, an orbiting object is then likely to be slowed enough to fall out of its orbit altogether. Combined with an already tight Hill sphere, this further reduces the odds of finding a moon of a moon.

Models for moonmoons

This isn’t to say that these moons are impossible. Researchers recently modeled a number of scenarios and believe that moons-of-moons are likely to eventually be found around planets in other solar systems (or even around some of the many moons of Jupiter and Saturn!) Naturally, if these objects are going to be found and studied, it would help to define them, starting with a name. Some people are advocating for terms like “sub-moons” or “mini-moons,” but a standout contender may actually be based on a weird meme about werewolf names: moonmoons. Moonmoons may not be the most descriptive term out there it certainly makes a yet-unseen form of space rock seem very endearing. Sometimes even science is subject to popularity contests (just ask Opisthoteuthis adorabilis).

Source: Can moons have moons? (Intermediate) by Sabrina Stierwalt, Ask an Astronomer

On October 7th, 2018 we learned about

Proximity to sick peers causes healthy mice adopt an odor of illness

Being sick is bad enough, but the social stigma that goes along with looking like a runny-nosed zombie certainly doesn’t help things. Humans are generally repulsed by the visible symptoms in sick peers, overlooking other signs of illness like body odor. For a scent-oriented mouse though, the smell of a sick cage-mate is a bit more obvious, and would seemingly be a way for healthy individuals to avoid unnecessary exposure to contagion. However, studies have found that healthy neighbors of sick mice strangely start smelling sick themselves, although at this point its unclear how or why this helps either mouse.

Sniffing out sickness

The first step in testing all this was to expose healthy mice to infected neighbors. Some mice were allowed to have direct contact with their suffering peers, while others were separated by plastic barriers in their cages. None of the healthy mice were ever infected themselves, but their urine and body odor seemed to tell a different story. While the change in smell was nothing a human nose could detect, trained ‘sniffer’ mice and gas chromatography could detect a new, sickly scent.

The ‘sniffer’ mice were trained to move towards the smell of a sick mouse in a Y-shaped maze. When asked to sniff out unwell odors, urine samples from healthy mice smelled sickly around 63 percent of the time. Once it was established that mice could indeed detect the change in the odor of their healthy peers, researchers set out to identify exactly which chemical components were responsible.

Source of the scents

The three main components of a sick scent were all products of pheromones. This was unexpected, as these chemicals were normally associated with male mice looking to assert dominance or attract a mate. It’s then unclear why those pheromones would be tied to smelling like you’re sick. Actually, considering how most sick animals are avoided by their peers to avoid the transmission of pathogens, researchers aren’t sure if there’s any evolutionary advantage to imitating the scent of illness in the first place.

One possibility is that there is no significant benefit to smelling like you’re sick. It’s possible that the healthy mice exposed to sick cage-mates experienced an immune response to prepare them for possible infections. That physiological activity may be creating the pheromone by-products, and that the smell is simply sort of an inconsequential side effect. While evolution generally pushes organisms to be successful or efficient in their environments, smelling sick may be harmless enough that there was no pressure on mice to avoid it.

Source: Healthy animals mimic body odour of sick companions by Katrina Kramer, Chemistry World

On October 7th, 2018 we learned about

Hadza camps’ shifting community standards outweigh individuals’ interest in sharing resources

Anyone with a five-year-old can tell you that sharing is not a completely ingrained behavior in humans. Sure, we’re a very social species that owes a lot to getting along with each other, but that doesn’t seem to translate into immediately sharing our own resources with others. So if sharing can feel uncomfortable enough that a kid might turn down a free chocolate chip cookie just to avoid giving half to his sister, how did humans ever really get started teaching our children that this was a behavior worth practicing? It may seem like this question is now impossibly tangled up in economic, social and even marketing influences, but researchers believe a system used by the nomadic Hadza people of East Africa may offer some insight into how cultures developed standards about sharing.

The Hadza don’t have some single, perfect formula for dividing up resources, because they don’t live in permanent groups. Instead, individuals are likely to move between various camps on a regular basis, each with its own expectations for how people conduct themselves. So while one person may have a predisposition to share or withhold food they’ve gathered, this seems to be overruled by the expectations of whichever camp that individual is living in at the time. From the perspective of my uncooperative five-year-old, this would mean that even if he didn’t want to split a cookie, that preference wouldn’t matter as much as what his current camp expected of him.

Who holds their honey sticks?

Rather than relying on self-reported generosity, researchers tested these standards for sharing over the course of six years across 56 different camps. During that time, 383 people participated, although 137 ended up participating more than once because they had switched camps in the same order as the researchers. The test itself tried to simplify sharing by turning it into a game that asked people to hold or share some of the four straws of honey each participant was issued. Any straws shared with the group pool at the end of the game would be matched three-times over, with that resulting windfall being shared equally among all participants. So in theory, everyone could end up with 12 sticks of honey if they all pitched in, although knowing that didn’t mean that every participant really maximized their gains.

Some camps just tended to hold on to their own straws more than others. What’s more, participants that had played in a previous camp generally changed their sharing strategy to match how their new peers were sharing, rather than donating the amount they’d done in the previous camp. This strongly suggests that social expectations outweigh personal preferences, which has likely helped societies overcome individuals instincts to protect their own resources. If this holds true for all humans, I guess my household has been stingier around my five-year-old than I’d like to admit. If we’d really like to bring out his generosity, we need to make sure the whole family is willing to share our cookies before asking him to do so.

Source: The way hunter-gatherers share food shows how cooperation evolved by Bruce Bower, Science News

On October 4th, 2018 we learned about

Piano lessons prime kids’ listening to be better readers

Schools with tight budgets often treat their art classes as expensive luxuries, cutting them in order to focus on students’core educational needs like math and literacy. Researchers from MIT and Beijing Normal University have found that these strategies may not be as cost effective as they intend to be, and that arts, or more specifically music classes, can help young students with their reading more than practicing reading directly. This isn’t because reading quarter notes somehow teaches kids their ABCs, as it’s tied more to beginner readers’ need to approach language as a spoken form of communication.

There have been a variety of cognitive skills tied to music training. Musicians generally perform better auditory processing, deciphering speech amid background noise, and even reading comprehension. However, these correlations were generally made from retroactive surveys that weren’t enough for school administrators to plan a budget around. So when officials in Beijing were trying to assess how cost-effective music lessons were for their young students, it was a unique opportunity to really test how music boosts kids’ ability to read.

Experiments with real-world readers

For six months, 74 four- and five-year-olds were enrolled in one of three programs. One group took three, 45-minute piano lessons each week, another spent that time doing extra reading lessons, while the last group was left to their own devices with no extra classes. In addition to having their reading scores tested, these kids also had their brain activity measured with electroencephalography (EEG). Kids learning to play the piano showed stronger responses to changes in sounds’ pitch than other students, a fact that helps explain what researchers found in their reading scores.

After six months, the students who studied music showed the greatest improvement in one particular part of their reading— they could differentiate between single consonant sounds better than either of the other test groups, and their reading scores benefited as a result. The kids who had extra reading classes instead of music raised their scores around the same amount, although most of their improvements were tied to differentiation between vowel sounds instead of consonants. In both cases, it’s clear that beginner readers are greatly dependent on the sounds of words in order to understand what they read, instead of simply gleaning meaning from ink on a page. By training their ear for the kinds of sounds through music or other practice, students’ reading ability improved, especially compared to the kids who had no special classes and showed no real change over six months time.

Teaching two skills at once

Assuming the costs are somewhat equivalent, researchers felt that the gains seen in music students show how cost-effective music classes can be. Rather than competing for time and money against students’ reading development, this shows that time at the piano is another way to help get kids reading at a young age. While it wasn’t covered directly in the study, the fact that the music students also finished up being able to play music seems like an attractive ‘bonus’ as well.

Source: How music lessons can improve language skills by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Medical XPress

On October 2nd, 2018 we learned about

Goats seek out smiling humans, expanding the audience for our facial expressions

Smiles are not universally valued among people around the world, but even cultures that don’t smile as much as your average American understand that a smile isn’t a sign of aggression or anger. Even a beaming smile may seem slightly suspect, it’s a consistent enough expression that animals have even learned how to read human faces. The assumption was that a dog or horse’s ability to differentiate between smiling and scowling humans was the result of generations of selective breeding- humans would favor the animals that could best adapt to our interests, leading us to promote those abilities in domesticated species’ gene pools. However, a recent study with goats has complicated matters, as our cloven-hooved companions were found to also discriminate between happy and angry faces, even though humanity as only been influencing goat genomes for a relatively short time.

Goats prefer grins

Goats at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats were shown photos of unfamiliar humans taped up to a wall. Each pair of photos showed the same close-up of a person’s face either smiling or scowling. Not only did the goats show an interest in the grayscale print-outs, but they also spent the majority of their time gazing at the smiling face instead of the angry one. Hinting at the neurological processing behind this decision, the goats were especially drawn to the smiling faces when they were more easily visible to the goat’s right eye. While the goats didn’t have an EEG cap to monitor brain activity directly, this preference suggests that the positive emotions were primarily processed in the goats’ left brain hemisphere.

The most significant aspect of these finding may be that they were somewhat of a surprise. People who work around goats have likely learned their personalities and behavior, but there was still an assumption that only heavily-bred animals like dogs and horses could read a human face so well. By demonstrating that goats are sensitive to this kind of human expression, it raises the possibility that other livestock is as well. This may require changes to how guidelines about working with animals, as humans may inadvertently be communicating with animals more than we’ve realized.

Smiling among simians

This does not mean that a western-style grin is completely understood across all animals on earth though. Humans may have convinced dogs and goats to look forward to a big smile, but chimpanzees and other primates don’t quite see our smiles as something pleasant. Chimps do have a friendly smile, but they take care to keep their upper teeth covered when doing so. Instead of being perceived as attractive or friendly, exposed upper teeth are seen as a threat, so save your bigger smiles for the species who have had a little more practice living around humans.

Source: Goats prefer happy people by University of London, Phys.org

On September 26th, 2018 we learned about

Humans may be wired to live lazily, even if it contributed to the extinction of other hominids

It’s probably embarrassingly easy to come up with personal examples of being lazy. I admit that I’ve driven distances that were easily reachable on foot or on a bike. My kids routinely wear their shirts backwards, even after their mistake is pointed out to them. My wife seems to be only vaguely aware of the family’s laundry hamper. Each of these examples of sloth probably doesn’t amount to much in isolation, but over time they can certainly add up to rather extreme consequences. In the case of Homo erectus, researchers even think being lazy may have played a role in our fellow primates’ extinction. This isn’t great news, as modern Homo sapiens also struggle with laziness, and there’s a chance that we may not be able to ever really be rid of it.

No effort to avoid extinction

As far as we know, H. erectus didn’t go extinct because they wouldn’t deal with their laundry. There is evidence, however, that they did a very poor job managing the resources available to them, even when it surely reduced their quality of life. Stone tools excavated in the Arabian Peninsula were found to be made of very low quality rock fragments, despite an abundance of higher-quality materials within walking distance of the dig site. Unlike ancient Homo sapiens or Neanderthals that apparently transported high-quality materials for miles in order to craft better tools, the H. erectus craftsmen were confusingly content to just use whatever pieces of rock rolled down the hill into their camp.

Being slightly inefficient became a bigger problem for H. erectus as the climate started to shift around them. Researchers found that at time periods when food sources were being shaken up by changes in the environment, H. erectus didn’t seem to respond in any meaningful way. Their tool design and other survival strategies were apparently conservative to the point of being static, leaving them to the complete mercy of the droughts that probably brought about their demise.

Just like our ancestors who did go that extra mile to make better tools, modern humans would surely be protected from this degree of laziness, right? As a species, we’d never sit on our hands while our world’s climate changed around us.

Right?

Internal inertia

If it’s too early to know how closely modern Homo sapiens are willing to follow H. erectus‘ example, we do have evidence that humans are physically less active than they were in the past. Most of us don’t need to hunt or gather our own food anymore, giving us plenty of opportunities to lazily sit on the couch for hours on end (although even modern hunter-gatherers sit down for nearly half their day). Researchers following these trends don’t think it’s just that we’ve lost the will to move or anything, it’s just that being sedentary can, in the right context, be part of a successful survival strategy. Like a carnivore who sleeps nearly every hour that they’re not hunting, humans seem to have inherited a predisposition to try to save our energy whenever we get the chance.

This model may seem intuitive, but researchers recently tested these instincts on a neurological level. Test participants were, appropriately enough, tasked to play a video game that required them to identify images as either active or inactive physical activities. Most people were actually faster to click pick out the images of running or jumping, but brain scans of participants painted a different picture of these responses. Electroencephalograms (EEG) showed that more of the brain had to work to identify images of activity, whereas it was literally easier for the brain to identify images of lazing around on the couch. It seems that even imagining being lazy takes less effort than imagining being active.

So are we doomed to start making worse tools because we can’t be bothered to get off the couch? Researchers said that it’s hard to block out these automatic patterns entirely, but if we’re aware of these cognitive biases we can probably train ourselves to overcome them. It’ll just take work to do so, so maybe we should try tackling it tomorrow…

Source: Laziness helped lead to extinction of Homo erectus by Australian National University, Science Daily

On September 24th, 2018 we learned about

Zebra finches studying songs demonstrate pros and cons of social and solo learning

Despite remembering how annoying it was to hear it as a kid, I still nag my kids about the importance of practicing a new skill. There may be some debate about how much practice is needed to learn a particular task, but there’s little doubt that our brains learn through repetition, piecing together the right and wrong way to do something each time we attempt it. This might not be terribly motivating if you’re feeling frustrated with your piano or swim practice though, especially when you feel like your practice isn’t making any difference in your abilities. As it turns out, there may be a faster way to learn a new skill, although it as some annoyed zebra finches learned, it comes with cost.

Songbirds like a zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) are born with the anatomy to sing, but they don’t instinctually know the repertoires they’ll perform throughout their lives. They must learn particular songs, and seem to rely on listening to their older relatives, building their own version of a tune over time. Some songbirds have more direct mentors for their singing, but they can also piece together a song on their own if need be. These two styles of learning allowed researchers from the University of Zurich to devise an experiment to see if one kind of learning was more advantageous than the other. Essentially, do the finches who learn by example do better than those that have to figure things out through trial and error?

Speedier but shallower learning

While zebra finches definitely learn songs from each other, the first part of the experiment needed the birds to actively compare songs they were listening to. Birds were tasked with learning to differentiate between either “long” or “short” songs. Half the birds could observe other finches work through the same process, while the other half were left to figure out the comparison on their own. This made a huge difference, as birds that could learn from the efforts of their peers could successfully compare the songs after only 900 attempts, while birds who had to work on their own required closer to 4,700. Clearly, the social nature of zebra finches gives them a huge boost, allowing them to benefit from the efforts of other birds.

A second phase of the experiment found that the apparent advantage of social learning might not be better in every circumstance though. After learning the long and short songs, finches were offered a perch where they could see other birds but listen to two other recorded bird songs. These songs were similar to what had already been practiced, except that the longer song in this case was followed by an unpleasant puff of air in the listener’s face. Researchers then tracked how long the finches took to learn this new association and be ready to move their head out of the way of the harmless but annoying negative reinforcement.

The finches that learned from their peers in the first phase of the experiment didn’t fare as well in this scenario. On average, they took 3,600 tries before they put together the clues about when they’d be puffed in the face. The birds that had to figure out the first phase on their own did significantly better, requiring only 800 tries to learn this new task. So while they took longer to figure out the songs on their own, these birds seemed to have a better grasp of the underlying concepts which allowed them to generalize and reuse those ideas in new situations.

Information versus understanding

We can’t necessarily say that all learning can be compared to a zebra finch trying to avoid a puff of air in its face. However, researchers did put together a model that could help explain how these two sets of behaviors work on a neurological level. They believe that the finches that learned the first task by watching peers probably ended up with a broad but relatively weak set of synaptic connections associated with comparing the songs. In addition to forming connections in their brain that helped them listen to different song structures, they may have also been recording less relevant information, such as how their peers were sitting, if it was time to eat or not, etc. All that left them with a good blueprint for that first scenario, but it fell apart when too many of those irrelevant details were changed. In contrast, the birds that had to figure out the first songs on their own probably retained fewer details, but had a more robust foundation to build on in the second phase of the experiment. They likely had fewer synaptic connections in their brain, but what they had was strong and ready to work with new information in a more useful way.

None of this diminishes the need for practice. Many schools purposely try to use both forms of learning, asking students to both mimic a tutor and spend time in more experimental, trial-and-error activities. The former may help get someone up to speed a little quicker, which is great for a sense of accomplishment, but it turns out those difficult periods of more iterative learning will likely lead to a deeper understanding of an idea for future use.

Source: How birds learn, Science Daily

On August 23rd, 2018 we learned about

Caelestiventus hanseni’s advanced anatomy suggests that pterosaurs evolved early in the Triassic

The earliest known dinosaurs have a definite “prototype” vibe going on. Creatures like Eoraptor have many traits that turn up in later species, but they lack the size and specialization that marks the huge, exotic creatures most people are more familiar with, such as Stegosaurus or Triceratops. For the most part, pterosaurs were assumed to be following a similar evolutionary timeline, just establishing traits like flight in the Triassic period, 225 million years ago. However, a specimen found in Utah has paleontologists reconsidering this schedule, as Caelestiventus hanseni seems to have many of the traits normally associated with more specialized species from the Jurassic period. It strongly implies that while pterosaurs prospered alongside dinosaurs throughout the Mesozoic era, they may have actually had a significant head-start in their evolution.

Early airborne predator

C. hanseni was not only an unusual find, but it was a lucky one. A key trait of pterosaurs was their hollow bones that made flight easier, but made preservation as a fossil much, much harder. Fortunately, a specimen excavated in 2014 turned out to be preserved well enough to keep key anatomy like the skull from being flattened like a pancake. Rather than risk breaking the skull, now, researchers opted to use a CT scanner in order to build a highly detailed 3D model while leaving most of the original fossil protected in its sandstone tomb. The surprising model showed that C. hanseni had a lot of anatomical features around 65 million years before it was ‘supposed’ to.

For starters, C. hanseni’s wingspan was fairly large, probably just shy of five feet, although proportionally those wings were short compared to its oversized head. Based on the proportions of bird wings today, this would indicated that C. hanseni wasn’t cruising over long distances, but instead needed a lot of maneuverability in its flight. It had a flange of bone under it’s jaws, which suggests that it may have had a wattle or even a pouch like a pelican. Utah was a desert at that point in history though, so its diet was likely based around eating insects and small reptiles with its 110 teeth, including four fangs jutting out of the front of its mouth.

Closest cousins

Some of these features, like a variety of tooth-shapes and a longer tail, do align with other species of “early” pterosaurs like Dimorphodon. However, Dimorphodon was found in Jurassic-aged rock in England, so to find anything similarly specialized in Utah is also significant. When considering the age and locations of these fossils, it would appear that pterosaurs were firmly established earlier, and with a wider distribution around the world, than people had previously understood.

Source: Winged reptiles thrived before dinosaurs by Mary Halton, BBC

On August 21st, 2018 we learned about

The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft confirms relatively accessible supplies of ice on the Moon’s surface

If humans get thirsty on their way to Mars, it looks like we’ll be able to stop for drinks on our own Moon. Despite its reputation for being nothing more than a dusty target for asteroid strikes, researchers are solidly convinced that the Moon’s north and south poles are both home to water ice. If there proves to be a significant amount of frozen water, it could be a crucial resource for humans or spacecraft spending time in space.

Cold craters as ice cube trays

While the Moon’s surface is generally a dry, inhospitable place, it’s actually fairly conceivable to find water ice at the north and south poles. The Moon rotates with hardly any tilt to its axis, only 1.54 degrees, compared to the Earth’s 23.5-degree tilt, so the north and south poles don’t experience seasonal changes in their exposure to the Sun. With the Sun never being “overhead” at these locations, deeper craters can cast constant shadows on their interiors, maintaining temperatures below -250 degrees Fahrenheit. At this time, it’s unknown if this water was originally delivered by an icy comet or some other means, but there’s a good chance that it has remained frozen in these craters for a very long time.

The origin of the water might be revealed once a physical sample can be acquired. For now, the ice has been identified by examining a number of features with the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) instrument aboard the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. Even with the dust and darkness in these polar craters, the M3 was able to measure the reflectivity, infrared light absorption and other properties that all point to frozen H2O being on the Moon.

Accessible ice

There’s likely more ice buried deeper in the Moon, but these patches are exciting thanks to how close they are to the surface. Even though it likely has a lot of dirt mixed into it, it would still be accessible enough to be of use to humans or robots visiting the Moon in the future. Water is pretty heavy to get off the Earth, so any supplies of water for drinking, irrigating or even splitting to gain access to oxygen, would be a welcome resource for astronauts traveling outside low Earth orbit.

Source: Ice Confirmed at the Moon's Poles, Jet Propulsion Laboratory News