Bird-like dinosaur discovery


From British daily The Guardian:

Dinosaur with feathers and fangs prowled forests like a predatory turkey

Poison from the bird-like dinosaur’s fangs may have sent victims into shock, hampering their chances of escaping

* Ian Sample, science correspondent
*Monday 21 December 2009 20.00 GMT

The remains of a venomous, feathered beast that terrorised prehistoric forests like a predatory turkey have been unearthed by fossil hunters in northern China.

Palaeontologists uncovered a well-preserved skull and partial skeleton of the bird-like dinosaur, Sinornithosaurus, that lived in the region 128 million years ago.

The creature, a close relative of the velociraptor, had fangs similar to those seen in modern poisonous snakes and venomous lizards, such as the Mexican gila monster.

Analysis of the dinosaur’s fang-like teeth revealed grooves that could channel poison from glands set into each side of the creature’s jawbone, researchers said.

“This is an animal about the size of a turkey,” said Larry Martin, curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of Kansas. “It’s a specialised predator of small dinosaurs and birds.”

The discovery, reported in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first evidence of a venomous relative in the velociraptor lineage.

The venom was probably not potent enough to be lethal, but may have sent victims into shock, hampering their chances of fighting back or escaping.

“You wouldn’t have seen it coming,” said co-author David Burnham. “It would have swooped down behind you from a low-hanging tree branch and attacked.”

“Once the teeth were embedded in your skin the venom could seep into the wound. The prey would rapidly go into shock, but it would still be living, and it might have seen itself being slowly devoured by this raptor,” Burnham added.

One of the beast’s close relatives was the four-winged glider, the microraptor, which some scientists believe may also have been poisonous. Sinornithosaurus’ fangs were long enough to penetrate thick feathers and pierce the skin beneath to a depth of half a centimetre, enough to get venom into the prey’s bloodstream.

See also here.

Alligators breathe like birds, scientists have discovered. This similarity in breathing style may have arisen in a distant common ancestor of both animal groups, the researchers who made the discovery think, and may explain why that ancestor and one group of its descendants, dinosaurs, came to rule the world (at least for awhile). In fact, the finding could provide evidence for why these dinosaurs came to dominate the land at a time when the air had much less oxygen than it does today: here.

The Extent of the Preserved Feathers on the Four-Winged Dinosaur Microraptor gui under Ultraviolet Light: here.

A shiny dinosaur –four-winged Microraptor gets colour and gloss: here.

Microraptor’s glossy black feather coat reconstructed: here.

Dinosaurs and Politics: A Toxic Combination: here.

Prehistoric birds: here.

How did birds learn to fly? The first flight tests of a foam model of a four-winged, feathered dinosaur suggest that early birds may have started their aviation careers by gliding down from trees: here.

Beluga whale born, video


From the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, USA:

At 2:25 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 20, one of Shedd Aquarium’s beluga whales, Naya, successfully gave birth to a male calf, with physical assistance from Shedd’s animal health and animal care experts. It is the first time a beluga whale calf has been successfully birthed with human assistance at Shedd, and only the fourth known in the zoo and aquarium community.

See also here.

Amazing underwater photos show beluga whales meeting divers at Arctic rehabilitation farm: here.

Cook Inlet’s Belugas’ disappearance; a controversial mystery: here.

Good news for beluga whales: here.

How a naked female scientist tries to tame belugas in the freezing Arctic: here.

Time for a sanity break. You cannot resist the power of a beluga whale dancing to a mariachi band: here.

Ancestral Whales May Have Given Birth on Land: here.

African-American anti-Franco fighters


African-American soldier in Spanish civil war

From British daily The Guardian:

Spanish quest to identify black soldier who fought against fascism in civil war

• US volunteer in picture killed in civil war battle
• Authorities plan to present image to Obama next year

* Giles Tremlett in Barcelona
* Sunday 20 December 2009 16.50 GMT

As a volunteer in the International Brigades that fought in Spain’s civil war, the unidentified black soldier in the photograph was one of the first Americans to die fighting fascism.

Now Spanish authorities want to put a name to him so they can present his picture to President Barack Obama when he visits Spain next year.

The black and white picture of the African American volunteer forms part of an extraordinary collection of civil war photographs that was bought recently by the Spanish state.

“All we know is that he arrived with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers and that he died in the battle at Brunete [in July 1937],” said Sergi Centelles, whose father, Agustí, took the picture.

The soldier is one of more than 90 African-Americans who volunteered to defend Spain’s elected Republican government from a 1936 rightwing military uprising that sparked a three-year civil war.

Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini sent troops to back the rebel army of future dictator General Francisco Franco. Leftwing and anti-fascist volunteers from around the world joined Russians sent by Stalin to help defend the Republic.

Obama defended the concept of waging a “just war” in his Nobel peace prize speech this month.

The New York-based Abraham Lincoln Brigades Association and New York University’s Tamiment library have scoured their civil war archives to see if they could identify the man in the photograph, which was probably taken in February 1937. Two possible candidates have emerged: Milton Herndon, whose brother Angelo won a famous supreme court case against a sentence for “incitement to insurrection”, and aviator Paul Williams.

“It is one of eight or nine photographs my father took of the Americans marching through Barcelona,” said Agustí Centelles.

The photograph remained hidden for four decades after Agustí Centelles, known as the “Spanish Robert Capa”, fled Spain as Franco’s forces looked set to win the civil war in 1939.

“My father took his photographs with him in a suitcase because he was scared they would be used to identify people and carry out reprisals,” said Sergi Centelles.

The photographer used the suitcase as a pillow in a French refugee camp to prevent it from being stolen. He later moved in with a French family in Carcassonne, in southern France, but had to flee again after the second world war broke out and the occupying Germans heard that he was using his camera to take photographs for false passports.

“The Gestapo were chasing him, so he walked back across the Pyrenees into Spain,” said Sergi Centelles. “He left the suitcase behind, telling the French family not to hand it over to anyone but him.

“It was passed down from the grandfather, when he died, to his son and then, when he also died, to the grandson.”

Agustí Centelles sent the French family a present every Christmas as a sign that he was still alive.

Spain did not give the photographer a passport until 1962, when the family travelled to Carcasonne to check the suitcase was still there. It was only in 1976, a year after Franco died, that he dared pick up the suitcase and bring it home.

It contained hundreds of civil war photographs, including one of writer George Orwell with a group of fellow international volunteers.

The mix of races in the International Brigades saw attempts made to observe a degree of racial equality otherwise unseen in western armies in the 1930s.

“We know there were quite a few African American volunteers and that many were treated badly when they went home, as people thought they were communists,” said Sergi Centelles.

“We have four or five names of possible candidates, but what we really want to do is to find their family.”

• If you know who the man in the main photograph is, or can provide any information that might help identify him, please contact giles.tremlett@guardian.co.uk

Jacob Green, an African American seaman who braved Nazi U-boats while supplying the Soviet Union during World War II, and later served as chairman of the Communist Party of Maryland, died Feb. 19. He was 107: here.

Michael O’Riordan, former IRA member, International Brigader and Irish Communist Party leader for over four decades, stands out as one of the towering figures of progressive Irish politics of the last 100 years: here.

Jews oppose sainthood for ‘Hitler’s pope’


From British daily The Guardian:

Jewish anger as Pope Benedict moves Pius XII closer to sainthood

• Catholic leader signs decree extolling virtues of predecessor
• Wartime pontiff accused of inaction during Holocaust

* Riazat Butt, Religious affairs correspondent

* Monday 21 December 2009 15.44 GMT

Jewish leaders from around the world expressed their outrage today after the Pope opened the way for his controversial wartime predecessor to be made a saint, with some calling the possible beatification of Pius XII as “inopportune and premature”.

Benedict signed a decree last Saturday on the virtues of Pius, who has been criticised for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust. The decree means he can be beatified once a miracle attributed to him has been recognised.

Beatification is the first major step towards sainthood. But Benedict, who has long admired Pius, continues to draw fire for ignoring concerns over the controversial pontiff.

Among those to criticise him was the World Jewish Congress, whose president, Ronald Lauder, said: “As long as the archives about the crucial period 1939 to 1945 remain closed, and until a consensus on his actions ‑ or inaction ‑ concerning the persecution of millions of Jews in the Holocaust is established, a beatification is inopportune and premature.

“While it is entirely a matter for the Catholic church to decide on whom religious honours are bestowed, there are strong concerns about Pius XII‘s political role during world war two which should not be ignored.”

He called on the Vatican to immediately open the files on the controversial figure. “Given the importance of good relations between Catholics and the Jews, and following the difficult events of the past year, it would be appreciated if the Vatican showed more sensitivity on this matter,” he added, referring to Benedict’s rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying cleric, Richard Williamson.

The incident sparked worldwide condemnation from prominent Jewish groups and individuals and placed an additional strain on interfaith relations, which were already under pressure after the pope issued an edict permitting a prayer that called for the conversion of Jews.

In France, the country’s chief rabbi urged the Vatican to abandon its mission to beatify Pius. Gilles Bernheim said: “Given Pius XII’s silence during and after the Shoah [Holocaust], I don’t want to believe that Catholics see in Pius XII an example of morality for humankind. I hope that the church will renounce this beatification plan and will thus honour its message and its values.”

The renewed source of tension could cast a cloud over Benedict’s inaugural visit to Rome’s synagogue next month.

Giuseppe Laras, president of the Assembly of Italian Rabbis, told the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica: “I hope it goes ahead but after this latest move I wouldn’t be surprised if it is cancelled. While I respect the autonomy of the church in matters of sainthood, I don’t see how the pope could have taken such an untimely decision. Anything can happen now.”

See also here.

Catholic scholars ask Pope Benedict XVI to slow Pius XII’s path to sainthood: here.

Golden ratio, new research


From Duke University in the USA:

Mystery of golden ratio explained

DURHAM, N.C. — The Egyptians supposedly used it to guide the construction [of] the Pyramids. The architecture of ancient Athens is thought to have been based on it. Fictional Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon tried to unravel its mysteries in the novel The Da Vinci Code.

“It” is the golden ratio, a geometric proportion that has been theorized to be the most aesthetically pleasing to the eye and has been the root of countless mysteries over the centuries. Now, a Duke University engineer has found it to be a compelling springboard to unify vision, thought and movement under a single law of nature’s design.

Also know the divine proportion, the golden ratio describes a rectangle with a length roughly one and a half times its width. Many artists and architects have fashioned their works around this proportion. For example, the Parthenon in Athens and Leonardo da Vinci‘s painting Mona Lisa are commonly cited examples of the ratio.

Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, thinks he knows why the golden ratio pops up everywhere: the eyes scan an image the fastest when it is shaped as a golden-ratio rectangle.

The natural design that connects vision and cognition is a theory that flowing systems — from airways in the lungs to the formation of river deltas — evolve in time so that they flow more and more easily. Bejan termed this the constructal law in 1996, and its latest application appears early online in the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics.

“When you look atwhat so many people have been drawing and building, you see these proportions everywhere,” Bejan said. “It is well known that the eyes take in information more efficiently when they scan side-to-side, as opposed to up and down.”

Bejan argues that the world – whether it is a human looking at a painting or a gazelle on the open plain scanning the horizon – is basically oriented on the horizontal. For the gazelle, danger primarily comes from the sides or from behind, not from above or below, so their scope of vision evolved to go side-to-side. As vision developed, he argues, the animals got “smarter” by seeing better and moving faster and more safely.

“As animals developed organs for vision, they minimized the danger from ahead and the sides,” Bejan said. “This has made the overall flow of animals on earth safer and more efficient. The flow of animal mass develops for itself flow channels that are efficient and conducive to survival – straighter, with fewer obstacles and predators.”

For Bejan, vision and cognition evolved together and are one and the same design as locomotion.The increased efficiency of information flowing from the world through the eyes to the brain corresponds with the transmission of this information through the branching architecture of nerves and the brain.

“Cognition is the name of the constructal evolution of the brain’s architecture, every minute and every moment,” Bejan said. “This is the phenomenon of thinking, knowing, and then thinking again more efficiently. Getting smarter is the constructal law in action.”

While the golden ratio provided a conceptual entryway into this view of nature’s design, Bejan sees something even broader.

“It is the oneness of vision, cognition and locomotion as the design of the movement of all animals on earth,” he said. “The phenomenon of the golden ratio contributes to this understanding the idea that pattern and diversity coexist as integral and necessary features of the evolutionary design of nature.”

In numerous papers and books over past decade, Bejan has demonstrated that the constructal law (www.constructal.org) predicts a wide range of flow system designs seen in nature, from biology and geophysics to social dynamics and technology evolution.