Turtle ant soldiers evolution, new research

This September 2019 video is called Turtle Ants, Cephalotes atratus from Ecuador.

From Rockefeller University in the USA:

Soldier ants reveal that evolution can go in reverse

March 9, 2020

Turtle ant soldiers look like real-life creatures straight out of a Japanese anime film. These tree-dwelling insects scuttle to and fro sporting shiny, adorably oversized heads, which they use to block the entrances of their nests — essentially acting as living doors.

Not all heads are shaped alike: some soldiers have ones that resemble manhole covers and perfectly seal tunnel entrances. Others have square heads, which they assemble into multi-member blockades reminiscent of a Spartan army’s overlapping shields. This variety in head shapes reveals more than just another of nature’s quirky oddities: it can also shine a light on how species evolve to fill ecological niches. And that evolution, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows, is not always a one-way street toward increasing specialization. Occasionally, it can take a species back to a more-generalist stage.

“Usually, you would think that once a species is specialized, it’s stuck in that very narrow niche,” says Daniel Kronauer, head of Rockefeller’s Laboratory of Social Evolution and Behavior. “But turtle ants are an interesting case of a very dynamic evolutionary trajectory, with a lot of back and forth.”

A match made in evolution

Like many other social insects living in colonies, turtle ants specialize for different functions, often evolving exaggerated features suited to their job. For the soldiers, this process has resulted in large heads that come in a variety of shapes.

“There’s a whopping four-fold difference between the smallest and largest turtle ant soldier heads,” says Scott Powell, a biologist at George Washington University and lead author of the new study. “To help people picture this, I often say that the smallest species is able to sit comfortably on the head of the largest species.”

The shape and size of a turtle-ant soldier’s head is dictated by the type of tunnel the species in question occupies. The ants don’t dig the tunnels themselves, but move into those excavated by wood-boring beetles. And since a hand-me-down tunnel might be too big or too small, Kronauer says, the ants diversify rapidly to be able to occupy it.

The relationship between turtle-ant heads and tunnels can hence offer a uniquely clear insight into natural selection. Researchers can easily compare a trait — head circumference — with the ecological feature it’s evolved to adapt to: the nest-entrance size. As Kronauer says, “It’s a 1:1 match on the exact same scale.”

A dynamic process

To examine the evolutionary journey of various head shapes, the researchers grouped 89 species of turtle ants based on whether soldiers sported a square, dome, disc, or dish-shaped head. They also included a group of turtle-ant species that don’t have soldiers. They then examined the evolutionary relationships among these groups using the species’ genetic information, which they had previously gathered.

If evolution was a one-way path, the first turtle ants that appeared some 45 million years ago should have lacked soldiers altogether, then gradually evolved toward specialization — starting with the generalist, square-headed soldiers, all the way to those with highly-tailored dish heads.

But the new analysis suggests that this was not the case. Instead, the oldest common ancestor the researchers could trace likely had a square head. That ancestor went on to form a range of species, from ones with no soldiers at all to others with different levels of specialization. In some cases, more specialist species reversed direction over time, evolving back into more generalist head shapes.

The finding nicely shows just how surprisingly flexible nature can be in fitting the shape of an organism to the context of the environment they occupy, Powell says.

“The space that evolution has to play with is actually quite a bit larger than previously thought,” Kronauer adds.

Food or War, new book reviewed

Food or war

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Monday, March 9, 2020

Food or War by Julian Cribb

Wide-ranging survey of the future threat posed by food shortages

WITH Food or War, Australian author Julian Cribb has written a popular and wide-ranging science and geography book about the important link between food and warfare and, in the future, civilisation’s very survival.

“Food — or fear of its lack — plays a central role in the genesis of human conflict,” he argues in the preface. More hopefully, the opposite is also true: “Ensuring a reliable, sustainable and nutritious food supply is a sure way to lower the tensions that lead to conflict.”

He provides a potted history of the close relationship between food and war, covering the Thirty Years war and the French and Russian revolutions before alighting on the starvation of Yemen today, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US and Britain. “In recent centuries, more people have perished during wars from hunger than have died through direct military action,” he notes.

According to Cribb, the ongoing climate crisis will come to dominate geopolitics in the foreseeable future and that will negatively affect food supplies. UN modelling shows that by 2100 the changing climate will mean a reduction in corn yields by 20-40 per cent, wheat by 5-50 per cent, rice by 20-30 per cent and soybean by 30-60 per cent. …

He notes that “ardent vegetarians… argue that eating meat must go” if we wish to avoid climate chaos but this is misleading. It isn’t just vegans and vegetarians but the scientific consensus which reveals that meat-eating must be significantly reduced if we want future generations to live on a habitable planet. …

He supports an increase in vertical farms, aquaponics and hydroponics, among other new agricultural practices.

Dinosaur age days were shorter, mollusks show

This 1 July 2016 video from England says about itself:

New insights for the rudist phylogeny (Bivalvia, Hippuritida)

By Valentin Rineau.

Recorded at Progressive Palaeontology 2016, Oxford.

From the American Geophysical Union in the USA:

Ancient shell shows days were half-hour shorter 70 million years ago

Beer stein-shaped distant relative of modern clams captured snapshots of hot days in the late Cretaceous

March 9, 2020

Earth turned faster at the end of the time of the dinosaurs than it does today, rotating 372 times a year, compared to the current 365, according to a new study of fossil mollusk shells from the late Cretaceous. This means a day lasted only 23 and a half hours, according to the new study in AGU’s journal Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology.

The ancient mollusk, from an extinct and wildly diverse group known as rudist clams, grew fast, laying down daily growth rings. The new study used lasers to sample minute slices of shell and count the growth rings more accurately than human researchers with microscopes.

The growth rings allowed the researchers to determine the number of days in a year and more accurately calculate the length of a day 70 million years ago. The new measurement informs models of how the Moon formed and how close to Earth it has been over the 4.5-billion-year history of the Earth-Moon gravitational dance.

The new study also found corroborating evidence that the mollusks harbored photosynthetic symbionts that may have fueled reef-building on the scale of modern-day corals.

The high resolution obtained in the new study combined with the fast growth rate of the ancient bivalves revealed unprecedented detail about how the animal lived and the water conditions it grew in, down to a fraction of a day.

“We have about four to five datapoints per day, and this is something that you almost never get in geological history. We can basically look at a day 70 million years ago. It’s pretty amazing,” said Niels de Winter, an analytical geochemist at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the lead author of the new study.

Climate reconstructions of the deep past typically describe long term changes that occur on the scale of tens of thousands of years. Studies like this one give a glimpse of change on the timescale of living things and have the potential to bridge the gap between climate and weather models.

Chemical analysis of the shell indicates ocean temperatures were warmer in the Late Cretaceous than previously appreciated, reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in summer and exceeding 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter. The summer high temperatures likely approached the physiological limits for mollusks, de Winter said.

“The high fidelity of this data-set has allowed the authors to draw two particularly interesting inferences that help to sharpen our understanding of both Cretaceous astrochronology and rudist palaeobiology,” said Peter Skelton, a retired lecturer of palaeobiology at The Open University and a rudist expert unaffiliated with the new study.

Ancient reef-builders

The new study analyzed a single individual that lived for over nine years in a shallow seabed in the tropics — a location which is now, 70-million-years later, dry land in the mountains of Oman.

Torreites sanchezi mollusks look like tall pint glasses with lids shaped like bear claw pastries. The ancient mollusks had two shells, or valves, that met in a hinge, like asymmetrical clams, and grew in dense reefs, like modern oysters. They thrived in water several degrees warmer worldwide than modern oceans.

In the late Cretaceous, rudists like T. sanchezi dominated the reef-building niche in tropical waters around the world, filling the role held by corals today. They disappeared in the same event that killed the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

“Rudists are quite special bivalves. There’s nothing like it living today,” de Winter said. “In the late Cretaceous especially, worldwide most of the reef builders are these bivalves. So they really took on the ecosystem building role that the corals have nowadays.”

The new method focused a laser on small bits of shell, making holes 10 micrometers in diameter, or about as wide as a red blood cell. Trace elements in these tiny samples reveal information about the temperature and chemistry of the water at the time the shell formed. The analysis provided accurate measurements of the width and number of daily growth rings as well as seasonal patterns. The researchers used seasonal variations in the fossilized shell to identify years.

The new study found the composition of the shell changed more over the course of a day than over seasons, or with the cycles of ocean tides. The fine-scale resolution of the daily layers shows the shell grew much faster during the day than at night

“This bivalve had a very strong dependence on this daily cycle, which suggests that it had photosymbionts,” de Winter said. “You have the day-night rhythm of the light being recorded in the shell.”

This result suggests daylight was more important to the lifestyle of the ancient mollusk than might be expected if it fed itself primarily by filtering food from the water, like modern-day clams and oysters, according to the authors. De Winter said the mollusks likely had a relationship with an indwelling symbiotic species that fed on sunlight, similar to living giant clams, which harbor symbiotic algae.

“Until now, all published arguments for photosymbiosis in rudists have been essentially speculative, based on merely suggestive morphological traits, and in some cases were demonstrably erroneous. This paper is the first to provide convincing evidence in favor of the hypothesis,” Skelton said, but cautioned that the new study’s conclusion was specific to Torreites and could not be generalized to other rudists.

Moon retreat

De Winter’s careful count of the number of daily layers found 372 for each yearly interval. This was not a surprise, because scientists know days were shorter in the past. The result is, however, the most accurate now available for the late Cretaceous, and has a surprising application to modeling the evolution of the Earth-Moon system.

The length of a year has been constant over Earth’s history, because Earth’s orbit around the Sun does not change. But the number of days within a year has been shortening over time because days have been growing longer. The length of a day has been growing steadily longer as friction from ocean tides, caused by the Moon’s gravity, slows Earth’s rotation.

The pull of the tides accelerates the Moon a little in its orbit, so as Earth’s spin slows, the Moon moves farther away. The moon is pulling away from Earth at 3.82 centimeters (1.5 inches) per year. Precise laser measurements of distance to the Moon from Earth have demonstrated this increasing distance since the Apollo program left helpful reflectors on the Moon’s surface.

But scientists conclude the Moon could not have been receding at this rate throughout its history, because projecting its progress linearly back in time would put the Moon inside the Earth only 1.4 billion years ago. Scientists know from other evidence that the Moon has been with us much longer, most likely coalescing in the wake of a massive collision early in Earth’s history, over 4.5 billion years ago. So the Moon’s rate of retreat has changed over time, and information from the past, like a year in the life of an ancient clam, helps researchers reconstruct that history and model of the formation of the moon.

Because in the history of the Moon, 70 million years is a blink in time, de Winter and his colleagues hope to apply their new method to older fossils and catch snapshots of days even deeper in time.

Coronavirus, oil and money

This 9 March 2020 video says about itself:

Bernie Sanders Joins a Roundtable Discussion Regarding Coronavirus

CAMPAIGNING WHILE CORONAVIRUS SPREADS: Bernie Sanders joins a roundtable discussion in Detroit, Michigan regarding the coronavirus outbreak. As large public events and gatherings are being cancelled across the country, campaign rallies featuring Sanders, Biden, and Trump are continuing as planned. As each of the presidential contenders would be the oldest to assume office, they are also each within the most vulnerable age group to a coronavirus infection.

TRUMP’S NEW CHIEF OF STAFF SELF-QUARANTINES Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the incoming White House chief of staff, said he would quarantine himself after potentially coming into contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference last month. His office said he was tested out of an “abundance of caution”, and he would isolate himself for two weeks. President Donald Trump, who also attended the conference, has not been tested. [HuffPost]

TRUMP FLAILS WITH MISINFORMATION AS CRISIS DEEPENS Trump took to Twitter Monday as financial markets tanked on the coronavirus and oil price collapse. First, the president hailed the oil sell-off as good news because consumers will pay less at the pump. Then the president sought to downplay coronavirus fears by emphasizing that “life & the economy” don’t shut down for the seasonal flu each year. Trump’s lies about the coronavirus may finally catch up with him. [HuffPost]

PLUMMETING OIL PRICES COULD FORCE A RECKONING The dramatic fall of oil prices could upend the American fracking industry, analysts said, as panic over the coronavirus outbreak lessened global demand and Saudi Arabia and Russia flooded the market with new supply. Oil prices suffered the steepest tailspin since the United States began bombing Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. [HuffPost]

Editorial: Saudi slashing the oil price is a desperate gamble: here.

U.S. WARNS COMPANIES NOT TO MAKE FALSE VIRUS CLAIMS U.S. regulators warned seven companies to stop selling products with false claims that they can treat the new coronavirus. Those warned included The Jim Bakker Show. Last month, the disgraced former televangelist‘s program aired an episode in which a guest promoted silver particles in liquid, claiming it had been eliminated previous coronavirus strains in hours. [HuffPost]

Indian Wells Tennis Is First Large U.S. Sporting Event Canceled Over Coronavirus Fears: here.

ITALY LOCKS DOWN ENTIRE COUNTRY Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced all of Italy is on lockdown as the country tries to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The northern part of the country was already on lockdown. The new lockdown goes into effect on Tuesday and lasts until April 3. The country, which has about 60 million people, had over 9,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and at least 463 dead as of Monday. [HuffPost]

North American extinct Carolina parakeets

This 9 March 2020 video from the USA says about itself:

When you picture a parrot, you probably don’t picture Denver, but up until about a century ago, the United States was home to its very own species of parrot: the Carolina parakeet. What happened to this endemic bird?

Hosted by Michael Aranda.

Somali refugee slave in NATO’s Libya interviewed

This 30 September 2019 Deutsche Welle video says about itself:

Human trafficking in Libya | DW Documentary

Survivors call it “Hell on Earth“. In Libya, refugees are locked up in government-run prisons and private torture chambers. Often they are kept under inhuman conditions, tormenting them and even selling them into slavery.

“They treat us like animals”, say the migrants who’ve managed to escape this ‘Hell on Earth’. But what goes on there? How did they escape? And how do they cope afterward? We set out to investigate. We spoke to people still languishing in Libyan jails, as well as with refugees evacuated from Libya and brought to safety in Niger. We also interviewed one man who was fully aware of his part in the suffering: a smuggler who accepts the fact that he sells the migrants on to torturers. A report by Mariel Müller and Abderrahmahne Ammar.

By Ben Cowles:

Monday, March 9, 2020

‘They lock our legs together with a chain’: An interview with a slave

BEN COWLES spoke to a Somalian refugee being held in a bogus ‘refugee camp’ in Libya, caught while trying to reach Europe

I SPOKE with a slave last week. An African man from Somalia trapped in a detention centre in Libya.

He told me his name but I promised not to mention it. He fears the guards will kill him if they know he has spoken out. So let’s call him Hufan.

Several months ago Hufan contacted Alarm Phone, an activist network which supports people crossing the Mediterranean attempting to reach Europe.

A relative of his was on a dinghy stranded in the middle of the sea with several others. He called Alarm Phone asking them to help her.

Since March last year, when the European Union pulled all of its ships from the Libyan search and rescue zone, the only actors carrying out refugee rescues in the area are those operated by charities.

The Libyan Coastguard (LCG) is also operating in the area, though it’s hard to refer to what it does as “rescuing” refugees. It has returned thousands of people to a brutal warzone.

The European Union continues to fund, train and equip the LCG despite its private concerns, revealed by the Morning Star, that the country has “continued to arbitrarily detain migrants” in detention centres which “have links to human trafficking” and where “severe human-rights violations have been widely reported.”

Fortunately, Hufan’s relative made it to Europe. But he is now trapped inside a detention centre. Naming it would put him in danger.

I spoke with Hufan online after an Alarm Phone activist put us in touch. Our conversation, which has been edited for grammatical reasons and to keep his identity safe, is below.

Ben Cowles: Hi Hufan. This is Ben. I’m a journalist in London. How are you?
Hufan: Hi. Yes. How are you?

BC: I’m good. Are you safe to message me?
H: Now I am in the prison. But I can give you some information.

BC: Where are you from? Can you tell me about yourself?
H: I am from Somalia. I came to Libya to cross to Italy.

BC: Why did you leave Somalia?
H: I had to run away from al-Shabab. Do you know about the Islamic group al-Shabab?

BC: Yes, a little.
H: They forced us to join them. But I ran away from them with my [relative]. And now I am in a very bad situation.

My [relative] escaped the country and she is now in [Europe].

BC: You’re in prison?
H: I’ve been here for eight months now. …

BC: How did you end up in prison?
H: We were in a camp near Al Khums waiting for some people to take us to the sea. And one night the army attacked us and arrested everyone.

BC: Do you know which army? Was it the [rebel] Libyan National Army, the Government of National Accord army or someone else?
H: The people who arrested us are not an official army.

The [UN refugee agency] UNHCR sometimes visits the prison and gives us shampoo and clothes, and registers our names.

Always, they say: ‘We will take you to a safe place’. But I have been here eight months now.

BC: That is a long time. I hope they release you soon. Can you tell me about the conditions inside the prison?
H: My God. If you ever come here one day, you would cry, believe me. In one room we are more than 412. The food is not good.

Many people are sick. Some have TB. They treat us like slaves.

BC: What do you mean; how do they treat you like slaves?
H: Every morning they wake us all. And without food they make us work. After midday they give us a little bit.

If you say to the guards ‘I’m tired’, they will beat you with their machine gun. Everyday people are broken. The guards do whatever they want. They even force young boys to do sex.

I have gone far away from the guards to tell you everything. We are suffering here.

BC: What work do they make you do?
H: Every morning… if a guard has a garden or a farm or some place, he will take five or six of us out and make us work his farm.

They lock our legs together with a chain. After working, they return us to the prison.

After they return us to prison, another man will come. He will say ‘I need five people to work. Come out’. We come outside and he chooses a few of us. ‘You, one, two, three, come with me’.

And then we might have to lift heavy things for him with no payment. They don’t give us food. Maybe one slice of bread.

… Can you talk to the [International Organisation for Migration] IOM?

BC: I don’t know. I will tell your story in the newspaper. I will also speak with the IOM and UNHCR. Have you told them about the abuse?
H: Yes, one day they came and we told them everything secretly. He said we will do an investigation. That is all.

The militiamen, after they get drunk at night time, they come to the prison and they say: ‘We need two young boys.

‘Come clean my house,’ they say. When they return the boys, they are crying. They tell us they forced them to have sex.

BC: That is so terrible. I’m so sorry. Do you believe the IOM will help you?
H: No.

The problem is, the group that runs this prison is getting money and food from the IOM and UNHCR. If they release us or they take us to our countries, they will not get anything.

The militia is saying to the IOM and UNHCR that they have refugees to look after. But if they release us, they won’t get their money. So the militia wants to keep us.

BC: Do the guards know you have a phone?
H: Yes, they know I have a phone.

I translate for them. I know Arabic. I know my language, I know English and French. So they always take me out to speak with those people.

That’s why they gave me the phone also. But it doesn’t have a sim card. I have to use wifi.

These Libyans don’t really care about us. They once broke my hand.

BC: They don’t worry you will call for help?
H: Who can I call for help? They don’t worry about that.

If I tell you the truth why they gave me this phone, you won’t believe it.

They gave me this phone because there are a lot of Nigerians, Cameroonians. They don’t speak Arabic. They speak English and French. So I translate.

The guards tell them: ‘If you want to get out, you have to pay us 4,000 dinar’, which is like $1,000.

They even say that to us Somalis. But we Somalis don’t have this money.

So sometimes I have to give the phone to the Nigerians and they talk with their family. Their family sends some money by car, by taxi and they get out of the prison.

That’s why they gave me this phone. That’s the truth.

BC: How do you know the UN/IOM is giving money to the prison?
H: We are refugees here. So every month they come and they say we’re going to give you food, we’re giving you medicine.

They collect us all and hold a meeting with us outside. And one of them will tell us this with a megaphone. But we don’t see anything.

Please, whatever you print, don’t mention my name. I beg you. They will kill me.

BC: I won’t mention your name, I promise.
H: Yesterday they took more than 25 people to join the war between the Libyans.

I am looking for a moment, a time, to skip. If I get the chance I will run away with this phone.

In response to Hufan’s claims that the IOM was giving money to the prison guards, a spokeswoman told the Star: “We take this claim very seriously as IOM does not provide cash assistance in Libya and does not distribute food to migrants in detention.”

Libyan coastguard fires warning shots at NGO ship during rescue for the second time: here.

Civilian casualties mount as foreign powers continue to fuel Libya’s civil war. By Alberto Escalera, 20 May 2020. Libya’s civil war is fueled by a complex interplay between the competing interests of international energy monopolies and local power struggles to control oil and gas revenues.

Further evidence Libya is unsafe for refugees after 30 killed in unofficial migrant detention centre: here.

Belemnites and dinosaur age global warming

This 2006 video says about itself:

A short video introducing belemnites which were extinct cousins of the squid, octopus and cuttlefish.

From the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany:

Why organisms shrink in a warming world

March 9, 2020

Everyone is talking about global warming. A team of palaeontologists at GeoZentrum Nordbayern at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) has recently investigated how prehistoric organisms reacted to climate change, basing their research on belemnites.

These shrunk significantly when the water temperature rose as a result of volcanic activity approximately 183 million years ago, during the period known as the Toarcian. The FAU research team published their results in the online publication Royal Society Open Science.

‘Belemnites are particularly interesting, as they were very widespread for a long time and are closely related to the squid of today,’ explains palaeontologist Dr. Patricia Rita. ‘Their fossilised remains, for example the rostrum, can be used to make reliable observations.’ Within the context of the DFG-funded research project ‘Temperature-related stresses as a unifying principle in ancient extinctions,’ the hypothesis was confirmed that climate has a significant influence on the morphology of adult aquatic organisms. The body size of dominant species fell by an average of up to 40 percent.

The team of researchers believe that this Lilliput effect was a precursor to the later extinction of the animals. It is still unclear whether rises in temperature influenced the organisms’ metabolism directly or indirectly, for example due to a shortage of food sources.

Coronavirus global update


Coronavirus lays bare the difference between public and private healthcare: here.

Britain: CORONAVIRUS will hit the working class, the poor, the disabled and the most vulnerable the hardest, thanks to government attacks on the NHS, campaigners warned today.

Britain: Black Monday: Government’s ‘tardiness’ in dealing with coronavirus is damaging economy, McDonnell says.

The crisis produced by the coronavirus pandemic has delivered a powerful message: the capitalist system and the needs of society are fundamentally incompatible: here.

By March 1, 2020, thousands of people in the U.S. may have already been infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus, far more than the number that had been publicly reported, according to a new study: here.

Australian Prime Minister Morrison’s speech shows that his main concern is to protect corporate profits and prop up his discredited government, not protect people from the coronavirus: here.

WHO warns again of Covid-19 pandemic as Italy imposes nationwide lockdown: here.

Prison riots erupt as Rome extends coronavirus lockdown to all of Italy: here.

Amid a rapid increase in coronavirus infections throughout Germany, two people have died in connection from the disease Covid-19. On Monday, an 89-year-old woman died at the university hospital in Essen. She had last been treated in the intensive care unit, where she died of pneumonia. A man who died in Heinsberg district was 78 years old and “had a variety of previous illnesses, including diabetes and a heart condition. Since Friday, he had been treated in the hospital in Geilenkirchen: here.

One week after the first confirmed case of coronavirus and with 17 patients now having tested positive for the disease Covid-19, Polish hospitals are on the brink of collapse. More than 170 people are hospitalized and over 4,000 are in domestic quarantine: here.

The coronavirus is accelerating economic warfare between Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US, while exacerbating the social, economic and political tensions within Saudi Arabia: here.