Seven ‘earth-like’ planets discovered


This video says about itself:

NASA & TRAPPIST-1: A Treasure Trove of Planets Found

22 February 2017

Seven Earth-sized planets have been observed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope around a tiny, nearby, ultra-cool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. Three of these planets are firmly in the habitable zone.

Over 21 days, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope measured the drop in light as each planet passed in front of the star. Spitzer was able to identify a total of seven rocky worlds, including three in the habitable zone, where liquid water might be found.

The video features interviews with Sean Carey, manager of the Spitzer Science Center, Caltech/IPAC; Nikole Lewis, James Webb Space Telescope project scientist, Space Telescope Science Institute; and Michaël Gillon, principal investigator, TRAPPIST, University of Liege, Belgium.

The system has been revealed through observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the ground-based TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) telescope, as well as other ground-based observatories. The system was named for the TRAPPIST telescope.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at Caltech/IPAC. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

From Phys.org:

Temperate earth-sized worlds found in extraordinarily rich planetary system

February 22, 2017

Astronomers have found a system of seven Earth-sized planets just 40 light-years away. They were detected as they passed in front of their parent star, the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Three of them lie in the habitable zone and could harbour water, increasing the possibility that the system could play host to life. It has both the largest number of Earth-sized planets yet found and the largest number of worlds that could support liquid water.

Astronomers using the TRAPPIST-South telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as other telescopes around the world, have now confirmed the existence of at least seven small orbiting the cool TRAPPIST-1. All the planets, labelled TRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g and h in order of increasing distance from their , have sizes similar to Earth.

Dips in the star’s light output caused by each of the seven planets passing in front of it (astronomy)—events known as transits—allowed the astronomers to infer information about their sizes, compositions and orbits. They found that at least the inner six planets are comparable in both size and temperature to the Earth.

Lead author Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium is delighted by the findings: “This is an amazing planetary —not only because we have found so many planets, but because they are all surprisingly similar in size to the Earth!”

With just 8% the mass of the Sun, TRAPPIST-1 is very small in stellar terms—only marginally bigger than the planet Jupiter—and though nearby in the constellation Aquarius (The Water Carrier), it appears very dim. Astronomers expected that such dwarf stars might host many Earth-sized planets in tight orbits, making them promising targets in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, but TRAPPIST-1 is the first such system to be found.

Co-author Amaury Triaud expands: “The energy output from dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 is much weaker than that of our Sun. Planets would need to be in far closer orbits than we see in the Solar System if there is to be surface water. Fortunately, it seems that this kind of compact configuration is just what we see around TRAPPIST-1!”

The team determined that all the planets in the system are similar in size to Earth and Venus in the Solar System, or slightly smaller. The density measurements suggest that at least the innermost six are probably rocky in composition.

The planetary orbits are not much larger than that of Jupiter’s Galilean moon system, and much smaller than the orbit of Mercury in the Solar System. However, TRAPPIST-1’s small size and low temperature mean that the energy input to its planets is similar to that received by the in our Solar System; TRAPPIST-1c, d and f receive similar amounts of energy to Venus, Earth and Mars, respectively.

All seven planets discovered in the system could potentially have on their surfaces, though their orbital distances make some of them more likely candidates than others. Climate models suggest the innermost planets, TRAPPIST-1b, c and d, are probably too hot to support liquid water, except maybe on a small fraction of their surfaces. The orbital distance of the system’s outermost planet, TRAPPIST-1h, is unconfirmed, though it is likely to be too distant and cold to harbour liquid water—assuming no alternative heating processes are occurring. TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g, however, represent the holy grail for planet-hunting astronomers, as they orbit in the star’s .

These new discoveries make the TRAPPIST-1 system a very important target for future study. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is already being used to search for atmospheres around the planets and team member Emmanuël Jehin is excited about the future possibilities: “With the upcoming generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope , we will soon be able to search for water and perhaps even evidence of life on these worlds.”

This research was presented in a paper entitled “Seven temperate terrestrial planets around the nearby ultracool TRAPPIST-1″, by M. Gillon et al., to appear in the journal Nature.

Curaçao coral reefs video


This 1 February 2017 Dutch video is about biology student Auke-Florian Hiemstra, doing research about coral around Curaçao island.

New dragonfly species named after baby Bhutanese prince


Gyalsey emerald spreadwing dragonfly

This month, Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands reports that a new dragonfly species from Bhutan has been named.

The insect was discovered in 2015, during a joint Bhutanese-Dutch expedition in eastern Bhutan.

Its name is Gyalsey emerald spreadwing dragonfly. Gyalsey means ‘prince’ in Bhutanese. The new species was named after the young crown prince of Bhutan; on his first birthday, the dragonfly’s name became known.

113 dragonfly species are known from Bhutan.

São Tomé and Príncipe new wildlife discoveries


This 2014 video is about the wildlife of Príncipe island.

By BirdLife:

21 Feb 2017

Discovering the remarkable nature of São Tomé and Príncipe

There are undoubtedly discoveries to be made, with the invertebrate and marine biodiversity of the archipelago particularly understudied. Each new expedition to the islands uncovers species new to science.

By Merlin Veron, Synchronicity Earth

Synchronicity Earth is a UK charity which, on the basis of its research, aims to identify and increase support for high-priority conservation action globally.

On first inspection, the São Tomé Grosbeak Crithagra concolor might appear drab, unassuming, maybe even unremarkable. But first impressions can be deceiving. It is in fact one of the most endangered bird species on the planet, and was not sighted for over 100 years between 1890 and 1991, when it was rediscovered in the forests bordering Rio Xufexufe in the south-west of São Tomé.

Sightings of this finch since its rediscovery have been intermittent – the species was only photographed for the first time in 2006 and to date has still only been seen by a handful of non-Santomeans. BirdLife estimates a tiny extant population ranging from 50-250 individuals.

As well as its rarity, the taxonomy of this species is also fascinating and distinct. The São Tomé Grosbeak may be almost unique amongst bird species in that genetic studies suggest it evolved in sympatry with the Príncipe Seedeater Crithagra rufobrunnea, another endemic species.

Sympatric speciation occurs where two separate species evolve from a common ancestor without being geographically isolated from one another. This could happen if, for example, environmental conditions heavily favoured large individuals and small individuals, but not medium-sized ones, thus driving the evolution of two differently sized species.

The São Tomé Grosbeak is in fact the world’s largest canary with a ‘bullish’ head and powerful bill which rivals that of a Hawfinch – it dwarfs the Príncipe Seedeater and is almost twice its size, however questions still remain over what exactly drove the separation of these two species.

In fact if there is something unremarkable about the São Tomé Grosbeak it is that it inhabits an archipelago awash with other astonishing flora and fauna. The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are located approximately 250km off the coast of Gabon, and as such have experienced somewhat of a ‘goldilocks effect’, in that they are close enough to the rich tropical forests of West and Central Africa to allow some populations to reach the islands, but distant enough so that once they do these populations become isolated and follow a distinct evolutionary trajectory.

Including the São Tomé Grosbeak there are a total of 28 endemic bird species on the islands, meaning a greater number of endemic species than the Galapagos Islands in an area approximately an eighth of the size. Amongst these species are the world’s largest Giant Sunbird Dreptes thomensis, Weaver Ploceus grandis and São Tomé Oriole Oriolus crassirostris, and its smallest Dwarf Ibis Bostrychia bocagei, a species which is also critically endangered and restricted to the primary forests of Obo Natural Park.

As well as endemic avifauna, the islands also harbour 1,230 described plant species, approximately 15% of which are endemic, as well as 19 butterfly species found only on this archipelago. The islands even hold 7 endemic amphibians, something which remains somewhat of a mystery considering amphibians’ known intolerance of salt water and the fact that as volcanic islands São Tomé and Príncipe were never connected to mainland Africa. There are also undoubtedly more discoveries to be made, with the invertebrate and marine biodiversity of the archipelago particularly understudied, with each new expedition to the islands uncovering species new to science.

The value of the biodiversity present on these islands has been recognised through a number of designations. Príncipe is recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, both islands host KBAs and IBAs where primary habitats remain, the Tinhosas Islands which host more than 280,000 breeding seabirds are recognised as a Ramsar site, and the presence and critically endangered nature of the São Tomé Grosbeak, the Newton’s Fiscal Lanius newtoni, and the Dwarf Ibis triggered the recognition of Obo Natural Park as an Alliance for Zero Extinction site.

These designations all point to the importance of conserving this archipelago’s remarkable biodiversity, however historically habitat loss, in parallel with other threats, has driven many of the islands’ species towards extinction. Habitat destruction was rife during the Portuguese colonial era, with the islands first a centre for sugarcane production, and latterly coffee and cacao.

Whilst this led to widespread forest clearance, the primary, secondary and even shade forests on the islands continue to provide key habitats, but face new threats in the form of illegal logging, agro-industrial concessions and residential and commercial developments.

However, one particular threat which continues to hamper efforts to conserve biodiversity is a lack of local conservation capacity and community engagement. This is something which BirdLife has partnered with NGOs working in São Tomé and Príncipe to address, recognising that conservation begins with local people.

BirdLife has had a presence on São Tomé since 2006, with the conservation of the three critically endangered endemic bird species a key focus, culminating in the production of a species action plan produced in collaboration with the Santomean Government and local NGOs. One key pillar of BirdLife’s work has however focused on developing the capacity of civil society and raising awareness amongst the local population of the unique and threatened status of São Tomé’s biodiversity.

Studies have shown the low level of environmental education in São Tomé, particularly amongst rural populations. To try to instil an awareness and sense of pride in the biodiversity which the islands harbour BirdLife has worked with Portuguese partner SPEA (BirdLife Portugal) and the RSPB (BirdLife UK) to organise community meetings and collaborated with local artists to paint large murals of the critically endangered species in five villages.

Work is also underway in collaboration with Portuguese NGO Oikos to engage local musicians in producing a music and dance-based environmental awareness campaign celebrating São Tomé’s biodiversity and to engage with young people through a schools education programme and the establishment of nature clubs in the buffer region of Obo Natural Park.

The aim of these programmes is to increase awareness amongst the Santomean population about the importance of its biodiversity and the need for its conservation to protect livelihoods and environmental services. BirdLife hope to inspire future generations of conservation leaders on the island who can fill gaps in knowledge, identify key actions to protect species and ensure that the islands’ natural heritage is considered in decisions about its future development, meaning conservation is locally led.

Through engagement comes empowerment. This work is just one component of the activities needed to conserve São Tomé’s unique environment; and boosting local enforcement capacities, continuing to conduct scientific research to expand knowledge, and developing sustainable livelihood and development opportunities will also be integral.

However, where local people become engaged and invested in conservation, the future of enigmatic endemics such as the São Tomé Grosbeak will surely be more secure.

Howler monkeys’ eyes, new research


This video is called Howler Monkeys | National Geographic.

From Science News:

Howler monkeys may owe their color vision to leaf hue

Distinguishing red from green makes healthier leaves stand out

By Laurel Hamers

5:59pm, February 21, 2017

BOSTON — A taste for reddish young leaves might have pushed howler monkeys toward full-spectrum color vision. The ability to tell red from green could have helped howlers pick out the more nutritious, younger leaves, researchers reported February 19 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That’s a skill their insect-eating close relatives probably didn’t need.

Primates show substantial variation in their color vision capabilities, both between and within species, said Amanda Melin, a biological anthropologist at the University of Calgary in Canada. Trichromatic vision (how most humans see) requires three light-sensitive proteins in the eye that can detect different wavelengths of light. Within most monkey species in Central and South America, only some individuals have trichromatic vision. Males have dichromatic vision — they’re red-green colorblind — and only some females can see the whole rainbow. Howlers are an exception — thanks to a duplicated gene on their X chromosomes, trichromatic vision is the norm for both males and females.

Howlers graze on leaves from Ficus trees and other plants when fruit can’t be found. In field observations of mantled howlers (Alouatta palliata) in Costa Rica, the monkeys preferentially munched on the younger, more nutritious leaves, Melin’s team found. The reddish hue of new leaves makes them pop more when seen with trichromatic vision than dichromatic vision, the researchers reported in a paper accepted for publication in Ecology and Evolution. Because young leaves are a fleeting treat and not a constant resource, monkeys able to spot them more quickly could have had a selective advantage.

Similar selection pressures might also help explain why Old World monkeys from Asia and Africa also have consistent trichromatic vision, Melin said. “What we might be seeing is a convergent evolution for animals who fall back on leaves when fruit isn’t around.”

On the other hand, other Central and South American monkeys usually go for insects, instead of leaves, when there’s no fruit. Dichromatic vision might be a better fit for their lifestyle, Melin said. “Color can impede ability to see patterns, borders and textures. Insects hide and camouflage.”

I was privileged to hear and see howler monkeys in Suriname and Costa Rica.

New hammerhead shark species discovery in Belize


This video says about itself:

5 February 2017

Scientists have discovered a new population of miniature sharks off the coast of Belize. The bonnethead, a small species of hammerhead shark, can be found in many spots around the Caribbean. However, the new shark is an entirely different species based on large genetic differences between them and other bonnetheads. Bonnethead sharks are commercially fished in the United States, throughout the Caribbean and in South America. The recording of the new shark was reportedly made during a 2016 shark tagging expedition.

From The Reporter in Belize:

New hammerhead shark species found in Belize

Posted by The Reporter newspaper on February 9, 2017 at 10:42 am

By Benjamin Flowers

Shark researchers have discovered a new species of shark in Belize.

Researchers from Florida International University (FIU) were conducting DNA sequencing on bonnet head sharks, a species of hammer head sharks, when they made the discovery.

The bonnet head shark is found in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States; however, the DNA of the species found in Belize did not match that of the bonnet heads found anywhere else. The bonnet heads found in Belize, which have yet to be named, have the same physical appearance as its counterparts within the region, but have large genetic differences.

Evaluating the DNA analysis conducted by Andrew Fields from Stony Brook University, FIU researchers estimated that the bonnet head sharks around the nation stopped interbreeding with those from Mexico, the United States and the Bahamas several million years ago.

Demian Chapman, lead researcher on the team that made the discovery, said that the find raises concerns about the sustainability measures in place to keep the species from extinction. While the bonnet head is ranked at “Least Concern” for extinction risk by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the union made the classification assuming there was a single species of bonnet head.

“Now we have to define the range of each of these species individually and assess them independently against where the potential threats are,” Chapman said.

Chapman who is currently leading a shark survey project called Global Finprint, believes that the discovery could be the door way to finding even more new species of sharks.

Global Finprint is an initiative seeking to determine the cause for the decreasing number of sharks and rays.

Fukushima, worse radiation than ever


This video from Japan says about itself:

Fukushima Unit 2 Scorpion Probe Dies But Sends Back Some Data

Feb 16 2017

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Japan: Fukushima’s high radiation wrecks robot

Saturday 18th February 2017

Nuclear disaster site’s clean-up hits big trouble

ROBOT probes sent into a wrecked Fukushima nuclear reactor suggest that the clean-up process faces worse than anticipated problems, the plant operator admitted yesterday.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) said that the remote-controlled “scorpion” robot had been sent into the Unit 2 reactor’s containment vessel on Thursday to investigate the area around the core that melted six years ago.

However, its crawling function failed while climbing over highly radioactive debris.

The robot, carrying a dosimeter, thermometer and two small cameras, transmitted some data and visuals but failed to locate melted fuel, which is key to determining how to remove debris from the reactor.

The robot was abandoned inside the vessel at a point where it won’t block a future probe.

Preliminary examinations in recent weeks have detected structural damage to planned robot routes and higher-than-expected radiation inside the Unit 2 containment chamber, suggesting the need to revise robot designs and probes. Similar probes are planned for the two other melted reactors.

A tiny waterproof robot that can go underwater will be sent into Unit 1 in the coming weeks, but experts haven’t yet worked out a way to access the badly damaged Unit 3.

The operator needs to know the melted fuel’s exact location and condition and other structural damage in each of the three wrecked reactors to assess the best and safest ways to remove the fuel.

Despite the incomplete probe missions, Tepco is sticking to its schedule to determine methods for melted fuel removal this summer before starting work in 2021, said spokesman Yuichi Okamura.

The company is struggling with the plant’s decommissioning, which is expected to last decades, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to the meltdown.

Tens of thousands of residents are still unable to return to their home because of high radiation.

Earlier this month, another robot, designed to clean debris for the main scorpion probe, had to return midway through because two cameras became inoperable after two hours when its total radiation exposure reached a maximum tolerance of 1,000 sievert. This level would kill a human within seconds.