Paleontologists find the darndest things — including evidence for the longest-known sauropod neck, and fossils that literally turn their assumptions upside down. Check out these fresh developments from the fossil record:
Archaeologists have discovered a long-lost passageway within Egypt’s 4,500-year-old Great Pyramid of Giza, thanks to 21st-century technologies including muon tomography and endoscopy.
It’s the latest find made possible with the help of ScanPyramids, an international effort that started documenting Egypt’s best-known archaeological sites with high-tech tools in 2015.
Over the past eight years, ScanPyramids’ team has identified several voids within the Great Pyramid. The passageway described today lies just beneath the pyramid’s north face, about 23 feet (7 meters) above the main entrance. It’s 30 feet (9 meters) long, about 7 feet (2.1 meters) wide, and high enough for a person to stand in.
It’s long been accepted that birds are essentially modern dinosaurs, but does that mean an ancient dinosaur could have looked and acted like a duck? Paleontologists are pointing to fossils from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to make that argument.
In a study published by Communications Biology, researchers say that a well-preserved skeleton dated to the Upper Cretaceous period, between 100 million and 66 million years ago, exhibits streamlined features that would have been well-adapted to swimming. Back then, the region that’s now arid desert would have been much more hospitable to ducks and their kin — offering forests, streams and lakes.
The fossilized species was named Natovenator polydontus, a Latinized scientific name meaning “swimming hunter with many teeth.”
“This dinosaur, a carnivorous theropod that walked on two legs, is the first non-avian dinosaur to evolve into a streamlined body and start living in the water,” Yuong-Nam Lee, a vertebrate paleontologist at Seoul National University, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
A decade ago, physicists wondered whether the discovery of the Higgs boson at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider would point to a new frontier beyond the Standard Model of subatomic particles. So far, that’s not been the case — but a new measurement of a different kind of boson at a different particle collider might do the trick.
That’s the upshot of fresh findings from the Collider Detector at Fermilab, or CDF, one of the main experiments that made use of the Tevatron particle collider at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab in Illinois. It’s not yet time to throw out the physics textbooks, but scientists around the world are scratching their heads over the CDF team’s newly reported value for the mass of the W boson.
One of the world’s most celebrated shipwrecks — the hulk of the sailing ship Endurance — has been found at a depth of nearly 10,000 feet in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea, 107 years after it sank.
The wooden ship carried British explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew to the Southern Ocean in 1915 — but was trapped in pack ice just one day out from their planned landing point. Shackleton’s expedition was marooned, and the ship slowly slipped beneath the ice.
The saga of how Shackleton and his stranded crew set up camp and organized an 800-mile journey in a lifeboat to seek out rescue stands as a heroic example of overcoming Antarctic adversity. All 28 members of Shackleton’s party survived the 497-day ordeal.
More than a century later, the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust organized the Endurance22 expedition to seek out and survey the sunken ship. The team set out last month from Cape Town, South Africa, aboard the icebreaker S.A. Agulhas II for a 35-day mission.
Today the expedition’s organizers announced that they found the ship on March 5 using state-of-the-art autonomous underwater vehicles. It’s sitting on the seafloor about four miles south of the position recorded in 1915 by the Endurance’s captain, Frank Worsley.
What do you call a 328 million-year-old fossil octopus with 10 arms? A decapus? A kraken? The researchers who analyzed the fossilized monster from Montana went in a different direction — and came up with a name that pays tribute to President Joe Biden.
The scientific label for the sea monster from the days before the dinosaurs, Syllipsimopodi bideni, isn’t intended as a comment on the 79-year-old politician’s age. “Bideni” merely recognizes the fact that the paper describing the species was submitted to the journal Nature Communications not long after Biden’s inauguration in January 2021.
“I wanted to somehow acknowledge the moment in a way that was more positive and forward-looking,” study lead author Christopher Whalen, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History and Yale University, said in a news release. “I was encouraged by the plans President Biden put forward to counter anthropogenic climate change, and his general sentiment that politicians should listen to scientists.”
“Syllipsimopodi” is the more scientifically meaningful part of the name: That genus designation comes from the Greek words for “prehensile foot,” and the researchers say Syllipsimopodi bideni is the oldest-known cephalopod to develop suckers on its 10 sinuous arms.
The specimen also appears to clear up some evolutionary questions about the common ancestor of present-day squids and octopuses.
As far as we know, we won’t be facing an alien uprising in 2051 — but there are plenty of catastrophes that could be hitting with full force by then, ranging from the wildfires, droughts and floods associated with climate change to super-pandemics and food and water shortages.
In that context, the aliens of “The Tomorrow War” — a sci-fi movie making its debut today on Amazon Prime — serve as stand-ins for the perils we could well bring upon ourselves over the next three decades.
“The Tomorrow War,” starring Chris Pratt, calls to mind earlier time-twisting movies including “Edge of Tomorrow” (the Tom Cruise alien-battle flick) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (watch for Pratt’s “heehaw” greeting, which was used in the Jimmy Stewart classic as well).
This time, the time travel trope includes a setup in which unsuspecting present-day citizens are drafted to fight future-day aliens as unrelenting as the bug-eyed monsters of “Starship Troopers.”
“I wanted to do something with the idea of conscription, the draft, for a long time. The idea of not having it be about necessarily an ideology, or patriotism, or loyalty to your country, but being about literally your desire to save your own kids,” screenwriter Zach Dean said during a pre-premiere press conference. “Who doesn’t sign up for that?”
It’s time to add a new name to the list of ancient human species discovered in the fossil record — or is it?
The latest contender is a species dubbed Homo longi, created on the basis of a skull that was discovered in northern China in the 1930s, hidden for decades, and finally analyzed for a trio of research papers in The Innovation, an open-access journal published by Cell Press.
The almost perfectly preserved fossil is the largest skull ever found representing the genus that includes modern humans (Homo sapiens). Based on the skull’s morphology and geochemical dating techniques, researchers say it’s most likely to have come from a male who was about 50 years old when he died 146,000 years ago.
Researchers at Hebei GEO University have nicknamed the ancient individual “Dragon Man” in recognition of its Chinese origins. The species’ scientific name plays off the Chinese word for dragon (“long”) and the region around Harbin City where the fossil was found — Heilongjiang (“Black Dragon River”) province.
The skull could hold a brain comparable in size to ours, but had larger, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth and oversized teeth. “While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously named Homo species,” study author Qiang Ji, a paleontologist at Hebei GEO University, said in a news release.
Ji and his colleagues say the skull’s peculiarities justify its status as a species that’s distinct from Neanderthals and Denisovans and other extinct human ancestors. They even claim that Homo longi is more similar to humans of the Pleistocene era than those others.
“It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species,” said study author Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University. “However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of H. sapiens.”
There’s some question about Dragon Man’s status, however.
Boom Supersonic attracts a big-name customer, Virgin Galactic signs up another researcher for a suborbital spaceflight, and new questions are raised about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Get the details on the Web:
United boosts Boom Supersonic
United Airlines says it’s agreed to buy 15 of Boom Supersonic’s faster-than-sound jets once they come onto the market. Colorado-based Boom is gearing up to start flight testing for a subscale prototype of its Overture jet, known as the XB-1. Those tests are slated to open the way for the Overture’s rollout in 2025, first flight in 2026 and the start of commercial air service at speeds of up to Mach 1.7 by 2029. That could cut Seattle-to-Tokyo travel time from 8.5 hours to 4.5 hours.
The deal makes United the first U.S. airline to sign a purchase agreement with Boom, providing a significant boost to the startup. Boom says it now has purchase agreements and options for 70 Overture jets in its order book. But wait, there’s more: The jets will be designed to use a type of sustainable aviation fuel that’s meant to allow for flight operations with net-zero carbon emissions.
Virgin Galactic signs up science star
Virgin Galactic is reserving a suborbital spaceflight on VSS Unity, its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, for bioastronautics researcher Kellie Gerardi. During her flight, the timing of which hasn’t yet been set, Gerardi will support a bio-monitoring experiment drawn up by Carré Technologies Inc. (Hexoskin) with the support of the Canadian Space Agency, as well as a free-floating fluid configuration experiment.
Gerardi, who’s affiliated with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, is also known for TikTok videos and Instagram postings that explore the intersection of her career and her personal life. She joins planetary scientist Alan Stern in holding a reservation for a dedicated research flight on Virgin Galactic. Last month, the company conducted its first 50-mile-high, rocket-powered flight test from its home base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Commercial service could begin within the coming year.
The latest buzz on the Webb Telescope
NASA is fine-tuning the schedule for this year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, widely seen as the successor to the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. The space agency had been targeting Oct. 31 for launch of the $10 billion observatory from French Guiana, using a European Ariane 5 rocket. But logistical complications are leading NASA to look at launch dates in November or early December.
Another complication has to do with the telescope’s name: NASA’s Paul Hertz is reported as saying at this week’s meeting of a space science advisory committee that the space agency is reviewing the historical record surrounding James Webb, the late NASA administrator after whom the telescope is named. A petition circulating among astronomers has called for a new name because of claims that Webb acquiesced to homophobic policies during the 1950s and 1960s.
Egyptian archaeologists unearth a 3,000-year-old lost city, magnetic readings from muons could lead to new physics, and Elon Musk’s Neuralink venture has monkeys playing video games with neural impulses. Get the details on the Web:
‘Lost Golden City’ found in Luxor
Egypt’s best-known archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, announced today that the long-lost ruins of a 3,000-year-old city have been found in Luxor. The sprawling settlement dates to the reign of Amenhotep III and his son, Akhenaten. Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says it continued to be used by Tutankhamun and his successor, King Ay.
The city was at one time called “The Rise of Aten,” reflecting the religious shift brought about by Akhenaten. Today it’s being called the “Lost Golden City.” During the past seven months of excavation, several neighborhoods have been uncovered, but the administrative and residential district hasn’t yet been brought forth from the sands. “The discovery of this lost city is the second most important archaeological discovery since the tomb of Tutankhamun,” said Betsy Bryan, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University.
Previously: ‘Lost cities’ teach lessons for future cities
Muon anomaly sparks deep questions
Anomalous results from a Fermilab experiment have added to the suspicion that scientists have finally found a flaw in one of their most successful theories, the Standard Model of particle physics. The anomalies have to do with the strength of the magnetic field for a weightier cousin of the electron, known as the muon. Data from Fermilab’s Muon g-2 experiment supported previous findings from Brookhaven National Laboratory that the muon’s magnetism is ever-so-slightly stronger than predicted by the Standard Model — just 2.5 parts per billion stronger.
If the results hold up, physicists might have to consider far-out explanations — for example, the existence of scads of particles that haven’t yet been detected, or a totally new take on the foundations of physics. But the findings will require further confirmation. Grand discoveries, like 2012’s detection of the Higgs boson, typically have to be confirmed to a confidence level of 5-sigma. Now the muon findings have hit 4.2-sigma — which doubters would say is still substandard.
Elon Musk touts mind control
Neuralink, the brain-implant venture funded by tech billionaire Elon Musk, is showing off an AI system that lets a macaque monkey play a game of Pong with its mind alone. Researchers monitored the monkey’s neural impulses as it operated a joystick to play the game, and then correlated the firing patterns of the neurons with the gameplay. Eventually, the brain-monitoring system eliminated the need for the monkey to use the joystick at all.
In a Twitter exchange, Musk said human trials of the mind-reading system would begin, “hopefully, later this year.” He said Neuralink’s first brain-implant product would enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs. “Later versions will be able to shunt signals from Neuralinks in brain to Neuralinks in body motor/sensory neuron clusters, thus enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again,” Musk tweeted.