CSI: Mesopotamia, Dinos Run Hot not Cold, Nazca Demise, Singing Wings, Natural Nukes, Fact or Fiction: Sleep Debt

 

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CSI: Mesopotamia

crushed_skull.jpg Flattened skull from Ur, with headdress, gold earings and necklace. courtesy Penn Museum.

In the 1920's, human remains were excavated from the Royal Tombs of Ur in present day Iraq. The tombs date back 45-hundred years to ancient Mesopotamia. It was believed that many of the thousands buried there were part of a ritualistic human sacrifice. When a king or queen died, those who served the dead royalty were to provide accompaniment and continued service in the afterlife. But new research by Dr. Janet Monge, Keeper of Skeletal Collections at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia and an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests something more grisly. Modern forensic techniques were applied to two skulls from Ur. A small hole in each skull was revealed, indicating blunt force trauma with an ax-like instrument. The loyal retainers may not have gone so willingly into the afterlife, after all.

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Dinosaurs Run Hot, not Cold

trex.jpg Hot-blooded cold killer?

The question of whether dinosaurs were warm blooded (like birds and mammals) or cold blooded (like modern reptiles) has been hotly debated in the paleontology community. It's an issue that has significant implications for understanding much about dinosaurs, including how active they were, what sort of temperatures they might thrive in and how much food they would have required. Unfortunately, fossil remains have provided few clues as to the answer to this question. Dr. Herman Pontzer, a professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, normally studies humans and our ancestors. But he thought he could take the same tools he created to estimate how much energy modern animals need to walk, run and be active, and use them on dinosaurs. His conclusion is that dinosaur anatomy demands a high-output, warm blooded metabolism - otherwise, they would have had trouble just walking.

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Nazca Demise

canal.jpg Irrigation canal once used by ancient Nazca - D. Beresford-Jones

The Nazca culture, a pre-Inca civilization that flourished in southern Peru for hundreds of years, is probably best known for its creation of the mysterious Nazca Lines, etched into the desert sand. But a greater mystery is why the Nazca culture was so devastated by an El Nino event around the year 500. These extreme climatic events were fairly common, but this one caused catastrophic flooding that wiped out the Nazca crops and swept away their way of life. Dr. David Beresford-Jones, a Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues, analysed ancient pollen found in the middens (or garbage dumps) of the Nazca. That evidence showed that the Nazca had replaced the native huarango trees, with their extremely deep roots, with crops like maize - thereby leaving the soil exposed to erosion and flooding. The Nazca had sown the seeds of their own destruction.

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Singing Wings

manakin.jpg Club-winged Manakin, copyright Michael Woodruff, cc-by-sa-2.0

More than a decade ago, Dr. Kim Bostwick, an ornithologist at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, first heard the unique song of the Club-winged Manakin, a small South American bird. The song wasn't complicated or even that interesting - just a short single note, sounding a little like a violin. What was interesting was how the bird made it - without using its vocal apparatus. After several years of study, Dr. Bostwick has found how the noise is made. She's analyzed the special wing feathers the bird has evolved and the remarkably fast flapping that allows it to produce this note. It's unique in vertebrates and much more like the way insects, such as crickets, produce sound.



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Natural Nukes

nnuke.jpg Natural Nuclear reactor at Oklo, Gabon, courtesy US Department of Energy

Humans have to work quite hard to start a nuclear reaction. We have to find the appropriate fuel, purify it, concentrate it and (we hope) contain it. Nature, however, might have done all this quite easily, billions of years ago. In new work, Dr. Jay Cullen and his colleague Dr. Laurence Coogan of the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria, propose that the first bloom of photosynthetic life, more than 2 billion years ago, would have created a chemical environment that would have led to the concentration of uranium and the formation of many thousands of natural nuclear reactors that would have lasted hundreds of thousands of years. Dr. Cullen thinks it entirely possible that this might have had an influence on the evolution of early life on Earth.

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Fact or Fiction - Paying Off Sleep Debt

This another episode of our occasional feature, Science Fact or Science Fiction. From time to time, we present a commonly held idea or popular saying - and ask a Canadian scientist to set us straight on whether we should believe it or not. And today's popular belief is - "A person can pay off a sleep debt by sleeping in late on weekends." For the answer, we awakened Dr. John Kimoff, Director of the Sleep Lab at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. He says it is mostly science fiction.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein.
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