Day: March 25, 2020

The First Stegosaur Tracks in Scotland Were Just Discovered on This Windy Island

Stand on the wind-swept crags lining Scotland’s western coast today, and you’d be lucky to spot a puffin or two. But the closer we look, the more evidence we find it was once home to an incredibly diverse array of ancient beasts.

 

The discovery of new sets of fossilised tracks has expanded the list of potential dinosaur populations that roamed what is now the Isle of Skye. Among them are tracks left by an animal that would have belonged to one of the most famous plate-backed herbivore suborders, Stegosauria.

Scottish and Brazilian researchers have spent the past couple of years analysing two recently found tracksites at a spot on the island’s north-eastern coast called Rubha nam Brathairean, or Brothers’ Point.

“These new tracksites give us a much clearer picture of the dinosaurs that lived in Scotland 170 million years ago,” says University of Edinburgh palaeontologist Stephen Brusatte.

Back then, the lands making up the British Isles were nothing like they are today. Jurassic Scotland sat far closer to the equator, roughly in alignment with where Greece is today. Warm seas and a sub-tropical climate established ecosystems that were bustling with life.

Still, just because it was a virtual paradise doesn’t mean it’s been perfect for preserving the remains of ancient life. The Jurassic isn’t exactly fossil friendly as it is, but Scotland has always seemed especially thin on dinosaur tracks and bones.

 

In spite of a rich history of fossil hunting throughout much of the United Kingdom, the first clear traces of dinosaur wildlife in Scotland were finally uncovered in the early 1980s when palaeontologists John Hudson and Julian Andrews found the “unmistakable print from a large dinosaur” in a fallen limestone block at Brothers’ Point.

Since then, a plethora of tracks belonging to a wide range of long-necked sauropods and fleet-footed theropods have been identified, turning the Isle of Skye into a landmark site for Jurassic researchers.

The most recent additions include teapot-sized holes that haven’t been found elsewhere on the island – impressions that are described in palaeontological terms as belonging to a category called Deltapodus.

stegosaur footprints skyeDeltapod tracks on Isle of Skye (dePolo et al., PLOS One, 2020)

“These discoveries are making Skye one of the best places in the world for understanding dinosaur evolution in the Middle Jurassic,” says Brusatte.

Without a means of narrowing down the exact species of dinosaur responsible, the researchers are careful about jumping to any conclusions.

But it’s fair to say that this group includes a type of cow-sized dinosaur famed for its lines of geometric plates adorning its spine, and a wicked clump of ‘thagomising‘ spines on its tail.

 

The team also uncovered another potentially new addition to the list, in the form of large imprints of something with three stubby toes possibly belonging to a group of heavyweight herbivores called ornithopods.

“We knew there were giant long-necked sauropods and jeep-sized carnivores, but we can now add plate-backed stegosaurs to that roster, and maybe even primitive cousins of the duck-billed dinosaurs too,” says Brusatte.

Not only do the tracks provide tantalising evidence that stegosaurs once trod along the muddy Scottish coastline, the age of the tracks provides some of the earliest evidence of this particular dinosaur’s existence.

Only last year, a species of stegosaur was dug up in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. At an estimated age of around 168 million years old, the fossilised remains of Adratiklit boulahfa are officially the oldest of its kind.

These tracks at Brother’s Point are closer to 170 million years old. While there’s no way to confirm what kind of stegosaur might have left them behind, it does help establish timelines and distributions describing their evolution.

“In particular, Deltapodus tracks give good evidence that stegosaurs lived on Skye at this time,” says the study’s lead author, Paige dePolo from the University of Edinburgh.

With such a rich assortment of tracks being found across the island, this part of Scotland is representative of an important period in evolutionary history, where the late Jurassic’s zoo of classic creatures was just beginning to develop their famous characteristics and spread out around the globe.

This research was published in PLOS One.

 

Incredibly Rare Footage Shows a Dwarf Sperm Whale Spray Ink as It Flees an Attack

In the crystal-clear shallows of Cape Town, South Africa, a dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima) was recently filmed attempting to flee an aggressive seal by releasing a ‘smoke bomb’ of dark, ink-like fluid.

 

As the whale rushes away from its oncoming predator and towards the shore, its wake suddenly becomes clouded with a reddish-brown material straight from its intestine.

“This ‘inking’ behaviour has been documented before,” cetacean acoustician Karlina Merkens told ScienceAlert, “but it has been observed very rarely, and probably never seen and recorded in shallow water like this before.”

Dwarf sperm whales are shy creatures that usually inhabit the deep sea. They spend very little time at the water’s surface and they almost never approach vessels. 

As a result, very little data has been gathered on them; but we do know that unlike other whales, these dolphin-sized creatures are known to use a ‘squid-like tactic’ when escaping from predators.

If dwarf sperm whales feel threatened, they can actually release more than 11 litres (3 gallons) of a dark, reddish-brown liquid from a sac in their intestine. And this can buy them time in their flight.

Unfortunately, the recent event in South Africa did not shake out in the whale’s favour. Local news reports claim the sperm whale was extensively injured and weak when officials arrived, and a decision was made to euthanise it.

 

Some have since theorised that the whale became distressed and disoriented because the shallow water stopped its echolocation from working. But Merkens, who works for the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told ScienceAlert she thought this was very unlikely. 

Instead, she argues, the echoes coming off of objects in the harbour were probably confusing for the animal because it had likely never encountered any substantial solid surface before.

“Add that ‘noisy’ environment to being attacked by an aggressive animal of approximately the same size and also the possibility of an illness that caused it to be in shallow water to begin with, and it is very reasonable to assume that this animal was so highly stressed and disoriented that it was simply unable to navigate safely in such circumstances,” Merkens says.

The poor thing was in dangerous waters to begin with.

 

This Ancient Fish Represents The Earliest Known Evolutionary Evidence of Fingers

The four-limbed animals of the world have several things in common. Spines. Bilateral symmetry. And most of us have (or, in the case of birds, had) five digits at the end of each of our four limbs.

 

When and how these digits emerged in animals has been something of a mystery. Palaeontologists have just found the earliest evidence of this anatomical feature, in the fin of a fish that lived 380 million years ago.

The rudimentary digit bones may not look like much, but they mark one of the most important transitions in vertebrate evolution.

“We have made a major breakthrough in the origin of how the hand was first formed for all vertebrates,” palaeontologist John Long of Flinders University in Australia told ScienceAlert.

“This is the first time that we have unequivocally discovered fingers locked in a fin with fin-rays in any known fish. The articulating digits in the fin are like the finger bones found in the hands of most animals,” he said in a statement.

The transition from aquatic fish to four-limbed creature (tetrapod) is one of the most important in evolutionary history, yet there are significant gaps in our knowledge. One of those gaps has been the point at which fish emerged from the depths and started foraging in shallower waters – what’s considered to be an intermediate step before crawling out onto land.

 

In order to complete that transition, animals would have needed something pretty vital for crawling – that is, hands and feet, digits and all.

This is where a specimen of an ancient lobe-finned fish called Elpistostege watsoni enters the picture. It’s a type of tetrapod-like fish belonging to an order called Elpistostegalia, on the ancestral line that leads to tetrapods; our understanding of the emergence of tetrapods largely relies on what we know about that order.

e watsoni(Cloutier et al., Nature, 2020)

But the elpistostegalian fossil record has been pretty scarce, with incomplete pectoral fin skeletal anatomy. Until 2010, when an almost complete 1.57-metre (5.15-foot) fossilised E. watsoni skeleton was found in the Escuminac Formation of Miguasha in Quebec, Canada.

Long and his colleague palaeontologist Richard Cloutier from Universite du Quebec a Rimouski in Canada have been carefully studying the fossilised bones to see what they can tell us about this mysterious animal. This paper is the first in a series, and it describes how the pair and their team used CT scanning to discover the skeletal anatomy of the fin.

 

“We focused on the discovery of digit bones in the fin as this was a really spectacular discovery – the first definite (not controversial) case of a fish with finger bones,” Long told ScienceAlert.

“Once we had compared our fin skeleton of Elpistostege with the arm and hand skeletons of terrestrial animals, it became clear that the rows of small digit bones were – in the evolutionary sense – the same as to phalange bones in the hands of land animals (like us).”

anatomy of the fish fingers chartComparison of early tetrapod limb anatomy. (Richard Cloutier and John Long)

The bones are not exactly true fingers, since they’re tucked inside the fin like a mitten, and can’t move freely. The fin still retains the outer fringe covered in fin-ray bones, called lepidotrichia; the fingers wouldn’t be able to move freely unless E. watsoni lost those.

But it does confirm the animal as an intermediate between fish and tetrapods. Although some have thought digits and carpals may be unique to tetrapods, we have had hints otherwise; for instance, the tetrapod-like arrangement of humerus, radius and ulna bones was discovered in lobe-finned fishes all the way back in 1892.

“The origin of digits relates to developing the capability for the fish to support its weight in shallow water or for short trips out on land. The increased number of small bones in the fin allows more planes of flexibility to spread out its weight through the fin,” Cloutier explained.

“The other features the study revealed concern the structure of the upper arm bone or humerus, which also shows features present that are shared with early amphibians. Elpistostege is not necessarily our ancestor, but it is the closest we can get to a true ‘transitional fossil’, an intermediate between fishes and tetrapods.”

The next part of the team’s work describing the fossil will focus on the head and parts of the skull, making comparisons with early tetrapods to further trace those evolutionary connections.

“It’s a truly amazing specimen indeed,” Long said.

The research has been published in Nature.

 

A Crucial Idea Darwin Had on Evolution Was Just Confirmed, 140 Years After His Death

Published in 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species made a number of bold claims about the nature of evolution – including the suggestion that an animal species with greater diversity in its line will produce more sub-species, too.

 

This assumption is not as obvious as you might think at first. Only a couple of years ago, this hypothesis was finally found to be true for birds. Now, researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK have shown that Darwin was right on this point for mammals, too: Mammal subspecies are indeed important in evolutionary terms, and perhaps more so than previously thought.

Apart from being an important contribution to our understanding of evolution in general, the findings could also be useful in ongoing conservation efforts – helping experts to figure out which species need to be protected in order to ensure their survival.

“My research investigating the relationship between species and the variety of subspecies proves that subspecies play a critical role in long-term evolutionary dynamics and in future evolution of species,” says biological anthropologist Laura van Holstein.

“And they always have, which is what Darwin suspected when he was defining what a species actually was.”

Darwin actually called them “varieties”, but the idea is the same – groups within a species with their own traits and breeding ranges. There are three subspecies of northern giraffe, for example, and 45 subspecies – the highest in the animal kingdom – of the red fox.

 

Human beings, on the other hand, don’t have any subspecies.

To test Darwin’s hypothesis, van Holstein looked at a huge database of animal classifications, analysing the collected knowledge we have about mammal species and subspecies to look for patterns.

The data showed that diversification between species and between subspecies was linked, as Darwin had suggested, but there was more – subspecies tend to form, diversify and increase differently depending on habitat (land versus sea, for example).

The findings show that the correlation between species diversity and subspecies diversity is strongest in non-terrestrial mammals – those living in the sea, or spending a lot of time in the air – and thus less affected by physical boundaries like mountains.

In animals like bats and dolphins, the researchers say, it might be better to consider subspecies more as the start of a new species rather than the evolution of an old one.

A further question posed by the researchers was whether there was any relationship between subspecies and the eventual creation of a whole new species.

“The answer was yes,” says van Holstein. “But evolution isn’t determined by the same factors in all groups and for the first time we know why because we’ve looked at the strength of the relationship between species richness and subspecies richness.”

 

The discoveries on subspecies habitat are particularly significant when it comes to conservation, because the habitats of so many animals are under threat from climate change and human activity -and these findings indicate that our actions really are having an impact on the process of evolution.

“Evolutionary models could now use these findings to anticipate how human activity like logging and deforestation will affect evolution in the future by disrupting the habitat of species,” says van Holstein.

“The impact on animals will vary depending on how their ability to roam, or range, is affected. Animal subspecies tend to be ignored, but they play a pivotal role in longer term future evolution dynamics.”

The research has been published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

 

Thriving ‘Neuron Nurseries’ Have Been Found Inside The Adult Human Nose

Our noses appear to be home to thriving ‘neuron nurseries’, according to new research. It’s a curious finding, given recent investigations on whether our brains keep making new neurons as we become adults; some evidence points to us growing these nerve cells well into old age.

 

But we don’t really know whether such neurogenesis could be found in other busy nerve bundles – such as the nose. This latest study suggests the olfactory neuroepithelium in the human nose seems to carry on producing neurons in our adulthood, based on an analysis of human tissue taken from seven middle-aged human donors.

Not only does this result give scientists a fresh insight into our body’s intricate neuron-producing processes, it also hints at new ways to treat conditions when these neurons may be badly damaged, or die off due to old age.

“We do not fully understand why people lose their sense of smell, which can occur for many reasons, and our data sets provide a wealth of information about the cell populations present in adult olfactory tissue,” says ear, nose and throat doctor Brad Goldstein from the Duke University Medical Center.

“This is an important step in developing treatment strategies for conditions when this tissue may be damaged.”

little nose 2
Neurons shown in red in human nasal tissue. (Durante, etal., Nature Neuroscience, 2020)

Using single-cell RNA sequencing, the researchers looked at 28,726 different cells in total, finding that more than half were ‘baby’ or immature neurons produced by neural stem cells – and their youthfulness suggests the neurons were produced inside the tissue itself.

In fact, the team found neurons at several stages of life in the nose tissue. While mouse studies have suggested some nerve regrowth in the nose was possible, the proportion of new cells in human noses was still surprising.

 

As neurons are responsible for transmitting information to other cells and muscles, when something goes wrong with these cells it can cause big problems – as seen with diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“It will be very useful to use this window to analyse samples from people with conditions in which the nervous system has degeneration, such as Alzheimer’s disease,” says Goldstein.

“Alzheimer’s is of particular interest, since these patients lose their sense of smell quite early in the disease process, and we have few treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. So, it may make sense to look carefully at regions of the olfactory system in these patients.”

While the new study supports the idea that this nasal nursery is capable of churning out new neurons as we get older, further research will be needed to make sure – we haven’t yet actually observed them being made.

Scientists are continuing to make strides forward in their understanding of how neurons operate and communicate with each other, offering insight into the workings of the complex biological computer that is the human body.

 

This new study does align with findings from last year, which showed neurons at different stages of maturity deep within the human brain. It seems we can keep producing these cells as we get older – the next question is how.

“Because the nose is exposed to the external environment, it might be possible we could one day collect these neuronal stem cells from patients and use them to treat their own brain disorders,” says microbiologist Hiroaki Matsunami from Duke University Medical Center.

“It is not outside of the realm of possibility.”

The research has been published in Nature Neuroscience.

 

This ‘Wonderchicken’ Could Be The Oldest Modern Bird Fossil, And a True Survivor

Back when fearsome dinosaurs roamed the land, an unimpressive avian, about the size of a very small duck, somehow survived alongside them – eking out a life along a prehistoric European seashore.

 

It had the long slender legs of a shorebird, and a face like a chicken, according to the Cambridge University researchers, who found its ancient traces hidden away in rocks dug up at a Belgium quarry 20 years ago.

“The moment I first saw what was beneath the rock was the most exciting moment of my scientific career,” said evolutionary palaeobiologist Daniel Field.

The skull and fragments of leg bones, revealed by CT scans, date as far back as 66.8 million years ago – the oldest evidence we have of a modern bird so far. The researchers have named this newly discovered species Asteriornis maastrichtensis, after the Titan goddess of falling stars, Asteria; the story goes that she turned herself into a quail to escape a threat.

By analysing the structures of the fossils, Field and colleagues found they had a combination of features now seen in modern waterfowl like ducks and landfowl like chickens and quails. This suggests A. maastrichtensis might be a common ancestor of both these groups.

Comparison between skulls. (Daniel Field/University of Cambridge)Comparison between skulls. (Daniel Field/University of Cambridge)

We’ve known for some time now that birds are descended from meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods, thanks to ‘missing link’ discoveries like 150 million-year-old Archaeopteryx – it had features such as teeth (like its dinosaur ancestors did), but also feathers and wrist bones shared by modern birds.

But so far there has been little evidence of exactly when modern birds arose.

 

“The origins of living bird diversity are shrouded in mystery – other than knowing that modern birds arose at some point towards the end of the age of dinosaurs, we have very little fossil evidence of them until after the asteroid hit,” explained palaeontologist Albert Chen.

When that rock fell from the sky, violently ending the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, this slight ‘wonderchicken’, or some of its relatives, must have managed to live on to produce the amazing spectrum of birds we know and love today. Meanwhile, its more dinosaurian neighbours – like the teethed Icthyornis-like bird ancestors found in the same quarry – did not.

Previous research, which Field also worked on, suggests that small, non-arboreal birds not unlike A. maastrichtensis had an edge in a post-impact world stripped of trees.

“This is an incredibly informative specimen,” Johns Hopkins University palaeontologist Amy Balanoff, who was not involved in the study, told Science Magazine.

“It gives us some clues about what characteristics were key in surviving that event.”

(Phillip Krzeminski)(Phillip Krzeminski)

Fossils of other early modern birds found in the Southern Hemisphere, like the partial skeleton of 66.5 million year old Vegavis iaai, had led some researchers to suggest modern birds may have originated from Gondwana.

But this Northern Hemisphere find now casts doubt on this idea.

Asteriornis now gives us a search image for future fossil discoveries,” said Field. “Hopefully it ushers in a new era of fossil finds that help clarify how, when and where modern birds first evolved.”

The study was published in Nature.

 

That Gratitude Journal Might Not Be The Best Depression Treatment, Study Shows

Working through an exercise in gratitude or counting your blessings can often have positive health benefits and lift our mood – but it isn’t actually much help when it comes to properly dealing with symptoms of depression and anxiety, new research has found.

 

Weighing up the evidence from 27 previous studies, covering 3,675 individuals in total, researchers observed only a “small effect” on depression and anxiety, suggesting better options are available when it comes to treating these conditions.

And while a grateful attitude can often have knock-on effects that are very welcome, the team behind the new meta-study is asking for caution in treating gratitude ‘interventions’ as a viable form of treatment.

“For years now, we have heard in the media and elsewhere about how finding ways to increase gratitude can help make us happier and healthier in so many ways,” says psychologist David Cregg, from Ohio State University.

“But when it comes to one supposed benefit of these interventions – helping with symptoms of anxiety and depression – they really seem to have limited value.”

Two of the most common exercises in focusing on gratitude are keeping a journal of three things that went well every day, and writing a letter expressing gratitude to someone who’s made a difference in your life.

But when compared with exercises unrelated to gratitude – like writing about a class schedule – these steps don’t seem to have much of an impact in terms of relieving anxiety or depression.

 

In other words, telling people who show symptoms of being anxious or depressed to be more grateful for the good things in their lives may not be all that effective.

“There was a difference, but it was a small difference,” says psychologist Jennifer Cheavens, from Ohio State University. “It would not be something you would recommend as a treatment.”

The researchers point to other options like cognitive behavioural therapy as being better for tackling anxiety and depression in the long run.

That’s not to say trying to concentrate on the positives is a waste of time. Exercises in gratitude have been shown to have benefits in terms of improving relationships and in getting people to exercise more, for example.

But for treating anxiety and depression, not so much. Previous studies may have suffered to varying degrees from problems with assessment methods, risk of bias, control groups measurements and the placebo effect, the researchers note.

That said, this isn’t yet the final word on the subject: this new research only involved two clinical samples, and only five studies that included an analysis of anxiety. What’s more, it focused on gratitude interventions – specific exercises – rather than the effects of a more grateful attitude in general.

“Based on our results, telling people who are feeling depressed and anxious to be more grateful likely won’t result in the kind of reductions in depression and anxiety we would want to see,” says Cheavens.

“It might be that these sort of interventions, on their own, aren’t powerful enough or that people have difficulty enacting them fully when they are feeling depressed and anxious.”

The research has been published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

 

Worms in Raw Seafood Have Increased 280x, But It’s Not Sushi We Should Worry About

Since the 1970s, a parasitic worm that infects fish, squid, whales, dolphins and sometimes even us has increased globally by 283-fold, according to a new meta analysis.

That’s no small amount, and yet because this creature is so tiny and the oceans so vast, it’s somehow evaded our notice until now. Not even the researchers themselves can figure out why this parasite is “growing like gangbusters”, or what it could possibly mean in the long run.

 

Known as the “herring worm” or Anisakis simplex, this particular parasitic nematode can hide in raw seafood; if mistakenly eaten by humans, it can cause symptoms similar to a bad case of food poisoning.

Other mammals aren’t so lucky. While the fishing industry might be inconvenienced by a rising tide of Anisakis, this parasite poses a much bigger threat to cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins.

Unlike humans, these marine mammals can get stuck with Anisakis for years, and they don’t have seafood processors and sushi chefs around to carefully clean out their catch.

Aquatic and fishery scientist Chelsea Wood says consumers don’t need to be too worried; she herself continues to eat sushi regularly. Given that the fishing industry hasn’t even noticed this increase in the parasitic worm, any risk of us ingesting it probably remains quite low. But the same can’t be said for marine mammals.

“It’s not often considered that parasites might be the reason that some marine mammal populations are failing to bounce back,” says Wood.

“I hope this study encourages people to look at intestinal parasites as a potential cap on the population growth of endangered and threatened marine mammals.”

 

The impact of this rising parasite on marine mammals is currently unknown, but if the numbers are right, cetaceans are facing a much greater risk of contracting Anisakis than half a century ago.

Analysing a total of 123 papers, the researchers reveal an astonishing increase in Anisakis abundance over a 53 year period from 1962 to 2015. On average, they explain, this means we have gone from finding less than one worm in every 100 hosts to more than one worm in every single host caught.

The global scale of this analysis was too great to pin down any one factor driving this growth, but Wood has a strong suspicion she knows what’s going on.

“My gut is that this is about the improvements we’ve made in marine mammal conservation,” Wood told ScienceAlert.

“The time frame of our study directly overlaps with when a bunch of really important marine mammal legislation went into effect like the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 and the international whaling commission moratorium on commercial whaling which came in the 1980s.”

Strangely enough, however, not all marine mammal parasites are increasing. The authors found another similar parasite, called Pseudoterranova, which infects fish, sea lions and other seals, remained relatively stable throughout the same time period.

 

Wood says they were expecting it to be the other way around, given how much seals and sea lions have thrived in recent years and how much whales have struggled. So maybe Anisakis is increasing because its life cycle has to pass through fewer hosts. Or perhaps it has something to do with the fitness of cetaceans versus seals.

The problem is, we have no baseline for what ‘natural’ looks like. The rising number of ocean worms could be a sign of the ecosystem thriving, or they could represent a growing threat to already endangered and vulnerable creatures like Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori).

The only studies available for analysis come from near history, and by this time, humans had already changed the oceans in drastic ways.

This raises the question: is the abundance of Anisakis increasing in response to human impacts, like fishing, pollution, or climate change, or is it recovering alongside an exploited marine mammal host?

Right now, we just can’t say for sure. Wood thinks the most plausible explanation is that some marine mammals are doing well, leading to an increase in the parasite at the expense of more vulnerable creatures who now face an increased risk of infection. We simply need more research.

 

“This is the story of only two parasite species among millions that are extant, and we encourage others to use historical ecology approaches to track change across a diversity of marine parasite species,” the authors write

“Only then will we have the data to indicate whether contemporary oceans are facing a ‘rising tide’ of marine disease.”

In the Arctic, where Anisakis flourishes, we often lack long-term data, even for the best known parasites and their diseases. And if we don’t know where they’re going or where they’ve been, we can’t predict how diseases will change with the times.

In this case, we completely missed out on the rise of Anisakis, and while it might not matter to humans this time, some day it very well could.

“There are way bigger infectious disease threats that people have to worry about, particularly for now,” says Wood. The effects of Anisakis are pretty mild, she says, and while it’s certainly not fun to barf, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.

The study was published in Global Change Biology.

 

Entire Collection of Dead Sea Scroll Fragments at US Museum Turns Out to Be Fake

A thorough investigation of one of the world’s most valuable collections of Dead Sea Scroll fragments has revealed a shocking truth: not one of the collection’s 16 fragments analysed is authentic.

 

The Dead Sea Scrolls, a trove of religious manuscripts containing the oldest known foundations of the Old Testament, date as far back as the third century BCE. The vast majority of these ancient, weathered texts are displayed in Jerusalem, but many more fragments circulate on the private market, where they are coveted by cashed-up collectors and museums.

Unfortunately, many researchers in the field of biblical archaeology suspect that some of these supposed relics – especially a mysterious body of fragments that only turned up late in the day, in 2002 – are cunningly crafted forgeries that can fool even experts.

That bleak view was seemingly confirmed in late 2018, when the US$500 million Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC revealed that at least five of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments in its collection on display were actually fakes.

Since then, the museum has engaged further scientific help to ascertain whether the rest of its scroll fragments (rumoured to have cost millions to acquire) are the real deal. It turns out, rather embarrassingly, they are not.

“After an exhaustive review of all the imaging and scientific analysis results, it is evident that none of the textual fragments in Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scroll collection are authentic,” says art fraud investigator Colette Loll, the founder and director of Art Fraud Insights.

 

“Moreover, each exhibits characteristics that suggest they are deliberate forgeries created in the 20th century with the intent to mimic authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments.”

Releasing the results of the analysis in a hefty 212-page report, Loll explains how the 16 fragments in the museum’s collections were subjected to a battery of scientific tests, including multispectral and reflectance transformation imaging, traditional and 3D microscopy, microchemical testing, and more.

The upshot is that the fragments analysed showed signs of modern writing inscribed upon archaeological deposits of leather, coated with a protein-based type of animal skin glue, which acted to reinforce the material, while also replicating the surface sheen of authentic Dead Sea Scroll originals, which are written on parchment.

“In all of the fragments that contained writing, we observed examples where modern ink was applied atop preexisting surface deposits and across cracks and areas of delamination already present on the repurposed material,” the report explains.

“In some cases, a variety of loose mineral deposits were also scattered over the forgeries after writing, and while the ink was still wet, in order to give the impression that these were authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments that had come from the Qumran caves. It is our opinion that all of these methods were utilised with an express intent to deceive.”

While being duped so publicly is no doubt a galling experience for the Museum of the Bible and its backers – David Green and his family’s commercial empire – the organisation is trying to put a brave face in light of the revelations, insisting that their complete transparency over these forgeries will benefit the field of biblical archaeology, by highlighting the crafty techniques used in the creation of fakes.

“Notwithstanding the less than favourable results, we have done what no other institution with post–2002 DSS fragments has done,” the museum’s chief curator, Jeffrey Kloha, explains.

“The sophisticated and costly methods employed to discover the truth about our collection could be used to shed light on other suspicious fragments and perhaps even be effective in uncovering who is responsible for these forgeries.”

The full report on the investigation is available on the Museum of the Bible’s website.

 

The Largest Mass Migration on The Planet Happens Every Single Day, And We Never See It

At night, they rise. As the Sun disappears over the horizon, a vast movement takes place in the world’s oceans, as countless sea creatures begin the long trek upwards towards the surface waters above.

 

They do not stay long. When the Sun rises, bringing light and the threat of watchful surface predators, they will retreat once more, down into the lower depths of the sea, sheltering in whatever protection the enveloping darkness can afford them.

This endless back-and-forth – called diel vertical migration (DVM) – is thought to be the largest mass migration on the planet in terms of the enormous amount of biomass involved, and it’s something that happens every single day and night, even though humans, for the most part, hardly even notice.

Some do, however. Scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California have been watching closely, analysing thousands of hours of footage of this phenomenon, and publishing their findings in a new study.

In short, the migration is no picnic. For vertical migrators who are preyed upon, there really is no such thing as a truly safe harbour, as predators hunt them basically every step of the way on their up-down journey, which usually spans hundreds of metres each way.

010 mass migration 2A Gonatus onyx squid eating a lanternfish. (MBARI)

“Just as there is a second set of predators that occupy the migrators’ dark daytime depths, there is also a diverse suite of predators that comprise a gauntlet of threats during the migrations,” the authors write in their paper.

Drawing upon a huge amount of observations recorded between 1997 and 2015 in Monterey Bay – and taken by human-occupied vehicles (HOVs), remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) – the researchers sought to examine vertical migration “from the standpoint of the migrators”, to gauge the level and kind of threats they meet during daily movements.

 

“Nobody has ever looked at migration from that perspective,” says midwater ecologist Bruce H. Robison.

“People have always made predictions of predation on vertical migrators based on data from net tows or acoustic surveys. But we spent so much time in the water videotaping the animals that we realised we could look at the risks of migration directly, based on what they actually encounter.”

In addition to a particular focus in the study on encounters faced by two prey animals – krill (Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera) and lanternfish (also known as myctophids) – the researchers also developed a model, based on the encounter data, to calculate the “threat potentials” these animals face from predators during vertical migration.

“Threat potential is a measure of the latent risk of encountering a potential predator or obstacle during diel vertical migration,” the researchers explain.

“It does not equate to mortality nor is it a proxy for predation rate or predatory impact.”

Given the seemingly omnipresent predatory obstacles these vertical migrators face, the researchers acknowledge “the odds of successful migration seem very small” – and yet, somehow, high threat potentials don’t always spell high death rates.

 

The reason why depends on the defensive and evasion capabilities of particular prey, but can include tactics such as mimicry, bioluminescence, schooling and swarming behaviour, among others, the team says.

While they may have to run the gauntlet their entire lives – every day, and every night – prey populations tend to find a way to persist in the face of hungry dangers, whether swimming to the light, or swiftly in the opposite direction.

The findings are reported in Frontiers in Marine Science.