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mary caperton morton

Redefining homo: Does our family tree need more branches?

Paleoanthropologists have traditionally used four traits to classify hominins as members of the genus Homo. But none of the criteria are very stringent, leading to an assortment of hominins with widely varying features being counted in the same genus. Some researchers think it’s time to scrap Homo and start over.
21 Aug 2016

Hominid vs. hominin

Before genetics came along and revealed just how closely modern humans and chimpanzees are related, humans were classified in their own family, Hominidae, separate from old world monkeys, which were in the family Pongidae.

21 Aug 2016

The new kid on the block

In 2013, cave explorers discovered a trove of human-like fossils in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. Since then, more than 1,500 fossils belonging to at least 15 individuals have been excavated from the site. The fossils display a mishmash of primitive and more advanced features that seem to place it somewhere between Australopithecus and early Homo species, such as a small cranial capacity closer to Australopiths, but with finer facial features, more like Homo.In 2013, cave explorers discovered a trove of human-like fossils in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. Since then, more than 1,500 fossils belonging to at least 15 individuals have been excavated from the site. The fossils display a mishmash of primitive and more advanced features that seem to place it somewhere between Australopithecus and early Homo species, such as a small cranial capacity closer to Australopiths, but with finer facial features, more like Homo.

21 Aug 2016

Mauna Loa's mysterious Ninole Hills were once a rift

Hawaii’s Nīnole Hills, jutting out from Mauna Loa’s southeast flank, are one of the most striking features on the Big Island, though their geologic origins have long been a mystery. A new study looking at gravity anomalies under the hills is revealing that the hills are part of an older rift system that predates the currently active Southwest Rift Zone. The seemingly sudden switch from one rift system to another may provide some clues as to how Mauna Loa grew to be the largest volcano on Earth. “A lot of different ideas have been proposed to explain how the Nīnole Hills were created,” says Jeff Zurek, a geophysicist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, and lead author of the new study published in Geophysical Research Letters. It’s been suggested that the hills could be the remnants of an older summit of Mauna Loa, or its predecessor, Mohokea, or that faulting and landslides could have created the unusual topography of the hills, or that they could be from an older, inactive rift system.

11 Aug 2016

Long-gone supernova sprinkles rare isotope

At the end of a star’s lifecycle it collapses and explodes into a supernova, spewing rare elements and isotopes outward into space. In the last 1,000 years, three supernova events have been observed in the Milky Way Galaxy. Now scientists have detected a rare iron isotope, iron-60, in our solar system that hints that a supernova may have exploded nearby within the last few million years.

09 Aug 2016

Vibrations make large rocky landslides flow like water

There is a rule of thumb in geology for how far a landslide will run out: Most landslides travel roughly twice the vertical fall distance from where they fall off their parent slope. But certain types of dry landslides, called sturzstroms, can travel 20 to 30 times farther, without water or mud to lubricate the flow. Scientists have long hypothesized about exactly how this occurs, and new computer models seem to back up their hypotheses: that vibrations generated by dry rocky landslides can cause the slides to flow like a fluid and spread out across surprisingly large areas.

06 Aug 2016

Seeds may have saved bird-like dinosaurs from extinction

About 66 million years ago, nearly three-quarters of life on Earth, including all species of nonavian dinosaurs, were wiped out. However, a few species survived the mass extinction event, including the Neornithes, the ancestors of modern birds. A new study suggests they may have done so by relying on seeds when other food sources were scarce.

04 Aug 2016

Teeth hold clues to human success, Neanderthal decline

During the Upper Paleolithic, modern humans and Neanderthals coexisted until about 40,000 years ago, when Neanderthals went extinct for unknown reasons. Wear patterns on teeth from both humans and Neanderthals are providing insight into how different dietary strategies may have led to Homo sapiens’ success and the Neanderthals’ decline.

03 Aug 2016

Tully monster mystery solved

In 1958, an amateur fossil collector named Francis Tully found a strange fossil in a quarry near Morris, Ill., southwest of Chicago. Thousands more of the worm-like Tullimonstrum gregarium, better known as the “Tully monster,” were recovered from the same deposit — now a National Historic Landmark called Mazon Creek fossil beds. But the creature’s full appearance and just what sort of animal the Tully monster was have remained mysteries. In a new study, researchers have now finally identified it as a jawless fish, similar to modern lampreys.

02 Aug 2016

Sand shouldn't stand in for volcanic ash in jet engine tests

In 2010, the ash cloud produced by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull Volcano grounded trans-Atlantic and European flights for six days due to fears that the high-flying ash could damage — and stall — jet engines. The eruption, which snarled international air travel and led to billions in economic losses, spotlighted the need for more study of the effects of volcanic ash on jet engines. Many such studies have been done using sand as a convenient stand-in for ash. But a new study shows that some types of volcanic ash behave very differently from sand at high temperatures, suggesting sand is an inadequate analogue.

31 Jul 2016

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