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mary caperton morton

Flames fan lasting fallout from Chernobyl

On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded during a catastrophic meltdown, spewing radioactivity over Eastern Europe and forcing evacuations of thousands of people. Nearly 30 years later, the scar of the Chernobyl disaster remains in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine in the form of the 2,600-square-kilometer Exclusion Zone, which is choked with dead trees and overgrown brush contaminated with high levels of radioactive cesium, strontium and plutonium. Occasional wildfires in these woods send plumes of smoke laced with potentially harmful radionuclides into the atmosphere. Now, a new study finds that climate change will likely increase the frequency and intensity of these fires, further increasing the possible hazard.

19 May 2015

The new anthropology: From bones and stones to biology and behavior

Paleoanthropology is embracing a more integrated approach to understanding our ancestors’ biology and behavior, overturning long-held narratives of human evolution.

15 May 2015

Comparing apples to oranges, hyenas to humans

Traditionally, anthropologists thought that hunting played a huge role in the lives of early humans, perhaps because of the prominence of stone tools in the fossil record. But today, most researchers recognize that hominids must have exploited a wide range of resources, and were probably not exclusively carnivores.

15 May 2015

Amber-encased plant could be oldest known grass: Specimen may also preserve a Cretaceous-aged hallucinogen

Delicate grasses don’t preserve well in the fossil record, and evidence for grasses coexisting with dinosaurs is scant. But according to a new study, a chunk of 100-million-year-old amber recently discovered in Myanmar appears to contain the world’s oldest grass fossil — far more ancient than any fossil grasses previously found. What’s more, the specimen seems to be topped with the world’s oldest known ergot — a fungus containing ingredients used to make lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. But while the image of a 100-metric-ton sauropod grazing on hallucinogen-laced grass is intriguing, not everybody is convinced that the specimen is the real deal.

12 May 2015

Comet water unlike Earth’s

Scientists have long suspected that much of the water that fills our planet’s oceans may have come from asteroids or comets that collided with the early Earth. Now, recently reported data from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, which landed its Philae probe on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November, appears to favor an asteroid origin story for Earth’s water.

10 May 2015

Earliest primates were tree dwellers

The first primates evolved shortly after the mass extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. But whether these small mammals lived on the ground or in trees has puzzled paleontologists, who only had fossil teeth and jaws to examine, which left much of the animals' appearance and behavior a mystery.

24 Apr 2015

Bird genomes untangle branches of avian family tree

Birds, the only surviving descendants of dinosaurs, have one of the most fascinating — and perplexing — family trees in the animal kingdom. To sort it out, an international collaboration known as the Avian Phylogenomics Project has sequenced the genomes of dozens of different bird species, representing all the orders in the bird family. Even with a glut of new data, however, many questions remain about the branches of the avian family tree.

 
22 Apr 2015

Of temperature and tone: Has climate shaped human languages?

Humans today speak more than 6,500 languages, and thousands more dialects once spoken have gone extinct. Understanding how and why so many languages have evolved over human history has long been the work of linguists. Recently, however, the emerging field of geo-phonetics has begun looking into how geography — and perhaps climate — affects language. In a new study, researchers suggest that humidity and temperature, which can impact our ability to craft certain sounds, appear to have influenced the evolution of tonality in languages in different parts of the world.

20 Apr 2015

A front-row seat at a fire-and-ice show

Many of the world’s volcanoes are high enough and cold enough to sport seasonal snow, and some even boast year-round glaciers. But what happens when those volcanoes erupt and molten lava hits snow and ice? Observing such extreme interactions of hot and cold is often dangerous in the field, but a slow-moving basaltic eruption in Russia in 2012 provided the right conditions to give scientists a close-up view on one fire-meets-ice display.

 
13 Apr 2015

Fire-driven clouds and swirling winds whipped up record-setting New Mexico blaze

At about 1 p.m. on June 26, 2011, a wind-downed power line sparked a blaze in the Las Conchas area of Santa Fe National Forest. It would become the largest fire in New Mexico’s history at the time. Within hours, the flames spread to cover more than 160 square kilometers, threatening the town of Los Alamos, home of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), which develops nuclear fuels and safeguards nuclear weapons, among other activities. Now, a new study identifies why the fire spread so far so fast, and the results may have implications for fire management practices in other mountainous regions.

12 Apr 2015

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