Birds can “see” magnetic fields, study reports

Two newly published papers show that birds likely use a special protein in their eyes to navigate around the world.

While birds have been the subject of study for centuries, researchers have never fully understood how they travel around the world with such ease. To shed light on that mystery, scientists at Lund University and the Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg found evidence that the protein known as Cry4 might be responsible for avian navigation.

Cry4 is from a protein class known as cryptochromes. Such molecules are sensitive to blue light.and help regulate circadian rhythms. Now, researchers have cause to believe they help birds detect magnetic fields as well.

Past research shows that the cryptochromes in birds’ eyes allows the animals to orient themselves through a process known as magnetoreception. Scientists also know that birds can only sense magnetic fields if certain wavelengths are available.

To follow up on such research, the teams behind the two new studies looked at both zebra finches and Europeans robins. They looked at the birds by analyzing gene expression of the cryptochromes, Cry1, Cry2, and Cry4.

That showed, while Cry1 and Cry2 fluctuated each day, Cry4 — which expressed at constant levels — was the most likely candidate for magnetoreception. That held true for both zebra finches and robins.

“We also found that Cry1a, Cry1b, and Cry2 mRNA display robust circadian oscillation patterns, whereas Cry4 shows only a weak circadian oscillation,” the researchers wrote in their study, according to Science Alert.

In addition, the teams also discovered that Cry4 sits in a region of the retina that receives a lot of light. That further adds credence to the idea that it is used for magnetoreception. In addition, European robins have increased their Cry4 expression over time.

While both teams believe more research is needed before anyone can definitively say that Cry4 is responsible for magnetoreception, the evidence laid out in the two studies is quite strong. The next step is to analyze birds with non-functioning Cry4 and see how they perceive magnetic fields. Only then will teams be able to tell just how important the protein is.

The two studies are published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, and Current Biology.

PHYS Physics SCI Science

Star, black hole interaction further proves Einstein’s theory

For the first time in history scientists have used a supermassive black hole’s gravitational field to confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity, a new study in Astronomy & Astrophysics reports.

To do this, a team of international researchers analyzed the black hole at the center of the Milky Way — known as Sagittarius A — and a star in its orbit known as S2.

Using a combination of technology, mathematics, and observations, they studied the pair and observed S2 move close to the black hole. During that event, the fiery body acted exactly as predicted by the theory of relativity. 

“This is the second time that we have observed the close passage of S2 around the black hole in our galactic center,” said study co-author Reinhard Genzel, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, according to Science Alert. “But this time, because of much improved instrumentation, we were able to observe the star with unprecedented resolution.”

Three S-stars orbit Sagittarius A, and S2 gets extremely close to the hole every now and then. In the recent study, it moved within just 17 light-hours of the formation.

That is significant because, according to Einstein’s theory, the event should have stretched S2’s light into long wavelengths through a process known as gravitational redshifting.

While it is not easy to observe S2, high-tech telescopes analyzed the star and revealed its light did behave in that way.

The finding falls in line with other recent studies that set out — and failed — to disprove the popular theory.

However, such trials are important because if the theory ever does fail it would drastically alter the way scientists view and understand both the universe and the field of physics. 

“What we hope is at some point we will see something in the galactic centre that we can’t explain with Einstein’s theory – that would be really, really exciting,” said study co-author Odele Straub, a researcher at the Paris Observatory in France, according to BBC News. “Because then we could go back to the drawing board and come up with something better.”

SCI Science

World’s most extensive family tree sheds light on more than 11 generations

Scientists have compiled the world’s largest family tree, an endeavor that reveals new insights into both European and North American history.

Researchers from Columbia University used to create the tree, which encompasses roughly 13 million people. After downloading over 80 million public profiles, researchers used mathematical analysis to organize the data. That allowed them to create an interconnected family tree that spans out over 11 generations.

“Family trees have vast applications in multiple fields from genetics to anthropology and economics,” the authors wrote in the study, according to Newsweek. “However, the collection of extended family trees is tedious and usually relies on resources with limited geographical scope and complex data usage restrictions.”

Nearly 85 percent of people looked at in the study came from either Europe or North America. As a result, the tree allowed the team to get a look into how both continents are connected. While they learned a range of interesting things, one of the most useful was the shifting patterns of marriage and migration over time.

For instance, before 1850, many people married within the family. Though researchers previously believed people in the West stopped marrying relatives as a result of improved transport networks, the new data revealed that between 1800 and 1850 people were more likely to marry a fourth cousin. As a result, the team believes the practice died out because it became less socially acceptable over time.

Another surprising discovery is that women in both North America and Europe migrated more than men over the last 300 years. However, when men did migrate they traveled greater distances on average.

This new data is important because it could help answer a wide range of genealogical and scientific questions.

“We hope people use it,” said Yaniv Erlich, a data scientist and computational biologist at the New York Genome Center, according to National Geographic. “You can look at local disasters, individual families, anthropological questions, fertility rates—the data could be used for all of those things.”

A new study published in the journal Science reports.

NWT_Earth NWT_Environment SCI

Antarctic snowfall increased over the last two centuries

Antarctica has experienced a 10 percent increase in snowfall over the last 200 years, according to recent research set to be presented at the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria

This new discovery comes from a group of scientists with the British Antarctic Survey, who analyzed Antarctic ice cores and found that the continent accumulated nearly 272 gigatons of water over the last two centuries. Almost all of that extra water came from increased snowfall.

Such information is important because, not only does it alter the current perception of Antarctica’s climate, but it could change current sea level rise models as well.

“There is an urgent need to understand the contribution of Antarctic ice to sea-level rise and we use a number of techniques to determine the balance between snowfall and ice loss,” lead author Elizabeth Thomas, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey, said in a statement. “When ice loss is not replenished by snowfall then sea level rises.”

Satellite pictures — which often help researchers understand shifting climates — typically only give information going back 20 years or so. As a result, ice core analysis, which are able to track snowfall for several hundred years, are more effective. In this case, they revealed that Antarctica’s surface mass balance drastically shifted from snowfall throughout the twentieth century.

Though the snowfall is everywhere, it mainly concentrated on the Antarctic Peninsula. There, the annual average is 10 percent higher than it was 200 years ago.

This discovery could alter current perceptions of climate change, but the team states the findings do not override any observations of melting or glacial retreat. Even so, they will allow scientists make more accurate sea level rise predictions as time goes on.

“We know that the two major influencers affecting change — the mass gain from snowfall and the mass loss from melting — are acting differently from one another,” added Thomas, according to UPI. “Our new findings take us a step towards improving our knowledge and understanding.”

Business TECH TECH_Technology

Google Bulletin app will allow anyone to post local news

Google has announced it is testing a new tool known as Bulletin that will allow anyone to publish local news stories or events.

The feature, which the tech company states will help people better communicate local information like bookstore readings or street closures, is already up and running. However, it is still in “early access mode,” which means it is being slowly released across the country. Currently, it is only available in Nashville and Oakland, California.

The idea behind the app is to share information. Google states that you can use it to publish writings, photos, or videos directly from your phone to the web without needing to go through any extra hoops.

“If you are comfortable taking photos or sending messages, you can create a Bulletin story!,” reads the company website, according to Tech Crunch.

To make sure the app runs smoothly, Google plans to try to partner with a range of local news stations. They hope that move will allow those stations to find and publish new stories while also giving the author credit.

Unfortunately, while the new system might be exciting, it is not going to be easy for Google to break into the local news service. Many people live steam or tweet breaking news, especially when they witness a pressing event like a fire or accident. In addition, most people who want to promote local events have their own avenues to do it.

Instant-update local news is also not a space that it is easy to monetize. Only a few companies have managed to do it, and they are unlikely to allow somebody else to take over their domain.

To break the mold, Google appears to be marketing Bulletin as a more social experience. The company has attempted to break into the social space a few times in the past, and while the app is geared towards news and information, it seems to be another try at connecting people through the Google platform. 

“Bulletin is an experimental app that gives people an easy way to tell stories about what is going on around them — ranging from local bookstore readings to high school sporting events to information about local street closures,” Google’s Maggie Shields told CNET. “We are excited to see how people use the app during this pilot phase.”

Business TECH TECH_Technology

Future iPhones could have foldable screens

Though Apple is currently working with many different types of phone screens — including Face ID and bezel-less resolutions — the company’s next step may be making them foldable.

The tech giant is reportedly partnering with LG in order to create a new type of foldable OLED displays for future generations of iPhones. While the idea may seem far-off, the devices are set for production as early as 2020.

This idea comes on the wings of the newly announced iPhone X, which has some significant design changes from past models. The new devices will have a front-facing camera that is able to scan a person’s face, a bezel-less OLED screen, as well as no home button. As a result, it makes sense that Apple is looking to years into the future to see what design they should pursue next.

The iPhone X is the first iPhone to use an OLED screen. To make that feature work, Apple needed to team up with its rival, Samsung, who is currently the world’s leading OLED manufacturer. The deal gave the iPhone a new type of screen, but it is also going to make Samsung billions of dollars and could cause Apple to become dependent on another company.

That is likely why, despite Samsung’s work into folding phones, Apple chose to team up with LG instead. This move allows them to push Samsung away and distance themselves from a long time rival, CNet reports.

“Amid Samsung’s near monopoly in mobile OLED production, Apple has been strengthening its partnership with LG Display, its long-time LCD partner,” stated the Korean website The Investor, according to Financial Express.

LG has already developed prototypes for its folding OLED screens, but most of them are much smaller than the screens Samsung has built. That size could be the reason for the 2020 production timeline, but three years may still put the company behind in the game. Samsung already has plans to release a folding phone that could come out as early as next year.


Melting permafrost could release toxic mercury, study reports

There may be over 15 million gallons of mercury buried beneath the permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere, and global warming could release it all, according to a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Mercury occurs naturally in the Earth, but rarely does it all concentrate in one place. In fact, the mercury detected in the recent research is roughly twice as much as can be found in the rest of Earth’s soils, ocean, and atmosphere combined.

Permafrost is any soil that has been frozen for over two years. In the Northern Hemisphere, such soil makes up roughly 8.8 million square miles of land. As time passes, naturally occurring compounds in the atmosphere — including mercury and carbon dioxide — can bind with organic material in the soil and become trapped in the frost. It then stays there until the frost thaws. 

To see how much mercury is trapped by the permafrost, researchers from the U.S Geological Survey drilled 13 permafrost soil cores from various sites in Alaska between 2004 and 2012. They then measured the total amounts of mercury and carbon in each sample. Using the measurements as a baseline, the team estimated that there is more than 15 million gallons of mercury sealed away below North American permafrost.

“There would be no environmental problem if everything remained frozen, but we know the Earth is getting warmer,” said lead author Paul Schuster, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, according to Live Science“This discovery is a game-changer.”

Past studies have observed climate-change induced permafrost thawing, and if current trends continue more is likely going to occur in the future. In fact, a 2013 study showed that the Northern Hemisphere will lose between 30 and 99 percent of its permafrost by 2100.

While scientists have analyzed several ways melting permafrost could harm the planet, there has been no research done on large-scale mercury leaks. One potential issue is that trapped mercury could seep into waterways and shift into toxic methylmercury. Such contamination could travel swiftly up the food chain and harm a wide range of organisms, from microbes all the way to humans.

To better explore the potential scenarios, the team plans to do a follow up study that will better show the effects of the melting soil.

“24 percent of all the soil above the equator is permafrost, and it has this huge pool of locked-up mercury,” added Schuster, in a statement. “What happens if the permafrost thaws? How far will the mercury travel up the food chain? These are big-picture questions that we need to answer.”


Key parts of the ozone layer are not healing

Though recent research revealed that the ozone above Antarctica is slowly healing, the layer is not recovering over Earth’s most highly populated regions, a new study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics reports.

In the research, a group of international scientists found that, despite conservation efforts, the ozone layer is thinning in the lower stratosphere above non-polar areas. The reduced protection is particularly concerning near the equator, where sunlight is the strongest.

Though scientists are not sure why the ozone layer is dropping at lower latitudes, they believe the decline is linked to a chemical used in paint stripper, as well as atmospheric circulation triggered by climate change.

“The study is in lower to mid latitudes, where the sunshine is more intense, so that is not a good signal for skin cancer,” said study co-author Joanna Haigh, a researcher at Imperial College London, according to The Guardian. “It is a worry. Although the Montreal protocol has done what we wanted it to do in the upper stratosphere, there are other things going on that we don’t understand.”

To better understand the worrisome trend, the team combined measurements of atmospheric ozone from 11 different datasets to generate a record of the last 30 years. They then looked at ozone levels between the 60th parallels — an area that ranges from Scandinavia, Russia and Alaska in the north to the tip of South America — and studied the stratosphere.

That revealed the lower stratosphere, which contains the most ozone, had falling levels. As a result, it is likely going to stay in its depleted state rather than heal.

There is no set reason for this decline, but scientists postulate that global warming could be the cause. That is because ozone is produced by chemical reactions that occur over the tropics before large air circulation currents move them towards the poles. Warming trends could strengthen such currents, moving more ozone to the poles and leaving less at lower latitudes.  

However, previous studies have also shown that “very short lived substances” (VSLS) — industrial chemicals that destroy ozone — could be a factor as well. Many believed they break down too quickly to make it to the stratosphere, but the new research once again calls them into question.

 “The finding of declining low-latitude ozone is surprising, since our current best atmospheric circulation models do not predict this effect,” said lead author William Ball, an atmospheric scientist at ETH Zurich university in Switzerland, according to Newsweek. “Very short-lived substances could be the missing factor in these models.”

There are many theories out there, but more research needs to be conducted before any can be confirmed. The team hopes they will be able to answer some questions in the coming months and help provide insight into why the ozone is collapsing in the way that it is.


Noise pollution could harm heart health, study reports

High amounts of noise pollution may lead to or trigger cardiovascular disease, according to a new review published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

This connection may be surprising, but it is not necessarily new. Many past studies have shown a link between noise pollution and heart problems. For instance, scientists have connected road traffic and planes to issues like high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, stroke, and heart failure.

Even so, while there is a lot of information about the topic, it is not well understood.

To shed light on the link, a team from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany compiled and analyzed findings from dozens of previous studies on noise and health problems. They found that noise is not just annoying, it disrupts the body on the cellular level. In fact, it triggers a stress response and activates the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system. That then causes a spike in stress hormones, which can lead to vascular damage over time.

There is also a chance that noise may be a driving factor behind both oxidative stress and metabolic abnormalities, which could both contribute to chronic diseases like diabetes. As a result, those at risk for heart disease should try to avoid living in noisy areas when possible.

Another issue with noise is that it can disrupt a person’s sleep, even if they are not aware they are waking up. Noise in the night can cause a stress reaction that may lead to more problems later on. However, noise during the day can cause problems as well.

“When we’re exposed to loud noises, the sympathetic nervous system dominates,” explained James O’Keefe, a cardiologist at the Mid America Heart Institute, Saint Luke’s Hospital who was not involved in the study, according to TIME. “That can really put your system on alert and makes you jumpy, which can wear down your resilience — just like any other type of physical or mental stress.”

While there is no established volume threshold for heart-disease risk, the team states that long exposure to sounds over 60 decibels can potentially harm the cardiovascular system. For reference, a telephone ring produces about 80 decibels, a jackhammer about 100, and an airplane takeoff about 120.

To reduce noise, researchers believe that earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones could help cut back on health problems. A type of relaxation therapy known as autogenic training may also work as well.

Researchers hopes to continue to study the link between noise pollution and health in hopes of getting officials to take a notice of potential environmental stressors. Some cities have taken steps to reduce noise pollution, but that is likely not going to be enough.

“What we need is policy change,” said lead author Thomas Münzel, a researcher at Johannes Gutenberg University, according to ABC News. “We can acknowledge noise as a cardiovascular risk factor, but since doctors and patients can’t regulate it, we need our governments to pay attention to the WHO noise limits and change the laws accordingly.”

NWT_Environment Science

Microplastics threaten marine filter-feeders, study reports

A group of international researchers has found that if more research is not done on the impact plastic pollution has on rays, whales, and sharks, many of the large marine species could die off in the near future. 

Microplastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to ocean life, and the team in the recent study has found evidence that it hits larger species particularly hard. The researchers discovered that large marine animals are swallowing hundreds of tiny bits of plastic every day, a trend that could greatly reduce many filter feeder populations.

Even so, despite that risk there is very little research being done on the topic. To try and change that trend, the team analyzed a range of studies and found that the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Coral Triangle all need to be better monitored for the presence of microplastics.

The small particles are dangerous because, once ingested, they can damage the digestive system and lead to toxin exposure. That could then affect many biological processes, including growth and production. While the plastics affect many species, filter feeders — which swallow hundreds of cubic meters of water a day — are particularly susceptible to ingesting them. That is problematic because the larger species are a key part of many ecosystems.

“Our studies on whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez and on fin whales in the Mediterranean Sea confirmed exposure to toxic chemicals, indicating that these filter feeders are taking up microplastics in their feeding grounds,” said study co-author Maria Fossi, a professor at the University of Siena in Italy, according to BBC News. “Exposure to these plastic-associated toxins pose a major threat to the health of these animals since it can alter the hormones, which regulate the body’s growth and development, metabolism, and reproductive functions, among other things.”

Whale sharks feeding in an important breeding ground at the Sea of Cortez off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula are estimated to ingest under 200 pieces of plastic per day. In addition, fin whales in the Mediterranean Sea likely swallow closer to 2,000 microplastic particles per day.

The new research hopes to stem those issues by highlighting several key coastal regions for future research and monitoring. Whale sharks and other flagship species may act as a the center point for such study, especially in countries that rely on wildlife tourism. Many large filter feeding species are on the edge of extinction, and the team hopes more awareness could stem the tide and help prevent them from disappearing altogether.

“It is worth highlighting that utilizing these iconic species, such as whale sharks, manta rays and whales to gain the attention of and engage with communities, policy makers and managers will go far to enhance stewardship of entire marine ecosystems,” said Elitza Germanov, a PhD student at Murdoch University.

The new research is published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.