Monday, December 21, 2009


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Ancient DNA retrieved from extinct horse species from around the world has challenged one of the textbook examples of evolution - the fossil record of the horse family Equidae over the past 55 million years.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved an international team of researchers and the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) based at the University of Adelaide.

Only the modern horse, zebras, wild asses and donkey survive today, but many other lineages have become extinct over the last 50,000 years.

ACAD Director Professor Alan Cooper says despite an excellent fossil record of the Equidae, there are still many gaps in our evolutionary knowledge. "Our results change both the basic picture of recent equid evolution, and ideas about the number and nature of extinct species."

The study used bones from caves to identify new horse species in Eurasia and South America, and reveal that the Cape zebra, an extinct giant species from South Africa, were simply large variants of the modern Plains zebra. The Cape zebra weighed up to 400 kilograms and stood up to 150 centimetres at the shoulder blades.

"The Plains zebra group once included the famous extinct quagga, so our results confirm that this group was highly variable in both coat colour and size."

Lead author of the paper, Dr Ludovic Orlando from the University of Lyon, says the group discovered a new species of the distinct, small hippidion horse in South America.

"Previous fossil records suggested this group was part of an ancient lineage from North America but the DNA showed these unusual forms were part of the modern radiation of equid species," Dr Orlando says.

A new species of ass was also detected on the Russian Plains and appears to be related to European fossils dating back more than 1.5 million years. Carbon dates on the bones reveal that this species was alive as recently as 50,000 years ago.

"Overall, the new genetic results suggest that we have under-estimated how much a single species can vary over time and space, and mistakenly assumed more diversity among extinct species of megafauna," Professor Cooper says.

"This has important implications for our understanding of human evolution, where a large number of species are currently recognised from a relatively fragmentary fossil record.

"It also implies that the loss of species diversity that occurred during the megafaunal extinctions at the end of the last Ice Age may not have been as extensive as previously thought.

In contrast, ancient DNA studies have revealed that the loss of genetic diversity in many surviving species appears to have been extremely severe," Professor Cooper says. "This has serious implications for biodiversity and the future impacts of climate change."

(Photo: U. Adelaide)

The University of Adelaide


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New research published Thursday 10 December, in New Journal of Physics (co-owned by the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society), describes a new concept from a group of Swedish physicists from the Department of Physics at Umeå University called the meta book which uses the frequency with which authors use new words in their literature to find distinct patterns in authors' written styles.

For more than 75 years George Kingsley Zipf's maxim, based on a carefully selected compilation of American English called Brown Corpus, suggested a universal pattern for the frequency of new words used by authors. Zipf's law suggests that the frequency ranking of a word is inversely proportional to its occurrence.

New research suggests however that the truth behind word frequency is less universal than Zipf asserted and has more to do with the author's linguistic ability than any over-arching linguistic rule.

The researchers first found that the occurrence of new words in the texts by Hardy, Lawrence and Melville did begin to drop off in their texts as their book gets longer, despite new settings and plot-twists.

Their evidence also shows however that the rate of unique word drop-off varies for different authors and, most significantly, is consistent across the entire works of any one of the three authors they analysed.

The statistical analysis was applied to entire novels, sections from novels, complete works and amalgamations from different works by the same authors – they all had a unique word-frequency 'fingerprint'.

By using the statistical patterns evident from their study, the researchers have pondered the idea of a meta-book – a code for each author which could represent their entire work, completed or in the mental pipeline.

As the researchers write, "These findings lead us towards the meta book concept – the writing of a text can be described by a process where the author pulls a piece of text out of a large mother book (the meta book) and puts it down on paper. This meta book is an imaginary infinite book which gives a representation of the word frequency characteristics of everything that a certain author could ever think of writing."

Institute of Physics


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In ancient times, people with exceptional vision discovered that one of the brightest stars in the Big Dipper was, in fact, two stars so close together that most people cannot distinguish them. The two stars, Alcor and Mizar, were the first binary stars—a pair of stars that orbit each other—ever known.

Modern telescopes have since found that Mizar is itself a pair of binaries, revealing what was once thought of as a single star to be four stars orbiting each other. Alcor has been sometimes considered a fifth member of the system, orbiting far away from the Mizar quadruplet.

Now, an astronomer at the University of Rochester and his colleagues have made the surprise discovery that Alcor is also actually two stars, and is apparently gravitationally bound to the Mizar system, making the whole group a sextuplet. This would make the Mizar-Alcor sextuplet the second-nearest such system known. The discovery is especially surprising because Alcor is one of the most studied stars in the sky.

"Finding that Alcor had a stellar companion was a bit of serendipity," says Eric Mamajek, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, and leader of the team that found the star. "We were trying a new method of planet hunting and instead of finding a planet orbiting Alcor, we found a star."

Mamajek says that a separate group of scientists, led by Ben Oppenheimer of the American Natural History Museum, has also just found that the Alcor companion is physically associated with the star.

That group has also recorded a rough spectrum of the star, which Mamajek says confirms his prediction that the companion is a cool and dim M-class dwarf star.

Mamajek and colleagues at the University of Arizona used the Multiple Mirror Telescope in Arizona, which has a secondary mirror capable of flexing slightly to compensate for the twinkling the Earth's atmosphere normally imparts to starlight. With the clearest images he could obtain of nearby stars, Mamajek's team used computer algorithms to remove as much glare as possible from the image of a star in the hopes of spotting a planet near the star. Planets are so much dimmer than their parent stars that spotting one is like trying to discern a firefly next to a spotlight from several miles away, says Mamajek.

Though Mamajek was unable to find any planets in the first group of stars he surveyed, he did stumble across the tiny star hidden in the glare of Alcor. Not only did Mamajek's project reveal the image of the star, but its presence was able to explain slight deviations in movement that scientists had noticed in Alcor. In addition, Mamajek estimates that the small companion star is likely a third as massive as our sun, and explains why astronomers have detected unexpectedly high levels of X-rays coming from Alcor—dwarf stars naturally radiate high levels of X-rays.

"It's pretty exciting to have found a companion to this particular star," says Mamajek. "Alcor and Mizar weren't just the first known binaries—the four stars that were once thought to be the single Mizar were discovered in lots of 'firsts' throughout history."

Benedetto Castelli, Galileo's protege and collaborator, first observed with a telescope that Mizar was not a single star in 1617, and Galileo observed it a week after hearing about this from Castelli, and noted it in his notebooks, says Mamajek. Those two stars, called Mizar A and Mizar B, together with Alcor, in 1857 became the first binary stars ever photographed through a telescope. In 1890, Mizar A was discovered to itself be a binary, being the first binary to be discovered using spectroscopy. In 1908, spectroscopy revealed that Mizar B was also a pair of stars, making the group the first-known quintuple star system.

Mamajek says some astronomers have raised the question of whether Alcor is truly a part of the system made up of the Mizar group of stars because Alcor's motion isn't what scientists would expect it to be if it were gravitationally connected to the Mizar group. Mamajek says that indeed Alcor is part of the same system, and that the influence of Alcor's newly discovered companion is partly responsible for Alcor's unexpected motion.

Mamajek is continuing his efforts to find planets around nearby stars, but his attention is not completely off Alcor and Mizar. "You see how the disk of Alcor B doesn't seem perfectly round?" says Mamajek, pointing toward an image of Alcor and its new companion. "Some of us have a feeling that Alcor might actually have another surprise in store for us."

(Photo: University of Rochester)

University of Rochester




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