12 Jan: A Fossil Flower Trapped in Amber Had a Mistaken Identity for 150 Years

A study of the Baltic specimen offers new insights into what Europe’s climate was like some 35 million years ago.Eva-Maria Sadowski, a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, didn’t have a particular agenda in mind when she decided to borrow the biggest fossil flower preserved in amber ever found.“I did it without any expectations, I just did it because I was curious,” she said.Her curiosity pulled the thread of a more than 150-year-long case of mistaken identity, resulting in a clearer picture of what the Baltic amber forest of Northern Europe looked like more than 33 million years ago.The preserved flower bloomed about halfway between the extinction of the last non-bird dinosaurs and the evolution of humans, who found it in the 19th century in territory that is now part of Russia. In 1872, scientists classified it as Stewartia kowalewskii, an extinct flowering evergreen.The Baltic amber flower’s identity hadn’t been revised until Dr. Sadowski’s paper in Scientific Reports was published Thursday.Plants in amber are a rarity. Among Baltic amber specimens, only 1 percent to 3 percent of trapped organisms are botanical. This might result from a bias toward animals by amber collectors, but it also might be because animals wander into pools of sticky resin while plants have to accidentally fall in.While they’re harder to come by, plants in amber provide paleobotanists with a wealth of information, Dr. Sadowski said. Amber, which forms from tree resin, preserves ancient specimens in three dimensions, revealing “all the delicate features that you normally don’t get in other fossil types.”The flower that caught Dr. Sadowski’s eye was an inch wide — three times bigger than the next-largest blossom preserved in amber ever discovered. A colleague had told her of the flower’s “massive” size before she sought it out, and she wondered if he was exaggerating. He wasn’t. She then decided to see what 150 years of technological advances might be able to reveal about Stewartia kowalewskii.Once she had the fossil flower in hand, Dr. Sadowski polished the amber block with a damp leather cloth and toothpaste — a technique she picked up from her doctoral adviser, Alexander Schmidt, who learned some of his methods from a dentist. Under a powerful microscope, Dr. Sadowski saw perfectly preserved details of the flower’s anatomy, along with specks of pollen, which she used the pollen to see if the plant had been sorted into the correct family 150 years ago.A 19th-century illustration of a Symplocos plant, from “Flora Japonica, Sectio Prima,” by Philipp Franz von Siebold and Joseph Gerhard Zuccarini.The presence of Symplocos in the Baltics helps to show that ancient Europe was balmier than it has been for most of human history.Carola Radke/Museum für Naturkunde BerlinDr. Sadowski scraped grains from near the amber’s surface with a scalpel. “I only do that on a very quiet morning in my office, where no one disturbs me — you need steady hands, no shaking,” she said.After isolating and imaging the grains, her co-author on the study, Christa-Charlotte Hofmann at the University of Vienna, investigated the pollen, along with microscopic features of the flower’s anatomy. That pointed to an entirely different genus group than had been assigned in 1872: Symplocos, a genus of flowering shrubs and small trees not found in Europe today but widespread in modern East Asia.The redesignation of the giant flower helps to flesh out what scientists know about the ecological diversity of the Baltic amber forest. It also sheds light on how Earth’s climate has changed over the last 35 million-odd years: The presence of Symplocos helps to show that ancient Europe was balmier than it has been for most of human history.“These tiny grains are natural recorders of past climates and ecosystems that can help us measure how much our planet has changed in the past due to natural (nonhuman) causes,” said Regan Dunn, a paleobotanist at La Brea Tar Pits and Museum who was not involved with the research. “This allows us to better understand just how much our species is impacting the planet.”While “Jurassic Park” enthusiasts may be disappointed to learn that there’s no chance of getting DNA from the amber flower, George Poinar Jr., a scientist whose work inspired the series, said that there are bound to be more breakthroughs. In the nearly 50 years he’s been studying amber, advances in microscopy have made once-hidden details of ancient organisms dramatic and clear.“I think that’s fascinating, for people to see life like that,” he said.


11 Jan: Why California Is Being Deluged by Atmospheric Rivers

California is taking a beating from what the National Weather Service has called a “seemingly never ending parade” of strong storm systems, which started late last December and are still coming. Called atmospheric rivers, they are long, narrow currents of exceptionally wet air that shoot across the ocean, capable of dumping massive volumes of rain or snow on landfall.


07 Jan: Science News Briefs from around the World: January 2023

Credit: NASAAdvertisement CANADA Narwhals seem to be migrating later every year as ice-coverage patterns change in Arctic waters. The unicornlike whales were thought to be particularly vulnerable to climate change because of their 100-year life spans and slow evolution, so this behavioral shift bodes well for their adaptability. MALDIVES Researchers have identified a new type of ecosystem, which they have named the “trapping zone,” in the Indian Ocean. In it, swarms of tiny traveling animals get stuck among rocks and reefs, becoming easy prey for sharks and other large predators. PAPUA NEW GUINEA Scientists found evidence that a giant kangaroo species that walked on all fours lived in New Guinea until 20,000 years ago, thousands of years after most megafauna went extinct in neighboring Australia. The researchers suspect giant mammals lasted longer on the island because far fewer humans lived there. SAUDI ARABIA Drone footage suggests the Saudi government has begun constructing a city that officials have claimed will be 105 miles long and 0.1 mile wide—and enclosed within giant mirrors to blend with the landscape. The city is designed to be traversable by foot or rail, with a low carbon footprint. SPAIN Neandertal teeth recovered from Gabasa indicate these ancient human relatives were primarily carnivores. The teeth have low zinc 66, consistent with a meaty diet—which challenges prior work suggesting Neandertals were more omnivorous. ZAMBIA A study of chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust shows the animals instinctively synchronize their steps when walking next to each other. This behavior is also seen in humans, suggesting that the unthinking coordination of basic motions is a shared ancestral trait. This article was originally published with the title “Quick Hits” in Scientific American 328, 1, 20 (January 2023)doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0123-20aABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)Daniel Leonard is a freelance science journalist and current Scientific American editorial intern whose work focuses on space, tech and natural history. Follow Leonard on Twitter @dalorleonRecent Articles by Daniel LeonardBacteria and Fungi Can ‘Walk’ across the Surface of Our TeethScience News Briefs from around the World: December 2022Ancient Sawfish Help to Illuminate Our Teeth’s Scaly Origins


27 Dec: The Webb Telescope Is Just Getting Started

BALTIMORE — So far it’s been eye candy from heaven: The black vastness of space teeming with enigmatic, unfathomably distant blobs of light. Ghostly portraits of Neptune, Jupiter and other neighbors we thought we knew already. Nebulas and galaxies made visible by the penetrating infrared eyes of the James Webb Space Telescope.The telescope, named for James Webb, the NASA administrator during the buildup to the Apollo moon landings, is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. It was launched on Christmas one year ago — after two trouble-plagued decades and $10 billion — on a mission to observe the universe in wavelengths no human eye can see. With a primary mirror 21 feet wide, the Webb is seven times as powerful as its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. Depending on how you do the accounting, one hour of observing time on the telescope can cost NASA $19,000 or more.But neither NASA nor the astronomers paid all that money and political capital just for pretty pictures — not that anyone is complaining.“The first images were just the beginning,” said Nancy Levenson, temporary director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs both Webb and the Hubble. “More is needed to turn them into real science.”A bright (infrared) futureThe Webb Space Telescope’s mid-infrared view of the Pillars of Creation, which showcases the telescope’s ability to detect dust, a major ingredient in star formation.NASA, ESA, CSA, STScIDeep in a cloud of dust and gas, a star is being born. At the center of the hourglass light from a spinning shrinking protostar leaks out the top and bottom of a thick disc of matter feeding it and illuminates surrounding gas and dust clouds.NASA, Esa, Csa, and Stsci, J. Depasquale (Stsci)For three days in December, some 200 astronomers filled an auditorium at the institute to hear and discuss the first results from the telescope. An additional 300 or so watched online, according to the organizers. The event served as a belated celebration of the Webb’s successful launch and inauguration and a preview of its bright future.One by one, astronomers marched to the podium and, speaking rapidly to obey the 12-minute limit, blitzed through a cosmos of discoveries. Galaxies that, even in their relative youth, had already spawned supermassive black holes. Atmospheric studies of some of the seven rocky exoplanets orbiting Trappist 1, a red dwarf star that might harbor habitable planets. (Data suggest that at least two of the exoplanets lack the bulky primordial hydrogen atmospheres that would choke off life as we know it, but they may have skimpy atmospheres of denser molecules like water or carbon dioxide.)“We’re in business,” declared Bjorn Benneke of the University of Montreal, as he presented data of one of the exoplanets.Megan Reiter of Rice University took her colleagues on a “deep dive” through the Cosmic Cliffs, a cloudy hotbed of star formation in the Carina constellation, which was a favorite early piece of sky candy. She is tracing how jets from new stars, shock waves and ionizing radiation from more massive nearby stars that were born boiling hot are constantly reshaping the cosmic geography and triggering the formation of new stars.“This could be a template for what our own sun went through when it was formed,” Dr. Reiter said in an interview.The Cosmic Cliffs, a region on the edge of the gigantic, gaseous Carina Nebula, as seen by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera.NASA, ESA, CSA, STScIAnnotated views of the Cosmic Cliffs, indicating some of Megan Reiter’s observations.NASA, ESA, CSA, STScIBetween presentations, on the sidelines and in the hallways, senior astronomers who were on hand in 1989 when the idea of the Webb telescope was first broached congratulated one another and traded war stories about the telescope’s development. They gasped audibly as the youngsters showed off data that blew past their own achievements with the Hubble.Jane Rigby, the project scientist for operations for the telescope, recalled her emotional tumult a year ago as the telescope finally approached its launch. The instrument had been designed to unfold in space — an intricate process with 344 potential “single-point failures” — and Dr. Rigby could only count them, over and over.“I was in the stage of denial,” she said in Baltimore. But the launch and deployment went flawlessly. Now, she said, “I’m living the dream.”Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who in 1989 chaired a key meeting at the Space Telescope Science Institute that ultimately led to the Webb, said simply, “I’m just blown away.”At a reception after the first day of the meeting, John Mather of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Webb’s senior project scientist from the start, raised a glass to the 20,000 people who built the telescope, the 600 astronomers who had tested it in space and the new generation of scientists who would use it.“Some of you weren’t even born when we started planning for it,” he said. “Have at it!”A wayback machineA deep-field image from the Webb telescope includes Earendel, the most distant individual star ever seen. Its light took 12.9 billion years to reach Earth.NASA/ESA/CSA/STScIA close-up of Earendel, indicated by the red arrow, and the Sunrise Arc galaxy.NASA/ESA/CSA/STScIThus far the telescope, bristling with cameras, spectroscopes and other instruments, is exceeding expectations. (Its resolving power is twice as good as advertised.) The telescope’s flawless launch, Dr. Rigby reported, has left it with enough maneuvering fuel to keep it working for 26 years or more.“These are happy numbers,” she said, as she and her colleagues rattled off the performance statistics of their instruments. Dr. Rigby cautioned that the telescope’s instruments were still being calibrated, so the numbers might yet change. Prepare to recalculate your results at the push of a button, she told a group of astronomers in the lobby: “Otherwise, you will hate your life.”Perhaps the biggest surprise from the Webb telescope so far involves events in the early millenniums of the universe. Galaxies appear to have been forming, generating and nurturing stars faster than battle-tested cosmological models estimated.“How did galaxies get so old so fast?” asked Adam Riess, a Nobel Physics laureate and cosmologist from Johns Hopkins University who dropped in for the day.Exploring that province — “cosmic spring,” as one astronomer called it — is the goal of several international collaborations with snappy acronyms like JADES (JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey), CEERS (Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science), GLASS (Grism Lens-Amplified Survey From Space) and PEARLS (Prime Extragalactic Areas for Reionization and Lensing Science).Webb’s infrared vision is fundamental to these efforts. As the universe expands, galaxies and other distant celestial objects are speeding away from Earth so fast that their light has been stretched and shifted to invisible, infrared wavelengths. Beyond a certain point, the most distant galaxies are receding so quickly, and their light is so stretched in wavelength, that they are invisible even to the Hubble telescope.The Webb telescope was designed to expose and explore these regions, which represent the universe at just one billion years old, when the first galaxies began to bloom with stars.Left, an observation made by the Hubble Space Telescope of the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey, or GOODS, in 2016. Right, the JWST NIRCam image of the GOODS South field, with four confirmed high-redshift galaxies.Left, NASA, ESA/Hubble; Robertson et al., arXiv:2212.04480 “It takes time for matter to cool down and get dense enough to ignite stars,” noted Emma Curtis-Lake, of the University of Hertfordshire and a member of the JADES team. The rate of star formation peaked when the universe was four billion years old, she added, and has been falling ever since. The cosmos is now 13.8 billion years old.Astronomers measure cosmic distances with a parameter called redshift, which indicates how much the light from a faraway object has been stretched. Just a few months ago a redshift of 8, which corresponds to a time when the universe was about 646 million years old, was considered a high redshift. Thanks to Dr. Curtis-Lake and her colleagues, the record redshift is now 13.2, corresponding to when the universe was only 325 million years old.Dr. Curtis-Lake and her team had aimed the telescope at a patch of sky called GOODS South, looking for galaxies that Hubble had been unable to detect. Sure enough, there were four of them, specters in the heat-fog of creation. Subsequent measurements confirmed that they were indeed way back in time.“We didn’t want to say we believed it — publicly,” said Brant Robertson, a JADES member from the University of California, Santa Cruz.The record is not expected to last long. The CEERS collaboration has reported a candidate galaxy that could have a redshift of 16, from when the universe was only 250 million years old.Experts are already arguing about whether these overeager galaxies reveal something fundamental, and overlooked, in current theories of the early universe. Perhaps some field or effect juiced up gravity back then and sped up the growth of galaxies and black holes. Or perhaps the discrepancies merely reflect scientific uncertainties about the messy details — the “gastrophysics” — of star formation.For the last 20 years, astronomers have honed a solid “standard model” of a universe composed of dark energy, dark matter and a smidgen of atomic matter. It’s too soon to break that model, Dr. Curtis-Lake said in an interview; Webb has perhaps three decades of observing ahead of it. “We’re in early stages,” she said.The closing talk fell to Dr. Mather. He limned the telescope’s history, and gave a shout-out to Barbara Mikulski, the former senator of Maryland, who supported the project in 2011 when it was in danger of being canceled. He also previewed NASA’s next big act: a 12-meter space telescope called the Habitable Worlds Observatory that would seek out planets and study them.“Everything that we did has turned out to be worth it,” he said. “So we are here: This is a celebration party, getting a first peek at what’s out here. It’s not the last thing we’re going to do.”