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Friday, May 13, 2016

Astronaut Scott Kelly Is Home from a 1-Year Mission, But the Science Continues

Written by Calla Cofield

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is back on Earth after a 340-day stay in space, but the "one-year mission" is far from over.

The goal of sending Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko to the International Space Station for nearly a year was to learn about the ways that long-duration spaceflight affects the human body and psyche. The two space travelers returned home to Earth on March 1, but the science experiments that will study the two men are still in progress.

The information collected before, during and after this extended stay in space will soon be in the hands of scientists, who will analyze it to better understand how humans might fare on a long trip to Mars or some other destination. Today (March 4), scientists involved with the One-Year Mission answered questions about the mission during a news conference on NASA TV, as well as via a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) earlier in the day.

The typical stay on the space station lasts only six months, and while Kelly and Kornienko are not the first people to spend a year in space, the international One-Year Mission is the most in-depth study of how a mission this long affects the human body.

"From the perspective of NASA's Human Research program, [the One-Year] Mission is not yet over just because the flight has landed," John Charles, associate manager for international science for NASA's Human Research Program, wrote during the Reddit AMA.

In today's news conference, Charles told reporters that the studies conducted on Kelly and Kornienko have not been completed and that no conclusions can be made yet. Many of the studies require studying Kelly prior to, during and after flight, which means tests and sample collection will continue now that he is on the ground. Some of the experiments will not have their final data sets until September.

In addition, some of the blood and urine samples Kelly collected during flight are coming back to Earth on a SpaceX vehicle in May. That means scientists will still be working on their results well into 2017, and perhaps beyond.

"The data analysis is only now beginning in earnest," Charles said in the news conference.

Scientists also conducted tests on Kelly's twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, to see how spaceflight affects humans on a genetic level.

"Especially for the Twins Study, the metabolic data that were acquired are going to be batch analyzed, which means that all the samples or most of the samples will be analyzed by the same technician, with the same hardware, at the same time and the same place," Charles said in the news conference. "So any differences we'd see are not related to variations between the technician or the location or the time or how long they were in the freezer and so forth."

Scott M. Smith, nutritional biochemistry laboratory manager for NASA's Human Research Program, wrote in the AMA that scientists anticipated publishing a "main paper" about the Twins Study "with likely smaller piece papers to follow."

Back on the ground

As soon as Scott Kelly exited the Soyuz space capsule on March 1 when it landed in Kazakhstan, he underwent tests to see how well an astronaut might be able to perform physical tasks on the surface of Mars immediately after completing a long spaceflight.

"What I've been told is that he completed all the testing, which, in itself, is a real accomplishment because it's a lot of work to do after a very strenuous — and, I think, harrowing — episode when you land in the Soyuz," Charles said. "So he has continued to perform at very significant levels. He's been there for all the studies; he's been a full participant and seems to be doing it by taking it in stride."

So, if Kelly's year in space had been a trip to Mars, would he have been able to land on the Red Planet, get into a spacesuit and immediately begin work?

"I get the sense that he could have," Charles said. "That's my strictly qualitative, nonprofessional assessment having never interacted with the spacesuits myself. But if he couldn't, I can't imagine somebody that could have."

During the NASA news conference, a reporter asked Charles what his top three concerns are for long-duration spaceflight, and how the One-Year Mission addresses those concerns.

At first, Charles' response sounded organized. He mentioned concerns about the psychological impacts of a trip to Mars, where astronauts are confined to a small space with the same group of people. He also noted that a ship traveling to Mars might have long radio delays with Earth, making it impossible to talk to friends and family in real time.

But the answer quickly spiraled away from a short list of three items. Charles said the people in NASA's human spaceflight division are concerned about the changes in astronaut circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles, the need for medical care on a trip to Mars (when astronauts can't even talk to a doctor on the phone in real time because of the radio delay), radiation exposure once astronauts leave the protective shield of Earth's magnetic field, the challenge of providing nutritious food that is also satisfying to the astronauts so they don't lose interest in eating, changes to astronauts' vision, changes in bone integrity and bone loss and changes in muscle function. And NASA is concerned about how those problems will affect the astronauts not just while they're traveling to Mars, but also once they return to Earth.

"Essentially, every kind of body system that you can imagine is influenced by the factors of spaceflight," Charles said. "You name it — we're interested in all of it."

"Missions like this help us to answer the questions that we have in front of us," Charles continued. "So, at the end of the space station era or thereafter, we can give a 'go' to the manager of the Mars program and say that yes, we think we understand what needs to be done to keep astronauts happy, healthy and performing at [a] high level — not just alive, but performing at a high level for the duration of the Mars missions."

Another yearlong mission?

While the tests on Scott Kelly and Kornienko will be extremely useful, Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the International Space Station Program, said there is still a need for more test subjects in order to fully understand how long-duration spaceflight affects the human body.

"We really would like to see 10 or 12 crewmembers with long-duration data [prior to a human Mars mission] in order to be confident … that we know what all the risks are and alleviated them all," she said. "So, at its core, scientifically, we need more subjects."

Charles confirmed in the Reddit AMA that "NASA's Human Research Program has requested additional year-long missions on ISS, but all the other aspects of such missions must be considered by all the partner agencies, so no final decision has been made one way or the other."

"One thing that's really important is getting this first set of data back," Roberts said, referring to the data on Kelly and Kornienko. That information may suggest to NASA scientists that they should either try to send up more long-duration crews right away, or wait until later in the life of the space station.

Click here to read more.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Unlikely Birth of the Beloved Zamboni

Written by Matt Blitz

How war surplus parts and California sun led to the iconic ice hockey contraption.

The boxy four-wheeled contraption is not particularly graceful. It does one job, night after night, intermission after intermission. Yet the Zamboni machine, that overgrown ice tractor that resurfaces a rink between figure skating routines or ice hockey periods, always elicits pure joy from onlookers.

"It's particularly mesmerizing to children," Richard Zamboni, the son of the machine's inventor and president of Frank J. Zamboni & Co, Inc, tells Popular Mechanics. "But the adults seem to enjoy watching the operators, likely putting themselves in the position of the driver and imagining if they could a better job."

Richard's father, Frank Zamboni, debuted his "Model A" Zamboni in 1949 at his Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount, California. As the world's first ice resurfacing machine, the Zamboni made a hard task simpler—before this mechanical marvel, up to four workers and a tractor were needed to shave, scoop, and spray the ice in a 90-minute process. Nearly seventy years later, the Zamboni has become so much more than just a machine. It's a star.

Unlikely Roots

Frank Zamboni's invention was inspired by his mechanical engineering and ice-making background. Born in 1901 to European immigrant parents, Frank grew up fixing tractors on his family's Idaho farm. While his formal education ended early, he kept tinkering with and fixing farm equipment. "While my father never got past the ninth grade in formal schooling, he always had an inquisitive mind in solving problems," Richard Zamboni says. "Whether it was electrical, mechanical, or business-related, he had the unique ability to get to the heart of issues."

When Frank was 19, his family sold the farm and moved to a small sun-drenched Southern California town about 15 miles south of Los Angeles. There, he went to electrical engineering school and started a company with his brothers called, appropriately, the Zamboni Bros. Co. In 1928, he earned his first patent for the "adjustable reactor resistance"— an electrical resistor that prevented the core from chattering while making or breaking a magnetic circuit. Zamboni, who died in 1988 at the age of 88, would be awarded 15 patents over his lifetime, including his 1974 patent for "water removal machine for artificial turf"—also known as the Astro Zamboni Machine, a contraption that could suck up and pump water off Astro Turf at a rate of about 400 gallons per minute.

In the late 1920s, the Zamboni brothers opened an ice-making plant, from which they sold ice wholesale to produce companies shipping their products out of the area via rail. This would be a good business for the Zambonis for years, but eventually, of course, refrigerators became more affordable and commercially available, killing the much less efficient process of making ice. Seeing their profits melt away, the brothers pivoted into a new ice-based business.

At first glance, opening and operating a skating rink in Southern California seems like an odd choice. But in the 1940s, the Zamboni hometown of Paramount was a dairy farming community with a large Dutch population for whom skating (especially speed skating) was a way of life. Catering to the demand, the Zamboni brothers built the Paramount Iceland Skating Rink, which at the time was one of the largest ice skating rinks in America. It's still operating today. Originally open-air, the rink had problems staying frozen in the SoCal sun and wind, requiring constant attention from a large crew that needed an hour and a half to resurface the ice. Although a roof was added, the problem persisted. So Frank Zamboni got to work figuring out an easier, more efficient way to clean his ice.

The result was the "Model A Ice Resurfacer #1," Frank's first successful prototype. Using an array of discarded and surplus parts, Zamboni built the machine that would become his life's work. Starting with two old Dodge front ends, he added a Jeep engine and transmission purchased from war surplus. He then tacked on a tractor seat, the chassis from an oil derrick, a hydraulic cylinder procured from the landing gear of a Douglas A-26 bomber, razor-sharp blades to shave the ice, a paddle and chain system, a giant wooden box to catch the ice shavings, and a towel for spreading new water onto the ice. When it appeared in 1949, the Model A was an enormous, top-heavy, bizarrely complicated contraption. But it worked. The first Zamboni machine turned ice resurfacing into a ten-minute, one-person task. Most importantly, it created a perfect sheet of ice.

The Zamboni machine worked so well that Frank made a second one and sold it to nearby Pasadena Winter Garden. Soon thereafter he sold his improved "Model B" to famed film actress and Norwegian Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie for her "Hollywood on Ice Review" tour. The Ice Capades bought a Model B as well, taking it on the 1952 22-city North America tour. That same year, the Zamboni made its NHL debut during a Bruins game at the Boston Garden, forever solidifying the link between hockey and the machine.

Today there's a Zamboni machine in every big ice rink; attend a hockey game and you'll see one lay down a clean sheet of ice between periods. The company continues to evolve, now making a whole range of diverse products, from top-of-the-line electric Zambonis to portable Zamboni Edgers. The name "Zamboni" has become so synonymous with ice resurfacing machines that the company has the same problem as the people behind Kleenex or Dumpster—the name is so familiar that people forget it's a brand name and not a generic term, much to Richard's chagrin. "It's good to be well-known, but it's not good to be considered generic."

Zamboni Nation

Frank always tinkered with the invention that bears his name, but, as Richard tells PM, the Zamboni is still basically the same machine it was in 1949. "You still have the same four basic processes: shave the ice, collect the shavings, wash the ice surface, and lay down clean water to make a new sheet of ice."

And though it was born for a simple, practical purpose, the Zamboni has become a rock star in its own right. There's just something charismatic about this machine, which has inspired Zamboni race leagues, Zamboni toys, Zamboni novelty bumper stickers, and Zamboni weddings. There's a Zamboni rock band and a Zamboni song that has, unsurprisingly, shown up in hockey movies Mighty Ducks 2 and Mystery, Alaska. There's even a slow-paced Zamboni chase scene in Marvel's new Deadpool movie.

Why have these machines become so popular with the public? This remains a mystery to many, including the people who operate them for a living. Tom Miracle has been the Zamboni driver at Amalie Arena, home of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, for nearly 20 years. He says he feels lucky to drive a Zamboni because "it's everybody's dream... you just don't know how it does what's it doing until you drive it." As for exactly why, he doesn't know.

"As long as I've been around hockey, everyone loves the Zamboni," Miracles says with a laugh. "Everyone wants to watch it, wave to it... people throw it kisses... I don't understand why. Honestly."

Frank Zamboni himself never understood the phenomenon, either. "I don't understand it," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. "I was just trying to find a better way of doing something."

Click here to read more.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

T. Rex Was Likely an Invasive Species

Written by Laura Geggel

Tyrannosaurus rex, king of the dinosaur age, wasn't a North American native as many experts had previously thought, a new study suggests.

Instead, the giant tyrannosaur was likely an invasive species from Asia that dispersed into western North America once the opportunity presented itself, paleontologists said.

"It's possible that T. rex was an immigrant species from Asia," said study co-researcher Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. But he cautioned that the finding isn't necessarily a "slam dunk," and that more research is needed to say for sure.

T. rex is one of the biggest meat eaters ever to live on land, but relatively little is known about its family tree. In a study published earlier this month, Brusatte and Thomas Carr, an associate professor of biology at Carthage College in Wisconsin, analyzed 28 different tyrannosaur species and constructed a family tree, noting approximately when and where each species lived.

Fossil evidence is lacking, but researchers suspect that the predecessors of tyrannosaurs lived on the supercontinent Pangaea, which began to break up about 200 million years ago, during the Triassic period. This would explain why tyrannosaurs fossils have been found on different continents, including Asia, western North America (called Laramidia at the time), eastern North America (Appalachia) and Europe, Carr said.

As time went on, the tyrannosaurs evolved in their respective places, meaning that the tyrannosaurs in Asia grew to look different than the ones in North America. But, around 67 million years ago, the seaway between Asia and North America went down, leaving a land bridge between the two continents, Carr said.

Perhaps T. rex crossed this route into North America, Carr said. Researchers have uncovered countless T. rex fossils in western North America, but a careful analysis of T. rex's skeletal features suggests that it is Asian in origin, the paleontologists found.

In fact, T. rex is closely related to two Asian tyrannosaurs, Tarbosaurus and Zhuchengtyrannus, the researchers found.

"Tarbosaurus is the Asian version of T. rex," Brusatte told Live Science in an email. "Or, you could say that T. rex is the North American version of Tarbosaurus. They are so similar in terms of their monstrous size, their proportions, their massive jaw muscles and thick teeth and even many minutiae of their skull bones."

Zhuchengtyrannus is also similar to T. rex, though it's more distantly related, Brusatte and Carr said.

Asian invasion

T. rex lived from about 67 million to 65 million years ago, going extinct when a 6-mile-long (10 kilometers) asteroid slammed into Earth and killed the nonavian dinosaurs.

During that time, the 7-ton (6.3 metric tons) T. rex monster spread from modern-day Alberta to Texas. (A giant seaway in the middle of North America prevented T. rex from reaching the East Coast, the researchers said.) Before T. rex invaded North America, presumably from Asia, other tyrannosaurs lived in western North America, but they disappeared shortly after T. rex came onto the scene.

It's unclear why these large tyrannosaurs went extinct, but T. rex may have played a role in their demise, the researchers said.

"Regardless of where T. rex comes from, when it enters the fossil record, it seems to take over immediately, like an invasive species," Brusette said. "It rose to the top of the food chain and elbowed out all competitors — or perhaps I should say outmuscled them, as their pathetic little arms didn't have very big elbows."

The new finding contradicts earlier studies, some of which say that T. rex is the culmination of tens of millions of years of dinosaur evolution within North America, Brusatte said.

"This also is a good example of how different family trees can imply different things about evolution," Brusatte said. "This is why we spend so much time building family trees for fossil groups: They tell us how different species are related to each other, which then allows us to tease out their evolutionary stories, the same way constructing genealogies for our own families tells us how our ancestors led to us."

The study was published online Feb. 2 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Click here to read more.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Kingsnake Facts

Written by Jessie Szalay

Kingsnakes are medium-size nonvenomous snakes that kill by constriction. They are one of the most common snakes in North America. They are called kingsnakes because they sometimes eat other snakes, as does the king cobra. Kingsnakes are popular among pet owners. Milk snakes are a type of kingsnake.

Kingsnakes are members of the family Colubridae and the subfamily Colubrinae. Colubrid snakes are a large family of nonvenomous snakes found around the world, including North America. Kingsnakes are members of the genus Lampropeltis. In Greek, this means "shiny shields," according to The name is appropriate for the genus, which is known for its well-defined, glossy scales.

In recent years, the classification of kingsnakes has been shaken up somewhat. Alan Savitzky, a professor of biological sciences at Utah State University and snake biology specialist, credits the upheaval to advances in molecular evolutionary studies. Whereas scientists used to determine species and subspecies classifications by examining whether snakes could interbreed and produce fertile offspring, they can now analyze DNA to determine how closely related snakes are. With that data, scientists can now classify snakes into groups by looking at if they share an evolutionary path.

Because of these new data collection methods, a team of researchers in argued in a 2009 paper published in the journal Zootaxa that several snakes that are classified as subspecies of the common kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) — black kingsnakes, eastern kingsnakes, speckled kingsnakes, Sonora kingsnakes and California kingsnakes — should be considered separate species, said Savitzky. He also noted that a 2013 paper in the journal Systematic Biology posited that the scarlet kingsnake, previously considered a milk snake, is actually its own species. Some publications have adopted the proposal; others still refer to these snakes as subspecies of kingsnake.

Physical characteristics and distribution

Most species of kingsnake have vibrant patterns on their skins with vivid contrasting colors. The patterns, especially bands and speckles, break up the snake's body outline so it is less visible to predators like birds of prey, mammals like foxes and coyotes and other snakes, according to the San Diego Zoo.

Their coloring can be understood by their geographic location, according to Savitzky. For example, the farther west one goes in the eastern kingsnake's range, the more the snakes' coloring resembles the black kingsnake, which lives in Tennessee.

According to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, they have smooth scales, a single anal plate, round pupils like most nonvenomous snakes, and a spoon-shaped head with a rounded jaw. They typically range from 2 to 6 feet (0.6 to 1.8 meters), depending on the species.

The following is a description of some common kingsnake species' appearances and ranges.

Eastern kingsnake, also called common kingsnake
(Lampropeltis getula)

These creatures are sometimes called "chain snakes" or "chain kings" because their distinctive markings can resemble a chain linked across their bodies, said Savitzky. They have shiny black scales with white or yellowish chain-like bands that cross their backs and connect on the sides. According to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, eastern kingsnakes on the coast generally have wide bands while those in the eastern mountains have very thin bands. They may be nearly black.

Eastern kingsnakes are found from southern New Jersey to north Florida and west to the Appalachians and southeastern Alabama, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

Black kingsnake
(Lampropeltis nigra or Lampropeltis getula nigra)

The nearly black eastern kingsnakes in the Appalachians give way to the black kingsnake species in mountains of Tennessee. These snakes average 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 m) in length and range from southern Ohio and western West Virginia to southeastern Illinois and south to northeastern Mississippi and northwestern Georgia, according to Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Black kingsnakes appear almost solidly jet black, but they have traces of white or yellow spots or bands and sometimes white throats, said Savitzky.

Speckled kingsnake
(Lampropeltis holbrooki or Lampropeltis getula holbrooki)

Moving farther west, one sees the faint spots of the black kingsnake grow into the full, vibrant markings of the speckled kingsnake. This colorful snake has a yellow or white speckle on every single scale, said Savitzky. Scales are black or brownish in color. The size of the speckles can be evenly distributed, leading to the nickname "salt and pepper snake" or can be denser in certain areas, creating a banded look.

Speckled kingsnakes are found in the middle of the United States, ranging from Illinois to Iowa and south to Alabama and Texas, according to the Cincinnati Zoo.

California kingsnake
(Lampropeltis getula californiae or Lampropeltis getula californiae)

This is a relatively small species of kingsnake, generally growing to between 2.5 and 4 feet (0.7 to 1.2 m), according to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo. California kingsnakes have shiny black scales with bright white markings. Most California kingsnakes have white bands, but some populations have longitudinal stripes going from their heads to their tails. Those populations are usually in Southern California. Both color patterns can appear in the same clutch of eggs, said Savitzky.

California kingsnakes live everywhere in the Golden State except the rainy redwood forests. They're also found in dryer parts of Oregon, as far west as Colorado and south into Mexico, according to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.

Scarlet kingsnake

"In recent years, it's been going back and forth between being its own species of kingsnake [Lampropeltis elapsoides] or a type of milk snake [Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides]," said Savitzky.

These are small snakes, averaging 1 to 2 feet (0.3 to 0.6 m), according to the Virginia Herpetological Society. They are found from central Virginia to Key West, Florida and west to the Mississippi River. This range overlaps with the dangerous coral snakes', which scarlet kingsnakes mimic, said Savitzky. Like venomous coral snakes, scarlet kingsnakes are red with yellow and black bands that encircle their bodies.

Nonvenomous scarlet kingsnakes evolved to look like venomous species in order to scare predators. "This type of mimicry, where a harmless species mimics a harmful species, is known as Batesian mimicry," said Bill Heyborne, a herpetologist and professor of biology at Southern Utah University.

Though the coloring is the same the pattern differs between coral snakes and scarlet kingsnakes. Coral snakes have red and yellow bands next to one another, while harmless scarlet kingsnakes have red and black bands next to each other.

"In areas of the world where both species exist, there are a variety of rhymes, which have been used to help people distinguish the two. For example, 'Red on yellow kills a fellow. Red on black, friend of Jack,'" said Heyborne. While Batesian mimicry may be helpful in keeping predators away, it can cause problems for scarlet kingsnakes. Humans often kill them thinking they are dangerous.


Across their various ranges, kingsnakes find similar habitats to live in. They live in forests, grasslands, suburbia, and rocky areas in fields and deserts. Snakes in wetter areas, such as the eastern and southern United States spend more time around swamps and riverbanks. They are terrestrial, meaning they stay mostly on land rather than venturing into water or trees.

Kingsnakes are less conspicuous than many other snakes, such as rat snakes, Savitzky said. "This is because they are adapted to living undercover, such as under rocks, under logs, and in burrows in the ground."


The habits of these wide-ranging snakes depend somewhat on their location. According to the San Diego Zoo, in most parts of the country, kingsnakes are primarily nocturnal. They are diurnal in places with more moderate climates, like Southern California. For kingsnakes, moderate climates include the southeast, at least in the winter; according to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, eastern kingsnakes in Georgia are likely to be spotted during the day. During the hot summers, they come out mostly in the morning.

If they are threatened, kingsnakes will emit an unpleasant musk and shake their tails. This is another example of Batesian mimicry, this time of a rattlesnake. They are also known to bite, though their bite is not poisonous to humans.

Savitzky said that some species of kingsnake are "bitier and snappier" than others, but that it mostly comes down to the individual temperament of the snake. In general, kingsnakes are well known for being docile once tamed. For this reason, they are popular pets.

Kingsnakes generally hibernate over the winter, according to the San Diego Zoo. They stay in caves, mammal burrows, rock crevices and hollow logs and stumps.

Hunting and feeding

Kingsnakes are constrictors, said Savitzky. This means that they squeeze their prey to death and swallow it whole.

There are some common misconceptions about how constricting works, Heyborne told Live Science. One is that constrictors crush or break the bones of their prey. Another is that they suffocate it, squeezing the prey's lungs too tightly to work.

"It turns out that the squeezing overwhelms the circulatory system," explained Heyborne. "Blood cannot get to the brain, and the animal dies within seconds due to ischemia."

Kingsnakes are active hunters, not ambush hunters, according to the San Diego Zoo. They actively seek out their prey through scent. Once they've found it, they grab it with their mouths and start squeezing. Kingsnakes may only eat a few times a month depending on the size of their meals.

Kingsnakes eat rodents, birds, bird eggs and lizards. Kingsnakes in wet climates also eat turtle eggs and frogs, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Their most famous meal, however, is other snakes. Kingsnakes have a natural immunity to pit viper venom, meaning that they can eat venomous snakes like cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. They also eat nonvenomous snakes like rat snakes and garter snakes — and their fellow kingsnakes.

Kingsnake reproduction and life span

Kingsnakes are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs that spend little to no time incubating inside the mother, said Savitzky. Their mating time depends on the climate, with snakes in warmer climates mating earlier in the spring and snakes in colder climates waiting until late spring or summer. In general, mating season lasts from March until August, and females often have more than one clutch of eggs per season.

Males seek out females through chemical scent. They will fight each other for a female, wrestling other males until their heads are flat on the ground. Males often bite the female's neck during mating, according to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

Female kingsnakes lay clutches of three to 24 eggs in debris, rotting logs or other secluded places. Mothers then leave the eggs, which hatch on their own two to three months later, according to the San Diego Zoo. Hatchlings can be up to a foot long and are completely independent from the moment they enter the world.

Kingsnakes reach sexual maturity between 2 and 4 years of age. Their lifespan in the wild is unknown, though they can live up to 20 to 30 years in captivity, according to the San Diego Zoo.

Endangerment status

The kingsnakes found in North America are not considered endangered, though the populations of some are decreasing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species. The Todos Santos Island kingsnake is critically endangered, however. Scientists are also concerned that the population of eastern kingsnakes in the southeastern coastal plain and Florida is decreasing. While the cause of the decrease is uncertain, some suspect invasive fire ants that may swarm and eat kingsnake eggs or newly hatched young, according to Outdoor Alabama.

Click here to read more.

Monday, May 9, 2016

New Scans of King Tut's Tomb May Reveal Hidden Burial Chamber

Written by Owen Jarus

On April 2, a new series of radar scans will be performed on King Tutankhamun's tomb to search for hidden chambers that may contain an undiscovered royal burial, Egypt's antiquities ministry has announced.

The announcement comes after stories were published in numerous media outlets last week claiming that Egypt's tourism minister, Hisham Zazou, had told the Spanish news outlet ABC that the chambers had been proven to exist and contain numerous treasures.

"The Ministry of Antiquities has not issued any statement concerning the results that have been reached so far," the ministry said in a statement released to Live Science. "Further radar examinations will be performed on April 2, and a press conference will be held afterwards to announce the results of the scan.”

Last year, University of Arizona Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves published findings suggesting that there are hidden chambers behind a wall in Tutankhamun's tomb. These chambers, he believes, hold the burial of Queen Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten, a pharaoh who was Tutankhamun's father.

"We could be faced, for the first time in recent history, with the intact burial of an Egyptian pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings," Reeves told Live Science last year.

Scans performed by Factum Arte, a company commissioned to scan Tutankhamun's tomb, show unusual lines and abnormalities in the plaster of the tomb, Reeves said, adding that these features indicate that a wall was built over a doorway in ancient times.

Some of the artifacts in Tutankhamun's tomb were originally made for Nefertiti but were buried with Tutankhamun after the boy king's death, Reeves found.

Radar scans performed on the tomb last year suggest that a void could exist behind the wall. Egypt's former antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, urged that the claims be viewed cautiously. He noted that the geology of the Valley of the Kings can lead radar to produce false positives showing a tomb when, in fact, there is only a natural feature.

Reeves did not immediately respond to Live Science's requests for comment on the latest developments.

Tourism disaster

Tourism has long been a major industry in Egypt. Since the revolution that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt's tourism industry has struggled, archaeologists have told Live Science. The political instability over the past five years has meant that the number of visitors to Egypt has yet to return to its prerevolution levels.

Additionally, recent terrorist attacks — including the bombing of a Russian plane in the Sinai Desert, an attack carried out by the Islamic State group, or ISIS — have made it difficult for the Egyptian government to convince tourists that the country is safe to visit, according to these archaeologists.

Egyptian officials hope that, if a hidden tomb is discovered, it will spur tourists to return to Egypt, bringing badly needed revenue and jobs to the country.

Click here to read more.

Friday, May 6, 2016

'Baby Hands' in Cave Paintings May Actually Belong to Lizards

Written by Kristin Romey

An analysis of tiny hand decorations in a Saharan rock shelter shows that they're decidedly not human.

When the site of Wadi Sura II was discovered in Egypt's Western Desert in 2002, researchers were taken aback at the thousands of decorations painted on the walls of the rock shelter as much as 8,000 years earlier. Not only are there wild animals, human figures, and odd headless creatures that have led people to nickname it the "Cave of the Beasts," but also hundreds of outlines of human handprints — more than had ever been seen before at a Saharan rock art site. 

Even more unusual are outlines of 13 tiny handprints. Until the discovery of Wadi Sura II, the stenciled hands and feet of very small children had been seen in Australian rock art, but never in the Sahara. One notable, touching scene even features a pair of "baby" hands nestled inside the outlines of a larger, adult pair.   

Now it gets even odder: The tiny hands aren't even human. 

Seeking Answers in a French Hospital

Wadi Sura II is considered one of the greatest rock art sites of the Sahara, although it lacks the popular fame of nearby Wadi Sura I, the "Cave of the Swimmers," which was discovered by Hungarian count Láslo Almásy in 1933 and popularized in "The English Patient."

Stenciled hands of very small children were never seen before in Saharan rock art.

Anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research describes how she was "shocked" by the shape of the unusually small hand outlines when she saw them at her first visit to Wadi Sura II in 2006. "They were much smaller than human baby hands, and the fingers were too long," she explains.

Honoré decided to compare measurements taken from the hand outlines with those taken from the hands of newborn human infants (37 to 41 weeks gestational age). Since the site samples were so physically small, she also included measurements taken from newborn premature babies (26 to 36 weeks gestational age). 

For that, the anthropologist recruited a team that also included medical researchers to collect the infant data from the neonatal unit of a French hospital. "If I went to a hospital and just said, 'I'm studying rock art. Are there babies available?' they'd think I'm crazy and call security on me," she laughs. 

The results, which have just been published, show that there's an extremely low probability that the "baby" hands in the Cave of the Beasts are actually human.

The Challenge of Interpretation

So if the prints aren't human, what are they? The positioning of the tiny hands and their fingers varies from outline to outline, which led the research team to conclude they were flexible and articulated and ruled out the possibility of a stencil fashioned from a static material like wood or clay.

Honoré initially suspected monkey paws, but when those proportions were also off, colleagues at the Museum of Natural History in Paris suggested she take a look at reptiles.

So far, the examples that have proportions closest to the "baby" hands come from the forelegs of desert monitor lizards or, possibly, the feet of young crocodiles. (The crocodile study is still in progress.) Monitor lizards still live in the region today and are considered protective creatures by nomadic tribes in the area.  

The revelation that the small hand images from Wadi Sura II are not even human is a big surprise for researchers who study Saharan rock art. "Animal stenciling is mostly considered an Australian or South American thing," Honoré explains.

[In] this huge collection of images we can detect that humans are just part of a bigger natural world.
Emmanuelle Honoré, anthropologist

The animal feet decorations in Wadi Sura II appear not only stenciled inside the outlines of human hands but also in friezes, a patterning also seen with human hands. All were stenciled around the same time with the same pigment. It's impossible to say, however, whether the foot of a live creature was pressed against the wall of the rock shelter for stenciling or whether the artist(s) opted for the convenience and safety of a freshly severed limb.  

Honoré is reluctant to speculate too much on the meaning of the non-human prints. "We have a modern conception that nature is something that humans are separate from," she says. "But in this huge collection of images we can detect that humans are just part of a bigger natural world. It's very challenging for us as researchers to interpret these paintings since we have a culture that's totally different [from the one that created it]. " 

Meanwhile, many of the parents whose babies participated in the research are looking forward to reading about the rock art revelation. "They were really enthusiastic about the idea that their newborns could make such a contribution to science," says Honoré.

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Fleshy Dog Hates Robot Dog

Written by Kelsey D. Atherton

“Stand back, interloper!” the dog bellows with every bark, if we are willing to accept creative interpretation of what the dog is saying. “Begone, you iron mockery of my existence!” it yelps and howls as the BigDog robot, made by Google-owned Boston Dynamics, stares it down in a parking lot. “What cruel world spawned this monstrosity?”

BigDog does not react, its mute body and spinning cyclopean eye simply taking in the world as raw emotionless data. BigDog’s human operator happily steers the contraption away from its would-be assailant.

This is hardly the first time animals have reacted poorly to trespassing machines. The internet is full of videographic evidence of animal-on-robot violence, and some animals now are specifically trained to attack unmanned aerial intruders. A study in bears found that, while they appeared outwardly calm when pestered by drones, their heart rates and stress levels spiked.

It is no surprise, then, that a real dog would hate a robot dog. And if the Terminator universe is any guideline for the future (it isn’t), this canine reaction to K9s will save lives.

Watch the full encounter below:

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