Thursday, October 30, 2014

Plans to poach

It has recently been revealed that the National History Museum (NHM) in London had designs on the Loch Ness monster, appealing to bounty hunters to capture it (or pieces of it) to trump the Scots. An unnamed official wrote in 1934, a year after the first sighting, "Should you ever come within range of the ‘Monster’ I hope you will not be deterred 
by humanitarian considerations from shooting him on the 
spot and sending the carcase to us in cold storage, carriage forward. Short of this, a flipper, a jaw or a tooth would be very welcome.” By 1959 – long after the monster had become a symbol of Scottish national identity, NHM had given up its pursuit.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


As the author of The Corpse: A History, I have a long known that crabs are among the first scavengers to feed on a dead body underwater. So I was not surprised to learn that that is what researchers found when they dropped and observed pig carcasses in the sea. The decay of corpses above and under the ground is well-documented thanks to the Body Farm, so scientists at Canada's Simon Fraser University decided to add to the forensic knowledge about the breakdown of bodies submerged 330' (100 m) in salt water. Sure enough, they provided a tasty treat for shrimp, Dungeness crabs, and squat lobsters (VIDEO HERE). Concludes forensic entomologist Gail Anderson, "Pigs are the best models for humans. They're roughly the right size for a human body; they have the same kind of gut bacteria, and they're relatively hairless ...Now we have a very good idea of how bodies break down underwater."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


"The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve," said Pope Francis yesterday, addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Terrible hands

In 1965, archaeologists excavating a 70-million-year-old sandstone formation in the Gobi desert found the arms of a new species of dinosaur. Beause they each measured 8' (2.4 m) long and ended in 8" (20 cm) claws, they named the beast Deinocheirus mirificus (Greek for “terrible hand, which is unusual”). After 50 years, a team of paleontologists led by Yuong-Nam Lee of the Korea Institute of Geoscience & Mineral Resources has made discoveries that allow them to piece together this creature – and have found it to be as strange as its arms are long. Its broad and lengthy duck-like snout and cavernous lower jaw housed a huge tongue. Inside the gullet were more than 1,400 gizzard stones, which it had swallowed to grind up its food like a bird. It was the size of a tyrannosaur, but couldn't move quickly and had no teeth. The ligaments growing from the spine worked like the cables of a suspension bridge to support the animal's huge abdomen and legs. And fused bones at the end of the tail indicate that it supported feathers (RENDERINGS HERE). Paleontologist Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh observes, "This alien creature was a monstrous omnivore, a garbage-disposal type of dinosaur that fed on fish, small vertebrates, plants, and probably about anything it could get its hands on.” Its terrible hands...

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hummingbird and human

Retiree João Silvestrini of Barretos, Brazil, recently joined Facebook. But he already has a very special connection with a wild juvenile swallow-tailed hummingbird (WATCH VIDEO HERE). "Hi! Come here! Let’s make a video here, come here, here! Come close to talk here, ok? Come, let’s talk a little bit, sit here. Want a little drink? Let’s get close to the machine again, shall we? Look there! We’re filming. That’s it, perch on my finger, that’s it! Here," he says in Portuguese during their one-sided conversation over breakfast.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Python parthenogenesis

Thelma (IMAGE ABOVE) shares an enclosure with Louise at the zoo in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. Despite being a male-free zone, this 11-year-old reticulated python produced 6 offspring in June 2012. The female babies – dwarfed by their 200 lb. (91 kg), 20 ' (6 m) long mother – are all half-clones, with 3 retaining her intricate reticulated pattern, and the rest displaying a pattern of bright yellow with black stripes. The number of species capable of parthenogenesis or virgin births – snakes, birds, sharks, and other animals – continues to grow. Biologist Warren Booth of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma observes, "It's something we used to consider an evolutionary novelty that's much more common than we thought."

Friday, October 24, 2014

Parlor props

"The hairs went up on the back of my neck when I walked into the drawing room. It stood out like a sore thumb," says Mark Stacey of Reeman Dansie auctioneers of the 3,000-year-old Egyptian sarcophagus he came across during a valuation of the contents of a home in Essex, U.K. While the mummy that it contained may have been "unrolled" in the 19th c. and subsequently disposed of, the sarcophagus is believed to have been acquired some 60 years ago and originally purchased from a museum that closed down. The find can be considered exceedingly rare except that it follows on the heels of a similar discovery by an auctioneer – also in Essex – of a 2,300-year-old Egyptian coffin that then sold (despite objections from Cairo) for £12,000 ($19,000) last month.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Researcher Marleen De Meyer of the University of Leuven in Belgium was excavating Old Kingdom cave graves in Dayr al-Barsha, Egypt, when she turned over what she thought was a potsherd on the way to the storage tent. What she held in her hands was a rare 4,000-year-old death mask. Similar masks have long believed to have been modeled after the deceased, but the texturesof textile strips (IMAGE ABOVE, MORE HERE) suggested that the plaster had been applied to the face. But no traces of the face on the inside were visible, just clay. The archaeologists reasoned that the plaster mask was made and removed, then the body was mummified and clay applied to the face, after which the mask was pressed into that clay. They performed experimental archaeology, with a member of the team volunteering to be the corpse, and determined just that. They are now awaiting permission to carry out a CT scan of the artifact which will show the exact form of the ancient Egyptian's face sandwiched between the plaster and the clay.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sphinx found

An Egyptian-style sphinx has been excavated… from the sands of Guadalupe, California, U.S. It is one of 21 that flanked the set of Cecil B DeMille's 1923 silent film "The Ten Commandments" (not the 1956 remake with Charlton Heston as Moses). After 90 years beneath the dunes, the sphinx needed special handling, which was good practice for the archaeology volunteers. To keep the paper-thin plaster of Paris from cracking, they wrapped it in cheesecloth soaked in a preservative chemical; funneled the sand out of the hollow statue and replaced it with expanding insulation foam; and allowed it to dry and shrink to its normal size (IMAGES HERE). That normal size of 15' (4.6 m) tall was dwarfed by the 12-story set. Executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center Doug Jenzen, who oversaw the excavation, explains that in the era before special effects, the movie required constructing one of the largest sets ever made: "...anything that they wanted to look large, they had to build large."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


"Consequently the species now stands at the brink of complete extinction, a sorry testament to the greed of the human race," says a spokesman for Ol Pejeta Conservancy on the natural death of one of two remaining breeding male northern white rhinoceros (ABOVE RIGHT). The species numbered 2,000 in the 1960s, but was decimated by poaching in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving today only six of these rhinos remaining in the world.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Blue goo

Earlier this month, residents of the Burin Peninsula on the south coast of Newfoundland, Canada, woke to find a strange blue substance on Mooring Cove Beach. A longtime resident described it as having a "quivering, lifelike quality." At first feared to be a chemical spill of some kind, the blob was subsequently identified by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as plankton (ctenophores mixed with pelagic tunicate salp). So it was all natural after all, although unusual for its high concentrations (VIDEO HERE).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Whether weather worshipped

A massive 3,300-year-old cult complex has been uncovered at the Tel Burna site in Israel. The courtyard alone measures 52' x 52' (16 x 16 m). Inside, researchers have discovered – among other things – a cylinder-shaped seal, goblets and chalices, broken figurines that look part-human and part-animal, and the noses of masks which were worn. The complex held huge jars likely imported from Cyprus and an Egyptian scarab (IMAGES HERE), with the possibility that they were used in the worship of the Canaanite storm god Baal. Says Israeli archaeologist Itzhaq Shai of Ariel University, "From the finds within the building, we can reconstruct the occurrence of feasts, indicated by several goblets and a large amount of animal bones. Some of these animal bones are burnt, probably indicating their use in some sacrificial activity. The presence of the pithoi [large jars] may indicate the collection of tithes, or at a minimum, the storage of foods for later use in cultic activities. Finally, the masks may suggest ceremonial processions that arrived or left from the complex, possibly before or after the conducting of feasts."

NOTE: I have been unable to upload photographs, so please follow the links to see the images.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


A receding glacier in Norway has revealed an almost complete ancient wooden ski. It measures 68" (172 cm) in length and 5.7" (14.5 cm) in width and has leather straps for securing the foot. The ski is estimated to be 1,300 years old, but the history of skiing dates much further back. Another ski found in Norway dates to 3200 B.C.E. and a ski found in Sweden dates to 3300 B.C.E. But even those are trumped by a ski found in Russia which may be 8,300 years old!

Indonesian images

For decades, archaeologists have known about cave paintings (IMAGES HERE) on the island of Sulawesi east of Borneo. They were believed to have been created either by the region's first farmers a few thousand years ago or by hunter-gatherers around 8,000 years ago. But recent testing proves that they rival the images in Spain and France as the oldest cave art. Archaeologist and geochemist Maxime Aubert of Australia's Griffith University explains, "It was previously thought that Western Europe was the centerpiece of a 'symbolic explosion' in early human artistic activity, such as cave painting and other forms of image making, including figurative art, around 40,000 years ago. However, our findings show that cave art was made at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world at about the same time, suggesting these practices have deeper origins — perhaps in Africa before our species left this continent and spread across the globe."

Back to back

When 27-year-old Dominic Smee saw images of the crooked skeleton of Richard III, discovered in 2012, he felt as if he were looking at x-rays of his own back. Smee had been diagnosed at the age of 11 with the same condition – idiopathic adolescent onset scoliosis– from which the king suffered. When he contacted the research team at Leicester University, he was recruited to participate in a documentary which has just aired on British TV. With Smee as a stand -in (IMAGES HERE), they confirmed that Richard III would have been able to accurately wield a sword and lance while riding a medieval warhorse and wearing a 66 lb. (30kg) suit of armor. Smee was given the customized suit of armor afterward, which has elevated his status when he participates in his hobby. Appropriately, he takes part in reenacting historic battles and gloats, "The guys who do the reenactments are very envious."

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