All posts by William Stiff

Rare lizard fossil trapped in amber found in the Dominican Republic

The fossil of a lizard, defined as “rare”, which lived between 15 and 20 million years ago was found trapped in amber in an area of the Dominican Republic. What remains is the fossil of a paw bone but its condition is only apparently good since the bone itself has largely decomposed and chemically transformed.
Precisely for this reason little remains of the original structure but the research results are still very interesting according to the researchers who published their study on PLOS ONE.

The results are also interesting to understand the process of fossilization itself following decomposition. The fossilization process, in order to offer as much information as possible, must take place very quickly, before or at the same time as the process carried out by microorganisms that act as “scavengers” by removing the organic parts.
In addition, there is another process that is not exactly positive in terms of the information that a fossil can offer, namely that of substitution by the minerals of the original substance.

In such contexts amber is considered a godsend: the material of which this substance is composed excels in terms of conservation, so much so that in many cases practically whole animals have been found enclosed in this resin produced by trees that hardens over time.
The lizard whose piece of paw was found enclosed within the price of amber belongs to the genus Anolis, a genus that still exists today. The piece of amber measures about 2 cubic cm.

Researchers believe it is a rare find because vertebrates are rarely found inside amber (mostly insects are found).
Researchers at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Bonn microscopically examined the piece of paw that included claws and toes. The tomograph scans then revealed that the piece was broken in two places, a sign that the lizard had probably been injured by a predator before it became trapped in amber and was no longer able to move properly, probably to escape even the amber itself.

As we said before, amber is considered an ideal preservative substance but in this case scientists have detected the presence of a fissure through which various substances have penetrated, including fluorine, substances that have favored the chemical transformation of the piece of paw and lapenetration of solutions rich in minerals. Precisely for this reason, very little remains of the original substances of the paw.

Difficulties in learning for children caused by insufficient connectivity

According to a study published in Current Biology, learning difficulties in children’s brains cannot be related to specific regions of the brain itself but to the poor connectivity between the “hubs” that are present within the brain.
In this opinion a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge wanted to analyze the difficulties that many children, between 14 and 30% according to the article on the website of the same English university, face in terms of learning.

These difficulties can then often be linked to problems of a cognitive or behavioural nature. It is common opinion among neurobiologists that these difficulties can be linked to specific areas of the brain. For example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been linked to the anterior cingulate cortex and other areas such as the cerebellum, caudate nucleus, prefrontal cortex, etc.
Such a high number of regions related to this disorder has been explained by the fact that each diagnosis differs between one individual the next and each individual shows combinations of brain regions related to the disorder.

The Cambridge Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit team of researchers explains this differently: there would be no specific brain areas that cause these difficulties, rather the children’s brains are organized around “hubs”, like a kind of social network.
Those children who have well-connected hubs seem to have either very specific cognitive difficulties or no cognitive difficulties at all. On the other hand, children with not very well connected hubs show more widespread and severe cognitive problems.

The researchers conducted experiments on 479 children, 337 of whom had shown learning related cognitive problems. The researchers used machine learning and performed brain scans using MRI scans.

“Scientists have argued for decades that there are specific regions of the brain that have a particular learning disorder or difficulty, but we have shown that this is not the case,” says Duncan Astle, the senior author of the study. “In fact, it’s much more important to consider how these areas of the brain are connected, particularly if they are connected via hubs. The severity of learning difficulties has been strongly associated with the connection of these hubs, we believe that these hubs play a key role in sharing information between brain areas”.

New small crustacean living in the depths of the Pacific discovered by researchers

A new species of crustacean that frequents the deepest depths of the North Pacific has been discovered by two researchers, Torben Riehl, from the Senckenberg Naturmuseum, a German natural history museum, and Bart De Smet, from the University of Ghent.
The new species has been named Macrostylis metallicola (the second term is due to the rock band Metallica, of which Riehl is a fan).

This crustacean was discovered in the Clipperton fracture zone, a marine area off the coast of Mexico. It lives at great depths, between 4000 and 5000 meters, a marine area where the pressure is over 400 meters higher than we experience on the surface.
It is a small crustacean that does not exceed 6.5 mm in length and lives almost in absolute darkness. This is precisely why it has not developed eyes and its body has no colour.

It lives in an environment where manganese nodules dominate, metal elements often millions of years old that can vary greatly in size and contain precious elements such as copper, cobalt, manganese, nickel and rare earths.
In fact, it is expected that the seabed area of the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone (CCFZ) in the Eastern Central Pacific Ocean may be exploited in the future because of its wealth of manganese nodules.

It is precisely with regard to the exploitation of environments that until a few decades ago no one would ever have thought to reach to extract minerals that the researcher Riehl intends to carry out a form of awareness raising: “Very few people are aware that the vast and largely unexplored depths of the oceans are home to bizarre and unknown creatures, just like our new crustacean Metallica. These species are part of the Earth’s system on which we all depend. The deep sea plays a role in this system linked to the climate and food networks of the oceans. While we cannot prevent mining, we must ensure that the exploitation of the manganese nodule is carried out in a sustainable manner by implementing appropriate management plans and protected areas designed to preserve biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

Bilingualism can counteract dementia because it stimulates the alternation between languages.

Bilingualism, i.e. the ability to understand and speak two languages at the same time, can act to combat dementia according to a study conducted by researchers at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona together with colleagues from other Spanish institutions.
The researchers analysed more than 100 bilingual or monolingual patients with mild cognitive deficits with an average age of 73 years. The subjects spoke both Spanish and Catalan.

According to César Ávila, one of the authors of the study, the alternative use of these two languages simultaneously on a cognitive level is complex precisely because there are many similarities between them and therefore one needs to be more vigilant and more attentive in order not to get confused.
After following the evolution of the patients during seven months, the researchers found that the bilingual ones showed a lower loss of brain volume while maintaining generally better cognitive abilities.

According to the researchers “there is a cognitive reserve of bilingualism” and this mechanism exists thanks to the cognitive stimulation that is fostered by the alternation of use between languages.
These are interesting results, according to the authors themselves, because it is one of the first studies that shows the possibility that there is in fact a kind of protection by bilingualism against dementia and that explains its mechanism.
The possibilities of therapies to stimulate patients suffering from dementia on a cognitive level through practical exercises in the use of different languages are now becoming more concrete.

Dangerous cigarette compounds “travel” in every environment clinging to smokers’ clothes

A further study focuses on so-called “third-hand smoke”, i.e. that type of second-hand smoke in which the injured party is in an environment, usually closed, where someone has smoked. The most striking example may be the interior of a car in which someone has smoked and there are still cigarette butts and ashes in the ashtrays.

This new study confirms that the remains of smoked cigarettes can cling to the bodies or clothes of smokers and then be released into non-smoking environments.
The team of researchers, led by Drew Gentner of Yale, shows in this study that these cigarette compounds can literally travel, and even in abundant quantities, in indoor environments frequented by non-smokers transported by smokers themselves.

According to the researchers, a person, even if he or she is in a room where no one has smoked, can still be exposed to many of the chemical compounds found in a cigarette if a person who had previously smoked has entered that room.
As Gentner explains, “People are substantial carriers of third-hand smoke contaminants in other rooms. Therefore, the idea that someone is protected from the potential health effects of cigarette smoke because they are not directly exposed to second-hand smoke is not right”.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analysed the traces of cigarette compounds in a movie theatre. The researchers found that the amounts of these substances left by smokers, for example through their clothes on armchairs or in the air, increased dramatically after the screening of R-rated films, i.e. films for adults who naturally saw more smokers in the cinema.

The quantities of these dangerous substances, of which nicotine was the largest representative, were not even to be overlooked, according to the researchers: they were comparable to those of exposure to second-hand smoke.
These compounds continue to make their way into enclosed spaces despite strong bans and numerous regulations in many states around the world prohibiting people from smoking not only inside public places but also near entrances or near air vents.

Exposure to sunlight can modify intestinal microbiome

Exposure of the skin to ultraviolet light from the sun can modify the intestinal microbiome according to a new study published in Frontiers in Microbiology. To mediate this change would be vitamin D and this would also explain the protective effect of ultraviolet light itself with regard to inflammatory bowel diseases.

It is well known that exposure to sunlight gives greater production of vitamin D in the skin. It is known, however, through studies published in recent years, also that the same greater quantity of vitamin D can alter the human intestinal microbiome. It follows that solar radiation on the skin can change the human intestinal microbiome but this has only been shown in rodents. This new study shows that this effect is also real for humans.

The researchers performed experiments on 21 healthy volunteer women. The 21 patients underwent three one-minute ultraviolet exposure sessions throughout the body for a week. Throughout the treatment, stool samples were taken and intestinal bacteria were analyzed. Blood samples were also taken to analyze vitamin D levels. The researchers discovered that the exposure of the skin to ultraviolet rays significantly increased the intestinal microbial diversity and this happened only in those people who had not taken vitamin D supplements in the course of experiments.

As explained by Bruce Vallance, a researcher at the University of British Columbia who led the study, exposure to UVB rays increased the richness and uniformity of the subjects’ microbiome. Before exposure to rays, women who did not take supplements showed a less diversified intestinal microbiome than women who already took vitamin D supplements. Among the bacteria that increased the most were the Lachnospiraceae, a genus of bacteria already previously linked with vitamin D.

“UVB light is able to modulate the composition of the intestinal microbiome in humans, through the synthesis of vitamin D,” says Vallance. Now researchers would like to discover the underlying causes but according to Vallance, it is likely that exposure to UVB light somehow affects the immune system of the skin and this, in turn, has a favorable influence on the intestinal environment for different species of bacteria.