Can you spell g-a-u-t-e-n-g-e-n-s-i-s?

It seems like barely a few weeks have gone by since the last public announcement about the discovery and identification of a new fossil human ancestor and here we are again, looking at a new face in the family line up.

Meet Homo gautengensis.

Recently we were “warned” that the discovery of several proto humans were about to hit the headlines. The first of these is now getting the limelight; a new member to the genus Homo no less.

Homo gautengensis lived in what is now South Africa. Gauteng refers to a province in that country, and a term in the local Sesotho language meaning ‘place of gold.’

 Photo courtesy of Darren Curnoe

The preliminary information available through public channels at the time of writing indicate that this new species of hominid, which  measured about three feet tall and weighed around 110 pounds, was capable of walking upright as well as moving around in the trees. They lived from about 2 million years ago to 600,000 years ago. According to the researchers involved in this discovery, Homo gautengensis predated Homo habilis, officially still listed as the oldest known tool making and using human. As you will see below, there are other researchers who claim that Homo habilis had a much greater time depth. This headline grabbing statement will, no doubt, generate an interesting discussion.

This may now change as more context information becomes available. According to Dr. Darren Curnoe thinks it is highly likely that these hominids ‘produced and used stone tools and may even have made fire.” The presence of burnt bones found in association with the human remains points to this alleged use and mastery of fire.

More information will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology. Until then, this seems to be the extent of what the general public knows. What is certainly interesting to note here is that, while the announcement is to be made soon, the skull fragments were found in 1976 in the famous Sterkfontein caves. According to a University of New South Wales publication,

“The surprise finding was based on a partial skull – known by its museum catalogue number Stw 53 – along with two other partial skulls, several jaws, teeth and other bones found at various times at Sterkfontein and other nearby caves.”

This is not the end of the story. As they say in late night commercials: “but wait there is more…”  What is the broader picture here? We all know that when it comes to the study of early human ancestors, hyperbole often abounds in press releases and subsequent newspaper articles. With that in mind, be prepared to read headlines in which the totally incorrect terminology of “missing link” will re-appear. There will also be claims that our understanding of human has been “severely shaken,”  as it was claimed in other cases, again and again. You get the picture.

Homo erectus
Creative Commons License Photo credit Thomas Roche

Aside from all this predictable hoopla, we do have a chronological range (2 million to 600,000 years ago) and a place (Gauteng province, South Africa). Who else was around during that timeframe? As it turns out, quite a few hominids were around during that time span, all members of the genus Homo. Homo rudolfensis lived in East Africa from 1.9 to 1.8 million years ago; Homo habilis lived in Eastern and Southern Africa from 2.4 to 1.4 million years ago; Homo erectus lived in Northern, Eastern and Southern Africa as well as parts of Asia; Homo heidelbergensis lived in Europe, and possibly Asia and Africa from 700,000 to 200,000 years ago.

It looks like the place was crowded. In a way it was, with many more species of hominids present on our planet, mainly Africa, than there are today. In another way, it was not; we should not conjure up images of all these ancient hominids bumping into each other and stepping aside to let the others pass as if it were a busy pedestrian crossing in downtown Tokyo. Chances are that most may not have seen other species, and, if they did, were they aware that these others were different?

The earliest accepted evidence of using and controlling fire dates back to 790,000 years ago, at a site in Israel. If this find is pegged closer to the 2 million years ago mark, this would move the marker of fire use back in time considerably. We are not yet at stage of the game yet to make that call.
I wonder what the next announcement will bring.

Stay tuned.

Jupiter loses a belt

Hubble sees Ganymede ducking behind Jupiter
Creative Commons License photo credit: thebadastronomer

On February 28, 2010, Earth was exactly on the far side of the sun from Jupiter, an alignment called solar conjunction. In the months since then, Earth, on its faster orbit, has moved out of this alignment, allowing Jupiter to emerge from the sun’s glare into our morning skies. As astronomers again turned their telescopes towards Jupiter after months of being unable to see it, they made a startling discovery–one of its belts is gone!

Jupiter, our largest planet (bigger than all others combined) is a gas giant with no solid surface.  When we look at Jupiter, we see the tops of its clouds.  As at other gas giants, Jupiter’s clouds appear in a banded structure; light colored ‘zones’ alternate with dark colored ‘belts.’  Astronomers remain uncertain about which chemical processes make the belts darker than the zones.  We have determined, however, that the zones are regions of upwelling air, while the belts are where air is descending.  Zones, then, extend to higher altitudes above Jupiter than do belts.  The two belts most noticeable even in small backyard telescopes are the North Equatorial Belt (NEB) and the South Equatorial Belt (SEB), with the lighter Equatorial Zone between them. The South Equatorial Belt is the one that has faded from view, making Jupiter’s changed appearance readily noticeable to virtually all telescope users.  The Great Red Spot orbits in the South Tropical Zone just south of the SEB, with its northern part normally extending into that belt.  With the SEB gone, the Great Red Spot now appears alone, entirely surrounded by much lighter clouds.

At the moment, we can only speculate as to why the SEB has vanished.  One speculation is that the belt is now hidden under higher clouds that have formed above it.  These higher clouds would be like cirrus clouds on the Earth, except that at Jupiter they’re composed of ammonia, not water.

In late 2009, astronomers noticed that the SEB was fading, though they did not expect it to fade away entirely.  Although the SEB’s disappearance at this moment caught us by surprise, this belt has disappeared before.  For example, that belt had faded from view when Pioneer 10 flew past Jupiter in December 1973.  It also vanished in 1992.  In all, 2010 marks the 17th known disappearance of Jupiter’s SEB since 1901.

Here is the abstract of a 1996 paper about this belt and its changes, written just after it last vanished and reappeared.

Each time the SEB vanished, it eventually reappeared, usually within about 2 years.  How long will it take the South Equatorial Belt to return this time?  Watch for yourself by observing throughout 2010.  In late May 2010, Jupiter is in the southeastern sky at dawn, rising just after 3 a.m. and well placed for observing by 4.  It rises earlier and earlier each night, however, until it is up all night long in September 2010.  That’s when Earth again aligns with Jupiter, this time on the same side of the sun.   From September 2010 to March 2011, Jupiter is visible in the evening.   In late spring 2011, Jupiter is again in the morning sky.  Remember that many backyard telescopes produce an inverted image, in which case the belt normally on top will be the one missing from view.

As you watch for the return of the SEB, you have the chance to participate in science.  Science, after all, is not simply about delving into established stores of knowledge or observing well understood phenomena where we know what to expect.  Science is most exciting when we have the chance to observe something that not even the experts understand completely, and thus contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

Jurassic Puckering – Kissing Fish and Salt Water Evolution

Our Archaeopteryx show has bedazzling fossils – the only Archaeopteryx skeleton in the New World, complete with clear impressions of feathers. Plus frog-mouthed pterodactyls, fast-swimming Sea Crocs, and slinky land lizards.

But wait…….there’s more!

The exhibit has spectacular Jurassic fish!

By “spectacular” I don’t mean gigantic. Most of the Jurassic finny species were small to mid-sized, salmon to tuna in bulk. The extraordinary thing about our Jurassic fish is that the fossils capture the single most dramatic moment in all of fishy evolution….

….The Teleost Takeover!!
Teleosts are the unrivaled Rulers of Fish-Dom. Teleosts make up three-quarters of today’s fish species. When you eat fish, chances are you’re eating teleosts: tuna are teleosts, and so are mahi-mahi, swordfish, bluefish, salmon, red snappers, trout, bass, eels, herring and anchovies…

Gefilte Fish?  Yep. Teleost. So are white fish, smoked or non-smoked. Sail fish, tarpon, guppies…..

Teleosts belong to the “Bony Fish Clan,” one of the two huge branches on the fish family tree. The other big branch is for sharks, rays and skates

Pucker Faces
What makes teleosts so great? Pucker skulls. Go to an aquarium or a really big fish store. Watch the feeding. Teleosts protrude their faces, pushing out the jaw bones so the mouth cavity expands. Water rushes in, carrying food. Large mouth bass expand their mouths so wide they can suck in an entire duck.

Teleosts can use their pucker faces to reach out and nibble. Parrot fish do that when they gnaw away coral polyps. Catfish use their suction-mouths to vacuum worms from a muddy bottom. Remoras use their pucker-sucker mouths to get a free ride from a big shark.

Ok – all fish anatomists (people who dissect fish, not guppies who get PhD’s) agree: the pucker-swing-out, expanded face & jaws is the key innovation that opens the door to thousands of potential ecological niches.

Pucker Free Times
It wasn’t always so. The first bony fish comes in at about 400 million years ago. For the next 200 million years, there was no puckering. Jaw bones were firmly attached to the rest of the skull. Today, we have one Texas fish that still is no-pucker – the garfish. It grabs prey the way a gator does, with a simple snap.

First Tentative Pucker
In Triassic times, about 220 million years ago, some bony fish evolved a semi-moveable set of jaw bones that let the mouth expand sideways. Bowfins today are at this stage of evolution. Our Jurassic fish show has some nifty bowfin fossils.

Teleost Shock Troops
Bowfins didn’t go far enough. In the Late Triassic and Jurassic the first teleosts evolved. Face and jaw bones became mobile. Sucker-pucker faces started to diversify. That’s just the stage we catch in our Archaeopteryx display. The Late Jurassic lagoon beds from Solnhofen, Germany, abound with this first wave of teleosts. Don’t take my word for it. Come close to the glass cases with Thrissops, Pholidophorus and other early teleosts. Check out the jaws.

Teleosts would continue to expand into the next Period, the Cretaceous, and the through the following Age of Mammals.

so…..come to the Archaeopteryx show for the feathers…stay for the fish-faces.

Photo From You:Insect Identification

Photo submitted by Alex

Last week we got an interesting photo from a man named Alex in Guanajuato, Mexico. At first glance it looks like a stem with green thorns and some really weird, spiky, alien-looking bugs. The “green thorns” are actually insects that often get dismissed as, well, green thorns! These little guys are called treehoppers and they are everywhere, constantly being overlooked because of their excellent camouflage. They belong to the order Homoptera, which is notorious for containing almost all of the worst plant pests, including everyone’s favorite, the aphid! This order also includes interesting, non-pest insects like the cicada and the masters of disguise, treehoppers and leafhoppers. Most entomologists today lump the order Homoptera with Hemiptera, or true bugs such as stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, and assassin bugs. I, however, think they’re different enough to have their own group.

So, as I said, most treehoppers are not considered pests except for a small handful, including this little guy, the Keeled Treehopper (Antiathe expansa). They are known to attack plants in the family Solanaceae – especially tomatoes, eggplants and chile peppers. Alex found these guys all over his chile plant! In large enough numbers, they can seriously injure and even kill these plants. The problem is that, unlike more efficient insects like butterflies, beetles and flies, the young nymphs and adults eat the exact same thing. They use a sharp beak to penetrate the tissues of plants and suck the sap. All homopterans feed this way and that’s why so many of them cause damage to plants. All of this sap eating causes these insects to excrete a sugary liquid called honeydew which ants go crazy for! The ants will “milk” the honeydew from the homopteran and in return for the yummy snack, protect them from other predators. For example, ants who farm aphids for honeydew will keep the hungry ladybugs at bay to protect their precious nectar. For this reason, ants are very often associated with homopterans.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Dvorak319
treehopper being farmed by ants

So, what are the little spiky, weird orange guys? You guessed it, the nymphs! Very often, treehopper nymphs will look very different from the adults, but as time goes by, with every molt, they will lose their spines and start to resemble the green thorn-like adults. Treehoppers come in a wide array of fascinating and even downright bizarre shapes and appearances. Those found in the tropics are a bit larger and sport vibrant colors and odd protuberances unlike any other insects. Next time you are out and about, look a little more closely, and you’re sure to spot them!

Remember, if you find an odd looking bug and would like to know what it is, snap a picture and send it to us at Happy bug watching!