First up …
Zombie fires of the North
After the year we’ve just had, news of a pending zombie invasion may generate little more than a shrug and a “sure, we all saw that coming.” Except these are not the shuffle-shuffle zombies, or even the fast-running consuming-London sort of zombies. These are fire zombies. Which may be the worst kind of all.
As this article from Nature reports, some fires in northern regions don’t really disappear in the fall. Instead, they just go into hiding, smoldering below the snow throughout the winter months. Then, when spring returns, these fires are already there, ready to burst forth and spread. It doesn’t take dry lightning, fallen power line, or a dude dropping a cigarette.
Rather than being like those short-lived forest fires that get a name, a percentage containment value on the evening news, these “overwintering fires” can actually outlast a whole fire season. They can continue burning at a very low level until time and conditions are right—like say a record drought that provides lots of dry, ready-to-burn material, and increasingly hot summers—and allow them to flare up and rage. In past years, zombie fires have accounted for over a third of the total area burned in northern forests.
In this study, researchers from the U.S. and the Netherlands (one of those countries that keeps well-swept forests), modeled past behavior of overwintering fires, along with the conditions that allow those fires to return in the spring, and projected what those models means for the future. it almost goes without saying that what the future promises is … more zombies. More fire zombies. Which doesn’t exactly make the coming fire season any less scary.
Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya …
Have you ever wished that you could be a character from The Princess Bride? Well, this paper from Science Robotics has you covered … so long as your dream wasn’t to be any of the heroes, but to really nail that role of the six-fingered man.
That’s because a group of roboticists and experts in how people learn fine motor control got together to build a device that gives people an extra thumb. That’s right. People with a normal compliment of digits were fitted with a device that gave them a “third thumb.” Then they spent five days getting used to their augmented hand and performing complex manual tasks that the rest of us must face with just one thumb per side. The researchers also peeked in on the brain activity of the thumbly-blessed to see just what cells were handling this sudden abundance.
Over that time, people got better at using their extra digit, including being able to use the thumb in everyday situations while not looking at their hand. In some situations, the extra thumb allowed people to perform usually two-handed tasks with just one hand. Or maybe that should be 1.2 hands. People also had an “increased sense of embodiment” over that period. In other words, they began to feel as if the thumb was actually part of them.
However, as the volunteers were learning to use the robot thumb augmentation, their brains were also unlearning how to operate their normal hand. Or, as the researchers put it: “Brain decoding revealed a mild collapse of the augmented hand’s motor representation after training, even while the Third Thumb was not worn.”
A “mild collapse” of the ability to operate the hand in a normal manner does not seem like a good thing, though the relatively short time frame of the experiment could mean that, over time, not only would the third thumb be more comfortable, but it would be better integrated into the way the hand worked.
The conclusion of the researchers is that people can learn to use augmentation, and that the use of such robotic additions can be both “readily achieved” and “flexible.” However, making changes to the physical body may lead to “neurocognitive consequences.” So think carefully before you consider whether you really want that spare arm.
THe mystery of the missing medium-sized dinosaurs
This observation in Science isn’t particularly new. For some time, paleontologists have realized that carnivorous dinosaurs tend to come in two size ranges—from tiny up to something around human size, and ginormous. Though in-between predators certainly exist, they seem to be all but absent in a number of Mesozoic communities. Even when factoring in the incompleteness of the fossil record, there’s a marked gap in predator size.
A number of researchers have suggested that the middle gap could be filled by adolescent versions of the giant predators. After all, these predators don’t start off the size of elephant; all of them emerge from eggs that are—thanks to the limits of eggs—not much larger than ostrich eggs today. Also, a number of dinosaurs seem to be distinctly different in appearance when younger. A juvenile tyrannosaurus rex was positively gangly, with a build much lighter than an adults. So maybe there was simply no room for purpose-evolved medium-sized meat-eaters, because the teenage T. rex was already filling that niche.
Except … that doesn’t fit with what we see with mammalian predators today. But then, mammals are born live, grow fast, and benefit from direct feeding by parents. Anyone who owns a dog can confirm how sadly short that ungainly puppy stage can be. The same thing is true for larger mammals. An African lion can be full grown as young as 3-5 years old.
Meanwhile, previous research has suggested that T. rex could have taken an average of 20 years to reach full size. So the Cretaceous environment could have been swarming with small, medium, and large-but-not-yet-huge versions of the same species, all of them dominating small niches for years.
That’s the focus of the paper from back in February, attached to the tweet below, which looks at that suggestion and does the math. Their conclusion seems to confirm those earlier conjectures: It’s likely that younger versions of giant predators effectively filled all the medium-sized niches.