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Extinct group of lizard-like amphibians used a rapid-fire tongue to catch prey



Nov. 5 (UPI) — An unusual group of extinct amphibians known as albanerpetontids used a rapid-fire tongue to catch prey, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Science.

For years, albanerpetontids, called “albies” for short, have puzzled scientists. Despite claws, scales and tails that recall those of lizards, albies are officially amphibians.

Their lineage diverged from today’s frogs, salamanders and caecilians more than 165 million years ago, but the group only disappeared from the fossil record 2 million years ago.

“We are always interested in enigmatic extinct groups,” study co-author Susan Evans told UPI in an email.

“Albies are interesting and mysterious — in their specialized anatomy, in the fact that they became extinct only a couple of million years ago, in their distribution and lifestyle,” said Evans, professor of vertebrate morphology and paleontology at University College London and an albie expert.

Albies are noted for their robust skulls, leading many scientists to suggest the amphibians were burrowers, catching mostly soil-bound prey. But new analysis of collection of 99-million-year-old amber fossils from Myanmar suggests albies were capable of zapping flies from midair.

Evans had never seen an albie trapped in Myanmar amber until a group of scientists led by Juan Diego Daza, assistant professor of biological sciences at Sam Houston State University, described a group of lizard fossils in a 2016 paper.

The identification of one particular specimen from the cadre of fossils proved especially vexing for Daza and his colleagues. The creature boasted an array of befuddling characteristics. After much debate, researchers classified the specimen as an early chameleon.

When Evans read the paper, she realized the authors had made a mistake. The specimen wasn’t a lizard. It was an albanerpetontid. Evans reached out to Daza to inform him of his error.

Daza’s paper also caught the attention of another researcher, Adolf Peretti, a gemologist who had acquired another collection of similar amber fossils.

After performing a series of CT scans, Daza realized one of the fossils contained the complete skull of an albanerpetontid. He made sure the 3D images of the albie fossils made their way to Evans.

Evans said she had never seen such a well-preserved albie skull. The fossil featured bits of soft tissue, as well as jaw muscles and eyelids. But most importantly, the fossilized skull boasted a tongue pad — the kinds of pad that supports a sling-shot tongue.

“I had already speculated that this might be part of a ballistic tongue apparatus in previous work, but the main Myanmar specimen shows it beautifully,” Evans said. “Importantly, it preserves part of the soft tissue of the tongue itself showing that the long ‘tongue bone’ is really part of a tongue mechanism.”

Daza, Evans and their research partners compared the tongue bone with those found in modern chameleons and a group of modern salamanders called bolitoglossa — the only living animals known to use a slingshot tongue. The structures proved nearly identical.

Researchers confirmed that the only living species with a slingshot tongue are also the only living species with a specialized elongated hyoid apparatus.

“Thus, in having this exceptionally long hyoid element — tongue-bone — in the floor of the mouth, we can conclude that they shared a ballistic mechanism,” Evans said. “Moreover, this also fits with other strange adaptations we know albies have — large eyes, a complex anterior jaw joint and a mobile neck.”

Researchers determined that the ballistic-tongued albies specimen represented a new genus and species, Yaksha perettii, but Evans estimates the slingshot tongue was common among the early amphibians.

If the earliest albies — which date back 165 million years — had rapid-fire tongues, too, it would mean amphibians evolved an elongated hyoid apparatus and ballistic tongue before chameleons.

Previously, albies fossils were mostly found in North America, Europe and East Asia — and less often in Morocco.

Now, the evidence suggests they were living in the part of Gondwana that became Southeast Asia. New, yet discovered albies fossils could provide clues as to what exactly the earliest amphibians looked like.

“[Albies remain] of interest because they possess a mix of primitive amphibian characters and very derived ones,” Evans said.

“There is a big debate at the moment about the origins of modern amphibians and, as an early branch from the modern amphibian stem, albanerpetontids have the potential to tell us something about amphibian relationships generally and the origins of modern forms,” she said.

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touches down on asteroid Bennu to nab sample



Oct. 20 (UPI) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touched down on asteroid Bennu on Tuesday evening in a mission to scoop a sample of rocks and dirt.

The spacecraft — the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — made soft contact with the asteroid at 6:12 p.m. EDT.

The historic “touch and go” event featured animation displaying OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection activities in real time. It takes time for real images of the touchdown to travel back to the Earth, so they won’t be released to the public until Wednesday.

The craft executed a series of maneuvers over the course of several hours before making soft contact with the surface of the asteroid to collect regolith, or rocks and dirt.

“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a news conference ahead of the event.

Buck made a comparison to the descent of a spacecraft on Mars, when there is typically “seven minutes of terror.”

The goal is to learn more about the solar system’s history and help “planetary defense” engineers with missions to protect earth from rogue asteroids. Bennu is believed to be a window into the solar system’s past since it’s a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying building blocks of both planets and life.

At around 1:50 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft left orbit around the asteroid before executing a series of burns to position itself over a sampling area nicknamed Nightingale.

Once in position, the craft began its approach to the asteroid at 5:50 p.m. EDT. It then spent about 15 seconds attempting to collect the regolith sample before backing away again.

The area, which is 52 feet in diameter, will make for a more demanding landing than expected, Kenneth Getzandanner, OSIRIS-REx flight dynamics manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the news conference.

The original mission called for a landing “zone” about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected.

The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said.

“I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” Enos said.

Though early images from the asteroid should hint at whether the mission succeeded, it will take engineers roughly 10 days to compare and analyze the mass before and after the maneuver to actually know how much dirt is inside the OSIRIS-REx.

If it failed, the spacecraft has enough fuel to attempt two more touch downs to collect material.

The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth, with the regolith sample from Bennu, in 2023.

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SpaceX scrubs Starlink launch until Thursday, if weather cooperates



Oct. 21 (UPI) — Just three days after sending 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit, SpaceX is aiming to launch another batch of broadband satellites into space from Florida.

If the weather cooperates, Thursday’s launch will be SpaceX’s 15th Starlink mission.

Liftoff had been scheduled for 12:29 p.m. EDT Wednesday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but controllers scrubbed the launch due to weather and rescheduled for 12:14 p.m. on Thursday.

With a launch Sunday, SpaceX increased the size of their Starlink constellation to nearly 800 satellites. The 15th mission will see another 60-odd satellites join the network.

“The goal of Starlink is to create a network that will help provide Internet services to those who are not yet connected, and to provide reliable and affordable Internet across the globe,” according to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather for Wednesday’s planned launch had looked so-so and the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions.

“A mid-level inverted trough and associated easterly wave currently across the Bahamas will meander into the state over the next few days, bringing enhanced moisture, cloud cover, and instability with a higher coverage of showers and storms,” Space Force forecasters wrote.

They said Thursday’s forecast looks quite similar to Wednesday’s.

Earlier this month, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation was big enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in both the United States and southern Canada.

SpaceX has already offered Starlink Internet services to emergency responders in wildfire-stricken areas of Washington State.

Washington’s Hoh tribe is also using the Internet service to provide their members online education and telehealth services.

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Chernobyl-level radiation harms bumblebee reproduction



Oct. 21 (UPI) — Bees are more sensitive to radiation than scientists thought. Scientists found the reproduction rates of bumblebees declined significantly when exposed to Chernobyl-level radiation.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests radiation in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could impair pollination services, triggering wider ecological consequences than previously estimated.

Humans are not allowed to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the disaster area more directly impacted by the 1986 nuclear accident, the worst in history. However, the destroyed nuclear reactors are surrounded by forests that are populated by robust populations of birds, bears, bison, lynx, moose, wolves and more.

Efforts to gauge the effects of radiation contamination on insects have yielded mixed results in the past. While some studies have suggested insects are relatively radiation-resistant, others have demonstrated significant impairment.

When researchers exposed bumblebees in the lab to radiation dose of 100 µGyh-1, an amount approximating exposure inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, reproduction rates among the bees dropped between 30 and 45 percent.

Researchers found a direct correlation between the size of the radiation dose and reproduction rate declines. Lower levels of radiation had a smaller effect, while larger doses yielded greater declines.

Scientists were surprised to find they were able to detect reproductive rate declines at very small levels of radiation exposure.

“Our research provides much needed understanding as to the effects of radiation in highly contaminated areas and this is the first research to underpin the international recommendation for the effects of radiation on bees,” lead study author Katherine Raines, environmental scientist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said in a news release.

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