Thursday, September 5, 2013

New bat genus earns its stripes in South Sudan

This beautifully patterned bat, with pale yellow spots and stripes on dark black fur, took researchers in the grasslands of South Sudan by surprise. DeeAnn Reeder from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, was working in Bangangai Game Reserve with the South Sudanese Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism. One evening, observing bats on rocky grassland next to a stagnant pool, she spotted the unique beauty. "I knew the second I saw it that it was the find of a lifetime," she says. On her return to the US, Reeder found that museums already had a few specimens of the bat, which had been placed in a known bat genus found in sub-Saharan Africa. But these bats were much larger than others in that genus, with an elongated skull and the beautiful striped pattern. Reeder and her colleagues decided the specimen belongs in a genus of its own, and have called it Niumbaha superba. Niumbaha means "rare" or "unusual" in Zande, the language of the Azande people of South Sudan, who live near where the specimen was collected.

Drought blossoms into spectacular bloom of Joshua trees

Joshua trees burst into beautiful flower across the Mojave desert in the past week, but the underlying cause of the spectacle may be two prior years of drought brought to the region by a warming climate. Joshua trees are a central component of the Mojave ecosystem. The trees rely on one species of moth almost exclusively for pollination, and the moth relies completely on the Joshua tree flowers as a nursery to for its larvae. After big blooms like this, rodent populations boom on an abundance of seeds.
Cameron Barrows, an ecologist at the University of California Riverside, Palm Springs, says that water is the limiting factor for Joshua trees, and given recent shortages, this may not be an ordinary event. "Blooms like this are filled with water," he says. "They are flush with nectar, with odours to attract insects. So if you are water stressed, it seems you'd want to conserve that - unless this is your last shot." Further north in Nevada, Todd Esque of the United States Geological Survey says persistent drought is unlikely to be the only factor behind the bloom, but that it's hard to know, as there's no record of bloom magnitudes and timings to compare against. "This is a natural cycle in the desert," says Esque. "A great series of things have to coincide for the Joshua trees to survive."

Orange-lipped teenager relaxes after clay lick

MUCH of what we know about bonobos comes from observing animals in captivity. Famously characterised as peaceable and sex-loving, a darker and more complex picture emerges from studies in the wild. For example, far from being the "hippy chimp", bonobos hunt for meat, consuming monkeys without bothering to kill them first. Yet we still know relatively little about one of our closest relatives. To document their behaviour in the wild, photographer Christian Ziegler travelled to the rainforest south of the Congo river, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "I learned that when they looked at me as if I didn't belong, I just imitated what they were doing, grooming or eating, and they seemed fine," says Ziegler. "I ate lots of things that they ate, many of which were quite tasty." (Presumably, he is not referring to live monkeys.) After four weeks, he got this shot. The troop had spent the morning foraging, including eating unripe fruit followed by orange clay to neutralise plant toxins. This teenage female has orange lips as a result of the clay. It is an image of relaxation, but bonobo numbers are in decline. "Right now we can't be sure that they can be safeguarded," says Ziegler. "Huge parts of the Congo basin are empty, and primates and especially apes are targeted for bushmeat." This article appeared in print under the headline "The flaming lips"

World's biggest telescope gets green light

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) - due to be the world's widest eye on space - has got the go-ahead for construction on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. TMT will join 13 others on the extinct volcano but will dwarf them all: the biggest now are the twin 10-metre Keck telescopes. The summit is a perfect location as it offers clear skies for 300 days of the year. If all goes well, observations will start in earnest in 2021. TMT may soon have to cede its size record, though: the European Southern Observatory is planning to have the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope on the mountain Cerro Armazones in Chile working early next decade. Not everyone in Hawaii is celebrating: the TMT site is being subleased from the University of Hawaii, but some Native Hawaiian groups are opposing the project, as the land is sacred to them.

Spring warmth sets Atlantic aflame

This fiery infrared satellite image, centred about 290 kilometres off Atlantic City, New Jersey, shows the Gulf Stream as it bends and stretches eastward toward Europe. The dark orange twirls are warm waters (around 30 °C on the surface) and the lighter, carroty colours are roughly 10 °C. The black splodges are clouds. As the warm ocean-surface water of the Gulf Stream swirls northward from the equator, it collides with cooler coastal currents flowing off the eastern US. In the spring and autumn, the colours in such infrared images flare as the temperature differences between the currents increase.

Bionic hands enter the app age

Other primates have opposable thumbs, sure, but only we have an app for them. It comes with this new prosthetic hand, unveiled last week by developer Touch Bionics. The powered thumb is controlled by signals from the user's arm muscles or - in a first for upper limb prostheses - via a smartphone app: a tap of the screen and the hand automatically arranges itself into a preset grip. The thumb can move into 24 different positions and new, extra-sensitive fingertip electrodes also give improved dexterity. "Powered thumb rotation, combined with the mobile app and quick access to all these new grips, gives me natural hand function that I never imagined would be possible," says Bertolt Meyer, who wears one of the new hands. The app makes it easy to configure presets by group, such as "work", which includes positions ready for typing, handling documents or using a mouse. The app also includes diagnostic tools and training modes for new users. Games of rock, paper, scissors may never be the same again.

Investigators seek trigger for Texas blast

As official investigations continue into the huge fertiliser facility blast in West, Texas, that killed 14 and injured at least 200 on 17 April, questions are being asked as to what was stored on the site, how the explosion happened and whether adequate safety precautions were in place. "Investigators from the US Chemical Safety Board arrived on the scene last Thursday evening," Jean Gonsoulin, a spokeswoman for the board, told New Scientist. Like 6000 other plants around the US, the facility stored, blended and distributed fertiliser - mainly anhydrous ammonia - to local farmers. Whether the plant also stored ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser doubling up as an explosive used in quarrying rock, is still unclear. Keith Plumb, an industry consultant on explosion prevention, based at Integral Pharma Services in Cheshire, UK, says an explosion of this size may not have required the presence of ammonium nitrate. The relatively low-level blaze that broke out at the plant could have heated a tank of anhydrous ammonia, causing vapour within to expand. To prevent the tank from exploding as pressure built up, ammonia may have been vented through safety valves, gradually accumulating in a cloud above the plant. "You could get a huge cloud of ammonia, and with a fire on at the same time, it would almost certainly ignite," says Plumb. A mixture of natural gas and air will explode once the gas makes up as little as 5 per cent of the mixture. Ammonia levels, however, would have to reach 20 to 25 per cent for an explosion. Plumb says that if ammonium nitrate was also stored on site, this too may then have been ignited by a larger ammonia blast. Some of the worst chemical plant accidents in history have involved similar facilities. In 1921, 561 died after 450 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in Oppau, Germany. In the US, the worst incident was in Texas City in 1947, when 581 died after ammonium nitrate exploded during loading onto a ship. No evacuation Given this history, other experts contacted by New Scientist questioned why West, a town of 2800, wasn't evacuated as soon as smoke was detected. "If not then, why not once the fire was detected prior to the explosion," says Joe Eades of the Ispahan Group, based in Singapore. Eades recently warned of complacency over safety measures in the construction of chemical plants in Asia. As the investigations continue, it emerged that the US Environmental Protection Agency fined the same facility $2300 in 2006 for failing to have a risk management plan meeting federal standards. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers rejects any suggestion that last week's blast was the result of slack attention to safety. "Standards only continue to become more rigorous, in the US and around the world," said Scott Berger, executive director of the institute's Center for Chemical Process Safety. But it also emerged last week that worksite safety inspections will soon be reduced because of government cutbacks that will affect the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The organisation admits that it anticipates conducting 1711 fewer worksite visits in 2014 than in 2012, when it inspected 40,961 plants.