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Discovery of ‘Dragon Man’ skull in China could add new species to human family tree

ScientiFix, our weekly feature, offers you a summary of the top global science stories of the week, with links to their sources.

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Fossil from China leads to discovery of new ancient human species

A near-perfectly preserved ancient human fossil sitting in a museum in China since the 1930s has been identified as a new human species named Homo longi or “Dragon Man”.

This species may be more closely related to humans than the Neanderthals.

Scientists say Homo longi lineage may be our closest relatives and could reshape our understanding of human evolution.

The fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world. It preserved many details that are critical for understanding the evolution of humans and the origin of our species — Homo sapiens.

The massive skull could hold a brain comparable in size to modern humans but had larger, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth, and oversized teeth.

While it shows typical ancient human features, the skull is different from all the other previously-named Homo species.

Scientists believe the cranium came from a male individual, approximately 50 years old, living in a forested, floodplain environment as part of a small community.

Given that the individual was likely very large in size as well as the location where the skull was found, researchers suggest Homo longi may have been adapted for harsh environments, allowing them to disperse throughout Asia. Read more here

More lakes hidden under Mars surface than earlier thought

Scientists have found evidence that there are more lakes containing water under the surface of Mars than previously thought, although many of them are in areas too cold for water to remain liquid.

In 2018, scientists working with data from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter discovered that signals from a radar instrument reflected off the red planet’s south pole — revealing a liquid subsurface lake. Several more such reflections have been announced since then.

In a new study, scientists from NASA describe finding dozens of similar radar reflections around the south pole after analysing a broader set of Mars Express data.

While there is still some uncertainty regarding whether or not the signals are evidence of liquid water on the Red Planet, they appear to be much more widespread than earlier thought. The research offers scientists a detailed map of the region that contains clues to the climate history of Mars, including the role of water in its various forms. Read more here

Also read: ‘Mia’, this bearded vulture is the world’s first bird to get a prosthetic foot

Microplastics in oceans tracked using satellites

Scientists have developed an innovative way to use NASA satellite data to track the movement of tiny pieces of plastic in the ocean.

Microplastics form when plastic trash in the ocean breaks down. The small flecks of plastic are harmful to marine organisms and ecosystems. They can be carried hundreds or thousands of miles away from the source by ocean currents, making it difficult to track and remove them.

Currently, the main source of information about the location of microplastics comes from fisher boat trawlers that use nets to catch plankton and, unintentionally, microplastics.

The new technique relies on data from NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) — eight small satellites that measure wind speeds above Earth’s oceans and provides information about the strength of hurricanes.

The team looked for places where the ocean was smoother than expected given the wind speed, which they thought could indicate the presence of microplastics. Then they compared those areas to observations and predictions of where microplastics gather in the ocean. The study found that microplastics are more likely to be present in smoother waters, demonstrating that satellite data can be used as a tool to track ocean microplastic from space. Read more about it here

Mystery disease killing birds in US

A mystery disease is killing birds across the US, with many victims suffering from crusty eyes, swollen faces and the inability to fly.

Scientists are yet to find the cause of this illness. Reports of dying birds with eye swelling and crusty discharge, as well as neurological signs first emerged in May this year.

According to the US Geological Survey, no definitive cause of death has been identified.

Some states have created an online system for public to report encounters with sick and dead birds. The species affected so far have included blue jays, common grackles and European starlings, but other species may also be affected.

More than 20 samples have been sent for testing.

According to the US Geological Survey, birds congregating at feeders and baths can transmit disease to one another. They have recommended that people stop feeding birds until there is more clarity on the cause of deaths, clean feeders and baths with a bleach solution, and avoid handling birds.

While it’s not known if the mortality is linked to bird baths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned in April about a salmonella outbreak linked to wild songbirds across several states. The outbreak killed eight people. More about it here

Ground temperatures in Arctic hit 48 degree Celsius

The ground temperature in at least one location in Siberia crossed 48 degree Celsius on the year’s longest day, according to data recorded by the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel satellites.

The 48 degree Celsius temperature was measured on the ground in Eastern Siberia. These temperatures are land surface temperatures, not air temperatures. The air temperature was 30 degree Celsius. However, that’s still unusually hot for the Arctic Circle — which could speed up the region’s melting permafrost.

The permafrost prevents ancient caches of greenhouse gases from reentering Earth’s atmosphere and heating it further. Read more about it here

Also read: Scientists find largest cache of mystery fast radio bursts from space


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