SciTech Briefs

New species of extinct giant otter found in China

Scientists have described a prehistoric otter species that was “two to three times larger than any modern otter,” according to paleontologist Denise Su.

Siamogale melilutra lived six million years ago in what is now the Yunnan province of China and, according to the scientists who originally discovered it, would have weighed over one hundred pounds.

The researchers studied a fossilized cranium found in a mine in 2010 and came to the conclusion that it belonged a previously undiscovered otter species, based on a digital reconstruction and analysis of its skull structure. They also believe that some previously unclassified fossils found in 2009 are S. melilutra specimens as well.

The findings were published this week in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

Source: NPR

NASA launches new project to study cause of auroras

A NASA campaign launching this month aims to learn more about Earth’s magnetic field through auroras, the stunning polar light effects at occur at the Earth’s poles.

The first mission, named PolarNOx, will study the after effects of the aurora while avoiding interaction with the aurora itself. It will focus on collecting data on atmospheric nitrous oxide, a gas produced by auroras. The PolarNOx rocket launch window closes Jan. 31.

The second and third missions will use two rockets each. Neutral jets — jets that do not interact with the ionosphere — in Auroral Arcs will determine the relationship between auroras and ionospheric electrical fields. The ISINGLASS sounding rocket will fire its identical rockets into two different auroras and investigate how they are affected by the solar wind. The entire project will be completed this March.

Source: NASA

Research explains prehistoric Martian climate change

Though Mars is a notoriously dry planet, its surface contains evidence that it was once covered with liquid water — an established fact in the scientific community. However, it is unknown what prehistoric climate conditions caused Mars to become warm enough for liquid water to exist; the planet’s atmosphere lacks enough greenhouse gases to produce a greenhouse effect.

Environmental scientists published a proposal this week that may be the first to successfully explain this climate change, using a principle called collision-induced absorption. They claim that while there may not have been enough individual gas molecules present to create a greenhouse effect on their own, the interaction between these molecules creates a significant amount of heat retention — enough to warm the planet.

Source: Discover

Distracted drivers much have lower response times

A study published this week in the journal Human Factors found that drivers in automated cars have a wide range of response times.

The study engaged 26 adults in a simulation with normal driving conditions in an autonomous vehicle. Drivers were asked to perform a distracting secondary task and, at random intervals, they were requested to switch either from manual to automatic or vice versa. The response times ranged from 1.9 seconds to 25.7 seconds; distracted drivers had slower response times, on average.

The authors of the study believe their findings have implications for both road safety and the auto-engineering industry, as vehicle designers try to improve the safety features of their imminently commercial self-driving cars.

Source: University of Southampton

Female scientists usually excluded from peer review

An analysis of the age and gender data of over 100,000 scientists revealed that women are less likely to be asked to review publications, as compared to their male peers.

The data, collected from American Geophysical Union journal articles, showed that even though female authors are more likely to be accepted for publication, only 20 percent of reviewers are female — less than the expected proportion, based on the number of women in the AGU.

The authors of the review note that the bias is present across all age groups, thus “the lower participation by women as reviewers is not just because editors were seeking more-senior reviewers, who are predominantly male.”

Female scientists also face bias in award and grant decisions, conference invitations, and hiring and promotions.

Source: Nature

Extended periods in space may affect genes and cells

The preliminary data from NASA’s ground-breaking “twin study” suggest that long periods spent in space may alter the human body.

In the study, astronaut Scott Kelly spent 342 days in orbit on the International Space Station while his identical twin Mark remained on Earth. Various biological measurements of both brothers were taken before, during and after Kelly’s year in space.

Kelly experienced atypically large fluctuations in gene-expression signatures, possibly due to the stress of living in orbit. His genes also showed signs of decreased methylation. These effects and their consequences are still being studied. However, because the study involves sequencing the entire genome of both twins, the complete results may never be published due to privacy concerns.

Source: Nature