Monthly Archives: October 2019

Researchers analyze Justinian’s plague bacteria

A new study has analyzed in greater detail the effects of the so-called “plague of Justinian,” a pandemic that hit Europe. It is believed that the pandemic broke out in 541 AD and lasted at least until 750 AD.

Analyzing data on 21 archaeological sites in Europe and the Mediterranean area, a group of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and Harvard University collected new information on this pandemic. First of all, it seems to have spread to a wider area than previously thought. The effects should have also reached post-Roman England.

The bacterium that caused it is Yersinia pestis, the same one that caused the so-called “black plague,” another pandemic that spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and killed nearly half of the continent’s population. Despite being less known than the black plague, Justinian’s plague was just as lethal, according to the researchers. It is so named because it began during the reign of Emperor Justinian who ruled the empire from Constantinople.

It was precisely the pandemic that began in the areas of Constantinople and spread to Mediterranean ports at the beginning.

Researchers, reconstructing the genomes of Yersinia pestis taken from samples collected from archaeological sites in various European locations, first confirmed that they initially hit coastal areas, probably through ships that docked at ports.

They then discovered that the plague also spread to Great Britain, a new piece of information regarding this pandemic, which among other things shows the profound interconnection of trade between the Mediterranean area and Great Britain itself. They then found some genetic diversity among the analyzed strains that evidently evolved during the two centuries of the duration of the pandemic.

Research is also important because “it shows the potential of paleogenomic research to understand historical and modern pandemics by comparing genomes through millennia,” says Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute, a method that could lead the way for similar studies in future.

Skin disease caused by parasite spreads among African giraffes

A skin disease is spreading among African giraffes and causing concern. Identified for the first time in African giraffes in the early 1990s, the disease appears to have spread more widely in recent years. According to experts, it could be caused by several pathogens and could be represented by more skin diseases.

The pathology sees the formation of patches of dead tissue and sores transuding blood or pus on the skin of the animals and for the moment does not seem to be fatal. However, environmentalists strongly fear for the health of animals and above all for their reproduction considering that even giraffes could soon fall into the category of endangered animals like other endemic animals of the African savannah.

An infectious disease is the last thing we should wish for giraffes, animals in decline due to habitat loss but also due to poaching, as reported by Chris Whittier, a researcher at Tufts University, United States: “We cannot ignore threats secondary, like infectious diseases, because every little thing could become an event at the level of extinction when there are not many individuals of certain species left.”

By analyzing various skin samples taken from giraffes affected by this infectious disease in the Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda, researchers have discovered the larval form of a very small parasitic worm, barely visible to the naked eye, inside the sick tissue. The parasite is still a subject of study (research should appear soon in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases) but researchers think it may belong to the genus Stephanofilaria.

To this genus belong parasites that commonly spread among domestic cattle through flies causing symptoms similar to those seen in giraffes as sores and various skin problems. In the animals of the African savannah, however, this parasite had always been considered quite rare and some cases had been found, in addition to giraffes, in hippos, rhinos or antelopes.

Further research will be carried out and the hope is to be able to stop the spread of this parasite among giraffes before it spreads in too many specimens of all East Africa.

New species of duck-billed dinosaur classified in Texas

In a new study published in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology, a team of paleontologists announced the identification of a new species, as well as a new genus, of a duck-billed dinosaur, the Aquilarhinus palimentus.

The name itself refers to the aquiline nose and the large lower jaw, characteristics of a very strange head as can also be seen from the artistic representations supplied with the press release. The analysis covers various bones collected during the 1980s near the rocky layers of the Rattle Snake Mountain, Texas.

During the 1990s, few studies were carried out regarding these remains and only the arched nasal crest was identified, which suggested that the dinosaur belonged to the genus of the gryposaurus. However, the new analysis, which later resulted in the article published in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology, led to a different identification.

According to paleontologists, it is a more primitive dinosaur than the gryposaurus, although belonging to the family of adrosaurids, the same family to which the genus of gryposaurus belongs.

It is “one of the most primitive hadrosaurids known,” as specified by Albert Prieto-Márquez from the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont, the lead author of the study.

The duck-billed dinosaurs boast a particular lower jaw that meets the upper one forming a sort of U that supports a cup-shaped beak, especially useful for eating plants. However, the newly discovered Aquilarhinus boasts a lower jaw that meets with the upper one in a different way, forming a sort of W.

Here is Vegebot, a robot that picks up lettuce controlling its level of ripeness

Vegebot has been named the new specialized reaper robot to collect lettuce. Developed by a team of engineers from the University of Cambridge, Vegebot, like so many other robots created to make the harvest more efficient, has also been trained to recognize the level of maturation of the leaves.

The robot, which has already been successfully tested on the outdoor fields of a British fruit and vegetable cooperative, is currently not as efficient as a human worker but demonstrates, for the umpteenth time, how the use of robotics is spreading all the time more in the agriculture sector, also to collect fruits or vegetables that require a considerable manual skill.

Different vegetables have been cultivated mechanically or in any case automatically for decades but there are types that “resist” automation as they are very difficult to collect or for which it is very difficult to identify the right level of maturation. Just the iceberg type lettuce is one of these. Among other things, this type of lettuce is relatively flat and more difficult to collect than others.

At the moment, as reported by Julia Cai, one of the authors of the study behind the project that allowed the construction of this robot, “at the moment, the collection is the only part of the life cycle of the lettuce which is done manually and is very demanding from a physical point of view.”

Vegebot intends to make up for the use of human beings to collect lettuce: it determines if the leaves are healthy and ready to be harvested, cuts the lettuce from the plant without damaging it and puts it in a special container. This is something difficult for a robot to implement even if for a human being it may seem simple enough, as reported by one of the authors of the study, Josie Hughes.

To understand the level of maturation of the leaves, the robot uses an artificial vision system based on automatic learning (it should improve more and more with experience). It also uses a sophisticated cutting system with a camera for a regular cut.

The fossil of the oldest lily ever found has been discovered

It is the oldest fossilized lily ever found that was discovered by the botanist Clement Coiffard of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin in the region of a former freshwater lake near Crato, in northeastern Brazil. With an age of 115 million years, it is one of the oldest fossils of monocotyledonous plants among those known; these are plants that include orchids and sweet herbs, among others.

The lily, which belonged to the Cratolirion species, is also “extraordinarily well preserved,” as specified in the by Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin.

The traces of all plant sections have remained intact, including the roots in addition to flowers and individual cells. Among other things, the plant had narrow leaves with parallel veins with a system of fibrous roots and triple flowers, all characteristic of monocotyledonous plants.

The flower was 40 cm high and the fossil consists of iron oxides associated with the stone. The researchers also used 3D X-ray analysis and three-dimensional computerized tomography techniques and then analyzed the details of the inflorescence.

The species is new and has been classified as Cratolirion bognerianum. This study will prove to be important to understand how the tropical environment has influenced flowering plants, a subject that is still partly unexplored because there are very few fossils of these plants described so far, as Coiffard himself specifies.