New mapping shows just how much fishing impacts the world’s seas

Fishing has left a hefty footprint on Earth. Oceans cover more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface, and industrial fishing occurred across 55 percent of that ocean area in 2016, researchers report in the Feb. 23 Science. In comparison, only 34 percent of Earth’s land area is used for agriculture or grazing.

Previous efforts to quantify global fishing have relied on a hodgepodge of scant data culled from electronic monitoring systems on some vessels, logbooks and onboard observers. But over the last 15 years, most commercial-scale ships have been outfitted with automatic identification system (AIS) transceivers, a tracking system meant to help ships avoid collisions.
In the new study, the researchers examined 22 billion AIS positions from 2012 through 2016. Using a computer trained with a type of machine learning, the team then identified more than 70,000 fishing vessels and tracked their activity.

Much of the fishing was concentrated in countries’ exclusive economic zones — ocean regions within about 370 kilometers of a nation’s coastline — and in certain hot spots farther out in the open ocean, the team found. Such hot spots included the northeastern Atlantic Ocean and the nutrient-rich upwelling regions off the coasts of South America and West Africa.

Surprisingly, just five countries — China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea — accounted for nearly 85 percent of fishing efforts on the high seas, the regions outside of any country’s exclusive economic zone.

Tracking the fishing footprint in space and time, the researchers note, can help guide marine environmental protections and international conservation efforts for fish. That may be particularly important in a time of rapid change due to rising ocean temperatures and increasing human activity on the high seas.

Penguin supercolony discovered in Antarctica

On an expedition to an icy island chain off the Antarctic Peninsula’s northern tip, researchers discovered a massive supercolony of more than 1.5 million Adélie penguins, according to a study published March 2 in Scientific Reports.

Scientists had known of an Adélie penguin colony (Pygoscelis adeliae) in these Danger Islands, but satellite images revealed more guano on the rocky islands than could be explained by the colony’s expected numbers.

Even though the tiny island chain is only about 10 kilometers across, researchers hadn’t realized the extent of the penguin population, says study coauthor Heather Lynch, an ecologist at Stony Brook University in New York. “In the Antarctic, distances are so vast, something major could be just around the corner and you wouldn’t know.”
The researchers did a preliminary head count, took drone images and collected mud cores during a 2015 expedition. The team then spent about a year using a computer algorithm to analyze the images to more fully count 751,527 penguin nests, Lynch says. For every nesting bird, the scientists assumed there was a partner penguin out at sea.
Next, the team hopes to analyze the guano content in the collected layers of mud to discover how long the penguins have been nesting in the Danger Islands.
The discovery is good news for fans of the flightless bird. Elsewhere in Antarctica where the climate is more volatile, penguin colonies are in decline. “I hope this provides impetus for a marine protected area in the Danger Islands with expanded borders from what has been proposed,” Lynch says.

Dino-bird had wings made for flapping, not just gliding

Archaeopteryx was a flapper, not just a glider. The shape of the ancient bird’s wing bones suggests it was capable of short bursts of active, flapping flight, similar to how modern birds like pheasants and quails fly to escape predators, a new study finds.

One of the earliest birds, Archaeopteryx lived about 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, spanning the evolutionary gap between modern birds and feathered dinosaurs. Fossils of the primitive fowl have been instrumental in the recognition that birds are dinosaurs (SN Online: 7/31/14). But researchers have long wrangled over how well these ancient dino-birds could fly.
Archaeopteryx doesn’t have several features considered essential to flight in modern birds, such as a keeled breastbone to which several important flight muscles attach; a ball-and-socket arrangement that allows the wing to flap fully up over the back and down again; and a muscle pulley system that links chest and shoulder muscles, allowing the birds to swiftly alternate between powerful downstrokes and upstrokes. Previous researchers also have suggested that Archaeopteryx’s plumage was too delicate and might have snapped with vigorous flapping (SN: 6/5/10, p. 12). Based on these observations, the primitive bird was thought to merely glide from branch to branch, rather than flapping its wings to fly.

Paleontologist Dennis Voeten and colleagues decided to look for other features that might indicate the dino-birds flapped their wings while flying. The researchers used X-ray microtomography to examine two different wing bones — the humerus, or upper arm bone, and a lower arm bone called the ulna — in three Archaeopteryx fossils.

The team compared the thickness of the bones’ walls and their resistance to torsion — a twisting force that birds’ wings withstand during flapping flight — with similar bones from several dinosaurs, flying reptiles called pterosaurs and modern birds. Archaeopteryx had wing bone structures most similar to pheasants and quails, birds that are capable of small bursts of active flapping flight, the researchers report March 13 in Nature Communications.

In examining the shape of the wing bones, the study takes a novel approach to the question of whether Archaeopteryx could fly, says ornithologist Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute Frankfurt, who was not involved in the research.
But the study doesn’t answer whether Archaeopteryx could launch itself from the ground into the air. “Their results convincingly show that it could do active flight” once it was already airborne, Mayr says. “What they do not explain is how it would have been possible to produce strong flapping flight to take off from the ground.” Other early birds might have used a combination of wing and leg strength to launch into the air, but this hasn’t been shown for Archaeopteryx (SN: 11/26/16, p. 9).

To understand whether and how Achaeopteryx actually flew, researchers would need to reconstruct the animal’s full range of motion — a challenging prospect given that muscles don’t fossilize, says Voeten, of Palacký University Olomouc in the Czech Republic.

The primitive birds, without flight adaptations such as the muscle pulley system, wouldn’t have been capable of the full range of flapping motion birds today use. Instead, other parts of its anatomy indicate Archaeopteryx may have thrown its wings upward and forward, similar to a swimmer’s butterfly stroke, Voeten says. “Dedicated studies would need to show if it would work that way.”

Meet the giants among viruses

For decades, the name “virus” meant small and simple. Not anymore. Meet the giants.

Today, scientists are finding ever bigger viruses that pack impressive amounts of genetic material. The era of the giant virus began in 2003 with the discovery of the first Mimivirus (SN: 5/23/09, p. 9). The viral titan is about 750 nanometers across with a genetic pantry boasting around 1.2 million base pairs of DNA, the information-toting bits often represented with A, T, C and G. Influenza A, for example, is roughly 100 nanometers across with only about 13,500 base pairs of genetic material.

In 2009, another giant virus called Marseillevirus was identified. It is different enough from mimiviruses to earn its own family. Since 2013, mega-sized viruses falling into another eight potential virus families have been found, showcasing a long-unexplored viral diversity, researchers reported last year in Annual Review of Virology and in January in Frontiers in Microbiology.

Giant viruses mostly come in two shapes: polyhedral capsules and egglike ovals. But one, Mollivirus, skews more spherical. Pacmanvirus was named for the broken appearance of its outer shell. Both represent potential families. Two newly discovered members of the mimivirus family, both called tupanviruses and both with tails, have the most complete set of genes related to assembling proteins yet seen in viruses (SN Online: 2/27/18). Once unheard of, giant viruses may be common in water and soils worldwide. Only time — and more discoveries — will tell.
Virus length and genome size for a representative from each of two recognized giant virus families (mimivirus and marseillevirus families) and eight potential families are shown. Circles are scaled to genome size and shaded by size range, with influenza A and E. coli bacterium included for comparison. Years indicate when the first viruses were described.

Graphic: C. Chang; Sources: P. Colson, B. La Scola and D. Raoult/Annual Review of Virology 2017; J. Andreani et al/Frontiers in Microbiology 2018

Water may have killed Mars’ magnetic field

THE WOODLANDS, Texas — Mars’ missing magnetic field may have drowned in the planet’s core.

An excess of hydrogen, split off from water molecules and stored in the Martian mantle, could have shut down convection, switching the magnetic field off forever, planetary scientist Joseph O’Rourke proposed March 21 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Planetary scientists think magnetic fields are produced by the churning of a planet’s molten iron core. Convection relies on denser materials sinking into the core, and lighter stuff rising to the surface. The movement of iron, which can carry a charge, generates a strong magnetic field that can protect a planet’s atmosphere from being ravaged by solar wind (SN Online: 8/18/17).
But if lighter material, like hydrogen, settles close to the iron core, it could block dense material from sinking deep enough to keep convection going, said O’Rourke, of Arizona State University in Tempe.

“Too much hydrogen and you can shut down convection entirely,” he said. “Hydrogen is a heartless killer.”

O’Rourke and his ASU colleague S.-H. Dan Shim suggested the hydrogen could come from water locked up in Martian minerals. Near the hot core, water would split into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen would form compounds with other elements and stay high in the mantle, but the hydrogen could sit atop the core and effectively suffocate the dynamo.
The question is whether Mars’ minerals would have had what it took to deliver the hydrogen at the right time. Mars’ crust is rich in the mineral olivine, which does not bond well with water and so is relatively dry.

In the planet’s interior, pressure forces olivine to transform into the minerals wadsleyite and ringwoodite, which hold more water. Deeper still, the mineral turns into bridgmanite and becomes dry again. For a time, that bridgmanite layer could act as a buffer against water, allowing the core to keep convecting. But as the mantle cooled, the bridgmanite layer would shrink and eventually disappear, O’Rourke’s study suggests.

Whether Mars’ interior ever had that saving layer of bridgmanite depends on how big its core is — a property that may be tested by NASA’s InSight Mars lander, launching on May 5, O’Rourke said. Mars did have a magnetic field more than 4 billion years ago. Scientists have struggled to explain how it vanished, leaving the planet vulnerable to solar winds, which probably stripped away its atmosphere and surface water (SN: 12/12/15, p. 31).

If hydrogen shut down the planet’s generator, it would have had to act fast. Previous observations suggest the magnetic field disappeared relatively rapidly, over 100 million years.

Another theory by James Roberts of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., suggests a large impact could have shut down the dynamo by heating the outermost core, which would have kept it from sinking.

“It’s actually a similar idea to O’Rourke’s,” Roberts says. It may take many more sophisticated Mars missions to figure out what really happened.

How honeybees’ royal jelly might be baby glue, too

Honeybee royal jelly is food meant to be eaten on the ceiling. And it might also be glue that keeps a royal baby in an upside-down cradle.

These bees raise their queens in cells that can stay open at the bottom for days. A big blob of royal jelly, abundantly resupplied by worker bees, surrounds the larva at the ceiling. Before the food is deposited in the cell, it receives a last-minute jolt of acidity that triggers its proteins to thicken into goo, says Anja Buttstedt, a protein biochemist at Technische Universität Dresden in Germany. Basic larva-gripping tests suggest the jelly’s protein chemistry helps keep future queens from dropping out of their cells, Buttstedt and colleagues propose March 15 in Current Biology.
Suspecting the stickiness of royal jelly might serve some function, researchers tweaked its acidity. They then filled small cups with royal jelly with different pH levels and gently turned the cups upside down. At a natural royal jelly acidity of about pH 4.0, all 10 larvae dangled from their gooey blobs upside down overnight. But in jelly boosted to pH 4.8 (and thinned in the process), four of the 10 larvae dropped from the cups. At pH 5.9, all of them dropped.

Honeybees build several forms of royally oversized cells for raising a queen. Those for queens who will swarm with their workers to a new home hang from the rim of an array of regular cells. A hole stays open at the bottom of the cell until the larva nears pupation from her fat grub shape into a queen with wings. That hole at the bottom is big enough for a royal larva to fall through, confirms insect physiologist Steven Cook at the honeybee research lab in Beltsville, Md., run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Buttstedt and colleagues propose that the stickiness of royal jelly may be what keeps the larva in place. The team worked out how the jelly’s proteins change as it is made, and how those changes affect its consistency.

Royal jelly is secreted as a brew of proteins from the glands above a worker bee’s brain. At that point, it has a neutral pH, around 7, like water’s. The worker bee then adds fatty acids from glands in her mouthparts, which take the pH to around 4.
“It has a quite sour smell,” Buttstedt says. As for taste? “Really weird.” A steady diet of this jelly is what turns a larvae into a queen instead of a worker.

At pH 4, the jelly’s most common protein, MRJP1, goes complicated. When the protein leaves the glands above the brain, it’s clustered in groups of four along with smaller proteins called apisimins, the team found. When the acidity shifts, the MRJP1 foursomes and the apisimins hook together in slender fibers and get gluey.

“The most puzzling question,” Buttstedt says, is “why build upside-down queen cells in the first place?”

Delusions of skin infestation may not be so rare

Delusional infestation
de-LU-zhen-al in-fes-TAY-shun n.
A deep conviction that one’s skin is contaminated with insects or other objects despite a lack of medical evidence.

She was certain her skin was infested: Insects were jumping off; fibers were poking out. Fearful her condition could spread to others, the 50-year-old patient told doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., that she was avoiding contact with her children and friends.

The patient had delusional infestation, explains Mayo Clinic dermatologist Mark Davis. Sufferers have an unshaking belief that pathogens or inanimate objects pollute their skin despite no medical evidence. Davis and colleagues report online April 4 in JAMA Dermatology that the disorder is not as rare as previously assumed.
In the first population-based study of the disorder’s prevalence, the researchers identified 35 cases from 1976 to 2010 reported in Minnesota’s Olmsted County. Based on the findings, the authors estimate 27 out of every 100,000 people in the United States have delusional infestation. Due to the county’s lack of diversity — the population of about 150,000 is predominantly white — the researchers used only the nationwide white population to estimate prevalence, so the result may not be representative of other populations.

Delusional infestation has been recognized for decades, albeit under different names. Patients insist they’ve been overtaken with creatures, such as insects, worms or parasites, or inanimate materials like fibers — or both.
“It’s like aliens have infested their skin,” Davis says. Some present bagged samples of the claimed culprits, which turn out to be such debris as sand, dander or, as in the case of the 50-year-old woman, bits of skin and scabs. When lab tests confirm no infestation, patients often seek another opinion rather than accept the findings. Some attempt risky self-treatments, such as bathing in kerosene or bleach, or tweezing or cutting the skin.

Schizophrenia, dementia or other psychiatric illnesses can trigger delusional infestation. So can such drugs as amphetamines or cocaine. But when no other illness is involved, patients often reject the notion that the issue is psychiatric and tend to refuse the antipsychotic medications that can help, Davis says.

As for the 50-year-old patient, upset with the doctors’ diagnosis, she no longer comes to the Mayo Clinic.

The search for mysterious dark matter underdogs steps up

Scientists playing peekaboo with dark matter have entered a new stage of the game.

For the first time, physicists are snooping on some of the likeliest hiding places for hypothetical subatomic particles called axions, which could make up dark matter. So far, no traces of the particles have been found, scientists with the Axion Dark Matter Experiment, ADMX, report April 9 in Physical Review Letters. But the researchers have now shown that their equipment is sensitive enough to begin searching in earnest.

An ethereal substance that makes up much of the matter in the universe, dark matter is necessary to explain the motions of stars within galaxies, among other observations. Scientists don’t know what dark matter is, but axions, extremely lightweight particles that may permeate the cosmos, are one of the major contenders.

Most past searches for dark matter particles have focused on a different candidate particle, known as a weakly interacting massive particle, or WIMP. But those efforts have so far come up empty (SN: 11/12/16, p. 14). Now, the spotlight is on the underdog axions.
“We have to make sure we are considering all the possibilities,” says theoretical physicist Matthew Buckley of Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., who was not involved with the new result. Axions, he says, are a plausible candidate for dark matter.

Axions would produce incredibly feeble signals, so pinning down evidence for the minuscule particles is no easy undertaking. But ADMX, located at the University of Washington in Seattle, is now up to the task, says ADMX member Aaron Chou, a physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill. Previous experiments have searched for axions, but those efforts weren’t sensitive enough to have a good chance of detecting the particles.

“It’s an experimental tour de force; it’s amazing work,” says theoretical physicist Helen Quinn of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., who was not involved with the research.

ADMX uses what is essentially a supersensitive radio, isolated from external sources of radio waves and cooled to temperatures near absolute zero (‒273.15° Celsius). Scientists use the apparatus to search for axions converting into radio waves in a strong magnetic field. If axions exist, they are expected to interact with photons, particles of light, from the magnetic field. In the process, they would produce radio waves at a frequency that depends on the axion’s mass, which is unknown. Like scanning the dial for a good oldies station, scientists will gradually change the frequency at which they search, trying to “listen in” on the axion signal.

While the new study came up empty, scientists scanned only a small range of frequencies, ruling out some possible masses for axions, from 2.66 to 2.81 microelectron volts. Those tiny masses are less than a billionth of an electron’s mass. In the future, ADMX will study other possible masses. “There’ll be a lot of excitement in the next few years,” Chou says. “A discovery could come at any time.”

The latest star map from the Gaia spacecraft plots 1.7 billion stars

Using the precise position and brightness of almost 1.7 billion stars, the Gaia spacecraft has created the most precise 3-D map of the Milky Way yet.

On April 25, the European Space Agency’s Gaia team released the spacecraft’s second batch of data, gathered from July 2014 to May 2016, used to create the map. The tally includes measurements of half a million quasars — the active black holes at the centers of distant galaxies — and 14,099 known solar system objects (mostly asteroids), observations of other nearby galaxies and the amount of dust in between Earth and 87 million stars (SN: 4/14/18, p. 27).The spacecraft also measures the distances and motions of stars by taking advantage of Earth’s motion around the sun, a technique called parallax. As Earth moves, stars appear to trace a small ellipse, whose size is related to the stars’ distance. Measuring the wavelengths of light the stars emit tells how fast they are moving toward or away from the sun. Combining Gaia’s measurements with earlier sky surveys let astronomers track stars’ motions.

Gaia launched in 2013, and released its first batch of data in September 2016 (SN: 10/15/16, p. 16). Those data included distances and motions of roughly 2 million stars; the new data up that number to 1.3 billion.

Knowing those distances will allow astronomers to decipher details about the Milky Way’s shape and history. Already the second data release suggests that the galaxy contains two distinct populations of stars that may have different origins. The stars’ chemistry and motions suggest that some could have originated in a different galaxy that the Milky Way cannibalized long ago.

“With Gaia, we can reconstruct the whole history of the Milky Way,” ESA science director Günther Hasinger said in a news conference April 25.

Adapting to life in the north may have been a real headache

In Finland, 88 percent of people have a genetic variation that increases their risk for migraines. But in people of Nigerian descent, that number drops to 5 percent.

Coincidence? Maybe. But a new study suggests that, thousands of years ago, that particular genetic mutation increased in frequency in northern populations because it somehow made people better suited to handle cold temperatures. That change may have had the unfortunate consequence of raising the prevalence of these severe headaches in certain populations, researchers report May 3 in PLOS Genetics.
The mutation is in a stretch of DNA that controls the behavior of TRPM8, a protein that responds to cold sensation. People with the older version of this DNA snippet seems less susceptible to migraines than people with the mutated version, previous studies have shown.

Using a global database of human genetic information, evolutionary geneticist Aida Andres and her colleagues showed a correlation between the frequency of the mutation in a given population and that population’s latitude. It’s rare in Africa, for example, but fairly common across Europe.

Differences in temperature may have led to this variation, though scientists still aren’t sure exactly how the mutation affects TRPM8. Perhaps the mutation conferred some benefit to early humans who moved north from Africa, says Andres, of University College London. The connection to migraine appears to be a side effect.

The researchers acknowledge, however, that the science of migraines isn’t so simple. One variant can’t fully explain why these headaches are more common in certain populations. Migraine risk is “very complex,” Andres says. “It’s highly heritable, but other things impact it, too.”
Plus, there’s still a lot to learn about TRPM8. “We don’t even really know how the entirely normal [protein], with no mutations, contributes to migraine,” says Greg Dussor, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Dallas who wasn’t part of the study.

Even the link between migraine and temperature is muddy: While cold temperatures can trigger migraines in some people, heat sets others off.