This Week in Science: 2/5 – 2/11


Bowie Funk, East Staff

Webb Telescope Captures Stars Forming

Last week, the James Webb telescope captured something amazing: the formation of stars.  Now, for the first time ever, scientists can witness the formation of stars. “The galaxy clusters we examined are so massive that they bend light rays passing through their center, as predicted by Einstein in 1915. And this in turn produces a kind of magnifying glass effect: the images of background galaxies are magnified,” explains Adélaïde Claeyssens of Stockholm University, one of the lead authors of the study.

The magnifying glass effect, together with the resolution of the James Webb Space Telescope, made it possible for the researchers to detect stellar clumps, very compact galaxy structures.  This allows Webb to safely observe stars forming in their earliest stages, with the oldest structure being nearly 13 billion years old.

Severe Drought May Have Ended the Hittite Empire

A study published last week suggests that a severe drought may have ended the Hittite Empire nearly 3,000 years ago.  It was revealed by stunts in preserved trees from the days of the Hittites.

To understand their downfall, we must know who the Hittites actually were.  Anatolia is a generic term given to the Asian part of modern day Turkey and Syria, home to the once thriving Hittite Empire.  They arose at about 1650 BCE and collapsed around 1200 BCE, with no records being found of rulers after Suppiluliuma II, who came to rule in 1207 BCE.

The capital Hattusa, in Turkey’s Çorum province in central Anatolia, was the primary home of the gods of the Hittite world. “It was both a spiritual and political center,” says Sturt Manning, an archaeologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a co-author of the paper. But around 1200 BC, Hattusa was abandoned and emptied of its people, and was later burnt down.

The authors examined historical records of juniper trees that grew during the period from 1775 BC to 748 BC at the site of Gordion in central Anatolia, 230 kilometers west of Hattusa, which included 23 samples of 18 different trees.  The researchers examined the trees and found that there was stunted growth right around 1200 BCE, a key indicator of a drought.  To see the frequency of droughts in the region, researchers from the meteorological station nearest to Gordian did a test between 1929 and 2009, and calculated that on average, one every fifteen years, there would only be 250 millimeters of rain, less than the minimum to grow food like barley.

Proto-Coffee Beans and Potatoes Survived a Mass Extinction

Last week, paleontologists in California discovered a strange fruit fossil that is thought to be the ancestor of coffee beans and potatoes.  These fossils date back to the Upper Cretaceous period, nearly 80 million years ago and pushes the evolution of these sorts of crops back before the dinosaurs died.

Brian Atkinson, assistant professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas and curator of paleobotany at the KU Biodiversity Institute, recently published a study of the fossil plant, named Palaeophytocrene (PAE-lee-oe-FIE-toe-krane) chicoensis (KEE-koe-EHN-sihs), in the peer-reviewed journal “Nature Plants”.

“This fossil tells us a really diverse group of flowering plants evolved prior to our original understanding,” Atkinson said. “The fossil belongs to a group of lianas, which are woody vines that add structural complexity to rainforests. It shows us this group of flowering plants appeared super early in the fossil record. There’d been some hypotheses that they were around in the Cretaceous period — but no good clear evidence. This is a great indicator that structurally complex, modern-type rainforests may have been around as early as 80 million years ago.” After placing the fossil plant within the genus Palaeophytocrene, Atkinson named the species chicoensis after the Chico Formation where it was found.

Giant Ancient Penguins Found in New Zealand

Although the tropical and mountainous country of New Zealand might not be the first place you’d expect penguins to be, researchers at the University of Cambridge reported two new species of gargantuan penguin species last Thursday.  They are currently named Kumimanu (koo-mee-MAH-noo) fordycei (fore-DIE-say), Petradyptes (PEHT-rah-DIHP-tehs) stonehousei (stone-HOUS-ee).

The team named the new species Kumimanu fordycei in honor of Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce, Professor Emeritus at the University of Otago. “Ewan Fordyce is a legend in our field, but also one of the most generous mentors I have ever known,” said first author Dr. Daniel Ksepka from the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. “Without Ewan’s field program, we wouldn’t even know that many iconic fossil species existed, so it is only right he have his own penguin namesake.” Paleontologists and zoologists often name new species after influential people in their field.

Other specimens were found and were named Petradyptes stonehousei after Dr. Bernard Stonehouse (1926–2014), the first person to observe the full breeding cycle of the emperor penguin, a major milestone in penguin biology.  The genus name means “stone diver”, which refers to the way that the fossils were preserved.