This Week in Science: 2/13 – 2/19


Bowie Funk, East Staff Writer

Ancient Burial Site Found in Chile (Archaeology and Ancient Cultures)

A new study co-authored by a George Washington University research professor examined the Inca Empire’s instruments of culture and control through a well-preserved article of clothing discovered in a centuries-old Chilean cemetery.

Archaeologists were digging along the Caleta Vítor Bay in northern Chile and found a well preserved unku, or tunic.  Judging by what we know about Incan society, this would have probably been worn by a man of relatively high status in the empire.  Unkus were usually what a lot of people wore if they had money, being standard attire, but many had large stylistic choices for its design.  Whoever wore this unku was also quite far away from the capital of Cusco, with the territory being absorbed into the Incan Empire in the 15th century.

“It represents a study of a rare example of an excavated Inca unku tunic, whose context and technical features are providing an unprecedented understanding of imperial Inca influence in the provinces,” Jeffrey Splitstoser, an assistant research professor of anthropology at GW and a co-author of the study, said.

Age Confusion in Ancient Reptiles (Paleontology and Fossils)

During the Triassic period, many different strange animals lived in the now extremely different world.  One of these animals was Aetosaurus ferratus, a terrestrial pseudosuchian (animals like dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and rauisuchians) in the family stagonolepididae.

To know about this study, you first have to know about the aetosaurs, a group of animals that lived during the Triassic period from 231 to 201 million years ago.  To our knowledge, they died out during the End Triassic Extinction, but the genus Aetosaurus itself died out beforehand, about 215 million years ago.  Aetosaurus was widespread across North America, from Greenland to Arizona, but A. ferratus was found in Germany in northern Italy and was described by paleontologist Oscar Fraas in 1877.  His fossil was examined last week by several paleontologists who mostly study reptiles.

The mystery of this fossil was that compared to some of its relatives, Aetosaurus was unusually small, measuring about 80 centimeters in length (a little below a meter).  To compare, some relatives, such as the Desmatosuchus, measured about three meters long.  To add to this, Aetosaurus also lacked the signature spikes that many of its cousins had.  For example, Desmatosuchus had ridges of armor and spines running down its sides with large spikes protruding from its shoulders.  This led the team of scientists to examine whether these individuals were either small adults or juveniles.

What the team concluded was that these were indeed juvenile specimens, examining their femurs and comparing that to adults of the same genus, since there are two other species.  Because of this, scientists are still unsure about what the adult growth stage of A. ferratus looks like.

Seven New Spider Species Discovered in Israel (Zoology and Ecology)

In a new study, conducted by researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University of Madison-Wisconsin, seven new species of funnel web spiders (agelenidae, tegenaria), unique to caves in Israel, were discovered. These species join a large number of invertebrates recently found in Israeli caves that are new to science.

Doctoral student Shlomi Aharon led the study under the guidance of Dr. Efrat Gavish-Regev, from the National Natural History Collections at Hebrew University and Professor Dror Hawlena from the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior.  They published their studies in the journal of Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

“In many cases, these adaptations will lead to the creation of new species, whose distribution is geographically limited in areas with unique ecological conditions, such as a single cave or a system of connected caves,” explains Shlomi Aharon. “In this study we sought to understand the evolutionary relationships between funnel web spiders (Agelenidae, Tegenaria) with normal eyes that are found at the entrance to the caves in Israel, and those that are deep in the cave and are pigmentless, eye-reduced and even completely blind.”

What is unique about these spiders is that five of the seven were completely blind, as many cave dwelling animals are, with only two of them having eyesight.  Even so, their sight is very reduced and other senses are likely stronger.  They also found that the spiders are most closely related to other cave spiders in the Mediterranean region of southern Europe by analyzing their DNA for comparisons.