Science briefs

April 20, 2014 

Neanderthals’ childhood not that bad

The traditional view is that Neanderthal childhood was difficult, short and dangerous. But a British research team from the University of York is suggesting that Neanderthal kids experienced strong emotional attachments with their immediate social group, used play to develop skills and had a significant role in their society.

The traditional perception of the toughness of Neanderthal childhood is based largely on biological evidence; the British archaeologists also studied cultural and social evidence to explore the experience of Neanderthal children.

In research published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, they found that Neanderthal childhood experience was subtly different from that of their modern human counterparts in that it had a greater focus on social relationships within their group. Investigation of Neanderthal burials suggests that children played a significant role in their society, particularly in symbolic expression. york.ac.uk

New ‘killer sponges’ found in deep sea

Killer sponges sound like creatures from a B-grade horror movie. In fact, they thrive in the lightless depths of the deep sea. Scientists discovered about 20 years ago that some sponges are carnivorous. Since then only seven carnivorous species have been found in all of the northeastern Pacific Ocean. A new paper authored by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute marine biologist Lonny Lundsten and two Canadian researchers describes four new species of carnivorous sponges living on the deep seafloor, from the Pacific Northwest to Baja California.

A far cry from your basic kitchen sponge, these animals look more like bare twigs or small shrubs covered with tiny hairs. But the hairs consist of tightly packed bundles of microscopic hooks that trap small animals such as shrimplike amphipods. Once an animal becomes trapped, it takes only a few hours for sponge cells to begin engulfing and digesting it. After several days, all that is left is an empty shell.

MBARI researchers videotaped the new sponges on the seafloor, then collected a few samples for taxonomic work and species-reference collections. Back in the lab, when they looked closely at the collected sponges, the scientists discovered, as Lundsten put it, “numerous crustacean prey in various states of decomposition.” See a video: http://bit.ly/1gCIjjj. mbari.org/news

‘Tilt-a-worlds’ could harbor life

A fluctuating tilt in a planet’s orbit does not rule out the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah’s Weber State University and NASA. In fact, sometimes it helps.

That’s because such “tilt-a-worlds,” as astronomers sometimes call them – turned from their orbital plane by the influence of companion planets – are less likely than fixed-spin planets to freeze over. Heat from their host star is more evenly distributed.

This happens only at the outer edge of a star’s habitable zone, the swath of space around it where rocky worlds could maintain liquid water at their surface, a necessary condition for life. Farther out, a “snowball state” of global ice becomes inevitable, and life impossible.

The findings, in the April issue of Astrobiology, have the effect of expanding that perceived habitable zone by 10 to 20 percent. washington.edu/news

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