Duke University anthropologist Doug Boyer’s office is more than 8,000 miles from the vault at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, where the fossil remains of a newly discovered human ancestor, Homo naledi, are under lock and key. But with a few clicks of his computer’s mouse, he can have models of any one of hundreds of naledi bone fragments delivered to his desk in minutes. Got a 3-D printer? You can also get these and other models – free of charge.
MorphoSource, which Boyer launched in 2013, is a free online database of digital scans of fossil bones that can be downloaded and printed in 3-D. A technique called micro-computed tomography uses X-rays to create a 3-D model of a fossil from a series of cross-sectional slices, using an amped-up version of the CT scanners found in hospitals and emergency rooms.
The technology makes it possible to capture details many times finer than a human hair, and peer inside specimens without breaking them open or even laying a finger on the fragile originals.
The online archive – www.morphosource.org – has uploaded close to 9,000 image files from more than 70 institutions around the world. The collection represents more than 500 species, including a 40,000-year-old Neanderthal skull from and bits of a swamp-dwelling dinosaur called Telmatosaurus.
Many fossil scans also come with lesson plans that teachers can use in the classroom.
Dogs, wolves may have magnetic compass
Cryptochromes are light-sensitive molecules in the eyes of some animals that are involved in the control of the body’s circadian rhythms. In birds, cryptochromes are also involved in the light-dependent magnetic orientation response based on the Earth’s magnetic field. It is used by many animal species for orientation and navigation.
Now researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt have also detected one type of cryptochrome in photoreceptors in several mammalian species. The molecule, cryptochrome 1, is present in dog-like carnivores such as dogs, wolves, bears, foxes and badgers, but is not found in cat-like carnivores such as cats, lions and tigers.
Observations of foxes and dogs indicate they can perceive Earth’s magnetic field. For example, foxes are more successful at catching mice when they pounce on them in a north-east direction.
Museum lecture: Hippos vs. humans
Though hippos are often cited as killing more people than any other animal in Africa, human-hippopotamus conflict has rarely been studied. Discover the real story of this conflict and why it is an important issue for hippo conservation, when the N.C. Zoo’s Corinne Kendall presents “Africa’s Greatest Killer? Understanding Human-Hippopotamus Conflict” at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Tickets to the lecture –$10; $5 for students with valid ID – are available at www.naturalsciences.org/extreme (click “Events”). It will be held in the WRAL 3D Theater of the Nature Exploration Center, 11 W. Jones St., Raleigh.
Saturday: Discovery Place comes to mind
In conjunction with the current “Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life” exhibit, Discovery Place investigates “Amazing Brains” from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. At The Stage on level 2, you can explore illusions and how your brain interprets them. Test your brain with fun, mind-oriented activities.
Brain care is also addressed: Volunteers from the Alzheimer’s Association will be in “Body Worlds” are to discuss the signs and symptoms of that illness and how you can reduce your risk.
Discovery Place is at 301 N. Tryon St., in uptown Charlotte. “Amazing Brain” activities are included with museum or “Body Worlds” admission. Details: www.discoveryplace.org/events.