This Halloween season we take a look back at some of the spookiest images and creepiest findings that we published in PLOS ONE in 2016. Creepy, weird, skin-crawling, or just plain gross – we hope you
Whether tromping alone or running in a pack, all prehistoric creatures got around somehow. Paleontologists can use fossilized bones to learn more about what dinosaurs ate, what they looked like, and even how they might have moved, but bones are … Continue reading
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2014 has been an exciting year for PLOS ONE. We saw the journal reach a milestone, publishing its 100,000th article. PLOS ONE also published thousands of new research articles this year, including some ground-breaking discoveries, as well as some unexpected … Continue reading
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As we take a look back at research articles published so far in PLOS ONE in 2014, we realize we have no shortage of images to terrify our readers, or at least sufficiently creep them out long enough to last through … Continue reading
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For many of us, moving to a new house means recruiting a couple good friends to help pack and haul boxes. After a day or two of work, everyone shares a pizza while resting tired muscles at the new home. But 3000 years ago, enjoying a post-move meal may have required a little more planning. Early settlers of remote tropical islands in the Pacific had to bring along all resources needed for survival, including food, from their original homes overseas.
The Lapita people were early settlers of islands in the Pacific, called Remote Oceania (pictured below). When these people, whose culture and biology links to Southeast Asian islands, first decided to sail to the island Vanuatu, they brought domestic plants and animals—or what you might call a ‘transported landscape’—that allowed them to settle this previously uninhabited, less biodiverse (and less resource-available) area. However, the extent to which these settlers and their domestic animals relied on the transported landscape at Vanuatu during the initial settlement period, as opposed to relying on the native flora and fauna, remains uncertain.
To better understand the diet and lives of the Lapita people on Vanuatu, archaeologist authors of a study in PLOS ONE analyzed the stable carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur isotopes from the bones of ~ 50 adults excavated from the Lapita cemetery on Efate Island, Vanuatu.
Why look at isotopes in human remains? Depending on what we eat, we consume varying amounts of different elements, and these are ultimately deposited in our bones in ratios that can provide a sort of “dietary signature”; in this way, the authors can investigate the types of plants, animals, and fish that these early people ate.
For instance, plants incorporate nitrogen into their tissue as part of their life cycle, and as animals eat plants and other animals, nitrogen isotopes accumulate. The presence of these different ratios of elements may indicate whether a human or animal ate plants, animals, or both. Carbon ratios for instance differ between land and water organisms, and sulfur ratios also vary depending on whether they derive from water or land, where water organisms generally have higher sulfur values in comparison to land organisms.
Scientists used the information gained about the isotopes and compared it to a comprehensive analysis of stable isotopes from the settlers’ potential food sources, including modern and ancient plants and animals. They found that early Lapita inhabitants of Vanuatu may have foraged for food rather than relying on horticulture during the early stages of colonization. They likely grew and consumed food from the ‘transported landscape’ in the new soil, but appear to have relied more heavily on a mixture of reef fish, marine turtles, fruit bats, and domestic land animals.
The authors indicate that the dietary analysis may also provide insight into the culture of these settlers. For one, males displayed significantly higher nitrogen levels compared to females, which indicates greater access to meat. This difference in food distribution may support the premise that Lapita societies were ranked in some way, or may suggest dietary differences associated with labor specialization. Additionally, the scientists analyzed the isotopes in ancient pig and chicken bones and found that carbon levels in the settlers’ domestic animals imply a diet of primarily plants; however, their nitrogen levels indicate that they may have roamed outside of kept pastures, eating foods such as insects or human fecal matter. This may have allowed the Lapita to allocate limited food resources to humans, rather than domestic animals.
Thousands of years later, the adage, “you are what you eat” or rather, “you were what you ate” still applies. As the Lapita people have shown us, whether we forage for food, grow all our vegetables, or order takeout more than we would like to admit, our bones may reveal clues about our individual lives and collective societies long after we are gone.
Citation: Kinaston R, Buckley H, Valentin F, Bedford S, Spriggs M, et al. (2014) Lapita Diet in Remote Oceania: New Stable Isotope Evidence from the 3000-Year-Old Teouma Site, Efate Island, Vanuatu. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90376. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090376
Image 1: Efate, Vanuatu by Phillip Capper
Image 2: Figure 1
Whether you love them or hate them, snakes have long captivated our interest and imagination. They’ve spurred countless stories and fears, some of which may have even affected the course of human evolutionary history. We must admit, there is something a little other-worldly about their legless bodies, willingness to swallow and digest animals much bigger than them, and fangs and potentially fatal (or therapeutic?) venomous bites.
Not least of all, their scaly skin is quite mesmerizing and often laden with intricate and beautifully geometric patterns just perfect for camouflaging, regardless of whether they live high up in a tree, deep in murky waters, or on the forest floor. Snakeskin was the focus of recent research by the authors of this PLOS ONE study who sought to determine whether it has any special properties less obvious to the naked eye.
Please meet the West African Gaboon viper, Bitis gabonica rhinoceros (pictured above). Native to the rainforests and woodlands of West Africa, these large, white-brown-and-black snakes can be identified by large nasal horns and a single black triangle beneath each eye—nevermind that, because they also lay claim to titles for the longest fangs and most venom volume produced per bite. The pattern of their skin is intricate and excellent for camouflage, and the black sections have a particularly velvety appearance. These eye-catching characteristics intrigued zoology and biomechanics researchers from Germany, who decided to take a closer look.
In a previously published paper, the authors analyzed the Gaboon viper’s skin surface texture by using scanning electron microscopy (SEM), as well as its optical abilities by shining light on the snakeskin in different ways to see how it’s reflected, scattered, or transmitted. They found that only the black sections contained leaf-like microstructures streaked with what they call “nanoridges” on the snake scales, a pattern that has not been observed before on snakeskin. What’s more, the black skin reflects less than 11% of light shone on it—a lot less than other snakes—regardless of the angle of light applied. The authors concluded from the previous study that both of these factors may contribute to the viper’s velvet-like, ultra-black skin appearance.
In their most recent PLOS ONE paper titled “Non-Contaminating Camouflage: Multifunctional Skin Microornamentation in the West African Gaboon Viper (Bitis rhinoceros),” the authors conducted wettability and contamination tests in hopes of further characterizing the viper skin’s properties, particularly when comparing the pale and black regions.
To test the wettability of the viper scales, the authors sprayed droplets of water, an iodide-containing compound (diiodomethane), and ethylene glycol on the different scale types shown above, on both a live and dead snake, and then measured the contact angle—the angle at which a liquid droplet meets a solid surface. This angle lets us know how water-friendly a surface is; in other words, the higher the contact angle, the less water-friendly the surface.
As you can see in the graph above, the contact angle was different depending on the liquid applied and the type of scale; in particular, the contact angle on the black scales was significantly higher than the others, in a category that the authors refer to as “outstanding superhydrophobicity,” or really, really, really water-repelling. This type of water-repelling has been seen in geckos, but not snakes.
The authors then took some of the snake carcass and dusted it with a sticky powder in a contamination chamber, after which they generated a fog for 30 minutes and took pictures.
After 30 minutes of fogging, the black areas were mostly free of the dusting powder, while the pale areas were still completely covered with dust. The powder itself was also water-repelling, and so the authors showed that despite this, the powder rolled off with the water rather than sticking to the black areas of snake skin. Therefore, as suggested by the authors, this could be a rather remarkable self-cleaning ability. The authors suspect that the “nanoridges,” or ridges arranged in parallel in the black regions, may allow liquid runoff better than on the paler areas of the snake.
How does this texture variation help the snake, you ask? The authors posit that all these properties basically contribute to a better form of camouflage. If the snake were completely covered in one color, it may stand out against a background of mixed colors (or “disruptive coloration”), like that of a forest floor. If the black regions have fairly different properties from the paler regions, mud, water, or other substances would rub off in these areas and continue to provide the light-dark color contrast and variation in light reflectivity that helps the snake do what it does best: slither around and blend in unnoticed.
Spinner M, Kovalev A, Gorb SN, Westhoff G (2013) Snake velvet black: Hierarchical micro- and nanostructure enhances dark colouration in Bitis rhinoceros. Scientific Reports 3: 1846. doi:10.1038/srep01846
Spinner M, Gorb SN, Balmert A, Bleckmann H, Westhoff G (2014) Non-Contaminating Camouflage: Multifunctional Skin Microornamentation in the West African Gaboon Viper (Bitis rhinoceros). PLoS ONE 9(3): e91087. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091087
First image, public domain with credit to TimVickers
Remaining images from the PLOS ONE paper
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Sharks live in the vast, deep, and dark ocean, and studying these large fish in this environment can be difficult. We may have sharks ‘tweeting’ their location, but we still know relatively little about them. Sharks have been on the planet for over 400 million years and today, there are over 400 species of sharks, but how long do they live, and how do they move? Two recent studies published in in PLOS ONE have addressed some of these basic questions for two very different species of sharks: great whites and megamouths.
The authors of the first study looked at the lifespan of the great white shark. Normally, a shark’s age is estimated by counting growth bands in their vertebrae (image 1), not unlike counting rings inside a tree trunk. But unfortunately, these bands can be difficult to differentiate in great whites, so the researchers dated the radiocarbon that they found in them. You might wonder where this carbon-14 (14C) came from, but believe it or not, radiocarbon was deposited in their vertebrae when thermonuclear bombs were detonated in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean during the ‘50s and ’60s. These bands therefore provide age information. Based on the ages of the sharks in the study, the researchers suggest that great whites may live much longer than previously thought. Some male great whites may even live to be over 70 years old, and this may qualify them as one of the longest-living shark species. While these new estimates are impressive, they may also help scientists understand how threats to these long-living sharks may impact the shark population.
A second shark study analyzed the structure of a megamouth shark’s pectoral fin (image 2) to understand and predict their motion through the water. Discovered in 1976, the megamouth is one of the rarest sharks in the world, and little is known about how they move through the water. We do know that the megamouth lives deep in the ocean and is a filter feeder, moving at very slow speeds to filter out a meal with its large mouth. But swimming slowly in the water is difficult in a similar way flying slowly in an airplane is difficult. Sharks need speed to control lift and movement.
To better understand the megamouth’s slow movement, the researchers measured the cartilage, skin histology, and skeletal structure of the pectoral fins of one female and one male megamouth shark, caught accidentally and preserved for research. The researchers found that the megamouth’s skin was highly elastic, and its cartilage was made of more ‘segments’ than any other known shark, which may provide added flexibility compared to other species. The authors also suggest that the joint structure (image 3) of the pectoral fin may allow forward and backward rotation, motions that are largely restricted in most sharks. The authors suggest that this flexibility and mobility of the pectoral fin may be specialized for controlling body posture and depth at slow swimming speeds. This is in contrast to the fins of fast-swimming sharks that are generally stiff and immobile.
In addition to the difficulties in exploring deep, dark seas, small sample sizes present challenges for many shark studies, including those described here. But whether studying the infamous great white shark or one of the rare megamouths, both contribute to a growing body of knowledge of these elusive fish.
Tomita T, Tanaka S, Sato K, Nakaya K (2014) Pectoral Fin of the Megamouth Shark: Skeletal and Muscular Systems, Skin Histology, and Functional Morphology. PLoS ONE 9(1): e86205. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086205
Rock lizards, pigment producing fungus, eagle rays, ant garden parasites, and Antarctic sea anemones: new species are discovered all the time and there are likely still millions that we simply haven’t yet discovered or assessed. Species are identified by researchers using a range of criteria including DNA, appearance, and habitat. PLOS ONE typically publishes several new species articles every month, and below we are pleased to help introduce five that were discovered in 2013.
Thought previously to consist of only three species, this group of lizards are now seven distinct species. They appear very similar to one another, making it difficult to tell which characteristics define different species, and which are just variations present in the same species. They also have a variety of habitats, from trees to rocky outcrops, and the genus is widespread. Iranian, German, and Portuguese scientists used genetic variation and habitat to help describe four new species of Iranian rock lizards, Darevskia caspica, D. Kamii, D. kopetdaghica, and D. schaekeli. These techniques, in addition to analysis of the the lizards’ physical features, as in the photo of the four new species’ heads at the top of this page, helped to identify them definitively.
Found in soil, indoor environments, and fruit, Talaromyces atroroseus produces a red pigment that might be good for manufacturing purposes, especially in food. Some other species of this type of fungus produce red pigments, but they are not always as useful because they can also produce toxins. T. atroroseus produces a stable red pigment with no known toxins, making it safer for human use, according to the Dutch and Danish researchers who identified it.
Fish, like rays and sharks, are at high risk for extinction as a group, but as rare as they are, they can be plentiful enough in some locations to make them undesirable to locals. The discovery of the Naru eagle ray, Aetobatus narutobiei, splits a previously defined species, A. flagellum, that, due to its shellfish-eating habits, is considered a pest and culled in southern Japan. The discovery by Australian and Japanese scientists that this species is actually two species prompted the authors to encourage a reassessment of the conservation status of the rays.
In the Brazilian rainforest of Minas Gerais, leafcutter ants cultivate fungus, their primary source of food, on harvested leaf clippings. But scientists from Brazil, United Kingdom, and The Netherlands have discovered that their food source is threatened by four newly identified mycoparasites, Escovopsis lentecrescens, E. microspora, E. moellieri, and Escovopsioides nivea. The parasites grow like weeds in the ants’ gardens, crowding out more desirable fungus used for food. Unfortunately for the ants, researchers expect there are many similar unidentified species yet to be discovered.
Living on the previously undocumented ecosystem of the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, American researchers discovered the first species of sea anemone known to live in ice, Edwardsiella andrillae. Fields of anemone were discovered using a scientist-driven remote-controlled submersible. The anemone burrows and lives within the ice and dangles a tentacle into the water beneath, almost as if it is dipping a toe in the water to test the chilly temperature.
Look here to read more about new species.
Ahmadzadeh F, Flecks M, Carretero MA, Mozaffari O, Böhme W, et al. (2013) Cryptic Speciation Patterns in Iranian Rock Lizards Uncovered by Integrative Taxonomy. PLoS ONE 8(12): e80563. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080563
Frisvad JC, Yilmaz N, Thrane U, Rasmussen KB, Houbraken J, et al. (2013)Talaromyces atroroseus, a New Species Efficiently Producing Industrially Relevant Red Pigments. PLoS ONE 8(12): e84102. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084102
White WT, Furumitsu K, Yamaguchi A (2013) A New Species of Eagle RayAetobatus narutobiei from the Northwest Pacific: An Example of the Critical Role Taxonomy Plays in Fisheries and Ecological Sciences. PLoS ONE 8(12): e83785. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083785
Augustin JO, Groenewald JZ, Nascimento RJ, Mizubuti ESG, Barreto RW, et al. (2013) Yet More “Weeds” in the Garden: Fungal Novelties from Nests of Leaf-Cutting Ants. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82265. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082265
Daly M, Rack F, Zook R (2013) Edwardsiella andrillae, a New Species of Sea Anemone from Antarctic Ice. PLoS ONE 8(12): e83476. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083476
Figures are all from their respective articles.