We’re well into the 19th year of the 21st century and we still have people who don’t understand the reality of climate change, and the benefit of vaccines. Not to be outdone by the aforementioned, the Flat Earth Society is alive and well. Better yet, they’re planning a cruise to the edge of the Earth.
On This Week’s Show
- Huge fossil discovery made in China
- Flat Earthers go on a cruise
- Sun bears mimic one another’s facial expressions
- Good news for sufferers of postpartum depression
Science News with Chris MacAlister and Sophie McManus
Huge fossil discovery made in China
Let me take you back in time. Back some 500 million years ago to a period called the Cambrian. Of all the Earth’s eras, the Cambrian is one of the better know, mainly because it was the setting for something called the Cambrian explosion. It refers to an explosion in the diversity of life. All of the major branches of animal life emerged in this period of history. The fundamental structures for complex life were forged at this time and they haven’t really changed ever since.
So it’s clear to see why any fossils from this period are invaluable to paleontologists trying to learn about how these structures developed. So far our best source of Cambrian fossils has been the Burgess Shale in Canada but there may be a new challenger coming on to the scene.
Paleontologist Xingliang Zhang was experienced in working on the Burgess Shale and when he was on an expedition of Cambrian rock layers in Qingjiang, China, he noticed some riverside rocks that he immediately recognised were exactly the kind that you may find fossils in. Cracked some open, and the rest is history.
This happened in 2007 but last week they published that almost 4,500 fossils have been analysed, and that’s of the over 20,000 that they discovered. What’s more is that there is very little crossover between the species that are being found here versus those present in the Burgess Shale. In particular, there lots of fossilised Jellyfish and comb jellies which could help answer questions like whether they, or sponges, are the more primitive for of life.
In paleontology, excavation is always a bit of a lottery and these guys have just hit the jackpot!
Flat earther group plans a cruise
Some people believe that the Earth is flat. They are members of the FES and have planned a trip to the ‘ice wall’ that they say holds back the oceans, so they don’t, you know, slop over the edge of the Earth. The cruise will go ahead in 2020.
I was curious and looked on FES website. ‘Join us this November to learn why we dissent from the spinning heliocentric theory of cosmology. At the 2019 Flat Earth International Conference, we will uncover and debunk pseudo-scientific “facts” while presenting the true evidence which shockingly points to our existence on a flat, stationary plane.’ The writers of the Flat Earth Society website say that they grew up with a ‘heliocentric round’ vision of the world but came to the shocking realisation that…it’s flat. The leading flat-earther theory holds that Earth is a disc with the Arctic Circle in the center and Antarctica, a 150-foot-tall wall of ice, around the rim. NASA employees, they say, guard this ice wall to prevent people from climbing over and falling off the disc.
They believe NASA is lying and all the information we have about the round Earth is a conspiracy theory. God knows WHY anyone would start such a theory, but there you go. Also, the ancient Greeks actually showed the Earth is round 2000 years ago. Plus the GPS technology that the cruise will presumably use only works because the planet is NOT flat.
Interestingly, the soc president, Daniel Shenton, does agree that the Earth (round or otherwise) is being subjected to man-made climate change. Also agree with evolutionary theory. They just really, really think the world is a disc, not a marble.
Sun bears copy each others’ facial expressions
I’m going to have to issue a cute alert here because this story is adorable.
It’s about sun bears, which are the smallest of the true bears. They’re not small, about 5 foot in length, but they are the smallest bear. So any other type of small bear that you may be thinking about; koala, red panda, teddy, I’m sorry, they’re not really bears. If you aren’t familiar with sun bears then they look very beary, they’re mostly back but they have a distinctive pale collar on their upper chest as well as a pale muzzle.
They are adorable animals, but what makes them even more so is this new discovery that they mimic the facial expressions of other bears when they play with them.
A team from Portsmouth played their cards right and got to go to Malaysia to study these bears in a conservation centre. They found that, during play, when one bear opened its mouth, the other one would too within 1 second of observing it.
What’s really interesting about this is that it is not something that we see often. Humans do it all the time, as do great apes, which is no great surprise. Other primates can do but to a lesser degree, as can dogs. Clearly dogs are a slightly different case as they’ve been domesticated for some 15,000 years.
Dogs and bears are quite closely related but what makes this so interesting is that Sun bears are largely solitary but we associate behaviours like this with more socially complex animals. So the question now becomes; do we only tend to see this behaviour in social animals because they are the ones that do it, or because they are the only ones where we look for it?
FDA approves first drug for postpartum depression
Great news, with a few caveats. The US FDA has approved a drug (brexanolone, marketed as Zulresso) specifically for postnatal depression. This is a very common complication of pregnancy and can be debilitating. In extreme cases, women can feel suicidal and attempt self-harm. There isn’t necessarily a predictor for who will get PND. Even if the pregnancy and labour were relatively straightforward someone can still suffer. Current options – anti-depressants – take two or three weeks to kick in, a LONG time for someone with a new baby, whereas the new drug should be effective within 48 hours.
The downside is it has to be infused continually over 60 hours, during which a new mother must remain in a certified medical center, under supervision should she get dizzy or faint, as several patients did in clinical trials. Also, I imagine it will be expensive (won’t touch on US health insurance here) – for example, I don’t imagine the NICE/NHS in the UK will pay for it, or at least not for a while.
A bit more about the drug…Brexanolone is a synthetic form of allopregnanolone, a hormone produced by progesterone in the brain that may help ease depression and anxiety by dampening neural activity – this is according to Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, director of the perinatal psychiatry program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the principal investigator for the brexanolone studies.
The research presented to the F.D.A. consisted of three clinical trials that were led by Dr. Meltzer-Brody and funded by Sage Therapeutics, which was also involved in the study design, data analysis, interpretation and writing of the reports. The women in the trials had given birth within six months of getting the infusion and were experiencing severe or moderate depression that had started in the third trimester of pregnancy or within four weeks after childbirth. Participants could not have psychosis or bipolar disorder. Their symptoms could include suicidal thoughts but not a recent suicide attempt. They were asked to stop breast-feeding during the trial.
So the major potential issue here seems to be the 60-hours infusion aspect of treatment – very expensive and probably not possible for a lot of hospitals and their new mothers. However, a pill, which could be taken at home, is showing promise in trials, so perhaps that will also be available in a couple of years.
The latest science news in quiz form. Can you beat the Blue Streak team?
That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.
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This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.
Our hosts today were Chris MacAlister, and Sophie McManus.
I’m JD Goodwin.
Thank you for joining us.
And remember…follow the science!