122 Searching for Mars Fossils and Finding Lost Species

On This Week’s Show

  • Science News with Chris MacAlister

Science News with Chris MacAlister

Mars 2020 Rover is Going to a Place on Mars That’s Perfect for Preserving Fossils

Chris MacAlister

  • Life on Mars! Bloody life on Mars! People keep on going on about it. It may be living on Mars? Okay it isn’t. But it may be living in Mars! Can we have a look? No, not yet. But it may have been living on the surface in the past. Great, have we found any signs of it yet? We’ve found signs of water. Brilliant, any signs of past life? Nope, not yet.
  • It feels like we are so close to somewhat confidently saying that Mars had life on it at some point in the past despite the not unsubstantial fact that we have precisely zero evidence for the existence of life on Mars. Okay, maybe that is a tad unfair, but the level of evidence that we are dealing with here is akin to being somewhat confident about the tooth-fairy’s existence because that incisor under your pillow mysteriously vanished in the night, only to be replaced by a coin.
  • And it’s not just Mars, the moons Europa and Enceladus get people excited because they possibly could contain life, but we haven’t seen any direct signs of it yet; only data that doesn’t rule it out. Yet despite this, there are real life Astrobiologists. There is a whole field of science and scientists dedicated to stuff that may not even exist. No wonder mystics get their knickers all in a twist! Although to be fair, they are mystic, that may just be part of one of their rituals.
  • But thankfully we are dealing with scientists here so there is always hope. The quest to discover life within Mars is not only technically daunting but here is also the huge risk of interplanetary contamination to consider if we go looking for it. War of the World’s only worked as a story because the Martians were invading us. Imagine how much it would have sucked if we’d have taken the common cold to Mars and wiped them out on their home planet. Apologies for the spoiler but the book’s been out for 120 years, you’ve had your chance.
  • So NASA is now attempting to go the other way. Next year their Mars 2020 rover is going to the martian Jurassic coast. They are sending a rover to a site that should have been ideal for fossilisation, an area known as the Jezero Crater. Now we do have pretty good evidence that this area contained a lake some 3.5 billion years ago, and considering that we can find the fossils of primitive life on Earth from that long ago, fingers crossed that Mars could offer us similar.
  • This marks a new generation of NASA exploration with a real focus on Astrobiology. Here we could possibly answer the question of whether we are alone in the universe without compromising any life that may still be there.

 JPL NASA, Universe Today


Stunning Amber Discovery Just Pushed Evidence of Pollination Back 50 Million Years

Chris MacAlister

  • People often wonder what Charles Darwin would think if could see the world today and where the legacy of his work has taken us. Personally, I’d like to think that he would be more fascinated in the answers that we have discovered since his death. He’d be chuffed to bits to learn about the Morgan’s sphinx moth; the moth whose existence he predicted 40 years before it was discovered. He’d be tickled pink to learn where all the energy comes from to sustain the amount of fish that live on coral reefs (as we covered earlier in the year). And we’d probably have to sit him down before we introduce him to DNA and genetics. The poor man’s already died once, we wouldn’t want to finish him off again so quickly.
  • But there are still plenty of Darwin’s enigmas that we still have not been able to solve yet. Like the “abominable mystery” as he described it, of how flowering plants, or angiosperms, suddenly bloomed into the fossil record in the early cretaceous period. 
  • The first evidence we have for angiosperms is 130 million years ago. Around 112 to 94 million years ago, the angiosperms blossomed to a level of dominance that they retain today. This correlates with the rise of beetles as well so it has long been thought that the two co-evolved.
  • Now, this is where I wish that we had some creationist listeners. Who knows, maybe we do and if so, good for you and get a load of this. We’ve changed our mind! A new fossil, a beetle preserved in amber, has been discovered in Myanmar and published in PNAS. It completely discredits the picture of the co-evolution that I mentioned, so we’re scraping it, because that’s how science works.
  • The reason that we are scrapping it is because this preserved beetle, dubbed Angimordella burmitina, is 99 million years old and it has been caught in the act. Angimordella has been linked to the modern tumbling flower beetle family, the Mordellidae. Like it’s modern ancestors it has a “humpbacked body, deflexed head, pointed abdomen, and stout hind legs,” and most of the modern species feed on angiosperm pollen – which is how the researchers were able to recognise the mouthparts. And if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well then there’s still some residual uncertainty at play that needs to be addressed.
  • The smoking gun in this case was that the beetle was carrying 62 grains of angiosperm pollen at the time that it died. So not only is the beetle already perfectly evolved to transport pollen at this stage of history but analysis of the pollen also confirms that that was evolved to facilitate transportation via beetle. It pushes the earliest confirmed date of insect pollination back by 50 million years.

PNAS, ScienceAlert


In Other Science News this Week

Vietnamese Mouse Deer
Southern Institute of Ecology/Global Wildlife Conservation/Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research/NCNP

In Closing

This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team.

Our hosts today were Chris MacAlister, and me.

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us. 

And remember…follow the science!

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