How mammals took over the world

In my opinion, the most satisfying science documentary TV series ever made was a 1970s British production called Connections. Hosted by impish historian James Burke, wearing bell-bottoms and thick-framed tortoiseshell glasses, each episode revealed how one small innovation from earlier human civilizations led to another and then another and another, culminating in the invention of some ultramodern (for the 1970s) technology.

Watching these pieces of the past come together was deeply gratifying, if not a little dizzying. The present is so familiar that it feels inevitable. But it was striking to see modern civilization, even modern humans, in context, to recognize how all that we are now actually hinges on countless moments of invention, improvement and experimentation in the deep past.

I had a similar reaction to The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, paleontologist Steve Brusatte’s sweeping history of the animals that have, for the moment, inherited the Earth. Moving generally forward in time, the book describes how the mammalian line progressively acquired a range of features that have come to define what a mammal is.

Some of the moments of evolutionary invention that led to what we now think of as a mammal are remarkably subtle. There’s the hard roof of the mouth that created a dedicated airway to the lungs, allowing mammal ancestors to eat and breathe at the same time. There’s the change from a spine that bends from left to right (which produces the classically reptilian side-to-side gait) to one that enables bending up and down, which ultimately allowed mammals to take in more oxygen as they moved, helping them run faster. And there’s the variety of tooth shapes — incisors, canines, premolars and molars — that made it possible for mammals to eat many kinds of food. A reptile, by contrast, tends to have just one tooth type.

Some mammalian characteristics are very familiar: milk production, warm-bloodedness, hair. But there’s one less–well-known evolutionary advance that was in its humble way quite profound, setting “us apart from amphibians, reptiles, and birds,” Brusatte writes. It’s a joint in the jaw that makes chewing possible (SN: 8/17/19, p. 8). The ability to chew was “a major evolutionary turning point,” he writes. “It triggered a domino chain of changes to mammalian feeding, intelligence, and reproduction.”
Brusatte also describes a second small, curious adaptation: the transformation of two bones in the reptile jaw, which migrated to the inner ear to become two members of a famous trio, the hammer and anvil (the third is the stirrup). These inner ear bones are the basis for yet another key mammalian feature: the ability to hear a wide range of frequencies, particularly in the upper register (SN Online: 12/6/19).

The story of the Age of Mammals is often told as the flip side to the dinosaurs’ demise. But the fossil record reveals that mammals were hardly newcomers: They arose around the same time as the dinosaurs, over 200 million years ago. Even during the Age of Dinosaurs, “in the smaller and hidden niches, it was already the Age of Mammals,” Brusatte writes. “Mammals were better than the dinosaurs at being small.”

Within just a few hundred thousand years of the asteroid impact that wiped out all nonbird dinos some 66 million years ago, mammals moved in to fill the vacancy, rapidly getting a lot bigger, ballooning from, say, mouse-sized to beaver-sized (SN: 12/7/19, p. 32). Pretty soon, they got a lot smarter too. In a geologic blink — a scant 10 million years — mammals’ brains caught up with their brawn, and then the Age of Mammals was off to the races (SN: 5/7/22 & 5/21/22, p. 18).

Paleontology narratives often require refocusing a story’s lens in a way that can be jarring, zooming out to encompass Earth-wide climate cataclysms and mass extinctions and then in again to describe tiny bones and obscure species. Brusatte, though, is a nimble storyteller and he’s chosen an engrossing story to tell.

As a science writer, I often find myself focusing on minute advances, studying tiny threads. So it’s satisfying to sit back and admire the full tapestry as presented in The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. Reading this book reminded me what I most enjoy about geology, paleontology and the evolution of life on Earth: This planet has got some epic stories.

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How neutrinos could ensure a submarine’s nuclear fuel isn’t weaponized

Nuclear submarines might provide rogue nations with a path to nuclear weapons. But neutrinos could help reveal attempts to go from boats to bombs.

Neutrinos, lightweight subatomic particles that are released from the reactors that power nuclear subs, could expose the alteration or removal of the nuclear fuel for nefarious purposes, physicists report in a paper accepted in Physical Review Letters. Crucially, this monitoring could be done remotely, while a submarine is in a port with its reactor shut off.
To ensure that countries without nuclear weapons don’t develop them, international inspectors monitor the use of many types of nuclear technology around the world. Nuclear submarines are particularly worrisome. Many use highly enriched uranium, a potent type of fuel that can be weaponized relatively easily. But submarines are protected from monitoring by a loophole. Unlike nuclear power plants, nuclear submarines are used for secretive military purposes, so physical inspections could infringe on a country’s national security.

“Neutrino-based methods can considerably reduce the intrusiveness by making measurements at a distance, without having to physically access the vessel,” says nuclear scientist Igor Jovanovic of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who was not involved with the research.

These particles — specifically their antimatter variety, antineutrinos — stream in droves from operating nuclear reactors. The particles interact feebly with other matter, allowing them to pass through solid material, including a submarine hull. So a neutrino detector placed near a submarine could reveal what’s going on inside, say neutrino physicists Bernadette Cogswell and Patrick Huber of the Center for Neutrino Physics at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Scientists have previously suggested using neutrinos to detect other nuclear misdeeds, such as nuclear weapons tests (SN: 8/20/18).

But submarines, often on the move, are hard to monitor with stationary instruments. When the vessels do sit in port, their nuclear reactors may be turned off. So the researchers came up with a solution: They’d look at neutrinos produced by the decays of varieties of chemical elements, or isotopes, that remain after a reactor shuts down. A detector located in the water about 5 meters underneath the sub’s reactor could measure neutrinos produced in decays of certain cerium and ruthenium isotopes. Those measurements would reveal if nuclear material had been removed or swapped out.

This method of monitoring a reactor that’s off is “very clever,” says physicist Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California.

But the idea would still require buy-in from each country to agree to detectors in submarine berths. “Something like this would be so much better if it wouldn’t require cooperation,” says physicist Giorgio Gratta of Stanford University.

Submarine monitoring may become more pressing in the near future. So far, all countries that have nuclear submarines already possess nuclear weapons, so the issue was hypothetical. But that’s set to change. The United States and the United Kingdom, two nuclear weapons states, announced last September that they are entering into a cooperative security agreement with Australia and will help the country, a non-nuclear weapons state, acquire nuclear submarines.

There’s little suspicion that Australia would use these submarines as a cover for a nuclear weapons program. But “you still have to worry about the precedent that that sets,” Cogswell says. So, she says, monitoring nuclear submarines is newly important. “The question was how the heck to do that.”

Growing wildfire threats loom over the birthplace of the atomic bomb

There are things I will always remember from my time in New Mexico. The way the bark of towering ponderosa pines smells of vanilla when you lean in close. Sweeping vistas, from forested mountaintops to the Rio Grande Valley, that embellish even the most mundane shopping trip. The trepidation that comes with the tendrils of smoke rising over nearby canyons and ridges during the dry, wildfire-prone summer months.

There were no major wildfires near Los Alamos National Laboratory during the year and a half that I worked in public communications there and lived just across Los Alamos Canyon from the lab. I’m in Maryland now, and social media this year has brought me images and video clips of the wildfires that have been devastating parts of New Mexico, including the Cerro Pelado fire in the Jemez Mountains just west of the lab.
Wherever they pop up, wildfires can ravage the land, destroy property and displace residents by the tens of thousands. The Cerro Pelado fire is small compared with others raging east of Santa Fe — it grew only to the size of Washington, D.C. The fire, which started mysteriously on April 22, is now mostly contained. But at one point it came within 5.6 kilometers of the lab, seriously threatening the place that’s responsible for creating and maintaining key portions of fusion bombs in our nation’s nuclear arsenal.

That close call may be just a hint of growing fire risks to come for the weapons lab as the Southwest suffers in the grip of an epic drought made worse by human-caused climate change (SN: 4/16/20). May and June typically mark the start of the state’s wildfire season. This year, fires erupted in April and were amplified by a string of warm, dry and windy days. The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires east of Santa Fe have merged to become the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history.

Los Alamos National Lab is in northern New Mexico, about 56 kilometers northwest of Santa Fe. The lab’s primary efforts revolve around nuclear weapons, accounting for 71 percent of its $3.9 billion budget, according the lab’s fiscal year 2021 numbers. The budget covers a ramp-up in production of hollow plutonium spheres, known as “pits” because they are the cores of nuclear bombs, to 30 per year beginning in 2026. That’s triple the lab’s current capability of 10 pits per year. The site is also home to radioactive waste and debris that has been a consequence of weapons production since the first atomic bomb was built in Los Alamos in the early 1940s (SN: 8/6/20).

What is the danger due to fire approaching the lab’s nuclear material and waste? According to literature that Peter Hyde, a spokesperson for the lab, sent to me to ease my concern, not much.

Over the last 3½ years, the lab has removed 3,500 tons of trees and other potential wildfire fuel from the sprawling, 93-square-kilometer complex. Lab facilities, a lab pamphlet says, “are designed and operated to protect the materials that are inside, and radiological and other potentially hazardous materials are stored in containers that are engineered and tested to withstand extreme environments, including heat from fire.”

What’s more, most of roughly 20,000 drums full of nuclear waste that were stored under tents on the lab’s grounds have been removed. They were a cause for anxiety during the last major fire to threaten the lab in 2011. According to the most recent numbers on the project’s website, all but 3,812 of those drums have been shipped off to be stored 655 meters underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.

But there’s still 3,500 cubic meters of nuclear waste in the storage area, according to a March 2022 DOE strategic planning document for Los Alamos. That’s enough to fill 17,000 55-gallon drums. So potentially disastrous quantities of relatively exposed nuclear waste remain at the lab — a single drum from the lab site that exploded after transport to Carlsbad in 2014 resulted in a two-year shutdown of the storage facility. With a total budgeted cleanup cost of $2 billion, the incident is one of the most expensive nuclear accidents in the nation’s history.

Since the 2011 fire, a wider buffer space around the tents has been cleared of vegetation. In conjunction with fire suppression systems, it’s unlikely that wildfire will be a danger to the waste-filled drums, according to a 2016 risk analysis of extreme wildfire scenarios conducted by the lab.

But a February 2021 audit by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General is less rosy. It found that, despite the removal of most of the waste drums and the multiyear wildfire mitigation efforts that the lab describes, the lab’s wildfire protection is still lacking.

According to the 20-page federal audit, the lab at that time had not developed a “comprehensive, risk-based approach to wildland fire management” in accordance with federal policies related to wildland fire management. The report also noted compounding issues, including the absence of federal oversight of the lab’s wildfire management activities.
Among the ongoing risks, not all fire roads were maintained well enough to provide a safe route for firefighters and others, “which could create dangerous conditions for emergency responders and delay response times,” the auditors wrote.

And a canyon that runs between the lab and the adjacent town of Los Alamos was identified in the report as being packed with 10 times the number of trees that would be ideal, from a wildfire safety perspective. To make matters worse, there’s a hazardous waste site at the bottom of the canyon that could, the auditors wrote, “produce a health risk to the environment and to human health during a fire.”

“The report was pretty stark,” says Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And certainly, after all the warnings, if they’re still not doing all they need to do to fully mitigate the risk, then that’s just foolishness.”

A 2007 federal audit of Los Alamos, as well as nuclear weapons facilities in Washington state and Idaho, showed similar problems. In short, it seems little has changed at Los Alamos in the 14-year span between 2007 and 2021. Lab spokespeople did not respond to my questions about the lab’s efforts to address the specific problems identified in the 2021 report, despite repeated requests.

The Los Alamos area has experienced three major wildfires since the lab was founded — the Cerro Grande fire in 2000, Las Conchas in 2011 and Cerro Pelado this year. But we probably can’t count on 11-year gaps between future wildfires near Los Alamos, according to Alice Hill, the senior fellow for energy and the environment with the Council on Foreign Relations, who’s based in Washington, D.C.

The changing climate is expected to dramatically affect wildfire risks in years to come, turning Los Alamos and surrounding areas into a tinderbox. A study in 2018 in Climatic Change found that the region extending from the higher elevations in New Mexico, where Los Alamos is located, into Colorado and Arizona will experience the greatest increase in wildfire probabilities in the Southwest. A new risk projection tool that was recommended by Hill, called Risk Factor, also shows increasing fire risk in the Los Alamos area over the next 30 years.

“We are at the point where we are imagining, as we have to, things that we’ve never experienced,” Hill says. “That is fundamentally different than how we have approached these problems throughout human history, which is to look to the past to figure out how to be safer in the future…. The nature of wildfire has changed as more heat is added [to the planet], as temperatures rise.”

Increased plutonium pit production will add to the waste that needs to be shipped to Carlsbad. “Certainly, the radiological assessments in sort of the worst case of wildfire could lead to a pretty significant release of radioactivity, not only affecting the workers onsite but also the offsite public. It’s troubling,” says Lyman, who suggests that nuclear labs like Los Alamos should not be located in such fire-prone areas.
For now, some risks from the Cerra Pelado wildfire will persist, according to Jeff Surber, operations section chief for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forestry Service’s efforts to fight the fire. Large wildfires like Cerra Pelado “hold heat for so long and they continue to smolder in the interior where it burns intermittently,” he said in a May 9 briefing to Los Alamos County residents, and to concerned people like me watching online.

It will be vital to monitor the footprint of the fire until rain or snow finally snuffs it out late in the year. Even then, some danger will linger in the form of “zombie fires” that can flame up long after wildfires appear to have been extinguished (SN: 5/19/21). “We’ve had fires come back in the springtime because there was a root underground that somehow stayed lit all winter long,” said Surber.

So the Cerro Pelado fire, and its occasional smoky tendrils, will probably be a part of life in northern New Mexico for months still. And the future seems just as fiery, if not worse. That’s something all residents, including the lab, need to be preparing for.

Meantime, if you make it out to the mountains of New Mexico soon enough, be sure to sniff a vanilla-flavored ponderosa while you still can. I know I will.

How a virus turns caterpillars into zombies doomed to climb to their deaths

Higher and higher still, the cotton bollworm moth caterpillar climbs, its tiny body ceaselessly scaling leaf after leaf. Reaching the top of a plant, it will die, facilitating the spread of the virus that steered the insect there.

One virus behind this deadly ascent manipulates genes associated with caterpillars’ vision. As a result, the insects are more attracted to sunlight than usual, researchers report online March 8 in Molecular Ecology.

The virus involved in this caterpillar takeover is a type of baculovirus. These viruses may have been evolving with their insect hosts for 200 million to 300 million years, says Xiaoxia Liu, an entomologist at China Agricultural University in Beijing. Baculoviruses can infect more than 800 insect species, mostly the caterpillars of moths and butterflies. Once infected, the hosts exhibit “tree-top disease,” compelled to climb before dying and leaving their elevated, infected cadavers for scavengers to feast upon.
The clever trick of these viruses has been known for more than a century, Liu says. But how they turn caterpillars into zombies doomed to ascend to their own deaths wasn’t understood.

Previous research suggested that infected caterpillars exhibit greater “phototaxis,” meaning they are more attracted to light than uninfected insects. Liu and her team confirmed this effect in the laboratory using cotton bollworm moth caterpillars (Helicoverpa armigera) infected with a baculovirus called HearNPV.

The researchers compared infected and uninfected caterpillars’ positions in glass tubes surrounding a climbing mesh under an LED light. Uninfected caterpillars would wander up and down the mesh, but would return to the bottom before pupating. That behavior makes sense because in the wild, this species develops into adults underground. But infected hosts would end up dead at the top of the mesh. The higher the source of light, the higher infected hosts climbed.

The team moved to the horizontal plane to confirm that the hosts were responding to light rather than gravity, placing caterpillars in a hexagonal box with one of the side panels illuminated. By the second day after infection, host caterpillars crawled to the light about four times as often as the uninfected.

When the researchers surgically removed infected caterpillars’ eyes and put the insects in the box, the blinded insects were attracted to the light a quarter as often as unaltered infected hosts. That suggested that the virus was using a caterpillar’s vision against itself.

The team then compared how active certain genes were in various caterpillar body parts in infected and uninfected larvae. Detected mostly in the eyes, two genes for opsins, the light-sensitive proteins that are fundamental for vision, were more active after an infection with the virus, and so was another gene associated with vision called TRPL. It encodes for a channel in cell membranes involved in the conversion of light into electrical signals.

When the team used the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 to shut off the opsin genes and TRPL in infected caterpillars, the number of hosts attracted to the light in the box was cut roughly in half. Their height at death on the mesh was also reduced.

Baculoviruses appear capable of commandeering the genetic architecture of caterpillar vision, exploiting an ancient importance of light for insects, Liu says.

Light can cue crucial biological processes in insects, from directing their developmental timing, to setting their migration routes.

These viruses were already known to be master manipulators in other ways, tweaking their hosts’ sense of smell, molting patterns and the programmed death of cells, says Lorena Passarelli, a virologist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, who was not involved with the study. The new research shows that the viruses manipulate “yet another physiological host process: visual perception.”

There’s still a lot to learn about this visual hijacking, Passarelli says. It’s unknown, for instance, which of the virus’s genes are responsible for turning caterpillars into sunlight-chasing zombies in the first place.

‘Vagina Obscura’ shows how little is known about female biology

More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates, the Greek physician often considered the father of modern medicine, identified what came to be known as the clitoris, a “little pillar” of erectile tissue near the vagina’s entrance. Aristotle then noticed that the seemingly small structure was related to sexual pleasure.

Yet it wasn’t until 2005 that urologist Helen O’Connell uncovered that the “little pillar” was just the tip of the iceberg. The internal parts of the organ reach around the vagina and go into the pelvis, extending a network of nerves deeper than anatomists ever knew.

It took millennia to uncover the clitoris’s true extent because sexism has long stymied the study of female biology, science journalist Rachel E. Gross argues in her new book, Vagina Obscura. Esteemed men of science, from Charles Darwin to Sigmund Freud, viewed men as superior to women. To be male was to be the ideal standard. To be female was to be a stunted version of a human. The vagina, the ancient Greeks concluded, was merely a penis turned inside out, the ovaries simply interior testicles.

Because men mostly considered women’s bodies for their reproductive capabilities and interactions with penises, only recently have researchers begun to truly understand the full scope of female organs and tissues, Gross shows. That includes the basic biology of what “healthy” looks like in these parts of the body and their effects on the body as a whole.

Vagina Obscura itself was born out of Gross’ frustration at not understanding her own body in the wake of a vaginal infection. After antibiotics and antifungal treatments failed due to a misdiagnosis, her gynecologist prescribed another treatment. As Gross paraphrases, the doctor told her to “shove rat poison up my vagina.” The infection, it turned out, was bacterial vaginosis, a hard-to-treat, sometimes itchy and painful condition caused by an overgrowth of bacteria that normally reside in the vagina. (The rat poison was boric acid, which is also an antiseptic. “It’s basically rat poison,” the doctor said. “You’re going to see that on the internet, so I might as well tell you now.”)
The book’s exploration of female anatomy begins from the outside in, first traversing the clitoris’s nerve-filled external nub to the vagina, ovaries and uterus. The last chapter focuses on gender affirmation surgery, detailing how physicians have transformed the field for transgender people. (Gross is up-front that words such as women and men create an artificial binary, with seemingly more objective terms like “male” and “female” not performing much better in encompassing humankind’s diversity, including intersex and transgender people.)

Throughout this tour, Gross doesn’t shy away from confronting the sexism and prejudices behind controversial ideas about female biology, such as vaginal orgasms (versus coming from the clitoris) and the existence of the G-spot (SN: 4/25/12). Both “near-mystical” concepts stem from the male perspective that sexual pleasure should be straightforward for women, if only men could hit the right spot. Nor are the more appalling offenses swept under the rug, including racism, eugenics and female genital cutting. Footnotes throughout the book detail Gross’ efforts to navigate controversial views and stigmatizing or culturally charged terminology.

To lift readers’ spirits, she finds the right spots to deliver a dose of wry humor or a pun. She also shares stories of often forgotten researchers, such as lab technician Miriam Menkin, who showed in 1944 that in vitro fertilization is possible (SN: 8/12/44). Yet Menkin’s role in describing the first instance of a human egg being fertilized in a lab dish has largely been erased from IVF’s history (SN: 6/9/21). There’s also plenty of opportunity to marvel at the power of the female body. Despite the long-held notion that a person is born with all the eggs they’ll ever have, for example, researchers are now discovering the ovary’s regenerative properties.

Studying female bodies more closely could ultimately improve quality of life. Chasing cells capable of producing more eggs might bring about discoveries that could restore the menstrual cycle in cancer patients rendered infertile by chemotherapy or make menopause less miserable. Patients with endometriosis, a painful disorder in which uterine tissue grows outside the uterus, are often dismissed and their symptoms downplayed. Some doctors even recommend getting pregnant to avoid the pain. But people shouldn’t have to suffer just because they aren’t pregnant. Researchers just haven’t asked the right questions yet about the uterus or endometriosis, Gross argues.

Vagina Obscura reinforces that female bodies are more than “walking wombs” or “baby machines.” Understanding these organs and tissues is important for keeping the people who have them healthy. It will take a lot of vagina studies to overcome centuries of neglect, Gross writes. But the book provides a glimpse into what is possible when researchers (finally) pay attention.

Grainy ice cream is unpleasant. Plant-based nanocrystals might help

You can never have too much ice cream, but you can have too much ice in your ice cream. Adding plant-based nanocrystals to the frozen treat could help solve that problem, researchers reported March 20 at the American Chemical Society spring meeting in San Diego.

Ice cream contains tiny ice crystals that grow bigger when natural temperature fluctuations in the freezer cause them to melt and recrystallize. Stabilizers in ice cream — typically guar gum or locust bean gum — help inhibit crystal growth, but don’t completely stop it. And once ice crystals hit 50 micrometers in diameter, ice cream takes on an unpleasant, coarse, grainy texture.

Cellulose nanocrystals, or CNCs, which are derived from wood pulp, have properties similar to the gums, says Tao Wu, a food scientist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. They also share similarities with antifreeze proteins, produced by some animals to help them survive subzero temperatures. Antifreeze proteins work by binding to the surface of ice crystals, inhibiting growth more effectively than gums — but they are also extremely expensive. CNCs might work similarly to antifreeze proteins but at a fraction of the cost, Wu and his colleagues thought.

An experiment with a sucrose solution — a simplified ice cream proxy — and CNCs showed that after 24 hours, the ice crystals completely stopped growing. A week later, the ice crystals remained at 25 micrometers, well beneath the threshold of ice crystal crunchiness. In a similar experiment with guar gum, ice crystals grew to 50 micrometers in just three days.
“That by itself suggests that nanocrystals are a lot more potent than the gums,” says Richard Hartel, a food engineer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who was not involved in the research. If CNCs do function the same way as antifreeze proteins, they’re a promising alternative to current stabilizers, he says. But that still needs to be proven.

Until that happens, you continue to have a good excuse to eat your ice cream quickly: You wouldn’t want large ice crystals to form, after all.