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News Bytes of the Week—Peru Crater Mystery

Velociraptor was just a big chicken, The usual Wookiee suspects, and more…

Peru crater came from outer space
A crater that mysteriously appeared near Lake Titicaca in Peru last week was probably caused by a meteor, researchers say. The Associated Press reports that a Peruvian astrophysicist discovered a chunk of iron in the crater—an element common in meteorites; that piece of evidence, combined with reports of a hail of pebbles and a violent roaring sound point to a meteorite as the potential source. Still unclear is why scores of residents reported falling ill shortly after the crater's discovery, but researchers told the AP it could have been psychosomatic. Update: Arsenic fumes may have played a role, too. A Peruvian geologist told National Geographic News last week that the meteorite would have vaporized local groundwater laced with the toxic element, which might explain the vomiting and headaches reported by dozens of people who approached the crater. (AP; National Geographic News)

Velociraptor: A fine, feathered fiend
Velociraptor, the predatory dinosaur immortalized in the Jurassic Park films, was more of an overgrown chicken than a reptilian beast. A new study finds that the arm bone of a specimen unearthed in Mongolia sports a series of so-called quill knobs, where wing feathers are attached to ligaments in modern birds. Researchers say the forelimbs were too short for flight, but feathers might have helped the four-foot- (1.2-meter-) long, 30-pound (13.5-kilogram) sprinter mate, build nests or maneuver at high speeds. (Science)

All in the wrist: Hobbit was more ape than human
The wrist bones of the three-foot- (one-meter-) tall humanoid specimen known affectionately as the Hobbit bolster the view that it was a species unto itself. Researchers have clashed over the bones known as LB1, recovered three years ago from the Indonesian island of Flores: Some believe it was a stunted human because of its grapefruit-size skull. A group now points out that the Hobbit's three wrist bones were shaped more like those of an ape than a human, suggesting that it did not branch off from human ancestors. But a skeptic tells the Associated Press that the skull trumps the wrist as a mark of the Hobbit's status. (Science; AP)

Strep vaccine groomed new superbug
Prevnar, a vaccine given since 2000 to prevent potentially fatal childhood infections caused by seven different strep strains, may have opened the door for a new variety of the bacterium that shrugs off all pediatric antibiotics. AP reports that researchers in Rochester, N.Y., discovered nine cases of antibiotic-resistant strep in children aged six to 18 months. The type responsible, known as 19A, is one of more than 80 that Prevnar does not protect against. Wyeth, the vaccine's maker, is already working on a broader vaccine, set to be ready no earlier than 2009, but researches say strep, like the flu, may end up requiring a new shot each year. (AP)

Muslims not lost in space
When the first Malaysian astronaut, a Muslim, rockets to the International Space Station next month, he won't have to worry about praying too much, thanks to a clarification in rules for space travelers. In one recoking, to satisfy the Islamic practice of praying toward Mecca five times daily, the astronaut—still to be officially selected—would have had to pray 80 times daily because the station circles Earth 16 times every 24 hours. But Malaysia's Department of Islamic Development gave him a break, Agence France Presse reported: Stick to five, and before each prayer wash symbolically with "holy dust" (aka recycled space station air). Fasting for the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week, is encouraged but not required. (Agence France-Presse)

The leaning tower of Babel
The world's languages are disappearing at a rate of about one every two weeks—faster than researchers can document them. The heaviest losses are taking place in five regions, according to a new report sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages: Oklahoma and the southwestern U.S., central South America, eastern Siberia, northern Australia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Researchers expect nearly half of the world's 7,000-odd languages to die out this century. (Enduring Voices Project)

Love American style: Web beats sex every time
One fifth of Americans spend less time having sex because of the Internet, according to a new survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults. Australia's iTnews reports that 28 percent of respondents said Web surfing also cuts into the time they would spend socializing face to face. Most of those polled said they wouldn't want to be disconnected from the Web for more than a few days. "People told us how anxious, isolated and bored they felt when they are forced off line," a pollster told the news service. (iTnews)

Yale to Peru: here's (some of) your stuff back
Yale University agreed last week to return some of the thousands of artifacts taken from Machu Picchu in Peru nearly a century ago by a Yale archaeologist. Long a sore point for Peru, which has threatened legal action to recover the bones, jewelry, pottery and other artifacts, the returned items will become part of a joint Yale–Peru traveling exhibition based in the former Inca capital of Cuzco. Yale told the Los Angeles Times it would return several hundred of the fragments, but stressed it would retain research rights to much of the collection, leaving unspecified the exact number of artifacts Peru would receive. (LA Times)

What's with all these Wookiees?
According to press reports, a cancer patient who received Pfizer's antifungal drug Vfend swears he saw a Wookiee leaning over his bed—a hallucination brought on by the drug. But SciAm wonders: Could it have been a guy in a Wookiee costume? Consider this: just weeks ago a Wookiee impersonator handed over the light-saber prop from the original Star Wars movie to NASA officials in honor of the film's 30th anniversary. Later, a video made the rounds featuring another impressionist roaring Wookiee-style on the TV show Judge Joe Brown after allegedly head-butting a tour guide. It's probably just a coincidence, but you never know. (CNBC pharma blog; video)

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