Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Journal: Science advances


On the basis of an assemblage of fossilized wing scales recovered from latest Triassic and earliest Jurassic sediments from northern Germany, we provide the earliest evidence for Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). The diverse scales confirm a (Late) Triassic radiation of lepidopteran lineages, including the divergence of the Glossata, the clade that comprises the vast multitude of extant moths and butterflies that have a sucking proboscis. The microfossils extend the minimum calibrated age of glossatan moths by ca. 70 million years, refuting ancestral association of the group with flowering plants. Development of the proboscis may be regarded as an adaptive innovation to sucking free liquids for maintaining the insect’s water balance under arid conditions. Pollination drops secreted by a variety of Mesozoic gymnosperms may have been non-mutualistically exploited as a high-energy liquid source. The early evolution of the Lepidoptera was probably not severely interrupted by the end-Triassic biotic crisis.

Concepts: Insect, Water, Lepidoptera, Moth, Butterfly, Dinosaur, Triassic, Cycad


The exact timing, route, and process of the initial peopling of the Americas remains uncertain despite much research. Archaeological evidence indicates the presence of humans as far as southern Chile by 14.6 thousand years ago (ka), shortly after the Pleistocene ice sheets blocking access from eastern Beringia began to retreat. Genetic estimates of the timing and route of entry have been constrained by the lack of suitable calibration points and low genetic diversity of Native Americans. We sequenced 92 whole mitochondrial genomes from pre-Columbian South American skeletons dating from 8.6 to 0.5 ka, allowing a detailed, temporally calibrated reconstruction of the peopling of the Americas in a Bayesian coalescent analysis. The data suggest that a small population entered the Americas via a coastal route around 16.0 ka, following previous isolation in eastern Beringia for ~2.4 to 9 thousand years after separation from eastern Siberian populations. Following a rapid movement throughout the Americas, limited gene flow in South America resulted in a marked phylogeographic structure of populations, which persisted through time. All of the ancient mitochondrial lineages detected in this study were absent from modern data sets, suggesting a high extinction rate. To investigate this further, we applied a novel principal components multiple logistic regression test to Bayesian serial coalescent simulations. The analysis supported a scenario in which European colonization caused a substantial loss of pre-Columbian lineages.

Concepts: DNA, Regression analysis, United States, Brazil, South America, Americas, Latin America, Indigenous peoples of the Americas


Establishing the age of the Moon is critical to understanding solar system evolution and the formation of rocky planets, including Earth. However, despite its importance, the age of the Moon has never been accurately determined. We present uranium-lead dating of Apollo 14 zircon fragments that yield highly precise, concordant ages, demonstrating that they are robust against postcrystallization isotopic disturbances. Hafnium isotopic analyses of the same fragments show extremely low initial (176)Hf/(177)Hf ratios corrected for cosmic ray exposure that are near the solar system initial value. Our data indicate differentiation of the lunar crust by 4.51 billion years, indicating the formation of the Moon within the first ~60 million years after the birth of the solar system.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Moon, Dwarf planet, Venus, Io, Impact crater


Chemical disequilibrium in planetary atmospheres has been proposed as a generalized method for detecting life on exoplanets through remote spectroscopy. Among solar system planets with substantial atmospheres, the modern Earth has the largest thermodynamic chemical disequilibrium due to the presence of life. However, how this disequilibrium changed over time and, in particular, the biogenic disequilibria maintained in the anoxic Archean or less oxic Proterozoic eons are unknown. We calculate the atmosphere-ocean disequilibrium in the Precambrian using conservative proxy- and model-based estimates of early atmospheric and oceanic compositions. We omit crustal solids because subsurface composition is not detectable on exoplanets, unlike above-surface volatiles. We find that (i) disequilibrium increased through time in step with the rise of oxygen; (ii) both the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic may have had remotely detectable biogenic disequilibria due to the coexistence of O2, N2, and liquid water; and (iii) the Archean had a biogenic disequilibrium caused by the coexistence of N2, CH4, CO2, and liquid water, which, for an exoplanet twin, may be remotely detectable. On the basis of this disequilibrium, we argue that the simultaneous detection of abundant CH4 and CO2 in a habitable exoplanet’s atmosphere is a potential biosignature. Specifically, we show that methane mixing ratios greater than 10-3 are potentially biogenic, whereas those exceeding 10-2 are likely biogenic due to the difficulty in maintaining large abiotic methane fluxes to support high methane levels in anoxic atmospheres. Biogenicity would be strengthened by the absence of abundant CO, which should not coexist in a biological scenario.

Concepts: Water, Solar System, Planet, Mars, Atmosphere, Neptune, Uranus, Proterozoic


Accurate quantification of the millennial-scale mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet (GrIS) and its contribution to global sea-level rise remain challenging because of sparse in situ observations in key regions. Glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA) is the ongoing response of the solid Earth to ice and ocean load changes occurring since the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM; ~21 thousand years ago) and may be used to constrain the GrIS deglaciation history. We use data from the Greenland Global Positioning System network to directly measure GIA and estimate basin-wide mass changes since the LGM. Unpredicted, large GIA uplift rates of +12 mm/year are found in southeast Greenland. These rates are due to low upper mantle viscosity in the region, from when Greenland passed over the Iceland hot spot about 40 million years ago. This region of concentrated soft rheology has a profound influence on reconstructing the deglaciation history of Greenland. We reevaluate the evolution of the GrIS since LGM and obtain a loss of 1.5-m sea-level equivalent from the northwest and southeast. These same sectors are dominating modern mass loss. We suggest that the present destabilization of these marine-based sectors may increase sea level for centuries to come. Our new deglaciation history and GIA uplift estimates suggest that studies that use the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite mission to infer present-day changes in the GrIS may have erroneously corrected for GIA and underestimated the mass loss by about 20 gigatons/year.

Concepts: Earth, Sea level, Ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glaciology, Post-glacial rebound


Modern humans have large and globular brains that distinguish them from their extinct Homo relatives. The characteristic globularity develops during a prenatal and early postnatal period of rapid brain growth critical for neural wiring and cognitive development. However, it remains unknown when and how brain globularity evolved and how it relates to evolutionary brain size increase. On the basis of computed tomographic scans and geometric morphometric analyses, we analyzed endocranial casts of Homo sapiens fossils (N = 20) from different time periods. Our data show that, 300,000 years ago, brain size in early H. sapiens already fell within the range of present-day humans. Brain shape, however, evolved gradually within the H. sapiens lineage, reaching present-day human variation between about 100,000 and 35,000 years ago. This process started only after other key features of craniofacial morphology appeared modern and paralleled the emergence of behavioral modernity as seen from the archeological record. Our findings are consistent with important genetic changes affecting early brain development within the H. sapiens lineage since the origin of the species and before the transition to the Later Stone Age and the Upper Paleolithic that mark full behavioral modernity.

Concepts: Childbirth, Human, Natural selection, Evolution, Species, Human evolution, Prehistory, Homo sapiens idaltu


Human sleep is highly regulated by temperature. Might climate change-through increases in nighttime heat-disrupt sleep in the future? We conduct the inaugural investigation of the relationship between climatic anomalies, reports of insufficient sleep, and projected climate change. Using data from 765,000 U.S. survey respondents from 2002 to 2011, coupled with nighttime temperature data, we show that increases in nighttime temperatures amplify self-reported nights of insufficient sleep. We observe the largest effects during the summer and among both lower-income and elderly respondents. We combine our historical estimates with climate model projections and detail the potential sleep impacts of future climatic changes. Our study represents the largest ever investigation of the relationship between sleep and ambient temperature and provides the first evidence that climate change may disrupt human sleep.

Concepts: Climate, Weather, Sleep, Climate change, Change, Solar variation, Climate model, Global climate model


Predator-prey interactions revealed by vertebrate trace fossils are extremely rare. We present footprint evidence from White Sands National Monument in New Mexico for the association of sloth and human trackways. Geologically, the sloth and human trackways were made contemporaneously, and the sloth trackways show evidence of evasion and defensive behavior when associated with human tracks. Behavioral inferences from these trackways indicate prey selection and suggest that humans were harassing, stalking, and/or hunting the now-extinct giant ground sloth in the terminal Pleistocene.


Traditional paddy rice farmers had to share labor and coordinate irrigation in a way that most wheat farmers did not. We observed people in everyday life to test whether these agricultural legacies gave rice-farming southern China a more interdependent culture and wheat-farming northern China a more independent culture. In Study 1, we counted 8964 people sitting in cafes in six cities and found that people in northern China were more likely to be sitting alone. In Study 2, we moved chairs together in Starbucks across the country so that they were partially blocking the aisle (n = 678). People in northern China were more likely to move the chair out of the way, which is consistent with findings that people in individualistic cultures are more likely to try to control the environment. People in southern China were more likely to adjust the self to the environment by squeezing through the chairs. Even in China’s most modern cities, rice-wheat differences live on in everyday life.


The subtropical ocean gyres are recognized as great marine accummulation zones of floating plastic debris; however, the possibility of plastic accumulation at polar latitudes has been overlooked because of the lack of nearby pollution sources. In the present study, the Arctic Ocean was extensively sampled for floating plastic debris from the Tara Oceans circumpolar expedition. Although plastic debris was scarce or absent in most of the Arctic waters, it reached high concentrations (hundreds of thousands of pieces per square kilometer) in the northernmost and easternmost areas of the Greenland and Barents seas. The fragmentation and typology of the plastic suggested an abundant presence of aged debris that originated from distant sources. This hypothesis was corroborated by the relatively high ratios of marine surface plastic to local pollution sources. Surface circulation models and field data showed that the poleward branch of the Thermohaline Circulation transfers floating debris from the North Atlantic to the Greenland and Barents seas, which would be a dead end for this plastic conveyor belt. Given the limited surface transport of the plastic that accumulated here and the mechanisms acting for the downward transport, the seafloor beneath this Arctic sector is hypothesized as an important sink of plastic debris.

Concepts: Earth, Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Antarctica, Marine debris