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NY officials detect polio again, warn of possible summer wave



Enlarge / Transmission electron micrograph of poliovirus type 1.

Health officials in New York have once again detected poliovirus in wastewater from Rockland County, where a case of paralytic polio occurred last summer.

Wastewater samples from Rockland and several nearby counties were positive for poliovirus for months after the initial case was reported in July, suggesting widespread circulation of the virus in the region.

So far this year, officials have only detected poliovirus in one sample, which was collected from Rockland in February. Two samples from the county taken during March were negative. Before the detection in February, the last positive sample from the region was found in mid-December in Orange County, just north of Rockland. The last positive detection in Rockland was in October.

While the data doesn’t suggest that poliovirus is again circulating widely in the region, health officials are wary that the virus could easily restart. Rockland has one of the lower vaccination rates in the state; as of August, only 60.34 percent of 2-year-olds in the county were up to date on their polio vaccinations. Some areas of the county have rates in the 50s.

Officials are concerned about the potential for international spread of polio to Rockland’s sizable Jewish community during upcoming holiday travel.

“With increased travel expected between Rockland County and Israel over Passover, the County of Rockland reminds families there is a real risk of paralysis from the polio virus if you are unvaccinated,” Rockland County officials said in a press release.

Israel’s Ministry of Health has recently reported four polio cases in children in the northern part of the country. One of the cases was paralytic. The strain of poliovirus behind the paralytic case in Rockland last summer was linked to viruses spreading in London and Israel at the time.

In addition, Rockland officials noted that we are heading toward summer, when polio transmission historically peaks.

“Polio is preventable through the complete vaccination series. Our hope is that we will not see another case of paralytic polio as we did last summer. I urge all who are unvaccinated or are under-vaccinated to complete their series. This is important locally as well as for travelers,” Patricia Schnabel Ruppert, Rockland’s health commissioner, said.

Officials continue pushing for vaccination in parts of the county where anti-vaccine sentiments are high. They’re offering free polio boosters at walk-in clinics, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to audit vaccination coverage at day care and schools, and trying to improve vaccination messaging.

“It is our obligation to protect all our residents from these debilitating and potentially fatal diseases. The law requiring childhood vaccinations has been in place for many years for this very reason,” County Executive Ed Day said. “I urge our residents to act now and protect yourselves, your family, and your community.”

In addition to fighting back polio amid poor vaccination rates, Rockland has also found itself fighting measles. In 2019, the county faced a prolonged outbreak that led to an emergency declaration.

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Game on—the most metal of asteroid missions is back on the menu



Enlarge / Artist’s illustration of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, now set to launch in October 2023. The Psyche mission will explore a metal-rich asteroid of the same name that lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.


One year after NASA announced an indefinite delay of a much-anticipated mission to visit a metal-rich asteroid, the agency said Monday that the Psyche spacecraft is back on track. The Psyche mission is now scheduled to launch in four months on a Falcon Heavy rocket, and everyone involved in the project feels good about that date.

“We believe Psyche is on a positive course for an October 2023 launch,” said Thomas Young, who chaired an independent review board that NASA convened last summer after the mission was delayed.

If the mission does launch this fall, the spacecraft will reach asteroid Psyche in August 2029. There, it will go into orbit for 26 months to gain insights into planetary formation, understand the interior of terrestrial planets like Earth, and examine a world that is made largely of metal. The mission is also of interest to the nascent asteroid mining community, which seeks to learn about the potential value harbored by these relatively rare, metallic asteroids.

A lot of problems

Last year, Young and the rest of the board members found a litany of problems with the mission, including serious issues with the flight software and an incomplete process to verify that software and the vehicle’s systems.

In a report published last November, the review board laid much of the blame on management at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which oversaw Psyche’s development and testing. The field center, which leads many of the space agency’s most prestigious science missions, had undertaken an “unprecedented workload” without possessing the resources needed to complete major projects.

These issues were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which came at a key time in the final phase of the Psyche mission’s development and hampered hiring and in-person activities needed to complete testing of the spacecraft.

After that review, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked to respond to the recommendations by the review board to address these issues. For example, the Psyche program added experienced team members, reorganized a large part of its workforce, and used better metrics to monitor progress toward launch and operational readiness.

Recently, the review board reconvened to consider this response by NASA, and according to Young, its members were “extraordinarily impressed” by the actions taken. Monday’s teleconference with reporters was to share this feedback publicly and express confidence in the looming launch date.

Staffing up

Laurie Leshin became the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory just weeks before the Psyche mission was put on hold last year. On Monday, she said she welcomed the independent review of Psyche’s problems and the larger issues at the California-based field center so that they could be addressed by her leadership team.

Since then, Leshin said, NASA has been aggressive about hiring from the tech industry—which has undergone significant layoffs—and recruiting back employees who were lost to private space companies in the Los Angeles area. In some ways, she said, NASA is the victim of its own success as it has sought to foster the US commercial space industry.

“There is more competition with the commercial space sector because there is a much more significant commercial space sector,” Leshin said. “As hard as that is for us, it’s really gratifying to see that the investments that we are making, and the partnerships that we are building to help advance the commercial space sector, are really working.”

There was a lot of happy talk on the call Monday from Leshin and other NASA officials, including Nicola Fox, the associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. However, Fox declined to say how much the one-year delay added to the cost of the mission, which was recently pegged at $1.13 billion by the US Government Accountability Office.

Also, NASA has yet to demonstrate that these staffing and management problems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are truly behind it. The proof will come with getting Psyche successfully into space, launching the ambitious Europa Clipper mission next year, and restarting work on the recently paused VERITAS mission to Venus.

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“Dead Duck Day” marks that time a scientist witnessed gay duck necrophilia



Enlarge / This drake mallard duck has ceased to be! And suffered one final post-mortem ignominy by a fellow duck. (credit: C.W. Moeliker, 2001)

On June 5, 1995, a Dutch ornithologist named Kees Moeliker was working quietly in his office in the new wing of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, when there was an unusually loud bang one floor below. The wing’s all-glass facade sometimes took on mirror-like qualities, so there was a regular supply of birds colliding with the glass. In this case, the collision was from a drake mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) lying dead on its belly in the sand.

Things took an unusual turn when Moeliker spotted a second, living male mallard nearby, which began pecking at the back of the dead duck’s head. After a couple of minutes, the living duck “mounted the corpse and started to copulate, with great force,” Moeliker recalled, only stopping for a couple of short breaks. The ornithologist managed to snap some photos of this odd behavior before intervening and collecting the dead duck specimen–over the noisy objections of its living “mate.” It was the first documented case of homosexual necrophilia in the species.

(a) Moeliker's office in new north wing of the Natural History of Rotterdam in 1997. (b) Where the duck hit the glass facade. (c) Where Moeliker observed the "homosexual necrophilia."

(a) Moeliker’s office in new north wing of the Natural History of Rotterdam in 1997. (b) Where the duck hit the glass facade. (c) Where Moeliker observed the “homosexual necrophilia.” (credit: Christian Richters)

Moeliker published his findings in a 2001 paper that would eventually snag him the 2003 Ig Nobel Prize in Biology. It also inspired the annual “Dead Duck Day” celebration, held at the very spot the unfortunate duck perished, marked by a memorial plaque. The brief commemorative ceremony—which also acknowledges “the billions of other birds that die(d) from colliding with glass buildings and challenges people to find solutions to this global problem,” per Moeliker—is typically followed by a six-course duck dinner at a local Chinese restaurant called Tai Wu. The event is co-organized by the museum and the European Bureau of Improbable Research.

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Homo naledi were burying their dead at least 100,000 years before humans



Enlarge / Exploration team members Megan Berger and Rick Hunter navigate the narrow chutes leading to the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave in South Africa, where fossil elements belonging to Homo naledi were discovered.

Robert Clark/National Geographic

Some 25 miles outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, there is a famous paleoanthropological site known as the Cradle of Humankind. So many hominin bones were found in the region that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. Among the many limestone caves in the region is the Rising Star cave, where cavers discovered fossils representing a new hominin species, Homo naledi, in 2015. Only H. naledi remains were found in the cave, suggesting the possibility that the bodies had been placed there deliberately, although this hypothesis proved to be a bit controversial.

Now the same expedition team has announced the discovery of H. naledi bodies deposited in fetal positions, indicating intentional burials. This predates the earliest known burials by Homo sapiens by at least 100,000 years, suggesting that brain size might not be the definitive factor behind such complex behavior. The team also found crosshatched symbols engraved on the walls of the cave that could date as far back as 241,000–335,000 years, although testing is still ongoing.

Taken together, the discoveries provide evidence of a major cognitive step in human evolution in terms of mortuary practices and meaning-making. The team described these new findings during a virtual press conference and in three new preprints posted to the BioRxiv, which will be published later this year in the journal eLife.

“I think we are facing a remarkable discovery here of hominids with brains a third the size of living humans, and slightly larger than chimpanzees, burying their dead—something previously only found in large-brained hominids—as well as etching meaning-making symbols on the wall,” said Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence who leads the Rising Star Project. “This would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but [they] may not even have invented such behaviors.”

Naturally, there are skeptics. For instance, María Martinón-Torres, director of Spain’s National Research Center on Human Evolution, told the New York Times that such speculations were premature based on the evidence presented so far, suggesting that funerary caching was a more likely scenario than burials. “Hypotheses need to be built on what we have, not what we guess,” she said. “Still, I think the possibility of having funerary caching with this antiquity is already stunning.”

3D virtual tour beginning in the Hill Antechamber at the base of the ladder where explorers enter, through the passage linking to the Dinaledi Chamber where two burial features were found. Credit: Corey Jaskolski/National Geographic.

The story of Homo naledi technically begins millions of years ago, when the cradle’s network of limestone caves first formed. As Lydia Pyne wrote for Ars in 2018:

Caves in that area of South Africa form as water percolates through the cracks and fissures of the region’s dolomite rock and slowly erodes the rock away, forming underground caverns of all shapes and sizes. As water flows through these caves, it leaves behind deposits of calcium carbonates—easily recognizable as concrete-hard breccias or sheet-like deposits of flowstone found along cave walls. In the Rising Star cave system, this resulted in a network of chambers, including those where researchers have recovered Homo naledi fossils.

Recreational cavers had been exploring parts of the Rising Star system since the 1960s. But Berger hired a team of cavers in 2013 to survey the cave more thoroughly to map out any chambers with potentially significant fossils. That team included Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, who used a 1985 map to guide their explorations. The duo managed to worm their way through a previously unmapped slot just 18 centimeters (7 inches) wide and found themselves in one of the cave chambers. There, they saw a treasure trove of fossilized bones. “When we first saw the mandible, we thought, ‘Maybe this was the last guy that came down to the chamber and didn’t make it out,'” Hunter told Ars in 2018.

The reality was potentially much more significant. Excited by the discovery, Berger hired an additional team of six women with both scientific and caving experience to excavate the site (using toothpicks and sometimes porcupine quills, among other tools). The entire three-week excavation played out live on Twitter.

These are not easy sites to access. In fact, the chute labyrinth along one portion of the route to the Dinaledi Chamber is known as “Superman’s Crawl” because most cavers can only manage to squeeze through by extending one arm above the head while holding the other tight against the body. It’s basically a narrow, vertical 12-meter (39-foot) long “chimney” with an average width of 20 cm (7.9 inches).

“You have to crawl on your belly because there’s not enough space for you to be on your hands and knees,” said Keneiloe Molopyane, an archaeologist and biological anthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand and one of the team’s “underground astronauts.” Berger lost 55 pounds to finally make his way into the Dinaledi Chamber for the first time last year, describing the journey as “the most awful and wonderful experience in my life.” That chute opens into the so-called “Dragon’s Back Chamber,” in which cavers must navigate a treacherous 15-meter (49-foot) dolomite ridge.

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