Telescope offers clearer view of Neptune
A telescope on Earth has snapped pictures of Neptune at least as clear as
those from the Hubble Space Telescope. The trick? Taking the twinkle out
Released by the European Southern Observatory on July 18, the images
come from a new observing system on the Very Large Telescope in Chile.
Four lasers cancel out blurring caused by Earth’s atmosphere — the same
effect that makes it look like stars are twinkling — at different altitudes.
The system is an updated version of adaptive optics (SN: 6/14/03, p. 373),
a technique long used to focus telescopes. Lasers create artificial “stars”
whose size and brightness are precisely known. That gives scientists a way
to measure how the atmosphere is distorting their view of real, faraway stars
at any given moment. The shape of the telescope’s mirror changes in real
time to correct for that distortion and see the sky as it really is. The resulting images from the Chilean telescope are as sharp and clear as those taken
from space. That’s good news, as Hubble won’t last forever, and its main successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, won’t take images in the visible
part of the light spectrum (SN: 3/17/18, p. 4). With adaptive optics, telescopes
on the ground can pick up where Hubble leaves off. — Lisa Grossman
The current geologic age that started
over 4,200 years ago
Welcome to the Meghalayan, our geologic
here and now. It’s one of three newly named
ages that divvy up the Holocene Epoch, a
geologic time period kicked off 11,700 years
ago by the end of the Ice Age.
First came a warming period, now dubbed
the Greenlandian Age. Then, about 8,300
years ago, the Northgrippian Age began
with a 4,100-year-long big chill. Finally, the
Meghalayan started over 4,200 years ago
with a 200-year worldwide megadrought.
“It marked a quite serious collapse of
human agricultural civilizations,” says Phil
Gibbard of the International Union of
Geological Sciences, which released an
updated geologic time scale July 13. The
megadrought triggered human crises and
migrations ranging from China to the
Middle East to India. A stalagmite from
a cave in the northeast Indian state of
Meghalaya is the official time stamp marker
for the start of the age. The drought is also
recorded in other geologic sediments and
at archaeological sites around the world.
Macaques snack on plantation rats
Behavioral ecologist Anna Holzner recalls the first time she
saw a southern pig-tailed macaque munching on a headless
rat. These monkeys were known to mainly eat fruits, insects
and even dirt, but nobody had reported them eating rats. “It
was funny,” Holzner says, “and disgusting.”
This unexpected act occurred dozens of times from March
to August 2016 as Holzner, of Leipzig University in Germany,
and colleagues recorded what the macaques ate on oil palm
plantations in northwest Peninsular Malaysia. To planters
there, the macaques are pests.
Holzner did the work as part of a project led by primate
ecologist Nadine Ruppert of Universiti Sains Malaysia in
Penang. Holzner presented the results July 2 in Kuching,
Malaysia, at the annual meeting of the Association for
Tropical Biology and Conservation.
While pig-tailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina) spend
most of their time in the forest, they visit nearby plantations
daily to forage, Ruppert, Holzner and others reported in a
With improved focusing, the ground-based Very Large Telescope in Chile took better pictures of Neptune (left) than it used to (middle). The shots were as good as Hubble’s (right).
related study in the April
International Journal of Primatology.
Holzner’s new study shows that in
the plantations, pig-tailed macaques
ate mostly oil palm fruits, spending
only 1 percent of their meal times on
rats. The researchers estimate, however, that a group of 30 macaques
might eat as many as 2,080 rats
in a year. Holzner and colleagues
counted fewer rats on plantations
wherever they located macaques.
The study has local plantation
owners reconsidering the monkeys,
which may be agents of rat control
rather than pests, Holzner says.
Still, as macaques adapt to the encroaching plantations and
their numbers grow, they prey on and compete with birds and
other creatures living in adjacent forests, warns ecologist
Matthew Luskin of the Nanyang Technological University
in Singapore. — Yao-Hua Law
macaques peel back bark
on oil palm trees, pouncing
when a rat falls out.