The Venom From This Snake Will Make Your Life a Living Hell

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The Venom From This Snake Will Make Your Life a Living Hell

Monday 11:00am

The blue coral snake. (Image: Tom Charlton)

The menacingly beautiful blue coral snake preys on other fast moving, venomous snakes. To immobilize its prey, this reptile employs a particularly nasty venom—one that makes the last moments of the victim’s life a living hell.

One quick look at this reptile and it’s clear this thing means business. Found in southeast Asia, the blue coral snake (Calliophis bivirgatus) features a striking neon red head and tail, and electric blue stripes that run down the length of its body. In a new paper published in the science journal Toxins, researchers from the University of Queensland and several other institutions describe this creature’s unique and deadly venom—a poison that delivers a massive shock to a prey animal’s physiological system.

Almost immediately after being bitten, the victim enters into an agonizing catatonic state, with its muscles stuck at full flex. The venom causes all nerves in the body to fire simultaneously, triggering full body spasms. Paralyzed and helpless, the animal is eventually put out of its misery by the killer snake.

It’s nasty business, but evolution has equipped the blue coral snake with this particularly powerful venom for a reason. This highly specialized predator likes to hunt other venomous snakes, which are typically very fast and also exceptionally dangerous. The venom is produced and stored in a gland that extends for one quarter of the snake’s body length.

Scientists have seen this kind of toxin before, but never in a snake, let alone any other vertebrate species. Some animals, like some scorpions and spiders, have evolved similar toxins. The cone snail, for example, injects a similar kind of toxin into fish, causing them to go into an instant paralysis, where they fully tense their muscles in a tetanus-like spasm.

The blue coral snake’s venom does practically the same thing, and scientists say it’s a good example of convergent evolution (where a similar trait emerges independently in different species). Once administered into the body, the toxin causes all the nerves within an animal’s body to switch on simultaneously, causing the prey animal to enter into a frozen state. The researchers refer to this state as spastic paralysis, as opposed to the flaccid paralysis induced by other snake venom. The compounds within the venom prevent the nerves from turning off their sodium channels, which results in the nerve firing continuously. It’s like pressing the nerve’s accelerator pedal to the floor, and then cutting off the brakes.

Ironically enough, this venom—dubbed Calliotoxin—could be used in pharmacology to develop new medicines. Scientists are now particularly interested in its ability to act as a painkiller in humans.


George is a contributing editor at Gizmodo and io9.

Curiosity Just Found a Freaky Metal Meteorite on Mars

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Curiosity Just Found a Freaky Metal Meteorite on Mars

Yesterday 11:40am

Curiosity spotted the rock on October 30, 2016. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/ASU)

NASA’s Curiosity rover is currently climbing the slopes of Mount Sharp as it ventures to its next exploration site. Earlier this week, the rover stumbled upon a tiny metallic meteorite, which features some rather peculiar features.

Using the ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager, Curiosity captured a detailed close-up shot of the object, which has been dubbed “Egg Rock.” Researchers at Arizona State University suggest the meteorite is made of nickel-iron. Though it looks like some kind of discarded alien artifact, this iron meteorite likely originated from the planetary core of a planetesimal. It likely came from the asteroid belt, which is just a stone’s throw (heh) from Mars.

Curiosity took this close-up image of the metallic meteorite on October 30, 2016. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/ASU)

Curiosity has found meteorites on the Martian surface before, but this object has some rather unique features. It’s surface is remarkably smooth, looking as if someone buffed it down with a polishing kit. The rock also features several deep grooves, hinting at classic weathering patterns, and possibly a time when the ball was molten hot.

As Deborah Byrd notes in EarthSky, the surface of Mars is peppered with meteorites, so discoveries like this aren’t all that uncommon. Meteorites can last for millions of years on the Red Planet, free from the oxidizing and weathering effects of moisture and oxygen.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/ASU
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/ASU
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/ASU

Given their metallic nature, these rocks are particularly durable, and are more likely to survive atmospheric entry than lesser-dense objects. Mars has a particularly thin atmosphere, so these types of meteorites are scattered all around the Red Planet.

[ASU via EarthSky]

George is a contributing editor at Gizmodo and io9.

The Deadliest Volcano in the United States Just Got Really Weird

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The Deadliest Volcano in the United States Just Got Really Weird

A plume of steam and ash billowing out of Mt. Saint Helens in 1982, two years after the most destructive eruption in US history. Image: Wikimedia

Picture a volcanic eruption: fiery magma and smoke billowing skyward as a towering mountain empties its over-pressurized belly of a hot meal. At least, that’s how most of us think it works. So you can imagine volcanologists’ surprise when they discovered that Mount St. Helens, which was responsible for the deadliest eruption in US history, is actually cold inside.

Apparently, it’s stealing its fire from somewhere else.

Mount St. Helens is one of the most active volcanoes of the Cascade Arc, a string of eruptive mountains that runs parallel to the Cascadia subduction zone from northern California to British Columbia. It’s also one of the strangest. Most major volcanoes of the Cascade Arc sit neatly along a north-south line, where the wedging of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate beneath the North American plate forces hot mantle material to rise. Mount St. Helens, however, lies to the west, in a geologically quiescent region called the forearc wedge.

“We don’t have a good explanation for why that’s the case,” said Steve Hansen, a geoscientist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Image: US Geological Survey

Seeking answers, Hansen recently led a seismic mapping survey of Mount St. Helens. In the summer of 2014, his team deployed thousands of sensors to measure motion in the ground around the volcano. Then, they drilled nearly two dozen holes, packed the holes full of explosives, triggered a handful of minor quakes, and watched as seismic waves bounced around beneath the mountain. “We’re looking at what seismic energy propagates off in the subsurface,” Hansen explained. “It’s a bit like a CAT scan.”

Their analysis, which is published today in Nature Communications, appears to have created more questions than it answered. From seismic reflections, Hansen and his colleagues learned that the types of minerals present at the boundary between Earth’s crust and mantle are markedly different to the east and west of Mount St. Helens, confirming that this area is geologically special. But instead of finding a hot magma chamber directly beneath the volcano, seismic data indicates a relatively cool wedge of serpentine rock.

Not only is Mount St. Helens out of place, but it also lacks the magma reserves we’d expect given its violent history. So, where on Earth is Mount St. Helens getting its fuel?

Hansen suspects the volcano’s magma source lies to the east, closer to the rest of the Cascade Arc, where material in the upper mantle is hotter. But that still leaves the question of why gooey rock being forced westward, through the crust or upper mantle, to erupt in this one off-kilter location. Earthquakes in the deep crust may be partially responsible, but more data is needed to confirm such a link.

Fortunately, more data is exactly what Hansen, and other scientists associated with the Imaging Magma Under St Helens (iMUSH) project, are now collecting. What geologists learn about this weird volcano—how its magmas form, how they moved around, when and why they erupt—could improve our understanding of volcanic arc systems around the world.

“Mount St. Helens is pretty unusual,” Hansen said. “It’s telling us something about how the arc system is behaving, and we don’t yet know what that something is.”

[Nature Communications]

Maddie is a staff writer at Gizmodo

Images: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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Images: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

3,800-Year-Old ‘Tableau’ of Egyptian Boats Discovered

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3,800-Year-Old ‘Tableau’ of Egyptian Boats Discovered
3,800-Year-Old 'Tableau' of Egyptian Boats Discovered

The interior of the structure is about 68 feet by 13 feet (21 by 4 m) and is covered with a tableau containing images of more than 120 ancient Egyptian boats. The images are incised into the white plaster.

Credit: Josef Wegner

More than 120 images of ancient Egyptian boats have been discovered adorning the inside of a building in Abydos, Egypt. The building dates back more than 3,800 years and was built near the tomb of pharaoh Senwosret III, archaeologists reported.

The tableau, as the series of images is called, would have looked upon a real wooden boat said Josef Wegner, a curator at the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, who led the excavation. Only a few planks remain of the wooden boat, which would have been constructed at Abydos or dragged across the desert, Wegner said. In ancient Egypt, boats were sometimes buried near a pharaoh’s tomb.  [In Photos: Tomb Painting Discovered Near Great Pyramid of Giza]

Archaeologists found that the tableau was incised on the white plaster walls of the building.

The largest images are nearly 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length and show “large, well-rendered boats depicted with masts, sails, rigging, deckhouses/cabins, rudders, oars and in some cases rowers,” wrote Wegner in an article published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Some images are small and simple, the smallest reaching only about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in length, wrote Wegner.

An image showing part of the boat tableau, which includes both large and small images. Some of the larger boats are highly detailed, showing masts, sails, rigging, cabins, rudders and oars.

Credit: Josef Wegner 

Though 120 boat images survive today, there would have been more incised on the building walls in ancient times, Wegner wrote. In addition to the boats, the tableau contains incised images of gazelle, cattle and flowers, he noted.

Near the entranceway of the building — whose interior is about 68 feet by 13 feet (21 by 4 m) — archaeologists discovered more than 145 pottery vessels, many of which are buried with their necks facing toward the building’s entrance. “The vessels are necked, liquid-storage jars, usually termed ‘beer jars’ although probably used for storage and transport of a variety of liquids,” wrote Wegner in the journal article.The existence of the building was first noted in a 1904 report by an Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) team that worked at Abydos between 1901 and 1903. However, that team didn’t have time to excavate the building and didn’t know what was in it; “they came down on the very top of the boat building. They saw the vault of it but abandoned work,” Wegner said.

The discoveries leave archaeologists with a series of mysteries that future excavations may help solve. [7 Amazing Archaeological Discoveries from Egypt]

The archaeologists don’t know who drew the tableau or why they created it. “We can’t conclusively answer that on the basis of what’s preserved,” Wegner told Live Science. However, the researchers think multiple people created the tableau within a short period of time, he added.

One of the 120 incised boat images found in the 3,800-year-old structure. The sail on this boat is unfurled.

Credit: Josef Wegner

One possibility is that the people who built the boat also created the tableau, he said. Or, perhaps, a group of people taking part in a funerary ceremony after the death of pharaoh Senwosret III etched the images onto the building walls. Yet another possibility is that a group of people gained access to the building after the pharaoh died and created the tableau. Archaeologists found that a group of individuals entered the building at some point after the pharaoh’s death and took the boat apart, reusing the planks.

Archaeologists are also puzzled over the purpose of all the pottery found near the entrance of the building. It’s possible that those attending a funerary ceremony could have spilled liquid from the pots on the ground on purpose. “Potentially a massive decanting of liquid, likely predominantly water, at the entrance of the building was a way of magically floating the boat,” Wegner wrote in the paper. The boat would not have been literally floated if this ceremony took place.

Another possibility is that the wooden boat was transported on a wooden sledge across the desert. In that case, “water and other liquids may have been used to lubricate and solidify the ground along the path of the boat as it was pulled from the floodplain to its desert resting place,” wrote Wegner, adding that “the ceramic vessels used in this journey may themselves have taken on a ritual significance, and both boat and jars were then buried together as ceremonial interment of objects associated with royal mortuary rites.”

The team plans to carry out excavations in the future that may help solve the various mysteries, he said.

Wegner’s team, in cooperation with Egypt’s Ministry of State for Antiquities, carried out the excavations of the building between 2014 and 2016.

Original article on Live Science.