Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week

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Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week

 Each week we find the most interesting and informative articles we can and along the way we uncover amazing and cool images. Here you’ll discover 10 incredible photos and the stories behind them.

Deep-Sea Alien:

Imagine this fearsome sight: an ink-black shark with gnarly, needle-like teeth; creepy, glass-like eyes; a glowing belly and a potentially extendable jaw. That’s what scientists saw when they pulled up this rare creature, along with four of its pals.

[Full Story: ‘Alien’ Shark with Goblin-Like Jaws Hauled Up from the Deep Sea]

The Blackest Black:

Male birds of paradise have specialized feathers that reflect back only the barest amount of light, creating a light-sucking matte effect.

[Full Story: The ‘Black Hole’ Optical Illusion of the Bird of Paradise Explained]

Bizarre Hitmen:

These killer spiders look like birds and strike like ninjas. New research suggests there’s way more of them than scientists thought.

[Full Story: Pelican Spiders Are the Weirdest-Looking Assassins You’ll Ever See]

Disturbing Robot:

This dirt-dispersing robot-baby torso will crawl out of the lab and into your nightmares.

[Full Story: Why Scientists Just Created the Creepiest Robot Baby You’ll Ever See]

Strange Swirling Droplet:

A viral GIF shows a single drop of liquid spinning like a glorious galaxy until it suddenly evaporates. Why? Good question.

[Full Story: Even Chemists Are Baffled by This GIF of a Droplet Spiraling to Its Doom]

Layers of Ice:

The newfound sheets are buried by just a few feet of Martian dirt in some places, meaning it might be accessible to future crewed missions.

[Full Story: Huge Glaciers Found Hiding Beneath Mars Surface]

In Fossilized Color:

Fossilized eye tissue in a 120-million-year-old bird has revealed that this ancient creature could likely see in color.

[Full Story: This Bird ‘Eyeball’ Survived 120 Million Years]

Surviving the Cold:

Why did these alligators stick their noses out of the water during last week’s cold snap?

[Full Story: Alligators ‘Snorkel’ to Survive Ice-Covered Swamp]

Unexpected Savior:

A marine biologist was surprised when a humpback whale started lifting her out of the water — and even more surprised when she saw what it was protecting her from.

[Full Story: This Humpback Whale Saved a Woman’s Life, But Probably Not on Purpose]


As the Arctic blast continues to roil the Eastern Seaboard with gusty winds and frigid temperatures, at least four thresher sharks have been found frozen off the coast of Cape Cod.

[Full Story: Frozen Sharks Washing Up on Cape Cod]


Chameleons’ Secret Glow Comes from Their Bones

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Chameleons’ Secret Glow Comes from Their Bones

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Chameleons' Secret Glow Comes from Their Bones

No bones about it — chameleons’ fluorescent crest patterns are powered by glow from the lizards’ skulls.

Credit: David Prötzel (ZSM/LMU)

Blending seamlessly into one’s surroundings is known as being “chameleon-like” for a good reason — chameleons shift the colors and patterns of their skin to hide from predators in plain sight, or to communicate during social interactions with other chameleons.

But there’s a secret, illuminated layer to chameleons’ colorful signaling: Scientists recently discovered that the lizards’ bones, particularly on their heads and faces, fluoresce through their skin, creating glow-in-the-dark patterns.

“Chameleons are already famed for their exceptional eyes and visual communication, and now they are among the first known terrestrial squamates [scaled reptiles] that display and likely use fluorescence,” the scientists wrote in the study. [Photos: How Chameleons Change Color]

Biologists have long known that bones glow under ultraviolet (UV) light, but the researchers were astonished to learn that chameleons could harness this characteristic to display visible fluorescent patterns through their skin, study co-author Frank Glaw, a herpetology curator at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology (ZSM) in Munich, Germany, said in a statement.

“That animals use this phenomenon to fluoresce themselves has surprised us and was previously completely unknown,” Glaw said.

A panther chameleon (<i>Furcifer pardalis</i>) from Madagascar puts its best face forward.
A panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) from Madagascar puts its best face forward.

Credit: David Prötzel (ZSM/LMU)


Fluorescence, in which special structures glow in the presence of light, differs from bioluminescence, a process that describes light generated by a chemical reaction between compounds in an animal’s body. Fireflies, some types of fungi and numerous deep-sea creatures are bioluminescent, while fluorescent animals include scorpionscoralsjellyfish, a rare type of sea turtle, and now, chameleons.

The study’s authors looked at 160 specimens representing 31 species in the Calumna genus, a group of chameleons native to Madagascar, and 165 specimens from 20 species of the Furcifer genus, found in Madagascar and parts of Africa. They photographed living animals in their habitats as well as preserved specimens, using UV light to illuminate the chameleons and reveal their glowing patterns.

Next, they turned to micro-computed tomography — 3D X-ray imaging on the microscopic level — to literally connect the dots, matching the glowing spots in the patterns to raised bumps in the lizards’ bones known as tubercles, which provided the source of the glow.

In the brown leaf chameleon (<i>Brookesia superciliaris</i>), tubercles on its skeleton generate glowing patterns of dots that are visible through its skin.

In the brown leaf chameleon (Brookesia superciliaris), tubercles on its skeleton generate glowing patterns of dots that are visible through its skin.

Credit: David Prötzel (ZSM/LMU)


Nearly all the species revealed previously unseen blue patterns on their skin when under UV light, the researchers discovered. Most of the lizards displayed patterning on their heads, but some showed fluorescent markings across their bodies, the study’s first author David Prötzel, a ZSM doctoral student, said in the statement. The patterns appeared blue because the lizards’ thin outer layer of skin serves as a filter, nudging the fluorescence toward the blue end of the spectrum, according to the study.

The thin skin stretched over the bumps serves as a window, allowing UV light to reach the bone and then enabling the shine to reflect through the skin. In shadowy, humid forest habitats, intermittently-visible fluorescent patterns could allow the lizards to signal each other without drawing the attention of predators, the study authors wrote.

Patterns tended to cluster around the chameleons’ eyes and the front of their heads, areas known to be important for communication between individuals. On average, male specimens across species displayed more patterning than females; while it is still uncertain how the chameleons may use fluorescence, this male-skew suggests it may play a role in sexual selection, though further study will be required to say for sure, the scientists explained.

“Fluorescence in terrestrial vertebrates has been underestimated until now, and its role in the evolution of ornamentation remains largely unexplored, but this is a promising avenue for future research,” the study authors reported.

The findings were published online Jan. 15 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Original article on Live Science.

The Most Interesting Science News Articles of the Week

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The Most Interesting Science News Articles of the Week

Each week we uncover the most interesting and informative articles from around the world, here are 10 of the coolest stories in science this week.

This flat metalens can focus nearly the entire visible spectrum of light in the same spot and in high resolution.

This flat metalens can focus nearly the entire visible spectrum of light in the same spot and in high resolution.

Credit: Jared Sisler/Harvard SEAS

Physics could soon make it possible to replace those bulky, heavy, glass lenses on cameras with wafer-thin “metalenses” — materials microscopically engineered to focus light at a fraction of the weight and size of traditional lensing.

A metalens takes a different approach to focusing light. Instead of exploiting the diffraction properties of glass, a metalens uses nanofins — tiny structures, typically made of titanium dioxide — to bend wavelengths toward the metalens focal point. [Read more about the technology.]

Text of one paper fragment is shown matched to text from a page in Edward Cooke's 1712 travelogue and adventure tale.

Text of one paper fragment is shown matched to text from a page in Edward Cooke’s 1712 travelogue and adventure tale.

Credit: Courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

A discovery from the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship could offer some insights into pirate reading tastes. [Read more about the discovery.]

A team of researchers in New Zealand is working to make an astonishing and mysterious medieval document available for public consumption.

The first results of the researchers’ work already appear online in an interactive version of the scroll, where individual passages come alive with their translations as readers zoom and click on them. [Read more about the scroll.]

When water levels in the pond are low, the Tetzacualco can be seen.

When water levels in the pond are low, the Tetzacualco can be seen.

Credit: Arturo Cruz, Terrasat Cartografía

A 1,000-year-old stone structure in Mexico may represent how some people in ancient Mesoamerica believed the Earth was created, an archaeologist suggests.

Given what the archaeologists have found so far, Hernández Bautista hypothesizes that the Tetzacualco’s large size and location in the middle of a pond mean that the structure is an attempt to represent a mythical creature known as Cipactli or Çipaqli, a fish monster from which the gods created the Earth, according to some ancient Mesoamerican legends. [Read more about the ancient structure.]

A photo reveals the face of the thin clay seal.

A photo reveals the face of the thin clay seal.

Credit: Courtesy of the Israeli Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists have discovered a 2,700-year-old clay stamp near Jerusalem’s Western Wall that seems to shed some light on the political structure of the ancient society that inhabited the city.

The 0.5 by 0.6-inch (13 by 15 millimeters) clay stamp depicts two figures facing one another above archaic Hebrew script that reads “לשרער” (roughly: l’sar’ir). The researchers said that the word is a condensed version of the phrase “לשר העיר,” (l’sar ha-ir) which means “belonging to the governor of the city.” [Read more about the piece of clay.]

Satellite data enables scientists to map the seafloor, which is sinking under the weight of rising seas. (This map shows gravity anomalies in the western Indian Ocean.

Satellite data enables scientists to map the seafloor, which is sinking under the weight of rising seas. (This map shows gravity anomalies in the western Indian Ocean.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

The bottom of the ocean is more of a “sunken place” than it used to be.

Scientists have long known that Earth’s crust, or outer layer, is elastic: Earlier research revealed how Earth’s surface warps in response to tidal movements that redistribute masses of water; and 2017’s Hurricane Harvey dumped so much water on Texas that the ground dropped 0.8 inches (2 centimeters), the Atlantic reported. [Read more about the ocean bottom.]

An artist's illustration depicting a hypothetical dust ring orbiting Tabby's star, more formally known as KIC 846.

An artist’s illustration depicting a hypothetical dust ring orbiting Tabby’s star, more formally known as KIC 846.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Well, we always knew the alien-megastructure idea was a long shot.

For the past two-plus years, astronomers have been trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on with Tabby’s star. A number of potential explanations have been floated, from orbiting comet fragments, to a huge dust cloud between Earth and KIC 8462852, to energy-collecting structures built by an advanced alien civilization. [Read more about alien megastructure.]

Would you like your water sparkling, from the tap or hauled out of an unsterilized river upstate? For proponents of the expensive new drinking trend known as “raw water,” the choice is as clear as a Poland Spring.

According to the Times, part of the movement’s success may come from that very “off the grid” appeal: Raw water passes through no federal or municipal pipes, contains no additives (such as fluoride, a naturally occurring mineral typically added to tap water to fight tooth decay), and generally receives no filtration, ensuring every bottle remains as mineral-rich as Mother Nature intended. [Read more about the trend.]

Discovery and excavation of the Upward Sun River infants

Discovery and excavation of the Upward Sun River infants

Credit: Ben Potter

A genetic analysis of a baby’s remains dating back 11,500 years suggests that a previously unknown human population was among the first to settle in the Americas.

Many thousands of years ago, the site where the infant lived — albeit briefly — and died was a residential camp with three tent-like structures. [Read more about the first Americans.]

Researchers use a highly sensitive imaging system to examine a coffin lid.

Researchers use a highly sensitive imaging system to examine a coffin lid.

Credit: Copyright Cerys Jones

About 2,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians made homemade wrappings for mummies from “recycled” scraps of paper that people had first used to scribble down shopping lists and personal notes.

In ancient Egypt, mummies were embalmed and then wrapped in fabric bandages. Then, they were covered with cartonnage, a paper-mache material made from recycled papyri and sometimes fabric, Gibson said. Once the cartonnage hardened and was covered with plaster, artisans painted it. [Read more about the camera.]

Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week

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Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week

 Each week we find the most interesting and informative articles we can and along the way we uncover amazing and cool images. Here you’ll discover 10 incredible photos and the stories behind them.

Falling Iguanas:

It’s snowing iguanas in Florida. The good news is they probably aren’t dead.

[Full Story: Watch for Falling Iguanas! Bomb Cyclone Drops Frozen Lizards]

Tooooo Cold:

The “bomb cyclone,” with its whipping winds and foot-plus snowdrifts, has passed. So what gives?

[Full Story: Brrrr! Why It’s So $#%*! Cold]

Losing Oxygen:

Oxygen is draining from the oceans, and oxygen-depleted “dead zones” are on the rise.

[Full Story: The Ocean Is Suffocating, and It’s Our Fault]

Icy Waves:

There’s one upside to the frigid weather: gorgeous slushy waves.

[Full Story: Surf’s Frozen? Slurpee Waves Spotted on Nantucket Beach]

Earth Under Seige:

As a powerful bomb cyclone winter storm curls across the U.S. East Coast this morning (Jan. 4), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) GOES-East satellite is snapping stunning images of the Earth’s surface.

[Full Story: ‘Bomb Cyclone’ Swirls Across US East Coast in a Stunning View of Earth]

Snow in Florida:

It may not be much – just 0.1 inches (0.25 centimeters) – but it’s the first measurable snowfall Tallahassee, Florida, has seen in 28 years.

[Full Story: Flaky Weather: Why Tallahassee Got Its 1st Measurable Snow in Decades]

Beauty on a Butt:

Behold the tiny, luminous badonkadonk that could further the field of optics.

[Full Story: ‘Nature’s Smallest Rainbow’ Found on Australian Spider’s Butt]

Effects of a Bomb:

An intense “bomb cyclone” is battering the U.S. East Coast today (Jan. 4), with high winds and intense snowfall forecast for the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states. See the latest views from NASA and NOAA here.

[Full Story: See the ‘Bomb Cyclone’ Hit US East Coast in These NASA and NOAA Gifs]

Overcoming a Disease:

For the past four years, a mysterious syndrome has been killing millions of sea stars along the West Coast, turning the five-armed critters into piles of goo. But now, the sea stars appear to be making a comeback, according to news reports.

[Full Story: Sea Stars Make a Comeback After Mysterious ‘Goo’ Disease Killed Millions]

Mapping the World:

Google Earth is an amazing trove of visuals from all over the planet, and new strange things turn up in it all the time. Here are the best from 2017.

[Full Story: 6 Strange Sites Spotted on Google Earth in 2017]

The Best Science Photos of 2017

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The Best Science Photos of 2017

Science is stunning

The year was full of exciting, jaw-dropping photos related to science. From adorable animals — like a 4-month-old gorilla and a pair of nuzzling orange-beaked puffins — to stunning pictures of our amazing planet, long-extinct creatures like the world’s largest shark, here are the science photos that stood out in 2017.

Plankton Light Up

Otherworldly blue light dances in Three Cliffs Bay near Swansea, Wales in a gorgeous image taken June 18. Landscape photographer Alyn Wallace captured this view under a star-spangled sky. The blue is created by bioluminescent plankton, which sparkle when disturbed by currents or splashes. [Shimmering Sea: Why a Beautiful Blue Glow Lit Up the Coast of Wales]

Cyclone Licks the Coast

Like a tentative cat, a July cyclone reaches out to taste the coast of Portugal in this satellite image released by NASA. A low-pressure system pulled coastal moisture from over the ocean toward the warm, dry atmosphere of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured the swirling clouds. [Cyclone ‘Licks’ Portugal Coast in Gorgeous Space Image]

Deadly Beauty

“Blue Lasso,” by Matty Smith, won the 2017 Ocean Art Underwater Photo Competition’s “Best in Show” prize for its stark depiction of a Pacific man-of-war photographed against a night sky in New South Wales, Australia. Man-of-Wars are colonial animals made up of four separate types of polyps, which are all unique organisms of their own that function together as a single creature. [Dramatic Man-of-War Takes Top Ocean Art Photography Prize]

Teeth in the Deep

The ocean’s horrors come to life in this artist’s impression of a megalodon on the hunt. The largest shark that ever lived went extinct about 2.5 million years ago, and a study published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecologysuggested that the reason had to do with a lack of prey for these gigantic beasts. []

Puffin Love

A pair of orange-beaked puffins nuzzle in this moody black-and-white image. A study released in April found that orange-beaked puffins, which form long-term monogamous relationships, stick close together during their annual winter migrations, a strategy that probably allows them to coordinate their return to the breeding colony in Wales each spring. [Puffin Couples Stay Close During ‘Winter Break’]
A pyrocumulus cloud created by the Thomas Fire looms over Santa Barbara.

Credit: Greg Vitalich

On Sunday (Dec.10), a massive gray cloud formed over Southern California’s Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, filling the sky with dark towers of smoke and shocking onlookers for miles around. The ominous cloud looked like an ash column from a volcanic eruption, but the culprit was a wildfire.

The cloud, created by the ongoing Thomas Fire that has scorched more than 230,500 acres (93,280 hectares) of Southern California, is an example of a pyrocumulus cloud — literally, a puffy cumulus cloud formed by the hot air and smoke released into the sky during wildfires and volcanic eruptions. [Wildfires Blaze in Northern California (Photos)]

“Pyrocumulus clouds form when wildfires burn hot enough to generate very strong upward motion, which we call updrafts,” said Nick Nauslar, a research scientist for the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies/Storm Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

These clouds tend to be gray, brown or black because of the smoke in the air, and can tower up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) high, according to NASA. But besides being terrifying, pyrocumulus clouds can develop dangerous weather systems of their own, and potentially lead to more and harder-to-tame wildfires, Nauslar told Live Science.

Walking Polymer

A ‘walking’ polymer inches like a caterpillar in a time-lapse image released in June. This polymer is made of light-activated materials and inches along when exposed to a light source. It can even carry small objects (small grains of sand) or push items larger than itself uphill. [Light Makes New Material Creep Like a Caterpillar]
Jaw-Dropping Vision Helps Tiny Flies Snag Prey in Under a Second

Robber Fly

What big eyes you have! This robber fly is a mere 6 millimeters in length, but its huge, faceted eyes give it some of the best vision among insects, researchers reported in March. Using their keen eyesight, the flies can capture prey as far as 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) away. [Jaw-Dropping Vision Helps Tiny Flies Snag Prey in Under a Second]
Incredible Image of Bubble-Blowing Wasp Has a Scientific Explanation

Water Droplet Wasp

A wasp seems to play ball with a water droplet in this macro image released in October. What the insect is actually doing is sucking up excess water from its nest and flicking it away. [Incredible Image of Bubble-Blowing Wasp Has a Scientific Explanation]
Satellite images showed significant damage to Palmyra’s Tetrapylon and Roman theater in January 2017.

Credit: ASOR and DigitalGlobe

A month after retaking control of Palmyra, the Islamic State group (also called ISIS or Daesh) has allegedly committed new destruction and executions in the ancient Syrian city.

Two of Palmyra’s iconic monuments, the Tetrapylon and the Roman theater, have experienced  “significant damage,” according to the Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI) of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), which obtained new satellite images of the site from DigitalGlobe.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleges that ISIS is again using the archaeological site for mass executions, killing a group of 12 prisoners on Jan. 19. [See Photos of the Destruction to the Tetrapylon and Theater in Palmyra]

“One might interpret these destructions and the recent executions of prisoners, including civilians, at Palmyra as designed by Daesh to develop propaganda,” said Michael Danti, a Boston University archaeologist and academic director of ASOR CHI. “We are braced for a possible release of video footage by Daesh.”

The new reports are reminiscent of the Islamic State group’s previous occupation of the site, from May 2015 to March 2016. During that period, ISIS militants executed prisoners in the Roman theater and hung the body of archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra’s longtime head of antiquities, from a column at the site. The group also blew up Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph and destroyed several other monuments, statues and funerary towers at the UNESCO World Heritage site.

“This destruction is a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity,” UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement. “This new blow against cultural heritage, just a few hours after UNESCO received reports about mass executions in the theater, shows that cultural cleansing led by violent extremists is seeking to destroy both human lives and historical monuments in order to deprive the Syrian people of its past and its future.”

Satellite images showed that this Roman monument called a tetrapylon in Palmyra has been badly damaged.

Credit: nikidel /

Danti told Live Science that ISIS has not been very active lately in staged or deliberate destructions of heritage sites as they battle to keep control of territory in Syria and Iraq. The group has, however, vandalized cultural sites and infrastructure as they withdraw or retreat from some areas, Danti said.

“For example, as they pulled out of the campus of Mosul University, they burned campus buildings,” Danti said. (In 2015, ISIS also released a video showing militants ransacking the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq.)

“It all adds up to a massive cultural heritage and educational crisis for Syria and Iraq that will require large-scale, concerted action from the international community as one part of a massive humanitarian relief program,” Danti added.

The latest damage to monuments at Palmyra took place sometime between Dec. 26, 2016, and Jan. 10, 2017, according to ASOR CHI. (TheSyrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums said that locals had informed them about the destruction at Palmyra at least a week ago.)

The Tetrapylon was built to make Palmyra’s main street look more harmonious, as it lies at a point where the route changes direction, according to ASOR CHI. This structure has four large platforms, each supporting four massive columns. The latest satellite images show that now just two columns remain standing, and debris is scattered around the structure. ASOR CHI says this monument seems to have been intentionally destroyed using explosives.

The satellite images also show that the Roman theater, which dates back to the second century A.D., has sustained damage to its stage backdrop and new stone debris appears to be scattered across the center of the stage.

Since war broke out in Syria in 2011, archaeologists have been turning to satellite data to monitor destruction and looting of the region’s heritage sites, which include prehistoric mounds, Roman outposts and the ruins of Assyrian, Persian and Akkadian empires.

Original article on Live Science.

The Haunting Face of a Man Who Lived 700 Years Ago

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The Haunting Face of a Man Who Lived 700 Years Ago

Behold “Context 958″—an ordinary man who lived in 13th century England. (Credit: Dr. Chris Rynn, University of Dundee)

This may look like a photograph, but the highly realistic face staring back at you belongs to a man who died over 700 years ago. The researchers who performed this unbelievable facial reconstruction say their work is providing new details about the way ordinary people lived in medieval England.

This 13th-century man—dubbed “Context 958″—is one of approximately 400 complete burials found and excavated beneath the Old Divinity School of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, between 2010 and 2012. Back during the medieval era, this spot was home to the Hospital of St. John, a charitable institution set up to care for the poor and sick in the community. For centuries, the dead were buried in a cemetery right out back.

Facial reconstruction of Context 958. (Image credit: Dr. Chris Rynn, University of Dundee)

The reconstruction of Context 958 is part of a collaborative effort between Cambridge University’s Division of Archaeology and the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification. The Wellcome Trust-funded project, called “After the plague: health and history in medieval Cambridge,” is an effort to catalogue and analyze the burials in as much depth and detail as possible.

Based on an exhaustive analysis of his remains and the burial site, here’s what we know about Context 958.

He was just slightly over 40 years old when he died. His skeleton showed signs of considerable wear-and-tear, so he likely lead a tough and hard working life. His tooth enamel stopped growing during two occasions in his youth, suggesting he likely lived through bouts of famine or sickness when he was young. The archaeologists found traces of blunt force trauma inflicted to the back of his head, which healed over before he died. The researchers aren’t sure what he did for a living, but they think he was a working-class person who specialized in some kind of trade.

Dr. Sarah Inskip examines the skull of Context 958. (Image credit: Laure Bonner)

Context 958 ate a diverse diet rich in meat or fish, according to an analysis of weathering patterns on his teeth. His profession may have provided him with more access to such foods than the average person at the time. His presence at the charitable hospital suggests he fell on hard times, with no one to take care of him.

“Context 958 was probably an inmate of the Hospital of St John, a charitable institution which provided food and a place to live for a dozen or so indigent townspeople—some of whom were probably ill, some of whom were aged or poor and couldn’t live alone,” noted John Robb, a professor from Cambridge University’s Division of Archaeology, in a statement.

Strangely, he was buried face down, which is rare but not unheard of in medieval burials. Robb and his colleagues are fascinated by Context 958 and those like him. Their analysis shows what it was like to live as an ordinary poor person back then—warts and all.

Context 958 was found buried face-down in the historic cemetery of St John’s. (Image credit: C. Cessford)

“Most historical records are about well-off people and especially their financial and legal transactions—the less money and property you had, the less likely anybody was to ever write down anything about you,” said Robb. “So skeletons like this are really our chance to learn about how the ordinary poor lived.”

Of course, facial reconstructions are only as good as the data they’re based on, in this case a highly-weathered skeleton. We can’t be completely certain that this is exactly what Context 958 looked like. But at the very least, it’s bringing his remains back to life. Work on other skeletons found at the site will continue, as the researchers are putting together a kind of biography of every individual studied. It’s a fitting tribute to regular folks whose lives would have otherwise been completely forgotten.

[University of Cambridge]

Scientists Figure Out Why Italian Family Can’t Feel Pain

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Scientists Figure Out Why Italian Family Can’t Feel Pain

Some guy named Robert Earl’s broken leg (Image: rearl/Flickr)

An Italian woman, her two daughters, and her three grandchildren have always had trouble feeling pain. They can’t sense temperature. They break bones without noticing. Now, a team of scientists in the United Kingdom think they’ve figured out why.

Pain—whether it’s the sharp agony of a stubbed toe or the warning heat that comes before a burn—is an everyday occurrence for most people, but not for this unusual Italian family. By studying both the family members’ genetics and mice, researchers think they’ve located the gene responsible for their insensitivity. One day, this knowledge could help others treat chronic pain.

“Genetic analysis of a human family with Marsili syndrome, a rare and perhaps unique inherited pain insensitive phenotype, and mouse modeling have shown ZFHX2 as a critical gene for normal pain perception,” the authors write in the study published recently in the journal Brain. The syndrome’s name, Marsili, comes from this very family.

The family members agreed to go through rigorous examination for the new research—tests that sound like mild torture to a normal pain-feeler. They were poked at tender points, touched surfaces ranging from 14 degrees to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and dunked their hands in ice water.

Finally, the researchers sequenced part of the family’s genomes, revealing a new mutation in the “ZFHX2″ gene. This gene alters how nociceptors, the pain-sensing part of the nerve cells that turn sensory inputs into stimuli for the brain, translate DNA code into protein-making instructions.

Previous research has created mice without that ZFHX2 gene, and those mice turned out to be pretty weird: They were more hyperactive and showed signs of mouse depression. In this new study, the ZFHX2-altered mice had difficulty sensing hot and cold, offering further evidence that a mutation in the gene is what causes the family’s lack of pain.

It’s important to note that the mutant mice didn’t show exactly the same symptoms as the humans did—and the genetics of pain are more complex than single genes. Other people who have fractured bones without feeling pain have had mutations on another gene, called SCN11A, for example. Much about pain is still poorly understood, according to a Nature editorial.

But understanding mutations such as these may one day lead to better pain treatment ideas. Further work is needed to determine which genes might be the best targets for painkilling therapies, the authors write.

As for the Italian family, New Scientist reports that they’d rather not sense pain normally. I mean, me too.

[Brain via New Scientist]