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Robert Boessenecker
Robert Boessenecker

Scientists Discover Seal-Like Prehistoric Predator

Robert Boessenecker
Robert Boessenecker

Last month, paleontologists announced a new species of ancient pinniped—a group that includes modern seals, sea lions, and walruses. The animal lived off the coast of what is now Washington state about 10 million years ago and probably fished like seals do, relying on the power of its oversized eyes to track its prey. Robert Boessenecker, an adjunct lecturer who works for College of Charleston’s department of geology and environmental sciences, recently presented a study on the newfound fossil at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Salt Lake City.

Discovered in Washington’s Grays Harbor County in the 1980s, the incomplete skeleton consists of neck vertebrae, a well-preserved ribcage, a partial sternum, and a skull with jawbones. It was encased in exceptionally hard rock that took scientists prepping the fossil two decades to clear away. Judging by the available remains, the animal was more than 8 feet long—about the size of an adult male California sea lion. 

Boessenecker coauthored the study with paleontologists Tom Deméré of the San Diego Museum of Natural History and Morgan Churchill of the New York Institute of Technology. Together, they were able to classify the creature as a new species of Allodesmus, a pinniped genus whose members once roamed coastal Japan and North America’s western seaboard. Although a species name has been chosen for the animal, it has yet to be made public. “We plan on naming [it] after a beloved colleague who has contributed extensively to pinniped paleontology,” Boessenecker tells mental_floss. “But we’re going to keep that under wraps for now.”

The newly discovered animal hailed from a marine mammal family known as the desmatophocids, which evolved around 23 million years ago. From the neck down, they looked very much like today’s seals and walruses, both of which sport a combination of enlarged front flippers and well-developed hind limbs. But the skulls contained a mix of features seen in a variety of pinnipeds today—and some evidence suggests that they had trunk-like noses similar to modern elephant seals.

Notably, the new Allodesmus also features proportionally huge eye sockets, each of which could house a poolroom eight ball. Their dimensions suggest it had exceptionally keen eyesight, allowing the animal to function as a deep-diving predator. Because the ocean gets darker the farther you get from the surface, the size of its eyes would have allowed it to absorb large quantities of light far beneath the waves. While navigating through the inky depths, it would’ve most likely hunted down such game as fish and squid.

Boessenecker’s team closely studied the skeleton to see what they could learn about its life. With the exception of some seals, most pinnipeds are strongly sexually dimorphic: Their relative body size, in other words, makes it easy to distinguish their gender. Fossil evidence reveals that the same was true of this Allodesmus species; the skeleton’s size and the thickness of its canines suggest it was male.

It’s also obvious that the Grays Harbor specimen was nibbled on after it died. “Fossil dogfish teeth were found around the skeleton of our Allodesmus, and numerous bite marks are present [as well],” Boessenecker says. Then, as now, a marine mammal’s corpse must’ve looked like an irresistible banquet to the ocean’s many opportunists.

At about 10 million years old, the animal is the youngest-known desmatophocid specimen on record. Its relative youth may reveal quite a bit about the evolution and ultimate disappearance of this pinniped group. “Truth is, we have no idea why desmatophocids died out,” Boessenecker says. “Perhaps our new species was in a very specialized niche, surviving as long as possible [until it was] eventually snuffed out, a possibility that remains for our most charismatic extant pinniped." 

To Boessenecker, the "most charismatic extant pinniped" is the walrus. In fact, the rise of walruses might have been a factor in the disappearance of pinnipeds like the Grays Harbor animal, because they may have gradually outcompeted Allodesmus and its kin between 13 and 8 million years ago. Back then, the walrus family was a large and diverse group whose members included such oddballs as the four-tusked, mollusk-eating Gomphotaria pugnax. But today, there’s only one remaining species of walrus—and it’s currently at risk of becoming endangered. Boessenecker and his team hope that by learning more about the Grays Harbor Allodesmus, we’ll be able to better understand and protect pinnipeds today.

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DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures
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Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

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Essential Science
What Is Death?
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The only thing you can be certain about in life is death. Or is it? Merriam-Webster defines death as "a permanent cessation of all vital functions." The Oxford English dictionary refines that to "the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue." But determining when someone is dead is surprisingly complicated—the medical definition has changed over the centuries and, in many ways, is still evolving.

DEATH, DEFINED

For most of human history, doctors relied on basic observations to determine whether or not a person had died. (This may be why so many feared being buried alive and went to great lengths to ensure they wouldn't be.) According to Marion Leary, the director of innovation research for the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, "If a person wasn't visibly breathing, if they were cold and bluish in color, for example, they would be considered dead."

As time went on, the markers for death changed. Before the mid-1700s, for example, people were declared dead when their hearts stopped beating—a conclusion drawn from watching traumatic deaths such as decapitations, where the heart seemed to be the last organ to give up. But as our understanding of the human body grew, other organs, like the lungs and brain, were considered metrics of life—or death.

Today, that remains true to some degree; you can still be declared dead when your heart and lungs cease activity. And yet you can also be declared dead if both organs are still working, but your brain is not.

In most countries, being brain dead—meaning the whole brain has stopped working and cannot return to functionality—is the standard for calling death, says neuroscientist James Bernat, of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "A doctor has to show that the loss of brain function is irreversible," he tells Mental Floss. In some cases, a person can appear to be brain dead if they have overdosed on certain drugs or have suffered from hypothermia, for example, but the lack of activity is only temporary—these people aren't truly brain dead.

In the U.S., all states follow some form of the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which in 1981 defined a dead person as "an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem."

But that's not the end of the story. In two states, New York and New Jersey, families can reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs. This makes it possible for someone to be considered alive in some states and dead in others.

A BLURRED LINE

In the past, if one of a person's three vital systems—circulation, respiration, and brain function—failed, the rest would usually stop within minutes of each other, and there was no coming back from that. But today, thanks to technological advances and medical breakthroughs, that's no longer necessarily the case. CPR can be performed to restart a heartbeat; a person who has suffered cardiac arrest can often be resuscitated within a 20- to 30-minute window (in rare cases, people have been revived after several hours). And since the 1950s, machines have been used to take on the role of many of the body's vital functions. People who stop breathing naturally can be hooked up to ventilators to move air in and out of their lungs, for example.

While remarkable, this life-extending technology has blurred the line between life and death. "A person can now have certain characteristics of being alive and others of being dead," Bernat says.

People with severe, irreversible brain damage fall into this mixed category. Many lie in intensive care units where ventilators breathe for them, but because they have minimal reflexes or movements, they're considered alive, especially by their families. Medical professionals, however, may disagree, leading to painful and complex debates about whether someone is alive.

Take the case of Jahi McMath, whose tonsil surgery in 2013, at age 13, went terribly wrong, leaving her brain dead—or so doctors thought. Her family refused to believe she was dead and moved her from Oakland, California, to New Jersey, where she was provided with feeding tubes in addition to her ventilator. After several months, her mother began recording videos that she said were proof that Jahi could move different parts of her body when asked to. Additional brain scans revealed that although some parts of her brain, like her brain stem, were largely destroyed, the structure of large parts of her cerebrum, which is responsible for consciousness, language, and voluntary movements, was intact. Her heart rate also changed when her mother spoke, leading a neurologist to declare last year, after viewing many of her mother's videos, that she is technically alive—nearly four years after she was pronounced brain dead. By her mother's reckoning, Jahi turned 17 on October 24, 2017.

Organ donation adds another layer of complications. Since an organ needs to be transplanted as quickly as possible to avoid damage, doctors want to declare death as soon as they can after a person has been disconnected from a machine. The protocol is usually to wait for five minutes after a donor's heart and breathing have stopped. However, some believe that's not long enough, since the person could still be resuscitated at that point.

Bernat—whose research interests include brain death and the definition of death, consciousness disorders including coma and vegetative states, and ethical and philosophical issues in neurology—disagrees. "I would argue that breathing and circulation has permanently ceased even if it hasn't irreversibly ceased," he says. "It won't restart by itself."

THE FUTURE OF BRINGING PEOPLE BACK TO LIFE

As resuscitation technology improves, scientists may find new ways to reverse death. One promising approach is therapeutic hypothermia. Sometimes used on heart attack patients who have been revived, the therapy uses cooling devices to lower body temperature, usually for about 24 hours. "It improves a patient's chance of recovering from cardiac arrest and the brain injury [from a lack of oxygen] that can result from it," says Leary, who specializes in research and education relating to cardiac arrest, CPR quality, and therapeutic hypothermia.

One more out-there possibility—which had its heyday in the early 2000s but still has its proponents today—is cryonic freezing, in which dead bodies (and in some cases, just people's heads) are preserved in the hope that they can be brought back once technology advances. Just minutes after death, a cryonaut's body is chilled; a chest compression device called a thumper keeps blood flowing through the body, which is then shot up with anticoagulants to prevent blood clots from forming; and finally, the blood is flushed out and replaced with a kind of antifreeze to halt the cell damage that usually occurs from freezing.

The idea is highly controversial. "It makes a good story for a movie, but it seems crazy to me," Bernat says. "I don't think it's the answer." But even if cryogenics is out, Bernat does believe that certain types of brain damage now thought to be permanent could one day be subject to medical intervention. "There is currently a huge effort in many medical centers to study brain resuscitation," he says.

Genetics provides another potential frontier. Scientists recently found that some genes in mice and fish live on after they die. And even more surprisingly, other genes regulating embryonic development, which switch off when an animal is born, turn on again after death. We don't yet know if the same thing happens in humans.

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