What you may have missed…

Baby pterosaurs fly the nest

Infant pterosaurs may have taken to the air as soon as they cracked out of the egg, according to UK scientists. These reptiles dominated the skies during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods (228 to 66 million years ago), but it’s rare to find fossils of hatchlings or embryos, so researchers previously didn’t know whether babies flew.

Now, a team led by the University of Southampton have found fossils of newly hatched specimens from two pterosaur species. By making wing and body measurements and comparing them with adult fossils, the team found that the infant pterosaurs were already strong enough for flight.

They wouldn’t have been able to fly very long, according to the study in Scientific Reports – but they could have used their wings to dodge predators and chase down nimble prey.

Night-time weather forecast on Venus

Japanese scientists have used the orbiting Akatsuki spacecraft to image the dark side of Venus, revealing new knowledge about the planet’s weather.

Venus is sometimes called Earth’s sister planet, sharing a similar size, mass and place in the solar system. But there are a lot of differences – including the length of a day. It takes this cloudy planet about 243 Earth days to spin once on its axis, meaning that its night lasts for months.

Imaging the night-time side is difficult due to the lack of sunlight, explains Takeshi Imamura from the University of Tokyo: “Small-scale cloud patterns in the direct images are faint and frequently indistinguishable from background noise.”

270869 small
The three main weather patterns on Venus. Researchers think the dayside poleward circulation and newly discovered nightside equatorial circulation may fuel the planetwide super-rotation that dominates the surface of Venus. Credit: 2021 JAXA/Imamura et al.

But Imamura and team developed a technique to reduce the noise and make images clearer – which they used to study the weather.

“We are finally able to observe the north-south winds, known as meridional circulation, at night,” says Imamura. “What’s surprising is these run in the opposite direction to their daytime counterparts. Such a dramatic change cannot occur without significant consequences.

“This observation could help us build more accurate models of the Venusian weather system which will hopefully resolve some long-standing, unanswered questions about Venusian weather, and probably Earth weather too.”

Want more potatoes? Use RNA

Research led by the University of Chicago has shown that by manipulating RNA, crop yields can be increased by up to 50%.

From high school biology you might remember that within a cell, the molecule RNA (ribonucleic acid) can read the instructions from our DNA and then make proteins to carry out tasks. But RNA doesn’t just blindly follow instructions; the cell itself can help regulate the type and number of proteins RNA makes, by placing markers on the RNA molecule.

In the study, published in Nature Biotechnology, the team added a gene encoding for a protein called FTO to the RNA in both rice and potato plants. This protein is known to “erase” chemical marks on RNA. As a result, the plants grew larger, produced longer root systems, photosynthesised more efficiently, and coped better with drought.

“This really provides the possibility of engineering plants to potentially improve the ecosystem as global warming proceeds,” says co-lead author Chuan He, from the University of Chicago. “We rely on plants for many, many things – everything from wood, food and medicine, to flowers and oil – and this potentially offers a way to increase the stock material we can get from most plants.”

Trees help young minds grow

On another plant-related note, researchers have found that being around trees every day is beneficial for the brain development and mental health of kids.

The study looked at data from 3,568 young people between 9 and 15 across 31 schools in the UK, with the aim of examining the effects of green spaces (like woods and grasslands) and blue spaces (like lakes and rivers).

The results? Trees were associated with higher scores for brain development, as well as a lower risk of emotional and behavioural problems – though the same couldn’t be said for grasslands and blue spaces.

“The past decades have seen a tremendous population growth in urban areas, which is linked to a number of various human health effects, including risks of developing cognitive problems and mental-health issues,” the authors write in their paper, published in Nature Sustainability.

“Our results suggest that urban planning decisions to optimise ecosystem benefits linked to cognitive development and mental health should carefully consider the type of natural environment included.”

Clever crows craft tools

DNA has just helped solve the riddle of how New Caledonian crows craft their tools.

A crow using a stick to get insects out of a hole in a branch.
Credit: James St Clair

These corvid critters are the only non-human animal known to manufacture hooked tools in the wild, used to pry invertebrates from holes and crevices. But scientists didn’t previously know what plants these crows used to source their materials.

“They remove leaves and much of the bark, making it impossible to quickly identify the plant species,” explains Linda Neaves, a researcher from Australian National University.

Working with colleagues from the University of St Andrews and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, Neaves used DNA to match one of these hooked tools with Spanish Cherry (Mimusops elengi), a large tree native to the tropics around southeast Asia and Australia.

The study is published in PNAS.

Please login to favourite this article.