Artist impression of llukalkan aliocranianus

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New dinosaur named ‘the one who causes fear’

The discovery of a new dinosaur has been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeonotology. The dinosaur has been named Llukalkan aliocranianus, meaning “the one who causes fear”.

About 80 million years ago, Llukalkan was believed to be among the top predators in what is now Patagonia. It could grow to up to five metres in size, had an extremely powerful bite with sharp teeth, huge claws and a keen sense of smell.

The dinosaur is part of the Abelisauridae family, and it features a rougher and shorter skull than its other abelisaurid relatives. This probably gave it better hearing.

Its full name comes from both native Mapuche (Llukalkan, “one who causes fear”), and Latin (aliocranianus, “different skull”).

“This is a particularly important discovery because it suggests that the diversity and abundance of abelisaurids were remarkable, not only across Patagonia, but also in more local areas during the dinosaurs’ twilight period,” says lead author Dr Federico Gianechini, a paleontologist at the National University of San Luis, Argentina.

Mummified scarlet macaw recovered from Pica 8 in northern Chile. Credit: Calogero Santoro, Universidad de Tarapacá, and José Capriles, Penn State

Mummified parrots hint at ancient trade in the Atacama Desert

A study of mummified parrots from the Atacama Desert has shown that communities there traded with the rest of South America for at least 350 years between 1100 and 1450 CE.

Live scarlet macaw from the Bolivian Amazonia. Credit: Carlos Capriles Farfán

Parrots and macaws appear in other parts of South America, but they’re not native to the arid Atacama. The research, published in PNAS, examined mummified parrot remains found in that area with radiocarbon dating, ancient DNA testing and isotopic dietary analysis. They found the original birds belonged in the eastern Amazon, at least 500 kilometres away.

“The fact that live birds made their way across the more-than-10,000-foot-high Andes is amazing,” says José M. Capriles, assistant professor of anthropology at Penn State University in the US. “They had to be transported across huge steppes, cold weather and difficult terrain to the Atacama. And they had to be kept alive.”

Detail of mummified blue-fronted amazon recovered from Pica 8 cemetery in the Atacama Desert. Credit: Calogero Santoro, Universidad de Tarapacá and José Capriles, Penn State

The birds have mostly been associated with human burials, but the haphazard way samples have been collected – through salvaging, museum archives and archaeological digs – makes the data patchy in some areas.

“We have absolutely no idea why they were mummified like this,” says Capriles. “They seem to be eviscerated through their cloaca (a common excretory and reproductive opening), which helped to preserve them. Many times, they were wrapped in textiles or bags.”

Shakespeare could help medical students empathise with patients

An article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine advocates for study of William Shakespeare’s plays in medical school. The paper, written by palliative care doctor David Jeffrey, suggests that the empathetic approach of the playwright can improve the doctor-patient relationship.

“Shakespeare speaks through times of crisis, underlining the centrality of empathic human relationships,” writes Jeffrey.

“Medical humanities are often on the fringes of medical education but should be central to medicine culture change. A special study module would be one way of introducing Shakespeare studies to the undergraduate curriculum.”

Grizzly bears find hiking trails ideal

Grizzly bears seem to be attracted to human hiking trails in North America, with a disproportionately high number of bears encountering hikers when they have the rest of a park to roam. New research by The Company of Biologists explains why, showing that the maximum gradients set by the US National Park service are ideal for bears as well as humans.

The researchers examined captive grizzlies in a specially designed enclosure, with treadmills that could be adjusted to different gradients. “Grizzly bears are amazing animals to work with,” says Anthony Carnahan, lead other on a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. “As long as you respect what they’re capable of, don’t surprise them and give them space, they’re actually pretty predictable.”

The team tracked the oxygen consumption of the bears as they plodded along the treadmills, encouraged by the occasional apple treat, administered through a wall to protect the researchers. “The most stressful part of rewarding them was ensuring that the apple slice didn’t fall resulting in the bear turning around on the treadmill to go after it,” says Carnahan.

They found that the bears needed a lot of energy to ascend and descend steep slopes, and tended to select paths with a gradient of no more than 10% – much like humans.

Mice hold venomous potential

Hidden inside our genome is a genetic foundation for oral venom that we share with snakes.

The Taiwan habu is an invasive species that has become well established in Okinawa. Credit: OIST/Steven Aird

Researchers from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) and the Australian National University published a paper in PNAS that details the molecular link between venom glands in snakes and saliva glands in mammals.

The venom used in the study was collected from the Taiwan habu snake and compared to mice.

“Many scientists have intuitively believed this is true, but this is the first real solid evidence for the theory that venom glands evolved from early salivary glands,” says lead author Agneesh Barua of OIST.

“And while snakes then went crazy, incorporating many different toxins into their venom and increasing the number of genes involved in producing venom, mammals like shrews produce simpler venom that has a high similarity to saliva.”