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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor
It’s no secret that eating a lot of meat is a fraught dietary decision. From the health consequences to the ethical and environmental implications, being an omnivore carries a lot of baggage. So in 2018, I made the personal choice to switch to a mostly vegetarian lifestyle, with one notable exception: poultry.
Environmentally speaking, chicken is technically better than beef when it comes to limiting your carbon footprint. But my somewhat ridiculous rationale was drawn mostly from the scientific consensus that birds are dinosaurs. That means modern turkeys (above), chickens, and ducks are descended from vicious theropod predators that would have ripped into me without a second thought if I suddenly materialized in the Cretaceous period. Turnabout is fair play, I reckoned.
However, it seems the more we learn about dinosaurs, the more I may need to rethink my dinner menu.
Just look at Velociraptors, which are among the most misunderstood “terror lizards” yet. A far cry from the large, scaly pack hunters depicted in Jurassic Park, real Velociraptors were solitary stalkers closer to the size of wolves that were covered in feathers. “Given the chance, this predator likely wouldn’t have hunted humans, either,” Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever writes, shattering my logic.
Further eroding my argument, it seems that theropods were much more family-oriented than I would have assumed. One of the most astonishing advances we’ve made in paleontology is the discovery of fossilized pigments, which have been allowing us to re-create these animals in increasingly vibrant ways. Not too long ago, paleontologists found out that the dinosaur Deinonychus—the actual model for those cinematic Velociraptors—probably had blue eggs like those of today’s emus, our Michael Greshko reports. Blue shells would have helped delicate eggs stay camouflaged because, to a dinosaur’s eyes, the white mineral that makes up eggshell would have glowed pink. And in modern birds, colored eggs (shown below) are linked to open nesting, which is a sign of an invested parent.
Because of the pandemic, there’s not a lot about Thanksgiving that will be normal this year. But I for one will be skipping the roast turkey no matter what, because it seems the real lives of dinosaurs were so much more nuanced than I imagined.
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Today in a minute
Ancient psychedelica: Centuries ago, at least some people visited a rock art site in an altered state of consciousness, a new study shows. How do researchers know? Researchers found chewed-up wads of datura, a plant with powerful psychoactive properties, stuffed into the cracks of the ceiling of a sacred cave in Southern California, Megan Gannon reports. The cavern had been dubbed Pinwheel Cave after the swirling red painting on its curved ceiling. The discovery is the first unambiguous use of hallucinogens associated with a rock art site.
Good news: Studies in the Amazon indicate that a warming world won’t doom some tropical forests. Tropical trees planted inside the Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert in the 1990s have shown surprising resilience to increased temperates, writes Gabriel Popkin. “Biology is ingenious,” says Scott Saleska, a University of Arizona ecologist and co-leader of the Biosphere 2 study. “It’s a lot more ingenious than our models yet represent.”
COVID-19 and gorillas: Some of our closest relatives in the animal world may be particularly susceptible to the coronavirus, particularly in captivity, A new study predicts dwindling primate species, such as Sumatran orangutans and western lowland gorillas, may be more prone to the virus, Paul Nicolaus reports. The study mentioned animals in captivity, but also those vulnerable to contact with humans in the wild.
To the moon! It has been 44 years since samples have been taken from the moon. A Chinese mission that launched Monday will try to send back pristine moon rocks that are younger than those taken by NASA’s Apollo astronauts and uncrewed Soviet missions. Scientists hope the samples will offer clues to the moon’s extended volcanic period, which shaped the fresher parts of the rocky surface we see today, Andrew Jones writes.
Little miracle: That’s the translation of Xiao Qi Ji, the name for the newest panda at the Smithsonian National Zoo. More than 130,000 voters chose between four Mandarin names for the three-month-old giant panda cub, the zoo said. See Xiao Qi Ji through the zoo’s panda cam.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Spared: A controlled backfire set just 500 feet away helped save one of the world’s most iconic observatories from California’s massive Bobcat fire, which raged from September to November (see a dramatic time exposure here). Standing 5,700 feet above Los Angeles, Mount Wilson has two of the world’s largest publicly accessible telescopes. Photographer Babak Tafreshi, who photographs the heavens for us, says the view through the giant telescopes is “unbelievable.” The observatory is where Edwin Hubble proved the existence of other galaxies beyond the Milky Way in the 1920s. Hubble, for whom the revolutionary Hubble Space Telescope was named, worked at Mount Wilson from 1919 until his death in 1953.
Related: How Babak Tafreshi captured a rare red full moon
The night skies
A different kind of Cyber Monday: Tear yourself away from holiday deals on your smartphones and laptops early Monday to see something different about this full moon. It won’t have a bit of its silvery luster to its north. Why? Earth’s outer, pale shadow is falling on 80 percent of the lunar disk, making that part of the moon appear noticeably darkened. The celestial phenomenon, known as a penumbral lunar eclipse, will be best seen between 4:40 and 4:50 a.m. EST Monday across the Americas, Northern Europe, eastern Asia, and Australia. Whet your appetite for the eclipse tonight by watching the moon appear close to Mars, high in the southern sky, nestled within the constellation Pisces. — Andrew Fazekas
Subscriber exclusive: Explore 50 years of lunar discovery with our latest moon map
The big takeaway
Even Everest: The roof of the world is not immune from two changes caused by humans: pollution from microplastics and a dramatic dwindling of the world’s glaciers. That’s what a team of 34 scientists have discovered there, Freddie Wilkinson writes. Even at an elevation of 27,700 feet, Everest is contaminated with microplastics—the highest yet found on the planet. Much of the pollution comes from trace amounts of fibers shed by the clothing and gear of trekkers and mountaineers. The loss of ice, once thought safe at high altitudes, is particularly alarming. Today, the surface of the ice at base camp in Nepal sits more than 150 feet lower than it did 35 years ago. (Above, climbers waiting in line to summit Everest in May 2019; below left, climate scientist Heather Clifford collecting water in a Nepalese stream to test for microplastics; right, the tiny plastic fibers in snow above 27,000 feet on Mount Everest.)
In a few words
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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.
The last glimpse
Science is for everybody: Why not include people from around the world in explorations? That’s what oceanographer Katy Croff Bell does. The National Geographic Society fellow (pictured above) deploys cameras in the ocean depths and livestreams her expeditions. These faraway adventures, to Bell, are opportunities to engage everyone, including women and people of color who have often encountered barriers to a life in science. Since she began two decades ago, she has built a diverse coalition of deep-sea explorers and students, and she has developed ways to make the area more accessible to them, Annie Roth writes for National Geographic.
This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org . Thanks for reading, and have a good week ahead.