By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
I’m what my friends describe as an office goth—I’ve got a professional aesthetic that frequently includes skulls hidden somewhere on my person. Combine that with my fascination with paleontology, and you can imagine my delight at the discovery of a tiny dinosaur skull found preserved in Cretaceous amber.
This dinosaur was only about the size of a modern hummingbird, and it features a jaw packed with sharp teeth along with a set of oversized eyes. A relative of the bird-like dinosaur Archaeopteryx, the Lilliputian creature has big implications for our understanding of how dinosaurs made the slow but steady transition from ancient terrors to today’s feathered fowl.
The skull is also the latest example of the unique remains being found encased in Burmese amber—and it raises a host of questions about the ethics involved in this particularly rich source of fossil material. Amber is primarily mined in Myanmar (Burma) for jewelry and trinkets, but it can be even more precious to scientists, since the rock-hard substance is actually fossilized tree resin. Plants, insects, and yes, even dinosaurs, sometimes got stuck in this sap and essentially froze in their honey-colored tombs, yielding vast riches for anyone curious about life in a tropical forest roughly 99 million years ago.
As Josh Sokol reports for Science magazine, the trouble with Burmese amber is that the trade helps fuel ongoing conflict in the region, and much of the amber mined there gets smuggled to lucrative markets in China, where researchers must vie with private collectors for the rarest prizes. It’s a flashpoint for scientific controversy, even as new finds are being described in major journals. National Geographic grantee Lida Xing is on the front lines of the battle, combing the amber markets to help maintain scientific access to important fossils. Xing is also trying to establish an amber museum in Myanmar once the conflict dies down, to ensure these natural wonders can be returned to their home country, our Michael Greshko reports. As much as I love ancient skulls, I am whole-heartedly in favor of efforts to share them with the world by putting these fossilized noggins right where they belong.
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Your Instagram photo of the day
Fresh veggies in Antarctica: Geophysicist Josefine Stakemann is one of the nine crew members at Neumayer Station, in Antarctica, where she'll spend 14 months without a break. During wintertime, the crew is completely alone for nine months. But near the station, there's an oasis in the form of the EDEN ISS greenhouse, a project of the German Aerospace Center, which developed it for the International Space Station and planetary exploration. Aside from being used for research, the greenhouse provides fresh vegetables for the crew year-round. Above, Josefine harvests cucumbers, which are tasty even without direct sunlight or soil.
Read: Growing fresh food in the coldest place on Earth
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Today in a minute
Coronavirus update: As the World Health Organization today declared COVID-19 a pandemic, who is the most vulnerable to the virus? What are underlying health conditions? They are surprisingly common and affect all age groups, reports Nat Geo’s Nsikan Akpan. Three biggies: high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Astronauts wanted: NASA is hiring for astronauts for the first time in four years, with an eye on moon landings in 2024, the Washington Post reports. “Extensive travel required,” notes the job application, which requests that applicants have bachelor’s degrees in math, science, or engineering and a specific science- or medical-related advanced degree.
Warm Arctic = more light pollution: A new study indicates that thinner ice and more shipping through the warming Arctic will bring more light pollution to the top of the world. Nat Geo’s Sarah Gibbens says that could significantly alter marine life there even as scientists are trying to understand their full life cycles.
Space lettuce: Astronauts headed to Mars in the 2030s likely will be growing their own lettuce on the journey, the New York Times reports. A test aboard the International Space Station found that red-leaf lettuce grown in orbit was as healthy as that harvested on Earth. (We’ll have more on growing food in forbidding conditions below).
This week in the night sky
Orion star factory: As darkness sets in this week and the evening sky is moonless, it’s a great time to hunt down a stunning star factory in the constellation Orion. Start your quest by identifying the distinctive row of three equally brilliant stars representing Orion’s belt hanging in the southern sky. A line of fainter lights dangling below Orion’s belt is just visible to the naked eye—a hanging sword. A special “gleam” in the middle of the sword pattern is not a star at all but a colossal stellar nursery over 1,200 light-years away from Earth called the Great Orion Nebula. Binoculars or a small telescope will reveal the nebula as a beautiful luminescent greenish cloud in the shape of a blooming flower. —Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
When ‘wash your hands’ was controversial: A proponent of the now universally accepted life-saving move had his career ruined, Nat Geo’s Nina Strochlic reports. Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis hit upon the technique in the 1840s to save new mothers who were falling ill with fever and dying after seeing medics, at twice the rate of moms who used midwives. The medics didn’t scrub after handling cadavers, it turned out. Doctors denounced Semmelweis, whose hand-washing mandate had cut mortality rates at hospitals he ran in present-day Austria and Hungary. Sadly, his guidance did not take hold more broadly until long after his death.
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The last glimpse
Coffee saver: Yes, these little snails offer hope in saving coffee plants from one of its worst scourges, Nat Geo reports. Asian tramp snails, shown on a coffee leaf with rust fungus, can consume large amounts of the coffee rust before the disease can damage the plant, a new study shows. “That could be an important ecological role played by the snail,” says Stacy Philpott, who specializes in agroecology, biodiversity, and biocontrols for coffee pests. The rust fungus has savaged coffee plants throughout the Americas, prompting price hikes and pushing impoverished farmers to migrate.