Ichthyosaurs Migrations

Ichthyosaurs Migrations

Complete tooth and partial jaws of the ichthyosaur.

Fossil CSI: Mysterious site was ancient birthing grounds for marine giants.

Today’s marine giants—such as blue and humpback whales—routinely make massive migrations across the ocean to breed and give birth in waters where predators are scarce, with many congregating year after year along the same stretches of coastline. Now, new research from a team of scientists—including researchers with the University of Utah (Natural History Museum of Utah and Department of Geology & Geophysics), Smithsonian Institution, Vanderbilt University, University of Nevada-Reno, University of Edinburgh, University of Texas at Austin, Vrije Universiteit Brussels, and University of Oxford—suggests that nearly 200 million years before giant whales evolved, school bus-sized marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs may have been making similar migrations to breed and give birth together in relative safety.

The findings, published today in the journal Current Biology, examine a rich fossil bed in the renowned Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park (BISP) in Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, where many 50-foot-long ichthyosaurs (Shonisaurus popularis) lay petrified in stone. Co-authored by Randall Irmis, NHMU chief curator and curator of paleontology, and associate professor, the study offers a plausible explanation as to how at least 37 of these marine reptiles came to meet their ends in the same locality—a question that has vexed paleontologists for more than half a century.

“We present evidence that these ichthyosaurs died here in large numbers because they were migrating to this area to give birth for many generations across hundreds of thousands of years,” said co-author and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History curator Nicholas Pyenson. “That means this type of behavior we observe today in whales has been around for more than 200 million years.”

Over the years, some paleontologists have proposed that BISP’s ichthyosaurs—predators resembling oversized chunky dolphins which have been adopted as Nevada’s state fossil—died in a mass stranding event such as those that sometimes afflicts modern whales, or that the creatures were poisoned by toxins such as from a nearby harmful algal bloom. The problem is that these hypotheses lack strong lines of scientific evidence to support them.

To try to solve this prehistoric mystery, the team combined newer paleontological techniques such as 3D scanning and geochemistry with traditional paleontological perseverance by poring over archival materials, photographs, maps, field notes and drawer after drawer of museum collections for shreds of evidence that could be reanalyzed.

3D-modeled image of the Shonisaurus popularis fossil bed.

Although most well-studied paleontological sites excavate fossils so they can be more closely studied by scientists at research institutions, the main attraction for visitors to the Nevada State Park-run BISP is a barn-like building that houses what researchers call Quarry 2, an array of ichthyosaurs that have been left embedded in the rock for the public to see and appreciate. Quarry 2 has partial skeletons from an estimated seven individual ichthyosaurs that all appear to have died around the same time.

“When I first visited the site in 2014, my first thought was that the best way to study it would be to create a full-color, high-resolution 3D model,” said lead author Neil Kelley, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. “A 3D model would allow us to study the way these large fossils were arranged in relation to one another without losing the ability to go bone by bone.”

To do this, the research team collaborated with Jon Blundell, a member of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office’s 3D Program team, and Holly Little, informatics manager in the museum’s Department of Paleobiology. While the paleontologists were physically measuring bones and studying the site using traditional paleontological techniques, Little and Blundell used digital cameras and a spherical laser scanner to take hundreds of photographs and millions of point measurements that were then stitched together using specialized software to create a 3D model of the fossil bed.

“Our study combines both the geological and biological facets of paleontology to solve this mystery,” said Irmis. “For example, we examined the chemical make-up of the rocks surrounding the fossils to determine whether environmental conditions resulted in so many Shonisaurus in one setting. Once we determined it did not, we were able to focus on the possible biological reasons.”

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto

The team collected tiny samples of the rock surrounding the fossils and performed a series of geochemical tests to look for signs of environmental disturbance. One test measured mercury, which often accompanies large-scale volcanic activity, and found no significantly increased levels. Other tests examined different types of carbon and determined that there was no evidence of sudden increases in organic matter in the marine sediments that would result in a dearth of oxygen in the surrounding waters (though, like whales, the ichthyosaurs breathed air).

These geochemical tests revealed no signs that these ichthyosaurs perished because of some cataclysm that would have seriously disturbed the ecosystem in which they died. The research team continued to look beyond Quarry 2 to the surrounding geology and all the fossils that had previously been excavated from the area.

The geologic evidence indicates that when the ichthyosaurs died, their bones eventually sank to the bottom of the sea, rather than along a shoreline shallow enough to suggest stranding, ruling out another hypothesis. Even more telling though, the area’s limestone and mudstone was chock-full of large adult Shonisaurusspecimens, but other marine vertebrates were scarce. The bulk of the other fossils at BISP come from small invertebrates such as clams and ammonites (spiral-shelled relatives of today’s squid).

“There are so many large, adult skeletons from this one species at this site and almost nothing else,” said Pyenson. “There are virtually no remains of things like fish or other marine reptiles for these ichthyosaurs to feed on, and there are also no juvenile Shonisaurus skeletons.”

The researchers’ paleontological dragnet had eliminated some of the potential causes of death and started to provide intriguing clues about the type of ecosystem these marine predators were swimming in, but the evidence still didn’t clearly point to an alternative explanation.

The research team found a key piece of the puzzle when they discovered tiny ichthyosaur remains among new fossils collected at BISP and hiding within older museum collections. Careful comparison of the bones and teeth using micro-CT x-ray scans at Vanderbilt University revealed that these small bones were in fact embryonic and newborn Shonisaurus.

“Once it became clear that there was nothing for them to eat here, and there were large adult Shonisaurusalong with embryos and newborns but no juveniles, we started to seriously consider whether this might have been a birthing ground,” said Kelley.

Further analysis of the various strata in which the different clusters of ichthyosaur bones were found also revealed that the ages of the many fossil beds of BISP were separated by at least hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions.

“Finding these different spots with the same species spread across geologic time with the same demographic pattern tells us that this was a preferred habitat that these large oceangoing predators returned to for generations,” said Pyenson. “This is a clear ecological signal, we argue, that this was a place that Shonisaurusused to give birth, very similar to today’s whales. Now we have evidence that this sort of behavior is 230 million years old.”

The team said the next step for this line of research is to investigate other ichthyosaur and Shonisaurus sites in North America with these new findings in mind to begin to recreate their ancient world by perhaps looking for other breeding sites or for places with greater diversity of other species that could have been rich feeding grounds for this extinct apex predator.

“One of the exciting things about this new work is that we discovered new specimens of Shonisaurus popularis that have really well-preserved skull material,” Irmis said. “Combined with some of the skeletons that were collected back in the 1950s and 1960s that are at the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas, it’s likely we’ll eventually have enough fossil material to finally accurately reconstruct what a Shonisaurus skeleton looked like.”

The 3D scans of the site are now available for other researchers to study and for the public to explore via the open-source Smithsonian’s Voyager platform, which is developed and maintained by Blundell’s team members at the Digitization Program Office, and anyone can take a deeper dive with the 3D model @ thesmithsonian.com.

“Our work is public,” said Blundell. “We aren’t just scanning sites and objects and locking them up. We create these scans to open up the collection to other researchers and members of the public who can’t physically get to a museum.”

The paper includes a wide variety of paleobiological and geological data, including geochemical data analyzed at SIRFER, petrographic thin sections that were imaged using Kathleen Ritterbush's system, and involvement of G&G graduate students (Conny Rasmussen is a co-author and her contribution was done when she was a PhD student here).

This research was conducted under research permits issued by the U.S. Forest Service and Nevada State Parks, and was supported by funding from the Smithsonian, University of Nevada, Reno, Vanderbilt University, and University of Utah.

Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is part of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in the Shoshone Mountains of west-central Nevada. It is within the ancestral homelands of the Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone peoples.


by Lisa Potter, first published in @theU.

Additional stories @ CNN, NYT, Smithsonian Magazine, ScienceNews, WaPo, NewScientist, AP News, WIRED, CBS News, and Nature.



GSL Meteorite

GSL Meteorite

The impact site.

On the morning of Aug. 13, 2022, a loud boom was heard across the Salt Lake Valley. As it turned out, it was the sound of a falling meteorite that eventually landed in the salt flats west of Salt Lake City.

“I was just getting up, I was in my driveway, I heard a loud sonic boom and then some rumbling, kind of like thunder after that,” said Dr. James Karner, a research professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. “I actually thought that could be what a meteorite sounds like when it breaks through the atmosphere.”

Karner’s suspicions were confirmed when the ski resort Snowbasin released video footage of a fireball falling through the sky.

“The relative rarity of an event like this — the only other witnessed fall ever in Utah was in 1950,” Karner said. “Before this meteor hit, there had only been 26 meteorites ever found in Utah.”

The meteorite was found in the salt flats by a meteorite hunter from Nevada named Sonny Clary. Clary then agreed to donate a slice of the meteorite to the University of Utah in order to have it studied further, as well as named by The Meteoritical Society.

James Karner

“If you’re the first finder of a meteorite, apparently, you’re very keen on getting your name in the archives,” Karner said. “In order to have a meteorite named, you have to have an institution classify it, just figure out what kind of meteorite it is and write up a little report then propose a name for it, so he agreed to let the University of Utah do that.”

Karner, as the U’s resident meteoriticist, is head of the team tasked with the analysis. “There’s not a lot of people that study meteorites here like at Arizona State or Portland State,” Karner said. “But [Clary] said, ‘I think, Utah, it’d be good for you to have this meteorite since it’s such a community event.’”

So, the process of analyzing and naming the meteorite began.

“The goal of meteoritics is to understand the origins of the solar system,” said Dr. Benjamin Bromley, professor of Physics and Astronomy. “These samples that people find are billions of years old, and many of them were formed as rocks at the beginning of the solar system, as all the solids came together.”

Bromley said the analysis of such samples could contain clues for how Earth and other planets in the solar system were formed.

“These are, in some sense, failed planets because they’re just little bits of debris,” he said. “They’re composed of pretty primordial stuff in many cases. So I think they’re really beautiful and really informative with the clues they have for understanding our solar system.”

Benjamin Bromley

The first step was to determine the composition of the sample. “Most meteorites are called stony meteorites, and they come from asteroids,” Karner said.

To explain this, he had a sample of another meteorite, separate from the one found in the salt flats, and pointed to little silver specks within the sample. “Those are little grains of iron-nickel metal. Those are unique to meteorites because all the iron has been oxidized on the surface of the Earth, but in space, you can get iron-nickel metal, and that tells you you have a meteorite.”

He explained the amount of metal in meteorites could vary from little specks in the stone to a meteorite that was an entire chunk of iron. The meteorite that fell in Utah is known as a high iron chondrite, meaning that, like most meteorites, it is a stony type that came from an asteroid, but with a high amount of iron in its composition.

Once the meteorite was classified, more information could be determined regarding its origin. Karner described how sometimes asteroids divert from their original orbits into elliptical ones, which pass much closer to Earth.

“Asteroids that have gotten knocked out of their regular circular orbit, and now they’re in this Earth-crossing orbit,” he said. “So sometimes we get lucky, we get pieces that break off that little sub-asteroid and come to Earth as meteorites.”

This origin is fairly common as far as meteorites go, but according to Bromley, the high iron quantity reveals something rare about the rock. He said because of the process in which asteroids are formed, known as differentiation, the metals in them sink to the center and the lighter materials rise to the top.

The Great Salt Lake Meteorite.

“So a heavy metal object like this undoubtedly didn’t come from the surface of some asteroid,” he said. “It likely came from a deeper impact that kind of ripped out the interior of something closer to the center of the object.”

The next step is getting the meteorite officially named by The Meteoritical Society. Karner’s proposed name is The Great Salt Lake Meteorite.

“Meteorites are named for usually the closest geographic place name,” Karner said. “I think Great Salt Lake would be cool since they found this near the Salt Lake, and there’s probably pieces that went into the Salt Lake.”

Aside from the science of it all, Karner also stressed how unique of an opportunity this is for the U and the broader community.

“There’s a lot of rock hounds in Utah, people that think they found meteorites, but they’re super rare,” he said. “More rare than diamonds and gold and anything you can think of. Even more rare than that is to see a fireball, hear the explosion and then find the rock that came with it.”

Bromley said he feels U students should care about and take a genuine interest in this science.

“This is studying our origins; this is studying where the Earth came from,” he said. “This is contributing to the body of knowledge for how habitable planets form and that’s extremely important towards understanding what other planets may be out around nearby stars.”

Even limited to Earth, Bromley believes this science has serious application and implications.

“It also speaks to the importance of our own planet and nurturing our planet,” he said. “I view this as a contribution to our own home, understanding it and caring for it.”

Story by Caelan Roberts, first published @ The Daily Utah Chronicle.

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King of the Playa

King of the Playa

On a crisp October morning, Kevin Perry pedaled his bike across the Great Salt Lake playa, trailing a machine that tests how much wind energy it takes to disturb the crust and move dust across the surface. Colleagues jokingly call him the “king of the playa” because he’s spent so much time here, testing different patches of the lake surface for toxic metals and trying to understand the recipe for dust storms.

Declining water levels exposed much of the Great Salt Lake's bed and created conditions for storms of dust laden with toxic metals that now threaten 2 million people. Parts of the Great Salt Lake hardly resembled a lake at all this fall.

Water levels in October fell to the lowest levels on record, exposing much of the lakebed and creating conditions for storms of dust — laden with toxic metals — that now threaten the 2 million people living nearby.

Rio Tinto Kennecott smelter.

Researchers are racing to understand this new hazard, which adds a new layer of air pollution concern for the Salt Lake City area and threatens to dismantle the progress made to improve air quality in a region where oil refineries, a power plant and a gravel mine are part of the city skyline and the surrounding mountains trap pollution. In neighborhoods on the city’s historically redlined west side, lake dust is raising concern in areas that have experienced decades of environmental disparities and the most vulnerable people some days struggle for a breath of clean air.

“We have 2.5 million residents along the edges of the lake,” said Kevin Perry, a University of Utah atmospheric scientist researching the Great Salt Lake dust. “These dust plumes come off and make the air unhealthy regardless of what’s in it.”

But even those in wealthy enclaves away from the most visible sources of pollution won’t be spared from the dust. New research suggests arsenic-rich concentrations of dust from any source are the highest in wealthy Salt Lake area communities and that fast-growing suburbs could face the brunt of the dust storms’ impact.

Scientists want to understand how much risk the dust’s toxic metals pose to humans, what level of exposure is unsafe and what the implications for Utahans could be over time. No matter what they find, it’s a threat that will only continue to grow as lake levels drop.

On the lakebed

When the wind picks up, the playa surface can start to feel like a sandblaster. Perry's first fat bike, with 4-inch thick tires wide enough to move across sand, lasted about 750 miles before it gave out, corroded by salt.

In the course of researching the Great Salt Lake dust, Perry was forced to abandon a bike in mud, peppered by hail during a lightning storm, and heard bullets whizzing past his head, fired by an illegal target shooter.

Molly Blakowski, doctoral student.

Molly Blakowski, a doctoral student and dust researcher at Utah State University who regularly hiked a 20-mile loop of the playa to collect dust samples, said she would never venture out with less than 4 liters of water. Some moments, it can be hard to see more than 20 feet ahead.

“Everything turns into a mirage,” she said of long research days spent “trapped in your own thoughts.”

In October, water levels on the Great Salt Lake dropped to all-time lows.

Once lively marinas are now dry and empty of sailboats. Brine flies — fundamental to the food web — are disappearing because the water has become so salty. Mining companies applied to dredge longer canals so they could reach water with their equipment.

The lake’s volume is down at least 67% since pioneers once settled in the valley. Humans are responsible for about three-quarters of its decline, according to research from Utah State University. The megadrought roiling the western United States is responsible for the rest of the deficit, which has left more playa to explore.

What some might view as a flat, static environment is actually changing dramatically in front of Perry’s discerning eyes. In one recent research project, he cycled 7 miles several days a week, visiting 11 sites on each trip. One week, a site would be a raised mound of sand and dust. The next week, it could be a hollowed-out depression.

Retreating water levels on the Great Salt Lake.

During dust storms, host spots on the lake will pop and emit swirls of dust, collecting particles less than a fraction of the width of a human hair, darkening the sky and propelling them into communities nearby. The smallest particles can remain airborne for weeks at a time.

The lake bed contains pollutants like arsenic, distributed widely across the surface, which could be an indication that some of it occurs naturally, Perry said.

The lake has long been a catchment for industrial pollution. Each area of the lake has its own recipe of toxic metals and other substances, fed by different polluting industries nearby. Researchers are concerned that what’s been stored in the lake will soon be carried on the wind into Salt Lake City and other neighboring communities.

About 9% of the lakebed was a dust source as of 2018, he said. A protective crust covers other areas of the lake, but it’s being broken down by wind and weathering.

“The longer the lake bed is exposed, we expect that to increase. It could increase to 24% to 25% of the lakebed,” Perry said.

This isn’t a problem caused by climate change; Utahans are simply consuming too much water for agriculture, industry and residential use from the overtaxed rivers that feed the terminal lake. Modeling suggests human water diversion has reduced the lake level by about 11 feet, the Utah State research shows. Meanwhile, increased evaporation due to climate change has caused the lake level to drop less than half a foot.

Lawmakers in Utah — the “industry” state — have begun to turn their attention to the lake, passing a series of bills designed to revamp how the state uses its water. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox in November closed the basin to new water appropriations. But for years, the lake was an afterthought in the state’s unslakable thirst for economic growth.

“The entire state has an unhealthy relationship with water,” Perry said. “We need to start living like we live in the desert.”

Researchers still don’t understand exactly where the dust ends up, whether its toxic metals are being easily absorbed into people’s bodies and what risks that might pose. To try to answer some of those questions, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey in 2018 and 2019 installed 18 dust traps throughout the Salt Lake City area.

The traps were left out for months and captured everything: dust from the lake, from local construction and from nearby deserts.

When they examined the dust, researchers found some interesting storylines.

“We’ve got some bells going off,” said Annie Putman, a USGS hydrologist who led the study. “The pieces are there to think we should be concerned.”

Traces of arsenic, lead and other toxic metals were discovered across the sites, according to the findings, which were published in the journal GeoHealth in late October.

At every site, concentrations of arsenic were enough to exceed an Environmental Protection Agency marker of concern for residential soil. One site had a concentration 35 times higher, though it’s not clear how that translates to risk for human exposure.

The Bowl

Salt Lake City, often associated with ski slopes that gleam above the city skyline, developed a reputation for air pollution long before dust grew as a concern. Of 888 U.S. metro areas, it ranked the ninth-highest in an EPA risk screening that modeled health risk from toxic chemical releases in 2020, and 20th for short-term particle pollution last year by the American Lung Association.

The pollution burden is felt unequally among residents.

John Lin, Atmospheric Research Professor.

Mountains cradle Salt Lake City on three of its sides. Its fourth border — to the west — leads to the brackish-smelling shores of the Great Salt Lake. Interstate 15 slices the city in half, dividing east from west. On the east side, well-to-do homes sprawl toward the canyons, gaining in elevation.

Housing in neighborhoods that make up the “west side,” as Salt Lake residents call it, commingle with refineries, a wastewater treatment plant, highways, railways and a busy airport. The neighborhoods are typically less wealthy, less white and historically redlined — the west side was deemed a “hazardous” real estate investment in the 1930s by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corp.

These neighborhoods are closer to the valley floor, where the lion’s share of the air pollution can be found.

“If you look at Salt Lake, it’s essentially a bowl and the dense emissions are in the lower elevations,” said John Lin, an atmospheric research professor at the University of Utah.

And with the exception of ozone, pollutants such as black carbon, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter “tend to be higher in lower-income neighborhoods, places with nonwhite populations,” Lin said.

In summer, concern centers on wildfire smoke and ozone. Spring and fall were once respites. But now, those seasons are turning to dust.

In the winter, the word “inversion” is a dirty word for Salt Lake residents. During an inversion, a layer of warm air settles over the valley like a lid for the bowl, trapping everything below as if it were a cap.

Daniel Mendoza, assistant professor of atmospheric sciences.

“The pollution builds up a hot spot and doesn’t blow away,” said Daniel Mendoza, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah.

Neighborhoods higher in elevation — more often above the inversion’s cap — are typically less impacted as pollution builds. But on the west side, closer to many sources of pollution, residents can get stuck in a thicker pea soup of car exhaust, refinery emissions and other pollutants.

“It irritates the eyes and gives me sinus infections,” said Jorge Casillas, 58, who has lived on the west side for 15 years. “It’s hard to be trapped in the valley.”

Overall, emissions have improved in Salt Lake City, mostly because of vehicle emissions standards enacted by the Obama administration’s EPA, according to Perry. The EPA in 2021 proposed re-listing the Salt Lake City area as in “attainment” for small particle pollution it had been failing to sufficiently control.

“When we switch to electric vehicles, our air quality is going to improve dramatically,” Perry said.

But wildfires and dust storms off Great Salt Lake are erasing the progress that has been made. For those in the West Side, it adds a new layer of concern for their health.

“There’s so much sediment and so much trapped for so long. It’s pulling up stuff that’s been trapped for 100 years,” Casillas said. “Are there carcinogens or other health risks? That’s what I’m worried about. There’s so many children in the neighborhood.”

A drumbeat of media coverage over dust and pollution has frightened some Utahans.

“I’ve received a number of emails from concerned citizens reconsidering living in Salt Lake City,” said Janice Brahney, an assistant professor at Utah State University’s watershed sciences department.

"We don’t know"

When USGS researchers mapped the samples collected from their dust traps, they found something interesting.

While other metals such as nickel, thallium and lead were more likely to exceed those EPA markers in poorer, less-white communities like Rose Park, arsenic was more concentrated in samples from wealthy communities, possibly because of its past use as a fertilizer on agricultural lands.

The researchers suspect that urban, diverse neighborhoods are receiving much of their dust and the toxic metals within that dust from local sources — nearby polluters or construction projects. It’s also possible that dust from the Great Salt Lake and other nearby playas picks up local pollutants from nearby mines, refineries and pesticides as dust travels into the city.

Meanwhile, researchers found the highest levels of dust — and metals — in suburbs outside urban Salt Lake City. Researchers suspect communities north of the city, including areas such as Syracuse, Ogden and Bountiful could be receiving the majority of the dust that blows off the lake. In early October, less than a mile from what was once lakeshore, workers were hammering away to frame new housing.

These areas are an air monitoring dead zone, Perry said.

“There’s almost no sampling done north of Salt Lake City,” he said. “We’re really lacking a coherent network to answer the question of who is impacted the most.”

Annie Putman, USGS researcher.

Putman and colleagues this year set up another 17 dust traps — all nicknamed “Woody” — in counties north of Salt Lake to better evaluate the risk for those areas.

So much remains unknown. While the EPA has screening levels for metals in soil, no environmental standards exist for exposure to toxic metals contained in dust.

“How much arsenic does there have to be over a 24-hour-period for dust to cause problems — we don’t know. We don’t have any study that can tell us that,” Putman said. “What are the short- term or long-term consequences of that? We don’t know at all.”

Researchers are also unsure if the arsenic and other metals in the dust are “bioavailable” — meaning they can be absorbed into plants, animals and humans. Testing is ongoing. Blakowksi is growing cabbage in a laboratory and sprinkling the plants with dust samples from the Great Salt Lake to see how much arsenic they take up.

In California, ratepayers have spent about $2.5 billion controlling dust emissions on Owens Lake, which was drained by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power only to become the biggest humanmade source of dust in the U.S..

Researchers say the Great Salt Lake represents a much larger threat.

“The area of currently exposed lakebed is over seven times larger than the entire area of Owens Lake,” Blakowski said, adding that the population downwind is about 50 times larger in Utah’s case. “We can’t wait. It’s just going to keep getting dustier and there are serious human health and ecosystem implications if we sit on this too long.”

Images and story by Evan Bush, first published @ NBC News.

Relativistic Jet

Relativistic Jet

Tanmoy Laskar

Mysterious bright flash is a black hole jet pointing straight at Earth.

Earlier this year, astronomers at the Palomar Observatory detected an extraordinary flash in a part of the sky where no such light had been observed the night before. From a rough calculation, the flash appeared to give off more light than 1,000 trillion suns.

The team, led by researchers at NASA, Caltech, and elsewhere, posted their discovery to an astronomy newsletter, where the signal drew the attention of astronomers around the world, including scientists at MIT and the University of Utah. Over the next few days, multiple telescopes focused in on the signal to gather more data across multiple wavelengths in the X-ray, ultraviolet, optical and radio bands, to see what could possibly produce such an enormous amount of light.

Now, the U and MIT astronomers and collaborators have determined a likely source for the signal. Tanmoy Laskar, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the U, was co-author of a study that appeared on Nov. 30 in Nature Astronomy. The scientists report that the signal, named AT 2022cmc, likely comes from a relativistic jet of matter launched by a supermassive black hole at close to the speed of light. They believe the jet is the product of a black hole that suddenly began devouring a nearby star, releasing a huge amount of energy in the process.

Astronomers have observed other such “tidal disruption events,” or TDEs, in which a passing star is torn apart by a black hole’s tidal forces. AT 2022cmc is brighter than any TDE discovered to date. The source is also the farthest TDE ever detected, at some 8.5 billion lights years away—more than halfway across the universe.

Palomar Observatory

How could such a distant event appear so bright in our sky? The team said the black hole’s jet may be pointing directly toward Earth, making the signal appear brighter than if the jet were pointing in any other direction. The effect is called “Doppler boosting.”

AT 2022cmc is the fourth Doppler-boosted TDE ever detected and the first such event that has been observed since 2011. It is also the first TDE discovered using an optical sky survey.

“One of the tell-tale signatures of the presence of such a jet is powerful radio emission from a small volume of space,” said Laskar. A preliminary report alerted the team that this event might have detectable radio emissions. “So, we followed it up with the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico, and boom, there it was! Bright radio emission signaling a compact, Doppler-boosted jet.”

As more powerful telescopes start up in the coming years, they will reveal more TDEs, which can shed light on how supermassive black holes grow and shape the galaxies around them.

“We know there is one supermassive black hole per galaxy, and they formed very quickly in the universe’s first million years,” said co-author Matteo Lucchini, a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “That tells us they feed very fast, though we don’t know how that feeding process works. So, sources like a TDE can actually be a really good probe for how that process happens.”

Feeding frenzy

Following AT 2022cmc’s initial discovery, the team focused in on the signal using the Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (NICER), an X-ray telescope that operates aboard the International Space Station.

“Things looked pretty normal the first three days,” recalled the study’s lead author Dheeraj “DJ” Pasham, who is an Einstein Fellow at MIT. “Then we looked at it with an X-ray telescope, and what we found was, the source was too bright.”

Typically, such bright flashes in the sky are gamma-ray bursts—extreme jets of X-ray emissions that spew from the collapse of massive stars.

“Both GRBs and TDEs are events that have superfast jets pointed at Earth,” said Laskar. “One of the key ways to distinguish between them is in the X-rays. Jetted TDEs seem to also have strongly variable X-ray emission.” Indeed, the team found that X-ray emissions from AT 2022cmc swung widely by a factor of 500 over a few weeks.

The team then gathered observations from other X-ray, radio, optical and UV telescopes and tracked the signal’s activity over the next few weeks. Another remarkable property they observed was the signal’s extreme luminosity in the X-ray band.

“This particular event was 100 times more powerful than the most powerful gamma-ray burst afterglow,” Pasham said. “It was something extraordinary.”

They suspected that such extreme X-ray activity must be powered by an extreme accretion episode—an event that generates a huge churning disk, such as from a tidal disruption event, in which a shredded star creates a whirlpool of debris as it falls into a black hole.

The team found that AT 2022cmc’s X-ray luminosity was comparable to, though brighter than, three previously detected jetted TDEs. These bright events happened to generate jets of matter pointing straight toward Earth. The researchers wondered: If AT 2022cmc’s luminosity is the result of a similar Earth-targeting jet, how fast must the jet be moving to generate such a bright signal? To answer this, Lucchini modeled the signal’s data, assuming the event involved a jet headed straight toward Earth.

“We found that the jet speed is 99.99% the speed of light,” Lucchini said.

To produce such an intense jet, the black hole must be in an extremely active phase—what Pasham described as a “hyper-feeding frenzy.”

“It’s probably swallowing the star at the rate of half the mass of the sun per year,” Pasham estimated. “A lot of this tidal disruption happens early on, and we were able to catch this event right at the beginning, within one week of the black hole starting to feed on the star.”

“We expect many more of these TDEs in the future,” Lucchini added. “Then we might be able to say, finally, how exactly black holes launch these extremely powerful jets.”

“When the next TDE is discovered, we will again be ready to catch its light from X-rays to radio waves,” Laskar said. “By combining such data with physical models, we hope to build a full picture of how supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies grow, evolve, and shape their environments over cosmic time.”

by Lisa Potter | Adapted from a release by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office
first published in @theu


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Clarivate’s Most Cited

Peter Stang

Distinguished Professor Peter J. Stang.

Peter Stang & President Obama.

Seated in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.

Chinese International Science & Technology Cooperation Award.

Peter Stang One of Clarivate's Most Cited Scientists.

Each year, Clarivate identifies the world’s most influential researchers ─ the select few who have been most frequently cited by their peers over the last decade. In 2022, fewer than 7,000, or about 0.1%, of the world's researchers, in 21 research fields and across multiple fields, have earned this exclusive distinction.

Peter Stang is among this elite group recognized for his exceptional research influence, demonstrated by the production of multiple highly-cited papers that rank in the top 1% by citations for field and year in the Web of Science.

Peter Stang was born in Nuremberg, Germany to a German mother and Hungarian father. He lived in Hungary for most of his adolescence. In school, he took rigorous mathematics and science courses. At home, he made black gunpowder from ingredients at the drugstore, and developed a pH indicator from the juice of red cabbage that his mother cooked, and sold to his "fellow chemists".

In 1956, when Stang was in the middle of his sophomore year in high school, he and his family fled the Soviet invasion of Hungary and immigrated to Chicago, Illinois. Not speaking English, Stang failed his American history and English courses but scored at the top of his class in science and math. His teachers were confused by his performance and gave him an IQ test. Stang was confused by the unfamiliar format of the test and scored a 78. In spite of this, Stang was admitted to DePaul University and earned his undergraduate degree in 1963. He received his Ph.D. in 1966 from the University of California, Berkeley.

After a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton Universitywith Paul Schleyer, he joined the chemistry faculty at the University of Utah in 1969. He became dean of the College of Science in 1997 and stepped down as dean in 2007. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Organic Chemistry from 2000 to 2001, and Editor-in-Chief of the ACS flagship journal, Journal of the American Chemical Society (2002-2020).

Awards & Honors

  • Priestley Medal, (2013)
  • National Medal of Science, (2010)
  • Paul G. Gassman Distinguished Service Award of the ACS Division of Organic Chemistry, (2010)
  • F.A. Cotton Medal for Excellence in Chemical Research of the American Chemical Society (2010)
  • Honorary Professor CAS Institute of Chemistry, Beijing, Zheijiang U; East China Normal U and East China U of Science and Technology, (2010)
  • Fred Basolo Medal for Outstanding Research in Inorganic Chemistry, (2009)
  • Foreign Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, (2007)
  • ACS Award for Creative Research and Applications of Iodine Chemistry, (2007)
  • Linus Pauling Award, (2006)
  • Foreign Member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (2006)
  • Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2002)
  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • ACS George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry, (2003)
  • Member, AAAS Board of Directors, (2003–2007)
  • Robert W. Parry Teaching Award, (2000)
  • ACS James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, (1998)
  • University of Utah Rosemblatt Prize for Excellence, (1995)
  • Utah Award in Chemistry, American Chemical Society, (1994)
  • Utah Governor's Medal for Science and Technology, (1993)
  • Honorary Doctorate of Science (D. Sc. honoris causa) Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia (1992)
  • Fulbright Senior Scholar, (1987–1988)
  • Univ. of Utah Distinguished Research Award, (1987)
  • Fellow AAAS, JSPS Fellow (1985, 1998)
  • Lady Davis Fellowship (Visiting Professor), Technion, Israel, (1986, 1997)
  • Humboldt "Senior U.S. Scientist" Award, (1977, 1996, 2010)
  • Associate Editor, Journal of the American Chemical Society (1982–1999)
  • National Organic Symposium Executive Officer (1985)


first published @ chem.utah.edu

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Bonneville Salt Flats

Bonneville Salt Flats

Jeremiah Bernau

The race to save Bonneville Salt Flats.

In the Utah desert, a treeless expanse of pristine white salt crystals has long lured daredevil speed racers, filmmakers and social media-obsessed tourists. It's so flat that on certain days, visitors swear they can see the curvature of the earth.

The glistening white terrain of the Bonneville Salt Flats, a remnant of a prehistoric lakebed that is one of the American West's many other-worldly landscapes, serves as a racetrack for land speed world records and backdrop for movies like "Independence Day" and "The World's Fastest Indian."

But it's growing thinner and thinner as those who cherish it clamor for changes to save it.

Research has time and again shown that the briny water in the aquifer below the flats is depleting faster than nature can replenish it. As nearby groundwater replaces the mineral-rich brine, evaporation yields less salt than historic cycles of flooding and evaporation left on the landscape.

It's thinned by roughly one-third in the last 60 years. The overall footprint has shrunk to about half of its peak size in 1994. The crust keeps tires cool at high speeds and provides an ideal surface for racing — unless seasonal flooding fails to recede or leaves behind an unstable layer of salt. Racers struggle to find a track long enough to reach record speeds with only 8 miles of track compared to 13 miles several decades ago.

Scientists largely agree that years of aquifer overdraws by nearby potash mining have driven the problem, yet insist that there's no hard evidence that simply paying the mining company to return water to the area will solve it amid detrimental human activity like extracting minerals or driving racecars.

Potash is potassium-based salt primarily used throughout the world as a fertilizer for crops such as corn, soy, rice and wheat. It's extracted in more than a dozen countries throughout the world, mainly from prehistoric lakebeds like Bonneville's.

It's mined from other iconic salt flats, including in Chile, where the thickness is not shrinking in a similar manner.

Collecting water samples near Wendover, Utah, Sept. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In Utah, after three decades of studies examining the salt flats, nothing has slowed the deterioration. But officials are funding a new study as they try to find a solution. Researchers are seeking to pinpoint why the salt is fading and what can be done to stop it. Under a $1 million research project spearheaded by the Utah Geological Survey, scientists are gathering data to understand the effects climate change, racing, repaving the salt and operating the mine on leased federal land have on preserving the Salt Flats.

The salt is thinning as climate change drags the West into its third decade of drought, yet it's unclear how that affects the seasonal flood patterns the landscape relies on to maintain its size and footprint.

Frustration is boiling over for Dennis Sullivan, a car-builder and racer who set a land speed record in his 1927 Model T street roadster. His organization, the Salt Flats Racing Association, is convinced the potash mining company that extracts minerals from the flats is the primary reason that the aquifer is being depleted. But rather than point fingers that direction, he and other racers blame the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area and is required by federal law to balance multiple uses and preserve it now and into the future.

The Blue Flame at Bonneville Salt Flats on Nov. 4, 1970.

To save the landscape, Sullivan says, the U.S. government needs to find $50 million over 10 years to pay Intrepid Potash, the mining company, to pour briny water it's drawn from the land back on to the flats. He bristles at seeing more time and money spent on research when to him the solution is clear.

"In the world I came from, you study something, you figure out what changes you need to make, you make the changes and then you go back and study it again to see if your changes had an effect on it," said Sullivan. "It's ludicrous to just keep studying it until you do something."

The fragile landscape has become less reliable for racers, who had to cancel "Speed Week" events scheduled for this fall after the salt flats flooded and left them without enough space to drive on.

Though racers insist the answer is obvious, scientists contend that there's no hard evidence that simply returning briny water will reverse the effects of extraction and maintain the salt flats.

Sullivan doesn't blame Intrepid Potash; it has a leasing agreement with the federal government. He says land managers haven't invested in preserving the landscape or replenishing the salt taken off of it.

Intrepid Potash did not respond to questions from The Associated Press.

Jeremiah Bernau, a geologist working on the study with the Utah Geological Survey, said the mining company has already been pouring salt and it's unclear if that's the answer.

A 2016 study found that the areas most susceptible to thinning were places where races are organized. In simple terms, it changes how water can flow through the crust, Bernau said.

"Every use is going to have some sort of impact upon it. It's just trying to rank those, understand how much that impact is and what we can do to mitigate or understand it," Bernau said on a recent tour of the area, where reporters accompanied him as he measured the thickness of the salt and depth of the aquifer.

"My work is trying to understand how is that working and what are the actions that we can do in terms of helping to preserve this landscape," he said.

Backers of the study currently underway hope, if successful, the federal government will consider returning more salt in order to preempt conflict and allow the racers and miners to continue as they have been.

If the study shows salt laydown is effective, Utah state geologist Bill Keach said he expects racers will use the information to push for federal funding to keep up the project.

In 2019, when Utah lawmakers greenlit the initiative, they allocated $5 million, on the condition that the federal government would also provide funding, to return the briny water needed to preserve the salt crust.

Rep. Steve Handy, a Republican who spearheaded the effort, said the racers' lobbyists initially suggested the federal government would meet Utah's investment with an additional $45 million, giving the program the $50 million that Sullivan and other racers say is needed to maintain the status quo.

U.S. Rep Chris Stewart, who represents the area, assured Handy his office was working to secure the funds. Without hard evidence the salt laydown would restore the crust, the $45 million hasn't materialized but Stewart said in a statement that he "remains absolutely committed to finding science-based solutions" to save the crust.

Utah clawed back the majority of the funding after it got no matching federal funds.

"They're doing what they can with $1 million, which has not spread nearly far enough," Handy said, noting that it was ultimately the job of the federal government, not Utah, to manage the land.

But while solutions and the extent to which different parties are responsible is debatable, nobody disagrees that the landscape is a jewel worth preserving. Kneeling down, the crust of fused crystals looks like popcorn. From afar, the surface is moon-like, and draws hundreds of visitors daily, some coming in brightly colored dresses at sunset in search of the perfect picture.

"The fact that you can go out here and see this vast, white expanse with such a beautiful texture on the crust. It unleashes something, maybe more primal in yourself," Bernau said, looking off into the distance.


by Sam Metz and Brady McCombs, first published @ KSL.com.



Christine Medina

Earlier this year, when BioKids was awarded a half-million-dollar stabilization grant, where those monies were allocated spoke to the ethic of this celebrated childcare and pre-school at the School of Biological Sciences.

“My first priority was to take care of our staff—to ensure they are receiving equitable wages and benefits,” says Christine Medina, Director. “They are the most critical component to our day-to-day operations. Supporting our staff is the best way to support our families.”

In addition to paying back the College of Science for the building remodel (2020) and and a recent remodeling of its infant/toddler playground, the pandemic relief funds issued by the Office of Childcare: Department of Workforce Services allowed Medina to allot more of her annual budget towards base salaries/wages. As a self-sustaining (recharge) program at the University of Utah, BioKids is required to bring in what it pay outs. And, of course, parents have limits on what they can pay in tuition for their child care costs. “Given the recent workforce demands for increased pay,” Medina says, “the grant has enabled us to meet those demands with most increases around 30% and without further burdening parents.”

This innovative ethic first underscored the launch of BioKids in 1999 when a group of biology faculty decided they wanted to make it easier and more convenient for faculty to care for their young children during the work day. As a parent cooperative program, Medina explains, “parents are involved in the program and encouraged to participate in daily activities and needs of the classrooms. Parents and Staff work together.”

The three amigos.

In the early days, faculty took turns teaching the children and directing the program outside of their positions in the Biology Department (now the School of Biological Sciences). “It was a grass roots effort to provide childcare,” says Medina, and then quips with a smile, “Dave Gard, a cell biology professor [now emeritus], operated BioKids as the Director for a short while and said, ‘it was the worst job I ever had.’” Then when the pandemic happened, and high-touch parental involvement had to end.

Clearly, a new model was needed. Today, in addition to Medina as director, there are 13 employees that thread through three classrooms each hosting a different age range. The three-class model supports the current research for how children learn and develop: infants (3 months to 18 months); toddler (18-33 months) and pre-school (30 months to 5 years old).

What makes BioKids with an enrollment of 40-45 children at any given time distinctive from other day care/pre-schools on campus?

“Most faculty and staff can see their children from their offices/labs while outside on walks or on the playground. Or, they are [just] a short walk away. Many of their colleagues are also enrolled, and their children are spending time creating friendships and bonds that span the family,” says Medina.

In addition to the close proximity of BioKids, housed in Building 44 just south of the Skaggs Biology Building, each cohort of children has a low enrollment with low student/teacher ratios. This allows staff to get to know each individual and plan a “whole child” approach to their learning. The more professional staff also means that children’s progress and comprehension are monitored with developmental assessments and portfolios. BioKids is now accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, representing early childhood education teachers, para-educators, center directors, trainers, college educators, families of young children, policy makers, and advocates.

Another advantage to the BioKids model is that children move up and progress through classrooms based on their age and the designated age range of each class. Children enroll based on the parents’ need, generally for a 4-to-5-year span and without pause. The child care/pre-school has a reputation as one of the most successful and desired programs in the city. No wonder there’s a three-year wait for families outside of SBS and the College of Science which have priority status in admissions.

Trick-or-treating on campus.

Parents are not the only ones who appreciate the kind of continuity in their child’s life . . . as well as their own . . . that BioKids affords. Staff are clearly happy as well. Turnover is “very low,” something that a 30% raise in wages is likely to further cement. Remarkably, “both original preschool teachers hired in 1999 are still with us today,” says Medina. “Their first hoard of children are now in college!”

As for Medina, she has been an administrator for prominent early childhood programs in Salt Lake for 23 years and serves on several committees throughout the state. There she advises on state-level policies and initiatives for the childcare industry—for both the child and the worker. Her undergraduate degree is in Family and Human Studies, and she also holds a National Administrators Credential and a Child Development Associates credential, along with several state endorsements.

It’s easy to see why BioKids is such a hit. Outside both main biology buildings (South Biology and Skaggs) the ambient noise of childhood play wafts in on any given day, and the ritual of parents coming and going to drop off and pick up their wee ones is heartwarming. Every Halloween (especially now that the pandemic has eased some) a trail of children costumed as lizards (or are they dinosaurs?) and other life forms, arrive at the Main Office to trick or treat and endure comments like, “Oh, wow, the freshman are getting younger every year!”

But it is the daily routine that is most charming. Markus Babst, Associate Professor of Biology and Director of the Cell & Genome Center is all smiles every morning when he drops of his two-and-a-half-year-old at the historic building built during World War II with original windows, moldings, hardware and exposed brick. (The building was originally the student health facility.) A first child, six-year-old Oskar, is already a BioKids graduate, and this second child, Mari, along with her parents are more than happy to have Mari enrolled in what Babst calls “a warm, friendly and educational place.”

End of day, Babst returns on his commuter bike towing its requisite canopied trailer for toddlers, and will sometimes lift his daughter over the chain-link fence to give her a hug, strap her in and then head for home. It’s a bucolic scene right here on campus, usually commandeered by college pursuits, and it spurs passing students to look up from the perpetual viewing of their mobile screen and . . . smile. Sometimes they even stop and watch for a few moments perhaps remembering something nostalgic about their own past as a small person.


by David Pace, first published in biology.utah.edu.

Stolen Ivory

Stolen Ivory

Isotope data strengthens suspicions of ivory stockpile theft.

In January 2019, a seizure of 3.3 tons of ivory in Uganda turned up something surprising: markings on some of the tusks suggested that they may have been taken from a stockpile of ivory kept, it was thought, strictly under lock and key by the government of Burundi.

A new study from University of Utah distinguished professor Thure Cerling and colleagues, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, uses carbon isotope science to show that the marked tusks were more than 30 years old and somehow had found their way from the guarded government stockpile into the hands of illegal ivory traders. The results suggest that governments that maintain ivory stockpiles may want to take a closer look at their inventory.

Thure Cerling

“Due to the markings seen on some samples of the ivory, it was thought that quite a few samples in this shipment could be related to material held in a government stockpile in Burundi.”

Ivory’s isotope signatures

Cerling is a pioneer in the use of isotopes to answer questions about physical and biological processes. “Isotopes” of a given element refer to atoms of the element that vary in their number of neutrons, and thus vary oh-so-slightly in mass. A carbon-14 isotope has one more neutron than carbon-13, for example.

Some isotopes are stable and some are unstable. Unstable isotopes decay into other isotopes or elements through radioactive decay. Since the rate of decay is known for unstable isotopes, we can use the amounts present in a sample to determine ages. That’s how carbon dating works—it uses the rate of decay of unstable carbon-14 to determine the age of organic matter.

Sam Wasser

Around a decade ago, Cerling attended a presentation at the U by Sam Wasser of the University of Washington, who was studying the genetics of wildlife and using those tools to investigate the date and place of wildlife poaching. Cerling, recognizing that his expertise in isotope science might be able to add useful information, began an ongoing collaboration with Wasser.

In 2016, Cerling, Wasser and colleagues published a study that addressed a key question in the ivory trade: how old is the ivory seized by governments? Some traders have claimed their ivory is old, taken before 1976, and thus exempt from sales bans. And with the average size of ivory seizures more than 2.5 tons, researchers, governments and conservationists wonder how much of the ivory is recent and how much is coming from criminal stockpiles—or is stolen from one of several ivory stockpiles held by the governments of some countries in Africa.

“Governments keep their stockpiles for multiple reasons,” Wasser says. “They hope to sell the ivory for revenue, sometimes to support conservation efforts. However, they can only sell ivory from elephants that died of natural causes or were culled because they were problem animals. They can’t sell seized ivory because they don’t know it came from the country.”

With the combination of Cerling’s isotope data and Wasser’s genetic data, the 2016 study found that more than 90% of seized ivory was from elephants that had been killed less than three years before. It was a sobering result, showing active and well-developed poaching and export networks. The study seemed to show that little ivory from government stockpiles had ended up on the black market.

Marked tusks

But the 2019 seizure of ivory in Uganda showed something concerning. Some of the tusks sported markings that looked suspiciously like the markings that CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, uses to inventory stockpiled ivory.

Due to the markings seen on some samples of the ivory,” Cerling says, “it was thought that quite a few samples in this shipment could be related to material held in a government stockpile in Burundi.  We were asked to date samples from this, and three other recent ivory seizures, to see if some samples could possibly be from older stockpiles.”

To determine the ivory’s age, the researchers collected small samples from the tusks and analyzed them for the amount of carbon-14 isotopes in each sample. They were looking specifically for the amount of “bomb carbon” in the tusks. Between 1945 and 1963, nuclear weapons testing doubled the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, so anything living that’s consumed carbon since then—including you—has a measurable carbon-14 signature. The amount of carbon-14 in a sample of ivory that hasn’t yet radioactively decayed can tell scientists when the ivory stopped growing, or when the elephant died.

Paula Kahumbu

The method takes some calibration, using samples from organisms living in the same area. Some of the samples came from schoolchildren in Kenya, through a program called “Kids and Goats for Elephants.” Because most families in rural Kenya keep goats the program, run by Cerling and Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect, engages children in collecting hair samples from goats for isotopic analysis. The isotope data is useful for many applications, including fighting elephant poaching and, in this case, calibrating the bomb carbon decay rate for more accurate dating of ivory.

A consequential result

The researchers analyzed ivory from four seizures in Angola, Hong Kong, Singapore and Uganda. Genetic data ensured that they weren’t sampling two tusks from the same individual. The results of analysis from the Angola, Hong Kong and Singapore seizures were as expected – the results showed ages mostly around three years after the death of the elephant, with no tusks having been taken more than 10 years previous.

But the Uganda seizure, with the inventory markings on the tusks, showed something very different. Nine of the 11 tusks tested had been taken more than 30 years before, with the dates of death ranging between 1985 and 1988. Those dates are consistent with the age of ivory in the stockpile of the government of Burundi, which was inventoried and stored in sealed containers in 1989.

“My suspicions were affirmed,” Wasser says. “The bigger surprise was how near to 1989 the elephants were killed.” At the time Burundi assembled its stockpile, a condition of joining CITES, which assists governments in managing ivory reserves, was that the ivory to be stockpiled was old. The results suggest that that wasn’t the case, Wasser says, which would have violated conditions for Burundi to join CITES.

“The hope is that CITES will request the stockpile to be re-inventoried,” Wasser says, “including aging randomly selected tusks and secure the remaining stocks.”

Find the full study here.


by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.

Hedgehog Signaling

Hedgehog Signaling

A cracker jack team of U of U undergrads works with principal investigator Ben Myers to break open a decades-old biological mystery of Hedgehog Signaling.

Corvin Arveseth

Corvin Arveseth, BS’21, can’t remember when he wasn’t fascinated by science and biology. So, when he came to the University of Utah and declared his majors in biology and biochemistry, he knew he wanted hands-on experience in research. “I didn’t know anything [about the] Hedgehog (Hh) signaling [pathway] until I read an advertisement put out by Ben Myers, [principal investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, assistant professor of oncological sciences at the University of Utah, and head of the Myers Lab] in a biology department newsletter looking for undergraduate researchers,” he says. “After reading some background information and meeting with Ben about the Hh pathway, I became intrigued with the work being done in his lab.”

The Hh pathway he’s referring to is akin to a master set of instructions for animal development and regeneration. It controls the formation of nearly every organ in the human body. Signaling pathways like Hh serve as molecular “telephone wires” from the cell surface to the nucleus. When cells in our bodies communicate with one another, signals are relayed along these molecular telephone wires, turning on expression of genes involved in growth, differentiation, or in some cases skin and brain cancers.

Corvin Arveseth and Will Steiner

The Hh pathway got its unusual name from decades-old genetic studies in fruit flies, where mutations in critical developmental genes led the flies to take on a bristly hedgehog-like appearance. However, versions of the Hh pathway operate throughout the animal kingdom, controlling development, stem cell biology, and cancer in many different contexts.

But even after many years of effort by labs all over the world, surprisingly little was known about how the Hh pathway actually works at a molecular level. Scientists knew that the signals conveyed by these molecular telephone wires were fundamental to human development and disease, but they didn’t know what the signals were, or how they were transmitted intracellularly. Consequently, health researchers’ ability to control Hh signaling in many diseases including cancer had been limited.

So, this is a story not just about a seemingly intractable research question, which is de rigeur in scientific circles, but how a team of largely undergraduate students in a four-year-old lab worked together under enormous odds to shake loose that answer. Myers says that that it was because of inexperience, not in spite of it, that the undergraduates in his lab were able to make these discoveries. These students’ fresh, undaunted determination to scientific inquiry, combined with a lack of preconceived notions and a willingness to learn, were key factors that enabled their groundbreaking discoveries.

Two papers, both with U undergraduates as first or co-first authors, were the gratifying result. PLOS Biology and Nature.com


Ben Myers

“It is a truly remarkable and inspiring collaboration that continues to this day, and I am so proud of how everybody was able to join forces and overcome so many obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Mysterious pathways
When Myers first set up his lab at the U in 2018, the key molecule in the Hh pathway that grabbed his attention was SMOOTHENED (SMO), a so-called “transmembrane protein” that spans across the cell membrane from the outside to the interior. SMO was known to be critical for transmitting signals from the cell surface to the nucleus. But what were the five or six steps between receiving the message and turning on gene expression? There was a “major disconnection about how this worked,” says Myers.

Nate Iverson

The twenty-five-year-old mystery was indeed tantalizing. It was “this interesting mystery coupled with the importance of Hh function,” says Arveseth, “in developmental and cancer biology [which] hooked me right away.”

Spearheading the project
Arveseth was the point of the spear for this project begun at the beginning of his sophomore year. But there were many others on the team, all of whom are “both incredibly smart, and also very kind and a lot of fun to work with,” according to Myers.

This includes Nate Iverson, a third year chemistry major with an interest in cellular signaling. “Having HCI in close connection with the University gave me greater access to research possibilities, and I was able to find an opening in the Myers lab studying Hh signal transduction.”

And then there was biology major Isaac Nelson, who worked tirelessly to produce a freezer full of carefully prepared, purified fragments of SMO for biochemical studies, only to hit a brick wall when he and Myers were unable to formulate a good hypothesis to drive an experiment.

Isaac Nelson

“It was only after starting up an international collaboration,” says Myers, “that the critical experiments snapped into view for us.” This led Nelson to send his samples to one of the lab’s new collaborators in Germany, and they used his samples to try an experiment that worked right away. In the midst of a raging pandemic, Nelson’s purified proteins helped to launch a new and entirely unexpected phase of the project, expanding the collaboration to include other scientists around the world.

“It was another scenario,” says Myers, “where everyone worked well together.”

Recent graduate Madison “Madi” Walker, BS’21, with a cell and molecular emphasis, was also part of the team. She is still working in the Myers lab studying another critical aspect of SMO signaling, namely the interaction between SMO and the enzyme G protein-coupled receptor kinase 2. Earlier, former undergraduate Jacob Capener, BS’20, assisted in the work.

Another critical member of the Myers lab team is Will Steiner, BS’21, who is currently collaborating with Arveseth and Nelson to purify SMO in complex with its binding partners in order to work out their atomic structures. He became interested in this area of research after taking the cell biology and biochemistry course at the U. “Biochemistry was particularly compelling and got me excited about the chemical reactions behind human physiology,” he says.

Madison Walker

It starts in the classroom
Rigorous courses were critical in preparing Myers’ undergraduate team for the hands-on research that led to their remarkable findings in the lab. He has nothing but kudos for the U’s curriculum. “Coursework before the lab experience [for undergraduate researchers] was very, very good here. In general, I’ve been lucky to attract motivated and curious students to my lab. They are inspired to push the research forward. They are all up to the challenge. And they have a great esprit de corps. They all work incredibly well together as a team to drive the science forward.”

That kind of correlated teamwork was not necessarily easy to enact under the circumstances. “Fortunately, we were able to finish the last key experiment of the first paper,” says Myers, in March 2020, just before the pandemic started to take hold and shut lab work down. He’s always believed that having undergraduates get a taste of cutting-edge research is important. They “shouldn’t have to work on something trivial… . What’s exciting about science is to push the boundaries.”

And yes, for Myers and the other senior members of his lab, including graduate students Danielle Hedeen and Aram Centeno, lab manager Ju-Fen Zhu, and former lab technician John Happ, “you have to be committed to helping everybody in your lab, even if they’re neophytes.” Clearly it’s been worth it. “And being a little bit of a neophyte is good,” he says, “because you don’t talk yourself out of doing experiments that are simple, unorthodox.”

Will Steiner

Asking the right questions
What Myers is trying to say, and seems to have proven over the course of the past three years and now the publication of two discovery-laden papers, is that their remarkable findings stemmed from the initial naïve view that the SMO protein didn’t fit the mold of other proteins as was previously assumed. He and Arveseth took a guess that SMO might be directly coupled to a critical intracellular signaling molecule called PKA. This was a rather wild idea, since there were few if any examples of transmembrane proteins that directly interacted with PKA. “It was a guess, how it might work, and a couple of months later: big discovery. Our initial guess was on the right track. There was a whole new unexpected thing going on but that made sense.”

Though early on the team suspected what they had discovered was important, “we didn’t know if we had a full explanation of how the system worked. We weren’t sure if it was the main event or an auxiliary event.” In the first paper, published in the journal PLOS Biology last year, they explained that: what they thought they knew, and what they weren’t sure about . . . yet.

But it was only after the pandemic was in full force that the team pivoted to the second exciting phase of the project, expanding to include Susan Taylor’s lab at the University of California, San Diego, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the PKA molecule the Myers team had implicated in their research.

Taylor and her colleagues had a critical insight regarding the SMO-PKA interaction which eventually formed the basis of a second manuscript, recently published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. “It is a truly remarkable and inspiring collaboration that continues to this day, and I am so proud of how everybody was able to join forces and overcome so many obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Myers. And his team is anticipating that even more exciting discoveries are on the horizon. Eventually, this work may lead to better drugs to treat some of the diseases that result from aberrant Hh signaling, including various skin and brain cancers.

In all, with the resulting two papers, the project turned out to be a “best case scenario that wasn’t planned,” and a lesson of how important it is to keep an open mind, which often leads to big discoveries.

Success is never final, however. And Arveseth, recipient of no less than ten scholarships and awards during his sojourn at the U, is now enrolled in the MD/PhD program at the Washington University in St. Louis, where he will focus on hematology and oncology. His colleagues are also pursuing their academic and research careers full-steam ahead. They, along with their mentor, Ben Myers are a testament to the notion that persistence in knowledge gathering pays off but that it must be paired and even driven by a relentlessly open mind.

The Meyers Lab

Concludes Myers, “To be honest, it comes down to the willingness to try new things and to have the ability to work together as a team. In reality, this would have been way too much for any individual scientist, even a highly trained one, to do alone.” You can follow him and his lab on Twitter @Myers_lab

Find the full study here.


by David Pace, first published @ biology.utah.edu.

Ethiopian Abattoirs

Ethiopian Abattoirs

Hooded Vulture

The decline of vultures and rise of dogs carries disease risks.

In the yards behind the slaughterhouses—also called abattoirs—of Ethiopia, an ecological shift is unfolding that echoes similar crises the world over. Species with a clear and effective ecological role are in serious decline, and the less-specialized but more aggressive species that have moved in to take their place are not only less effective, but are harmful to their ecosystem which, in this case, includes humans.

This is a story about vultures, feral dogs, rabies—and piles of rotting animal carcasses. Buckle up. But in the end, it’s about the power of conservation to keep ecosystems, even urban ecosystems, in balance, benefitting the people who live there.

“Carrion consumption by vultures is declining, and increasing by most other scavengers, but that increase is not sufficient to make up for the loss of vultures.” says SBS alumnus Evan Buechley, PhD’17, now with The Peregrine Fund, “So there’s a gap there. And what happens with that gap is a bit of an unanswered question, but that’s where the problem lies.”

The study is published in the Journal of Wildlife Management and is funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of Utah, HawkWatch International, The Peregrine Fund and the National Geographic Society.

Vultures are awesome

Worldwide, vultures are perfectly equipped to take care of the unpleasant remnants of death. Rotting carcasses can become hotbeds of disease, overrun by bacteria and insects. But vultures are an efficient clean-up crew. By eating carrion, they remove the carcasses and pass them through a highly acidic digestive system that wipes out disease-causing agents. And a diversity of vultures is better—some species are specialized to tear away hides and skin while others, coming in last, literally gulp down the bones.


Evan Buechley

“Carrion consumption by vultures is declining, and increasing by most other scavengers, but that increase is not sufficient enough to make up for the loss of vultures.”


But vultures have been in trouble in recent decades. They’re susceptible to poisons in the carrion they eat, whether that’s lead ammunition, the drug diclofenac, or poisons used against predatory animals. And with vultures producing relatively few chicks and taking a relatively long time to mature, it’s harder for them to recover from population declines.

Çağan Şekercioğlu, associate professor in the University of Utah School of Biological Sciences, showed that vultures were the most threatened group of birds (called an ecological guild, when the group uses the same or related resources) in 2004 when he conducted the first known ecological analysis of all bird species while in graduate school.

In 2012, Şekercioğlu accepted Buechley as his first doctoral student at the U. Buechley brought extensive experience working with vultures and condors. He and Şekercioğlu began a project tracking Egyptian vultures in eastern Turkey and the Horn of Africa.

“Evan led this project brilliantly and expanded it to the other vulture species of Ethiopia and the Horn,” Şekercioğlu says. “Despite the many challenges, he also decided to study the scavenger communities of the Addis Ababa abattoirs, to quantify the causes and consequences of vulture declines in the region.”

In 2016, Şekercioğlu and Buechley re-analyzed the ecology of all bird species. “We realized that vultures not only have the fewest species of any avian ecological guild, making them irreplaceable, but since that first analysis in 2004, they had gone downhill faster than any other group,” Şekercioğlu says.

Yes, there are other scavenger species that can take vultures’ place at the carrion table. But the loss of vultures, as we’ll see, can lead to human costs.

A white-backed vulture, a hooded vulture and a thick-billed raven.

Abattoirs’ feathered “employees”

At the abattoirs of Ethiopia, vultures are welcome partners. After butchering animals in clean conditions, the workers move the remnants of the carcasses – hooves, organs and bones, for example, to separate compounds. It’s a . . . unique sensory experience, Buechley says.

“It can be pretty stinky and pretty gross, by any objective measure.”

So abattoirs are grateful for the scavengers, including critically endangered white-backed, Rüppell’s and hooded vultures, that eagerly clean up the pile.

Study co-author Alazar Daka Ruffo, from Addis Ababa University, has interviewed abattoir staff members to see how they feel about the vultures.

“Some abattoir staff say half-jokingly, but not fully, that they see the vultures as employees of the abattoir,” says Buechley, reporting Ruffo’s findings. “They’re serving an important function. There’s intentionality behind the system.”

Other winged scavengers frequent the disposal piles, including crows, ravens, ibises and marabou storks. Four-legged visitors include packs of feral dogs.

“It’s an urban ecology situation where you have the human food supply meeting and really directly interacting with the wildlife food supply of scavengers,” Buechley adds. “It’s just a really complicated, kind of gross but fascinating system.”

With a research team including Rebecca Bishop, Tara Christensen and Şekercioğlu from the U’s School of Biological Sciences, Buechley set out to quantify the amount of carrion consumed by scavengers at six abattoirs in Ethiopia over five years, from 2014 to 2019.

Decline in vultures and rise in rabies

The team noted the types and abundance of scavengers that visited the abattoir buffets, and used this to extrapolate how much they ate. At first, vultures were eating more than half of the carrion in the disposal piles. White-backed, Rüppell’s and hooded vultures together ate an average of around 550 pounds (250 kg) of carrion a day.

But by the end of the five-year study, the number of Rüppell’s and white-backed vultures visiting the abattoir disposal yards decreased by 73%. Hooded vulture visits decreased by 15%. Over the same time, feral dog detections more than doubled.

A committee of hooded vultures.

“Although we can’t say for sure if the decline represents a population crash or if the vultures are being displaced by dogs and moving away from the abattoirs, either way this is really concerning,” says Megan Murgatroyd, Interim Director of International Programs for HawkWatch International.

“We know that the vultures are declining and we know that the feral dogs are increasing, but we don’t know exactly why,” Buechley says, adding that abattoir practices are also changing and that further studies will be needed to draw a cause-and-effect relationship.

Regardless, the vultures can ill afford the loss of abattoirs as a food supply. Rüppell’s, white-backed and hooded vultures are listed as critically endangered. “That’s the highest threat category before going extinct or extinct in the wild,” Buechley says.

The population of Rüppell’s vultures has declined by over 90% over the past three generations (approximately 40 years). White-backed and hooded vultures are doing a little better—but not by much. They’re estimated to have declined by 81% and 83%, respectively, over three generations.

“So it does seem that their disappearance from abattoirs is likely linked to a population crash,” says Murgatroyd. “Vultures need all the help they can get right now, and having to compete with growing dog populations is only making things worse.”

Other scavengers on the rise, including dogs, ibises and corvids (crows and ravens) couldn’t pick up the slack at the abattoirs. By 2019, scavengers were consuming nearly 43,000 pounds (around 20,000 kg) less carrion per year than they were in 2014, back when vultures were more abundant and dogs more scarce.

A chilling consequence of the rise of dogs may be a rise of rabies rates in humans. In the late 1990s, vulture populations in India and Pakistan crashed. Feral dog populations increased to take advantage of the uneaten carrion.

“They’re also disease vectors,” Buechley says, “and they interact really closely with people. And there’s been a link drawn between a big spike in feral dog populations and rabies in India.”

Is the same thing likely to happen in Ethiopia? Scientists haven’t yet drawn a link between vulture loss and rabies rise in that country. But Ethiopia already bears a heavy rabies burden with around 3,000 deaths from the disease per year.

“Unlike a lot of diseases which impact the elderly, rabies disproportionately affects young children, which are the most likely to be bit by rabid dogs,” Buechley says.

Fencing dogs out

The researchers provide a straightforward recommendation to help the situation: Use fences to keep the dogs out. And many abattoirs already have fences in place.

“But a pack of feral dogs is really persistent,” Buechley says. “It’s hard to keep hungry animals away from lots of food.”

An abattoir disposal pile with a kettle of vultures overhead.

The dogs can fight and dig their way through many fences, and maintaining or fortifying them may cut into the abattoirs’ profit margins.

“It’s a matter of weighing how important it is to keep the fences maintained,” Buechley says. “Improvement of these fences could really have a lot of benefits.” Those include potentially reducing the numbers of feral dogs, which reproduce quickly and whose population keeps pace with the available food supply. That in turn could help control rabies in humans and diseases in other animals, such as the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf, which are carried by the feral dogs.

And, counterintuitively, fencing out the abundant dogs could increase the rates of carrion consumption. Without the dogs around to scare off other scavengers, vultures could return in larger numbers to more quickly and efficiently clean up the disposal piles.

“That could lead to less smell, less groundwater contamination, fewer insects like flies that can breed on the carcasses,” Buechley says. “There’s a lot of potential benefits of investing in repairing the fences around abattoirs, which are found throughout Africa and elsewhere worldwide. We encourage abattoirs, local governments and international organizations to consider this when looking for solutions to waste disposal, human health and scavenger conservation.”

The results of the study show that the loss of specialist species from an ecosystem can’t always be compensated for by other species.

“The overarching point is that vultures are super important,” Buechley says. “If they decline, we expect there to be pretty profound ecological consequences and there may be increases in human disease burden. And so we should appreciate vultures and invest in their conservation.”

Find the full study here.


by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.