Fungi don’t turn humans into zombies. But The Last of Us gets some science right

Like so many others, I’ve been watching the HBO series The Last of Us. It’s a classic zombie apocalypse drama following Joel (played by Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) as they make their way across the former United States (now run by a fascist government called Fedra).

I’m a big fan of zombie and other post-apocalyptic fiction. And my husband had told me how good the storyline is in the video game that inspired the series, so I was prepared for interesting storytelling. What I didn’t expect was to be so intrigued by the science behind the sci-fi.
In the opening minutes of the series, two scientists on a fictional 1968 talk show discuss the microbes that give them pandemic nightmares. One says it’s fungi — not viruses or bacteria — that keep him awake. Especially worrisome, he says, are the fungi that control rather than kill their hosts. He gives the example of fungi that turns ants into living zombies, puppeteering the insects by flooding their brains with hallucinogens.

He goes on to warn that even though human body temperature keeps us fungus-free, that might not be true if the world got a little bit warmer. He predicts that as the thermostat climbs, a fungus that hijacks insects could mutate a gene allowing it to burrow into human brains and take control of our minds. Such a fungus could induce its human puppets to spread the fungus “by any means necessary,” he says. What’s worse, there are no preventatives, treatments or cures, nor any way to make them.

It’s a brief segment, but it had me hooked. It all sounded so chilling and … plausible. After all, fungi like ones that cause nail infections, yeast infections and ringworm already infect people.

So I consulted some experts on fungal infections to find out whether this could actually happen.

I’ve got good news and bad news.

First, the bad news.

Bad news: Climate change has already helped one fungus mutate to infect humans
I wanted to know if warming has spurred any fungi to mutate and become infectious. So I called Arturo Casadevall. He has been thinking about fungi and heat for a long time. He’s proposed that the need to avoid fungal infections may have provided the evolutionary pressure that drove mammals and birds to evolve warm-bloodedness (SN: 12/3/10).

Most fungal species simply can’t reproduce at human body temperature (37° Celsius, or 98.6° Fahrenheit). But as the world warms, “these strains either have to die or adapt,” says Casadevall, a microbiologist who specializes in fungal infections at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That raises the possibility that fungi that now infect insects or reptiles could evolve to grow at temperatures closer to human body temperature.

At the same time, humans’ average body temperature has been falling since the 19th century, at least in high-income countries, researchers reported in eLife in 2020. One study from the United Kingdom pegs average body temperature at 36.6° C (97.9° F). And some of us are even cooler.

Fungi’s possible adaptation to higher heat and humans’ cooling body temperature are on a collision course, Casadevall says.
He and colleagues presented evidence of one such crash. Climate change may have allowed a deadly fungus called Candida auris to acclimate to human body temperatures (SN: 7/26/19). A version of the fungus that could infect humans independently emerged on three continents from 2012 to 2015. “It’s not like someone took a plane a spread it. These things came out of nowhere simultaneously,” Casadevall says.

Some people argue that the planet hasn’t warmed enough to make fungi a problem, he says. “But you have to think about all the really hot days [that come with climate change]. Every really hot day is a selection event,” in which many fungi will die. But some of those fungi will have mutations that help them handle the heat. Those will survive. Their offspring may be able to survive future even hotter heat waves until human body temperature is no challenge.

Fungi that infect people are usually not picky about their hosts, Casadevall says. They will grow in soil or — if given an opportunity — in people, pets or in other animals. The reason fungi don’t infect people more often is that “the world is much colder than we are, and they have no need of us,” he says.

When people do get infected, the immune system usually keeps the fungi in check. But fungal infections can cause serious illness or be deadly, particularly to people with weakened immune systems (SN: 11/29/21; SN: 1/10/23).

The second episode of The Last of Us reveals that the zombie-creating fungi initially spread through people eating contaminated flour. Then, the infected people attack and bite others, spreading the fungus.

In real life, most human infections arise from breathing in spores. But Casadevall says it’s “not implausible” that people could get infected by eating spores or by being bitten.

Also bad: Fungal genes can adapt to higher heat
I also wondered exactly how a fungus could evolve in response to heat. Asiya Gusa, a fungal researcher at Duke University School of Medicine, has published one possibility.

In 2020, she and colleagues reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on how one fungus mutated at elevated temperature to become harder to fight.

Cryptococcus deneoformans, which already infects humans (though it’s no zombie-maker), became resistant to some antifungal drugs when grown at human body temperature. The resistance was born when mobile bits of DNA called transposons (often called jumping genes) hopped into a few genes needed for the antifungals to work.

In a follow-up study, Gusa and colleagues grew C. deneoformans at either 30° C or 37° C for 800 generations, long enough to detect multiple changes in their DNA. Fungi had no problem growing at the balmy 30° C (86° F), the temperature at which researchers typically grow fungi in the lab. But their growth slowed at the higher temperature, a sign that the fungi were under stress from the heat.

In C. deneoformans, that heat stress really got things jumping. One type of transposon accumulated a median of 12 extra copies of itself in fungi grown at body temperature. By contrast, fungi grown at 30° C tended to pick up a median of only one extra copy of the transposon. The team reported those results January 20 in PNAS. The researchers don’t yet know the effect the transposon hops might have on the fungi’s ability to infect people, cause disease or resist fungus-fighting drugs.

So yeah, the bad news is not great. Fungi are mutating in the heat and at least one species has gained the ability to infect people thanks to climate change. Other fungi that infect people are more widespread than they were in the 1950s and 1960s, also thanks to a warming world (SN: 1/4/23).

But I promised good news. And here it is.

Good news: Human brains may resist zombification
It may not be our body temperature, but our brain chemistry, that protects us from being hijacked by zombifying fungi.

I consulted Charissa de Bekker and Jui-Yu Chou, two researchers who study the Ophiocordyceps fungi that are the model for the TV show’s fungal menace. These fungi infect ants, flooding the insects with a cocktail of chemicals that steer the ants to climb plants. Once in position, the ants chomp down and the chemicals keep the jaw muscles locked in place (SN: 7/17/19).

Unlike most fictional zombies, the ants are alive during this process. “A lot of people get the misconception that we work on undead ants,” says de Bekker, a microbiologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She’s glad to see the show “stick to the story of the host being very much alive while its behaviors change.” The fungi even help preserve the ant, keeping it alive even while feeding on it. But eventually the ant dies. Then a mushroom rises from the corpse, showering spores onto the ground where other ants may become infected.

Related species of Ophiocordyceps infect various species of ants and other insects. But each fungal species is very specific to the host it infects. That’s because the fungi had to individualize the chemicals they use to control the particular species they infect. The ability to manipulate behavior comes at the cost of not being able to infect multiple species.
A fungus that specializes in infecting ants probably can’t get past humans’ immune systems, says Chou, a fungal researcher at the National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan. “Think of a key that fits into a specific lock. It is only this unique combination that will trigger the lock to open,” he says.

Even if the fungi evolved to withstand human body temperature and immune system attacks, they probably couldn’t take control of our minds, de Bekker says. “Manipulation is like a whole different ballgame. You need a ton of additional tools to get there.” It took millions of years of coevolution for the fungi to master piloting ants, after all.

While fungi do make mind-altering chemicals that can affect human behavior (LSD and psilocybin, for instance), Casadevall agrees that fungi that mind control insects probably won’t turn humans into zombies. “It’s not one of my worries,” he says.

Infected ants don’t turn into vicious, biting zombies either, de Bekker says. “If anything, we actually see the healthy ants being aggressive toward infected individuals, once they figure out that they’re infected, to basically get rid of them.” That “social immunity” helps protect the rest of the nest from infection.

Also good: Humans are innovative enough to develop treatments
The fictional scientist’s assertion that we couldn’t prevent, treat or cure these fungal infections is also a stretch.

Antifungal drugs exist and they cure many fungal infections, though some infections may persist. Some that spread to the brain may be particularly difficult to clear.Some fungi are also evolving resistance to the drugs. And a few fungal vaccines are in the works, although they may not be ready for years.

The experts I talked to say they hope the show will bring attention to real fungal diseases.

Gusa was especially glad to see fungi in the limelight. And she shares my fondness for that retro series opening in which the scientist predicts climate change could spawn mind-controlling fungi bent on infecting every person on the planet.

“I was pretty much yelling at the TV when I watched the [show’s] intro,” in an excited kind of way, she says. “This is the foundation of a lot of my grant funding … the threat of thermal adaptation of fungi.… To see it played out on the screen was something kind of fun.”

The Milky Way may be spawning many more stars than astronomers had thought

The Milky Way is churning out far more stars than previously thought, according to a new estimate of its star formation rate.

Gamma rays from aluminum-26, a radioactive isotope that arises primarily from massive stars, reveal that the Milky Way converts four to eight solar masses of interstellar gas and dust into new stars each year, researchers report in work submitted to on January 24. That range is two to four times the conventional estimate and corresponds to an annual birthrate in our galaxy of about 10 to 20 stars, because most stars are less massive than the sun.
At this rate, every million years — a blink of the eye in astronomical terms — our galaxy spawns 10 million to 20 million new stars. That’s enough to fill roughly 10,000 star clusters like the beautiful Pleiades cluster in the constellation Taurus. In contrast, many galaxies, including most of the ones that orbit the Milky Way, make no new stars at all.

“The star formation rate is very important to understand for galaxy evolution,” says Thomas Siegert, an astrophysicist at the University of Würzburg in Germany. The more stars a galaxy makes, the faster it enriches itself with oxygen, iron and the other elements that stars create. Those elements then alter star-making gas clouds and can change the relative number of large and small stars that the gas clouds form.

Siegert and his colleagues studied the observed intensity and spatial distribution of emission from aluminum-26 in our galaxy. A massive star creates this isotope during both life and death. During its life, the star blows the aluminum into space via a strong wind. If the star explodes when it dies, the resulting supernova forges more. The isotope, with a half-life of 700,000 years, decays and gives off gamma rays.

Like X-rays, and unlike visible light, gamma rays penetrate the dust that cloaks the youngest stars. “We’re looking through the entire galaxy,” Siegert says. “We’re not X-raying it; here we’re gamma-raying it.”

The more stars our galaxy spawns, the more gamma rays emerge. The best match with the observations, the researchers find, is a star formation rate of four to eight solar masses a year. That is much higher than the standard estimate for the Milky Way of about two solar masses a year.

The revised rate is very realistic, says Pavel Kroupa, an astronomer at the University of Bonn in Germany who was not involved in the work. “I’m very impressed by the detailed modeling of how they account for the star formation process,” he says. “It’s a very beautiful work. I can see some ways of improving it, but this is really a major step in the absolutely correct direction.”

Siegert cautions that it is difficult to tell how far the gamma rays have traveled before reaching us. In particular, if some of the observed emission arises nearby — within just a few hundred light-years of us — then the galaxy has less aluminum-26 than the researchers have calculated, which means the star formation rate is on the lower side of the new estimate. Still, he says it’s unlikely to be as low as the standard two solar masses per year.
In any event, the Milky Way is the most vigorous star creator in a collection of more than 100 nearby galaxies called the Local Group. The largest Local Group galaxy, Andromeda, converts only a fraction of a solar mass of gas and dust into new stars a year. Among Local Group galaxies, the Milky Way ranks second in size, but its high star formation rate means that we definitely try a lot harder.

A gel cocktail uses the body’s sugars to ‘grow’ electrodes in living fish

For the first time, researchers have harnessed the body’s own chemistry to “grow” electrodes inside the tissues of living fish, blurring the boundary between biology and machines.

The technique uses the body’s sugars to turn an injected gel into a flexible electrode without damaging tissues, experiments show. Zebrafish with these electrodes grown in their brains, hearts and tail fins showed no signs of ill effects, and ones tested in leeches successfully stimulated a nerve, researchers report in the Feb. 24 Science.
Someday, these electrodes could be useful for applications ranging from studying how biological systems work to improving human-machine interfaces. They also could be used in “bioelectronic medicine,” such as brain stimulation therapies for depression, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions (SN: 2/10/19).

Soft electronics aim to bridge the gap between soft, curvy biology and electronic hardware. But these electronics typically still must carry certain parts that can be prone to cracks and other issues, and inserting these devices inevitably causes damage to tissues.

“All the devices we have made, even though we have made them flexible, to make them more soft, when we introduce them, there will still be a scar. It’s like sticking a knife into the organ,” says Magnus Berggren, a materials scientist at Linköping University in Sweden. That scarring and inflammation can degrade electrode performance over time.

Previous efforts to grow soft electronics inside tissues have drawbacks. One approach uses electrical or chemical signals to power the transformation from chemical soup to conducting electrodes, but these zaps also cause damage. A 2020 study got around this problem by genetically modifying cells in worms to produce an engineered enzyme that does the job, but the new method achieves its results without genetic alterations.

Berggren and colleagues’ electrodes instead exploit a natural energy source already present in the body: sugars. The gel cocktail contains molecules called oxidases that react with the sugars — glucose or lactate — to produce hydrogen peroxide. That then activates another ingredient in the cocktail, an enzyme called hydrogen peroxidase, which is the catalyst needed to transform the gel into a conducting electrode.

“The approach leverages elegant chemistry to overcome many of the technical challenges,” says biomedical engineer Christopher Bettinger of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study.

To test the technique, the researchers injected the cocktail into the brains, hearts and tail fins of transparent zebrafish. The gel turns blue when it becomes conductive, giving a visual readout of its success.
“The beautiful thing is you can see it: The zebrafishes’ tail changes color, and we know that blue indicates a conducting polymer,” says materials scientist Xenofon Strakosas, also of Linköping University. “The first time I saw it, I thought ‘Wow, it’s really working!’”

The fish appeared to suffer no ill effects, and the researchers saw no evidence of tissue damage. In partially dissected leeches, the team showed that delivering a current to a nerve via a soft electrode could induce muscle contractions. Ultimately, devices like this could be paired with various wireless technologies in development.

Long-term implant performance remains to be determined, however. “The demonstrations are impressive,” Bettinger says. “What remains to be seen is the stability of the electrode.” Over time, substances in the body could react with the electrode materials, degrading it or even producing toxic substances.

The team still needs to refine how precisely the electrodes can stimulate nerves, says chemical engineer Zhenan Bao of Stanford University, who was not involved in the work. She and colleagues developed the way to “grow” electrical components using genetic modifications. Ensuring stimulation is concentrated where it’s needed for a treatment, while preventing the leakage of current to unwanted regions will be important, she says.

In the new study, the relative abundance of different sugars in different tissues determines exactly where electrodes form. But in the future, a component of the main ingredient could be swapped out for elements that attach to specific bits of biology to make targeting much more precise, Berggren says. “We’re conducting experiments right now where we’re trying to bind these materials directly on individual cells.” Notes Strakosas: “There are some applications where precision is really important; that’s where we have to invest effort.”

Greta Thunberg’s new book urges the world to take climate action now

The best shot we have at minimizing the future impacts of climate change is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Since the Industrial Revolution began, humankind has already raised the average global temperature by about 1.1 degrees. If we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the current rate, the world will probably surpass the 1.5-degree threshold by the end of the decade.

That sobering fact makes clear that climate change isn’t just a problem to solve someday soon; it’s an emergency to respond to now. And yet, most people don’t act like we’re in the midst of the greatest crisis humans have ever faced — not politicians, not the media, not your neighbor, not myself, if I’m honest. That’s what I realized after finishing The Climate Book by Greta Thunberg.

The urgency to act now, to kick the addiction to fossil fuels, practically jumps off the page to punch you in the gut. So while not a pleasant read — it’s quite stressful — it’s a book I can’t recommend enough. The book’s aim is not to convince skeptics that climate change is real. We’re well past that. Instead, it’s a wake-up call for anyone concerned about the future.

A collection of bite-size essays, The Climate Book provides an encyclopedic overview of all aspects of the climate crisis, including the basic science, the history of denialism and inaction, and what to do next. Thunberg, who became the face of climate activism after starting the Fridays For Future protests as a teenager (SN: 12/16/19), assembles an all-star roster of experts to write the essays.

The first two sections of the book lay out how a small amount of warming can have major, far-reaching effects. For some readers, this will be familiar territory. But as each essay builds on the next, it becomes clear just how delicate Earth’s climate system is. What also becomes clear is the significance of 1.5 degrees (SN: 12/17/18). Beyond this point, scientists fear, various aspects of the natural world might reach tipping points that usher in irreversible changes, even if greenhouse gas emissions are later brought under control. Ice sheets could melt, raise sea levels and drown coastal areas. The Amazon rainforest could become a dry grassland.

The cumulative effect would be a complete transformation of the climate. Our health and the livelihood of other species and entire ecosystems would be in danger, the book shows. Not surprisingly, essay after essay ends with the same message: We must cut greenhouse gas emissions, now and quickly.

Repetition is found elsewhere in the book. Numerous essays offer overlapping scientific explanations, stats about emissions, historical notes and thoughts about the future. Rather than being tedious, the repetition reinforces the message that we know what the climate change threat is, we know how to tackle it and we’ve known for a long time.
Thunberg’s anger and frustration over the decades of inaction, false starts and broken pledges are palpable in her own essays that run throughout the book. The world has known about human-caused climate change for decades, yet about half of all human-related carbon dioxide emissions ever released have occurred since 1990. That’s the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its first report and just two years before world leaders met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to sign the first international treaty to curb emissions (SN: 6/23/90).

Perversely, the people who will bear the brunt of the extreme storms, heat waves, rising seas and other impacts of climate change are those who are least culpable. The richest 10 percent of the world’s population accounts for half of all carbon dioxide emissions while the top 1 percent emits more than twice as much as the bottom half. But because of a lack of resources, poorer populations are the least equipped to deal with the fallout. “Humankind has not created this crisis,” Thunberg writes, “it was created by those in power.”

That injustice must be confronted and accounted for as the world addresses climate change, perhaps even through reparations, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, a philosopher at Georgetown University, argues in one essay.

So what is the path forward? Thunberg and many of her coauthors are generally skeptical that new tech alone will be our savior. Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, for example, has been heralded as one way to curb emissions. But less than a third of the roughly 150 planned CCS projects that were supposed to be operational by 2020 are up and running.

Progress has been impeded by expenses and technology fails, science writer Ketan Joshi explains. An alternative might be “rewilding,” restoring damaged mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and other ecosystems that naturally suck CO2 out of the air (SN: 9/14/22), suggest environmental activists George Monbiot and Rebecca Wrigley.

Fixing the climate problem will not only require transforming our energy and transportation systems, which often get the most attention, but also our economies (endless growth is not sustainable), political systems and connection to nature and with each other, the book’s authors argue.

The last fifth of the book lays out how we could meet this daunting challenge. What’s needed is a critical mass of individuals who are willing to make lifestyle changes and be heard. This could trigger a social movement strong enough to force politicians to listen and create systemic and structural change. In other words, it’s time to start acting like we’re in a crisis. Thunberg doesn’t end the book by offering hope. Instead, she argues we each have to make our own hope.

“To me, hope is not something that is given to you, it is something you have to earn, to create,” she writes. “It cannot be gained passively, through standing by and waiting for someone else to do something. Hope is taking action.”

Psychedelics may improve mental health by getting inside nerve cells

Psychedelics go beneath the cell surface to unleash their potentially therapeutic effects.

These drugs are showing promise in clinical trials as treatments for mental health disorders (SN: 12/3/21). Now, scientists might know why. These substances can get inside nerve cells in the cortex — the brain region important for consciousness — and tell the neurons to grow, researchers report in the Feb. 17 Science.

Several mental health conditions, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, are tied to chronic stress, which degrades neurons in the cortex over time. Scientists have long thought that repairing the cells could provide therapeutic benefits, like lowered anxiety and improved mood.
Psychedelics — including psilocin, which comes from magic mushrooms, and LSD — do that repairing by promoting the growth of nerve cell branches that receive information, called dendrites (SN: 11/17/20). The behavior might explain the drugs’ positive outcomes in research. But how they trigger cell growth was a mystery.

It was already known that, in cortical neurons, psychedelics activate a certain protein that receives signals and gives instructions to cells. This protein, called the 5-HT2A receptor, is also stimulated by serotonin, a chemical made by the body and implicated in mood. But a study in 2018 determined that serotonin doesn’t make these neurons grow. That finding “was really leaving us scratching our heads,” says chemical neuroscientist David Olson, director of the Institute for Psychedelics and Neurotherapeutics at the University of California, Davis.

To figure out why these two types of chemicals affect neurons differently, Olson and colleagues tweaked some substances to change how well they activated the receptor. But those better equipped to turn it on didn’t make neurons grow. Instead, the team noticed that “greasy” substances, like LSD, that easily pass through cells’ fatty outer layers resulted in neurons branching out.

Polar chemicals such as serotonin, which have unevenly distributed electrical charges and therefore can’t get into cells, didn’t induce growth. Further experiments showed that most cortical neurons’ 5-HT2A receptors are located inside the cell, not at the surface where scientists have mainly studied them.

But once serotonin gained access to the cortical neurons’ interior — via artificially added gateways in the cell surface — it too led to growth. It also induced antidepressant-like effects in mice. A day after receiving a surge in serotonin, animals whose brain cells contained unnatural entry points didn’t give up as quickly as normal mice when forced to swim. In this test, the longer the mice tread water, the more effective an antidepressant is predicted to be, showing that inside access to 5-HT2A receptors is key for possible therapeutic effects.

“It seems to overturn a lot about what we think should be true about how these drugs work,” says neuroscientist Alex Kwan of Cornell University, who was not involved in the study. “Everybody, including myself, thought that [psychedelics] act on receptors that are on the cell surface.”
That’s where most receptors that function like 5-HT2A are found, says biochemist Javier González-Maeso of the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who was also not involved in the work.

Because serotonin can’t reach 5-HT2A receptors inside typical cortical neurons, Olson proposes that the receptors might respond to a different chemical made by the body. “If it’s there, it must have some kind of role,” he says. DMT, for example, is a naturally occurring psychedelic made by plants and animals, including humans, and can reach a cell’s interior.

Kwan disagrees. “It’s interesting that psychedelics can act on them, but I don’t know if the brain necessarily needs to use them when performing its normal function.” Instead, he suggests that the internal receptors might be a reserve pool, ready to replace those that get degraded on the cell surface.

Either way, understanding the cellular mechanisms behind psychedelics’ potential therapeutic effects could help scientists develop safer and more effective treatments for mental health disorders.

“Ultimately, I hope this leads to better medicines,” Olson says.

Glassy eyes may help young crustaceans hide from predators in plain sight

Fledgling crustaceans have eyes like the sea, a peculiarity that could help them hide from predators.

Young shrimp, crab or lobster larvae already rock nearly translucent bodies to stay out of view. But dark eye pigments essential for vision pose the risk of exposing the animals anyway.

Some see-through ocean animals rely on mirrored irises or minuscule eyes to avoid detection. Young shrimp and prawns, on the other hand, camouflage their dark pigments behind light-reflecting glass made of tiny, crystalline spheres, researchers report in the Feb. 17 Science.
Variations in the size and placement of the orbs allow the crustaceans’ eyes to shine light that precisely matches the color of the surrounding water, possibly rendering them invisible to predators on the hunt for a meal.

Technologies that mimic the nanospheres’ structure could one day inspire more efficient solar energy or bio-friendly paints, the scientists say.

“I’ve often wondered what’s going on with [these animals’] eyeshine,” says evolutionary biologist Heather Bracken-Grissom of Florida International University in Miami, who was not involved in the study. She and colleagues often collect crustaceans from the deep sea, giving them nicknames like “blue-eyed arthropod” or “green-eyed, weird-looking shrimp” because the creatures don’t resemble their adult forms. Now, she says, that eye color makes sense.

In the study, chemist Keshet Shavit and colleagues used an electron microscope to peer into the eyes of lab-raised and wild crustaceans. Inside shrimp and prawn eyes, the team found crystalline nanospheres made of isoxanthopterin, a molecule that reflects light.

The spheres are a bit like disco balls, with highly reflective surfaces pointing outward, says study coauthor Benjamin Palmer, a chemist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel. Each sphere is made of thin, isoxanthopterin plates that stick together to form balls that range in size from around 250 to 400 nanometers in diameter.

These balls are arranged in clusters at the base of protein-dense cones that focus light on the animal’s light-sensing nerves, and form a protective cover over the pigmented cells. But crustacean larvae can still see because there are small holes in the glass, Palmer says. “It’s basically allowing light to go down to the retina on some specific angles, but on other angles, it’s reflecting light back.”
The size and order of the spheres seem to influence the color of the reflected light, the team’s observations and computer simulations show.

“The correlation between the particle size and the eyeshine color is beyond amazing,” says Shavit, also at Ben-Gurion University. Nanosphere size appears to help the animals’ eyes match the color of their native habitat, helping the critters blend into the background.

Blue-eyed shrimp that inhabit the Gulf of Aqaba’s clear blue waters off the coast of Israel, for instance, have spheres that are approximately 250 to 325 nanometers in diameter. The 400-nanometer-wide spheres of a freshwater prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) glitter yellow-green, mimicking muddy waters found in the salty estuaries where they live.
The prawn’s eyes also seem to be able to reflect different colors in different environments. Individuals exposed to sunlight for four hours in the lab had silvery yellow eyes, possibly a result of nanospheres arranged in a disorganized jumble. But individuals left in the dark overnight had green eyes. Their nanospheres are arranged in layers — though the orbs within each layer are still disorganized, Palmer says.

Such adaptable eyes could help larvae move undetected through different parts of the ocean as changing light levels alter the color of the water, Bracken-Grissom says. At night, young crustaceans migrate to shallow waters to feed and dive back down when the sun rises. “If they are in fact using it as a form of camouflage, it would be an ingenious way to camouflage themselves as they move through these different light environments.”

In the wake of history’s deadliest mass extinction, ocean life may have flourished

Following the most severe known mass extinction in Earth’s history, vibrant marine ecosystems may have recovered within just a million years, researchers report in the Feb. 10 Science. That’s millions of years faster than previously thought. The evidence, which lies in a diverse trove of pristine fossils discovered near the city of Guiyang in South China, may represent the early foundations of today’s ocean-dwelling ecosystems.

The conventional story was that the ocean was kind of dead for millions of years after this mass extinction, says paleontologist Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, who was not involved in the research. “Well, that’s not true. The ocean [was] very much alive.”
The Great Dying, or Permian-Triassic mass extinction, occurred around 251.9 million years ago, at the end of the Permian Period, after a series of massive volcanic eruptions (SN: 12/6/18).

“The oceans warmed significantly, and there’s evidence for acidification, deoxygenation [causing widespread dead zones], as well as poisoning,” says Roopnarine. “There [were] a lot of toxic elements like sulfur entering into parts of the ocean.”

Life in the seas suffered. More than 80 percent of marine species went extinct. Some researchers have even proposed that entire trophic levels — castes in an ecosystem’s food web — may have vanished.

Figuring out how long life took to fully recover in the wake of all that loss has been challenging. In 2010, researchers studying fossils from the Luoping biota in China proposed that complex marine ecosystems fully rebounded within 10 million years. Later, other fossil finds, such as the Paris biota in the western United States and the Chaohu biota in China, led scientists to suggest that marine ecosystems reestablished themselves within just 3 million years.

Then in 2015, a serendipitous discovery narrowed the gap again. Paleontologist Xu Dai, then an undergraduate student at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, was studying rocks from the early Triassic during a field trip near the city of Guiyang, when he split open a piece of black shale. Within the rock, he discovered a surprisingly well-preserved fossil of what would later be identified as a primitive lobster.

The arthropod’s immaculate condition sparked a series of return trips. From 2015 to 2019, Dai, now at the University of Burgundy in Dijon, France, and his colleagues uncovered a bricolage of fossilized life: Predatory fish as long as baseball bats. Ammonoids in swirled shells. Eel-like conodonts. Early shrimps. Sponges. Bivalves. Fossilized poo.
And the prizes kept coming. Both under and within the Guiyang biota, Dai and his colleagues discovered beds of volcanic ash. An analysis of the amounts of uranium and lead in the ash revealed that the Guiyang biota contained fossils from roughly 250.7 to 250.8 million years ago (SN: 5/2/22). The dating was further supported by the types of fossils found and by an analysis of the different forms of carbon in the rocks.

Finding a potpourri of life of this age suggests that marine ecosystems rebounded quickly after the Great Dying, within just 1 million years or so, Dai says.

Alternatively, it may indicate that the extinction event failed to wipe out entire trophic levels, says paleontologist William Foster from the University of Hamburg in Germany, who was not involved in the study. “You have this really environmentally stressful world, but some former marine ecosystems survive.”

Regardless, it seems clear that these ecosystems were hardy. Due to the motion of tectonic plates, the community preserved in the Guiyang biota was located in the tropics during the early Triassic. At that time, the temperature of the sea surface was nearly 35⁰ Celsius, and past research had suggested many organisms may have migrated away to escape the heat. But, the discovery of the Guiyang biota challenges that, Foster says. Sea creatures “are tolerating it somehow, they’re adapting.”

According to Dai, the fossils may be evidence that the roots of today’s marine ecosystems took hold shortly after the Great Dying. “These groups are related to modern fish, lobsters and shrimps, their ancestors,” he says. “The oldest time we can find similar seafood to today is [in the time of] the Guiyang biota.”

But Roopnarine is skeptical. It remains to be seen exactly how the Guiyang biota connects to today’s ecosystems, he says. The fossil assemblage could represent an ephemeral collective of life rather than a stable community, he adds, pointing out that ammonoids and conodonts went extinct.

Further work will help resolve the many questions unearthed with the Guiyang biota, Dai says. He and his colleagues plan to head back into the field this summer for the first time since 2019. When asked if he’ll be keeping his eyes peeled for another lobster, he responds: “Of course.”

Hominids used stone tool kits to butcher animals earlier than once thought

Nearly 3 million years ago, hominids employed stone tool kits to butcher hippos and pound plants along what’s now the shores of Kenya’s Lake Victoria, researchers say.

Evidence of those food preparation activities pushes back hominids’ use of these tool kits, known as Oldowan implements, by roughly 300,000 years, say paleoanthropologist Thomas Plummer of Queen’s College, City University of New York and colleagues. That makes these finds possibly the oldest known stone tools.

Several dating techniques place discoveries at the Kenyan site, known as Nyayanga, at between around 2.6 million and 3 million years old. Based on where artifacts lay in dated sediment layers, these finds are probably close to about 2.9 million years old, the scientists report in the Feb. 10 Science.
Until now, the oldest Oldowan tools dated to roughly 2.6 million years ago at an Ethiopian site more than 1,200 kilometers north of Nyayanga (SN: 6/3/19). Excavations at another site in Kenya, called Lomekwi 3, have yielded large, irregularly shaped rocks dating to about 3.3 million years ago (SN: 5/20/15). But claims that these finds, which include some sharp edges, represent the oldest known stone tools are controversial.

Similarities of the Nyayanga artifacts to those found at sites dating to as late as around 1.7 million years ago “reinforce the long trajectory of Oldowan technology in the early stages of human evolution,” says archaeologist Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo of Rice University in Houston and the University of Alcalá in Madrid. He did not participate in the new study.

Skeletal remains of at least three hippos unearthed near a total of 56 stone artifacts at Nyayanga display butchery marks, the investigators say. Wear patterns on another 30 stone tools from Nyayanga indicate that these items were used to cut, scrape and pound animal tissue and a variety of plants. And antelope fossils found at Nyayanga display damage from hominids removing meat with sharp stones and crushing bones with large stones to remove marrow.
These discoveries are among 330 Oldowan artifacts and 1,776 animal bones unearthed at Nyayanga from 2015 through 2017. Oldowan finds included three parts of an ancient tool kit — rounded hammerstones, angular or oval cores and sharp-edged flakes. Toolmakers struck a core held in one hand with a hammerstone held in the other hand, splitting off flakes that could be used to cut or scrape.

Whoever wielded stone tools at the Kenya site close to 3 million years ago “had access to a well-balanced diet for hunter-gatherers,” says coauthor Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The evolutionary identity of ancient Nyayanga toolmakers remains a mystery. Plummer’s group unearthed two large, peg-shaped molars belonging to Paranthropus, a big-jawed, small-brained hominid line that inhabited eastern and southern parts of Africa until around 1 million years ago. The Nyayanga teeth are the oldest known Paranthropus fossils.

But there is no way to confirm that Paranthropus made and used the newly recovered stone tools. Individuals who died at Nyayanga and left behind their fossilized teeth were not necessarily part of groups that periodically butchered hippos there, Domínguez-Rodrigo says.

Members of the Homo genus appeared in East Africa as early as around 2.8 million years ago and could have made Oldowan tools at Nyayanga, says archaeologist Sileshi Semaw of the National Research Center for Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain (SN: 3/4/15). But Paranthropus can’t be discounted as a toolmaker. A large male Paranthropus skull discovered in 1959, dubbed Nutcracker Man, lay near Oldowan artifacts dated to 1.89 million years ago, says Semaw, who was not part of Plummer’s group (SN: 3/3/20).

Previous discoveries indicated that Oldowan toolmakers eventually occupied much of Africa, Asia and Europe, either via the spread of toolmaking groups or through independent inventions.

Discoveries at Nyayanga fit a current consensus that stone-tool making must have begun shortly after hominids evolved substantially smaller canine teeth around 5 million years ago, says archaeologist John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York, who was not involved in the new study. Stone tools did the work formerly performed by big canines, including slicing prey carcasses, mashing edible plants and helping individuals communicate anger or dominance over others, Shea suspects.

If that tool-crafting timeline is correct, then even Australopithecus afarensis, known for Lucy’s famous partial skeleton, might have made and used stone tools by around 3.4 million years ago (SN: 8/11/10).

Any way you slice it, Oldowan finds at Nyayanga now provide the earliest hard evidence of stone tools.

This dinosaur might have used its feet to snag prey in midair like modern hawks

Modern birds evolved from dinosaurs, but it’s not clear how well birds’ ancient dino ancestors could fly (SN: 10/28/16). Now, a look at the fossilized feet of one nonavian dinosaur suggests that it may have hunted on the wing, like some hawks today.

The crow-sized Microraptor had toe pads very similar to those of modern raptors that can hunt in the air, researchers report December 20 in Nature Communications. That means the feathered, four-winged dinosaur probably used its feet to catch flying prey too, paleobiologist Michael Pittman of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and colleagues say (SN: 7/16/20).
Other researchers caution that toe pads alone aren’t enough to declare Microraptor an aerial hunter. But if the claim holds up, such a hunting style would reinforce a debated hypothesis that powered flight evolved multiple times among dinosaurs, a feat once attributed solely to birds.

Toe pads are bundles of scale-covered flesh on the undersides of dinosaur feet, similar to “toe beans” on dogs and cats. Because the pads are points where the living animal interacted with surfaces, toe pads give paleontologists a “sense of where the rubber meets the road,” says Alexander Dececchi, a paleontologist at Mount Marty University in Yankton, S.D., who was not involved in the new study.

These contact points can paint a clearer picture of an animal’s behavior by providing “details that the skeleton itself wouldn’t show,” says Thomas Holtz Jr., a dinosaur paleobiologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, who was also not involved in the study.

To investigate dinosaur toe pads, Pittman and colleagues turned to the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature in Linyi, China. It “has arguably the largest collection of feathered dinosaurs in the world, and, importantly, they haven’t been prepared extensively,” Pittman says. Many of these dinosaur skeletons are still surrounded by rock, which is where soft tissues can be preserved. Such a specimen “gives us the best chance of finding this wonderful soft tissue information,” he says.
Using special lasers that cause the otherwise nearly invisible soft tissue in the fossils to fluoresce, the team found 12 specimens with exceptionally well-preserved toe pads among the thousands examined (SN: 3/20/17).

The team compared the fossil toe pads with those of 36 types of modern birds, whose toe pads vary with their lifestyle. Predatory birds, for example, have protruding toe pads with spiky scales for grasping prey, while ground birds that spend their time walking and running have flatter toe pads. The analysis showed that Microraptor’s toe pads and other aspects of the feet, like the shape of the toe joints and claws, are most like those of modern hawks. That similarity suggests that the dinosaur could hunt prey midair and on the ground like hawks do, the team says.

Other dinosaurs, like the feathered Anchiornis, had flatter toe pads and straighter claws, suggesting a terrestrial lifestyle. That’s in line with ideas about this dinosaur being a poor flier, Pittman says.
The idea that Microraptor hunted like a hawk is consistent with other fossil evidence. One Microraptor fossil has been found with a bird in its stomach, and Microraptor‘s skeletal and soft tissue anatomy suggest some powered flight capability.

There’s still more work to do to figure out how well the dinosaur may have flown. “Microraptor is not a bird, but a close relative. Just because it has feet like a predatory bird doesn’t necessarily mean it must be catching prey in the exact same way,” Pittman says. But Microraptor’s hawklike lifestyle “is a strong possibility,” he adds.
Flight could have been useful to Microraptor when hunting, even if it couldn’t stack up to today’s fliers. Dececchi speculates that Microraptor’s anatomy probably prevented it from outflying birds, but may have helped it surprise otherwise out-of-reach prey, including flying and gliding animals.

“You only have to be fast or aerobatic enough to catch other things in your environment,” Holtz says. “So, it’s not improbable that [Microraptor was] catching things in the air on occasion.”

Other paleontologists are more skeptical that Microraptor hunted on the wing. “It would be a bit of a stretch to me to suggest that Microraptor was pursuing prey in an aerial context,” says Albert Chen, a paleobiologist at the University of Cambridge. The new findings inform only “what the foot was used for.”

Alternative hypotheses, such as a completely or partially terrestrial hunting style, could fit the data too, Holtz says, but the “feet are definitely playing a major role in their prey capture,” whether on the ground or in the air.

For now, the picture of Microraptor’s ecology remains fuzzy, but as lasers continue to increase the picture’s resolution, our understanding of dinosaur flight may reach new heights.