Scientific discoveries this week: 10-24-11

London, England – The Black Death that wiped out a large fraction of Europe’s population in the mid 14th-century seems to have been caused by an early version of the same bacteria that causes plague around the world today. Researchers excavated a 650 year old grave site in London to study the human remains there, and successfully sequenced roughly 99% of the Black Death bacterial genome. The bacteria, Y. pestis, shows no unique mutations that would explain why it was so deadly. The researchers concluded that the massive death toll must have been caused by a variety of conditions that no longer exist today.

Johannesburg, South Africa – Ancient humans appear to have had paint as far back as 100,000 years ago, according to a new discovery by a team of archaeologists. While not paint in today’s sense, this pigment, known as “ocher,” has a liquid form and contains all of the necessary ingredients to function as paint. The discovery was made in a cave overlooking the Indian Ocean in South Africa, where several other ground-breaking discoveries have been made. The archaeologists discovered the cave held what appeared to be a paint shop, with large mortar and pestle sets as well as containers to hold and mix the paint. Researchers at several universities around the world speculate that this discovery points to a high level of brain function in early humans.

Ann Arbor, Michigan – Some rare breeds of snails travel the sea just below the surface using mucus bubble rafts for flotation. These snails float wherever the wind and tide take them, snatching pieces of passing jellyfish whenever opportunities are presented. The bubble rafts are made from a mucus secreted from the snails’ hind quarters, which is folded into bubbles that provide floatation. Scientists suspect that these travelling snails did not always float, diverging from bottom-dwelling snails when air became trapped in similar mucus structures used to protect eggs.

Zurich, Switzerland – Climate change agreements to limit global temperature increase may not be met because of a lack of commitment says a new study from scientists at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. Based on an analysis of emissions scenarios, the scientists say it is quite likely that global temperatures will exceed a two degree Celsius limit over pre-industrial levels set in 2009 at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen. In order to remain under this limit, the scientists suggested several plans, each of which required emissions to peak during this decade. Countries would also need to work to reduce emissions greatly after the peak, use renewable energy sources, and make use of technologies to capture carbon.

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