Will Ghost Sharks Vanish Before Scientists Can Study Them?

By Annie Roth, NY Times

Much remains to be learned about the cartilaginous, little understood fishes that inhabit the deep-sea.

Take one look at a ghost shark and you may say, “What’s up with that weird-looking fish?”

Over the past few decades, scientists learned that these cartilaginous fishes, also known as ratfish or Chimaeras, have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and that they have venomous spines in front of their dorsal fins and “fly” through the water by flapping their pectoral fins. They even learned that most male ghost sharks have a retractable sex organ on their foreheads that resembles a medieval mace.

However, much remains to be learned about these strange creatures. Basic biological information, like how long they live and how often they reproduce, is lacking for most of the 52 known species. The absence of this key information makes it difficult for scientists to manage and monitor ghost shark populations, even as evidence mounts that some species may be at risk of extinction.

Scientists from the Shark Specialist Group, a division of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, recently assessed the extinction risk of all confirmed ghost shark species and determined that 16 percent are “threatened” or “near threatened.” The assessment, which was published this month in the journal Fish and Fisheries, also found that 15 percent of ghost shark species are so understudied that their extinction risk cannot be determined. Now experts are concerned that certain ghost shark species might go extinct before scientists have a chance to study them.

Ghost sharks can be found in all of the world’s oceans, except the Arctic and the Antarctic. Most inhabit the deep-sea, although a handful of species inhabit shallow coastal waters. Despite their name, ghost sharks are not true sharks, though they are closely related. Unlike their shark cousins, ghost sharks have long, thin tails and large, continuously growing tooth plates that give them a rat-like appearance. Some have long skinny snouts while others sport plow-shaped ones that they use to probe seafloor sediment in search of food.

“They’ve got a face only a mother or a researcher could love,” said David Ebert, director of the Pacific Shark Research Center at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California and co-author of the assessment.

Nearly half of the species known to science were discovered only during the past two decades. “We’re just now starting to figure out that there are a lot more of these things around than we realized previously,” said Dr. Ebert, whose lab has been credited with the discovery of 11 of the 52 known ghost shark species.

Dr. Ebert is one of only a handful of scientists currently studying ghost sharks. Securing funding to study them has long been a challenge for scientists.

“Chimaeras don’t have much value commercially, so there’s not a lot of interest in getting more information about them,” said Brit Finucci, fisheries scientist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand and lead author of the assessment. “They’re also quite cryptic, so they’re hard to find and hard to study.” Several species of ghost shark, including the Bahamas ghost shark, are known from only one specimen.

Ghost sharks are primarily caught as bycatch. While their meat is edible, the majority of their commercial value comes from their livers, which contain an oil known as squalene that’s used in a wide variety of cosmetic and pharmaceutical products.

Although they are harvested and sold all over the world, 90 percent of ghost shark species are unmanaged, according to the IUCN assessment. This means that those who catch these species are not subject to limits and are not obligated to share data about their catch.

If fishing fleets continue venturing further into the deep-sea, experts fear that some species of ghost shark could disappear before scientists even notice that they are in trouble.

“How can we start to wrap our head around keeping them from going extinct if we don’t know anything about them?” said Dominique Didier, an ichthyologist at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

In order to prevent ghost shark extinctions from occurring unnoticed, the authors argue, more scientists need to study ghost sharks, and marine authorities need to exercise more oversight and management of ghost shark fisheries around the world.

“We shouldn’t be waiting,” Dr. Finucci said. “Even though these animals are assessed with a lesser risk of extinction, we shouldn’t wait until they are actually a threatened species before we start studying them.”

The bee population is dying. Researchers have created the first global map of the species to save them

By Kelsie Smith, CNN

(CNN) — More than 20,000 species of bee exist throughout the world — and they are dying, thanks to climate change, pesticide poisoning and plant loss.

Researchers have taken an important first step toward bee conservation by creating the first modern map of bee species represented globally, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Until now, accurate information about the number of bee species and patterns across the globe has been limited, especially in developing countries where publicly accessible records are slim, the study said.

The team’s findings have established an important baseline and best practices for future studies on bees and other understudied invertebrates, the study said.

“We wanted to create the first modern map of bee species richness because we need to know where bees live to conserve them,” Michael Orr, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Zoology at Chinese Academy of Sciences, told CNN via email.

“This is an important first step for that, and in the future we can begin working more on threats to bees such as habitat destruction and climate change, and to better incorporate pollination services into ecosystem service analyses.”

This map shows modeled relative number of different of bee species around the world and depicts the bimodal latitudinal gradient. Darker areas have more species.

This map shows modeled relative number of different of bee species around the world and depicts the bimodal latitudinal gradient. Darker areas have more species.

To develop their maps, researchers combined data from more than 5.8 million public bee occurrence records with a checklist of the distribution of over 20,000 bee species accessible online at the biodiversity portal DiscoverLife.org.

Their analyses resulted in a clearer description of the numbers and patterns of bee species distributed in different geographic locations. It revealed higher concentrations of bee diversity in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere and more in dry desert and temperate environments than in humid, tropical and forested areas.

Their findings support previous hypotheses that bee diversity follows a bimodal latitudinal gradient, meaning higher counts of bee species are found away from the North and South poles and fewer near the equator.

If you want to save bumble bees, plant these flowers in your yard.

This hypothesis has often been proved false due to lack of sufficient data but researchers can now say confidently that bees are one of few insect groups that follow this distribution pattern, according to Orr.

“Surprisingly, despite the critical importance of bees as pollinators, until now there has been no comprehensive source of information on where the different bee species of the world are found,” said Rachael Winfree, a professor of ecology, evolution and natural resources at Rutgers University.

“The authors of this paper are the world experts on this topic, and their work is a big step forward for the field of biodiversity conservation.”

An accurate understanding and prioritization of the distribution of bee species can have a major impact on species survival in the future and has the potential to prove crucial for food security and maintaining rural livelihoods, said Orr.

“Climate change poses a large threat to many species,” he said. “But that’s going to be irrelevant if we don’t protect the habitats species need that are being destroyed now.”

Near miss: House-sized asteroid skimmed Earth at 250 miles on Friday the 13th

By , NY Daily News

Holy space rocks, Batman!

While everyone was looking over Earth’s collective shoulder toward the asteroid that was potentially going to whiz past us the day before Election Day, an entirely different one came at us via our blind spot — the direction of the sun.

It passed a mere 239 miles or so from Earth, skimming the tip-top part of our atmosphere — on Friday the 13th.

An asteroid near earth. (Getty Images/iStock)

And no one noticed until the next day, when 15 hours later it was detected by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System survey at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

The Election Day one was the size of a fridge, as astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said in raising the alarm at the time. But in the end that one barely nicked Earth’s orbit, let alone our atmosphere.

Asteroid 2020 VT4 is another story. An estimated 16-32 feet across, “about the size of a small house,” according to Universe Today, it set a record for the “closest documented non-meteoric asteroid pass versus the Earth.”

Traveling at 30,014 miles per hour, it whizzed past us over the South Pacific at 12:20 p.m. Eastern Time last Friday, EarthSky.org reported.

This is about the same height, give or take a few miles, that the International Space Station orbits above Earth. However there was nothing even close to a collision there.

“Space is so big — and the space station and asteroid are both so relatively small — that it would be extremely unlikely for an asteroid of this size to collide with the space laboratory,” EarthSky said.

Besides, the ISS was over the South Atlantic at the time, Universe Today said.

Other record-breaking asteroid approaches this year have been more than a thousand miles from us, making 2020 VT4 a much closer call.

However, astronomers agree that even if it had come within the 50 to 70 miles above Earth’s surface, where most such space rocks break up, it wouldn’t have done anything more than disintegrate — though it would have been an impressive meteor even in broad daylight, EarthSky noted.

While Earth was unscathed, if clueless, the same cannot be said for 2020 VT4.

“This passage actually substantially altered the orbit of 2020 VT4,” Universe Today noted, changing its 549-day orbit (about 1.5 years) around the sun to a 315-day one (about 10 months), and even changing its asteroid classification, given that it’s now inside the orbit of Venus.

SpaceX launch: Four astronauts take off aboard Crew Dragon bound for ISS

By Jackie Wattles, CNN

CNN – A SpaceX spacecraft carrying four astronauts soared into outer space Sunday — marking the kick off of what NASA hopes will be years of the company helping to keep the International Space Station fully staffed.

NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut with Japan’s space agency, are now in orbit, riding aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that is expected to dock with the ISS on Monday at 11 pm ET. That means the crew will spend 27 hours in orbit as the spacecraft slowly maneuvers toward its destination.

The trip would have been shorter if the Crew Dragon were able to launch on Saturday, as NASA first planned, because the ISS would have lined up in such away as to allow the spacecraft to reach the space station in about eight hours. But bad weather brought by Hurricane Eta forced launch officials to delay takeoff to Sunday evening.

The capsule has a working restroom, and the astronauts will have time to get some sleep as the fully autonomous vehicle maneuvers through orbit while SpaceX and NASA officials in Houston, Texas, and Hawthorne, California, watch over the journey.

This is a landmark mission for NASA and the company because it is the first fully operational crewed mission for SpaceX, following up a test mission in May that carried NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, both test pilots, to the space station.

But this mission is not a test: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was officially certified as a spacecraft worthy of carrying people last week, paving the way for it to begin making the trip relatively routine, carrying astronauts from a variety of backgrounds.

On this mission, for example, both Walker and Noguchi have backgrounds in physics. The Crew-1 team is slated to conduct all sorts of experiments during their six-month stay on the ISS, including research into how microgravity affects human heart tissue. They’ll also attempt to grow radishes in space to build on studies designed to figure out how food might be grown to sustain deep-space exploration missions.

Sunday’s mission had been briefly thrown into question after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed on Twitter that he was experiencing symptoms and was being tested for Covid-19, prompting NASA to carry out a contact tracing effort to ensure no essential personnel for the launch might have been exposed.

Officials said that effort was completed by Friday night, and they had no cause for concern. Musk said on Saturday that he “most likely” had a “moderate case of covid.”

The United States spent nearly a decade without the ability to launch astronauts into space after the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, and NASA was forced to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get astronauts to the ISS, which the space agency says left the multibillion-dollar orbiting laboratory understaffed. As many as 13 astronauts were on board at one time in 2009. That number has occasionally dropped to as low as three on several occasions, which leaves fewer people to help run experiments and help keep the space station well maintained. With this launch, it will grow to seven.

SpaceX developed the Crew Dragon capsule under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which, for the first time in the space agency’s history, handed over much of the design, development and testing of new human-rated spacecraft to the private sector. NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing fixed-price contracts worth $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively, to get the job done. Development of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is still delayed because of major software issues detected during a test mission last year, but officials say that vehicle could be in operation next year.

Because these vehicles will technically be owned by SpaceX and Boeing, with NASA serving as a customer that buys missions for astronauts, the companies will also be able to use their vehicles to fly tourists, private researchers or anyone else who can afford a $50 million-plus ticket.

That decision wasn’t without controversy, particularly in the Commercial Crew Program’s early days. But Crew Dragon’s success could be seen as a huge win for folks at NASA who hope to rely more extensively on that contracting style to help accomplish the space agency’s goals.

Touch-and-go: US spacecraft sampling asteroid for return

By MARCIA DUNN, Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — After almost two years circling an ancient asteroid hundreds of millions of miles away, a NASA spacecraft this week will attempt to descend to the treacherous, boulder-packed surface and snatch a handful of rubble.

The drama unfolds Tuesday as the U.S. takes its first crack at collecting asteroid samples for return to Earth, a feat accomplished so far only by Japan.

Brimming with names inspired by Egyptian mythology, the Osiris-Rex mission is looking to bring back at least 2 ounces (60 grams) worth of asteroid Bennu, the biggest otherworldly haul from beyond the moon.

The van-sized spacecraft is aiming for the relatively flat middle of a tennis court-sized crater named Nightingale — a spot comparable to a few parking places here on Earth. Boulders as big as buildings loom over the targeted touchdown zone.

“So for some perspective, the next time you park your car in front of your house or in front of a coffee shop and walk inside, think about the challenge of navigating Osiris-Rex into one of these spots from 200 million miles away,” said NASA’s deputy project manager Mike Moreau.

Once it drops out of its half-mile-high (0.75 kilometer-high) orbit around Bennu, the spacecraft will take a deliberate four hours to make it all the way down, to just above the surface.

Then the action cranks up when Osiris-Rex’s 11-foot (3.4-meter) arm reaches out and touches Bennu. Contact should last five to 10 seconds, just long enough to shoot out pressurized nitrogen gas and suck up the churned dirt and gravel. Programmed in advance, the spacecraft will operate autonomously during the unprecedented touch-and-go maneuver. With an 18-minute lag in radio communication each way, ground controllers for spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin near Denver can’t intervene.

If the first attempt doesn’t work, Osiris-Rex can try again. Any collected samples won’t reach Earth until 2023.

While NASA has brought back comet dust and solar wind particles, it’s never attempted to sample one of the nearly 1 million known asteroids lurking in our solar system until now. Japan, meanwhile, expects to get samples from asteroid Ryugu in December — in the milligrams at most — 10 years after bringing back specks from asteroid Itokawa.

Bennu is an asteroid picker’s paradise.

The big, black, roundish, carbon-rich space rock — taller than New York’s Empire State Building — was around when our solar system was forming 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists consider it a time capsule full of pristine building blocks that could help explain how life formed on Earth and possibly elsewhere.

“This is all about understanding our origins,” said the mission’s principal scientist, Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.

There also are selfish reasons for getting to know Bennu better.

The solar-orbiting asteroid, which swings by Earth every six years, could take aim at us late in the next century. NASA puts the odds of an impact at 1-in-2,700. The more scientists know about potentially menacing asteroids like Bennu, the safer Earth will be.

When Osiris-Rex blasted off in 2016 on the more than $800 million mission, scientists envisioned sandy stretches at Bennu. So the spacecraft was designed to ingest small pebbles less than an inch (2 centimeters) across.

Scientists were stunned to find massive rocks and chunky gravel all over the place when the spacecraft arrived in 2018. And pebbles were occasionally seen shooting off the asteroid, falling back and sometimes ricocheting off again in a cosmic game of ping-pong.

With so much rough terrain, engineers scrambled to aim for a tighter spot than originally anticipated. Nightingale Crater, the prime target, appears to have the biggest abundance of fine grains, but boulders still abound, including one dubbed Mount Doom.

Then COVID-19 struck.

The team fell behind and bumped the second and final touch-and-go dress rehearsal for the spacecraft to August. That pushed the sample grab to October.

“Returning a sample is hard,” said NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen. “The COVID made it even harder.”

Osiris-Rex has three bottles of nitrogen gas, which means it can touch down three times — no more.

The spacecraft automatically will back away if it encounters unexpected hazards like big rocks that could cause it to tip over. And there’s a chance it will touch down safely, but fail to collect enough rubble.

In either case, the spacecraft would return to orbit around Bennu and try again in January at another location.

With the first try finally here, Lauretta is worried, nervous, excited “and confident we have done everything possible to ensure a safe sampling.”

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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