Science briefs

Moss at the centre of ice-age?

DNA evidence derived from fossilized plant spores supports the view that non-flowering plants colonized land in the middle of the Ordovician period (approximately 470 million years ago), predating the vascular (or flowering) plants by 20-40 million years.

A study published on Feb. 1 in Nature Geoscience suggests that non-vascular plants, like the mosses, may have been responsible for ushering in glaciations of the late Ordovician period, over 444 million years ago.

Moss grows in low-lying, damp areas and, along with some lichen and many other vascular and non-vascular plants, thriving on the mineral components bound-up in rocks. Terrestrial plants have specially adapted ways of speeding-up the rate at which these nutrients are broken down from rocks — a process known as weathering — and made-available in the form of minerals. Specifically, the mineral silicate has been linked to decreased CO2 levels and a global cooling between 400 and 360 million years ago.

This observation lead scientists Timothy M. Lenton et al. to question whether the distant ancestors of mosses were particularly involved in the chemical-weathering processes associated with the initiation of a cooling epoch that began in the Ordovician. “Given their need to access rock-bound minerals, we suggest that these first colonizers actually caused a substantial change in chemical weathering, with a significant impact on the global carbon cycle and climate,” remarked Lenton et al. in the study.

Lenton et al. carried out a series of experiments using the moss species Physcomitrella patens to discern whether mosses can indeed accelerate the chemical weathering process in rocks in a significant manner. What they found was that P. patens increased the calcium and magnesium levels released from granite and andesite rock samples. They concluded that noted levels of these chemicals correlates to the chemical weathering related silicate levels present in the environment 360 million years ago.

$4-million donation to the University of Manitoba’s engineering faculty

It was announced this week that faculty of engineering alumnus Stanley Pauley has donated $4 million to his alma mater. The funds are slated to go towards building renovations of 105 Dafoe Road’s electrical engineering facilities. According to the University of Manitoba media webpage, the money will help bring a variety of outmoded laboratory systems up to current infrastructure standards.

Pauley, CEO of a Richmond Virginia-based Company, made the donation through his family’s nonprofit, Pauley Family Foundation, as well as establishing an award for academic excellence, aptly named the Stanley F. Pauley Award in Electrical Engineering. “The endowment fund will support three $5,000 bursaries each year,” noted a U of M press release.

No one suspects…the butterfly

According to the CBC a team out of John Hopkins University has received funding from the U.S. defence agencies to study flight in butterflies. The purpose: to develop pint-sized flying robots that would be used to gather intelligence on the environment, as well as in carrying out reconnaissance and conducting search-and-rescue missions.

By studying painted-lady butterflies in flight using high-speed 3D-camera technology, the students aim to develop a better understanding of how the insects manage to stay aloft the way they do, which could end up being used to design dynamic, flighty little robots.
The study is already challenging long-held assumptions about how butterflies use their wings.