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A seagull on steroids

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Fossil of ‘largest flying bird’ identified

The giant bird would have been an elegant flier, able to soar across the ancient ocean in search of food

The fossilised remains of the largest flying bird ever found have been identified by scientists.

This creature would have looked like a seagull on steroids – its wingspan was between 6.1 and 7.4m (20-24ft).

The find is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The 25m-year-old fossil was unearthed 30 years ago in South Carolina, but it has taken until now to identify that this is a new species.

Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut, said: “This fossil is remarkable both for the size, which we could only speculate on before the discovery, and for the preservation.

“The skull in particular is exquisite.

“And given the delicate nature of the bones… it is remarkable that the specimen made it to the bottom of the sea, became buried without being destroyed by scavengers, fossilised, and then was discovered before it was eroded or bulldozed away.”

The researchers believe this huge bird surpasses the previous recorder-holder, Argentavis magnificens – a condor-like bird from South America with an estimated wingspan of 5.7-6.1m (19-20ft) that lived about six million years ago.

The bird would have dwarfed our largest living birds – the California condor (left) and the albatross (right)

 

Scientists have called the new giant Pelagornis sandersi. They believe it would have been twice the size of the wandering albatross, the largest living bird.

Like the albatross, it was a seabird, spending most of its time swooping above the ocean, preying on fish and squid.

Despite its scale, it would have been an elegant flier.

Source: BBCNews

The bringer of life and death

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Nitrogen:

Nitrogen is one of the most paradoxical elements in the periodic table. Flames are extinguished and animals die in an atmosphere of pure nitrogen – so it was once known as “azote”, Greek for “lifeless”. And yet this colourless, odourless gas, making up 78% of the atmosphere, has a highly explosive nature.

For mankind nitrogen is the bringer of life – and death – on an epic scale.

Atmospheric nitrogen is N2, a molecule consisting of two nitrogen atoms held together with an incredibly strong “triple bond”, in which the atoms pool six electrons. But split this bond apart and nitrogen’s nature changes dramatically.

“The flip side to nitrogen’s incredible stability is the fact that some of its compounds turn out to be very, very reactive,” explains Prof Andrea Sella in his laboratory on the University College campus in central London.

He picks up a long wooden pole and uses it to point to a small mound of a greyish purple powder sitting on a board on one of the lab tables.

“Cover your ears,” he warns. Then he taps the mound with the pole.

I’m expecting something dramatic, but I still yelp at the violence of the detonation. Sella laughs.

The bang rings in my ears and a mysterious whiff of purple smoke rises up from a scorch mark where the powder was.

“That is a very famous compound called nitrogen tri-iodide,” he tells me with a grin.

“Like almost all explosives, it exploits the tendency of nitrogen to form that triple bond.”

Nitroglycerin and TNT (Trinitrotoluene) are compounds of nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, while one of gunpowder’s main constituents is potassium nitrate. Nitrogen tri-iodide, for its part, is made of nitrogen and the purple-coloured iodine.

Gunpowder explosion

These compounds are held together by relatively weak bonds. When they are broken, the nitrogen atoms form strong triple bonds with each other releasing huge amounts of energy.

What’s more, Sella explains, you are taking a solid and converting it into a gas, so the substance expands by close to 1,000 times.

“This combination of expansion and heat really gives us incredible power,” he says.

The history of explosives in warfare and mining provides eloquent evidence of that. But nitrogen also plays a crucial role in sustaining life.

DNA and RNA – the molecules which carry the instructions for life – include nitrogen. So do amino acids, the basic units that make up proteins, which Sella describes as the machines of the biological world.

“They provide the catalysts, the little engines that do all of the hard work inside cells,” he says.

“They operate as pumps, moving molecules and ions around, they transform one molecule into another, they separate the DNA and do the details of the copying.”

And because plants need nitrogen to build these little machines, nitrogen is an essential fertiliser.

But like explosives, plants can only use reactive nitrogen. The triple bonds that make atmospheric nitrogen a tough brick of a molecule must be broken – but how?

Certain bacteria, says Sella, are capable of performing an extraordinary chemical conjuring trick.

“They have learned to use metal atoms embedded in a matrix to attack nitrogen, bombarding it with a mixture of electrons and protons at the same time,” he says.

This converts atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into ammonia (NH3) – which plants can use.

“The entire living world is based on this nitrogen fixation process,” says Sella.

This has led to one of the most profitable symbiotic relationships in all nature.

Certain plants, notably “legumes” such as peas, beans and clover, nurture the bacteria in nodules attached to their roots. They secrete sugars to feed the bacteria and in return the bacteria supply the plants with a ready supply of nitrogen – and when the plants die, any remaining nitrogen is returned to the soil.

Nitrogen-fixing nodule

In short, such plants are excellent natural fertilisers, which is why they are known as “green manure”.

Farmers spotted at least 8,000 years ago how useful legumes could be. Growing them in rotation with other crops like cereals helped kept the soil nitrogen-rich, and at the same time they produced nourishing high-protein seeds (think soya beans and chick peas).

While crop rotation continued to be perfected right up until the 18th Century (notably by the British aristocrat Viscount Charles “Turnip” Townshend) there is a limit to how much nitrogen can be extracted from the air and delivered to crops by this technique.

So with European and American populations growing rapidly in the 19th Century, the world was hungry for fertiliser – and in 1864 it experienced its first nitrogen war. Spain and Peru used nitrogen-based explosive weapons to secure access to the nitrogen resources of the craggy Chincha Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The source of the element was none other than bird poo – guano – deposited by generations of sea birds over thousands of years.

Island covered in guano Guano often gives islands a thick white crust

With help from Chile, Peru won the war. But a decade later, the guano was already running out, and so attention shifted to another source of nitrogen close at hand – the saltpetre flats of the Atacama desert.

And, naturally enough, it wasn’t long until former allies Chile and Peru went to war with each other over the Atacama.

Which prompts a question.

The world’s population has increased five-fold since the 1870s. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. So where does all the nitrogen fertiliser come from today? Why are there no more nitrogen wars?

I travelled to Ludwigshafen in Germany, to find out.

Ludwigshafen by night

This nondescript city is home to one of the most important scientific inventions in history – the Haber-Bosch process. It has been described as miraculous, creating “bread from air”, and it was at the BASF chemical plant that the industrial process for fixing nitrogen from the air to make ammonia was developed.

The key breakthrough was made in 1909 by an ambitious young chemist called Fritz Haber, who conducted a table-top experiment to demonstrate that it was possible. But there was a problem – the process required almost 200 atmospheres of pressure and temperatures of over 400C (752F).

Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein Haber (left) won a Nobel prize in 1918, Albert Einstein (right) won his in 1921

BASF engineers led by Carl Bosch overcame the challenge in a feat comparable to that of an Apollo Moon mission, says Dr Michael Mauss, who used to run the vast ammonia plant, one of the largest chemical facilities in the world.

“The financial risk to the company was tremendous,” he tells me when we meet in a pretty park on the edge of the plant. “Everything had to be invented – the compressors, the catalysts and the reactors that could bear these huge temperatures and pressures.”

But by 1912 BASF had got the plant working.

Mauss is adamant that the company’s interest in nitrogen was the necessity to head off a looming food crisis – but to begin with the plant’s output was used for a very different purpose. With World War One looming, the ammonia was diverted into munitions production. Once again, nitrogen’s dual nature was apparent.

These days, explosives make up only a tiny part of the market for the huge quantities of ammonia produced using the Haber-Bosch process. Most goes to manufacture fertiliser, and all this “synthetic” nitrogen has vastly increased agricultural output across the world over the years.

The majority of the nitrogen in your body probably came from the Haber-Bosch process. And without it, more than half of the world’s population would have nothing to eat.

The incredible yields synthetic fertilisers deliver explain why obesity has replaced hunger as the rich world’s biggest nutritional challenge.

And there are other drawbacks.

All the extra nitrogen mankind is extracting from the air has to end up somewhere. Some of it passes through our bodies, and those of our animals, and is flushed away in sewage.

Still more is washed straight off the fields into rivers by heavy rain, or leaches into groundwater. All this causes ecosystems to become overloaded with nitrogen, a process known as “eutrophication”. What happens is great blooms of algae, and then bacteria, feed on the surplus nitrogen. In the process, they suck all the oxygen from the water, killing fish and other organisms.

An algal bloom on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala

“By 2050, we’re looking at getting huge amounts [of reactive nitrogen] into our oceans,” says Giles Oldroyd, of the John Innes Centre, a century-old agricultural research centre in Norwich. “It has the potential to see a massive collapse of our oceanic systems, and all the fish that we are dependent on for our food.”

He is trying to figure out how to transfer the complex set of genes responsible for creating those nodules in legumes such as peas, across to major cereal crops such as rice and wheat.

“I hope I can achieve it within my career, and I’ve got 30 years until I retire,” he says.

If Oldroyd and his team are successful, it would massively reduce the world’s dependence on the Haber-Bosch process. Not only would that reduce eutrophication, it would also cut greenhouse gas emissions – Haber-Bosch is reckoned to use 1% of the world’s energy supplies, which reflects just how hard it is to rip those triple-bonds apart.

Source: BBC News Read more

European bison (Bison bonasus)

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Return of the European Bison

A European bison (Bison bonasus) checks his new surroundings after being relocated to Armenis, Tarcu mountains, southwestern Romania. Photograph: Costas Dumitrescu

The crowd surges forward against the barrier, cameraphones are held aloft, children are hoisted on to shoulders. The celebrities, the first European bison about to set their hooves in this remote Romanian valley in the southern Carpathian mountains for two centuries, wait in the shadows of a huge trailer.

The forest, already home to bears and packs of wolves, is the final destination for 17 of Europe’s largest land mammal, some of whom have been travelling hitched to lorries for five days from as far as Sweden. It will be their first time out of captivity.

Video (see the link below)

A herd of bison are gathered from across Europe for release into the wild in Romania. The animals were shot with a tranquiliser gun to immobilise them, then loaded onto a truck to drive to Romania. In all 17 bison were collected from wildlife parks and breeding centres across Europe. Video: Kristjan Jung

The release of the animals into the wild is one of the biggest in Europe since reintroductions began in the 1950s, establishing wild populations in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, and Kryygzstan. More will be reintroduced each year, with an aim of having 500 in the mountains eventually.

Bison bonasus was driven to extinction in the wild across Europe in 1927 after decades of decline from hunting and habitat loss. But it has become that rare endangered species: a conservation success story.

There are now thousands in the wild, all descended from the 54 individuals in captivity when the last wild one was killed in Poland’s Bialowieza forest.

Despite the increase in numbers, the European bison is still rarer than other high profile species, such as the black rhino, even with the reintroductions. There are over 5,000 European bison, with about 3,200 in the wild.

Frans Schepers, managing director of the Netherlands-based charity behind the release last weekend, Rewilding Europe, said: “It has a big symbolic value, bringing back animals. I’ve done that a lot in Africa, with rhinos and elephants, but in Europe it is very rare. Releasing animals, giving them space, is a sign of hope, it shows that if we choose, we can help wildlife come back.”

The hulking, hairy beasts, some standing nearly two metres tall and and weighing as much as 1,000kg, have not been seen in this part of Romania for generations. “But it has never quite disappeared from our minds and souls,” says Adrian Hagatis, project manager at WWF Romania.

A tussle ensues as the animals are let out in their new range at Armenis, Tarcu mountains, Romania. Photograph: Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

One of the founding legends of Moldovia, in Romania’s east, centres around a Romanian nobleman, Dragoș, killing a bison, an act which some say was once a prerequisite for joining the country’s army. The herbivore is a symbol of national pride, and several nearby places still carry bison-related names.

But for Romania, the second poorest country in the EU after Bulgaria, bringing back bison is not just of cultural importance, it is also an economic imperative.

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A rare glimpse of something truly hideous

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The goblin shark:

A fisherman trawling for shrimps off the coast of Florida has become one of the … err … lucky few people to have come face to face with this monster of the deep

The goblin shark is sometimes referred to as a living fossil. Photograph: Fishes of Australia

Name: The goblin shark.

Age: You’d have to ask it.

Appearance: A kipper crossed with an ironing board, as imagined by HR Giger.

The artist who created the monsters in the Alien movies? That’s the one. If you’re still confused, you could look at the picture at the top of the page.

I’m trying not to. That snout! Those teeth! That purple-pink skin! The last time I saw anything that hideous, it was standing at a dispatch box, lying about its plans to destroy the welfare state. Are you thinking about any coalition minister in particular here?

I would be if I could tell them apart. Well, this odd-looking specimen was caught off the coast of Florida by fishermen trawling for shrimps. Who promptly threw it back in again.

And that’s what passes for news nowadays, is it? Fishermen Accidentally Catch Something They Don’t Fancy Eating! Of course not. It only counts as news if they take photos of it.

I stand corrected. Fishermen Accidentally Catch Something They Don’t Fancy Eating – With Pictures! It also helps if the fish has a good backstory. The goblin shark lives at depths of several thousand feet and gets its name from Japanese legends of dangerous creatures with long noses and red faces.

Hmm. Sixty-three-year-old Carl Moore scooped up the fish on 19 April, but only reported his catch to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week. It’s more than a decade since the last goblin shark was seen in the Gulf of Mexico. “I didn’t even know what it was,” Moore told the Houston Chronicle. “The guys at NOAA said I’m probably one of only 10 people who’ve seen one of those alive.”

Lucky he had a camera. Moore used his mobile phone – without getting too close – and reckons the shark was 18ft long. “I didn’t get the tape measure out because that thing’s got some wicked teeth. They could do some damage.”

Especially if you’re a smaller fish. Well, obviously. The shark’s jaws can snap forward almost to the end of its snout – which, incidentally, is crammed with electrical sensors to help it find prey.

Isn’t nature amazing? As the last surviving member of the Mitsukurinidae family, which dates back some 125m years, the goblin shark is sometimes described as a living fossil.

Are you sure it isn’t something to do with the government? Er …

Do say: “I never forget a face … ”

Don’t say: “But in your case I’ll make an exception.”

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The birds of Shakespeare cause US trouble

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The little starling makes a big impact on the US economy and ecosystem

Birds feature prominently in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. But one of the bard’s birds has become a major nuisance in the US.

Choughs, wrens, cormorants, owls, nightingales, larks and some 60 other species all have their place in the playwright’s canon.

Such references have inspired bird lovers for centuries.

So much so that in 1890, a German immigrant named Eugene Schieffelin decided it would be a great idea to introduce as many of Shakespeare’s birds as possible to North America.

One cold winter’s day he released 60 starlings into New York’s Central Park in the hope they would start breeding.

Unfortunately, they did.

The US is now home to an estimated 200 million European starlings. Thickset and pugnacious, starlings are the bruisers of the avian world.

And they are now such a nuisance they are one of the few bird species unprotected by law.

“Starlings are lean and mean. In the industry they’re often called feathered bullets,” says Michael Begier, National Coordinator for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Airports Wildlife Hazards Program.

“They’re a particular problem at airports because they flock in very large numbers, and compared to other birds their bodies are very dense. They are about 27% more dense than a herring gull which is a much larger bird.”

When a flock of starlings strikes an airplane the effects can be devastating. In 1960 they caused the most deadly bird strike in US aviation history.

The birds flew into the engines of a plane as it took off from Boston’s Logan Airport, and it crashed into the harbour, killing 62 people on board.

Starlings also cost US agriculture an estimated $1bn (£595m) a year in damage to crops – particularly fruit trees.

They can even cause milk production to drop at dairy farms because they steal the grain being fed to cows.

“What makes the starlings particularly insidious is that they pick out the finest quality grain, which causes a reduction in dairy output because the cows aren’t getting the nutrition they need,” says George Linz, a research wildlife biologist at the USDA National Wildlife Research Center.

“Very often farmers don’t realise what’s happening.”

Ironically, starlings are only mentioned once by Shakespeare – in Henry IV Part I.

Hotspur is in rebellion against the King and is thinking of ways to torment him. In Act 1 Scene III he fantasizes about teaching a starling to say “Mortimer” – one of the king’s enemies.

“Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion,” Shakespeare wrote.

“As with everything, Shakespeare’s imagination seems to know no boundaries,” says Drew Lichtenberg, literary associate for the Shakespeare Theater Company, which is currently staging Henry IV Parts I and II.

“He uses birds to express the depth of romantic feeling in Romeo and Juliet. He uses them to express the screech of night owls in the Scottish Play [Macbeth] and King Lear. He uses them for every dramatic purpose.”

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Demodex folliculorum

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Demodex folliculorum

Demodex folliculorum

Have you seen this arachnid?

You have, but probably don’t know it.

It is the follicle mite, and more than 50% of the population have them.

They feed on the facial oils, burying themselves in the hair follicles; eyelashes, eyebrows, etc.

Horrifying thought, isn’t it?

Terribly Shrek-like

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Ophrys apifera

Ophrys apifera

The Bee orchid, terribly shrek-like…

Rare earths: Neither rare, nor earths

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You have probably never heard of most of the rare-earth elements yet they have insinuated themselves deep into the fabric of modern life – in ways of which most of us are completely oblivious.

There are between 15 and 17 of them (depending how you classify them), including such exotic sounding substances as holmium, praseodymium, cerium, lutetium, ytterbium, gadolinium or – my own personal favourite – promethium.

They may be obscure but they have been transforming all sorts of industries. Wind turbine manufacture is a good example.

Henrik Stiesdal is celebrated as one of the fathers of the modern wind industry. He built his first turbine on his family’s farm in Denmark as a teenager, and has been perfecting his designs ever since.

Now he’s chief technology officer for one of the biggest wind turbine manufacturers in the world, the German engineering giant Siemens.

When you enter his generous office overlooking the company’s huge turbine factory on the windswept Jutland peninsula of Denmark, the first thing you notice is the intriguing antique clock opposite his desk.

Its loud ticking is impossible to ignore. He is delighted when I ask about it. It is, he says, an original example of a synchronome clock.

“I bought it to inspire, and because sometimes I feel the need to rub my colleagues’ noses in the fact that there are simple solutions to engineering problems people have struggled with for centuries.”

Rare earths

Clearly, Stiesdal can be a demanding boss.

The synchronome, designed more than a century ago in Britain, is the most accurate pendulum clock ever built – correct, according to recent studies, to one second every 12 years.

It represents, he explains, an exceptionally elegant answer to the challenge for horologists down the centuries – by reducing the mechanism down to a single gear wheel.

Until very recently Stiesdal and his colleagues faced a similar challenge. They wanted to strip out the gear systems in their turbines.

Wind turbines need gears because the blades turn at about 10 revolutions a minute but the generators that convert that rotation into electricity operate at more like 1,500 revs.

The problem is that – just as with clocks – the more complex a mechanism becomes, the more things can go wrong. And, in the world of wind turbines – particularly offshore turbines – mechanical failure is very expensive. You need specialist crane ships, engineers and good weather. The bill very rapidly runs to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So how could Stiesdal and his team get rid of all those gears? The industry’s solution – as you will have guessed – involves the rare earths.

In his laboratory in University College London, Prof Andrea Sella’s face lights up when I ask him about them. Clearly this family of elements is particularly close to the chemist’s heart.

“The first thing you need to know is they are neither rare nor earths,” he tells me.

They are known as “rare” because it is very unusual to find them in a pure form, but it turns out there are deposits of some of them all over the world – cerium, for example, is the 25th most common element on the planet. The term “earth” is simply an archaic term for something you can dissolve in acid.

They are grouped together as a family because of their incredible chemical similarities – the reason it took a century of chemical investigation to finally isolate them all.

But the rare earths’ chemical similarity belies all sorts of fascinating and often very useful electro-magnetic and optical differences.

To demonstrate, Andrea produces a rack of test tubes containing a selection of the rare-earth elements, each one a different pastel shade – there are gentle pinks, purples, blues and greens.

Nitrate salts of 15 of the rare earth elements, known collectively as lanthanides

The radioactive element promethium, is missing from his collection. Andrea calls it the “cuckoo in the nest”.

Promethium isn’t found naturally on earth, but is formed in nuclear reactors. You may be carrying a tiny trace of promethium now because it has been used in the luminous paint on some watches.

Andrea waves an ultraviolet light over his collection. Some suddenly light up in vivid fluorescent colours.

“One of the incredible properties of the rare-earth elements is that they produce different wavelengths of light – specific colours – exactly on demand,” he explains.

It turns out this property forms part of the anti-counterfeiting system used in euro notes.

Andrea takes a 50-euro note from his wallet and places this under the UV light. Bright green and blue stripes and shapes appear together with a constellation of beautiful blue and pinky-purple stars.

“Those stars contain europium,” he says, grinning broadly. “This tells me that there is someone with a sense of humour at the beating heart of the European Union.”

But the optical properties of the rare earths do more than just deter forgers. The distinctive green light in a television or computer screen is generated using terbium, while the red colour is produced by a combination of europium and yttrium (which is often treated as an honorary member of the rare earths).

But the most useful rare earth – in optical terms – is probably erbium.

The light produced by erbium is out in the near-infrared spectrum and is invisible to the human eye.

But it can send signals down optical fibres for many kilometres, which is why most of the optical fibre applications around the world use signal amplifiers made with erbium.

Rare earths are also essential for the catalytic converters that scrub the exhaust gases of cars clean and in glass polishing.

But it is the incredible magnetic properties of some of the rare earths that most of us – unwittingly – exploit most often.

Andrea passes me a rectangular lump of dark grey metal a few centimetres long.

“Hold this,” he orders. I clutch it in my fist.

He produces a two pence coin and places it on the back of my hand.

Even through the thickness of my hand I can feel the magnet tugging at the disk of metal.

“That is a magnet made with neodymium,” he explains. “It is 10 times as powerful as a normal iron magnet and can hold 1,000 times its own weight.”

Pacemakers sometimes use nuclear batteries containing promethium

It is no exaggeration to say that the miniaturisation of technology would not be possible without these incredible magnets.

They are a surprisingly recent breakthrough. The first magnets using the rare earths neodymium and scandium were developed only in 1982, but their discovery has revolutionised all sorts of technologies.

The tiny motors that power computer hard drives and the miniature speakers on mobile phones and laptops depend on rare-earth magnets.

Neodymium magnets are used in electric guitar pickups, MRI scanners and microwave ovens. You can even buy cufflinks that link up with neodymium magnets.

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Danish zoo that culled giraffe kills family of lions

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Adult male lions often kill cubs fathered by other males

A zoo in Denmark that provoked outrage after putting down a healthy giraffe has killed a family of four lions to make way for a new young male lion.

Copenhagen Zoo says it “had to euthanise” two cubs and their parents after it failed to re-home them.

The 16-year-old male and 14-year-old female were nearing the end of their natural lives in captivity, it added.

Last month, the zoo killed a healthy giraffe because it was deemed surplus to requirements.

“Because of the pride of lions’ natural structure and behaviour, the zoo has had to euthanise the two old lions and two young lions who were not old enough to fend for themselves,” the zoo said in a statement.

According to zookeepers, the male cub “would have been killed by the new male lion as soon as he got the chance.”

The zoo said it had asked other parks to take the 10-month-old cubs, but had received no offers.

The new male lion is due to arrive in the next few days and will be introduced to the zoo’s two female lions who, born in 2012, have reached breeding age.

Mineral hints at bright blue rocks deep in the Earth

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Blue planet: Ringwoodite minerals reveal hints of what things might look like deep within the Earth

Minerals preserved in diamond have revealed hints of the bright blue rocks that exist deep within the Earth.

They also provide the first direct evidence that there may be as much water trapped in those rocks as there is in all the oceans.

The diamond, from central-west Brazil, contains minerals that formed as deep as 600km down and that have significant amounts of water trapped within them.

Researchers have published their findings in the journal Nature.

The study suggests water may be stored deep in the interiors of many rocky planets.

Diamonds, brought to the Earth’s surface in violent eruptions of deep volcanic rocks called kimberlites, provide a tantalising window into the deep Earth.

A research team led by Prof Graham Pearson of the University of Alberta, Canada, studied a diamond from a 100-million-year-old kimberlite found in Juina, Brazil, as part of a wider project.

They noticed that it contained a mineral, ringwoodite, that is only thought to form between 410km and 660km beneath the Earth’s surface, showing just how deep some diamonds originate.

Buried oceans

While ringwoodite has previously been found in meteorites, this is the first time a terrestrial ringwoodite has been seen. But more extraordinarily, the researchers found that the mineral contains about 1% water.

While this sounds like very little, because ringwoodite makes up almost all of this immense portion of the deep Earth, it adds up to a huge amount of deep water.

Dr Sally Gibson from the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the work, commented: “Finding water in such large concentrations is a hugely significant development in our understanding of the ultimate origin of water now present at Earth’s surface.”

Ringwoodite is thought to form between 410km and 660km beneath the Earth’s surface

The observation is the first physical evidence that water can be stored in the deep interiors of planets and solves a 25-year-old controversy about whether the deep Earth is dry, wet, or wet in patches.

Discussing his findings, Prof Pearson told BBC News: “The discovery highlights the unique value of natural diamonds in trapping and preserving fragments of the deep Earth.

“It’s incredible to think that, as you hold this sample in your hand, the residual pressure at the interface between the diamond and the inclusion is 20,000 atmospheres.”

Describing his diamond sample, he said: “It looks like it’s been to hell and back, which it has.”

Blue planet

Prof Joseph Smyth of the University of Colorado has spent many years studying ringwoodite and similar minerals synthesised in his laboratory.

He said: “I think it’s stunning! It implies that the interior may store several times the amount of water in the oceans. It tells us that hydrogen is an essential ingredient in the Earth and not added late from comets.

The Brazilian diamond was sculpted by corrosive fluids on its way up to the surface

“This discovery implies that hydrogen may control the interior processes of the Earth just as it controls the surface processes, and that water planets, like Earth, may be common in our galaxy.”

A key question posed by the observation is to understand the extent to which plate tectonics on Earth leads to oceans of water being recycled deep within our planet, and to predict the likely amounts of water trapped in other rocky planets.

Ringwoodite is expected to form deep in Mars as well, for example, where it sits against the metallic core.

Grains of the same mineral synthesised in Prof Smyth’s laboratory shine bright blue under the microscope.

Given the new findings of ringwoodite’s water-bearing capabilities, its abundance at depth, and its beautiful hue, the term “blue planet” seems even more appropriate for Earth.

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