Discovered: Scientists dig up Frodo fossils; autistic people hear music better; babies' brains foretell adult diseases; Deepwater Horizon cleanup could hurt coral all over again.
"Hobbit" human fossils found in Indonesia. Suddenly, J.R.R. Tolkien's fiction doesn't sound so fantastical. Midwestern University anatomy professor Caley Orr and colleagues have found fossils that suggest hobbit-like humans once roamed an island that's now part of Indonesia. The wrist bones belonged to Homo floresiensis, an evolutionary species that scientists doubted the existence of. "The tiny people from Flores were not simply diseased modern humans," says Orr. "The new species of human stood approximately 3' 6" tall, giving it its nickname 'The Hobbit.'" But some critics still maintain the extinct creatures don't bear any relation to modern humans. "These fossils provide further, clear evidence that H. floresiensis is in no way a pathological modern human, or that its primitive morphology is related simply to its small body size," says the Max Planck Institute's Tracy Kivell. "Instead, it is clearly its own, unique and very intriguing species." [Discovery]
How autistic people hear music. Though they struggle to express the emotion they feel when listening to music, autistic people can hear certain features of it much better than non-autistic people. Previous studies have shown that those with autism are much more likely to have perfect pitch (the ability to name the note of any tone without context), and new studies suggest they can differentiate pitch with much more precision. Studying pitch perception inn 50 children between the ages of 7 and 13—half with autism, half without—scientists saw that autistic kids could detect subtler pitches and committing melodies to memory. [Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative]
Newborn brains foretell future diseases. Diseases typically developed far down the road in life may be detectable in human brains from the moment we're born, a new study suggests. The genetic signs of Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia were detectable in many brains amongst 272 newborns studied by University of North Carolina's Rebecca Knickmeyer and her colleagues. "As we go through life, there are so many uncontrollable factors," comments National Institute of Mental Health neuroscientist Jay Giedd. "This is a way to see gene influences before the world steps in." [Science News]
Cleaning up the BP oil spill could re-damage coral. As if the Deepwater Horizon spill didn't already do enough damage to marine ecosystems, a new study from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida shows that cleaning up the spill could also hurt crol in the Gulf of Mexico. The 1.84 billion gallons of chemical dispersant used in the wake of the BP spill prevented coral reefs from harboring larval colonies. Porites astreoides and Montastraea faveolata larvae aren't hurt by oil alone, the researchers found, but oil and dispersant added up to a deadly combination. [Discover]