Science & Health

Ants March into Battle, Rescue Their Wounded Comrades

Much like human soldiers in combat, members of a large, black, termite-eating ant species found in sub-Saharan Africa march in formation into battle and afterward retrieve wounded comrades and carry them back home to recover.

Scientists on Wednesday described the unique rescue behavior of the African Matabele ants, called Megaponera analis, after observing them in Ivory Coast’s Comoé National Park, but did not ascribe charitable motives to the insects.

“This is not an altruistic behavior,” said entomologist Erik Frank of the University of Würzburg in Germany, who led the research published in the journal Science Advances.

“The ants do not help the injured out of the goodness of their hearts. There is a clear benefit for the colony: these injured ants are able to participate again in future raids and remain a functioning member of the colony.”

The ants, which get up to almost three-quarters of an inch (2 cm) long, specialize in hunting termites and use a distinctive raiding strategy.

Scouts leave the nest in search of termite-foraging sites, then recruit up to 500 nest mates and lead them to the termites in a column formation. Ants injured while fighting with termites, sometimes losing limbs or becoming disabled when termites cling to them, excrete pheromone chemicals from their bodies to signal comrades for help.

Uninjured ants then hoist up the wounded and carry them, as well as the dead termites, back to the nest in the same column formation, sometimes as far as about 165 feet (50 meters).

Once back at the nest, other ants remove termites that may be grasping the injured ants. Ants that lost one or two of their six legs are able to adapt their locomotion, often regaining running speeds similar to a healthy ant within 24 hours.

Nearly all the rescued ants participated in subsequent raids, sometimes less than an hour after being injured.

Frank said he was surprised to find this behavior in an invertebrate species.

“It first sounded illogical to me why they should evolve this type of helping behavior,” Frank said. “After a closer look, we realized that the good of the individual, saving the injured, can also be for the good of the colony, and that individuals can be very valuable in ants.”

In addition to primates such as apes and monkeys, rescue behavior has been seen in certain other mammals including elephants, rats and dolphins, Frank said.

Arts & Entertainment

Jude Law to Play Troubled Young Dumbledore in Next ‘Fantastic Beasts’

British actor Jude Law has been cast to play a young version of Hogwarts’ venerable headmaster Albus Dumbledore, a key character in the second film of J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts movie spinoff, Warner Bros. said Wednesday.

Law, 44, best known for his role as Dr. John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes action movies, will play Dumbledore decades before he became the beloved headmaster of Hogwarts, the school where Harry Potter and his friends learned to become wizards and fight dark forces in society.

Rowling, who created Dumbledore for her best-selling Harry Potter books, has said she thinks of him as a gay man who fell in love, when he was younger, with Gellert Grindelwald, who later turned out to be evil and violent.

She told reporters in New York last year that the second Fantastic Beasts movie would show Dumbledore “as a younger man and quite a troubled man — he wasn’t always the sage. … We’ll see him at that formative period of his life.”

Johnny Depp will play Grindelwald in the second movie, for which Rowling has written the screenplay, Warner Bros. said in a statement. Filming will start this summer.

The five-movie spinoff is set some 70 years before Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts and features some new and some familiar Potter characters. The story centers around Newt Scamander, a “magizoologist” with a suitcase full of strange creatures.

Several British actors were considered for the role of young Dumbledore, including Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jared Harris, according to Hollywood publication Variety.

“We are thrilled to have Jude Law joining the Fantastic Beasts cast, playing a character so universally adored,” said Toby Emmerich, president and chief content officer of Warner Bros. Pictures.

The first Fantastic Beasts film, released in November, made some $813 million at the global box office. The second of the movies, which is yet to be titled, is due for release in November 2018.

The eight Harry Potter movies made $7 billion at the global box office.

Economy & business

United’s Treatment of Passenger Sparks Social Media Storm

United Airlines saw its stock price decline by 4 percent or more after a viral video showing a passenger being dragged off a flight and injured sparked outrage in the U.S. and several nations. One airline analyst says he has never seen such a “parade of incompetence.”

Science & Health

Scientists Tout Possible Cure for HIV Infection

Scientists are touting a discovery that they think might cure HIV infection. They’ve engineered an antibody that blocks the virus from entering and infecting key immune system cells.


The process, developed at the Scripps Researcher Institute in California, involves tethering an antibody, which fights infection, directly onto T cells, the immune system cells that are targeted by the AIDS virus. Eventually, if enough immune cells become infected and destroyed by HIV, the disease progresses to AIDS, which leads to certain death. The antibodies, however, block the receptor on the T cells that HIV uses to enter and destroy them.


It’s what immunochemist Richard Lerner called a form of “cellular vaccination.”  He said the genetic alteration of the T cells with tethered antibodies does not interfere with the immune cells’ ability to fight other pathogens.


Lerner is the senior author of a study describing the work in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Experimental HIV vaccines attempt to stimulate an immune response, creating HIV-specific antibodies to attack and destroy infected cells. But Lerner says the concentration of antibodies flowing freely in the bloodstream is too low to reach every infected T cell.


‘Survival of the fittest’

This approach is different, protecting only some healthy T cells.

“You don’t really care about the rest of the body,” Lerner explained. “You would just like to shield those cells from viruses and a virus attack. So that’s the chemical principle. Never mind immunizing the whole body. Just immunize the cells that are the real victims.”

His team added a gene to T cells which instructed them to synthesize antibodies that would bind with the cellular receptor called CD4. That is the doorway to the cell for HIV. Having antibodies hanging on to the cell surface blocks that doorway.


It’s hoped that eventually in humans, these HIV-resistant cells will multiply into the millions, passing on the protective gene, as the unprotected, infected cells die off, eradicating the AIDS virus from the body and affording a long-lasting cure.


At least that’s what experiments in the laboratory suggested when both genetically engineered and unprotected human T cells were exposed to HIV.


Lerner said the engineered T cells would be introduced into a patient’s bone marrow, which would produce protective cells en masse.  


“We hope to, after securing their safety and so on and so forth, in a patient with HIV, [the engineered cells] can harm their [infected] cells with [the] resistance of ours, and … hopefully the good cells will be selected over the bad cells. And that will be the end of HIV in that patient,” Lerner said.

 It’s an approach that Lerner calls a Darwinian “survival of the fittest.”


Scripps investigators are working with City of Hope, an independent research and comprehensive cancer treatment center in Duarte, California, that has a lot of experience with bone marrow transplantation. The center will carry out clinical trials of the engineered, HIV-resistant T cells with an eye toward advancing what scientists hope will be a cure for AIDS.

Science & Health

All in the Family: Dinosaur Cousin’s Look Quite a Surprise

Scientists have identified the oldest-known forerunner of the dinosaurs and are expressing surprise at how little it actually resembled one.

Researchers on Wednesday described fossils of a long-necked, four-legged, meat-eating reptile called Teleocrater rhadinus that reached up to 10 feet (3 meters) long and prowled a Tanzanian floodplain roughly 245 million years ago.

It lived during the Triassic Period millions of years before the first dinosaurs. Scientists called it a close cousin rather than a direct dinosaur ancestor.

Its appearance differed from what scientists had expected from the earliest representatives of the dinosaur evolutionary lineage. Teleocrater possessed an unexpected combination of crocodile-like and dinosaur-like characteristics.

“I’m surprised by the mosaic of features that it possesses,” said paleontologist Ken Angielczyk of the Field Museum in Chicago, one of the researchers in the study published in the journal Nature.

“In terms of how it shakes up our understanding of dinosaur evolution, Teleocrater shows that the earliest members of the dinosaur lineage were very unlike dinosaurs, and that many ‘typical’ features of dinosaurs accumulated in a step-wise fashion instead of all evolving at close to the same time.”

Dinosaurs belong to a larger group called archosaurs that about 250 million years ago cleaved into two branches: crocodilians in one and another that includes dinosaurs, extinct flying reptiles called pterosaurs, and birds, which evolved from feathered dinosaurs.

Teleocrater is the oldest-known member of the dinosaur-pterosaur-bird archosaur branch.

Scientists had expected such a dinosaur forerunner to be a smallish, two-legged predator resembling early dinosaurs such as Herrerasaurus, which lived about 231 million years ago in Argentina. While dinosaur predators were bipedal, Teleocrater instead was four-legged, looking superficially like a modern Komodo dragon.

Virginia Tech paleontologist Sterling Nesbitt, the study’s lead author, said fossils representing at least four individuals were found in southern Tanzania, representing about half the skeleton.

Much like a croc and unlike a dinosaur, Teleocrater’s ankle joints could rotate from side to side as well as flexing up and down, providing a crocodile-like gait.

It also boasted telltale dinosaur features such as characteristic depressions for jaw muscle attachment on the roof of the skull, extra surfaces for the backbones to attach to one another, and distinctive hip muscle attachments on the thigh bone.

Teleocrater’s remains were found in the same Tanzanian region as fossils of the two-legged meat-eater Nyasasaurus, which lived perhaps a couple of million years later. Some scientists regard Nyasasaurus as the earliest-known dinosaur.

Arts & Entertainment

Artist Wants Role for Michelle Obama in Rosa Parks House Project

American artist Ryan Mendoza, who has moved the former house of the late civil rights icon Rosa Parks from Detroit to Berlin, says he would like to return it to the United States one day.

Parks’ refusal in 1955 to give up her bus seat in Alabama for a white passenger became a symbol of the U.S. civil rights movement. She later moved to Detroit, where the house she lived in faced demolition until her niece, Rhea McCauley, bought it.

McCauley paid $500 for the two-story dwelling and in turn handed it over to Mendoza, who painstakingly stripped it into 2,000 pieces and paid $13,000 to move it to Berlin, where he has put it back together outside his studio.

Now he wants to move the house back to the United States.

“This house really belongs in the United States,” he told Reuters. “It doesn’t belong here, but since it is here, it encourages more people to think about why it was on the demolition list.”

Mendoza would also like to involve former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama in the project.

“It would be the perfect solution if Michelle Obama became the ambassador of this project,” he said. “She has the courage and she totally convinced me when she said what was so obvious: that the White House was built by slaves.”

Former U.S. President Barack Obama is due to join German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in May as part of celebrations to mark 500 years of Protestantism in Europe.

Science & Health

Russian Cosmonaut Says He Has Taken Relics of Saint to Space

A Russian cosmonaut who has returned to Earth after a mission on the International Space Station said on Wednesday he had taken a relic of a Russian Orthodox saint with him.

Astronauts and cosmonauts routinely take small items such as their children’s toys or CDs with them as reminders of home.

Sergei Ryzhikov told Russian news agencies that he would give the tiny relic of St. Serafim of Sarov’s body, which he received from its home monastery last year, to an Orthodox church in Star City outside Moscow, home to the cosmonaut training center.

Serafim of Sarov, one of Russia’s most revered saints known for his hermitical lifestyle, died in the early 19th century.

Ryzhikov, who came back with two other crew members on Monday after six months in space, said he would celebrate the relic’s return at a church service in Star City on Thursday.

“We always wait for some sort of miracle, but the fact that a piece of the relics traveled to the orbit and blesses everything onboard and outside, including our planet, is a big miracle in itself,” he said.

Space exploration in atheist Soviet society was often portrayed as debunking the existence of God. A popular Soviet-era propaganda poster showed a cosmonaut floating in space and declaring: “There is no God!”

Russia has since experienced a religious revival, with the overwhelming majority of Russians now identifying themselves as Russian Orthodox.

In what would have seemed an absurdity to fiercely atheist Soviet space pioneers, Soyuz spacecraft now routinely receive pre-launch blessings from Orthodox priests and Russian cosmonauts have put up small icons at the Space Station.

Cosmonauts have taken tiny relics of at least six Orthodox saints and a piece of the Holy Cross into space with them.

Russia celebrates Space Day on April 12, exactly 56 years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space.


Economy & business

Russia Says It is Struggling to Source Gas Turbines for Crimea Power Plant

Russia is struggling to source gas turbines for two new power plants it is building in Crimea, Russian Energy Ministry Alexander Novak said Wednesday.

European Union sanctions bar European individuals and companies from providing energy technology to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The Black Sea peninsula has suffered electricity shortages since then.

Three sources told Reuters last year that turbines for the Crimean plants would be made by Siemens Gas Turbine Technologies LLC, a joint venture in which Siemens has a 65 percent share.

The German company categorically denied it intended to send turbines to Crimea.

The joint venture’s factory is the only one in Russia capable of making turbines which will be compatible with the Crimean power plants.

“Work is continuing despite problems related to the delivery of equipment from a Western company. We are working on buying other equipment,” Novak told the upper house of Russia’s parliament on Wednesday. He did not name the Western company.

Novak later told reporters Russia was considering various options, including sourcing equipment from other countries, using Russian machinery, or using foreign equipment on Russian territory that was imported before sanctions were introduced.

The two new power plants were due to be commissioned at the end of 2017, but Novak said last month their launch had been delayed by a few months.