Altmetric Blog

August High Five – How Fossil Lucy Died and Answers to Other Mysteries

Paige Jarreau, 2nd September 2016

Welcome to the Altmetric High Five! On a monthly basis, my High Five posts examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric has seen attention for that month.

This month’s theme is solved (maybe) mysteries.


Greenland Shark. Image credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

Greenland Shark. Image credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

Paper #1. Meet the Greenland Shark, The longest-lived Vertebrate

Our first High Five paper this month is “Eye lens radiocarbon reveals centuries of longevity in the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus),” a report published in Science magazine. The paper provides evidence, through radiocarbon dating of eye tissue, that the Greenland shark is the longest-lived vertebrate known with a lifespan for female sharks of at least 272 years. The oldest among the sharks dated was nearly 400 years old!

“We tend to think of vertebrates as living about as long as we do, give or take 50 to 100 years. Marine species are likely to be very long-lived, but determining their age is particularly difficult. Nielsen et al. used the pulse of carbon-14 produced by nuclear tests in the 1950s—specifically, its incorporation into the eye during development—to determine the age of Greenland sharks. This species is large yet slow-growing. The oldest of the animals that they sampled had lived for nearly 400 years, and they conclude that the species reaches maturity at about 150 years of age.” – Science abstract

Over 160 news outlets and 25 blogs covered the study. National Geographic headlined, “272-Year-Old Shark Is Longest-Lived Vertebrate on Earth.”

“We had an expectation that they would be very long-lived animals, but I was surprised that they turned out to be as old as they did.” – Study author Julius Nielsen, quoted in NatGeo

“Greenland sharks have a unique eye structure in that the lens grows throughout an animal’s lifetime. The older an animal gets, the more layers are added to the lens. […] Scientists can analyze the chemical composition of the eye lens nucleus [at the center] to estimate an animal’s age.” – Mary Bates, NatGeo

Smithsonian magazine headlined, “These Ridiculously Long-Lived Sharks Are Older Than the United States, and Still Living It Up.”

“The reason for the sharks’ unfathomably long lives has to do with their lifestyles. Cold-blooded animals that live in cold environments often have slow metabolic rates, which are correlated with longevity. ‘The general rule is that deep and cold equals old, so I think a lot of people expected species like Greenland sharks to be long-lived,’ says Chris Lowe, a shark biologist at the California State University at Long Beach. ‘But holy cow, this takes it to an entirely different level.’” – Brian Handwerk, Smithsonian Magazine

The study will likely spur more research on the Greenland shark, about which we know relatively little, as well as hopefully conservation efforts for these and other long-lived vertebrates.

More reading:



Our closest neighbor star, Proxima Centauri. Image credit: ESA/Hubble.

Our closest neighbor star, Proxima Centauri. Image credit: ESA/Hubble.

A New Earth-Like Planet to Explore?

Our next High Five paper is “A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri,” published in Nature this month. The paper describes an Earth-sized planet that is orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star closest to the Sun, at the “right distance for liquid water to exist.”

Nearly 160 news outlets covered the study. The New York Times headlined, “Scientists Find Earth-Like Planet Circling Sun’s Nearest Neighbor.”

“The relative proximity of the planet, known as Proxima b, gives scientists a better chance to eventually capture an image of it, to help them establish whether it has an atmosphere and water, which is believed to be necessary for life. Future studies may reveal if any atmosphere contains tell-tale chemicals of biological life, such as methane, according to a paper published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.” – Reuters / New York Times

Ars Technica headlined, “It’s true—the closest star to the Sun harbors an Earth-sized planet.”

“The planet is probably rocky, rather than a gas giant, and tidally locked to its star, meaning one side is always sunny, while the other is perpetually gloomy. Therefore, if the planet does have an atmosphere, the surface temperature may vary from +30 degrees Celsius on the light side to -30 degrees Celsius on the dark side. This would allow water, if the planet has any, to exist on the surface of the world as a liquid at some locations. The biggest question is whether the planet has an atmosphere, and at present there is just no way for scientists to know.” – Eric Berger, Ars Technica

The planet may be the target of a flyby mission in the future.

More Reading:



Image captured from an Oculus Rift DK2. Image credit: Ats Kurvet.

Image captured from an Oculus Rift DK2. Image credit: Ats Kurvet.

Training the Brain with Virtual Reality

Our third High Five paper is “Long-Term Training with a Brain-Machine Interface-Based Gait Protocol Induces Partial Neurological Recovery in Paraplegic Patients” published in Nature Scientific Reports this month. The study investigated paraplegic patients subjected to a training program including “intense immersive virtual reality training, enriched visual-tactile feedback, and walking with two EEG-controlled robotic actuators.” The study authors report neurological improvements in sensation in patients following 12 months of this kind of training.

Nearly 200 news outlets covered the study, which was also highly tweeted. News reports especially focused on the virtual reality aspect of this new study.

Gizmodo headlined, “Virtual Reality Training Is Helping Paraplegics Move Again.”

“Over 12 months the patients used a brain-controlled exoskeleton, virtual-reality environments and training on non-invasive brain controlled virtual avatar bodies, with all showing improvement — and one woman able to move her legs voluntarily for the first time in 13 years.” – Rae Johnston, Gizmodo

“Due to the intense training over a year with this brain-machine interface—the first one to provide a very rich tactile feedback to patients in addition to video feedback—we may have triggered a process of functional reorganization in the cortex and spinal cord of these patients.” – Study author Miguel Nicolelis of the Duke University Medical Center, as quoted in The Scientist



Lucy skeleton, Australopithecus afarensis, cast from Museum national d'histoire naturelle, Paris. Image via Wikipedia.

Lucy skeleton, Australopithecus afarensis, cast from Museum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris. Image via Wikipedia.

Lucy Fell Out of a Tree

Our next High Five paper is “Perimortem fractures in Lucy suggest mortality from fall out of tall tree,” published in Nature this month. The study provides evidence that the fossil ‘Lucy’ (Australopithecus afarensis) died from a “vertical deceleration event or impact following a fall from considerable height that produced compressive and hinge (greenstick) fractures in multiple skeletal elements.”

Over 160 news outlets covered the study.

The Conversation headlined, “Lucy’s shattered bones prove our ancestors lived a dangerous life in the trees.”

“This exciting research published this week in the journal Nature adds great weight to the idea that Lucy and her Australopithecine kin spent much of their life in the trees, in addition to walking on the ground, an idea which has been controversial up till now.” – Darren Curnoe, ARC Future Fellow and Director of the Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Centre (PANGEA), UNSW Australia

“Lucy fell from high in a tree, hitting branches on her way as she plummeted at 60 km/hour or more to the ground. Landing on her feet first, she fell forward, and in a very human and futile quest, tried to break her fall with her hands.” – Daren Curnoe

Carl Zimmer wrote about the study for the New York Times, “A 3.2-Million-Year-Old Mystery: Did Lucy Fall From a Tree?

“[A]fter poring over the celebrated bones, a team of scientists has concluded that Lucy died most unceremoniously: from a long fall out of a tree. If they are right, the discovery could yield an important clue to how our ancestors evolved from tree-dwelling apes into bipeds that walked the African savanna. But the new study has experts deeply divided. Some researchers are praising the research, while others, including Dr. [Donald C.] Johanson, think the authors have failed to adequately make their case.” – Carl Zimmer, New York Times

More reading:



Image credit: sagesolar,

Image credit: sagesolar, 

Can Instagram Tell Us if a Person is Depressed?

Our final High Fiver paper is “Instagram photos reveal predictive markers of depression,” submitted to in August 2016. The authors write, “[u]sing Instagram data from 166 individuals, we applied machine learning tools to successfully identify markers of depression.” The researchers found that “[p]hotos posted by depressed individuals were more likely to be bluer, grayer, and darker.” Depressed individuals posted images with black and white filters more often.

Nearly 100 news outlets covered the study.

Slate headlined, “Instagram Accounts May Provide Clues to Depression.”

“The MIT Technology Review explains that Reece and Danforth’s findings map strikingly onto conventional associations with depression. The two performed their study on a group of about 170 workers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, ‘of whom around 70 were clinically depressed,’ according to the Review. Participants completed ‘a standard clinical depression survey’ and also provided other information, including the dates of their diagnoses where applicable. The algorithm looked for patterns in the images posted by depressed individuals prior to their diagnoses, while also evaluating an array of recent photos from individuals who were not depressed.” – Jacob Brogan, Slate

Other science writers questioned the results, however, especially as the paper hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet. The results certainly warrant future research on how social media posts reflect users’ psychological state.

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