Altmetric Blog

June High Five – Mass Extinctions and Re-writing Textbooks

Paige Jarreau, 30th June 2015

Welcome to Altmetric’s “High Five” for June, a discussion of the top five scientific papers with the highest Altmetric scores this month. On a monthly basis, my High Five posts examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric has seen attention for that month.

The theme this month is BIG news.

Study #1. Entering the sixth mass extinction

 

Close-up of the Endangered California Desert Tortoise, Gopherus agassizii. Photo (C) Paige Brown Jarreau.

Close-up of the Endangered California Desert Tortoise, Gopherus agassizii. Photo (C) Paige Brown Jarreau.

 

Our top paper this month is “Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction,” published in Science Advances. In this study, Gerardo Ceballos and colleagues across six different universities assess whether human activities are causing a modern day mass extinction.

According to the study authors, even under conservative assumptions about past vertebrate species extinction rates, “the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher than the background rate.”

These estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already under way. Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing. – G. Ceballos et al. 2015

Shared largely by scientists and members of the public on social media, this study was covered by news outlets including The Daily Beast (We’re not the Dinos: We’re the Asteroid), Spektrum.de in Germany, Popular Science (We’re entering a sixth mass extinction, and it’s our fault) and National Geographic (Will Humans Survive the Sixth Great Extinction?).

Ecologists have long warned that we are entering a mass extinction. Science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert just won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for her book titled “The Sixth Extinction”—yet this particular study, led by Gerardo Ceballos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is so profound because its findings are based off the most conservative extinction rates available. Many other studies in the past were criticized for overestimating the severity of the crisis. Even when using these conservative estimates, however, Ceballos and his team found that the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is over 100 times greater than the normal rate of extinction, also known as the background rate. – Grennan Milliken, Popular Science

Cumulative vertebrate species recorded as extinct or extinct in the wild by the IUCN (2012). Dashed black line represents background rate. Credit: Ceballos et al.

Ceballos et al.

Most news outlets focused on the rather gloomy message that extinction rates have skyrocketed and that humans are the prime suspect in terms of who/what is to blame for this. This is interesting, considering that sad or gloomy messages don’t tend to spread in social media environments as much or as quickly as feel-good or exciting ones. However, anger or indication at the news might have prompted readers to share. “Yes, humans are probably to blame for the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, which is wiping out species at a rate 53 times greater than normal,” Matthew Francis wrote for The Daily Beast. The graph to the right shows the cumulative vertebrate species recorded as extinct or extinct in the wild by the IUCN (2012) as compared to the conservative background rate used by Ceballos and colleagues.

To be fair, scientists have suspected humans are the reason for the Sixth Extinction for some time. It’s even the subject of several books. However, it’s difficult to assign numbers and rates of extinction over human history: It’s easiest to see extinctions long after they happened, rather than in process. The key is quantifying how many extinctions have happened on our watch versus the normal rate of species death. – The Sixth Mass Extinction: We Aren’t The Dinosaurs, We’re The Asteroid

But Nadia Drake over at National Geographic had a slightly different message than most writers covering this study. Drake interviewed journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulizer Prize winning book The Sixth Extinction, about “what these new results might reveal for the future of life on this planet,” including human life. “Are humans destined to become casualties of our own environmental recklessness?”

There are two questions that arise: One is, OK, just because we’ve survived the loss of X number of species, can we keep going down the same trajectory, or do we eventually imperil the systems that keep people alive? That’s a very big and incredibly serious question. And then there’s another question. Even if we can survive, is that the world you want to live in? Is that the world you want all future generations of humans to live in? That’s a different question. But they’re both extremely serious. I would say they really couldn’t be more serious. – Elizabeth Kolbert, as interviewed by Nadia Drake for NatGeo

How do the results of this study make YOU feel?

 

Study #2. Changing Textbooks – Newly Discovered Link Between Brain and Immune System

 

Image: Maps of the lymphatic system: old (left) and updated to reflect UVA's discovery. Image credit: University of Virginia Health System

Image: Maps of the lymphatic system: old (left) and updated to reflect UVA’s discovery. Image credit: University of Virginia Health System

 

Our next top paper is “Structural and functional features of central nervous system lymphatic vessels,” a research letter published in Nature this month. This study describes the discovery of a central nervous system lymphatic system in mice – in other words, a link between the brain and the immune system. As Time magazine headlined, “Game-Changing Discovery Links the Brain and the Immune System.”

The discovery of the central nervous system lymphatic system may call for a reassessment of basic assumptions in neuroimmunology and sheds new light on the aetiology of neuroinflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases associated with immune system dysfunction. – A. Louveau et al. 2015

 

“The first time these guys showed me the basic result, I just said one sentence: ‘They’ll have to change the textbooks.’” – Kevin Lee, chairman of UVA Department of Neuroscience, quoted in Science Daily

@Vectorofscience, a PhD student studying infectious diseases whom I follow on Twitter, tweeted this about the study: “A lymphatic system in the brain? Now that’s cool, and it’s going to change the way we view immunity in the CNS. http://t.co/eGZtbKFDPD.” If there were a missing link between the brain and the immune system, this study appears to be a big step toward clearing up that link.

Here’s a surprise: there are lymphatic vessels going into the brain. That’s reported in this paper in Nature. (Here’s a pretty breathless press release from the University of Virginia, where the work was done). – Derek Lowe, Ph.D., In The Pipeline

 

Scientists have discovered a previously unknown link between the brain and the immune system that could help explain links between poor physical health and brain disorders including Alzheimer’s and depression. […] The new anatomy is an extension of the lymphatic system, a network of vessels that runs in parallel to the body’s vasculature, carrying immune cells rather than blood. Rather than stopping at the base of the skull, the vessels were discovered to extend throughout the meninges, a membrane that envelops the brain and the spinal cord. – Hannah Devlin, The Guardian

The question now, to be answered by future research, is how exactly does this link between the brain and the immune system impact neurological diseases and mental illnesses?

 

Study #3. A new horned dinosaur, Regaliceratops

 

Our third top paper, “A New Horned Dinosaur Reveals Convergent Evolution in Cranial Ornamentation in Ceratopsidae,” was published in Current Biology this month. The paper describes an intriguing new horned dinosaur. As reported by Ian Sample in The Guardian, “Nicknamed Hellboy, the dinosaur had short horns over the eyes and a long nose horn, the opposite of the features sported by its close relative triceratops.”

Regaliceratops exhibits a suite of cranial ornamentations that are superficially similar to Campanian centrosaurines […] This marks the first time that evolutionary convergence in horn-like display structures has been demonstrated between dinosaur clades, similar to those seen in fossil and extant mammals. – C. Brown and D. Henderson

Regaliceratops (“regal”) was named for its frill, “a set of large, pentagonal plates like a crown atop its head,” by researchers at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology who found the skull of this dinosaur in Canada. The discovery of this dinosaur is even more significant because it provides evidence of evolutionary convergence in horned dinosaur display between this dino and its cousins from distant eras. In other words, without being direct ancestors, Regaliceratops and the centrosaurines developed similar horn displays on their skulls.

There are these really stubby horns over the eyes that match up with the comic book character Hellboy. – Caleb Brown, paleontologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Alberta, Canada, as quoted by National Geographic.

The discovery was covered by many news outlets and online media sites, including Popular Science, National Geographic (Triceratops cousin unearthed in Canada is so elaborately adorned ‘it blows your mind’) and IFLscience (New Horned Dino Rocked a Crown-Shaped Frill) among others.

But Regaliceratops’s amazing looks weren’t the only aspect of this study that attracted media coverage. It may touch your heart to know that the leading author of the paper, Caleb M. Brown, proposed to his girlfriend in the acknowledgements sections of the published paper!

“C.M.B. would specifically like to highlight the ongoing and unwavering support of Lorna O’Brien. Lorna, will you marry me?” – A New Horned Dinosaur Reveals Convergent Evolution in Cranial Ornamentation in Ceratopsidae, acknowledgements

Buzzfeed picked up on the marriage proposal too. Not only amazing science, but cute. More BIG news!

 

Study #4. No Global Warming Hiatus

 

Credit: NOAA

Credit: NOAA

 

Our next most-mentioned paper this month is a report published in Science, “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus.”

Much study has been devoted to the possible causes of an apparent decrease in the upward trend of global surface temperatures since 1998, a phenomenon that has been dubbed the global warming “hiatus.” Here, we present an updated global surface temperature analysis that reveals that global trends are higher than those reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, especially in recent decades, and that the central estimate for the rate of warming during the first 15 years of the 21st century is at least as great as the last half of the 20th century. These results do not support the notion of a “slowdown” in the increase of global surface temperature. – Abstract, Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus

In the report, Thomas R. Karl and other scientists from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) present evidence that disputes the suggestion based on previous analyses that global warming “stalled” during the first decade of the 21st century.

Karl et al. now show that temperatures did not plateau as thought and that the supposed warming “hiatus” is just an artifact of earlier analyses. Warming has continued at a pace similar to that of the last half of the 20th century, and the slowdown was just an illusion. – Editor’s Summary, Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus

The report sparked quite a bit of news coverage and strong discussions on social media.

Last week, a paper out of NOAA concluded that contrary to the popular myth, there’s been no pause in global warming. The study made headlines across the world, including widely-read Guardian stories by John Abraham and Karl Mathiesen. In fact, there may have been information overload associated with the paper, but the key points are relatively straightforward and important. – Dana Nuccitelli, The Guardian

 

[T]here never was any “pause” or “hiatus” in global warming. There is evidence, however, for a modest, temporary slowdown in surface warming through the early part of this decade. – Michael Mann

More good reads about this new report can be found below:

I expect the deniers — as usual — will be blowing a lot of hot air about this, but the science is becoming ever more clear. Global warming is real, and it hasn’t stopped. People who claim otherwise are trying to sell you something… and you really, really shouldn’t be buying it. – Phil Plait

 

Study #5. Your viral history in a single drop of blood

 

The capsid of SV40, an icosahedral virus. Image credit: Phoebus87 at English Wikipedia

The capsid of SV40, an icosahedral virus. Image credit: Phoebus87 at English Wikipedia

 

Our last paper, “Comprehensive serological profiling of human populations using a synthetic human virome,” was published in Science this month. The study describes a new method call VarScan that “enables human virome-wide exploration, at the epitope level, of immune responses in large numbers of individuals.”

VirScan combines DNA microarray synthesis and bacteriophage display to create a uniform, synthetic representation of peptide epitopes comprising the human virome. – G. Xu et al. 2015

What does all that mean? It means the authors of this study have developed a blood test that identifies antibodies against all known human viruses. With a drop of your blood, this new test could technically give scientists a history of all viral infections you’ve ever had.

Every time a virus gets you sick, your immune system keeps a record. This essentially becomes a kill list that lets your body recognize and readily dispatch of any virus that tries to invade again. Scientists have now created $25 test blood test that prints out this list—an easy and cheap way to find out every virus that’s ever made you sick. – Sarah Zhang, Gizmodo

 

Thanks to a method described today (June 4) in Science, it may be soon be possible to test patients for previous exposures to all human-tropic viruses at once. Virologist Stephen Elledge of Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and his colleagues have built such a test, called “VirScan,” from a bacteriophage-based display system they developed in 2011. The scientists programmed each phage to expresses a unique viral peptide, collectively producing about 100 peptides from each of the 206 known human-tropic viral species. – A Lifetime of Viruses, by Amanda Keener, The Scientist

You can imagine the benefits of such a test, for diagnosis of odd disease symptoms for example.

 

That’s it for this month! Have thoughts about these findings? Share them with me on Twitter, @FromTheLabBench, or comment below. Thanks!

12 Responses to “June High Five – Mass Extinctions and Re-writing Textbooks”

InvestigaUNED (@InvestigaUNED)
June 30, 2015 at 12:00 am

June High Five – Mass Extinctions and Re-writing Textbooks http://t.co/mRXDIldhyJ

@Benoit1450
June 30, 2015 at 12:00 am

June High Five – Mass Extinctions and Re-writing Textbooks http://t.co/6TtXLhvQ86

"June High Five – Mass Extinctions and Re-writing Textbooks" http://t.co/eXQVEEhhuL #altmetrics

scholastica (@scholasticahq)
June 30, 2015 at 12:00 am

Mass extinction, dinosaurs & a marriage proposal: @altmetric's high 5 http://t.co/7CQWOXtPRe via @FromTheLabBench #altmetrics #highered

Jean Peccoud (@peccoud)
July 1, 2015 at 12:00 am

[@altmetric blog] June High Five – Mass Extinctions and Re-writing Textbooks http://t.co/vjSXQbPOMa

Digital Science (@digitalsci)
July 1, 2015 at 12:00 am

Mass extinctions, dinosaurs, a marriage proposal, global warming - It's the June @altmetric High Five! http://t.co/Ks7JlSP0zj

dominique chalono (@domchalono)
July 2, 2015 at 12:00 am

June High Five – Mass Extinctions and Re-writing Textbooks: Welcome to Altmetric’s “High Five” for ... http://t.co/S67q9zXhvl #altmetric

@Brown_Caleb_M
July 2, 2015 at 12:00 am

New horned dinosaur #Hellboy the #Regaliceratops makes @altmetric's June "High Five": http://t.co/RDcsSoTVrg @RoyalTyrrell @CurrentBiology

Digital Science (@digitalsci)
July 3, 2015 at 12:00 am

Mass extinctions, dinosaurs, a marriage proposal, global warming - The June @altmetric High Five is here! http://t.co/Ks7JlSP0zj

Digital Science (@digitalsci)
July 4, 2015 at 12:00 am

Mass extinctions, dinosaurs, a marriage proposal, global warming - check out @altmetric's June High Five! http://t.co/Ks7JlSP0zj

@Protohedgehog
July 6, 2015 at 12:00 am

Glad to see two palaeontology-based articles making @altmetric's top 5 this month http://t.co/rnGAhXsEvB via @FromTheLabBench @digitalsci

@invisiblecomma
July 6, 2015 at 12:00 am

Even @david_colquhoun must admit that @altmetric's highest scoring papers this month are both interesting & important http://t.co/kvGNLnrz90

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *