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An artist's impression of Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, a newly discovered dinosaur from the Jurassic Period that had feathers. Credit

New Find Hints at More Feathered Dinosaurs
By SINDYA N. BHANOO, The New York Times, JULY 25, 2014

A new dinosaur species, one with feathers, has been discovered in Russia.
The finding could mean that feathers were more widespread among
dinosaurs than previously thought, the researchers say.

The dinosaur, described in the journal Science, was about five feet
long and belonged to a group of herbivorous, beaked dinosaurs known as
ornithischia.

The first feathered dinosaur was discovered in China in 1996. A
number of others have been found since then, but those specimens were all
theropods, the suborder that includes Tyrannosaurus rex.



“For the first time, we have found a dinosaur outside of the theropod
lineage,” said the new study’s first author, Pascal Godefroit, a
paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
Theropods and ornithischians split about 220 million years ago, he
said, adding: “This means that feathers probably existed in the common
ancestors of both lineages. And all the descendants of this common
ancestor potentially could have feathers as well.”

But proving it would be a challenge, he said. Feathers are not often
fossilized, and paleontologists rarely find traces of them.
Dr. Godefroit said he hoped other feathers might be found near the
newly discovered dinosaur. His finding was based on six partial skeletons and hundreds of bones in two neighboring locations.

If other species of dinosaurs were covered with feathers, then museum
models, often depicted with leathery, scaly skin, may need to be changed.
“Perhaps it’s better to represent them as big chickens,” Dr. Godefroit
said. “Maybe T. rex was some kind of big chicken.”






When the Caregivers Need Healing
By CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS, The New York Times, JULY 28, 2014

“This has happened before,” she tells herself. “It’s nowhere near as bad as
before, and it will pass.”

Robbie Pinter’s 21-year-old son, Nicholas, is upset again. He yells. He
obsesses about something that can’t be changed. Even good news may
throw him off.

So Dr. Pinter breathes deeply, as she was taught, focusing on each
intake and release. She talks herself through the crisis, reminding herself
that this is how Nicholas copes with his autism and bipolar disorder.

With these simple techniques, Dr. Pinter, who teaches English at
Belmont University in Nashville, blunts the stress of parenting a child with
severe developmental disabilities. Dr. Pinter, who said she descends from
“a long line of the most nervous women,” credits her mindfulness practice
with giving her the tools to cope with whatever might come her way. “It is
very powerful,” she said.

All parents endure stress, but studies show that parents of children
with developmental disabilities, like autism, experience depression and
anxiety far more often. Struggling to obtain crucial support services, the
financial strain of paying for various therapies, the relentless worry over
everything from wandering to the future — all of it can be overwhelming.



“The toll stress-wise is just enormous, and we know that we don’t do a
really great job of helping parents cope with it,” said Dr. Fred R. Volkmar,
the director of Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine.

“Having a child that has a disability, it’s all-encompassing,” he added.
“You could see how people would lose themselves.

But a study published last week in the journal Pediatrics offers hope. It found that just six weeks of training in simple techniques led to significant reductions in stress, depression and anxiety among these parents.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University randomly assigned 243 mothers of children with developmental disabilities, genetic syndromes or psychiatric issues to mindfulness training or “positive adult development.” At the start of the study, 85 percent of the participants reported significantly elevated stress; 48 percent said they were clinically depressed, and 41 percent reported anxiety disorders.

The first group practiced meditation, breathing exercises, and qigong practices to hone mental focus. The second received instructions on curbing negative thoughts, practicing gratitude and reclaiming an aspect of adult life. Both groups were led by specially trained mentors, themselves the parents of special-needs children.

The parents were assigned some unlikely homework: In the mindfulness group, for instance, they were told to bring a moment-to-moment awareness to a daily activity like chopping vegetables. An assignment in the positive development group might entail taking a “guilt inventory” to assess if your guilt is healthy or counterproductive.

Part of what makes the experiment innovative is that it was targeted to adults, not their children, and it was not focused on sharpening parenting skills. Instead, parents learned ways to tackle their distress as problems arise. The idea is to stop wasting energy resisting the way life is.

The mindfulness treatment and positive adult development led to significant reductions in stress, anxiety, depression as well as improved sleep and life satisfaction among participants. But the mothers in the mindfulness group saw greater improvements in anxiety, depression and insomnia than those who receive positive adult development training. (As there was no control group, it’s hard to know how many parents might have improved on their own.)

Stress-reduction groups like these could be a cost-effective way for parents to help other parents, Dr. Volkmar said: “We could think about doing this more broadly to reduce stress and improve quality of life” — for siblings, too.

In August, manuals detailing the two strategies — mindfulness and positive adult development — will be available online for $200 each ($350 for both manuals) for parents of special-needs children who want to start groups.

Learning to quell distress and anxiety is especially important for parents of children with development disabilities because it’s often a lifetime caregiving commitment, said Elisabeth M. Dykens, the lead author of the Vanderbilt study.

“Other 21-year-olds move out and take jobs, but most of these children stay at home,” said Dr. Dykens, the director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. “You have aging parents and aging offspring. You are each other’s for life.”

Still, just as some middle-aged caregivers of elderly parents are reluctant to shift the focus to themselves, so are some parents of special-needs children. The Lexington Center in Fulton County, N.Y., is already using the positive adult development curriculum, after two people involved with the Vanderbilt research trained seven mentors last November. But to persuade parents to attend, the center has had vigorously advertise, call and email.

“They are so stressed to begin with,” said Nancy DeSando, the director of community supports at the center. “To get them to consider one more thing is very challenging.”

Karen Pilkerton, a registered nurse and a peer mentor who led mindfulness training at Vanderbilt, said participants tended to think, “I don’t have time for self-care.” By the end of the six weeks, she said, they realized, “ ‘When I fill my own cup, I have more to give.’ Sometimes, they didn’t realize how depleted their cup was.”

Indeed, one 2008 study by psychologists at Swansea University in Wales noted that high levels of parent stress reduced the effectiveness of interventions for the child.

Phil Reed, a psychologist at Swansea and author of the coming book, “Interventions for Autism, said, “It’s good that people are beginning to look at how we can help parents in and of themselves.”

Janet Shouse, a mother of three including a son on the autism spectrum, led positive adult development groups for the study. One lesson entailed parents allowing themselves to grieve for the dreams they’d once had for their child — but then to limit the time they dwell on that loss.

Another lesson Mrs. Shouse had to learn herself: how to redirect anxiety into positive action.

She spent years panicking that she wasn’t doing enough to get her son Evan, now 18, to learn to talk by age 5, or 7, or 10. (She had been told if he didn’t converse by a certain age, he never would, but the deadline kept changing).

The first and last time he asked for food, he wanted an apple. She was thrilled.

“It wasn’t until that apple incident, I finally realized, if he’s not able to communicate more adequately, I’m O.K. with that,” Mrs. Shouse said. “It was such a huge relief that I wasn’t striving to do all this therapy and to make every moment a teaching moment.”

During the sessions Mrs. Shouse led, she tried to help other mothers understand it’s O.K. to “enjoy their kids as kids” and to not make “all moments edifying.”

In retrospect, Dr. Pinter said, it’s easy to see how stressed she’d become caring for Nicholas, who just got a job at a church farmer’s market on Sundays. She ground her teeth and chewed ice. At restaurants, she used to crinkle paper straw covers compulsively, but not when her son was at camp. “When we picked him up, I’d start back up again,” she said.

Practicing mindfulness has helped her live more in the moment. “So many people think it’s just out there or ‘I can do it on my own’ or ‘All I need is more money,’” she said. “They don’t know how much it can help.”





The Great Giant Flea Hunt
by: Carol Kaesuk Yoon, The New York Times, July 28, 2014

GIG HARBOR, Wash. — In the Pacific Northwest, we live among behemoths — snowcapped volcanoes, towering trees, great splashing salmon and lattes as big as a child’s head. Yet one of the region’s undeniably superlative titans has slipped beneath everyone’s radar.

The land of Bigfoot and Starbucks is also home to the world’s largest flea. The flea, Hystrichopsylla schefferi, is an awe-inspiring colossus that can reach nearly half an inch, its head alone the size of a cat or dog flea. Until last month, however, there existed not a single confirmed photograph of a live member of the species.



Never mind that with ubiquitous digital cameras, the documentation of life has exploded, or the fact that the flea lives on the mountain beaver, Aplodontia rufa, a species so abundant in forests and gardens around here that it is considered a pest.

Still, for long years, this gaping hole in the world’s biological record remained of little consequence to pretty much everyone. Then my husband, Merrill Peterson, a biologist and curator of the insect collection at Western Washington University in Bellingham, began writing a photographic field guide to the insects of the Pacific Northwest (to be published in 2015 by the Seattle Audubon Society). Fleas are insects, and Merrill became obsessed with getting a photograph of the world’s largest for his book.

He found drawings and dead specimens of the flea, which has been known to scientists since 1919, but no photographs of a live one. Photographs labeled “Hystrichopsylla schefferi” can be found online, but the specimens shown are small enough to possibly be a different flea species. To authenticate them as members of the biggest species would have required examination of minute details like the presence or absence of tiny hairs at the base of the hind legs.

Unfortunately, the photographer no longer had the specimen. And though he continued to try, Merrill could not find a definitive photograph of this six-legged monster, dead or alive, anywhere.

And that is how I, an asthmatic writer, ended up with my lips on a flea-collecting device powered by sharp inhalation, watching, terrified, while Merrill, a man deeply averse to touching most mammals, wrangled a toothy, clawing wild mountain beaver inside of a basmati rice bag.

One might wonder how the world’s largest flea evolved here. Something in the water? Biologists have long argued over what might lead to the evolution of large size. The evolutionary principle called Bergmann’s rule suggests that body sizes tend to be bigger in colder climates. Also, organisms on islands can have a tendency toward gigantism. But the Northwest is mild, and the flea happily inhabits the mainland.

Then there’s Cope’s rule, also much argued, that newer groups in any given lineage tend to be larger, while the more ancient tend to be smaller.

But the mountain beaver is considered the most ancient of rodents, and therefore is likely to carry among the most ancient of rodent fleas. So why are these presumably ancient parasites the giants among fleas? Hystrichopsylla schefferi, it seems, avoids easy answers as adeptly as it has avoided the camera.

Enlisting a Mountain Beaver

So how to find the world’s largest flea? First, find mountain beavers. Though ubiquitous, they are not easily pinpointed, it turns out. They make their presence felt during the wee hours, when they emerge from their burrows to eat, especially ferns and seedlings like newly planted firs. But they are so secretive — spending most of their lives digging long, winding tunnels — that people often don’t know it’s mountain beavers that have done the damage.

Luck came in the form of a good friend and biologist, Peter Wimberger, whose colleague Bob Peaslee, the science support engineer at the University of Puget Sound, lives on land in Gig Harbor overlooking the sound. Its steep hillside is plagued with mountain beavers.

The original plan did not involve any contact with a mountain beaver. Unlike many parasites, this flea spends time off its host and can sometimes be found in the nest material. Merrill and Peter set out with a group of undergraduates excited to spend a Saturday digging out mountain beaver tunnels on a nearly vertical bank. But many hours, many shovelfuls, and not a few beers and chips later, there was no sign of nest or flea.

Resigned to having to get a flea directly off a mountain beaver, Merrill sought the advice of Wendy Arjo, a wildlife biologist with Ageiss, an environmental consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo., who has worked often with mountain beavers.

It’s simple, she said. Trap a mountain beaver (perfectly legal). Coax it into a burlap bag, face first. Hold it just behind the jawline — not too far up, or you will be bitten; not too far back or it will get loose and then you will be bitten. Peel open the bag to reveal the hind end. Comb for fleas. Easy peasy!

Merrill’s preferred study subject is the butterfly, though he has dared to branch out to beetles. As a biologist, I studied fruit flies. Our choices were deliberate: Neither of us ever wanted to handle an animal that could pass along a disease like rabies. More important, the closer an animal gets in evolutionary relationship to a person, the less the capturing experience is like netting a wild butterfly and the more it is like trying to hold an unwilling acquaintance inside a sack.

Still, I wasn’t too worried when we set the humane traps at burrow entrances, baiting each with an apple. We’d set traps before and never caught anything. So it was with horror that I heard Merrill read a text message from Bob that we had succeeded.

Mountain beavers move easily across the line that divides cuddly and horrifying, depending on whether you find them gently grazing among ferns or coming at you with bared teeth and claws. This one was calm, sitting in the trap, surveying us as we surveyed it.

I bent down to take a photograph. The creature got up and peered back. Through the viewfinder, I saw a staring black eye and unbelievably long, sharp claws reaching out through wide gaps in the cage. I shuddered, wondering if the mountain beaver might be calm because it was well armed and we were not. Transferring this animal to a bag and trying to comb it like a pet seemed ill advised.

Much to our surprise, the mountain beaver ambled agreeably from the trap into the bag. Merrill, having donned his newly purchased gloves, closed the sack and observed the slow-moving lump, trying without success to figure out which part was the head. He made rapid, tentative grabs, sometimes getting hold of something, then losing his grip and trying to get his hand quickly away. Was that the tail? Where were the claws? Those teeth?

Does this rate with Steve Irwin’s wrestling carnivores, or bullfighters’ facing irate beasts with piercing horns? Of course not. But we are none of these kinds of heroes, just a couple of timid fools equipped not with muscles and daring and backup, but with gear from the local pet shop, the Asian food market and the dream of catching the world’s largest flea.

Eventually, Merrill got his hand behind the mountain beaver’s head and kept hold. He peeled back the bag to reveal its adorably fuzzy gray bottom, covered in short and soft hairs. He began to comb. No flea. He combed a bit more. No flea.

At which point the mountain beaver got loose. Amid my screaming, I am not sure exactly what ensued. But when I looked again, I found Merrill, eyes wide, skin pale, panting, the bag reclosed with the mountain beaver resting inside. I observed that it is possible for a person’s pupils to become so large that the irises seem to disappear.

A mountain beaver before being combed for fleas by the author and her husband. The mountain beaver was later released. Credit Carol Kaesuk Yoon
Despite this mishap, Merrill asked me to cut away as much of the bag as possible so he could comb more of the mountain beaver. And though burlap was all that stood between us and teeth and claw, I cut.

He combed the underside of the beast. Something brown tumbled down. That’s when the love of my life — normally eloquent and articulate — began shouting, “Flea! Big flea!”

‘Inhaling’ the Flea

The device hanging from my lips was an aspirator. It had a plastic vial stoppered by a rubber plug through which were threaded two thin metal tubes, with small rubber hoses attached. The end of one hose in my mouth, I held the tip of the other over the flea, where it lay amid mountain beaver fur. One quick gasp, and the bug would end up — ping! — in the vial.

I tried not to think of all the micro-organisms and parasites I would be inhaling. I breathed in as sharply and deeply as I could. Nothing doing. The world’s largest flea moved about a quarter-inch into the rubber tubing as my agitated husband, still grasping the mountain beaver, shouted, “Suck! Suck harder!”

This is an unaccountably rude-sounding thing to have yelled at you. Still, several increasingly asthmatic, panicked inhalations later, the flea was in the vial.

It is an exhilarating experience to see, in your hand, an animal that you have been talking and thinking about for months, a species so difficult to lay hands on that — however many digits and however much dignity you are willing to sacrifice — you have to assume you are never going to catch. Yet there it was, a surprisingly sluggish creature — the world’s largest flea, at a definitive eight millimeters, almost a third of an inch — tumbling about the vial.

There was no small amount of joyful cursing. Merrill looked ecstatic. I found myself veering between the urge to giggle hysterically and the urge to vomit.

We thanked and released the mountain beaver, who despite its ordeal, we could comfort ourselves in knowing, was living with one less bloodsucking parasite.

When we got home, I looked, for the first time, at what the authorities had to say about mountain beavers. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife captured the consensus, emphatically warning against ever handling these animals, which give “a very bad bite.” Did I mention that you should not try this at home?

Merrill now has scores of photographs of the world’s largest flea; it will be preserved at the insect collection he oversees at Western Washington University.

I am pleased this little adventure is over; it is a hideous thing to be terrified. But it is also a delight to know that unkempt, uncontrolled wildness lives just beyond the granite countertop and the manicured lawn.

We may never know why this patch of earth and the mountain beaver have been graced with the world’s biggest flea, the oxymoron to end all oxymorons. But we can take pleasure in knowing that this beast, this entomological paparazzi’s dream, our own superlative and wild champion, moves in mystery, always beneath our feet — and soon in a book, which may be where it best remains.
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