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Science news digest – 19th August 2013

In the news this week: first new carnivorous mammal in 35 years is discovered in the western hemisphere, smart windows use electricity to block light, monkeys losing the ability to use tools, and finally, the mystery of underwater crop circles is solved.

The Olinguito is the first new mammal discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years

A new species of carnivorous mammal has been discovered by scientists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The Olinguito is part of the raccoon family, and has gone unnoticed for hundreds of years.

The creature has evaded detection for years in its natural habitat in the Andean cloud forests of South America. It comes out only at night, and lives in areas where fog is common, making it difficult to spot, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The last carnivorous mammal discovered in the Western Hemisphere was the Colombian weasel in 1978, so the discovery is a rare occurrence.

"It's hard for me to explain how excited I am," Kristofer Helgen, lead researcher in the research, told the BBC. "The Olinguito is a carnivore - that group of mammals that includes cats, dogs and bears and their relatives. Many of us believed that list was complete, but this is a new carnivore - the first to be found on the American continent for more than three decades."

"We used clues from the specimens about where they might have come from and to predict what kind of forest we might find them in - and we found it!"

Dr Helgen started to investigate the Olinguito when he found some unfamiliar remains in storage at a museum in Chicago. "It stopped me in my tracks," he told the BBC. "The skins were a rich red colour and when I looked at the skulls I didn't recognise the anatomy. It was different to any similar animal I'd seen, and right away I thought it could be a species new to science."

The researchers then travelled to Ecuador’s Otonga Reserve in 2006 to try to find the animal. After a long search, they teamed up with a local hunter to shoot and retrieve a specimen, which then had its DNA analysed.

It is also believed that an Olinguito was exhibited in several zoos between 1967 and 1976, mistaken for another species, the Olinga. Its keepers could not understand why it would not breed, but this new research brings an end to the mystery.

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Smart windows use spray-on shading to filter heat and light when needed

Floor-to-ceiling windows are found in most modern office spaces and many homes, providing wide swathes of sunlight and reducing lighting bills. But too much sun can cause uncomfortably high temperatures in the workplace, so a new invention will be gladly received by office workers.

The nanocrystal coating can control how much light and heat passes through the window on demand, according to Wired. Materials scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have been working to reduce the energy consumption of large buildings, and their latest invention uses electricity to adjust heat and light levels.

“The ability to perform well in hot and cold climates could mean big energy savings,” says Delia Milliron, a materials chemist who led the team that developed the material. A quarter of the US energy bill is spent on cooling, heating and lighting buildings, according to Milliron.

The study, published in Nature, explains that the coating can be sprayed onto existing glass, so it doesn’t require new windows to be installed. A low voltage placed across the panel causes tiny crystals in the coating to absorb heat-producing near-infrared radiation, while a larger voltage cause niobium oxide to darken, blocking out visible light.

Together, the compounds can block more than 50% of heat and 70% of visible light, potentially leading to significant energy savings, especially in hot and sunny countries.

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Monkeys stop using tools when disturbed by illegal plantations in Thailand

Remarkable behaviour by Macaque monkeys in Thailand is being disrupted by illegal palm oil and rubber plantations. Where previously the monkeys would use rocks to crack open shellfish, new developments deter them from the shore, preventing their use of tools.

Research published in Oryx explains that illegal plantations are clearing large areas of forest. The humans also compete for food along the protected shores, by harvesting clams and oysters. Dogs used to protect the plantations also disturb the monkeys, distracting them from learning the tool use techniques from their seniors, according to the scientists at Nanyang Technological University.

"What's been happening is that over the past six years on the island, we've just seen more palm oil and rubber farms being developed in the forest. I've begun to notice that the groups that are closest to human activities, just aren't having kids anymore," lead researcher Michael Gumert told BBC News. "The monkeys come down to the big rocky coasts and pick up rocks and crack things like oysters and crabs. But if the dogs repel them, the monkeys use the shore less and less and they will stop using tools as much.”

The use of tools by Macaque monkeys was first discovered almost a decade ago, by Cambridge researchers studying them in Brazil. Now that tool use is threatened, and although the Macaques are unlikely to die out as a result, the loss makes it more difficult for scientists to study how and why some species develop the ability.

The plantation developments are illegal, but eviction attempts have failed to remove them from the island of Piak Nam Yai. Scientists say there is a trend towards monkeys across Asia becoming dependent on humans for food, and Gumert is worried the same could happen to the Macaques.

"What we're looking at with these stone-tool-using monkeys is a rare case of truly wild long-tail macaques doing their original wild behaviour, unlike most of the other macaques that have had their behaviour destroyed by human development," Gumert told the BBC. "If we develop right next to them, they will stop going to the coast to feed and go to the local rubbish bin and find food there."

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And finally…

The mystery of beautiful underwater ‘crop circles’ is solved

These incredible circular patterns on the seafloor were first spotted in 1995, according to Discover Magazine, but their origin was unknown. Now their creation has been studied in detail by researchers from Japan, and the culprit, the tiny male pufferfish has been filmed burrowing away at his creation.

In a study published in Scientific Reports, the scientists presume that females choose a mate depending on the quality of his circular nest, and the process shakes up fine sand particles into the centre of the nest, which are required for egg-rearing.

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