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Science news digest – 6th March 2014

In the science news this week, an ancient virus is revived in a lab, Europe’s largest predatory dinosaur discovered in Portugal, beavers make a return to England, and finally… the mystery of a turtle’s lost years may be solved.

Ancient virus comes back to life

A 30,000-year-old virus that had been frozen in a deep layer of Siberian permafrost has been revived after it was thawed out in a laboratory, reported the BBC.

Not only that but the virus became infectious again, although the team of scientists at the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) at the University of Aix-Marseille in France said that the contagion poses no risk to humans or animals.

However, they do warn that as the ground becomes exposed, other viruses could be unleashed.

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, from the CNRS, said: "This is the first time we've seen a virus that's still infectious after this length of time."

The ancient pathogen was buried 30 metres (100 feet) below the ground, and is called Pithovirus sibericum. It belongs to a class of giant viruses that were only discovered ten years ago.

This particular virus appears to attack amoebas, which are single-celled organisms, but it doesn’t infect anything more complex.

Co-author Dr Chantal Abergel, also from the CNRS, said: "It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell. It is able to kill the amoeba - but it won't infect a human cell."

However, whether or not other viruses – that are a threat to humans  – would be able to survive such a long time frozen isn’t clear.

"That's the six million dollar question," said Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist from the University of Nottingham and former Media Fellow, who was commenting on the research.

"Finding a virus still capable of infecting its host after such a long time is still pretty astounding – but just how long other viruses could remain viable in permafrost is anyone's guess. It will depend a lot on the actual virus. I doubt they are all as robust as this one."

He added: "We freeze viruses in the laboratory to preserve them for the future. If they have a lipid envelope - like flu or HIV, for example - then they are a bit more fragile, but the viruses with an external protein shell - like foot and mouth and common cold viruses - survive better.

"But it's the freezing-thawing that poses the problems, because as the ice forms then melts there's a physical damaging effect. If they do survive this, then they need to find a host to infect and they need to find them pretty fast."


Five-tonne dinosaur discovered in Portugal

Scientists have found the fossilised remains of the largest European terrestrial predator in Portugal, reported the Guardian.

The new species of dinosaur, which lived about 150 million years ago, has been named Torvosaurus gurneyi. It was up to 10 metres (33 feet) long and weighed between four and five tonnes.

The fossilised bones were found north of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, and were originally believed to be those of a North American species called Torvosaurus tanneri.

However, comparisons of the shin bone, upper jawbone, teeth and tail vertebrae suggest the Portuguese bones are from a different species altogether.

The size and shape of the dinosaurs’ mouths appear to be one of the main differences between the European and American species. Also the American Torvosaurus has more teeth than the European variety.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Christophe Hendrickx, said: "This is not the largest predatory dinosaur we know. Tyrannosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, and Giganotosaurus from the Cretaceous were bigger animals.

"With a skull of 115cm, Torvosaurus gurneyi was however one of the largest terrestrial carnivores at this epoch, and an active predator that hunted other large dinosaurs, as evidenced by blade-shape teeth up to 10cm."


Wild beavers spotted in England for the first time in 800 years

Wildlife experts and animal lovers were taken by surprise this week, as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced it was investigating the sighting of a family of wild beavers in the English countryside.

Although European beavers were once widespread in this country, they were hunted to the point of extinction nearly 800 years ago. Prized for their fur and meat, until now, they were only thought to be present in captivity in England.

The family of three beavers was spotted on the River Otter in east Devon. Defra are now examining what action to take.

A spokesman for the Devon Wildlife Trust told the Daily Telegraph that the Trust supported the reintroduction of beavers to England but that it had to be "properly planned".

He continued, "However, now that a small European beaver population has established itself in East Devon we believe that they should be left alone and observed using a rigorous monitoring programme."

Beavers have successfully been reintroduced in other parts of the UK, including three beaver families released in Scotland in 2009. Observation and study of this beaver family could potentially lead the way for reintroduction efforts in other parts of the country.


And finally…

The mystery of a turtle’s ‘lost years’

Atlantic loggerhead turtles arrive to lay their eggs on the Florida coastline each year, but once the infant turtles, or neonates, hatch out and make their dash into the Atlantic Ocean, very little is known about where they go.

 That is, until now. For the first time, scientists have tracked the movements of neonates as they make their way into the wider ocean, using a specially modified tracker that stays attached to the turtles as they grow, reported the BBC.

The data suggests that the loggerheads spend a lot of time in the Sargasso Sea, possibly living in amongst the floating beds of sargassum seaweed.

“This has been a fun study because the data suggest the turtles are doing something a little bit unexpected to what everyone had assumed over the past few decades, and it boils down to having the right technology to be able to follow the animals,” said lead author Dr Kate Mansfield from University of Central Florida, Orlando.

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