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This week in science: a new dinosaur, a lynx revival and an looming star explosion

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Time now for our regular science news roundup with our friends at NPR's Short Wave podcast, Regina Barber and Berly McCoy. Good to have you both back.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

BERLY MCCOY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So the way this works is you bring us three science stories that caught your attention this week. What have you got for us today?

BARBER: The once-in-a-lifetime event of an impending star explosion.

SHAPIRO: Exciting.

BARBER: Yeah.

MCCOY: A lynx that's come back from the brink of extinction.

SHAPIRO: Lynx, like the mammal?

BARBER: Yeah. And a newly discovered dinosaur with a name to remember.

SHAPIRO: I love dinosaur coverage because we got called out a few years ago by an 8-year-old listener named Leo (ph) for not doing enough dinosaur stories. So Gina, let's start there and continue rectifying this shortcoming. Tell us about the new dinosaur.

BARBER: I got you, Leo. OK. Its name is Lokiceratops rangiformis, and it's named after the Norse god Loki for two reasons - one, because like all ceratops, it has horns on its head, but these blades, they look like the ones on Loki's helmet. And two, because its skull resides in Denmark now.

SHAPIRO: So that's the first part of the name. What about the second part of the name?

BARBER: Yeah, this is less fun, but still interesting. Like, rangiformis refers to horns not being symmetrical like caribou.

SHAPIRO: Oh, I didn't know caribou have asymmetric horns.

BARBER: Yeah, I had to look it up.

MCCOY: So Ari, this is a brand-new species of ceratops, or horned dinosaur, and it all starts with bones found on private land in northern Montana, which is actually in my neck of the woods. So this area is well-known for a place with lots of fossils. At first, researchers thought it was a known dinosaur called Medusaceratops.

MARK LOEWEN: So it was pretty cool. We were actually gathered around a table, and, you know, we're there together, and we had that eureka moment where, wow, this really is something new.

BARBER: That's paleontologist Mark Loewen, and this discovery was published in the Journal PeerJ last week.

SHAPIRO: Can I just say these names are very mythological? Like Medusaceratops, Lokiceratops - I feel like we're tapping into Greek mythology and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is this pretty typical?

BARBER: Well, not all of them are named that, Ari. But it's a reasonable question.

MCCOY: But they're still cool because over the years, researchers have found five distinct ceratops there, which shows how diverse the horned dino population was and how they were rapidly evolving.

BARBER: Mark and another coauthor, Joseph Sertich, told me that where most dinosaur species live for around 2 million years, these fast-evolving ceratops species might only have existed for 200,000 years.

SHAPIRO: So among this new family of ceratops, what makes Lokiceratops different from the others?

MCCOY: Yeah, so generally, ceratops have horns on the top of their skulls, this bony frill going backwards from its skull and horns on their noses. These head features are thought to be used for attracting mates, but the Lokiceratops does not have the same nose horn, which Joseph says probably means...

JOSEPH SERTICH: Members of its own species found that sex did not have a nose horn, didn't have big blades on the back of the frill.

SHAPIRO: Whatever does it for you, I guess.

BARBER: (Laughter) Yeah, no, I really liked when he said that. But in all seriousness, Joseph says that really this discovery is such a big deal because it shows that we're just scratching the surface of, like, the dino diversity in that region during the late Cretaceous period, about 78 million years ago.

SHAPIRO: Cool. So let's pivot to an animal that exists in the present day. This is a wildlife success story about a lynx that has come back from the brink of extinction.

MCCOY: Yes. So we're talking about the Iberian lynx. These are medium-sized wild cats that only live in Spain and Portugal, AKA the Iberian Peninsula.

SHAPIRO: Got it.

MCCOY: And in 2001, there were only about 60 of these mature cats, and soon after, they were listed as critically endangered. But through conservation efforts over the past couple of decades, the total number of lynx is now over 2,000.

BARBER: This is so cool. So just last week, the lynx was officially reclassified from an endangered species to a vulnerable one.

SHAPIRO: That's amazing. How did they make this comeback?

MCCOY: So to understand that, I talked to Fernando Najera. He's a wildlife research veterinarian at the California Carnivore Program. That's at UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. And he says it was a mix of things - so restoring habitat, minimizing human-caused deaths - like from roadkill and poaching - and releasing links that were bred in captivity back into the wild.

BARBER: But one huge consideration was the lynx's main prey, and that's the European white rabbit.

FERNANDO NAJERA: So anything that happened to European wild rabbits is going to have an impact on Iberian lynxes.

BARBER: The rabbits are also endangered, largely due to viral outbreaks. Two major ones in the late '80s and the early 2010s really knocked their populations down. So conservation groups trying to protect the lynx knew they had to focus on upping the rabbit populations.

SHAPIRO: So a rebound of a couple thousand lynx is better than 60, but it sounds like there's still work to do, right?

MCCOY: There is. Fernando says people working with the lynx now are focusing on connecting the subpopulations in different areas of the peninsula and continuing to keep an eye on the rabbit population since theoretically, a viral outbreak could knock it down again.

NAJERA: But achieving this is something that we need to celebrate.

BARBER: And he says he's optimistic people will see the success of bringing the lynx back and apply a similar approach to other species facing extinction, which is almost 30% of all assessed species.

SHAPIRO: Thirty percent is a high number.

BARBER: So high.

SHAPIRO: OK. Let's go to our third and final topic of a once-in-a-lifetime star explosion. Is that once in a person's lifetime or once in a star's lifetime?

BARBER: Person's lifetime (laughter).

MCCOY: Yeah, so astronomers expect that this summer, you'll be able to see an explosion in a star system in our Milky Way galaxy with your naked eye.

BARBER: When that happens, it's called a nova, and this one will be in a star system 3,000 light years away called T Coronae Borealis. And our NPR colleague Joe Hernandez reported on this recently, and the last time this happened in the star system and it was seen from Earth was in 1946. So this happens once every 80 years or so, and it's more rare than a solar eclipse.

SHAPIRO: A once-in-a-lifetime event - so is this, like, a supernova? Is that what you're describing?

MCCOY: Good question. It's a little different. So a nova is a rapid increase in the brightness of a star. So in this case, T Coronae Borealis is a binary star system, and that's made up of a white dwarf - that's a dead star about the size of Earth - and a red giant. So the white dwarf basically sucks material from the red giant, which causes a buildup of pressure and heat on the surface of the white dwarf, and eventually, there's an explosion.

BARBER: Yeah, and a nova is different from a supernova because in this case, the white dwarf, like, remains intact, and the cycle can repeat over time. A supernova is only the, like, final explosion of a dying star, so the white dwarf wouldn't exist anymore if it was a supernova.

SHAPIRO: You said it's happening this summer. When should we be looking at the sky to see this?

BARBER: Yeah.

MCCOY: So it could happen at any moment between now and September. And once it does happen, it'll be visible for us for a little less than a week.

BARBER: Astrophysicists are excited about this because we don't usually see a repeated nova event in a human lifetime and because this one is relatively close to our solar system, so they hope to use it to make observations that will help us understand novae, like, more in general.

MCCOY: And the super cool thing here, Ari, is that since the star system is 3,000 light years from Earth, when we do see the explosion, it'll have already happened 3,000 years ago.

SHAPIRO: Can, like, backyard astronomers with a home telescope spot this? What's it going to look like?

BARBER: Yeah. It's - they can just look up in the sky around Corona Borealis, which is a really easy-to-find constellation. It'll just be a star.

SHAPIRO: That's Regina Barber and Berly McCoy from NPR's science podcast, Short Wave. Every Tuesday this summer, you can hear their Space Camp series, looking at all things outer space, including what it's like for astronauts to live out there. Thank you both.

BARBER: Thank you, Ari.

MCCOY: Thanks.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And special thanks to our friends at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, home of Space Camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOLA YOUNG SONG, "CONCEITED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Regina Barber
[Copyright 2024 WSKG]
Kimberly McCoy
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.