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Hedgehog fossil could offer ancient window to the future

The fossil of an ancient hedgehog just 2 inches long, no bigger than a shrew, has been discovered in British Columbia. When Jaelyn Eberle, a paleontologist at the University of Colorado, first examined the fossil, she was not sure what it was.

“One of its molars is a millimeter long,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘What has a millimeter-long tooth?’ ”

She analyzed its maxilla, the bone in the skull that holds the upper cheek teeth, and found that it belonged to the hedgehog and moon rat family, Erinaceidae. She and her colleagues reported their findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The animal, named Silvacola acares, lived 52 million years ago, during the early Eocene epoch. The oldest known hedgehog is about 57 million years old, dating to the late Paleocene.

The fossil was found at Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park in north-central British Columbia, a region that was a cool, upland rain forest at the time. The hedgehog probably lived along a lake and fed on insects, plants and seeds.

Along with the hedgehog, researchers also discovered fossils of Heptodon, an ancient relative of the modern tapir.

Re-creation of Mars in lab hints at water on red planet

In 2008, Nilton O. Renno, an astrobiologist at the University of Michigan, noticed small globules in pictures taken by the Mars lander Phoenix. Over time, the globules seemed to coalesce. He wondered if it could be liquid water. Ice is known to exist on Mars, and while researchers have found promising signs of liquid water, there is no evidence of its existence.

Now, by re-creating Martian conditions in his laboratory, Renno has demonstrated that the globules captured by the lander could have been water and that small amounts of liquid water could be forming on Mars. In his lab, he has shown that types of salt found on the planet’s surface melt ice within minutes at minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions found by the lander. He and his colleagues reported their findings in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

To do their study, they created a Mars-like chamber and used Raman spectroscopy, a technique that measures how the vibrations of molecules change laser light; water molecules have a unique vibration mode when in a liquid state, Renno said.

The findings are promising.

“When we find liquid water we find microbial life,” he said. “For bacteria, one droplet is a huge amount of water.”

Still, Renno acknowledges that a definitive finding is a long way off.

– New York Times