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Ancient ‘nutcracker’ man preferred salad: study

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WASHINGTON (AFP) – He had the powerful jaws and big chompers to crack the toughest of shells, but a new study has shown that the ancient human relative known as “Nutcracker Man” actually preferred to munch on grass.

“It most likely was eating grass, and most definitely was not cracking nuts,” said University of Utah geochemist Thure Cerling, lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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With molars about triple the size of a modern man’s, the human ancestor, Paranthropus boisei, is believed to have roamed the Earth between 1.2 million and 2.3 million years ago.

A skull found in Tanzania in 1959 quickly drew the nickname “Nutcracker Man” because of its giant teeth, but US and Kenyan researchers now say the species grazed on the same wild fields as the ancestors of zebras, pigs and hippos.

“They were competing with them,” said Cerling. “They were eating at the same table.”

Researchers used a drill to pulverize tooth enamel, taken from already broken tooth samples from 22 individuals who lived in that period, and examined carbon isotope ratios that revealed what kind of food they were eating.

They could see that the specimens ate tropical grasses and herbs that use C4 photosynthesis, and not leaves, nuts and fruits that use C3 photosynthesis, the study said.

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Only one similar diet has been seen in an extinct species of grass-eating baboon, the researchers said.

“The high proportion of C4 vegetation in the diet of Paranthropus boisei makes it different from any other hominin to date,” said co-author Kevin Uno of the University of Utah.

“The results make an excellent case for isotope analysis of teeth from other members of our family tree, especially from East Africa.”

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Pharma chiefs see coronavirus vaccine by year-end, but challenges ‘daunting’

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Pharmaceutical company executives said Thursday that one or several COVID-19 vaccines could begin rolling out before 2021, but warned the challenges would be "daunting" as it was estimated that 15 billion doses would be needed to halt the pandemic.

Well over 100 labs around the world are scrambling to come up with a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, including 10 that have made it to the clinical trial stage.

"The hope of many people is that we will have a vaccine, hopefully several, by the end of this year," Pascal Soriot, head of AstraZeneca, told a virtual briefing.

His company is partnering with the University of Oxford to develop and distribute a vaccine being trialled in Britain.

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COVID-19

How coronavirus contact tracing works in a state Dr. Fauci praised as a model to follow

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After weeks of keeping people home to “flatten the curve,” restrictions on U.S. businesses are loosening and the coronavirus pandemic response is moving into a new phase.

Two things will be critical to keep COVID-19 cases from flaring up again: widespread testing to quickly identify anyone who gets the virus, and contact tracing to find everyone those individuals might have passed it to.

It’s a daunting task, but states are working hard to take the necessary steps to reopen safely. When Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, explained that task to the U.S. Senate recently, he pointed to South Carolina as a model for the country, one that he would “almost like to clone.”

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How Europe’s CHEOPS satellite will improve the hunt for exoplanets

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While the planet has been on lockdown the last two months, a new space telescope called CHEOPS opened its eyes, took its first pictures of the heavens and is now open for business.

The CHEOPS mission adds a unique twist in the science that the public normally associates with planet discovery missions like Kepler and TESS. Kepler and TESS produced many groundbreaking discoveries and brought the number of known exoplanets into the thousands – so many that we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn from them. Consequently, rather than simply finding more planets, the primary objective of CHEOPS is to better understand the planets that we’ve already found.

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