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Caught in amber: ancient spider with a whip-like tail

Deep in a tropical rain forest, during a time when dinosaurs walked the earth, four tiny spiders cra..

Deep in a tropical rain forest, during a time when dinosaurs walked the earth, four tiny spiders crawled down a tree, got stuck in some sticky resin and never climbed up again.

About 100 million years later, blocks of amber containing their fossilised forms wound up on the desks of two scientists in China.

The Cretaceous arachnid Chimerarachne yingi, resembling a spider with a tail, was found trapped in amber in Myanmar after 100 million years. Photo: Bo Wang

Both researchers looked at the perfectly preserved animals and came to the same conclusion: This was an entirely new kind of animal.

They introduced their discovery, dubbed Chimerarachne yingi, in a pair of papers published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution on Monday.

With its curious mix of ancient and modern traits – a long, skinny tail inherited from a distant arachnid ancestor, but a silk-producing organ like those found in spiders today – the tiny chimerarachne, or "chimera spider", is not a member of the immediate family. But it is one of modern spiders' closest cousins, and it presents some intriguing hints at how they evolved.

The fossils were uncovered by amber miners in northern Burma, sold to dealers, then bought by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

By coincidence, two sets of the fossils became available around the same time, and Bo Wang and Diying Huang – colleagues in the academy's palaeobiology lab – began to analyse them almost simultaneously.

Neither was aware of what the other was up to until they submitted their studies for publication. Happily, their results were close enough that the journal opted to publish both papers.

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Both describe creatures so small they could fit on the tip of a fine-point pen, with eight legs and tiny but formidable fangs.

Their hindquarters bear spinnerets, the same organs from which living species spin their silken webs.

The males also have modified pedipalps – syringe-like appendages on the fronts of their faces that modern spiders use during mating.

Male spiders don't have penises, so they instead deposit their sperm on a ready-made swatch of web, suck up that sperm with their pedipalps and inject it into a female. The whole affair typically ends with the female spider eating her mate.

Other features of chimerarachne appear much more primitive. Their torsos are segmented, like those of older arachnid groups, and they have long, whip-like tails, called telsons, that seem to be inherited from a more primitive ancestor. This mix of features gave the spiders their name: a reference to a mythical creature with a lion's head and serpent-like tail.

This odd appendage, which is absent in modern spiders, can be found in vinegaroons, a group of nightmarish scorpion-looking creatures that lives today. And it's visible in one of the oldest fossils from a close spider relative, Attercopus fimbriunguis, which dates back 380 million years.

Paul Selden, a palaeontologist at the University of Kansas who unveiled that other ancient arachnid and worked with Wang to analyse this latest discovery, said he'd been waiting to find something like this ever since A. fimbriunguis was discovered.

"It seems to be an intermediate form," Selden said – midway between the spinneret-less A. fimbriunguis and the spiders of today.

Due to this mix of features, the two research groups differ slightly over where C. yingi fits in the spider family tree. But they agree it is a close cousin of the Araneae, or true spider, order.

Scientists have identified many spiders from this lineage in the same amber deposit from the Cretaceous period. Their numbers suggest that, even 100 million years ago, chimerachne was already a "living fossil" – a species that resembles creatures otherwise known only from the fossil record, Selden said. Like today's horseshoe crabs and ginkgo trees, it was a holdover from an earlier period in evolutionary history.

Selden even entertained what he called the "tantalising possibility these creatures are still around".

C. yingi wouldn't be the first fossil arachnid to show up in the wild. In the 1880s, scientists working in Madagascar were surprised to see a new type of "assassin spider" crawling about. Until then, that lineage had only been found in 50-million-year-old amber.

Gonzalo Giribet, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University who worked on Huang's team, said the new discovery might also shake up the arachnid family tree.

Scientists have traditionally used silk spinnerets to distinguish true spiders from other species. Some argue that spinnerets were the key innovation that allowed spiders to become so successful; there are nearly 50,000 known spider species alive today.

"And now suddenly we have another group that is not a spider that also has those characteristics," Giribet said. "It challenges our view of how we define 'spider'."

The Washington Post

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Enviroment

So, we guess this means Beyonce and Jay-Z are OK then

The first couple of pop music took the world by surprise by dropping their first album together last..

The first couple of pop music took the world by surprise by dropping their first album together last weekend. As you'd expect, it's a statement.

There is arguably no couple better at controlling their own press than Beyonce and Jay-Z. When a video surfaced in 2014 showing Bey's younger sister Solange attacking her brother-in-law in an elevator, rumours of a strained marriage proliferated.

Rather than battle the tabloids, the spouses used the gossip to fuel the creation of two critically beloved, commercially successful records: Beyonce's Lemonade and Jay-Z's 4:44. And, in them, they offered just as many details about their private lives as they chose.

Beyonce and Jay-Z on stage in France for the 2014 On the Run tour.

Photo: Rob Hoffman

Now the couple have continued their domination of pop music, surprising the world last Saturday by releasing their joint album Everything Is Love, which is something of a sequel to those two solo records. Though they have collaborated for at least 15 years, this marks their first joint album, which they dropped under the name The Carters.

The record is a victory lap from a couple who have mined their relationship for universal truths and then presented them as art. It's a fierce love letter to success, to family, to blackness – but, most of all, to each other.

Artwork for the album Everything is Love by The Carters, aka Beyonce and Jay-Z.

Photo: Karl Quinn

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Lyrically, it primarily focuses on two aspects of the Carters' lives: their marriage and their success. (more…)

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Rachel Griffiths: female characters are finally getting real on screen

Almost a year into the #MeToo era, Rachel Griffiths believes the likes of Mystery Road, Wentworth, P..

Almost a year into the #MeToo era, Rachel Griffiths believes the likes of Mystery Road, Wentworth, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Top of the Lake show that female characters are finally coming of age on Australian screens.

In a spirited speech at the launch of a new state government scheme to support more women directors in television, the actor-turned-director said it was exciting to see female characters move beyond "the typical tropes of 'likable, f—able, adorable'" to "more complex depictions of female experience" recently.

Happy to see "more complex depictions of female experience": Rachel Griffiths (left) with Leah Purcell at the launch of #SheDirects.

Photo: Louie Douvis

While she acknowledged there were male directors who created fresh and compelling women characters, Griffiths said the "male gaze" often reduced them to colouring the characters of their male counterparts.

"[They are created to] make him hot, make him authentic, make him empathetic, make him fatherly, make him conflicted, make him grieve," she said. "In the male gaze, we are so often not the gatekeepers; we're not the ferryman. Sometimes the mentor but usually only ironically, like Judi Dench's M…

"Under-written and under-observed, brought into our sexual awareness precociously and prepubescent in order to accommodate the male libido.

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"Often in television we're used by lazy writers and producers who can think of nothing more interesting this week than 'let's have her have sex with X' or 'discover she's a lesbian – for an episode'."

Griffiths, who is about to begin editing the Melbourne Cup drama Ride Like A Girl after finishing the shoot, endorsed Hollywood star Sandra Bullock's recent comment that it was time for women to "stop being polite" about gender equality. (more…)

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Rachel Maddow breaks down on air over Trump immigration policy

US television host Rachel Maddow has broken down on live air as she delivered the latest development..

US television host Rachel Maddow has broken down on live air as she delivered the latest developments in the Trump administration's controversial "zero tolerance" immigration policy.

Maddow, who hosts her own show on MSNBC, was reading from a breaking news release from the Associated Press that revealed government officials have been sending babies and toddlers to what are being called "tender age" shelters in the US.

The youngsters are some of the 2,300 children who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border since the White House announced a zero-tolerance policy on migrant families in May.

"The AP has just broken some new news," Maddow started.

"Um, this has just come out from the Associated Press, this is incredible. Trump administration have been sending babies and other young children – oh, hold on," she said, her voice breaking.

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Maddow attempted to get through the breaking news piece one more time before moving the show over to a guest. "To at least three – three tender age shelters in South Texas. Lawyers and medical providers… I think I'm going to have to hand this off. Sorry."

Maddow took to Twitter shortly after the segment aired to say sorry to her viewers. "Again, I apologise for losing it there for a moment," she wrote. "Not the way I intended that to go, not by a mile."

She also tweeted out what she had been trying to say in her live read, writing out what was presented in the AP story. "Lawyers and medical providers who have visited the "tender age" shelters described play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis…" she wrote.

"Decades after the nations child welfare system ended the use of orphanages over concerns about the lasting trauma to children, the administration is standing up new institutions to hold Central American toddlers that the government separated from their parents." (more…)

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