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Fossils tell tale of last primate to inhabit North America before humans

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Fossils tell tale of last primate to inhabit North America before humans


The story of Ekgmowechashala, the final primate to inhabit North America before Homo sapiens or Clovis people, reads like a spaghetti western: A grizzled and mysterious loner, against the odds, ekes out an existence on the American Plains.

Except this tale unfolded about 30 million years ago, just after the Eocene-Oligocene transition during which North America saw great cooling and drying, making the continent less hospitable to warmth-loving primates.

Today, paleontologists from the University of Kansas and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing have published evidence in the Journal of Human Evolution shedding light on the long-standing saga of Ekgmowechashala, based on fossil teeth and jaws found in both Nebraska and China.

To do so, the researchers first had to reconstruct its family tree, a job helped by the discovery of an even more ancient Chinese “sister taxon” of Ekgmowechashala the team has named Palaeohodites (or “ancient wanderer”). The Chinese fossil discovery resolves the mystery of Ekgmowechashala’s presence in North America, showing it was an immigrant rather than the product of local evolution.

“This project focuses on a very distinctive fossil primate known to paleontologists since the 1960s,” said lead author Kathleen Rust, a doctoral candidate in paleontology at KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. “Due to its unique morphology and its representation only by dental remains, its place on the mammalian evolutionary tree has been a subject of contention and debate. There’s been a prevailing consensus leaning towards its classification as a primate. But the timing and appearance of this primate in the North American fossil record are quite unusual. It appears suddenly in the fossil record of the Great Plains more than 4 million years after the extinction of all other North American primates, which occurred around 34 million years ago.”

In the 1990s, Rust’s doctoral adviser and co-author Chris Beard, KU Foundation Distinguished Professor and senior curator of vertebrate paleontology, collected fossils from the Nadu Formation in the Baise Basin in Guangxi, China, that closely resembled the Ekgmowechashala material known from North America. By that time, Ekgmowechashala was notoriously enigmatic among North American paleontologists.

“When we were working there, we had absolutely no idea that we would find an animal that was closely related to this bizarre primate from North America, but literally as soon as I picked up the jaw and saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is it,'” Beard said. “It’s not like it took a long time, and we had to undertake all kinds of detailed analysis — we knew what it was. Here in KU’s collection, we have some critical fossils, including what is still by far the best upper molar of Ekgmowechashala known from North America. That upper molar is so distinctive and looks quite similar to the one from China that we found that it kind of seals the deal.”

Beard left it to Rust to conduct the morphological analysis that tied Ekgmowechashala and its cousin Palaeohodites from China in a phylogenetic tree to establish their evolutionary relationships.


In the course of the work, Rust was able to draw conclusions about how Ekgmowechashala came to be discovered in Nebraska, millions of years after its fellow primates died out in the continent’s fossil record.

“We collected a substantial amount of morphological data to create an evolutionary tree using a phylogenetic reconstruction software and algorithm,” Rust said. “This evolutionary tree suggests a close evolutionary relationship between North American Ekgmowechashala and Palaeohodites from China, which Chris and his colleagues discovered in the 1990s. The results from our analysis unequivocally supports this hypothesis.”

The KU researchers said their discovery is not only exciting in terms of discovering a new primate species from late Eocene China — but also in settling the origin story of Ekgmowechashala. Based on their investigation, Ekgmowechashala did not descend from an older North American primate that somehow survived the cooler and drier conditions that caused other North American primates to go extinct. Rather, its ancestors crossed over the Beringian region millions of years later, anticipating the route followed by the first Native Americans much later in time.

“Our analysis dispels the idea that Ekgmowechashala is a relic or survivor of earlier primates in North America,” Rust said. “Instead, it was an immigrant species that evolved in Asia and migrated to North America during a surprisingly cool period, most likely via Beringia.”

Species like Ekgmowechashala that show up suddenly in the fossil record long after their relatives have died off are referred to as “Lazarus taxa” after the biblical figure who was raised from the dead.

“The ‘Lazarus effect’ in paleontology is when we find evidence in the fossil record of animals apparently going extinct — only to reappear after a long hiatus, seemingly out of nowhere,” Beard said. “This is the grand pattern of evolution that we see in the fossil record of North American primates. The first primates came to North America about 56 million years ago at the beginning of the Eocene, and they flourished on this continent for more than 20 million years. But they went extinct when climate became cooler and drier near the Eocene-Oligocene boundary, about 34 million years ago. Several million years later Ekgmowechashala shows up like a drifting gunslinger in a Western movie, only to be a flash in the pan as far as the long trajectory of evolution is concerned. After Ekgmowechashala is gone for more than 25 million years, Clovis people come to North America, marking the third chapter of primates on this continent. Like Ekgmowechashala, humans in North America are a prime example of the Lazarus effect.”

Rust and Beard were joined in the work by co-authors Xijun Ni of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, and Kristen Tietjen, scientific illustrator with the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.


According to Rust, the tale of Ekgmowechashala is worth people’s attention because it happened in an era of profound environmental and climatic changes, much like our own that’s driven by human activity.

“It’s crucial to comprehend how past biota reacted to such shifts,” she said. “In such situations, organisms typically either adapt by retreating to more hospitable regions with available resources or face extinction. Around 34 million years ago, all of the primates in North America couldn’t adapt and survive. North America lacked the necessary conditions for survival. This underscores the significance of accessible resources for our non-human primate relatives during times of drastic climatic change.”

The study is also a part of a larger story that represents the earliest chapters of our own evolutionary journey that ultimately led to our own species, Rust said.

“Understanding this narrative is not only humbling, but also helps us appreciate the depth and complexity of the dynamic planet we inhabit,” she said. “It allows us to grasp the intricate workings of nature, the power of evolution in giving rise to life and the influence of environmental factors.”



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The unintended consequences of success against malaria

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Fossils tell tale of last primate to inhabit North America before humans


For decades, insecticide-treated bed nets and indoor insecticide spraying regimens have been important — and widely successful — treatments against mosquitoes that transmit malaria, a dangerous global disease. Yet these treatments also — for a time — suppressed undesirable household insects like bed bugs, cockroaches and flies.

Now, a new North Carolina State University study reviewing the academic literature on indoor pest control shows that as the household insects developed resistance to the insecticides targeting mosquitoes, the return of these bed bugs, cockroaches and flies into homes has led to community distrust and often abandonment of these treatments — and to rising rates of malaria.

In short, the bed nets and insecticide treatments that were so effective in preventing mosquito bites — and therefore malaria — are increasingly viewed as the causes of household pest resurgence.

“These insecticide-treated bed nets were not intended to kill household pests like bed bugs, but they were really good at it,” said Chris Hayes, an NC State Ph.D. student and co-corresponding author of a paper describing the work. “It’s what people really liked, but the insecticides are not working as effectively on household pests anymore.”

“Non-target effects are usually harmful, but in this case they were beneficial,” said Coby Schal, Blanton J. Whitmire Distinguished Professor of Entomology at NC State and co-corresponding author of the paper.

“The value to people wasn’t necessarily in reducing malaria, but was in killing other pests,” Hayes added. “There’s probably a link between use of these nets and widespread insecticide resistance in these house pests, at least in Africa.”

The researchers add that other factors — famine, war, the rural/city divide, and population displacement, for example — also could contribute to rising rates of malaria.

To produce the review, Hayes combed through the academic literature to find research on indoor pests like bed bugs, cockroaches and fleas, as well as papers on malaria, bed nets, pesticides and indoor pest control. The search yielded more than 1,200 papers, which, after an exhaustive review process, was whittled down to a final count of 28 peer-reviewed papers fulfilling the necessary criteria.

One paper — a 2022 survey of 1,000 households in Botswana — found that while 58% were most concerned with mosquitoes in homes, more than 40% were most concerned with cockroaches and flies.

Hayes said a recent paper — published after this NC State review was concluded — showed that people blamed the presence of bed bugs on bed nets.

“There is some evidence that people stop using bed nets when they don’t control pests,” Hayes said.

The researchers say that all hope is not lost, though.

“There are, ideally, two routes,” Schal said. “One would be a two-pronged approach with both mosquito treatment and a separate urban pest management treatment that targets pests. The other would be the discovery of new malaria-control tools that also target these household pests at the same time. For example, the bottom portion of a bed net could be a different chemistry that targets cockroaches and bed bugs.

“If you offer something in bed nets that suppresses pests, you might reduce the vilification of bed nets.”

The study appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The review was supported in part by the Blanton J. Whitmire Endowment at NC State, and grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Healthy Homes program (NCHHU0053-19), the Department of the Army, U.S. Army Contracting Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Natick Contracting Division, Ft. Detrick, Maryland (W911QY1910011), and the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine (257367).



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Drawing water from dry air

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Fossils tell tale of last primate to inhabit North America before humans


Earth’s atmosphere holds an ocean of water, enough liquid to fill Utah’s Great Salt Lake 800 times.

Extracting some of that moisture is seen as a potential way to provide clean drinking water to billions of people globally who face chronic shortages.

Existing technologies for atmospheric water harvesting (AWH) are saddled with numerous downsides associated with size, cost and efficiency. But new research from University of Utah engineering researchers has yielded insights that could improve efficiencies and bring the world one step closer to tapping the air as a culinary water source in arid places.

The study unveils the first-of-its-kind compact rapid cycling fuel-fired AWH device. This two-step prototype relies on adsorbent materials that draw water molecules out of non-humid air, then applies heat to release those molecules into liquid form, according to Sameer Rao, senior author of the study published Monday and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“Hygroscopic materials intrinsically have affinity to water. They soak up water wherever you go. One of the best examples is the stuff inside diapers,” said Rao, who happens to be the father of an infant son. “We work with a specific type of hygroscopic material called a metal organic framework.”

Rao likened metal organic frameworks to Lego blocks, which can be rearranged to build all sorts of structures. It this case they are arranged to create a molecule ideal for gas separation.

“They can make it specific to adsorb water vapor from the air and nothing else. They’re really selective,” Rao said. Developed with graduate student Nathan Ortiz, the study’s lead author, this prototype uses aluminum fumarate that was fashioned into panels that collect the water as air is drawn through.

“The water molecules themselves get trapped on the surfaces of our material, and that’s a reversible process. And so instead of becoming ingrained into the material itself, it sits on the walls,” Ortiz said. “What’s special about these absorbent materials is they have just an immense amount of internal surface area. There’s so many sites for water molecules to get stuck.”

Just a gram of this material holds as much surface area as two football fields, according to Rao. So just a little material can capture a lot of water.

“All of this surface area is at the molecular scale,” Rao said. “And that’s awesome for us because we want to trap water vapor onto that surface area within the pores of this material.”

Funding for the research came from the DEVCOM Soldier Center, a program run by the Department of Defense to facilitate technology transfer that supports Army modernization. The Army’s interest in the project stems from the need to keep soldiers hydrated while operating in remote areas with few water sources.

“We specifically looked at this for defense applications so that soldiers have a small compact water generation unit and don’t need to lug around a large canteen filled with water,” Rao said. “This would literally produce water on demand.”

Rao and Ortiz have filed for a preliminary patent based on the technology, which addresses non-military needs as well.

“As we were designing the system, I think we also had perspective of the broader water problem. It’s not just a defense issue, it’s very much a civilian issue,” Rao said. “We think in terms water consumption of a household for drinking water per day. That’s about 15 to 20 liters per day.”

In this proof of concept, the prototype achieved its target of producing 5 liters of water per day per kilogram of adsorbent material. In a matter of three days in the field, this devise would outperform packing water, according to Ortiz.

In the device’s second step, the water is precipitated into liquid by applying heat using a standard-issue Army camping stove. This works because of the exothermic nature of its water collecting process.

“As it collects water, it’s releasing little bits of heat. And then to reverse that, we add heat,” Ortiz said. “We just put a flame right under here, anything to get this temperature up. And then as we increase the temperature, we rapidly release the water molecules. Once we have a really humid airstream, that makes condensation at ambient temperature much easier.”

Nascent technologies abound for atmospheric water harvesting, which is more easily accomplished when the air is humid, but none has resulted in equipment that can be put to practical use in arid environments. Ortiz believes his device can be the first, mainly because it is powered with energy-dense fuel like the white gasoline used in camping stoves.

The team decided against using photovoltaics.

“If you’re reliant on solar panels, you’re limited to daytime operation or you need batteries, which is just more weight. You keep stacking challenges. It just takes up so much space,” Ortiz said. “This technology is superior in arid conditions, while refrigeration is best in high humidity.”



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3D-printed microstructure forest facilitates solar steam generator desalination

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Faced with the world’s impending freshwater scarcity, a team of researchers in Singapore turned to solar steam generators (SSGs), which are emerging as a promising device for seawater desalination. Desalination can be a costly, energy-intensive solution to water scarcity. This renewable-powered approach mimics the natural water cycle by using the sun’s energy to evaporate and isolate water. However, the technology is limited by the need to fabricate complex topologies to increase the surface area necessary to achieve high water evaporation efficiency.

To overcome this barrier, the team sought design inspiration from trees and harnessed the potential of 3D printing. In Applied Physics Reviews, the team presents a state-of-the-art technology for producing efficient SSGs for desalination and introduces a novel method for printing functional nanocomposites for multi-jet fusion (MJF).

“We created SSGs with exceptional photothermal performance and self-cleaning properties,” said Kun Zhou, a professor of mechanical engineering at Nanyang Technological University. “Using a treelike porous structure significantly enhances water evaporation rates and ensures continuous operation by preventing salt accumulation — its performance remains relatively stable even after prolonged testing.”

The physics behind their approach involves light-to-thermal energy conversion, where the SSGs absorb solar energy, convert it to heat, and evaporate the water/seawater. The SSG’s porous structure helps improve self-cleaning by removing accumulated salt to ensure sustained desalination performance.

“By using an effective photothermal fusing agent, MJF printing technology can rapidly create parts with intricate designs,” he said. “To improve the photothermal conversion efficiency of fusing agents and printed parts, we developed a novel type of fusing agent derived from metal-organic frameworks.”

Their SSGs were inspired by plant transpiration and are composed of miniature tree-shaped microstructures, forming an efficient, heat-distributing forest.

“Our bioinspired design increases the surface area of the SSG,” said Zhou. “Using a treelike design increases the surface area of the SSG, which enhances the water transport and boosts evaporation efficiency.”

One big surprise was the high rate of water evaporation observed in both simulated environments and field trials. The desalinated water consistently met standards for drinking water — even after a long-time test.

“This demonstrates the practicality and efficiency of our approach,” Zhou said. “And it can be quickly and easily mass-produced via MJF commercial printers.”

The team’s work shows significant potential for addressing freshwater scarcity.

“Our SSGs can be used in regions with limited access to freshwater to provide a sustainable and efficient desalination solution,” said Zhou. “Beyond desalination, it can be adapted for other applications that require efficient solar energy conversion and water purification.”



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