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New analysis sheds light on mysterious source of Black Death

<i>Prof. Pier-Giorgio Borbone</i><br/>The Black Death was the world's most devastating plague outbreak.
Prof. Pier-Giorgio Borbone
The Black Death was the world's most devastating plague outbreak.

By Katie Hunt, CNN

As we know from our experience with Covid-19, tracking down the source of a pandemic is incredibly difficult.

More than two years since the virus emerged in China, we still don’t know how it spilled over into the human population or which animal or animals hosted the virus before that pivotal event.

Humans have lived with microbes since our earliest days, but we now “live in an age of pandemics,” said epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant, CEO of Pandefense Advisory, a network of experts engaged in pandemic response. Thanks to DNA analysis, however, the scientific detective work needed to understand these pathogens has come a long way, as evidenced by one of this week’s exciting discoveries.

This is Katie Hunt, standing in for Ashley Strickland, in this edition of Wonder Theory.

A long time ago

The Black Death was the world’s most devastating plague outbreak. It is estimated to have killed half of Europe’s population in the space of just seven years during the Middle Ages.

Historians and archaeologists have for centuries tried to pinpoint the source of this pandemic, and now science has stepped up and provided an answer.

Traces of diseases that made our ancestors sick — including the plague pathogen — can be found hidden in ancient DNA from human remains.

Genome sequencing of the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, found in teeth exhumed from two grave sites in what’s now Kyrgyzstan, may have solved the riddle of the Black Death’s mysterious origins.

Fantastic creatures

The life of a mastodon, an elephantine creature that roamed across North America 13,000 years ago, has been illuminated by a study of its tusks.

For the first few years of its life, it was a mama’s boy — staying close to home with a female-led herd in what’s now central Indiana before venturing out on its own. The mastodon died at the ripe age of 34, when the tusk tip of another male mastodon punctured the right side of its skull.

The creature’s tusks stored geochemical information absorbed from the shrubs, trees and water it consumed, enabling scientists for the first time to piece together where the animal traveled over its lifetime.

Across the universe

We now have the most complete map to date of the Milky Way, our home galaxy, and it’s showing us some pretty cool things.

Some stars in the Milky Way have strange and unexpected “tsunami-like” starquakes, new data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope has revealed. The motion even changed the shape of some of the stars.

Hubble, another space telescope that is scanning the heavens, discovered an equally intriguing cosmic phenomenon.

The invisible, ghostly remains of a once radiant star are drifting through the Milky Way. It’s the first time a roving black hole has been detected — although astronomers believe there might be 100 million such objects floating around.

Wild kingdom

The dichotomy of dominant male and docile female animals is among nature’s most enduring gender stereotypes. A new book titled “Bitch: On the Female of the Species” debunks this sexist misconception and tells a more complete story about the role of females in the wild.

Female creatures are just as promiscuous, competitive, aggressive and dynamic as their male counterparts and play an equal role in driving evolutionary change, according to author Lucy Cooke.

Her work details the lives of an array of colorful animals that will shake up your assumptions about what it means to be female: murderous meerkat moms, unfaithful bluebirds and female dolphins that have an unusual strategy in the battle of the sexes.

Climate changed

Polar bears are getting thinner and having fewer cubs as a result of melting sea ice in their Arctic habitat, scientists say, but a new discovery may offer a glimmer of hope.

A special population of polar bears found living in fjords in southeast Greenland shows how this species may be able to survive as the climate crisis intensifies.

Unlike most polar bears, which hunt seals on sea ice and roam far, this distinct population has adapted to living in a smaller habitat and hunting on freshwater glacier ice.

“If you’re concerned about preserving the species, then yes, our findings are hopeful,” said Kristin Laidre, a polar research scientist at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “But I don’t think glacier habitat is going to support huge numbers of polar bears. There’s just not enough of it.”


Marvel at these stories:

— The wreck of a warship that carried a royal VIP on its final voyage 340 years ago has been found off the coast of England.

— Scientists have discovered why exactly cats go so crazy for catnip. And it serves a more useful purpose than just making our feline friends feel intoxicated.

— The Artemis I mega moon rocket is ready for its fourth attempt at a final prelaunch test. Keep those fingers crossed.

Like what you’ve read? Oh, but there’s more. Sign up here to receive in your inbox the next edition of Wonder Theory, brought to you by CNN Space and Science writer Ashley Strickland, who finds wonder in planets beyond our solar system and discoveries from the ancient world.

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