History uncovered: Fossils older than dinosaurs, and a religious refuge

Discoveries of an old human civilization and ancient animals and plants are enriching knowledge of life on Earth. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is developing a new environmental curriculum to help safeguard the planet.

1. Brazil

Brazilian paleontologists rediscovered a mother lode of fossils that had been lost for decades. The incredible fossil site was initially discovered in 1951 in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. But without a description of the exact location, the fossils may have remained hidden if landowner Celestino Goulart hadn’t been curious about the fossil of a fish on his grandfather’s mantel that he’d heard came from his backyard.

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In our progress roundup, discoveries in both Brazil and Turkey were surprising in their vastness, providing paleontologists and archaeologists with a wealth of opportunities to learn.

A research team has since dug 6 feet into the ground, uncovering hundreds of fossils so far that range from pteridophyte vegetation to mollusks and ancient fish from the Permian period, a time that led to a mass extinction and paved the way for the dinosaurs. Scientists draw parallels between that period and today.

“While what we’re going through now is a result of human behavior, the mechanisms of extinction are very similar to those that happened during the Permian period,” says paleontologist Felipe Pinheiro. “We are interfering in the same biogeochemical cycles – the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle – that during the Permian period, because of natural factors, caused the death of almost 90 percent of species. So when we study this extinction, we’re studying the present day.”
Source: National Geographic

2. United States

The number of young people at Hawaii’s juvenile detention facility has fallen dramatically. Minors who end up at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility are some of the most vulnerable and high-risk youth. In 2014, there were over 100 youths at the facility. Thanks to extensive reforms, there were only 15 young people in incarceration in June – and no girls.

Many young people land in prison for low-level offenses and have histories of abuse or poverty. Hawaii’s success does not mean the state has fully solved the problems facing youth, but reflects a key shift toward trauma-informed care.

“What I’m trying to do is end the punitive model ... and we replace it with a therapeutic model,” said Mark Patterson, administrator of the correctional facility. “Do we really have to put a child in prison because she ran away? What kind of other environment is more conducive for her to heal and be successful in the community?” Nationally, incarceration rates for young people dropped by two-thirds between 2000 and 2018, according to the justice reform initiative Square One Project.
Sources: Hawaii News Now, The Washington Post

3. United Kingdom

Wiktor Szymanoqicz/Nurphoto/Zuma Press/Newscom
Protesters from the Extinction Rebellion movement push for better climate education in schools in London in 2019.

Aspiring to be a world leader on climate change, the U.K.’s Department of Education is creating a new national curriculum for secondary school students to inspire environmental responsibility. The natural history course will focus on three main sustainability issues: local wildlife, environmental field studies, and the impact of human development on the natural world. The course will be ready for students by 2025.

Nearly 60% of young people across the U.K. and nine other countries reported feeling very worried or extremely worried about climate change, according to a 2021 survey. “We can make studying the natural world as much a part of school life as maths and English, establishing it as a foundational subject,” wrote environmentalist Mary Colwell, who first proposed the idea of a curriculum in 2011. Some educators say climate change should be taught across subjects, not siloed into its own course; other advocates are pushing for a more robust environmental curriculum earlier on in the school system.
Sources: The Guardian, BBC Wildlife Magazine, Schools Week

4. Turkey

Researchers are uncovering details about civilization in ancient Turkey, as they explore a sprawling city below modern-day Midyat. An underground tunnel leading to the town of at least 74 acres was discovered during a restoration project of local homes in 2020. The site is thought to be a former refuge for Christians and Jews, who were persecuted by the Roman Empire in the first century. Researchers have turned up coins, lamps, and silos for food, oil, and drinks among the homes carved out of limestone, where an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people lived between the first and sixth centuries. One rock wall bears an engraved Star of David that may have been part of a synagogue. Archaeologists know of several dozen other underground cities across the country, but none as large as this discovery, being called Matiate. Only around 5% of the town has been excavated so far.
Source: The Wall Street Journal

5. Mozambique

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
A tranquilized rhino is led during its relocation from South Africa to Zinave National Park in Mozambique.

A national park in Mozambique now offers a haven for rhinos, formerly extinct in the region. Zinave National Park became a protected area in 1972, but a civil war from 1977 to 1992 decimated the land. Following years of other rewilding and restoration efforts, conservationists recently succeeded in transporting 19 white rhinos from neighboring South Africa to Zinave. The rhinos traveled over 1,000 miles in the longest rhino road transfer yet completed.  

An estimated 8,000 rhinos have been killed by poachers in southern Africa in the past decade. Reintroduction efforts give species a better chance at survival by providing a habitat for future generations – a healthy female rhino calf was born in June. The team intends to release 40 rhinos in Zinave over the next two years, to join over 2,400 animals from 14 species already introduced, including leopards, wildebeests, and hyenas. Zinave is part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, linking national parks in Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe – an important initiative for conservation, tourism, and local job creation.
Reuters, Peace Parks Foundation

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