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Feb. 8, 2013 at 7:01 PM
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Earliest mammal ancestor described

NEW YORK, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- A small, half-pound animal with a long furry tail, living on insects, was the common ancestor of almost all mammals, including humans, U.S. researchers say.

Scientists completing a 6-year study of the mammalian family tree have identified Protungulatum donnae, a previously little-regarded occupant of the fossil record, as the earliest ancestor of 5,400 living species of placental mammals, The New York Times reported Friday.

Placental mammals are creatures that nourish their young in utero through a placenta before a live birth.

Researchers used a combination of genetic and anatomical data, publicly available in a database dubbed MorphoBank, to establish the ancestor emerged within 200,000 to 400,000 years after the great dying off of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period.

The study looked "at all aspects of mammalian anatomy, from the skull and skeleton, to the teeth, to internal organs, to muscles and even fur patterns" to determine what the common ancestor likely looked like, project member John R. Wible, curator of mammals at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, said.

Android overtaking iOS in brand loyalty

NEW YORK, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- Android devices are gaining on Apple products and the Android operating system has topped iOS for satisfaction and brand loyalty, a U.S. research firm says.

Media brand researcher Brand Keys said Samsung and Amazon are beginning to overhaul Apple for brand loyalty in the smartphone and tablet markets, the website TabTimes reported Friday.

"It is an enormous switch-over," Brand Keys President Robert Passikoff told Mobile Marketer. "The more personal aspects beyond just connectivity are becoming the important emotional engagement factors and that, generally speaking, brands that cannot do that are not going to be at the top of the list.

"Apple has been at the top of the list for a long time but has kind of stalled in terms of this sense of personal innovation and Samsung seems to have taken that on for themselves."

Samsung has passed Apple in the smartphone loyalty stakes, Brand Keys said, while in the tablet marketplace Amazon has stolen a march on the iPad with its Kindle Fire.

"Apple was very reactive in terms of having to come out with a smaller version [of the iPad] because Amazon had [a smaller] one," Passikoff said.

Tourists' photos could aid shark research

LONDON, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- Vacation photographs could help track the movements of giant endangered sharks in the Indian Ocean, researchers at Imperial College London say.

Tourists scuba diving and snorkeling in the Maldives frequently take underwater pictures of the spectacular and docile whale shark, they said, and these publicly sourced photographs are suitable for use in conservation work.

Individual sharks can be identified by distinctive patterns of spots behind the gills, a unique marking serves as a "fingerprint" to tell the animals apart.

UCL researcher Tim Davies compared results using tourist images downloaded from image-sharing websites such as Flickr and YouTube with results based on surveys by marine researchers specifically aiming to track the sharks.

Individual whale sharks could be successfully identified in 85 percent of the vacation photos, he said.

"Globally, this outcome provides strong support for the scientific use of photographs taken by tourists for whale shark monitoring," Davies said in a university release Friday.

"Hopefully, this will give whale shark research around the world confidence in using this source of free data."

Although widely thought to be threatened or at least rare, the conservation status of the whale shark has long remained uncertain.

"Hopefully, as more data come in from tourists over the years and from further across the archipelago, we will be able to build up our understanding of the Maldives population and monitor its status closely," Davies said.

Paralyzed man moves robot arm by thought

PITTSBURGH, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- Electrodes on the brain of a paralyzed man allowed him to move a robot arm to touch a friend's hand for the first time in seven years, researchers said.

Tim Hemmes, 30, who sustained a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident seven years ago that left him unable to move his body below the shoulders, was able to use brain-computer interface technology to control movement of a computer cursor and later a robot arm, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine reported Friday.

Hemmes' thoughts were interpreted by computer algorithms and translated into intended movement, they said.

"When Tim reached out to high-five me with the robotic arm, we knew this technology had the potential to help people who cannot move their own arms achieve greater independence," lead researcher Wei Wang said.

In implantation surgery, a postage stamp-size grid of 28 recording electrodes was placed on the surface of Hemmes' brain region that controlled right arm and hand movement.

Wires from the device exited under the skin of his chest where they could be connected to computer cables as necessary.

Hemmes slowly learned to use his thoughts to guide the up and down motion of a ball on a computer screen.

"During the learning process, the computer helped Tim hit his target smoothly by restricting how far off course the ball could wander," Wang said. "We gradually took off the 'training wheels,' as we called it, and he was soon doing the tasks by himself with 100 percent brain control."

The robot arm Hemmes eventually learned to control was developed by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.

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