These chip-sized spacecraft are the smallest space probes yet

Spacecraft have gone bite-sized. On June 23, Breakthrough Starshot, an initiative to send spacecraft to another star system, launched half a dozen probes called Sprites to test how their electronics fare in outer space. Each Sprite, built on a single circuit board, is a prototype of the tiny spacecraft that Starshot scientists intend to send to Alpha Centauri, the trio of stars closest to the sun. Those far-flung probes would be the smallest working spacecraft yet.

“We’re talking about launching things that are a thousand times lighter than any previous spacecraft,” says Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University who is part of the committee advising the initiative. A Sprite is only 3.5 centimeters square and weighs four grams, but packs a solar panel, radio, thermometer, magnetometer for compass capabilities and gyroscope for sensing rotation.

These spacecraft are designed to fly solo, but for this test, they hitched a ride into low Earth orbit on satellites named Max Valier and Venta-1. Each satellite has one Sprite permanently riding sidecar, and the Max Valier craft has another four it could fling out into space. Unfortunately, as of August 10, ground controllers haven’t yet been able to reach the Max Valier satellite to send a “Release the Sprites!” command. One of the permanently attached Sprites — probably the one on Venta-1 — is in radio contact.

Before sending next-gen Sprites off to Alpha Centauri, scientists plan to equip them with cameras, actuators for steering and other tools. “This was really just the first step in a long journey for Starshot,” Loeb says.

This sea snake looks like a banana and hunts like a Slinky

With its bright hue, this snake was bound to stand out sooner or later.

A newly discovered subspecies of sea snake, Hydrophis platurus xanthos, has a narrow geographic range and an unusual hunting trick. The canary-yellow reptile hunts at night in Golfo Dulce off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. With its body coiled up at the sea surface, the snake points its head under the water, mouth open. That folded posture “creates a buoy” that stabilizes the snake so it can nab prey in choppy water, says study coauthor Brooke Bessesen, a conservation biologist at Osa Conservation, a biodiversity-focused nonprofit in Washington, D.C. In contrast, typical Hydrophis platurus, with a black back and yellow underbelly, hunts during the day, floating straight on calm seas.
The newly described venomous snake has been reported only in a small, 320-square-kilometer area of Golfo Dulce. After analyzing 154 living and preserved specimens, the researchers described the reptile’s characteristics July 24 in Zookeys. The scientists hope that the subspecies designation will enable the Costa Rican government to protect the sunny serpent, which they worry is already at risk from overzealous animal collectors.

Coconut crabs are a bird’s worst nightmare

Imagine you’re a red-footed booby napping on a not-quite-high-enough branch of a tree. It’s nighttime on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and you can’t see much of what’s around you. Then, out of the darkness comes a monster. Its claw grabs you, breaking bones and dragging you to the ground. You don’t realize it yet, but you’re doomed. The creature breaks more of your bones. You struggle, but it’s a fruitless effort. Soon the other monsters smell your blood and converge on your body, ripping it apart over the next few hours.

The monster in this horror-film scenario is a coconut crab, the world’s largest terrestrial invertebrate, which has a leg span wider than a meter and can weigh more than four kilograms.

But this is no page from a screenplay. Biologist Mark Laidre of Dartmouth University actually witnessed this scene in March 2016, during a two-month field expedition to study the crabs in the Chagos Archipelago.

Laidre, an expert on hermit crabs, had been “dying to study” their humongous cousins. Little is known about the crabs, he notes. A study earlier this year looked at the force a coconut crab’s claw can exert in the lab. But, he says, “there’s still not a single paper on how they open a coconut.”
He trekked to the remote spot in the Indian Ocean because he wanted to study the crabs in a place where few people would interfere with their natural behaviors. Laidre had heard stories that coconut crabs killed rats, and he later witnessed them munching on the rodents on the islands. “Clearly it’s in their repertoire to eat something big,” he says. And when he took inventory of the crabs’ burrows, he found the carcass of an almost full-grown red-footed booby in one. “At the time, I had assumed it was something that had died … and the crab had dragged in there,” he recalls.

But then, in the middle of the night, he saw a crab attack a bird sleeping in a tree, and he managed to catch part of the event on film. “I didn’t have the heart to videotape five coconut crabs tearing apart the bird later,” he says. “It was a little bit overwhelming. I had trouble sleeping that night.”
After the event, Laidre heard a story from a local plantation worker who had witnessed something similar a couple of years earlier. “He was sitting and eating a sandwich, and this coconut crab came right out its burrow in the middle of the daytime when … a red-footed booby… landed outside of its burrow,” Laidre says. The crab grabbed the bird’s leg and pulled it into the burrow. “The bird never emerged.”

It’s difficult to tell how often attacks like this happen, whether they’re rare or common. “Predation itself is something you don’t often witness,” Laidre says. He’d like to someday install camera traps on the islands to get a better sense of the crabs’ behavior.

But while he was in the Chagos, he did find himself in a sort of natural experiment that gave him some insight into the effect of the crabs on local bird populations. Coconut crabs live on only some of the islands. Birds can live on any of them, but their populations vary from island to island. So Laidre surveyed the islands, walking transects and counting crabs and bird nests.
“The pattern I found across the island was pronounced,” Laidre writes November 1 in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. On Diego Garcia, for example, a 15-kilometer transect revealed 1,000 crabs and no nesting birds. Crab-free West Island, in contrast, had an abundance of ground nests of nesting noddies.

Laidre suspects that the coconut crabs act as a “ruler of the atoll,” keeping ground-nesting bird species from finding homes on crab-filled islands. On other islands with large populations of birds, those birds might help to keep their islands crab-free by eating juvenile coconut crabs, preventing them from colonizing there.

“It’s easy to sympathize with the prey,” Laidre says, “but at the same time, there’s a lot of ecological roles that that sort of action has.”

New setup for image recognition AI lets a program think on its feet

Artificial intelligence is getting some better perspective. Like a person who can read someone else’s penmanship without studying lots of handwriting samples, next-gen image recognition AI can more easily identify familiar sights in new situations.

Made from a new type of virtual building block called capsules, these programs may cut down the enormous amount of data needed to train current image-identifying AI. And that could boost such technology as machine-made medical diagnoses, where example images may be scarce, or the responsiveness of self-driving cars, where the view is constantly shifting. Researchers with Google will present this new version of an artificial neural network at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Long Beach, Calif., on December 5.
Neural networks are webs of individual virtual nerve cells, or neurons, that learn to pick out objects in pictures by studying labeled example images. These networks largely classify pictures based on whether they contain certain features. For instance, a program trained on a series of head shots might conclude that a face has two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Show that program a face in profile with only one eye visible, though, and it may not recognize the photo as a face, explains Roland Memisevic, a computer scientist at the University of Montreal who was not involved in the work.

To overcome that limitation, researchers can train a neural network on millions of photos from myriad angles, and the program memorizes all the different ways a face might look. Compared with the human brain, which doesn’t need anywhere near a million examples to know what a face looks like, this system is wildly inefficient. “It’s a disaster,” Memisevic says. “Capsules try to fix that.”

Instead of webs of individual artificial neurons, these new programs have webs of clusters of neurons, called capsules. These teams of neurons can provide more information than one neuron by itself. Each capsule is designed to track not only whether a certain feature is in an image, but also properties of that feature — say, a nose’s size, orientation and position. This spatial awareness helps the program better recognize objects in previously unseen scenarios.

A capsule-containing network trained on head shots could see a face in profile and deduce — based on the appearance of the visible eye, nose and mouth — that the other eye is simply obscured, and the picture depicts a face. Since capsule networks are better at applying what they know to new situations, these neural networks need less training data to achieve the same performance as their predecessors, says Sara Sabour, a computer scientist with Google Brain in Toronto.
Sabour and her colleagues trained one capsule network on images of handwritten numbers and tested it on pictures where each number was slightly distorted. The capsule network recognized the warped images with 79 percent accuracy; a typical neural network trained on the same amount of data only got 66 percent right.

In another experiment, Sabour and colleagues trained a similar capsule network on tens of thousands of photos of toys, and then asked it to recognize the toys from new viewpoints. In this challenge, reported in a paper submitted to the 2018 International Conference on Learning Representations in Vancouver, the capsule network was wrong only about 1.4 percent of the time. A conventional neural network made almost twice as many errors.

Mini brains may wrinkle and fold just like ours

PHILADELPHIA — Flat brains growing on microscope slides may have revealed a new wrinkle in the story of how the brain folds.

Cells inside the brains contract, while cells on the outside grow and push outward, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, discovered from working with the lab-grown brains, or organoids. This push and pull results in folds in the organoids similar to those found in full-size brains. Orly Reiner reported the results December 5 at the joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization.
Reiner and her colleagues sandwiched human brain stem cells between a glass microscope slide and a porous membrane. The apparatus allowed the cells access to nutrients and oxygen while giving the researchers a peek at how the organoids grew. The cells formed layered sheets that closed up at the edges, making the organoids resemble pita bread, Reiner said. Wrinkles began to form in the outer layers of the organoids about six days after the mini brains started growing.

These brain organoids may help explain why people with lissencephaly — a rare brain malformation in which the ridges and folds are missing — have smooth brains. The researchers used the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system to make a mutation in the LIS1 gene. People with lissencephaly often have mutations in that gene. Cells carrying the mutation didn’t contract or move normally, the team found.

Reiner and her colleagues aren’t the first to propose the push-pull idea for how brains fold. But the researchers were able to show the concept at work in their experimental system, says biophysicist Xavier Trepat of the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia in Barcelona, who was not involved in the study. “They really were able to reproduce the shape of what we all imagine the brain should look like,” he says. “It’s not a brain, but they see structures that look like it.”

U.S. religion is increasingly polarized

There’s both inspiring and troubling news for holiday worshippers.

Unlike other historically Christian Western nations, the United States is not losing its religion, say sociologists Landon Schnabel of Indiana University Bloomington and Sean Bock of Harvard University. But America is becoming as polarized religiously as it is politically, the researchers report online November 27 in Sociological Science.

Intense forms of religion, such as Christian evangelicalism, have maintained their popularity for nearly 30 years, Schnabel and Bock find after analyzing almost 30 years of U.S. survey data. At the same time, moderate forms of religion, such as mainline Protestantism, have consistently lost followers.
Religious moderates’ exodus from their churches stems partly from a growing link between religion and conservative politics, exemplified by the rise of the religious right in the late 1980s, the researchers suspect. Political liberals and moderates who already felt lukewarm toward the religion of their parents increasingly report identifying with no organized religion, especially if leaders of their childhood churches have taken conservative stances on social issues. Many Americans still report that they believe in God and pray, so they haven’t turned to atheism, the scientists say.

Population trends also favor intense forms of religion, Schnabel holds. Mainline Protestantism’s decline from 35 percent of the U.S. population in 1972 — about 73.5 million people — to 12 percent in 2016 — nearly 39 million people — reflects low fertility rates among these Protestants and limited numbers of new adherents from immigration and conversion. Opposite trends among U.S. evangelicals helped their form of intense Christianity surge from 18 percent of the population in 1972 to a steady level of about 28 percent from 1989 to 2016.

“More moderate forms of organized religion could become increasingly irrelevant in the United States,” Schnabel says.
The new findings play into an academic debate about the fate of religion in modern societies. Some scholars argue that in wealthy nations marked by scientific advances, religion inevitably withers. National surveys in 13 other Western, historically Christian nations show a general weakening of religious beliefs, even among intense believers, since 1991, the researchers find. But Schnabel and Bock are among those who view the United States as an exception where intense religion holds steady and even many of those leaving churches keep their faith.

The researchers examined data from nationally representative surveys on religion and other topics conducted from 1989 to 2016 by the General Social Survey, or GSS, a project of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. GSS surveys include approximately 1,500 people annually.

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The proportion of the U.S. population citing strong ties to any religion held steady at around 36 percent during the study period. But the share of adults identifying themselves as religiously unaffiliated rose from around 9 percent to around 20 percent of the population, the researchers report. In another sign of loosening religious ties, those who never attended religious services rose from around 14 percent to around 25 percent of the population. Occasional attendance dropped from about 80 percent to about 70 percent.

Still, those who rarely or never prayed remained at about 24 percent of the population from 1989 to 2016. People who prayed several times a day rose from around 24 percent to about 30 percent of the total.

A belief in the Bible as God’s literal word held steady at roughly one-third of Americans. A view of the Bible as inspired by a higher power but not literal fell slightly to just under half of the population. Those tagging the Bible as a book of fables rose from around 15 percent to around 22 percent.

The new findings underscore the growing polarization of U.S. religion, say Michael Hout of New York University and Claude Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley. In a 2014 report based on GSS data, the two sociologists found that most political liberals and some political moderates who weakly identified with their parents’ religion have increasingly said that they prefer no particular religion. That trend was most pronounced for those reporting that the church they grew up with had become an advocate of politically conservative positions. Many of those people expressed a qualified belief in God, endorsing neither atheism nor absolute certainty in a higher power’s existence. Political conservatives, including those who seldom attended services or had doubts about church doctrine, had no complaints about religious leaders’ conservative political pronouncements.

Members of the millennial generation born since 1990 report low levels of religious involvement regardless of their politics, Hout adds. Millennials are skeptical of institutions in general although most still believe in God, he says. “Millennials are more comfortable with do-it-yourself religion than none at all.”

Sociologists David Voas of University College London and Mark Chaves of Duke University disagree. Millennials are part of a larger U.S. trend in which each successive generation over nearly the last century has reported slightly less intensity of religious belief than the one before, Voas and Chaves reported in a 2016 analysis of GSS data. For instance, in 2014, only 45 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 30 had no doubts that God exists versus 68 percent of those age 65 or over.

“The proportion of intensely religious Americans is being eroded, albeit very slowly,” Voas contends.

The sun’s outer atmosphere is far more complex than previously thought

NEW ORLEANS — Despite its smooth appearance, the sun’s wispy outer atmosphere is surprisingly full of knots, whorls and blobs.

Newly analyzed observations from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft show that the sun’s outer corona is just as complicated as the highly structured inner corona, solar physicists reported December 12 at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. That previously unseen structure could help solve some of the sun’s biggest puzzles, including how the solar wind is born and why the corona is so much hotter than the solar surface.
The corona is made up of charged plasma, which roils in famous loops and fans that follow magnetic field lines emerging from the surface of the sun (SN Online: 8/17/17). At a certain distance from the sun, though, that plasma escapes the corona and streams through the solar system as the solar wind, a constant flow of charged particles that pummels the planets, including Earth (SN Online: 8/18/17).

But solar physicists don’t know where the plasma gets enough energy to accelerate away from the massive, magnetic sun. And they don’t understand why the corona, which sizzles at several million degrees Celsius, has such higher temperatures than the solar surface, which chills at a mere 5,500° C (SN Online: 8/20/17).

Both problems might be cleared up by better understanding an energetic process called reconnection, which happens when magnetic field lines merge when they get too close to each other. Reconnection releases energy and helps move plasma around, so the process could be important to heating the corona and driving solar wind.

But in the best observations until now, the outer corona appeared smooth and uniform. To explain that smoothness, field lines would have to keep their distance from each other without a lot of reconnection. What’s more, physicists couldn’t tell where the boundary between the corona and the solar wind began, which might help to find that missing energy source.
“That’s changed,” solar physicist Craig DeForest of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said at the AGU meeting. “Using STEREO, we’ve recently been able to drill in deeply enough to see the transition at the outer edge of the corona, where the dynamics change from what we might call coronal plasma to what we might call the young solar wind plasma.”

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DeForest and colleagues collected data for three days with STEREO in 2014 to gain more detail about small-scale changes in the outer corona than previously obtained. The researchers also processed the resulting images in a new way to bring those changes into focus.

Surprisingly, the team found that the outer corona is full of moving blobs and fine streams of plasma that vary in density by a factor of 10, suggesting that the magnetic field lines there are moving and merging more than scientists thought. “It turns out the apparent smoothness is a reflection of our instruments, not the corona itself,” DeForest says. “There’s almost certainly reconnection in the outer corona.”

The researchers also found that the corona probably fades into the solar wind between 14 million and 56 million kilometers away from the sun — about 10 to 40 times the sun’s diameter. That’s still a big range, but NASA’s Parker Solar Probe spacecraft, scheduled to launch in 2018, will fly right through that boundary. The probe will swoop within 6.4 million kilometers of the sun and take the first direct measurements of the corona — and perhaps figure out more precisely where the corona becomes the solar wind.

For now, the STEREO observations “are just tantalizing hints at an entire new set of phenomena,” DeForest says. Understanding the details of those processes “is going to require both careful analysis from Parker Solar Probe and also new, better imaging instruments.”

Solar physicist Steven Cranmer of the University of Colorado Boulder, who has made simulations of magnetic reconnection in the outer corona, finds the results exciting. Questions about the sun’s hot corona and the acceleration of the solar wind are still unsolved “not because of a lack of ideas, but because there are too many ideas,” he says. “I think we’re getting close to having the data that will let us rule out a good swath of these proposed ideas.”

These disease-fighting bacteria produce echoes detectable by ultrasound

Ultrasound can now track bacteria in the body like sonar detects submarines.

For the first time, researchers have genetically modified microbes to form gas-filled pouches that scatter sound waves to produce ultrasound signals. When these bacteria are placed inside an animal, an ultrasound detector can pick up those signals and reveal the microbes’ location, much like sonar waves bouncing off ships at sea, explains study coauthor Mikhail Shapiro, a chemical engineer at Caltech.

This technique, described in the Jan. 4 Nature, could help researchers more closely monitor microbes used to seek and destroy tumors or treat gut diseases (SN: 11/1/14, p. 18).
Repurposing ultrasound, a common tissue-imaging method, to map microbes creates “a tool that nobody thought was even conceivable,” says Olivier Couture, a medical biophysicist at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, who wasn’t involved in the work.

Until now, researchers have tracked disease-fighting bacteria in the body by genetically engineering them to glow green in ultraviolet images. But that light provides only blurry views of microbes in deeper tissue — if it can be seen at all. With ultrasound, “we can go centimeters deep and still see things with a spatial precision on the order of a hundred micrometers,” Shapiro says.

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Shapiro and his colleagues engineered a strain of E. coli used to treat gut infection to form gas compartments, and injected these bacteria into mice’s bellies. Unlike glowing bacteria — which could only be pinpointed to somewhere in a mouse’s abdomen — ultrasound images located the gas-filled microbes in the colon. The researchers also used their ultrasound technique in mice to image Salmonella bacteria, which could be used to deliver cancer-killing drugs to tumor cells.

Bacteria that produce ultrasound signals can also be designed to help diagnose illnesses, Shapiro says. For instance, a patient could swallow bacteria engineered to create gas pockets wherever the microbes sense inflammation. A doctor could then use ultrasound to search for inflamed tissue, rather than performing a more invasive procedure like a colonoscopy.

Tiny scales in ancient lagoon may be the first fossil evidence of the moth-butterfly line

Newly described little scaly bits could push back the fossil record of the moth-and-butterfly branch on the tree of life by some 70 million years. That raises the question of whether the drinking-straw mouthparts evolved long before the flower nectar many drink today.

The microscopic ridged scales date from roughly 200 million years ago, around the time of one of Earth’s less famous mass extinctions, says fossil-pollen specialist Bas van de Schootbrugge of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. During an unrelated study of ocean oxygen during this dire time, he and his colleagues pulled up cores of sediment in northern Germany near Braunschweig from what had once been a huge lagoon. In the sediment lay mere dots of insect scales.
Comparing the ridges and inner structure of the scales with those from modern insects suggests the fossils came from the evolutionary branch of insects that today gives us moths and butterflies with nectar-sipping mouthparts. No recognizable mouthparts appeared in the sediment. Yet the early existence of distinctive scales might mean this moth-butterfly drinking organ, a proboscis, evolved before the explosion of the classic flowering plants that offer nectar for pollination, van de Schootbrugge and colleagues propose January 10 in Science Advances.
The land already had plants: ferns, mosses and their relatives growing under trees that formed just-about naked seeds, without cushy protective ovaries and other floral coddling. Naked-seeded plants, many of them wind-pollinated such as pines and other conifers, thrive today. But the great evolutionary burst of true flowers—magnolias, roses, legumes, asters and the whole multicolored rainbow — that many moths and butterflies pollinate had yet to arise.These fossils date from a turbulent time when the great land mass called Pangea was cracking into continents. As the Triassic Period ended and the Jurassic dawned, volcanic eruptions on the straining land spewed greenhouse gases and toxins that changed the atmosphere and climate.
The previous record-holder for earliest moth-butterfly fossils came from about 130 million years ago, a bit after a major expansion of flowering plants. But when coauthor Timo van Eldijk, also at Utrecht, compared the newly found insect scales with those from silverfish, beetles and other scaly insects, modern scales of a big branch of the moth-butterfly lineage proved the best match.
In the times of the ancient scales, generally hot and dry conditions might have favored mouthparts specialized for drinking whatever liquids were to be found, the researchers propose.

Other work on how this proboscis evolved proposes that early moths started with chewing mouthparts and ate spores and pollen, says Harald W. Krenn of the University of Vienna. He and colleagues have proposed an intermediate phase of a short, tubelike structure good for slurping up droplets such as “honeydew” copiously excreted by sap-feeding aphids. A big question, though, is when early moths might have evolved such a drinking convenience.

The notion that the moth mouthparts arose before a big floral takeover sounds plausible to paleoecologist Conrad Labandeira of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Drinking-straw mouthparts had evolved in at least three other big insect groups (dipteran flies, lacewings and scorpionflies) somewhat before the full floral evolutionary extravaganza. Even some of the ancient naked-seeded plant groups, such as cycads, secrete nutritious droplets from reproductive structures that modern insects visit.

Interpreting the scales as a sign of an early moth proboscis is “possible,” says taxonomist Erik van Nieukerken of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, whose specialties include early moths. There are other possibilities, too, for imagining ancient moth mouthparts, he cautions. Saying definitely that the newfound scales reveal the dawn of the proboscis might be “a bit too quick.”

DNA solves the mystery of how these mummies were related

A pair of ancient Egyptian mummies, known for more than a century as the Two Brothers, were actually half brothers, a new study of their DNA finds.

These two, high-ranking men shared a mother, but had different fathers, say archaeogeneticist Konstantina Drosou of the University of Manchester in England and her colleagues. That muted family tie came to light thanks to the successful retrieval of two types of DNA from the mummies’ teeth, the scientists report in the February Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The finding highlights the importance ancient Egyptians placed on maternal lines of descent, Drosou’s group contends.
Questions have swirled about the biological backgrounds of the mummified men ever since they were found together in a tomb near the village of Rifeh in 1907. The tomb dates to ancient Egypt’s 12th Dynasty, between 1985 B.C. and 1773 B.C. Coffin inscriptions mention a female, Khnum-Aa, as the mother of both men. And both mummies are described as sons of an unnamed local governor. It has always been unclear if those inscriptions refer to the same man, but discoverers decided the mummies were full brothers, because the two were buried next to each other and had the same mother.

Over time, differences discovered in the men’s skull shapes and other skeletal features raised suspicions that the Two Brothers were not biologically related at all. And some researchers argued that the inscriptions indicating the men had the same mother were misleading.

Adding to those doubts, a 2014 paper reported differences between the two mummies’ mitochondrial DNA, suggesting one or both had no biological link to Khnum-Aa. Mitochondrial DNA typically gets inherited from the mother.

But that study extracted ancient DNA from liver and intestinal samples using a method susceptible to contamination with modern human and bacterial DNA, Drosou’s team argues. In the new work, researchers isolated and assembled short pieces of mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA from both mummies’ teeth using the latest methods. The Y chromosome determines male sex and gets passed from father to son. This approach minimizes potential contamination from modern sources (SN Online: 5/31/17).
That new DNA evidence “proves the hieroglyphic text [on the mummies’ coffins] to be accurate,” at least in saying the mummified men had the same mother, says Egyptologist and study coauthor Campbell Price, curator of the Egypt and Sudan collections at the Manchester Museum in England.

Unlike the deference given to Khnum-Aa as a named parent of both interred individuals, he says, the coffin inscriptions must refer to different fathers who were considered peripheral family members and thus left unnamed. “Power may have been transferred down the female line rather than simply by a son inheriting [high rank] from his father,” Price suggests. Khnum-Aa’s background, social standing and genetic makeup, however, remain a mystery.

Genetic evidence that two half brothers were buried in the same tomb and placed in coffins that name only their mother makes sense, says Egyptologist Joann Fletcher at the University of York in England. Many written sources from ancient Egypt show precedence to the maternal line, “from the official lists of Egypt’s early kings whose names are accompanied by those of their mothers to nonroyal individuals, who likewise cite only their mother’s name,” Fletcher explains.

Dates of death on the mummies’ linen wrappings suggest that Khnum-Nakht died first, at around age 40, Price says. A few months later, Nakht-Ankh died at about age 60. The causes of their deaths are unknown.