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A round-up of the latest science and news from Australasia.

Komodo Dragon Myth Slain

By Stephen Luntz

One of the best-known stories about Komodo dragons has been proven false, yet it has been surprisingly hard to gain acceptance for the new evidence.

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By Stephen Luntz

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The Origins of Vanuatu and Tonga’s First People

The origins of Vanuatu and Tonga’s first inhabitants has been revealed by the first major study of ancient DNA from the Pacific Islands.

The study, published in Nature (http://tinyurl.com/j79pr7t), found that Vanuatu’s first people arrived 3000 years ago from Taiwan and the northern Philippines, and not from the neighbouring Australo-Papuan populations of Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands that had been in the region for between 40,000 and 50,000 years.

Oldest Fossils Prove that Life Thrived on Young Earth

Australian researchers have uncovered the world’s oldest fossils in a remote area of Greenland, capturing the earliest history of the planet and demonstrating that life on Earth emerged rapidly in the planet’s early years.

Led by Prof Allen Nutman of The University of Wollongong, the team discovered 3.7-billion-year-old stromatolite fossils in the world’s oldest sedimentary rocks in the Isua Greenstone Belt along the edge of Greenland’s icecap.

Breakthrough In Predicting Premature Birth

A blood test developed by a team of scientists, including researchers from The University of Western Australia, can identify women who are at risk of having a premature birth but are not displaying symptoms, as early as 18 weeks as into their pregnancy. The breakthrough builds on previous work by the researchers who developed a similar test for women who presented to hospital with early contractions.

The test is the most accurate one to date and provides the earliest detection of premature birth, with a 86 per cent accuracy in determining mothers at risk of early delivery.

Fitness bands undervalue your effort

Popular wrist-worn fitness monitors underestimate energy expenditure with variances of more than 40 per cent, University of Queensland researchers have found.

Supervised by Professor Jeff Coombes of UQ’s School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences, PhD student Matthew Wallen and collaborators tested four common devices.

“We determined the accuracy of the Apple Watch, Fitbit Charge HR, Samsung Gear S and Mio Alpha,” Mr Wallen said.

“None of the devices proved to be consistently more accurate overall and the percentage error for energy expenditure was between nine and 43 per cent.

The world’s oldest farmers

An international team of researchers has discovered the oldest fossil evidence of agriculture, not by humans, but by insects.

The team, led by James Cook University’s Associate Professor Eric Roberts, discovered the oldest known example of fungus gardens within fossil termite nests from the Great Rift Valley of Africa in 25 million year old sediments.

Fungus farming termite colonies cultivate fungi in gardens in subterranean nests or chambers, helping to convert plant material into a more easily digestible food source for the termites.

Fish out of water are more common than thought

Fish have evolved the ability to live on land many times, challenging the perception that this extreme lifestyle shift was likely to have been a rare occurrence in ancient times, new UNSW Australia research shows.

“A fish out of water might seem an extraordinary thing, but in fact it is quite a common phenomenon,” says study first author and UNSW evolutionary ecologist Dr Terry Ord. “Amphibious behaviour has evolved repeatedly in a wide diversity of present day fish, and the move onto land does not appear to be as difficult as has been presumed.”

Parkes Telescope Detects Key Feature of Life Outside Solar System

Research with CSIRO's Parkes telescope has discovered the first molecule in space that has a key attribute associated with life - 'handedness' or chirality.

The breakthrough is expected to help scientists solve one of the greatest mysteries in biology – the origin of homochirality - and offer insights into what we can expect from life throughout the universe.

The finding is being announced at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society today and will appear in the journal Science.

Like your two hands, many molecules can exist in forms that are mirror images of each other.

Solar cell efficiency milestone achieved

A new solar cell configuration developed by engineers at the University of New South Wales has pushed sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency to 34.5% – establishing a new world record for unfocussed sunlight and nudging closer to the theoretical limits for such a device.