Weekly roundup

(Left to right): Etienne Fabre/SSAC; Tau Zero/Flickr (CC BY 2.0); S. Portelli

Top stories: Mysterious Neandertal cave rings, booming squid populations, and a congressman’s push for Alpha Centauri

Mysterious underground rings built by Neandertals

Deep within a French cave where no light penetrates are two curious structures: large rings of stalagmites, some broken and arranged like the rails of old-fashioned wooden fences. When discovered in the early 1990s, scientists didn’t know what to make of the formations, which appeared to be fire-scorched in places. Now, they may have an answer: The rings were built by Neandertals, who learned to explore caves extensively and engaged in complex building behaviors like arranging stones more than 175,000 years ago, much earlier than thought.

Billionaire technologist accuses NASA asteroid mission of bad statistics

Nathan Myhrvold—ex–Microsoft billionaire, patent accumulator, dinosaur geek, and noted molecular gastronomist—has a new obsession: asteroids. The CEO of Bellevue, Washington–based Intellectual Ventures says that scientists using a prominent NASA space telescope have made fundamental mistakes in their assessment of the size of more than 157,000 asteroids they have observed.

World octopus and squid populations are booming

Wherever humans have changed the environment, there are winners and losers. Cities around the world shelter pigeons, naturally adapted to life on rock ledges. Farms allow weedy plants to thrive between their fields. Oceans—plagued by rising temperatures, depleted fish populations, and acidifying waters brought on by human activity—are no exception. New research shows that these changes to marine environments are leading to a surge of cephalopods, the invertebrate group that includes octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish.

U.S. lawmaker orders NASA to plan for trip to Alpha Centauri by 100th anniversary of moon landing

It seems that the recently announced Breakthrough Starshot project—to send a privately funded fleet of tiny spacecraft to a nearby star—may have started a star rush. This week a senior U.S. lawmaker who helps write NASA’s budget called on the agency to begin developing its own interstellar probes, with the aim of launching a mission to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system, in 2069—the centenary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Study spots evolution in action in Florida bird

Scientists have taken one of their closest looks at evolution in action in a wild animal. In a study presented at a meeting last week, researchers reported some intriguing insights into the changing DNA of a dozen generations of the Florida scrub jay. The work, made possible by powerful advances in genetic sequencing and a 45-year data set, has revealed how the jay’s environment has favored small changes within the genome. The findings may help conserve this and other endangered species in the future.