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Ahira's Hangar • View topic - News from the laboratory....

News from the laboratory....

Science and Technology

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Re: news from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Mon Dec 11, 2006 5:01 am

Researchers batty over winged mammal's long tongue
POSTED: 4:13 p.m. EST, December 7, 2006

LONDON, England (Reuters) -- Bats use the earth's magnetic field to navigate and one species has a huge tongue that is longer than its entire body, researchers said on Wednesday.

In two separate studies published in the journal Nature, scientists in the United States have revealed unusual characteristics of the winged mammal.

Richard Holland of Princeton University in New Jersey showed the homing devices of big brown bats can be altered by artificially shifting the Earth's magnetic field, indicating the animals depend on a magnetic compass to travel.

"This finding adds to the impressive array of sensory abilities possessed by this animal for navigation in the dark," Holland and his team said in the Nature study.

By rotating the magnetic field by 90 degrees clockwise and counter-clockwise in relation to magnetic north and tracking the bats' attempts to fly home, the scientists found they flew in the wrong direction compared to other bats not exposed to the changes, who flew directly home.

In another study Nathan Muchhala, of the University of Miami, Coral Gables, taught the nectar bat Anoura fistulata to drink from a modified straw to measure its 3.4 inch tongue, which is 1.5 times longer than its body.

The bat, which stows its lengthy tongue in its rib cage, pollinates a plant with tubes of the same length.

Muchhala suggests the extreme length of the bat's tongue co-evolved with the long flowers of the plant.

Copyright 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Re: news from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Wed Dec 13, 2006 7:11 pm

China's white dolphin called extinct after 20 million years
POSTED: 9:59 a.m. EST, December 13, 2006
Story Highlights
• Baiji, or white dolphin, survived 20 million years as species
• 30 scientists searched 1,000 miles of Yangtze River for six weeks
• Last full search in 1997 had 13 sightings
• Yangtze finless porpoise also threatened; fewer than 400 left


BEIJING, China (AP) -- An expedition searching for a rare Yangtze River dolphin ended Wednesday without a single sighting and with the team's leader saying one of the world's oldest species was effectively extinct.

The white dolphin known as baiji, shy and nearly blind, dates back some 20 million years. Its disappearance is believed to be the first time in a half-century, since hunting killed off the Caribbean monk seal, that a large aquatic mammal has been driven to extinction.

A few baiji may still exist in their native Yangtze habitat in eastern China but not in sufficient numbers to breed and ward off extinction, said August Pfluger, the Swiss co-leader of the joint Chinese-foreign expedition.

"We have to accept the fact, that the Baiji is functionally extinct. We lost the race," Pfluger said in a statement released by the expedition. "It is a tragedy, a loss not only for China, but for the entire world. We are all incredibly sad."

Overfishing and shipping traffic, whose engines interfere with the sonar the baiji uses to navigate and feed, are likely the main reasons for the mammal's decline, Pfluger said. Though the Yangtze is polluted, water samples taken by the expedition every 30 miles did not show high concentrations of toxic substances, the statement said.

For nearly six weeks, Pfluger's team of 30 scientists scoured a 1,000-mile heavily trafficked stretch of the Yangtze, where the baiji once thrived. The expedition's two boats, equipped with high-tech binoculars and underwater microphones, trailed each other an hour apart without radio contact so that a sighting by one vessel would not prejudice the other.

Around 400 baiji were believed to be living in the Yangtze in the 1980s. The last full-fledged search, in 1997, yielded 13 confirmed sightings, and a fisherman claimed to have seen a baiji in 2004, Pfluger said in an earlier interview.

At least 20 to 25 baiji would now be needed to give the species a chance to survive, the group's statement said, citing Wang Ding, a hydrobiologist and China's foremost campaigner for the baiji.

Pfluger, an economist by training who later went to work for an environmental group, was a member of the 1997 expedition and recalls the excitement of seeing a baiji cavorting in the waters near Dongting Lake.

"It marked me," he said in an interview Monday. He went on to set up the baiji.org Foundation to save the dolphin.

That goal having evaporated, Pfluger said his foundation would turn to teaching sustainable fishing practices and trying to save other freshwater dolphins. The expedition also surveyed one of those dwindling species, the Yangtze finless porpoise, finding less than 400 of them.

"The situation of the finless porpoise is just like that of the baiji 20 years ago," Wang, the Chinese scientist, said in the statement. "Their numbers are declining at an alarming rate. If we do not act soon they will become a second baiji."

Pfluger and an occasional online diary kept by expedition members traced a dispiriting situation, as day after day team members engaged in a fruitless search for the baiji.

"At first the atmosphere was 'Let's go. Let's go save this damn species,"' Pfluger said. "As the weeks went on we got more desperate and had to motivate each other."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Re: news from the lab

Postby danlo60 » Thu Dec 14, 2006 6:03 pm

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news from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Tue Jan 02, 2007 2:13 am

Universe's first objects possibly seen
POSTED: 1:34 p.m. EST, December 19, 2006
By Robert Roy Britt
SPACE.com

(SPACE.com) -- Astronomers might have seen the very first stars in the universe. If so, these are incredible stars, some 1,000 times as massive as the sun.

The alternative is just as interesting: The objects might be early black holes consuming gas voraciously and spitting out radiation like crazy as nascent galaxies form.

The observations, by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, were first reported on a preliminary basis in November 2005 in the journal Nature. A new analysis was announced Monday.

"We are pushing our telescopes to the limit and are tantalizingly close to getting a clear picture of the very first collections of objects," said Alexander Kashlinsky of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author on two reports to be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. "Whatever these objects are, they are intrinsically incredibly bright and very different from anything in existence today."

The light comes from objects that are more than 13 billion light-years away. That means the light began its journey more than 13 billion years ago. The universe is just a smidgeon older, at 13.7 billion years, and astronomers are pretty sure it took a few hundred million years for the matter of the Big Bang to spread out enough, and cool, to allow the first stars to form.

A little math therefore shows that these newfound objects are indeed the infants of the universe. But what are they? If they are stars, they are about 10 times more massive than theories suggest the first stars would have been.

The mysterious objects are in clusters. If they are each stars, then the clusters might be the first mini-galaxies. And if so, each apparently has a mass that's less than a million suns. Our Milky Way, by contrast, holds the mass of about 100 billion suns and is thought to have been built up by mergers of smaller galaxies -- perhaps like those the astronomers now think they might be seeing.

When light travels to us from near the beginning of the universe, it is stretched. Other observations of the universe's first light have been made in the microwave range. This cosmic microwave background reveals patterns of matter clumping, but no specific objects.

The light measured in the new study is thought to have started as ultraviolet and optical light, and it has been stretched over time to infrared. Kashlinsky's team calls it the cosmic infrared background and describes it as a diffuse light from the early time when structure first emerged.

"There's ongoing debate about what the first objects were and how galaxies formed," said Harvey Moseley of Goddard, a co-author on the new papers.

Some think our galaxy and other large galaxies grew through mergers. One recent study questioned that notion, however.

"We are on the right track to figuring this out," Moseley said. "We've now reached the hilltop and are looking down on the village below, trying to make sense of what's going on."

The problem in making sense of it all lies with the fact that the observations are not clear-cut. The scientists had to remove light from foreground stars and galaxies, and then study fluctuations in what is a relatively diffuse light.

"Imagine trying to see fireworks at night from across a crowded city," Kashlinsky suggested. "If you could turn off the city lights, you might get a glimpse at the fireworks. We have shut down the lights of the universe to see the outlines of its first fireworks."

The researchers expect NASA's planned James Webb Space Telescope will be able to identify the nature of the newfound clusters.



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Re: news from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Tue Jan 02, 2007 2:14 am

Ancient ice shelf breaks free from Canadian Arctic
POSTED: 11:31 a.m. EST, December 29, 2006
Story Highlights
• Scientist: "Disturbing event" shows "we are crossing climate thresholds"
• Researchers using satellite images discovered 2005 event
• Collapse picked up by earthquake monitors 155 miles away

TORONTO, Ontario (AP) -- A giant ice shelf the size of 11,000 football fields has snapped free from Canada's Arctic, scientists said.

The mass of ice broke clear 16 months ago from the coast of Ellesmere Island, about 800 kilometers (497 miles) south of the North Pole, but no one was present to see it in Canada's remote north.

Scientists using satellite images later noticed that it became a newly formed ice island in just an hour and left a trail of icy boulders floating in its wake. (Watch the satellite images that clued in ice watchers)

Warwick Vincent of Laval University, who studies Arctic conditions, traveled to the newly formed ice island and could not believe what he saw.

"This is a dramatic and disturbing event. It shows that we are losing remarkable features of the Canadian North that have been in place for many thousands of years. We are crossing climate thresholds, and these may signal the onset of accelerated change ahead," Vincent said Thursday.

In 10 years of working in the region he has never seen such a dramatic loss of sea ice, he said.

The collapse was so powerful that earthquake monitors 250 kilometers (155 miles) away picked up tremors from it.

The Ayles Ice Shelf, roughly 66 square kilometers (41 square miles) in area, was one of six major ice shelves remaining in Canada's Arctic.

Scientists say it is the largest event of its kind in Canada in 30 years and point their fingers at climate change as a major contributing factor.

"It is consistent with climate change," Vincent said, adding that the remaining ice shelves are 90 percent smaller than when they were first discovered in 1906.

"We aren't able to connect all of the dots ... but unusually warm temperatures definitely played a major role."

Laurie Weir, who monitors ice conditions for the Canadian Ice Service, was poring over satellite images in 2005 when she noticed that the shelf had split and separated.

Weir notified Luke Copland, head of the new global ice lab at the University of Ottawa, who initiated an effort to find out what happened.

Using U.S. and Canadian satellite images, as well as data from seismic monitors, Copland discovered that the ice shelf collapsed in the early afternoon of August 13, 2005.

"What surprised us was how quickly it happened," Copland said. "It's pretty alarming.

"Even 10 years ago scientists assumed that when global warming changes occur that it would happen gradually so that perhaps we expected these ice shelves just to melt away quite slowly, but the big surprise is that for one they are going, but secondly that when they do go, they just go suddenly, it's all at once, in a span of an hour."

Within days, the floating ice shelf had drifted a few miles (kilometers) offshore. It traveled west for 50 kilometers (31 miles) until it finally froze into the sea ice in the early winter.

The Canadian ice shelves are packed with ancient ice that dates back over 3,000 years. They float on the sea but are connected to land.

Derek Mueller, a polar researcher with Vincent's team, said the ice shelves get weaker and weaker as the temperature rises. He visited Ellesmere's Ward Hunt Ice Shelf in 2002 and noticed it had cracked in half.

"We're losing our ice shelves, and this a feature of the landscape that is in danger of disappearing altogether from Canada," Mueller said. "In the global perspective Antarctica has many ice shelves bigger than this one, but then there is the idea that these are indicators of climate change."

The spring thaw may bring another concern as the warming temperatures could release the ice shelf from its Arctic grip. Prevailing winds could then send the ice island southwards, deep into the Beaufort Sea.

"Over the next few years this ice island could drift into populated shipping routes," Weir said. "There's significant oil and gas development in this region as well, so we'll have to keep monitoring its location over the next few years."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Re: news from the lab

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Tue Jan 02, 2007 2:15 am

Wah, wow, hoo! Tree apes sing warning songs
POSTED: 2:48 p.m. EST, December 27, 2006
Story Highlights
• White-handed gibbons communicate threats from predators by singing
• Indicator that non-human primates are able to use combinations of calls
• Gibbons known for their elaborate hooting sounds that echo across the forest

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) -- Turns out humans aren't the only primates using songs to warn of life's dangers and travails.

White-handed gibbons in Thailand's forests have been found to communicate threats from predators by singing -- the first time the behavior has been discovered among non-human primates, researchers said Wednesday.

While other animals have been shown to use song to attract mates or signal danger, researchers writing in this month's science journal PLoS One said their study was the first to show gibbons -- a slender, tree-dwelling ape -- issuing song-like warnings to each other.

"This work is a really good indicator that non-human primates are able to use combinations of calls ... to relay new and, in this case, potentially lifesaving information to one another," said Esther Clarke, a University of St. Andrews graduate student and co-author of the study.

"This type of referential communication's commonplace in human language, but has yet to be widely demonstrated in some of our closest living relatives -- the apes," she said.

Along with Klaus Zuberbuhler from St. Andrews in Scotland and Ulrich Reichard of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Clarke spent 2004 and 2005 at Khao Yai National Park in Thailand observing groups of gibbons.

Mostly black with a white face, gibbons live in the treetops and are known for issuing elaborate hooting sounds that echo across the forest for up to a half mile to advertise pair bonds or attract mates.

To test the primates response to danger, the team conducted a series of experiments in which they put models of predators -- snow leopards, pythons and crested serpent eagles -- near a group of gibbons and then made audio recordings of their response.

What they found, Clarke said, is that the gibbons approached the potential predator and began warbling a series of sounds -- "wahs, wows and hoos" -- that were picked up by other gibbons, who then repeated the calls to others.

The sounds made when encountering a predator were more chaotic and louder than those used to win over a mate, Clarke said. "Gibbons can rearrange their songs to denote different circumstances, much like we do with words," she said.

Thad Q. Bartlett, a gibbon expert at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the findings were interesting and significant.

"From a cognitive standpoint, the claim that gibbon calls are digital is interesting because this is one of the hallmarks of human language, that is, the ability to rearrange discrete elements to create new meanings," he said in an e-mail.

Bartlett also said the findings provide further insight into the behavior of gibbons, contradicting earlier suggestions that their small social network -- a male, female and their offspring -- was largely a result of the apes facing few threats.

"Because large group size is often seen as a response to predator pressure, researchers have long assumed that gibbons are largely immune from predators," he said.

"To my mind, this research further demonstrates the importance of predator pressure to the evolution of gibbon social systems."

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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Wed Mar 28, 2007 12:30 am

Malaria-resistant mosquito developed
POSTED: 11:44 a.m. EDT, March 21, 2007
Story Highlights
• Researchers genetically engineer a mosquito resistant to malaria
• Research may someday block the spread of the illness
• An estimated 700,000 to 2.7 million people die of malaria each year

Adjust font size:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Researchers have developed a malaria-resistant mosquito, a step that might one day help block the spread of an illness that has claimed millions of lives around the world.

When they fed on malaria-infected mice, the resistant mosquitoes had a higher survival rate than nonresistant ones, meaning they could eventually replace the ones that can carry the disease, according to a report in Tuesday's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Jason Rasgon of the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University cautioned that the research so far is only a proof of principle and any field tests remain far away.

Nonetheless, it's a goal eagerly sought by scientists in hope of developing a practical way of blocking the spread of malaria.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 700,000 to 2.7 million people die of malaria each year, 75 percent of them African children.

Working with the mouse form of malaria -- not the human type -- Rasgon's team was able to genetically engineer mosquitoes that were resistant to malaria.

Malaria infection does exact a toll on mosquitoes and in laboratory work they found that the resistant insects were able to outcompete nonresistant mosquitoes.

Starting with the same number of resistant and nonresistant mosquitoes, they found that after nine generations the resistant type made up 70 percent of the population -- raising the possibility of replacing regular mosquitoes with resistant ones that don't spread disease.

However, Rasgon stressed that in the lab work the insects were infected with a higher amount of the parasite than occurs in nature, and a larger proportion of the mosquitoes were infected.

"This was proof of principle," Rasgon said in a telephone interview. "The next step would be to work in a system more epidemiologically relevant" but still in the lab.

"We're not anywhere near a field release," he said. Now they need to turn their attention to working with human malaria and trying to engineer a mosquito resistant to that.

William C. Black IV, a professor of entomology at Colorado State University, noted that the work was done with Plasmodium berghei, which infects mice, rather than P. falciparum, which causes malaria in humans.

P. berghei is often used in laboratory work because it is easy to manipulate, but a lot of its properties are specific to that parasite and it is not always a good model for the human form, he said.

"On the other hand, finding a gene that confers resistance and is stable for a long period of time is significant," said Black, who was not part of the research team.

If they can repeat the work using the human parasite then there is a chance of taking it into the field, he said.

Dr. Woodbridge A. Foster, an entomologist at Ohio State University who was not part of the research team, said that while several labs have been trying to develop a resistant mosquito, he was not aware of any that had been developed that were both healthy and inhospitable to the malaria parasite.

Rasgon's research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Wed Mar 28, 2007 12:32 am

Pungent pulp: Panda poop perfect for paper
POSTED: 10:16 p.m. EDT, March 26, 2007
Story Highlights
• Researchers saw Thai project where elephants dung turned into paper
• 40 pandas at Chinese reserve produce 2 tons of poop a day
• "People won't find it gross at all," researcher says
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BEIJING, China (AP) -- There's a new Chinese saying: When life hands you panda poop, make paper.

Researchers at a giant panda reserve in southern China are looking for paper mills to process their surplus of fiber-rich panda excrement into high quality paper.

Liao Jun, a researcher at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Base in Sichuan province, said the idea came to them after a visit to Thailand last year where they found paper made from elephant dung. They thought panda poop would produce an even finer quality paper, he said.

The base is in talks with several paper mills on how to turn the droppings of Jing Jing, Ke Bi, Ya Ya and dozens of other pandas at the base into reams of office paper and rolls of wrapping paper, Liao said.

They hope to have a product line available by next year, he said.

"We are not interested in doing this for the profits but to recycle the waste," said Liao. "It's environmentally friendly. We can use the paper ourselves, and also we can sell whatever is left over."

The center's 40 bamboo-fed pandas produce about 2 tons of droppings a day, but Liao said he was not sure yet how much paper would result.

What about squeamish customers who might consider the paper unsanitary?

"People won't find it gross at all," Liao said. "They probably won't even be able to tell it's from panda poop."

The Chiang Mai Zoo in northern Thailand already sells multicolored paper made from the excrement produced by its two resident pandas. Making paper there involves a daylong process of cleaning the feces, boiling it in a soda solution, bleaching it with chlorine and drying it under the sun.

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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Wed Mar 28, 2007 12:33 am

Nuthatches understand a foreign language -- chickadee
POSTED: 11:51 a.m. EDT, March 20, 2007
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Nuthatches appear to have learned to understand a foreign language -- chickadee.

It is not unusual for one animal to react to the alarm call of another, but nuthatches seem to go beyond that -- interpreting the type of alarm and what sort of predator poses a threat.

When a chickadee sees a predator, it issues warning call -- a soft "seet" for a flying hawk, owl or falcon, or a loud "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" for a perched predator.

The "chick-a-dee" call can have 10 to 15 "dees" at the end and varies in sound to encode information on the type of predator. It also calls in other small birds to mob the predator, Christopher Templeton of the University of Washington said in a telephone interview.

"In this case the nuthatch is able to discriminate the information in this call," said Templeton, a doctoral candidate.

The findings by Templeton and Erick Green, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Montana, are reported in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Templeton had been studying chickadees and noticed their varying response to different alarm calls so he recorded them and watched the responses.

He found the songbirds warned of greater danger from small, agile raptors such as the pygmy owl rather than something larger and less maneuverable, like the great horned owl.

Since chickadees and nuthatches live in many of the same areas and are similar in size, he decided to see how the nuthatches reacted to chickadee warnings.

He placed speakers at the base of trees where nuthatches were present, but where there were no live chickadees, so their actions wouldn't tip off the nuthatches.

When the recorded warning calls were played, he reports, the nuthatches reacted appropriately.

The nuthatches formed into mobs, flicking their wings and swirling around the speakers when the warning was for small predators than for larger ones.

Mobbing is a defensive behavior, Templeton said, when large groups of small birds pester a predator.

"They're not enough to kill you or hurt you, but they are enough to make you want to go and sit somewhere else," he said.

"Mobbing seems to be a way of teaching birds which predators are dangerous. But we have no idea how nuthatches learn to interpret the chickadee calls," he said.

But, he added, it appears to be learned behavior because the mobbing calls of the two songbird species are very different.

So, does it work the other way? Do chickadees understand the warning calls of nuthatches?

"It wouldn't surprise me, but no one's looked to see if nuthatches have a similar amount of information in their call. Perhaps that's a project I should do," he said.

Charles Eldermire of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology called the finding "another interesting example of interspecific communication brought to light."

However, he said, "There is no way to tell if they are responding to 'encoded' information, or simply to intensity of the call."

"My main criticism hinges on the fact that they tested two categories of very different sounding calls, one of which averages twice the number of D notes than the other," he said.

"In many ways, I would consider these two calls as distinct, and that, it would seem, might be where the argument of importance gets a little murky," said Eldermire, who was not part of the research team.

Andre Dhondt, a professor of ornithology at Cornell, noted that "birds in general respond to each other's alarm calls."

Also, said Dhondt, who was not part of Templeton's research team, black-capped chickadees have been known to produce false alarm calls, causing other birds to fly away, leaving the cheating chickadees to enjoy a food source by itself.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Tue Apr 10, 2007 10:31 pm

Rescue plan for Tasmanian devils stirs contention
POSTED: 1:06 a.m. EDT, April 10, 2007
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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- Scientists are planning to move Tasmanian devils -- the Australian marsupial made famous as a snarling, whirlwind character in Warner Bros. cartoons -- to an island sanctuary to avert the animals' threatened extinction from a mysterious cancer.

But some scientists fear that in their haste to save the species, authorities could wreak further environmental damage and risk the survival of other endangered animals by introducing the devils into a habitat unaccustomed to them.

The devils -- fox-sized animals with powerful jaws and a bloodcurdling growl made famous by their Looney Toons namesake, Taz -- are being wiped out on the island state of Tasmania by a contagious cancer that creates grotesque facial tumors.

The disease was first noticed in the mid-1990s in the state's northeast, where 90 percent of the devils have since perished. It is relentlessly spreading south and west.

Scientists estimate that within five years, there will be no disease-free population in Tasmania -- the only place in the world where the devils exist outside zoos.

"I think there's a real risk of extinction within 20 years across the whole of Tasmania," said Hamish McCallum, a professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania.

McCallum is among a group of experts who plan to transfer 30 devils off Tasmania's east coast to Maria Island -- a former 19th century prison that is now home to several endangered species of birds.

The move, which state and federal governments are expected to approve within weeks, is controversial because scientists can only guess at the impact the introduced carnivores will have on the uninhabited island's ecology.

"This is a very unusual situation and very unusual situations require unusual action," McCallum said.

"I don't want to get into an argument about whether a devil is worth more than a forty-spotted pardalote," he said, referring to an endangered bird species that has made the island its home. "But in my opinion, the risk posed to endangered species by devils would be minimal."

David Obendorf, a veterinary pathologist who in 2000 sounded one of the first warnings of the threat to the devils, said several experts shared his concerns about the Maria Island plan.

"It's clearly an experiment and I think they are considering the need to act decisively and quickly because this disease is more important than the consequences," Obendorf said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Tue Apr 10, 2007 10:34 pm

Condor egg could herald return of giant
POSTED: 11:01 a.m. EDT, April 3, 2007
Story Highlights

• California condor egg found in Sierra San Pedro de Martir National Park
• Mexico hasn't had a breeding population of condors for about 75 years
• The California condor is the largest bird in North America
• Captive-breeding program working to restore condor populations

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SAN DIEGO, California (AP) -- An egg found in an abandoned eagle nest could herald the return of the California condor to Mexico, which hasn't had a breeding population of the iconic giant of the skies for about 75 years.

"This is a momentous occasion," Dr. Mike Wallace of the Zoological Society of San Diego said Monday. "We're all excited."

The California condor, once on the brink of extinction, is the largest bird in North America with a wingspan of almost 10 feet.

Wallace and colleagues found the egg March 25 on a cliff in the Sierra San Pedro de Martir National Park, located in the arid interior of the Baja California peninsula more than 100 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Wallace climbed to the nest and took photographs and measurements of the egg, shining a bright light through the shell to determine that the egg was 45 to 50 days old. Condor eggs incubate for 57 days, meaning the chick could hatch any day. There was also a chance the egg was dead, but Wallace said he did not smell any sulfur and the parent condors were still tending to it.

"We are all sitting on pins and needles waiting to see where the situation is going," said Wallace, who works for the zoological society's center for Conservation and Research for Endangered Species. The society also runs the San Diego Zoo and its wild animal park.

The California condor was once widespread, swooping above the western United States, parts of Canada and Baja California.

A type of vulture, the condor scavenges dead fish and animals. As coastal population of seals and otters declined, so too did the bird. The use of poison to kill California's grizzly bears in the 1800s also devastated their numbers and lead shot remains a potential source of poison. Hunting, egg collecting and power cables were also blamed for hurting the creature's numbers.

Only 22 California condors were left by the 1980s, and the last documented sighting in Mexico was in the 1930s, Wallace said.

Thanks to a captive-breeding program, numbers recovered to a worldwide total of about 280. More than 100 of these fly free in the skies above parts of California, Nevada and Utah. Working with the Mexican government, biologists reintroduced captive-bred birds to Mexico in 2002.

Condors don't reproduce until they are several years old, Wallace said. The 7-year-old female that laid the egg in Mexico, known as Condor 217, was born at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Another species of condor, found in the Andes, is also threatened with extinction, but its numbers are in the thousands, Wallace said.

Several organizations have been working together to boost condor numbers under the Condor Recovery Program, which was founded in 1982 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Among them are several Mexican groups, the Los Angeles Zoo, Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey and Oregon Zoo.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Fri Apr 13, 2007 4:39 am

Our lives are the songs that sing the universe into existence.~David Zindell

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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Fri Apr 13, 2007 4:42 am

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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Tue May 29, 2007 9:51 pm

Planet-hunters find bonanza of new solar systems
POSTED: 12:56 p.m. EDT, May 29, 2007
Story Highlights
• 28 new planets found outside our solar system in the past year
• Scientists: There could be billions of habitable planets out there
• Four of the solar systems have multiple planets
• "Our home is not a rarity in the universe" says astronomer Geoffrey Marcy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Planet-seekers who have spotted 28 new planets orbiting other stars in the past year say Earth's solar system is far from unique and there could be billions of habitable planets.

The most recent planet discoveries bring the number of known exoplanets -- planets outside our solar system -- to 236, the researchers told a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu Monday.

"We are beginning to see that our home is not a rarity in the universe," said Geoffrey Marcy, a professor of astronomy at the University of California Berkeley, who led the team.

"We are easily able to detect giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn around other stars. Most orbit far from the star like our own Jupiter and Saturn orbit from the sun," Marcy said in a telephone interview.

"It's a common structure among planetary systems."

New techniques allow astronomers to detect planets that are not enormous although Earth-sized objects cannot yet be seen, said the researchers.

Four of the systems also have multiple planets, like Earth's own with its sun, eight planets (Pluto was demoted from planet status) and smaller orbiting objects.

"We are finding that most stars have not just one planet but when we find one there is a second or a third or a fourth," Marcy said.

"The ... attribute which really has us the most excited is this new planet which we found three years ago," Marcy said. The Neptune-like planet orbiting the star Gliese 436 has intrigued scientists because it appears to be covered with water -- albeit rock-hard, hot water in a most un-Earthlike chemical state because of the intense pressures on the planet.

Earlier this month, Swiss and Belgian researchers imaged the star as this planet crossed between it and the Earth. The tiny change in the star's light gave them the planet's diameter and density.

"From the density of two grams per cubic centimeter -- twice that of water -- it must be 50 percent rock and about 50 percent water, with perhaps small amounts of hydrogen and helium," Marcy said.

"Now we are very sure it has a rocky core and this giant thick envelope of water," he added.

"This is why we are jumping out of our clothes. It is the first time we have determined the structure of one of these extrasolar planets. It is rocky like Earth but it has a lot of water which is the essential ingredient for life."

This is almost certainly happening over and over again, Marcy said. Scientists had theorized this for decades but now the hard evidence is starting to pour in.

"Our Milky Way galaxy has 200 billion stars. I would estimate that 10 percent of them, perhaps, have planets that are habitable," Marcy said.

"There are hundreds of billions of galaxies, all of which are more or less like our Milky Way Galaxy, which is tens of billions of planets like our own."

There is one unusual property to our solar system: the nearly circular orbits of the planets, which gives a consistent dose of radiation from the Sun.

Other solar systems seen so far are not usually like this. "Most of the planets are not in circular orbits around the host star but in elongated ones called elliptical orbits," Marcy said.

"We enjoy nearly constant temperatures throughout the year," he added. "If the Earth got too close to the sun, the Earth would heat up, the water would boil off and that would be bad." Too far, and it would freeze.

"An elongated orbit could not sustain life," Marcy said.

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
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Postby Duchess of Malfi » Tue Oct 02, 2007 11:44 pm

Hair may solve mammoth mysteryStory Highlights
Scientists: Mammoth hair is an excellent source of DNA

Sequencing the hair may provide clues as to why the mammoth died out

Several of the hair samples investigated were up to 50,000 years old

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Attacking several tons of woolly mammoth with stone-tipped spears must have taken extraordinary courage -- and ancient people left paintings to prove they did it.


Mammoth hair seems to be an excellent source of well-preserved DNA, researchers report.

Now, scientists are approaching mammoths in a different way, extracting DNA from their dense coats in an effort to learn more about them.

Mammoths are extinct, of course. No one knows if the cause was climate change, hungry Neanderthals or something else -- but they left behind remains, often frozen in the tundra.

Attempts have been made to sequence their DNA from frozen animals, but that can be complicated by contamination.

Researchers report in Friday's edition of the journal Science, however, that mammoth hair seems to be an excellent source of well-preserved DNA.

"It is important to understand the genetic makeup of an organism before it went extinct," explained lead researcher Stephan C. Schuster of Penn State University.

They try to understand the relationship between different groups of animals, especially ones that are highly endangered, to learn whether those might face a similar fate, said Schuster, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

"We want to use this to sequence (the DNA from) museum specimens and therefore help to understand the evolution of species by using museum collections that date back several hundred years," Schuster said.

Indeed, the technique could be used to measure the DNA from specimens collected by such naturalists as Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Linnaeus.

The DNA collected from the hair is much cleaner and much less damaged than that from other parts of the mammoths, he said, so it is more economic to sequence it.

Schuster explained that keratin, the hard covering of hair, could protect the DNA. Hair also can more easily be cleaned of contaminants such as bacteria.

"When people thought of sequencing DNA from hair, the usual assumption was that the material must come from the hair root, which contains recognizable cells, because the hair shaft appears to be dead," co-author Webb Miller, also at Penn State, said in a statement.

"However, we now know that a hair shaft consists essentially of DNA encased in a kind of biological plastic," said biology professor Miller.

Several of the hair samples investigated were up to 50,000 years old. One of the samples came from the first specimen ever recorded, the so-called Adams mammoth, found in 1799 and dug out of the permafrost between 1804 and 1806.

"We plan to use hair and other keratin-containing body parts, such as nail and horn, to untangle the secrets of populations that lived long ago, so these populations can send a message from the past about what it might have taken for them to survive," Schuster said. "This discovery is good news for anyone interested in learning more about how species of large mammals can go extinct."

Learning the DNA sequence does not mean that the ancient animal can be cloned or somehow resurrected, Schuster said, adding "this is science fiction."

Main funding for the research was from Pennsylvania State University, Roche Applied Sciences and a private sponsor.

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