Old Weblog - September 2004

Owls have been observed using dung as bait to trap beetles for food, the journal Nature has reported. Scientists have likened the behaviour to "tool use", something that is rarely seen amongst wild animals.
Glowing Green Proves Darwin Theory (Discovery Channel: 02-Sep-04)
A glowing green protein has provided researchers with the first direct proof for a Charles Darwin theory that predicts complex structures evolve over time through an accumulation of small improvements… Scientists studied three colors, formed by protein molecules, in the great star coral (Aequorea victoria). The three colors were cyan (a shade of blue), red and green. The fluorescent green shade is unique because, unlike other colors, it is coded for by a single gene.
Human ancestors quickly found their feet (New Scientist: 02-Sep-04)
Hominids started walking on two legs six million years ago, shortly after diverging from chimpanzees, according to a study of the inner structure of a fossilised thighbone. The finding puts upright posture at the base of the human family tree. The evolution of upright posture is a key issue in anthropology. Together with large brain size, it marks the dividing line between humans and the great apes.
Gene controls beak morphology (The Scientist: 03-Sep-04)
Scientists have pinpointed a molecular basis for size variations in the beaks of Galapagos finches', a phenomenon observed by Charles Darwin more than a century and a half ago… "The idea is that these finches have evolved a mechanism for changing their jaw skeleton rapidly and in response to environmental pressures," explained cell biologist and orthopedic surgeon Jill Helms, who recently moved from the University of California, San Francisco, to Stanford University.
Penguin News Update (South Atlantic News Agency: 03-Sep-04)
FALKLANDS CONSERVATION has received a massive boost in the form of a grant of over £100,000 from the UK Darwin Initiative. The money will allow the charity to undertake a three year project on invertebrates, an aspect of Falklands wildlife widely ignored in the past… According to the spokesperson, 70% of the invertebrates of the Falklands are believed to be endemic. "They comprise the largest, yet most poorly documented, proportion of the Islands’ total biodiversity." The first substantial collections were made by Charles Darwin (after whom the award scheme is named) in 1834, on his famous voyage in the Beagle. Many of the specimens Darwin collected are still to be found in the Natural History Museum, London.
Turkey denies Honolulu man’s bid to find Ark (Honolulu Star Bulletin: 03-Sep-04)
A Honolulu businessman's plan to take an expedition to Mount Ararat in search of Noah's Ark ended this week when the Turkish government refused to permit it because of security concerns about the area, which borders Iran and is 150 miles from Iraq.
British moths are in serious trouble, possibly because of changing climate, a scientist will reveal later this week… Moths are seen as a good indicator of the general health of the environment, because they occupy most habitats.
Climate change can slash the genetic diversity of animals, affecting their long-term survival, suggests a study examining the evolution of two rodent species over 3000 years… [T]he new mammalian study suggests animals may lose the ability to adapt quickly because climate change can cause unexpected shifts in a species' genetic diversity. "The prerequisite for showing some evolutionary change over rapid timeframes is that you need enough genetic diversity to select the particular genes that are advantageous under [new] circumstances," says Elizabeth Hadly, a biologist at Stanford University, California, US, who led the study. "You can lose all the nice tools you have in your toolkit if the climate warms or cools." But the impact of climate change may depend on the species. One of the rodent species’ genetic diversity was severely reduced as a result of climate change, where the other species was less affected due to its behaviour, showed the study.
An international scientific team which has been drilling beneath the bed of the Arctic Ocean says it enjoyed a sub-tropical climate 55 million years ago.
Some of the earliest settlers of America may have come from Australia, southern Asia, and the Pacific, new research suggests. Traditional theories have held that the first Americans originated from northern Asia. Dr Silvia Gonzalez conducted a study of ancient bones found in Mexico and found that they have very different characteristics to Native Americans.
Dinosaurs may have been doting parents (New Scientist: 08-Sep-04)
A fossil of one adult Psittacosaurus dinosaur surrounded by 34 juveniles has provided the most compelling evidence to date that dinosaurs raised their young after hatching. Previously discovered fossils of teeth found at the same site in China from Allosaurus dinosaurs of differing ages, and fossils of groups of young Maiasaura have hinted that dinosaurs may have indulged in parental care. But what makes this 125-million-year old fossil find from Liaoning province more convincing is that the skeletons are complete, and crowded together in life-like positions with their legs tucked under and heads raised, indicating that they were buried alive rather than swept together after death.
The true number of species at risk of extinction could be 50% higher than the total shown on the International Conservation Union’s Red List, according to a bleak new assessment. That is because existing estimates fail to take into account many species, such as parasites and beetles, that depend for their survival on animals and plants that are recognised as threatened, says the team, led by Lian Pin Koh at the National University of Singapore and Robert Dunn at Curtin University, US.
The Serbian government has reversed an order to ban Charles Darwin's theory of evolution from schools, following widespread criticism from scientists. "I have come here to confirm Charles Darwin is still alive," said deputy education minister Milan Brdar. His boss, Ljiljana Colic, who had announced the controversial policy, had gone "away on business", he said.
Sebastião Salgado: Genesis (Guardian: 11-Sep-04)

Sebastião Salgado is embarking on the last of his great photographic projects, which will appear regularly in [Guardian] Weekend over the next eight years. He is seeking out places that are still as pristine as they were in primeval times, places that provide hope. First stop, the Galápagos Islands.

Wonderful photographs from one of my favourite photographers.
A Paradox to Everyone but Himself (Natural History: September 2004)
The naturalist who almost scooped Darwin about natural selection was also an ardent mystic.
They're talking about Alfred Russel Wallace, of course.
Linnean naming system faces challengers (New Scientist: 12-Sep-04)
A band of renegade biologists is taking on a mammoth task that threatens to upset a status quo that has been unchallenged for almost 250 years. Put simply, they want to change the way scientists name every living organism on the planet.
United States Investment Bank Goldman Sachs formalized this week in Punta Arenas the unprecedented gift of a sprawling wilderness in Chile to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The lands, on the island of Tierra del Fuego, are home to the world’s southernmost stands of old growth forests as well as unique grasslands, rivers and wetlands containing extraordinary wildlife. The more than 680,000 acres (272,000 hectares) of Chilean land were donated to WCS by the Goldman Sachs Charitable Fund in a novel and powerful alliance that will ensure conservation in the region in perpetuity.
Great lice debate comes to a head (New Scientist: 13-Sep-04)
A new genetic analysis may finally settle the question, and even help when it comes to getting rid of the little parasites, which are staging a comeback in rich countries. Linnaeus named the human louse Pediculus humanus in 1758, but later realised there might be two sorts. Debate has gone on ever since. Those who regard body lice as a separate species point out that they are bigger than head lice and live in clothes rather than in head hair.
Ecuador has fired the popular director of Galapagos National Park even as environmentalists criticized authorities for failing to take better care of the pristine islands. Edwin Naula was the park's eighth director since President Lucio Gutierrez took office in January 2003. Before his dismissal, environmental groups had criticized the lack of stability in park leadership and some 300 rangers seized park offices to protest his expected removal.
Serbia's education minister has resigned after causing outrage by telling schools to restrict teaching of Charles Darwin's evolution theory. An official statement said Ljiljana Colic was stepping down because of "problems that had started to reflect on the work of the entire government". Mrs Colic had said Darwin's theory was no more legitimate than the idea that God created all creatures in the world.
Silly woman.
The way children learn may determine the building blocks of language, suggests a study of deaf Nicaraguan children. Ann Senghas of New York's Columbia University, US, and colleagues studied three generations of deaf schoolchildren from the Nicaraguan capital, Managua… They found that older students used hand signals resembling the gestures employed by hearing people, mimicking the entire event physically. But younger pupils - who had interacted with other deaf children from an early age - used a more complex series of signs. They split the scene into component parts and arranged these sequentially to convey the incident.
See also: Children create new sign language (BBC: 16-Sep-04)
Tibetan mothers have provided anthropologists with a prime example of ongoing human evolution. Researchers have found that women who are able to store more oxygen in their blood have more offspring that live to maturity.
Police and academics in Cambridge are trying to find a graffiti artist who could be Britain's brightest vandal. The artist spray-painted part of a chemical component of DNA on the road outside a lab where the double helix was unveiled 50 years ago.
UK seabirds' breeding attempts in 2004 have been disastrous, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says, with industrial fishing largely to blame.
New data showing that patterns of water and methane in Mars' atmosphere overlap may have important implications for the idea that the planet could harbour life.
It seems wherever scientists look on Earth they can usually find some kind of lifeform eking out an existence. And microbe colonies discovered living under rocks in the Arctic and Antarctic are just the latest example.
A bizarre marine reptile used a neck nearly twice the length of its body to capture its prey, 230 million years ago. Fish saw only its small head in murky waters and, when they came too close, the animal quickly expanded its formidable throat to suck in its dinner. The astonishing length of the neck of Dinocephalosaurus was revealed when a near complete skeleton was unearthed in China by Chun Li of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, in Beijing. The length took researchers by surprise, since the reptile had previously been known from only a fossil skull.
Ecuador officials say police have taken control of the Galapagos Islands national park following a row over the appointment of a new park director. Park wardens protesting against the appointment have been involved in clashes with local fishermen. The wardens say the president is treating the directorship as a political favour, and the constant changes are hampering their work. The new park director, Fausto Cepeda, is the eighth in two years.
Crying wolf over predator attacks (New Scientist: 24-Sep-04)
It is one of the oldest conflicts between man and beast: farmers killing marauders such as wolves, lynxes, lions and leopards to defend their livestock from the predators. This ancient tension has increased as people have encroached ever further into the wilderness, and many predators have been driven to the verge of extinction as a result… Yet the slaughter may be unnecessary. The first worldwide review of the effect of predators has found little evidence that they have a significant impact on livestock. “There’s this cultural hangover that says predators are bad and killing them is the only way to deal with the problem,” says lead author Kate Graham of the University of Stirling, UK.
Noah's Ark Quest Dead in Water—Was It a Stunt? (National Geographic: 20-Sep-04)
In April businessman and Christian activist Daniel McGivern announced with great fanfare a planned summer expedition to Mount Ararat in Turkey. The project, he said, would prove that the fabled Noah's ark was buried there… The announcement received generous news coverage. But the U.S. $900,000 expedition quickly hit a snag: The Turkish government refused to grant the explorers permission to climb the mountain. Soon, the mission itself was put on ice. But how credible was the expedition in the first place?
"Sperm Wars": Voles Follow Their Noses to Win (National Geographic: 22-Sep-04)
A male meadow vole faces a big problem: How can it become a father when a female meadow vole is likely to mate with every other male in the neighborhood?… Tactics vary enormously. The penis of the male black-winged damselfly, for example, is adapted to act like a scrubbing brush. It can remove up to 100 percent of previously deposited sperm. This option isn't open to the male meadow vole, or any other mammal. But a new study, published tomorrow in the science journal Nature, suggests the male vole employs another ingenious tactic: It uses its nose to sniff out potential rivals. If they are detected, the male reacts by unleashing an extra dose of sperm while mating.
A Puzzle for the Autumnal Equinox (The Loom: 23-Sep-04)
Every now and then you come across a scientific hypothesis that is so elegant and powerful in its ability to explain that it just feels right. Yet that doesn't automatically make it right. Even when an elegant hypothesis gets support from experiments, it's not time to declare victory. This is especially true in biology, where causes and effects are all gloriously tangled up with one another. It can take a long time to undo the tangle, and hacking away at it, Gordian-style, won't help get to the answer any faster.
Is the colour of autumn leaves really an adaptation? I'm sceptical too.
A USC professor is challenging Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, setting forth in a scientific paper published today a controversial theory of "group selection"… Valter Longo, an assistant professor in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, has put forward a theory of group selection that is disputed by most scientists because it proposes that selection happens at the group level… In research published in today's edition of the Journal of Cell Biology, Longo proposes that aging is programmed so that the majority of a population dies prematurely to provide nutrients for the sake of a few individuals who have acquired the genetic mutations that increase their chances of reproduction.
Claim Darwin was wrong to get media coverage for your crackpot theory!
Park wardens in the Galapagos Islands have forced the sacking of their boss in a row over conservation. Around 300 wardens went on strike for more than two weeks in protest at the appointment of Fausto Cepeda. They said he was on the side of local fishermen who cared little for the Galapagos' fragile ecosystem.