Random Samples

Science  27 Jun 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5628, pp. 2028

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  1. Britain's First Cave Art?

    A trio of archaeologists has reported discovering the first Paleolithic cave art ever found in Great Britain. During a search at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire last April, the site of caves known to have been occupied near the end of the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago, the team found what it believes is an engraving of an ibex (wild goat) as well as what may be the images of two birds.

    Drawing from ibex engraving. CREDIT: ANTIQUITY

    Sergio Ripoll of the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Madrid, Paul Pettit of the University of Oxford, and independent archaeologist Paul Bahn report the find in the June Antiquity. If the discovery is verified, it would stretch the distribution map of Paleolithic cave art about 450 kilometers northwards from the most northerly site known, in Normandy.

    Bahn says that the team explored the Creswell caves because engraved bone had been found there. The wall engravings—which are difficult to see without proper side lighting—had not been spotted before.

    Archaeologists say they want to see more evidence before they accept the 12,000-year age for the engravings, which is is based on radiocarbon samples from earlier excavations. French cave art expert Jean Clottes says he'll withhold judgement until specialists carry out “an indepth geological and morphological study of the cave walls.”

  2. Mini Owl

    Despite sightings 13 years ago, a miniature Brazilian owl has only just been recognized as a distinct species. The 15-centimeter, 57-gram Pernambuco pygmy owl, a critically endangered species, is described this month in the Brazilian Journal of Ornithology by Conservation International (CI) ornithologist José Maria Cardoso da Silva and colleagues. The tiny Glaucidium mooreorum is named after Intel founder Gordon Moore, who donated $261 million to CIin 2001.

  3. Hairless and Flea-Free

    Did humans lose their thick fur to cut down on parasites or to lose heat more efficiently? A new theory comes down on the side of being bug-free, not staying cool.

    “The nakedness of humans is a glaring difference between humans and other mammals,” says evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel of the University of Reading, U.K. And Pagel and Walter Bodmer, a geneticist at the University of Oxford, believe hairlessness is tied to humans' uniquely civilized behavior. When early humans began to don clothing and build shelters, they no longer needed protective fur, the researchers say. And those with less hair may have been healthier because it was easier to keep free of parasites, which thrive where animals make permanent homes.

    Sexual selection might have speeded up the evolution of hairlessness, as exposed skin signaled a healthier prospective mate, Pagel and Bodmer argue in a paper published online 9 June in Biology Letters.

    Evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool notes that the theory needs testing—for example, by seeing if people in high-parasite areas have less hair. He adds that it would radically change our image of early humans. The cooling-off theory suggests that we lost most of our hair more than 2 million years ago, after taking to two legs; if the parasite idea is correct, nakedness would likely have evolved 1.5 million years later.

  4. Warming the Hearts of Texas

    A Texas botanist with a flair for diplomacy has helped remove a rare shrub from the government's endangered species list. Its decision flows from the work of botanist Gena Janssen, who coaxed once-hostile Texas ranchers into letting her onto private land to document dozens of hidden populations of the shrub, Johnston's frankenia.

    When frankenia was listed in 1984, researchers knew of just five small patches in Texas and Mexico. Janssen joined the hunt in 1991 as a biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW). An anonymous caller claimed that frankenia was thriving on private pastures in south Texas. But Janssen was rebuffed by ranchers suspicious about the government's motives. One even threatened to shoot her.

    But Janssen, 37, persisted, and eventually got even that rancher to open padlocked gates. In 6 years of grueling fieldwork, a task she likens to “a massive Easter egg hunt,” Janssen found 57 new populations holding nearly 9 million of the bushes, which thrive on soils too salty for most plants. “It's a shrub only a botanist could love,” she says. Janssen also helped craft landowner agreements to protect 18 of the largest patches.

    “Gena really showed that listening can produce [conservation] results,” says TPW biologist Dana Price. She's also softened up the ranchers. “Now people smile and wave” when I visit, Janssen says.


    Green warrior. For Vietnam's Vo Quy, going to university in 1951 meant a 2-month hike behind French battlelines to reach a teacher's college in neighboring China. But thanks to a Japanese environmental foundation, future generations of environmental scientists in Vietnam may be spared such a perilous journey.

    Last week Quy, who helped draft Vietnam's first environmental law, won the prestigious Blue Planet Prize from Japan's Asahi Glass Foundation for his lifelong efforts to help restore Vietnam's war-ravaged forests. And the 74-year-old ornithologist plans to use the $423,000 prize to create a foundation to train young scientists at an environmental center he founded at Vietnam National University.

    Two U.S. ecologists share a second Blue Planet Prize, which was first awarded in 1992. F. Herbert Bormann, professor emeritus at Yale University, and Gene Likens, director of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Milbrook, New York, were honored for their path-breaking Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study begun nearly 40 years ago in New Hampshire.

  6. JOBS

    Seeking the light. Eugenio Coccia takes over Italy's Gran Sasso National Laboratory during a time of turmoil for the world's largest underground facility for astroparticle physics. Many of its experiments have been suspended following a court-ordered report suggesting that leaks from a tank used as a neutrino detector could contaminate local water supplies (Science, 13 June, p. 1634). Coccia, a gravitational physicist at the University of Rome, succeeds Alessandro Bettini.

  7. Sleight of Hand

    The eye is not the only sense that is easily fooled.

    Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have devised new experiments that trick the sense of touch—and even get people to feel a table's “pain.”

    Scientists have already shown how easy it is to create the “hand illusion,” in which volunteers look at a fake rubber right hand while their own right hand is hidden from view. When both hands are touched simultaneously, people feel as though the rubber hand is their own.


    Cognitive neuroscientists Carrie Armel and Vilayanur Ramachandran carried the work a step further with 16 volunteers by actually “hurting” the rubber hand and measuring subjects' skin conductance (sweat) response. After stroking both hands for 150 seconds, they slightly bent backwards a finger on the real right hand. At the same time, they severely bent a finger on the fake one. Subjects felt as if their real finger were being twisted, the scientists report in the July 22 Proceedings of the Royal Society.

    The researchers also stuck Band-Aids on both a table and on the hands of 24 volunteers, then stroked both the hands and the table. When they ripped the Band-Aid off the table, many winced. In both experiments, volunteers displayed strong skin conductance responses. A few even reported pain. It's “spooky,” says Ramachandran.

    Armel says the experiments show how malleable body image can be, a phenomenon that might be useful in treating people such as those suffering from anorexia. “It could also be used to help them better incorporate prosthetic limbs into their body schemas,” suggests neuroscientist Michael Graziano of Princeton University in New Jersey. Conversely, Armel adds, such research might help people get rid of phantom limb pain.

  8. JOBS

    On board. A marine ecologist turned government administrator has been named executive officer of the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) oversight body. Michael Crosby, now a senior adviser for international affairs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will staff the 24-person National Science Board (NSB) as it stakes out a more independent role overseeing the $5.4 billion agency.

    Crosby, 49, succeeds Marta Cehelsky, whose sudden removal last summer helped convince Congress to give the presidentially appointed panel its own budget and urge it to keep a closer eye on NSF's activities. Crosby, who has studied the effect of environmental changes on marine invertebrates and now oversees an Israeli-Jordanian marine “peace park” in the Gulf of Aqaba, is no stranger to NSF's top brass. He worked with NSB chair Warren Washington when Washington, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, served on NOAA's science advisory board. And he took a graduate course at the University of Maryland from current NSF Director Rita Colwell. “She probably doesn't even remember me, but Rita has played an important role in my professional development,” says Crosby.


    Infectious appeal. The artwork on the cover of the Institute of Medicine's (IOM's) forthcoming report Microbial Threats to Health was originally created by British artist Jenny Hammond for the home of influenza researcher Robert Webster and his wife, Marjorie. The art, which depicts the natural history of the flu virus, appears as a stained glass window in Webster's home in Memphis, Tennessee, where he works at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. In addition to embellishing the report (www.nap.edu/books/030908864X/html), the artwork is imprinted on 200 ties that IOM is distributing to spread the word about influenza.