Random Samples

Science  30 Jan 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5658, pp. 621

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  1. Keeping Tabs on Tigers

    In an unusual cooperative step, India and Bangladesh have embarked on a joint census of the Royal Bengal tigers that inhabit the world's largest mangrove forest, the Sundarban.

    The forest, an expanse of marsh and mangrove covering about 10,000 kilometers, straddles the border at the mouths of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. It harbors more than 600 tigers, making it perhaps the single largest contiguous breeding population in the world.

    Royal Bengal tiger takes a dip.


    The main census tool will be the collecting of pugmarks: plaster casts and paper tracings of tiger footprints in the mud that are supposed to reveal the age, weight, and sex of the animals. Many wildlife biologists claim that pugmarks are unreliable and should be replaced by other sampling methods, such as camera traps (Science, 30 May 2003, p. 1355). But officials at India's Project Tiger say that in this swampy terrain high-tech devices are unlikely to work. Even so, some of the animals will be fitted with radio collars so that biologists can track their movements by satellite.

    Some 460 foresters and wildlife experts are participating in the weeklong census, funded by $120,000 from the United Nations Development Programme. It's “a very dangerous exercise,” warns Project Tiger's director Rajesh Gopal—Sundarban tigers kill about 10 people a year.

  2. An Eye for a Nose

    Our sense of smell probably had to be sacrificed for the sharp color vision that humans enjoy, according to new research.


    Animals tend to have either good vision or good olfaction, but not both. In humans, about 60% of the 1000 genes for olfactory receptors are so-called pseudogenes that have been decommissioned. But mice and dogs, which are colorblind, have only about 20% pseudogenes.

    To see if nature set up a tradeoff, evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues sequenced olfactory receptor genes and photopigment genes from humans, apes, and Old and New World monkeys.

    As predicted, better vision meant a less sensitive nose. About 30% of olfactory receptor genes are defunct in apes and Old World monkeys, who have color vision. But most New World monkeys—more distant relatives of humans—had only about 20% of the olfactory pseudogenes, and they also lacked the genes for full-color vision. One exception was the howler monkey, which sees and smells more like its Old World relatives.

    The results suggest that full-color eyesight arose independently in the Old and New worlds and coincided with loss of functioning olfactory receptors, the authors report in the 20 January Public Library of Science, Biology. Evolutionary ecologist Nathaniel Dominy of the University of Chicago says that a tradeoff was likely necessary due to anatomical constraints. “The visual and olfactory cortices take up a lot of brain,” he says, so something had to give.

  3. Snakes Behind Desks

    Is morale bad at your workplace? Do chaos and mistrust rule? Your office could be the playground of a psychopath.

    Two psychologists, Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, author of the widely used Psychopathy Checklist, and industrial psychologist Paul Babiak of New York, have cooked up the first test designed to spot the corporate psychopath.

    The “snakes in suits,” as Hare and Babiak call them in a new book, are not easy to spot; they may look like charming, intelligent, and confident go-getters at first. But they will remorselessly manipulate, charm, lie, and bully their way into power and favor, often creating highly successful personal careers while running their companies into the ground.

    Michael Douglas as Gordon Gecko in Wall Street—a good candidate for the B-Scan.


    The test, called the B-Scan 360, is currently being road-tested with the help of organizational clients, says Babiak. It comprises a list of 107 behavioral descriptors such as “lies” and “makes a slick presentation” that could be “red flags” for psychopathy. These are grouped under four basic dimensions: “personal style” (covering traits such as manipulativeness), emotional style (such as insensitivity or “blaming”), organizational maturity (including “parasitic”), and antisocial tendencies. Multiple observers are supposed to do the rankings.

    Chris Patrick, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, says that this type of test is aimed not so much at the “externalizing” behavior of the criminal psychopath but at spotting the other face of the disorder, which features often-useful traits such as extraversion and lack of social anxiety.

    Babiak, who says he received a lot of inquiries about the test after the Enron affair, believes the business world is more vulnerable than ever to the psychopath because the rapid pace of technological change, downsizing, and sudden growth make for a chaotic environment ripe for mistrust and manipulation.

  4. Two Cultures

    Tropical heat. Macalester College professor James Laine isn't planning any more visits to India. That's only prudent: Indian officials plan to arrest the U.S. religious studies scholar if he tries to set foot in the state of Maharashtra.

    The confrontation stems from Laine's fascination with Shivaji, a 17th century Hindu king, which has drawn him to India several times in the past 20 years. His recent book on the legendary leader triggered a riot last month (Science, 16 January, p. 296) by a Hindu mob that apparently took offense at remarks in the last chapter questioning Shivaji's lineage. Although his publisher voluntarily yanked the book from its Indian shelves last November after the first rumblings of protest, state government officials banned it this month, saying that it could incite violence.


    Laine isn't worried about being extradited from St. Paul, Minnesota. But the developments have left him shaken. None of his current projects, he says, “require time in India.”

  5. Awards

    Weighty winners. Particle physicists may still be hot on the trail of the elusive Higgs boson. But the three theorists whose work predicts its existence have already reaped several honors, including Israel's Wolf Prize. Robert Brout and François Englert of the Free University of Brussels in Belgium and Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, U.K., this month were chosen to share $100,000 for theories explaining why fundamental particles have mass.

    In the early 1960s, the Standard Model of elementary particles looked like it was in trouble because some force-carrying particles, such as photons, were massless whereas others had mass. Brout and Englert got around the problem by means of a phenomenon known as spontaneous symmetry breaking. Higgs, working independently, then proposed that the massive particles got their mass by interacting with an all-pervading field by means of a particle that was later named after him. Physicists hope to sight a Higgs boson later this decade using the $2 billion Large Hadron Collider, now under construction at the CERN particle physics lab near Geneva.

  6. Jobs

    Well-worn road. The U.S. Senate has once again lured away one of academia's top lobbyists to monitor science issues at the Pentagon. This week University of Washington advocate Elaine McCusker (below), co-chair of academia's Coalition for National Security Research (CNSR), began work as a staffer for the Senate Armed Services Committee. Her duties include tracking the military's $13 billion science and technology program.

    McCusker replaces Carolyn Hanna, a former lobbyist for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who also ran CNSR before moving to the Senate 4 years ago. Hanna last week joined the Department of Homeland Security. Says one former colleague of both women: “This is beginning to look like a career track.”

  7. In the Courts

    Brush with the law. The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which collects, protects, and preserves the nation's treasures, is getting his wrists slapped for owning the feathers of endangered birds. Last week, the Smithsonian Board of Regents announced that Lawrence Small plans to plead guilty to a nonintentional misdemeanor under the Migratory Bird Act, but he will not be punished for his actions.


    A profile of Small in the January 2000 Smithsonian magazine, shortly after he took office, highlighted his private gallery of headdresses and other ceremonial garb adorned with bird feathers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took notice, starting an investigation that led to the filing of charges earlier this month in a U.S. district court in Raleigh, North Carolina. Small supposedly obtained the collection with proper permits, but he has turned it over to federal authorities.

    Although the charges are minor, they don't help Small's public image, which has already suffered because of budget and administrative controversies and animal deaths at the National Zoo. Nonetheless, the board says it continues to support him as secretary.

  8. Data Points

    Gaping void. There are no female African-American full professors in the top 50 physical sciences and engineering departments in the United States, according to a new survey by chemist Donna Nelson of the University of Oklahoma, Norman. Hispanic women fare only slightly better, holding down 0.1%—nine of 8055—full professorships.

    The survey captures the extent to which “the twin barriers of gender and race affect careers in several scientific disciplines,” says Nelson. The survey also found gender disparities in academic hiring at the entry level. In nine of the 14 disciplines surveyed, women's share of assistant professorships was smaller than their share of Ph.D.s from the previous 10 years. By contrast, white men were overrepresented in relation to their proportion among Ph.D. recipients.

    The growing number of female Ph.D.s, which rose by an average of 6% across disciplines from 1983–92 to 1993–2001, “cannot magically close the gender gap” in academia, says Debra Rolison, a chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Job seekers may be put off by what she calls “the dysfunctional human environment of science and engineering departments, where both men and women are expected to give up their personal lives.”