Random Samples

Science  23 Jul 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5683, pp. 472
  1. Tiniest Vertebrate

    CREDIT: CARL BENTO/AUSTRALIAN MUSEUM

    It's now official: This is the world's smallest and lightest vertebrate. It's called the stout infantfish, or Schindleria brevipinguis. First found by Jeff Leis of the Australian Museum in Sydney in 1979, the fish has been written up by two California scientists—William Watson of the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla and H. J. Walker of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego—for publication in the latest Records of the Australian Museum. Males average 7 mm long; the gravid female pictured here was 8.4 mm and weighed 1 milligram.

    Mark McGrouther, manager of the museum's fish collection, reported that the tiny “evolutionary wonder” caused a “media frenzy” at the museum when it was unveiled earlier this month. The infantfish, found in coral lagoons off eastern Australia, is pedomorphic, which means that adults retain larval characteristics. With a life span of only 2 months, it has dispensed with fishy appendages such as teeth and scales, and it has no pigment except in the eyes.

  2. Homo Erectus a Bit Like a Chimp?

    Homo erectus, the big-brained hominid thought to have made humankind's first exodus out of Africa, is accepted as one of the many intermediate stages between a chimplike ancestor and modern H. sapiens. But a study in chimp tooth growth suggests that growth patterns of H. erectus may have been closer to those of chimps than of humans.

    Upper teeth of 8.3-year-old female chimp.

    CREDIT: A. ZIHLMAN, D. BOLTER, AND C. BOESCH, PNAS 101, 10542 (2004)

    Dental development among primates, including humans, correlates tightly with other important traits including life span, age at reproduction, and brain growth. In this respect H. erectus has been assumed to be intermediate between chimps and humans, with the emergence of the first molar (M1) at about 4.5 years of age, according to Christopher Dean of University College London and colleagues.

    But most such cross-species comparisons have been made using captive chimps, says anthropologist Adrienne Zihlman of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Now she and colleagues have done a comparison with wild chimps. They found that in 18 wild African chimps, M1 emerges at about 4 years of age—almost a year later than in captive chimps and in the same league as H. erectus. That leaves slow-growing H. sapiens—whose first molars appear around age 6—an exception.

    “Because brain size in Homo erectus is intermediate between that of chimps and modern humans, we have assumed that the timing of dental development was intermediate also,” says Zihlman, whose study appears in the 20 July Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. So “the data came as a surprise to us.” Anthropologist Barry Bogin of the University of Michigan, Dearborn, calls the study “very persuasive. … The only thing we really had before” on wild chimp development was on their reproductive activities, he says.

  3. Mount Graham Fires Spare Telescopes, Harm Squirrels

    A pair of wildfires in southeastern Arizona skirted the Mount Graham International Observatory earlier this month. The telescopes escaped unscathed, but scientists fear that the endangered red squirrels living on the mountain were not as fortunate.

    Fires approach observatory.

    CREDIT: RON SMALLWOOD/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

    Mount Graham's controversial red squirrels, an isolated southern outpost of a species that ranges north into Canada, have forced the observatory to conduct numerous environmental reviews and adopt preservation measures. A May survey identified 284 of the animals. Now the wildfires have eaten into one-quarter to one-half of their habitat, says John Koprowski, a conservation biologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, incinerating some of the high-altitude woods that squirrels and their newborn offspring had recently recolonized. “This was a very good year for reproduction, so the fire couldn't have come at a worse time,” he says. Nonetheless, Koprowski believes that the “scrappy” rodents will persevere within the remaining forest.

    Lightning sparked the two fires in the Coronado National Forest in late June. Over the next 2 weeks the fires burned about 12,000 hectares and raged within 400 meters of the observatory, which harbors three instruments—including the $120 million Large Binocular Telescope, expected to become one of the world's most powerful telescopes when it opens in 2005. Firefighters protected the structures with controlled burns and thinning of dead trees around the perimeter. But “it was a very close call,” says observatory director Buddy Powell.

  4. Saving Ancient Footprints

    CREDITS: (LEFT TO RIGHT) R. BUTA; SARAH CROCKER-BUTA; R. BUTA

    Decades ago, Prescott Atkinson's passion for fossil hunting earned him a dinosaur egg at the age of 17. Now it has helped preserve one of the most important sites of fossil trackways in North America.

    The site, in northwest Alabama, is located in a coal mine that was about to be shut down and bulldozed over (Science, 8 August 2003, p. 746). Atkinson (left), an immunologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), and two fellow members of the Alabama Paleontological Society—UAB astronomer Ron Buta (center) and professional geologist Steve Minkin (right)—leapt into action in the name of a huge array of fossil footprints 310 million years old. “It was unthinkable that this site could be destroyed,” Atkinson says.

    The trio contacted local politicians, legislators, and state geologists and held innumerable meetings with officials, Buta says. Earlier this year they persuaded the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to take over the mine site and assume liability. Then they raised $30,000 to settle a land claim from a local resident. This month the society dedicated the site and named it for Minkin, who died in February.

  5. In Brief

    Freedom. Diego Calderón, a 21-year-old ornithology student and one of three people kidnapped by Colombian rebels on 17 April while doing fieldwork in the country's northern mountains, was released last week. “It was a good opportunity for bird watching,” Calderón says of his time spent in the forest with his captors, who he says treated him respectfully. But he had to leave his notes and sketches behind when the kidnappers abruptly announced that he was being released. His colleagues, a botanist and a guide, were freed on 18 June (Science, 9 July, p. 161).

  6. Jobs

    CREDIT: ARS/USDA

    ARS chief. Plant physiologist Edward Knipling has been named administrator of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He has been acting administrator of the service since December 2001.

    Knipling, 64, says he'll continue “orienting ARS toward issues of homeland security,” including bioterrorist threats to animal and crop health and food safety. Gary Bergstrom, president of the American Phytopathological Society (APS) and a professor at Cornell University, hopes Knipling will also improve collaboration between ARS and universities. In discussions with APS's public policy board, says Bergstrom, “Knipling has shown himself to be very receptive to the concerns of the scientific community.”

  7. They Said It

    “Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. … I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies.”

    —British surgeon Michael Baum

    in an open letter to Prince Charles, chastising him for backing a cancer therapy that favors coffee enemas and fruit juices over chemotherapy. The letter was a response to the prince's comments at a health care conference in London last month (bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/329/7457/118).

  8. Campaigns

    Family commitment. Ron Reagan, the son of the former two-term Republican president, has accepted an offer from Democrats to speak about the importance of human embryonic stem cell research at the party's presidential convention next week in Boston.

    The former talk show host was reportedly contacted last month by the Democratic National Committee. “He obviously made an impression on a lot of people with his eloquence” at his father's funeral, says Daniel Perry, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Aging Research in Washington, D.C., and current president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which lobbies for stem cell research. “It is a tremendously good day for scientific research anytime you can get someone talking about it on prime-time TV.”

    Ron will be following in the footsteps of Nancy Reagan, a passionate campaigner for stem cell research since her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994. “This gives me a platform to educate people about stem cell research,” Reagan told a Los Angeles audience, according to a report by Knight Ridder. “The conservative right has a rather simplistic way of characterizing it as baby killing. We're not talking about fingers and toes and brains. This is a mass of a couple hundred undifferentiated cells.”