Random Samples

Science  07 Oct 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5745, pp. 46
  1. Buried With Care

    CREDIT: PREHISTORISCHE KOMM.

    Austrian researchers have uncovered two baby human skeletons buried together at least 27,000 years ago. With red ochre and grave gifts, the site is “clearly … a deliberate burial connected with a ritual,” says lead scientist Christine Neugebauer-Maresch, a paleontologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

    In 1999, the academy set out to investigate Paleolithic settlements near the Austrian town of Krems. Extensive excavations hinted at rich settlements in an area where the Krems River flows into the Danube. Last month, the scientists found a thick cultural layer, 5 meters below the surface, harboring artifacts and animal remains including a shoulder blade of a mammoth.

    The shoulder blade, supported by a large piece of mammoth ivory, protected a 5-centimeter-deep hollow where the two infants' bodies had been placed side by side covered by red ochre. More than 30 ivory beads were also with the bodies. Both babies' thighbones measured 71 mm, indicating that they were newborns. DNA and tooth-bud analyses may ascertain if they were also twins, says Neugebauer-Maresch.

    The remains still need to be carbon-dated, but nearby remains have been dated to 40,000 to 27,000 years old, near the dawn of “modern” human behavior when our ancestors acquired hunting skills, rites, and customs. “This impressive result shows that, in this case, babies were already considered as full members of the glacial group of hunters and gatherers some 27,000 years ago,” says Neugebauer-Maresch.

    “This is an outstanding discovery that will contribute very much to our understanding of the evolution of human growth in a time when modern humans replaced Neandertals in Europe,” says Antonio Rosas González of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid.

  2. Giant Squid Snapshots

    CREDIT: PROC. R. SOC. LONDON B (2005)

    Forget Nessie and Big Foot. For the first time, scientists have captured pictures of a live giant squid (Architeuthis), answering some of the mysteries about the world's largest invertebrate.

    Last year, in deep water off Japan's coast, a team led by Tsunemi Kubodera, a zoologist at the National Science Museum in Tokyo, suspended a camera, depth meter, light, and a rugged steel lure baited with a common squid and strong-smelling shrimp pulp. On 30 September 2004, enormous tentacles appeared out of the gloom 900 meters below the surface.

    The beast is a fast and agile predator. Some scientists had proposed that the giant squid dangles its two longer feeding tentacles passively the way a jellyfish does, but this one grabbed the lure with its feeding tentacles and wrapped them into a ball to bring the lure to its beaked mouth, the team reports in the 28 September issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences. The 8-meter squid dragged the apparatus up 300 meters and then back down again, finally breaking off a hooked tentacle after 4 hours.

    “We are only left with a glimpse of the monster and more questions than before,” such as which aspects of the apparatus actually attracted the squid, says William Gilly, a marine biologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

  3. Roots of Hominid Evolution?

    Chimp (l), Australopithecus, and human (r) teeth. (Inset) Efe pygmies use wild yams as fallback food.CREDIT: G. LADEN

    What caused the split between the first hominids and early apes 7 million years ago? According to a new hypothesis, the ability to survive on roots might have been the key.

    Australopithecus, our earliest known ancestor, appeared in Africa more than 5 million years ago. Its teeth were larger and thicker than those of modern humans or chimps, and the teeth became even bigger in later species. Such big teeth, with their broad, flat grinding surfaces and thick enamel, are useful for eating tough roots. Now, two anthropologists are proposing that this dental adaptation helped lead to the development of hominids, and eventually to modern humans.

    In a paper in the October issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, Greg Laden of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and Richard Wrangham of Harvard University propose that big teeth allowed australopiths to use roots, tubers, and other “underground storage organs” as fallback foods that kept them alive. This enabled them to leave the forest and spread out onto the savanna, where they could live on roots when fruits, nuts, or game became scarce.”

    I personally think it's one of the better [hypotheses] that we have now,” says Leslie C. Aiello, a paleoanthropologist at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York City. Modern hunter-gatherers, such as forest-dwelling African pymies, also tend to use roots as a fallback food to get them through lean times, Laden says.

  4. Two Cultures

    CREDIT: DREW BERRY/WEHI

    Animating life. Drew Berry provided the molecular representations for the television documentary DNA, which won an Emmy Award on 19 September. Berry, who works for the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI), a medical research group in Melbourne, Australia, says he pored over journal articles to ensure that the depictions were accurate. It was hard to keep up: “Every week, papers were coming out that impacted the animation,” he says.

    Berry's interest in illustrating biological processes began at the University of Melbourne, where he filmed cells using time-lapse microscopy. After receiving a master's degree in cell biology, he left the lab and began working as a graphic artist, doing animations as a hobby. He later impressed WEHI researchers with a depiction of how the malaria-causing parasite invades blood cells. His next project involves a virtual trip through a pancreas cell.

  5. Face-Offs

    Not so fast. Breaking ranks with the Bush Administration and fellow Republicans on the issue of climate change, Senate energy committee chair Pete Domenici (R-NM) announced this summer that he supported capping U.S. greenhouse emissions. But a recent exchange with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) suggests that Domenici isn't too comfortable with his new allies, either.

    Arguing in favor of a cap at a 20 September hearing, Feinstein pointed to research suggesting that global warming could be fueling storms like Hurricane Katrina. Her statement drew the ire of Domenici, who interrupted the next speaker to respond forcefully. “Certainly that's not the consensus opinion,” he said. “All I did was quote from a study, Mr. Chairman,” Feinstein protested. “I could have had two of them” saying the opposite, Domenici responded. “Let's proceed.”

  6. Politics

    CREDIT: VICENTE VéREZ BENCOMO

    Cuban conundrum. To vaccine researchers, Vicente Vérez-Bencomo is a stellar chemist at the University of Havana whose work on the first synthetic vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae type B, a deadly childhood disease, may someday save millions of lives (Science, 23 July 2004, pp. 460 and 522). But to the U.S. State Department, the 52-year-old Cuban is an unwelcome visitor whose presence would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

    Next month, Vérez-Bencomo had hoped to pick up an award from the Tech Museum in San Diego, California, and give a plenary lecture at the Society for Glycobiology meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. But that was before the U.S. government denied his visa request.

    Vérez-Bencomo finds that decision mystifying, because he received a visa earlier this year to attend a chemistry meeting. But his experience is by no means unique. Cuba's Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM), for example, once had no trouble sending five or so scientists a year to U.S. meetings. But since 9/11, three-fourths of its visa requests have been denied, says a CIM official, and none of its scientists has been able to attend the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual conferences. The National Academies are looking into the problem, says the National Academy of Sciences' Wendy White.

  7. Jobs

    CREDIT: SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL ZOO

    Zoo's who. A career administrator with a background in conservation management took up his new job last week as director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. John Berry, 46, succeeds Lucy Spelman, who left in February 2004 in the wake of high-profile animal deaths and attempts to gut the zoo's conservation research programs (Science, 13 April 2001, p. 183).

    Berry has been head of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to protect U.S. native species. He has also been a congressional aide and directed government relations for the Smithsonian.

    One challenge facing Berry is to strengthen links between zoo researchers and other Smithsonian scientists. “That has so much potential synergy,” says anthropologist Jeremy Sabloff of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who led a 2001-03 review of the Smithsonian's scientific programs. But Kurt Benirschke, a pathologist at the University of California, San Diego, who served on a National Research Council panel that evaluated the zoo last year, thinks that improving research will take a back seat while Berry tackles needed capital repairs.

  8. They Said It

    “Here was the government putting this skinny 60-year-old guy into solitary confinement for nearly a year. I have come to realize that it was wrong, and I should have spoken out more.”

    —New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, former energy secretary, on physicist Wen Ho Lee. Lee, then at Los Alamos National Laboratory, pled guilty in 2000 to a single charge of mishandling classified data.

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