Random Samples

Science  07 Apr 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5770, pp. 31

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    Tall stones bearing odd markings, the earliest signs of written Celtic language, have been found in many places in Ireland and Scotland. The Irish for centuries believed these so-called Ogham Stones, named after the language, to be ceremonial objects carved by pre-Christian pagans. But new work adds to evidence that they are the work of early Christians.

    Some 400 Ogham stones have been found, ranging in size from meter-long ones to 2-ton stones up to 5 meters long. Damien McManus, a professor of Irish studies at Trinity College Dublin, has been scrutinizing a large collection of 28 newly cleaned and restored stones held at University College Cork. Like other Ogham stones, these have Celtic crosses etched onto them, and “the words have Latin endings,” says McManus, who says the later stones have Latin as well as Ogham script. A reference to a priest on another stone suggests that all were etched by the earliest Irish Christians between the 5th and the 7th centuries, he says. Scholars believed that the crosses had been added later by Christians attempting to erase all pagan signs from their culture. McManus, who completed his analysis last month, believes the stones were carved not for rituals but to mark territory and burial sites.

    Eamonn Kelly, keeper of antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, says the new readings by McManus should convince most people that “the stones are certainly associated with the origins of Christianity in Ireland.”


    “This is great news for science and great news for Britain.”

    —Martin Rees, president of London's Royal Society, which succeeded in purchasing—for $1.75 million—a recently discovered 17th century manuscript, containing Royal Society minutes recorded by famed physicist Robert Hooke, just before it was due to be auctioned off on 28 March.



    A new amphibian family tree—probably the biggest phylogenetic tree ever completed for a class of vertebrates—was unveiled this month and has already attracted some carping from rival treemakers.

    The project, detailed in 370 pages in the current issue of the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, was instigated by Darrel Frost, an evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He and colleagues from more than a dozen institutions have spent the past 3 years comparing 1.8 million base pairs of DNA from 500 species in the three major amphibian groups: frogs, salamanders, and the earthwormlike caecilians. The analysis yielded 33 new groups and two new families of amphibians, says Frost. For example, a group of frogs ranging from South America to the American Southwest had to be dissolved, as some members proved to be most closely related to an Australian frog and others to American tree frogs.

    “This study has just shed a floodlight on understanding how amphibians are related,” says Claude Gascon of Conservation International in Washington, D.C. But others complain that the shufflings of amphibian relationships by Frost's team are based on subjective judgments that do not take enough tree-building strategies into consideration. “I think what they have done is irresponsible,” says David Wake of the University of California, Berkeley. Such an effort “threatens to make taxonomy a laughingstock to other biologists.” Wake is part of a National Science Foundation-funded amphibian tree project. Frost, whose effort was funded by NASA, agrees that there are debatable technical issues but suggests that “some people just don't like change.”


    Areas in red are where current population exceeds potential agricultural capacity. CREDIT: RONALD A. NUSSBAUM/UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN

    About 95 million hectares of arable land in Africa “have reached such a state of degradation that only huge investments could make them productive again,” according to a new report from the International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development.

    Agricultural productivity has declined in the past quarter-century in sub-Saharan Africa as its soils lose nutrients at the highest rate in the world. “I must tell you, the news is not good,” said Amit Roy, CEO of the center, at a 30 March press conference in New York City. “Nutrient mining”—loss of soil nutrients through erosion, exhaustion by crops, and lack of fertilizer—is worst in East and Central Africa. Somalia is losing 88 kilograms of nutrients per hectare per year, says the report—compared with 9 kg in Egypt. African farmers desperate for fresh soil are clearing fragile forestlands and wildlife habitat.

    Roy added that only 4% of arable land is irrigated, so water-supply problems also need to be addressed. The report will be presented at an Africa Fertilizer Summit to be held in Abuja, Nigeria, in June, where remedies such as cheap fertilizer, technical aid to farmers, and improved markets will be discussed.