Random Samples

Science  01 Sep 2006:
Vol. 313, Issue 5791, pp. 1213
  1. MEGAPODE MAY FOLLOW DODO

    CREDIT: K. SIVAKUMAR/WII

    The Nicobar megapode, a ground-dwelling bird in some ways resembling the ill-fated dodo, has had a tough decade—and the Asian tsunami of 2004 has made matters worse. The Wildlife Institute of India has surveyed the bird's habitat and found that the population has declined by about 70% over the past dozen years.

    The reddish-brown megapode lays its eggs in large mounds of sand, loam, coral bits, and rotting vegetation. Once two to four eggs have been laid, the parents cover the nest with plant debris, which generates enough heat to incubate the eggs. Incubation mounds can reach heights of 3.5 meters.

    Earlier this year, India's premier wildlife institute conducted a status survey of endangered species in the Nicobar Islands east of Sri Lanka, which were severely affected by the tsunami. The researchers found evidence of only 800 breeding pairs of the megapode. Worse, says institute scientist K. Sivakumar, Megapode Island, which was declared a wildlife sanctuary for the birds, has been totally submerged. Sivakumar believes that if local tribes can be made aware of the problem, the bird population, which is mainly threatened by habitat destruction, could bounce back.

  2. STRIKE OUT?

    CREDIT: NORMAN GERSHENZ

    Scientists need $1.3 million to buy a piece of tropical forest in Costa Rica. They're hoping to raise it by selling a baseball on eBay. Not just some Babe Ruth memento, but a ball signed by “the four greatest conservationists on Earth.” The idea was the brainchild of Norman Gershenz, director of the San Francisco, California-based Center for Ecosystem Survival. The ball, with a starting bid of $2500, has been signed by Harvard's E. O. Wilson, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Daniel Janzen of the University of Pennsylvania.

    Janzen explains that the center wants to buy a strategically located 1600-hectare piece of land owned by the Del Oro orange plantations. The purchase would join Pacific dry forest to Atlantic rainforest in the Área de Conservación Guanacaste in northwestern Costa Rica.

    “Getting one signature from any of the individuals in this esteemed group would be a coup; getting four together on one item is priceless,” says Gershenz. It's not clear whether anyone agrees. As of 25 August, the ball, which went on sale on 21 August for a week, had received no bids.

  3. A PREMATURITY GENE

    CREDIT: ANNIE GRIFFITHS BELT/CORBIS

    African-American women are two to three times as likely to give birth prematurely as women of European origin. Scientists have now identified a possible genetic contributor to the difference: a gene variant that affects the strength and resilience of the amniotic sac.

    Preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM)—the term for when a woman's “water breaks” prematurely—accounts for one-third of premature births, and a black woman's risk of PPROM is more than twice that of a Caucasian woman. Scientists led by physician Jerome Strauss of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond now say a gene that helps boost collagen levels in fetal membranes could explain the disparity.

    The gene, which encodes heat shock protein 47, has a variant that is less active in collagen production and is present in 12% of African Americans but only 4% of Caucasians.

    The team collected genetic data on infants delivered by 602 black mothers in four U.S. cities. Among the fetuses of the 244 mothers who had PPROM, 11.5% had this variant, whereas it was present in only 4.5% of the infants delivered at term, the researchers reported online last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This is the first example of an “ancestry-informative” marker for pregnancy complications in African Americans, the authors claim.

    The study is “potentially important,” says physician Richard Cooper of Loyola University in Maywood, Illinois. But he contends that the black-white gap in premature births has been narrowed by better care in recent years, so the mutation would only explain a “small proportion” of the difference.

  4. AMAZONIAN AMBER

    CREDIT: ANDRÉ NEL/MUSÉUM NATIONAL D'HISTOIRE NATURELLE, PARIS

    This tiny fly is is one of a variety of bug and plant fossils recently found in amber desposits on the banks of the Amazon in northeastern Peru. John J. Flynn of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, with colleagues from France and Peru, has been plying the river in search of 15-million-year-old Miocene outcroppings that would reveal the history of the region. “The discovery virtually instantaneously opens a window to the Amazon,” he says. There have been only three other finds of amber-encased fossils in Latin America covering the past 65 million years, he says. The abundance of species—13 arthropods and some 30 plant, fungus, and bacterium types—confirms that a rich tropical rainforest thrived even then, the scientists report in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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