Random Samples

Science  20 Oct 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5798, pp. 395

    A newly discovered, millions-of-years-old cave in California's Sequoia National Park could house new species as well as clues to the age of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

    Glittering interior of Ursa Minor. CREDIT: DAVE BUNNELL/GOOD EARTH GRAPHICS

    The cave was dubbed Ursa Minor after a bearlike skeleton found inside as well as the starlike sparkle of its crystal-encrusted walls and floors. Researchers have yet to explore the entire cave, which was found in August by explorer Scott McBride of the Cave Research Foundation. It is at least 300 meters long with several large rooms and a lake roughly 30 meters across. The cave is adorned by long, flowing formations known as cave curtains, as well as stalagmites and thin, hollow stalactites known as soda straws up to 2 meters long hanging from the ceiling.

    At least 27 new species have been discovered in the 240 caves in the area, including pseudoscorpions, millipedes, and spiders. “We almost expect to find new species” in this one, says the park's cave specialist, Joel Despain. Dating of old river levels recorded by Ursa Minor could also help settle a heated debate about the Sierra Nevada's age, says Despain. The mountains have been estimated to be anywhere from 10 million to 100 million years old.


    Genetic Savings & Clone, which fancied itself a pioneer in the brave new world of pet cloning, is folding after 6 years in business during which it cloned just six cats and sold two to pet owners. Customers of the Sausalito, California-based company who want to bank their pet's DNA have been directed to ViaGen, an Austin, Texas, company that clones livestock. It seems the price was just too stiff—even though last year the company dropped its fees from $50,000 to $32,000—and the procedure hasn't gotten any more efficient since the first cat was cloned in 2002 (Science, 22 February 2002, p. 1443), says Charles Long of Texas A&M University in College Station, an adviser to the company.


    But pet cloning's day will come. A spokesperson at Global Genetics and Biologicals in Bryan, Texas, a storage company, says it's got about 150 dog and cat samples on ice, waiting until the price is right.


    French archaeologists working in Syria this summer found what they contend are the earliest known wall paintings, based on radiocarbon dates of about 11,000 B.C.E. from a mud-brick building at the early farming site of Dja'de el-Mughara. The structure, which has about 4 square meters of geometric paintings on its interior walls, was roughly shaped like a bull's head and apparently was used for ritual activities, says excavation director Eric Coqueugniot of the French research agency CNRS in Lyons.


    The dating makes the designs at least 1500 years older than wall paintings at Çatalhöyük, the famous 9500-year-old Turkish village (Science, 20 November 1998, p. 1442). Cave art dates back 36,000 years, but it was not until the so-called Neolithic Revolution that people began marking up humanmade surfaces.

    Archaeologist Tristan Carter of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says the new find bears on the question of whether the transition from hunting and gathering to farming was more a result of a “symbolic revolution” or a response to external circumstances. Recent finds, including the discovery of sculptures at other very early Near Eastern sites, show that “the symbolic worlds of these Neolithic peoples have to be addressed as a means of understanding these societies,” he says.


    A common parasite may be influencing the sex composition of the world's human population.

    Toxoplasma gondii, which people often pick up from cats, infects between 20% and 80% of societies worldwide. Parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr and his colleagues at Charles University in Prague studied the medical records of 1803 infants born in three maternity clinics in Prague that routinely test for antibodies to toxoplasma, which can cause miscarriages and birth defects. The usual sex ratio at birth is 104 boys for every 100 girls. But the 454 pregnant women who tested positive gave birth to 290 boys and only 187 girls. The women with the highest antibody levels had more than twice as many boys as girls, the team reports this month in Naturwissenschaften.

    Flegr says the parasitic infection may suppress the maternal immune system, which sometimes reacts against male embryos and causes more boys to be miscarried. Larger samples are needed, but the data are intriguing, says parasitologist Joanne Webster of Imperial College London. What isn't clear, she adds, is the evolutionary advantage that the parasite might get from skewing the sex ratio.

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