Random Samples

Science  11 May 2007:
Vol. 316, Issue 5826, pp. 809

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  1. NETWATCH: Hard Facts About Our Planet

    One knock against Wikipedia and other user-written resources is that you don't know whether an article was penned by an authority or some high school dropout living in his parents' basement. By handing the writing and editing over to experts, the Encyclopedia of Earth aims to provide that accountability. The reference is the centerpiece of the new Earth Portal, sponsored by the nonprofit National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington, D.C.

    The 150 or so authors—who include Ph.D.s, teachers, lawyers, and other specialists—had to submit their credentials for approval, and their work is vetted by an editor conversant with the field. You can browse the more than 2000 articles to learn how the body expels toxins and why the global “dust budget,” a tally of how much dust enters and leaves the atmosphere, is important for climate forecasting. Earth Portal also offers a news section and a discussion forum.




    The belugas of Alaska's Cook Inlet are a genetically distinct population that has probably been isolated for several thousand years. Now the numbers of these toothed white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) have dwindled to only 302. They are likely to disappear within the century unless the federal government lists them as endangered, says the National Marine Fisheries Service, which proposed the listing on 19 April.

    “We don't have a fix yet on why these belugas are declining,” says Rod Hobbs, a marine mammal biologist at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, Washington. Possible causes are pollution, habitat loss, or a shortage of salmon, their preferred food.

    As recently as the 1980s, an estimated 1300 belugas swam in the inlet. Subsistence hunting by native Alaskans took its toll, but tighter hunting regulations put in place in 1999 did not stop the population from shrinking—by more than 4% a year. “We thought the whales would have shown signs of recovery by now,” says Hobbs, but hunting seems only to have “masked the real problem.” He notes that hunters have also reported a decrease in the belugas' blubber content.

    More-detailed studies of the whales are planned. Once they are listed as endangered, hunting will be banned, and a recovery plan will be developed to bring back the population to about 780 animals.


    High-value orchid under scrutiny at national orchid fair in Yunnan Province in 2005.


    At an orchid show last month in Shaoxing, eastern China, a plant sold for about $175,000 (1.35 million yuan). The record-breaking sale gave a glimpse of a little-noted offshoot of the Asian economic boom: Orchids in China “are like Dutch tulip bulbs in the 17th century,” says William Rhodehamel of the Hoosier Orchid Co. in Indianapolis, Indiana.

    The Chinese export (or smuggle out) many of their 1200 native orchid species. But there's only one brand they themselves get excited about, says botanist Holger Perner, an orchid expert at Huanglong National Park in Sichuan. That's the Oriental cymbidium, valued since the time of Confucius. Nowadays, Perner says, dealers will speculate with “super cymbidiums,” buying a hot specimen as the price is rising and making millions from selling pieces of the multiplying plant.

    Priciest of all are strange-looking plants—not necessarily favored by the Western eye—that result from natural mutations in the wild. “In order to find a single rare mutant, entire populations are stripped from the wild country-wide,” says Perner. In China, few plant species are protected, and it is legal to collect most orchids in the wild. A new law to protect cymbidiums is in the works.



    In a Ceremony last week in Washington, D.C., the German government turned over a map known as “America's Birth Certificate” to the Library of Congress, which has purchased it for $10 million from a German prince. Created in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller, it's the first map to feature the name “America” and the first to identify the Pacific Ocean as a separate body of water. This map, printed from 12 wooden plates, is believed to be the only remaining copy.