Random Samples

Science  21 Dec 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5858, pp. 1839
  1. SEA SCUM REBRANDED

    The father of taxonomy would be proud. The first genetic analysis of one of Carl Linnaeus's own specimens has revealed a long-standing botanical error: Scientists have been calling a marine alga by the wrong “Linnaean” name.

    The unlucky alga was the sea lettuce Ulva lactuca, which Linnaeus collected and christened in the mid-18th century. Sea lettuces are notorious for invading polluted waters and gunking up ships' hulls. Christine Maggs and Frédéric Mineur, both of Queen's University Belfast in the U.K., got samples of the “type specimen” for the species from the Linnean [sic] Society's herbarium in London and finished mapping its genome this month. The results showed that somewhere along the line, naturalists accidentally renamed the alga U. fasciata and gave the name U. lactuca to a similar species. Now the original U. lactuca has its name back, and the misnamed latecomer needs a new one.

    Although Linnaeus typically took meticulous notes, for his Ulva's geographic range he wrote only “in oceano.” Maggs says this could have contributed to the confusion. But Linnaeus more than made up for his oversight: Whereas his contemporaries left drawings, he preserved DNA. “We can exploit that,” Maggs says. “Linnaeus's specimens have undreamed-of value 250 years later.”

  2. LEFT ON CAMPUS

    Why are academics in the United States so politically liberal? Are conservative students oppressed by a biased professoriate, or are liberals simply smarter?

    CREDIT: M. WOESSNER

    Neither, says public policy expert Matthew Woessner of Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, who, with political scientist April Kelly-Woessner of Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, has tackled the question using data on more than 15,000 college students collected by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California, Los Angeles.

    The Woessners found that self-described liberals and conservatives report no difference in grades or in the quality of their education. Yet liberal college students are twice as likely as conservative ones to pursue Ph.D.s. The main reasons, the authors conclude, are differences in values, goals, and preferences. Liberals placed higher values on creativity; conservatives were more oriented toward raising families and making money. As a result, conservatives gravitated more to “professional” majors. But even within the same area, such as social science, almost twice as many liberals wanted advanced degrees. “Our findings hold for the hard sciences as well,” says Woessner, who presented a paper on the results last month at a meeting at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

    Jeremy Mayer of George Mason University's School of Public Policy in Fairfax, Virginia, says many people pontificating on the subject have “no or bad data, [but] the Woessner paper is simply excellent.”

  3. HUMANKIND'S GLOBAL FOOTPRINT

    CREDIT: E. ELLIS AND N. RAMANKUTTY

    A pair of earth scientists have combined data on population distribution with data on land use and land cover to generate a global map of “anthropogenic biomes.” It's “a first go at looking at how humans have restructured the biosphere,” says Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who created the map with Navin Ramankutty of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Existing biome maps have only rudimentary classifications for human-altered areas, Ellis says. This one, presented last week at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, California, shows 21 categories, including urban (red) and barren (gray), with subdivisions covering various types of villages, croplands, rangelands, forests, and wild lands. The blues in this map of China and Taiwan stand for rice-growing villages and irrigated villages. “I think this [work] is going to have far-reaching effects,” says global modeler Jonathan Foley of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Now we can better describe the real biosphere … in our maps, models, and ecological field studies.”

  4. BACK TO AFRICA

    The scimitar-horned oryx, which once roamed the northern borders of the Sahara, has been extinct in the wild for 25 years. But a team of zoo curators and animal researchers has taken initial steps to bring the species back, using animals raised in captivity. The group has brought nine oryx and 13 addax, another rare desert antelope, from U.S. and European zoos to Tunisia and released them into two government wildlife preserves.

    Saint Louis Zoo addax going back to its roots. CREDIT: SAINT LOUIS ZOO

    Saint Louis Zoo curator William Houston, a leader in the effort, says the project highlights a new push to coordinate U.S. and European programs for captive endangered species, giving managers a larger pool of animals from which to draw. “We want to make sure the animals we give to the Tunisians represent the full range of genetic diversity available in our populations,” he says. Researchers hope to eventually release the antelopes into the wild.