Random Samples

Science  25 Jul 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5888, pp. 469

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    Fingerprints on a painting from the studio of Leonardo da Vinci show the touch of the master himself—and confirm that the artist had Arab ancestors, Italian researchers say.

    La Madone de Laroque, painting by artist in Leonardo's atelier. (Inset) Fingerprint.CREDIT: AFP/GETTY IMAGES; MUSEO IDEALE

    A team led by Luigi Capasso, an anthropologist at the Museum of Biomedical Sciences in Chieti, Italy, is using infrared light to study prints on The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine and La Madone de Laroque—paintings attributed to members of Leonardo's atelier in Amboise, France. The artist often used his fingers in place of brushes, diluting colors with saliva. But experts couldn't tell whether any of the fingerprints on the paintings were his.

    The researchers have now matched one of the prints to a fingerprint on Lady with an Ermine, known to be by Leonardo. Some scholars say Leonardo's mother was an Arab slave, and Capasso and colleagues at the Museo Ideale in Vinci says their research confirms the artist's Middle Eastern origins. The print, from his left index finger, has a Y-shaped pattern shared by 60% of Middle Easterners, says Emiliano Carnieri, a paleontologist at the University of Palermo in Italy. Fingerprints, like blood group or skin color, can help determine a person's ancestral origins, Carnieri says.

    Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale, calls the research “extraordinary and very important” in casting light on techniques of Leonardo and his followers.


    Gray wolves last roamed the rainforests of Olympic National Park in Washington state in the early 1900s. And streamside forests, preserved in 1938 as “the finest example of primeval” woods in the United States, have gone downhill ever since, say scientists at Oregon State University, Corvallis.


    Without wolves, elk feast at will on trees and shrubs along rivers and streams, leading to severe erosion. “The rivers [in the park] are dramatically degraded,” says hydrologist Robert Beschta, co-author of a study published online this month in Ecohydrology. He says historical records describe the banks of the upper Quinault River as “so dense with underbrush as to be almost impenetrable.” Today, the same areas are open glades dominated by big trees. “There has been almost no recruitment of new cottonwood and bigleaf maple trees”—species elk find especially tasty—since the wolves were extirpated, adds ecologist William Ripple. The team has found similar problems in other parks missing their top predators (Science, 2 May, p. 597; 27 July 2007, p. 438).

    Experts agree that the Olympic ecosystem needs wolves, and “wolves are on our list to consider” for reintroduction, says the park's lead wildlife biologist, Patti Happe. “But it will take a lot of public support to happen.” Plans to reintroduce the species in the 1990s were shelved due to local resistance.


    On 14 July, the world got just a little bit smaller, with the first satellite communications link between the north and south poles.

    Scientists at the Airship Italia Arctic research station on the Svalbard Islands near the North Pole established an audio and video link with colleagues at the Concordia base in Antarctica. The event marked the 80th anniversary of the fatal flight of Italia, an airship built by Arctic explorer Umberto Nobile, which crashed while returning to Norway from the North Pole. Nobile and seven others were picked up after weeks on floating ice, but the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen died in the rescue efforts.

    The link underscored the connection between Arctic and Antarctic research, says geoscientist Giuseppe Cavarretta of Italy's National Research Council in Rome. Last week, workers in Svalbard also laid the first stone for a new 35-meter-high research tower that will measure temperature, air composition, and other atmospheric parameters. The €50,000 Amundsen-Nobile tower is a near-duplicate of an American tower in the Antarctic that has been gathering data since 2002. “This time we are not ‘exploring’ with an airship but with sophisticated scientific instruments,” Cavarretta says.


    Parisians living near the Seine can now gauge local air quality simply by looking out the window. A helium balloon tethered in a park by the river was recently equipped with lasers that, at night, make it glow in one of five colors ranging from green (signaling very good air) to red (very bad). The color follows an index that factors in nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and particle levels around the city.


    During the day, when the laser can't be seen, a colored canvas wrapped around the gondola and a flag convey the information. As of September, a separate spot on the balloon's surface will also show average air quality near major Parisian traffic junctions.