Science  22 Aug 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5892, pp. 1025


    NIGHTMARE AT DUSK. Catching a glimpse of the elusive Pacific screech owl in the dry forests of Costa Rica this month was a special moment for Stanford University ornithologist and nature photographer Cagan Sekercioglu (bottom left). But it came at a high price: a mob attack that left his colleague, Jim Zook, with 12 stitches.

    The attack came after locals mistook the two birders for bandits who had stolen electrical wiring from a nearby farm. After smashing the windshield, five assailants slashed Zook, a U.S. citizen who's lived in Costa Rica for 30 years, on the hand and back with a machete. Sekercioglu was also detained, but luckily the captors ended up summoning the police, who extricated the scientists from the angry mob.

    That's when Sekercioglu spotted a screech owl and grabbed his camera. “My heart is pounding, and it's a mixture of emotions seeing this thing,” he says. “I press and the flash goes off and there's this perfect photo.”


    A BALANCING ACT. Emma Pooley's ride to the Olympic silver medal in cycling last week required some juggling of her scientific career. When she's not on a bicycle, the 25-year-old British graduate student studies the instability of lumpy soils at the Institute for Geotechnical Engineering at ETH Zürich in Switzerland.


    It helps that her supervisor, Sarah Springman, is an accomplished triathlete and rower. In addition to working part-time, Pooley also won permission to spend several months this winter at the University of Western Australia in Perth “rather than sitting in the snow in Zürich,” says co-supervisor Jan Laue. Pooley finished 25 seconds behind American Kristin Armstrong in the 23.5-km women's time trial held on 13 August in Beijing.


    WONDERLAND. Jessica Hodgins wants to make a robot's gaze as lifelike as possible.

    Markus Gross is developing a three-dimensional video-recording system. The two computer scientists, at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich, respectively, will now have the backing of one of the world's largest entertainment companies as heads of research labs being funded by the Walt Disney Co.

    The two new labs are the first Disney research facilities to be set up in collaboration with academic institutions. Hodgins hopes to draw on the faculty and technical resources at CMU's nearby School of Computer Science to collaborate with Disney Research Pittsburgh on efforts such as developing robots that can play games with guests at Disney's theme parks. Current Disney researchers will also be encouraged to take research sabbaticals at the university. Gross anticipates a similar relationship between ETH and Disney Research-Zurich, including joint efforts to improve animation quality and enhance cinematography.

    Disney isn't saying how much it plans to spend, but each lab expects to hire seven or eight primary researchers. “My kids are excited,” says Gross. “My 20-year-old daughter likes [Disney] Pixar movies very much.”

  4. THREE Q'S


    To S. Blair Hedges, a biologist at Pennsylvania State University in State College, identifying a tiny snake found in Barbados as a new species and naming it Leptotyphlops carlae after his wife, Carla Hass, was standard practice. But his 4 August announcement in Zootaxa infuriated some residents of the Caribbean island nation, who for generations have known it simply as the threadsnake.

    Q: Isn't it rude to name a snake after your wife?

    Most people consider something named after them an honor. She happened to be with me when I collected the specimen from the edge of a forest in Barbados. And besides, she is a herpetologist.


    Q: Why is it a discovery if residents already knew about the snake?

    “Discovery” is a relative term. The threadsnake has probably been there for a million years, but the discovery happened at my lab in Pennsylvania when it was determined that the snake that everybody thought they knew was a distinct species endemic to the island.

    Q: What's the added value of knowing that the snake is unique?

    Learning that it exists only on an island [means] it is much more likely to be threatened with extinction if its habitat disappears. Now that we know that the species occurs only in forest patches in Barbados, we can make the argument that the forests need to be preserved for the sake of biodiversity.

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