Random Samples

Science  25 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5986, pp. 1617

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  1. Dunk the Giraffe

    You can do it!


    They aren't going to win any medals for grace, but giraffes, awkward as they are, can probably swim, a new computer simulation shows.

    Most mammals swim: Elephants are great swimmers, and even a bat can thrash its way to shore if it happens to fall in a river. But scientists don't see giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) going for afternoon dips and assumed that their huge, ungainly necks made swimming impossible.

    To test the idea, paleontologists Donald Henderson of the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Canada and Darren Naish of the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom built a computer model of a giraffe, based on pictures from an atlas of East African mammals, and then simulated it standing in rising water. At a water depth of 2.8 meters, the giraffe floated.

    The virtual giraffe was clumsy. Its hips rose higher than its shoulders, its neck stretched forward, and it would have had to work to keep its mouth and nostrils above water. But it didn't tip over or sink, suggesting that a giraffe could probably swim if it wanted to, the authors report in the 21 July issue of the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

    Functional morphologist Frank Fish of West Chester University in Pennsylvania calls it “sort of marvelous” that such a computer model can replace a highly inconvenient experiment. “Back in the old days, you would take an animal, and you would throw it in the water,” he says. “Today, we don't do things like that.”

  2. Kyoto Prize Announced

    Medical researcher Shinya Yamanaka of the University of California, San Francisco, and Kyoto University, a pioneer in generating pluripotent stem cells without human embryos, and mathematician László Lovász of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, known for his research on discrete structures, have won the Kyoto Prize from Japan's Inamori Foundation in the advanced technology and basic sciences categories, respectively. South African visual artist William Kentridge is the winner in the arts and philosophy category. Each winner receives $550,000.

  3. Three Q's


    For almost a century and a half, Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park has served as a verbal free-fire zone for homegrown orators, agitators, eccentrics, and hecklers. Last week, experts in evolution, conservation, and climate science marched down to the famous spot to talk science and answer skeptics. Conservation scientist Jonathan Baillie of the Zoological Society of London, which organized the event, describes his moment on the soapbox.

    Q:Why was the event Scientists at Speakers' Corner organized?

    Recent controversies like “Climategate” have had a negative impact on how the public receive information from the scientific community. We need to rebuild the public's trust in science—and to show the world that scientists aren't sitting in ivory towers.

    Q:What was your talk about?

    I discussed why it's important to conserve poorly known, one-of-a-kind species that are on the edge of extinction. Many charismatic animals—such as pandas, elephants, and tigers—receive a lot of attention, but there are many other animals facing extinction in silence.

    Q:Were there any tricky questions?

    With so many challenges facing us in the modern world, including war and famine, some people asked why they should care about animals that they've never even heard of. I argued that it is in our interest to maintain the diversity of life, as it provides many benefits for humanity. We have to make sure that we do not allow those species that represent a disproportionate amount of genetic, behavioral, ecological, and aesthetic diversity to disappear unnoticed.

  4. Strange Catch


    Among the anchovies and calamari hawked at southern Italy's boisterous fish markets, more exotic fare is catching the eyes of marine scientists.

    Three times a week, researchers from the Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Southern Italy, Naples, drive to fish markets in Naples and Salerno, looking for nonnative species caught at depths of 600 to 800 meters by fishermen using sonar. In the past year, the visits have turned up 15 exotic species, some of them never before reported in the Mediterranean, says veterinarian Fabio Di Nocera. These include tropical fish such as the blue-spotted cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii), shown above, native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, and equatorial louvar fish (Luvarus imperialis), shown below, an apparent newcomer.

    “For each species, we have collected several young specimens,” Di Nocera says. “This suggests that [tropical species] are not just isolated cases, as we used to think, but that they could be permanently living and reproducing within the Mediterranean basin.”

    Word of exotic fish spotted by fishermen and divers rarely reaches scientists, Di Nocera says. So he and colleagues began distributing a brochure with pictures of “wanted species” at the markets. Now the fishermen keep any unusual catches for Di Nocera's team to examine.