Random Samples

Science  02 Jul 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5987, pp. 17

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  1. Big Whales, Tiny Numbers


    Almost 200 years ago, whalers in the Gulf of Alaska could scarcely believe the numbers of North Pacific right whales (Eubalaena japonica) living there. Today, scientists are astonished because the numbers are so low. Genetic and photographic data reveal that between 30 and 54 of the behemoths remain, and only eight are female, according to a study in the 30 June issue of Biology Letters. “It is the world's smallest whale population for which we have estimates,” says lead author Paul Wade, a whale biologist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington.

    American whalers harpooned more than 23,000 North Pacific right whales in the 19th century. After the whales were given international protection in 1949, the Soviet Union hunted them illegally until none were seen in the region (Science, 29 May 2009, p. 1132). “They hit the recovering population [of about 400 whales] hard,” Wade says. A few were rediscovered in 1996.

    “The good news is that the population is large enough to be measured,” says Andrew Read, a cetacean biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. So little is known about the whales, he says, “we still do not know where they breed.”

  2. Gruber Prizes

    Gerald Fink of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge has snagged the Gruber Genetics Prize, announced Wednesday. Fink pioneered using living yeast cells to express genes from any organism. The Cosmology Prize goes to the California Institute of Technology's Charles Steidel, who is known for discovering early star-forming galaxies with a novel technique. The Neuroscience Prize goes to the National Institutes of Health's Robert Wurtz, whose groundbreaking physiological studies on monkeys helped elucidate vision processing. Each winner will receive $500,000 and a gold medal from the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, based in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

  3. Saving an Evolutionary Icon


    The Galápagos Islands are often called a “living laboratory of evolution.” But they've also become a laboratory of conservation, as scientists scramble to save the islands' storied species from the ravages of human contact.

    Galápagos's finches, a famous example of how adaptations to different food sources can lead to new species, have been particularly hard hit. Egg-eating ship rats and other ills have whittled down one species, the mangrove finch, to 100 birds, nearly all living on one stretch of beach on Isabela Island.

    In mid-June, the Ecuadorian government announced that scientists had captured nine of the birds and moved them across the island to a new, largely rat-free habitat 25 kilometers away in a bid to increase their numbers. Researchers have successfully reintroduced breeding iguanas and tortoises to islands where their numbers had dwindled, but this is the first relocation of a Galápagos bird.

    “It's a calculated risk to take 10% of the population,” says H. Glyn Young, a conservation biologist at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in the Channel Islands, which runs the project with the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation. Since the relocation in late May, only one of the finches has flown home. A field expedition this month will check on the rest. If the relocation succeeds, Young says his team has “more-ambitious plans” to place mangrove finches in two other habitats. Also being eyed for relocation is the Floreana mockingbird, a species that Darwin cited as an inspiration for his theory of natural selection.

  4. Art at World's End


    Artist Xavier Cortada favors an unusual medium: polar ice. In 2006, during 2 weeks in Antarctica, he took scientists' samples from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, mingled them with paint, and let them melt on paper. “It's a watercolor if you think about it,” Cortada says, and “a precursor of horrors to come” with global warming.

    In a performance piece at the South Pole, Cortada read 24 statements about climate change, collected from people around the world, over 24 shoes aligned with their longitudes. He also planted 51 flags 10 meters apart to mark how ice has flowed yearly from the pole since 1956, when humans opened a permanent base there, and buried an ice replica of a mangrove seedling under the pole itself. Cortada called the latter installation “150,000-Year Journey”—the time the ice will take to convey the seedling to the continent's edge. “It's my way of … making us realize how insignificant [human history] was next to geologic time scales,” he says.

    Artifacts, photos, and video from Cortada's projects appear in North Pole/South Pole (90n/90s) Installations, an exhibition that opened 25 June at the Miami Science Museum in Florida.