Random Samples

Science  30 Jul 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5991, pp. 495
  1. Foundling

    CREDIT: CHAMINDA MAHANAYAGE

    While trudging through the rainy forests of Sri Lanka one night, Saman Gamage swung his flashlight and saw a pair of red eyes glowing back at him. “I'll never forget that morning at 3:15 a.m.,” says Gamage, a conservation biologist at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka. The eyes belonged to the Horton Plains slender loris (Loris tardigradus nycticeboides), a primate scientists thought had gone extinct, having glimpsed it only once in the past 65 years.

    Gamage and colleagues had combed the area for lorises for an entire year. The pint-size, cartoonish primates prefer montane or cloud forests; they cling to the limbs of short, vine-tangled trees and hide in the waxy leaves from the frequent horizontal rain. Most of these forests, however, have either shrunk too small to be suitable habitats or been replaced by eucalyptus and pine trees, in which lorises won't live. When Gamage's team did find a site, they would survey 2-kilometer-long stretches at night with flashlights, sometimes spending up to 12 days camping out.

    It took more than 1000 surveys in 120 fragmented forest areas to find one Horton Plains slender loris. That fact highlights the region's habitat-conservation problems, says conservation biologist Craig Turner of the Zoological Society of London, who oversaw parts of the study. “This [finding] addresses the wider issue of the biodiversity of Sri Lanka and shows a potential opportunity to conserve it.”

  2. Send in the Wasps

    CREDIT: NEIL PALMER/CIAT; (INSET) G. GOERGEN/IITA

    Thailand's crop of cassava, a tuber resembling a long potato, generates more than $1.5 billion annually. So when farmers spotted cassava-killing mealybugs (Phenacoccus manihoti) on their plants in 2008, they were ready to do battle. Last week, entomologists from the Thai Department of Agriculture deployed the first troops: thousands of tiny parasitoid wasps (Anagyrus lopezi) released in Khon Kaen province. Local farmers looked on; some caught a few wasps to take back to their farms.

    Without human intervention, the mealybugs would have wreaked unfettered havoc; both cassava and mealybugs hail from South America, so the pests have no natural predators in Thailand. African cassava farmers faced that predicament in the 1970s. The plague ended only when entomologists introduced the mealybugs' natural South American enemy: 2-millimeter-long stingless wasps that lay their eggs in the bodies of female mealybugs, converting them into meals for their own young (Science, 15 January, p. 260).

    Scientists hope the parasitoid wasps, which are host-specific, will soon have the mealybugs in Thailand under control, too. “It's a proven way to kill the mealybugs,” says Anthony Bellotti, an entomologist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia, and an expert on the wasp. He and others expect that the mealybugs will spread to cassava farms throughout Southeast Asia, but the wasps will be hot on their heels, he says. “Think of them as a kind of ecofriendly SWAT team.”

  3. You're Funny, HAL

    What do you call a nasty cake?

    A “w-awful.”

    If you just chuckled, you have a silicon sense of humor. Last Wednesday, computer scientist Judith Masthoff and colleagues at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom launched the Joking Computer, an Internet version of a program they've been working on since the early 1990s (bit.ly/joke-program). The yuks are a bit formulaic; the program uses dictionary definitions and phonetics to generate puns that are “about the same quality” as those in a children's joke book, Masthoff says.

    But it's not all kicks and giggles. The team devised the program for children with severe cerebral palsy who communicate with computers and voice synthesizers. “It adds a bit of fun to the day and gets them to think about language,” Masthoff says. “Instead of saying, ‘I need to go to the bathroom,’ they could also say, ‘What do you get when you cross a drink with a dragon? A wine-osaur.’”

  4. Map to the Future

    CREDIT: GOOGLE EARTH

    Wondering what a warmer world looks like? Wonder no more. On 14 July, the U.K. government launched an interactive map visualizing the impacts of climate change. Running as a layer in Google Earth (bit.ly/4-degrees), the map uses data from the Met Office, the U.K.'s national weather service, to show where and how sea levels, crop production, tropical cyclones, and other phenomena might change if average global temperature rises 4°C above preindustrial levels. That could occur as early as 2060, says Met Office meteorologist Vicky Pope. One possible result: Less snow cover in the mountains could shrink water supplies in areas that rely on meltwater, such as the Indus basin and western China.

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