Random Samples

Science  01 Aug 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5633, pp. 591
  1. That Was Good, Baby

    Female baboons love to talk about sex, particularly when it's good. Biologists have been baffled by this bawdy habit, but new research suggests that the ladies may have a good reason for being so forthcoming.

    Grunting in approval.


    Unlike lots of other animals that call, sing, or whistle to advertise fertility but fall silent after the deed is done, female baboons give loud staccato grunts after mating. The grunting tends to be more intense after sex with a higher-ranking, dominant male. Researchers previously thought the calls to be a signal encouraging more males to compete for a roll in the hay. But behavioral biologist Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago and his colleagues say the female's postcoital grunts are intended to make her partner stick around.

    Maestripieri's team studied a captive group of Guinea baboons at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago for 3 months and found that instead of persuading more males to mate, a female's calls put off potential suitors. Once a female baboon mates with a preferred male, it is in her best interest to give that male's sperm the best chance to fertilize her eggs by avoiding further copulation. Males comply by guarding a female that's grunted. This tactic gives female baboons—who might otherwise be at the mercy of the much larger males—a say in who fathers their babies, Maestripieri reported at the Animal Behavior Society meeting in Boise, Idaho, last month.

    “It's definitely a novel take on postcopulation calls,” says Fred Bercovitch, a behavioral biologist at the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species at the San Diego Zoo. But before Bercovitch will be convinced that the behavior has an adaptive purpose, he says more work is needed, such as tallying whether the calls actually decrease the number of males a female mates with during her most fertile days.

  2. Whale of a Wing


    The scalloped trailing edge of a humpback whale's tail was one inspiration for this experimental aircraft wing. The wind tunnel model is featured in a book, Aerospace Design: Aircraft, Spacecraft, and the Art of Modern Flight (Merrell, 2003), that accompanies an exhibition of the same name at The Art Institute of Chicago. The show runs through December.

  3. Wanted: Stem Cell Research Papers

    The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) is looking for a few good papers—especially if they describe research with human embryonic stem (ES) cells. In an editorial in the 17 July issue, journal Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Drazen criticized moves in the U.S. Congress to restrict certain kinds of research on human ES cells. The work is controversial because the cells are derived from early embryos.

    Many journal editors (including Donald Kennedy of Science) are on record strongly supporting the research, but Drazen went a step further. Hoping to send a message to politicians and scientists alike, Drazen wrote that NEJM's editors will actively “seek out highly meritorious manuscripts” describing work using ES cells. Drazen told Science that the journal would gladly publish nonclinical results that “illuminate the biology of disease.”

    George Daley of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who works with human ES cells and wrote an accompanying commentary in the same issue, says it's noteworthy “that such an important gatekeeper for medicine plans to pay such close attention to the emerging field of regenerative medicine.”

  4. Wanderers in the Sky

    After a half-century-long hunt, astronomers believe they have finally detected rogue star clusters that roam the vast dark spaces between galaxies. The discovery of hundreds of these vagabonds, reported at the International Astronomical Union meeting in Sydney, Australia, last month, could help solve long-standing galactic mysteries.


    For decades, astronomers have detected scattered light from the intergalactic void, but they lacked tools sensitive enough to make out whether it came from “globular clusters,” which consist of up to a million suns packed together by gravity.

    With the Hubble Space Telescope's brand-new Advanced Camera for Surveys and the 10-meter Keck Telescopes in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, however, Michael West of the University of Hawaii, Hilo, and his colleagues in the U.S. and U.K. have spotted what may be more than 300 intergalactic globular clusters, the farthest ones roughly 400 million light-years away. Each cluster is “about a billion times fainter than the eye can see,” says West. The number uncovered agrees well with figures the astronomers predicted for the tiny patch of sky probed, “meaning there should be loads and loads of these things throughout the universe,” he says.

    The researchers speculate that the rogue clusters were ripped loose from their parent galaxies by cosmic acts of mayhem, such as the cannibalization of one galaxy by another. “This opens up whole new possibilities to study the death of galaxies,” West says. The discovery could also help researchers solve the decades-old puzzle of why some galaxies apparently contain far more clusters than expected for their size: The vagabonds could be adding to the count.

    But to confirm that the faint dots are indeed vagabonds, and not galaxy-orbiting clusters, astronomer David Hanes of Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, suggests using ground telescopes to gather precise details of each cluster's velocity.

  5. While the Lab Coat Gathers Dust ...


    What do most prominent scientists do for a living? Everything but lab work, suggests a recent Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) survey that asked its 329 investigators how they divvy up their workweek. Of the 236 who responded, 129—a staggering 55%— report spending zero time at the bench. Another 58–24%—said they spend less than 5 hours a week on lab work. Only eight—barely 3%—reported spending more than 20 hours performing experiments.

    Most respondents say the bulk of their time is spent talking with lab staff and looking over their results. The rest of the workweek is chewed up by a mix of activities including grant writing, teaching, writing papers and review articles, and attending conferences, HHMIreported in its quarterly bulletin.

    The greatest disadvantage of not having time to do experiments is “the risk of missing the significance of an unexpected outcome, which a less experienced lab member may not pick up on,” says neurobiologist John Maunsell, an HHMI investigator at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Maunsell admits that he can never spend more than 5 hours a week at the bench, “but there's some degree of executive control that simply can't be farmed out.”

  6. Deaths


    Seal attack. A firsthand look at how icebergs affect plant and animal life near the Antarctic shore cost marine biologist Kirsty Brown her life. Brown, of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), drowned last week near the U.K.'s Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula when a leopard seal attacked her and pulled her under water.

    Brown, 28, worked as a diver and research scientist in Greenland and Australia before joining BAS's Life at the Edge: Stresses and Thresholds (LATEST) research program last summer. “She was full of energy and enthusiasm,” says BAS ecophysiologist Lloyd Peck, head of the LATEST program. “She worked very hard and could do boring, mundane aspects of work with a smile on her face.”

  7. Sidelines


    Wet welcome. University of Maine graduate student Anne Simpson got a thrill earlier this month: a trip to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean aboard Alvin, the deep-sea submersible operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. But Simpson, who is about to embark on a Ph.D. study of deep-sea corals at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, paid a price for joining the elite club of deep-diving doctoral students: She had to endure a shower of ice-cold seawater reserved for every first-time Alvin passenger. Still, a soaked Simpson said the dunking was worth “the privilege” of seeing her study subjects in their cold, dark natural setting.

  8. Two Cultures

    Making a name. Dutch physician Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization's representative in Beijing, can rightfully claim to be synonymous with WHO's mission in China. The Chinese name he's chosen—every foreigner settling in China has to pick one—is Bei Hanwei, which means, among other things, “Treasure Health China.” In addition to conveying WHO's message, it sounds vaguely like his Dutch name and is easy to write and remember. “Reactions are usually very positive,” says Bekedam, whose new name served him particularly well during the recent SARS crisis.

  9. Jobs

    RIKEN-bound. Nobelist Ryoji Noyori wants to raise the public's appreciation for science by shining a brighter light on Japan's premier research institution.

    As the new president of the 86-year-old Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN), Noyori says that RIKEN's 2300 scientists have made it a “center of research excellence.” But he says, “it takes a lot of financial support for a place like RIKEN to survive, and ensuring that support requires greater public understanding.”

    Noyori, 64, shared the chemistry prize in 2001 for discoveries that exploit the chirality, or handedness, of molecules in making catalysts for the chemical, pharmaceutical, and advanced materials industry. He will join RIKEN in October after retiring from Nagoya University.

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