Random Samples

Science  04 Nov 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5749, pp. 773

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  1. Tracking Mini-Fauna


    Owl butterfly with transmitter on its back. From the home of precision watch works now come radiotransmitters tiny enough to track insects.

    Behavioral ecologist Beat Naef-Daenzer of the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach and his colleagues wanted to study young barn swallows preparing to leave their nests, but no transmitter on the market fit the job. So they created their own from the smallest components available, coming up with a 200-milligram instrument capable of broadcasting over a 2-kilometer range for 3 weeks.

    The researchers have now moved beyond swallows and are field-testing the instrument on owl butterflies, which weigh about 2 grams. Most animal species weigh less than 20 grams, notes Naef-Daenzer, and population movements of many are “virtually unknown because individuals cannot be tracked over more than a few minutes.” He says minitransmitters could help track little creatures such as tree frogs, African locusts, or Europe's endangered aquatic warbler. The group, whose report appears in the 1 November Journal of Experimental Biology, is looking into smaller power sources, such as ultrathin polymer photovoltaic cells.

    “Half of the world's birds are too small to use traditional tags for. This opens up a large set of species to do that work with,” says ornithologist David Winkler of Cornell University.

  2. Raising the Dead


    A modern drawing of Bromus by Omer Van De Kerckhove. Long thought extinct, a historically important Belgian grass has been resurrected from the vaults of a seed bank.

    Earlier this year, David Aplin of the National Botanic Garden of Belgium was rummaging through the garden's collections in preparation for a meeting of the recently formed European Native Seed Conservation Network. He came upon long-forgotten packets of seeds from Bromus bromoideus—the “Brome of the Ardennes”—a grass species that had been wiped out in the wild 70 years ago.

    Bromus is the only plant ever found to be unique to Belgium, where it flourished in the rolling, chalky meadows of the Ardennes. Its image was embossed on the cover of several 19th century books on Belgian flora. But changes in land tilling led to its disappearance. Botanists, more concerned with exotic varieties than native plants, “took their eye off the ball” and failed to keep the species going, Aplin says.

    Now botanists have succeeded in getting the Bromus seeds to germinate, and there are little green shoots from them growing in both Belgium and England.

  3. Spotting Illusions


    People with schizophrenia can't always distinguish real from unreal, but they can see right through some visual illusions, a new study shows.

    Schizophrenia seems to include an inability to process the context of things, from social interactions to metaphoric language, explains psychologist Steven Dakin of University College London's Institute of Ophthalmology. So, says Dakin, “we wondered whether that would affect their vision as well.”

    Dakin and his team showed 15 schizophrenic subjects and 20 controls a shaded, patterned disk against a high-contrast background (see illustration). The subjects were then shown a “reference patch” and had to assess whether it contained more or less contrast than the original image. The results were startling: 12 of the 15 schizophrenic observers were more accurate than the most-accurate member of the control group.

    “The illusion's pretty substantial,” Dakin says, but “the schizophrenics were almost completely immune to its effect.” “We're hoping [the study] might be a step toward more objective diagnostics,” he adds.

    Psychiatrist William Phillips of the University of Stirling in the U.K. calls the findings “very important.” He says “the weakened effects of context” that people with schizophrenia demonstrate may apply across the board in many domains of cognition and perception.

  4. Scope's On


    Scientists are finally getting the payoff for disrupting all those red squirrels back in 1996 when construction began on the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) on Mount Graham in Arizona. Last week, the LBT transmitted its first light image, a spiral galaxy in the Andromeda constellation 24 million light-years away.

    The $120 million LBT, the world's most advanced optical telescope, will be able to peer all the way back to the beginning of time—15 billion light-years—with its two massive 8.4-meter mirrors. The scope is to be fully operational by fall next year.

  5. Jobs


    A long commute. Biochemist Joan Massaguè has found a way to serve his native Spain while remaining in the United States. Last month, the 52-year-old head of the cancer biology and genetics program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City (MSKCC) became adjunct director of the Barcelona Biomedical Research Institute (BBRI).

    Massaguè will work with his former Ph.D. mentor and BBRI director Joan Guinovart to design research programs, recruit new investigators, and formulate policies at the new $20 million institute, which is being funded by the Catalan government and the University of Barcelona. He will also supervise a lab devoted to metastasis biology.

    Under an agreement approved by MSKCC, Massagué says he will travel to Barcelona for a few days once every 2 months. He says his appointment is “designed to foster the development of biomedical research at BBRI” without hurting his activities at MSKCC. The arrangement will benefit both institutions, he says; postdocs and graduate students from his Barcelona lab will be able to spend time at MSKCC for short work visits financed entirely by BBRI.

    Digging logically. The United Kingdom's biggest center for archaeology research and teaching has a new director. On 1 October, Stephen Shennan, an archaeologist known for applying Darwinian theory to cultural evolution, took over the helm of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London from retiring chief Peter Ucko. The institute, with more than 70 faculty members and nearly 500 students, has trained many of Britain's leading archaeologists.

    Shennan came to the institute in 1996 after a 20-year career at the University of Southampton. Insiders say he is an excellent choice, even if his approach puts him somewhat out of step with a tendency among British archaeologists to eschew hypothesis testing. “He has rejuvenated archaeology with ideas and quantitative methods from evolutionary theory,” says Rob Boyd, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

    As head of the institute, Shennan says he plans to “foster a rigorous approach to understanding the past.”


    Same trick, new trade. After helping establish a medical genomics laboratory at Rockefeller University in New York City, computational biologist Terry Gaasterland is moving west to create a center that will span marine, comparative, and environmental genomics.

    As director of the just-launched Scripps Genome Center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, Gaasterland will lead an effort to apply software tools to make genome comparisons between animals as different as humans and sea squirts and to study marine diversity. “The only way that you can understand that data is through bioinformatics,” says microbiologist Mitch Sogin of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Terry is in the right place.”

  6. Deaths


    Shining star. Astrophysicist Alastair Cameron, who was one of the first to suggest that elements form inside the hearts of stars, died in Tucson, Arizona, on 3 October. He was 80.

    Cameron spent 26 years at Harvard University, conducting research on astrophysics and planetary sciences, and chaired the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences from 1976 to 1982. He was most recently at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

    Cameron was known for breaking down barriers between disciplines, says astrophysicist W. David Arnett, also of the University of Arizona. “He changed the direction of space and planetary science by [his] example,” Arnett says.

  7. They Said It

    “Now you can all be insiders and say Vuh-NEE-ver [Bush].”

    —Former MIT president Charles Vest last month in Washington, D.C., asking fellow members of the Department of Education's newly formed panel on higher education to correct their pronunciation of the legendary science administrator's name.