Random Samples

Science  18 Apr 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5874, pp. 297


    Painters used to depict racing horses with both pairs of legs outstretched. Then in the 1870s, British photographer Eadweard Muybridge became the first to show how horses really run by setting up a row of cameras that snapped as a horse galloped past. In this gait, all four feet leave the ground only as the horse gathers itself for the next stretch—the opposite of what artists imagined. The photos are part of a major exhibit on the horse opening on 17 May at New York City's American Museum of Natural History.


    European stargazers have bad and good news. Some European telescopes at the La Silla Observatory will be shut down to save money. But another European observatory in Chile is seeing new kinds of stars—from Hollywood.

    At La Silla, a 2.2-meter telescope will be decommissioned after next year, and visiting scientists will no longer have access to the 3.6-meter scope as it moves full-time into a planet-hunting project called HARPS. Some astronomers are grumbling. “Some of the instruments at La Silla cost peanuts to keep operational,” says Christiaan Sterken of the Free University of Brussels, Belgium. The telescopes may be small, but they are needed for fields such as asteroseismology, he says, and for training young astronomers.

    Meanwhile, as if to rub it in, James Bond actor Daniel Craig visited the observatory at Cerro Paranal, home to the quadruple 8.2-meter Very Large Telescope. A 300-person film crew spent 4 days there shooting scenes for the film Quantum of Solace. The spacy-looking residence building was chosen “both for its exceptional design and its remote location in the Atacama Desert,” says Michael Wilson, a producer. It is “the perfect hideout for our villain.”

    Villain's hideout—the residencia at Atacama. CREDIT: ESO

    So will proceeds from moviemaking be the answer for telescopes that are down on their luck? Apparently not. Andreas Kaufer, director of the Paranal Observatory, says the film company compensated them for extra expenses “but not much more.”


    Nearly 2 decades have passed since the Exxon Valdez spilled 42 million liters of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. But the effects are still reverberating among the local killer whales.

    Marine biologist Craig Matkin of the North Gulf Oceanic Society in Homer, Alaska, and colleagues collected data—including individual photo IDs—on two genetically distinct whale groups for 5 years before the spill. When it occurred, one group (AT1) was photographed swimming in oil less than 24 hours later; the other (AB) was spotted in oily waters 6 days later.

    When killer whales disappear from a pod for more than a year, they are presumed dead. In the first year after the spill, the AB group lost 14 of its 36 members, and its birthrate plummeted. The AT1 group plunged from 22 to 13. “The whales that surfaced in the oil probably suffered irreparable damage to their lungs,” says Matkin; others were harmed by eating oily seals and sea lions.

    Neither group has recovered, although the AB pod is slowly increasing its numbers, the scientists reported last month in Marine Ecology Progress Series. However, the AT1 group has shrunk to seven and “will probably go extinct,” says Matkin, because the surviving adults may be too closely related to mate.

    It's a sad tale but “a great paper that shows the value of long-term studies,” says John Durban, a marine mammalogist at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington.



    Elephants, sea cows, and hyraxes make an odd family photo, but they are one another's closest living relatives. A new study of fossil teeth indicates that, 37 million years ago, at least two members of the elephant clan still spent most of their time in the water.

    Analyzing the stable isotope ratios in the tooth enamel of two fossilized elephant cousins from Egypt (see drawing), a team led by paleobiology Ph.D. student Alexander Liu of the University of Oxford in the U.K. found that the carbon and oxygen composition of the teeth was much nearer that of modern-day aquatic mammals than that of terrestrial ones. They reported their findings online last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The authors “have a powerful set of methods and a powerful framework now,” says paleontologist William Sanders of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who says he hopes they will apply the same techniques to reveal the lifestyle of 60-million-year-old fossils that may be ancestral to both elephants and sea cows.

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