Random Samples

Science  13 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5955, pp. 919

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  1. Hope for Mongolian Horses


    The Przewalski's horse—the world's last remaining truly wild horse—may be gaining traction in the Gobi desert.

    Many projects have attempted unsuccessfully to reintroduce zoo horses to their original habitat on the central Asian steppes. Now, scientists have announced at the recent Society for Conservation Biology meeting in Beijing that in two cases the horses may have turned the corner.

    Veterinarian Chris Walzer of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna says that horses at two projects in Mongolia have been upgraded from “extinct in the wild” to “critically endangered,” according to criteria set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which requires that more than 50 mature individuals spend 5 years free-living in the wild. The horses are at Hustai National Park, which had 171 living on their own in 2006, and Takhin Tal, which had 115 in 2007.

    Walzer has calculated that 140 is “a robust starting population” for a group's long-term survival. He and colleagues say the current 58% foal survival rate in Takhin Tal is enough to sustain the population, even through the Gobi's harsh winters.

    Weikang Yang, an ecologist at Mongolia's Kalameili reserve, says some horses were released in Kalameili in 2001, but survival is difficult because livestock push the horses off their land in winter and the thick snow makes food hard to find. At Takhin Tal, local herdsmen are paid to keep their animals off the reserve.

  2. Who's That Swine?

    Miss Piggy has mirror smarts.


    Pigs belong to the elite group of animals that can use mirrors, researchers say. “We knew that pigs have sophisticated social behaviors,” says zoologist Donald Broom of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, so he and colleagues decided to test their mirror awareness. First, they left eight pigs, in pairs, with a mirror for 5 hours. “They initially interpret the image as another pig,” says Broom—the error most species make. But then they began to recognize the reflections of their own movements.

    Proof of their mirror smarts came in the next test: The researchers hid a bowl of food behind a barrier so that it could be seen only in the mirror. An overhead fan circulated the food's scent so that the pigs could not simply use their noses. In less than 25 seconds, seven of the pigs correctly interpreted the image, turned away from the mirror, and ran to the bowl. The eighth pig flunked the test, looking behind the mirror for the food.

    The experiments show that pigs can make sense of mirror images and have some degree of self-awareness, the researchers report in the current issue of Animal Behavior. The findings are “very significant,” says Marc Bekoff, a cognitive ethologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and “extend the range of animals who are self-aware.” That includes elephants, dolphins, magpies, gray parrots, and some primates.

  3. Putting Things in Perspective


    Astronomers are reaching ever deeper into the distant universe. A team led by Masayuki Tanaka of the European Southern Observatory near Munich, Germany, has created a 3D image of a chunk of the universe that shows a huge, previously unknown cluster of galaxies almost 7 billion light-years away. The galaxies (in red), revealed by powerful optical telescopes in Chile and Hawaii, extend over at least 60 million light-years.

  4. End of an Era

    Lévi-Strauss in Amazonia circa 1936.


    Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, a towering figure in 20th century anthropology, died in Paris on 31 October, a few weeks shy of his 101st birthday.

    Lévi-Strauss introduced “structuralism” to anthropology: the concept that all societies follow certain universal patterns of thought and behavior, as exemplified in their myths. “The ultimate original principle of structuralism [is] that the forms of cultural order reflect general underlying laws of the human mind,” says social anthropologist Marshall Sahlins of the University of Chicago in Illinois.

    Born in Belgium, Lévi-Strauss taught sociology in Brazil in the 1930s and spent 3 years studying tribes in the Brazilian interior. During World War II, he fled to the United States, where he taught at New York City's New School for Social Research. In 1959, Lévi-Strauss was named to a chair in social anthropology at Paris's Collège de France, where he remained until his retirement in 1982.