Archive for June, 2008

Honeybee Killer Still at Large

By Eliza Strickland | June 30, 2008 3:58 pm

honeybees honeycombThe plight of honeybees got an official hearing in Congress last Thursday as farmers, scientists, and even Haagen-Dazs executives testified about the mystery of “colony collapse disorder,” which has been killing off honeybees since the fall of 2006. Beekeepers are getting desperate, but scientists still don’t know why more than one-third of U.S. hives were destroyed last winter. To make things worse, one promising avenue of research has just been debunked.

Researchers had recently zeroed in on a bee ailment called deformed wing virus as the culprit, and had hypothesized that the virus was being transmitted by a parasitic mite that’s been observed in failing hives. However, a new study published in the Journal of General Virology [subscription required] discredits that theory, finding that the virus does not grow within the mite. Instead, the infection has been found only inside the gut of the [parasite], suggesting that the mite has merely eaten it from the bodies of bees already infected [The Times].

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California Hospitals Confess Their Errors

By Eliza Strickland | June 30, 2008 3:28 pm

surgery operationUnder a new law, California hospitals are supposed to report all serious medical errors to the state, and the first batch includes stories that will scare anyone with a looming hospital admission date. [D]uring a 10-month period ending in May, doctors performed the wrong surgical procedure, operated on the wrong body part or on the wrong patient 41 times, records show. During the same period, hospitals reported that foreign objects were left in surgical patients 145 times [AP].

Officially called “adverse events,” those accidents are also known as “never events” because they are considered preventable, and many safety experts say they should never happen [Los Angeles Times]. The new disclosures listed 1,002 cases that caused serious medical harm; under the new law, the public health department must begin to post all these cautionary tales on the Internet by 2015.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Researchers Use Feather “Fingerprints” to Track Penguins

By Eliza Strickland | June 30, 2008 10:09 am

African penguinResearchers are about to get to know the 20,000 African penguins that live on Robben Island, South Africa in intimate detail, down to the last feather. A new computer program will use pictures of the penguins going about their daily business to identify each individual based on the distinct pattern of black spots on its belly. Each bird’s markings are as unique as a human fingerprint, researchers say.

Previously, researchers had to clip metal ID tags onto the penguins if they wanted to keep track of them, but that system was less than ideal. This new biometric solution has the advantage over tags as it can operate without the birds having to be caught, which greatly reduces stress on penguin and scientist. “These penguins are vicious, nasty things that bite and scratch. They have very sharp beaks. I do love them but, by God, they can hurt,” said Professor Peter Barham, of Bristol University…. “It’s no fun trying to get tags on them” [Telegraph].

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MORE ABOUT: biometrics, penguins

The Tunguska Event: A Century Later, It’s Still Mysterious

By Eliza Strickland | June 30, 2008 9:05 am

Tunguska EventOne hundred years ago today, a fireball streaked across the morning sky over Siberia and exploded, flattening the forest across an area of 830 square miles. The cause of the Tunguska Event, named for the nearby Tunguska River, has been a source of speculation ever since, with theories ranging from the absurd (space aliens!) to the most plausible: a disintegrating meteor exploding in the atmosphere. But a century after the event scientists still don’t have enough evidence to conclusively say what happened.

Scientists arrived at the most likely scenario, the meteor explosion, by studying the pattern of blasted trees; they concluded that an explosion hadn’t occurred at ground level, but rather four to six miles above the Earth’s surface. [T]he fragment, which is believed to have measured perhaps 100 feet across (although new research suggests it may have been even smaller), was probably traveling at around 21,000 miles per hour when it exploded…. Based on later assessments of the damage, the force of the blast was estimated to be between 10 and 15 megatons of TNT, roughly a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima [Wired News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Space

Giant, Slimy Green Algae Bloom Threatens Olympic Sailing

By Eliza Strickland | June 27, 2008 6:55 pm

algae bloomAt the sailing venue for this summer’s Olympic Games, a vast algae bloom has covered the coastal waters with a bright green slime. The Chinese government is scrambling to clean up the mess before the games begin in early August, and more than 1,000 fishing boats have already been mobilized. “We can only haul the blue-green algae manually and we’re doing all we can with our arms full and by the boat-load,” said Wang [Haitao], a sailing spokesman for the Beijing Games organizing committee. “All you can see is fishing boats along the coast” [Bloomberg].

Besides being a concern to the sailors who plan to compete in the Olympic regattas, the algae explosion is also another instance of bad publicity highlighting China’s polluted environment. The country’s three-decade economic boom has left its waterways and coastlines severely polluted by industrial and farm chemicals and domestic sewage [AP], which contain high levels of nitrogen that nourish the algae blooms.

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Great Apes Have the Right to Life and Liberty, Spain Says

By Eliza Strickland | June 27, 2008 3:31 pm

gorillaIt’s clearly a historic occasion, albeit a weird one: The Spanish parliament has announced its support for granting legal rights to gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. The parliament’s environmental committee has approved resolutions committing the country to the Great Apes Project, an international campaign that aims to provide our closest genetic relatives with the right to life, the freedom of liberty and protection from torture [Great Ape Project]. The Spanish resolutions have majority support, and are expected to soon become law.

“This is a historic moment in the struggle for animal rights,” Pedro Pozas, the Spanish director of the Great Apes Project, told The Times. “It will doubtless be remembered as a key moment in the defence of our evolutionary comrades.”… Mr. Pozas said that the vote would set a precedent, establishing legal rights for animals that could be extended to other species. “We are seeking to break the species barrier — we are just the point of the spear,” he said. [The Times].

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MORE ABOUT: animal rights, primates

Plants “Climb” Mountains to Escape Global Warming

By Eliza Strickland | June 27, 2008 11:39 am

French Alps mountainsAs the world warms, plants are seeking higher ground. A new study that examined botanical surveys of European mountain ranges over the past century found that plants are slowly moving to higher elevations in order to stay within their ideal temperature zones. More than two thirds of the plants in six western European mountain ranges have climbed an average of [95 feet] in altitude each decade since 1905 [CBC].

The study, published in the journal Science [subscription required], is the first to bring the positive news that many mountain plants are able to adapt to the rapid changes brought by global warming. But there are troubling ramifications. The team also discovered that different types of plants are moving at different rates. “Long-lived plants like trees or shrubs did not show a significant shift, whereas short-lived species like herbs showed a strong upward shift in elevation,” [lead researcher Jonathan] Lenoir said. “This may imply profound changes in the composition and the structure of plant communities and on the animal species they interact with,” he added. “It may disrupt ecosystems” [National Geographic News].

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Geneticists Shake the Avian Family Tree

By Eliza Strickland | June 27, 2008 10:01 am

flamingoAn extensive study of bird genetics has revealed so many surprises about avian evolution that researchers say textbooks and field guides will have to be rewritten. After comparing the genetic codes of 169 species researchers realized that many assumptions about bird evolution are wrong; for example, they found that falcons are not closely related to hawks and eagles, and that flamingos didn’t evolve from other waterbirds.

“With this study, we learned two major things,” said Sushma Reddy, lead author and a fellow at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. “First, appearances can be deceiving. Birds that look or act similar are not necessarily related. Second, much of bird classification and conventional wisdom on the evolutionary relationships of birds is wrong” [AFP].

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MORE ABOUT: birds, evolution, genetics

Martian Soil Could Grow Asparagus

By Eliza Strickland | June 27, 2008 8:49 am

Mars dirt clodsThe Mars Phoenix Lander may deserve a Nobel Prize by the time it’s through. Just a week after the robot explorer took the first pictures of water ice on the on Mars, NASA scientists have a new announcement: The Phoenix has analyzed a scoop of soil, and found that the Martian dirt has the necessary ingredients to support plant life. Researchers say the soil they tested is slightly alkaline, not harshly acidic as feared, and that it contains the mineral nutrients potassium, magnesium, and sodium.

“There’s nothing about it that would preclude life. In fact, it seems very friendly,” said mission scientist Samuel P. Kounaves of Tufts University. “We were flabbergasted.” Kounaves said that the soil was similar to what people would find in their back yards on Earth and that if organic material was added, “you could probably grow asparagus, but not strawberries” [The Washington Post].

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California Announces Ambitious Plan to Cut Greenhouse Gases

By Eliza Strickland | June 26, 2008 5:37 pm

windmill californiaJust weeks after the U.S. Senate failed to pass a sweeping set of regulations to slow global warming, the state of California is pointing the way forward. California air regulators today announced a bold plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions that would alter the way utilities generate electricity, automakers build cars and developers construct buildings, and launch the nation’s broadest market in carbon-credit trading [Los Angeles Times].

The 99-page document really marks the beginning of negotiations over the finer policy details; that debate will continue until the end of 2010. One point of contention is the state’s proposal to force automakers to curb emissions of greenhouse gases from new California vehicles more quickly than required under federal mileage standards – a proposal currently blocked by the Bush administration [Sacramento Bee].

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