A caecilian from the newly discovered family, coiled over her eggs.
After thousands of hours of digging in the north Indian jungle, scientists have discovered a new family of amphibians. But they don’t look much like frogs: they resemble nothing so much as big, fat nightcrawlers.
There are about 180 species worldwide of legless amphibians, called caecilians (pronounced just like “Sicilian”), which can grow to be up to three feet long and live only in wet, tropical regions. This newly defined Indian family, which falls within that group, includes several species new to science. Caecilians have unusual nesting habits: the females lay eggs deep in the soil and stay coiled around them, apparently without eating, for the 2-3 months it takes for them to hatch. One of the most striking videos we have of the new creatures is of young almost ready to be born squirming and writhing within the clear globes of their eggs, like eyeballs filled with living jelly (watch below).
What’s the News: Neuroscientists have found a preliminary answer to a question that has puzzled philosophers for centuries: If someone who has always been blind is one day able to see, can they recognize by sight objects they already know by touch? In a new study published online by Nature Neuroscience, patients who had been blind since birth underwent sight-restoring surgeries as children or adolescent. In the day or two following surgery, patients seemed unable to match what they felt with their hands with what they saw, the researchers found, but a week later, they could.
This results suggests that the brain doesn’t have the innate ability (or maybe has limited innate ability) to tie input from different senses to the same concept—but that it can learn, and pretty fast. Just how fast, the researchers wrote, suggests that the neuronal machinery needed to bring together visual and tactile information may already be there; it just has to be started up.
What’s the News: A gene that makes bacteria resistant to up to 14 antibiotics has been discovered in bacteria in drinking water and street puddles in the Indian capital of New Delhi by a research team from the University of Cardiff in Wales. Scientists were already aware that microbes bearing this gene, which produces an enzyme called NDM-1, were infecting people in India, but it had been thought that such bacteria were mainly picked up in hospitals. This study shows that the gene, which is capable of jumping from species to species, is loose in the environment.
A huge bounty of amber unearthed in India is giving researchers a peak at the wildlife that inhabited the area 50 million years ago, via the insects that are trapped inside it. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the Indian subcontinent was not as isolated as previously thought.
“We know India was isolated, but … the biological evidence in the amber deposit shows that there was some biotic connection,” says David Grimaldi, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the [American Museum of Natural History]. [Press release]
About 150 million years ago, the Indian tectonic plat separated from the African plate and began its 100 million year journey to Asia. During that long journey the subcontinent was isolated from all other continents, giving its wildlife the chance to evolve in distinctly different ways (much like the evolution of marsupials in Australia). Since the amber was deposited in the form of sticky tree resin 50 million years ago, it gives researchers insight into the insects that were adrift on the subcontinent.
“The amber shows, similar to an old photo, what life looked like in India just before the collision with the Asian continent,” says Jes Rust, professor of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Universität Bonn in Germany. “The insects trapped in the fossil resin cast a new light on the history of the sub-continent.” [Press release]
Cooking all your meals on an old-fashioned stove indoors is bad for you and bad for the Earth: The smoke from those fires causes heart and lung problems for millions of people, the soot contributes to global warming and glacier melt, and the need for so much wood drives deforestation. Yet, out of necessity, nearly half the people in the world cook this way.
This week, a United States and United Nations-backed effort took the first tiny steps to try to turn that around. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that the U.S. will give $50 million in seed money to the new Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an organization with the intention of providing cleaning-burning cooking stoves to families around the world. Other partners will each provide $10 million.
Of all the tigers left in the world—and there aren’t many—70 percent of them are clustered into lands that make up just 6 percent of the total tiger habitat in the world. Save these spots, scientists say today, and you save the tigers.
In the journal PLoS Biology, a large group of researchers outline why their 6 percent solution could succeed where other conservation attempts have failed. Basically, they say, efforts to save the cat have been ambitious, but too broad. Job one has to be the protection of these 42 small “source sites” in Asia (seen on the map in the slideshow above), that are home to the core population of tigers.
“The long-term goal is to conserve an Asia-wide network of large landscapes where tigers can flourish,” said Nigel Leader-Williams from Cambridge University, one of the scientists on this study. “The immediate priority, however, must be to ensure that the few breeding populations still in existence can be protected and monitored. Without this, all other efforts are bound to fail.” [BBC News]
The antibiotics-resistant superbug that emerged in South Asia appears to have claimed its first life. According to doctors who treated a man in Belgium, he went to a hospital in Pakistan after a car accident, and there he picked up the bacterial infection. While the man died back in June, his doctors announced today that he carried the superbug.
This new health scare intensified this week after researchers published a study in The Lancet Infectious Diseases characterizing “a new antibiotic resistance mechanism” in the U.K., India, and Pakistan. How bad is this “mechanism?”
The problem isn’t a particular kind of bacteria. It’s a gene that encodes an enyzme called New Delhi metallo-lactamase-1 (NDM-1). Bacteria that carry it aren’t bothered by traditional antibiotics, or even the drugs known as carbapenems deployed against antibiotic-resistant microbes.
The NDM-1 gene is a special worry because it is found in plasmids — DNA structures that can easily be copied and then transferred promiscuously among different types of bacteria. These include Escherichia coli, the commonest cause of urinary tract infections, and Klebsiella pneumoniae, which causes lung and wound infections and is generated mainly in hospitals [AFP].
It’s no worse than what we had before:
Despite burning curiosity, I have no idea what the Dalai Lama writes in his personal emails. But somewhere in China, hackers know.
China-based hacking operations have moved from murmurs to the front page since the fracas between the Chinese government and Google flared up three months ago. Besides the communist government’s flagrant and unapologetic Internet censorship, the search giant also accused China of harboring hackers who were behind politically motivated cyber attacks, like the targeting of Chinese human rights activists’ Gmail accounts. This week, computer security experts at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto announced that they’ve been trailing a group of China-based attackers they dub the “Shadow Network” for eight months. And they say they can show that those hackers have stolen a plethora of politically sensitive materials.
The intruders breached the systems of independent analysts, taking reports on several Indian missile systems. They also obtained a year’s worth of the Dalai Lama’s personal e-mail messages. The intruders even stole documents related to the travel of NATO forces in Afghanistan [The New York Times]. They also took political documents that outlined India’s concerns about its relations with Africa, Russia, and the Middle East. The core servers for the operation seem to be based in the city of Chengdu in southwest China.
Remember that time you and your sibling couldn’t stop fighting over a toy, so your mom wouldn’t let either one of you have it? It seems the same thing happens to unhappy neighboring countries and Mother Nature.
The island in the Bay of Bengal that Bangladesh called South Talpatti and India called New Moore or Purbasha appeared after a devastating cyclone, and it appeared right near the territorial boundary between the two. Decades of fighting over the uninhabited speck of land led to no political resolution. But now there’s a perfectly clear geographical resolution: The sea has reclaimed the island, scientists say.
According to oceanographer Sugata Hazra, the island was never very big, peaking at around 1.3 miles by 1.1 miles. The island began shrinking in the 1990s, part of an 81-square-mile decline in land mass in the Bay of Bengal’s Sunderbans mudflats over the last 40 years, Hazra said. And 27 square miles more has been lost to erosion. In the 1990s, the island was only 2 meters above sea level [Los Angeles Times]. Some experts say that in addition to erosion, rising sea levels caused by global warming are also to blame. Oceanographer Sugata Hazra, who discovered the island’s disappearance while looking at satellite photos, argues that sea-level rise caused by climate change was ”surely” a factor in the island’s inundation…. ‘The rate of sea-level rise in this part of the northern Bay of Bengal is definitely attributable to climate change,” he said [Sydney Morning Herald].
Just when the whole “ClimateGate” affair had retreated from the headlines, other climate scientists have stepped in to shoot themselves in the foot in the public spotlight. In a new slow-simmering controversy that reached major news outlets this week, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chief Rajendra Pachauri admitted that one of the details in the 2007 report was a mistake. Though the goof is a minor one (in that it doesn’t change the conclusion of the report), the backlash probably won’t be, given what happened the last time around.
Specifically, one part of the report states that the Himalayan glaciers are retreating faster than anywhere else in the world, and that there’s a good chance they could totally disappear by 2035. But while it’s true that the glaciers are retreating, the date given is a gross overstatement. “You just can’t accomplish it,” says Jeffrey Kargel from the University of Arizona. “If you think about the thicknesses of the ice – 200-300m thicknesses, in some cases up to 400m thick – and if you’re losing ice at the rate of a metre a year, or let’s say double it to two metres a year, you’re not going to get rid of 200m of ice in a quarter of a century” [BBC News].