Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Elephant in the Mirror

"For those who study the development of intelligence in the animal kingdom, self-awareness is an important measurement. An animal that is aware of itself has a high level of cognitive ability.

Awareness can be tested by studying whether the animal recognizes itself in a mirror. Many animals fail this exercise miserably, paying scant attention to the reflected image. Only humans, apes and, more recently, dolphins, have been shown to recognize that the image in the mirror is of themselves.

Now another animal has joined the club. In The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers report that an Asian elephant has passed the mirror self-recognition test.

“We thought that elephants were the next important candidate,” said Diana Reiss of the Wildlife Conservation Society, an author of the study with Joshua M. Plotnik and Frans B. M. de Waal of Emory University. With their large, complex brains, empathetic and altruistic behavior and elaborate social organization, Dr. Reiss said, elephants “seemed like cognitive cousins to apes and dolphins.”

The researchers tested Happy, Maxine and Patty, three females at the Bronx Zoo, where the conservation society is based. They put an eight-foot-square mirror on a wall of the animals’ play area (out of view of zoo visitors) and recorded what happened with video cameras, including one embedded in the mirror.

The elephants exhibited behavior typical of other self-aware animals. They checked out the mirror, in some cases using their trunks to explore what was behind it, and used it to examine parts of their bodies.

Of the three, Happy then passed the critical test, in which a visible mark was painted on one side of her face. She could only tell the mark was there by looking in the mirror, and she used the mirror to touch the mark with her trunk.

Dr. Reiss said it was not unusual that only one of the three elephants passed this test; with other self-aware species, large numbers of individuals don’t pass the test either.

But the result with Happy, she said, is a “beautiful case of cognitive convergence” with other self-aware animals. “We knew elephants were intelligent, but now we can talk about their intelligence in a more specific way.”

Friday, October 27, 2006

Oldest bee fossil creates new buzz

"The discovery of the oldest bee fossil supports the theory that bees evolved from wasps, scientists reported Wednesday.

The 100 million-year-old fossil was found in a mine in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar (Burma) and preserved in amber. Amber, which begins as tree sap, often traps insects and plant structures before they fossilize.

"This is the oldest known bee we've ever been able to identify, and it shares some of the features of wasps," said lead author George Poinar, a researcher from Oregon State University. "But overall it's more bee than wasp, and gives us a pretty good idea of when these two types of insects were separating on their evolutionary paths."

The quarter-inch fossil shares traits of the carnivorous wasp such as narrow hind legs while exhibiting branched hairs on its leg, a characteristic of the modern bee that allows pollen collection.

Around the same time the bee was trapped, plants that rely on mechanisms other than the wind to spread their seeds, started expanding and diversifying. Prior to that, the world was mostly green with conifer trees that depended on the wind for pollination."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Complete Darwin works put online

"The complete evolutionary works of Charles Darwin have gone online, including the stolen notebook he carried in his pocket around the Galapagos Islands.

Tens of thousands of pages of text and pictures and audio files have been made available, including some previously unpublished manuscripts and diaries of the great British scientist.

Among the unique collection is the notebook used during the Beagle voyage which would later forge his scientific arguments. It was stolen in the 1980s, but Darwin’s great-great-grandson hopes the publication online, thanks to a transcription from a microfilm copy made two decades earlier, will persuade whoever has it to return it."

Click on the title to read more of the article, or go here to the Darwin website.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Honey Remedy Could Save Limbs

When Jennifer Eddy first saw an ulcer on the left foot of her patient, an elderly diabetic man, it was pink and quarter-sized. Fourteen months later, drug-resistant bacteria had made it an unrecognizable black mess.

Doctors tried everything they knew -- and failed. After five hospitalizations, four surgeries and regimens of antibiotics, the man had lost two toes. Doctors wanted to remove his entire foot.

"He preferred death to amputation, and everybody agreed he was going to die if he didn't get an amputation," said Eddy, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

With standard techniques exhausted, Eddy turned to a treatment used by ancient Sumerian physicians, touted in the Talmud and praised by Hippocrates: honey. Eddy dressed the wounds in honey-soaked gauze. In just two weeks, her patient's ulcers started to heal. Pink flesh replaced black. A year later, he could walk again.

"I've used honey in a dozen cases since then," said Eddy. "I've yet to have one that didn't improve."

Eddy is one of many doctors to recently rediscover honey as medicine. Abandoned with the advent of antibiotics in the 1940s and subsequently disregarded as folk quackery, a growing set of clinical literature and dozens of glowing anecdotes now recommend it.

Most tantalizingly, honey seems capable of combating the growing scourge of drug-resistant wound infections, especially methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the infamous flesh-eating strain. These have become alarmingly more common in recent years, with MRSA alone responsible for half of all skin infections treated in U.S. emergency rooms. So-called superbugs cause thousands of deaths and disfigurements every year, and public health officials are alarmed."

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Mars orbiter images thrill NASA scientists

NASA’s newest Mars orbiter has spied the plucky rover Opportunity perched at the rim of the Red Planet’s massive Victoria Crater as both vehicles explore the fourth planet from the Sun.

Appearing almost as a shiny boulder, Opportunity’s lumpy outline and its camera-mast shadow can easily be seen in a high-resolution image of Victoria Crater taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and released by the space agency on Friday.

“It is so good to see that rover again,” said Steve Squyres, the lead Mars Exploration Rover scientist from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, during a press briefing. “I’ve got to say that image with that little rover 200 million miles away, parked at the top of that cliff, that’s just one of the most evocative images I’ve ever seen in the planetary program…it’s just beautiful.

At half a mile wide (0.8 kilometers) and 200 feet (60 meters) deep, Victoria Crater is large enough to fit up to five football stadiums inside and is the biggest Martian crater to be visited by NASA’s red planet rovers, mission managers said.

“It’s probably the biggest crater we’re ever going to get to with Opportunity, or in fact with Spirit,” NASA’s Mars exploration program director Doug McQuistion said during the briefing. “The bottom line is it gives us a window on the past of the planet, and that’s incredibly important to understanding why it is the way it is and understanding relationships to potentially other rocky planets in the Solar System.”

Opportunity has spent 21 Earth months exploring the Meridiani Planum region of Mars, eventually working its way from its initial Eagle Crater landing site to Victoria. The rover’s robotic twin Spirit rolled across its own Gusev Crater landing site, scaled one of the region’s Columbia Hills and clambered down the other side. Together, the two rovers have produced some 160,000 images of the red planet.

“I think the whole Mars Exploration Rover program is an example of NASA at its best,” NASA chief Michael Griffin said during the briefing today at the agency’s Washington D.C. headquarters.”

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