Saturday, September 30, 2006


Clever Tinkering: Book Review of 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful' (Evo Devo)

An American Scientist book review: All plants and animals, including humans, are essentially societies of cells that vary in configuration and complexity. As Darwin's theory made clear, these multitudinous forms developed as a result of small changes in offspring and natural selection of those that were better adapted to their environment. Such variation is brought about by alterations in genes that control how cells in the developing embryo behave. Thus one cannot understand evolution without understanding its fundamental relation to development of the embryo. Yet 'evo devo,' as evolutionary developmental biology is affectionately called, is a relatively new and growing field.

Sean B. Carroll (homepage), as a leading expert both in how animals develop and in how they have evolved, is ideally placed to explain evo devo. His new book on the subject, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom (Amazon UK | US) (the title borrows a phrase from Darwin's On the Origin of Species - Amazon UK | US), was written, he says, with several types of readers in mind - anyone interested in natural history, those in the physical sciences who are interested in the origins of complexity, students and educators (of course), and anyone who has wondered 'Where did I come from?' Carroll has brilliantly achieved what he set out to do.

Reviewer Information: Lewis Wolpert is Emeritus Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, University College London.

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Online Resource: Directory of Open Access Journals (General Interest)

From the Front Page:

Welcome to the Directory of Open Access Journals. This service covers free, full text, quality controlled scientific and scholarly journals. We aim to cover all subjects and languages. There are now 2401 journals in the directory. Currently 697 journals are searchable at article level. As of today 109840 articles are included in the DOAJ service.

An expanded list of the subject areas catered for can be found here.

A very quick browse of topics and journal titles reveals there are 97 Biology entries, 37 for Anthropology, 10 on Astronomy/Space, but only one where 'evolution' appears in a journal name ('Evolutionary Psychology')

It's worth remembering that journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) are not listed in the above Directory because their articles do not become 'open access' until a year after publication (with the occasional exception of course) [Journal,Science].

Also see "The Royal Society: Open Access to 'Over 340 years of landmark science' until December 2007".

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Brazil: Amazon explorers discover 40 new species in a 'lost world' of rainforest

Frog Genus Dendrobates Biodiversity Corridor (Evolution Research: John Latter / Jorolat)From The Times, London (UK): Up to 40 new species of plants and animals, including a bird and a tree rat, have been discovered in an expedition to one of the world's last unspoilt wildernesses.

Scientists risked their lives to make the discoveries and three of them almost ended up being eaten by the wildlife they were trying to record.

Two of the team exploring the Amapa region of Brazil had to hide in a hollow tree all night as a prowling jaguar tried to find a way in, and a third had to flee a hungry cayman.

Despite their close shaves, the international research team described the unspoilt wilderness as a scientist's heaven and were ecstatic about the wildlife they encountered. Many of the animals had no fear of the scientists because the region is so remote that they had never before come across a human.

...The discoveries have yet to be verified by peer review but Enrico Bernard, of Conservation International, is confident that 27 new species have been identified. [Amazon, Explorers, Lost World, Wilderness, Evolution, Rainforest]

More images can be found in Conservation International's own press release "New State Forest Links Diverse Ecosystems In Amapa"

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The Cambrian Explosion: Triggered by Mega-mountains?

From New Scientist Tech: A continental crash that raised one of the biggest mountain chains in the Earth's history may be responsible for the explosive diversification of animals more than 500 million years ago.

Sediments washed from the mountains - dubbed the Transgondwanan Supermountain - added vital nutrients to the ocean, opening new evolutionary opportunities, says Rick Squire, now at Monash University in Clayton, Victoria, Australia.

The rapid proliferation of animals that occurred at that time is one of evolution's biggest enigmas. Life had remained simple and largely single-celled for nearly three billion years, until the multi-celled Ediacara fauna evolved, 575 million years ago.

Most major groups of animals evolved during a second radiation, called the Cambrian explosion, from 530 to 510 million years ago. The mystery of what suddenly kick-started animal evolution has been a topic of hot debate among experts.

...Rick Squire suggests the trigger was the collision of a series of three large continental blocks - now called Arabia, India, and Antarctica - with the eastern edge of Africa from 650 to 515 million years ago. [Gondwana, Enigma]

Read the full article at "Mega-mountains spurred explosive evolution"

Rick Squire's homepage

Based on the Earth and Planetary Science Letters' paper "Did the Transgondwanan Supermountain trigger the explosive radiation of animals on Earth?" (Abstract)

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'Intelligent Design' attack on UK school science (BBC)

From BBC News UK: Parents are being encouraged to challenge their children's science teachers over what they are explaining as the origins of life.

An organisation called Truth in Science has also sent resource packs to all UK secondary school science departments.

It promotes the idea of intelligent design - that there was an intelligence behind the creation of the universe.

Humanists (1) and a Christian think tank (2) want the government to tell teachers to keep 'a wholly scientific perspective'.

The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in England has said it does not endorse the resources sent out by Truth in Science.

It said the fossil record was evidence for evolution.

Continued at "'Intelligent Design' attack on UK school science"


Also reported by the Times Educational Supplement (TES): "Science heads become targets"


From the 'About Truth in Science' webpage:

Truth in Science is a Limited Company, run by a Board of Directors who are advised by a Council of Reference and a Scientific Panel. These are listed below with brief descriptions. It should be noted that other organisations which individuals represent may not necessarily hold the same position as Truth in Science on some issues.

Board of Directors

Andy McIntosh

Professor of Thermodynamics and Combustion Theory at the University of Leeds and author of over 100 research papers. Prof. McIntosh's research includes biomimetics where natural mechanisms are studied with a view to using them for engineering applications. He has written numerous articles concerning the debate over Origins.

Willis B. Metcalfe

(Acting Chairman) A businessman with a long career in agriculture and publishing evangelical Christian literature in several languages.

John Perfect

A teacher with almost four decades of experience in the public and private sectors.

Maurice Roberts

Minister of the Inverness congregation of the Free Church of Scotland (continuing). Rev. Roberts is well known as a conference speaker in many countries around the world and was formerly a school classics teacher.


(1) The British Humanist Association: "'Truth in Science': far from true"

From the 'About the BHA' webpage:

The British Humanist Association (BHA) represents the interests of the large and growing population of ethically concerned but non-religious people in the UK - helping to set the agenda for debate. Committed to human rights, democracy, equality and mutual respect, the BHA works for an open and inclusive society with freedom of belief and speech, and for an end to the privileged position of religion - and Christianity in particular - in law, education, broadcasting and wherever else it occurs.

The BHA is renowned for its humanist funerals, weddings, baby-namings and other non-religious ceremonies. These meet a very real need in the community, and the rapidly growing demand for high quality ceremonies keeps our network of trained and accredited officiants extremely busy.

We also help humanists and other non-religious people to gain confidence in their beliefs (see Humanism) and build a foundation from which to live their lives with integrity. The BHA supports networks for families, teachers and others to share ideas and experience and provide mutual support. Local humanist groups provide opportunities for humanists to meet like-minded people for lectures, discussions and social activities. We lobby for the inclusion of Humanism in the school curriculum so that all pupils have the opportunity to learn about it, and provide educational resources for schools and students of all ages. Our contribution to improvements in religious education is widely recognised.


(2) Ekklesia: "Government says creationism is off the agenda in UK school science"

From the 'About Ekklesia' webpage:

Ekklesia is a not-for-profit thinktank which promotes progressive theological ideas in public life.

In April 2005 it was ranked by the Independent newspaper as one of the top 20 British thinktanks

In September 2006 became the highest ranked religious web site in the UK according to official Alexa/Amazon rankings.

An initiative of the Anvil Trust, Ekklesia provides a daily news briefing service, regular public comment, conferences, consultancy and workshops in a range of areas combining both practical and theoretical knowledge to encourage the expression of a radical theological perspective.

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Friday, September 29, 2006


How nature tinkers with the cellular clock

The life of a cell is all about growing and dividing at the right time. That is why the cell cycle is one of the most tightly regulated cellular processes. A control system with several layers adjusts when key components of the cell cycle machinery are produced, activated and degraded to make sure that the schedule is kept. These layers of control work differently and are usually studied separately, but researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) have now discovered that they change in a highly coordinated fashion during evolution.

The study, which will be published in this week's online issue of the journal Nature, also reveals that although most components of the cell cycle have been conserved over one billion years, the temporal regulation of this process has evolved remarkably fast.

The cell cycle is so fundamental for a cell that its machinery has been almost entirely conserved through evolution.

Continued at "How nature tinkers with the cellular clock"

Based on the journal Nature paper "Co-evolution of transcriptional and post-translational cell-cycle regulation" (Abstract)

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Evolving thought - Pope's writings revealing about his evolution views

Vatican City, Rome (National Catholic Reporter) - Presumably, Pope Benedict XVI asked his Schulerkreis, the circle of his former doctoral students, to discuss "Creation and Evolution" during the group's annual meeting this month at Castel Gandolfo, Italy, because he wants to consult theologians, philosophers and natural scientists before addressing the subject - if, indeed, he feels the need to say anything, a point which remains to be seen.

The fact the pope wants to hear from others, however, by no means implies that he lacks ideas of his own. Over the years, Joseph Ratzinger has wrestled with the theory of evolution in books, articles, lectures and interviews, including a 1990 book-length commentary on the Genesis creation stories.

Whether that past will be prologue to anything Benedict does as pope is still unclear, but these sources, examined at length by National Catholic Reporter in recent weeks, at least provide a picture of his approach.

What do they reveal?

Continued at "Evolving thought - Pope's writings revealing about his evolution views" [Creationism, Intelligent Design]

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'Resurrecting' Bacteria's Secret Revealed (Deinococcus radiodurans)

From National Geographic News: Death is the ultimate fate for most bacteria blasted by huge doses of radiation or parched by a severe lack of water. The genetic material irreversibly splinters into hundreds of pieces, dooming the organisms as surely as Humpty Dumpty.

But a few bacteria can "resurrect" themselves by quickly piecing their DNA back together - a strange ability that has mystified biologists for decades.

Now researchers have figured out how one species of these phoenix-like bacteria can rise from the ashes.

A group led by Miroslav Radman, a molecular geneticist at Universite Rene Descartes in Paris, France, announces its findings today on the Web site of the journal Nature.

Radman's group studied a bacteria called Deinococcus radiodurans, which survives in sunbaked deserts and rock surfaces.

Continued at "Resurrecting" Bacteria's Secret Revealed" [Evolution, Science]

Based on "Reassembly of shattered chromosomes in Deinococcus radiodurans" : Abstract - Full Text is also available but probably only for long as the paper is an 'advance publication'.

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Parasitic plants sniff out hosts (Text + Video)

Parasitic plants do not haphazardly flail about looking for a host but sense volatile chemicals produced by other plants and identify potential hosts by their emissions, according to a team of Penn State chemical ecologists.

"We are interested in how plants respond to their environment, and have looked at plant insect interactions," says Dr. Consuelo M. De Moraes, assistant professor of entomology. "It was surprising to see how little was available on how above-ground parasitic plants find their hosts from far-off."

The researchers looked at Cuscuta pentagona, field dodder or five angle dodder, a plant that infests a variety of crops including tomatoes, carrots, onions, citrus trees, cranberries and alfalfa and reported their finding in today's (September 29, 2006) issue of the journal Science. Dodder grows throughout the world and is a difficult pest to eliminate because chemicals that kill the parasite also often kill the host plant. [Pennsylvania, Ecology, Evolution, Journal]

Continued at "Parasitic plants sniff out hosts"

There is a related video "of dodder seedling seeking and finding host tomato plant" here

The journal Science paper is "Volatile Chemical Cues Guide Host Location and Host Selection by Parasitic Plants" (Abstract)

UPDATE: The Washington Post has just publiahed an article on this topic.

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Neanderthal 'butcher's shop' found near Somme (Caours, France)

From The Independent (UK): France - Neanderthal finds are like prehistoric buses. You wait for tens of thousands of years, and then two important revelations come along together.

French and Belgian archaeologists have found proof that Neanderthals - mankind's closest relatives - were living in near-tropical conditions, hunting rhinoceros and elephant, close to what is now France's Channel coast 125,000 years ago.

No traces of Neanderthal activity have previously been found in north-west Europe during this period - a 15,000-year interval between two ice ages.

Historians previously thought that Neanderthals, who thrived in cold conditions, had failed to adapt to the warmer weather and had retreated to the east or to the north. The new site at Caours, near Abbeville, close to the mouth of the river Somme, proves that this was not so.

...Earlier this month, British archaeologists reported that they had found evidence that a few members of the species (Homo neanderthalis) may have survived in caves in Gibraltar much later than was previously thought. [Neandertal, Neandertals, Science, Evolution, Anthropology, Age]

Continued at "Neanderthal 'butcher's shop' found near Somme"

See "Neanderthals and humans lived side by side: Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar" for links to a New Scientist report, Nature technical papers, and other press reports regarding the Gibraltar discoveries.

Books on Neanderthals from the Science and Evolution Bookshop: UK | US

Books on Human Origins from the Science and Evolution Bookshop: UK | US

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Let There Be Light: Science and Religion Editorial (SciAm)

Editorial from the October 2006 issue of Scientific American (Sciam): It is practically a rite of passage that scientists who reach a certain level of eminence feel compelled to publicly announce and explain their religious beliefs. The new books by Owen Gingerich(1) and Francis Collins(2), reviewed this month on page 94, follow in the footsteps of Arthur Eddington and Max Planck. Yes, these authors say, they believe in God, and no, they see no contradiction between their faith and their research - indeed, they see each as confirming the other.

Why this enduring fascination? Doubtless it is partly a reaction to the tensions that always seem to arise between science and religion: the recurring war over the teaching of evolution and creationism, the statements by physicists that they are plumbing the instant of 'creation' or searching for a 'God particle,' the reassurances of some evangelicals that a Second Coming will make global warming irrelevant. In writing books about their own faith, religious scientists may be hoping to point the way to reconciliations for the rest of society.

Yet the tension may be greatly exaggerated...

Fiat Lux: Continued at "Let There Be Light" [Book, Review]

(1) God's Universe by Owen Gingerich (Amazon UK | US)

(2) The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins (Amazon UK | US)

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Thursday, September 28, 2006


Amazon Amber Fossils Reveal Ancient Biodiversity

Amber Insect Fossil Amazon Miocene (Evolution Research: John Latter / Jorolat)Paris: The discovery of an amber deposit formed in the Amazon during the Miocene epoch proves that the region's rich biological diversity goes back some 16 million years, members of the research team that made the finding told Tierramerica.

The Miocene era encompasses the period of Earth's development from between 23 million and five million years ago.

In 2004, a group of researchers from the United States, France, England, Mexico and Peru discovered a small amber deposit embedded with insect fossils and plant matter in the Western Amazon, close to the northern Peruvian city of Iquitos.

The preliminary findings were announced August 28 in Paris by the team, which is coordinated by Pierre Olivier Antoine, a geology researcher with the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France. [Evolution]

Continued at "Fossils Reveal Ancient Biodiversity" (IPS Rome, Italy)

The above expands upon "Amber find shows Amazon as biodiversity hotspot" posted in this blog on Tuesday, August 29, 2006

An associated Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) paper (co-authored by Pierre Olivier Antoine) is "Amber from western Amazonia reveals Neotropical diversity during the middle Miocene" (Abstract)

The original (August) french press release "Decouverte d'insectes fossiles dans l'ambre d'amazonie" contains a number of images (including a larger version of the one above).

Featured book: George Poinar's "Lebanese Amber: The Oldest Insect Ecosystem in Fossilized Resin" (Amazon UK | US)

Books on Amber Fossils from the Science and Evolution Bookshop: UK | US

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Dramatic Climate Changes During Dinosaur-Dominated Mesozoic Era

Ancient rocks from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean suggest dramatic climate changes during the dinosaur-dominated Mesozoic Era, a time once thought to have been monotonously hot and humid.

In this month's Geology journal, scientists from Indiana University Bloomington and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research present new evidence that ocean surface temperatures varied as much as 6 degrees Celsius (about 11 degrees Fahrenheit) during the Aptian Epoch of the Cretaceous Period 120 million years ago.

The finding is relevant to the ongoing climate change discussion, IUB geologist Simon Brassell (homepage) says, because it portrays an ancient Earth whose temperatures shifted erratically due to changes in carbon cycling and did so without human input. [Journal, Evolution, Dinosaurs, Temperature]

Continued at "Dramatic Climate Changes During Dinosaur-Dominated Mesozoic Era"

Based on "Instability in tropical Pacific sea-surface temperatures during the early Aptian" (Abstract).

Update: Monday, 16th October, 2006: See the Washington Post's "Climate Change Is Nothing New"

Books on Dinosaurs from the Science and Evolution Bookshop: UK | US

Books on Paleontology from the Science and Evolution Bookshop: UK | US

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The Royal Society: Open Access to 'Over 340 years of landmark science' until December 2007

The complete archive of the Royal Society journals, including some of the most significant scientific papers ever published since 1665, is to be made freely available electronically for the first time today (14th September 2006) for a two month period.

The archive contains seminal research papers including accounts of Michael Faraday's ground-breaking series of electrical experiments, Isaac Newton's invention of the reflecting telescope, and the first research paper published by Stephen Hawking.

The Society's online collection, which until now only extended back to 1997, contains every paper published in the Royal Society journals from the first ever peer-reviewed scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions in 1665, to the most recent addition, Interface.

Free registration may be required. Click here to visit the Archives.

Note: Open Access items in the past year have 'a pair of spectacles' icon (spectacles icon) next to them. Prior to that - from the pages I've looked at - far more articles are accessible.

Also, it may be that the Royal Society are still updating their archives (one of the reason this post has been held back since the 14th).

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Mimicry: The Lyrebird (Online David Attenborough Video)

In April 2006, to celebrate naturalist David Attenborough's 80th birthday, the public were asked to vote on their favourite of his television moments. This clip of the lyrebird was voted number one. A Lyrebird is either of two species of ground-dwelling Australian birds, most notable for their extraordinary ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment. [Mimicry]

The clip comes from the "The Life of Birds" (Amazon UK | US | DVD US) and features a lyrebird imitating everything from a kookaburra (the 'laughing jackass' of Australia) to the motor drive of a camera to the sound of a chainsaw - you have to hear it to believe it!

Alternate link for the video clip: here

Other David Attenborough products:

The Blue Planet: Seas of Life (DVD): UK | US
The Life of Mammals (DVD): UK | US

Featured books: "Avoiding Attack: The Evolutionary Ecology of Crypsis, Warning Signals and Mimicry" (Amazon UK | US)

And "Bird Sounds: How and Why Birds Sing, Call, Chatter, and Screech" (Amazon UK | US)

Books on Mimicry from the Science and Evolution Bookshop: UK | US

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Where Did We Come From? Book Review

Carl Zimmer reviews his own book in Cosmos Magazine: Where Did We Come From? is the Australian edition of a book sold overseas as The Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins (Amazon UK | US).

It is a beautifully illustrated account of human evolution, from the first hominids to relatively recent times when Homo sapiens began to spread across the world. The style is simple enough for older children, but adults will also enjoy the clarity with which Zimmer sorts out humanity's tangled evolutionary path. He explains historical and current controversies, and includes the latest findings and theories.

Along the way, we meet species that either preceded modern humans or lived with prehistoric Homo sapiens. Among them are Sahelanthropus tchadensis, the first hominid of which we have a fossil record (about six to seven million years old). Then there is Australopithecus afarensis, the species to which the famous 'Lucy' belonged when she lived in Africa over three million years ago. [Hominid, Review, Controversy]

See "Selam: Species Identification of 'Lucy's Child' Challenged By Anthropologist from Pittsburgh University"

Books on Human Origins from the Science and Evolution Bookshop: UK | US

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Selam: Species Identification of 'Lucy's Child' Challenged By Anthropologist from Pittsburgh University

Skull Bipedal Africa Morphology Taphonomy Hadar Formation (Evolution Research: John Latter / Jorolat)Pittsburg: According to University of Pittsburgh anthropology professor Jeffrey Schwartz (homepage), author of the four-volume The Human Fossil Record, Craniodental Morphology of Early Hominids and Overview (Amazon UK | US), "the discovery of any largely complete skeleton of an ancient human relative would be unique. The fact that it is a child makes it even more exciting because of what its bones and teeth might reveal that an adult's cannot."

However, Schwartz said, there are questions about the species this specimen represents. He explained that the problem is that "Lucy" and this child specimen ("Selam") from Dikika have been placed in Australopithecus afarensis, which is not from Ethiopia but from Laetoli, a site in Tanzania thousands of kilometers to the south. But while other specimens from Laetoli are similar to this specimen, defined as A. afarensis, a recent study of virtually all the fossils from Lucy's region of Hadar by Schwartz and Ian Tattersall, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has revealed that none is similar in detail to the fossils from Laetoli.

"This means, of course, that no Hadar specimen is A. afarensis," said Schwartz, a fellow of the prestigious World Academy of Arts and Science. [Evolution, Pitt, Hominid]

See "Selam - An exclusive interview with the man who discovered the oldest child in the world ('Lucy's Child')"

Books on Human Origins from the Science and Evolution Bookshop: UK | US

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Judge John E. Jones III received death threats after ruling on intelligent design

The Wichita Eagle: Lawrence, Kansas - A judge who struck down a Dover, Penn., school board's decision to teach intelligent design in public schools said he was stunned by the reaction, which included death threats and a week of protection from federal marshals.

Pennsylvania U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III told an audience in Lawrence Tuesday that the case illustrated why judges must issue rulings free of political whims or hopes of receiving a favor.

In a 139-page decision last year, Jones ruled that the Dover school board intended to promote religion when it instituted a policy requiring students to hear a statement about intelligent design before ninth-grade biology lessons on evolution. He ruled that it is unconstitutional to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

'And if you would have told me when I got on the bench four years ago that I would have death threats in a case like this as opposed to, for example, a crack cocaine case where I mete out a heavy sentence, I would have told you that you were crazy,' he said.

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Silky-footed tarantulas don't come unstuck (New Scientist, Nature)

From New Scientist: ...To figure out how tarantulas make their way safely up vertical surfaces, Adam Summers of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues analysed the footprints of Costa Rican zebra tarantulas (Aphonopelma seemanni) as they climbed a glass wall. This revealed that the spiders left fragments of sticky silk a few micrometres in diameter and up to 2.5 centimetres long.

On looking closely at the spiders' feet the researchers found microscopic spigots that resembled the creatures' abdominal silk-producing spinnerets (Nature, vol 443, p 407 - see below). 'With all the work that's been done on spider feet it's amazing to find something like this. Somehow it has been missed before,' says Summers.

The discovery of these structures raises an interesting evolutionary question, as abdominal spinnerets are widely considered to be the remnants of ancient appendages. [Evolution, Spider, Costa Rica, Spinneret]

Continued at "Silky-footed tarantulas don't come unstuck"

Based on the journal Nature paper "Biomaterials: Silk-like secretion from tarantula feet": Abstract - plus an Editor's Summary

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Stingray fossil fails to attract buyer (Edinburgh, Scotland)

From BBC News UK, Scotland: A 100 million-year-old stingray fossil failed to sell when it went under the hammer in Edinburgh.

The fossil, valued at GBP10,000, was up for auction at Lyon and Turnbull's Auction House as part of the first Scottish sale of fossils and minerals.

The 2ft-long fossil is the same species of fish which killed crocodile hunter Steve Irwin earlier this month.

Irwin, 44, was killed on 4 September when the barb of a stingray pierced his chest while on the Great Barrier Reef.

...Other items for sale include meteorites from Siberia, fire opals from Mexico and a slice of agate from Brazil.

See one of today's earlier entries: "Stingray fossil goes under hammer in Edinburgh"

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