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News Bytes of the Week: Endangered Animals Get Raw Deal

Water wind farms; Sleepy brains experience "power failure"; and more...



Courtesy of Solberg Production / StatoilHydro

Congress prompts Fish & Wildlife Service to revise endangered species delisting decisions

Congress's investigative arm this week accused the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) of playing politics with the nation's animals. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report charging that U.S. Department of Interior service apparently decided which animals to designate—and protect—as endangered species based on political rather than scientific criteria. Fish & Wildlife has been subject to a number of recent congressional probes. The GAO last year found that the FWS's former deputy assistant secretary Julie MacDonald had violated federal information disclosure rules by sharing internal agency documents with industry lobbyists such as the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Pacific Legal Foundation, and that she stood to gain financially from her agency's decision to delist the Sacramento splittail fish because she and her husband's farming business located near the fish's habitat would have been subject to restrictions. MacDonald resigned after a highly critical report by U.S. Department of the Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney in May 2007. In its newest report, the GAO says that the FWS is revising seven of eight decisions made during MacDonald's five-year tenure to strip species from the protective list. Among them: the arroyo toad, white-tailed prairie dog and Canada lynx. The decision to cut the southwestern willow flycatcher's habitat in half was upheld because scientific evidence supported the move. The GAO says it is continuing a review of the merits of some 20 decisions made during her administration to strip species of their protections under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Floating windmills take to the open seas in search of renewable energy

Some energy companies pursue renewable energy on land (in the form of wind turbines and solar panels), whereas others draw it from the sea (via tidal and wave turbines), but Norway oil and gas company StatoilHydro is targeting both by investing $80 million in its Hywind floating wind turbines, expected to be up and running by late next year. Each 5,300-ton waterborne windmill is expected to run a 2.3-megawatt turbine in seas at least 393.7 feet (120 meters) in depth while tied to three moorings (so they don't float away). Riding 213 feet (65 meters) above the ocean's surface, the Hywind's greatest advantage is its ability to operate in the open sea, where the wind is its strongest, unlike land-based wind turbines. The Hywind-prototype will be situated 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) off Norway's west coast for a two-year test and will be considered a success if it can help StatoilHydro develop a model cheap enough to compete with other power sources on the market. At least a dozen renewable energy companies worldwide are looking to capitalize on tidal forces and waves as more environmentally friendly sources of energy. One of the biggest hurdles has been developing technology that can survive harsh offshore environments such as those found in the North Sea. StatoilHydro is hoping that its experience building offshore oil and gas drilling rigs will give its Hywind staying power.

Sleepy brains prone to "power failures"

Scientists report this week in The Journal of Neuroscience that the brains of sleep-deprived people oscillate between normal activity and a state of so-called power failure, during which attention falters and visual centers goes awry. The researchers administered a test in which letters were flashed before subjects as their brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines. The letters were either a large "H" or an "S," each made up of smaller constituent letters—so a large H could consist of a bunch of small Ss or a group of small Hs. Volunteers were asked to identify either the large letter or its constituents. Half of the study subjects were well-rested, and the other half had pulled all-nighters. At times during the tasks, the weary subjects answered more slowly and displayed markedly less activity in parts of their visual processing system (specifically in higher levels of the visual cortex). Forebrain and lateral regions (like the frontal and parietal cortices) that compensate for visual processing errors also appeared to be faulty. "The periods of apparently normal functioning could give a false sense of competency and security when, in fact, the brain's inconsistency could have dire consequences," study co-author Michael Chee of the National University of Singapore told the BBC. He said the team will now study possible ways—other than a jolt of java—to correct snooze-generated brain deficiencies.

New addiction-blocking therapy targets protein buildup in the brain

French researchers have discovered a protein that accumulates in the brain in response to addictive substances. The scientists report that cells in the striatum and nucleus accumbens (the brain's reward centers) accelerated production a substance called DARPP-32 in mice given cocaine and amphetamines. The team found that the animals were less likely to perform well in tasks involving food or drug rewards when they had a flawed version of the protein. The mice were trained to poke a lever a certain number of times to receive a food pellet; as the trials continued, the mice had to tap more times to get the same reward. The researchers observed, however, that the mice with a disrupted DARPP-32 gave up on getting food quicker than their unaltered counterparts. They say the finding paves the way for a therapy designed to target the protein to help drug, food and other addicts kick their habits. Jean-Antoine Girault, a neuroscientist at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, told the Telegraph in London that targeting the protein—so that less accumulates or it's function is disrupted—might even help alcoholics give up the bottle.

Kangaroos gone wild

The kangaroo has become Down Under's version of North America's deer. It has especially gotten out of control around Canberra, Australia's capital—now outnumbering human inhabitants there by three to one. The rampant 'roos have overgrazed most of the scant remaining grassland in the country's southeast, threatening other creatures such as the grassland earless dragon, one of the world's rarest lizards. This tiny reptile vanished for about 30 years, and now only a few populations exist in Canberra's outskirts. To preserve the earless dragon and other endangered species, the Australian defense department has begun a kangaroo eradication program. Among plans: give lethal injections to 400 of 600 pouched pests that make up a local population around a military base near Canberra. Researchers are also looking into some form of birth control for the bountiful bouncers. (AlphaGalileo.org; Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research)


Creationism in the classroom

A new survey in the online journal PLoS Biology finds that creationism may have lost a few legal battles, but it hasn't lost its allure with some high school biology teachers. Political scientists from Pennsylvania State University in University Park surveyed 939 teachers in public schools nationwide. Overall, only 23 percent said that evolution was the unifying theme of their course. Of the 224 instructors (24 percent) who devoted at least an hour or two of class time to creationism, nearly half agreed that creationism was a "valid scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species" and that "many reputable scientists view [creationism and intelligent design] as valid alternatives to Darwinian theory." Things could be worse for evolutionists, of course: a 2005 poll found that 38 percent of Americans would prefer that creationism—not evolution—be taught in public schools as the explanation for how we got here.

Why are coded messages always such a letdown?

On March 5, 2007, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., home to researchers who have peeled back some of the biggest mysteries of particle physics, received a mysterious coded message in the mail. This week, not knowing what else to do, the lab put the code online and told code breakers to have at it, which they did, quickly deciphering two of the letter's three parts. Was it aliens saying "hi"? Or perhaps warning of world-destroying black holes? Alas, no. The first portion read, "Frank Shoemaker would call this noise." Shoemaker is a retired Fermilab physicist who worked on the neutrino experiment MiniBooNE; in statistics, noise is data that obscures a signal of interest. That burning message was followed by "employee number basse [sic] sixteen," apparently in reference to a third, still-undeciphered sequence of hieroglyphiclike symbols in between the two statements. Fermilab suspects it will spell out the identity of the sender—Yawn.

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