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NEWSFILE: WEIRD SCIENCE (1)

CHIMP COMMUNICATION (BUT NOT IN BRISTOL EH ROO?)

SCIENTISTS have new respect for the communication skills of chimpanzees in the light of research published today that has deep implications for how language developed in humans. The brain of the chimpanzee has been found to have an enlarged left side, a feature linked to language ability that was previously thought unique to humans. The study, published in the journal Science, suggests that researchers still have a long way to go to understand the nuances of chimp communication, particularly the significance of their gestures. Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Columbia University, and the National Institutes of Health in America found that a region of the brain thought to control language is proportionately the same size in humans and chimpanzees.

The discovery throws into question the role of the "language area" of the brain, the planum temporale, a part of the brain's parietal cortex that is found near the ear. The planum temporale of the left hemisphere is normally larger than in the right hemisphere in humans, but 94 per cent of the chimpanzee brains studied demonstrated the same asymmetry. Prof Ralph Holloway, of Columbia, said "I don't think they [chimpanzees] have a language, but I do agree that they have some kind of communication system that might be more complex than we have heretofore thought. " He believes that chimps may converse using facial, body and hand gestures, perhaps augmented with grunting or other vocalisations.

CAN IT FUCK?

Q: Can a giant animal such as Godzilla actually exist?

A: Mathematical principles say it cannot happen, according to mathematician Keith Devlin of Stanford University. When the height of any animal is doubled, its weight will increase eightfold (that is, 2cubed), while the cross-section of its bones will only be doubled(that is, 2 squared). Unless the bones were made of some super-strong material, such as platinum, they simply would not be able to support the increased weight and the animal would collapse on itself.

To illustrate, say that you have a sugar cube and want to make a giant sugar cube three times its size. To do so, you would have to stick together 27 sugar cubes. The reason is that the new cube, like the volume of Godzilla, would not only have to be three times wider, but also three times deeper and three times higher (3 cubed equals 27). But each layer of the giant cube, like the cross-section of Godzilla's bones, would contain only nine cubes (3 squared equals 9).

EDITOR`S NOTE: Richard Freeman, speaking in his official capacity as a representative of the Centre for Fortean Zoology has said "Godzilla can`t exist because he is four hundred feet tall and breathes radioactive fire".

MECHANICAL MALLARD

GRANTS PASS, Ore (AP). The mallard glides smoothly across the water, cozying up to a few of the other ducks. The other ducks don't know it yet, but this mallard has a propeller for feet and is powered by batteries and a remote control. Grants Pass resident Gene White constructed the remote-control decoy duck because his friend, Althea Strack, wanted to give her husband, Ed, something unique for his birthday. The real ducks don't notice the decoy's hinges until they get close to it, Ed Strack said, as he manipulated the remote control to make the decoy swim backwards. ``Now that's something the other ducks can't do, '' he said. The duck was easy for White to construct _ but finding the necessary parts was no simple task. He looked all over town for a decoy duck, but because it wasn't duck season, he thought he might have to carve one out of wood. Finally, he hunted down a suitable decoy. White's next challenge was to find a remote control. Fortunately, his barber just happened to have one. He then took a trip to a hobby shop to pick up a propeller and motor. He finished the duck with his own glue gun, hammer and chisel and the ubiquitous duct tape (duck tape?). After installing two 9-volt batteries, the duck was ready for action.

Occasionally, Ed Strack pilots the duck in Waverly Lake off the ``dock'' of his deck. ``I'm the captain, '' he jokes. Strack maneuvers the duck back and forth across the lake, using a remote-control unit with a long antenna. He slides the decoy near a mother duck and her baby. ``Don't you hurt that baby, '' Althea Strack says. Not to fear. The real ducks float away. But the ducks don't always recognize the decoy for what it is ducks often cluster around it on the lake. Even though the decoy is fully functioning, White can't resist the chance to make it better. The duck can't quack, but White has some ideas about how to fix that problem. White suggests placing a voice recorder with a switch control on the duck. ``We can record a quack that's authentic, '' White says. He also jokes about using the duck to deliver necessities to neighbours on Waverly Lake.

``You could take them over a martini, '' he says. Unfortunately, Ed forgot to recharge the duck's batteries before setting it on the lake. The duck slows down and finally stops in the water. Now he'll have to wait for the wind to blow the duck back to shore. ``We still have a few problems to work out, '' Althea says.

DYNAMO HUM

Biologist Millicent Ficken was following blue-throated hummingbirds in the forested edges of the Arizona desert one morning during a recent summer when a male bird did something peculiar. Perched on a juniper bush, the bird began to make quick little "tik-tik" sounds. It wasn't a beautiful tune, but Ficken, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, felt certain it was some kind of song. What was it for? How was it organized? What kind of repertoire did this bird have?

Fascinating for their quickness and bright, iridescent feathers, hummingbirds that frequent North America aren't known as singers. In recent years, though, as researchers have recorded and analyzed hummingbird songs, they have found the birds to be singers of surprising complexity and even sophistication. Hummingbirds fill a unique niche in nature. They are one of the few birds that feed heavily on nectar and the only one that does so in flight. Their wings are a blur, flapping at up to 75 times a second, giving them the ability to fly up, down, backward, forward and even upside down, or just hover in place. Perhaps it's the result of living at such high speed that hummingbird songs, too, tend to be a rush of sound. Yet, as researchers such as Ficken have recorded the songs and translated them into sonograms -- graphs that represent the pitch and frequency of the tones -- they discovered regular patterns to the calls. In the case of blue-throats, Ficker said, the males' songs appear to be both territorial advertisements and mating calls. After a females spots the male singing, she said, she perches nearby and, like an operatic duo, the two birds trade and overlap songs. And then? Well, the female just flies off. Was it just a friendly encounter? A pre-mating ritual?

It's hard to say. Hummingbirds are hard to track, and the role of singing in their behaviour is not well understood. Studies of more elaborate singers in Central America, though, suggest that singing has something to do with mate selection. Sandra Gaunt of the Ohio State University has studied a species of hummingbird called violet ears (there are more than 330 species of hummingbirds, most of them tropical) whose males form small groups, called leks, to attract females. Each lek has its own song, which is established by a dominant male. What's interesting, according to Gaunt, is that the birds aren't born with their songs fixed in their heads. They learn them over a period of time. Also, the birds don't pick the notes for their songs at random. The songs appear to be built from a standard repertoire of phrases. Luis Baptista of the California Academy of Science, who worked with Gaunt, said he wondered whether the differences in songs were "acoustical adaptations" chosen by the birds to best fit their environment. It could be, he said, that songs with certain tonal qualities broadcast better in different settings. Ficken said she had seen a similar phenomenon in blue-throated hummingbirds. Birds in different areas sang slightly different songs. She even found instances when blue throats picked up songs from other hummingbirds.

In recent years, she extended her work to those hummingbirds more familiar to most Americans: the ruby-throated, and its close western relative, the black-chinned. So far, Ficken has found no sign of singing associated with mating, but she has recorded the sounds the birds make when they are annoyed or chasing other birds. The sounds, which sound like squeaky chattering, appear on sonograms to be complex and well-organized, rivalling those of some songbirds. That shouldn't be surprising, since studies of the brains of hummingbirds find that neural structures associated with singing in other birds are enlarged in hummingbirds. Still, it raises a sticky question: Why are hummingbirds singing at all? The passerines, or songbirds, are distant relations, and none of the birds' evolutionary neighbours or descendants are singers. Where did hummingbirds get the idea to start singing? Ficken believes this is a case of what biologists call convergent evolution. That is, different animals independently developed similar strategies for coping with the world. It's not especially surprising. Vocal sounds, after all, can convey an amazing amount of information. But what prompts some creatures to try it and others not to? That's a puzzle that remains unsolved.

Hundreds of people are flocking to a spot on Cambodia's Tonle Sapriver every day in the belief that a turtle which regularly emerges from the murky waters has special healing powers. Several hundred people waited on the river bank 30 miles north of Phnom Penh Thursday, many of them praying and burning incense. Believers sprinkled perfumed water on the surface of the river to the sound of music until the turtle emerged from the river. The magic turtle, which villagers call Prahang Andoek, or turtle god, was picked up and placed in large tanks of water, transforming the water it touches into "holy" water. See http://www.infobeat.com/stories/cgi/story. cgi?id=2554364855-8a7

TEARS OF A CLONE (1)

TOKYO (AP) Just days after the birth of calves cloned from an adult cow, Japanese scientists said Tuesday that calves cloned from cells from adults' ears and buttocks could be on the way. If the experiment succeeds, the calves would be the first clones from cells other than those from an animal's reproductive organs, said the Nara State Livestock Research Center in western Japan. "We are currently in the process of experimenting with cells taken from various parts of adult cows to figure out the most effective way to produce adult-clone calves,'' said center spokesman Katsuhiko Hata. Cloning an adult is better than relying on the relative uncertainty of cells from a foetus, because scientists can select adults that have already demonstrated their ability to produce more milk or high-quality beef. "The next step is to find ways that are the least stressful to cows,'' Hata said in a telephone interview from the center, about 260 miles southwest of Tokyo.

On Sunday, the world's first two adult-cow clones were born at another Japanese livestock research center. The calves were produced with a technique similar to that used for Dolly, the British sheep that two years ago became the first clone produced from cells of an adult animal. At the Nara center, five surrogate cows have been impregnated, with delivery expected between mid-December and mid-January, Hata said. The center took cells from ears and buttock muscles and somatic cells from adult Japanese beef cows as well as a Holstein foetus, and placed them in unfertilised eggs whose own nuclei had been removed. Artificially cultivated embryos were then placed into the wombs of 13 cows in February, Hata said. Seven of the cows became pregnant, but two had miscarriages, he said. On Feb. 16, scientists in the United States produced a clone calf from cells of a foetus, not an adult cow cell.

TEARS OF A CLONE (2)

TOKYO (AP) The mother of two calves that Japanese scientists say are the world's first cow clones died suddenly on Monday, a day after giving birth. An autopsy was being performed to determine the cause of the cow's death, scientists said. The yet-to-be-named twin clones were in good health: One was receiving milk and the other a nutrient medicine, said Toyokazu Morita, an official of the Ishikawa Prefectural Livestock Research Center. The 6-year-old cow gave birth 38 days earlier than expected, Morita said. One clone weighed 35 pounds and the other 37 pounds, compared with an average baby cow of 55 pounds, Morita said.

Four other cows, impregnated with embryos from the same cloning process, were in good condition and were expected to give birth on Aug. 13. The cow that died had no appetite Monday and a veterinarian injected her with nutrients. About 40 minutes later, workers noticed the animal was lashing out. The veterinarian rushed back and found the cow dead, Morita said. The calves, produced by cells taken from an adult animal, were born exactly two years after Dolly, the British sheep that made history as the first such clone. In the Japanese experiment, researchers took cells from a cow and placed them in unfertilised eggs whose own nuclei had been removed. Two artificially cultivated embryos then were placed into the wombs of each of the five mother cows in November, said Morita, who noted that cow cloning would be used to breed better cattle strains. Scientists say the results of the calf cloning are important because they indicate that cloning of many species, not just cows and sheep, eventually will be possible.

TEARS OF A CLONE (3)

AFP BEIJING (May 27, 1998 09:38 a.m. EDT http://www.nando.net) - Faced with a fast-dwindling population of wild giant pandas and limited success with breeding in captivity, Chinese experts are researching cloning as an option for saving the treasured national symbol from extinction. Beijing's Chinese Academy of Sciences recently granted $12,000 in initial funding for a research project on panda cloning at its Institute of Zoology. "Within five years, we hope to have some result, but it could take 10 in the worst-case scenario," said senior reproductive biologist Chen Dayuan, who is leading a team of six scientists working full-time on the effort. Unlike Scotland's Dolly the sheep -- the arrival of which sent shock waves through the world's scientific community last year -- the panda clones would be carried and delivered by a surrogate mother of entirely different species, he told AFP. Otherwise, cloning would be of little help to the species, as one of the top existing problems is the extreme scarcity of fertile female pandas, he s aid.

Genetic material obtained from an adult panda's body cell would be substituted into one of the surrogate mother's own egg cells and then returned to the uterus to impregnate the surrogate, Chen said. A bear, cat or dog might bear the panda clone until birth. "It's a difficult choice," he said, because the s urrogate animal must have a similar gestation period and genetic makeup. Cost is an issue because successful genetic transfers are a hit-and-miss process at this stage, he said, adding that it took 434 recombined eggs to yield one Dolly. "And what we are trying to do will be much more difficult than Dolly ... the reproductive idiosyncrasies of pandas bring a lot of trouble," Chen said. The species' naturally high rate of infertility, worsened by inbreeding, is a key factor behind its declining population. Some 1,000 pandas remain in mountainous areas of southwestern China's Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, and only one in 10 pandas are believed able to mate naturally. Artificial insemination and hormone-injection techniques have improved success with breeding in captivity, but of some 182 pandas born in reserves and zoos since 1963, only a third survived beyond infancy, an expert at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Centre in Chengdu said.

Ye Zhiyong, the centre's senior veterinary specialist, said the government would certainly approve of cloning, as pandas are nearly extinct and "will die out" without human intervention in their breeding. "The only problem we have are money and technology," he said. Chen hinted that funding would be the true measure of the government's seriousness about cloning as a means of saving the panda. An application for a much bigger grant from the newly formed Ministry of Science and Technology for his project is pending, he said. "We are looking for greater funding to expand the project," said Chen, gesturing toward a small laboratory lined with assistants using microscopes, refrigerator-like incubators and small trays of disembowelled mice. His team is doing no work with actual pandas yet, as small lab animals are more practical for the laborious preliminary research needed.

Beijing University biologist Pan Wenshi has led opposition to panda cloning within China, arguing in published articles that the idea is both scientifically impossible and harmful to the species' already-narrow genetic diversity. But even environmentalists concede that the panda's case is grave enough to make cloning worth considering. "Naturally, cloning cannot produce variation, and variation is very important for the survival of a species," said Cheng Luk-ki, the campaign's co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong. "However, the panda is on the verge of extinction... If it's an opportunity to save the giant panda, then it's worth a try," he said. Li Meng, who has cloned rhesus monkeys in the United States, said the capacity to clone pandas should be developed so the option is at least available in the future. "I think it's much better than inaction," the Brown University researcher said. Chen, for his part, appears mystified as to what separates cloning from less controversial research into processes such as artificial insemination. "Cloning is just a part of reproductive research work," he said.