Stories of modern science... from UPI

By JIM KLING, UPI Science Writer  |  Feb. 21, 2002 at 4:44 PM
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Kidnapping amorous males who hold a sexual monopoly over their peers may be the key to saving some endangered species, according to a New Scientist report. In some species, top males fight to restrict access to females, preventing subordinate males from mating. Such behavior helps to pass on qualities like strength to the next generation, but it also causes a decrease in the genetic diversity, making the species more vulnerable to sudden changes in the environment. That is especially true at lower numbers. "With just 200 individuals, you're really starting to worry about genetic diversity," said Peter Tolson, who works at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio. The solution may be to temporarily remove dominant males, which would give other males a shot at reproduction. The team, led by Allison Alberts at the San Diego Zoo, tested the idea on Cuban iguanas, which are not endangered. They removed the five highest-ranking males of a group for six weeks during the breeding season and found that other males quickly seized their chances and began breeding. When returned, the males quickly regained supremacy. Still, such interventions would be costly and time-consuming. "This is very much an emergency measure," said Alberts.


A team of biologists at Syracuse University and Wageningen University in the Netherlands has created the first global map of 'biodiversity hotspots' containing diverse arrays of plant-eating mammals, according to a report in this week's edition of the journal Nature. "We developed a way to identify prime regions for mammal diversity that could potentially become areas for conservation or restoration," said Mark Ritchie, professor of biology at Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences. "We were able to predict and explain the number of species in a given area based on the amount of rainfall and the fertility of the soil ... We are concerned that these prime regions show very little overlap with areas designated as 'hotspots' for the biodiversity of plants, birds, reptiles and other types of mammals," Ritchie said. "Thus, the areas we have identified for plant-eating mammals would have to be conserved separately." The most diverse populations of plant-eating mammals are found in areas of moderate rainfall, such as the Serengeti plains in Africa, Yellowstone National Park in the United States and the Punjab region of India. "The areas tend to produce enough vegetation to support large mammals, and vegetation that is of high enough quality to support small mammals. That is especially true in areas where the soil is most fertile," said Ritchie.


With the help of satellite images and software, researchers are plotting new routes to the Antarctic and the South Pole that could make it safer and easier to transport equipment and supplies. Led by Carolyn Merry, professor of civil engineering at Ohio State University, the team mapped potential routes across a stretch of the Ross Ice Shelf, one of the giant ice sheets that extends outward from the frozen continent. The routes begin from McMurdo Station, the main entryway to Antarctica -- some 850 miles from the South Pole -- and head toward the Leverett Glacier in the Transantarctic mountains. Overland travel across the stretch of the ice shelf between McMurdo and the glacier is fraught with danger because of deep crevasses that lie hidden under snow. Past this corridor, beyond the ice shelf to the South Pole, lies a safer terrain. Because of this treacherous landscape, supplies are often flown in, but overland travel could be more economical and convenient than air transport. "There is only a limited amount of material that you can put on a C-130," Merry said, referring to the type of aircraft used for transporting goods. "With tractor trailers, you could transport a large volume of supplies in a single trip." The team enhanced satellite images to pinpoint crevasses. "(These) are very hard to see from the ground and even from a low-flying airplane because a lot of them are bridged over by snow that drifts into them," Merry said.


After nearly 12 years in operation, the Hubble Space Telescope is about to get an upgrade that will greatly increase its power, according to a New York Times report. On Feb. 28, NASA will send the space shuttle Columbia toward the orbiting telescope, where astronauts will make five space walks to remove outdated equipment and install new instruments and power devices. Because of the complexity of the job, and because some of the parts they'll be replacing were not designed to be replaced at all, NASA managers say this will be one of the most difficult tasks ever undertaken by spacewalking astronauts. Hubble's new primary instrument will be the Advanced Camera for Surveys, which has faster, better detectors and a wider field of view, giving it up to ten times the 'discovering power' that it had before. "We are going after a lot of data we can't get now," said David Leckrone of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, the chief Hubble project scientist. "We can't begin to imagine what we will find."

(EDITOR: For more information on males, call (44) 207-331-2751; about South Pole, call (614) 292-8456)

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