Part-fish, part-land animal fills evolutionary hole; the avian flu death toll climbs; and scientists create bladders from stem cells.

An Evolutionary Transition

Scientists plugged a hole in the evolutionary pathway from fish to animals this week with the announcement of a fossil called Tiktaalik roseae, a species with some fish-like attributes, like fins and scales, as well as many attributes usually seen in animals that live on land. The half-fish would have been about 9 feet long (over 2.7 meters) with a head similar to that of an alligator. (Read more about this story here)

A Laotian rat, initially billed as a new species, then heralded as a survivor from an ancient rat family that died out 11 million years ago, now seems to be less rare than scientists had assumed. A perusal of hunters’ markets in Laos turned up a higher number of Laotian rock rats than anyone had expected, considering that scientists had only identified the species for the first time in 2005. Biologists have yet to observe the rat species in the wild.

Avian Flu Flies into Egypt

The avian flu death toll rose to 107 on Monday, after doctors confirmed that two Egyptian women who died last month had been infected with the virus. Both of the victims had close contact with contaminated poultry. A total of nine Egyptians had been stricken with the virus as of Wednesday. Bird flu has also recently been diagnosed in domestic poultry in Germany and in a wild swan in Scotland.

Pet cats are at risk from avian flu and should be kept indoors if they live in areas where birds have carried the disease, scientists in Europe said this week. Cats can become infected with the virus from birds or their droppings and could then pass it on to other cats. It is unclear yet whether cat-to-human or cat-to-poultry transmission is possible.

Sleeping With India to Spite Iran

Condoleezza Rice urged members of Congress to pass a proposed nuclear energy deal with India, which would overturn 30 years of US policy by permitting the exchange of nuclear fuel and reactor technology. Rice stressed the importance of developing India’s nuclear energy program as a means to lessen its reliance on Iranian oil. Critics of the plan worry that giving nuclear technology to India—a country that has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—will encourage other countries to pursue their own nuclear programs.

A group of environmentalists hoping to stop the spread of genetically modified organisms on public lands sued the Department of the Interior for cultivating the crops in a wildlife refuge in Delaware. According to the plaintiffs, a Bush administration appointee overruled the manager of the refuge in order to allow the illegal planting. “Plowing up native grasses for mutated row crops constitutes biological malpractice of the highest order and a betrayal of the purposes of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” the group said in a statement released to the press.

Ivory Trade Alive and Well in Angola

Despite international treaties against ivory trading, the practice remains big business in Angola, where the trade has doubled in volume over the past year. The wildlife watchdog groups TRAFFIC and the WWF International reported that 1.5 tons of ivory (1,360 kg) from at least 300 elephants passed through the country, much of it coming from other places. Wild elephant populations can still be found in 37 countries, all of which have signed the treaty to regulate wildlife trade, except Angola.

Greenpeace declared a victory against Japanese whaling efforts when five key companies sold their stakes in an eight vessel whaling fleet. The sale came in the wake of a concerted effort by the conservation group to pressure subsidiary companies of the five firms. Still, the transfer may not be the victory they’re claiming. The fleet is now run by public corporations owned partially by the department of the Japanese government responsible for promoting whaling. The governmental agency has promised to double whaling efforts.

Climate Change News from the South Pole

French researchers announced that seabirds in Antarctica are breeding later in response to climate change, arriving at their nesting ground an average of nine days after they did in 1950. Previous research has found indications of global warming’s effect on plant and animal species in the Northern Hemisphere, but the scarcity of long term data prevented them from making similar measurements in the Antarctic. Out of nine bird species under observation, six showed signs of breeding and nesting later in the year.

Bad news for skiers: The World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich predicts that the Alps could lose three quarters of their glaciers over the next century due to global warming. Using historical data on glacier cover, sophisticated weather forecasting and computer models, the organization reported Alpine glacier cover is about half what it was in the 1850s and will be a quarter of its current levels in 2100. They say that the warming has been so bad in recent decades that, even if it were to cease today, ice cover would continue to retreat.

Arab in Space

Space Adventures, an American-owned space tourism company, will send up its first Middle Eastern client—entrepreneur Adnan al-Maimani—from a recently built spaceport in the United Arab Emirates. The one-hour flight will take place within a few years and cost al-Maimani $102,000. It will be the first suborbital mission launched from the Middle East.

Plans by South Korea to send its first astronaut into space were delayed on Tuesday, following the US decision to claim a seat on a Russian spacecraft going to the International Space Station in April 2007. The United States needs the seat to rotate their crew at the space station since technical problems with the American shuttle Discovery have left NASA dependent on Russian shuttle trips. South Korea still plans to send an astronaut into space in 2008.

For the first time, scientists were able to watch the process of planet formation when NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope detected a swirling disk of planet-building debris rotating around a pulsar, or dead star, 13,000 light years away from Earth. Although scientists were not able to see the formation of an actual planet, they believe they saw all the building blocks. The MIT team estimates that the pulsar collapsed from a supernova of a giant star some 100,000 years ago.

Stem Cells Take on Bladder Control

Doctors at Wake Forest University grew new bladders for seven people suffering from bladder disease using the patients own stem cells. After growing the new organs around a specially shaped scaffold, the researchers were able to surgically implant them. The team is now at work developing techniques for growing 20 other types of tissue.

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Originally published April 7, 2006


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