Reversing Extinction: The Passenger Pigeon?

As cloning technologies improve, the odds of reversing extinction continue to grow. Reviving the passenger pigeon, extinct since 1914, now appears to be a distinct possibility. But a larger question remains, namely how will these “extinction clones” survive in the modern world?

If the goal is to make them zoo exhibits, then a few passenger pigeons will suffice. But if the goal is to reintroduce them to nature, scientists could be in for a rude awakening. Passenger pigeons once existed in massive flocks and traveled up and down the east coast of the United States. In the process, they destroyed forests, picked trees clean, and left behind miles of feces. Could modern forests endure such an onslaught?

Here’s more from Kelly Servick at Wired Science:

Twelve birds lie belly-up in a wooden drawer at the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Bloated with stuffing, their ruddy brown chests resemble a row of sweet potatoes. Slate-blue heads and thin white tails protrude in perfect alignment, except for one bird that cranes its neck to face its neighbor. A pea-sized bulge of white cotton sits where its eye should be. A slip of paper tied to its foot reads, “Ectopistes migratorius. Manitoba. 1884.” This is the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird in North America. When Europeans first landed on the continent, they encountered billions of the birds. By 1914 they were extinct.

That may be about to change. Today scientists are meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss a plan to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction. The technical challenges are immense, and the ethical questions are slippery. But as genetic technology races ahead, a scenario that’s hard to imagine is becoming harder to dismiss out of hand.

About 1,500 passenger pigeons inhabit museum collections. They are all that’s left of a species once perceived as a limitless resource. The birds were shipped in boxcars by the tons, sold as meat for 31 cents per dozen, and plucked for mattress feathers. But in a mere 25 years, the population shrank from billions to thousands as commercial hunters decimated nesting flocks. Martha, the last living bird, took her place under museum glass in 1914…

(See the rest at Wired Science)

Did Ancient Mariners use Sunstones to Navigate?

According to ancient Icelandic texts, a mysterious object known as a sunstone could locate the sun in a clouded-over sky. Such an object might explain how ancient mariners like the Vikings traveled across the oceans with otherwise rudimentary technology. But did sunstones actually exist? Or were they merely allegorical references?

Recently, researchers discovered a slab of mineral in a 16th century shipwreck. This mineral, known as Iceland Spar, might just be the mythical sunstone. Here’s more from Raphael Satter at the Associated Press (posted at R&D Mag):

A rough, whitish block recovered from an Elizabethan shipwreck may be a sunstone, the fabled crystal believed by some to have helped Vikings and other medieval seafarers navigate the high seas, researchers say.

In a paper published earlier this week, a Franco-British group argued that the Alderney Crystal—a chunk of Icelandic calcite found amid a 16th century wreck at the bottom of the English Channel—worked as a kind of solar compass, allowing sailors to determine the position of the sun even when it was hidden by heavy cloud, masked by fog, or below the horizon.

That’s because of a property known as birefringence, which splits light beams in a way that can reveal the direction of their source with a high degree of accuracy. Vikings may not have grasped the physics behind the phenomenon, but that wouldn’t present a problem.

“You don’t have to understand how it works,” said Albert Le Floch, of the University in Rennes in western France. “Using it is basically easy.”

(See the rest at R&D Mag)

The Lost World of Mauritia?

We still don’t know much about what Earth looked like millions of years ago. But underwater lost worlds are popping up with increased frequency these days. The latest example is Mauritia. Unfortunately, I’m skeptical…very skeptical.

The Lost World of Mauritia?

Millions of years ago, Mauritia supposedly split off from Madagascar and made its way east, thanks to plate tectonics and sea-floor spreading. Eventually, this lost world sank to the bottom of the ocean. Now, a group of scientists claim to have found evidence for it. Unfortunately, the evidence is incredibly skimpy, consisting of twenty grains of zircons found in the sand on the island of Mauritius as well as an unusually thick sea-floor crust in the Indian Ocean.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Twenty grains of zircons? That’s it? Good lord. Supposedly, these zircons were gathered from remote beaches, which reduces the possibility they were carried there by tourists. Plus, the odds of them being blown over from Madagascar are considered unlikely. But let’s be honest…what’s the more likely scenario? That the zircons originated from a sunken lost world? Or that they were inadvertently brought to Mauritius by folks from Madagascar or elsewhere?

Here’s more from Sid Perkins at Nature:

The drowned remnants of an ancient microcontinent may lie scattered beneath the waters between Madagascar and India, a new study suggests.

Evidence for the long-lost land comes from Mauritius, a volcanic island about 900 kilometres east of Madagascar. The oldest basalts on the island date to about 8.9 million years ago, says Bjørn Jamtveit, a geologist at the University of Oslo. Yet grain-by-grain analyses of beach sand that Jamtveit and his colleagues collected at two sites on the Mauritian coast revealed around 20 zircons — tiny crystals of zirconium silicate that are exceedingly resistant to erosion or chemical change — that were far older…

(See the rest at Nature)

Hot Hand: Is it a Reality or a Fallacy?

College basketball season is in full swing. Everywhere you look, an announcer or writer is screaming about players going on streaks, making lots of shots in a row. In other words, having a hot hand. There’s just one problem. The hot hand is a myth. There’s no evidence to support it. It’s similar to the gambler’s fallacy. Say you toss a coin into the air and it comes up heads ten times in a row. Many gamblers believe this means tails are due. But each coin flip is an independent event. So, the odds of flipping a tail are still just 50%. Statistically speaking, basketball is the same way. Here’s more from the New York Times:

Those who play, coach or otherwise follow basketball believe almost universally that a player who has successfully made his last shot or last few shots – a player with hot hands – is more likely to make his next shot. An exhaustive statistical analysis led by a Stanford University psychologist, examining thousands of shots in actual games, found otherwise: the probability of a successful shot depends not at all on the shots that come before.

To the psychologist, Amos Tversky, the discrepancy between reality and belief highlights the extraordinary differences between events that are random and events that people perceive as random. When events come in clusters and streaks, people look for explanations; they refuse to believe they are random, even though clusters and streaks do occur in random data.

”Very often the search for explanation in human affairs is a rejection of randomness,” Dr. Tversky said…

(See the rest at the New York Times)