Tuesday, May 30

News at a glance: U.S. tallies old-growth forests, Canadian scientists march for higher pay, and condor poop reveals the birds’ ancient history | Science


U.S. boosts tally of old forests

Last year, President Joe Biden surprised forest scientists when he ordered an inventory of the government’s holdings of mature and old-growth forests by this Earth Day. It triggered a scramble by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to create a formal definition of what constitutes “mature” and “old-growth” forests and to apply those definitions across millions of hectares. Meeting the 22 April deadline last month, the agencies released their findings in a report, noting that of the nearly 72 million hectares of forest they manage, 45% are mature and 18% are old growth. The figures, which exceed estimates published by nonfederal researchers, include 9 million hectares of pinyon-juniper woodlands (pictured here in Utah)—a forest type that was previously rarely categorized as old growth. The report’s findings are likely to fuel a raging debate about how to manage older forests and make them resilient to climate change.


Chemist gets home confinement

A U.S. district judge last week sentenced former Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber to 6 months of home confinement and fined him $50,000 for lying to federal agencies about his interactions with a Chinese university and failing to report payments from it. The ruling ended the most publicized case of some two dozen recent criminal prosecutions of U.S. academic scientists with research ties to China. In December 2021, Lieber’s ties to the Wuhan University of Technology led to a guilty verdict in his trial. Prosecutors had asked for a 90-day prison sentence and a $150,000 fine for the 64-year-old Lieber, who has an incurable blood cancer and retired from Harvard earlier this year. His lawyers had requested no jail time because of his poor health. The case was brought under the government’s China Initiative, which aimed to stop economic espionage by the U.S. rival. The campaign was renamed last year to clarify that it applies to malign actors from anywhere in the world. The government has had a mixed record in prosecuting academic scientists; several were acquitted or had their cases dropped, whereas a handful were found guilty of offenses similar to Lieber’s and received prison sentences.


The unknown under the sea

Scientists suspect they have described less than 10% of the marine species on Earth. To learn more about the remaining ocean dwellers, researchers, businesses, and philanthropists have teamed up to identify within the next decade some 100,000 new sea creatures out of the estimated 2 million still unidentified species. The Ocean Census, launched last week, will combine DNA sequencing with machine learning to build a sort of cyber taxonomy, classifying organisms collected on expeditions across the world’s seas. The results could aid conservation and give scientists a better understanding of the role of marine life in oxygen and food production, as well as carbon cycling. With funding from the Nippon Foundation, Japan’s largest philanthropic organization, a U.K. marine science and conservation institute called Nekton will coordinate collections by ships, divers, submarines, and deep-sea robots. Ocean Census will make its data, along with 3D digital images of all new species, available to both researchers and the public. Given the loss of coral, sharks, and other marine species in recent decades, “We are in a race against time,” says the project’s scientific director, Alex Rogers, a marine biologist at the University of Oxford.


Welsh fossils highlight early life

a 462-million-year-old fossil
This 462-million-year-old fossil represents a new species, a clamlike creature with long appendages.JOE BOTTING

In Wales, paleontologists have uncovered a rich source of 462-million-year-old fossils that reveal more overlap than expected between animals that evolved during the Cambrian Explosion 40 million years earlier and the ancestors of modern species. Researchers had thought those ancestors had replaced the Cambrian creatures, but the new site—a small quarry in a sheep field—shows a much more gradual transition, say Joe Botting and Lucy Muir of Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. Among a bonanza of fossils, the married duo has cataloged 170 marine species, including glass sponges, crustaceans called horseshoe crab shrimp, and a six-legged arthropod that may have given rise to insects. Almost all the animals are tiny, with many ranging in size from a sesame seed to a pencil eraser, and their soft bodies are exquisitely preserved, providing insights into what they ate and how they lived, the research team reports this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution. This quarry, says Julien Kimmig, a paleontologist at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe who was not involved with the work, “could definitely be as famous” as the renowned Burgess Shale in Canada, a plentiful source of Cambrian fossils from 500 million years ago.


Indian classrooms shed Darwin

Scientists in India are protesting a decision to cut discussion of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution from textbooks used by millions of ninth and 10th graders. More than 4000 people have signed a plea from the Breakthrough Science Society to restore the material. The nonprofit science advocacy group reports that the National Council of Educational Research and Training, an autonomous government group that sets curricula for India’s 256 million primary and secondary students, dropped the topic as part of a “content rationalization” process. The removal makes “a travesty of the notion of a well-rounded secondary education,” says evolutionary biologist Amitabh Joshi of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research. Others fear it signals a growing embrace of pseudoscience by Indian officials and think it’s unlikely NCERT will relent.


Trial EU defense fund blasted

The European Union was ill-prepared to ramp up defense research funding, according to a report released last week by its own financial watchdog. In 2017–19, the EU spent about €90 million on 18 projects under the Preparatory Action on Defence Research, a fund designed to “pave the way” for a much larger €8 billion European Defence Fund, which kicked off in 2021 and will run until 2027. But the report from the European Court of Auditors says the earlier trial fund didn’t deliver fully as a “testbed” for the bigger program, as projects were delayed and made “limited progress.” Auditors also warned that the European Commission is too understaffed to manage the surge in defense-research spending.


Condors’ poo reveals their history

an Andean condor in flight
Andean condors’ nests record a messy archive of their diets stretching back thousands of years.JACK DYKINGA/NPL/MINDEN PICTURES

To find out how the Andean condor’s diet has shifted over millennia of environmental change, researchers scaled a cliff in Argentina’s Patagonia region to collect samples from a doughnut-shaped mound of the birds’ droppings. Based on radiocarbon dating and other clues, the scientists discovered that condors have nested on this cliffside for some 2200 years. However, the guano revealed that, between about 300 C.E. and 1300 C.E., Andean condors became scarce, as ash from nearby volcanic eruptions blanketed the landscape and killed off animals whose carcasses they preyed upon. Scientists also learned the condors’ carrion of choice has changed over the years. Traces of llama DNA dominated the guano deposit’s older layers, whereas introduced sheep and cattle are more prominent in fresher layers. Researchers say the findings illustrate the value of studying long-term nesting sites for reconstructing a species’ ecological history.


Canadian Ph.D.s demand raises

Thousands of scientists across Canada walked off the job on 1 May to protest low wages for graduate students and postdocs. At one event on Canada’s Parliament Hill, Sarah Laframboise, a University of Ottawa biochemistry Ph.D. student and executive director of the grassroots organization Support Our Science, cited research suggesting that 86% of graduate students are stressed and anxious about their finances. The organization, which staged the 1-day protest, is asking the federal government to increase pay for graduate students and postdocs who are funded through federal scholarships and fellowships. In August 2022, it delivered an open letter to the government requesting increased investment in the next generation of scientists. But this year’s federal budget, released in March, didn’t include any such changes.

Article source: https://www.science.org/content/article/news-glance-u-s-tallies-old-growth-forests-canadian-scientists-march-higher-pay