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Dispatches

Dispatches
Food Fight
Dolphin Indigestion
Unsung Dung
Packing up the Plant
CSI: Stone Age
Survival Song
True Blue Frog

Illustrations by Serge Bloch

Food Fight
Frat parties and student-teacher ratios aren’t all that’s weighing on the minds of high school graduates shopping for universities these days. Some prospective collegians are factoring in the greenness of the cuisine at their potential alma maters. Organic and sustainably farmed foods are now popping up in dining halls on college campuses nationwide. Sarah Cody, a spokesperson for Sodexho, the food and facilities management company that runs dining halls in more than 900 U.S. colleges and universities, says that more than half of those clients offer some type of organic product on their campuses. “I knew that when I was moving on campus I would be eating healthy and it wouldn’t have a negative effect on my body,” says Frannie Sorenson, a 21-year-old junior at Menlo College in Atherton, California. The college provides students, faculty, and staff with an almost entirely organic menu featuring produce obtained from local growers whenever possible. At less progressive schools, students are taking the lead. In the fall of 2004 students at New York’s Columbia University founded the Food Sustainability Project to address the lack of locally produced foods in campus dining facilities. “The growing concern among students is important,” says Coogan Brennan, the group’s president. “We’re realizing that food is something that’s been left under the radar too long. Students are really exploring other options.”—Bob Grant
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Dolphin Indigestion
It’s not easy removing ingested bits of plastic from two star dolphins’ stomachs. But if they are performers at Royal Jidi Ocean World in Fushun, in northeast China, you just call Bao Xishun, the world’s tallest man. Veterinarians at the aquarium phoned Bao, who stands almost 7 feet 9 inches tall, after two of their bottlenose dolphins nibbled plastic from the sides of their pool and became ill. Earlier the veterinarians had attempted to pull the plastic out of the dolphins’ stomachs using surgical instruments and by manually reaching down the marine mammals’ long throats—to no avail. Enter Bao, who, with one of his three-and-a-half-foot arms, reached into the dolphins’ stomachs and pulled the plastic out. The dolphins are reportedly doing fine, and Bao has returned to his life as a herdsman in Inner Mongolia.—Bob Grant
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Unsung Dung
Little burrowing owls may attract dinner using unconventional bait: poop. When the owls line their tunnels with excrement from cows, horses, and other animals, dung beetles and other insects march to the scene, only to be devoured by the birds. “Populations from California to Florida and from Canada to Arizona use dung,” says Courtney Conway, one of the authors of a new study and a natural resources professor at the University of Arizona. Researchers working on why some burrowing owls do this originally thought that the waste deters predators like ferrets or snakes because it hides the smell of hatchlings, a theory that “is even reported in a children’s book about burrowing owls,” says Matthew Smith, the lead author of the study and a zoology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida. Other theories are that the poop is a sign to other owls that the burrow is occupied, or that males use the excrement to attract mates.—Susan Cosier
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Packing up the Planet
What are the citizens of an ailing planet to do? Sure, conservation and sound environmental stewardship are important. But shouldn’t we have a backup plan? There are some who think so, and they’re offering a few out-of-this-world solutions. “If we work hard, we can still save the earth, but we still need to spread out,” says William Burrows, a science journalist who advocates human colonization of the moon in The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth. The starting point, Burrows argues, would be to establish a moon-based repository that contains the frozen DNA of all the earth’s species, a comprehensive seed bank, and an archive of literature, art, history, and other humanities works. Burrows, who is also a science journalism professor at New York University, envisions a core colony of moon-bound human beings who could repopulate the species in case of environmental disaster. But he isn’t necessarily giving up on his home planet. “We’re not talking about abandoning earth,” Burrows insists. “We’re talking about hedging our bets.”—Bob Grant
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CSI: Stone Age
About 2.5 million years after a hominid child was killed, scientists may have finally fingered the murderer: an ancestor of the African crowned eagle. In 1924, when anthropologists discovered the three-year-old hominid’s damaged skull, the primary suspect was a predatory cat. But recently, after examining monkey remains discarded from the nests of African crowned eagles, researchers noticed similarities between their primate skulls and that of the young hominid. “If you were to superimpose one of my skulls onto the Taung child’s, the injuries are almost identical,” says W. Scott McGraw, an anthropologist at Ohio State University. The raptors’ calling card includes talon punctures, scratches to the eye sockets, and V-shaped holes pierced by the birds’ sharp beaks through the victims’ craniums. Anthropologists now wonder if prehistoric eagles also preyed regularly upon early humans. Flying the skies of sub-Saharan Africa, crowned eagles kill primates that weigh up to 44 pounds, including chimpanzees. At the time of death, the hominid weighed about 25 pounds. This is roughly the weight of an adult male mangabey, which, fortunately for little humans, seems to be the crowned eagle’s favored monkey meat.—Melissa Mahony
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Survival Song
Among primates, gibbons are known for loud, elaborate songs, especially morning duets performed by breeding pairs. As with birds, it’s thought that the songs are an evolutionary adaptation involved with mate selection. Now scientists have discovered that gibbons compose unique songs to alert neighbors to predators. Researchers led by Esther Clarke of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews studied the duets of white-handed gibbons at Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park. They also built models of gibbon predators—leopards, pythons, eagles—to see if the gibbons varied their vocalizations. Gibbons use seven “notes”; the team found that they arrange those notes differently in the presence of predators than while singing duets. Specific “danger” songs warn neighboring groups of gibbons, which respond by picking up the song. When a gibbon spotted a lurking predator, it drew closer to its opponent and sang at it. Clarke believes this might be “to alert a predator to the fact that it’s been seen, and thus there’s no point in hunting anymore.”—Hilda Brucker
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True Blue Frog
Gangly wood storks nesting atop virgin bald cypress and alligators galore are star attractions along the two-mile-long boardwalk at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida. But recently, nationwide attention was focused on a two-inch green treefrog, a raucous amphibian that is common in southern wetlands. But this treefrog was robin-egg blue, not green. “One of our volunteers spotted this jewel sitting on a fern frond near the lettuce lakes,” relates Corkscrew manager Ed Carlson. Astonished scientists say a genetic anomaly accounts for the blue hue, which changes with the temperature and the frog’s mood. A mix of blue and yellow pigments produces the typical color of a green treefrog. In this instance, yellow is missing. Since camouflage in a green environment is the key to the species’ survival, it’s a small miracle that this individual hadn’t been eaten by one of the swamp’s countless predators. “You can see it a mile away,” Carlson says. For now, the one-of-a-kind treefrog is safe in a terrarium, but eventually it may be returned to the swamp.—Les Line
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