Science

News at a glance: Debate over classifying research, giant water lilies, and new hummingbird feather colors

ECOLOGY

Scientists find new hummingbird colors

The plumage of hummingbirds has more color diversity than the feathers of all other birds combined, a recent study finds. Researchers from Yale University collected feathers from specimens of 114 hummingbird species and, using a spectrometer, documented the wavelengths of light they reflected. These wavelengths were then compared with those found in a previous study of 111 other bird species, including penguins and parrots. The researchers were surprised to find new colors in the hummers, which widened the known avian color gamut by 56% and included rarely seen saturated greens and blues, they report in Communications Biology. The newfound variation largely includes colors in the ultraviolet scale that are invisible to humans and probably only seen by hummingbirds themselves. Researchers note the variation is likely due to the reflective qualities of nanostructures present in the small barbs that protrude from the end of each hummingbird feather. The new colors were mostly found on the crowns and throats of the birds, suggesting a role in mating displays and communication.

RESEARCH SECURITY

New debate over secrecy

Science has learned that the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has asked the National Academies to take a fresh look this fall at a Cold War-era presidential directive that regards openness in basic research as a boon to both innovation and national security. Advocates of classifying as little information as possible say additional restrictions would harm U.S. research without deterring countries seen as adversaries. China’s aggressive pursuit of several emerging technologies with both commercial and military uses, however, has prompted calls from many lawmakers to cordon off the results of basic research on a range of sensitive technologies. A 2019 report to NSF backed the current policy, issued in 1985 and known as NSDD-189. But NSF officials say the world has changed enough for experts across academia, government, and industry to reexamine the issue.

CLIMATE POLICY

Court limits EPA’s climate power

Siding with a group of Republican-led states and the electric power industry, the U.S. Supreme Court last week limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) ability to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants. Analysts say the 6-3 decision in West Virginia v. EPA will hamper President Joe Biden’s efforts to achieve his goal of substantially reducing U.S. carbon emissions and give more power to states. Notably, however, the court’s conservative majority did not use the case to challenge EPA’s underlying authority to regulate greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, the primary planet-warming gas. But federal courts are still considering other lawsuits that would further reduce the agency’s options for regulating carbon dioxide emissions.

CONSERVATION

Colombia hits conservation goal

Colombia is the first Western Hemisphere country to achieve the widely adopted 30×30 ocean conservation goal, Colombian President Iván Duque claimed last week at the United Nations Oceans Conference in Lisbon, Portugal. More than 100 other countries have signed the pledge to protect 30% of both Earth’s ocean area and land area by 2030. To reach that proportion of protected ocean area in Colombia 8 years before the deadline, Duque designated three new marine protected areas and expanded the existing Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary in the Eastern Pacific Ocean to include a 1400 kilometer underwater ridge that acts as a highway for sharks and other marine life. Duque has also announced a $245 million initiative that aims to protect 32 million hectares of Colombian land and ocean.

We just hope we didn’t open a Pandora’s box.

  • Artificial intelligence scientist Almira Osmanovic Thunström
  • in Scientific American, discussing research articles written by AI algorithms, including one she submitted to a journal.
RESEARCH FUNDING

Germany military research urged

German universities should undertake more military research, the German national academy of engineering, Acatech, said in a white paper released last month. The Russian attack on Ukraine has prompted a shift in Germany’s restrained approach to defense, predominant since World War II, with the legislature recently approving €100 billion in new military funding. Many German universities have long had a voluntary ban on military and dual-use research, but that position is out of date since the war in Ukraine, the 24 June report says. It calls for German science to focus equally on security, resilience, and sustainability and for a broad debate about what research is needed for the country’s security.

BIODIVERSITY

Protections overlook at-risk trees

Initiatives to conserve trees largely focus on nonthreatened species, according to an analysis presented last week at the World Biodiversity Forum. The work is an update to the State of the World’s Trees report, originally published in September 2021, that showed one-third of the 60,000 tree species in the world are at risk of extinction, fueled by clearing land for agriculture, logging, and climate change. The new analysis reveals that areas marked for conservation, such as national parks, protect 85% of nonthreatened tree species, compared with only 56% of threatened ones. The same is true for trees in scientific collections, such as botanical gardens and seed banks; only 21% of threatened species are safeguarded there versus 45% of nonthreatened ones. Researchers worry the lack of threatened trees in collections might hinder conservation and restoration programs aimed at growing and preserving at-risk species. Among the most vulnerable trees worldwide are the Magnolia ekmanii from Haiti and the Diospyros egrettarum, which has fewer than 10 specimens left in its native Mauritius.

350,000

Google searches in the United States for “abortion pill” and names of specific abortion medications between 1 May and 8 May, the week the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization draft ruling was leaked. (JAMA Internal Medicine)

COVID-19

Next-gen COVID-19 jabs coming

Redesigned COVID-19 booster shots are expected this fall, after advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) voted 19-2 last week in favor of incorporating an Omicron strain into existing vaccines. FDA concurred, announcing on 30 June that it’s asking manufacturers to retool their shots for a spike protein component shared by Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, which are currently gaining ground worldwide. The new vaccines, which Pfizer and Moderna say they can make available by about October, will have the same messenger RNA dose as previous boosters but will target both Omicron and the original coronavirus strain first detected in 2019. Pfizer and Moderna have reported data from ongoing trials of vaccines against an earlier Omicron strain, BA.1, and FDA says it expects to consider these data in evaluating fall boosters.

ANIMAL MODELS

Airline ends monkey transports

Air France will stop transporting nonhuman primates once its current contracts end. The airline was the last major holdout on carrying nonhuman primates as cargo. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lauded the decision, but the European Animal Research Association cautions it will restrict research, especially as the European Union prepares to introduce further limits on primate studies later this year. The U.S. already faces shortages of monkeys for research, in part because of a Chinese ban on monkey exports.

ECOLOGY

New water lily species named

two people border a new species of giant waterlilly
Scientists have discovered and named a new species of giant water lily.ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS, KEW

Researchers have found a new species of water lily, and its leaves—as wide as a pingpong table is long—are the world’s largest, they report in Frontiers in Plant Science. Victoria boliviana, so named because it grows the biggest in Bolivia, was shown to be a distinct species with genetic analysis and detailed morphological observations of specimens at the National Herbarium of Bolivia and at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in England, where the new species is on display.


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