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Dec. 15, 2008 -- Scientists have discovered more than 1,000 species in Southeast Asia's Greater Mekong region in the past decade, including a spider as big as a dinner plate, the World Wildlife Fund said Monday.

A rat thought to have become extinct 11 million years ago and a cyanide-laced, shocking pink millipede were among creatures found in what the group called a "biological treasure trove."

The species were all found in the rainforests and wetlands along the Mekong River, which flows through Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the southern Chinese province of Yunnan.

"It doesn't get any better than this," Stuart Chapman, director of World Wildlife Fund: Greater Mekong PrgroamWWF's Greater Mekong Program, was quoted as saying in a statement by the group.

"We thought discoveries of this scale were confined to the history books."

The WWF report, "First Contact in the Greater Mekong", said that "between 1997 and 2007, at least 1,068 have been officially described by science as being newly discovered species."

These included the world's largest huntsman spider, with a leg span of 30 centimeters (11.8 inches), and the "startlingly" colored "dragon millipede," which produces the deadly compound cyanide.

Not all species were found hiding in remote jungles -- the Laotian rock rat, which the study said was thought to be extinct about 11 million years ago, was first encountered by scientists in a local food market in 2005, it said.

One species of pitviper was first noted by scientists after it was found in the rafters of a restaurant at the headquarters of Thailand's Khao Yai national park in 2001.

"This region is like what I read about as a child in the stories of Charles Darwin," said Dr Thomas Ziegler, curator at the Cologne Zoo, who was involved in the research.

"It is a great feeling being in an unexplored area and to document its biodiversity for the first time both enigmatic and beautiful," he said.

The new species highlighted in the report include 519 plants, 279 fish, 88 frogs, 88 spiders, 46 lizards, 22 snakes, 15 mammals, four birds, four turtles, two salamanders and a toad -- an average of two previously undiscovered species a week for the past 10 years.

The report warned, however, that many of the species could be at risk from development, and called for a cross-border agreement between the countries in the Greater Mekong area to protect it.

Larry O'Hanlon, Discovery News
Dec. 1, 2008 -- A spectacular new species of coral has been discovered thriving in veritable forests on the peaks of undersea mountains off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The large candelabra or fan-like "bamboo corals" have been spotted by marine scientists growing to heights in excess of a meter. They are so abundant they create oases for numerous other deep sea creatures.

"They look really, really big when you're underwater," said marine biologist Peter Etnoyer of Texas A & M University. Etnoyer is also the coauthor of the Deep Sea News blog which appears on the Discovery News Web site.

Etnoyer and his colleagues discovered the corals at depths of 700 to 1,000 meters in the famous Alvin submersible. A paper officially describing the new species as well as giving it an official scientific name will appear in the late December issue of the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

Bits and pieces of the mysterious bamboo corals had been seen for years, brought up in the nets of trawlers, Etnoyer said. But none of these fragments hinted at the size, beauty and importance of the corals and for other life at such depths.

"Bamboo corals have remarkable scientific utility," says coral researcher Tom Shirley of Texas A & M's Harte Research Institute. "Their growth rings are imprinted with carbon isotopes that allow us to unravel their growth history." Cross-sections exhibit growth rings that indicate some colonies can be 150 years old and more.

Deep sea fans like the bamboo coral are animals that feed on suspended organic material that floats by. Unlike better-known hard corals, deep sea corals live in pitch-black, cold waters. The new deep sea species also has very unusual and impressive skirt of long tentacles on its trunk that billow in the current. It's a feature that can only be seen and appreciated by looking at the living organism, as they could with Alvin, Etnoyer explained.

The deep sea corals were also clearly providing cover and solid foothold for fish, crabs and other animals -- essentially a shelter -- in the otherwise mucky, largely deserted expanses of deep ocean floor.

"They provide a lot of shelter, food and breeding grounds," said deep sea coral researcher Di Tracey of New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. That makes them important for fisheries, since deep sea fish can't thrive without places to breed.

Deep sea corals of the same genus Isidella appear off the coast of New Zealand as well, Tracey said. That's one reason why marine biologists are meeting there on Dec. 5 for the Fourth International Deep Sea Coral Symposium.

"We have a lot of deep sea corals in the world that haven't been described," Tracey said. "We've known about them since the 18th century, but they've been sort of out of sight, out of mind."

Now with the help of technological advances like the Alvin and remotely controlled submersible vehicles, these unusual creatures can finally be given the scientific attention they deserve, she said.

Nov. 19, 2008 -- Biologists on Wednesday explained how the larvae of marine zooplankton can see with just two cells, using what is believed to be the world's simplest vision system.

Zooplankton are tiny creatures such as copepods and krill that drift in the ocean's water columns, swimming up from the depths towards the light in order to graze on marine plants called phytoplankton near the surface.

This movement, called phototaxis, is the biggest biomass displacement in the world.

In a study published by the British-based journal Nature, European scientists looked at the larvae of the marine ragworm Platyneris dumerilii to try to explain how plankton are able to do the phototaxis trick.

The larva has just two eye cells, consisting of a pigment cell and a light-sensitive cell, say the investigators.

The cells are unable to form images but enable the plankton to sense the difference between light and dark and send appropriate signals to its swimming mechanism, say the investigators.

First, the pigment cell absorbs light and casts a shadow over the photoreceptor cell. The shape of the shadow varies according to the position of the light source.

The photoreceptor cell then converts this light signal into electricity, sending it in a signal along a nerve that connects to a band of cells endowed with thin hairs, called cilia, that beat to displace water.

The basic but effective system could explain how the very first eyes in evolution may have worked, say the team from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the Max Planck Institute.

"For a long time, nobody knew how the animals do phototaxis with their simple eyes and nervous system," said EMBL's Detlev Arendt.

"We assume that the first eyes in the animal kingdom evolved for exactly this purpose. Understanding phototaxis thus unravels the first steps of eye evolution."

Nov. 17, 2008 -- Scientists have discovered for the first time a menagerie of perfectly intact marine microorganisms trapped in tree resin at least 100 million years ago, according to a new study.

The unexpected find in the Charente region of southwestern France pushes back by at least 20 million years the period when a type of single-cell algae called diatoms are known to have appeared on Earth, said the study.

It also creates a mystery: how did sea creatures wind up trapped in a glob of resinated amber that oozes out of trees?

The most likely scenario, the scientists concluded, is that the forest producing the amber was very near the coast, and that the tiny organisms -- which also included primitive plankton -- were either carried inland by strong winds or flood waters during a storm.

"This discovery will deepen our understanding of these lost marine species as well as providing precious data about the coastal environment of western France during the Cretaceous Period," which spanned from 145 to 65 million years ago, the researchers said in a statement.

It also challenges certain theories about the evolution of these organisms, and vindicates the research of molecular geneticists, said Jean-Paul Saint Martin, a scientist at the National History Museum in Paris and a co-author of the study.

Using "molecular clocks," biochemists move backward in time to figure out at what point in the evolutionary process certain plant and animal species split off into different branches.

"We had no record of these microorganisms over a period of 20 million years. These fossils have filled that void in the most extraordinary manner," Saint Martin told AFP.

The study, carried out in collaboration with the National Center for Scientific Research in Strasbourg, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Larry O'Hanlon, Discovery News
Nov. 14, 2008 -- After a long search researchers think they have found a cryptic microbe that helps fertilize ocean waters worldwide. Or at least they have found the single-celled critter's very telling and surprising genome.

The actual microbe -- a type of bacteria known as cyanobacteria -- has so far eluded direct observation, although perhaps not for much longer.

"This is a microscopic organism that I've been chasing for 10 years now," said researcher Jonathan Zehr of the University of California at Santa Cruz. "We couldn't culture it (in a laboratory) and couldn't see it." He is the lead author of a paper on the discovery featured in the Nov. 14 issue of the journal Science.

Hints of the mysterious organism have been popping up all over the world in DNA analysis of sea water, said Zehr. Those hints indicated that there was some small organism which was rigged to grab nitrogen from the air and feed the microscopic plants -- called phytoplankton -- that form the base of the ocean food chain. This makes it a rather important player in the oceans.

"In order to pull down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we need phytoplankton," explained Woods Hole marine scientist Anton Post. And in order for sun-loving phytoplankton to grow, they need a host of nutrients -- just like land plants. "More often than not, nitrogen is the limiting nutrient."

Tracking down a widespread organism that gets nitrogen into the ocean food web has implications for global warming, which is driven by excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

By applying a powerful suite of new technologies to the task, Zehr and his colleagues were finally able to nail down the size and color of the organism and map out its genome. What they found was a shock.

"The first thing that surprised us is that this turned out to be a small cell," Zehr said. It also lacked photosynthetic plant pigments or any of the genes for being a photosynthetic plant. That means it had to make a living from other living things.

The discovery is remarkable because the only other nitrogen-fixing organisms found in the ocean also perform photosynthesis -- which creates the oxygen we breathe. The two processes are tricky to accomplish side-by-side because the molecular equipment used to grab nitrogen is destroyed by oxygen.

"Some cyanobacteria get around this by just fixing nitrogen at night, when there is less oxygen" because photosynthesis is not happening in the dark, Zehr said.

The newfound organism can fix nitrogen during the day, however, and it lacks genes for living like a plant, he said. So it's either a weird relict organism from the early days of life on Earth, before photosynthesis evolved -- or it lost the genes for living like a plant in favor of some other arrangement.

"One of our hypotheses is that it's living in symbiosis with some other organism," Zehr said. But that other organism, too, has proven elusive.

Fortunately, now that they have clues to the nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria's lifestyle, it might be finally possible to grow it in a lab and then really study it in detail, Zehr explained.

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