AmeriScan: April 8, 2004

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Maui Surfer Dies in Shark Attack

HONOLULU, Hawaii, April 8, 2004 (ENS) - A shark in the waters off Maui's west coast claimed the life of a surfer on Wednesday morning in Hawaii's first deadly shark attack in nearly 12 years.

Police said Willis McMills, 57, of Kahana was bitten on the leg about 150 yards off Kahana Beach as he was paddling out to catch a wave early in the morning.

Police Captain Charles Hirata said McMills was assisted out of the water, but died on the beach from massive loss of blood, despite rescue efforts by beachgoers, police and paramedics.

"It has to be a fairly good size shark to do that damage," said Randy Honebrink, spokesman for the Shark Task Force of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. He said about four shark attacks occur off the Hawaiian Islands every year.

Four shark attacks were reported in Hawaii last year, including one in October off the island of Kauai that took the left arm of top amateur surfer Bethany Hamilton, then 13, in an incident that attracted international attention.

Authorities will try to determine the type of shark that killed McMills by studying the bite marks. Honebrink said tiger sharks are the most common. "They do feed an awful lot at things at the surface," he said. "They have a nonspecific diet, they'll eat just about anything."

The last confirmed shark attack death in Hawaii was in 1992 when surfer Aaron Romento, 18, of Pearl City was attacked off West Oahu.

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Intoxicated Pipeline Shooter Fined $17 Million

JUNEAU, Alaska, April 8, 2004 (ENS) - A man convicted of shooting at the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in October 2001 has been ordered to pay over $17 million for response and cleanup costs incurred by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. The sentence was handed down Monday in a Fairbanks Superior Court.

It is unlikely that Daniel Lewis, now in a Fairbanks jail serving a 16 year sentence for the shooting, will ever be able to meet the crushing multi-million dollar fine. But it will serve as a deterrent, Alaska law enforcement officials believe.

Attorney General Gregg Renkes said. “We recognize this judgment will never be completely paid, and the true victim is ultimately the public. Hopefully the stiff sentence in this case will deter others from such senseless destruction.”

In October 2001, just three weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, an intoxicated Lewis shot a hole in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in his hometown of Livengood near milepost 400 of the pipeline.

The high pressure caused a quarter-million gallons of crude oil to shoot hundreds of feet into the air and prompted a massive response by Alyeska to contain and clean up the oil.

In 2002, a Fairbanks jury convicted Lewis of all five charges brought against him, including damaging the pipeline, assault, and oil pollution, drunk driving, and criminal mischief.

"What the judge found was he should be able to pay, while he's on probation, to pay $US1,000 a year," Burke said.

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Buffalo Activist Shuts Down Trap

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Montana, April 8, 2004 (ENS) - An activist buffalo advocate shut down a buffalo trap on the Gallatin National Forest Wednesday by placing himself on a platform suspended from a 45 foot pole inside the trap. The activist, Akiva Silver, hung a large banner from the platform reading, "Bison Trap Closed to Protect Wildlife."

The pole is supported by ropes anchored to the outer walls and gates of the trap, making it impossible for agents from the state of Montana and the National Park Service to capture animals from Yellowstone National Park that migrate out of the park on traditional routes in search of spring grazing land.

The Yellowstone buffalo are the only genetically pure descendents left from the millions of bison slaughtered during the 1800s as the American West was taken over by Europeans and American settlers from the east coast.

Agents from the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL), the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, Gallatin County Sheriff's Department, and the West Yellowstone Police Department arrived on the scene before noon, but were unable to remove Silver or his structure.

A group of 50 buffalo migrated past the trap this morning, eliciting cheers from the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) volunteers who had gathered to support Silver. "It was as if the buffalo were celebrating the trap's closure," said BFC spokesperson Dan Brister, "Had Akiva not been up there, those 50 buffalo now grazing peacefully along the Madison River would be in the trap awaiting slaughter."

Silver, who saw the capture of hundreds of buffalo by the Park Service near Gardiner last month, said, "I refuse to stand by and watch my government destroy the last vestige of wilderness left in North America. These are public lands belonging to all Americans and the DOL has no right to slaughter buffalo here or anywhere else."

"Since buffalo are being killed by the very agencies entrusted with their protection," said Silver, "it has become the responsibility of American citizens to protect them on our own. This is why I am here today."

The trap is located on the Gallatin National Forest in an area that provides crucial habitat for the Yellowstone buffalo and many other species. The Department of Livestock has operated a buffalo trap here since 1999 under a Special Use Permit from the Forest Service. The agency has used the Horse Butte trap to capture and slaughter hundreds of Yellowstone buffalo.

While the abortive livestock disease brucellosis is the stated reason for the slaughter, there has never been a documented case of wild buffalo transmitting the disease to cattle.

The trapping and slaughter of Yellowstone bison takes place under an Interagency Bison Management Plan that took effect in December 2000. The plan states that bison removals will only occur near or beyond the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, but BFC volunteers have witnessed the agents penetrating far into the park to remove buffalo.

Capture, rather than "lethal methods" is the preferred method for removing bison that exceed either distribution or tolerance limits, the plan states, but in the past 10 years the Montana Department of Livestock and the National Park Service have killed 2,778 buffalo in and around Yellowstone National Park. Buffalo slaughter is costing federal taxpayers more than $3 million a year.

Montana achieved brucellosis-free status in 1985. This year the state is being especially vigilant since neighboring Wyoming is lost its brucellosis-free status when the disease was found in two herds of Wyoming cattle.

But the Buffalo Field Campaign says since the Horse Butte grazing allotment was closed in 2002, there have been no cattle grazing on national forest lands on the Butte, making any transmission of brucellosis impossible.

Still, federal and state agents have slaughtered 277 buffalo since November, the most killed in a single year since 1996-97, when nearly 1,100 bison died. In many cases, the animals are not even tested for brucellosis before they are killed. The meat, heads and hides are donated to tribal organizations or food banks.

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U.S., Canada Join to Reunite Killer Whale With Family

ORCAS ISLAND, Washington, April 8, 2004 (ENS) - A lonely young killer whale has been damaging property and putting people at risk by seeking out boaters and float planes in Nootka Sound on the west coast of British Columbia. Now, NOAA Fisheries and its Canadian counterpart, Fisheries and Oceans Canada have a cooperative plan to return the whale, known as Luna, or L98, to its southern resident population.

If Luna’s pod, or family group, swims near Nootka Sound this spring as biologists suspect, the two agencies will attempt to reintroduce the whale to his family.

The four year old whale has been living alone in Nootka Sound of 2001. Commonly called a killer whale, Luna belongs to a species more formally known as orca. These whales live all their lives in close family groups, hunting, mating and migrating together.

NOAA Fisheries discussed the plan at a public meeting on April 5, as part of a two day public forum, For the Love of Orcas, sponsored by the Orca Conservancy at the Rosario Resort & Spa on Orcas Island.

The American and Canadian agencies began working on the joint plan when both governments pledged $100,000 each for the reintroduction effort.

“Beyond returning the young animal to his family, reintroduction is necessary,” the agencies’ officials said. “The whale has developed unwanted behavior, damaging property and putting people at risk by aggressively seeking out boaters and float planes.” Officials with both agencies said reintroduction provides the best opportunity for Luna to end his dangerous behavior, while allowing him to remain in the wild.

Historically, orca sightings during this time of year are rare, and both agencies are asking the public and other government agencies, including the Coast Guard and Navy, to report any killer whale sightings.

The agencies need to know the whales' location, the number of animals, and their direction of travel along the outer coast of Vancouver Island. Sightings can be emailed to NOAA Fisheries at:

Because Luna’s pod may not be located near Nootka Sound, the agencies said that money and other resources are needed to move ahead with a plan for capturing and moving Luna south to rejoin his family group when it returns to southern British Columbia waters in the early summer. Public donations and in-kind contributions are being solicited for the relocation.

The agencies are working with the Whale Museum in Washington state and the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia to implement the plan. The museum and aquarium are prepared to receive contributions from groups or individuals.

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Aquarium Owners Release Exotic Fish in Florida Waters

SEATTLE, Washington, April 8, 2004 (ENS) - Sixteen species of fish from the tropical western Pacific and the Red Sea, apparently set free from home aquariums, are now living and possibly breeding in ocean waters off the southeast coast of Florida, new research has found.

Bruce Semmens, a doctoral student at the University of Washington (UW) and Christy Pattengill-Semmens, science coordinator for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, have found what they believe is an unprecedented number of non-native marine fish in a concentrated geographic area. Their findings are published in the journal "Marine Ecology Progress Series."

Emperor angelfish, with their blue masks and bodies striped in blue and gold, were the most commonly sighted non-native species and are imported by the aquarium industry in relatively large numbers.

Another commonly sighted non-native was yellow tang, a bright yellow oval fish that is the most commonly imported species of the U.S. aquarium trade.

Using data on the aquarium trade and shipping traffic, the study is the first to demonstrate that well-meaning pet owners can cause a "hot spot" of non-native tropical marine fish, Semmens says.

The researchers found a correlation between how commonly ornamental marine species are imported and how often they were sighted.

The 16 species were found in 32 different locales along the coast of Broward and Palm Beach counties and in the upper Florida Keys. Some were in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Most of the species were seen at more than one place, which means more than just a few aquariums have been dumped, Semmens says. It is not clear which, if any, of the non-native fishes have established breeding populations, he said.

"Typically, I'd say aquarium owners are more concerned with the status of our marine ecosystems than the general public is, yet many appear unaware of the potential pitfalls of releasing pets into the wild," Semmens says.

The study relied on information submitted by volunteer divers and snorkelers through the Exotic Species Sighting Program of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, or REEF, based in Key Largo, Florida. Sightings were confirmed with photographs, video or corroboration by other divers.

Semmens says it is unlikely the exotic fishes arrived in the ballast water of ships. If the fish were being introduced through ship ballast, their native ranges of the fish would correlate to where the ballast water comes from. Analyzing data on shipping traffic to Florida ports, Semmens and his co-authors found no support for this correlation.

Scientists are unable to predict which species will be destructive. The largest set of intentionally released marine fish was carried out in temperate coastal and inland seas of Russia in the 20th century. Sixteen species became established, harming valuable fisheries, introducing parasites, and the threatening the extinction of native species.

"Releasing non-native reef fish is like playing Russian roulette with tropical marine ecosystems," Semmens says.

Even if introduced species do not have dramatic impacts, their presence is unnatural and unwanted. "Divers visit the reefs of Florida to see the region's natural beauty and diversity. It is a unique and magical experience to dive on these reefs," said Semmens. "Adding new species to the region is comparable to adding a few finishing touches to one of da Vinci's masterpieces."

Aquarium keepers need to be educated about the proper disposition of animals in their care, according to Paul Holthus, executive director and president of the Marine Aquarium Council, an international non-profit organization based in Honolulu that focuses on the way tropical fish are collected and handled before they are purchased.

Education programs for dealers and aquarists could curtail exotic species releases if they highlight the problems of introduced species and provide ways for aquarium owners to sell or trade unwanted fish.

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Extinct Snails Rediscovered in a Freezer After 30 Years

ANN ARBOR, Michigan, April 8, 2004 (ENS) - Six hundred vials of freeze-dried snails forgotten in a University of Michigan (UM) freezer for more than 30 years may hold the keys to rescuing nearly extinct Tahitian land snails.

The two inch tall pink snails, famous since the late 1800s as classic examples of species that had rapidly diversified in an isolated environment, later became victims of a "spectacularly inept attempt at biological control," said UM mollusk expert Diarmaid Ó Foighil.

The trouble started in 1975 when the predatory rosy wolf snail was deliberately introduced to many South Pacific islands to control an agricultural pest, the the giant African snail.

But the rosy wolf snail had a bigger appetite for native land snails than for the pests it was supposed to eat. Over the years, the native snails were wiped out, and today only six of the original 61 species of land snails originally found in the Tahitian archipelago survive in the wild.

The rosy wolf snail is also commonly found in back yards and in the wild throughout Hawaii, and is threatening to eliminate virtually every species of native Hawaiian snail, according to Robert Cowie, snail expert at the Bishop Museum.

The UM freeze dried snails were brought to the university in 1970, by UM professor emeritus Jack Burch who traveled to Tahiti to study the native snails, which had not yet been decimated by the rosy wolf snail. Hiking deep into valleys where the snails were found, Burch collected several thousand specimens.

Most were preserved in alcohol for anatomical studies, but Burch also shipped about 600 live snails back to UM to be freeze-dried for future research on evolutionary relationships in the famous Tahitian snails.

But Burch's collaborator died before the research could be done, and Burch became absorbed in other projects, leaving the vials of freeze-dried snails in three wooden trays in a freezer at the UM Museum of Zoology.

If not for a chance conversation with Burch last year, Ó Foighil might never have known about the vials and their conservation potential. "We have at hand, in freeze-dried form," he said, "a comprehensive sampling of the Tahitian land snail fauna from a point in time five years prior to the devastating introduction of the rosy wolf snail."

The research could yield information of use to conservationists trying to figure out which captive snail populations are best to reintroduce to the wild and which of the remaining wild populations they should focus future conservation efforts on.

"The story here, in terms of conservation biology, is a horror story, but it's not all black because some of these snails can be saved," said Ó Foighil, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a curator at the museum. "And by being able to reference what's saved with the original fauna, we can have a rational conservation process."

The newfound uses for the old samples also underscore the value of museum collections and fundamental science, Ó Foighil said. "When Jack Burch sampled these snails, he didn't know they were going to go extinct. It's a classic case of the unexpected utility of such basic, collection oriented research."

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Animal Life Likely to Have Begun in Siberia

GAINESVILLE, Florida, April 8, 2004 (ENS) - Trilobites, the primitive shelled creatures thought to be among the first animals to appear in the fossil record, may have originated in Siberia. The heavily armored, once-common arthropods left millions of fossils around the globe before their extinction 250 million years ago.

The finding is one of the conclusions of a two year study by geologists at the University of Florida and University of Kansas that is scheduled to appear next week in the online edition of the London "Journal of the Geological Society."

Trilobites probably evolved in Siberia millions of years before they appear in the fossil record, the analysis suggests. Bruce Lieberman of Kansas says their appearance may have supplied the "fuse" for the Cambrian radiation, the "big bang" of life that occurred about 543 million years ago.

"Siberia at the time - it wasn't as cold and desolate place as it is today," said Florida's Meert. "It was in a better place (in the Southern hemisphere) but it's interesting that you can trace roots back."

When rocks are formed, their magnetic minerals align to the earth's magnetic field, providing Meert the clues he needed to plot the original locations of his specimens on a globe. Carbon dating of radioactive minerals in the rocks also revealed when they were formed.

By combining the formation dates with the location data, Meert deduced the whereabouts of the continents over the ages.

Lieberman's research focused on using fossil records to study the evolutionary patterns of early life in insects and crustaceans, especially trilobites. These patterns then pointed toward a likely continental breakup and drift scenario.

Working independently, the UF and KU geologists each determined that the southern supercontinent began breaking up around 580 million years ago. The separate continents drifted northward toward the equator at about six inches per year, and this relatively rapid movement ended about 500 million years ago, they found.

Meert's conclusions were based on research on dozens of rocks from locations ranging from Norway to Kenya to Madagascar. Lieberman drew his findings from comparisons of the physical characteristics, such as the number of body segments, of thousands of fossilized trilobites from different continents listed in a KU computer database. By grouping those with similar characters together, he determined where different groups originated and how closely related they were.

While six inches is fast by comparison to today's continental movement of speed of one to two inches per year, it is far slower than that proposed by another prominent theory on early continental movement. That theory, known to scientists as "inertial interchange true polar wander," held the continents rotated from the South Pole to the equator in a mere 15 million years from 523 million to 505 million years ago – meaning they moved at more than 25 inches per year – more than four times faster than what Lieberman and Meert found.

If that were true, Meert said, the expectation would be that all trilobites would be related in the same way. In fact, some are much more closely related than others, which suggests they split off from and spent differing amounts of time apart from each other, Lieberman said.

The analysis also suggests the first trilobite originated in Siberia several million years before the first fossil record of the animals appears. Both studies and methods resulted in the same outcome. "He had trilobites on my paleogeography and I had palegeography on his trilobites," Meert said.

The continents' movement away from one another opened a new ocean between them and probably warmed the climate, creating an atmosphere more conducive to life, Meert explained.

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Earth's Magnetic Field Reverses Every 7,000 Years

ARLINGTON, Virginia, April 8, 2004 (ENS) - Earth's magnetic field reverses every few thousand years at low latitudes and every 10,000 years at high latitudes, a geologist funded by the National Science Foundation has concluded.

Brad Clement of Florida International University published his findings in this week's issue of the journal "Nature." The results are a major step forward in scientists' understanding of how Earth's magnetic field works.

The magnetic field has shown to have completely changed direction at irregular times in the geologic past. A compass needle, if one existed then, would have pointed not to the north geographic pole, but to the opposite direction. Such polarity reversals provide clues to the nature of the processes that generate the magnetic field, said Clement.

Since the time of Albert Einstein, researchers have tried to determine a firm time-frame during which reversals of Earth's magnetic field occur. Einstein once wrote that one of the most important unsolved problems in physics centered around Earth's magnetic field.

Earth's magnetic field varies with time, indicating it is not a static or fixed feature. Instead, some active process works to maintain the field. That process is most likely a kind of dynamic action in which the flowing and convecting liquid iron in Earth's outer core generates the magnetic field, geologists believe.

Figuring out what happens as the field reverses polarity is difficult because reversals are rapid events, at least on geologic time scales. Finding sediments or lavas that record the field in the act of reversing is a challenge.

But in the past few years new polarity transition records have been acquired in sediment cores obtained through the international Ocean Drilling Program, also funded by the National Science Foundation. These records make it possible to determine the major features of reversals, Clement said.

"It is generally accepted that during a reversal, the geomagnetic field decreases to about 10 percent of its full polarity value," said Clement. "After the field has weakened, the directions undergo a nearly 180 degree change, and then the field strengthens in the opposite polarity direction. A major uncertainty, however, has remained regarding how long this process takes. Although this is usually the first question people ask about reversals, scientists have been forced to answer with only a vague 'a few thousand years.'"

The reason for this uncertainty? Each published polarity transition reported a slightly different duration, from just under 1,000 years to 28,000 years.

"Now, through the innovative use of deep-ocean sediment cores, Clement has demonstrated that magnetic field reversal events occur within certain time-frames, regardless of the polarity of the reversal," said Carolyn Ruppel, program director in NSF's division of ocean sciences.

"Sediment cores originally drilled to meet disparate scientific objectives have led to a result of global significance, which underscores the value of collecting and maintaining cores and associated data," said Ruppel.

Clement examined the database of existing polarity transition records of the past four reversals. The overall average duration, he found, is 7,000 years.

But the variation is not random, he said. Instead it alters with latitude. The directional change takes half as long at low attitude sites as it does at mid- to high-latitude sites.

"This dependence of duration on site latitude was surprising at first, but it's exactly as would be predicted in geometric models of reversing fields," Clement said.