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A thinner dodo, plus more in this week’s news

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4:59pm, February 9, 2011
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Can’t get no pollination
An aging population of New Zealand shrubs may offers the first known example of the troubles predicted to follow the decline of wild pollinators, scientists report online in Science February 3. Three kinds of native birds did most of the pollinating for the shrub Rhabdothamnus solandri, explains Sandra Anderson of the University of Auckland, but two have largely disappeared from a study area on North Island, part of New Zealand’s mainland. With observations and experiments, Anderson and her colleagues show that sparse pollination is limiting mainland shrubs, in contrast to healthier populations on nearby islands that still have the right birds. —Susan Milius


Feathers made its rump look fat
A new estimate of dodo plumpness was adds weight to the suspicion that famous portraits just weren’t fair to the now-extinct flightless bird. Certain illustrations show a bird with so many bulges that it could have jiggled. Yet adult dodos were probably more like lean wild turkeys, argue Delphine Angst of the Museum of Natural History in Paris and colleagues. The average dodo weighed about 10 kilograms, based on the size of its leg bones and how the bones change with mass in 323 other bird species, the researchers report online January 15 in Naturwissenschaften.Susan Milius


Tools to crow about
Oxford researchers report that New Caledonian crows use twigs and sticks to probe new and potentially threatening objects, providing the first evidence that birds use tools for more than just finding food. Of 10 crows housed at an indoor/outdoor aviary, four used sticks to poke at and explore a rubber spider, a flashing bicycle light and other items that they had never seen before, the scientists report online December 23 in Animal Cognition. Checking out possible threats without making direct contact may benefit crafty foragers such as crows. —Bruce Bower


Plants go downhill
Researchers looking up mountain slopes for biological responses to climate change may be missing species moving downhill, say researchers from Montana, California and Idaho. As temperatures rise, some species could, or already do, edge upslope to find the kind of cool spots they’re used to. But with climate change comes precipitation change, meaning the best elevation for a plant to maintain its water balance can shift. Comparing survey and climate records from the 1930s and the 2000s for 64 California plant species, optimal water-balancing elevations shifted downslope more often than up, the scientists report in the Jan. 21 Science. —Susan Milius


Microbes mix it up
Bacteria borrow genes from their neighbors in order to adapt quickly to new environments, researchers from the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the University of Maryland in College Park say. Researchers already knew that microbes often swap genes, but the new study shows that the strategy shapes the evolution of bacteria and archaea more than previously thought. Multicellular organisms tend to duplicate existing genes and then modify those copied genes to create new functions. Microbes also copy genes, but mainly to boost activity of those genes within the cell. That process is slow, so grabbing genes from other microbes leads to more rapid evolution, the researchers report online January 27 in PLoS Genetics. —Tina Hesman Saey

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