Advent of feathers was patchy for dinosaurs; Illuminating the colour of fireflies; Delivering the biggest bang for the buck; Ultrasonic frogs raise the tone

An exquisitely preserved dinosaur shows that the adoption of feathers by so-called 'non-avian' dinosaurs was a complex process; Japanese researchers unravel the mechanism by which firefly controls colour; A Chinese frog is the latest addition to the range of animals known to communicate by ultrasound; Conservation - an example from Southeast Asia.


This press release is copyright Nature.
VOL.440 NO.7082 DATED 16 MARCH 2006

This press release contains:
* Palaeontology: Advent of feathers was patchy for dinosaurs
* Chemical biology: Illuminating the colour of fireflies
* Conservation: Delivering the biggest bang for the buck
* And finally... Ultrasonic frogs raise the tone

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[1] Palaeontology: Advent of feathers was patchy for dinosaurs (pp 329-332; N&V)

An exquisitely preserved dinosaur found in Germany shows that the adoption of feathers by so-called 'non-avian' dinosaurs was a more complex process than palaeontologists had thought. The discovery, made at Schamhaupten in the south of the country, represents the best example of a European dinosaur from the Late Jurassic period some 150 million years ago, and shows no evidence of having had feathers, despite the fact that many of its prehistoric contemporaries from the same group were feathered. The new dinosaur adds to the meagre fossil record from the Late Jurassic, and particularly from Europe, where only two specimens had been found before, Ursula Göhlich and Luis Chiappe write in this week's Nature. The creature would have been a meat-eating predator around seventy-five centimetres long, and the fossil is remarkably complete, missing only the final third of its tail. What's more, the specimen features preserved skin, from which the authors were able to note the absence of feather-bearing structures. The find clouds the issue of how and when dinosaurs first adopted feathers. The authors argue that the new finding is evidence that some lineages developed them faster than their relatives in other branches of the dinosaur family tree. But in a related News and Views article, Xing Xu adds that this individual could have been a juvenile, yet to grow feathers. "Whatever the explanation is, our knowledge of early feather evolution has been enriched," he writes.

Luis Chiappe (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA, USA)
Tel: +1 213 763 3323; E-mail: [email protected]
Ursula Gohlich (University of Munich, Munich, Germany)
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Xing Xu (Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology & Paleoanthropology, Beijing, China) N&V
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[4] Chemical biology: Illuminating the colour of fireflies (pp 372-376)

The brilliant yellow-green to yellow-orange chemical light that fireflies emit to communicate with one another has long been a source of fascination. Now a little more light has been shed on the 'bioluminescence' of these insects, according to new research published this week's Nature. Hiroaki Kato and colleagues have unravelled the mechanism by which firefly luciferase - the enzyme associated with the bioluminescence reaction - controls colour. This process is unrivalled in its efficiency in converting chemical energy into light; it is for this reason that luciferase is used by many biologists as a 'readout' for their experiments. The authors have identified a specific conformational change in a key amino acid - an isoleucine residue - that controls the colour of the emitted light. It was already known that the colour of the emitted light changes if there is a single amino-acid substitution in luciferase, but the reason for that colour change had remained a mystery - until now. The mechanism they identified is likely to be common for other insect luciferases.

Hiroaki Kato (Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan)
Tel: +81 75 753 4617; E-mail: [email protected]

[8] Conservation: Delivering the biggest bang for the buck (pp 337-340)

The 'conservation resource allocation problem' is one of the most pressing issues facing global conservation. How do you distribute limited resources between regions that are priorities for biodiversity conservation - be they biodiversity hotspots, endemic bird areas or ecoregions? Prioritizing simply on species richness may mean regions that are highly threatened but marginally less species-rich lose out. Likewise, if the relative cost of investing is not accounted for, resources may be directed to expensive regions with little gain. In this week's Nature, Hugh Possingham and colleagues explore the use of decision theory, based on mathematical algorithms, to optimize resource allocation. Using five priority regions from Southeast Asia as an example, they provide a framework that accounts not only for biodiversity value and threats, but also for the costs of conservation action, changes in investment returns through time, landscape dynamics, and data uncertainty. They argue that conservation investments should be evaluated as any investment: with a clearly defined objective and an assessment of how well the returns meet this objective. In the demonstration example, to maximize the number of species conserved and taking endemic bird species as a surrogate for biodiversity, Possingham recommends initially investing all resources in Sulawesi. Only after that should investment proceed in Sumatra, Borneo and Java, and finally Malaysia.

Hugh Possingham (University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia)
Tel: +61 7 3365 9766; E-mail: [email protected]

[9] And finally... Ultrasonic frogs raise the tone (pp 333-336)

A Chinese frog has made a successful pitch to join an exclusive club - it's the latest addition to the range of animals known to communicate by ultrasound. Membership of the group had previously included only bats, marine mammals and some rodents. Joining them now is the concave-eared torrent frog (Amolops tormotus). The creature's croak contains both audible and ultrasonic components, which allow their calls to be heard against the babbling background of the streams where they live. Albert Feng and colleagues recorded the croaks, split them into their constituent frequencies, and tested other frogs' responses to them. They found that males produce answering croaks in response to both the audible and the ultrasonic components of the calls. As they report in Nature this week, this is the first example of such a tactic from outside the mammalian class, meaning that the trick has evolved more than once in different animal groups.

Albert Feng (University of Illinois, Urbana, IL, USA)
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Published: 15 Mar 2006

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