News at a glance: LGBTQ+Nobel laureates, a statistics prize, and the return of the snail darter
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News at a glance: LGBTQ+Nobel laureates, a statistics prize, and the return of the snail darter

A small fish famous for drawing the first U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Endangered Species Act was removed last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the list of species under threat of extinction. In 1975, the agency declared the snail darter (Percina tanasi) endangered, concluding that construction of a dam on the Little Tennessee River would doom the 9-centimeter-long animals. Although the court upheld the listing in 1978, Congress allowed the dam to go ahead. The darter’s outlook improved after some were moved to other streams, more populations were discovered, and stream water became cleaner. Although the snail darter is the fifth fish species to recover and be removed from the list, some 400 other fish species across the United States remain listed as imperiled. The pace of recovery is slow mainly because species are listed only after they have declined to small populations that are difficult to rescue, and because conservation funding is inadequate, researchers report this week in PLOS ONE. Worldwide, populations of freshwater species have declined by 83% on average since 1970, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report, released this week

Last week’s Nobel Prize recipients in the sciences included, for the first time, researchers who have publicly acknowledged they are members of the LGBTQ+ community. Ancient DNA pioneer Svante Pääbo, who bagged the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has talked about his bisexuality in interviews and in his autobiography, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. Stanford University chemist Carolyn Bertozzi, who was awarded the chemistry Nobel, is an out lesbian who has been lauded for her commitment to mentorship and promoting diversity in science. In February, she won AAAS’s Lifetime Mentor Award for mentoring more than 170 grad students and postdocs, including 73 women and 61 members of other underrepresented groups. “The diversity of people created an environment where we felt we didn’t have to play by the rules,” Bertozzi told an audience at Stanford last week. “If there weren’t the right chemistries to get the job done, we could invent new chemistries.” Although the inclusion of these laureates marked a milestone for diversity in science, this year’s science laureates were less diverse in other respects: Nine of the 10 are men, and all 10 are white.

Old-growth forests—the most ecologically rich type—cover 67.2 million hectares of the United States, or 36% of all its forests, according to a comprehensive study in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. But about two-thirds of these mature forests are privately owned, and of the minority owned by the federal government only about 24%, or 6 million hectares, is protected from logging. Logging or development of the remaining forests could complicate plans by President Joe Biden’s administration to better protect old-growth forests and their role in supporting biodiversity and limiting emissions of greenhouse gases.

Aboriginal tree carvings recorded
Australia’s ancient rock art preserves images of what Aboriginal Australians call the Dreaming, representing stories about the creation of their ancient culture and landscape. Now, researchers are studying another form of their art, preserved in the Tanami Desert in northwestern Australia: geometric symbols and figures of birds, serpents, and other animals carved into the soft, rippling bark of barrel-shaped boab trees. The archaeologists worked closely with Aboriginal Australians to document the carvings before they are lost, as the trees die of old age, lightning strikes, and bush fires. The authors, who include members of the Aboriginal Lingka (snake) clan, photographed and analyzed the artwork found on a dozen boabs and describe the work this week in Antiquity. One series of carvings depicts the winding path of the King Brown Snake, or Lingka Dreaming, who in traditional stories shaped the region’s present dry, undulating landscape.

Retracted papers about COVID-19 have been pulled from journals faster than those on other topics, a study has found. Eighty-two percent of the flawed pandemic papers were removed within 6 months of publication compared with 58% of the other papers. Some scientists have suggested that too many COVID-19 findings were rushed into print with inadequate scrutiny, resulting in inferior quality. But the faster retractions for the COVID-19 papers indicate heightened scrutiny, at least after publication, the study’s authors said in the 4 October issue of JAMA Open Network. The overall retraction rates for COVID-19 and other papers have been similar. In all, 138 original research papers about COVID-19 had been retracted by May—a small fraction of the total pandemic literature, which by some estimates has topped 500,000 articles.

China launches solar observatory
China this week launched the Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory (ASO-S), a satellite equipped to monitor the Sun’s magnetic field while watching for solar flares and the titanic blasts known as coronal mass ejections. The simultaneous observations could yield clues to what triggers those eruptions and better predictions of when they will occur. Researchers hope those insights in turn may help lessen disruptions that the eruptions could cause to power grids and navigation systems on Earth. The platform—dubbed Kuafu-1 after a mythological Chinese Sun seeker—will orbit 720 kilometers from Earth. ASO-S joins NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter in what are expected to be complementary solar observations.

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