An epaulette shark, one of some 50 new marine species discovered during a recent survey in the Papua province.
An epaulette shark, one of some 50 new marine species discovered during a recent survey in the Papua province. (By Gerry Allen)
Monday, September 18, 2006

New Sharks, Coral Found In Indonesian Province

Researchers have discovered dozens of new marine species on the northwestern end of Indonesia's Papua province, including two new species of epaulette sharks, nicknamed "walking sharks" because they propel themselves across the ocean floor on their pectoral fins.

A third species of the shark was originally identified in the 19th century.

Two expeditions this year to the Coral Triangle also turned up previously unknown species of flasher wrasse fish and reef-building corals.

In all, the scientists discovered more than 50 species of fish, coral and mantis shrimp in the Bird's Head Seascape in the center of the Coral Triangle. The seascape is home to more than 1,200 species of fish and almost 600 species of reef-building coral, and only 11 percent of the area is protected.

As a result, the diverse ecosystem is under threat from overfishing, often using dynamite and cyanide, and by coastal pollution from deforestation and mining, said Mark Erdmann, who led the survey for Conservation International.

"These Papuan reefs are literally 'species factories' that require special attention to protect them from unsustainable fisheries and other threats so they can continue to benefit their local owners and the global community," Erdmann said. "Six of our survey sites, which are areas the size of two football fields, had over 250 species of reef-building coral each -- that's more than four times the number of coral species of the entire Caribbean Sea."

-- Juliet Eilperin

Oldest Example of Writing In Americas Is Found

Archaeologists believe they have found the oldest example of writing discovered in the Americas -- 62 symbols carved into a slab of stone as many as 2,900 years ago. The 26-pound slab, unearthed in Veracruz, Mexico, has writing the scientists say is from the Olmec people, believed to be the earliest civilization in Mexico and Central America.

Most of the writing appears to be symbolic, but there are recognizable images, too, including an insect, a corn plant, a tabletop altar and a cross -- an image known from previously discovered Olmec art to be especially significant to them. The lead archaeologist on the project, Richard A. Diehl of the University of Alabama, said that the cross probably represents the four compass directions.

The slab, made of the mineral serpentine, was dug up in a gravel pit by road builders in the late 1990s. Diehl, in a report in the journal Science, dated the stone to 900 to 800 B.C., making it the oldest example of Mesoamerican writing by 400 years.

Two instruments are believed to have been used to make the marks. "One of them is very sharp, and the other is much broader," Diehl said. "They were probably both stone."

Diehl, who has been studying the Olmecs for more than four decades, said there is one major mystery remaining about the slab: Nobody knows what it says. Diehl doubts they ever will.

-- Marc Kaufman

Diversity in Grade School Appears to Help Reduce Bias

White children in first and fourth grades who live in areas and attend schools with little ethnic diversity are more likely to blame a black child than a white child when presented with ambiguous information involving potential misbehavior, according to a study released last week that explores the origins of bias.

Researchers showed 138 white children attending a rural Mid-Atlantic school a number of pictures and then asked them what they thought was happening. One set of pictures, for example, showed a child sitting on the ground with a pained expression, while another child stood behind a swing -- suggesting that the child on the ground might have been pushed. Another interpretation would be that the child on the ground had fallen off.

In every case, the pictures showed children of different races. In some, a white child stood behind the swing and a black child was on the ground. In other pictures, a black child was the potential perpetrator, and the white child the potential victim.

While 71 percent of the 7- and 10-year-old children said the pictures showed evidence of wrongdoing when the child behind the swing was black, only 60 percent guessed that the white child had pushed the black child when the roles were reversed, University of Maryland researchers Heidi McGlothlin and Melanie Killen reported last week in the journal Child Development.

The paper noted that white children at a more diverse school had not shown such a bias in a previous experiment, suggesting that greater social contact among children of different ethnicities may prevent or reduce bias among youngsters.

-- Shankar Vedantam

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