An Earlier Takeoff for Birds?

U.S. and Chinese paleontologists have discovered the fossil remains of a previously unknown species of primitive bird dating back 130 million years, providing new clues to the evolution of early birds.

The nearly complete skeleton, unearthed near the edge of a lake in northeastern China's Liaoning Province, is smaller but similar to Confuciusornis sanctus, another crow-like bird of the same era discovered in 1995.

However, the newly discovered species, dubbed Confuciusornis dui, has the oldest known horny beak, a relatively advanced feature, ever found, the researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of Kansas and the University of North Carolina report in the June 17 issue of the journal Nature. But the back of the skull also has two openings usually found in reptiles.

The discovery illustrates the divergence of birds and reptiles and shows birds diversified much earlier than previously thought, the researchers say. "One of the really interesting things about these discoveries is that they unexpectedly and vividly show that birds had already diversified by the late Jurassic-early Cretaceous period," says UNC's Alan Feduccia.

Following a Very Old Bouncing Ball

Although Charles Goodyear is widely credited with making rubber usable, the Mesoamerican people, who flourished from about 2000 B.C. until the Spanish in 1521 invaded what is now Mexico and Central America, produced solid rubber balls and hollow human figurines and bindings as early as 1600 B.C. The bouncy balls were used in games that were considered sacred, religious events.

In the hopes of getting insights into how the native Americans produced the balls, Dorothy Hosler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and colleagues studied the rubber-making techniques of people in the Chiapas region of Mexico, who use the same techniques as their ancestors.

The modern rubber-makers score the bark of the Castilla elastica tree and collect the sticky, raw latex in cups. By itself, the latex dries into a substance too brittle to make balls. So they then coil a length of a type of morning glory vine known as Ipomoea alba, beat it against a rock and squeeze the juice into a bucket of the latex. After the liquid is stirred for a while, it solidifies into a white mass, which the workers form into a ball by hand.

The MIT researchers conducted a detailed analysis of the rubber and found evidence that the vine extract makes the latex rubbery by increasing the interactions between polymer molecules, according to a report in the June 18 issue of Science.

Bite the Hand That Beheads You

Doctors in Arizona have a warning for the public: A rattlesnake can bite you, even if its head has been cut off.

Five of 34 rattlesnake bites that Jeffrey R. Suchard and Frank LoVecchio of the Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Phoenix treated between June 1997 and April 1998 involved snakes the victims thought they had killed.

One patient was bitten when he picked up a snake whose head he had bludgeoned with a piece of wood until it stopped moving. Another man was bitten when he picked up a snake three minutes after he had shot it several times in the head. Two men were bitten when they picked up the heads of snakes they had decapitated. And another man was bitten when he tried to cut off the rattle of a snake he had shot several times, including once in the head.

All of the men survived, but one had to have his finger amputated.

"Young men--particularly while intoxicated--suffer a disproportionate number of 'illegitimate' rattlesnake envenomizations (that is, those that occur when a person voluntarily approaches the snake)," the doctors write in the June 17 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Previous research has shown that snakes' reflexes remain functional after they are dead, allowing them to bite for as long as 60 minutes after they have been decapitated.

"Education to prevent snakebites should include warnings against handling recently killed snakes," the authors write.


CAPTION: This nearly complete, 130 million-year-old fossilized bird skeleton was unearthed in northeastern China.