Biologists Locate White Elephant

Wildlife biologists in Sri Lanka say they have confirmed for the first time the existence of a long-fabled white elephant.

The albino elephant, a female believed to be about 11 years old, was observed in mid-July in a herd of about 17 adult females and young elephants in Yala, Sri Lanka, according to Wildlife Trust of Palisades, N.Y., and the Centre for Conservation and Research of Colombo, Sri Lanka, two conservation groups.

Researchers from the groups have studied elephant ecology and behavior for the past 12 years to determine how the country's 3,500 elephants survive in the midst of Sri Lanka's agricultural expansion.

Although there have been reported sightings of white elephants in Thailand and elsewhere, this marks the first time the existence of a true albino elephant has been confirmed, according to Wildlife Trust president Mary Pearl.

Researchers call her Sue, which is shorthand for white in Sinhalese.

Sue's discovery will make it easier for scientists to track the matriarchal group to better "understand the movement of the family groups and their nutritional needs and habitat needs in a changing landscape," Pearl said. Sue's lack of pigmentation indicates inbreeding, Pearl noted.

In the West, the phrase "white elephant" connotes a rare and expensive possession that is hard to maintain. But in Eastern mythology, they are more coveted. Pearl said she hopes Sue's discovery "will help reinvigorate the reverence elephants have traditionally enjoyed in Sri Lanka."

According to Buddhist lore, Queen Mahamaya dreamt of a white baby elephant at the conception of Lord Buddha. And in Thailand any white elephant discovered becomes the property of the king.

-- Juliet Eilperin

Pigeons Use Roads, Report Says

Scientists concluded long ago that homing pigeons make it home because of a "map and compass" technique, using the sun and an internal clock to pick the right direction, then zeroing in on their loft with a combination of visual and other sensory cues.

Demonstrating this process has proved difficult, because pigeons are not easy to follow, but a team of scientists led by the University of Zurich's Hans-Peter Lipp has managed it by outfitting the birds with tiny "path loggers" hooked into the global positioning system.

What they found, though, confirmed what pigeon fanciers have said for years: Pigeons like to follow the highway.

Lipp's birds, 34 veteran homers working near Rome over three years, picked roads or the railway between 40 percent and 50 percent of the time, even though they weren't the shortest routes.

"Pigeons can find the loft by using an apparently compass-based flight orientation, but appear to prefer a road-following strategy," the authors noted last week in the journal Current Biology. "They also seem to have a predilection for large, or four-lane, highways."

The team tracked 216 pigeon routes as many as 31 miles in length, with the birds traveling from every direction to reach their home loft in Testa di Lepre, 12 miles west of Rome.

The birds could choose among the new A12 highway, the coastal railway, the coastal highway SS Aurelia, or the "beeline" straight to the loft. The favorite, the team said, was the Aurelia with a hard left at Exit 22 for the last two miles home.

-- Guy Gugliotta

Protein Triggers Disease in Mice

It was a weird idea when it was first proposed, and a lot of experts still don't quite believe it -- even though the scientist who thought it up won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1997.

But new experiments described last week add credence to the paradigm-breaking idea that certain proteins can single-handedly cause infectious diseases and make more of themselves, even though they are not alive and contain no genetic material.

These bizarre proteins, named prions by their discoverer, Stanley Prusiner of the University of California at San Francisco, are essentially normal brain proteins that have mysteriously folded into bizarre three-dimensional structures. They have long been associated with a variety of brain-destroying diseases, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in cattle, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in people. Prusiner has long argued that prions strong-arm normal proteins to refold in their likeness, causing a fatal accumulation of the aberrant proteins. Other scientists, however, have suspected that tiny viruses or other relatively conventional but still undiscovered infectious agents must be behind these diseases.

In the July 30 issue of the journal Science, Prusiner, Giuseppe Legname and colleagues report the first successful creation of infectious prions from scratch -- proteins they made in test tubes and which, when injected into the brains of mice, caused a brain condition similar to mad cow disease. When the researchers injected extracts from those brains into other mice, those rodents, too, got the disease.

The team's creation of disease from pure proteins is strong evidence that some proteins can, like bacteria and viruses, indeed cause diseases. But some die-hard critics last week said they were still not fully convinced. Prions may simply "wake up" latent -- and still undetectable -- viruses in the brain, they said.

-- Rick Weiss

This albino lives in a herd of about 17 adult females and young elephants in Sri Lanka.