And then there were three

You learn a lot analyzing dung. Sampling specimens from wild African elephants, UC San Diego researchers have found the continent is home to three distinct types of Proboscidia, not two. Apparently the distinction in the past was between savanna and forest elephants. Now it turns out a third, genetically distinct species has evolved that swings both ways.

Afghan seedbank destroyed

As if Afghanistan didn’t have enough woes, the country has just lost its main agricultural insurance policy: two stores of carefully selected and maintained seeds representing the biodiversity of the nation’s native crops. The seeds were ruined when looters broke into a storage facility where they were kept and made off with the airtight jars that held them. The seeds themselves were tossed on the ground, and have now been so jumbled together that they are virtually worthless. “It’s like having a library of books with no titles on them,” says Geoffrey Hawtin, director general of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome. “All of the [traits you prize] are there, but you no longer know where to look for them.”

Worm slaps Penguin

It may be Microsoft’s time to feel a little smug. For years Redmond has been the butt of jokes — and curses — for the vulnerability its systems seemed to have to viruses. Now Linux has fallen prey to a nasty bug of its own, one that has created a giant peer-to-peer attack network from thousands of infected Linux Web servers. Only computer systems running both Apache Web server software and the Linux operating system are vulnerable, New Scientist reports. But that’s a heck of a lot of machines. Once installed on a machine, the Linux.Slapper.Worm tries to forward itself on to other computers. “But unlike many other worms, it also tries to establish connections with computers that have already been infected,” the magazine reports. The bug was first identified Friday, and though characterized by computer security firms as slow-moving, has so far infected an estimated 3,500 machines. In a note accompanying the worm, the author says it was designed as a proof-of-concept for “educational” purposes and should not be used for destructive attacks.

Meerkat: cutest animal ever

World events got you down? Get your hands on the September issue of National Geographic, the one with the meerkat on the cover. Mattias Klum’s photos of meerkats are guaranteed to brighten your day. Klum has captured the swaggering little southern African mammal in a variety of poses — standing, sitting, eating, mating, foraging. The baby meerkat pictures are just ridiculous, but the funniest photo has to be the meerkats lined up in formation like a high school dance squad at halftime. As National Geographic Editor in Chief Bill Allen is quoted in the issue as saying: “You can never have too many meerkats.”

Hunting: No role in controlling fox population

In Britain a central rationale in support of fox hunting has been challenged by a scientific study. Hunting advocates have long claimed that fox hunts keep the fox population from exploding, protecting livestock. But scientists from the University of Bristol said today that banning fox hunting would not cause an increase in the fox population. This announcement adds some concrete support to a debate that has been waging for years between hunting defenders and animal welfare campaigners. The scientists got the opportunity to test assumptions about the effects a ban would have because of foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in Britain in 2001 that led to a ten-month ban on fox hunting. The British government is currently in a six-month period of consultation in search of a compromise on fox hunting between the House of Commons, who earlier this year voted for a full ban, and the House of Lords, who voted for licensed hunting.

Reefs in trouble

Today a program called Reef Check at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment released the results of a massive, five-year volunteer-run survey of the planet’s coral reefs — what may be the world’s most comprehensive ecological study to date. Unfortunately the study reveals that the reefs around the world are in serious decline, and that the
“>situation is only getting worse
. Overfishing has affected 95 percent of the more than 1,107 coral reefs monitored since 1997; at least four species of reef fish, hunted as food or for aquariums, face extinction, according to the study. So how do you monitor the coral reefs, which make up less than .09% of the area of the world’s oceans and are spread around the globe? Volunteers, lots of them. Reef Check scientists taught teams of sea-worthy volunteers — from recreational divers to village fisherman — about reef ecology and scientific monitoring. About 5,000 scientists and volunteers contributed. According to Reef Check’s founder, Gregor Hodgson, of the reefs surveyed, just one, near Madagascar, could be considered pristine. “What we have seen is coral reefs have been damaged more in the last 20 years than they have in the last 1,000,” Hodgson said. “Suddenly, the pressures of overfishing and damaging types of fishing — dynamiting fish and poisoning fish, particularly in Southeast Asia — have taken off.”