On the horizon

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Lakes may hold clues to alien life

Researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration say calcified clumps of primitive bacteria lurking in a group of Mexican lakes could provide important clues in their search for extraterrestrial life.

Scientists from NASA's Astrobiology Institute have begun studying coral-like formations found in a network of 170 cactus-ringed lagoons around the desert town of Cuatro Cienegas.

The ancient structures, called stromatolites, were formed by layers of silt- trapping algae. Conditions within the stromatolites are similar to those that prevailed on Earth for more than 2 billion years before the dinosaurs evolved.

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NASA's hunch is that planets around nearby stars could be populated by similar colonies of primitive bacteria, which served as the basis from which complex, multicellular plants and animals that inhabit the Earth later evolved.

"We believe, and it is only a belief at this point, that there is probably a lot of life out in the universe, but it may only be at the microbial stage," Victoria Meadows, the institute's virtual planetary laboratory chief, told Reuters. "Not people flying UFOs, but nevertheless life elsewhere in the universe."

Studying forgiveness through apes

Researchers hope to learn more about human forgiveness by studying social interaction between apes at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa in Des Moines.

"By looking at how apes learn to channel certain abilities such as forgiveness, our understanding of these processes becomes infinitely deeper," says Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, the study's lead scientist. "We cannot gain this depth of understanding by only looking at humans because we are too close to these processes in ourselves to objectify them."

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh says many people believe forgiveness is a concept that applies only to humans. The research center's hypothesis is that it is not a process of one species, and that like other social behaviors, "forgiveness is a set of patterned interactions that can be imparted to a group by how its newest members are treated."

The four-month project, funded by the Campaign for Forgiveness Research in Richmond, Va., is expected to be completed in late summer.

A right whale rebound

A baby boom has given a lift to the endangered North Atlantic right whale, with a near-record number of births in the just-ended calving season, according to researchers at the New England Aquarium.

Twenty-seven whales were born during the season that started in mid- December and ended last week, second only to the 31 births recorded in 2001, the best year since scientists started tracking births in the early 1990s. Just five years ago, there was only one birth.

The species was hunted nearly to extinction in the late 18th century and its total population now numbers only 325 to 350.

The newborns face significant obstacles before they can help the population rebound, warns Lisa Conger, a senior biologist at the New England Aquarium who tracks the whales.

First, they must survive their migration from the calving grounds off the coasts of Florida and Georgia through East Coast shipping traffic to their summer habitat around Canada's Bay of Fundy. Juvenile whales also have a 25 percent mortality rate. Females don't reproduce until age 10.

Mayans: Ancient salt salesmen

Working along the coast of what is now Belize, Ancient Mayan entrepreneurs distilled salt from seawater and paddled it via waterways to inland cities in canoes, researchers reported Monday. They found evidence of 41 saltworks on a single coastal lagoon and the remains of a 1,300-year-old wooden paddle.

Their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows the extent of trade just before the Mayan civilization in that region mysteriously fell apart. "The discovery of the saltworks indicates that there was extensive production and distribution of goods and resources outside the cities in the interior of the Yucatan," they wrote.

Heather McKillop, of the geography and anthropology department at Louisiana State University, and colleagues discovered the salt factories by snorkeling in the clear waters of the Punta Ycacos Lagoon on the coast of Belize. "They were abandoned about AD 900, at the same time as the inland cities were abandoned," she said. Ceramic pots at the sites suggest Mayans boiled seawater to collect salt.

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