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A round-up of the latest science and news from Australasia.

Traffic Shortens Pregnancies

By Stephen Luntz

Women living close to freeways or major roads during pregnancy are more likely to give birth prematurely, according to a study at the Queensland Institute of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation.

“The most striking result was the reduction in gestation time of 4.4%, or almost 2 weeks, associated with an increase in freeways within 400 metres of the women’s home,” says Prof Adrian Barnett.

“Although the increased risks are relatively small, the public health implications are large because everyone living in an urban area gets exposed to air pollution. Pre-term and low-birthweight babies stay in hospital longer after birth, have an increased risk of death and are more likely to develop disabilities.”

Fossil Supports Megafauna Theory

This Diprotodon is expected to have lived after the arrival of humans.

This Diprotodon is expected to have lived after the arrival of humans.

By Stephen Luntz

The discovery of a nearly complete skeleton of the largest marsupial ever to live, Diprotodon optatum, has excited palaeontologists and may throw light on the hotly debated cause of the extinction of Australia’s megafauna.

The discovery was made between Burketown and Normanton on the Leichhardt River. Prof Mike Archer of the University of NSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences says that relatively few diprotodons have been found in northern Australia, but he believes this has more to do with the lack of sites that preserved their bones than their rarity in the area.

Maternal Stress Leads to Child Behaviour Issues

By Stephen Luntz

The number of stressful incidents during pregnancy has been correlated with behavioural problems in children up to 14 years old.

A link between a stressful pregnancy and negative outcomes is hardly surprising, but Dr Monique Robinson of Perth’s Telethon Institute for Child Health Research found that “it is the overall number of stresses that is most related to child behaviour outcomes”. The type or timing of incidents, however, did not seem to matter.

Climate Change KO’s Koalas

By Stephen Luntz

Koala numbers are falling, and the problem is likely to get worse according to evidence presented to a Senate inquiry into the health of the koala population.

Koala populations have crashed in many parts of the country. Queensland’s Koala Coast is increasingly misnamed, with populations falling by 51% in 3 years. In the region around Charleville, koala numbers have fallen from 50–60,000 in 1996 to 10–12,000 in 2009.

Antarctica’s Fresh Fruit Threat

By Stephen Luntz

Fruit brought into Antarctica is contaminated by soil, bacteria and fungi.

An Australian Antarctic Division study of fruit and vegetables imported into Antarctica has warned that the local ecosystem could be under threat. Of more than 11,000 items tested, 12% had soil on them and 28% were infected with bacteria or fungi.

“The consequences of such introductions are, as yet, unknown, but are likely to impact upon existing microbial community structure, with implications for biogeochemistry and ecosystem functioning, and may cause disease in native plants and invertebrates,” conclude the authors in the journal Biological Conservation.

They Can Seek, But Autistic Kids Won’t Find

By Stephen Luntz

Children with autism are good at searching on a small scale but lack the ability to find objects in larger environments, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr Liz Pellicano of the University of Western Australia’s School of Psychology asked 40 children, half of them autistic, to seek hidden objects in a large room. The hiding places were weighted so that 80% were on one side of the room. It might be expected that autistic children would pick up on the rule more quickly than others, but the opposite was the case.

More Like a Tiger than a Wolf

By Stephen Luntz

The Tasmanian Tiger was named for its stripes, but a study of its elbow suggests that it also hunted like its namesake rather than living up to the nickname “the marsupial wolf”.

The thylacine is used as an example of evolutionary convergence, with a dog-like body, non-retractable claws and a species name translating as “dog head”.

However, its elbow has a larger range of motion than pursuit carnivores such as wolves. Dr Borja Figuerido of Brown University, Rhode Island, suggests in Biology Letters that this indicates that thylacines hunted largely by ambushing their prey.

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By Stephen Luntz

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By Stephen Luntz

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Wind and Waves Rising

By Stephen Luntz

Wind speeds have increased over the past 23 years and wave heights have risen as a result.

A study published in Science has revealed that wind speeds have increased over the past 23 years and wave heights have risen as a result. Increases were larger at higher latitudes.

The findings are based on satellite data, and appear to contradict a previous study that reported decreases in wind speeds in continental USA over the period 1973–2005.