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

Inside an Asteroid

By Stephen Luntz

An interview with the only Australian co-author of the mission that has just reported on the analysis of samples collected from the Itokawa asteroid.

The only Australian author on a series of papers revealing the first results from the Hayabusa mission has explained how the findings expand our knowledge of the formation of the solar system.

Prof Trevor Ireland of the Australian National University was a co-author on four of the six papers published in Science from initial analysis of the sample returned from the asteroid Itokawa. He says, “We can now unequivocally link the asteroids we see in space with meteorites that we collect on land.”

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By Stephen Luntz

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How Green Is the Milky Way?

The Milky Way is thought to be entering middle age

The Milky Way is thought to be entering middle age, running out of the cold gas that is essential for star formation.

By Stephen Luntz

The Milky Way has probably entered its middle age, a transition phase known as the “green valley” between being a hot blue galaxy bursting with star formation and what Swinburne astronomers call a “red and dead” old age.

Mr Simon Mutch and Dr Darren Croton have attempted to find the overall colour of the Milky Way and our nearest large neighbour, Andromeda. The dominant colour of thousands of other galaxies has been plotted, but Croton says that “determining the state of our own galaxy while we’re stuck inside it is very difficult to do. The phrase ‘It’s hard to see the forest for the trees’ really rings true here.

Tool Use Observed in Fish

A black spot tuskfish using a rock as an anvil to open a cockle shell. Broken sh

A black spot tuskfish using a rock as an anvil to open a cockle shell. Broken shells are seen lying on the sand near the rock.

By Stephen Luntz

The first clear evidence of tool use in fish has been discovered by chance.

Scott Gardiner, a keen diver who was swimming in the Keppel region, witnessed a black spot tusk fish using a rock as an anvil to break open a cockleshell. He took several photographs.

According to Dr Culum Brown of Macquarie University: “He was running low on oxygen, so we were very lucky to get these shots. He was very excited when he reported them to me, but not as excited as he should have been.”

Forests Meet Forensics

By Stephen Luntz

Biometric checks of rainforest timbers entering a country could establish if wood from a region known to be logged unsustainably has been substituted.

Logging of rainforests has been banned in many regions of the world, but illegal logging continues apace. However, Adelaide University’s Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity is making it much harder for the practice to continue.

Pirates Preventing Climate Research

By Stephen Luntz

The rise of pirates off the coast of Somalia is proving a problem for scientific research as it is no longer safe to deploy Argo floats in the north-western Indian Ocean.

The rise of pirates off the coast of Somalia is proving a problem for scientific research as it is no longer safe to deploy Argo floats in the north-western Indian Ocean. A shortage of data could reduce the accuracy of weather predictions for the coming summer, and impact longer-term climate change projections.

Australian scientists have called on the military for support. “We have not been able to seed about one-quarter of the Indian Ocean since the increase in piracy,” says Dr Ann Thresher of the CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship.

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.