Genetically tracking human migration — via mice

They may be small, but the information mice can convey about the movements of humans throughout history is mighty, according to a Cornell researcher.

Jeremy Searle, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, explores the global distribution of small mammals and has found that house mice (Mus musculus) are ideal biomarkers of human settlement as well. Where people go, so do mice, often stowing away in carts of hay or on ships. Despite a natural range of just 100 meters and an evolutionary base near Pakistan, the house mouse has managed to colonize every continent, which makes it a useful tool for researchers like Searle.

…Searle and co-author Eleanor Jones…showed how mice hitched a ride with the Vikings and set up colonies in areas where the Norwegians settled, such as the British Isles, Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland.

Previous research conducted by Searle at the University of York supported the theory that Australian mice originated in the British Isles and probably came over with convicts shipped there to colonize the continent in the late 18th and 19th centuries. He came to the conclusion by using evolutionary techniques to analyze mitochondrial DNA, comparing modern-day mouse populations from Australia with those from their likely regional source in Western Europe.

In the Viking study, he and his fellow researchers in Iceland, Denmark and Sweden took it a step further, using ancient mouse DNA collected from archaeological sites dating from the 10th to 12th centuries, as well as modern mice…

Using mice as a proxy for human movement can add to what is already known through archaeological data and answer important questions in areas where there is a lack of artifacts, Searle said…

Mice are living artifacts. They can tell us where people have moved in the same way a piece of pottery might tell us where an Etruscan merchant went. And because of the wealth of genetic data we can collect from mice, they might actually tell us much more than a piece of pottery,” Searle said.

I love this. His next study carries forward tracking mice from South Asia to East Africa. A study in genes, transportation and unintended consequences.

New viper species found in East Africa

Where’s Matilda?

A new species of brightly coloured snake has been found in a remote area of Tanzania in East Africa.

The striking black-and-yellow snake measures 60 cm and has horn-like scales above its eyes. The newly discovered snake, named Matilda’s horned viper, has been described in the journal Zootaxa.

The exact location of the new species is being kept a secret, because it could be of interest to the illegal pet trade.

Campaign group the Wildlife Conservation Society said the snake’s habitat, estimated at only a several square km, is already severely degraded from logging and charcoal manufacture.

The authors of the study in Zootaxa expect the viper will be classified as a critically endangered species. They have already established a small captive breeding colony.

Watched the film “CREATION” last night – about that critical period in Darwin’s life when he had to confront both his daughter’s death and the matching conflict with his family, his own circle of friends and neighbors, over completion of “ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES”.

Sad, always moving, triumphant in the decision we all know he made. He would have felt the effort to save these snakes from society’s despoilment of nature as worthwhile this week – as he did in his own day.

East African geothermal tests successful

Geothermal power plant on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula

Geothermal energy generation in Africa could take a leap forward in 2009 after exploratory studies in Kenya exceeded all expectations.

A new enterprise – the African Rift Geothermal Development Facility (ARGeo) – will drive forward the plan to harvest the steam locked among the rocks under East Africa…

Over the last three years, GEF has funded a $1 million project in Kenya to identify promising new drilling sites. Although there are already two geothermal sites near Nairobi, Kenya, the main challenge to expansion in the country, and elsewhere along the Rift, has been the risk associated with drilling and the high costs if steam is not found.

The project harnessed new technologies to locate promising sites. Steiner said that the Rift Valley is now thought to have the potential to generate at least 4,000 megawatts of electricity.

“We have shown that geothermal electricity generation is not only technologically viable but also cost-effective,” said Monique Barbut, chief executive officer of GEF. The results mean that ARGeo can now expand geothermal projects up and down the Rift, which runs from Mozambique in the south to Djibouti in the north. The organisation is charged with raising private sector and public investment in selected geothermal sites in ARGeo countries as well as “creating an enabling environment for geothermal investments”.

It’s only one of many alternative means of producing electricity; but, if you have the resource – it’s a great way to go. Ask anyone in Iceland. Or Kamchatka.