Missing Link and
New Planet Found,
Spix's Macaw Lost!
We thought it amusing that the Universe continued along being Quite Amazing, despite ever-present Pathetic Squabbling of grown men posing as Great Leaders in Washington DC. So scroll down to see what was really happening when you were away:
The Six Million Year Old Man
Scientists Find Fossils of Man's Earliest Ancestor

By David Fox

NAIROBI, Kenya (Reuters) 04 Dec 2000 - French and Kenyan scientists have unearthed fossilized remains of mankind's earliest known ancestor that predate previous discoveries by more than 1.5 million years, the team announced Monday.

They said the discovery of "Millennium Man," as the creature has been nicknamed, could change the way scientists think about evolution and the origin of species.

The first remains were discovered in the Tugen hills of Kenya's Baringo district on October 25 by a team from College de France in Paris and the Community Museums of Kenya.

Since then the scientists have unearthed distinct body parts belonging to at least five individuals, both male and female.

"Not only is this find older than any else previously known, it is also in a more advanced stage of evolution," paleontologist Martin Pickford told a news conference.

"It is at least six million years old, which means it is older than the (previously oldest) remains found at Aramis in Ethiopia, which were 4.5 million years old."

"Lucy," the skeleton of Australopithicus afarensis found in Ethiopia in 1974, is believed to have lived around 3.2 million years ago.

An almost perfectly fossilized left femur shows the much older Millennium Man already had strong back legs which enabled it to walk upright -- giving it hominid characteristics which relate it directly to man.

A thick right humerus bone from the upper arm suggests it also had tree-climbing skills, but probably not enough to "hang" from tree branches or swing limb to limb.

The length of the bones show the creature was about the size of a modern chimpanzee, according to Brigitte Senut, a team member from the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

But it is the teeth and jaw structure which most clearly link Millennium Man to the modern human.

It has small canines and full molars -- similar dentition to modern man and suggesting a diet of mainly fruit and vegetables with occasional opportunistic meat-eating.


Although no dating has been done on the remains just unearthed, strata from where the fossils were recovered have been previously proven twice by independent teams -- from Britain and the U.S. -- to show an age of six million years. The Baringo area is part of Africa's Great Rift Valley, which has long been rich in archaeological and paleontological discoveries and the source of almost all fossils related to man's earliest ancestors.

The area is rich in calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate that replace the organic material in bones to form fossils in an environment sealed by lava or volcanic ash.

Pickford and Senut said they were confident the team would unearth even more remains that could help form a near-perfect picture of Millennium Man.

"We are just going to publish our initial findings, to get the excitement, and continue with our work," Pickford said. "I am sure there is still a lot more out there -- possibly even older."

Fossil parts of other species found at the same site hint at a rich variety of fauna and flora.

"We have found fossils of trees, fossils of rhino, hippo, antelope ... many things," said Senut. "They would not be what you recognize today, but earlier ancestors of them."

Chew marks on one femur of Millennium Man suggest our earliest ancestor may have met an unfortunate end, but one that is still played out across parts of Africa every day.

"It looks like he was killed and eaten by some sort of carnivore, probably a cat," said Pickford.

"It was probably dragged up a tree to the cat's usual eating place and then bits fell into the water below." The latest fossils were found in the village of Rondinin in the Tugen hills, around 150 miles northeast of the capital Nairobi.

The area is home to Kenya's long-serving President Daniel arap Moi -- a coincidence unlikely to pass unnoticed by the nation's sharp-pencilled cartoonists.

Spix's Macaw Vanishes!
Extinction Fears Follow Disappearance of Rare Bird

By MARCELO BALLVE, Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - November 30, 2000 - A blue-plumed parrot believed to be the last of its kind in the wild has disappeared and might have been killed, biologists said Thursday.

The researchers said they haven't seen the 19-year-old Spix's Macaw for two months, an indication that it might have been fallen victim to a hawk's claws or a poacher's trap.

Wildlife biologists in northeastern Brazil for the past 10 years have kept close tabs on the bird, whose breed was pushed to the edge of extinction by poachers supplying the illegal exotic bird trade.

"If he died, it's a terrible situation," said Yara de Melo Barros, field director of the government-backed Spix's Macaw Conservation Project, begun after the species' sole survivor was discovered in 1990.

Though 60 Spix's Macaws live in captivity around the world, there is a slim chance any can survive in the wild without the male bird to teach survival skills, she said.

The remaining wild male was to raise six young captive-born Spix's Macaw chicks.

Barros said the bird has never before disappeared for more than 15 days from its habitat of scrublands and palm-tree stands near the village of Curaca, 1,300 miles northeast of Rio.

Researchers are looking for the animal, but if it isn't found, the only way to stave off the Spix's Macaw's extinction is for a parrot pair of another species to raise the chicks born in captivity, Barros said. But that has never been done successfully with parrots.

'Minor Planet' Found!
In Obscure Corner of Northern Milky Way

PHOENIX (Reuters) 05 Dec 2000 - A University of Arizona astronomer has found an object in the outer reaches of the solar system that could be the second brightest and largest so-called "minor planet" in space, researchers said on Monday.

Dubbed 2000 WR106, the large object visually plucked from the sky last week by astronomer Robert McMillan appears only to be outdone by Pluto when it comes to such objects located beyond Neptune's orbit, researchers said.

The discovery, spotted in a crowded star field in the northern Milky Way, is one-fourth to one-half the size of Pluto. It measures roughly 330 miles to 750 miles in diameter and is 43 times further from the sun than earth is.

It is believed to be bigger than Ceres, the largest known asteroid.

"I knew it had the chance to be very special when I saw it," said McMillan, principal investigator for the Spacewatch Project, a 20-year-program he co-founded that studies the solar system. "It's pretty gratifying to find something like this after all these years."

Such "minor planets" are classified by researchers in the field as Trans-Neptunian Objects, items that stretch beyond that planet. There have been 346 cataloged since the effort began in 1992, but few like 2000 WR106.

"The brighter the object, usually the bigger it is," said Brian Marsden, director of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass. "If it's bright, it's big in this game. That's a good rule of thumb."

Marsden said the discovery may be an important step toward better understanding and helping chart the blueprint for the vastness of space.

It also could mean that there are other large objects to be found -- perhaps even Pluto-sized objects -- in the solar system in the years to come.

McMillan said he first saw the slow-moving object on Nov. 28 while glancing at the computer screen from real-time images captured from a telescope on Kitt Peak, near Tucson, Ariz. It was not detected by computer software.

He bounced from frame to frame until he was sure he may have seen something.

McMillan believes the bright object may have escaped astronomer's eyes because they do not tend to look in crowded places, preferring to search in better conditions.

"It's really like looking for lost keys under the street light," he said. "It's easier to look in places that are clearer, where things are more easily found."

The object was confirmed with 12 sightings over the next three days by McMillan and astronomer Jeffrey Larsen and reported to the planet center.

McMillan believes it will take up to two years of efforts by other researchers to determine the complete picture for the object known as 2000 WR106.

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