New Worlds: The study of movement involves many fields of research

Movement ecology is a developing field that involves expertise in biology, ecology, botany, environmental science, physics, mathematics, virology and other fields.

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December 28, 2008 02:43
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Movement ecology is a developing field that involves expertise in biology, ecology, botany, environmental science, physics, mathematics, virology and other fields. It focuses on how microorganisms, plants and animals travel from one place to another, sometimes over great distances and in highly surprising ways. This movement is a crucial component of almost any ecological and evolutionary process, including major problems in habitat fragmentation, climate change, biological invasions and the spread of pests and diseases. A unifying concept in movement ecology that was developed at Hebrew University of Jerusalem has now earned major recognition. A recent edition of Proceedings of the [US] National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) contained a 76-page feature on movement ecology edited by Prof. Ran Nathan, who heads the movement ecology lab in the the HU's Alexander Silberman department of evolution, systematics and ecology. Nathan initiated the year-long international project at the university's Institute for Advanced Studies, to which HU researchers and colleagues from around the world contributed. The 13 articles included in the PNAS movement ecology special, which was highlighted on the journal's cover, were followed up with a podcast interview with Nathan on the American National Academy of Sciences' Web site. Modern movement research is extensive, estimated to have yielded nearly 26,000 papers over the past decade. However, this research is characterized by a broad range of specialized scientific approaches - each developed to explore a different type of movement by a specific group of organisms. A framework that would serve as a unifying theme for developing a general theory of organism movement was lacking. After a short introductory article by Nathan, there is a perspective paper in which Nathan and his partners from HU, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Berkeley, Davis and Rutgers Universities and the Spanish Research Council participate. The PNAS feature lays the foundation for movement ecology as a paradigm for studying all types of movement involving all organisms, says Nathan, who three years ago won the HU President's Prize for Outstanding Young Researchers. "It makes movement itself the focal theme and, by providing a unifying framework and common tools, aims at promoting the development of an integrative theory of organism movement for better understanding the causes, mechanisms, patterns and consequences of all movement phenomena," he says. AIRHEADED DINOSAURS Most dinosaurs had huge heads and tiny brains. Now, American scientists who have performed computerized tomography scans on skulls suggest that dinosaurs had much larger air cavities in their heads than had been previously thought. It seems the air spaces helped lighten the load of the head, making it about 18 percent lighter than it would have been and possibly preventing monstrous headaches. Ohio University Prof. Lawrence Witmer and research associate Ryan Ridgely examined skulls from two predators, Tyrannosaurus rex and Majungasaurus, as well as two plant-eating dinosaurs, Panoplosaurus and Euoplocephalus. For comparison, the scientists said they also studied scans of crocodiles and ostriches (contemporary relatives of dinosaurs) and those of humans. UPI reported from The Anatomical Record that the analysis of the predators revealed large olfactory areas, an arching airway that went from the nostrils to the throat and many sinuses. Overall, the scientists said, the amount of air space was much greater than the brain cavity. Witmer and Ridgely also calculated the volume of bone, air space, muscle and other soft tissue to make an accurate estimate of how much the heads weighed when the animals were alive. They determined a fully fleshed-out T. rex head, for example, weighed over 400 kilos. NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT Readers of The Scientist magazine have ranked the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as the two best places to work among academic institutions outside the US. The survey was published in the November issue of the life sciences magazine, which covers trends in research, new technology, business and careers, and its readers include leading researchers in academia and industry. Princeton University, the Trudeau Institute, Michigan State University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham were the top-rated US institutions, while the Weizmann Institute, HU, University of Liverpool and Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Australia took top honors on the international list. Weizmann and HU were in first and second place, and new to the top levels of the list. Overall, analysis showed Australia as the best country in which to do research. Runners-up were Israel, Belgium, the US and Canada. The two Israeli institutions have not reacted to the honor. Survey respondents were asked to assess their working environments by indicating their level of agreement with 41 criteria in eight areas. With over 2,300 qualified responses, a total of 73 institutions were represented - 54 from the US and 19 internationally. Categories included the quality of mentoring, infrastructure & environment, pay, research resources and tenure. The most important factor cited in this year's survey was the relationship with coworkers and mentors. "To be a top-ranked institution is an incredible honor," said the journal's editor in chief, Richard Gallagher. Survey results are available online at www.the-scientist.com/bptw.

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