AUTISM AND VACCINES: There's not enough evidence to link autism to childhood vaccines, a special court ruled today, concluding a long-running legal battle between parents of autistic children and the federal government's Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Parents of three children with autism argued that vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella combined with the mercury-based preservative thimerosal led to the condition, but a panel of "special masters" ruled the evidence they presented fell "far short of demonstrating such a link." Last month, researchers from the University of California-Davis reported that that state's skyrocketing autism rates can't be explained by genetics or improved diagnosis and counting, adding that "[i]t's time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible." (Sources: CNN, UC Davis)
EARLY-BIRD SPECIAL: Migrating songbirds cover more than 300 miles daily on their hurried northbound homecomings, but often dawdle when headed south for the winter, according to new data from fingernail-sized "backpacks" attached to the birds' backs. Tracking tiny birds' intercontinental migratory habits has been nearly impossible until now, so the new findings shed significant light on some familiar feathered friends. The speedy return north each spring is probably motivated by the birds' desire to secure the best territories before competition arrives and to get an early start on breeding. Wood thrushes were found to winter together on the coast of Honduras rather than spreading out, suggesting that each breeding population might have its own distinct wintering area. Maybe these backpacks can be used to track which American songbirds are shifting their territories north to flee warming temperatures, a phenomenon reported by another group of researchers this week. (Sources: AP, NY Times, New Scientist)
SPOTTED CAT SPOTTED: Central Mexico's jaguar — the largest cat in the Americas — still exists despite a century-long disappearance, Mexican researchers report. The jaguar was last seen in the early 1900s and has vanished from much of Mexico along with its forested habitats, leading some to fear it had gone extinct in the area. But an adult male recently triggered an automatic camera trap in the Sierra Nanchititla Natural Reserve, offering scientists proof of life. (Source: National Geographic)
CRADLE TO CRADLE: Eleven islands in the North Sea have signed up to become living laboratories, modeling policies and lifestyles aimed at creating a waste-free environment. The European Union is donating $4.5 million to the "cradle-to-cradle" experiment, in which technical universities from throughout northern Europe will test new ideas for small-scale energy production, transportation and water management, with the goal of making the islands self-sustaining by 2030. (Source: Associated Press)
SAVED BY THE NOBEL: Energy Secretary Steven Chu tells the New York Times that a scientific and technological "revolution" is needed to curb our dependence on carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Solving the planet's energy and environmental problems will require Nobel-level breakthroughs in three areas, he says: electric batteries, solar power and biofuels. Despite how daunting such lofty goals sound, Chu is confident they're attainable, echoing Obama's general argument that we've achieved great scientific accomplishments before under such pressure. (Source: NY Times)
SHAKEN UP: A 7.2-magnitude earthquake injured at least 42 people in Indonesia today and set off a tsunami warning — triggering panic along the eastern coast — but it lasted only an hour. Indonesia's placement along the Pacific Ring of Fire puts it at risk for tsunamis, such as the devastating ones that rocked coasts throughout Southeast Asia in December 2004. (Source: Scientific American)
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