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Igloo

UK: White Christmas betting goes into 'overdrive' as temperatures plummet

As forecasters predict more snow, bookmakers are slashing their odds, fearing a white Christmas could cost them up to £1m

The increasing prospect of a white Christmas forced bookmakers to slash their odds today after interest in the customary festive bet went into "overdrive".

The icy weather, which has already brought chaos to many parts of the country, is set to extend with forecasters predicting more snowfall.
Horses in the early morning snow on Holcombe Hill
© Christopher Thomond
Horses in the early morning snow on Holcombe Hill on the border between Greater Manchester and Lancashire.

Laura Gilchrist, forecaster at MeteoGroup, said: "Tonight a warm front of air from the west will hit a colder front, creating snow. By the early hours of tomorrow morning most parts of the country will be seeing either rain or snow."

Sherlock

On the trail of Tahiti's elusive vanilla orchid

Sweet, rich and rare, Tahitian vanilla is the gourmet's choice and second only to saffron in the league of pricey spices. For botanists, Tahitian vanilla holds a fascination far beyond its flavour: the orchid that produces it is an evolutionary enigma. Vanilla tahitensis is known only from French Polynesia and New Guinea, where it has been cultivated since the late 19th century. The puzzle is where it came from originally. All vanilla orchids with aromatic beans are native to tropical America, yet this species has never been found there. Diligent detective work and DNA analysis suggest that the plant emerged from the chocolate gardens of Guatemala, crossed the Pacific on a Spanish galleon, and found its way to Tahiti in a French admiral's baggage.

All good detective stories need a decent hunch, some intriguing clues and, these days, some sophisticated DNA analysis. If the plot revolves around an old, unsolved case, so much the better. The Tahitian vanilla mystery has all this and more: exotic locations and a trail that spans half the globe and at least half a millennium.
Tahiti
© Jean-Pierre Pleuchot/Image Bank/Getty
Tahiti is the home of the finest vanilla, but Tahitian vanilla has long been an enigma

For more than 50 years, botanists have puzzled over the origin of the vanilla orchid grown on the islands of French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean. The first formal description of the species was based on a specimen from Raiatea, the second largest island in the archipelago and sacred to the Tahitians, so it was named Vanilla tahitensis. Yet the orchid was clearly alien to these islands.

Meteor

Update: Meteorite hunters hit pay dirt in Canadian prairie

Meteorite hunters are having a field day - literally - following the discovery of dozens of fragments from a 10-tonne space rock that exploded over the Canadian prairie on 20 November.

A large search team will scour the area on Wednesday in hopes of finding more pieces and mapping out the extent of the debris field before the terrain is covered in snow. "The quicker we get them, with the least amount of water contact, the better," says Ellen Milley, a graduate student at the University of Calgary.
Image
© Grady Semmens/University of Calgary
Ellen Milley, a graduate student at the University of Calgary, found the first meteorite fragment on an ice-covered pond in Canada's Buzzard Coulee valley

As of Monday evening, she and colleagues had picked up more than 60 meteorites from a 24-square-kilometre patch of windswept grassland and frozen waterways near the town of Marsden, Saskatchewan.

Amateur treasure seekers who flocked to the area in droves over the weekend have walked away with many more pieces, including a 13-kilogram chunk found by a father and son from Alberta.

Bizarro Earth

Magnitude 4.9 - Central Kazakhstan

Date-Time

* Wednesday, December 03, 2008 at 04:26:33 UTC
* Wednesday, December 03, 2008 at 10:26:33 AM at epicenter
* Time of Earthquake in other Time Zones

Location 42.678°N, 73.300°E
Image
© USGS

Depth 35 km (21.7 miles) set by location program

Region CENTRAL KAZAKHSTAN

Distances 90 km (55 miles) ENE of Talas, Kyrgyzstan

120 km (75 miles) W of BISHKEK (Frunze), Kyrgyzstan

155 km (95 miles) E of Taraz (Dzhambul), Kazakhstan

220 km (140 miles) NNE of Andijon (Andizhan), Uzbekistan

Info

US: Plague spurs prairie dog die-off in grasslands

Colorado Springs - An outbreak of the plague is killing off the black-tailed prairie dogs on the Comanche National Grassland in southeast Colorado, in a dramatic die-off that has raised concerns for the future of the species in one of its richest habitats.

The U.S. Forest Service, which runs the 443,750-acre grassland, said Monday that prairie dog colonies decreased from 16,000 acres in 2005 to just 3,607 this year. The plague occurs regularly among prairie dogs throughout their range, spreads quickly through colonies, and can infect pets and humans that come into contact with them, the agency said.

The news comes at a time of scrutiny on the small, plains rodent. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to determine, possibly as soon as today, whether the prairie dog should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Frog

New hope of curing amphibian plague

frog
© iStockphoto
Amphibians worldwide are in trouble. One of the most endangered animal groups, amphibians are increasingly threatened by habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. However the largest threat is chytridiomycosis, a devastating disease caused by a parasitic chytrid fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, otherwise known as Bd.

Some hope for frogs and toads has been found at the Institute of Zoology in London. Scientists have discovered that tadpoles infected with Bd are cured by the fatal disease when submerged in an antifungal drug, itraconazole, for five minutes everyday day for a week.

Cloud Lightning

Venice 'under water' after worst floods for 20 years

Venice has been hit by the worst flooding in more than 20 years, as high winds and days of heavy rain pushed the level of the city's lagoon to more than five feet above its average height.

Igloo

UK: Hundreds of schools closed as forecasters warn of more snow

Thousands of children in north west England and north east Scotland had to be sent home from school after their teachers failed to make it in.

But despite a temporary respite tomorrow forecasters are warning of more snow overnight with up to eight inches possible on higher ground across wide swathes of northern England and Scotland by Thursday.

The Met office has issued a severe weather warning stretching from the Peak District of Derbyshire to the north of Scotland as a band of low pressure moves in from the Atlantic.

Snowman

Hundreds of schools closed and chaos on roads as snow and Arctic winds sweep across Britain

Icy winds and heavy snow storms swept across Britain today, causing chaos for drivers and closing hundreds of schools.

Thousands of children got a day off school as sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow forced around 200 schools in the North-West to close.

Many youngsters took advantage of the unexpected day off to wrap up warm, get their sledges out and enjoy the snow-covered fields.

Hazardous driving conditions caused a number of accidents with cars skidding on the icy roads as yesterday's rain turned to ice as temperatures plunged as low as minus 4C in places.

Elsewhere, huge tailbacks formed as commuters struggled to get into work in the freezing weather.

Info

The hard truth about animal research

An hour at the zoo is enough to convince most people that apes and monkeys are close kin to humankind. Some say that an hour watching proceedings in any parliament is enough to show that humans are close kin to monkeys. Either way, we know that the primate family is an intimate one, with the great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orang-utans and humans - particularly closely related.
Image
© Wikimedia Commons
Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) could soon be granted rights.

It did not take genetics to tell us this, however, nor comparative anatomy. We now know that we share many of our genes with insects too, and the anatomies of all mammals are just resized and repositioned versions of one another. The key to understanding the true closeness of apes, ourselves included, is ethology. When Jane Goodall first sat in the Gombe rainforest, giving with fortuitous naivety anthropomorphic interpretations of the chimpanzee behaviour she witnessed, she was initiating a rethink: about apes, about humanity's relationship with them, and ultimately about humanity itself.