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Research Funding Provided by: Australian Government
Research Funding Provided by
Australian Government

Australian Research Council

Environmental Futures Network
Environmental Futures Network
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Network News 2005

Funding opportunity

Call for funding now open under the Working Group Projects scheme. Please find attached advert and application form. Closing date for submission is 28 February, 2006 and should be submitted to Maria Lekis (maria.lekis at Dec 2005

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ECR funding opportunity

Call for funding now open under the Early Career Researcher scheme. Please find attached advert and application form. closing date for submission is 10 April 2006 and should be submitted to Maria Lekis (maria.lekis at Nov 2005

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Skeleton reveals lost world of 'little people'

A near-complete skeleton of a previously undiscovered species of human has been found on the Indonesian island of Flores, raising images of a lost world of “little people” that co-existed with modern humans until relatively recently. A team of Indonesian and Australian scientists discovered the skeleton last year, during an archaeological dig in Liang Bua, a large limestone cave on Flores, 600 km east of Bali. The skeleton was of a one-metre-tall female aged about 30, who died around 18,000 years ago. The skeleton nicknamed ‘Hobbit’ by the excavation team, is now the type specimen for a new human species Homo floresiensis.

The nearest anatomical equivalents lived in the Republic of Georgia, West Asia, almost 2 million years ago, with some features of the find harking back to 3 million year-old human ancestors in Africa. However, their existence in Southeast Asia almost up to the start of agriculture 10,000 years ago means they were contemporaries of modern humans. In fact, the two human species probably overlapped in time by tens of thousands of years.

The discovery is the cover story of this week’s edition of the authoritative British scientific journal Nature, which has reported the world’s most significant scientific discoveries since it was founded in 1869. Significantly, Nature also reported the discovery by Eugene Dubois 110 years ago of the 700,000-year-old Homo erectus “Java Man” fossils, which initiated the scientific study of human origins and evolution.

Since the time of Dubois, no new human species has been found in Southeast Asia. Now the Flores “Hobbit” is set to make her mark in our understanding of human evolution. The Indonesian-Australian excavation team was led by archaeologists Associate Professor Mike Morwood from the University of New England and Professor R.P.Soejono from the Indonesian Research Centre for Archaeology. But the work is a real multi-disciplinary, as well as international, effort. As a key part of the project, Professor Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts and colleagues at the University of Wollongong are developing new techniques for the dating of Liang Bua and other important Southeast Asian sites, and their work will help to resolve long-standing problems in the archaeology of the region.

Professor Morwood said the discovery was one of the most important early hominin discoveries of the last 100 years. “It is a new species of human who actually lived alongside us, yet were half our size. They were the height of a three-year-old child, weighed around 25kg and had a brain smaller than most chimpanzees. Even so, they used fire, made sophisticated stone tools, and hunted Stegodon (a primitive type of elephant) and giant rats. We also believe that their ancestors may have reached the island using bamboo rafts. The clear implication is that, despite tiny brains, these little humans were intelligent and almost certainly had language.”

When Thomas Sutikna and other researchers from the Indonesian Research Centre for Archaeology discovered the skeleton in September 2003, they first thought it was a child. However, analysis of the skeleton indicated that she was a woman aged around 30, and the possibility that the skeleton was that of a dwarf was also ruled out. Analysis also showed that there was nothing ‘freakish’ about the skeleton at all, and that she was perfectly proportioned for someone her size. The discovery of the remains of similar hobbit-sized individuals in other parts of Liang Bua, also showed that she was a member of a population of little hominins. Previous research by Professor Morwood and an Indonesian-Australian research team in the Soa Basin of Central Flores, showed that early humans, probably Homo erectus, had arrived by 840,000 years ago. Analysis of the Liang Bua skeleton suggests that the little humans, who lived in the cave from about 95,000 to 13,000 years ago, are probably derived from this ancestral Homo erectus population.

“Hundreds of thousands of years of isolation on a relatively small and resource poor island with few predators selected for smaller body size,” said Dr Gert van den Bergh, project palaeontologist from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. The end result was that Flores ended up with the smallest species of human known anywhere. The same evolutionary pressures operated on Stegodon, the only other large mammal to make it to the island unassisted. The smallest known Stegodon species, about the size of a water buffalo, also evolved on Flores.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, the research team learned of local stories on Flores that suggested the “little people” may have existed on the island right up to the 16th century when Dutch traders arrived in the “Spice Islands”. Even though Professor Roberts, with Dr Chris Turney and Kira Westaway, at the University of Wollongong, have used radiocarbon and luminescence dating techniques to establish that the most recent fossil remains in the cave are 13,000 years old, the team has not ruled the possibility that the hobbit sized humans could have survived until relatively recently. “There are lots of local folk tales in Flores about these people, which are consistent and incredibly detailed. The stories suggest there may be more than a grain of truth to the idea that they were still living on Flores up until the Dutch arrived in the 1500s,” Professor Roberts said.

“The stories suggest they lived in caves. The villagers would leave gourds with food out for them to eat, but legend has it these were the guests from hell – they’d eat everything, including the gourds!”

The research project is funded by an Australian Research Council grant with additional support from the University of New England and the University of Wollongong. The National Geographic Society is also a sponsor and has filmed a documentary that will air early next year globally and in the United States on the National Geographic Channel.

For more information, contact
Associate Professor Mike Morwood ph (02) 67732357; E-mail
(or Lydia Roberts, PR Manager, UNE, 02 6773 2779/0438 234 152)
Professor Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts ph (02) 42215319; E-mail
Dr Chris Turney mobile 0408 678989; E-mail
(or Bernie Goldie, Media Manager, University of Wollongong, 02 4221 5942/0412 454 124

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Global Coral Reefs in Crisis

Global Coral Reefs in Crisis

A major international review of reef health has made the front page of the international journal “Nature”, published on Thursday 24 June.

Professor David Bellwood,an Australian fish ecologist and Director for the Centre for Coral Reef Biodiversity at James Cook University in Townsville led the international team of experts in reviewing the large body of reef research published over a forty-year period.

The authors have compared reef ecosystems around the globe, collating data in order to pick up patterns and trends not usually detected in smaller, isolated research projects. They provide evidence showing that the increasing instability of coral reef ecosystems before their collapse has often gone unrecognised, even on reefs that are relatively well studied.

“In hindsight we can see that the collapse of reefs in the Caribbean provides a clear example of this,” explains Professor Bellwood. “The ecological symptoms were all there-reduction in the larger species, reduced fish stocks, a shift in the predominance of organisms to those which are destructive eroders of the reef, and a reduction in establishment of new generations of coral,” explains Professor Bellwood. “Although these signs were exceptionally well-documented, nobody put the pieces together in time to forecast their eventual consequence.

“ What is at stake here, is the ability of coral reefs to defend themselves against major impacts such as global warming, over-fishing, chemical pollution, disease and sedimentation from urban development and agriculture,” Professor Bellwood says. A critical aspect of understanding resilience in reefs is to understand that some corals and fishes may be more important than others, though not as visually obvious.

“To keep a reef alive as an ecosystem it is more important to understand what job each species performs and to protect these jobs, not just focus on the number of individuals or species.

Co-author Professor Terry Hughes, a leading coral biologist working from James Cook University in Townsville says that some of the key factors influencing reef health are socio-economic and political. “These changes are due to the direct and indirect effects of increased chemical and sedimentary pollution from terrestrial runoff, accelerated climate change, and over-harvesting of desirable species,” Professor Hughes asserts. “Unfortunately the main impediment to coral reef resilience is ‘political will’ rather than financial resources-Cuba does a better job of protecting its reefs than Florida or Hawaii,” Professor Hughes said.

Although the Great Barrier Reef is considered the best-managed reef ecosystem in the world, and one of the most ‘pristine’, the authors provide evidence of system-wide decline throughout its 2000 kilometre length:
*Coral cover has declined by half in just four decades.
*The cumulative number of reefs substantially damaged by crown of thorns infestation or coral bleaching, negligible in the 1960s and 70s, continues to rise.
*Roughly 10% of reefs at this time are substantially damaged by crown of thorns starfish, and 20% have been affected by coral bleaching.

“Australia will prohibit fishing on 33% of the Great Barrier Reef from 1 July 2004,” Professor Hughes said. “This is a tremendous step forward that other wealthy countries (the USA, France, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong) should emulate to protect their coral reefs,” he said. According to Professor Hughes, Australia needs to learn from the demise of the Caribbean reefs if it wants to protect this international icon and the $2 billion in revenue it makes for the nation each year. “The warning signs are piling up,” he explained.

The authors suggest a blueprint for the future that is sure to be controversial. They argue that concentrating too much on particular reefs with large numbers of species (‘biodiversity hotspots’) may detract from improving the management of the vast majority of reefs affected by people - the reefs with fewer species overall tend to be more vulnerable.

The nature of reef research will also have to change to take into account larger scale issues and to compensate for a new generation of researchers and reef managers, especially in the Caribbean, who may never have seen an undamaged reef ecosystem.

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Oldest Chordate Fossil

Oldest Chordate Fossil

The world’s oldest known fossil chordate, from the Ediacara biota of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, is now at the South Australian Museum. This tiny, 6 cm-long fossil is the body mould of the first known animal from the phylum to which vertebrates belong.

Chordates share such characteristics as a head, gill slits, dorsal fin, stiffening rod (notochord) and serial sets of body muscles. This phylum includes all animals with backbones (vertebrates) as well as sea-squirts (tunicates) and lancelets in that they show these structures early in the development of the embryo.