USGS December science picks!

December 02, 2003

It's our holiday gift to you this year: a stocking-full of great science stories -- some of which are timely, some of which are evergreen -- but all are great leads to fill these otherwise barren winter months. This monthly collection can help you cover ongoing earth and natural science research and investigations at USGS--photos and web links are provided to enhance your story. Included this month: LEADS:

High School Science Project Leads to Federal Radon Study in California. What began as 15-year old Lauren Fukumoto's high school science project last spring has expanded to a USGS study of the geologic causes of indoor radon in a school district south of Los Angeles that might have implications in other populated areas of California. Radon, a colorless, odorless toxic gas occurs naturally in rocks, soil and ground water through the decay of uranium. It can damage lungs and contribute to lung cancer especially in enclosed areas like buildings. As part of her project, Lauren and her father Joseph measured radon levels in classrooms of 17 schools in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District. They found that more than 10 percent of the classrooms had radon measurements exceeding the USEPA action level and more than half of the schools had one or more classrooms above the action level. Three schools had particularly high levels of indoor radon in numerous classrooms, and the school district has taken steps to correct the problem. Working with geologists from USGS, the Fukumotos identified the likely source of the radon as a particular part of the Monterey Formation, which occurs at many other places in California. Earlier predictions of indoor radon levels suggested that the problem was minimal in the state. These new scientific results show that geologic maps can form a basis for more accurate predictions of elevated indoor radon and have prompted new examinations of data that suggest that other rocks in California are also likely sources of elevated indoor radon. For more information, call Joseph Duval at 703-648-6106 or email at

Helping Afghanistan Rebuild: Did you know that it takes at least 100 tons of aggregate to build a 6-room house, and 10,000 tons to build a mile of highway A recent USGS inventory of mines and mineral occurrences in Afghanistan is helping the reconstruction efforts there by providing information about suitable sources of aggregate and other materials for for local airfield construction and other projects. The report, Mines and mineral occurrences of Afghanistan (USGS Open-File Report 02-110), is online at For more information, call Kathleen Gohn at 703-648-4242 or email at

USGS "Croaks" the Case: Thousands of frog tadpoles, including critically endangered species, are dying from a new disease recently discovered by a USGS scientist. Since 2000, tadpole die-offs have been reported in Maine, New Hampshire, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi and Minnesota as a result of this new disease. The most devastating effect of this disease occurred during 2003 and when it killed nearly all of the thousands of tadpoles living in the last known breeding pond of the endangered Mississippi gopher frog. USGS scientist D. Earl Green is collaborating with scientists at the University of Virginia to classify and name the organism responsible for this disease. For more information, please contact Kathryn Converse at 608-270-2445, Carol Meteyer at 608-270-2462.


Mistletoe is So Much More Than Just a Kiss-The next time you pucker up under the mistletoe, consider that mistletoe also provides essential food, cover, and nesting sites for an amazing number of birds, butterflies, and mammals in the United States. That may lessen the romance kiss but it sure makes the more than 1,300 species of mistletoe worldwide -- more than 20 of which are endangered -- happy to know that you're thinking about their welfare. Mistletoes are rather strange plants that grow on the branches of trees and shrubs. In fact, according to USGS biologists, the American mistletoe's scientific name, Phoradendron, means "thief of the tree" in Greek. Once its seed lands on a host tree, the mistletoe sends out roots that penetrate the tree and eventually start pirating some of the host tree's nutrients and minerals. But mistletoes are not true parasites; they are "hemi-parasites," because most of them have the green leaves necessary for photosynthesis. Eventually, mistletoes grow into thick masses of branching, misshapen stems, giving rise to a popular name of witches' brooms, or the apt Navajo name of "basket on high." The plant's common name - mistletoe - is derived from early observations that mistletoe would often appear in places where birds had left their droppings. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig." Thus, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig." Talk about taking the romance out of that next kiss under the mistletoe! Even though bird droppings do not generate mistletoe plants, birds are an important part of mistletoe life. Birds find mistletoe a great place for nesting and many birds eat mistletoe berries, including grouse, mourning doves, bluebirds, evening grosbeaks, robins and pigeons. Check out For more, call Carolyn Bell at 703-648-4460 or email at

And you thought California had earthquake problems -- Alaska is the most earthquake-prone state and one of the most seismically active regions in the world. Alaska experiences a magnitude 7 earthquake almost every year, and a magnitude 8 or greater earthquake on average every 14 years. The largest recorded earthquake in the United States was a magnitude 9.2 that struck Anchorage on March 28, 1964; it released more than 100 times more energy than the magnitude 7.8 San Francisco earthquake in 1906. A new poster from the USGS, Earthquakes in Alaska, shows updated information about Alaska's earth-shaking history -- see it online at Call Kathleen Gohn at 703-648-4242 for more or email her at

A Squirt by any Other Name is Still a Squirt: Don't be fooled by the cute assumed name. Sea squirts are the invasive species Didemnum vexillum, recently found on the northern edge of Georges Bank, about 160 miles off outer Cape Cod, colonizing a 6.5 square mile area at a depth of just over 150 feet. Georges Bank a well-known and highly productive area for fish and sea scallops, is now threatened by an invasion of squirts. Sea squirts are tunicates, sea life with a primitive spinal cord and a firm, flexible outer covering called a "tunic," from which the name derives. These siphon-feeding animals form dense mats, made of many thousands of individuals, encrusting and smothering hard sea bottom and organisms attached to it. According to researchers, the Georges Bank infestation may exceed documented occurrences on hard bottoms and structures in shallow coastal waters, where this animal can reach very high densities. The creatures exude a noxious substance as a byproduct of their metabolic processes, one that prevents fouling of its exterior and discourages predators. The origin of this "squirt" is not known. Photos: Contact Page Valentine at 508-457-2239 or email at


Here's a Corny Approach to Teaching Geography: Corn mazes, those paths cut or plowed in a field of corn, which are delighting hosts of fall thrill-seekers can be a way to teach Geography, according to USGS researchers. The maze patterns can take the face of famous people, maps, flags, drawings, themes, or an infinite number of others shapes. Unlike tracing through a maze with pencil (or crayon) on paper, in a corn maze, the human being becomes the "tracer." Mazes and maps have fascinated people for centuries. Maps are essential tools to study geography, and therefore, corn mazes provide a unique and fun way to learn about geography, including scale, relative and absolute location, land use, and other geographic themes. In a new series of lessons based on national geography content standards, suitable for elementary through university level, USGS Geographer Joseph Kerski explains how to use a-maze-ing corn to teach students about the landscape and its people. Students can analyze land use, topographic maps, aerial photographs, use Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, practice wayfinding, examine soils, and consider the geographic aspects of corn cultivation in conjunction with corn mazes. The lessons are on: For more, call Joseph Kerski at 303-202-4315 or email him at

Earth As Art -- The Sequel: More amazing than another Rocky comeback. More beautiful than Charlie's Angels 2. More entertaining than another installment of The Matrix. Earth As Art 2, the second in the series of award-winning remote images of the earth is now available online at Taken from three satellites, flying at 438 miles above the planet, "Earth as Art 2" images show natural patterns as art. More than 30 satellite images were selected for the exhibit based on their aesthetic value rather than their science applications. Cloud formations, coastlines, mountain ranges, islands, deltas, rivers seen from space take on patterns resembling abstract art works with their striking textures and brilliant colors. "Earth as Art 2" follows the "Earth as Art 1" exhibit which has been shown in the Library of Congress, in the halls of Capitol Hill, and in museums and art centers around the country. For information on either exhibit contact Dennis Hood at 605-594-6547 or by e-mail at

The Nation's Christmas Tree -- a Living Memorial: There is science and there is spirit. So in the spirit of an ancient but ageless Santa Claus, the General Grant Tree, designated in 1926 as the Nation's Christmas tree by President Calvin Coolidge, just keeps getting younger. At one time, biologists estimated that the General Grant Tree, a giant sequoia in Kings Canyon National Park in California, was 3,500 years old, but USGS research shows that the tree is a youthful 1,650, plus or minus a few centuries. The tree stands more than 267 feet tall, with a diameter of around 30 feet at the base and the lowest major branch is probably 100 feet above the ground. Although no midget, the General Grant Tree is only the third largest of the sequoias. These are not the oldest, nor are they the tallest or the widest trees on Earth, yet their trunks occupy more space than any other single tree. The tree is decorated by a vast array of natural ornaments: species from lichens to woodpeckers to flying squirrels. Every year, on the second Sunday in December, the annual "Trek to the Tree" takes place. At the tree, as part of a living memorial ceremony, National Park Service rangers place a giant wreath to commemorate those lost in service to their country. Most of the largest sequoias are middle-aged, but they're still growing like teenagers. For pictures see: For more, call Nate Stephenson at 559-565-3176, or email

US Geological Survey

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