April 2013
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A new sea view
75 years of coelacanth research
Sell your science at FameLab
Young science communicators show their mettle
Brazil nuts, bees and orchids
Winning design powers aeroplane
Journalists and scientists meet
Brainstorming solutions for tomorrow
Meet Sibongile Mokoena
SAIAB at Scifest Africa
A world in one cubic foot
Biodiversity Youth Symposium
Daveyton now has an eye to the sky
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It's a fact!

In the news

EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS - Childhood toys lost in a war-torn field on the outskirts of Kabul have inspired an invention which its young Dutch inventor hopes can help save thousands of lives and limbs in his native Afghanistan.

Decades of war, notably the 1979-89 Soviet invasion, have left the rugged Afghan countryside littered with landmines that continue to exact a merciless toll, mainly on children.

In a small workshop in the industrial heart of the city of Eindhoven, 29-year-old Massoud Hassani built an ingenious, wind-driven gadget to clear anti-personnel mines. He calls the device, the size of a golf buggy, a "mine kafon".

Short for "kafondan", which in Hassani's native Dari language means "something that explodes", the kafon consists of 150 bamboo legs screwed into a central metal ball. At the other end of each leg, a round, white plastic disk the size of a small frisbee is attached via a black rubber car part for drive shafts, called a CV-joint boot.

Assembled, the spherical kafon looks like a giant tumbleweed or seed head, and like the dandelion puff it moves with the wind. The kafon is designed to be blown around, exploding anti-personnel mines as it rolls on the ground.

With the legs made from bamboo, they are easily replaceable. Once they are blown off it is simply a matter of screwing on others, which means the kafon can be used over and over. Inside the steel ball, a GPS device plots the kafon's path as it rolls through an area that may be mined and shows on a computerised map exactly where it is safe to walk.

Hassini is still in the testing stages, notably to make sure there is 100 percent contact between the kafon's "feet" and the ground, so no mine is missed, but initial trials - some using explosives with the Dutch Defence Force - and an in-the-field rolling test in Morocco this year showed promising results.

"We know this is a working prototype and that we need to do lots of testing still," said Hassani, saying the kafon would not be deployed in real situations until it was 100-percent proven.

Source: Sapa-AFP

WASHINGTON - They appear in the desert in southwest Africa and persist for decades: so-called fairy circles, or puzzling rings of grass with a barren centre.

Now a new study, published in the US journal Science, purports to end the enigma and explain just what is going on: it's the work of termites.

The fairy circles, which can stretch up to around 15 metres in diameter, are especially common in Namibia, where the indigenous Himba people attribute them to divine intervention.

Among scientists, the termite theory had been proposed previously but put aside for a lack of evidence. Botanist Norbert Juergens of Germany's University of Hamburg has now offered convincing evidence that the creatures behind fairy circles are likely a particular termite species called Psammotermes.

By studying a strip of desert 2 000 kilometres long, stretching from mid-Angola down to northern South Africa, Juergens determined that these termites were the only organisms consistently present when the circles were in the earliest stages of forming. The researcher observed that the termites feed off the roots of perennial grasses, effectively wiping out the plant life nearby.

The bare patch is then able to hold on to moisture better, because the rain water is not used and evaporated by plants. That helps the termites - and the vegetation around the edge of the circle - to thrive, even during the dry season.

The result is an ecosystem, engineered by termites, transformed from a desert into a grassland, Juergens explained.

Source: Sapa-AFP

JOHANNESBURG - Researchers from Wits University, the University of Johannesburg and international scientists have announced the discovery of a two million year old fossil fox at the archaeological site of Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

In an article published in the journal Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, the researchers describe the previously unknown species of fox named Vulpes skinneri - named in honour of the recently deceased world renowned South African mammalogist and ecologist, Prof. John Skinner of the University of Pretoria.

The site of Malapa has, since its discovery in 2008, yielded one of the most extraordinary fossil assemblages in the African record, including skeletons of a new species of human ancestor named Australopithecus sediba, first described in 2010.

The new fox fossils consist of a mandible and parts of the skeleton and can be distinguished from any living or extinct form of fox known to science based on proportions of its teeth and other aspects of its anatomy.

Dr Brian Kuhn of Wits' Institute for Human Evolution and the School of GeoSciences, an author on the paper and head of the Malapa carnivore studies explains: "It's exciting to see a new fossil fox. The ancestry of foxes is perhaps the most poorly known among African carnivores and to see a potential ancestral form of living foxes is wonderful."

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