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December Science Picks—Leads, Feeds and Story Seeds


Winter can be cold and dreary...but these hot science leads and festive science facts will warm your readers’ hearts!

Winter can be cold and dreary...but these hot science leads and festive science facts will warm your readers’ hearts! December Science Picks take a look at holiday place names, mysterious mistletoe and the USGS ice core laboratory along with a host of other tips (some timely, some evergreen) on earth and natural science research and investigations. Photos and Web links are available to enhance your story. If you would like to receive Science Picks via e-mail, would like to change the recipient or no longer want to receive it, please e-mail

December Highlights:

* 58 Frogs-a-Leaping
* Through Frosty’s Eyes—A Look at the Importance of Coal
* A Chilly Clue to Global Climate Change
* Deck the Halls with Boughs of...Minerals?
* A Kiss is Just a Kiss—Mistletoe is So Much More
* Using Sediment to Determine Contamination
* Antarctica Awaits
* Tis the Season...For Holiday Place Names, That Is!
* Acid Rain Makes Shenandoah Streams Unfavorable to Fish
* It Takes a Rat to Raise a Joshua Tree
* From a Distance—For Northeast and Midwest Cause of Nitrate Falling from the Sky Not Local

58 Frogs-a-Leaping
Image of a frog. Read caption below.
Mountain yellow-legged frog (Rana muscosa) in City Creek, San Bernardino County, Calif., September 13, 2005. This young frog is less than one-and-a-half inches long. Adults measure about two to three inches long.

Since their August 2006 rescue (by USGS scientists) from near-dry pools in a southern California creek, 58 tadpoles are now sub-adult endangered mountain yellow-legged frogs, caroling for mates and embracing suitors. With these youngsters, grow the hopes of the multi-agency conservation effort to help restore the endangered frogs to their mountain homes. Some of the frogs may form the core of a breeding program, while others (when large enough to avoid predators) may one day be returned to the wild. To learn more about this conservation effort, contact USGS scientist Adam Backlin at (714) 508-4702 or or Catherine Puckett (352) 264-3532 or
Through Frosty’s Eyes—A Look at the Importance of Coal

In addition to its use for snowmen’s features and filling the stockings of the naughty, coal serves as an important energy resource for the United States. Coal is used (combusted) to generate more than half of our country’s electric power. One component of USGS coal research investigates the relations between geologic processes, coal quality and the coal-combustion products from power plants. Coal quality includes the study of coal properties, such as the heating value, sulfur content and trace metal concentrations found in coal. A tutorial on how this research is conducted and its importance to society is available at the following Web site: Fly Ash: From Cradle to Grave. For more information on USGS coal quality research activities, please visit Coal Quality: Introduction or contact the USGS at, or call Jessica Robertson at (703) 624-6624 or
A Chilly Clue to Global Climate Change

Ice cores from the ice-covered regions of the Earth (Greenland and Antarctica) are our only continuous record of the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere (including “greenhouse gases”) over the past million years. They also give detailed information about temperature, precipitation, volcanic eruptions, and solar variability, helping researchers to better understand our changing climate and environment. At the National Ice Core Lab in Denver, Colo., more than 16,000 meters of ice cores from Antarctica, Greenland and other locations are carefully preserved at -33 degrees F. The lab is operated by the USGS and jointly funded by the USGS and the National Science Foundation (NSF). To learn more or to view the lab’s inventory, check out the National Ice Core Laboratory or contact Todd Hinkley at or (303) 202-4830.
Deck the Halls with Boughs of...Minerals?

Are cobalt oxide, sulfur and cadmium sulfide used to make the traditional holiday hues in your seasonal decorations? - Of course they are! According to USGS scientists who collect worldwide data on almost all mineral resources, holiday lights are made with these and other minerals from around the world. The world’s supply of minerals - such as salt, manganese and lime - lights up the holiday season, helping many nations and cultures to celebrate their long-time traditions. In 2006, the mineral materials processed domestically accounted for more than $542 billion in the U.S. economy. To learn more about how minerals make the holidays shine and the economy rolling, visit Deck the Halls with Boughs of...Minerals?. For more information about other mineral related topics, visit the USGS Mineral Resources Program Web site or contact Dennis Kostick at (703) 648-7715 or
A Kiss is Just a Kiss—Mistletoe is So Much More

This Christmas when you pucker up under the mistletoe, consider this: while festive and fun, mistletoe also provides essential food, cover and nesting sites for an amazing number of birds, butterflies and mammals in the United States. Check out Not Just for Kissing: Mistletoe and Birds, Bees, and Other Beasts. There are more than 1300 types of mistletoe worldwide, and more than 20 of them are endangered. And mistletoe can be downright deceiving, as one USGS scientist learned on a recent collaborative expedition to quantify perennial plant diversity in Baja Norte and Baja Sur, Mexico, when he first encountered the “tree with two kinds of flowers.” For more about this and other encounters with mistletoe, contact Todd Esque at (702) 564-4506 or
Using Sediment to Determine Contamination

USGS scientists recently conducted an assessment of bottom sediment in Kansas reservoirs and streambed-sediment samples - Why? Common contaminants that affect aquatic life might also affect human health. Findings suggest arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, and nickel concentrations exceeded guidelines for toxicity at some locations. The frequent detection of DDE at several reservoirs indicates use of DDT was once widespread in the region. Learn more about this and other sediment studies at Reservoir Sediment Studies in Kansas or contact Kyle Juracek at (785) 832-3527 or

Antarctica Awaits
Satellite image of McMurdo Bay. Read caption below
This zoomed in area of the natural-color, pan-sharpened LIMA created from Landsat 7 reveals McMurdo Station, the largest research base in Antarctica. The flat, white areas are the Ross Ice Shelf and other sea ice off the coast of Antarctica. Also visible are the Erebus Glacier Tongue, Koettlitz and Ferrar Glaciers, and the Royal Society Range.

Take a quick and fun trip to the coldest continent, Antarctica, without ever leaving the comforts of home or office. The USGS, in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the British Antarctic Survey, has completed work on a unique and versatile map of Antarctica, the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica. Using satellite imagery, the mosaic combines more than 1100 hand-selected Landsat satellite scenes digitally compiled to create a single, seamless, cloud-free image - the most detailed and scientifically-accurate representation of the continent. The project is one of several hundred funded in conjunction with the International Polar Year, a two-year event that runs from March 2007 to March 2009. For more information contact Denver Makle at (703) 648-4732 or
Tis the Season...For Holiday Place Names, That Is!

Are national holidays a time or a place? For many, the holidays represent family gatherings with delicious edibles, but for people who live in Christmas, Ariz., Mistletoe, Ky., Candle, Alaska, or Santa Claus, Ind., it is also a place called home. This year, learn about holiday place names by using the USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). It is a fun and exciting research tool containing over two million place names in the United States. The database is used for local transportation planning, regional planning and emergency preparedness. Many people also use it as a genealogical tool, exploring their family name or history through place names. The GNIS was developed with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to establish uniform name usage in the federal government and provide an index of names on federal maps. Visit the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to search for unique names of streams, lakes, mountains, or populated places. For more, contact Denver Makle at (703) 648-4732 or .

Story Seeds
Acid Rain Makes Shenandoah Streams Unfavorable to Fish

Combine steep slopes, small watersheds and underlying geology with acid rain and many Shenandoah streams become inhospitable to native fish for extended periods of time, according to a USGS scientist studying the effects of acid rain on Shenandoah’s streams. Because of acid rain, Shenandoah is the third most contaminated park in the national park system. To learn why these high acid episodes occur at least once every two years, contact Diane Noserale at (703) 648-4333 or
It Takes a Rat to Raise a Joshua Tree

The fruits of Joshua trees, a tree native to southwestern North America, in the states of California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada, confined mostly to the Mojave Desert, do not split open on their own. Instead, rodents dismantle them to harvest the large seeds. According to a USGS and University of Nevada, Reno, study recently published in Ecoscience, there is no other known means of dispersing the seeds—seed-caching rodents are critical in the seed dispersal process. Scientists tracked the spread of the seeds as rodents carried and stored them in seed caches, usually within 30 meters of the source plants. Although nearly all of the caches were emptied by the end of winter, three stored seeds germinated in the spring and established seedlings. To find out more, see the publication brief, “Joshua Tree Seed Dispersal by Seed-Caching Rodents” or contact Todd Esque at (702) 564-4506 or
From a Distance—For Northeast and Midwest Cause of Nitrate Falling from the Sky Not Local

Although vehicles are the single largest emission source of nitrogen oxides in the northeastern and midwestern United States, they probably are not the most important factor in nitrate found in rain and snow across this region. Nitrate found in rain and snow is not only caused by local sources, but sources found hundreds of miles away. According to USGS scientists, stationary sources, such as coal-burning power plants and other industrial facilities, have been found to be a major cause of acid rain in rural areas of the northeastern and Midwestern United States. To read the study’s abstract, visit Environmental Science & Technology or contact Emily Elliott at 412-624-8882 or


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