I’m just back from a national park in eastern Portugal, where it’s remote, unpopulated, and eerily beautiful. I saw the national bird of Portugal, the azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus) as well as a group of griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus). The vulture breeds only on vertical rocky cliffs, and we spotted a group of four—or rather my companion Martim did—by the streaks of white vulture droppings on the rock face.
The magpie is a biogeographical oddity: it has a disjunct distribution, with one population of the species in Portugal and western Spain, and the other in eastern Asia (Japan, Korea, etc.) This is not due to human introduction, but must be the remnant of an ancient continuous distribution. (There’s some controversy over whether they’re the same species, but they’re clearly sister groups.)
Here are two pictures I took: vultures on the rocks and one in flight:
Whoops, but I digress! The Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology was just awarded to two men: the Englishman Sir John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese (don’t you love how international science is?). Their work showed that even after adult cells mature they retain the genetic capacity to be “totipotent,” i.e., to transform into other types of cells.
The Guardian report (which you should read for more information) notes that Gurdon didn’t start out showing a lot of promise:
According to his Eton schoolmaster, the 15-year-old Gurdon did not stand out as a potential scientist. Writing in 2006, Gurdon quoted a school report as saying: “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts, he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”
Yamanaka responded modestly, as a scientist should:
Responding to the prize announcement, Yamanaka said: “I don’t know how I am going to celebrate yet. I think I just need a beer.”
And here’s an azure-winged magpie (related to crows, of course); not my picture, but Neil’s (see BirdForum page for information):
Here’s its bizarre distribution: