No defense against Twinkies:Raccoons who snack on...

Newswatch on science

September 25, 1990

No defense against Twinkies:

Raccoons who snack on Twinkies, Oreos and Big Macs suffer the same consequences as humans -- bad teeth and high cholesterol, researchers in Urbana, Ill., say.

Scientists say they were shocked by results from a small sampling of the masked mischief-makers that roam Illinois parks and campgrounds, scavenging human food.

"Their mouths look like those pictures in the dentist's office that show what will happen if you don't brush," said Laura Hungerford, a University of Illinois veterinarian. "I think they have a lot of sugar in their diet."

Wild raccoons usually have healthy teeth, but Hungerford found broken teeth, gum disease and cavities in the campground animals.

Many park raccoons also had cuts on their faces and paws; a few suffered broken legs.

In the wild, raccoons eat berries, grass, small fish and rodents -- they're not particular. Researchers don't know specifically what kinds of human food the raccoons are eating because they're not choosy.

Researchers will trap and examine 100 raccoons this fall.

Milestone near:

A spacecraft named Pioneer 10, flying on a mission conceived more than 20 years ago, is now far beyond the solar system and is about to reach a distant point long sought by scientists -- 4.6 billion miles from earth.

Astronomers term that distance 50 Astronomical Units because it is 50 times farther from the sun than the sun is from Earth.

For researchers seeking to learn where the sun's tenuous flow of nuclear particles and magnetic fields finally ends, and the gases of interstellar space take over, the distance is historic.

"It marks a new epoch in the exploration of the solar system," says James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, who discovered the radiation belts that ring the Earth when the United States entered the space age with its first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958.

Pioneer's instruments are still recording new information on the unknown reaches of space where the 570-pound craft is traveling, scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., report.

And its tiny eight-watt radio, using less power than the night light in a child's room, is still sending signals home, the scientists said.

Two, not one, tuataras:

The tuatara, long considered a single reptile species, is in fact two species, and the failure to recognize that has inadvertently pushed one of the species to the verge of extinction, a new study has found.

Biologists at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand say they have discovered genetic differences in blood proteins of the tuatara that, along with slightly different physical features, distinguish two species: Sphenodon punctatus and Sphenodon guntheri.

The finding supports an 1877 hypothesis that has been largely ignored.

The tuatara, an iguana-like reptile found only in New Zealand, is the sole survivor of an order of reptiles that roamed the world before the dinosaurs.

Millions once inhabited New Zealand, but colonists and the animals they brought with them, such as rats, dogs and cattle, unwittingly destroyed the tuatara's habitat. Now only 60,000 remain, and they are confined to 30 tiny coastal islands.

SAVING WHALES Why are you supposed to store eggs small end down?

It keeps eggs fresh somewhat longer, said Robert Baker, a food scientist who is a retired professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

An egg's freshness is judged by candling, using a light to see the position of the yolk, he said. The nearer the yolk is to the center of an unfertilized egg, the fresher it is.

Birds' eggs have a pair of cords, called chalaza cords, that attach the yolk to the shell lining membrane at each end of the egg. The yolk is high in fat, so it tends to rise in the liquid egg white that surrounds it when it is fresh.

"The small cord is at the big end and the big cord is at the small end," Baker explained. "If the small end is down, it allows the bigger cord to hold the yolk better. It would rise too easily the other way."

Bone-marrow drug OK'd:

The Food and Drug Administration yesterday authorized expanded use of an experimental drug called GMCSF that helps prevent life-threatening infections in 10 to 20 percent of bone-marrow recipients. It works by promoting development of certain bone marrow cells called neutrophils, or white blood cells, that fight infections after a transplant.

For the record:

J.F. Gates Clarke, 85, an authority on moths who helped develop a collection of more than 30 million insects for the Smithsonian Institution, died last week at his home in Hyattsville, Md. . . . Dr. Arnold P. Friedman, 81, an international authority on migraine headaches who founded the nation's first headache clinic at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx in the mid-1940's, died last week in Tucson, Ariz.

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