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World Briefs II

Storm Finishes Old California Oak

Los Angeles Times

During the storm the old tree died, and on Sunday the people came to mourn. It was as if a relative or close friend had passed away, suddenly, unexpectedly.

Onlookers stared in disbelief and some cried at the remains of the Lang Oak, seven stories high, believed to be 1,000 years old, the grandfather of the city's oaks. The tree toppled to its death Saturday night, a victim of pounding rains.

A botanical treasure lovingly preserved off the busy concrete strip of Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, the tree in recent decades had escaped drought and a developer's plans to bulldoze it and, with the help of nearby residents, appeared to be fighting off a deadly bacterial infection. Over the course of a millennium, it had endured wildfires, earthquakes, floods and other disasters.

"In all the years, we felt this would not be the way it'd fall apart," said Bob Kennedy, the chief forester for the Los Angeles Public Works Department. For 23 years, Kennedy cared for the tree, a California live oak, which was declared a state historic and cultural monument in 1963. In the next week, Kennedy said, biologists will slice a piece of the trunk and count the tree's rings.

As he spoke, a team of workers, one in a cherry picker, used saws to hack away at the Lang Oak's branches. Tractors hauled off people-sized pieces.

Those chunks will be going to storage, Kennedy said, to protect them from thieves while it's decided what to do with the tree's remains. Kennedy thinks some should go to schools. But all that will be figured out later, he said, "when things calm down."

Punishing rains had weighed down the oak's branches and softened the soil around its trunk. The combination made the tree too top heavy to stand.

Worm Breaks Temperature Record

The Washington Post

In the Olympics of heat tolerance, a sea worm with a perpetually poached rear end has shattered a record formerly held by a desert ant.

More than a mile deep in the Pacific, west of Costa Rica, the Pompeii worm exists happily with its bottom simmering at 176 degrees Fahrenheit, almost hot enough to boil water, while its front end remains constantly chilled in water only 72 degrees F, a team led by molecular biologist Craig S. Cary of the University of Delaware reports in the Feb. 5 issue of Nature.

No other known higher-order animal is capable of surviving sustained exposure to such heat, and none is known to endure so wide a range of temperatures along its length, Cary said.

Bacteria are known to thrive at temperatures above 235 degrees F. (Water boils at 212 degrees F., at sea level pressures.) But among more complex organisms, the champ had been the Sahara Desert ant, which forages under a blazing midday sun in 131-degree heat. At temperatures hotter than that, it was thought, the fancy cellular machinery of higher animals becomes their Achilles heel, Cary said.

It could be the worms' coating of fuzzy bacteria that enables them virtually to sit on a hot plate all day, Cary speculated. It may be that the bacteria are insulating the worms in some way, producing protective enzymes that could lead to new drugs and other products, he said.