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Pangolins return to a region where they were once extinct

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Nature Briefing

Hello Nature readers,
Today we welcome back pangolins to KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa, hear from the scientists who investigated dexamethasone and learn lessons from a scientist’s journey to poker champion.

Pangolin searching for ants
Pangolin searching for ants (Ben McRae/Alamy)

Pangolins return to South African reserve

Conservationists in South Africa are returning pangolins to KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa, more than 30 years after they nearly went extinct there. Pangolins are one of the world’s most trafficked wild animals. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, some scientists suggested that they might be an intermediate source of the virus, but that theory has largely been discounted. For the past ten years, the African Pangolin Working Group has been rehabilitating animals rescued from trafficking. Last year, they introduced the first group of pangolins into a reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Two of the seven have since died natural deaths, but the other five are “doing well”, says the manager of the reserve, Simon Naylor.

Mongabay | 11 min read

Drones teach themselves aerial acrobatics

Autonomous quadcopter drones can now perform the most intricate acrobatics. First, computer scientists let a neural-network-based algorithm learn the manoeuvres on a flight simulator. After a few hours of training, the virtual pilots were ready to do tricks such as barrel rolls and flips — as shown in an accompanying video — which are challenging even for experienced human drone operators. The training can help drones to fly better under normal circumstances, too.

New Atlas | 4 min read
Reference: Robotics Science and Systems conference paper and video

Wrongfully arrested by algorithm

In January, a man in Michigan was arrested in front of his children and held in jail for 30 hours because of a false match made by facial-recognition software. The chilling story puts a spotlight on how easily the flimsy safeguards for such technology can fail — especially for Black men. “I strongly suspect this is not the first case to misidentify someone to arrest them for a crime they didn’t commit,” says face-recognition legal scholar Clare Garvie. “This is just the first time we know about it.”

The New York Times | 9 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Vials of the drug Dexamethazone
The Recovery trial’s multi-armed adaptive design and its fast-twitch release of results into the world have opened up an unusual pathway of absorption into the body of accepted scientific knowledge. (Mariusz Burcz/Alamy)

How dexamethasone came to light

Last week, a cheap and widely available steroid called dexamethasone became the first drug shown to reduce deaths among people seriously ill with COVID-19. Unusually, the results were first announced in a press release, not a peer-reviewed paper (although the results are now available in a medRxiv preprint). In a feature exploring the break-neck speed of the trial that uncovered the evidence, physician-scientist Martin Landray says the team sweated over how to best make their findings public. “Do I hold onto this information, which by this point is pretty clear-cut, or do I inform the world?” he said they asked themselves. “The answer is: you’re cursed if you do and cursed if you don’t. But by far, to me, the better option was to make the results publicly available.”
Wired | 10 min read

Evidence shows burden on female academics

The proportion of accepted papers with a female first author took a nosedive during the worldwide lockdowns in March, April and May: an analysis of 60,000 journals showed it dropped by 7 points in May, to 26.8% of all papers. The proportion had been increasing for the past four years. The culprit is probably the unequal burden of childcare during school closures, say experts. “Universities will need to account for the pandemic’s gendered effects on research when making decisions about hiring, tenure, promotion, merit pay and so on,” says biologist Megan Frederickson.
Times Higher Education | 6 min read
(Digital Science, which did the analysis for Times Higher Education, and Nature are both owned by Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.)

How coronavirus overwhelmed the US

Combining genetic analysis of different strains, epidemiological modelling of hidden cases, mobile-phone location data and travel data, The New York Times offers a sombre interactive overview of the relentless spread of COVID-19 in the United States. It includes individual case reports of people who unwittingly sparked major outbreaks. (Warning: it’s processor-intensive, so close some tabs first.)
The New York Times | 6 min scroll


The number of new coronavirus infections reported yesterday in the United States — a new one-day record for the country. The United States has had more than 2.3 million total confirmed cases of COVID-19. (The Washington Post | 1 min read)

Notable quotable

“I have treated patients with everything from rare and fatal brain conditions to severe bends brought about by diving, but what I have seen with the coronavirus pandemic will haunt me for the rest of my career.”

For those people with severe COVID-19, survival is just the beginning of a long road to recovery, says physiotherapist Cate Leighton. (The Guardian | 5 min read)

Features & opinion

Poker taught me how to win at life

On a mission to understand the nature of chance, psychologist Maria Konnikova decided to master a game that “involves just enough luck and just enough skill to resemble the messiness of reality”. The result is an uplifting zero-to-hero journey — and just what we need in these uncertain times, writes fellow scientist and poker player Liv Boeree.

Nature | 2 min read
Here more: the Nature Podcast speaks to Maria Konnikova about how poker could help people make better decisions. (27 min listen)

The time tax put on scientists of colour

Black and minority-ethnic academics are routinely asked to undertake extra, uncompensated work to address diversity at their institutions, from joining committees to mentoring junior colleagues. Nature spoke to five researchers from minority ethnic groups about how to optimize the impact of your contribution to diversity efforts without sacrificing your own scientific career.

Nature | 11 min read

Quote of the day

“She was a scientist, humanitarian, wife, mother and trailblazer who paved the way for thousands of others to succeed, not only at NASA but throughout this nation.”

Carolyn Lewis responds to the news that NASA is to name its headquarters after her mother, engineer Mary W. Jackson. Jackson was the agency’s first female African American engineer and was portrayed in the film Hidden Figures. (The Washington Post | 4 min read)

Today I’m enjoying a solar eclipse on another world: this video of the Sun being hidden by Phobos was created by NASA software engineer Kevin Gill from images taken by the Curiosity rover on 4 April.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing
With contributions by Nicky Phillips and Davide Castelvecchi

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