Hogle Zoo

ScienceShot: Poachers Face the Nuclear Option

Poachers, beware the atomic bomb. Thanks to nuclear testing in the 1950s and 60s, scientists have a new way to determine whether an animal part may have been obtained or traded illegally. The technique involves analyzing the object's levels of a radioactive version of carbon known as carbon-14, which has been disappearing from the atmosphere since concentrations spiked at about twice normal levels after the last above-ground atomic bomb detonation in 1962. By comparing the levels of this bomb-produced isotope to those in a variety of plants and bones of known age, researchers can date a piece of ivory, a tooth, or a pelt to within 16 months, a team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That, in turn, may tell people tasked with enforcing international trade regulations whether the material in a particular artifact formed during a time period when its trade was legal. Previous research suggests that illegal trade in animal parts, including smuggled ivory, accounts for as much as $16 billion worldwide each year. But don't expect the technique to gain widespread use just yet; it costs $500 to analyze a sample, money that—for now—might be better spent saving the elephant itself.

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