Thursday, 30 August 2007

Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises Down the Toilet?

A group of workers at Swansea and Glamorgan Universities as well as the Public Health Laboratories at Singleton Hospital have made the Guardian ( ) via the Veterinary Record (Forman, West, Powell, Francis and Guy [2007] Toxoplasma in cetaceans around the British Isles. 161: 279) with an intriguing, yet speculative, hypothesis linking the parasite Toxoplasma gondii to deaths in whales, porpoises and dolphins around our coasts. They basically discovered a surprisingly high rate of seropositive responses to this protozoan parasite in washed up carcasses of marine cetaceans. Toxoplasma is of great public health concern because it can cause foetal abnormalities (including blindness) when pregnant women are exposed to the parasite for the first time as well as problems in immunocompromised individuals (with HIV or following transplants). The domestic cat is routinely 'fingered' as the 'domestic' transmission agent to humans via its feces. The protozoan is an interesting parasite as it has been shown to make infected rats fearless of cats (facilitating its passage to the predator). It may also have profound behavioural effects in other species. The paper noted accounts from California linking Sea otter deaths to human disposal of cat litter (bags of cat litter on sale there reportedly now carry advice about safe disposal). In a quick survey, the group found that one in eight of responding Swansea University cat owners 'admitted' to flushing cat litter down the toilet, raising the possibility that this activity may help the parasite 'jump' to cetaceans. There are, of course, still many unanswered questions. Are Swansea University cat lovers atypical in their cat litter disposal practices? One might also ask whether sewage treatment would negate this problem. If the parasite is passed in cat litter, it is an unexpected further environmental problem associated with pet keeping. Another possibility is that some other infected bird or mammal is implicated. The study essentially confirms that Toxoplasma is found in a very wide range of UK mammalian species. Perhaps we shouldn't be obsessed by cats?

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

BAPs and Brooms

It has been reported ( ) that there has been a major expansion (to 1149 from the 577 in 1997) of UK Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPs) aimed at conserving particular endangered species and habitats. It has been suggested that the BAPs have been a great success as more than 100 species (including the Killamey fern and Prickly sedge) have been taken off the 'at risk' list. There have,however, also been some failures e.g. the reintroduced Large copper butterfly has become extinct for the second time here. The recently added species include the House sparrow (a 50% decline in 25 years), the Starling, two species of Seahorse, and the Harvest mouse. One of the species now added is the European hedgehog (Erinaceous europea) that has become endangered by a combination of road fatalities, attacks by dogs, cats and people as well as the use of slug pellets in people's over-tidy gardens (the cold.wet summer should have greatly increased their available prey species including slugs, snails and earthworms). The BBC even carried a 'heart-warming' story (29th August) about two 'orphaned hoglets' at the New Forest Otter and Owl Centre (Ashhurst) who had 'adopted' a broom (used for animal cleaning rooms) as their mother. They slept next to it! I am afraid that this sounds to me a bit Beatrix Potter -perhaps the similarity of the brush and the Hedgehogs is more in the minds of the humans. The 'hoglets' pictured appeared to be at a stage where they would normally be foraging for themselves independently of the mother. These young Hedgehogs were probably just sleeping next to an item whose physical and smell properties appropriate to the rough vegetation in which they make their daytime nests (the evidence that baby Hedgehogs 'imprint' on a mother as do ducklings and goslings is very weak). BAPs should do more for this species than brooms.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Pop Goes the Eagle

There is evidence of a clandestine 'war' between Scottish landowners with their gamekeepers and conservationists concerned with birds of prey such as the Golden eagle( ). Since 1980, there have been 85 proven and suspected cases of poisoning involving this spectacular bird in that country. The most recent case involved poisoning with the banned pesticide carbofuran which acts like a nerve agent. It is not just eagles that are at risk, this year there have been 22 confirmed cases of poisoning of birds of prey in Scotland including also Buzzards, Red kite (in spite of this species being largely a carrion feeder) and Peregrine falcons. It seems evident that the law breakers (all the birds are protected) see the Golden eagle and its relatives as threats to their commercial interests that are focused on the rearing of Grouse, Partridge and Pheasant for shooting parties. This seems to be a fairly standard example of conservation coming into conflict with 'traditional' land use. Although part of the solution may involve enhanced policing, there may also be a role for education and convincing landowners that birds of prey may bring economic benefits.

It Was a Very Good Year?

The extremely wet and rather cold UK summer has been predictably beneficial for some species and problematic for others ( ). We have already noted that this 'swings and roundabouts' impact has led to an impressive early abundance of berries (horticulturalists predict that blossom trees next spring may be spectacular). Naturally, animals that thrive under wet conditions (or are prone to dessication) have done rather well. This includes the tiny springtails and earthworms in soil along with slugs, snails, beetles and mosquitoes. The animals that feed on such beasts have also had a bonanza. Fortunate species include frogs, moles, hedgehogs, foxes and badgers (80% of their natural diet are the suddenly more abundant earthworms that are nearer the surface). The impact on hedgehog in particular was picked up by the Western Mail ( ). It has been suggested that wild mammals may not need to forage to the same extent in UK towns and cities this winter. It spite of the abundance of delicious mosquitoes, swallows have reportedly had a bad time in the UK summer (flying conditions have not been good). Other species that have had a tough time include most of the moths, butterflies, bumble bees and wasps. I suspect that many bat species have also had a difficult time in terms of prey availability and flying conditions (they would also tend to chill easily).

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Seeing the Changes 45

Orpine (Sedum telephium) is prominent in the dunes of Oxwich and, in Swansea, the alien Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is in bloom.

Rain, Rain Go Away

It has been reported ( ) that Britain is to ask the EU for flood damage aid as the total bill for the 'summer' floods reached £2.7bn. This is rather unusual as this country is almost unique in relying on domestic insurance to cover most of the losses following such events. Even if the money is granted, it is likely to represent a percentage of the actual costs and will have to be spent (or returned) in a 12 month period. So what was the situation for Swansea and region over the last 2 months as we appear on the map accompanying the article to be a small 'island' of lesser rainfall? Apparently, we are one of the drier places (with 'only' a 160-200% increase rainfall over the May-July average for 1971-2000). That is still impressive but the longer term prediction is that our summers should become drier. Obviously, predictions in this area are far from being an exact science but at least the aquifers are currently full!

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Monday, 20 August 2007

Shambo's Legacy

The case (see July postings) of the Skanda Vale Hindu Temple's sacred bull (Shambo) continues to have repercussions. The Bovine TB positive bull was destroyed, after a prolonged debate and several court cases, but it has been suggested that the authorities have been slow to consider the health of other animals in the temple location who could have contracted the disease. This might mean that the slaughter of other animals that have been exposed to the infective agent will be ordered. A Jersey bullock and a Water buffalo have been targeted, reigniting the whole debate!

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Seeing the Changes 43

In spite of the unseaonally cold and wet weather in Loughor, Ivy (Hedera helix) and Sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) are both in flower. Two introduced aleins are also in fruit namely Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster salcifolia) and the Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). A wind battered moth came to the light- possibly a Lesser treble bar (Aplocera efformata). In Horton, Great mullein (Verbascum thapsis) and Sea rocket (Cakile maritima) are both prominant along witha low white flower.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Bird Brains?

Russell Gray of the University of Auckland (New Zealand) has reported in the journal Current Biology that New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) show tool use comparable with that of chimpanzees ( ). The birds were given a task in which a food reward could only be reached using a long stick. The stick, however, was inaccessible to the bird in a box. The bird could access a shorter stick (inadequate to reach the food). Rather than attempt to obtain the food with the short stick, 6 out of 7 crows used the short stick to obtain the longer stick (they were not distracted by a control situation involving a second box with a useless stone, rather than a long stick in it). Dr Gray has also shown that these crows are capable of modifying existing tools to improve their utility for particular tasks (a very early human type of activity). The Behavioural Ecology Research Group on Crow Research ( ) have much more detail on studies with these interesting birds. Members of the same Corvid family around Swansea seem to have developed the habitat of dropping mussels and slipper limpets from a height on to the cycle path to Mumbles to aid their feeding. Perhaps we have not given this intelligent family of birds sufficient credit for their logical abilities?

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Seeing the Changes 43

Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) is massing on the Swansea/Mumbles border.

Birder's Bonus 7

The Starling (Sternus vulgaris) is gathering in large groups around Bynea and in the eaves of the old Sport's pavilion of Swansea University, House martins (Delichon urbica) are making up for lost time supplying their mud nests. I think it most unfair that the latter has apparently been voted one of the most disliked UK birds.

'Tipping Points' in Climate Change and Accuracy

There is an interesting conjunction of items concerning climate change. It has been reported that Professor Tim Lenton of UEA has produced a study suggesting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change 'tipping points' may be too optimistic ( ). He estimate that the complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet (that would lead to a 7M increase in sea level) could occur in 300 rather than the 1000 years predicted by the IPCC. He suggests that our current models of climate change are "too sluggish". This is an important message but getting people to recognise its relevance to them is not helped by errors in claims made by some seemingly dependable sources. Canadian blogger (respect!) Stephen McIntyre got some NASA officials to admit that their claims were misleading ( ). McIntyre showed that 1934, rather than the claimed 1998, was historically the hottest year in the USA since records were kept. He also showed that 10 of the warmest years on record in the USA occurred before 1939 and only one was in the present century. This may not change the points that the NASA officials wanted to make about global warming but it does give opponents a 'stick to beat them with'.

Holiday Trinkets Drive Extinctions?

The WWF have claimed ( ) that UK holiday makers have more than 163,000 imports confiscated by customs officers because they involve illegal wildlife trade. Many of the species involved are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The expressed fear is that even unwitting purchases by people on package holidays abroad (particularly Thailand, China and Africa) may help drive some species to extinction. Of particular concern are snake and lizard skin goods, elephant ivory carving and traditional Chinese medicines (more than 500 kg) containing materials from tigers, rhinoceros and seahorses etc. It is also pointed out that customs seized more than 1000 illegally imported wild reptiles including snakes, tortoises and chameleons . Caviar, unless it comes from a licenced source, can also be problematic (26 kg was deemed illegal last year) as can coral which can be live (destined for aquaria), decorative or in jewellery(last year UK customs seized more than 1250 kg of such material). Rather obviously, Queen conch shells, animal skin products and stuffed animals can also be confiscated but, less obviously, customs seized more than 158000 illegal plants (mainly orchids, cycads and cacti) last year. The WWF is hoping that tourists will be careful in what they purchase from markets and will report suspicious items to it. This is obviously a real problem (and has been going on for years) but I do think its scale is somewhat inflated as illegal importation, rather than material arriving in tourist hand baggage, account for many of the recorded items. One might also ask how much material arrives undetected? What about 'bush meat'?

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Heathrow Protest Camp

Tomorrow is the official first day (they started early) of a protest camp north of the airport to complain about the British Airports Authority's intention to build a third runway and yet another terminal so that this already hyperactive airline hub can take on yet more business. The protesters are largely focusing on the impact of air travel on global warming but travel of people and materials to the airport as well as in some of the destinations they reach must also be issues. Some of the local protesters are apparently more concerned about the the potential demolition of their houses (seems fair enough) and/or the increased noise pollution (this is already a problem over a wide area). The organisers hope for between 1000 and 1500 protesters at the camp. They have promised not to 'go air side' but have not ruled out direct action to 'make their point'. The Government has stated that any disruption to passenger travel on what is normally the airport's busiest week would be 'unacceptable' and there is a considerable police presence that has been instructed to be 'robust but lawful' (this sounds like a rather combustible mixture). The police/BAA 'battle plan' is described in,,2148458,00.html The suggestion that the protests might impair the effective anti-terror activities of the police seems a mite contrived. The official view is that air travel is not currently a major UK producer of greenhouse gases (that could be simply because we are efficient in terms of producing them in other ways, notably road and sea transport and in home heating and lighting) and that further development of air travel will have economic (including 'jobs'- such as baggage handling and security?) and leisure benefits. The claim that we need more flights to go out into the world for business opportunities does not seem to consider the potential for using other means of communication (videolinks etc). I don't really get the impression that there is much government (or opposition) appetite for seriously considering curtailing this airport expansion. There is a perception that, if they do not allow the expansion in the UK, it will simply go elsewhere. It also seems strange that aircraft fuel still avoids the kind of duty that is applied to motor vehicles. The travelling public appear 'hooked' on 'their' cheap flights and do not seem convinced that they contribute in a substantial way to global warming (its all the fault of the increased economic activity in China and India!). My pessimistic pronouncement seems supported by a recent survey ( ). I suspect that the debate has some distance to run. The protesters clearly feel that the time available is distinctly limited. I suspect that the Government don't feel that they could take the voters with them.
The final 'day of direct action' (18th August) reportedly ( ) resulted in 1600 police confronting the estimated 1400 protesters and brought the number of arrests over the entire week of the camp to 44. The protesters did not attempt to disrupt road traffic or the airport but did attempt to surround the BAA offices.

Monday, 13 August 2007


I suppose it might be self therapeutic to comment on my current eye condition. Cataracts are a clouding or discolouration in the lens of the eye and the condition is strongly linked to inevitable aging although steroid use (not guilty), genes and UV exposure may exacerbate the condition. Cataracts generally start off in the periphery of the lens and gradually 'close off' clear vision but mine are central and have developed extremely rapidly (since they were spotted by an optician in May this year). So what's it like? The first indication (that has grown worse with time) is the dazzle caused by bright sunlight (especially difficult when the sun is low), Gradually the world takes on the appearance of a Turkish bath perpetually full of steam (alternatively, its like having your swimming goggles 'steamed up'). All colours become greyed and there is no such thing as a clear, bright day. What things do I miss most?

1. Independent transport (I gave up driving as soon as the condition became evident)

2. Being able to read books and papers in standard font (its demoralising going to the large print section of the library) and having to do all reading inside under dim illumination (scatter is a problem here)

3. Being able to see the image through the view-finder of a digital camera

4. Locating the keyhole with a key
5. Telling when I have filled the teapot with boiling water

6. Being able to tell a step from a pattern on a walkway (especially ornate marble stairs)

7. Easily distinguishing the comma from the full-stop on the computer and being able to locate the cross in the top right hand corner of the screen

8. Seeing where a disturbed insect or bird has flown to in order to photograph it

9. Moving, with confidence, over uneven ground
10. Recognizing people at a reasonable distance

So what happens next? My eyes will be operated (one at a time) in a day surgery unit under local anaesthesia (the operation has a 96-98% success rate). A tube is passed into the lens of the eye via a small incision in the cornea and ultrasound used to liquidise it so it can be sucked out (a bit like a spider ingesting the contents of a captured fly after injecting enzymes). A folded plastic replacement is then inserted into the 'skeleton' of the old lens. The small hole in the cornea then heals without the need for stitching. There then following a period of rehabilitation (4 weeks in total) with eye drops. I do hope that I will have at least one functional eye for the Dorset 2007 field course. Luckily, the surgery on my right eye is scheduled for 8am Thursdays 6th of September so, if all goes well, I should be available for the trip. The left eye would be done about 3 months later.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Seeing the Changes 42

Interesting moths now appearing to the light in Loughor. One was probably the Dusky thorn (Ennomos fuscantaria) and the others a female Black arches (Lymantria monacha), the Common white wave (Cabera pusaria) and a Flounced rustic (Luperina testacea).

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Seeing the Changes 41

At Oxwich, much of the dune vegetation seemed to harbour yellow pupae of the Six-spot burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae). There were also a few adults feeding on Ragwort flowers. There were also lots of grasshoppers (probably the Common Field grasshopper Chorthippus brunneus) and Harvestmen spiders. In terms of flowers, the Annual stonecrop (Sedum annum) was clinging on and the Marsh helleborine (Epipactis palustris) shyly lurking. In Bynea, the Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) as well as the Redshank (Polygonum persicaria) are in flower and the Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) berries are bright red. A good day for the reds! It feels like Autumn as even the Elder (Sambucus nigra) berries are ripe and black. In Loughor, with weird timing, a Snowdrop windflower (Anemone sylvestris) is in bloom but this is probably a garden escapee. Apologies to readers for the quality of the photographs as my cataracts are really kicking in now.

Puffin to Extinction?

It has been reported ( that many Puffin chicks are starving in the large colony of St Kilda (Scotland). The claim is that the appropriate oil-rich fish for the chicks (herring and sand eel) are in short supply and that the chicks are being fed bony snake-fish that are more commonly associated with southern waters. There has been an immediate leap to global warming as an explanation. This might well be a contributing factor but there have been other occasions since the 1970s when Shetland seabird reproduction (Arctic terns, kittiwakes, guillemots, great skuas and Arctic skuas) has been reduced in relation to reduced sand eel stocks (Monaghan [1992] 'Seabirds and sand eels: the conflict between exploitation and conservation in the North sea. Biodiversity and Conservation 1: 98-111). Over-fishing for these fish (to make fish-meal for agriculture has been a factor in the past).

Monday, 6 August 2007

Seeing the Changes 40

In Loughor, the Japanese knotweed (Reynoustria japonica) is in flower. Lots of flowers on the dunes in Horton including Sea holly (Eryngium maritinum), Small scabious (Scabiosa columbaria), Sheepsbit scabious (Jasione montana), Bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguinenum), Sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias) and a small white umbellifer. The Large-flowered evening primrose (Oenothera erythrosepala) is still in bloom.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Foot and Mouth: Deja-vu?

Here we go again? An outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease has been confirmed in beef cattle (the easiest domestic animals in which to see the symptoms) on a farm in Wanborough (near Guilford, Surrey). This is the first UK sighting of this highly infectious (to animals) viral agent since the devastating epidemic of 2001 that involved the mass slaughter of farm animals with 'funeral pyres' in parts of the country and involvement of the army. It also led to debates about how to effectively handle such emergencies and the potential role of vaccination in controlling such outbreaks. A farmer was eventually prosecuted for not reporting the initial outbreak of Foot and Mouth in his pigs. Information on many aspects relating to the 2001 event has been collected on a BBC site ( The event also caused serious financial problems for many visitor locations that involve animals such as Longleat and WWT because movement restrictions prevented paying customers arriving. There was also a discussion at this time into the potential involvement of wild mammals as potential transport agents and victims (deer are particularly vulnerable) of Foot and Mouth.
First reports suggest that the Government Agencies are more firmly 'on top' of the problem this time ( ). COBRA are meeting (but I am not sure whether much is actually achieved by the Prime minister rushing back from his holiday in Dorset where he could have been seeing the delights of 'Monkey World' , perhaps reminding him of Camp David?). The authorities have put in place a 3 km radius Protection zone around the farm. There is also a 10 km radius Surveillance zone outside that (where farm animals will be checked for symptoms). The whole of the rest of GB is a Restriction zone with a banning of the movement of cattle, sheep and pigs (some minor deviations can be licenced such as the necessary moving cattle along roads for milking). The potential role of vaccination has been raised again but this entirely depends on the strain of the virus (yet to be identified in this case) and vaccine stocks. The main problems for the Authorities are identifying where the infection came from and what other animals might have been exposed to the agent (this was a severe problem in 2001 because of the extraordinary, largely unregulated movement of animals sometimes over long distances). The incubation period for Foot and Mouth can be as little as 3 and as much as 14 days. To be on the safe side, the vet detectives must try to locate every animal that could have been in contact with the Wanborough cattle within the last fortnight (and animals, in turn, that have been in contact with them). There will be a lot of anxious surveillance over at least the next month or so.
It has been confirmed that the strain of virus is one (of the 7 or so) that was being worked on for vaccine production at Pirbright (two laboratories essentially sharing the site- one the Government Institute of Animal Health and the other an American-French commercial company Merial). This suggests that the cattle may have been infected by the aerial route (although there is a suggestion that recent floods and sewage treatment may be implicated) and is potentially good news in terms of potential GB wide transmission but I wonder how long it will be before the first bioterrorism conspiracy hypothesis? Speculation in the newspapers about a 'senior scientist' with an allotment adjoining the farm where the outbreak occurred using containers from the laboratory as planting pots. Also claims about a plumbing contractor (who caught Legionnaire's disease) roaming the complex with minimal security checking.
Another potential cluster was reported (9th August) outside the initial Surveillance zone in Dorking (still in Surrey). Fortunately, this was a false alarm. On the 15th August two more suspicious events were reported, one at Chessington's children's zoo and the other a farm in St Mary in the Marsh (Romney marshes, Kent) leading to the setting up of 2 more temporary 3 Km exclusion zones. Tests on both also proved negative. These developments illustrate that controlling this disease is both difficult and not an exact science. The obvious 'take home message' about such confusing events is that interest will ebb and flow with 'new' information of varied quality before (hopefully) petering out.
The decision to remove EU restrictions on the export of meat. livestock and milk from the UK on the 23rd August , effectively signalled the end of this event (except for the 2 farms initially involved where conditions still apply).

Seeing the Changes 1218

In Loughor, masses of black flies were emerging from a hedge. In conditions also attracted green lacewings ( Chrysoperla carnea ) to ...