Saturday, 27 February 2010

Seeing the Changes 258

In Loughor and Bynea, there were lots more Daisy (Bellis perennis) and Lesser celendine (Ranunculus ficaria) in flower and first bloomings of Germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) and Common chickweed (Stellaria media). In Penclacwydd, Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) was making an appearance. There were also masses of lichen in fruit on the still bare trees.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Birder's Bonus 67

Noted a Curlew (Numenius arquata) flying on to the Swansea Bay SSSI. The Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) seem to currently be spending an inordinate amount of time on the grassy areas of the Swansea University playing fields.

Carping in Chicago

Yet another story of invasive organisms ( The Asian carp is a fresh water species that can hoover up some 40% of its own body weight in plankton and algae per day which means that its actions starve the young of many other fish species. The carp was apparently introduced in the Southern states of the USA from China to help clean fish farm tanks. Somewhat predictably, they 'escaped' into the Mississippi river and have worked their way north, decimating local fish stocks, to the Illinois river just outside Chicago and in striking distance of Lake Michigan. This is a particular problem as, in 1900, Chicago engineered a reversal in the flow of its river and built a canal enabling millions of gallons of waste water to be sent downriver. This had the effect of linking the Mississippi river to the Great Lakes (said to be the world's largest fresh water body). People are concerned about what will happen if the fish enters Lake Michigan and a number of the involved states are pressing for the locks on the canal to be permanently sealed. The city of Chicago, which still enjoys some shipping activity, is not happy with this suggestion. I think that the fish will almost inevitably make the 'leap' to the next ecosystem.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

There's Nothing In It!

The has been further debate on the homeopathy question ( The particular concern is, that although the amount of money allocated to such treatments by the NHS is rather low (especially in contrast with that spent privately), everything else that is provided by that body has to go through a cost versus efficacy analysis. No one disputes that the placebo effect (being 'treated' by someone as well as 'receiving' a preparation) can make some people feel better. The 'remedies' in homeopathy are, however, so dilute that they are effectively pure water (actually purer than many bottled waters). This alone makes it very difficult to postulate a mechanism of action based on our knowledge of physiology and biochemistry. It is claimed that all the properly designed studies (e.g. those that give the patient no clue about which preparation they are receiving) to date fail to distinguish homeopathic treatments from known placebo. The expressed concern is not only that money is being wasted but that people may be tempted to rely on homeopathy when they require treatment with established medicines.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Dorset Daze

Students who have attended or will be attending the Dorset fieldcourse might be interested in the BBC 'Countrytracks' programme on the county which covers several of the locations we visit (

Seeing the Changes 257

A male Winter moth (Operophtera brumata) desposited himself by the window in Loughor where a hunting spider lurked. In Gorseinon, saw my first Common frog (Rana temporaria) dollop of spawn of the year.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

A Caning For the Cane Toad

It has been reported that Australian scientists have found that placing cat food around ponds can help curb Cane toad populations ( The toxic toads were introduced from Hawaii in 1935 in an attempt to biologically control the Cane beetle that was decimating Sugar cane crops (it is possibly one of the worst examples of a failed biological control programme). The toads, with their poisonous skin secretions, have killed off many endemic Australian animals that have attempted to eat them. The cat food apparently attracts Meat ants which then attack the toadlets as they emerge from ponds (billabongs). It has been calculated that 98% of toadlets are attacked within 2 minutes of emergence and that most of the escapees die from ant bites within a few days. Actual serious eradication of the Cane toad would involve an awful lot of cat food. There may not be obliging Meat ants in all locations. The ants may also attack other amphibian and reptile youngsters emerging from the waters.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

A Prim(at)e Consideration

A campaign has been launched at Bristol Zoo carrying the message that half the world's primate species are in imminent danger of extinction ( The 25 most endangered apes, monkeys and lemurs are listed. This is not exactly a 'new' observation as most primates are based in the Southern hemisphere and rely on forest habitats (prone to exploitation by humans for cooking fuel, extra protein-including primates and destruction via slash and burn agriculture). These and other so-called 'anthropogenic effects' are clearly the problem for all our primate cousins. I appreciate that, without the lemurs, monkeys and apes, being valued by the humans with whom they share their immediate environments (ecotourism?), the prognosis for their survival is bleak. I feel, however, that the suggestions of helping out with local water supplies and agriculture can only be a short term fix. The longer-term problem for these animals is , I feel, the burgeoning human population that will inevitably 'ratchet-up' the pressure.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Keeping the Wolf From the Door?

There is news that the harsh winter in Scotland is causing starvation in Red deer herds ( The claim is that the snow is preventing the deer from reaching the grass and heather on which they feed, leading to a loss of condition and increased mortality. Of course, much of the concern is expressed by people whose livelihood is linked to stalking and shooting. Other people have been worried about general overpopulation in these mammals (that could be a factor exacerbated by the snow if it has reduced the ability of hunters to cull the herds). In deed, some authorities have advocated the reintroduction of packs of Grey wolf into Scotland to reduce the herd sizes. They have suggested that this will encourage the development of forest in these areas (the deer destroy developing trees). As the deer are really pseudofarmed, I suspect that the solution will involve supplementary feeding rather than flying in the predator.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Birder's Bonus 66

A Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) was busy amongst the vegetation at the National Botanical Garden Wales.

Seeing the Changes 256

In spite of the recent cold weather, Lesser celendine (Ranunculus ficaria), Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) and Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) were in bloom at the National Botanical Gardens Wales. Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp) was also in flower. Honey bee (Apis mellifera) from the hives were active in the sunshine amongst the massed Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis).

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Too Early?

A UK study of more than 700 species plants, plankton, insects, fish, birds and mammals in terms of changes in the timing of their life events (phenology) has revealed that spring and summer are starting earlier ( so far as most organisms are concerned. The earlier emergence of flowers, time of egg laying, first recorded flights etc seem to be accelerating, especially in organisms lower down the food chain. The changes have (in spite of the unseasonally cold weather prevailing in the UK presently) been linked to 'global warming'. A concern is that the time disruptions may impair survival in some key organisms (this might be especially so as wether becomes less predictable).

Tall Order

A German study has revealed that tall footballers are more likely to be penalised for foul play than their shorter brethren ( when tall versus short encounters occur. It was suggested that a) referees may be biased in their treatment ('heightism') or b) taller plays might be more aggressive. This puts me in mind of the former story of 47 XYY men who have an extra 'male' chromosome. It was originally assumed that the extra 'dose' of maleness produced hyperaggressive individuals who were likely to turn to violent crime and to finish up in maximum security prisons. The truth turned out to be less impressive (and more in line with referee bias). The extra Y chromosome generally resulted in individuals being excessively tall and often being of subnormal intelligence (so they were easily caught). If such folk were arrested, they were assumed to be dangerous (just look at him!), were often given maximum sentences by courts and were also treated with special care by the prison service. There was no real evidence that they were actually more aggressive. I suspect that the same applies to footballers.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Climate Change and Open Peer Review

The fuss about allegedly suspect data emanating from the East Anglia University Climatic Research Unit and the 'theft' of emails from the unit by people who object to their basic message continues to reverberate in a largely suspicious media( ). It has already been suggested that a greater reliance on 'open peer review' might help validate the science ( It might be of benefit but I don't think it's a panacea. I have edited an International journal for more than 36 years that has always used peer review (but without generally revealing the reviewer's names to the authors- so it's not really 'open'). I have to admit that I tend to choose referees who I think might know something of the area covered by the submitted manuscript (these are likely to include friends or competitors of the authors). When I receive reviews that differ in their recommendations, I also tend to take more notice of people who I know or whose views I value. Open peer review can involve the authors nominating reviewers which seems to me potentially incestuous. Papers processed in this way are more reliable than those not undergoing proper review but errors can still be perpetuated. Perhaps open peer review has a similar standing to science as Churchill's quote about democracy, namely that "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Friday, 5 February 2010

Seeing the Changes 255

The Garden crocus (Crocus spp) and the Primrose (Primula vulgaris) were both in bloom in Loughor.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Game, Set and Match?

There is an interesting story about Belgian/UK research workers using brain scanning techniques to 'communicate' with patients who had been thought to be in a persistent vegetative state for several years ( They broadly asked these 'locked in' patients to think of different things to answer 'yes' or 'no' to questions (e.g. the name of their father). One of the items used to generate a 'yes' answer was to ask them to think of playing tennis which 'lights up' motor areas in the brain. 'No' was walking around their home that produces a different response. There are a number of interesting aspects to this research. The first thing is that it would only work if the patient's hearing was unimpaired (I don't think that visual questions were used). The motor areas of the brain would also have to be intact as well as the patient's ability to imagine the scenarios. I am also unsure if the results actually mean that the patient has consciousness in the traditional sense (although some formerly 'locked in' patients have gone on to write books on their experiences). The key question, however, is whether the technique could be used ethically to ask the patient about his/her wishes.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Too Few Babies?

The author Fred Pearce in a book entitled 'Peoplequake:Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash' has painted a picture in which human babies are in short supply ( He clearly feels that this is a wide phenomenon as he sees depopulation in former industrial areas (e.g. Hoyerswerda in what was East Germany) and even in the developing world (although this seems largely a statement of intent by women in Bangladesh). There certainly seem likely to be demographic 'problems' in many areas of Europe. A recent one is the claim from the National Housing Association that the numbers of retired people living in rural areas is set to increase by a million in the UK, making the delivery of services and survival of rural communities very difficult ($1356935$364344.htm). It is hardly remarkable that economic pressures are making it difficult to maintain 'balanced' populations of babies, school-aged children, working aged folk and retired people in many locations but I personally feel that a 'population crash' is a relatively minor concern. I may have got it wrong but I believe that more people are currently alive on this planet than can be counted in our species' entire history. Human (anthropogenic) pressures are intense over the natural world, meaning that a curtailing of further increase in world population numbers would be no bad thing.

Seeing the Changes 1221

Visited, in Loughor, by a Blood-vein moth ( Timandra griseata ).