Monday, 25 February 2013

Seeing the Changes 546

The Goat willow (Salix caprea) was in catkin in Bynea.

Junking the Junk?

Something of an academic storm (read it carefully!) seems to be developing in relation to attempts to junk the claim that the previously regarded 'junk DNA' is, far from junk and is actually essential to life (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/feb/24/scientists-attacked-over-junk-dna-claim?INTCMP=SRCH). The people, from the Encode Project, who advocated the view that junk DNA is actually important (largely in terms of providing information important to our understanding of disease susceptibility), were a much-cited and well-funded team. Their attackers, featuring Dan Grauer of Houston Texas, charge the Encode team with a lack of understanding of Evolutionary Biology and use of unconvincing statistics. Grauer reportedly goes so far as to state this is "not the work of scientists. This is the work of badly trained technicians". I think the basic bone of contention lies between theoretical biology and  technocrats. Weirdly, both groups are likely to increase their scientific standing (at least in the short to medium term) by having an acrimonious debate.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Seeing the Changes 545

It really seems to be springing! In Bynea, Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris) and Common field speedwell (Veronica persica) were both in flower. Profusions of Alder (Alnus glutinosa) waved in the breeze.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Seeing the Changes 544

Fungi were risking it in Penclacwydd and the first Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) of spring was trotted out in Bynea.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Natural Puns 4

This beets grass any day!

Trumped

It now appears that Mr Donald Trump (star of the US version of 'The Apprentice') would like to build another golf-course, in addition to the one he has just had created in the protected sand dunes of NE Scotland, near Aberdeen (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/feb/16/trump-golf-links-coastline?INTCMP=SRCH). The creation of the first course appears to represent the triumph of  commerce over conservation and the proposal for another course to the south of that  is also linked to 'exclusive' housing developments. I must admit to being generally unenthusiastic about the creating of golf courses in relatively pristine natural locations (I support Mark Twain who described a game of golf as being 'a good walk spoiled'). The hoped for developments seem to be difficult to afford (given the amount of land space in the a crowded UK) 'gardenification' of the remaining 'natural' environment for the benefit of relatively few people. What's to stop rich folk converting the whole of Scotland into a theme park for other rich folk?

Musseling In

Another interesting use of a product produced in the natural world. Scientists have now found that the adhesive produced by the Edible mussel (Mytilis edulis) to form its firm connection to the rocks (the so-called byssal thread)  has properties that can be used medically (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/feb/16/mussels-sticking-power-surgery?INTCMP=SRCH). The adhesive is produced by the mussel in seawater (i.e. 'the wet'), unlike virtually all the glues we currently use, and apparently can be used to repair holes in foetal membranes of surrounding the baby in the womb. This just emphasizes just how many products there remain to find (often before it's too late and the species has become extinct).

Saturday, 16 February 2013

They're Off!

The horse meat scandal continues to rumble on with the revelation that UK horse carcasses containing the banned pain treatment 'bute' may have entered the food chain in France (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/feb/14/horsemeat-scandal-bute-food-chain?INTCMP=SRCH). The whole exercise now seems like a game of 'pass the parcel' with governments, agencies, supermarket chains, meat processing plants and abattoirs all dashing to blame other countries and their meat-producing activities. Perhaps the basic conclusion is that the drive to generate cheap food (when you are basically dealing with an expensive ingredient like 'beef') has gone too far. If it is cheap, it's possibly compromised. The sad thing (as has been said repeatedly) is that it is the poor who are likely to suffer most.

Buying 'Science'?

There is a worrying report detailing the degree of 'secret funding' supporting the activities of 'climate change deniers' in the USA and the UK (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/15/secret-funding-climate-sceptics-not-restricted-us?INTCMP=SRCH) and my initial response was shock/horror. It certainly makes evaluating the evidence for and against studies on a phenomenon difficult enough for professionals and next to impossible for the general public. On reflection, however, I cannot deny that the funding of science by governments and even charities is clearly influenced by opinion and politics (sometimes involving the scientists themselves). I suppose that the most concerning aspects of the report are the claimed size of the funding pot, the clear 'black-balling' of certain organisations with respect to the possibility of their receiving cash and the apparent commercial interests of the donors. Evidence-led planning for human populations becomes very difficult in such circumstances.

Seeing the Changes 543

Spring must be sprunging as the horse chestnut buds (Aesculus hippocastanum) buds are stirring.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Laid-back Fish?

Yet another weird link has been suggested between the human use of pharmacological agents and wild animals in a report from Sweden (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/feb/14/anxiety-drug-rivers-changes-fish-behaviour?INTCMP=SRCH). Researchers claimed to have found that elevated river levels (presumably by being secreted in human urine) of oxazepam (an anxiolytic drug generally prescribed to counter human anxiety) can be linked to increased 'boldness' in some fish species (notably Perch). The most obvious conclusion is that the drug changes the behaviour of the fish, making them (like humans) less anxious.  The possibilities appear to remain, however, that bolder fish are simply able to tolerate higher levels of water pollution or that the fish require more food to tolerate the more demanding conditions and so have to be bolder. It would be interesting to determine whether other fish, like territorial male Sticklebacks, showed changed behaviour in response to adding oxazepam to their water. 

Continuing to Fox the Controllers?

There appears to be some general support in a newspaper article  (following their consulting both 'pest control experts' and 'mammalian ecologists') for many of the doubts I expressed about the ease and appropriateness of carrying out a cull of urban foxes in London or any other major UK city after the reported attack on a baby ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/14/fox-cull-not-answer-say-friends-foes?INTCMP=SRCH). Even 'pest controllers' with licences to shoot foxes stress that there are relatively few locations in cities where the activity can be legally and safely carried out (shooting is banned, for example, in close proximity to roads). The people consulted have also stressed that it is likely that there  would be little uniform public support for a cull (it might well be actively resisted) and have confirmed that removing foxes from one area would be followed by animals moving in from the surrounding environs. They also appear to advocate the suggestions I made that waste food disposal as well as blocking easy access to gardens and associated out buildings would be more effective ameliorating activities. My comment about the apparently very different official response to attacks on humans by dogs is supported by a timely report from the Environment Select Committee (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/feb/15/action-on-dangerous-dogs-woefully-inadequate?INTCMP=SRCH).

Slithering to Extinction?

Some rather shocking predictions from a study by 200 'experts', reported by the Zoological Society of London (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/15/reptile-species-face-extinction?INTCMP=SRCH) where it appears that 20 percent of the world's existing reptiles are facing extinction.Some species are more critical than others with half of the freshwater turtles being at imminent risk and many lizards (especially anolids) are threatened by deforestation followed by agriculture.So habitat loss appears at the root of the disappearances. All this represents real losses as reptiles are an important group of organisms with the ability to thrive on a much lower calorie intake than a mammal or bird of similar body weight. You could argue that, when ambient temperatures are relatively high and stable, they are more efficient than the warm-blooded vertebrates.  

Monday, 11 February 2013

Foxes and Boxes?

Another frantically-hyped tale of an attack on a London baby by an 'urban fox' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21399709). The four-week old child reportedly had a finger bitten off (re-attached in hospital) by a fox that entered the home in Bromley. This event has led to calls for a 'cull' on the foxes (a very difficult thing to do humanely, even by trapping, with no guarantee that removing animals from one area would not cause others to move into the 'vacated' territories). Some experts have pointed out that a) fox attacks are incredibly rare, especially in comparison to dog attacks (that can also be much more dangerous). Yet people rarely call for a cull of dogs; b) the problem may be exacerbated by the pretty messy fashion we often 'dispose' of human food waste, attracting foxes to human habitations and c) there must have been access to the house, for the fox to gain entry. The urban fox lives, by using its intelligence and attributes, to largely scavenge for food. The animal probably can obtain more food in cities than in the countryside (hunting is much less efficient in a costs versus benefits sense), which will increase their numbers and change their behaviour. The reaction to this sad event seems to be a marked over-reaction by many of the concerned. We do tend to take things terribly personally and appear surprised when a wild animal 'dares' to do something to one of our kind (probably by accident?). 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Seeing the Changes 542

In Loughor, quite a few flowers have appeared. They include the Primrose (Primula vulgaris), , Crab apple (Malus sylvestris) and Lesser celendine (Ranunculus ficaria).

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Slick 'People'

It appears that the oiling and deaths of many sea birds, including Guillemots and Razorbills, on the Chesil Beach in Dorset (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/01/thousands-seabirds-harmed-oil-uk-coast?INTCMP=SRCH) is probably related to the illegal washing out of the tanks of some ship at sea. This is a relatively cheap thing for tanker owners to do but is, of course, completely illegal. The oiling (the material is not a typical crude or fuel oil) event could not occur at a worse time of the year so far as the effected species are concerned. Using modern forensic methods and the time frame, it may be possible to identify the culprits. Bringing them to book is another thing entirely.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Seeing the Changes 540

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) is in flower in Bynea.

British Moths Going to the Dogs

There is a disturbing report about the 'calamitous' decline in UK moths (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/01/british-moths-calamitous-decline?INTCMP=SRCH) with at least 3 species becoming extinct and the popular Garden tiger (Arctia caja) showing a profound decrease. The changes are presumably related to modifications of the weather patterns as this alters the growth of plants on which the larvae feed, possible nectar sources that some adults used to 'refuel' and their abilities to fly. Some species e.g. the illustrated Jersey tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria) have actually increased their range.

Rotterdam Natural History

In Het Park there were Little Japanese umbrella fungi ( Coprinus plicatilis ). In the centre of Rotterdam, well away from water...