Thursday, 25 December 2014
Topical news at Christmas (with its link to a claimed 'virgin birth') that scientists at Cambridge University have had some success stimulating skin cells with growth factors to convert to early stage eggs and sperm (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/dec/24/science-skin-cells-create-artificial-sperm-eggs). Apparently female skin samples can only generate eggs but male material can produce eggs or sperm, a factor related to the presence of the X and Y chromosomes. The intention (if there is a change in the UK Law) is that, eventually, the processes may be used to treat infertility in humans.
Wednesday, 24 December 2014
An Italian circus has apparently got into trouble for getting people to pay money to have their pictures taken with 'pandas' (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/23/chow-down-italian-circus-trouble-disguising-dogs-show-pandas). The only trouble was that the 'pandas' were actually cosmetic-treated dogs. The dogs were reportedly healthy but their eyes were irritated (it was thought that this was caused by being repeatedly subjected to camera flashes). Amazing what people try to get away with and it's cheaper than having to feed them fresh bamboo!
Tuesday, 23 December 2014
Friday, 19 December 2014
There is interesting news that the European populations of bear, lynx,wolf and wolverine are apparently increasing that limited area of the continent outside Belarus, Russia and Ukraine in spite of the fears that such persecuted animals would inevitably be driven to extinction by the burgeoning human population there (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/18/brown-bears-wolves-and-lynx-numbers-rising-in-europe). Even more remarkably, the majority of these animals live outside nature reserves. All these large Mammalian predators have extremely large home ranges, which makes these findings even more remarkable. It seems that changing human attitudes have played a role.
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Disturbing news from Amazonia were ethnic tribes living by the Xingu river are being displaced by the massive Belo Monte hydroelectric dam (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/16/belo-monte-brazil-tribes-living-in-shadow-megadam). This is, apparently only one of more than 400 dams planned for the region. Quite apart from their impact on the environment and local societies, many of these schemes often fail to deliver 'green electricity'. Even when they work, one has to factor in the environmental costs of the carbon dioxide generated by the concrete and steel used in construction. Getting the electricity to areas where it is utilised often causes further damage to the locations.
I am somewhat disturbed that police reportedly requested a list of expert participants for an invited to discuss fracking at Canterbury Christ Church University (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/15/police-university-list-fracking-debate). The meeting apparently was intended to consider the pros and cons of the process and was, in no sense, an attempt to generate a campaign against the activity. If this is the way that new anti-terror requirements for universities are to be carried out, it must be an area of real concern for environmentalists.
Monday, 15 December 2014
Sunday, 14 December 2014
The 6th great extinction event appears to be nothing like as dramatic as the asteroid collision that accounted for the dinosaurs (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/14/earth-faces-sixth-great-extinction-with-41-of-amphibians-set-to-go-the-way-of-the-dodo). It has been estimated that 41% of the world's amphibia plus substantial numbers of species of birds and mammals will soon be driven to extinction largely by human (anthropogenic) effects. The human desire for more and more 'agricultural land' (for biofuels as well as actual food), the 'need' for hydrochemicals and metals and our tendency to introduce (accidentally or deliberately) alien species into habitats across the world seem to be the cause of this looming mass extinction. That doesn't seem to be an especially good epitaph for our species?
Saturday, 13 December 2014
There are lies, damn lies and statistics. A recent report from an A&E spokesperson has pointed out that people are more likely to have an accident in their home than when driving a car or doing 'unrisky' activities outside (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/dec/12/home-accident-risk-nhs-doctor). This has almost been converted into a 'stay outside to reduce your need to go to A&E' story. Have they never heard of time as risk? You are also more likely to have an argument with someone or be murdered by someone in your home. This is because you generally spend more time with them than any other folk. Home is risky but it's risky because that's where people spend the majority of their time (I admit that it's also a place you can get too blase about).
Friday, 12 December 2014
Stubby wings for flying under water; an extra thick coat of insulating features and a skin thicker (especially on the soles of the feet) than any politician. These are just some of the ways that penguins have adapted to life in the freezer we call the Antarctic! New studies (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2870304/How-penguins-survive-world-s-coldest-temperatures-Genetic-study-shows-birds-evolved-feathers-skin-wings-stubby.html) have identified the genes that have given these birds the abilities to thrive in this harsh environment.
The Avian Phylogenomics Consortium has collected together evidence from more than 200 scientists in 20 countries who have looked at the genes of 45 bird species to consider the relationships between them (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/dec/11/birds-evolution-feathers-genome-sequencing-avian-genes). The birds arose over 65 million years ago from the remnants of the mass dinosaur extinction and how they developed feathers (plus flight) and lost their teeth now appears to be well-documented. Some surprises are, however, evident. It appears that falcons are more closely related to parrots than to eagles and flamingos are more closely related to pigeons rather than pelicans. This seems to be a good example of pooling information to get a better understanding of evolutionary history. There appears to be more parallel evolution than at first glance.
The problems for Orangutan conservation raised by the booming of palm oil plantations in SE Asia are well-documented (http://www.orangutan.org.au/palm-oil) as these apes are persecuted as 'pests' on the crops (the oil is much used in food, biofuels and cosmetics and is seen as a bonus in areas of the world with ample rain and sunshine but without hydrocarbon deposits). The ape, of course, has no appreciation of the reprehensiveness of eating the tops of the palms. It appears, however, that there will be changed legislation in the EU to indicate the presence of palm oil on all packaging (which might make people think again).
Thursday, 11 December 2014
It's a bit difficult for today's generation to remember a world without antibiotics but it is now claimed that the generation of antibiotic-resistant, so-called 'super-bugs' is likely to result in around an extra 10 million deaths per year, costing the global economy about £64tn (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/dec/11/drug-resistant-infections-deaths-soar-10m-by-2050-report). There rise of antimicrobial resistance is hardly remarkable, given the reproductive rates of bacteria (it's like evolution at high speed). I accept that we have to learn to use our antibiotics more sparingly but, given their free availability without prescription in many parts of the world, I am pessimistic about our ability to stay ahead of the game.
Estimates have been published that there are now around 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the world's oceans, weighing almost 270,000 tonnes (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2868708/More-five-TRILLION-pieces-plastic-litter-seas-oceans.html). This is not just an eye-sore (like the Red sea strand-line at Jeddah shown above) but serious sources of problems for food chains (fish, turtles, marine mammals and fish-eating birds are only the most obvious victims). The trouble with plastic is that it takes an awfully long time to degrade and it can move an awfully long way in the interconnected waters of the planet. Getting any improvement would be expensive and take lots of time.
Saturday, 6 December 2014
It seems that you never get something for nothing. Another recently-highlighted potential problem with the fracking process to release gas for energy 'independence' is a suggested link by researchers between the chemicals used and local effects on human hormone production, including declines in semen quality that would reduce fertility of populations in areas where this is undertaken (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/05/fracking-chemicals-could-pose-risks-to-reproductive-health-say-researchers). The disruptive effects of 'environmental oestrogens' (in some plants and a property of many insecticides) are well-known and have been recorded to change behaviour and even apparent sexual identity in animal populations. Consequently, the effects (if the materials are oestrogenic) could be wider than the health issues of humans in the affected areas. There is a further possibility that, even if the chemicals used in fracking are 'safe' in terms of health, some of the hydrochemicals and other compounds released by the process could themselves be detrimental.
Friday, 5 December 2014
Yet another case in the USA where people have tried to establish in a court of law that Chimpanzees have personhood (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/04/court-denies-legal-personhood-of-chimpanzees). This time the courts ruled that these primates (our closest surviving 'relative' in the Animal Kingdom) were not human because they would not be able to take on responsibilities along with the rights that granting them honorary human status would give them. I broadly support this view (although I do favour extra protections for this species) but it is a murky old area as the law does accept that humans do not lose their human status when massively intellectually impaired. The difficulty in this type of debate is where to draw the fuzzy line (all primates? all mammals? 'intelligent' species only- so chimps, dolphins and crows?). There are likely to be appeals, so this one will run and run.
There seems to be a big argument brewing about the claim (by a German TV station) that elite Russian athletes, in a wide range of sports, are getting around the drugs tests by colluding with officials (http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/dec/04/uk-athletics-russia-doping-allegations). One thing is certain and that is the inadvisability of relying only on testing agencies within individual countries to ensure that performances are not medically enhanced. Sport can only really be taken seriously, if people can be sure it reflects natural skills, strengths and talents. Given the enormous revenues generated by events like the Olympics and the World Championships, it is disappointing that substantially more money is not directed to having a truly independent, state of the art testing agency, empowered to operate in all the competing countries. Countries failing to cooperate fully with that agency should be barred from competition. Simples!
Somewhat disturbing news about the UK labs handling some of the most pathogenic bacteria and viruses (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/dec/04/-sp-100-safety-breaches-uk-labs-potentially-deadly-diseases). Apparently, there have been numerous 'close-shaves' over the past 5 years including people erroneously sending out Anthrax to other labs that were neither expecting it nor had a use for it and people working with Ebola in protection suits with rips in the fabric. Must try harder?
Wednesday, 3 December 2014
I must admit to being somewhat unconvinced about the proposed Tidal lagoon for Swansea bay in spite of its having been said to have received encouragement from the government (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-west-wales-30283203). Any move to renewable sources of energy is desirable but the construction (concrete and steel for the turbines) does add to carbon dioxide release (it is often several years before the running would make up for this). In addition to the visual impact on what is currently an attractive bay, the construction might well release heavy metals generated in the Industrial Revolution from the sands of the bay, the currents generated by the turbines (as well as being a hazard to humans and animals) might well redistribute sands over the entire Gower, the act of construction would be likely to influence marine mammals in the area and there would be probable impacts on migratory fish (they would be converted into chips) and the wading birds that currently use the SSSI of the bay. This experimental (at this stage) development would also apparently require a high level of subsidy for the generated electricity over several decades. The simulation looks very jolly but what would be response if a wind surfer got caught in the turbine blades?
Monday, 1 December 2014
Concerns have been expressed that the proposed widening and extending of Egypt's Suez canal will exacerbate the problems with non-indigenous species in the Mediterranean (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/30/suez-canal-scheme-threatens-mediterranean-ecosystem-economic-activity). It is estimated that at least half of the current 700 alien marine species have arrived from the Red sea via the current link and the shipping 'improvements' will make further movement even easier. Already, some species such as the Nomad jellyfish, have disrupted fishing and tourism in the Mediterranean.
There are reports of Canadian lobsters being sold this Christmas in UK ASDA and Iceland outlets at £5 a pop (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/nov/28/lobster-wars-discount-stores-slug-it-out-on-high-street-with-5-pound-shellfish). Apparently, traditional fish stocks in Canada are in a marked decline and the seas are warming up, making the lobsters (booming in numbers) accessible for longer. Lobsters largely feed on dead organic material (including dead fish?) and to be sold in the UK require to be rapidly transported by air or by sea. The refrigerated transport generates more carbon dioxide that further increases warming of the seas, killing more fish (until there is nothing much for even the lobsters to eat?). I suspect that this will be a relatively short-lived boom.
Friday, 28 November 2014
The news that the FSA has found that no UK supermarket has chicken on sale with a less than 60% contamination with compylobacter is disturbing (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/nov/26/chicken-campylobacter-contamination-supermarkets-fsa). The bacterium can cause dangerous food poisoning and many of the stores appear to sell raw chicken meat products with high levels of this agent (or even on the outside of packaging where it can contaminate other foods. One should note that buying 'free-range' chicken is no protection against this agent. The only thing that you can do is to prevent the purchased meat contaminating anything else and to cook it thoroughly.
Tuesday, 25 November 2014
A quick study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare has found some 33,000 'protected' living animals (such as tiger cubs and poison arrow frogs) and prescribed products from such beasts (such as ivory and an entire rhinoceros horn) offered for sale online (lhttp://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/25/wildlife-crime-study-sale-onlinee-online). This little illegal hoard was valued at least £7m. This easily accessible activity seems likely to be the tip of a very big iceberg. One can only hope that ways will be found to discourage this form of e-commerce. Victorians at least had the excuse that most thought their natural history collections were obtained from an infinitely bounteous Earth whereas today few operate under such delusions.
Sunday, 23 November 2014
There is a very substantial review of the science of climate changes and the choices that (a few select people) have for the future (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/nov/22/-sp-climate-change-special-report). One might point out that most people on this planet have zero choices.
Tuesday, 18 November 2014
News that the BBC is to produce a program, entitled 'Snow Chick', that is intended to follow an Emperor penguin from egg to adulthood (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/18/bbc-snow-chick-follow-emperor-penguin-battle-for-survival). I appreciate that people seem very taken by penguins (note the current John Lewis Christmas advertisement) but I am not certain that this beast actually has the hardest life of any animal species on the planet (as is apparently claimed) and I am not too keen on these birds that strongly reek of fish. I would also be amazed if the 'life drama' actually followed one egg to adulthood. The thing about penguins is that you can splice material together from several individuals without anyone noticing the variation.
It seems that Interpol is finally starting to take environmental crime seriously (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/17/interpol-launches-first-appeal-for-environmental-fugitives) as it has been recognised that big players in this area can extract billions of dollars (the proceeds of which could be used for all sorts of additional unpleasant illegalities), can seriously threaten important species with extinction, can damage the economies of entire countries and can even damage the health of human populations. I would simply add, however, that going after 9 individuals is a bit limited as the thousands of smaller offenders must also collectively have very powerful effects. Of course, dealing with different scales of offence may require different solutions. Smaller offenders might be more fruitfully deterred by educational programs and giving them financial stakes in species conservation and pristine environments.
Saturday, 15 November 2014
Monday, 10 November 2014
It is somewhat scary that even US elections seem to conspire against people taking any meaningful action to curb carbon dioxide emissions (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8c0d3370-689c-11e4-af00-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3IewvCovn). The giant Peabody Powder River Basin mine in Wyoming is now reportedly the world's largest coal mine and coal is said to account for 40% of US electricity generation. There are reportedly billions of tons of coal available for strip mining in this area. Although the technology exists, there also appear to be remarkably few coal-fired power stations with carbon capture in that country. Apparently, economic commentators feel that the recent Republican electoral success marks the end of any meaningful action by Obama to limit carbon emissions as a consequence of coal, gas and oil extraction. It is interesting that spokesmen for Peabody do not, apparently, deny that climate change is happening: they just deny that it has anything to do with human-generated carbon dioxide release. They seem to feel that environmental concerns damage the economy. Ho-hum.
Thursday, 6 November 2014
Interesting news that the National Trust has purchased Slepe heath in Dorset which will link together two areas of this protected and rapidly vanishing habitat (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/nov/06/national-trust-dorset-slepe-heath-thomas-hardy). Much is made of the purchase providing a location that might appeal to Thomas Hardy readers ('Return of the Native' and all that) but one should remember that heathland is essentially a human-created environment (in Dorset, it was a by-product of the Industrial Revolution) and has be be maintained by controlled burning and removal of organic material to prevent transition to scrubland and, eventually, forest. Still, this is good news for animals such as the Smooth snake and the Dartford warbler
Tuesday, 4 November 2014
Advice from the UK Environmental Secretary that one can help bees and other pollinating insects by 'leaving the lawnmower in the shed' are a bit disingenuous (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/04/bees-uk-protect-liz-truss-pollinating-lawnmower). Certainly more flowers would be helpful to these useful organisms but urban lawns tend not to have much plant diversity (unless this is planted for) and there even seems to be economic inducements for people in some areas to replace lawns by hard-standing for car parking (this can, apparently, be a 'nice little earner' in London and some other locations). Urbanisation is a problem for pollinators but the current plights of these insects seems more closely linked to agricultural practises including the use of neonicotinoid insecticides that the government to loath to ban.
Monday, 3 November 2014
A recent study of bird numbers recorded in 25 European countries suggests that there has been a 421 million decline in totals over the last 30 years (http://news.yahoo.com/europe-421-million-fewer-birds-30-years-ago-004353783.html). Although one should, perhaps, have reservations about the absolute figures, it does seem evident that bird numbers have shown a dramatic fall over this time. The situation is, however, patchy as there have been increases in the numbers of some rarer birds such as the Wren and the Blackcap where they have been subject to conservation programmes. Simultaneously, there have been striking declines in the numbers of 'common' birds such as the House sparrow (down almost 150 million i.e. by 62%) and the Starling (down by 53%). Although bird declines have often been blamed on changing farming practises (and habitat loss), some of the decimated species are not farm-land birds. In such cases, urbanisation (or even conservation efforts directed at rarer species) may be closer to the root causes. Perhaps we shouldn't be so obsessed by real or apparent rarity?
Friday, 31 October 2014
Sunday, 26 October 2014
Somewhat sad news as it looks as if Professor Tim Berkhead's 42 year monitoring of Guillemot (Uria aalge) breeding on Skomer is due to end due to removal of its modest annual funding (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/26/guillemots-study-skomer-wales-budget-cut-tim-birkhead). Berkhead has argued that such monitoring gives us an insight into the general health of our seas (largely due to anthropogenic actions) and to long-term climate change. In other areas Guillemot breeding has been decimated by humans taking their preferred sand eel prey to convert into agricultural fertiliser. It is also notable that the birds now breed some 2.5 weeks earlier than they did at the start of Berkhead's PhD studies.
Friday, 24 October 2014
Many areas of the UK (e.g. Snowdonia and Brownsea Island in Dorset) have been overgrown by Rhododendron, transported from its Himalayan home by gardeners. This has had detrimental effects on our native flora and fauna. It was interesting to note that the pictured larva appeared to be eating the plant's leaves in the gargen of the Tibetology Institute in Gangtok (Sikkim).
As usual, there was such a mass of new things in the Indian Himalayas, that it was difficult to make a choice. I have gone with 3 wise Hanuman langurs (Semnopithecus entellus) in West Bengal and Indian muntjac deer (Muntiacus muntjak) in the Himalayan Zoological Park. Birds included a Wall creeper (Tichodroma muraria) at Teesta V, female (yellow) and male (red) Short-billed minivets (Pericrocotus breviostris) at the Tibetology Instiitute and a nice close up of an Oriental magpie robin (Copsychus saularis) at Saramsa Gardens. There was an Argiope spider conveniently next to a Hindu sign at Teesta V. There were impressive insect galls on leaves at the Tibetology Institute. A green-eyed fly (probably a female Tabanus nigrovittatus) was spotted at the Hidden Forest Retreat and a Bibio species at the Himalayan Zoological Park. Got a nice shot of a Praying mantis at the Tibetology Institute. Striking butterflies included a mineral-seeking Red helen (Papilo helenus) at Teesta V; a nectar-taking Paris peacock (Papilo paris) at the Hidden Forest Retreat; a Tropical fritillary (Argynis hyperbius hyperbius) at Temi Tea Plantation as well as a Red-spot jezebel (Delias descombesi) and an Oriental striped tiger (Danaus genutia) both at Saramsa Gardens. Moths included an Owl moth (Erebus macrops) at the Hidden Forest; an Oleander hawk moth (Daphnis nerii) at the Guru Padsamabhava statue; an enormous, brown Saturniid, a Numenes patrana and a Lappet moth (Trabala sp) all at Hidden Forest and a much-spotted Antipercnia belluaria in Gangtok centre. A strikingly-coloured caterpillar was pictured near Rumtek and black and yellow larvae completely defoliated a tree at the Hidden Forest. Little Japanese umbrella-type fungi (Coprinus sp) massed at the Hidden Forest and a single, pink flower was revealed in Rumtek.
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