Saturday, 31 January 2015

When Three is Not a Crowd

News that the UK Government is supporting IVF technology that involves embryos receiving DNA from 3 parents is very welcome ( The procedure would be used to eliminate mitochondrial disease (mitochondria are the 'powerhouses' of all our cells, enabling us to breakdown glucose, in respiration, to generate energy fuelling living processes), a condition that is often fatal in childhood. The mitochondria have their own DNA and babies only receive this from their mothers (the egg is much bigger than the sperm). The technologies would involve either placing the mother's nucleus in a donor egg with healthy mitochondria before fertilisation or placing the 2 parent's fertilisation product into the donor egg. There is, of course, an ethical debate about the use of these techniques but there has been little reference to the so-called 'endosymbiosis hypothesis'. One idea suggests that the sausage-shaped mitochondria with their polo-mint like DNA are actually bacteria that have chosen to live inside the cells of animals and plants. In this symbiotic relationship, the bacterium gains a stable environment with plentiful glucose and the host organism gains a much more efficient means of generating energy (ATP) to power life processes. If this is true, the 0.2% of DNA in the mitochondria is not really part of the human genome anyhow!

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Way of the Dinosaurs

So the plaster of Paris model of the American Diplodicus in the atrium of the British Museum of Natural History is to be replaced by an actual skeleton of a Blue whale ( I suppose that suspending the new addition to the ceiling will give more space in this area for exhibits and folk. It's not a bad move but I will miss the old faker!

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Fracking: They Don't Seem Able to Let Go?

Given the arguments e.g. the 1) amount of gas that can be economically (along with the falling oil price) extracted in the UK; 2) possible effects on climate change; 3) potential negative effects on the water table and the organisms dependent on it; 4) occasional seismic events linked to the activity; 5) claimed disturbance to human and animal populations etc, the government (and the drilling industries it seems to be encouraging) seem remarkably resistant to changing their policies in their 'drive for shale gas'. Some of these issues have been explored in the press ( but the basic 'song' remains the same.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015


The Brown rat eradication project on the Antarctic Island of South Georgia is back in the news ( with coverage of plans to more-or-less cover the island with baited rat poison with the help of 3 helicopters. The rats got to the island via whaling activities in times gone by and have thrived in this location largely by feeding on the eggs and chicks of the ground-nesting (obviously) bird colonies. This anthropogenic effect is decimating the bird populations. The only thing that worries me about this story is that it comes around again and again. I have seen reports, from at least as far back as 2011, suggesting imminent success in the eradication process. Rats are, however, remarkably resilient and seem to be resisting the herculean efforts of the conservationists. The Brown rat is  good at constructing warm tunnels and is a skilled climber (hence their ability to climb the riggings of sailing ships). These features (along with its impressive reproductive rate) enable the species to threaten indigenous  island populations in many parts of the world.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

'Wild at Heart' Applies to All Animals?

The new BBC series on the 'natural behaviour' of our companion animals or pets uses several interesting techniques and is quite graphic ( The remarkable thing, however, is that, if you look carefully, you can see evidence of species-typical behaviour in all domesticated animals including those used in agriculture and laboratories. In deed, such behaviour often gives one a good idea on how to supply the best environments (ones in which they can express as much as possible of their normal behaviour-so long as it is not damaging in other respects-as can be achieved).

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Seeing the Changes 929

At Penclacwydd, Hazel (Corylus avellana) revealed both male and female flowers.

Fracking Good Time?

There is a detailed account of the debate that is developing in the NW of England where the first UK fracking sites appear to be on the verge of trialling ( It is clearly an emotive subject with masses of claims and counter claims but I can't help feeling that with a) the bottom falling out of oil prices and b) the claimed need to leave petrochemical reserves in situ if one is to have any chance of limiting global warming, now is not a good time to persist with this development. We will clearly be in a much better position to weigh the pros and cons when we see what has happened in the USA over several years (if they haven't managed to exceed the warming targets for us). Some of the inducements directed to the fracking companies could probably be more effectively directed to encouraging home insulation and developing solar power.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Hen Harrier Protection Legislation Getting Claws?

News that a gamekeeper working for a Scottish grouse moor is to be imprisoned for trapping and battering to death a protected Hen harrier is an interesting development ( Prior to this case, offenders (including poisoners) have mainly been restricted to fines and warnings. The case has raised debate about whether a) the activities of gamekeepers should be monitored using CCTV and b) the estate owners can be held to be liable for the actions of their employees. The employee has reportedly lost his job and been expelled by his association.

Hot to Trot?

The news that US scientists have suggested that, globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record (remember that accurate records for the planet are a relatively recent invention) is raising some interesting issues ( Many people think that this emphasises our need to try to limit the release of 'greenhouse gases' with their resulting effects on climate change (an overall increase in average world temperature does not signify that every location will be hotter all the time!). Others, I will speculate, will claim that this phenomenon is part of a natural cycle of change. The difficulty is that, if we wait for absolute, irrefutable proof, it may well turn out to be too late to reverse the effects.

Friday, 16 January 2015

High Flyers

BBC Wales carried an interesting story about a Bangor University-led study on the ability of the Bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) to fly over the Himalayas on its annual migration ( This was done by attaching tracking devices to the geese in Mongolia that measured acceleration, heart-rate etc, etc. The main focus of interest was how the geese were able to fly (an energetically demanding activity) under conditions where there was very little oxygen. It appears that the geese try to limit the time they spend at the highest altitudes by following an 'up-and-down' trajectory. They also appeared to favour a night crossing when the air is colder and denser. The oxygen-carrying myoglobin in their red flight muscle may also help. Tracking devices are getting both lighter and more powerful but any such item is still a penalty for the carrying bird.

Seeing the Changes 928

At Penclacwydd, the male catkins of Alder (Alnus glutinosa) were clearly visible.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

And Sat Down Beside Her

There is a rather sad, local story about an arachnophobic Llanelli GP who lost control of her sports car when a spider dropped from the sun visor ( This appears to have resulted in the death of a pensioner following a collision with his car. It is, perhaps, worth emphasising that no species of native UK spider is actually dangerous to humans (although I appreciate that archnophobes are not concerned with issues like this). The spider shown inhabits rooms in the Indian Himalayas. It is big and hairy but also harmless to our species.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Politics and Power?

There seem to be recurring stories in the press relating to the enthusiasms of various governments for 'cheap' energy sources (such as coal or fracked gas) with its promises of 'jobs' and 'independence' and the concerns of local folk about the potential for damage to 'their' enviroments. In India, there is the tale of an Indian Greenpeace supporter with a valid visa and no history of criminality being prevented from boarding a flight to London to talk about the possible detrimental effects of proposed coal mining (involving a UK company) in an ancient forested area ( In Poland, the initial enthusiasms of investors and the government for extensive fracking seem to have been curtailed by delays and objections ( Environmental damage related to such activities can be both local and planet-wide. It's even more remarkable as, reportedly, there are plans to frack under sections of Swansea West (an even less likely location for substantial energy gains than some of the areas considered above with more potential impact on a relatively crowded local populace).

Guiding Away from Nature?

I must admit that, like a number of authors and poets, I am somewhat disturbed by the OUP Junior Dictionary editors' decision to reportedly cut words associated with the natural world (e.g. acorn, buttercup and conker) in favour of words like attachment, blog and celebrity ( I appreciate that language changes (as does childhood) and that space has to be made for new terms and that the objectors might be criticised for having a rose-tinted view of their own childhoods but I do think that children need some understanding of nature and the challenges it faces (largely as a consequence of anthropogenic -they will find out what that word means soon enough- effects). This is especially true in a world where allegedly a substantial proportion of children think that milk is generated by a machine at the back of their local Tesco.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Parking Ex-Students in Singleton

It was quite gratifying that Iolo William's new series on the natural history of Welsh city parks, that started with Swansea'a Singleton Park (, featured 2 of my former PhD students. Isabella Brey told the tale of the invasion of our woodlands by the alien landhopper (Architalitrus dorrieni) and Dan Forman proffered advice on the locations of Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) on the campus.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Will Technology Hasten the End of Caring for Other Species?

I know it sounds a bit pessimistic but the description of some of the 'new' technologies (more accurately, extensions of older techniques) presented at the 2015 LA gathering for computer nerds seems to me to take people away from a sense of caring for their pot plants and companion animals (aka 'pets'). I appreciate that our plants may well continue to be watered and supplied when we go on holiday and our dog's general temperature, weight gain and activity (as well as its location) can be monitored by computer but isn't something taken away as we no longer have to personally provide for either organism? I think that most people have house plants and pets so that they can do the 'looking after' but perhaps I am wrong on that count?

(Not) Digging In For the Long Haul?

An International Committee has suggested that a substantial proportion of the world's reserves of  petrochemical deposits (oil, gas and coal) must be left in the ground if we are to get anywhere near the supposedly 'safe' rise in average temperature of only 2 degrees Centigrade ( Given where the deposits are located, I can't personally see much hope that countries and individuals will limit extraction when there are mega bucks to be made from these materials. In deed, governments are generally encouraging companies to find more stuff to take out. Suggestions that people might be paid not to exploit 'their' reserves, seem a little over-optimistic.

Homing Slug?

A bright yellow Shield slug (Testacella scutulum) appeared at precisely the same point on my drive in Loughor as the one recorded last summer?

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Road Hog?

Sad news that a wild boar has collided with a car and caused a (human) fatality on the M4 motorway ( This was, presumably, one of the animals (or its offspring) that escaped from farming enterprises in England. Such a collision is rare in this country (our indigenous boar became extinct many years ago) but hitting any large mammal (e.g. sheep, cows, deer or horses) at speed is a potentially dangerous activity. Many Swedes are killed and injured each year when cars hit elk. Of course, the most dangerous mammal on motorways are other humans!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Letting Other People Do the Dirty Work

There does seem something a tad illogical to claim to be a government concerned about environmental issues in the UK whilst concomitantly loaning £1.7bn to fund carbon dioxide-generating activities (such as exploitation of 'new' coal and oil deposits) in other parts of the globe ( There is only one planet in this process!

Birder's Bonus 147

From a sunny but chilly Penclacwydd cycle track, saw a spritely Buzzard (Buteo buteo) bouncing about.

Seeing the Changes 1218

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