Friday, 24 February 2017

Replication Across the Science Nation?


Some interesting findings from the attempt to replicate findings from some cancer research projects (www.nature.com/news/cancer-reproducibility-project-releases-first-results-1.21304). The study started in 2013 and will attempt to replicate some 29 studies in the general area of cancer research. To date, the results of attempts to replicate 5 studies have been released with 1 failure to replicate, 2 partial replications and 2 studies which are difficult to interpret. The first thing to say, is that replication is a necessary element in the scientific method (although I have been asked in the past why it is necessary to repeat tests with more animals by people concerned with animal use). The difficulty is that science deals in probabilities rather than absolutes. Further problems seem related to a) the pressure to publish positive results (negative findings are difficult to publish); b) media desire for positive stories of 'cures' and 'major breakthroughs' and c) the need to encourage further funding of programmes (things that also have a direct impact on the individual's perceived worth by institutions and universities). These are all factors that encourage early (premature?) exposure of results. One must also note that scientists are often somewhat unskilled in statistical methods. I am certain that these issues are not limited to cancer research.

Mammoth Task?


The media reports of the imminent de-extinction of the Woolly mammoth seem just a tad premature (www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170221-reviving-woolly-mammoths-will-take-more-than-two-years). The idea is to incorporate preserved mammoth DNA from the ice into the egg of an Indian elephant and then to devise an artificial womb in which to raise the fertilised product. Anything generated (and the womb is a long way from completion) would not exactly be a Woolly mammoth and there might well be problems raising an animal that probably needs a social upbringing. This is the kind of story that causes a frenzied reaction in the media (it's a bit 'Jurassic Park'). I personally don't think that Woolly mammoths will be striding across the tundra anytime soon.

Deads for Reds!


The 'war' between the UK supporters of the endangered, 'indigenous' Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) and folk who tolerate the 'invasive' Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has been intensified with a call for 5000 volunteers (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/24/red-squirrels-5000-volunteers-sought-to-save-species-and-help-kill-invasive-greys). This 'Red squirrel army' would be asked to help monitor the 2  species and even assist (if they had no objections) with 'humane' destruction of the greys in a cull. The greys (introduced deliberately as novelties in Victorian times) generally out-compete the reds as they are bigger, not so picky in terms of diet and not so liable to die of squirrel pox. I personally think that it would be extremely difficult to eradicate the greys (with or without 'humane' techniques) but 'pest control' seems increasingly to be a feature of many 'conservation' attempts. This might well mean that the 'red army' would never be demobilised. One might also suggest that some of the existing, limited populations of persisting reds show signs of poor genetic diversity. This might well require moving stocks of reds around (perhaps even getting new stock from the continent) but that can also generate problems.

April Fools?


A somewhat weird story involving April, the giraffe (www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/39074831/giraffe-birth-live-webcam-back-on-after-complaints-it-was-sexually-explicit). The Animal Adventure Park in New York state arranged a live webcam of the birth but this was interrupted when some folk claimed it was sexually explicit. I suppose that some folk might have believed that baby giraffes were delivered by Giant cranes but surely most must be aware that giraffe sex can result in babies. All was well in the end as the link was restored.

Seeing the Changes 1137


Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) was blooming in Bynea.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Seeing the Changes 1136




In Loughor, Lesser celendine (Ranunculus ficaria) and Cherry (Prunus spp) were both in bloom.

Friday, 17 February 2017

D Day?


A recent meta-analysis (where a collection of studies are combined for analysis) has confirmed that daily addition of a moderate dose of the 'sunshine vitamin D' provides some protection against cold and influenza infections (news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/02/study-confirms-vitamin-d-protects-against-cold-and-flu/). The evidence seems pretty convincing and people have speculated that it would be beneficial to add the vitamin to certain foods especially for folk who don't get much skin exposure to UV light (the radiation causes the vitamin to be manufactured by the skin). So people living near the poles, who have pigmented skin or who largely cover their skin are unlikely to get sufficient vitamin in their diet (especially if they don't eat much fish or certain mushrooms). Given the fuss initially caused by adding fluoride to water to provide protection from tooth decay, I suspect that people would want to be given a clearly-labelled choice (in spite of accepting the addition of iodine to table salt).

Monday, 13 February 2017

Seeing the Changes 1135



It must be Spring! Spring crocus (Crocus albiflorus) was in bloom in Loughor and Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) flowering in Bynea.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Do The Strand


The graphic pictures of the mass strandings of circa 300 Pilot whales on Farewell spit of Golden Bay on New Zealand's South Island is attracting a lot of attention (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/10/hundreds-whales-die-mass-stranding-new-zealand-beach) with volunteers working to try to re-float survivors (who often re-beach themselves at the next tide). As is usual, the reasons for the strandings are mysterious. The whales are highly social and try to stay with their pod and it could be the case that the topography of the bay confused their sonar systems, driving them into a location that was too shallow. Other strandings of cetaceans have been variously blamed on disease/parasitism, pursuit of prey and even sonar interference from human sources (e.g. submarines). The losses of this species do seem to be very considerable.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Slugging it Out!


There seems to be a sudden rush of apparently important fossils. Workers from Bristol University appear to have focused on a spiny, slug-like starter ancestor of the Mollusca (the group to which slugs, snails, octopus and squid belong) from Morocco (https://phys.org/news/2017-02-spiny-armored-slug-reveals-ancestry.html). In appearance, it was not unlike the existing marine Chiton (above) with its armoured plates. The surprise, was the presence of spines as these are not found in modern members of the group.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Weasling on Diesels?


The first thing to admit is that I have a relatively new diesel car. I have noted, however, the growing concern about the dangers of their emissions (notably nitrous oxides and particulates) to human health, especially at busy intersections in city centres (where levels of pollutants frequently exceed permitted levels), leading to  plans to ban diesel vehicles from these locations. It is interesting to consider the changing advice on motor transport and the effects on air quality (www.air-quality.org.uk/26.php). Diesels were initially viewed as superior to petrol vehicles, as they were more efficient users of fuel (more Km per litre) and generated less carbon dioxide (a major 'greenhouse' gas). They also never had to use lead (dangerous to neural health) in their fuel as an anti-knocking agent. One should also note that diesels vary in terms of the effectiveness the devices fitted to their exhausts to deal with emissions, suggesting that some diesels are worse polluters than others. There has been talk of a scrappage scheme for diesels and their replacement by hybrid or electric vehicles. I would merely note that scrappage and replacement building would generate a lot of emissions and that even electric cars would not be especially helpful to climate change if generation and distribution of the needed electricity did not carefully consider carbon dioxide release.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

More Than They Bargained For?


Many people are attracted to the idea of 'natural' herbal remedies even for complex issues like obesity and erectile dysfunction but a report suggests that some of these preparations are contaminated with pharmaceutical agents (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/03/herbal-supplements-illegal-ingredients-pose-health-risk-experts). Some of these banned drugs may have found their way into supplements accidentally but others appear to be deliberate introductions to enhance the preparation's properties. One of the most commonly found is Sibutramine, which was licenced as Reductil, until it was banned in Europe and the US in 2010, after being linked to a high incidence of heart attacks and strokes. It is difficult to know what you are likely to get in supplements especially if they are bought online. If the side-effects of regulated drugs can be problematic, those associated with supplements can be a nightmare! It also seems wrong to be using 'naturalness' as a sales point if the preparation is no such thing.

The Missing Lynx?


A predictable stand-off seems to be developing at the Kielder Forest Reserve in Northumberland (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/feb/03/plan-to-introduce-lynx-to-kielder-forest-angers-farmers). A group (Lynx Trust UK) is exploring the possibility of introducing the European lynx (Lynx lynx) to the reserve. This big cat has not been seen in Britain for over 1300 years but enthusiasts think that a population of lynx would be a big tourism boost for the region and could improve biodiversity in the forest as they would prey on the Roe deer that eat many developing seedlings (such benefits have been seen with other predator introductions in other countries). The plan has, however, caused great concern in the farming community around the area as many fear that the lynx could damage their sheep flocks (by direct predation or causing miscarriage in pregnant ewes). It will be interesting to see how this pans out but I have been to the Donana National Park in Southern Spain where the lynx seems to thrive without causing obvious problems for the surrounding populice.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Frog Spit


A study (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/01/special-spit-is-the-secret-of-uniquely-sticky-frog-tongues-study-reveals) has confirmed that frog saliva has thixotropic properties. This is revealed when the frog flicks out its tongue to capture and swallow insect prey. As the tongue is flicked, the spits is liquid and runny but when it comes into contact with the insect, the spit becomes thick and sticky. This means that the saliva spreads all over the frog's prey before re-forming as an inescapable trap. Fluids with this property are exploited in a number biological activities including burrowing by sand dwelling bivalves.

Seeing the Changes 1218

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