Monday, 30 April 2007

Conservation Conservations 22

Old McDonald Had a Pharm?
The GM debate rumbles on
(see also with stories about the potential dangers of inserting 'human' and other genes into crop plants (such as Alfalfa, Safflower, Soya, Rice, Barley and Tobacco) to 'grow' useful proteins, medicines and even vaccines (such as for Hepatitis B and Foot and Mouth Disease) and possible cancer treatments. This technique (described as 'pharming') is really not so different from the now long-established making gene insertions into bacteria to produce Human Growth Hormone and Insulin (the claim in the newspaper article that some diabetic patients reject GM insulin is, I think, more related to the animal versions of the hormone giving the recipient a stronger 'cue' as to their presence rather than an aversion to the technology). There is no doubt that the use of GM for medical benefits generally meets with wider approval than the employment of the same technologies to produce changes in 'food' items (the 'Frankenstein foods' debate) but the dividing line is quite fine. For example, the Foot and Mouth vaccine produced by modified Alfalfa is intended to be eaten by cattle and the lactoferrin made by GM modified rice might well be added to yogourt before being fed to vulnerable children. It is obvious that many groups in many countries across the world are involved in such trials (including the USA, UK, Iceland, Italy, Cuba, Canada and Argentina). People who worry about applying GM technology to food crops are concerned that "it is only a matter of time until they (the plants containing modified genes) get into the food chain". They might well be right in this respect as there have been at least two cases in the USA where GM products have inadvertently turned up in human food items (taco shells) or crops (Soya) intended for humans. I suspect that things will have to be better regulated but that the benefits are too important for any society to ignore them.

Conservation Conservations 21

Ice Cold in Antarctica
at the coming annual Antarctic treaty meeting that currently an annual of (almost) 30,000 tourists (more than 15% of whom were British) visited the 'Earth's last great wilderness' by sea, air or cruise in 2005. This represents a four-fold increase over the last 10 years and raises several issues. It is likely that their visits to area strengthen human appreciation of (and support for?) the continent and its associated wildlife. The tours (often focused on penguins, seals and seabirds) are also of great economic importance (some tours can cost up to £2800) to the tour operators (many of whom, but not all, are members of the International Association on Antarctic Tour Operators). The downsides include not only the global warming effects of the transport to the location but the real possibility of a catastrophic oil pollution event in the region (one Norwegian vessel has already run aground at Deception Island). A major accident involving a cruise ship might have scope for a human tragedy (the current largest vessel operating in the region is the 'Golden Princess' carrying 3,700 passengers and crew) as Antarctica has no Coastguard system. Landings by passengers (currently quite rare as the largest cruisers don't land) would certainly increase the damage to fragile environments (even simple walking can cause damage) and might well introduce organisms that could alter the pristine locations. Human waste and other materials may also be more likely to be introduced into the ecosystems. It is, of course, difficult to regulate activities in this location.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Seeing the Changes 14

Lots of current plant growth in the area. The Hawthorn and Red campion are now really coming into their own. The long-established Lesser celendines, Daisies, Dandelions and Cuckoo flowers are being joined by uncurling Bracken fronds. Recently seen in this location are Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris) in Bynea and Loughor, Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) and Ramping fumitory (Fumaria capreolata), Red clover (Trifolium pratense), Leafy hawkweed (Hieracium umbellatum), Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) and the Wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) in Loughor. There were also first spottings of a white Umbellifer, probably Rough chervil (Chaerophyllum temulentum), and a white Crucifer, probably Field pepperwort (Lepidium campestre) on runs along the Bynea cycle path. Another white Crucifer probably Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) seen in Gorseinon. Many white butterflies in flight, with Orange tips being joined by Green-veined (Artogeia napi), Small (Artogeia rapae) and Large (Pieris brassicae) whites. Peacock butterflies basking on grass.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Seeing the Changes 13

Visited by a Brindled beauty (Lycia hirtaria) moth. Contacted by the local media about a white spider that was found in a Swansea house. From the vague description, it sounded like the Crab spider (Misumena vatia), the female of which lurks on flowers in order to pounce on their insect visitors (flies and butterflies).

Conservation Conversations 20

Breathing Their Last in Zoo Near You?

A report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (,,2048662,00.html) suggested that the air pollution in our major cities may be more damaging to health than the radiation produced as a result of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant disaster. Exposure to traffic fumes increases heart disease and produces lung damage in people living nearby, reducing life expectancy. It is consequently likely to be the case that endangered species maintained for captive breeding in major zoos in urban locations, may also suffer as a result of their exposure to air pollution. This is an additional factor that I don't think has been considered in the debate about the relative merits of in situ and ex situ conservation programmes.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Wikimania in Dorset

Students doing the Dorset Fieldcourse will post their analysis of the spatial activity of their allocated primate at Monkey World to a wiki ( on their return to Swansea. This group activity can be carried out in different ways but the wiki will enable the staff to determine who has made particular contributions to the resulting account (the pattern of postings can be examined historically). The item will not be included in the total word count for the report (so it would be a good idea to include some information of the 'normal' behaviour of your species as seen in the wild). The activity should also enable the students to develop a wider range of skills.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Conservation Conversations 19

What is 'Killing' Cock Robin?

It has been reported (,,2064930,00.html) by Dr Richard Fuller in Biology Letters that European robins in Sheffield are singing at night in areas of Sheffield where traffic noise in particularly loud (the phenomenon is much more linked to decibel level than to lighting). The singing is, of course, designed to attract mates and to deter rivals. It seems that the robins are adjusting their time of singing to increase the effectiveness of their 'messages' (their songs are only slightly higher pitched than traffic noise). This (along with other observations on a variety of bird species) confirms that urbanisation may have subtle effects on the behaviours of such animals. There is, naturally, some debate about whether their long periods of activity (rather than singing in the day and sleeping at night) places additional pressures on birds that show this behavioural adaptation. Game theory suggests, of course, that the benefits of singing at night must outweigh the costs of doing so. It would be very interesting to compare the number of chicks successfully reared by robins in locations with and without high levels of traffic noise.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Conservation Conversations 18

The Avocet's Last Stand?
It has been reported that flood defenses in the Humber estuary will only be developed to protect major human populations in the area and that. in the rest of this location, rising sea levels will be allowed to take sections of land ( It was thought that one benefit would be an increase in wild life, especially marine bird species. There does, however, appear to be a down side to current plans. The rising sea levels are threatening to swamp Read's Island where about 100 of the UK's 1000 pairs of breeding avocets are currently based. The avocet is a 'flagship' species (it is the symbol of the RSPB) and had been driven to extinction in this country until some 60 years ago. The new findings suggest that the changes in species in this area resulting from rising sea levels might be quite complex

Conservation Conversations 17

Kill Knut!
An update on Conservation Conversations 1 concerning Knut the runty Polar bear cub abandoned by his mother in Berlin Zoo.
It was reported on 20th April 2007 (,,2061373,00.html) that the extraordinarily popular bear now has credit cards and soft toys that carry his name, has had a pop song written about him (as has my son, Vincent) and has boosted the share price of the zoo. In deed, the Knut brand has been registered as a trademark. He has now had the ultimate celebrity accolade, a death threat, resulting in the employment of extra security guards and crowd controllers to ensure that his public does not get too close. One might want to ask "What's in this for the animal?"

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Conservation Conversations 16

Leaping to Extinction?

It has been reported (,,2058785,00.html) that amphibian and reptile numbers have declined by an average of 75% since 1970 on the La Selva lowland forest reserve in Costa Rica in spite of building, land clearance and agricultural chemicals being banned from the location. There has consequently been little direct loss of habitat in this area and it is difficult to link the declines to the fungal disease chytridiomycosis that has decimated amphibian populations in many parts of the world. One suggestion (by Maureen Donelly of Florida International University) is climate change as warmer and wetter weather in Costa Rica has reduced the amount of leaf litter on the forest floor (leaves are used for shelter by some frogs, snakes and lizards as well as providing food for their insect prey). It has also been suggested in the journal Science that a $400m Amphibian Survival Alliance plan should be instituted to collect these endangered species for captive breeding programmes. There is, of course, no guarantee that captive breeding would be successful, the resulting progeny would be suitable for release or appropriate habitat to release them back to existing.

FOOTNOTE Chytridiomycosis arrived in the UK in 2006 following the escape of some imported North American bullfrogs, to further threaten our dramatically declining Natterjack toad and Great crested newt numbers?

Monday, 16 April 2007

Birder's Bonus 1

It has been pointed out that the arrivals and departures of migratory birds are important indicators of the passing seasons. I consequently propose to post notifications about some of these species in the Swansea area from colleagues and contacts. Dr Charles Hipkin has remarked that Chiff-chaffs (Phylloscopus collybila) and Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) arrived in the region some time ago. There has been no sign of the Sand martin (Riparia riparia) or the Swallow (Hirundo rustica) as yet.

Seeing the Changes 12

Another warm weekend so more flowers seen for the first time. They include English scurvy grass (Cochlearia anglica) on the estuary at Bynea, as well as Greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea), Herb robert (Geranium robertianum), Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and Crab apple (Malus sylvestris) at Gorseinon. Along the cycle track at Bynea Red campion (Silene dioica), Charlock (Sinapis arvensis), Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and a solitary Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) made an appearance. The last-mentioned is the real bluebell, the introduced Spanish version has been around for weeks. Dame's violet (Hesperis matronalis) is flowering in Loughor. The alien plant Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is thrusting up all over. The first Plume moth (Emmelina monodactyla) 'parked' by my door in Loughor.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Conservation Conversations 15

Tigers in a Tank?

Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Mountain Village, outside the Chinese city of Guilin, is successfully 'farming' animals such as the Amur tiger (,,2056434,00.html). In deed, they have increased their captive tiger population from 12 in 1992 to a current 'healthy' 1300 (almost as many as the total currently found in India). People pay to watch tigers kill live cows at feeding time as well as bears cycling on high wires and monkeys riding camels. In the location's restaurant, you can reportedly eat expensive tiger, lion, bear cub and civet cat dishes. Xiongsen is said to have masses of tiger material stored in deep freezers and is lobbying the Global Tiger Forum (in Kathmandu) and the next CITES meeting (in the Hague) to have the global ban on trading in tiger products removed. They are claiming that the ban has not stopped the decline in the wild tiger and that the inability to sell is costing the Chinese economy £2bn as well as damaging China's traditional medicine culture. Normally, such successful captive breeding programme would be regarded as a success story. There is, however, little evidence that the traditional 'medicines' have any real human benefits and it is highly unlikely that over-turning the ban will in any way enhance the survival of the tiger in the wild. Wild tigers will still be hunted, have their habitats destroyed and, it has been argued, that Xioongsen's 'farmed' tigers are unsuitable for release). It will be interesting to see if China's new economic strength changes the CITES ban (shades of Japanese pressure in relation to whaling?).
The Global Tiger Forum in Kathmandu reported that the joint project between WWF and the Russian Government had brought the "Amur tiger back from the brink" (of extinction in the Sihote-Alinn mountain region. A spokesman claimed that "the success of the tiger population is mostly the result of the tiger ban in China and the support of the Chinese government."

'Fat' Genes, Feast and Famine

The report that UK scientists have discovered a gene that is linked to obesity (,,2056481,00.html) has been greeted with much enthusiasm. The study shows that individuals with one copy of the gene are on average 1.2 kg heavier and those with 2 copies are around 3 kg bulkier is striking. In the UK, obesity is the second biggest cause of death (after smoking) and the finding raises the possibility of 'medical' treatments for the condition (although it was still emphasised in reports that lifestyle features such as diet and exercise are important). The labelling of the inheritable factor as a 'rogue gene' may, however, be premature. Perhaps the gene is problematic in today's Western world where food is generally available in excess and there are many opportunities (and excuses?) to avoid hard exercise. The gene could, however, have been beneficial to individuals under more extreme conditions (seen in earlier times and locations) where food supply was limited and there was a need to undertake grinding manual labour.

Seeing the Changes 11

Blackbird (Turdus merula) chicks are getting fat in their nests in Loughor and the Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrum) are out in Bynea and Swansea respectively.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Seeing the Changes 10

Hatching the Plot

Lots of Mallard (Anas platyrhychos) and Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) chicks are in evidence at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Llanelli. This is a real sign that things are getting underway (however, one Mallard did get things slightly wrong by producing chicks in November 2006!).

Seeing the Changes 9

Update From the Sycamore Bud

The latest image was taken on 11th and 12th April. The bud has now assumed the umbrella shape to maximise its exposure to sunlight. This is a continuation of 'Seeing the Changes 6'.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Conservation Conversations 14

Leaving on a Jetplane?

Two workers at Oxford University (Tatum and Hay) have analysed records for more than 3m scheduled flights on a world basis between May 2005 and April 2006 (,,2054272,00.html). They conclude that global air travel is becoming an important threat to both biodiversity and public health by facilitating the travel of alien species and infectious diseases to new locations. They determined that overall the greatest threat to all countries occurred between June and August when the climatic conditions were similar in most locations and passenger numbers were highest. More detailed breakdown revealed that the greatest threat for the UK in January was via flights from east China and Japan whereas in July flights from the east coast of South America were most problematic. The already beleaguered Hawaiian islands were at risk from airline assisted passage of alien species from several countries (in east Asia, Central America and the Caribbean) over a period of a few months (again when climates matched).

Conservation Conversations 13

A Nice Little Sweetener!

It has been reported (,,2054272,00.html) that major forests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with some trees (e.g. African teak) worth £4000 each have changed hands from local landowners to major logging companies (from Europe, the USA and China), in some cases, for "a few bags of sugar"or promises of rudimentary school buildings that sometimes fail to materialise. It has been estimated that more than 80% of logging in the DRC is illegal and that more than 40% of the forest in this country will be lost if logging continues. Loss of the forest (noted in Conversation 12 to be precisely in a location where trees currently reduce global warming) would exacerbate things by releasing 34 billion tonnes of carbon. Much of the extracted wood from the DRC is apparently supplied by the logging companies to Europe as flooring, furniture and doors. The legality of the arrangements (although in some cases encouraged by the World Bank) is (given the recent unrest in the DRC) certainly most unclear. Students may also wish to consider that the DRC is one of the four countries with very high concentrations of endangered primates and that habitat loss is a serious issue for these species.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Conservation Conversations 12

Plant a Tree- Absolve Your Sins?

'Carbon Offsetting' by paying to have trees planted has become a major industry for people who like to carry on producing masses of carbon dioxide via their air travel etc. A recent report (,,2053447,00.html) has focused on a paper by a Dr Bala at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in the USA who has demonstrated that only forests in a thin band around the equator are actually of net benefit in reducing global warming. In deed, trees planted above the 50 degree latitude actually make the situation worse as their dark forest canopies absorb more of the sun's rays than do grasslands or snowfields. Trees near the equator, not only absorb carbon dioxide for photosynthesis but promote convection clouds that help to cool the planet. So it appears that paying to plant a tree in the UK will only make things worse, although it might sooth the payer's conscience.

Conservation Conversations 11

The Lynton Goats

The saga of the feral goats of the Valley of the Rocks in Devon continues with claims of a poison apple plot (shades of 'Snow White'?,,2041369,00.html) and the council's intention of bringing in a marksman to carry out a cull (,,2051980,00.html). The goats are something of an attraction and its has been claimed that they have lived in the location for at least 1000 years (still making them the product of human intervention). As is traditional with goats, they are partial to the plants in people's gardens and strip the bark from trees (often with fatal consequences to the plant). Such debates raise passions about 'animal rights' and human concerns but there seems little doubt that the animals will have to be managed if they are not going to become the focus of the location. Goat introductions have proved severely problematic in many fragile environments including islands such as Hawaii and the Galapagos.

Seeing the Changes 8

More flowers were spotted between the 6th and 8th of April including the Common field speedwell (Veronica persica) at Clyne, the Wood forgetmenot (Myosotia arvensis) at Loughor and the Barren strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) in Gorseinon.

Seeing the Changes 1470

Traveller's joy ( Clematis vitalba ) in flower in Loughor.