Thursday, 31 January 2008

Sealion Deaths at 'Home' of Evolution

The report ( that the bodies of around 50 sealions have been found on the Galapagos Islands with crushed skulls indicating that they had been clubbed to death is very disturbing. The islands are, of course, strongly linked to the development of Charles Darwin's Theory of evolution and are a major tourist attraction of Equador for people interested in animal life and conservation. There have been other ocassions in the past where there has been conflict between people trying to conserve the locality for 'ecotourism' and others wanting a freer hand in exploiting the fisheries around the shores of this collection of islands. There appears to be no clear evidence about who carried out this act but fishermen the world over often seem to resent (sometimes with fatal consequences for the animals) sealions, seals and dolphins who are taking 'their' fish. It is very difficult to maintain such localities as human pressures increase.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Update on Abbotsbury Bird 'Flu Outbreak

A fifth ( swan has apparently tested positive for the H5N1 strain of bird 'flu. The Centre is currently closed with a 20 km exclusion zone from Abbotsbury to Portland. This is further bad news (and will hit the finances of the Swannery) but the numbers of confirmed infected birds is, at least, modest and (apparently) containable. There appears to be no evidence of the virus appearing at adjacent bird locations (

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Boar Bores?

There is a report ( that in the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland people are paying large amounts of money to shoot 'wild' boar that are driven towards them (whilst they wait on 4 feet tall 'shooting stands') by dogs. The shooters apparently find the boar more exciting than pheasants. The meat finds a local market being much more 'gamey' in taste than traditional pork. As the boar are no longer regarded as indigenous mammals, it is legal to kill them and it is also lawful to use dogs under the 2004 Hunting Act so long as a maximum of 2 are used at any one time. The British boar ( are powerful animals (they can be up to 190 kg with sharp upper tusks up to around 15 cm long). They can (and do) easily kill a dog and can seriously injure a human bystander. Although the locations are protected by electrical fences, it seems only a matter of time before these intelligent animals re-introduce themselves to the wild (as they have already done in southern England). They could prove very damaging to the landscape, crops and the nests of ground-nesting birds.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Bye-Bye or Buy-Buy to Biofuels?

The debate about whether biofuels are actually beneficial to the planet continues to rumble on (, especially as the EU is apparently going to force oil companies selling in Europe to incorporate biofuels into the petrol and diesel that they market. Even the major environmental action groups cannot agree, with 'Friends of the Earth' condemning the move and the W0rldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) applauding it. The basic problem (as we have seen in my earlier postings) is that, if one does a 'proper' audit of the environmental impacts of biofuels as well as their effects on the emissions of 'greenhouse gases', one gets very varied pictures for the benefits of different materials. The first thing to note, is that methanol/ethanol and biodiesel are competing fuels for internal combustion engines. A proper environmental costs versus greenhouse gas production benefits analysis seems to show that the worst biofuels are more destructive to the planet than petrol or diesel derived from fossil oils. Amongst the very worst appear to be ethanol derived from Rye or Potatos in the EU (with both a high environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions similar to regular petrol), Biodiesel derived from Soya beans in Brazil (with their impact on the destruction of the Amazon rain forest that can be viewed as the planet's lung) and ethanol obtained from fermenting corn in the USA. The best biofuels appear to be less damaging than the fuels derived from the dwindling fossil oils. These include biodiesel obtained in France from recycled oil (and this is a bit dubious, given the fact that ultimately it is derived from fossil fuels), methanol/ethanol obtained by fermenting wood chippings (a waste forestry/garden product) and ethanol obtained from whey (a waste dairy product). What is particularly striking is that none of the biofuels obtained from plants grown in a similar way to food crops (including grass, sugarcane, sugar beet or palm oil) appeared superior to petrol. These, of course, will include precisely the materials in the EU that farmers will be keen to grow for their obvious economic benefits. I doubt whether the EU will attempt to distinguish between good and bad biofuels in the rush to be seen to be doing something about climate change. This sounds very negative but at least people appear to be thinking more widely about the whole issue of engine fuels and their true impacts. I suspect that the debate has away to rumble.

Seeing the Changes 63

After a wet and windy session, the weather has turned mild again. In addition to the last-mentioned flowers, there are lots of Daisies (Bellis perennis) and a few Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) around Bynea and Loughor. In Loughor, many of the Ivy (Hedera helix) berries have turned black. The twig looks relatively unchanged. On sunday in the grounds of the National Botanic Garden of Wales at Llanarthne (Carmarthenshire) the Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and Hutchinsia (Hornungia petraea) are in bloom in addition to the planted snowdrops under the trees. The pungent flowers of Daphne bholua are already attracting Honey bees (Apis mellifera). Bumblebees (Bombus spp) and hoverflies. The Common backswimmer (Notonecta glauca) is already active on slow flowing stream surfaces.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Leaping to the Defence of the Frog

There has been a recent flurry of activity related to the conservation of the World's Amphibia (frogs, toads, newts, salamanders etc) including the 'Edge' project by the Zoological Society of London aimed at raising the profiles of the 100 currently most endangered species of this group of strange, ancient vertebrates( One problem for these animals is that they lack the charisma of a tiger or a panda. They are, however, a 'key' link in the evolution story with some remarkable abilities and an important role in ecology, eating pest species and providing food for other (often more appreciated) species e.g. dragonflies, otters and herons. The skin secretions of some of these animals (e.g. the Poison arrow frogs) are also of considerable medical importance (and there appears to be scope for further investigation here). The species (20% of those in the 'Edge' project have not been recorded for decades and may already be extinct) are threatened by habitat loss (they generally need both land and freshwater habitats). This has been particularly well illustrated with reference to rainforest loss ( Pollution with agro-chemicals (their permeable skins are said to make them excellent 'bioindicators' of environmental contamination) are thought to also be problematic, although the dynamics of such effects may be complex ( The fungal infection chytridiomycosis (thought to have driven around 40 species to extinction) is also a very serious threat to Amphibia. There has, however, been some recent good news in this respect. Apparently, bathing Amphibia in a solution of Choramphenicol, a component of clinical eye ointment, protects Amphibia from chytridiomycosis (

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Twig- Mid January

A second image of the twig taken on Sunday 20th January.

Seeing the Changes 62

The mild, windy and extremely wet weather has led to the Daffodils being joined by the Garden Crocus (Crocus albiflorus), Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), Primrose (Primula vulgaris) and even the Crab apple flower (Malus sylvestris) in Loughor. In Bynea also the Alder (Alnus glutinosa) was in catkin and trees were almost consumed by lichens.

In the Beginning was the Word?

Having just returned from hearing an excellent range of student presentations on Research Projects at a residential weekend at Gregynog (in mid-Wales), I am vigorously reminded of the reasons why we attempt to develop this particular personal transferable skill. One very basic reason is that oral presentation skill is an element, as I should know, that the Quality Assurance Agency Benchmark for Biosciences advocates very strongly ( Other reasons include the fact that students may well be asked to talk about their projects by external examiners or even potential employers (especially if they elect to do research either for a Higher degree or simply as part of their job). There are also many graduate jobs that are not continuations of Biology or Zoology first degrees (e.g. in teaching, publishing or sales) where the ability to construct an effective Powerpoint and to make a balanced presentation are very useful attributes. Making a presentation in a small, relatively friendly atmosphere also enables many students to take the first steps in learning how to deal with the stresses of speaking in public. They learn the importance of prior preparation and time management. They can see (from their own and the performances of their peers) what does and doesn't 'work'. They can develop strategies to avoid being thrown by technical 'glitches' or by questions (following their talks) of varying complexity (sometimes, by the simple device of admitting that they don't currently know the answer). In essence, the whole process is a valuable learning experience with clear benefits that can be taken into later life. I believe that modern technologies can enable students with a range of disabilities (including those lacking 'the word') to make effective presentations (thus dealing with the Disability Equality Duty aspect of current legislation). The occasion certainly also helps the group find a collective 'voice' and to become more cohesive. I suspect that many of the participants feel a sense of achievement after the exercise.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Hamster Jam?

There is a report ( that a loop-hole in EU law (they obtained an exemption in 2003) is allowing people in Poland and Hungary to kill wild European or Black-bellied ( hamsters (Cricetus cricetus) so that their pelts can be tanned (Budapest is a centre for such activities) before being sold via a dealer (including one called Chichester in Niagara, New York) to the fashion and sports trade (it is used for making pillows, jacket linings and fishing flies). This larger relative of the 'pet' Golden hamster (pictured above) is regarded in Eastern Europe as an agricultural pest (it eats grain as well as insects, small birds and mammals) and is hunted (it is claimed, largely by gypsies) largely for economic reasons. This seems rather strange when the German government is simultaneously attempting to repopulate areas of East Germany where this animal has largely disappeared (,1518,455996,00.html).

Saturday, 12 January 2008

King of the Jungle?

Professor Sir David King, is the former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government who stood down at the start of 2008. This seems to me to be a very difficult job, as one would be exposed to a constant babble of conflicting advice from different scientists, technocrats and media folk before having to 'sell' your own 'take' on issues to a largely scientifically illiterate audience of politicians. On brief exposure, I found Professor King to be a good listener as well as an erudite and balanced scientist. It is of interest to note that he and science journalist Gabrielle Walker are publishing a book, The Hot Topic: How To Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On, that draws on his recent experiences to look at some of the issues surrounding key policy decisions in this country ( Sir David has managed to irritate a lot of people (probably because he has generally refused to go along with some overly simplistic ideas, exudes a belief that 'proper' science will come up with the answers and has not been much swayed by public opinion). A main thesis of the book is that being 'greener-than-thou' and attempting to make people feel guilty about their actions tends to make them less rather than more likely to act. In spite of this, the authors recommend that people should intelligently count food miles, calculate their carbon footprints, switch off appliances at the wall, buy energy efficient TVs etc, seal off draughts/turn down thermostats and switch to low-energy light bulbs. One of the groups he irritated is the Ferrari Owner's Club as he advised a young female who asked him what people like her could do to help counter global warming to "Stop admiring young men in Ferraris". Any dyed-in-the-wool Darwinist would tell you that merely by being in a Ferrari, the young man is very effectively communicating to a young female audience 'I have loads of resources and could keep you (and any resulting progeny) in very comfortable circumstances.' Not many females appear to say to themselves 'I'm not marrying him, his carbon footprint is too large.' Sir David is credited with getting the UK Government to take the topic of climate change ("a bigger threat than terrorism") seriously. King clearly feels that this has had the additional benefit of passing on an effective message to other nations. He has been attacked in some quarters, however, for encouraging the development of the next generation of nuclear power generators (some critics feel that at the very least, this 'vote of confidence' is likely to reduce the imperative to develop other alternatives). He has also irritated opponents of GM crops and of badger culls in attempts by farmers to curb bovine TB. He favours a relaxing of the ban on the first and published a contentious report favouring the second. Other groups that have apparently been incensed by Sir David include some journalists (such as those of the Daily Mail) and editors of academic journals (such as the Lancet) who he clearly feels have 'played fast and loose' with science in areas such as GM safety and the MMR vaccine panic. Although I certainly do not agree with Professor King on all issues, I have little doubt that his views are generally well considered and raise valid points. After all, Science should involve a free debate about the 'weight' that one applies to particular pieces of evidence and Science Policy adds to that 'mix' the politics of what can be 'sold' to the public. I would certainly rather have his approach than some of the unbalanced (often single issue) advocacy that one sees in other circles. In his 'retirement' Sir David is heading a new School for 'Enterprise and the Environment' at Oxford University. I suspect we have not heard the last of him.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Tata Nano- No Ta!

The report that the Indian Tata Group has unveiled the Nano as the world's cheapest car (at 100,000 rupees or £1260) has produced (,,2238983,00.html) a mixed reaction. Many economists have hailed the 5 person, non-luxurious, car as a smart piece of development/marketing given a billion strong population of India poised in 5 years to take over from China as the world's fastest growing car market. The Nano is less than half the price of the next cheapest car in India and only marginally more expensive than an upmarket motorcycle. If a mere 10% of Indian motorcyclists 'traded up' (probable given the current economic boom) to a Nano, there would be a million extra cars on that country's roads each year (from the current 13 to 14 million). Mr Abdul Majeed of PricewaterhouseCoopers stated that the Nano "....will give the Indian customer a tough, easy to drive, cheap to maintain and, most of all, affordable car. The market possibilities are huge." It is certainly difficult for people already in car-dominated countries to criticise this aspiration of Indian workers. One might also 'throw into the equation' the fact that both Ford and Renault ( are also involved in developing India as a hub for the manufacture of small, cheap cars. Environmentalists are predictably less enthusiastic about the Nano. They point out that there is already a considerable air pollution problem (with its associated impact on health) in many Indian cities and that traffic congestion already poses difficulties for travel. It is also the case that India does not currently control emission standards of cars very strongly and some authorities predict that the current 219m tonnes of carbon dioxide released by India's vehicles into the atmosphere will rocket to around 1470m tonnes in 2035 if car travel in that country is unchecked. They advocate better public transport. Economists counter claim that the type of 'hi-tech' innovators that gave us this new Asian 'volkswagen' will 'solve the problems associated with its introduction. It will be interesting to see how this story 'pans out' but I predict that this development might well be used by our own pro-car lobby to suggest that there is no point in further disadvantaging 'the poor, over-taxed UK motorist'.

Fowl Conditions

It has recently been announced that the UK is to phase out battery farm conditions for chicken egg production ( It will be interesting to see whether this leads to an expansion of 'free range' egg production in this country or an increase in the importation of battery produced eggs from outside the EU. It is important to note that, given a choice, members of the public don't necessarily queue up to pay more for eggs in earlier studies. It is also important to note that any evaluation of change ought to include the use of eggs by food production companies in the generation of their products (e.g. cakes and biscuits) as well as those that finish up in the egg cup. There are currently no government plans for changing the living conditions of chicken (our most eaten domestic animal) reared for meat production. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is , however, starting a series highlighting the problems apparent in intensive farming of these birds in a Channel 4 programme 'Jamie's Fowl Dinners' ( It is interesting to see this combination of attempting to appeal to foodies and animal welfarists but the RSPCA have also been there ( It is certainly the case that chickens housed under free range conditions do appear to have a more interesting, healthy and varied life before they are killed for consumption (I hope but can't be certain that they appreciate this). The down sides are that they are more expensive (and not everyone can pay premium rates for food) as well as being more difficult to protect from external influences such as exposure to Salmonella and bird 'flu agents. Again success in any campaign would have to establish reductions in intensively reared chicken in products e.g. 'nuggets', soups and baby food as well as in roast dinners. I must admit that I favour the improvement of conditions for both types of chicken but worry that it might turn into a 'class' issue.

Abbotsbury Alert

There has been a report of an outbreak of the 'deadly' H5N1 bird 'flu virus at the Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset (,,2238598,00.html). The bodies of 3 dead Mute swans were found to contain the virus. This is bad news as in the Swannery (in existence since the monks started this form of 'farming' in around 1040) the Mute swans atypically abandon their normal territorial habit and live in close proximity to each other as well as getting close to the humans who manage them and who pay to see them (these characteristics would be likely to spread any disease agent in the bird population and might make transfer to humans more likely). The Centre also attracts in large numbers of other birds who come for a share of the supplemented feeding- these include a wide range of duck species, coots, Brent and Canada geese etc. The Mute swans (although free to fly) really don't move very far in these circumstances and informed sources are suggesting that that the swans have probably been infected by other migrants coming to the locality. Although Dorset is not a major centre for poultry rearing, there are some celebrity chickens at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage in West Dorset (one of the problems of 'free range' birds is the difficulty of preventing them having contact with wild birds). There are also a variety of RSPB centres close to Abbotsbury (including the Radipole Centre in Weymouth) that also attract Mute swans. It has been suggested (largely because many of the confirmed cases in the UK have been in this species) that Mute swans are more susceptible to avian 'flu than other birds. This seems to me unlikely. It is much more probable that the carcasses of these birds (large, white and floating) are much more likely to be noted than dead birds of other species. Fortunately (it would be very difficult to 'reconstitute' this population), DEFRA has decided not to attempt to cull these swans (largely on the grounds that panicking the 800 or so animals might well spread the agent in the area). A restriction zone has been set up around the swannery (,,2238951,00.html) which might well have financial repercussions in the area. The swannery staff are being monitored for symptoms and have been issued with Tamiflu tablets as a precaution. It is difficult to know how much this outbreak will interfere with their husbandry of the swans because, in addition to feeding the birds, the staff generally undertake activities such as capturing and weighing birds, ringing animals, creating 'protonests' for the paired birds (pairing generally takes place around February), returning wandering cygnets to their nest etc. Other dead birds in the area are now being tested for the virus (two birds tested 12th January proved to be negative). Having said all this, avian 'flu is essentially an animal disease and there is every possibility that its periodic appearance in flocks of domestic birds (such as those at Abbotsbury) has historically (until recent times) gone unrecorded. A sensible level of responding is required rather than a sense of panic. I just hope that things will be back to 'normal' well before next September (when we would normally visit this and other bird locations in Dorset).

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

A Surfeit of Knuts?

Yet more tales of German zoos and polar bear cubs (,,2237484,00.html). Apparently, Nuremberg zoo had two lots of cubs produced generating the same kind of debate seen in the case of Berlin zoo's Knut. The first mother (Vilma) had twins that she failed to suckle and a decision was made 'to let Nature take its course'. They duly went missing (presumed eaten). The resultant fuss (largely based around the view that you shouldn't treat the zoo animals like their wild counterparts) resulted in the second mother (Vera) having her cub removed for hand rearing (with its likely attendant consequences).

Monday, 7 January 2008

Seeing the Changes 61

Saw the first moth of 2008 by the door-light in Loughor. Unremarkably, it was a male Winter moth (Operophtera brumata). Lichens are doing well at the WWT Llanelli and the Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus) are fighting and the male Eider duck (Somateria mollissima mollissima) displaying.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Measuring the True Costs of Biofuels

It is generally assumed that the replacing of finite, carbon dioxide-generating fossil hydrocarbons by biofuels can be nothing but beneficial. In deed, the EU proposes that 10% of transport fuel should be derived from such sources by 2020. A paper in Science Today by Scharlemann and Laurance ( points out that the 'true costs' of biofuels should take into account their full impact on the environment (including reducing the land devoted to forests and farmland, their effects on biodiversity, hydrological functioning and soil protection etc) in addition to the amount of greenhouse gas that they emit when they are burned. This is essentially a method developed by Rainer Zah of Switzerland's Empa Research Institute (*/---/l=2). Twenty-six biofuels were studied using the Swiss method and, of these, 21 produced at least 30% less CO2 gas when burned than did gasoline. Of these, however, 12 had a total environmental impact that was greater than using fossil fuels. These included the 'economically-significant fuels' of ethanol from corn (USA), ethanol from sugar cane (Brazil) and diesel from Palm oil (Malaysia). Biofuels from recycled cooking oil of using ethanol derived from grass or wood were superior to using fossil fuels. Scharlemann and Laurance also pointed out that government initiatives have led to some 'perverse' outcomes such as farmers in the US being given incentives to switch from growing soya beans to growing corn for biofuels. This has driven up the price of soya and has actually encouraged farmers in Brazil to encroach further into the Amazonian rainforest and tropical savannas to produce more soya (used to fatten cattle etc). We have already noted the conflict between Palm oil generation in Malaysia and attempts to conserve the Orangutan. It does seem to be the case that planners will have to be a bit more sophisticated before advocating all biofuels as an answer to our energy problems.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Science and Celebrity?

It has been reported ( that there has been a welcome decline in unfounded science claims in the media but that "gaffes still cause concerns." Perhaps the oddest thing in this story is the backgrounds of the people makings the gaffes. The majority appear to be female 'celebrities' with little or no scientific background but with a large platform by virtue of their status. The gaffes may be moderately amusing to science-orientated folk but, I suspect, are likely to resonate in the general population. Amongst the items recorded are presenter Sarah Beeny's claim in the programme 'How Toxic Are You' that there are "lovely make-up and moisturisers which don't have any chemicals in them." This seems to be a recycling of the older myth about 'chemical-free detergents'. Most of the physical world consists of chemicals. I still get irritated about the other obsession in this area that 'organic materials' (e.g. botulin [], tetrodotoxin [] etc?) are good for you whereas 'synthetic chemicals' (e.g. sodium chloride?) will prove fatal. Organically grown vegetables have broadly the same chemical constituents as their 'chemically fed' counterparts. In spite of this, Gwyneth Paltrow (actress) claimed to a cancer conference that she was "challenging these evil genes by natural means. I am convinced that by eating biological foods it is possible to avoid tumours." She had better watch out for melanomas etc whose incidence seems to be little related to diet. I am also not sure what non-biological foods are. Stella McCartney (fashion designer) seems to have claimed that the skin absorbs 60% of what is applied to it (the amount depends on what is applied but the figure is less than 1%). Gillian McKeith (presenter of 'You Are What You Eat') reportedly told a group of schoolchildren in Fife "If a quarter of kids are overweight now then when they grow up and have kids half of them will be overweight. And then if they have kids everybody will be overweight." So to cure the obesity pandemic, all we have to do is to stop the fat ones from breeding! We can forget about food intake, life-style and exercise. It seems that we have a way to go in order to get good scientific advice from our celebrities.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Another Twig 'Groomed' For Stardom

The first image of a twig ("do you know what it is yet"?) is posted. I will do this at half monthly intervals.

UK Mammals Threatened by the Dominant Mammal

2008 sees another highly pessimistic report by the Mammal Society ( suggesting that a number of British Mammals are "in steep decline as man-made activities take their toll". Casualties include the European hedgehog that appears to have been subject to a decline in numbers of around 20% between 2001 and 2005. Attempts to blame this on the Badger (its only other natural foe) have not be supported but urbanisation with a tidy garden obsession might be a more convincing explanation of the decline ('affordable housing' may make this worse). Harbour seals have shown a 40% decline in Orkney and Shetland over the last 5 years and this has been tentatively linked to illegal culling by fishermen who see seals as 'stealing their fish'. Interbreeding with feral domestic cats seems to be a serious problem in the Scottish wild cat that may be down to around 400 individuals. It has been suggested that conservation of the species might be aided by genetic markers that will enable workers to distinguish 'pure' from 'cross-bred' cats but this may only serve to illustrate the level of the problem rather than offering a solution. Another declining species is the Red squirrel especially worrying as the first confirmed cases of squirrel pox virus (carried by, but not apparently influencing, the dominant Grey squirrel) were found in 'isolated' populations of reds on Anglesey (Wales) and Lockerbie (Scotland).

Seeing the Changes 1470

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