Friday, 30 November 2012

Seeing the Changes 534

In spite of the night frost, in Bynea, Gorse (Ulex europaeus) and Charlock (Sinapis arvensis) were prominently in flower.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Do Male Apes Suffer From Mid-Life Crises?

A large study involving male Common chimpanzees and Orang-utans in zoos suggests that their keepers rate these apes as showing a 'U'-shaped function in their 'happiness' or well-being, generally being most content when young and old ( It is a bit difficult to work out why these animals would show the human equivalent of the mid-life crisis (chasing young women and buying a sport's car?) but it could simply reflect the fact that more male apes reach mid and old age in zoos than is the case in the wild. I suspect that the age profile of these animals in nature and in zoos is very different. Breeding is often very restricted. Another difference, is that it is impossible for zoo-based animals to leave their group even for limited periods.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Flown the Nest?

The RSPB has estimated, on the basis of its surveys, a 44 million reduction (roughly 1 in 5) of breeding birds in the UK since 1966 ( House sparrows, Wrens, Willow tits and Arctic skuas have all shown big declines but some species, including the Chaffinch, have increased breeding activities. The results are not particularly unexpected as there have been big changes over these 40+ years in the UK human population, agricultural practises, urbanisation, pet keeping, gardening practises (including converting land to car parking), waste disposal, increased survival (by eating human waste) of crow family members (with propensities for eating the eggs and chicks of 'song' birds) over winter periods, possible climate change impacts on seasonality of fruits and insects etc etc, Chaffinches may have partly benefited by their efficient utilisation of bird feeders (an option not available to all species). I suspect that the reasons for declines in different species will vary but the basic trend is for a further impoverishment of the UK biodiversity.

Friday, 16 November 2012

America Goes Fracking Mad!

A report that the USA is intent on becoming independent of oil and gas production in other parts of the globe, including the Middle East is interesting( It would, of course, be beneficial to cut out the impact of political vagaries in 'difficult' parts of the world on availability and prices as well as negating the environmental and fiscal costs of transporting the hydrocarbons. Having said that, much of the proposed  independence is linked to a proposed dramatic increase in the fracking of oil shale deposits in the country. Even if this extraction causes no environmental problems (perhaps a big ask), there are claims that increasing dependence on this technology will increase the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere over and above that that would be generated by using traditional hydrocarbon products. I certainly think that oil and gas independence is a benefit that has to be balanced against not making climate change more likely. 

'Bombing' the Galapagos with Poison?

Ecuador is apparently dropping 22 tonnes of specially formulated blue-pelleted (said to appeal only to rats) poison on Darwin's Galapagos Islands ( The hope is to eradicate rats (inadvertently introduced by sailors in earlier times) that are decimating island populations of endemic reptiles and birds. Hawks and Iguanas have been temporarily re-located for the duration. It's amazing how frequently conservation efforts boil down to pest (as defined by humans) eradication! The prognosis is not particularly good as the participants note that, if even one pregnant female survives, the whole process will have to be repeated again and again.

Murmur of the Breeze in the GM Trees?

An Israeli GM company is planning to improve the efficiency of wood production for paper production, pellet burning in electricity generating stations and even fuel manufacture for cars by planting Eucalyptus trees with inserted genes to enhance their growth (in terms of circumference) rate so they mature in 5.5 rather than 7 years ( The company reportedly suggest that countries with good growing conditions for the trees, in terms of climate and soil, could benefit economically. Brazil might be an obvious contender. Although the trees might help to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide when growing, it sounds as if their use is likely to put a lot of the greenhouse gas back. It should be noted that monocultures of plants (crops) are typically more prone to disease (although I suspect that the claim will be made that resistance can be rapidly engineered) than mixed assemblages. An area of concern is the obvious fact that areas of varied forest would have to be removed to make way for the GM planting. This would remove not only plant species but any the animal species associated with them, with obvious effects on biodiversity. I confidently predict that the GM Eucalyptus forests will not feature populations of Koalas!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Miracles of Miracles

There seem to be two broad responses to the BBC 'Miracles of Nature' ( One is 'why is petrol-head Richard Hammond aka 'hamster' being given responsibility for such a programme, knowing as little as he does about the natural world?' The other is that 'It is nice to see an engineering enthusiast being turned on by the extraordinary abilities developed in animals by evolutionary processes'. I expected to belong to the first group but find myself liking the scenarios developed in the programme and their potential for changing attitudes. The hamster is amusing and shows fear and wonder in appropriate amounts. I particularly enjoyed programme 2 ('Super-Senses) as it featured one of my former Masters students, Kate Evans (, showing Hammond that African elephants have the potential to communicate using infra-sound over long distances through rocks (although the mining application was a bit contrived).

Monday, 12 November 2012

Water, Water Everywhere!

This seems to have been a very wet Autumn (to go with a very wet Summer). I suspect that the wetness will be reflected in insect and bird numbers when Spring comes around again.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Birder's Bonus 122

In Loughor, a Eurasian nuthatch (Sitta europaea) keeps returning to the bird feeder in the garden.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Seeing the Changes 533

The wet Autumn produced masses of fungi in Loughor. We also had our first hailstones of the winter.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

They All Fall Down?

It has been pointed out that ash dieback disease is only one of the latest imported conditions to have substantial detrimental effects on UK trees ( Biosecurity seems very weak in the UK with fungal infections of other trees including the Horse chestnut, Processionary moth caterpillars decimating oak trees in the SE and long-horn beetles arriving from China in wood packaging around imported stones. It has even been noted that it is highly likely that the replanting of native trees from UK seeds can involve their transport to the Netherlands where they are grown up before being repatriated. It is pretty obvious that there is much scope for improving the biosecurity of our native habitats.

Bee Bereavement?

Bees are very important insect pollinators. Some species are, of course, also commercially-important because they produce honey and bees-wa...