Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Promoting Protein

Nutritionists have cast doubt on the benefits of lines of 'protein enhanced' foods being offered for sale at enhanced prices (https://www.theguardian.com/lifestyle/2016/dec/26/protein-hype-shoppers-flushing-money-down-the toilet-say-experts). They point out that even 'gym bunnies' get more than enough protein by eating a balanced diet with some meat and eggs et cetera. The body removes any excess so you don't really need to add protein (sometimes from whey or even mealworms) to standard foods. It could even be problematic for kidney and liver function and certainly is yet a further wasteful strain on the environment. It does seem as if some food manufacturers will use people's poor understanding of nutrition to sell them things they don't need.

Top Cat?

It is claimed that the only possibility of 'saving' the Scottish wildcat involves captive breeding of 'pure lines' from zoo populations followed by release programmes (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/26/hopes-for-saving-scottish-wildcat-rest-on-captive-breeding-plan). A main problem is the fact that this species readily breeds with domesticated cats producing a less 'wild' animal. This would, of course, only be a viable option if all feral domesticated cats in the area were neutered or destroyed. I can understand the enthusiasm for attempting to maintain 'the beast' but, given urbanisation, it could be argued that hybrids might actually do better by being less wary of humans.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Legs 11+

There is an interesting account of the development of bionic exoskeleton 'legs' to aid walking in people with mobility problems as a result of ageing or spinal/ muscle damage (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/25/bionic-legs-and-smart-slacks-exoskeletons-that-could-enhance-us-all). I don't think it is generally appreciated that life in a wheel chair can damage one's health by increasing body weight along with the incidence of type 2 diabetes as well as being associated with pressure sores et cetera. Being able to assume an upright posture also appears to have mental benefits. Having said all that, I think it unlikely that more than a small percentage of needy folk are likely to benefit from these developments. You have to be relatively well-off to afford the technology and the devices appear currently dependent on a relatively benign environment.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

All Flights Suspended?

Sad news (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-38405889) that the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre at Llanelli has had to close (at least until the New Year but probably longer) as a wild bird infected with the H5N8 strain of bird 'flu has been discovered there. The strain is a danger to stocks of domestic chickens and turkeys (currently banished to the great indoors). The strain is also, of course, a danger to both visiting birds and the stocks of flightless exotics held at the centre. Such events can also be devastating to the financial viability of locations such as this (timing could not be much worse).

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Monday, 12 December 2016

Amber Gambler

There has been an interesting addition to information on the likely evolution feathers with the discovery in a piece of amber bought from a Chinese market of a fossilised tail of what is thought to be a juvenile member of a tiny non-avian (not bird) theropod (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/08/dinosaur-tail-trapped-in-amber-offers-insights-into-feather-evolution). Theropods were the group to which velociraptors and Tryannosaurus rex belonged. The fossil tail  appears to be almost 100 million years old and was clearly that of a dinosaur as the bones were not fused (as in birds). The preserved feathers (modified scales) already had prominent barbs and barbules but only a relatively small central shaft (rachis). This confirms that feathers probably served other functions (possibly thermoregulation, display or leaping to catch insects) before they became utilised for flight in the birds.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Seeing the Changes 1129

Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) attempted to follow the sun in Loughor.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Home on the Range?

The recent suggestion to UK poultry keepers that they move their birds inside to reduce the risk of exposure to Bird 'flu from infected wild birds raises some interesting questions (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/07/bird-flu-warning-keepers-told-to-keep-poultry-iside). There is no doubt that the disease has caused havoc with populations of farmed birds in a range of European countries and that this is an appropriate response to the threat. I find it strange, however, that some of the flocks are apparently still referred to as 'free range'.

Caesarianing the Opportunity?

There has been recent debate about whether the use of Caesarian sectioning might produce a change in human morphology as it allows women with relatively narrow pelvises to give birth, potentially passing on this property to succeeding generations (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/07/caesarian--sections-mother-blaming-small_pelvises). It does not seem to me to be very likely that this will have a major effect as not all such sections are to enable the relatively large-headed baby to pass through the pelvic opening (cosmetic and emergency factors may also be involved). I also suspect that inheritance of a narrow pelvis is not down to a simple gene/ combination of genes (and, pretty obviously, the baby has 2 parents). One might also mention that any medical correction (e.g. Glasses or contact lenses for myopia) would improve the possibility of passing on these features to the next generation but we don't generally agonise about this. In general, diversity is biologically useful.

Cutting Down Lofty

News that the Giraffe has now been placed on the red list as being in danger of extinction (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/08/giraffe-red-list-vulnerable-species-extinction). There has being a 40% reduction in the numbers of such animals in the wild largely as consequences of habitat destruction and local wars. It seems likely that climate change will lead to even more marked declines in the numbers of this animal (along with many more organisms?).

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Seeing the Changes 1128

A Western hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) dozes by a fence in Loughor after a very sharp frost.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Wind of Change?

I must admit that I don't normally take my news from this end of the spectrum but there is something deeply concerning about the Trumpster reportedly focusing his main attention on the UK in terms of trying to remove the distant wind-farms that he claims 'blight' his recently-created Scottish golf course (www.express.co.uk/news/politics/734195/Donald-trump-Nigel-Farage-Scottish-wind-farms). This is apparently from a US President-elect who reportedly a) believes that climate change is a scam invented by the Chinese; b) has promised to abandon the Paris (already lowest denominator?) accord on greenhouse gas emissions; c) wants to boost coal mining in the US and d) is a shareholder in Arctic oil pipelines. I think we can forget limiting things to a 2 degrees Centigrade temperature rise.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Cryonics All the Way to the Bank

The debate about the ethics surrounding the legal case of 14-year old UK girl with cancer who wanted to be preserved cryogenically in the hope of being cured in the future continues to rage (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/nov/18/the-cryonics-dilemma-will-deep-frozen-bodies-be-fit-for-new-life). One can understand people 'grasping at straws' but a) there is very little evidence that re-animation of multicellular mammalian tissue (especially the brain) is possible after being frozen in liquid nitrogen at almost -200 degrees Centigrade; b) as more people are currently alive on the planet than in all of earlier human history it suggests, that if a high proportion of folk took up the option, it would completely overwhelm resources; c) reanimated folk (if it proves possible) might well find it difficult to fit in the future; d) the future populations might well  refuse to allow them to benefit from the results of improved medical technologies (this could be a strain on their resources) and e) the cryonics companies (currently looking after 300 folk in the USA and 50 in Russia) may well not persistent long enough to benefit their clients. The current going rate for USA based cryonics customers is $36k, meaning that cryonics is only an option for the comparatively wealthy. Personally, I don't think we should be encouraging people to seriously consider this option.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Friday, 11 November 2016


It has been confirmed that Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) over all their now minimal UK habitats are infected with the disfiguring leprosy bacterium (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/10/leprosy-revealed-in-red-squirrels-across-british-isles), although there are different strains of the pathogen in the separated populations. It seems that this agent has persisted in these animals for hundreds of years (it cannot be treated as the squirrels would have to be injected with antibiotics 3 times per day). infection of humans is unlikely (the last recorded case in humans on these islands was in 1798) but, obviously, care should be taken when handling them. The beast is by no means as 'cuddly' as it is sometimes portrayed

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Seeing the Changes 1125

Late Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) in flower in Loughor in spite of the odd frost.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Put Your Back Into It!

A recent NASA report suggests that the back problems encountered by around 70% of astronauts who have experienced long-term space travel are associated with a wasting of tiny muscles that surround the spine (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/oct/25/long-term-space-flight-gives-astronauts-extra-inches-and-back-problems). The extra 'couple of inches' in height that they return to earth with seem a consequence of a straightening of the spine under reduced gravity and are soon lost. Swelling of the discs between the vertebrae don't appear to be the actual source of their back problems (although they were initially suspected). This suggests that 'manned' flights (obviously long-term) to Mars would be problematic but some experts believe that yoga might help limit the muscle atrophy.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

'New' Bioinspiration?

There is an interesting account of 'biotechnology' scientists taking inspiration from the feet of geckos and nematocysts of jellyfish to solve medical dilemmas such as developing to glue to repair a hole in a beating heart or to make a device to 'collect' persisting cancer cells in passing blood of 'cured' patients (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/oct/25/bioinspiration-thrilling-new-science-could-transform-medicine). These are certainly important developments but the idea of finding solutions to human problems in areas of 'pure Biology' is by no means new. Some 40 years ago, I remember sitting through a Swansea lecture by Ernst Chain (a co-recipient of the 1945 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work on the purification and mass production of penicillin) who made exactly the same point (that nature often has developed solutions to problems and, if you know where to look, you can sometimes adapt them for medical problems). I think that the 'take home message' is that pure research, rather than being ivory tower activity, often yields greater advances than applied efforts. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Seeing the Changes 1123

Autumn at the National Wetlands Centre Wales. Lots of fungi, including a large 'fairy ring', individual Lactarius hysginus) and Shaggy inkcaps (Coprinus comatus) as well as grouped Gymnopilus junonius. Meanwhile, Bullrushes (Typha latifolia) seeded the vicinity, Pampas grass waved and berries glowed. Common darters (Sympetrum striolatum) were still flitting about and a European robin (Erithacus rubecula) posed early for Christmas.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Gorilla Tactics

Much excitement appears to have been generated by the report of a male gorilla at London zoo escaping to an area normally reserved for staff (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/13/gorilla-reported-to-have-escaped-at-london-zoo). The animal seems to have been tranquillised with a dart before being returned to its enclosure but not before members of the public had been locked into buildings (with free tea) as a precautionary measure.The experience cannot have been a happy one for any of the participants (gorilla, staff and visitors) but such events cannot be totally unexpected when dealing with such intelligent beasts with time on their hands.

Honking with Dinosaurs

New evidence from a 66 million year old fossil (Vegavis iaai) from Vega island in the Antarctic confirms that this contemporary of the Cretaceous dinosaurs had the syrinx which enables birds to produce song (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/oct/12/oldest-fossil-of-birds-voicebox-gives-new-hint-at-soundscape-of-the-cretaceous-syrinx). This long-legged, goose-like bird existed at the same time as the mighty reptiles. Their sounds may certainly have punctuated the Cretaceous and the possibly exists that some of the dinosaurs (closely-related to birds) also had a syrinx to generate calls.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Seeing the Changes 1122

Lots of stuff around Broughton on the Gower. In the dunes there were lots of Horse mushrooms (Agaricus arvensis). Many flowers were still in bloom like Red campion (Silene dioica); Rest-harrow (Ononis repens); Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris); Moon carrot (Seseli libanotis); Bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum); Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea); Harebell (Campanula rotunifolia); Traveller's joy (Clematis vitalba) enwhiskered; Sea holly (Eryngium maritimum); Common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); Cut-leaved cranesbill (Geranium dissectum); Yellow star-thistle (Centaurea solstitialis); Sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias); Marsh hawksbeard (Crepis tectorum) and Stone bramble (Rubus saxatilis). The Stone bramble was also in berry. On the shore there were large, washed-up jellyfish and numerous Sandhoppers (Talitrus saltator).

Seeing the Changes 1470

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