Saturday, 30 December 2017

More Bumbling?

Yet another worrying development. It, counter-intuitively, appears that the wide-spread use of fungicides (notably Chlorothalonil) on crops over a wide area of the US is decimating bumble-bee populations, particularly by reducing their resistance to nosema, a small fungal parasite ( The bees are responsible for three quarters of pollination events of crops, so their loss could be devastating to farming and food production. It is interesting to speculate whether use of the fungicides has facilitated the emergence of resistant strains of nosema and, by eliminating other fungi, has greatly increased the exposure of visiting insects to this agent.

LA Going to the Vegan Dogs

There is a slightly bizarre suggestion that all the dogs housed in Los Angeles animal shelters should be fed on a vegan diet ( The idea is to save on the large numbers of other animals (cows, pigs and chickens) that have to be killed to provide more traditional dog food for these animals. Dogs are, however, derived from a carnivorous species and vegan diets can have profound effects on their digestive systems, perhaps making them less likely to be adopted. A range of herbivorous companion animals is available.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Blue 2 Blues

BBC's Blue Planet 2 is reportedly the most watched and critically-acclaimed series of 2017. Having said that, humans are doing serious damage to the oceans (via climate change, acidification, littering with plastics, dumping oil, over-fishing et cetera) so there is no certainty that there will be a series 3!

Anyone Want Jelly for Afters?

It has been known for some time that larval lobsters of a number of species hitch rides on jellyfish, whilst eating them, wrapping the stinging nematocysts in special protective faecal packages. A recent study, using video cameras in relatively deep Norwegian waters, has shown that defrosted helmet jellyfish carcasses are very attractive to adult Norway lobster (Nephrops norvegicus) who drive away other scavengers such as hagfish), managing to eat around half of the material themselves ( The Norway lobster (also known as Dublin Bay prawns and langoustines) is an important species for fisheries in Scotland and Dr Andrew Sweetman of Heriot-Watt University, who carried out the study, believes that the importance of jellyfish in the diets of these crustacea has been little appreciated (a lobster could get enough food from a single carcass to survive for 3 months).

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

My Precious?

A somewhat disturbing report of a Private vault on the eastern edge of London where the mega-rich can come to 'caress' their bars of gold bullion ( That all seems a little sad. I'd rather have a pet.

The Last in Line?

Research from Harvard Business School has demonstrated that people have a powerful aversion to being last in a queue, and are 4 times as likely to quit when there is nobody behind them ( People who switch lanes, frequently end up waiting longer than if they had remained in their initial slot. There seems to be an odd logic in play as, clearly, the number of people behind you has no effect on the speed of processing.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Hot to Trot?

Some (slightly?) more positive news on the impending wipe-out of coral reefs and their associated biota by climate change producing wide-spread bleaching events ( Laboratory studies (including some at London aquarium) have had some recent success developing new, more heat resistant strains of the symbiotic algae that live with these coelenterates (the algae, which provide nutrients to the corals, are the items of the association most easily killed by rising water temperatures). Scientists are also looking at using innoculations of protective bacteria. The hope is that they can develop 'super corals' that can help restore some of the reef systems. Having said that, coral bleaching occurs over very extensive areas and the organism is relatively slow-growing. The prognosis is poor.

Birder's Bonus 177

The illuminated Christmas decorations on some local houses seem to get birds singing the 'morning chorus' in the middle of the night!

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Let's Shout for the Modern Sprout!

Christmas in the UK is a traditional time for the Brussel sprout. It is, however, a vegetable that elicits a very Marmite-like response (people love them or hate them). A section of the population appear to have inherited a particular sensitivity to the bitter thiocyanates the sprouts contain. This is a pity as the vegetable is an an excellent source of vitamins. Some people may also have been conditioned to avoid sprouts by childhood exposure to the sprouts that were grown at that time. Strains of modern sprouts have been developed with much reduced thiocyanate levels. Any remaining bitter taste can also be reduced, it is claimed ( bitter-taste-in-brussels-sprouts/), by the simple procedure of cutting the sprout in half before cooking. 

'War on Nature'

A recent 'Twitterstorm' (appropriately named!) concerns the 'furious' reaction to news that a small number of trees on private land in Clifton, Bristol have had plastic spikes, of the type used to stop pigeons landing on ledges of buildings or sections of the London underground, nailed on to their  branches ( The spikes are apparently intended to prevent birds (not necessarily pigeons) annoyingly dropping guano on to the resident's parked cars below. The spikes do seem to be something of an over-reaction (the owners reportedly tried a model raptor without getting the desired poo-free response) but their action pales into relative insignificance compared to the mass cutting down of trees as well as some agricultural and gardening practices in many parts of the UK. I think it's somewhat 'hyped' as a 'war on nature'.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Seeing the Changes 1244

A festive pink fungus (probably Cylindrobasidium laeve) decorates the tree stump I use for providing wild birds with water.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Man Eater

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek defence of the concept on 'man- 'flu' (the idea that men suffer more from viral respiratory diseases than female counterparts) has been proposed by Dr Kyle Sue in the British Medical Journal ( The basic argument seems to be that male testosterone levels reduce the immune response and 'man-'flu' is a defensive response to potential predation. I would not dream of countering this defence of my gender directly but I did find with colleague Salem Beden ( Beden, S.N. and Brain, P.F. (1985) The primary immune responses to sheep red blood cells in mice of differing social status or from individual housing IRCS Medical Science 13: 364-365) that dominant mice (with presumably higher titres of testosterone) showed a greater immune response to antigenic challenge than subordinate counterparts. This suggests that there is no simple link between immune responses androgens. Male weediness cannot be ruled out at this stage.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Gone Before We Even Knew They Existed?

There is an interesting account, suggesting that the major extinction event triggered by we humans (in the 'Anthropocene'), greatly underestimates the losses of insect and other invertebrate species ( It is pointed out that the 'cuddlies' (basically mammals and birds) are well documented (new species of these are quite rare) so we can be pretty certain when an extinction event has occurred. The invertebrates (insects, worms et cetera) are, however, much less obvious (in deed many species may become extinct before they are documented), so their actual rate of extinction is difficult to determine. It is likely to be worse than we think.

Bleeding Obvious?

Yet another potential ‘cure’ from gene technology as a small trial with haemophilia A sufferers has shown that injecting high doses of the faulty gene restores the clotting ability of their blood to near normal ( Prior to this, people (generally males) had to inject themselves with clotting factor on alternate days and could still develop painful bleeding in their joints as well as life threatening complications to wounds, tooth extraction et cetera. It is not yet certain how long the effects of the treatment lasts (it could be life-long) but it clearly improves quality of life.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Shoot the Messenger?

Huntington's chorea is a devastating neurological disease in which a faulty gene produces messenger RNA which codes for a toxic protein that gradually destroys the brain. A recent, smallish trial has, however, generated some very encouraging results. Here, a synthetic strand of DNA is injected into the brain that 'kills' the messenger RNA and reduces the production of the toxic protein, slowing the progression of the disease ( This is not a cure but the slowing of symptoms may not only be good news for Huntington's sufferers as the technology (using variants of synthetic DNA) may also be applicable to patients with Alzheimer's dementia and Parkinson's disease (there also appear to be faulty proteins in these conditions).

The Answer Lies in the Soil

Somewhat depressing before the Christmas Excess but George Monbiot has written a timely account of the likely human famines to come to our planet ( His basic scenario is that postulated increases in the world human population combined with the pressures of climate change and an increased expectation by many societies of eating more animal protein will combine to make famine a common experience for most of humanity. He clearly believes that we are currently imperilling soil fertility, leading to major reductions in basic crops such as rice and maize. He doesn't appear to believe that the seas will be much help as the only things we are not denuding the waters of are plastics.

Saturday, 9 December 2017


Physicists in Austin, Texas are getting in on Christmas cheer by using a tiny hydrophone to study the noises made by bubbles in sparkling wines- champagne, cava and prosecco ( The idea seems to be that the frequency of the sounds produced depends on the size of the bubbles generated that hit the flute and this may be an indication of the quality of the wine (although size must surely also be influenced by how recently the bottle was opened and the temperature of the fluid). Perhaps their most useful observation is that the fizz produced in a styrofoam beaker is markedly inferior to that generated in a glass. Personally, I would prefer to taste the liquids rather than rely on bubble noise!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Jaw-jaw on Utah?

President Trump has apparently ordered dramatic reductions in the areas of 2 national parks in Utah ( The Bears ears monument has been reduced from 6000 square kilometres to around 900 and the Grand staircase from around 8100 to circa 4050. He, reportedly, has similar plans for other land-based and marine conservation areas in other parts of the USA. The move worries indigenous groups (who sometimes have religious artefacts in the areas) and conservationists, as the move is designed open up additional areas to fossil fuel extraction and ranching (both likely to have detrimental influences on climate change). The move is reportedly 'sold' using the argument that locals rather than people in Washington should determine what happens to the land. I personally feel that, in the long-term, locals are more likely to benefit from having impressive parks rather than commercially exploiting these areas. Unfortunately, people rarely think long (or even medium) term. 

Swallowing it Whole

It is hardly remarkable but the alterations to the weather appear to have changed the migrating patterns of birds that spend part of their year in the UK ( The birds seem to stay longer (several weeks) before making their return flights. Migration is energetically demanding and is generally undertaken to maximise feeding and breeding opportunities. A milder year might mean that birds (especially insectivores) can feed here for longer before seeking warmer conditions with longer periods of daylight.

Sting in the Tail!

The decline of the traditional Honey bee (Apis mellifera) in Europe has apparently created an opportunity for honey producers in Liberia ( More than 1000 people have been taught to culture the allegedly 'aggressive' African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata) which generally gets a bad press (hybrids introduced to South America have been labelled killer bees). This appears to be one positive consequence of using neonicotinoid sprays in Europe.

It's Not Cricket!

Smog reportedly stopped play in an International cricket match between India and Sri Lanka in Delhi ( Some of the cricketers (presumably fit International athletes) were said to have vomited and others wore face masks. The real question is what this air pollution does to the local population (including many much less fit people) over extended periods of time. Sadly, it takes the brief curtailing of a game to bring the urgent need to reduce this atmospheric insult to international attention.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Toxic Clouds

It has been suggested that the UK government is not exactly rushing to legislate to reduce the amount of nitrogen dioxide fumes from car exhausts, in spite of their being implicated in some 40,000 deaths per annum in this country ( Exposure to exhaust fumes is, of course, worse in areas near major roads, which is sadly where, a majority of schools in deprived areas are located (not their only problem as other current studies suggest that they are also likely to be surrounded by large numbers of 'fast-food' outlets). Geography thus seems to exacerbate features likely to impair the future health of many youngsters! One must also note that EU regulations are currently one of the few 'sticks' that can be used in an attempt to get some action on NO2 levels.

The Original Spongers!

There has been debate for a number of years about whether sponges (the simplest, non-motile, filter-feeding multicellular organisms) or the comb jellies (multicellular, motile organisms with a rudimentory nervous system) represent the 'sister' clade that gave rise (from flagella-bearing protozoans) to all other types of complex animal ( Scientists have now declared that the totalled evidence supports the 'lowly' sponge rather than the more 'flash' comb jellies as the first stage of multicellular animal development. One telling piece of support is that, otherwise, the sponges would have had to have lost some of the more 'advanced' attributes seen in comb jellies (this seems unlikely but not impossible- see the parasitic flatworms).

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

A Boy Thing?

There is an interesting study in Cell Reports suggesting that the sex difference in asthma incidence in adult humans may be a consequence of the pubertal surge in testosterone ( In childhood, boys are more likely to develop this respiratory problem than girls but the situation is reversed at puberty, with the condition being twice as prevalent in women. The scientists involved in the study focused on a type of white blood cell, ILC2, that is produced in the bone marrow before lodging in many tissues including the lungs. When foreign proteins (such as pollen or house mite dust) enter the lungs, the ILC2 cells produce cytokines that promote anti-inflammatory immune responses (although there is evidence that there may be different sub-populations of ILC2 cells with varying responses to cytokines). Asthma may be regarded as an overly intense inflammatory reaction in the lungs to 'allergens'. The Cell Reports study used very small samples of adult human subjects but seemed to show that subjects with asthma had more ILC2 cells than non-asthmatic counterparts. No sex-differences in cell levels were seen in healthy subjects but asthmatic women had twice as many ILC2 cells than men with the condition. The researchers then turned to mice where lung samples and hormone manipulations can be carried out. Lung samples revealed that adult female mice had more ILC2 cells than males or younger mice of either sex. Castration in early life (removing the source of testosterone) resulted in male mice showing an expansion of ILC2 cells in lung tissue comparable with that seen in adult females. It consequently seems likely that testosterone has a 'dampening' effect on the development of lung ILC2 cells and this accounts for the decline in asthma incidence in men after puberty. The link between asthma and sex-steroids is, however, probably more complex than this and needs to consider the ILC2 sub-populations as well as other androgens and oestrogens.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Seeing the Changes 1243

Just in time! A male Pale November moth (Epirrita christyi) moth appeared in Loughor.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Bear-faced Robbery?

Yet another example of the tension between people and conservation is seen in the recent responses of people in rural Romania to a hunting ban on Brown bears (and other carnivores) ( It is estimated that there are around 6000 Brown bears in that country (there are paid tours to see them in the wild) but rural folk have claimed that stopping the activities of local hunting associations has destroyed the 'natural balance' between bears and people. Bears are blamed for 'attacks' on people, livestock and crops and some locals are developing poisonous baits to kill them. Getting people to tolerate potentially dangerous animals is not easy (especially if they dont see an economic benefit).


Vitamin D can be manufactured under the skin by exposure to UV light. People living nearer the poles (especially if they have darker complexions), are likely to have to take in more of this material, in the winter (when sunlight in weaker and clothing heavier), via their diets, if they want healthy muscles and bones. In deed, it has now been suggested that this vitamin has a beneficial effect, preventing rheumatoid arthritis, meaning that people should be encouraged to take supplements, especially when days are short ( Some people have even suggested that vitamin D should be added to some common foods (as iodine is added to table salt).

Monday, 20 November 2017

Seeing the Changes 1242

Saw literally 100s of the alien Ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri) roosting by the M4 motorway near the turn off for Windsor. Saw two of the same beasties hassling a Grey squirrel in Crystal Palace park.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Seeing the Changes 1241

There are some impressively bright lichens on the wooden bridge in Bynea.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Face Off?

Disturbing news that academics have apparently been able to sufficiently differentiate folk as introverts or extroverts, on the basis of a single Facebook 'like', and to subsequently get the cohorts to show a 40-50% increase in positive responses to targeted advertisements ( These academics did not have a financial interest in the research. The study seems a little preliminary as the 'likes' were associated with fairly 'blatant' indicators (such as liking the Lady Gaga site) and the targeted advertising also (for beauty products or gaming apps) seemed pretty focused to appeal to the type of personality. Having said that, a pattern of 'likes' (often over many years) could be very revealing, enabling manipulators (advertisers, politicians, trouble-makers and criminals) to focus their attentions on likely 'marks'. It is probable that this has already happened. We do seem to need to think further on such issues. Think carefully, if you are tempted to 'like' this!

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Codger's Cogitations 1.

I had a very interesting conversation recently with a  younger person who claimed that they "believed in Science, as they didn't believe in anything else". Age slows down the mental responses but I wish I could have made the following points (not because I don't value Science also but because lay people need reminding) at the time. The first is that Science has no role in 'magical thinking' (this is one reason why some mathematically-based studies, like Economics, are not really, in my view, the province of Science). The second is that Science deals in probabilities (and probability and risk are poorly understood issues by some scientists as well as the general public). This means that your scientific 'fact' might always (however, improbably) be wrong. This is a feature actually used to attack Science by people who want a world of absolutes. The third is that scientists are, by their training and predispositions(?) nit-pickers, so you can always find someone who takes a contrary view or places an emphasis elsewhere. Add in the fact that Science, as presented to the public, generally involves simplifications and you have a somewhat confusing mix!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Museums in a Time Warp?

It is disturbing to note that, even with potential support from the National Lottery and other bodies, around 40% of regional museums have been forced, by financial restrictions, to cut their opening hours ( Museums (along with libraries) are institutions that are ripe for cutting when local government funding becomes inadequate (most cannot charge general admittance as they have been designated as being 'free' ). Another way of enthusing the next generation outside the capital consequently appears to be in serious jeopardy. Museums are not simply, in my view, replaced by apps.

Scratching the Bottom

The great success of Blue Planet 2 on BBC has apparently provided a big boost for companies offering commercial submarine tours in many parts of the globe ( Tours may shortly be available to view the wreck of the Titanic deep in the Atlantic as well as to marvel at marine life in the Pacific, the Arctic and the Antarctic. In one sense, it is nice that people are enthused by the programmes but there are some downsides to this trend. Rather obviously, the increased submarine activity might well further damage (mechanically and by chemical and light pollution) some of the chosen locations. In addition, the punters may well not realise that the action in the programme is, in many cases,  the result of careful editing of hundreds of hours of recording  (they may consequently be disappointed by what they see). Finally, some of the new aquanauts are likely to be physically and emotionally problematic submariners.

Seeing the Changes 1240

In spite of the cold, a Feathered thorn (Colotois pennaria) appeared outside my Loughor house.

Friday, 10 November 2017

How Long Can the Luck of the Creatures From the Dark Side Last?

A recent study by 2 Japanese scientists has found that the dinosaur extinction was a very unlucky event ( The 9 km-wide asteroid thumped into what is now the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and, at that time, it was part of only 13% of the Earth's surface where there were enough hydrocarbon reserves to generate a dust cloud sufficient to produce the world-wide climate change (with a chronic cutting off of sunlight and a 10 degree Celsius reduction in average temperature). This led to more than 3/4 of animals on land and in the sea being driven to extinction. Of course, what was bad news for the dinosaurs was very good news for the Mammals (whose retinal structures were rod dominated, suggesting that, whilst dinosaurs were around, had been limited to a nocturnal life-style). And so, we have the age of the Mammals. It is interesting to speculate that, if the asteroid had hit almost anywhere else, we would not now be potentially facing a mass extinction event largely driven by human activities (the so-called Anthropocene).

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

It's Nuts!

There are lots of angry folk complaining that the makers of Nutella spread have 'sneaked in' changes to the formula ( The company have reportedly basically increased the sugar content from 55.9% to 56.3% and the fat content (by the addition of skimmed milk powder) from 7.5% to 8.7%, whilst reducing actual hazelnut content. People don't like such changes but the changes are hardly converting a superfood into a health hazard (the sugar content of both versions is 'off the scale'). Given the incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes, one might have thought the pressure was to reduce sugar content!

Following the Herd?

Sheep don't have very good PR, generally being regarded as being passive and lacking any interest in their surroundings. Having said that, it has been known for many years that mother sheep can distinguish the bleat of their lamb from all others in the herd. Scientists at Cambridge have now demonstrated that Welsh Mountain sheep, not only can visually recognise the facial characteristics of their handler but can be taught to distinguish celebrities (e.g. Barack Obama and Emma Watson) from other folk with accuracies approaching those seen in humans ( This is not only a finding that gives sheep more personality but may also be used to gain a better understanding of Huntingdon's disease (a strain of sheep with this condition has been derived).

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Limpet Mine?

Uses seem to have been found, by the Biofirm Mikota, for the alien Slipper limpet (Crepidula fornicata) that is now almost ubiquitous on Welsh beaches ( The mollusc can be 'mined' for its respiratory pigment, haemocyanin, that can be used in the treatment of breast and bladder cancers. In addition, the collagen from its muscular foot can be extracted for use as a 'packing material' in restorative medicine. They might even manage to get the numbers down.

Foodies Prepare for Brexit?

There has been a spate of stories about people attempting to grow high value food ingredients in the UK. I have recently heard about the growing of the flowers to produce the spice, saffron (repeatedly said to be 'more valuable than gold on a weight for weight basis'). Other folk are encouraging the growth of black truffle fungi in the root systems of imported oaks. Tea is now grown in Cornwall. This, of course, is not to mention the activities of British vineyards.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Climate Change Pessimism Viewed a Crime?

There has been a rather sad account by the birder and essayist, Jonathan Franzen, who clearly feels that he has been attacked by components of bodies concerned about climate change, not because he is a denier, but mainly because he has no belief in 'the 10 years to save the planet' argument ( He basically argues that the 10 year figure has been quoted for decades, in spite of the situation worsening over that same period. He also thinks that bodies such as the US Audubon Society are too quick to jump to climate change as the peril for birds when habitat loss and hunting are more immediate threats. He is clearly pessimistic about humans getting their collective act together to limit climate change, pointing out that no country has actually committed to leave 'their' hydrocarbons (in the form of oil or gas) in the ground. He apparently believes that countries are driven by short-term financial issues and that even environmental bodies use the 10 year argument to drive recruitment and increase donations. It seems that there is no space for a pessimist (realist?). 

Marine Rag and Bone Men

There is a disturbing report that many of the marine war graves of Asia are being rapidly illegally stripped of the metals ( The graves in question, associated with the remains of hundreds of bodies, are sunken American, Australian, British and Japanese vessels from World War 2. What I did not appreciate is that steel from such ships has increased value as, being produced prior to 1945, is radiation free. The metal is consequently very desirable  for use in the production of Geiger counters and other scientific instruments.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Galloping Greenhouse Gases

Recent reports suggest that the atmospheric concentrations of 'greenhouse' carbon dioxide were in 2016  at their highest level for some 3 million years ( The rocketing CO2  levels (with effects on both climate change and acidification of the oceans) have been blamed on a combination of human activity and the el Nino weather event in the Pacific region but the consequences might well be extreme (and suggest that attempts to limit the release of this gas are currently inadequate). Not a good start for the enlightened 'fight-back' to counter anthropogenic effects!

Cephalopod Capers?

There have been reports of strange land invasions by up to 25 Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) on the beaches of New Quay in Ceredigion ( The animals appeared to be disorientated and there has been unsupported speculation about whether this behaviour was triggered by recent storms and/or the confusing effects of the street lighting in New Quay. The behaviour is unusual but is clearly detrimental to the species and needs detailed investigation.

Missing Lynx

A young, female Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) has escaped from a small zoo in West Wales ( This elusive big cat has been extinct in Britain for quite some time (but some enthusiasts would like to bring it back to our forests). These animals seem good at escaping and are not easy to recapture. They generate differing responses in farmers (who regard them as dangers to their livestock) and the zoo keepers (who worry that their 'harmless' beast might be injured by farmers). Evidence of the confusion is evidenced by one caller who was convinced the lynx was in his garden- it turned out to be a sheep!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Seeing the Changes 1239

Winter is kept at bay somewhat. Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) was in flower in Loughor. A hardy Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) flitted around Bynea.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Acid Trip

There has, perhaps, been too little attention directed to the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide on ocean acidification, as a consequence of the gas's combination with water to form carbonic acid ( The focus has tended to be, thus far, on the difficulties reducing the pH would have on shelled organisms, such as molluscs and crustaceans, but recent studies suggest that many advanced species (fish and marine mammals and birds) would also find it difficult to cope with the changed conditions. Acidification would be accompanied by climate change and the only organisms thought likely to deal with this combination are bacteria and other micro-organisms. Perhaps we would be returning the oceans to the primordial soup! 

Monday, 23 October 2017

Mining the Virus?

It has been reported that mines in Canada, USA and other countries are hot-spots for the transmission of Covid-19 ( https://www.theguardi...