Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Mini Dalek Ancestors?

Scientists have studied fossils of tiny (about 1mm long) creatures from rocks deposits, around 540 million years old, from central China they have named Saccorhytus coronarious   (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/30/huge-mouth-and-no-anus-earliest-known-ancestor-saccorhytus-coronarious-evolution). Although the beasts were small, they appear to have had a disproportionately large mouth but no obvious anus (it is suggested that they swallowed their prey and had vents, comparable to gill slits, to remove excess water that they must have ingested in that process). These beasts are thought to be the first Deuterostomes (although that group gets its name from the fact that its members generally convert their first embryonic opening into an anus). Current Deuterostomes include Echinoderms (starfish and sea-urchins) as well as the Chordates (sea squirts and vertebrates). It's pushing the description a bit but they have been described as our earliest known ancestors.

Cyborgs Walk Amongst Us!

Heard an interesting account on the current development of cyborgs in the sense of these being persons whose physiological (and sensory) function is changed by mechanical and/or electronic means (www,bbc.com/future/story/20140924-the-greatest-myths-about-cyborgs). It seems that some people are choosing to enhance their abilities, often by combining electronics with piercings (devices can be implanted). It was remarkable how many of the cases involved people who came to see their device as part of themselves. Sometimes cyborg development is linked to particular problems (such as developing a way of hearing different colours in response to an eye condition producing a monochrome world or 'hacking' an insulin-dispensing device for a diabetic so that it predicts and corrects the direction of blood sugar changes rather than simply being triggered by very deviant blood values) and sometimes a desire to develop a new sense (such as an ability to hear nearby wifi networks, to know the direction of north or to be able to sensitively detect seismic events). Occasionally, the sense was utilised in art. There seemed to be at least 2 serious issues requiring attention. The first is that the cyborg modifications are currently unregulated and issues around legal and moral responsibility seem far from clarified (e.g. if an individual hacks a device and something goes wrong, is it that individual's responsibility or the manufacturer's for selling an easily hackable device?). The second is that criminals may also be able to hack some devices in cyborgs to take information from them or even, in some cases, to kill them.

Seeing the Changes 1134

Mild and wet in Loughor, so the fungi return.

Sunday, 29 January 2017


I am somewhat relieved that a study in Vienna on 156 people has concluded that people who appreciate dark humour tend to be high in intelligence and low in aggression (taskandpurpose.com/science-a-dark-sense-of-humor-is-a-mark-of-higher-intelligence). Having said that, the study is small, looks at only one cohort, uses the cartoons of a single artist and there are the problems of accurately 'measuring' intelligence and propensity for aggression.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Life But Not As We Know It, Jim

Reports that scientists from Scripps Institute in the USA have engineered the E. coli gut bacterium to have an entirely novel DNA are intriguing (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/23/organisms-created-with-synthetic-dna-pave-way-for-entirely-new-life-forms). Regular DNA has a code composed of 4 bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, A pairing with T and C with G). Triplets of the bases specify which amino acid should be added to growing polypeptides to make particular proteins (and also when the process should start and stop). The scientists hope to engineer particular cultures of bacteria to produce particular proteins (and other substances?) that would be of utility to humans. One of the concerns has been the possibility of the 'bugs' escaping from the laboratory. What the scientists have done is to create modified bacteria with 2 novel additional bases (X and Y) which do not occur in nature. The claim (and current experience) is that the strains would not be able to persist outside the laboratory (the X and Y presumably constitute a 'suicide' component, preventing a 'Jurassic Park' type event). The other main change is an improved immune responsiveness of the bacterial cultures that augments their viability in the laboratory. Whilst nothing can be entirely safe (bacteria can swap genes or bits of genes), this does appear to be a useful potential development.


Got an thought-provoking internal email from Swansea University asking people to stop feeding Herring gulls near Fulton House. The account is sensible except for the claim that the gulls are being 'aggressive'. From the gull's perspective, the presence of a large, messy colony of food-clutching primates near 'their' environment of flat-roofed 'cliffs'(the buildings of the Singleton campus), which provide safe nesting opportunities and up-draught for efficient flight, is an added bonus. The birds have no concept of 'ownership' of the food (we don't criticise Blue tits for eating the peanuts we put out for them in feeders). The use of the term 'aggression' is an example of what is called 'negative apperception'- 'they are aggressive, we defend ourselves'! Provision of open-topped waste bins in the vicinity can be problematic as it attracts the birds.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Getting to the Cour(gette)

There has been some panic about the 'great courgette crisis' in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/22/courgette-crisis-cold-weather-spanish-farmers-hope-worst-over) that has been linked to flooding and snow in areas, like Murcia, in Spain. These weather conditions might well reflect climate change but historically they do get snows in that region about every 15 years. The current upside, for the farmers, is that there has been a rocketing of prices for all vegetables (also including broccoli) produced in that region (it certainly illustrates how dependent, at this time of the year, the UK is on vegetables grown in Southern Europe). It might even (temporarily?) curb the odd recent habit of 'refashioning' courgettes into 'pasta' in restaurants.

You're Toast!

Great excitement, at breakfast time, due to the 'relevation' that animal experiments have suggested that acrylamide is a carcinogen (https://www.food.gov.uk/science/acrylamide-0). Acrylamide is produced when high starch foods (such as bread and potato) are exposed to high temperatures in baking, frying, roasting or toasting so much focus has fallen on toast (especially the 'burnt' variety), crisps and deep-fried foods. The link to cancer is important (and it's difficult to think of a way not using animal experiments to have established this possibility, given the range of foods that can generate acrylamide) but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that taking in too much of these starchy and oily foods can impair health, simply by making the eater obese. I suppose it's one more thing to worry about.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Birder's Bonus 173

Images of Jackdaws (Corvus monedula) pre-roosting flights on the Loughor estuary.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Seeing the Changes 1133

Colour is starting to return. In Loughor, Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) and Crab apple (Malus sylvestris) are in flower. In Penclacwydd, Hazel (Corylus avellana) displayed both male and female flowers.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Zombie mice?

There is an odd interpretation of a study involving the activation, using lasers, of 'chase and grab' areas of the brain in genetically-modified laboratory mice (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/12/scientists-use-light-to-trigger-walking-dead-killer-instinct-in-mice-optogenetics). The claim is that the 2 circuits (the chase and the grab) could be operated, to some extent, separately and that the mice behaved in a zombified fashion when activated by the laser. There was also some speculation about the relationship of this certainly predatory behaviour to 'aggression'. The first thing to note, is that it is well-established that the laboratory mouse is derived from an omnivorous ancestor (wild House mice have stomach contents that are often 40% insect and spider remains and laboratory strains will routinely kill and consume locusts introduced to their cages). The second thing to note is that predation and other forms of murine attack seem to be completely unrelated. I personally think that describing the triggering of predation by activating of neural circuits as "assuming the qualities of zombies" is poetic licence.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Swan Song?

It is always sad to hear of problems occurring at places you have used for teaching and the outbreak of h5n8 avian influenza at Abbotsbury swannery in Dorset certainly falls into that category (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/09/bird-flu-outbreak-avian-influenza-h5n8-virus-abbotsbury-swannery-dorset). The swannery was set up by monks on the Fleet lagoon to supplement their food supply but has been maintained as an impressive visitor location where people can get close to birds (exactly what is not needed whilst trying to prevent the spread of the virus to domestic crops). The centre (as a consequence of its feeding regime) attracts around a 1000 free-flying Mute swans (Cygnus olor) but also many other bird species (including geese, ducks, Moorhens and Coots). To date, it has been confirmed that 9 swans have died from this strain of avian 'flu which, of course, means closure of the swannery to the public. Such events can challenge the financial viability of such centres (as well as the health of the birds in the centre and in the locality).

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

No Chance to Adapt?

A study suggests that birds that prefer cool conditions are finding it impossible to adapt to warming temperatures in Southern England because intensive farming precludes their having locations to 'chill out' (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/11/birds-vanish-england-climate-change-habitat-loss). Species affected include the Meadow pipit; Willow tit and Willow warbler. The findings are at variance with the claim that species will simply move north in response to Global warming.

I Got the Blues!

Disturbing news (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jan/10/bristol-man-in-court-accused-of-capturing-protected-large-blue-butterflies) that a man is one trial accused of capturing and killing the UK's rarest butterfly, the Large Blue (Maculinea arion). The actual species shown above is an Adonis blue, subject to a similar process. The Large blue became extinct in the UK in 1979 and cannot be bred in captivity (it requires closely-grazed habitat with Thyme and a particular species of red ant that is chemically persuaded to take in the larvae where they feeds on ant grubs). The species has been reintroduced into specially prepared habitats in Somerset and Gloucestershire, using eggs from Swedish populations and it is claimed that adult butterflies were illegally taken from these locations in 2015. Collectors (some are obsessives and some profit-motivated) can be a real problem for conservation efforts!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Seeing the Changes 1131

In spite of some early frosts, Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) bloomed early in Bynea.

Progress Like a PPPenguin?

German medics have apparently advised people walking on icy streets to adopt the gait of penguins to avoid slipping (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/04/penguin-walk-german-doctors-advice-slipping-icy-paths). Humans hold their centre of gravity equally between the front and rear legs whereas the bird keeps it on the front leg and is much less likely to slip. I shall continue my daily shuffle around the mean streets.

You Must be Crazy to Live by a Motorway?

A Canadian study has suggested that 1 in 10 incidences of Alzheimer dementia can be linked to the patient living near a busy road (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jan/04/living-near-heavy-traffic-increases-dementia-risk-say-scientists). They feel that noise pollution and the diesel exhaust discharges of nano particles may be important factors (perhaps joining the health-risk element of nitrous oxides). Of course, many people cannot choose where they live (some even have motorways constructed through their towns). There are also other risk factors for the development of dementia including age (nothing much we can do about this) and lifestyle (we could take more exercise, try to avoid becoming overweight, cut down on alcohol and eat a healthier diet). Interestingly, it has been noted that animals in city centre zoos (or viewed by visitors in cars?) may have shorter life-spans than beasts in more rural locations. Perhaps the development of electrically-powered driverless cars will improve health in zoo animals and ourselves (but I wouldn't hold my breath)?

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

I Won't Stand For It!

There has been quite a discussion on the merits (or not) of 'Power posing' as advocated by Amy Cuddy in the USA. She basically claimed (advocating 'fake it until you make it') that adopting a high-power pose (a la Wonder Woman) for as little as 2 minutes a day could improve both confidence and success. Cuddy was not even the lead author on the initial paper but the 'fad' was launched into the stratosphere by David Brooks, the NY-based author of 'The Social Animal'. The Cuddy Study basically described how adopting strong poses could increase levels of testosterone in the blood whilst reducing cortisol values. There are similar claims made about hormonal changes in response to winning an encounter in judo, karate, tennis or chess and performing well in examinations (with being defeated producing the opposite effects). Interestingly, 'undeserved' winning such as getting a lottery prize appeared to have no effect on hormone levels. This might suggest that the effects (if any) might depend on whether you believe your own hype (other studies are at variance with the initial study). Personally, I think that this type of use of 'scientific' data is both over-simplistic and unlikely to prove helpful in real life. I prefer doers to posers.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

If You Go Down in the Woods Today

Disturbing news from the Woodlands Trust that 2016 was a record year for fly-tipping with almost 200 incidents on their land at a cost of more than £350,000 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/03/woodland-trust-sees-worst-year-for-flytipping-on-record). The Trust (like any charity) can ill-afford to spend its limited resources in this fashion. It seem likely that the fly-tipping is partially by rogue clearance operatives avoiding paying the disposal charges for the material they have been paid to remove (interestingly, the customer of such folk can be held liable for costs incurred) and people whose local councils have (probably under financial pressures) greatly reduced the collection of house-hold rubbish. There must be a better way to do things.

Sheffield Limeys

I lived for a year in Sheffield and it does not surprise me that 'activists' are still resisting the council's signing over its care of roads to a company that seems to be viewing the 100 year old lime trees that line some of the city roads as sources of problems rather than attractive assets (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jan/02/sheffield-tree-activists-vow-to-protect-jewel-in-the-crown-rivelin-valley-road). I agree that the trees should be conserved wherever possible (even if they add to the costs of road maintenance) but I do have some sympathy for the council who, I expect, are struggling with reduced spending and are being pulled simultaneously in several directions (most notably by a public that is tax averse).

Still Eager for Beavers in Wales?

An application has reportedly been made to 'reintroduce' (after an absence of more than 100 years) an initial 10 European beavers to Wales (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/02/beavers-could-be-reintroduced-to-wales-after-centuries-absence). This is after 'successful' reintroductions of the species to both Scotland and England. I personally think that this would be an interesting development but worry about it happening in a country where people become homicidal in response to mole-hills in 'their' pristine lawn or the 'mess' created by badgers and foxes raiding dustbins. You also have to consider that the beavers a) one in the wild, are likely to become free agents, invading areas where you might not expect them; b) eat trees as well as cutting them up to create their dams and lodges and c) can dramatically alter the courses of streams and even rivers. Beavers would essentially alter environments where they live, something that some humans find hard to tolerate. Just because a species used to be found here, doesn't mean that its 'reintroduction' will be an easy process.

Monday, 2 January 2017

The 'Crime' of Attenborough?

Martin Hughes-Games, the producer of 'Springwatch', has suggested that David Attenborough's immensely popular series 'Planet Earth 2' is a disaster for wildlife as it doesn't sufficiently emphasise the detrimental impact of human populations on nature (https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/jan/01/planet-earth-ii-david-attenborough-martin-hughes-games-bbc-springwatch). His basic point is that Attenborough's programme might leave the impression that all is well with a diverse and beautiful nature in many parts of the world. Certainly, humans and their aspirations are causing major detrimental effects on the organisms on our planet (this is one reason why some people advocate specifying a new geological era to be termed the 'Anthropocene', reflecting our impact on mass extinctions, habitat destruction and climate change). Hughes-Games is not convinced that the evidence is there that 'Planet Earth 2' and similar programmes sufficiently change the audience's attitudes, making them more supportive of conservation. One might argue, however, that it would be difficult to detect meaningful attitudinal changes in the short term (one must also remember that the series will be shown to folk outside the UK-perhaps in regions where the animals live). It also fails to take into account Attenborough's championing of attempts to limit human population growth (so he is well aware of the difficulty of accommodating humans and animals in a finite planet) . Given the resistance to climate change initiatives, I am uncertain whether spending whole series on the negative impacts of humans on nature would prove popular or even convince people to change their behaviour. I personally think that there are roles for both a) stressing the beauty of nature and b) pointing out that human activities pose real dangers to its survival. I believe that people are more likely to care about what they see, especially if it is as impactful as 'Planet Earth 2'.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Dippying Below the Horizon

Somewhat sad news that the plaster-of-Paris model dinosaur skeleton in the foyer of the Natural History Museum in Kensington is to be dismantled and replaced by the skeleton of a young Blue whale (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/01/dippy-diplodocus-london-tour-replica-dinosaur-whale-natural-history-museum). 'Dippy' the Diplodocus has been in place more than 100 years after being produced as an exact replica of a fossil found in the USA by workers constructing the rail system. It has been a source of wonder to generations of kids (I saw it on my first visit to London) and was a striking 'welcome' to the museum. The replica is apparently going on a UK tour, starting in Dorset's Jurassic coast but no permanent home for the fragile beast has been identified. Its replacement by the Blue whale skeleton is said to reflect changing fashions in conservation but, perhaps, the fact that the whale can be suspended creating more floor space is a consideration? I suppose the Blue whale skeleton has the advantages of being a) real, b) extant and c) actually the largest animal on the planet but I will miss old 'dippy'.

London Foxes in a Hole

Somewhat mixed news on the London fox cull (metro.co.uk/2016/12/28/petition-to-save-londons-foxes-after-massive-backlash-against-cull-6348623/). There are now several thousand signatures to a petition to the London mayor objecting to the plan to pay a company to shoot these 'vermin' but there are also websites put up by the 'pest controllers' advocating their approach. Urban foxes are a regular sight in many large UK cities as cost versus benefits analysis of behaviour suggests that this species can 'earn a living' there more easily than in rural areas by incorporating human waste into its diet (along with the odd rat). The cull seems unlikely to 'solve' the perceived problem as it will just create vacancies for foxes to move in from the surrounding areas. More efficient waste disposal (plastic bags are pretty useless) is more likely to reduce their numbers. One might ask whether the odd stray dog rummaging through bags on the street would be likely to meet a similar fate (not to mention cats, crows and 'seagulls'). I must admit to not being entirely happy about marksmen roaming in the dark 'to shoot foxes' and think the inconveniences of the fox's foraging are outweighed by a chance to see a real animal in London.

Happy 2017

It could be a crucial year!

Bee Bereavement?

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