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 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/29/alarming-link-between-fungicides-and-bee-declines-revealed). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/29/los-angeles-vegan-dog-diet-animal-shelters-moby). 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 (https://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/scotland/deep-water-experiment-reveals-lobsters-appetite-for-jellyfish/). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/dec/26/the-pots-of-gold-at-the-east-edge-of-london). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/dec/27/back-to-front-why-switching-queues-will-get-you-nowehere-faster). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/23/new-lab-bred-super-corals-could-help-avert-global-reef-wipeout). 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 (https://www.livestrong.com/article/500839-how-to-reduce-the 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/dec/19/bird-spikes-in-bristol-trees-to-protect-cars-cause-dismay). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/dec/11/stop-accusing-men-of-overreacting-man-flu-really-does-exist-claims-doctor). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/14/a-different-dimension-of-loss-great-insect-die-off-sixth-extinction). 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 (www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42337396). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/dec/11/excitement-as-huntingtons-drug-shown-to-slow-progress-of-devastating-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 (theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/11/mass-starvation-humanity-flogging-land-death-earth-food). 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

Bubbles


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 (phys.org/news/2017-12-champagne-acoustics-size-wine-quality.html). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/04/trump-bears-ears-grand-staircase-escalante-monuments-shrink). 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 (https://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/9998/). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/dec/04/african-killer-bees-providing-living-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 (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/03/the-guardian-view-on-delhis-pollution-when-smog-stops-play). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/30/uk-government-being-dragged-screaming-to-tackle-air-pollution). 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/nov/30/evolution-row-ends-as-scientists-declare-sponges-to-be-sister-of-all-animals). 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).

Amazon Burgers?

It has been claimed that some of the beef supplied to McDonald's and Burger King by a Brazilian company came from land where illegal ...